Monday, 30 April 2018

A City's Soul In Deira, Dubai

Dhows In Deira Creek Dubai

"If you can't find it in Deira, you will never find it."

So impregnable was the belief of the merchants of Deira, at the booming hub of trade in the Gulf that dissecting its legitimacy would have been deemed purely absurd, if not sacrilegious.

Even today, in 2018, it is nearly impossible to not find your goal in the hustling souqs of Deira. It was only natural then to finally succumb to the tenets of trading yore. I had to immerse myself in the frenzy to involuntarily seek answers to questions I've had for Dubai since time immemorial.

Involuntarily since these answers could not simply be found with just one vendor in the souq - no goal-driven odyssey into Deira would ever yield what I sought. That was the blinkered blunder of my past; an unfortunate fallibility of my youth, and I was bound to correct it. In hindsight, as I finally type this out to you, it must've been the reckless abandon of a result to this quest that ironically did the trick.

They say if you can't find it in Deira, you will never find it.

It took some time, and I can't point exactly when, but I found it.

Having grown up in and with Dubai in my adolescence, I often struggled with a sense of detachment with 'my city', if I could take the privilege of calling it my own. But I didn't know why. It was an adolescent's want for something he couldn't understand, additionally disconcerting because couldn't put a finger to it. Dubai in the late 2000s was the place to be: the pearl of the United Arab Emirates, led by a prescient dynasty that had a vision to truly make it a globally significant city.

You were living the expat's dream.

With it came the perks of being in a technologically progressive and increasingly diversified environment that would be ideal for easily impressionable adolescents. However, the 'would's and the 'could's remained elusive and ephemeral. In stark contrast thrived this aforementioned sense of detachment which, while vague and perplexingly untraceable, was still undeniably and irrefutably real.

I found it hard to appreciate things that I watched grow, step by step, in gradual transitions (I'm pretty sure erudite psychologists would have some research material that would be able to justify the reasoning in these sentiments). As my school bus whizzed past the under-construction Burj Khalifa (then known as Burj Dubai), I watched it ascend towards the skies, storey on storey, week by week, so much so that the emphatic impression that world's tallest building should leave in a child's mind was lost by the time it was unveiled to the rest of the world.

I was there when the Dubai Mall, Jumeirah Beach Residence and even Downtown Dubai were just ambitious projects on erstwhile barren land. As an unfortunate aficionado of stories, context and history, it seemed that I was growing in a city that was growing with me and there was not much history to explore. There was not much history to read.

I was a part of the history being written.

* * *

Deira Spice Souk in Dubai

The origin of Deira can be traced to 1841 when a smallpox epidemic coerced inhabitants out of Bur Dubai (represent!) and across the Creek. The geographical advantages of Dubai coupled with the lowering of trade tax brackets by the Emir resulted in the development of a community of merchants, primarily from Persia (now Iran). Religious and fiscal disputes in Bastak resulted in a mass exodus of traders migrating to the Arabian Gulf, and they took with them not just their skills but also multiple facets of the Persian culture, language and architecture.

Today, the badgirs or 'windcatchers' of Persia loom over the streets in Deira, heirlooms of a significant transposition of cultures. The migrants would later model their own little neighbourhood aptly named after their hometown in the heart of Bur Dubai: Al Bastakiya.

The origin of the name 'Deira', however, is under contention. While some believe it stems from 'دار' (dar) which means 'house', others dispute it refers to the contour of the land around the Creek, having taken its roots from 'استدارة' (aistidara) or 'roundness'.

Even amongst the proponents of the 'roundness' radix are some that believe the roundness refers instead to the circular nature of the trading business, of which Deira was a frenzied hub in the Gulf. It seems that bona fide facts on this matter shall now never be found, having been set irrevocably adrift in the streets of the souqs.


But Deira itself is not yet adrift. Despite having plunged significantly in importance in the last two decades, it is still here. As I aimlessly amble into the Spice Souk, Asif Khan from Afghanistan lures me and tries to ensconce me in a world where life without any of his products would be unbearable. Yet I'm not the only one - he is seen greeting tourists in Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Pashto and Dari.

It's not often you meet men who speak so many languages, but none too well (apart from their local dialect).

Spice Souk in Deira Dubai

His linguistic skills were sufficient to do the job I must admit, as I feign interest in his kaleidoscopic sacks of multi-hued spices. It takes him a while to open up beyond his practised sales monologue, but I manage to crack into the subterfuge with one of my fondest and only icebreakers: cricket (the other being Bollywood)

(embarrassing, I know)

It took a mutual admiration for Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Rehman's hypnotic bowling for him to break into his first genuine smile in our discourse, the beauty of which was undeterred by a decade of plastic smiles. He is eager, almost insistent, to show me his learnings in writing the Arabic alphabets. I let him scribble the words 'Sulphur - Skin Allergy' into my notebook, which seems to give him blatant joy and a suppressed sense of achievement.


Asif rues the months of heat, where he would have to sweat more and still earn less due to the seasonality of low business. In fact from his experience of twelve years of hollering in the souq, he feels the crowds have surprisingly started to thin. I find this slightly incredulous, as in my estimations the markets are quite crowded for a blazing, stifling Sunday morning, which happens to be the first day of the week in the UAE.

But Asif doesn't agree.

It's not that Dubai is no more a tourism haven, it's just that people now have more places to go.

As the metropolis moves further down south along the sheltered opulence of the Sheikh Zayed road, Deira settles itself into oblivion. Despite the alleged depleting volume of buyers, life still goes on and the curtains on the circus of trade are never drawn. As the spotlight shifts to the future, a certain darkness has started to descend in Deira, but yet it stays stubbornly mired in interminability, covertly watchful of its relics of the past.

Museum of Poet Al Oqaili in Deira Dubai

One of these relics, nestled in midst of the crooked streets in close proximity to Heritage House, is the museum of the late poet Mubarak bin Al Oqaili. In the walls that housed a 'majlis' frequented by people of thought, science, literature and nobility can also be found excerpts from his poetry, amongst which are these lines from the poem 'Ask The Night':

I complain my grief to God, as I have no supporter for my sadness except my tears and unhappiness
Ask the night whether I have slept and whether my body got rest after your abandonment

I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It seems that Deira does hide some stories from the past.

Do you see it?

One of the reasons I was transfixed by my explorations in London and Manchester was the inherent and inescapable depth. There was context in the alleys - murmurs of ballads of the past that if you looked hard enough and strained your ears hard enough you would see it and hear it.

You would start to feel it.

The fresh garlands at the memorials to fallen warriors, the vitriolic graffiti by the creatures of the night, the impromptu acts of busking, the embellishments of the present and the scars of the past.

These things to me, I must confess, gave a city its soul.

Deira Clocktower Dubai

In the chaotic electronics bazaar of Naif, you will find a homage to the sales practices of yesteryear. In an age of technology, limited and preferably avoidable human communication and virtual advertisements, in Deira you would still sell and seek things the old-fashioned way.

But not all areas are entirely outmoded. Of all things, the Gold Souk stands as the one bizarre juxtaposition of antiquated and modern selling styles. The wooden arches that screen the aisle don't complement the elegantly furnished and minimalistic interiors of several showrooms where all that glitters is indeed gold. It seems the archaic arches in this market shield it not just from the relentless sun, but also the seasonal plagues of low business.

I guess gold never goes out of fashion.

In contrast further east, bereft of attention, resides the Dubai Clocktower. Rebuilt and restored on a couple of occasions, it once served as an emblem of Dubai, a marker of its entry point on road. In commensurate deficit of attention a few miles away lies the Memorial Fountain, an obelisk-like guardian of Union metro station.

Sitting at Union Park, you can spot all iconic buildings along the Deira side of the Creek that were once glorious monuments. The convex National Bank of Dubai, the globe adorned Etisalat tower, the triangular Dubai Chamber of Commerce and the cylindrical Rolex towers. A contorted assortment of geometrical shapes that were once the original Dubai skyline.

Now relics of a forgotten era.

A gust of wind, and a swirl of leaves.

Dubai Creek Deira Skyline

Even though it has remained stoic amidst the flurry of development, Deira too will one day have to change. It would need to keep up with the pace of a global city. I turn back to squint at the Memorial Fountain, serene in its oblivious stupor. Daily, thousands of commuters throng past it with a cursory glance at best, lost in the vicissitudes and transience of daily life and their fate.

Even though I doubt it will, for the sake of this city's lineage, Deira must endure.

The droplets at the fountain now glisten with reflected sunlight. The sun has start to set in, and on, Deira. I don't think the beauty, relevance and historical significance of Deira could've been highlighted earlier. My revelations are not the by-products of a decade of blissful ignorance. Deira needed the glass spires of Downtown, sprawling beaches of JBR, gastronomic delicacies of City Walk and the monstrous scale of the Dubai Mall to carve its own individuality. To distinctly establish a preserved vestige of history.

Without them it would have no legacy.

I was out there trying to find the essence of my city, somewhere in the midst of the crowd where for long traders have found what they were looking for. At last, I had found it - a culmination of an adolescent's want for something he couldn't understand and an adult's search for something he couldn't have.

I had finally found my city's soul, right there, in heart of Deira.

Memorial Fountain Union Square Deira Dubai

* * *

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Friday, 30 March 2018

Sandpaper Gate 2018: Playing Cricket The Contemptible Australian Way

Sandpaper Gate Cricket Australia

These are the kind of events that stick with people. Not Steve Smith's purported Bradman-esque Ashes season, not David Warner's scintillating knocks, not Nathan Lyon's deceptive flights and dips.

These are the kind of events that will stick with these people and their legacies, interminably label them, and parasitically besmirch the highlights of their careers. A small asterisk hinged to their career graph. 

An asterisk that spells out 'calculative cheats'.

Asterisks that can be testified by Mohammed Azharuddin and the late Hansie Kronje, who are not regarded in modern times as highly successful captains of their era. Vilified into oblivion by national ignominy, even a couple of decades later history is now indifferent, if not slightly disapproving of them but never reverential. 

These are the kind of labels that define teams, their styles and tactics for the years to come. South Africa, to date, have struggled with the sobriquets of 'chokers' despite the origins firmly rooted in the late 90s. High-profile teams often struggle to shed their monikers, Pakistan and India have consistently lived with the labels of bowling and batting heavy teams despite the influx of players with opposing skills.

However, whether this incident will truly define Australian cricket a decade later is hard to foretell, as their lineage, and that of the game of cricket itself, is much deeper than one colossal blunder. They will have to ride out the taunts for now, endure the implications that come along and probably helplessly self-destruct until a fresh wave of talent is brought in to wipe off the disgraced smears of the past. 

This story though, this will stick. In the absoluteness of history, of fact, and the capriciousness of fate. 

It will stick into the image of Australian cricket - a style of cricket that is as fascinating as it is dishonourable. 

Fascinating as it truly highlights the mental strengths of opponents - the Australians have often waged a battle of skill and mind. While they boast an arsenal of incredible cricketing talent backed by a pedigree dripping with cricketing royalty, on the ground they don't just compete with cricket. It is not enough to have an impeccable batting technique, as they will chip at it not with pace or spin but with insinuations, provocative taunts and mental disintegration. 

Another spice in the feast of cricket for the average cricket zealot. 

Dishonourable because playing cricket the Australian way is resorting to vile, distasteful and often disrespectful tactics, unneeded in international sport where players play to ultimately test their physical skills. A 'bully' persona that every player has to adopt, or the stringently imposed ideology that they have to 'hunt in packs'. 

A chess game in motion in every game with team Australia, where the battle on the field is ultimately governed by the tenacity of the mind.

It is time for their move. The clock starts its count, but they are well prepared. Watching the Australians on the cricket field is as intriguing as it is infuriating. They demonstrate the exact attributes of a playground bully - they stride out with premeditated tactics of picking on the weak links of a player or a team, chalk out a fictional, ambiguous and internally flexible line for profanity and then launch a cerebral attack of obscenity.

This is their move. A calculated and distasteful move unleashed remorselessly. They tap the clock and cross their arms. It is now time for their unwilling, unprepared and unassuming opponent to respond. It seems however, that these players are no longer playing personas. The facade of character work seems to have melted, as you start to spot sadistic pleasure in the goading of opponents. 

Tendrils of their character work, Venom-like, starting to envelop their sense of morality, logic and reasoning. 

Tick, tock.

Then they wait - wait for a player not used to this style of play to break open, lose control and unleash the fetters of restraint. Needling him, further instigating the imminent. The clock ticks towards an inevitability. A player who didn't plan for this volley of loathsome comments and would eventually cross the fictitious and self-serving 'line'.  

In background they sit hunched, drooling over the prospects, ready to pounce at the end of it all.

Cricket Australia Sledging Michael Clarke Peter Siddle

A player finally relents, and the Australians gather round for stage two of their street theatre.

They viciously pounce on this moment of weakness, whine about it and take it to the higher authorities. The infuriating, annoying brats that sparked the fires yet never got their hands burnt. 

The history books have examples aplenty. The infamous Monkeygate where Andrew Symonds swore at Harbhajan Singh, interpreted his alleged Indian swear as a racial slur and filed a complaint. Glenn McGrath once asked Ramnaresh Sarwan what specific portions of Brian Lara's anatomy tasted like, and immediately held up a victim card when Sarwan asked him to ask his wife. Darren Lehmann openly asked spectators in Australia to dig into Stuart Broad and make him go home weeping, yet claimed a spectator sledging his team's biggest loudmouth last week South Africa was completely disgraceful. Warner decided to enact the McGrath-Sarwan incident with Quinton de Kock this month, and ensured he played his part to the end perfectly, including the victim card for his final act.

Merv Hughes, meanwhile, deserves an article of his own.

The Australian line and the Australian way ignores profanity directed at Lara, Sarwan, Harbhajan, De Kock, Broad and the countless others who are pulled into their mire of hypocrisy but conveniently stretches to ensconce Symonds, McGrath, Warner, their families, their pets, the people of their neighbourhood and even their local mailman. 

A line of control of convenience. With each successful foray, they gain in confidence. Stuart Broad is treated as a cheat for not walking - a practice majority of the batsman succumb to, the moral grounds of which are still debatable. In their eyes Broad overshadows the honourable showmanship of Greg and Trevor Chappell underarming their way into national ignominy.

A growing, self-sustaining confidence that allows them to apologise if caught and simply move on. Harbhajan warrants a suspension, but Lehmann can blatantly racially abuse the Sri Lankans. Steve Smith can look up to the dressing room for DRS opinions, yet call it a 'brainfade' the one instance he was caught - rubbishing claims that it had been happening for a while. 

The examples, as aforementioned, are aplenty.

The honest truth is, ball-tampering is not a new offence and not career threatening. Steve Smith might well never be captain again, or he might just be re-appointed after a possible debacle at World Cup 2019. 

These are the kind of events that stick, but Australians might just move on. The Australian way is to play dirty and apologise later, and with time the apologies gain more merit. One incident is not enough to affect a century-long tradition of playing style. For their infatuation with playing the victim card, ironically they are now truly the victims of their own personas - the ravenous tendrils of the characters they created have engulfed their morality, reasoning and plain logic. New players are expected to sledge, and veterans are expected to whine - or they would be considered too soft to play international cricket the Australian way.

To play international cricket the despicable, contemptible Australian way. 

Shane Warne Marlon Samuels Cricket Fight

* * *

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Saturday, 20 January 2018

Agra: A Teardrop On The Cheek Of Time

A leisurely stroll in Agra would show you blatant abandon, national ostracism and general indifference. Dilapidated kothis (villas), pothole-ridden, cow-dung infested streets, a conspicuous absence of any sort of infrastructure and an unquestionable maxim that cows and pigs have priority on roads and trivial entities like cars and pedestrians must adjust around them.

Even if you look carefully, you will see no residues of former Mughal affluence in this prevalent desert of destitution. But there is an aura to this city, ethereal and inaudible whispers in the air if you will, that seem to murmur ballads of the past.

Of great kings and their begums, of love and war, of ascension and conquest, of the richness of life and the inescapability of death.

With this collection of short stories, I must attempt, once again, to embark on the Indian Quest. Having tried to put in words (and spectacularly failed in the process) my odyssey in East India last year, I must try again not for the elusive outcome, but for the cathartic process. That I will not be able to do justice to India is solid and immutable fact, but I shall feel much lighter and significantly happier having invited you into the concoction of emotions I feel each time I step into this miraculous world.

I am also aware that Agra itself is not unique in evoking these emotions - you would probably feel similar sentiments in your own regions in India. For that, once again the Quest is your own - I can only be true to my own roots.

In the shadow of the Taj Mahal lies one of the former Mughal capitals of India. In that I found a story to be told, a city's soul to be explored and so I set out.

Taj Mahal Agra India


* * *

I am in the midst of being buffeted by platoons of curries, fried pakodas, barfis, laddoos, pethas, pedas and numerous other delicacies. It seems they are destined for my plate, right from the bubbling-hot-oil-filled cauldron they are raised from, dripping with the glee (and ghee) of taking another victim hostage to the realm of obesity.

In walks another distant relative, his hands pinned to his back as he surveys me. His eyes rake in my features, trying to formulate an assumption of my personality with my appearance. To compare with his database of stereotypical thoughts on 'these foreign kids'.

"Aur hero? Tu jaanta hai ki nahi jaanta hai?" ("You know or you don't know?")

"Ji, jaanta hoon." ("Yes, I know")

"Kya jaanta hai?" ("What do you know?")

He had last seen me when I was a teenage boy in school. Today I return to his house an adult. His conclusions at the end of his visual and oral scan are ambiguous, but somehow it meant that it was an occasion for stuffing me with even more food. With an incisive snap of his fingers, he motioned to his cook to juggernaut more edibles into my plate.

I raise my hands in protest. 

"Aur hero? Tu jaanta hai ki nahi jaanta hai?"

"Ji, jaanta hoon."

"Kya jaanta hai?"

It's like the last conversation never happened. I was stuck in this endless cycle of existential ignorance interspersed with familial affection. In Agra, have you really eaten if you haven't eaten it the right way?

Having been reprimanded multiple times, I ensured my thali had a dry sabzi and two curries. But have you really eaten if you didn't begin with a roasted papad, warmed up with a pakoda and ended the meal with an Agra ka petha or a jalebi?

If, by chance, you were to remember that entire sequence what if you forget to try the assortment of pickles? What about the home-made yoghurt and butter?

Why then, young man, you must start your meal all over again because you haven't eaten it the right way!

As I'm being stuffed with laddoos by loving aunts, I am also succumbed by a growing fascination with the value people here put on not just the food, but also the process of eating food. The hurried meals I wolf down on a normal day, usually as an afterthought as I watch a movie, Youtube video or indulge in a conversation stand in stark, discomfiting contrast.

I think I truly ate a meal after ages when my beloved relative paused his fascinating origin story midway when the food arrived and said:

"This story can wait, let us now enjoy the food."

Itmad-ud-Daulah Agra India


* * *

"Sirf aapke parivaar ne Raj Babbar ko support kiya tha." ("Only your family had supported Raj Babbar")

One fine afternoon, we were paid a surprise visit by a local politician. He walked in barking orders to a faceless sycophant on his phone with exaggerated jerks of his head and hands that were consciously trained to display power.

A lifetime's practice of an exhibition of authority.

Gold-rimmed spectacles, a richly tailored suit and a gold watch to display an abundance of wealth. He had come to buy our house, and in turn he gave me a priceless demonstration of sales expertise.

The theatrics were incredible; the script was well planned. The entrance, the attire, the dialogues and climax. A well-structured thespian narrative, coupled with some assertions of power and social status. He had done his research on our entire family, our work, social circle and political affiliations. He warmed up by describing how well he knew many of our relatives. A little bit of caressing craftily injected with some needling. Some probing into his possible contenders, and a hurried exit after setting his price. No time for analysis, justifications or bargaining.

Emails, property websites and laptops aren't the norm here. In such a setting, the people you know, the words you say and the impression you make matters. The art of oration, the art of subtlety, the art of persuasion and the art of assertion. Nuances that are often hidden and left underdeveloped in this new age of digital communication, aided by GIFs and emoticons.

Yet right there in a significantly underdeveloped town, I found some of the most soft-skills-proficient humans. Every decision we made, every word we spoke and every person we associated with contributed to a legacy that would stay alive as long as this city did.

Akbar Tomb Agra India


* * *

I am looking at Virat Kohli.

Of course, I spend 70% of an average day looking at Virat Kohli in various forms, but right now there seems to be an abstruse disconnect between me and my fanaticism. Kohli is all around me, decked in glistening sherwanis, kurtas and draped like royalty. A floor below him, massive portraits of Anushka Sharma hang over groups of women narrowing down the one lehenga that would somehow denote their social status at a one-day event where people would be too fixated on the food anyway.

This Manyavar store is a reflection of modernism. Simplistic interiors, suave salesmen, elegantly minimalistic attires with heavy price tags.

An Apple store of Indian wear.

Yet the massive glass windows behind the salesman show me a line of paupers, some missing limbs, some their eyes, clattering their stone bowls on the pavement in search for alms.

I'm not here to preach for poverty - it exists and I don't expect the rich to not live like the rich because it does. The contrast, however, is quite poetic - especially in Agra where the crumbling city houses some immensely wealthy people. People often write stories of the 'dark underbelly' of booming metropolises like Mumbai or Dubai, but I feel in the case of Agra it would be the rich underbelly - the abundance of wealth lying hidden under the sprawling visage of a poor city in a poor country.

Maybe it is just the love for extravagance - the societal norm to spend a higher percentage of your salary on expensive watches, clothes and big villas. Maybe they earn less but live large with no eye for the future.

Maybe.

Agra Fort India


* * *

"Sir, I had the honour of driving Mr. Amrish Puri for a week."

I'm absolutely fascinated by this incredible man driving this Ola cab. A blue turban, a grand white moustache twisted and twirled so that the ends point up and a benign, joyful face. This Sikh man, or Sardarji, seemed to never lose his smile - even in the moments his mouth was busy narrating his life story, the traces of an infectious smile would linger in his eyes.

"Sir, I was very scared of meeting him. He had this image of an angry and rude man because of all his roles. When I went to pick him, sir, I bowed down and told him I was his driver and would go get the car. Sir, you will be surprised - a man of his stature looked at me with great respect, put his arm around me and said 'Kaka, gaadi kidhar hai? Hum chal ke jaayenge' (Where is the car? We will walk to it)"

I was quite embarrassed to be continually referred to as 'sir' by this sixty-year-old man, but this is the money-driven societal hierarchy so deeply ingrained in India, so much deeper than any other country I have visited. A pecking order that makes grown, aged men bow and salute me because I happen to be born in a richer family than them.

The dehumanising of a nation, one money bill at a time.

If I could, I would listen to the stories of Sardarji all night. He went on to describe how Amrish Puri would give way to women and children despite the need for hustle in his busy schedule. He then launched into the story of his escape during the 1984 Sikh Massacre, a story that ended with him driving a car for, non-stop, nearly forty-eight hours. He averaged 14 hours a day driving his Ola itself, and yet it seemed nothing could slay the smile.

"Sardarji, didn't you get tired of driving after all these years and incidents?"

"Tired of driving? No way, driving is my passion, sir!"

John Hessing Tomb Agra India

* * *

The Taj Mahal, despite the songs, myths and facts, remains one of the many and probably the biggest paradox for a writer - the apex of this uncontrollable urge to express the assimilation of emotions you feel, yet as I sit down to tell you I find myself increasingly handicapped with each word.

A most perplexing catch-22, I must say.

In this instant I must pay homage to the late Robin Williams, who said it right in Good Will Hunting - no novels, scriptures or pictures could do justice to the beauty of the Sistine Chapel. You need stand there, be there, breath in the smell and gaze up and really see that beautiful ceiling. To really see it. To really be there.

To become one with the Taj Mahal.

A symmetrical marble mausoleum built by Shah Jahan, grandson of Akbar The Great, in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal - a story of love, death and everything that comes with a duet between the two.

A spectacle of Mughal creation, a wonder of the modern world.

You would feel having one of the seven wonders of the world would mean something. Agra as a city could have a thriving economy just from the tourism Taj Mahal generates. Yet, the tourist money is fragmented and broken between the rickshaw drivers that take you to the Taj and the freelancing tour guides that badger you with their linguistic skills, having learnt perfect English, Mandarin, Italian or Russian in order to win some meals for the day.

You would also pay the guy below the marble plinth to look after your shoes, and you would also pay the freelance photographers to print polaroids of you. At the end of the experience you would've spent at least a thousand rupees, yet not one person to whom portions of the money went would wake up to a better tomorrow.

Wouldn't it be better if the government streamlined the entire process, hired all the photographers, guides, rickshaws, shoe-guardians and charged a fixed all-inclusive ticket to the tourist? All these vendors would have a stable job, there would no false advertisement to loot the tourists and the economy would categorically reflect the benefits of having the damned Taj Mahal in your city.

Not just the Taj Mahal, but you would also glean the benefits of having the Agra Fort, the Tomb of Akbar The Great, the Tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah and the hidden, future wonder-of-the-world the Temple of Dayalbagh - all miraculous attractions which up to this point are unknown to the world of being housed in Agra.

Anyway, as an NRI who hasn't permanently lived in India what do I know right?

I shall take your leave, draw curtains on this vexing monologue of glutted emotions, with two common fables that linger with the Taj Mahal:

- While the architecture in itself is worth the wonder, not much is spoken of the processes involved in creating this towering structure in an age with no industrial cranes or technology. In fact, accounts have been made of the creation of a 15-km long ramp for elephants to lug blocks of marble to the construction site. According to another legend, the scaffolding itself was so massive that by the end of the construction, having depleted the royal coffers in the process, Shah Jahan had no more funds to get rid of it. Upon consultation with his trusted wazirs, he declared that all the bricks in the scaffolding were free for the general public.

The massive scaffolding vanished overnight!

- Another legend associated with the origins of Taj Mahal was that Shah Jahan planned a black Taj Mahal for himself, which would be situated across the Yamuna looking at the white one.

Lovers forever immortalised in wondrous marble mausoleums.

Yet, probably given the cost of constructing one, and the decades it took to construct along with his ill-fated illness and subsequent house arrest, this vision never came to be. Today his tomb lies right next to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal in the Taj Mahal, and there they shall rest together until the end of time.

Two diamonds in the teardrop on the cheek of time.

Taj Mahal Sunset Yamuna Agra India


* * *

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Saturday, 11 November 2017

Why I Feel Virat Kohli, And Not Sachin Tendulkar, Is Indian Cricket's Biggest Inspiration

Sachin Tendulkar never inspired me.

When I started getting into cricket at the age of 9, Sachin was already a nationwide phenomenon.  Cricket fans at the turn of the century were witness to the birth of a contagious, ill-fated cult of personality. Sachin had become omnipresent in Indian pop culture. He could make a nation exult with a pristine straight drive, or make them weep with an early dismissal.

To scrounge some of cricket commentators' favourite buzzwords - by the age of 30 he wasn't a 'rising star', 'talented cricketer' or 'wily veteran'. He wasn't just an exceptional batsman. He wasn't a heavily lauded athlete. Nor was he just a popular celebrity.

Sachin Tendulkar was a phenomenon.

Over the years as my fascination with, and understanding of, the game evolved so did my reverence for him. Yet, for all his incredulous feats, he never inspired me. There is a fundamental, oft-ignored problem with god-given talent - you could only be born with it.

Sachin could never be compared, emulated or replicated. Sachin had broken a national record with Vinod Kambli at an age where other kids were struggling to ride a bicycle. It just seemed too easy - a feeling aided and abetted by the blatant nonchalance with which he describes his freakish knocks in his autobiography Playing It My Way. He made his test debut at the age of 16 and had surpassed most records well before he was on the brink of retiring. Cricketers like him were meant to be prized and even, if I may take the liberty to claim, worshipped.

Worshipped as a fleeting flash of celestial brilliance that might never be glimpsed again; Sachin was unsurpassable.

Sachin was god.

* * *

The Sydney Cricket Ground was ready for a spectacle.

It was the second semi-final of the 2015 World Cup, in the wake of one of the greatest knockout matches in World Cup history between New Zealand and South Africa. Australia had put on a massive score, yet such scores had shed the accompanying intimidation by 2015. India, a self-professed chasing side, had successfully conquered similar targets multiple times by then, led by the supreme master of chases himself.

The stage was set for an iconic chase, and in walked Virat Kohli to a thunderous ovation.

A burst of pace, some inordinate bounce, an aggressive heave and the world was hushed into overbearing, mind-numbingly engulfing silence as Kohli top-edged a bouncer from Mitchell Johnson. The master of all chases, the saviour of Indian cricket had fallen prey to his own idiosyncrasies.

Seven months later, Kohli was to be found facing South Africa at home, after a poor limited overs cricket season. He hadn't crossed a score of 50 in ODI cricket since the World Cup. A pernicious concoction of frustration and desperation was conspicuous in each dismissal.

In the sweltering heat and humidity of Chepauk, Kohli ran and cramped his way past 90. South Africa, often the notorious chokers, sought to choke him in the 90s - hoping to get a few silent overs in the death as Kohli neared his long-awaited century.

A trap Sachin often fell prey to.

The plans were set: spinners would bowl tight lines with long on and long off. Kohli would need to take singles to ensure a century, by which time South Africa would've ensured overs 40-45 were reasonably quiet.

The spinner bowls his line, but the batsman steps out and lofts the ball straight towards long on. There seems to be a trace of disdain in the shot as if to question the gall of the opposition to formulate a specific plan against the creator of the shot. There are a couple of seconds where the batsman watches tentatively as the fielder raises his hands for a catch. But the ball has just a bit more flight, spurted probably by the fragments of disdain it was smacked with to scrape over long on's fingers for a six.

Virat Kohli flings his arms wide and flexes for the crowd.

As I watched it unfold, on a laptop screen in a university lecture hall (as you do), I knew it then. This has never been, and will never be, the story of miraculous ability.

It is a story of evolution.

Virat Kohli Flex South Africa Indian Cricket

Kohli's autobiography, by his own admission, would start with the tale of a chubby teenager who used to love adding extra butter on his aloo parathas. A kid who used to stock up on chips and chocolates before every cricket match and ensured he wouldn't be disturbed as he gaped open-mouthed at the heroics of a miraculous man, transfixed by the transience of the magic.

In fact when he finally burst onto the scene, despite being touted as a talented 'rising star', he was never lauded as the man with god-given ability. Those sobriquets were taken by Rohit Sharma, a man who could, or so they claimed, time the ball with both eyes closed.

In a recent interview, Gaurav Kapoor mentioned that Rohit seems to have an extra second to time the ball. Kohli corrects him with 'a second and a half' with a slightly envious, slightly frustrated sigh. It seems that he is perpetually at war - he stands alone in the centre of an ancient duel arena. As he gazes up at the jeering crowd of naysayers, a resounding gong is heard signalling the entrance of his opponent and longstanding nemesis. A crescendo of drum beats, a distant piercing war cry, and the veil is pulled back, revealing his archenemy.

He does not see Jimmy Anderson swinging deliveries away from him. Nor does he see a visual representation of the nation's expectations.

At the opposite end of the arena, ready to lock horns in a fatal battle, he sees himself.

Virat Kohli fights an unceasing battle against his own expectations every day. Regardless of the runs against his name in a match, every dismissal is met with a ruthless volley of common Delhi curses - an intrinsic rage that was probably the manifest of battling the politically oppressive and brutally competitive scene of Delhi cricket.

With this rage spawns hunger. A perpetual, frenzied hunger for winning, scoring runs and improving. A man better than the one yesterday. A hunger so incessant, that it would need divine skills to satiate.

But Virat Kohli never had god-given ability. He was, and still is, like you and me. In his youth he doted obsessively over his cricket heroes. Like you and me. In his early days he gained notoriety for cursing on the field, indulging in revelry off it and adopting every fashion trend in the country. Like you and me. Despite his laurels in ODIs, his place in the Test format was often questioned. As he matured, so did we. Despite his under-19 feats, he still seemed like an above-average individual in his chosen field in life. Just like you and me.

Even his initial IPL performances almost got him dropped from RCB. This is the story of a man who got hit multiple times, and tried to learn from it. The fact that he has built an immortal legacy today is a testament to his hard-work, commitment and drive. In a sport which has seen many potent sportsmen fall prey to indiscipline, complacency, corruption and greed he stands out as a man who has built, Dravid-like, a legacy purely on commitment.

Sachin was never the fittest athlete, but he didn't need to be. At times, it felt (unintentionally, I'm sure) that Sachin was bit detached from the bigger picture. Particularly in his later years, a milestone would bog him down despite the match situation. It would be ignorant, near disrespectful even, to assume that Sachin or Rohit did not put efforts to sustain their magic. But the value of persistence and discipline in comparison to the value in the sustenance of existing skills is up in the air, and I choose the former. Is this why we value a rags-to-riches story more than that of a millionaire who multiplied his wealth?

* * * 

In 2014, I was at the Oval when Kohli edged to the slips. Many cricketers have waned once their shortcomings have been exposed. With each edge it seemed Kohli was losing sense of his own game. A few months later, he took a stance a foot outside his crease to Mitchell Johnson and stroked his way to a career-defining series.

After a series Down Under, in his first Asia Cup match in the subcontinent he pushed too hard on a sluggish pitch against Bangladesh, after having acquainted himself to the pacy pitches of Australia. A rare duck, and in the next match he played the ball later than anyone else to be the only one to combat a formidable Pakistani pace attack.

He wasn't born the best batsman in the world, but he just might have evolved into one today and there is nothing more inspirational than that.

As Virat Kohli has grown, so have we.

* * *

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Saturday, 21 October 2017

An Overview of Bitcoin, Blockchains & Cryptocurrencies In The UAE By A Rookie

Please find below an objective compilation of my perusals through several laborious articles and books - the idea is to promote discussion on technology that has the potential be the 'dot-com boom' (and bubble) of our era. If you find any glaring mistakes in the text below, do drop me a message and I shall happily rectify it. I am a very nascent pupil of this field, with limited academic qualifications and through this blog post wish to encourage more people to get into the discussion of (and not necessarily investment in) blockchains and cryptocurrencies.

If I can understand bits of it, you definitely can get way, way more.

What this is:

- Your one-stop reference pool for diving into the basics, and not the technical details of cryptocurrencies. A lot of technical information has been omitted and ignored for the readability of this nerd-fest, so treat this as the Harry Potter movies in comparison to the novels.

What this not:

- A guide to cryptocurrency investment, because if you really sit and think about it why on earth would you take investment advice from a blatant rookie? (actually if you think even further, you'll find that you should definitely not be taking advice from purported industry experts as well, so I guess that makes my opinion just as valuable as a notorious economist's)

(not that valuable)


What is Blockchain?

A blockchain is a 'chain of blocks' - a series of digital blocks linked to each other to serve as a digital ledger of data. Each block contains within it data relevant to its application - in the case of Bitcoin each block contains transaction history. Additionally, each block contains data linking it to the previous block - consequently creating a chain. It is possible to trace the entire history of one element through its blockchain.

Blockchains are hosted and replicated across millions of systems, thereby decentralising the model and eliminating the possibility of any one person altering the records by hacking into one system.


Blockchain Working Introduction Diagram
Source: 'Blockchain Introduction', JWorks Tech Blog (accessible here)

In a future largely controlled by data (with Mukesh Ambani postulating that it is the new oil) the possibilities of blockchains are endless - decentralised network of data that can be applied to medical history, stock management or event history to name a few apart from digital transactions.



Further Reading

'What is Blockchain technology?', Blockgeeks

'What is Blockchain technology?', CoinDesk

Bitcoin, Ethereum & Cryptocurrencies

Bitcoin is a digital currency. Created by the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin was created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis which saw many people lose millions of dollars and served as a modern testament to the fallibilities of banks. Apart from Ripple and Stellar Lumens, most cryptocurrencies were created to combat the vices of banks - which means that if Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan is threatening to fire employees for investing in bitcoin, it is more out of fear of competition than fear of stupidity.

Bitcoins are stored in digital wallets which can be used for transactions. Currently, bitcoins can be obtained by:
  • purchasing them on trade exchanges
  • as a payment 
  • as a reward for mining blocks in the blockchain.
Bitcoin is based on a public blockchain network. Think of blockchain as the operating system or the underlying technology and bitcoin as one possible application (in this case, a decentralized digital currency).



Ethereum is an open-source blockchain network that allows developers to create any application of their choice using blockchain technology. While 'smart contracts' is the most popular feature yet, the possibilities of expanding this platform are endless.

Ethereum Smart Contracts
Smart Contracts
Source: 'What Is Ethereum?', Blockgeeks

Other notable cryptocurrencies: Ripple, Dash, Zcash, Monero, Bitcoin Cash, Litecoin

Further Reading

2008 financial crisis: The Big Short by Michael Lewis (or you can watch the movie, which might be a slightly more enticing option since it stars Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie, inevitably endearing to your tastes no matter which way you flow)

Ethereum: 'What Is Ethereum?', Blockgeeks

Mining

If you care about how exactly bitcoins come into existence, how the number of coins is regulated, the processes ensuring a bitcoin network is secure and what is required to keep the network stable, safe and fast, this video might serve as a good introductory tool. 

The algorithms and hash code encryption techniques that form the core of the mining process might take this compilation of data beyond the realm of comprehensibility. Additionally, I have admittedly come up short in my technical knowledge and interest in the core algorithms defining each and every cryptocurrency, and I shall leave the onus of further research to the reader.


Advantages of Cryptocurrencies

(Bitcoin has been used in several examples but it should be noted that most advantages are not just linked to bitcoin alone - in fact, cryptocurrencies like Ethereum and Ripple have several additional advantages, and consequently, limitations)

Convenience: Imagine being able to instantly transfer money to relatives in a different country, without having to pay Western Union a fee for the service and a higher fee in currency conversion. Imagine not having to deal with change, withered notes and high credit card transaction charges. Imagine not having to wait on a public holiday for a bank to transfer cash the next day. Think about the convenience online banking and payments added to your life, and now expand that to daily transactions.

Counterfeits: With digital currency you combat the possibility of counterfeits as each bitcoin is in essence, an abstraction of digital addresses. Each address is unique and every bitcoin is linked to the blockchain - which means, there is no way to create a counterfeit of a bitcoin.

Identity Theft: The current model of credit card transfers works on a 'pull' mechanism. When you enter your pin at a card machine, you give access to your entire savings to this particular merchant to 'pull' a specific amount. This is analogous to offering your wallet to the merchant and asking them to take exactly the amount you owe them.

This linear bond of trust is susceptible to calamity if your card details fall in the hands of a crook - a crook with access to your entire earnings and the ability pull any amount he or she wishes to. The linearity of this bond of trust is further complicated if you consider that your card details are not just shared with the merchant, as in this process they are also shared with their IT network supplier, the acquiring bank, the issuing bank, any third-party processor, the card network and each employee who works for these entities and handles these transactions.

Suddenly, the argument that cryptocurrencies aren't as safe as current options starts to look ugly, does it not?

Credit Card Pull Mechanism
Source: 'Are 'Pull' Credit Card Transactions Making You Truly Vulnerable?', CryptoCoin News (accessible here

Bitcoin on the other hand uses a 'push' mechanism - it pushes an amount of your choosing to the merchant. In comparison to the prevalent pull mechanisms, the potential risks are significantly lowered, though not completely eliminated.

Decentralization & Inflation:
"Inflation is as violent as a mugger, as frightening as an armed robber and as deadly as a hitman." - Ronald Reagan
"Inflation is when you pay fifteen dollars for the ten-dollar haircut you used to get for five dollars when you had hair." - Sam Ewing 
Say, for example, USA owes China a sum of $1 million dollars (all hypothetical, of course). The logistics of current fiat currency transactions ignore the significance of inflation - on paper USA owes China a million dollars regardless of the current value of the dollar.

Since the government controls the currency, they decide that in order to clear this debt they will print more dollar notes than necessary. While the government has literally conjured a million dollars out of thin air and paid off their debt, they have significantly altered the existent supply-demand value. The current value of the dollar is affected by the influx in supply - tipping the scales towards more supply and less demand. As a result, the value of the dollar starts to drop. Your $10 bill now gets you one burger instead of two - for the same bill.

We often underestimate the dangers of inflation - in this exact same scenario there is your average worker who had just accumulated a lifetime of savings worth $200,000. In a month, he watches his savings get diminished by half - as it now costs double to buy the exact same things he could have bought with the original value. Would you want to give an external authority that much power over your hard-earned money?

Bitcoin takes power away from a single, central authority and splits it over a million users that create, sustain and expand the network - which means that no one person can decide the value of your money overnight. The performance of currencies backed by governments is often parallel with the performance of the government itself. Are you willing to bet your money on your government, especially if you did not vote for the ruling party and have explicitly expressed zero faith in their ideologies?

An even more chilling question might be: do you have any other choice?

Inflation Cartoon
Source: 'Inflation The Evillest Theft', The Final Wake Up Call (accessible here)

Further Reading

Identity Theft: Are 'Pull' Credit Card Transactions Making You Truly Vulnerable?', CryptoCoin News

Inflation: Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan

Disadvantages

Double-spend: Initially, due to the small size of the growing network it was possible for a user to gain control of the majority of the hash power - which in turn would allow him to spend the same bitcoin for two transactions. This kind of a scam is known as a double-spend, which gets more and more unlikely as the size of the bitcoin network grows.

Acceptance: We are still months, rather years, away from the day when cryptocurrencies would start getting accepted at your local grocery store. (never forget that one of the first bitcoin transactions was a pizza for 10,000 BTC ~ which would equal $43,000,000 today) The high volatility aspect further results in lack of trust in the currency, but this is expected to stabilise with time.

For a list of top companies that accept bitcoin as payment, click here. Currently, there are over 500 retailers in the UK itself that accept bitcoin as payment, which can be found here.

Deflation & Volatility: Since we will only have a fixed number of coins (21 million for bitcoin), it is possible and already the case that a bunch of investors might hoard up all the coins in hopes of selling when the time is right. The shortage of bitcoin would drive up the price, which would in turn align with the speculative investors' ambitions. This is a serious disadvantage of not having a regulatory body in charge.

The consequences can even be felt in the short term, where the small size of the market comes into play as well. Any multi-millionaire or investment fund can decide to drive the price of a coin up or down by indulging in mass selling or buying of coins. The 'pump and dump' scheme ensures that as an individual investor your coins are in the hands of manipulative traders (and ignorant speculators who simply follow the market blindly, thereby accentuating each swing)

Hacking, Scams & Lost Wallets: If you lose access to your digital wallet you lose your bitcoins. This has been rectified lately with wallets with multiple keys. Since bitcoins are digital, if your network crashes you lose access to your money.

There have been very popular cases of hackers changing the address of the wallet on popular crowdfunding websites - consequently directing all the donations into their personal digital wallets rather than the person or organisation raising the money.

Fuelled by the meteoric rise of bitcoin, there are thousands of cryptocurrencies out there in the market. Amongst them you will also find Dogecoin, which was created as a joke based on the famous dog meme. Despite the blatant mockery, Dogecoin saw bullish trends of around 1500% this year.

Most coins however, are scams, relying on speculators to purchase the sham coin in hopes of it rising 1000% and higher like other popular digital coins. China is the most recent example of governments getting aware of fraudulent ICOs and trying to clean up the mess that follows any promising venture.

Further reading

Pump And Dump: Wikipedia or The Wolf Of Wall Street (also starring Margot Robbie, so I would definitely recommend)

Cryptocurrencies In The UAE & Investment

Currently, one of the safest ways to obtain bitcoins in the UAE would be through BitOasis, a Middle-East centric trading exchange. With a beta trading exchange that allows you to trade bitcoins and ether, along with a digital wallet for storage of currency it can serve as a good starting point for anyone in UAE looking to join the fun. 

Additionally, you could also explore trading the bitcoins from your local wallet into a US-based trading exchange if you wish to deal with even more cryptocurrencies like Ripple. 

Recently, a local coin called OneGram was announced, back by a physical asset - gold. Being touted as the only Sharia-compliant cryptocurrency in a region where this market is still bubbling, it may seem as an easy entry into the world of crypto investment. 

Having read a bit about it and attended a seminar hosted by the founder and CEO, my personal take is that it is definitely not a currency I would be investing in ever, for multiple reasons. However, as with all investment advice, your best bet is form your own understanding based on your own research. Don't let my biased, ill-informed opinion influence your choices!