Election Mood Swings

11 Oct

I find myself in wild mood swings when thinking about the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. This is definitely a far cry from how I felt in 2008, but up until a few months ago, nothing really bothered me about it. I just figured there would be more clarity and precision as the election neared.

Here I am in October, less than a month away from Election Day, more confused than ever. There is no doubt in my mind who I will vote for (hope springs eternal). But something about this entire campaign rings false to me, and that’s even harder to swallow given the numbers of people who truly care about change for this country.

Let’s consider the debate for a moment. I personally did not find Obama’s performance bad. I actually thought he had some great lines and made excellent points. However, after reading Maureen Dowd’s excellent Op-Ed today, a few pieces clicked in my head.

I realized that we all want him to succeed so much, that we excuse a lot of his behavior. And yes, it is true that there are many solid justifications for why things have not gone 100% right in his first term. That does not excuse, however, an inability to communicate your vision. It says a lot when you need to call in Bill Clinton (close to four years after you have been elected) to provide the most lucid description of your policies to date.

I am probably drinking the kool-aid in terms of how the media is spinning this entire story. However, the repeated nature of this communication problem makes it that much more intolerable. As a supporter, I can excuse a lot of these challenges during the campaign. I will not accept it during his next term.

Something tells me that Obama will turn it around in just a few months. Which brings me full circle to 2008 and the word that stirred an entire generation to action – hope.

An antidote to insanity – humor

23 Sep

It seems as though the world had turned on its head the past few weeks. Incited by a deeply offensive amateur film, angry, sometimes, violent protestors across the globe have come out in large numbers. The turmoil has claimed lives and cast suspicion on the potency of the ‘Arab Spring’, with those who considered as a force for positive change now in doubt.

The whole episode is a tremendous disappointment. Yes, the video is completely idiotic and should be denounced widely. About that there can be no question. And yes, I understand protesting its content. But clearly, there is a more peaceful way to go about it. What is gained by attacking individuals and/or countries who had no hand in its production? Aren’t folks (albeit a tiny percentage of them) doing exactly what the filmmakers hoped they’d do? We must recognize that there are other factors at play – politics, social unrest, economics. But inciting violence for political gain has never ever worked in anyone’s favor. The always excellent Bill Keller of the New York Times has written a piece on the entire issue, which you can read here.

As Keller explains, the problem with these kinds of confrontations is that it riles up extremes on every side. In response to the protests, media outlets in Europe and the United States have decided to stoke the flames by producing materials that falsely paint Muslim communities in broad strokes. I was once told that sometimes the right response to vitriol is silence, and I’m realizing more and more how true that is.

The only glimmer of hope in this debacle was the Twitter response to an absurd cover story by Newsweek about ‘Muslim Rage’. #muslimrage was taken over on Twitter by some incredibly funny and witty responses from folks who recognized the stupidity in all of this. Some of my favorites in this Wired magazine article – http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/09/muslimrage/

Humor is not always the answer to hatred and ignorance – but it certainly is one of the most effective. An example that I love from a few years ago is the Pink Chaddi campaign. By using deceptively simple ways to draw attention to the absurdity of the situation, people often do what the media fails to with extremes – they do not give any lip service to malicious arguments. And to my mind, that works far better than mobs attacking innocent targets.

Baltimore – First Thoughts

28 Aug

It’s been over a week since my move to Baltimore – quite short, but enough time to get a flavor of the place. So far, so good. Yes, there are Wire-esque aspects to it, but this city deserves far more credit than it is given.

There are some beautiful neighborhoods,  excellent food, and above all, good people. Clearly, there is a lot of history in this town. I’ve particularly enjoyed views of and from the harbor. There’s something about being near a water body that is instantly calming.

Here are some snaps of my neighborhood, Mount Vernon. Look out for more posts on Baltimore in the future!

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The Indian Olympics Post-Mortem

19 Aug

Now that the Olympics are over, the Indian media has predictably begun their analysis of why a country of one billion people wins so sparingly.

The 2012 Olympics has thus far been our most successful competition, with two silvers and four bronzes. Having been in India over the past month, it was refreshing to see attention given to athletes in sports as varied as badminton, boxing and shooting. The government loosened its purse strings and provided significant cash prizes to the winners, even promising permanent government jobs to each of the 81 competitors in the squad. The selection process was far more structured and fair than in the past. From most angles, this year’s Olympics was a leap, not step, in the right direction.

And yet, the dissection of what went wrong continues. How can one billion people produce so few medals? Why is it so hard to develop talent in a country where there is clearly an inexhaustible pool of young people? Why can’t we take a fraction of the resources spent on cricket and spread the wealth to other sports?

Nirmal Shekar, in a brilliant Op-Ed in the Hindu, hit the nail on the head by calling this constant questioning ‘nauseating’. I couldn’t agree more. Shekar is absolutely correct in saying that for three years and 11 and a half months, there is generally such little focus placed on any sport save a precious few. Cricket sucks up so much of our bandwidth, and the few other sports that fight for our attention – football, basketball and tennis – are distinctly foreign affairs.

The root of the problem perhaps lies in how we are raised. As children we are told to shy away from sports – studies are the utmost priority, followed by music or dance (this is definitely true in the case of Chennai kids!). Parents remain unconvinced that sport is a legitimate way of making a good living – although they are not entirely wrong in this regard. Schools and universities rarely have the infrastructure to seriously train and hone sporting talent. All taken together, professional sports remains a career choice way on the sidelines. This sort of environment can definitely impede a child’s desire to become an athlete.

I do believe however that the turning point is near – probably not by the next Olympics, but probably in the next decade. Being in India this summer, amidst all the noise about why we don’t do better, I felt, for the first time, an undercurrent of optimism. The images of the six joyful athletes wiped all the cynisicm and anger away. Yes, things aren’t great right now, but they are miles ahead of where we were 20 years ago. And with recent changes, potential private sponsorship and international exposure, there’s no reason to believe that it won’t be even better 20 years from now.

And let’s hope that in six months, the names Kom, Nehwal, Narang, S. Kumar, V. Kumar and Dutt still mean something to us.

Gallery

Home Sweet Home

30 Jul

It has been a hectic but wonderful trip to India these past few weeks. I haven’t had much time to write, but wanted to share a few snaps that I’ve taken over the past month. Most of these were taken in my hometown Chennai (a few were taken in Delhi this past weekend). More posts and photographs to come!

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Didn’t We Almost Have it All?

1 Jul

One of the grand questions facing our generation of women, generations before us and generations to come, is – how do you successfully balance a happy family, fulfilling career and personal health and wellness? I doubt anyone has the answer, and if they do, there will undoubtedly be a small army waiting to pick apart the argument. Too utopian! Too elitist! Too pessimistic! Too…well, you get the point.

My sense as to why this topic gets everyone hot and bothered is because it is notoriously difficult to get right. And although it is a side effect of an entrenched societal problem (gender inequity in the workplace), everyone seems to go through their own internal war to figure it out, which leaves behind a lot of guilt and self-doubt. Personally, I am yet to experience the ‘real deal’, given that we don’t have kids, but it’s safe to say that I’ve had many questions about how to balance family and a meaningful career, sooner than I expected to.

The latest chapter in this debate is being written at this very moment, with a virtual tête-à-tête taking place between what can be broadly defined as two camps – Anne-Marie Slaugther’s realists and Sheryl Sandberg’s trailblazers. Though not mutually exclusive, the root of the disagreement between these two camps is where change needs to happen. Slaughter suggests that workplaces need to be intrinsically more adaptable to women with families, while Sandberg posits that women need to ‘own’ their careers and assert themselves in their roles.

First, some context. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, veteran of Google and Larry Summers’ protégé, gave a much-needed talk at a TED conference titled, ‘Why we have too few women leaders’. This is a must watch and you can find it below.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18uDutylDa4

Sandberg makes tremendous sense when she talks about why women need to assert themselves more in the workplace. As she says in the speech, “No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table. And no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success or they don’t even understand their own success.”

However the underlying message of Sandberg’s talk is that women somehow are responsible if they do not succeed at work. And the lesson drawn from it is that you can write your own success story if you as a woman make changes to how you think and act, as a mother, partner and employee. This idea is what Slaughter eloquently takes issue with in her piece for the Atlantic, titled, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is a highly-regarded foreign policy expert at Princeton and until recently was a top ranked official with the State Department. Slaughter’s article is a provocative and practical counterpoint to Sandberg’s belief that women need to dig in their heels at work. It’s a long read, so suggest you print it out, settle into your couch and have at it.

Slaughter’s piece, while a bit of a wet blanket, brims with practical advice for what women face in their struggles to balance work and family. Slaughter takes issue with what one journalist termed Sandberg’s motto of ‘higher-harder-faster’, saying that women pay too high a price for having it all, one that is fundamentally at odds with our visions of success, and that is, an unfulfilling, unsatisfying family life. She suggests that instead, workplaces need to adapt to a new reality and actively promote flexible hours, teleworking and ‘stair-stepping’ career trajectories. And she bravely writes that we are entitled to happiness, whatever that means for us, and not the dream version that is peddled to us by highly visible women leaders.

As someone who is going to face these challenges in a few years, I draw lessons from both sides. Sandberg’s words about striving for success and ‘keeping your foot on the pedal’ definitely strike a chord. It is a reminder that if we choose a career path where we seek success, we need to constantly remind ourselves that our talent is valuable and that we can make a difference in our chosen fields. Slaughter on the other hand provides that much needed reality check, one that makes me feel no less of a woman for wanting a deeply satisfying family life and a great career, even though it might not happen all at once. And through the journey, I look forward to more frank discussions (hopefully from women of all standings, not just the privileged few) of what it means to be a working woman in the 21st century.

The title of this post is a great Whitney Houston song, and so I’ll end with another one. Enjoy!

Uncomfortable Truths – Behind the Beautiful Forevers

27 Jun

Indians tend to be extremely defensive when foreign-produced creative works – movies and books at the top of the list – portray India and Indians as miserable. The saga of the downtrodden being victimized by the morally bankrupt government (most often portrayed by the police) spawned an international movie hit in Slumdog Millionaire and has provided fodder for foreign journalists, writers and NGOs. We feel as though these filmmakers and writers are only capturing a piece of India, ignoring the vibrant, charming and peaceful side of India that we (read: comfortable city dwellers) all cherish.

An example of this irritation is a recent bruhaha that emerged due to a scene in the Avengers – Indian filmmakers and writers were apparently annoyed at how Hollywood can only seem to film movies in dirty, cramped Indian slums (in this case, their depiction of Calcutta).

These arguments don’t often make sense to me. I know the feeling, of wanting others to love your country the way you do, so much so that it causes mild anxiety when people don’t seem to fall instantly in love with it. But facts are facts, and the fact is that a majority of Indians are in deep poverty. Slums exist. Beggars, slumlords, corrupt police and all the other characters brought to life in Slumdog exist.

Indians don’t seem to have too much of a problem if the films or books are written ‘in house’. The steady spate and sometimes popularity of Ram Gopal Verma and Vishal Bharadwaj films attests to this. Our problem is when others point out our flaws. It’s as if these secrets are ours to keep, and that the world should only see what we produce for their consumption. Well, if we want to open our doors to the world, then we also have to let folks see everything – warts and all, and accept the criticism that follows.

This reasoning went momentarily out the window when I read Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a couple of weeks ago. Boo has written a ‘narrative non-fiction’ about the lives of three families in Annawadi, a newer shantytown close to the Bombay international airport.

It is an exhilarating, visceral, jarring read and had me conflicted from the word go.

Boo (a writer at the New Yorker) vividly describes the immensely difficult lives of the families who live in Annawadi – their economic opportunities, their family politics and perhaps most debilitating, their interactions with the law and government. Between time spent in Annawadi, police stations, jails and hospitals, it is as convincing a story as any that the poverty alleviation strategies of the government are not necessarily working, atleast not in Bombay.

My first reaction was embarrassment, followed very closely by guilt, and finally, irritation. What I reacted to most strongly was Boo’s description of Annawadians lives against that of the city’s rich. I immediately thought, well, why isn’t she portraying a more layered view of India? There is the upper class, the middle class, the poor and everyone in between – why not describe how diverse and varied India really is? Why make caricatures of anyone that is not poor?

It occurred to me then that is not the point of this book. Boo’s writing shows in vivid color the ways Annawadians live – how you see them relative to your social standing is up to you. Her descriptions of the labor that goes into recycling, scraping together meals, the horrendous effects of the monsoon, time spent in jails, hospitals and police stations, is very much a reality.

Public health and development are silent, but omnipresent, forces in the writing. A couple of accounts shake your belief that the Indian government health system will ever be reformed. One is the falsification of accounts, by health officials, of the numerous suicides and murders that take place during the course of the book, solely for the purposes of law enforcement. Another is the clear malnutrition, violence and addiction that is present, not to mention a host of diseases and chronic ailments that affect the daily lives of Annawadians. The government hospitals are a severe financial drain on anyone who has the misfortune of staying there too long. Suicide lurks at every corner in Annawadi, something that a recent study published in the Lancet attests to.

If the underlying health issues weren’t bad enough, Boo’s descriptions of education and poverty alleviation programs don’t provide much comfort. Government schools are a joke, and the children of Annawadi are criminally robbed of any chance to make it out of the slum by means of education. Microloan groups for women function in name only, and are a vehicle for additional cash at the hands of a would-be doyenne. What about those charged with righting these wrongs? Boo doesn’t let the NGO community off the hook. Non-profits, and the government officials that they work with, are at the center of immense fraud and waste, and it is unnerving when you realize how deep the rot has set.

The book ends in vague terms, and I did not have as much closure as I did, with say Maximum City. But it left me completely gutted, in a way that only the best books can. The writing is brilliant, and Boo’s observations about how people interact, survive and dream is so nuanced, that you are invested in them from the moment you finish the prologue. It leaves you angry at everyone – the government, NGOs, everyone involved in these people’s undoing, and it leaves you angry at yourself for not having done more and perhaps not knowing how to do more. But I deeply admire Book’s statement that knowing more about how people in extreme poverty live their daily lives leads to better informed thoughts and discussions, rather than conversing in the abstract.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a gripping, uncomfortable, elegantly written piece of non-fiction. Pick up a copy if you are interested in non-fiction about India.

Has anyone else read this book? Would love to hear thoughts and comments.