LOVE, malaysia, road trip, traveling

An enchanted forest and the fireflies of Malaysia

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of these little lightning bugs is the famous song by Owl City titled Fireflies.

You would not believe your eyes

If ten million fireflies

Lit up the world as I fell asleep

In a little coastal hamlet an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, magic unfolds each night. We reached Kuala Selangor with the sun setting behind us, a spark on orange lighting up the sky. We had been told about the firefly forest by a young couple we had met in Taman Negara, which is another hidden gem that Malaysia has to offer. And it does not get truer than that. A firefly cruise is one of the most happy-to-your-bones kind of experience in Malaysia.

The place will be underwhelming initially but we are glad we gave in to our gut feeling and good advice, and went in, travellers waiting to uncover some glorious treasure. We were ushered into a park that proudly announced itself to be the Bukit Belimbing Firefly Park Resort. Having been hurried into a boat, a young man quickly scuttled behind us and introduced himself as our boatman for the evening.

It’s a different world as soon as you step onto the boardwalks. Under the dense foliage, it’s nice and cool. We pushed off from the banks of the Selangor river into a marshy mangrove-ish route that reminded me of the backwaters in Kerala. The narrow channel slowly opened up to a wide mouth of the river with crowded embankments made of entwined roots that made up the forest. These mangrove mainstays have attractive cerise flowers whose nectar lures the fireflies. I was straining my eyes, the sun having set completely, and the darkness of 8pm hindering my perception. I struggled to search for the blobs of light as we turned into a wider channel. And find them I did.

fireflie 6211(1)

Out of nowhere, I see mesmerising patterns of twinkling lights that suddenly fill the space around us. The glow of the fireflies reflecting on the surfaces of the clear stream of Selangor beckoned us to a world akin to a fairy-tale.

Fondly called “kelip-kelip”, in Malay folklore, fireflies are believed to be the nails of passing ghosts, or so our boatman told us. This is supposed to deter the children from going out after dusk. I doubt it works though. I had been oblivious to bioluminescence except for an occasional little encounter with a firefly as a child, and here I was, surrounded by thousands, in each direction. And just like that, it was Christmas all over again – whole bushes of berembang lit up with little dazzling fireworks.

Our boatman skilfully manoeuvred his boat, weaving in and out among the tree branches that hung over the water, and often took our boats right in the middle of a dense grove, up until I had a dozen fireflies in my head, peeping from underneath my hair. The fireflies drifted lazily over tree branches and leaves, glowing a warm yellow against the night sky. I wish I had pictures to prove how surreal the experience was but cameras aren’t allowed there, damn it. Coming from a concrete jungle with skyscrapers that pierce the sky, being amid these glittering berambang bushes was heaven in a nutshell. We drove back to the shore, the entire experience as fleeting as the life of a firefly in your palm, but as beautiful as anything can ever be.

 

 

Picture credit: Kuala Sepetang

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art, artificial intelligence, deep learning, education, employment, prose, university

Why my kids may not go to any university…

Artificial Intelligence and Internet are two sides of the coin which need to be the currency of our education system

I studied in a classroom with peers who were probably as clueless as I was, and chose to stare at the walls or look at the teacher to feign attention (we’ve all been there eh?) I did my undergrad, and diligently pursued mass communication to now pursue a career in journalism. A lot of my friends went ahead into specialised fields like engineering, medical science and computer courses. But probably two decades from now, our kids won’t need to cram up information or study in a classroom with mute coloured walls to get a job. The era of specialised learning is at its fag end and the millennials know it.

The rise of online learning and free massive open online courses (MOOCS) are a clarion call to the future and spell the end of the traditional college model, which has a lot of apparent flaws. Our education system’s blueprint uses a cookie cutter approach– measuring all students at the same level in a classroom. But truth of the matter is that college degrees are an asset in a country like ours, which still favours a thorough (but not quality-centric) education. But we too are slowly progressing towards more skill-based education.

While a lot of skill-intensive training was undertaken in the manufacturing sector in our labour-intensive country, we now need to look towards two things that will soon run the world- Internet and Artificial Intelligence. The former has pervaded all aspects of our life while the latter is greasing its wheel and revving up its engines. Our focus needs to shift from manufacturing towards ordinary service sector occupations, which even world leaders have come to terms with. The founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, warns of significant market disruptions, especially in the manufacturing sector, because of how AI will change the world.

The education system has been disrupted equally by the two. Learning process will and already has undergone a significant change over the past decade. While automation may sound scary, it sure turns in profits, and most human endeavours will soon yield to a machine. While it may(or may not) tantamount to lack of jobs, the fact remains that we as prospective workforce, need to evolve to quickly move from one sector to the other when automation hits us with full force.

With easier and greater access to electronics by students, education sector for most start-ups is a cash cow. Companies are capitalising on this by creating advanced learning programs. E-learning will eventually combine artificial intelligence to help students excel at a task and supplement their efforts when need be. AI can undertake cluster studies and decipher hidden patterns in a classroom to figure out the understanding level and modify course structure appropriately. The internet allows them to pursue education at an individualised pace. One of these undertakings, that uses AI in the classroom is Century Intelligent Learning, which allows teachers to create online curriculum always accessible by students. AI identifies gaps in knowledge and recommends what topic the student should study next based on their aptitude. While online courses lack the sophistication for a measurable impact on a student’s life, it has increasingly been used to supplement the learning process. Which is why online teaching portals, especially the ones using AI are witnessing a rising graph.

Our education system needs to create a space for automation in the future. AI will create new jobs in the future for which we need many short-term skill based courses instead of tedious and cumbersome degrees. No matter how advanced artificial intelligence becomes, some jobs will always likely be better done by humans, especially those involving empathy or social interaction. I do not imply that teaching will be extinct, but a wider education base, which includes a variety of subjects, are the need of the hour, starting with Artificial Intelligence. Hence unless my kids want to be scholars, they’d be better off with hands-on experience in different fields instead of completely theoretical 3-4 year of undergraduation in one core department.

However one drawback of the entire hullabaloo around automation and the internet is its impact on the poor, who make up the majority our country, and have limited access to education. Internet penetration in poor neighbourhoods in more than what basic amenities receive but its unregulated structure makes it hard for the government to implement internet as a mode of knowledge dissemination. However, the emphasis on regional languages may target digital inclusion of the marginalised. Internet and MOOCs may give them a shot at education, where the government has failed miserably.

I do not foresee a future that replaces teachers by robots and AI algorithms but our current system needs to reboot and be perceptive to change, because as Bob Dylan puts it, the times they are changing…

drinking, life, liquor, ode

My tryst with rum and an ‘Old Monk’ I won’t remember…

My dad loves rum. As a teen, I never understood why. My throat would burn with each sip and every whiff smelled of nail polish remover. Stealing sips from my father’s drink, I wasn’t too keen on it and would immediately retreat to a familiar sweet taste of my fruit beer (duh!). Two years short of my quarter-life crisis, with almost no money in my pocket and an array of experiences, I am much wiser.
And I love rum.

* * *
Two days ago, a barrage of tweets and posts exploded, and people paid obeisance to a man I had never heard of. He ran a company I hadn’t heard about and they chanted numbers I couldn’t concern myself with. For a country that obsesses over Old Monk, the man behind it went unnoticed for 88 years. Until this week. Kapil Mohan – who popularised the much-loved dark rum, and one who gave us many a night that we cannot really remember – passed away after a cardiac arrest.

As a mid-twenties woman, on the lookout for cheap liquor, Old Monk had been a companion since the time I could differentiate between my spirits. When I moved to the city to start my job, my dad, while dropping me off, handed me a bottle of our common love, as a reminder of all the good times we had together. My mum had rolled her eyes and given me a shy smile of approval. My friend and I, to celebrate our college, drank to our favourite songs late into the night in the girls’ hostel, after sneaking in a bottle of rum. We had it neat, and it’s safe to say that she does not remember much of the night. That was Old Monk for me. Love. And memories.

While most were downing Tequila or raising lagers to good company, I confided quite a few tears to the sinfully amazing cocktail of rum and coke. I was a rum loyalist, much to the chagrin of my male friends. Wine, they said, is what girls preferred. Beer, if they were ballsy enough. Well, I beg to differ. But Old Monk did more than just lift my spirits- it was an equaliser.

No I won’t preach for preaching sake. But poor or rich, men or woman (yeah!), heavy pockets or light like mine, Old Monk was our go-to liquid sin whenever the occasion arose. And boy do these occasions come by regularly! The weirdly shaped bottle was a regular feature at our parties, and more so if the nights were bone-numbingly chilly in the northern subcontinent as they are now. I never bothered to look up who brewed it, or where the breweries were. Like most my age, I was busy looking for liquor at 2am in the night, banging on closed shutters.

And am I poorer for it? Yes. Kapil Mohan left behind a legacy. Even if he did not leave his name etched in our memories. He was awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution. I will probably not think of him again after I am done penning this down. But I sure will, whether in good times or dampened spirits, go back to the rum this Old Monk left us. And in that memory, this day, I raise my glass to a man I never knew.

art, life, movie review, psychology, REALISM

Liar’s Dice: Stellar performances and the ugly face of Migration

If you have lived anywhere in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and even Delhi, chances are someone has thrown the word migration around, often as the root cause of an array of issues, be it rising violence, loss of culture, ruin of space and now even stampedes. Thousands of nameless individuals cross state borders around the world in search of food and shelter, often woven in the ambit of an occupation. Migration is a hot cake in today’s political discourse with a volley of nationalistic ambitions that threaten to close borders to nationals of other countries. But immigration and migration are not the center of my tirade. It is a gem of a movie called Liar’s dice.

You might not have heard of it- such gems are often lost in the dirt and squalor of the backyard of Indian cinema because it gets no endorsement or appraisal from celebrities. Surprisingly, this movie, written and directed by Geetu Mohandas received national awards but did not see the light of the day through a theatrical release. I wouldn’t want to spoil the movie for you, which is a journey of a woman who sets out against all odds, with her daughter (and her goat), to look for her husband, who left to work at a construction site. Starring Geetanjali Thapa and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the cinematography blew me away. From the picturesque Shimla hills to the narrow stifling lanes of Delhi, the thematic essence is maintained throughout. The protagonist’s inner turmoil is palpable onscreen as slivers of emotions rupture your metropolis bubble of safety and bring to you the ugly face of oblivion.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui has time and again established himself as an actor beyond the narrow confines of mainstream cinema and that is his strength. The scheming crowd entertainer Nawaz is a shifty character and the movie derives its title from the game he plays to fleece the crowd. The title would obviously have several connotations – from helping Kamala (Thapa) out while lying to her, to Kamala risking everything on fate when she decides to travel with Nawaz, Liar’s Dice symbolizes a gamble for the forlorn woman. From a scheming vagabond to a considerate companion, Nawaz’s performance is a perfect complement to Thapa’s anguish and fear. Her construction worker husband’s name is a symbol – a unit which represents the mass of faceless nameless individuals who feature as mere statistics in the scheme of things.

While it is hard to portray the ugly truth behind the construction industry’s migration business wherein thousands of workers are brought in from far-flung areas and made to work in dangerous conditions, the director and the cinematographer Rajeev Ravi have managed to give us a glimpse into the characters’ lives and through them, the mystic gaping hole of namelessness, and to that end, of the importance of any one individual in this urban squalor.

article, life, music, social media

No offence Chainsmokers, but I will never attend another concert!

From spending on imaginary drinks to being sweated on by shirtless men, my first concert is also probably my last

In which miserable moment did I decide to leave the comfort of my bed and Netflix I know not. But I now know better than to leave my headphones at home, only to suffer an evening of sticky air in an overcrowded ground with people too drunk to even care. I love music, but I may never spend a dime on concerts ever again.

Let me get this straight- Chainsmokers were great. Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall took over the stage after Slushi and damn they were good! And not just because they don’t hurt the eyes but also because their music connects to a good part of the Indian audience. Concerts serve as a platform for bands to share music with an audience in person, give us a sense of involvement in an age of free downloads that render us strangers to the stars we idolise.

While I thought, I was the lone wolf in a sea of people who loved to jump around in tandem on EDM, a lot of people I know and spoke to once the euphoria died down were equally (if not more) disappointed at their experience. Our pattern of music consumption has changed so much. From memorising albums to barely memorising the lyrics of a few odd songs from a plethora of options available, our commitment to music has dwindled. We Instagram/Snapchat our way through a concert, with silly filters only to give our friends on the other end of the screen a temporary pang of jealousy. For me, I believe it is mostly because everything about concerts stands in opposition to why I turn to music in the first place. It is my happy place. I just need a warm corner and good music to make my day and I’d give up Netflix in a jiffy.

*   *   *

Enroute to the event, almost every nook and corner was swarming with people who were downing a drink or rolling up a joint. While I oppose neither, the simple fact that you need an additional kick or even liquid courage to enjoy music mars my opinion of the event even more. My headphones render me into a space so sensitive to my needs that even if only for a while, I blur out the world.

Road to Ultra brought me down to reality the minute I swam through the dense inebriated crowd, which broke down barriers and stole liquor bottles from under the counter or pinched my butt while I stood (very patiently for over an hour, but to no avail) for my drinks. The bar was shut by 7:30 (they were out of drinks apparently), yet somehow all the servers were drunk. One even had the audacity to take a swig from the glass of water that I was finally given after an hour of coaxing (all the while grinning at me sheepishly, asking me to not call him bhaiya). The card we were made to purchase to then procure drinks was a huge help. It got me the pleasure of standing in a queue and argue with a guy who waved an empty Absolut bottle in my face, telling me to put that card in my, well, pocket. The guys dispensing the cards were also a pain in the pocket, if I may. To know the money was non-refundable was I suppose not so much of a surprise anymore. To add insult to injury, what do we as Indians excel at when we don’t get a share of the pie? The crowd let itself loose on the bar counters, hurling abuses we are all well versed in. The bar finally vandalised, people went their way, maybe finally distracted by the headliners. The servers saw it coming before I did and immediately went packing. Splendid.

The euphoria as thousands of people partake in the creation of music is amazing. I reiterate that Chainsmokers were great. But the concert left a bad taste because it evoked feelings opposite to what I usually feel while listening to my favourite tracks. Amidst all the pushing and pulling, pinching and cussing, I felt apart from all those with whom I shared my first concert. Plus, if you are short like me, you were probably also just crushed between sweaty shoulders and even sweatier ribs of people, for God save you if the guy behind you has no shirt on.

 

 

Picture Credit: Google/TimesofIndia.com

article, dharamsala, friends, india tourism, life, LOVE, memories, road trip, traveling, Uncategorized

The Road Trip

We pulled into Dharamsala around as the sun was first rising, with two fingers of light on the horizon. We crossed the breezy but narrow roads into the city limits, making our way to a bus depot.  Rubbing my sleep-filled eyes, I tried to peer through the hazy glass, at the snow-covered mountains on my right, the sky turning the color of light orange with wispy blue clouds at the edges, like froth at the top of a drink. Most of my classmates were asleep, the target of my envy —for the rumbling-swaying bus devoid me of the much-needed rest—considering we had a long day ahead of us.  I had stayed up, flitting in and out of sleep, leaning in, my weight on the shoulders of a friend, who had blissfully slept, much to my chagrin. We walked up to our hotel, with the taste of our exhaustion livid in our mouths, slept on the bed in the same outfit, only to wake up an hour later, drink a cup of coffee in the beautiful terrace area and later, drive to our first destination.

We had the trip of our lives, with the fear of imminent placements put mutually on the backburner. I have no adjectives to describe my classmates— they are the most eclectic bunch of people I have met! Our class would throw their hands up in the air and relax, with music in the background and a cigarette in their hand, than battle out political differences. This educational trip, or so it was meant to be, was a proof of our symbiotic association. We travelled all day, amidst the cliffs which were marked by tall trees along the roadsides, their arms up like they were being frisked. We ambled along a clammy-smelling, muddy trail to the Tibetan parliament in exile, and trudged lazily from a library to a human rights discussion. We braved the sleety rain ricocheting off the rocks. We were bemused by the plight of the young children at a Tibetan Children’s school and amused by the extremely cheap desserts at the Tibetan café.

We would come back to our hotel, exhausted from the day but pumped up for the night. Groups were fluid as people drifted in and out of different rooms with ease, some fumbling around for shampoo, and some for a matchbox. Amidst all the clamor of our incessant bickering and bluff sessions, we all felt united by one purpose—that we did not let our fears prevent us from missing out on this trip. We shared childhood (read embarrassing) anecdotes and danced to old Bollywood jingles into the night (well some did, I slept. Huge regrets.) I trekked — or something close enough to a trek —with my friends, without a care in the world, without any fear of being embarrassed of my child-like naivety. I’d like to think the time spent on a stony wall, within the reclaimed cathedral just off the road, brought us closer to each other. I’d like to hope that somehow, this short tour gave us all memories to store within each fleeting moment. Before we start feeling limited by our lives and jobs, penned in by money or family, we stretched out in our bit of the leg-room and somehow, just somehow, made this tour into the road trip we all dream about.

article, fake news, jaipur, jaipur literature fest, jlf, Journalism, life, politics, Post-Truth, social media, Uncategorized

What is the brouhaha around POST-TRUTH?

The culminating session at the famed Jaipur Literature fest was dedicated to this deceptive word which made its appearance in the Oxford dictionary as the word of the year and has since been doing the rounds. What is Post-Truth to be precise? And why does it bug the eminent so much that we had to sit through an hour of grueling high-spirited cacophony that was the ‘debate’?

Apologies for the monotony but Post-Truth refers to ‘Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Makes sense. But its sudden encroachment of the entire spotlight in the modern political debate is rather baffling. While in India, political debate has always been framed around appeals to emotions, the original area of Post-Truth cultural debate was discussed around Capitalism. But now, since the latest events have turned all the predictions of political pundits upside down, the word has made a come-back in the dominant narrative, fueled primarily by the anti-establishment wave that brought Brexit supporters and Trump to power.

The eminent panelists at the JLF debate titled ‘We are living in a post-truth world’, included names of Barkha Dutt, Shashi Tharoor, Suhel Seth, Anne Waldman, Prasoon Joshi, Swapan Das Gupta, Luke Harding, Ashutosh Varshney and David McWilliam.

With the onslaught of fake news on Social Media, and a platform to voice their opinions, people have turned opinion-makers in the online culture, with little discretion between right and wrong, fact and fiction. This was the peg of the debate which took different roads with no conclusive decision. All the panelists, saving Luke Harding, talked about the multiplicity of truth, it being a subjective unquantifiable idea, and differed on the exactness of the phenomenon. While Barkha Dutt set the tone of the debate by arguing in the favour of the motion, she was countered by Prasoon Joshi. Joshi talked about how all the concepts have emanated from an emotional anchor. However it is the situation of lies being paraded as facts that was a bothering notion to him, instead of the glamorous idea of Post-truth. Anne Waldman, who reiterated that we have always lived in a post-truth world, went a notch higher, criticizing the word to be patriarchal.

Suhel Seth was at his witty best; while blaming Barkha Dutt of audience-manipulation, he claimed the idea of Post-Truth to be a media cook-up. Public discourse is manipulated around the world to suit individual agendas. Seth spoke on how, ‘we know how to distinguish facts from lies, even if lies get perpetuated. Thus we do not live in a post-truth world, ‘he declared, adding ‘the idea that we only live in a world of truisms and not lies, or only lies and not truisms in itself is facetious.’

Luke Harding made a very accurate point of the world witnessing a ‘new breed of authoritarian leaders’ like Putin and Trump who have monopolized knowledge of certain events and hence are in the position to disseminate ideas, strutted as Truth through media. Ashutosh Varshney was sombre compared to the animated debaters Swapan Das Gupta and Suhel Seth. Quoting Nietzsche, Gramsci and Foucault, he argued how this concept is not a sudden idea, and has been talked about by scholars in the past. The ruling elite in any economy will always have the power to mould social consciousness.

Tharoor on the other hand, started with an anecdote and concluded with the supremacy of Truth and also the truth of one’s entitlement to an opinion but not the facts. It is not a Post Truth world; only a world where it is easier to spread lies, and counter them.

The malleability of facts, which has eroded the credibility of journalism, is worth contemplating. Relativism has crept its way to Post-truth, with multiple narratives giving way to factual inaccuracy. India has almost always lived in a Post-Truth world, with a diabolical existence that speaks volumes about the contradictions of the country. One of the key debate discussions included that of the Demonetisation drive, which was promulgated with the intention of helping the poor but has in fact aggravated their dire condition.

While Barkha Dutt, who claimed that ‘Lies and propaganda have always been the bedrock of politics’, tried to reign in the diametrically divided opinions of the vociferous speakers, the debate concluded just like it had started- loud and ambiguous.

featured image source:hindustantimes.com