Monday, October 29, 2018

Shesher Kobita

My mother had read Shesher Kobita out loud to me one summer back in my teens. The prose has the qualities that make it absolutely unforgettable. J is a year away from college and I thought it would be a nice rite of passage to give her the gift of Shesher Kobita. I found her a translation by Anindita Mukhopadhyay

I wish she would go easy on the introduction which runs a whopping twenty-six pages for a book that is under just two hundred pages. I started to read Mukhopadhyay's introduction with interest and by page ten I really wanted to get on with the program. She is well-intentioned in providing readers all the context and commentary they could need, but most of it should become self-evident to the reader as they read the story. For those who are strangers to Bengal and India as J is, it would take much more than twenty-six pages to provide them with a primer that is remotely useful in appreciating the life, times or work of Tagore. It was unclear to me who Mukhopadhyay was attempting to edify here.

Happily, she does justice to the translation. I could hear Tagore's amazingly lyrical Bengali prose play in my head as I read chapter one. I hope J will derive from it what I got decades ago. The cultural and social framework in which I was introduced to this book could not be more different than that of J's. Yet the universal questions about the nature of love and marriage transcend time and place. As she embarks into her own adult life, maybe she can find some wisdom from the story of Amit and Banya to help her along the way.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Demand Generation

I had an instructive encounter with marketing as practiced by small business recently. The shop in question does auto repairs and service. They have five-star reviews online from over a hundred customers and that gave me the confidence to contact them. When  I called, the friendly owner got some basic information to make sure she understood what I needed to be done and when. As the scheduling process got underway, she engaged me some more and got additional data points that clearly were aimed at building a customer database. I did have the option of declining to supply this extra information but professional curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to see what they would do with it. I was charged nothing for the diagnostics, provided a detailed report of what needed to be done and a cost estimate. My whole experience was positive and I would definitely recommend them anyone I know to use them for the same reasons I did.  

The next day, I received a Thank You email from their demand generation system. Cloud-based and tailored to serve the needs of small business, the system checks all boxes- pricing, ease of use, access to data and analytics and more. It is no wonder that this small shop had invested in such a solution. They were clearly doing a fine job of collecting data at new customer onboarding. Among other things there the Thank You email offered to connect me to their community of customers - I can see the value to that as well. Yet despite all this goodness all around, the first thing I did was to unsubscribe myself from the system. It's great for the small business if  I am an outlier in how I responded to their marketing efforts. The whole experience made me think about how difficult it is to strike the right chord with a diverse customer base for a small business lacking resources to solve this complex problem

Sunday, October 21, 2018


My good friend, A recommended that I read Nassim Taleb's Antifragile. And I made an effort because A is prodigiously well-read and I value his recommendations. But this one was very hard for me to read or like. I fared better with his The Bed of Procrustes. It was a nice and easy read for a good bit until I started to feel saturated and patronized by the author. 

Both books made me ask the question "And so what is the point ?" It seems like Taleb invited the reader to a Barmecide feast that was also an endless one. Instead of seven or ten courses this one has an infinity of them. Every dish is a work of art, described in meticulous detail. You can almost taste it but only almost because it is not real. You leave hungry and frustrated at some point but the feast is still being laid out in ether.

With both books I felt like I came into contact with something smart and potentially informative but I clearly did not have the wits to get the point or any value from my readings. It is not often a book has left me in this state of mind. The only wisdom I was able to glean from Antifragile was "The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has a simple heuristic. Never ask the doctor what you should do. Ask him what he would do if he were in your place. You would be surprised at the difference." 

I see some practical value to that one. The rest was well above my paygrade. It seems a person must take an IQ test before attempting to read this book with the aim of understanding any of it. I am not sure what the cut-off is but I clearly did not make it.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Kindergarten Teacher

Watched this wonderful movie a few days ago about a kindergarten teacher who goes a bit too far to nurture the talents of her precocious five year old student. Her degree of obsession with the kid is almost creepy but not impossible to understand. Lisa Spinelli, the kindergarten teacher wants to raise Mozart who is all but set to wither away to nothingness in his surroundings. She wishes to be the architect of his destiny, channel his genius for poetry. 

No one sees in Jimmy what she does - atleast not with the same ferocious intensity. There is no cause in her life quite as worthy, no vessel (including her own children) with the capacity to hold all she has to offer. And yet, things do not end well for Lisa and one can assume Jimmy never ends up being all that he had potential to be - because there is no Miss Spinelli to shine the floodlight on his talents. 

We have all seen a few kids in our lives who have amazing potential. Some we grew up with, others we saw alongside our own kids from a parent's vantage point. The tragedy of unrealized genius has touched many of us even if only at tangent. I could imagine Jimmy as a composite of every talented kid I have known that did not have anyone in their life recognize and champion it - in them there is the music that never got made, the stories that never got written, inventions that did not see light of day and businesses that never got founded. 

Every once in a while genius finds an unexpected conduit. My childhood friend who may have been great enough to be a Michelin star chef owns a small bake-shop, she creates spectacular pieces of art with fondant and makes a lot of people very happy. Lisa is called a dilettante not an artist by her poetry teacher in the movie - like it were an insult. Yet that is what it takes to nurture genius - being able to recognize the signs. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Coffee Break

C and I have worked together for going on four years now. A former marine, C is Mr. Dependable and the man to have on your team while being crushed by deadlines. He may not have a solution to everything but he will work tirelessly to help. Beyond that salient fact about him, I don't know much about him beyond the usual - where he lives, where his oldest goes to college, what his wife does for a living and so on. It is the stuff that has come up in conversations over the years. When your colleagues are geographically dispersed, it is hard to get a real sense of the personality from bits of mundane information like that. You know a person is a lot more complex and interesting than what little you know. 

Every once in a while there comes a little tidbit that really brings some real color. Yesterday, we had a quick call at the time I know C likes to grab a mid-morning coffee. If it is just to catch on projects we have been working on, this is the ideal time. He told me he was outside watching Monarch butterflies that appear this time of year where he lives. He talked about the wildflower garden he and his wife maintain in their yard and the assortment of birds that visit there; the declining numbers and unpredictable migration patterns over the years. I tried to imagine C as an avid naturalist and gardener, keeping track of insects, birds and bees he observes around him. In a strange way, seeing him in this light helped me better understand his work persona. The quirks of character that I puzzled over at time made a lot more sense. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Life Misspent

I last read Nirala (in Hindi) back in my high school days. Recently I read A Life Misspent, a novel too short to be an autobiography yet inspired by the author's life and times. Despite the limitations of English in being able to convey the bold flavors of Nirala's prose, the book is atmospheric. Some parts of it more than others. The early encounters between Nirala and Kulli Bhaat, who the book is about, conveys the tension that must have been present in the air. A young man whose own sexuality may still be evolving is drawn to Kulli who is rather unambiguous about his own. This leaves Nirala's feelings for his new bride in a conflicted place. This must have been a daring story to write back in the day. The societal backdrop against which the story unfolds has no room for such outliers. Kulli finds absolution in his work for the downtrodden that appears to mitigate his character "flaws" in the eyes of the community. 

Nirala's fate is much harder to decipher. He attaches himself to a good cause by way of Kulli almost as a way to escape the contradictions of his own life. The story ends with no resolution for the author and indeed if it traces the full arc of his life, the title of the book makes sense. By the same measure, so many human lives would be considered misspent. Where a person is not able to resolve their own identity or define their cause; to make up for it, they may choose to anchor to those who have fared better in defining themselves that purpose for which they live. To that end, a life lived by proxy could well be considered misspent even if it served good cause. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Fly On The Wall

I attended a cousin's wedding recently in Kolkata. Whatever marriage meant to this couple, there was no point to the ceremony other than for people to dress fancy and take an endless number of pictures. The bride herself went through half a dozen costume changes - each to mark a ritual of the traditional ceremony no one cared to follow. This wedding pantomime left me wondering if the relationship itself was any more than a joke. Reading about this wedding tourism startup left me even more bemused about a culture and people I no longer understand. 

In the western world, many are extremely curious about the "arranged marriage" and particularly how two strangers can just jump-start an intimate relationship on the night of their wedding. I cannot recall the number of times I have been asked questions on this very topic by people who are barely acquainted with me. To take things to a logical close then, the immersion into Indian culture would not be complete without a seat at the table to watch the consummation of an arranged marriage. If the money is good, would the wedding pantomime bring the show to the jasmine and tuberose be-decked bedchamber? The notions of privacy and propriety are antiquated anyway. If there is a fast buck to be made off of culture-curious voyeurs why not?

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Costco Dismay

I am a reluctant Costco shopper and not because they have done me any harm. The abundance has always made me nauseous and the passage of time has not diminished the symptoms. If anything my tolerance reduces with age. My most recent foray was particularly upsetting. Right upon entry, I saw a fantastic proliferation of smart and connected home devices. Google, Amazon, Nest et al had wares on display to help connect all parts of my house to my voice or touch so I could have even less use for my faculties. I am not sure I want to start down this slippery slope of having an assortment of big brothers being overzealous about simplifying our lives and routinely failing to protect data we so happily hand over to enable them "improve" and "optimize" how we live. There is the school of thought that online privacy never existed except in our imagination - we have been baring our souls to search engines for decades now. What more harm could we do by having our voice and touch interpreted by machines.

That said, if these appliances are mainstream enough to be showing up in Costco right next to the boxes of oranges, vitamins, shampoo, and socks then there is really no turning the clock back. This realization made my heart sink. I might well protest the internet and refuse to go online. It is a valid way of life but the limitations could be crippling if not life-threatening. I struggle to understand why such technology is not met with a lot more circumspection from just about everyone. It fills me with dread to think of a time when I have no choice in the business of being smart and connected, no choice about letting an assortment of devices listening in all around my home and place of work, no choice about where and how my data is used. It always starts with a make-believe choice and then comes a point when enough people opt-in. This is when the former choice turns into the default option. The voice of the customer was heard and addressed. Maybe this is how we get on the path to selling our collective human soul.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

No Dissent

Like many, I believed a relationship was shallow or even fake without a fair amount of healthy argument. There simply could not be continual blissful accord - if there was, the dreaded rot was setting in. Maybe one person has an outside interest and no longer cares enough to fight, maybe there is mutual apathy as both have given up. There is this notion that debate in a relationship is like a potter's wheel, which shapes things to make a more perfect union. In my own life, I have learned this is not true. I have found that discord arises from desire to change the other or have them accept a version of yourself they did not sign up to live with. 

Either way, both sides believe there is more the other could do to meet them half-way, accommodate, adjust or otherwise demonstrate willingness to compromise. However, there comes a time in a person's life when they have already argued everything out of their system, every dissent has been aired and heard and there is no desire left for more of what is unpleasant and unlikely to produce a resolution. They no longer desire to change or expect another to do so either. It is okay by then to indulge a point of view that is impossible to agree with and love the person holding that view all the same. It is perhaps okay to periodically catalog all the points of disagreement but not have discord. Being able to laugh at each other without being disrespectful goes a very long way as does empathy. There is always a reason a person holds a strong conviction even it is one that you totally disagree with. 

Watching the documentary RBG, brought these thoughts to mind when the discussion turned to Ginsburg's friendship with Scalia. What is possible and clearly rewarding in professional life is also true in personal life in my experience. If the friendship is real, the "arguments" can elevate to something that improves each person without in anyway impairing their love for each other.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Ghachar Ghochar

I am much too late to the Ghachar Ghochar party but I am so very glad I made it. Bangalore is a place of many memories for me. Some from early childhood and other from the time I first became an independent working woman. There is nostalgia from the later period is tinged with some unpleasant memories but the childhood stint is almost perfectly blissful. Such is the nature of very early life perhaps, a lot of aggravation is simply not felt. There is a bubble of happiness inside which a child can live largely untouched. In that sense I was very fortunate - I did have such a bubble for a few years of my life.

Shanbhag took me back to a long ago place and time. For the duration of my reading, I was in the narrator's house, a fly on the wall watching the family members deal with their assortment of issues fueled by the uneven balance of power in the household. The scenes from their lives painted with such realism that a reader can almost feel the ants crawling on the floor or hear the feuding between the ladies of the house. Each character is lovingly detailed to the point there is no single protagonist in the reader's mind. The story bears telling from each one's perspective. We hear from the narrator but we could also have heard from Vincent or Malati or Chitra.

The story is like a perfectly made cup of chai, served on a winter's day. It brings a hint of spice along with much-needed warmth and comfort. The ending which I won't reveal here left me craving for my next cup. I used to be fluent in Kanada once so I can tell that Srinath Perur did justice with the translation. The feeling of the language was largely preserved which is not an easy thing to pull off while rendering flowing English prose. I can't wait to read the next thing that this duo will send the way for their readership.