Sunday, March 30, 2014

Guessing games

I was rushing to the restroom when my cellphone started ringing.
“How are you?”
The voice was not familiar. Even otherwise, I have poor ability in remembering voices or names.
“Good. Who is this?” I asked.
And then started the drama.
“You do not remember me? Oh my goodness, how can you forget me?”
The suspense went on for a good three minutes and I had to cut the phone.
The person called again and introduced herself as a public relations professional who had met me almost three years ago at a function in Dubai.
This is not the first time that I had to face such a situation.
On my recent visit to Chennai, a good man hugged me, talked to me about my family, childhood days and kept asking, “Do you remember how we used to throw stones at the mango tree and the old man used to chase us?”
Goodness gracious. I do not remember a damn thing, leave alone mango or stone, which is that old man he was referring to.
But I did flash a plastic smile, shook hands and escaped. I am still rewinding, but my memory refuses to recognise the friend.
Talk of guessing games and I remember a joke.
A man told his friend, “If you can guess how many mangoes are there in this bag, I will give you both.”
“Three,” came the reply.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

‘I am 24 hours cricket’

(An article of mine in The Gulf Today- March 29, 2014)
SHARJAH: The moment I heard on television that the Indian Supreme Court has placed cricketer Sunil Gavaskar in charge of the troubled Indian Premier League (IPL), my memory went back to the early 1980s when I had a chance encounter with the batting legend. The league is to begin in Abu Dhabi on April 16.
I was a sub-editor in The Times of India and a senior colleague in the sports department, Pradeep Vijaykar, suggested that I write a light piece on Gavaskar’s other sports activities for our evening newspaper. 
He guided me to go to a private company in Worli where I could catch up with the star cricketer. He also gave me the contact numbers.
When I dialled Gavaskar for an appointment, he said there was no way he would give an interview.
But I was a young reporter with fire in my belly.
I merrily boarded a BEST bus and landed at the reception hall of the company.
Within 10 minutes after I sent in my business card, Gavaskar appeared at the reception hall, with a couple of pretty companions.
“Hello Sunil,” I jumped in joy.
“Friend, I told you I am presently under contract with the board not to speak with the Press,” he told me.
“Sunil, please, I am not going to talk to you a word about cricket. I know that you are active in many fields and so 
want to write about that,” I pleaded.
“Gavaskar is 24 hours cricket,” he cut in with a cryptic reply, winked and disappeared.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Editorials: The Gulf Today

Here are some of the recent Editorials I wrote for The Gulf Today. (Posted for my records) 
Micro posts and
mega impacts

Twitter, one of the most popular social networking sites, marks its eighth anniversary this week and millions of prolific tweeters have made it an exhilarating and powerful tool to connect with others.
Birth anniversaries are hardly complete without a treat. To mark the celebration, Twitter has offered a way for users to see their first tweet, and the first tweets of others, including celebrities. By using the hashtag #FirstTweet and Using a Tweet Tool, one can look back to find their very first Tweet — or anyone else’s.
It is said that heads of state of 125 countries and 139 other leading politicians have Twitter accounts that have between them sent more than 350,000 tweets and have almost 52 million followers.
The UAE is one of the countries that has embraced technology and put it to productive use. The result is reflected in the country’s amazing growth. Just recently, the fourth annual rankings of the use of social media among world leaders published by the Digital Policy Council revealed that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has climbed from number 10 in the Twitter world leader ranking in 2012 to seventh spot in 2013.
Sheikh Mohammed’s followers increased by 1.4 million over 2012 to reach 2.4 million in 2013, making the biggest climb in the Twitter rankings amongst world leaders, a state that only denotes cultural openness and emphasises the close bond between him and the citizens and residence of UAE.
It is not that the service has not courted controversies. During the Arab Spring in early 2011, the number of hashtags mentioning the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt increased. The media has been used to organise protests, sometimes referred to as "Twitter Revolutions," which include the Egyptian revolution, Tunisian protests and 2009 Moldova civil unrest.
In a latest development, Turkey's courts have blocked access to Twitter days before elections. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan vowed to "wipe out" Twitter and declared he did not care what the international community had to say about it.
For millions, checking the Twitter feed has become a daily ritual. Several celebrities use the service to break news about themselves. In eight years, users have transformed Twitter into a place to discover new ideas, make real human connections and express themselves freely. The virtual platform has turned out to be an effective voice of the common man at the level of leaders.
Enlightening forum on
Islam’s peace message
It is well known that the UAE leaves no stones unturned when it comes to promotion of peace around the world. Abu Dhabi’s hosting of the two-day Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies under the patronage of Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan turned out to be another admirable attempt with that goal. The idea is to enlighten minds and encourage hearts to believe in the principles of peace.
Sheikh Abdullah rightly cited the main causes of sectarian wars and disputes that tear our nations apart as the absence of a rational voice and the collapse of the principle of respect for differences, on which humanity was built. Also, the pseudo-learned men who take leadership and prominent positions, issuing Fatwa and occupying high positions in different media organisations, manage to misinform some of those who follow them and do not know better.
As the minister himself suggested, in order for nations to get back on the right path, the real learned religious men, who are aware of the necessities, changes and requirements of the present age in which we live, should be at the forefront.
The initiative was the brainchild of Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, president of The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, one of the world’s pre-eminent Islamic scholars who wield enormous influence over Muslim scholars and intellectuals from various denominations from around the world. 
Four major themes remained the focus of the forum: Humanitarian values, correcting concepts on jihad, fatwa in a world of strife and the humanistic ethical value. Over two days, the delegates and high-profile speakers confronted the heresies and misunderstandings that confused ordinary Muslims and divided and devastated societies across the Muslim world.
The forum is now added to the UAE's record of initiatives against terrorism, which is the biggest threat to the security of Muslim communities and their ability to achieve development for their peoples and for peace and stability in the whole world.
The conclave of scholars aimed at forming a unified front against the scourge of extremist ideologies and sectarianism that has afflicted the Muslim world for decades. Going by the enlightening exchange of ideas, the attempt was well worth the effort. It turned out to be a landmark initiative to refute extremist ideologies with a true understanding of Islam as a religion of wisdom, compassion, tolerance and forbearance clearly articulated in the Holy Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).
Tit-for-tat actions
heat up new ‘Cold War’
US President Barack Obama’s “Mission Isolate Russia” is gathering steam, but what major impact it would have on the former superpower nation is a million dollar question. After emergency talks called by Obama at The Hague, top economic powers cancelled an upcoming G8 summit in Russia, seeking to deepen Moscow's isolation over its intervention in the Ukraine crisis. The G8 summit in Sochi in June would be replaced by a G7 meeting in Brussels, without Russian involvement.
Leaders of the United States, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan and Canada have dubbed Russia's “illegal attempt to annex Crimea” a contravention of international law. They have vowed to intensify actions, including coordinated sectoral sanctions that will have an increasingly significant impact on the Russian economy, if Russia continues to escalate this situation.
The Crimea issue has plunged relations between the West and Moscow to their lowest point since the Cold War. Interestingly, Obama is trying to rope in China’s support. He held one-on-one talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in The Hague. China has often sided with Russia in disputes with the West, but US officials have been appealing to Beijing’s well-known opposition to outside interference in other nation’s domestic affairs. While Xi called for a political solution, he did not harden China's position towards Moscow. China’s neighbour, India, has made it clear that it will not support any “unilateral measures” against Russian government.
Moscow does not seem to be unduly bothered by Western actions and has initiated its own retaliatory moves. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has dismissed the decision on G8 as "no great tragedy."
It is becoming obvious that Western officials are now focused less on persuading Putin to relinquish Crimea than on deterring him from seizing other parts of Ukraine.
The war of words has reached a crescendo. The severest of the comments, incidentally, came from a TV personality on state-controlled Rossiya 1 television, Dmitry Kiselyov, who proclaimed, “Russia is the only country in the world realistically capable of turning the US into radioactive ash."
Moscow may flex its muscles, but the punch marks are already visible. The currency plunged and so did the stock market. There is a need for constructive dialogue between Kiev and Moscow. The legitimate concerns of the Russian minority in Ukraine should also be taken into consideration. Any solution can only be guided by the principles that respect Ukraine’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. The conflict calls for a political solution and not military. Edit

Yarmouk cries for
better attention
It is a sordid story of starvation, illness, hunger, lack of medical aid and deaths. Besieged since July, the nearly 20,000 people in the Yarmouk Palestinian camp have endured hardships that go beyond human imagination. Since December 2012, fighting has caused at least 140,000 Palestine refugees to flee their homes in Yarmouk, as armed opposition groups established a presence in the area, with government forces controlling the periphery.
The Yarmouk camp has been sealed since July 2013, resulting in acute and widespread deprivation, including severe malnutrition, while civilian residents are constantly exposed to the threat of death, injuries and trauma of the armed conflict. Many Palestine refugees in the camp have been traumatised by what they have lived through.
The UN security council recently adopted a resolution calling on all parties in Syria to take steps to facilitate the efforts of the UN and other humanitarian agencies to provide relief to civilians, including by promptly facilitating safe and unhindered humanitarian access to populations in need of assistance in all areas under their control.
After fighting broke out late at night on Feb.7 forcing The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to temporarily suspend its aid deliveries, the agency has had only intermittent access to the camp. Partial humanitarian access was granted on Jan.18 and Feb.20 and UNRWA successfully distributed food parcels, polio vaccines and a range of other medical supplements to civilians inside the camp.
A heart-breaking photograph released by UNRWA shows thousands of desperate Palestinians trapped inside the camp emerging to besiege aid workers attempting to distribute food parcels.
A UN official painted a grim picture of the situation saying, “the devastation is unbelievable. There is not one single building that I have seen that is not an empty shell by now.” What was even more shocking was the state of the people inside. These were people that have not been out, that have been trapped in there not only without food, medicines, clean water – all the basics – but also probably completely subjected to fear.
The UN acknowledges that the level of aid is a "drop in the ocean,” and has warned that the degradation of conditions inside the camp could lead to the spread of diseases. There have been reports of mothers dying in childbirth. Clearly things are not under control yet. The refugees deserve a permanent solution and equal rights that all humans are entitled to.
Manila-MILF accord
sets good example
There is no dispute that cannot be solved through constructive dialogue. This message has been commendably proved by Manila, which has signed a historic treaty with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) ending about 45 years of conflict that has claimed more than 120,000 people in the country's south.
MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim is ecstatic about the accord. He calls the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro the crowning glory of the struggle and is convinced that the legitimate aspirations of the Bangsamoro and the commitment of the government of the Philippines to recognise those aspirations are now sealed.
The Bangsamoro refers to people who at the time of Spanish conquest and colonisation were considered natives or original inhabitants of the southern Philippines. Their descendants and spouses are recognised as Bangsamoro people.
The pact makes the MILF and the government partners in a plan to create a southern autonomous region for the Philippines' Muslim minority with locally elected leaders by mid-2016.
As per the pact, the MILF will gradually decommission its forces and put the weapons "beyond use." A local police force will assume law enforcement functions from the Philippine police and military. The Philippine government will retain exclusive powers on defence, foreign policy, currency and citizenship matters. A regional parliament, expected to have 50 seats, is to be elected in conjunction with national elections in May 2016.
The accord concludes formal negotiations that began in 2001. A cease-fire agreement had been in place since 1997 and has been largely observed by both sides. There are about 10 million Muslims in the Philippines, roughly 10 per cent of the population. Previous presidents, including Corazon Aquino, Aquino's mother, tried but failed to resolve the conflict.
The implementation of the accord will not be an easy task. A 1996 pact with the then main rebel group did not end the fighting because fighters under its chairman, Nur Misuari, continued to hold on to their weapons. Misuari's followers and government forces clashed in September 2013 in Zamboanga city, killing more than 200 people.
While the agreement in itself is a major achievement, its success will largely depend on the performance of the peace process. The national government and the new Moro government to be formed will have to counter four other groups, including a breakaway faction called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. Both the sides will have to work hard and convince the people through progressive developmental projects.

India’s appalling
record on rape
Incidents of rapes and gang-rapes continue in India despite tightening of rules and increasing awareness campaigns. The clear inference is that more needs to be done by the authorities against the scourge.
The latest victim is a 21-year-old Assamese woman who was raped by two men at a house in Mahipalpur in Delhi. The victim had come to the city recently. There have been other kinds of shocking rape cases. A 20-year-old woman was raped in public by 12 men on the orders of tribal elders in a village in Birbhum district of Bengal. The attack was a punishment for an “unauthorised” relationship with a man from another village.
The country reacted angrily and thousands took to the streets in protest against rape cases in 2012 when a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern was beaten and gang raped in a private bus in which she was travelling with a male friend in Delhi.                                                                    
Rapists have also targeted many innocent women from the Northeast. The targeting of northeastern girls for sexual abuse was first highlighted when a call centre employee from Mizoram was gang-raped in Delhi in 2005, infamously referred as the “Dhaula Kuan gang rape case.”
In October 2009, a 19-year-old girl from Manipur was sexually assaulted, strangled to death and burnt at her rented apartment at Munirka in Delhi by a PhD scholar working at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. The list of such crimes against women from the Northeast goes on.
The scene is no better in the commercial capital. According to figures from the Mumbai police, the city registered 394 rape cases in 2013, of which 241 cases involved minors. The corresponding number for the year 2012 is 231 rape cases — an increase of around 71 per cent in the registration of rape cases with the Mumbai police.
 According to 2012 statistics, New Delhi has the highest number of rape-reports among Indian cities, while Jabalpur has the per capita incidence of reported rapes. In 2012, 24,923 rape cases were reported across India, as per the National Crime Records Bureau.
So much so that the United Nations has asked India to ensure security for women. Prison terms for rape have been stiffened, stalking made a criminal offence and gender sensitivity programmes have been introduced for some police officers. But these actions have not had the kind of impact anticipated and nothing much seems to have changed on the ground.
Third devastating year
for Syrian children
The number of Syrian children in need has more than doubled in the past year to 5.5 million, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), and that is real frightening news for the international community.
As the conflict in Syria enters its fourth year, Unicef has released a report that carries alarming details: More than twice as many children are affected by the hostilities than were 12 months ago, and particularly hard hit are up to a million children trapped in areas that are under siege or that are hard to reach with humanitarian assistance due to continued violence.
Children such as four-year-old Adnan, who fled with his family to Lebanon, suffered facial scarring when his home was bombed and still suffers from emotional distress. “He cries all night,” his mother is quoted as saying. “He is scared of everything and is afraid when we leave him, even for a second.” Unicef estimates that there are 2 million children like Adnan in need of psychological support or treatment.
The scars of the conflict are disgusting. In host countries, 1.2 million Syrian children are now refugees living in camps and overwhelmed host communities, and have limited access to clean water and nutritious food. In the past three years, Syrian children have been forced to grow up faster than any child should, and 1 in 10 refugee children is now working and 1 in every 5 Syrian girls in Jordan is forced into early marriage.
The report appeals to the international community to take action in six steps: end the violence in Syria now, grant immediate access to the under-reached 1 million children inside Syria, protect them from exploitation and harm, invest in their education, provide them with psychological care, and support host communities and governments to mitigate the social and economic impact of the conflict on families.
Cut off from aid, living in rubble and struggling to find food, many Syrian children have been left without protection, medical care or psychological support, and have little or no access to education. In the very worst cases children and pregnant women have been deliberately wounded or killed by snipers.
If 5.5 million children have had their lives devastated by the war and the international community fails to initiate corrective action at rapid speed, this situation will remain a blot on humanity forever. The children need to rebuild their lives in safety with their family and friends. Time is running out.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fatima: Great role model for women

(Article in The Gulf Today,March 25, 2014)
ABU DHABI: Speakers from a cross-section of society, including artists, business representatives and students, heaped praise on the Mother of the Nation, Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, at a special event held in Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi, on Sunday evening.
The Emirates Business Women Council (EBWC), supported by the Federation of UAE Chambers of Commerce and Industry, had organised the “Loyalty Evening — For the Lady of Generosity,” under the patronage of the Department of Presidential Affairs and GHQ Armed Forces.
The aim of the event was to shed light on Sheikha Fatima’s commitment to advancing women’s role in society and their participation in building the United Arab Emirates.
Engineer Fatima Obeid Al Jaber, Head of Emirates Business Women Council and CEO of the Abu Dhabi Business Women Council, said, “The business sector in the UAE is expressing our sincere love for our mother, leader and teacher. But no matter how many words are expressed, they will remain inadequate. All the words of gratitude are not equal to a beat of her big heart. We pray for her long life, good health and wellness.”
“For more than four decades, Sheikha Fatima led the women’s movement in the country and had been the first to call on Emirati women to participate in the development in various fields,” she added. “This event is a humble expression of our pride for Sheikha Fatima’s outstanding contributions in order to achieve comprehensive development of women in the UAE. She has served as a great role model.”
One of the special attractions at the function was a palm-tree-shaped art piece designed by Emirati sculptor, Azza Al Qubaisi, highlighting Sheikha Fatima’s noteworthy achievements.
Rashid Sharar and Aisha Ahmed Al Saeede drew loud applause with their poetry declamations, while individual songs also formed a part of the event. 
Among the audience were several dignitaries and ambassadors of different nations.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Beauty and the beast

Does beauty matter for an individual?

“Absolutely,” insists my businessman-nephew.

He says he lost good business deals whenever he made presentations looking “a little shabby or not shaping up the hairstyle.”
Going by the fact that some of my charming female friends got several “likes” and positive comments after posting their colourful nails, shampooed hair, shiny legs and cropped eyebrows on Facebook, I am also tempted to nod my head like a goat.
But how can I go by social media ratings?! Even British Prime Minister David Cameron is said to have paid thousands of pounds to get himself more Facebook “likes” on his official page. 
With conflicting thoughts on the subject, I switched on the television and entered the animal world. There was this most attractive fish, with eye-catching colours, untiring fins and twinkling eyes. It zoomed ahead and took a rapid turn around a tiny piece of dark, ugly rock. Wait a minute. Did I mention rock? I was mistaken. It turned out to be some Reef Stonefish.
It all happened in a jiffy. Something like a mouth opened and shut at the speed of a camera flash. The story of the beauty was over; eaten and digested by an ugly beast.
Actress Audrey Hepburn, who herself was quintessentially  glamorous, had remarked: “For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”
I have reached a conclusion: there is nothing more beautiful than a calm and cheerful countenance. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dino in the desert

(Report in The Gulf Today, Mar.11)
DUBAI: When someone says, “there is a dinosaur in the desert,” it is better not to consider it a joke anymore. A 155 million-year-old dinosaur exhibit has found its new home in The Dubai Mall and is now open for free viewing by the public.
With over 90 per cent original fossil’s bones, the dinosaur is as good as real. According to experts, most dinosaurs are like 20 to 30 per cent real.
Featuring a long tail sweeping behind, and an equally slender long neck rising eerily high as if bracing for battle, the prehistoric dinosaur stands at an impressive 24.4 metres long and 7.6 metres high.
Interestingly, its tail bones were injured during its lifetime, presumably due to predator’s bite or from trauma resulting from an exerted tail force during a battle. All bones unearthed were complete and in superb condition, which helped paleontologists address several queries that were left unanswered.
Emaar has unveiled this latest attraction, a colossal display of the Late Jurassic Period dinosaur, Diplodocus longus, at the mall’s Grand Atrium.
The organisers had kept the exhibit details a secret until Monday evening, leaving everyone to guess on what the “never-before-seen exhibit” would be, until Mohammed Alabbar, Chairman of Emaar, broke the suspense at the event.
To a specific question from The Gulf Today on “why a dinosaur!” Alabbar said the creature mesmerizes people of all age groups. “Visitors to the mall will be excited to see this fascinating exhibit.”
The exhibit was assembled by an expert team of paleontologists. A team of staff is on-site to provide visitors with interesting insights into the displayed dinosaur, the discovery of the fossil and the labourious process that went into reconstructing it to its present form.
This skeleton characteristic is unique in the history of paleontology, given that the most original Diplodocus longus skeleton finding, prior to this, had only 30 per cent of original bones from the overall found structure.
Natalie Bogdanova, Senior Director, Business Development & Operations, Emaar Malls Group, said: “The largest creatures to walk on earth, dinosaurs have been popularised through novels and films. Now, for the first time in Dubai, visitors to the mall can witness the magnificence of a life-size dinosaur exhibit, which also has the distinction of being the only one of its kind in the world.”
Sourced through Khalid Seddiq, Founder of Etihad Modern Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi, and previously only displayed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the dinosaur is the first fossil bone mounted in an upright position. Discovered in 2008 at the Dana Quarry, near the quaint town of Ten Sleep in north central Wyoming, the specimen represents an adult that belongs to the family of Diplodocidae, and was found in the sleeping position.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Time pass

I hear one constant remark every day from someone or the other: “Oh my God. How fast time has gone by.”
When my wife moved from Mumbai to Chennai for the birth of my daughter in 1990, a couple joined me as room partners. They later shifted to another city and we lost track. The couple recently tracked the wedding photo of my daughter on Facebook and the reaction was, “Oh my God. How fast time has gone by.”
My colleague is quitting after 16 years of service. I heard at least three other colleagues telling him, “OMG. How fast…”
Modern technology offers everything at jet speed. Distances have shrunk, snail-mails are dead, bullock carts are showpieces and virtual shopping is the norm.
So much time has been saved in travel and communication.
Yet, we do not get time to smell the roses or admire the beauty of the twinkling stars.  
What’s the reason?
Sorry, I do not have time to analyse. If you know the answer or manage to search it on Google, do email me.
And talking about time reminds me of a joke:
A wall clock fell on the ground and the owner yelled, “I hate this clock. It is always slow. Just a minute ago, my mother-in-law was standing under it.”