Shooting the Marathon

7 Nov

I’M not sure exactly how many people ran in the New York City marathon yesterday. I’ve seen figures of 40,000 and 45,000. According to the New York TimesOn The Run blog, 18,000 dined at Tavern on the Green in Central Park at the marathon eve dinner. But I reached Central Park at 90th Street just before 1 p.m.—more than two hours after the race had begun, and way after Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai had crossed the finish line in a record-breaking 2 hours, 5 minutes and 5 seconds—and the pavement was still being pounded by an unending streak of runners. Spectators squeezed together on the sidewalks, some waving flags and pom-poms, some brandishing cameras (like me), and others yelling encouragement at brief intervals. The enthusiasm was so infectious it made me feel like even I could do it (I can’t).

Here are a few shots I took:

Children waving flags at the runners

Running woman

Man running with Irish flag

This man ran with a large U.S. flag

This man ran with a large U.S. flag during the 2011 New York City marathon

Receding runners in black and white

Receding runners in black and white

I tried to capture a sense of movement, a feel of the sunshine, and some of the enthusiasm that was in the air that day. Enjoy!

P.S. If the marathon passed you by entirely (wait—there was a marathon in the city yesterday? How come no one told me?), check out this cool video made by compressing photographs of the marathon taken by Benjamin Norman into a one-minute composite.

Why I’m Boycotting Saravana Bhavan

28 Oct


TODAY I start my boycott of Saravana Bhavan. It may be invisible to many New Yorkers, but it has been my favorite South Indian restaurant since my first visit five years ago. I knew Saravana Bhavan before its reincarnation as a wannabe lounge, with its white leather sofas and gleaming new bar. I knew and loved the bright orange and hot pink fabric flowers that brightened up its walls, before those flowers began to droop. I’ve stood outside in the cold on Sunday mornings when it’s always packed, waiting for a table for two. And I’m not going to do it anymore.

There are some places that seem to glory in their inhospitability. The famous chicken and rice stand midtown, where lines stretch down the block. That neighborhood adda where they’ve seen you a million times before but would die before acknowledging it. And then there’s this place, which takes it to the next level.

Often there is no one at the door to greet guests. No problem, just flag down the nearest waiter. The man who’s assigning the seats is curt and abrupt and verging on rude. You’re irritated, but you catch the eye of that nice waiter who knows you, S. (yes, there is one nice waiter there, but he may be the only one), and he takes care of you and you let it go. Often when you bring people there (and you’ve brought A LOT of people there over the years), you’re embarrassed at the poor service and apologize for it: “The service is terrible but the food is good.”

But at some point, you have to stop making excuses for the place. There is no justification for treating customers like cattle, like you’re doing them a favor by taking their order, not noticing when water glasses need to be refilled or the table you’re waiting on has been waiting on YOU for the past 20 minutes to place their order.

I know that the outpost in Curry Hill is part of a sprawling chain that recently opened a new branch on Amsterdam Avenue. Maybe in that establishment they understand courteousness. In this one, they don’t. And it goes all the way up the chain.

Today was the first time that I felt the urge to speak to the manager about an unpleasant experience. I’ve seen him around on plenty of occasions. He was there watching the TV screens they had put up during the cricket world cup earlier this year when India beat Sri Lanka. I watched along with everyone else as I waited, unnecessarily, for a good half hour for a large order that was to have been ready for pick-up when I arrived. I went to this person perhaps naively imagining that someone in the restaurant business would not condone such incivility to a paying customer, to (gasp!) a regular. Instead, I was strongly told off for daring to expect that my companion’s meal and my own would arrive at roughly the same time. What did it matter if my meal arrived 20 minutes before my friend’s and was growing icicles in the interim? (This would never happen at even the humblest udipi in my hometown, Mumbai; those restaurants are models of efficiency.) I should have just eaten it, licketysplit. The waiter was under no obligation to inform me that our main courses would not be arriving together when we ordered together or even when he brought me my dish. I would have to eat my dosa cold, and that was that.

There are some things that are good when cold. Kulfi, chhaas—even revenge—come to mind. A crispy dosa, not so much. So I took myself and my unreasonable demands out of there. For $7.15 or thereabouts, this South Asian restaurant has lost a loyal customer. In the future, I will be taking my business to Pongal, across the street.

TWO years ago The New York Times published an exhaustive list of rules for restaurant staffers by Bruce Buschel. It was clearly meant for fine dining restaurants, where the ethic is much more than just a quick table turnover. I understand that every eatery cannot and will not adhere to this high standardthough I wish more would try. But here are my picks from this list that cost nothing or very little and will contribute a great deal to guests leaving any restaurant happy.

Do not let anyone enter the restaurant without a warm greeting.

When you ask, “How’s everything?” or “How was the meal?” listen to the answer and fix whatever is not right.

Make sure the glasses are clean. Inspect them before placing them on the table.

Never remove a plate full of food without asking what went wrong. Obviously, something went wrong.

Do not bang into chairs or tables when passing by.

—Bring all the appetizers at the same time, or do not bring the appetizers. Same with entrees and desserts. (Ahem.)

Do not disappear.

—Never patronize a guest who has a complaint or suggestion; listen, take it seriously, address it.

I looked carefully for a “Do not yell at guests” point, but I guess some things are so obvious Buschel figured it didn’t need to be said. I, for one, prefer to eat my dosas hot and somewhere else. 

Lazy on the Long Weekend

2 Sep

HELLO everyone! I am taking the day off to start my long weekend off early. It’s Labor Day! So everyone get some sun, sleep in late, and enjoy the last few days of summer.

I’ll leave you with some laughs: God’s blog.

Four on Friday: Apocalypse Now?

26 Aug
A view of Earth on August 26, 2011. Courtesy NASA Goddard Photo and Video

A view of Earth on August 26, 2011. Courtesy NASA Goddard Photo and Video

IF you are in the American northeast or even somewhat clued in, you know by now that Hurricane Irene is bearing down on the east coast of the United States, with New York—where I live—firmly in her sights. I have been glued to The Weather Channel since yesterday evening and yes, I did make a water run to Food Emporium earlier today, so I am a bit worried. To take a break from the hurricane insanity, here are my four kinda apocalyptic visions of what might happen on Sunday.

1. New York City will be entirely submerged. Boats sailing above our waterlogged heads will have to watch out on their radar screens for the tops of tall buildings, lest the Empire State Building spire tears a jagged hole in their bottoms and they all sink, à la Titanic. Exactly two years later, a blockbuster Hollywood film will be made about this extreme weather event, starring Colin Farrell and Anne Hathaway. It will be called THE HURRICANE (in all caps) and will incorporate true stories such as the one about the family who saved their neighbors in their 34 foot yacht. The husband and wife had been planning on getting a divorce, and the lawyers had been fighting over who would get to keep the boat, but after the adrenaline rush that was surviving Irene, they decide to stay together and live happily ever after. They rename their boat Irene.(And yes, in my version, sharks will indeed be swimming down the street. The street will be 42nd.)

This photograph which made the rounds online, was purported to be of a shark swimming down the street in Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit. It was later revealed as a fake.

This photograph which made the rounds online, was purported to be of a shark swimming down the street in Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit. It was later revealed as a fake.

2. A televangelist from Texas will say it’s the wrath of God falling on the heathen New Yorkers. (After all, we did legalize gay marriage earlier this summer.) First it was a light warning with Tuesday’s 30-second tremor. We did not mend our elite and liberal ways. This weekend the heavens are making their displeasure known with Hurricane Irene. (Does the name “Irene” have a Biblical reference? Surely it must. According to Google, Irene was the Greek goddess of peace. There’s also a Saint Irene, one of three sisters who were martyred for their faith in Macedonia. What’s the subtext in that?) Next week, if we continue to be wicked, the mighty Lord is planning to send a plague of locusts. (To save yourself, etch a giant “R” in your doorway to proclaim your Republican-ness, says the priest.) The televangelist will hold a prayer meeting where the local NRA membership will sell guns and rocket launchers. No IDs needed, only a rosary. In the affected red states, the governors will decree that they will accept no federal handouts for post-hurricane reconstruction until the U.S. government deficit has been reduced to zero.

The Truman Show

The Truman Show

3. An 18-foot wall of water will crash over FDR Drive and reveal the cleverly painted wall that proves we’ve all been living on a giant Truman Show-esque set all these years. “The Real Real Lives of New Yorkers” is what the show was called, as we were being broadcast all over the world to a riveted audience. Jimmy Choo as a brand does not exist outside the set that is Manhattan. Neither does Tiffany. (Yes, the conspiracy existed all the way back to the time of Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) Your ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends were lowly extras hired by the show’s producers who were not deemed interesting or attractive enough to keep around. Oh, and that company that didn’t hire you? That was a last-minute script change to increase the ratings and keep the suspense going. You would have totally got the job in the real world. The hurricane, ironically, will free us all.

4. The mighty Irene will decide that scaring us senseless was enough, and will graciously divert her path and fizzle out harmlessly over the Atlantic. The lawmakers will thank their luck or whatever people are thanking these days, and enforce stronger environmental regulations. All over the world, governments will come together to draft new treaties to stop burning fossil fuels, to stop polluting the environment, to reduce our carbon footprint, stop the drilling for oil in the Canadian tar sands, and take urgent measures to stop global warming. Tuvalu, Micronesia, the Maldives and other islands will hold a week-long Ibiza-style party to celebrate their continued existence.  Electric cars will become super popular. Oil companies will look for ways to monopolize the production of zero-pollution transportation options. Factories will go green. Climate change science will be taught  in schools everywhere—even in the part of Texas where the aforementioned televangelist lives. . (So will evolution.)

Sadly, though, I fear that scenario number 4 is not the most likely. And that says more about our world than my overactive imagination.

Four on Friday: Hazare Khwaishein Aisi

19 Aug

I HAD not planned to devote an entire post to Kisan Baburao Hazare or Anna (older brother) Hazare, as he is more commonly known, but with his arrest earlier this week (a major misstep by the government) and the subsequent widespread protests in different Indian cities making news in the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and more, there is too much to share.

A rally against corruption which took place in Freedom Park, Bangalore on 9 April 2011. Courtesy Pushkar V.

A rally against corruption which took place in Freedom Park, Bangalore on 9 April 2011. Courtesy Pushkar V.

1. First, Anna Hazare is not a modern-day Gandhi, so please stop comparing them. As A.G. Noorani explains painstakingly in this Frontline article, the father of modern India would not have condoned  satyagraha in a functioning democracy. Patrick French writes eloquently in the UK’s Telegraph (one assumes that a careless editor titled the op-ed):

Now Hazare has cornered the government by raising the pitch of the argument, just two days after India’s 64th independence day. A fast unto death is a touchy subject in India because of the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, who used the tactic against the British. One thing successive viceroys and prime ministers particularly feared was the popular uprising that would quickly follow if he died on their watch. The viceroy Lord Wavell wrote in his diary in 1944 that if Gandhi were to die in prison: “I might go down to the readers of two thousand years hence with the same reputation as Pontius Pilate.” Many in India are calling the present events “the second freedom struggle”, since the government is relying on quasi-colonial laws to maintain order and restrict freedom of protest. There is the obvious irony of Congress being the party that used these techniques against the British. The reality, though, is that Anna Hazare is an imitation of Gandhi, pursuing a different agenda.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta elucidates in The Indian Express:

The morality of fasting unto death for a political cause in a constitutional democracy has always been a tricky issue. There is something deeply coercive about fasting unto death. When it is tied to an unparalleled moral eminence, as it is in the case of Anna Hazare, it amounts to blackmail. There may be circumstances, where the tyranny of government is so oppressive, or the moral cause at stake so vital that some such method of protest is called for. But in a functioning constitutional democracy, not having one’s preferred institutional solution to a problem accepted, does not constitute a sufficient reason for the exercise of such coercive moral power.

Prabhat Patnaik (one of my favorite thinkers and a great teacher) demolishes this notion that Hazare is somehow a modern-day Gandhi in The Telegraph (Calcutta):

To call Anna Hazare the 21st-century Gandhi, as some have started doing, is pure hyperbole, but many would see a similarity in their methods — in particular, in their resorting to fasts to achieve their objectives. This, however, is erroneous. Indeed, the fact that so many people consider Anna Hazare’s method to be similar to Gandhiji’s only indicates how little contemporary India remembers or understands Gandhiji.

Gandhiji undertook 17 fasts in all, of which three were major fasts-unto-death. All these three had the objective of uniting people against violence, rather than extracting specific concessions from the colonial State.


In short, Gandhiji’s fasts-unto-death were never a binary affair, with himself and the colonial State as adversaries, to extract specific concessions. He did not, for instance, go on a fast-unto-death to demand the withdrawal of the salt tax; he launched instead a movement against it. And at no stage did Gandhiji ever consider going on a fast-unto-death to demand India’s independence; instead he launched movement after movement for achieving it. Indeed Gandhiji would have considered a fast-unto-death to enforce a particular demand even upon the colonial State, or to extract a particular concession from it, an act not of non-violence but of violence.

Anna Hazare on 5 April 2011 giving an interview to a TV channel. Courtesy Deepankar Raj

Anna Hazare on 5 April 2011 giving an interview to a TV channel. Courtesy Deepankar Raj

2. The protests around the Jan Lokpal Bill are not equivalent to the Arab Spring. Paul Beckett makes this point convincingly in his Wall Street Journal India Real Time blog post, so I’ll just borrow his words:

While those in the Arab Spring for the most part are pushing for a complete overhaul—a revolution—in how they are governed, those taking to the streets in Delhi are not. Indeed, their demands by the standards of international protests are almost embarrassingly modest and narrow.


Perhaps there is another layer being added now—a broader discussion about the proper relationship between government and civil society. But both sides are playing within fairly well-defined rules and within a system that can tolerate, and gain from, dissent.

3. The Lokpal Bill is troubling and overarching and won’t solve the country’s problems anyway. The first cautious note (well, the first that I heard, anyway) was from Shuddhabrata Sengupta in Kafila, appropriately titled, “At the Risk of Heresy, Why I am not Celebrating with Anna Hazare.” The reigning media view back in early April—when this piece was posted—was one of blind faith in Hazare and his bill. (Thankfully, now the notes of caution are numerous and widespread; though they are seemingly ignored by the swelling crowds outside Tihar Jail.)

Sengupta writes:

The outcome of the ‘Anna Hazare’ phenomenon allows the ruling  Congress to appear gracious (by bending to Anna Hazar’s will) and the BJP to appear pious (by cozying up to the Anna Hazare initiative) and a full spectrum of NGO and  ‘civil society’ worthies to appear, as always, even holier than they already are.

Most importantly, it enables the current ruling elite to have just stage managed its own triumph, by crafting a ‘sensitive’ response (ably deployed by Kapil Sibal) to a television media conjured popular upsurge. Meanwhile, the electronic media, by and large, have played their part by offering us the masquerade of a ‘revolution’ that ends up making the state even more powerful than it was before this so called ‘revolution’ began. Some people in the corridors of power must be delighted at the smoothness and economy with which all this has been achieved. Hosni Mubarak should have taken a few lessons from the Indian ruling class about how to have your cake and eat it too on Tahrir Square.

After all, “Nothing serves power better than the spectacle of resistance.” Bhanu Mehta writes:

But the general premises that underlie the various drafts border on being daft. They amount to an unparalleled concentration of power in one institution that will literally be able to summon any institution and command any kind of police, judicial and investigative power. Power, divided in a democracy, can often be alibi for evading responsibility. But it is also a guarantee that the system is not at the mercy of a few good men. Having concentrated immense power, it then displays extraordinary faith in the virtue of those who will wield this power. Why do we think this institution will be incorruptible? The answer seems to be that the selection mechanism will somehow ensure a superior quality of guardians. Why? Because the selection committee, in addition to the usual virtuous judges, will have, as one draft very reassuringly put it, two of the “most recent Magsaysay Award Winners”. Then there is no sense of jurisdiction and limits. It is not going to look at corruption only. It can even look into “wasteful” expenditure. They can, potentially usurp all policy prerogatives of democratic governments. So many accountability institutions, in the name of accountability, are not distinguishing between policy issues and corruption. They are perpetuating the myth that government can function without any discretionary judgment.

But the demand is premised on an idea that non-elected institutions that do not involve politicians are somehow the only ones that can be trusted. This assumption is false. Institutions of all kinds have succeeded and failed. But the premise of so much accountability discourse is not just contempt of politicians, but contempt of representative democracy.

Adivasis from the Narmada Valley. Courtesy Joe Athialy

Adivasis from the Narmada Valley. Courtesy Joe Athialy

4. Rallying behind the Lokpal Bill is easy, makes us feel better about ourselves, and allows us to absolve ourselves from doing something that can actually make a difference. In yesterday’s New York Times, Open magazine editor Manu Joseph began his “Letter from India” like this:

The best thing about Indian politicians is that they make you feel you are a better person. Not surprisingly, Indians often derive their moral confidence not through the discomfort of examining their own actions, but from regarding themselves as decent folks looted by corrupt, villainous politicians.

This is at the heart of a self-righteous middle-class uprising against political corruption.

In the Hindustan Times, Samar Halarnkar is “not Anna Hazare”:

This is a protest, not a revolution. I sense a lack of emotional proportion and a troubling hypocrisy from a middle class that refuses to get as moved to action by graver things, such as the murder of female children, child labour in homes, hotels and factories, or poverty outside our car windows.

There is excitable talk now of the constitutional right to protest, but this is not something we like to give to Kashmiris, or bother too much when it is snatched from tribals or others on the margins of middle-India’s imagination.

Irom Sharmila. Courtesy Prachatai

Irom Sharmila. Courtesy Prachatai

Both Halarnkar and French compare the vast amounts of media attention given to Hazare with the meager newsprint devoted to Irom Sharmila, the courageous Manipuri woman who has been fasting for more than a decade to protest the Armed Forces Special Powers Act imposed in Manipur and much of the Northeast since 1980. (Click here for an excellent primer by Shoma Chaudhury in Tehelka on Irom Sharmila.)

It is easy, and convenient, and costs nothing to “support” the Lokpal Bill: sign an online petition, join a Facebook group, maybe even go out on the streets to protest corruption. Everybody is anti-corruption, even Bollywood’s beautiful people (except Mahesh Bhatt), after all, and you’re just along for the ride. But try raising the devastating farmer suicides, or the draconian laws in the Northeast, or the rampaging violence in Kashmir, and no one pays much attention. Certainly nothing like the Lokpal phenomenon.

I want to end with words from one of my favorite people, the journalist P. Sainath, who raises uncomfortable questions—his specialty—in this Hindu column:

The 1990s saw marketing whiz kids at the largest English daily in the world steal a term then in vogue among sexually discriminated minorities: PLUs—or People Like Us. Media content would henceforth be for People Like Us. This served advertisers’ needs and also helped shut out unwanted content. As the daily advised its reporters: dying farmers don’t buy newspapers. South Mumbaikars do. So the suicide deaths of a couple of fashion models in that city grabbed more space in days than those of over 40,000 farmers in Maharashtra did in a decade.

February 2011 saw one of the largest rallies staged in Delhi in years. Lakhs of workers from nine central trade unions—including the Congress party’s INTUC—hit the streets to protest against rising food prices and unemployment. This was many times bigger than the very modest numbers at Anna Hazare’s fast and larger than Ramdev’s rollicking ‘yoga camp.’ These were workers and unions not linked to the state. Not market-driven. Not corporate-funded. And expressing clearly the interests and values of their members. In fact, fitting some classic definitions of ‘civil society.’ The rally was covered by the BBC, Reuters and AFP but was mostly invisible in mainstream Indian media except when attacked for creating traffic jams.

Do we only care when something happens to People Like Us? Can we rise above the confinements of class and caste and connect with someone like Irom Sharmila, fighting a quiet, difficult and unglamorous fight that is unlikely to be resolved in a burst of televised drama? If we are looking for traces of Gandhi in modern-day heroes, we could do worse than Sharmila, who “responded to extreme violence with extreme peace.”