Lessons from a month of daily blogging- Jan 31, 2012

I’m over the moon at completing a month of daily blogging today. It’s not been easy, but it’s been addictive and here are the highs and lows.

Off the cuff

An overall positive reaction It’s been a high to get appreciated certainly and thanks for all the pats; it makes it worthwhile going on. However, I am particularly grateful for the constructive criticism from my closest friends. Pointing out typos, inconsistencies and debating points via the comments made some entries really worth the effort!

A growing and varied readership In the beginning, it was only my friends list on FB that read my blog. In the latter half of the month, though, some new bloggers from around the world have joined the list and that has been gratifying.

A new ability to shed inhibitions One of my earliest lessons was that it is easy to get caught up in the diplomacy game. I decided I would blog honestly and express opinion without reserve, as far as possible. Am hoping to sustain that!

A huge lesson in self-discipline Being able to exercise the discipline to write everyday and make some sense has been the single largest achievement of the past month. There are days I have literally punched away not knowing where the heck the words were trying to reach! Thanks to all those with faith who cared enough to worry about the days I posted at nearly midnight and shared my relief when the post actually went up!

Self-criticism

Not enough ‘city’ in my posts The subjects I write about are a bit all over the place right now. Yes, you can’t really focus too much without boxing yourself in and boring the reader, but some posts really struggle to fit into an urban context. Hope to correct that over time!

Too affected by the site stats Once I discovered the site stats pages, I was in a tizzy. Much as it is gratifying to see what posts really pushed buttons out there, it is equally discouraging to see phases when traffic simply peters out! Sometimes I see a pattern and quality of content plays a significant part, but sometimes the logic for the highs and lows is not very apparent. I think starting today, I will try and tone down my focus on the stats and focus the next month on just writing!

Brevity, where art thou? The posts are far too long. I pour my heart out, but its not always fun to read more than the equivalent of a single A4 page! And if there is a point to make, I should be able to make it in about 500 words, right?

New strategies

Here’s what I’m focusing on in the coming month- Resisting the urge to ‘plan’ the blog and keeping it spontaneous for now, trying hard to pack in the punch and not ramble too much, exploring new directions and new urban topics, constantly trying to build correlations among diverse areas of interest, not pacing things out but letting some posts be intense and others dull kind of reflecting the state of mind at the time…

Appeal

I still don’t know where I am going with this blogging deal, but I would be grateful to all for comments, honest opinions and suggestions…. and please don’t worry about being too nice!

Migrants are no nuisance; they bring huge benefits to cities- Jan 30, 2012

One in seven people in the world are migrants. Yet, the common view of migrants is negative. Governments perceive as migrants to be those who are at the bottom of the income pyramid, do not pay taxes because they work in the informal economy, cause crime, etc. This is not only true of the opinion governments in the US, UK and continental Europe have about immigrants from East Europe and the Middle East. It is equally true of what the Delhi government thinks of migrants from Bihar and UP, though not with as much clarity perhaps!

I did some of my masters level research work on immigration and have always been fascinated by the sociology of immigration. The entire process of families relocating, sometimes out of choice and many times under duress, to an alien land, assimilating new culture even as they struggle to retain vestiges of their identity is a complex process that tells quite a tale about human behavior. Doing the research as an Asian Indian in the United States back in 2000-2002 (at a time when the suspicion of brown-skinned South Asians and Arabs hit a new high thanks to 9/11), I was always partial to the migrant community.

I do not believe migrants are bad news. Instead, I wonder where societies hope to get cheap labor from if migrants were to stop coming into urban centers of relative prosperity. Moreover, the hatred of migrants reflects the kind of intolerance in society that I am beginning to abhor and that is putting inside me a terrible fear that grows everyday! Migrants bring diversity, so essential to sustaining cities.

My views were supported by a host of experts at a UN-HABITAT and UNESCO International Seminar on ‘How could we enhance inclusiveness for international migrants in our cities: Urban policies and creative practices?’ held in Mexico City in November 2010 and the group has continued its work since. Some of the views held by researchers are worth a look:

1- Migrants have a creative potential that cannot be utilized because of their poor status in the city

2- Cities are dynamic by definition; new residents change the urban landscape and therefore, in a sense, sustain the dynamism

3- Migration tests our democratic values; in accepting migration, we are forced to open our eyes to a variety in ethnicity, religion, spoken languages, cultural traits, customs, etc.

I am, therefore, interested in a new way of evaluating cities, by their openness. The OPENCities Monitor is a new city benchmark developed by BAK Basel Economics on behalf of the British Council. A unique collaboration and learning tool to measure city openness, it is defined as “the capacity of a city to attract international populations and to enable them to contribute to the future success of the city”. Strategies for management, inclusion and integration form the core of their work with cities across the world.

It would certainly be a great idea for some Indian cities to introspect along these lines. Alas, urban consciousness and identity in India is still low; add to that poor or indifferent governance and we still have a long way to go!

Have I (in leading the comfortable city life) gone too soft? Thanking my stars! Jan 29, 2012

A week ago, plans we had made for a family weekend out were placed in doubt when my daughter (all of nearly 4) realized her annual play was planned the same saturday and simply refused to sacrifice it for our carefully planned outing! No grudges against her, but the news threw me into a day-long tizzy. A part of me was really really upset and the other part of me could not stop laughing about how little it now takes to upset me!

Last night as we received news of a grandparent’s demise, I revisited the thought of how we seem to have lost the art of being able to take the hiccups of life in our stride. I certainly find I have gone much softer than I was about a decade ago. I reasoned a large part of this is because the consequences of bad news simply did not occur to me way back in my twenties. The other major cause is there are a lot more responsibilities, commitments, stuff to be taken care of. Third, we are so used to the humdrum of our routines, that the slightest uncalled for deviation is hard to handle, no matter how much we complain about that same humdrum routine!

I also suspect that life is too darned comfortable. I have no major struggles, only trifling existential ones! Since the day of discomfort and sniggering at myself a week ago, I have been thanking my kismet that this is all I need to worry about, nothing more fundamental and life-threatening looms like a dark cloud over my existence. As I skim the papers everyday, this is not what I can say for a lot of people in this city and nation. So here’s to showing some gratitude and hoping that, when disaster does strike, I will have the strength of mind to cope!

Invoking Saraswati on a Gurgaon terrace! Jan 28, 2012

In the true spirit of Basant Panchami, the sun God shone bright today as a group of us gathered on the terrace of our music teacher’s home to pay our respects to Goddess Saraswati. A simple set of activities that involved a puja, some cooking on the terrace, dishes brought in by members of the music group and the rendition of some short music pieces made for a morning well spent. Smiling, radiant faces were what we had to show for and and immense sense of satisfaction. The adults present compared rituals and reminisced about how these occasions were celebrated in their childhood. I was particularly interested to see the children sit out patiently through a two hour puja to receive blessings from the Goddess and their guru at the end of it. Aadyaa’s formal initiation into the world of letters was an unplanned bonus. Here are a few pics!

Ma Saraswati, we hope, will grant us better music, better learning this year

An enthusiastic bunch getting set for a puja surrounded in a typical Gurgaon-esque urban setting

The kids had a different sort of fun experience

Aadyaa was formally initiated into learning- she, of course, thought she could teach us a lot!

The yellow saris and beautiful voices added some extra zing

Some of us had our mind on the food being cooked, which ultimately was consumed with great satisfaction!

Going back to learning music has given me friends, purpose and a better bonding with my family

Taking responsibility for how and what we consume can possibly save our planet! Jan 27, 2012

Andy Pag’s a guy who traveled around Europe, Asia and the Americas for two years in a truck fueled by used cooking oil. He recently blogged about what he learnt and the lessons were not about sustainable energy and the technology that went into retrofitting his truck to use a more eco-friendly fuel. Instead, he learnt that unnecessary consumption is the essential evil we all need to fight. To quote, “So much of the things we consume and the way we consume them are entirely superfluous and actually serves to isolate us from the communities we are surrounded by. In developed countries it feels like a system that feeds and feeds on dissatisfaction, while persuading us its delivering quality of life.”

While in the West the life of consumption has been the norm for decades now, what does this new realization mean for people like us who live in the so-called developing world? We in India are still holding as our ideal the quality of life offered in the developed world. We aspire to 24X7 services like electricity, Internet, water, etc. We expect controlled interior environments, thereby adopting air conditioning and heating in a big way. We argue about why we shouldn’t aspire to the good things in life and why we should be expected to give these things up when the West has had it for so long! Which is all very valid and is the sort of argument that has gone round in circles for years at the climate change conferences since the Kyoto Protocol was signed way back in 1997.

In the end, it’s about lifestyle choices and if we think our personal sacrifices can save our planet, we should probably be making them. It’s also about the culture of consumption, a culture that constantly asks us to compare our lives to others and follow a comparative way of evaluating our lives and the comforts in it. It is this that deeply disturbed Pag during his travels. True change could happen if we “start to value quality of life over aspirational living standards”, he says. We need to begin, in India, by evaluating the immense damage done by an oversimplification of the climate change-global warming story and the myth that using technology to reduce our carbon footprint is the magic formula to safeguard our future. Pag’s experience debunks the myth and urges us to take responsibility for our choices. Not something we like, but do we have a choice?

 

How patriotism has changed; does it still mean something to us? Jan 26, 2012

I woke up this morning to glance down from the balcony at the community flag hoisting ceremony happening down in the park. On a rather chilly morning, a dedicated bunch of residents were assembled, singing the usual patriotic songs and releasing balloons in the colors of our national flag. It didn’t seem a particularly moving ceremony from my perch high up on the 14th floor.

Later, as I caught glimpses of the Republic Day parade on TV and was idly wondering about the relevance of such an imperial sort of display in the current post-modern context, I was surprised to find my eyes wet with tears of emotion! ‘Aah, patriotism!’ I said to myself.

Now, of course we are all patriotic deep inside. But the sharp, militant form of patriotism of our childhood, of those times when every young child dreamt of fighting a war for the country (when in our make-believe games, the boys were soldiers in imaginary Indo-Pak wars and the girls nursed the wounded!), can hardly be seen anymore. In today’s context, the threats have changed in nature. No longer is the country potentially under attack from outside elements, but insiders seem more threatening to the tenuous structure of our young and still immature democracy.

This 63rd Republic Day in our 65th year of independence, patriotism is no longer something we wear on our sleeve. As so-called global citizens, we the educated middle classes, express love for India in our desire to see higher GDP growth, industrial productivity, sectoral growth, rising sensex figures, increasing employment figures. We are patriotic in how we would like to see India beat China hollow (in your dreams, I hear the cynics say!) in terms of economic growth, exports, etc. I wish we’d get more competitive and patriotic and make efforts to improve our basic indices like health, infant mortality, sex ratio, literacy…we’re so far behind in trying to meet the Millenium Development Goals, we should, as a nation, hang our head in shame!

But coming back to the point, for all our professed love for India, are we really patriotic and does patriotism still mean something to us?

Patriotism, by definition, is about love for one’s country and loyalty to its central institution, the state. A large part of patriotism is about defending one’s nation against others and in the context of India’s current situation, against moves to destroy the nation’s democratic foundations and institutions as well. Which means we need to speak up and stand against all elements that want to divide Indians and those who want to take away any of the freedoms granted to us by the constitution.

To sum things up, shedding a tear or clapping in delight at the Republic Day parade simply isn’t enough! We’d need to do more to save our nation from its true enemies and then we’d be patriots for real!

Strong women, meaningful work- How Padma Shri awardees Laila Tyabji and Geeta Dharmarajan inspire me- Jan 25, 2012

I scrolled down the list of Padma awardees and of course, there are several I know of and several others who don’t mean much to me. But two of them are people I happen to have met recently and been very impressed by. Laila Tyabji, founder Dastkar is easily one of the most graceful women I have met and Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha disarmed me by her complete humility. My interactions with both reiterated my belief in passion being the driving force for change!

I meet Lailaji in the context of the India Urban Conference that I had been involved with in the latter half of 2011. I was helping a friend put together the ‘City in Public Culture’ theme and we had involved Ms Tyabji to speak at a session focused on the link between arts & crafts and development. She presented her case entirely from the point of view of the artisan, outlining clearly the linkages between livelihood, poverty and dignity; elaborating their struggles in the context of rapid urbanization, industrialization and socio-economic changes that have both created a market for the crafts and devalued them at the same time. Positioning the arts & crafts in India as not a dying industry, but one that is resilient and adaptive, Lailaji rued that India’s development agenda gave more credence to growth in sheer numbers than to skills and long-term growth agendas. Her empathy with the communities she works with, her clarity in her understanding of the political agenda and her commitment to offering the craftspeople a platform comes from an inner conviction that arts & crafts are linked with identity and dignity, two themes that lie at the very core of our existence as a society and will determine the legacy India is giving the world.

Having recently interacted with a community of leather workers, embroiderers and jewelry makers and seen first-hand the tremendous importance their skills played in their local economy and social fabric and indeed their self-image (especially in the case of women), I was able to internalize and appreciate further the content of Lailaji’s discourse.

I met Geeta Dharmarajan in context of the same project, when the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation called a meeting of the state and city-level nodal officers for the Rajiv Awas Yojna (RAY) with a selection of community-based organizations at HUDCO a few months ago. The meeting was unique in having the objective of building a platform for government officials at state and municipal levels to understand issues from a community perspective, in the hope that innovative approaches would evolve to implement the slum-free agenda of RAY.

Geetaji made a strong case for the role youth can play in implementing development interventions in low-income communities. She shared many examples of how youth empowerment and training had provided communities with the agile, skilled workforce that assisted local businesses to become more efficient. She spoke about how young people with a sense of purpose were changing perceptions in their families and larger communities. Later, she attended a follow up meeting specific to Delhi where she further urged the Ministry to consider a project for mobilizing youth to conduct government surveys, thereby collecting richer, more valuable, community-centric information that could be used for effective redevelopment designs for slums. Her focus and belief in youth was impressive; so was her ability to speak up for her cause in a much larger context and force audiences to pay attention through her simplicity and conviction. Speaking to her later, I was extended a warm invitation to visit their field areas and experience their initiatives first hand.

We don’t need to quantify the good work Dastkar and Katha have done. What strikes me most is that these organization work with, not for the communities they engage with. Just feeling the force of the personalities of these two women, the tremendous involvement in their work and the sheer respect they command is sufficient to know that they, through their organizations, are making significant impacts on the section of society that most needs our innovation, empathy and passion, not mere charity!

Why the tremendous urge to know the future? A doubting Dragon’s musings on the Chinese New Year-Jan 24, 2012

Dragons are destined for success, as per Chinese beliefs and it is expected that there will be a 5% increase in the number of children born to Chinese parents this year. This isn’t just speculation, its what actually happened in 2000, the last Year of the Dragon!

Well, I’m a Dragon too, so is Rahul and a lot of our friends and I’m really wondering if we are more ‘successful’ or ‘fortunate’ or ‘intelligent’ that other people born under the other eleven Chinese signs! Of course it’s nice to think so, but it’s really hard to believe this could be true. Yet, belief in all sorts of astrological phenomenon and deductions seem to play a significant factor in our lives. While in India, the traditional Vedic system of astrology that uses birth charts (the janampatri) is predominant, urban Indians are adopting all of the new systems being practices the world over

In my teens, I remember that the Greco-Roman zodiac signs (Aries, Taurus, etc) being a huge craze. Propagated by Linda Goodman, whose book was referred to endlessly and formed the basis of many gossip sessions, many of my peers went to the extent of pursuing or terminating relationships on the basis of Goodman’s interpretations.

By the time I was in my 20s, I became aware of a confusing array of beliefs, some based on astrology, others on differing systems that claim to understand current situations and predict the future. The Chinese Zodiac, Tarot cards, healing crystals, numerology, Feng Shui and Vastushastra as well as the old palmistry stuff are now all around to add to the pleasure of finding out what the future holds for you.

I have always been extremely wary of any methods that claim to offer all of life’s decisions on some sort of a platter. Experts practicing any of these systems, I feel, have been developing an increasingly stronger hold on their followers. Its not just readings that they offer; they go on to suggest and sometimes prescribe how their followers should lead their lives.

Now individuals are free to believe in what they wish to, but it seems to be extremely irrational to place my faith in any of these systems instead of on my own judgment! Of course, I happen to be born to parents who made their disbelief clear to me, so I was never predisposed to seeking my answers through this route. My dad did not waver in his disbelief even when he was detected with cancer and in the entire year of his fight against the dreaded disease.

I also observe that the higher the stakes, the more the urgency to know the future. So celebrities, politicians and industrialists frantically consult soothsayers, as do ordinary folks when they wish to take decisions about their careers, marriages, children, etc. Clearly, as the stresses of life increase, these kind of beliefs prosper. Urban centers where concentrated populations compete bitterly for opportunities to progress become great markets for opportunists who exploit insecurity.

I guess my basic question is- What’s wrong with leading life without knowing? Isn’t most of the fun in the journey anyway, learning along the way, tweaking strategies and being able to take credit for the good stuff also :) Do we really believe that bad luck is avoidable (through pujas, chants, crystals and other forms of ‘good energy’)? It’s an open question. My skepticism is apparent…and I’m willing to take my chances!

 

Does Oprah’s solution to poverty apply to the urban poor in India? Jan 23, 2012

I kept hearing about Barkha Dutt’s interview with Oprah all day. I just got around to seeing a part of it myself. Her’s is a hugely inspirational story, rags to riches, from a nobody to one of the most influential people in the world, etc etc.

Coming from poverty herself, Oprah pointed out today that very few people who live in poverty (that is without money, running water, 24X7 electricity, etc) know that they are poor, till they are in a position to compare their lives with that of someone else.

I had the opportunity to do some community consultation work in the slums Sundernagari in East Delhi a few months ago and I tried to review Oprah’s statement in the light of my experiences. We (as in mHS) had been engaged to involve the community in the process of developing an in-situ redevelopment scheme in which their families would be allocated housing units in the same location where their slum stands today.

The cheerful youth we met in Sundernagari had no apparent aspirations, seemed strangely secure in their poverty. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

We worked in two slum blocks, one predominantly a community of scheduled caste shoe makers and other a majority-Muslim community engaged in  buffalo-rearing, embroidery and metal work.  Both communities are extremely poor. Our survey shows about 31% of the households in the first community and 32% in the second have a household income of less than Rs 5000 per month (with an average household size of about 5). The highest reported family income in both blocks was about Rs 15,000 a month!

Of course the people we worked with in Sundernagari are acutely aware of their poverty. Its hard for them not be, not to compare themselves with the more fortunate while living in Delhi surrounded by middle income neighborhoods. Many women from these slums work as domestic help in the middle income colony nearby, entering every day more fortunate homes and observing closely a life of relatively much much more. I find it hard to believe that Oprah’s statement can be true of any community of the urban poor anywhere, in fact.

While aware of their poverty, I do not think these slum dwellers live life in a depressed or dejected fashion. They simply live, focusing on finding jobs (mostly in the form of informal labor, skilled or semi-skilled) and spending their money wisely so as to feed their families and educate their children. Their grievances are not with living in a slum, in poverty. They simply ask for basic services and security for their children, no more and no less.

Which brings me to Oprah’s other point about poverty. She sees education as the only way out of poverty, something that opens the door of opportunity. While interacting with young people in the slums, I was struck by their cheerfulness and complete lack of ambition. These were people who attended or had attended school, but did not believe that education would give them the opportunity to progress and find their way out of the poverty they were born into. So they simply lived in a status quo fashion, doing whatever work they could find, if they could find it (sadly, many young people didn’t appear to take on the trades of their parents, finding show making or buffalo rearing to be derogatory work).

Instead of offering them opportunity, the government has made these poor households dependent on subsidies and pro-poor programs. They now believe there is a certain power in their poverty. They believe the government will never throw them off their land and that they will be able to endlessly leverage their poverty to eek out survival for themselves and their future generations.

Of course, many we spoke to did dream of a better life, did see through the falseness of the security these programs offer; but in the collective mentality that is at work here, few offer a dissenting opinion. And life goes on….

Work-life balance=Work on weekdays and balance on weekends! Jan 22, 2012

Have just looked at the site stats on my blog and realize that the least views over the past month (since I’ve been writing regularly) have been on weekends! Kind of kills my motivation to write, but that thought has me doing the double take as well! What am I writing for? Myself? For the appreciation of those who read? And since the latter undeniably plays a role, will I end up pandering to the public and not really writing what I want to, what comes from the heart?

The stats also tell me that most people don’t spend much time before their computer screens on weekends and that’s great news. Urban life is firmly entrenched in the weekday-weekend mode, and while this has been so in the West for a long time, life in urban India has become like that too.

Weekends are now filled with chores, family outings, social visits, lunched, dinners, coffees, mall outings–all the hectic stuff you have to squeeze in because you’ve spent all week working, sending children to school, meeting deadlines of various sorts. Sunday evening blues, I suspect strongly, are not so much about not wanting to get to work on Monday morning, but about the sheer exhaustion of the weekend past!

The work-life balance is all about working the week and balancing on the weekend and unfortunately, that doesn’t always work! How does the body understand that sleep deprivation over weeknights is to be compensated on weekends, for instance?

So what is one to do? Here’s what works for me. I try to schedule one day in the weekend as a blank day, meaning no preset appointments and social calls at all. Errand running has been moved to an extra hour on the way back from work. I long for US-style 24 hour supermarkets sometimes, so that stocking up can be done after the children sleep. Movie watching is also on weeknights; we have the luxury of extended family to perform babysitting duties. I also try and take up a couple of hours of hobby classes on weekends. Right now its music, it used to be dance. This is to force me to take my mind off work, home and all the other commitments and stresses of life and…. it works just great!

What works for you? Do write in!