O yes, you shouldn’t have spoken on Indian Elections

Dear Hasan Minhaj,

Yes, brother, you shouldn’t have spoken on Indian politics! Absolutely not. I totally agree with that but not for the reasons that were portrayed in the first couple of minutes of the show.

During my stay in the US, I did observe a general lack of understanding of India and Indian politics among the majority of Indians who have settled there since decades and your show was just a proof of that. I am not blaming but then somewhere the NRIs refuse to accept that lack of knowledge and feel entitled to speak up just because there are platforms available and there are listeners.
It was just sheer incomplete information, no understanding of the core issues of Indian society + politics and an extremely one-sided view of the issues, organizations, and the leaders.

Through this blog, I am just attempting to bring in some perspective to the topics covered. I am not the epicenter of the knowledge or insights but having closely following Indian politics till date and having witnessed, in person, BJP’s administration and Modi’s leadership while growing up in Gujarat and living in India up until 2015, I guess I do bring in some level of credibility.

1. Balakot Attack
About the Balakot attack, you failed to mention that Indian media has recently provided enough details about how the targets were actually hit as the latest satellite images show (Indian Air Force collates proof of strikes at Balakot camp80% bombs hit target: IAF gives satellite images to govt as proof of Balakot airstrike, Balakot airstrike: 80% bombs hit target, says IAF in proof submitted to govt).
The portrayal of the entire incident as their word vs our word is quite naive. If you follow the news, you would know that Pakistan has continuously denied access to the international media to the site of air strike (Pakistan continues blocking media access to IAF’s air strike site, Why does the media have no real access?, No access to Pakistan religious school that India says it bombed) but just touring them around the forests. Pakistani PM was also caught red-handed lying on television when he said Pakistan had captured two Indian air crafts in the dogfight that followed a few days after the air strike when the fact was the second plane was Pakistan’s F-16 itself and the pilot was badly beaten up by the locals (and is said to have died in the hospital later on). Pakistan has also failed to acknowledge this – which is terrible for a soldier who risked his life for the country.
And saying that the Indian government was exploiting Kashmir for elections is also a totally idiotic. Indian army conducted operations in Myanmar in 2015 and then in PoK in 2016 (in response to Uri attack). Even in 2016, the same excuse was given by the anti-India and anti-BJP folks that due to elections in Uttar Pradesh, this was done. The fact is that, in India, every year some 4-5 (or even more) states go into elections to elect a state government. So, it is common and easy to portray any positive step of the government as an election hoodwink.

2. Jobs
You spoke literally just for 10 seconds on this topic to give out a judgment. The fact of the matter is that this is one topic where there is significant confusion (just read these two articles: The reason India jobs data is not credible and The sharp debate on jobs data shows govt may arrive at a process for understanding India’s labour market) and making any conclusive statement is absolutely naive. There are plenty of data sources giving a variety of information but none of them covering the entire spectrum. Unlike the US, the UK, and many other western countries, India has never had any credible source of employment information. While the larger estimates do not favor the government at all – more confusion in this matter will only be detrimental to the government.

3. Demonetization
You showed a CPI worker (AIKS cap, red t-shirt and CPI flag in the background) criticizing the demonetization – so obvious. If you don’t know what AIKS is and the equation between CPI and BJP – research a bit. You, spending just above 60 seconds on the topic to conclude it as a failure is an absolute injustice to the topic itself because it was a very carefully planned exercise which had other aspects too – which was obviously ignored in the video – like the Jan Dhan Yojana and the closure of shell companies identified due to this exercise. You may want to read the following:
Govt cancelled 2.24 lakh suspected shell companies post demonetisation, disqualified 3.09 lakh directors, 2.09 lakh companies deregistered; directors face action, Black money accounts frozen, 2-3 lakh shell company owners now face up to 10 years jail.

If you really want to know what failure of demonetization looks like – just read about demonetization in Venezuela.
And while you talked about demonetization, you failed to mention the largest financial inclusion exercise carried out before that – the Jan Dhan accounts. While India received independence way back in 1947 and bank nationalizations happened in the 1969 and 1980, it still excluded more than half of the population from the financial system. While the numbers vary slightly from sources to sources, even by 2014, half or less than half of the Indian adults had a bank account. And, from there the number up to 80% and still counting. Yes, there are arguments that many (maybe a majority) of these newly opened accounts are dormant. But one also needs to take into consideration that any behavioral change in society takes persistent efforts and time. People who are habituated to deal in cash for 70 years post independence will not move to transact through their banks overnight.

4. Disenfranchisement of Immigrants
You mentioned the disenfranchisement of immigrants in Assam but failed to mention that these were illegal immigrants. It was also surprising that you missed out on some very basic details on NRC

  1. It was first prepared in 1951 to tackle the issue of illegal immigrants from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
  2. The current NRC exercise is a part of the Assam Accord that was signed by the then Congress PM in 1986, Late Rajiv Gandhi (you should have asked Shashi Tharoor about this) but was never implemented and
  3. The current exercise was mandated by the honorable Supreme Court of India on October 2013 (when Congress government was in power).

Illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a monstrous problem for both, West Bengal and Assam. It is being portrayed as Muslim immigrants (as if a particular religion is targeted) but they fail to mention that the immigrants come from Bangladesh which is 90% Islamic. Many governments, including this one, have been trying to arrive at a solution and a part of the solution is to send the illegal immigrants back to Bangladesh.

Yes, when the first list of National Register for Citizens was created, it did include some actual citizens as well but that was due to lack of documental evidence and there was a time period provided to such citizens to submit the relevant documents. Ironically, this whole infiltration of Muslims from Bangladesh (and Rohingyas from Myanmar) totally contradicts the perception that minorities are not safe in India 🙂

5. Hindu Nationalism is not anti-Muslim
BJP talks about Hindu nationalism but that speaks of Hinduism as a value system – not religion. Every single scheme of the present government has been targeted to every single Indian irrespective of religion or caste – be it Jan Dhan Yojana, Ujjawala Yojana, Aayushman Bharat, Make in India, Awaas Yojana and many others. This government is also the first one to introduce reservations based on economic status, rather than social status.
So, calling the current government as communal or anti-Muslim is highly ironic especially when compared to the previous Congress government that stated that a certain community has the first right on India’s resources. Some of the most perceived right-wing leaders like Subramanian Swamy has a Muslim son-in-law. He himself is married to a Parsi. The PM, in his addresses, always iterates 1.3 billion Indians instead of using a collective of religion or caste or anything else that divides India. Unfortunately, he and BJP often gets targeted and accused as anti-Muslim because, unlike other parties, they are not in the practice of appeasing minorities for votes. You may want to read this:
PMO intervenes to end Kerala disabled boy’s fight for education.

6. Affiliation with RSS
Regarding his affiliation with RSS, if you know about the RSS in detail as most of the Indians do, it becomes a source of confidence and not a source of concern. RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) pretty much translates to National Volunteers Group – no reference to any particular religion or caste etc. Yes, the organization is primarily focused on the Hindu way of life and incorporating discipline into the Indian youth (the video that you showed of the physical exercises is essentially a part of inculcating the discipline). Having said that, RSS has been always forefront in carrying out relief work in any natural or man-made disasters – be it in Kashmir or Kerala. The organization has given some of the greatest and the most respected leaders India has seen post-Independence.
You might be surprised to know that RSS has many members from Muslims, Christian, and Sikh community and they understand the true philosophy of RSS. It also has a Muslim wing itself called RMM (Rashtriya Muslim Manch), a Sikh wing called Rashtriya Sikh Sangat (What brings Muslims, Christians and Sikhs to RSS? Why do they join the organization that is considered to be the antithesis of secular politics in India).
Time and again, the western media and public in general, has always failed to understand the Hinduism because they tend to see Hinduism from an Abrahamic lens. You should read the book “Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines” by Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan.

7. Mahatma Gandhi’s Assassination
Regarding the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi – I know, for western media, Mahatma Gandhi is pretty much next to God – but research is required in understanding the background of the whole thing which the majority of Indian media and almost the entire of western media never took interest in and always talked about it in a superficial manner. I am not justifying the assassination – it was definitely wrong – but the reason for condemnation of assassination also matters as much as condemnation itself. I would suggest you watch this and try to get some perspective

8. Monk with a Gun
You mentioned “Monk with a Gun” but one needs to go back to understanding the history of India where this (weapons) was actually the part of the education. This is not something new. I have mentioned more about it here.
Regarding changing the names, it is not a change of the name per se. It is restoring the original names (not sure why nobody told you that). And it is not anti-Muslim for sure. It is anti-Mughal – the dark era in the history of India that was marred by systematic destruction of India’s vast natural resources, forced religious conversions, destruction of India’s agricultural strength, unjust and high taxes (including jizya), and many other atrocities by the Mughal invaders. Similar exercises have happened time and again. Just read here – Renaming of Cities in India. Again, it requires some good reading.

9. Lynchings
Regarding the lynchings, there are two major points. The narrative that it has been increasing since 2014 is wrong because 1) There is no credible data available that suggests that since 2014 there is an increase; 2) NCRB started reporting communal riots only after 2014 – so obviously there were no reported lynchings before 2014 since nobody was actually recording it; and 3) Mob lynching has been talked more since 2014 and has caught media attention but just because we come to know more about it now and not before doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist at the same scale earlier. Mob lynching is a result of a challenge that India faces in terms of law enforcement which is being tried to overcome since decades. I would suggest you watch this

You may also want to read this: Can Data Tell Us Whether Lynchings Have Gone Up Under Modi, And Should It Matter?

10. Democracy in Danger
When you say that Indians also feel that the “democracy is backsliding” – you show Yogendra Yadav who has been a classic anti-Modi person who will obviously say those things. If you don’t know the history of Yogendra Yadav, please read about him. Since 2014, there have been regular attempts to project that the Indian democracy is in danger under the present government (completely ignoring the fact that this is the government elected by citizens of India with a landslide victory – the first time in three decades. I would actually not consider 1984 because that landslide was driven by emotions rather than performance). Be it the award wapasi show, tukde tukde gang, intolerance debate or EVM drama. If you do not know about these terms, please read.

Again, I sincerely hope there wasn’t any agenda behind this episode. 29 minutes is a too short a time considering the breadth of the topics covered – which essentially meant quantity was prioritized over quality – and in this case misinformation or half-information was prioritized over a genuine talk.

If true, it’s sad that nobody from BJP opted to speak to you and you only received one-sided biased Leftist view of the Indian politics from Shashi Tharoor. He is a great orator but it was very sad to hear that he obviated corruption. But then it is nothing new – that has been the mentality of the Congress and many other parties since ages. When Rahul Gandhi was asked about dynastic politics at University of California, Berkeley, he just said “that’s the way India works” – in spite of having a present government that has not only opposed dynastic politics in words but also in practice. Just follow the news around the list of candidates they released for the upcoming general elections in India and the whole logic behind identifying the right candidate for the right constituency. They are demonstrating how democracy should actually work.

While talking about all other things, within one minute, you could have also covered this bullet point list:

  • India is the 6th largest economy (10th in 2012-2015) by nominal GDP (3rd by PPP) – World Bank
  • India jumped 57 places (134 to 77) in ease of doing business in just 4 years – Tradingeconomics.com | World Bank
  • The government went on to simplify the indirect taxation system by bringing everything under GST (Centre and State) and categorizing items to make some very essential items under 0% taxation.
  • The Indian PM received the Champion of the Earth from the United Nations for his bold environmental leadership on the global stage – United Nations Environment Programme
  • International Yoga Day was one resolution that received massive support (co-sponsorship) of 177 countries out of 193.
  • Sushma Swaraj was invited as a Chief Guest at OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) States – the first time since its inception in 1969 – and in spite of opposition from Pakistan – so much for the anti-Muslim government and the party.

Again, here, I may not have been able to cover everything in detail. I am not even sure if I spending so much time on writing this was even worth it. But this is something that ought to be done.

P.S. I also came across this video which has some brilliant points debunking myths spread around the western world about India. Great work by The Sham Sharma Show:

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Unreal News: Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation Decides to Scrap BRTS to Uplift the Poor

In a historic U-turn, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), decided to scrap the BRTS in the city to make way to the regular traffic. A study conducted by Shastri & Shastri Sisters suggested, based on regular observation, that vehicles have seen to move faster in BRTS lanes than the normal lanes.

While the lanes, currently, are exclusively for BRTS buses, in many areas of the walled city like Kalupur and Astodia, it was frequent for vehicles to ignore the BRTS ONLY lanes signboard and drive through the BRTS lanes. Especially for poor rickshaw drivers, it helps them uplift financially as:

  • Driving in BRTS lanes increased their average speed to destination
  • It allowed them more trips per day
  • It increasing the total passengers they transport per day
  • This helped in increasing their per day income

“Unfortunately, during day time, traffic policemen are on duty. Hence, these poor people are not able to drive through BRTS lanes freely. If these lanes are made available to the general traffic, de jure, it will significantly help in reducing poverty in the city” – Shastri & Shastri Sisters said. Taking cognizance of the matter, AMC acted accordingly.

“Since, it is corporation’s primary responsibility to think about welfare of the poor in the city, decisions should be made accordingly. We identified the pain an “aam-aadmi” goes through with a reduced lane for his/her private vehicles, that is dedicated to the “privileged” ones traveling in AC buses. We do not support such division of society which is neither religion based, nor caste based. We sympathize with the ones who contribute to the nation by spending more on petrol and diesel; thus, helping our navratna petroleum companies earn significant revenue.” – AMC spokesperson said.

Some anti-development, corrupt, communal and violent bhakts argued that it is important to encourage public transit systems like BRTS are the need of the hour with exploding population and increasing urbanization. Such rapid transit system transports hundreds of passengers within minutes from one part to the other and helped in saving the environment as they run on CNG.

On this, AMC counter-argued, that auto rickshaws in Ahmedabad also run on CNG. There are thousands of auto rickshaws in the city and it is important to give them the priority because:

  • Rickshaws are run by poor drivers who should be allowed to earn more
  • As highlighted by the study, there is one BRTS reaching a station every two minutes and stops for 15 seconds, on an average. Therefore, it is utilized only for 15 seconds out of every 135 seconds. Hence, 89% of the time the space is unutilized, which is huge underutilization in a space crunched city.
  • Replacing this with autorickshaws, that also run on CNG, will help uplift many poor people.
  • With more trips per day for autorickshaws, they will consume more CNG which will help Badani CNG, leading CNG corporation in Gujarat, earn more revenue and uplift millions of workers working in various Badani factories.

However, in a surprize reaction, the autorickshaw drivers and other private vehicles owners frequently using BRTS ONLY lanes expressed disappointment over the rule. An auto driver, Chandu, reacted strongly, “Our pride has been hurt. Now, we don’t have any prohibited lane to break. Driving in any lane is legitimate”.

One of the resident and owner of a car who works at a private firm in Ahmedabad said, “I used to beat my neighbour, who works in the same company and strictly follows the lane system, everyday by overtaking him through BRTS lane. Now I wouldn’t be able to do that.”

A committee has also been formed to investigate how such a project received clearance and who was behind it. AAP Gujarat has launched its own investigation to collect enough stories to help them in the 2017 general assembly elections of Gujarat.

How the unique pedagogy of Montessori is transforming the lives of kids at Jivapar

It is said that children are like little plants. You can bend them the way you want when they are young and that’s what they grow up to be. So, getting them on the right path in their formative years is very critical to grow them into responsible citizens of a country. It is this philosophy that makes Munira Nagji, recipient of 2010 YMCA Peace Medallion by YMCA Calgary, fly from Canada almost every 3-4 months to her mother’s homeland, Jivapar, in Gujarat.

Located about 20kms east from Jamnagar, Jivapar is a little known name even in Jamnagar itself. A small village of about 3000 people, kids of Jivapar and some of the villages around it, have something more than just another day to look forward to. Every day, more than 40 kids of the village explore this incredible world in an incredible way of Montessori teaching – extremely rare in Indian education system.

What is Montessori Education?
Montessori education system was developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. Key principles and characteristics of the Montessori education system includes:

  • Freedom within limits to kids to learn on their own
  • Respect for child’s natural psychological, physical and social development
  • Mixed age classrooms of children from the age 2.5 to 6
  • Choice of activity to each kid from available options
  • Use of working models to learn concepts instead of direct instructions
  • Specialized educational material
  • Work time instead of study time
  • Emphasis on self-discipline instead of rewards and punishments

As it is said, “Charity Begins at Home”, Munira started her mission 10 years back by converting her living room into Montessori for the less privileged children, mainly from Afghanistan, to teach English as their parents didn’t know English and the kids felt behind the curve in their schools. Today, every Saturday, her living room turns into a free Montessori for the kids who cannot afford any form of preschool on weekdays.

The Beginning
In December 2013, she transformed a playschool into a Montessori preschool at Jubilee Cultural Centre in Jivapar, managed by Kathiyawadi Education & Welfare Charitable Trust, Jamnagar. The name was the same as her school in Canada – Starlight Montessori Preschool. Alocal resident, Nizar Hemnani, has been instrumental in the operational management of the preschool since the inception. Nizar has also been helping the Trust in running many women empowerment activities such as sewing classes, beauty parlor courses etc., in the same premises to enable the women of Jivapar and the villages around, be self-reliant financially.
Munira, with Preschool/Kindergarten Montessori Teaching Diploma, invested the initial time of about three weeks in training two teachers on Montessori style of teaching so that they can keep the school running in her absence and also are able to earn for their living. Initially, she also faced many challenges in terms of making the locals understand and follow the concepts of Montessori style of education. As it is something very rare, even in urban India, to incorporate that culture in villages was a big challenge.

Children learn through models instead of textbooks

Children learn through models instead of textbooks

The initial batch was limited to 25 students but with more students pouring in, about 41 students are a part of this pre-school, currently, spread into two batches of 25 and 16 respectively. Limiting the number of students is critical to the success of this mission because large batches reduce the attention per student.

Self-Discipline
These children have developed the sense of discipline which can make urban school kids envy them. Every student coming to the Montessorienters the classroom and keeps his/her bag on one of the hooks behind the classroom. The student, then takes out the small mat from the box kept at one corner of the room, rolls it on the ground, picks up his/her model that he/she feels to learn on that day and plays with it. Once the time is over, the student puts the model back to its original place in its original form, rolls back the mat and puts it back to the same box from where it was picked up, takes his/her bag from the hook and leaves. During the entire process, teacher acts as a facilitator to the child and not the instructor.
The impact of this freedom, coupled with self-discipline is that these kids have a head start when they go to regular schools as they have understood the concepts better, are able to identify things more easily and quickly and have developed a habit to learn on their own. This is a very important trait in a country with languishing rural schooling system, marred by inadequate number of teachers, poor teaching quality and very low attention per student.
According to Munira, “Children learn by watching. If you want to teach a child, don’t say it. Just do it.” So, a teacher has to lead by example in a Montessori set up and do what they expect children to do.

A Step for Street Children
In January 2015, taking a cue from the “Masti Ki Paathshaala” initiative at Carter Road in Bandra, Mumbai, Munira dedicated a separate room for teaching the underprivileged street children whose parents are either beggars or daily wagers. Another idea behind doing this is that these children do not have any chance of a bright future, given the environment they live in. Being at a lowest end of the socially, they do not have access to the kind of education, regular kids have. They get hit the most. They wear dirty clothes and people don’t like them around. They are not treated well. It is this environment that is the breeding ground of criminals. Tapping these children and giving them the right kind of environment that shows them a bright future will make them take a step towards prosperity.

Munira (right) with street kids coming to the Montessori

Munira with the street kids coming to the Montessori for a brighter future

Asking about the greatest challenge she is currently facing, Munira instantly replied, “parental support”. In various ways, support of parents is very critical to fully reap the benefits of Montessori education. Whatever kids learn at school also needs to be followed and implemented at home. Inculcating the same discipline among the parents is an additional task for the preschool to ensure that the kids get the same environment at home. For example, parents are asked to pack the kind of food which children can eat easily and does not create a mess or dirty the classroom so that hygiene is maintained. With monthly parents-teacher meeting, each child’s progress is shared with the parents and also the input regarding the kind of environment that needs to be built at home is given. However, local member support helps in convincing the parents and gaining their trust.
Thankfully, Munira doesn’t face much of a problem with getting girls into the school due to significant Gujarat government push for many years now on girl child education. At a donation of Rs.50/- once, it is not a huge burden for the parents as well. For the street children, it is free. However, Munira makes it a point to get the same stuff for the kids in Jivapar that she uses for her Montessori in Canada. Her visits to India are marked with excess baggage for the big suitcase stuffed with the children material along with her own luggage.
Having spent her childhood in challenging conditions, financially and socially, before gaining stability with 7 years in Dubai and then relocating to Canada in 1988, Munira attributes her actions to the inner drive to give back something to the village her roots are from. Today, she has a happy five member family with three adolescent children. She speaks good Kutchhi, thanks to the efforts of Kutchhi NRIs who migrated to Canada but made a point to keep the language alive among the English. However, her village has migrated to contemporary Gujarati and finds it amazing to listen some good Kutchhi from an NRI.

Future Plans
Munira has recently purchased a land, few kilometers from Jivapar where she plans to build up an orphanage. The idea is to adopt the orphans and even the street kids and build an environment which is conducive to their growth. For the street kids, parents will be asked to deposit some amount every month in their kids’ account which will be accessible to the kid once he/she turns 18 so that they have something to start their life with when they enter the mainstream world. Parents can meet their kids once in a month so that they know how their kid is progressing.
The drive to make a difference in the lives of the kids and help them grow into responsible citizens of tomorrow will keep Munira motivated for her acts of love in future as well, as it has in the past. She can be reached at info@acts-of-love.com.

Source: Wikipedia, Montessori Institute

Unplanned Trip to Magnificent Udaipur

As they say, world’s best trips are the ones which are unplanned. Last week, we (I and my wife, Swati) made an impromptu road trip to Udaipur, Rajasthan (the Venice of the East). While it is said that there is a great value in disaster, because you can start all over again, but I guess it also makes you do things which you may never do normally. For us, the disaster was forgetting our bags in the bus which headed for Shrinathji after dropping us in Ahmedabad.

It was a four day trip to Ahmedabad to be present during the delivery of my sister-in-law. We left Saturday night from Mumbai with two laptop bags and two trolleys; latter was placed into the bus dickey. We got down from the bus early morning to Ahmedabad and went to catch the BRTS to our house. In the excitement to reach home early, it took us 10 minutes to realize that we were short of two trolleys which were left in the bus itself. We called the travel agent’s office to get driver’s number. After trying couple of times, he picked up the phone. As I tried to persuade him to stop the bus for us and we can come and collect our bags, it was in vain as the bus had travelled quite a distance and was already late for Shrinathji. The driver, however, assured us that our bags are safe and he will drop it to the Eagle Travel office in Ahmedabad in the evening when he returns with another ride.

Disappointed, we took the auto back home, when the thought of making a road trip to Udaipur struck my wife. Just a day before we were to travel, we came to know that the delivery was slightly postponed. So, basically, we didn’t have much to do for the first two days in Ahmedabad. Excited and agreeing to the thought, we reached home, freshened up, took my father-in-law’s Nano and by 4:30 in the evening we were in the “City of Lakes”. In the meantime, we called up the bus driver to make him drop our bags in Udaipur office so that we can collect the bags from there.

The Road:

I have always relished driving, especially on highways, for obvious reasons. After driving a lot on NH8 from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, a completely new route and a new place, was very much refreshing. This was my first visit to Rajasthan state itself.

It’s a 260kms drive from Ahmedabad via Gandhinagar, Himmatnagar, Shamlaji and to Udaipur. The road is a very good four lane till Shamlaji, a religious destination near Gujarat-Rajasthan border, after which, it starts becoming very hilly having many curves and steep rise. At some places, it is even single lane.

IMAG1954

The unique aspect of about the road was that you realize you’ve entered Rajasthan when:

  • Road quality deteriorates significantly and suddenly
  • You see “desi/angrezi sharaab ki dukaan” (liquor shops) every half a kilometer

We reached Udaipur around 4:30 in the evening and ensured we collected our bags before doing anything else.

Udaipur Ki Galiyaan:

As we hadn’t planned anything for the trip, after collecting our bags, we headed to find out a hotel to stay over. After looking into couple of hotels near the railway station, we thought it would be a better idea to find a place near Pichola Lake where we can park the vehicle and go around walking. With internet on our phones at our disposal, it wasn’t tough to find out some good hotels around the lake. However, what we didn’t know was the lanes that awaited our arrival.

Udaipur Ki Galiyaan...

Udaipur Ki Galiyaan…

The roads of Udaipur had really tested my driving skills hard. As we drove from Udaipur Railway Station to the famous City Palace, the road kept getting narrower, to the extent that it was impossible to imagine SUVs like Innova and Tavera moving around these lanes. Yet, they were there. Somehow things were managed through the great Indian JUGAAD. There were always volunteers available to crack down traffic jams in such lanes, if not the traffic police. Otherwise it is impossible to have the life going with big cars driving into the lanes exactly their width.

The Market:

While we saw some of the hotels in Google maps, we couldn’t find one in the narrow, congested lanes where one can’t separate two buildings itself. After a long and grueling driving, even I was tired to some extent and wanted to just crash on the bed to recharge myself. We checked two hotels and finalized one from where we got a nice view of Gangaur Ghat. After taking a quick shower and a light dinner, we felt refreshed and headed quickly for the market as it was already 8 something.

Gangaur Ghat from our Hotel

Gangaur Ghat from our Hotel

One thing you must check when you visit any city is the local market. While the historic places tells you about the history about the city but the market will let you know also the present of the city. It also gives you a chance to interact with the local people and local culture, without which you cannot really know the city. Some of the shops were already closing down. So, we didn’t have much time and could only have a glance at everything. But we still had some experiences that were unique and amazing.

The Ghat:

Gangaur Ghat Entrance

Gangaur Ghat Entrance

We decided to head for Gangaur Ghat as it was looking fabulous from our room. But as they say, all that glitters is not gold. It has the potential of being one of the most amazing places to be in Udaipur from where you get the magnificent view of the Pichola Lake, Taj Lake Palace and the bridges joining the two parts of the city separated by the lake.

Unfortunately the place isn’t managed well with lot of filth, stray animals wandering around, making the entire place dirty. Yes, a lot of filth was created by the tourists themselves throwing all the garbage around without any consideration for how it impacts the beauty of the place.

The Tourists:

It felt like Udaipur had a lot of French tourists visiting the place as most of the ones which we came were French, or at least speaking French. We had two close encounters with the tourists but one that I remember for a long time would be the one at a small juice center.

Disappointed by Gangaur Ghat, we started walking back to our hotel as it was already around 9:30 and there wasn’t much chance of going anywhere else. Mid-way we stopped at a juice center for a small break. While we were having the Orange Juice, two foreign tourists (a lady and a gentleman) came to us.

Lady (joining her hands): Namaste

I: Hello

Lady (in Hindi): Kya woh hai? (What is this?)

I (after a small pause, translating santra into English in my mind): Orange Juice

Lady: Thank you

The lady seemed to have done some homework by learning some key Hindi phrases before coming to India. It is a good habit as you may not just learn some new language but also keep yourself at less risk of being cheated. It reminded me of one of my colleagues at work who learns some basic conversational phrases in local language wherever he visits.

What amused me was the irony of a foreigner joining her hands and saying Namaste and an Indian responding with Hello because that’s how urban Indians greet each other these days. I don’t know if she and her partner were equally amused or not. She, then, conversed in broken Hindi with the juice seller and ordered the same juice.

Medical Store:

Marching ahead from the juice center, we stopped by a local medical store to purchase some pain killers after a grueling day. It was quite crowded considering it was about 9:30 when things close down in many non-metro Indian cities. Our turn to order the medicines was taking much more time than we thought because the pharmacist was busy consulting other customers as they told him about their problem and checking which medicine they should take.

This is something which is common across Tier III cities and villages in India where expert medical advice is not available and people rely on pharmacists to tell them which medicine should be taken for what problems. Often we hear about compounder-turned-doctors in Indian villages where people don’t have the degree but have gained significant experience working alongside the doctors to become self-proclaimed doctors.

Finally, we had his attention and asked for a combiflam. For a moment, a thought crossed my wife’s mind that he might get offended if we asked the medicine directly, unlike his other customers.

Bikers Gang:

While we were relishing a nice walk down the hotel through the narrow lanes of Udaipur, we heard a roaring sound coming from behind. As we looked back, about 8-10 bikes were tearing apart the royal silence of Udaipur with their authentic Harley Davidsons engines.

One thing which I never miss every time I see such bikers’ gangs is……..to say WOW!!! Owning a Bajaj Avenger myself, I understand the thrill such bike rides. However, I have never had a chance for such long trips. While Mumbai-Ahmedabad and Mumbai-Pune is still in the bucket list, driving through Rajasthan would be an experience in itself.

The Morning After:

View of Lake Pichola with Mountains

Lake Pichola

Waking up to the refreshing morning after, it was hard to believe that we will need to leave so soon. We had an Indian breakfast – tea and paranthas – and went to the roof top of the hotel to take a view of a typical Udaipur morning. A landscape with city, lake and mountains – what else you need?

Bridges Joining the City on Either Sides of the Lake Pichola

Bridges Joining the City on Either Sides of the Lake Pichola

Bridges:

Besides the overall feel and grandiosity of the city of Udaipur, what I also loved was the bridges that connected the two parts of the city, separated by lakes. Walking across these bridges, standing at the center, pausing for a moment to absorb the amazing view of the city on both the sides – is an experience that no DSLR in the world is good enough to capture. It distinctly reminded me of the experience I had in Paris, standing at the bridge near Saint-Michel-Notre-Dame over the pristine river Siene. However, the latter managed cleanliness diligently unlike the unmanaged Ghats and the lake of Udaipur.

Fateh Sagar Lake:

Post breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and headed back to Ahmedabad. While we wanted to check out the Samor Bagh to take a good view of the lake, the receptionist told us to rather check out Fateh Sagar Lake (the reason why Udaipur is known as ‘the Second Kashmir’) instead since Samor Bagh was a part of City Palace and would consume good amount of our time, which we did not have.

We had also decided to take the alternate route for Ahmedabad which was through Abu Road after a disappointing experience with the Himmatnagar-Kherwara route. This also meant an additional 80kms to travel and we need to sacrifice our lunch in Udaipur for the same. But then, our priority was the road trip, not meals 🙂

Fateh Sagar Lake

Fateh Sagar Lake

After a diligent effort to pull out the car from the ultra-narrow lanes of Udaipur, we had a sigh of relief as we leaped on to SH50 towards Rani Road. From the google maps, we decided to take a complete round of the lake and join back to our route towards Abu Road.

Fateh Sagar Lake with Nehru Garden at the Center

Fateh Sagar Lake with Nehru Garden at the Center

The beauty of Fateh Sagar Lake is difficult to describe in words. As we entered the road encircling the lake, we couldn’t help stop the car and take a moment to enjoy what we were seeing. The water off the shore was distinctively blue and the Nehru Garden at the center of the lake, with mountains in the background, added to the beauty.

We took a 7kms drive around the lake, entering from Rani Road to exiting at Vidya Bhawan Road to join SH32. The road was very much deserted, probably not safe in the night, but gave an amazing view of the lake from wherever you see. People must have been using it for early morning cycling and jogging, we thought, otherwise it is a complete waste.

Udaipur Bypass:

As we joined SH32 to reach Udaipur Bypass, we thought we left behind the narrow lanes. However, destiny must have said – “Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost”. As we moved ahead on the road, we realized it started shrinking from a four lane to two lane and then into a single lane road. By the time we realized that we didn’t realize when we were off the SH32, it was very late. Finally, we made it to the Udaipur Bypass through some unknown road which merged to the highway. However, the locals must have wondered what a “GJ 01” car is doing in such narrow roads of Udaipur, which is far away from all the tourist destinations.

Towards Abu Road:

NH 937 from Udaipur to Abu Road

NH 937 from Udaipur to Abu Road

As we entered Udaipur Bypass, we realized the correctness of our decision to take the detour. The highway towards Abu Road is an absolute paradise for someone who loves driving long distances. A very well managed four lane highway with mountains on both the sides and blue sky on the top doesn’t allow you to ask for anything more. Very less traffic due to a working day added to our blessings. As we moved ahead, we realized the additional petrol for those 80kms was not expenditure but an investment.

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Tunnels Built to Cross the Mountains At Some Places

For me, it was a welcome change after driving a lot on the flat stretch between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The route was a fierce competition to the much hyped Mumbai-Pune Expressway in terms of scenic beauty. Also, when you have such beautiful landscapes, you don’t need to travel abroad. Europe is right here in Rajasthan.

We quickly fueled the car full and got the oils and the air checked in the car because while it was a beautiful landscape, it was also deserted and you don’t want the drive to be spoiled because engine heated up or tyre burst.

After about two hours’ drive and reaching closer to Abu Road, we took a quick stop on a highway restaurant to have Maggi and tea.  As the only two customers in the restaurant, we had the privilege of very quick service and good attention. After the quick bite, we drove ahead.

The Border:

Rajasthan, Diu and Daman are notorious for smuggling in alcohol in an otherwise dry state of Gujarat where it is banned. It is also, probably, the reason why Mount Abu and Diu are one of the favorite tourist destinations for Gujaratis. Ask any Gujarati and he/she would have visited these two, at least once in the lifetime.

I have expected police checks while traveling from Mumbai, which has never happened, but it slipped off my mind that it can happen on this route as well. While crossing the police barricade our car was stopped by a plain clothed (supposedly) police man. As he came nearer and asked to open the passenger seat, I had to refuse as he was smoking. I opened the door on my side. As he asked to open the bags, I realized what it is for. After making him put out his cigarette, he checked the bags and Okayed everything.

In the whole incident, what amused me was that Gujarat government appointed a poison addicted (cigarette smoker) to catch another poison addicted (as they say so for alcohol). Such is the sorry state of affairs.

Reaching Ahmedabad:

The drive from Gujarat border till Ahmedabad was completed in about 2-2.5 hours with a break near Palanpur and without any further incident. As we came to an end to one of the most rocking 30 hours of our lives, it gave us the much needed break from work. It also made us realize the kind of trips we need to have in order to enjoy them fully. I felt to have enjoyed Udaipur much more comparing with the time we had in our disposal.

It also made us believe that last moment, less thought and unplanned decisions can also do wonders!

Ahmedabad Nightlife – Manek Chowk

Whenever I have heard about Ahmedabad from any of my non-Gujarati friends who have visited the city, except for one, none of them had a single word to say ill about the city. Sometimes it baffles me. It’s not that I don’t love the city but the extent to which I see them love the city is inexplicable. And these are the same set of people who used to wonder how someone can stay in a “dry state”, which is EQUAL TO “zero night life”, with about 70% population pure veggies. It is difficult to explain in words how people in the city and the entire state, still have one of the best lifestyles in the country without alcohol and chicken. One needs to live that lifestyle to experience that. I can just try to get some excitement around through my words.

To do that, I thought of starting this series of posts depicting the Ahmedabad Nightlife. As a first chapter of this, I thought of covering Manek Chowk – the night eatery place of the famous Ahmedabad Old City. If you talk about night life in Ahmedabad and if you don’t start with Manek Chowk, it’s a sin.

Image Source: Google Maps

Image Source: Google Maps

Manek Chowk is the most buzzing part of the city if you are out in the city in midnight. It is named after the 15th century saint Baba Maneknath, who interrupted Ahmed Shah’s effort to build Bhadra fort. It is said that Baba would weave a mat during the day when the fort walls were built and would unweave the mat in the night, magically bringing down the walls of the fort. When the king came to know about this, he invited Maneknath and asked him to prove his powers by putting himself in a small jar. When Maneknath put himself in the jar, Ahmed Shah sealed the jar and buried it.

Guru Maneknathji's Tomb

Guru Maneknathji’s Tomb

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Manek Chowk during the day

The most amazing fact of the place is that you won’t find a trace of any eateries during the day when it is a jewelry market. But after the sunset all the jewelry shops close down and within half an hour you will see a completely transformed place with tables, chairs and food stalls rattling all over the place. It is a “must visit” place if you love street food and want some real taste of Amdavadi street food.

In the night, the place transforms itself into a food plaza

In the night, the place transforms itself into a food plaza

Innovations like Cadbury Pizza, Cadbury Sandwich, Pineapple Sandwich - you'll see only here

Innovations like Cadbury Pizza, Cadbury Sandwich, Pineapple Sandwich – you’ll see only here

Number of such food stalls to tickle your taste buds

Number of such food stalls to tickle your taste buds

Pav bhaji, pulav, sandwich, uttapam, dosa, pizza and kulfi are some of the most in-demand items you will find here. But you will also find some innovations like cadbury sandwich, cadbury cheese pizza, gwalia dosa, ice-cream sandwich and pineapple pizza, if you want to try out something totally new – some of them Burrp certified.

Asharfi Kulfi - MUST NOT MISS

Asharfi Kulfi – MUST NOT MISS

And if you are there, you “must not” miss out on Asharfi’s kulfi which will bring you the most amazing varieties of kulfis. It is one of oldest chains in Ahmedabad, which started in 1940s and has been pioneers of kulfi to the extent that the name Asharfi has become equivalent to kulfis for Amdavadis. Today they have about 10 outlets in Ahmedabad.

While Manek Chowk in the old city is among the oldest food plazas in Ahmedabad, owing to the demand from the western part of the city who have to travel all the way to the congested old city, a city based business group started MMC (Maha Manek Chowk) in 2011. Opened in Dev Arc Mall near S G Highway, the new food plaza tried to bring the flavors and ambiance of original Manek Chowk to the west. However, the MCRKPBA (Manek Chowk Ratri Khani Peeni Bazaar Association) refused to allow any vendor open any branch elsewhere as it will dilute the heritage of Manek Chowk. Hence, only the non-members of the association had a shop in MMC. However, MMC couldn’t compete much with the OMC (Original Manek Chowk) and closed down last year.

Even with all the malls, international fast food chains and high end restaurants in the city, Manek Chowk still gets crowded with people coming from all over the city to enjoy their favorite delicacies, every single night.

Sources: Gujarat Tourism, Live Mint, Ahmedabad Mirror

Navratri – World’s Longest Dance Festival

SLB (Sanjay Leela Bhansali) seems to have learnt the art of timing. On a Wednesday afternoon of October 2nd, enjoying my mid-week holiday, I listened, for the first time, to the song Nagada Sang Dhol from his upcoming movie Ramleela. With lot of buzz created around the song as Gujarat and Mumbai gears up for world’s longest dance festival – Navratri – SLB could only expect this song to go viral.

 

Navratri, being one of the most awaited festivals for Gujaratis, unleashes the energy they have saved throughout the year. For nine nights, cities of Gujarat, especially Ahmedabad, Baroda and Surat, turns into dance floor. Navratri represents worship of Goddess Shakti and symbolizes victory of good over evil. It coincides with Durgapuja in West Bengal (the time to be in Kolkata) and concludes on the day of Dusshera, the day when Ram killed Ravan (or the day when Goddess Durga killed Mahishasur).

Born and brought up in Gujarat, it was inevitable not to have Navratri addiction. Especially after being raised in a society environment (one society with 11 buildings having 12 flats each – 132 houses and a whole group of kids of my age), the memories of those nine days every year just cannot fade away. Those were the days when Navratri was not so commercialized. There was a society ground where every evening of Navratri, people would gather for Goddess Amba’s prayer, which would commence the “Garba”.

Garba is a Gujarati dance form that is among the most traditional of all dance forms during Navratri where Goddess Amba’s statue/picture and a lit lamp is placed at the center and devotees dance in concentric circles with songs being prayers to the Goddess. We (kids) used to reach the ground much early to prepare for the prayers and play all the non-electronic games (which we don’t see kids playing these days) once we were done. Games like pakad-daav, maal-dadi, saatolia (seven stones), lakhoti (marbles), bhamardo (spinning a top) and many more just gave us a warm up for the night.

Vibrant Colors of Navratri Attire…… Photo Credit: Navratri.TV

As the time of the prayer approached, everyone would gather at the center of the ground, putting on new traditional clothes for the evening. Colors are a very characteristic of Navratri. Irrespective of the era you talk about, vibrant colors of the attire symbolizes the zeal and energy that is associated with all dance forms of Navratri. It demonstrates how people forget all the sorrows of their life, let the life blossom in all colors, welcome the spring with wide open arms and celebrate it by thanking the almighty that has protected us till date from all the evils because of which we are able to see the light of the day. As the prayer concludes, the never ending night began. It is incredible how there are different ways to pray to a single goddess and likewise for each form of almighty in the Hindu culture as the garba songs played one after the other throughout the night. I did not understand that much of the prayer part as much as I used to enjoy the garba and dandia with my whole “gang”. As I grew up, I learned to be a little more civilized.

Today, the festival has evolved a lot to become more commercialized. With clubs and party plots organizing the event on grand scale, people leaving no stone unturned for the season passes, celebrity specials at various places, remixes and disco-dandia taking over the traditional garba and even sheri-garba being branded itself, the festival has taken a new shape. It is a source of yearly income for singers like Falguni Pathak and Devang Patel, who get one chance during this time of the year to come in limelight and go into exile for the rest of 356 days.

In Ahmedabad, places like Karnavati Club, Rajpath Club, YMCA, University Ground, NID and CEPT are crowded with youngsters flock in groups, ready to drive the nine night’s dance extravaganza. Besides the dance itself, competitions and prizes for best dance, best dress etc drives the zeal for the festival. Today, the festival also brings in a big marketing opportunity in itself – as cashed in by Sanjay Leela Bhansali this year. With events on such a big scale, companies find themselves getting another touch point to the young and spending audience. From clothes to food and from media to energy, everyone earns during this festival.

10 years from now, the festival will surely evolve further to something new. Evolution is inevitable and necessary. But as long as people don’t forget the history and meaning of the festival, all is well.

Jai Mata Di!!!

Parzania – Review

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Parzania – Heaven & Hell on Earth

This movie had been into my list for long. Based on Godhra riots, this was probably the only movie in the last decade to have been banned in Gujarat. While the government, officially, did not ban it but cinema owners, in anticipation of violence, refused to screen it and the government did not provide any specific assurance to protect them in case such thing happens.

While I was not sure how correct or incorrect the decision was, it couldn’t be confirmed without watching the film. There were two major purposes to judge this movie – first, to judge the movie from the technical point of view if it did justice to the issue – and second, to see if there was anything in the movie that posed an eminent threat of violence in the state.

Objective 1:

It was one of the finest pieces of cinema I had seen in the last 10 years. Sarika and Naseeruddin Shah give their best performances till date along with all the other actors. There were some gripping moments in the movie which swings along three dimensions – the main story of Parzan, the conspiracy theory and the journey of Allen. The de-glam and de-dramatized (something which can’t be expected, had this movie been made by any Indian director, especially Prakash Jha) depiction of the events instantly connects with the audience and holds you to your breath till the end. Although, one spoiler in the movie is the stereotyping of the characters – the ministers, the police and the right wing extremists – which sometimes goes to the extent of being cheesy.

However, the movie offers some shots to ponder about.

  • Asif – because of few Muslims, the entire community gets disgraced

It was one of the scenes that projects how an entire community suffers because of act of few. This fact not only holds true across religions but also across nationalities, castes and states. The same scene also links to the conversation between Asif and Nikhat in the later part of the movie, where Nikhat explains Asif that replying back to the massacre by another massacre of innocent people is not the right way. Fight between few people of two communities should not consume lives of other innocents who live peacefully. If we really want to end this, question should be asked to the actual people who did this – and not with a sword or a gun in hand.

  • Plight of Chhagan – dilemma of humanity vs. own life

ImageWhile people might hate the character of Chhagan, in general, but I would believe there would be many who would understand his situation. When the rioters moved to kill him, he used his advantage of being a Hindu and was forced to help them to see them kill hundreds of people in front of his own eyes. The question we need to ask ourselves is what we would have done if we were at his place – as the dilemma is not whether you should be secular or not, but whether we put our life before others or the other way round. Majority of us would go for the first option – very well knowing that it will also put us in the same league as the culprits. And that was exactly what he said during his testimony in front of NHRC (National Human Rights Commission).

  • When a Hindu rioter saves the life of Nikhat

This was one of the most inexplicable scenes in the movie – even though it was merely about a 5 second shot without much of a dialog. It showed the presence of humanity even in chaos that prevailed. While emotionally, it was as touchy as it could have been but the message was not very clear on why it happened what it happened.

  • Conversation between Allen and Dr. Jairam Uncle on Gandhi’s response to 1919 Jaliawala Bagh massacre

ImageOne of the sub-plots of the movie, which was very well executed, was the story of Allen. Particularly, the scene between Allen and Dr. Jairam where he explains how, after Jaliawala Bagh massacre, Gandhi prevented himself from becoming a terrorist even with anarchy all around him or going into self-destruction but instead, he made himself stronger on his path of non-violence. Although it is very difficult to develop this kind of mentality for an average person who is struggling with the basic necessities of life and is not sure about his or his family’s security itself. However, it is the best right path to go about. I would deliberately use the “best right” since humans are the product of their surroundings and you cannot expect everyone to react in one single way nor you can say a particular reaction as absolutely right or wrong.

  • “Lord only gives a person a burden that they are strong enough to handle. That the burdens must fall somewhere in this world, and when they fall on you, it is not just a test but a symbol that life knows you have the strength to endure them. Never in my life I would’ve guessed that the religion can be both, the cause and the solution to the problem”

This is one of the best lines on life I have heard till date. While watching Shernaz holding together her family in the crisis while simultaneously swallow up the pain of her missing son, Allen realizes that a human receives only the amount of pain that he/she can endure. I am not sure how true it is. If it was completely true – there wouldn’t be any suicides. On the contrary, it probably depends on the amount of faith you have in God that your problems will definitely see an end one day and that everything will be alright.

  • Testimony of Shernaz in front of Human Rights Commission

There couldn’t have been a perfect end to the movie than this. It was one of the best performances I had seen on a movie screen. While Shernaz starting objectively describing the entire incident, it was a seamless transition to where she vented out her grief and emotional stress a mother goes through all the time while searching for her only son. The film effectively captures the grief of a father (Cyrus) as well – something Indian directors struggle to do.

ImageHowever, the dialog that struck me was “They were coming from all directions and it was impossible to go anywhere. We could not defend ourselves. We had no weapons. We were middle class families depending on Police to protect us and they did not do that”. It is very tragic that we Indians have to depend on our government and police to protect and defend ourselves and our families. There cannot be a more sorry state than this. Unfortunately, even the government does not encourage our citizens to self-defend. Why aren’t there mandatory self-defense classes in our schools? Why don’t we encourage women to have at least some kind of weapon in their purses instead of a makeup kit? Why don’t we educate our children on our rights as a citizen? Following non-violence is a good thing but when you’re out on your own in this world, only the power equality will be your key to survival.

Objective 2:

It was very difficult to decide whether the movie was a story teller or a conspiracy theory or a mix of both. The focus of the movie was to depict the plight of the family who lost their only son in the riots and how they have been doing everything they can to find him ever since. However, at times, the movie has drifted away from its original purpose, to portray that the entire incident was essentially right wing Hindu extremists’ conspiracy – completely discounting the train burning incident.

The movie shows the incidents of kerosene being ordered in large quantities in the city of Ahmedabad, saffron flags being placed outside Hindu houses to separate them from Muslim houses, adverts of Muslim businesses in plenty in the newspapers and Hindu extremists posing as population census officials just few days before the riots broke out. The director tries to tie together all this to build up a story that this was something the Hindu extremist groups had been planning for long and they just awaited an incident like Godhra to happen so that they can do, what is called “ethnic cleansing”.

However, plans cannot be made without set dates. In this case, the Human Rights Organizations call the train burning incident as a “spontaneous reaction” of minority groups against the eve teasing incident that happened on that fateful day at the Godhra Railway station, in spite of knowing the fact that:

  • The fire fighting system available in Godhra was weakened and its arrival at the place of incident willfully delayed by the mob with the open participation of a Congress Councillor, Haji Balal
  • The emergency brake was engaged by members of the mob, bringing the train to a halt
  • The coupling between the bogies S-6 and S-7 was subsequently cut and the doors of the bogeys were locked from outside and
  • 140 liters of petrol had been used to set the train on fire
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Godhra Station

On the other hand, the instant reaction within a day of the train burning incident has been termed as “well planned”. While the train burning incident can be planned knowing well that trains are scheduled to arrive on a particular day (if not particular time), how can reaction be planned? Did the right wing extremists knew in advance of when the train was going to get burned?

The movie also completely plays down the depiction of train burning incident while focusing only on depicting the other side of the story. Ideally, the director should not have got involved into the conspiracy theory itself, if the idea of the movie was to portray the story of a family who lost its dear one in the unfortunate massacre. Focusing the movie on what it is made for, would have made it a far better movie than what it is now.