Photos in Blue Halo

Most people hate the occasion of saying a good bye. Saying good-bye can be heart-wrecking – whether your separation is temporary or over a long time. We as people are so wired to each other –– that any separation from someone you love or adore is painful.

While saying good-bye, people often hug, kiss and resist parting. Some are formal and do a handshake but the palms – moist or firm as they can be – communicate their feelings.

There is also a feeling whether you will see your friend once again – concerns on safety in travel and health risks due to our lifestyles have been some of the reasons. So we return from the airports, railway stations and bus stands with a heavy heart. We feel relieved when we receive the message that “all is well” or “reached alright” from your friend or the beloved after reaching the destination.

Some people carry gifts as a surprise when saying good bye. This makes the event of departure memorable. Some present flowers and take a photo as a memory to post on the Facebook.

Many suggest that instead of saying good bye say, “so long”. This expression hints a “promise sentence” such as “So long, I’ll see you later or we’ll meet again…”, indicating that this is only a temporary separation. You feel a bit positive when someone says “So long pal” to you. And I prefer this expression.

I often do a trick when I see off my children at the airport. Both my kids live in the United States. While saying “So long”, I tell them that it is very likely there could be a visit from me in the next three months.  My  fib just comforts them, calms down and takes away the pain of separation. But its strange that sometimes my travel to the US actually does happen!

But saying goodbye happens not just when you see someone off. You also say a goodbye when you leave school, university or your job. We call this event as farewell. Farewell is a fancy or a grand way to say goodbye. A farewell is also an expression of good wishes at the parting. Farewell is more for a longer separation like going overseas or leaving an institution. Generally, people give speeches during the farewell. I have attended farewells where I had an opportunity and the honor to listen to some of the memorable speeches.

Some speeches made at farewell make you think differently and understand hidden dimensions of the personality not earlier known. Farewell speeches are also opportunities to express the gratitude. Speech by Steve Jobs is one such example.

I went to meet my Professor on Sunday for coffee and conversations. His wife ushered me to his study where he was flipping an album of photographs and smoking a cigar.

He handed over the album to me – “Take a look Dr Modak, I will just do a quick shave and come back in five minutes”.

I browsed the photo album. It had photographs taken at the departure area of the Mumbai International Airport. Some of the photos were featuring Professors colleagues and friends. Oddly, he was not in any of the pictures. I wondered why the Professor maintained a separate album just for the occasions of good bye! Could there be any special reason? I was a bit puzzled.

As Professor was taking more time than expected, I decided to spend more time on the photos as I browsed the Album.

And I noticed a strange thing. In almost each photo, there was someone in a “blue halo”. The halo was not very explicit around the person in spot, but a closer look at the photo showed its presence. I decided to ask Professor about the halo as I saw him stepping in.

“Good question Dr Modak, And you being a man of detail,  I was expecting this question”

Professor continued and spoke to me in a rather low voice

“I don’t know whether you realized that all persons you see in Blue Halo are no more today. The photographer I use for these Goodbye occasions has a mystic camera that brings a blue halo to the person who will be the first one to die after the shot is taken”

I just couldn’t believe this! Now I understood why Professor didn’t want to be in these photos!

I looked at the photos once again where I knew some people.

Oh – This is Professor Raghavan in the photo taken on April 5, 2002. I remembered that Prof Raghavan expired on June 27 in the same year due to a heart disease that was not earlier detected. And this is Ms. Jose Felicia, Head of UN convention on biodiversity for Africa waving a good bye to Professor. She visited Mumbai in October 2004; I remembered that she met with a fatal accident in the outskirts of Nairobi during Christmas in the same year. This was really an unfortunate event and was shocking to all of us.

I couldn’t resist but ask “Very strange and simply unbelievable Professor. Who is this Photographer? And is he still around?

Professor smiled and said “I generally don’t show this Album to people. Many would then ask me about the Photographer and his mystic camera. But Dr Modak, he is still around. He is pretty old now. I am sorry I cannot share with you his details”

I understood that this information was going to remain as a secret. Professor appeared rather firm.

Next week, I was hosting a delegation from EU on Business and Sustainability that was headed by my good friend Olivia from Spain. We had conferences and field visits over a week. Professor joined us for the farewell dinner that I hosted at Bungalow No 9 in Bandra. There were scintillating speeches by the participants, all appreciating the visit and opportunities for experience sharing. Olivia was exceptional, and her farewell speech expressed her passion on the subject of sustainability. She articulated her future plans of cooperation. I presented her a silk scarf as a token of appreciation that she gladly accepted.

As I escorted Olivia to Uber, she paused before entering the taxi. In a soft voice she said “Prasad, I am not too sure whether I will see you again. Just a month ago, I was diagnosed for a throat cancer. It’s in an advanced stage. The doctors have told me that I have a little time left to live – may be another 3 months”

I was shocked to hear these parting words. Olivia hugged and kissed on my cheeks “Thanks for the scarf Prasad. I will cherish these memories”. She said while closing the door. She had wrapped the scarf around her neck – like ring-fencing her throat cancer.

She then lowered the glass window of the car and said “Nobody knows. Not even Professor”. Uber drove out of the Bungalow No 9.

I didn’t know what to say. My heart was heavy. And I was in tears.

On the day of departure, Professor volunteered to come to the airport to see everybody off. I was delighted.

We all met at the airport and assembled outside the departure gates. It was a Sunday and 9 pm at night. Flight to London was at 1 am and so we decided to take couple of photographs as a memory. But Professor was  not around although he had promised. Shortly I received a call that he cannot make it due to an urgent call from PMO. Typical of Professor I said to myself.

As we were taking group photographs, we decided to request someone to handle one of our smartphones and take a good quality picture – we didn’t want to rely on the clumsy Selfies!

One oldish man was standing around. He volunteered to help us. He said he will use his own camera and not charge us for taking picture as it was his hobby. We agreed.

He had a pretty old styled conventional looking camera. He took good many pictures of the group. He then walked to me and said “Your Professor friend asked me to attend today”

I was surprised that he recognized us. Oh, so this was that mysterious photographer then.

I asked for his visiting card.

The man said he does not keep any visiting cards.

“Don’t worry. I will send the pictures to the Professor. Please collect from him – all my complements Sir”. He seemed to be in a hurry and disappeared in the crowd.

Two days later, I called Professor and told him how I met “his” photographer at the airport and asked when can I pick up the photographs.

I knew that the photos will show a blue halo around Olivia. Oh, I will miss her I said to myself.

Professor wasn’t very enthusiastic. “I am a bit busy Dr Modak” he said, “Let me check – I probably misplaced the photos”.

“Well Professor, please don’t lose these precious photos.  I won’t be surprised if I see a blue halo across Olivia’s face” I told him.

I didn’t want to tell the reason as it was a secret not shared by Olivia with anybody.

There was however a stoned silence.

“I don’t think so” Professor said – “As far as I recall, there is no halo around Olivia’s face”

He sounded a bit stiff and abrupt.

I started wondering. Who could it be then? I thought about others and ruled out almost everyone.

And then a strange thought occurred in my mind.

Was it me? and was that the reason why Professor did not want to share with me the photos?


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Serendipity

Meeting people by chance in strange situations are encounters worth recounting.

You share with someone an umbrella and walk along on the street when it showers suddenly, or you land with someone interesting in the two seat cabin of a giant Ferris wheel –  or you get stuck in an elevator and get into conversations that help lighten up or destress.

In my life, I have gone through such situations.

I present to you today two interesting encounters with women – that I never met again.

I wish I had more such encounters to write about. Do you have a story to tell?


Arya Bhavan in Matunga is a place worth a visit if you want to savor authentic south Indian food. There is always a beeline of food lovers outside this cozy restaurant run by Muthuswamy.

It was a Sunday morning. I went to Arya Bhavan for my breakfast. There was a long queue outside. The Chief told me to hang on and wrote down my name.

“Five minutes Sir”. He said in an assuring tone.

But it took almost 15 minutes of waiting that I got invited inside. There was a two-seater table in a corner and one woman, probably in the age group of  30 to 40 was already sitting there. The Chief asked me to take the empty seat opposite her.

In places like Arya Bhavan, you have to follow what the Chief says. I was alone this time and so I was quite indifferent to where I sit. In the busy times, if you go in a group, you may have to split and occupy different tables to get somehow “accommodated”.  Idea in places like Arya Bhavan is to eat and not to chat.

Arya Bhavan provides an authentic traditional south Indian menu . Many of the items they serve are not generally seen in the menu cards of standard south Indian restaurants.

Menu Card at Arya Bhavan

I started looking at the menu card and was a bit lost in deciding what to order.

The woman sitting opposite on the table was watching me. She was having Brahmin Idlis. When I looked at her I saw that she was smiling.

“I know it’s so hard to choose Mr.” She said.

I said “Well, I am looking for a dosa. Can you recommend?”

“Oh, easy then. Ask for a Moong Dal Dosa. It’s a Sunday special at the Aryas” She smiled. “I am sure you will love my choice”. She spoke in an enthusiastic tone.

Her recommendation was perfect. And I did enjoy the Moong Dal Dosa.

We started talking. She told me that she had just dropped her son in the tuition classes right above Arya Bhavan and was having her breakfast, waiting for the son to return. Today was his last tuition class. Her husband was a sailor and away on the sea. They lived in Chembur.

“My son doesn’t like to eat here. He feels that this place is too crowded. So, I have asked to parcel Appam with coconut stew lavil. He will eat at home.” she explained.

I ordered for filter coffee and we chatted more.  She recommended me places where I could eat good south Indian food and finally summed up saying – but nothing to beat this place Mr.– Muthuswamy’s Arya Bhavan. She had a tam bram (Tamil Brahmin) accent.

“Oh, I must step out now. Please enjoy your coffee. See you – may be another time in Arya” The Woman got up looking at her watch.

I  liked chatting with this strange woman on a Sunday morning. She was a like a fresh breeze to me. Her enthusiasm was so charming.

I asked for a second round of filter coffee and thought more about her.

When I went to the counter to pay, the counter manager said, “Sir, your bill is already settled by Mrs. Iyengar”. I was surprised.

The Chief gave me the menu card while exiting. “Madam asked me to give you” he said

I took a look at the Menu. It had a few dishes underlined.

Oh, those were the recommendations of Mrs. Iyengar for me.


Sometimes I go alone to watch a movie at the PVR Cinema in Lower Parel’s Big Bazaar in Mumbai. I  had booked tickets for the Friday evening show of “Magic of Belle Isle” staring Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen.

I was a bit late. I picked up a large cup of buttered popcorns from the foyer and reached my seat. It was already dark, and I couldn’t clearly see the person sitting next to me. Probably there was a lady– Looked like she was alone like me as seat next to her was empty.

I placed my box of popcorns in the “cup holder” in between our seats.

The movie was great, and I was enjoying every bit of it. I was sampling the butter popcorns and watchful that I was not making too much noise.

There is a lovely scene in the movie when Virginia Madsen and Morgan Freeman are sitting next to the lake at night. Virginia Madsen asks Morgan Freeman about what kind of woman charms him. Morgan Freeman says that he loves a woman who walks into the room like her.

When Virginia asks “describe how does she walk in” then Morgan Freeman explains that he finds her walking in like a breeze of hot air – streaming in – after the rains.  A piece of Pathetique (Sonata No. 8 of Beethoven) is played on the piano in the background and that makes the conversation so emotional. [Do watch this video clip to experience]

My neighbor on the next seat was so engrossed and touched by this scene and the conversations. While her eyes were locked to the big screen, she put her hand in the popcorn cup and picked up a handful of popcorns to eat, oblivious to the fact that “the cup belonged to me”. And for the rest of the movie she continued sampling “my popcorns”. I refrained eating and let her.

There was an intermission and the lady realized the mix up she did with the popcorns.

She apologized “Sir, I am really sorry. I was so carried away. I did not realize that those were your popcorns! I was so engrossed in the movie”

I said, “Never mind Ms.”.

The lady was wearing spectacles with a chain and a Mizoram shawl. There was a nice aroma of a musky perfume. We got into a conversation.

She spoke about Morgan Freeman, his movies and how much she loves his acting. I enjoyed her analyses as many of her views aligned with me. It was nice to have a conversation with a strange and sophisticated woman – and sharing similar views.

She kept talking although the intermission ended, lights faded, and the movie resumed.

“The best one of Freeman’s is the Bucket List. What’s your view? ”  She whispered.

A man from the row behind said “Ssha…”  showing his displeasure; asking the lady to shut up.

She shut up and continued to sample “my” popcorns.

When the movie was over, we came out of the theater.

“Can you hang on for a moment please? I have to get something” She said.

The lady took couple of minutes to return. She asked, “do you have a car?”

Was she asking for a lift? I thought that this would be great opportunity to continue more conversations with the lady.

I said “Yes”

“and are you driving yourself or do you have a driver with you?”. That was her next question.

I said “I have a driver with me”

She opened up her Mizoram shawl that she had draped around her and passed me a large cup of butter popcorns – like a treasure that was hidden.

“This is for you Sir. Enjoy eating the popcorns that I owe – Eat when they are hot while your driver takes you home”

I was surprised by her interesting and wonderful gesture.

It had started to drizzle a bit. For a while I thought she resembled Virginia Madsen in the Magic of Isle Belle – as she breezed away fading in the crowd and waving at me a good bye

And I thought someone was playing a piece of Pathetique in the background


Cover page taken from https://aminoapps.com/c/btsarmy/page/blog/serendipity-jimin-oneshot/6PJM_EPBszupemxM5GGorKn1jK7JLPMprB


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Communicating Creatively

 

Yesterday, in my office we had a session on how to make effective presentations or an engagement. Although we did discuss the “PowerPoint”, the idea was to go beyond – i.e. how do we plan our communique in view of the target audience while meeting the objectives.

Generally, in most of our engagements, we use PowerPoint slides. But showing slides should not be the only tool and in some situations, we may not use slides at all!

We may like to speak more than (or “other than”) what is on the slides, tell stories and ask questions to make the engagement more interactive. We may play an interesting video to discuss and, in some occasions, play a game or use an activity.

But despite all careful planning, you must be ready to deal with surprises as well. Here is my story.

I was asked to speak to staff of a large textile processing house in the outskirts of Dhaka in Bangladesh. The topic was Cleaner Production. I was told that the top management and heads of different departments will be attending. I prepared a set of 20 PowerPoint slides with case studies on textile industries who benefited from Cleaner Production. My case studies included stories from Bangladesh.

When I reached the process house, I was taken to a conference room with a projector. There were 20 middle to senior level management people. As I started speaking and put up my first slide, the power went off.

The room became pitch dark. There was no ventilation. A few minutes passed by. I thought the situation wont last long and the back up power will take over.

Unfortunately, there was some major snag. Phone calls happened on the mobile. Windows to the room were opened. The Managing Director (MD) said “Sorry Dr Modak, the power supply will be interrupted for at least 2 hours and we have been advised not to use the backup power for reasons unknown”

We stepped out of the room.

“Dr Modak, would you mind addressing us on the shop floor of the dyeing and printing department? We can put some chairs there. The big advantage is that the audience will also have the shop floor workers and I am sure your message on Cleaner Production will interest them and benefit all of us” The MD said.

I realized that this was rather a tough proposition, but it was made in all earnestness. I was feeling rather “powerless” however and I was not comfortable in the absence of my well-made PowerPoint slides.

But there wasn’t much time to think.

I was taken to the shop floor of the Dyeing and Printing department. There were 20 seniors sitting on the chairs and another 50 workers standing behind. There was a blackboard with few white chalks placed at the Centre.

The MD introduced me to this audience (that I was not prepared to address!) and said “Dr Modak, it will be nice if you delivered your talk in Hindi (preferably in Bollywood Hindi) so that my workers will understand what you will speak”

Wow, I realized that this presentation was going to be even more challenging. I did not know what to say! I wished I was Amitabh Bachhan.

I realized that I had to stay simple and direct – and not use any jargon. But that is easier said than done.

I saw on an industrial balance on the table top with weights stacked next. I walked towards the balance. Everybody was watching.

I asked the name of the worker standing close to the balance in Hindi. He said “I am Mohamed”

I said “Mohamed, do you use this balance to prepare the recipe for every batch on your jet dyeing machines?”

Mohamed nodded

Alright then, I said looking at everybody

“Let us check out how good is this balance”

I asked Mohmed to place a 5 kg weight on the right pan of the balance. I told another worker to put 3 of 1 kg weights and one 2kg weight in the left pan telling all that we should see both the pans in “balance”

Everybody was watching – few curious and few tensed – even the MD

La Ho!. The pans were simply out of balance! This was shocking. The left pan required another half kg weight to strike the balance.

I was half expecting this result

I asked everybody “How many times do you use this balance in the 3 shifts? And each time you use, your recipe is not going to right. What does this mean to the production you do?”

This was like opening the Pandora’s box. Many started speaking.

A supervisor said, “no wonder, we have to re-dye the fabric or sometimes strip or bleach as the depth of shade does not match with the requirements”.

Few workers said that they adjust the pressure and run times of the jet dyeing machines  in many occasions. It’s a bit of trial and error exercise they said.

The procurement head said that he always found the salt consumption on a higher side compared to the calculations based on recipe

I said “sure, all this must be leading to higher costs of dyeing, reducing your productivity as well as profits”

The conversations got even further animated as we started talking about costs, profits and productivity. Everybody “exploded” in Bangla and MD had to butt in and translate for me.

The can of Cleaner Production thus opened. I started with the importance of housekeeping, maintenance and rationalization – walked around the shop floor asking everyone to make suggestions to improve and write them on the blackboard with a white chalk.

We spent a good one hour and generated lots of observations/gaps and action points.

The next thing I did was to translate the benefits in environmental terms like chemicals saved, water consumption reduced, reduced wastewater load, energy recovered etc.

The senior management present on the shop floor added the necessary technical flavor by quoting numbers.

When MD accompanied me to the hotel, he apologized profusely about the inconvenience caused by the sudden power interruption. “But I want to tell you that “all” were happy with your session and understood the concept of Cleaner Production” He said.

I thought I should be the one to thank him as I realized that this extraordinary situation helped me to innovate and build my communication skills – right on the spot.

And the experience was unforgettable


Cover image sourced from https://silverfit.co.za/what-is-balance/


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Oasis Siwa in the Sahara

This post may sound real but it is real only in parts.

I crafted the story based on my encounters in Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam where I had an opportunity to work with some amazing office secretaries.

To tell you this story, I chose Egypt as the setting but some of the incidents come from Indonesia and Vietnam.

Names and characters in the story are masked and any resemblance if at all – is only incidental and not intentional.

Hope you will enjoy the story.  Life can be full of surprises.


I met Dina in Cairo. She was Office Secretary on a project I was working.

Dina was a copt. Copts are the largest Christian community in Egypt.

Dina was middle aged – must be in late thirties. She had a tanned skin and a great dress sense. She spoke good English compared to others. She had a sweet French accent as her mother held from Morocco. Dina was outspoken, bold and a dashing personality.

In her early twenties she fell in love with Captain Hashim of Egypt Air and married him despite opposition from the family.

Capt. Hashim was smart and handsome. As many feared, he turned out to be quite a flirt. Dina caught him red-handed with an air hostess and it raised a sand storm in their lives. Dina abandoned Hashim and left his house. Since then she raised her only daughter Shani on her own. Past ten years have been a tough living for Dina as she hardly made much money.


Dina made my life in Cairo comfortable

She knew the kind of sandwich I liked during lunch. So, she spoke to the Marriot bakery downstairs and made sure that I got my sandwich that had less cheese and more of greens. In those days, I had to get my passport stamped from the local police station on arrival in Maadi. Dina used to get this done with her influence avoiding my visit to the police station. I was always booked at the room facing Nile at the Sofitel at a discounted price. Driver taking me to the airport was given instructions where to stop on the way to pick up the Egyptian bread, Tahina and Humus – something my friends in Mumbai always looked for.


I once asked Dina about her advice on taking a break in Egypt and travel around.

“Well Dr Modak, you may like to see the “usual” places and even take the celebrated Nile Cruise but if I were you then I will go to the Siwa oasis” She said.

The historic town of Siwa stands on an isolated oasis situated in the Western Desert region of Egypt, approximately 550 km west of the capital Cairo, and some 50 km from the border with Libya. Extending some 80 km in length and 20 km in width, the Siwa oasis is one of the most isolated settlements in the country.

Dina told me that reaching Siwa is a long ten-hour drive, but it is still worth as it presents spiritual tradition of people, amazing land, healing salt lakes and rejuvenating natural springs, set against the centering serenity of the Sahara.

Siwa oasis is one of North Africa‘s best kept secrets.

Have you been there Dina? I asked.

“Not yet Dr Modak. I really want to. One day I will” She sighed. Perhaps her life in the scorching sun was looking for an Oasis like Siwa as a solace.


In one of my travels to Cairo, I was in Abu Dhabi airport on transit. My mobile rang, and it was Dina from Cairo

“Dr Modak, can you please do me a favour” She was breathing heavy.

My daughter Shani is desperate to have new Nokia mobile phone (Gold edition). I knew about Shani (means wonderful woman in Arabic) and how dear she was to Dina.

“I will pay you once you are in Cairo” She said and hung up the phone.

I found the gold edition in the duty free and shopped the mobile phone for Shani.

When I reached Sofitel, Dina was waiting for me in the lobby.

I handed over the box containing the Nokia. “Thank you so much Dr Modak, tomorrow is Shani’s birthday and I want to give her a real surprise” She was very emotional. She hugged me.

When I met Dina next day morning I found her a bit tensed.  She asked me to come out to the elevator lobby. She told me that she is short of money– but will settle somehow before I leave for Mumbai. She was very apologetic.

I said no worries as I was to spend 2 weeks in Egypt for my project.

In the next week, I was sitting in the office of my Project manager Tim. We used to sit late sometimes and go together for a glass of wine in the Sofitel or for some Thai food nearby. As we got out of the office, Tim said “Prasad, something strange has happened. Dina told me that 1000 Egyptian pounds got missing from her drawer today. The drawer was locked but she had inadvertently left the keys on the table top. She had drawn the cash for settling some sundry expenses.

This theft probably happened when she came to my office for a dictation. I really don’t know how to handle this situation.  I have asked Dina not to draw large cash anymore and keep the cash box from now on in my office drawer. This is the first time a theft of this sort has happened in our office.

I could see that Tim was really upset.

Dina was crying. She took leave for two days to get over. She even offered to pay Tim as she said she was responsible. We never found the thief. Dina paid me for the mobile on my last day to return.


On one of the Fridays, Dorothy, my Australian colleague, invited me to her apartment in Zamalek. The apartment had a balcony that faced river Nile. “I am calling Dina too” she said “She can be a good company”. I couldn’t disagree.

Dina came to the apartment with a crate of beer and sheekh touk (chicken tikka). We drank the beer sitting in the balcony and played some cool music. All of us were pretty “high” and Dina was certainly sozzled and started speaking out her mind. She vented out her anger on Hashim (her ex-husband), his betrayal and the broken marriage. She spoke about how different he was when they first met at a coffee shop at Cairo international airport.

“I will never see or speak to this scoundrel” she almost screamed.

“Time to go home Dina” Dorothy said realizing her anguish with rising intake of alcohol.

I offered help Dina reach her down in the basement where she had parked her car.

“Oh, I don’t need anybody – I am just alright” Dina was loud this time when she said this and walked out of the apartment to the elevator.

In the next 10 minutes, we heard a big thud in the basement. Dina had rammed her the car on the wall as the car was parked on the reverse gear. I had to call Shani to come and fetch her. “Oh Mumma, not again!” Shani said. Then she turned to me “Do you know when Mumma drinks she misses Dad and goes just crazy”


In one of my last missions to Cairo, I developed stiffness in my lower Jaw. First, I thought it had something to do with a tooth infection but when I approached the doctor, he suspected a potential cardiac issue and recommended that I return to Mumbai earlier.

Dina checked for the flights and found that the flights were absolutely full.

I told her not to bother and that I will take the flight I had a confirmed reservation.

But Dina refused

“Dr Modak, I don’t want you to take any risk, you must return soonest possible” She was very firm

“I will manage somehow – leave to me” she said in her characteristic confidence.

I don’t know what magic she did or the influence she used, but she secured me a seat to Mumbai the very next day. She picked me from Sofitel and drove to the airport. She insisted that she must come as her presence was needed at the check-in counter.

We reached Cairo International airport. At the check-in, I saw a tall handsome Egyptian and his uniform carried a batch that said Captain Hashim

Dina spoke in Arabic. It was a very brief conversation, but I could sense that Dina was asking a favor.

I got a seat

I thanked Captain Hashim profusely for his help. While praising Dina, I said “She is truly a treasure that one should never lose”

Captain Hashim smiled – was he repenting? – I thought

Dina walked with me to the immigration gate. She hugged me to say good bye. “Take good care Dr Modak” She said.

Capt. Hashim stayed at the check in counter as if waiting for Dina to return. I noticed a coffee shop few meters away.

I wonder what will happen now as I leave – I said to myself.


In next few months, Dina lost her job as the project got closed. I didn’t receive any emails from her thereafter.

But just after Christmas, last year, I received a new year card from Cairo.

It was a family photo from Siwa oasis. In the photo I saw Capt. Hashim standing with his arms around Dina with Shani was standing next to them with a lovely smile

It was so nice to see the reunion at the Siwa Oasis.

And I was happy that I was a part.


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Tall Man at the Iron Gate


A story hard to believe but indeed true


In 1985 I went to Civil Engineering Department at University of Newcastle Upon Tyne under British Council’s Academic Link program. It was month of November. The weather in Newcastle was windy and it was biting cold. I wasn’t much prepared. Professor Sam James was my contact. A Teacher par excellence, a warm and kind personality.

Sam worked on water quality modelling of rivers and estuaries along with David Elliot. At that time, I was attempting a two-dimensional water quality model using Yotsukura and Sayre’s Stream Tube concept. I was inspired by Prof T P H Gowda’s work on Canadian rivers. The application of two-dimensional model was to be made on river Ganga. Idea of the Link program was to exchange our experiences in these areas. I eventually made this application and developed STREAM-II model.

Tees estuary modelling was Sam’s focus. He used compartment or box modelling concept that was tried on river Thames. Here, the estuary was construed as consisting of layered boxes – stacked on and next to each other with exchange coefficients and reaction mechanisms. This model seemed to work and corroborate well with the field data. (Later, I realized that the same approach was used in Box modelling of air pollution in cities. Here Akula Venkatram made some inspiring publications).

In the course of day, I used to read some of Sam’s unpublished work, join discussion meetings with his Ph D students and sometimes attend his lectures. We used to meet up all faculty in the coffee room in the late afternoon. I loved these get togethers. The coffee used to be great – in both taste and aroma.

I was staying at Hotel Avenue on Manor House Road. This B&B hotel was in Jesmond and at a walking distance from the Casse building of the Civil Engineering Department. Sam used to drop me by his car to save me from the cold winds.

Hotel Avenue

One day, Sam had to leave early as he was not feeling well. “Will you manage going walking today Prasad?” He asked. I nodded as the distance wasn’t too far.  Sam explained how to and recommended a short cut.

I got out a bit late as I was engrossed reading one of Sam’s research notes on Tees Estuary modelling. It was 5 pm and the evening was already set with streets getting dark. I tied to follow Sam’s instructions of walking along Clayton road but missed and instead took route via Jesmond road and reached Osbonne road instead of the Osbonne avenue. There was no one to ask in the street.

Road from Civil Engg Department

I reached a point where I came across a majestic iron gate with a dim light outside. There was a Tall Man standing there – perhaps waiting for somebody. I stopped by and asked him. “Sir, how to reach Hotel Avenue? I think I am a bit lost. Can you please guide?”

The Tall Man smiled. He said, “You are not too far away Sir, continue on this road another 5 minutes, reach Rosebery cres and then take a left, then first right, and then second left. You should reach then the Avenue Hotel”.  I was now confused – not just because his complex instructions but because of his Northumberland accent.

The Entrance with Iron Gate

The Man saw me give up.

“Well sir, there is an easy and shorter way too. You can get inside this Gate and head straight through the inside road. A 5-minute walk and you will hit a similar rear Gate. Get out of the Gate and another 200 m ahead is Hotel Avenue”

I thought this option was better. But I was a bit hesitant.

When the Man noticed my discomfort. He said “Sir, this is a public property and so you can enter with no inhibition whatsoever”

He thought for a while and added

“I can walk with you through Sir and give you company This may help”

The Inner Road

I thanked him for his generosity.

We started walking together.

The road inside was narrow with tall grass around. I couldn’t see much as it was already dark. All I noticed was an unusual silence. Leaves made noise as we walked.

“Sir, what brings you to New Castle? You don’t look like a local” The Tall Man asked.

“Well, I am here to do some joint research at the Civil Engineering Department of University” I answered. I wanted to be brief as I didn’t want to be technical. Besides the weather was getting now real windy.

“What research?” The Man seemed to be curious.

I explained to him the work we were doing on mathematical modelling of Dissolved Oxygen on Tees estuary in as simple terms as possible. I think I did well as the Man asked more questions that were meaningful and relevant. I elaborated.

“So, will your modelling work help the fish in the estuary? Will it improve the income of the fishermen?” The man asked me this question as we were coming close to the rear Gate of the property.

I had not thought about this question. I was only thinking that we could publish our work in a good refereed Journal and we could “produce” two Ph Ds.

“Honestly our work should” I answered.

But then I wasn’t sure. “Must speak to Sam” I said to myself. This Man is asking good questions.

The Tall Man continued

“Sir, did you ever visit Tees estuary?”

I nodded negative.

“Did you listen to the sound of its high and low tide? And did you meet any of the fishermen? And did you take a ride on the boats and spoke to them about fish?” He asked

I realized that I was away from the reality. I was attempting modelling with no real purpose.

“Well, I haven’t done this yet. I have been kind of glued to the computer and research papers” I said apologetically.

“I see – this is generally the case” The Tall Man whispered.

We had reached by then the rear Iron Gate, and so our conversation ended.

In this 5-minute walk, I realized that I needed to completely change my perspective on environmental modelling.

The Man shook my hands, walked back and disappeared.

When I exited, I noticed the board at the Gate that was dimly lit.

It said “All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond”

All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond

When I reached hotel Avenue and the Bar, Tim, the bar tender got me a Bitter with froth and served with chips. He saw me with sweat on the forehead

“Sir, how come you are sweating in such a cold and windy weather” Tim asked

I explained Tim about my experience of walking through All Saints Cemetery with the Tall Man.

“Oh, did you actually see this Tall Man and walked with him?” The bar tenders voice had a lot of concern.

“The Man you met is a famous person of the fishermen community of the Gates Head. There are so many stories about him – few true but most untrue. Very few see him”

“Well Tim, I spoke to him, and he said a few things that were simple but very relevant to my work. Now how do I get hold of him for another round of conversation?” I took a large gulp of the Bitter

“Sir, the Man you met, and I was referring to – died a 100 years ago. His grave is the first one as you enter the Cemetery from Osborne Road” Tim said while topping my Bitter.

I did not visit Newcastle university after 1987. I plan to visit and walk through the All Saints Cemetery once again for a friendly advice from the Tall Man


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Shall We Dance?

This post is about some of the great and inspirational dances that we must watch on the movie screen.    I have placed few video clips as examples for your audio-visual experience. These videos and the stories behind have made my life interesting. I have picked some  statistics from the Web and especially from WikiPedia and edited to provide you some fascinating information.

Don’t read this blog in a hurry. You must take time to immerse in these videos and appreciate the dances.

Sit with a glass of your favorite drink and sip along while you enjoy this post, watching the videos as they appear.

A little longish post but I hope you will have a wonderful time!


 

One of the most influencing movies that hit the style of disco dancing was Saturday Night Fever. The movie was released in 1977. I was in the 4th year of BTech at IIT Bombay then. The movie was directed by John Badham. It starred John Travolta as Tony Manero, a working-class young man who spends his weekends dancing and drinking at a local Brooklyn discothèque. While in the disco, Tony was the champion dancer and ruled the dance floor. His circle of friends and weekend dancing helped him to cope with the harsh realities of his life. He had clashes with his unsupportive and squabbling parents and there were racial tensions in the local community. The movie had thus a very interesting social dimension apart from watching John Travolta perform.

A huge commercial success, the film significantly helped to popularize disco music around the world and made Travolta, a household name. The Saturday Night Fever sound track, featured disco songs by the famous Bee Gees and that made a huge difference. In 2010, Saturday Night Fever was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Film critic Gene Siskel said “Travolta on the dance floor is like a peacock on amphetamines. He struts like crazy.” Siskel even bought Travolta’s famous white suit from the film at a charity auction. “You Should be Dancing” is a video clip that shows Travolta’s amazing talent.

 

Year of 1983 was the release of the Flash Dance featuring Jennifer Beals (Alex in the movie) who was shown as an eighteen-year-old welder at a steel mill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a converted warehouse. Although she aspired to become a professional dancer, she had no formal dance training, and worked as an “exotic dancer” by night at the nearby Mawby’s bar.

After seeking counsel from her mentor, a retired ballerina, Alex attempts to apply to the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory. She however gets intimidated by the scope of the application process, which includes listing all prior dance experience and education, and she leaves without applying.

Later she gains the courage to apply for entrance to the Conservatory and gets an opportunity for an audition with the Arts Council. At the audition, Alex initially falters, but begins again, and successfully completes a dance number composed of various aspects of dance she has studied and practiced, including break-dancing which she has seen on the streets of Pittsburgh. The board responds favorably, and Alex is seen joyously emerging from the Conservatory. Feel the pace in this video and the beats that will race your heart.

After the success of the Flash Dance, one of the most popular dance piece that everybody enjoyed was the Time of Life in the movie Dirty Dancing.

“(I’ve had) The Time of My Life” was a 1987 song composed by Franke Previte, John DeNicola, and Donald Markowitz. This song won a number of awards, including an Academy Award for “Best Original Song”, a Golden Globe Award for “Best Original Song”, and a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

Director Ardolino was adamant that he chooses dancers who could also act, as he did not want to use the “stand-in” method that had been used earlier with Flash dance. Jennifer Beals was not an Actor. For the female lead Ardolino chose the 26-year-old Jennifer Grey, daughter of the Oscar-winning actor and dancer Joel Grey, who, like her father, was a trained dancer. He then sought a male lead and after checking with a few, choice was 34-year-old Patrick Swayze, a seasoned dancer, with experience from the Joffrey Ballet. In the beginning Jennifer and Patrick did not get along very well.

Filming started on September 5, 1986 but was plagued by not so friendly weather, that ranged from pouring rain to sweltering heat. Patrick Swayze required a hospital visit; as he was insisting on doing his own stunts. See in the video the “balancing” scene with Grey. Patrick repeatedly fell off while balancing and injured his knee so badly that he had to have fluid drained from the swelling. The shooting was wrapped on October 27, 1986, both on-time and on-budget.

After the initial “not so great impression”, the film drew adult audiences instead of the teens, with viewers rating the film highly. The film’s popularity continued to grow after its initial release. It was the number one video rental of 1988 and became the first film to sell a million copies on video. When the film was re-released in 1997, ten years after its original release, Swayze received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,

A May 2007 survey by Britain’s Sky Movies listed Dirty Dancing as number one on “Women’s most-watched films”, above the Star Wars trilogy, Grease, The Sound of Music, and Pretty Woman. Of course, the film’s music has also had considerable impact. The closing song, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, took the glory.

Today Patrick Swayze is no more. In mid-January 2008, he was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and he died on September 14, 2009 at age 57 after fighting 20 months after his cancer diagnosis. His wife Lisa Niemi Swayze wrote a book on his life along with him, aptly called “Time of My Life” – a book I will recommend all of you to read.

Let us go back a bit in time or rewind. You must have watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler on the Roof was a 1971 American musical comedy-drama film. The movie featured the famous “Bottle Dance”. This dance is not a traditional Jewish folk dance but creation of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. Robbins did “field research” for Fiddler by attending Orthodox Jewish weddings and festivals where he was thrilled with the men’s dancing.  He  elaborated this experience and got four dancers performing precise and electrifying moves. This famous bottle dance got re-planted in the United States and today there are amazing bottle dancers who burst into special events (especially weddings) and perform the sensational “bottle dance”. For a grand finale, they lead the whole crowd into frenzy.  I just love the amazing synchronous moves of the dancers while balancing the bottles on their heads.

In 2004, move “Shall We Dance” was produced that featured Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere.  In the movie there is a very sensuous dance with the song “Santa Maria (del Buen Ayre)” from the album La Revancha del Tango played by the Gotan Project.

The movie shows life of John Clark who is a lawyer with a charming wife, Beverly. He feels that something is missing in his life as he makes his way every day through the city by a train. He gets hooked to idea of learning dancing while following Paulina (Jenifer Lopez) who is a dancer. As his lessons continue, John falls in love with dancing. Keeping his new obsession from his family and co-workers, John feverishly trains for Chicago’s biggest dance competition. He loses and quits dancing, to everyone’s dismay after an argument with his wife Beverly. The dance with the song Santa Maria is simply haunting. A must to watch.

Now let us watch something more contemporary like Bachata.

Bachata, is essentially a slow style of dancing that emerged in the ’60s. Bachata is performed only in closed position, like the bolero, often in close embrace and the basic steps are confined within a small square. The hand placement in Bachata can vary according to the position of the dances, which can range from very close to open to completely open.

The authentic version is still danced today in the Caribbean and all over the world. It is increasingly danced now to faster music, adding more footwork, with soft hip movements and a tap or syncopation. Yet, it follows simple turns and rhythmic free-styling and with alternation between close (romantic) and open position. Watching a good bachata dance can be mesmerizing.

Tanja La Alemana is one of the best-known Bachata dancer. She and her partner Ataca Jorgie performed a sexy Bachata routine by Xtreme “Te Extraño” at DWF in Singapore. I thought of presenting this video to you.


I was working on writing a textbook on Air Pollution for UNESCO with several contributing authors. An authors meet was called in Barcelona that was hosted by Professor Valentina of the Technical University of Catalonia. Valentina was an established expert in numerical modelling of air pollution but was a talented artist (oil paintings) and a dancer of repute, especially the Salsa.

When she spoke to me about her interest in dance during one of dinners we had, I told her how much I love to watch dancing and narrated some of the great dances that one must follow– and highlighted a few just like I did in this blog. I elaborated on the Bachata and the subtle differences with Salsa.

“Oh Prasad, great to know that you love dancing. You seem to be really knowledgeable”  Valentina exclaimed. “Do come with me tomorrow at  the Mojito Club to watch the Salsa, Bachata and listen to some Latin music.

When we arrived, the place was crowded. The music was spinning and so was the crowd. We took a place to sit as the discs were to change. There were many folks waiting for the next chance to get on to the floor and dance.

The music stopped, and neon signs flashed with the words “Now Bachata”. “Wow, Valentina said – “What a timing Prasad, Shall We Dance?” She passed her hand to me and stood up with a charming smile.

I froze. I said sheepishly “Valentina, I only know the theory but don’t know how to dance”. I wished I could be like Ataca Jorgie, Tanja’s Partner (you probably just watched). And I wished some Angel did this instant transformation, just for me, today and right now!)

“Oh, don’t worry Prasad”, Valentina said while gyrating her hips “I see that you are a typical Professor, Most Professors know only the theory and not the practice and you are not an exception!”

I think Valentina  was absolutely right!! She was clearly an exception.


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Night-walk in the Streets of Prague

Years ago, I was in Prague to attend a UN conference. As I arrived, I fell in love with the city. I chose to stay at hotel Black Elephant that was a few minutes’ walk from the Old Town Quarter.

Old Town Square is a historic place. It is located between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge where people take romantic walks at night.

A friend had recommended me hotel Black Elephant. Black Elephant, also known as Hotel Cerny slon, is located in the narrow street Tynska. It was built in accordance with historical archives of Prague in the years 1330 – 1340 in a gothic style. A unique roof truss of the building was preserved in an original form. It is one of the oldest hotel in Prague and perhaps in the whole Czech Republic. The building is listed on the UNESCO heritage list. The hotel boasts of Bar Bandol that was set up in the cellar with pebbled walls around. In this hotel the history literally “talks to you”.

The Black Elephant Hotel

The Reception

Some of the UN delegates had also booked the Black Elephant. One of them was my good friend Anna. Anna was a Slovakian and worked as a consultant on a project sponsored by UNIDO. I was pleased to see her at the reception as I was checking in.  Anna was dressed in a smart lamb wool sweater with her Slovakian ID hanging out in a brass chain.

The Slovak identity card is issued to citizens of the Slovak Republic aged 15 and older. A Slovak ID card can be used for travel in all member states of the European Union and the Schengen Area as well as several other European countries. Most Slovakian’s those days used to sport the ID in a chain put around the neck, especially while in the Czech Republic.

“Hi Prasad, great to see you again” Anna said. “Hey, we are having a reception at the Municipal House followed by a concert at the Smetana Hall”. Smetana hall is a celebrated concert venue in Prague.

“Do check with me after the program is over as we all are planning to take a nightly walk on the streets of Prague on our way back”

I was really excited to know about this plan. Walking on the streets of Prague at night is perhaps most romantic thing to do. I proposed to Anna that we will walk from the Municipal Hall, watching the illuminated old quarters and then end up dining at a nice place”

Oh, sounds good” said Anna. She suggested White Horse restaurant that was close the Old Town Square. “That’s the best place in Prague to be”. I had been to White Horse before and endorsed Anna’s suggestion.

White Horse restaurant is a hidden gem. Tucked away in a cellar downstairs, it is a cozy, beautifully decorated restaurant. From the street you could think you would be sitting in a rather uninviting seating area at front. But we you go downstairs to the cellar restaurant, you realize that it is beautiful and romantic place to eat. The cellar has live jazz or blues bands entertaining the diners. I remembered that it has a good selection of vegetarian foods was available as well.

 

The White Horse Restaurent and the Cellar place 

The meeting over the day was good. We met lots of old friends, one of them was Brian from the United States. Brian was a Professor at North Dakota University. A very jovial person that he was, Brian captured everybody’s attention and charmed Anna with his stories.  “Keep a few stories in reserve when we will walk at night” Anna chided him.

The concert ended by 9 pm. We started walking from the Municipal Hall on the pebbled streets of Prague. The streets had aroma of perfumes, the youth around was full of love and passion, the breeze was chilly, but the hearts were warm. We walked through the crowds, pushing people sometimes and making our way. Anna was leading us in the beginning giving us the “street sense”. Brian was in the mood of humor – making interesting remarks on each one of us and cracking jokes. I could see that Anna was simply adoring his pranks. We used to see both sometimes trailing behind and getting into conversations that we all wanted to hear! I don’t think Anna had met Brian before.

We must have walked just about 2 km and cleared much of the crowed portion of the streets.

Suddenly, Anna stopped. I saw her face panicked.

She looked extremely worried and concerned. “I think I lost by Slovak ID, either it got slipped or someone wacked it in the crowd”. I saw the brass chain in her neck was empty.

We knew that losing the ID card in Czech Republic could be a nightmare for a Slovakian. The immediate thing to be done was reporting to the City Police Station 1 at the Old Town.

We got into a discussion – some said that we should walk back and check if the ID had slipped on the streets. This idea was dismissed. Few said that it was most likely that the ID was stolen. Many from Slovakia who stayed in the Czech Republic always looked for IDs that could be forged to enter Slovakia.

“Well friends, I must go and report to the Police for the lost ID card. The Police Station is not far away from the hotel” Anna had decided.

“Prasad, you know White Horse restaurant so lead everyone there. I have done a booking already. There is a piano jazz tonight. I will join there as I finish the formalities at the Police Station. It may take some time” Anna sounded practical.

Brian volunteered to accompany Anna. I really liked his friendly gesture.  I was relieved that there was someone to accompany Anna.

We were at restaurant White Horse in the next 10 minutes. Our tables in the cellar were pre-booked. The piano-man was in action and was rolling out great jazz. We kept seats for Anna and Brian. We hoped that they will sort out the complain part soon and join us.

We ended the dinner by 11 30 pm but none of them showed up. We were worried. Some said that they must have got real fatigued and hence retired to their respective rooms.  Like Anna, Brian also stayed at the Black Elephant.

I had an early morning flight from Prague to Zurich for way home. I checked out at the reception and went to the breakfast area for a hot black coffee to fight the chill outside. Airport taxi was about to come. On the table, I saw Anna sitting.

Hi Prasad, let me get some breakfast she said. As she walked towards the buffet table, I saw lying on the top of the table her brass chain with her Slovakian ID.

“Oh, looks like she found it. May be someone returned her ID to the police station where she had gone to register the complaint – I must ask” I said to myself

“Madam, your room number please?” The girl serving the coffee asked Anna. Anna showed her the metal key that was on the table that had the room number engraved in the old style. The girl noted the room no. But she returned to our table once again.

“Madam, I think you showed me the wrong key. This key belongs to the room of Mr. Brian Crawford”. The girl said in an apologetic tone.

The situation was then clear to me.

Did Anna really lose her Slovak ID?  And was something planned during the nightly walk on the streets of Prague?

Dear readers – I leave to you to decide.


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