Wednesday, November 05, 2014

In Defense of Parents

Everyone writes about children. No one writes about parents.
Are you a parent? A hassled, frazzled, under-pressure human being? A self-admonishing, self-doubting, sincere gem of a person? My latest publication in the Spark magazine is written for you (and it should be a first in a long series). Read on.


In Defense of Parents

Childhood is the simplest time of life. To maintain the stakes of balance, parenting ends up being tough. And yet these parents, these gentle martyrs are never written about. Songs are written about the happy days of childhood. ‘Woh kaagaz ki kashti, woh baarish ka paani’ (That paper boat, those puddles of rain). Children make the best of candidates for stories. They are perfect and even when they are not, their imperfection is endearing. So, no, I am not here to celebrate children and childhood. I am here to celebrate parenthood.

Raising children has never been easy, right from the time of the Neanderthals. Imagine having to worry about your toddler rolling off the rock or warning your young kids to be wary of scary strangers and large beasts. The passage of millennia hasn’t made the task any easier.  Look at the current generation. It is a confused gaggle of parents who are told that every good idea that they have about parenting is not quite right.

If you are too attentive, you are indulging and spoiling the kids. If you aren’t present in your child’s life every waking moment, you aren’t participating enough. If they watch too much TV, you are inhibiting their development. But if they aren’t watching too much TV, hey, we are back to being all too present in their lives all the time. Your life has to be a living will and testament to the little monsters you have produced. But wait. The single reason we are bringing up a generation of self-indulgent is that we are spending too much time on them. There are helicopter parents. There are iPad parents. There are over-the-shoulder parents. There are working-on-weekend parents. There are treat-them-with-kid-gloves parents. There are let-them-run-wild parents. It is as if a parent can’t be a parent without a worrying adjective assigned to them. This group is under perennial pressure and judgment. To add to it, with many migrating away from their homes for their careers, they have no village left to help them raise a child. That leaves them little choice but to figure out this whole parenting skill by themselves. Most of them fly blind. Parenting by intuition. And trepidation. For these parents, I would like to offer moral support and some simple life lessons.

The 35000-foot view

Parenting is a duty towards society. You have been dealt a cocktail of genes from the human gene pool and a position in the societal structure with resources to go with it. Using this deadly combination, your task is to produce a progeny that will further the cause of the human race. Your parents did their bit to give you a chance in the pecking order of haves and have-nots. Your job is to do the same.

Why this rather large context to position this problem in? Well, for starters, it will make you feel good that all those sleepless nights and patient afternoons are not for nothing. You are on a mission that will ensure the continuity of the human race. That is no less than any blockbuster Hollywood makes where a bunch of people save the earth from annihilation. You are and your spouse are heroes of your own movie.

Parenting can be a sport

Oh, and a parenting is a sport. A highly competitive one. This, I am sure you have realized by now. You aren’t just raising a child.  You are raising a child better than your friends are. Than your cousins are. Than your neighbours are. And certainly better than all those parents of pesky classmates of your child. This is where confidence comes in handy. There are no right or wrong answers to parenting. There are no firsts and lasts in a child’s growth. Take the example of when a child walks or when a child talks. It is easy to get stressed about the fact that every single kid your child’s age has begun walking and talking sooner than yours. As they grow older, it will be about how well they can read. Or solve Legos. Or build robots. And you look at your child with a mixture of pity, accusation, denial. And a plea for redemption. You sit through all those ‘Little Einstein’ DVDs with them when they are young. The least they could do is solve string theory before someone’s else child does. Oh wait, redemption arrives. No one else’s child does either. They are all going to cap off somewhere or the other. Trust me. Those ‘high-achieving’ parents? They will feel crushed too, sooner or later. It is a no-win game.

What’s in a name?

Picking a name is a tough ask of parents. Imagine the consequences of a name that a child will come to regret. The results can be so damning that Jhumpa Lahiri wrote an entire book about it. To aid with that process, parents turn to the most reliable of resources. The internet. The algorithm is tried and tested. Take a tour of all the websites that suggest names for babies. If you are in a foreign country, run those names by the some locals to make sure the pronunciations are butchered like goats on Bakri Eid. These are all good things. The masses can’t be wrong. But this approach has had one unintended side effect. As I look around today, I see a lot of Arnav, Aarav, Arya, Arhan, Aarush, Aditya, so on and so forth. It is as if parents looked at the alphabet and forgot that there are letters beyond A. So, here’s a little tip: start from ‘Z’. Starting with Zoya and Zeeshan on the list and working down to Aswath. It will leave you with a higher chance of having a name for your child that starts with a letter higher up the alphabet chain and have a name that he or she doesn’t share with ten others around him or her.

Well, you turned out ok

Your parents will   start giving you a ton of good-natured advice when they turn into grandparents. They have earned the right. They brought you up in one piece. Somehow, you turned out ok. What they omit to tell you is that they were as clueless as parents are you are right now. Despite that, this ramshackle of a personality that you are, with all its deficiencies and inefficiencies, has made it good in this world. Whenever you feel lost in this morass of parenting and wonder how it is going to turn out, take a deep breath and tell yourself ‘I turned out ok. My kids will too.’



When you next see your kids, hold them, assure them and relish the blessing that they are. You’ll rise and fall in your own estimation as well as that of your kids as you try to deal with this imperfect science. These little bits of information here are mere crumbs of advice for this difficult job. Trust your instinct to tell you the right thing. For everything else, there’s the internet.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Chakraview: AID India Quiz 2014

I had the pleasure of conducting an India Quiz with two fellow quizzers, Nandini and Suchir for AID. This is an annual event that my quizzing group, Seattle Area Quizzers conducts for AID, an NGO that drives a lot of good projects in India. Small contribution to a greater cause.

The questions are shared here for your enjoyment. Go ahead. Give it a spin.

Chakraview: India Quiz 2014 

Sunday, October 05, 2014

That Little Blue Car

What is your dream car? A Bentley, a Beetle, a BMW or a Bugati? In this non-fiction piece in this month's Spark magazine themed 'Desire', I talk about my dream car from a time when dreams were simpler. Read on about which one and why! The answer might surprise you

That Little Blue Car | Spark

That Little Blue Car


What is a car? Is it just a vehicle on four wheels or is it a disguise for something larger? An ambition, an aspiration, a dream, a desire? Cars have continued to infuse passion and devotion amidst the believers over years. The car lover waxes eloquent about the purring of the engine, the thrill of its acceleration, the union of the man with the machine, the aesthetic joy that the contours of a vehicle bring. It is often a reflection of the owner. A status symbol, an extension of self.

Now that I have laid out a philosophical treatise on cars, let me tell you a story. This is a story of a man and a car and that little desire in a small crevice of his heart. It is a true story. It is my story.

I was a teen growing up in Mumbai in the 1990s. Mumbai is a crazy metropolis today. It was a crazy metropolis then too. It was packed like a can of sardines, but the lid was safely on (unlike today, where the can seems to spill a little bit of its guts each day). One of the great things about the city was that you could get around without ever needing a vehicle that you owned. There was the great train service (even with its daily incidents of people getting run over or electrocuted). There were the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws with their square shaped mysterious meters and tariff sheets. And where the auto-rickshaw could not reach, you had the speedier big brother of the auto-rickshaws, the Padmini Premier taxis. Lastly, you had the BEST buses, the red behemoths of the road. BEST stood for Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport and I am sure the people of Mumbai were glad that they were allowed to travel along with all the electricity that was being transported in the buses. There was the single decker. There was the double decker. The stalling, sputtering, accelerating, exhilarating buses that every other vehicle driver feared. An elephant among the hyenas. When presented with such an interesting bouquet of options, the ordinary Mumbaikar would hardly miss the rose-shaped hole. Their own car. I was one of them.

To be precise, my father was one of them (since I had no buying power being a poor engineering student). In fact, my grandfather was one of them too. Two generations of my family had thrived in Mumbai without entering the realms of car ownership. From the vast clean environs of South Mumbai to the newly developed jungle of Andheri, they had journeyed across the length and breadth of the city without ever getting a car. Heck, they never even had a driver’s license.

So, there I was. The third generation. Dangerously opinionated. Mildly ambitious. Engineered for the future. The 90s kid. I must have traveled a hundred thousand kilometers on the streets of Mumbai, aided by the wonderful public transport system of the city. For the longest time, I was content in my state of being unattached. To not having a car, that is. If you looked around then, even in the richest city in India, you wouldn’t see the Ferraris and the Jaguars. But change was rampant in the exhaust-fumes laden air of India. In the just liberalized economy, cars of different sizes from different makers were trickling in. We had moved ahead of the exotic Impala and Contessa, the standard issue Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, the family friendly Maruti Omni and the ‘luxurious’ Maruti 1000.
But what truly captured by heart was that little Maruti. The Maruti 800. That little box that fit the roads of Mumbai, never threatening to graze its seams. That small angular hood, the trunk that ended just after it started, the tiny mechanical doors, all got an approving look from me. The pint-sized tires glided on the bumpy roads of the city in sweet motion and the honking in ‘F’ minor was a good fit in the general cacophony.  I was lucky that a good friend had one of these little marvels at his disposal. Many an evening was spent going around in this car listening to music that might not pass muster with me more than a decade later. We were whatever the equivalent of ‘cool’ was, then. There may have been other better looking, more efficient, luxurious vehicles on offer, but my mind was set on the Maruti 800.

When I look back at those times, I often wonder why it was that I chose a Maruti 800 of all cars. When you don’t have the resources or the wherewithal to acquire something beyond your means, your dreams come to your rescue and let you soar on the wings of fancy. But then this was India in the 90s and this was me. The country was waking up to a new reality but my dreams were firmly rooted in the Hindu rate of growth.

It was a state of mind then. A pragmatic desire. A dream I could wrap my head around. A Maurti 800. Dark blue in color. With a functioning air conditioner. And a sound system that would gleefully take my collection of audio cassettes. There would be the cloud covered night in Mumbai where the rain would not let you see beyond the first five feet. A Faiz ghazal sung by Ghulam Ali would waft through the music system while the wipers worked overtime to rid the windshield of the pouring rain. That Maruti would glide through the lanes adjoining the sea where the waves would work hard to be heard over the rain.

I decided that the first car I would buy would be a Maruti 800. Only if to realize a dream. But that would not happen.. I didn’t know back then that I would go on to live abroad a few years later and would finally buy my first car in 2003. Not an Indian product, but a German one. A Volkswagen Passat. A tank disguised as a car. I didn’t know I would buy my second car a few years later. This time, a Japanese one. A Lexus SUV. A gas guzzler not pretending to be anything other than that. Recently, I read somewhere that production of the Maruti 800 has been discontinued. That puts an end to that flight of fancy. Even if it were available now, buying it would perhaps be an impractical thing to do. Yes, practicality. That which fed the dream will now cull it.

In a parallel universe, though, there is still that little blue charming car I would own and drive. I would just add one more thing to it to fit in with my current reality. I would make it an automatic.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book publication: 'r2i dreams'

I am proud and excited to announce the release of my book titled 'r2i dreams'.

It is a part autobiographical, part philosophical, sometimes funny and sometimes introspective book about the story of three immigrants struggling with their r2i (return to India) dream. r2i is a topic of constant discussion and debate among immigrant Indians and the book explores it through the lens of three parallel life stories. Realizing this book has been a rewarding journey with my co-conspirators Ramya and Subha. Here's hoping that these tales resonate with you too!

This flight of fancy was unexpected and uncharted and yet it has taken off for the horizon. What began as an organic project with the three of us bouncing ideas turned into a full fledged book during the course of a year. It has been tough work balancing with work and kids and other commitments and I am happy I could see it through. This topic in particular is a very common course of discussion among Indian immigrants and the book captures the essence of it.

Here's where you can get a copy for yourselves
In the US :
http://amzn.to/1rUmKCa
In India : http://bit.ly/1At99Rb
In Kindle store: http://amzn.to/1uTRXCH

If you are on Facebook, please like this page and spread the word: https://www.facebook.com/r2idreams
 

Friday, September 05, 2014

A Study in Platitudes

Cliches. We all indulge in them. We all spot them and feel smug and reassured when we do. But sometimes the cliche is not what it seems and the story behind it belies its definition. 

Pleased to share my short story in this month's Spark magazine. Inspired by a very Indian cliche that I have seen in action in America. Hope you enjoy it.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=7262 

A Study in Platitudes 

Jamuna ben realized that the laces of her shoes had come off. Shoes were an inconvenient truth of her old age. She didn’t like them, but couldn’t find anything more comfortable to walk around in. On a hot July day like this, with her family circling around her, there was no choice but to put on those green colored Nike shoes her grand-daughter had picked for her and soldier along. Her knees would give way after every hundred steps she walked and her eyes would scan for the nearest seat.

Ashit rolled his eyes when he saw his mother slow down. It was tough enough being a dedicated father. Being a model son was taxing him. He wasn’t sure why he had brought his mother out today. He knew she hated it. He knew he hated it. But he also knew that neither would admit it. The pilgrimage had to be done. He adjusted the fanny pack on his stomach, wiped the sweat of his brow and lugged his pot-bellied body forward. Today was going to be a long day.

Jalpa looked into the distance with a blank stare. Her gift for appreciating history was limited. But even she had heard all about the immigrants lining up at Ellis island, with the promise of a better life, with the promise of freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. Was she free? Happy? Growing up in the bylanes of Jamnagar, she had never thought of coming to America. The immigrant life was not of her choosing. Her husband too, was a suggestion her parents had forced her to accept. From the reticent bride of a man immigrating to the United States, she had grown to be her own self. With limited education and halting command over English, she had survived over two decades in the suburbs of New Jersey.

Their kids, Niti and Hiten, followed their parents at some distance. Neither was jumping up and down in excitement about this particular soiree. Niti adjusted the earphones on her iPod, letting the vagrant beats of the latest hip-hop star transport her away. She was fending off a fresh hurt from the morning. Jalpa and she had a fight over this trip – she insisted on Niti’s presence, which cued loud protests from her. Ashit’s word had prevailed in the end. Niti’s rebellion was like a cup that always managed to fill the brim but rarely spilled over. Her brother Hiten accompanied the group with the least degree of dissonance. At the tender age of nine, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Every exposure, every incident, every trip, every interaction was a welcome visitor in his palace of curiosities.

The group ground to a halt as Jamuna ben gave her troubled knee a rest. The sun was beaming down from the afternoon sky onto the courtyard in front of The Statue of Liberty. The pigeons held a conference in front of them, feeding off the grains scattered on the floor. It was a cue for the family.

They all naturally gravitated towards the only corner of the courtyard that was covered in shadow. The earth was cool and welcoming to the family in need. The collective trespasses of the day were to ready to take a break, spread their legs on the big mattress that Jalpa laid out and sate their hunger with the wholesome meal that this family would partake in.

In the wee hours of the morning, when all was quieter than usual in the eerily quiet suburb of Piscataway, New Jersey, Jalpa got up to make a sumptuous meal of theplas and alu sabzi for the hungry horde that would accompany her on the trip later that day.

They all sat around in a circle on the mattress. Jalpa took out a bunch of Ziploc bags, within which were theplasbunched in aluminum foil. The alu sabzi was neatly laid out in a bunch of plastic containers.  The pickle, soaked in oil, stained its container a deep blood orange. The spoons, forks, water and sweets were brought out, one after the other. They sat patiently, peering at the ground. A ritual steeped in habit was soon underway.

Jamuna ben took the food because she could have no other. Her constitution, attuned to seven decades of home cooked food had found no comfort in America. The only thing that worked for her diet, her diabetes and her didactic notions of eating, was what Jalpa would make for her. Ashit took the meal without question, taking it as a sign of his duty towards his mother, proxied through his wife. He would, while eating the theplas, eye the hot dog stand on the other side of the courtyard. The kids took an apathetic view of the whole business of eating. Their sensibilities were finely attuned to the switching of worlds. In one moment, Indian-American, and in the other, American-Indian. The ritual did not embarrass them, though the futility of it amused them. Why their rather rich family would not spend a hundred dollars on a meal but choose to engage in sitting around and eating this meal to the curious stares of strangers was something they had never fully understood.

And so the meal proceeded in slow harmony. Conversation found its way out in as the morsels of food disappeared. A smile here, a laugh there, a comment here, a question there. The family conversed, softly to begin with, loudly to end with. Oblivious to the heat, to the teeming masses that were building around, to the history of the immigrants that had once landed there, to their own story of displacement from their native lands.

When the meal was done and the trash was deposited and the hunger Gods sated, they got up and walked towards The Statue of Liberty. A Caucasian tourist with a pair of goggles and a rotund belly was handed a point and shoot camera.

The man stared at the screen at the back of the camera. Bit by bit, they filled it up. The grandmother in the center, Ashit and Jalpa behind her, the two kids flanking her sides. On an ordinary day, in the full capture of a glorious photography, in a very ordinary way, the Patel family came together, fulfilling yet another cliché.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Entrapment

Happy to share my publication this month in the Spark magazine. Their theme for the month was 'Freedom' and I have written a short story that deals with a father and a son as the father grapples with his notion of freedom while his son sees it differently.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=7196


Entrapment



“Go to your room right now,” Akshay hollered. The voice reverberated through the living room. It wasn’t enough that his voice would have sent shivers down the spine of young Pinak. A table lamp conspired to elevate his profile to that of a towering giant across the wall. The boy cowered under the weight of his father’s anger. His eyes had a touch of defiance at the start of the argument, but he realised very soon that his insolence wasn’t going to get him too far. He shrunk in his place. Hands on the side, head bowed, he willed his legs to take him upto his room, but he was simply unable to move. It took Akshay’s loud reminder to shake him from his stupor.  The little legs rushed to the end of the hall and led him to his bed where he crashed like a meteor on earth.

Akshay stood in his place shaking with fury. His anger was half-directed at himself. The intransigence of the boy was not worth the rage directed at him. Yes, he had broken a vase in the living room, jumping off the sofas imagining himself to a superhero. But Akshay’s anger was fueled by his own frustration.  The stock of his company had plummeted that day, much like the vase his son had toppled over. The stock price had slipped to the edge over the past few days, fueled by rumours of a bad quarter of sales. Then the numbers came out, and it toppled over the precipice. Office looked like a war zone that morning. There were signs of panic all around. People leaning over their desks, phones cupping one ear. Handkerchiefs were out wiping beads of sweat that lined eyebrows even in air-conditioned rooms. Computer screens that usually ran the gamut from Facebook to Email to their actual work programs were busy tracking the downfall of the stock. The Titanic was sinking and no one had sounded the warning about the icebergs. The guardians on the watch should have said something, but they had decided to be silent. Akshay was one of them.

He knew the books, he knew the story, he knew where the holes in the ship were. He remembered that Thursday night meeting with his CEO. Sitting in that dimly lit cabin of his when everyone but the janitors had gone home, he had stood quietly like a school boy being reprimanded. “It’s ok. We can salvage it. Nothing is lost. Impressions are everything.” It was pep talk and admonishment rolled into one. It was a call to arms and a sleight of hand at the same time. He was goaded, cajoled, convinced, threatened and silenced at the same time. Akshay had waited all along for another voice to appear to contradict his boss. Something from within –  that little voice in the head, which would have told him that what he was doing was flat out incorrect. His job description had said nothing about having to cook up the books, but here he was, being asked to do exactly that.
He had bought into the mythology his bosses fed him. The invincibility of the market. The durability of appearances. The untouchability of the elites. He had always wondered what it would be like to be one of them. Being granted entry into the boys’ club. Here he was finally. A boy amongst men. Asked to give his share of the flesh. His entry fee.

He had brought his entire toolkit to this hatchet job he had been asked to do. The balance sheet was altered, the cash flow statement twisted and the income statement spruced up. Night after night he sat and figured out ways around the problem – keeping the company in the green and the investors in the dark. Papers were littered across the floor of his offices like discarded promises. It didn’t matter. This was it. He would do this one thing, this one time, and be on his way to a success story he had always imagined himself to be.

He stood in the living room, stooped under the weight of his thoughts. Bit by bit, he cleared up the floor, picking up the broken pieces of the vase, trying to steady his mind which was swirling in the maelstrom of thoughts.  When he felt satisfied at having cleaned up the mess that his son had made, he went to his room where the little boy was huddled under the blankets in complete darkness. Akshay stood at the door. The sounds of muffled sobs reached him over the constant hum of the fan.

He turned on the light, went and sat next to the bed, and put his hand on Pinak’s head, gently stroking it. Pinak turned around and buried his head into Akshay’s lap. Akshay decided to relieve the tension by telling his son a story.

“There was once a deer who loved him home in the forest so much. He played with his friends and basked in the sun. One day, a lion entered the forest. He terrorized all the animals. There was no one he spared. He would roam around the forest and pick his prey. No one was safe from him. The deer became worried. Would his turn come next? Would his home survive? He went to the lion’s cave one day. From a distance, he called him out and said, ‘Lion, I have an idea. I’ll make sure you have an animal to eat each day if you promise to leave me and my family alone.’”

“The lion didn’t care. His job would only become easier. He said yes. Then the deer started on his promise. Each day, he would lure an animal to the pond to drink some water. Rabbits, hyenas, mongooses. It didn’t matter. They came there and the lion, waiting in the shadows would pounce on them.”

“The deer felt relieved. He had saved his family. Saved all that was dear to him. He felt a little bad for his friends, but he thought to himself that it was a cost he was willing to pay.”

“Then one day, he called in a wolf to the pond. The wolf was smart. He had noticed that many animals were being eaten at the pond by the lion. He sensed a trap. That night, he went and hid outside the lion’s cave. The deer came there after a while and shouted into the distance, ‘O lion, tomorrow you shall have the wolf’, and then went away.”

“The wolf waited a while and had his own discussion with the lion. The next day, the deer went to the pond and waited. The wolf never showed. The lion came from behind the trees and jumped on the deer, eating him up. The wolf smiled in the distance at his own cleverness.”

“Did you understand the story Pinak?”

“Yes Daddy.”

“What did you learn from it?”

“I learnt that you should not betray your friends.”

“Good. Good,” said Akshay, patting his son’s head and looking into the distance. It wasn’t the moral he had in mind when he came up with the tale.

He thought of another deer who might be slaughtered some day for the compromises he made. That deer was trapped under the weight of his own dreams, trapped under the notion that he needed to do what was required to provide the best for his family, trapped under the belief that a small sacrifice had to be made to keep big ambitions alive. He wondered if, the deer in the story, in his last moments, would have finally felt free. An escape from the trap of his own making.

Monday, August 04, 2014

A Ten Year Soliloquy

Ten years to this day, I started this space. This blog. Back then, it was a great medium to get your thoughts out on the web. A great way to connect with strangers who had an opinion on topics that mattered to you. Great way to stumble upon other people who were on a similar attempt at self-discovery. For me, it was simply a chance to write my work down. My poems, short stories, ruminations on cricket, movies, the whole gamut.

Today this space finishes ten years. 387 posts, nearly 80000 page views and 3000 comments have made their way here during that time. Over the years, this blog has landed me several collateral benefits. I have gotten to know people whom I would normally not have crossed paths with. Today, they are friends who live across the globe, blog sporadically, but are people whom I am in touch with. I am very thankful for them. Some of them have stopped coming to this space but now know me personally. The shape of our interactions has changed. I have taken my writing to the next level by finding outlets to get published in. The constant practice I got on the blog helped me reach that point.

Over time, blogging as I knew it back then has died. With Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and other platforms taking prominence, combined with reduced attention spans, the personal blog of the kind this space has been, has limited possibilities. If I had started this blog today, it would die an early death.

I don't know how long this will continue to persist. I might keep posting to it, but it may be writing to void since the interactions with readers have reduced quite a bit. It is ok. I am one of the readers and I am not in a hurry to leave. Some day, my children will read this and get a glimpse into how their old man thought and wrote for a decade or more of his life.

Happy birthday dear blog! You have given me good company. Hope you stay around for some more.