Saturday, September 30, 2006

My Serious Valentine

Listening to a string quartet arrangement for My Funny Valentine made me wonder if there were likewise Hindustani or Carnatic renditions of mainstream music from India. It is amazing what a classical interpretation can do for a song with a catchy tune. I found the experience comparable to turning a regular floral arrangement into ikebana or introducing a gourmet slant to conventional cooking.

While semi-classical forms are accessible and easy and on the ear, they end up taking away the piquancy and edge from the real thing. Jazz aficionados will therefore not be satiated by smooth jazz. The nice thing about doing something like My Funny Valentine a la string quartet is that listeners with no previous affinity for classical music will come to appreciate the form in its original state sans easy listening compromises.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Homeward Bound Desis

A lot is being said and written of the reverse brain drain these days. The prodigals are coming back to India to live in cordoned off gated communities with manicured laws and white picket fences. If it were possible, they would have de-toxed the air around them until it were sanitized like that of the first world.

When the dot com bubble burst, those that could not survive the recession and the tight job market went back home - there was nothing glorious about that homecoming. They were merely creatures of circumstance. The homeward bound desi of today is of an entirely different stripe. They have made their bones in the US, earned both money and accolades for their work but do not want to miss out of the feverish gold-rush like excitement that is the IT industry in India. It is like being in Silicon Valley in the late 90s.

More than grunt work is happening in India (or so the expats would like to believe) and they want a piece of the action. The salary equation is roughly years of experience times two hundred thousand INR per year in CTC (cost to company). In absolute terms that can look like a huge sum of money to someone with fifteen years of experience. It does not hurt either that they get a C-level executive position in the company.

When they left India as grad school students, that kind of money and position would have been a far-fetched dream for the majority. Now with increased opportunities, a lot more people have a shot at being a stellar success. Interestingly men are more excited about India and the opportunity it represents. Women tend to be more lukewarm and this observation is in the context of married couples where the wife may or may not be an IT professional.

After toiling through the unforgiving immigration process, paying off the grad school loans, making the down payment on the suburban single family home and paying off the two cars the decision to head back comes exactly when the couple has finally settled and even "arrived" in America.

The popular concerns are the dangers of raising children in this country without the benefit of the desi cultural envelope that India supposedly provides and the quality of public school education - they often serve as the key drivers in the decision to return.

Men have little to loose in returning to India other than a reduced quality of life - the biggest slum in the city maybe minutes from the gate community, the traffic a daily nightmare and the general travails of getting through the day that all desis are familiar with.

For women, there is much more to loose. They will be trading their freedom for the dubious benefits of having extended family to help raise the kids. No longer can she drive to the grocery store past midnight to pick up something she needs just then, no longer can she wear what she wants, where and when she wants to, no longer can she expect not be to molested by men while using public transportation.

She will live in a gilded cage to which her husband holds the keys, the chauffer will spell her deliverance, the hemline of her skirts and the necklines of her blouses will need to adjust themselves lest they titillate road side Romeos or scandalize the in-laws. Family and friends will weigh in on most of her choices.

Sure, she may make as much as her husband and like him have the coveted corner office but none of that will not stop the passing cyclist on a crowded street from grabbing her - to him she is still the lowest common denominator - a human female body meant to be used and abused.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Confessional Blogs

As a woman blogger, reading about the rising number of confessional blogs by women makes me wonder if I may part of that demographic - I have been guilty of griping about dating misadventures and abended relationships but that is how far confessional I have been. In The Observer article, Rafael Behr says of women who write confessional blogs :

They trawl for men, display their most intimate secrets on the internet and turn their diaries into essential reading for thousands. Stephanie Klein, queen of the confessional blog, explains why more and more women are making their personal lives public.

The confessional blog is a genre that is more likely to get attention that most others and with some luck a book contract or a TV show. It is good marketing for a wannabe writer and does not involve the stack of rejection letters from publishers and agents. Not sure why a confessional blog written by a man would not be of interest to the reading and publishing public.

Eventually, one morning, some bright spark in a publishing house, fretting into a latte over the imminent obsolescence of the print industry, gets an email containing a link. It leads to a site that combines sex, real life and competent wordsmithery.Plus, the whole thing has a whiff of edgy credibility because there are still people who haven't even heard of blogging. Being next to last to know about something is, after all, better than being the very last.

Reading a confessional blog is as thrilling as stumbling on someone's diary except that you have no way of identifying this person. The more intimate and preposterous the confessions, the faster the pace of the blogger's life relative to the reader's, the greater its thrall on the reader because it is proof that fact is stranger than fiction. Unlike a novel, this story is unfolding real time. As Behr says:

But as a society we respond to anonymous sexual disclosure as a provocation. That's because it tickles a sensitive zone on the boundary between fact and fiction, between documentary and titillation. We want to know whether we should be learning from something or getting off on it, so we hunt down the original source. And we want to be sure that we haven't been hoaxed.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Of Hysterics

How true that while distress, trauma and dysfunctional behavior are still very common, the term "hysteria" to describe the condition is no longer popular.

Hysteria seemed to be a vanished 19th-century extravagance useful for literary analysis but surely out of place in the serious reaches of contemporary science.

There is something quaint and antiquated about the word though the idea is now represented by a range of euphemisms that are meant to be more politically correct and gender neutral.

Unofficially, a host of inoffensive synonyms for “hysterical” have appeared: functional, nonorganic, psychogenic, medically unexplained.

Clearly, killing the messenger has not helped.

Throughout that cloud of shifting nomenclature, people have kept getting sick. “The symptoms themselves have never changed,” said Patrik Vuilleumier, a neurologist at the University of Geneva. “They are still common in practice.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Child's Play

I have on occasion asked J questions she has no way of knowing the right answer to and have gone ahead and done what she said I should do. Comes a point in a long and painful decision making process when the problem gets more convoluted than it was to begin with and is now beyond your ability to solve.

Most often the "J solution" has worked out well for me and I feel comforted in knowing I have someone to turn to as a last resort. I am relieved to see that getting children and child's play to answer questions is not a crazy idea I thought up - recently it won Christie's big business. Maybe we should look to children more to save us from ourselves.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Heart Of The Matter

J, as has been noted before is predisposed towards hearts. They dominate her art work, beginning attempts at composition i.e. "I "heart" Miss Christinia and Mommy" and her thoughts. It probably started a year ago when my father had an unexpected heart attack - in the five years of her worldly existence she never saw me quite as distraught. I had at the time by weirdest coincidence met someone who had attended med school but was now in the business of peddling cardiac drugs.

She must have overheard us discussing my dad's situation and the slew of medical jargon that went along with it and perhaps understood what had happened could have been life threatening. Every morning she included "Please make my grandpa well soon" in her prayers which God was kind enough to do. The crisis ended and life turned normal again. J asked me endless questions about the function of the heart and could not have enough of an animated tour of it that I had found for her. We have not seen it in a while and I assumed J had moved on to other things.

This morning she said "Mommy, guess what the heart in your body is an American heart" I did not know what to make of that observation. "What makes you say so ?" I asked . "Because it is red and blue just like colors of the American flag" she replied.

Trust a child to make connections where they don't exist and make you ponder about it. Extending that logic the whole world has "an American heart" and that could be a good explanation (as any other) for the pervasiveness of American culture and for this country being a nation of nations. Whoever, first decided to use red and blue to represent oxygenated and deoxygenated blood was most likely not making any connection (subliminal or otherwise) to a flag.

I have since shown J flags of other countries that use the same three colors and she no longer thinks that America has a hegemony over the human heart.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Passion And Caste

A few years ago, an American coworker, Dave had made an interesting observation on the career progression of desi IT professionals. "In your culture, a developer is considered to be lower caste than a project manager. So whether or not they have the talent or inclination everyone wants to graduate from being a low caste developer to a high caste manager. That's not how Americans see things. I have been a developer for the last twenty years and I will continue being a developer for the rest of my IT career. "

This man had an encyclopedic knowledge of Unix and C. There was scarce a problem that he had not solved before or could not solve in short order. One would expect the company would recognize how valuable he was and not trade him for five cheap bodies from India with six years of total experience between them. But that is exactly what happened. His billing rate was considered too high to be supportable long term and he was let go. I have not been in touch with him but I hope someone somewhere has recognized the wealth of knowledge and passion he brings to his job - recognized that he is well worth his billing rate if not much more.

A month ago I wrote up some requirements for a simple application and gave it to the onsite development lead, Shailaja to work on. She is quick on the uptake, produces very readable code and requires no supervision - which is a whole lot more than can be said of the offshore team she leads. The product she turned out matched my specifications to the tee but lacked in speed. I would have lived with it like most customers do with sub-optimal performance unless Beth had stopped by one afternoon and watched me using it.

She offered to tweak it on her spare time and I gladly agreed. Two days later I had a product that exceeded my expectations on all counts and had delivered on a bunch requirements that I had not even anticipated. To say I was elated would be understating the case. Beth like Dave has been a programmer all her life and still gets the adrenalin high from compiling and executing code. Back in the time of the dot com boom she must have been as expensive as Dave (and like him very much worth it) but is now fairly inexpensive - she tries hard to protect her job from being taken offshore. It is probably a losing battle. How much longer can she hold out when pitted against five bodies whose combined bill rate is still lower than hers ?

I think Dave was right in his observation about caste system. Shailaja has what it takes to become a Dave or Beth one day - she needs to hone her skills every day for many more years to reach their level. She is already the "lead developer" with administrative responsibilities. It is her preferred career path. She is ready to move to the next level and become a project lead as soon as the opportunity presents itself. In a few years she would have little to no programming skills left and would not feel even a twinge of regret. She would have fulfilled her goal of becoming higher (and in as such more respectable) caste .

Every time companies trade a Dave or Beth for someone like her, they demonstrate their myopia, lack of understanding of cultural differences and utter disregard for fine workmanship that only real passion can produce.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Democratic Luxuries

There is too much of a good thing when a luxury brand is marketed well enough to become democratized. Quite some time ago, I sent a link to the then new Bag, Borrow or Steal to a friend of which he said:

It is interesting. One of those Netflix ideas applied to a bag. Just an idea executed upon and that there are takers possibly. Who knows? Millions of better ideas abound.

I was not convinced that this was not a good idea. Sure there were better ideas but this one held promise. I could see plenty of middle class women of slender means wanting to trade up. I replied:

Where ever there is a woman with multiple maxed out credit cards,nanoscopic savings, and an unstoppable yen for things designer there is a customer. I think they've hit a veritable gold mine. It may not be long before thrift stores carrying classy labels go online. This gives ordinary women a chance to teeter in insured and post paid Manolo Blahniks - nirvana would appear easier to attain than ever before.

His rebuttal was :

That is already happening, though to a limited extent. Classy high-end brands does not have low margin high turnover distribution channels. Why? Leads to brand dilution, and then it has a salutary effect on prospective buyers in the long run. Hence, I will not be surprised that the site that you referenced is a short-lived phenomena ... if the brand names do mean anything for those ladies that need the Gucci satchel ... then the product marketing group will tie the knot on this site, once they catch up with the business model. Such companies will and must operate under the radar to keep afloat or prosper ..woe to them when they start setting sights upon the stars.

The bag rental company is still in the news. Maybe it's one of those things that the marketing text books promise will not work and yet it just happens to tick.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Workers All

Every morning I join the ranks of knowledge workers at my client's sprawling facility. We appear uniform in most respects as we enter our cubicles to lay out the tools of our trade - laptop and blackberry- hang our coats on cold or rainy days and set the lunch pail in the community refrigerator. The day begins identically for most of us - we check out Inbox (for the rest of the day we will try in vain to stay afloat above the rising tide of messages), check voice mail messages on the mobile and desk-phone.

There will be regular meetings and unplanned one-offs. The workforce will disperse between these to code, design, architect, analyze, manage, strategize and direct. Sometimes we converge by the coffee machine to catch the headline news while waiting for the brew to fill the pot. Lunch is micro-waved and most often eaten at the desk.

The life of a factory worker is very familiar to me having grown up in a small industrial town in India. I watched the workers cycle down the street to the factory a few minutes before the first shift siren went off. Like me and my ilk, they looked much the same in their blue and grey uniforms, lunch pails hanging from the handlebar of their cycles. The all wore helmets and sometimes carried tools. At day's end they would pour of the gate and head home. It was the same pattern repeated day after day, year after year. Just watching them filled me with ennui - I wondered how they tolerated their automaton like existence.

At the end of the day, my laptop sits in the closet just like their helmets hung from a hook in their homes and that is just the beginning of the many parallels between our lives.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pre And Post Roll

Not only is there money to be made of videos posted on YouTube but the post-roll ad is apparently more lucrative than a pre-roll one. When watching a movie, its better for the viewer to have the story going along with the opening credits. Audiences with short attention spans will likely flip channels if five minutes worth of credits does not also start to tell them what the movie is about or in the least introduce the dramatis personae. Previews of other movies before the "feature presentation" can be very annoying for the same reason.

It is easy to see why a pre-roll ad may not a good idea. Closing credits in cinema is likely to interest the audience if the movie itself was. It is like lingering over a good wine - you want to savor the last dregs, go over the best parts in your head. You may want to know who composed the theme music, what locations were used for shooting, designed the sets or the costumes. Unless the main content is compelling enough its post-roll real estate can quickly turn into an arid wasteland.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On New Love

Sheila is a neat freak and almost always deletes her e-mails as soon as she's read and answered them. In the time of Gmail that would make little sense but she's a creature of old habit and never really got the point of unlimited mail storage. There is an exception to the rule though. There are several hundred undeleted mails to and from Yaman from three years ago. Sometimes, she reads them again trying to relive the moment, to think like the person she must have been then or have been transformed into from falling in love with Yaman.

In one mail to him, she wrote :

How does one learn not to see the new in the light of the old ? Is it a problem unique to sentimental fools such as I ? Do I merely glamorize the past because it makes me feel less cheated - gives back my life its lost body ?

I think I'm just too scared to try in earnest - giving the relationship my very best, be the perfect lover and friend to the beloved - because that is the only way I would know to give. I fear that if I do I may squander the love that I have left to give, that someone would have the power to hurt me again.

I see my girl-friends both American and sub-continental drift from man to man, bedroom to
bedroom hoping to strike that right chord that will set one apart from the crowd.. How they suffer - how the woman inside cringes at the feeling of being used and disposed…but it's not wholly true - it is an equal and adult relationship. Women are perhaps conditioned to think of themselves as used - men probably less so...Time flows are different rates for men and women and they seek different denouements.

I hear the excitement in their voices when they finally meet a man who feels just perfect - it's touching to see them so much in love. I pray for them that it is for real and will last - that they don't feel miserable when on a Friday night they don't have a date and have to call girl-friends long distance to cry ease the misery..

And he had replied.

I notice that you use “perfect”, “best” quite often. Sink away from those superlatives, and life could be so much simpler you know. As you draw me into this exchange of ideas and thoughts, and I enjoy it, I am also faced with mixed emotions. In all of my adult years , I have never, I mean “Never”, exchanged thoughts (and emails) so freely with someone. And it makes me uneasy … there has always been the hope that one would find someone that can tango and dance the dance with you … and when the hope suddenly starts to bear fruits, you also realize that it may not lead anywhere. One pulls back in fear of being hurt again; once bitten, twice shy. Sometimes the will can be so strong to make me so spontaneous that will border on stupidity, but getting to exercising that will is thirty five years of experience. So when I decide to will something, I exercise much thought before I pull the trigger. But I balk at the prospects too like any other human being …you go out on a limb, and then … the pain sets in again. I don’t know what to do. You have put me in a predicament!

Logging out of her mailbox she asks herself the question she has asked herself many times in the past three years - how could love transform, regenerate and then just leave like it were a dream. The mails exchanged with Yaman are the only tangible proof she has left of their time together. The gifts don't count - the Lenox flower vase from the first flowers he had sent her, the cellphone that she now uses as her alarm clock or the silk scarf with a delicate swan pattern could have come to her from anyone or anywhere else - they don't bear "Yaman" in their signature like his mails do. She wonders if he remembers her too.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Lunch Duty

I volunteered for cafeteria duty at J's kindergarten on her birthday. Seeing my deer in the headlights look, other parents and teachers came over to show me how I could help. There were little packets of milk and juice to open, silverware and napkins to hand out but to ensure the kids finished everything on their plate was not part of my brief or anyone else's for that matter.

So at the end of lunch break, a huge mountain of food made of pizzas, fruit with whipped cream topping, granola bars, juice and sausages formed in the trash bin. On an average every third child was throwing away more than half of what they had either brought or bought ( though sometimes the difference was hard to tell) for lunch. That the teachers who were monitoring them said nothing of the waste was simply astounding to me.

Here was opportunity to teach these impressionable young children about conservation, living green, sharing the planet's meager resources - the basic math of waste at least - as in how many children dying of starvation could feed on the food in that trash pile and get a chance at life. No one there would know or understand how my Indian soul grieved that afternoon.

J knows not to waste anything thanks to my belaboring the point to death with her. But there are no reinforcing messages coming forth from any other authority figures. Whereas, she has used the same box of crayons for the first five years of her life, her kindergarten supplies list needs her to have a dozen pencils for an academic year. As much as I resented the idea, I had to acquiesce.

It will be increasingly difficult for me to advocate a Spartan existence amid such excess and wastage.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Signs Of Things

Despite his quirks, Anmol is a versatile and interesting conversationalist. Sheila realizes one evening while talking to him that they have been on the phone for four hours, and its been five months since Gagan introduced them. Though they are yet to meet in person, neither feels any great sense of urgency to do so - it is almost like the fragile spell of their acquaintance hovering tentatively on the fringes of friendship would be broken if anything were hastened.

They were talking about how sometimes signs of things to come are conveyed through unremarkable incidents on ordinary days. How the moment comes to assume significance out of its original context and only much later. Sheila could think at least of one such event from her past. "Tell me about it like you would tell a story without you in it - relate it like a dispassionate observer might" said Anmol. "Why ?" asked Shiela. "I'll explain after you tell" he replied. So Sheila did between bites of her Gai Pad Khiaowan.

A young girl is sitting by her bedroom window. She is thirteen years old. It is just the
beginning of the summer vacation. The Sal tree outside is in bloom. With each gust of afternoon wind fruits with pale green wings begin their spiral descent. They impregnate themselves on a soil hard and unwilling to receive but the rains will change that soon. A multitude of seedlings will crowd the roots of the ancient tree. An eagle has his nest on top. When he swoops down other birds flee in fear.

The girl notices little things - she wonders about them. She had started to keep a dream journal but lately her nights have been pleasantly empty. She adores Maugham, Camus and Kundera and has read most of their works. Her teachers think that she will have an all India rank in the board exams which are three years away. She does not know if that is true but it is a nice thing to believe in.

Today she lies reading something very different. It's a book called Petals in the Wind by VC Andrews. Her English teacher has chosen this one among several others for her summer reading from the school library. It is late evening when she finishes the book. She wonders why Ms Peirera chose this one of all things. This is not something the other kids in her class would read. She lies thinking about what she has read - being an only child she cannot relate to the story at all. But the theme of incest disturbs her deeply all the same.

In life's nondescript minutiae lies it's larger purpose. When things don't blend in an overall pattern, it is a flag - they try to say something. Very much like Paul Davis' concept on decoding the DNA for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Years later she will have an answer to her question.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Less Is More

Shunya e Buke was recommended to me an "absolutely must see" an introduction to the "brave new world of Bengali cinema" which I have not kept up with. It may be a while before I get a chance to, but the story line has me hooked already. For a western audience it may be hard to fathom how the issue of the padded bra and the deception thereof could surface only after matrimony. Maybe if they turned the clock back several decades, it may even strike a chord.

We are treading here the slippery middle ground between the arranged marriage where it is quite impossible for the couple to check each other out and the "love marriage" where everything is possible by mutual consent. The couple in the story though marrying for love proceed about it like it were "arranged" - a stretch on the imagination in this day and age but not entirely implausible.

Nevertheless, the issue at hand is one of deception rendering the marriage insupportable. The
fear of the miracle bra is real. Why men attach as much importance to the size of a woman's mammaries as they do can be analyzed to death and resolve nothing. The point of the movie is that a woman is much more than her body which is a laudable objective.

Yet the question of deception still remains - a couple decide to check each other out before marriage so there are no surprises and disappointments. She has expensive implants that feel natural to touch and he decides to pop a blue pill "just in case" even though he never had a problem.


That full disclosure before marriage these days necessitates a strip search seems to be a sorry state of affairs. Time was when marriage was about love and romance. When men desire women to have bodies of Playmates, they are forced to up the ante until they must become unstoppable, indefatigable Priapuses in bed. A race to reach artificial and often unrealistic levels of physical perfection works to the detriment of both sexes.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Journal Keeping

For fans of Susan Sontag, the discovery of her private journals can be nothing short of thrilling. It is their chance to know the person inside the writer, life events that prompted her to make an entry. Her thoughts on keeping a journal would resonate with anyone who has done it for any length of time.

On Keeping a Journal. Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one's private, secret thoughts - like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather - in many cases - offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Out Boted

If the predictions of when artificial intelligence will overtake human intelligence, our children may become victims of out-boting (i.e. have their jobs taken over by intelligent robots) just like this generation has been of out-sourcing. There won't be a third world country like China or India to blame for the loss of employment. Instead of having to abandon their line of work, they may be able to enhance their physical and mental abilities by introducing nano-machines into their bodies blurring the distinction between man and machine.

Fusing man and robot, even if it eventually leads to manufactured forms of self-awareness, would not, according to Kurzweil, do anything to diminish humanity. “Our machines are not distinct from us,” he says. “They are already extensions of us, even if most of them are not yet inside our bodies and brains. The human-machine civilization is one civilization. Evolution now is primarily technological, and this is how we will continue its exponential pace.”

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Sad Cafe

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is my first exposure to the black comedy movie genre not counting The Royal Tannenbaums and the like. The combination of Carson McCullers, Vanessa Redgrave and Ismail Merchant is what made me pick up this movie and I really liked it.

Like "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" (the only McCullers book I have read) this is a difficult story to understand and keep up with. It holds your interest but you are not sure you and the author are quite on the same page at any point. That to me is the draw of McCuller's writing.

The bloody fight scene at the end of the movie was amazing in how it managed to convey so many different things to the viewer. I was shocked to find myself going from laughter, to tension and then finally a deep sadness. The movie is reminiscent of A Streetcar Named Desire and Baby Doll for the southern gothic element but the characters of Sad Cafe are wackier by a light year.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Virginity

Read a Salon article on virginity - It was once a badge of honor. But to the surprising number of adult women today who have not had sex, virginity is nothing but a curse - sad but true testament of our times. Whereas deflowering a teen virgin is still the ultimate male fantasy, not so deflowering a 30 year old one. Her psychological health is in question for having held out for that long even it was for the best reasons. No man is willing to do the honors and deal with the emotions that will come in its wake.

The mystique of virginity was a "man-made" phenomenon from a time when it was possible to command and control women by fetishising their virginity on one hand and degrading them sexually on the other. Since there was no social or religious sanction for cohabitation outside marriage, men did not have the option of leaving the morning after and never calling back again. He had to stay and in as such he had to "own" the woman he stayed with. Virgnity before marriage and unwavering fidelity thereafter was what that "ownership" required from women.

Relationships in the modern world are like picking up a rental vehicle for the weekend or a road-trip. Its a lot of fun, zero maintenance, you do to your rental what you would never to do your own car. When you drop it off, its over and gone without a trace. That virginity is irrelevant today is at once a loss and a gain for women. She gains sexual equality with men, but she has as little freedom of sexual expression as she did before. When men thought it important for her to save it, she had to do so to comply and conform. Now that men don't care, she needs to make haste to loose it so she can be accepted by men.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Alternative Assitance

There are two assisted living communities within a five mile radius of where I live. J's daycare used to be next to one of them. Every Halloween they took the kids trick-treating to there. J's stash of candy lasted her many months. A few times during the year the "grandparents" came to over to read to the chidren. I wished they would go a step further and have the kids "adopt" a set of grandparents, bring them home to a new "family".

I've never been inside either of them but from the outside they showed no signs of life. The commuity bus stops by at the local grocery stores sometimes. Seeing these old people makes me wonder about their lives in the fortress like communities. Do they savor each moment of a superannuated life when they finally have no responsibilities or do they merely wait for death to come ?

I once knew someone who lived in Sun City West in Phoenix. Her description of the daily life of people around her was nothing short of terrifying. N would say she had get out of there or the depression would kill her before old age did. Having no means of her own, escape was not an option - her younger siblings had decided what was best for her.

Apartment living for seniors that fosters their artistic and creative talents is quite simply an amazing idea and long overdue.

The colony, Mr. Freedman said, “is a new hybrid that moves beyond that to actual creativity, to growth.” He added: “It’s not just writing memoirs and harvesting the past. It’s about producing new insights and work that is not only personally interesting but enriches the lives of neighbors.”

Monday, September 11, 2006

Married And Looking

What better petri dish than Craigslist's Casual Encounters for a little social experiment - the results are fascinating but not wholly unexpected. I had always wondered about ads posted by married men who said they looking for a "discreet intimate relationship". How many bored suburban housewives and nymphomaniacs are out there to fill such a huge demand for their goods and services ?

As luck would have it, I ran into one such man online. When he first contacted me, I did my preliminary due diligence - included but not limited to Google, Zabasearch, Yahoo Groups - to ID who I was dealing with. There were inconsistencies. He was out there "as unhappily married and looking" in the adult oriented mailing lists and groups but as single on the more mainstream dating sites. Being that I was curious about his type, I went ahead and accepted his contact and started to chat online.

He was posing single, 6'2" tall, athletic with dark hair and brown eyes. I asked to see a picture and he looked like he had described himself - not hard on the eyes at all. The red flags came on thick and fast. Upon seeing my picture he said that I looked more Spanish or Italian than desi. That coming from a desi dude would have set off a hundred warning alarms even if I had not known his real identity. Within ten minutes, he was saying how he could not progress in a relationship without physical intimacy - that lack of compatibility in bed was a deal breaker.

I figured it was about time to ask the $64,000 question - i.e "Are the married and looking ads you put out there not work out so well ?". He was taken aback at this but did not try to deny the charge. In the course of the next three evenings that we chatted, I found out a lot of about his marriage, his wife, their sex life (or the lack of it). He desperately needed to talk through his feelings or guilt and shame about what he was doing and I think he had found just the kind of listener he needed in me.

As for my original question, he said that he had got very limited response overall and almost none of them were from desi women. Maybe the male fantasy of sexually dissatisfied wives looking for extra curricular activities was just that - a fantasy. He said "I tried to be honest about who I was and what I was looking for but was not getting any so I had to lie". That translated in my head to "I am a good looking man looking to give and receive sexual favors but the women out there so repressed and backward that they refuse to have a good time without the whole relationship crap".

I asked him how had fared since he started lying. "A whole lot better of course. But with demanding job , the part-time MBA program and a wife that constantly keeps tabs on me, I haven't been able to go much further than meet women up during lunch hour". I sympathized with that and asked what his long term plan was. "I am looking for a job that is at least 80% travel. As long as I made more than what I am making now, my wife will be ok. Once I am out of town, anything is possible." I had to admit that his plan was highly likely to work out. I was by then ready to puke in disgust.

Maybe the Craigslist experiment will be the deterrent for people like him.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Dead Horse

Growing up in India at the time of the Khalistan separatist movement, ULFA extremism in the North East, Operation Bluestar, the massacre of Sikhs, the Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal, the assassination of prime ministers, the bloodbath in Kashmir, the Rath Yatra and its aftermath were random spikes in our normal lives. We were jolted for a bit and then went back to the business of living - in the case of people my age that meant keeping your nose to the grindstone until you made it through a decent college and were able to earn a living.

Maybe the frequency at which tragedy hit our people had numbed our ability to react to individual events. As I write this today, I find it hard to recall all of the many disasters natural and man-made that took place between the 80s and 90s in India. I am sure I don't mention at least fifty percent in my list. My left leaning relatives in Calcutta would say that human life is too cheap in India and we deserve our fate for our political apathy and self-centeredness. That unless there was a grassroots level uprising - a common man's call to arms, the status quo would never change, that the country was going to hell in a handbasket. That is typical Bengali borderline leftist speak. Needless to say, such radical statements were made while sipping very expensive Darjeeling tea out of fine porcelain tea cups.

In India, tragedy is mourned in moderation and then we move on – life goes on and a living has to be made. We do not stage public theatricals of our loss, market it and fetishize it like it were the most tragic of all tragedies that has ever befallen mankind. Close to the infamous 9/11 date a Yahoo headline reads 9/11 babies old enough to ask for dad. Old footage is regurgitated yet another time "lest we forget".

Not to minimize the loss that individuals have suffered but to depict the loss of these children unique enough to make headline news is way over the top. Such public media spectacles of private grief not only invades personal space (everything does not lend itself to a reality show) but takes away an citizen's fundamental right to mourn death and loss without being coaxed for sound bites.
With such relentless replays and overt displays of grief Americans manage to alienate themselves both from those who may have had sympathy and from those who have suffered far greater atrocities, effectively increasing their isolation and pain.

What about the millions of children orphaned because of war and genocide around the world - children who have never known what it is to have childhood and may have never seen a balloon ? Isn't it shameful and selfish in the context of the big picture to publish such inanity as "When he sends a balloon up to the sky and he finally sees the tiny dot of the balloon go through the clouds, he says, 'OK, the balloon found the doorway to heaven, I think he has it now," says Gabi's mother, Jenna Jacobs-Dick.

How many people in the world care about Gabi’s balloon ? Why is Gabi's loss greater than that of a million other children around the world ?
We are talking a dead father anyways. Maybe Gabi and his mother should count their blessings that they live in a country where a child despite suffering such a loss is still able to indulge in childish whimsy and be fancy free.

Sometimes you wish America would stop acting like a rich spoilt brat and stop flogging the dead horse of 9/11

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Magic School Bus

Like a flapping gosling
she hops on the bus, her
ponytail bobbing. She
looks for her "usual" spot,
and finding it taken,
hesitates before choosing
another across the aisle -
by the window. That Mommy
could not appear on
this side does not
cross her mind being as she was
relative to window, road and Mommy
disposed exactly as they
had been yesterday.
Mommy hurries across
to wave goodbye but
the bus has left by then.
Is this a parable
for a time to come, when
relative to each other
we would be where we
expect the other to be.
Yet by when we discover
the physics of relativity
the moment would have passed,
the smile in anticipation
would have turned a moue
of sudden despair.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Excuse For Speed

If this Swiss driver did not have to pay a fine for speeding, his excuse would have warmed many a desi heart. In my town, dowager cows sat in large groups in the middle of the road.

In the peak of summer it was not unusual to have a power-outage at night. I remember being able to see the bovine island only when the headlights of the car shone into the limpid pools of their sleep heavy eyes. The remarkable thing about these animals was that they did not stir an inch no matter what was hurtling down their way. It was up to the driver to navigate around them - swishing tails, projecting horns and all.

We had an abundance of jaywalking goats too. They ignored the traffic and the blaring air horns just like the cows did. Dogs and cats were remarkably different in the sharpness of their reflexes as their survival depended on it. Unlike the cows and the goats, they were strays and more valuable dead than alive.

Driving in my town was quite a bit like going on an African safari (we did have an abundance of trees) and sightings were guaranteed. When I first arrived in this country, I had a very hard time controlling my desire to speed given the complete absence of animals on the roads. It was freedom unlike I had ever known before.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hiring Drama Queens

Drama queens are other high social maintenance individuals apparently don't make good employees and should not be hired.

Finkel's body of research builds upon accumulating evidence that demonstrates that self-regulatory strength is a limited resource that fluctuates markedly, depending on prior willpower exertion, exhaustion and stress. The five experiments demonstrate that when individuals exert self-regulatory strength in dealing with inefficient or difficult social interactions, their energy is sapped and they have fewer resources available for separate tasks performed moments later.

Wonder why it would take research to establish a self evident truth. People routinely quit jobs unable to take the stress of tolerating their obnoxious bosses. Hopefully they consent to an exit interview and tell it like it is. If the pattern repeats itself a few times, the boss from hell is let go.

Just knowing that (as we all do) proves that drama queens make normal people suffer in the workplace and must in everyone's best interests never be hired. Isn't that the whole point of those never ending behaviorial job interviews replete with open-ended questions ?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Two Women

My co-worker Amy, is curious about India but draws a line at trying "candy covered with silver foil" better known as kaju katli to us desis. She was born and raised on a farm and still lives there commuting 20 miles each way to work, has traveled very little but has a wide variety of interests. She is married to a trucker who loves art exhibitions, museums and concerts. In summary, she is does not fit a stereotype and I enjoy talking to her.

At lunch a couple of days ago, she was telling me about the murder of Jassi Siddhu as reported in TV. Obviously, she had got several key facts mixed up. The tale as she had interpreted it, was one of a medieval and feudal India where women were routinely killed to save honor and maintain purity of caste. I had the surreal feeling of listening to Mrs G discussing the circumstances that led to Rani Padimini's jauhar in my eight grade history class.

I thought I was giving her a patient hearing when she said "What are you grinning about ? Did I say something funny ?" and I replied "The moral outrage of the civilized west at our heathen ways is amusing. Nothing like a bride burnt for dowry to cause a media frenzy. News about India is either about how primitive we still are or how we're taking all the high tech jobs away. Isn't that contradiction hilarious ? At any rate India is all about bad news in the west"

Amy had to admit there was some truth in what I was saying. I asked her if she or anyone she knew was curious about what outsourcing was doing to our middle class, the last bastion of moral values - about the young and rich Indians who were profiting the most from the BPO boom. She said that she had never thought about it.

"Guess what, those are real people just like Jassi Siddhu, and what's more they're smart enough to take away most jobs and there are a whole lot of them out there. Even thought its not half as fun as the Indian rope trick, hatha yogis and modern day satis, I think the west should be interested in what they are thinking and doing - it may impact them" I said.

I told her about the Tania Banerjee murder making special note of the fact that an Indian woman was murdered in this case too and by an Indian man. That was the end of any similarities between Jassi and Tania. India is not a monolithic entity with all parts moving at uniform velocity through space and time. A Romeo-and-Juiliet-esque murder takes place at the same time as when a woman works for an escort service for fun. Whereas Jassi marries and dies for love, Tania is only interested in sex and spurns a man who wants to marry her saying "What you earn in a month at office, I earn in a single evening. I am not interested in marrying you". The first step to analyzing India is to accept such glaring contradictions.

Tania is about India just like Jassi is except that NBC spin doctors don't think its worth their while to comment on a story that so starkly contradicts popular myths and notions held about the country and particularly about its women. My little schpiel left Amy quite speechless.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

First Day At Kindergarten

One lime green trench coat, five lime green knitted tops, six Coach pocket books, one Cartier watch, two generic tees, no pulp orange juice, coffee, Kleenex, one Jackie Onassis look alike minding her makeup as she wiped her tears, one red pashmina throw on a black pant suit, three fading blondes, slivered smoked salmon, mini bagels, pine apple chunks, five brunettes with blond highlights, one Filipino woman, two daddies in business formal, one Chinese couple and me. That was the composition of the Boo Hoo breakfast for kindergarten parents at J's elementary school this morning. Everyone knew everyone and their grandmother forever but they tried very hard to make polite conversation with me.

I put her on the school bus with a prayer for her to reach safe. One other mom said she was glad it was a woman bus driver - made her feel safer. Seeing the bus leave felt at once like the severing of an emotional umbilical and the freeing of a bird from a cage. The parting with my baby now all grown up was so bitter sweet. She was brave, eager and rearing to go out into the "real" world. She woke up at 6:00 in the morning and effortlessly - knowing her, I had expected that. When I sneaked a peek into Mrs H's room, I saw J smiling and talking excitedly. Our eyes met briefly and she glowed with happiness. How I miss my baby already !

Monday, September 04, 2006

Oe And Vonnegut

Reading this amazing speech by Kurt Vonnegut (wish there was a full transcript or an audio recording) reminded me of a Kenzaburo Oe quote. In the concluding chapter of his Japan The Ambiguous And Myself, Oe had said of his role as a writer :

As one with a peripheral, marginal, off-center existence in the world, I would like to continue to seek - with what I hope is a modest, decent, humanistic contribution of my own - ways to be of some use in the cure and reconciliation of mankind.

Vonnegut states the obvious in that speech but in a way that prompts a standing ovation. That is perhaps his "modest, decent, humanistic contribution". Oe talks about the future of Japanese literature and how rock stars like Banana Yoshimoto and Ryu Murakami are not the purveyors of serious Japanese literature. Of himself he says :

I am one of the writers who wish to create serious works of literature which dissociate themselves from those novels which are mere reflections of the vast consumer cultures of Tokyo and the subcultures of the world at large. What kind of identity as a Japanese should I seek?


Whatever identity Oe sought for himself, the beauty of his writing is its astounding simplicity - stark,clear and precise, like this excerpt from The Silent Cry

I had an awful lot of dreams about S too, you know. In all kinds of ways his death had a profound influence on us as we grew up. That's why we had so many different dreams about it. Now that we were discussing it, though, I realize that our dreams must have must have had quite different atmospheres. Feeling compunction at pressing Takashi too far, I was offering a means of compromise. "It seems his death had completely different effects on the two of us"

It would likewise take a Vonnegut to make the art great writing seem so obvious :

A key to great writing, he adds, is to “never use semi-colons. What are they good for? What are you supposed to do with them? You’re reading along, and then suddenly, there it is. What does it mean? All semi-colons do is suggest you’ve been to college.”

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Point Counterpoint

A girlfriend forwarded me this article in Forbes on careers and marriage asking me "Whadya think ?" Very provocating question given that I fit into the exact demographic that Michael Noer is advocating men should avoid.

I am professional and do have a career that pays more than $30,000 a year. I have been married, have a child and am now divorced. Some of his characterizations of my sample set in the population are not wholly accurate. He says for instance :

...recent studies have found professional women are more likely to get divorced, more likely to cheat and less likely to have children. And if they do have kids, they are more likely to be unhappy about it.

That I think is a very broad brush depiction of women with careers. There are many career women who take long sabbaticals to raise their babies, work on less challenging assignments upon their return to the workforce so they could remain available to their children. When someone allows their career to define their identity and existence, the family and marriage suffers - and this applies equally to men and women.

His suggestion that men may be better off with hausfraus than women with a meaningful job because she is less likely to run away with a co-workers is highly chauvinistic. A man is just as likely to run away with a female co-worker.

..the other reason a career can hurt a marriage will be obvious to anyone who has seen his or her mate run off with a co-worker: When your spouse works outside the home, chances increase that he or she will meet someone more likable than you. "The work environment provides a host of potential partners,"

The logical next step would be to ask that woman retreat behind a purdah and wear a chastity belt for good measure. Should both man and woman perhaps retreat to an uninhabited island, forage for food and be saved from the temptations that may be the undoing of their marriage ?

Elizabeth Corcoran I am afraid does not present a very compelling counterpoint. While she is right in saying that a lazy husband renders marriage unsupportable, her argument is too full of references to "I" to be credible and authoritative. Where is the big picture ?

If the last new skill your guy learned was how to tie his shoes in the second grade, dump him. If he can pick up new ideas faster than your puppy, you've got a winner.

In this edition unfortunately, game set and match - Michael Noer.

Being Busy

“I am busy right now, can we talk later ?” Andy was saying to his phone. A high pitched voice protested “But I need to know if we can go to the store today. We need to buy the party favors and order the cake. These things take time” Sheila guessed it must be his wife. He cut her off mid-sentence with “I’ll call you back”. This was the first snippet of conversation that Sheila had overheard across the wafer thin wall that separated their cubicles.

Chidanandan aka Andy was the onsite liaison for the offshore testing team. Sheila saw a lot of him during the production readiness and rollout phase of the project she was managing for the client. Something about his wife’s voice caught her attention – there was a certain edginess to it. She wondered why he didn't turn down the volume of his earpiece a notch - it made her an unwitting intruder in his domesticity. It could have been embarrasing if the exchanges had not been so completely bland.

She imagined a bored housewife sitting cross legged on the couch writing birthday invitations in the finest cursive to a dozen invitees to her child’s birthday. Between cooking a four course meal each day, she watched Bollywood flicks on DVD, chatted with family in India and scoured the web for “good deals” - all of the stereotypes associated with a stay at home desi wife came to mind. Yet, something about this woman felt atypical.

Andy was suave and professional and a pleasure to work with. “Why can’t you come home for lunch ? You said you did not have any meetings in the afternoon.” her voice complained another morning. Andy said “I’ll come home early instead” and she said petulantly “Its not the same thing.”

Sheila imagined Andy walking out to the smoking porch and telling her “I’ll make it up to you when I get there. The kids will still be in school.” To which she would ask flirtatiously “How ?” and he would describe what he had in mind in a secret language that only she understood. She imagined the wife laughing a soft, throaty laugh, her body tensing with anticipation and desire - Andy coming into their status meeting flushed from the high of a love and lust - even more confident of his team's ability to deliver on schedule than usual.

She heard the phone click after he said "I have about a hundred e-mails to go through. We'll talk later. Bye" The wife did not have a chance to respond to that. Sheila wondered what she had cooked for lunch, how she might feel sitting alone at the table eating it. Maybe she would watch an afternoon sitcom on TV while she did. Then the children would be back from school and the house would not be quite as empty. How busy was Andy really was a question that Sheila grew curious about.

Later that day, she met him by the coffee machine. "Hey Andy, how's it going ? Been busy ?" she asked. "Pretty good, Sheila. We're slowly ramping down testing activities offshore. Right now the guys are only running the regression suite after any hot fixes. I needed to talk to you about rolling some testers off the team. When do you want to meet ?" Andy replied. Sheila asked him if he was working on any other testing engagements and he said he was not. That's what she had thought. It made her wonder about the fictitious hundred mails he had mentioned to his wife. Was it more important to look important than be there for her when he easily could ?

The wife called about many things. What to cook for dinner, to remind him of his dentist's appointment, to check if he had had lunch she had packed, if it was going to rain in the evening, what the oldest one's teacher had called to say, if he could pick up some groceries on the way back. Sheila noticed there was never the calls for no reason like "I called you just because" and that Andy never sought privacy to answer them. Did he not love her ? Was there another woman - he did not look the type but what does "the type" look like anyways ?

This nameless, faceless woman who was a voice on her co-worker's phone fascinated her. She wondered what might happen to this marriage if she told the wife that Andy was reading news on CNN when he told her "I have back to back meetings all afternoon and need to finish up a presentation now. Cook eggplants or green beans or whatever you like. I'll talk later"

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Rules Of Engagement

Caught up with M after several months. Was interesting conversation as always but one thing she said stood out. She has been dating a guy on and off for several years now. They like each other enough to travel a thousand miles to meet up a few times a year and have like M puts it "crazy sex" for a weekend. Between meetings they keep in touch casually but date other people. Not particularly important but both M and this dude, Ramesh are desi. She is born and raised in Canada, he has lived in the US since he came for grad school. M has been married before, he has not. She is glad to have him around and satisfied with the arrangement they have worked out over time.

He was visiting with her the past weekend and the sex was not what it used to be. To quote M "This weekend, it felt like we were in a bloody relationship. Sunday morning, he said that he felt guilty about taking advantage of me. I was like, dude, I don't feel that way at all. So what's your problem ?" That is precisely the problem, that she is confident enough to indulge in a no end game, no future arrangement that meets her physical needs. She has a vested interest in keeping Ramesh in her life. Because of having him, she is not driven to the edge of despair to extract a commitment from a man with "husband potential".

One would think that would work out well for everyone concerned. A marriage-minded man would meet M, see wife potential in her and love it that she was not desperate and needy like many women in her age and circumstances are supposed to be. They would date for a bit, fall in love, marry have children and live happily ever after. That's in the fairy tales.

In real life, ironically, the same men who are repulsed by women who want them to propose marriage by the end of the third date read M's lack of desperation for a wedding ring as lack of serious intent. As M says "Some of us girls can never get the formula right". She hurts Ramesh's ego by making him feel like he is only as useful as his ability to perform acrobatic feats in bed. He wants her to feel emotionally attached to him - the reason he does not end the "relationship". He has a conquest to make, a point to prove and the spoils of war to take home.

A husband-material wonders how she is not trying a whole lot harder to get him to stay in her life - it hurts his pride too much to be with her. M is an funny, intelligent, successful and attractive woman. Since I knew her when she was still married, I know she is a fabulous hostess and we thought that her ex was lucky to have a wife like her. Yet, after five years of being single again, M is still alone and looking. The illogic of it does not cease to amaze me.

Friday, September 01, 2006

In The Beginning

On seeing the goat and the shalwar clad people in the picture, I first thought Goatonapole was the all desi Flying Spaghetti Monster church. Not quite so as it turns out. The central tenet of this philosophy is described thusly

As in the beginning there was no Goat or Pole but only unity, so in the end there will be a new being which is neither Goat nor Pole but is at the same time both, a being that is both whole and self-knowing, a being that encompasses the whole of the universe. This is the Goat's aim and Goatonapole in its essence.

There are way too many entities jockeying for the "in the beginning there was" position. The FSM is just one of them. Time Bete will have you believe there were no diapers.We are familiar with In the beginning there was nothing. God said, 'Let there be light!' And there was light or In the beginning Brahma was the Universe, then he created the other Gods. If you are an atheist you might contend in the beginning there was zero and then there was one. Given the choices, the goat on the pole definitely has my vote. It is downright simple.