Thursday, May 31, 2007

Too Much Technology

I had a chance to visit the Wright Brothers museum at Kitty Hawk recently - the literal birthplace of aviation. A Bengali compadre who was also visiting took it upon himself to explain to me why I should be overwhelmed at what I saw.

Had it not been for the airplane the modern world would have never happened - we would still be in the Dark Ages. Though he did not mention it, but for the Wright Brothers my forefathers would still be living on rent collected on their vast tracts of farm land in Bangladesh and I might have been completely illiterate and married with a couple of dozen children.

While I understand all that in theory, I found it hard to get excited about the museum itself. It did not inspire wonder and awe like I thought it would. Maybe it is a case of information overload - there was nothing in the museum that could not have been dredged off the web via Google. The artifacts were not antique so there was no real sense of travel in time.

I think what I missed was the intimate, human feel. For a museum about two people, there was very little about them as individuals that did not relate to aviation like personal effects, letters and memorabilia. The focus being aviation, a technology which not easy accessible to the common person, someone like me feels rather lost and wonders when they can head out to Nags Head where the sand and the surf would not challenge them in any way.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Browsing Not Buying

I stop by the nearest Wal-Mart every once in a while to pick up a few things that I can't get nearly as cheap elsewhere but for the most part I stay away. On many of those forays, I wander over to the girls clothes aisle to check out the offerings. I have to admit I find a lot of the Ashley and Mary-Kate line very cute and perfect for J's petite frame.

However, like this woman who could not compromise her dignify to buy a perfect pair of shoes (even priced right) because they had Jessica Simpson on the insole, I cringe at the thought of someone seeing Ashley and Mary-Kate on the label of something J is wearing. I will agree it takes great strength of character and an almost virulent hatred for trashy celebrity endorsement to walk away from a delightful pair of floral printed skorts priced at $4.00 knowing fully well that your little one will look adorable in them.

It must be hard for Wal-Mart to get into a customer's head and figure why their foray into the fashion world has not been successful.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Persistent Memories

Read an excellent article on the art of forgetting in the digital age and learnt the term data ecology :

As humans we have the capacity to remember – and to forget. For millennia remembering was hard, and forgetting easy. By default, we would forget. Digital technology has inverted this. Today, with affordable storage, effortless retrieval and global access remembering has become the default, for us individually and for society as a whole.

The persistence of memory could be a curse for humans. In being able to use the internet as storage for memories that the brain can no longer contain or catalog effectively, we now have a way to persist all memories and suffer its consequences.

Jyoti, the uber-geek I met on my vacation last weekend has every SMS, email and chat transcript from a ten year old relationship archived. If there was way that phone conversations could be converted to text easily I would bet she would do that. In talking about heartbreak, she frequently referred to snippets from chats and SMS messages and how his behavior ranged from inconsistent to inconsiderate.

As I listened to her, I wished she did not have such easy access to so much historical data -it made forgetting so much harder. Even without asking her I knew she would never delete the relationship detritus - it is much too hard to wipe off ten years from one's consciousness; it is like suffering amnesia.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Words For J

A few days ago, I was after J to clean up her room and was hurrying her up as well because we had to go out. She said seriously "Mommy, I don't have eight hands to work with. I'm not an octopus". I burst out laughing. Earlier that day she had said "One thing ruined a perfectly good day for me". That sounded pretty serious so I enquired anxiously what the unsightly blemish might have been. "You said I have to eat fish for dinner". I decided not to force the point about the omega three fats for once and be the one who ruined a perfect day.

Lately, J loves using big words and wants to learn application as soon as she hears a new one. She wants to construct a sentence using the word "grim" and my imagination fails me completely. I tell her to try commercial instead - something that Mrs H included in her word list. I ask her if she knows the meanings of all the words on the list and she goes "I have to read it first and when I want to write about it, I can ask the meaning". Grim's turn is yet to come I am assuming but Mrs H should be up to challenge when it does.

J's friend Caitlin had us cracked up when she did an impromptu antonym exercise with the sentence "Girls need to be classy". Her mom was telling her the importance of being lady-like. She flipped that around and said "Boys are unclassable". I can't wait until J gets to the antonyms. Who needs stand up comedy with a bunch of kindergarteners armed with hefty word lists.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


People often have stories that explain who they have become and more importantly how. In the past, I relied on first impressions a lot - often to make significant decisions. Over the years, I have learnt to revisit that first impression after a while and see if I think different.

Sushma, Jyoti and Rachna arrived well past midnight to pick me and J up for a trip to the beach for the Memorial Day weekend. I have known Rachna a few years now and was meeting the two others for the first time. Sushma is slightly over-weight and looks like the kind of person who cannot be bothered with watching her diet or exercising regularly. If I were to see at her the local Indian grocery store, I would have thought she is one of those long suffering H4 wives who this country almost denies a right to exist.

Jyoti seemed regular in every way. I guessed she must be in her early twenties, new graduate on her first job. She looked like a nice, quiet and unassuming girl. I would imagine she worked diligently at her job and kept to herself in crowd.

It was a four hour drive to our destination. Rachna and J fell asleep in bit so I kept Jyoti and Sushma company. In a couple of hours, a layer was peeled off their personalities. Sushma had got her divorce two days ago and this trip was almost like a celebration of freedom for her. I offered her my heartfelt congratulations.

Jyoti was an uber-geek who worked as a
network security consultant. Her day typically started around noon and ended past midnight. Recently a relationship of ten years had ended and she was doing her best to recover. I was there at a point in both their lives when they needed to talk, to share and unburden. By the time we reached our destination, I knew more about them than I do about folks I have known for years.

In our room as we unpacked, I was surprised at how different both Jyoti and Sushma appeared to me. How knowing something about their context made them so much more than two dimensional stereotypes that first impressions tend to be. I noticed the quiet determination about Sushma that I had completely missed before and the natural joie de vivre about Jyoti that even a serious setback could not take away. I knew both of them would bounce back and be even stronger for their life lessons.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

No Connect

My favorite childhood TV show Malgudi Days is now free to view online. I wasted no time in getting J to watch it. She does not understand Hindi, has no recollection of India and most definitely does not have a clue about rural pre-Independence India. Not sure why I thought she would love Swami and friends like I had loved them in my childhood.

I figured I knew nothing of rural India either but there was an universal appeal to RK Narayan's stories that transcended time and locale. Maybe it would work its magic on J as well. What I had not factored in was the cultural familiarity. The school room, the dirt roads, playing cricket where ever, the doting grandmother and the overbearing father were all within my cultural lexicon. I had no trouble relating to them. I just had to use my imagination to travel backwards in time.

Removing the cultural context leaves J as clueless as a western audience in a Noh performance. Through her eyes, I see India as an average American might - there is much astonishment, some dismay and a definite reluctance to reach out and participate. It is a lot easier to get her to watch Preity Zinta and Abhishek Bachchan dance to Wheres the party tonight. The ambience is western as is the beat. She is able to sense a connection and appreciates the perfectly synchronized movements that define a Bollywood dance number.

I think my India immersion exercise for J should begin in the 2000s and go back from there. Maybe in time she will enjoy the delightful simplicity of Malgudi days and remember it with nostalgia as I do. I never realized it would hurt so much not to be able to get my child excited about what mattered in my childhood.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Uneven Balance

I had known Robin for over a year now when she told me that she and her husband had been trying to have a child for eight years now and have all but given up now. She was thirty five and he was forty and they were both smokers who refused to quit. She talked about her husband like a teenager deliriously in love. I don't know a lot of couple married ten years who feel that excited about each other.

One morning she called me to say that she was feeling nauseous and lightheaded and could not possibly drive in to work. My first reaction to that was one of excitement. May she had finally got pregnant. What she described sounded a lot like morning sickness. I had felt exactly that way when I first found out I was expecting J.

I asked if her husband was home to take care of her. "Yes he came back from work" she said but did not sound cheerful at all. "He is working in his office upstairs and won't even know if I died. Imagine, I die right now and he finds out in a couple of days. That won't be pretty will it ?" she added. This took me by complete surprise. As we talked some more, I could tell that she had been crying.

She came back the next day and told us it was a food allergy. I wondered they had both been excited like I had been the previous morning and then got thrown emotionally apart from not being able to deal with disappointment. In a few days, Robin was back to being the infatuated teenager who could not wait to get home to her husband in the evenings.

Some people are incredibly blessed in one relationship of their life and it may obviate the need for several others. In Robin's case, her marriage fulfilled her to the point where there is probably no room or need for a child - her cup runneth over, she already had the sense of completion that a child brings other women.

As I thought about it, I seemed to recall several other couples I know who were deeply in love with each other and childless for years. The babies came along in due season often ten years after their friends had had their last children and long after they had given up on becoming parents. After the euphoria of new parenthood wore off they became just another married couple - the euphoria of the their childless years replaced by a certain staidness.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Vaulted Ceiling

When I moved to the town I live in two years ago, my first stop was the community I live in. Having researched the neighborhood online before the move, I knew this would be the perfect location for me - close to work and daycare. I was hoping to find an apartment that overlooked the lake but ended up having to settle for a view of the woods because the coveted lake-views were all occupied.

The vaulted ceiling gave it an open and airy feel and I felt like I could make this home and be happy in it. I did not once think about the practical problems of living alone with a child on the third floor. She would not be able to skip and jump without disturbing the neighbors downstairs, taking out the trash would be a pain as would be bringing home the groceries.

At that point, the view of the woods through the windows and the sunlight rooms made up my mind. I must have been thinking abstract instead of focusing on specifics when I made my choice - that's what vaulted ceilings are supposed to do to consumers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Shamrock Hunting

Reading about the four leafed clover finder's guide reminded me of Nicole. This was four years ago, soon after I had found independent life outside my friend V's cold attic. I had a job but J was far away in India with my parents. I had a room of my own but not a home to return to. Every day started at 6:00 a.m. with a one mile walk to the nearest bus stop. Weighted down by my laptop, bag and coat I felt like I bore the world upon my shoulders.

Then winter gave way to spring and I grew lighter in both body in an spirit. Across the street from my office where I waited for the bus in the evenings, I met Nicole. I knew her name from the ID she had clipped on her belt. We smiled at each other but did not talk. Nicole often looked around in the grass like she was searching for something . I didn't realize that she was on the quest for a four-leaved clover until the evening she finally found it. Her face was lit up with joy. Shortly after that, Nicole stopped coming to the bus stop but she left the shamrock bug behind.

Like her, I found myself looking for the mythic four-leaved clover. I had started to believe that it would bring a rush of badly needed good luck. J and I would be together again, I could return home to a home instead of a room in another person's home. That I would have peace and tranquility I had sought so hard and had found so hard to come by.

I moved out of town, J came to live with me, the job had saner hours and I had my own apartment. Freedom had come in degrees but peace was still elusive just as the shamrock had been. Unlike Nicole, I was not able to find my good luck charm in one square feet of random green by a bus stop.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


A man sat strumming the guitar in my neighbor's balcony. J was out playing with some other neighborhood kids and I had stepped out to fetch her for dinner. My neighbor invited me to sit down a while and listen to the man sing and so we did. He had a nice voice but he introduced himself as a songwriter and went on to add "I don't sing anything I haven't written".

What a shame I thought as I listened to some of his work. With a voice like that, he may have gone places if he picked good lyrics set to a decent tune. There were many popular songs I could think of that would have sounded perfect in his voice. My neighbor requested a 70s number despite his earlier disclaimer about what he will and will not sing.

He sang a few bars but clearly he wanted us to listen to "this thing I wrote about growing up on a farm at the end of a dirt road". Replete with clichéd lines and a completely pointless tune, we felt sorry for a really talented singer who fancied himself to be a songwriter. This guy reminded me of The Would Be Gentleman by Moliere where the protagonist
M. Jourdain, a middle class man to create and air of nobility about himself goes remarkable lengths to emulate the aristocratic classes. The results like this guys songs is nothing short of hilarious.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Reading At Speed

Everyone could use some improvement in the reading speed and comprehension that LiveInk promises. I tried the three reading samples to see if the technique worked for me. The text is laid out like poetry which is very interesting though not specially helpful for me. Seeing Chapter 1 from Moby Dick laid out thusly, I can barely focus on the story that is unfolding.

I guess for the tool and system to be useful you've got to catch them young so there is nothing to unlearn. The sport news didn't register at all and that had nothing to do with LiveInk - I am profoundly sports and sports news challenged. As for the technical journal - the layout did not help make it interesting only a little odd. I found myself focusing on form rather than content.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Parallel Parking

I never had to drive a car in India so the only driving experience I have is in the US. It was a huge blessing for me that the state where I first got my license did not need me to demonstrate my non-existent prowess at parallel parking to give me a driver’s license. Had that been a condition of satisfaction for the road test, I would have most likely have never made the grade and gone back home where it is still possible to get oneself a full-time chauffer for a few thousand rupees a month. That would have proved the definitive end of my American Dream.

When it comes to parking, I never seek challenges and will park as far away at it takes from my destination to avoid anything that remotely resembles one. After all, walking half a mile never killed anyone. So when I go out with friends who can parallel park blind folded and will seek out the most punishing spots to hone their already razor sharp skills, I wait breathlessly for the deed to be done without hitting any bumpers. I am in awe of these people but will never try to emulate them. There is always the parking garage option for the likes of me. You either have the skills or pay your way out of your deficiencies. Sounds perfectly fair to me.

I've seen folks like NYT columnist Calvin Trillin in action. Even after decades of parking parallel they are in awe of what they can accomplish and will step out of the car to admire their handiwork. It helps have clueless people like me in attendance who will be rendered speechless by their feat. Despite ourselves we will go "Wow, how did you do that ?"

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Playing Safe

Us desis may have some good ideas about marriage being that we have in the business of marrying and arranging for it since Rig Vedic times but our well thumbed playbook does not pass muster the demands of the dating game.

Years ago, I picked up a copy of Rules from a box of paperbacks someone had put in the trash. The wisdom was main street and a regurgitation of all that self-styled relationship experts of the west had been saying for a while. The aggrandization of self had nothing to do with real self awareness.

There is a whole genre around rules for girls; Melissa Bank's hunting and fishing guide comes to mind. Likewise there are rules for men. It seems to be widely recognized that it is wild and lawless out there and rules can make life easier. But that is easier said than done. After all how often do banana republics make it to becoming fully functional democracies.

I had always been curious about the religious slant on dating and found it in reading
Safe People. I was browsing through it at Lindsey's one evening and she lent it to me. My complete unfamiliarity with Christian philosophy makes it difficult to appreciate the Biblical references fully but that does not come in the way of being able to get the message. I don't know if I agree with the authors but using religion as a vehicle for their message makes it a lot more credible not to mention robust than sound bites from Rules steeped in the superficiality of pop culture.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Concealer Moment

According to the Guardian columnist William Leith, the Clinique Concealer is the first step down the slippery slope of insecurity and he is talking about men.

Concealer is a symbolic step-change. It's not about enhancing what you've got. Concealer is about pretence. It's about wanting to look unworn, untested, smooth and blameless. It's about denial

It is a long essay and I got bored after a bit but the concealer bit was fun reading and then when he talks about a woman's view of sperm cloning and why its a good thing

The even scarier thing about sperm cloning is what people say about it. A woman I talked to typified the reaction. 'Well,' she said, 'now women will be able to have children with other women, and breed out all those adaptive male genes.'

'What?' I said.

'All the killer genes that ruin the world, and the shagger genes that ruin relationships.'

'I see.'

'Because there's no need for those genes any more. We've evolved beyond them.'

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Inspiration In Negatives

I am a long time fan of Waiterrant's blog but this post is possibly among his best thus far. The theme is one of looking into the negatives in your life for inspiration and uncover opportunity.

I think a lot of us do so unconsciously and as a result don't savor the fruit of our labor quite as much. If we were to approach every negative aspect of our life to actively seek inspiration from it, what we made of those opportunities could make us a lot more happier. There would be a greater sense of accomplishment.

Almost related to this is a allowing a feeling of resignation take over - not in a negative or defeatist sense though. It is about surrender to forces much larger than you - to some that would be God and let that determine your life's true north.

When I was younger I resisted, tried to control and change what I believed I should and could be able to. As I grow older, I fight less and give in more. The humility that the process demands is yet to come but that might be a work in progress.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Remembering Old Lessons

Sitting by the poolside at the Y, watching J's swim lesson progress I remembered by uncle who is close to seventy now. To many in the family he was the model dad like most of the others were not. No matter how long the work day, he always made time for the kids; helped with their homework, read to them, introduced them to new ideas and played with them.

Their home was full of educational toys, encyclopedias and books - my own home had very little of any of that and I loved to visit them so I would dive into the rich treasure trove. My two cousins were bright and talented kids and everything seemed to be on track for them to grow up to become happy, well adjusted and successful adults.

Yet something was not right about this picture. My uncle was an overzealous parent who would not waste even a minute of time he spent with the kids if he could coax in a mini lesson. They were on a rich educational and extra-curicullar enrichment diet almost from birth. As they grew older, the kids grew distant from the father who had put so much effort into shaping their future. They didn't make the best grades in class, they abandoned the violin and music lessons without remorse, hung out with what their father called "riff-raff"

My older cousin is about to turn forty and lives with his parents. He is sporadically employed but the paycheck does not support his extravagant lifestyle. His sister will turn thirty next month. She has drifted in and out of several masters programs in the last ten years and now does nothing at all. On an ordinary day you see the two of them lounging around the house in shabby old clothes and unkempt hair because they don't care about external appearances. They will retire to their rooms if there are visitors because they can't make polite conversation. My uncle is a very tired and defeated old man who is aging rapidly.

My mother once said "He tried too hard. Sometimes children just want to be silly, have fun and not learn a damn thing. As a parent you need to give them room to be free to just be" Any time I find myself becoming an over-zealous parent trying to squeeze in twenty four hours in the two that I have left in the evening, I remind myself to let go and let J do all things mindless that make her happy and be carefree like God wanted all children to me.

There is a lifetime to teach and learn but childhood is fleeting and what memory could be more precious than that of a time of complete, unbridled freedom to while the time away doing nothing. My uncle gave his kids gifts richer than gold and diamonds when all they needed was a bit of mud to make pies with. J came running to me dripping wet and happy. The lesson was over. She knows and I know that the swim lesson is all about no endgame fun.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Letter Art

Growing up, I exchanged letters with a group of six or seven people. Two cousins, a grandmother, a best friend who had moved to another city, a school teacher who had to return to Bombay to take care of her ailing parents. Besides the regulars, there were some who came and went of my life leaving behind between two to a couple of dozen letters in their wake.

Browsing through the Envelope Collective gallery, brought back memories of the art work on some of these envelopes, the interesting placement of stamps, the stationery and even the colorful inks that these letters were written in. Sometimes there would be a friendship braid, photographs, a piece of candy or dried flowers and leaves inside. It was exciting to get something in an ordinary envelope that was not a letter - it did not matter what it was.

The letters were written in flowing cursive which all of us seemed to be good with, the borders were decorated with art work. The closer you were to the recipient the more you put of yourself into the letter and that often went beyond the note itself.

I have all those old letters stored in large manila envelopes. The impulse to store and put them away for posterity came when I first realized that I neither wrote or received any letters - over time, the numbers had trickled down , the circle shrunk from seven to two and then there was nothing left.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Vignettes From DC - Part 1

J is very patient for someone her age but making her stand in line behind a few hundred people to see the Hope diamond at the Natural History Museum was more than she could take. The guy ahead of us joked that we must all have rocks in our heads to go through this to see another rock.

The last time J and I were standing in a serpentine line like this one was about five years ago when we were at
Tirupati for her mundan. Waiting in line becomes second nature when you grow up in India. There are always several hundred sometimes thousands of people ahead of you no matter what you are trying to get done. You learn to patiently await your turn. This is the only way we know to bring the masses into some semblance of order.

I have been out of touch with waiting the last few years. But this wait could not be more different from the one in Tirupati. My visit to there with J was the third in my life. The two other times were memorable and I looked forward to that moment we would get to be in front of the deity. The wait as before had been very worthwhile, there was a sense of exhilaration that I could give J this experience while she was still so young.

Here we were waiting to see the biggest blue diamond in the world with a legend of curse on anyone who possesses it. The experience was a lot like trying to catch a glimpse of a celebrity. When at last we reached our destination, it was a little underwhelming. I felt relieved to get out the door and out of the museum.

I was convinced that I must have rocks in my head to wait close to two hours to see another rock. But that's what that a heady mix of diamonds, kings, Gods and curses reduces ordinary mortals to. J was entirely unimpressed. It took the dinosaurs downstairs to redeem the trip somewhat. We must come back another time. Note to self - When in a museum, do not wander away in the direction of gemstones and the like. Show more consideration for J.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Telling Of Gnaw

Read this beautiful poem though only in translation about gnawing suspicion. The Bengali version would have Goswami's signature cadence that is evident even in two lines :

বাত্সরিক (Batshorik)
নাম লিখেছি একটি তৄণে (Naam likhecchi ekti trine)
আমার মায়ের মৄত্যুদিনে (Amar mayer mrityudine)

One Man by Joy Goswami

Suspicion comes and sits on his shoulder one morning,
Slowly with long, thin beak, it cleans his ear,
When his eye closed with pleasure— suspicion —
with a tweet entered
into the hollow of his ear,
and he did not notice.

Since then always the sound of the bird
beating its wings in his skull,
When he tried to hear someone instead
he heard that sound,
When he looked in someone's eye
he always saw the eye of the bird,
Waking up every morning he cut off one friendship,
In the night when he lay beside his sleeping wife,
checking his own body
He wants to examine it to be sure
that his wife is not sleeping with anybody else.

Translated by the poet and Skye Lavin

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Real Skinny

There is thin and then there is the "real thin" -or people who have no dangerous and undesirable fat deposits around their internal organs.

Never heard of that one before but it seems like a reasonable argument to someone who is completely clueless about both biology and human anatomy. Outwardly fat people could be thin inside and vice versa making the former a more desirable state that the later.

For example, despite their ripples of fat, super-sized Sumo wrestlers probably have a better metabolic profile than some of their slim, sedentary spectators, Bell said. That's because the wrestlers' fat is primarily stored under the skin, not streaking throughout their vital organs and muscles.

It would not surprise me if they come up pills that targeted specific areas of fat inside the body that no one could see. So in theory, you could binge on decadent foods and pop some of the fat-outside-liver-melting pill and be none the worse for your gluttunous excesses.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Democratic Movie List

In the time of IMDb and Netflix everyone is cineaste or could easily become one - if they have the time to check out everything that makes the lists like Films You Must Watch Before You Die . Guardian has one too and a democratic one at that.

When I compare the movies I have seen from the two lists, I like what the public's choices a lot better than those of the experts. What is more, it stops at forty - which is great for those of us who don't have the gift of plentiful time.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Baby Drop Off

Reading about drop boxes for unwanted babies in Japan is like life imitating fiction. This is a page out of the Coin Locker Babies. The drop box is supposed to help reduce the number of abortions. The underlying assumption is abandonment is somehow superior to abortion - that seems a very complex choice to take a definitive position about.

My friend D is adopted. She traced her biological mother after she became an adult. She is past forty now and only recently found the whereabouts of her biological father. The man refused to speak with her or acknowledge her.

She longs to know where she comes from; infact it is so important to her that not knowing makes it impossible for her to consider having children of her own - she does not want to perpetuate her own sense of rootlessness any further. D's story to me is one of abandonment and its painful emotional consequences.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Selection Rationale

Finally, scientific evidence that chimpanzees are smarter than the human male when it comes to playing the dating game and getting it right.

Recent research from Uganda’s Kibale National Park, published in the journal Current Biology, suggests that while human males tend to pursue younger women, male chimps prefer the company of females with some life experience.

But it is not as if chimps value experience over youth because they are realize youth is ephemeral. It just happens that female chimps unlike human females remain fertile all their lives.

It’s easy to blame women’s magazines or the fashion industry’s impossible standards for the human obsession with youth, but Thompson said the preference is actually much more organic. “It’s consistent with a mating strategy in which males are investing in a woman’s entire reproductive career,” she explained. In other words, if a man can monopolize a woman’s entire fertile life, he increases the chance of getting his genes into the next generation.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Bag Of Goods

Lately, money has been on J's mind and it comes up in conversation most unexpectedly. Who has how much, why more is better than less. The rich are happier than the poor because they possess more things. I have been putting up with all this with a mixture of anxiety and resignation. It is a material world, the neighborhood is full of rich and snooty people. The kids in her school are drinking from the fire hose of consumerism. For me to expect J to remain untouched by her environment is patently naive.

I have in the past tried to explain to her the mechanics of multiple credit lines, balance transfers and finally out of control credit card debt; how external appearances of affluence can be very deceptive. It is hard to tell what part if any of that message gets across to her. After a while both J and her mind wander away.

Yesterday, I got an opportunity to teach her a real life lesson that I thought would be easier to grasp. Lindsey's youngest one had come to play with J. She had brought this huge tote bag full of "stuff" she wanted to play with. J toy and "stuff" repertoire is woefully inadequate when compared to Caitlin's and she usually comes with her belongings so they can play. She went back home leaving all her things behind. I felt too lazy to go drop off her stuff and had J collect everything and put it back in her bag.

But before she did that, I had her make a list of things (about thirty five in all) there were and assigned an approximate market price for each. I showed her how to calculate the total. That small sampling of Caitlin's worldly good was worth atleast $150.

The next task was to explain to J how much $150 was worth and what it could buy - a month of groceries for the two of us, a beginner's digital camera, a trip to the beach, food for a famine starved family among other things came to mind. I wanted to get across to J the big difference between money well spent and money wasted on junk that added nothing to one's quality of life.

I am not sure, if my message was successfully conveyed but the numbers and orders of magnitude did get her thinking for a bit.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Acting For Self

Saintly Sita's post about the nature of the Indian Marriage gave me much food for thought. She asks some very interesting questions :

The Indian Marriage is the bulwark of the Great Indian Family -- its warp and weft. Its the glue that keeps our society together, and helps the ordinary Indian survive exploitation at the hands of an indifferent and corrupt bureaucracy, and a political class that seems to have become so cynical that one wonders if they are still human.

How is it then, that our public sphere is so corrupt and soul-less, when our private lives are so rich, replete with the spirit of giving, generosity, affection and selfless love? Why don't these admirable qualities seep into our public spaces and pervade our public lives?

How does a dutiful son and loving father transform himself into a corrupt politician or spineless bureaucrat the moment he steps out of his house?

In the typical Indian family it is a foregone conclusion that the grandparents will care for the new mother through the post partum period, help raise the children until they are able to fend for themselves. The extended family will come together at the slightest whiff of crisis.

Even in our present day, fragmented and nuclear state the Indian Marriage certainly offers certain guarantees that are hard to by elsewhere. The "admirable qualities" of the Indian Marriage are not as admirable as they seem at first glance. It is steeped in selfish motivations. You expect your aging parents to sacrifice their superannuated life to raise your kids, you expect the wife to juggle multiple identities seamlessly to appease a variety of constituents. The husband is expected to work uncomplainingly to provide for the family - often to the detriment of his health and sanity.

The high burn out rate among male middle and senior level executives in India is a proof of this. The husband is the designated provider of the family and his sense of self is completely linked to his ability to live up to the expectations from this role. In the end, each individual is working towards the goal of the unit they feel make up together. The only thing "selfless" about it is that the unit in question is not an "I" but made up of several individuals who though "we" act with unity of purpose not unlike an "I" would.

The kids have to make the grades, the man has to have a successful career, the woman has to make balancing work (if she has a job), children, marriage, managing family expectations and obligations seem entirely effortless. Together they become the great Indian family living the "values" and "tradition" that make the institution "great" in the first place.

Together they must be better than the family next door and all other families in their clan. There is no desire to act for the greater good. It is unthinkable to expect the unit to sacrifice as a whole for the benefit of something larger than itself. It is about competitive instinct and selfishness. In as such, there is no hope for the public sphere to benefit from the Indian Family's unflagging desire to get ahead and do better for itself. It makes sense then that while the family unit continues to prosper, the nation does not reap the benefits of such prosperity.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Three Wishes

J and I read a story of the Three Wishes genre today. At its end the author asks the reader if they think the protagonists wished wisely or well and "What would you wish for if you were granted three wished ?" J does not know of themes and genres or that she will one day read The Monkey's Paw but her responses to both were interesting.

In the story, Anna and Fritz are a poor couple who struggle to put soup on the table for dinner. The day they are granted the wishes, they decide he will have one, she will have one and the last they will have together. It is past dinner time and they are still mulling over the wishes.

By this time, Fritz is really hungry and wishes there was a sausage to go with the soup. A big bratwurst plops on the table. Anna chides him for frittering his wish away for just one sausage and wishes she could have many more sausages. Soon it is raining sausages upon their home. They grow desperate for it to stop and invoke their last wish. Status quo is restored, they are back to being poor but happy.

J thought they could have been smarter about making their wishes and that it was a waste of a great opportunity. To the question about what her three wishes might have been she said:

1. A house with a backyard and garden full of trees and flowers
2. My grandparents could come and stay with me forever
3. I have a computer all to myself (today she uses mine but has her own login)

For the longest time, she has ardently desired a "real Daddy" and today that wish was conspicuous by its absence. When I asked her about it she said it was not as important any more. She would be glad to have one but it was just as fine to not have one.

When I told my friend K, she said "You should be proud of yourself. You must be fulfilling all her emotional needs otherwise she'd have continued to ask for a dad"

I don't know about that but I do know how J longs for a sibling. Sometimes she will touch my stomach and go "Mommy, I know for sure there is a little baby growing in there that will pop out soon" and I have to dash her hopes and tell her there is not a baby getting ready to pop out, that it may not happen any time soon. She goes away looking crestfallen.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


I learnt the word shenpa today while reading a personal essay by Nina Utne.

Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. To get unhooked we begin by recognizing that moment of unease and learn to relax in that moment.

It made me think of instances where I have seen reactions from myself and those around me that have been completely out of proportion to the situation's aggravation. Like fish biting bait, we got hooked to something negative we did not recognize and suffered its consequences. The moment and the trigger passed unrecognized only to return another time with equal or greater ferocity.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Quiet Nest

Today is J's first sleep-over. She is over at Lindsey's with her two girls and her best friend Katie. The house feels silent like it hasn't in the last five years that J has been in my life. This is what an empty nest will feel like - just that the emptiness will not be filled in the morning. Instead it will last days, weeks and months.

She will be gone to college, she will live and work in a different city, be married with kids - who knows she may be in another country. The phone will ring sometimes and it will be her with the sounds of her life playing in the background. Her happiness will bring me solace but there will be quietness to stay.

It will always seem like the other day when she was born and I first held her close to my body - the helpless little bundle of joy. She gave her courage to break out of a marriage that had become an entrapment, she gave me power to overcome impossible odds, to take chances that I would have never have taken otherwise.

I wonder what might motivate me to go on once she her wings are strong enough to let her fly away, what my life's purpose might be if not to mother J. Suddenly on a Friday evening, it hits me that "I" have long ceased to exist.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Gone Soon

Back home in India when a makeshift store pops up on the sidewalk without warning, people complain about hawkers taking over the last inch of left to the pedestrian. Here in the US, it is a new trend in the retail industry. It is also upscale and fun. The same idea executed in a different context not to mention enviornments has completely different outcomes.

In a world of BlackBerries and instant messaging, there's a growing sense of haste in people's lives. In response, companies trying to get consumers' attention are trying to create a sense of urgency. For retailers, who need to get people into stores to try out their clothes, their shoes, and any other new products, the store itself is the new limited edition. So limited in fact that it may last a mere 96 hours. "There's a certain passion about things that shout 'act now!' and that has transpired into the way we shop too," says Claudine Gumbel, co-founder of Think PR, a New York fashion publicity firm.

In India street side stalls may look temporary but they really are not. Despite appearances to the contrary they really mean to stay and we all know that. The "act-now" factor does not come into play. We do get a taste of the western pop-up store when an artisans's fair rolls into town. That presents a very small window of opportunity to buy art and craft work from around the country within a few hundred square feet - it is usually slim pickings by the last day of the fair.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Long Day

The day retracts into itself
pelted by rain, sunlessly gray.

The day pours in through the
gap between door and floor.

The day settles by the corners
of the walls and light bulbs.

The day waits to be fed small
crumbs of happy thoughts.

The day wanders listlessly
seeking a window to escape.

The day eases into the porch
melting into darkness and trees.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Stretched Thin

As I grow older, I must be turning into an impatient reader or it may be how they write non-fiction these days. My experience with reading two books recently made me wonder which it was. I figured Macolm Gladwell had made his case about The Tipping Point within less than fifty pages of the eponymous book. Thereafter, it was only more detail and evidence. Likewise with Margaret Heffernan and How She Does It. Making a book out of what might have been great material for an essay spreads the content precariously too thin.

There are no ideas to introduce without returning to the few key themes that emerge within the first fifty pages or less. The average reader wants to know the answer to the question "What else do you have to say ?" and the answer seems to be "Not much else" The focus seems to be on making a case and not introducing new concepts or ideas. The reader's willingness to go along with the writer's premise is hardly a foregone conclusion. Given the way the subject matter us treated, one would think the exact opposite is true and that must make for both tedious reading and writing.