Friday, December 25, 2009

Bada-ss Beach

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of retroactive blog posts I plan to write on my final month or so in India. First one is here, second here.

The Vipassana center that I sat a course at, in Bada, Kutch, is right on the Indian coast. On a recommendation from Meghna, after the course I walked (with a few fellow students) to the coast to visit a nearby beach. The walk up to it was very dramatic; we ventured through some farms and the coast was nowhere to be seen. Then we approached a small dune:

We walked up the dune and the Indian Ocean opened up in all its vastness. I was speechless and excited. The beach was totally secluded. You could look for miles in both directions and there wasn't a soul.

This was the most beautiful beach I have ever been to. The combination of isolation, pristine warm water, immaculate, soft sand, mild breeze, smell of the ocean air, the small shells scattered on the shore... I just sat there for an hour looking out and watching the waves. Such a wonderful atmosphere. It was a tremendous cap to a solid 10 days of meditation. I found the course very challenging; faced some deep-rooted impurities and came to discover key aspects to work on in my practice. Next stop: serving a course back in North Fork. Can't wait.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Teak is Weak

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of retroactive blog posts I plan to write on my final month or so in India. First one is here.

A group of 12 of us got together to visit the Dangs, a forested tribal area near Surat. The goal was to get away, be in a place of natural beauty, learn about tribal people and their culture, and bond with some friends and family. Samir, Jay, and my Dad were with me, and a bunch of friends from Ahmedabad, Baroda, and Bombay. Many activist types, which made for lively discussions and bonding.

Below is a photo diary of the trip. As always, be sure to pause and flip through manually so you can read the captions. Anjoy!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Madhya Pradesh: Life is Like a Box of Crayons

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of retroactive blog posts I plan to write on my final month or so in India. I've back dated to when I should have written the posts for you to enjoy. Yes, I blew it.

Over the weekend I went to Madhya Pradesh on an invitation by PRADAN. I was to end up at their office in a village called Dindori, but getting to it was really tough. I took a flight from Ahmedabad to Bhopal, where a car picked me up and we drove for 12 hours to Dindori. The good news was that the ride was very comfortable and gave me a chance to relax after an extremely busy couple months in Ahmedabad. Felt like a mini-vacation. But also I was treated to the absolutely breath-taking scenery of rural Madhya Pradesh. It is a sparsely populated country with a lot of open land. I felt it had a qualitatively different feel from rural Gujarat. The air was crisper and the colors were sharper. Above all else I felt there were such vibrant colors.

When I got to PRADAN's Dindori site I was taken to visit some of the villages where they have programs. I was taken aback by their beauty. I was especially struck by the look of the homes, their gardens, and the surrounding nature.

Look at the plants, and the field of yellow flowers. Just gorgeous. Only God can color with these crayons:

My favorite thing about the village homes were the huge squashes that grew from the roofs:

The reason for my trip to MP was to meet with PRADAN and discuss my work with DSC and to brainstorm how the same voice technology we have developed for farmers in Gujarat could apply and integrate into the programs PRADAN has going on in MP. In particular they are working with Digital Green and my friend Rikin on disseminating agricultural practices through locally produced DVDs. I think there is a natural synergy between the voice technologies and the DG approach, so it was exciting to discuss ideas with the PRADAN staff. One thing I loved about them was their level of energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to their work. PRADAN makes a point to send young talent to their field offices, so it isn't uncommon to see a 24 year-old managing programs for hundreds of villages. These youngsters, especially the females, are absolutely inspiring. Their level of commitment, and their ability to empathize and relate to rural people was very impressive to see. PRADAN works their field staff hard for a few years, then those staffers may move on to do other things in their career, a la TFA or the peace corps. Then PRADAN brings in the next batch of youngsters fresh out of college or MBA school to train and send out to the field. I find it to be an effective system, especially in contrast to a place like DSC where the older, long-term staff can sometimes act unmotivated, lethargic, and disconnected from the field.

At the end of the meetings and brainstorming sessions, we concluded that there were some gaps in their operations in terms of efficient information gathering and sharing, and that the gaps could readily be addressed through a voice-based information system. So next year I will work with PRADAN to launch a system in MP! It's exciting because it's an opportunity to extend my research project to a new context, and to work with an NGO that in my estimation is a top NGO in all of India in terms of genuine work that has a real impact.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Remember the Troops Day

Dear Soldier,

I am glad you found your way to this blog post, because I wrote it just for you. Recently I have been listening to a lot of personal stories from the War in Iraq and it has inspired me to declare today, December 1, to be Remember the Troops Day.

I am against war. That isn't to say that I think wars should never be fought, but more that I think it should be a last resort after all other options have been thoroughly pursued. So when we went into Iraq, at first my total attention was towards the Iraqi people. I cared about innocents dying, the destruction of their society, the raping of their resources. I remember my drives to school in 2006 when I would listen to the news report about the latest suicide bomb or car bomb or IED and another 10, 15, 20, innocent Iraqis would be reported killed. I would slam my fist against the wheel in anger and disgust. I would swear to myself, "What the f*** are we doing?"

But in recent times my attention on the war has shifted to you, our troops. And I'm not talking about Petraeus or Sanchez or the other masterminds at the top. I came to know about stories of ordinary soldiers. The first thing I kept noticing is that during interviews with platoon sergeants or marines, almost without exception the interview would have to stop when it came to discussing comrades that had been wonded or killed. Like Donovan Campbell talking about a fire fight in front of a school where he lost a marine because he had decided to go against better judgement and linger to treat some children who had been wounded by mortar fire. He talks about meeting the soldier's mother later and not being about to do anything but cry and say he's sorry, it was his responsibility, and he lost her son. Everyone just kept breaking down and crying.

Leave no one behind. When a soldier dies, you pick him up gently, even if in the middle of a fire fight. When you are sitting in a VA hospital waiting room, vets from other wars know you're there for PTSD and come sit in silence and support and solidarity next to you. I realized that when you are out there, there is a deep level of bonding and camaraderie. Esprit de Corps. It seemed from how you talked about it that when you're out there, you aren't so much fighting for the country or for the mission as much as you are fighting for each other. That idea was confirmed in this program.

I was also impressed by how thoughtful and articulate you are. You aren't brutes or drop outs. You are high achievers, some with degrees from Ivy League schools. You are America's best. It's why I have changed my outlook on things like Abu Grahib. You are not bad apples, but rather good apples that got thrown into a rotten barrel. War is rotten, not you. I see that clearly now.

From these observations I started developing respect for you, but since then it has grown to admiration and love. I've come to realize a few things. Number one, you went to Iraq to serve our country. While some of you admit that you also wanted the adventure and the feel of combat, most see this as your country is calling, so you respond. And what a sacrifice, risking your life! When I respond to our country's call, it's to pick up trash or serve the homeless. You literally are putting it all on the line for our country. I can't say enough about how brave and generous that is.

The second thing I've realized is the depth of this sacrifice. First off, many of you are serving in your mid-20s, which I consider to be prime years of a person's life. For you to make the decision to dedicate those years in service of your country in the ultimate way, I can't express how commendable that is. The other dimension is that this becomes a lifelong burden you carry on your shoulders. It's not like when you come back the war is over in your mind and heart. You come back a different person entirely. War is inhuman, it's "where bullets meet bodies." I've heard the noises of war, and heard many of you talk about it. What you've done and seen there, how you've lived, one second at a time, trusting no one, always on alert for threats, hostile environment, it changes, no, mutates, a person. A lot of you come back and suffer from PTSD and depression and other challenges. Your divorce and alcholoism rates are 4x the national average. Some have said coming back is worse than war. I can't imagine the turmoil going on in a mind like that.

And I know we normal civilians make it worse. I understand you are annoyed and pissed at us. Sitting in restaurants and movie theaters laughing it up while you're on patrol in some god forsaken place trying to stay alive. Oblivious. I get it, if I were you, I'd be frustrated about that too. So this is my attempt to start making things right.

I declare December 1 to be Remember the Troops Day. Sure we have Memorial Day and all that, but there isn't a special day were we remember our troops who are at this moment in harms way somewhere around the world. The day works as long as we are fighting a war at the time, so in some sense I hope I don't have to celebrate it every year. But given that we are in Orwellian times, it's a distinct possibility.

Dec. 1 seems like a good day; people are in a giving and thankful spirit after Thanksgiving, but it's over and Christmas is still a ways off. On this day, Americans across the country (starting with me) will think and act in memory of American soldiers fighting in conflicts at that moment. I pledge to you to observe this day every year for the rest of my life. My act this year was to invent the holiday, write this post, and to encourage my readers to observe by checking out the following materials about troops that have really touched me:
Out of so many memorable things I've heard you say was a response to a civilian's question, "What can normal people do, right now, to help soldiers?" One of you replied simply, "Get to know one".

You got it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

To Move Forward...

Gentle Readers, tonight I leave for a 10-day meditation retreat. It will be held in a village called Bada, in Kutch. I am excited because I hear that the center is very beautiful as it's right on the coast with immaculate beaches and clear waters.

Recently I was having a conversation with someone and the topic of 10-day Vipassana courses came up. Why do you isolate yourself for 10 days? It is escapism. You should not run away from your problems.

This is a common misunderstanding about the course, which almost always comes from someone who has not attended one themselves. I go to this course every year for the exact opposite reason. I am not going anywhere, and I don't want to go anywhere. I know I have to live in this world. But I want to live well, to deal with my problems effectively. I want be a happy, harmonious, productive person. Meditation is my best tool for achieving this goal.

There is a scene in Harry Potter where he has to go to the secret enchanted shop to buy his wizard supplies before going to Hogwarts. To his surprise the shop is smack dab on a busy street in the middle of the city. There is just a small unassuming entrance that thousands of people walked by everyday but never noticed. Had any of them paid attention, they would have found an amazing new world.

I think happiness works the same way. It's right there, right in front of us. But everyday we walk past it because we aren't paying attention. Meditation gives me the eyeballs, the lens, to spot that door to happiness. During the 10 days I will have the opportunity to practice meditation intensely, to purify that lens as much as possible. It's a blessing to have the chance. I am grateful to my parents and my friends and family and co-workers for giving me the space to be a better person.

To move forward, retreat.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stuff Indian People Like #4: Inopportune Phone Calls

Back home in the U.S., it's a party foul if your phone rings in a movie theater, during a meeting, a speech, or other gatherings of people who are listening or watching something. You get a lot of annoyed looks and over-zealous shushing. But in India, phones routinely go off in all of these situations with no social repercussions. It's not that interruptions are accepted; it's more that in India the concept of an interruption doesn't really exist.

But the kicker is that not only do the phones go off, but people take the call! In movie theaters it is all right to pick up your phone and have a conversation right there. Or if you are attending a presentation and your phone goes off while the presenter is talking, by all means you can go ahead and take the call, and no one in the audience around you will blink an eye. Even when you are having an intimate or official discussion in a small group or just with another person, people do not hesitate to shove you into the back seat by taking a call. It doesn't even have to be important.

I have seen some pretty ridiculous disruptive phone calls in my day, but I was slayed by the woman in the picture above. She wasn't in the audience for the panel, she was a panelist herself!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Street Medicine

This week I got my first, first-hand taste of the Indian medical system. I'll start with the story of how I came to require medical treatment.

I was at the bus stop near my office waiting to catch a bus home. I was on the phone conducting some business for work when the bus came. The next few moments are harder to piece together. I remember climbing onto the first step of the bus entrance, with one hand gripping the rail and the other still holding my phone. Then a guy comes flying in from behind and crams into the entrance before I had fully gotten in. And of course the bus has already started moving because "bus stop" is a very loosely interpreted concept in India.

Anyway the guy somehow wedges in such a way that I lose my grip of the rail and go tumbling out of the bus and crash onto the dusty pavement. My right chapal goes flying off. Without much hesitation I pick myself up, get my chapal, and walk back to the bus, which had stopped a little ways ahead. I get on and between trying to gather my bearings, dust myself off (I was covered), and trying to ask the guy what the hell he was thinking, I didn't notice a bloody, dirty clot of blood which had formed on my right elbow. I reached in my bag to find a napkin, but the best I had was a pair of boxer shorts I had packed in case I would be staying over at Ba's that night. After cleaning up the wound a little I notice that the there was a sizable indentation in my arm, a hole, like a big chunk of skin had been bitten off. At about that point it started to pain.

I went home and after Uncleji did some first aid he drove me to a local doctor. Dr. Oza, M.B.B.S.'s office was in a strip mall type location typical of small businesses in Indian metros . Next door were a vegetable stand, bakery, tailor, and a grocery store. Dr.Oza's place had a waiting area in front and then an office behind a glass wall. Dr. Oza led me to the back of the office where there was a shoebox of an examining room. The original idea was to get the wound cleaned and bandaged, and to get a tetanus shot. But after looking at the wound Doctor sahib declared that I needed stitches.

Thus began the series of events that lucidly illustrated to me what made medical care in India so different than in the States. Back home, everything is official, there are appointments, insurance cards, forms, charts with medical histories, more forms, thermometers that the nurse sticks in your ear, butcher paper over cushioned examining tables in private well-light examining rooms, and all the rest. Here there was a doctor in a small office with no staff. He had no stethoscope, not even a white lab coat. His equipment was all in an old-school hardshell suitcase which he popped open and worked straight out of. When he said I needed stitches, I was thrown off because there were so many steps that according to my sense of the world had been skipped. I was never asked my name; I filled out no form. I wasn't asked about medical insurance, or about my medical history. I was not called in from the waiting area by a nurse and my height and weight and blood pressure were not taken. It was all so raw, so street.

I paused and asked him how much the stitches were going to cost. He thought for a half second and then said Rs.150. I was mind-boggled. Three dollars! He told me that if I went to a hospital, it would be 3-4K, so I'd be getting a good deal with him. Ya think? I told doctor sahib to do his thing. He pulls out a thick black thread and some scissors and tells me to lay down and just stick out my arm in the air. He is not wearing gloves, and he administers no anesthesia (he didn't offer). He then proceeds to put two stitches into my wound. I was calm, though of course it hurt because he did not numb me. I didn't even know it was possible to get stitches without anesthesia. I look away for most of it with my handkerchief over my eyes, but get a glimpse of the dark gray metal hook-like apparatus he apparently used to make the holes. It reminded me of the torture implements in that part in Braveheart where that clergyman lifts a cloth and shows Wallace what he's about to use on him.

After the stitches Doctor sahib tells me to take down my trousers and administers a tetanus shot in the ass. We then sit at his desk where he writes out a prescription. Hand written on custom
stationary . He writes for 3 days supply of antibiotics, painkillers, and anti-acid to combat the side-effect of the antibiotics. I pay him Rs.250 cash for the stitches and shot. He gives me change from a wad of cash in his shirt pocket.

Uncleji drives me to another street-side strip mall where there is a chemist's shop to pick up my
drugs. The shop sells shampoo, body wash, deodorant, toothpaste, and prescription medication. The guy at the counter takes my hand-written prescription and goes to a shelf in the back to fetch my drugs. He didn't question the authenticity of the paper. I didn't have to prove my name was the one on the paper, nor was I given any instructions on using the medication. It was like ordering a burger and fries at a Burger King counter. After telling me they didn't have any of the anti acid drug in stock, they said not to worry; I'd be fine without it. Needless to say these guys were not doctors nor pharmacists. I paid Rs.300 for my drugs. And that was that.

This was an eye-opening experience for me. The process was both smooth and disconcerting. It felt too easy, though I'm pretty sure I got everything I needed. Cost-wise, I had the cheapest medical experience an American can ever possibly hope to have (about 12 bucks all in). And coincidentally all this while a health care debate rages back home in which an important component is (or at least should be) the exponentially-rising cost of health care for ordinary folks. I just finished listening to a pair of radio programs that wonderfully break down the problem in vintage TAL-storytelling style. Are the rising costs due to doctors who are incentivized to use expensive procedures? Or patients who believe more treatment is always better and/or pressure doctors with malpractice threats? Or insurance companies that charge exorbitant premiums and then use rescission to not pay out? Or medical facilities that use dominance in local markets to exploit the emotions of patients and demand high fees and cost-shift private insurers? Whatever the root of the problem, I now know that in India there is a model that somehow results in cheap, accessible medical care: street medicine.

A few days before the bus incident I was walking near my place and a woman on a scooter stopped me to ask how to get to the Anandniketan school. Remarkably, I actually knew where it was. I proceeded to casually give her the directions and soon she was on her way. I walked off in my direction with head held high, smiling to myself. I had finally made it; I was officially a local in this foreign land. There was a visible spring in my step. But after falling out of a city bus and busting my elbow, there is no longer any spring. Rest assured I've humbly re-assumed my role as an outsider, confused foreigner in Ahmedabad.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Flowery Glory: Awards

Editor's Note: Also see this post's trailer and a bonus photo album with commentary!

I’ve covered most of the stories from my trip in the previous posts, but to finish off the telling I will borrow a device from my favorite writer Bill Simmons and hand out some awards:

Nobel Laureate Barack Obama Award for "Biggest Surprise of the Trip"
To the difficulties of traveling to remote places in India. It took us over an hour and a half to travel the 1000 KM from Gujarat to Delhi. It took us another 2.5 days to travel the 100KM or so between Delhi and Joshimath where we started walking. But the traveling process itself was an adventure. Once you get out far enough from big cities, vehicles traveling to any destination become varied and unpredictable. Samir believed in a greedy algorithm: always take the first thing moving roughly in the direction you need to go. This meant that not staying too long in one place was more important than where exactly you will end up and how much closer it gets you to your eventual destination. Just keep moving. The strategy worked remarkably well. It also resulted in a patchwork of different vehicles and intermediate destinations. From Delhi, we took a luxury bus to Dehradun, then a public bus to Haridwar which took us to a fork in the road where we picked up a small charter bus to Rishikesh. The next day we took a bus to Srinagar, then the next morning a jeep to Chamoli, then another jeep to Joshimath.

Indian Broadband Connectivity Memorial Award for “Most Frustrating Aspect of the Trip”
To losing stuff while traveling. Call me a green traveler, but I lost an embarrassingly large number of things. It started off with my wristwatch (sorry Dad!) which inexplicably fell off my hand while I slept in the bus to Dehradun. I also lost sunglasses in a river, water bottles at restaurant tables, gloves at a clothing shop(re-found), and hand sanitizer bottles (lost, re-found, lost, bought new, lost). Of all of these I think losing the watch was the most impactful. It was near the beginning of the trip, and from there on Samir and I pretty much stopped keeping track of time. For someone as anal as me, this was uncomfortable at first, and I never got completely used to it. But it was a fun exercise. At one point Samir and I were in Ghangaria and we realized we needed to plan when to start making the descent back to civilization in order to make our flight from Delhi. We had no idea what day it was, or the date. When we finally found out the actual date, we discovered that our best guess was off by 2 days.

Honorable mention for this award goes to my backpack, borrowed from the uncle I’m staying with in Ahmedabad. The bag was old, and developed rips at both the shoulder straps while walking. It was a burden to mind as I walked each step, wondering whether this would be the step when a strap finally gives, and I’m screwed with 20lbs of stuff in the middle of nowhere with no way to carry it. Luckily there were mochis (cobblers) at some of the places we stopped at on the way to Ghangaria (last city before Valley of Flowers) to mend the bag. Had to get it mended two separate times.

Sex in the City Award for “Most Overrated Part of the Trip”
To Rishikesh, a popular destination for wanderer-types from around the world who come to India for trekking adventures. A beautiful city scenically on the banks of the holy Ganges (this part of the river is also quite clean), but the place was overrun by foreigners. There was a large contingent from Israel, where a lot of youth fresh out of military duty come from to unwind. So much so that some menus etc. were written in Hebrew. But there are foreigners from all over.

I found it disorienting and for some reason annoying. It felt like the environment was cheapened; the city seemed to have sold out from a meaningful, holy place and degraded to catering to foreigners and their peculiar desires. The place offered an ideally packaged experience for any foreigner making a “pilgrimage” to India to live a spiritual cliché, all the while enjoying the comforts of a European resort. The main roads were lined with a rotation of quaint restaurants with names like “Freedom Café” and “Namaste Café”, cybercafés, convenience stores selling Garnier Fructis shampoo and hand sanitizer, schools for yoga and massage, and stores selling knock-off North Face gear and books on tantra and Kama Sutra. I liked Samir’s remark that Rishikesh is “Spiritual Las Vegas”, where people come for debauchery in the guise of a spiritual experience.

John Muir Award for “Best Hike”
Definitely to The Valley of Flowers. Although it was off-season so the flowers weren’t in bloom, I loved this hike for its killer combination of beauty and isolation. I made the ~6km trek through the valley alone, as Samir hung back to sit and write in his journal. Because it was off-season, there weren’t a lot of people in the Valley, so I was literally by myself as I walked through. After being in the world’s densest urban areas for 3 months, this was a very welcomed change of pace. My favorite part was stopping to look around and feeling I had the whole beautiful place to myself.

Indian Toilets Memorial Award for “Most Underrated Aspect of the Trip”
To moleskin, which Samir kept in his first-aid pack for blisters. I never get blisters, but I developed two on my right foot possibly from the hiking shoes I had bought just before leaving for the trip. The moleskin really helped ease the pain. When you are walking for so long, even a small annoyance in your feet can develop into severe pain. I slowly observed how the sensations from my blisters came to dominate every step I took during the trip. The lesson, as always, is to take care of your feet.

Honorable mention to black tea, which was our drink of choice during the cold mornings in Ghangaria. I never drink tea, but I must admit that I was hooked on it while on the trip. Best way to warm up.

Jayeshbhai “Most Memorable Personality” Award
To Rajnish, the expeditioner, tour guide, botanist, bird watcher, and photographer I befriended in Ghangaria. I first encountered him on the trails, when he flew by me up from Govindghat. I took notice because I am a fast hiker myself and I’m rarely passed. Later on I met him in his little shop in Ghangaria and we got to talking. He showed me his amazing collection of photographs of all kinds of wild animals, birds, and flowers of the area. He’s led Discovery Channel expeditions in the area as a local expert. A real mountain man.

Honorable mention goes to two local women we met between Joshimath and Govindghat carrying huge bales of hay. They were stopped over resting on the side of the road as we walked by, and they offered Samir and I cucumbers. So nice! We gave them a Kit-Kat in return for their generosity. Or maybe they were hitting on us.

Steven Gerrard Award for “Best All-Around Aspect of the Trip”
To the natural landscape of the Himalayan foothills. Being cooped up in Ahmedabad, a hectic urban environment for the past 3 months, I was dying to get to some clean, open space. And this trip didn’t disappoint. I loved the cold air, just the feeling of being cold. I loved the sound and the feel of the rivers. My favorite hikes are those near rivers; in this trip it was great to get near their rush and violent power. I loved the severely steep mountains, which stood out to me as the biggest difference between the Himalayan landscape and Yosemite, which I have been going to since I was a little tike. I couldn’t remember craning my neck in Yosemite as much as I did here to see the top of a mountain. That’s the best way I can describe the difference, the pictures don’t really reflect it.

An innovation to the trekking experience in India is that the trails are lined with shacks where people sell water, soda, snacks, and even cook full meals. So you are hiking along on a rugged trail and then suddenly pull over to a table and chair where you can enjoy roti and daal (as I did). At first I was thrown off and against it because I am a nature purist and don’t like human alteration of natural places, but I eventually made some place in my heart for the mountain snack shacks. And of course if we brought this concept to California trails, Choks wouldn't need to worry about being out a Safeway deli sandwich with olive spread in the middle of nowhere again. But the main drawback of the shacks is the amount of garbage they create on the trails. It was appalling. How remote do I have to travel in India to escape from the eyesore of littered walkways? At one point I was walking and saw a girl in the act of throwing an empty chips bag. I walked up to her and in my broken Hindi told her to pick up the trash, and asked her to please not throw trash on the trails. Her boyfriend, standing next to her, went stiff with disbelief, managing to utter "Yeah, sure." I don't think they got it.

Chris McCandless “Most Valuable Trekker” Award
To Samir Patel, a hall-of-fame travel companion. Samir definitely knows what he’s doing on treks. It’s one of the things he takes real seriously. He is super prepared with all the best equipment which he very generously shared with me. He has gotten packing the essentials down to an art (family members will not be surprised to know he doesn’t emphasize packing a lot of underwear). He also has a great sense of balancing what you need to plan ahead and what you don’t. He left just enough open-ended to make the trip both smooth and adventurous. We had good communication, marked by our unspoken commitment to not over-communicate. On the trails or when planning we talked when we needed to, and kept silent when we didn’t. Of course during meals we stayed silent. We were busy. The one exception was to discuss The Black Swan, which we were both reading simultaneously. Pretty soon we were seeing black swans everywhere.

It was great spending time with Samir to catch up in a real deep way. There’s no bonding like mountain bonding. Thanks for everything Sam.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Almost Famous

The closest I've ever gotten to feeling like a celebrity is during the times I've gone into or out of the international terminal of a small Indian Airport. Like the one in Ahmedabad. For airports like it, there is often just one or two flights pending departure or arrival at a time. On top of that people here make the arrival or departure of a loved one to/from America or Australia or Europe an extended family event. There are balloons and flowers. People even come early with food and have picnics in the grassy areas outside the terminal as they wait.

My mom flew in from California earlier this week and me, Shiven, and Masi et. al. (who were coming as a surprise to mom) went to pick her up. Flight arrived at 11pm at night, and it was the only flight arriving. But you wouldn't have guessed it by the crowd, which was swarming around the terminal exit. Like our contingent, there was a posse of people to greet every passenger. The crowd excitedly gathered around the terminal's single exit door, anxiously waiting for their special guy or gal to appear from amongst the gauntlet of bag claims and security checks. Two metal railings kept a walkway, almost like a catwalk, leading out from the exit. Dramatically, passengers mostly appeared one at a time. Everyone had their own time to shine.

I will admit it was an exciting atmosphere. With each set of whoops and hollers my anticipation for the next person to be my mom grew. At the same time I was growing annoyed by the crowd, which seemed to intensify and start invading my space no matter how far away I stood. I kept trying to position myself in a place where no one could possibly bump me in the back or graze my chest, but the crowd was like a spreading disease that I couldn't escape. My Masi, on the other hand, had found a choice spot right on the railing from which to greet her sister. Masi wanted to make sure the first face my mom saw was hers.

Mom came out and made a beeline, head down, through the crowd toward open space. She didn't even acknowledge her 15 seconds of fame! But of course we gave her a royal welcome with hugs and smiles. Welcome to India Mom!

Flowery Glory: An Album

Enjoy a visual recap (with captions!) of the trip:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Flowery Glory: The Trailer

Diligent readers of this blog will have noticed that I've been conspicuously silent about my trip to the Valley of Flowers earlier this month. Well, the reason is that I was walking the inspired path between Govindghat to Ghangaria, on my way to some of the most beautiful open land I have ever seen, when I had a vision. It dawned on me that this story had to be told in a blockbuster fashion. I conceived of doing a series of blog posts about the trip, and I needed time to prepare. Now, finally, we are ready to begin:

Friends, we all know what a movie trailer is. But what about a trailer for a blog post? Absurd. Preposterous. Unheard of.

Until now.

For the first time in the history of the blogosphere, I present to you the trailer for "Flowery Glory", a post I will write sometime in the near future about my trip to the Valley of Flowers. We are all witnesses.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Navratri Naach

Before heading for my trip with Samir to the Himalayas, we had a few days in Baroda. The night before we left from there we went to a Navaratri garba. Baroda is known for having the biggest and best garbas in Gujarat. And the most glorious of them all is the annual United Way Garba.

Getting tickets to get into this particular garba is shockingly difficult. You have to buy an expensive pass at the beginning of Navaratri, and they issue you an ID card with a chip that stores your photo digitally. In order to enter the grounds each person passes their card through a scanner and your picture shows up on TV screens, which security checks before letting you in. Yes folks, this is for entering a garba. The picture thing means you can't use someone else's card. Also, sneaking in is hard because security is swarming and apparently you will get severely beaten if you're caught without a card.

In our first night in Baroda Samir and I didn't have passes so we bought tickets to the bleachers section to just watch the garba. As soon as I walked in and saw the scale, the colors, and the energy, I was mesmerized. It was like an event from another world. Planet Garba. Compared to the garbas I went to in the Bay growing up, this was like the Super Bowl and those were like exhibitions. I came to the realization that to die happy, I had to experience it at least once.

Unfortunately everyone we talked to told us it would be impossible to get in because we had to have bought our pass well in advance. All kinds of scenarios were discussed with local friends; I even emailed Raj, Sam, and Choks back home to see if they knew anyone who could hook us up at the last minute. No luck. But I absolutely had to go to this garba, this and no other. During the day we were busy running errands for our trip so we only got back to the grounds an hour or so before the garba to see if we could buy tickets. My stomach dropped when the guy at the ticket window said there was no way we could buy a pass for that night; their system was shut down and no longer issuing new passes.

But I would not be denied. It was abundantly clear that the only way in was by talking our way in. Luckily my resume for sneaking into restricted events is long and storied. I even co-founded a fake institution, Sneaking-In University, when I was in college for schooling others on the tricks of the trade. My prized pupil, Amit Sura, M.D., is currently Dean in SIU's School of Rhetoric. God Amit, you would have been so proud if you saw me in action this night.

The key is getting someone, anyone, behind the window sympathetic to your cause. First things first, I went heavy on my California accent. I made the case to the window guy that we were from the U.S. and we only had one night to garba. What can you do for us? Then large doses of confidence, patience, and persistence. Eventually the window guy goes and gets the head organizer of the event. At that point I knew it was in the bag. I repeat our case to her, and she grills us to make sure we aren't lying about our story. We stand our ground. And with a few instructions to the peons at the computers, that was that. We had our passes.

Riding high from defying the odds to get tickets, Samir and I walk into the grounds with all the enthusiasm in the world. I really felt like I was going to a Kings playoff game or something. I remember walking in and thinking that this must be the largest gathering of Gujus I've ever been a part of. I loved the colors of everyone's dress, which went with the beautiful multi-colored lamp decorations of the outdoor venue. I liked the soft, fine brown soil of the grounds; I imagined that this had been determined as the optimal garba turf after years of experimentation. Before things got started I crouched down and rubbed a handful in my palms and put it to my nose, like Maximus in Gladiator. OK I didn't, but that would have been tremendous.

Once the music started it was a blur of adrenaline-charged dancing. The music was world-class, performed by some of Gujarat's best. The music starts out at an inviting pace, but ends in a dizzying sprint. At one point the music was so incredibly fast, I forgot where I was because all I was doing was moving as fast as I could. If I stopped concentrating on just dancing for even a second to look up and soak the scene, I would get smoked. And just as I thought the music couldn't possibly go anywhere else but back down, it kicked into yet another hidden gear, thrusting the whole crowd to a frenzied new height. The garba was at least 10 circles thick, and everyone was all business. No messing around, strictly dancing. The lines were so tight that once you were in the inner circles you couldn't get to the outside until intermission. Made me feel like Abhimanyu in the chakravyuha.

There were a lot of innovative steps that I had never seen before at Cal St. Hayward garbas. My favorite was a step I coined the 'Baroda Gangsta Lean' where for three beats your line struts forward with chest out in a diagonal march before turning a shoulder and going the other direction. Kids these days. Another thing I loved about the crowd was their interaction with the singers. They would scream in delight when they heard their favorite songs come on, and during the choicest, climatic lyrics.

And there was sweat. Buckets of sweat. I was absolutely drenched by the end, my kurta had fully turned a darker shade. Luckily there was easy access to water. Not to mention a great selection of food booths. All-in-all a phenomenally managed event. For something so large scale, it was a wonder it worked as well as it did. Made me wonder whether United Way was really a garba-organizing firm that did charity work on the side.

There's really no point in going into more superlatives to describe the night, maybe my single most favorite thing I've done in India for the past three summers. Lifetime experience. Afterward I decided that it is absolutely necessary that the Bay crew, and I mean all of us together, come out for garba in Baroda once before we die. Maybe for Choks' bachelor party?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

To The Heavens

I'm headed off for a 10-day trek in the Valley of Flowers. Samir and I have some rough plans, but mostly hoping the tide will land us wherever we need to be. Right now I am in Baroda furiously trying to scrap together the gear I'll need (backpack, sleeping bag, waterproof clothes, shoes, etc.) since I came here with none of my own stuff. It's incredible how much we take for granted in the states in terms of being able to get quality products for pretty much anything. There is nothing close to an REI here.

But I'll make due. What's important is I'm off to heaven on earth. Talk to you when I get back.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Our Skull-Sized Kingdoms: David Foster Wallace

I came across David Foster Wallace's story on a tribute episode to him on TTBOOK. I had never heard of the man, but he was known by many literary critics as one of America's best writers . He wrote a thousand page novel called Infinite Jest that is described as "sprawling". It is also considered "avant-garde", so I was initially put-off and wondered whether this is another fluffy head-in-the-clouds writer who only has a lot to say because he has no mental discipline.

Turns out he is pretty brilliant, and I got a lot out of learning about him and his writing. From his story I developed a better understanding of what it means to suffer from severe depression, and that taking your own life isn't necessarily an act of cowardice. His sister talks about how when they found out he had committed suicide in 2008, the family wasn't mad at David, or thought he was selfish. They knew he was suffering debilitating pain, that he was actually very brave, but that in the end he just didn't want to fight any longer. They understood fully.

(Tangent: Leave it to the folks at To The Best of Our Knowledge to make an hour of your attention worthwhile. There are very few media sources that I trust like TTBOOK, where even if the program title or tag line sounds uninteresting to me, I give it a shot anyway because I have profited so many times in unexpected ways from what they present. TTBOOK is one channel that allows me to expand my horizons, learning about topics I wouldn't have otherwise felt are worth exploring.)

The jewel of the program is at the very end where you hear an excerpt from an inspiring commencement address David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College. I highly recommend you listen, but I've also attached a written version cued up to the part that is heard.
...But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and .... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

David Foster Wallace Kenyon Address

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Get A Life

Recently I got a reminder that you can't put too much weight in how other people say you should live:

I am currently writing two research papers simultaneously for a big conference, and the deadline is looming less than a week away. This is the culmination of months of hard work and I am determined to finish out strong. One of the remarkable things is that I've been riding high all the way through. Last year at this time, I was a wreck, losing weight, feeling stressed, irritable. But in a year I've grown a lot stronger mentally. One of the things I've been focusing on recently with my mental approach is to keep the crushing burden of outcomes off my shoulders. Have no stake in what you do. Just do. This makes you a lot lighter on your feet, and it also diverts brain cycles spent stressing about outcomes toward doing the best work you can right now.

So because of my papers for the past couple weeks or so I have been very focused at the office, cranking through chai breaks and blocking all else out but the data dancing on the screen in front of me. My hard core-ness was picked up on by one of my co-workers, who remarked, "Neil, listen. There is more to life than Avaaj Otalo, you know that right?" Translation: "Get a life. You shouldn't be working so hard."

You just can't win. Everyone has that friend(s) or family member(s) who doesn't yet have her act together. She lacks focus. She doesn't have a direction. So what do we do? We rip on the girl. Get focused. Get a direction. Get a life! And then when you have found your place, and you are doing something you really truly love, something that you are proud of, the thing that if you had a choice to be doing any single thing at this point in your life, you'd choose this (not counting playing pro golf), someone tells you, "You're working too hard at it. Get a life!"

I was relating this episode to Samir, and he told me a story that he heard while he was a young FOB growing up in India. I re-tell it here with some artistic license. There was an old man who had a donkey (a.k.a. an ass), and the ass was pushing a huge load of goods for the old man to sell at the market. As the old man was leading the ass through a village, people yelled out.

Society: Hey, old man! Don't you have a conscience? Look at your donkey, so feeble and weak. And yet you load him up with all that plaster of paris? You should be ashamed.

Old Man: Really, you think so Society? Maybe you're right. OK, this is what I'll do. To lighten the burden for Eeyore, I'm going to chuck half of my goods. Hmpphhh. There you go, much better right?

Old Man and ass continue to the next village

Society: Stop being a punk old man! Look at your ass suffering. Have you any compassion?

Old Man: K, I'll chuck the rest of my goods. Hmpphhh.

Next village

Society: Old Man, poor ass! Help him!

Old Man: You're right Society. Ok Eeyore, up you go. I'll carry you on my own back. Hmmmmmpppphhhhh.

Last Village: bin Ladenstan

Society: LOL look at this old man. What a chump! Carrying a donkey? How silly. Hey old man, You're an ASS!

People just like to be critical. I think it is a reaction based on ego. The chain goes something like this: Hey, that guy looks like he's fulfilled. Why aren't I fulfilled like that? Well, since I'm not doing much wrong in my own life, it must be him. Hey man, you shouldn't be enjoying yourself so much. You're doing something wrong!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Can I Get A Encore?

  • The other day I recalled something Sebastian Thrun, a professor in my department and of Stanley/DARPA Grand Challenge fame said in a talk about why he does research on cars that can drive themselves. He said that if robots were driving our cars on freeways, then all the cars would be able to drive a lot closer together than they do now. Human's hands and nerves are too shaky to be trusted to drive a foot off the bumper of the next vehicle. But robots certainly could, and the extra space this creates effectively triples or quadruples our freeway capacity instantly, without laying any new asphalt.

    I was thinking this also applies to living life. The more time we spend dominated by our thoughts is less time spent actually living, which only happens when you are tapped into the here and now. If you made a practice of spending more of your time in the present moment, you would effectively increase the length of your life, without living any additional years.

  • One thing Tiger talks about in his interviews all the time is how he tries to "put himself in a position to win". Means that he can only win the tournament on Sunday, but he has to play Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in such a way that he keeps himself in contention to have a shot at taking the tournament on Sunday. He understands that if you put yourself in a position to win time and again, eventually the wins are going to pile up. In life, we fail all the time. And sometimes you wonder when the hell things are going to fall right for you. That's when you have to tell yourself to keep preparing, keep making yourself better. Because when you keep putting yourself in a position to win, eventually you will.

  • I want to give a shout out to two pieces of media that have really made me feel at home while I've been away. The first is Jay-Z's music.

    I've been listening to rap music since I was about 8. The original influence was my cousin Ashish, who is 4 years older. I copied everything he did. One day Hash got The Chronic and I remember sitting with him and his friend Corey in Corey's living room blasting it on his family's surround sound system. I was shocked by the profanity, it didn't belong in that wholesome living room. But the music penetrated my brain.

    Then Hash got a car when I was 12 or 13 and when we rode he would play a 2-song playlist: Bone Thugs N Harmony 'First of da Month' and 'Thuggish Ruggish Bone'. Over and over. He had this sweet sound system in his Acura that allowed you to skip to songs on a cassette tape. Hash sometimes also played some 'ethnic' rap songs that I know Jay and Hash remember.

    Anyway from those early impressions I was pretty much hooked on rap. I probably now know the lyrics to hundreds of rap songs. I can say with 85% certainty that there isn't anyone I know who knows more rap lyrics than me, and with 99% certainty that I'm amongst the top 3 of people I know. By far and away the artist I listen to the most is Jay-Z. Recently I was listening to an interview with a guy who talks about how music shapes human nature. He argues that music predates language, and that music is itself a language. If that's the case, then I speak Jay-Z.

    He's the greatest rapper we have ever seen. That's not a biased opinion. I think only the Beatles have more #1 albums, he has more than Michael Jackson and Elvis. Over the years I have grown more and more appreciative of his music, which I think has only gotten better. I'm also really fascinated with the person. Jay-Z is a lyrical genius, born with unique gifts that made him destined to be a poet/rapper. He doesn't write any of his lyrics down, it just comes out when he's in the studio. A few years ago he 'retired' from rapping but came back within a year or so. Most likely because it is impossible for him to retire. The rhymes just naturally flow out of his head. This is a really interesting video of him describing how he thinks about music and his approach to coming up with songs:

    Jay-Z just released his 11th studio album, Blueprint 3, which I downloaded and have been listening to non-stop since I got it. It's a fantastic piece of work. Not his best (I still think Blueprint 1 was the masterpiece of masterpieces), but once again he takes the game to another level. He even introduced a new cadence sound ('awww' instead of 'uhhh' which I'm sure will now be used by all other rappers). He's a master of language, he just plays games with words. Even the crappy songs on the album can't be called crappy because of how fresh his lyrics are. But what sets him apart as a rapper is his unparalleled combination of talent and charisma. His swagger, like in the D.O.A. performance below. It's why Eminem will never reach Jay's heights. Here are a few of the best songs from the album:

    I could go on forever talking about the guy. But for now, I just want to say thanks, Mr. Shawn Carter, for all of your music and making me feel at home away from home. Also, mini shout-out to my iPod, which has made it possible to listen to music and radio podcasts anywhere. I've absolutely turned into one of those anti-social assholes who sits on a bus or train burried in their headphones, off in their own world.

  • The other media shoutout goes to The Wire. Like my man Simmons talking about his own start with the show, I don't like to be forced into watching shows or music by others. I like to bump into things organically. Even if it means I miss out on stuff. For those of you who haven't seen The Wire, I'm sure you've heard one person or other recommend it, telling you about how it's the most important television show in the history of television. And that's true. Hopefully you'll watch it, but if not, it's really your loss. I have Bittorrent to thank for my date with destiny. Once I figured out how to use it, I wanted to download something big, and I really just chose season 1 of The Wire arbitrarily. That was about 3 months ago, and since then I have gone through the first three seasons and am just starting the fourth, which is reputably the best one (Maneka: "You will die of love for season 4").

    The show has really taken over my life over these few months. I think about it a lot. Mostly the characters on the show, which are so vivid and engrossing. Avon is definitely my favorite character, mostly because he's the top man (of a drug empire). He was flawed in how he ran things strategically, but he knows what it means to lead men. But it's also about the stories and how they weave small details into larger arcs, how they portray the drug game from 360 degrees of perspective (the sellers, the users, the police, the courts, the government). You uncover all the messiness in the urban drug landscape, the interconnected ecosystem of the hopper on the corner, the stick-up boys in the alleys, the cops on the rooftops, and the councilmen in city hall. You realize that there is no single villain in the drama, and you end up empathizing with everyone. The show teaches you some things, but mostly you come away with empathy, and also with anger. You are mad at the shitty situation, it really lights a fire in you.

    Again, I can go on for hours. I barely watch TV, and have certainly never been sucked in by a show like this before. So there you go. I am now at the point where I'm lamenting inching nearer to the conclusion, being finished with all 5 seasons with nothing left to watch, these characters no longer in my life to ponder over. I'm trying to ration season 4 to 2 episodes a week to make it stretch through October, then I'll have to wait to get home to watch season 5. Also wanted to point out that my case demonstrates how piracy helps sell product. After stealing season 1, I felt compelled to buy season 3, and will buy season 5. Without being able to download and watch season 1 illegally, I probably wouldn't have discovered that I loved this show and found it worth paying for even if I could steal it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Yes We Can (Eat Corn)!

I finally found a way to upload pictures that have been trapped in my phone since I got to India. Pictures taken with a cameraphone are special beasts. They are all about the context, spontaneous, raw, or something like that. They are often hastily taken because they depict life at life's pace. Or something like that. What I mean to say is that my cameraphone pics tend to be much more in the moment because they are pictures I take even when I don't have a (real) camera with me. Here are my favorites:

Exercise bike on the roof of a friend's apartment in Delhi. Love the jungle theme. Feels like you're doing a bike ride through the rain forest.

This was taken during a rickshaw ride home from the Gandhi ashram late one night. When the autowala picked me up, he was towing this old man with a broken down moped. When I got in, the old man shoved off, assuming it was the end of the line for him. But then I told the autowala it was OK with me if he wanted to let the man continue to hitch a ride, which he proceeded to do for 15 minutes. I just loved it. An old man in distress, and the autowala looking out for a stranger. The old man paid something in the end, but it was mostly in smiles and gratitude. I still remember the look on his face as he cruised along with us, a contented smile against the cool breeze.

Corn we can believe in! I was driving to dinner with Madhu, Meghna, and Samir when I spotted this stall. Meghna reversed the car all the way back up the block to get me the photo opp. There is a lot to love about Obama's Makai. The guy running the stall explained that he thought the name differentiated his offering. Did you ever imagine we would have a US president with this level of appeal to people the world over, reaching all the way out to street food vendors in Ahmedabad? I couldn't have been more thrilled. And yes, the corn was fantastic.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Once you're behind by one pawn...

  • Some interesting tidbits I've learned recently: One, the 'Soap Opera' was invented by Proctor and Gamble as a substrate to advertise and sell... you guessed it... soap. Number two, Sherlock Holmes exhibited textbook characteristics of autism. Three, according to Rushdie Jodhaa was actually a figment of Akbar's imagination that he convinced everyone was real. These are the things you learn by listening to the radio folks!
  • There is this old kaka at Manav Sadhna (MS) who is notorious for talking people's heads off. People who know him warn the uninitiated to avoid him at all costs. He's one of these guys who loves to give advice to the point of being patronizing, and also seems to have been involved in most of the important events in human history. My friend Amit, a medical student from Canada, one day decided, screw it, I'm going to talk to this guy and see what he has to say. He sits down with him, and the very first thing the old man says is, "Ask." That's it. Ask. Period. What a way to start a conversation with a person you've never met! Ballsy! I was flabbergasted by the charisma this old man showed. Unfortunately when I tried it myself I only got confused (potentially dirty) looks.
  • Last weekend I was at MS playing games with the kids. I teamed up with a local dude, Nikunj, who was also volunteering. We spent most of that afternoon playing with the kids together and chatting it up in Gujarati. At the end of the day he offers to drive me home. On the ride I come to find out that he did his MBA in Florida, and he finds out that I'm actually an NRI from California. We could speak English to each other! Good, he told me, because he was concerned earlier. Why, I ask him. Because I assumed you had a speech disability based on the way you speak Gujarati. So slow and deliberate. :( First time someone's told me they thought I was retarded , I swear.
  • I've noticed that I unconsciously migrate to the right side of streets when I'm walking. Just feels more natural.
  • The other day I was talking with friends and told them I have come to realize that Nipun is a billionaire. He's filthy rich. It's just that all of his wealth is in social capital, instead of dollars.
  • Last night I was at Seva Cafe with Madhu and Meghna, Samir, and a few other friends to hang out, maybe eat, but generally to take in the vibe. Madhu and I are sitting on the swing when he remarks that this whole matrix, MS, Seva Cafe, etc. that they have moved from Bombay to be a part of is a 'bubble'. All the generosity, compassion, joy that really underlies this whole scene. Is it real? Is it wrong? I responded that I thought it was indeed a bubble, but for the world to change it's going to take a million of these bubbles sprouting up everywhere, so it ain't bad. Then I told him that I've never felt comfortable living in an existing bubble; I've always been of the mind of creating my own bubble for others to enjoy. Is it ego?
  • One re-occurring theme I've been observing around me since I got here is chess. It started when I was walking around the laris at Law Garden and noticed some of the street cooks huddled around a chess board behind their little food stall. Then this dude at DSC asks me how to play online and then we get to playing. Then folks break out a board at MS. Now at DSC we've got a physical set of pieces and a board we printed out on paper from the Internet. I've been playing with a couple co-workers. One of the guys I play with is really good. So far I haven't been able to crack him. I play well against him, but eventually I make a bad move and he never seems to make one. I can't find any holes in his game. After one match he tells me that in chess, as soon as you get behind your opponent by a single pawn, you've lost. After that it's just a matter of pressure and time, as Red said. It made me think of a story I heard about Harlem Children's Zone, a program which realized that to fundamentally shift their community away from the cycle of poverty, it's going to take more than an after school program or two with a few hundred kids. They would have to go big. So they decided to start a program which would include all 10,000 kids in Harlem. Wow. And on top of that, the program would begin for the kid at birth, and end when she graduated college. All the way through. Their insight was that it's the little things you do when the kid is age 0 to 3 which have the huge ramifications. They were inspired by a study which compared a family on welfare to a professional one, and found the number one difference was that the professionals' kids heard 20 million more words than the welfare kids from age 0 to 3. Also, the professionals' kids heard a vast majority encouraging remarks, whereas the welfare kids heard a majority discouraging remarks. So HCZ started Baby College, which talks to parents about not hitting their kids and reading to them, and how these little things make a huge difference. Results? The first batch of kids through the program, who come mostly from poor, single-parent families, had above average math and verbal scores in 3rd grade. Now Obama wants to replicate Harlem Children's Zone throughout the country as a model for ending poverty in America. The story reinforced Gladwell's point in Outliers that hidden head starts people get in society are the real reasons for success. Give back one pawn early, and it can make all the difference.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Living In Your Thoughts vs. Living in Reality

There is a sharp distinction between living in your thoughts and living in reality. One is passive; it is crowded with anxiety, isolation, helplessness, but most fundamentally fear. The other is bold. When you live in reality, you are strong, confident, energetic, and most importantly you are aware.

I think of the two ways of living as existing on opposite sides of a revolving door. That door is the present moment. When you retreat into your thoughts, you abandon the present and are living in either the past or future, which are both figments of your imagination. But step into the now, and suddenly you are living in a real world. The door is revolving because for the most part we are in one world or the other at any given moment.

When you meditate, you practice living in reality for longer and longer periods of time. I suppose it's ironic to say that practicing silence and stillness helps you become more alive, but it's exactly like taking the red pill in the Matrix. To wake up, you first have to be made aware that you've been sleeping.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mobile Masti

Two fun stories that happened recently to do with mobile phones:
  1. I was in Baroda for Raksha Bandhan and was driving in a rickshaw with my Masi. In the middle of the ride we pulled over so Masi could run an errand in the area we were passing through. While we waited the rickshaw driver and I got to talking, and through our conversation he sensed that (a) I was a guy who he could ask for help; and (b) I knew something about cell phones (no, I didn't tell him about my project, but yes, I was twirling a big fat Nokia in my hand as we did guppa). So he says, "My mobile phone doesn't display the clock on the top screen. Can you set it up for me?" Sure, I say, how hard could that be? As it turned out, pretty damn hard. First, his flame orange Nokia was missing the buttons for the soft keys so I had to push the little sensors to navigate. Also for some reason the phone kept saying the camera was using up all the memory so there wasn't enough to let me get into the menu. The phone didn't even have a camera.

    Anyway after about 15 min of solid fiddling, I thought I had fixed it. But when I handed it to him he looked at it and then immediately put it away. He told me it still wasn't working. What?!? Turns out I fixed it so the clock showed up when the phone's keypad was unlocked only; when locked, the clock disappeared. That's just impossible, so I spent another 10 min figuring out the problem. Actually I don't know what the problem was, but it started working once I powered the phone down and back on. I handed the phone to him with a feeling of deep satisfaction. He glanced at the phone and then quickly put it away.

  2. I taught my Ba (a.k.a. dadi, grandmother) how to use a cell phone! I had gotten her one for the times she was out and may need to get into contact with someone. Teaching her to use it was a fantastic bonding experience. All told she learned the basics in about half an hour. The first order of business was to choose a ringtone for her. I wasn't that happy with any of the built-in Nokia tones, but I ended up settling on Samba. Ba was down.

    At the outset I assumed that I would just program the 8 speed dial slots and she would manage to use the phone to dial just those numbers. But before long it became abundantly clear the Ba could easily grasp the concept of a contact list. So I ditched speed dial and went into an explanation about how to browse contacts and call. It's interesting to teach something so committed to your own muscle memory, because you have to break down every component: "Press the arrow to get into the list. Press the arrow again to scroll to the next contact. Notice that it's in alphabetic order. Once you get to the person you want to call, press the middle button on the phone. If a number is in your contact list, when they call you their name will show up on the screen; otherwise just the number will show up." And so on.

    After contact list I taught her how to accept a call, power the phone on/off, and clear the screen to go to the main menu screen. Teaching the last item was cool. Since I had no words for "clear" or "main menu" in Gujarati, I ended up just using those words. But she totally got the abstract concept of top-level screen.

    Ba was a pro by the end. She was a really eager student, which made a difference. My favorite part of teaching her was once we were done, and we were sitting and talking about something else. All of a sudden she would change the subject back to the phone by saying something like, "So to accept the call, I press the middle button, right?" She kept going back in her mind and quizzing herself to make sure she had learned it properly. It's going to be fun calling her on the phone for the first time.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Stuff Indian People Like #3: Paperwork

Indian business is all about processes. There is a protocol for everything. Usually the protocols are needlessly long and complicated. Part of this is an obsession with paperwork.

My friend Rikin recently subscribed to a broadband service in Delhi. The salesguy comes over to his place with a backpack full of paperwork for him to fill out. As Rikin fills his name, address, and nationality on page after page, the salesguy smiles with a look of accomplishment. Then there are all the documents that Rikin needs to provide: proof of residence, passport, copy of lease, copy of bank statement, and the faithful sidekick of Indian paperwork, the passport-sized photo (multiple copies). The other thing about the paperwork is that people who make you fill it out use it as a tool to deny you whatever you are signing up for. When something is missing or incorrect, no matter how trivial, they are delighted. So imagine the smile on the salesguy’s face when one of Rikin’s documents was missing the ‘circle stamp’… Rikin’s stamp was rectangular. Gotcha! Sure salesguy showed up 3 hours late for the appointment, but when it comes to the paperwork, he is detail-oriented.

Recently I signed up for gym membership at Studio de Physique, the premier posh gym in Ahmedabad (it’s walking distance from my place). Part of the “opening formalities” was answering a litany of personal questions about my lifestyle, diet, exercise habits, etc. How many meals do I eat a day? What do I eat for breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? How often do I eat cheese? How many times a month do I eat ice cream? Do I drink? Smoke? Non-veg? How many hours do I sleep a night? When do I go to sleep? What do I wear to sleep? OK, I made the last one up. But seriously, at some point you have to question what on earth this all has to do with signing up for a 5-month gym membership. Also what on earth do they do with all that data?

But it’s also the insistence on doing things by the book. No matter how redundant and ridiculous it is to submit ten forms and proofs of identity for a sim card, the salesman will not question the process. He will make you do it because that’s what his boss told him to do, because he will also get called out from above if a stamp is out of place. There is little questioning of what makes sense, of thinking outside the box. A culture of paper-pushing rooted in colonial legacy.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Baa da pa pa paaaa

I paid my first-ever visit to an Indian McDonald's last week for lunch. It was Sagar (the youngster from Jersey who has been visiting DSC)'s last day in Ahmedabad and like any American teen he was psyched about a golden-arched last meal. I was less than enthused because I had planned on never eating at a McDonald's again in my life about 10 years ago. But I thought the experience would be educational. Here are some random thoughts/observations:
  • When I first walked in, I noticed two things: One, that it smelled like any McDonald's I had ever been too (the best I could come up with to describe that smell is 'engineered appetizing'); and two, that 95% of the patrons were 20 years-old or younger. So much for a "family restaurant" as the sign indicated out front.
  • Just as we got between the order line's zig-zagging bars, we were greeted by a guy with a pen and pad to take our order, perfectly demonstrating the "so much cheap labor we don't know what to do with it" phenomenon I discussed last year. Giving our order to him saved us roughly 3 seconds compared to talking to the dude at the register we were just walking up to. (Quick Tangent: this phenomenon is incredibly robust. The other place I've seen it play out recently to my deep chagrin is at the gym, where trainers just wander around aimlessly waiting for you to do a set so they can get up real close to give unsolicited spots, and yell things like "Come On!", "Yeaaaa!" and "Light Weight!" and then give you advice about keeping your back straight and moving your hands up on the bar. It's really been flustering me).
  • I ordered a McVeggie burger, fries, and soda value meal (Rs. 100). A few reactions: first, the fries really taste authentic... I got the sense that they go out of their way to create a perfectly replicated eating experience. So much so that the coke is also American, i.e. it was sweetened with corn instead of sugar (a la Thums Up). Finally, the burger was really confusing. The patty was spiced up with Indian masalas, but it was on an American bun with mayo and ketchup and lettuce and American-style fake cheese. Just a bizarre combination.
  • At the table next to us a young woman was tying Rakhis on two of her "brothers". A few minutes later we see two girls in full saris walk out of a back room where there was a private party going on. All in this shiny beacon of Americana. Is there a term for this? Culture crash? Tradition juxtaposition? East melts West?
  • Overall I thought the meal was OK, probably a solid D+, but I felt horrible after. It was like I ate a tray full of empty calories (even though I probably ate a ton of calories). Unwholesome would be the one word description.
I'm lovin it!!