Category Archives: Features

Daughters are such a blessing

Sharing a piece by a wonderful author Sudha Arora. The original is in Hindi, I have translated it here.

“How many bachchas do you have?” a middle-aged woman on the Superfast train from Jaipur to Delhi asked me.

“I have two daughters,” I replied with pride.

“But how many bachchas?” repeated the woman in a flat tone.

I thought she might be hard of hearing. Raising my voice a little, I said with a smile, “I have 2 daughters.”

“So no bachchas?”

I stared at her in astonishment.

She looked at me with pitying eyes.

Now I understood that when she asked about children she meant sons.

This conversation was repeated many times in many different places.

Girls don’t continue the family line, girls belong to the family they’re married into, one needs to save for their dowries, girls are a burden – these beliefs in several districts of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Karnataka mean that girls don’t count as children.

Someone even asked me, “Didn’t you try for more children after these two?”

There’s an interesting story behind this.

Both my children were born through Caesarean section. In those days sonography was not that prevalent. It was only after the child was born that the nurse would announce if it was a boy or girl.

When I got pregnant again ten years after the birth of my daughter, the ladies of the neighborhood tried to guess the sex of the baby by the shape of my belly, the color of my face, and whether I was craving sweet or salty food. Since my first child was a girl, they were hoping for a boy this time. My mother had already told my doctor that girl or boy, my tubes were to be tied after the delivery.

This was 1982. Holi was on the 10th of March that year. My due date was the 20th, but the doctor was worried that if I went into labor on the 10th, it might be difficult to arrange for the operation. So the surgery was scheduled on the 8th.

I was admitted to the Woodlands Nursing Home in Calcutta. On 8th March, at 10 a.m., when the doctor saw the sex of the baby after the operation, she sent the nurse running outside.

“It’s a girl! Do you still want to do the tubal ligation?”

My mother replied, “A gift from Waheguru! Tell the doctor to go ahead with the operation.”

The nurse left and returned a couple of minutes later.

“I don’t think you heard me correctly. The doctor said, it’s a girl, do you still want to do the ligation?”

This time my mother said sternly, “I care about the life of my daughter. How many times do I have to tell you to go ahead?”

She continued to fume. “This is the limit! That delicate girl is lying on the operating table with her stomach cut open and they’re wasting time sending messages – she must have lost so much blood. That’s why I said I didn’t want the surgery to be done by a Rajasthani doctor, they don’t feel complete without sons, you’d think boys were born with angel wings…”

The third day after the delivery, when the nurse took me to the bathroom to brush, I fell down in a dead faint. The hemoglobin test showed 5.6. When the doctor saw the results, she couldn’t believe it and had the test repeated. This time it was 4.8. In the ensuing panic I was administered an intravenous iron solution, but I had an immediate reaction to it and began shivering with chills. Then I was given two bottles of blood. I still had complications and was able to leave the hospital only after 17 days.

The day I left the hospital with my daughter, my weight was 38 kilos and my daughter was 4.75 pounds. Ma was relieved that we had both reached home safely.

We all have such mothers and aunts in our family trees who did not think any less of women, who wanted to have daughters despite the prevailing sentiment and social norms that devalued women, who understood the importance of girls and treated them like they were special.

When I was going through a very tough time in my life, it was this very daughter who stood before me and with me like a suit of armor and helped me stand up again by holding my hand. She is my strength, my support, my therapist.

Last year she turned 40. Life’s challenges have made her strong.

In life, every disaster, every deception, every betrayal, first causes trauma, then it becomes the basis on which you stand tall. It gives you courage and makes you strong.

A Journey to Bring Peace Through Music

pruthvi śāntir antarikshagam śāntir dhyau śāntir diśa śāntih
diśa śāntir avāntaradiśā śāntir agniśāntir vāyur śāntihi

(May there be peace on the earth, the skies, space, in all directions and in the elements)

With this invocation, 150 voices joyfully soar in the oratorio Shanti, a Journey of Peace, singing of a connected world where there may be many ways to reach the source, but there is no concept of the “other” and we are all united in a state of oneness.

This ambitious choral work, augmented by dance and multimedia, is the creation of Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran, (fondly called Kanniks) and makes its premiere in the Bay Area on April 30, 2016. A blend of Indian and Western voices, Shanti is composed in a unique style developed by Kanniks, a blend of Indian and Western choirs with support from instruments and dance performances.

“My work is strictly based on harmonizing Indian ragas,” explains Kanniks. He is very particular about maintaining the structure and purity of the Indian ragas while writing polyphony for them. Kanniks uses the foundation of Indian classical music, particularly Hindustani classical music, to create a new sound that combines Indian and Western voices. “We have our way of singing with a little bit of ornamentation and voice texture,” he notes. “Our voices are trained to sing a certain way. When you combine our voices with the traditional Western soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sounds, that’s when you get goosebumps!”

Kanniks, who is trained in Carnatic music, gave his first vocal performance at the age of 13. A graduate of IIT Madras, he arrived in the US in 1984 to pursue a Masters in Materials Engineering and later an MBA in Information Systems. He began attending Western classical concerts out of curiosity and was spellbound by the music as well as the discipline of the performers. He taught himself Western music theory and MIDI and began experimenting with his new sound.

“Western composers have tried to incorporate some elements of Indian classical music,” he says. “But the music still has a Western approach, with just a feel of the raga – or an Indian sound in places. My compositions are written from an Indo-centric perspective.”

To his surprise and delight, he has been able to integrate many more elements into his creations than he thought possible to begin with. “When you talk about Western music you are talking about a range of frequencies that are available through various instruments. I visualize a length of an alaap (the improvised section of a raga) then support it with voice layers which harmonize without hurting the raga. On top of that I add layers of strings, woodwinds and even percussion like timpani and brass. They are all playing different things but the unified effect is what gives you chills.” The orchestra and Western voices he uses to enhance the ragas are not standalone pieces; they provide support and depth.

Kanniks created his first piece Basant (Spring) in 1994 in Cincinnati, where he lives and works as a consultant in the field of data warehousing and analytics. Basant was performed with a group of young, amateur Indian singers and accompanied by a Cincinnati church choir and local orchestra.

“Working with Western musicians was quite a learning experience,” he recalls. For one, the musicians could not abide the constant drone of the tanpura, an instrument used by Indian musicians to keep the pitch. Taken aback initially, Kanniks came around to their point of view. “I figured the Goddess Saraswati would not be offended if we switched it off,” he laughs.

He also realized that he could not rely on any improvisation on their part. “The entire score has to be written down and fixed,” he says. “It is comforting to have Indian musicians who can just wing it based on your instructions, but with Western musicians you have the satisfaction of knowing that the sound will be exactly the same each time and delivered perfectly.”

He also quickly realized that unlike Indian performers, Western musicians were very disciplined when it came to rehearsals. “If I had a rehearsal from 9 am to 11:30 am, the musicians would troop in at 8:50, start tuning their instruments and be ready to begin at 9 sharp. At 11:30 they would just pack up and leave, even if we were in the middle of a piece.” Unused to this behavior, Kanniks put it down to rudeness before realizing that this was, in fact, professionalism!

How does he come up with the themes of his compositions? “I think that even with my very first piece, Basant, my effort was to find unity through ragas and conveying the message that together we are bigger than the sum of our parts, though I am better at articulating that message these days!”

His second piece, The Blue Jewel, conveyed how the environment is sacred to us all, no matter which culture we come from. Film slides played during the performance captured the wanton destruction of the earth by human beings, while ragas with diabolical or devil’s intervals, sung by the choir, suggested the discord the environmental destruction had brought about. The piece ended on a message of hope and a prayer that we could correct course and respect and restore the blue jewel of the Earth. “When you want to show something big, music alone is not enough,” says Kanniks, who uses multimedia in nearly all his performances.

One exception is his Ragas in Symphony, which recently had a sold-out performance in Dallas. “It does not have a story line like Shanti,” explains Kanniks. “It is just about the changing of the seasons. We start out by holding the sacred sound of cosmic energy – Om. It is from this energy that everything manifested. You and I and everything else are a manifestation of this un-manifest reality. When we sing the piece we get in touch with this reality.” Ragas in Symphony also debuted the Nightingale Overture, a composition by Kanniks that paid tribute to the work of M.S. Subbulakshmi, the acclaimed Carnatic vocalist.

Shanti, A Journey of Peace, is Kannik’s most ambitious work. The musical extravaganza features both Indian and Western vocalists, a Western orchestra, multimedia support, and several dance troupes that bring the music to life. This synthesis of Indian and Western music in choral form is a new genre by itself.

Here is an excerpt of a previous performance of Shanti

Indian classical music, despite its beauty and complexity, has no choral or, for that matter, no vertical elements to it. “Indian classical music is about individual self-expression,” Kanniks points out. “There is no word in North or South Indian music that signifies a concert, a coming together of musicians.” Indeed, the closest modern word for a musical performance in South India is “Kachcheri” which is derived from an Urdu and Hindi word meaning “court,” signifying the patronage of musicians in the king’s court. Kanniks’ creations, therefore, forge a new path for Indian music.

“Here’s what I would like to leave behind,” says Kanniks when discussing his legacy. “Maybe one day we can have 100 choirs in a 100 cities. Each choir has a leader who I mentor. I create hundreds of taranas(melodies) with these harmonies that are performed by these choirs. Eventually each choir becomes self-sufficient.”

“My dream is that when the city hall is celebrating Diwali, this choir is invited to perform. We become part of the musical landscape. And when a newcomer moves to a city and they want an opportunity to sing, they find this organization and join.”

“To begin with, I will be the source of the music and provide the template. In another 10 years people familiar with the music will start writing their own compositions.”

Kanniks’ dream is well on its way. He has founded and led community choirs in 10 cities in North America including Cincinnati OH, Bethlehem PA, Dallas TX and Washington DC. He has expanded his work to Europe (The Hague – Netherlands). Now he brings his opus Shanti to two venues in the Bay Area, supported by a devoted and enthusiastic set of Indian and Western musicians and performers.

To experience the magic of Shanti – A Journey of Peace for yourself, check out

Performances are at 5 pm and 9 pm on April 30, 2016 at Flint Center in Cupertino and at 7 pm on May 21, 2016 at the Interstake Auditorium in Oakland. There is a special 50% off promotion going on the 5PM show on the 30th of April. Please avail of this discount using the discount code ‘MAR’ at Ticketmaster, accessed through the link above.

(Full Disclosure: I am one of the singers in Shanti! My experience with the rehearsals has been enormously uplifting and I often find myself humming the tunes while going about my day’s work. There’s something to be said about having a head filled with music, isn’t it?)

A Returning Indian Entrepreneur Reflects – Part 3

Kashyap Deorah

It’s been 7 years since I wrote the first piece about moving back to India, and 5 years since the second piece after settling into the move. A few life changing events have happened since then. I sold Chaupaati to Future Group in India in 2010, we had our boy Kanav in 2012, I sold Chalo to OpenTable in the US in 2013, and subsequently moved from Powai to Berkeley in 2014 to integrate the acquisition as Shruti took on a fellowship at the Public Policy School of UC Berkeley.

As 2014 winds down, Shruti has finished her fellowship and I have concluded my gig at the acquiring company. Shruti remains committed to influencing policies towards cleaner energy and environment, and I remain committed to building world class tech companies out of India. Other than that, we are sufficiently confused about what we call home now and have decided to take 4 months off to travel the world and figure it out. Quoting my recent tweet – “India > Morocco > Spain > Chile > New Zealand > Australia > Hawaii > US (6 continents, 5 islands, 4 months, 3 people, 2 hemispheres, 1 life)”.

Encouragement and feedback from the Indian diaspora, friends, and colleagues have inspired me to write part three. Here is a short recap of my first two pieces to jog your memory. The first one contrasted life in the U.S. & India with regard to other people’s influence over our daily lives (opt-in v opt-out), relationships within the household (2C2 v 4C2), business environments (Sequoia v Banyan tree) and the diversity in social group (nationality v professional). The second one contrasted the two cultures with regard to socio-economic priorities (aspiration v experience), consumption patterns (survival v progress), impact of structure (chaos v order) and the experience with elements (man v nature). I am writing part three at a time when there is adequate clarity about the confusion before there is confusion about the clarity. So go ahead and have fun once more at my expense.

The “6-hour flight” test
Couple v Couple Dozen

An American colleague pointed out to me that a 6-hour flight from San Francisco to any place outside the U.S. would only take you as far as Mexico or Canada. Europe is an entire mainland and ocean away, and Asia Pacific needs you to cross the largest ocean of the world. Latin America and the Caribbean are out of bounds too. That got me thinking. .. Picking Delhi as the base, a 6-hour flight out would cover 26 countries, including China, Russia, 7 SAARC countries, 7 East Asian countries, 8 Middle Eastern countries and 2 African island countries. The list would be larger by another dozen countries if there were more non-stop flights or if they were an hour or two longer.

The contrast is starker if you consider the world’s population covered in the circle within the radius of a 6-hour flight. New Delhi would cover half the world’s population within a 6-hour flight radius while San Francisco would cover one-fifteenth. No wonder Americans seem a bit disconnected from the rest of the world.

“US is a time machine for India”… NOT
Same v Different

Between 2003-2006, major Sand Hill Road VCs set up shop in India to invest in tech startups. Their thesis was that what worked in the US could be replicated & adapted for the Indian market. A decade, a correction, and some long fund cycles later, the asset value looks promising on paper but the realized value has been a disappointment. In layman’s terms, the business of investing in Indian tech startups has not returned money after a decade. The depth of an IPO environment is a good yardstick of market maturity. You can count the number of Indian tech IPO’s on the fingers of one hand. In fact, no tech company that started after 2003 has gone IPO. As a sliver of hope, four companies that started in 2006 or later have raised money at a valuation over a billion dollars, and their best bet for an IPO is in financial markets abroad, as their company structures already reflect. It has not been all smooth sailing for them either as the Indian government flip-flops between leaving you alone and trying to come after you.

After being part of consumer businesses in both markets with millions of users in each, I have learnt a few things. First, the economics in India work in favor of solving problems through people rather than machines, while the opposite is true in the U.S. Second, the Indian consumer’s tolerance for pain to avoid spending is in sharp contrast to the US consumer’s propensity to pay for control & convenience. Third, for consumer tech businesses at scale, revenues per customer are a fifth in India as a direct result of purchasing power parity but unit costs are only half due to smaller or no gap in real estate, tech talent, or fuel costs. For these reasons, India will not evolve like the U.S. for any foreseeable period of time.

The Indian entrepreneur’s dilemma
Returns v Impact

When my Indian company was bought by the leading group in the $400B retail market of India, their market cap was about a billion dollars. A few years later, when my U.S. company was bought by the leader in a $50B niche in the hospitality market of US, their market cap was well over a billion dollars but with far lesser volatility. Despite being similar sized acquisitions, my Indian company was a full-fledged business with profitability and scale at the time of exit, while my U.S. company exited thrice as fast after building a product that had yet to be launched. An IPO environment in a larger market with predictable policies seems to outweigh the depth of latent market opportunity.

Immigrants are cursed for life because of their inability to reconcile their life in the place where they grew up and have parents with the new life created in the comforts of the developed world where they made money and had children. Indian entrepreneurs get a double whammy for trying to reconcile the gratification of solving the more fundamental problems of India with the lucrativeness of solving the more incremental problems of the developed world. I first tried to build a business for the U.S. market while being in India and right out of college 15 years ago. We have come a long way since then in our ability to succeed with that model, my last company being a validation of that, and I would bet that the next 15 years will see some pleasant surprises.

The Formative Years
Entitlement v Perspective

As we think of our next chapter in life, we find our perspective being driven by the fact that we are parents. We must deliberate the choice of where Kanav’s formative years should be.

Neuroscience shows that life experiences in the past continuously result in formation of brain patterns that determine how future events occur to us, resulting in the thought processes that determine our actions and decisions. Patterns formed between the ages of 3 and 16 (roughly) become the OS of our brain. This OS is stuck with us for life, and does not really alter unless the computer crashes due to a major life event and you need a recovery disk boot-up. Patterns due to experiences in rest of adult life are only apps on top of the OS and do not alter our core personality. 90% of critical brain development of a human happens by the age of 5. As a parent now, I need to be deliberate about how my child spends the formative years of life, especially 3 to 5.

Another daunting fact is that the life expectancy of an American is nearly 79 years, 20% more than an Indian. It is no surprise that my friends in U.S. look and feel younger than friends of the same age in India. At the same time, due to experiences with lack of structure and diverse identities while growing up, my Indian friends are far more adaptive to multiple divergent perspectives than my American friends are.

On the one hand, you obviously want a long and healthy life for your children. On the other hand, an upbringing in India, balanced with access to diverse perspectives globally, would make them more grounded. When they enter adulthood they might be more thankful for the privileges of the developed world and have more empathy for points of view of the rest.

Shruti works in a field where policies are made in the U.S. and applied to India. I work in a field where products are made in India and applied to the U.S. Kanav is at an age where our choice of what we do next and where we do it from would shape the rest of his life in a meaningful way.

With great choice comes great confusion. Shruti, Kanav and I are about to begin a once-in-a-lifetime journey together to figure all this out. The travel involves a fortnight in US and India each, but most of it in neutral third countries with just the three of us. No bias of the place we are in, positive or negative. It is time to fall in love all over again, with each other and with the planet. The serendipitous timing of our career breaks and the liability-free age of our son gives us the opportunity to invest in some soul-searching while globe-trotting. The answer to what’s next for each of us will present itself. I feel like Truman Burbank.

Follow me on Twitter / Flickr to find out where it leads.


Hindi in Bay Area High Schools

In 2007 I wrote about Hindi being accepted for foreign language credit in area high schools, mainly due to the tireless efforts of Madhu Aggarwal of the Madhu Bhasha Kendra. Since then over 100 students have used the Kendra to complete their language credits and 55 are currently enrolled, but their journey has not been easy. Because of the dearth of trained and certified language teachers in the schools themselves, students have had to work on their credits outside of their primary high school in certified programs like those of the Kendra.

All that is changing with the enrollment of the first Hindi language instruction student at the Teacher Education Department at California State University, East Bay.

Sharon Simonson of SV1World does a nice job of capturing Hindi’s journey thus far. She writes

Anupama Sarna plans to complete her Hindi teacher certification at CSU, East Bay next year. The principal of a private, nonprofit Hindi language school in Fremont would be the first to gain a primary teacher certification in Hindi and become the second certified Hindi language teacher in the state. The honor of first California certified Hindi teacher goes to Madhu Aggarwal, the founder of the Fremont school, MBK Language Center, who in 2013 gained her primary certification in science, then added Hindi language….

“Now when I go to a (public) school asking that they start a Hindi program, they can no longer say they can’t find (certified) teachers. That has been a major roadblock to even initiate these conversations,” she said. “Considering the number of Indian people (in Fremont), there is no reason whatsoever that Hindi is not offered in our school system.”

(You can read the entire article here.)

Mihir Baya is one of the high-schoolers who attends Hindi language classes at Madhu Aggarwal’s school. He is a freshman at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont and found the opportunity to study for a language class outside school useful because he could pick another elective of his choice at school.

Mihir started learning Hindi last year in 8th grade because his parents wanted him to learn one of the most important languages of his culture. Says dad Vinod, “The intent was to have some familiarity with the language of our origin, so that when he is India or interacts with folks back home he can do that with some ease.” He searched for programs that offered high-school credit and found Madhu Aggarwal’s classes.

Says Mihir, “I can now read and write fluently but am still working on grammar and fluency in speaking Hindi.” Since he skipped a level in his Hindi program, he gets to complete 3 years of language requirement that most UC’s look for in just 2 years.

Madhu Aggarwal hopes that the availability of Teacher Certification training in Hindi will open doors for other teachers interested in teaching Hindi at the high school level. The ultimate goal is to make Hindi seamlessly available in high schools across the country, and that can only happen if there are enough trained teachers available.

Her one-woman crusade has taken Hindi, India’s national language, from an exotic foreign phenomenon to mainstream education in the U.S. Perhaps one day we will have immersion classes in Hindi like the Mandarin ones in local elementary schools. As the Indian economy and market become more and more attractive to non-Indian businesses and visitors, Hindi might become a sought-after world language. A rich, complex, and inclusive language, it rewards students with a whole new perspective on a warm and welcoming culture. Bonus: You wouldn’t have to read the subtitles in Bollywood movies anymore!

Propositions on the Ballot on November 4, 2014

It’s that time of the year again. Yes, that time when we scratch our heads and say, “What, there’s an election again?” then blissfully ignore it till it’s time to complain about why government isn’t working!

If you’re in the 3% of voters who actually vote in midterm elections, more power to you. Here are the propositions on the ballot this year and how I will vote on them.

SUMMARY:                                                                                                                                   Proposition 1 – Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Act: VOTE YES                               Proposition 2 – Rainy Day Fund:  VOTE YES                                                                       Proposition 45 – Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act: VOTE YES Proposition 46 – Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Cap and Drug Testing of Doctors Initiative:  VOTE NO                                                                                                                                     Proposition 47 – Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative: VOTE YES               Proposition 48 – the Referendum on Indian Gaming Compacts: VOTE NO


Proposition 1 – Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Act: VOTE YES

Essentially, the drought has scared the government sick,(as it should you) and it is scrambling to catch up on spending some money to improve water conservation, storage and recycling systems. It would issue bonds for this purpose and use money from the General Fund to pay off the bonds. The way the money would be spent is as follows – watershed restoration ($1.5 billion), groundwater cleanup and monitoring ($900 million), water storage ($2.7 billion), flood management ($395 million), water recycling ($725 million) and stormwater capture ($200 million). (courtesy Mercury News). The two main points of opposition are that there is a lot of spending for watershed restoration that polluters should be on the hook for instead of taxpayers, and that a large percentage is kept for water storage, which means building new dams, which ecologists disapprove of.

While noting the opposition, I think we do need to spend some money of building efficient water systems so I am voting yes.

Proposition 2 – Rainy Day Fund:  VOTE YES

The measure creates a rainy day fund so that California budgets are not subject to the vagaries of economic swings. It requires annual transfer of 1.5% of general fund revenues to state budget stabilization account and additional transfer of personal capital gains tax revenues exceeding 8% of general fund revenues to budget stabilization account and, under certain conditions, a dedicated K–14 school reserve fund.

Governor Brown has been touting this as a savior to school budgets, but the fact is that the K-12 reserve fund only kicks in under very special circumstances. In addition, the measure caps the amount local school districts can hold in their reserves, which sounds really bad. But, my limited experience with the Fremont school district has led me to believe that school districts do tend to be ultra conservative with reserves, sometimes reducing teachers and increasing class sizes even when there was money on hand to keep going for a year or two, so I am not really bothered by this. The fact is that a decent rainy day fund makes complete sense.

Proposition 45 – Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act: VOTE YES

This measure would require changes to health insurance rates, or anything else affecting the charges associated with health insurance, to be approved by the California Insurance Commissioner before taking effect. The main opposition to this comes from health insurance companies (of course!) and the arguments are that it gives too much power to the Insurance Commissioner. Well, we do want some regulation of health rates. As the Mercury News argues, we have regulation of car insurance in California, and that works well, so why not regulation of health insurance rates as well? If the insurance commissioner takes decisions that benefit companies instead of consumers we just elect him/her out.

Proposition 46 – Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Cap and Drug Testing of Doctors Initiative: VOTE NO

This measure was developed after 2 children were killed by a driver under the influence of alcohol and abused prescription drugs. It would mandate random drug testing of doctors, and increase the cap on damages for medical malpractice from 200,000 to 1,000,000 dollars. It would also make doctors use a tracking system to make sure a patient is not getting multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors.

I am quite conflicted about this. I initially thought that the damages would make malpractice premiums go up and was opposed to the bill on those grounds, but turn out that the cap was set in the 1970s, and if it was pegged to inflation, it would be around $1.1 million by now so that’s fair enough. The use of the tracking system also makes sense. But the random drug testing of doctors begs the question, do we have that little faith in our doctors? Mine have been routinely competent and hard-working and I suspect most of you would feel the same way. There’s something really icky about subjecting doctors to that kind of treatment. I would have to vote no based on that. Why not write a clean bill just raising the malpractice damages to factor in inflation and fix the tracking of prescription drugs?

Proposition 47 – Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative: VOTE YES

Finally a no-brainer! This measure would reduce the punishment for non-serious, non-violent crimes form a felony to a misdemeanor. It would also permit re-sentencing for anyone currently serving a prison sentence for any of the offenses that the initiative reduces to misdemeanors, hopefully clearing our jails of people who don’t deserve to be there. There are adequate precautions for people who have been convicted of more serious crimes before.

Proposition 48 – the Referendum on Indian Gaming Compacts: VOTE NO

In 2005, a Native American tribe approached the governor to build a casino offsite from its tribal reservation. This was approved by the legislature by way of AB 277. This measure, Proposition 48, asks the public to ratify that compact. In short, if you vote yes, the approval will go ahead for a casino to be built outside the tribal reservation. If you vote no, it will not.

I guess which side you take depends on whether you like having lots of casinos in the state of California. If you think casinos are good (or harmless, at any rate), vote yes. If you believe this sets a dangerous precedent of tribes being allowed to build casinos outside of their reservation (which it does) and lots of new casinos are not a good thing, vote no. I know what I am picking.

A Sense of Despair

By Isheeta Sanghi

treeLast month, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the head of the Uttar Pradesh’s governing party, said he was opposed to a law calling for gang rapists to be executed. “Boys will be boys,” he said. “They make mistakes.””

Oh, you read it correctly. Boys will be boys he says. Whatever the hell that means. I swear sometimes I wonder if these people think before they speak. Actually, I wonder if they have daughters, if they have wives, if they have mothers. And God forbid if any of them were raped, murdered, and hung from a mango tree. Then would it be ok for boys to just be boys?

If you read the article below, you’ll see the USA Today reference where it’s reported that a rape takes place every 22 minutes in India. That’s three and a half rapes in the time of your standard lunch break. Think about that.

I know that it’s very easy for me to sit here in Silicon Valley and write about these things, and say change, change, change. But the thought depresses me that, even if I went there and tried to change things, chances are I wouldn’t be able to make a difference. I’d probably manage to make some TV show broadcast about how we feel for a month and then it would be on to the next hot political nonsense story.

So what can we do besides keeping writing about it, making the world more informed about it, and hoping and praying that one day Indian society will finally snap out of its mindset and realize that both men and women are equal?

I have such a love hate relationship with the country and its people. It’s a beautiful place, and the people are beautiful there – but dear God, some of them are also extremely ugly.

I also wonder if these politicians realize that when they make these bold statements, what they’re doing is endorsing rape. Because when you say “boys will be boys,” you’re pretty much telling all the young boys out there–if you eff up, if you rape a girl, it’s ok, I mean sh** happens. And you might get locked up for a bit, but when you get out of lock up you can do it again, don’t worry, you are still just being a boy, and we will again let you live.

This is the reality of the situation, the ridiculousness of the situation and the sadness of the situation. Again – I fully acknowledge that all I’m doing is writing about it and that if I really cared I would do something – but honestly what can I do? I’m not going to lie, I’ve thought about going and trying to make a difference and make a change, but I get scared off because I figure that not only will they try to squash my voice, they will most likely hurt me in the process.

This is a society that is so old, and so set in its ways and mindset that there’s nothing I could possibly do. It moves with the times – it has malls, it has metros, it has imported cars, but you know what? What lives in those malls, who shops in those metros and who sits in those imported cars? People who clearly have no hearts and no conscience.

IsheetaOriginally from the Bay Area, Isheeta went to India for her higher education.She studied and worked in Delhi and Bangalore, and now works at a tech company in the Silicon Valley (surprise surprise!) Though she would love to write regularly, most of her entries are left incomplete – she’s working on it though!


Propositions, Measures, and Candidates on the Ballot on June 3, 2014

VoteYes, there is an election this Tuesday. Yes, I know many of you are finding out about this right now. But please, please, use this quick primer and show up at your polling place on Tuesday. Because far fewer people participate in primaries, a lot of extremist stuff gets credence and support.

Come on, you can do this. You’ll find no lines at all at your local polling booth and in just 15 minutes you’ll get a glow of having done your civic duty that will last till at least the midterms in November. Plus, you can start every conversation till November with the words “Did you vote on June 3” knowing that at least 70-80% of the time you be rewarded with a blank look on the listener’s face and a really superior feeling inside you.

I’m making it easy for you, so what’s your excuse?

Proposition 41 – Vote YES. Prop. 41, the Veterans Housing and Homeless Prevention Act of 2014, redirects $600 million of previously approved, un-issued bond funds to construct and rehabilitate housing for California’s large population of homeless veterans. Basically the permission to hold a bond issue had already been approved for a different program known as CAlVet Home and Farm Loan program that provides low cost loans to vets. Turns out there’s not much demand for that, so the State wants to redirect the approval to provide actual housing. I’m all for it, both for ethical and economic reasons. Getting homeless vets off the streets is a good thing, any way you look at it.

Proposition 42 – Vote YES. This one is tricky. So far local governments have been reimbursed by the California State government for the costs of making public records accessible and transparent. In a rather sneaky move, the State government decided to cut the funds for public information access, thus making local compliance “optional.” (Local governments could always argue that they didn’t have the funds because the state cut off the supply.)

This proposition moves the burden of funding access for to public records from State governments to local governments. Now the Fremont city government will have to pay for any costs associated with giving the public access to Fremont records, which makes logical sense. Also, the wording in this proposition makes it harder for local governments not to give the public access to information, which is an even better thing.

Measure E (Fremont)- Vote YES. This measure approves of a $650 million bond measure to build and improve schools in Fremont. If you are a Fremont resident , this is a no-brainer. Fremont schools are running at capacity (bulging at the seams, really) and they are all in pretty bad condition. I should know since, between my two kids, I’ve been a school parent for 12 years. With the new construction popping up in the Patterson Ranch area and the proposed development of the hub (and the BART expansion) Fremont is a very desirable destination for young professionals with little kids who are going to need a quality education. So go and vote for your interests here.

There are a few important positions also being contested in these primaries. I will not be voting for the Board of Equalization positions because, frankly, I have no idea what a Board of Equalization does. I suppose that makes me a bad citizen but I’ve tried to learn, I really have. Put it down to early-onset memory loss. But there are some other interesting races.

jerry brownGovernor – Jerry Brown. Jerry Brown’s main opponent is Neil Kashkari, and Indian American Republican who was the architect of the TARP program that bailed out banks at the peak of the financial crisis of 2008. He hews to the party platform, asking for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, reducing government regulations, and reducing labor influence in business. He also opposes Obamacare, the Affordable Health care Act. ‘Nuff said.

Ro KhannaRepresentative for District 17 – Ro Khanna. (Hard to think of the word “District” without conjuring up images from the Hunger Games!) I have to admit I am a wee bit biased towards Khanna because I happened to meet him while writing a review of his book “Entrepreneurial Nation.” The book is upbeat and offers some solutions to America’s big problem of losing manufacturing to cheaper countries like China. Khanna’s experience as Deputy undersecretary of Commerce in the Obama Administration gives him some insight into the way Washington works, though it is hard to beat the experience of his main opponent Mike Honda, who has served 7 terms in office. Honda has been a reliable party vote. What makes me tilt towards Khanna is the lack of initiative on Honda’s part; he did not get any bills passed despite building an incredible amount of goodwill in office.

downloadSwalwellRepresentative for District 15 – Eric Swalwell. Turns out, after the recent round of redistricting, my house falls under this district. (Go to to see where your address belongs.) Swalwell is a relative newcomer who has the Philippines Charitable Giving Act to his credit so far. He is a reliable Democrat, supporting additional funds for education and less for defense, and stimulus for renewable energy jobs. In the two years he has been around (yes, two…isn’t it ridiculous that Congress Reps have to fight an election every two years? When do they have the time to do their job?) he has been good about reaching out to his constituents and giving the public every opportunity to engage with him through phone conferences and town halls. His main opponent is Ellen Corbett, a very respected State Senator taking the plunge into national politics, but since this is an open primary, the two are likely to fight it out in November again.

So there you go. If you live in a different district you will have to do your homework or just vote for the party of your choice, but do make the effort.

See you at the polls.



Kids and Art Foundation – Going Strong

kids & art workshopFive years ago, I had written about the non-profit Kids & Art on this blog. I recall being moved and inspired by this organization that helps kids fighting cancer find a few moments of joy and normalcy in their stressful lives.

Then life intruded and Kids & Art receded to the back of my mind till this year when I was looking for an opportunity for my daughter Lori to give back. She has been dealing with the normal trials and tribulations of a pre-teen and I thought it would be good for her to focus on the bravery and courage of others who were less fortunate. With her interest in art, volunteering at a Kids & Art workshop seemed to be a good fit.

On Sunday, May 4, 2014, we set out for the Lick Wilderming, a college-prep high school with a strong arts foundation. The school is set in a fairly nondescript part of San Francisco and looks quite unassuming from the outside but, enter its doors and you are transported to an airy, cantilevered campus that appears to float above its surroundings.

The visual art room, where the Kids & Art workshop was being held, is a long, wonderfully messy room filled with light and art supplies. On this Sunday afternoon, the room was bustling with kids and their families, artists, and volunteers from the Lick Wilderming freshman class.

I met Purvi Shah, the founder of Kids & Art. Her younger son Amaey’s fight with leukemia was the inspiration for K&A. Sadly, Amaey passed away in 2011 at the age of 9, but the flourishing Kids & Art program is the testament to a mother’s love, determination, and desire to honor her son.

In the last five years, Kids & Art has come a long way. Its original mission was to provide a place for kids with cancer to meet and enjoy creating art without the shadow of their illness in the room for a few hours. Today the participants in the workshops include the care circles of the kids—siblings, family, friends—as well as children whose parents have been affected by the disease.

“We have also included kids in hospice care,” says Purvi. “An artist usually visits them at home and the two work on a piece together.” In addition, Kids & Art has reached out to kids in hospitals like Stanford Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Permanente in San Jose, UCSF children’s hospital in San Francisco, and the California Pacific Medical Center.

The workshops are held on the first Sunday of every month and have been held in prestigious locations like Google and Pixar. “Nearly 150 people showed up for the workshop held at Google,” says Purvi.

Getting professional artists to volunteer for the workshops has been one of the bigger achievements of the organization. The roster of artists, once about 15, has grown to about 50-60 and features professionals like Roque (“call me Rocky”) Ballesteros, co-founder of animation company Ghostbot.

“I learnt about Kids & Art from a friend who was involved with the organization,” says Roque. He started volunteering at the Pixar workshop. “I was very nervous the first time,” recalls Roque. “The kids are going through so much and I wasn’t sure what to say and how to say it. But I realized very quickly that these kids, no matter what they are dealing with, are just kids and will let you know exactly how they feel about your art, what they like and dislike. It doesn’t matter what kind of artist you think you are!”

For Roque, volunteering at Kids & Art workshops is also a way of getting back to his first love – painting. “When you are creating art digitally, you always have a way to go back and fix your mistakes. But when you are painting on canvas or a piece of wood, it is like wrestling with the medium. Just picking up a paintbrush, dipping it in paint and applying it – [the process] improves my skills.”

Roque has roped in several of his fellow artists to come and help out with the program. In this particular workshop he helped my daughter and another child develop their individual pieces. While they hesitantly began creating their own superhero characters, he created Doctor Baby, a Pepto-Bismol pink villain too cute to be evil!

I asked Purvi how these workshops were funded. Some of the funding is from grants, but the primary source of funding is from auctioning off the children’s art. “We also license the art to corporates for use in their office spaces,” says Purvi.

An innovative idea that is in play is using the children’s art as backdrops for corporate kids and art dental cardcommunication. Tanya Manyak, a dentist with a practice in San Mateo, uses Kids & Art work in the reminder cards patients fill out after appointments. Says Tanya, “When we send out the reminder cards, we always get questions about the organization. ‘What’s on this card?’ Who created it?’ That gives us an opportunity to talk about Kids & Art.” She so strongly believes in the value of incorporating this art in her business practices that she has presented the idea to her dentist study groups. “We now have dentists from Alabama and Virginia interested in licensing our art,” says Purvi.

Kids & Art also receives donations in honor of loved ones. Future plans for Kids & Art include music, yoga, and meditation workshops.

If you are interested in licensing art from the workshops, becoming a corporate partner, volunteering, or supporting Kids & Art with your donations, click here. The new season for the Kids & Art workshops begins in July, so look for a list of the upcoming workshops here.

Kids & Art is also one of the causes being supported by the Sevathon event on June 22, 2014. To adopt it as your cause for the Sevathon Walk/Run/Sun Salutations, click here.

To learn more about the organization, do attend the upcoming exhibition and benefit on June 1, 2014. This event is to celebrate the amazing artists who participate in and support the art workshops and to thank them for their continuous generosity because, as Purvi says, “Without our artists there would be no art for our kids.”







Cui Bono?

I have an app called Ghostery on my computer. Fed up with an insane numberGhostery of pop-up ads ruining my reading and surfing experience, I installed the little extension that is supposed to block not just ads but also trackers – code from companies that are trying to learn more about you from your online habits. It usually runs quietly in the background but occasionally Ghostery will behave a trifle overzealously, blocking legitimate content on a site because the underlying code is structured like a pop up.

On these occasions the only thing to do is to pause blocking. When you do that Ghostery spits out a list of everything that’s running in the background, as if to say, “Do you really want to do this? Because here’s everyone who’s watching you right now.” It’s an effective tactic because it is pretty scary when you realize that at any point of time you are on the web, you are being tracked by at least a dozen or more companies, with names like Certona and Monotate and Bazaarvoice. And the longer you stay on a site, the longer the list grows.
To a web marketer this is probably routine, but to a lay user like me the level of intrusion is a revelation. These trackers are labelled under categories like “widgets” and “beacons” and “analytics” tools. Some are even honest about their purpose, calling themselves “advertising.” By far the most intrusive are the web beacons, also known as web bugs, which track your movement across sites. These are the little crawlers that ensure that a recent search for “women’s camel hair coat” follows you from site to site, making targeted ads for similar apparel pop up on every future site you visit. Wondering why you are seeing an ad for diet pills on Facebook? You probably visited a health food site or read an article on losing weight.

Tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg have been in the news recently for asking the NSA to cease spying on American citizens. The level of hypocrisy is breathtaking because anyone who is on the web to make money is doing exactly what the NSA is accused of. Companies like Facebook and Google have a pretty deep profile on each of their users. At the moment the information is probably used only in aggregate but it is just a step away from being individualized if needed.

You might argue that we bring it upon ourselves by posting every detail of our lives on social media, from where we eat to where we shop to where we give. But the mining for our personal data is everywhere, not just on social media. You can choose never to post on Facebook and still there will be companies on the web who know a lot more about you than you would care to reveal. The above mentioned Certona “delivers the most personalized customer experiences tailored to each individual using continuous behavioral profiling and predictive technology, resulting in increased engagement and conversions.” You can be sure this “behavior profiling” is not coming from social media. I once took a survey a few years ago that claimed to be able to tell me who I was from my surfing habits. Given my heavy emphasis on political blogs and sports, it concluded I was a middle-aged man. Okay, it wasn’t very accurate but the tracking technology has improved significantly in the last few years.

You might also argue that it has always been in this way. The endangered newspaper survived these many years because of the advertising it sold. Once the web promised better targeting, its days became numbered. But this level of tracking feels uncomfortable, like being a “Big Brother” participant every moment of my life.

What annoys me the most is that I am not sure how useful all the data mining is to the miner. Consider this example: Based on my search terms on its site, apparel company Land’s End now knows that I am in the market for a winter jacket. It aggressively bombards me with pictures of and sales information on the jackets everywhere I go next, whether it is a social media site or news feed. Does this make me more likely to buy one of the advertised items? Not unless you believe nagging is the best way to get someone to do something. It’s like shopping in a store that is entirely made up of checkout lanes with their impulse-buy positioning.

The reason that this saturation approach has worked so far for internet marketers is because it is a numbers game. Because the internet offers access to such a large global audience, even a small percentage of conversions can make the company money. These are customers who would not have been accessible in the pre-internet days or accessible at a prohibitive cost. It’s not unlike the Nigerian emails begging for money. The scammer sends out the email to 100 million people. All he/she needs is .1% to fall for it. The same goes for internet advertisers. The remaining 99.9% of us, who tear our hair out at the dating, weight-loss, and shoe ads that follow us around, are expendable.

Resistance by way of blockers is futile because programmers (probably coding away in an erstwhile Soviet Socialist Republic) simply create new apps to override the old. Pop-up blockers have led to pop-over ads, which are not as delicious as they sound. The biggest deterrent to effective ad blocking are the publishers themselves, because their (net) worth is judged by how many viewers and clickers they can snag in their net. Let’s face it, we may delude ourselves into thinking that we are the shoppers, but we are actually the product.

Still, the popularity of anti-trackers like Ghostery and Do Not Track Plus are a sign that the bacon is fighting back. Ghostery recently got a bump from master leaker and privacy advocate Edward Snowden himself. Facebook has woken up to the barrage of ads its users experience and is quietly trying to control the flow. Eventually users will get desensitized to the ads swirling around them and make them ineffective. The worry is who will survive the war to get online viewership. We’ve already seen the demise of traditional media and brick and mortar stores. We’ve seen the rise of a few monopolistic online giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google. As individual users, as human beings, we have ceded more and more power to entities that manipulate and control us. When the war is over, will we be the prize or the collateral damage?

Brand Modi

By Geeta Padmanabhan

NamoHe is stylish, he is spicy, he is sweet, he is explosive. Choose a non-controversial product, attach his face, add the brilliantly-coined acronym NaMo, and you have a best-seller. Brand Modi sells – anything from clothes, snacks, tea, explosive firecrackers to the idea of India.

Some attribute it to the business acumen of the Gujarati, others point to the unquestionable charisma of the man, but brand-merchandising has closely accompanied Narendra Modi’s rise in the national scene. With state elections a few weeks ahead and national elections just months away, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is also the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate is on a brand projectile.

The first to appear were the ones you would see in the US election conventions: Modi masks, pins, bands, caps, T-shirts – in one early rally an entire section of the audience was made of Modi faces – a startling sight! Soon BJP supporters saw the business opportunity in his growing popularity. The obvious product was the Modi kurta – the knee-length top worn over leggings – customized and popularized by the man himself. With a close collar, short sleeves and earth colors it was already a “moving” item. All it needed was international exposure.

A boutique in Ahmedabad has registered a trademark for these “half-sleeve kurtas”. “We’re trying for an international trademark for the brand,” said its owner. A report in the Indian Express said at least 30,000 made-in-Surat kurtas carrying embroidered “NaMoMantra” were sold at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on the October 27 Hunkar rally, addressed by Modi. A NaMo store opened in an upmarket mall in Ahmedabad to sell NaMoMantra apparel, books and other merchandise. Modi Lion, named after the Hunkar (roar) rally, will soon reach the children’s section of super markets. “Even his most ardent fans could not have foreseen this transformation – from Loha Purush to cuddly toy,” wrote Firstpost Editor Sandip Roy.

The Patna rally also saw the mushrooming of those humble tea-stalls that dot India’s roads, street-corners and railway stations. Unsurprisingly called Modi Tea-Stalls, they were dual-purpose. The kiosks made sure tea was available to rallyists all day while reminding them of the great man’s humble origins as a vendor at a railway tea-stall. A killer branding idea!

Diwali of course brought a multitude of options for value addition. Boxes of firecrackers (labelled Modi Brand) wrapped in Modi’s photograph sold the most, outdoing cheaper imports from China. One shop-owner cracked: “We have Chinese items as well as the ones with photos of actors. Right now, “Modi Brand” is the most popular and is explosive in Rajkot. “Explosive like Modi” was the underlying sentiment, agreed the buyers. In the US, the boxes went for $16/- . The firecracker business, reported India Today, was worth $8 million in Rajkot alone.

Can Modi snacks be far behind? NDTV ran a story of how “Modi magic” spiced up this year’s Diwali in the US. Rajbhog Sweets, which celebrated Modi’s elevation as Chief Minister of Gujarat for a third consecutive term by gifting each customer with 11 pedas (one for each year), decided to go “namkeen” on the run up to the 2014 general elections. According to the news channel, Arvind Patel, Rajbhog Sweets, Newark Avenue, Jersey City said, “A few of us were chatting one afternoon when the idea of ‘Modi Magic’ came about. We give it out for free at BJP events and festivals here in the US, and aim to distribute 10 lakh packets till the elections.”

Each packet of  spicy mix labelled “Modi Magic” sells at 45 cents, but 10 lakh packets will be given away free, said Mr Patel, adding he was ready to do much more. The mix was a hit with the customers, probably Modi fans. “This is the first time I have seen an Indian politician branded like this, his magic is working not only in India but the whole world,” said one. Mr. Patel would have happily sent the sales proceeds to the BJP election campaign, but laws don’t permit supporters in the US to donate directly to political parties in India. So after spreading the Modi message on foreign shores, Mr. Patel has traveled to India to campaign for the BJP.

The virtual world has embraced him. While Modi social-networks constantly, tweeting, face-booking and blogging on the go, his fans have made a video game and composed a Namo Youth Anthem that goes, “A powerful orator will now become the nation’s curator. His persona is athletic, his charisma magnetic. Who’s gonna mar ’em? NaMo. NaMo. Who’s gonna scar ’em? NaMo, Namo.”

Merchandising politics isn’t new to India. Gandhi topi, Nehru galaband, I Am Anna cap, Mamata sari and paintings, Mulayam pehalwan doll, yojnas (schemes) and streets named after leaders are all part of this branding culture. But Modi-branding is much larger in scale and scope. It is market-savvy, and thanks to supporters’ unrelenting efforts, has gone global. In is case, Modi’s the brand, and his supporters know how to sell him.

“Brand Modi becomes an act of reflection with the multiplying effect of a hall of mirrors,” said Firstpost editor Sandip Roy. “As Modi stands at the rally, beaming, waving to the crowd, the jubilant crowd gazes back at him draped in NaMo paraphernalia… Our feverish passion for politics and our insatiable hunger for brands have finally come together in common churn. And Narendra Modi has emerged from that manthan (churn) as an entity than can both sell and be sold.”

As in everything political in India, Modi branding is not without its comic consequences. To their utter dismay, BJP’s election supervisors have found that people in many parts of the hinterlands who have pledged to vote for Modi (Modi ko vote denge) are clueless about the party symbol. Brand Modi now outshines brand BJP! The lotus (party symbol) has been blown away by the Modi storm, said a commentator. Ironically, the party might lose the votes of those who support Modi! Party heads are no doubt at the drawing board figuring out how to bring the lotus back into the picture. Any ideas?