Thursday, July 31, 2008

Coached And Primed

Having gone through the drill in my time, I strongly believe that the engineering college entrance exams in India are quite useless in identifying the best and the brightest. All it does is reward the proficient test-taker at the cost of those who lack exam savvy but more than make up for it by "raw intelligence". Just as it is unable to identify innate talent, it is not recognize passion or aptitude for technology either.

Had the system been able to identify candidates of best fit and highest potential, people like me would have never made it. With enough practice we just got a hang of the test and that was probably our only qualification. Some of us figured it out on our own but the vast majority depended on coaching classes. It is heartening to see the dean of IIT-Madras echo the same sentiment.

"I am looking for students with raw intelligence and not those with a mind prepared by coaching class tutors. The coaching classes only help students in mastering (question paper) pattern recognizing skills. With this, you cannot get students with raw intelligence," said IIT-Madras director, M S Ananth.

I have seen well-known coaching classes get many of my peers through the grueling test but most of them sank without a trace in academia and the industry. You would expect with all India ranks within a 100 in the JEE, my compadres and many others like them would have been among the next generation Vinod Dhams, Vinod Khoslas and Kanwal Rekhis.

Unfortunately that has not been the case. For every thousand coached and primed test bots that cracks the entrance exam to premier engineering colleges in India , there is one kid who is truly, remarkably brilliant.With the coaching business booming, the test bots are so numerous and efficient that they leave no room for the truly talented at these institutions and that is a real tragedy. It would make a lot more sense to sift out the the bot variety so that meritocracy prevails in India's best engineering schools and an overwhelming majority of their alumni become innovators in technology, thought leaders in academia and industry.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Devil In The Details

My recent experience with a couple of Indian vendors made me chuckle at this line I read in a blog post about why India will never be China.

Seriously, if you think the French penchant for arguing philosophical points to absurd lengths is maddening, wait until you have to deal with an Indian IT professional who literally buries you in a barrage of questions on details so minute as to be utterly inane. And then come the price negotiations. Indians make a Persian bazaar or an Arab souk feel like a cakewalk or a sleigh ride on a snowy winter's eve.

Case in point - a painful hour-long call (thankfully at vendor's expense) to Bangalore to discuss to death the exact mechanics of the Save and Save As function of a fairly complex application. They were in the process of responding to our RFP. We had provided a web-based simulation of the business requirements along with a detailed written document.

In return, all we expected was a level of effort estimate within a plus or minus 25% accuracy. Needless to say, that estimate never came through - they just could not get their panties out of a bunch over that infernal Save/ Save As function. It was quite a surreal experience.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Showy Consumption

Nice article in The Atlantic Monthly on consumption patterns and under what conditions it one would chase after external trappings of "wealth". The theory is :

Since strangers tend to lump people together by race, the lower your racial group’s income, the more valuable it is to demonstrate your personal buying power.

To that end, the richer your peer group the lesser your need for conspicuous, public consumption. Virginia Postrel writes: As peer groups get richer, the balance between private pleasure and publicly visible consumption shifts.

My grandmother was barely literate and could not spell economics to save her life, but she knew what research has uncovered. Her theory was that the people with old money live luxuriously but they are rarely flashy. In fact, they are often extremely tight-fisted. It is only the nouveau riche that flaunt what little they have lest anyone imagine they are still poor - they are often very generous when lavishing friends and family with gifts.

When my grandfather came upon hard times as a refugee with a large brood of children in Calcutta in 1947, he made up a mantra for himself that we still remember - To not show-off your wealth is the best way to it show-off.We wondered what he really meant when he said that. Was he trying to project he still had the old money he no longer had or was it perhaps a lesson for the rest of us who were at risk of turning ostentatious because we had never known the old way of life as he and his forefathers had.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Tough Choices

If you've ever felt like your head hurts running through complex decision trees in your mind, here is the scientific explanation. Now I know why I hate long restaurant menus and shopping for a basic black skirt. Who in their right mind needs to have twenty five salad options to select from for a workday lunch or just as many kinds of black skirts only to find none of them meet your understanding of "basic". It seems that a lot of life's aggravations result from having to plow through too many choices - it weakens your brain and leaves it less useful for other work (or play)

Why is making a determination so taxing? Evidence implicates two important components: commitment and tradeoff resolution. The first is predicated on the notion that committing to a given course requires switching from a state of deliberation to one of implementation. In other words, you have to make a transition from thinking about options to actually following through on a decision. This switch, according to Vohs, requires executive resources. In a parallel investigation, Yale University professor Nathan Novemsky and his colleagues suggest that the mere act of resolving tradeoffs may be depleting. For example, in one study, the scientists show that people who had to rate the attractiveness of different options were much less depleted than those who had to actually make choices between the very same options.

That would explain why I can imagine the subtle differences in taste resulting from the variation in the ingredients of the said salads or tell when may be a good occasion for wearing one of the not-so-basic black skirts but making a purchase is hellishly hard.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Smart Or Not

Apropos of something (I forget exactly what) J recently said to me "Indian kids are smarter". I was completely taken aback by that statement coming from her. She has a few desi friends from her Hindustani music class and a couple in the neighborhood. Every once in a while, we run into some friends I have. In all, its not a whole lot of desi interaction so I was not sure where exactly she had picked up that idea.

At any rate, I made haste to disabuse her of her notion that desis are inherently smarter than everyone else, offering plenty of evidence to the contrary to prove my point. I explained to her how race, culture and color of skin have nothing to do with intelligence and she would turn out to be a particularly retarded person if she held such beliefs. By now, J was close to tears. She had no idea one innocuous line from her would stir up such a huge hornet's nest.

We have reviewed the facts a few times since then just to make sure J really understands that mental ability has a lot to nurture; cultures that value academic accomplishment highly, push their children in that direction much harder than the rest. So while it appears that desi (and Asian) kids are "smarter", in truth non-Asians could be just as smart but don't get pushed nearly as hard by their families and as a result don't succeed as much.

This
LA Times story on the achievement gap between Asian and Latino students from similar socio-economic backgrounds is a candid discussion on racial stereotyping and how it hurts those who are viewed less favorably through its lens while pressuring the others to conform to the "favorable" image of them as group even if it does not define them individually.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bowels And Relationships

I have had well meaning friends and family tell me at different times over the last few years that my yen for a relationship (the more conservative among them call this marriage) is not nearly strong enough or I would have been in one by now. I don't know about "strong enough" yen but I compare my need for a man (or the lack of one more appropriately) in my life to that of that of bowel movements (or the lack of them).

Say you are the kind of person that goes potty first thing every morning, as long as the job gets done you don't spend any time thinking about. In my world, that would be equivalent of the ordinary (and man-less) days where my many preoccupations with J, housework, job and hobbies leave little time to ponder what I am missing.
Being married or in a relationship is the emotional equivalent of regular, timely bowel movements in my mind.

Then there are days when one goes potty at the regular time but unaccountably, nothing happens. You are surprised at first and then there is annoyance but you figure you have the rest of the day to set things straight. Your days proceeds just as it would have otherwise done. Every once in a while, your mind might stray commode-wards. You may grab an extra cup of tea or coffee hoping to set things in motion but if something important like a deadline at work or a child's doctor's appointment comes along, you tend to forget about it. The next morning, things are back to normal at the potty and you feel greatly relieved.

Such are the days when my schedule is relatively light and I actually have the time to ponder my singleness. It is a slight annoyance to know that there is not a man in my life with a man being as necessary as a daily bowel movement, necessary to bring to life a sense of general well-being. The end of relationship (or marriage) is similar - you get used to having a man around everyday, having a certain "domestic" routine over a period of time when suddenly one day as J would put it, "potty goes for a toss" in the morning and you are left wondering what went wrong - was it something you ate for dinner, was it a matter of two people drifting too apart over a period of time. Life gets busy once more and I am back to feeling just fine.

Finally we have the acute constipation scenario. Clearly, this is more than a slight annoyance. Day after day, the early morning trip to the bathroom is not bringing forth the results. Indeed, successive other trips aided by warm beverages, laxatives and the like are not helping either. On such days, it is impossible not to think about one's bowels not matter what other pressing pre-occupations and concerns may be vying for attention. From being in the undistinguished foreground of the day, bowel movements come to dominate center stage. You have no desire or even capacity to enjoy the bounties of the day - be it good weather, a kudos from the boss or meeting an old buddy for lunch. None of that eases that horrible constipated feeling.

This would be my state of mind when it suddenly sinks that I have been single for a long time now, am so many years older, my daughter is going on seven and I have not been in a meaningful relationship for as long as I can remember. There is therefore a sense of needing (most urgently I may add) to have a bowel movement so things can go back to being normal, or having a man appear auto-magically in my life.

Just like a constipated person hates for bowel movement to be their life's predominant concern, I don't like the lack of a relationship being mine either - both conditions are equally aggravating and uncomfortable. You yearn to return to your first thing in the morning potty schedule or be in a domestic situation that involves a man in the house as the case might be.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Joseph Addison On Humour

With essays on my mind lately, I re-read some by Joseph Addison that I had read when I was in high-school. It was nice to refresh my memory with Addison's definition of humor :

It is, indeed, much easier to describe what is not humour than what is; and very difficult to define it otherwise than as Cowley has done wit, by negatives. Were I to give my own notions of it, I would deliver them after Plato’s manner, in a kind of allegory, and, by supposing Humour to be a person, deduce to him all his qualifications, according to the following genealogy. Truth was the founder of the family, and the father of Good Sense. Good Sense was the father of Wit, who married a lady of a collateral line called Mirth, by whom he had issue Humour. Humour therefore being the youngest of this illustrious family, and descended from parents of such different dispositions, is very various and unequal in his temper; sometimes you see him putting on grave looks and a solemn habit, sometimes airy in his behaviour and fantastic in his dress; insomuch that at different times he appears as serious as a judge, and as jocular as a merry-andrew. But, as he has a great deal of the mother in his constitution, whatever mood he is in, he never fails to make his company laugh.

I wonder if the writing I have found the most humorous would fit Addison's exacting standards. I love James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Three Men In A Boat, Sue Townsend's The Diaries of Adrian Mole , A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole among many others. Since he does not cite examples of humor with the correct lineage, it is hard to see how the rules translate in the real world and if indeed they stand the test of time.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Vista Rant

My long suffering Sony Vaio gave up ghost a few months ago and I found myself back in the market for a low-end laptop. Everything has become a lot cheaper than it was five years ago when I had bought the Sony. That was the good news. There is plenty of bad news to compensate for it. For the money I was saving, I would saddled with Windows Vista - an abomination in the name of OS for which a couple of gig of RAM is not nearly good enough.

Like many others, I hate this thing with a passion and wish the Mac was cheaper so I could fit one in my low-end budget. When all I want to do with my laptop is check email, use the internet save pictures and documents, I wonder why I would need so much horsepower in my computer and still have it work so slow with this Vista thing running on it. This is just not right.

Now, to add insult to injury the sales dude at the store advised that I should pay their tech to optimize the software for me so it does not slow down to crawl pace. Apparently an "unoptimized" machine with Vista running on it would grind to a halt in short order. While this clearly begs the question why ship this garbage out in the first place, the answers are not quite forthcoming. The sales guy explained to me patiently (yet again) that XP was not an option and yes I would have to pay extra to set my brand new machine right unless I wanted to muck around with all kinds of registry settings and deal with the consequences.

If this is not a horrible customer experience, I don't know what is. First force a crappy piece of software down the customer's gullet and then have them pay to make it suck just a little less. The only reason I am still a Mac holdout is the price. There is a market full of folks like me who are begging for an alternative to the PC-Vista stranglehold only we don't have a big budget. Are we on anyone's radar at all ? Somewhat unrelated to this rant, read a nice feature in Low-tech Magazine on
computing without electricity.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sardari Begum

Watching Sardari Begum with my mother recently was a nostalgic experience. She had been my introduction to Indian parallel cinema in my teens and I have been a fan ever since. This was one movie we had both missed when it was first released and it has taken all of twelve years to get caught up. I've never been disappointed by a Benegal offering and this was no exception. The music which is central to the story was ethereal.

Sardari is a woman with a spirit that does not fit her time and social milieu. To feed her passion for music, she gives up the conventional life of a woman whose life's purpose is fulfilled by way of marriage. Instead, she becomes a courtesan and a professional singer.The movie traces her life in a series of flashbacks along with parallels between her life and that of her niece, Tehzeeb who is far more "respectably" employed as a journalist.

Even with the far greater empowerment and opportunities that Tehzeeb has enjoyed, her unconventional lifestyle causes just as much discomfort. Benegal portrays with great sensitivity the subtle difference between setting oneself free and truly living in freedom. Both Sardari and Tehzeeb, in different circumstances attempt and even succeed at the former but it is the later that is much harder to come by.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Baghdad High

HBO's Baghdad High documents a year in the life of four high school boys in Baghdad as recorded by them. This is the world view of kids who have for the better part of their lives lived in a war-zone and have come to a weary acceptance of their circumstances. We see them try to live a "normal" boyhood. There is a wannabe songwriter who sings along with a Britney Spears number, an anxious boyfriend worried about the safety of his girl in a place where suicide bombs can go off anywhere at anytime and staying alive is almost a miracle.

They don't look a lot different from their Western peers - with their jeans, tee-shirts, sneakers, cell-phones and gelled hair they could blend into school yards in America or elsewhere in the world with kids whose lives are nothing like theirs. Yet beneath the superficial sameness, a whole lot is different. They wonder if a walk down a street in their neighborhood could be flirting with death, they have friends who get wounded by road-side bombs and yet others who leave Baghdad and Iraq to seek a normal life elsewhere.

Very little can be counted upon, and there is even less to look forward to. It is touching to see the few odd moments of peace and joy that touch their unbelievably difficult lives - a birthday celebration, receiving the much-awaited SMS message from a girlfriend or skipping religious instruction class at school to play soccer with friends.


Amid the dejection and gloom, these incidents are the tiny glimmers of hope that one day peace will return to Baghdad, a city once known as The City of Peace. Baghdad High is a poignant tale of the tragedy that Iraq has come to be. That it talks so eloquently about the loss of the an entire generation without resorting to histrionics and gruesome details of death and destruction, the grist of mainstream media is a most remarkable achievement.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Word Espalier

Read some beautiful verses by Izumi shikibu among many others over at Kritya. Like all other poetry that I have read, re-read, remembered and loved, these verses create the espalier of words for emotions I have experienced but not been able to articulate.

Which shouldn’t exist
In this world,
The one who forgets
Or the one Who is forgotten?

Which is better,
the distant lover you long for
Or the one you see daily
Without desire?

Why haven’t i
Thought of it before?
This body,
Remembering yours,
Is the keepsake you left.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Travel Lines

Mundane things like latitudes and longitudes upon intersection result in ideas that range from Confluence to Hitokoki - the later is about locations and not exact points. There is the figurative trip around the equator and then the real deal but along the prime meridian; books that inspire travel - around the world in twenty three days ; and Da Vinci Code trail. Or we go back in time to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great.

Every once in a while, when I feel the tension between the forces of rooting and the desire to wander the world, I find my thoughts turning to maps, geography, history and many ways the planet can be sliced and diced in our imagination to make for bite sized travel destinations.

Here in my little town, with one main street running though its heart, I have lived long enough to know the nondescript stores and restaurants nestled in obscure side roads that branch on both sides like feeble tendrils unable to draw the traffic, bustle or energy of the predominant thoroughfare. When I am in these places, I feel like a traveler without really having traveled.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tokenism

J loves going to our local Hindu temple and I am sure she will be overjoyed to see a female priest there as this story reports is becoming common in America (via Salon).There is no evidence of multitudes of women being anointed as priests around the country in this story which introduces us to one such woman.

In contrast to this uplifting account(even if somewhat sensationalized story) of Indian women being able to arrive where their Western sisters are still struggling to reach is the one about
Dalit scavengers participating in a fashion show possibly to demonstrate that even their lives need not be a dead end and that there is a world of possibilities (also via Salon)

Both stories are about tokenism that often stands in the way of efforts to do the right thing by Indian women (specially those who lack there wherewithal to do so for themselves). Shashi Tandon, the Hindu priest will let her fifteen minutes of fame, bask in the afterglow of limelight for that much longer; it would be business as usual in temples after that. Before we retire into the familiar and comfortable contours of status quo we will all heartily agree with her when she says :

"Mothers came to America because they didn't have enough freedom. Then, after getting freedom, they forgot their culture," she said. "They are not doing prayers because they don't know why they need to do them."

Usha Chomar, the scavenger turned catwalk model for a day will have her hopes up for a bit and may even find work as a seamstress if she is lucky but more likely than not her walk on the ramp will do precious little for those who she represents. Just as Ms Tandon cannot by her laudable example, take the long suffering Indian mothers out of their homes and have them installed as priests in our mandirs. They will both remain talismans for change we would love to see happen.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Declining Value of Critics

I always look up book and movie recommendations on blogosphere trusting the weighted average opinion of the amateurs a lot more than that of the professional critics. A blogger would be less likely to hold back or do the politically correct thing if they were panning the work of an establishment favorite. Conversely, they would be more unrestrained when showering praise where they felt it was deserved.

Bloggers have no need to be objective in their opinion. It is quite often to their benefit to discuss their personal connection with a piece of music or literature because a vast majority of their readers are not impressed by the art and literary criticism dished out by main stream outlets. For all their expertise and informed opinions they are not able to help a reader, a movie-lover or theater goer navigate their way to finds they would truly enjoy and cherish.

In short, a random bloggers who is not being paid for their opinion are highly likely to have one that is helpful for someone who is seeking one even after discounting personal biases and preferences. One restaurant critic writes about the increasing influence of bloggers in the field of critiquing. He says :

It appears that consumers no longer feel the need to obtain their opinions from on high: the authority of the critic, derived from their paid position on a newspaper, is diminished. Opinion has been democratised. In the movie world two sites are credited with decimating the profession.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Moral Compass

This article would be very interesting reading for any woman who in her marriage or relationship has felt unaccountably weirded out by a close female relative of her man. There is of course a whole slew of comments both on the Times article and on Mefi from extreme ends of the moral compass. A few of the more interesting ones :

I got a very Penthouse feel from her description of her first night with her brother. It reads like some sort of male fantasy, being able to seduce and make every woman jealous, even his sister. She sort of glossed over the feelings of guilt that come with breaking such a strong cultural taboo. Even assuming that, abstractly, what they did was not intrinsically wrong, the fact that physical pleasure overrode any doubts is creepy. The ability to dispense with emotional baggage like that so easily reminds me of interviews with serial killers - geoff

What triggers my bullshit detector is a 14 year old girl and a 15 year old boy doing some drunken fondling and having no awkwardness or embarrassment whatsoever the next day. That does not happen, family or no. Early teens get embarrassed and awkward over, like, shoelaces and hair. Let alone vest-rummaging. This is an adult fantasy of an idealized sibling relationship, presumably presented to up readership ("We've upped our readership, so up yours!") - rusty

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I Will Not Be Broken

Jerry White tells a the most awe-inspiring tale of survival in his book I Will Not Be Broken. However, that is not the main point of his book - he shares his insights and quotes many others who have likewise known and overcome great adversity. This is not your run of the mill self-help book and is definitely about inspiring and leading by example.

That said , I find very it difficult to relate to his recommendations for others trying to cope with and survive tragedy in their lives. One of his central premises is the need of what he calls "social oxygen" to prevent us from suffocating in our own victimhood. True, pain and misery when dispersed widely enough hurts a lot less than something strictly one to one. Therefor war, famine and other socio-political upheavals while impacting entire generations do not make individuals feel like they were singled out for punishment - there are far too many victims of tragedy for them to luxuriate alone in their self-pity.

But personal tragedies like loss of a loved ones, function of body parts, emotional trauma, terminal illness or a sudden and precipitous loss of wealth is not quite the same thing. Our friends, family and neighbors still have normal lives and enjoy all the things that we once had and no longer do. It becomes that much harder to "move on" or consider our situation in the larger context of the millions of others who have far more difficult lives than we do. Human beings are naturally inclined to keep up with the Joneses.

Unless they have renounced the world or are a great spiritual elevation at least, most people tend to set their sights towards the bigger and better deal they find around them. The McMansions in the suburbia are not built because the homeless guy living in a cardboard box is the gold standard. To that extent, any survival strategy that does not look inward and help us realize that our pain and suffering is of our own choosing and therefore fully expected and deserved is likely to fail. It is asking people to work against their basic grain.

White's story will be reassuring to only those of us who already have compassion in their hearts and are able to see the big picture in their life's darkest hour. Those blessed with that kind of perspective would be in no need for a Five Step guide to help them cope. That leaves us with the vast majority of those who are in dire need of help - the people White's book aims at helping.

They are angry, bitter and suffer from victimness simply because they think their suffering is unique because they themselves are unique. It does not help them to know that there are many other in much worse shape than they are - doing so invalidates the very basis of their self-righteous suffering. Had that not been the case, we would not be such insatiable consumers of products and services that scream "I".

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fresh Air Fund

I am posting this on behalf of Sara Wilson, Outreach Co-ordinator at Fresh Air Fund

The
Fresh Air Fund has provided free summer vacations to New York City children from disadvantaged communities since 1877. The end of July is growing closer and they still have 200 children who need to be placed with host families for this August. Unless all prospective host families are screened and vetted by the end of July, these 200 children may miss out on an invaluable experience. They are looking for families who want to extend an invitation to a 9-12 year old.

If you know of someone who might be interested in hosting a child for the summer, please have them contact Sara Wilson at
sara@freshair.org

Some articles about the organization and the wonderful work they do from around the web :


NYT Archives
Public Opion Online

And also the amazing story of a seven year old boy who asked his friends to make donations to the Fresh Air Fund instead of giving him birthday presents this year

Monday, July 14, 2008

Staying Competitive

As the moderator of this Economist debate on the competitiveness of workers from rich countries in a globalized world points out, the topic touched an assortment of nerves. Both the pro and the con positions have been heard many times before so there are not any new ideas to ponder upon. But the comments are a whole different animal - lively, vigorous and refreshing. Here is a small sampling of the comments I found most thought-provoking :

As long as Western leaders of so-called "rich" countries keep producing wartime products that absolutely are destructive to human productivity, I'm afraid that the Western countries will waste their competitive talents,e.g highly skilled and highly (and diversely) educated people - nance45

Like it or not, globalization facilitates regression to the mean. Emerging economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) can, on a percentage-wise basis, ratchet up productivity gains far faster than highly productive workers in wealthier countries. They will continue to focus on productivity gains in order to catch up to wealthier countries. At some point, workers in all countries tend to reach a point at which their propensity for leisure overtakes their propensity for work - vegasbob

It is a bit awkward that it is entirely possible for both protagonists to be largely correct. The unit of competition may indeed by the multinational team but within such teams the traditional West's contribution may decline. Indeed it may be that the rich world's relative success comes largely from local knowledge of markets rather than generic skills like engineering/design - an inherently unstable position - willstewart

The realities of economics tend to say that whatever the talent the issue is not anymore the location but the scarcity and price and that therefore the price overall will be more and more fixed at global level and will be determined by skill level rather than by location of the skill. - dorcq

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Guru of Love

With The Love Guru has taken over over search engine rankings, Samrat Upadhyay 's The Guru of Love manages to pull up only a couple of matches on page one. Clearly Guru Maurice Pitka is drowning his meeker Nepali counterpart Ramchandra - the hero of Upadhyay's book. Ironically, the online search fate of this book matches if off-line one when you consider the quality of Upadhyay's work compared to that of other sub-continental writers in the context of fame and recognition it has brought them.

As I read The Guru of Love I could not help remembering Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss and of course the Booker that came in its wake. For any sub-continental readers there are many parallels between Darjeeling (Desai) and Kathmandu (
Upadhyay ) where these stories are set. The pace at which the plot unfolds is comparable as well. Both are good story-tellers with a lucid prose style. What Pankaj Mishra says of Desai's book can apply almost verbatim to Upadhyay's :

"The Inheritance of Loss" may strike many readers as offering an unrelentingly bitter view. But then, as Orhan Pamuk wrote soon after 9/11, people in the West are "scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population," which "neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom." This is the invisible emotional reality Desai uncovers as she describes the lives of people fated to experience modern life as a continuous affront to their notions of order, dignity and justice. We do not need to agree with this vision in order to marvel at Desai's artistic power in expressing it.

The difference is that unlike Desai's Biju,
Upadhyay's Ramchandra is not fundamentally (and unrelentingly) bitter. Instead, his ability to dream a silver lining around his miserable existence is what leads him into an extra-marital affair with his twenty one year old math student, Malati. He seems to believe that he can keep his two worlds from colliding. His wife does the unthinkable, when she brings in Malati to live in their apartment and leaves her bedroom to her husband and his lover. The characters suffer from the dichotomy between their desires, social mores and political upheaval around them.

While there is enough in and around their lives to be bitter about,
Upadhyay's characters are like so many drops of water on a lily pad of circumstance. They seem to have an inner strength that allows they to stay true to their individuality and follow their heart amid life situations that test them beyond break point. In The Guru of Love, Upadhyay takes the mundane and often dreary to create a charming story. As a reader you are pleasant surprised by the what he is able to make out of the humble ingredients that go into it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Glass Beads

I bought a glass bead necklace on my trip to Puri over fifteen years ago. It had four strands of tiny red, blue, green, orange, yellow, black and white beads sewn with cotton twine. Nothing fancy but it but the combination of color and the lack of a repeating pattern made it a versatile piece of jewelry. I could wear it with a number of outfits, pair it with metal or bead earrings not to mention glass bangles. Since then its always traveled with me.

The twine frayed over time and a couple of years ago it finally snapped. I tried to mend it but it was too big a project to undertake with thousands of little beads to string together. There was never enough time, never enough motivation. The remains of the necklace and the beads lay in a bowl in one of the kitchen cabinets.

A few weekends ago, I thought I'd give the necklace project a go -mainly to give J something to do. She loves helping me with whatever I am doing and this was definitely a lot more fun than cleaning the bathrooms. There were tiny silver and gold colored beads from another necklace a friend had given me a few years ago. This one came from San Francisco and dates back to the 60s or 70s. She had picked it up from a thrift store on a whim and never found the right outfit to pair it with. I wore it once and it snapped.

So my beads from Puri met the unrelated beads from California to make this beautiful strand of colorful beads, arranged in completely random order. I got back my favorite necklace with a touch of new to it. The gold and silver beads add a little drama to what had been an understated chain of beads. It also gives it a new life that is no longer tied to old memories some too painful to remember others too hard to forget. It is also special because J and her friends helped me sort through the beads.

When I tried it on, I remembered the first time I had worn it so many years ago. It was a time when the future and "my life" was a full of possibility and potential. Anything could happen. A lot has happened since that time but a lot more is yet to come. Maybe in another fifteen or twenty years, this necklace with have another incarnation, beads from other places, other friendships may be strung together it give it a different look and character.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bird And Other Poop

In hard times, even bird-poop can be export-worthy. Maybe at some point in the not too distant future, traders will speculate in the futures of guano and on the ground wars will be waged among poop collectors and their handlers. Dung including that of humans has a long history. At some extreme end of the organic food fadism lies the Ezekiel Breads - one real and the other in the author's imagination.

But the idea of of human excrement as fuel is not that far-fetched as this news story from eight years ago suggests. As it is, very little separates what we eat and what we excrete. Unless you are among the lucky few who get to quench their thirst from a mountain spring that runs through your backyard, chances are you might be drinking recycled water from your toilet. Whether we like it or not, we do seem to live in interesting times.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

English Dialects

Having moved from state to state in India through my childhood, I am only too familiar with many flavors of English and how local languages add a distinct texture and tonal quality to it. As such, there is more that separates Tamlish, Binglish and Hinglish and Punjlish from each other than unites it. In this Wired article on the emergence of Chinglish as a distinct dialect of English, the analysis of how English came to take on so many different hues is spot on :

Any language is constantly evolving, so it's not surprising that English, transplanted to new soil, is bearing unusual fruit. Nor is it unique that a language, spread so far from its homelands, would begin to fracture. The obvious comparison is to Latin, which broke into mutually distinct languages over hundreds of years — French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian. A less familiar example is Arabic: The speakers of its myriad dialects are connected through the written language of the Koran and, more recently, through the homogenized Arabic of Al Jazeera. But what's happening to English may be its own thing: It's mingling with so many more local languages than Latin ever did, that it's on a path toward a global tongue — what's coming to be known as Panglish. Soon, when Americans travel abroad, one of the languages they'll have to learn may be their own.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Year 2058

Each entry in this list of predictions about where we will be in 2058 is fascinating. The one's I liked best were :

6. Hand-held neuroimagers will reveal when people are lying - the socio-cultural implications of having such technology are immense. You wonder if this could our first brush with Satya Yug.

14. We may be able to add memory to human brains, just as we do to old computers, and download human memory into remote storage devices - which would mean storing unwanted, undesirable memories offline and also help for those who loose in the uneven struggle of memory over forgetfulness.

17. People can get artificial retinas that let them switch (simply by thinking) between "reality" mode and virtual reality, including the ability to see real events in other locations -- say, checking on Mom in the nursing home - imagine being able to see loved ones living in a different country or being able to "witness" important news events from the comfort of one's living room.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

An Interview with Rajiv Satyal

Rajiv Satyal - Declared by Russell Peters as 1 of only 2 U.S.-based Indian "comics to watch," Rajiv is the small, bespectacled Indian guy from Ohio whose witty and TV-clean act covers everything from racial issues to soap bottles to his favorite topic - himself - "We all have some Rajiv in us, even if we don't want to admit it." He has repeatedly opened for Dave Chappelle, Kevin Nealon, and Russell Peters in sold-out shows across the U.S.

Source : Indian Invasion Comedy

Rajiv Satyal: Hello!

HC: Hi there !

Rajiv Satyal: So I'm at my friend's place and HOPEFULLY the internet hangs in there

HC: If not, I would fully expect you to make a good desi joke about it :)

Rajiv Satyal: Of course something about how an Indian like me should be able to fix it post haste

HC: Absolutely, with all the desi stereotypes about spelling bee and Indian temples thrown in. So how did you find yourself in the comedy business - its not the desi thing to do at all

Rajiv Satyal: My brother found an article in the local paper - Funniest Person in Cincinnati Contest - I entered it, made the semis, and the next year I won it.

HC: You mean you beat the locals at their own game ?

Rajiv Satyal: ha yeah.

HC: How would you define your niche in comedy ?

Rajiv Satyal: I call myself Your High-Brow, Fun-Size Comedian... I'm an Indian guy from Ohio - being fun-size means that I can tell people to just lighten up (since i weigh a bit over a buck) and I'm from the middle of the country and the middle of the color spectrum - so I can bring people together as I say, "Brown is the new Gray." :)

HC: Are you then asking your audience to "see what brown can do for you" as far as getting a good laugh ?

Rajiv Satyal: Yes laughter is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine of thinking go down :) But as a comedian, you have to make people laugh! if you don't do that you'll be out of a job pretty quickly (post haste - great phrase)

HC: Are you able to de-link the comedian in you from the desi or are the two somewhat inseparable ?

Rajiv Satyal: The former - most of what i wrote for the1st two years was non-Indian. Being desi is a large part of me but there is so much more, as there is with any of us - and I think comedy is moving in that direction. People want more than just the 7-11 and call center jokes.That works for non-desi crowds but desi crowds want to hear more now.

HC: Is there an non-desi audience that wants to hear from the brown guy who is not doing the Russell Peters thing ?

Rajiv Satyal: Yes - I think there are a lot of Russell wannabes out there. Let Russell be Russell. he paved the way - the trailblazer - our Elvis. as Lennon said, "before Elvis there was nothing." Russell is one of the world's greatest comics. So you're not going to out-Russell him. So out-Rajiv him or out-whoever-you-are him.

There was an old Nike commercial about a young guy named Harold Miner... something like "people alway want to know if I'll be the next Michael Jordan... or the next Charles Barkley... or the next Hakeem Olajowan... I want to be the first Harold Miner." Great commercial. Too bad he ended up sucking.btw, I'm an absolute stickler for grammar and spelling.But not on chat :) Typos are a necessary evil

HC: Thanks goodness. I am both grammar and spelling challenged and specially on chat :)

Rajiv Satyal: :)

HC: You mentioned laughter being the sweetener with which to down more serious thought. What kind of food for thought are you trying to leave your audience with ? Is there a different take away for a desi and a non-desi ?

Rajiv Satyal: The short answer is that i just want people to be themselves. But there are other messages there. I sent out my POV (point-of-view) in my last newsletter... here it is:

Well, the problem is that we laugh when we should cry and cry when we should laugh. We spend so much time worrying about the little things and we sweep the big things UNDER THE RUG because they’re too painful – and it’s the big things that are going to kill us.

Honest debate is dead, because people have become too touchy. And if our business, religious, and political leaders (still) lack the courage to challenge people to get out of their comfort zone, then maybe a comedian should.

So, here’s what I can do: I can show myself to you as honestly as I can and hopefully being myself will inspire you to do the same.

And here’s what we can all do together: for the little things, in the absence of information to the contrary, assume the best. The next time somebody cuts you off on the highway, presume he’s got a good reason, so instead of getting mad, yell “Good luck!” That’ll scare him more than the finger would – nothing is more threatening than peace, love, and understanding. And you should laugh it off anyway - that's what we do when stuff like that happens in the movies.

For the big things, seek to find the truth – about the world, about that which is different, and especially about you: Be yourself… if you can find him. (Or her.)

Most of life’s answers are simple, but the context is complex, so there’s a lot of ambiguity. Therefore, temper your stances. Of course, everything in moderation – even moderation.

Why am I the guy to deliver this message? I can tell you to lighten up because I weigh a bit over a buck. And I can connect and bring people together because an Indian from Ohio is as centered as it gets: from the middle of the country and the middle of the color spectrum.

I’m not black or white. Brown is the new gray. And I’m here to pull that rug out from under you. that is applicable whether you are desi or anything else but good question :) you've caught me at a very philosophical point in my life."You met me at a very strange time in my life." - Fight Club

HC: From your vantage point as the desi comedian from Ohio, what would be the one desi attitude about Americans (like that is one homogeneous mass) do you find most comical ?

Rajiv Satyal: I think it's the same that all ethnicities have of Americans, which was captured so well in My Big Fat Greek Wedding...that "ethnic" people are more effusive, family-oriented, and crazy and Americans are private, quiet, independent people.Nobody knows his neighbors... when the kids are 18, parents can't wait to get them outta their hair...that Americans have no "culture".

But my parents have had such good experiences that they have good perceptions of Americans. i always say now that the best thing about all these immigrants is that suddenly Americans look like they're always on time and that they're great tippers.

HC: :) Do you keep up with the comedy scene in India - stuff like Raju Srivastava and The Great Indian Laughter Challenge ?

Rajiv Satyal: I have seen parts of a couple of episodes and am interested but want to learn more

HC: It was fun chatting with you. Time for the last question - do you have a joke about the rash of angst-y desi bloggers in America (specially women) :)

Rajiv Satyal: are there a lot?!

HC: In the gazillions and growing :) you have just chatted with one

Rajiv Satyal: I can't say a lot or I'll get buried by them!

HC: Have a wonderful evening !

Rajiv Satyal: You too - thanks for taking the time!

More about Rajiv at his website, Funnyindian

Monday, July 07, 2008

Signs of Decay

My mother's first visit to America was soon after 9/11. That Christmas, I took to a mall near where I lived at the time. J was only a few months old and I was not able to fit into any of my pre-pregnancy clothes yet. I remember wearing to the mall a black shalwar-kameez she had brought for me from India because it was the only outfit I could fit into comfortably. My mother wore a sari as she always does. So there we were, two dark-haired, brown-skinned, petite ethnic women in clothes that looked decidedly foreign. A group of white punks hurled racially charged abuse and insults upon us while we walking inside the mall. It was the first time I had experienced anything like that in the States and I had been here for a couple of years at the time.

Needless to say, I was terrified and thought they might harm J. There had been reports of racial violence and the targeting of Sikhs because of their turbans. I could tell these teens were educationally and culturally backward enough not to know the difference between a Hindu or Sikh from India and an Arab from the Middle East. Not that being able to tell one apart from the other justified their behavior, but clearly my black shalwar-kameez had been the trigger for that outburst. Dusk was gathering and it was raining heavily outside. I was a relatively new driver at the time and was scared to drive down the hilly road that led home in that weather - especially with a new born in the car-seat. But we were too shaken to do anything else.

Having spent all our lives in India, where women have never felt safe around men in public places, we found this incident to be eerily reminiscent of the many bad experiences we have both had at different times back home. Of course, race and ethnicity have nothing to do with misbehavior there, but men will cuss out women in the most obscene manner just to terrorize them - we were both very familiar with what that felt like. That evening, a group of white kids had traumatized us in the exact same way, with their ignorance about our race and religion making it so much more dangerous given that 9/11 had happened just a few months before.

My mother has visited me in America quite a few times since then and we had no other unpleasant experiences like the one in the mall, until last evening. We were taking a walk in the neighborhood just outside our community. As luck would have it, I was wearing the same black salwar-kameez. I should note at this point that I never wear ethnic clothes unless I am going to an Indian cultural event. With my mother here, I find myself wearing clothes I haven't worn in a long time mainly because she likes to see me in them and she finds my Western clothes too monotonic.

So here we were on the sidewalk, the streets completely deserted. Mom was observing that she had never seen roads look so empty in all her trips here. Clearly $4-a-gallon gas has made non-essential driving a thing of the past. Suddenly a big white truck whizzed past us and a big white guy on the passenger side stuck his head out and screamed abuses at the two of us. He repeated the word "bitches" a few times to make sure we had heard and understood. It was so unexpected and sudden that we were left dumbfounded even as his voice reverberated. After I had recovered, I wondered how I would have reacted if I had managed to keep my wits about me and if I had been carrying my cellphone.

My mother commented that when times are hard, natives will naturally resent the presence of aliens among them - it happens in India too. In Mumbai they resent the Biharis and Bangladeshis who come into the city in train-loads to join the labor force. There are similar examples to be found all around India. She said that poverty brings out the worst in people, when the safeguards afforded by civic society can no longer be counted upon. Maybe the cops would have turned a deaf ear to my complaint even if I had called 911 and recounted what had happened. My mother speaks from the vantage point of someone who has seen just such a systematic degradation happen throughout her life. She is therefore able to see signs of decay and decline that others without such firsthand experience would miss.

She worried what turn deep-seated anger and resentment might take when fueled by ignorance and combined with the right to bear arms. As we walked back home, we could not help thinking of the worst-case scenario for ending a perfectly tranquil evening. What if that man in the truck hated us (or who he thought we represented) enough to just pick up a gun and shoot. It made me wonder if my quest to find freedom in America was a dream nearing its end.

Then there is the bigger picture of what such incidents mean to immigrants and visitors to America. There is no better deterrent to immigration and foreign tourism than such behavior. While it is not yet widespread and frequent enough to garner the attention of the mainstream media, I can't imagine that my experience is unique or exceptional in any way. However, by the time incidents like this or worse make headline news (if they do), most of the damage is already done. Maybe it is best to recognize signs of decay and act on them before the rot takes over.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Household Bling

I hate the gooey soap gunk on soap dishes with a passion and just for that reason use soap cakes only in emergency - its liquid Castile soap otherwise. Reading the paeans about this perfect soap dish I am almost tempted to give it a shot and actually get to use the lovely lemongrass, tea tree, orange peel and oatmeal soap bar a friend gave me recently - right now it's being used a potpourri in my cabinet.

The Waterfall Soap Saver is a clever idea too but may not work when the cake turns small with use. On the plus side it’s a lot cheaper and requires no installation. Also on the same site, was a food dehydrator - a replacement for the abundant sunshine of my home where it was possible to dry seasonal vegetables, greens not to mention pickles all summer long and then enjoy them in winter. If you want to be green about food drying there is also a solar-powered option. Far less functional and much more attractive are Kyouei Design's products.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Corporate Psychic

As improbable as it seems, there is actually a point of intersection between corporations and crystal gazers - it pays $10,000 a month according to this Newsweek story and the title is Corporate Intuitive. It's amazing what becomes possible in tough economic times :

The scale of Day's success would have been hard to imagine in the 1990s, when the Psychic Friends Network and a campy Jamaican psychic called Miss Cleo clotted the airwaves with low-rent infomercials, giving the P word a bad public image. Some stigma still remains. "The hedge funds would freak out" if they knew he consulted a psychic, says the Hollywood executive.

But just as there are no atheists in foxholes, a bleak business climate can make believers out of anyone.

Perhaps when all the time tested recipes for success have fallen flat and wisdom of the high-powered management gurus have failed to turn the tide; looking to the metaphysical for answers may the the last resort for businesses in the West, just as many Asians have always depended on Vastu and Feng Shui for prosperity.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Strong Password

I was experiencing more than my usual share of challenges coming up with a new password that followed all the required rules - Nothing in common with the last 6 passwords, combination of alpha and numeric, atleast 2 numbers, no more than one special character and so on. When they make you go through this drill several times in a year, you wonder why they would not put you out of your misery, identify and autheticate you biometrically instead.

So after 10 or more attempts to come up with a password I might actually remember after I had created it, I made one that would be impossible to forget and bring back memories of love and loss from college days each time I typed it - or at least so I thought.

As it turns out, I am able to remember my password and each time I type it I am jolted out of the here and now to return to a place and time I can't fully remember anymore. The password has become a trigger for time-travel and acute yet nameless nostalgia. No specific memories come back to me but the sum total of the experience and the person who was very signficant to me at the time, come back in its essence. It pries open memories that I have shuttered for years.

In all, I have never had a change of password provoke such a visceral reaction. Clearly, I will need to change it to something more mundane so the natural order of my life is not imperiled each time I log on to my computer. I am glad to see that I am not alone in being password creation challenged. There are only so many fall back questions anyone can fall back on in time of need.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Kids Online

Learned something new (and disturbing) about second life sites for kids like Webkinz and Whyville today. Though these sites are kid safe in terms of content, not much else is apparently:

On the playground, kids pilfer lunch money and push each other around. But in the cyber clubhouses they're filling by the millions, kids rig elections, sell fake products and scam each other out of every virtual-worldly possession.

Since these virtual worlds are modeled after a real world adult ones, the scams kids perpetrate on each other are anything but juvenile. Also, the degree bad behavior is several notches higher for reasons that mirror the online world of adults.

Like adults, many kids feel that behaving badly online has fewer repercussions than behaving badly in real life, where face-to-face interaction drives home the consequences. Just as they can jump off a virtual building and not feel a thing, they can steal from each other with no consequences.

It is a shame that in these adult-created virtual worlds where we supposedly want kids to learn life skills that they will need when they grow up, all we are really preparing them for is duplicity and learning not to trust each other. It is shame that kids don't have anyone to advocate and protect their rights as children and adults are able to mess with their lives and minds up with such impunity.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Indian Food

With my mother visiting us, J and I are getting to eat authetic bengali food every day. When I am on my own, this is a very special treat reserved for days when I have time to cook the varied spread it takes to make a full, multi-course meal. Having lived in many other parts of India as well, I know the same is true of most regional Indian cuisine. A traditioal Indian meal is elaborate and takes a lot of work to put together. Our mothers and grandmothers took pride in following the recipes religiously and not cutting any corners. My generation and beyond often have to improvise for the sheer lack of time and resources to do things right. The results needless to say, speak for themselves.

Reading this Buddhadev Bose (an author revered by bengali literastes for his style, substance and erudition) essay on bengali gastronomy makes me wonder if there might a little more than nostalgia in what makes food from my part of the world so special. While he is on the theme of Bengali food, he also addresses the point I try to vain to make to people who question how it possible for me to be a Hindu and have no religious restrictions on my diet. When I say and I can be an omnivore if I choose to and be no less a Hindu for that I perplex desis just as much as I do the non-desis. Maybe I can now cite the Bose's essay to my defense. He says :

We cannot be sure whether there was ever a standard diet for the whole of India--available records are meagre, and no gastronomic counterpart of the Kamasutra is in existence. All we can guess on the basis of literary evidence is that the ancients were a meat-eating, wine-tippling people, inordinately fond of milk-products and beef-eaters as well.[1]

The Buddha himself did not impose a ceiling ban on flesh-eating, many of his followers (Bengalis?) ate fish habitually. The only strict vegetarians in ancient India were the Jains--a rather small and relatively isolated community with scant influence on the social life of orthodox sects. How and when both beef and pork came to be interdicted and the great schism between vegetarians and flesh-eaters arose on the Indian soil cannot be ascertained with any degree of precision; we do not even know whether these arose of religious or circumstantial pressure. Nor we can form a clear idea about the type or types of cooking current in the Vedic and epic ages.

Homer describes each meal with meticulous care, dwelling on every detail from the slitting of the bull's throat to the hearty appetites of the heroes; but the great sprawling Mahabharata is remarkably--even annoyingly--silent on such points. The phrase randhane Draupadi--`a Draupadi for cooking' has come down to us and is cited to this day, but not once do we see this proud lady actually in the kitchen, not even during the period of exile; the feeding of the wrathful Durvasa and his one thousand disciples was magically accomplished by Krishna, without any effort on Draupadi's part.

Bhima, we are told, served a whole year as the chef in Virata's household, but as regards the delicacies he presumably concocted for the royal table, we are left completely in the dark. The Ramayana does a little better; we often see Rama and Lakshmana bringing home sackfuls of slain beasts (wild boars, iguanas, three or four varieties of deer. We are also told that their favourite family diet consisted of spike-roasted (meats) (shalyapakva), known nowadays as shik-kebab or shish-kebab); --unfortunately no other detail is supplied. Who skinned the carcasses or made the fire or turned the flesh on the spit, what were the greens and fruits eaten with the meat or the drinks with which it was washed down--all this is left to our conjecture.

Nevertheless, we are eternally grateful to Valmiki for the passage describing the entertainment provided by the sage Bharadvaja to Bharata and his retinue; there is nothing to compare with it in the Mahabharatan accounts of the Raivataka feast or Yudhishthira's Horse-Sacrifice. For once in our ancient literature we find the courses itemized--savoury soups cooked with fruit-juice, meat of the wild cock and peacock, venison and goat-mutton and boar's meat, desserts consisting of curds and rice-pudding and honeyed fruits, and much else of lesser importance. All this is served by beauteous nymphs on platters of silver and gold, wines and liqueurs flow freely, there is dance and music to heighten the spirit of the revels.

Granted that the whole account is somewhat fantastical--it was the gods who had showered this splendour on that forest hermitage--a splendour that rivals that of Ravana's palace in Lanka; but this at least tells us what Valmiki thought a royal banquet should be; evidently he had experience of a highly sophisticated culture.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Without Hiatus

I often try to think back to the time when I was J’s age to see if I can remember who or what was at the center of my universe. While school and friends formed the substantial periphery of my world, parents were at its center.If memory serves, I felt the need for both yin and yang to define completely the dependence I had on my parents – emotionally and physically.In my mind they had different roles in my life and I could isolate the need of one from the other. So when I was down with high fever, I wanted my mother by my side all day long but if it was a bigger kid in the neighborhood bullying me, I preferred that my father set him straight though my mother might have just as easily been able to do so.

There was a division of labor in my mind, a clear separation in roles and responsibilities. So if they left me home with the domestic help and her kids to go to an occasional New Year party, I did not resent being left alone but got quite agitated if they did not return exactly when they had said they would. A whole host of fears would descend upon me – what if something were to happen to both of them, I would have no one to take care of me. What if something happened to one of them – how would the one left behind and I cope.

When I heard their footsteps outside the door and the sound of the key turning in the lock, a sense of calm would descend on me. My world had stayed out of harms way, all was well and I could now go to sleep - the smell of perfume and make-up on my mother and that of stale smoke on my father were signs of normalcy I had been waiting for.

Unfortunately for J, she is not able to separate the need for security and protection into its yin and yang components as I was able to. She is not able to let go of her need for one as long as the other is around. For her it has always been an all or none situation. While I am not her father and can never be one, I find myself constantly stepping in and out of that role in her life - trying to substitute that which is missing the best I can. Neither of us are consciously aware of what’s going on but J and I are constantly twined without a hiatus and sometimes it can be tiring for both of us.