16 November 2009

Road romeos and the colour Orange - a vigorous case study

Something interesting has been happening to me over the last couple of months. Every time I wear an orange outfit or have some form of orange in my dress the men on Road no 12 go mad.

Most women reading this post will identify with Road Romeos (RR) - that brand of dedicated, emotionally stunted immature men, boys even, who like to acknowledge the female form by ogling, hooting, lewd commenting and when occasion presents itself, grabbing. Growing up, you recognize this species by their body language and try to either engage in a war of words, which you are sure to lose or devise a route that would avoid them no matter how convenient or inconvenient it was to change your path. You can sense this species, regardless of the direction it was coming from, trying to strip you of human dignity even as your eyes were saying, "Not even in your dreams you twisted freak..."


My first experience on Road no 12 from an RR: a jolly "Hello Sweetie" followed by a few flying kisses. The content itself was quite routine but what was odd was that this lout was on a bike and had to cross over traffic to make himself available within audible distance to me, also slowing down to make sure his flying kisses didn't get misdirected to the fruit seller by the side of the road. My first reaction of course was to give him the finger; a lousy, impotent gesture of rage and then, I wondered if I shouldn't have instead, kicked him off his bike , thereby getting indicted for manslaughter in the cause of discouraging RRs everywhere. Luckily the pace at which my muscles react is far slower than the pace at which my brain invents physical events so I am unable to execute most of my physical threats.

Now this routine of RRs on bike has repeated itself several times over, at different points of the day and at different points along Road no 12. Some RRs are even kind enough to offer a lift once they have conveyed their appreciation of my star-like good looks. But I started to notice a trend : the number of incidents seemed to increase exponentially when I was wearing the colour orange. For a while I thought it was wearing a kurta and pants, but when it started to happen even when I was dressed in a salwar suit I started to converge on the idea that it was a colour that was setting off this deeply ingrained neurological reaction. Even if I wear an orange duppatta its' enough for a reaction. Now, you are thinking: a) what's your sample size and b) where are the controls?

First let me address the issue of controls. I have used both positive and negative controls. For the positive controls I used an outfit made of knee length skirts and short tops. I tried them in various shades and they all elicited a full range of responses. Although, for ethical reasons, I must disclose that one time I was waiting in a flare skirt that was part of a figure hugging business suit, complete with 4 inch heels and looking quite chic, if I say so myself and I got nothing. I was waiting for a full 15 minutes trying to pick up a share auto and was so out of the ordinary that they weren't even willing to stop for me, so I had to get the office folks to pick me up. The most robust positive control, of course, would be the I would get in an orange skirt but alas, don't have one. For my negative controls I wore kurtas (non orange) with pants, and the same salwar suit but with a blue duppata (if your mind is boggling on how I can use an orange and blue duppata over the same salwar kurta, well, the salwar is black and the kurta is beige so I can wear just about any shade of dupatta with it) or red, pink dupattas and let me tell you, nothing.

Now, sample size. I wear something orange about once a week - I like orange!; so I got to test this theory out for almost 3 months now. Roughly, 12 times now and each time I get noticed about 0 - 3 times. Now, by noticed I mean someone coming over to coo in my ear as opposed to all those louts who simply stare open mouthed. On the rest of the days however I get a total of 0 - 2 incidents. So if you do some fun maths, on an average for the orange days my "notice rate" is about 1.5; where as on non-orange days its like 0.25. So about a 6-fold increase in attention on an orange day.

Ergo, I rest my case. Why, I do not know, but proved, I have, of this mind boggling correlation between me wearing Orange and getting "noticed". Oh, and yes, all this has done wonders for my self esteem. I suppose if the RR action escalated to grabbing I wouldn't be so pleased with the situation but so far, only coos and flying kisses.

Now to expand this study: do you have a colour in which you attract more imbeciles?



10 November 2009

Mushroom Barley Soup

I'm almost through my barley packet so this might *possibly* be my last post on barley for a short while. I am replacing my barley love with some millet that I got over the weekend. But till that breaks into my recipe imagination here is the soup...



Ingredients:
1 cup Barley (cooked as previously blogged)
1/3 cup finely chopped carrot
2 cups roughly sliced mushrooms ( I had botton; chopped in thirds)
3 tb sp finely chopped scallions
1 tb sp finely chopped dill
2 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp vinegar
1/2 tsp soya sauce
1 tb sp Olive oil
Method:
1. While the barley was pressure cooking I chopped up the garlic, scallions, carrot, mushrooms and dill.
2. Heat the oil, add garlic, let it release its pungent odour, then add the carrot and mushrooms. Saute on medium heat. I purposely tossed the carrots with the mushroom as I wanted them crunchy to bite in the final soup. If you like mush, then go ahead and pressure cook them along with the barley. Although if I were to do that I would chop the carrot into one inch long thick sticks.
3. When mushrooms looks like they are changing colour, add the vinegar and soya sauce. Add scallions, toss and let it cook for another minute or so. Take it off the heat and cover it with a lid. The idea behind this was to steam the scallions rather than have them sauteed.
4. When the barley was ready, I added the above mixture and the dill. I again, purposely did not boil the whole concoction because I didn't want the dill to cook. Add salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste.
How was it? Excellent, if I say so myself. Notice that there is no spice in this dish besides the pepper so it was mild. Although I find the barley itself so tasty that it more than makes up for the lack of spice in the dish. But if you like some kick, then go ahead and modify. I think it could do with more soya sauce too.
I have been reading about soups online since it's winter but the temperature here is in the chilly mid-twenties...umm... degree Celsius so I would hardly call this my "winter" recipe. Now for the fox tail millet and beyond.

9 November 2009

Righteous Rage - killing it with a smile

I tried something differently this weekend and I must say it's been working like a charm.

Welcome to my my pedestrian and cycling world. So, when I have to go places where the bus service is not frequent I hop into an Auto. I also take an auto to work sometimes but that's a share auto: prices are fixed for various distances and there is no haggling. If your elbow or knee doesn't get sawed off while you ride spilling out of the auto with only a few feet of nothing between you and the asphalt, you know you have had a good ride. Compare this to an auto you have hired: all the room in the world but one mean negotiation before you and he agree on the best price. In my experience Chennai autos are the worst; a quick assessment of your dress and accent would nicely inform of them of your non-tamilness and from that point on you can only hope that you got the most honest of the rascals. Bangalore autos are attitude: they never want to go anywhere you want to go. "Too much traffic ma"; "Ayyo, can't come, it's one way"; "It will be too busy this time of the day" eventually leading you to ask "Swami, where are you going? May be I can get a drop if it's on your way?"

I like my Hyderabad autos for the most part. They are courteous and normally take me where I want to go without excuses and on the meter. But there are some silly twerps who think I just landed from US of A today morning. Matters are not helped by my living in one of the fanciest pin codes in town. For those autos who have traded the meter for x-ray vision goggles to count the money in my purse, once they have agreed to the destination they normally quote a price exactly double of what it would cost on the meter. Usually, I just increase the volume on my rant and then take off in a huff to find my next victim. This weekend I didn't feel up to the yelling so when I stopped Auto # 1 I sweetly inquired if he wanted to go to Begumpet. There were two others in the auto, so he first asked if it was OK if he dropped them to the end of the road; which was fine since I am quite gung-ho about auto pooling anyhow. Then I got in, at which point I realized there was no meter and a voice said 80 rupees. I suppose he arrived at this number by using his x-ray money goggles. It costs only 40 rupees so I immediately asked him to stop, smiled broadly like I was in a Colgate commercial and said (in hindi), "Sorry, but that's too much". 60 Rupees. Smiling even more generously I said "No, it costs only 40 rupees and I think if you are looking for that much you need to find another customer. Thanks anyway". 50 Rupees. No, said my swinging head and I started to walk. Auto followed and he persists, 50 rupees. I'm laughing as I tell him, again, that I will not ride for so much. He sighs, 40 rupees, get in. I tried pretty much the same sequence on Sunday as well and it worked like a charm. The key is two fold: patience and a huge smile. When the smile is without malice, innocent and loving in all its might, that energy reflects on any person you interact with. I have blogged about this before and continue to re-discover the positive effects of smiling.

I tried it this evening too, on a motorcyclist riding the wrong way on Road no 1 and almost knocking me over. I tapped on his shoulder and asked nicely if he thought what he was doing was right. He looked a bit shocked because I'm sure no one has caught him out like this. I repeated my question, smiled and waited. He was starting to form an explanation when I said, politely, that I was sorry to cut in but I asked a simple question - Yes or No. He said Yes and I just walked off. The sum impact of my little intervention: probably zero; but the quality of zen I felt: priceless. I get quite annoyed with anyone who doesn't respect pedestrian, ending up ranting a lot more and quite suddenly, I find that there's another way to get my message across and be non-violent about it.

Ho hum, let's see how long it lasts. But I do swear by the smiling technique; try it next time with an Auto and let me know if it works.

9 October 2009

Project Why

I visited the project in August. The site visit report is underway, but today I chanced upon a blog post from Anou summarizing the various activities on any given day in project why. If you have ever donated at my behest to Asha for Education - here is what your money is accomplishing. Enjoy!

http://projectwhy.blogspot.com/2009/09/peek-into-project-why.html

7 October 2009

Veggie Barley Stir Fry

Another vegan dish, by accident

Ingredients (serves 1 - 2)

1/2 cup barley

2 cups sliced mushrooms ( I used white)

2 cups sliced cabbage
1/2 small onion, sliced
2 tbsp finely chopped green onions/ scallions

2 medium cloves chopped garlic
1 green chilly (add this to taste)
2 tsp Olive oil
Freshly grounded pepper (essential)
salt to taste
1/ 4 cup roughly chopped Walnuts (optional)
1 tbsp finely chopped cilantro (optional)



  • Cook the barley your favourite way. Ensure that water is drained away completely. If, like me, you are doing this without planning, then fret not. You don't have to soak the barley in water to have it cooked fast. Just take out that pressure cooker mom packed for you when you were ready to set up your own kitchen. For 1/ 2 cup barley, I added 4 equal volumes of water. It was a bit much and I think 3 would have been fine. Let the cooker give you its sweet whistle six times. Allow the pressure to return to normal naturally and viola: cooked barley. If there is excess water, drain it away
  • While all the cooker action was underway I cleaned and chopped the veggies. I also took time out to read the Hindu.
  • When ready for stir fry action, take out your biggest size wok, add oil, let it heat up a little, throw in garlic, chilly and onions. With impressive wrist-work you can try to work the wok to stir things around; I used a wooden spoon.
  • When onions are translucent, add mushrooms. Just as they are about to loose their firmness, toss in the cabbage and green onions. Stir and allow to cook to your desired texture. Add barley, salt and freshly grounded pepper ( I can't emphasize what a big difference this made to the dish). Toss, toss, toss.
  • If you want, garnish with cilantro and walnuts. Chomp, chomp, chomp.

4 October 2009

Re-thinking Gandhi Jayanti

A non-Indian friend L asked me what we did on Gandhi Jayanti. Beyond singing along to raghupati raghav that would stream on the radio, I could think of nothing else that we as a country or as citizens do. We were discussing this over lunch and one of my colleagues recalled that in her village they would celebrate the entire week by working on projects - civic activities like cleaning the neighbourhood were undertaken and communal meals were cooked at school (this is pre mid-day) with ingredients supplied by the parents. I remember doing squat in school. Sure, we enjoyed the holiday and used the extra time to create mischief at home but in memory of the father of the nation we remembered nothing. Isn't it ironic?

This was enforced further by this lovely article by Madhu Kishwar in India Together.
She bluntly states what L, with her simple question, brought home: we celebrate Gandhi Jayanti in the worst possible way. We indulge in sloth, watch movies in Malls and let urban wonders sweep us away in activities that neither add value to our soul or enrich the lives of others. Surely, there must be a better way to remember Bapu? Ms Kishwar suggests that Govt officials should use this day to clean their offices and dust their files. She herself keeps her office open, in defiance of the enforced holiday; a rule she thinks would be something Gandhiji himself would have satyagraha-ed over.

The government seems to have celebrated by changing the name of NREGA to MGREGA. I wonder how much stationery we, the tax payer, are going to foot in this foolhardiness. I can almost see how this must have happened: a few old political strategists sitting around on white bedsheets, flaunting their Gandhi caps and rotund bellies, scratching theirs heads wondering what to do to commemorate his birthday. Getting the NREGA to work was obviously too long term and a publicity poor plan so instead a nice headline catching attempt to pay their respects to Gandhiji surfaced. The hypocrisy is nauseating.

And me: how did I celebrate? Not to well, I think. I woke up late, fixed my bicycle so I could run my errands faster than on foot and finished a long overdue Asha site visit report. Lame, I admit; but to be honest, I'm not sure how I could have celebrated better? Next year, if nothing else, I will follow Ms Kishwar's example and at least get some office work done!

3 October 2009

From Giraffes to Peacocks

I finally climbed out of the no-exercise rut. It's been 5 months since I ran last, on a slow muggy day in Regents Park; more of a goodbye, than a run really.

In the last three months I have managed to recreate my life in Hyderabad, to a very large extent exactly as I had been living in London: I can commute to work by foot, there is an excellent produce shop just near my apartment and almost everything is available to me by foot or easily accessible public transport or share auto. But the one exception was that there was no Regents' park equivalent within walking distance and I missed my giraffes, Annie and Frank. There was an option though - KBR park, which is about 3 km from my home. Although getting there is a pain since I would have to run/walk on Road no 12 which is neither safe nor exciting.

So, I had Father dearest ship Chameli over from Bangalore. Yesterday morning, I unwrapped and serviced her. After a short test ride, I was convinced that my plan was possible: I would bike up to the park, run the 5K being organized by the Hyderabad runners group and bike home. Ta da!

Today morning though, the first hill on Road no 12 left me winded. I had anticipated the hills but I didn't really know that my thighs would burn or I would be huffing and puffing the entire time. Although I'm glad I didn't have any expectations because the unexpected made the ride more enjoyable. The weather helped immensely as well. Its been raining heavily here for the past week and today morning too, it was overcast. There was no rain but a heavenly misty spray brushed my face as I rode up the road. KBR park was delightful; the running trail is all mud, with speed bumps for some strange reason (bikes are not allowed on the track) and with trees on either side. We saw a couple of peacocks; none with the open display of feathers however, something I hoped to see since its raining. I only did 3.9 Km which was the length of one loop, stretched and on my way home, stopped over at Sri Sai Ram Tiffin Centre to grab a pesarittu.

My bum is a bit sore from the riding and my hamstrings are tight; nothing beats these delights of successful exercise!

18 August 2009

The argumentative pedestrian

Allow me a rant.

I walk everywhere. Work, grocery store, tailor, frame shop, fruit seller, vada pav... everywhere. And the one unifying theme of this experience is the utter disrespect and disregard for the pedestrian by vehicles of all types. Like a torrent of angry gushing water they stop for nothing, least of all the traffic light. The best way to deal with most things in urban India is a deep breath and an unshakable faith in Karma, but today, I had a reluctant break down. While crossing a wide road with oncoming traffic I was dazzled by headlights and assaulted by horns in spite of a fierce green light proclaiming that pedestrians have right of way. So, I let loose a string of strong litany on the first available two wheeler. Here is the not so pleasant part; I was abused in return.

What to do?

The simple middle class alternative is to push my discomfort to a corner and buy a car. But I'm not ready for that. Why should I be? I have fairly strong legs that carry me wherever I go and can easily finish my entire range of shopping in one big loop. What really bothers me most is that there is nothing we can do to change this. The people I normally cross the road with are workers or drivers, sent by their memsahibs to hop across the road while her Innova blocks the road. They don't have time for a dharna and certainly don't want to engage with the traffic cop. The traffic cop himself looks quite pained - wouldn't you be if you inhaled particulate matter while on your feet all day long and had to listen to incessant honks while at work?

One option, which I am fond of, is building over-bridges. The downside is that people with disabilities cannot use it. But it would help the pedestrians cross easily and at their own pace.
Drivers might also benefit. Most people behind the wheel complain that pedestrians step out from nowhere and prevent the flow of smooth traffic. I try my best to cross at Zebra crossings but there are certainly some places where there is no provision for one, in which case I do hop across as soon as possible at the narrowest point or when no traffic is going fast enough to hit me.

The situation is bad: for the drivers and pedestrians, yet I see no action plan to make things better. I could write a letter to the newspaper, the most impotent action for an activist or make a huge placard and do a sit down but no one will accompany me. What an amazing bummer!

16 August 2009

Barley Cutlets



For my friends S and E, who took care of me and served me delicious food, always. Everything in London was special because of your love. Thank you.

A vegan (unintentionally) recipe. Adapted from S's recipe for Barley Cutlets.

1 cup barley
2 tbsp finely chopped dill
2 tbsp finely chopped spring onion shoots
1 tbsp finely chopped green chillies (more if you like it hot)
2 medium sized potatoes
salt
oil to shallow fry


1. Soak the barley in water for 10 - 12 hours. About 1:1 volume water: barley.

2. Pressure cook barley and unpeeled potatoes for 3 whistles. This might be mysterious if you don't have an Indian style pressure cooker. Essentially, you are cooking the barley till it's crunchy yet edible and potatoes are soft.

3. Empty into container and shove into the fridge, uncovered. I did this rather on the fly because my barley was ready late at night and I didn't want to make the cutlets right away. But this act was fortuitous as my fridge is a good dessicator and by the next morning I had a easily workable goo. If you have water left over in the barley after cooking or have cooked it on the stove it would be best to discard as much water before putting it in the fridge.

4. Bring mixture to room temperature. Add green onions, chillies, dill and salt to taste. Mash together. Check for taste. The mixture is ready to eat at this point but it's not in the most appetizing form!



5. Heat oil in a pan ( I started with 2 tbsp for 6 cutlets; once the pan was ready though I only put as little as half a tsp for subsequent rounds).

6. The tricky part is making the cutlets. You could use egg as a binder but because the mixture felt easy to use I went without it. Take a portion in your palm (size of roma tomato), squish to make cutlet shape and plonk on to the pan. This is messy and it will stick to your hands. Use your ingenuity for getting it on the pan. If you have made thalipet or akkeroti you'll find this similar in texture. It looks something like this on the pan:



7. For the first round I make chunky cutlets, like thick salmon cakes (see above), but later on it became clear that smaller sizes were the winner. So, you are aiming for a final size of Marie biscuits; those are Astro's favorite, I might add.

8. Wait patiently for one side to be crisp and brown. This is essential. If you try to turn too quickly it will start to break and resemble barley crumble instead of a cutlet. Turn over gently and brown the other side evenly before serving.

Tada! The inside will be a bit soft but the outside should be crunchy. We ate ours with Maggi hot n sweet, but pudhina chutney would have been a tastier accompaniment. Also, a dash of crushed peanuts would have made the cutlets even better.

Lastly, I dearly wish Amma (my grandmother) were here to taste this. She's the true foodie in my family.

6 August 2009

Packing and Unpacking

I have finally got about 95% of my things from various homes into the one at Hyderabad. When I was packing the things I didn't know where they would end up and so, it was hard to decide what I wanted to keep and what went to my auction or to Salvation Army. Now, after a year of living without much of my stuff I can say that I missed none of it. As we grow up we feel that there are some things that define us so well and belong to our personality; without these things we would feel incomplete. But the truth is that if you have the money you could re-create everything over and over again in different destinations. So, I don't think it's the money issue that prompts us to hang on to most things, well not the primary reason anyway.

I belong to that brand of people who are possessive about their books and keep them in immaculate condition, devoting as much to thinking about how to organize my home library as world peace. Yet, for all practical purposes my silly books are not rare editions or out of print books. They are run of the mill and can be purchased from any decent bookshop. So, the conclusion is that we hang on to things out of sentimentality. Sentimental. That feeling also deserves closer inspection. What is sentimental if not an attempt to hang on to a memory that we think deserves special mention? Yet, even without that material possession in your hands it's possible to recreate that memory. The synapses just have to make a special connection in your head.

As I grow older I am certainly adopting a very simple approach to memories. For me, it's got to be written and that's the only form I really need. The rest - pictures, music, fancy serving bowls and a first class chopping board can be recreated. I'm curious to find out if that will change if I have a family. Because that's the only sentimental relationship I am yet to experience and wonder if a clinical application of my new found material-free life would be possible.

Well, that was my procrastinating post; I am yet to unpack most things and I feel like the only decor I have at home is one of card board boxes. The only message I wanted to get across is that if you have lost something valuable or can't decide what to pack during your next move just remember that everything can be recreated. Travel light!

P.S. I think I may miss my chopping board just a wee bit more than what I would like to admit! :)

4 August 2009

Right to Education

this should technically be a tweet. But,

The Right to Education bill has been passed in the Lok Sabha. A more in depth look into what that means in practical terms in the next post.

26 July 2009

Composting my kitchen waste


Devoid of actual experiments to perform I have actively sought a lifestyle where small random trials of qualitative nature have had to satiate my curiosity to learn. The latest addition to this repertoire of experiments is my long term trial of composting.

If you lived in Seattle and weren't 'green' you were considered an abnormality. So it's rather ironic that I am only able to get around to composting on my return to India. Right, so I did a bit of googling to understand what it means and decided what would be best. Basically you can do the worms bit, vermicomposting or you can do it the natural way i.e., aerobic decomposition. Since I live in an apartment I didn't want creepy worms to suddenly break free and have no where to go; besides if they were to inexplicably die, I wouldn't survive the shock. The first time I had a summer planting season I managed to kill my entire collection due to water abuse and I am yet to fully recover from that massacre. So decomposition it was. Luckily, I found an ad in the newspaper about a composting demo at a store called daram. Do check out the blog; I particularly enjoyed this short film on weaving. Definitely, going back to shop there; they have plenty of lovely local cotton woven into the apparel.

Anyhow, the set up is quite simple. Its a 3 tier terracota Khamba (see picture). The protocol is 1-2-3 oh, and 4-5:

1. Dump waste in top most pot. Put 1:1 (volume) of dry and wet waste. Most of the kitchen waste is wet so you can add dried leaves and newspaper to make up the dry portion.
2. Stir daily or minimally, once a week.
3. When 3/4 th full dump into middle pot. Continue to fill up top pot.
4. When top pot is full the second time, shift middle stuff to bottom pot and move top stuff into middle pot. Essentially you are moving down through the pots as each gets full.
5. Patiently wait while nature and microbes do their job.

Simple, right? I dumped in my waste today with extreme satisfaction and have opened the lid at least 5 times since the morning to check if anything has happened. Neither strangely nor surprisingly nothing much has happened in the last 12 hours. This is going to be one long experiment. But I am quite excited to be composting. I have been warned that there will be maggots at some point but not to worry about them. If they are annoying, I could give them a kiss goodbye by sprinkling red chilli powder into the mix.

The most delirious piece of news about the composting pile is that I can dump the generous quantity of pigeon poop my balcony accumulates. Finally, there is some benefit of leasing, umm... I mean, forcibly sharing my balcony with the pigeon mafia.

If you are in Bangalore the set up is available at Daily Dump. For Hyderabad, I have the contact info. Please leave me a message with your email and I'll get the info to you. There are tonnes more instructions and the Daily Dump website above covers it all. And if you have composted before please let me know what I shouldn't learn the hard way!


22 July 2009

A Smile and a Name

A few minutes ago I had the gas man, H Bhai, come and set up my connection. Sans a bribe one can't get a government gas agency to even talk to you much less register for a connection. So, I went in for a private player in the market and so far, it's been great. But this post is not about the gas man. It's about what happened when I met him.

My usual style in any conversation with a service person is to enquire after their name and then provide mine. Most people give their name but are genuinely shocked when I remember it later. My father had told me this trick years ago about how remembering a person's name and spelling it correctly will open their hearts to me - once again, he is right. I'm quite rotten at remembering names actually and many times start the sentence with 'What's-her-name?' so, I cheat. I write it down on a slip of paper and shove it into my handbag. Admittedly shoving anything into my handbag is like tossing something into a 6 ft hole but I do manage to find stuff in it, occasionally even without emptying the entire content on the table. Anyhoo, the gas man came and was pleasantly surprised when I called him by name. To conclude I offered him a seat and some water. Then I topped off the visit with a Thank you, but in Hindi. Oh boy, he was impressed. I got a very nice Khuda Aafizz at the end!

This is just one of my interactions. Then there is my office housekeeper, the ironwallah, my maid, the gazillion watchmen in the building... urban India is one giant service industry and I make it point to do two things - Call them by name followed by an appropriate designation (Didi, Akka, Anna etc) and I smile. Either the people of Hyderabad are really nice or this strategy is working great. Everyone I meet has been so pleasant and nice. I'm going to be immodest and suggest, not everyone does this. For some reason, we tend to save our smiles for those we know or care about and, certainly not for those who are providing us a service. And I believe, this small gesture makes a big difference to almost every interaction I have had. In this daily world of violence and harsh sounds it's so soothing to have interactions lubricated by smiling that I can't imagine why more people don't do it. Besides, smiling uses less energy and muscles than frowning. There you see, some fantastic qualitative social analysis backed up by credible scientific fact. So smile often and jot names down. That's probably the only strategy you'll even need on how to win friends and influence people!

20 July 2009

Share Auto Update

Just wanted to share some more things I have learned about my wonderful public transport - share autos.

  • The sexes segregating - Well, not really. If there are only 3 people sharing, then all 3 share the passenger seat irrespective of sex. Women sit at the back in all cases.
  • If you are a man with a large bum surface area you get stuck in the back because you crowd out the driver in the front.
  • When you reach the end of your share auto destination don't be surprised if there is another share auto waiting to take you to the next popular destination. I do wonder how far the share auto will take me in the city?
  • The maximum number of adults I witnessed being accommodated today was 8 (excluding the driver). Don't puzzle your brain about how they fit - a few people were sitting atop each other.

Mamma Mia : the Hyderabad version

Last night was a Hyderabad experience. My friend L wanted to treat me for my birthday and that is how we ended up at the Shilpakalavedika auditorium in Hitech City. The event was the staging of 'Mamma Mia' by an Indian dance company, the Hot Shoe production. Albeit I had not gone with much expectation of being amazed at the performance I certainly expected a standard to be met since the cheapest tickets were Rs 500 and for a whopping Rs 2,500 you could sit right up in the front. And finally, I enjoy ABBA so if nothing else a sing-a-long was what I figured would happen.

L and I arrived early so we were seated 10 minutes in advance of the opening time, 7pm. Imagine our incredulity when the show hadn't started till 7:30 and on approaching the event management staff who were more clueless than a walrus in Kenya, I was informed that it was delayed because of the security arrangements. The organizers had overlooked the fact that a single metal detector was placed at the entrance to a hall that was about to be house full to about a 1,000 plus people. Add the Indian norm to show up late for any event and you had a heady mix of things running awry. The show didn't start till 8, a full hour later, when for an appetizing start we were subjected to a poor film on the Hot Shoe company and, the event's producer and choreographer. A wonderful tribute to both these was paid even before the show started. Honestly, I thought an encore came after the show, not before. After a poorly resolved screening we then had to watch a film on Micheal Jackson because this show was dedicated to him! Even the hundreds of tributes on youtube were much better than this slapdash effort. After this we were treated to a re-run on the production company. Finally, the actual show started replete with screaming young women and a dance troupe that looked like a poor copy cat of the Shiamak Davar group.

The show was poorly managed and performance second rate. But the voices were beautiful. All the songs were executed on cue and in perfect pitch, almost making me doubt if they were pre-recorded. Let me give them the benefit of the doubt. Oh, I also liked the cheesy part where the dancers wore suits that glowed in the dark. Yes, I am a sucker for glow in the dark stuff!

Sigh! I don't want to go on. All I can say is that the show is being staged in Bangalore next weekend and you would be a fool to buy tickets. Better to just play the ABBA songs on your ipod and be Nina, pretty ballerina at your own home.

16 July 2009

I'm 30!

I can't exactly say that I have been waiting for this day but I am happy to be getting older. Actually what I think would be perfect is if I could speed through the next 30yrs in 8x speed and arrive at 60. Being older and distinguished sounds far more appealing than being younger and idiotic.

Anyway, the day is here. As compared to my last birthday I feel lighter, happier and far more content than I have ever been. It is rather strange; but life is all about comparison right? You never know how good you have it till you have experienced how bad it really can get!

Today, I have decided to start a new tradition. I'm going to write a letter to myself. A letter describing the status quo, as my father would normally say, to indicate my personal affairs. I am also going to write about my fears and ambitions. This letter is going to be tucked away safe only to be opened next year on the 31st birthday as a reminder to the legacies that I have built so far and the legacies I need to be building. As it struck me during my Edinburgh run, many times we are so focused on looking forward (which is the way to be most times) that we forget how far we have come. So, I want to use my letter to remind myself how far or how little I have come.

Overall though, here's looking forward to another year of experiences and memories which are inspiring but not painful, joyful but not boring and lastly, bloggable!

14 July 2009

Share Autos

To all of you who car-pool,bus, bike or walk to work here is an innovation that verily can claim "It happens only in India-ji".

I live on on popular road in Banjara hills. Although my office is walking distance the 25 mins it takes for me to get there is an uphill climb and arriving with grime on my face is not how I usually like to present myself. There were two alternative - walk 250m down the road to catch a bus or take an auto. Cautiously, I took an auto the first few days. Each trip is a negotiation nightmare and one evening, I decided to forgo the usual haggling and, started to walk homewards when an auto crept up beside me. The auto driver, a young looking hero-wannabe, complete with a red scarf around his neck, motioned his head to indicate I should jump in. I turned around to find two other women in the back seat. The driver thought I appeared a bit clueless and mumbled "mumble mumble office" which made no sense to me. I then asked if he was going on Road no 12 and he nodded, once again furiously indicating with his head that I should jump in. I did. We then stopped several times along the way and each time the driver would crane his head and mumble something about an office. I found it utterly enchanting. Two more men soon got into the auto and you must wonder, where did they fit? With the driver of course; one on either side, sharing the driver's seat. This journey lasted about 5 minutes and I was promptly dropped off after a meagre Rs 5 payout.

In the last week I have been able to figure out the system. There are autos which just travel Road no 12 and model themselves as Share autos. They pack about 5 (excluding the driver) and more, if there are kids. They simply travel up and down the road from the "Pension office" to the "Check post" and back again. So when I have to travel up the road I catch an auto driver who keeps chanting the words "Post" till his auto is filled. Then we climb up the hill, sometimes getting off when the poor engine is unable to navigate steep sections with all of us piled in.

I find the system brilliant. For 10 bucks I have a service that is anytime, provides seating and drops me home. For other points along road no 12 also I can use this service; the charges vary. What is rather neat is how the sexes neatly segregate themselves, so in an auto with men and women, the girls get the cushy back seat while the men sit in front. Also, the system is egalitarian. I have shared the auto with software chicks and day laborers. We are one big happy family traveling up or down the road.

After living for so many years in a society where random body contact between strangers is eschewed (to the extent that in a theatre people leave a seat between two parties) its warm and reassuring to use a system that relies on the ability of people to pack together in order to save money and time. I have missed this type of daily contact. Welcome home, I suppose?

The standard auto
Picture downloaded from: http://photos.igougo.com/images/p242056-Indore_India-Auto_rickshaw_in_Indore.jpg



28 June 2009

Last run at Regents Park

This is a quick post. I'm packing up and its going to be a busy day of doing the last minute things in London so pardon the spelling and grammar in this post - I don't have time to re-check!

I got up early by Sunday standards today so that I could run in Regents Park before the zoo crowd got there. I wore my pink short shorts, a sleeveless flimsy excuse for a shirt, slapped on SPF 45, donned the RayBan's and shot out of the apartment. Its probably going to be a while before I can run in shorts and not feel super conscious so I wanted to take this opportunity to 'dress down' for my run. The plan was brilliant considering that its a hot and muggy day. Regents' Park had the usual runners, birds and crazy dogs. Luckily the fountain was on so I could pour cold water down my back and head to cool myself. It felt like the summer runs in Central park when you should aim to be done with your run by 7. Sweat was soon pouring into my eyes, the glasses were slipping thanks to the gooey mess my sunscreen and sweat had created on my nose ridge, and there were white salt lines on my calves. It was worth every minute.

The earth smelt sweet and welcoming. We had some dark rains last evening and earth was soft to run on. The grass was being mowed and, the fragrance of fresh dog poop and green grass permeated the run. I took a detour walking break around the inner circle where all the rose bushes are in full bloom. The smell of roses was intoxicating. So many colours, shapes and sizes were out in bunches everywhere. The roses are of different varieties and labeled, and ironically the only label that caught my eye was "only for you"! Yes, indeed, only for me existed this beautiful garden of flowers with the morning dew still to slip away. All along the brook that runs through the park were birds engaged in various activities. The park was silent except for chirping birds and the occasional whine of a dog who wanted his owner to quit hogging the ball and throw it.

What a beautiful memory.


27 June 2009

"It's dodgy, yeah?"

Of all the things I have enjoyed in London the one thing I will take back imprinted in my head is the language. Although I have not experienced cockney or other difficult dialects I have picked the language of the masses (of central London) - well, at least the language that buy me some beer (a half; the pint is too large) and chips ( that's fries for the American). And what you want with that sarnie is a packet of crisps not wafers. The fantastic in America was always awesome while here a 'brilliant' covers it all. I don't live in an apartment, I live in a flat. And I don't take the subway I ride the tube. The list is endless but perhaps my favourite word so far: dodgy. This five letter word is a ubiquitous replacement adjective to anything that appears unpalatable, flimsy, scary, shocking, diffuse, shady, questionable... I'm sure you are getting the drift.

I'm sure you all experience moments of absolutely painful pauses when your brain goes through the Rolodex of adjectives and can't find one that suitable? It's also possible that like me you live in a society that doesn't understand the art of Howooda. So, what do you do? You switch the sentence around so that you can call something dodgy. I am proudly taking this back - since it's not in much use in India I'm pretty sure its pronouncement would mean some rounds of explanation which would give me enough time to deflect from what I was trying to say in the first place. Perfect plan to not answer questions. Time to be dodgy, yeah?

13 June 2009

A right to childhood?

My usual browsing of the BBC news website landed me here. A collection of pictures showing children working, for long hours and with little pay. The most heartbreaking child in the pictures is one who is smiling, while holding her tokri of bidis to sell, in the manner of a beautiful dancer. This is a painful topic for me. I don't have a high tolerance for seeing others, particularly children, suffer; my ever ready tear glands swing into action quickly. But the irony is that when in India, I see such images often and I feel entirely powerless. What use are the tears?

During my stay in Bangalore, in the last half of 2008, I was in a meeting with a group of people in Lal Bagh when a child in rags intruded into the meeting and asked for money to buy medication. The story is recorded here. This story still rankles me and exposes my beliefs acutely to scrutiny.

When I first heard of Asha for Education it was when another friend was running a marathon for them. I put it down as another organization which collects money that ends up in a black hole. But while conversing with a volunteer I was forced to admit my hypocrisy: Yes, I complained about the lack of change in India, especially in children's education but No, I wouldn't even contribute my time let alone my money to see what I could do. Many times when you start with a broad idealist viewpoint you are quickly overwhelmed by the logistics required to achieve that vision. Sometimes, it is fear that prevents us from taking the necessary steps and sometimes, it is lethargy or a deadly combination of the two. Yet, it's little drops of water that make the ocean. So I ploughed in to Asha for Education, cautiously, first as a marathon runner/ fundraiser then as a volunteer who led their marathon program. It was only two years after my 'induction' into the Asha world that I started to feel something about stewarding a project. Now, I see a lot of children who deserve a better life and to whom, I am only able to offer a smile and at best, some candy. In a way it seems backwards; disliking watching children suffer and now, actively seeking it out. But, there was a consequence of this action I had not anticipated and doesn't make it so backward: the inspiration that these children provide me with.

I don't think this journey will ever end and nor will children all over India get a better life in my lifetime. I will have to continue watching their suffering knowing that my efforts make a very small iota of difference and possibly, mean more to my sense of self-gratification rather than to them. But I have also decided that something like this shouldn't stop me from trying my best, in the circumstances that are present and with the resources I have. This lesson was a consequence of a conversation I had a few weeks after incident in Lal Bagh. Over a lazy cold-coffee shake I was confessing my guilt, to my good friend B, about spending money on a shopping spree to get office going clothes when it could have gone to that young boy. In his characteristic blunt and effective manner, he asked me to put the brakes on my guilt and advised that I could offset it by setting aside a certain sum of money a year to causes I felt passionately about. His gyan was simple: stop whining and do what you can within your limits. Smart man, this B. Anyway, I have taken his advice and am implementing it.

I think I will keep re-visiting this topic as it something I feel passionately about and don't think am getting too far with. Nevertheless, one of the greatest joys moving back to India (besides eating golgappas everyday) would be an opportunity to meet more children and to teach them as well as learn from them.


10 June 2009

ipod-ing during a run

I changed into gym clothes today and was trying to think what routine I would like to do. Running on the treadmill is something I don't enjoy and lately, I have been trying all the other machines - cycling, rowing, funny exercises on a ball etc. I wasn't particularly enthused but saw no reason to not go so I stepped into the gym bracing for a divine intervention. As soon as I walked in my ears were assaulted with loud thumping music. On most days I can easily tune the music out but today I hightailed it out. Then I thought of a way to make my run outside interesting - I'll put on my own music!

I am not a big fan of listening to music on earphones mostly because growing up all the earphones I tried were too big to fit my head properly (I still have to stuff an old hand towel in my helmet back home for scooter riding so it fits snug) and required all manner of adjustment with hairbands etc to increase the width of my head for a proper listening experience. Since it required so much effort the whole walkman, mp3, ipod phase has had no impact on my life. A while back, actually a year ago, a sweet uncle presented my sister and I with an ipod each. In a cruel test of getting what I didn't want I accepted my gift and shoved it in my bag thinking this was a sign to get into the ipod thing and lo, behold, the earphones, they fit my ears. Not too big or too loud - finally a music experience I could enjoy. Well, it took me another year and my friend A to finally get some music on there that I liked. Its not that I don't like figuring out how technology works, just that I don't see any point using my brain for something I don't need. For a similar reason I did quite lousy on my GRE exams - couldn't be bothered to figure out the analytical section. Why did I care how things worked out and figure out a, b, c or d? Have to thank my then bf to actually get to me do any practice tests. Now if there was a problem with the fluorimeter or an annoying system error while I was collecting data, that, was a situation that called for the grey matter. That life though is past - I only use my massive intellect to format documents these days. Another post on that later.

Right, so I have the ipod and I have music I like. I am in running attire. I plug the ear phones in and start. It's weird to run without hearing your foot falling on the cement or the ground. I never tried running with music because I enjoy watching people: listening to snippets of conversations; sharing the happiness of two lovebirds in the park; also, like listening to birds singing and avoiding dog poo. And if this wasn't enough sensory overload I also have a tendency to slip into a world of daydreams. So, this experience was interesting. Suddenly, no foot falls but a music to go with all my observations. The traffic noice was quite annoying and I had to turn up the volume to listen to my music. I have a bit of music training and one thing I can't bear to hear is apaswara, out of tune music and traffic was creating the wrong harmony. In the park though, things were different. I ended up alternating between my day dreams and listening to the music. I was also running faster than normal (knees are protesting painfully now) and didn't need as many walk breaks. The strangest part was a stretch where due to construction they had laid down plastic pallets on the running path and I didn't realize how loud my foot fall was till a gentleman turned around to stare me down.

So, do I like running with music on? The thing is, I already knew the answer to this but I figured there was no point in not trying it; just to see how this experience was. It didn't cost me a dime and besides having to remember to charge the ipod there was little to do on the logistics side. I am happy I could run faster but in endurance running I wouldn't want to mess with my pace. Next, I am going to download some podcasts on here to see if listening to geeky science stuff (the magazine Cell has a podcast and is on youtube!) changes matters any bit. No more music though, me thinks. Hopefully figuring out how to get a podcast on to this metallic wonder will be easy!

2 June 2009

A Voice

A mellifluous voice, singing a Sanskrit sloka, filtered through with the morning sunshine as Ravi was shaving. It was a full voice, in shruti lent to a lyrics with devotional love; an alluring voice. Who was she? He had never risen this early in his new apartment before and may be that's why he hadn't heard her before.

But Ravi had no time to investigate this further; he had a plane to catch. As he touched down in Mumbai, the humidity first assaulted his senses and then his shirt. He was soaked even before his meeting and his body odour was not going to win first place in a perfumery contest. In a gleaming back and yellow cab he worked his way through the morning traffic to Nariman point, the heart of India's financial business. South Delhi to South Mumbai: that was his life's journey. Born into a wealthy family that had all the right connections, Ravi was afforded the best education and as a consequence, a job he liked, or so he thought! The salary also offered him an opportunity to set himself up independently, much to the chagrin of his mother who thought her dearest should stay home clasped to her bosom till of course, she found a suitable replacement for it. Ravi had other ideas, always.

Before his meeting he changed quickly into the ironed extra shirt he always carried with him and sprayed on some more cologne. At the meeting he was supposed to negotiate a deal between the two companies to discuss on merger details. The road transport business was booming and if the two companies came together, they could monopolize the northern India market. He was young to have been sent out for this important deal but Mr Khanna, his boss, felt he has the right mix of education and class to pull it off. Once again, the family he was born into had landed him places. During the talks Ravi could hold his ground and arrived successfully at a framework for sharing the business, without huge compromises to either side. Mr Khanna would be pleased. Ravi just smiled; he could still smell his cologne in the lift that brought him back to the street.

The excitement of his office was still palpable in his private space that night. Mr Khanna has organized a small meeting of the top executives and congratulated Ravi on a job well done. He couldn't have asked for a better place to be. The phone rang intrusively into this introspection.

"Mama here" the voice bellowed, " Why didn't you call yesterday? Daddy was upset that you forgot his birthday."

Ravi scrambled for words, his mother always had him tongue tied on family matters. He mumbled on the phone, " Busy... forgot...you know I care for you..." His mother was pacified as usual and he tended his pranams to Daddy followed by belated birthday wishes. Ah, everything set just right, he felt. After a few more pleasant but routine exchanges he heard a satisfied click on the other end.

Next morning, he heard the singing again. This time the voice was plaintive, emotional and filled with sadness. Today, he was determined to locate the singer. After all, if he could hear it without amplification she couldn't be far away. He had already started picturing this girl: beautiful, slightly plump, puffy red lips, eyes like black coal, long hair held in a plait and a graceful gait. He reasoned that she must live in one of the adjoining apartments and so, he stood out on the balcony, scanning his surroundings. There didn't seem to be anyone in plain sight. This beauty must be singing inside her house, he thought; that required advanced investigation techniques. He fetched his binoculars. Somewhere, at the back of his mind, he did think he might look like a pervert, standing as he was: in stripped boxer shorts, bare chested and with binoculars trained into his neighbours' homes. Nevertheless, he scanned, willing for the nymph to show herself. Alas, the search came to nothing and the singing had stopped.

Ravi had an idea: he would advertise in his building that he was looking for a singer. That should smoke her out. It would also give him a reason to randomly quiz his neighbours about any singers they might have in their apartments. Mr Sharma from the flat below met him while he was putting up the sign and spotting a good occasion to collect gossip, asked with casual curiosity, 'Beta, are you looking for a singer to teach you singing?" Oh, blast! This was not something he had thought about. Who would offer a young woman as a teacher for him? He politely smiled, his teeth perfected by years of visiting the best dentist in town, " Oh, Sharma-ji, it's for my niece" He hoped Sharma-ji would not remember he was an only child. Sharma-ji simply bobbed his head and said, "Very good, very good. I'll keep my eyes open".

A whole week passed. He heard the singing every morning now, waking to catch it before it began and staying with it till the end. The songs were in Sanskirt or Hindi or a dialect there off. They were stories, morals or prayers. They lived in his head all day long. Still there was no sign he would ever find this woman as no one had answered his advertisement. Exasperated, irritated and completely mesmerized Ravi decided that he needed an accomplice. He begged Hema, his best friend for years, to help him. Hema was ready to help but with a deep sigh, she tried to tell her best friend that he can't ascribe a shape and form to the singer because if those expectations would not be met, he would be upset. Ravi didn't listen. He asked her help to find the woman, not rationalize his obsession.

The stayed up the night and as dawn broke they heard the singing. It was a relief to Ravi because Hema was beginning to think that he needed a professional mental help. But they both heard the music: fresh, light like dew falling off a leaf on to the wet earth. They set off to trace it. Hema seemed to have better luck in locating the set of apartments the music came from. They trained the binoculars. Nothing. The music continued so the singer had not spotted them. Besides knocking on each apartment door they had no other way to find out. Hema had an idea - why not organize a singing competition for the neighbourhood? Sure, they would have to listen to the cacophony of aunties, young girls and uncles but, this way they'll hear the girl and see her. Ravi had to admit the idea was good but the logistics were daunting. But, he was desperate and Hema volunteered to help.

So they set about trying to involve the Building Society. It felt like a business campaign which was right up Ravi's alley. The only inexplicable matter to the Society was Ravi's interest - why did a young wealthy brat want to be active in the community? But they acquiesced to his wishes because they all had or knew off, unmarried daughters who could meet Ravi as a result of this. Young Ravi therefore had Hema and a bevy of young lasses ready to cater to his wishes. His mother moaned that if he was so interested in finding a spouse: why didn't he just talk to her? Suddenly, the singing competition was affecting everyone!

On the morning of the competition He heard the singer in the morning and thought, tonight my darling, we will meet. The whole building was excited; a shamiyana was erected on the terrace of the apartment and a sound system hired. Everyone appeared to have dressed in their wedding best. Three older and loved members of the complex were selected as judges. The competition began. Ravi focused with an intensity Hema didn't think he had. After all, it was their generation which had enabled the clinical diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder. One by one the women came, bedecked and dazzling, with voices like sandpaper, or at least, that's what Ravi felt. His Voice was no where. The competition concluded, prizes were distributed and a jolly time had by all. The young girls discussed whom Ravi may have liked more and what he was looking for in a wife. No one saw Ravi withdraw into a spiraling depression. Hema lent him a shoulder and suggested they take a walk.

In the quiet of the night they walked in solemn togetherness. Ravi with a heavy heart and Hema mitigating his sadness. Neither spoke. The streetlights glowed softly. And then as though their really was God, they heard the voice. Softly, yet clearly. It was coming from the park. It was an unusual time and place to hear it. They treaded softly, lest they scare it away. Under the streetlight sat the girl, singing with her eyes closed, oblivious to the world around her. She wore a simple salwar kurta. Her nose was pierced, her hair short. Her skin was like brown clay and her clothes were too big for her slender figure. Hema approached her when she stopped singing and spoke in English. She shyly replied in haltering Hindi. Her name was Lata. She was a house help and stayed with her employers. She took care of the children, cooked meals and today, she had the night off because the family had gone to attend a building function. She hoped her singing had not bothered Hema, those songs were the only memories she has been able to bring back from her village and then, with a cursory nod she melted into the night. Ravi had been in love with an uncommon maid.

My comment: There is something funny about the tense in the story. I don't think I got it right and that, distracts from the narration. Please let me know if you can spot it.

31 May 2009

The seduction of cooking

I was chopping onions for the Mushroom Biryani and crying buckets. My tear glands are always on red alert, ready to spill into a gushing torrent however small the stimuli. At the end though I was fortunate to have yet another meal where I had the satisfaction of eating something delicious, simple and savory. But for me the cooking itself is not quite so much exciting as the chopping of the ingredients.

Let's start with the onions. You can't really chop onions the same way for all dishes. Sometimes I like slices (like for my Biryani), finely chopped when I am making salsa, in giant blocks for barbeques, or rings for salads. I like the process of methodically peeling and chopping them the right size for every dish. And I extend this curtsey to all my ingredients. For upma, I like my ginger finely chopped, for masala chai its grated and for paneer jal frazee it's in julienne. One afternoon I was chopping a rather unwieldy cabbage for my grandmother who was horrified that I was not cutting it to one-tenth of a mm of the size that she had requested. So, this OCD runs in the family. Phew, relief!

I also like arranging my chopped vegetables into distinct piles. It's rather ironic that I take care to keep their personalities in tact when on my plate everything usually gets blended into a soggy mess; whose complete sensory enjoyment lies in eating with my fingers.

My lone partner in this activity is a Global 9 inch chef knife recommended by the quixotic Anthony Bourdain in his book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. I love this beauty. The slim handle and the light blade make chopping vegetables a seductive experience. Keeping the knife in shape is a tough task though. One of my sweetest moments packing up in Seattle was discovering the receipt for the knife that allowed me a free sharpening. It was like finding 5 dollars in your pocket!

I can't wait to be back in my own kitchen with a knife I adore and working with ingredients that I grow. Umm... delicious! I can already smell the mint.

25 May 2009

"No man is an island"

A ramble.

This oft repeated phrase came to mind this week as we were given news of our extension to stay in London for a couple of weeks more. My parents also used this phrase frequently when they wanted to convey (to me) the importance of getting married which is rather ironic because my career and life are slowly moving towards community-centric activities. But, I digress.

We are a small team out here to learn how the parent corp works and a motley crew we are of moms, wives, husbands and dog-lovers. Perhaps the hardest thing for the team has been to give up their social life. Its been a difficult journey and today for some reason I finally felt their pain and loneliness. Being away from your stable life is hard enough but to not know when you'll return to that stability or how you will manage the vagaries of next few weeks while still being away is hard.

It is my observation, not original by any stretch, that as Humans we feed off the energy of the people and environment around us. So when we are are surrounded by people or climate that are cheerful we reflect that emotion in our hearts. When the world we inhabit, or in our workplace is filled with longing, depression and frustrations, we imbibe those emotions and carry it on ourselves. The default setting seems to be to mirror the world around us in emotional footprints. But if you have the self power and will; as the Vedantic philosophy suggests, you detach yourself from the world and do not allow the world to distract your inner Self so you can ride in an ocean of calmness while a violent storm rages outside.

For me this is a contradiction. I feel an energy and connection to all people and animals. I live off that energy especially on those relationships that give me positive 'love' energy and cannot imagine not feeling that connection. Detaching from that energy just doesn't make sense; I don't even know how I would go about doing it. This energy I feed off isn't a one way road either. There is give and take. I share in some one's joy and like a nuclear reaction that happiness is broken into smaller particles that moves along the human chain that I encounter for the next few days. I feel some one's sadness and my "happiness" battery begins to discharge as I hope that by feeling their sadness I can help them fill up with a bit of my saved happiness.

Megha's theory of living? I don't think so. It's a WIP: Work in Progress! Its just that in recent times I have become more cognizant of my mirror work and can now sense when I am truly sad vs just reflecting some one's else discomfort. I feel much more intensely but sometimes I can take charge of the emotions. But as blogpost "Evils of living in my head" indicates I am quite far off in controlling those emotions that bubble and froth inside me. That's when the whole feeding off really helps. I need to touch base with a person or thing that gladdens my heart: sitting by a beautiful river with an arching weeping willow, a run or meeting a friend who doesn't need words to convey empathy.

Life is strange. What I would thought would be a circumstances that would propel me towards being a closed person has made me a lot more open and honest. I hope I don't forget these lessons!

19 May 2009

ARGs : a new fundraising tool

I had the privilege recently of opening my email to the message "ARGs - what do they mean to you?" My funny bone immediately spotted that if I were to add an H after the G it would pretty nicely sum up my day so far. Argh! Quite early in the email ARG was expanded to mean Alternate Reality Game and I was intrigued. Not so much because I participate in computer games that simulate alternate realities but more because it was in the lunch hour and I had nothing better to do. Quite possibly the very reason you are reading this blog!

What are ARGs? Alternate reality games are ahem., not games. Well, they are games but they involve the participation of a community of gamers using lots of different technologies like mobile, internet, media and various platforms supported on those technologies like blogs, twitter, facebook, youtube etc. They can be used for marketing, awareness, education and fundraising or whatever you fancy you wanted to use it for.

How? One of the first ARGs was 'The Beast' designed to drum up interest for Steven Spielberg's movie, Artificial Intelligence. To read more about it visit this wikipedia page. Briefly, it was a 12 week plot spun around three entry points (rabbit holes in ARG-speak) in order to solve a mystery. Clues were spread across websites, blogs, phone numbers and puzzles. Once you were pumped up about the mystery, the marketers bet you would like to see the movie. I can't comment on what happened next because I didn't play the beast and I slept through AI.

I work for a biomedical charity and volunteer for education- centric charity so my ears perked up when one of the possible uses for ARGs was in charities and universities. Indiana University used an ARG called Skeleton Chase last year ( nice review here ) to introduce freshmen to healthy habits that they hoped, would last a lifetime. The mystery was tied into students performing physical activities and as the weeks wore on, it encouraged group activities. I suppose it's a bit early to know if these students did indeed make some lifetime healthy habits but you are beginning to get the drift?

There are two charities that have used ARGs. For awareness, the British Red Cross launched Traces of Hope. The plot revolved around an Ugandan teenager searching for his mother in a civil war. The idea was to increase awareness about the tragedies civilians face in the midst of strife and displacement due to civil wars that they had no hand in. For fundraising, Cancer Research UK, had an ARG called Operation: Sleeper Cell. Basically, you had to solve a puzzle in a grid and in order to release more people from the grid to help you solve the puzzle you had to donate money. They were able to raise £3,500 this way. I saw the number and started to do the math.

Marathon running is one of the fundraising events that I have directly participated in and trained others to do. It requires dedication and time, plus the occasional physical strength. Overall, it works wonders with the runners self esteem but running 26.2 miles to not every one's cup of tea. In contrast ARGs require usage of technology that is in hand ,to collectively solve a problem, all of which you could do from your couch. It has the potential also to encourage youngsters to donate: who may not necessarily think much about putting 20 bucks on a game as compared to a similar donation for some one's marathon endeavour. But ARGs require time and dedication. For e.g., the creators of Operation: Sleeper Cell were a pack of 20 volunteers who spend 8 months of their spare time to create the game. So the execution of this concept is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, I am pumped. Its like a treasure hunt on a global scale with the additional perks of raising awareness and fundraising. Sounds a bit too cool to be true, yeah?

Its a bit early to comment how successful this technology would eventually be or even in which area it would have the biggest impact. But, looking at the way people lap up wiis and Nintendo, I think it's a promising technology and if the amount of time and effort to make one could be reduced i.e., it became more practical, it would be handy for any charity to use as a fundraiser and awareness tool.

The Economist has a nice summary on ARGs.
Here's a link to a Q and A at a recent conference where one of the creators of Operation: Sleeper Cell was quizzed.



10 May 2009

The evils of living in your head

I have been having a lot of me time recently. Some of it has been pleasantly meditative, a lot of it has been doing laundry and some of it has been spent wallowing in self pity. I am, as a general rule quite positive and optimistic, but, that machine breaks down sometimes.

Take this weekend for example. I spent a lot of time talking to my family, had a wonderful breakfast thanks to S who has simply been the most superb friend for the last few months -- an ode to her in a later post--then, we sauntered about in Covent Garden indulging in some window shopping therapy and I ended the day with drinks with a buddy from work. Quite busy you might think but I went to bed all cross about the way life has treated me and got up in the morning half dreaming of a violent physical act on another person. I am not a big fan of violence ; the extent of my bad wishes for people who piss me off oscillates between wishing them a cold water shower and a flat tire. So, this rather disturbing image was a nightmare to get up into. I have been getting some help for all the trauma of previous year and one of things my healer suggested was to treat myself with empathy. But, I'm thinking, how can I empathize with this homicidal thought?! yikes.

Exercise, I thought, would help dispel this image which got more graphic and disturbing as the morning progressed. So I set out on a long walk. For a while my mind got distracted with the thought - what if someone else is thinking about me this way, right at this time? Gosh, I hope I have never hurt someone so bad that they wish I was dead. Self pity then came back online and I was once again obsessing about how unfairly I have been treated and I didn't deserve what I got. Clearly, walking was not going to help. So I climbed into a train to treat myself to some Indian food and packed myself a magazine to keep my overactive brain in order. A few articles about displaced Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Burmese and pictures of suffering people restored my rational mind a bit: in comparison to these people my problems were indeed idiotic and trivial. So much suffering in the world...

I got off the train and was walking with this thought in my head when I noticed a couple walking ahead, hand in hand, clearly enjoying the day and buzzing along in cozy togetherness. The self pity thoughts came back faster than a bullet train. Why me? Arrgh? I wish I has been smarter about my choices. How screwed up am I to have deserved such a relationship? so on and on... this was a losing battle.

There isn't a story or Astro inspired rule of life in this ramble. All I know is that after some food and some more walking the images subsided and I am only left with anger. Self pity has gone on a long hike, I hope and now I am tapping the anger out of my system. Its been a good journey , nay recovery, since the first post and yet, it seems that on some days...yuck!

2 May 2009

India's Report Card - ASER 2008 II

Disclaimer: None of the information reported here is original, except for the ranking table which I compiled for my amusement and some musings under point 4.


**MUST READ** If you are short on time I would recommend reading pages 13 - 28 for comments from the people who designed, executed and analyzed ASER 2008. Also handy are pages 50-53 for a summary of findings and page 61 for India stats. Note - these numbers are based on the pdf page number rather than what is written in the Table of Contents in the report.

Findings I found interesting:

  1. Overall enrollment is up to 95.7% i.e., this percentage of 6-14yr olds are in some form of elementary school. That means that the number of kids registered to attend school has increased but it's fairly obvious that just getting a child to school is not enough; we need to be able to keep her there and educate her. Still, there is some consolation in the fact that schools are more accessible than they were in the past. A primary school is located within 1 Km radius of habitation for 92.5% villages. 67.1% villages have a government middle school while 33.8% have a government secondary school.
  2. Overall, the learning levels in India are either stagnating or declining (page 61). This varies considerably over states but if one were to consider that SSA was rolled out by the central government as a plan to fix primary school education all over the country, it would appear that the scheme has delivered (enrollment is up; schools are accessible) but not accomplished (learning is down) its stated aim. For example the percentage of children in between standards 1-8 who read a story was 43.6% in 2005 and 41% in 2008. Similarly in Maths, the percentage of children who were able to do long number division was 30.9% in 2005 vs 27.9% in 2008.
  3. Children are increasingly attending private schools - 16.4% in 2005 vs 22.5% in 2008. This trend varies significantly between states with Himachal Pradesh and Kerala having the highest numbers. Interestingly, overall enrollment in private school doesn't correlate that well with increased learning levels for states like Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh (MP). In fact, MP has the same level of private school enrollment as Tamil Nadu (15%) and yet they are on either side of the spectra as far as learning outcomes are observed (Table 1).
  4. Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh are states with the most significant improvements in learning outcomes. From Table 1 it would appear that MP has beat Kerala as the most 'well read' state. What was shocking to me was the poor learning levels in Tamil Nadu, the first state to introduce midday meal schemes and with high educational inputs. Surprisingly, of the BiMaROU (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh) states only UP is doing worse than Karnataka and just based on my perhaps skewed perception of economic development I would consider Karnataka more developed than them. In the same league is Gujrat, another state praised for its rapid economic development under the Modi government yet, their learning indicators are dismal. All this would suggest that since educational strength doesn't match up with a State's economic development we are going to see huge migrations as more educated youth move to where the industry and jobs are.

Table 1 - Ranking order of Indian States based on 2008 values for reading and maths.