Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pink Slip Literature

Though I am a veteran of many job changes, I am yet to write any kind of memorable farewell email.Unless I suddenly take leave of my senses I probably never will. I stick with the well-worn, yawn-inducing cliches and don't say too much. I have however, come across some interesting mails from others who don't set much store by prudence or caution.

These mails get your attention and get talked about by the water-cooler. I used to wonder what might provoke someone to leave a job with a resounding last word.Apparently they are in good company.This article talks about the emergence of a new art form - the farewell email.

The farewell e-mail has suddenly become commonplace, a new art form in the electronic age. Yet like so many aspects of the Internet era -- how to unfriend on Facebook, how much to reveal on a personal blog -- the technology has gotten ahead of the etiquette. There are, quite simply, no rules.

The last time pink slips made so much news was probably when the dot-com bubble burst. Reading this old NYT article on the dot-com survivors brings back to mind the mayhem in the job-market at the time. The ability to find humor in adversity is no less important today than it was then.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Notes From Myself

The oddest things turn up when you clean up documents you haven't seen in many years. My recent digital spring-cleaning lead me to a couple of notes I had written in early 2003. I could vaguely remember the context of both but the exact emotions or my frame of mind at the time of writing are lost now.

#1

The trees are shrugging of the rain making
a tiny shower on me – a woman walks her two
dogs ten paces ahead of me – she turns back
and smiles “Good Morning” – her face has aged
very well – I glance at my watch – I have five minutes
to reach the bus stop – I break into a sprint.
A young woman is waiting for the same bus – she is
picturesque – in Prada sunglasses and jet black hair.
I tell myself those who have known no great pain
will not know of a great passion either – I may
look like a walking wreck, but I have been to the
other side – twice and lived to tell about it.


#2

I have been visited, the curves and crevices of me
explored – I am Newfoundland no more or can
ever again be. No Marco Polo will set sight of me
and break into ecstasy – ‘Land Ahoy !’ there are
signs of inhabitance and abandonment – just like
any old land. But he who was here first is a
complete stranger, I know as little his face or heart
as I do the others that did not come first
There are no sweet secrets in my eyes – in the acres
of me is the quiet wilderness of things lost forever.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Virtues of Thrift

Being FOB desi, I tend to view frugality as a virtue rather than a vice. As I read this NYT article on the consequences of the Japanese cutting back on their spending and growing their nest eggs, I tried to see how that was hurting those who were practicing thrift. The demand for goods and services would be depressed and so would prices which from a buyers standpoint should not be such a terrible thing.

What the author tries to emphasize is the effect on the job market - there is lesser stability and not enough jobs to go around because people refuse to spend their money to buy. It seems that if everyone is willing to settle for a diminished lifestyle, having lower expectations from how much they can earn from a job or even how long they can hold on to one, thrift would not be the cause for a national disaster as it is frequently made out to be. The author writes :

Now, as exports dry up amid a worldwide collapse in demand, Japan’s economy is in free-fall because it cannot rely on domestic consumption to pick up the slack.

The term free-fall sounds so scary that its is tempting to do whatever it takes to prevent it. Coax and cajole people to start spending to grow the economy if that is what it takes. However, when the people do not want any part of this bigger more powerful economy, then there is possibly no recourse.

“I’m not interested in big spending,” says Risa Masaki, 20, a college student in Tokyo and a neighbor of the Takigasakis. “I just want a humble life.”

If people collectively desire a humble life and can be happy recycling bath water to do their laundry, eating cabbage and potatoes for dinner to crimp their grocery bills it would seem that the best option is to let them have their way. Someday, the cycle of thrift and frugality will end on its own, people would have had enough austerity in their lives to want something different. By then their nest eggs would be large enough to allow them the freedom to take a few chances.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fictive Rights

Had it not been for Slashdot picking up on this news story about the Indian Supreme Court censoring bloggers, I would have thought it was TOI being sensational and reporting irresponsibly as usual. Unfortunately, they do seem to have their story right this time. It would be a very sad thing to have this 19-year old kid lose his right to freedom of speech and the right to express an opinion - it would be the beginning of the end.

The little that I remember from reading my Civics text book in high-school, those rights are guaranteed in the Indian constitution - or so they lead us to believe in the over-simplified text that they had us memorize and regurgitate at school. The kid in the middle of this fracas was under the same impression as well.

Apparently, our education is lacking and we don't have our fundamental rights straight. Should the worse happen and the criminal proceedings do get under way, I wonder if that would give the courts carte blanche to go after every blogger who voices dissent or is generally perceived as fomenting trouble for the powerful and well-connected. The Chaddi Campaign with its potential to offend would probably be in their cross-hairs fairly quickly. That is worrisome.

Just when you as a desi, were beginning to enjoy the empowerment of the common person thanks to social media , revel in grassroots organizations having their voices heard and the general rise of citizen journalism, along come the Justices and pour rain on our collective parade.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Glimpse Of Heaven

Without questioning the merits or consequences of using one's own children as subjects of scientific experiments, one line in this article made me pause :

Clarence Leuba, a psychologist, wondering if laughter in response to tickling was learned or innate, forbade tickling of his infant son and daughter, except when he tickled them, wearing a mask to hide his expression. (It is innate, he found.)

Even at a few months old, children will respond to funny faces and tickling with gales of uncontrollable laughter. There is possibly nothing nearly as rewarding to an adult as being able to make a baby laugh like that.

It seems that the psychologist and his family made quite a personal sacrifice at the altar of science. Infancy is so incredibly precious because it is so short lived. It would never be possible for them get back to the time when tickling the soles of their infant's feet could instantly reward them with a huge toothless smile - a glimpse of heaven.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Word Meanings

Here is the entry for the word passionate in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Main Entry:
pas·sion·ate           Listen to the pronunciation of passionate
Pronunciation:
\ˈpa-sh(ə-)nət\
Function:
adjective
Date:
15th century
1 a: easily aroused to anger b: filled with anger : angry2 a: capable of, affected by, or expressing intense feeling b: enthusiastic , ardent3: swayed by or affected with sexual desire
synonyms see impassioned
pas·sion·ate·ly adverb
pas·sion·ate·ness noun
I had to look this up during a long chat with a desi girlfriend K, who is single and active on the dating scene. She wondered about the use of the word passionate in a lot of personal profiles posted by desi guys.

K has always associated the word with its second meaning per Merriam-Webster i.e. capable of, affected by, or expressing intense feeling. She asked me whether that was the meaning I would assume as well and I said I would. Apparently the Indian gentlemen she has encountered on the dating scene always imply number three - i.e. swayed by or affected with sexual desire and that little misunderstanding of intent and implication of a word has been the root cause of many an abended relationship for K. Per K, the non-desis are far less likely to use such euphemisms to couch their intentions - they tend to be more factual.

So we have a scenario where K reads a desi guy's profile, finds it interesting in many ways and thinks he looks rather "cute". She likes it that he describes himself as passionate specially in combination with his rather esoteric list of hobbies. K thinks that the passion drives him to pursue his many interests outside his career and that he would throw himself whole heartedly at anything that captures his imagination. Women almost always like men who fit that description.

Then reality strikes. K is out on her first date with the said guy after a few emails and phone conversations that have all been very positive. Her expectations are really high at this point. The date goes well too except for one thing. The guy mentions a few times how passionate he is and he would find it difficult to be in a relationship with a woman who is not as well. I would be remiss to not mention at this point that K is a very attractive young woman with a great sense of style.

K talks animatedly about her passions - traveling, dancing and volunteering. Knowing her for as long as I have, I understand how much of herself she invests in all of those things and how much they mean to her - they define who is she. The guy sitting across from her has however tuned her out. She does not understand why. He dumbs it down one notch so she may find it easier to comprehend the word passionate. He describes himself as very physical when it comes to demonstrating love and affection in a relationship. At this point, even K gets his drift and wishes she could evaporate from the date.

According to her, this pattern has repeated itself several times with little variation. She is to the point that she clicks on the next profile as soon as a desi guy has used the word the word passion in any form in his. It is one of her red flags. I tell her maybe this is one of those Men from Mars and Women from Venus things that relationship experts talk about but I do have to admit all this talk about physical and passionate coming from desi men does sound a little rich in light of their less than stellar credentials in the area. I could not help wondering if there was not a little bit of over-compensation going on there.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stoking Entrepreneurship

My parents live just outside "proper" Calcutta as the locals would describe it. The location is relatively idyllic in comparison to the city itself and that was a key factor in their decision to buy a home there. While they have managed to escape the chaos and bustle, they have also had to give up some conveniences. One of them happens to be easy access to domestic help. The help has been both intermittent and unreliable for several years now.

Recently (and much to my relief) that has changed. An hour from where my parents live, further in the countryside an enterprising young man has set up shop to train and place domestic help. The average trainee/employee at this operation is a farmer's wife looking for some extra money when the crops don't do well or the harvest is disappointing. The proprietor trains these women in the fine art of house-cleaning. Huge amounts of dust and soot are part of Calcutta's atmosphere and the bulk of anyone's domestic chores involves cleaning this stuff from every exposed surface.

It is hard, back-breaking work and never seems to end. No sooner than you have wiped it off from one place do you find a fresh batch settling upon the other. You never win the battle against dust. The old-school domestic help used to go about the motions of cleaning but merely displaced dust from one place to another much to the aggravation of the mistress of the house. Many an altercation between the two leading to termination of employment has resulted from difference of opinion on the best way to displace dust.

Apparently, these newly minted trained "house-cleaners" have a sophisticated technique that involves closing the strategic windows and doors around the house in a certain sequence depending on ambient conditions that allows the whole house to be cleaned without displacing dust from one room to another. You can buy their services in four hour slots and as frequently as desired but no long term commitment is required.

My parents are in considerable awe at the level of professionalism in their "trained" domestic help and truth be told so am I (even without having seen them in action) If this is possible in semi-rural West Bengal, I can't even begin to imagine how far ahead the rest of India might be.

But there is another way to look at this situation - from the perspective of opportunity being created out of under-development, poverty and adversity. If every inch of open space in Calcutta had been covered by greenery, dust would have not been flung all around all the time. Without the bane of dust the job of a "house-cleaner" would not have existed. Most people (including my parents) are fairly self-sufficient as far as doing all other household work but it is the non-stop "dusting" of open surfaces where they desperately need help.

In India, the government's inaction and inability to provide basic services to the citizenry works like a growth engine - there is this groundswell of entrepreneurship and job creation happening all over the place because people are filling the gaps any way that they can. In other countries they might seek to achieve the same results through huge stimulus packages. Us desis have found a much easier solution which does not cost anything. Talk about turning lemons to lemonade.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bartering Online

Love the idea of a web-based barter system for goods and services. It seems fairly basic at this point :

To participate, an individual would start out by applying for an exchange account, VanWyhe said. In the beginning, that person would have no currency but could receive some exchange units — called Trade Dollars — by taking training to understand the system or by volunteering with organizations that have accounts. An individual could also receive currency by doing some work for a neighbor or bartering possessions, VanWyhe said.
With time, some enhancements would seem logical if not inevitable. A exchange rate calculator for instance that tells you how many square feet of lawn mowing equals three hair-cuts so buyers and sellers don't have to worry about getting a fair deal. Similarly being able to exchange Trade Dollars for real currency would be helpful in certain situations.

A barter that could seriously challenge the value of regular currency would need to involve big ticket, consequential items - a piece of property in exchange of a business school degree for instance could be a high-value trade. Both parties in the equation get what they want without money having changed hands at all. With all the talk of depression, recession and the general atmosphere of hopelessness these days, it seems like returning to basics could be a good idea. Maybe we should try bartering for a while and see how that works out.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dying Languages

Though this Guardian story does not list all the 2500 languages that are likely to become extinct soon, I would not be surprised if it contained quite a few from the Indian sub-continent. The author does point out that India is at high risk of having its languages lost :

Perhaps unsurprisingly, two of the countries where the risk is greatest are India and Brazil, which are undergoing rapid economic transformations. "[These trends] often bring about the loss of traditional ways of life and a strong pressure to speak a dominant language that is - or is perceived to be - necessary for full civic participation and economic advancement," said Unesco.

It is just not the words or the manner of speech that is lost but a entire way of thinking and organizing one's thoughts is gone along with it too. If the state of contemporary Bengali literature is any indicator of how a language fades out, it would begin with a decline in the readership of books and journals. Then comes the point when writers switch to a different language to say what they have to say or worse stop writing. Communication of thoughts cease in that language.

There is then a period of stultification where the few readers that are left have to be satisfied with the diminished quality of contemporary writing or seek refuge in older, higher quality works. Beyond that generation is either a void or lapse in continuity of literary tradition. There will be a few outliers that continue to read, write and teach the language but by now it has entered the museum to be preserved for posterity instead of being the vibrant and dynamic language of everyday use it once was.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dating And Marriage

Would-be "dates" have been taken by complete surprise by me saying that I have no time for or interest in dating. For one thing, a long drawn out getting to know each other period is the surest way for me to get bored with the process and the man involved - I know that only too well. However, putting a "realistic" time-frame around the dating process, I understand equates it to an arranged marriage not to mention puts too much pressure on a "final" decision which is naturally anathema to the dating-minded. Things have to be allowed to proceed at a leisurely pace and at some point the decision will become self-evident is the popular theory. I just happen to disagree with that theory.

So they have obviously asked how I expected to get to know someone well enough to marry them. After all, marriage is a serious, life-time commitment. It is not a job that you can be wrong about and just leave to find another without having much to lose. They would expect one such as myself to be even more cautious given one failed marriage. What gives ? This post is an attempt to answer that very question.

Marriage specially in the Indian middle-class context transcends the individuals and needs to be inclusive of the two families. If the divergences between the two families are too many or too sharp, it strains the fabric of the marriage itself. I have been that situation a couple of times - when caring for someone deeply was not nearly enough because we were not able to find enough common ground to be able to take our friendship quite that far. Then there were the flaws in our relationship that would be perfectly acceptable in a friendship but difficult to live with in a marriage. While those had been friendships of many years, we had not dated each other.

Then there was R (my ex). Definitely excellent marriage material from a practical standpoint but lacking the essential life spark it takes to make a marriage work and last. I knew this the minute we were introduced and told the family elders as much. They asked that I not be so precipitate in passing judgment, that I give it time, that a kind and loving heart could make up for everything else, that marriage is for the long haul and chemistry is only a small part of it. Finally, that I was too naive. I did not trust myself enough to stand my ground.

Ten years ago, I did not need to date anyone to understand if they were right or wrong for me - I merely lacked the confidence in my own judgment. That said, to need to do go dating to find a partner at this point in my life feels nothing short of ludicrous. That men even older than me and with a lot more relationship experience, have the time and energy to go through this process in order to find a life-partner is even more amazing. If they haven't figured it out yet and relationships continue to baffle and confuse them maybe they should stop trying to settle into something permanent. Maybe short term flings are all they have capacity for.

I can understand dating as means of social interaction with "benefits" thrown in for good measure. There is nothing wrong with that and it is a perfectly good idea for anyone so disposed. But to claim that it is necessary to date someone for an unstated period of time to decide if they are marriage-able or not is nothing short of an insult to that person's intelligence.

You are basically telling them that you will have them all figured out in a certain amount of time and know for a fact that you are getting a good deal. You are also telling them that by kicking the tires in advance you are making sure the relationship is durable enough to work out in long term. Rather presumptuous.

I believe that any human being with a functional level of intelligence is fully capable of deciding whether or not they want to reveal themselves and be understood by another person. If they do, the book is open to read on day one - there is nothing to be gained by spending time in discovery. If they do not, even after spending a lifetime with them, they can remain a perfect stranger. It is their choice to make. It is their gift to give or take away at will.

The fundamental premise of dating is flawed because human beings can at best aspire to know themselves, knowing another person is therefore not even a reasonable aspirational goal. Dating offers a false promise of achieving that inherently impossible goal. Not surprisingly therefore, disappointments are rife.

I have seen from experience that being completely upfront and truthful about myself is the best way to know what I need to know about a man. I may not always learn the "truth" about him but I will definitely know (and inevitably have) that he is not being truthful. Sometimes that is all one needs to know in order to walk away and this can happen early on. If truth is reciprocated with truth that is enough to let me know if someone is right or wrong for me. In either case, the process is fairly straight forward and does not entail dating.

When a fully grown up man says it is impossible for him to make a lifetime decision without dating me for an unknown period of time, I know he has no clue who he is looking for and will definitely not recognize her if he sees her. If we dated for all long as it took for his resistance to wear out or for an epiphany to strike we might even get hitched in the end - as I have seen happen with several couples. But chances are he might still be making the wrong call - a decision he could very well regret later. To go along with such an arrangement is to expend a lot of time and energy to compensate for someones lack of maturity at the risk of an ill-judged outcome.

While I speak from a woman's perspective, I suspect a lot of my experience transfers over to men as well. I have girlfriends who believe that they deserve a bigger, better deal than the man they are with currently and yet are not able to articulate what that might look like. They pursue this chimera of the man ideally suited for them and it eludes them date after date.

The more they see, the more confused they get. What if he is seeing someone else as well ? Should I keep my options option so I don't get hurt if he bails on me suddenly ? Is he serious or is he only pretending to be ? Does he pay me as much attention as I deserve or is he too casual ? It turns out if they truly knew themselves they may not have been plagued by so many doubts about someone else.

They like this man's sense of humor, the other man's professional success and the third man's body. If they could all magically come together in one man, that would solve their problem at once. I encourage these women to read about Draupadi. They continue to date not knowing any other way to meet the man they will marry and get frustrated that many years of dating is not helping them close the deal.

My point is, dating can be good recreation if your life allows such time and latitude. If you lack both and have better things to gainfully occupy yourself with it is just a harmless waste of time (though you can do your bit to save the environment and date local only). But if you have the all of those constraints and are only looking for a spouse, it is completely avoidable.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Music and Perspective

Heard the music of Somali Rapper K'Naan some time ago on NPR and it has lingered on since. I most definitely don't like rap music but loved K'Naan's sound and his take on American rap:

"Where rocket-propelled grenades are fired around you on a daily ... a guy bragging on TV talking about how gangster he is?" K'Naan says. "For us, it's more a source of entertainment. It's more like a comedy or something we watch. Say, 'Oh wow, that's kind of cute of American gangsters.' But it isn't hardcore, it isn't that bad. Let's get things in perspective, you know?"

How true ! What is the most dangerous way of living for one person is a source of comedic relief to another. Maybe, the little rap I had heard till now did not strike any familiar chord as much as some of K'Naan's songs did.

Then a few days ago, also on NPR I heard another singer Eleni Mandell whose style is completely unlike K'Naan's but I felt a strong resonance with one of her songs - Needle and Thread. For Mandell needle and thread, the act of sewing and making clothes keeps her together - I could grasp that feeling very easily even though sewing is not my thing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Pursuit Of Fun

Any given weekend when the sun is shining brightly, the kids in my neighborhood are outside making the most of the good weather. That I might have a problem with that would make me the worst kind of curmudgeon - specially since I am the mother of a young child myself.

Now, imagine if you will that in my neck of the woods the sun is shining nice and bright all day long almost 70% of the year and the temperature is pleasant enough to remain outdoors until dusk. Imagine also that the kids age between 3 - 13 years old and outside having a fun time for 7-8 hours of the day. More often than not a bunch of parents are having fun right along with them. Throw in the long summer break and the spring break and do the math on the sum total of fun hours and maybe I won't be such a horrible Scrooge after all.

My point is the pursuit of fun is perfectly reasonable but within reasonable limits. If you treat each warm day as if it were the very last one of the year, set out a picnic table and lounging chairs on the grass and get a party started and have this pattern repeat for most of the year, it gets old, tiresome and boring - the very antithesis of fun in my mind at least.

Despite my reservations, I used to let J join in these fun-fests but found it impossible to pull her out of there once she got sucked into the swirl of things. She'd come home dead beat at dinner-time with face-paint and nail-polish on her and one sugary juice too many. After a couple of days of all-out fun, J found it difficult to get interested in the mundane business of life in our household.

I have since diverted her away from the neighborhood fun-fests. Having a bunch of after-school activities has also helped. Yet, J often complains that she is not able to have fun and relax like her friends. She feels like she is "always doing stuff" instead of "relaxing and having fun". Being a FOB, I cringe at those words knowing their connotation. In our culture relaxation is the privilege of the superannuated - the rest of us have to have work to do. We have to earn the right to have fun and relax - it does not happen automatically.

Hanging out, chilling and doing nothing useful is the American concept of fun J is talking about - working hard to achieve something is most definitely not. So a kid with a flair for music practicing his instrument for hours would be uncool as would be a math "nerd" who loves to live in the world of numbers and patterns. They are not the fun, party crowd. In her book The Yin and Yang of American Culture - A
Paradox, Eun Y. Kim tackles this very subject i.e. The Pursuit of Fun and the quandary it poses for Asian immigrant parents.

It is not part of our culture - we definitely don't give it the same amount of importance as Americans do. We tend to value hard-work and
concomitant achievement much higher. Yet when in America, we want our children to assimilate the mainstream culture enough to be able to blend in comfortably.

In my specific situation, that may entail J joining the fun and games every once in a while but find ways to engage herself without the high-octane excitement at all other times. I am terrified of her turning into a fun-junkie. That is sometimes too much to ask of kids. "Why must I always be the one that comes home the earliest ?" , "Why can't I have pink lemonade and Cheetos with everyone else ?" and finally "Why must I work when everyone else is playing ?" are the questions I get posed.

The "work" in this case would be reading a book, working on an art project, practicing her music, dance or otherwise "gainfully" occupying her time. No matter what balance of "fun" and "work" we agree upon, it will still seem inequitable to J because her peers live for fun, it is a matter of incredible importance to them and to not have had enough fun is qualification to be a loser. No kid wants that label stuck on them.

So they try to meander in and out between cultural and parental expectations and peer-pressure to cut loose and have fun. I realize my challenges are only beginning. I try to explain to J that the greatness of America is built on an incredible amount of
hard work by the people who first settled in this land and for several generations continued to strive relentlessly to make life better. The culture of fun that she sees all around her is a relatively new phenomenon and will likely not yield the same results as hard-work did.

I tell her that there are plenty of historical role-models in this country who will attest to my conviction that hard-work is by far the only real mantra for lasting peace and prosperity. I tell that to be a good American, she must continue the best traditions on which this country was founded and this whole business of fun at all costs and to the exclusion every other consideration is certainly not one of them.

I am sure this lesson will need to be repeated one time too many. If I am very lucky, some of it will stick with J and actually make sense to her. In as far as being able to straddle the different world-views successfully, she is really on her own and only time will tell how she will fare.

This post first appeared in Desicritics

Monday, February 16, 2009

Stumped By Grammar

My grammar has always been lacking and I have yet to make any effort to correct this gap in my education. I never knew that there were en dashes and em dashes let alone that they were to be used for different reasons. I did know of a blog named Emdashes but the significance of the name never registered with me until now. There are some lapses in our education that we learn to work around and live with - grammar is one of them for me.

I am surviving for sure but the quality of my life is definitely lacking for not being able to string together a paragraph with no grammatical errors - that makes me a pseudo-literate almost. Depending on the standards a piece of writing is held to, I would make
closer to failing than passing grade with my poorly structured language. In my defense, I would say where I went to high school, grammar was not considered awfully important. They believed that if you read and wrote enough, it would come to you naturally.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Kiss

A month, a remodeled kitchen (for Jayant) and a change of job (for Sheila) had passed when they returned to her place after dinner and a movie. They had stopped for some groceries on the way home. She let him unload the packages from the car as she went inside to straighten up the living room. It was already late so she did not know if Jayant would even step inside. Then on an impulse she went into the bathroom to brush her teeth and freshen her makeup.

When she came out, Jayant had everything put away in the fridge and was taking his coat off. She sat a little away from the end of the couch and as if on cue so did he. It was like the scene from the last time they had been together was unfolding with a slight variation. He stretched his legs in front of him, his body language much more relaxed than it had been the other time. In a pause during their conversation he looked at her and said “You look very beautiful”.

Sheila smiled and asked “You mean right now ?” "Yes . You look happy and beautiful." he added. Then he leaned over and kissed her - the touch of his lips on hers soft but assured. “I know I should not but it's very hard not to ” he said as if by way of apology. When she laughed, he reached over and kissed her again - this time with much more passion.

She asked “Are you sorry about what you just did ?” “Not right now” he said softly as he kept kissing her. "How about tomorrow ? Will you regret it ?" she urged. "I think I will" he said but made no effort to stop. At some point, Sheila responded and his body reacted like an electric pulse had surged through it. “It's very hard to be around you and not show any affection” he said a little breathlessly."You try very hard though" she teased. "You think I do ?" he laughed.

They both feared intimacy but for different reasons. Sheila wanted to be absolutely certain it was the real deal and would last for life before she went that far. Jayant found it difficult to remain objective in his decisions about the long term prospects of a relationship once things turned physical. To rationalize what happened that night, they both agreed there was nothing wrong in wanting to be close and kiss someone you had a romantic interest in for a while. It did not have to be the game changer - it was a beautiful experience they would both cherish but continue as if it had not happened.

But there was something that Sheila did not admit even to herself until much later - that she had known for a fact that there was no future for her with Jayant at that instant when she had brushed her teeth. She was attracted enough to him to want to be kissed and held but that was probably all she wanted - she could not imagine making love to him.

She had sensed that the ice could break that night and wanted to be prepared. It was almost as if the incident had been choreographed - nothing about them was spontaneous because that connection had never sparked. That kiss had taken a lot of cuing - subtle prompting even to happen and just that was enough to tell her that he was completely unsuitable for her. Yet she had wanted it, if only to prove she could get what she wanted.

But she hated to admit it to herself that she had used Jayant because she had no interest in him long term. How was she any different from the men who lost interest in women right after sleeping with them - the kind of men her she and her girlfriends found so repulsive and disgusting. How could she claim any moral high ground after what she had caused to happen. The end of her relationship with Jayant was full of anger and bitterness which she chose to direct at him instead of coming to terms about her real motivations to herself.

For months she pursued the actual idea of marriage with him if only to absolve herself from feeling guilty. That night, she was the one in charge and decided how far to go and where to stop. If was only afterward that he regained control of himself and the situation. In the clear light of day, he was confused by what had happened and failed to understand how that incident could turn their relationship absolutely serious. There had been no emotional context leading up to it.

He had not felt anything special like Sheila insisted it had been for her. She accused him of being disinterested, emotionally distant and worse for saying so. The truth was, she did not want him to think that she seduced men when she felt the need for intimacy. The truth was, she would find an excuse to bail out if he did indeed consider marriage the next step. The truth was, Jayant was not the one for her and she knew it fully well that night and that was the only reason she threw caution to the winds.The truth was, the she had set herself standards that she was just not able to live up to but refused to lower the bar and make peace with herself. The truth was, she had felt powerful that night and luxuriated in that feeling.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Reading this NYT article on the culture of entrepreneurship in campuses would probably give reason to consider if entrepreneurship is absolutely good and specially if it comes at the cost of an incomplete education.

Today's college-goers have grown up seeing the the wonders of Google and Facebook come to pass and those who made it possible were very young - just like themselves. That it is possible has been proven many times over so its not surprising that young people are enthused about throwing their hat in the ring.

While many rings will get thrown, only a very small percent of them will emerge winners whose success stories everyone else wants to emulate - in many ways this is not any different from the Gold Rush. The rest will fizzle out in a few years and leave the entrepreneur with a failed business venture and no education to pursue a career for the rest of their lives.

Sure they can always return to school and complete their education and join the workforce or choose to dabble in many things and hope for an epiphany. It can also be argued that education and success in career are not always correlated. While both arguments are true for some, it is usually not for the majority.

What would be useful is to keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive and feed it while completing a formal education. If someone has incubated an idea so successful that they can retire on it, sure the career-oriented education becomes trivial at that point but until then, that is the best Plan B.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Learning History

History is one of those subjects I think I love but have not been close enough to find out how much or if at all. Is it infatuation from a distance that will vaporize upon contact or is it more serious. Reading history from books written like texts is not appealing but then neither is historical fiction. I am not sure how it is that I want history to be served so I can enjoy it and remember it - the ingredients are right but its cooked all wrong. Growing up in India, I had watched Bhartat Ek Khoj - Discovery of India by Shyam Benegal on Doordarshan. It was a fantastic.

I wished someone would do what Benegal had done to world history - make it come alive. This was somewhere between fact and fiction and it made history accessible and enjoyable to everyone. I have found some interesting history sites like EyeWitness to History and The Flow of History - both offbeat approaches to discussing history. Maybe it is nostalgia more than anything else, but I still looking for something that reminds me of Bharat Ek Khoj but with a much larger scale.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bailout Season

With the financial meltdown, catastrophe, disaster etc upon us all, it is good to hang on to your sense of humor to help you cope with the unrelenting stream of bad news. Bailout jokes are dime a dozen these days, but I haven't seen too many verses set to the tune of popular Carley Simon numbers.

Even those on the culture fringe of society have not been able to stay unfazed by all this bailout talk - they are proposing a bailout of poetry :

Cultural leaders have come together to announce a massive poetry buyout: leveraged and unsecured poems, poetry derivatives, delinquent poems, and subprime poems will be removed from circulation in the biggest poetry bailout since the Victorian era. We believe the plan is a comprehensive approach to relieving the stresses on our literary institutions and markets.

Artists have likewise come up with their own bailout plan - not nearly as dramatic as the bailout manifesto of the poets, it is based on bartering art for goods and services in times when art is unlikely to be traded for money.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Undie Campaign

The pink undie protest underway in India - a neat way to fight the good fight - has been making news. It is refreshing to see women show moxie in a culture where they are usually taught not rock any boats or make big waves. Even ten years ago, it would have been really tough for a group of women in India to say :

Join Us on February 14, Valentine's Day, the day in which Indian women's virginity and honour will self-destruct unless they marry or tie a rakhi. Walk to the nearest pub and buy a drink. Raise a toast to the Sri Ram Sena.

More power to the sisterhood and may their tribe increase. One hopes this campaign is a precursor to many others and is able to give the average woman in India the confidence to claim her right to live in freedom in the country of her birth. The fact is, being "forward" has nothing to do with pub-going or moral laxness. It is a state of mind that can come packaged in many different ways. I want to believe that The Consortium seeks to mock the prejudices held against their ilk and not deny the more laid-back sisters their claim to "forwardness"

While it is easy to get all giddy with excitement about desi women asserting themselves so strongly specially in light of all the media buzz this thing has generated, a little caution would not hurt. I could not help worrying about folks who have their names and contact information available on the web. In the end they are dealing with some self-righteous bullies who will not be able to see any humor in receiving large shipments of pink underwear on Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Spending And Saving

This article on the paradox of thrift is wonderfully jargon-free and a pleasure to read just for that. Mathew Yglesias makes his case about how everyone becoming thrifty and building a cushion can actually hurt the very cushion that folks are building :

The result of this is an overall fall in the average level of income. And that means that even with the share of income being saved going up, the actual level of savings can be going down and we can truly end up in the toilet.

Having grown up in India when it was a still a middle-class virtue to squirrel away as much as possible for the future, I think Yglesias does not give thrift the credit it deserves. Our parents and grandparents saved everything they possibly could for all their working years. For them, no luxury was too small to give up, no indulgence indeferrable. They spent the best part of their lives building this cushion on which to rest on comfortably in their old age. With inflation constantly on the rise, the size of this magic cushion grew constantly and often seemed like an impossible goal to achieve. Yet they soldiered on.

Today, many of those once struggling parents and grand-parents have moved up high enough on the socio-economic scale to be counted among the affluent. They have few if any responsibilities and more money than they have the capacity or desire to spend. A lot of this money is being plowed back into the economy, because there are only so many life insurances and savings accounts anyone can have.

These stolid, middle-class plodders from thirty to sixty years ago have been forced to diversify their investments.Given the size of their financial cushions and freedom from responsibilities, they are able to take the kind of risks they would have found impossible to consider in their younger days.

The process is a slow,long drawn out one but it does work. A culture of thrift will not give the economy a shot in the arm and jump start it; it will more likely make it limp along for many years at the infamous Hindu growth rate before gathering some steam. Ann Petifor offers a counterpoint which I find much easier to agree with. She says :

Commentators like to beat up on ordinary Americans. They're accused of borrowing mindlessly, of greed and materialism. Yet high levels of debt and consumption were not the result of millions of individual decisions by consumers. They were the result of a deliberate economic 'regime change' in the 1970s -- that transformed the US economy, and cut American incomes as a share of GDP.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Fallen Heroes

I am usually hard pressed positive youth role models for children in America. The buzz is often around celebrities like Miley Cyrus and I don't find their example to be particularly empowering for kids - specially for little girls. Then as was there was Michael Phelps.

When J returned to school after summer break last year, Phelps had unseated every other young celebrity kids are familiar with. Even the Jonas Brothers had lost a little bit of their cool ans sheen. Phelps was their hero and very rightly so given his spectacular achievement. I can't remember how many entries for the year's Reflections Project themed "Wow!", had Phelps for the subject.

Clearly he had captured their imagination. It was highly instructive for them to learn how hard he had worked to achieve what he had - that is exactly the message you want to convey. Phelps had helped many a parent illustrate their point about hard work being the only way to achieve anything worthwhile and durable in life. It was going great for everyone until the whole pot incident surfaced.

J has been in awe of Phelps like many other kids and does know about this little aberration in the fairytale. She is disappointed that her idol is already blemished and does not know whether he still belongs on the pedestal but she is not even fully sure of that. The young hero-worshippers are being forced to grapple with tough moral questions that are beyond their capacity to answer.

With all the public chastisement Phelps is receiving for his mistake, younger kids could perhaps take away that talent and achievement does not make people inculpable - a good cautionary tale but a huge damper on their enthusiasm about him. If they are slightly older and are able to keep up with the chain of events in the media, they may infer that being a celebrity allows you to get away with a lot - that the standard are different for the ordinary and the famous. No matter how old or well-informed they are , all the kids are missing out on having a hero who is entirely admirable and flawless.

Growing up is in a good part about learning such lessons about our heroes but with today's kids the lessons seem have come a little before its time. Childhood is not quite it used to be before the 24/7 news cycles and the Internet came along. It is perhaps inevitable that learning life lessons will be accelerated along with everything else. Those of us who continue to be nostalgic about a time when our heroes remained unsullied in our eyes for a lot longer, will just to get used to a changed world and its frenetic pace.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Freeing Women

Like many pre-interent era desis whose concept of America had been an amalgam of images from books they had read, movies they had watched and news that made headlines in India, the reality of my experience living here has often been, for better or worse, not quite what I had expected it to be.

I had unquestioningly assumed that women have a much better quality of life in American society than what they do in India. While in some aspects, that assumption has been more than borne out, that as I come to find out, is not the whole truth.

That birth-control and abortion are political hot-button topics came as a huge surprise when I first came here. That in the land of the free, women are not at liberty to choose is a contradiction I still find impossible to reconcile. That equal work does not result in equal pay and women are consistently paid lower than men in for the same job was another such contradiction - but that is now resolved.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Modern Childhood

When J is bubbling over with news on our drive home from after-school care, I am usually able to share her excitement - it is what melts all the aggravations of the day away. That is the rule and then there is the exception.

Her buddy D who is a first grader and had revealed to J only a few hours previously that she wore Littlest Pet Shop bra - with padding to be absolutely clear about the nature of the said article of clothing. Apparently, D had flaunted her bra strap for J and some others to check out. Another first grader K was also "into this bra thing" as J put it.

Being the backward, culturally challenged FOB mom that I am, I was not sure J had got her facts straight and made sure to Google the kindergarten lingerie item that she had mentioned and was shocked to find that it did indeed exist.

Fact checking, done I was left struggling to come up with the most appropriate reaction to her excitement over her new found wisdom. Clearly both D and K had ascended the heights of coolness for revealing bra straps at under seven. While I was rehearsing the best message to convey to J, I asked her what she thought of it.

"I think it makes them look like dwarfs" she replied. "How is that ?" I asked. "Because they want to be like big girls when they are really little". Thank heavens for the small mercies and giving children a way to understand their own world ! It allows Moms like myself to muddle through the parenting business even with the challenges a modern childhood presents us with.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Pilar And Ugliness

I remember reading For Whom The Bell Tolls when I was thirteen mainly because it was the first book ever to make me cry. I did not know then it would also be the last book to do so. A few days ago, I found a DVD of the Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman movie adaptation of the novel and decided to watch it. I wanted to return to my childhood perhaps replicate that unique experience.

The movie felt nowhere close to the book or maybe I am glamorizing the past. With my elevated expectations, it was just another war movie and not even the best I have seen of the genre. Whereas at thirteen, the characters that etched the deepest mark on me were those of Maria and Robert Jordan, this time I paid attention to Pilar. I vaguely remembered reading these lines when I heard her character say them in the movie :

"Look at the ugliness. Yet one has a feeling within one that blinds a man while he loves you. You, with that feeling, blind him, and blind yourself. Then, one day, for no reason, he sees you as ugly as you really are and he is not blind anymore and then you see yourself as ugly as he sees you and you lose your man and your feeling... After a while, when you are as ugly as I am, as ugly as women can be, then, as I say after a while the feeling, the idiotic feeling that you are beautiful , grows slowly in one again. It grows like a cabbage. And then, when the feeling is grown, another man sees you and thinks you are beautiful and it is all to do over."

I was too green then to understand the complexity of Pilar's character or to fathom the depth of what she had said about ugliness. This could as well be ugliness inside that is hidden behind a the facade of a beautiful face and body. Love can hide that ugliness for a while until something snaps and the fairy-tale is over. The beautiful princess is suddenly transformed into a hideous witch.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Dots Or Not

Ignorance can usually be bliss until the ignorant take upon themselves to connect the dots as I feel strongly tempted to do when I read three articles I read recently on the US economy and China's role. The WSJ article notes that there is a limit to how much US debt foreigners will buy and just because they have signed up so far does not mean they will continue to do so for ever.

.. confidence is derived from the fact that the arrangement has gone on for some time, and that our creditors would be unwilling to face the economic turbulence that would result from an interruption of the status quo.

But just because the game has lasted thus far does not mean that they will continue playing it indefinitely.

The NYT story is about Chinese spending more abroad and touring foreclosed properties around the US for bargains. That sounds a lot like a scavenger hunt except this is no party game at least for those who once called the foreclosed properties their home.

The last article talks about the new found pariah status of former Wall Street employees and their version of the current snafu.

Financiers tell their not-for-attribution account of the mortgage crisis like this: Americans undersaved and overspent for decades, relying on rising property values to bankroll their lifestyles. But nobody on Wall Street forced United States homeowners to take out loans on houses they couldn't afford, or refinance mortgages to spend money on cars they shouldn't have bought.

The esoteric securities underneath the current mess are, to the people who invented and marketed them, analogous to pharmaceutical drugs. Used correctly, they can enhance your life. Abused, they are lethal.

I had to wonder if these stories were somehow related and added up to something telling and significant about what the future holds. The punditry is usually quick on pontificate on such matters and help the rest of us figure it out. Given their recent track record and general lack of agreement even on the broad trends, what's the average person reading the news to make of it all - to connect or not connect the dots becomes the question.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Scenes From A Movie

I watched Buddhadev Dasgupta's Kalpurush recently and was underwhelmed. That said, a few recurring images in the movie made a strong impression.

The lead character, Sumanta (played by Rahul Bose) is this man who is not anyone's idea of a success and most definitely not his wife's.His lack of self-worth and confidence continually diminishes the "man" in him. It is to the point where he accepts the loss of conjugal rights and his wife's blatant unfaithfulness with the same equanimity as he does his life's other failures.

While Bose "plays" this character with complex emotions sincerely he never quite "becomes" Sumanta as he must to do it justice. Even so, with his listless shuffle and tendency to talk too much, he creates a believable image of Sumanta - we have seen men like Sumanta in real life.

Then there are the couple of scenes in the old-fashioned College Street bookstores that are priceless. Sumanta walks in and asks the proprietor for books about America and the man rattles off the titles of a dozen new arrivals to his helper squatted in the loft above. The books come dropping down one after the other like a powerful hailstorm. The complete authenticity of the scene is a delight and is one that warmed my desi heart immediately.

This is exactly how, I had bought books too back in the day and the only way I ever knew to. So when I first walked into a Borders in America, the resulting culture shock almost registered on the Ritcher scale. The closest I had come to a browsing experience until then, had been at bookstores like Gangarams and Higginbothams in Bangalore. Clearly, that had not quite prepared me for the real deal.

As I watched Kalpurush, I missed College Street and a long forgotten way of buying books. After a few years of the all you can eat buffet, I guess I am ready for the small sampling platter once again - strange are the ways of nostalgia.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Solo For Fifteen

This Salon article about one woman's unplanned celibacy for fifteen years drew a rash of comments from readers. I think it is impossible not to react to something that is so devoid of adornment or attempt to hide what is obviously not a pleasant subject to discuss. The author's candor alone makes this piece of writing hard to ignore. Then there is her take on sex without love. Kit Naylor says :

I know I could walk into any bar in town and leave with some guy willing to come home with me for a one-night stand -- but that feels so sordid and ugly to me. I have known what it is to enjoy sex with love, in the context of a committed relationship -- comfortable, familiar, married sex, if you will -- and anything less than that feels sad to me. I would rather sleep alone than give myself away.

I have often compared random sex outside a single permanent relationship (which may or may not mean marriage to everyone) to diving into the different dumpster each night to forage food when you have the option of cooking a nice dinner in your own kitchen. Why anyone would choose such a thing is obviously very baffling.

Monday, February 02, 2009

A Two Faced Story

Greed has many masks but just one face. The news of TARP banks laying off American workers to replace with H1-Bs will provoke a lot of anger and righteous indignation (as can be imagined). The entire desi IT community (which is a large part of the H1-B pool) will be tarred by the same brush with the locals looking upon each one of us as the cause of all their unemployment woes.

It will scarcely cross their minds that we have widely varying levels of skills, education and talents so heaping blame on the collective is a pointless exercise. Our "Coming to America" stories are as diverse as we are as a people - and many of them are quite tragic. And that is just the desi half of the immigration story. The other half is fully made in America, and enabled by the very people who rile against it.

There is something fundamentally wrong about a system where the cost of the goods and services are out of reach of the average person, if all of those employed in producing them are local employees compensated adequately for their cost of living. Unless that problem is solved, American employers will be forced to seek out lower wages and operating costs just so their businesses can survive. While it begins as a fundamental survival tactic, greed is inevitable and is what pushes them to reach well past filling the basic need.

The suicide of rice farmers in India is also a consequence of corporate greed helped by a compliant bureaucracy. While this story is unfolding in very different circumstances half way around the world from America, the dramatis personae are no different. In both cases, the consumers are accomplices without whose tacit participation none of this would have become possible.

In a hypothetical scenario, the son of an Indian farmer dependent on GM seeds, might work unbelievably hard to pull his family out of the death spiral they are caught in, get an education and finally a job in IT. He may end up working in America for a third of prevailing wages in the IT organization of the very GM seed company that is driving his family and community back home to suicide.

This Indian "code-coolie" would be viewed by the local technology worker he displaced as the enemy. The desi in this equation would find it impossible to tell friend and foe apart. When all the masks of greed are peeled of, the face is revealed to be one and the same. It is the face that drives people to the edge of death and despair - with consumers being very much part of the problem and contributing to the perpetration itself.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Holograms And Maya

It has been reported lately that the universe may actually be a hologram and this article adds that the brain may be one too. It is fascinating what you get when you combine the two facts together - namely the holographic paradigm :

But the most mind-boggling aspect of Pribram's holographic model of the brain is what happens when it is put together with Bohm's theory. For if the concreteness of the world is but a secondary reality and what is "there" is actually a holographic blur of frequencies, and if the brain is also a hologram and only selects some of the frequencies out of this blur and mathematically transforms them into sensory perceptions, what becomes of objective reality?

Put quite simply, it ceases to exist. As the religions of the East have long upheld, the material world is Maya, an illusion, and although we may think we are physical beings moving through a physical world, this too is an illusion.
We are really "receivers" floating through a kaleidoscopic sea of frequency, and what we extract from this sea and transmogrify into physical reality is but one channel from many extracted out of the superhologram.