Digital Dictators

Digital Dictators

I was driving down the highway in my spanking new car, minding my own business when I heard a     sharp popping sound. Moments later I noticed a small crack in the middle of my windshield. The car is actually six months old but could pass off as new because it was absolutely blemish free. My son in law had lovingly got all the dents, bumps and scratches mended while I was away on a holiday. Since it was the first slur, it hurt more. Not sure whether the crack was a safety hazard, I reluctantly broke the news of the broken windshield on my family’s Whats App group. In a bid to exonerate myself  I kept insisting that it wasn’t a pebble hit which would cause a plonk instead of the pop. “The sound was more akin to pressure release from a soda bottle”, I said. As expected I got the eye rolls, the LOLs and the sarcastic “There goes mummy again” from my children, both natural and acquired. The response isn’t entirely their fault though. I have the habit of  starting any such misadventure report with, “ It is not my fault”.

CD80B28F-C77C-420F-87FB-C05ABFE784B2But this high handed ‘ off-ish’ offspring behaviour is not what I intend to draw your attention to.  This is just a prelude to my main concern. In the evening I got on Youtube to get my daily doze of laughs with Stephen Colbert and was greeted by an advertisement selling a DIY kit to repair broken windshields. I know, I know, targeted advertisement on electronic media is a modern day reality. Google a destination and your Facebook page is full of infomercials about hotels and flights to the place. Visit any online shopping site and they will continue to hound you holding up merchandise to your face each time you are on the net. Some will stuff your mailbox with special deals on the item you had checked out while others ask soul stirring questions, “ You came, you saw, you left…..why?”

Displaying  merchandise to a targeted audience makes economic sense.  But it feels creepy because targeting necessitates watching the target. Every move, every like and dislike is monitored. The search history is analysed for tastes & interests. And then algorithms workout advertisements relevant to the viewer. It feels creepier when I envision that on this World Wide Web which ties us ( in knots?), on one of the multitude of servers there is a minuscule space on the database dedicated to me that says that I am cynical, somewhat antiestablishment, have no particular religious leaning, am not an impulsive buyer, drool over melted cheese, love cinnamon doughnuts and follow US/ UK politics to console myself that ‘ruler’ stupidity is pervasive.

Meanwhile the race to obtain data is on.  These ‘digital dictators’ are the attention merchants, we are the merchandise, not the customers. First they get our attention by offering a stage and free information and then we pay by paying attention to what they show us. Nothing is free. Watching these commercials is the price we pay to these search engines and social networking sites. I have reluctantly accepted this fact but this incident felt like a blatant invasion of privacy because it was a private conversation I was having with my family. It wasn’t a social platform. I might be getting paranoid and it could be a mere coincidence but it seemed sinister. 

And now to end where I started. My son suggested that the ‘pop’ I heard could be due to the release of the accumulated tension of driving a ‘scratchless’ car! I will keep you  posted if based on this information some entrepreneur  tries to sell me anti anxiety medication, a subscription to a meditation programme or perhaps a great deal on a spa- holiday! 

( published in my column in The Tribune on 21/9/19)

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Bond Sisters

Bond Sisters

I was a little sceptical when I laid eyes on it. She is good at the craft and I totally trust her creative  prowess. Among others, she had designed one using iron nuts, instead of beads for my brother, an  Ironman aspirant. She had also customised one for my Googler son, replicating the exact colours of the company’s logo. But this pink rose with two dainty leaves, although exquisite, seemed to be a tad inappropriate. I called my friend and told her that it is too feminine to be a Rakhi. She said she had deliberately made it ‘girlie’ because it was aimed at girls. “Sisters protect too”, she proclaimed, “ So why shouldn’t  sisters get Rakhis?”  I asked her if she meant Lumbis,  a Rakhi variant that is tied on the Bhabhi’s ( brother’s wife) wrist. “ No, it is not the same” she reiterated, “Because the honour is bestowed on the power the bhabhi wields due to her matrimonial position, not in her individual capacity!”

After the call ended I thought of all those childhood instances when my sisters had protected me by safeguarding my interests. How they shielded wrong moves, swallowed secrets and even lied for me. I recalled how, to expiate my tardiness, my  kid sister  had painstakingly filled my biology diagrams with millions of dots, to make cytoplasm look like cytoplasm and my elder sister had worked late into the night to complete a geography project. When I was running fever during a crucial examination she sat outside the hall,  in case I needed something. There are hundreds of incidents where they kept me and my aspirations safe , even if not in the customary ‘physical’ way. For that matter my sister had once  punched a rather tough looking boy in school who had been troubling me.  So they qualify  in the traditional ‘ bhai’ way too. Now that we have grown up they might not resort to blows,  but I know that they will still go out on a limb for me and I for them. 

The fact is that in the modern world Raksha isn’t always about brute force. It is about lending support and providing guidance,  being sympathetic and sensitive, nurturing dreams and aspirations and fighting for rights and what is right.  Being smart, savvy and strong in the face of adversity is needed more than muscle mass. And as my friend suggested any caring sibling irrespective of  gender would do the needful and hence deserves a Rakhi. 

By making the festival gender neutral, even a brother can acknowledge his sister’s role by tying the sacred thread around her wrist. This is not only about gender equality and women empowerment. It is the need of the hour. In our son crazy nation we need to inculcate this idea that sisters have the strength to safeguard too.  That is the only way we can truly propagate the notion “ Beta beti samaan “ . 

So why am I harping about this now when  Raksha Bandhan is over and thread tying is done for the season? Well,  I am trying to plant the seed of an idea, hoping that it will take root. Perhaps by next Rakhi, it will flourish and roses will bloom ready to be tied on your sister’s wrist……….or  you could source handcrafted ones from Neera’s Attic.

(Carried in my column in the Tribune on 7/9/2019) 5026BB1D-A6C7-424A-87CB-AEC6B298B0E3

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Son of a Gun

Son of a Gun

It isn’t the act itself, which is no doubt abominable, it is the ease with which it was done that is worrisome. Three masked men on a motorcycle, blocked an SUV as it slowed down at a speed breaker and shot the occupant at point blank range. A total of six bullets were fired from an illicit weapon, two of which hit the victim, injuring him fatally.

8E84B019-FC5D-41E5-9944-74004C62748BWe witness such incidents all the time, in movies, or hear about them happening in far off lands, traditionally involving drug lords,  mafia and crime syndicates. It’s shocking that this happened in the sleepy, small town I grew up in. More shocking is that it was executed in broad daylight. The most shocking aspect of this sad saga is that the shooter was not a gangster nor was the target. The prey was a amiable doctor of great repute, the perpetrator was his disgruntled ex-employee. 

The killer was a novice, a mere greenhorn in the big bad world of crime. A misguided youth, out to settle a score. Venting his anger, mistakenly thinking that the doctor was responsible for his joblessness and resulting misery. That he decided, and successfully executed  this heinous crime, tagging along two equally clueless friends is worrisome. This should serve as a wake up call, not only for the administration, but for us as a society. 

We may dismiss this as personal vendetta but the problem is much deeper. The idea to snuff out a life is a grave one. A society which allows such thoughts to take root and an inept governance which makes it possible to act on such an impulse is  a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

As I watched the killers being paraded in front of the media, noticeably absent was any sense of remorse.  The prime suspect declared that he felt no regret for his deeds and I wondered about the making of this murderer. Out of curiosity I visited his Facebook page and there he was in all his glory. Posing with his friends, sullenly looking into the camera. He could have been any of the cocky, neo- rich  youngsters that roam on newly bought vehicles. Living off ancestral land, not by tilling  it, but by selling it. Apart from some thinly veiled comments about revenge, one of his update reads “ behtar ko inaam milta hai, behtareen par inaam hota hai” ( the good win prizes, the better have prizes on their heads). I wonder how such a person  is allowed to own a gun. Although an unregistered gun was used for this crime. He owned one  duly registered by the state.

Also noticeable was the police barely hiding their self celebratory grins. They had indeed solved the case in record time. But doesn’t a smart city entail smart policing, both predictive and preventive.  To avert  crimes before they happen, to stay ahead of the criminals.  While they are busy catching and punishing the big fish in the murky waters of crime, the small fish are thriving.  By the law of natural progression, wayward youth who indulge in petty crimes will graduate to more sinister deeds if not stopped. 

There was a time when social pressure, family ties and the oft heard “log kya kahenge”, was enough to rein in the unruly.  Religion, spirituality and “ankh ki sharam” used to play a role. As we get more and more involved in the digital world, interacting with people we never meet, we know less and less about our actual neighbors and their lives. We are bearing the cost of this disconnect. 

A career in crime is becoming a reality. A quick, lucrative alternative to the slow and tedious way of earning a legitimate living. Things can only improve if this swamp is drained dry, eliminating the breeding ground for evil. For this fear has to be instilled in the minds of the public.  Statistics reveal that the conviction rate for homicide  is abysmally low.  It  is in fact easy to get away with murder. 

So should we hang them to make a point? To set an example. I don’t really know. I don’t think it will help. In my humble opinion certainty of punishment works better than it’s severity. Which means that everyone pays for their wrongdoing irrespective of their status or stature. Mantri ka bhai ho ya santri ka bhatija everyone should be made accountable for their actions.

( published in my column in the Tribune on 20/7/2019)

 

Son of the soil

Son of the soil

The other two who preceded him, collapsed from exhaustion after crossing the finishing line. In contrast his entry was majestic,  he jogged in energetically like a hero, both arms raised in celebration. He looked a little dazed, a little confused as the crowd cheered on, giving him a heartfelt standing ovation. He clapped a little too, maybe for himself, maybe in appreciation for their appreciation. And then he knelt down and  kissed the ground in gratitude. The perfect end to a gruelling sixteen hour race. He had won the coveted title of Ironman with  only 28 secs to spare. In fact he was the last one to have lasted.

For those who are not in the know,  Ironman is a triathlon organised the world over by the W.T.C. It requires participants  to complete a 3.8 kilometre swim, a 180.2 kilometre  bicycle ride, and a 42.2 kilometre run  within 15.50 -17 hours depending on the terrain. People from various walks of life and in varying states of health,   attempt the race as the ultimate challenge to the human spirit. For  most Indians Milind Soman is synonymous with Ironman. Because of his star status he earned accolades when he won the title a few years ago. And although I don’t crib the volume of praise he received,  I do feel that there are many other Indians who have achieved this feat and stay unnoticed and unsung. 

From pilots to IT engineers, marketing managers to tech entrepreneurs, all sorts of unlikely Indians have participated and completed this race without enough of us being aware of it. Apart from the immense discipline it takes to juggle personal and professional lives for the gruelling training sessions, in our country it also means working around constraints. With no real walkways, no designated cycling tracks and no swim worthy lakes aspirants are left to their own devices and destiny.

When scores have completed the race before him, many in lesser time,  why does the last Ironman of the season deserve a mention in a national daily. Because I am privy to a small detail that shows that he is more than the title he won. His friend who was also competing, had very little experience of open water swimming and hence harboured a phobia for the first leg of the race. He would lose direction in water, thus losing time. To help his friend stay on track he offered to lead. He painted his foot red so that it could be identified in the crowd of 3000 swimmers. In a race where every second counts,  he kept looking back,  locating his friend in the sea of swimmers and shouting “ Aaja bhai aaja.” He lost ten precious minutes doing this  but ensured that his friend made it to the other side. A selfless deed indeed, to help out a buddy when one’s own ambition is at stake.

I know this story because the rudderless swimmer is my brother. When my brother saw that his friend might lose by a few seconds he wept shamelessly knowing that he was the cause. I could have skipped this ‘weepy’ detail as it isn’t essential to the narrative but added  it just to spite my brother. And to tell the world that aspiring ironmen are soft inside!

Mr Surender Yadav should have received a Hero’s welcome when he returned from Sweden. But that is just my opinion. It has been patiently explained to me that recognition is not what Ironmen strive for. It is the will to fight their own weaknesses, push themselves to the limit and be the best version of themselves. Having achieved his goal, the engineer that slips back into his automobile paint business will not be the same. He now knows that his potential is limitless and the memory of his inner fight to achieve this goal will never fade.

In case you are wondering, my brother didn’t become iron. He is still gold!BBE31E4E-F47F-4F6D-8A85-472F6653A015

( published in my column in the Tribune on 24/8/19)

 

Toys are us

Toys are us

On a recent trip to Switzerland, we stopped for lunch at a small picnic spot by the road. A non descript village on the way home. Apart from the usual bench, swing and water source, there was a sandpit with toy trucks, dumpsters and excavators. A ping pong table stood in one corner with the racquets and ball lying in a plastic bag underneath. An open invitation to play. And play we did…..

2D1312BE-73DD-4030-8116-A735D8D1F5A4That’s when I started noticing. Whether we were at a gas station or a ticket counter, a lake side or a mountain top, there were play areas everywhere. With monkey bars and swings, cuddly soft toys, bats and balls, trampolines and see- saws, giant chess boards and miniature play houses. On the weekend  these places were filled with children and adults like. In stark comparison to our patronising instruction to children, “Go play outside,”  their message seemed to be, “Let’s play.”

Apart from the fact that children are more likely to emulate adults instead of following orders, parents are also benefited from this ‘ quality’ time. Grown ups can do with a  lesson in sportsmanship. Learn not to sulk on losing and gloat on  winning. There are other less obvious rewards too. In the rat race that is life, we tend to lose the ability to think out of the box, to get pleasure out of  little things, to be guilt free when engaged in ‘trivial’ pursuits. Playing with children and toys helps in reclaiming this lost ground.

The truth is that everybody has a little child with in,  looking for an excuse to escape.  By creating these spaces, and presenting opportunity, it becomes easier to keep this inner child alive.  

Decades ago I had  given away cute life size dolls as prizes in a doctors meeting. Although we were celebrating Friendship Day, I was a little scared that members might find the gesture frivolous. On the contrary, ladies loved them and some still keep the dolls as prized possessions. My grandmother had, what we children liked to call,  her own doll house. Actually it was a small brass temple with the entire pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. Each day she would spend hours bathing and dressing them. She painstakingly made necklaces and crowns with tiny beads  and cute little cushions for their thrones. On Diwali and Ramanavami new clothes were made out of ribbons and lace. I still wonder whether she did it out of religious devotion or was just reliving a childhood fantasy. 

The name of the US toy store chain Toys R Us with the reverse R has always intrigued me. What could they possibly mean….that they are toys….that toys make them…that they make toys? Now I have come to understand that toys are us, toys have a large role in making us what we are. Toys reflect our childhood that’s why they enchant us. If Ludo and saanp seedhi still interests you, if your eyes stay glued to a spinning top till it wobbles and tips over, if a kaleidoscope fascinates you even though you know it’s just mirrors and bits of broken glass. If you take great interest in choosing return gifts for your child’s birthday party. You can be rescued from the rut of adulthood, at least temporarily.

On the other hand if you couldn’t get past my first few lines. If you got stuck at the description of the table tennis equipment and toy trucks, lying unguarded. If you are still wondering how they can stay there, why no one stole them. If you are despairing that in our country even the table would disappear if it wasn’t screwed to the ground. Then you need to play more often. Let go of the worries of the world, look beyond the acquired wisdom and accumulated knowledge of years of existence and live. Just live.

By the way the setup surprised me too, but that is another story for another time. Baby steps…….

( published in my column in the Tribune on 10/8/19)

 

Suryavanshi

Suryavanshi

I have forced myself out of bed for it, even on holidays, especially on holidays ! I have braved the winter chill and gusty wind for it. Rubbing sleep out of my eyes and ignoring my weary body which begged to rest some more. Sometimes perched on uncomfortable stone benches and parapets, sometimes with no place to sit, standing, people bustling around, everyone lost in their own thoughts. Like many of my kind, I have chased the perfect sunset and sunrise all my life. It has been on the itinerary of most of my vacations. Tour operators would obligingly pile us in vehicles and take us to vantage points to witness the grand spectacle.

FAACDB7B-C192-48B9-8984-E6A60FBC0D31Armed with cameras and smart phones to show the world what we had seen. Witnessing a daily event, eyes glued to the horizon, each moment filled with anticipation. The eternal question looming large,  will it appear in full splendor or will clouds mar its beauty? In the company of people who were similarly inspired, oohing and aahing or sitting in silence, appreciating the miracle which is the reason for our existence. 

Once my daughter sleepily asked what drove me to see reruns of the same show? Whether it meant something more than the burst of color she could see? Does a sunset have to mean something? Isn’t the assurance that the sun will rise again in its full glory enough? Isn’t the message of impermanence that the rising sun gives enough? That what goes up will come down. Isn’t it wondrous  that dawn and dusk which are opposing ends of the spectrum appear so alike? Is it merely a coincidence that each day the sun arrives and leaves as a red disc, becoming a yellow ball of fire in between? Isn’t it reassuring that the sun and moon give opposing messages. While one teaches clockwork regularity the other says it is alright to have phases.

Inspired, I continue my quest. I have seen it across the sea, peeking through mountain peaks, above grassy flatlands and over the barren salt fields of the Rann of  Kutcch. Recently driving down the west coast in California I caught the sunset over the Pacific Ocean, vibrant and vivid as ever. The  sky a canvas of orange and red. No matter where I have seen it. It is always  splendid, always spectacular.  Back home from Oia, Greece which is famous for its sunsets my dad took pictures of the setting sun from his balcony. Ordinary camera, ordinary setting, and the less said about his technique the better. And yet it was an extraordinary picture showing the vibrant red and orange sky of dusk.  That is when I first understood what makes the phenomenon special. The fact that we took time out to pause and notice.

Since then I try to catch a glimpse of the  sun whenever I can from wherever I can. I have made sunrise a  part of my morning constitutional and rerouted my stroll so that I walk towards it. Although few will make it to the hall of fame and the ‘ to do list’ of tourists,  none  has ever disappointed. Four minutes of wonder as it appears as a red disc, ready to burn through the day till it leaves in a burst of color. Four minutes to thank the universe for what is has granted me and what it hasn’t….

( published as a Spice of Life in HT on 8/7/2019)

 

A Dog’s Life

A Dog’s Life

A dog died in my neighbourhood recently. No, it wasn’t my neighbour’s dog. Actually it wasn’t  anyone’s dog,  belonged to no one. Just one of those lowly strays that wander in  our cities.  Born on the street, surviving on random acts of kindness, till they die of disease, starvation or are run over by some speeding vehicle. So how do I know about it’s demise? I wouldn’t have, had the rotting carcass not raised a stink. The sickening stench, a final act, a desperate effort to draw attention to the plight of its kind.

3A94C13F-C5AC-4178-9EA4-3C7B2E6ADE5DTheir number seems to be increasing. Or it could be that more  cross my path as I walk my pup. I meet packs of them, ready to pounce  on my unsuspecting baby. Any dog owner would know how  stray dogs detest this mollycoddled, domesticated version we keep in our homes. They bark, they growl ( a full blown threatening belly rumble) and they bite ( seldom, as the idiom says but frequently enough to be a nuisance). 

World Health Organization states that  every year approximately twenty thousand Indians die of rabies caused by dog bites. This  accounts for 36 percent of rabies deaths worldwide. Urban India has two features which create and sustain street dog population: open garbage and large amounts of exposed animal carcasses. Both provide a food source to help them thrive. Countries which keep garbage in bins that are cleaned regularly see lesser number of stray dogs. We, being a nation of litterers make no bones about trashing public spaces.  This garbage which we conveniently throw is not always picked up. In  Mumbai alone  five hundred tons of garbage remains uncollected daily. No wonder thirty five million stray dogs inhabit India. 

Although maiming and mutilating stray dogs is a punishable act, the government does little to keep them alive, out of harms way and  from harming others. India  has very few dog shelters. Adding to the woes is  a sluggish sterilisation drive.  Animal control policies, like spaying and neutering to control dog population are implemented sluggishly, if at all.  Dog vaccination to prevent the spread of rabies is not a priority.

C1D1EBB2-E903-440E-A8C5-5D64B0B92B07Till something concrete is done to control them, here are a few tips to coexist with canines. Don’t disturb a dog that is eating, sleeping or nursing it’s pups. It could provoke a bite. Ignore a barking dog and avoid eye contact.  Don’t run or you will be chased. An unprovoked bite, specially  by a frothing dog is not to be ignored. Wash the wound but don’t dress it and promptly visit a doctor. 

The other day a bunch of youngsters stopped to pet my pet. As Amigo, my dog, grunted with satisfaction, enjoying the attention, three strays ambled up and started barking.  Not the usual ‘barking for nothing’ bark but a complaining almost pleading whimper. The boys laughed and told me that they treated those strays like free roaming pets, fed them regularly, hence they were threatened by the attention my pup was getting. Amigo would  have behaved similarly in a similar situation. Labelled as man’s best friend, all dogs are alike, but there are stark differences in their circumstances. 

As I write this, I glance at Amigo, sleeping peacefully in his cot, ‘well fed’ belly up, his head resting on his favourite chew toy, and conclude that a dog’s life isn’t too bad. Then I envision the flattened dog I saw on my way to work,  blood spattered, his entrails smeared on the highway and am reminded why  kutte ki maut marna ( to die like a dog) is the worst death of all!

( carried in my column in the Tribune  on 6/7/2019)

Breaking Doctors ?

Breaking Doctors ?

While the entire medical fraternity is trying to draw the nation’s attention  to the Kolkata incident  I would like to focus closer home. Not because I am not outraged by what happened there but because it would be akin to flogging a dead horse.

So I will skip the incident in SNR Medical College and  recount what happened in my alma mater PGIMS Rohtak instead. A final year post graduate student in Paediatrics department succumbed to the pressure of medical education and committed suicide. The media projected the professor as an unreasonable meanie, stating that among other atrocities, she didn’t grant him leave to attend his sister’s wedding. This was the final straw that broke the  ‘already overburdened’ camel’s back. My intent is neither to fix responsibility nor condone the conditions.  I am just using this opportunity to give an insiders glimpse into the making of a doctor.  So while my colleagues are trying to tell society that it is  difficult being a doctor….. I want to emphasise that becoming one isn’t easy either.

Most people know that it entails cramming thick tomes through the night. But that is a very small part of the training. Overcrowded, understaffed hospitals result in overworked residents who often work thirty six hours shifts. Despite such impossibly gruelling duties only the best is expected from them. Bosses are unforgiving. It is continuously reiterated that since human life is at stake,  mistakes can’t be made. Long duty hours means not getting time to prepare for exams or write thesis. Along with this stress comes the humiliation of never quite making it to the high standards set by teachers. It isn’t surprising then, that suicide crosses the mind of many students. It crossed mine too. I survived because I didn’t have the courage to die…..or perhaps, because,  I had the courage to live.

E719E6EC-1A61-437A-AE3C-60C647C066D5My own boss was a hard task master, never relenting in her quest for perfection. If we ever dared complain about the long hours or the excessive workload, she would say that she was preparing us for society which wouldn’t be any easier. Not getting leave was a recurring theme. My friend couldn’t get leave for her own marriage so scheduled her wedding on one Sunday and reception on the next. I had labour pains induced so that I could deliver in time to use my  week long winter vacations for some postpartum rest. Something as basic and imperative as maternity leave was not available to postgraduate students till recently. It is just one of those things, along with regular meals and a good night’s sleep, that doctors prescribe to others but can’t afford themselves. Once when I was visibly upset over a cancelled trip due to an emergency duty, she sternly said,” Get used to the idea of ruined plans, you have chosen this vocation.” Briefly put, she thought I was a slacker ( mild understatement ) and I felt that she was a sadist! ( mild overstatement) 

Almost a decade after I had left the institute and was in private practice, my boss dropped in one day. Impeccably dressed as always, she said she was passing and thought of checking in on me.  She was disturbed by the vandalism and arson  in the hospital of one of her ex-students. After the death of a patient the relatives had gone on a rampage damaging property. My boss was appalled that neither the administration nor her non medico neighbours and friends had helped her. Looking concerned she told me that I should relocate if I couldn’t count ten people who would rush to my rescue. After some thought she added, “ Take pictures, make videos. Leave the premises but make sure that someone else documents the incident. If ever something like this happens be sure to collect proof. It will help you get justice.”  

It’s a well known fact that only doctors support doctors in such a crisis. Gharaunda, my hometown, had a negligible medical fraternity at that time. I secretly wondered  if she had visited because she found me in a similar, potentially dangerous situation. This rushed lesson on self-survival when the patient dies, was it a part of the ‘continued medical education’ she continuously recommended?

As teachers resign en masse in West Bengal, and doctors all over the country join the strike in an effort to make their work place safer, I wonder what my boss would say had she been alive today. In these difficult times would she discourage us to treat the gravely sick and risk the aftermath of a death? Would she tell us to forgo empathy and sympathy and save ourselves first ? Would she advise us to not try anything heroic, lest we end up a martyr. Probably not. No doctor would like to recommend shunning the core values of this profession. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to save lives at the risk of losing your own.

Two decades later,  her  parting words still resonate in my mind.  A tad remorseful for not having  equipped us to deal with the ‘next of kin’ anger and violence, getting into her car, she had wistfully said, “And I mistakenly thought, I had taught you people everything……… ”

( published in my column in the Tribune on 22/6/19). 

 

Auto Mode

Auto Mode

My son told me it’s called Google 15. The fifteen pounds that Nooglers supposedly gain  from gorging on the omnipresent free food. Its said to take a year for new recruits to realise that the buffet won’t shrink but their midriff will expand !

When I had visited his office cafeteria, I was  floored by the diverse multi cuisine menu, dutifully color coded according to their calorific value. Having always been a foodie, and with the space in my stomach at a premium,  I struggled to decide what to eat and what to leave.  The perfectly uncooked sushi or the perfectly cooked waffles, the crisp dosas or the oh-so-soft doughnuts, not to mention the expensive cheeses and exotic nuts lying around. 

0960DDCB-8A8B-455C-B9A4-B6ADF1F11613That is when he said it, while dispassionately eating his daily ration of six boiled eggs, sans yolk. He didn’t even glance at the ‘Day’s specials’ ! I looked around, there were a  hundred other employees at various counters, all young, all fit, none overweight  having their breakfast…..eating for subsistence …eating to live…not living to eat. By the G15 definition they seemed to be old employees,  must have lost both interest and weight, after the initial gain.

I had heard that food is never more than a hundred feet away in a Google office and now I was experiencing it first hand. With the multitude of cafeterias, themed restaurants, snack bars, micro kitchens and refrigerators laden with beverages I was amazed that obesity was not an epidemic. Intrigued, I did some research and discovered that the fifteen pound weight gain is more of an insiders joke, an exaggeration. It seems that Google had done some research too. Concerned about unhealthy weight gain in their employees, a special ops force of behavioural science PhDs conducted surveys of snacking patterns, consulted academic papers on food psychology, and launched an experiment. They noted that if  cookies were kept right beside the coffee machines many took them mindlessly while passing. Simply moving them a few meters away resulted in a calorie reduction that led to an annual loss of half a kilogram weight.

Many similar subtle changes were introduced. They started putting out smaller plates with  suggestions that more food on the plate meant more food in the stomach. Dessert serving size was reduced to three spoons, just enough to cure a craving. They started keeping water at eye level and sweetened sodas in the lower shelves in refrigerators, positioned salad and fruit bars up front in the buffet, removed  M&Ms and candies from transparent dispensers and hid them  in opaque containers.  In nutshell Google didn’t take away any unhealthy products. They simply moved them to less visible locations and their consumption dropped leading to weight loss.

One  doesn’t have to be a google employee to benefit from this research. We make hundreds of choices every day and the majority are more or less automatic. No one has  time to actively think through every little choice about mundane stuff, like what you should and shouldn’t eat. That is why planning is so important, it affects the unconscious decisions we make. By planning grocery shopping, food preparation and placement of food at home it will be easier to stick to healthy habits  when we’re tired, hungry or stressed.

And now the million dollar, or perhaps, billion dollar question, the question you are dying to ask. Why do they do it? What does the company gain from indulging it’s employees so much? Well it  seems to be a calculated move,  not just for philanthropy and goodwill. Research shows that when food is provided on site, employees take shorter breaks. Similarly turning up for breakfast and staying late for dinner means longer office hours and hopefully more output.  Most of all it ensures loyalty, people are less likely to leave an organisation that cares. Remember Sambha pleading, “ Sardar, maine aapka namak khaya hai” in Sholay. It seems Google got inspired.

( published in my column in the Tribune on 8/6/19)

 

Wedding Woes

Wedding Woes

It grew louder with each passing moment. It had started as a whisper, a soft uncertain voice. Now it was a continuous chant,  reverberating in my head, heard loud and clear over the din of the shlokas. “It’s a scam….it’s a huge scam,” it echoed. I was sitting in the pheras of my nephew and listening to the Pandit’s interpretation of our holy scriptures.  I was trying to make sense of his instructions on how  weddings should be performed.  The pandit dutifully invited the entire pantheon of Gods and Goddesses to preside over the function. He greeted them with flowers, washed their feet, offered paan, urged them to partake the feast and bless the newlyweds. Of course everything was symbolic, a figment of imagination, only the dakshina was real.  So we paid crisp new notes for various hypothetical expenses including a saree for Goddess Lakshmi !

1D0A8E4D-B61C-4895-BF37-28925BC7A455It had all started pretty innocuously.  My nephew had decided that he had found the girl of his dreams and we had decided to let his dreams come true. When we started planning the wedding we were practically coerced into performing the function with in the  limited ‘saya ‘ period,  before the ‘ tara doobna’ ( star set?). This forced  us to hunt for a venue in the heavily booked shaadi  season and pay much more than the usual rates. The printer of our choice was too busy to deliver the cards on time so we had to settle for someone of lesser repute, the same applied for garment makers. Flowers were more expensive, as was food.  From the horse carriage to ferry the groom to the pandit to marry him to his sweetheart, everything came with a huge high season surcharge.  After paying for all the rituals we chose to forgo the post wedding blessings of the neighbourhood eunuchs. At a non negotiable price of fifty one thousand we couldn’t afford them. So we risked their wrath. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and not count on blessings !

Apart from the financial aspect there were other logistical problems. We  were in the middle of what is called a bhari saya in local parlance. It seemed that half the  world was getting married and the other half was invited. So there were traffic snarls and gridlocks causing unheard of delays. Due to the congestion some of our guests never made it to the venue and were forced to return midway. All in all, my prudent, rational mind felt that limiting marriages to a few

‘ auspicious’ days in a year was both inconvenient and unnecessary,  totally avoidable.

The same prudent, rational mind took a back seat, when on my well wishers’ insistence,  I went to the temple to get my new car blessed. I stood patiently as the pandit drew a chandan  satia on the steering wheel, installed a small Ganesh idol on the dash board, lit incense sticks and tied sacred red threads on the wing mirrors, all the while chanting some incomprehensible verses. I obligingly gave him dakshina and feeling suitably protected drove off. Was it a mere coincidence or were the forces above mocking me, because when I switched on my car stereo, Jagjit Singh crooned “Mere jaise ban jaoge, jab ishq tumhein ho jayega, Har baat gawaara kar loge, mannat bhi utara kar loge, tabeezein bhi bandhwaaoge, jab ishq tumhein ho jayega”

I secretly wondered if I was a hypocrite or simply scared. Why do we go along with such sham if we don’t believe in it ?  Most of us have grown up ‘touching wood’ and ‘ eating dahi cheeni ‘ for good luck. Life is so uncertain and mishaps are so many that we grab on to anything that is  remotely reassuring. This futile attempt at self preservation is ingrained in our DNA. We like to play it safe and save ourselves from regret, the ‘ if only we had…..’   remorse that follows any untoward incident. It is this fear of the unknown that is exploited, but it doesn’t condone our own role in the scheme of things.

So am I an educated illiterate or an average human with a reduced  appetite for risk?  Seems  some introspection is needed…just waiting for an auspicious time to begin!

(published in my column in the Tribune on 25/5/2019)