Category Archives: Uncategorized

I'm moving!

First of all, a big thanks to all the people who have been reading me here. You guys rock!

Secondly, as some of you know, I have a full time blog called Water, No Ice that is an online magazine for Indian Americans. We recently went with a new theme( sort of equivalent to the urge to move the furniture around the house every couple of years or so) and there is room for my personal articles the way it is laid out now.

I’ve been writing there under the category called “Blog”. I would urge all you subscribers to move over to Water, No Ice and join there. Eventually we’ll move all the articles here to that section.

If you don’t want all the WNI posts and just want the “Blog” posts, I believe there is a way to subscribe only to this particular category. Try it out and let me have your feedback.

Once again, thanks for your support and hope to see you over at WNI.

Ann Killion's journalism is hard to believe

Anyone who has been through the wringer of the longest Democratic primary in US election history has come away with one undeniable learning – the blatant irresponsibility of the media. Using the crutches of “They say” and “Polls show” (“they” and “polls” being the anonymous aggregate of our fears and prejudices) the American mainstream media perpetrated and encouraged the most egregious misogyny, fanned the flames of racism and demonstrated the kind of bias one usually experiences in countries under the yoke of dictatorships.

But when a sports column demonstrates the same kind of feckless reporting, it makes one sit up and take notice. Ann Killion’s article in the San Jose Mercuty News today administers the shock right at the headline – “Swimmer Torres’ achievement hard to believe.

Now Dara Torres, who qualified for the Olympic team last week at age 41, is no stranger to headlines. She made news 8 years ago when she had a comeback of sorts at age 33 after a seven year hiatus. Both times, she overcame competitors young enough to be her daughters. Even then, there were hazy rumors about her suddenly improved performance. Yes, her achievement is extraordinary. Yes, it does make you wonder. But to take your doubt and turn it into an article that completely relies on innuendo to support its argument is really poor journalism.

We’re all more skeptical, but we’re also smarter. We know better than to bite when someone points to their amazing training regimen as evidence that they are purely the product of hard work. We know that doping allows those kind of grueling training regimens. We know that money can buy not only enhanced training, but also pre-test testing and all sorts of edges and nuances. We know that a little storefront in Burlingame can’t be the only place in the United States that was ever peddling undetectable substances…..

The first exposure many Americans had to Olympic doping scandals were freakish female East German swimmers whose performances seemed too good to be true. And they were. We used to think it was just “them.” But the past few years have taught us the hard truth: American athletes are just as suspect.

Dara Torres is an Olympian again.

Incredible. Unbelievable. Exactly.

All Ms. Killion has to offer is the fact that East German athletes, once thought to be almost racially superior because of their Olympic prowess, were finally caught abusing performance enhancing drugs. Ergo, goes the logic, there is something fishy about Ms. Torres’ achievement as well. Once you eliminate the impossible, as Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying, what is left, however improbable, is the truth.

I see the attraction in posting an article of this sort. There is no downside. If Ms. Torres, who has asked for the most stringent doping tests in a bid to clear the smoke, does turn out to be a user, Ms. Killion would have been proved right. And if she doesn’t, well, Ms. Killion has cleverly covered herself by mentioning that tests today are by no means foolproof.

Why would a respected journalist put out a piece that is pure smear? Two explanations come to mind. One is that there is a real fire behind the smoke that Ms. Killion has generated, except there is no way of mentioning her sources. And this is the charitable explanation. The other is that the entire article is founded on a personal belief that women beyond a certain age are simply not capable of the kind of strength and stamina that gave Ms. Torres a berth on the Olympic team. ( The third, more mercenary explanation, is that of sensationalism, but I am going to give Ms. Killion the benefit of the doubt here.)

I hope, for Ms. Killion’s sake, that it is the first explanation that is true and her argument substantiated with facts in the near future. Even so, she has just downgraded herself to tabloid journalism and diminished the reputation of the paper she works for. A wet noodle goes to the sports editor as well, for letting this article through.

As for Ms. Torres, I wish her well. As a 41 year old myself, I would like nothing more than to believe that us middle-aged mamas are capable of just about anything. I am going to wait for the results of the test, hope for the best and then cheer myself hoarse when she competes.

The one lakh car – A case for despair or optimism?

Tata’s new 1 lakh rupee( $2500) car made enough of a splash to be written about in the San Jose Mercury News( either a testament to the Tata media machine or the growing India sensitivity of the newspaper). Having just returned from a hectic trip to India, I thought I should put in my 2 bits on the subject.

I visited 3 cities in my 3 weeks in India and it can be fairly said I spent most of my time gazing out the window as the car I was in slowly inched its way to its destination. The pace of life turned languid as maybe one or two things from a long checklist got accomplished, if at all. For someone who is in India purely as a tourist who wants to sightsee and shop, it is a jolting reminder to stop and smell the exhaust. The traffic situation in India is so extreme that it is a miracle that anyone wants to add a car to the whole smoggy mess.

Will the cheap car just make things worse?

If the cars are just incremental to the existing overcrowding of the streets, I foresee a day when it will take the same time to travel from the US to India as it does to travel from any major metropolitan airport to your home there! Already many car owners are ceding the stress to hired drivers and the driver-for-rent business is just booming in Chennai. Added pollution will drive up asthma attacks and road rage will migrate from the volatile north to the rest of the country.

But my New Year’s resolution having been to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses, I’d like to take a stab at an optimistic  POV. Say the car, instead of being an add-on is actually going to replace some of the 2 wheelers on the road. This may add to the gas consumption and pollution overall, it might actually improve the state of traffic. Improving traffic by adding of larger vehicles to the mix may soun counter-intuitive, but my brief look at traffic patterns suggests that 2-wheelers are a real menace to society. Unconstrained by size issues, they duck and weave through traffic, making it impossible to maintain lanes, give any wedge room for manouevering and making it very hard for car drivers to follow the road rules( where there are any, of course). Chennai roads were in a state of permanent gridlock thanks to the antics of these motorists with the typical Indian attitude of “If I let you have an inch of space, more fool me”. Whereas in South Bombay, where there are much fewer types of vehicles on the roads, the traffic kept moving , even though there were many more cars than in Chennai.

My optimism may be unwarranted and the Indian government and populace has not shown any particular signs of being traffic-friendly or rule0respecting, but there’s one thing the Tata’s can do that can mitigate the environmental impact of their new product- have easy conversion to CNG or LPG modes of fuel consumption. In every city I visited, air pollution levels are significantly down because taxis and autos have converted to one of the above fuels and if people do have to spend  an extra hour in traffic because so many more of them can now own a car, at least they can do it with relatively less impact on their physical health. Now about their mental health, bhai Tata hi jaane.

The declining value of memory

While I’ve always sucked at connecting names and faces and the past is just a blurry haze, I’ve always prided myself on remembering long strings of numbers, like credit cards, library membership numbers and a rolodex worth of phone numbers. I was my husband’s Blackberry before the Blackberry was created. “What’s that Delhi number again?” he would yell from upstairs for the biweekly call home.

Now my one remaining skill is also becoming redundant. A new free program called Roboform saves the password and login at every site I visit and chose to subscribe to. Not only do I not have to remember my user name and password, I can also choose to forget my name, address and phone number, secure in the knowledge that Roboform has my back. All that is required of me is remembering one master password and should I choose to tattoo it on a less visible part of my anatomy, I am all done.

Over the years, we have slowly been outsourcing our memories. Where once our Brahminical traditions required us to memorize lines and lines of verse and pass on our culture through story-telling from grandparent to grandchild, we now rely on the digital world to be our brains. All contact info is stored and backed up on the computer. Directions to places need no longer be imprinted on gooey gray matter; a GPS will take you where you want to go. My most repeated sentence these days to my children is “Look it up” as pages and pages of forgotten history, geography and science lessons are now available at the touch of a wiki-button.

This devaluation of memory is happening early these days. In school, where once we memorized ‘Daffodils’ and ‘Abu Ben Adam’( I still remember most of those poems and plenty of Kabir dohas), kids have access to online information and no longer need to memorize poetry, prose or math tables. Like a private in an army, all that is required of them is name, address and phone number. Pretty soon, the cell phones every kid seems to be carrying around these days will do even that job for them.

I wonder what is happening to all the memory cells of the brain that are now in disuse. As it is we were only using about 10% of our brains at any given time; now technology invites us to let those few cells go too. Are we simply turning into hosts for our machines? What we consider a symbiotic relationship today is slowly turning us into helpless creatures that would be lost without their PDAs ,PCs, GPSs and other similar electronic acronyms.

A company called Memory Lane offers people with memory loss a chance to recreate their memories in the form of videos, CDs and books and use them to reminisce. It is meant for the extremely aged and those suffering from Alzheimer’s but I suspect I will soon join the ranks of those signing up for the product to keep my memory offline. That is, if I can remember to.

My love affair with a Highlander

They say a man’s home is his castle, but in the sleepy suburbs of America, that honor is reserved for his car.

My first car was a cheap but perky little Mazda Protégé in which, unencumbered by kids and safety issues, I zipped up and down I-680 at 100 miles an hour. That car reflected our lives at the time – simple, easy to maintain and without any frills – a perfect complement to our bare-bones apartment living, when any purchases over 20 dollars had to be approved by the spouse.

Alas. Having kids forces us to grow up and I soon had to graduate to a Ford Explorer – not perhaps the safest choice while traveling with infants – but the horror of being a minivan mom was just too ghastly to be borne. The SUV fit our need for space, having only one kid at the time, and the height made it convenient to load and unload diaper bags, car seats, strollers, grandparents… On solo trips I would test the turning radius and the flip-over tendencies of the vehicle, having consulted the lifeline on my palm on the riskiness of the venture.

Car ownership reached a nadir with the birth of the second child when we succumbed to the lush gluttony of the Honda Odyssey, a small house on wheels. Tricked out with a 6-disc CD changer, a back seat DVD player and a girth that allowed unfettered access to every seat , all it needed was a bathroom to call it home. In fact, most days, it was home, with nooks and crannies filled with food, drink, movies and books. When we parked in the garage, the kids would be reluctant to come out till nature called.

A tendency towards serial monogamy, unfortunately having to be sublimated in personal life, was allowed free rein as I ditched the motherly Odyssey for my latest car, the Toyota Highlander. With interiors designed along the lines of the stylish Lexus, the compact SUV is a joy to drive. All the bells and whistles are positioned perfectly inside; creating a synergy between car and driver that makes it a pleasure to haul the kids to soccer, TT, dance and piano. So it gets 20 miles to the gallon. Nobody’s perfect.

Blackberries and Bluetooth have made workstations out of our 4 wheelers. But there is another reason why we Americans love our cars. An SC Johnson Parent Taxi Survey found that 90% of parents spent 20 hours a week or more with their kids in the car. This kind of quality time with the kids is priceless. On trips to school and activities, my kids have been a captive audience as I question them about their studies, social interactions, fears and worries. I have discussions of philosophy with my son, explain morality to my daughter, eavesdrop as they bridge the 6 year gap between them with silly conversations. On the rare occasions when I am alone, I play my favorite music to relax  or educate myself with public radio. Car time can also be for catching up on reading with audio books and learning a foreign language through tapes.

The love affair we have with our cars would not be possible without the network of roads that borders on the magical to anyone arriving from India. In such calm seas, we are pilots of our little ships, in control of a small part of our day and our lives.

Women and Power

It’s bad enough that women have to work twice as hard as men. As the Red Queen tells Alice, “You have to run twice as hard to stay in the same place.” We also have to prove that while competing in a world that is already skewed against us, we have not lost our ‘femininity’. A headline in rediff.com today trumpets, ‘Indra Nooyi is first a mother, then a CEO’. My first reaction was outrage. Can you envision a headline that goes, ‘Donald Trump – first a dad then a pompous windbag tycoon’?

Poor Hillary Clinton is getting the same sort of media slant here in the US. Portrayed as cold, calculating, manipulative and aggressive, qualities that in a man would almost automatically make him eligible for power, she has had to dumb down her vocabulary, make her campaign pitch from her living room sofa and, in an attempt to soften her image, laugh inappropriately at various talk shows. “I may be a b****,” she seems to be saying, “but the operative word is ‘female’.”

The cultural contradiction between power and femininity is quite pronounced in the US and it seems even more jarring given that the feminist movement had such strong underpinnings in this country. Perhaps the mistake early feminists made was in burning their bras. In other countries where women have had an easier time reaching the pinnacles of power, they have done so by using their feminine roles as a tool to navigate the treacherous and sensitive realm of politics. Indira Gandhi portrayed herself as the ‘Mother’ of her country and Benazir Bhutto calls herself the ‘Sister’ to her people.

In some way, the assumption of these roles makes the strong women appear less threatening, not just to men but sadly, to their fellow women. Our cultural leanings make us more comfortable with female success if it couched in gender stereotypes. (In an interesting twist, Hilary Sips postulated in a presentation made in 1999 that too much femininity was as disruptive to the positive identification with power. The example she gave was of Canadian politician Kim Campbell who was photographed with bare shoulders – a case where the femininity completely negated the impression of power. Here too, we have seen the brouhaha caused when Senator Clinton ‘dared’ to show a hint of cleavage.)

So perhaps it is understandable that women in power take care to make their nurturing, maternal, gender specific qualities publicly visible. Hey, if that’s what it takes – we’re already coping with glass ceilings, unequal pays, double duty at work and home – if the way to get ahead is by being coy and soft and non-threatening, well, then, it’s what we’ve got to do.

The Internet and intolerance – 2

Just found out about a site called rottenneighbor.com where you can go and vent about your unhappy experiences with your neighbors. It is a fairly new site, launched in July this year. Using a version of GoogleMaps, the site allows you to explore your neighborhood and comment on it.

I, of course, was curious to find out if there were any comments about the last raucous party we had in the backyard, complete with fireworks. At first glance my zip code entry seemed to bring up a whole bunch of flames, but a drill down reassured me there were no comments pertaining to my area.

Started by a disgruntled neighbor, the site is yet another example of the incivility propagated by the internet. Stuff we wouldn’t dare to take up in person can now be spewed in anonymity. Is it fear that stops us from approaching our neighbors and sorting out our problems amicably? Or is it the fact that we have forgotten the art of civil discourse? I know this is a pet theme of mine, but I really feel that the internet has allowed us to be ultra selective about our friends and acquaintances and choosing them virtually, thus eliminating the need for adjusting and getting along in our real life encounters.

Maybe the site is just a forum to vent when someone feels powerless to tackle the problem and unable to move out of his unpleasant environment. But given how responsive city officials are to a genuine problem, I would put the mouthing off down to sheer laziness. Too loud music being played? Dogs barking day and night? Suspicious activity in the neighborhood? Just approach the relevant people in the city office and chances are something will be done. In my own neighborhood, we had one house which was a possible Section 8 and certainly looked over-occupied. What ticked off the residents was that there would be pickup trucks barreling down the road at ungodly hours and needles and vials were found on common property. When talking to the occupants didn’t work, the neighbors took a signed petition to the city. I was involved only peripherally , but to my surprise, the house is no longer a problem.

Would the fear of being reported on the site spur good behavior? I suspect people who care about what their neighbors think are not going to indulge in antisocial activities in the first place. So the commenters on rottenneighbor forcibly bring to mind a Hindi saying involving axes and feet. Why would you choose to devalue your neighborhood, especially since the information is public and can be viewed by realtors and house hunters? At least in the spirit of self-interest, try to solve your issues with your neighbors before you impulsively vent your spleen. Tempting though it may be, indulging in that kind of good old-fashioned bitchiness makes you as bad a neighbor as the one you’re complaining about.

The Chak De effect

August 10, 2007 – Chak De India releases.

August 29,2007 – India win the ONGC Nehru Cup football tournament in New Delhi.

September 8, 2007 – Indian pugilists win 2 golds at the World Cadet Boxing Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan.

September 9, 2007 – India win Asia Cup Hockey final

September 14, 2007 – Pankaj Advani wins the IBSF World Billiards title in the time format.

September 22, 2007 – Vishwanathan Anand maintains half-point lead in the World Chess Championship in Mexico.

September 24, 2007 – India wins Twenty20 Cricket tournament at Johannesburg, South Africa.

Chak De India!!

Letter to DirectTV/Dish Network

Dear satellite TV providers,

First of all – CONGRATULATIONS! to India. What a nail biting finish.

Of course, thanks to your dumb policies, I had to listen to a live audio from the folks at theindicast.com( thanks guys, it was a lot of fun! I’ll be sure to donate.)

As India made their inspiring and unexpected way to the finals of the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup, satellite subscribers like me scrambled to find out if there was some way to get a live broadcast of the finals at a reasonable price. But thanks to the stranglehold WillowTV and the satellite companies have on the telecast rights, the only way I could do it was to subscribe to the entire package for $99.

Now I would love to watch as much Indian cricket as possible, but there is no way my thrifty Indian brain is going to process paying a 100 bucks for a single match. I am sure many of my countrymen feel the same way and would rather look for a bootleg telecast on the internet risking serious viral harm to their computers rather than shell out big bucks in the face of the Indian cricket team’s erratic form

Here’s what I suggest to the marketing geniuses at these companies – unbundle your services and offer each match on a pay-per-view basis. You can even institute a sliding scale – say $10 for the earlier matches and up to $25 for the semifinals and finals. Heck, even if you had priced each match at $20, you would have picked up so many fence sitters like me who would have paid to watch their own country play.

It’s just marketing 101. By targeting only the die-hard fans who can afford your exorbitant fees, you are cutting out a bulk of the market. Take a lesson from the FMCG companies who sell little shampoo sachets for Rs. 2 at the corner kirana. They understand the Indian mentality. It’s about time you figured it out too.

Sincerely,

Vidya Pradhan

The attraction of religion

Possibly as a result of the evangelist bent of the current administration in the US, there has recently been a rash of atheist manifestos debunking the existence of God and the necessity for religion. There’s Christopher Hitchens’ vitriolic ‘God is not Great’, Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and a host of other treatises from atheists like Sam Harris and Victor Mills, fed up with the crimes committed by man which appear to have some sort of religious sanction or religious provocation.

To a questioning mind, the existence of God has to be, at the very least, a matter of doubt. As a Hindu, I have been lucky to be part of a religion that is, to put it mildly, rather loosey-goosey. There is room for every intellect, from the slavish, ritualistic devotion to a particular deity to the spiritually evolved Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. The framework of Hinduism has perfectly suited my intrinsically skeptical mindset, so I was thrown into confusion when confronted with the need for belief in my 11 year old son.

Like Nachiketa in the Upanishads, my son has lately been obsessed with the after-life – specifically, what happens to us after we die. Being no Yama (except when it comes to homework and bedtime curfews!) I scrambled around for answers that would satisfy without scaring.

In the Upanishads, as in the Gita, the classic answer has been as follows –

The supreme Self is beyond name and form,
Beyond the senses, inexhaustible,
Without beginning, without end, beyond
Time, space, and causality, eternal,
Immutable. Those who realize the Self
Are forever free from the jaws of death.

Eknath Easwaran’s translation

Unfortunately, this is a philosophy out of the grasp of most adults, so it was no surprise that it did my son no good. After a few unsatisfactory discussions we moved on to Christianity, where the concepts of heaven and hell have structure and clarity. This was much more to the 11 year-old’s liking and I began to get a glimpse into why religion plays such an important role in people’s lives.

Christianity and Islam both have the advantage over Hinduism of having a set of scriptures that lay down the law in pretty simple lists of do’s and don’ts. My theory of religious evolution goes somewhat like this –

Out of the need for order in societal chaos is born a new religion. To the society at large, it probably takes the shape of a ‘cult’ till it gains enough adherents to become respectable. The three guiding principles of any new religion are –

Contrast – How your religion differs from the existing belief system
Convince – Why it is better, and
Convert – What will happen to you if you don’t join.

Eventually, as the religion ages, it begins to lose some of its dogma and become more inclusive. It also begins to allow conflicting schools of thought to co-exist in relative harmony. But as it loses its fundamentalism, it also loses its appeal to people who want the comfort of being told what to do.

Hinduism is in this mature stage, which explains the rise of gurus and godmen. When I talk to followers of gurus about their motivation, not surprisingly, it is the craving for direction that is the biggest driver. The appeal of the guru is that of a parent for a child – someone who takes on the burden of responsibility of thinking for you.

Newer religions like Islam still have the structure and discipline in place, which is why they are such an attraction to confused, angry child-men seeking a higher purpose in life. A New York Times article about the failed terrorist plot in Germany recently reports –

…radical Muslims began to exert a glamorous gravitational pull on some German youths, German authorities say. In 2003 a local convert calling himself “Hamza” Fischer was killed fighting against Russian troops in Chechnya.

“They like the clear rules,” Mr. Köpfer says of the young converts. “Many of them are attracted to Islam not as a religion but as an ideology.”

I fear the attraction these ideologies have for my pre-teen. I don’t underestimate his need for clear answers. Since I can’t tell him comforting lies, the best I can do is to point out that the inflexibility and exclusivity of existing religions condemn non-believers (that would be us, his parents) to a very descriptive hell, set a good example for moral and ethical behavior, and hope for the best.