Sunday, December 15, 2019

Chennai concert season - thoughts!

Only in Chennai can you sit in an air conditioned hall, in the heart of the city, and feel transported to another time and era as you listen to free classical music concerts. Most concert venues are located in and around Mylapore which still maintains its village like allure. Set back in time it is full of narrow alleys surrounding its most ancient temples and tank, street houses, age old saree and jewellery shops, restaurants serving traditional South Indian fare and concert venues with onsite catering, permanent and makeshift. It feels like a throwback to another time that is fast fading. A time when social media did not distract, and listening to concerts was the best you could do for entertainment. A time when devotion to craft for the sake of it was valued. However, before I wax prolific with romantic notions of times past, I must point out that it was a very caste conscious time and classical art forms were only available to a chosen elite of Tambrahms who formed the inner circle. There just was no ticket in, unless there was a patron promoting a prodigious talent as was the case with M.S. Subbulakshmi and a few others.

Today, there is an intentional effort afoot to make the coveted Chennai performance stages more accessible. Young people from here and abroad flock to make their mark in the Madras music scene at the December music festival which hosts over 3000 concerts in venues across the city from November through January. Technological advances have resulted in TV contests, videos of live concerts, online classes and various other immersive musical experiences that are geography agnostic. Hence the global spread and popularity of South Indian classical art forms. The audience in Chennai is the most discerning and therefore sets the bar high for artists. A live concert in this city is a challenge they must scale to make their mark pursuing complex, intricate, mathematically precise and yet infinitely creative art forms.

Speaking of access, sponsors such as saree magnates Chinnaswami Chetty of Nalli fame, continue to make most concerts available free of cost. However, as the population ages and streaming services catch on more and more, one wonders if this will continue to be the case? It is hard to tell. Are new artists serious enough to pursue these art forms as careers, to back-fill waning older artists, in sufficient numbers? One cannot really say. I do hope that the golden years of the Chennai December season are not a thing of the past and the musical extravaganza it presents continues to evolve, grow and thrive with the myriad technologies at our disposal. For eg, you can now buy tickets through apps, single and bundled, and you can watch concerts live-streamed for a price. There are music concerts bundled with buffet lunches. So you can have your pick! Since Carnatic music is all about improvisation, the connection with the audience is relevant and important for artists to feed off and offer the best experience - hence live concerts are imperative. I therefore hope the status quo of the December concert season proliferates to enchant and enthrall even more than before.

As for me, for some time to come, I hope to wear jasmine in my hair and join the many women elegantly dressed in colourful silk cotton sarees at concert venues. We will while away pleasant December evenings listening to heavenly music that evokes strong nostalgia of a simpler time when drinking coffee and eating tiffin between concerts at the Music Academy made for a wonderful Dec concert season.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The wonderful world of Apps

I was in Mumbai over the last three days attending a family wedding and thanks to wonderful apps had a grand old time that was seamless and perfect. Of course the airline tickets were booked through an app as well as our first night’s stay at a hotel with a gorgeous view of Marine Drive. Once at the airport we used the priority pass app to find a lounge and had a great breakfast before boarding the flight. We hired a car through a friend to go out on the first day, to our old haunts and residence in Colaba and Cuffe Parade, respectively. We reconnected with friends. We then took Uber everywhere and located restaurants to eat at, through apps. All these are pretty run of the mill and have become part of life in any metropolis now. So it’s not about these but about 2 special uses that I made of them that I want to talk about.

So after checking out of Marine Plaza in South Mumbai we headed to Powai close to where the wedding festivities were being held. It was at least an hour’s drive with low traffic volume. Meanwhile, the city’s pollution had aggravated my cough and I was struggling, and preoccupied with restoring my health to fully partake of the celebrations over the next two days. Naturally I forgot what I needed most, at the Marine Plaza. What else? My iPhone charger. But wait. I did not discover this till later that night! A lot happened before then, for which I made use of the first app worth mention.

So we arrived at the hotel where we had been booked by our relatives. We decided we needed to change to one closer to the venue and which was more spacious, with amenities and breakfast options. We arrived at the hotel where the Mehendi was being held, followed by lunch, and found out that the Sangeeth, later that night, was being held there. It was five star and pretty impressive so what better place, especially given my elderly mom and my persistent and annoying cough. A cousin who was already staying there vouched for the rooms, service and breakfast, so it appeared to be the logical choice. He had booked it through an app called Agoda. I had no clue how much the rooms would set me back by?! The hotel appeared quite fancy, and therefore would be, I thought, pretty pricey. I got on the Agoda app right away, and right there in the lobby of the hotel attempted to book two rooms for the first night. They were the last ones for that night, but were not available for another night. So I booked a second one, for three person occupancy for the next night, since one of our party of 4 was leaving that evening . Wonder of wonders the app gave me a 60% discounted rate, compared to if I had booked it there at the hotel, making it all very reasonable and affordable. All I had to do was pull up the app rate, and the hotel matched it, vitiating the need to go through Agoda to make the booking . Five star quality with amazing amenities and adjoining rooms with interconnecting doors and even special free upgrades, we smugly settled and rested before the Sangeeth. The air purifiers in the rooms, the luxurious hot showers, the bathrobes and slippers, an array of utility kits, coffee and tea, comfortable beds and pillows, helped restore me somewhat. I enjoyed the evening performances and dinner, in the company of family and friends.

Alas, when I got to the room and tried to plug in my phone, I discovered my charger was missing. I promptly got on Amazon and ordered a generic one to be delivered to our Chennai home on Monday. I went to bed wondering how I would get by the following day, since I needed my phone to take pictures, order Uber, make calls or do the million things I rely on my phone for. Early the next morning, my young genius nephew told me about Dunzo, a courier app. However, he found out that it was not available in Mumbai. But, he said, there was a substitute there, offering a similar service, called Wefast. He then asked for pick up and delivery of charger with cash to be paid on delivery. I had a courier pick up the charger from Marine Plaza and deliver it to Hotel Meluha Fern for less than the cost of travel to said destination one way! I was overjoyed. I promptly charged the phone and took pictures to my heart’s content. Life’s cinch with apps! Why not make the best use of them?!

Monday, November 25, 2019

Thoughts on spirituality

On Sunday afternoon, as I drove to my Executive Leadership course at Ivey in London, I listened to a podcast, which informed how I participated to ensure a rewarding experience for myself and for all. I came to it with openness and from an authentic place, trying not to project the individual me. I listened a lot and connected. When I participated I found myself receiving insight from a higher intelligence which made me act with wisdom and solve problems easily. I was amazed at the coincidences and synchronicities I experienced. I received great feedback from fellow participants and even a scholarship grant from the organizers. I am sure you can all relate to those times when you find yourself in a zone! I urge you all to listen and process the subtleties of some of the fundamental truths conveyed here, as espoused in that podcast (link below. The gist as I understood it is below:

Consciousness and you

Key ideas

Consciousness is non local
Amit explains many things based on theories of physics - that everything is anchored in consciousness as a base and that consciousness is non local. This means that space and time have nothing to do with it. It therefore explains how we can manifest events and experiences based on intentions and healing can happen from a distance.

Causation is downward and not upward and matter is not concrete
Matter as it is manifested is not concrete but represents “possibilities”. Because of this we can manifest any and all possibilities without limitations (radical!!).

So how do we make all this relevant in our lives? What can we practically do?
It’s really simple. No need to think too deeply about any of this. He says just be aware that anything that triggers a sensation, thought or action may be outside but is best dealt with focussing inward and noticing them as they arise is all we need to do to quieten the thoughts that cause them. The more we do this the more connected we will be with the universal consciousness. The less we do this the more separate and unworthy our ego will make us feel.

Do we need to get rid of the ego?
The good news is - we don’t need to get rid of the ego. The basis of all creativity is the ego. And so there is doing (ego) and being until one evolves into just being. Practically speaking we can have great initiatives, but as we connect more with the universal consciousness we will be less identified with them at the level of the ego more at the collective realm. When we shift attention away from seeking credit and validation for the little “I” and form intention to work towards the universal “I”, a process of evolution naturally sets in within each of us and one day we will each be merged with the universal.

So what is the collective benefit from this?
The more we are this way the more we can create a field around us of love and peace (morphogenic); and the more numbers of us who do this, the more awesome the quantum social change that can happen. We should therefore engage in this practice for the greater good as well! (revolutionary!!)

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Uttara’s cycling diaries - Cycling through the Pelopponese - Day’s 8 and 9 - Epidaurus to Nafplio (and Day 9 - Nafplio)

(I have anonymized and edited out parts).

Today was the final day of our bike ride. My legs and body are tired, but I woke up with a positive attitude and a good amount of energy for the final day. We woke up, ate breakfast (I have been having a small bowl of the most delicious, creamy greek yogurt with honey drizzled on top and coffee most mornings, with maybe a piece of bread on the side). Our hotel in Nafplio has been amazing - comfortable two room suite with a beautiful little balcony with views of the port and mountains in the background as well as the high Palamidi fortress just behind us. The hotel staff have been great and we have been treated to an elaborate breakfast of yoghurt, cake, wraps, spinach pastries, bread, jams and eggs. As usual, I have not been hungry in the morning, so I have packed a pastry with me on the journey.

We were told to meet our driver at 9 am at the Nafplio bus stop today. The plan was for him to take us to Epidaurus, from where we would bike the 42km back to our hotel. The bus stop being a two minute walk from the hotel, we had our breakfast and made our way.

Epidaurus was about a 30-45 min drive away (maybe slightly more) and is an ancient place of worship and definitely a historical highlight for me. The most impressive part of the whole site was the 2300 year old amphitheatre (dating back to the 4th Century BC) which is incredibly well preserved - holding up to 14,000 viewers. We walked to the top row of the amphitheatre and the views were incredible. We could also see everything perfectly from any seat in the circle below. What was most astonishing were the excellent acoustics - you could hear conversations being had on the ground from the top row - the sound carried so well. Now I can understand how people enjoyed plays and spectacles without audio! The other really cool part of Epidaurus was the Stadium, which dates back to the 5th Century BC. We saw running posts and a track, where original races took place! Really cool. There were also shrines, baths, and a museums preserving the ancient artefacts. All really great.

One thing i have learned being in Greece, is that to truly understand timelines and populations, you need to not only know Greek history but also Greek Mythology. When we visit different sites, we are inundated with places of worship and names different communities living in the same sites at different times. Apparently, understanding the Bible is helpful to understand timelines.

Once our self guided tour was over, we picked up our locked bikes and set off for Nafplio, with a stop at a beach in the first 20km. The profile looked quite easy, but there were a lot of hills. Today I was feeling energised and had no problem with any of the cycling. I think my endurance finally kicked in and I felt like I was in good shape for all the climbs, keeping a good pace. We climbed to a highpoint, through the hills on the side of the road and turned off to go down the mountain. Going down was a bit scary, mostly due to the many many many potholes along the way, but I kept it very slow and steady and managed to keep it safe and reasonably comfortable. When we arrived at the beach - I immediately stripped off my cycling clothes to be in my swimsuit which I had worn underneath and jumped into the lovely water to cool down. It was perfect. After wading in the sparkling water, I took a rest in the shade with some water, diet coke and ate one of the spinach pastries from breakfast that we had packed along the way

After about 45 mins of lounging, we decided that it was time to head back to town. This last bit was the most trying, not because it was challenging, but because one of us ran out of gas. I stayed behind with them but
it was simply not possible . Finally we all supported each other by taking turns riding their bike so they could walk and catch their breath. It was confusing and hard but we made our destination in one piece.

We arrived at 4:30pm - and I showered and immediately headed to the beach. I hadn't seen the Nafplio beach yet (it was on the other side of the port) - but after scaling a short hill at the back of our hotel, we arrived and spent the next few hours swimming and lounging. To the left of our beach there was an abandoned building on a cliff face with graffiti and the best views. We joked that this should be our self sustaining commune in the future - where we live a simple life and invite fellow Londoners for a sejour.

After some beach time (the water was lovely too - but i kept screaming every 5 mins because i kept getting poked and bitten by tiny fish - a highly uncomfortable feeling) - we headed back to the hotel, showered and decided to enjoy our final sunset with a cocktail and have dinner in town. I drank a Strawberry Daiquiri watching the sunset and got a mild brain freeze. We then walked to a restaurant for a delicious Italian meal and basically stuffed our faces to a point where nobody could move or have coherent conversation. It was really fun. We waddled back to our apartment and called it a night

Day 9 - Final day in Nafplio

Today was the final day. Yesterday over dinner, we plans to walk the 1000 steps to the Palamidi fortress behind our hotel in the morning. It was the final push of cardio for the holiday. I woke up at around 7:45, had a coffee and waited for the others. One of the group of 4 joined me, so we did the walk up to see the views. We put my phone on speaker, listened to some tunes and did the walk up and down. The views were great. We saw the entire town, the other castle grounds (there are 3 castles in town) and great views of the sea. We were also back at the hotel at a smooth 9am.

It is now after breakfast and I am sitting in the balcony finishing this journal entry. The sun is shining but there is a wonderful warm breeze and the views are totally special. I am going to spend the rest of the time reading (I succeeded in my journaling mission but failed in my reading mission), having a cheap and cheerful sports massage and just enjoying the final moments in this lovely country.

Until the next cycling adventure!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Uttara's Travel Diaries - Cycling through the Pelopponese Region in Greece - Day 7 - Round Trip (Nafplion to Mycenae)

Day 7 - Round Trip (Nafplion to Mycenae)

We were approaching our 5th and second last day of the trip and I woke up a bit anxious to start the ride. Yesterday, xxx approached me and said she was looking to leave the trip early. It had nothing to do with us, but she has been going through xxx and I think the stress of keeping up with us was not making this experience enjoyable for her. I don't want to go into any detail out of respect for her privacy, but we chatted for a long time and I insisted that she stay and that we spend the day together and do the ride at our own, slow pace. I also told her how proud of herself she should be for taking this physical challenge on after not working out for almost a year. In the end, she agreed to try cycling for one more day and see how she feels after. So it was just the two of us on this ride and it turned out to be a great idea. She just needed some attention, the feeling that she is not constantly racing to catch up, and a slower pace, where we could chat and enjoy the environment we were in. To be honest, I did too.

Our ride today was just over 51km where we cycled through the countryside to the fortress Mycenae. We left quite late as xxx's bike got a flat tire even before leaving our hotel. She was in good spirits and walked her bike to the bike shop (15 mins away) and got it fixed prior to starting the ride. We didn't know what to expect, but I was slightly scared about the heat and the profile - gradual uphill all the way to Mycenae with some aggressive hills at the top. However, a change of pace made all the difference. We took it slow and gradual and fuelled up with lots of water and sugary drinks to keep the energy levels up. At the 12 km mark, we were both thirsty, drinking our water at a record pace so we took a small detour to a shop and fuelled up. And by fuelled up I mean, I downed a pepsi and a bottle of water and ate a mini ice cream right outside the shop -- and then went on to purchase two more bottles of water and a 1.5L bottle of cold lemonade. In rides like this, glucose is a requirement to keep the energy going.

Otherwise we were doing absolutely fine. We cycled through 'false flats' for the first 15km (a term used in cycling to describe a road that looks flat but in fact is a steady incline from the start) and didn't even notice, as we were chatting the whole way. I wanted to keep xxx engaged, so I asked her a lot of questions. We received a text from xxx and xxx telling us how hard the ride was for them (as they had already made the peak by that point) and if we wanted to reconsider going the whole way, but we didn't feel it was that bad after all. Personally, I found it a lot more manageable despite the heat. And even with the extra time it took us, it was really worth it. We had a great day together.

For this ride, we left the seaside and cycled inland through the countryside, which was surrounded by groves of oranges, lemons and limes. It was pretty much the same landscape through rolling hills and groves. There were really no shops or places to sit the whole way, and most of the route was under the hot sun. We were met with some aggressive dogs barking from behind the fences (I really have never seen such aggressive dogs anywhere - they must be trained just to protect their owners from trespassers – otherwise, there is no reason for such hostility!).

Then we hit the hills that xxx and xxx were talking about. Fortunately, they were not bad at all, especially with a few stops for drinks along the way. We made it to the final hill - Mycenae. The climb and essential incline for the entire journey was worth it - it was absolutely stunning and I really couldn't fathom how old it was. It is one of the most important archaeological sites from the bronze age in Greece. The fortress of Mycenae was built some 3300-3500 years ago, and it is one of the most important cities of antiquity (once a centre of Greek civilisation). It basically sits up on a mountain and you can see views all the way to the Sea from this fort. I marvelled at the world famous Lion Gate which is over 3000 years old. There were so many things to see in the fort itself - cereal storage, a citadel, a grave site (as old as the Pharaohs) and relics showing the mechanics of how water was collected and stored. Walking uphill (and a lot of uphill at that) and seeing all the sites really opened up more questions than provided answers. How the hell were they able to build something like this 3000 years ago? How did they have the knowledge to create an underground cistern for water collection? (apparently, the water source was an aqueduct about 360m from the citadel)

We also visited the Treasury of Atreus, which is a tomb constructed in the bronze age around 1250 BC. It is huge - the stones on the doorway apparently weigh 120 tonnes. We were able to walk inside the cool interior, which is 13.5m in height and 14.5m in diameter. Apparently it was the tallest and widest dome in the world for over a thousand years until the Pantheon in Rome (or so they say).

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and were not too fussed about the ride home because it was basically downhill. We realised how much we had climbed just by experiencing how pleasant the ride home was - speedy, minimal effort, no gear changes and other than a few kms of stony gravel - where I was afraid I would get a flat tire - totally painless. We stocked up on water about 7km from Nafplion and rode the rest of the journey back with the final 3km stretch along the coast.

We arrived around 4:40 pm - exhausted but happy. xxx felt a sense of achievement and felt positive about the day tomorrow. After coming home and showering, I needed some alone time (down time) - the last 24 hours were emotionally exhausting for me too (as well as physically), so I went for a walk and ate a huge plate of pasta and salad in this nice little Italian restaurant close to our hotel. The waiters were so kind and the portions were huge.

I then walked to the harbour and sat and watched the sunset while (attempting to) read my book, and then waddled back to the hotel, meeting the other three in town at different points :)

I have mixed feelings about tomorrow being our last ride. The profile looks excellent and easy - but I am also exhausted and ready to just sit on the beach and relax for my final day.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Teaching moment

I was driving along in my eight year old Subaru Forester yesterday when I experienced what would you call a “teaching moment”. I was listening to a conversation with Gary Zukav, the author of “The Seat of the Soul”, on my blue tooth headset. His quiet voice said “every experience is meant to teach us something that helps elevate our consciousness”. Just as he finished the sentence, I swung my car into the office parking garage and slowly ascended the ramp. Then out of nowhere, this little Mazda flashed in front of me and the next thing I know there was a screeching of brakes and the unpleasant and disturbing sound of metal upon metal. I had been in a Zen state till then and I transformed into this angry, confused individual trying to hold it all together. The driver of the car I had hit was a young girl. She had jumped the stop sign and darted in front of me. I had cars behind me entering the garage so could not stop on time. Since it was clearly her fault, she began running up and down not knowing if she was coming or going. We exchanged insurance papers and took pictures, all the while enduring insults from irate drivers, whose cars we were blocking and forcing into a detour. I could clearly see that this dithering was born out of our sheer distrust of each other. We did not want the other to screw us over. Anyway, I gathered my beans and parked my car. I had to laugh. I felt ridiculous that something so inconsequential brought out such vile emotions from within me. I rushed to my meeting a little disturbed that my perfectly ordered morning was in disarray, my poor car had her face deformed with an ugly gash and hole, but kept calm, determined to stay with the discomfort. I stayed focussed on the agenda and when I emerged on the other side the morning’s events were dreamlike. Of course, the husband, who I had called earlier, and who I was convinced thought it was all my fault, I was distracted or that I was a complete idiot, broke me out of my reverie to ask if I had called the Insurance Company. Ah yes, there is such a thing, I remembered. So I got on the phone and called to speak to a very cheery “Heather” who patiently outlined how an adjuster would be in touch and where I could get my repairs done and pick up my rental car. It was all so streamlined, easy and painless. I told her I would write to her Manager expressing my appreciation for the quality of service she provided me. She was thrilled! After work, I went to the Collision Centre to report the incident. I found out that you only call the police to the scene at the time of the accident if someone has been hurt, there is damage to personal property or if someone is driving impaired. Sure I was drunk on Zukav and the Zen state I was in, but not illegally impaired, thank god! So I did not have the Police on the scene and went instead to report the matter at the Toronto Police’s Collision Centre. I did not know what to expect. However, I received Cadillac treatment. The process was hassle free. I had a Metro Officer show me where I had to enter the data and I was done in a jiffy. She complimented me on my speed, printed off the report with an estimate of the damage. A young man had taken pictures while I was inside and it all came up on the screen with my report. Very impressive! I complimented her on her efficiency and she beamed. I just stopped short of giving her a hug! As I came out, the young woman whose car I had struck entered the Collision Centre and I greeted her like a long lost friend and apologised for being rude earlier. She reassured me that I had not been and even managed a smile. All was well with the world. Ah well, don’t know if my consciousness was elevated but my mood certainly was – by the swimmingly perfect way everything unfolded and conspired to help me out! At least I would like to think so!

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Infinite curiosity - promising stories about young women - 1

I have the curiosity of a journalist, though not their distrust. I see everyone as manifestation of consciousness but am infinitely curious about why we individual beings think and act the way we do. So to indulge this streak I have long conversations where I mostly listen without judgement. I am often impressed and definitely amused and entertained. On rare occasion, I am caught off-guard by the sheer brilliance of a clear mind and well rounded personality.

I had one such encounter earlier this week. What made it all the more incredulous is that this young woman is very big. I am sure most people do not look past this fact - because as humans with limited capacities we latch on to certain superficial aspects of personality to define the rest of them. We stereotype big people as being irresponsible, overindulgent, lazy and devoid of self control. And maybe these become self fulfilling prophecies. I needed to know the person behind this veneer and boy was I glad I chose to find out!

So this young girl is just over twenty and a recent graduate who is working her first “real job”.. I asked her about her work. She said she was in digital marketing at an e-commerce firm. She did their SEOs, directed their youtube promotional videos and managed the channel. She had graduated from a coveted and competitive
Marketing program. How did she like her job, I casually enquired. To which she replied that she was learning a lot but this was a stepping stone towards some pretty lofty goals. What were they? “Well I want to study at Stanford and ultimately work for Disney”, she said. She gave a self conscious gurgle and added “maybe I have set my sights too high”. I immediaty thought “maybe she has” but did not want to burst that bubble? Instead I chose to explore if this was a passing thought or a deep seated yearning. I was stunned by what I discovered about this sunny, positive woman who has been charting her career path since she was little.

She grew up in a little town in Tamilnadu which is steeped in orthodoxy around women’s roles. At best, girls from middle class families, are sent to college with the ultimate aim of securing them a good husband to look after them. In that town, where she had little opportunity to speak English, her teacher mother introduced her to books. She read and re-read Harry Potter and kept up inner conversations “in spells”, discovered Marvel comics, which she could lay her hands on, watched science fiction series on the good old Star TV Channel and, later, streamed. She devoured Dan Brown’s books and developed a fascination for weaving stories with deep, inner meaning and mystery. Alongside this, she became curious about social media and influencers even when it was not a “thing” and saw its infinite potential in selling product. She wanted to parlay these interests into a profession. This led to more research and soul searching. She became a great fan of the human psychology behind consumerism and realized her passion for creating campaigns that would re-make the image of a product. Soon her icons were the ad makers who revived campaigns. To her it was not about “selling” but about cracking a code, solving a mystery, challenging herself to get behind the human mind to stimulate a mass movement. She wrote to her heroes and she got standard replies that they only hired top tier MBA graduates. She wrote to Disney and they told her she needed a visa to get into the US and then maybe! She saw all these as positive signs!

Today, all she does in her work and life is based on a plan - to hone these skills, with single- minded enthusiasm and passion, to get into an Ivy League program. At an age when most kids are confused, scattered, hormone driven and reactive, this child is clear, focussed, self aware and positive. She has no time or band width to obsess over her weight and she is definitely not defined by how she looks, only by how she thinks! So very refreshing. She is academically whipper smart, is building a portfolio of achievements, reading, observing, building skills, gaining knowledge through everything she does and all with a chipper “can do” attitude! Why would she not get into Disney? They would be lucky to have her!

If you would like to mentor her, please get in touch with me!

Monday, June 24, 2019

Women of Influence Article

June, 18th, 2019 Expert Advice, Latest Articles, Media & News, Not-for-Profit, Profiles, Social Change, Social Change Award

Latha Sukumar was working as a lawyer when a personal experience led her down a new career path. She’s now the Executive Director of MCIS Language Services, a non-profit social enterprise offering translation, interpretation, and consulting to over 800 organizations across Canada — but it wasn’t always such a success. Latha shares how she came into her role and grew the business, with a mission of giving more people a voice.

By Karen van Kampen

As a summer law student working at the Crown’s office, Latha Sukumar witnessed a trial that would have a deep, lasting impact on her life. A man was charged with sexually assaulting an Iraqi woman at a church picnic. It was a difficult and emotional case, says Latha, with the Arabic speaking woman unable to tell her story.

“I felt totally helpless because I didn’t speak her language,” says Latha. “It became evident that these kinds of cases cannot be properly prosecuted if women don’t have a voice. That became a crusade for me.”

As Executive Director of MCIS Language Solutions — a non-profit social enterprise that specializes in translation, interpretation, and consulting — Latha works tirelessly to give people a voice by removing language barriers. In recognition of this unwavering vision, in 2018 she was presented with the RBC Social Change Award. It’s given to the leader of an organization dedicated to social change, that’s championing philanthropy and volunteerism in Canada.

Latha’s fight for social change began when she was a young girl growing up in India, listening to stories of oppression from her mother’s village. Stories of marital rape and widows working as menials in their own homes. Despite being very smart, her mother had to quit school when she reached puberty, forbidden to attend a mixed school with boys.

Along with her two sisters, she “grew up with the idea that women are subject to all these injustices and we have to stand up for the rights of women,” says Latha, adding that her mother “raised us to be women who were fearless.”

In 1987, at the age of 25, Latha immigrated to Canada with her husband and one-year-old daughter. “I had to go through a whole process of transforming myself,” she says. Latha cut her long hair, removed her nose ring, and began wearing Western skirts and pants.

A year later, Latha began a Master’s in Women’s Studies. “When I came here, I had to find my voice,” she says. “I had the freedom, I sensed, to be able to speak my mind, but it took a while to gain the confidence to believe that I had something important to say.”

Latha continued her studies at Osgoode Hall Law School, where she learned a more evidence-based way of thinking. “If I did not go to law school, I would have a much more rosy-eyed view,” she says. “Now I’m more practical.”

In 1996, Latha was appointed Executive Director at the non-profit Multilingual Community Interpreter Services (MCIS). “It was serendipitous,” she says. “It felt like my cause had found me.” At the time, MCIS had a staff of two-and-a-half, including Latha, operating out of a small warehouse in Scarborough. They relied solely on year-to-year government funding, which was unsustainable.

“When I came here, I had to find my voice. I had the freedom, I sensed, to be able to speak my mind, but it took a while to gain the confidence to believe that I had something important to say.”

In 2004, Latha set out to grow the organization, a feat she says she completely underestimated. “I thought as a lawyer, I had all the competence to do things,” she says. “I was so wrong.” Latha discovered that being an entrepreneur entailed reading financial statements, building streamlined operations, collecting and reading data, predicting and planning.

That year, MCIS partnered with Rotman School of Management, offering students experience at a not-for-profit. In exchange, Latha says the MBA interns shared knowledge of operations, upgrading technology, standard operating procedures, and marketing. MCIS continued the summer program for the next six years. “It was incredible learning,” she says.

As your business grows, it’s important to constantly educate yourself, to stay on top of changes within your industry, and “to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you in many different ways,” says Latha. “That’s hard sometimes because you feel challenged.”

It’s also important to delegate responsibility and not “get bogged down with busy work,” she adds. “The more you grow, the more strategic you have to become. It’s important to look beyond the present and keep calibrating your company’s weaknesses, strengths and opportunities to grow to the next level.”

To stand out in the crowded space of language services, MCIS increased its training programs to ramp up capacity quickly, hired bilingual staff and ensured people had the proper security clearance. This enabled MCIS to compete for federal government contracts, and in 2015, MCIS won the contract to provide interpreter services for Syrian refugees immigrating to Canada. When the first plane landed, Latha says they were ready, deploying hundreds of Arabic speaking interpreters who also spoke English and French to work with government authorities in both Montreal and Toronto.

Today, MCIS has more than 6,000 interpreters and translators who speak more than 300 languages collectively and serve more than 800 organizations across Canada. While it hasn’t always been easy, Latha tells herself, “every day incrementally,” focusing on how she is able to make a difference in people’s lives.

Latha reflects on a woman who refused to speak for three months. Every day, an MCIS interpreter would visit the woman in a shelter, yet the woman remained silent. Then one day the woman found the courage and trust to tell her story of abuse. The case went to superior court and her husband was convicted.

“We know that we made a difference in that woman’s life,” says Latha. “Those are the stories that keep you going every day.”

Friday, March 8, 2019

Chithi - a short story

Today, International Women's Day I remember the widows of South India and the lives they were condemned to live. This is about one of them, written in short story form.

GChithi picked coconut barks and dried twigs that were strewn all around the garden of that old house, gathered them in a basket woven from bark and carried them over to the bathroom located beside the well. Inside, a big copper pot filled with water had been set to boil. Chithi added the fodder to the fire which then blazed with an orange glow. A column of smoke escaped from the top of the pot and caught by the sunlight which entered through the tiny bathroom’s open chimney revealed a discotheque of dancing dust particles. Usually, Chithi would have reveled in its beauty while enjoying her few minutes of solitude and privacy. But today, she was preoccupied. She removed her faded saffron coloured saree which she wore without a blouse, and soaked it in a bucket with soap powder. She then wrapped herself in a piece of cloth which she wore while bathing, reveling as the warm water she poured over herself soothed her aching limbs. She was 65 years old and had lost her husband when he was only 25 and she 16. He had been a school teacher. She found out about 10 years ago that she was entitled to a small pension as a result of his service in a government school. On this day every month, she made the trip to the government office to inquire after her pension entitlement. She then stopped by the ration store, picked up her meager monthly quota of rice, sugar and, sometimes, 6 yards of coarse cotton cloth in beige. She dyed this cloth to saffron to wear as a saree. That piece of cloth was the extent of her security in the world. With no source of income and dependent on the largess of others for food and shelter, she had to make this dreaded trip every month.

Today, after her quick bath, she would once again make that trip. She had woken up an hour earlier than her usual time of 5:00 a.m., to cut the vegetables and grate the coconuts for the day’s meal. There were guests in the house from America. Sudha’s son Mani and daughter in law, Vidya. They had just arrived last night and there was much excitement. Although the visitors enquired after her, she felt like an intruder and compensated by doing all that she could to make herself useful. She felt awkward to abandon the kitchen on a day like this. But what could she do? She had to go. She quietly slipped out of the bath, hung her washed clothes to dry in the yard, and went into the dark and dingy store-room which afforded her some privacy. Since she slept on a mat in the living room, there was no corner in that house which she could call hers. She peeled off her wet cover and wrapped a dry saree, with no blouse inside. Her large breasts and nipples that showed through the thin cotton fabric, embarrassed her. She worried about the young men who stared at her their cruel gazes dehumanizing and their crude, obscene remarks painful and oppressive. She shut out the many times she had been molested and fondled by strangers and relatives alike. She made a mental note to threaten to slap anyone who did that today. Maybe she should break free from a tradition that condemned widows to be “blouseless” and start wearing a white blouse she thought. She could ask Mani for some money? After all she had known him since he was a little baby. God knows how many times she had asked Sudha to no avail. As she smeared ash on her forehead and covered her bald head with the coarse “saree”, she made a mental note to send for the barber to shave the stubble on her head. The 50 years, since her widowhood, had desensitized her to these rituals that were meant to deny her femininity. She placed her worn purse, which contained all the money she had in the world, ten rupees in change, in her little cloth bag and quietly bypassing the watery breakfast gruel, left the house. She walked barefoot, as had always been her practice. Maybe she would have Mani buy her a pair of slippers, for those summer days when the tar sizzled and melted under the merciless sun. She did not dwell too much on her desperate financial straits. She thanked God that for now she had a roof over her head and 1.5 square meals a day. Brunch at 11 after everyone had eaten, and a light tiffin around 5 pm. Widows like her were condemned to a monastic life with no food after sun down and many foods, which could stir up desires for sensual pleasure, denied to them. Her niece was kind to her. Granted she used and exploited her. But Chithi rationalized that it was infinitely better than living in one of those old age homes for the desperately poor, where non-Brahmins cook the meals and where she would live along-side people from lower castes?

The bus stop was right beside the market. She bought herself a banana as insurance in case she felt faint from hunger. She got on the bus and bought a ticket. Then her cloth bag in one hand, she held on for dear life to the back of a seat with the other. The bus was packed and tilted to the right as it moved, trundling through traffic. No one stood up to offer her a seat. Young men deliberately grazed against her body, some touching her breasts as though by accident. She gritted her teeth and glared directly at them. She did not want to cause a scene and bring further shame on herself.

Widowed and a menial all her life, Chithi was cursed with upper caste pride. In a previous era, as a Brahmin widow, she could have acted outraged and sanctimonious against members of the lower caste. Of course, those occasions would have been rare because she, an inauspicious sight, would not have been allowed in the public sphere. Now, in a political era rife with intense anti-brahmin sentiment, she was just a “bald Brahmin woman”, a pejorative, symbolizing society’s disdain for everything the caste represented and aimed at its most vulnerable members. Due to some vestige of caste loyalty fiercely held by her family members, she was the object of their pity and was provided shelter and food. Sudha was her late husband’s older brother’s daughter.

Usually she stopped by at Sudha’s sister Akila’s, on her way back from the ration store, to rest a bit after a strenuously long wait in the ration queue under the strong Chennai sun. The minute Akila saw her by the gate, she would soak rice for murrukkus or begin preparations for some other snack that took time and effort. She would offer Chithi lunch and then make her grind the rice manually on the stone mill and toil before the hot stove, making murrukkus or vadams from scratch. Chithi would have to finish a huge batch of murrukkus or vadams before she returned home. As she entered the house, after sundown, Sudha would greet her at the door with a scowl demanding where she had been loitering all day and stating that she had chosen the wrong day to abandon her with all the housework. It was a no win situation.

These days Chithi had developed a sharp tongue and gave as good as she got. “Well what do you want me to do? Don’t you realize my age? I can’t do any more than I am doing, my body is giving way”. Chithi tolerated Sudha’s moods, her fits of temper and her hurtful remarks. She survived purely using cunning strategy. She knew what she had to do to be Sudha’s physical and emotional crutch. Besides offering her sound advice on running a household on a tight budget, she planted greens in the backyard, made brooms from coconuts leaves and innovated in the kitchen. She was lively and entertaining, with lots of stories from her visits to relatives’ homes and from her colourful past. She also capitalized on Sudha’s insecurities, praising her often, urging her to wear her nice silk sarees and jewellery, validating her at every turn and serving as an ally when her husband or children yelled at her. All this took a lot of effort and sometimes she found her patience wearing thin, but she forebore. Chithi had come over to help Sudha when she delivered her second child and had stayed.

Chithi got off at her stop and moved quickly towards the Central Government building which housed the department responsible for pensions. The clerk looked up when he saw her enter and smiled. She was a familiar sight and he had hoped someday to convey the tidings that he had for her today. “Paatti”, he said “Your pension allocation has come. You will receive Rs. 75 every month and there is an arrears of Rs. 10,000 which you will receive in one lump sum. You will need to open a bank account and deposit the cheque. Tell us what your address is and we will send it to you. You don’t have to make this trip anymore”. Chithi was overwhelmed. Heart of hearts she had not even dreamed that her efforts would come to fruition. Now that they had, it all seemed anti-climactic. She suddenly had control over her destiny. She did not know what this meant for her future. She could not live by herself anyway. But with the money, how would her relatives, especially Sudha, treat her? Would she exhibit palpable greed and try to extort money from her now. How could she use this money to protect herself? Her mind disturbed by this turn of events, she rode back home without going to the ration store or making her usual detour to Akila’s. Brunch was just getting over and the young woman from America told Chithi she would serve her. Grateful, Chithi sat down and ate in silence. She then mechanically cleared the kitchen and went to lie on her mat to take her siesta. She suddenly felt stifled, invisible and alone in a house full of people. She did not count as anything, other than a caricature, a two dimensional relic from the past. No one cared that she had a mind, thoughts or feelings. She could hear Sudha say “ we will have to do something about Chithi, she is becoming too much of a liability.” Chithi’s mind was made up. When the cheque arrived, she would give Sudha Rs. 5000 for all that she had done for her and donate the balance and her monthly pension to a home for the aged, in exchange for a room and the same 1.5 meals per day. At least then, her mind and body would be rested, and she could spend her last days in dignity.

Monday, March 4, 2019

it is the story of...the moment I Knew Everything Was Going To Be Okay

When I arrived in Canada 30 years ago, I was young and naive.

Newly married, a new mother, I had a Master’s degree but no work experience. I wore a red dot on my forehead, a nose-ring, anklets, and jewellery. Dressed in “ethnic clothing” and visibly “different”, I felt like a fish out of water.

I had to mutate into a person I could not recognize. My red dot came off and then my jewellery. I traded my Indian clothes for skirts, shoes, and stockings. I wore gloves, hats, and a scarf, all mismatched with each other and my coat, and felt like a museum piece. I was desperate to “fit in”. The more I tried, it seemed, the less I succeeded.

I then thought I would achieve this if I found a job. However, I ended up in a room full of telemarketers, all folks like me, newcomers trying to find their feet. It was not “mainstream” experience by any stretch and while it did build my confidence a little and enhanced my communication skills, I did not feel competent to do anything else.

I was still an outsider trying to recreate my identity in my new milieu. So I worked at building my ability to make “small talk”, to improve my clothes and dressing style. I even cut my hair. I just could not be spontaneous and speak my truth.

It also did not help that I was lonely, missing my parents and extended family, and could not look to anyone, other than my husband, who was struggling like me, for validation. There were times when I was so depressed I wanted to give it all up and go back to India.

However, it all changed for me when I decided to pursue a graduate degree. I got into the Women’s Studies program.

The first essay I wrote was in the passive voice. My professor called me in and asked me why I chose the passive voice. I said I thought that’s how we expressed ourselves in an academic setting.

She looked me in the eye and said “I want you to write in the active voice. Your story is valid and now with the personal being political it’s important that you express yourself in your voice and speak your truth.”

That is the moment when everything changed for me. I found my voice, stopped trying to “fit in” and be like someone else, and have never looked back since!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Preparing for the end

I wrote earlier about a mother whose child was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year. She amazed us all with her dogged effort to get him the best treatment and a normal life. So she said no to Wish Foundation Disney World trips but instead gave him normalcy. No also to radical medical Intervention that would rob him of a normal life. He got through treatment last winter and had an amazing year, each day a bonus and a gift which his mother made extra special with school, fun activities and undivided attention, a five year old’s dream. Alas the good times came with a time stamp and now the tumour has returned twice its original size. So after more radiation it will be months or even weeks, a mother’s worst nightmare. But she has organized the home, got her family to plan their time off around when he will be palliative and has shown the same equanimity and strength she did at the time of his original diagnosis. That was earlier this week. At the end of this week, ironically, I was invited to sit with someone in his late eighties, who has meticulously planned his last days including his passage into the other world. He showed me five boxes of files all meticulously tabulated and organised. His primary objective to control how every detail is managed after he is gone - with nothing left to ineptitude or chance. He even has made a list of people to be invited to his cremation with their contact information. It has been an interesting and thought provoking week. What is this life? What is it’s meaning for each of us ? Ultimately is it about our legacy? Or about a life well lived, on our terms? Are we the body, our thoughts and memories? Or are we deathless, animated by and expressions of consciousness that flash and pass like pictures on a screen? Experientially what do you each feel you are? I would love to hear!

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Memories of Toronto - A Guardian Angel Called John (written in 2002)

John Cole has adopted our family. But like ours he has adopted many others. When there is a problem such as a plugged toilet, keys locked inside the house, a furnace that won’t work, the first thing I do is to reach for the phone to call up John. He is this burly young seventy something, who rides in his van and “does good”. John does not attend parties, he goes on “missions of mercy”. He is our guardian angel and has been for so many people I know for so many years. After all who would arrive at an airport armed with coats to welcome an immigrant family dreading their return to Canada after a holiday in balmy India. When we arrived at the house from the airport that January 2000, snow banks piled 8 feet high by the side of our streets, we joyfully noted that this beloved man had cleared our entire driveway with our antiquated snow blower! We also then found out that John had wired our house up against security breaches so his pager would go off if someone attempted a “break in”

John was born and raised in Toronto in a white Anglo Saxon protestant family. He trained to be an electrician. He has worked at several exciting locales, done amazing and daring work in this city that he loves and is chock full of stories of his many adventures. I have spent so many afternoons sipping tea and listening to John’s inspiring stories, which told me how he pushed the envelope every time in his pursuit of excellence in everything he did. But it is not John’s style to brag. He is modest about his accomplishments and just brushes off compliments with a grunt.

A friend introduced me to John 6 years ago. He just adopted our family and took us under his wing. From the very first day, he sat at our table eating the food we ate. John loves rice and curd, a South Indian staple, and will seldom refuse the offer. A humanitarian, John embraces people of all races, creed and colour with equal love and respect and is animated and happy that his home, Toronto, is a veritable microcosm of the United Nations. When my friends and family arrive in this city, frightened new immigrants, John embraces them and goes all out to show off to them all the sights in his beloved city. He moves their stuff from one temporary home to another till they get settled, gets them road maps, frequently calls on them to find out if they need anything, and generally watches over them.

John is a consummate intellectual. He always stimulates me to think creatively, tells me about exciting new developments in science, shows me his many innovations and explains to my befuddled brain how they work. When our daughter wanted a parachute made as part of her physics project, John was so excited, he called her everyday to find out how she was doing and then could not help arriving at the house one day a parachute in hand. I cannot number the science toys he has enriched her with. John has taught my husband to paint, to varnish, to fix simple problems around the house. There was one time when my husband and I had bought a hood to be placed over our oven. Not quite sure how to approach this project, even after very clear instructions from John, my husband procrastinated. Well John let it go for a few days. However, after that, he could not take the waiting anymore and one day when we got back home from work, we found the hood had been fixed. People who have not met John truly believe that he is a figment of our imagination. Who in this day and age gives so unconditionally, without expectation, but just with a view to making people happier. But when they see my unique altar on which I have placed my Hindu Gods, the fabulous lighting in my basement with a fancy combination of switches, they know that a genius has been at work.

John loves the radio, television and CB Radio. He is a great admirer of Gandhi and Mother Theresa. He is the most open minded person I know. He is committed to social justice. He visited India once and did not go sightseeing, as most people would have done. He visited the factories, wired up schools and buildings so they would have electricity and learnt from watching fisher-folk haul their catch of the day from the sea. With his power of observation, his memory, his interest in human beings and how they adapt themselves with the help of technology, simple or complex, his compassion, he saw and did more during the 6 weeks he was there, than I did in all the 20 years I lived there. John is the first one to send cheques out when a humanitarian disaster strikes some remote corner of the globe. To this day I carry his many inventions, such as communications devices to be used as teaching aids at schools for poor orphan children in schools in India, when I travel on my biannual trips.

Words cannot do justice to this man, our beloved friend. He gives me hope and inspires me and everyone whose life he has touched with his example.

John died in 2014 of old age. He was 87 years old.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Patriarchy and learned helplessness

Being a woman in (most parts of)India (based on conversations with many women) - Uber and Ola have changed a lot of things from when this post was written (2012), during a trip to India

Every time I return to India, as a visitor, to my middle class moorings I have the experience of stepping into a box. You see my activities are constrained as a result of my role as a daughter/daughter in law who must live by norms that I would scoff at, back in Canada. An important reason for this is the lack of access to a car for me to drive around in. The other is curfew established by safety wary relatives of how long a respectable woman can stay out on her own. Add to this my own guilt over any self indulgence - a deviation from the "self sacrificing woman" that I and all women here are expected to be. Even at home, sleeping-in is out of question, as is an early morning walk on my own before the sun comes up. Reading the paper, when I should be helping in the kitchen, is frowned upon and indulging in pastimes other than plain old TV watching or other forms of domesticity does not endear one to relatives. I am a visitor and I forbear, even though it means I have to temper my expectations of what I can do during my vacation here due to overprotective family members looking out for me at all times.."you don't know about this city - call me when you get to your destination and let me know how long you will be gone"

For those middle and lower middle class women living here, a career offers a legitimate reason for bucking their traditional role as purveyors of home and hearth but it is only accepted if it is financially necessary. If it is not perceived as being so, then her life can be made difficult with expectations that she fulfill her role in the home as nurturer and be there for her children as the attentive parent, tending to their every need, while holding down her full-time job. With life being as difficult as it is with infrastructural and transportation challenges most women live circumscribed within a limited sphere of existence and come to accept their lot in a state of learned helplessness. The systems of patriarchy and of the real material bases of their lives conspire together to keep them there. It is only within this sphere is she validated. Even when she has a chance to venture out, she hesitates knowing that the censure and related consequences will dire be enough for it to not be worth her while.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Shift in consciousness

“Don’t be too quick to interpret the moment. Just keep quiet. My encouragement would always be: never think anything is against you, everything is a blessing. Why should it be different? Just be quiet. Let it all work itself out.” Mooji

I have had a remarkable year experiencing a real shift in my consciousness.

I went to some dark places within myself to be present to all the “unpleasant” sensations brought on by fear, feelings of lack or sheer boredom. I started to notice that all my feelings of joy or sorrow, were associated with thoughts. These thoughts were triggered by memories of all things past and passing. The more I noticed the less I journeyed with those thoughts on a spiral of uncontrollable emotions. The more I did this, the less I identified to a limited sense of myself as Latha. I began to see myself and everyone around me as much more than a petty ego bound self. Everyone and everything began to appear as an expression of the same consciousness.

As I scrupulously noticed this, I became less self consciousness, less critical of myself and others and more accepting of everything as it is, marvelling at the synchronicity with which life flows and the harmonious manner in which everything around me unfolds.

The great paradox is that thought is our undoing and “doing”. So, that quiet space of “no thought” is present when there is a rigorous and disciplined awareness of the following thoughts. What are they?

“I am not my thoughts, emotions or feelings. I am not my memories, my past or future. My story of who I am is distorted and unreal. In a real sense, I exist only in the present moment as consciousness which expresses as a composite of bodily sensations or thoughts that arise and fall. So I will not desperately cling to my story, keep adding to it, get attached to it to validate my existence in my ego state. Because it takes great effort. How liberating for me to let go of that effort and just be present to everything that comes up, without reaction, but with an open mind and heart?”

So more of just that this year in this glorious inner journey which is the unraveling of old habit patterns, sense of self and identity, feelings of haunting guilt - to that place of stillness and peace.