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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Jagamantha Kutumbam

This week our family woke up to a new void in our life. My Nayanamma (paternal grandmother), the quintessential Amma to many others left us to finally reunite with my grandfather (Tatagaru). I decided to write this short tribute in their honor before the myriad of memories and emotions that I am experiencing get sidelined by the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.

My father was biologically not their son but, they never treated him nor any of his siblings any different from their own children. While to my father, they were his parental figures and much more, to me they are my paternal grandparents. Today as I saw the constant flow of people from so many different communities line up to show their respect for her, I could only think of the Sanskrit phrase "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”. As we bid farewell to our Nayanamma, I noticed how the entire neighborhood had shutdown  as a mark of respect for the lady who they say was their strength, support and “Amma” in short. Nayanamma’s silent influence crossed religious and societal boundaries which is truly admirable.

Their love and generosity knew no boundaries and for those under their wing, they really never created any artificial layers like immediate family, extended family, distant family, friends, etc etc., They truly believed and lived as if the whole world was one huge family. This taught us what it meant to be human and what it meant to be there for each other, keeping aside our individual differences of opinion, differences in character and in some cases individual idiosyncrasies.

Tatagaru, through his own life taught us that the most lasting wealth that one could accumulate in this lifetime is good will and good education. I remember how he always emphasized on this point at our dinner table conversations that “paper” wealth had no meaning and not to lose ourselves chasing that while, the real wealth is what is in our hands – our profession and our helping hand.

As I end this, I feel overwhelmed by the incredible legacy they left behind for us and only wish we draw strength from the values they imbibed in us and from each other to keep the legacy going for generations to come.

 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Being Fair

In a casual conversation few days ago, I asked Avi (my older one, 14 yrs old), what is the one thing in the world around that bothers him that he wants to change. I was expecting to hear something like poverty, child labor, pollution etc., He said, the fact that not everyone's ideas are heard equally, that not everyone seems to get an equal chance. I was confused and taken aback as to where this was coming from and probed him more. He gave examples of how in school he sees that mostly it is the ideas or voices of the kids who are either academically doing very well and/or popular/annoying in some way, get heard and given chances. He goes on to qualify that actually, even if you are academically good but not as pompous or popular, chances are you are not heard. I further asked him why this seems to bother him so much? He said because of this, more often than not, it is not the best people or best ideas that are getting the push but, the pushy ones that are getting the push. I was able to connect some dots because few weeks earlier when he was contesting for the Class Prefect position, I asked him what is this one trait in his character that he thinks qualifies him to be a good class prefect and he immediately said “I always try to be fair and balanced, I will not favor a friend and will do what is right for the entire class”. So, being fair seems like something that is important to him. I was actually not sure how to guide him from here. I asked him to think more about how people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who were really not that good academically, but eventually got their ideas to be noticed. So, I asked him to think if there was anything else these kids who are brilliant but, a little shy or introverted can do to grab the opportunity instead of waiting to be noticed or heard. I gave him ideas like, can they put their ideas into action in a smaller scale, perhaps build a simple prototype to get their point across? I also asked him to think what he specifically could do to change this and he just said "But, Mom like you said "life is not always fair" so, I guess that is the way it is." We ended the conversation there but, I have been thinking about this and there is something about this that is bothering me.


I don't want him to settle down thinking life is not fair but, at the same time accept that in this world the one who markets himself/herself will certainly get heard first but, for others there are still avenues to go about letting their work speak for themselves. I also want him to have this self-awareness and perhaps apply it to pick the right career path for himself. How do I guide this child who is mostly an introvert, not lose his self esteem in this world that seems biased towards the extroverts? By the way, one of the books he liked a lot and said he connected with it a lot is Quiet - The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking

Sunday, April 24, 2016

My experiments with entrepreneurship

Some friends have asked how my startup ventures are going, why things happened the way they did, what did I learn so far and so on. This is a chronicle of my experiences/experiments so far in that space:

Background and seed for the idea

I am an engineer by education and have been working in the software services and digital media industry for close to 2 decades. On the other side, I come from a family of doctors and, we also had to deal with a number of complicated chronic medical issues. Especially, when my mother was going through her health issues, I remember being part of that roller coaster ride and also remember how we often got a second opinion by making a quick phone call or by reaching out to someone across the town. Most of the time these second opinions helped us feel reassured about the path she was in. There were also times when these advises helped us make some critical course corrections. All along, I realized that we were the lucky few who had such proximity and access to qualified medical professionals and often wondered how the common people dealt with such situations. Subsequently, around the time we moved back to India in late 2010, I observed how internet usage and social media usage was picking up steam in India. India has the second largest internet usage in the world. (39% of rural and 72% of urban Indians use the Internet for health information). I found that the majority of the health information that was available on the internet broadly fell into 2 categories – a) Generic content portals like WebMD and b) some support networks/forums (not very popular in India). I conducted quick surveys on social media to understand how people felt about quality of healthcare in India and what the pain points were. The survey results (about 100 responses) confirmed my intuition that while we have made great strides in medical facilities; the process to seek a credible medical opinion in a timely fashion is still very unorganized and unpredictable. In India especially, access to internet is more wide-spread than the access to a qualified medical specialist. In fact, most educated families still rely only on their personal networks and casual conversations to seek medical opinions.
This is when I got the idea that using internet as an effective medium we could build a platform that facilitates credible and timely medical second opinions –XpertNation

Idea to Reality


After I documented the idea and even developed a quick prototype to demonstrate, I approached some highly respected physicians who liked the idea and thought this was a service that the medical industry could benefit from and also agreed to be on our board of advisers. We agreed that for such a platform to truly serve its purpose it should be based on a strong set of values and the medical experts on our panel should truly be top-notch and imbibe our core values. We wanted to make sure that whatever we built addressed the problem holistically using evidence based medical practice. After several months of studying clinical medicine textbooks, working closely with the physicians and developers, our platform launched on Dec 18th of 2013.

The Harsh Reality

The launch event itself attracted unexpected media coverage and lot of interested customers. I was very encouraged and immediately expanded the team to include 2 customer care specialists just to answer the incoming calls and queries. We started receiving lot of inquiries from the website and phone. However, from the initial 250 inquiries, only about 5 converged as sales. After quick analysis of where the cycle broke down, we realized that most of them were not sure of the value we provided and so hesitated to pay the Rs. 1000 for it. To understand if price was the barrier, we launched several coupons (free, 50%off, second opinion free). We continued in this mode for another 6 months and received an average of about 75-100 inquiries per month of which only about 10-15 converted to actual sales. I handled most the cases myself to make sure I understand the customers’ needs and also to set the standard for customer service. Having studied each of the cases closely, I understood the recurring themes that we were seeing: The inquiries that came in broadly fell into 3 categories:
  1. Those looking for guidance on which specialist to consult and where to go.
  2. Those with serious/chronic diagnosis that truly needed a second opinion before deciding on a treatment path. E.g., cancer staging, heart issues (bypass or angioplasty, open heart or minimally invasive), etc.
  3. Those who were looking for faster appointments and/or cheaper treatment options
1 and 2 were serviced by us using the different service offerings (free Xpertquery and the paid Xpertconsult) and we politely refused 3.
Among those who were seeking second opinions, the feedback was mixed. A small percentage of customers truly understood the value we provided and knew exactly how to use the opinion they received from our panelist. Majority of the others fell into the following 2 categories
  1. In cases where the first opinion and second opinion that our panelist provided differs, we were expected to do lot more counselling on what the patient should do next. This was something I was not comfortable doing nor was I qualified to do.
  2. There is no set standard/protocol for medical practices in India which makes it very hard for any 2 doctors to concur especially when it came to invasive procedures or end of life issues. Corporate hospitals rarely opt for conservative treatments or palliative/hospice care since families and societal norms don't really like to accept/discuss the inevitable and often expect the doctors to not give up until the last breath or last penny (whichever came first) Unfortunately, this made decision making very frustrating and hard even for the most educated and informed families.
While the above two made it challenging for us to handle patients who received conflicting opinions, I was still convinced that the platform would be of tremendous value to those patients that didn’t even have access to first specialist opinion. So, we decided to focus on a different market segment - tier-2/3 cities and villages which didn’t have credible specialists and only relied on the local general physicians to refer them elsewhere. We came up with a plan to partner with channel partners in those smaller towns and villages who can offer our service to local patients so they can get their specialist opinion before spending time and energy on traveling to the nearest multi-specialty hospital. We zeroed in to launch with 3 channel partners in one district of AP to assess the response and then fine tune the model before spreading out. As I started interviewing and discussing with several potential partners, I realized how the whole medical industry is setup with deep penetrating kickbacks system. Every diagnostic centre, general physician, RMP doctor is tied up with a multi-specialty hospital(s)/specialist in the nearby city. For these centers to instead offer our service, our commission structure both per case and volumes should at least match that of established hospitals.

To Go or No-Go

At this stage, I was disillusioned and went back to the drawing board to figure out how to offer the service without diluting its value and without compromising on any of the core values – quality, honesty and timeliness. This exercise showed me clearly that the second opinions service alone is not a very scalable business model; it is limited by the bandwidth of the expert panel. To make this a viable business proposition, we would have to offer other auxiliary services or diversify to generate a regular revenue stream. I also approached a VC that had earlier funded a similar venture – Mediangels to seek advice. While they were impressed by our roster of panelists and by our thorough workflow, they advised me to diversify and go slow on the second opinions platform until the revenue stream solidifies. They also were very blunt that being a single founder (other co-founder was not on the ground) company, my chances of getting funded was very low since VCs look for a strong team along with the idea itself. So, at this point, I was left with 2 choices – a) Invest more money and energy to plough ahead with Xpertnation and in parallel diversify into other revenue generating opportunities or b) Just keep Xpertnation alive with minimal resources, keeping the risk minimal. Given the situation with my partner who couldn’t participate on the ground at this stage, for option (a) to work, I had to actively look for another partner to share the load, investment and risks associated. Also, for Xpertnation to establish as a trustworthy brand, I would have to focus a lot on the operations and would be left with very limited bandwidth to focus on anything else. This meant I would have to partner with someone who can bring in the other revenue generating opportunities and also run that unit. All of this seemed possible on paper, but I sensed a huge red flag and was not convinced enough to take the financial risk this aggressive approach would entail. I decided to go with the second option and continued to keep Xpertnation alive with just my personal effort and limited investment and let it take a slower trajectory through word of mouth and social media awareness building campaigns. Looking back I still think this was the right decision for everyone involved and this journey has taught me many valuable lessons about being an entrepreneur.

I still truly believe in the value that a service like Xpertnation offers but, I think it is slightly ahead of its time and it is an idea whose time has perhaps not yet come in India.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Intolerance or Ignorance

As anybody in India can vouch for this, our favorite topic these days seems to be about our Tolerance or Intolerance whichever side you want to take. I have been thinking about it for quite sometime now and have a myriad of thoughts and opinions about the political aspect of it but, this post is not about that. This post is more about my experience growing up in secular India and how religion, God and our secularism have shaped my way of life.
I was listening to Smriti Irani's latest outburst in the parliament and when she read out some sections of the History textbooks being used in schools today, I began to wonder how much of the history taught in school I still remember and how much of impact it had on me. Sadly, the answer is "very little". I don't remember much of the history I was taught in school, I only remember bits and pieces that I seemed to have gravitated towards for one reason or the other.
Like many millions of children in India, I was also exposed to "Religion" and "Hinduism" through the rituals and customs followed at home. Like many kids at that time, there was not much room to question and reason things out and we took a lot of these rituals for granted as the way of being "Hindu".
Since we as a family were dealing with my mother's health issues right from when I remember my childhood, I used to question and ponder over why God was not answering our prayers and what is it that we did in the past to deserve this and what we have to do now to have him "fix" this issue now. So, even before I understood anything, I developed this fear towards God and felt I had to follow the rituals/customs for Him to take care of mom.
There was this one health scare with mom and she had to be in grandma's place for an extended period of time to get investigated and treated while we were at home in B'lore with Dad. During this time, there were some men and women from the nearby church that got in touch with mom and started telling her how Jesus can help salvage the situation. One of the ladies was one of her treating physicians and so it was easy for mommy to trust her. These people started visiting home regularly and conducted group prayers for mom. I distinctly remember seeing all of them praying loudly when we came to visit her during holidays and was very scared. I was about 6 years old then and started listening attentively about this other God who supposedly will fix it all. I remember them saying things like Jesus would punish anyone who would worship any other forms of God other than the Holy Father. They told us watching movies means we would lose our eye sight as punishment, going to temple means we would lose our legs, etc., We were taken to these public meetings saying some miracle would happen and that people with several chronic, life-threatening illnesses would get cured. I remember going there hoping to see one such miracle happen on mom. Of course, no such thing happened. Mom got over that episode and we got back home but, those interactions with the church people left me with more questions and emotions ranging from fear to complete defiance. I remember how mom and dad embraced all of this so beautifully. They started reading all the scriptures including the Bible, English translation of the Quran along with the many other Hindu Vedanta literature and teachings of various Gurus. Looking back now, I think they started their deeper spiritual quest then. Mom's health issue was the necessary impetus for them. We had the most inclusive/secular puja room with pictures/idols/symbols from all faiths. Our bookshelf at home included the scriptures from various faiths.
For sometime I played along but, as I got into adolescence and the urge to rebel kicked in, I just grew more and more apathetic towards God, religion, rituals and used to remember "Him" on and off and participated in rituals just to get them over with. Since mom and dad were not very ritualistic at home, this indifference in me went quite unnoticed.
I never had the time or interest to dig deeper and understand what religion was, what Hinduism was all about, what the various forms of worship mean or any such thing. I was just being a typical teen focused on my academics, career, friends, life, love, fun, romance, etc., One thing that helped was the strong role models we had in mom and dad in terms of always having a steady moral compass to know right vs. wrong. I also had mom as my sounding board for any dilemma and never really felt the need to know more about religion or God. I think I am not an anomaly here, most people in my generation are God fearing and more ritualistic, some others are indifferent and only a few take the pain to read and go deeper to develop an informed belief system.
After marriage, when I started my own family in another country is when I started giving this more thought - what really is the culture I want to pass on to my children.. is it merely the rituals that we follow around festival time? Does being Hindu mean we have a certain idol in our puja room and follow a certain ritual while praying and celebrate certain festivals?

Over the last few years, as I began reading and exploring more- Vedanta, Dvaita vs. Advaita, Essence of Bhagvad Gita, teachings of various Gurus - Shirdi Saibaba, Jesus Christ, Sadhguru, Ramana Maharshi, etc.,  I am beginning to appreciate the breadth and depth of Hinduism and how it is not just a "religion" but, more a way of life, how one can be a Hindu and still worship any form of God, how it is more a framework for a spiritual way of life and less about the actual form of God and how most rituals have a scientific or societal reasoning reflecting that time.

Back to the question of tolerance vs. intolerance: My family's experience is a perfect reflection of us being secular, inclusive and tolerant but, without full understanding of one's own belief system. Being in India, it was (still is) not unusual to mingle with children and families following different faiths. So, having had close friends following Christianity, I knew (later) that, the Bible doesn't really say Jesus would punish all those who go to a Hindu temple or watch a movie. Why those seemingly well meaning church people had to use fear to "convert" us is something I am not gong to attempt to answer. But, think of those who are not fortunate enough to be born in the kind of family I was born into or have the exposure that I had, they would probably grow up with this distorted understanding of religion (one against the other) and end up as either God fearing or rebelling in the name of God.  However, it is because we as a nation, are inherently tolerant and inclusive that there is scope for alternate belief systems being discussed and "conversions" from one to other even happening. It has taken other countries many many centuries before they even gave another belief system a honest hearing. For most Hindus, God and religion is always part of life in the form of some rituals (in some families more than that) and living along side and accepting people of other beliefs is also just as much a way of life. The original ethos of our Indian society was built on the principle of Unity in Diversity with religion and God being a personal choice (To each their own). We intuitively knew when to fight for perfect alignment and when to let each one make their individual choice. When Government started interfering with religion, and political parties started using different sections of people as vote banks, things got muddled up and the real meaning of religion and God in one's life lost its meaning and religious affinity became a way to get some "special status"

I think the real issue at hand is not that of Intolerance but, that of Ignorance. How can we get to a point where our people understand the distinction between Religion and State and why no Govt (or organisation) can treat you differently based on who you consider God or not. Is there a better way we can teach the true essence of  Religion, Hinduism/Spirituality to our people without dividing them in the name of God?  I am beginning to comprehend and appreciate the real essence of Hindutva: ie., the quest to know God, quest to know one's true self is not something that can be easily taught or learnt but, has to be experienced through life only. I feel somehow over generations this very essence is lost and the Hindu way of life has been reduced to just some Gods we worship and rituals we follow which seems a huge huge loss in transmission.
The various mythologies, Amar Chitra Kathas do a good job in introducing some aspects and portraying moral values in an captivating way but, is that sufficient? How do you think we can do a better job in at-least injecting a healthy dose of curiosity in our children so they question more and start their quest earlier? 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Back to the back.. trying to move forward

I know a lot of us at some point or the other like to just go back to re-live our childhood.. go back to the good old days and such.. usually such pangs of impossible dreams are affectionately termed as "Mid-life crisis".
To me this feeling of wanting to be stuck in the past has been going on for sometime now and more so since Dad's passing. It started few months ago when I suddenly realized that my memories of time spent with mom were fading away except for few instances that seem to be etched deeply. Now, I feel scared that I may forget my treasured memories and so want to hold on to them however painful they are (yes, the last days/weeks/months with Dad were painful, watching him wither away in front of me). In this whole process, I feel I am stuck and feel like I myself am resisting the moving forward/getting on with life part. Am I really working against nature or trying to not move on with time? I don't know.. actually, I am not even sure if I am capable of such big things since they say "Time is the best healer"...am I even capable of resisting time to do its job.
Although the pain of losing a parent is not new to me, this time.. the feeling is very different. I feel like I lost a part of me.. I feel like I lost the only other person who truly understood some of my quirks, uncertainties, weaknesses and empathized with me unconditionally.  I feel this huge burden on my shoulders to conduct my life without a parental figure in my life and worry if I am actually capable of it or not...after all mom and dad were/are such wonderful role models and what if I don't/can't pass on some of those precious life lessons down to my children...anyway you get the point.. I feel orphaned and feel like a branch chopped off from the tree and planted somewhere else to grow on my own.
As we went on our first vacation (more like 'getting away from home' trip) since Dad's passing, I experienced some very strange feelings that I am grappling to comprehend. I was wondering constantly if Dad knew that we went to Indonesia, which was one of his favorite work places in the last few years. I was feeling guilty (is that the right word even for the feeling) for going about seeing this part of the world that mom and dad didn't.. how can I just move on and not let them be part of this experience. So, inadvertently, I was constantly drifting away remembering times with them and imagining what it would be to have them with us at this time.. well, as you can imagine, constantly remembering them was very painful and sometimes so painful that I just couldn't live in the moment and enjoy the little getaway. This in turn made me feel guilty that I was not being fair to myself or the family around me. Well... so many conflicting emotions running through my heart and mind.....that I was at times a complete mess..and at other times blanked out.
But, that was not all... I started appreciating simple moments, candid conversations from the heart, small pleasures lot more because I realized whenever I was remembering mom and dad, it was those small moments that brought a certain warmth in my heart and a smile on my face.
I just hope I will truly be able to juggle both - cherishing the memories while living/enjoying the present to build more memories to look back at in the future.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

My father, my hero

This is the eulogy I gave for Daddy today during his 13th day ceremony. Thank God we were blessed to be able to spend time closely with him in the last 11 months and that I was able to tell most of the below to him in person.
Thank you everyone for taking time to spend this Sunday afternoon with us as we honor our father. I feel extremely proud today to stand before you as my father’s daughter. Life completely changed for us 13 days ago,  but today we want to take the time to celebrate his life and remember the many life lessons he quietly passed on to us. Although Dad faced his share of ups and downs in life, he never let any of the hardships bog him down and never lost his positivity and optimism. He taught us the meaning of gratitude and loyalty by constantly reminding us of his humble beginnings from the small village of Godavarru and fondly remembering until his last breath every single person who helped him along the way.

My father was my first hero and role model. My interest in Cricket started with me trying to imitate him by listening to hours and hours of commentary on the small pocket radio that he carried. Dad was in many ways ahead of his times. He encouraged me to play cricket with my neighbourhood boys and eventually pushed me to even find a place as the only girl member of the All-Boys cricket team.  He gave us freedom to discover ourselves while setting boundaries and providing a safety net. He gifted me my first bicycle after my 10th and let me use it for all my classes during the following years but, only months later I realized that he used to quietly follow me behind in his car to make sure I was not speeding and was being safe.  Couple of years later, when I was trying to decide which Engineering college to go to, unlike many fathers of his time, he insisted that I go as far away from home as possible so I learn how to live by myself. Till the very end, my father had more confidence in me even when I was unsure and struggling to find my ground.

My father was a man of few words and never really lectured us about anything. His actions spoke louder than his words. Although he never really liked to listen to spiritual discourses like Bhagvad Gita, he lived by those principles day in and day out. He was probably the most focused and positive person I have seen. He only focused on his work and never gave much thought about the results. For him, the question was not if the glass was half full or half empty but, how best to use the glass and the water in that glass.

He treasured his family relations close to his heart and valued his friendships immensely keeping in touch with everyone and has now left behind for us a wide network of friends and well-wishers.
While my father was a sign of disciplined lifestyle and good health throughout, my sister and I feel blessed to have been able to spend the time closely with him during the last 11 months when his health took a downturn. Even during the final hardest weeks and months, he fiercely protected his dignity and privacy and his top priority was always to not inconvenience anyone.

Mom and dad taught us to appreciate and enjoy the small things in life and constantly reminded us reasons to be happy, grateful and positive but, it is going to be extremely hard to stay that way without both of them who were our support pillars and cheerleaders. But, I believe they will remain as our guardian angels to get us through this lifetime and we hope to not let them down. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

India's Daughter - my thoughts

As the news about the Nirbhaya documentary was erupting on social media, I was a bit confused as to what my stance was/is about this. I tried to figure out why the Govt would be against airing it and several things came to mind (some of which I agree, some not so much):

  • Is it right for some foreign media house to come and interview our victims, convicts etc., for commercial reasons? Was there proper protocol and permissions followed?
  • What is the Govt trying to avoid by banning it? What do they think will happen by airing it on public TV?
  • Yes, while we love our country for many wonderful things, there are also many things messed up here, but do I necessarily want the entire world to watch my messy house? 
  • What is/was BBC's motive to do this? Why so much attention on the rape situation in India?
  • Why is it that the rape situation in India is in the face of the media always while, similar or even worse conditions elsewhere in the world are not publicly talked about/written about so much? 
  • Why do we Indians seem so self-critical always? Is that a good thing or not?
Upon further reading what was shown in the documentary, my initial reaction was anger "how could that *$&*DH* bus driver talk such rubbish? .. How does he have the guts to say such things in public media and get away with it?"  How many people in India actually think this way?
Then, this thought is still lingering: "do I really want BBC to show this to rest of the world?" Do I want people across the world to view India in this light? Of course not.... I think India that I grew up, the Bharat that I read about/heard about in the scriptures doesn't stand for this kind of treatment towards women.. Nowhere in any of our ancient books is woman portrayed this way or treated this way but, somewhere over generations and generations, the interpretation of our great heritage and culture has been lost in translation and things got messed up to put it in simple terms (too many reasons for why and how this happened and is a topic for a different post). That said, I am still not sure if I really want BBC to broadcast this all over the world.
While, I cannot control that aspect, I started thinking what is it that I want for my girls in India to learn from it?. What is it that I want to teach them?
  • I think I want to raise my girls equal to boys. I want to tell them they are no way inferior to boys in dreaming high and chasing their dreams and nobody can say they cannot do it because they are girls. I want to tell them to fight for what is truly theirs, their right to work, their right to be educated, their right to make choices and even their right to travel by public transport at 9 PM
  • I also want them to continue to fight until our Govt truly enforces quick justice in a way such that the perpetrators of any crime (not just rape) think twice before they commit the offense
  • But, I also want to tell them to use common sense and caution while exercising their rights, after all to continue the fight and claim their rightful space in this world, they have to be alive and kicking and not beaten and dead. 
  • I will also tell them that they need to consider the realities of their surroundings... so, just because you are watching MTV and want to believe you are in Barcelona, you can not dress up like you are in Barcelona while surrounded by the realities of living in Bengaluru. 
  • I will also tell them that men are men anywhere in the world, it is not that Indian men descend from a different race or something, they all have the same kind of hormonal surges that can go haywire if not contained and controlled by some social conditioning that comes with raising them well and by the fear of the rule of law. The difference in how the society treats the victims and the convicts is what makes them behave nonchalantly with a 'chalta hai' attitude here in India. 
  • So, running away from this country is not the solution, but exercising common sense and caution wherever you are while continuing to fight for equal rights and swift justice is what you can do as a girl in India today.
Now, coming to the contentious question of whether the documentary should be aired or not. Well, it is not a straightforward answer in my mind because the audience needs to be with a certain maturity to take the right message out of it for a positive outcome. If we go out bashing India and Indian men for all that is messed up and let the media make a mockery out of the situation or politicize the whole situation just to get some TRP ratings or political mileage, then it means nothing and can actually be detrimental. 
Instead, if it can make a  good fraction of thinking individuals truly introspect where and how we went wrong, how we need to raise both our girls and boys and make them realize what to fight for and what to be practical about, then that will do us all some good. 
So, hoping the documentary can trigger this thought process and introspection in some (hopefully many) individuals, it is better to air it than not.
So, to the girls in my life, let us not stop fighting for our fundamental rights but, let us also hope we can, at all times use our common sense and not get into situations that will leave us beaten.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Work-Life Balance, Lean-in, Lean-out - What I learnt from my maids


At the time of writing this post, google index had 90,20,000 results when searched for "work life balance". My post will be the proud 90,20,001st article.
I am sure I am not going to say something so new that has not been said in those 90,20,000 articles but, since I have to have a say in this topic that is so close to my heart, my life and my head, I am going ahead with it (Narcissism and all)
Here is something I have been thinking about while observing how my maid works. My maid works in 3 houses in our community and her timings are roughly 7AM to 7PM. She has a husband who also works as a construction worker and two children that they are managing to send to school. She gets up early to cook for her family and pack lunch for them, rushes to work and goes back home to again cook, clean, etc., etc., In this setting, I have never heard her complain that she is not able to spend time with her children or that she is not home when they get back from school or about any of the other issues a lot of us "working" women complain about. On days when she has to work late due to a party in someone's house she is actually excited perhaps because of the tips she may get or some good food she gets to take back home. She doesn't complain about working at all but, is in fact grateful for being able to work. She often says that if she was back in her village, she would not be allowed to work which means she and her husband would not have been able to provide the life they are now providing for their children. So, for her, she is clear that she is working because that is the only way for them to eat 3 good meals a day and that is the only way she can send her children to school. So, when the need is clear and the vision of a better life is clear, all other issues of "work-life balance" seem to pale out in comparison or become inconsequential.
For the rest of us, who are truly fortunate enough where the need is not so pressing, are we complicating the situation because we want to have our cake and eat it too? There are just few current realities (harsh maybe) that I think we need to just accept and figure out how to deal with them instead of fighting them:
  • Careers in any industry have become increasingly demanding. Very few professions can truly boast of a 9-5 working hours.. at this point I can only think of teaching (not always) and banking (maybe) and some other blue collared jobs governed by strict union rules. Even with all the benefits companies offer towards family friendly work environments and policies that the government mandates, for an executive who is trying to compete in a global market with fierce financial targets, our day to day work-life balance issues like daycare timings and such don't necessarily feature as top of mind items.. so, if he/she calls an important meeting at 6:30 PM and is forced to do so 3 times a week, there is nothing much we can do about it.
  • If double income is a must for your family's financial commitments, then you will just have to figure out a way to do it. And, most families seem to somehow figure it all out and with the right attitude and some give and take, most families seem to come out fine with few battle scars to show. Ofcourse, in each country, society and culture they manage differently. For example, the childcare and support system in the US is more organized and professional while it is lot more dependent on family, extended family, friends, neighbors and maids here in India. 
  • If double income is not an absolute need, then it just means you are blessed and can actually afford to pause, evaluate the reasons why you want to work outside of the home and accordingly have a setup that you are most comfortable with to handle work and family. It is still important to keep remembering that you cannot have your cake and eat it too and so it is important to set realistic goals and expectations of yourself (remember, nobody can have it all). 
Going back to the case of the domestic maids, I find it very fascinating how that segment is so advanced in some aspects of supply/demand and work-life balance and there is definitely something we can learn from it. Maids are hired as Individual Contributors - meaning, they are hired for what they themselves can provide/do, those who hire are also clear on what the outcomes/benefits are by hiring them for X hours a day and the pay is directly proportional to the number of hours and number of tasks done. Now, this gives them excellent flexibility in managing their day depending on a) their strength and stamina and b) their need for money (of course, I am overly generalizing assuming both the maids and their employers are professional enough and don't abuse each other). Other than the maids' ability to do good household work, they also need to be honest, with good work ethics and PR skills to thrive in this market so they are never really out of work. And, somehow most of them crack the PR skills part of it pretty effortlessly and especially in India even without the other two (quality of work and work ethics), they seem to be always in demand (that is a topic for a different post though)
If we correlate this to corporate jobs and careers, this is how consultants in any industry work. They get valued and paid purely for their expertise and experience and in most cases they get to choose how many hours they want to/can work and generally have better control on their timings. Yes, they may not have the career growth in terms of corporate titles and such but, their value in the market doesn't diminish as long they do good work and keep updating their skills as per the market needs. Other than the pure domain skills, to be successful as a consultant there are quite a few other skills we need to learn and acquire like PR/networking and the ability to sell and market ourselves so we always have enough work in hand to keep us as busy as we want to be.
Hindsight is always 20/20, I wish I had this epiphany many many years ago to build the necessary skills and consciously move towards becoming an independent consultant for few years. So, my current mantra that I would give to any young professionals (especially women) regarding work-life balance would be - invest time and energy during the initial part of your professional life in becoming really good at whatever you do, at this time go the extra mile, burn the midnight oil if needed to become truly top-notch, don't be shy to lean-in, promote your skills and strengths, take time to build a professional network that knows and values your worth and when there comes a time when you want to lean-out a bit and have better control of your work hours which you may not get in your corporate setting, then explore consulting gigs. Consulting lifestyle also has its ups and downs, one of which is an unpredictable monthly income (unless u are very good in managing a steady flow of assignments) and so be ready for that.

These consulting assignments help you be in touch with the industry, will force you to keep updating your skills as per the market needs and whenever ready, you can still go back to pursue a corporate career path.
To close, with some clear goal setting and realistic expectations and good time management, I think most of us can sail through those peak professional years which happen to also be the most demanding family years and can hope to get to the other side with a healthy body and sane mind to enjoy our retirement (is there still such a thing?... well, we will figure out when we get there).

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Remembering Mommy

There is not a day that goes by without remembering Mom for something she said or something she did. Among all the things, the thing that I will always hold close to my heart about Mom is how she, inspite of her health issues, put us (Dad, Anita and me) and our every single detail ahead of hers and strived to make life as normal or as beautiful for all of us around even when she was facing up a storm of pain or some other struggle internally.

She lived her life for us and almost made us feel confident that she will always be there to take care of us. Yes, like all the kids we took that for granted.
She taught Anita and me what it means to be a family, how when you marry a person you marry a whole family, what it means to provide for children not just what they need to survive and grow up but,also what they need to grow up as good human beings, what it means to show children what they are capable of, etc etc., 
On Aug 4th, when she left us it was clear that she was ready to go only when she was confident that we could take care of ourselves. Little did she know that, I was dependent on every phone call from her and every letter from her to feel safe, comforted and confident. 
Anyway, this note is not to brood over losing her but, to commemorate and remember all the wonderful things about her so we can share it with her grandchildren and selfishly for me for keepsake.







For me
There was this one time mom came to drop me in the train station when I was going back to Warangal after holidays. I was in the train, dad went to buy a water bottle for me. The train started to move a bit. I cannot forget the anxiety in mom's eyes and she literally tried to hold onto to the window bars to stop the train so I can have the water bottle. I can never forget that look.. it showed to me clearly that she would not hesitate to do anything for me or even throw her life for me. She knew what I was thinking or feeling just by looking at me. My loudest spokesperson ever

From Anita:
Sunday mornings in ammasandra, we would be sitting on the kitchen counter while she was cooking and she would tell us these stories that she made up to make it interesting for us. The stories were all about how to face the real world 
Also at one most difficult juncture in my life, when I lost Prateik, she was my strength, my counsellor and the only person I could pour my heart out and she would be there for me always. 
The sparkle in her eyes when she was with Samhitha, Avinash and Abhiram.....precious moments.


From Chandu:
We miss you aunty. You were always cheerful and kept everyone around you happy even through the tough times you went through. You set a good example for perseverance and enjoying simple things in life.

From Harini:
It was in college days..vasantha bet with me that I go to her house in Hyderabad and fool aunty that I was a revolutionary from warangal  That was the first time i met her. She had this innocence about her that I didnt want to take advantage of. But it was a bet. So I convinced her and very easily that too. I found her so trusting and simple minded. She even gave council to change my ways  and the huge relief on her face when i revealed that it was a prank..was priceless!

From Bapineedu Mavayya:
She is just one of kind. We all truly miss her. She is always a part of conversation when we talk to our friends and children.

From Ammaji Atta:
Saranya atta and I used to spend most of our summer vacations with mom and dad. After dad left for work, we used to have so much fun talking and joking. Even now, we talk about it and laugh at her jokes. There were so many of those moments that are hard to recount.

From Sammu
It was all those weekends i spent with ammamma. Whenever i used to draw the smallest things, she used to get soo excited. I would never realise my talent if ammamma did not. She is my inspiration, my strength. I miss her more than anyone. I think of her every single day. I like to think she is present with me so she can lead me. AND I KNOW SHE IS! I OVE HER THE MOST! I LOVE YOU AMMAMMA 

Friends and Family, please share your most memorable moment with mom or something about her that you like/love most in the comments below.



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Of mountains, valleys, flowers, hairpin bends, snow and everything in between - Our Kashmir Trip

Kashmir had always been an elusive destination and like many others I also had this romantic view of Kashmir and wanted to visit it someday. This curiosity grew even stronger when the tourism in the area resumed few years ago after being off-limits for many years prior.
Ever since we moved back to India, both Kashmir and Leh (Ladakh region) were on my bucket list of places to visit. This year, although, I was more keen on Leh, our travel agent advised us against it since we were traveling with kids and they felt Leh was probably not appropriate for kids under 10. Well, I know many families with even younger children who visited the Leh/Ladakh region and handled it pretty well, but somehow we didn't want to take any chances and decided to visit Kashmir this time and pushed off Leh for another few years. Finally, Kashmir happened this year. Thanks to Hansa Holidays, the planning and booking was relatively easy (in hindsight, I wish we did a bit more research on what to expect). We planned a trip covering Srinagar, Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonamarg. 
My intent to blog the experience is mainly to help other families during their planning since even in my readings post the trip, I didn't find much in the form of what to expect that would help tourists like us.

Srinagar: 

The flight from Hyd to Srinagar (with stopover in Delhi) was pretty smooth. One can notice the changing terrain as we fly away from Delhi towards Srinagar with the different mountain ranges, some snow covered and mostly lush green. Srinagar Airport is called International Airport but, it is very small and kinda run down. Luckily our luggage arrived soon enough and found our driver and vehicle immediately and set out to check into the houseboat on Dal Lake. 
The drive to Dal Lake (houseboat on Dal Lake) was about 30 mins. First impressions of Srinagar - an old city(town) with narrow lanes, open drainage, definitely doesn't look like the summer capital of the state or a major tourist spot of the nation. It is not surprising though, since the entire state relies mostly on tourism for its economy and tourism is not as developed as is possible. Our driver told us that Srinagar gets 3-5 feet of snow at times during winter and the temperatures dip down to as low as -15 c. The houses didn't seem well insulated for such harsh winters and we also saw some slums with extremely poor living conditions with small huts covered by plastic sheets. I was very touched to see such harsh conditions that people live under. Having experienced the winters in New Jersey, we sure know the pain of bitter cold and, thankfully always experienced it from centrally heated homes or from under warm down jackets and mittens. Apparently, room heaters are a luxury and so are warm clothing. Lot of Kashmiris carry this burning coal blocks called Kangri to give them warmth for hours at a time.


Dal Lake is a large (second largest in the state) lake and the epicenter of all tourist activity in Srinagar. We were told we had to experience the houseboat for sure which is why we booked one night on the houseboat. As we approached the Dal Lake, we were welcomed by a line up of shikaras which is again on the must-do list for a Srinagar tourist. Given how my nose is quite sensitive, I was wondering if I would smell the stagnant water, fish, etc. but, to my pleasant surprise the Dal Lake was relatively clean and there was no smell. There were some patches of dirty, stagnant water but, for some reason no smell even there. The Dawn houseboat itself was one of the older ones but, was quite comfortable. 
The first shikara ride from the bank to the houseboat was quite nice. We were, in a few minutes surrounded by other vendor shikaras selling everything from icecream, kulfi, to jewelry and clothing. This was a little annoying and we had to say 'Sorry, abhi tho aaye hain, nahi chahiye" about 10 times before we were left alone to enjoy the ride.
Apart from the Dal Lake and houseboat experience, the only other spots in Srinagar are the various parks - Shalimar Bagh, Mughal Gardens, Nishant Bagh and the Shankaracharya Hill. All the parks are pretty much the same with a mughal style of symmetrical gardens, a small uphill with the view of the lake and surrounding mountains. One unique attraction all these parks have is -  photographers with kashmiri costumes... these are not nearly as annoying as some others I will describe later.
As we were driving through the streets of Srinagar, one thing that was apparent was that the population is predominantly muslim. Although, coming from Hyderabad it should not be so strange to see this many muslims, it was somehow different here.. perhaps because of their sheer dominance (about 97-98% as per the census).  But, it was still wonderful to see big hoardings and boards welcoming people going on the Amarnath Yatra right next to all the Ramzan celebratory hoardings. Is this what secularism is all about? The whole atmosphere just made me more curious to learn more about the history of this place, the history of the conflict between India and Pakistan over this region, circumstances that led to the inclusion of Article 370 in our constitution... fascinating to say the least (topic for a separate post). But, it just made me feel so proud to be an Indian and made me appreciate the true meaning of being Hindu even more so.. Hinduism is more a way of living and not a religion and probably the most inclusive one of all that openly encourages peaceful co-existence.
Kashmiri cuisine is predominantly chicken and mutton. Non-veg dishes vary in spice and texture and dry fruits are used generously in many vegetarian dishes making them a tad sweet. Our lunch at Adhoos and the homecooked dinner on the houseboar were good samplers of kashmiri cuisine. This pretty much sums up Srinagar and next day we ventured out to Pahalgam

Pahalgam


Pahalgam is about 90kms east of Srinagar. It is a popular Bollywood shooting spot and is also associated with the annual Amarnath Yatra. Chandanwari (2,895 m), 16 km from Pahalgam, is the starting point of the yatra that takes place every year in the month of Sawan (July to August). 
We drove leisurely stopping at the Awantipura ruins, Almonds and Saffron shops and the Kashmiri Willow Cricket bats factory. 

The drive was very scenic with the Lidder river flowing along the highway in front of green lush mountain ranges. This seems like the main attraction of the region that most drives are very scenic with flowing rivers/streams with surrounding green lush / or snow covered mountains. Hotel Pine n' Peak in Pahalgam was quite comfortable with beautiful views. Pahalgam is known for pony rides which lead up-to to green plateaus on hill tops offering breathtaking views (popularly called Mini-Switzerland). 

The other famous spots here are the Betaab valley (named after the movie Betaab which was shot here), Aru Valley and Chandanwari. Only way to get to these places is by hiring a local tourism vehicle. The good thing was that the rates for these vehicles are fixed and published prominently. The pony rides are not and you need to wear your haggling hats to get a fair deal. Interestingly, there is a unspoken agreement between the pony/horse owners and the rest that nobody divulges the rates or interferes at all. So, you are kinda left on your own to figure out the fair price. 
Apart from the pony/horse owners and the tourist guides, you encounter many sellers trying to sell shawls, sarees, hand made handicrafts and they sound so desperate and annoying because they either end up begging or threatening (depending on their mood and the day they had so far I think). This shows how the entire region is so desperately dependent only on tourism and there is definitely not as much demand to support the large population that relies on it. Overall, the Pahalgam visit was nice and pleasant and the valleys offered some awesome visuals as expected. There were some activities for kids too like the zorbing and hydro-zorbing. Our next stop was to Gulmarg

Gulmarg

I was looking forward to Gulmarg (Meadow of Flowers) with all the hype it
received after the Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani movie (apparently the Manali shown in this movie was actually shot in Gulmarg). It is a small hill station about 52kms west of Srinagar. For all the hype about it, Gulmarg is a small town with nothing much except some good views (now we got used to the views and they became the usual :) ) and the Gondola ride up the mountains (cable car). 
Our hotel (Hotel Vintage) was a nice small boutique hotel with some nice short walks nearby to awesome views.  There are two phases of the Gondola ride and the first phase offers nothing more than just a hop over to the 2nd phase Gondola.We booked the Gondola rides online (highly recommended to avoid the long lines at the station itself) and even booked our slots for 9-10 AM for Phase 1 ride and 10 - 11 AM for Phase 2 ride. The hotel was about 2 kms from the Gondola station. Cars or any other vehicles are not allowed to the Gondola station and the only options are to either walk or ride the ponies. It just shows how desperate the locals are to create artificial demand for themselves (amd their ponies) since they only depend on tourism which lasts for about 4-6 months in the year (Its a bit longer in Gulmarg given the ski slopes) We decided to walk from the hotel but, escaping the tourist guides and their ponies was the most annoying part of the walk. Our taxi driver also warned us that there was nothing for a guide to really show and prepared us to be wary of the chasing guides. They are very aggressive and cannot take 'No' for an answer. As we reached the Gondola station, the ticket counter which issues the boarding passes for online ticket holders only opened at 9:30 (remember, we took the 9-10 gondola for phase 1..) and they decided to hold back and not give the Phase 2 boarding passes until 11 (again an artificial way to create demand for guides). 
Some impatient folks who had other plans for the day had to hire the guides only to have them wait at the counter and pick up their Phase 2 boarding passes while they took the Phase 1 ride. Even though the online ticketing system issues passes starting from 9 AM for Phase 1 and 10 AM for Phase 2, Phase 1 didn't start until 10 and Phase 2 didn't start until 12. Before this time, the cable cars were used to transport the vendors and guides up the hills. Eventually, we realized the timing on the boarding pass meant nothing, there were long lines at every phase and just to make the guides useful, the people with guides got to cut the lines blatantly, leaving the rest of us frustrated and irritated. 



The Gondola rides (Phase 1 and 2) and the views they offered were great and bit scary for me. I was wondering if the people here are not able to manage a ticket counter as per the timings given, are they capable enough to follow through all the safety procedures to operate these cable cars at such heights.. Well, I had to take a leap of faith and jumped onto the Gondola and enjoyed it nevertheless. The whole Gondola experience which was supposed to take us until noon went on until 3 or so given all the delays. Gulmarg was overall a mixed experience. The tourist guides and their ponies and the sheer disregard for the tourists' time and money at the Gondola station left us with mixed feelings. We headed back to Srinagar that evening after a stop at the Kashmiri arts and crafts store to buy some Kahwah (Kashmiri Tea) and few Kashmiri garments. 

Sonamarg

Sonamarg (Meadow of Gold) is a hill station about 80 kms northeast of Srinagar nestled with in the Himalayan peaks and is also surrounded by many glaciers. It has no permanent settlements and is not accessible during the winter months. It is also the closest basecamp (Baltal) for the Amarnath yatris to reach the Amarnath temple either by helicopter or by foot. Once we reached the tourist spot of Sonamarg, we were again dropped off in a parking lot surrounded by tourist guides and their ponies and 4X4 vehicles. There is no such thing as tourist info center or anything and it is the locals who pretty much call the shots. 
There are two options here - Taking the ponies up to get to the glaciers or take the 4X4 vehicles to drive through the ZoJi la pass to reach the Zero Point. Again, there is a unspoken rule that tourist vehicles or personal vehicles are not allowed on either routes and we are left with no option but to either hire the ponies or the vehicles there. Unlike Pahalgam, rates are not fixed or posted and we are left to negotiate ourselves. (some research ahead of time would have helped). We hired the vehicle to drive through the Zoji la pass to get to the Zero point. The drive was not for the faint hearted with its hairpin bends and narrow kutcha roads. However, it offered some excellent views of the mountains and the valleys. It is the second highest road in the world and a vital link between srinagar and the ladakh region. The drive up and down the Zoji la pass was an unforgettable experience but, I wish we were more prepared for it. Given how dangerous and unpredictable the drive can get, I was surprised/shocked to see there were absolutely no signs or attempts to explain what to expect by the guides. 
In fact, being eager to get their business, the locals underplayed the whole thing so much and made it sound like a drive through a park. On the way up to the Zero point, the pass was closed for 2 hours to clean the landslides that happened before and I was losing my patience to wait (again because this was not expected). Thankfully, kids held up pretty well and kept themselves busy with some snacking and silly games.
The ride was so rough and scary that I actually didn't really enjoy the gorgeous Zero point when we eventually reached it. I am glad the kids held up well and thoroughly enjoyed the snow fights and sledging and the hot maggi noodles up at the Zero point. I couldn't stop thinking about the drive back and was also thinking about all those brave soldiers and workers who were working in such difficult and dangerous conditions to maintain those roads for us tourists to enjoy the breathtaking nature views.  On the ride back we escaped a landslide that happened just 2 cars ahead of us. After waiting for a dangling rock to drop for sometime, our driver eventually sped past the spot saying "Allah ke naam lena". All in all, a scary experience.. wish we were better prepared for it. In hindsight, if I did some research, I don't think I would have been comfortable doing this route especially with kids because it is so unpredictable. After the trip, we read/heard accounts from others who were stranded there for many many hours and heard the dangers involved if it rains. All in all, Sonamarg, was a scary end to the trip but, made us very grateful for the life we have and appreciate the comforts of our hotel/home even more.

We got to see and understand why the Kashmir region is so different from rest of India and the tough conditions in which people live there are quite unique to that region, which makes having special provisions in the constitution understandable just like how special provisions have been made for hilly regions or tribal regions of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh, etc., However, it is just hard for me to believe that the people in this region would fight so much to belong to one country over the other since they are geographically and socially pretty disconnected in more ways than one. If it is the religion that makes them feel more connected to Pakistan vs. India, it is still hard to believe having witnessed how their interests are co-existing and thriving very well in the region. More on this as a separate post.
 I can summarize our Kashmir trip as an experience of a lifetime, we got to see and experience the beauty of nature in a way that no camera can capture, it also let us put things in perspective and appreciate just how marvelous and magnificent God's creation is and why we should not mess with it. 
Lastly, we started appreciating just how unique Kashmir is in its location, locales, people, living conditions and how it is in grave need to be revived and developed. Here are a few things I wish the J&K Govt and Tourism Departments pay attention to:

  • Cleanliness: Keep the areas clean. The area is already gifted with immense beauty and some fantastic views, just don't mess it up. The rivers look so fresh and clean and the water tastes so refreshing and sweet. Preserve this and make sure cleanliness is taken seriously. Invest in keeping the Dal Lake clean and hygienic before it becomes another Ganges in Banaras. (I think this point can be applied to pretty much all tourist spots in India)
  • Safety: Invest in safety measures for both locals and tourists especially in hilly areas. I know many brave men and women are risking lives everyday to maintain dangerous routes like the Zoji la pass and other such mountainous terrains but, please take the extra step to invest in some basic safety measures to make the workers, locals and tourists feel safer.
  • Tourist Friendliness: There is nothing more annoying for tourists than being chased by local tourist guides who use all kinds of tactics from gentle asking to pleading to instigating. It is obvious that tourism is this region's major source of income and the supply of tourist guides and ponies is way more than the demand it sees. I think the Govt needs to recognize this and invest in building better facilities and encourage projects that make the area more tourist friendly and provide employment opportunities so the locals don't get so desperate. Invest in uplifting the local arts and crafts industries in a way they showcase them with pride and not seek sympathy.
  • Diversify: Uplift the entire region (not just the tourist spots) by encouraging more innovative projects and industries suitable for the region which in-turn generate more employment opportunities.  Beyond this, encourage people to move around for a better livelihood, gain more exposure and seek a much more dignified living.
To end, Kashmir truly offers breathtaking moments and also many moments that take your breath away for many reasons ! No wonder, they say Jammu & Kashmir is where heaven meets earth.