Sunday, January 31, 2010

Life Lessons And Books

To paraphrase a cliche, some books like people come into our life for a reason, season or lifetime. They are like connections that will happen if and only when they are supposed to. A line from a volume of poetry that you were going to return unread, something that jumps at you while browsing through a random pop-psychology book selling at a Dollar Store or even a the words out of a character's mouth in a work of fiction or a movie - they can all become imbued with the deepest significance in our lives depending on timing. At a time when I struggled with having to stand up in defiance to someone who was close to me and hurt me relentlessly, I recalled a line from the Kathamrita :
 
“One should hiss to bad persons to frighten them away, so that they may not harm you later on. One must not inject poison into them and injure them." 
 
Some years later, I would  read The Road Less Traveled where the author talks about anger and the reason to regulate and have the ability to direct it in ways appropriate to the situation : 
 
"To function successfully in our complex world it is necessary for us to possess the capacity not only to express our anger but also not to express it. Moreover, we must possess the capacity to express our anger in different ways. At times, for instance, it is necessary to express it only after much deliberation and self-evaluation. At other times it is more to our benefit to express it immediately and spontaneously. Sometimes it is best to express it coldly and calmly; at other times loudly and hotly." 

At the time of reading this book I was going through a phase where I needed to accept "Life is difficult" on several different levels and try to cope with old resentments that had resurfaced. Whereas the "hiss" had sufficed the first time, I needed a more direct approach now and felt wrong about feeling so angry in the first place. I remembered some Buddhist writing on the subject that cautioned repeatedly against harboring anger. The Buddha said :

"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned."

I was no longer sure if being angry was the right or wrong response to my particular situation, if to expel it in a choreographed manner as Peck suggested was the way to go or if should let go of the hot coal before it burned me.Demonstrating the ability to work up a fury - the hiss I thought Sri Ramakrishna suggested, was simply not working out anymore. While I felt frustrated at the lack of clear direction, I realized that I had read what I had read at critical points of time in my life. They were books for a reason, season or a lifetime. It was up to me to slot them correctly and I was not quite up to that task.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lessons In Serendipity

Every once in a while an old Bollywood number will come to mind - songs last heard in the 80s and 90s and never since. It is easy enough to find them on You Tube and indulge in a bit of nostalgia. J's reaction to this music is both amusing and instructive to watch. She is learning Hindustani vocal music so the language is not completely unfamiliar to her but understanding the meaning of lyrics is way beyond her.

She will hum along and improvise some dance moves to go with the music if she finds it  "dance-able"  but the picturization and the choreography of the songs always have her doubled up with laughter. She simply cannot stop. "What on earth are these people doing ?" she will ask when she is able to catch a breath.  This is specially true for the older Bollywood movies before the song and dance routines had acquired the MTV look and feel about them. She will want to know the meaning of the words - and in trying to paraphrase I struggle not to lose everything in translation. It does not help that J has very limited cultural context.

She does not care for remixed numbers and will ask to listen to the original song instead. I have asked her about her impression of the more more modern song and dance sequences and J says "I don't like them much. They look like they are doing gymnastics.The older songs sound a lot better". So the cool and modern dance moves don't impress her much but she does notice the difference in the quality of the music.

Her reaction to Indian classical music and dance is very different - she takes in the performance in complete silence and with a sense of awe. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact she is learning both and is able to appreciate how how difficult it is to perform at that level of mastery. When I first started J on music and dance lessons my only desire was for her to have develop appreciation for both. It would make me very happy if she could become a discerning listener (of music) and audience (of dance) one day. The serendepitious outcome that seems to have happened along the way is she has become curious about other things India - Bollywood musicals included.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Catcher In the Rye

Reading about J.D Salinger's death, brought back memories of the time when I got my first opportunity to read Catcher in the Rye and just as quickly lost it. I was twelve then and was visiting with Uncle D and his family. In my sleepy little town, his bookshelf was the best stocked library I could have access to. His tastes were eclectic and he always made great recommendations. On this particular evening he asked me "Didn't you just have your twelfth birthday ?" and I said it had been a week ago.

"Great. No time like now for you to read Catcher in the Rye" he said handing me a well-worn paperback copy of the book. Even before I could flip through it, his sister scooped it out of my hands reprimanding Uncle D as she did so. "Do you have no better sense, D than to give a child this young Catcher in the Rye to read ?" she asked him.

Now Uncle D's sister visited them sometimes and was a formidable woman in every way. She had several master's degrees and taught English literature at a fancy Delhi college. Anyone who knew her for any length of time knew better than to mess with her. Uncle D protested feebly that he had been about my age when he first read the Catcher and she retorted "That would explain a lot !" and walked away in a huff along with the book leaving him more than a little embarrassed.

I may not even have read the book had it not been snatched away from me under such dramatic circumstances. But now, I simply had to check it out if only to see why it was so inappropriate for a twelve year old. I was able to get hold of the book a couple of years later and loved it. Thanks to that incident, I became very curious about books that had once been banned. To that end, I made sure I read Lolita, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Fanny Hill, Flowers In the Attic and much more well before I might have been considered old enough to read any of these books.

Uncle D and his sister taught me a valuable parenting lesson early on. It is usually safer to hand kids books that might be objectionable than to take them away because kids will find a way to read what they have been forbidden to. Having an adult in their lives to discuss their understanding and reaction to the book is very important and to deny them that opportunity is to distort their emotional growth.

It never ceased to surprise me that a highly qualified woman who was an educator herself, would choose to take the approach she did with the Salinger book. Uncle D was an engineer who had loved literature and had the good sense to introduce kids to it as early as possible. I am grateful to him for that and his book policing sister for sparking my curiosity about non-conformist literature.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Being Everything

Though I don't own anything Apple, I love the design aesthetics of their products just like many other folks. My Mac-loving co-workers waste no time in buying the latest Apple toy and I am guessing it will be no different with the iPad. So it should not be too long before I get the chance to gawk at one. Despite everything that this device is trying to be, most reviewers seem to see it as a chunkier iPod Touch, listing the many missing features as they gripe.

Anyone who bides their time and does not give into gadget lust is likely to save some money and get a more complete product. Reading the comments on tech blogs has been fun. One woman argues that the iPad is unlikely to be a hit with female Mac-fans because the look of the thing reminds her of a feminine hygiene product. The over-size bezel is not a crowd pleaser either and I can see why. In some ways, this is reminiscent of the over-hyped Windows releases where reality and hype don't quite converge.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Baby Data


Given my line of work plus my natural affinity for it, I tend to drool over data and can even get obsessive about analyzing it. With that said, I am very glad that data is not part of my life outside work. Reading this Wired story about parents collecting all manner of data on their kids using high-tech tools and toys, I felt thankful it was not nearly as easy as clicking a button on the iPhone to collect data on J when she was an infant.

The sacred division between work and life would have been completely obliterated. Needless to say, it would have been a bad thing for both her and I. Instead of being there to enjoy her babyhood, I might have been engrossed in data capture and analysis. Largely for this reason, I did not videotape J when she was a baby - selfishly I wanted to savor those magic moments through my own eyes and preserve them in memory. To record did not seem nearly as important as enjoying the present. For parents like me, the article closes with some wise words of caution :

“Kids have been raised by parents without tools like this for generations,” O’Keeffe said. “What parents need is a good inoculation of common sense and some self-esteem, to realize that they can do this without a tool. Just because we have computers and hand-held devices, doesn’t mean we need a tracking device. What we need to do is look at our kids and realize they’re developing just fine.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Inkpop

Here is how Inkpop bills itself : inkpop is an online community that connects up-and-coming authors with talent spotters and publishing professionals in the teen market. Each month, HarperCollins editors read inkpop's most popular submissions in hopes of discovering the next big thing in teen lit. The best inkpop writers have the potential to land every author's dream: a publishing contract.

Being that the talent scouts are looking for the next big teen-lit phenom and anyone older than thirteen is welcome, this could be a great place for middle and high-school students to post their work - even if they were class assignments.As a gathering place for the literature minded it would be a great way to meet new people and form meaningful friendships. For some kids this may be a welcome alternative to MySpace and other youth-centric social networking options.

The spin on the garden variety voting system to identify the most popular works, is the idea of a Trendsetter - something that the 13-19 age group can only benefit from. Instead of being a follower and part of a hive mind that "fitting in" is generally about, here is a different way to be influential, consequential and therefore cool. Love the Cherry Pick idea - for a teen to have their maiden submission panned by the community could be a rough experience. To that end, the ability to highlight the comments they want everyone to take note of it is quite empowering.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Twenty Nine Words


In exactly twenty nine words
is messaged a heart's desire.
Twenty Nine is important in
some ways - it is the day after
the first time ever,
the year of lost love,
the year of new birth,
the day in the fifth month
of meeting one who said
"I like what I see" and
wrapped her in an embrace,
that touched the soul.
Day of the ninth month
when she said to him
"Stay with me tonight"
but watched him leave.
Day of the twelfth month
and he wished the her
the best for the year ahead.
So many twenty nines and one life,
so many moments to treasure
and bury.
Only twenty nine words
to ask if her heart could meet his.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Overshare

Some weeks ago, a woman tweeted about the death of her two year old and got a ton of grief from her followers instead of the emotional support she was possibly seeking. The comments on this story depict the wide range of positions people hold on the issue. The overwhelming consensus being that she was criminally negligent and should have been spending her time watching the child rather than tweeting. But what really upset folks was the fact she tweeted right after the crisis with a "please pray" message.

Social media etiquette is still in the early stages of evolution and people are still figuring out the role it plays in their lives. The very notion of privacy is in upheaval. We are in a world where one can have several thousand friends and followers on-line with whom they share (and frequently overshare) their lives with. Until this tragedy happened this woman would have been considered socially adept and well connected but it took a few minutes to change all that.

I know from my own experience (which is nothing nearly as difficult as this woman's who lost her two year old) that in difficult time, I have felt a compulsion to share too much. It did not bother me that I was saying things to strangers that I would have in another life never shared even with close family and friends.

There was so much bottled up inside, that I was bursting to tell - to get out in the open, be heard. It was a lot of delirious, repetitive rambling for the most part. I must have estranged a many friends in the process - there is only so many times anyone can hear you rehash the most painful event of your life. Even at that cost, it was helpful for me. The fever of anger and grief subsided over time and with it my tendency to talk too much and overshare.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Lost Charm

In his book Falling Of the Map, Pico Iyer writes "When we chose a place to visit, the way a country carries itself and markets itself - the way it knows itself, really - is everything. We flee certain resorts not just because they are touristed but more because they have begun to see themselves through tourists' eyes, to amend themselves to tourists' needs, to carry themselves in capital letters : because in short,  they have simplified themselves into their sense of what a foreigner wants."

He goes on to say that Vietnam "still has the bashful charm of a naturally alluring girl stepping out into bright sunlight after years of dark seclusion"

I could not help drawing a parallel between Iyer's examination of what makes a destination more or less attractive to what makes a person more or less interesting to a potential partner. "Touristed" might translate to having had multiple relationships in the process of trying to find "the one". To that end, the longer someone stays in the dating pool, the more "touristed" they become.

The process specially over an extended period of time would likely make the person more amenable to "amend" and "simplify" themselves until there is no "charm" or "allure" left in them. They arrive at that point carrying their need to be a relationship in "capital letters" and in doing so, drive away the more discerning among potential partners. The romantic partner equivalent of an astute traveler like Iyer may not by stopping by to be with them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Inspirational Teacher


My grade school classmates have had me on their mailing list for a while. Most of the members are like me - silent receivers of communication who rarely if ever have anything to say to the group. An active but vocal minority have kept this list going for as long as they have.

Recently, one guy K commented in reference to an on going conversation about how much they owe to that one teacher who made the most lasting impression. In his case it was Mrs. P (who would have guessed). He wrote "If she had not kept nagging at me for my sloppy grammar and spelling I would never be where I am today".

When we were in our early teens, I remember K making remarks about Mrs. P that were decidedly tasteless. She was tall and slim ; wore silk or chiffon saris that flattered her shape but in a dignified way. Her makeup was always understated as was her perfume. Mrs. P was one of my style icons growing up and I hated it when K and his buddies said the things they did about her. Apparently with age, K has had a change of heart and attitude.

In her essay Teachers Are Key to a Successful Economy, Michelle Obama writes :

"We all remember the impact a special teacher had on us—a teacher who refused to let us fall through the cracks; who pushed us and believed in us when we doubted ourselves; who sparked in us a lifelong curiosity and passion for learning. Decades later, we remember the way they made us feel and the things they inspired us to do—how they challenged us and changed our lives"

That is certainly true for both K and I,even if in very different ways. Decades later, K has realized that Mrs. P was indeed special and a very positive influence on his life. Mrs. P was not the best or the most influential teacher I have had, but there is a lot I learned from her example about being a feminine, confident and attractive without sacrificing dignity. That is an important lesson for any young girl and determines the choices she will make as a woman. Learning that was no less important than learning to construct readable sentences.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Just Rice

Not to be unnecessarily difficult here, but reading this essay on rice by Jhumpa Lahiri in The New Yorker do beg the questions why and when. First the why - why is this description of preparing pulao so terribly significant when it does not transcend the prosaic to become something larger than a grain (or bowl) of rice.

Given Sugar, Given Salt by Jane Hirshfield comes to mind as do some Odes to food by Pablo Neruda. Closer home (since Lahiri prefers to stick with all things Bengali), there is Sukanto Bhattacharya who wrote :"khudhar rajoye prithibi goddomoy, purnimar chand jeno jholshano ruti" translated very beautifully by Rini Bhattacharya Mehta as :

In the regime of hunger, the earth belongs to prose,
The full moon burns like a loaf of bread.


Now that is a way of looking at food a little differently. I recognize that Neruda, Hirshfield and Bhattacharya are poets and Lahiri is not but what a poet can do with verse, a competent writer should be able to do with prose. Basically what we have here is an intricate description of the process of preparing a desi rice dish by the author's father - which by the way is very similar to something Damayanti Basu Singh had written several years ago.

The essay by Buddhadev Basu which his daughter reproduces in translation is very much worth reading. Maybe that can serve as inspiration for Lahiri if she is absolutely determined to discuss the probasi banaglir handi-heshel ( non-resident Bengali's pots, pans and kitchen) in the most obsessive detail as has been her wont. There is a lot more work to be done to make such a piece of writing shine and become a thing of literary merit. Throwing a couple of Bengali words in for "texture" and "flavor" is not nearly enough.

Now for the when - when oh when is Lahiri going to say something that does not drip markeen probasi bangali (Bengali residing in America) like a over-soaked rosogolla. The drip is gooey, saccharine and yes very, very cringe worthy. Surely, she could employ her talents to turn out something more interesting than a really bland bowl of rice - and no, the raisins and almonds do not elevate it to anything more than that.

I asked my friend S who is a desi born and raised in NYC, what she thought made this kind of desi household minutiae unsupported by larger purpose so appealing. Her theory is that average American readers do not expect world class literature when they read the work of someone with an "ethnic sounding" name.  The best a desi could do is to satisfy their curioisty about what goes on inside a desi's home and mind. Lahiri and her ilk are enabling the vouyeristic in their western readers and it is the reason they are so marketable.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sistas And Brethren

Several months ago, I met C a desi man in his early 40s. Since the acquaintance had come about through work, we knew little beyond the other's name and job function. One evening, I had to scuttle from a meeting to pick up J from after-school care. That was when C became aware I was a parent. Soon after he moved on to a different job. In the interim we became aware of each other's single parent status - his two boys lived with their mother.

As we were very clearly not each other's type it was easy for us to get over the initial discomfort that results from our marital status situation to become friendly acquaintances with somewhat  similar challenges. A few weeks into his new job, he called me one day to see if I was up for lunch midway between his workplace and mine. We chatted about work (his and mine) for a bit and then conversation drifted to kids and from there to ex-spouses.
This was the first time I was hearing about his divorce. He had married an Indian woman born and raised in the US. C came to America as a grad student and had met his wife at school. Two children later, their incompatibility turned so pronounced that the marriage had to end. According to my math, that is also the period of time is takes for one such as C married to an US citizen to acquire an US passport. Of course, I did not point that out and let C continue with his story.

Now, he is back in the marriage market and looking for someone "unencumbered" by kids as he put it. Not being comfortable with the idea of a blended family myself, I was able to understand that perspective - C boys are tweens. It would take a whole lot of adjustment on all sides for a blended situation to work out.  He added that it was also imperative that  they possessed a green card or were US citizens. I guessed he probably did not want a woman to do to him what he had done to his ex-wife. This was not the first time that I have known a man who married a local (desi or otherwise) for a passport and then dumped the wife on largely frivolous grounds. The same men became very wary of women who due to their legal status could stand to benefit from marrying them.

But the conversation got more interesting at this point. "You know what bothers me most, she never expressed any desire for reconciliation - you would think she'd at least try. We have two kids together. I felt like I was used and thrown". How so I asked because the narrative up to now had been she had not tried hard enough to meet his expectations from a wife and he finally ran out of patience. It did help that the citizenship was taken care of.

"Well, she has the kids. I am left with nothing". I had to restrain my impulse to say What about that passport ? Then C added "But I am confident she will not be able to pull this off . Raising two boys alone is no joke, she needs the father's support. At some point she will give up and reach out for help. I would have bought a house here but I am sure I will need to move back to Colorado to be around the kids. It's just a matter of time." This was when I finally had to say something.

"You know, C. I have raised J alone in this country without any family within a thousand mile radius. I am not born and raised here and my ex does not even live in America. It was challenging but I was still able to do it. I would not hold my breath on having your ex beg you for help. Your boys are older, she has a network of family and friends here and she has a good job. Her challenges would be nothing compared to mine. She will manage very well without your help. You have to realize that unlike in India, a woman in America does not need a man to survive. She can do everything alone and do it well - specially someone like your wife. As for your kids, they are old enough to understand who wronged whom and they will make their allegiance known quite plainly."

As much as I hated to break his ego inflated bubble, I thought I would be doing gross disservice to the woman in the equation by not giving her credit for having the chops to pull it off as a single parent. Though I don't know her, I felt a sense of sisterhood with her.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Questionable Results

The completely diveregent search results for the same term on Google and Bing would leave the average user confused. They would be forced to pick which provider to trust and that can be fairly subjective. In the context of their use, one or the other may have yielded the more relevant results but that is clearly no indicator of their efficacy or trustworthiness in general. John Battelle has the declining quality of search results among his predictions of 2010.

7. Traditional search results will deteriorate to the point that folks begin to question search's validity as a service. This does not mean people will stop using search - habits do not die that quickly and search will continue to have significant utility. But we are in the midst of a significant transition in search - as I've recently written, we are asking far more complicated questions of search, ones that search is simply not set up to answer. This incongruence is not really fair to blame on search, but so it goes. Add to this the problem of an entire ecosystem set up to game AdWords, and the table is set. Google will take most of the brand blame, but also do the most to address the issue in 2010.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Pointillist Memoir

Taking a years worth of Tweets and converting them into a book has a really poetic name now thanks to Clive Thompson. He refers to it as a pointillist memoir. A better more suitable description would be harder to come by. In the end, the nirvana of all things posted, tweeted or otherwise published on-line is still the good old fashioned book. 

A writer of any stripe still does not feel like one unless they have a real book out there that readers are (hopefully) buying to read. Blogs have been turned to books and it is only fair that tweets get their turn now. Since Facebook status updates have already been converted to art, a coffee table book should not be too far behind. Away messages and status updates can easily make it to a book of quotes.

Even with the internet being so widely available and the ease of publishing (and reading) anything you want on-line, it is no small wonder that a book continues to be venerated as much as it does. This should be heartening news to those in the publishing industry.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cultural Hegemon


Read two very different articles that touched the theme of popular culture. One tries to fathom Western obsession over Japanese culture and the other titled The End of Influence discusses how American influence on global cultural trends and memes is declining as the country goes deeper into debt. The authors argue, as money goes out the door, so does Hollywood's ability to be the definitive purveyor of cultural narrative :

Hollywood no longer has an inherited, built-in meganarrative -- the presentation of life in modernity in all its weird and quotidian forms: How women walk and speak, houses, murder, seduction, sex, kitchens, raising children, "making it," excursions, courtrooms, shopping centers, schools, hospitals, universities, and office buildings -- the world, perhaps of your future.

 In the Boing Boing article, Lisa Katamaya quotes W. David Marx who explains the fascination with "weird" Japan thusly :

"Japan often feels like a hyperextended high-tech version of 1950s America — frozen gender roles, mass culture incapable of controversy or antisocial sentiments, an entertainment world run by the mob. Japan is basically the Jetsons. We don't have to take it seriously, but we are entertained." 

This is exactly along the lines of what the authors of the FP article suggest will happen as American influence wanes:

The culture created by America and exported by its movies is not gone; it's not even going. It has simply gone universal and is now open to a vastly expanded range of contributors. This is very likely to be a good thing for American and world culture, an opening to new ideas, talents, and energies. And America's ambient culture is being enriched by foreign imports ranging from soccer to sushi, not to mention energetic Ph.D.'s in material and biological sciences.  

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Created Memories

Photoshoping has traditionally had a negative connotation - not unlike airbrushing models on glossy magazines to make them impossible perfect and plastic. In this discussion on the cultural impact of photoshopping, it is described as a neologism :

The term is sometimes used with a derogatory intent by artists to refer to images that have been retouched instead of originally produced. A common issue amongst users of all skill levels is the ability to avoid in one's work what is referred to as "the Photoshop look" (although such an issue is intrinsic to many graphics programs).

This heart-rending Mashable story about one man's request for someone with photoshop skills to remove the oxygen cannula out of a picture of him with his deceased mother who had been suffering from cancer, makes one think of photoshopping in an entirely different light. There are moments in life, that we can no longer relive or make perfect - specially it involved a loved one who is no longer alive. The only clear memories we have of our grandparents is of a time when they were past their prime and ailing. We are no longer able to remember them as they were when we were very young.

What would it hurt to create a memory of my grandfather who had a smile that could light up a room - before he was put on a dialysis unit and looked so fragile that he could snap any moment - with me and J as we are now. It would not represent the truth but it would be how I want to remember him always, how I wish J might have seen him. The past is always made more perfect through our successive recollections of it. In our minds we undo a gesture, say something we lacked the grace to say at the time, remove the many blemishes from the object of our affections. To photoshop would be no worse than turning our imagination into something tangible.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cleaning Brush or Mother

This news story about some orphaned hedgehogs adopting a cleaning brush as their mother is perfect for an illustrated children's book. If I had any skills at sketching cleaning brushes and hedgehogs I might have given it a shot on Storybird. Kids would love the cute factor but there is also a deeper lesson in love, loss and attachment. A chid's favorite stuffed animal or blanket is a lot like this cleaning brush. Children love to use things that belong to their mothers - it is a way for them to be close to her,  feel her presence when she is away.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Toxic Parents

In this DNA article, Geetanjali Jhala covers a very important but rarely discussed facet of desi social life - that of adult children trying to cope with parents with whom they simply don't get along. Indeed, sometimes the coexistence is so stressful that it feels like a punishment  that has no end in sight. The protagonist in Jhala's article is a divorced woman in Mumbai who is unable to make a new relationship work out despite having every desire to do so. The real reason turns out to her difficult relationship with her father with whom she has moved in after her divorce.

Many people who seek help for dysfunctional behaviour find it hard to acknowledge that their parents may be the cause, and that the only remedy may be to move out or even cut themselves off completely."It's in the course of therapy that they realise the depth of their resentment towards their parents," says psychologist Varkha Chulani. "This is buried beneath layers of guilt, because we are culturally conditioned to believe that our parents are right; the moment a child questions his parents, he is looked upon as disrespectful, and is told to 'shut up'."

While dysfunctional parent-child relationships are universal, they hurt desis so much more because our of our cultural conditioning. We are expected to accept (indeed venerate) our parents just the way they are, look the other way even when they are clearly in the wrong and are actually hurting us through their misguided actions.To do otherwise would saddle us with more guilt than we have capacity to bear.

As long as the children are single, this arrangement works out even if very badly for the individual - at least no one else is getting hurt in the process. Once, there is a spouse and some kids in the mix, the toxicity affects the whole new family and often the situation spins completely out of control.

Even where the new family lives independently, the parents are never too far away (emotionally at least even if they are at some physical distance) and in as such, the parent-child relationship issues continues to thrive. While everyone struggles and hurts in this situation, rarely if ever is root cause discussed let alone remedied.

Thanks to the social stigma associated with it, desis are also not the most open-minded about mental health issues - they would much rather sweep such things under the carpet and pretend all is well instead of tackling the problem head on. It is good to see an article like this is a mainstream publication - hopefully many more will follow and heighten the much needed awareness around the issue.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hiss Not Bite

Nothing breaks the magic spell of child's innocence quite as hard as disillusionment with the behavior of an adult - specially one they loved and even considered a role model. This happened with J recently and I had contributed to the situation somewhat tangentially.

If there was one thing I could single that I love the most about J, it would be her sincerity. No matter what the task, she will apply herself to it with enthusiasm and do the best she can. She is also very accommodating of people and circumstances that come into play in the process of doing her work. Whereas another person may get peeved or angry, she will simply work around the issue or the person. Being well-liked is important to J so she will avoid a being unpleasant even when provoked quite a bit. While all of those are good qualities to have, sometimes it can become too much of a good thing. There is a point of inflection where being tolerant starts to look like weakness and being considerate equals being a pushover.

I try to balance affirming the value of the qualities J has innately while teaching her there are times when she must like the proverbial snake hiss even if not bite. But for Sri Ramakrishna's parable I would have found it impossible to resolve the dichotomy that is inherent conveying such a message. The adult in this situation had an axe to grind with me and chose to wage a proxy war through J - hurting and belittling her in the process. But J being J, allowed this to happen time after time assuming that the bad behavior was an aberration - that it would pass and all would be well again. When it had gone a little too far, I was forced to step in.

As J put it "She pushed the buttons on me, the game controller, to make you bounce around on the screen". That is the possibly the end of childhood - to be able to articulate the game an adult is playing in those terms. So after being bounced around for a while and allowing J to be dragged through the unpleasantness of it all, I ended a friendship that had gone a little toxic. The cost to me was minimal - I was merely disappointed in someone who I thought was a friend. For J, it was learning before it's time and not of the kind that makes for the happiest of childhood memories.

She had to stop working on her cardboard model of the Golden Compass (one of her favorite movies - and mainly on account of the concept of the alethiometer) to listen to me talk about the lessons learned, about knowing when to show some fang and hiss, about how far to accomodate and adjust and when to stop doing so. For two years, this person was someone J looked up to and loved like a family member. It was incredibly hard for her to realize that she had been a mere pawn in a game and that the gestures of love and affection she had valued so much may not have been entirely genuine.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Advice Giving

I often seek advice from people and try to have my sample set be as diverse as possible. It gives me a chance to hear all sides (hopefully) of the story before making any decision. This has usually worked out well for me and I learn more about the people who are offering their two cents on the problem at hand. Read this interesting post on the economics of advice at Marginal Revolution and liked this line in particular : The advice-giving mode mobilizes insights which otherwise remain dormant, perhaps for fear of falsification or ridicule or of actually influencing people.  

That would explain why I have heard the most profound thoughts from those I least expected to hear them from and have been proportionately disappointed by the facile arguments of those I thought could do much better than that. Indeed the best advice can come from the most unexpected quarters. Back in India, our illiterate domestic help of many years, had more wisdom to offer than a lot of highly educated people around the family. She kept to herself and spoke only when spoken to but she had no rival when it came to restating a problem in the simplest terms and coming up with the most common-sense solution to it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar

Watched Avatar in 3D this past weekend and was quite bedazzled by the technology. The story and the movie itself did not impress nearly as much. It seemed like the re-enactment of America's history with an alternate ending on a far away planet in the future. We have a Pochahontas in Neytiri who by falling in love with the enemy drags a great calamity to the doorstep of her people. However, things end a lot more happily for the Na'vi people on Pandora than they did for the Native Americans - an act of cinematic expiation almost.

The way history may have been idea is wonderful in concept but the execution is deeply flawed at best. Bestowing the human-like inhabitants on Pandora with tails made me wonder why that was necessary - given the all too obvious parallels. Was Cameron trying to imply a less evolved life-form with deficient brains to match - a combination responsible for the fate that befalls them. In as such, is it not a slap on the face of native, indigenous populations anywhere in the world. The earth-side is represented by emotional quotient challenged mercenaries who thrive on making habitual racial slurs, being as obnoxious and culturally unsophisticated as possible. In as such, that part of the story becomes a crude exposition of the white man's burden.

Then there is the regular guy from earth who turns Na'vi a la Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves, becomes their messiah and saves the day. I found it hard to get excited about that premise in particular. Why might the indigenous people - blue-skin, tails, halos and all not be able to rise to the occasion and the throw the trespassers out of their planet on their own. After all most of the heavy lifting in the battle was done by their gigantic animals who did not even need a leader or cause to rally around - it was merely nature's way of restoring balance. 

The special effects are stunning enough that a viewer can overlook (for the most part) a cliche leaden storyline that sags under it's own weight. I would have found it a lot harder to like the movie without those 3D glasses - maybe the reason why I walked away greatly disappointed watching Cameron's Titanic some years ago.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Common Sense Challenge

Egregious is the only word that comes to mind reading this NYT story about Walmart and
H & M slashing their unsold clothes before throwing them away to make sure no one gets to use them. Forget about being a good corporate citizen or giving back to the community, this even flies in the face of common sense.

If they have no use for it and will trash clothes (that armies of underpaid, over-worked workers in third world sweat-shops had helped produce), it would seem logical that they would give it away to anyone who could use it. Clearly the solution is not nearly as obvious.

There is certain maliciousness about this thing - it is as if they don't care as much about the losses as they do about frustrating would-be free-loaders that refused to buy that stuff even at 90% mark-downs. The idea is perhaps to teach them a lesson on the consequences of not buying when they had a chance to. If they set such a precedent, penny pinching customers might wait it out until they can get their clothes for free from the dumpster. To that end, they cut off their nose to spite their face.

“The H & M thing was just ridiculous, not only clothing, but bags and bags of sturdy plastic hangers,” Ms. Magnus said. “I took a dozen of them. A girl can never have enough hangers.”

H &  M, which is based in Sweden, has an executive in charge of corporate responsibility who leads the company’s sustainability efforts. On its Web site, H&M reports that to save paper, it has shrunk its shipping labels.

Talk about left hand not knowing what the right is doing. Smaller shipping labels to be green while slashed clothing on their plastic hangers are being dumped in trash. Makes you wonder if corporations are not schizophrenic along with being psychopathic.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Wakefulness To Slumber

Having had a companion for a short period in my life and known long, empty stretches of singleness before and after, I understand what Vicki Iovine's means when she says "how desperate I clearly am to distract myself from the frightening journey from wakefulness to slumber".

The day starts at the crack of dawn with every minute fully accounted for. If anything slips by a minute or and inch, the ripples of imbalance spread through the day. Like two cogs in a wheel ( I would say dancers, were it not that I had two left feet) J and I try to work in concert , get the out the door and into the world to do what we must. I earn a living, she gets a schooling. My 9-5 is a blur of  balancing fragile egos, conflicting and often confusing demands on my time while getting work done. Then when it's all over,  I go pick J up, catch up on her day, have dinner get some time to read , write and relax with J. 

The house turns absolutely silent once J is tucked into bed. I can hear the low hum of the air-conditioning or heating unit depending on the time of year, the clicking of the keyboard if I am on the computer - other than that there is nothing. It is in such quietness that the full measure of my singleness begins to weigh. It is that frightening journey from wakefulness to slumber that I must take each night and find ways to make it less onerous - keep myself busy and distracted until sleep takes over with a vengeance.

The mornings are always good - unlike the nights that seem exactly alike, each day is new and full of possibility . That is when J wakes up like a small burst of sunshine inside the house. She will dance in the kitchen when I want her to finish breakfast on time for the school bus, it is when she will tell me a joke another kid told her and will not quit until I laugh "genuinely". She will hide under the blankets instead of getting dressed. Then there are days when she will be ready with thirty minutes to spare and finish the book she was reading the night before. There is no knowing how J will choose to begin our day - the inches and minutes are lost and gained in equal measure and we keep our life in precarious balance. I could not be anything but happy even if I tried to and for that I am grateful.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Paperless or Green

Every time I see someone add to their signature line something along the lines of  "Please do not print this email unless you need to. Save the planet", I wonder how much more it was in electronic transmission and storage cost to send those emails out complete with there bright green logo in rich text format.

Were the math worked out would it help the planet more for these green folk to stop the "friendly reminders" and have the recipients do their worst and print the email. I reuse paper always but don't see the point of such cautionary notes. Being paperless as it turns out is not the ultimate green act.

The mind has inbuilt biases that incline us to think that what's new, light, and quiet must be less burdensome than what is old, heavy and noisy, so it's easy to feel green by reading off a screen. But being green often turns out to require rigorous thought and well-collected information, not trusting intuition.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Dr Devdut Pattanaik

A lot has been written by children of FOB parents about their coming of age in the west while being brown and sometimes Hindu. Unfortunately, I have found little if any practical use for it. Much of this genre of writing is about the consequences of omissions, mistakes, short-sightedness and such on the part of the FOB parent. While it is great to know what not to do for and to our children born in the west, what we really need is help to get it right.

For me, that help came in the way of a website I ran into some time ago. It belongs to Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik who among other things is Chief Belief Officer for the Future Group. Browsing through the articles on his website, I found the thought process and style of writing that would resonate with any young person who is curious about Hinduism irrespective of where they are born or raised. For a parent, there is a lot to learn too - understanding the underpinnings of Hindu mythology and more importantly how to introduce children to it.

Dr. Pattanaik was kind enough to answer some questions that I believe are relevant to parents like myself.

1.    What is the best way to introduce Hinduism to young children who are an ethnic and religious minority in the country where they are born and being raised?

I think the children must be told that different people look at the world differently. This is the most critical thought that a child must be given. A cat looks at water differently from a fish. A horse looks at grass differently from a lion. So differently people see the world differently.

Once this idea is established children must then be told that every person thinks their view is the only and correct view. But it is not so. We must allow others to have their views. That is love. And others must allow us to have our views. That is love too. Without this foundation, it will be difficult to help children deal with the pressures of being a minority.

2. What are some of the things a parent can do to get their child curious about their religion and culture without actually forcing them into learn about it ?

By making the rituals fun. Rituals are about doing things. Rituals are choreographed to connect with us symbolically. Making rangoli can be fun. Cooking prasad can be fun. Doing puja – bathing the image, dressing it up, feeding it, singing songs to it – can be fun. The child will notice that the fun is associated with a deep reverence. Then he will question. Often this the point where parents turn rituals into ‘holy cows’ and lose the opportunity to help their children gain an understanding of their cultural world.

Parents, most often because of their own lack of knowledge, turn the sacred into scary. The child will sense whether the parent truly respects the rituals and finds them empowering or if he doing it merely to reinforce his threatened identity. Often no one knows the reason why a ritual is performed and that is ok. Parents have to admit that they don’t know the reason and they are doing what their parents did and following tradition. Its ok not to know. And it is not necessary to understand everything in the world. Sometimes understanding comes over time. I notice many people have this urgency to know the meaning of rituals immediately. The search for meaning is either frustrating or leads to some rather bizarre conclusions. 

3.When it comes to Hindu mythology, there are either over-simplified books (geared towards kids) and there are the scholarly tomes. Neither is a good fit for a curious young person who needs something in between they can read independently. What kind of books would you recommend for them ?

My books!  I became a writer because I saw this gap. Often the answers are not what the parents expect. The problem is that authors are burdened by wanting to make Hinduism look nice. The measuring scale is that of other religions. As a result writing becomes apologetic and defensive. People are trying but often I find writers have a poor understanding of the subject and so are unable to appreciate the complexities and so end up with awkward prose.

Try explaining the idea of Krishna surrounded by hundreds of milkmaids doing Raas Lila to a child. Are those girls, Krishna’s friends? So is it ok for a boy to have many girlfriends? Are those girls his wives? So is it polygamy? Rather than answer such blunt uncomfortable questions, some writers escape into metaphysics – using words like Paramatma and Jivatma which, unless you are a believer, sounds like gobbledygook.  At one level they are true, but like all symbols, there is no one answer. There are layers of answers. Many answers one finds are usually not what parents expect or find appropriate, because these stories are catering not just to children but adults.

To simplify them without being simplistic (and sometimes stupid) requires a lot of effort. The story is trying to show the idea of love that is unfettered by law and custom; thus the milkmaids are in no way related to Krishna. Now this idea can be quite scary to a parent. One has to go in stages. Simplistic answer initially then more complex ones. There is no one standard answer. There are many answers, each one suiting one’s age, one’s temperament, one’s emotional and intellectual maturity. This is Hindu pluralism. 

4. Do you think children actually benefit from hearing or reading a watered-down versions of Ramayan and Mahabharat where the complexity of the characters and their motivations is all but lost ?

As people mature, stories evolve. The story told to a three year old is different from that which is told to a thirteen year old. We must keep telling children there is more. Provoke them to be curious. Include them in conversations about the characters. Say the mother and father discuss how Karna was killed. The child can overhear the various arguments. There is no right answer so one must allow the arguments to stand strongly without tilting one way or another. The child by overhearing this, again and again, will be able to appreciate the complexity of life – as Hinduism seeks to portray. 

5. What would enable a child make the connections between religion, mythology and day to day life in the modern world ?

I think by making religion and mythology part of day to day life. So lets say we are discussing the war in Afghanistan. This can be associated easily with the Ramayana. Just as Ravan had no right to kidnap another man’s wife, the terrorists had no right to destroy the World Trade Centre. Of course, as the child grows up, the arguments can get more sophisticated. Why do we assume that the Americans are Ram? Maybe the terrorists see themselves as Ram, maybe the attack was the burning of Lanka. This will lead to discussions and debates. In these discussions and debates, pros and cons, the Argumentative Indian is born – one who is able to see things from multiple points of view before taking a decision. 

6. How can learning about Hindu mythology the right way enable a young person to develop a deeper appreciation for the universality of the main concerns in all religions?

Yes and no. All religions have common features. But they also have uncommon features. Many people overlook the latter and this leads to conflict. For example, Hindus do not have the notion of Original Sin or Prophet. But like all religions, Hinduism is deeply concerned about what is appropriate social conduct (dharma) and happiness.

7. Do you have any recommendations for daily reading that may help a young person to navigate with greater confidence through their life - specially when the world outside is very dissimilar to the world inside their homes ?

Step 1 – Read the Amar Chitra Katha. Step 2 – Discuss the stories and don’t let the comic be the end. Discussion is the key. Stories are to be told, not read. Step 3 – don’t reach a conclusion, don’t justify, don’t apologize, don’t defend …..just try and understand why the story was told by our ancestors. 

8. Finally, if  a parent's goal is to enable their Hindu child to be an open-minded, well-adjusted global citizen who is deeply aware of their own religion but is able and willing to embrace learning from others as well, what must such a parent not do ?

Have confidence in Hinduism. This means that one does not have to put down other religions just to feel true to one’s own religion. Personally, I find the ‘cult of outrage’ that is spreading like an epidemic a problem. Everyone gets outraged when they feel their religion is being mocked or threatened. Instead of outrage, we need more understanding, love, inclusion and forgiveness. We must remind ourselves that while Ram kills Ravan, for a crime, he also acknowledges Ravan as a great scholar and teacher. Thus a holistic view is taken – parts that are condemned are condemned but not the whole. 

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Fine Math

Reading this article on the bizarre math for calculating traffic fines in Finland, I could help wondering how such a system might work out in other countries if they could even get to the point of implementing it. It is hard to imagine how the citizenry is not up in arms protesting the inequity - specially those who are hit the hardest by it. As it turns out an overwhelming majority think it is quite okay. When a culture and a people have such an high bar for egalitarianism, it would probably reflect in all areas of civic society making them a great role model for other societies. In considering Finland as a blue print for American society, Robert G. Kaiser writes :

In the end I concluded that Finnish society could not serve as a blueprint for the United States. National differences matter. Ours is a society driven by money, blessed by huge private philanthropy, cursed by endemic corruption and saddled with deep mistrust of government and other public institutions. Finns have none of those attributes.

Nor do they tune in to American individualism. Groupthink seems to be fine with most Finns; con-formity is the norm, risk-taking is avoided — a problem now, when entrepreneurs are so needed. I was bothered by a sense of entitlement among many Finns, especially younger people.

Could not help thinking about India when I read that. We seem to a little bit of both worlds. We are cursed by endemic corruption and saddled with deep mistrust of government and other public institution like America but also have some Finnish traits :  groupthink, conformity and risk aversion. Maybe with a combination like that we can neither be a take no prisoners style capitalistic society and neither can we be egalitarian. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Make Electronics


Reading Charles Platt's Make: Electronics took me back to my engineering school days and had me wishing that I had read this book back then instead of now. Platt makes clear the translation from science and technology into real world applications - a connection textbooks focused on a specific topic don't always try to make.The book makes an excellent primer for those who will end up studying the subject in a lot more detail for four years (or more). In about 300 pages, the reader would have grasped most of the essentials that will stand them in good stead no matter what they intend to do next.

For a reader curious about electronics only to the point that it helps her to try some DIY projects, this book goes a considerable distance beyond fostering that casual acquaintance. If you are a student who will study electronics as as engineering discipline, Platt's coverage that runs the gamut from the science fundamentals to the cautionary notes when trying to build a circuit will give you a great head start.

This is not a book for those who don't care for electronics at all - it will not convert them to aficionados. Platt assumes that you are an eager and interested student with or without prior knowledge of the subject matter. It would definitely help if you are thrilled to learn about PNP junctions, capacitor polarity and what difference it makes to connect resistors in series versus in parallel because Platt always connects the dots between the science and its application as any good teacher must. His passion for the subject and erudition is evident all through the book.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Above The Fold

Some places I have worked, the usability experts have sworn by keeping all content above the fold. It was one of those golden rules that simply could not be violated. Entire websites were designed (or re-designed) with this goal in mind and often the end product was an eyesore. Yet all the content that mattered was above the fold just as the experts had decreed.

I had long wondered about this conundrum. Read an article recently that does an amazing job of explaining why this happens and also why this whole "over the fold" business is more than a little over-rated. Specially loved the design tips the author provides to encourage scrolling. 

Goes to prove that becoming dogmatic about anything including technology is not a good idea. It simply closes the door to fresh, new ways of thinking and forces a certain type of solution for all problems irrespective of the fit.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Mishti Doi

When my parents were visiting with us a few months ago, my mother told J a Bengali folk tale in which Mishti Doi plays a very critical role. Indeed, the protagonist finds this particular delicacy so irresistible that he forgets some important promises and thus the story.

Now, ever since J heard about the indescribable delights of Mishti Doi and it's ability to induce momentary lapse of reason, she has been clamoring to taste it. My mishti making skills are non-existent and in the backwaters where I live, there is no way I could buy her some from a desi (Bangladeshi more likely) store.

The craving for this unseen, untasted and yet supremely tempting treat has grown manifold since Grandma left and I am left with the daunting  task of producing it somehow. I figured it would not be too difficult to find a recipe and give it a shot - what's the worst someone (even if that person was me) could so with yogurt, sugar and cream anyway.

So I looked up some recipes and among the first things I saw was this dozen variations on the theme of Mishti Doi. Not exactly the simple two, three step solution I had in mind. When variation #1 (presumably the easiest) has instructions like "By trial and error you’ll find the correct temperature setting for your oven for the perfect Dahi ! If it's not setting up, increase the temperature a bit." I can already see my resolve to give this thing a shot dissipating rapidly. Cooking this thing needs one to be a clairvoyant almost !

Before giving up, I decided to look some more. Since I don't recall caramelized sugar being part of the Mishti Doi taste , I am a little suspicious of this "easy" recipe. One blogger's version looks quite promising  and the instructions are easy enough to follow - love the lack of ambiguity in particular. Not one to leave good enough alone and just cook the damn thing, I had to seek out a second opinion and there was no lack of them - there are 6920 entries per Google on the subject.

The one I checked out went into some technical detail that is bound to please the more sophisticated cooks but it's not something one such as myself should even bother with. If I know what's good for me and keep my limitations in mind, I would go with the three step formula and have J believe that it is Mishti Doi. But given the keen level of anticipation, I feel obliged to turn out something that is reasonably close to the real thing. My lack of competance at all things mishti (sweet) and the plethora of how-tos are not helping out.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Measy

I have almost always depended on geeks at my workplace to help me find the right gadget and I don't need a whole lot to keep me functional. Mostly they have been happy to help but occasionally they have expressed frustration at my inability to articulate a tech spec. My point is why do I need a geek if I can do that myself ?

Measy is ideal for people like myself who can describe what they are looking for without being able to get to specifics. There is way too much technology out there for the average person to keep up with - specially when they come inside of gadgets with a mind-boggling array of functions. Having an online need to product translator is a wonderful thing.

I test drove the site answering the questions for finding a digital camera and liked the results. All questions are in simple English that pose no challenge to comprehension. The only other thing I may have liked is a few more options - or maybe my criteria narrowed the field to one.

Friday, January 01, 2010

2010

One way to start a day, a year and decade

New Year's Day--
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average. 


- Kobayashi Issa

Or others ways also in haiku but little more uplifting even if not quite as perfect.

Or perhaps to start the year resolving to take the leap the faith, take those last few steps.

This bridge will only take you halfway there
To those mysterious lands you long to see:
Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fairs
And moonlit woods where unicorns run free.
So come and walk awhile with me and share
The twisting trails and wondrous worlds I've known.
But this bridge will only take you halfway there-
The last few steps you'll have to take alone. 


– Shel Silverstein

Or be thankful for the small blessings and little miracles that happen from day to day.

A very happy New Year to you !