Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Remembering K. Balachander

K. Balachander meant many things to many folks. First and foremost he was a wonderful storyteller and a director par excellence. He was also a social commentator who tackled such diverse and controversial topics as prostitution, political corruption, sexual infidelity and cross generational romance. He was a stickler for detail, down to the last cobweb, as he recreated real life on screen to transport the audience into his world and his stories. In the
kollywood of yesterday where dialogues were predictable, characters were stereotypical and song and dance sequences and cameo actors carried a film, he brought nuanced dialogues, de-glamorised the protagonists by infusing them with complexity and conflict and brought out the acting talent in all. He was the thinking person's filmmaker and yet through his sheer genius he became populist quite like Woody Allen, also extremely prolific and versatile as the latter. He made the transition to TV quite seamlessly and gained even wider appeal through this medium.

I felt a peculiar closeness to him for two tangential reasons. One, he bore a striking physical resemblance to my dad. There have been occasions when my dad received a celebrity's reception, when, mistaken for KB, he was escorted to a front row seat at an event. Two, my father and he wrote to each other over several years. My father who could not accept anything but the best from KB was quick to point out flaws in his work through long eloquent letters. To KB's credit he responded to each one in great detail giving as good as he got. Even though the letters smacked of egotism and his desire to be right, they spoke to his enduring passion for storytelling and film-making.

Time to go back and watch his films starting with my most favourite "Thaneer Thaneer" - where a villager famously describes the plight of people in his drought ridden village with the words "k**ndi kazhava kooda thanni illai" ( no water to even wash one's a*se"") - pretty refreshing and controversial for celluloid of his era!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Remembering my dad on Dec 4, 2014

My dad died ten years ago, today. I remember him for the wonderful man he was. He is still my guiding light and if I am well and happy it is because I believe his hand and caring continue to guide me, as do the principles he lived by.

Everyone looked up to my dad for his liberal views, scrupulous honesty and civic mindedness. He raised a poor young boy, Thiraviam, with the same love and caring as his own children. He abhorred inequality based on caste and gender. He did however struggle with his conditioned responses to maintain an image for the world. While, he may not have totally embraced us going against the grain and marrying across caste lines, he was open-minded enough to reflect on his conflicts.

When it came to honesty, he was never conflicted. He never told a lie and would not take anything that he believed he did not rightfully earn. He never twisted facts or rationalised to suit his purpose. I still remember the many gift hampers he would turn away from the door every Diwali. Among the elite set in Mumbai it is customary for wealthy patrons of the banks to ply Managers with gift hampers. I don’t ever recall seeing what one contained because they never made it through our door.

And boy was he civic minded! Every day there was a letter to this or that authority, about a pothole, an open transmission line and some such safety hazard or suggestions for more streamlined operations of some administrative branch or a damning commentary on some activity that ripped off the consumer!

During his last days, he lost interest in his favourite pass-times, reading the newspaper and balancing his cheque book! However, his values remained. I still recall the moment when he clutched my hand and said “Konthe (baby) always keep your word!”

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday reflections 15 - Playing the confidence game!

Through law school I found law students and lawyers to be a different breed. They were incredibly, sharp, well read and, often arrogant and abnoxious. I used to be terribly intimidated by them. I may have been as smart as the next person but was still new to Canada and did not understand the cultural context well enough. I was not good at reading cues and never could tell what people thought of me and my skills. The process of constantly guessing kept me in a perpetual state of high anxiety and stress. I could have just asked people but did not have the confidence to, thinking they would perceive me as unsmart. Anyway that was me.

During my articling year, a senior lawyer assigned me a motion to file in court. This was my first one. I was too intimidated to ask her how I would go about doing it and so did my reading of the procedural rules, prepared the papers taking great pains and filed it in court. We had three weeks to the motion date, when she asked me for the file. I meekly handed it to her, unsure of what I had done. I will never forget what happened next. She threw the file at me and went on a rant about how I had filed in the wrong court and had ruined her reputation as a competent lawyer before the Judge, given it was her name on the record. It turned out that there was a minor exception in the procedural rules which I had overlooked. For all I know she could have set me up to fail! Anyway, I broke into tears right there and began to sob uncontrollably, profusely apologizing like a blubbering idiot. I was ready to give up the law, my three plus years of study and all the sacrifices, then and there.

As a trainee lawyer, I had a lawyer mentor Scot, who saw this drama and who asked me into his office. I will never forget his advice and to this day carry it with me. He said, "we all make mistakes. However, you can mitigate its impact on yourself by displaying confidence".
The first rule is to never put yourself at the mercy of the other person in terms of how they make you you feel. Second rule, you take back control by saying - "I am sorry this happened but here is what I am going to do to fix it" because there is never a mistake that cannot be fixed with some effort and time. Third rule, if you are dealing with a reasonable person, they will sense your sincerity and agree and if they are not reasonable, your confidence should not suffer as a result - it is their problem. Needless to say these lessons hold good for all aspects of our lives.

There is a postscript to this story. This lawyer, who had given every one of us students a hard time, actually got very emotional and shed a tear when I went to say goodbye to her at the end of my articles. I am sure from remorse, thinking that she had emotionally scarred me. Thankfully, she had not. But what she had done, inadvertently, was taught me to play the confidence game. I stopped getting down on myself for mistakes I made. I looked for solutions. I also learnt to treat people who reported to me with dignity, to never intimidate, to always be available to support, mentor and coach knowing that the leader in each of us blossoms in the right environment. One, where we can all be happily challenged to perform, thrive and grow.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Outlet mall America

Outlet malls in America depress me. Don't get me wrong. I like a good bargain at the Coach store as much as the next person. I find great deals and usually do my serious annual shopping for essentials such as boots and coats there. The difference in price makes it all worthwhile.

Then why am I hit with melancholy every time I visit one? Well they show me a slice of American life which makes me really sad. A dystopian reality, which would have made for great science fiction a la Wall-E, 50 years ago. This is especially true of north eastern communities bordering Canada.

These malls are usually in the middle of nowhere. They are made up of independent stores and hence lack the artificial cozy fuzziness of a shopping mall where all shoppers co-exist as a community, at least for a time. So you necessarily have to walk outside irrespective of the weather as you enter and exit stores. There sometimes are lineups outside storefronts when incredible sales are on offer. As when you can get a signature handbag originally priced at $400 for $100. And these are legitimate offers for great goods. Having said that, these outlets are for the serious shopper in that you need a sense of purpose unlike in a mall where window shopping makes for an idle pass time within a comfortable cocoon of music, warmth and good cheer. Here shoppers go from store to store lugging huge bags, while making frequent trips to their SUVs to deposit their "steals".

So what's wrong with any of this? Nothing really - except it speaks of a lifestyle where big corporations warehouse stuff in the middle of nowhere and people buy things not necessarily because they need them but to live the impossible dream of beautiful people that inhabit the tabloids in supermarket isles. Or to kill boredom or to honour the ritual of buying gifts for Christmas or chocolates for Valentines or costumes for Halloween or to just plain buy. Do all these people really need all the stuff that is peddled in the malls? Probably not.

But I am most upset when I see the people who shop there and the young sales clerks who attend to them. They are all incredibly unfit and big. I don't really know the social communities they inhabit. But I can only imagine that travelling anywhere out of a hundred mile radius would cost money and take courage for those who never have ventured forth. Some of the sales clerks we met admitted not knowing anything about exchange rates, not having travelled anywhere. In the small communities that surround these malls there are few pass-times except the great outdoors and most people it would appear, do not get off their couch to experience it. I see them trapped in a world defined by the internet, sports TV, hamburger joints and these malls. Wonder what the future holds for them? Do the corporations really care? They only do care that they have people to keep in minimum wage jobs and people to buy their goods. They would rather not have these folks get off the couch, travel far, engage in active pursuits and learn to think critically? The State does not appear to care either given its interest in preserving the capitalist ideal at all costs. It is wilfully blind to the fact that trickle-down economics does not pay the huge college fees that may elevate the lives and social statuses of some of these folks. It should care given that taxes go into state funded medicine. It should also know that state funded education for the young would create a more stable and secure society than money spent on weapons of mass destruction. Well, I hear politicians talk about abortion rights and gay marriage, politically charged topics, but none really has articulated the problem of America's young and the dreadful future that awaits them. When no one seems to care – why do I care so much? I am having a serious rethink about shopping at these malls!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Our annual pilgrimage to Pittsburgh

Every year we make the trip to the SV Temple in Pittsburgh, PA. Usually in November. There are over a hundred temples in Toronto and yet we undertake the 5 hour drive to Monroeville as an annual ritual. We set out on Saturday a.m. with a packed picnic. We stop mid-way in Angola, New Year, for our refreshment and health break and then proceed through the familiar route to arrive in the afternoon. The drive is usually pleasant on roads that are wide open and tree lined. At this time no leaves remain and their starkness is a brilliant contrast against the varied colours of the sun which paints the sky in beautiful hues of pink. There is something incredibly gorgeous about the northern sky in clear winter weather. Yesterday we had some light snow and then brilliant sun which lulled me into a nice nap as the husband drove. Our drive is usually quite meditative, spent listening to Carnatic music. I also centre myself and focus on the present and sensations as they arise and pass. This calming of the mind makes for great peace throughout the weekend and especially at the tail-end spent at the Grove City outlet mall, where I only pick up what I absolutely need!

Monroeville is a nice little part of Pittsburgh, bustling with stores, restaurants and, as locale of the impressive University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre and the SV Temple, draws crowds from far and wide.
We always stay at the Holiday Inn which is comfortable and familiar

What is this temple's lure? It's North America's answer to Tirupathi, perched as it is on a hillock, the path to it dipping and rising. They follow the same traditions in their chanting of the Sahasranamam in Sanskrit and of verses of the Divya Prabandham in Tamil. I love the Tamil chants rendered by the priest in his beautiful singing voice. I am just transported to another place and time. I can remain there for hours. When Carnatic musician T.V. Sankaranarayanan stayed with us during several of his North American tours, each time he would sit in front of our altar and sing virruttams in chaste Tamil from the Divya Prabandham. All my associations with this form of prayer are quite wonderful.

The other attraction at the temple is their prasadam. They have piping hot sambar rice or pongal varieties at the end of each puja. The portions are generous and the food quite delicious. In the basement cafeteria they sell puliyodharai, curd rice, pongal and uppuma really cheap and everyone makes a beeline for it to pack a picnic for the return trip.

It's a great time for us all in all in that it's a nice road trip, a time away from our weekend routine when we calmly discuss important matters that impact our lives and surrender our insecurities as we turn our minds to experiencing something beyond our immediate comprehension - this call to our own divinity.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Taking a page from Keynes

In the news today we saw China flexing its military arm showing off its fighter aircraft while Obama is on a visit there. CNN carried the story to allege that the Chinese manufacturers had copied US design. Then the reporter tangentially ventured into talk about cyber warfare and how the Chinese had hacked into US weather systems recently. China is now gaining on the US to establish its supremacy globally.

Given how we are all so interdependent, such news is troubling. The end result is millions spent on an arms race and on cyber security. Tax dollars which should be educating our youth, feeding our poor, heck, stimulating our economy and providing jobs with infra structure spending are being poured into endeavours that assuage our fears. Is this the world we want. Why have we visioned our world based on these power structures and hierarchies? Could there not be a rethink? After all, we need each other. I sound like a naive bleeding heart oversimplifying our complex world but I think not. We need a groundswell of opinion for a world of open exchange. What would this look like?

I can illustrate with a small example, taking a page from Keynes whose economic theories are all the vogue right now because of his prescience. In 1944 close to his death, at age 62, Keynes proposed an International Clearing Union that would keep trade and investment in rough balance. Debtor countries would have to repay loans of course but creditor countries would have a role to play in that they would give their debtors breathing space by buying more of their products and services. So if this were to exist today, the Germans would be holidaying in Greece and Portugal and buying their wine from them. The Germans need wine and holidays so does it not make sense for them to help their debtor nation than to get it elsewhere? Sadly Keynes' idea lost out and instead we got the IMF providing aid to nations to meet balance payments and the World Bank to provide aid for development. We do not have the financial infrastructure to restore balance to global trade and investment, one that is based on sound international cooperation which identifies our obligations to each other for our collective good.

Keynes could have been talking about everything in our present world when he wrote in the 1930s "we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time- perhaps a long time."

Monday, November 10, 2014

The zen art of listenting

My daughter who is distraught over the results of the election, as most whom I know are, said to me,"mom I feel devastated. Brexit and now this? I am frightened as I go over scenarios in my mind of what's yet to unfold". Normal reaction. I said to her "you have to stop thinking like an MBA and be present without interpretation. You will then act when needed, and in the most unselfish ways". I harked back to a time when I had an opinion about everything and wanted above all to be heard. Slowly I realized that most people were like me just talking at each other. It was a contest of who had the most clever things to say. No one was actually listening or processing since we were all thinking about what to say next and how to outsmart the next person. The election campaign we saw is a case in point. The contestants are not wholly to blame. We have come to respect rhetoric and sound bytes, fuelled by our media's quest for ratings. We do not value authenticity. We want posturing, pretence and power talk.

A few years ago, I read somewhere about the zen art of listening and decided to practice it. Every time I had an impulse I stopped and gave myself the cue to listen instead. Wow what a difference it made. The ego had been quietened. The speaker had my attention. I waited to offer my thoughts if they added value or were solicited. Miraculously I felt heard and found that I was effective. I realize now that represents a microcosm of how the wise among us live. They do not want to grasp or possess anything. They have no fear of losing anything - as life flows through them. Note this does not mean they don't change things. Their very presence in a non ego state does. But they wait for life to unfold, always attentive and observant. They wait for the right moment, to express a thought, write a piece, argue a point. They do not react violently from a place of judgement but listen attentively and remain curiously engaged without self interest. This sounds like an easy thing to do - but is actually excruciating for the uninitiated and unpractised. Especially under present circumstances. I find myself reacting from deep conditioning and habit patterns. I am fuelling my hate with assumptions and judgement that my limited faculties conjure up. I have to stop reacting and respond from a place of silence and intuition, while not letting the behaviour of others destroy my inner peace (Dalai Lama). It is time for a shift change. Mind you this does not mean remaining complacent and passive. But it also does not mean being aggressive and opinionated. It means being still and acting with grace towards higher goals in unselfish ways. That is my advise to my daughter as well!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Violent Sex and the Matter of Consent

I am a fan of Q and of Jian Ghomeshi and was quite disturbed by the news surrounding his departure from the CBC on grounds of sexual assault of several women, with whom he alleges he engaged in consensual BDSM acts, for the duration of his personal relationship with each of them. As a public figure, his private life is of interest to all and so whether or not criminal charges are called for here, CBC has a reputation to guard and did what they believed they needed to do. However, this incident raises some important issues that are worth pondering.

Does Jian really believe that consent is infinite? It is likely that at the specific point in time, when the individuals consented to rough acts of sex, they were not fully aware of what it is they were consenting to.

Many years ago when I worked at the Crown Attorney’s office, we prosecuted a case of aggravated sexual assault. A conservative Iraqi woman who was married with three kids was sexually assaulted in a park, while on a church picnic, by a member of her own parish. The perpetrator then threatened to reveal the details of this incident to the community if she did not go to his house to engage in sexual acts with him. At that time, the law did not recognise extortion through verbal threats as vitiating consent. In other words, the law said, if she had gone to his house, notwithstanding her fear of reputational damage, she had gone willingly. When she went for the first time, the perpetrator secretly video- taped their sexual acts and threatened to make the tapes public. Given the nature of these new threats, she felt she could not turn to anyone and went to his place several times. Finally, she bucked up the courage to speak to her husband and with his support reported the matter to the Police. That’s how we got to prosecute it. So how did we crack this one? I worked with a brilliant Assistant Crown named Dave Fisher and he argued in court that while she may have gone consensually, at some point that consent had stopped. This was at the precise point when the perpetrator had used violence to overcome her resistance to him. We won and the perpetrator was suitably convicted on grounds of aggravated sexual assault and put away for several years.

In this instance, the women may have stopped consenting to Jian at some point, in which case there are grounds for criminal charges to be brought against him. The women will have to come forward and report the matter to the Police. So potentially, he faces jail time.

If, as Jian alleges, all sexual acts were purely consensual and there were frequent check- ins around the escalating acts of BDSM and this was someone crying foul when he decided to dump them, then we have another issue to ponder. Are these women, who legally consented to the sexual acts, being opportunistic and using the pretext of sexual violence to take revenge? Given my work in the violence against women field for over 25 years now, I fear such a tactic will take away from the credible experiences of all those women who genuinely face abuse and terror every day in the hands of their intimate partners.

Yet another issue that concerns me is if Jian is a victim of racialized stereotypes. As an Iranian Muslim it would be quite easy to isolate him as an outsider, more than if he was a member of mainstream communities. I have a healthy skepticism here, given my ringside view over the years of how folks from some communities are more easily criminalised than others. I love the CBC and do hope this is not a case of presumption of guilt, but a finding of fault, following a rigorous investigation of the facts. Otherwise, I am sad to say the CBC is being both spineless and hypocritical!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Have you faced a disappointment recently? Some thoughts..

Have you faced a disappointment recently? These thoughts that occurred to me might help?

Every time life throws a curve ball we bemoan the unfairness of it all. If only things could have been different? Our constant preoccupation with how things could have/ should have been takes us away from us being in the present. I want something badly. Why do I want it? Well it will give me great sensations, stroke my ego, provide me that perfect symmetry so life can go as I ordered it or just because I want something different from the present. In other words, I want all of those things because I am discontented with things as they are. But that discontent is not inherent in the things but with MY state of being. What if I decided instead that I will be happy in the present and not postpone happiness for when something happens? What would I have to do for this to be true?

- Be grateful and happy now
- Be focussed and do my best in the moment
- Know fully well that everything other than the present moment is a projection of my insecurities and desires and NOT the true state of how things would be if they happened – because with my discontented mind I will find reasons to be unhappy then too
- Be forgiving of myself if I am moody or depressed – but observe and allow those feelings to pass
- Do not put off happiness for something to happen – if I had the perfect job or the perfect whatever I will be happy – will I really?
- Be willing to let go. Of material things. Of grudges and dislikes. Of negativity. Of insecurities.
- Be willing to take risks without fearing disappointments, knowing what I do– make the transitions – life will open up a whole new set of possibilities better than I ever imagined. I am greater than my thoughts and my limited mind.
- Above all, Remind yourself - I will not overthink – but will just be, just do and move on to the next experience and the next and allow life to surprise me with its rich bounty. I will be joyful.
- Remind yourself also - I will allow all those sensations of pain to pass. Be present and not be dragged down by the past.
- Be pleasant and kind with everyone no matter what – I can change myself and the world of people, who have disappointed me, with my kindness.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Thanksgiving thoughts

One of my favourite contemporary books is Michael Crichton's Timeline. It is about multiverses and time travel between them. I realise that in Toronto people occupy multiverses in the same era.

This is our Canadian thanksgiving weekend. There are as many events and expressions of thanks, as there are people. I use the radio as my litmus test. Until a few years ago, the week leading up would be replete with tips on cooking turkey. Psychologists would offer advice on gatherings in dysfunctional families, on negotiating relationships and maintaining civility on that one day. There would be tips for those who had no one to spend the day with. Everywhere I turned, talk would be about the joy and travails of cooking that much loved and feared meat. I have never tasted it but have it on good authority that it is fibrous and only as good or as bad as the ingredients that are stuffed into it. Of course the hooch that is imbibed prior to the turkey being eaten, probably takes the edge off.

I do not hear too much of that any more. People love having the Monday off to congregate with family and friends over dim sum or a barbecue, offering prayers at their gurudwaras or temples or spending alone time just driving into the country to enjoy the early fall colours. In my office alone, we have over 20 different cultures represented and they each have their own expression of the holiday and turkey only figures in some. I hear a lot of stories about people opening their doors for a meal to complete strangers, Canada's newcomers, in true pioneering spirit. So the traditional gathering which was somewhat exclusive is now acceptably inclusive. I hark back to a time when our daughter felt odd person out because we did not celebrate traditional thanksgiving at home like the rest of her schoolmates!

I will be enjoying a simple South Indian potluck buffet with close friends, following a study group of a Sanskrit text. But like everyone else, I will turn my mind in gratitude to the bounty that is my life in a wonderful country whose peoples' warmth and good cheer thaws the coldest of days! So turkey or no turkey Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A suburban life

The suburban life

We were driving in the pouring rain along a treeless highway with pale yellow lights on one side and transmission lines on the other side. The roads were slick and the head lights of the other cars the only evidence of life around us. We came off the highway after what seemed like an infinity within the confines of our vehicle, aware of the bland uniformity of our collective isolation in these cars that transported us from one structured cocoon to another. Everything was orderly and predictable to the point of being dystopic. Then out of the blue in the middle of vast stretches of barren land, tantamount to nothingness, were a rash of structures - soon to be town houses.

Soon they will confine within their flimsy walls and creaking boards families from countries afar who have sought refuge here. From where to where and to what? These folks can ill afford homes closer to the inner city which they will rarely experience. But they will probably also never get to know their neighbours or their local communities as they wake up before dawn to drive down those highways to earn paycheques that will help them keep their homes, so they can come home to defrost a meal cooked over the weekend following mandatory groceries and chores. Between keeping the body fed and the children in classes that they may never appreciate they live with the sole ambition of justifying that journey from afar. Their kids must do better than them. So they will herd their reluctant kids in their cars to structured recreation in an effort to keep them, at least for a few moments, away from the lure of electronic devices. No time for chit chat or conversation. A mechanical life lived with the belief that kids will grow up accomplished. Never mind that they will grow up without a sense of community, of connectedness to a place, a distinct culture or identity - rudderless at best and sociopathic at worst. Is this the society we want? Is this the community we need to nourish our souls?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Silences between the sounds - U. Srinivas

Music plays a very significant role in the social construction of my reality. So I can only imagine what it must have been for the greatest musician of all time, U. Srinivas. Even his dying moments must have been gloriously suffused with the music that emanated from every pore of his being. It must have elevated him from the hopelessness of his physical condition. Hopefully in those moments he had vivid fantasies of creating a lengthy and complex ballad and playing it on the world stage for uproarious commendation. As his life seeped out, he was released from the petty and irrelevant acts that surrounded his life which found him in a bitter divorce battle for over two decades. Such wasted energy that could have been channeled into his glorious music. Given his genius, I know he was not an architect of this acrimony but merely a helpless pawn in the happenings of his life.
As I go about my mundane middle class life trapped in the mediocrity of my thoughts, the question that keeps popping up “is today the day when the music died?” And then in an epiphany it came to me. Mandolin’s greatness was not in the sounds he made with his instrument, but in the silences between those sounds. Today he became that silence, evaporating into the music that he has created and left behind.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

America America

America America

As I sojourn in India my true love - I am nostalgic for America the ideal which is no more. Here are my musings!

I remember going to watch a screening of the CLIO awards at the USIS 35 years ago. I could not believe that there actually were awards for films that sold products and how everyone and everything looked so healthy and wholesome in the featured ads! I spent many hours trolling books to fulfill my fascination of this ideal world. I watched ancient sitcoms that came on the one TV channel we had in India, lapped up their rock and roll and, of course, Hollywood! There was an affluent world out there which appeared perfect with its beautiful people, manicured lawns, massive cars. thick cut slices of bread, creamy milk in glass bottles and blood red tomatoes. They made perfect objects that would last forever and promised equality of opportunity for all. A generation of us lapped up all things American and yearned to set foot on her soil.

My first real encounter with all things American was in Singapore when my husband took his blushing bride to Shakey's Pizza. I was fascinated with the menu and the decor but could not bring myself to enjoy the pie with its foul smelling cheese toppings. To my uninitiated nose cheese smelt like milk gone bad. However, I ate it believing that if this was American food it had to be good! Then came the Macdonald's experience, where I first encountered super sizes in food. I could not fathom how anyone could down a barrel of those immensely sweet shakes? I don't know if I relished the French fries and Apple pie because of their taste or because I was officially a participant in the American cultural experience.

My first trip to the US in the late 80s was an "eye popping" experience. I realized that the super size at MacDonalds was not an anomaly. Everything here was simply and incomprehensibly larger than life. I soon realized that the massive cars, houses, roads, buildings and malls embodied the aspirations and vision of America daring to out perform the human mind's ability to dream and conjure up a reality of abundance, invincibility and opportunity. Anything was possible here. Even though I only visited from neighbouring Canada, I bought into that ideal as did immigrants to the country, developing its business houses and it's educational brain trusts culminating in its present culture of innovation.

However, America is a social experiment with a high price. An experiment built upon a racialised society with a history of institutionalised racism. An experiment with high ideals reliant on the capitalist ethic to achieve them. And for a while it seemed like the good times would last forever. Alas, capitalism had a few plans of its own. Simply put, a bottomless hunger for natural resources brought on by a culture of obsolescence where everyday calls for something new and different to enhance the human experience in pursuit of cash, creativity and choice. This meant preserving a lifestyle by interfering in the sovereignty of other nation states which had resources it needed or which felt threatened by its ideology, respectively. It soon developed a dark side. A stratified society meant frustration for those facing barriers to achieve its ideals, while the red carpet went to the Rockfeller home? Drugs, guns, gangs, and attacks by outsiders began to plague this beautiful nation of baseball and apple pie giving birth to many Americas, the good the bad and the ugly! It began falling victim to its own smokescreen of an aspirational lifestyle!

I love America and Americans. I love it's "can do" attitude, it's over the top abundance and everything that attracted me to it in the first place! I am therefore sad to see this wonderful nation a trillion dollars in debt as a result of its arms programs and support of wars that preserve its currency and oil interests. It's sad to see it become the laughing stock as an unsustainable society of excesses. Where there is no credible public transport and gas for SUVs is subsidized. Where food is cheap and obesity associated health problems are driving up per capita spending and lowering productivity. Where the radical right is gaining ground as the salvation to right the wrongs of the state. Where the divide between rich and poor is growing daily.

What America needs to do is to let go of its self delusion and see itself in all its complexity. It needs to take a good hard look and redefine itself as a nation capable of self reflection that names it's issues, defines them and addresses them in its characteristically innovative and systematic way. Go America!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Chennai experiences - Arumugam an everyday hero!

Arumugam's (not his real name) skin is the colour of burnished teak. In the sun it glistens a deep brown and there is a hint of red. He has a mop of grey hair. He carries his compact body with quiet strength in his security uniform. He has a ready gap toothed smile, high cheek bones and even features. All in all unremarkable, put pleasant up close and personal. He minds the doors at the entrance of Ward G. Downstairs are the operating theatres and ICU and upstairs the individual rooms - standard, premium and deluxe. My m in law is recovering here after knee surgery. This is a small hospital in the heart of Chennai, managed by Catholic nuns. It has a reputation for its cleanliness, orderless and good patient care. Several prominent Consultant Physicians have their patients registered here. Also, as private healthcare goes, it is more affordable than most.

Given its location and prominence, and the need to maintain it pristine, the hospital is very strict about visiting hours. It is Arumugam's job to watch the door and to ensure people have an attender or a diet pass. The attender is someone who stays at the hospital with the patient and the diet pass is used by those who deliver food for the patients from their homes. The hospital does have a diet kitchen, however patients are allowed to have food brought in from home.

Arumugam sits on a plastic chair from 1 in the afternoon to 10 pm rising for doctors and other hospital professionals. The heat along the corridor is oppressive . The fan over his head in perpetual motion, gives him limited relief. Orderlies and cleaning staff, ie people at or beneath his station stop by and exchange pleasantries with him. Some folks like my husband press some money into his hands. Not so bad a job except the pay is modest. He is luckier than most.

So what is extraordinary about this human being who sits all day long on a chair policing the entrance? Nothing really - except the effort he has to make everyday to provide for his family. Nothing other than the fact that he is beginning to represent the urban poor.

Call me inquisitive. I have to stop and enquire after people's lives. I choose an opportune moment when he greets me with renewed zeal as I enter the hospital with my sister one evening. Her dental clinic adjoins a medical lab and Arumugam has a part-time job there washing lab equipment containing human effluents and chemicals. A tough job where he could potentially be exposed to virulent infections, given standards in this country.

As he escorts us to my m in law's room up the elevator I have found out part of his life story to have the rest filled in by my sister. He finishes work every week night at 10 pm. He cannot afford public transport and rides his bike for an hour and a half to get to his home in a distant suburban slum, the only place he can afford a place. It's only then that he eats dinner. It is 1 by the time he hits the sack, exhausted. The next morning he is on the road by 9, in peak heat, travelling 2 hours through traffic to put in a couple of hours, at the lab, before start of shift at 1. He gets one day off on which he takes up random cleaning jobs at people's homes.

Arumugam has two grown children. His son thirty is an alcoholic and constantly lying drunk somewhere and his daughter married to a man with alcohol and money problems. He comes home to stories about daily calamities that involve creditors, brawls, police and medical emergencies given the precariousness of his children's lives. Even Polyanna would have struggled to remain optimistic. I would definitely have forgotten to smile, to be gracious and pleasant. But Arumugam is the epitome of dignity, equanimity and cheerfulness.

How do Arumugam and the millions like him whose life is an endless road of abject poverty and desperation, despite all their extraordinary efforts to keep their mind, body and pride intact, sustain day after day? What is it about their spirit that keeps them buoyed up with enthusiasm to face another day of extreme physical and emotional hardship. What is that threshold and how can each of us raise our tolerance to take on a little more everyday. Till I talked to Arumugam, I saw Chennai as a chaotic place characterized by disorder, assymmetry and dirt everywhere. I had this extraordinary urge to shake people up and awaken them to the squalor of their living conditions. That evening everything changed. I see each person here as a hero triumphing under extraordinary odds. I now see the need to accept, be curious, raise the bar for my softened body and to help where I can!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Just another day

It's early. Amma is talking to me as I do Pranayama. The door bell rings and there is a sharp tap on the door. Not the characteristic knocks or rings of the folk that stream in and out of Amma's house every morning. The maid could be heard washing dishes in the kitchen uncaring of the water situation and the need to conserve. Folks who collect the garbage everyday came in later. The milk had been delivered at 6:00. So who dared ring the bell at 6:45 am? This was still too early for anyone else, even for India where there are no strict protocols regarding intrusions from prying neighbours. Amma was at the door before I could find my feet from my seated cross legged pose. I saw the watchman's tanned and calloused hand on the locked grill door. In a gruff voice he muttered something that was barely audible. Amma received the news with matter of fact calm. Immediately our phone rang and she picked it up. My sister was on her routine early morning call which she made as she took her walk near her house a few km away. "The watchman just came and said, Padma's husband passed away last night" my mother said. Just like that. It was bright and sunny outside. The birds were chirping and the trees were lit with flowers in bright reds and yellows. The sky was smog free and a magnificent blue. Due to our location, five minutes from the beach, the ocean air hung heavy with a salty humidity. A street vendor passed by shouting out his wares. Below the balcony, on the street, I could hear bicycles and two-wheelers go by and people shuffle along to their daily routines. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Just another morning.

Amma got off the phone and elaborated that his wife Padma had been present yesterday at the flag hoisting, one of several dressed in the same lilac saree that they sport as a uniform to salute our nation on patriotic occasions. She had not let on that anything was amiss. Amma had seen Padma's husband, a handsome man with even features, walking just a few days ago. Padma and Amma have known each other for over 20 years as neighbours living in the same colony and were part of the Palmgrove Ladies Club whose members meet every month to break bread, share, go on trips, play bingo and raise money for charitable causes. A few of its members have passed and several of the survivors have lost their husbands in recent times. Exactly 10 years ago these women had come to our house on my father's passing. I remember now that it had also been a bright and sunny morning in December. Appa had been sick for 2 months. He had wanted his privacy so no one knew. In September he was on his regular walks and in December, following a diagnosis and rapid deterioration, he was gone. I am sure news of his death would have been unexpected. But that day for them, when our lives had turned upside down, must have seemed like just another morning.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sit Still and Observe

I have been in the dark hole of a depressive state and then discovered a way of coming out to never go back. What did I do? More to the point is, what did I not do?

Some of you may not have even experienced it. Others may have gone through it following a life event - a failure or a death. Yet others may have had mood swings bringing on highs and lows. But the kind I am speaking of is that feeling of utter despondence, for no apparent reason. A feeling of being trapped in a dark space with no way out. That feeling which is accompanied by a churning in the pit of one's stomach, a dryness in the throat and a sense of a downward spiral into a deep abyss which swallows one whole. Nothing anyone says can change things. There is an utter loss of hope and a feeling of being trapped in one's mind with no escape.

So how then did I escape? Especially when my mind, the very instrument that must see itself for what it is - sick - was debilitated. How was I to use this mind, which was filtering through a distorted world view, to come out of this state? There in lay the rub.

The first step then was to actually, and not just intellectually, know that my mind was dragging me down. The next step was to know that I had the power in me to stop my mind from doing that. But how? How to stop those thoughts and feelings of despair?

In this state, it is natural for people to seek escape routes which numb the mind. They are pharmaceutical drugs or illicit ones, including alcohol. Other more legitimate methods are prayer, chanting or other similar repetitive rituals. I took no drugs, legal or illegal, but did try prayer, chanting and rituals. They helped - but to a point. I could escape for short periods to only have the boogeyman return in full force when I stopped.

Clearly, I needed a permanent solution. I could not stop the thoughts and mind. What recourse did I have then? Fortuitously I came upon J.Krishnamurthi (J.K,) whose pronouncement "the thought is not the thing described" resonated. Then came the epiphany - I could stop reacting to these thoughts based on my accumulated worldly knowledge and conditioning? But that was easier said than done. Not reacting to my thoughts and mind? In other words, allowing my thoughts to flow freely without having them impact me on a physical or emotional level? So rather than escape from, shut out, deny or drown in the experience I had to become a neutral observer of my mind and experiences?

I began to do just that. Initially it was awful. I recognized that I had actually not experienced the full force of my depressive state since I had never before remained alert and vigilant in every moment. Now that I was, the pain was unbearable. Negative thoughts incessantly rose to the top. I could not eat, sleep even breathe (sometimes). I was ready to give up. With J. K. as my guiding light I persisted.

Slowly and miraculously change began to happen. The mind began to quieten. The thoughts which brought on the depressive state did not come with such force. The physical sensations associated with those thoughts lost their vigour as I stopped reacting to them. Several months later, I was still heavy and serious. But not so sad any more. The more mindful I became, the more I began to realize the transience of all experiences. Soon I began to seize every moment and to rejoice in my experiences. I began to fully know that anytime I fell back into the abyss I would just have to ride the wave. There was no more a fear of the depressive thoughts or the sense of urgency to escape them. The dissociation between the thought and sensation began to happen. Now even if thoughts surfaced accompanied by painful sensations they passed quickly without a trace or memory and when they returned, they did so with much less rigour. There is no more lingering sadness and despair - there is just a recognition of the cycle of life, the dance of the universe and the ability to realize that no experience happy or sad is permanent - it just is.

What I did not do was intellectualize or analyze the problem. I did not look for causal connections. My approach was (and is) non linear. I realized that to allow the mind to find a solution would be tantamount to setting a mad elephant on a destructive path. I needed to quieten the beast to transcend its hold over my state of being.

For me, it has been 25 years and counting of living mindfully. So everyone out there - seek help for sure. Don't go it alone but ultimately know that the only permanent answer as Peter Coyote, a Zen Buddhist priest, has said in his reflection following the death of Robin Williams is to "Sit Still and Observe".

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ah! Incredible India!

For our annual trip to Chennai, we decided to take Jet Airways via Delhi. The husband convinced me that our 8 hour lay-over in Delhi would be spent in a lounge and therefore would not be unbearable. I immediately had visions of beds, comforters, hot showers and milk white towels. So we arrived in Delhi collected our bags, cleared customs and immigration and re-checked our bags for our domestic flight to Chennai, fortifying ourselves for the long haul before our flight. The walk through the airport to fulfill all these tasks enabled us to meet our daily fitness quota of steps ( just saying!). What we did not need to compound this trek was plush carpeting which created sufficient resistance for our 10 lb hand baggage to make it weigh all of 10 lbs as we dragged it over said carpet! Do we really need carpeting in a hot and dusty country which is not exactly known for stellar standards of hygiene? Only in Incredible India!

At the Jet Airways counter the staff member taking our bags pronounced that all lounges in the departure area were closed since no flights took off at night. But there were recliners! Not having eaten any of our meals on the plane, we were famished and somewhat deflated at the prospect of spending a long cold night in the empty departure lounge. Suku, thank God, discounted what this young man had said knowing that it is commonplace for people to speak authoritatively about something they know nothing about - in Incredible India! Also he was determined to locate the lounge and to open it if he had to.

So we sailed through security and found our bright and shiny lounge open and serving a dinner buffet. Not my fantasy lounge, but comfortable enough! We ate little since it was nearing midnight and we did not know how long the cooked dishes had been sitting on those warmers. All fresh salads were off limits given our paranoia over the water used to wash them, notwithstanding the locale. We then settled on our sofas. However sleep eluded what with the bright lights and the TVs all around that would not go off. When I finally dozed off for an hour, I was woken by the blare of loudspeakers in the airport relaying religious Sikh music of the Gurudwara Rahi singers - at any other hour of the day I would have been impressed. This would only happen in Incredible India!

At 4:30 am, famished, we made a beeline when they laid out the delightful breakfast spread. We filled our plates with idlis, 2 varieties of chutney and a bowl of piping hot sambar ( which tasted more like samburr), went back for paratha and a bowl of flavourful aloo baaji and yet again for finger sandwiches reminiscent of the colonial era. There was no room for fresh fruit, pancakes, eggs, toast, cereal or cookies. I downed a steaming hot latte over my titillated tongue just for that satisfying sooth of the hot liquid on the tingling tongue, brought on by the spicy food . Wait - was that a tiny critter on the plush carpet? Incredible India!

Ready and refreshed for the last leg of our journey to our Chennai destination, we started outside the lounge when the young girl making the announcements in her cheery voice at that early hour urged us to continue relaxing in the lounge till she announced the departure of our flight. Such customer service! We then walked through the massive airport with its atrium, shiny shops, restaurants conjuring up Indian street foods - pav baaji, chaat papri, a shop that peddled divinity, alongside another that sold wine and thought - only in Incredible India!

As we stepped off the airport in Chennai we noticed kitty corner, abutting it and without even a road separating the two, the familiar red and white stripes of a temple. Zoning? What's that? People rushed in and out with streaks of ash and vermilion on their foreheads, in bare feet, a beatific smile on their faces, uncaring of the heat, humidity, construction waste surrounding this recently opened airport. An attitude of curious smugness and self sufficiency, brought on by religiosity in the middle of chaos and squalor? That's the Incredible Indian!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Living with purpose

We are connected more than ever before. Our access to information increases exponentially everyday, presenting us with more options to experience the material world. Ironically, the more choices we have, the greater our fragmentation, experience of a lack purpose and of social alienation.

Ultimately, this has to do with validation of our relevance in this cosmos, which is hard for the human mind to decipher because of its evolving complexity. I don't think anyone is spared this affliction. Not even the great inventors and entrepreneurs. This is why Bill Gates has a foundation post his Microsoft career and most folks who have achieved all that they can, materially, turn to philanthropy as a way of finding meaning. Ok not Donald Trump - whose relevance is derived from immortalizing himself with his name on structures that deface the urban landscape. But you get my point! The irony of it is that we all believe that we are uniquely tortured by our "seeking". The truth is far from it. We ALL experience certainty only in the present. And unless we are grounded in a place that is independent of the ever changing material world, we are constantly insecure in our experience of "purposelessness". So then how do we cope? We can simply redefine purpose to not be of the mind but of a place where there is silence from the chatter of thought and ego. That stillness we experience within when we are suspended in space and time - in a manner of speaking! Here are some simple thoughts ( yes, of the mind but of living beyond!)

1.Purpose is incremental. It's being alert and attentive in everyday things.
2. Purpose does not have to be grand and large. It's the little acts of kindness everyday. One selfless act. One kind and forgiving thought even about yourself.
3. Purpose is not in the doing but in the being. It's having a vision of the life you want and going about your every day tasks attentively and with an open mind.
4. Purpose is not willing things to happen but allowing them to happen.
5. Purpose is accepting things as they are without trying to change things. In that state of "non conflict" change will come.
6. Purpose is being genuine, authentic and real.
7. Purpose is being compassionate with yourself and others.
8. Purpose is having the conviction to speak for yourself, what's real for you in the moment and never second guessing yourself once you are done.
9. Purpose is being grateful everyday and in every moment.
10. Above all purpose is the dynamic and evolving relatedness between yourself and the universe

Friday, June 20, 2014

India's education debacle - "counselling" is code for corruption!

Today marked the culmination of high drama. It always is when it comes to matters of admission to educational institutions in India. Let me start at the beginning. I got to know that a young man who had scored very high marks in his 12th grade had been called for "counselling' to an Engg College in Tamil Nadu. The college shall remain unnamed. I will just say that it has a good reputation among employers like Tata Consultancy Services. Anyway this boy's parents being very poor could not afford to pay for his education, which would therefore have remained a pipe dream. Enter my mother. In a conversation with the boy's family she found out about the boy's intellect and his passion to pursue engineering and casually mentioned this to me over the phone in our daily conversation. Coincidentally, a friend in the States, had spoken to me the day before about wanting to be a benefactor of deserving kids who needed financial help for their education. Connecting the dots I immediately contacted him and he promptly despatched the initial payment which the boy would have to make after seat allotment which would follow a "counselling" interview. So the young man set out to this out of town college, a spring in his step and joy in his heart. When he arrived there he got a sucker punch. He was told his prospect for a seat was bleak and of one in his field of choice even bleaker. He was despondent. Turns out people had come in and bought seats with large sums of money. The word "counselling" is used as a ploy to auction seats off to the highest bidder. He could not insist on a seat since his call letter only mentioned the possibility of seat allotment after a counselling interview. He waited and waited while the high rollers walked away with seats in the plum branches. He saw his chances dwindling. He had near perfect marks and the money to pay his fees - but sadly that was not going to do. An innocent young boy who could ill afford to even travel out of his city woke up in a day to the cruelty and corruption of this world.

Happily the story ended well for him today. Desperate, he called my sister, who somehow tracked down a board member of this college, who is a patient of hers, even as she kept the boy's spirits up insisting that he stick around and persist. After 4 days of anguish, he got his admission today, in the only course that was left. Needless to say that was not his first choice! Phew the army of people rooting for him heaved a collective sigh! He will be first person to go to university from his family. But can you imagine the plight of other young boys and girls who do not have the support he received? Most poor children cannot even get this far without paying huge fees for coaching schools and tutorials to prep them for high scores in the 12th exams. They have to be exceptionally bright like this young man. And even after that there are few guarantees. How demotivating for these bright young minds! How can social mobility and income redistribution occur with all these inequities, compounded by corruption of the worst order?

A few of us, including the benefactor in this story, want to help more bright young girls and boys in India who wish to pursue post secondary education and cannot afford it. If you know of people who could use this sort of help do let me know!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

India and Nagesh Kukunoor movies

I have watched three Nagesh Kukunoor movies over the last 2 weeks. I began with the critically acclaimed "Iqbal", then went for his maiden effort "Hyderabad Blues" and just this past weekend, watched "Mod". I cannot say they are over the top remarkable - but they definitely entertain, and convey some deep social messages. They also resonate with his love for India. In the wake of the Modi victory, I find myself caught up in the wave, eager with hope for transformation, and also in the mood for movies that show the little guy/girl triumphing over social ills simply by doing the right thing! Yes, I am an optimist!

I relate well to Kukunoor's neo liberal world view which he has acquired in the West, along with a quirky American accent that involves much rolling of the "r"s. An apt accent for the protagonist of "Hyderabad Blues", in which he plays the lead, a US returned young man who marries an Indian doctor to live happily ever after - well, almost! I cannot help but feel that the character is Kukunoor all the way, particularly when he espouses his intolerance for sexual misconduct with a utilitarian "don't bring your libido to work", rather than with moral outrage. It is also Kukunoor in his incarnation as director, who gives us the particularly endearing scene where one of the characters in the film comes out as "gay". Even though the movie lacks the finesse of his later ones, it is redeemed by its engaging dialogues, great acting and wonderful character development. It shows life in India through the eyes of an NRI who has returned home, and not an unpleasant one, albeit minor irritants in the form of noise pollution and meddle-some parents. He portrays well, the conviviality among old friends, and a wonderful sense of the familiar in the chaos that is an urban metropolis in India today.

Iqbal was my favourite of the three. The story of a poor disabled boy, who by the sheer dint of his raw talent defies all odds to gain a berth on the Indian cricket team, is vintage David and Goliath. The qualities that elevate it from being run of the mill are, its setting in a rural locale that is not overly romanticised, its strong female characters and it's handling of disability with considerable grace. Parallel triumphs, that include a fallen hero's sweet vindication following his rise from a life of addiction, add to the movie's excitement and lustre.

I liked Mod for a completely different set of reasons. It also deals with disability of a different kind and touches on the bane of alcoholism. However, it's the lush setting of the story in "Ganga", the mythical Indian hill station town, that makes it so wonderfully appealing. So pleasing is the natural beauty of the place and the simplicity of life in that stupendously romantic self- contained locale, far from the madding crowds, that one wants to escape to it, riding around on a bike and breathing in the fresh mountain air. There is a tremendous leap of faith in how that story ends. But hope springs eternal and if life can be visioned so the Universe conspires to make that vision happen, a la Secret, another Kukunoor belief (?), then so be it.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Goldman Sachs and youth crime?

Human trafficking, both sex and labour, youth crime, drug abuse and domestic violence are major social problems that undermine the fabric of a healthy society. The problems often run deep, are multi- faceted and have multiple causes. How do we tackle them? None of these issues make for profitable ventures. On the other hand, they drain the public purse while only providing band aid solutions. Or so we thought. But that's only because the incentives to address and eliminate these problems have not been properly aligned.

Ok so I start a non profit to deal with domestic violence. I approach the government for a grant. The government turns around and says I can give you xx dollars a year to operate your shelter and maybe even a capital fund. I am ecstatic and go about setting up the shelter. Soon I realize what the government gives me to operate is not enough and cannot pay for me to expand to meet a growing need for shelter beds. What do I do? I go for fundraising activities which sap me of the resources I need to run the programs that will move women into self sufficiency with safety planning, vocational training, legal help, job and housing search. I create an excellent project plan and apply for a grant - once again from government, maybe another level, branch or department? But none is forthcoming. What do I do? Just have the shelter be a conduit for the money the government gives me, bringing no value addition, where the same women keep coming back to the shelter to seek refuge because I have not offered them permanent solutions? What good will that do?

Now let's imagine Goldman Sachs wants to invest in my shelter. Notice I used the word "invest" not donate. What would their return be? Well they would get a good name for sure and the satisfaction (maybe?) that they are doing good. Now imagine they pose a challenge to my shelter to double the number of women moved to permanent housing, over the course of 1 year for an investment of $100,000 - just to keep the Math simple. Say it costs $10,000 a month for 10 women at $1000 per woman per month. Now say the average stay at the shelter is 2 months. With programming I have cut the stay in half and doubled the shelter's capacity now housing 120 women over 12 months where I had previously housed 60. In essence I have achieved a cost savings for the government of $120,000 by doubling shelter's capacity over the 12 month period. Now, the government will pay back Goldman its investment and the additional cost savings it achieved. The government and tax payer will get away without having assumed the risk of the investment and my shelter will have doubled its capacity and can now invite more investment from Goldman and others to repeat the feat and engage in more innovative programming that achieves similar cost savings! Of course if I had not achieved what I had set out to do and the status quo had continued then the government would have saved nothing and well Goldman would have not have recouped its investment, but just received a percentage of interest on its bond - nothing else.

I did not pick the Goldman name at random. It actually has recently invested 9 million into the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative which is helping Roca, a local nonprofit, do aggressive outreach, offer education, cognitive therapy and job training to young men involved in crime. Participants leave the two year program with a job, career plan and get two years of follow up. The state could save over $45000 per inmate per year. A dramatic drop in recidivism will mean a bumper for Goldman which will cash in on its investment. These vehicles have come to be known as Social Impact Bonds or SIBs. UK entrepreneur Ronald Cohen pioneered these SIBs through his firm Apax Partners. They have just taken root in the US and are also all the rage in Canada.

SIBs work if the causes can actually demonstrate calculable returns. They get money for NPOs, taxpayers are off the hook for unsuccessful ventures and private capital gets to do good. Now what could possibly be wrong with that? At MCIS we help refugees and immigrants who speak limited English/French move out of homeless shelters into permanent housing providing language services. There is an opportunity for a SIB investor right there. Any takers?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sunday reflections 14 - Lessons for Uttara and Sergey

Sergey Brin a la Google should have the world at his feet. And yet he was willing to risk his marriage, reputation, his relationship with Larry Page and potentially his stature at the company for a whit of a woman - Amanda Rosenberg? Oh wait and he competed with another senior Google employee, Hugo Barra of the Android devices team, for her attention, going so far as to prematurely announce the latter's planned departure from the company? Something did not add up. So I caught up with a recent issue of Vanity Fair for the full scoop of why men and women act as they do? They have a plausible theory for his apparent craziness.

Sergey's wife, from whom he is now separated, runs a gene testing company. She tested him for the Parkinson's gene, given his mother's diagnosis in 1999 and, voila, found that he carried the mutation, thereby running a 50% chance of contracting it within the next 10 years. She quickly patented the gene to profit from the royalties of a potential cure. However, for Sergey, this was a wake up call to his own mortality. He now gave himself carte blanche to do what he wanted. Already dubbed the "Enlightment Man" for his zeal to organise the world's information and make it accessible to all, he now went a step further. Google X, the entity set up for outlandish innovations including Google Glass and self-driven cars, may not have seen the light of day but for his predeliction? He presides over the ultimate "cool" at Google, leaving the day to day slog of its operations to Page.

So what's the point of this story? How powerful our sense of mortality is in determining how we live today? Partly. But more to the point how we single pointedly rationalize our actions or find scapegoats in order to give meaning to our fears, unpleasant thoughts and sensations without even recognizing that we are doing this? We are ruled by them. So $30 billion notwithstanding Sergey's preoccupation is to beat the odds against Parkinson's. That as a constant theme determines what he does. It may have even become the organising principle behind his lofty goals for Google X. Nothing wrong with that. That we would rationalize our actions around certain themes in our lives is simple to understand. But the trickier part is where we look for scapegoats. Here we attribute our negative sensations to the world around with the immediate reaction that we deserve better than we have.

The only department where Sergey really "could" do better was to change his diaper-daddy role for that of a hot young stud. How else, when everything was going swimmingly? Enter Amanda Rosenberg a waif of a girl with a mercurial temper. His boring personal life was the scapegoat. Oddly enough, this realisation came to me when Uttara called to tell me she was having a bad day at work. I know that she loves everything about her life in England. The only thing she has little control over, which she can blame when she feels "off" is her job. I asked her questions based on which I made her realize, if she continues on the path of finding something to blame, for how she felt, she would look to change her job rather than herself. Too bad I could not ask Sergey similar questions, given accounts that he is remorseful for the mess he has made. Simply put, think of all the aggravation we can save ourselves if we stop looking for reasons to rationalize fear and pain and also stop reacting to them? Accepting everything without wanting to change things is not about being complacent. It is about de-linking thought from feeling. What we experience as physical pain and sensation is real but the thoughts associated with them are not..

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday reflections 13 - Dear Mr. Harper

Dear Mr. Harper

Last week, my organisation, MCIS Language Services successfully launched an online training to address human trafficking, a project completed under the auspices of the Ministry of the Attorney General for Ontario. We featured as our guest speaker a woman who has survived being trafficked. She is born and raised Canadian and contrary to the popular myth that women are trafficked from overseas for sexual exploitation, most trafficking is domestic and a significant percentage for economic gain.

Our guest's experiences fit the elements of the Criminal Code definition for the crime. What were they, you ask? Well, her captors induced and trapped her with a range of illegal drugs and used her subsequent dependency to force her into illegal acts from which they profited, not her. However, the police apprehended and charged her. She alone suffered criminal prosecution and spent jail time. Upon her release, when she tried to resist her captors, they drugged, beat and raped her, also threatening her child's life. After all that she had to endure, it is amazing that she is even alive to tell her story, not to mention quite intelligent and articulate.

Her sister had accompanied her to our event, and I sat chatting with them to experience a slice of Canada that was foreign to me. They are both from smaller towns west of Toronto, London and Brantford, respectively. I was deeply disturbed listening to them as I am sure you will be.

I found out that Brantford, a small town of 90.000 people has 3 methadone clinics. That it's downtown is a wasteland of people getting high. That opiates, crack cocaine, heroin, crystal meth (ice) are the drugs of choice. That the problem is so bad that the police are overwhelmed with requests to investigate drug related charges and just cannot keep up. That Children's Aid does not remove from their homes, babies who are neglected due to their mother's addiction issues, unless the police investigate for criminality, which they do not having become so accustomed to the cycle of people just reoffending. Who can blame them? They are frustrated and don't really see an end in sight? So enforcement is clearly not the answer?

In these societies we are talking generations of substance abuse. Both of these women spoke about the family in which they were raised. Their father and his siblings all suffered from addiction and related mental health problems. The sister told us that they lived in a society where the lure of crack cocaine exists in the space between the methadone clinic and her car. As her husband stepped out of the clinic there was a dealer waiting to get him before he could get to her car.

Isn't it sad that young men and women are preoccupied with getting high or with their struggle to stay sober? Isn't it tragic that our future generations are following this path with parents who tumble in and out of addiction and co- dependencies?

Our speaker, in her early forties, is graduating from a college program and entering University, obviously with a helping hand from the government. She is very bright and articulate and hopefully will make something of herself. However, this is a tough economy and I have no assurance that individuals like her can follow the course of a substance free life given the dysfunction they live amidst.

So how Mr. Harper are you going to help the town of Brantford and the hundred others like it across Canada? How are the people here going to become contributing members leveraging their intelligence and creativity to make something of themselves and of Canada? What can we do to multiply our tax dollars to get people to hope and dream big than to drown themselves in pain and despair numbing opiates?

I am most concerned about the kids. They certainly did not bargain for this life where parents and grandparents struggle with substance abuse and poverty. How can we give them a break so they come out of that vicious cycle that has trapped generations? How can we create their new normal?

I don't have a definitive answer. However, there are many inspirational models. South of the border is the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) where Geoffrey Canada (yes that is indeed his last name and he has been featured as one of the top 50 leaders in the world in a recent issue of Fortune) it's President and CEO has, over the past 2 decades, successfully tackled decades of similar decline from drugs and poverty with a business like approach in Harlem, New York. The New York Times Magazine has hailed this "one of the greatest social experiments of our time". Rather than have a charity do this as with HCZ, can your government and the local governments conduct an experiment even in one small community?

So not limiting it to just schools and education, it would go something like this. You would give amnesty to people for their petty drug related criminal activity, support them out of addiction, provide one on one support to the most vulnerable, set up vocational, recreational, fitness, spiritual and arts programs? Then focus on following kids on their educational path. Here you do not have to create anything new, just renew and reengineer existing educational and social services institutions to make them more impactful, tying dollars to results? Join hands with social enterprises to set up incubators for creative business ventures and subsidize on the job training and employment opportunities offered by them to local community members. Have a business school take it on as a cause célèbre to track successes and failures to create models to be replicated in other communities. I do think creative expression and enterprise are the only answer, don't you? When the model is replicated all over Canada, it will grow on its own momentum with less and less government support, don't you see? And Canada will set a shining example for all the world?

As a lawyer I know this is an issue for local governments to tackle. However, given its domino effect on all matters federal, not to mention it's impact on our country's future, don't you think you need to work with the other levels of government by making them accountable to deliver on your vision?

Let your government earn the reputation for laying the groundwork for a society where all achieve and thrive? Also think of all the money you will be saving and of the problems like domestic human trafficking that you will be addressing?

Let's talk?


Friday, April 4, 2014

A close encounter of a most beautiful kind!

I am in beautiful Alcala de Henares, Spain, 45 minutes from Madrid by train and the oldest University town in the world, built in the 1500s based on the vision of the brilliant Cardinal Jiminez de Cisneros . My experience tonight was nothing short of magical, as we walked the cobble stone streets, the foundation laid down by the Romans 2000 years ago, on which this city was built. Walking under a deep blue moonlit sky on a beautiful spring evening, my colleague and friend Veronica and I were transported to another era by a very quiet and gentle Spanish man, our guide on this night.

It all started in the cafeteria at lunch time when the waiter pointed to a middle aged man at another table who wanted to buy us coffee when he had heard we were from Canada. We were surprised and charmed. He was a regular guy in his late 50s with glasses, grey hair and a stocky form. Nothing remarkable. Then the waiter brought over this man's folder and pointed to a newspaper clipping. Two killed in a landslide in Alberta, Canada. One of them his daughter. Just two weeks ago. What heartbreak! We approached him through a beautiful young Spanish interpreter, our friend's daughter Doris, and offered our condolences. He reciprocated by inviting us on a tour of his city where he has been a policeman for 36 years! So at 8:30 p.m at the end of the day's conference proceedings, we met him on the grounds of the well-lit University, with our young interpreter. Thus started an enchanted evening with him taking us on a walking tour of this historic city. He regaled us with stories of the place's history and peoples who had occupied it - the Muslims, Jews and Christians showing us how the quarters that had housed them were clearly demarcated with symbols, the menorah, the crescent moon and the cross! We were awestruck by the architecture of those spaces and tenements, the summer and winter palaces, both museums now, the ancient courtyards and squares. We took pictures everywhere including beside the sculptures of the magnificent Cervantes, commemorated to this day with a literary prize in his name, handed out later this month to a writer of a Spanish work, by the King Juan Carlos on the premises of this very University. I remembered fondly excerpts from the classic Don Quixote that I had read as a child and realized happily that I was in the place where that great work had been authored.

Our friend Angel interspersed his tour with titbits about his deceased daughter. That she had been employed as an engineer and had just moved to Canada 5 months ago to work in the oil and gas industry. That she had previously worked as a tour guide in this very town and he felt closer to her as he took us around and played our guide.

Our tour included a peek inside the Town Hall and Council Chamber, not open to the public, and a viewing of exquisite paintings that those walls had on display!

Time flew by and we realized we were hungry because it was past 10 p.m. We were then feted with a delicious Spanish meal at a local haunt, where we were welcomed like house guests. After a quick exchange between our guide and the restauranteur, the beautiful waitress piled our table with an exquisite array of dishes - salads, croquettes, egg preparations, bread, cheese and the freshest olives I have ever tasted. It was a communal meal where we shared everything, digging in with our forks!

As we sat there utterly content after our delicious meal, our friend drew out a woman's wallet to pay for the meal and placed on our table the IDs and credit cards of a beautiful young woman who no longer had any need for them. We listened as he showed us her equestrian pictures on his smart phone and as he, with considerable restraint, whispered in a quiet voice that he had just buried her, less than a week ago, last Saturday.

It was close to midnight when he dropped us off at our hotel, offering to take us to other sites over the next couple of days and to the airport, on Sunday!

And of course, he made us promise we would come back with our families and give him a call! We would not have to worry about a thing, he assured us! We thanked him profusely for his kindness and generosity and he responded, "it's you I have to thank for this privilege." Of course I couldn't understand why!

We went to bed with sadness in our hearts but overwhelmed with the beauty of the place and the sheer experience of profound humanity that had pervaded that evening!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Travel tales - the Uber experience of a Toronto Mami

I read about Uber's revenue model in the latest issue of the Economist, in Uttara's house, and serendipitously ask her about it. She has used the service and we decide to book my airport ride, for my flight to Madrid, through Uber. I love the idea of a broker that auctions the service to the lowest bidder. The result - rates are impacted by volume surges, simple principle of supply and demand. I also like that the service is available at any time of the day or night provided you are willing to pay the price. Why would drivers not show up any time when they get to keep 80% of the fare? Being just a click away on a smart phone, I hear Uber is all the rage everywhere, including with Mylapore mamis in Chennai, India! Why should this Toronto mami be the exception?!!

That the service operates outside the regime of regulation is it's only downside. However, it appears it's benefits far outweigh any associated risks. Uttara and her friends swear by Uber and I decide to take the proverbial leap. I realize with some excitement that I am about to participate in a quiet revolution that is fundamentally altering how we live. An overhaul of the taxi industry is long overdue both for consumers and drivers. The state's role in regulating it, especially in an era of GPS devices, is anachronistic.

It is past midnight and we use an online service called "" to do the booking. This, I am told, is like Expedia. It searches for and gets you the best cab deal. So the Uber model already has local competitors. My preference is for Uber since the company has branded itself well as a quality service with polite and punctual drivers. Uber's reliance on customer ratings of every ride ensures the use of a dynamic and interactive service model that drives quality and responsiveness. I cannot believe that it was going to cost me just 28 lbs to get to Heathrow from St.John's Woods, a good 50 minutes by road through normal traffic. Contrast this with taking the Heathrow Express, hauling my suitcase up and down stairs and on and off the tube and the express train, not to mention the 7 minute walk to the tube station, at a cumulative monetary cost of 20 lbs, in addition to the wear and tear sustained by my middle-aged body. Contrast this also with the marked black cab, which would have cost me well over a 100 lbs, burning a hole in my pocket book

It's 11 a.m. and my car is due any minute. Since old habits die hard I wait with some trepidation. It all seems too good to be true. I am told via Uttara's mobile that I am to look out for a silver Mercedes. It's all very surreptitious. Finally, after what seems like an aeon, I see the car. It has no visible signs of a cab. Uttara, who is at her office, tracks its approach on her phone and confirms. It is just five minutes late. The driver is a young Bangladeshi with a British accent. I ask him about his Uber experience. He says to me that he straddles both worlds. He extols the virtues of using a local cab company and picks that as his personal preference. I sense that he quietly drives for Uber to get on the bandwagon, where to fully resist would mean watching his business being cannibalised. But he is loyal to his roots - at least for the time being. London city has 5000 Uber drivers with several being added everyday. This wave may even give public transit here a moment of pause. For eg, why would anyone ride the Heathrow Express?! As usual I engage in chit chat and find out that he has jam packed days with rides from these "private deals" He has invested in land and a business spawning fish eggs in Bangladesh. He does well on his income supporting his wife, two children and with a chronically ill father. We arrive at Heathrow and I hand him 30 lbs. He carries my bag to the curb and reaches into his pocket for change - I ask him to keep the 2 lbs still filled with disbelief over the amazing value for money this experience has been! It was indeed an Uber special experience!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sunday reflections 12- On the lighter side!

There is competing to be first and then there is the other kind. I am sure you have done it and can relate. But can you guess? Ok here is a hint. It is a competition you have with people at home, generally your spouse. Still no clue? Here is another hint. It is competing to not be the last one to do certain things so you can escape doing other things. Come on you know what I am talking about. How often have you cursed when staring down an empty tube of paste? Tell me you have not squeezed the last of the shampoo in the bottle or bitten on the toothpaste cube to get the final remnants out, so you are not burdened with replacing it? Here's another one - pressing down the garbage so you don't have to replace the bag?

It's not because you need to fetch these items from the store. Not that. It's having spares in the cupboard, but not bothering to retrieve or not wanting to step out of the shower to take item out of the bathroom shelf or cupboard when you realize with irritation your spouse did not bother to replace after him. It's one of those things I dare not complain about because - not only will I be accused of being the pot that called the kettle black, but also will have thrown at me random statements to the effect "And who buys them every time? When was the last time you did?" All of which is rightful and will require me to bite back, for the sake of peace and harmony "but you won't replace an empty bottle or tube in the bathroom - never ,,,you will just wait for me to...however long it takes...what's the use of stocking all this stuff when there is none when you or I reach for it?"

About two weeks ago, I decided to change the rules of the game. I did not replace the body gel but decided to use a combination of baking soda and a natural product from Lush, both anathema to the significant other who loves the traditional soap with lots of foam. I wanted to see if the bottle would be replaced. And two days passed and still nothing. The bath gel bottle was by now nice and shiny, so thoroughly had it been cleaned out for the last remnants of soap, and this, after two long showers everyday! Given his very high standards of personal hygiene I grew suspicious and was wondering, horror of horror, if he had been using my expensive shampoo as a soap substitute? To rescue my shampoo, I immediately capitulated and replaced the bath gel. I then confronted him with my accusation. He turned and giving me an incredulous look and said "Why would I use shampoo in the place of soap? I am actually using that disgusting soap you have there." He might as well have said "check-mate" since he had gotten me to give in and replenish his gel.

Any lessons learnt? Only that if you are with someone as lazy as you are, just know that they will outsmart you in ways you never believed they could to put off doing the work - every time! How do I know this so well? Because I make my clean underwear outlast his so as not to be the one to take on laundry. So who has the last laugh now?!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sunday reflections 11 - Finding that sweet spot

Uttara was at her MBA school alum meet (Tuck at Dartmouth) in Verbier, Switzerland recently. There were alum from the 70s to the present day, but a relatively small group. Most were super rich, white and mostly male. The exception being the three of them from her class. Being at the bottom of the totem pole and of modest means, they were hosted at the home of one of the alum who just happened to be a billionaire. His was an opulent 14 bedroom chalet with 3 elevators, pools and jacuzzis, liveried help and ski off and on in the famous and tony Verbier ski resort, the residence and training ground of the world's premier skiers. Uttara was surprised at how her group members were all super athletic, skiing down 3000 metre glaciers and even attempting ski jumps. She said to me "mom I was the worst of the lot, but with their pedigree they must have been skiing since they were toddlers". When I asked her about her host, she relayed that his grandfather had made his money in insurance which the grandson had then parlayed into business ventures and real estate investments in the coolest places around the world. Having put their four kids in the world's premier boarding schools, he and his wife divided their time between their homes on islands and cities worldwide, besides sojourning at the homes of Buffet (which they said was "comfortable") and Gates ( which they said was "magnificent"). Uttara made particular mention of the wife's 16 carat diamond ring. "However", she remarked, "they are pretty disconnected from how you and I live", and then she asked me "do you think they really happier than us?" and she added "it did not appear to me that they were? " "Well" I said "I have not really met anyone face to face who is that wealthy, but do believe it is all about finding that sweet spot where you actually know what you want, and have the financial ability to exercise that choice?”.

After that conversation I read an article in Bloomberg on the movement to increase the minimum wage in America from $7.25 per hour. Obama has suggested the magic number of $10.10. The libertarians who believe in doing away with minimum wage altogether are arguing that businesses will do better and employment numbers will be higher if wages are lower and people get paid what they are worth. They go so far as to say that in such a regime, people with low intellectual ability will also find work at $2.00 an hour. What this does not take into account is how much money one needs, to live. According to an MIT study the living wage in San Francisco is an ideal $26 per hour. A cleaning woman who makes $8 per hour is at about a third of that wage. She needs two full time jobs to eat and have a roof over her head, albeit under unsafe conditions. She cannot afford to fall sick and has to live in a perpetual state of anxiety about paying bills and staying afloat, while ensuring her kids, if she has them, stay out of trouble. This woman, I thought, will have greater difficulty finding that sweet spot provided by the choice that money can engender.

As for me, a conflicted middle class entity, I secretly covet wealth but am burdened with guilt over my secret desire when I know that a lot of it will come out of perpetuating the disparity between the super- rich and the desperate. So where is my sweet spot? From a sense of superiority over the thought that wealth is morally suspect, comes at the cost of exploitation and will get us into a state of depravity and apathy? Just saying..

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sunday reflections 10 - Glamorous dezi girl?

I distinctly remember the evening I returned from watching a matinee show of “Aap ki Kasam”. We lived in sleepy Trivandrum at that time and Mumbai seemed aeons away. I experienced deep melancholy as I came down from the “high” of the movie. There seemed such a great divide between the actual lives of Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz and poor little inconsequential me. I remember looking down at my cotton dress and Hawai slippers wondering how life could be so unfair. Little did I know that the demystification and democratisation process would happen in my life- time. Or that Bollywood's ubiquitous quality would make it a choice noun/adjective in many languages, spicing up our lives and adding colour to it in so many ways.

So its no wonder Indian weddings are the stuff of Hindi movies. Readily available and mass produced quasi- designer clothes make us all look like heroines and the parties mimic movie sets replete with the glitz and glamour of beautiful people in their authentic Indian haute couture. Long gone are the benign wedding scenes where we wore silk sarees, repeating over and over the maroons and mustards for the wedding ceremony and the more daring blues and greens for the evening reception. Now our fabrics range from Tussar silks to rich velvets embroidered with expensive crystals and semi -precious gems. The outfits are imaginative and range from dresses and Ghagra Cholis to Sarees with a twist. No one wears sterile blouses airhostess-style with the back fully covered and a respectable high V-neck in the front. All the vogue are halters with the back and arms naked, off shoulder creations with one sleeve and blouses tenuously held together with strings knotted at the back. Accessories include armlets, chokers and hair ornaments that defy the imagination. Also, older women dress much younger making for great homogeneity in clothes between the young and the old. Having thus adorned themselves these beautiful women are ready to take on the dance floor to gyrate to the latest Bollywood hits for an eye popping spectacle. There are no dance parties today without the more recent “Bathameezi Dil” or “Chu nanana chu nanana” or vintage “Om Shanti Om”. Then there are the bhangra numbers and remixes set to a fast beat. Everyone knows the lyrics of the songs. As they lip sync and imitate Prabhudeva or Farrah Khan dance- moves, they look pretty authentic. Who knew life could imitate art in such fashion and Bollywood could fuel the imagination in this way.

Augmenting the celebrity experience are mobile devices which come with high-end cameras and immediate upload capability. So every wedding party has a post celebration twitter hashtag to crowd source all the pictures taken by the cameras around the room. Also, there is no telling where these photos will surface. Published on blogs and social media they could go viral just because they tickle an idiosyncratic fancy of an ADD challenged public. Long after the fad has faded the pictures remain. Bottom-line, the investment in all the finery is well worthwhile because memories no longer languish in a fraying photo album at the bride’s parents’ home. They are now dynamically available to be immortalised in technicolour and shared infinitesimal times to all and sundry.

I am sure with a twitter following of real people and zombies, appropriate hashtags to commemorate events and topics, picture uploads, we can all mimic the lives of the people we would have idolised in yesteryears. Who said we are not all celebrities? Tweet me at #glamorousdezigirl to find out more!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Sunday reflections 9 - The art of storytelling

Cartoon by Uttara Sukumar, Year 2000 (or so)

It is Oscar night and although I am indifferent to award shows, I love the movies and love a good story. But the best kind are the ones I share in person. Both my parents were great at sharing them. And more than myths and fables from ancient Hindu epics, we grew up listening to family stories. Amma's always had a feminist theme about oppressed women's subversive acts in the little village of Sattanadapuram, Tanjore, where she grew up. There was always a moral about showing courage and forbearance to triumph in the end. It featured women who slaved at home making and selling pappads while their husbands squandered away their manhood in their mistress' homes. Amma never minced her words. She embellished for effect, delivered with punchlines often reducing us to tears and rousing our passion to take arms in solidarity with women-kind. No story was too adult for us. I knew about sexual molestation of widows in joint families and the taboo topic of marital rape early in my teens.

Appa on the other hand had goofy stories which had us in splits. I really could not get enough of his sleepwalking misadventures, his near drowning experiences and his embarrassment over emoting as heroes did in the movies, when he was asked to sing film songs in public. There were always tales about men who over-ate at weddings, uncles who failed exams and went to great lengths to hide the fact at home only to have some busybody break the news in front of all and sundry, sibling ribbing and rivalry. They were coming of age stories all light-hearted and entertaining.

My parents made me realize the power of the narrative and I have always used it to illustrate a point when interacting one on one or when making presentations. Even when confronted with a problem I ask myself this question "I wonder how this story will end?" No wonder I loved my solo practice in law when I had it. I would invite people into my life to share great stories with me. And I was actually paid to listen. Whoever said truth is stranger than fiction got it right. You could not make up some of the real life experiences people shared with an unflinching straight face. A particularly poignant one was from a blind woman who was accused of uttering death threats to her blind partner on the phone after he changed his mind about marrying her following a hysterectomy that she underwent on his bidding!

Since Uttara spent all her summers in India, till she turned 16, she enjoyed her grandparents' stories. I carried on that tradition at home so much so that even today when we cuddle in our "mommy- daughter" moments she will bid me with " Amma kadhai chollu" ( Amma tell me a story). When she catches me embellishing for effect, she will roll her eyes in disbelief but not stop listening with rapt attention. I am so glad that storytelling was not considered gossip and banished from our home for being in poor taste. I have to admit that it gave us license to wag our tongues and kept us immensely curious about everything and everyone around us. We were always on the prowl for a good story.

Sadly that wonderful tradition of plain old listening to stories for fun has been lost due to the distractions from electronic devices. Staring at our hand helds, we just do not make eye contact and share tales from our heart and mind that excite, entertain or exhilarate us.

Let's park our devices, kindle our curiosity about everything and everyone around us, for a short while everyday, so the people we interact with and love, also bear witness to life as we see it through our utterances!