To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, November 11, 2011

Language - to illuminate or confound?

Language is supposed to be one of the means of communication.  A vehicle to express thoughts clearly (or, especially in current business and legal settings, only as unclearly as the sender of the communication wants it to be!).  A tool to elucidate things, to explain things, to throw more light on ('illuminate') things than already there...

What, then, would you say if you were to come across something which leaves you more flummoxed than you started with.  Consider this (paragraph-size!) sentence from the front page story 'Army to stop ops if Omar lifts AFSPA?' in today's (Friday 11th Nov. 2011, or 11/11/11 as popularly being peddled) Hindustan Times, Delhi's most-circulated broadsheet:

     "A defiant Oman Abdullah is hoping his strong stand in favour of partially lifting AFSPA, which protects all actions of security personnel from judicial scrutiny, will helps him regain the political capital - and authority - he has lost since his swearing in almost three years ago following a series of violent street agitations, administrative lapses and the controversial death of a party worker last month."

Whew!  Quite a mouthful, wouldn't you say?  If you're a bit lazy-minded while reading this, you may lose track of what happened first and what later, out of the surfeit of incidents thrown into the jumble - AFSPA (imposition or lifting), judicial scrutiny, gaining & regaining of political capital/ authority, swearing in, violent agitations, and so on...  Why do sentences have to be sooooooo long, you wonder, paragraph-size?  Is it an effort to hold on to the reader's attention at least till the end of the sentence/ paragraph (in this day and age of micro-size attention spans, seen in continuous TV channel surfing)?  Or is it to display erudition in being able to craft sentences of such massive size?  Well, at one scale, this may be nothing compared to a 2G case judgement in which, as reported recently, one single 7000-word sentence ran for 24 pages!!

But we digress.  The point was, if the intent of language is to explain and elucidate, what does the last part of the above sentence (starting with "he has lost...") do?  When you start reading this part, you get the impression that the honourable Oman Abdualla was sworn in 3 years back after violent agitations and the like!  Then, the last few words totally confound you for a moment.  How can the death of party worker, only last month, have led to Omar's swearing in three years back?!  Time travel?  Inverted etymology?  Well, to be sure, there are philosophers who argue that space and time are just constructs, and that actually all occurrences across time scale can be imagined to be happening at the same time...

But then, the reality dawns.  It was actually just a couple of missing commas which queered the pitch (think "For want of a nail the shoe was lost...").  Turns out what the report meant to convey was that Omar had lost his political capital and, importantly, authority as well (and was not sworn in) following violent street agitations, et al.  If only, while concentrating on crafting such a long sentence, the 'crafter' had paid due attention to putting a comma before "since his swearing in" and after "three years ago".

Moral of the story: all of us should just take a break and break their sentences after a reasonable length.  And that includes us corporate-types and especially the legals, who revel in crafting similar long and convoluted sentences (whether in reports, legal documents or in emails).  After all, as someone said, the human mind cannot keep its concentration beyond three lines (maybe that's the target!) and tends to switch off.  

That would also save valuable time spent in checking and rechecking grammatical accuracy...

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Awesome things...

Came across a website (read about it in the paper first - it's apparently featured widely in media and has won an award of some kind) called '1000 Awesome Things'.  Here, one Mr. Pasricha started writing about the everyday, mundane things that he finds awesome.  Things like the smell of shampoo, a road-blocking slow car moving out of the way, food in a potluck, and so on.

At one level, writing about such things can look like self-aggrandizing: who cares whether or not you found a summer midnight walk enchanting, for instance.  On thinking it through, though, it struck me as an exercise in developing at 'attitude of gratitude', or even humility.

First, how many of us really, deliberately take time out of our 'busy' lives (esp. those of us in urban settings, with long commutes) to 'smell the flowers' on the way.  We've become so engrossed in 'making a life' that we've forgotten how to enjoy life (while we still can!), even the little pleasures that are available to us in plenty.  And this is even when we do find (or make) a bit of time from our grinding schedules.  We'd rather sit in darkened halls, munching on (unhealthy!) snacks, supposedly 'enjoying' a movie with reputedly breathtaking scenes, but we wouldn't look up from our car window to take in the unfolding magic of a monsoon sky.

Second (perhaps more important) aspect is that we hardly appreciate what we have, while constantly running after things we think we 'should have'.  We take it for granted that we'd have (and always continue to have) the ability to talk, walk, speak and even breathe.  But do we ever realize what huge blessings these, apparently 'normal' things, are?  And I'm not even talking of other people who are physically or mentally challenged, deprived of these faculties.  I'm talking of people walking among us whose condition or circumstances hinder them from enjoying these things as a 'normal' person would.  Ask someone with arthritis what a blessing it'd be to just be able to walk without excruciating pain!  Ask someone with asthma what utter relief and pleasure it'd be to just breathe normally all the time without fear that the wind would be sucked out of their lungs at times!  Even, for a person who has to live apart from his/her family due to work or other reasons, ask him/her the joys of just being able to hold his/her infant child in his hands!

So, coming back to the 'awesome things', it seems to do no harm to remember, once in a while, the blessings and bounties that nature or our circumstances bestow on us, and thus (directly or indirectly) show our gratitude for the same.  This attitude may also have two indirect effects: (a) Negating the 'entitlement' syndrome, where people (usually those with means) get set in the belief that they are 'entitled' to all that they have (and some that they don't have but crave!), not realizing that many of those things are not only not earned by their own hard work, but are actually a 'tax' on the society in some cases (think about lighting up your house with extensive decorations, in places with perennial energy shortages).  (b) Inculcating humility, once we realize that we are just a speck in the larger scheme of things (whether worldly or cosmic).

With this in mind, I've decided to 'pen' down here, every once in a while, the things that I find 'awesome' and to be grateful for.  It'd perhaps be presumptuous to call this something like a 'list of things in which I see God', so I'll leave it to the best judgment of the readers.

I've already thought about the thing that's #1 awesome on my list - the one above.  That is, a monsoon sky in India, showing but a small part of the works of the gigantic paintbrush of nature! Really awe-inspiring, what say?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The power of serendipity...

How many times has it happened to you that you're in a particular frame of mind and then, out of the blue, something that is in tune pops out of somewhere!

It struck me when I received the book 'The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma' by Gurcharan Das, from the postal library which I subscribe to.  Now, as it happens, this was just one of the books in my online 'queue' at the library, and not even among the top two (I receive two books a month).  As it also happens, lately I've taken to reading commentaries/fiction based on old texts - the last two I read, both fiction, were 'The Palace of Illusions' (Draupadi's narration of Mahabharata, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni) and 'The Vengeance of Ravana' (one in a series of 'retelling' of Ramayana, by Ashok Banker).

Takes me back to a cliched dialogue from a recent Hindi movie ('Om Shanti Om'?), something like "Jab tum kisi say pyar kartay ho toh saree kayenaat tumko us say milanay ki koshish karnay lagtee hai" - loosely translated as 'When you love someone, the entire universe conspires to bring you together'!  This was probably brought out more aptly in the English movie of the same name as the title of this post, 'Serendipity' starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale.  What we used to simply call 'coincidence' now has another, more chic sounding, name!

Some books like 'The Secret' and 'The Power' by Rhonda Byrne have also tried to make the same point - that if you think about something very strongly, you'll probably get it (eventually?).  But is it ever that easy, that you wish for something strongly and it comes to you?  Doesn't seem so.  What may seem more plausible is that when our mind is focused on a certain thing, we 'see' or catch on to other things in tune with the object of our current attention.  And this process of 'seeing' may happen mostly in our subconscious mind, so that while we may make the right connection, we may not be able to explain (or even understand ourselves) how exactly we did that!  This was the theme of the book 'Blink' by Malcolm Gladwell.

This, though, still doesn't explain how I got that book from my library!  Was it because my mind was focused 'on the subtle art of dharma', in whatever fashion?  A toss up...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Split personality?

Can someone have one type of personality (or behaviour style) at work and another, totally different one in personal life?

The question arose in my mind while doing as mundane a thing as watching an episode of a Hindi soap on TV called 'Baray Achchhay Lagtay Hain...' (loosely translated as 'we like it so much...' - actually from the opening stanza of a song from a Hindi movie of yore, 'Atithi' starring Sachin).  The soap supposedly deals with the life of a couple who get married 'late' (as per Indian standards) i.e. 40 for the man and 33 for the woman (though it seems to be taking excruciatingly long, in true TV soap style, getting to the point where they actually get married).

The main male character Ram (the name cleverly aluding to Lord Rama, thus building up a positive imagery from the beginning), supposedly a business tycoon, is introduced in a boardroom scene involving an acquisition, where his ruthless business sense is well displayed, though also tinged with pragmatism when, after having rejected the deal once, he goes back to the negotiating table and seals it only for the reason that he needs the plane that the company's owner has, to get back to base for his sister's wedding!  In another scene, he's shown working his executives even on a Sunday (though he relents when they start receiving calls from their families, one after the other!).

Regardless of such scenes interspersed, hinting at Ram's 'soft side', his 'alpha male' personality is further reinforced when he gets vengeful on the family of the main female character Priya for delaying him from reaching his late father's memorial service (when their cars scrape past each other).  The trait is again displayed when he deals aggressively with Priya's family when his sister slashes herself due to the unresponsiveness of Priya's brother with whom she's supposedly in love.

However, the guy is shown as 'super soft and sensitive' in scenes involving his family.  It seems he allows his step-mom to walk all over him, even while he realizes perhaps that she's sort of exploiting him (for instance, by deliberately blocking marriage proposals for him) while not according him the same status as her own son (who must be present for his sister's wedding, even as Ram makes all the arrangements!).  She even puts him down firmly when he hints that his late father's (and her late husband's) memorial ceremony is perhaps more important than attending an auction.  But Ram continues to go all mush and weak-in-the-knees on anything involving his family (including the little sis who seems total bonkers).

So, to return to the original question, can a person have such 'split personality'?  Some would say: ideally, yes.  There is a saying "Don't bring your office home".  But in today's world, is this really achievable, or more of a utopia?  Can a hard-driving executive really just 'switch off' when s/he leaves office and assume another, perhaps 'softer'/more benevolent avatar before s/he reaches home?  That could also mean, especially in these BlackBerry times when one is supposed to be 'online' 24x7, that the person would've to 'switch-on/switch-off' rapidly in a matter of minutes between his/her 'office personality' and 'home personality'!  Is that doable?  The answer seems more like a tentative "Maybe", even for putative supermen/women!

Which brings us round to the other side of the equation: does one's 'home personality' (see above) affect one's 'office personality'?  Again, ideally it is not meant to.  One is supposed to assume a more 'professional' attitude/behavior (whatever that means, in the specific context) once s/he enters office, leaving behind personal issues.  However, this also seems more ideal than realistic.  Just as (to be PC!) 'behind every successful (wo)man there is an ideal spouse'(i), can we perhaps say that 'behind every grumpy boss there is a quarrelsome spouse', or even that 'behind every confidence-deficient executive there is a domineering spouse'?! (:-).

Begs the question.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Action or contemplation - which is better?

It's not unknown for many of us, engaged in the daily hustle-bustle of life's responsibilities, to get hassled beyond a point, every once in a while.  At such moments is it alright, for a conscientious believer in the value of relentless work and discharge of responsibilities (we're not counting the conscientious shirkers here!), to drop whatever they're doing and rush to the comforting arms of whatever be their inner sanctuary (whether reading or meditation or whatever)?  That's a question which has probably plagued a lot of people since long.

The guidance provided by the usual sources seems equivocal at such times (but is not: read on...).  For instance, Bhagvad Gita, the great Indian holy book, seems to place equal importance, among others, on Karma Yoga (the value of work, of the nishkama karma or 'work without demanding returns' variety) and Bhakti Yoga (devotion).

Say, you're engaged in some mundane work (maybe signing a few cheques, or cooking dinner), but something which is bound to be of some benefit to someone (maybe settlement of dues to a former employee? or providing nourishment to the family), when suddenly you feel like you're at the end of your tether.  You long to stop the 'productive' work and have a few minutes (hours?) of quiet contemplation, probably with some reading of/listening to your favourite peace-inducing material.  But here's the dilemma: at what point does it become justifiable (quite apart from the disciplinary and 'paying your dues' aspect, if the mood hits you while at office!) to 'take a break', and for how long?

In this respect, probably a better source of guidance could be the life experiences of our past masters.  Swami Vivekananda, of the World Congress of Religions fame (and the foremost disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the 19th century sage of Bengal), is believed to have said something to the effect that 'if you can't do anything, steal, for work is above everything' (now, now, don't try this at home...!).  Many seekers have found the value of work through their personal experiences with both a 'no-work' and 'happily engaged in work' situations.

On balance, it seems that the value of work in our life is paramount.  After all, you could say that we were probably put on this earth to be of some use!  The least we could do is to 'pay our dues' to mother Earth and rightfully 'earn our living' (beyond the usual material sense).  Even in this, the best kind of work could be the one carried out without any longing for the fruits thereof (I know, I know, easy to preach...) - now we are back to the core teaching of Bhagvad Gita!.  This kind of work/service seems to have the potential to free us of the cycle of desire, fulfillment (including ego fulfillment) and more desire (as someone rightly said, our needs are limited but our wants are unlimited).  But of course this is an inner journey which each one of us has to travel in our own way...

The title of a movie made on the life of Ramakrishna Paramhansa was 'Joto Mot Toto Path', loosely translated as 'That many paths, as many views/faiths'.  So as long as our chosen path leads us to the ultimate objective of selflessness...

Friday, June 10, 2011

The culture of 'Jugaarh'

A recent article in New York Times described how entrepreneurs in the city of Gurgaon, near the Indian capital city of Delhi, had risen to the challenges faced due to the utter lack of basic infrastructural facilities.

While presenting a balanced and realistic picture, one interesting aspect in the article was that it seemed to eulogize and romanticize, in tune with the growing tendency across India and the World, something called jugaarh, the ability of people in India to rise above their circumstances using any means available. This is lately becoming a subject of case studies across campuses, here and abroad! 

What this romanticization may be doing (among other effects) is: (
a) Absolve/let off the Government of its primary duty to provide and maintain essential services like roads, water, power, minimum nutrition and law & order; and (more damagingly perhaps) (b) encourage an unhealthy lack of respect for law, the manifestations of which we can see in everyday life in the form of traffic mess (nobody seems to minds the traffic policemen, many of them prone to bribes), infractions of laws & regulations (see the massive 2G telecom spectrum scam still unraveling), people taking the law in their own hands (look at the 'khaap panchayats' - village-level kangaroo courts), and myriad other things. 

Publicly, we all like to criticize these things.  But at pesonal level, we indulge in the same unhealthy practices whenever faced with the slightest bit of discomfort - paying bribes when required, throwing our garbage outside in the open, taking a 'wrong side short cut' (against oncoming traffic!) when faced with traffic jams. 

As a first step, for India to reach the 'tipping point' of graduating into a 'wholesome' democracy, it first has to put in order its delivery of the minimum basic infrastructure and services to all citizens.  Without this, the differences between the haves and have-nots (both in terms of facilities & wealth, and the means to break the law with impunity!) may only get accentuated, reflecting in the rising tide of more of the types of 'class clashes' and individual crimes we're witnessing today.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Geeta, 'bhakti' & psalms

A dear friend shared some psalms she listened to at a Sunday sermon (Scientology church?).  As she rightly remarked, it's amazing how all religions lead to the same theology and God.  Read on...

There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter.  All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all.  Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error.  Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is unreal and temporary.  Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness.  Therefore man is not material, he is spiritual.
- Shades of the essence of Bhagvad Gita, and of the ancient Indian concept that this world is but a dream (Maya) of God.

Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.  Fear thou not, for I am with thee; be not dismayed, for I am thy God; yea, I will help thee.

And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not; for I came not to judge the world, but to save the World.
- Striking resonance with the chapter in Geeta where Arjun asks about the fate of those who, having started on the spiritual journey, 'fall' from their belief and are not able to carry on; and Krishna replies that even they are not 'doomed', since anyone who has an iota of spiritual yearning will 'get there', sooner or later.  This view of the cyclical interplay of good and evil resonates throughout Indian epics, like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

I have glorified thee on earth: I have finished the work thou gavest me to do.
- The ultimate purpose of our life.  There may be quite a few different approaches to this purpose of the soul than traditionally thought.  While on the road towards this objective, improving one's 'soul characteristics' (for want of a better term) may be one of the 'purposes', possibly by exposure (serendipiteously or intentionally) to hardships - physical, mental and emotional.

It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.  They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.  They are brought down and fallen; but we are risen, and stand upright.
- Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.  Also resonates with the 'bhakti' (devotion) tradition, which holds that everything moves as per His desires, and man is only an instrument of His will.

The temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.  And be not conformed to his world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is good, and acceptable, and pefect, will of God.
- Obviously the 'temple' referred to here is the human mind-body, as frequently talked of in spiritual literature all across including Jesus's life episodes.

He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust; His truth shall be thy shield and buckler.  For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
- The idea of guardian angels is quite common among various readings.

Just goes to show the essential spiritual unity among different faiths.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

End of words...

Was going to drop my child for the school bus this morning, when something struck me.  Small children have so much to share!  And they are so open to the idea of sharing.  It could be the smallest of things (from us 'adults' point of view).  How he 'touched' another child with the foot at the Taekwondo class, or another one 'touched' him, to get more points.  Or how he whacked the ball with the cricket/baseball bat at the neighbourhood game yesterday.  Or the latest jokes he heard.  But children are full of beans while sharing such things.

Then why is it that as children get older, they tend to clam up about many aspects of their life.  At the least, they don't seem as enthusiastic while sharing.  Part of it could be due to the emotional (and physical changes) children go through, especially when they enter the teens.  The need to 'keep secrets', perhaps.  But for the other, large part, is it due to a level of 'disconnect' with parents or older relatives.  Seems so, given that many parents/older relatives may tend to try to impose their own worldviews on the children, without first appreciating (or, at least, trying to appreciate) the children's own views.  Though it seems the age gap may be more of a myth than reality. Many children are seen to be closer to their grandparents than parents, for instance.

Is the main factor then the perennial listening ability and skills.  After all, as we ourselves grow older, there is no denying the fact that we tend to become more 'opinionated'.  Coupled with this is the typical mid-life crisis among parents of teenagers, which propel them to try and get traction for their own views over others, at any cost!  So is it this 'controlling' attitude which may be putting off children from openly sharing, while they perhaps feel safer sharing their thoughts with grandparents or other relatives/acquaintances, without the baggage of having to 'conform'?  If so, this puts renewed emphasis on the need to inculcate that most important of skills, ability to just listen, which is so necessary in so many professional pursuits as well.  And not just in the traditional spheres like practicing psychology, but in as diverse arenas as business analysis and internal audit (how the times have changed!).

Which brings us to the theme that while (learning to!) interact with our children in a wholesome way, we may be becoming better persons (and professionals) ourselves.  If only many of us would give adequate importance to our interactions with our children, instead of dismissing it as just an intrusion into our 24x7 professional lives.  Even without filtering such interactions through the scientific prism all the time (which would be a pity and rob the interactions of the essential ingredient of spontaneity), the concepts of transactional analysis can point us towards the associated skills of negotiation, open listening, etc.  Look at it this way: children are perhaps (though maybe not always!) more transparent than people in business settings; so if you can't mould your interactions with children towards win-win solutions, you've hardly any chance of doing the same when confronted with hard-boiled business executives!

But shorn of all business-like jargon, the point is that we should keep enjoying our 'small talk' with children the  best we can.  Who knows when they 'grow up' (suddenly, as it sometimes seems) and stop talking to us except in monosyllables...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan earthquake and the tsunami across Pacific coasts

Watching coverage of the tsunami following the 8.9 Richter quake in Japan, one small thing that struck me is how secure (perhaps delusionally so) are at least some people in developed countries like Japan.  If a quake hits here in India, we'll drop whatever we're doing and just run!  But the BBC/CNN footage shows people in offices in Japan swaying but holding on to things, not really trying to run (perhaps that's by training, Japan being the most quake-prone country in the World).  A woman in a footage is actually talking on a (fixed) phone and trying to type on her computer keyboard, while crouching near her office desk!  Commendable courage under extreme stress, or misplaced trust in man's power to withstand nature - your pick?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A tale of two cities (or many)...

Was reading a review today of a book, 'Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments of Delhi' by Rakshanda Jalil, which brings out how urbanisation is slowly pushing the hitory of the city into the background.  Got me thinking.  Say someone (say, someone from out of India) lands up at Delhi Airport, and commutes to either one of the business hubs (Connaught Place, Nehru Place, South Extension, et al) or, if here for a longer stay, goes to check into one of the tony hotels.  All s/he gets to see during the commute is a 'modern' Delhi (especially in the post-Commonwealth Games era), with all traces of the 'old' face of Delhi neatly tucked away behind facades.  Except, maybe, for some 'World Heritage' monuments like Humayun Tomb which are duly showcased.  But how many casual or business travellers (not counting tourists who may come here specifically to see the real face of the city) pass through the areas where such monuments are situated?  Perhaps not many.

But monuments are just one aspect of history and heritage; the other may be the living communities.  If one is moving across much of South Delhi, all one gets to see is tony residential areas or concrete edifices.  Nothing wrong in that, but is it essential to obliterate all traces of the 'old' feel of Delhi in order to join the 'league of world cities'.  Ironically, if one were to go to any of the big European cities of note, one could see that the history there is meshed into the modernity, and not swepts under the carpet apologetically.  Be it London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Rome or Venice, the history seems to co-exist peacefully with the modernity, the cobbled streets branching off from the metalled roads, the lively 'squares' providing an alternative to the glitzy malls, and the 'gates' standing tall amidst the traffic of whizzing cars (even in a more 'recently habitated' city like Frankfurt, you may find the old town hall area being the hub of Christmas fair).  Closer home in Asia, while historical sites like Angkor Thom (in Cambodia) and Ayuthya (in Thailand) are of course preserved separately, even modern Bangkok also flows side-by-side with peaceful Buddhist temples and monasteries.

Coming back to India, some cities like Hyderabad seem to have been able to preserve a large part of their heritage by meshing it in with the growing metropolis (though the modern 'Cyberabad' is more of a concrete jungle).  Even, surprisingly, in Mumbai, the business capital of India, one can see the 'two eras' co-exist to a large extent.  Moving from the airport, say, to Nariman Point, the business hub (admittedly a long commute), the scene alternates between modernity and the traditional.  One moment you could be zipping across the gleaming Sea Link bridge, the other moment passing through a cozy 'mohalla' (residential locality) of low slung houses with peaceful Parsi gentlemen (and women!) taking a stroll.  Even in the Apollo Bunder area (leading on to the famour Gateway of India), so close to Nariman Point, the 'galis' (side streets) could be full of Old Delhi style shops. 

Of course, I'm sure many Mumbai residents would say that taking such a romanticised view may be easier for a casual visitor, and only those living there day-to-day would be aware of the actual difficulties, and probably they'd prefer more modernisation like in Delhi!!  But at some level, it may all come down to appreciating what we have (including a passing era) and being thankful for it, and sometimes an 'outsider' may be better placed to point out such things to an 'insider' whose senses may've got enured to such things due to daily exposure.

And talking of Old Delhi, I still fondly remember how, when we were staying in the Delhi Cantonmment area, when someone came asking after our father, instead of saying that he had gone to Karol Bagh or Chandni Chowk, we would go "Dilli gaye hain" (he's gone to Delhi), indicating that the 'real' Delhi was centred around some older localities and the area outside was 'not really Delhi'!  What a contrast with the present day, when the extension of Delhi Metro (the underground mass transit) to Gurgaon seems to provide an avenue, after a long time, to people to actually go and visit 'Old Delhi' after ages!  Because that 'feel' of Delhi is not visible any more in the places we live in day-to-day.  And to think that Delhi may be an older, more historical city than many of the above cities in Europe or Asia!

This is not a lament against modernisation of cities.  Of course we need to keep on modernising the cities, to provide living spaces and better civic facilities for the exisitng residents as also the people flocking in all the time in search of better economic opportunities.  But alongwith that, it'd probably be good to take care that the 'new' city does not obliterate all traces of the old one.  Maintaining a few defined sites as national or international monuments may be one way, and being done commendably by the relevant bodies.  But meshing in the new with the old may be a slightly better way for us to live our modern life while being aware of our heritage.

Think about it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Life - a prism?

Sometimes it seems that the core of our being is quite like a glassy prism (for those not inclined to math/geometry or physics: a three-sided solid block, sometimes made of clear glass-like substances): it receives light on one surface and (depending on some factors, read on) projects a somewhat changed light through another surface, a process known in physics as refraction.  The important thing is, the light going into the prism and that coming out is almost never the same - it may be at a different angle, or a different colour, sometimes a rainbow of colours.  To maintain this prism of life so it serves the purpose, we seem to have two duties:

One, to keep polishing the surfaces.  If the surface facing the source of the light is not clear, it wouldn't be able to let the light through to its innards, and thus perhaps be unable to give out any light.  The cleaner the receiving surface is, the more light it can perhaps receive (and give out!).  On the other hand, if the surfaces transmitting the light out are not clean, they wouldn't be able to give out the light either, regardless of how much light they receive and of what quality.  Some may be tempted to embellish the transmitting surfaces, to represent to the possible recipients of the light a different face than the actual.  However, remember that too much embellishment can actually affect the transparency of the surface and block the light going through.  Ideally, when the surfaces are smoothly polished, they almost act like mirrors, giving out the light inside but at the same time reflecting back the true image of the one who looks at it.

The second duty, it seems, is to control what goes inside the prism.  Yes, the surfaces of the prism are permeable, able to absorb outside material and vibrations (a process known in physics as osmosis), especially through the surface which is in touch with the base.  Some things going inside can improve the ability of the prism to act as a true transmitter of the refracted light.  However, other things can adversely affect this ability or, in extreme cases, react violently with the material of the prism, causing it to decay and eventually disintegrate.

And once the prism disintegrates, whether due to efflux of time or due to reactions as above, what is left is just a useless mess of particles.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Children and truth

Was reading a novel, set in Ireland, about a drug addict, Tony, and his struggle to regain his footing in life.  One of the main characters is his wife Allie (Alisha) who attempts to bring the hubby onto the right path, while taking care of her two sons, one pre-teen and one a toddler.  There is one scene where Allie returns home devastated, having just learnt that Tony, who was off drugs for a few months after rehab, has taken a 'slip' again, after having left home in a huff having quarrelled with her on learning that it was she who had got him thrown out of his job when she first learnt he was an addict (to keep him off money...  a long story).

Once she's home, she starts thanking the old neighbour who's been babysitting her sons (assisted by his own son, a comic TV artist) for a few hours.  But then she's told by the old man (goaded by his son into the 'confession') that he has been pretending to be Santa Claus to her elder son, who's been writing him letters asking for help on all sorts of things (some of which he helps the child with).  This provokes her to full fury - 'How dare he do this to my son' - and she screams at him "Get out...".  She forgets all the favours the old man has been doing for her family (besides babysitting) - protecting her son from local bullies, getting him a car ride with his famous son, etc.  She also goes on to dutifully check, discreetly, whether the old man 'had interfered' with her son (thankfully, not)!

Got me thinking.  Is the commitment to absolute truth really so high in the Western World?  Not being judgmental, but if something like this had happened with one of us, we would probably have brushed it off as an innocuous incident, at most with the remark that at least it gave the child a few days of innocent happiness.  Part of this attitude may be based on the rich Indian tradition of 'pari katha' (or 'roop kahini') fables, narrated by our grandparents and also published, where children were encouraged to delve into the dream world of fairies and kings, learning some good values in the bargain - the Panchatantra tales and Chandamama magazine may be good examples.

But another part may also be based on the Indian philosophy which seems to hold that truth is only what you perceive (there is only one absolute truth: God), and is dependent on circumstances.  Some scholars hold that even the venerable Bhagvad Gita seems to propound this philosophy of a 'context for the truth'.  And the epic Mahabharata has a famous incident where the God incarnate Krishna encourages the eldest Pandava brother Yudhishthira, known as the upholder of absolute truth, to be 'economical with the truth' ("Ashwatthama hata iti gaja") so that the Kaurava commander (and the guru of both clans) Dronacharya could be killed.  Even in our daily life, and perhaps especially when it comes to children, we seem to hold the view that only that part of truth need be shared which would do no harm to anyone, and truth which harms anyone is probably not worth sharing.

Back to the story.  It turns out that the old man's truth (about pretending to be Santa) was the last straw - the child learns during the evening that his mom had been lying to him about his dad being in 'America' (while he was actually in rehab), the mom had been lying to (or at least not sharing the truth with) dad about having had him thrown out of his job, and now this!  Even when the old man tries to explain that the whole thing started when the child presumed he was Santa 'coz he looked like Santa, and that he went along just to keep him out of his lawn (and he didn't pretend to be all powerful: he does tell the child when he asks Santa to keep his dad off drugs that he can't help and his dad has to find the 'magic' in his own heart), he gets no buy in for the argument.  So what's the big issue here?  Why is the old man's lie such a big deal, among all the other lies flying thick and fast?

And what about the effect of the truth on a child?  The story also tells us that Tony took to drugs while in teens because he could not 'fit in', because he was the adopted child of his parents (he keeps arguing with his adoptive mom Tess that it was she who was at fault, not he! - though he also makes up with her later).  Just wondering: would it have been better for Tony to NOT know the truth about his being an adopted child, at least till he gained the wisdom and stability to handle that truth?  Takes us back to the hit '70s Hindi movie 'Kabhi Kabhi' where the adoptive parents of Neetu Singh (Parikshit Sahni & Simi) decide to tell the daughter (ostensibly a teenager) about her adoption and the identity of her real mom (Waheeda Rehman) - a difficult decision (much crying by Simi!), but one taken 'in the best interest of the daughter'.

Of course, there can be two sides to the coin.  Some may say 'Who are you to decide what is the right age to learn the truth?'  Fair point, but don't we as parents make such decisions - as to what is good for our child and what is not - on a day to day basis?  The argument can go on.  But the point that strikes me is the difference in the World-view in this respect between Oriental and Occidental cultures, as pointed out above.  It also has some relation to the importance given in the Western culture to treating children 'with respect' from a young age - an honorable motive but sometimes abused by the recipients of such favour!  Some would say this is treating kids 'with kid gloves'(!) - look at the huge controversy generated by the book 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother', even when the author Amy Chua stated later that the book was a kind of self-parody memoir.

There are of course no right or wrong answers to this debate.  Each of us has to take a view based on our own judgment and in the best interest of our children.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Remembering Cambodia

I received a query at an online forum recently, for tips to someone visiting Cambodia.  I don't remember whether I've written here before of my visit to Cambodia back in '04, so thought I'll fill the gap now.  The account below is based on my experiences there at that time, and many things may have changed since then.

Phnom Penh National Museum
There are many things to do at Phnom Penh, the capital city. For a start, you could visit the palace (now more of a museum) - besides the intricate carvings, frescoes and panels, if you're lucky you may see the King waving to the visitors from his quarters nearby! In the markets, there are a number of quaint little eating places with quintessential French food, and you may enjoy a healthy breakfast at one of these. If you're historically inclined, you could go visit the quarters where Khmer Rouge tortured & killed hundreds of thousands (some say millions) during their reign - a sad effect is that you'd see most of today's citizens are pretty young!  

For the evenings, one can go to one of the restaurants on the 'riverfront', which overlooks the giant Mekong river which meanders through many countries in that region.  Many of the restaurants are built on 'stakes', on wooden platforms over the marshy area.  The food is a mish mash of local and continental (mostly French) delicacies.  One tip: Cambodia may be one of the countries where the US Dollar is almost legal currency - you can pay for everything with the dollar, and local businesses actually prefer the dollar (the exchange rate being what it is).

The multicoloured plane!
But I guess most people go to Cambodia for the Angkor Wat temple.  The magic at Siem Reap (a short flight from Phnom Penh) starts the moment you land there.  If you're lucky, you'd have been travelling in one of those multi-coloured small aircraft with traditional Cambodian designs painted all over. Siem Reap itself is a pretty laid back town, with old French-style vistas and a narrow canal.  

Siem Reap town

Entry to the famed Angkor Wat temple complex

Angkor Wat totally deserves its status as a World Heritage site. The main structure itself, as well as the surrounding grounds, are full of history, and you feel as if you're yourself standing right amidst ancients! And, be careful about coming down one of those steep open stairways with narrow steps (going up is easier) - don't try it unless your calves are strong, else they'll cry out for mercy.

Stranded midway on the stairs!
What I found interesting at Angkor Wat is the evidence of different period of history strewn about. You can of course see the prominent Buddha images throughout, some still being worshipped. But if you look closely (sometimes behind the life-size Buddha statues), you can see remnants of the Hindu culture and religion which existed before Buddhism, for instance relics of Hindu gods and goddesses. 

Ramayana at Angkor Wat!
A bird's eye view of Angkor Wat

Budha at Angkor Wat

Entry to Angkor Thom
But of course you can't come back from Siem Reap after just seeing Angkor Wat. The real treat, in my personal opinion, lies at Angkor Thom, a whole city in ruins. It takes your breath away the instant you get there, with the phalanx of a neat line of stone images (demons?) welcoming you at the very entrance. Inside the 'city', a whole lot of historical structures beckon you to explore the life of the kings of that period.  Apparently, before the ascendancy of Vietnamese empire (which at one time occupied much of South East Asia and part of China), it was the Khmer kings of present day Cambodia which held sway over that part of Asia.  Quite a contrast with the condition in which Cambodia finds itself now, made worse by the evil reign of Khmer Rouge in the '70s.
Angkor Thom ruins

What leaves one amazed is the giant stone faces (made famous by countless movies), some with long trees growing right on top! Actually, Angkor Thom is more like a jungle now, with the faces and structures strewn about. 
The 'Faces'

Back in the town, you may like to explore the nooks and crannies of local alleyways, while being careful of your belongings (not much organised crime, I guess, but it's always useful to be wary of locallised petty crime). And once done, one can spend the evening at FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) - at a nice buildinging overlooking the main vista with a canal - and start supper with some nice tomato soup! After that, the choice is endless... (well, for that place!).

Monday, January 31, 2011

A cry!

A high pitched cry!  I froze in my tracks.

It was a busy morning.  After getting my 10-year old ready for school, I'd just opened our front door to unlock the gate (and to get the newspapers, to browse at least the headlines before rushing to get ready for office) when I heard my son's cry.  The first thought that came to mind (like any parent): he may have hurt himself.  A moment later, however, he came bounding up to the door and pointed outside, where a thick fog was billowing.  Oh, so that was the reason for the excited cry.  Quite a relief.  He went on to tell his mom how everything outside was "invisible" (not the first time this season he had seen fog, but not this late in the season).

After the initial reaction, it got me thinking.  When was the last time I myself had such a 'hoopla' moment, or even wonder?  Even simple things like excitement watching (and feeling) first drops of rain...  excitement (fueled by anticipation) at fruits being plucked from a tree using a long twine...  excitement (tinged with apprehension) reading down the school/college results list...  Can't even remember the feeling, the last time it happened.  Slowly, it seems, as we settle down into humdrum everyday life and the years advance, almost all excitement goes out of the life for many of us.  Those who're fond of sport, for instance cricket in India, are blessed in the sense that at least they can get momentary excitement when they watch matches.  For those who're not too fond of cricket et al, like yours truly (though watching World Cup Soccer remains an abiding interest, but alas, a four-yearly affair), even that is not there.

Is excitement good or bad?  For some of course, like those suffering from heart or brain ailments, it may be bad.  I still remember when we were watching the World Cup Cricket '83 finals, and India were on the verge of winning, the TV commentators were advising heart patients to stop watching!  Also, there's something on the waxing and waning levels of adrenaline in blood not being good for heart/blood vessels.  But even medically, I'd guess (and I could be totally wrong) that occasional excitement may not be a very bad thing (at the least, it could 'keep the machine running' i.e. hone our 'fight or flight' instincts!).

But leaving aside the medical aspects, most people may agree that at least a bit of excitement now and then, whether in relations or at work, may help to bring the best out in people.  Sadly, it seems, the daily grind of rushing about, dealing with traffic, grappling with a (usually) tense & competitive work environment, and then housework (and this applies quite a lot, if not equally, to men too) tends to leave our senses totally dull and hardly receptive to any source of 'real' excitement.  On the other hand, the constant stress may be sending misleading 'fight or flight' signals to our body (sometimes keeping it under a constant state of 'excitement'), with adrenaline rushing about and sometimes doing irreparable damage to our body and mind.  So what's the way out?  'Create' some real excitement in daily life?  Easier said than done, contrary to what the self-improvement guides may teach (too much work!).

The least we can do is not to stifle but nurture the sense of wonder and excitement in our children, mostly at things we ourselves now find mundane or everyday.  Who know, if we allow our taut senses the leeway to empathize with the children's feelings in a true manner, we may also be on the way to recapturing some of that wonder and excitement.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Calamities all over!

I was watching BBC & CNN news last evening.  Not something I do every day, admittedly, since most times one TV of ours is monopolized by my pre-teener in the evenings, and the other by the better half once she's home.  Instead of the rushed, breathless soundbites from reporters, I much prefer to get my news the old fashioned way, through newspapers (and mostly hard copy, though sometimes online as well), where I can get news (free of 'first to the post syndrome') as well as considered views.  Though I do admit that "A picture is worth a thousand words" (read on...), I feel the cacophony of pictures sometimes muddles the mind more than it is informative.

Anyway, so I was watching news, rare as it may be.  What struck me is the multiplicity of natural disasters striking our beloved earth, seemingly all at the same time.
US: snowed over - heaviest snowing since 1925 at NY Central Park, reportedly.
Southern Africa - heavy rains leading to waterlogging/light floods (courtesy La Nina).
Jeddah in Saudi Arabia - in a desert country of all places, and God knows they're just not equipped to handle rain, let alone flood.
South East Asia: Heavy rains (though mercifully no floods).
Australia: The tragic floods continue, with the losses now expected to cross US$ 4 billion.
Japan: A volcano erupts.

Whassup, guys?!  I'm sure the reporters logging in from different parts of the World don't see any patterns here.  But don't the people who bring all of this together discern any pattern either.  All the way from the West to the East, from the North to the South, a wide swathe, rolling in agony cause by natural disasters.  And most of them caused by water in different forms (even the Japanese volcano, if you consider the steam columns rising up from the crater).

What could be behind it:
God's wrath? (Um, no - He'd be too busy managing so many Worlds, and he's already bequeathed the power of free choice to us humans, remember.)
A rare confluence of World weather patterns? (Maybe)
The nature striking back? (Hmmm... there may be something, with all the environmental degradation going on...)
Take your pick.

Meanwhile, to add to the natural disasters, (well, almost) a man made one.  Reportedly, there was an explosion at Davos, near the hotel where all the World's leaders are gathered for a pow-wow on the World economy (no less).

And then a (double) disaster on the sports field: Nadal and (now) Federer are out of the Australian open (does this have anything to do with their eagerness to flee the flooded country? Hope not.).  The commentators are calling it a 'change of guards'.  Let's see...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The real role of politicians (the 'ritual of politics')

While commuting to office this morning, heard on news that a certain national office bearer of a political party (incidentally, the one everyone looks at as almost the messiah, mostly courtesy the lineage) had said while addressing his party workers in a state (again incidentally, one going for polls in the not too long future) that they should keep an eye on the implementation of Central development programs in their respective areas. Taking a cue, the head of the party in that state (perhaps again incidentally, daughter of a party stalwart, long gone) announced that she'd form district monitoring committees for the purpose.

Set me thinking. Why do these hallowed people have to emphasize this simple need to their workers? What is the basic purpose for which grassroots (again a much abused term, now even part of the name of another political party which grew out of this mother party) politics was 'invented'?

To a simple mind, the very basis of representational politics was the 'upward' communication of the aspirations and needs of people living in far flung places to powers that be, and the reverse 'downward' communication of the response (by way of development programs or whatever) to those same people through the channel of their representatives. And that would've been the basic driver for the whole movement across centuries to gain universal franchise (right to vote), something which people across nations fought for and won after a long & hard struggle.

But has this right really empowered the people, especially in an under-developed/developing country like India? It seems the only time that people get to exercise their right & leverage over the political system is during elections. And here too, the process gets vitiated to a large extent by factors like strong-arm tactics, identity politics, and sometimes downright fraud. Even where these factors are not at play, the constituents hardly get any real opportunity to get to know the candidates and understand their outlook and approach, within the short time that the candidates visit the constituencies before the elections. So people who vote (and many don't!) do so either on the basis of identify politics (including for 'dynasties', political or otherwise) or in support of a specific political party. And the manifestos of most election parties are such elaborate documents (making almost identical promises!) that a lay voter is hardly in a position to assess the party's ideology or program directions, and s/he has instead to go by heresay (including those propagated through press and electronic media - and not all independently, as the recent cases of 'sponsored' coverage revealed).

So what happens once elections are over? An eerie calm descends! Having extracted their moolah (that is, votes), the politicians go back to their high abodes, some to state/country capital as elected 'representatives', and most don't look back on the constituencies for another five years (or till when the next elections happen). The elected 'representatives' continue to draw their remunerations (mostly for disrupting the proceedings at the assembly/parliament), and also their (ironically named) 'constituency allowance', travel allowances (ostensibly for visiting the constituencies - which many don't spend as they travel gratis while the railway officials look the other way out of fear or favour) and sundry other moneys, but those who actually visit their constituencies and listen to the people can perhaps be counted on fingers.

Only once in a while, the voice of a politician is heard on matters concerning his/her constituency. This is usually when some calamity has struck or some gross injustice is revealed, for instance people dying of hunger in some districts of a state like Orissa (a regular happening). Then the elected 'representatives' are heard telling the media that this or that thing should have been done for the welfare of the people, but was never done. Begs the question: then what the hell were you doing all these years? Did you take up the issue with those who could do something about it, all through the chain, from the local administrators all the way up (that is, beyond slapping around a bureaucrat or currying personal favours)? And if you really raised the issue and it was still not addressed, did you consider this as an utter lack of your effectiveness (to 'serve people', something you promised during the elections) and consider resigning your post of elected 'representative' on moral grounds? But this is being naive - why should s/he let go of his/her fat salary, allowance and sundry perks (legal and illegal) just to benefit some wretched souls, who would have died anyway!

The problem (or the symptom thereof) is that the 'ritual of politicking' seems to have supplanted actual politics at all levels, which is why 'politics' ('invented' ostensibly for benefit of people) has gained such a bad name [this is akin to the rituals of religions, where something which was supposed to bring people closer to God or their spiritual core has degenerated to just an observance of certain rituals mostly]. So when some people join 'politics', perhaps as grassroots workers, all they think about is what they can do during elections to help their then leader win, and thus curry favours and move up the 'value chain' of political aspirations, all the way up. The basic purpose of politics, that is understanding and communicating local needs upwards and ensuring those needs get fulfilled by appropriately designed and implemented development programs, doesn't enter their equations at any stage. So till such time that a culture evolves where it is ingrained in a political worker (at whatever level) from day one what the basic purpose of 'politics' is, things would continue to run in the same way.

But I'm again being naive. Evolution of a culture, or for that matter anything to do with human endeavour, seems to depend much less on noble thoughts and much more on the alignment of incentives (taking cue from a different plane, the current economic crisis, where the subprime crisis in US is supposed to have been caused due to a misalignment of incentives all through the chain of housing mortgage management, from originators to aggregators to investment bankers and beyond). Till the time people know that they are accountable (that they would be held responsible) for acting in a certain undesirable manner, and conversely they would be rewarded for acting in a manner which is likely to lead to greater public good, they'll continue to act in a way they are accustomed to act since time immemorial. This needs a system of appropriate rewards (incentives) and punishment (disincentives).

But can we really even hope for such a system to evolve, in an environment where even the existing system is regularly bent and broken by people who have the power, either physical or money?

Aphorisms of Dalai Lama

Just came back from our corporate annual day event, addressed by His Holiness Dalai Lama. With some previous indication that Dalai Lama was very down to earth & humble (and humorous!), got a first hand glimpse of the personality.

The theme of Dalai Lama's talk was the traditional harmony between various religious groups in India, since thousands of years. He said that this was true not only of home grown religions like Buddhism, but also those coming from outside like Islam, Parsis, Zoroastrians and Christianity, the influence of all of which India had absorbed in itself. Dalai Lama made a reference to his visit to New York on the first anniversay of 9/11, when he had made the point that the WTC bombings could only be attributed to some 'mischievous' characters in the Islamic commnity, and that the whole community could not be branded as terrorists.

A second theme of the address was how India was inherently democratic, as it had through ages promoted and protected the 'debate' culture and not tried to put down any thought. So even while the ideas of people adhering to Nihilism (those who don't subscribe to any religion or god) were vehemently debated, the adherents themselves were still regarded as 'Rishis' (ascetics). This tolerance for different ideas had, in turn, nurtured the spirit of democracy in the country, as contrasted with many surrounding countries. In this context, Dalai Lama made a reference to the various contrasting ideas propounded by Buddha himself, which (far from arising from any 'confusion' in Buddha's mind, as Dalai Lama humorously remarked) was designed to kickstart the spirit of inquiry among people.

Then came the questions from participants. One question was about how to calm the mind and get over anger and frustrations. Dalai Lama's reply to this was that since frustrations and anger mostly arise due to some problem, it's advisable to think about the problem deeply and try to look for a solution and other opportunities, rather than manifesting the frustration outwardly through anger which doesn't solve the problem. Such meditative inquiry, while it may not directly lead to a solution of the problem, can calm the mind and prepare it better to find a solution. In this context, Dalai Lama made a reference to how he had lost his country, but how this had in turn opened other avenues and how he had been able to learn so much by interacting with people from different backgrounds, religions,etc.

Another question was as to whether there was any one blessing that Dalai Lama would want everyone to receive. To this, first Dalai Lama replied humourously that he didn't have any response. Later, he went on to explain that just asking for blessings didn't solve any problems. He made a reference to his participation at the opening of a Budhist Vihara (monument) at Patna, the capital city of the Bihar state in India. Apparently, at the function, the Chief Minister of the state had remarked that now the blessings of Budha will lead to exemplary development of the state. To which Dalai Lama had (humourously) responded that since Budha's blessings had already been there for the state since hundreds of years (it is said that Budha had attained enlightenment at a place in Bihar), the state should have been very highly developed, instead of being one of the poorest in India! To wit, just blessings are not very useful, and what was required was action. Even Buddha went from house to house explaining the meaning of Buddhism (something the Dalai Lama said he had advised the monks of Ladakh to do, when he had perceived a 'gap' between the monks and the people of the surrounding communities). Same was done and emphasised by Jesus. So instead of just praying for blessings (while that may be something you do anyway), focus on action, was the message.

An 'out of the box' question was raised regarding the 'violence' supposedly involved in the medical profession. To this, Dalai Lama (after referring humorously to two incidents - one where a person had accidentally closed his mouth to speak while a doctor was examining his tooth, and another where Dalai Lama's cook had 'boxed' a dentist who tried to pull out a bad teeth!) said that violence depends on the intentions. A person saying good things and giving gifts may not mean well, which would be mental violence. On the other hand, since a doctor performs a surgery with the intention to cure a person, this cannot be called 'violence'.