Saturday 29 December 2012

Tribute to a Trampled Soul

Nine years ago, in the early hours of one day, I gave birth to my son. A small group of people consisting of my friends and family rejoiced with me. In the early hours of today, a mother lost her daughter and the world is mourning with her. When I first heard of the Delhi rape, I was saddened, hurt and even angered. Today, I am truly shaken by the brutality of the rape that actually killed her. What kind of an attack she must have been subject to … to have her internal organs fail and have her heart stop. I do not know her name or her family but this morning, I wept and hung my head in shame for silently witnessing this crime, and for our collective inability to prevent it. I think part of the problem is the language we use. She is being called “Amanat” (treasure) but we should really call her “Trampled” or “Trashed” because this is exactly what we did to her. We trampled all over her … WE … all of us who have been witnessing this …trampled all over her and thrown her on the street.

I know that the police and the politicians are going to be worried about the outburst of anger on the streets, the activists are going to be busy with planning protests, journalists are going to write articles and citizens like me are going to fill the blogosphere and every possible social networking avenue. We are all going to be outraged today in our own way.

Here is how I paid homage in my own way. One is, I sat with my eyes closed experienced the pure physical pain this 23-year-old medical student must have gone through as she was being gang raped by men driving around the streets of the very city we proudly call our capital.… just so that I NEVER forget this. And the second thing I did was to remember something that Gloria Steinem said “,We've begun to raise our daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” If I stop and think for a second of the men who raped her, I wonder what was going through their minds to be that brutal, to turn such a deaf ear to screams of pain, to derive any pleasure out of the most gory attack. I want to know what they must have heard when they were growing up to think that THIS is what it means to be a man. Maybe we all should look at ourselves and never ask our sons not to “cry like a girl” when they are being sensitive or not call them a “sissy” if they don’t want to play sports or not call them a “weirdo” if they are not interested in being a Casanova. I feel sorry for the mother of the “Trampled” soul and also feel terrible for the mothers of men who committed the rape. What must they be going through to witness this side of their sons. Today, I made a promise to myself to raise my son more like a daughter and teach him what it really means to be a “huMAN”.    

Sunday 9 September 2012

The new Rev of Reva

My job at INK is to collect people – whether they have anything to do with what we do or not. I always admire people who have a vision, take a stand and be with it way before anyone else can even understand what they are talking about. Here is a story of the man who pursued a vision for a greener world -- way before it was fashionable.   

Today, we talk about Hybrids, Electric vehicles, and sustainability as part of our natural language. But imagine thinking about it 18 years ago. And then to take something as precious as your mother’s name and put on a project that is at best a pipe dream. This is exactly what Chetan Maini did. He launched Reva giving shape to his dreams of a greener world. And he did it in India where he hardly got any support. At a time when outsourcing was just picking up, at a time when MNCs were looking for smart, young professionals to run their companies, at a time when he could have relaxed on family money, he chose to dream. When Chetan started Reva as a joint venture between the Maini group and AEV systems in 1994, he took baby steps in giving shape to his passion and he did not let go of that passion through tough times, even when progress seem to be at a standstill. Over the years, I have heard all types of comments on Reva - some positive, some luke warm but all those who meet Chetan will agree on one thing – he is committed to his vision and is determined to make a difference in his own quiet way. Along the way, he conveyed the dream to Mahindra and got them as his partner.

run on the sun

Sun 2 car
On August 22nd, I got to witness a wonderful moment in Mahindra Reva’s joint journey. The occasion was their all green factory opening. The factory is designed to light up using mostly natural light during the day; the factory vents are designed in such a way that there is natural air flow; the energy generated by a car while testing is fed back into the energy needed to run the factory; the car is designed in such a way that no welding or coloring are required on site.  In addition to the factory, they designed a car port (sun2car)(that could cost approximately Rs 70-80k) made of solar cells that allows the car to charge when you park the EV under it, a parking structure that can be set up in the company parking lots so that the cars can be charged while parked under it (Run on the Sun) and here is the feature that I found most delightful!  IF your car is fully charged and IF you are out of electricity, you can use the energy from the car to light up your home (car2home). Imagine that! They also designed quick charging machines  (Quick2car), which allow you to get enough charge to go 25 miles within 15 minutes. Usually, it takes over 6 hours to charge the car to go up to 100 miles using the normal electric connections at home. Imagine if these stations were all around town so that we can charge the cars quickly as we stop for petrol or diesel now.  

Car 2 home


I was impressed by all the advances, the design, the thought process that went into it, the amazing extended team that worked on it –architects Atelier D’arts to brand company Idiom to name a few-  but what I was most happy about was that I got to witness a happy interlude to the persuasion of passion. Sitting here in 2012, we are celebrating having an Indian company at the cutting edge of a global revolution and what I see is the hard work that has been put in for the last 18 years, the countless lonely moments Chetan must have experienced standing alone in the seat of responsibility, the evaluation process he had to go through before he let someone else be a partner in his dream. As an entrepreneur, I can understand how tough it is to choose to bring someone into your world. It needs to be someone who does not interfere with your passion and opens new doors; who lets you follow your dream and interferes only to set the course right if things go awry; who stands next to you in the spotlight but does not let you fall in their shadow. And I think that Chetan found that perfect partner in Anand Mahindra. And this is why-

At the inaguration of the Mahindra Reva green factory, Anand stood in front of the press to make the opening speech and he started off with acknowledging Chetan and his family for the pursuit of their collective dream. Anand made sure that even with the addition of the Mahindra name, the dreamer remained at the center of attention. In that one gesture, I felt that Chetan picked the right partner who would let him pursue what he was best at, improve the rest at an accelerated pace and make it possible for India to produce one of the most cutting edge innovative products on a global stage.  

I was impressed with the technology, excited by the possibility of Indian innovation making a global impact but mostly what I am rooting for is the possibility for the passion of an individual to be fueled by the reach of a large corporation while keeping the entrepreneurial spirit intact. I celebrate the friendship between Anand and Chetan, and hope that they grow together. We talk about corporate structures, practices, supply chain improvements and many other issues but I know that the MOST IMPORTANT thing that matters in the success of Mahindra Reva is the relationship between Anand and Chetan, and I wish them all the luck to continue their journey as friends and partners.   

Sunday 26 August 2012

Stars and Strives

I grew up in India loving movies. It was our family tradition to go to the movies every Sunday evening, and that love for movies continues even today. When I immigrated to the US in 1983, my interaction with Indian cinema reduced considerably. In 2001, I started visiting India more often and worked across India as part of large philanthropic projects. During one of my trips to India, I was travelling from Bombay to Delhi. I was in the last bus that drives you from the terminal to the plane, and there were only a handful of people in the bus. As we approached the staircase, I saw an old man in a white khadi churidar and kurta, making his way slowly and painstakingly up the stairs. An airlines employee was carrying his bag while giving him a hand. The old man was shaking slightly. I waited patiently at the bottom of the stairs till they reached the entry to the plane, as I did not want to hurry them. When I entered the plane, I glanced casually at the older gentleman who was settled in business class. He looked familiar but I could not place him. Almost an hour into the flight, I realized that the old man was Rajesh Khanna and it really shook me. And this is why.  

Rajesh Khanna (Photo credits TOI and SamayLive)
My 25 years in the US also included working in Hollywood and meeting stars. I don’t claim to be close friends with any of them but I worked with them in close quarters and learned to treat them as equals. I got to see them as human beings with their own mood swings and faults. So, I was not in awe of them. But the Indian cinema of my childhood was different. I remember my older sister and her friends debating Rajesh Khanna vs. Dharmendra. I remember the splash that Rajesh Khanna made with movies like Aradhana, Anand, etc., I remember his innocent yet mischievous eyes, the tilt of his head, and the unique way he spoke. “Babumoshai” became a household phrase and I can still hum the lyrics to many of the songs from his movies. Being in Hyderabad, I never saw the glitz and glamour of Bombay and never witnessed the crowds of girls who would threw themselves at any film personalities. To me, people like Rajesh Khanna were only characters on a screen. So, when I saw him in that flight, I witnessed the aging of a star and our own fickle nature – how we adulate someone and not even care about them once they pass their prime. It pained me to see him sit a lonely man in that business class with people passing by without even noticing him. That moment to me was not about Rajesh Khanna per se but about the fleeting flow of fame and the loneliness that comes from it. 

Personally, it also made a difference to my re-entry into India. I realized that even though I acknowledge all the changes in my life in America, my life in India was frozen, as it was when I left it in 1983. The music, the actors, the teachers, the schools  - everything seem to be better in 1983 ... NOT because it was truly better but because that was all I knew. I stood still and the scenario around me passed by and I was complaining that it was not keeping pace with me. The truth was that I have not kept pace and did not notice the passing of time. That encounter with Rajesh Khanna dismantled the romantic memory of the India of yester years. Looking at his frail figure fast-forwarded my experience of India and placed it in the present time frame. 

As I read about his death, I thought of that day a decade ago when he played a silent role in my education of India. I also remembered something else. His hands were shaking and head had a slight tremor as he walked up the staircase slowly but his khadi kurta and pajama were starched to perfection and there was not a fold out of place. And the way he placed himself on the seat and sat upright showed a man who was ready to face the crowd and not someone who was hiding from the crowd because he knew that he was no longer famous. He carried himself with confidence and like a star and in some ways, that’s all that matters. 

Photo credits : TOI and SamayLive 

Monday 20 August 2012

Farewell to my father from Portland

I have three sets of parents – one, my biological parents from India; second, the parents of my friend Karen - Hank and Gerel Blauer who took me in as their fifth daughter during my life in Portland and finally, parents of my friend Audrey - Esther and Jerry Daniel who adopted me when I moved to California after leaving Portland. Each of them brought a unique set of values and lessons into my life. I got my positive attitude, my love of culture, importance of education from my biological parents; value of hard work, savings and making it on ones own from the Blauers and the essence of design, the importance of aesthetics from the Daniels. My three sets of parents met one another, enjoyed getting to know each other across geographies and were all there to dance at my wedding in 1995.

Part of growing up is also facing the painful experience of losing ones parents.The other side of having three sets of parents is to go through the pain of losing them that many times over. It was my biological parents who went first, then Esther and now, I lost my dad Hank in June 2012. I was in Bali when I got the news and I could not make the international flights to make it back in time for services. So, I got to visit my mom in late July, for the first time after she lost dad. They were married for 58 years and that number kept coming up multiple times during my stay. It was as though mom was saying it because she could not believe that he was no more, that he would come around to celebrate the 59th and the 60th. I did not try hard to make it to the services or even to send any message to be read out. I felt that the only way I could pay homage to him would be to spend some time with mom after she settles down a bit.

I went to Portland and spent time with her and stayed at their home. The first thing that hit me was the emptiness of the spaces that once belonged to him – the chair by the fire place in the living room where he would always be seated, the bar where he would insist on making me a gin and tonic; the dining chair where he usually sat and then the voice, the laughter, the mocking tone as he teased mom. I missed dad terribly but I also thought of mom – how lonely it must be for her to go to an empty bed, to eat alone. They were inseparable for 58 years. I don’t think that mom spent more than 30-40 days away from dad spread across all those years that they were together. They had their own set of disagreements but were always a team. He, at 92 and she in her 80’s played tennis regularly, dad went to office, mom grew a spectacular garden and made all the meals herself. They were a team. I could not convey my condolences to mom because words seem insufficient.The only thing I could think of was to spend time with her walking down her memory lane.

I visited her in Portland and we planned out our day together. We started it with a walk on Fairmont loop. We parked our car in front of the home where she grew up. As a young lady in her 20’s, this was where she met dad for the first time. We stood on the front lawn as she pointed to the window that was once her room. As we walked, we ran into women who knew her, who would ask how she was coping and she would introduce me as her fifth daughter and invariably, I would find something in common with everyone we met. It was as though we
were blending our individual pasts in Portland into one happy giant story. We stopped by at a couples’ home where Karen and I baby sat their teenagers almost two decades ago while they went on vacation. I saw photos of the teenagers, now grown ups, with their own careers and children. As we walked, we had a long chat about mom and dad. Mom shared how they first met, some of their dates, the subsequent marriage and four daughters over six years and now seven grand children who are all boys (including my 8 year old). It was great to go back in time when they were youngsters and meet them there. Our conversation would often be interrupted by history of some of the homes on the loop, stories of their past or current inhabitants. We took twice as long to finish the loop but it was totally worth it. I wanted to have a unhurried, relaxed time with her and that is exactly what I got. Mom did not cry at all during our entire time together because she said that she had to be strong for all of us. So, I did not cry either till an hour before we left home.

Mom asked me to take a shower in their bathroom as it was larger and more comfortable. When I went into the bathroom and saw two tooth brushes in the stand, two sets of towels hanging side by side, I just broke down. It was a stark reminder of his absence in the presence of his stuff. And then we went out to lunch at my favorite “Al Amir” restaurant. At the end of the meal, I wanted her to take home the left over fatoush salad and the kabob and she instinctively almost said “Your dad would enjoy this at night,” and in catching herself, there
was that understanding that this was going to take a long time to come to terms with his absence.

Dad died with an unexpected cardiac arrest at 92 and left this Earth without being a burden to anyone. And my job is to keep thinking of dad in a way that it puts smile on my lips. So, here is what I remember him by. Whenever mom would be talking about someone’s demise and refer to the widow as “She lost her husband”, he would say something to the affect “How careless to lose a grown up? Did they finally find him?” and make a joke of losing someone as through a child lost in the zoo. So, when we think of dad, we are not thinking as losing him but finding him in all the little details and memories he left hidden in each of us.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

A magical wedding in Bali - Day 3 (June 6, 2012)

Elora and Rajiv entring the temple for blessings 
The final day of the wedding was in the temple where they went to take the blessings of the local priest. We all had to wear the local kebaya sarong and a sash. I decided to rent it, which was a wrong idea, as everyone in Indonesia seems to be of size 1 or 2. With great difficulty, I found one outfit that fit me and I was thankful for being spared shopping at this last minute. We all got ready and went to two temples where they did ceremonies and blessed the couple.  The temples were very simple, green and peaceful.  Some of the offerings near the alter were made using sprite bottles and people were wearing shoes and smoking inside the temple. They had two roasted pigs on a skewer as an offering to the Gods. Ritualistically, it felt wrong to wear shoes and allow smoking and meat in a temple but spiritually, the place felt very clean and content. I felt that the Indonesians might have altered some of the Hindu rituals (or may be they are right and we altered it in India) but they were really dedicated people.  Every home has a beautiful temple as a part of the premises. Most of the hotels and homes have Ganesha at the entrance. I love the way they retained the beauty and elegance of the ritual. After the ceremony, we walked over to the dinner area.
Balinese dancers post temple blessings 
In an open area, they created a huge circular arch of intricate bamboo weaves for dinner seating. We entered the arch, and sat down on the floor on the mats that was laid on both sides of a long table running below the circle of the arch. Food was served on banana leaves and was covered with banana leaves. As we uncovered the top set of banana leaves, we saw that the food was served community style where the rice was in one continuous motion in the middle surrounded by various dishes. All of us dug into it and had the most amazing conversations. Post dinner, there was Balinese dance and puppetry in a small theater across the street from the dinner area. There was also some gambling that you played with shells and not money. 

Me and Shilo in the clothes we dared to wear with flat chappals
What was amazing to me was that EVERY aspect of the wedding, be it the locations or how the food was served to the trashcans … everything was recycled or natural. The ceremony was not trying to adopt “green” principals.. it was “being green” in the way it existed. No one was trying hard to be ecologically correct, they just were so .. naturally. That is what I love about Bali. From something temporary as the little baskets they weave to carry the flowers for the offering to the permanent structures of homes, it is filled with perfection and beauty.  No one is being taught design or ecology or even religion. They are everything that you need to be .. naturally. May be I enjoyed only the privileged hospitality where it SEEM like everything was natural but even if that were so, I can say that I have not found that same sense in the most elaborate homes in India. Bali made me feel at home, with myself, with nature and with the natural order of the world that exists around me. And the wedding was a magical vehicle that encompassed what Bali was about in the most beautiful way.

I know why I go to weddings. Despite all the statistics that stare in our face, despite the number of adjustments two different people living under the same roof, we do our best to create these magical moments with all those we love so that later on, when we face tough times, we have someone or the other remind us of the magic of why we got married in the first place. Standing on that rock, when the tall, dark Malayali American Rajiv kissed the slim, elegant Canadian Balinese Elora in her flower dress, with a flowing river acting as the background music, time stood still and I enjoyed the love that existed in that moment. What happens later is up to Elora and Rajiv and I get to keep that moment for a long time to come.

Music and wedding

All pictures by Shilo Shiv Suleman

A magical wedding in Bali - Day 2 (June 5, 2012)

I woke up around 5 AM and was in a mood to write, work, think .. in a very quiet way. I did not want to go into town or explore the surroundings. I just wanted to be in my little bungalow. It reminded me of the summer holidays in Eluru where my grand parents lived in a small tile covered home with make shift room made of palm eaves serving as the bathroom in the backyard. I don’t remember my childhood as lacking in anything even though the facilities were minimal. I met James Clark for lunch. He has an organization that is located inside a state park in marin county and it was fascinating to discuss with him on how he worked with west marin citizens to make sure that the potential tourism of the place did not undermine the local ethos. He also talked about Perma culture and we discussed the need to create a 200 year plan (I thought of Raghava as he talks about the same). After our long conversation, I invited James as a speaker for the conference. He left around 1pm and I got ready for the wedding. We were warned, “dare to wear the most dressy outfit that goes with comfortable shoes”. So, I chose wear my flat shoes and a simple cotton kurta.

the bridge we took to get to Elora's wedding
We reached Elora’s home at 2pm and from the back yard of Elora’s family home, steps lead to the bottom of a steep hill to the riverfront where the wedding was set up on a pile of natural rocks. Colorful cushions were placed on rocks to let the guests sit and Elora’s came in a dress made of fresh flowers (see her dress in this beautiful photograph ) and Rajiv wore the traditional Malayali Mundu and shirt. Their friend Tom married them. With the flowing water as the background music, Elora and Rajiv read out the vows they wrote and said, “I do”. I was so moved by the simplicity, elegance, beauty and the serenity of the place. 

After the wedding, we all went on a short hike to get to the next destination.. the wedding reception. In the last week, they constructed bamboo bridges across the river, along the hillside and then we had to climb a muddy hill (thank god! None of us fell. Only our chappals were caked with mud) and we reached a place where fresh coconut water and delicious local snacks greeted us. I ate this snack that was made of Jaggery and was wrapped in palm leaf that was absolutely delicious.

The Banyan tree under which we had the reception dinner
Then, we were driven to the reception site, which was under an old banyan tree that was hundreds of years old. Apparently the main trunk died but the other roots that came out of the tree planted themselves into the earth spreading it very wide. Under the tree, in the shape of a mandala, they laid six long tables, chairs and benches. The tables and benches were all made from discarded wood from the green village. The marimba band from Green school was playing as we entered the arena. The discomfort of the hot summer night disappeared as we were swept away by the magic of the Marimba band and the roots that hung out from the tall tree firmly settled into the soil under our feet. The local children and families gathered as well to enjoy the music.

The Banyan Grove, where the reception took place 
Following the wedding, the guests got to play with rabbits 
Elora in a stunning beaded off white gown and Rajiv appeared amidst cheers and whistles. And then, we all sat and had an amazing meal. After each course, we had to get up with our wine glasses and go around in a circle and choose another place to sit when the music stopped. I got to talk to a lot of interesting people throughout the evening. At the end of the night, there was a disco area created where the disco ball hung from a clump of bamboo poles. I left the party by about 9:30 PM, as the dancing under the disco ball was still under way.

Elora and Rajiv saying "I do" under the big blue sky

All pictures by Shilo Shiv Suleman

A magical wedding in Bali - Day 1 (June 4, 2012)

me with John and team, the father of the bride and team that pulled off the wedding 
I love attending weddings. And there are some that remain in your memory forever. And the wedding of Elora and Rajiv is one such occasion. I arrived in Bali on the afternoon of June 4th and drove to my hotel “Kertiyasa bungalow” in the village of Nyuh Kuning in Ubud. I walked into a two story small bungalow with a living room downstairs and a bedroom and washroom upstairs. The shower is outdoors nestled in the small backyard that opens from the living room. I settled in, unpacked, took a shower and got ready in my sari for the “sari and sarong evening”.

Bamboo Indah, where the first night dinner was hosted 
Women from around the world – US, UK, France, Canada, India, Indonesia – all wore sarees and gathered at the Bamboo Indah, which is a wonderful resort run by Elora’s family. The common area is all built out of wood and mud and it was decorated with hanging garlands of bright yellow chrysanthemums. After a grand feast, we settled down on large cushions on the floor to enjoy the sangeet. Rajiv’s brother, Ranjith, is an amazing singer.  He and Elora’s family put together a song for them titled “Full moon party” that chronicled the lives of Elora and Rajiv and made fun of how they met in a yoga class. then her sisters sang “Hey baby I think I want to marry you” by Bruno Mars and then other family members sang, did bollywood dance and then all of us went to the lake front and lit these lanterns and let them float in the sky.  It was really magical to see the night sky lit up with the lanterns. I made a wish as I let go of my lantern and watched it till it became a speck and disappeared into the night sky. The dark night sky was lit up with full moon, which had floating lanterns as fleeing company. 

me with Shilo and John - INK curator, Fellow and speaker ... don't we make a great team? 

Elora, the bride with the magical marigolds 

All pictures by Shilo Shiv Suleman

Saturday 16 June 2012

The Verdict for Rajat Gupta

Rajat Gupta 
When I read that Rajat Gupta was convicted for 25 years in prison, I had mixed emotions – sad, upset, frustrated. When I was at American India Foundation (AIF), Rajat was the co-chair. , and he was always generous, elegant and affectionate. He was the first Indian to break the professional barriers to make it to being the head of McKinsey. He was a great connector of ideas and people. He came up with the ideas, brought together people who had the resources and time to support the ideas, and let them take the center stage to turn the ideas into action. He was the driving force in making both AIF and ISB world class organizations. I am not his family nor would I be listed as one of his close friends but at work, I felt that he was always fair and made sure that we each got our time in the spotlight. He never imposed his ideas but discussed them until everyone was on board.

I still remember attending a dinner party at ISB in Hyderabad while it was under construction. The open quad area with the strong breeze was almost magical. He was like a proud father that night, as he walked us around the campus and showed us where the faculty quarters would be, where the student housing was coming up. He knew every inch of the project in the utmost detail. In fact, one of my friends commented that Rajat could have bought a lot of land around ISB area knowing that the prices would go up when ISB is completed, but he did not do it because she surmised that he was very ethical.

It was not just me but if we go back in time, everyone who met Rajat was impressed with his commitment to everything he took on. They say that some people can fool some people some times, but no one can fool all the people all the time. So, Rajat could not have fooled all of us with his genuineness. He was and I am sure continues to be a very affectionate person.

What made someone like Rajat then participate in insider trading, which is a serious offense? Whether we leak information to a friend or family, it is a serious crime. Was it because he was constantly surrounded by financial hotshots ,who showed off their private planes and multiple mansions so he felt that he needed one too? Did he feel really bad to say “No” to the trading requests of a friend? No one knows the precise reason but there was some external pressure or an extra desire that caused this slip in his judgment. 

Here is what I learned from this episode. If someone as brilliant as Rajat, as nice as him could have this slip, any of us could have it as well. And if the root cause of this slip was perhaps money - then we all need to remember that no matter how rich we are, there is someone richer. If I have a small home, someone could have a mansion and when I have a mansion, someone could have a private plane, and when I have that as well, someone could have a private island. There is no end to what one can materially possess. Pretty soon our definition of what is a “basic” need could change, and having a private jet, not just flying first class, becomes essential to our existence. That is when we tread the slippery slope of error in our judgment.

I realize that it is important to surround myself with friends who live like I do and are happy with their lives while I also celebrate the mansions of my other friends without having a need to own one myself. I also realize the need to surround myself with people who not only support me on the way up but also warn me if I begin to slip. It is important to hang on to those who might not be our most pleasant friends but are the most truthful ones. The more successful we become, the more important it is to hang on to those friendships that started when we were a nobody and friends who have a strong integrity toward what they do almost to a fault. 

I am sad for Rajat because his legacy is seen as that one moment of misjudgment and not his decades of service. I am sad because he did not have that someone who could have warned him of this consequence.

As for Rajat, I feel that the right question is not “How could he?” but it is “How do I not?”

I revel in the praises that I receive, love the little luxuries that life can offer me but I grow because of the ruthless criticism I receive when I make a mistake. And I hang on to those friends and family members who are not afraid to be the bad guys momentarily because they do a world of good to me in the long haul. 

(Picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Friday 1 June 2012

The hidden promise of “Till death do us part”

I met him 21 years ago at a wedding in California. He was studying in California and his father from Bombay asked him to attend this wedding to meet potential brides. As an act of defiance, he showed up with three girls - one Indian, one Chinese and one White American as his dates to this traditional wedding in Thousand Oaks, California. I got talking to all of them and over the years we became friends. It so happened that he fell in love with one of the women who he showed up with and engaged to her six months later and married two months after that. In a way, I was with them from their very first meeting. Two people from two different cultures thrown together by a prank became life partners. He -  a smart, driven entrepreneur; she - an artist and a life long student. I visited their home filled with cats, dogs, rabbits and backyard filled with chickens, ponies, mules and many other moving creatures. They both loved nature and animals. I witnessed years of their life together with a string of dis-jointed incidents – news of their pit bull jumping the fence and landing in the next door yard; walking through their backyard in the early hours picking ingredients for breakfast – fresh eggs from the cage, tomatoes and green chilies from the garden; having a business meeting with him in the living room while she carved a horse head at the tail of a pencil to give as a gift to me, both of them talking to me on the phone as fire was engulfing most of their neighborhood telling me that they were being evacuated and the most recent one where we all agreed to meet in my next trip to US. There are so many moments small and big that mark our friendship.   

J and S... 

I meander through this memory lane today because of an email I received from him. It was a lengthy description of what happened to her in the last few weeks. I learnt of her having a stroke, of rushing her to the hospital where she told him that she loved him and that he should feed all her animals regularly even though she was in the hospital after which she slipped into a coma. When she woke up, she was totally paralyzed communicating only through batting of her eyelids. She was deteriorating fast and they had to make a decision about putting her on a feeding tube. She has always been a very shy, private person who was happy with her family and pets and I was one of his few friends that she grew close to … perhaps because she saw me as part of their first meeting. She was fiercely independent, incredibly simple, she created a home where she blended in with her animals and did not demand much from anyone else. She, who nurtured countless animals lay herself a wounded one and wanted to go the same way she would let her favourite horse go were it to be incapacitated. True to her nature, the same rule for animals had to be the rule for her. She communicated with the batting of her eyelids that she did not want to be kept alive. He held her hand as she breathed her last on her own terms. 

This incident made me think of love in a whole new way. The worse nightmare of any parent is to lose their child. And for a mother to fight to have her child die says something of the condition of the child. I thought of her parents, of him, of her siblings fighting to let her die. There are stories of people who survived her condition and lead their lives where someone has to take care of them round the clock. What is the effect on those who take care of them?  And for how long can they take care of them? If they are kept in institutions, what is the level of care that they receive?  Should they have tried for a few years and then let her go?  Should he and the mother have dedicated the rest of their lives to take care of her?  Should they have dissuaded her from her wish?  There are no right answers. And no one knows the details of agreements / arguments a couple might have within the confines of their private lives. All I know is that they both were in love for the 20 plus years and she gave an indication that she did not want to live. And they did everything they could to grant her that wish. 

And now, when I think of love, I also think of letting go. For most of us love is the celebration, a feeling of the living but love is also the end. As I bid farewell to her, I think of the agony that she went through in those last days. I am sure that there was some longing to live, to be with loved ones, some survival instinct working hard but her pride not to be dependent on anyone won over all that. Finally, her wish to live fully or not all won any other natural instinct. She remains in my memory as a quietly vibrant soul who built a small world around her of her family, pets and a few friends and I can still see her fingers carve horses of all sizes out of every possible material. 

Most importantly, like she did, I have to let my husband and family know what to do if I were to be a vegetable. It is not fair to toss that responsibility on them who would always feel guilty for pulling the plug but would be fulfilling my instructions if I made them clear. Death is imminent but death with dignity is the dream of every human being. As he wrote to me, he said that he did not want her to die but he wanted to save her from life worse than death. And that was the agreement in their marriage. Her last journey that started with a fall at 4:30pm on May 11th, filled with major battles with doctors, priests, medical boards, ended the way she silently communicated, at 9.02pm on May 27th. Memorial day that commemorates those who died saving their country added another veteran to the list… one who died fighting for her dignity.

Julie with her cat 

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Bicycle Stop

I am always amazed by the inventions that surround us all day. And if we don’t look carefully, we miss them. I was car pooling with my colleague Anson and our car stopped at a traffic light. Keeping us company at the traffic light were buses, cars, bicycles, scooters, motor cycles – moving vehicles of all sizes and shapes. To the right of our car was a bicycle and Anson pointed out to a small invention that we thought was very clever.

To stop a bicycle, the cyclist has to apply break with the hand and lean the toe on the ground to stop the bike. When it is time to go, he would lift his foot off the ground and pedal away. The person next to us created this small foot rest attached to the break so that he could rest his feet while he also stopped the bike. Instead of dangling his leg onto the ground, he could rest it on the foot rest that also acted as a break and the other leg could still rest on the pedal. This simple invention that would give a tad more comfort stood out to as the most cool thing among all the vehicles that surrounded us. Once the light changed to green, all he had to do was take one foot off the foot rest and pedal forward!  Pretty cool, huh!

Cyclist with his foot resting on the foot rest

The foot rest attachment on the bicycle

Friday 13 April 2012

Walk in the park

I was staying with a friend in GK 2 and went for my usual morning walk. Nestled among groups of homes, GK2 has small parks where people come to walk, jog, do yoga and enjoy the nature. The path is narrow, can hold barely two people walking together leaving no room for anyone else to pass. I went there early enough that there weren’t too many people.  There was a tall, bearded man walking in front of me and a couple of ladies far behind. The man and I were walking at almost the same pace. With him a few steps ahead of me, we had a comfortable  distance between us making it easy for us to share the same path. In the next round, I saw this man who was walking at a fast pace earlier, walk at a very slow pace giving company to an old sardar man. In a pair of beige shorts, stripe shirt, pagdi and a walking stick, the old man was frail and yet fit. Somehow, there was a dignity in his slightly hunched back and strength in his shuffling feet. They were so slow that I had to ask them to excuse me to pass them.  As there was no room to pass, both men stepped aside letting me pass and I touched the old man gently on his hand apologizing.

That slight touch on the wrinkled skin and the grin on the man’s face as he said “it’s ok” suddenly transported me back in time to when my dad visited me in Portland, Oregon. I was training for the Portland Marathon and had to run at least for an hour each day as part of training. My dad was visiting me and wanted to come on the morning runs with me.  He would walk slowly … much like the older gentleman in the park for a while and retrace his steps back to the car and would wait in the car reading the morning paper or writing his diary. I had a tight schedule and had only that limited time in the morning to run and I had to cram as much into it as possible. It was this kind of focus that got me through the training, a tough work schedule and prepared me for the marathon. I would often feel bad that he had to sit in the car for so long till I got back. I would ask him to walk close by to our home so that he could relax at home till I got back. He said that he did not mind it and I did not push it too much either. 

As I passed the older gentleman and the younger man who is walking at a much slower pace now, I thought of my father and wondered if I should have slowed down a bit and walked with him. I always knew but did not want to acknowledge  - that my father accompanied me at every opportunity often at great lengths of discomfort to him just to maximize his time with me.   So, was it OK for me to speed or should I have been more like this young man who was sacrificing his own cardio vascular workout to walk with an older man?

In India, most often, the children adjust to the adult’s pace. I see youngsters choosing careers they hate because their parents asked them to do so, marrying partners they do not even know because they trust their parents’ choice, giving up on the privacy as they choose to be part of joint families. And in U.S, we were taught to be totally self reliant, make choices and bear the consequences. We expected out parents to keep their own pace while we kept ours.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              
And in each case, the pay offs are huge in their own way. It is because of that focus that I had, I could train for a marathon, succeed at a very demanding job and spend some time with my dad. That focus allowed me to have the monetary flexibility to have my father come to America, travel around the country seeing places that he always wanted to see and enjoy being with me. It allowed me to grow and learn in ways I never imagined.  It allowed me to take risks, fail, get up again and succeed through my failures.

In India, because of the family support that is available in a joint family, one does not have to worry about child rearing, house hold work etc.,  I have seen people who have set aside their personal passion and followed the family business to grow it bigger and then return to pursue their passion later in life.  In each case, the rules are clear and the consequences are well mapped.

It is when we try to translate each culture from the lens of the other culture that the meaning goes awry. And I have a curious split personality that can demonstrate this point.

If I see myself speeding around while letting my dad saunter slowly, I feel terrible.  I feel as though I was a heartless person. But then, I had to earn money to support myself, drive, cook, clean, shop for groceries, do the laundry, take the clothes for dry cleaning, take the car for a wash, oil change, maintenance and keep some time for my personal passions, be it running or rock climbing or river rafting or reading. Since athletics did not come naturally to me, I had to give it a lot more time than an average American colleague of mine .. just to keep pace, let alone win any race. And that WAS the right thing to at that time. And my father knew this. Since he went to school in America, he knew the pace, the demands and he adjusted to my pace allowing me to succeed.

When I see the young man in the park walking slowly with the old man, I could get irritated with the slow pace, of the hindrance to others who may be walking faster; I could feel sorry for the young man because the effect of his cardiovascular exercise has considerably reduced because he had to walk with the old man. And IF I did not see the fast pace of the young man earlier, there is even a danger of me assuming that all Indians are slow, young or old.  If I did not understand that this was a choice that the young man was making out of his own will, I could even assume that this is a repressive country, which makes people do things that they don’t really want to do.   

I am so glad that I had the opportunity to experience both cultures so that I organized my life to fit a marathon and yet spent time with my dad when he was in the hospital, when he needed me most. I learnt how to keep personal priorities aside to achieve goals at hand and I also learnt how to slow down while. And most importantly, I learnt not to judge from my own personal lens but make the best of both cultures who have a great deal to offer. One of the parting advices my dad gave was never to be guilty of any past actions. He said that no matter what I did, he always knew that I loved him. Even when I left him behind on the trail, he was always with me and he knew it.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Trains and More...

the locomotive parked at San Locomotive 
Travel by train is magic for me. I have experienced everything from unreserved ladies compartment to two tier A/C to first class. Regardless of the class of travel, I find myself transported to another world zipping by small towns, street vendors and bear witness to lives of strangers. A mother combing her daughter’s hair sitting on the door step, children playing in the pond while washing buffaloes, farmers tilling the field or chilling under the tree, various modes of transportation stopped at the railway crossing as we speed by – I can spend hours looking at these fast moving scenes and make up stories. My relationship with trains has always been in the journey and in the physical compartment. 

A few weeks ago, right here in Whitefield, Bangalore, I had an opportunity to witness the science behind the locomotive that actually pulls the train. Across the road from Taj Vivanta and ITPL, where thousands of people go to work in the tech sector, there is a large sign that says San Locomotives with a live locomotive parked by the gate. I learnt of a different kind of technology brewing behind those gates. Most of the railway business is in transporting goods. Many large power plants, stone quarries etc have miles of train tracks inside the premises to move the goods back and forth. The Indian railways do not want to get into the business of moving goods for the company. The goods train drops off the large supplies at the gate of the company and leaves it to the company to handle the movement within their premises. And that’s where San locomotives comes into play. They make the locomotives that pull the goods. And there is plenty of technology in the way the locomotives are made.  For example, the housing (metal covering) that houses the engines used to take a person working for 8-10 shifts to make one housing. Today, they have machines that make it in two hours.  Another invention at San is the two engine locomotive. There are many instances, where the train could go empty to the quarry and come back filled with coal, or it could take equipment to power plant and come back empty. In such cases, the locomotive could operate on one engine when it is goes empty and turn on both the engines when it needs to pull more weight. The invention that got me most excited was what I call “ambulance on track”. Many times, accidents occur in very remote places and it might not be possible for vehicles to get there for rescue. They have created a compartment fitted with all first aid kits including an operating theatre with engine built in the underside of the compartment so that it can go easily to the accident site on the train tracks and help people. Just imagine having these available as mobile clinics to go to remote villages and towns to treat people on an on-going basis. We have train tracks going through areas where there are no roads and products like this could be of great help. 
The barracks from second world war in the premise 

Jackfruit trees
It was so refreshing to step away from the traditional definition of technology of gadgets and gizmos and go to a new world of technology. And yet, a bit of greenery and history prevails. On the premises, the barracks from second world war where prisoners of war were kept are still in tact. The premises is full of large trees – some bearing humongous jack fruit while the others spreading their shade.

Thanks to my friends Anna and Milind, who own the place (or “guardians” of the place as they say), it was not just a tech tour but one filled with personal heritage and stories. A whiff of history, a dose of technology, the magic of trains and the warm hospitality of Anna and Milind maketh a great morning feast :)

Anna and Milind 


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