Thursday, 24 August 2017

Desi-gnated mover

I moved from the US to India last month, along with my husband and cat. It is arguably the biggest move I have ever made, and it has been severely daunting at times yet wonderfully exciting at others. But shoving the serious aspects aside, here are some light-hearted observations about India and my life ever since the move.

1. The public sector in India has been full of surprises, contrary to what I was expecting thanks to my privilege bubble. The Animal Quarantine & Certification Services (AQCS) has been extremely efficient and supportive about importing our cat. They even respond to emails within a day! Similarly, getting a cooking gas connection with Bharat Gas was also so straightforward with minimal paperwork and bureaucracy.

2. The disappointments of the private sector so far have been with opening a bank account at ICICI and the abysmal service by ACT Fibernet.

3. People often ask me why I moved back, whether I got fired. Because, why else would one move to India, right?

4. When I first moved into my apartment, I decided to do all the cleaning myself, you know just like in the US. I had decided to not employ any house help. Within the first few days though, 4 different people rang the door bell and asked if they could clean my house. I eventually gave in to my laziness (and entitlement) and employed this really funny and cheerful lady who is a couple of years younger than me. Ever since, one of the strangest things people talk to me about is the housemaid's salary. I have received some unsolicited yet well meaning advice on bargaining techniques.

5. I get to call up the grocery store nearby and have them home deliver my groceries for free. I don't get a chance to miss you at all, Kroger!

6. Confining our house cat to our house has been a constant target for interesting comments from people whose cats freely roam the streets. Emphasizing that our cat has gotten lost twice when he ventured outdoors by himself seems to have no effect on them.

7. McDonald's, Taco Bell and KFC are fancy joints here, especially Taco Bell. People dress up to go there for date nights, and the food is so much tastier too. In fact, the Maharaja burger at McDonald's has been one of my favorite eats here.

8. How much people rely on cloth bags as opposed to plastic bags is very very heartening.

9. They play the national anthem in cinema theaters before each movie begins. My embarrassing confession is that I actually like the idea. Such a closet patriot I have been.

10. Returning to India has reintroduced the idea of Chai time into my routine and it is the most beautiful of times. Dipping the rusk just the right amount that its soft enough but not too soft that it falls into the tea. It's an art.

11. I finally feel like a responsible adult and honestly, I think it's high time and it feels good.

12. I see that people all over India recalibrate their judgement of your Hindi if you say you're from Chennai. I have got a lot of compliments on my very average Hindi speaking skills. Hum Madrasi log yaar.

13. I play right into gender stereotypes without even realizing it or rebelling against it.

14. I notice that people in my family and friends circle in India are moving more and more towards natural remedies and Ayurveda for a lot of their medical needs. Even allopathic doctors prescribe mild drugs and low dosages. There seems to be a strong resistance to Western medicine, for minor illnesses at least.

15. And finally, lizards man. Why!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Bullet Bill please?

Oh you magnificent alley,
I see you, so clearly
cemented by
my life's 
concrete plans,
 and coated with thy
fondest of fond fans and clans

Oh you hideously gross alley
I chose you, but why!
The grass suddenly
is greener on 
this side
 And through 
this hazy daze
and fuzzy maze
I'm hoping for
to strike down 
this phase
So here I am
on my Kart, all set
but could I use,
just for one moment,
the Bullet Bill please?

Monday, 2 January 2017

Grate Expectations

All the masquerading
is failing!
All the trash-talking
is revealing!
Oh oh, you poor darling!

The Sith Sense
has you possessed
And I've been too dense
to fully fathom your pretence
But I say this because I fear
that disgusting and drear
old Green Monster
that you foster
I still have hope for you, I do
'cause rebellions are built on hope
but I'm learning, just for you
to grate my expectations
into teeny tiny flakes
of satisfaction

Now with the bar set so low
You should be good to go!

Monday, 25 July 2016

An enjambment that is life

We'd always go marching steadfast into the town
with our heads held high, to mask the eternal frown
Our armors'd have cracks like the great Saharan sand
and the healing oases of love, seemed too elusive to land
But our swords were sharper than my grumpy uncle's tongue
never missing a chance to spit out some metaphorical dung
"Well, the best form of defense is offense", they'd say
We don't need either! I'd think in mental disarray
Disconcerting as it maybe, I'd comply anyway.

Why oh why, you dare to ask?
stop with the tacky metaphors, you plead?
Well, I'm sorry to say,
but the world just works that way
If we let them close we lose
they'll see our cracks
and stab our backs
they'll see our frown
and make it their crown
But you know, the savior sword
that we hold on to so tight?
It would ward them off, that's right.
Defended. Offended.

"Although," said the cocky ol' lady
while browsing past this poetry
"what if you could perhaps,
maybe, possibly, conceivably,
let the cracks show
let the shots flow
take 'em
forgive 'em
win 'em
destroy 'em"

And just like that she
vanishes into the ether.. net
providing the ever so cliched THE END
to this piece of enjambment.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Laughing eyes and simple ways

A couple of months ago, I caught myself reminiscing about my school days in Muscat. I realized that my childhood is filled with a lot of fun memories (and a lot of embarrassing ones too) but here are some that I reminisce about the most. I really liked how appa, amma and I used to have lunch together on Fridays, take a nap, play ping pong and then go out on a long drive in the evenings. Friday was the weekend in Muscat, in case you're wondering. On week days, my mom and her friends would sit outside our building cracking jokes and laughing their heads off. Meanwhile I would be playing with my friends on the other side, and seeing her laugh would make me feel all warm and fuzzy. You know that warm security blanket that cozies itself around you when you see your parents happy? That feeling. I cherish it. I also think of this one summer vacation after my 10th grade board exams. My chuddy buddies - Upasana, Pooja, Dhivya - and I spent a lot of time unwinding. We played badminton, chess, charades and had pretty exciting conversations about life and music and boys. I remember that that vacation was when I stopped being a nerd. Until then I used to be the most studious kid in class, the teachers' favorite, extremely obedient and I had no idea about the world outside of my little protected life. But that summer was when, apart from spending a lot of time with my friends, I also got to see my baby sister for the very first time. I had gone to India for her first birthday celebrations. It opened up my heart to a whole new barrage of emotions, and as they say - bigger the heart, broader the mind. Ok I don't know who says that. But anyway, over time, I realized that people meant the most to me. My friends, my family and people everywhere. Since then, I've never been the best in any class, teachers have had no special fondness for me (except that one Math professor in college who was my thatha's friend), and I have very few achievements in the traditional sense of the word. But I have people.  
Mere paas maa hai.

Not that being a nerd and loving your family are mutually exclusive. I'm just talking about priorities, okay? So as I was reminiscing, it struck me that my life is basically a bunch of sustained periods of change, tied together almost seamlessly through time. All these different periods are similar in that they all have a specific routine that comes with them, however enjoyable or trying the routines were, each has played an important role in shaping my personality. Having a safe childhood really makes it easier for one to be a decent human being as an adult. I recognize the privilege and try to stay true to that. I was intrigued though, that what I reminisced about the most was one of these routines as opposed to any one single extraordinary moment. Is it just me? What do other people reminisce about?

"I'd say cartoons, the food scene and the general sense of orderliness during my childhood", said the husband during one of our hikes in the woods. Usually, asking him a question makes you feel like the cat chasing a laser pointer. You see the point, you follow it for sometime, but sooner or later you get tired and zone out. (Jk. Love you, H!) But yeah, he's a talker and I had a long hike ahead of me. "I remember Adi, Abi and I used to wake up at 6:30am to watch cartoons during summer vacation. Batman: The Animated Series was my absolute favorite" he continued. "'s cooking and the general food scene in Bombay, playing video games with Gautam..". "And I particularly enjoyed the fact that our daily routine at home was so orderly and peaceful". Perfect, I thought. I wasn't the only one reminiscing about day-to-day ordinary moments. So over the next few days, I got busy asking my friends, family and colleagues the same question. What memories from your past do you cherish the most? And by past I mean until 10 years ago.

About my sample set, I did try to increase the diversity as much as possible but no I could not get in touch with Yali from Papua New Guinea. Even though the majority of people I know are Indians, they're a pretty diverse bunch too - Indians from different parts of India, Indians that grew up in Muscat, USA and Singapore, and Indians that hate everything Indian. I did ask some Americans, Chinese and Germans too. Age group wise, the majority would be in their late 20s, some 50s and one in her 80s! Around 50 people responded with valid answers. Invalid answers that didn't make the cut were of the type - "I don't reminisce at all". Thanks Naren.

I'm going to mention a few interesting answers. One of the common themes was friendship. Like I mentioned earlier, my chuddy buddies and I formed the coolest gang in school, just like every other gang would claim to be, except that we were actually the coolest. Interestingly, all three of them mentioned the gang as one of the main things that they reminisce about. That feeling of being part of a group, the loyalty, the uninhibited innocent love and trust, the long phone conversations about nothing and the fights! Oh man, the fights. Everything wasn't always rosy but it was a really special time and is definitely something that I reminisce about too. Adolescence is a painful period without the right friends. (pun unintended)

Bharat, my friend from undergrad said, "the time period that you have asked about is pretty wide. In my case there was a very clear wedge in terms of where I spent my childhood and where I went to college. Having said that, there is still a very clear theme to the things I reminisce most about - moments with friends. This could be playing football in a flooded field during the rains, or getting kicked out of class and then using that opportunity to go watch a movie, or just lazing around under a neem tree in the afternoon reading books and discussing life, politics, philosophies and everything else under the sun. The liveliest objects under the sun at that moment - as also in my memories - would always be my friends."

Niranj, Ram and Aaditya recollected fond memories of playing street cricket with friends. Vidhi said that her best days were during college where she made awesome friends, and learnt from the best professors who inspired by example. In fact a lot of people said that their college days were the best. There was one person who said "I enjoyed getting high with my friends and listening to awesome music". "I think about my time in Dubai, I got to experience a lot of new things and made lots of good memories", said Marielle. She lived in Dubai for half a year. Sneha said "From college life, I think most about long discussions and conversations with friends. The really deep kind, where hearts and dreams and random life theories were shared. I feel like friendships have become more superficial these days or maybe the people you bond with at that age will always be closest to you. My favorite childhood memories are of playing imaginary games with Dipna where the living room furniture would be transformed into mountains and the floor was hot lava!".    

"Goofing off with siblings and cousins" was another common theme. Gowri said, "I think about the times I played with my brother and cousins all day long. We'd play hide and seek, cricket, board games and watch movies together all through the night!". A lot of my friends lived away from their cousins, and therefore going to the hometown for summer vacation and playing with their cousins seemed to be a commonly cherished memory. Srinath said that one time in Coimbatore, his brother and him were staring at cows because cows are silly. Yeah, he tries! One of the cutest answers I got was from Asfa. "I think about this incident when I was 4, my cousin and I were playing in the terrace. My cousin challenged me to walk on the railing, all around the terrace. He said that I wouldn't be able to do it. Just to prove him wrong, I did it. It was a really dangerous thing because one wrong step or loss in balance would've meant falling down 3 storeys. I feel proud of myself when I think of it!". This story is not particularly a day-to-day mundane memory and although I'd argue that it still comes under the general theme of my hypothesis, I'm happy to call it an outlier in my data set.

Adi and Nidhin mentioned long road trips with the family as something they reminisce about. I can very well relate to that. Pammi reminisces the most about her time in Bombay, and their nuclear family setup. Then a lot of people talked about food. Upasana cherishes all the birthday cakes, Ram and Pooja miss the Indian mangoes, elaneer (tender coconut water), and street food. There were memories about family tea time, family lunches, dinners, get together feasts. I also noticed that some people reminisce about places; Living close to the beach, taking walks on the beach, the sights and sounds and smells of your neighborhood, that one particular big old tree that you played around or climbed everyday, the smell of your grandparents' home, your schools, cities, etc. And then finally, some special people said that they cherish time spent with me the most. Aaaw. Thanks mom and dad!

Sigh. This is far from an exhaustive list, but from the limited number of answers I got, I conclude that a good majority of the people associated with me, reminisce about the ordinary day to day things the most. Now, did they just tell me the ordinary memories so that they wouldn't be seen as a braggart? Are they influenced by the movies these days to think more about the "little things" in life? Are the day-to-day memories just clearer in the head due to mere repetition as opposed to the one-timers? Maybe. Maybe not. But I can say confidently that if they're anything like me, they mean to say that the seemingly ordinary things that we enjoy on a daily basis, are usually the moments we cherish. I'm sure there are multiple loopholes I haven't explored but the following quote resonates with the intention and essence of my thought.
Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.

- William Martin

And yes, I think I've taught my child well. Do what you love all day and it will no longer seem like work!

Captain Murugan: Leading an ecstatically ordinary life since 2014.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Minding one's own

A truly liberal mind espouses soft power,
and a sense of magnanimity towards all
It does not engage in wars,
of the words nor swords

A truly liberal mind speaks up for justice,
but not through name-calling or condescension
But through an intellectual debate,
with a delicate infusion of empathy

A truly liberal mind listens,
and is willing to learn, and adapt
It is not opinionated,
It is sensitive, flexible and open

A truly liberal mind can gracefully accept criticism,
without doling out its own share in return
It is the epitome of peace,
the kind that comes with great knowledge


On active wars in social media and friends circles.

"The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately." -- Bertrand Russell

Monday, 19 October 2015


When you can't own up to your insecurities
When inside-jokes and secrecy dictate your confidence
When exclusivity fuels a sense of belonging
When empathy is lost
When superiority breeds intolerance
When the mind loses control
When the heart bleeds hate
When civilization becomes obsolete
When the dark side beckons
When you realize you're going down this ladder


Monday, 14 September 2015

Diary-ea of words

When you have no interesting ideas for a blog post and yet suffer from reverse writer's-block (it is a real thing guys, and it has no cure), then you just stick to diary entries from the week..

So. I've been getting up at 7:07 every morning. No kidding! It all started with that one day, I think it was Tuesday, when I woke up on the wrong side of the bed (like literally) and I looked up at the projection clock going LOL. I was half asleep and I thought wow clocks do crazy shit. It made me laugh and now it's become a thing.
7:07 every morning!

I finally read George Orwell's 1984 and really really enjoyed the depressing classic. If in my post on freedom, I sounded like I was leaning towards a dictatorship form of government, no. Seriously, no. Even a benevolent dictator can very easily turn into Big Brother, so by political stability I did not mean dictatorship. No. OK I may have mentioned it in the comments section but no. I take it back ok?
Anyway, more than reading the book, I've enjoyed narrating the entire story and all my thoughts on it to the patient husband. Don't ask me which Vadivel comedy was playing out in his head meanwhile though.
Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.

The day before yesterday, I realized that my facial hair was reaching grizzlian limits. When I stroked my chin it felt like I was stroking a bear cub, except I wasn't scared of being attacked by its mother. I decided to get it waxed in the salon I usually go to. So I go there and meet Paula, my favorite beautician, and we start talking as she gets the wax strips ready. I complain to her about how my mustache and beard look like they're almost competing with each other to reach for my throat (like literally). She'd normally give me tips when she sees any skin acne and such. But this time she went into thathuvam-mode when I was least expecting it. "Well, you know you should think about the people who are craving for hair, they actually draw out their eye brows with pencils and cover their heads with wigs. Chemotherapy patients and all...".
Yikes. I immediately shut up but it did make me think. Perspective is everything.
Maybe I'll participate in Movember this year.

It's been getting a little cold so the cat has started snuggling up for naps again

There were some interesting tennis matches this week. Murray's exit match against Kevin Anderson was exciting. The sister-in-law pointed out that Kevin Anderson was a fighting Illini. AND he sent Murray packing. We might have a new family favorite? I mean right after Federer and Nadal.
Serena getting beat by an unseeded player was shocking, so close to that calendar slam.
Aggressive Federer in the finals? That was a treat! All those SABRs!

Work has been pretty drab. No exciting results in a long long time. I don't even know what I want to be doing in the long term. Actually I don't even know what long term really means. One of my friends recently bought a house, a big proper house like rich adults live in. It even has a basement! Some of my other friends travel to southern California and party every single weekend like rich teenagers do. Am I neither? Well, I do have some feline friends that just eat and play and sleep all day. I guess I can relate to them. Sigh. I need to figure my shit out and start trying to find a new job by next year. But what job? Where?

Oh look at me ramble. I will consume more fiber and try this again when I actually have something to say.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

On Shades of Gray she was pining, for the once promised Silver Lining

There once was a cloud, in a gray gown
The only hope, for the people in her town
They'd look up at her, in drought and pain
To see her burst open, into drops of rain

The people were always grateful
They'd send back water, each handful
To rebuild their beloved cloud
Who always promptly pleased the crowd

T'was a happy town, and a happy cloud
But a seething enemy, was being allowed
To push the cloud to another town, so proud
Wind was his name and to nobody he bowed

The cloud had fought, but gave in she did
For a moment of direction, offered by the wind
Her old town she missed, and the people she'd left
For her new abode was not home, she wept

A new resolve, was beginning to form
To find her home, before the next storm
Forests and meadows and seas, she passed
But lost her way to home she had, alas!

As she wandered across the mountains
And the endless beauty of nature's fountains
They helped her forgive herself and heal
And she thought of home with a bittersweet feel;
"A stronger cloud would've taken my place
 One that'd give them joy and peace
 One that'd fight all winds to stay
 Because there really is no other way"

Soon her grief she dropped, inspired and strong
For a fresh start meant 'do no wrong'
A new town in the valley, she found
With cheerful people, she liked their sound

A mild drizzle she dropped their way
To test the waters you could say? 
They jumped in joy and it made her day
And when the winds came she knew
Her silver lining was shining through

Monday, 6 July 2015

Guest post!

A friend of mine sent me this in response to my previous post.
He thought it was too big for the comments section, and I thought it was too interesting to not post it at all. So here's his message - 
Great article! Really well written! It is a really positive post talking about the merits and demerits of each of these systems. The cynic in me was waiting for the post to end with the generic question - when other countries can do it why can't India do it too? It was really a breath of fresh air to read a post which didn't do that.
I am going to talk about a number of things that come into my mind, so at times it may not be coherent. And just like all your disclaimers, I would also like to say that I have no expertise in this topic :)
I feel that freedom of speech is a basic requirement in a democratic setup because in a democracy the government works for you. It is elected by you and ideally it is not above you. Hence you need to have the right to criticize it when it is not doing its job and talk freely without the fear of retribution. But we cannot always monitor what the government is upto. There is a gap between the people and the government, which is filled by the media, which relays to us how the government is performing. Ideally, it should present us with the facts and let us decide. Unfortunately, the bias in the media combined with their interest in grabbing our attention by sensationalizing everything, leads to a media that is ineffective.  I agree than sensationalism is not a good thing but it only a side effect of this system. People like Arnab are trying to make money by exploiting this system. But that does not mean that there is no contribution from the press and sensationalism does not render media useless to a point that its existence is equivalent to it not existing at all (which is approximately what is happening in the other two countries that you have mentioned). If I read your post correctly, the press in those two countries are more closer to a well produced movie than it is to the media that we have in India or the US.
In my opinion democracy is the best form of government. A lot of progress has been made since a large proportion of the countries in the world have adopted a democratic form of government. It is true that not a lot of work gets done because people keep arguing with each other all the time and stall every possible good idea. But, in a way, that’s how democracy is supposed to work. Ideally, everyone’s decision is checked at every stage and then policies and laws that help most of the people are passed.
Having said that about democracy, I also wonder whether very large democracies struggle to implement great ideas like free education and free healthcare. Because, whenever I hear about countries which have successfully implemented these ideas, they are usually either extremely small in size or their population is extremely small. The two countries that you mentioned in your post are both small. Similarly, there are several European countries who have done it too, but are small (relative to the two of the largest democracies). When I think about this, I get reminded of Rome.
Rome abolished monarchy around 500 BC because the people did not want power to be concentrated in the hands of a single person. They made sure that they created public offices in such a way that there was always a check on every man with power. But whenever Rome was facing insurmountable odds, usually during wars, they elected a dictator who held power over everyone else and lead Rome to victory over their enemies. This seemingly worked well for almost 400 years and in the meantime Rome grew in size by a lot. In the 1st century BC, the city of Rome had over a million inhabitants (this would not happen again until 19th century London) and the Roman republic had more than 50 million people living within its borders. But everything wasn’t peaceful in the republic. The people were multicultural and there was no uniting factor. People living thousands of miles away from Rome did not feel strongly about the ideals of the Roman republic. Hence they were more faithful to the local lords than to Rome. This eventually lead to a civil war (this is probably the briefest history of Rome ever :)).
This situation to similar to what we see in India, a country, apart from a brief 100 years in total under the rule of Ashoka and Aurangzeb was never a single country until the British started controlling the subcontinent in the 19th century. The country is so large and different parts of it is so different from each other that I wonder whether that is why we find it hard to cooperate with each other to get things done. I wonder if every Indian identifies himself with people from other parts of the country. Even in the last Lok Sabha elections, TN voted for AIADMK in spite of knowing that it will not help the BJP is any way at the centre, who were always looking like the party that will form the government (This is certainly not true for all states. Delhi shrewdly voted for BJP during the Lok Sabha elections but voted for AAP during the assembly elections). The smaller democracies don’t suffer from this problem. People might be multicultural in a place like Singapore, but I wonder whether the small size helps them identify with each other and make decisions that are beneficial to everyone. (Having said that isn’t it illegal in Singapore to have same-sex relationships? I guess they also don’t make decisions that are beneficial to everyone. This is the problem of trying to condense such a complex issue into a simple situation :))
In spite of these arguments, democracy is definitely the best form of government (I have been talking a lot about democracy instead of talking about freedom of speech. To me, these two are connected at a deep level and both need to coexist). Coming back to argument about getting things done, it may be true that in a benevolent dictatorship, things might done faster because it is the vision of a single person, or at the most, a small group of people. But I feel that this form of government goes wrong fairly quickly. There have been so great absolute monarchs who have done well for their kingdoms but there are far more who have mismanaged and caused a lots of damage. Even if we come back to the example of Rome, after the civil war, both the Caesars, Julius and Augustus, tried to bring order to the Republic and in the process turned it into an empire. I am not going to pretend that both of them didn’t have ulterior motives. But it is true that they were interested in putting an end to the civil war and restore order in the state as dictators. But within a couple of generations, we had Caligula, the guy who promised to make his horse a consul (the second most powerful position in Rome) and a few generations after that we had Nero, after whose death Rome descended into another civil war. So such a form of government doesn’t really work either. 
Based on the things that I have said, I guess a form of democracy where the citizens are well educated and well informed about the policies of the government and how it affects their lives will be a good government. Though I feel like I am asking for something ideal, I guess actively working towards it will be beneficial.
Thanks for sharing!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

On freedom or the lack thereof

When we think of freedom in our day to day lives, what do we complain about and what do we feel grateful for? Think about it and hold on to that thought... This post is about that F word. A few recent happenings around the world, in countries close to my heart, have me thinking about what kind of freedom is important and what's not.    

1. Singapore's founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew rests in peace after creating one of the most successful countries in the world. I have always been intrigued by this great man, especially after having lived in Singapore. So Singapore is supposedly a multiparty democratic country but the People's Action Party has been in power ever since its independence. There are considerable restrictions on the freedom of press and anti-PAP sentiments are not tolerated. On the other hand, the economy is a new breed of State Capitalism where Government owned investment companies hold the majority stakes in all of the biggest companies in the country. So let's say a company like Walmart is owned in part by the government, then all the evils of capitalism will turn into revenue for the government (assuming the government is welfare oriented). In terms of economic freedom, Singapore is ranked #2 in the world as of 2015. Economic freedom affects every aspect of a society; higher the freedom, higher the incomes, lower the poverty as well as tax burden, cleaner the environments, higher the standards and quality of living. The index of economic freedom (The Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation) is calculated by averaging 10 factors including property rights, freedom from corruption, labor freedom, govt spending, taxes and so on, all of which are looking great for Singapore. Schools and universities in the public sector are available to all citizens at subsidized rates and primary education is compulsory for all. Healthcare costs are made affordable by means of compulsory savings (that are also useful for buying homes), subsidies and regulation, for all citizens. It is however not completely free of cost, in order to avoid over-utilization of resources and instead making people self-reliant. Lee Kuan Yew believed that "no generation should bankrupt future generations by living beyond their means". That if people got used to receiving freebies from the government, they will always be dependent on the government and as a society people should first rely on themselves, then their family and only then on their government. The private sector however is not heavily regulated, the motto being - if you can afford it, go for it!

Apart from all that, when I was living there, I always had the freedom to walk home safely (or take a cab) at all odd hours of the night. Yes, Singapore has strict laws against offenders. Caning and even capital punishment are not unheard of. In fact, Lee Kuan Yew, in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, gives an example that really captures his outlook on punishments. He says, the way America deals with its huge drug problem is by going to other countries and supporting anti-narcotic agencies to stop the suppliers, paying for helicopters and herbicides and so on. When provoked, the president of Panama is brought to trial in Florida. He says Singapore cannot afford to control or capture drug trafficking warlords from other nearby countries. Instead it has a law that gives any customs officer or policeman in Singapore the right to have any suspect's urine tested. If tested positive, the punishments are severe. Now the same law in America could never be passed because it would count as an invasion to an individual's privacy.

To summarize: in Singapore, you have the freedom to choose between good healthcare and better healthcare, a high standard of living and a higher standard of living, being safe and being safer ... but you don't have the freedom to criticize the government that allows you all of the above freedom.

Let's look at my other foster motherland quickly, the second piece of recent news --

2. The Sultan of Oman returns home in good health after undergoing treatment in Germany. I am a big fan of his majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. A lot of people say "err..where??" when I tell them that I grew up in Muscat. I follow it up with "..its near Dubai" and then they feel relieved and reassured of their geographical IQ. Oman is an absolute monarchy. In fact, Sultan Qaboos came to power by ousting his father in a bloodless coup in 1970. Since then he has transformed Oman by freeing up its economy, starting developmental projects to increase the standard of living, modernizing infrastructure, allowing different religious groups to co-exist in peace (there were 3 Hindu temples when I was there), no compulsory burkhas and other rules for women, lots of political reforms, etc.  All Omanis are allowed free education and healthcare. In fact the government hospitals maintain such a high standard that if I were Omani, I wouldn't even want to go to a private hospital. Oman has a very high index of fiscal freedom (no tax burdens on individuals), and its overall economic freedom index is ranked #56 in the world. Just to compare, India is ranked #128.

In the recent Arab Springs revolution, there were only minor revolts in Oman (asking for more jobs and such) but none trying to oust the regime entirely. Apart from love for the regime, another main reason for peace in Oman is the fact that it follows neither Sunni nor Shia Islam. Instead it is one of the 2 countries in the world, the other being Tanzania (Zanzibar), to follow the Ibadi school of Islam. Here's the difference. The Muslim world split after the death of Prophet Muhammad into two main groups - Sunni and Shia. The Sunni Muslims believe that Muhammad wanted them to choose the next leader or "caliph" that they find fitting and when the caliph dies, they choose the next and so on. The Shia Muslims believed that the Muhammad would have wanted God to choose the next leader, meaning it should be kept within the Prophet's family. They felt Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin should be their "imam". Sunnis were in majority, and therefore they won. Tensions between the two groups never ceased though. Ibadi muslims are a simple, moderate and peace-loving group that want unity amongst all the different sects of Islam. They believe that one single leader for the entire Muslim community is not required. If someone befitting is found, great, if not, don't sweat it. The community can look after itself. They decide whether or not to follow the leader picked by the Sunnis and Shias. For example, they approved of the first caliph but not the second on account of him being corrupt. 

Oman is not a place for free speech. All newspapers and television channels are only allowed to propagate good things about the regime. This maintains some form of political stability which in turn allows for better welfare according to the monarch. I would call this benevolent dictatorship. For me, my parents and my other expat friends, the only time freedom was taken away from us was during the month of Ramadan when you're not allowed to eat outdoors. It is a strict rule but it has heart, and I like it. Schools actually closed one hour earlier during that month, so every class is cut down by about 10 minutes. Win win win! Apart from that, expats weren't given the freedom to own property. But well, the companies took care of that - we never had to pay rent either. Overall, I did not feel oppressed in anyway, which probably doesn't mean much because I was just a little kid.

Obviously, in the case of Singapore and Oman, the rulers are welfare oriented and that's why it works. North Korea for example, is not the kind of system I'm talking about. Anyway, moving on to what is the deal with freedom of speech in India?

3. Indian Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act that allowed the police to arrest people for their so-called offensive comments on social media. Yay. But Section 69A is still valid, which allows the government to block content on the internet that they find inappropriate and any intermediary failing to comply, will be imprisoned. Yikes. Either way, there still is a fair amount of freedom of speech. In fact sometimes there's too much. Case in point: Arnab Goswami. He has interviewed (harassed to be accurate) many people over the years without any legal consequences. If the Prime Minister makes an absurd statement somewhere, the social media immediately bursts with all sorts of funny memes about it. Whatever the media thinks is sensational, people share and re-share on Facebook and Twitter, making it go viral. I call them Internet Virologists. A society where such things are allowed (at least for the most part, I know its still far from perfect) does exist in India.

A discussion on politics today seems to be about who falls more for the click-baiting and who is more up-to-date with media sensationalism. I had the most mundane conversation recently with someone along the lines of Modi is useless, Kejriwal is a drama queen, Rahul Gandhi is a joke, India is doomed... yes, but if the average Indian has opinions based just on what the media feeds you and doesn't want to go beyond being an Internet Virologist, then yes India is pretty much doomed. Don't get me wrong, I love the media. Just not the sensationalism.

So what sort of freedom do we want from the government? Is freedom of speech everything? Does a person from a lower economic background have the freedom to get good quality healthcare? Does a woman have the freedom to walk in the streets of Delhi alone (or with a boy) at night? Does a "Dalit" have the freedom of equality in society or is he still made to feel inferior? I could go on, and so can you I'm sure. And I'm sure all of us care about these things when brought to our notice. So can we think of a system where all the freedom that we care about can be achieved? Either by looking at other successful countries for example or by being innovative ourselves. Only if we know what we want can we elect an appropriate government to fulfill our needs. Or even better, we can become the government. Let's not be satisfied with our politicians being comic relief on social media. Thinking about this is the first step, the more we think the more involved we feel and that will lead to something substantial in the future.

Can a system of governance exist in India that maintains freedom of speech but also political stability? Can an orderly disciplined safe country be established without some amount of freedom being curbed? I don't think so; you should be able to give up some kinds of freedom to gain others. If you agree, what sort of freedom would you be willing to give up in India?

P.S. 1. I haven't talked about LGBT rights and freedom because that is something people are slowly opening up to and I have hope for Singapore, India and Oman (in that same order) to get there soon.

P.S. 2. I am very much the average Indian I spoke of, not an expert at politics.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Things I wish I knew when I was 13

My baby sister turns 13 today!

I remember traveling to India from Muscat, after my 10th standard board exams, to meet her for the very first time. She was less than a year old and my uncle was holding her as she watched everyone at the airport, pretty clueless about the super-excited cuddle machine that was going to attack her very soon. Meanwhile, I was impatiently wading through immigration and baggage claim, as restless as a fully filled bladder on a chilly day. After what seemed like eternity, I finally managed to get out. This part always amuses me because there is a huge crowd and everyone's invariably staring at you as you walk out with your 'travel-hair', clumsily holding on to too many bags. Anyway, my uncle and aunt were waving to me from the crowd and I ran over to them. There she was! I stretched out my hands to the little girl, for a handshake or maybe a high five or I don't know what. I guess I was expecting her to hesitate and take a while to get used to this hyper-energetic gibberish-talking stranger. But. To my utter surprise she sprung out of my uncle's hold, right into my arms and looked at me almost saying "I know you! Come on, let's go home!" Sigh. It was the cutest thing!!

Now it's been more than a decade since that day. She is growing into this beautiful teenager who is always talking on the phone with her friends or listening to Taylor Swift or watching TV or reading a mystery novel. For her 13th birthday, I've decided to gift her something slightly different - a list of things that we (wise?) adults, wish we knew at 13. It's not meant to be advice but just an interesting read to build perspective. A big big thanks to my amazing friends and family for taking the effort.

So let's get started!

Harish. from the 30 year old to the 13 -

Happy Birthday Kamya!
13! God, you’re so young!

Things I wish I knew when I was 13:

1. The parents are trying hard. They are not perfect but this is their first attempt at this parenting gig. Nobody loves unconditionally. The closest that anyone gets to being unconditional is your parents. Our upbringing may not be perfect but it was safe and solid. I regret being a brat as a kid. My parents
have my eternal gratitude now.

2. The cool kids aren’t cool all their life. Life happens and they stop being Greek gods. The world becomes bigger than them and everyone sees it. We don’t have to be them. At 30, I see that every person has become some version of cool by embracing his or her own choices.

3. Be empathetic. Be courteous. Arrogance and pride will ensure that when you fall (and you will fall several times) it hurts more than ever. Life will force you to learn to behave one way or the other; it is better to learn it before the lesson happens.

4. Things always work out. Always. Work hard but don’t worry about how it turns out. Study because you like it. Study because it is fun. If the system demands something else, it is the system’s problem. It will pass soon enough and you can get back to doing what you love. Don’t sweat this exam. Or any
exam. ;)

5. The world is big. It has people of many different types, some that we will never know of all our life. The universe is even bigger. We are just a tiny living unit on a bit-sized fleck of dust that is our galaxy – one of millions. Incredibly, we all share this condition. Perspective is everything.

Things I knew when I was 13 but should not have doubted later:

1. Do what you like doing and keep doing it. It may seem pointless and unproductive to someone else at the moment but it defines you. And it will be useful.

2. Be responsible for yourself. It is fun to experiment and fool around but things can get sour and bad pretty fast if you aren’t careful. Responsibility makes you stand out, it makes your trustworthy, it builds character and it will take you in full measure to the quality person you will grow to be.

3. Love is hard to find. Love is hard to give up. Love is challenging. Love is tough. But it is never ever painful. Love is never hurtful. Love is never hateful. Love is never deceitful. Love is always loyal. Love is always supportive. Love is always warm. Love is always merciful. Love is always accommodating. Love is always reassuring. If it does not fit these rules, it simply is not love. No exceptions.

4. Own your choices. They may be punishing but they are your choices. It will make you a bigger and better person.

5. There is no pleasing people. Be yourself, they will come around. If they don’t, they are the wrong sort.

My mom, another big fan -

Happy birthday Kams!

I have just two main wishes for my 13 year old self. I wish I had continued my dance classes as well as my interest in sports. Looking back, I feel I would have enjoyed that way more than my economics major. 

Pursue your own interests. 

Lots of love,

From my sweetest friend - 

Dear Kamya,

I have known you since you were little, heard sooo much about you from Ramya through college, your cousin who loves you so much! On your 13th birthday she decided to make you a very special list. This isn’t preaching or boring advice. It’s telling you all the things I wish I knew when I was 13. But at the end of it all, you can only grow as you live life through it. So I hope you have a wonderful, fun filled year ahead! Happy Birthday Kamya!

Things I wish I knew when I was 13:

1. I wish I knew that each phase of life brings its own opportunities to explore, and that I was never going to be 13 again. I would have lived every moment to the fullest without spending any time in worry and in fighting with friends! :D
 2. I wish I knew that grades hardly mattered as much as I thought they did. I would have spent more time on art, music and public speaking that I still love so much, instead of spending sleepless nights stressing over my exams! When you are young, you are less afraid to explore. As you grow older you only become more wary to try out new things.
3. Continued from the previous point. I would have enjoyed learning more, honing my curiosity and exploring the unknown. I still wish I could go back and read my middle school history textbook or learn languages the right way. I learnt Hindi for 10 years and cannot speak it even today. If only I had focused less on grades and more on learning!
4. I wish I had clicked more pictures with my parents and siblings!
5. I wish I had realized that being prefects and head-girls didn’t matter at all! (Yes each time I was not selected to be a prefect, I cried! And I was never selected a prefect :-D). When I look back today, I realize that I missed out on nothing at all!
6. I wish I had realized that there are no standards to be above everyone else. You don’t have to be the teacher’s favorite, you don’t have to be the popular girl, you don’t have to be the prettiest girl, you don’t have to top your class. You just need to be yourself and do the best of everything in your own way. It takes all kinds of people to make this world fun and interesting. And you will enjoy it so much more being yourself and the world will love you more as well! You will also learn to respect everyone for their uniqueness and not only those who fit into the moulds of cool, smart or pretty. Nobody is better than anybody else in this world.

7. I wish I had realized that there is more good in the world than bad. People are so much kinder than they show themselves to be. Think the best of people! That there is so much goodness in yourself that you can use to spread more cheer. The future holds more promises than ever. And finally that happiness comes from putting as many smiles as you can in this world. This would have helped me love more, make more friends and be kinder to more people around me as I grew up.  Life is beautiful and you only make it sunnier!

Just because I am older than you, it doesn’t mean that I know more than you Kamya! There are no rules to live life. You are your life’s own unique designer. Take as much in from people all around you and use it to craft your own personality as you grow older. There are no mistakes that cannot be fixed as long as you have friends and family to pull you up (I don’t know about anyone else, but I know that Ramya adores you!). So don’t fear to explore, fall and pick yourself up to grow to learn more. Smile and make smile as much as you can! :)

Your cousin’s friend who has watched you grow up!

From Upasana, my best friend from middle school -

I would tell my 13 year old self - Don't worry, your pimples will clear out on their own!
And you may make a lot of bad choices but at the end things will work out!

From Srikanth, my youth-est friend (who owns a Porsche!) -

13 things if I had known at 13, life would have turned out different. Maybe.

1. If I had known fear creates more phantom than the reality itself.
2. If I had known scoring marks is not as important as understanding concepts.
3. If I had known becoming a cricketer is one in a million chance.
4. If I had known math is fun and not about memorizing a lot of numbers.
5. If I had known every individual is unique in their own way and I didn't have to follow someone else. 
6. If I had known those were the days you get to play the most.
7. If I had known home food is the best that I will ever get to eat.
8. If I had known whats shown in movies, never really happens in reality.
9. If I had realized my parents aren't my biggest enemies.
10. If I had known Bhel poori isn't the only yummy chaat
11. If I had known the beach doesn't have a gate after all..Sigh..How Stupid!
12. If I had known life only gets harder from there on.
13. If I had known that I'll never be 13 again.

Happy 13th birthday!!

From my coolest friend who is also my partner in (mokk)krime - 

Other than that fun trip you take with your friends to the beach or your reaction when you see this gift, most other things will not matter nor will you remember it when you leave your teens.. so make some good memories you'll cherish forever :) 

It doesn't matter if everyone around you ends up wanting to be an engineer or a doctor, you can choose to do whatever makes you come alive and that's all that matters

If you have the chance to learn any art form or sports activity and make it your passion, do it.. you will be thankful for it for the rest of your life :)

Don't judge bad jokes. Mokkais rule the world!

From Devika, one of my quirkiest friends - (I really had to censor her original list)

I wish I knew that:

1. You're considered a child only till you're 15. After that you have to get 'responsible'. So enjoy school as much as you can!

2. Don't get too annoyed with your parents for trivial things because soon you'll move out of home and then you'll miss them like crazy!

3. School exams are the easiest to score in. In college it gets harder and after that life becomes an everyday exam. So enjoy studying as much as you can in school!

4. It's okay to date guys who are shorter than you in high school.

5. I wish I had learned to swim when I was younger. As you grow older it becomes more difficult to flap your legs and stay afloat.

From Ram, a friend from Singapore -

I wish I had learnt to play a musical instrument. It always keeps you good company when you're alone.

And that's all. He's a man of few words when it comes to saying something meaningful.

And finally, me -

I wish I knew that my parents are really cool people. Their advice, which I then thought was ridiculous, eventually turned out to be the right one.

I wish I knew that conversation skills are very important, not just with friends but even with people outside my comfort zone. Being a quiet person always gets misunderstood as being snobbish or uncomfortable or just lame and I wish I had more years to work on that.

I wish I had focussed on some general knowledge too, so that I could have avoided saying "Windows" when my classmate asked me which computer I had at home.

I wish I knew that I would absolutely love having a pet.

I wish I knew that while attention and praise from others is flattering, you shouldn't let it consume you because then you'll only be doing things that please them.

I wish I hadn't watched Kabhi khushi kabhi gham, Har dil jo pyaar karega, Mujhse dosti karoge, Mere yaar ki shaadi hai and a whole bunch of films in the same genre. It drastically affected my IQ.

I wish I had my own book of inspiration. A diary of sorts, where I could write down things that inspire me, make me happy, my priorities, my life lessons and goals. Reading that at times when you're low can really pull you up. Self reassurance is the only kind there is. Friends and family are only an additional support system.   

And I wish I had met these characters earlier. I still try to follow their advice.

    1. Oogway from Kung Fu Panda.
    When the path you walk always leads back to yourself, you never get anywhere.

    2. Yoda from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
    Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

    3. Dumbledore from Harry Potter: The Chamber of Secrets. 
    It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. 

    4. The White Queen from Alice in Wonderland.
    You cannot live your life to please others.

With that, we come to the end of this post. The take home message in short is be yourself, don't be afraid to follow your heart, dream big and never lose the zest for life!

I hope this has been an interesting read, and wish you have a fantastic birthday sweetie!

Love you!