Sunday, October 14, 2018

Quitting Smoking is analogus to running a marathon

Twenty years back in the month of October, a very young me was getting bored on the 2nd day of a 5 day weekend. So I decided to quit smoking. 

I had started smoking in college and had smoked for about 6 years. By October 1998, I was a chain smoker, smoking between 50-70 cigarettes a day - the days I did not drink it was 50 and 20 cigarettes got added with the beers or whisky. 

From smoking 50-70 cigarettes a day I went cold turkey, and quit. I’ve remained a non smoker for 20 years – not a single exception. The Chinese have two brush strokes to write the word “crisis” – one stands for danger and another stands for opportunity.  

Stopping smoking is like doing a sprint but quitting and remaining a non smoker for 20 years is closer to doing a marathon. Having quit (chain) smoking and run marathons for a hobby (37 half marathons, 12 full marathons and 1 ultra marathon) I can tell you that there are many similarities between quitting smoking and running a marathon.

For starters, its interesting how both running marathons and smoking produce so many anecdotes. There is always someone who smoked like a chimney and lived to 90 years without coming anywhere close to either TB or cancer. Equally there is someone who ran marathons regularly but died of a heart attack while in office.

There is no app to help you run a marathon. When the starters gun goes off at the start of the marathon, its upto you – your legs, your physical strength and your mental strength to carry you over the 42 kilometres (and 195 metres and mind you these last metres are hardest). Similarly when you choose to quit smoking it’s upto you and your mental strength to keep it that way.
“Bullfight critics row on row, crowd the enormous plaza full
But only one is there who knows, and he is the one who fights the bull”

Running a marathon is nothing but a series of arguments between parts of the brain that want to stop and parts that want to keep going. Quitting smoking is nothing but a series of arguments between parts of the brain that crave just one last cigarette and parts that are bent on keeping it away.

The human body is not designed to run a marathon. Which is why it is often said that running a marathon is mind over matter, if the mind does not mind the body does not matter. In the case of quitting smoking it’s the mind that needs to mind so that the body matters. 

There are times when running a marathon seems like a lonely activity, there are times you have conversations with yourself….. There are evenings in the bar when the urge to have just one cigarette, be part of the “gang” can be quite strong. It is when patience ends that endurance begins. As Theodore Roosevelt once said “with self discipline all things are possible” – you can run a marathon, you can quit smoking.

Ronald Rook once said “I don’t run to add days to my life, I run to add life to my days”. While quitting smoking increases your life it does not by itself improve your life. The quality of our lives will depend on the choices we make. I have certainly no regrets about the choice I made 20 years ago.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by what you did not do than what you did”. Mark Twain. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

First visit to the USA

“Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before”, Dalai Lama. For the last 2 years I seem to be following the advice of the wise man. Last year we visited Hong Kong for the first time. Hong Kong felt like a combination of shades of China and Singapore. In any case, the Communist Party would claim its not really a separate country. So for me, the trip to the US marked a visit to a new country for the first time in a long time. 

Looking at a country through the eyes of someone who has never been there before, you notice things that residents treat as "commonplace". There were some things that were “different” in the US. For instance, all doors open outwards i.e towards the street while in the rest of the world they either open inwards or in both directions. I was told this is for ease of evacuation in the case of an emergency. The logic makes sense and I wonder why the rest of the world is different. 

Over the course of the 10 odd days I was in the US, I noticed some distinctly American characteristics

1.       The transportation is different – The first evening in Napa I spent a good 5 minutes wondering why cars were coming at me from the opposite direction till it struck me that it is a country that drives on the right hand side. The following weekend when walking on The High Line in New York with Craig and Marie, I kept getting bumped into. That's when I realized that Americans drive on the right but walk on the left!!!!

View from The High Line
The weekend I was in New York, I did the touristy thing of walking along the 42nd street in New York, taking in the sights as I crossed the endless number of avenues. At the first traffic light, despite my “Indianness”, I waited for a green light patiently but it did not come up. Instead I found people walking across. When this happened for a second time, I started wondering whether following traffic rules is restricted to the other English speaking country (the UK). Finally, I figured out that in the US, the sign for the pedestrians to cross is a WHITE MAN not a green light or a man in green like the rest of the world. I have no idea why and none of the Americans I asked could explain. 

Don't wait for the Green light - Go when you see the man
For my weekend in New York, I equipped myself with a metro card and my first stop was the 42nd street station. Once I reached the street I realized I had not swiped out and assumed it will cost me the maximum fare. I was sure this would kill the value stored on my card. When I made the same “mistake” of not swiping out a second time, I felt really guilty. It was on my third train ride that I realized in the US you swipe in but not swipe out!!!!!

In the UK, people stand on the right on escalators and on the left in Singapore leaving the other side open to people wanting to walk up (or down) the escalator. In the US, people stood on either side. Infact, I concluded that people don't walk up or down an escalator in the US J.

Before this trip, my only experience of snow at airports was at Heathrow where a few centimetres of snow (possibly even millimetres) caused the airport to close for days on end. So when we landed at the Boston airport surrounded by several feet of snow, it was a new experience for me. At the Boston airport, I had another new experience – we were denied access to the lounge despite flying business class. Apparently, lounge access in the US is only for international business class passengers – not something I have come across anywhere else in the world. On the flight itself, the stewardess served pretzels after take-off – yes pretzels. I put it down to the fact that it was a late night flight but I was told by my American friends that it was the norm. A few days later, I managed access to the lounge at the Newark Airport since I was on an international sector. It was coming up to dinner time and having missed both breakfast and lunch, I was hungry. The only food that I found was ………you guessed right – pretzels. I was sure I was missing a counter so I asked and was assured that there were 3 varieties of pretzels and also banana’s !!!

The best thing about air travel in the US is the ability to use your mobile phones even during take off and landing. It is uniquely American and I wonder why all other countries are still reluctant to change their regulations. 

Offcourse, the traffic jams were no different from the rest of the world. I got the first taste of it driving from the San Francisco airport to Napa Valley. On a Friday evening on the George Washington Bridge made famous by Chris Christie, I experienced traffic that would compare with that of Jakarta or Mumbai J.

2.       Chatty service– The first evening in Napa I went to a small cafe called “World Food Cafe”. I was amazed at how chatty the waiters were. It was in sharp contrast to the treatment I have been meted out in some European countries. At first I thought it was because this was a “small” and seemingly run by a family of Turks. As the days rolled on, I realized that the service at restaurants was very good and all waiters were incredibly chatty.

During the wine tour of Napa, I ordered a starter and a main course for lunch and all I could eat was the starter. The portion sizes in restaurants are uniquely American and the only way to describe them is – they are MASSIVE. Infact, burgers of the size that you would find in the rest of the world are referred to as "sliders". The other thing that stood out was the notion of “refill” of the drink – you pay once and drink as much as you can or want (I suspect the need was much less).

I stopped at a Starbucks in New York to have a Chai Latte. I looked up at the menu board to figure out the price but saw two numbers. I initially put it down to the jet lag but soon realized that there were indeed two numbers – the price and the calorie count. Now that is something I have never seen at any Starbucks and am told it is common practice in restaurants in the US. The 290 calories associated with a medium sized Chai Latte made me think 3 times before ordering. The price was $3.99 so I took out 4 dollars only to be told that the cost is actually $4.23. That is when I realized that in America all prices mentioned are without taxes……that really does take “Bata pricing” to a new, and uniquely American, level.

The chatty service I soon realized was not confined to the realms of the restaurants but extended into all services including taxi services. I then realized that it was linked to the culture of tipping that is so ingrained in the service industry. I recall being told by Marie that New Yorkers on an average tip 20% to cabbies – uniquely American.

3.    TV – “If you suffer from Alzheimers ask your Doctor to prescribe to you Namenda xr……”. I have seen Over The Counter drugs being advertised on TV for diseases like a cold or a flu. The US is the only country where I saw prescription drugs for serious diseases being advertised on TV. I know there is an argument to be made for putting the choice in the hands of the consumer. I guess in order to help the consumer most of the ad is dedicated to disclaimers “…this could cause drowsiness, diarrhea, increased blood pressure, cancer………..”. Uniquely American.

Hotels never offer a decent range of TV channels and the US was no different on this count. So one evening, I found myself having to make do with listening to a panel discussion on a news channel. What struck me was that everyone was in violent agreement with each other. I switched channels and came to another news channel having a panel discussion, funnily on the same topic. Here again everyone was in violent agreement with each other but they were saying exactly the opposite of what was being said on the other channel. I know that in the UK your choice of newspaper is dictated by your political inclination and I guess in the US it includes TV too!!!!

4.    USA has variety – The thing that struck me the most is just how much variety the US has to offer. During a wine tour of the Napa valley I learnt that half of the world’s soil types are present in the Napa Valley. The valley is famous for wines but I would have never known that there are more  than 700 vineyards of which 450 have brick and mortar structures. I had the pleasure of touring three such vineyards and they were dramatically different from each other.
From the Hunter Vineyard in Napa Valley

The amount of variety available can be best gauged by a visit to the supermarket. I gave up on the beer aisle but ascribed it to the fact that I was a teetotaler. The next stop was the milk aisle where I gave up after finding whole fat free, 2% reduced fat, 1% low fat and half and half even before I had seen half the aisle. I thought that having worked in the laundry category for 9 years, that is something I would find easy to navigate but the number of variants of Tide made it impossible for me to figure out what I would buy, if I needed to.

Even in terms of weather, I saw warm sunny weather in San Francisco, freezing weather in Boston and a “balmy”, as per Marie and cold as per me, weather in New York within the same week.
Sunny Napa, Frozen Boston, Balmy New York in the same week

Offcourse, the fact that the US is a BIG country makes this variety possible. Infact, everything in the US is BIG – pick up trucks, meal portions, the bill boards at Times square, the wedding rings on the fingers of women….everything. So much so that when I went to Brooks Brothers to buy some shirts, I learnt that my size was ‘extra slim” which happens to be their smallest size. In most parts of the world I am either overweight or obese but in the US I am extra slim……..
The ONLY time I have been declared "extra slim"

It is not to say that there are no similarities between the US and the rest of the world. Two things that distinctly stood out for me

1.       Desi Diaspora – I got to celebrate holi with my friends from school – Amit, Kislaya and Sharad and some of their other friends. It was quite amazing that even with snow all around they had managed to celebrate holi, complete with malpua, mutton and offcourse bhang. It was great meeting Amit and Kislaya after 23 years (I had met Sharad in December after 23 years!!!!) and also make some new friends also from Patna. Amazing that at Sharad’s place in Glen Rock, I got to meet so many people from Patna who went onto IIT Kanpur.

Holi with friends at Glen Rock
2.       Contractors (and politicians) are the same around the world – wholly unreliable idiots – I know that contractors in India are impossible to deal with. They promise the earth and always over run on both time and cost and never deliver what was agreed upon. I know that the same situation holds in the UK having heard horror stories from Robert and Simon. I was surprised to hear from Amit and Priyamvada that the same is true in the US as well. I guess some characters don't change around the world. 

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions”, Oliver Wendell Holmes. Certainly, for me the visit to the US has helped me see things in parts of the world I am familiar with like India, Singapore and the UK in a new light. It was my first visit to the US but I am certain it will be the first of many, god willing.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Nike Run to the Beat – Running a half marathon in 3 degree Celsius – There is always a first time

Having run 6 full marathons and 11 half marathons I have come to accept one fact – there is always something new that happens in a marathon.

After all 42.195 Km or 21.095 km is a longish distance to cover on foot. It is for the first time that I have penned down (or rather typed out) my experience on any one run (I did a compilation earlier).

“No one can possibly know what is about to happen: it is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time” – James A. Baldwin.  

Guess the British Culture has influenced me - I had run a half marathon on the 30th of September and not followed it up with any long runs beyond a 10K; so on the 21st of October I can't claim to be feeling upbeat about running another half marathon in a week's time. The weatherman had exactly the kind of information required to lift the spirits – the temperatures were expected to plunge through the week and Arctic winds were expected from Thursday onwards. As the week progressed, the weather went from cold to colder. As the weekend came by so did the rains, adding a dash of depression to the cocktail.

The Saturday before a marathon should be a relaxed one with little physical effort; but it almost never has been the case on any of my previous races, and this was no exception. The Saturday was spent at Winkworth Arboretum with Manish and Savitri and 4 hyperactive kids. But what was troubling me was the weather. The fact that I was concerned about the weather more than the lack of mileage clearly indicated that I had gotten into the “British way of life”.

Most of my marathons have been in temperatures in the mid 30’s with humidity in the 80’s atleast and it is the first time I was attempting to run a half marathon in under 10 degrees. My mind was racing back to Amsterdam in 2008 when I ran a full marathon in 10 degrees and struggled to keep my toes warm!!!! There is always a first time….

Yes the clocks change – It must be the British sense of humor that makes an organizer choose the date when the clocks change, to organize a half marathon. Since it is only the second experience we have had with changing clocks, I decided not to trust the “electronic” clocks on the i-phone of the wife or my own Blackberry. So I set the alarm on a good old battery powered “alarm clock”, a throw back to college days.  

I woke up at 7 AM according to my body and the “alarm clock” but 6 AM according to all the cellphones and laptops at home. The sun peeped out adding to my confusion – was it actually going to be warm, had I overslept. Instead of intellectualising I decided to get out of bed and check the time on BBC morning news!!!

I’ve never run after having slept an extra hour thanks to a clock change. There is always a first time…….

No running bib – Any race is associated with the ritual of attaching your running bib to your running vest so that the marshals can identify you as a legitimate runner and the site can charge you for wanting to see your photographs from the race.

I opened the packet from the organisers on Saturday night after the Makhijani’s (and Swaninathan’s) left after an action packed Saturday. I was perplexed and a tad worried about the fact that I could not find a running number. My panic was checked by the discovery of a band to be worn around the wrist. The band would suffice for the marshals at the starting line but what about the commerce of selling race photographs? Surely the organisers were not going to inflict further wounds on an ailing economy.

I finally realized that the running vest had the number on it!!!! This was clearly a first for me.

While it could be argued that it reduces the opportunity to express your individuality, you cannot argue with the choice of a Nike Dry Fit as a running vest. In any case, the organisers had given you no options.

Mr. Brand Manager at Nike – wonderful touch to give the event an even greater feel to it, atleast on photographs that you will use for your presentations to your bosses.

Vanity thy name…. – Having put on 3 layers for warmth and re-inforced it with a pair of gloves to ward off the biting cold, I reached the Wimbledon station at a little before 8 AM by my watch. Seeing no one on the platform,  as I waited for the train, my mind began to wander off into the dark area where I had woken up at the wrong time; and either there was another hour to kill or the race was starting in another part of town.

Finally a few minutes later, people starting trooping onto the platform in the unmistakable yellow t-shirts. So atleast, I was not the only one who had made a mistake – the comfort of numbers…..

Finally the 0807 to London Waterloo arrived and we got onto the train. Surprisingly, so early on a Sunday, the seats were all already taken but then there were 18500 of us headed to the same venue so it should not have been a surprise.

There were two women sitting opposite where I was standing and both had the Yellow t-shirts. I could not avoid overhearing their conversation but I must claim it was completely unintentional, despite my profession of market research. One of them was running to raise money for Leukamia research (good on her) and had raised £730 so far and was expecting another £80 to come through from colleagues. So far all good. The train reaches Earslfield and by then, the overcrowding on the train makes a Mumbai local at 9 AM on a weekday appear empty!

At this point, the above mentioned fund raising woman takes out a compact and a brush and starts painting her face. I am sure there exists correct terminology for the products and the process used but having had no professional experience in skin care products, I can manfully claim complete ignorance. Why but why would you need to paint your face when you are going to subject yourself to the task of running 21 Km?

The mystery deepened when after a few minutes, she took out a wavy brush to do something to her eye lashes and followed it up by taking out a pencil to paint her eyes. Never in the earlier 17 experiences of running long distance races (I don’t count anything less than a half marathon as a long distance race), had I noticed women with make-up.

As we disembarked at Waterloo, I was convinced that I had observed an aberration. The market researcher in me decided to test the hypothesis on the Jubilee line to North Greenwich. Lo and behold ! The train was jam packed but the first woman I observed had the yellow vest on and her cheeks were painted pink. The second woman I observed looked “normal” but the third woman (again with the yellow vest) was busy applying her lipstick.

Why but why do women need to be “made up” at the start of the race? Must be the same psychology which makes the choice of their bras determine their level of confidence for the day.

“Without vanity, without coquetry, without curiosity, in a word, without the fall, woman would not be woman” – Victor Hugo.

The ultimate oxymoron – British indiscipline – During our stay in London, I had the opportunity to fulfill a long standing desire to watch a football match in a stadium – England vs. Ukraine (World cup qualifiers). The match itself was a reminder of why the weak-hearted should not support the English football team. What was striking to an outsider like me was that despite there being 61000 fans in the stadium there was no pushing and shoving. Everyone stood in queues, obeyed the rules displayed and even after the match, stood patiently in queues to board the trains. That experience confirmed that my British friends in office are not the exception when it comes to discipline. One in particular would never occupy a meeting room for more than 60 minutes because that is what the notice on the door says; while yours truly being an Indian has no such moral scruples in occupying the same room for a full day.

We reached the O2 arena and headed to the starting area. Sure enough there were marshals checking the wristband and screening out supporters. The route to the baggage area had the toilets enroute. I looked around for the shortest line for the toilets but I soon noticed a board which said “Men's wall ahead”. Intrigued I walked ahead only to find literally a wall for the men to pee against  - never had I come across this concept in any of the earlier races and I wonder why it is not more widely used given how effectively it serves the purpose and given it is considerably quicker in turnaround than unisex portaloos. 

The baggage drop area was quite crowded as would be expected not just because there were 18500 of us trying to drop off bags but also because it was considerably warmer inside the tent. Anyway, there was one exit and there was a long line to get out. Someone realized that an exit at the other end could be opened and so it was. What followed was a stream of people (yours truly included) charging towards this illegitimate exit and then climbing over barricades to reach the start line. If I had not seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed that a bunch of Brits would ever break the rules….

The start was uneventful but the ones like me who were aiming for a 2 hour finish reached the start line about 18 minutes after the official start. Since we weren’t in the race for the prize money it did not matter.

About a mile into the race we came across a garden by the road and promptly a steady stream of men dashed across to relieve their bladders, prompting groans of “men are so lucky” from the women. I was wondering where the fabled British discipline had disappeared and concluded that physiological needs had trumped psychological conditioning. The gardens seemed to appear after about every mile and the stream of men never ceased. After mile 4 we came across a garden tucked away at an angle and suddenly a stream of women runners were heading to the garden…..clearly the indiscipline is not the remit of the men alone.

“Green marathon” – The event brochure mentioned something about it being an environmentally friendly marathon. Nice touch Mr. Brand Manager at Nike, I am sure your Marketing Director would be pleased.

The first sign came just before the first water station where a board said, “littering is not allowed”.  Inorder to achieve this objective, giant dustbins were placed about 30 metres from the water stations. Also to help, water was dished out in plastic cups. Never mind the fact that anyone who can run and drink from a cup deserves an extra medal for the achievement.

Judging by the number of cups thrown into the bins vis-à-vis the numbers outside, I would say that approximately 30% of the cups were disposed off in the bins but I’d guess about 60% of the runners noticed the environment message. Mr. Brand Manager, I am sure you will turn to your conscientious market research team to generate the exact numbers and I am sure that the recommendations for future initiatives would include having bins spread out to atleast 100 metres away from the water bin and ensuring that the energy drinks are also served in cups and not in the 500 ml bottles since no runner would drink that quantity and the bottles would never reach the bin.

Murderous rage – The race was clearly designed to create maximum audience participation and hence involvement with the Nike brand. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the end of the race.

After completing the race, we had to meander around several corners to reach the medal distribution point. The corners were created to allow friends and family to cheer the runners and create more “contacts” for the event sponsors i.e Nike. Never mind the fact that it added another kilometer for runners who had already covered more than 21 Km.

One feature that did stand out at the end was the presence of a DJ belting out songs and engaging the audience. As I made my way past the finish and started to negotiate the series of turns, I heard the song – it was none other than “Why this Kolaveri di” (why this murderous rage). I never understood why the song became a rage in India but I could not believe I was hearing it in London, in the presence of some 25000 odd people which hardly included any Indians.

This was not just a first but clearly a “na bhooto na bhavishyati” moment (never before never after).

Mr. Brand Manager, overall an excellent job done. I can picturize the presentation you would be making to your board on the success of the event and the lessons for next year. Well done. Unfortunately for you, I will not be deciding on your bonus for the year so good luck with your presentation to the board.

As I head off to Singapore I do hope that you share some of your success formulae with your colleagues in Singapore so they can replicate it there.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

First Impressions of the UK

Having moved locations, 6 times (Delhi to Bangalore to Mumbai to Jakarta to Mumbai to Singapore and now to London) in the 16 years that I have been working, I have come to the conclusion that a year is the period required to form “first impressions” of a new place. As we complete a year in London, here are my first impressions of the UK. 

Airports and immigration - We arrived from Singapore where the Changi Airports authority has a target of ensuring that passengers cleared immigration within 18 minutes of leaving the aircraft and should take no more than another 5 minutes to leave the airport, having offcourse collected their check-in baggage. Lets just say that Heathrow defines the other extreme of the spectrum. First it was an hour long wait to get to the front of the immigration line only to be told that our x-rays needed to be checked by a medical specialist (what if we were bringing tuberculosis into the country). The medical specialist took a cursory look at the x-ray and waved us thru. The state of affairs of the airports were brought to life for me when in March 2012, a power failure at the Gatwick airport meant that flights took off without baggage and reinforced when Manchester airport ran out of aviation fuel!!! 

The jokes about the London airport not being able to cope with a few inches are all too true and personal experience bears it. However, while parts of Heathrow have seen better days, T5 clearly shines as a modern and well functioning terminal. 

Shopping experience - Our first stop was a serviced apartment in Wimbledon. On the first evening, I was given a list of things to be bought and I marched off to the local Sainsbury’s. Having made my purchases, I placed my basket at the check out counter and waited to be told how much was due. Instead, I heard the woman ask me “Sir, do you need help with the bags”. I did not understand the question and looked straight ahead as if I had not heard the question and so the woman repeated herself, more forcefully “Sir, do you need help with the bags”. By this time I realised that, I was not in the D&E world where a part of the super market service was to bag your purchases. In the UK you were expected to do it yourself !!!!

First Sunday after arriving, I had the usual weekly shopping list. I decided to “beat the weekend queues” and arrive early. So as the kids had their dinner, I left to go shopping – nice and early at 6 PM. Alas, the local Sainsbury’s was closed. Cursing them, I moved onto the Tesco which was also closed. By now I was gripped with panic and almost running towards my saviour in Morrison which also turned out to be closed. I finally found a “Londis” where I bought what was needed for the evening and returned. That was my introduction to the Sunday Trading Act of 1994, which restricted trading on a Sunday to a maximum of 6 hours. 

Having lived in a part of the world where Sunday is for frenzied shopping and malls are open till close to mid-night, arguably boosting the economy, I could not understand the drive to “keep Sunday special”. For any Indian husband, the malls provide the perfect safety valve by sucking in the wife for large parts of the day (preferably the evening) leaving him free to watch F1 or any other sport of choice on TV. I was relieved to note that I had not arrived prior to 1994 when the Shops Act was still in play and outlawed all trading on a Sunday. 

Every shop front screams “SALE” and it seemingly happens through the year. The phenomenon is best captured by TK Maxx which has a banner saying “upto 60% off at any point of time”. As a consequence, it is impossible to buy a brand, you buy the best deal or at best you buy the brand when it is on “sale”. 

Moushumi once went to shop at The Body Shop and purchased something worth £9. She was lured into a frenzy of “buy this and get that free and this with that and and and”. She ended up with goods worth £26 having paid only £11!!!!

Playgrounds – One of the first things we discovered in Wimbledon was “Dundonald Park”. It has 2 tennis courts, a children’s play area including a sand dune and swings and two cricket fields, which convert themselves into football grounds when the season changes. Vihaan and Vedant went in the children’s play area and the mean parents we are, we made them run around the cricket fields to tire them into sleeping peacefully. 

After moving into our house, we discovered two other similar parks, Merton Park, John Innes Park within half a mile of our house. The amazing thing was how brilliantly well maintained they are and for the first time in my life, I did not grudge having to pay council tax in a foreign country. The first visit to the Natural History Museum (which does not have an entry fee) almost made me want to pay council tax!!!

Richmond Park - One of the many beautiful parks in London

Driving in the UK – My first driving license was made in Bihar, one of the most corrupt states in India, in abstentia and obviously without a test. My second driving license was obtained in Indonesia where I did go to the test centre with an “agent” but all I did was stand for a photograph and sign a few papers before walking away with my license. So the prospect of having to take a written test followed by a practical test was “alien” to me. 

I bought myself a “DVLA guide” which had 400 questions. About 10% of the way into the book I realised that the right answer was always the “opposite of what not to do while driving in India”. For instance,
  1. In India you have to honk, not honking is not an option. In the UK you do not honk
  2. In India if you are at an unmanned junction, you do not stop to look around. In the UK, you stop, look left, then right, then left again before going.
  3. In India, if you wanted to turn, you would never look at your rearview mirrors but instead flash the indicator and then check. In the UK, you first check your rearview mirror and then flash the indicator.
I decided to use this strategy in the exam as well and sure enough versus the requirement of 86%, I scored 100%. 

Next I enrolled myself in a driving class and for my sins I landed up with a French WOMAN……now with my views about women drivers having a woman “teacher” was quite a “situation”. I have to admit that I learnt a lot about the basics of driving including parallel parking as a result of the 10 driving lessons. So the day of the practical arrived and to my shock and horror I found that the assessor was a WOMAN. Sure enough I flunked because I did not know that if you are going past the perpendicular on a round about you need to show the right indicator!!! I did pass in the second attempt and it was a MALE this time around!!!

Very early on, I decided that the only way to drive in the UK was to assume I was in Mumbai, think of how I would not do on the roads of and bingo that would be exactly what I would need to do in the UK. Driving in the UK is incredibly safe but incredibly stressful. All the stress comes from having to observe a hundred thousand odd rules, being polite to others and acknowledging their politeness. 

Valuing your holidays – The first prime minster of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru created the culture of 5.5 day work weeks, 3 weeks of the month inorder to kick start the economy. The result was that the concept of “weekend” never took root in India and certainly in HLL you were “expected” to be busy enough to work over the weekend. This coupled with the dream to move “up the ladder” meant that Colin Powell’s words, “A dream doesn't become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work” , were ingrained into all middle class Indians including yours sincerely. So when the real estate agent told me “I don’t work on Saturdays” I was left awestruck. After all most of the property deals in India happen over the weekends, when people are not working.

On August 6th 2011 a wave of protests in Tottenham gave way to rioting and looting. By the 7th of August the riots had spread and on the 8th London was burning quite literally. All this while the Prime Minister was off on holiday in Italy. Whats more the Home secretary, Teresa May was on holiday as well. And oh, it gets better, the Mayor of London was on leave, the chief of the Metropolitan police was on leave and, hold your breath, so was the head of the police in the borough where the riots began. The riots began on Saturday evening and it was not till Tuesday that the Prime minister decided to rush back to London and “take charge”. Offcourse, I am sure if Mrs. Thatcher were in power, she would come back on Sunday morning and stamped out the nonsense without another evening of madness prevailing. 

UK is the only country that I am aware of where all holidays (except Christmas) are on a Monday!! So while the world had the 1st of May off for labor day, in the UK the holiday for Labor day was on the 7th of May. The idea of bank holidays goes back to 1871 and was instituted by the then Prime Minister Gladstone. He established the August Bank Holiday which used to be the Monday following the last Sunday of August. This remained till 1969 when the August Bank holiday fell on the 1st of September!!!!!! 

We quickly realised that all bank holiday getaways needs to be planned well in advance i.e at the beginning of the year as every place is booked out.

Stiff British Upper lip – Before coming to the UK, I read a statistic that 70% of Brits did not know the name of their neighbours. (Source : Nissan Cared4 Survey). Having spent our entire lives in the “collectivist” East, we were naturally anxious. The anxiousness was reinforced in the first few days, every morning when the question “how are you” was met with “not too bad” as the response. Coming from the east, “not too bad” meant “things are not good but it could be worse and so I am not complaining”. 

A survey done by Nivea (reported in The Daily Telegraph) reported that British hugged on an average 13 times a day with each hug lasting for 10 seconds leading experts to believe that the “stiff British upper lip” is receding to the past. This new piece of information gave me hope.

When we moved into our home we were welcomed, with a bouquet from our 84 year old neighbour. In office I was welcomed by a presentation with everything one needed to know about living in Wimbledon. It was that presentation which introduced us to Deen City Farm which is a huge hit with Vihaan and Vedant. 

I was beginning to believe that the “Stiff British upper lip” was a unflattering caricature of the British till I discovered “question hour” in the British Parliament where everyone seems to address everyone else as “right honourable gentleman” before proceeding to shred them to pieces. The classic was the year end debate where Ed Miliband asked David Cameron “The Prime Minister had promised a collegiate style of governance. I would like to ask him where that style was when dealing with Europe”. Now we all know that the LibDems and the Tories have “issues” over Europe. So David Cameron replied “We do have some disagreements and that is known to all. It is not as if we are brothers”…ouch (reference David Miliband)…. And while he waited for the applause from his side of the well to end I assumed he was going to say something profound and he continued “The right honourable gentleman walked into that”….the stiff British upper lip is alive and well but not one to be experienced in “ordinary life”. I guess the maxim that politicians make the worst ambassadors for a country still holds true.

With the average Briton saying Thank you “5000 times a year” (Source : Food Network UK), I think the British are incredibly polite. 

Obsession with the weather –We arrived in the “middle of summer” and Moushumi had carried only her “summer dresses”. Sure enough it was “hot” i.e 16 degrees and rained practically everyday in May and provided an excuse (not that one is ever needed) to augment an overflowing wardrobe of Moushumi. 

The British obsession with the weather is great food for playful banter. However, it is only when you live in the UK do you realise why. The day could begin nice and bright and end damp and cold. We quickly got two weather apps and checked the weather before going to bed and first thing in the morning. 

Coming from the tropics where rains equate to a downpour, the constant drizzle can only be likened to someone shedding a few tears. 

Winter is another experience - For the record, the winters in Patna are quite cold with the temperatures going down to single digits around Christmas and so I “claim” to have faced winters in my life. However, the winter in the UK is “different”. For starters, the change of the clock means that the sun sets earlier and so you reach office when it is still dark and you leave office when it is dark. It is not without reason that a disease “SAD – seasonal affective disorder” was coined in the UK. It has to be said that the invention of “central heating” means that the cold is actually not a problem, it is the lack of sunshine. 

But there are those few days of the season when it snows which makes the misery of winters well worth it. The experience of snow is purely magical. The first day it snowed, Moushumi and I went out for a walk to “feel” the snow fall on our hands and heads. The snow ensured that the night was “white” and in the morning the snow was greeted by Vihaan and Vedant. The two of them offcourse went berserk throwing snow at each other after a few attempts of making a snowman. The funny thing was that all the British were complaining about the snow, something I cant quite understand.

Cash is king, nay credit is king –I remember using my credit card once in Patna (back in 1996), yes only once. I was asked for my telephone number, address, my fathers name and a million other details because using a credit card was so uncommon. To be fair, the concept of “credit” is fairly alien to middle class Indians who accept it for purchases of homes, cars or other “assets” but not for grocery.

On one of my first shopping trips I ran up a bill of a little more than a £ 100 and took out two £50 notes. The person at the check out counter asked me for identification…..clearly paying in cash was not a sight he was accustomed to. It took me many months to get used to the idea of giving your credit card details to someone on the other end of the phone, what if it was misused. 

British Countryside – The British countryside is truly beautiful and seems to have attractions for all age groups and interests. 

Our first excursion to the countryside was in Dorset where we stayed at a B&B that was in a house that was 400 years old. My brother in law (Subhendu) and I went out to get some dinner and came across the village pub. It was a Friday evening and we expected the frenzy that is witnessed in every pub in London on a Friday evening. Instead, people were sipping (not gulping) beer and chatting, others were having a meal with their family and the pub was due to close at 2200!!!! Clearly, the lifestyle in the countryside is “different” from that in London.

A drive into the countryside reveals names of towns that range from strange (Rugby, Camelford, Hallworthy, Exmouth, Plymouth, Sidmouth, Bugle) to the hilarious (Runcon, Lizard, Heston, Chipping Camden, Helstown) and the ridiculous (Boxheater, Happy Bottom, Pratts Bottom, Ugley). Clearly the English love their play on words and don’t seem to mind a laugh at their own expense.

Obsession with statistics - The British seem obsessed with statistics and there seem to be statistics around inane things including the fact that working mothers spend 48.3 hours per week multi tasking compared with 38.9 hours for their partners (other examples are littered elsewhere in the blog). 

Despite all the cuts to the public services, one institution retains its funding and manpower – the Office of National Statistics. In 1941, it conducted a study on bra ownership and found that housewives owned 0.8 brassieres while agricultural workers owned 1.9!!! Other studies it has conducted include whether moustaches made men more attractive, the speed with which people could drink a half-pint, and how much alfresco sex was taking place in Blackpool during August. Its latest initiative is what I would argue is the unmeasurable territory of personal well being where they are asking two questions - "Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?" and "Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?" 

Yet the same institution regularly gets its forecast of growth (or the lack thereof) wrong by a wide degree. 

Concluding thoughts – 
A Land of contradictions – My first impression is that of a land of contradictions. Let me give you a few examples
  • The first round of sale of the Olympics tickets were over subscribed many times over and many (including myself) did not get any tickets. Yet there are still tickets unsold.
  • A number of public discourses revolve around the importance of family life. This extends to the argument as to why shops should be closed on a Sunday. Yet, it is more common to get divorced than it is to change allegiance to your football club and the next in line for the throne is a divorcee who is re-married to a divorcee. 
  • A country which upholds the values of democracy to the world finds itself obsessed with the monarchy and thanks to events like the “Royal wedding” the support for the institution is at an all time high as per a survey done by IPSOS. The fact that the upkeep of the monarchy costs the ordinary citizen seems to be forgiven or forgotten or missed.
  • A country which preaches the virtues of a free market, has no free market for medical services. I remember the first time we went to the local NHS with Vihaan and Vedant, I asked the reception twice how much I owed them and where to pay only to be told “there are no fees sir”. I have come across the idea of subsidised medical facilities in India, Indonesia and Singapore but “free” was a first. 
  • UK is clearly a country of “outdoorsy” people. You just have to look at the sales of charcoal for barbeques anytime the sun peeks out to draw the conclusion. Yet, it has no street food culture whatsoever. I don’t buy the “weather is responsible” argument because the torrential downpours should have killed off any street food in Singapore decades back.

Probably the best expression of the “land of contradictions” can be found in “what Brits say and what Brits mean”. Here are a few examples

What Brits Say
What Brits mean
I hear what you say
I disagree and do not want to discuss it further
With the greatest respect…
I think you are an idiot
That’s not bad
That’s good
Quite good
A bit disappointing
Very interesting
This is clearly nonsense
This is a very brave proposal
You are insane

As per a study done on behalf of The Daily Telegraph, a majority of the Scots would like to remain part of Great Britain while a majority of the English would like them out – the epitome of contradictions……

I am sure my views on the UK will evolve over time but experience tells me that it will be an evolution and not a revolution. Time will tell……