Sunday, August 19, 2012

Facebook Restaurant

For the most part, India has no qualms about infringing on copyrights and stepping on trademarks. The vibrant pirated software market is one example. It's normal to go to a store and ask for "pirated" software, movies, and video games. It's its own genre.

The newly opened Facebook restaurant is another example. At this point you're probably asking yourself, what does FB have to do with dining? Is the food mostly blue in color? Is it mindless and shallow in nature? Is there a Like button on the plates? When you browse the menu, will you get sucked into staring at photo after photo of sizzlers and frankies for an hour? When you order french fries, will you unknowingly also be served a burger, milkshake, and other items you didn't opt into? When your bill reaches your table, will the amount immediately decrease by 50% (that one was for Jay)?

These are the kind of questions we wanted to answer on our trip to Facebook Restaurant.

The best thing about the restaurant was the decor. The lobby and main dining hall had FB profiles and widgets painted on them. The furniture was white and there were blue accents. The napkins had "Facebook Restaurant" printed on them. The front counter appropriately had a "Wall" with people's comments about the restaurant. They were clearly looking to milk the gimmick for all it's worth. And they did a pretty good job with that.

Not surprisingly, the food was mediocre at best. I will never go to Facebook restaurant again. But of course they got me into the place out of intrigue and curiosity. It's not a bad plan, but I expect the restaurant to be out of business within 6 months. Like its namesake, sizzle over steak is not a long-term viable business model.

Monday, August 13, 2012

What Is True?

Last week, my cook Aartiben told me she had a problem. As a part of Janmashtami holiday, she would be holding a morning pooja at her house the day before, so she would have to come to work later. The problem was that as per her community's tradition, for that entire day she was not to prepare any cooked food, either for herself or for others. So she could come to work, but she wouldn't be able to go near the cooking flame or actually cook the food. I hadn't heard of the tradition before, so found it a bit bizarre. But I told her I wouldn't mind helping her out that day to cook the food if she prepped, or even giving her the day off. But the problem was that MAM (who she also cooks for) was coming back from a long trip that morning, and they would be tired and hungry and needing support for Reva.

Aartiben was very conflicted. On one hand she wanted to do her job and come to work especially on this day when MAM would need help at home, but she was scared and worried about the consequences of going against her tradition. She said a year earlier when she didn't follow it, a spirit entered her and her son Akash as a result. It was scary, and she didn't want to upset the gods once again. She was really worried and confused, and we went back and forth thinking about workarounds. But we couldn't, and in the end she said she'd come cook for us as usual.

That morning she was noticeably jittery and nervous as she did her work. She burned the potatoes and was shaking. Madhu and Meghna assured her that it would be fine. God would not punish her for doing her job, in fact God would give her double bonus blessings. Like that she managed through the day.

Then that night Madhu got a call from Aartiben, who was hysterical. Akash had a high fever, and it had gone to his brain. He was unconscious and having fits. Madhu rushed over to the hospital, where the doctor was himself overwhelmed and confused. He gave Akash a cocktail of antibiotics and other things, hoping something would fix him. Figuring that medicines don't work that way, Madhu brought Akash's blood to a trusted doctor who prescribed a medicine. After taking that Akash regained consciousness and stabilized. Later based on his symptoms it seemed that Akash had gotten malaria.

These are the facts. But they can be interpreted into different versions of the truth. From Aartiben's perspective, it's easy to suspect that cooking that day and Akash's falling ill were related. That whole day she had a bad feeling, and something like this had happened last year. And once her community finds out they would definitely reinforce that interpretation.

My interpretation of the facts is that one event wasn't the cause of the other; they were an unfortunate coincidence. Millions of people don't follow Aartiben's tradition, and nothing happens to them. Meghna said that when she was a child, her mother followed the same tradition. Then at some point, she stopped. But after she stopped nothing bad happened to Meghna.

Also, I have a strong believe in the power of the mind to affect our physical reality. Aartiben had it in her mind that something bad was going to happen that day. She had a whole lot of fear, and there is little doubt that it transferred to Akash. Anyone who has seriously meditated knows the deeply interwoven relationship between the thoughts we think and our gross physical reality. If you are in a fragile state of mind or full of fear, you make your body weak and susceptible. Did Aartiben cause this situation? No, that would be going way too far. Did Aartiben's (and by extension Akash's) state of mind contribute to his falling ill? Put another way, was he less likely to have fallen ill had he not been full of fear? IMHO, definitely yes.

Believing that the two events are related reveals the anatomy of a superstition. First, a community or sect believes something to be true. Next, through the power of their own thoughts they increase the likelihood of the belief to manifest. They bend reality to make their belief a reality. When it happens, it reinforces the original belief for themselves and the others in the community. Because of the network effect, the belief can snowball exponentially, like a contagion.

Both of these interpretations of the facts are just that: interpretations. There is no way to prove that my interpretation is more correct than Aartiben's. I don't even believe that to be true. To me, both interpretations are true. Aartiben's to Aartiben, mine to me. The truth is relative. In Aartiben's truth, her traditional belief held. In my truth, her truth became true because she believed it to be true. So it actually is true!

There is no problem with holding multiple truths for the same reality, even if they contradict. Each and every person has their own personal truth. Let it be. They will diverge, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. The problem comes when we can't accept the divergence, and try to impose our truth on others.

When someone challenges your truth, it is like they are challenging your identity (in a way they are). The reactionary instinct is to resist and retaliate as a self-preservation mechanism. What's better?

If we either a) do not challenge, but accept; and/or b) do not resist.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ode To Ba

Two days ago my grandmother fell down. Doing her normal morning routine, Ba was out front in the patio area of her house, reaching up for something near the porch steps when she lost her balance. She tumbled down the stairs, banging her head and fracturing her wrist. The head injury opened up a gash over her eyebrow. Jay was home when it happened. He called me while I was at Sunday morning soccer practice. When I got over Ba was laying on her couch, hand wrapped and eyebrow covered with cotton. Her nightgown, which she was still wearing, had blood stains from her gash. Some of the neighborhood Bas were over, helping out and deliberating over what to do. They had told Jay to call the local doctor, Dr. Chetan, who had an office just down the road. He was the only local doctor open on Sunday. But he was notoriously hard to get for a visit. One Ba complained that it takes 4-5 calls to get him to come over, even in an emergency. Jay had already called him an hour ago, and still no sign. I called him myself and he said he would come but sounded unconvincing, saying he was dealing with some other patients. What's up with this quack, we have an emergency here! At the Bas suggestion, I went over to fetch him myself. What I saw wasn't what I expected.

Dr. Chetan's office was a zoo. There were patients spilling out from the waiting area to the street. Babies, old people, other sufferers. Behind the waiting room was his desk and a couple beds crammed into a small area. There were a couple sickly people laying out with IVs connected. Then there were all these people huddled around his desk, not waiting their turn. And here was this doctor in the middle of the chaos with a relatively cheerful demeanor dealing with patients in rapid fire format. Walking into this scene, my feeling for Dr. Chetan went from annoyance and frustration to sympathy. How could he see Ba with all these sick people crowding him for help? But somehow he got away with us to go see Ba. He took one look at her hand and said it was a fracture, and gave a name of a local orthopedist that was open. He said they would stitch up her eye there as well. And just like that he left back for his office.

We took Ba to the orthopedist where the fracture was confirmed and she was given a plaster (cast) and her eye was stitched. By that point Chiragbhai had come over to help situate Ba and navigate dealing with the doctor. Narendra also came to take Ba back home.

There are several things I would like to remember about this incident. First and foremost is the demeanor of Ba throughout the ordeal. My grandmother is one strong woman. Real strong. From the time I saw her laid out at home, no doctor in sight with a fractured hand and swollen eye, to the time she came back from the hospital dirty and exhausted, there was not one complaint from her mouth. Clearly she was in pain and discomfort, especially moving her around with sometimes limited regard for the state of her hand. But not a word from her. My Ba is a stubborn person, which sometimes makes it hard to deal with her. But in this case her stubborn nature showed its positive side. She was just determined and tough as nails. On the way home from the hospital, the painkillers got the best of her and Narendra had to pull over to let her vomit on the side of the road. She did so for about a minute, letting it out calmly. It was getting on her gown, so she carefully folded it away and continued to vomit. I just sat behind her rubbing her back, watching her. When she finished, she had a weary look on her face, but she said to drive on. No crying, no confusion, just matter-of-fact action. I was really proud of her at that moment. It made me think of all the ways a person of her age could have reacted to all that had happened: misery, self-pity, complaining. Taking her suffering out on those around her. But this woman kept it all and carried the water on her shoulders. And she did it all from a space of deep dignity, even grace. I could see it in her face all day. It was inspiring.

Later that day whenever visitors would come over, I would bring up how strong Ba was that day. But Ba kept dismissing it. "How else am I supposed to be?" She said this wasn't her first fall, there had been 4 others. In fact, she had broken or fractured each of her four limbs; this was the second time for her left hand. Other Bas that came to visit also talked about their war stories with falls. It made me think that if you live long enough, chances are you are going to suffer a painful fall. Why isn't senior falling given more attention? I think there is a Satyamev Jayate episode somewhere here.

Second thing I'll remember from this incident is how people from my office, Chirag and Narendra, stepped up above and beyond the call of duty to lend a hand. It made me feel good that we have such caring people around us at the office, and also made me think that we are on the right track with our office culture that such action manifested.

Third thing is an ode to Bro. Poor guy was woken up to hear Ba had fallen, and from that moment on the whole day he was under the gun to take responsibility of Ba's care pretty much on his own. And he did a great job with what limited experience he had. I'm so proud of Jay for how much he has adjusted and adapted to life in India, this incident is just another example of how he has taken whatever is thrown at him and stood tall. I said that day that as much as he's learned to live in India in 5 months, it took me 5 years. All the ways he's had to learn and adjust in work and living situation, he's taken it all as well as you can. This day he was getting conflicting advice from people, having to make decisions with limited understanding, all while Ba is sitting there in a fragile state and needing immediate care. To handle that situation and keep his cool, sense of humor, and genuine humility throughout, is remarkable. Watching him really made me proud.

And finally I am grateful that this accident wasn't worse than it was. Ba is going to be in pain and discomfort for a month, but it could have been a lot worse. If she had hurt her leg and been unable to walk, that could have been disastrous. Ba said as she was tumbling she had the wherewithal to keep her legs straight to avoid injury.

It was a real blessing to see the best in two of my family members come to the fore when the moment called for it. Those are some good genetics.