Monday, March 31, 2008

Temple of Rain

Some days ago, J declared "I would love to live in a place where I get to eat fresh mangoes and cherries all year long". Those are her favorite fruits and the operative word is of course "fresh". I am not sure where exactly J's Shangri La is situated but it can easily be mine as well. I do know where she could get her wish for fresh mangoes at least for a few months of the year. Adding cherries to the mix throws a spanner in the works.

So anyways we got talking about the kind of climate it takes for the best mangoes to grow. The heat that bakes and scorches the earth and makes every pore of you crave for respite. You watch the first clouds of monsoon approach tantalizingly but float away in the end. The ritual is repeated for days. You wait for that magic moment when the clouds will not be as fickle, when they will be full enough to burst upon the parched land. That's what it takes to make the best mangoes.

The deliverance of monsoon is a difficult concept to get across to a child who has only lived in a country where rain is viewed as a bit of an annoyance. She can't grasp how it could be such a big event and a celebration even.

Dhan Gopal Mukherji in his book Rajani - Songs of the Night describes the rain of my home ever so beautifully

The night builds her temple of rain :

In the forest a sobbing music
Played by the hands of darkness
On the scale of dark leaves.

I wonder if J will skip the cherries and settle for the incomparable temple of rain instead.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Defending Cursive

One mother argues her case for abolishing handwriting as skill to be taught in schools. She says :

As writing technologies evolve, we romanticize the old and adapt to the new. This will happen with keyboards, too—some contemporary novelists have ceased using them already. Richard Powers uses voice-recognition software to compose everything, including his novels. "Except for brief moments of duress, I haven't touched a keyboard for years," he says. "No fingers were tortured in producing these words—or the last half a million words of my published fiction." Powers is wonderfully free of technological nostalgia: "Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall between the story in the mind and what hits the page. ...For that, no interface will ever be clean or invisible enough for us to get the passage right," he says to his computer.

Having gone from very beautiful to completely unreadable handwriting within a span of ten years, I often find myself feeling nostalgic about the writing I once had and cannot seem to recover anymore. It has slipped out of reach along with a lot of other things. I realize that the person I was those many years ago bears very little resemblance to who I am today. Since frame of mind and handwriting is supposed to be correlated, I wonder if I made an effort to write the way I once used to if I could also go back in to much easier, uncomplicated way of life.

I don't know about the case for obsolesce the author advances. Extending the same logic, it would be quite okay to stop testing kids of facts they have learned in school if all that and more information can be easily found on the web. Why should they be expected to remember what they can look up as and when needed.

Maybe it is a good thing to romanticize the old ways and not abandon them for the glitter of modernity. Isn't the whole organic food movement centered around returning to what was supplanted by modern technology and industrialization ? If an organic apple is better than a genetically modified one then fine cursive should also be better than voice recognition software as the mode of translating thoughts to words.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sound Trapped

I watched Dead Man Walking a few days ago and found it a hard movie to like and for the most unlikely reason - the soundtrack. The moment it came on along with the opening credits, it piqued my interest and I loved it. The Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sound and the use of musical instruments from the Indian subcontinent made for wonderful music but it just did not jive with the plot, mood and setting of the movie.

Through out the movie, it proved to be a distraction from the story sometimes enough to make characters appear unreal and their pathos unbelievable. Not sure if the idea was to inspire a Sufi vibe through the music in keeping with the theme of kindness, forgiveness, love and redemption.

I am guessing the same effect could have been achieved by something like a Gregorian chant - it would help the story remain in character and maintain its cultural and religious context. I found it quite amazing how a perfectly good story and great music could be combined to such disappointing and often even ridiculous effect. If seemed if the two were separated, both would have fared much better.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Delusion of a Heavenly Marriage

There are women I know either professionally, socially or both. They are in their twenties and thirties, married with or without children. Some are from India, like I am, and others are not. They have very little in common except for one thing: they just can't stop rhapsodizing about their marriages and their husbands. They have stars in their eyes as they recount the many generous, romantic, and thoughtful things their men do for them all the time. They seem to be married to their soul mates and are very naturally beside themselves with joy.

Not everyone has the good fortune to find someone so special with which to share their lives. It brings the kind of happiness that levitates them. They are floating on a cloud high above the ordinary and mundane. You can tell the joy is not manufactured. They really believe they are living in heaven and are married to the most perfect man in the whole world. They are aware of their good fortune and never fail to show their heartfelt appreciation for the man who made their world a thing of such unsurpassed beauty.

I used to be such a woman some years ago. One of my closest friends was also living in heaven just like me with her perfection-incarnate husband. Interestingly, we saw the blemishes and indeed fatal flaws in each other's marriages, but absolutely none in our own. When we separated within a few months of each other, we wondered what all that celestial happiness was about. As it turned out, everything we suspected was wrong in the other person's marriage really was, and there was much more than that as well. Our degree of self-delusion was nothing short of fantastic. Neither of us was willing to accept that our marriage was dead on arrival and that we would be best served by cutting our loses early and bailing out.

Instead we were willing to put up this huge charade of walking on clouds, happy and fulfilled beyond belief, attributing to our husbands qualities they just did not possess. We had turned them into demi-gods who could not do wrong. We continued with this pantomime in the face of overwhelming odds - extreme emotional battery in my case, severe alcohol and drug abuse in hers.

By the time we got a grip on the reality of our marriages, I was calling the local women's shelter crisis line to help me plan my escape from "paradise" with a three-month-old child. My friend was in the emergency room for the second time in a month with her overdosed husband. His social drinking was a very serious problem and so was his recreational drug use.

We preferred to pretend our troubles were only in our imagination and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with our marriages. Our husbands were deliriously in love with us and sometimes delirium makes people act strangely. After all, this was a grand love and just not the ordinary domestic co-existence most married people have. We had found our soul mates, so the experience had to be significantly different from the run of the mill.

When I go back in time to my teens and early twenties, I don't recall any of the older married women in my acquaintance acting like marriage had transported them to heaven. They talked about their husbands in a way that felt perfectly grounded. They saw the flaws and imperfections for what they were and accepted it as their lot.

Many marriages were difficult. The ones that were not were pedestrian at best. It was okay either way. There were no other options. Sometimes, a man would show his loving and romantic side, and his wife would mention that to her friends. There would be some good-natured ribbing over it. Others would share anecdotes in similar vein. Life went on. No one was delirious; nobody's happiness was causing levitation.

Even though most of them had no career or an identity independent of whom they were married to, they did not obsess over marriage and husband. Contrary as it may seem, the independent, educated career women of today cannot seem to get used to the fact they are married, they newness of the idea takes forever to fade.

Our generation seems to have a need to win and win big in the gamble of marriage. It is not good enough to be doing okay to just break even. That is as good as having lost. When you lose, the only honorable way out is to leave, otherwise you deserve every bit of the shit you are getting. If you stay on, it's because you don't have the means or the guts to stake it out alone. Only a spectacularly successful and happy marriage is a keeper. The rest are disposable.

There is very little compassion for those who eke it out in a miserable marriage for the greater good. It is no longer acceptable to whine and complain about one's marriage because very few will commiserate. The only wisdom the crowds have to offer is that if it is not working, get out of it as soon as you can. There are so many other options. Start over.

So a woman who wants to stay on in a marriage that is dangerously wrong for her will invent a paradise in which to house it. She will convince herself this made-up heaven is real, that the man she is married to is perfect deep inside, and that the aberrations are only superficial. He is her diamond in the rough, and she will in time have turned into the Hope. All well be well in time. She will need to talk about her version of truth relentlessly because that gives her the affirmation she seeks so desperately.

In the smiling faces of her listeners — their expressions of incredulity and disbelief at such a perfect union — lies her salvation, but there is only so much distance a myth can travel even when propelled by public adulation for a charmed life. One day the force of gravity overcomes the power of levitation and that is a terrible moment of truth. When I see a woman who cannot stop talking about how gloriously happy she is with her husband and how her marriage is made in heaven, I feel just the slightest twinge of anxiety. Maybe I overreact.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Talking Mind

Read this short verse on the meaning of existence that begins with the inadequacy of language to explain it. Far be it from me to dwell on existence when I have J's endless stream of questions to reckon with. She challenges me to come up with half-intelligent answers about everything we see around us. Even with that, language fails me almost constantly.

I find myself groping and struggling to find the words that will convey what I have in mind. Sometimes, the mind draws a blank too. She brings me to the humbling realization that I am able to talk and present so effortlessly at the workplace only because the content I am delivering does not mean much.

Maybe the world of working adults is just that - meaningless. We don't challenge each other by asking and answering simple questions. We veneer our emptiness with a lot of businessese and geekese. If I had anything useful to say, I'd be just as tongue tied.

The Meaning of Existence by Les Murray

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.
Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom of my talking mind.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Elephant, The Tiger And The Cell Phone

Shashi Tharoor's The Elephant, The Tiger And The Cell Phone is a great read just on the strength of the book's last and final part - An A to Z of Being Indian. It is a pithy summary of things that define a desi and the idea of desiness. I would love to read a longer version of this glossary.

In this list, he notes the huge untapped export potential of the bidi and the cell phone as the unlikely agent of socialism. Elections and election symbols are fully explained and demystified along with our crazy traffic and larger than life weddings - "The classic Indian social event, glittering occasions for conspicuous consumption, outrageous overdressing and free food"

Part One talks about the importance of India being and remaining a pluralistic society and how Hinduism is the perfect vehicle for this, the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. He concludes chapter two thusly:

"In building an Indian nation that takes account of the country's true Hindu heritage, we have to return to the pluralism of the national movement. This must involve turning away from the strident calls for Hindutva that would privilege a doctrinaire view of Hinduism at the expense of the minorities, because such calls are a denial of the essence of the Hinduism of Vivekananda. I say this not a godless secularist, but as a proud Hindu who is mortified at what his own faith is being reduced to in the hands of bigots - petty men who know little about the tradition in whose defense they claim to act"

It would be hard to find fault with such a well reasoned case for secularism. Coming from a country where I was a part of the religious majority to live in one where I am the nearly invisible minority, I have a much greater appreciation for Tharoor's point of view now than I did before gaing my minority perspective.

If my own example is any indication, getting this message across to those who have never had the experience of being a religious (and cultural) minority would be much harder. Sad but true, the "doctrinaire view" seems appealing even to those who display all the outward signs of progressiveness. It is possible for impassioned rhetoric to drown the voice of reason.

In talking of the "Ideas of Indianness" he rightly says "... an India that denies itself to some of us could end up being denied to all of us". I could not agree more - the full potential of India is indeed being denied to all of us.

The scope of his book is vast and Tharoor covers this considerable ground with facility. His lament for the demise of the sari which he calls the "masterpiece of feminine attire" as the most common dress for Indian women is just as poignant as his appeal for taking the Kerala’s many successes (including making a tourism industry out of "Ayurveda Lite" ) to the rest of the country.

He ends his book on a cautionary note - The Dangers to India's Future. He lists the top (and possibly the most important) ten - things that the India Shining people would forget or ignore only to their own peril.
Overall, an insightful and enjoyable book about India then and now.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Social Lynching

Each time I return from a desi do where I've had to feel like an outcast because I don't come packaged like a "normal" family, I have wondered how many more times I have do this for J's benefit. At what point would the cultural assimilation be complete so I did not have to put up with desis being their desi-est worst on their own turf. I have gone into these things knowing fully well what to expect but they presented the only opportunities for J to learn about Indian festivals and social customs, meet a bunch of people who looked like her and spoke Indian languages.

It felt wrong to deprive her of the opportunity and risk her growing up with a distorted view of her cultural roots. But my patience is running thin and each time it is a little bit harder to bite the bullet and show up with my child when every pore of me wants to run away. Most often the hosts and a few other close to them already know that there is no husband in my domesticity.

Apparently, word passes around quickly. I have the more cultivated among the guests refrain from any inquiries about my spouse or the lack of one. Invariably, the wife will engage me in conversation alone in the corner of the living room farthest from where the action of the party is and the husband will not be introduced - I guess the standards of decency that apply to normal people do not translate to pariahs of desi society.

The rest make it a point to hear about the missing spouse from the horses mouth. Nothing less will satisfy them. All roads lead to Rome as they say. We could be talking about the recipe for the tasty dhokla someone's brought to the party but a detour will emerge from that conversation leading on to questions such as "Where does your husband work ?"

The moral of the story is when you are divorced and desi, all conversations are minefields and there will be no respite until the all important question of the absent spouse is laid to rest in unequivocal terms. Thereafter, you become the leper of desi society left to lick your wounds by the fringes.

Its no different in the workplace either. I have spent close to a year with a group of American co-workers of various ethnicities and colors and never had anyone ask me one question about my marital status. Along comes a desi new hire and it takes her all of two days to ask me about my husband.

Even after all these years, the incorrigible desi does not cease to amaze me. Home or abroad they just don't know how to mind their own business, maintain a friendly but professional relationship with another desi in the workplace. I have been lucky in that everywhere I have worked, I have been able to get my job done with minimal desi interactions. It helps that in the American workplace it is acceptable to be polite but refuse to engage with a co-worker at a personal level.

What irks me most is that I left India to live and work in the States in large part due to such oppressive social mores. I did not want to be treated like an outcast for the rest of my life. It is almost masochistic going into these desi gatherings in America only to receive the kind of treatment I have worked very hard to avoid. I believe there is a point of diminishing return - the gains in the form J's cultural acclimatization weighed against me volunteering to be made to feel like a pile of trash. Something's got to give.

An older desi gentleman had some words of wisdom for me on this very subject - namely my struggles to give J a sense of what her desi identity without getting socially mauled and lynched in the process. In his opinion, desis were being desis when they behaved the way they did. J's understanding of the culture would be quite incomplete - even incorrect without having observed that the average desi treated her divorced mother like she was a contagious disease.

Participating in community Diwali and Holi celebrations did not quite cut the mustard when it came to understanding desis and how their minds worked. Was I not interested in giving J an opportunity to see the real desi deal ? To that end, he thought that my situation was an unique gift in as far as the perspectives if offered my child into the world of desis. I should be grateful for that.

What's more, if I remarried the same people who treat me like an untouchable now would roll out the welcome mat for my "family". Unless I was a self-hating desi I should welcome this change of heart as a natural transition that is expected to happen in my culture. J would have known both sides of the story and come to a true understanding of the desi. According to him, I was foolish in complaining about what was really a lifetime learning opportunity for my child. Trying to cherry-pick the desi experience is actually counterproductive. I should just go with the flow, muck and all knowing its best for J's greater edification.

I was not able to take this lemon to lemonade harangue too seriously but increasingly I think he was on to something there. Other advice I have received has ranged from "Mothers have to sacrifice a lot for their children. This is only about swallowing your pride for J's sake and only for a few hours. Don't think too much about it" to "Chuck the desis. Cultural assimilation is way overrated anyway. J will turn out to be a good kid. Why get so hung up on making a desi out of her and deal with all that crap ?"

My biggest fear is as J grows older and understands all the negativity I have to put up with from people of my own color and culture, she will develop a lasting distaste for all things desi.

That was definitely not what I was setting out to achieve and it would be a sad thing if it did happen. But the only way I know to prevent the worst is to insulate and isolate her from desidom and that I know is not the right answer either. It might turn her into one of those kids who hate being identified with India and Indianness.

I want her to know that I am proud of my cultural heritage and have desi friends who are not anything like what she sees at the average Holi celebration. That there is a subculture worth identifying with and one that defines home and who I am. As my friend T would say "If you can't even identify with a certain brand of desi culture, what's the point of introducing J to it ?" I still hope there is a happy medium that I just haven't found yet.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Temptations Of The West

Pankaj Mishra's Temptations Of The West is titled misleadingly and contributes directly to the reader's disappointment. When the subtitle reads 'How to be modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and beyond', you imagine that author will expand on the theme of the collision of ancient and modern cultures and its socio-political impacts on that part of the world.

Mishra is a undoubtedly good writer and starts of on a promising note but the story just does not get anywhere. After a 79 pages of Allahabad and Benares - cities he has known very intimately, Mishra rambles off in other destinations and offers us random slices of political history spliced with journalism. It makes for rather tedious reading. Yet, you plod along hoping for something larger to emerge in the end from these vignettes. Sadly that does not happen. While on the theme of India, Bollywood gets a fair amount of attention but one is not sure exactly to what end.

For those of us who lived in India when a lot of the political events he describes took place, there are no new discoveries. He gives us his version of the stories - one among many others the reader is already familiar with. I suspect, the minutiae of local Indian politics would be very hard for outsiders to follow and find interesting let alone be illuminating.

They would be much better served by the big picture of Indian politics and the historical events shaping it (assuming that had even been Mishra's intent). The same is true of his forays into Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tibet. I found myself getting bedeviled by the details but not learning anything new even 323 pages later. Since the western audience has showered praise on this book, maybe I am not the kind of reader Pankaj Mishra seeks and it is just as well.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Emotion Quotient Help

J was playing a game on PBS called About Face which teaches kids to recognize facial expression. This could be a first level EQ game and a definitely a good thing to learn. Watching J play, I was thinking about the ways the idea could be extended and still remain kid friendly. Recently, J's best friend L told her she does not want to be her friend anymore. Thankfully, J has another best friend M and was able to ignore the provocation and hang out with M. As expected L now is wedging herself between J and M - she wants M to be her best friend.

J is feeling insecure - what will happen if L and M become best friends and she is left alone. We have talked about the situation and I have helped her figure out a few different options. The scenario we have at hand is hardly exceptional. It is also the kind of thing EQ games could help with. Arthur and friends could be placed in a situation like J's. The game would offer several ways out of the impasse. It will have the child select one and explain the merits of the decision and suggest alternatives.

The idea is obviously to present something serious and complex in a fun way that kids can easily grasp. When such solutions are developed by subject matter experts, the outcome would prove more useful to the child than the guidance of their layperson parents. I often wonder about the soundness of the advice I give J. How do I know for a fact that I am right ?

After all, I do not live in the social ecosystem inhabited by J and her peers. Chances are, I do not understand the context in which my advice will be acted upon. What are the consequences of errors in my judgment ? I am sure any parent without the right credentials would feel the same way. This is a gap that game developers might find very profitable to fill.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Buying Or Renting

Found this article via MeFi on the myths about buying versus renting. One commentator says "At the very least, the tone of the article is a little bit bitter, a little bit ranty, and a little bit caps-locky." I would tend to agree simply because the author does cover the renting side of the story - I know from experience it is no bed of roses. Even so, I feel just a little bit vindicated in my decision to postpone buying until I know for a fact I will live and work in that area for a very long time.

I have always sensed a tinge of pity and condescension when I mention that I rent and have done so for a while. I guess that flags me as a delinquent loser. In their minds, it makes perfect sense too - I am a single parent, so I must not be able to afford it. They feel sorry for J for being saddled with a parent who is not able to make the American Dream come true for her. My aversion for brand name clothes and retail excess in general does not help my case either. I guess J must sense that vibe too because she once asked me if we don't have a home because we are poor. It took some explaining before she understood my reasons.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Figurative Womb

It's not very often that I am able to take away a meaningful message from a Bollywood flick so I had to write about it. The movie in question is Laaga Chunari Me Daag.

The story is an old chestnut overdone Bollywood-style. A family of four in a decaying mansion - the mother spinning the years away Arachne-like on the sewing machine, the idle father hoping the next lottery ticket will reverse the tide of his fortune and the two pretty daughter unequipped to seek a better future.

Desperate to help her struggling family, she goes to Bombay to find work and runs into a man who promises her a job in return for spending the night with him. She calls her mother defeated and ready to abandon her quest for employment. She is frightened by the proposition and wants to come home to Benares right away.

The mother's response to this SOS is tinged by her precarious circumstances, she does not rush to embrace her child and snatch her out of harm's way. In her daughter's most desperate hour she is not able to be her mother. The girl begins her new life as an escort. The mother is consumed by guilt even as the family benefits tremendously from the first-born's lucrative profession.

What I found most compelling about the story was the older daughter's cry for help, the mother's response to it and finally the consequences. I think our children cry out for help in big and small ways many times in their lives. When we are attentive, we hear clearly and respond decisively. In doing so we are able to prevent harm being done to them.

Yet there are times, when we are not able to hear quite as well. In hindsight, we blame our inaction on preoccupation, inattention or worse expediency because too much was at stake. The cry subsides into a low whimper and there is a deathly silence. We want to believe that the crisis has blown over - that our lack of intervention helped our child become stronger and more self-reliant. But the truth is, a child turned away from her last refuge of hope will often go down a path of self-destruction even while keeping up pretenses of all being well.

As unlikely as it may seem, this movie made me think about a mother's life long responsibility towards her children. She must have a figurative womb that they can return to in their darkest hour ; she must always be able to discern their cries for help amid the overpowering noise and chaos of her own life.

We see mothers around us who do everything else right and wonder why their children turned out the way they did - wonder where they went wrong. It is no easy feat to execute flawlessly on such huge responsibilities all one's life. More likely than not, a mother will make some mistakes and the child's life will be a testament of its consequences.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Picture Imperfect

J is very photogenic and I am anything but. In the few pictures we have together, I look like a severely sleep deprived zombie with half shut eyes while she looks her normal happy self. It ruins the keepsake value of the memory and the image.

Very rarely do we get a mother and daughter picture that is a good enough to preserve. I don't do well with flashes, waiting for the photographer to get ready to click and cannot strike a "natural pose" to save my life - what an oxymoron. For the likes of me Methodizaz would be a great idea.

MethodIzaz is a unique photography experience. Subjects are unaware of the exact moment they will be photographed and of the photographer's identity. Instead, the subject is photographed completely naturally, living life as normal.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Asterix and the Falling Sky

I loved Asterix comic books as a child and was excited to introduce them to J when I saw one at the local library. As a fan of the good old fashioned Asterix fare, my disappointment was complete when Mickey Mouse and Superman made appearances within a few callouts of each other in the Falling Sky. That sentiment is probably shared by other fans as well. There should be some things in life that Disney cannot touch - no matter what.

Stuck with Asterix and the Falling Sky I wondered if I should read to the end and see if the political controversy angle about it would be fun enough to make up for the dejecting Disneyfication. Each time I tried, I remembered Asterix as it used to be back in my day. The placement of Obleix, Getafix et al next to Mickey and Superman felt like a terrible food pairing that left you with a royal stomach ache. There is only so much pain I could subject myself to for a trip down memory lane - I returned the book unread.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Design Maturation

Recently, for the want of a designer on the team it fell on me to create a simple web interface. Being that my direct programming and UI design experience is at least ten years old it was a pretty daunting task.

While I was able to get something stood up that worked functionally, the aesthetics were primitive at best. It was akin to watching a black and white movie from the 40s when the world had moved on to The Matrix. This article on baby steps towards bringing a mature design sensibility to mobile, handheld devices speaks to my own experience.

Movies looked very much like filmed stage plays in their first decade of life. Similarly, television worked much like visual radio in its inaugural decade. And the World Wide Web – the desktop version, where typography and layout bear at least some resemblance to the intention of designers – went to great lengths in its early years to imitate the values of printed matter.

Eventually, all media will leave behind these chameleon-like baby steps and assume their own dynamic; they each establish a nature of their own that is separate and apart from their predecessors. In the case of the Web, we are still in the midst of this evolution now; over time we have become more comfortable with it as a form of communication unlike any other – even as it continues to change with greater rapidity and turbulence than anything we’ve seen in the past.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tokyo Story

J and I watched Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story this weekend. This was the first time she's watched a foreign language film and actually followed the sub-titles. The story is universal and timeless in its appeal. Any child who has grown up and moved away and any parent who has been left behind can relate.

The older couple Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama are like the parents we have left behind - some in another city and others in a different country. They visit their children more often than the children are able visit them. Often, they struggle to fit into the lives of their grown up kids who are married and have families of their own.

They wonder when and how their children changed so much. They do not want to impose themselves in anyway and if they lack independent means to support themselves, they are worried about what their visit is costing their children. Yet amid all this discomfort and disharmony all they probably want is to love and be loved in return.

Watching this movie with J was specially meaningful for me. She has seen me try to balance the demands of my life with being a reasonably good daughter to my parents when they visit. Each time they return to India, I think about what I would do different the next time they are here. As they grow older, I feel the time working against me. There will be only so many opportunities to make amends, to make the time they spend with me one they can recollect with happiness.

Yet the reality has been that my parents spend most of their time here in my apartment. They make it feel like a real home. J is excited to come home from school instead of going to daycare. Grandma tells her stories before naptime each afternoon and Grandpa teaches her music among a lot of other things. The food on the table is always wonderful - each meal is a feast. As always, they give much more than they receive.

The youngest son Keizo says "None can serve his parents beyond the grave". This movie made me think about how I treat my parents and perhaps how I would be treated by my child when I am older.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cubicle And Job Aids

We used to call her the Mistress of Decks. The boss needed to spin the same data over fifty different ways for different audiences over a period of six months until he hit pay dirt - a promotion and a new line of business.

The M of D was indefatigable when it came to rehashing the same message in an infinite number of ways - we marveled at her patience and resourcefulness. But it was a thankless job that took up the better part of her working day. As a result, she slaved over the weekends to get "work" done. Docstoc could be a dream come true for The M of D and the rest of us.

Another woman I once worked with had a discreet
computer rear view mirror installed on her cube so she would near be caught off guard by someone sneaking up on her. While the alarm mechanism worked like a charm, there was quite a bit of snickering about the device by the water-cooler. Maybe she can get herself a smart mouse and get rid of the offending mirror.

Then there is this PMI certified Project Manager that our team recently brought on board. One of the first things she did was to produce an twenty five page document designed to whip one of our vendors into shape. She is insisting that they produce copious amounts of documentation every step of the way.

As we expected, the vendor responded by bumping up both cost and time to the point of ridiculousness. Management decided to do away with the PMI compliance and just get the job done. Both approaches are flawed. I wish our Project Manager would get a little real and draw inspiration from this lite document - it would make everyone's life easier.

Its not for nothing that I dread anyone in the technology business who makes a big deal about being certified or worse is looking to hire only those who are. All takes to be successful in this line of work is common sense, clarity of thought, ability to see and state a problem in the simplest terms. But most importantly the ability to find what you need on the web and never reinvent the wheel. To get overly hung up on a piece of paper is never a good idea - unless its your first job and that is the only way to gain credibility.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Pop Mothering

When you have the Deepak Chopra brand on your side you can write a book called 100 Questions from My Child and get a bunch of endorsements when in fact content at random places on the web gives you both food for thought and chuckle in far more generous portions.

Mallika Chopra's world as it comes through the saccharine sweetness of her copy is perfect beyond belief. There is not one thing out of place in her charmed existence which naturally includes the two little girls. In doing that, the average mother, with her share of challenges in life will find it hard to relate to the framework within which a lot of the questions are asked and get answered.

As for the questions themselves - they are fairly run of the mill in that most children ask them in different variations. And that is not such a terrible thing and does not undermine the importance of the questions in any way. Childhood is a rite of passage and it to be expected that it will be experienced by those who pass through it in more ways that are similar than are different.

Having discounted points for cuteness, exceptionally imaginative or thought-provoking we are left to consider the merits of the answers themselves. Is there anything for a parent to glean from how Chopra responds to what her children want to know ? Are there any lessons to be learned ?

As the mother of a little girl, I found her over the top affirmation of her "beautiful princesses" highly cringe worthy. The fact of the matter is, when it comes to children, love is blind and to a mother's eye they are always perfection incarnate. To take the message directly to an impressionable child is never a good idea. There are much better ways to build healthy self-esteem in children and that includes confidence about their appearance.

Chopra does not leaven her message to her children with humor. There is not one line in the entire book that would provoke a chuckle. To have pop-wisdom dispensed without a smile is pretty hard on an adult reader but maybe her kids have fared better. One hopes her "real life" responses are less stage managed than what comes across in the book. It reminds me of the kid in the movie Ordinary People who comments that his father is so right that he could snap.

The most readable part of the book is the foreword by Deepak Chopra. The idea of the book is fundamentally a good one - listen to the questions your children ask, work on finding the answers and encourage them to ask more. Mallika Chopra has done all of that and written it all down for good measure making it a case of a great idea diminished by mediocre execution.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Compendium Of Guilt

My omission was not a serious one. I did not realize that the tardy bell at J's school was rung at 7:50 a.m. instead of 7:55 a.m. She had been working on a project to present to her class all of last week. Today was the big day and she wanted me to drop her off instead of taking the poster on the bus. I watched her climb out of the car and then burst into tears when a teacher told her to get a tardy pass. I felt gripped by guilt for tarnishing what would otherwise have been a perfect day for J. She had worked for days and had even practiced presenting her project.

My child had entered the bowels of the school building crying and I was not allowed follow her there and comfort her. Even so, I went to the front office as fast as I could to see if I could give her a hug to soothe the blow. I called out to her as a woman led her to her class "J ! Its' alright, baby". She turned around briefly surprised to see me and then walked away. There was lingering sadness on her face instead of the big smile that she has whenever I come to her school.

In the grand scheme of things, this incident has no significance and yet for the whole day today, that look of J's face kept coming back to me - each time I wished something about this morning had moved by a minute or an inch, something done left undone or something not done were done - that somehow, I could wipe away the blemish and start over with a clean slate. It is the slate where the whole compendium of my guilt is written. The other way to look at it would be that I have no real problems in life and can therefore afford to agonize over such minutiae.

I realized it was not about the tiny aberration to J's morning routine that was causing me so much grief - I am overextended beyond belief and sometimes like this morning, I make mistakes. I saw this incident as a telling symptom of all that I believe I have failed to give her. A family, a father, a real home, a sense of stability, connection to roots - the list is endless.

Then there are many trivial things - being there at the school bus stop in the afternoons, being able to take time off when school is out, feeding ducks at dusk, not whirling through the days like we were in the spin cycle of a washing machine, reading fairytales on lazy afternoons, remembering to clip her nails on time, being able to take her to dance lessons on Thursday afternoons, remembering to take her to the park at least three times during summer.

The list of things forgotten or never having found time or energy to do is very long and there is the sting of guilt its serpentine trail. Why can't J have at least everything I had as a child and even more is the question that is the most painful to consider. Why should she deserve any less. It does not help that she is a very lovable and accommodating child. J will do better than best to work around my limitations and always with a ready smile. Her demands are so tragically small that it breaks the heart. By being who she is my guilt is magnified that much more.

Had I imagined the life she and I have today when I decided to go solo ? Maybe not. There is a lot about my situation that am deeply grateful for but sometimes it is a like having a roof that leaks only when it rains. You have nothing to complain about on a sunny day when everything goes well. Sometimes during a long summer you actually forget that your roof is in broken and in need of repair. You imagine your world is quite perfect. It is only when you hear the first drop of rain fall that you fear what might follow. You realize then that you have no options. When it does rain, you will be soaked through. Three minutes late to school and a few tears is all it took to exhume all the guilt I have taken so much pain to bury.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Two Indias

India Inc. like the proverbial glass could be half full or half empty depending on who is looking at it. The cornfield of opportunity that is India forms the former perspective. Entrepreneurs like Sridhar Vembu see it as such and make the best of it. The many challenges the country faces in including the uneven to poor quality of higher education is the half empty glass that Shashi Tharoor writes about.

Both perspectives are equally valid. To expect every entrepreneur with a promising idea to harness the best that India has to offer without getting dragged down by all that it seriously lacks is not realistic. Poster children like Vembu will continue to be the model (and inspiring) minority – they will consistently beat the odds instead of getting beat by them. Tharoor's prescription for change however might give the hard-working but vision-challenged majority a shot at becoming almost as successful.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Words of wisdom from someone who has obviously been there and done that. When it comes to marriage settling for Mr. Good Enough beats holding out for Mr. Right. The author, Lori Gottlieb says :

When we’re holding out for deep romantic love, we have the fantasy that this level of passionate intensity will make us happier. But marrying Mr. Good Enough might be an equally viable option, especially if you’re looking for a stable, reliable life companion. Madame Bovary might not see it that way, but if she’d remained single, I’ll bet she would have been even more depressed than she was while living with her tedious but caring husband.

I could not agree more. In my own case, it has been a long series of misadventures beginning from the time I had looked at marriage as an escape hatch from issues I lacked the courage to face and work through. I preferred to push them under the carpet and pretend all was well. Needless to say, the marriage ended and the issues remained. I was left with no option but to confront them and find my way the slow, painful way.

Many more mistakes happened along the way because of my eagerness to wrap things up well before it was time to do so. The destination was a lot more important than the journey itself - I had no time to enjoy the scenery or even get to know my traveling companion. After we had parted ways, I stopped to think back about the time we had spent together and how it was all wrong from the beginning. Yet, I refused to see acknowledge all that was wrong because to so would be to compromise and "settle" for less than Mr Right.

I have come to realize that the idea of Mr. Right is fraught with ambiguity and morphs with time. Mr. Good Enough is a far more stable concept and in as such a reliable benchmark for who one seeks in marriage. He is far from perfect but he is real and can happen by your life some day. I find women around me married to Mr. Good Enough and it's not such a shabby deal. Sure it's not the stuff of dreams but the mundane business of everyday life is quite well served without it. As Ms. Gottlieb says:

When we’re holding out for deep romantic love, we have the fantasy that this level of passionate intensity will make us happier. But marrying Mr. Good Enough might be an equally viable option, especially if you’re looking for a stable, reliable life companion. Madame Bovary might not see it that way, but if she’d remained single, I’ll bet she would have been even more depressed than she was while living with her tedious but caring husband.

Those of us who choose not to settle in hopes of finding a soul mate later are almost like teenagers who believe they’re invulnerable to dying in a drunk-driving accident. We lose sight of our mortality. We forget that we, too, will age and become less alluring. And even if some men do find us engaging, and they’re ready to have a family, they’ll likely decide to marry someone younger with whom they can have their own biological children. Which is all the more reason to settle before settling is no longer an option.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tea Bags

Art is only limited by imagination - here is one made of used tea-bags. Used tea and tea-bags can be put to more mundane use and some artful ones as well. Love the jewelry but its hard to see the teabag in them - they are easier to spot in the bookmarks and this outfit.

And finally, a fun Halloween costume idea I could use for J. After all this tea-talk, I can't wait for my favorite Darjeeling tea that her grandparents will bring from Kolkata when they visit us in a couple of months. In the meanwhile, I'll keep an eye out for the solid honey to go with it and help J make her tea bag book-mark.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Teens Online

While I am very eager to learn about today's teenagers I can't claim to having any real teen friends. My overtures of friendship are frequently rebuffed because they bundle me with their parents and are suspicious of my motives. Whatever the magic pass that allows one into the charmed world of today’s teens, I just don't have. The concept of a guest pass does not exist. Until now, young adult fiction has been my only glimpse into their world.

So when my much younger cousins let it slip that they all have profiles on Orkut, I could not resist the temptation to check out their online avatars. There are five of them in all. Three come from somewhat dysfunctional families. The mothers have always been physically and emotionally absent from their lives. One in pursuit of a career and the other as a result of being hypochondriac. The fathers have stepped in to fill the gaps the best they could without knowing exactly what it takes to do so. The other two have model parents who could co-author a Parenting Success for Dummies book.

The first three have Orkut profiles with their own full names and a whole slew of pictures. The other two don't use their own names and are not friends of the first three. At any rate I was not able to find them on Orkut assuming they even exist there.

One of the Orkut people has about 500 friends and 25,000 scraps. I am guessing this is one heck of a social animal. He is definitely a looker and has a reputation for being a big hit with the ladies. The pictures and the scraps bear testimony to that. The blond highlights and the wannabe rock-star vibe is probably okay but I was disturbed by the many suicide theme photographs in his albums. The boy has a sizeable collection. I am not sure if this is part of some coolness meme that I don't get because of generation gap.

The girl won a minor beauty contest recently and it appears to the dominant theme of her life at this point. Thankfully, she appears to be happy being pretty and basking in the adulation of her fans. Unlike the two boys she does not have a bunch of pictures of herself.

The third guy is a poet disenchanted with the education system. Lot of rants, some verses some nice pictures. Nothing out of the ordinary or particularly disturbing there.

The parenting handbook kids are probably smart not to have any online presence traceable to their real identities. So much easier to not be embarrassed by your adolescent outpourings of love, angst and worse when seeking gainful employment.

The handbook kids are not nearly as cool as the Orkut people but they are dead serious about education and have been doing very well academically. I would not be surprised if they went on to graduate summa cum laude, land cushy jobs and in time become boring people who got married, bought homes and had equally uncool kids.

I wonder if the differences between the two sets of kids is has anything to do with their parents. At any rate, discovering their personalities on Orkut was very educative - back in the day we had all that stuff locked in our heads and no one had a chance of knowing what we were thinking unless we actually told them. It seems that parents now have much easier and far greater access to what's on the minds of their kids. The tricks appears to be in striking the right balance between solicitude and snooping, between guidance and censorship.

I am very glad I have about seven years to get my act together and I know it will be anything but a cakewalk.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Inward Education

J's first grade curriculum is quite alarming in how inward looking it is. The world begins and ends in America like the rest of the planet was simply empty and had nothing worth knowing or learning about.

The argument it seems is that first graders have no need to know about the world, staying local is the best way to introduce them to concepts that can be extended later. But I hear from parents of older kids, it does not change that much even at the high school level unless a kid is taking advanced courses in specific subject.

So to learn about ancient cultures around the world, a child would need to be on an advanced history track. The rest would go out into the world with just a smattering of American history and that would be the extent of their sense of history. The pattern follows with all other subjects as well. The kids "graduate" and come out into a highly globalized and competitive real world with a lot of strong non-American players in it; find themselves struggling to stay afloat let alone win. This is a perfect set-up for failure.

While I had expected the need to supplement math and science education at home, I had clearly underestimated the deficiencies of public school education and how hard I would have to work to overcome them.
Particia Cohen's NYT review of "The Age of American Unreason" is an excellent summary of all that concerns me and a lot more.

Specially in America, one would think educators would realize the absolute need for children to have a good understanding of the cultures, religions and histories that are represented within the large immigrant population. It is excusable for a school in almost any other country to remain local in their curriculum - while not the best choice it would at least represent the interests of all the students.

For an American school to pretend that the world started a few hundred years ago with the discovery of America is to disenfranchise everyone's history and culture which goes much beyond that. The gaps education leaves behind is filled by cheap infotainment with questionable outcomes.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Ambient and Immersive

I think they should go a few steps further and create and immersive internet experience rather an ambient one. Have all the walls in your house be net and wi-fi ready. The widgets on the bedroom walls can be doing romantic travel destinations, chick-flicks and the like whereas the ones in the kitchen connect you to online grocery stores, recipe ideas for the RFIDed odds and ends it detects in your fridge not to mention exotic food blogs. After all there is a time and place for everything.

What a shame the we have to come untethered from the internet when we log off at night and have to confine our online experience to one monitor that we must tote with us where we go.

Immersion should not exclude community. Walls in all public places could double as prime real estate for browsers. We could be creating mash-ups anywhere, anytime sharing neat widgets with friends and strangers alike. True immersion is not possible without having your own skin in the game and it looks like they are already making strides in that direction. While I may not find it easy to participate in the communal web immersion opportunities, I can easily imagine reclining on a couch and reading a book online as it gets written on the wall. That's a whole lot easier than peering into a Kindle.

For parents who swear by hot-housing their kids to be ready for top ranking schools, education could go 24/7, online and on the walls of their rooms. Math on one, reading comprehension on the next and Mandarin on the third. No matter which direction they stare, something will get force fed into their system. A few clicks around the different widgets around the room and the homework paper gets printed. I wonder if all this would mean brisk business for mental health service providers.

I'll probably hang on to my Sony Vaio relic to get some non-ambient, non-immersive internet time when the grandkids have an e-granny beaming from the wall telling them bedtime stories with the sophistication of technique that I so woefully lack. Talking of which, it seems like I might have been pink-slipped from the job I was coveting the most post-retirement.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Three Stories

Watched recently, three movies and three takes on love (and maybe more) The Illusionist, Swann In Love and Pratidwandi. The theme of love is woven into the fabric of the first two, other themes if any are secondary to it. In Pratidwandi (The Adversary), love is only one among many other things that the story is about. While love is not the protagonist's focus, it is what helps him find his way in the world.

The three stories end on very different notes. In keeping with the theme of magic and illusion, Eisenheim and Sophie escape the confines of their real world to live happily ever after. Swann allows infatuation to drive him to the brink, rob him of his sense of self and his aesthetic taste. He decides to trade all and turn himself into a social pariah to bring Odette into his life.

Then there is Siddharta in Pratidwandi who has more than one adversary as he copes with life as an unemployed man in Calcutta during the Naxalite movement. The woman he loves makes no promises about their future but even her tentative presence helps him begin to forge one out of his woefully limited options. She gives him perhaps the precious gift of hope.

Since all three stories are about love, they share a common element - that of escape from personal circumstances or societal expectations.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Parts of Speech

J comes up with unusual metaphors sometimes. The bright pink and orange streaked sky of dusk would be "someone scribbling with a highlighter on the sky". This evening, in appreciation of dinner (which was perfectly ordinary by the way) I served she said "I love you as much as two Mount Everests joined lengthwise". I was deeply gratified to hear that.

That is a child's world in similes and metaphor and then there is the poet's. A gifted poet could create stunning word pictures with something as banal as sentence punctuation.

Asides - by Richard Wilbur

Though the season's begun to speak
Its long sentences of darkness,
The upswept boughs of the larch
Bristle with gold for a week,

And then there is only the willow
To make bright interjection,
Its drooping branches decked
With thin leaves, curved and yellow,

Till winter, loosening these
With a first flurry and bluster,
Shall scatter across the snow-crust
Their dropped parentheses.

I wish I was able to see the world the way J does or had the gift for creating one where leaves scatter across the snow in their "dropped parentheses". While I have neither, I am glad I can at least appreciate both.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Generosity And Pride

Read this quote by Kahlil Gibran today “Generosity is giving more than you can; pride is taking less than you need.” This is familiar to me from my teens when I first discovered Gibran but it gives me more food for thought now than it had back then.

From what I have seen in life, generosity and pride sometimes go together. My friend D will do anything she can to help me but feels awkward about accepting the smallest token of appreciation or ask me for a favor lest it should be considered owed. It makes her feel like her generosity is being calibrated and paid what it was worth to me.

The truth is, I don’t have any way to measure her kindness, less be able to compensate equal or more of its value to me. I merely strive to strike a balance between an adequate expression of my gratitude and finding a gift that is thoughtful without being over the top.

And D is not alone – there are many other like her. Generous to a fault but too proud to accept another’s generosity. They often seek someone they can continue to give just for the joy it brings them. They would like the recipient to accept their largesse with good grace but not to do anything more tangible – it diminishes the happiness they derive from unconditional and often over-abundant giving. It is up to us who receive to accept more than we can out of generosity or let our pride come in the way of someone’s source of happiness.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Informed Bystanders

J once told me that she feels "different" from the other kids because they are so into their video gaming world and "all the stuff about it" that she does not understand. I asked her if she wanted to participate in it as in getting a Nintendo DS, Playstation or Wii and she was said "No. I don't find it interesting" pretty promptly. She is quite content to continue feeling different and being unable to relate to some of the things her generation finds most exciting. Thanks goodness for Hannah Montana but for her, J would have been a complete social misfit.

Apparently we are both living in the dark ages even as other parents are readying their kids for the digital world. J did come into a couple of Webkinz on her birthday - gifts from her friends. We went through the motions of signing her up on the site and such but she showed no interest in participating in the virtual world that apparently caters to the infotainment needs of kids age 6-10. Bob Tedeschi of the New York Times notes :

Webkinz World is a cross between an online gaming site, an educational site and the virtual world of Second Life, but with animals instead of people. Youngsters may also use the site for text chats with friends with whom they have shared their online identity.

Most of J's friends have hoards of Webkinz and there is always chatter about who has how many and what. I am often privy to these animated disussions when I wait with her for the school bus. Its interesting to watch the non-Webkinz kids listen from the sidelines without having any input of their own. They form the bridge between the connected consumer kids and hapless parents such as myself. In being the aware non-consumer, their role is probably just as important as that of the active participants of the Webkinz World.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Subprime Primers

My co-worker was joking a few days ago about how he tells his family (which includes a six year old) each month after he gets his paycheck "Looks like we'll have our house till the end of the month". The "joke" was clearly lost on the child who had nightmares about becoming homeless. The wife got furious about his "sick sense of humor".

We all cope with stress differently and this man's way though not exemplary, must have had its merits to him. Being able to keep his home weighs on his mind and the only way he knew to make light of his anxiety has been clamped shut. I feel for him and I am glad I don't have a mortgage payment to deal with myself.

For those of us who don't have the smarts to make sense of keyword rich articles on the subprime crisis such as this, MeFi has help at hand. This comic book style subprime primer is almost at my level of comprehension though I started to feel rather dizzy towards the end. If you happen to be an "audio-visual" kind of person then this YouTube video would prove most enlightening. The more I read and hear about these things, the more I am convinced that Stephen Leacock's financial wisdom is what would work best for me.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Hugging Limits

Being a somewhat paranoid parent, I find myself supporting the no more than two second hug rule - better still would be a complete ban on hugging at school. Growing up in a culture and time when hugging or kissing in school was not permissible, I don't recall our friendships having suffered for the lack of physical contact. We confided in our best friends both boy and girl. When someone was upset the rest of us comforted him or her - a lot of it was about empathy, talking and listening. It made for a bond of friendship that has stood the test of time.

A hug is a very comforting thing but one assumes the kids has the parents, siblings and other family to provide that essential emotional nurture. It does not need to come from classmates in school -if indeed classmates are standing in for a child's emotionally absent parents and family, that is a serious concern.

When kids have always been allowed to hug each other, it seems very unnatural for them to stop doing so just because they became teenagers. When such a ban hits them at fourteen, they are right to be outraged and protest. As for me, I have not waited for the school system to publish acceptable limits for public display of affection. From the time J started going to daycare, she has known not to hug anyone at anytime unless I have explicitly told her it is okay to do so.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Artists and Taxes

I was listening to this story on NPR on tax break for artists and it got me thinking about the many creative indeed "artistic" ways this could be misused. Talk about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. Surely, a work of art is worth much more than the time and material that goes into creating it and that must be factored into the tax break amount.

It does defy commonsense that the buyer of an artwork who donates it to a museum gets a tax break equivalent to the market price of the piece of art when the artist doing the same gets credit for little more than material plus labor.

There was talk of fair market value, independent assessment and such to make sure the system would not be gamed. Yet despite the checks and balances, it very well could be simply because the operating definitions of art and fair maket value are vague at best.

Would it not make more sense to create a micro-credit or even better micro-patronage system for artists that could stand in for the royal patronage that they could once count on. Maybe transfer the tax break to citizens who were willing to patronize an artist or an artistic guild.