Friday, December 20, 2013

Let's cry foul!

I have been following the Devayani Khobragde drama with much interest for the past couple of days. To be honest, I really wanted to convince myself that America's to blame here. So I was trying to find anything even remotely factual that supported my prejudice. I have seen  how American visa procedures are unnecessarily strict when it comes to certain professions and passports. Your nationality influences the ease with which you get professional opportunities in the US. Since I had a personal grudge against the US Department of Immigration, I really wanted this to go against them.

Take a look at this . It is an account of all allegations against her. It is clear from this report that not only did she commit a false salary on paper, that too on somebody else's visa application, but also made the applicant lie to the consular officers. If the diplomat herself does not take home $4500, how on earth does she write that figure on her nanny's visa application?

Now take a look at this. Indian software corporation, Infosys, has also been recently accused of widespread visa abuse. In a nutshell, Infosys employees traveling on a B1/B2 visa, which is strictly for non-business purposes, were regularly conducting business in the US. This was also a well planned exercise where the employees were taken into confidence about the "arrangement". They lied to the consular officers about the purpose of their travel. Infosys ended up paying $34 million as settlement. All of this came to light because of an American employee who acted as a whistle blower.

Unfortunately, I have seem many anecdotal examples of  maids and nannies traveling from India on a B1/B2 visa being passed off as a "visiting relative". They all are paid in the form of  plane tickets and an "Indian salary" deposited in their banks back home. The legal/work status of an Indian domestic help in the US is none of  "our" business as long as all parties involved are okay with it (and we are served hot pakoras when it is snowing outside). BUT when a dispute occurs and the reality comes to surface, as Indians with "dignity" we have no right to cry foul. We should own up and go to jail with dignity.

I think it is only fair that an Indian diplomat is being tried in a US court for a malpractice that so many wealthy NRIs conduct shamelessly. Their "rationalization" is that Indian nannies would never earn Rs. 30000 a month in India. So for them, it is a good opportunity to make money. Or, in case they are on dependent visas without the appropriate work permit, then paying them $1000 for something that would get them $4000 with the proper permit, is considered 'helping them'. Needless to say, these workers never pay taxes, never get the benefits such as health insurance and, if they are caught taking care of someone else's child without the proper authorization, they could face an extremely harsh sentence in a foreign country (their employer included).

Leaving aside the India-US diplomatic association and the fact that the US does not always have same rules for everyone, there is also a need to introspect why we do this. Why is the allure of having a nanny, or a maid at home to cook for us, stronger than the consequences one could face if it is done by flouting the rules of the land. Don't we get furious when illegal immigrants from Bangladesh work in our country for a lesser pay than Indian workers? And if we cannot afford help at the prescribed minimum wage rates, there is a simple solution that many middle class Americans follow - DO IT YOURSELF! You cannot have the best of both worlds on your own terms wherever you travel!



Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cloudy with a chance of joy


We have all heard that one comment from the opponent in a fight - "It is always about YOU! YOUR feelings! What YOU want!". But fights usually happen, to begin with, because both sides are equally focused on themselves. This was about conflict. Let's try feeling blue. I am not saying feeling depressed, because that could be clinical and completely out of the sufferer's control. I am talking about the pensive brooding about ourselves that we so often escape into. Who we think we are and how that does not match with what others think of us. Or the defiant, stubborn voice inside us, which suppresses all compassionate openness that our minds are willing to have, but unwilling to apply, at the same time.

Now, let's try feeling happy. Sometimes, we get so carried away with our own personal milestones that we completely forget that we are surrounded by others. Then happiness starts feeling a bit weird, because we want to extend it long after the applause dies down. People have an amazing ability to move on with their lives when your happiness is in no way, connected to them. That is why every now and then we have to take the painful decision, of taking a break from making the perpetual FB scrapbook about our happiness, and actually put our hands together for someone else! It sucks. But if you don't clap for me, I won't clap for you either. :)

When you think of how self-destructive your thoughts about yourself could be, be it in conflict, sadness or even happiness, you realize why so many people run towards meditation. And then if you retrace your life, you realize why you were so much happier when you were a kid. As kids, we all had the ability to "get lost" in things that were outside the sphere of our identity. Such as? Such as watching clouds float by! Wasn't that something all of us did? I still do it. That is why I love this talk and go back to it again and again. What is it about watching clouds or watching the night sky that is so soothing?
I used to go to work at 6:30 in the morning and see the sun rise from behind fluffy clouds. More than the sunrise, I loved the sunsets in the Midwest. The confused, pink sky, full of scrambled clouds somehow puts our entire existence in perspective. Then all our sorrows and joys that are purely attached to our identity seem trivial. But things like your best friend sitting next to you watching the sunset don't! In fact, sunsets have an incredible ability of making you grateful for your friendships. :)

I think watching clouds also has the power to make you feel grateful for what you have. Even if it is just being alive, in that very moment. Or being grateful just for the instinct that made you look up 180 degrees from your phone, into the sky. I think cloud watching, is really the first step towards meditation.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Before They Pass Away



Before They Pass Away
I read this post on my favorite Internet haunt - Brainpickings. I am going to share the accompanying video at the end of this post. It is a great talk. It made me think about the lives of so many people I have met in the past. People who have willingly chosen to do something different and unconventional, usually because of something they experienced at the very beginning of their adulthood. 

It is really difficult to understand the way certain people process what happens to them. Traveling helps in deconstructing our rigid boundaries, especially the ones we inherit from our upbringing. But not all traveling is as paradigm changing as the one you see in these pictures. Some people just become their journey. While some travel in a comfortable bubble they carry around them - of their identity. There is a lot to gain however, in losing your identity. There is a lot to learn just in the act of getting lost. 

People who walk these roads sometimes find it difficult to identify themselves again, in places where they started from. You come back and realize that the place has or hasn't changed in ways you don't want to see. And no matter how rich you are from all your travel, judgment still hurts. Not because you expect a deeper understanding from people but because you cannot translate your experiences into words, for them to understand. There are some realizations that cannot be said. They can only happen at the end of an experience. And going through these kind of experiences takes the courage (or the foolishness) to get lost. 

As an audience we have an insatiable appetite for stories of triumph. Yet, most of us would not want to put ourselves in situations that offer the kind of risk that creates stories of triumph. Most of us choose to stay away from the fear of losing than accept the joy of walking the unknown path. And most of the times, we offer little hope or encouragement to people who are halfway through their own stories of triumph. For them, we speculate failure, citing statistics, or cultural norms, or our (limited) experience. When all the dots are connected, (and they are always connected in retrospect), these stories always defy our idea of how a life "ought" to be lived. 




Monday, November 18, 2013

Like a bridge over troubled water

"Do you believe in God?" was the first question I got from my PhD supervisor, when we went out for a get-to-know-my-new-student lunch. It came right after (literally), "Do you know anything about ionic liquids?". I really wasn't sure about either. And he said it was perfectly okay. :)

He is a rather outspoken atheist. We have spent so many hot Brisbane evenings in the pub down the road from the university (called The Ship Inn) talking about (how there is no) God. I think he has a special problem with religion. If religion is removed from the picture, he would lose most of his ammunition.Talking to him was always very enlightening. I don't think I learned as much chemistry from him as other things. First and foremost, he taught me to cook with all my heart. Watching him cook for his friends was a treat to the eyes. He had spices from all over the world (especially New Orleans, one of his many loves) and he used to take pride in sharing all his little tricks with us. He taught me how to be ethical. He is the kind of person who will give up a fat salary because it is conflict with his conscience. He shared all his music with his friends. He has a great taste in music. His house always sings.

He also has a great sense of humor. Sometimes, he can be really rude (but very funny). Once we were at a conference and a pompous (& slightly tipsy) professor was bragging about how everyone tells him that he looks much younger than his age. Then he had the worst idea ever, of turning around and asking my supervisor, "How old do you think I am?". He promptly replied with a blank face, "I don't know mate. You look sixty five to me". I did not stop laughing that night.

He always treated me as his equal. I had all the freedom to argue and fight with him (which I used liberally). I was really impatient with him during all the stressful times in my PhD. At the time, I had not anticipated that when all of this writing, proof reading, referencing, peer reviewing, publishing is over, we are going to be left with a friendship. He was always happy for me. When I moved to America for a post-doc, he made it a point to let me know, more than once, how proud I had made him.

There was one day however, when I was horribly depressed in Michigan, that changed my life. Although traveling around the world and making new friends everywhere was a lot of fun, it also came with patches of being completely alone. There were situations when I was alone and also extremely lonely. To an outsider, my life may seem like a series of boarding cards (which to a great extent it was, when I was in the States). I had the traveling of my life, with people who were not just a lot of fun to be with, but also taught me a lot about myself. But being alone, on your own, in a small apartment in the middle of  Michigan snow had it's own lessons. And on one such night, I really was ready to give up. I couldn't believe how sad I had become. And beneath the noise of my everyday life, I felt really lost and scared. I had an urge to write to my supervisor that day and I am so glad I did.

I hit the send button and looked out of my bedroom window. There was fresh snow everywhere, piled up on quite a few inches of existing snow that had made our lives miserable that week. The light from the street lights reflected off the snow, and made the night oddly surreal. It was a magical hour. I had never been up that late and just looking out, at the bigger picture, which was not at all related to my sadness, was a respite. Nature has an amazing quality of slowing down your thoughts. The vast expansion of the ocean till the horizon, the silhouettes of leafless, naked maple trees waiting for their turn to blossom, in the silence after a snowstorm, the infinite lifeless grayness of the Himalayas -- all of these have always helped me stop my thoughts, even if it was for a minute or two.

There were so many options ahead of me. All of them seemed equally complicated at the time. All I wanted to do was curl up in my blanket and become invisible. And then, I got a you-have-new-email alert. There it was, a reply! From the land of sunny beaches and Vegemite. Where it is too hot to wear a shirt in December. Knowing me, and how evasive I can be when I am upset, he chose to write back instead of call. And I will always keep that letter close to my heart.

Among other things, it asked me not to return home to surround myself with love, but to plan a career, a life, that would keep me satisfied.  To take everything people tell me about life (and about myself) with a pinch of salt. To not build walls around myself to avoid getting hurt. To always follow my bliss. He had begun his list of advice with 'always follow your bliss'. And he ended the list with the same line. I think it was intentional.

I  still don't  know the answer to his first question. But I do know this. That night, I really came close to believing in a higher power. That power is the goodwill of one human being for another. When you are down and out, sometimes the biggest stroke of luck is your choice of who you decide to reach out to. If you reach out to someone who can just vacuum out all the imaginary dark clouds that loom over your imaginary future, your sails are set in no time.  Out  beyond the cultural and moral boundaries of what is right and wrong, and how one should lead the course of his or her own life, beyond all the noise and judgement, lies the deeply satisfying knowledge that there are people who still believe in you when you don't. People who always see you as a complete picture, without magnifying your flaws and skewing your own ideas about who you are. People who know what you are going through because just like you, they have been there too. Thanks to them, these fleeting moments of profound grief do not take a sinister form.

The other day, I got a call from him. He was traveling and it was 3 AM in his timezone. He had returned to his hotel after a few beers and he sounded extremely happy. "I just called to let you know Saee", he said in his warm Aussie accent, "that I am so so so happy for you."

As you get older it gets harder to say that you have absolutely no regrets. But it gets easier to know and acknowledge what makes you truly grateful. :)




Friday, November 01, 2013

Rehamania

Time to decorate my blog with music.
It would be an understatement if I say that I love music. I am a musical person. To the point where my thoughts depend on the music I am listening to. My writing goes with music. If I like a song, I listen to it a hundred times, over and over again, constructing a story to go with the song. I am very curious to know how other people listen to music. Is it just sound waves hitting your ears? Do you have stories to go with your favorite songs? Do your day dreams need musical dancing shoes?

During my travels abroad, every new place, every new person would bring a new kind of music into my life. And all of that was always very exciting. Gypsy music, French music, Bob Marley (thanks to my PhD supervisor), Arabic music (this always makes me sad), Manu Chao (Ugh! I used to hate Colombian late night parties), Adele & Edith Piaf (Elodie, I miss you), Anoushka Shankar (Indian music for the West), Kermit Ruffins (Yay! New Orleans!) and so much more. But most of this music was a way to be in the moment. None of it really entered my soul. Sometimes, these days, I actively avoid listening to some of those things because I don't really identify with that part of my life anymore. If there is anything constant that has always stayed with me, it is A. R. Rahman.

I love Rehman. His music has a  transcendence that I have never found in any other artist. At least the ones I have heard. His songs always seem to detach themselves from the movies they are made for. Especially the tracks he makes with his signature Sufi style. I recently came across some of his MTV unplugged episodes. The orchestration is just mind blowing to say the least.

  

This is the title track of  the movie Swades. I think the most attractive feature of this composition is the strategic pause that the entire ensemble takes during the song. And of course, the way Rahman just moves to Tamil at the end of the song. Sounds very beautiful. I have been trying to find the right word to describe the nature of his voice. Haven't found it yet. 


 

This is Rahman singing Robindranath Tagore's, where the mind is without fear . It sounds so beautiful in Bengali. 


This is also one of my most favorite Rahman songs. A lot of Rahman songs have an eccentric piano or guitar mixed into the song. If you listen to it very carefully, you'll notice that it is kind of out of place if you just pay attention to the instrument. Together with everything else, however, it takes the song to a whole new place. I love that about his compositions. 


Next up is Tu Bole  by Rahman and Neeti Mohan, again on MTV unplugged. It is a lot of fun to see Neeti absolutely enjoying the show and Rahman watching her enthusiasm and smiling to himself. When I see this kind of team work, I feel extremely jealous and sad that I could not be a musician. For some reason, I could not upload that video. Strange!




And the last one for this post is one of the best Rahman has ever made and Prasoon Joshi has ever written. This song has been my theme song since I heard it first back in 2009. This unplugged version includes fabulous piano. I'll end the post with the original track. 


A very Happy and Musical Diwali to everyone!




Monday, October 28, 2013

Why do we help others?

I volunteered for a script writing workshop for kids recently. The unique feature of this workshop was that it was organized by UNICEF for HIV positive kids and adolescents from rural backgrounds. It was an eye opening experience. The youngest member of  the group was a fourth standard boy (age 8) and the oldest member was a 21 year old girl. All of them came from remote villages of Maharashtra, which are confronted by many other problems as well. We never come across the statistics of AIDS in our daily lives. It is such a taboo in certain social classes that sometimes these workshops have to drop the "HIV positive" adjective from their agenda all together. I read up on this after the workshop. The situation is grim, to say the least:

"India has an estimated 220,000 children infected by HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that 55,000 to 60,000 children are born every year to mothers who are HIV positive.  Without treatment, these newborns stand an estimated 30% chance of becoming infected during the mother’s pregnancy, labor or through breastfeeding after six months.  There is effective treatment available, but this is not reaching all women and children who need it." (UNICEF India)


What was remarkable about these kids was their happiness. They were extremely happy to be with us. All of them, barring a few exceptions, were confident,  happy and socially well adjusted. Some of them, especially the girls, were well into their first professional degree. They had chosen fields of study which were close to their hearts. One of them, a young boy about 20-22 years old, lives on his own in an organization that supports poor kids. He has chosen a masters course in social work. Many of these kids have one or no parents. Some of them lost their fathers at a very young age, leaving their uneducated and unemployed mothers vulnerable. So most of them realize how important it is to earn a living and almost all of them were on a path to do so. To keep the virus in check, these patients have to take a pill twice a day. I was moved when the slightly older teenagers were reminding the younger ones to take their pills on time. Somehow being in the same situation, had created a sad sense of belonging among them. But there was no guilt or remorse anywhere in the group because they were all dealing with their destiny.

At the end of the day, they had to write stories. Their stories were equally moving. Some of them wrote about what happened when they lost one parent to AIDS. One little boy thanked UNICEF for bringing happiness into his life. One of the popular kids (we had nicknamed  him "hero") narrated how he was able to gain weight and a muscular frame -- thanks to the ongoing medications and dumb bells provided to him by the institute. Now he wants to try his hand at acting!

Although all of this sounds positive and hopeful, it is also evident how difficult it is to control the spread of this virus. Not just in rural areas but also among the urban elite. The Indian government does a lot to stop it. Various government schemes provide counseling support, medications, tests absolutely free of cost. It is also very heartening to see that at least among these circles people talk openly about safe sexual practices. I believe that on an organization level, Indian medical community is more open and liberal and detached from religion in these respects. Women have a lot more facilities made available to them absolutely free of cost. The real hurdle is the stigma and misconceptions associated with the proper use of contraceptives. In that, unfortunately gender inequality seems to play a major role as women don't have a say in choosing the method of contraception. Ultimately, the brunt is borne by innocent kids born to infected mothers. The world is just not fair. But it is humbling to see people adjust to misfortunes and still lead a purposeful life.

I am very grateful I got this opportunity. It helped me detach from my own life. Sometimes, I feel that we help others only to help ourselves. If I had not gone their to tell them stories as "Saee Tai", someone else would have. And it would all run just as smoothly. But the fact that I could be there, made a big difference to my life. It was as if I needed that experience more than they needed my help. It made me go back to "The Happiness Hypothesis", which deals with the question of why we help others. It is not just for the people we are helping, but also for ourselves. At the end of the day, I left the place feeling much more grateful than I was before. :)



Wednesday, October 16, 2013

I miss Seinfeld

I really do. I tried getting the full seasons DVD but it is always out of stock. I even tried to go through the Comedy Central schedule in a hope that they would be showing one of the re-runs. *sigh*

So I am going to post some of my most favorite Seinfeld moments here. For me to go back to and for all of you to share!

 Elaine on the train

This is by far my most favorite scene in all of the seasons of the show. It is so funny and so feminist at the same time. Elaine's feminism has always appealed to me because she manages to be so angry and so helpless at the same time! 

Too late to be drinking coffee



This is the absolute extract of everything George stands for. I love this scene for so many reasons. It tells the story of the modern day dating scene so well. And George is so brutally honest. I love him. 

Kramers Pinky Toe Story



I will never be able to choose between Elaine & Kramer. Kramer's style is so grossly physical. His makes you laugh by doing a workout. It must have been the most difficult-to-perfect character. This story is so engrossing and the expressions on the listeners' faces are so genuine. It feels like it is all happening right there, for the first time. 

Reservation



This is my favorite Seinfeld scene. And perhaps, he is my least favorite character on the show. It must be hard to compete with all the other three accomplished actors. But I love some Seinfeld scenes where he is more in a stand-up-comedian role than his actual role in the show (where he is off work). I feel the same about Geraldine Granger (Dawn French) in Vicar of Dibley. She is surrounded by people whose characters are certainly a lot more goofier and funnier than her character on the show. But she is also the focal point of the story. So without her, the others wouldn't exist, pretty much like Seinfeld.


Okay I think this looks good enough to go back to every now and then. :)
Do watch the Vicar of Dibley scene. It is hilarious!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What do you use your Facebook for?



Facebook is an unequivocally annoying entry on the "kids these days" list. I hear it everywhere I go and the funniest part is that although the discussion is always about somebody's adolescent kid wanting an android, I feel guilty when they start talking about it. Facebook (or the Internet) is not as evil as some Indian aunties may want to believe. But it is true that the insidious effects of social networking have already made it into research papers in psychology journals.

I  would read these papers and articles and sometimes wonder, "Man! Why didn't they call me as a subject for one of these studies?". For once upon a time, I was also bitten by the Facebook envy bug. I wasn't going through a particularly sorted/organized/conventionally happy phase in my life. So when I saw others' lives just "working out" for them, I used to feel extremely ungrateful. And I choose that word with a lot of thought because the basic feeling that drives envy is, in my humble opinion, a lack of gratitude. Even in moments of crisis, if you just take a few minutes and think about what you have, and are grateful for, the situation seems less stressful. 

When being on Facebook started making me unhappy, my first reflex was to blame all the happy people on my timeline for their happiness (and it made my situation worse). Then I did what so many others do. I deactivated my account. That did not help because it was hard to stay in touch with people I had met during my travels. So I came back and decided to filter my friend list. That helped a lot. I was down to about 200 something friends from some 700+  I had before. I chose to delete people with whom I was sure I was never going to stay in touch on a personal level. People you meet TAing or RAing during your PhD, extended social circles focused on just one activity that you no longer are a part of, friends' friends, people who read your blog but who have never actually met you -- basically people, who, I was sure won't really miss me or get hurt. 

Then I took a good  look at what was it that was actually wrong with my life. My envy was a mirror of my own mind. And covering the mirror is not the solution. I tried to fix those issues to the best of my ability at that time. One of the tools I used was meditation. I shall be eternally grateful to the guided meditations made available by Audio Dharma. This website has helped me cope with some of the hardest transitions and times in my life. And I realized that being grateful is important to feeling hopeful or happy; and there is always something to be grateful for. Just that one practice of being actively grateful helped me reduce my habit of comparing my life with that of others.

When I realized how much stress I went through just passively looking at others' pictures and posts, I decided for myself that my FB profile is going to be something that would never lead to such comparison or stress among people on my list. It was hard to come up with rules (and it is still work in progress), that satisfy this condition. But nonetheless I came up with a few. 

1. I post things that are not too personal but inspire me (and hopefully would also inspire others) such as pictures, quotes, good music, art blogs and comics.
2. I post links to videos, newspaper articles that would help me step out of my own life and look at the big picture. 
3. I don't express my own  political views (unless something really outrageous happens) on my timeline. And I try not to read these kind of posts by others, or interact with people who regularly post this kind of content.

It has been more than a year now that I have applied these rules. And when I go through my timeline, I feel happy about my choice. It has actually helped me detach from both the happy and sad parts or my everyday life. Going through my timeline is also a source of strength now because it always takes me back to things that I enjoy reading, watching and listening to. It is like a giant wall full of inspiring stuff. A little bit like Pinterest, but more interactive. 

So, I think I use my Facebook to inspire myself. What do you use it for? :)

  

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Lunch Box






Happened to watch this movie the other day.
The story emerges out of an implausible delivery mistake from a Mumbai dabbawala.  Ila's lunch box, which she prepares with a lot of effort and love for her husband, gets delivered to some Mr. Fernandes (Irrfan Khan). When she realizes that her husband is getting the wrong lunch box, she leaves a note for Mr. Fernandes, thanking him for showing so much appreciation (which she quantifies by the fact that the lunch box comes back empty every single day). Ila is trapped in a loveless marriage and Mr. Fernandes lives alone (and is sometimes lonely). Over time, their lunch box notes turn into friendship and they both start seeking strength in this every day exchange of letters.

Although the story is quite simple and at times seems rather slow, what sets this movie apart is the acting that fills the silences in the plot. Both Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan display their remarkable talents of expressing what they want to convey without saying it. The movie also includes voice acting by Bharati Achrekar, who plays the role of Ila's neighbor, Mrs. Deshpande. The director takes his time with the cameras in a typical Mumbai government office, and slows you down by filling the frames with dusty files. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is delightfully annoying as Mr. Fernandes's  pesky assistant. All the fun is in the details and the execution.

I am glad I got to watch it before it left the cinemas. So if anyone is wondering whether they should watch it, well, do it right away!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Happy Birthday PurpleMoon!

This blog turns seven today.
Happy Birthday PurpleMoon.
I hope you have a colorful, exciting new year ahead. :)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reading my grandfather's books





My grandfather passed away last week. It brought to an end, one of the most fascinating stories that I have had the privilege to be a part of. Growing up around him was not always easy. But as I go through all the memories I have of him, I realize that he has been an inspiration all along.

Aai and I were cleaning his room the other day. But it was really difficult to focus because we used to get lost in his books and his handwritten notes. He used to rise early every morning to read. Then he would write down his ruminations on bits and pieces of paper, usually on the back of  fliers and receipts (to save paper). Then he would staple all the relevant writing together. It is fascinating to read all his random notes. He would jump from religion to atheism; then connecting both at the end with a verse from the Geeta.

Going through his books has always been a treasure hunt. He never left any margin blank. His books are full of notes and references. So if you start with Kathopanishada and follow his references as directions, you'd end up reading Dnyaneshwari. And he makes it very easy for the reader. Usually, every reference carries a page number and a verse number. I have been given the task of talking about him on the last day of mourning. His books have all the footprints I need to write that story. All I have to do is follow his directions.

Life is not always fair or sweet. It would be boring if it were always good. A certain amount of struggle is necessary for happiness. Just the way a certain amount of doubt is essential for faith. There is always that one leap of faith that makes all the difference. I have been fortunate enough to witness two generations before me take such leaps. They have always held a special place in my heart. I owe a lot of what I know and how I think to my grandfather.

Rest in peace. You will be missed dearly.
And I will try my best to follow you through your handwritten footsteps. :)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Happiness Hypothesis



I just finished reading 'The Happiness Hypothesis' by Jonathan Haidt. Jonathan Haidt is a professor at New York University Stern School of Business. His field of specialization is positive psychology. This branch of psychology is a recent development in this area. For almost sixty years, psychologists developed therapy and medicine to treat various maladies of the human mind. But all their work was always focused on what is going wrong with the human mind. Recently, a lot of focus and research has been dedicated towards gaining insight into the positive aspects of the human mind, happiness being one of them.

We are always inspired by heroes. By stories of triumph over adversity. We are inspired by people who walk their own path. Most of our religious beliefs emerge from stories of single messiahs who chose to lead people on a different path. Haidt takes inspiration from ancient wisdom to make a point. He begins his book by borrowing a metaphor from Plato. Plato describes the mind as a wild elephant controlled by its trainer. Haidt uses this same metaphor to describe our unconscious mind (elephant) and conscious mind (trainer). Often the disharmony inside our mind is caused because the elephant does not agree with the trainer. When the elephant and trainer are in harmony, happiness comes naturally.

The world is becoming full of rich and unhappy people. But this is not a product of time. The author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, a king in Jerusalem expresses sadness after he tries to get all kinds of pleasures under the Sun. He expresses it as "chasing after the wind". Happiness doesn't really reside on the other side of seeking success, planning success and achieving success. It is only truly found in going towards success. The pleasure of achieving goals can be remarkably fleeting. That is why it is also important to know and choose the things that make you happy. Then he quotes Shakespeare,
"Things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing"

The part I enjoyed reading the most was Haidt's take on 'absolute freedom'. Watching people from different cultures interact in the 'melting pot' of university lives, I have often wondered about the different ways in which absolute freedom has the ability to tie you down. It is interesting to know that absolute moral freedom, which is devoid of social ties and obligations, actually leaves people feeling lonelier and more depressed. Our attachments and obligations to our spouses, our families and our societies actually make our lives happier. The lack of these kind of obligations even has a word. It is called 'anomie'.

Another interesting part in this book was how 'being in the zone' makes you happy. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, another famous positive psychology researcher, through his studies, proved that 'being completely immersed' in a task makes people happy. It makes us so happy that it is rated about chocolate and sex. It reminded me of the ancient Hindu concept of being 'one' with what you do.

Although all of this is interesting, it is also true that people are actually born with happy genes. Genetics influences our disposition far more than we realize. Happy people, according to Haidt are also the winners of this cortical lottery of good genetics. So people battling with depression need something more than an attitude transplant.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A box of letters

Recently, my mom was appointed to be the half hostess of a "family chat show", organized for her cousin's 75th birthday. She was supposed to interview him on his life, while a representative from his wife's family did the same for her. Taking her role as a hostess very seriously, my mom skipped work on Saturday and "studied" for the interview. :)

It was during this study that I accidentally stumbled upon an old box of yellowed letters. These letters were written to my grandma by her siblings, who resided all over India and abroad. My aaji handed that box over to my aai before she died (with permission to read its contents, also extended to me).
First, I came across a neatly written essay, dated 7th July 1933. It was about a caged bird, narrating its story. "I have a lot to eat, no fear of predators, but I have no freedom!", it said, written in a beautiful hand. I don't know who it was. Must have been my aaji or one of her siblings.

The letters that followed, were full of pain. My aaji's decision to marry my grandfather was extremely controversial at the time (it would be even now). Her letters to her siblings must have carried a lot of justification because their replies were full of calm counseling. I read those letters and I could slowly put together the reasons behind their life long chemistry. I watched them too late in life. But even then, the distribution of affection was justified now, that I read these letters.

It is remarkable how this art of writing letters has vanished with my generation. My aaji's eldest brother maintained a letter-log. He made a note of all the letters he had received and replied to, in a dated book, so that none of them were left unanswered. He used to sew together small booklets of coloured paper during his extended stays at various places, and send those booklets as letters. Each letter opens with, "Your letter dated XXX arrived on YYY"". I find that adorable. Who cares about these things anymore? Perhaps these letters read so calm because their writers took their time to ruminate, consult and mull over the situations at hand. Maybe some letters never reached aaji because they were torn between their conception and delivery. Maybe some of them were too harsh, too negative, too disappointed or disappointing?

 It takes so much of "thinking about someone else" to even begin writing a letter. It has something from your side and then it has something for the receiver. You have to take active interest in their lives, their kid's progress at school, their spouse's well being, their marital joy (or the lack of it), their employment and promotions. You have to be polite, use appropriate salutations (especially for the elders in the family), make sure that everyone in their family is mentioned in the letter. It reads like a task that would most definitely help you detach from your own life. And isn't that such a wonderful thing?

In one of those letters, my aaji's elder sister consoled her by quoting a shloka from the Mahabharata.  
God does not protect us like a shepherd would protect his flock, by pushing them forward. He protects us by giving us reason (to act). With that reason (and the subsequent actions), we protect ourselves.
It is a poetic thought for a depressed sister. But over the years, I have come to believe that many of our personal decisions in life are inspired, not by rational thought but by a strong emotion. People are very good at rationalizing their emotions. Sometimes, we rationalize what we really want to do. Sometimes we rationalize not doing what we ought to do, because we do not have enough courage to do it. Sometimes we rationalize our choices because we envy someone who has done exactly the opposite and seems incredibly happy. Sometimes we rationalize because we are tied down by fate. But these rational fences don't work until we are truly at peace with ourselves. And it takes great courage to be at peace. I think towards the end, my grandmother was truly at peace with her choice. These letters just introduced me to her inner turmoil, when she was probably as old as I am now.

Reading these letters made me realize why I wanted to return home. I just woke up on a Saturday morning, already knowing that I wanted to go back to India. I still had eight months in the United States before I could actually return. Nothing changed my mind during that time. I was astonished at this sudden clarity because it had never happened before. But over this past one year, although I have come up with a million reasons why  returning home is the right choice, and, if pitched against someone with an industry job in the US, I would also have a million reasons why this is not the right choice, I know the difference. The difference is that I am at peace here. And any amount of rational thought is ineffective in undoing that peace. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Talking Science

I have realised how much philosophy there is in speaking in Science. The more I move, the more it is obvious to me that Science also plays the role that a language would play in our lives.

Recently, I started working for a biofuel company with a pilot plant and R&D unit, close to my town. On my first day, I was introduced to two chemists who work on the NREL protocol. I caught up with them in less than half a day. All of us had worked extensively on the same standard method. I started my PhD with that method, and they had worked on it day and night for the past two years. But unlike me, they never worked with the big names in biofuel research. Nor did they get to attend conferences. But their results were spot on, with consistency, throughput and precision that made me feel inferior.

It was a humbling moment for me. You don't really have to travel the world to be good at something. When I meet people who do their jobs with great love and infinite patience; people who never express their opinion on the future of the world that they are silently helping us build; people who figure things out on their own, independently, because they carry out the same experiments in the first shift, and then the second shift, it makes me realise the futility in quantifying achievements.

Stepping out of the somewhat monolithic structure of academia, it is refreshing to be a part of a diverse group of people with diverse and interconnected technical problems (that always need urgent solutions). It is also funny to see how, when the end goal is profit, people miraculously learn to leave their ego aside (at least when they are in trouble).

But more than everything else, I am constantly amazed with this common language that all of us speak, all over the world.






Saturday, March 16, 2013

What I know about fear now that I did not know before


http://pinterest.com/pin/513128951263362617/
This is a current Huffpost series on women and fear. Women of different age groups talk about their fears, or  how they overcame fears through the years. I liked the 30 something blog the best, but it could very well be because I actually see that coming. I decided to take this thread and write about it here. 

I spent all my teenage years and twenties constantly worrying about my attractiveness. I am still not over it. I don't think I will ever be. Every now and then, a little dark cloud of doubt floats over me. But it is interesting how this complex has given me other strengths. 

As a teenager, I was probably the class clown. I had a lot to say (I still do) and I was a brat. But all along, I knew that I was not the subject of interest when it came to rose days, song dedications and dance invitations. I wasn't the class nerd either (Math! I hate you). My parents changed my school just before my eleventh birthday, so I was also struggling to establish my identity. Finally I settled for what I would like to call "the class philosopher". I look back on those days and wonder why I needed an identity so bad. I wondered why I didn't just settle into the background. I don't understand why I wanted to create my own place and I was always deeply hurt when I wasn't categorized as "pretty". Maybe it was because I am an only child. Or maybe because I was best friends with the one of the prettiest (and smartest) girls in class. I had to try hard to keep my jealousy in check and I must have been successful, most of the times, because I am still best friends with her. But I remember how everyone always talked about how beautiful she was as soon as she left the room. And somewhere I was sure that it did not happen after I left. 

From the "world" that I have been exposed to, I have learned that although peer comparisons of attractiveness sound really superficial and basic, they contribute significantly to how we turn out as adults. Most of the times, unfortunately, you compare yourself to your closest friends. It is very difficult to keep envy in check and I am slightly ashamed, but also relieved to accept that I spent most of my twenties trying to fight envy. I feel very bad about myself when I get jealous. It is the same guilt I would feel if I eat a large pizza all by myself. :)

My pretty friends tell me how they have always been conscious that they are pretty. And how sometimes, it works for and against them. How it is difficult to separate the appreciation for your work from the appreciation for your looks. How it is easy for them to get drinks if they go out. How the bias worked in their favor at work. I don't remember even a single example where this happened to me, solely based on me walking into a room. In fact, I can confidently say that it never happened to me. Gyah! These last few lines make me sound like a complete loser, but in my head, I look at it very objectively. 

I am frequently an important part of my social group. But not because I am pretty. 

That last line caused me utter anguish for about thirteen years. But only in the past few years have I realized how fortunate I am, to feel that way. I always identify with Elaine of Seinfeld. I have maintained happy, funny and completely platonic friendships with guys since the time I was in school. Sometimes, by being the agony aunt, sometimes by playing the cupid, sometimes even proof reading their sonnets (ugh!). Nobody had friend zone problems with me in high school. And for that too, I am grateful. 

This fear of not being pretty enough (or matching up to the standard) led me to do some stupid fitness mistakes (and my right knee still pays the price for those). But it is only in recent years that I have learned to be grateful to my body. And it makes me sad to accept this, but this sudden burst of positive energy does not come from demolishing my fear and complexes. It comes from the rational realization that I have been given a set of genes. Fighting my biochemistry to achieve some ideal is a waste of my time (and creative energy). No movie makeovers are going to change our lives. We have to learn to get over the feeling that our lives need to be changed.
I still consciously try to lose the extra kilos I put on. But the intensity and desperation has significantly mellowed down. And I am very very grateful for this change in me. 

I have also started cultivating sensitivity to the stories I hear from others. A casual, passing comment people make about themselves can say a lot about their lives. I ask my pretty friends if they always knew that they were pretty and how does it feel to be the focus of attention because you are pretty? My best friend from high school opened up about it one day. She told me how her parents made a point not to tell her how pretty she was. The attention she got outside was the only evidence that she was indeed someone who stood out. And flashing her million dollar smile, she confessed how grateful she was that her parents helped her keep her feet on ground!

I have also learned not to share this vulnerability with the wrong people and not to fall into the trap of being "saved" by others. You don't have to get completely cured. Sometimes, focusing less on yourself works wonders. But nothing works as good as learning how to take deep breaths and visualize the flow of life through your healthy body. I am also grateful for that choice. :)







Friday, March 15, 2013

Tree Hugger


I want to talk about trees today. I was sitting in the backyard in a rocking chair, at about 1600 hrs, this afternoon under this Shirish tree. Which by the way, belongs to the family Fabaceae . I realized what an absolute pleasure it is to just sit under a tree. And since I absolutely suck at all that transcendental stuff, I went back in time to see all the trees I have met growing up. My first favorite tree was a crooked palm tree which grew at an angle of about thirty degrees to the ground. It made an excellent slide and was perhaps the only tree I could climb up for a long time. Then there was a tamarind tree that threw itself over a really deep well in my uncle's farm. It was so inaccessible that it was somehow more enticing. Close by, was a big mango tree. We used to try and swing upside down from it, with our knees locked firmly on the branch. The girls usually got an earful if the group got caught doing that, mostly because we never bothered to change from dresses into trousers before we set out for this adventure. I liked walking down the street to see the Parijat flowers fall on the ground, very early in the morning.  If you collect enough flowers and squish their red stems on your hands, it faintly resembles the color of henna.

And the ugly jackfruit trees we saw as kids on a trip to the beach, in Konkan! I always wondered what kind of desperate circumstances could have led humans to explore the insides of a jackfruit. And how pleasantly they must have been surprised! My grandmother had a special place in her room (and her heart) for Bakul flowers. We used to go to the temple and get strings of bakul flowers and use them as bookmarks. Later I saw these enormous trees in the gardens of the Red Fort in Delhi. Summer always reminds me of the Gulmohars. On those unfortunate days when you have to step out into the scorching sun, an eyeful of Gulmohar can soothe your mind. But the best Gulmohary memories I have are from the Jacaranda lined streets of Brisbane. It was a treat to the eyes to see the streets burst into purple every summer.The road to my school was lined with these Yogi Banyan trees. They were all sacrificed for bigger roads. But they still have a place in my heart. I remember driving under many tree-canopied roads around Kolhapur. It is one of the best kind of journeys. On those kind of roads, it is really easy to forget where you are going.

Uff! And who can forget Frangipani flowers? They used to be my favorite accessories when I played "Seeta in the forest". Gardenia flowers, jasmine flowers thrown into the water pot in summers, and the Jui flowers that covered an entire balcony in the rainy season -- stars holidaying  on earth. Fall in the US was second best only to the sunset in the midwest. I was fascinated by the weeping willows in the first few days of my life in the US.

It is funny how memories too have themes. And sometimes, your life so far flashes in front of your life with a theme. In my everyday life, Tree Hugger wouldn't be the first adjective I would use to describe myself. But all I have to do is sit in a rocking chair and stay away from my phone (except when I need to use Instagram to take that picture). :)

Monday, March 11, 2013

The psychology of rape and domestic violence

Recently, I have become a fan of Aljazeera. It first caught my attention when I watched the coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict on CNN and then on Aljazeera. Their analysis is well researched and their journalists come from all over the world with many perspectives. Their documentaries make an honest attempt at gathering views from both sides, without too much "reporting" involved.

Their recently published documentary 'It's a man's world' delves into the psychology behind rape. I was a bit disappointed that India was not chosen as a subject country for this study, but the focus is on Cambodia, where the percentage of self-confessed gang rapes is 5 -- much higher than the other countries that were studied. Gang rape is so common in Cambodia that there is a word for it. The men who confessed show a range of emotions but no empathy, or guilt even. The study is innovative in this area because it was based on a "ridiculous" assumption that rapists would actually talk to a reporter, let alone permit rolling cameras. But, they did.  Here's an excerpt from the story.

“What are they like?” A friend of mine asked when she contacted me during the filming of this difficult story, “Are they like a pack of rabid dogs?” While many would like to think that gang rapists are in some way psychopathic, they are actually just like other men. They have mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, girlfriends and every one of them told me they would not want the same thing to happen to the women in their own families.  

Sadly, many of these men feel no shame (their insistence on anonymity stems more from fear than shame)  in accepting that they have participated in a gang rape, because it is like a sport to them. Men are likely to accept that they have forced a woman to have sex with them, than women are likely to accept that they have been raped. It is funny how even the stigma associated with these crimes works against the victim than against the perpetrator. 


But kudos to Aljazeera for presenting a perspective that actually answers the WHY behind rape. It will take at least an entire generation to see the kind of parity we want to see between genders as far as this issue is considered. That estimate also assuming that the stigma around reporting rape is reduced by the work of media, the women and most importantly, the 4 in five men who don't rape. 

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The first Muslim






A few days ago, I came across an FB post with a Wikipedia link stating the "fact" that "Hinduism" accepts "atheism". Although the post was apparently intended to educate people, in the comments that followed, a discussion about believers and non-believers ensued. In that, the author mentioned how there is no equivalent word for non-believer in Sanskrit (synonymous to Kafir) and how, the priests in Kashi would never issue Fatwas against various anti-Hindu acts. 

Religious facts can be obtained from various sources with little or no perspective, or worse, with the wrong perspective. The inclusion of atheism in the Hindu philosophy has been explained beautifully by Prof. Amartya Sen in the Argumentative Indian. It is also true that there was a time when education of women was not only accepted in the Hindu society, but also appreciated. Women were allowed to perform religious rituals along with men. The concept of  "Swayamwar" (where a woman chooses her husband) was accepted. For that matter, there are people who are now going back to those principles. The Dnyan Prabodhini foundation in Pune has ordained female priests. Their weddings are a far cry from the mainstream Hindu weddings. All the vows are explained to the audience in their language of choice and the girl can choose the "Swayamwar" ritual instead of the Kanyadan (where her father gives her away). 

BUT there was a time not very long ago (compared to the age of Hindu civilization) where women were married off at the age of under ten years, without education, without any means to support themselves, to men much older than them. Usually, these girls ended up being widowed at a very young age. Their heads were shaved, they had to give up all earthly pleasures (ornaments, sweets, flowers) and were reduced to maid servants of the house. It was not long ago, that we actively practiced untouchability. It was not long ago,   that women were burnt alive on the pyre of their dead husbands. Changing these customs was considered the hobby of the "ultra liberal", educated men, and was always met with strong opposition from the contemporary Hindu society, especially by the higher castes. One of the most fortunate outcomes of the evolution of the Hindu society is that we think of women as well as men, when we think of feminism and emancipation of women. The shoulders that we stand on belong to both genders. 

The point I am trying to make is that religion is just like language. It is open to influence.There is always a spectrum of followers in every religion. I heard this talk on NPR the other day about a book titled  'The first Muslim" by Lesley Hazleton. It is a book on the life of Prophet Muhammad -- the first Muslim. Ms. Hazelton is an agnostic, born into a Jewish family. She went in "search" of the first Muslim and found something that contradicts the image of modern "sword/bomb-wielding" Muslims. She talks about how Islamic fundamentalists follow a "highlighted" version of Quran, where everything is taken out of context. Prophet Muhammad was in a happy monogamous marriage for twenty four years. For most part of his life, he was an active proponent of non-violence. He tried to make common people aware of the exploitation they faced at the hands of the rich. He advocated respect towards women. He shared his early thoughts about Islam (which was not really labeled Islam yet) with his wife.

Her TED video (above) has over 700,000 views (please watch it till the end). It makes me wonder why some of the most eloquent and thought provoking religious commentaries I have read/heard have been made by agnostics.

Radicalization of any religion comes with its institutionalization. Gautama Buddha never wanted to label his journey as "Buddhism". In fact, attaching an "ism" to Buddha's philosophy is its greatest defeat. Buddha walked along alone to realize the "truth" for what it was for him. It is HIS realization. And his teaching is not as much in the eight fold path as it is in following the source of your suffering, detaching yourself from the causes of suffering and attaining happiness that does not cling to your circumstances. The guiding principles of Buddhism may help this process, but it can also be done without thinking of Buddha, by just being honest with oneself. For every radical, there is always a reformer. Sometimes, the reformer comes in the body of a fifteen year old Afghan girl

If you think about it, we can talk about everything that religions stand for without talking about religion. We can talk about compassion. We can talk about respecting each other as human beings. We can talk about non-violence. We can talk about charity, kindness towards all living beings and protecting the environment. We can also appreciate what religions have given us (apart from faith and messiahs) without fastidiously attaching it to the religion it comes from. Anyone can practice meditation, anyone can appreciate Sufi music and poetry, anyone can appreciate the wide range of art, music and culture that emerged out of religious devotion. We can believe in God without believing in religion. Going further, we can create our source of divinity. It doesn't have to come from the "menu" that has been passed on to us. 

But it is a grave disservice to any religion when its teachings are used to proclaim its superiority to other religions. It only creates more polarization and hatred. 


Friday, March 01, 2013

Chocolate frosted sugar bombs


That's one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips. There is nothing like waking up to a sickeningly sweet breakfast. Although processed food industry has taken it to a whole new level, I do remember some really happy summer vacations, which included a sickening overdose of sugar. We used to eat fresh "cream rolls" with tea first thing in the morning, at lunch we would have a scary amount of Indian (or Maharashtrian?) version of mango jam (मुरंबा). And I cannot hide my regrets over growing up, when I begin to describe the procedure we had established for eating a bourbon biscuit . It had to be opened first and then the chocolate cream had to be eaten. The left over cookie was usually dunked in extra sweet tea. In summers, we had special clothes to eat mangoes. We were locked out with our mangoes on the balcony to avoid paw prints on the walls. There was sugar available at every meal. No ration. No guilt. 

BUT, all the sugar we consumed was "obvious sugar". There was other food and then there was sugar. It was easy to go off sugar if one wished to do so (who would ever have such a wish!). However, the processed food we consume now comes with a lot of latent sugar.  The food industry in the United States is driven by a wonder sugar -- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS has made its way into almost every kind of cheap processed food (burger buns, yoghurts, nutri bars, breakfast cereals, ketchup, pizza, even roasted peanuts!). Proponents of the use of HFCS argue that it is just as bad as eating cane sugar (which by the way is not true). However, the problem arises when HFCS is used in foods that usually don't need sugar. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, this omnipresence of HFCS is a result of persistent lobbying by the corn industry of the United States. Corn growing is heavily subsidized. And the biggest beneficiaries of these subsidies are not just the multinationals that are directly involved in the use of corn but also the leading soda and fast food corporations. Increasing the amount of sugar in any food adds to its, for the lack of a better word, "addiction quotient". The insidious sugar packets that are delivered to us through ketchup and burger buns actually help in getting us hooked on. The manufacturing costs of cane sugar would not accommodate such rampant use of cane sugar in foods such as breads and yoghurts. Hence HFCS just adds an excess amount of sugar to an everyday on-the-run diet. 

This  is an enlightening piece about HFCS. It is often argued that the human body processes HFCS in a process identical to cane sugar. But it may not be true. HFCS consists of unbound fructose and glucose (in a ratio of 55:45), while cane sugar or sucrose consists of bound fructose and glucose (in a 50:50 ratio). Unbound sugars are absorbed rapidly by the body. Moreover, fructose is absorbed more rapidly than glucose, and is converted to fat by the liver. However, it has not been rigorously studied whether these biochemical differences would lead to increased risk of liver and pancreatic diseases. So essentially, the food industry is using its consumers as an experiment. 


Going beyond the details of sucrose Vs HFCS (interesting slide show there), it is not the kind of sugar that poses the bigger risk. It is the amount of sugar, and more importantly the amount of latent sugar, which is a bigger concern. No matter which culture/nation you come from, in order to eat healthy, you have to be in a position to control what you eat. And being able to cook your own food is the best way to control what you eat. 



Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I too had a dream


I was looking for that one "unputdownable" book since I came back to India. "I too had a dream" (as told to) by Gauri Salvi is a highly addictive account of the journey of Dr. Verghese Kurien. I was first pushed towards reading this book after I read this news. At the time, I was still a post doc at Michigan State University (MSU). So the fact that Dr. Kurien did his masters there, made me feel oddly happy. As I began googling him, I came across this,  which obviously led me to Shyam Benegal's  Manthan. After watching Mathan, I had made a mental note that I am going to read more about this. 

Dr. Kurien did not want to be a dairy engineer. He went to MSU with a sincere intention of studying  metallurgy, even though his scholarship terms clearly stated that he would return as a dairy engineer. He took nominal dairy courses (sadly, MSU was and still is one of the leading universities in dairy engineering in the world), and returned with a cocky assumption that he is going to work for a large corporate. However, when he was asked to cough up Rs. 30,000 for the expenses government incurred on the account of his education or work at a dairy for five years, he chose the latter. He was sent to Anand, Gujrath, with a note on his documents that he would not make a good employee. He had nothing to do for the first year at Anand. He would send his resignation to the government every month, urging them to release him instead of wasting more government money. In what might be called a sudden turn of fate, he had to get his act together to help Tribhuvandas Patel, who was organizing a farmer's ilk cooperative under the guidance of Vallabh Bhai Patel. Kurien started as a technical expert and then never looked back. The book is full of many amusing and enlightening anecdotes. But I think I would like to share some of the important points Kurien makes. 

1. Foreign Aid and subsidies

Kurien elaborates the role of foreign aid and subsidies in the development of people with remarkable perspicuity. In the late sixties, India faced an acute shortage of milk. The per capita consumption of milk of the nation was steadily decreasing and it was necessary to build infrastructure, and supply chains that would resolve this. Kurien along with a visiting professor from Harvard, Michael Halse, wrote the proposal for "Operation Flood", which was implemented from the early seventies through nineties. In 1998, India surpassed the US in the production of milk. And today we are the  world leaders in milk production. This could happen because, instead of accepting excess milk powder that European countries were willing to donate as aid, it was sold at market prices, after reconstituting and packaging as milk. The revenue collected from that aid was used to buy infrastructure to start co-operative milk societies all over the nation, which are still in operation. So instead of feeding free milk to Indian poor and creating more demand (potentially for foreign investors), it was used as a long term investment. Kurien is also skeptical of the various subsidies that the farmers around the world get. It is true, even today (and even in the developed world) that subsidies usually benefit lobbies and corporations more than the farmers. In some cases, subsidies actually create a lot of unwanted problems even for common people (case in point: the various ill effects of the corn lobby in the United States). 

2. Foreign Investment

Amul rose to glory at a time when India had highly regulated foreign investment policies. At one point Nestle invited him to discuss their intention of setting up a plant in India. The chairman of the board, casually mentioned that Nestle could not delegate the work to 'natives' because it is highly technical. Kurien stormed out of the meeting reminding them that they were actually talking to a native. Although over-regulation of foreign investments has led to problems of the other extreme for India in the late nineties, the nationwide networks which were built for farmers during the post independence years would not have been possible if we had left the country open to investment. I have a placard-waving-hippie inside my mind when it comes to most of these issues, but I genuinely believe that farmers should be able to earn good money, no matter where they come from. 

3. Take expert opinion with a pinch of salt

It was a "well known fact" when Kurien started his career that you "cannot" manufacture powdered form of buffalo milk. All experts, from all the leading milk producing countries (New Zealand, Denmark) endorsed this view. However, it was made possible, on a commercial scale at Amul. This reminds me of so many rampant expert opinions that are currently being thrown around in the petroleum and bio fuel industry. It is very important to find out for whom the said expert works, before accepting his views as gospel. Often expert opinions are also driven by the collective opinion of a particular lobby that the expert works for. 

There is this criticism that Amul could not be repeated in other states. It has a lot to do with the rigid bureaucratic structure that we have come to accept when it comes to anything related to the government. When I hear the word co-operative society, the next word that comes to my mind is corruption. However, when I think of "for profit" corporations, the next word that comes to my mind is exploitation. We live in a world where corporations have not just restricted themselves to exploiting human beings, they have also done a lot of irreparable damage to the planet. The politics of profit often replaces the brightest minds with the "corporate conscience", where simple, age old concepts of taking collective responsibility of our planet, are replaced by some convoluted logic "backed by research". We all have had the misfortune of witnessing 5 million barrels of crude oil gushing into our ocean as the "world's best technical experts" watched it helplessly for three months. 

Sustainable growth can only be achieved by creating self-enriching loops. It is just as true for people as it is for the environment. It is high time we start using the words "nurture" and "profit" together. I think the Amul story has those words written all over it. 


Sunday, February 17, 2013

No. I don't think so.

Sunday Times is one of the reasons I came back to India. Waking up on a Sunday morning and picking up the fat TOI, with a hot cup of tea, has always been one of the happiest moments of my week. But these days, newspapers and news channels make me gloomy, mostly because of the rampant acts of misdemeanors, assaults and casual instances of disrespectful treatment of women of my country. In the past few years, my brain has become more and more sensitive to a thought that was mostly subconscious through out my early twenties. Initially it started off  as a comparison between Indian women and Western women. Of how our values are built and how we look at life. There is a clear difference, and for that matter, I am not even a stereotypical "Indian" woman. And that is the problem. One cannot generalize a typical woman of any culture, religion, social class or nationality. We become what we go through, what we endure or enjoy growing up, how our mothers treat us and most importantly, how our fathers treat our mothers.

Women are expected to follow certain rules in every culture. Some conservative politicians/gurus never hesitate to jump to conclusions about how following Western culture is causing girls to get raped. But what does the contemporary Indian culture have to offer? With all the famous 100 crore grossing Bollywood movies, which always include a mindless item song? How are we helping young girls realize that their bodies are not up for abject objectification, if Kareena Kapoor flaunts her size whatever body in skimpy Indian clothes to a song that literally asks the man to devour her with alcohol? And then she proudly tells an interviewer that, for this song she had to have a slightly voluptuous figure, because the song is "desi" (establishing her power to control her body any which way she wants). Together with the lyrics, the lewd facial expressions, the dance moves it is worse than what a short skirt can do to "Indian culture".

Irrespective of the cultural trends in the media, it is equally true that we cannot control the media. We cannot control what the society/media wants men and women to believe. It is not practically possible to stop the advent of any culture or trend in a democracy. You cannot restrict  individual freedom. Moreover,  using our freedom with responsibility takes a lot more conscience and care than following somebody's diktat and being disgruntled about it. This kind of freedom also helps in building better/ safer societies.

 But I am starting to believe that a significant part of how men treat women happens at home. The most influential person in a young girl's or a young boy's life when it comes to perception/treatment of women is their dad. And one of the most powerful relationship dynamic we grow up observing very closely is that of our parents. It has long been proven that a supportive family helps women come out of a lot of traps that they encounter when they step out of home into the real world. Our parents' voice often becomes our inner voice and our parents' choices often deeply influence our choices. It is easier to shrug off/ fight against the media and popular culture. But it is difficult and sometimes impossible to trace our bias/fears/emotional problems back to our upbringing without an intervention. It is difficult for many women to accept that they have a choice. That they can walk out of an abusive relationship. That being healthy and happy is more important than being "taken" or "married". That there is also such a thing as emotional abuse, where being constantly belittled for lack of intelligence/beauty/personality can lead to a long term loss of self respect and esteem. Most of these things are considered okay because the abusers often sound confident to the point of making them believe that "this is how the world works".

I don't think India is ready for My Short Skirt. In fact, in my personal opinion, it won't work for India. Western feminism will not work in India because India needs to develop her own identity when it comes to women's issues. And the first and foremost freedom we all need is the freedom to say NO. Not just when it comes to sexual offenses, but also when it comes to the decisions of women who hold positions of power (or are on their way there). We don't expect men to protect us as much as we expect them to back off gracefully when we say NO. A NO is not always a rejection of your masculinity/personality/power/ability/intellect. It is not always a unidirectional and absolute dynamic. It is not always related to the protection of our chastity, or the proclamation of our superiority. A NO can actually be about us. It could be related to our desire to have a choice. To imagine a life for ourselves, which may not include you at that point. It could be related to our dreams. It could be related to a fulfilling relationship we have found in someone else. It could be related to our confusions about what we want to do, and the time that we need to figure it out. It could also be related to our doubts about whether we could be right for you (or the other way round). It could be related to a conflict that involves others. It could be against injustice that we think we have the courage to fight. It could be against a malpractice that we do not wish to be a part of. It could be about our money, which we wish to save up for our kids. It could be about a lot of things that are beyond you. And if we get the freedom to say NO, it makes us feel a lot more respected than to have you all eager to protect us against evil (and honestly, we are also very grateful for that).

And this cannot be taught to grown up men who are in jail under rape charges. This has to be taught to young boys and girls. By their moms and dads. In part as as education and in part by example. And I am able to think about this on my own because I have been raised by one of the most influential feminists in my life -- my dad.