Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Grown ups

A couple of months back, my niece turned 5 and demanded a “Barbie that can be dressed up” for a gift. The maasi that I am, the temptation to buy her her first  Enid Blyton was too strong, so I just added the toy on top of that. The cab ride to her place was a long one and I couldn’t resist revisiting Amelia Jane and her naughty tricks while the driver made his way through Mumbai’s ever-present traffic snarl.
 I can talk to you about Enid Blyton and her work at any time and without much provocation, but I was recently reminded of those little books through a very different experience. 
Here’s what happened:
 I happened to attend a class for first aid training—basic stuff like how to help someone who is choking, how to give CPR and tie up wounds till help arrives—with a bunch of other people. It is all work related, so I will steer clear of details. Let it suffice to say unlike most training sessions I’ve attended, this one was very informative and the instructors—ex military men from Australia—were super efficient.
The trainers told us that they usually take four or five days to teach the course we were supposed to cover in two days.  So, we were asked to stick to our schedules to help them teach us as much as possible.  There were about ten people in each batch and my group had men and women from various parts of the country, with work experiences ranging from 5 to 35 years.  
And what would you expect from a room full of grownups learning about useful things like how to potentially save a life?  Discipline and decorum, yes?
Hah.  Think again.
So here we were, learning about important (at least I think so) things like how to save a life if there is an accident. Imagine my surprise when as the trainer was demonstrating how to tend to a fatally bleeding wound,  the volunteer , a fully grown man with a daughter in her late teens, suddenly looked up and told his friend—“take a picture, na!”
Of course, I was not the only person who was surprised but the thing is, we were in the minority. Most people in the room thought that was perfectly normal behavior, to interrupt a session mid way and distract an entire room because you want to take a picture of yourself in a splint.
In Enid Blyton’s world, that would be enough to make you a social pariah, where your friends would force you to apologize for such behavior.
The session progressed and we were given our first break. 5 minutes. Only, by the time everyone returned to their seats, it was 10. This went on till the trainers had to threaten to time us.  More surprise, that two men  had to use headmaster quality tone to teach a room full of adults about sticking to time did not bother anyone at all, much less embarrass them.
Then there were innumerable instances where people had to basically be asked to shut up, because they would not know the difference between asking a question and making strange, irrelevant statements.  And oh, the umbrage at being given a lunch break at 12, because “we are not hungry now!”  Never mind that your trainers, being from Australia, might not know you are used to lunching at 2 and never mind that even if you don’t eat at 12 everyday, surely you can make an exception for once?
The trainers finally came up to me, bewildered, and asked “seriously, all this confusion over what time to break for lunch?”
I would laugh if it was not so sad, really. 
This in a room full of grownups, who otherwise would claim to be decent, well educated men and women. I have always maintained that we as a people are a bunch of noisy, ill mannered idiots who have very very little sense of propriety.
I have seen that at traffic signals where people roll down windows and throw their trash out pat in the middle of the road and at weddings where people push, shove and nudge like barbarians, all because they want the good piece of meat.
I have fought with friends who have taken offence at my saying so and I will be glad to be proven wrong.
Till then, I have that training room to tell me I am not. Wonder what Enid Blyton would say.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Technology and us.

A few days back, my friends and the car driver had a discussion about smartphones. Friend 1 had just bought a new handset and it turned out to be the same company as the driver was using.  Friend 2 was looking to buy a new one.
There was soon an animated discussion where friends 1 and 2 asked him about specs, camera quality etc and he complied with answers, resulting in friend 2 leaning towards this model by the end of it.

Now on the whole, there is nothing remarkable about this entire exchange. But if you've known the India I grew up in and the people in it, you’d see why I was pleasantly surprised. In a society obsessed with class, there was a time, not so far back, when the driver using the same brand as you would have been enough to make  many of us discard the brand altogether.
That India still exists, but is also fast changing, thanks, I think, to technology.
Technology, of course, has been around forever in various forms. Right now however, I am talking about the kind of consumer facing new tech that is sweeping the world and often starts cries of “all is lost” among dissenters.
Take Google and Facebook, for instance. A few weeks back, my cousin wondered aloud how we could get any assignment done without Google’s help.  I laughed, but wondered with her. Pre-Google school assignments meant many visits to the library, much photocopying and a whole lot of exchanging of hand written notes.
But I think I can honestly say today that neither all of the trips to the library nor all those photocopies necessarily resulted in better assignments.  I know of enough people who did exactly the same with  library books and notes that their younger kinds do with online searches—copy blindly and not retain much at all. There have definitely been some assignments where I've blindly lifted from friends, having no interest in those subjects at all.  That no one ever caught us says a lot about our evaluators, but that is another topic for another day.
So is it necessary or even valid that older generations (older is a relative term here. My generation is what they call "millenials", but I am pretty sure we look ancient to my young cousin) beat down Google-ers, just because they are lucky to have been born in a world that allows easy access?
Look at Facebook and Twitter. By now, we all know what the cons of an open ended internet, where people have minimum responsibility, are.  Dangers range from serious issues like the Reddit influenced Boston bombing fallout to the much less serious, but still worrying picture floated anonymously that wrongly blamed Arnab Goswami of speeding on the Bandra-Worli sealink. Mind you, that picture has only been a “less serious” issue because Goswami either did not know, or decided to let it slide. There could have been charges of defamation in the least.
And of course, there are  numerous status updates and  opinions from those who do not have, neither should be allowed opinions.
But then, there are also instances of authorities being able to nab criminals and save people in trouble, thanks to Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. They are being used by everyone starting from Sushma Swaraj to help Indians in Yemen to my house help to let me know if she’s sick and out.
You can always argue and ask: so did the Ministry of External Affairs or house helps not work before FB and Twitter came around?  Sure did, but this has made the process far more easy and in my didi’s case, a lot cheaper.  To challenge that, to my mind is like saying, so did no one write before computers came around? Sure did, and most great works of literature are from pre-ballpoint pen days, but would that mean we all stick with parchments and quills forever?
How would that help anyone?
In India, cheap internet access has turned the world upside down, flattening out a whole bunch of pointless hierarchies and even elevating our stature in the tech world of today.
For long, India was only known as the backwater of technology, where thousands of engineers would work in IT Service firms to give global companies back end support. Today, India can boast of a company  that  ranks among the top 9 valuable startups all over the world, competing with Silicon Valley peers. A mobile based dining app has gone ahead and bought a US based rival,  others are helping people do a hundred different things—right from hunting for houses to looking for doctors to calling cabs – much more smoothly than people ever imagined. Not to mention the thousands of jobs the industry has created as it grows.
Oh and you think these are all superfluous changes that have no big impact on society?
I’ll disagree, with examples I see around me and first hand experiences.  A cab calling app has been able to break the much feared auto-wallah nexus in Bangalore, something authorities have not been able to for years.
 These days, they do not charge “one and half times” for no reason, because they know if they do that, the customer will simply call an auto through the app. I tried the local fish market when I had just moved to Mumbai—after fighting the stench and haggling with a dangerously irate seller, I came home with only passable quality fish. I have bought it online ever since, with zero complaints except for once, when the company happily took the delivery back and refunded me. 
 People in my quaint hometown have access to the same stuff—clothes, gadgets, books and home equipment that I, in Mumbai, do.  The security man at my office shops at the same online grocer that my boss does.
Because technology is becoming equally accessible, the girl who works at a friend’s house thinks nothing of using her employer’s charger for her phone.  If as employers we are not at home with this, the joke is on us.  
Yes, I know this should not be a problem in any educated household. But look inside middle class homes in India and their prejudices  and you will know why I mention this attitudinal shift.
These are little, and largely cosmetic changes, for sure.  But is that not better than no change at all?  We all talk about developed countries where “everyone, right from the cabbie to the bossman have iPhones”, and say that with respect, as an example of the inherent equality in their society.

Economically, India is still not at a place where everyone can afford iPhones (using iPhone as an example, not as a basic parameter of progress)  but why not start with a more affordable cousin? 
Like a leading Indian phone company says, “technology does not discriminate”. And neither should we.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spare the rod?

    Some months ago, when we were visiting Kolkata, there was talk of a bachelor/bachelorette. Then there a general shunning of the "going out to party" idea because none of us really like that and in any case, all we wanted to do was talk, eat and drink.
    As is the nature of conversations between tight friends, we covered all things important, ranging from health and family to annoying relatives to books and bad TV before we eventually got to politics and inevitably, the still-fresh major BJP victory and our PM.
     Swachch Bharat came up and managed to turn the otherwise relaxed conversation into a furious one, causing a rift of the kind you think will result in irreparable fall-outs (but of course they never do)-- I thought it was a good move, a starting point at least. The Opposition thought it was too little too late, especially since most people do not care about these things in India until there's the fear of the Dunda- literally, the stick/rod. Punishment for misbehaviour like public littering or jumping traffic lights is extremely lax, which many think encourages miscreants because they can get away with it.
    Some thought it made zero sense to push public cleanliness because all the trash eventually ends up in the same dumping grounds minus any proper recycling. I think it's a laughably weak argument. If we don't litter in our living rooms because "it all ends up in the same place anyway", we shouldn't do it outside either. If you’re going to come back at me to say “but I do litter in my living room too”, I’ll just say that makes you a dirty pig.
    The Dunda argument, to my mind, made more sense, though at that time I fought tooth and nail say given the many restrictions politicians operate within, an attempt to ask people to "clean your thoughts" sounds like a better idea than to say "we'll throw you in jail if you don't".
     The reason I recount this story is because Lee Kuan Yew died today.   What LKY did for Singapore is there for all to see. How he did it is what starts conversations.
The grand old man of Singapore basically got his country where it is today by implementing the Dunda against everything from chewing gum to not flushing public toilets to teaching people to smile more and be less noisy.
All of this as he ruthlessly pushed business, made friends with the British and the American and kept his politics free of any –isms. “We were called a Nanny State," he told the BBC in 2000.  "But the result is that we are today better behaved and we live in a more agreeable place than 30 years ago."
   Let us, for a second, think what an LKY would have faced if he were to implement his laws in our country.
 The punishment for drawing graphiti in Singapore is caning.  I can almost hear the media, Twitter, college goers and FB activists getting ready to jump, claiming “loss of liberty”.  Look at what happened when a state government made a law asking everyone present during elections to vote unless they were sick or otherwise unable to for serious reasons.
A part of the media and people said it was infringing on people’s freedom, when we all know most of us do not exercise our voting rights because we are too lazy to step out on a “holiday”.
Taxi operators in another state went on a strike because they were championing their rights to refuse taking in customers during duty hours.  Even this found some sympathizers among the public.
If you are not up to speed on this, these taxi drivers are notorious for refusing customers just because they can. They want to wait for a longer routes, refuse to take you in unless you agree to pay more or simply say no just because.
Repeat, this is during duty hours. The state government decided to implement fines on rogue cabbies and the union protested.
They found political backing among champions of the poor and the government had to backtrack considerably.
Can you imagine what would happen if the State put a strict check on the use of bad language or spitting in public places? I can immediately think of at least a dozen people who would protest and say “but trash-talk and spitting are my birthright."
 You know what LKY said when people criticized or questioned his policies of fines and caning for public misbehavior?
"Putting chewing gum on our subway train doors so that they don't open, I don't call that creativity, I call that mischief making," he told the BBC in 2000.  "If you can't think because you can't chew, try a banana".
So what is our problem?
Why do we, in the name of liberty and citizen rights, insist on mischief making and bad behavior?
Last month I chided a young friend because he threw his cigarette stub on the road. He came back to me with an “aami maani na”, or “I don’t agree”.
I asked him what he did not agree with. That littering is wrong? Or that he was being dirty and would insist on having a right to be so?
Is that not abusing the rights that we are lucky as citizens to have received?
There are problems with governance, yes. Trash cans are not as easy to be found as they should, but nothing would be lost if we just wait till we come by the next one  (or use one of the bins little stores keep by the road for themselves).
Initially as I read about Singapore’s stringent implementation of policies, I was disturbed.  But I've been thinking about it and  am pretty convinced that there comes a point when desperate times need desperate measures.
Naughty children get taken to the Principal’s office to get punished. It really is quite simple, isn't it? Of course, it is easier to rule a class of about 6 million people as opposed to a class with a billion, but we're talking about the intent. 

India’s problem comes from the complexity of us being stuck in the middle of a strange progress and our half baked understanding of what "rights" mean. The government tells us we are the fastest growing economy in the region, we have Burger Kings and Zaras and nightclubs and a reasonably liberal media/ government that allows us to exercise our rights as citizens. So a big percentage of us think we have arrived, and how dare anyone berate us?
  Caveat: I have no empirical data to back claim of “big percentage”, just my interaction with people.
Which is why, when The Economist calls us a continent sized embarrassment, we accuse them of colonialism, without pausing for a second to consider that the globally respected publication might not necessarily have a personal bone to pick with India.  So we have learnt to champion our rights, but we don’t know how to use them or even what those exactly are.
 We know we should challenge autocracy, but don’t fully understand what that means and what the difference between challenging autocracy and yelling against a government trying to make us vote is.

Finally, Lee Kwan Yew was famously ideology-free, but he was pro-business. Some people say a lot of the push towards asking people to smile more and be less noisy was so that businessmen or politicians from the Western World would feel at home interacting with inherently reticent Singaporeans.  Ok, so that was pandering to Western capitalism, if you will. But what’s the harm if the end result is a better life for everyone?
Singapore is greener than any city in India is (so pro business is not automatically = bad for environment), is obviously cleaner, swindlers-free, economically strong and works more efficiently.  True, there could be a feeling of oppression that creeps up with an extended stay, but seriously, if you had to pick, would you choose Tower of Babel over a mild feeling of oppression that comes from everything running a tad too efficiently?
The only problem is, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. LKY’s iron hand would mean we could get told who to marry and give up a free press, things most people in the free world would not even consider an option. 
Right now however, as I look around me, I’m not sure one would be such a bad alternative over the other.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The force of Habit

Every time I make a change in my life, my poor blog seems to suffer. I wonder if it is the same with others too. Not necessarily blogs, I mean do your hobbies take a hit with every new addition/change to your lives?

Thankfully, I think I’ve finally found my pace again. Meanwhile, of course, the world continued its own march. A bunch of sick men killed school children in Pakistan, more killed cartoonists in Paris. Russia’s invading Ukraine (still trying to figure out how this can be allowed), Obama visited India, Kim Kardashian’s step-dad reportedly wants to become a woman and India test fired the Agni-V, which can hit both Beijing and Karachi if they ever decided to use it that way.

I’m relearning the art of sharing a house and a household, travelling in bits and picking up on the very Mumbaikar trait of overlooking the desperate filth and dread all around the city to keep my sanity. My husband flees to Bangalore from time to time to keep his.

The other day as I was walking down to the train station, I cringed inwardly as the populous platform swam into sight.  But at the same time, I realized it wasn’t bothering me as much as it used to. Ma has a favourite adage she mouths every time my brother and I nag or complain about changes we do not like – manusher naam mahashay, ja showabey taayi shoy.

I don’t think I can translate that and do justice, but it basically means human beings are slaves of habit and get used to just about everything on the face of this earth.
As I looked right past the mounds of garbage by the train tracks, I realized how true most of those granny’s wisdom type adages are.

My taxi chacha—the man who drives me to work most mornings, told me the other day how he got picked under the Mhada housing scheme a couple of years back. He sold off the flat and continues to live in the slum area he set himself up at 20 years ago when he migrated from Pratapgarh to Bombay.  “Tab mujhey 15 lakh miley. Illegal sale tha, isliye 15 mein diya, nahi toh us ghar ka keemat 30 to tha hi. Par 15 bhi koi kum nahi hain madam humare liye.”

He sold the house he got under a government rehabilitation scheme for 1.5 million rupees, about half of what the going rate was, because it was an illegal sale.  And because the 1.5 mill is still a huge amount of money, especially since he is used to his slum living conditions.

“Jab shuru mein gao se aya tha bahut dikkat hota tha hum ko, ghar mein aurat ko. Ab aadat ho gaya hain.”

Slaves of habit.  But I’m thinking, aren’t there some habits we’re better off not being slaves to, even though acceptance can bring some (temporary) peace?

That way, the PM won’t have to waste his time and energy giving us cleanliness lessons.  Thanks to the Swachch Bharat push, even little kiosks in Bandra now try to avoid plastic bags and they cleaned up the patch of land my balcony overlooks.  It was being used a dumping ground by the maids of all the surrounding tony houses.  But it still is amazing that we need the might of a political party/leader to teach us that we should not litter, pee or spit in public. What gives?

While Indian media was hyperventilating over Modi’s name-striped suit and Obama’s visit, I saw a little article in the TOI that said POTUS’ security team carried air purifiers to Delhi. And then, this not so little article said breathing the Delhi air—which  by the way is the most toxic there can be—is equal to inhaling 8 cigarettes a day.  So basically the country is killing us and we can’t do anything about it. If we invite guests, we smother them with garlands and shawls and food, but can’t offer decent air to breathe.

If that is not embarrassing for a country and its people, I don’t know what is.  
Oh I know. How about that Obama had to come and lecture us on women’s safety and secularism before taking off? The man basically told us, “all this gaiety is fine, but if you can’t stop fighting about religion or stop raping women, don’t talk about advancement, bro.”

Does it amaze you, this? That the same country that is test firing Agni-Vs and making friends with the most developed nations in the world cannot even give its citizens breathable air?

Or that we live in the same world where on one hand Johnny Depp buys his own islands, and on the other, men and women die for lack of shelter against harsh climates? Or that while some of us are sending spaceships to probe further and further into the universe, others say living the “fast life” by eating chow mien (I still cannot wrap my head around that, honestly)  is a cause of rape.

And if all of this sounds like far-off, distant problems to you, here’s something that might make it more personal. My friend tells me her friend from the days when they were little girls attending one of the best girls’ school in the country tied the knot a few months back.
 The man had recently returned from Europe and there was a big fat Delhi wedding. Then, within a span of days, the girl filed for divorce. The man was married, the family hid that little fact from her and her family all the while, and when she asked what this was all about, the MIL said with her complexion, she should be happy she could find a man, and should not be a fool to rock the boat. The girl is dark-skinned, of course.

I am now starting to feel more kindly towards Ekta Kapoor.  Poor thing drew inspiration from real-life people and instead of bashing those people up, we went after her.

To make up for my borderline hopelessness with ourselves, I have started cooking and have upped my reading. And reviewing eateries. So if you can’t recognize me the next time around, it’s probably all the good food that’s going in.  People like us make Zomato rich and happy, and enable them to go buy rivals in 20 other countries. It does make me proud.

I can’t stop liking a good bowl of chow mien.  

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..