Friday, October 29, 2010

Innocuous Encroachment. An Inch At A Time.

I do multiple assignments for multiple teams. One of the teams takes care of business processes and the clients are all from America only. Recently I was on a conference call with the onshore coordinator who works in Washington. While taking stock of where certain assignments stood, their status and dates of completion, she laid out before us her plan for the next day. I told her at once that the next day was a holiday on account of the Dasara festival and no one was working.
To which she said that this particular team would be working. As all the clients were American, the team did not go by Indian holidays but had a separate holiday list which was the same as the American holidays.

I told her however that I was not planning to work that day. As I was working for this team only part time, I could take such liberty. She did not raise an objection. So I had my holiday.

But this brief but close encounter with Americanization left me feeling disturbed for a while.

Working in night shifts, taking on pseudonyms to put the American callers at comfort and speaking in a foreign accent and all were the lot of the far and distant BPO's and call centres that had only been the subject of my armchair analysis.

But this time, how close it had come to me.
It was just a brush, but I recoiled.

This agitation is not so much about a holiday denied.
It is alarm at the Americanization of such a personal matter as festivals and holidays.

It is anger and dismay at how thousands of people have to forgo very personal things of cultural value (just a few days a year to begin with) and adapt to foreign ways without as much as making a fuss.
It is indignation at the domination of a foreign culture over ours through the backdoor.
It is disappointment about how we let this happen for the sake of lucre.

It is the struggle of life being uprooted from one soil to be planted in another soil.

The tragedy of the whole thing is most of us don’t even realize what is happening. And worse, even if we realize, we don’t care.

We invent words like ‘flexibility’ and ‘adaptability’ and such noble sounding terms to make our helplessness seem like a meritorious virtue.

I just finished reading Arnold Toynbee's (a great British scholar) lectures and essays on the encounters between different civilizations where he points out that it is not possible to take one aspect of a foreign culture without taking another aspect of it. 'One thing leads to another' until you have accepted the foreign culture whole and soul.

He illustrates this phenomenon using the examples of non western countries taking to western technology during early 20th century.
Russia, Japan, Turkey had to learn western technology for the political purpose of protecting their frontiers and once they adopted western technology and warfare, other aspects of western civilization - culture, lifestyle, ideas, ideology etc. also entered these nations inevitably.

Technology does not exist separately from religion and culture.
Most of the non western cultures that had initially resisted attacks from western cultures took to western technology later, thinking they would stop at that. But there was no stopping. They were not aware of this truth that fragments that we perceive are an illusion of our own creation. In reality, everything exists as a whole.

E F Schumacher makes the same point in his “Good Work”.
‘…Prime minister of Iran said – “There are many aspects of the west that we particularly wish to avoid in the industrialization of Iran. We seek the west's technology only, not its ideology. What we wish to avoid is the ideological transplant.”
The implicit assumption that you can have a technological transplant without getting at the same time an ideological transplant; that technology is ideologically neutral; that you can acquire the hardware without the software behind; is a bit like saying - I want to import eggs for hatching but I don’t want chicks from them but mice or kangaroos...’

So you cannot adopt the western ways at work without adopting other aspects of the west. Gradually 'one thing leads to another'(as Toynbee puts it), and what innocuously entered our society as an employment opportunity salvaging the millions of jobless, eventually starts eating the very roots of our culture.

Now that I find myself on this subject, I will recount a related incident of three years ago that happened in my previous organization, although it is a slight digression.

I used to contribute to this quarterly newsletter.

I have grown up studying British English at school and I am scandalised by the way American slang and colloquial have diluted our language standards. I treasure my worn out Oxford dictionary because the newer editions have included most of the popular slang and sms lingo while excluding many obsolete English words.

So I spell my words the British way.
When MS word (stupid software) underlines in red the word c-o-l-o-u-r in my documents and suggests c-o-l-o-r, I right click the word and add it to my dictionary.

I tried to change the settings by selecting 'English UK' and not 'English US' and it still continued to underline c-o-l-o-u-r(stupid software), until I added it to my dictionary, that is.

So when I submitted my articles to the editor, I received the reviewed copy where all my spellings had been changed to American.

The fact that the editor was an Indian brought up in America for most part of her life (she called herself Indian perhaps because it sounded fashionable), made things bad enough.

Her argument was that we worked for an American company.
I explained to her that it did not make a difference for the purpose of the newsletter. Only our product documentation had to be in American English since we get paid for it. But our newsletter was our creative work for which we did not get paid by Americans.

She argued that "Still, we are an American company". She was a chicken brained woman who did not have too many arguments.

I did not want to waste my time so I asked her to remove my name from the article or to put her own name if she wanted or to leave it anonymous otherwise and never to ask me to write any more articles for her. I would not have my name associated with American spellings.

The whole thing was not so much about English spellings. English is not even my mother tongue.

It was a question of having to let go of my present ground for appeasing someone.

How easily we Indians let go our ground and not even lament it!
How submissive we are. How practically non-existent is our self respect! How keen we are to appease!

I mean, for years, for decades we speak a certain tongue; and the minute Americans throw dollars at us, we are ready to forget that tongue and take to another tongue in order to appease the one throwing lucre at us!
(Keep aside for a while, the fact that, British English is correct English and of the highest standard and when we have chosen to keep English, we might as well keep the purest of it)

Is this not why we were dominated by the British, by the French, the Portuguese, the Mughals and others?
WE have a low self esteem problem.

Returning to the subject of slow and inevitable encroachment…
Yes. Toynbee said it was a universal phenomenon, a natural law. But I have hope. Whenever we have encountered other peoples in the past, we have assimilated them. They went through metamorphosis to become one among us. Or there was a synthesis between two cultures.
But one thing is for sure, we never lost ourselves completely; no one was able to wipe us out.

But today, with our own people rolling the red carpet for our obliteration, cooperating in the transplant, reveling in self deprecatory talk, I am not sure.
As diverse cultures with their distinct nuances are now tending towards a nuance-less homogeneity - of the all pervading shopping malls, multiplexes and software profession, I am not sure.
Already, in many places, I see that only the superstructure of our culture remains while the insides are moth eaten. Only the external symbols have been picked for ostentatious display while the soul of the culture is gradually dying.

But fortunately, there are other places, where I see a ‘going back to the roots’. And that’s my only consolation.

I hope and pray that we will prove an exception to the law that Toynbee has proved to be universal.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Unfolding. One Day At A Time. Where Life Is A Worship

Kole Basava.
Oxen decorated with colourful cloth and bells are walked from house to house by men playing the Shehnai. Women and children come out of their houses to look at the oxen. And to give alms. A Rupee or two. Sometimes a fistful of rice. May be a chapatti. Plantains for the oxen. Whatever is given is given with both hands symbolizing whole hearted giving.

I wake up to the music of Shehnai and the tinkling of the oxen’s bells on certain days.

Where everything from mountains to rivers to cows to rats to snakes to elephants to plants to planets is held in religious sanctity…
The Bhoomi puja performed before laying the foundation stone of a building is an offering of gratitude to earth.
The Shiva Linga in the sanctum-sanctorum of temples is the phallus.
The walls of temples are adorned with sculptures depicting the union of man and woman.
A book is Saraswati. So is the veena. So are all musical instruments.
The flute is Lord Krishna’s.
Implements are worshipped during the Ayudha Pooja. Spade, sickle, plough, tractor, automobiles, computers and laptops…
The Tulasi is a plant. So is the peepal tree.

The Navagraha Pooja is where the nine planets are worshipped.
Sun is worshipped. So are fire, water and the other elements.

‘Vaidyo Narayano Harihi’ one says before taking medicines.

That apartment building I pass on my way to work is called ‘Maya Indraprastha’ (maya and not maaya). And who was Maya? The celestial architect who built Indraprastha for The Pandavas.

The Rangoli powder with which women decorate their thresholds and the front of their houses is a kind of earth.

The food we eat is worshipped.
“Anaapoorne sadapoorne shankara praanavallabhe
Jnana vairagya siddyartham bhiksham dhehim cha parvathi”

‘Yatra Narya Poojyante’
Where women are worshipped

In this country, it is difficult to find something that is not worshipped, that is not divine, that is not held in religious sanctity.

Where everything from mountains to rivers to cows to rats to snakes to elephants to plants to planets is held in religious sanctity…

Love the Hindu religion for all that it is.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Blink - Malcolm Gladwell

This is one of the most interesting and unputdownable books I have read so far; every page has an example, an analogy, an experiment, covering diverse domains and subjects ranging from painting to sculpture, to marriage, dating, war, presidential candidate, car selling, food tasting, police operations and more…

A smart book, I must say - tells you something you already know while making you feel or believe that you are learning something you never knew before, for the 1st time.

The author first convinces you, using an example, that first impressions are correct whereas the results of detailed analysis are not. After the reader is convinced and assured, the author presents examples where first impressions proved completely misleading. Leaving the reader convincing but wondering. And then the author explains how you can train yourself to form correct first impressions.
It is something all of us know and have experienced. Isn’t it? At times, our judgment was correct. We said, ‘I knew’. At other times, we were so mistaken. And as we have grown, our first impressions are more often than before, correct, as a result of all the lessons learnt earlier.

But whatever that may be, this is a work of excellence – for the number of facts it presents, for the amount of research and travel the author has undertaken to gather information, for the way it is structured, for the way it makes you think seriously about something you hadn’t really pondered before… and more.

Blink is a book about the first 2 seconds.

The book is organized into 8 interesting chapters each of which has an intriguing title.
Each chapter takes up a story and vividly illustrates how our mind works. The book is full of experiments conducted by various people, their outcomes, examples from history etc.

In short, this is an interesting book of case studies.
Every chapter begins with an incredible story which is simply told and left there. And then the author explains how our mind works, aspects of our psychology, experiments, their results and establishes the concepts. And then using these concepts, he explains the story told earlier and completes the chapter.
A very good approach which keeps the reader hooked to the chapter till the end.

Let’s understand what point the author is trying to make and how he makes it by looking at each chapter.

The statue that didn’t look right:
Among other stories, one (the first one) is about an antique statue owned by an art dealer that a museum contemplated buying. The first impression of some art experts who saw the statue was that it wasn’t right. But after many months of careful study and several tests, the museum found the results convincing. But it turned out later that the statue was a fake.
When the art experts felt an intuitive repulsion upon looking at the statue, they were absolutely right.
In the first 2 seconds (in a single glance), they were able to understand more about the essence of the statue than the team was able 2 understand after 14 months of study, analysis and calculation.

You don’t know why you know. But you know. You figure it out before you realize you have figured it out.

The author presents the notion off 'the adaptive unconscious' (not the unconscious described by Sigmund Freud). It is a kind of a giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.
We have a decision making apparatus that makes very quick judgments based on very little information.

First point of Blink: Decision made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.
Second point: Our unconscious is a powerful force but it is fallible. Our instinctive reactions often have to compete with all kinds of other interests and emotions and sentiments.
Third point: Our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled. We can teach ourselves to make better snap judgments.

The theory of thin slices: how a little bit of knowledge goes a long way:
A psychologist video tapes a husband and wife in conversation. If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking he can predict with 95% accuracy whether that couple will still be married 15 years later. This he does by using a code for every second of the couple's conversation - assigning a number representing the specific emotion of the individuals.
If he watches a couple for 15 minutes his success rate is around 90%. Further if they looked at only 3 minutes of a couple talking, they could still predict with accuracy who was going to get divorced and who would make it.
The truth of a marriage can be understood in a much shorter time than anyone ever imagined. All marriages have a distinctive pattern, a kind of marital DNA that surfaces in any kind of meaningful interaction.

A critical part of rapid cognition known as ‘thin slicing’ refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience.
When we leap to a decision or have a hunch, our unconscious is sifting through the situation in front of us, throwing out all that is irrelevant while we zero in on what really matters.

By looking at someone's room you can tell what they are. You needn’t talk to them or interact with them. (I disagree here)

The Locked Door: The secret life of snap decisions:
In this chapter, using a series of examples, cases and experiments the author shows how a lot of people who know, do not know how they know, sometimes to their own amazement.

Vic Braden can predict by reading the way a tennis player serves whether he is going to double fault.
Ted Williams could explain with confidence how to hit a baseball but his explanation did not match his actions.

Mary's explanation for what she wanted in a man did not necessarily match who she was attracted to in the moment, while speed dating. We have, a story telling problem. We are a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.

Then the author talks about something called 'priming'; something similar to brainwashing indirectly in order to affect the behaviour or judgment of people. Several priming experiments have been mentioned.
The suggestion is that, what we think of as free will is largely an illusion. Much of the time we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment, are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.

The Warren Harding Error: Why we fall for tall, dark and handsome men:
Americans elected Warren Harding as their president simply because he was great looking; he served 2 years before dying unexpectedly of a stroke. He was, most historians agree, one of the worst presidents in American history.

This is the dark side of rapid cognition.
Sometimes a good deal of prejudice and discrimination determine what we think in the first 2 seconds; which is why we still associate blacks with negative qualities; also why we have tall CEO's most of the time.

Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment; which means we can change our first impressions - we can alter the way we thin slice - by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.
It requires more than a simple commitment to equality -to stop being racists, to stop preferring good looks. It requires that you change your life so you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and familiar with the best of their culture...

Paul Van Riper's big victory: creating structure for spontaneity:
Paul Van Riper had fought the Vietnam War.

In a war game planned by the Pentagon and costing millions, Paul Van Riper was cast as an anti American rogue commander.
To everyone’s surprise, Paul dealt a blow to the American defense without access to any of the sophisticated systems that American defense had had.
And this was attributed to Paul’s correct snap judgments.

A study of nurses, intensive care units, firefighters and other people who make decisions under pressure reveals that when experts make decisions, they don’t logically and systematically compare all available options.
Detailed analysis is the way people are taught to make decisions but in real life it is much too slow. Experts size up a situation and almost immediately act, drawing on experience and intuition and a kind of rough mental simulation.

Author uses improvisation comedy as an example to illustrate the kind of thinking blink is all about. Improvisation comedy involves people making very sophisticated decisions on the spur of the moment without the benefit of any kind of script or plot. They take a random suggestion from the audience and then without so much as a moment's consultation make up a thirty minute play from the scratch.

Lesson - spontaneity isn’t random. How good people's decisions are under the fast moving, high stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of training and rules and rehearsal they have already undergone.

Perils of introspection - Paralysis of analysis.
When you write down your thoughts, your chances of having the flash of insight you need in order to come up with a solution are significantly impaired. Describing a face - in words or sketching it - will make you unable to pick it out of a police lineup.

Insight is not a light bulb that goes off inside our heads. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out.

It is assumed that the more information decision makers have, the better off they are. The truth is the opposite. All the extra information isn’t actually an advantage, in fact, you need to know very little to find the underlying signature of a complex phenomenon.

Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.
In good decision making, frugality matters - reduce a complex problem to its simplest elements.

When we talk about analytic versus intuitive decision making, neither is good or bad. What is bad is if you use either of them in an inappropriate circumstance.

Kenna's Dilemma: The Right - And Wrong - Way to ask people what they want:
Rock musician Kenna : when his music was played on the radio as a test before recording companies invested in them, people did not like his music. But when experts - people who truly know music heard him, they loved his music.

Dick Morris who would go on to become advisor to President - was bringing into the world of politics the very same notions that guide the business world; to learn what people wanted through polling.
And polling reveals a lot about the kind of snap judgments people make.

When marketers ask consumers to give them their reactions to something - to explain whether they liked a song that was just played or a movie they just saw or a politician they just heard, how much trust should be placed in their answers?
Several examples have been given to show how people make choices without fully understanding the options before them and what motivates their choices.

1. The taste tests conducted by Pepsi titled Pepsi challenge gave results that alarmed Coke. They changed their age old formula to make Coke a little lighter and sweeter. But, the new coke failed in the market in spite of its success during the taste tests.

The sip test is not a true test but the home use test is. The result of the home use test can be the opposite of the result of sip test. In a sip test, the sweeter product will win but if taken home and taken in large quantities, the sweetness can be cloying and people would want the lesser sweeter option that they had rejected during the sip test.

Sensation transference – people transfer sensations or impressions that they have about the packaging of the product to the product itself.
Most of us don’t make a distinction - unconsciously - between the package and the product.

2. Margarine is a white looking substitute for butter - When white in colour it wasn’t popular among people. When coloured yellow, and people were served yellow margarine (without their knowledge), people thought it was just fine.

3. Further when covered in foil, people say it tastes better than another product not covered in foil, because unconsciously people associate foil with higher quality

4. Two brands of brandy - same in quality performed differently in the market because one brand used a better looking, ornate bottle for packaging.

5. Peaches sell better in a glass container than in tin cans – ‘something like my grandmother used to make’ people said.

What happens when asked why, is that we come up with a plausible sounding reason for why we might like or dislike something and then we adjust our true preference to be in line with that plausible sounding reason.

The snap judgments of ordinary people are different from the snap judgments of experts. The gift of their expertise is that it allows them to have a much better understanding of what goes behind the locked door of their unconscious.

Seven seconds in the Bronx: The delicate art of mind reading:
The most important forms of rapid cognition are the judgments we make and impressions we form of other people. It’s a classic case of thin slicing.
But sometimes mind reading can go terribly awry. An example given is that of police cops in 1999 who shot the wrong guy.

There is the detailed account of an experiment concerning facial expression, muscles and related emotions, the result of which proves that we are mistaken in thinking that face is the residue of emotion, that we first experience an emotion and then express it.
The process works in the opposite direction as well. Emotion can also start on the face. Facial expressions can determine emotions.

When we lose the ability for mind reading, we have the condition of autism. The ‘first impression’ apparatus is fundamentally disabled. They have difficulty interpreting non verbal cues such as gestures and facial expressions or putting themselves inside someone else’s head or drawing understanding from anything other than the literal meaning of words.

The author suggests that temporary autism could be the reason why people make wrong judgments about other people, like the policemen who fired at the wrong person.

Body reacts to extreme stress in a certain way: extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, diminished sound and the sense that time is slowing down. Our mind when faced with a life threatening situation drastically limits the range and amount of information that we have to deal with. Sound and memory and broader social understanding are sacrificed in favour of heightened awareness of the threat directly in front of us.
Basket ball superstar Larry bird used to say that at critical moments in the game, the court would go quiet and the players would seem to be moving in slow motion.
The same effect is produced when people have no time or very little time but have to act.

Our unconscious thinking in one critical aspect is no different from our conscious thinking – in both, we are able to develop our rapid decision making with training and experience.

Conclusion: Listening with your eyes: the lessons of Blink:
During a screened audition of trombone players, the judges after selection were shocked to know that the one playing the music was a female and not a male. They had a strong perception that a woman could not play the trombone.
During another screened audition, an applicant who qualified as the best turned out to be Japanese which was a surprise to all who had the strong perception that a Japanese could not play with any soul or fidelity, music composed by a European.

Orchestras began to hire women as new rules of auditioning were put in place to ensure fairness. That’s when they realized how corrupted their snap judgments had been.
Because judges would unconsciously judge by appearance of the participant. They would go by confidence and body posture and all that. When screens were placed between them and the participants, the results were, needless to say, quite different.

There is a dissonance between what you see and hear.

We are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean so we don’t always appreciate their fragility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious. The power of unconscious is something that we can protect and control and educate.

We can take charge of the first two seconds.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Walking The Talk. Take Law Into Your Hands

Recently a colleague and I decided to watch a movie. Considering all the movies showing at various theatres, their show timings, proximity of the theatre to our place of work, and then our mutual interest, one movie seemed more suitable than all others.

Dabang. Starring salman khan.

For some reason, I was not too keen but said ok.
A few hours before we had planned to leave office, my colleague received a huge workload and apologized for having to cancel the plan.

He need not have apologized, for I was not upset. It actually came to me as a relief. I would not have to infringe my principles and later feel uncomfortable about it.

A few years ago, when salman khan in a state of drunkenness ran his car over a footpath in Bombay, killed half a dozen people and falsely implicated his driver in the crime while escaping himself, I was furious. I am sure many were.
When sanjay dutt went to bed with dawood ibrahim or some gangster from the underworld who masterminded the Bombay blasts in which many people died, I was enraged. Many were.

When shiny ahuja raped his maid, when fardeen khan was caught smuggling drugs, I was disgusted at how much filth was hidden behind those designer decked polished glamorous surfaces. Many were.

Thanks to the judiciary in this country, salman got away scot free to continue doing his movies, to hunt down species on the verge of extinction for his pleasure and to drink and kill more people on the road. sanjay dutt is not yet behind the bars after all these years with the blood of hundreds of fellow Bombay-ites on his hands.
Talk show hosts sympathize with him, ask him how he coped with those difficult days of court trials and make the police look like criminals for harassing a saint like him.

And what about public anger?

People fret and fume for a while.

And then go back to the cinema halls to applaud the rogues – Sanjay Dutt disguised as a disciple of Gandhi, salman khan disguised as a dutiful son worshipping his parents.

People adorn their bedroom walls with huge posters of these hooligans.

They watch Zoom TV to find out what these guys eat, what they wear and who they sleep with.

Like dogs pouncing on people and licking, they run to these crooks and beg for autographs and have pictures taken with them.

Anger and Indigntion : What could have been and what should have been the potent weapons with which to punish these criminals has been reduced to impotent mewing and barking.

And how do people justify their complacency, their indifference?
We are very clever. Anything under the Sun can be justified and we know just how to do it.

“That’s his personal life. We only like him as an actor. We should be able to differentiate between different roles played by people and not get mixed up.”

If each one of us in this country resolved never to watch a salman khan movie again, would that not punish him enough for his crime?

If each one of us resolved never to watch a sanjay dutt movie ever again, would that not be the end of his career? Would there be a greater punishment for him? Would that not recompense the murder of hundreds of innocent people who died in the blast?

If these offenders are getting away scot free with their crime and are merrymaking with one hit movie after another, is it not because of us?

Is the court alone responsible for dispensing justice? And who is the court doing justice for? For itself? For the sake of law?
NO. It’s for our sake. It’s for the sake of people, for the sake of society. For you and me. What’s the point of the court doing justice if you and I, for whom justice is being dispensed continue to embrace the guilty?
Are we not defeating our own purpose?
When at a personal level, we don’t care about justice, do we even have the right to expect the courts to carry out their duty?

We don’t even want to consider these uncomfortable questions. All we care about is our weekend entertainment. Society, people and country may go up in flames. As long as we enjoy our movie and songs…

To suit our convenience we coin new ideas that don’t make sense.
We create a ‘Personal life, professional life, public life, political life and social life and other lives’ and such fragments for people around us so we can stylishly criticize all the wrong with them like dutiful and aware citizens and yet not have to sacrifice the benefits we get from their association. How convenient!

People exist in their entirety. People exist as wholesome beings. Everything in nature exists as a whole. There are no fragments.
We create fragments of them for our convenience.

Agree all those in the world of glamour have skeletons in their cupboard, like all politicians do. Only degree of depravity varies. If people were to be idealistic, they should not watch movies at all nor should they vote. That’s not what I am asking for.
What I am saying is that we will have to draw a line between idealism and apathy. And each one has to draw that line for himself.

Some introspection needed…
It is rightly said that a society deserves the system it gets. It remains for us to ask ourselves if we deserve to be killed by a drunkard in our sleep, if we deserve to be ripped apart in a bomb blast.

Empowerment does not merely means having access to internet. Empowerment also means realizing that we have the power to make a real difference. And exercising that power.
Through action. And through inaction.

A generalization of this problem is the one that involves the two extremes of idealism and apathy. Being totally idealistic makes living in this world impossible. But being apathetic will soon eliminate the necessity for idealism as there will be no life left on this planet!
Therefore, what we need is a balance between the two and like I said, each one has to draw the line for himself.
But not asking ourselves the uncomfortable questions at all, being indifferent and apathetic to the issues of our society, being individualistic as opposed to being collectivistic, not having a strong community sense… are the things that bother me and make me write; hoping that at least a few people will read, understand and become inspired to change the way they live.


This post is a part of a series that I started a few months ago and forgot for a while. You may want to read the first of this series.

Walking The Talk

Friday, October 08, 2010

Unfolding. One Day At A Time. Beneath Manifestations

Surely, I enjoyed the show.
There were times when I thought it was not real and camera tricks had been used. Did they have bones or were they all blood and flesh? Were they shadows upon whom gravity did not act? Didn’t it hurt? How much practice it must have taken them to perform those feats! How malleable the human body is! The steps and moves were unbelievable.

That was my experience of watching ‘Step Up’, a movie that was all about dance.

While I was awestruck by the performances and admired the actors for achieving what seemed impossible, I also thought for the first time of the contrast between eastern and western dance forms.

I haven’t learnt dance and haven’t studied all forms of eastern and western dance. But from what I have seen, I thought the following.

The objective of the eastern dance forms is to delight the audience by depicting a story and usually has a message, a moral, a value to take home.
The movements are usually simple and facial expressions play an important role. Every move has to have a meaning and a purpose. The style is natural and simple. All the nava rasas are illustrated as and when the performance requires. Since there is always a story, dance provides glimpses of the lives of people of a land in an era, their thoughts and their ways of life.
Dancing is an instrument, a means to convey a message, a story. It’s a tribute paid to a God, a deity, or lofty ideals.

In western dance, the emphasis seems to be completely on showing individual prowess – twisting, turning, bending the body, dancing at breakneck speeds, performing fancy feats, outdoing the most complex move known hitherto, believing that the more complicated, the better.
There is no meaning associated with a step, nor story nor moral and dancing is for the sake of dancing itself. Dancing is not an instrument but an objective in itself. It’s a tribute to the self.

This difference, as Tagore has pointed out in one of his essays where he compares the literature of the western and eastern worlds, is not just a difference between two dance forms.

You may add to my understanding...

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Cost Of Three Lemons - Part 1

There is much comic relief to be derived from the predicaments of other people. The sight of a guy stumbling and falling down, a drunken guy getting thrown in a lock up for knocking down a policeman while driving - having mistaken the policeman for a stray dog, a fat man being chased by a mongrel and then bitten by it and yet another boy being rewarded with a slap for sending a love letter to a girl, are all matters of jest.
You actually don’t realize it’s a tragedy until it has happened to you.

There is some such amusement for everyone in the corporate world too.
This is quite ironical since more efforts are made in the corporate world than elsewhere to protect the dirty secrets of people. There are ‘policies’ to ensure that the skeleton in the cupboard remains there. They make you take the oath of confidentiality, oath of secrecy, privacy and what not.
You are even made to sign documents stating that you will keep mum about almost everything – your salary, your appraisal, your incentive etc. etc.

Notwithstanding these efforts of the lawmakers to ensure what they call ‘confidentiality’ in the firm, eventually the only law that prevails is the law of ‘transparency’. Everybody comes to know everything about everyone. This fact in itself is very amusing.

Of all the matters worthy of gossip and entertainment, the matter of those who travel to the US of A is undoubtedly the winner – for several reasons. There are three stages of such an episode: the visit to the consulate for a VISA, the journey on the plane and the short encounter with the immigration department after landing. In each stage, there is sufficient room for accidents and untoward incidents and consequently for entertainment.

Consider the first stage. Nobody so far has been able to solve the mystery of VISA rejection. Candidates carry documents, certificates, passports, photographs, etc.
The paraphernalia varies depending on the type of VISA you wish to apply for – H1, B1, L1, and so on…

Outside the consulate office in Chennai, one can find a motley mix of people. Applicants, their parents, grandparents, cousins, friends…

Notwithstanding the detailed instruction given to the candidates – DO NOT – talk too much or too little, smile too cheerfully or too cheerlessly, be too confident or too diffident, appear too eager or too nonchalant, dress too formally or too casually, talk too softly or too loudly, too fast or too slow………, some applicants have to return dejectedly from the consulate, having been told that their VISA is rejected.

For all your speculation about what might have gone wrong, the white (or black) guy behind the counter had probably had a fight with his harlot. Or the famous Chennai weather (hot, hotter or hottest) dictated his temper that noon. Or he was still suffering the aftermath of a misadventure that followed the previous day’s meal from Saravana Bhavan, when he decided to try this South Indian dish for the first time and the restaurant waiter taking the order bungled up and committed the dangerous omission of the ‘No’ from the ‘No spicy’ instruction… and you had to bear the brunt of it all. Who knows?

The journey to the US of A itself is preceded by extensive consultation with all those people in one’s first circle and second circle, who have visited the US of A, who have set one foot in the US of A but no more (since they were returned from immigration upon landing due to suspicion, whims, fancies and caprices of the immigration officer), those who have as much as dreamt of going to the US of A, the family astrologer, backstreet palmist and so on.

One such colleague in office consulted a well wishing friend at work just a few cubicles away from him.
Now in IT offices, people communicate with the fellow occupying their neighbouring cubicle through telephone, email, chat service, tele/video conferencing – any means except the obvious and easiest method of turning around, tapping on the shoulder and exchanging sentences over a few minutes.
If this well wisher had given his valuable advice orally over a cup of coffee in the cafeteria, then our colleague’s story would have a happy ending; but then all of us in office would have been deprived of much laughter and amusement on account of what was to happen later.
So fortunately(for us gossip lovers), this well wisher wrote a detailed email to our colleague, advising him to take caution about a very specific aspect of US travel – a secret he thought no one except him knew.

Now when you land in the US, you go through immigration, the first checkpoint where occasional filtering happens. As with the VISA rejection at the consulate, the rejection at immigration too is a mystery.
It is most dreaded by all travelers who stand in the queue trembling as if they were being taken to a slaughterhouse.
Because being rejected at immigration is the worst thing that can happen to a traveler. You are put on the next plane back to India without being allowed to take as much as a peek into the US of A after 30-40 hours of long journey and you return home from the US of A having seen nothing more than one airport.

There are several lines with an immigration officer in each line. Usually you can choose which line you want to enter.
So the well wisher advised our colleague to try and avoid a line having a white immigration officer and to enter a line with a black immigration officer instead. Apparently, the chances of getting through were easier that way.
What the calculation behind the expectation of lenience was, I am not sure of.
Probably a feeling of brotherhood due to the closeness of the blacks’ skin colour to ours than to the whites’. Probably our kinship with Mahatma Gandhi who fought to salvage them in South Africa. Perhaps the commonality of the presence of elephants in both our land and theirs? Or the commonality of people having size zero figure in both Somalia and Bihar? Or perhaps a common game of cricket played in both countries?

Our colleague not only read the instructions, but printed the email and carried it with him on the plane to memorize the thing in transit.

The plane landed and he set his foot (right foot) in the US of A at last.

Sure, the guy went to a black immigration officer and along with his passport, the I-92 form, return ticket, documents and all, he submitted to the officer, the printed copy of the email as well! It remains to be found out whether he did it carelessly or intentionally in order to please the black man by letting him know how privileged he was to be the chosen one for all travelers from our part of the world.

But to his misfortune, the black man was neither amused nor impressed. He was offended by the notion of folks such as our rookie who dared assume that the blacks were liberal with suspicious immigrants. Were they insinuating that the blacks were less patriotic than the whites?
Neither our rookie nor his colleague in India had foreseen such a creative and ingenious interpretation of their simple calculation.

The rookie was put on the first plane flying back to Bangalore and whether he murdered his well wishing friend upon landing for giving him the advice that he did, is unknown. But who cares as long as we are having fun?

In yet another episode, a guy was asked by his immigration officer what his opinion on terrorism was. No one in his first or second circle had warned him of such a question before. The guy could have given one of those beauty contest winning answers and finished it off but his strategy was to be cleverer than that.
He decided to not just get away with passing marks, not even a distinction but to give an answer no one had given before and to receive a standing ovation from the entire immigration department… he wore a very innocent expression on his face just like a baby and asked the officer “What is terrorism?”

Within a few hours he was flying back to India. With the lesson ‘Playing dumb does not work!’

To be continued…