Sunday, July 27, 2008

4-Shower Day

I bathed four times today. I woke up and took my normal bath at Ba's house. But overnight it had rained tremendously and the streets were flooded. Since I was in Naranpura, I was in some sense stranded from my office, which was on the other side of the city. The roads were not drivable. So I waited, hoping the rain would stop and the water would recede from the streets. At the first sign of letting up, I took off for the office. My goal was to catch a rickshaw, but the streets were chaos with vehicles trying to trudge through rivers/streets.

Shower #2: Trudging through a street in knee-deep water, which would better be described as wet filth. All the garbage, shit, and dirt from the surroundings combine into one cold and frothy soup. And I'm walking through it trying to find a street that a rickshaw could actually drive on. At one point a car comes speeding through and throws water all over me. Disgusting.

I was eventually able to grab a rickshaw and made it to my office. But I felt that it was necessary to clean myself, so I went back to my bungalow and had shower #3 for the day.

Shower #4: I've found a gym in Ahmedabad! If you've talked to me about my travels to India, you probably know that one of my biggest difficulties is finding a place to exercise, particularly to do weight training. Last summer I brought some resistance cables and tried to do a jailcell workout with the cables and pushups and pullups, but it was pretty unsatisfactory. So imagine my excitement when I became a card-carrying member of "Be Fit - The Gym", an establishment right next to my home and office (no, there isn't an actual card)!

Going to the gym in India is a totally different experience. First, there are set hours of operation. There is a time slot of 4 hours in the morning, 4 hours in the evening, with the middle of the day reserved for ladies-only session. This is a big change from my 24-hour Fitness at home, but should be manageable.

My fellow gym-goers are hilarious. Many come in dressed in jeans and regular shirts like they would be wearing on the street. Also, close-toed shoes are completely optional. I would say half the people wear chapals, with another 15-20% going barefoot altogether. Nuts.

The gym itself is on the third floor of a fading building. The first day I visited the gym I noticed a chalk board in the stairway that randomly had the message "prepare for the worst, hope for the best." I laughed because that's exactly how I felt at that moment. The weight area is impossibly small. In true Indian fashion, your personal space is totally restricted while exercising. I'm doing pullups and my feet are in the face of the guy doing bench-press. Benches are right next to each other, curling bars and weights are scattered everywhere. The equipment itself is worn down to say the least. I can't read the weight amounts of most of the barbell weights because all the writing has faded. Combined with the fact that everything is in kgs, I have no idea how much I'm lifting in most cases. All of this made me feel like I was in Rocky 4 training with inferior equipment in Russia. Another interesting thing about working out in India is the culture of spotting, which I will just describe as "over-zealous". As I've explored earlier, Indian men are quite touch-feely. In the gym, this is reflected in how people give "support" (that's what they call spotting here). It seems to me that every opportunity to get extra close, cop a feel, etc., are taken. When you are being supported on the bench press, instead of having the spotter at your head next to the weight rest, they straddle the lifter and spot from the front, with crotch right in the lifter's face. When I've gotten support, I also get loud and enthusiastic yelps of encouragement. "Come onnnnnnnn!!! Andddd... THREE!... yeaaaaaaaa !!! come onnnn UPPP!!!". Desi-style meathead.

The worst part of the gym is that there is horrendous ventilation. There are a few fans blowing here and there, but after about 15 minutes of working out I was drenched in sweat. That was shower #4.

The best part of the gym are the steroids-era 80s bodybuilder posters everywhere on the walls, which are a comical contrast to the skinny brown people actually walking around the place. Also, I have inspired one of my co-workers to take on regular exercise, so he signed up with me and is joining me on my every-other-day schedule.

Finally, I went to RelianceMart to buy gym clothes, since I didn't expect that I'd need them when I was packing for my trip. I made a point to buy the ugliest shoes available and the longest shorts, and this is what I ended up with:

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lead, Listen, Destroy Walls...

Random thoughts that have come to me while in meditation, sitting in Chaghardas around Ahmedabad, and in the course of daily life:
  1. Leadership Universities. Since I was quite young I have had a vision that in my life I should be a leader of some sort. But leading is hard. I think there should be institutes of higher learning dedicated to training aspiring leaders. I wish I had a B.S. in Leadership Science. There would be classes like "Listening", "Scenario Assessment", "Working Under Pressure of Time and Constrained Resources", and "Delegation". Kids in the U.S. go to name-brand schools to be next generation leaders of the world, but for the most part it's a poor fit with their actual abilities and goals. They just happen to have been born in the most privileged society in the world so they have access to the resources. But a degree in leadership is only half the battle because of course we know that " don't follow titles, they follow courage".
  2. In a room full of people having a discussion or debate, the tendency is to assume that the smartest/most capable are the ones who have the broadest experience, know the most facts about a particular topic, are the most eloquent in expressing their viewpoint, etc. But in that same room I would say the one with the greatest potential is the dude who asks the best questions. There are two reasons. One, because by asking a question during heated discussion they have demonstrated that they have overcome their ego by avoiding the tendency to prove their intelligence by offering an ignorant, uninformed comment. Two, because they have demonstrated through the good question that they have gotten to the heart of the matter. It takes a sharp, astute mind to ask good questions. My adviser Scott asks particularly good questions.
  3. Four traits that I admire in other human beings and strive to perfect myself:
  • Fearlessness. I admire those who are able to break through barriers that come in their way in the course of life. Most people come to a wall in life and either live within it or at best decorate it to their taste. But the special fearless few are able to look beyond walls.
  • Humility. The ego is such a difficult thing to overcome. Here I have seen that my ego is very much alive and kicking. What to do? In retrospect I still feel that my ego-driven actions were right. But the trick, as I see it, is to take ego-detached action. It may turn out to be the same action as with the ego, but when you act humbly, you are free. Gandhiji had a quote that has stuck with me since I first read it many years ago: "The seeker after Truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after Truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him."
  • Compassion. Enough Said.
  • Gratitude. In college a saying came to me one day: “Every breath, a blessing”. My roommate here in my bungalow had a brain tumor removed. He is lucky to be alive. I am lucky to never have had a brain tumor. I wish to act, moment-to-moment, with that awareness.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Brown Knight - I lowe Heath Ledger and Mike Jack

I'm in Ahmedabad! I arrived last Thursday, and will probably write something about what's going on here later. For now I wanted to talk about the topic of the day: The Dark Knight, the most phenomenal movie I have seen in quite a long time.

A group of friends from the U.S. who are here in Ahmedabad got together to see it together on Sunday night. We went to one of these megamalls that are everywhere in the city now. Big, shiny, full of young people... surprisingly quite an enjoyable atmosphere. Naman picked me up in his battle-scarred Maruti Alto, which he handles pretty well except for that fact that he is a big wuss with the horn. I realized that using your car's horn is part of what constitutes safe driving in India, since it indicates your car's presence in tight spots and blind turns.

Before the movie, we hung around in the mall for a while and went into a computer gaming parlour where we played some Call of Duty 4 on the LAN. I felt like a 12-year-old. Then we get in the movie and I realized I love watching American movies in Indian theaters for the following reasons:
  • Assigned seating. You don't have to worry about getting to the theater early for good seats because you reserve an exact seat. We had the best in the house.
  • They were playing Michael Jackson "The Girl is Mine" before the movie started. That really got me amped.
  • There were small jokes and subtleties in the movie that only an American/English-speaker could get. For example, no one got it when the batmobile flew into the parking structure at the beginning and set its mode from "Loiter" to "Intimidate". At points in the movie like that, Naman and I were the only ones in the packed theater laughing. We also were probably the only ones who knew the Batman back stories, like who Harvey Dent was from the very beginning. Oddly, all of this made me feel special/privileged like I had some sort of insider knowledge of the movie that others weren't cool enough to have.
  • Intermission. Of course American movies aren't meant to have breaks in the middle, so it stopped in a pretty awkward place. But it worked in this case because the movie was so good that it just made our anticipation for the rest of the movie multiply as we discussed with looks of disbelief at what we were watching. During the intermission they played "The Girl is Mine", "Thriller", and "Beat it". Naman and I were jamming to the music in our seats. Combining that with our high spirits from such an extraordinarily great movie, that had to be the most enjoyable intermission of all time. People around us were likely scared and/or annoyed.
As for the movie itself, I can't say enough about it. I can't remember my reaction to any other movie being, "I need to see this again right away." The acting, the story, the character development, the effects, everything was great. I didn't want it to end. Heath Ledger was just godly. Naman made the comment during the movie that the fact that he died making this movie makes his performance that much more impressive. It's a sad thing to say, but probably true. He should win all the awards for this performance, and the geeks at Slashdot agree.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Land of Connections

India is a land of many things: diverse cultures, rich spiritual history, rapid urbanization, abject poverty, and most recently, world class female sprinters. But I've also found that it is a place where really interesting personal connections are made. I think that the circle of socially-minded NRIs doing work in India is a lot smaller than one may first think. While in Delhi I ran into a bunch of interesting people who had quirky connections to me. For example, Jay introduced me over email to his friend Anuj from Berkeley, who was doing work in microfinance. I went out to meet him on a night that he had organized a dinner with a bunch of other kids who were in Delhi from the U.S. At dinner, sitting next to me was a girl Smita, who went to Penn and knew Pavi, Viral, and some of the other CF crew.

On another night I met up with Raj's InSPIRE group. I was really excited to see them since I think the experience that these kids are getting will be life-altering. They are so lucky and also really smart for doing a program like this at their stage in life. I invited Krista to join as well, and she brought along one of her co-workers at the W.H.O. named Naman. And of course, we soon found out that there was a connection between myself and Naman. But it was a totally weird one: Naman's full name is Naman Shah, which is also the exact name of a friend/Bhangra teammate from Stanford. As it turned out, the WHO Naman knew my Naman because he had tried contacting him because my Naman owned the domain So then they start exchanging emails and realized that they have really similar career interests (healthcare in rural developing regions). My Naman Shah also happens to be working in Ahmedabad this summer on a startup dealing with delivering clean drinking water to rural areas.

So Krista, Naman, and I are introduced to the InSPIRE bunch, and as I had secretly hoped all along, the connections start sparking! It was a really valuable meeting for the InSPIRE students because they are recent or soon-to-be grads, and here is Krista (a rockstar law student at Boalt) and Naman (a rockstar M.D./PhD student at UNC) to chat with and get advice about career paths. I also think that Krista and Naman enjoyed making connections with the youngsters. In terms of other connections (through Raj/InSPIRE), I also met Neil Vora, who went to Stanford but who I'd never met but heard a lot about... he is an InSPIRE coordinator and was thinking of following a similar to my own startup-to-social initiatives route. And there was Shital, another coordinator who happened to be a staff member at thinkchangeindia, which I had done a guest blog post for some time ago because I had met one of the cofounders Vinay who is a classmate of Maneka's at NYU. She was like, "Wait, you're the Neil Patel from Siksha? I know you!" Random, but really cool connections.

While in Delhi it was also great to connect more deeply with Krista. She is an amazing, warm-hearted person. We had some really fun adventures touring around Delhi. We went to CP, the Ramakrishna Mission, and Humayon Tomb. I was curious whether walking around the city with an attractive white woman would produce stares and comments, but there was nothing like that. We did however, have an interesting episode at Humayon Tomb, where we haggled with the ticket seller to avoid having to buy the much more expensive foreign visitor ticket. One of our tactics was to tell them that Krista was my wife. It's funny that these ticket sellers are quick to hassle white people, but they never question whether I am a foreigner even though it's pretty obvious from my accent and clothes. But it was cool having Krista as my pretend wife for the day. Below is a pretend newlywed pic we took. Ajay, feel free to airbrush your face in.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Corporate Vaanar

Although I haven't worked in corporate environments for very much in my professional career, I'd say I've worked in them long enough to know what it is like to be a corporate monkey. Actually, you don't even need to have the experience first-hand since it is captured perfectly in Office Space. But of course, I have never worked in any office setting outside of the US, until this week. I have noticed a few quirky things about Indian corporate life:

A/C 24/7. When you are a white collar worker in India, your life is spent almost exclusively in indoor, air-conditioned rooms. In the last week, I probably got a grand total of 30 minutes of "fresh air" (I use that turn loosely because we're still talking about an Indian metro) . Between my room in the guest house, the car that takes us to and from the office and the office itself, the only times I am outside is the few moments walking into and out of the car to the next A/C-enabled setting. I think in India it's a status thing to have A/C all the time; for me it feels unnatural and affects my health after a while.

Worker dynamics. The team I'm working with is pretty cool. There are eight of us, two of whom are females (which reflects the overall ratio in the office accurately as far as I can tell). Everyone is a pretty good worker. Although I have noticed that people waste time on the web or chit-chat (no chai breaks that I've seen though), they are pretty on the ball. Also the culture is informal in the office, which I am told is not typical for Indian corporate settings. My group seems especially casual. Some people on the team have nicknames. My favorite ones are "Night-ey" (for Nitendra) and "Dude" for our manager, who is probably in his forties. I can't wait for my nickname. English is mostly spoken, but when people are less formal, they revert to Hindi. You get the feeling that people speak English because they feel they must to maintain professionalism.

Food. Eat your heart out Google (no pun intended). Lunch is free at my office, and though not gourmet, it isn't too bad. Roti, daal, two vegetable dishes, and some sort of desert is served daily. It's all vegetarian, but is served every Wednesday as a special treat. A lot of people bring in Tupperwares with food from home as well.

Power Outages. If you've ever been to India, you'll know that the power goes out quite often. When it happens in the office, no one flinches. It's so much a part of life in India that at this point people are probably oblivious. Maybe I'm the only one who even notices. We were sitting in a meeting when the power went out and the room went dark, but people just kept brainstorming.

Bureaucracy. The stereotype is probably that Indian corporate settings are stiff and hierarchical. Indeed, people address their superiors as "sir" and so forth, but I think that in general it's no more bureaucratic than offices in the US I've worked at. Although I did see the machinery in action in one case. I wanted a mouse to use with my laptop, so I email my HR guy to hook it up. He replies back with a cc to my manager, saying that he would need to approve it and get it for me. My manager then forwards that email to some dude named Ishwer and says, "take care of it". Ishwer then passes it on to another dude, and says, "please approve". So my request passed through four people before getting fulfilled. All for a mouse! But in the end I got it, so you can't knock it too much.

Naps. It is acceptable behavior to sleep in the middle of the Indian corporate workday! One of the members on my team told me she sleeps on couches in the middle of a busy corridor on the fourth floor, and there are no repercussions. Then I saw this amazing scene of a bunch of guys passed out on the basement floor of the building. I love how there are no qualms about coworkers sleeping side-by-side on the pad. Phenomenal.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Return of the Organic Indian

I’m back! This post marks the glorious and triumphant return of my summer blog. We’ve (and by ‘we’, I mean ‘me’) got a lot of new and exciting things planned, so stay tuned for an action-packed few months.

This year I will be In Ahmedabad, Gujarat working with an NGO called Development Support Center (DSC). I will officially be employed by IBM Research India, so I’ll also be spending some time at their Delhi lab. At a high level, this summer’s research will be somewhat of an extension of last summer, when I was thinking about information systems for smallholding farmers. But more details about what I’ll be doing in a future post.

For now, let’s talk about other important things, like this blog. Last summer’s blog turned out to be beneficial in many ways:
  • It helped me stay in contact with friends and family; to let them know what I’m up to and to discuss the happenings
  • I captured wonderful memories that I will share with my grandkids or whoever else cares to listen. Recording memories, thoughts, and experiences in time is big for me… I intend to look back on this blog throughout my life
  • I improved my skills as a writer
I also received rave reviews about the blog from you, my gentle readers. My favorite reaction was, “I just saw your blog, and I read all three month’s posts in one sitting”, which I got in one flavor or another from several people. That’s a huge compliment. Also, Most Loyal Reader Award goes to my uncle Babumama, who was hooked on the blog and would bring it up to his friends and family during the normal course of the day.

Due to the positive response, I will be sticking to the same general format this summer; keep things light, funny, off-the-cuff (I had a policy of just writing without looking back/editing too much so that the posts are raw and perhaps more genuine). The same disclaimer from before applies: I reserve the right to take back anything I say on this blog. It was fun writing this way mostly because I channeled a few writers whom I greatly admire. Here are the most important ones- you may want to check them out yourself:

  • Bill Simmons, who writes a sports column for Page 2. I’m starting to come to grips with the reality that he is my favorite writer (novelist or journalist, fiction or non-fiction), period. That’s kind of sad when you consider that he is basically a joker and writes about pretty trivial things like sports and pop culture (he once did a masterful 5,000-word piece on the Karate Kid trilogy). But he’s an extremely entertaining writer and he’s the only person I’ve ever consistently read. Whether I try or not, the way I write most things today is influenced by him.
  • Niniane’s Blog. She is a random Asian chick that works at Google but blogs about everyday, non-techie stuff in her life. Another really thoughtful, humorous writer
  • Robert X. Cringley. He writes a tech/media column for PBS which is really smart. He’s just got a totally powerful brain and writes well
  • Michael Pollan. I just finished Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is an instant top-3 favorite for me. This article was also awesome.
  • Nipun Mehta. One of my personal heroes, I also admire his writing on the Charityfocus blog. In the past, he kept an extraordinary blog during his walking pilgrimage in India; my favorite writings of his include this interview from Sumaya’s magazine, his speech "Impossible Times", and the phenomenal must-read CharityFocus manifesto.

I had some decidedly different emotions going into this summer compared to last. It was much harder this time to leave, mostly because when I get back to the Bay in September, many close friends will not be there. Joachim and Choks will be in SoCal for school and work, respectively. Sunil and Millie will be on the east coast. I’ll be moving out of the house I’ve lived in for the last four years. So things will not be the same, and it was sad saying so many goodbyes.

It also feels a little more daunting to look ahead to three months here, since I have gone through it once and know a little about what to expect. It is a long time, and there will be ups and downs. Unlike last summer, I will have to manage more things on my own; I will not be living in the ashram, where I had clean surroundings and food was provided. This time I will have to manage food myself, which will be a challenge. Also, I loved having my Masi in Baroda, who I could stay with when I needed a “vacation” from the ashram. Finally, I’m single now, so there’s less support in that sense.

On the positive side, though, I think that working in Ahmedabad will be a lot of fun because of the people who are around. My Ba is there, as well as my aunt & uncle and my cousin who is my age. I also plan on hanging out at Manav Sadhna and Indicorps. And in general, I think having done this before will help with getting work done. Already it has helped with just getting ready to come here. This time I knew exactly what to pack: I only took clothes that were going to be possible to hand-wash. Also, I have been taking Hindi for two years now, and my Gujarati will only improve. To top it all off, I got a retro back-to-7th grade haircut (head shaved with #4 clipper) to avoid dealing with hair while I’m here. Yes Amit, you know what that means... widow's peak.

I’m in Delhi for the next week or so to orient myself with my research group. I should also get to meet up with some friends who are around, so there should be some fun adventures. I’ll keep you posted.