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Cuenca, Ecuador: Night walk

Another city in Ecuador, quite different from Quito. Nestled in a wide valley and not that high altitude-wise, this is a laid back city and a haven for retired expats. That means many more people speak English and it’s rather small, so it’s much easier to get around. We landed here early in the morning and ended up wandering the city for hours waiting for check in time. More on those wonderful and crazy wanderings later. 

After check in and a much needed afternoon nap (call it stone-dead slumber!), we walked to the city centre. Breathtakingly beautiful and full of unexpected sights, Cuenca has stolen my heart in a way that few places have. In addition to the gorgeous churches and squares, endless colonial facades and graffiti, there’s an earthy reality to the city and a sense of pride that is very endearing. 

Here are my shots from our walk around town tonight. Consider them placeholders till I get time to blog in detail about what we are seeing and doing. Much love from Cuenca, Ecuador…..

Conversations with co-travellers

A journey from Delhi to Jakarta. What’s so special about that? Two flights, some time to kill at Changi. Ho hum….

I’m not one to think like this before a journey starts. I’m always super excited about travel but some journeys are made special by the people you meet and the conversations you have. This one certainly was. Trying to sum them the best I can….

Conversation #1 : book buying advice from a stranger

When someone stands next to you at WH Smith and proclaims that a particular title is ‘the best book in the world’, it’s hard not to pull his leg right? “The best book in the world?” I challenge him. “For now…” says he, with a twinkle in his eye. He is recommending to me Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis and I’m skeptical as hell. It sounds very pseudo self-improvement to me, a genre I detest but he protests vehemently, saying it’s just the opposite. At this point we are joined by a 50-something Indian woman who announces her absolute dismay that the book section of the store has been slashed by half. “Change your name!” she cries, waving her hands about at the shop attendants, who launch into a long babble by way of explanations. As I bill and leave, I hear hip Aunty offer free book advice to the free book advice giver! 

Conversation #2 : dreams never die

Looking for a place to drink my coffee, I end up sharing a table with X. I have no intention of chatting but his gentle face and curious smile draws me in and I venture to ask about where he is from and where he is going. Over the next half hour, I hear a story of innovation, ambition, pride and disappointment that moves me. X is from Sydney, Australia. After winning a food innovation award for odourless garlic in 1990, he embarks on a journey of entrepreneurship, manufacturing and selling cosmetic and food products made from garlic, which he believes has medicinal properties especially in regulating respiratory conditions like asthma among other diseases. From what I gather, the business environment changed and one way or the other he ended up losing his business. Now, in the end years of his working life, he is trying to revive his business and traveling to explore partnerships in manufacturing technology, marketing and distribution. He is thinking of new markets and is fascinated to hear about the popularity of Ayurvedic and natural cosmetics and food in india. X is well read and reasonably well travelled but old world, still hoping to sell his ideas basis a spiral bound documentation of his past success. 

We talk about brain drain and economic policy, jobs and aspirations, the world order. I’m struck by his optimism and how his eyes light up when I ask if he has a sample of his product! He pulls out a small box of cream and I rub some on my arm. It’s anti ageing and full of garlic, all natural and aromatic too. He glows with pride as he sees how pleasantly surprised I am. “You gotta have a dream” he says “to do something for your country”. Clearly it’s not profit but something larger that drives him. And the fact that his beautiful wife and daughter have used his products for years is endorsement enough! His parting shot to me: “it was lovely to meet someone who thinks and cares”! 

Conversation #3 : fearless parenting 

The guy sitting next to me asks to borrow some part of my gigantic copy of The Strait Times and I comply. We start talking. Careers, business, the state of Indian roads, politics…staple conversation for two educated urban Indians meeting on a plane.  We even speak about cultural aspects of doing business in south east Asia and I hear him eagerly, soaking in information that might help the project we are starting in Indonesia. And then I ask him about his family. It’s a different guy talking now. A father with a five year old son and a two month old daughter. And we talk about how it’s fear and paranoia that drives modern parenting. To my utter surprise, he agrees with me about how we need to change that and give our kids the chance to find their own survival mechanisms. We argue as well. He loves the tech solutions- get the kid a phone and data card and google maps will be the solution! I argue for a belief system that trusts people, even strangers. It is a delightful and intelligent conversation that I enjoy. 

I end the long day with another long conversation with my dear friend and project partner Greg. This one meanders all over the place like it does with us but hovers somewhere around the themes we work on nevertheless. We can’t be blamed for losing focus! I go to bed and wake up a few times at night, excited for dawn. And here it is….

To keep the momentum on #housing inclusion, we need mechanisms to ground-truth and innovate

We live in a deeply divided world. Significant shifts in global economics and geopolitics have meant that countries are desperate for economic growth and increasingly intolerant of any events that derail them from achieving their targets. In this milieu, migrants have been caught in the crossfire. No one seems to want them, but what’s more, the unwillingness to include migrants has severe repercussions on how nations are planning, managing and financing their cities.

What is inclusion? Attitudes towards internal migrants shift, very very gradually

At Prepcom3 in Surabaya, Indonesia in the last week of July, I was disappointed to see India join the European nations and the United States to object to the inclusion of the Right to the City framework in the New Urban Agenda, which will be further negotiated by United Nations member states in New York a few days from now. Allegedly (see Indian Express report), while Europe’s concerns stems from the migrant crisis and the US is loath to recognize immigrant rights, India is also worried about the repercussions of taking on the responsibility to provide social justice to all, extending the already thin benefits of State welfare and largess to those who might not be legally recognized citizens.

This is the heart of the problem. In a policy environment in which the word ‘inclusive’ is bandied about rather casually, the meaning of inclusion bears repeated and deep exploration. Gautam Bhan put a spotlight on this issue of citizenship recently with reference to the Delhi Jal Board’s historic decision to provide universal access to water.

Who does India consider illegal and what are the various kinds of non-citizenship that people experience has been a subject of much study. Internal migrants, despite a Constitutional right to mobility anywhere within India, have been described as ‘illegal’, ‘encroachers’ and ‘polluters’ in numerous policy documents and court judgements. Even where policy has recognized their economic contribution, migrants have been steadily excluded – or inadequately considered – from provision of basic services (like water, sanitation), housing (negligible supply of affordable housing, no focus on incremental housing), transportation services (low priority to  affordable public transport including NMT), health, education, subsidized food (no access to PDS at destination) and even conditions for livelihood (harassment of street vendors, regulations that prevent home-based work).

The good news is that this seems to be changing. We can see now the very humble beginnings of a new mindset that sees migration less as an intrusion and more as an inevitable consequence of economic transition (and climate change). Parliamentarians have been debating migration in a more healthy manner and that has resulted in the creation of a Working Group on Migration particularly to assess linkages with housing, infrastructure and livelihood. I understand the debates within this group comprising several ministries and government department, academics and industry representatives have been encouraging.

Inclusive housing takes heartening steps forward

Besides changes like the Delhi government’s inclusive stand on water, there is much progress in the field of housing as well. At a consultation co-organized by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA) along with Magic Bricks and GIZ this past week, I was pleasantly surprised to see not only more supply of lower income group (LIG) and economically weaker section (EWS) housing by state governments (representatives from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu spoke), but also much movement on progressive housing policy.

This morning’s interview of Mr Sriram Kalyanaraman, MD and CEO of National Housing Bank, who also spoke at the event, offers much hope. We see the confluence of the government’s flagship housing scheme Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY) and technology solutions (e-gov, m-gov, intergated MIS) that work to educate housing buyers and link them with accessible bank branches. The uptake of low ticket size home loans is especially encouraging. Kalyanaraman reports that home loans for under Rs 10 lakh comprised a whopping 30 percent of the total in FY 16! I have a personal sense of victory in this regard, having been involved with organizations like mHS City Lab that persevered long and hard with the government and finance sector to push changes that allowed banks to devise means to underwrite loans to informal sector workers. A huge change indeed that will have rippling effects going forward.

MoHUPA’s support of rental housing and attempts to bring in some policy reforms to encourage it are also heartening. Particularly brave are its efforts to understand the informal rental market, for any discussion that talks about the middle ground between the formal and informal pushes us towards a deeper understanding of how human beings survive, negotiate realities and experience the world; the exercise reveals the limits of defining people through their economic functions and shifts the focus on aspects of human dignity, safety and livability. Even more, it shows us that our understanding of their economic realities is also deeply flawed at present. These discussions are critical if we are to move towards long-term inclusive growth.


Migrants regardless of income live in informal rental housing in spaces like urban villages


The contradictions must remain on the table, in plain view

And so, even as we celebrate the early wins, we need to highlight the contradictions in our approach. For example, those in the field know that any discussion on subsidized housing inevitably leads to the question of tenure and title. This consultation was no different. One cannot logically argue with the traditional defense of no-sale and no-lease clauses stipulated for a period of time (5, 10, even 15 years). This defense rests on the logic that people have no right to profit from something the government has subsidized entirely or partially. But if we happen to be in that moment when we are looking at market realities and the reality is that mobility of labour is a defining feature of India’s (rather painful) structural transformation, isn’t it a tad discriminating that we continue to devise schemes that tie the poor down to a specific location, disallowing them full tenure and denying them rights to sell or rent their properties? Is there no way around this? Could rent-to-own schemes be a solution so that the poor pay their way to ownership if they want to? Could private sector rentals that are currently in the informal domain be legitimized and even supported by mutually developing frameworks that ensure minimum quality standards and provide mechanisms to redress grievances?

Any number of questions come to mind, but if the government were to truly engage, solutions are also just as many. Beginnings have been made and now its  a question of innovation, experimentation and perseverance.

Why must I choose? — Ramblings of a Sanky Maniac

I look at my son running around the office. He giggles and laughs and takes forty rounds around the printer console. Plays with the calculator, block sections, paint catalogues. And I wonder why must I choose. The thought came from another article which a working mother friend forwarded to me about being a working mother. […]

via Why must I choose? — Ramblings of a Sanky Maniac

Obsessive reading!

Nothing like books to bring alive people and places! A lovely post indeed


I have watched with fascination the obsession that revolved around the Harry Potter series. I remember the pictures of the lines outside stores for the release of each new book and my sister-in-law using all her contacts to get a pre-release copy sneaked out for my niece. These compelling, addictive series seem to be the fashion of the day, especially for young and young adult fiction. I watch my own grandson, addicted to various mythology based series – Maybe at that age I too went through the rage of the time – various Enid Blyton series, Bily Bunter and a great favorite, the William books.

Even for a fairly rapid and compulsive reader, I have not been obsessive about a series or a fictional character for a very long time.  The first Henning Mankell book I read was  Daniel which I picked up one of  my increasingly infrequent visits to…

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OoGoOg the unhalved #2

2nd part of the sci fi fantasy series


OoGoOg was running round and round the thing blocking his escape. There seemed to be a massive place outside. “There must be a way outside, it seems that we are trapped over here,” OoGoOg  thought. “I might have to break the barrier to get out of this place to escape my clan and hopefully find another one. I have to make something which is sharp, sharper than most things we find in our food from the gods (also contains other items). Hmmmmmm……..”. OoGoOg was in deep thought.

Mr. Menidzher was elated when he read the text message of Dr. Hiburgerihatu. He started speed-walking to test lab #1 where he saw Dr. Hiburgerihatu observing one of the specimens assuming it was the human. Dr. Menidzher said, “So, you have finally succeeded Dr. Hiburgerihatu after 3 tests and a year”. “Yes, but the human may not survive, he is being hunted by…

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OoGoOg the Unhalved

Follow Udai’s latest fantasy story here….


OoGoOg looked at his brother. His brother had been ‘halved’ like all of his kind. Halving was supposed to be a sign of becoming a proper member of society. Halving occurred between ages 14 and 20. OoGoOg was 23 years old and still hadn’t halved. Most of his race was born half their parents’ height, became equal of their height by age 5, doubled their parents’ height by age 16 and halved by age 17. The year in the middle caused each new generation to be taller than the earlier

OoGoOg wasn’t lucky to be tall though, being tall was considered bad luck. Even his parents’ said, “shame and bad luck you bring upon us”. Little did they know that if OoGoOg wasn’t noticed, they would all be doomed.
Dr. Hiburgerihatu was sure he hadn’t made a mistake this time so he went to check on test #3. He…

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They are as different as chalk and cheese, my children. One is camera shy and a quintessential bookworm, in love with trivia, already geekily inclined. The other is a self-professed ‘Mondo’- half monkey, half dog (no space for human!). Sporty, wild, social, comfortable with considerable artistic expression. 

They are best friends and the worst of enemies, you never know which is when. They are in that stage when their personalities are beginning to emerge, take shape. And it’s fascinating to observe how much happens every passing day in their busy busy lives. 

A pic to illustrate the sheer joy of being a child. And the fun you can have when you can be whatever you are, whatever you want to be…..

Pic credits: my friend Maneesha and mom, Sita  

Learning to be unapologetic: My own brand of feminism

If there is anything I have learnt in my journey into feminism, it is the strength to be unapologetic. Let me explain.

The experience of being a woman in Indian society is hugely shaped by relationships to men. From the time of birth, a woman is defined as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother. While relationships bind men too, men are also encouraged to develop independent personalities. Cast in the role of bread winners and ‘heads of households’, developing an independent identity is seen as necessary and assertion is very much considered a masculine trait.

For many girls of my generation who were fortunate to be born into families where women were relatively emancipated, growing up was largely about finding an identity that detached itself slightly from the fetters of those relationships but we were expected to perform the balancing act and still hold on to them.

I am not cut out to be a non-conformist, so in my student years and and as a young mother, I struggled to maintain that balance. To meet my ideals of being a good daughter (excel is academics/work, be well-behaved), a good wife (supportive, a peaceable companion), a good mother (available, involved, loving, one who prioritizes her children over all else). Of course, the ideals themselves were reflective of a certain attitude to gender in our society, but that’s how it was and perhaps still is.

But somewhere along the way, it became very tiring to toe that line, to always be in the midst of that balancing act. I realized that being constantly up there on the balancing beam only diminished my chances of succeeding at those very self-expressed ideals. Each time I yelled at my kid, or over-reacted to something my husband said, I felt something was fundamentally off.

And then realization dawned. I realized I was constantly apologizing for myself in my head. I was being so hard on myself, holding myself to some golden standard and apologizing- to myself, to my family, my friends even. That was something I was determined to change.

At about the same time, I started to read feminist texts and blogs and interact with feminist thinkers. I was fascinated by the idea of sprouting wings that would help me detach myself from bounds. But the emphasis on freedom and emancipation puzzled me. Not only was it important for me to be unapologetic about what I did and how I behaved (within the bounds of humanism and reason), it also became vital for me to challenge those notions of feminism that urged me to feel ashamed of my dependence on my spouse, my sense of involvement with my children or my unwitting endorsement of patriarchal social rituals. I became truly unapologetic. I became a follower of my conscience. I began to hold a harsh mirror to myself, but with one big rule. To never feel sorry about myself. To do what I think is right. To never allow apology and shame to haunt me, but to learn from my errors and keep moving forward.

Happy International Women’s Day!thumb_DSCN0914_1024

My Christmas in 2015

Udai’s Christmas was very exciting this year! Check it out…


My Christmas this year was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed. My family and I went to visit my mother’s friend’s house. Kimberly is my mama’s friend from work and she with her mother, Jean, and father, Wilson, invited us to their home in Mumbai to celebrate Christmas.

The Noronhas are Catholics and so began my experience of an actual Christmas. My previous Christmas experiences consisted of getting a tree inside the house, going to sleep jumpy on Christmas eve, then waking up on Christmas morning and opening my gifts. This, however was a different experience maybe not so much because of the things I did, but maybe because of the way I did the things and the mood of the event.

These were things we did-

  1. We set up the tree and put a lot of decorations on it. Unlike the tree back home this tree looked extremely good. We also…

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