Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fight for all the wrong reasons

I can't believe that it has been over a year since I put up a post of any sort in here. When asked by people who know I write, I quoted the usual 'laziness' excuse of not having time. But then some things happen that just push you forth to put those thoughts out there, for if you don't your head will burst or something. Or maybe not. These past few days there has been a slew of events in India, which have been inexplicably sad/ tragic and most definitely unfortunate. But my post is not condemning an idiotic act of lynching someone in 2015 (This is not Salem Massachusetts in 1692, please). And it certainly is not expressing my anger at the murder of a renowned, liberal scholar. I can already sense a lot of people shutting their browsers, because I am not protesting the 'rising religious intolerance and attack on freedom of expression'. But like I said, if I didn't put this out there, my head would burst or some such. Or maybe not.

Now, a bunch of idiots lynched a man in Dadri in 2015 for having allegedly consumed beef. I cannot even begin to express my shock at the super regression in time our people have made. One of the most ahead-of-its-time countries in the BCE, this particular event in UP certainly makes even a person of average intelligence sit up and be like 'WHAT THE HECK!!' A liberal scholar decided to voice his views on idol worship using terms like one can urinate on idols if he so wished and so on. He received death threats for such views and a couple of idiots murdered him. The murderers were allegedly Hindu fundamentalists.

Now that is the context. Let me be clear. I am not condoning murder. Murder for any reason is a crime and must be met with the swiftest of punishments. But returning awards conferred by the Sahitya Akademi is not making any statement, in my humble opinion. For one, the Akademi is a non-political body. By forcing it to take a stand, the authors are forcing a neutral entity to become non-neutral. Second, the protest is against 'rising religious intolerance and attack on freedom of expression'. So Salman Rushdie freely expressed his opinion in Satanic Verses. Taslima Nasreen freely expressed her opinions as well. They all met with fervent opposition from fundamentalists. Would anyone be able to express opinions of using the holy book of a certain green religion for sanitation purposes and live to tell the tale? No, because members of the said religion have made their view abundantly clear that they take no prisoners. Fundamentalists exist everywhere, and I see no reason to deal with some religions with kid gloves. Nobody can be sure to control the few lunatics that take religion literally, who are too dim to understand the metaphysical implications of religion. So expressing your anger at those people, is not achieved by politicizing a neutral body.

The way society stacks up today, minute the alleged perpetrator is saffron, communalism comes in. People lose sight of the real issue and choose communal rhetoric. Politicians get a new story to cover up their governance failures and the people also fall prey to the rhetoric.

So I do not agree with the reason behind the protest. I do not want to go into the 'free publicity' angle that many are raising. If instead the protest had been against failing law and order, I would support the movement. If the protest had been against communalization of every issue in India, yes, I would have supported it wholeheartedly. The government is responsible to provide a strong law and order mechanism and there they have failed. But turning it into a 'bash Modi' scheme, just because he is from a party whose color is saffron, in my opinion, is incorrect. As members of a democracy, people have all the right to protest. But against the state of what the Government is supposed to provide. Not against the same old battered and bruised communal agenda that has been the favorite of political speech writers in India.

As for the intelligent people of India, there really is nothing wrong in being a majority religion of a country. In fact, what religion you practice or don't practice has nothing to do with being an Indian. So protest for the right reasons. Not for the reason that gets instant media publicity. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Convenient Nobel Laureate

This morning I woke up to news about the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala Yusufzai and a certain Satyarthi had won the prize. The fact that I knew Pakistani Malala's full name and story while I knew nothing about Indian Satyarthi is perhaps most telling. About the... I am thinking travesty, ridiculousness, meaninglessness, but the use of any such term will perhaps make me the center of severe criticism. But you get the gist.

So here is why I hold my opinion. Malala's father owns a bunch of schools in the Swat valley. He is an activist, who has been very active in the politics and social activism in the area. Years ago, BBC Urdu wanted to profile the life of a school kid in the area via a blog. They picked a student, whose parents, fearing the Taliban dissuaded her from participating. Malala therefore, was the only other option. No doubt, she did a good job with the writings, and the soon blossoming poster child of Western media got center stage. The Taliban were devils, no doubt and they were suppressing female education. Everyone knew that, thanks to Khaled Hosseini, and a whole host of other artists, journalists and common sense. What better way to add color to the whole war on terror, than support a politically inclined family into projecting their living room conversations into the world stage? A BBC documentary followed.

The Taliban did what they do best, threatened, and followed through on their threat, in a very typical and expected act of idiocy. They shot at her, she survived and shot to fame. She began to speak about the known plight of girl children in Pakistan, who couldn't go to school. Again, everyone knew that. But the idea of a sixteen year old who survived a Taliban shooting was too fairytale-ish to not promote. The story was doing wonders to BBC. People who might not have bothered to see news about the Middle East stopped to admire the story of the girl who was shot at, speak to people about what everyone knew. For that's what she did. Speak. A sixteen year old addressed audiences in her coached oratory skills and spoke about what everyone already knew. Book deals, documentaries, international appearances and a Nobel Peace Prize. Every news website had her name as the headline this morning. She did what the BBC told her to do, she blogged, she persevered.

Kailash Satyarthi has been a champion against child labor for decades. In a country where children born do not mean more mouths to feed, but rather are more hands to earn. He left a promising career of his own free will and dedicated his life to working for the well-being of children. He established a system called the 'Rugmark', which can be carried by rugs that are not made by the innocent hands of little children. He has worked to protect the lives of 80,000 children. He has founded NGOs that work for children, worked with the UN to develop plans and goals that work towards the eradication of child labor. Yet his Wikipedia page is one third the size of Malala's.

I absolutely do not decry what Malala has been through. For a child, she has shown courage. But growing up in an activist household, with the BBC and international media as her Fairy Godmother instills a certain sense of courage as well. But does that require a recognition of the highest order? She now harbors political ambitions, sits in the UK and delivers well-rehearsed speeches and she is a household name. Her fellow-awardee, with a life of work, who left a promising career to follow a calling has been working and is still working and making a difference. Not just by talks, but by tangible action. To be feted at once, perhaps decries his achievements and stops painfully short of Malala's potential.

The only saving grace though, is the fact that this is the Nobel Peace Prize that has in the past been given to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (in the year when they were used in Syria), the EU for not having repeated a nightmare called the Holocaust (no, seriously the reason they were awarded the prize was, the EU's over 6 decades of contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe), Obama (for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples; seriously? a year into his presidency?) and Yasser Arafat. I don't even want to go into talking about the last person.

So Suu Kyi, Mother Teresa and Mr. Satyarthi - better served not thinking too much about fellow awardees. Their true award is only in their body of work.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Kashmir and kid gloves

10 months since I wrote anything here. And I guess it takes a true work of art to inspire the creation of something else that in my opinion masquerades as art. Anyway, this weekend, after having read a dozen dependable favorable reviews, we trooped over to go see Haider. Yes, I am extremely apprehensive, given the travesties that pass off as Hindi movies these days - old man romancing a terrible tam accent pyt, or a refuse-to-accept-I-am-old actor choosing to act in a ridiculous rip off of The Prestige, the list is endless. I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw a truly good movie and I am glad I broke that jinx with Haider. Before you conclude that this is yet another, albeit late review of the movie, NO, it isn't.

So, while I consider the movie a true work of art, and one of the best possible takes on Hamlet, the subsequent cries of foul, hashtags asking for a ban on the movie, serve the role of a comedic element on a grander stage. Hamlet remains one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, for sake of the sheer fallibility of the hero. Again, if I were to start penning the various virtues of the story of Hamlet, I would go ranting, a little like Polonius, so, no Oh! Hamlet is soooo good, over here. But in a nutshell, Hamlet is about a betrayed young man, fighting a crisis of ethics. He cannot understand how the mother he holds in high esteem could so hastily marry his uncle, who he has always had scant regard for. He is unable to decide whether the ghost of his father claiming betrayal is true, or just an object meant to lead him astray and cause his own downfall. He is unable to decide whether vengeance is the end to all problems, or whether it is but a start to a new cycle of problems. And it is this conflict that adds beauty to the story.

Being very true to Hamlet's premise, the story of Haider has all these elements - betrayal, death of innocence/ trust, questioning the very meaning of existence, despairing helplessness at the turn of events, quest for the high ground, while questioning the virtues of this high ground. A million sources would extol the performances of the protagonists and settings and so on. But the beauty lies in the audacity of the plot. For years in India, or in the minds of any Indian, Kashmir is a taboo topic. Article 370 of the Indian constitution, or the granting of special status to the state gives it that whole 'handle with kid gloves' caveat. Which suits everyone, the neighbors, the higher powers, and also the internal politicos of the state, their allegiances notwithstanding. And today, after all these years, the issue is out in the open. Again.

Only this time, the open secret is out. That excesses have happened in the past. Power exists to be misused at some time or the other, as has been proven right from the time of the Mahabharata. So why the whole brouhaha? Excesses did happen, people were frisked, checked, ID cards were required at all time, and for good reason. Till just a few years ago, people were expected to take off their shoes only at a temple. Not at every airport security checkpoint. But security guys did not just suddenly wake up to decide on a weird procedure. Some devious mind thought this through. Just like how Hamas decided to send its terrorists to civilian populated areas to perpetrate attacks. So people with their own agendas in J&K or even entities desirous of fomenting unrest in the region would throw in the odd wolf in the sheep's clothing! But that does not in any way detract from the pains and perils of everyday life in J&K. And that is beautifully brought out here. What I don't get, is why the apprehension towards calling a spade a spade? Yes there were terrorists. Yes, to some extent, some entities were seeking vengeance against what was taken to be the face of power. Personal rivalries piggybacked on larger inter-country disputes. But one terrorist in the midst of civilians does not make the whole state a terrorist state. Likewise, the acts of some people in the armed forces, does not make the entire force evil.

Crimes had been committed against Muslim Kashmiris. Crimes had been committed against Kashmiri Pandits. Even today, for no apparent reason, armed forces going in to help flood victims are pelted with stones. Why? Everyone screwed up some time in the past! This is like the old fable of a lion going to hunt a deer going to drink at a stream. When asked why it was being killed, the lion replied that the water downstream was being polluted by the deer. The deer replied that it had no hand in it, to which the lion said that if not this deer, some ancestor would have done so, and so this deer would have to pay the price.

Which is exactly the apparent case in Kashmir today. But the call for a ban on a movie that artistically tries to depict what might have been the case, is a regressive step towards the whole treading on eggshells that has happened thus far. The first step towards fixing an ill is recognizing the existence of an ill. While there has been a movie depicting one man's personal fight in the backdrop of excesses - Polonius heartlessly murders 3 people and brands them as terrorists to fetch himself some money, or one officer's car horn deciding the fate of a man and his family - maybe it is time to reconcile, agree and decide to move on. Maybe we stop dealing with Kashmir as the Indian outcast and treat it as the crown of India as it once was! Ban the movie, because you lack the guts to see what might have been true, not because it hurts some non-existent sentiments.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rahul Gandhi needs the Jnanpith Award! Such is his profundity!!!!!

Ah well. I am not going into an analysis of the whole Rahul Gandhi interview. The complete transcript is out there for everyone to read. And admire. Given that I wasn't able to watch him talk live, I did manage to guffaw several morsels of food out while catching him go on and on about empowerment of women and the right to information, when quizzed about his views on Modi and corruption, respectively. Guffaw I mean, when I stared at my screen awestruck by such a literary genius!!!

While I did find the entire interview empowering, informative and very uplifting, I do believe that he had a very strong point to convey. Before I begin, let me clarify that I believe we are a true democracy and that if we have elected anybody to power, he is a true representative of us. And I for one strongly believe I am not bone dumb.

With that caveat, here is what I chose to see. When quizzed about his views on Modi, Rahul spoke of women's empowerment. In other words, he thought that Modi, given that the name ends in the sound of ee, is female! Like billee or cat is a she, beedi or cheap cigarette is a she, lakdi or stick is a she, why ladki or girl is a she!!!! So, Arnab got it all wrong, claiming he had to ask Rahul his views on Modi 4 times. Rahul had answered before the question had even been asked!

Now, when asked about whether he was willing to allow the Right to Information Act to be applied to his party, he gave such a deep and profound answer that all those Facebookies are silly to have laughed. Look, he just said that under his governance, he will ensure equality of all, allow RTI to flow like one of those rivers of energy of a billion Indian youngsters to pervade everything and not just bombard the common man with information about the corrupt practices within his party. That would be unfair and unequal. What if someone wanted to know what Arnab Goswami had for breakfast? That someone would be denied such crucial information, since the press is out of reach of the RTI. He even in fact, showed Arnab a future career path, which Arnab so rudely refused to recognize. By saying that the RTI would be reviewed to cover all pillars and ceilings and walls, before touching the Congress party, Rahul in a way said that the media would be expected to fulfill the role of a ruler too, given that they have already acted in a judicial capacity (Jessica Lall anyone?) And look at Arnab, blatantly saying that the press doesn't rule the country. I swear I saw Rahul mouth the word 'yet' between that sweet dimpled grin.

When asked whether he would apologize for 1984, he made yet another STATEMENT. He showed he was young! See, if he wasn't in the party in 1984, he is definitely not 70 years old, which typically has been the average age of Indian Parliamentarians! He thus underlined yet another CV point! And you tweeters, absolutely acted like twits!!! Poor kiddie boy, Rahul!

When asked about his degrees, he said he has filed an affidavit. Meaning he has a law degree under his belt as well! He doesn't believe in just showing his degree certificates. He goes above and beyond what is expected by knowing how to file affidavits. Even in responding to an open question about the credibility of his studies, he follows due legal process. What better way to show that he is indeed a man who follows what he preaches! And look at the media! Calling him an ostrich who buries his head in the sand. For your information, you naysayers, an ostrich does not bury it's head in the sand. Hence legally speaking, Rahul doesn't either!

You all are silly since you couldn't notice the Kafkaesque statements oh so deep in transferred epithets and metaphors and synecdoche (it's pronounced ducky and not dosh!!). This guy has just elevated the average Indian IQ to over a billion! All you overcritical, never-to-be-satisfied-with-even-the-best-of-the-best. You mean mean people!!!!!

And lastly, one thing perhaps all of you absolutely did not notice, was that by repeatedly yelling 'women empowerment' off the rooftops regardless of the question, our man, in as metaphorical a way as possible, was saying, "I AM NOT THE PM CANDIDATE. MY MOM OR MY SISTER IS!"

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

DearChief Minister, you are not Batman!!!!

For some reason, the song that has been stuck in my head all of today is Taylor Swift's 'I knew you were trouble when you walked in'. I kept wondering why, and it is now that I realized that that song is exactly what Delhi is singing to it's current chief minister! Don't believe me? Here is why!

Once upon a time a few mistakes ago
I was in your sights, you got me alone
You found me, you found me, you found me
I guess you didn't care, and I guess I liked that
And when I fell hard you took a step back
Without me, without me, without me

Which is sooooo true. Mr. IIT IRS decided he had had enough being a babu and so decided to go where everyone goes to serve the people while making a little money on the side. And therefore, he set his sights on the city, while always acting like he didn't  care about floating a party, let alone being a CM. So when the city as always goes through the crap it has always been going through, he does take a step back and do what he does best! Faux satyagraha!

So, at the outset, he started off being the man of the moment. Well actually Anna Hazare, a true Gandhian started off the whole concept of having a Lokpal, to bring in some kind of an overseeing entity to curb rampant corruption in the government. Mr IIT IRS joined in and decided to take it to an all new level. At first he presented himself as being a selfless educated government servant out to do good for the people of Delhi, while explicitly claiming he had no political ambitions. But as time wore on, and seeing that he had indeed managed to grab enough mindspace amongst the voting public (of course! whoever would have remembered his name otherwise? But everyone also remembers Rakhi Sawant's name! never mind), he decided to help the people constitutionally. Ah! so he did know that India had a constitution!!!! Which is surprising, since his subsequent governance methods really made me wonder whether the UPSC (civil service examinations) have changed their curriculum to include only Nolan's Batman series!!

Seeing the promise he brought, in the wake of the lack of governance, given the long list of scams and scandals against our elected politicians, people unwittingly voted for him. Well let's face it, every educated voter wishes for a good candidate, one who really comes into politics with marksheets and not chargesheets. So here was a man, a potential 'none of these' option to the ruling dynasty and the new pretender. And they voted.

Alas! Who was to know that the new dude would take his role as Batman so seriously. So much so, that even when he became the ruler, taking support of the same guys he dissed, he stayed a vigilante. Only now, he became the Joker. Seriously, what does he mean when he looks into a swanky new house and says 'People are upset, but I am only living in a house given by the government'? Isn't he the government? He took offense when people said that he wasn't a man of his words. Well, he wasn't. He said he won't run for office, he did. He said he would bring the corrupt in the then ruling Congress Goverment to book, only to later ask for 'proof' that they were indeed corrupt. 

Now, in the recent drama that goes on to show that the whole ruse had been engineered with a view to holding on to peoples' imagination in the wake of national polls, there was an unconstitutional protest against a crime against women. Honestly, the slew of comments has me confused over the motive behind the 'strike'. BY THE GOVERNMENT!!! So was it to protest the rape of the Danish tourist? Or was it to protest a Dowry death? Or was it to protest the fact that a certain cop refused to give in to high handed, non-rulebook behavior of a vigilante sidekick, who decided to barge into a few peoples' houses claiming they were prostitutes, This same Law minister, in another occasion decided to manhandle and trouble store employees of a 24/7 shop at midnight under the pretext of asking for the store registration details. Or was the 'dharna' another ruse to usurp more power? Again, he is the government. What on earth does he mean by saying that if a crime were to be committed against a woman in Delhi, his Government will raise a protest? YOU ARE THE GOVERNMENT MR. AAP. You are there to be the solution. Not an error log. Not the class snitch. Please understand that.

But then again, like Ms. Swift has rightly said in one of her lines - 'I reeeealize, the joke is on me, yeah'. The joke is really on the true Aam Aadmi. The common man who voted for someone who portrayed an image of being one from amongst them, the pack of lies notwithstanding.The common man, who was sick of his hard earned money being taxed to fill corrupt coffers. The common man, who suffered in the wake of this lame 'dharna' that had been engineered to fill home TV screens, give Barkha Dutt a reason to scream about and serve as a flashcard to the voter in the coming Lok Sabha polls. I guess by now the common man does realize that Mr. Kejriwal is not really one of the commoners, since he has explicitly stated that he is a chief minister and he can sit where he wants; he cannot be asked to move his protest to another place so that common people who WORK for a living won't be inconvenienced. He is a chief minister who had the nerve to question the legitimacy of Republic Day celebrations, that have been going on in the capital for the past 64 years!! Imagine a real aam aadmi doing any of the above!

A few months ago, this same person had taken offense at a comment by another known, blatant politically connected 'businessman' who had referred to him as a mango man in a banana republic. Ironic that the actions of Mr. CM have done nothing but prove the politically connected son-in-law right!

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Happy birthday, Michael

It's his birthday. On this day, 45 years ago, he was born in Germany as were perhaps several kids around the world. On this day though, 45 years ago, no one knew what this man was capable of achieving. And he for sure, could not have imagined what his life would come to mean to millions of human beings worldwide.

Several people and events have significant influences in one's life. For me, Michael Schumacher, or Schumi, or Weltmeister or Rainmeister or any of the typical epithets he personified, was a constant source of inspiration, throughout his career. Every Formula 1 race, till the time he raced used to be a celebration. An event I would look forward to all week. Sundays without a race would be dull. Come October and Suzuka, a new gloom would set in until March and Australia. People who grew up with me would know that the Monday after a Michael victory would see an ecstatic me clad in red at school. And a Monday after a Michael loss would see me crabby for two weeks! I cheered when he cheered. I despaired when he despaired.

While one may argue that it was in vogue to support Michael, since nothing succeeds like success, I idolized his attitude towards his chosen line of work. And I believe that this commitment was what produced his stellar success. Whether it was the way he practiced, or the way he dealt with unexpected situations, what came through was his commitment to perfection.  And the willingness to go that extra mile to push and achieve what he set out to achieve. In the book 'Driven to extremes', there is a section that talks of how his arrival into Ferrari transformed the team into a championship winning team. Not just because of his talent, but because he would talk engineering-speak with his team and be involved in that common goal of getting Ferrari to victory, by providing that key input to help build that perfect car. Something hardly anyone had ever done before. 

Sport, they say brings out the truest of human qualities. It provides non-verbal clues of what lies beneath the veneer that a man puts on. And by all accounts, one accepts that man is not perfect. He has his positive attributes and he has his flaws. So when several detractors keep at criticizing some of Michael's ruthless behavior on track, or even his seemingly brash squabbles off it, the only rejoinder I have is that everything is always fair in love and war. It is all about tact. On hindsight, maybe Michael himself might regret some of his actions, which then appeared to be under the guise of an indefatigable killer instinct, only to now look, for lack of a better word, cloaked in an immature need to win. But then who isn't guilty of wanting that position of supreme success? And how many of his colleagues wouldn't have done anything to be where he had been? Why how many of us wouldn't want to fight for what we really really want? At the end of the day, we are all human. And the typical foibles of mankind apply to us all. How is he any different?

I admired his spirit, his will to win, and his attitude to commit his all to that goal. And to me, that is a quality that shines through and success verily follows. Many say he was lucky. Some say he was blessed in that he had talent. Some others say he had his team's biased support that was wrongly skewed towards him. Well, granted. He did have talent. But then the wheel of fortune is never biased. And in any team or organization, someone who has consistently shown results will always find perennial backing. Everyone of us, let's not even go to a sport, is guilty of having accepted such biased treatment.

So, when I look at MSC, and what his existence has meant to me, I see a personification of all things human and an application of what I call quintessential human faculties - determination, a will to succeed, diligence, commitment and the willingness to go above and beyond what is required - to that which has been ordained as our task in an effort to achieve the highest possible quality in executing that task. So seeing him win, was like seeing the perfect recipe for achieving success. Watching how he went about his occupation was a life lesson.

So today, as he turns 45, lying in a coma in a hospital in Grenoble, I wish him Happy Birthday, and I pray for all those human faculties that he had perfected throughout his career, to shine forth and pull him out of this mess, and give us back, his simple admirers, the Schumi we have known and loved! 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Awwwwwwwwwwww, Facebook

So, yesterday was Karva Chauth. Before any of you unwitting souls think that this is a post exalting the 'made famous by Yash Chopra' fast/ fest, it isn't. So please don't leave thinking this is again something describing the moon and a sieve and a display of ultimate sacrifice yada yada yada. And before all those sieve wielding women come at me with, well you guessed it, sieves, let me please clarify that the region of India and the form of Hinduism I practise, do not mandate me to see moon and man in that order before I eat a morsel of food. The place I come from is harsher. On a similar day of 'pray for spouse', we are mandated to eat a certain object for lunch and dinner with nothing in between; and I call it object, for it is something that never makes an appearance on any of the other 364 (or 365 in case of a leap year, just in case you thought that every fourth year it is eaten and applauded twice) days. Believe me when I say harsher. Just please believe it!

Anyhow, so yesterday was Karva Chauth. I know that despite not living in Delhi (the KC capital of the world, followed only by the Couv), given that through all my time in Mumbai, I was never ever surrounded by KC-observing women. But then again, this post is not about the fast/fest. Where was I again? Oh yes. I know about KC (it is a long word or words to keep typing over and over again). So I know about KC, through..... wait for it..... FACEBOOK. Oh yes, the never-ceases-to-amaze-me Facebook. And not just a post saying.. wait! no post can justify letting the world know you observed a religious tradition that you chose to follow. And absolutely nothing can justify the comments to follow. Note - some statements are exaggerations for dramatic effect. Which ones exactly, are for you to go figure. This disclaimer also serves as my CYA in case I am to find myself surrounded or even plonked on the head by sieves.

So post - 'Mr. Moon, where are you? Don't trouble us any more'. Responses/ follow up comments after a dozen likes, including most definitely a like by the spouse in question -  'awwwwwwwwwwwwwww!! so sweet!!!' and 'well, if it is any relief, the moon has shown his face in YYY country' with the best being a google images pic of a moon cartoon posted by the husband, only to be followed again by a dozen likes and an even longer awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww for the husband. The reply I would have loved to leave if only I didn't fear the sieves, 'Up in the sky, of course. Lunar rotations and cloud positions are completely unrelated to your gastric activities'.

Even better is the post that says 'Successful KC tagging husband', followed by congratulations, and even better still, 'prouda you' comments. The Prouda you comes only from the husband, mind you, obviously eliciting a dozen likes and awwwwws. Especially if it is the first KC. Not surprisingly, subsequent KCs only tag the moon in the posts!! The clincher though is the public declaration by the wife that the husband fasted too, which brings out even bigger awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwws - awwws you wouldn't see even for pictures of a teacup pic or a kitten trying to climb a pillow.

No doubt it is a tough thing to do, and kudos to everyone who managed to resist temptation and did not suffer from acidity subsequently. But isn't this something one chooses to do? Then what exactly the facebook declarations are for, is beyond me.

Yup! I heard it. So, I harbor a tinge of jealousy, since I do not receive any awws. Of course I do. Despite being over 500 miles away from a true Canadian Tim Hortons, I managed to brew what I believe is the perfect Tim brew, that very very closely mirrors my extra small 2 milk order. And I get not even an oh, let alone an awwwww. Huff!!!!

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Shareholder is king!

The recent Agrium- Jana spat seems like a story straight out of a Jeffery Archer book. Except that in an Archer book, activist shareholder coups are the result of ulterior motives of business rivals. In case of Jana Partners though, which in the past has managed to ‘de-conglomerate’ (for want of a better word), the likes of McGraw Hill, the motive is to unlock value in Agrium. A value that they believe has been lost in translation.

The case Agrium makes is that their presence across the whole value chain gives them better bargaining power.  They apparently got access to the Viterra acquisition with those terms because they were all across the value chain. Jana on the other hand believes that such omnipresence actually prevents Agrium from generating a value it could potentially have. So they would like to have the retail arm and the potash business hived off. Jana also claims that they would like to see better corporate control and better cost control in the company.

A rather nasty war of words has since ensued. As the largest shareholder of Agrium, with over 7.5%, Jana definitely has a strong say in the company’s decisions. And they are certainly taking the corporate governance duties of a shareholder very seriously, by sinking in a lot of money, time, effort and might into this proxy battle. They have apparently spent over $1 billion towards acquiring the 7.5% stake.

If they do manage to get two of their own people on the Agrium board, the situation could end up like a coalition government, with key, contentious decisions almost never getting through, in an attempt to unlock the proposed value.

The question though is, whether value has indeed been lost. A simple look at Agrium’s share price 10 years ago shows a growth of almost 83% over the past decade, when inflation adjusted S&P 500 total return was around 46%. So what value is Jana looking to create? Is this value really quantifiable? Must one take their past track record with McGraw Hill and others as a benchmark? Is it really worth taking the trial-and-error risk of shuffling the board with one of the world’s largest fertilizer makers? Well, the shareholders’ opinion is all that counts and the end is indeed nigh.

That said though, the activism in shareholding is what is most appealing in these proceedings. Not very long ago, I had the opportunity to learn about the annual shareholder meeting of a certain company, the name of which we will keep anonymous. Before I start off describing the story, I should maybe make it clear that this was a shareholder meet for a small firm, not a Fortune 500 place. Nonetheless, the inevitable comparison with the on-going Jana-Agrium fight did happen, vis-à-vis shareholders’ role in capital markets.

So the first thing I found funny with this firm, was that the average age of the handful of shareholders present in the meeting was over 70, at least. When casually asked why this was so, an officer of the company said that in general it is the retired community that invests in stocks! Secondly, there was a piece of material information – a problem that could potentially hurt future prospects,  that had not been universally and formally disclosed. Inadvertent leaks were all that was out. When quizzed about it, the issue was very cleverly skirted. The shareholders were not very persistent and the fact that the question went unanswered did not raise any red flags, whatsoever. The board has been made up of 4 people, who have been on the board, since the company went public. Maybe a couple of people kept getting added and subtracted, but the same 4 usual suspects remained throughout. Not much is known about them, or what they do in the company. At the meeting, the directors were ‘elected’ and the resolution passed, all within 15 minutes, with the handful of people in the room too busy with their cup of tea, to even raise their hands if they dissented. A couple of harsh questions were asked, which got long-winded non-answers in response. These responses were not counter-questioned.

The stark contrast with Agrium did come to the fore. At the end of the day, benefiting from an equity investment lies in the shareholders’ hands. If I want my money to work for me, I would need to put in the effort that is required. Blaming the management for poor leadership and mismanagement is all well. But it is finally in the shareholder’s best interests to set things right if she wants to and indeed, corporate governance mechanisms do exist that enable her to do so. It’s just that these methods are disregarded. In most cases, shareholders are unaware of their rights. And it is not very often that boardroom battles end up in the living room, as has been the case with Agrium. The hope though, is that this should be an essential lesson to every shareholder. That regardless of whether the firm whose shares you hold is worth 2 million or 200 billion, the power to set things right does exist in your hands if you wish to exercise it.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Unbelievable Arrogance.... A.k.a United Airlines

It's always takes an unusually pleasant or an outrageously awful experience to make the words flow. Unfortunately in my case, it was the latter. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder why I was subjected to such a ridiculous experience, despite having paid upwards of a few hundred dollars for my travel. Why do I quote the number? Well, just to clarify, before one could think that i was complaining about the lack of quality in a free service, given that money alone, could, in some frames of reference, allow hideously arrogant behavior to be condoned, I must make it clear that the basis of exchange had indeed changed hands, but I ended up getting way more than I asked for, and I mean it in a negative sense. Here is why the title is what it is.

My current lifestyle, unfortunately requires me to make the not-so-pleasant frequent hops across the border from Canada to America. So it's Air Canada most of the time, but in some unfortunate moments, I have to travel United, as nothing else would be available at a reasonable price. One might say that since I choose a cheaper option, I shouldn't complain. But I say, pleading the cause of economics, that there is always a given price and a fair price, and it isn't that United offers me a bargain deal. It is just standard fair price. Besides, even the vendors at a flea market, who offer you bargain deals, do not yell at you or insult you, even if you don't buy anything from them! Although, if United chose to brand themselves as a 'cheap' airline, I would at least know what to expect!

Anyway, I was on a flight that was to depart at 6.48 PM from Pearson, Toronto to Newark, New Jersey. It's a cold, windy day and I parked at my lot and waited for the shuttle, which unfortunately was also late. It was as if the universe was conspiring against me. I had anyway shuddered in the morning when my Tripit app told me I was flying United, given the number of painful experiences I have had with them. But nothing prepared me for today. So, the shuttle arrived at 5.20. I requested the driver to get me to my terminal first, as I had to show up at the check-in counter by 5.48. He asked me which airline I was flying, and I said , "United". "Oh! They are quite mean in their requirements", said a fellow passenger. "They demand that you be present exactly an hour before departure, or they won't check you in. They'll delay the flight, but not give a hoot about that fact that your plans are messed up. They lose your luggage, but make sure they collect cancellation and rescheduling charges." I nodded, thinking back about how I have had all that and more happen to me in the past. The shuttle guy was decent enough, as were my co-passengers, to let me get to my terminal soon.

I reached the terminal, and sprinted like there was no tomorrow. I remembered the time, when my ticket said I should check in 45 minutes prior to departure, and I turned up at the counter with 55 minutes to spare. I was talked to sternly by the people at the counter, made to feel shitty about being 5 minutes later than their chosen one hour deadline. Despite the fact that I had checked in at home, I had no luggage, but only because I had a US visa which needed human contact for me to obtain a boarding pass, I had to endure their behavior! When I countered their argument then, that I was within the limit as mentioned on my ticket, I was told that their systems shut off an hour in advance, and so I couldn't be checked in. How, after giving me dirty looks, did the lady manage to check me in after that, I don't know. But remembering the episode, I ran. The time, 5.40. Still 8 minutes to spare, and I reached the counter. Well, the queue.

There were 3 people in line, being serviced by one lady. Anticipating the fact that I would be enacting a replay of the prior United incident, I walked up to an empty counter, where 2 ladies, were standing, not involved in checking people in. I innocuously posed them a simple question. ' I'm on the 6.48 flight,' I said. 'If I'... And I was cut mid- sentence. ' go line up'. I was told tersely. ' I know,' I said, ' but if I go queue up, I might not be at the desk by 5.48 and you will not let me get in the flight'. 'You are late', said lady 1. 'I'm not,' I said. 'I still have 5 minutes to go'. Lady 2, underwent a change of heart and said, 'I will help'. I had almost begun to thank my stars', when lady 1 hollered from behind her,'if you are not late, then go queue up'. I said again,' if I did queue up, would you'... And she cut me mid sentence again and said," Are you threatening me?" I said," no. I'm asking". "No. You're threatening", she yelled back. Lady 2 said," ok. I don't want any more arguments here." Looking at me, she said," God is watching, and judging". Aghast at the lady 1's behavior, I muttered,' man! You guys are so rude!' Lady 2 looked up at me angrily and said,' are you including me?' In a very threatening and menacing manner. Afraid she might stop helping me, I said," no no. I did not." "I'm trying to log in here, because I'm supposedly (sic) done with my shift. I had to take a break. I have been here since 11". (As if she was doing everyone a favor, by working from 11). "But I'm doing this, for God. God is watching," she continued." Thank you," I said, gently, as though I was dealing with someone with a serious anger problem! " I do everything, but I get no appreciation". "You're doing a great job," I said. " really appreciate it", I began." No! Doesn't seem that way. You are still going on, and on", she said presumably about the fact that I was actually speaking! Quite insulted, I asked her whether she wanted me to stop talking and she said "Yes!" I was flabbergasted by such high-handed behavior, and in utter frustration, muttered her lines back to her, saying, "God is watching". At this time, lady 2 just stopped what she was doing, canceled the half-proceeded check-in process, looked up at the ceiling, and said," sorry God. I tried. But I won't." She tossed my passport back to me and I was, by this time utterly disgusted by such behavior.

I walked up to the line, told the passengers there that the counter guys were giving me a tough time and asked them whether they wouldn't mind my going ahead. They were more than gracious. The gentleman at the head of the line said, " go ahead. None of us really cares! I hate United too. I never want to travel with them unless I have no choice". I agreed. "Plus, " he continued, " they are so ridiculously slow! They just take ages for every passenger, and their systems also seem to allow such inefficiency. In fact they promote such inefficiency! Look at others. They just breeze you through! Like say, Delta!" I said, " Yes. Take Air Canada for instance. They have someone scanning the lines for people on flights that are an hour away and try to bring them ahead, so they won't be late for the one hour mark. And they are pleasant about it!" At this time, lady 1, who had made up her own mind that she had a score to settle with me, came out of nowhere, and yelled again," oh! So you're ahead of the queue! Ahead of the other passengers!" And insultingly rolled her eyes at me! The gentleman behind me said," she absolutely Had to point that out! As if anyone here cares!"

What's more, there was another man coming to open an extra counter for passengers. Lady 1 told him that I was late and that he shouldn't help me! He came out of the employee area announcing, " you're the late person, right? I will help the man behind you." I said for for the nth time, "I am not late. I'm on the 6.48 flight, and it is 5.46." He looked at the schedule, realized that the flight was already delayed to 7 PM and that they had no grounds for harassing me any more and said as much to the woman at the only active counter. The woman at the only active counter who had 2 people she was helping, said that she would check me in. By this time, I was annoyed and I didn't care. I asked her bluntly," are you sure? Please do not tell me when I come up that I am late because I waited for you." "Do you have bags?", she asked. " No," I said tersely. "Take our place. You don't even have bags. We are not in a rush", said the people who the woman was checking in. "Why wouldn't the new guy help her?", they asked the woman. " I will check her in," said the woman, who by now perhaps realized that the passengers in the line and around were not buying their ridiculously insulting behavior.

Finally, I got my boarding pass and swore never to travel United again, if I could help it. What was ironic, was inside the flight, the attendant announced," we understand you have several choices for your travels. We appreciate the business and hope to see you in future". In all honesty, you won't see business from me again. And I wish, United, that this sentiment of appreciating business was consistent throughout your organization. For starters, you could stop hiring the rudest human beings in the world and have them work in customer service. The East Asian lady might have had a bad day, but I had nothing to do with it. I had a bad day at work too. She complained about 'working from 11'. Well, my days go on from 9-6. Can I throw a fit too then?

If you expect a cabbie to smile when you pay your fare, or the cashier at the ticket counter of a bus station to be polite, customer reps at airline check-in counters pretty much do not have a different code of ethics. I pay money for my trip which pays their salaries. In true capitalist fashion, I should be treated well. At the least, not be insulted for no goddamned reason. All I wish is, that these people are forced to travel by their own airline and have to deal with customer service professionals just like themselves.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The answer is not gun control... the issue is mental health!

Just type 'Connecticut' on Google and the only things that comes up are stories of the Connecticut shooting. The fourth richest state, as per several reports, and the only thing that comes up are stories of the brutal shooting. Although what is more annoying, is the fact that almost all analyses are ex-post. It takes a shooting of this magnitude for people to take notice, and that is what is by and far the most appalling fact of all.

A rather interesting post is doing the rounds on Facebook, with Morgan Freeman apparently having made a statement that the media is in effect responsible for what happened. In a way, maybe. Imagine someone, who is shy, socially awkward, had no friends, and absolutely could not make a name for himself in today's cutthroat world. When faced with two options, one,of maybe using a firearm on himself, in the quiet confines of his basement, or option 2, discharging the same firearm on himself, after causing a sufficient carnage, enough to let him stay remembered in the annals of notorious history, any sociopath with even a little bit of logic in his thinking would choose the latter. With predecessors like the Columbine shooting incident and the Virginia Tech incident, the outcomes are rather clear. In fact, an illustrious director like Gus van Sant made 'Elephant', that has been acknowledged as having been inspired by the Columbine shooting! So, did Adam Lanza have what it took to have his life made into a major motion picture? Given that his yearbook didn't even have a photograph of him, as he was termed 'camera shy', probably not. Did Adam Lanza want his life to be the subject of discussion with so many people? Who knows? But given how something like Facebook has caught on, where everyone wants their minutest of sentiments, desires and feelings to be known to everyone and their grandfathers, it is not a surprise to imagine that maybe, even sociopaths want their 15 seconds of fame, like every other human being. If not in general, at least during those freak flashes of humanity, where their underlying human nature rips out of the monstrous veneer and shows itself.

So is media the cause? Well, it is easy to pinpoint the BBCs, CNNs and NDTVs of the world and say that the viciousness of sensationalist media is the root cause of everything. Now there are headlines of imminent gun control in the USA. Will that help? Well, the mentally disturbed, could resort to other weapons! Simply gasoline and a matchstick. Or like the Chinese man who went on a rampage with a knife. taking guns out of unworthy hands is perhaps one way of minimizing repeats of such stories. But that is akin to curing the symptoms, while leaving the infection to fester. The key issue at hand is not seeing any resolution.

Why does the world have to sit up and realize that mental health is a serious issue in this part of the world. History has given us numerous instances of artists, musicians and even simple, common people afflicted with diseases of the mind. Van Gogh, Chopin, Gogol, Mozart, the names are numerous!! Maybe it's the lack of sunlight. Maybe it's the long, dreary, cold unending days. The real causes of such maladies are difficult to pinpoint, but the signs are rather easy to discern for the most part. When Britney Spears fell victim to bipolar disorder, the world took notice. Not of the disease, but of her behavior. Never once was an awareness campaign brought out, to let people know of the signs. There is never any mention of what one should do, if a known person is found to be mentally unsound.

A person who used to work with someone I know had been let go from his organization for incessant 'anger' issues. For unruly, uncouth behavior at work. That man, could never hold on to a job. All this, despite a decent education, coming here as a new immigrant, trying to make a life. The going was good for a while, till slowly, the issues started to show up. The organization he worked in, let him go, as they were in the business of doing business, and not running an asylum. This man, though, kept calling up this person I knew, asking for any job offers, vacancies and so on. When I spoke to my acquaintance, asking why he couldn't refer the man  to a mental health practitioner, I was told that the laws are against it. Only next of kin can do so. But what if the person would not respect his next of kin? What if, the issue went untreated? I was told that it was not my acquaintance's business to do something here. I immediately wondered, how difficult it would be for such an affected person, who is also frustrated by the events in his life, to take to violence? Especially when such a person is the least bit rational and very prone to following their own kangaroo logic? The answer is blunt and blatant. Not at all hard. 

 If the carnage is at a theater or a place of worship, the uproar is loud.If a school, the uproar is longer and louder. But eventually it dies down and talks go back to whether Kristen Stewart is with the vampire or someone else, or whether Kate Middleton is expecting twins or sextuplets or who is going to design the newborn child/ childrens' first outfit. Till someone gets tired of his life and decides to go out with a bang, after creating a sufficient level of mindless, insane, violence. 

Some steps need to be taken, and the steps have to be to have psychological evaluations as part of every test and examination, observing students, especially those with developmental disorders, providing counseling to children from extraordinary homes and so on. The western world is lucky that their classrooms have downwards of 30 kids each, unlike countries like India, where the average class has 60 kids. If teachers here are responsible for 30 kids, they might as well be supported in taking full responsibility of the learning and mental well-being of these kids. Some form of a checks and balances method has to be internalized, or the monsters would continue to show up, whether or not it is Halloween.

Hoping for a better world, where kids can feel safe and the mentally ill do not feel marginalized.....

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

I know what it takes, but I shan't tell you 5 point plan

The days have so far been dull, drab and boring. And it actually took a Presidential debate to get me writing here again. And not because it was so path-breakingly refreshing, but because it was so refreshingly banal! And not because the issues were mundane, but because the Mormon Messiah, consultant-emeritus seemed like he had lost his notes, and his PR consultant had told him that if you forget a line, just say 5 point plan. Unfortunately, it looked like he had forgotten all his lines! Five point plan!

So 'I know what it takes' said 5 times turned out to be his 5 point plan. The opening question on how to resurrect the economy met with 'vote for me, cos I have a secret plan that will balance the budget and poof! give jobs to EVERYONE!' How, everyone thought, but our consultant/ I-have-worked-for-years-in-the-private-sector chose instead to play a seventh grader's version of debate, complete with histrionics, mid-sentence-cutting bordering on rudeness with a generous amount of '5-point-plan' thrown in. At one point, his FPP seemed like he'd start yelling it out like the old poem 'hot cross buns'! five point plan!

Some of his comments were delirious. Khap concepts would come to shame. Gun control and low violence can be brought on by a woman getting married before having her kid. SERIOUSLY? Pray tell me how?! Then again, I guess it is a part of standard protocol B-school case discussions. So in these discussions, they tell wide-eyed students to approach cases in off-beat non-traditional routes. You know, the spring a surprise on unsuspecting customer gambit. And it certainly scores brownie points in consulting interviews. Not in a real world, where people are a lot less delusional than bubble-dwelling consultants - no offence to anyone in particular. Then again they say, when asked a question you don't want to answer, just answer what you want to, in such a muddled way that people forget what they asked you in the first place. That is why immigration  discussions ended up in pensions and I loved Obama's quip about Romney's large pension. Five Point Plan!

Balance the Budget! You know what? If he has that secret formula, every single European nation would have been more than happy to pay him his retainer fee which would have been order of magnitudes lower than bailout funds to resurrect themselves! What on earth is that secret? ooooooooooooops! you need to vote for Romney to find out. And even then, you might not find out, cos it perhaps never existed. Who's to know?? Five Point Plan.

So, if Obama looked too polite in round one, he certainly looked more composed and more normal in round 2. And in all honesty, with an insane economy, we could do better with a sane guy at the helm, who is organized enough to not lose his notes! Five Point Plan.

Side note - This is my 5 para 5 point plan....

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Snow White and Art

How exactly would you react in the wake of something new, pathbreaking and out of the ordinary? Would you look at it with a tentative sense of dismissal or would you instantaneously applaud it just for being as Indian film people refer to their movies - 'hatke'? In my opinion, we look upon everything with a sense of disdain, for fear of appearing silly, or in some cases for fear of being killed under some regimes, unless of course, we are the magic mirror in Snow White (which also was broken for having spoken the truth). And that is what happened in the late 1800s when a band of painters calling themselves Impressionists happened upon the art scene.

Now, I had my first encounter with Impressionism from very close quarters, a while ago. It was a chance visit to an art museum, and I was admiring the works of Corot and his heart-gladdening rendering of faces, scenes, and near photograph like images, albeit all with a very strong force of brown, black and all shades dark, when I walked into an adjoining room, that suddenly looked so bright and vibrant. And no, the lights were the same, and there were no extra windows. And when I peered down at the names, it said Claude Monet and his rendering of poplars in vivid pink, light blue, lilac and all things light-hearted! There was a picture of the French coastline and some cliffs, and when I looked at the picture from afar, there was a light purple hue and when I went closer, I noticed that there were pink and blue dots, never a blatant purple. Since then, he became one of my favorite painters. The innate engineer in me woke up and I found respect for the science in painting that the Impressionists showed.

Impression - sunrise, the seminal work that gave the movement its name, is a simple image of a harbor, with a factory spilling out smoke, a bright sun casting its morning spill in the water. At the time, the critics and judges at prominent galleries rubbished this work and others as a raw carricature, scribbles of a non-artist even. People came in drones to ridicule the works. Not unexpected, because till then, people were used to the queen in Snow White (figurative only; I'm a huge fan of these artists who made art what it truly is - simple, beautiful and smile-evocative) - typical works of the masters like Corot and Courbet, da Vinci in previous centuries - all biblical representations, not very cognitive, in that art was comprised of pictures as close as possible to photographs and all people needed to do then was admire the brushstrokes, the closeness with which a certain form has been depicted, expressions, the delicacy of fabric on the human form and so on. Enter Monet  and his group of artists (Snow White equivalent) out to break the mould, who were interested in showcasing landscapes, modern day life and were beginning to instill a sense of 'interpretation' into a painting. And people, observers and critics alike, were afraid to appreciate the art, for fear of sounding silly! No one wanted the role of the magic mirror!

I appreciate the actual Impressionist form of modern art for its depiction of landscapes, (they pioneered outdoor painting), the technique of color engineering (using juxtaposition of red and blue instead of a blatant purple) and depiction of real life as against standard biblical images. So, the Impressionists tried to make art more identifiable for the common man. A simple harbor, poplars on a river bank evocative of a gentle spring morning, with leaves but a crisp cold in the air, cliffs on seasides and so on. People could actually and easily discern what they were looking at. Then came the wave of societal depictions - Manet's groundbreaking dejeuner sur l'herbe or luncheon on the grass, which was intended to be more a 'I choose to defy the rules' kind of a picture, with an intention of proving that he had the right to be independent and not be bound by the restrictions that then defined art, rather than a depiction of true life. This sort of set the tone for the societal depiction wave - with Renoir's 'Dance at the Moulin de la Galette topping the list. Nondescript people depicted in dancing poses, enjoying a conversation - a distinct cut away from biblical depictions of the time.

Scenes were events from everyday life - waitresses at cafes and bars, picnics by the river, people at a circus, ballet dancers, basically scenes that the common man could essentially identify with. In some ways, these painters actually made art accessible to the common man!

 In addition, they depicted what was happening in society - women in the workforce, the marginalized sections, changing landscapes. Pissaro was a pioneer in that kind of art. Almost all his work had some factory chimney in a landscape. This represented his temperament of picking up new technology and techniques, not just for subjects but also his method. And in taking real-life depictions further, these artists also had a critical role in expressing public sentiment during times of war. An example is Manet's 'Execution of Emperor Maximilian'

At a time when Industrial Revolution was bringing out the ill side effects and people were getting more aware of their surroundings and situations, it was but natural for the artists, who had by now, found their magic mirror and apologists among the masses to make their points as well. In part, there was populist political support as well for them, but in effect, they managed to ensure that art was truly art for the masses.

But at the end of the day, it is a triumph for pleasing art that is discernible and also appealing to the eye. Be it Monet's water lillies at Giverny or his famous Cathedral at Rouen - the 3 part work in which he tried to capture the play of light over different times. And people as well as critics had no option but to take notice and appreciate the new wave that these artists had initiated. And finally, they had to accept that this form of art was different, yet pleasing and it was indeed a move for the better.

At some point however, the lauding got excessive and Snow White metamorphosed into The Emperor's New Clothes. More on that next time!

Monday, July 02, 2012

Immigrant song part 2

The more you live in a multi-cultural environment, the more you begin to appreciate the different shades of the immigrant color. I start with the assumption that the social fabric of a place is say blue, and every immigrant brings along his or her own shade of yellow or red, and thus a country like say the US or Canada, much less the UK, becomes a psychedelic canvas of violets and greens and several other undefinable colors. Several months ago, I'd put up a post titled 'the immigrant song', which pointed out how close-fisted India and Indians are towards absorbing 'outsiders' into the socio-cultural mould. By the same metaphor as above, I'd perhaps say that India is a pristine shade of white, and any new color is rejected as tarnish. Never is the intention of the country as of now, to allow an incoming red to turn into a pink and co-exist. However, when a country itself is founded by immigrants, and the assimilation process has taken years, a lot of bloodshed and a very belligerent, yet vibrant history, tolerance is a vital virtue amongst the citizens. But what I find more fascinating, is the way immigrants make an attempt to belong, or not. And, given that I'm South Asian, and I understand what they come from and also what they are trying to get to, the 'study' is mind-blowing! 

So, Indians, particularly, fall under 3 main categories, in my opinion. One, the kind who is in an alien land, is forced to conform, while desperately wanting to get back home. Second, the kind who is in an alien land by choice and wants to cut off all semblance of association with his or her original homeland and desperately wants to conform. And the last is somewhere in between. 

When one sits to watch 'desi' channels on TV, the ads typically are targeted at the first group. And the larger the particular nationality or subset of a community, the more targeted the ads. So, in UK television, you have the typical Delhi Punjabi or Sindhi family, all sitting in a living room, while a lady, presumably the mom in the house with a thickly painted face makes 'Chaai' for everyone and the kids exclaim in a thick accent 'Ekdum Mast'. Or in say Canadian television, you have Punjabi ads with people speaking Punjabi and talking about Indian restaurants, or selling cars. Or you have Sri Lankan Tamil speaking people advertizing grocery stores, or accident insurance!!!! Even better are the ads for astrologers. All of these are for the community that yearns to go back home, they still speak Hindi, Punjabi and Sinhalese at home. They keep houses as messy as they used to be in India. The houses smell of strong Indian spices and the kids are caught in the dilemma of figuring out who they are - American, Indian, Canadian, Sri Lankan or What! 

The second group is more fascinating. I had the opportunity of working once with a certain AJ and some strongly Indian surname guy. In a chance conversation, I asked him, where or which part of India he or his family hailed from. And he gave me the blankest look of all time, trying to say, India? What India? I'd love to go there on vacation some day!! And I knew that AJ (whose parents fell in category 1, may have wanted to call Ajay), fell distinctly in category 2. These people abhor all things native. So in an Indian congregation, they wouldn't speak Hindi. Despite having lived years in India, they declare that they have never seen even a single Hindi movie, because they found them debasing!! They choose to celebrate Diwali with a beer, their kids grow to believe Diwali is a celebration of the Taj Mahal. They hate their non-white skin and try very very hard to put on an accent without realizing that the depth of the effort shows in the end product! 

The third and most fascinating kind are the ones in between. So, they don't want to be here, but also want to. They also want to belong, because they know they have no path of return, as they have a success story to tell someone, though maybe no one wants to know. They hate barbecues and detest the smoky flavor, but still force themselves to throw barbecue parties where they grill panneer and veggie patties. They curtail expenses, look for deals for cookies and foodgrains, cut coupons from flyers and browse the internet for the cheapest gas station before filling up! And yet, they throw lavish birthday parties, spend tons of money on kids' goody bags, shop for the most recent trends at the LVs and Coaches of the world. They never go on vacations, because they have to save up to show kids India, take screaming, grumpy kids to see grandparents, and the kids essentially choose to hate those vacations, praying for the early arrival of the time when they can be alone at home in summer! They perhaps never pray at home, but make sure they have Jagrans at the temple and pull along kids to show the world that they belong and yet believe in their Indian heritage. They always complain about how poor they are in terms of the salary they draw, to their friends in the foreign land, but when they go back to India, they have Pani Puri made with mineral water and absolutely have to have the AC on at all time. 

And I am sure, that the more I see, the more my categories might expand, or maybe deeper the descriptions can get. But for me, watching by the sidelines, is a tremendous amount of fun, and an endless source of learning. The question though is, what category do you fall in, or do you choose to chart your own?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Compete... For what and from when!

It's graduation season. Everyone everywhere is toasting academic success. Gowns, caps, tassels, degree scrolls - the works! Proud parents, husbands, wives, girlfriends, in-laws, the occasional outlaw as well, posing in happy pictures. And in the midst of all this, the mind does sometimes hark back to the effort that has gone into the moment that is today.

Life as a student, they say, is the best part of life as a whole. No worries, no concerns about unpaid bills, mortgages, well, assuming you don't sign up for a super expensive MBA program just after you buy a house! At least till grad school, life is cool. Wow! That actually rhymed! The younger years at school, where the biggest concerns are who plays in what team, who is friends with who, who is being gossiped about and all such simple, innocuous stuff. Well, seems innocuous now, but was a matter of life and death at age 9 and most definitely at age 14!

And then somewhere, the laws of economics started to kick in. Too many kids, too few seats in the universities. So, by simple laws of supply and demand, prices people paid started going up. And the whole institution called competition came in. Is that a good thing? Well , being a proponent of capitalism and the survival of the fittest, I personally feel competition is a good thing. Life is never fair, there is always more demand than supply. There are always more vacation ideas than vacation days available! So competition is a reality in the real world. So why not at school? But there is a flipside as well! We all learnt cardinals and ordinals in grade 1. Certainly not expecting an ordinal against our own names. Alice- first, Bianca - second and so on. And competition at an early age, somehow manages, in my opinion, to jade peoples' perception of others! So, if at age 11, I compete with someone to come first in academics and I happen to lose the race, unfortunately for me, the bitterness of losing makes me bitter towards she who made me lose! And I, for one, have noticed that the baggage stays for a loooooooooong time. The competition for half a point in math. The hushed discussion of who got how much n which subject, the insane strategies of how much more than her I need to get in Math, in order to make up for the marks she got more than me in English. It all stays for a looooong time. 

It is particularly heart rending to observe.competition being thrust upon kids at age 6. I had the unenviable opportunity to observe this. No doubt, I've been part of the rat race myself and somehow managed to come out the way I am, but watching it now as an outsider, knowing now what I wish I had known before, simply imagining the psychological processing seemed rather painful to me, Imagine this situation. It's a class of a handful of 6 year olds. Mostly the only child in a family, or a younger child with older siblings, which in turn implies, that they are the apples of several eyes, God's gift, literally to a  whole bunch of people, for sure. These kids sit together in an assembly and 3 or 4 of them are called up on stage in front of the assembly, which also consists of parents, teachers, other classmates, and these kids are given a certificate for outstanding achievement. Well, good for those 3 or 4 kids. But what about the rest? Some faces clouded over. Some turned grim. Some drooped. And these are 6 year olds getting a first taste of the absolute ruthlessness of life! I still remember putting my hand out to high five the kids I knew who got a certificate as the kids were filing out of the hall, and one child who hadn't received a certificate also came enthusiastically for a high five. And all the other kids followed suit. Which is when it struck me, that these kids are still too immature and young to understand what first and fourth are and that a ranking system is the only place where 4>1 doesn't hold true. 

And that was when my mind went back to a conversation I once had with an old school friend. We had bumped into each other on a bus, and I was meeting her almost 8 years after graduating from school. After talking about all that had happened, how she had done well for herself, how she felt that I had done well for myself, and so on, we went back to old times, when she said to me, " Sindhu, don't you feel how absolutely frivolous our feud over a half and a quarter mark in the lower grades used to be? Eventually it all levels out, doesn't it?" And I said," yes it does." However, would I have said the same had she been doing much better than I was in life? Maybe yes, maybe..... I don't know!

I blog with BE Write

Friday, May 25, 2012

Driver's licenses and anthropology

Driving is fun. What's more fun, is observing the way people drive, while not having to screech your brakes or curse under your breath. Most recently, I discovered something even more fun.... Driver's license stories. And while most anthropologists and social psychologists would not agree with me, (I know of one who would call me specifically after seeing this post, if only to yell at me), I think driver's license processes are pretty much indicative of the social construct of a place. As esoteric as this line might sound, believe you me, what you will read subsequently has the capacity to crack you up. The stories did get me guffawing for sure! Now, I have been told that getting a Pennsylvania license is toooo tough. In fact, when I told a professor of mine I was moving to PA, he wrote back with an opening line that said, 'good luck with the PA license'. Having driven in India, and even outside on an IDP, I wondered how one could possibly make driving licenses so tough to get! So, one morning, I broke my lazy, lousy get up at 11, sleep again schedule and went to the place called PADOT. The name just brought on the image of a big full stop, little did I realize that that was indeed their job, trying to put a full stop to all driving ambitions! Maybe not a full stop, but semicolon perhaps.... So one fine rainy morning in early fall, I went to PADOT. Presented all the papers they had asked for, presented myself, presented landing papers using which I'd zipped back and forth across the border a couple of times at least, only to be told that they did not have records of my legal landing in the state! Helloooo! Here I am... This is me.... There is a much better place (home and asleep) where I'd rather be was what I felt like telling them! 'fill out this form, send it to the powers-that-be, let them revert that you are indeed a legal alien (how exactly can something slimy green with a snout be legal? Although, I may not be very good looking, but calling me alien was a little harsh, but who'd listen), and then come back. So sad and gloomy, more for having lost sleep over a royal let down, I headed off to Starbucks to go drown my sorrow or rather sleep!

If this was a Khoda pahaad nikla chooha (or as ol'man Shakespeare would say much ado over nothing), here is the story of Alisha. She spoke to me one day about how tough it was to get a license in New Jersey. Having been stung by the PADOT disaster, I took her seriously. I had barely started relating my story, when she cut me off and said, "It's the written test that is painful!" Now, that took me by surprise, because I went back to my written driving test in India, which was never written. The person at the Transport office showed me a sheet with a stop sign and a sign for a speed breaker and asked me what they were. I answered. I got my license. "Take a sample test," she challenged. Intrigued, I did. And failed. Not once, but twice. Well, I pride myself at being a rather decent driver, but I really did not know whether one 5 ounce glass of wine was equal to a bottle of beer or a six pack of beer or a pint of whiskey or a shot glass of sake or spiked coffee!! And when you have 2 questions on the same 'concept', the stage was set. Then came the distance questions. How far from a stop sign do you stop? 5 feet, 10 feet, 20 feet? How far from a stop sign can you park? 5 feet, 10 feet, 20 feet? I felt like yelling out "Dudes! They'll mark off no parking zones and I'll stop at a stop sign as far as is correct as per my judgement! While driving, I am not going to get off, measure distances, mark off with chalk and stop!!! How far from a hydrant will you park? I run away from hydrants. Once towed 100 times shy! As if this torture wasn't enough, then came the penalty questions. If you are caught with a BAC of 0.05, do you get prison term of 3 months and a fine of $200 - $500? Or is it 6 months and 200 - 500 bucks? Or just 750 bucks and community service? Well, if I am caught with a BAC of anything, I am plain roasted! If the policeman tells me that I need to go to jail for 3 months and pay a $1000 fine, I will do just that! I wouldn't argue with him saying,'I guess you have your rules wrong. It's 3 months and $750 as fine'. The officer would just say,'arguing with officer, $1000 more!'

So when I went for my driver's license test in Ontario, I sat poring over books like how I did in B school. 20 meters is the following distance. dim headlights 60 meters in front of an approaching car. G1 and G2 have 0 BAC levels. And even page numbers were learnt by heart. I walked into the exam center more nervous than I have been over all my exams put together. And here, all they asked was what happens when you see a school bus flashing signs in front of you? And 3 questions on this concept! Whew! Saved!!! Moral of the story, Pennsylvania seems to be cut off from border posts. Drunken driving is a real issue in NJ and Canadians care a lot about their school children! And India doesn't really care about rules. As long as you can drive, and reach places alive despite the other drivers on the road, you're good. Anthropology here I come... Driving!