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!!