Friday, December 31, 2010 0 comments

Loneliness and the "social animal"

A year is nearing its end as I write this post. We will be moving into 2011, hopefully a  new and happy year! Nearly forty such new years have come and gone through my life.. But ushering in the new year seems to have become something so different from what it used to be when we were younger. The news today on television was full of how Bombay is getting ready to "party" despite possibilities of a terror attack. Police in Bombay are considering extending liquor sales hours in the bars till 5AM. It is not just Bombay but conservative Madras ( or Chennai) also seems to be gearing up to party! Advertisements abound in newspapers about hotels hosting "New Year Extravagazas" for which one has to pay a huge entry fee.

Life in Metros certainly seems to have undergone a huge change! To "party" is something that appears to have become a compulsive need. Now, this is not something bad-going to a party and meeting friends and/or relatives is a part of being a social animal that defines being human. But given the way we seem to be living our daily existence with little or no contact with our immediate neighbours and investing a large part of our day at work it is really surprising that we should want to define our social existence amidst strangers...!!

Now let me explain this a bit more. We leave our homes in the mornings for work and come back often so late in the evenings that we do not have much time for either our friends or our families. Then, when an occasion comes to celebrate we prefer to go out again into the maddening crowd to enjoy ourselves!! We like to go into crowded resturants or discos to spend an evening with family and friends. I wonder how it might have been  had we stayed at home and spent quality time together - either having a pot luck meal or ordering food from outside ( from the same resturants where we wait endlessly to be seated on a Saturday evening or new year)?

I think it may be the complete loneliness of our existence in these urban settings which seeks comfort in a crowd.  I rarely see groups of 2-3 youngsters these days in any public place - they are usually in 2-3 dozens! Now when a dozen or more in itself is a crowd why do they have to go out again into a crowd is something that beats me!!

So, when loneliness is the unstated fear that most people have, invitation to join a crowd in the name of socializing becomes the psychological weapon to wield power. Birthdays for kids are no longer events that involved inviting a few  friends with mom cooking- they are now complicated affairs which involve strategising on who to call and who not to- they certainly are learning young these days!! People become so desparate to be included into the crowd that they are willing to do anything for it!!

I remember meeting a young girl on the street some time back when my daugther and I were coming back after grocery shopping. This pretty twenty something girl stopped me and asked " Ma'm is there a mall somewhere nearby where I can  hang out?" When we moved on after informing her that there were no malls nearby for her to "hang out" my daughter voiced the question that was ringing in my mind  " Why does she want to be out in a mall?"- the same reason I guess why people want to be out on a new year- deriving comfort from the presence of a large number of people around them rather than being home alone!
Friday, December 17, 2010 2 comments

The Value of Time at the workplace.

We Indians are a peculiar lot- we haggle over prices of most things that we buy. Despite the huge amounts that some of us may be earning, we do not want to spend even one paisa extra on any  item in the interest of "not wasting our money". 

But there is something that we waste liberally -time. We are very lavish in the way we throw it away little realizing that this probably is the only resource  that we may never get back/

To illustrate this let me take you to a familiar scene - meetings in Indian offices. They are probably the best examples of how we throw away this valuable resource. A meeting that is scheduled to start at a particular time rarely does. No body and nobody adheres to the time limit mentioned in an agenda !! We love to talk and this becomes a major challenge - each one of us trying to "out talk" the other and all this finally exceeding the agreed duration of a meeting. Nowadays with powerpoints aiding us in the talking - we make the world literally "our stage". A fifteen minute presentation usually has more than 30 slides and the presenter reads through all the material on the slide finally taking another good ten minutes to speak about things not written on the slide. Others, not to be outdone then give their opinions/ views and we slowly find that the topic goes way out of focus but no one realizes it until we have lost about one hour or so and we have to come to some decision regarding the original topic under discussion. So we get back and start again...

So what does all this do to a eight hour working day ? It extends to nine , ten or eleven hours and we leave our office feeling great about having worked so hard. The quest ion is - have we?

We seem to confuse time spent on an activity as the mesure of effort and that in turn is linked to the sincerity of any employee. The first to arrive and the last to leave in any office is seen as the best role model.

It is really sad the way we seem to be conducting our lives these days. Given the difficultites of commuting to work and back it becomes all the more important to ensure we complete our work within the eight hours alloted and get back in time to see our children awake , play with them and enjoy their childhood. We will never get these moments back but we do not seem to realize this. We become embroiled in a system that wastes our time and that of others and we contribute to it in our own ways.

I have a friend from abroad who once told me " Eight hours is the normal time it takes to get a day's work done in an office. If anyone takes longer to complete something s/he is lying". 

I guess in India, if someone took less time than that to complete something they are probably perceived as insignificant people within the organization with no "work". Our entire system revels in working on an average for 9-10 hours perpetuating inefficiencies at every level and ending the day with a smug and happy feeling of having been recognized as "hardworking"!
Saturday, December 11, 2010 2 comments

Celebrating festivals - then and now.

I love Autumn and Winter-they have a very festive air about them! First and foremost, the weather - an oppresively hot city like Chennai, starts getting cooler once we cross October. Navratri, Durga Puja Diwali, Christmas and Eid- so many festivals ! Let  me try and express  how I feel about this season. Since we are in December or Marghazi  I will start with this month and go backwards.

I love the early "Margazhi mornings"- the music playing from the temple loudspeakers as I go for my morning walk. Occasionally I meet a troupe of Bhajan Singers dressed in thick sweaters and scarves braving the Chennai "cold" weather. I remember a childhood waking up to listening to my mother play M. L. VasanthaKumari's Thiruppavai- songs of Andaal ( our own South Indian version of Meerabai) of Sriviliputhur asking her friends to join her for a morning swim and pluck flowers to make garlands for her lord.

I absolutely adore the "Christmasssy" feel of the December evenings- the brightly lit houses and churches with the stars hanging outside, the Christmas trees that are put up. At home, I enjoy the hustle and bustle of getting things together to bake a cake ( though I dont actually bake I definitely participate in the spirit of the activity!), the conspiracy of buying presents to put under the Christmas tree and ofcourse listening to any carol singers who might come home. At college I remember being part of a carol group that used to go singing within and outside the campus.

Going further back into Oct- Nove,  I cherish the feel of  the Diwali and Durga Puja season. I love the crazy shopping adventures, the "bakshanams" to be bought and distributed for Diwali and the lighting of lamps in the evening. (What I probably do not like about Diwali is the sound of the crackers that in Chennai starts so early in the morning. )

Durga Puja - which is the first  festival that heralds this season of enjoyment has a very special place in my heart-it is the festival of my childhood. Early mornings on Mahalya day ,  All India Radio used to play the Devi Shloka " Ya Devi Sarva bhutesho"..... Sanskrit shlokas recited by artistes of the AIR Kolkata in a distinctly strong Bengali accent. Come Saptamai, the memories are of evenings  spent at  "pandals" with beautiful Durga Pratimas, the bustling crowds, the blasting music in loudspeaks and the new clothes that we used to wear.

Somewhere in this season would also come Eid after the month of Ramzan when our Muslim friends used to share Biryani and Sweets  ( in my case only the Sevai sweet as I am a vegetarian) with us during my days at Hyderabad.

I sometimes wonder if I had lived anywhere other than in India, would I have had the pleasure of being part of so many festivals in a matter of just 3-4 months? Right from my childhood every festival was a celebration whether I understood the religious significance of it or not.  There was a spirit of brother/sisterhood in everything that we did during these celebrations. Our muslim and christian friends would be as much a part of Diwali cracker bursting as we would be part of the carol singing. It was more than just "religious tolerence" that was expected of citizens of a secular country.  As  a secular country, in India  all  festivals  have a cultural angle to them which make them very inclusive.

But these days I sometimes sense a feeling of aloofness among some people when it comes to celebrations. I first sensed this during my college days when one of my classmates asked me "Why are you joining all this carol singing. You are not a Christian"? I was so shocked to hear that. I had never thought that there was a religious angle to it. 

Today as a Hindu married to a Christian and living in a largely Tamil Brahmin neighbourhood I sense again this feeling of exclusion when I am not invited by any of my neigbours for the navrathri gollu exhibitions. I dont know if they think that I may have converted and become a christian and are therefore punishing me by exclusion. But the question is what is wrong in inviting a Christian neighbour for an exhibition of dolls?

What in my understanding seems to be the change these days is that a certain religious "perversity" seems to be underlying celebrations of all festivals. This has led to certain behaviour patterns that border on aggression while celebrating any festival- an aggression that seems to announce the fact "yes we belong to this relgion and we will jolly well celebrate this festival!". Now there is nothing wrong in exercising that right in a secular country like ours. What I am lamenting about is the loss of that  genuine spirit of happiness that used to be so infectious in those good old days- when cultures used to diffuse from one religion into another like a fragrance.

Today though we growing technologically and economically more prosperous as a nation, we seem to have become narrower in our thinking. We seem to be  heading towards an India where we are trying to reinvent ourselves using religion as the parameter of defining difference. And while defining ourselves we are also defining the "other' who is no longer  accepted as the neighbour who lived with us for decades and whose children played with ours on the same streets!

Sad but true...!
Sunday, December 5, 2010 3 comments

Out of Africa

" I had a farm in Africa..." says Meryl Streep as she plays Karen Brixen in the film "Out of Africa".
This sentence  fired my imagination when I was nineteen years old and ever since then Africa became a place that I definitely wanted to visit. It took me over two decades to actually get there- get right there to Karen Brixen's estate, her house and see for real the rooms that I saw in the film, Probably what was missing was seeing Meryl Streep and Robert Redford sitting in there.  It  is an interesting story - a story of an extra marital love affair, somehow made more romantic by the beautiful Kenyan landscape around.

One of the first thing that strikes you when you get off at the Nairobi airport is a feeling of warmth. The accents are different but the smiles are broader. I actually saw an immigration officer smile at me when he took my passport in- very different from his Indian counterpart at the Chennai airport who quizzed me on why I was visiting Africa so often- " You have been to Cairo, Addis Abba and now Nairobi? Why Madam? What kind of work do you do?"  I did my best to explain the kind of job I was doing but I am not sure if I convinced him.

Once out of the airport the interesting thing you notice are the number of placards that carry names of NGOs- Action Aid, OXFAM, IIRR- so different from Chennai where you see either hotel names or names of different companies. I think if I were to explain to an African taxi driver what I do he would probably understand it better than an officer from the Ministry of External Affairs in India.  I wonder if that is the trajectory of how development shapes our thinking.

A 30 minute drive with three other South Asian participants takes me to the KCB training centre at Karen ( yes, named after my favourite Karen Brixen!) . Once I get into my room I am intrigued to see the mosquito net- reminds me of the romance scenes in Hindi movies- a white curtain draped over the bed . It certainly does not bear any resemblence to the white cage from my childhood which used to be tied to the four posters of the bed and tucked under the mattress!

I wake up at 5.45 AM- 8.15 Indian time when Airtel 121 religiously sends me a message telling me my unbilled amount (or is it billed amount? I dont know). Deciding to go out for a walk I realize how cold it is! I am glad I brought a couple of sweaters with me despite some well meaning well wishers who gave me advice like - "Oh why woolens in Africa? Isnt it near the equator always hot and sweaty"? or " It is in the southern hemisphere must be summer now so why warm clothes". Tells us how perceptions about Africa differ ..! I meet two crested cranes who look up at me curiously,  3 Maribu Storks who stand huddled in the cold and then meet some of the workers on the training centre. Every one of them smiles and wishes me "Good Morning"- this is a memory of Kenya that I will always carry with me - the smile and the cheery greetings!

Work begins and we start getting together at the "write shop" producing that book we came here to write. Interesting experience meeting so many people from so many countries. I must confess this - I always used to think of Africans as one group but this was the first time I realized that there were many Africans who were as foreign to Kenya as I was - participants from Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda..!! This interaction with Africans also told me something about how we Indians are perceived in Africa. The perception unfortunately is not a very pleasant one. "Indians do not treat people working under them well" said a Kenyan friend. " They dont want to live with others. They have exclusive buildings where they want only their kind to stay". Sad but probably true. We Indians have a ghetto mentality which prevents us from integrating with other cultures and we probably are as much a group of racists as the whites treating Africans badly. I try to explain to them about how I am from Southern India  and racially a Dravidian and therefore closer to the Africans. " So you are not a Patel"? asks someone. " No I am not" I assure them.

Work goes on and as we get ready to go back to our rooms in the evening, some of us women spend time chatting about ourselves and our families - interestingly all conversations that we have some how comes back to discussions about mothers-in-law. This is probably a universally common topic that women across the world like to discuss! As development professionals all of us have faced disapprovals from our mothers in law for travelling too much- some have been more vocal than others in their disapproval.

The weekend appraoches and we take a break on Friday night dancing away till early Saturday morning. I am really surprised at the popularity of the Bollywood dance moves- people from as far away as Peru are doing the Bhangra Steps...! " I will show you some Bangla Dance steps" says Kohinoor from Bangladesh as she does "Rabindra Nritya" to the Salsa Music !!

We visit the Karen Brixen museum over the weekend, go to the Masai market in Nairobi and strike some hard bargains on the lovely bags and jewellery- I think this was more difficult than Sarojini market or Gariahaat.. though the rules of the game were very similar.

Sunday morning we leave very early to see the wild life at the Nairobi national park- we are lucky as we see 3 out of Kenya's big five - Lion, Buffalo and Rhino. Tiered we get back to the training centre and begin work again. A Kenyan friend starts laughing when I tell him that we have a dairy project here with buffaloes. "What about elephants? When are you going to start milking them?" I try and explain to him the difference between the Kenyan wild buffalo and the Murrah buffalo in our project areas. But he is too amused to listen.
I hear a participant from Ghana tell me about Shea Butter and how that goes into making cosmetics. I try to imagine women pounding it out of the nuts. He shows me a small video clip on his computer.

Suddenly I realize that I just have one day left. With good byes being said over the eveining I leave for the airport. At the check in counter as I try to manage my bags  the airline check in clerk asks me if I am "OK"? I travelled by the same airline from Chennai but the check in counter clerk there did not glance beyond  my ticket and passport- what a difference!!!

I board the flight to Dubai and from here I change flights to Chennai. The stewardess assumes that I would need a vegetarian breakfast- I tell her NO and ask for eggs and bread. I recall how on my onward flight from Chennai to Dubai another Stewardess had just assumed that since I was a woman I would not drink anything alchoholic. I had asked for wine with the same vengence that I now asked for eggs...!!!

Reached a rainy and wet Chennai- tiered  but happy to be at last back home!!

Certainly folks.. this has been a wonderful experience. I want to do this again -this time with the rest of the family.