Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Impressions of India - 2011

Bangalore is a much nicer city than Chennai. Lots of greenery and remnants of it's old and romantic past- parks, man made lakes and old structures reminiscent of colonial times. Sadly the old is giving way to the new. Its airport does Bangalore proud and is testament to what just a few years of industrial advancement can do. You could easily imagine yourself in an airport in the developed world except you can buy paneer katti roll and biryani at the food court. The perfect world of all things for any Indian. And the toilets, the signature give away, are maintained to western standards (at least to date). And oh yes, did I mention that the books and magazines cry out to be bought by any entrepreneur worth his or her salt. There is that irrepressible energy in the step of every young man and woman in this crowd - a new class of business traveler. I am eavesdropping on conversations where words like rfps, competitors, profitability, liquidity and green fields are liberally sprinkled in the language of this new breed. People are in a constant state of distraction, staring at or speaking into their smart phones or browsing or working on laptops. Whatever their preoccupation, they wear the burdens of their toil with pride. They are in that in between space where hope keeps them in suspended animation and "burn out" has been successfully held at bay! Another brand of the air passenger is the 50s home-maker, apparently intrepid, airing dirty laundry for all to hear while she conducts lengthy inane conversations on her smart phone. Her voice is raised as if to elevate the level of her discourse in this fashion. Her primary object is to not let that phone remain idle in so many wasted minutes of silence. Yet another sign of people grasping life in fistfuls and making the most of their device, the unlimited free minutes and their loquaciousness. Bengaluru airport offers a microcosm of business and private india demonstrating how mobile technology has been leveraged to make deals, personal connections and plain vacuous conversation. I like this India a lot, notwithstanding that it leaves behind in the dust most of India. They survive sniffing on the entrails left behind by the careless wealthy believing one day that it will be their turn. Little do they know that there are millions like them waiting with mouths open to taste the trickle.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Zen Art of Listening

My daughter who is distraught over the results of the US elections, 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 advice to my daughter as well!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Indian food

Last night we went out for Indian food to The North India restaurant in the financial district in San Francisco. We are attending the American Translators Association conference here. We eschewed the food at the seafood restaurant in our hotel for Indian fare, since I don't eat meat or seafood and my co-worker is a good sport! We found ourselves in a very elegant restaurant with great service. The food was, well, the typical fare that passes off by the misnomer "Indian food", which in one swell swoop generally makes invisible the subtle nuances of varied Indian cuisines and palates. I have always thought there may be a legal action lurking somewhere for the flagrant misuse of the words to describe one small array of similarly tasting dishes. Anyway, I digress. It makes life less complicated in situations like the one I am about to describe. We ordered wine and a few signature dishes for my white co- worker. The portions were huge and we consumed a fraction of it. Having seen a lot of homeless people on the way, I asked our obliging waiter to pack it. He did. In elegant paper containers and offered it to me in a brown bag with handles. On our bidding he also provided a plate and disposable cutlery. I was thrilled with the package which in Toronto would have been styrofoam in a plastic bag - a dead give-away as leftovers.

As we walked down I saw men drunk and weaving and kept looking for a woman. There she was wide awake, sitting on her sleeping back her head fully shaven. She was no more than 30. We asked her if she was hungry and if she would like some Indian food. Her eyes lit up "I love Indian food. It's the best kind of comfort food", she said, eagerly taking the bag from my hand, her hands ice cold when they touched mine. At least she knew what she was getting with "Indian food" and I hope it brought her comfort and much needed warmth!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Being Flexible

Yesterday morning my colleague and I had to fly out to SF for business meetings. I left the house only 2 hours before the flight banking on priority check-in and Nexus. I called my colleague from my car and to my surprise someone else answered the phone. He was the "Park n Fly" driver. He said "this individual left their phone in my bus." To which I said "Oh no - I know how much he needs his phone. Can I pick it up?" He said "sorry m'am he is going to have to call me and give me some information about the phone. He was with someone else, maybe you can call them." Frantically racing towards the airport, I said "I don't know if anyone else is with him. I really want to pick up his phone and I am cutting it fine for the flight." Another co-worker was travelling with us but I did not have her cell number. I called him back and said "his name is xx and I will give you my business card." He said "I will also need copy of your Drivers License". To this I said "you don't understand, I am taking a detour and will miss my flight." He said "don't worry". My wonderful spouse drove me as close as he could to the Park n Fly entrance but I had to get off a few feet away and run. It felt like an eternity. The Park n Fly driver was a very young man. He was on ready alert and waiting for me. He calmly took my card and made a copy of my license. On his computer screen were pictures of me and my co-worker he had googled and found on our website. Just from my name which had appeared when I called the phone. He handed me the phone. The airport was a zoo but I made it on the flight with minutes to spare. My co- worker was ecstatic. I was amazed by the flexibility of the young man and his quick thinking. I was grateful that I was willing to be flexible and also that we had put both our pictures on the company website !!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Inspiring blog

Posted this on FB and here for the benefit of those who are not on mine. Elizabeth is a good friend who has had us over for Passover dinner. She is a bold, brilliant and beautiful 51 year old Jewish woman originally from Brooklyn. She does everything well and has 2 amazing kids, run and sold businesses, studied forensic pathology as a hobby and the list goes on. We have travelled and written papers together. She practically lived on her bicycle until 4 years ago when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and a benign spinal tumour- she writes a blog and this most recent one is about living with a debilitating condition and rediscovering her Jewish faith. I was so inspired, so I am sharing it with you..

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

What is meditation and why should we meditate

What is meditation?

We all hear about the benefits of meditation. I thought I would share my own lived experience practicing for several years.

Lets start with what the common myths regarding meditation are.

Meditation is concentration
Meditation is thought control
Meditation is to be done in a certain posture and for hours
Meditation running away from problems
Meditation is a religious practice

But is meditation any of the above? Nor really. If not, then what is it, why should we meditate and what are its benefits?

While growing up in India, I had a lot of anxiety and a preoccupation with thoughts about death. It became more intense into my twenties after my daughter was born. I did not have a name for it then. Postpartum depression maybe? Or just the enormity of having responsibility for a baby at 23 years? To cope, I read the few self-help books I could lay my hands on 30 years ago, and they all said “there is no greater fear than fear itself”. I could not understand what this meant then. All I knew was that my fear was a direct result of my thoughts. And this fear was interfering with my ability to be happy. I was always going from one moment of anxiety to another. I could not appreciate anything in my life and enjoy it. I was anxious what the next moment would bring and in that state I had breathlessness and palpitations, I was spiraling downwards and out of control because I was anxious about being anxious. A book, “Why fear?” by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, offered me the panacea. I read there that I should observe my thoughts. Not try to shut them out. Not try to escape from them. Not try to dull the mind with medication such as anti-depressants or numb it with prayers, mantras and chants. I had been praying desperately and every-time I stopped, the anxiety would return with even greater vengeance. Desperate, I decided to heed his advice and to observe my thoughts. It was very hard to face my fear producing thoughts every minute. My throat became dry and I had unpleasant sensations throughout my body. But I persisted through it with tremendous discipline. It was the instinct to survive that kept me going. The need to keep suicidal thoughts at bay.

Slowly and miraculously over just a year, my anxiety producing thoughts began receding and my reaction to them did not include excruciatingly painful sensations. Not just that. I had mastered a technique and had an experiential understanding that I was not my thoughts. Without even knowing it I had begun to practice mindfulness. Many years later, I found out that this was the very essence of meditation.

As my mind became quieter I grew more interested in yoga and meditation and these became part of my daily routine. I moved to Canada in 1987 and experienced a lot of struggles as a newcomer. My practice helped me cope, and gave me the clarity of mind and confidence to complete law school and to pursue a professional career. But by 2004 I was looking to intensify my practice. That’s when I did my first 10 day meditation course observing noble silence. This had a transformative effect and I will get to that in a moment.

So coming back to mindfulness… If that is what meditation is, then what is it? Meditation is simply being in the present moment and observing everything as it is without interpretation. A recent study done by Harvard University found that on average, a human’s mind wanders 47% of the time. This amounts to half our waking lives. So if we are not present then where are we? We are thinking about the past or about the future. We are not focused on where we are and what we are engaged in at any given time? This means that we are attached to something that has happened or is about to happen. This attachment influences how we react to our present. We do not see the present for what it is and therefore do not react to life’s happenings with an open mind and heart and without judgement.

Let me give you an example. If I was worried about something that happened at work today and my husband asked me a simple question “did you remember to buy milk”? If I am lingering in the past I may snap back with “No I did not. Do you know what a terrible day I had at work? For a change you could have bought it etc”. This would have escalated the issue and resulted in an unwanted argument bringing him and me additional stress. If on the other hand, I was present, I would not be influenced by thoughts about the day’s events or interpret his question as being interrogatory, and would have just responded with a simple — “I did not. I forgot.”

So meditation is about living every moment present to our thoughts and to everyone around us without judgement. With attention to the present, we become intensely aware of our conditioned responses, in the form of our conduct, the changes to our breathing and our bodily sensations, as we encounter life’s situations.

So what are some of meditation’s benefits?

We all take care of our body, our clothes, our hair, our appearance. And yet we do not care enough for that part of us that helps us do everything. Our mind helps us learn, express emotions and manage every aspect of our lives. Every day we allow our mind to be bombarded with thoughts. Our cluttered mind inhibits us from thinking clearly and from solving problems in an open and honest way. Why? Thoughts give expression to our insecurities and selfish desires. These in turn trigger emotions that cloud our judgement and prevent us from seeing the impact of our behaviour on others, which in turn triggers their reaction to our conduct and so on. We are entangled in a vicious cycle.

When we meditate as a practice, besides living each moment mindfully, as in setting aside a few minutes to practice silence and observation we allow the agitation to settle so the mind is still and clear. We allow it to find some peace and quiet. Soon something miraculous begins to happen. We start breaking free of our conscious and unconscious habit patterns. Slowly, we respond to all experiences with equanimity. Since we no longer crave pleasure and avoid pain, we are much more spontaneous. Our decisions are more enlightened without the barrier and fog of our habit patterns dictated by our insecurities and desires. We have greater control over our mind and emotions. All this comes about because we recognize that we are not our egos and that our desires are temporal and will pass.

Meditation helps us cope with stress. However, that makes it sound like a cure for stress. But let us look at this another way? What would happen if we meditated for just 15 minutes every day? Take it from me, our experience of stress will be much less. With fewer thoughts we will not feel rushed. We will not feel a loss of control. We will have all the time to respond in a way that is not reactive. So meditation actually prevents stress. A daily yoga practice that is done mindfully will do the same. Ultimately though, meditation and its benefits are best experienced than explained.


Lastly, about twelve years ago I began to practice Vipassana. I was searching for a structured practice that would commit me to a routine and would offer me opportunities to reinvigorate myself every year. Briefly, Vipassana is meditation as practised by the Buddha that involves observing the breath and bodily sensations in complete silence. I had to go to a 10 day silent retreat to be initiated to it. Its impact on me has been dramatic. Following are three significant changes I have noticed in me.

First change, I react less

Reaction is when we respond without thinking — usually with emotion. When someone says something that is critical of us, we tend to take it personally and say something that is hurtful. For eg, when my daughter says “mom stop telling me how to live my life” I experience a sharp emotional pain which usually manifests as a physical reaction in the body. With Vipassana, I find that I am able to see the source of the pain as not being her, but as being my own reaction. The more I see that the more I am able to have an open and honest relationship with my daughter. So rather than act defensive and say “I am not” or “I am your mother I have every right”, I find myself staying curious and asking “Why do you think/say that? What would you have me do differently?”

Second change, I embrace change more easily

I do find change painful. But as I observe, without judgement, the painful sensations that any prospect of change produces, I also notice that it passes and that everything in life is in a constant state of flux. This makes me bounce back from painful sensations brought on by change much faster. I am more creative and welcoming of new opportunities. When I resist change, wanting to control how things turn out, I am limited, unimaginative, repeating habit patterns and causing myself and others pain.

Third change, I am authentic

We all create an image of who we are for the world and constantly try to live up to it. When I started to be present to my sensations through my practice, it became really important to remain true and authentic. So I stopped trying to do things just because they made me look good and instead began to do things because they were truthful, right and selfless rather than selfish.

When I gave a talk on the above topic at a temple, an eminent Sanskrit scholar who has translated several Upanishads (ancient Hindu teachings) and the Yogasutras asked me to ponder over who I had referred to as “I” throughout the talk. So to close the loop, all of the above changes are coming about with less and less identification of myself as the body, mind and ego and more as the witness that observes. This is a shift from a notion of doer-ship to one of recognizing my body as the instrument through which consciousness manifests and life happens. With my yoga and meditation practice, I have just scratched the surface and have already seen great changes in my life. All of you who meditate must have similar experiences. Please feel free to share them.

To find out more about Vipassana, please go to

Saturday, October 8, 2016

"Wise words"

A young person in my life said she was experiencing a lot of stress at work. So I asked her the reason for this. "Well I cannot really explain it. But I feel out of my element and am not in a great head space.' I countered "I cannot even pretend to understand your stresses, I have never been in such a demanding position but I could help." "Well actually, I am right where the crosshairs are with bullets being aimed at me from different directions. I have bosses to please and my reports will not listen to me and my direct boss is just not able to help. Everyone has a different set of expectations and I am left feeling debilitated and ineffectual. My job appears to be hanging in the balance. I have to present to the CEO and feel like it is going to be do or die."

"Wow" I thought, what a lot of interpretation and noise, but did not voice it. When you have so much clutter in the mind, how can you carry on with the task at hand, I wondered. Instead, and in a very calm and nonjudgemental way, I asked a question. "Is it actually possible to please everyone in your sphere of reference?' She said "No". "Heck, is it possible to please one?" She said "maybe, but not entirely." "Why do you think that is?" To which she said "I don't know, maybe because I am not good enough?" "That's possible, but not probable since you have more information than most, have been working in this field for a while and have told me yourself on several occasions how surprised you are when you go to conferences and find out how much you know, to ask all the right questions". "Yes.." she hesitated. "Well", I said, "an alternative narrative that serves you better could simply be, that you are barking up the wrong tree. That this is a field of new and emerging technology, where everyone is unsure and insecure and as a woman in a nontraditional field there is distrust in your ability to meet expectations. And when they see you reacting to that with insecurity then that is exactly what they want. They act to reinforce the feelings of insecurity that you are manifesting. You ask why they would do this? Well, because they act to serve their own self-interest. They want to get ahead and look good while doing this. Making you look bad may make them feel better about themselves. But more importantly anything you do they will be critical of or indifferent to unless it serves their self interest. And if this is the case, you can never do things that make others happy and obtain their approval all the time. Instead you could tell yourself this. I am going to put my head down and put out my best based on all the information that I have, that serves the interest of the project as a whole as I see it. I have the courage of conviction and confidence to stand up and defend it. If it means not meeting the expectations of a few people, then I can strive to understand why without immediately jumping to the conclusion that I failed. Knowing it is not about me, but about the project, I can have conversations with them to re-set and or understand their expectations to serve the truth. But I must never hastily conclude that I am incompetent and not up to the task." In addition I pointed out - " you are smart, hardworking, disciplined, clear thinking and truthful, if they do not value that then they will soon wake up to the fact that there are few millenials who have the patience to put up as you do. "Thanks ...those are wise words. I feel better now", said the young person.

A wonderful short video from Eckhart Tolle

Monday, October 3, 2016

Memory and the world as we know it

Sometimes I do crazy things. Today I spent two precious hours of my evening looking for a country music song. I just remembered that I had liked it but could not remember name of song or singer. I did not know where to begin. So I browsed country singers by name- no name rang a bill. I had a vague recollection that it was a song from a movie with a country music theme. And again nothing. Then I looked through all Faith Hill songs, recalling she had sung it once. Again no dice. I went on a detour and listened to other country songs and videos hoping something would trigger. I knew the name was not common and the last name was German sounding with a "und" in it - so I typed Lund and there was a country music singer by that name - but not the one I was looking for. Then I typed Lelund with a prefix to the "Lund" and there it was voila .. Hedlund. Garrett Hedlund. Feeling childishly triumphant I quickly went into YouTube and found his song.

So then I was listening to the "Ideas" program about "biocentrism". I have not stopped thinking about it ever since. Dr. Lanza who has coined the phrase has beautifully articulated what our ancient sages have always said. That the source of all life as we know it is consciousness and that there was no big bang or other seminal moment that gave birth to life. It's fascinating on so many levels because it turns causal connection between the world and life on its head. Actually it says there is no world without our heads. That the brain which is an instrument of ourselves quite like a calculator helps the mind create algorithmic connections with particles in super positions to create the illusion of space and time. So particles that we see out there are, are actually the result of our own perception and that they are not "out there" and do not act and behave the way we perceive them. We got a glimpse that this is true when Heisenberg tried to measure the velocity of the electron and found that he could not because if he located it then he could not measure its velocity at the same time (aka Heisenberg's uncertainty principle). In simple terms the observer creates the observed. Thus the past, present and future and our notion of a period in history are the result of such algorithmic connections. What does this all mean for us? We have some inkling of this from our three dimensional dream state which appears so real when we are in it Well, it blows my mind to even think this, but it actually means that there can co-exist other universes and the paradigm of space and time can be changed so we can "go back" in time or into the future. We can be in different places in an instant - yes it is actually possible with the manipulation of the observer's mind, which is responsible for reality as we know it, that we can radically alter our experience of the world. How cool is that? You may counter, are we not already doing that with virtual reality experiments? Well what's different is the understanding that all reality is virtual and what we experience as real is just one dimension while multiple dimensions co-exist. So I could actually bring myself to that moment when I first heard the Garrett Hedlund song the name of which was confounding me all this while?

Here is the sizzlingly sexy Garrett Hedlund's "Give in to me".

And the wonderful ideas program that has me all excited

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Chennai musings - let's be inspired - 2

Women and work - two stories

It's unreal how hard women in Chennai work. It's difficult not to be inspired.

Valli is tiny. Her skin is the colour of ebony and her shiny white buck teeth flash as her face breaks easily into a smile when she cheerily greets patients, their family members, medical representatives, service people and couriers into that busy polyclinic in the heart of the city. Specialists and dentists rotate in and out sharing space. The dermatologist shares space with a family physician, the cardiologist with an internist and so on. So people call incessantly into the main line which Valli answers. They call to book appointments, enquire if the specific doctor is in, if their lab test results are in and on and on. The steady flow of people who walk through that door never abates and the little space is always brimming over. She is the sheet anchor that manages the traffic - receptionist, operator and overall communications coordinator. Her clothes are cheerful, befitting her sunny demeanour. Colourful sarees with matching jewellery, necklace, earrings and bangles. Flowers in her hair, bells in her ornamental anklets. Today she has worn an art silk lavender saree with gold thread border and a blouse to match, fresh white jasmine and orange firecracker flowers in her hair and chunky jewellery. I saw her once in the morning and again later in the evening and asked her how long her work day was. Well she left her house at 6 am and following a 2 hour and 3 buses commute arrived at the clinic at 8, she said. When did she finish? She flashed a smile and said, " at 7:30 pm and I will reach home after 10:00." In the afternoon when the doctors are not in and she has a couple of hours to spare she does cleaning and dishes at two homes nearby. While the clinic is closed Sundays, she has to commute to work all 7 days at those homes. She has two teenage daughters whom she never sees and whom her unemployed and de facto stay at home husband, a recovering alcoholic, cares for. She has successfully managed to get him into treatment and he is sober going 4 years. Her aging mother cooks and packs her food for the entire day. She is the main breadwinner and earns Rs.10,000 per month, all told, which has to pay for her transportation and all other expenses! How does she do it all so cheerfully?

Jayashri is a single mother of two boys. They are both in University. Jayashri is tall, attractive and very youthful looking at 45. She commutes by two-wheeler hazarding horrendous traffic and the killer Chennai heat. She has singlehandedly raised her sons from her earnings cooking in people's homes. Not one or two but 4. So every morning she cooks a traditional South Indian meal from scratch consisting of 2 different vegetables, a stew and soup in 4 different homes. Then she gets home to cook for her kids. On festival days she cooks all the mandatory sweet and savoury items along with the regular meal items. And if you don't know anything else about Tamilnadu, you should know there is some religious festival or other every week mandating the preparation of special foods to mark the occasion. Then every evening she goes back to each of the homes to cook 4 different suppers, lighter than lunch but all requiring prep and cooking time, nonetheless. She earns a total of Rs.28,000 at the rate of Rs. 7000 per month per home. Wow how does she do it cheerfully everyday, rain or shine 7 days per week?!

Terribly exploitive- inhumane - but proof of human resilience and the will to succeed at what could have been a losing game.

Both Valli and Jayashri want to give their kids post secondary education to ensure their lot is better! They don't think too much - they just do.

Utta's Bike Ride from London to Amsterdam

Uttara's pledge

As many of you know, last year I took up a cycling challenge from London to Paris and raised just over £2000 for WarChild UK, thanks to your kindness, support and generosity. I cant even begin to describe what an incredible and humbling experience that was!

This year I will be dusting off that road bike and cycling from London via Bruges to Amsterdam, a distance of 360 miles (580 km) from August 31-September 4th, with the goal of raising £1500 for my charity. I have chosen to raise money for Rethink Mental Illness. As many of you know, the issue of Mental Health is very close to my heart. I recently lost my dear cousin Rohan, a brilliant man, talented athlete and deeply spiritual human, as a result of his serious mental illness which he developed in his late teenage years. We were close in age, so growing up we spent several summers together in India at our grandparents' home. When he moved to Bloomington, Indiana for undergrad, I moved to Dubai to start my first job there. During this time, I stayed with his parents for over a year and he actually let me take over his room! I miss him dearly.

I am dedicating this cycling challenge to Rohan and raising money to benefit kids like him who seek the assistance of Rethink Mental Illness, a UK based charity which provides help and support across the UK to those diagnosed with mental illness, and their carers. This charity which has nationwide impact, places a lot of emphasis not only on awareness raising, information and advice for those in need, but also provides them with one on one and group care.

Please support me fulfil this challenge in Rohan's memory. Thank you for listening and for your kindness and generosity to date.

Uttara's Journey

Day 1 - Uttagirl's bike ride for mental health charity from London to Calais enroute to Amsterdam (100 miles/161 km - adding in 5 miles when she lost her way). Miles to go..please join me in rooting for her. She did this one after a busy work day yesterday and 4 hours of sleep..hope she can keep up!

Day 2 - Uttagirl has successfully completed the stretch from Calais (France) to Bruges (Belgium) - 126 km. In her words "Tried my best to sit on the saddle and not scream from pain, other than that the chill cap was securely on. The ride was wonderfully flat and pretty. Ate lunch on the beach". Two more days to #FoRo (for Rohan) in aid of #RethinkMentalillness

Day 3 - Uttagirl went from Bruges (Belgium) to Breda (Netherlands) - 102 miles (164 km) - she says "I really have no words. That can only be described as the purest form of cycling torture I have experienced in my life. I don't know if it was the 35 miles of false flat hell to lunch, my leg scrapes from peeing in a bush with thorns or the 40 miles of torture after lunch. The human body is amazing." One more day to destination ... #FoRo #RethinkMentalillness

Day 4 - Uttagirl MADE IT! 400 miles - (600 km) in 4 days from London to Amsterdam "I am bruised, my face is 5 different shades of brown and I have never been so happy to get off a bike my entire life! Friends and Fam thanks for the wonderful positive vibes the entire way! I really have the best support system in the world. Thank you for the generous donations to this cause close to my heart! JE TAIME" #IloveyouRo #Rethinkmentalillness - next post has link to charity if you still wish to sponsor Utta's effort..

Monday, September 5, 2016

The World as Seen by My Mom

I love being with Amma. In many ways she is my life force and inspiration. Brilliant, positive, observant and wise. Here is a conversation from today.

I was standing by Amma's kitchen and watching this lovely drama. One of her many crow friends whom she feeds and hydrates through the window kept dropping tiny sticks into their bowl of water. I gave Amma a quizzical look as though to ask "what are they doing?" She did not say. This afternoon as we sat drinking coffee I saw our little friend by the window again. Amma gestured to me to quietly watch. This fellow with his little beak gathered all the sticks which were now pliant and flew away. Amma, who has a wonderful way with animals, birds, plants and humans, said, "it does that to make fibre to build a strong nest to protect its young". She then asked me, what I realized later, was a trick question. "Have you ever been close to a crow's nest?" I said no. She said "because you cannot. They won't let you. They are so protective of their young." She said "for that matter all other species really care for each other. In the news today, a young man was beaten and left to die and no one came to his help for two hours. On the other hand when a dog is hurt have you seen other dogs bark and run towards them as though crying for help? Recently an elephant fell into a ditch and died. The baby would not leave the mother despite the Herculean efforts made by the villagers to bring her to safety." I believed her. This is the wisdom of crows, dogs and the world as seen by my mom!

There is a postscript to this story. I recently lost my father in law. He lived to be 90 years and led a wonderful life. He inspired us all throughout his life keeping a welcoming generous home. My mother in law is having a hard time with his passing, given he was her rock for over 60 years. This is the time when she needs emotional support and her two children and their spouses (one of whom is me) are taking turns spending time with her. At this time, we are witness to the craziness that is superstition against Hindu widows. Suddenly she has become persona non grata – for all religious occasions. To add hurt to an already distressed mind, she is treated as a social pariah - her presence at weddings and other such “happy” occasions considered inauspicious. Nowhere else in this 21st century have I seen such indignity bestowed on widows. It is becoming more and more clear to me that our unique capacity to think and interpret, when exercised based on fear, superstition and selfishness, destroys our humanity and causes us to take the most absurd, irrational and destructive decisions. We can rise above this with mindfulness where we notice our interpretation of what is, in a non judgemental way. This then stops us from spiralling downward into an abyss of reactivity and hateful behaviour that has the potential to harm us and others.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chennai musings - let's be inspired

Two days in Chennai and so many stories of valiance and resilience in the face of great adversity. I am constantly tearing up when I hear these stories. My first thought is "how can I help?!" There is just so much distress from poverty and discrimination. Here's one. Dharman is a young blind man who has completed his M.A. in history. My mother who volunteers as a reader at a Centre for young blind men and women helping them prepare for exams at the undergraduate and graduate levels, first met him several years ago. Dharman has recently married his sweetheart who is also blind. The two of them are unable to find employment and are making a living selling peanut candy on trains. No priest would marry them until a local news channel intervened and made a story of it. Now no one will hire them or rent to them. With much hardship Dharman has been able to locate a place in the outskirts of the city and he called my sister for a loan to pay rental advance. He referred to the Rs. 3000 ($60) he was seeking, as a significant amount. I cannot even imagine what their living conditions will be like, if they will have access to clean water, what the commute will mean for their livelihood, how they will keep body and soul together and what support they will receive if she has a child. Her parents were opposed to the marriage and so the couple has not reached out to them for help. They are so prideful and self reliant that they often go hungry. But they are optimistic and even cheerful.

Then this evening I attended an anniversary concert for a local cancer charity where they honoured a woman M.S. Rajeshwari for her extraordinary service. 57 years of age, educated and of lower class bearings, she has in one year singlehandedly educated 7000 women on breast screening, self examination and detecting the early signs of cancer. Not in the city, but holding camps in remote villages where poor women continue to live in ignorance.

Chennai is a glorified village. It suffers from neglect, and poverty is rampant. I know that the IT parks gleam and employ hundreds of thousands and our rich friends have enviable lives. I also know there are a number of cultural events happening everyday and one can be intellectually stimulated, moved and engaged without spending much - it has a culture of sponsored free events, similar to the one I mention above. And yet all I see and hear about are stories of distress from debt loads, caused by high cost of housing, decent healthcare and education. Then there is the alcoholism epidemic among young lower class men. Without a social safety net, life is precarious for millions. There is so much to do and there are so many unsung heroes doing great deeds. I am inspired by the Dharmans for living with such optimism. And by the Rajeshwaris for their passion and dedication. They and hundreds of others move and inspire. I do a little by way of offering adhoc help whenever I am asked. Now I will formalize it by setting up a fund. However, I do need to stop shamelessly sobbing when I hear stories of hope and distress!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The MCIS Story!

As told in Social Enterprise Ontario

MCIS Language Solutions

Began 1989 | Social

MCIS Language Solutions

MCIS Language Solutions is a non-profit that has evolved into a model social enterprise and has been relentlessly pursuing its vision to remove language barriers for over 25 years. With over 35 full time staff and employing a roster of over 3500 interpreters and translators, MCIS provides a full suite of language solutions: from language interpretation, translation and transcription to localization, training and training development for government, legal, police services and healthcare organizations in 200+ languages. In 2013, Common Sense Advisory confirmed that MCIS is the largest non –profit language solutions provider in the world.

Every year MCIS invests its net income into initiatives that support free services for victims of violence and the homeless, and training subsidies for aspiring interpreters and translators. With a growing demand for language services, a long track record of success, and deep roots in the community, MCIS has positioned itself to capture more market share in the language industry by simply demonstrating there is a better way to conduct business.

Our Community

Since its inception in 1989, MCIS has remained primarily committed to vulnerable persons and their rights to access important public services which help them navigate situations of crisis. MCIS has facilitated communication between limited English/French speakers who are in need and a range of services in the public sector: shelters, law enforcement, healthcare and criminal justice system agencies.

Our primary beneficiaries, PEOPLE WITH LANGUAGE BARRIERS, are in need of professional language services and solutions so they can access the critical information & services they need (health and legal rights, education, employment), and have greater capacity to make informed decisions. This, our research has found, has an impact on their sense of safety and general well-being and, in return, creates healthier communities. Our mission is to improve access to critical information and services through high quality language solutions, and our vision is to connect people across the world through languages, serving as their global voice.

Development History

MCIS Language Solutions, initially incorporated as Multilingual Community Interpreters Services (On), began in 1989 as the Scarborough Cultural Interpreter Pilot Project (SCIPP), with support from the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship’s Wife Assault Prevention Initiative (WAPI). In 1991, this pilot, envisioned as a complex brokerage model between interpreters and their clients (social service and volunteer agencies), grew into a full-fledged service renamed the Metro Cultural Interpreter Service (MCIS). In 1993 its first Executive Director, Sandra Larsen, was hired and she expanded interpreting services to General Welfare clients and displaced workers through Ontario’s Labour Adjustment Strategy (LAS). In 1994 the Founding Board renamed the agency again as Multilingual Community Interpreter Services (On) (MCIS) with a mission “to ensure equity and access to services for members of various ethno-racial communities” and to divest it from its host organization, Human Services of Scarborough (HSS). On March 17, 1995 MCIS was incorporated and moved its first office from the Town Centre Court to a location in north Scarborough. After a year and a half in crisis ending in December 1996, MCIS’ funding was temporarily resumed and made year to year. A new (and current) Executive Director, Latha Sukumar, was appointed in September 1996, and she formed an Advisory Committee which rallied for continued funding for MCIS. MCIS’ interpretation services soon expanded to 21 languages from the original 8. At this time MCIS had 40 interpreters.

By 1997 the apparent lack of interpreters’ education on working within the criminal justice system as it relates to domestic violence cases led to a grant MCIS received to pilot test the Domestic Violence Court Project Cultural Interpreter Program. This program trained interpreters to work with service providers who supported victims of domestic violence accessing the criminal justice system at designated domestic violence court houses at Old City Hall, North York and Durham, and at the hospitals participating in the Domestic Violence Project in the Greater Toronto Area and Durham.

In 2000, as its services expanded, MCIS successfully applied to be lead agency on a grant to build a web-based interpreter scheduling system which would be used by all language interpreter services funded by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration (MCI) across the Province. By now MCIS had grown from 2 to 6 FTEs and 24/7 coverage.

Another milestone year for interpretation services across Ontario was 2004. First, MCIS was awarded the two year Supporting Community Partnerships Initiative federal grant to administer interpretation services to 14 City agencies serving the homeless and persons at risk of being homeless. The same year MCIS secured a Ministry of the Attorney General grant to do needs assessment and develop community capacity for interpretation services. The result was “Giving Voice”, a research study which identified the language service needs of seniors, youth, children and family members of homicide victims, and found and made recommendations for funding support for professional interpretation services to the above populations. MCIS involved other local language agencies, settlement agencies, interpreters and the public in this study.

During this time, MCIS began to offer interpreter training on a fee-for-service basis. This helped build its interpreter capacity and by 2006, the year it landed its first large fee-for-service contract for interpretation, its roster had grown to over 500 interpreters. From 2005 on, MCIS partnered with Rotman’s MBA interns to work on complex business solutions. Today, with a diversified client base, MCIS provides a full suite of 50 plus language services, including translation, transcription, training and accessibility services to over 750 organisations in government, the broader public sector and private sector in over 200 languages.

Organizational Structure

MCIS is a provincially incorporated non-profit with a Board of Directors (13) and four Board subcommittees which provide additional guidance in finance, marketing and operations, human resources and nomination and governance/ social impact. Internally, the work of MCIS is structured in eight operational departments: Interpretation Services, Translation and Transcription, Recruitment and Training, Finance and Administration, IT and Internal Operations, Human Resources, Sales and Marketing, and Management and Governance/ Social Impact.


Through our Theory of Change process, we identified non-profit (NP) service providers and aspiring/established language professionals (LPs) to be our strategic partners with whose support we build the sector capacity ensuring appropriate referrals to professional language services and greater public awareness about language barriers and industry standards to address them. Further, as a member of leading networks involved with improving public sector access for vulnerable newcomers, such as Ontario Network of Language Interpreter Services (ONLIS), Healthcare Interpretation Network (HIN), Association de l’industrie de la langue – Language Industry Association (AILIA), Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and Domestic Violence Coordinating Committees, MCIS influences and shapes public policy and best practices as they relate to access to professional language services.

We actively and continuously search for partners who will help us further our vision, mission and impact, and have also applied for and received government grants to address access to critical information for vulnerable populations. Our newly established MCIS Social Innovation Lab’s mission is “to provide a trans-disciplinary playfield for learning about and experimenting with all forms of social innovation. By combining courses, workshops and pilot projects, we offer a cooperation platform to connect business, public administration and civil society in joint projects.”


Growing its fee-for-service business arm nationally and internationally, MCIS has ensured continuous, uninterrupted revenue growth. Other than the core grants from a couple of Ministries to provide free services assisting victims of domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking, MCIS has carved its niche in an extremely competitive language industrywith high quality services that it delivers on public sector contracts. The most recent appointment to be an exclusive language link between the Federal Government and the incoming flow of 25,000 Syrian refugees is testimony to MCIS’ growing capacity and undisputed reputation in the field. (Translators Lend Voices to Incoming Refugees).

Impacts & Outcomes

MCIS’ Theory of Change defines our intended impact as: “improving the access of people with language barriers to critical information and services that support their rights, safety and wellbeing. At the same time, the advocacy efforts and sector leadership will promote access as a human right best served through professional language services. By 2020, 15% of our efforts will be intentionally focused on vulnerable populations.”

Historically we have measured the value of our social impact/ imprint focusing on six primary objectives:

IMPROVING ACCESS TO LANGUAGE SERVICES for non-English speaking victims of domestic violence/sexual assault/human trafficking and homeless persons as part of our ongoing commitment to remove language barriers for our most vulnerable clients. We have routinely absorbed the cost of interpretation when individuals and organizations have not been able to afford it (up to $10,000/year). In 2014-15 fiscal years MCIS provided professional language services to 869 customers in public, private and social sectors fulfilling 63,112 requests that varied in scope, scale and complexity.

INFLUENCING STREAMLINED ACCESS by participating in the conversations and work at the local, provincial, national and international levels.

EDUCATING ELIGIBLE NEWCOMERS BY PROVIDING QUALITY TRAINING and offering training subsidies for newcomers to Canada aspiring to become professional interpreters. It is widely known that getting work and exposure to the Canada-specific job market enables faster integration into Canadian society. MCIS subsidizes the training where over 90% of our trainee cohort consists of newcomers who have been in Canada for less than 5 years.

EDUCATING PUBLIC SERVICE PROVIDERS: Given our solid reputation for the development of online training programs, in 2013 we were funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General – Ontario Victims Services to develop the Online Training Initiative to Address Human Trafficking. This is one of the most comprehensive, one of a kind bilingual online training programs for service providers that has attracted close to 3000 participants. We also expended a lot of MCIS’ own resources educating public service providers on the importance of using professional community interpreters when serving their non-English/French speaking clients.

PROVIDING EMPLOYMENT: MCIS provides job opportunities for people who face barriers to employment, in particular those in receipt of social assistance. In partnership with the City of Toronto’s Investing in Neighbourhoods programs, we recruit individuals subsidized by the City for a year, train them and following that year absorb 25% of all such recruits permanently into our payroll. We have been engaged with this program for over 7 years now hiring 7 permanent employees from that program on MCIS’ payroll.

LEGISLATION – MCIS advocates for changes to legislation to ensure continued and enhanced access to public sector services for limited and non-English/French speakers. MCIS is part of networks that are involved in legislative reform, which include professional recognition for Community Interpreters and mandated use of Community Interpreters in all primary health care facilities and legal fora.

Docs for Change (2013-15), a two-year Ontario Trillium Foundation funded program developed in collaboration with the Doc Institute, Toronto appointed the very first generation of Docs for Change Fellows with the task of developing their documentary viewing skills and creating film clubs, providing opportunities for community dialogue and social change. (New documentary training program explores newcomer experiences in the GTA)

Social Impact of Translation (2014) gathered translators and language rights activists who believe that translators are the key instrument to ensuring access to human rights and freedom of expression. (Manifesto)
Food for Language (2013) – MCIS’ collaborative writing project, a recipe book and collection of narratives shared by MCIS Language Services and Sandgate Shelter staff. The collection captured the dynamic relationship between food and personal narratives while showing the audience how food transcends culture and contributes to Canada’s multicultural fabric and global citizenship. All proceeds of the book towards supporting the Community Kitchen program at the Sandgate Shelter (the book is available on Amazon in printed and Kindle versions).


Today – 25 years later – we are confronting the challenge of incorporating our Theory of Change seamlessly into our social enterprise: from developing business strategy that will align with our social impact objectives and social procurement responsibilities, to engaging partners with advocacy initiatives, and building the type of organizational culture and capacity that will support all of our efforts. We want to provide language solutions that will significantly improve access to critical information and services supporting the rights, safety and wellbeing of people, and develop advocacy efforts focused on the promotion of language access as a basic human right best served through professional language services.

Social benefit is the outcome of the process of achieving tangible and intangible social values. The benefits and value we create continuously for all our customers and various stakeholders range from providing jobs for the long-term unemployed, offering opportunities for training and new skills development to newcomers, and helping individuals or groups facing social or economic barriers overcome them by facilitating their access to critical information through language services. However, social values are not formalized and we are interested in experiments with developing legislation around the Canadian Social Value Act that will open conversations around what we value as a society and as individuals, and how social enterprises and non-profits contribute to the creation of social capital.

Lessons Learned

Our most important lesson is to never doubt a small group of committed citizens. MCIS’ growth into a successful organization happened precisely because of its commitment to bottom line objectives – sound finances, protection of human rights and diversity – as the direct result of exemplary leadership on its Board, competent staff and the contribution of our language professionals, volunteers and interns. We take pride in MCIS’ growth and its commitment to recruiting highly qualified new immigrants and local language professionals thereby increasing Toronto’s and Canada’s visibility as a multilingual hub that can provide language services to the globe.

Two lessons we are still mastering are related to capacity (that needs to be built regardless of present demands on our scarce resources) and succession (that needs to be planned ahead of time).


In the end – our vision, to connect people globally through languages – is really about communication. And our communication, to quote Suzana Grego from Skoll Foundation, should be a critical change agent and “create authentic alignment between core business and communications [because][…] what you do and what you say fuels transparency and trust in consumers, clients, and citizens alike.”

We want to build authentic, transparent and trusted bridges world-wide that will open up silos between people and languages, fueling mobility and prosperity.

Social Impact of Translation Manifesto

YouTube Channel

(416) 467-3097

Last Year's Revenue was 9M

Friday, July 22, 2016

A few good men

Just when I thought things were looking up here was another kicker. On Thursday last week I had my teeth cleaned. Well I must have stirred up some critters hiding in the crevices of my teeth. Over the weekend, I felt a mild sensation around my right cheek bone and chose to ignore it. On Monday, I woke up to find my hand pressed into that cheek, as though to ward off sensations. There was hint of a little more pain this time, but I valiantly forebore, mentally willing it away. Little did I know this infection was going nowhere. It seems I had taunted it because it began to rear its ugly head sometime in the evening and then pound me with its fist through the night. I still resisted taking pain medication and then capitulated at 1 am when I could take it no more. I woke up with what felt like a nasty slap on the right side of my face and no I was not dreaming. It was only 4 am, and the meds had already worn off. I knew then that I needed another kind of offensive. I endured the pain through my yoga practice, refusing to medicate anymore till I got to the root of the problem – pun intended. At 9 am I was at my dentist’s. He put me in his Chair ahead of scheduled appointments and after one look at the x ray said – “looks bad, you need a root canal, I will give you the referral to the endodontist.” “Can it be now?” I countered. It was arranged for 11:30 am. I knew Dr. Wolfson from a previous root canal encounter and he was at his office ready, willing and able to see me. Big relief. The world had conjured to help me, I thought. I did not realize it then, but this was not the half of it.

I returned to the office, gathered all my work stuff, met with my folks to apprise them of these developments and set off, actually looking forward to the procedure and relief from the pain. But alas, things were not going to be so easy. As I drove along the highway, fire engines began to whiz past me. I knew then there was some major accident on my route and chose an alternate route preparing to exit the highway. I later found out a salad truck had rolled over and doused the highway with dressing – the city could have had a salad party on 401W, but I digress. I took 401E and as I was laterally crossing three lanes to get to my exit, a driver to my left began to wave wildly and flag me down. He eased his car in front of me and on to a shoulder of the exit ramp, bidding me to stop behind him. I was perplexed. He was dangerously parked. But unperturbed he came over and said, “you have a flat, just follow me” and walked me to the rear of the car shielding me from onslaught of exiting cars. The rear tire on the right side was completely flat. We got into our cars and I followed him into a parking lot just off the exit, when he got out a can of puncture sealant from his trunk and said “do you have one of these? If not always carry one. I am going to see if I can fix the leak with this.” and proceeded to empty the can into my tire. It was all so surreal. Alas it did not work. He then found out why. He pointed to a gash on the side of the tire and said “Unfortunately, there is a tear on the side from a nail, so you will need to change the tire.” Still dazed, I murmured “You are godsent” and handed him the money for the can of sealant, which he refused but I insisted he take. I took courage and moved my car to a parking lot where I would not be ticketed, thinking I had half an hour to find a cab to get me to the doctor. I was single-minded in my need to reach the doctor's. There were no cabs in sight. Then I spotted one but he did not have his light on, since he was on his way to pick up a fare. He must have sensed my distress. He stopped, cancelled his fare and said “don’t worry I know the address, I will get you there”, as I tried to give him directions through my pain. He dropped me off at 11:30 am. The doctor who was waiting for me, set me in his chair and said he would do what he could to make the pain go away. My dear husband, not to be outdone by the other good men in this story, offered to pick me up after the procedure. Later that evening he also met the CAA guy in that lot so the latter could change my tire. He left the car there overnight and the next morning dropped me off at the lot so I could pick up my car from there. Procedure and strong antibiotics later, I was fine in two days. I still have a swelling but no pain. I can live with this for now, knowing all's well with the world which has several good men!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

If I were to run for Republic Party nominee

So here is me imagining what I would need to run for the nomination of the GOP - if I were American that is ...ok just indulge me..

I am thinking of running for Republican Party nominee. A tad late I know. But -that's not why people tell me I will fail. They say no sharp elbows, wisecracking sarcasm or flair for insults live or on Twitter. No hubris. No creative ideas to deal with terrorism and immigration wth entry bans and border walls! No courage to be politically incorrect and call vast sections of the population inferior imbeciles whose moods are ordered by their monthly cycles or defective genes. No grand ideas to stimulate the economy by simply cancelling trade agreements and becoming protectionist.
Reflecting I must say I simply don't qualify now because I am not yet ready! But why? Have I ever had the courage to shout curse words into large crowds or to tweet out pictures of my opponents partner calling them names ? Or to verbally assault people calling them "stupid, crooked, corrupt, loser, weak, pathetic, total disaster, low energy, ineffective, miserable, incompetent and hypocrite" at least a few hundred times. No not really. Then how would anyone sustain interest enough to stay on my case and stay awake?!

So what's my cache? That I love my nation and care enough to want to solve its problems and that I have some competence managing money, negotiating deals and applying the law? Well I have it all wrong, I realize. These are simply not the qualities that will get the attention of the masses.

So what do I need? I need a story and even more importantly, sound bytes. Not necessarily the kind that I flashed on twitter or that I had bulimia and alcohol problems, but that I filed for bankruptcy a few times, floated a University that went the way of the dodo bird, that I made my fortunes by taking jobs abroad and that I stand by the mantra "everything is negotiable"". That I thrive on false promises and narcissism and have an entire army to help me craft my messages and stroke my ego a million ways." Of course I would not have to mean anything I say. I would just have to say anything that will get me to win. Who cares about right or wrong, being consistent or keeping one's word?! No one. Thankfully talk is cheap and does not have to actually mean anything. Even better, we have a population which is willfully blind to the "how" of bogus promises because they are mentally tired making ends meet and staying afloat. "Just tell me what I want to hear" they say, "and I will vote for you. Then keep saying or doing something scandalous and I will give you my undivided attention as I would a car wreck happening before my eyes. Do not try to reason with me or give me logical explanations of what you will do for me. It will do you no good - for I don't have the bandwidth for it"!

Given this, I will need preparation time leading up to my nomination - a proper make-over. I would need to cultivate a spontaneous propensity for putting my foot in my mouth, shooting from my hip, overruling democratically made decisions and using stock phrases like "my opponent is an unbelievable disaster" and "I can make America great again". I have to work on sanitizing myself of fuzzy words like "collaborative", "inclusive", "consultative" or "anti-oppressive". I had better start now. Refashioning my image, rehearsing the choice jargon, sharpening my elbows and getting in and out of embarrassing and disastrous situations does not come easy to those who lack the natural talent for it. I need the time before the next elections to rehabilitate myself and to build the right kind of brand equity. Oh yes, I will hire Donald Trump as my coach!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Violence against women in India

The recent gruesome murder of Swathi Santhanagopalakrishnan, a 24 year old engineer, in Chennai, India, at the hands of her stalker raises so many issues about the increased risk of violence against women especially with the rise of social media and the utter lack of political will to protect women.

That fateful morning of June 24, 2016, at 6:30 a.m., Swathi was waiting for the train that would take her to work. Within minutes, she was hacked to death with a sickle in plain view of the public in a bustling train station of a large metropolis where thousands of women risk taking public transit to work, at all hours of the day and night. Her assailant, who had stalked her on social media before confronting her in person with his proposal, may have been enraged over Swathi’s refusal to reciprocate his feelings but had his wits completely about him regarding the consequences of his actions. He cannot plead “not guilty by reason of insanity” because he was fully competent while committing the cold blooded act in a calculated and well- rehearsed manner, following months of planning. However, Swathi’s murder is by no means just an isolated incident. It is just one that caught the public’s attention due to its gruesome nature and visibility.

How can we say we have progressed as a nation, if our women cannot take public transit to work safely? How is it possible that a woman was hacked to death by her stalker in broad daylight on a busy railway platform and no one could do anything to stop it from happening? Why do our women not trust police enough to escalate these matters at the first sign of danger, rather than trying to deal with them and live in constant fear? Why do women fear the social reproach that could result from reporting, when they have done nothing wrong?

Two days after this incident, a young woman in the same city took her own life because a man had photo-shopped and posted her face attached to a nude figure all over social media, after she had rebuffed his advances. When her parents had approached the police to plead with them to have the images expunged the latter had refused. The young woman killed herself. A maid in Bihar was raped in a public square when she had attacked her employer’s son with a razor blade following his attempt to rape her a second time! The police made no attempt to protect her here either because the perpetrator's father was a feudal landlord, very well connected and influential.

Every day young woman are raped and several killed and their bodies maimed, decapitated and rendered unidentifiable. The perpetrators get away in most instances. It was only delayed public furore over the death of Swathi and intense media scrutiny that resulted in her murderer being apprehended.

So why is it a woman’s responsibility and fault that she is violently abused and killed? Why do we not ask instead, what is so wrong with our society that our women have to die like this? What’s with our social systems that perpetuate violent patriarchy and fail to protect against it? What is it in our psyche that we tolerate all forms of oppression, not just gendered and only express outrage when the matter is in our face, depriving us of a good night’s sleep?

Yes empowerment does come from financial independence. But we still objectify women, consider biology as their destiny and treat them as goddesses or whores depending on our arbitrary moral code relating to how they should dress, act and behave. Financial independence gives her little leverage against deeply entrenched views on her place in society, mostly as a chattel for someone's use, who is incapable of making sound decisions. You only have to read the various paternalistic blog posts that give advice to young women: Here's a sampling

"- Girls married or unmarried should be selective in accepting friends’ request on Facebook and other social networking sites.

- Avoid posting photos in different attires, if interested, share such photos only in your relatives group.

- Don’t entertain boys whom they found suspicious on the first acquaintance.

- Don’t be vigorous in posting your views in groups which often entertain unwanted chats in any social media.

- Don’t trust anyone because he is professionally as qualified as you are.

- Avoid people who have inherent hatred towards working and high earning people.

- It is highly advisable to limit their friend circle with close friends, colleagues, and relatives.

- And the most important thing is, limit the use of social media and don’t get addicted.

- Please don’t decide on your life partner without your parents' consent or consensus

- Don’t fall in love suddenly"

The issues are by no means simple, clouded as they are by class, caste, race and various other factors that criss cross identities. Thus, for example, a lower caste man will be treated far worse than one from a higher caste and class for a similarly gruesome crime. Or abuse of a woman who is from a higher caste or class will invoke greater outrage than one who is not. In any event, there is an urgency to create societies where women feel safe enough to reach out for timely help without shame or fear of retribution.

Friday, May 20, 2016

No gas - going the extra mile!

We all have those days. I got out of bed and should have gone right back! Instead I donned a new jacket and strutted out to work. Did not notice the gas dial. Intensely preoccupied by the events of this week, and the imminent changes to life as I have known it to be, I drove back home in the evening, again not stopping for gas. I noticed the dial this time at E for empty, but was reluctant to stop. When I do get out again, that will be the first thing I do I promised myself. I was winded, had bad cramps and a not so clear head. Well a hot shower later I felt more like myself and left the house on a jaunty ride. I had pushed my gas dial and luck a tad too hard I realized, when smack in the middle of the highway, I felt the full weight of the four wheel drive as it began coming to a grinding halt. Providentially, I was close to an exit ramp and kept a cool head long enough to steer myself on to a shoulder and out of harm's way! I could not believe it - I had run out of gas!! I hit panic mode as the cars whizzed past me and I could not find my CAA card. Then a vague recollection floated into my head - the husband had cancelled it. I called CAA anyway and they confirmed - yep suspended for non- renewal since last November, could the primary card holder call? The primary card holder was far away in India I said. I expected an "aww shucks". But the person on the other line was very concerned for my safety. He asked me where I was and said he would get someone to bring gas over to me. " You may have to pay for it he said but I am going to give it priority. Call and renew your membership after. I will do this for you anyway". While I was waiting, I called the husband who reminded me I could call my dealership for this service - the reason he cancelled CAA. He expressed little sympathy for my plight and was even mildly amused presumably over the mental vision of me sitting there biting my nails as I nervously waited to be rescued. Men! A few minutes later, he sent me a text - get your membership if you want! So I called the membership department and a young girl answered. She was appalled that I might be in harm's way and wanted to tend to my safety before all else, especially when she could not find the SOS for me registered on my account in her system. There had to be a mistake I said- I had called in to roadside assistance and they had said help was on its way. By now I was calm and even enjoying the adventure. I knew I was in good hands. For the next 25 minutes while still having me on hold, she checked with her colleague, got hold of the driver kept coming on the line to reassure me and waited till rescue in the form of a CAA truck got to me, driven by a brawny young man carrying a can of gas. And all this for someone who was not even a member! And I did not have to pay for the gas! Her colleague had called in for help but given my inactive account had not registered it in the system! I told this girl I wanted to buy her dinner! Alas she lived in a small town hundreds of miles away. I said "you are amazing." She was. Empathetic, patient and bright. Of course I called and secured my membership. I am a member for life! I learnt the lesson of making a difference going the extra mile - on no gas! An hour later a text from the husband - hopefully all resolved. Really?!

Friday, April 29, 2016

The "M" Word

The “M” word

We women do not have it great and for many reasons all of which start with the letter "M". Menstrual cramps and menopause are two that punctuate our timelines and order our lives – oh believe me they do. But the most dreaded is another one. It is shocking to me that it is legal, given its barbaric nature. I speak of the Mammogram. I cannot think of another experience that makes one feel more vulnerable, exposed and under attack.

After much delaying, I finally capitulated, as a result of all round pressure. I could not stand the reproach in the eyes of my doctor, mom, even daughter. “ You are over fifty, don’t you want to be safe rather than sorry? Would you not want to know early if anything was going on? It’s not just about you, you know? “ And so on. So, guilt ridden and petrified of what I would find out I drove over to the clinic. Called the Women’s Health Clinic it was cloyingly feminine and testosterone proof! No man had ever stepped into this zone, I was certain. And luckily for them no man needed to!

I had wanted to make a fulsome experience of it and had combined it with an ultrasound of the pelvis – “let’s find out everything that is going on in my feminine parts in one swell swoop”, was my thinking. I could not handle piecemeal findings. So I walked in with an overfull bladder sure I would embarrass myself right there on that ultrasound table. The poker faced technician tried to ease my urgency by making small talk – which was not helping. I was ready to scream. She remained calm and with deft hands completed the test pointing to the washroom so I could relieve myself and get ready for the next big ordeal – the much feared M. I was given a gown to don and asked to wait. A big African woman greeted me with a wide smile and seeing the terror in my eyes after one look at the machine inspired by the guillotine (same principle), she said “oh its not as bad as women make it out to be, you’ll see”. The left one was first placed on this icy cold surface ready to be smashed into a tortilla by the sledge hammer that would be slammed into it. I was trusting of her reassurance and steeling myself offered myself up. Done and done. I was so proud of myself. I skipped out, a spring in my step. This had not been so bad.

The next morning, I received that dreaded call. “The radiologist wants more pictures, can you come in?” Whoa, where had that come from? Me – “I was not expecting this, do you know if it is bad?” The clinical reply from the other end “she did not say”. Ok, I could not live with the tension of not knowing, so even though it was in the middle of my work day I said “I can come now”. I had set something in motion, I thought. Where was it going to end? This time it was only the right one that would be subject to some extra special treatment. Not 4 pictures like the time before but six. At least I knew the drill. This technician was ramrod straight and poker faced. She was a severe middle aged white woman whose life’s activities were run to clockwork precision. A robot with bad breath. She gave precise instructions, made no small talk and jammed the machine into me 6 times without minimising the experience. This time I felt like a torture victim, vulnerable and helpless. The sound of the x-ray only enhanced the experience. I had a sense of permanent damage to some vital parts. Efficient but cold and apparently uncaring. I knew then it was about the technician.

The story has a happy ending. A day passed. I convinced myself, if they needed to probe so deep it was not so visible maybe and so early days, perhaps? I was prepared for the worst. I finally got a call from the doctor’s office. All clean, come in to talk about your ultrasound – but absolutely no rush. Phew! Till the next time.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Travel diary 2 - In Barcelona, April 4 - 6, 2016

On Monday morning I left for Baracelona. My initial plan was to take public transit. However I got a tad overzealous making a salad and wraps for U to tide her over at least for a couple of days and did not want to take a chance. The taxi ride set me back £48 at least 60% more than the train ride. One of the truths about London is that public transit is the more reliable to get you anywhere on time. There is just no accounting for London traffic. Also I had to live with the guilt of travelling unsustainably given that I could have easily taken the overground to Islington and Higbury, the subway to Victoria and boarded the Gatwick express to get me there in better time. (Lesson 1 – In London, public transit is the better not just the cheaper option). My sensible light bags would have allowed for this. After a few tense moments stuck in traffic gridlock, we made it out on the highway to the airport free and clear. I caught Vueling Air, a budget airline from Spain and began my immersion in Spanish right from the moment I boarded my flight.

During the next 5 days I experienced the joys of operating without any knowledge of primary language and vigorously employed the art of using props and hand gestures to make myself understood. It's a good thing I needed no emergency services. I would have gone into panic mode. (Lesson 2 - Always carry a phrase book (better yet an App) that will help ask and answer simple questions in the destination country's language aka never assume people will understand English everywhere you go).

The flight was uneventful and I read my book of short stories “Bombay Meri Jaan”. I love Bombay but could not help compare it's living conditions to those in these smaller European cities which though not ostentatious were so clean and civilized with all necessary public amenities. The airline seats were bare polyurethane but there was sufficient leg room to allow for a decent flight. I landed in Barcelona around 5:40 pm, and without bothering to enquire after trains that would take me to my hotel, hailed a cab. The cabbie dropped me off at the square unable to identify my hotel from the few there were around the square. On my bidding he did call the hotel to receive no response. I felt abandoned and made my way to a hotel lobby in sight and she pointed me in the direction of my hotel quickly identifying the name on the sheet I held out to her. There it was above the Central train station. ( Lesson 3 – In Europe, always research public transit options for trip from destination airport to accommodation. It is generally available and definitely the cheaper alternative to cab, also giving one a perspective on the city's connectivity from the get go).

My travel buddy was waiting for me in the lobby. Delighted to see a friendly, familiar face I hugged her, travel odours notwithstanding. We met our other friend in the hotel room where I quickly partook of the a amazing rain shower (few hotels allow you to waste water like that these days) (Lesson 4 - when the shower architecture does not allow for water to remain inside the bathing space and there is a spray that causes the rest of the washroom to get wet, be considerate to other users and make do with the hand shower!).

We were in beautiful Barcelona and all was well with the world, except for eating places. There were few within walking distance and none with a suitably cosmopolitan menu. We finally arrived at an Italian restaurant hoping it would accommodate our vegetarian palates. We were greeted with a welcome drink of sparkling wine (Prosecco) served in champagne glasses ( nice touch!). We ordered a bottle of rose for the table. The menus were in Spanish and as we struggled to pick out items without meat or seafood or eggplant and convey our dietary preferences to our waiter, I noticed that his skin tone was darker than the average Spaniard and ventured "are you from India?" Turned out he was from Pakistan and spoke Urdu and Spanish but no English! - so the rest of the ordering was a breeze with us conversing with him in Hindi ( close enough to Urdu) except he was not the brightest light and lacked attention to detail. So he did manage to screw up my order and brought it with eggplant. I had to send it back. However, they were nice enough to bring me a thin crust pizza (Lesson 5 – South Asians are ubiquitous and so you may get by with knowledge of a language from that region, even if you don’t know language of destination country!). We stayed till they were ready to close around midnight chatting as we enjoyed the rose, the catch up and laughs.

The next morning we woke up around 9, showered and changed to head for coffee at one of the Station Cafes (Cafe Estacia). We picked up the Barcelona map and armed with a 10 ride pack on the metro headed to the station that would allow us to meander through this alluring city, with its architectural master pieces so audaciously lining the streets where the general public lived life out in the open. Its stunning grandeur was evident even its residential buildings, its boulevards, its wide roads, elegant cafes and stores. The cold (12 degrees) and rain did not deter us. On our list was the statue of Christopher Columbus(Spain's illustrious son) and the harbour front, La Boqueria (Barcelona’s world renowned Central Market), the Gaudi buildings, and Park Guell which boasted numerous examples of Gaudi's genius and vision in architecture and tile art. The market was teaming with commerce and activity. We ate some ice cream and drank juice. We did not enter the two Gaudi buildings in the city since it would have meant waiting in line for over an hour at least. We decided to take the metro and climb up to Park Guell instead. Wise move, since the weather had cleared. We had already done an impressive 6 hours of walking by the time we got to the park. We then tackled a steep trek up to it, partly by escalator but mostly by stairs and ramps to catch a breathtaking and panoramic view of this stunning city from that great height. It was totally worth the effort. At the park itself, we explored the early century porter houses, the tile art, porcelain installations and gardens, all of which were breathtaking. We took several pictures stunned by the boldness and uniqueness of the art. On our way back we were hungry and wanted to find a decent place to have a sit down meal - but to no avail. Finally we each decided to do our own thing with me settling for 2 empanadas (one with hummus and another with spinach) from the Station Cafe and a small fries from the McD at the station, all of which I ate accompanied by white wine, in the room. (Lesson 6 - Drinking water off the tap is scarce in Europe; your wine consumption is bound to increase, since it is a better deal than bottled water!).

Spain is not known for its vegetarian food options, though fruits, nuts, yoghurt, sweet sticky pastries, cheese bread and a savoury potato dish, are in abundance and very fresh and tasty. (Lesson 7 - in countries where you cannot find the right kind of foods to nourish you it may be a better and a much cheaper option to go into an Airbnb space where you can make simple meals - the trade-off is no room service).

The next day we did not have time for any serious sightseeing. We slept in, ate breakfast at McD and picked up fruit salad and yoghurt to have on the train. We boarded the train to Valencia at 2 pm. I promised myself I would be back soon.

Travel Diary 1 - London weekend April 1 - April 3, 2016

Arrived on Friday am. U ordered a cab which got me home by 12:30. It was a gorgeous day and I could have taken public transit given the weather and given I was travelling light for once. However, the cab traversed west to east London and I got a preview of this great city with its double decker buses, gorgeous landmarks, parks, it's rich, gentrified and poor neighbourhoods. The overwhelming impression was of much life happening out in the open with folks scurrying around in the broad sidewalks, or pedalling their bikes, riding transit or braving traffic in those narrow roads in tiny cars - mostly European and stick shift. The ride took an hour and cost £40. The Somali driver, who spoke fluent Dutch, told me in halting English that he had moved here from the Netherlands for love but 12 years later could not afford to buy a house for his growing family of 6. He did not think he could afford anymore than 4 kids. Certainly not the 15 his parents had. It was a pleasant chat on topics ranging from the weather to politics to the economy. I finally reached U's 4th floor walk up where she was waiting for me, having decided to work from home. I showered and left her to her devices taking off to the open market close by. Cheery, colourful and rich in cultural, ethnic, racial and linguistic diversity it was warm and welcoming. I bought some fresh vegetables eager to cook for U. I also settled on parathas from the Guyanese vendor formulating a menu in my head of a vegetable masala with roti and quinoa. The meal hit a spot combined with delicious pickle and yoghurt. Satiated we watched TV, got caught up, argued over silly things and then decided to diffuse the tension with a walk through the park that leads to Islington. A small tub of Haagen Das was just what we needed after what had been a long and tiring day for both of us.

We set out early on Saturday morning to the nearby coffee shop. Home grown and very civilized with gunny sacks of coffee and wood blocks at the entrance for effect, it was a welcoming place, the smell of coffee rich, flavourful and a quick draw. We ordered a mixed plate of avocados, tomatoes, artisanal bread and a boiled egg to share over cups of flat white coffee. U had hers with soya milk. The place was teaming with young yuppie couples with babies out for their Saturday morning treat. We came back home showered and changed to enjoy a glorious day in the sun. It was a balmy 15, the sky was blue and spring had sprung. I packed some fruit and we headed out to Hampstead Heath taking the overground and then changing over to a subway. We disembarked refuelled with delicious coffee at an upscale deli and coffee shop also picking up little packets of caramel and chocolate covered popcorn for a sugar fix after the long trek. We followed the undulating path and then climbed up to its highest point to catch a glimpse of the skyline. Clear and unhindered by smog, there it was. There were young families picnicking everywhere. It was a lovely sight. We made our way back to Hampstead subway walking past cafes and restaurants not particularly inspired to partake of lunch there. We set our sights on Soho for Chinese or Malaysian food. Alas the subway line which would take us there was closed for maintenance so we settled for Bank Street grabbed a wrap and some Sushi and headed to the National Portrait Gallery by a double decker bus. As the bus lurched I swilled coffee from my half full cup on a young woman across from the seat I was about to occupy. After profuse apologies and a few embarrassing moments we alighted from the bus leaving behind the impression of a naive tourists still learning the intricacies of riding public transit in this City. The National Potraits Gallery had Vogue and Churchill retrospectives which we did not get to see. We settled for the regular fare and were delighted to explore 500 years of Potraits of royals, nobles and famous figures. We were struck by the repetitive theme of the catastrophic and dreadful ends that most of them met as a result of disease, decapitation, depravity or depression. At 6:00, we jostled through crowded Soho in the light drizzle and took a long bus ride home riding on the top floor of the double decker, occupying the front row. Back in U's cozy apartment I cooked a nice South Indian meal which we enjoyed watching the last season of The House of Cards.

The next day was as gorgeous as the one before. U's friend and cleaning help Irina was home and so we left her to her devices as she cheerily did some deep cleaning, laundry and ironing. We decided to walk down to the Geffrye's Homes and Gardens museum which had homes of the merchant class recreated from the 1500s to the present day. I loved the narrations of daily activities from personal dairies retrieved from those times. I also liked how under the theme "swept under the rug" they talked about the mistreatment of the household help, including ayahs brought over from India. There were distinct variations in theme to the home gardens of these families over the centuries. We picnicked on the grounds. I had brought along Halloumi, tomato and avocado wraps and fruit. We then made our way to the flower market. It was packed as the vendors were packing up and giving away plants at bargain prices. There were so many young men and women, alone or in pairs. This was Shoreditch where the yuppie culture is alive and well and people were spontaneously gathering to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon in the watering holes and coffee shops around the corner from the market. It was so good to be young and alive in this place at this time, I thought!

We returned home and took a nice long nap. Famished I woke up, had dinner and went out for another long walk to make the most of the balmy night. It was after 10 when we found ourselves in the middle of a deserted park. We picked up our pace till we got to the well lit street and got home. U assured me she never walked or rode her bike through the city parks alone at night.

I left the next morning for Spain.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Carnatic Cola - written 2002

I do sadly mourn the demise of the unmatched genius that was U.Srinivas ..

As carnatic music aficionados, we rarely miss a good concert in the city. Especially not one of Mandolin U. Srinivas’ calibre. We are undeterred by ticket cost or its occurrence in a crowded downtown suburb where parking spots are premium. And, last evening’s concert, part of the Small World Music series marking its celebration of the South Asian Heritage Month, which included a repertoire of world class artists Trichy Sankaran on mridangam and Delhi Sundarajan on violin, on all counts presented great promise. Why then did it disappoint?

Carnatic music concerts substantially focus on an artists’ ability to improvise. To test the limits of knowledge and skill; to dig deep within for those abstract emotions that lend themselves for expression in music more than in language; to establish a communion with the listener in another space time paradigm. A concert that is set to the clock and rudely interrupted with an intermission flies in the face of such a musical genre. That was strike one against this concert.

The concert was exactly two hours long. The only two elaborate pieces were a krithi in Hindolam and the Raagam Thaanam Pallavi (“RTP”) in Simhendramadhyamam and even these were disappointingly short. With four krithis pre intermission and the RTP and 4 thukkadas after, the concert was formulaic and strictly a compromise aimed at pleasing a “western” audience. However, it is unknown how far even this was achieved. When an artist plays to cater to what their perception of the audience’s preference is – they cease to be spontaneous and curb the enthusiasm of their co-performers. U. Srinivas was more a director than a performer yesterday, holding the concert in tight rein and rarely letting go except to indulge the mridangists. Delhi Sundarajan’s playing was forced, tentative and somewhat strained. He was not very present in the RTP and in most of the renditions was “allowed” to play it seemed, as an after thought. I yearned for the memorable sparring, born out of mutual respect, as I have heard between vintage U. Srinivas and violinist Kanyakumari. Sundarajan could have delighted given half a chance but, there was none of that. That was strike two.

U. Rajesh on mandolin took up a lot of sound bytes and he is a fine artist who did not disappoint. But what he brought out was the difference between a good musician and a great one. It was clear that despite U. Rajesh’s technical prowess and ability to hold his own, he lacked his brother’s ability to touch, to tease the accompanists, to produce the unexpected, to look up in wonderment at the sounds that were emanating from his instrument as though they had been created just for that moment, even unintentionally and unknown to him. The mark of a genius is the ability to take risks and create on the spot, to challenge and be challenged, but do all that with such ease that the audience does not see the “work” that goes on but delights in the sheer experience of what is served up. U. Rajesh shared the stage with U. Srinivas, which meant less of the latter. That was strike three.

Carnatic music is to this day still substantially non-commercial. For the most part musicians manage their careers, are not haloed celebrities but accessible people who are equally at ease performing a free concert at a local Chennai temple, as they are at Music Academy or the Royal Albert Hall. Last year I met M.S. Subbulakshmi, one of Carnatic music’s finest, at her modest abode in Chennai and she said to me “Naan mathram paadalaye..ellarum paadra..ellarum paadanum” (I am not the only one who sings, everyone sings, everyone must sing) with touching humility and grace. I was moved by her message that we are but instruments and that the music is more important than the person who renders it.

My conclusion then is that yesterday’s concert was packaged Carnatic Cola with fizz but little of its true substance and soul. Granted Carnatic artists should be paid better and given recognition that is commensurate with their skill and talent. However, we as Carnatic music lovers have a responsibility to take it back to its roots and to educate western audiences on what a true concert should be rather than have it fit a different mold.