What does a Joe Biden Presidency mean? An outsider’s speculation

Now that Joe Biden has been officially announced as the President elect, what can we expect? Following is a few random thoughts from an outsider.

Before I get to speculate about Biden’s presidency, I guess a short description my understanding of USA will help explain my views. I have visited the US multiple times (all visits were less than 6 months) from 2008 to 2015. I have a mixed impression about US from those visits. My first visit was to New York in 2008 and I absolutely loved the place. Bright and happening, busy and full of life. My second visit was to Cleveland and I revisited the same place in 2015. The impression I got was that of a sleepy little place with friendly people. The sense I got from the locals there (mainly cab drivers, restaurant and salon staff) was that this used to be a great place, but it’s no longer the same. One could sense certain vibe of frustration. I got a similar feeling from Pittsburgh, though to a much lesser extent. US politics is all over the media, even in India and it’s hard to ignore. From a distance, it looks like a country that believes in things like liberty and equality and also a deeply racist country.  I also consume a lot of news about financial markets and that also informs a certain view about the US society and politics. Primarily it seems to be a society that has taken profit at all costs to its very extreme. There also seems to be a great deal of importance in appearing to be politically right (or “woke” as it is called these days).

I have tried to sum up my reading of the situation is different heads, so as to make some sense.

Caution: Chaos Ahead

There is a still a small matter of Trump conceding defeat. He has assured that legal action will be initiated from his side. There also seems to be a strong belief in some section of the population that Trump has been “cheated” by mail in votes. Some groups have actually threatened violence if Trump loses. There is also the fact that Democratic Party doesn’t have control of the Senate, so it is easy to foresee a period of utter chaos, where no decision making happens and there is a very real danger of violence. Given that Guns are as ubiquitous as cars in US, there is a big risk of random mass shooting that US is infamous for. The ongoing conflict between “woke” democrats and “conservative” democrats will widen. Any decision by the President will be labeled as “communist” and the polarization will get deeper.

Assuming that Biden and his team find a way through all this mess and actually execute some of their pre-poll plans, what are the possibilities?

The China Question?

One of the positives for India in the Trump administration has been his antagonistic stance against China. The trade wars, the effort to bring an anti-china alliance – The Quad, consisting of US, Japan, India and Australia, the complete support for Taiwan. All these are necessary and important steps to keep a very domineering China at bay. There are fears that Joe Biden’s administration will not be as combative against China. This stems from two reasons.

  1. Democratic party is seen as slightly more indulgent about China and the belief that they can be made to seen the error of their ways and will be made to stick to their end of the bargain ( hasn’t happened in 2 decades)
  2. The proposal is to expand the rail and road network in America and other infrastructure. Any infrastructure project has a dependency on China, simply because they are large and in a lot of cases the largest producers of all components that go into building infrastructure (steel, cement etc.). Given that there are plans to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure, Biden may avoid excessive tariff routes to solving disputes with trade partners and trade allies. This means a likelihood to go relatively softer on China and other trade partners of America, where there are frictions currently.

The Quad alliance is in its early stages and Sec. Pompeo has been driving it very successfully as an anti-china front (India, strangely, is coy to label it as anti-China). Any weakening of the Quad or the resolve to keep it going will be a big setback for India and a big plus for China. If they don’t have to deal with a combative US, China might just get more energy to engineer additional headaches for India. All this, of course, is speculation. May be the Quad will continue to grow in strength, fingers crossed.

COVID Recovery

This is one of the main election stories. Lot of people believe that Joe Biden will deal with far more effectively than Trump. He believes and will promote science when it comes to dealing with Covid is the general assumption. He has promised to unveil a COVID task force on Monday and follow a scientific approach to dealing with Covid. He has given assurance that no effort will be spared in fighting COVID.

While the promise seems earnest, the reality is that dealing with COVID after it has raged across the country is a bit like trying to save the Titanic using buckets to pour the water out of the ship. US hasn’t helped itself by politicizing something as simple as wearing masks (I mean how did they manage to turn such a non-issue into a political battle is beyond me). As much as he believes in science, will he be allowed to implement the guideline from his team of scientists?

He has promised to ensure that health care workers will receive free personal protection equipment. He has assured that American citizens will be able to avail of private healthcare policies if they’re not happy with the state health insurance and the outgo of the premium paid for this private personal health insurance shall not exceed 8.5% of their income. This is basically Obamacare+ – cue, accusations of being “communist”.

Immigration – will it become easier?

Joe Biden has stated that he will allow up to five times more immigrants into America as compared to the number of immigrants that were allowed in the calendar year 2018.He has also assured that undocumented illegal immigrants in America will be dealt with fairly leniently if they have been paying their taxes and their background checks are fine, even they may be allowed citizenship.

If he goes easier on immigration as he has promised, it is good news for Indian IT industry and hopefully they can breathe a little easier. Hopefully software companies will be able to send more people onsite with less hassle, fingers crossed.

Economic Stimulus

Biden has plans to put in place a big recovery stimulus package and he plans to spend US$ 100 billion towards ‘Buy American’, which is basically the American version of “Atmanirbhar” and also US$ 300 billion towards research and development as to how goods and services can be actually made more cost effective in America. So, he is basically going beyond just good intentions and putting the money where needed or at least plans to.

He has plans to raise federal funding in education, hike the pay of teachers, have more health care workers in its public schools and raise the education standard levels in America.

Another proposal is the waiver of education loan with plans to  waive student loans completely if it all the student is earning not more than US$ 125,000, out of which, US$ 10,000 will be waned immediately when Joe Biden is brought into power. I am always wary of loan waivers anywhere, the moral hazard and the precedent it sets to demand for more loan waivers is well known to anyone who follows Indian economy. Biden has also promised to create infrastructure, especially low cost housing for the affording and homeless US citizens (echoes of 2008?).

The overall idea is for a middle class friendly economic stimulus, which is very likely to attract a lot of comments about being “communist”. If we dial back to 2008, US government bailed out a lot of Wall Street fat cats, which was promptly channeled to share buy backs and executive bonuses, so this is definitely a different direction and one likely to see effects on the ground if implemented properly.

The Taxation Ideas

This is where Joe Biden is likely to face stiffest resistance. Given that the big shot corporates and wealthy individuals dominate US media and have an ability to amplify their voice, all proposals and attempts to increase taxes will be met with furious blow back.

Plan to raise corporate taxes and taxes on HNIs -Biden has plans of raising taxes on HNIs and corporates to basically raise revenues of the federal government. I can already imagine the kind of panic and breathless news coverage such a measure will result in. A few talking heads will appear on TV to say how this move will kill capitalism. To be fair to Biden, the attempt is to target high earning individuals and companies and not tax everyone across the board. With respect to investments, the tax raise is planned only on capital gains and dividends more than $1 million dollars

The other big taxation idea that is unlikely to get through is a proposal for death taxes or estate tax i.e. taxing unrealized gain on inheritance. E.g. Suppose I own an apartment which I purchased at INR 30 Lacs in my lifetime and I happen to die and at the time of my death, the apartment is valued at INR 50 Lacs. It is on paper or an unrealized capital gain of INR 20 Lacs. The proposal is to tax the INR 20 lacs when the asset passes over to the legal heir. This something people like Bill Gates and Warrant Buffet have recommended in the past. I can imagine everyone opposing this, so unlikely to go through is my guess.

Corporate Taxes – Proposal to raise corporate taxes from 21% to 28% which will cause some tremor in the stock market, but over a period of time, the concerns would settle. Eventually, all administrators are looking to increase tax revenues, somewhere or the other. Also to roll out a heavy duty financial stimulus, the money has to come from somewhere.

Dealing with Climate Change

USA is the largest consumer of fossil fuels, especially oil. Biden has plans to end subsidies for fossil fuels. US is not only a consumer of oil but also a producer. If the subsidies for oil go, very likely that crude oil and natural gas prices will go up. This is done in an attempt to discourage consumption of fossil fuel. Proposals are also in place to double offshore wind energy production by 2030, which again means that renewable energy will be emphasized upon and therefore fossil fuel consumption is likely to go down in Biden’s tenure. The implication of this is that oil and natural gas companies – exploration, oil marketing companies are going to have tough time and likely to see a slide in value.

Biden has committed to put in place reforms that would make America net zero emission by the year 2050. He is planning to spend on US$ 2 trillion over the next 10 years and create 10 million jobs by changing the way Americans consume energy and also leave a carbon footprint in the atmosphere. US$ 400 billion is the proposed expenditure for research and development on clean energy. There is also a promised outlay for encouraging electric vehicles and charging stations. So, companies in those areas are likely to benefit.

India – US Ties

India – US ties are at a stage where they are natural partners. I believe this is a mutually beneficial alliance and needs to continue irrespective of regime change. India cannot rely anymore on Russia, given that they have built military ties with China that are expected to grow. US has always been pro Pakistan, but there is hope that they are fed up enough of the unreliable partner to look at India as a regional partner. Also, the over reliance on China for imports is a big risk and hopefully India emerges as a strong alternative supplier. Flaws and all, India and USA are progressive democracies that have more in common than differences, so hopefully the partnership will endure.

In total, next 4 years will be very challenging for US and its partners and hope fully things will move in the right direction with the help of a far less noisy and far less entertaining president.

Time to strike Gold?

Gold prices have surged by 35% in the last one year in USD terms and by 48% in Indian currency (INR 37,500 on Aug 2019 to 55,700 on Aug 5, 2020).

What is Driving This

The traditional relationship between between US Fed rates and Gold prices ( as seen in previous recessions in 2001 and 2008)

2001 Scenario

Fed cut interest rates from 6.5% to 6% in January 2001. Gold was trading at $267/ounce. The Fed brought down the rates closer to 1% in less than a year. Three years later gold rallied to a high of US$ 402/ounce – a gain of 51%.

The Great crash of 2008 and what it did to Gold Prices

Fed rate cuts began in Sep 2007, within a year the rates were down to 0.25 and stayed there for a considerable time. Gold price in Sep 2007 was $743/Ounce. In three years, it rallied to $1308/Ounce – 76% gain.

Along with the traditional rate cuts Fed also started pumping money to the system through Qunatitaive Easing (QE). The first QE begain in Nov 25, 2008. There were 4 rounds of QE over the next few years. Gold price surged to $1746/Ounce in Nov 2011. That’s a 135% rally in since the first rate cuts.

Cut to Present

Fed began increasing interest rates from 2016. They reached 2.5% in Dec 2018. From last year, Fed has started interest rate cuts again. Thanks partially to COVID, the interest rates were down to 0.25% on Mar 15,2020. Not done yet, Fed announced the biggest bond buying program ever of $2.3 Trillion.

Now this is a strong signal for a gold rally over the next 2-3 years. No one can predict where the gold prices will reach, but the trend of Gold price rally in conjunction with Fed rate cuts and QE can be expected to continue.

USD Wobble

USD wobble. USD is the reserve currency of the world, but it is on slightly shaky ground right now. Typically during an US election year, every effort is made by the incumbent government to keep the dollar strong and keep all economic data rosy. Unfortunately, the usual USD firmness has been subject to a virus attack. So the dollar is becoming weaker. Now, the primary reserve currency of the world but of lateits share of its reserve currency of the world, eroding slightly.So in 2017 it was roughly 72%. In 2018 it was 67% and in 2019 US dollar’s share as a reserve currency has fallen to 62%.

As the currency weakens, the commodity prices will firm up i.e. as the currency you use for settling transaction weakens, so asset prices will go up.

The printing machines of the world

Another parallel factor is the pump priming of the economy by central banks all over the world. The printing of unbacked currency i.e. currency not backed by any asset to prop up financial markets is going to weaken their purchase power. This again will lead to rise in asset prices. In a scenario where currencies lose their purchasing power and interest rates are low, the fixed income returns or going to fall, there will be a demand for alternate investments and some of this will definitely flow gold and other commodities ( silver, natural gas etc.)

In terms of investment, while the fixed income returns can expected to be low and equity investments volatile, the next two years will see good return for hard assets like gold, silver etc.

A word of caution

All investors are slowly getting on the gold bandwagon and gradually it will reach a stage of irrational euphoria, we are not there yet, but will get there eventually. Don’t go over board with any investment, no matter how bullish and confident you are. All asset prices go through cycles and Gold will in time reach its peak and start climbing down. There is still time for growth but consider your entire investment portfolio before you jump into gold. Also, in spite of the many peaks Gold has maintained returns of 9-10% over the last decade (2010-2020), so that is it’s normal growth trajectory. There is no get rich quick scheme here.

Indian PSEs: My expectation from the new Government

Full disclosure: Lot of the following content is from a newsletter I subscribe to by writer Vivek Kaul.he writes at https://teekhapan.wordpress.com/  Since it’s a private mailing group, I am sharing this for wider audience

India will have a new Government from May 23, 2019. Irrespective of whether NDA returns to power (most likely scenario) or cedes ground to UPA, there is a lot of work to be done to sustain India’s economic growth. Creating more jobs, ensuring enough funding for capital expenditure for our armed forces, stimulating demand and new investments etc.

The key to the above issues might lie in dealing with the big fat white elephant of Indian public sector companies. The central government owns and runs  300 PSUs. It started with 5 companies in 1951 but has been increasing over the years. It is understandable that for a newly independent nation the government had to step in and establish public sector enterprises for stimulating the economy, creating jobs etc. Unfortunately, the evaluation, if the government still needs to continue running these businesses was never properly done and we are saddled with a lot of loss making units.

If we take the top 10 loss making PSUs, their combined loss is INR 31,261 Crores (FY 2017-18). If we look beyond top 10, there are 71 loss making PSU. 52 of these have been making losses for the last 3 years .

The government is present in sectors like biofuel, airlines, telecom, paper, steel, drugs, hotels, watches, machine tools, newsprint, pumps and compressors, bearings, limestone, organic chemicals etc. Even in cases where PSUs are turning a profit, the return on capital does not justify government continuing to invest money in them. The government doesn’t have the swiftness and the culture to handle the private sector competition and caught in a vicious spiral of loss and debt. The list of 52 loss making PSUs does not include the Indian public sector banks. The total loss of public sector banks is INR 85,371 crores.

Government has to spend a lot of money to keep these loss making units running. For example, just for the public sector banks, the government has spent INR 1,96,000 crores over the last two years. This is money that could go into welfare schemes like MNREGA or to capital expenditure for our armed forces or to fill key faculty positions in central universities and so on.

Whichever government comes to power, they should dismantle the public sector companies. Sell them in open market. Sell them to private sector companies or if nothing works shut them down. I will start with Air India, MTNL and BSNL. With a combined loss of approximately INR 16,000 crores they make up 52% of the losses of the top 10 PSUs.

The government has to be flexible as well when it comes to terms for sale of these units.I was disappointed with the clauses set for Air India sale. Why would the government want to retain stake in a company that has been making losses for eternity. Unless there is a drastic offer like selling Air India for a nominal value of INR 100, I can’t see how any private firm would be interested in buying Air India.

I will gladly vote for any party that gives 3 to 5 year plan for dismantling PSUs, regardless of my ideological differences.

Source of Data:

http://164.100.47.190/loksabhaquestions/annex/17/AU1600.pdf?utm_source=VKD&utm_medium=mail&utm_campaign=e-letter&utm_content=VKD&__sta=vhg.uosvpxqsc.b.ojobq%7CYHJU&__stm_medium=email&__stm_source=smartech

Public Sector Enterprises Survey 2017-2018

 

 

Burma – Zany Fun

If there was an award for wackiest movie of the year , then for 2014, Burma would win it hands down. It’s filled so much attitude , fun and flavor , it’s impossible to stop grinning while watching the movie. The best part is that all this craziness and a lot of details are packed in less than 100 minutes of running time ( in spite of two speed breaker songs towards the end.)

The story is about car “seizing” by a street smart young man and the people around him.More than the actual plot , the brilliance of the movie lies in how the scenes unfold. A song request on a radio acts as a commentary on the betrayal of a nemesis, ring tone of a famous dialogue from Kurudhipunal is a sly note on what the hero is really feeling, a scene from Pudhiyaparavai  plays in the background during a murder. Add to this it has some unusual characters ( for a Tamil movie at least) – a violin playing , coke smoking female gangster, a loud mouth accomplice of the gangster, a cop who is largely in the background, two minor characters named Jet Lee and Bruce Lee etc.

Since the story is about stealing cars it has a resemblance to “Gone in Sixty Seconds” ( but way more interesting than that). Two heist scenes are staged superbly and the second one is an absolute riot. Thankfully the movie also avoids preaching Nalla Karuthu to the audience ( something Sathuranga Vettai did and disappointed me) and thus the fun is intact.

The fun begins to wear out a bit towards the end thanks to two needless songs that had me searching for a forward button.Also story takes a detour with a stolen Easter egg and another gang on the run and it’s not as much fun as watching Burma and his friend stealing cars.

If you are interested in watching the movie legally , try herotalkies.com . It costs only 77 cents( that’s about INR 50 i guess).

Small Blessings

 You are returning home at the end of another mundane day at work. Your idle mind is starting to play games with you. You suddenly catch yourself questioning the choices you have made in your life (“may be I really should have done MS instead of MBA, may be I should have avoided all the show boating with sky diving and saved that $300″ etc. etc.). Travelling with a sea of people in varying degrees of perspiration somehow adds to the irritation (“hell, I should have started an hour early from office, this is bloody suffocating”).As a matter of habit you plug the ear phones on your mobile and tune the radio, a blaring “en uchi mandaila” is the last thing you want to hear. You mutter a curse under your breath and continue tuning, a few more pointless songs and empty RJ chat later, you perk up listening to what sound like a thousand violins singing in harmony. In the next few minutes you are transported to a different world, you don’t even recognize the instruments that are playing but you are now immersed in pure delight of blissful music. The crowd around you seems to have disappeared, it as if you have been left alone in a concert hall listening to this divine music.

Just as you reach your destination, the music stops. Only then you check which radio channel is this, its AIR FM 101.4 and the RJ tells you it’s a band from France playing Mozart’s compositions. Live western classical symphony at prime time on AIR? Who would have thunk? You smile a satisfying smile and thank god for that unexpected blessing

Parvada Malai Trek : Memories of a mountain

This is an old post on the trek to Parvada Malai back in Jan 2007

It’s interesting howsometimes, random conversations lead to the some of the most memorable experiences of your life. Our trip to Parvada Malai also started on similar notes. On one of my regular trips to Thiruvannmalai, our conversation drifted to a temple on the hills nearby – Parvada Malai. The description about the place given by a person who has been there and done that was jaw dropping. As he explained how risky the climb is, how scary it is at times and most importantly the belief about a couple of dogs in the hills, which are considered incarnations of Lord Bhairava showing you the way through the hills really got a few of us interested.4 of us, Me, Sampath, Mani and Arvind Ram immediately decided that we have to make this trip at the earliest. We decided that Pongal holidays was the ideal time for this trip.

As with all good plans, we faithfully put it in the back burner for quiet sometime. Arvind Ram collected a lot of info about it, but in general we were lost in our supposedly busy office life. By the time Sampath gave me a call and discussed about the trip it was Jan 10th.We were still quiet hopeful of making the trip as planned. Arvind and Sampath handled the travel planning after that and had booked an Innova and so the trip was finalized on Jan 12th.A Toyota Innova for five guys, 4 of us and William, Sampath’ s colleague ,was a tad luxurious , but our enthusiasm to make the trip overcame all inhibitions we had about expenses. Arvind Ram also prepared a neat schedule for the trip with a list of items to be brought, a few precautions etc. As I found out later, the schedule was prepared for his travel with another group, but Arvind was fated to capture our photos in his camera.

In spite of my eagerness to make the trek, I did have an inkling of fear. I wasn’t exactly sure of my physical fitness and the hype given to the trip was giving me a few minor jitters.

So we started as planned on Jan 14th Morning. The ride on the Innova was super-smooth and but for an occasional glance at the speedometer I would have never guessed that we were traveling at 90-100Km/Hr for most of our journey.The talk during the journey was generally about ICICI bank , since I was traveling with friends who were either employees or ex-employees of ICICI bank, and occasionally I had to remind them that I am an outsider to the topic.We watched movies during the trip , but I really don’t remember discussing much about the actual trek till we reached Thiruvannamalai.

Our first halt was at Thiruvannamalai. After praying to almighty for a safe trek, we proceeded for a decent lunch.Meanwhile our driver, Stalin, had enquired the shops around about the hill and was in a dilemma about whether to come for a trek with us or not. He ultimately decided that it was a risky proposition as he had to drive all the way back to Chennai on our return journey.

We first went to Kadaladi , the village near Parvada Malai. We could see Parvada Malai on our way to the village and the sight was captivating enough for us to make a couple of “photo” stops .

When we reached Kadaladi, The arrangements were on for Jallikattu,the traditional bull-fight. There were oxen of all sizes lined with decorations. Though the rest of the guys were enthusiastic about it, I didn’t quite like the idea of waiting on the sidelines when bulls were running about. Thankfully we decided to proceed to the hills as it was 3:00 in the afternoon and we wanted to reach the ashram at top before dark.
The villagers we met were quiet friendly and were filling us in with stories about the hill. They made the trek on the hills sound much easier than what we had imagined.

We were introduced to our guide Jayavel. He was a local guy who was doing odd jobs in Chennai and had been to the hills 70 odd times. Though we trusted the story of a dog guiding us through the hills, we were too novice to let our trek be guided by myth alone.

IMG_4011-start

We started our trek at 3:15. After the initial walk, the climb to the hills started. We were climbing through narrow passage way flanked on both sides by tall bushes. As we proceeded further, the climb got steeper and our bodies began to show signs that the physical challenge is getting tougher. My heart beat went up drastically and I began to pant like an old railway engine. Half an hour into the trek and my head started spinning just a little and my feet were getting a bit shaky. The plight of the rest of guys was not much different with Williams and to an extent Mani managing to hold themselves, so we took the necessary break.

Jayavel meanwhile was trying to gee us up and cajole us by saying, we can reach an easier part of the trek in 10 minutes and take rest. As we proceeded further we realized that what was 10 minutes for Jayavel was probably going to be half an hour for us , we had little pauses throughout the next part of our climb. All the while , the dog which was our unofficial guide kept a close watch on us and was coming along with us throughout. At all our short pauses, Arvind kept clicking snaps of the scenic spots around us and of course more than a fair share of our pictures.

IMG_4027-long view

After about one and a half an hour’s trek , we reached a shop. There are few shops in the hill, all set up as tents. All the owners have to bring all the items from the village and have to climb through the same path. Moreover all the items for constructing the Ashram at hill-top were carried by the same route. Considering the fact that we were finding it difficult to carry ourselves, the guys who carried cement bags, steel rods etc. through the same path sounded like super humans to me.

The shop we had halted was owned by pachayappan.We had a glass of fresh lime soda and it was getting cool enough to stop being bothered by sweating. The cool wind and the refreshment was pretty energizing and we went ahead to take on the toughest part of the trek.

Did I Sign up for this?

The next part was the “kadapaarai padhai” or literally the path of rods. The climb was very steep and there were steel rods drilled on the sides so that we could climb gripping the steel rods for support.At first I didn’t realize that we had reached that part when I saw all the rods lined up, and when I did I was like ” Am I supposed climb through this?!!”.I was carrying a cross bag on my shoulder which wasn’t exactly a bright idea. On seeing the steep climb, I promptly handed over the bag to Jayavel who was more than willing to help us. After climbing a bit and I quickly looked down just to see how far we have proceeded and decided that it was best to climb fast through this part without halting. It wasn’t as scary as I had thought as the steels were more than sufficient to climb through the steep path. Once we crossed the kadapaarai padhai,
considered to be the toughest part of the trek , there was a sense of relief and joy and we celebrated by taking a few snaps of each other. By this time it was cold enough to reach for our sweaters and monkey caps.

The mandatory group snap
The mandatory group snap

The climb further was similar to our initial part only this time we didn’t have so much trouble climbing through the steep path. We managed it pretty well and the beautiful sunset only made the trek much more worthwhile. By the time we reached the peak it was 6:30 PM a good 3 hours from our start time and mist was just about covering the hills. We went to the temple at the hills. Hot tea and more snaps followed. Having a tasty hot tea on a cool evening on the hills is quite an experience.

 

IMG_4077-Sunset

We went back to the Ashram to rest for the night and were completely bowled over by the hospitality of the people there. The Ashram was quiet warm and we really didn’t feel much of the cold outside. There was a cave temple within the Ashram and there was puja in the Ashram. We waited in silence for dinner. When dinner arrived it was 9.00 and we were hungry enough to grab anything that was offered , so the Pongal that they served, which doesn’t count as my preferred dinner was lapped up happily. After dinner when we went out wash our hands , we could see nothing but mist and since we had removed our shirts for the Puja, the cold winds were even more telling. We were provided with all facilities for a comfortable night’s sleep.

The Ashram is run by a mouna samiar (Silent saint).
The Ashram provides all its visitors a comfortable stay and the way they treat you , makes you feel really at home. Since Jayavel is quiet a regular visitor there , we guys were literally pampered.
There is no power facility at the ashram and generators were used only during dinner time.

We had a good night’s sleep, though Williams had a bit of struggle coping with the cold weather. When all of us were awake at around 6:00 AM , we again found that there was nothing but mist surrounding us and visibility was quiet low. We thought that maybe we can start later when mist clears a bit but were advised that this is the right time to start as it will get really hot once the sun comes out. Heeding that advice we started at around 6:30Am.

Misty morning
Misty morning

The climb down was quiet a smooth one, though I got a bit scared at the kadapaarai padhai again. Since I was walking bare foot , I had few minor slips in the climb down with my feet hitting the rocks a few times. Apart from that the trek down was quiet casual.By the time we reached the bottom of the hill all of us were sweating profusely.It was a nice to have completed a 3000 feet climb and back to ground, something that seemed improbable when all of us were breathing our lungs out half an hour into the trek. Jayavel was an excellent guide as he kept telling stories about how villagers climb here with all type of loads and how easy the climb is. He also told us about mythological stories of this being the first place where Lord Shiva kept his foot on earth. Overall he ensured that we were never bogged down.

For me the trip was memorable for two things , one we actually managed to execute a much cherished plan and two the proof that I can push my own limits when required.

How to get there?
Parvada Malai is near the village Kadaladi which is about 35 KM from Thiruvannamalai. Frequent busses are available from Chennai to Thiruvannamalai. From there you can catch a bus to kadaladi.

P.S: All photos here are courtesy Arvind Ram. Link to the entire set of photos is here. http://picasaweb.google.com/arvindram79/ParvadhaMalai

Neethane En Ponvasantham : Crazy, Stupid Love

Movies, especially Tamil movies, always treat love as a noble and exalting feeling. Very rarely do you see a film that depicts the relationship between a man and woman as a crazy amalgamation of their individual insecurity, ambition and selfishness. So it is refreshing to see Gautam Menon treat love as a messy confused state where the couple in love is the biggest problem for the relationship. First in VTV, he presented Jessy as a confused wishy-washy girl who wasn’t able to decide about her relationship with Karthik. He goes a step further in “Neethane en Ponvasantham” and presents two flawed individuals in Varun and Nithya – equal opportunity offenders who hurt each other without any restraint. He doesn’t give a convenient excuse to blame things here (like a weird Jessy)
The detailed nature of the movie is established in the long flashback of Varun and Nithya’s school days. The “vanam mella” song acts as a melodious background as the movie introduces its adolescent lovers. The push-pull nature of their relationship, their class difference (he being thrilled about a holiday in Yercaud, she holidaying in Australia) and their basic character is established. It also presents the first real flashpoint and their first of the many break-ups. You sense that this is going to be a troubled relationship. Nithya and Varun may love each other, but that love alone is not going to paper over their differences.
Much after their adolescent tiff, they meet and fall in love again. The languid pace at which things unfold on screen seems to be just right for the dreamy romance of the couple. (“Sayndhu Sayndhu” song is employed nicely in this stretch). Of course things can’t go on smoothly forever. So in a wonderfully understated scene, the movie makes us aware of Varun’s family circumstances and his need to focus on his life apart from his romance with Nithya.
The problems between the lead pair are mainly because of their tendency to wear their sacrifice as a badge of honor. “Look what all I did for you” sort of reasoning that makes them insufferable. For instance, Varun blames her unfairly, when he says that there is a financial burden on his dad because he joined her upscale school (Ignoring the fact that it was he who wanted to join the school to be with her). Later, she blames him for sacrificing her friends and other pursuits to be with him. (Ignoring the fact that he never asked her to abandon her friends).
This movie’s strength is the many conversations (and confrontations) between the lead couple. The conversations appear stunningly real. The two best stretches of conversation – one when he has to leave for Kozhikode and the one when he is trying to reconcile with her at Manapad are raw , alive and open up a thousand festering wounds inside them. Both these conversations start innocuously and degenerate into a full-fledged blame game where Varun and Nithya are delivering verbal blows at each other. The latter conversation gets especially violent. (With the mandatory F word that GVM cannot do without in his movies and the lady also getting to mouth her share of verbal abuse).
In spite of the strengths of the movie, the big problem is that it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop that you would expect. In VTV, when Karthik talks to Jessy in central park, his emotions practically leap out of the screen and hammer you. Not so in this movie. I think the reason is that the lead pair isn’t romancing each other as much as coping with each other. We don’t get to see much of romantic “cute” portions, as we would in normal movies. So you don’t feel the pain of the lead pair. The last stretch of the movie with the beautiful “satru munbu” in the background should have left the audience teary eyed, but it’s strangely subdued. Any which way, I am looking forward to Gautam menon’s next romantic movie. He sure is breaking the romantic movie template of Tamil movies.

ruminations of a random guy