Monday, December 15, 2014

Lessons in Courage

The announcement of this year's Nobel Peace prize brought two thoughts into my mind.

The first thought, came after a feeling of deep shame. I knew Malala and her story very well. But I actually had to Google the Indian citizen she shared her Nobel Peace Prize with. Malala, as we know her, was born because of social media; and today, social media is a bigger reality than everything else. There is very little human interaction these days, even in protests and social revolutions. Just add a hashtag and you're done. You are a part of the protest just by hashtagging words on your Twitter account. We have seen many such movements. Whether it is #bringbackourgirls, or back home, the intense #iamanna movement which quickly degenerated into a political party without roots. The over exposure to social media and hashtag activism has led us all to kind of 'swallow the proverbial red pill'. Our minds have a separate existence in our online worlds. But how much of that turns into action is a million dollar question. This brings me back to my original thought. Although both Malala and Satyarthi are symbols of fearlessness and courage, I think Kailash Satyarthi's low profile activism, which went on for over three decades, with the help of organized teams, deserves a bigger applause. In his interviews, he mentions how he and many of his staff got beaten up on several occasions trying to rescue children trapped in bonded labor. Over the years, Satyarthi and his team have not just taken a moral stand, but also built systems to keep it sustainable in a real life scenario. 

The second thought, was about courage. Satyarthi's Nobel acceptance speech included a fable. The story of a little sparrow who is flying back into a raging forest fire. A lion, trying to escape the fire asks her how on earth can she do anything about it. She replies that she is just doing 'her bit'. This is a wonderful story. But it never comes to life the way it does in stories. Kailash Satyarthi gave up his job as a lecturer to start the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, much to his mother's disappointment. I think, this step required a lot more courage than any subsequent thrashings he may have received at the hands of greedy factory owners engaging in child slavery. The choice to give up a life of certainty/comfort/material pleasures for a life which may or may not lead to security and prosperity requires tremendous courage. This is the point where all of us fail. All of us -- especially the youth raised with an Indian middle class upbringing -- are constantly guided (lectured, forced, threatened, manipulated) into believing that our end goal in life is to stay out of trouble. And by trouble we mean conflict of any kind. We will be encouraged to do our best, grab the best schools around the world, get the most lucrative jobs we can lay our hands on, marry and have kids at the "right time". But we would never get lessons in courage. When it comes to standing up against injustice at home, in a workplace, in our social lives, we are always advised to stay out of trouble.

This is also the culture behind the practice of  aborting female fetuses in middle class and upper middle class families. They have the money and the power of  hushing up everything. I am sure if every middle class daughter made up her mind about walking out of a marriage that demands sex selective abortions, this problem would be weakened. But divorce is trouble. It involves being "answerable" the society, which never comes back to check on you again once you are off the shelf! This is also the culture behind institutional corruption. We are always ready to take candle-lit marches to Jantar Mantar against corruption. But when it happens right under our nose in the work place, we never act as the whistle blower. Because standing up against powerful people is considered getting into trouble. We will never have the courage to be an Edward Snowden. At best, we would get inspired by the actions of people like Snowden and Satyarthi, dilute it about a thousand times and end up feeling good about ourselves for doing all that thinking. 

So there is very little hope for 'doing our bit'. For every million scared middle class human beings like us, there will be one Satyarthi. And I think that is somehow enough to make this world a better place. Unless we are taught growing up, that it is completely okay to fail, that we are not in a perpetual competition with everyone around us, that we need to build milestones inwards as well as outwards as we go through life, that taking a leap may lead to something far better than we imagine, that new roads are discovered by people who are willing to risk something, that there is immense happiness in satisfying your inner voice, until that time, we will just be a group of robots living replicate lives. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

I came across the 1969 autobiography of Maya Angelou. 'I know why the caged bird sings' brings out a peculiar trait -- Maya Angelou's ability to see her own life events with a mix of  deep honesty and humor. This book is about injustice & abuse, but it is presented through the eyes of a little girl who is unable to pinpoint the negativity in her circumstances. Although this acceptance of injustice and abuse is infuriating to the reader, I think the appeal  lies in the fact that the author could preserve that feeling through adulthood, just for the sake of expression.

Perhaps the most refreshing element of this book is that it takes you to Stamps, Arkansas. Somewhat reminiscent of  'To Kill a Mocking Bird', it takes you through the beauty of the southern life. The slow pace of life, color segregation, religiosity and food. Some incidents are hilarious and they really make you want to time travel back into those days. Angelou's elaborate descriptions of  their Sunday meals definitely made me hungry. Also refreshing is their collective imagination of  'what happens in California'. This is a recurring theme in a lot of American books. There is California on one hand and then there's everything else. Maya and her brother's travels to the West also bring the same sense of adventure and anticipation expressed by so many other American authors.

The most moving and poetic part of this book is the time when little Marguerite (Maya) is subjected to sexual abuse and rape by her mother's boyfriend. Here, she writes as an eight year old, who is shocked by the act but irrationally attracted to the perpetrator. Her feelings of shame and self-hate are compounded by the religious upbringing she received in Arkansas. And it is difficult to detach yourself from the helplessness which her character feels during that time. It is also easy to understand how sometimes the victims of such crimes blame themselves for what happened to them.

Although not explicitly written, this book also shows Maya's struggles to come to terms with 'beauty' and attractiveness, which later became her strength and the strength of so many women who follow her poetry. As with many other women who have been celebrated for being "unconventionally" beautiful, Maya too goes through the repetitive questioning of her own worth. I think that this is one of the most important parts of becoming a woman of strength. The kind of confidence that slowly emerges from self doubt seems to become independent of the questions that gave birth to it. Perhaps that is how great writers are born. Angelou is definitely one of them. This book is a testimony to that.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Every new place I have ever moved to has always thrown the same challenge at me - being without friends. But I found it quite strange that I had a feeling of mild panic when I was actually moving back to my own country for good. It was not so much the fear of starting over again, as it was of getting trapped in the old set up all over again.

It is very difficult to be alone in India. You move into a new apartment and ten minutes later your neighbor knocks on your door. Then, in your attempt to find all the essential luxuries of a modern Indian home (maids, milkmen, newspaper delivery, the laundry guy), you end up making friends with your entire complex!
Then there are weddings. About a dozen a month (specially in summers and winters). In the monsoons, when the weddings ease up, there are religious festivals. Plus, most of the weddings also result in naming ceremonies peppered all around the year. So you are actually left with very little time to "make new friends".

There is another face to the "I need more friends" feeling. It comes mostly from the anxiety of being far away from your comfort zone. When I moved to the US, I was in an all round terrible state of mind. I landed in East Lansing on a very hot summer day in July. I saw my apartment for the first time, I had no furniture, no car and no friends. Bit by bit all of that changed. And as it always happens, I was equally sad when I left the place. I used to do hot Yoga at a small studio back then. And because I was so lonely, I was extremely regular at Yoga. I used to take the bus from the lab, my Yoga mat slung across my back, and return home exhausted at 8:30 at night. I never missed the class, even during snow storms I was there, at the bus stop, in my snow boots (and I was dumb enough to lug them back as a souvenir from my time in the US). I didn't make any long lasting friendships at the yoga lessons. But I did make a lot of friends at work who were curious to know more about the "sword" that I carried on my back!

I found myself reminiscing a lot recently about all these efforts I used to take to stay happy with myself. And it hurt to realize that I had the foolishness to assume that I did not need all those efforts now, just because I am back home and married. And just as the topic of "Me time" was being laid out on the discussion table, I found Paghdandi. :)

It is a coffee shop/book store/ library on Baner - Pashan link road. The monthly fee in a mere Rs. 100 and you can also donate a limited number of old books to get a monthly fee waiver. They serve very nice coffee and home made cakes and pastries. They organize workshops and meet ups for writers and artists. I happened to accidentally walk into a writers meet today and it left me so refreshed, I couldn't stop smiling the whole day.

There were about 20 people in the shop today. The youngest was about fifteen years old and the oldest must have been in his seventies. There were IT engineers, economists, stay-at-home moms, published writers, film makers, students and advertising professionals. All of us bound together by one thing - a passion for writing! It was certainly uplifting to realise that there are places right out of your imagination, in your own neighbourhood. All you have to do is open your eyes and walk into them!

So, if you are in Pune and want to spend an hour of your Sunday morning meeting writers, please walk into Paghdandi at 10:30 AM! You'll definitely see me there!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sometimes, you look at something and wonder how clever nature really is. If she wasn't, why would she create such a beautiful fall in the North Americas? The places that are preparing themselves for almost six months of frigid cold could do with a picturesque mental image of the fall. Then there's the summer Gulmohars in hot, tropical countries. It would be an understatement to say that sighting a bright Gulmohar tree in bloom speaks to my soul. I started driving recently, after a long break. I never liked driving but now that I am getting better at it, I don't mind driving. One of the most distracting things on the road these days are these bright orange trees, drooping with blossoms, making themselves so unabashedly attractive when they are surrounded by so many ugly things (such as, college kids with headphones, on a motorbike!!). Some are spread out like an orange canopy, some, like happy couples holding hands high up for all of us to pass through a colorful tunnel. Some are single, standing upright, looking successful.

 The Australian Jacarandas used to remind me of Gulmohars in India, especially near Kolhapur. Now, the Indian trees remind me of Australia. Getting out of the city bus, trying to fight the monsters in my head on my way home, the purple trees would have an amazingly relaxing effect on me. It is a mixture of nostalgia and your incense-burning-hippie-yoga-genes perhaps. But more than that, I think it is wonder. As a kid I used to wonder if I could tie a swing to that tree. As an adult I wonder how, even though I have so many other fascinating technological distractions, these trees still manage to captivate my mind. I think my wonder has grown up too, but I am so glad that I can still feel it.

There are places in your mind where no one can really go. When I was alone for  long periods of time, I used to stay in those places all the time. But as you get surrounded by people, escaping into those places gets a bit challenging. Looking at these trees, instantly takes me back to those happy places of solitude. There is some sort of deep rooted comfort in observing how nature operates the Universe. How, she has accommodated human avarice and wastefulness. She does her best to maintain harmony and balance, even when her problem child is out to destroy her treasures. Then there is also comfort in knowing that everything, at some point, is going to die. It will be recycled as carbon, phosphorous and calcium, but there is a certain peacefulness in knowing that we won't come back in the same form, ever again. So all this running around, getting breathless over things out of your control, hoarding stuff, all of this, can stop. The purpose of life is to have a good time, with the people who choose to be with you in this moment. Who knows what happens tomorrow?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The misgivings of virtual citizens

The part I hated the most about not being in India, was being a part of this group of "virtual citizens". It was a group of people with a lot of concern for India and India's development, expressing it constantly on social networking websites. We witnessed a lot of  "middle class" revolutions in the past five years, the most prominent was the agitation against corruption led by Anna Hazare (calculated and controlled by Arvind Kejriwal). As this revolution degenerated into the chaotic Aam Aadmi Party, it left me wondering if this chaos truly represents the confused supporters of the movement, all the Facebook tigers, spread into different corners of the world and trying to be passionately Indian.

They are the kind of people we really do need back home.
They read a lot. So they have a lot to say in an argument. They instigate debates by posting their political opinion online and then spend a lot of their productive work time in replying to the comments. It is as if they know their country better than people who queue up to exercise their right to vote. And even if close to a billion people bring a leader into power, somehow it is not the right choice, because they didn't make it. They are outraged that the governments that they want to see in power are never elected by the nation. Sometimes, when they actually agree with the ballot, they spend a lot of time justifying the outcome to their opponents. But all of them, however well read and  well established they are, are still virtual citizens who do not vote. I wrote a similar post during my "NRI days". I have done all of this. Towards the end of my stay, I was left with a debilitating sense of hopelessness. Trapped in an eddy of labels and name calling -- radical Hindu, pseudo-liberal, pseudo-secular, communal, left-leaning, newspaper bias, cronyism, nepotism and many others.

Although voting in Loksabha elections 2014 did give me a sense of purpose and usefulness, I have come to realize a much harsher reality. That virtual citizens, with their extremely loud media presence, are still a fractional minority in this giant exercise of voting in a new Prime Minister. The overwhelming majority still, are the people who are voting for concrete roads, water & electricity. Women voting to stop their daily hikes to get clean water for their family, and people who are eager to get out of debt and poverty. We are still not done solving farmers' problems, we are still not finished with the exploitation of the poor by money lenders. We still struggle with educating girls and providing them with better (and safe) sanitation, provided they make it into this world dodging the illegal use of ultrasounds. 

I realized how out-of-place and uprooted I was when I followed the 2012 presidential elections in the United States. I read every single Op-ed written on Romney and Obama. I watched the debates like I used to watch tennis grand slams. I understood what America was seeking as a nation. Healthcare, women's issues, budget crises and all of that! But I couldn't even play a tiny role in choosing the leader of the country of my residence. Then I realized that I am equally well informed about Indian politics, but I haven't really been a "practicing" Indian citizen for more than five years.

I don't really support Modi. I have never agreed with the BJP ideology. But when I see non-resident academics writing "open letters" to convey their apprehension over a Modi victory, it angers me. So does a country like the United States being "concerned" about the rise of a "communal" leader. I think the "War on Terror" was more communal than anything India has ever witnessed. Such condescension comes with an assumption that belonging to a developed country or having high academic credentials gives you a better judgement. But the most important quality you need, to choose your leader, is not intelligence. It is the act of being a present citizen. And if a Modi government comes to power, it would be a result of a billion present citizens queuing up to cast their votes. And in this system, being there is more useful (and respectable) than having a lot to say, from far away.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Men Who Made Us Fat (& Thin)

           I stumbled upon two brilliant documentaries on BBC. The Men Who Made Us Fat, talks about the invasion of the food industry and related corporations into our lives. Men Who Made Us Thin, shows us how these same corporations systematically introduced "diet food" to us.

             The core argument in the first documentary is whether the food industry should take any responsibility for the bulging waistlines all over the world. For that, the industry has a simple answer. Weight gain is caused when the intake of calories is significantly more than the consumption of calories in human body. Therefore, it is completely under a person's control what size he or she wants to be. However, it is interesting to see how the opinions of current food industry employees and the ex-employees differ in their attitudes towards this same issue. The problem is not just that people are consuming more. It is also the fact that they are being bombarded with unnecessary sugar. In burger buns, in preserved meat, in ketchup and in seemingly benign food stuffs such as yogurts and breakfast cereals. The rampant use of sugar and salt is not because it is nutritionally necessary, but to enhance taste, and add an element of addiction to the food. Sugar and salt are also cheap substitutes for ingredients that need special care and expense during transportation such as, fresh vegetables & fruit. Sugar and salt are easy to buy and store. They do not rot and neither do they need too much attention. It is ultimately an "industry" we are dealing with. Their final goal is never "nutrition for all", it is always profit. Taking your food into your own hands, literally, is the only lasting solution.

                   The Men Who Made Us Thin, on the other hand, left me a bit pissed off! I can deal with not eating fast food as a personal responsibility. But the diet industry, which is selling us thousands of low-fat products, has actually actively manipulated with our understanding of how these products work. In one of the parts of this documentary, you can see how when the federal government ordered a probe into the diets of the average American, their findings were recklessly suppressed. The report squarely put the blame on too much fat & sugar (as it should be). However, the sugar lobby pressured the government to exclude sugar from the conclusion and a new breed of "low fat" products was born. Products which contained no fat, but a crazy load of sugar. Also amusing are the findings of the experts who have proved that diets don't work. Especially diets that are crazy or extreme. They work short term and people get back to what they used to eat. Invariably, people who diet for short periods of time tend to gain back all they lost (&more), in the next two years. This yo-yo effect is exactly what the diet industry feeds off. There is tempting fast food on one hand and then there are diets. People are thrown from one to the other and that's how both industries are thriving.

                 The third and perhaps the most disturbing factor that comes into play when our bodies are under scrutiny, is the media. The perception of what is considered attractive has been shoved down our throats. And somehow, fat is an unnecessary synonym for poor health as well as unattractiveness. Both are extremely harsh and uneducated conclusions. Yes, morbidly obese people do face a significant health risk. But people who are between 25 and 27 BMI (which includes about 2/3rds of the US population, and very likely, about 25 % of the Indian population) are not always susceptible to the same risks. Being overweight is not necessarily risking poor health. Neither is being overweight equal to being ugly or unattractive. The above clip is especially infuriating. Venice A. Fulton, has published a notoriously famous book titled, "six weeks to OMG - get skinnier than all your friends", targeted at teenage girls. Before we start becoming health conscious and change our diets, it is also important to understand that being overweight is okay. It is not the end of the world. And our identities cannot be linked to our BMIs.

                  I have always been overweight. I was an overweight teenager and for most of my adult life, I have been overweight for a longer time than I was the right weight. The only negative effect I have suffered of being around six to ten kilos overweight has been emotional. I am a perfectly healthy person, who exercises daily and who is mindful of what she eats. The only weak link between my body and my confidence is how I  feel about it. I wasted a lot of my early twenties trying to match up to the Western standard of "bikini beauty". That goal was not just unreachable for someone who was trying to work on a PhD, it was also unsustainable and completely stupid. It is not until I went to the U.S., and met one of my very close friends Elodie, that I realized that I was chasing the wrong dream. Every continent comes with a body type. While Indian women might worry about not having washboard abs, white women worry about premature ageing. African women want to have better hair and Asian women waste a lot of time with eye make up. The truth is, all of us, all countries included are just fine.

               For inspiration, I always run to the art of the famous Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma. His paintings of Indian women from different regions are exquisite. And the best thing about his art is that these women are  not photoshopped. Here's my favorite: Maharashtrian Lady. 

Sometimes, I overwhelm myself by reading too much "love-your-body" stuff. But in my constant self-therapy, I have learned one thing - that people very rarely see us as objectively as we see ourselves. And if there is anyone in this world who makes you feel sorry for your face or your body, you should first stand up to them and then kick them our of your life. It is not just a body or a face. It is vehicle for your spirit, your energy, your creativity and all the knowledge you have gathered walking through life. We should all always keep that in mind and nourish ourselves, body & soul!


Monday, March 24, 2014


It's been ages since I logged into blogger! I was busy getting married, then setting up the new house and trying to get back to work. But the first thing I want to do is ask everybody to watch Queen. :)
I caught up on a  lot of movies and a few books in the past few months. But Queen is definitely worth writing down about.

It is a story of a small town girl who goes to Paris, alone, on her honeymoon. Her fiance dumps her last minute and after gathering herself up from the shock, she decides that she still wants to go on her honeymoon. Even if it is all by herself. :)

Although the general direction the movie takes is light and funny, there are some intensely poignant moments -- some with the potential of making you sniffle. :'(
I sat through it reliving my own travels & journeys, shedding tears every now and then, next to my slightly bewildered husband.

However different the circumstances may be, when we step out into the big bad world on our own, we all share the feelings of fear, excitement and the thrill of being anonymous and away from people who might control, or judge us. Suspended between two worlds, people often become less judgmental of others' actions or their ways of life. We tend to be more accepting of human beings when we are in transit. All of this is beautifully presented by Vikas Bahl and effortlessly executed by Kangna Ranaut. She plays the part like she was made for this film. You completely forget the Kangna you saw in Fashion, or the Kangna you come across, dressed in ultra chic clothes, on Page 3.

The story goes along two lines. The first one is Rani's opening up to happiness again after a sudden change of plans. The second, her gradual discovery of who she is and what she wants. The first one is fairly instant but the movie ends on a note where you realize that her self-discovery has just begun. What makes you tear up (or rather made me tear up), are these moments when you know what it feels like -- to board a plane alone, leaving behind family at the airport, to be a complete stranger in a new place, to get over your inhibitions in a hurry, just to survive in a foreign land.

The only other thing as urgent as watching this film would be to listen to the sound track. Just like Kagna, it seems, Amit Trivedi has also given his soul to the music of this film. I was wowed by his clever use of Sitar, not just in the songs, but also in the background score. The background score is so good that it manages to distract you from the movie sometimes. :)

I am so glad that Anurag Kashyap is making box office hits now. I think this is exactly the kind of cinema that everybody needs. Something that is not just all out entertaining. Something that comes with a soul, a seed that would make you reflect.

Here's my favorite song from the movie -- 'Kinare'

Thursday, February 06, 2014

There's treasure everywhere!

I was going to read A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, along with my best friend. She finished it but it never happened for me. I couldn't take the time to finish my 50 pages per day target. I didn't even make it to the first 200. It is a sad situation, considering there was a time when we used to finish books like Gone With The Wind together, during our school vacations. Unfinished books tend to nag a lot. And often, ditching a book to read another, halves the joy of reading both. 

After being sad about it for a little while, I began to wonder how come I don't read books but I don't get that "empty" feeling, which you get after a prolonged period of being too busy with work or other things. The reason, I found out, was that I tend to read a lot online. In fact, I have some Internet haunts where I am remarkably regular. I miss these sites when I am too busy and I make sure I visit as soon as I get some free time. 

Starting on a rather frivolous note, I am a big fan of Suri's Burn Book  The author of this blog pretends to be Suri Cruise and has an opinion on all the other celebrity kids. It is refreshingly funny, considering you always imagine coming it out of a nine year old. Then there is Psychology Today. I started reading this magazine when I was trying to understand the issues related to body image and stress in women. I have long abandoned that research after having read almost everything I could get my hands on but the source has stayed with me. I enjoy reading their take on the role of social media in relationship psychology. Slate is another haunt that keeps me occupied, especially the column "Dear Prudence", written by Emily Yeoffe. 

Brain Pickings is another blog I read and share a lot. I like their short videos like this one, about the origin of the Universe. Then there is TED. I love TED. I not only follow the new talks on TED, but I also go back to my old favorites every now and then. I was introduced to positive psychology on TED. These talks have led me to read books and blogs that have actually changed the way I think over the past few years. The fear of failing is not as stifling as it used to be earlier. There is also a greater sense of 'contentment' which was missing in my early twenties. It could be due to many reasons, but when it comes to work and working with others, I follow these rules of making people happy in the NOW rather than pressuring them with time lines. 

I read an awful amount of comics online. Calvin & Hobbes and Cyanide & Happiness are a part of my regular reading diet. Oatmeal, indexed and xkcd are also really tempting time wasters. I love the Colbert Report. It is something I started watching regularly during my post-doc. 

But listing all of this is no reason not to read old fashioned three dimensional books. I am still a loser in that race with my friend. So I better log off and read. :)