Monday 9 June 2014

Walk the view

The view from the apartment

I am blessed with very generous friends. When I was in San Francisco recently, my friend Gautam offered his beautiful apartment in San Francisco to me to have some “me time.” I had a long list of things to do – walk to the Safeway on Marina, which played a central character in Armistead Maupin’s books, have dinner at Greens, walk down crooked street, enjoy the nightlife on Fillmore, Union, Chestnut etc., etc., The moment I entered the apartment, I was transfixed by the view. I could visit every place I wanted to just by looking at it. I did not step out of the apartment for the first two days. I made one bowl of brown rice,  another bowl of chana masala and bought eggs, sour dough bread, lot of fruit and yogurt. Along with the home made pickles made by our super talented niece, Sangita, I was all set. I could have spent a week or even two weeks just drinking in the scenery, writing, reading, and just thinking. I would sit quietly and let my thoughts crowd my head. I watched my thoughts move by, and at times a certain scenery would click and I would tuck it away in my memory.

After a couple of days, I realized that I did not do any of the walks that I had planned, or visited the cafes and clubs. I was so enamored by the view that I forgot to do all the things I had planned. It is so easy to forget that I needed to get down to the street level and walk to burn the calories to stay healthy. It was so easy to be carried away by the view that I had to discipline myself to go downstairs and walk the view. I understood why my friend Gautam would have this amazing apartment and not live here on a daily basis.  Instead of just having a room with a view, he is choosing to walk the view.  He is at a startup in Milpitas.  So, it makes sense to live in south bay and come back to this view over the weekend. Moreover, he gets to share this view with all his friends and family. It is such a great gift that he is sharing with everyone.

I realized that this is no different than what could happen in companies as well. When the leader is having an aerial view of the company, they might fool themselves  into thinking that they  have a clear view of the workings of the company but unless they come down and walk the work place, they might miss all the necessary details.

Gautam did come by one evening, treated me to the most exquisite dinner at Dosa, showed me his stash of wine and port and went back to work while I learnt how to walk the view as well as watch it for the rest of the week. On a couple of evenings, I invited my friends and most of the INK Fellows in the bay area for an after-dinner drink so that they could enjoy the view as well. On the last night of my stay there, I sipped the contents of a small glass of port and watched the city lights and the scenery beyond, thankful for the quietness that surrounded me as a soft blanket. That beauty, that quiet and mostly the ease with which Gautam handed over his precious pad to me, would stay with me forever.

The view from the apartment

Thursday 5 June 2014

Me time

I love collecting people, and as the curator of INK, my days are filled with meeting very interesting people. Even though I love every minute of it, on a periodic basis, I have to shut all human contact and go into some serious “me time.” And there are three ways in which I love to have this “me time.”

First is, alone time in familiar surroundings, once a month or so, on a weekday, I stay home. I drop off Arnav at his school bus stop, say goodbye to Rajat as he leaves for work, and ask our household help to leave early. I go for a long walk and then come home and sit in silence. No phone calls, no email, no talking to anyone. I may watch a show that I taped, have lunch, snack. There is no set time for anything. I eat when I am hungry, read or write when I feel like it and just have a totally quiet day. Arnav gets home around 3:30 pm and I resume my routine, get online, respond to calls, sit with Arnav as he does his homework etc.,

The second way is to do the same when I am traveling. This practice started when I was working at American India Foundation. I would be in India for close to 2 weeks, days filled with meetings, travel across India from metros to mini villages – staying with family, cousins, friends, or shared quarters. Typically, my day would start at 7 am and end at midnight. I would cram as much as possible because I was greedy to meet as many people as possible. I was completely captivated by the generosity of strangers, ability to form a family based on common passion and the beauty of the landscape as we traveled by planes, trains, and automobiles across India.  On the last day, I would come to Mumbai and stay at the Taj Gateway. My colleague’s brother used to work there and he would get me a discounted fare and a room on the 9th floor that overlooked the Gateway of India. On the last day of my trip, I would enjoy a clean, hot shower, total silence with a “do not disturb” sign, room service dinner, which would typically be spicy veg biryani with a side of sliced onions with lemon, salt and pepper, and raita. Even now, when I travel, I always make sure that there is one day at a hotel or a quiet apartment where I spend a day in silence at the end of my trip.

And the third kind, which I love the most, is to stay in someone’s home surrounded by comfort and beauty when no one else is there. There are so many people with “idle capacity” homes and I am the sole beneficiary of their idle capacity. My God parents have an apartment in cannon beach, a friend with an apartment with a view in San Francisco, friends with a farm house outside Bangalore and another one with a home outside of Montreal. I collect quiet spaces and have the generosity of friends who allow me to make it my space. This alone time in an already inhabited space makes me the happiest. There is a lot of beauty surrounding me and I don't need to worry about basic survival items and I get to make myself at home in a totally strange yet familiar place – so much so that after a day or two, I feel as though it is my own.  There is something amazing about making something mine and then walking away from it. I don't like owning too much and am way over my head with one home in Bangalore and another in the bay area. The way each person chooses to build the space and what they do with it, gives me a unique insight into them. It has become almost essential for me to have “us time” with family and friends and “me time” alone, each giving me the strength and perspective.

May be this is why Airbnb is so successful because there are people who are willing to share their space. Can you imagine what a wonderful world it would be... if you had a couch in every corner of the world available to you and all you need to do is give a small thank you gift in return?

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Morning Musings: Powai, March 13, 2014

March 13, 2014
Padmavathi Temple and Powai
Sunrise in Powai

I was at the Renaissance hotel in Powai, as we were hosting an INK Salon at FICCI FRAMES conference. When I walked out in the early hours to go for a jog, I saw the sun rise over the Powai lake and saw the IIT campus at a distance. Nostalgia took over me and I decided to go to the campus for a walk. I took an auto and arrived at the main gate of IIT Mumbai. As I did not have an alumni card, I had to wake up a friend of mine who was faculty, to talk to the security to let me in.  It felt wonderful to be in the campus. I walked past the new H10, home to many more girls than the old H10 that I once occupied and that had now been demolished. I jogged to the stadium grounds, ran about 4 laps and continued jogging on the main road till the end of the campus where the dorm built by Nandan Nilekani stands.

Me and Varun
As I was jogging back, I remembered that my nephew, Varun, was in the Masters program, on a deputation from Indian Navy. I called him and he came over to the campus to meet me. We walked to the other end of the campus and he took me to the Padmavathi temple in Powai. He told me that this was a centuries old temple. I could not believe it. With a waterfront view and tall trees, the temple compound was serene and beautiful. I can see how this place is meant for quiet meditation. I was on this campus for over a year (many moons ago, I admit) and thought that I walked every corner of the campus. But, I did not know the existence of this temple. I loved this role reversal where my nephew was teaching me about a place that I thought that I knew well.

I am all prepared for the future, where my teachers are perhaps not even born. And those that are born are at least half my age and definitely twice as smart.  

Padmavati Temple, Powai

Friday 28 February 2014

Morning Musings: February 25, 2014, Mumbai

One of the things that my friends in US comment about India is the obvious disparity existing side by side. You see an upscale skyscraper and a slum right next door. It feels as though you can never escape the poverty.


Then, there is the moral dilemma of what the rich must do for the poor, who live right next door. Why do we let this side-by-side contrast exist? Have we become blasé to the scenery that surrounds us, when we walk past it every day? I was confronted with this question within myself when I went on a walk in Mumbai where I walked past tiny homes as well as huge apartment buildings side by side. I observed the people coming in and out of the small homes kludged together with corrugated metal sheets. A lady walking out of a toilet, a teenager hanging over the flimsy balcony chatting with an aunt downstairs, kids walking out to go to school with parents in tow – if I took away the condition of the housing or the clothing that one was wearing, they could have been in any neighborhood. None of them were sitting around moping to be living in these conditions – they were all working, moving about their lives making the most of it. Sometimes I wonder what keeps a person living in a small house spare the rich that spend more on the petrol in one day than the poor person’s entire monthly salary.

As I walked by these homes and the large apartment buildings, I could not help but feel a sense of beauty in this obvious disharmony. Why should only those who can afford it inhabit a wonderful place by the sea? There is some poetic justice in sharing the view with those less privileged as well. Since you live next to each other, the one in the small home might not feel the urge to torch the sprawling buildings next door, merely out of neighborly grace.

I found another option that could make up for the disparity in a lady I met on my walk. I noticed a group of children gathered around her with their notebooks. I stopped by and asked her if she was running a school here. She is Mira of Navjyot foundation. She said that she comes there every morning 7:30 to 8:30 am to help local kids with their homework and other questions. She said that the NGO does not need money but they need people to donate time to join her every morning.

As I walked away from her and her volunteers being surrounded by kids, I was left with a sense of hope knowing that the neighbors care.

I feel that the obvious disparity that exists could depress me, but the efforts to bridge the divide certainly left me with a deep sense of hope.

Get Involved with the Navjyot Foundation: Contact Mira Mamnani 
[ Phone: +91 9004390819, +91 9819421398, +91 2226409348; Address: 52, New Silver Home, 15 New Kantwadi Road, Bandra (W), Mumbai 400050 ]

Sunday 23 February 2014

The Road Not Taken Part 2

Just a few days ago, I was in Jaipur and saw a road less traveled by and wondered if it was safe for women to take the path. I lamented on the fact that we even have to think twice about it. And I found my answer this morning. I went on a long walk with my neighbor Bharti. She is part of a team that just completed doing a 100K walk and I wanted to check on my own ability to walk. Bharti and I took off at 5: 30 am and walked for about 3 hours through the villages that surround our gated community. She had a GPS device and was trying to map out a route. Along the way, we got off track and kept walking anyway. We walked through small communities as well as empty fields. And we DID come across two roads that diverged in the woods.  And we took one of the roads and did not even worry about our safety, as we had each other.

So, I felt as though I found the answer for my own fear. The way to take the road less traveled is a matter of taking others into your confidence and being there for each other, instead of doing everything by ourselves. May be in our sharing, we become stronger individually, as well as a community. I thoroughly enjoyed my long walk and will continue dreaming of the 100K walk next year.
Bharti and me

Friday 21 February 2014

The Road Not Taken

There are about half a dozen poems that shaped my life. The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost is one of them. I find the image of a lane leading to an unknown destination, especially a lane that looks quiet, empty, devoid of any human presence, truly desirable of exploration. When I travel, I walk through different neighborhoods, taking in the sights and sounds of that village, town, or city - be it in India or anywhere else around the world. I love the quiet time and the feeling of not knowing what to expect. I love to walk by homes of all sizes and shapes, and watch people go about their lives. A glimpse of someone brushing their teeth, or another reading a newspaper, or someone bargaining with the vegetable vendor, or even the stillness of a silent home -- all of these give me a unique insight into the lives of those who inhabit this Earth along with me. The purpose of these walks is largely to stay fit, just so that I can keep up with my energetic and curious 10 year old, but the icing on the cake is the opportunity to observe how others go about their lives, and perhaps the occasional conversation, or a new friend I may pick up along the way.

I was in Jaipur last week and as usual, I stepped out of the Le Méridien hotel to go for a walk. I turned right on the main toad and walked along the main highway with trucks and cars whizzing past me. After walking for a while, I saw a group of women turn onto a lane off the main highway. They had this purposeful, quick gait and were chatting enthusiastically as they walked. I decided to follow them, walking a few yards behind them. One of the women turned to me and asked me to join them. She wanted to know why I was walking alone; she said that I should always have a walking partner and that I should not be by myself for my own safety. This woman explained to me that all of them were farmers and that they were all going to their fields. She added ", Maybe doing the walk will help you reduce some weight!" I loved her honesty, her simplicity, and a sense of chiding me to do the needful to get into shape! I took a photograph of that lady in red and turned around to get back to my hotel.

The lady in red

As I continued to walk, her comment about needing someone to walk with stayed with me. Has it become so dangerous that a woman has to think twice about taking a morning walk alone? Maybe we all need to think of going in groups, of having someone with us. It is not the immediate solution that worries me. The next day on my walk in a different direction from the hotel, I saw a lane that was quiet, like the road not taken. Somewhere in the back of my mind, what the woman said rang out and for a moment, I hesitated to take that road. I forced myself to take the road because I did not want to succumb to that fear. I felt that it is this constantly cautious state of mind we are asking women to adopt could be preventing them from developing their full potential in the long term.  But how can I guarantee my own safety in the short term?  I am “allowed” to take whatever chances I want to take with my life, but what right do I have to give that guarantee to someone else?

What if our young women cannot take the road less traveled for fear of their basic safety? Taking that road has “made all the difference” to me. Will the young girls of today be denied of that difference? That would be a truly tragic day. For now, I keep taking that road and support anyone else who wants to do the same. 


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