Vidyadhan – Bridging the Gap

Education at the primary and secondary levels in India is free in India when delivered through government schools. The quality of education varies wildly, and there are some glaring shortcomings in the program, which is why most NGOs and non-profits working in this sector tend to focus on early education, midday meal schemes (to keep kids in school) and supplemental tutoring. This makes eminent sense, since fixing the foundation and getting the basics right are the keys to literacy.

But kids who finish elementary school and have aspirations for college are often left out in the cold. There is tuition, however low, and hostel fees for those wanting to study out of town. In my own family, my father-in-law was an orphan who was determined to go to college and ended up begging for sponsorship from rich merchants in Bhubaneswar to pay his fees. He ended up with a phenomenally successful career and set up a small trust called Digjyoti to help kids like himself in Orissa.

The Vidyadhan program, set up by the Sarojini Damodaran Foundation, is a similar program conceived on a much larger and more professional scale. The program started in 1999 in Kerala and has given out 4,000 scholarships so far. About 750 students are helped each year at this time, but the plan is to grow this number to 100,000 in the next 5 years and cover as many other states as feasible.

I spoke with Meera Rajeevan, the program director, recently via phone and asked her how the candidates are selected. Since the program began in Kerala, where Kumari Shibulal and SD Shibulal, ex-chairman of Infosys, hail from, a network of trusted friends and family have been involved in means and merit testing. Currently, aspiring candidates for the scholarships have to pass an entrance test and an interview after which a volunteer visits the family to ensure the candidate does indeed have a financial need.

Volunteers also monitor progress on a regular basis (often more than once a year) to determine of the candidate continues to be eligible. It is a fairly rigorous process with hardly any misuse of funds by any recipient in the decade and a half since the program began. Each district has a district coordinator who keeps tabs.

Essay

One of the earliest recipients of the Vidyadhan Program is Dr. R. Gauthamen, who is currently on a Fellowship at Oxford. Dr. Gauthamen’s family ran a tailoring business in Alleppey that was constantly subject to the vagaries of demand. When he graduated high school with high grades, he was interested in studying medicine but his father could not afford the college or hostel fees. His teachers recommended him to the Foundation and after a detailed interview and home visit, his scholarship was approved. (The test was added in later years.)

The Vidyadhan program supported him through his MBBS and MD in India after which he rajendranapplied to Oxford. Today he is doing a super-specialty in neonatology at John Radcliffe Hospital. He also works as a sponsor and liaison for the Vidyadhan program in London. “When I first met Mr. Shibulal,” he says, “I asked him why he was doing this for me. He told me that the day would come when I could pay it forward and that is what I am doing.”

Kumari Shibulal personally interviews all the potential candidates in Kerala. “Once, when I was talking to a girl who had applied, she broke down and started crying about her father’s ill health and how this was causing her family a great deal of suffering,” she recalls. “When she left after the interview I couldn’t stop thinking about her and I ran behind her to assure her that everything would be all right.” The Shibulals ended up paying for the family’s medical expenses as well. The family takes a very close and personal interest in this activity of the foundation and is keenly invested in the success of each student.

Now the program is expanding into Karnataka where the foundation takes the help of a local NGO called Vidya Poshak to administer background checks. Says Meera Rajeevan, “Unlike Kerala, we find that parents in rural Karnataka are less interested in sending girls for further education. So we are focusing more on the girl student here.” The program also gives a higher weightage to kids from rural areas.

In order to scale to 100,000 students, though, the SD Foundation realizes that it cannot be the only sponsor. The approach now is to find external individual and corporate sponsors from around the world who will directly sponsor the children. In an innovative approach, the Vidyadhan program makes sure that all sponsorship money is directly deposited into the bank account of the student. All administrative fees are borne by the foundation.

I asked Rajeevan if there was any potential for misuse. She confidently asserts that it has never happened, with even drop-out rates being only in the 10-15% range. This number, usually arising from the student not meeting the performance criteria, goes down to miniscule levels for kids who successfully make it to college and is a testament to the selection process. “And even if there were any misuse,” she points out reasonably, “it would be only for a year’s worth of funds.” Sponsors have also access to the students’ grades and fee receipts which brings even more transparency to the process.

What are the challenges for this program? “Each state has its own issues,” she says. “In Karnataka there is less awareness of the need for education.” Also, mentoring is a much needed investment for these kids who often suffer from low self-esteem as they rise above the circumstances they grew up in. Many cannot speak English well and find it hard to participate in the non-academic activities of the institution they join. This is where Rajeevan hopes the one-on-one sponsorship model will make a difference. “It is not mandatory, but if the sponsor wishes to get more involved with the student they are supporting we would very much welcome that.” The program is working on an online mentoring model as well.

As Dr. Gauthamen puts it, “Education is the best route to upward mobility.” To support the Vidyadhan program in its efforts or to become a sponsor/mentor for a college going student please visit https://www.vidyadhan.org/.

Note: My husband and I have been very impressed with the program and have decided to sponsor one student. Keep checking in here for more updates as the process begins.

India’s Daughters Don’t Just Need a Cultural Change

Facebook has been aflame with the documentary “India’s Daughters” where the filmmaker got unprecedented access to a convicted rapist who laid out exactly the way many Indian men view women. (The documentary has been banned in India, but, as is the case with most forbidden things, has immediately become the most sought-after piece of film on the internet. Follow this link if you still have not seen it.)

Celebrities like Javed Akhtar, Kirron Kher and Jaya Bachchan have taken to the air to express their outrage. I have not seen any of their speeches, nor do I have to. While I was in India recently, the lament was universal – cultural change must happen. The mindsets of people must change, whereby they learn to respect women and value their daughters.

The sad truth is that this call for attitudinal change has been going on for a long, long time. And there is no denying that much needs to be done in this regard. According to Wikipedia

In April 2013, Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat noted that the legal principle of reliance on the sole testimony of the victim had become “an easy weapon” to implicate anyone in a case of rape. Justice Kailash Ghambhir of the Delhi High Court stated that penal provisions for rape are often being misused by women as a “weapon for vengeance and vendetta” to harass and blackmail their male friends by filing false cases to extort money and to force them get married.

If our judges can believe this, boy, we have a long way to go.

And therein lies the problem. We do need the activism that has led to the expansion of definition of rape and the enactment of tougher laws, the activism that still continues to fight for marital rape to be added to the list. We do need to educate our society on the value of women. But while we are waiting for society to catch up, women will still be gang-raped and murdered.

Societal change is a generational, sometimes multi-generational, process. In the meantime what are our women and girls to do?

Let’s look at the statistics. The conviction rates for rape cases in India were 44.3 percent in 1973, 37.7 percent in 1983, 26.9 percent in 2009, 26.6 percent in 2010 and 26.4 percent in 2011.(Courtesy First Post). Not only was the conviction rate low to begin with, it has steadily worsened over the last few decades.

What’s the point of having better laws if they are not going to be enforced? Enlightenment begins at the courthouse.

Enlightenment also begins at the police station. The estimate of unreported rapes varies between 50% and 90% in India. Rapists are often people in power, at least relative to the victim. Rape is an exercise of that power, of strong over weak, of powerful over powerless. And the fastest way to do something about that is to transfer that power.

First, make separate cells in police stations, run by female officers trained in administering rape kits, supported by prosecutors trained in rape laws, that provide assistance and support to victims. These cells can even provide a level of anonymity till a case can be made against the perpetrator and should be able to provide safe houses for the victims once a case goes to trial.

Second, fast-track rape cases and cases of violence against women though the morass that is the Indian judicial system. If the initial processing has been handled well, these cases should be relatively simple to prosecute. Create a separate judicial panel that is well-versed in crimes against women in each state to adjudicate these cases.

Third, put stiff fines on eve-teasing, groping, and any other actions that are precursors to violence. Today’s eve-teaser gets emboldened when his actions go unpunished and he might well escalate to more aggressive behavior. The local thulla should have the authority to slap that fine and, if he is corrupt (a high likelihood) then he should be reported to the rape cell in the local police station.

A zero-tolerance policy and stiff and swift punishment has to be the first response to this crisis. Nothing signals our attitude towards these crimes better than how we treat the people responsible for committing them. And if it means, Justice Bhat and Justice Ghambhir, that some innocent men are going to be swept up into the system unfairly, well, at least they are going to get their day in court, instead of getting thrashed by a mob.

 

 

 

 

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Mona Inaya

Ari and MonaHolidays bring on a kaleidoscope of sentiments, unlocking bolted doors to beautiful beginnings, reunions, peaceful endings, decisions to either forgive and let go or be emotionally distant. The magic and excitement that lead up to the big REVEAL on Christmas day heighten anxieties on all levels. There’s sleeplessness, moodiness, tension, mixed with anticipation and perfectionism, all in the name making another happy. And then, when the day arrives, the moment passes beforeyou can truly “enjoy it”. The holiday is over. The clean-up is finally done. The decorations all putaway, without a trace they ever existed, to rummage through again for another do-over next year.

How many of you hide your chaotic life to put on a smile for the future memory frozen in time by the holiday picture? And how many of you feel like the inflatable Santa that just popped, (after it took you 5 hours to set it up), when the special day doesn’t go as planned after all the thought that went into it?

I so wanted to make this Christmas for Ari a really special one. Last year she was too young to Christmas Dinnerunderstand the fuss. I’d been waiting 30-odd years to share the magic of the season with a child and we were in India, where I felt I needed to put in a little more work into something that would have been rather effortless in the United States. I was also terrified of messing up and being like the Grinch who stole Christmas. She and I had gone through a lot in the previous year and I had a crazy notion that a mini Xmas Spectacular would erase all that. Above all, I just wanted to make her happy.

BUT Ari had her own plans. We thought she had the normal seasonal cold/cough but we had to rush her to the hospital for a sudden spike in her fever – a 103.9° temperature (The pictures don’t reflect how sick she was because Christmas magic made her feel excited to dress up). She caught a viral fever and then bronchitis. The doctor who had been her pediatrician from the age of 2 months finally concluded that she has chronic allergy bronchitis, which will trigger from allergy or a cold, and she’ll be susceptible to asthma and other respiratory /lung infections too.
Of course, our Christmas dinner was cut short, after I had spent at least 8 hours in the kitchen, and our spirits were dim, after we’d been on a high all month. And it suddenly was just a normal day… we were sad and scared for her. No parent can stand to see their child silently crying, using their blankie to stop the tears rolling down their cheeks, and confusion in their eyes. It’s not a terminal illness, or even unmanageable, nonetheless, it’s a lesson.

Ari with treeI learnt that it’s not the end of the world if everything doesn’t go according to plan, and while no one can plan for the worst, we have to be emotionally flexible, hope for the best, and work around the obstacles. And most importantly, I learnt what was really important to me, to us. I will never forget this Christmas Eve, because as a family, we were there for our daughter’s 1st Christmas. It was/is another reminder of why we are all together. It wasn’t a spoiled evening, or even an obstacle; it simply was proof of how much we care for each other, and how lucky and grateful I am for everyone who came to our rescue!

Mona Inaya, who previously blogged on this site as Yamuna Kona, brings up her daughter as a single mom, and has started a blog where you can follow her journey. Check out http://singlemommadramaclub.blogspot.in/

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.

Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya – Lacking a Core

Humpty_Sharma_Ki_Dulhania_PosterI blame Farah Khan. After the huge success of Main Hoon Na filmmakers realized that they could just slap a coat of fresh paint on old Bollywood hits, add a tribute scene or two, repackage the tried and tested formula with some contemporary flavor and thrust it on unsuspecting audiences too young to remember the original.

Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya makes no bones about the fact that it is a DDLJ remake. The opening credits show the tapori hero Humpty Sharma unashamedly crying to the final train scene from the original movie. To this hackneyed plot are added updates that are supposed to represent modernity, namely,
– Hero with a funny name (Barfi, Bunny, Humpty)
– Heroine who smokes, drinks, and swears (Tanu Weds Manu, Shuddh Desi Romance)
– Guilt-free premarital sex
– Sympathetic family
– 2 sidekicks for the hero (young unknowns who have replaced the comic relief characters Johnny Lever etc. used to play)
– Loose, street banter
– Side plot where everybody demonstrates how cool they are with someone being gay by making jokes about homosexuality.

DDLJ was a complete romantic fantasy, but it was Aditya Chopra’s own fantasy, so the movie still had some authenticity despite the caricatured characters and unrealistic plot. HSKD is based on someone else’s fantasy, so the characters, their motivations, their environment are twice removed from reality. It is as if the writers of HSKD lived in a film set their whole lives where they experienced nothing except other Bollywood movies.

Each character is a pastiche of many other Bollywood screen entities and this leads to characters behaving in schizophrenic ways. Ashutosh Rana as the heroine’s father swings wildly between an Anupam Kher-like sympathetic figure and an Amrish Puri tyrant. Alia Bhat channels a firebrand Kajol from DDLJ, a demure Rani from KKHH, and a no-holds-barred Kangana from Tanu Weds Manu, sometimes in the same scene. Varun Dhawan as the titular Humpty tries very hard to create a personality for himself, but his slack-jawed dialogue delivery does no justice to his character, who is a blend of Aamir from Rangeela, Shahrukh from DDLJ and Saif from, well, any Saif movie.

Even the scenes are cut/pasted from other movies. This leads to very jarring juxtapositions. The heroine comes from a fairly conservative family but they seem to be okay with her spending the night with strangers. She and the hero impulsively have sex one night, most likely the first time for her, but the next day she seems cool with it, something her upbringing, as shown in the movie, does not support. The heroine’s father, despite having serious objections to Humpty, agrees to let him stay in his house for five days when the lovebirds koochy-coo every night and exhibit PDAs every day.

It doesn’t help that the music sucks. Music has saved many a bad movie from disaster (I Hate Luv Storys comes to mind) but in this case the soundtrack is a generic 3-wedding-songs, 1-tragic-song package that does nothing except provide bathroom breaks.

The leads are nice looking, especially Alia Bhatt who is bursting with health and vitality but, in the hands of inexperienced director Shashank Khaitan, both she and Varun Dhawan (David Dhawan’s son) just wing it through the movie. Dhawan, in particular, has his mouth open all the time and looks like he is just about to drool. It is an ultra-relaxed style of emoting that is popular these days, but what inexperienced actors don’t realize that it takes a lot of effort to look natural. For pointers I would direct them to Kangana in Queen, who achieved that effortless style after working hard at it in several movies earlier.

Unfortunately these kind of movies have been successful and, judging by the reaction in yesterday’s screening, the audience liked the movie just fine. In a summer drought of light-hearted time-pass fare, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya is a drop of recycled water, not tasty, but relieving thirst all the same.

 

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.

http://mashable.com/2014/05/30/india-rape-murder-teen-girls/

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 http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ 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.”

Info:

Website: http://www.kidsandart.org/

Contact: http://www.kidsandart.org/contact/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/kidsandartorg

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/kidsandartorg

Instagram: http://instagram.com/kidsandartorg