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!

Friday, March 16, 2012

And then it got cloudy

Wonder what it is with seas and oceans! They evoke a multitude of emotions, ranging from thrill, to a sense of calm all the while exuding a sense of power. But then maybe it's just me and that intense link I have forged with a sea while growing up, that make me see a sea and throw me into a different plane altogether, and at some level it is the play of nostalgia that paints an emerald green seascape in my mind,complete with gulls and waves and sand arches as well!

Try as I might, I cannot fully describe the plethora of emotion that a huge water body like the sea manages to bring out. Sitting by a window 30 stories above sea level,everything looks tiny, even towering pines and luscious cherry trees. Men look like ants scurrying about on snaky roads. The only thing that looks grand and magnanimous from up above is the majestic sea that spans out way beyond the horizon. But then again, wasn't the concept of the horizon something the sea created? The point where the sea and sky appear to meet? For me the ocean has a humbling effect, implying that no matter how high one gets, there is something larger, more mysterious out there that man can never hope to conquer and that greatness has to be respected. Another key element though is that no matter how great the ocean is in terms of its raw power, symbolically it always appears calm, and never ruffled. Aware of his greatness, but never lets it show.

Growing up in a city by the sea, he was always the patient listener and I have had intense telepathic conversations with the sea. Breathing in the salty air, listening to the splashing waves talk back to me, have the balmy wind ruffle my hair, somehow the sea became my go-to guy for everything. So much so, that when I had to move to a land locked place, with no water body, I did go to say a rather poignant goodbye much to the amusement of an accompanying friend. Standing in the waves as the sea sucked the sand beneath my feet, I felt that the sea was teaching me to hold my ground even if the very ground beneath my feet were not stable. He also seemed to tell me that I might believe that I am standing tall, but there is only transient sand beneath my feet, and standing tall might be just relative.

And today, when I got a whiff of the salty air in a land far far away, by an ocean thousands of miles away from my old friend, the Arabian Sea, I felt as if I was back in his balmy waters, talking to him again. And that was when I realized that the real confidant was my city. If not for Mumbai, I might never have befriended the sea. If not for the life she offers, one where I'd push myself beyond my limits, take my chances, stay focused and see no boundaries, a life tinged with the din of local trains, honking motorists, people forever in a hurry to reach their Ithaca, I might never have longed for a solace in the sea. And I might never have formed an instant connection with a sea that is emerald green as against the grey of the Arabian Sea.

And as if to reinforce my realization, the sky grew cloudy, and far in the distance I could hear the same old familiar sounds of Mumbai, I could feel the smell of wet mud from fresh monsoon showers mixed with the smell of roasted corn on the cob on coal fires, all telling me that no matter where I went, or what I did, I would take with me the inherent traits of being a Bambaiyya as also the heart-to-heart talks I've had with the sea. And I said to myself, people may call Mumbai indifferent and insensitive, but if you listen keenly, she does talk to you, like she did to me by the Chesapeake Bay!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Malnourishment can be cured by Starbucks and Louis Vuitton

Of late, reading Indian newspapers has become an interesting alternative to watching mindless slapstick comedies! One headline screams out saying malnutrition in India is at 42%. And at the same time, India look to allow 100% FDI in single-brand retail. The irony of it all is the fact that for the average upper middle class urban Indian, let's call him average Rohan (as the more common Raj and Rahul have been made quintessential spoilt rich kid names by a certain Johar-Khan combine), both these news articles mean the same - Nothing! Why? Well, when he looks at the fact that close to half the kids born in India are malnourished, and then looks down at his huge French Fries digesting gut, and at the gut of his couch potato kid playing some random game on his PS3 while chugging down Coke, he feels that the statistic is fake and is yet another ploy by the Opposition to dethrone the ruling government. Second, when he looks at single-brand retail, he has no clue what that means! Our average Rohan is perhaps busier trying to 'like' Anna Hazare's movement on Facebook, while uploading pictures of his family vacations in Bora Bora! So oblivious is he to the changes, that he perhaps fails to understand that there are some things that are right with India and are better left the way they are!

Now, single brand retail. ToI mentions only IKEA, while the Economic Times mentions LVMH and such other luxury brands. Both these entities have completely different, yet not very likable repercussions. One, IKEA! In the rest of the world, IKEA is the simple, minimalist, mass produced, do-it-yourself furniture store. As one moves up the value chain, people in the developed world move from mass-produced to custom furniture. But in India, in a bid to do what the best west does, we move from custom design to IKEA! I wouldn't be surprised if like McDonalds did, IKEA were to pitch itself as a luxury furniture place, with all those who have set foot on North American soil thinking it cool to own 'phoren phurniture'! I can almost see how this could pan out. IKEA would deliver pieces of furniture to the house, and Rohan would be stuck in office till 10 PM every night and on weekends and so, Dagdu
the house helper would be called upon to assemble the furniture and keep it in place at no extra cost!

 Let's face it. In a place like Mumbai, where every house is no bigger than a cubbyhole, with layouts and room shapes challenging the axioms of geometry, custom is all that fits. Call your usual carpenter and have him design and fit in a 4.7ft x 8.2 ft cupboard with doors and one single glass door for the showcase, and it can be done, at maybe half the price of IKEA, and you, for your bit,  are stoking free enterprise of the freelancing carpenter.  Being a true desi at heart, I feel that there are some things that are functioning beautifully as they stand. Why spoil the fun with a new entrant who can do nothing else but spoil a party? Driving down the scenic hills of North Carolina, via the Blue Ridge Parkway, hailed as a beautiful scenic drive through snaking hills, waterfalls and the like, it felt a little weird to get out of those foresty hills and land straight into the lap of WalMart! But that is all that happens - big retail manages to kill the curiosity and uniqueness of a place. I am not against big dirty retail. They can be cost efficient for the end consumer. But why get cost-efficient mass produced, when indigenous is still cost efficient? What about all those hardware stores? The migrant worker, who knows no skill except maybe woodwork? Why kill all of that? Someone in the article said that this would open up India to new technologies. But haven't enough and more B schools had case studies on IKEA and their model? Can't a management consultant groom an Indian entrepreneur to start an Indian IKEA, with the entrepreneur's initials instead of the I and K of Ingvar Kamprad?

And then come the likes of LVMH. Till now, page 3 'celebrities' scrounged the markets and brought back a few handbags and purses to sell to their coterie over drinks and gossip. The coterie just had it's outlet for blowing off excess money that remained after the purchase of a certain fragrance, jewelry, shoes and such other c*#p.  But now, LVMH can open its own fully owned store in India. "Gaining access to the growing Indian population", a certain consultant was quoted as saying. The question though is, do we really need this? People who need the said bag have the wherewithal to fly to Paris and bring back booty. I wouldn't be surprised if these retail shops, as time progresses look for subsidies and grants from the government to set up shop. And in the 'me too' frenzy, we would eventually roll out the red carpet to them as we always have had in the past.

Am I against all luxury brands? Do I not like brands myself? Well, I do, and in places. But I do know that India is not in need of a Starbucks when udipi coffee tastes better (I can guarantee that as coffee is my pet poison). India does not need to roll out the red carpet to Starbucks and let Coffee Day get butchered in the wake of no government assistance. India does not need an IKEA when the Indian furniture industry provides livelihood for several people and generations. India does not need assistance to LVMH, when all that money can go to feed the 42% of Indian children who are malnourished. I guess we have more pressing problems that need resolution, with our democracy not being able to form a body to oversee itself, and our distribution network failing such that we can't feed almost half our kids, before we decide to go for a walk by the seaside sipping Starbucks coffee, carrying a Louis Vuitton tote that houses a pet chihuahua!