Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Funeral and A Wedding

It’s amazing how life seem to be moving fast right in front of my own eyes! Departures, arrivals, unions .. all happen in a split second. Have you ever thought about it? All it takes is a split second for the most profound moments in our life to happen. In one of those moments on the night of January 30th, Coretta Scott King, the woman who was the subject of my blog (http://lpratury-articles.blogspot.com/2006/01/coretta-scott-king-force-behind-martin.html), not too long ago passed away. Over 10.000 people paid their last homage to her. Diplomats, Presidents, Philanthropists and loved ones gathered to bid her farewell on Feb 7th 2006. I thought that it was quite ironic that she passed away on the same day as Mahatma Gandhi, who was gunned down on Jan 30, 1948. Martin Luther King, Jr started the revolution but it was Coretta’s determination that kept the momentum going following the same non-violent principals as their hero, Gandhiji. So, it might be fitting that she chose to leave the world the same day that we lost Gandhiji. It might be a mere coincidence but one helluva coincidence!

Last week, I was at a conference hosted by an absolutely amazing man, my friend, Richard. At that conference, I heard Bill Nye, the science guy speak. I thought that his talk about Mars was really smart, informative; his talk about his father being a prisoner of war in China and Japan for much of World War II was touching; his journey from being an engineer at Boeing to being a television star to become one of the nation's most well-known science popularizers was fascinating. During the break, I wandered over to him to introduce myself and he introduced me to his fiancé Blair who was accompanying him. What I did not know then and what he himself did not know then was that .. that would be the last time he would ever introduce me to Blair as his fiancé.

During the break, some found a sunny spot to relax themselves, some lined up at a coffee bar but I was wandering around with my laptop in hand trying to find a wireless connection. The moment I found it, I propped myself on the closest chair and started doing .. what else? Sending my last week’s blog to all of you. The session started after break but I decided to miss part of it to complete my mailing. Moments later, Rick Warren, a pastor who sold over 20 million copies of his book “Purpose Driven Life” through church groups, sat down across from me. We chatted for a little bit when he informed that he was preparing to marry someone. So, I asked “Where are you going for this wedding”, which is when he informed me that he was marrying Bill Nye and his fiancé Blair in front of 300 audience at the conference. I could not believe my ears. So, I finished my emailing quickly and headed to the auditorium. Sure enough! Five minutes later, the conference host announced that there would be a wedding, Bill and Blair step forward and said “I Do” in front of 300 guests, who are strangers to them! I would have thought that a person who is so wedded to science would be a logical, analytical kind of guy who would weigh in all the options, make sure that all his family and friends were present before making such a great decision. So, I talked to Blair in the evening and asked her how all this came about!

Here is the story. Blair is the author of “Mozart in the Jungle”. As she was traveling cross country to move to Santa Monica, CA, she got a call from Bill Nye, who told her that he loved the book. They decide to meet for a friendly cup of coffee. They met last September, knew right away that they were right for each other, vowed their commitment to each other by exchanging lovely watches over Christmas and decided that they would get married sometime soon. As one can imagine, they were tense and in the midst of all the wedding plans including preparing guest lists, finalizing dinner menus, flower arrangements and all the other details that go with saying “I do”. When Rick Warren joined them during the break, they happened to discuss all the tensions that surround planning a wedding. So, Rick said “If you want, I can marry you … RIGHT NOW”. In that second, that one second, Bill Nye the Science guy, breaking the rules of any analysis, giving in to the magic of the moment says “Let’s do it” and the rest, as they say, is HISTORY. I was standing in the back of the room with Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and a few others when this was announced in the auditorium. As the host announced the wedding, Yo-Yo Ma ran downstairs to provide the much needed music. So, by powers vested by state to one of the most popular pastors, Rick Warren and to the music of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and piano by MIT Media lab professor Michael Hawley, Bill wed Blair. So, all it took was one second for Bill Nye, the Science guy to show us that he might defy laws of logic but he sure believes in chemistry and say “I Do”.

Some may think this gesture romantic, some strange and some others may say practical. To me, it was another second in the saga of life that took my breath away. They have offered me the opportunity to be privy to their “second”, which I will always remember.

Only time will tell the legacy of the estate, the movement after the demise of Coretta and the future of Bill and Blair’s marriage. But what is important to me now is that the two seconds -
A Second when Coretta’s breathing stopped and a breath taking second when two people got together
– these are the two seconds that I have added to the sea of seconds that keep my life’s journey afloat and enjoyable.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Demand for Drama in our Day to Day Lives

For the last few days, I have been watching the unfolding of the James Frey drama. James Frey’s book “A Million Little Pieces” went on to be a best seller and sold over 1.7m copies and part of the success is because it was picked for Oprah’s book club. Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com) called it “A million little lies”. There has been a detailed documentation of the liberty he took to exaggerate a few facts into a more colorful fiction. Everyone including Oprah were upset that he made up some drama. A few hours spent in jail became a harrowing jail sentence of considerable length. A conversation with a policeman morphed into a major conflict. But the question that I began to ask is “Why did he do it?” If he really wrote about doing a few drugs occasionally and having a polite conversation with the cop, no one would have bought his book. We, the audience look for drama, reward gore and seek thrills. Why not pad the facts a little bit and throw in a bit of drama? Who wants a middle aged guy talk about being pulled over by a cop?

This need for drama is all around us. On Television, a show like “Survivor” filled with activities like eating bugs, backstabbing your buddy is a screaming success but a smart ensemble drama like “The West Wing” is going off the air. Someone commented yesterday that it’s a sad day in journalism when all the reporters are running after the runaway bride. Even all of this sensationalism is OK but for one fact.

I am most worried about the impact this has on our day to day lives, on the way we feel about ourselves and about our own surroundings. There was a time I felt that my background was very boring because I have no parental abuse to report of, no accounts of date rape, and definitely no beatings by my husband. Especially the last six months that I have takes off from work have been filled with mundane activities like going for morning walks, taking care of my two year old, doing groceries and dropping in on good friends. After a hectic pace of attempting to change the world, it feels as though I am wasting my time as I have nothing to report at the end of the day. But the more I think about it, I feel that all of us have been totally missing the biggest drama in our lives.

The fact that one does drugs, gets beaten up by cops or gets caught for fraud are occasional things and only a few are privy to those honors. But the fact that all of us get up, do our stuff and go to bed with all our limbs intact is the biggest achievement of all and we were kept in the dark by the media about this amazing fact. The real success of a company is not in the dazzling speeches of the CEO but the meticulous records they keep of their company and the way thy treat their employees; long term successful marriages are not based on having a passionate exchange of bodily fluids multiple times a day but based on the most boring moments of staying up all night with a baby, making sure that the household budget is balanced; the person who appears in most movies is not the one who is the hero or the heroine of the moment but the actors who play the mother or the father. The most amazing moment is not when our children graduate with a gold medal but when they spontaneously hug us from behind. Media does not cover these boring details because it leads to too much happiness in the world. Just imagine! If all of us wake up celebrating the privilege to wake up next to those we love, under a solid roof over our head with all limbs in motion, (which probably puts us in the world’s top 10% .. may be) there would not be enough news to report!

Coming back to literature, we call someone a best selling author, if they sell a few million copies. I was astounded to find that top selling book has 6 BILLION copies out there and it is none other than the Bible. Number two on the list is “The sayings of Mao Tse-tung”, which has 800m copies out there. What we do on a day to basis has the success in numbers too .. we just don’t know it.

The truth is despite whatever James Frey did, his success is not as much as that of the sales of Dr. Spock’s book on child care that sold almost 40m copies. The story of a sunken ship is the top grossing movie ever at $600M .. made famous not because it covered the history of Titanic accurately or for brilliant special effects but because it talked about the love affair between two ordinary people. At the core, we do celebrate simple emotions like love, friendship, innocence but we are not aware of it!

So, what I say is let the media cover whatever they want but I am going to celebrate the simple fact that I live in a world where I have a friend to call, a child to cuddle and a partner to count on. Let all the James Freys enjoy their moment in glory but the true heroines in my life are all the girl friends I have been privileged to know in the last six months who make a dash to the school just to deliver the forgotten lunch to their child!

Friday, January 27, 2006

Republic Day - A story of the man behind the scene

Every Indian knows the significance of August 15th, the Independence Day but for most of us, Republic Day on Jan 26th comes and goes. For Independence day, the entire bay area comes alive with parades, floats, visiting film personalities, celebrations and Republic day enjoys no such fan fare of mass appeal. So, this year, I wanted to write about why I feel that it is a very profound day in the history of India.

The true significance of this day started way before Indian Independence. At the Lahore session of National Congress, the members bid farewell to 1929 and celebrated stepping into 1930 by unfurling the Indian Tri color flag. They took a pledge that every year on January 26th, they would celebrate “Independence day” and strive for the establishment of Sovereign Democratic Republic of India. When India got its independence in 1947, there were 565 Princely States, big and small, ruled by powerful sovereigns who were protected by treaties of alliance with the British Crown. With so many diverse authorities and seats of power, it was impossible to bring cohesiveness to create one country called “India”. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel took the lead to integrate the individual interests into one nation. So, exactly two decades after the unfurling of the flag and little over two years after achieving independence, the Nizams of Hyderabad, the maharajas of Jammu Kashmir and Jodhpur, the prices of Baroda and all the rest of the princely states gave up their individual seats of power and became part of what we now call the Republic of India. In 1950, the Indian constitution took effect, the office of the Governor-General was abolished, and India created several different categories of states. That was the true end of the British presence in India and continuous evolving of the states in India. The country became a sovereign democratic republic with a written constitution and an elected parliament. This is the day that we pay homage to our forefathers who, seventy six years ago yesterday, unfurled a dream, took an oath and kept up their promise.

This day also marks many catastrophic events. Five years ago, the ground beneath the feet of millions in Gujarat shook affecting close to 16m people and an estimated damage of $5b (Source: http://cires.colorado.edu/~bilham/Gujarat2001.html). A year ago, we were mourning the loss of lives from Tsunami. It is as though natural signs are shaking us up to pay attention to the hard work incurred by our ancestors. To many of us who were born after the independence, we do not even know the efforts that went into giving us the freedom that we so enjoy today. May be these disasters are a sign to put our focus where it needs to be – into building our infrastructure, providing the livelihood and dignity for every person and to jolt us into developing India to be the best it can be!

So, I celebrated yesterday by joining a gathering in San Francisco hosted by Consul General Prakash to mark the significance of the day. As I wandered through the lobby of Palace of Fine arts theater, enjoying the elegant hospitality of CG Prakash and his graceful wife Ratna, as I met individuals from a variety of disciplines including broadcasting, hospitality, technology, finance, human resources, music, dance, I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride to be Indian by birth and an American by habit.

I also took a moment to thank Sardar Patel. Just as Gandhiji got us freedom using non violent methods, Sardar Patel united India without any bloodshed. He was heartbroken after the murder of Gandhiji, whom he considered his teacher and elder brother. It was as though Sardar Patel lived only to see the realization of his dream. In the same year as India became Republic, India’s “Man of Steel” Sardar Patel passed away on Dec 15th, 1950. Forty one years later, he was honored by the nation when he was conferred the honor of Bharat Ratna (Gem of India), the highest possible award given to any individual. Mahatma Gandhi is my hero for giving us a dream and Sardar Patel for making the dream a reality. The Republic day belongs to Sardar Patel along the Nizams and the Maharajas who gave up what was rightfully theirs to give us what is ours today.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Golden Globes - 2006

Being the moving image junkie, I had to watch the Golden Globes. I have fun with the glory of Oscars but I absolutely love the understated excitement of Golden Globes. I celebrated most of the wins and I really mourned one loss. The fun was spoilt a little bit because I made the mistake of checking the golden globes website while I was watching the show and found out the results before I found out on TV. I hate it when I spoil my own fun!! I can’t even blame anyone else. Anyway, now on to my celebration.

I was most thrilled by the award to S.Epatha Merkerson, who said that she was 53 years old and that this was the first time she was playing a lead role in a TV movie. She has been playing Lt. Anita Van Buren on one of my favorite shows “Law and Order” since 1993. She plays her role with an authority yet compassion, bossy attitude yet salt of the earth understanding. She was brilliant in “Lackawanna blues” as Nanny whose rooming house gives shelter to the losers and drifters trying to make a fresh start. I was thrilled that she got the chance to prove her capability and actually celebrate! She did a great job shushing those trying to get her to wrap up her acceptance speech!! You go Girl!

Along with Epatha, I cheered the win of George Clooney for Syriana, for his portrayal of a portly CIA agent, for getting the opportunity to showcase his talent behind the sexy machismo; win of Paul Newman for the role of the cantankerous old man in “Empire Falls” and finally of Sandra Oh for her portrayal as the ever competitive “bottom of the food chain” surgery intern. I also celebrated the won of John Williams for the music of “Memoirs of a Geisha”. The solo pieces by Yo-Yo Ma and Itzak Pearlman are haunting long after you leave the halls of the theater.

My biggest disappointment for the evening was that Patrick Dempsey did not win for “Grey’s Anatomy”. This man could do more damage to damsels with one look than many men could do with a car full of gifts. That’s OK Patrick. You truly deserve your title – McDreamy!

This year’s true win is in Hollywood community finally embracing every aspect of the choice of sexual orientation. Best movie “Brokeback Mountain” is the love story of two cowboys, a portrayal of the struggle to be with the man you love and the pressure to follow the rules of the community to marry and settle a nice girl. The best actress Felicity Huffman portrays a man becoming a woman, Best actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman portrays the gay writer Truman Capote. All these wins mark the arrival of this topic square in the middle of the popular Hollywood culture, as opposed to being relegated to the genre of the art movies! I somehow have a feeling that this might not be the case at the Oscars but let’s wait and see! Nominations are coming out on Jan 31st!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Coretta Scott King – The force behind Martin Luther King Day

Nine Months before turning 40, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. It would have been so easy for the movement to die with the man, had it not been for Coretta Scott King – who silently carried the torch all these years.

She was born April 27 1927. While studying concert singing at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, she met and married Martin Luther King, Jr in 1953. Supporting the activities of her husband and raising four children made her retire from professional singing but she put her training to use by conceiving and performing Freedom concerts, blending poetry, narration and music to tell the story of the Civil Rights movement. It must have been so difficult to marry a man behind the movement! No time for cozy evening dinners, helping kids with homework and taking luxurious family vacations. They must have stolen only moments of solitude in their fifteen years of married life together. She was only forty when the Reverend was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In the prime of her youth, with four children in tow, she did not let the cause go unnoticed.

In 1983 - As I was adjusting to my arrival into USA, as most of us witnessed the mad rush for cabbage patch dolls, while we nominated “Terms of Endearment” to Oscars, while we swayed our off-the-shoulder tee and leg warmer clad bodies to “What a feeling” from Flash Dance, Coretta Scott King marked the 20th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington, by leading a gathering of more than 800 human rights organizations, the Coalition of Conscience, in the largest demonstration the capital city had seen up to that time. She also led the successful campaign to establish Dr. King's birthday, January 15, as a national holiday in the United States.

I have always have been cynical about celebrating any of the “DAYS” – Valentine’s Day for the one you love, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day for your parents, Columbus Day, President’s Day for past personalities, Memorial Day, Labor Day and the list goes on. What are all these DAYS anyway? Does it mean that on this day, we think of the person be it a celebrity or a family member or a cause and forget them the rest of the year? If I declare Martin Luther King day as a holiday for my company but still carry my petty prejudices in the way I treat my employees, is it OK? But then I look at what’s happening today and am beginning to understand the importance of these DAYS.

Over two decades after my arrival into U.S, I saw the fad of Cabbage patch doll fade into background, “Terms of Endearment” assigned to the “Classics” section and the off-the-shoulder-tees and leg warmers donated to “Good Will” stores. I can not say the same for Martin Luther King. Three years after my arrival, the first national observance of the holiday took take place in 1986. Through the years, I learnt more about him, his follies and fortitude; his contributions and conversations; and I have seen his heritage emerge as a movement. Dr. King's birthday is now marked by annual celebrations in over 100 countries. Coretta King continues to carry on the dream of non-violent social change, continues to be an author, leader of women’s and civil rights groups and a role model for many generations.

May be these DAYS are necessary for us to remember to slow down at least for a second, a minute or even just the whole day to thank our loved ones, the veterans, our pilgrims. And every mid January, on a Monday, we stop to thank that man, who with his courage and charisma brought the attention of the world to the fight of the African Americans and that woman who kept up the spirit. Today, the movement has expanded to be that of civil liberties to bring justice to every minority – be it race, sex or sexual orientation. May be we do need these DAYS to slow us down from our mad pace to remind us that we are striving for freedom and justice FOR ALL and not just for chosen few, to remind us that we owe our happiness to many more factors than our individual selves. Today, the day belongs to Coretta for continuing the dream!

Source:
I got most of the info about Coretta Scott King from the web and mostly from http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/kin1bio-1

Too Real to be True

Career:

At work, I am a marketing professional. At home, I am a TV junkie. I love my work. I am also hopelessly addicted to moving images. My two worlds have always complemented each other, nurturing both my ambition and my creativity. Yet, of late, both worlds have been shaken up by two distinct, yet strangely alike, phenomena – the Dot.com mania and Reality TV!

For 13 years, I worked at one of the most successful companies in the world – Intel.
The work culture was strong, attitudes intense and the pace energizing. We were always aware that every decision the company made had a huge global impact. Every sentence uttered by top management to the media was carefully crafted, so it would not be misconstrued. It’s amazing what difference a choice of words can make to shareholder value!

In such a large organization[1], we all missed a certain level of individual attention, but the emphasis was on the success of the company as an entity. There was a certain level of intelligence, commitment, basic training, and adherence to process that made communication among the thousands of employees possible. Of course, there were misunderstandings, petty jealousies and analysis paralysis, but only those who ultimately put the company priorities ahead of themselves moved ahead. There were opportunities to move across functions, work in different parts of the world, and learn from failures and successes.

That experience paved the way for my careers in venture capitalism, Non Profit – basically to have the ability to have a passion and put it into practice. In all my jobs, I felt as though I belonged to an exclusive club of extra ordinary individuals where the fee was your individual merit. Sometimes I hated the structured organization, but the learning it enabled was unparalleled. I learnt how to articulate and communicate a vision, devise a strategy and implement it effectively. The rigorous post mortem that followed every assignment made sure we all learnt from our mistakes.

No management school could have taught me what I learnt at a for profit organization like Intel, A VC like Global Catalyst Partners and a non profit organization like American India Foundation – and paid me for it!

Entertainment:

That was my life at work. Back home, I would put aside the work world and immerse myself in the world of the moving image. Monday nights for “The Medium” (the every day mom solving crimes), Tuesdays for “Boston Legal” (the divine David Kelley creation), Wednesdays for “Lost” (talk about suspense!), Thursdays for “Without a Trace” (The terrific talent of Anthony LaPaglia) and the much looked forward to Sunday for “West Wing” and “Grey’s Anatomy”. When John Spencer died, I worried about how we were going to find a new Vice Presidential candidate on ‘West Wing” and I can’t wait to witness the chemistry that waltzes through the wards of Seattle Grace in “Grey’s Anatomy”. During my bachelorette days, when my sense of romance was on the verge of being overcome by cynicism – after one more guy was threatened by my independent spirit – a dose of “Roman Holiday” always cheered me up. When I was lost in a world of meaningless adult ego trips and professional politics, I sought refuge in the magic of “E.T”.

These characters of fiction entertain me, educate me, and challenge me to think about issues I was totally unaware of. I am unabashedly and whole heartedly a moving image junkie. I truly admire the talented actors, actresses, writers, directors, cinematographers, assistants, stage managers – and millions of invisible crew working behind the scenes – which provide me this solace.

New Kids in the Office:

At the turn of the century, into my distinct worlds, arrived two new phenomenon – different and yet strangely alike. My professional world was jolted by the emergence of the Internet. Suddenly, boys became business whiz kids giving lessons on corporate management in the “new” economy. For them, people like me – who worked in large companies – became dead weight, afraid to take chances. The new “go for it” attitude was “no holds barred, no results expected”.

It was as though they believed that, ‘Let us run through the dark tunnel without any light, because if we run fast enough we will get to a point where we will see the light.’ Trendy office spaces, designer fixtures, gourmet feasts, new management theories – Silicon Valley became a glamorous world of new business. Parking lots were filled with expensive cars, exclusive restaurants sprung up all around the valley, and it was near impossible to get a massage appointment unless you planned it a month in advance!

As money flowed freely, venture capitalists (VCs) sprouted by the dozens. The original practice was that one became a VC after they put in your time in the industry, learning the ropes from ground up. These experienced industry veterans-turned-VCs were able to nurture the companies they funded by drawing on the wealth of experience they had accumulated. Yet, even some of these experienced VCs were swayed by the glamour and boldness of the new business culture, and many threw money away believing the smooth-talk. Fresh graduates were hired as VCs believing that this was the way to keep up with the “pulse” of the new economy. One VC told me that he gave the money to a CEO so he could buy a BMW instead of driving an old car so that the CEO “looked right” when he arrived at his other VCs!

In the new economy, being a VC became a profession in itself with no experience prerequisites. If a person exhibited even a modicum of ability to analyze financials, schmooze their way around and “make a deal”, it was good enough. Paradoxically, these new companies rarely seemed to need advice because they were in no hurry to make any money. Which is a good thing, because few of these new VCs had a clue about the real issues. So, it was one big happy family – party, feel good, and to hell with the shareholders.

It seemed that all the rules of investment and building a company had changed overnight. Investors rather than subject experts adorned boards, kids with ideas rather than experienced businessmen made critical business decisions, no one demanded that the company make money and there was no urgency to be profitable. Just as we, as a society learnt to live on credit and almost forgot what it means to pay “cash” for anything, these companies lived on what the VCs gave them and forgot about earning a revenue.

The bubble grew to its height of incompetence and then burst.

The same VCs who had been so generous with their money, withdrew support with unseemly haste. The ever-fickle day trader has exited, bruised and battered, and companies are scrambling to find ways to make money. The landscape spells doom and gloom. The blood bath in the stock market has left behind carnage of companies and personnel. The market capitalization of technology companies has almost dissolved – the range of fluctuation unheard of in history. Lay offs were a matter of fact. In five short years, we have created a new economic peak and destroyed it!

Suddenly, the technology world is rediscovering the value of good old-fashioned business rules. Established companies are weathering the storm and the new-blood biz whiz is coming to grips with learning general management skills. The start-up frenzy has slowed down. VCs are once again focusing on “due diligence”, companies are planning for revenues generation and cost control, and employees are going back to the basics.

New Kids on the Screen:

But, just as my professional life was settling back into some sort of order, another phenomenon shook up my magical world of moving images!

Reality TV arrived. A new trend that began with MTV had matured into mainstream television programming with shows like “Survivor”, “Temptation Island”, and “The Mole”. Survivor, a show where we watch two groups of people doing the most unbearable things to themselves and to others, manipulating each other only to prove they can “survive”! “Temptation Island” where you are separated from your date with a “temptation date” to see who succumbs to temptation, ostensibly to decide if you want to stay with the original date or not. “Mole” where one person in the group is a traitor and you have to guess who it is which means you go through the entire show doubting your own shadow.

It seemed that the whole world is fascinated by this “Reality TV”, a place where you can peek into someone else’s life without feeling an iota of guilt or embarrassment. I watched all the shows to understand what the hype was all about. I am the trend watcher after all, and must contribute my “valuable” opinions to the water-cooler conversation.

I watched two people on “Survivor” eat crunchy bugs, watched them scheme against one another to “vote” someone out. To me, it was a show about what lengths people can go to get publicity and win. It was a fascinating study in sociology – of emerging cultural values that make people hungry to be noticed and showcased.
I watched “Temptation Island” where one woman said she had never been this happy with anyone else, that the sense of total freedom she experienced with her “temptation” date was something she had never experienced before.

Well, of course!, I thought. How may times before did you have the opportunity to go out with someone to a dream vacation spot where you did not have to worry about money, could get anything you wanted, where the person had no obligation what-so-ever except to “tempt” you, where you had nothing to do except explore the beautiful surroundings, where you did not have to meet the other person’s parents, or think about anything even remotely real!

Suspension of reality is always exciting. But what if you woke up with this person in a tiny closet apartment in New York, where you have to rush to work by 7am and return home, exhausted after changing two trains, at 9pm, where you have to worry about budgeting, investing, and planning a future together? Would you still be this blissfully happy then? I’m not so sure!

In all of these shows, these people didn’t have a script and they weren’t playing a part – at least they aren’t supposed to. This is what they really are and want the world to see them as! It’s a small price for the publicity they get – breakfast with Katie Couric, lunch appointment with a Hollywood agent, dinner date with Jay Leno and a doorway to Hollywood. Who knows what may follow? For the one chance that may change their lives, for all the instant money and fame they get, they have no qualms about letting it all hang out there for the world to see. The audience craze for these shows isn’t waning either. Applications continue to pour in and budgets keep ballooning.

The True Success Story:

I notice the parallels. The media, just as the VCs did with business values and the new economy, has lost its sense of art and entertainment. At the beginning, people are excited to be voyeurs. But how long could that phenomenon last? Can this “Reality TV” ever produce an ageless classic like “I Love Lucy”, ‘All in the Family” or “Columbo”? Or is it a passing phase? Can the craving for publicity replace the well honed art of the theater? My bet is that this is a passing phase and that the conventional wisdom of having a team of good writers, directors, editors, actors will live on.

As I watch the world post-Sept 11th, I see the interest in the frivolous fast disappearing. “Mole” was taken off the air after a few episodes. “Survivor” is still on the air but the participants are chosen with just as much calculation as actors. Audience is going to their “comfort zone” and enjoying even the reruns of “Friends” and “Sex and the City” on “REAL TV” and not just “REALITY TV”., The passing phase that “seem” successful is taking a back seat & the old fashioned Sitcom prevails.

This begs the questions … What does it mean to succeed? To me, success is to have the satisfaction of knowing that your work and life made a difference in someone else’s life. I think often of the hard work that went into the success of luminaries like Abraham Lincoln, Andy Grove, Meryl Streep, John Steinbeck, Art Buchwald – the list is long. “Get rich quick” stories make great drama, but only short-lived memories. I would be surprised if any of the “stars” of the Internet go on to be another Andy Grove with as much integrity and the capacity to be in the lime light for over three decades. Or if Reality TV gives us another Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington. If these new stars do make it, it will be because they learnt from their mistakes, went through the appropriate training and worked hard.

To me, success is still something that one adorns after they have been through the rigor, can translate their experience into the well being of the world, most importantly someone who does not take themselves too seriously and has a good time making a difference. What’s a bank balance got to do with it?

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Power of Giving it Away

In 1988, I entered the hallways of Intel to work there. In 2004, I met Even Ensler who is the author of “Vagina Monologues”. Now one might wonder what does the largest semi conductor company in the world have in common with an outrageous playwright. In being closely associated with both of them, I learnt a valuable lesson.

All my life, I have been taught that if something is precious, I must keep it to myself and keep in carefully. If I care about something, I must make sure that I am in charge of all pieces of the project. When I worked at Intel, I often used to get frustrated with what I used to call millions of moving pieces. I was part of a small team that started Developer Relations activity at Intel. What we had to do was to build relationships with Software developers to optimize their programming for Intel architecture. When a new architecture is designed, the end users will see the benefit of improved performance if the software is also tuned in to take advantage of the new features. As we began this activity, I realized the complications of Intel architecture. It’s not only that the software needs to be tuned but the countless graphic cards, chipsets, disk drive vendors also need to be considered. By being an open architecture, the amount of work that needs to be done backstage to present a united front was quite painful at times. But it is that ONE decision to make it an open architecture that made Intel architecture so universal.

Intel made a decision to make the system architecture open so that anyone could buy the Intel chip and all the components and put a PC together. Apple decided to have a closed architecture where they were the only ones who could put all the parts together and sell it as a complete system. There are definite advantages to the Apple strategy. With having more control, you can have more elegant solutions, have more unique software solutions. There was a time when sophisticated desktop publishing software like Adobe was available only on Mac. Powerful film editing software like Avid was only available on Silicon Graphics machines. It was way more painful to port these software applications onto Intel architecture as the developers had to deal with the million moving parts. The only reason that all these software developers ported their software onto the Intel architecture was the ability to deploy to the masses. There are hundreds of Intel engineers dedicated to work with software developers to help them port their software to Intel architecture. This activity has nothing to do with Intel’s core business of designing and manufacturing chips. It has everything to do with making the chip be most useful.

Today, I work with under privileged children in remote villages creating school newsletters in their local language using the same desktop software that was only accessible to the design aficionados. These children are able to use all these tools to express their own creativity because this technology is affordable and accessible to them. There was a time only the large publishers controlled the printed word and now anyone can publish their opinions on the web. By the way, this act of generosity did not end up as a charitable contribution for Intel. It made them one of the most profitable chip companies in the world. By making the pie bigger, they could make more money than they would have by being the masters of their universe. Also, their generosity did not mean they lost control over the chip architecture. The design, process, manufacturing is as tightly guarded as ever.

Then, there is Eve. I met her in February 2004 just before she was about to take off on a trip to India. We hit it off immediately and felt as though we were long lost sisters. I knew that she was the author of “Vagina Monologues” and that a lot of celebrities have performed the monologues and I also watched her perform the monologues on HBO. I heard of her acclaim but did not quite know the impact till I met her. I thought of it as a gutsy, funny, brilliant show and not much further. As I got to know her, I realized that this play has started a whole movement. It all started just as a play. Eve interviewed hundreds of women asking them questions like “If your vagina could talk, what would it say?” “If your vagina could wear something, what would it wear?” These questions always opened up a lot longer conversation about sexuality, about silent shame, about rape, about brutality, about love of sex – it was as though the Pandora’s Box burst open and women could not stop talking. She collected her experiences and created the monologues.

That was worth an OBIE but what she did after that is what distinguishes great from good. She invited many celebrities to read the monologues. It was ideal for busy actresses to do this. It was a monologue. So, there was no need to rehearse with a cast of characters and be constrained for time. Any trained actress could do a good reading. So, anyone could walk into a theater and do a good job of reading the monologues with minimal commitment of their time outside their performance time. The beauty of this was that each actress gave their own interpretation to the lines. So, the audiences never got bored even through the same pieces were performed repeatedly. This move created more audience. The final step she took is what put her in the truly brilliant category way beyond a talented writer or a smart business woman. She gave permission to credible producers, universities, schools to perform the play with a condition that all the proceeds from that performance would go to local charities that worked on ending violence against women. This gesture has risen over $25M to date to be invested in activities that end violence against women around the world. Today, the play is being performed in over many countries. There was no way Eve could have given that many performances in her life time and generated that much of money toward the cause.

The true enormity of what she has done did not occur to me till this month when I was part of a group that performed the “Vagina Monologues” in San Jose on March 20th. 2005. The cast was all local women including politicians, writers, dancers, and athletes etc., We all were deemed “successful” women and we all agreed to do it because we believe in charity and we all truly believed that we were doing this for our sisters who need our help. I did it because I love my friend Eve and wanted to be given an opportunity to bring justice to her words … so I thought. I was performing a piece titled “The woman who loved vaginas” which was the experiences of a sex worker who was into pleasing woman. Now for a middle class girl from India who thought “gay” was being happy just a couple of decades ago, this was quite a challenging piece. Even the day before the performance, I wanted to call the director and request if I could change my piece. I invited all my friends and what was I thinking by accepting a piece where this woman is talking about pleasing women and making them moan and demonstrating the various types of moan that women give out?? WHAT WAS I THINKING???? I was sure that I was going to mess it up. But then some magic happened when all of us were on stage. As each woman got up and read her monologue, we started having fun with it. At the end of the play, each of us shed our own inhibitions in a very profound way. I have been on email chain with all the other cast members and the production team where each one talking about how they were nervous to do the piece and how wonderful they felt after doing it. In a strange way, we each have achieved a personal high too. We each pushed ourselves to do something outside our comfort zone and came out feeling more confident than ever. By giving the script away, Eve is continuing her work through millions of participants. Even here, the giving comes with thorough instructions on how to put the play, speaker notes on how to direct the play, ground rules etc., .

Both experiences have taught me the lesson of giving it away with clear instructions!!

The Face of Strength - Gujarat Riot Victims story

I stepped out into the streets of Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India), melting under the blazing sun. Five minutes after a fresh bath, the cotton top I was wearing was already stuck to my skin with the sweat streaming down my back. But the same cotton fabric, draped over bamboo poles, was all the protection that the residents of the riot shelters in Ahmedabad had against the 1200 F blistering heat outside.

As I entered the temporary shelters built for the hundreds of families whose homes have been burnt in the recent riots, the scene inside the tents transfixed me. There was a buzz of activity around me. Expecting to witness anger, outrage, angst, tears and sadness, I was stunned by the apparent normalcy!! Inside the tent were idyllic scenes of life as usual. For a moment it seemed as though everyone was having a party. Women were making rotis (flat wheat bread) and vegetable curries on makeshift stoves, combing each other’s hair, oiling it and massaging the scalp, knitting, sowing and talking. The men were huddled in a group talking and smoking, while children were running around playing with each other. A few of the older children were getting their school lessons from volunteer teachers. These were supposed to be the victims of the worst Hindu / Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat in India. As I walked through the camp, I was convinced that the newspaper stories of the atrocities suffered by these families were, if not fiction, then highly exaggerated!

I spent the day visiting a number of camps, walking the streets, and talking to people to really understand the emotions that may be simmering just beneath the normal demeanor. To understand the nature of the violence that broke out in Gujarat, one probably needs some sense of the history of the region. But, where do we begin? Was it always a history of hatred that dominated? When exactly did the Hindus and Muslims of India begin to hate each other, after living off the same soil in peace and friendship for centuries? When did the Palestinians and Israelis begin hating one another? In what specific period did man decide he would unleash his wrath on the woman by raping her? Many intellectuals have postulated the answers in their articles, books, and opinion columns. I am not a good chronicler of history but a painter of the present. I cannot only attempt to put into words the results of the hatred unleashed in Gujarat since February 27th 2001.

Gujarat is the land that gave birth to Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence. He spent many years in Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad in Gujarat. It is ironic that the riots started with the passengers of the Sabarmati express. As the train pulled into the station of Godhra, little did the passengers realize that they had entered not just a train station but their death sentence. Hindu / Muslim wars have been raging ever since I can remember, and the town of Godhra was a microcosm of the differences between the two cultures. On Feb 27th the train was carrying some Hindus coming back from their trip to Ayodhya, the stage of many recent tensions between the two communities. Usually police increase security at the station on days that the Hindus either leave or arrive at the station. That day, the police apparently had no prior information that the Hindus were arriving by that train.

To this day, I cannot quite picture how an entire carriage was set on fire burning alive 57 men, women and children. I try to imagine the fear that must have gripped those who were trapped in the steel carriage, once their shield of protection turning into their pyre. The smell of burnt skins, the sight of charred bodies of all sizes formed the ingredients of a hatred stew, spiced with anger, resentment, politics and, most importantly, sadness. As the stew made its way to the angry mob, it seemed to be the only way to quench their hunger for revenge. And so, the charred Hindu bodies were buried deep underneath the 600 plus Muslim bodies that were beaten, battered or burnt. Just as the Hindus at the Godhra station were subject to the wrath of the Muslim members of the same town, the Muslim members across the state were attacked by their Hindu neighbors

Was the fire stoked by political powers? Was all the violence reported for real or not? I needed to see for myself, so I journeyed to the camps of Ahmedabad where hundreds of Muslims and Hindus were given shelter in the camps. I was taken to the camp by a social worker, Jacintha. As we entered, she was surrounded by men and women asking her to clear their issue – food, medicine, and allocation of money given by government to rebuild their homes. It was a cacophony of voices each trying harder than the other to be heard doing what they do best – survive. Jacintha made her way through the crowd and entered a medical tent. Close to a dozen doctors and administrators were managing those who needed medical attention. Saline bottles were hanging from a clothesline. Under each bottle, there was a folding cot, each containing an ailing body. Saline drips were being injected into the bodies of men, women and children suffering from heat stroke, jaundice, high blood pressure and a gamut of other complaints that I could not quite tabulate. The doctors were running around with sweat pouring down their bodies attending their patients. Again, there was this sense of routine and rigor. It was not like the set of “ER” where the doctors are embodiments of concern, empathy and efficiency, especially in the face of a national calamity. In this emergency relief camp, the doctors and patients were going around as though this was an everyday routine.

Jacintha introduced me to two young men, who were supposed to be my guides around the camps, I told them that I would like to talk to some women, which meant that I had to go to another camp. As we were walking out, one of the families caught my eye and I decided I wanted to talk to them. In a way, I was hesitant to ask intruding questions. What right did I, as a foreigner who arrived in an air conditioned car for a brief visit have the right to ask them to relive the moments of terror? But, my need to feel the texture of the blanket of misery was so deep that I halted hesitantly. As I squatted down hesitantly next to this old woman, she started telling me her story even before I could ask. She told me of the mob that attacked their neighborhood, of their confused run across the street, of the bullet that pierced the body of her youngest son, of their desperate calls for an ambulance, of the final arrival at the hospital, of the bulleted body that lay in the corridor for three hours before finally giving up. She spoke of the anger and the frustration of watching her son die. As she told the story, her remaining family of two sons, daughters-in-law and grand children surrounded me chiming in with their own comments. One of the sons brought her cotton pouch and asked her to show me the doctor’s certificate. She showed me the death certificate and said that it merely states the cause of death as an injury and not the real reason of neglect. She is the matriarch surrounded by her brood, demanding justice. There were no tears, no raised tones – just a recounting of events as though this had been repeated the umpteenth time. All I could do was give her a goodbye embrace and be on my way.

We drove half a kilometer to the Muslim residential neighborhood, stopping at the entrance of a narrow lane where 8-10 men were gathered talking, smoking or simply staring into space. The arrival of the car attracted some attention and my two guides explained to them that I came to see the burnt neighborhoods. We walked through lanes so narrow that if a bicyclist rides by, the pedestrians have to plaster themselves to the sidewalks to make way. We wandered deep into the neighborhood witnessing burnt homes on either side. I could see the burnt remains of televisions, antennae, utensils, cots, and clothes – the remains of a lifestyle that once occupied a few sq. ft of space. I found it tragically amusing that the house had collapsed but the front doors were closed and carefully locked!! It was as though the occupants were making a statement that this still belonged to them, walls or no walls. One of my guides took me to his home. When I was at Intel, I used to complain that my office of 8x8 was so small that if I stood up and extended my arms, I could touch both walls. In a space that was at best twice the size of my office at Intel, my guide and his family made a home and business of sowing clothes for a garment company. In the dim light, I saw the floor was strewn with burnt utensils, an iron, sowing machine, and many objects beyond identification. There was no space to step foot into the home. As we closed the door, I asked him as to how he managed to get electricity to his burnt home. He said that he brought in a line from his neighbor (whose house has not been burnt) and hung a bulb from it so that visitors can clearly witness the damage. There are no windows in the house, so he had to do something to make sure that the loss was visible. “If I am asking the government to reimburse me to build my home, I have to make sure that the inspectors can see the damage, right Madam!” he asked me. I was awed by his practicality and presence of mind, in the face of total loss.

We continued wandering through the lanes giving way to wandering buffaloes, bicycles and babies. They showed me the wall that divided the Muslim neighborhood from the Hindus. They described how all of them ran for their lives in those narrow streets as the mobs descended on them with a variety of weapons and fuel to burn the neighborhood. There was an eerie silence all around us in which their description of the mayhem, hue and cry seemed somehow louder and unreal. We finally made our way back to the car and went to the camp where I was to meet some women.

As we entered the camp, we went to the camp manager and received permission to speak to some women. I was escorted by a group of men leading the way to the women’s camps. They all entered the tent where a group of women were sitting. One of the men pointed to a young girl and said in Hindi “Tumhare saath kya hua madam ko phata phat bataado” (Hey you! Just hurry up and tell this madam all the stuff that happened to you). That was the last straw for me. Asking a woman to recount the brutality that she suffered – in a hurry?! I asked all the men to leave the tent taking with them the chair that they brought for me to occupy. I could not imagine any woman talking about anything in front of a few dozen men.

I squatted on the floor amidst the women and told them about myself. I let the conversation unfold as women young and old around me opened up their lives. We did not talk about any specific brutality suffered by any individual woman. I finally said to them that I have been reading about physical brutality towards women, was it all true? Did they know anyone who had been subject to abuse? Barely had I finished my question, and a torrent of comments came tumbling down. They talked about the humiliation they felt as the attackers ran their hands on the beautiful faces of their daughters making obscene suggestions, they talked about their feelings of fear watching their men die, they talked about women who were stripped naked in the middle of the street and ravaged by the wrath of man, they talked of muted struggles behind closed doors, of bruises to their souls of seeing their life long neighbor drag their daughter into physical submission, of loss of life. As long as they could recount the experience as what they saw happening to someone else, they could portray the gory details. I was in the midst of my fellow women describing their wounds as though they were all watching a movie. In that moment, I could see that the garb of normalcy was the only way they could cope with the betrayal of their own neighbors. It was the only way they could survive and move on. Tears, depression and drowning in sorrow are for the privileged; feeding the family, finding a shelter, fighting the lines in the medical tent and hospitals to heal the physical wounds are the lifeline of these displaced lives.

The beauty of the women that surrounded me was overwhelming. Two women – Tabu and Saira Banu – particularly touched me. Tabu is the quiet beauty. Her fair skin glowed despite the heat and dust. Her large oval eyes brimmed with words as she quickly averted her glances, her slim body sat unmoving as she heard other women tell stories, her pink, thin lips parted to reveal a pleasant smile only when I started talking about education. Her eyes sparkled and she became a child as she told me about how she used to come first in her class all the way though 7th grade. Then, she had to stop going to school as it was not appropriate for a young girl to be attending school at that grown age. At 18, she lost her father, is now living with her uncle and his family and is already married and divorced. The only thing that she wanted in her life was to study. She wanted to read books, learn computers, and learn about the world out there. All I could do was listen. As I was saying that I must be going, she is the one who tugged at my arm and said “Aur thodi der beitho na didi!” (please stay a while sister!). I laughed and sat back, and asked her what she wanted me to talk about. She wanted to know about me, what I studied, where I studied and how I became what I am today. She sat on the floor with her legs pulled up to her chin, swinging slightly with her arms encircling her legs listening attentively about my school, colleges in Hyderabad, Mumbai and America. I could see the hunger in her eyes to study, the itching in her hand to hold her favorite book and the vision in her mind to enter the world of computers.

Ever since I left my job of being a venture capitalist and completely entered the world of non-profit, engaging in activities of basic and digital education in India, I have had fleeting moments of doubt when I wonder if I made the right financial decision. I wonder if all our efforts to educate people in India are just a drop in the bucket and if my time is better spent directly contributing to building companies. But, it is moments like this, when I am sitting on the dusty floor under a makeshift tent, drenched in sweat, looking into the eyes of a beautiful 18 year old whose hunger for learning has not been fed when I realize the importance of my work. In that moment, the charter to provide education to thousands of such Tabus, giving them the opportunity to speak their minds and pave their futures becomes my calling beyond any doubt. In the silent holding of my hand, Tabu reiterated my purpose in life more loudly than any inspiring speech I had ever heard.

Saira-Banu was another source of inspiration for me. She is the tough one! She was not going to let anyone tell her what to do or how to do it. She said that she had five younger sisters and it was her job to make sure they were all taken care of. She lived in a neighborhood where her family was the only Muslim family. As the riots broke, her home was demolished and a temple was erected in its place. She is waging a war to get her home back. I asked her why she wanted to live in the midst of people who hate them so much. Her answer was very simple “because it is our home and we should not be forced out of our home”. She said that she knew that I may not be able to do anything but she was going to talk about her problem to anybody and everybody she comes in contact with – just in case that person may be able to help. She told her mother that she was not interested in getting married, that she wanted to study and become independent. She was preparing for her first year B.A exams as these riots broke and they lost their home. As soon as she had resolved some of the issues at home, she planned to move to her uncle’s place in Mumbai to study. She was not going to let some man run her life!

As she was speaking, I could see the tough exterior cracking up to show the burden of being the loud one and the smart one. I have experienced, in my life, that in any society, be it Eastern or Western, women can get a lot more done by being demure, batting their eyelids than they can by speaking their minds out. At times, it could take inordinate strength to simply speak one’s mind out. I knew how difficult it must be for her to continuously speak her mind out, strategically succumbing to societal pressure but also staying true to her inner beliefs. Her determination to get her home back, to study, to become independent moved me beyond words. I gave her my Mumbai address and told her that if she put in the effort to move in with her uncle’s family and get herself admitted in a college, I would take care of the rest. I promised her that if she put in her effort, I would put in mine … to make sure that she studied. I am confident that sooner or later, I will get that letter and that I will see her graduate into life as a successful woman. It is her spirit, her independence and her intelligence that can offend a man – that part of society, which wants to keep such women in their place. I am doing everything I can to promote that spirit and display it in the museum of self-preservation.

As I dropped off my guides at their camp and drove back home, I understood that the very normalcy that initially confused me is the face of strength that makes India move on despite its poverty and prejudice. When I decided to visit the camps, I was prepared to see crying babies, battered women, and bruised men .. all telling me their sorrowful tales, filling me with sadness and despair. I expected to shout their plight to the world using my mighty pen and feel good that I made a contribution to open the eyes of a far away society to the plight of my fellow citizens. What I came back with is a renewed understanding of strength and reality. In real life, people don’t wander around moping their plight. They light up their burnt homes with borrowed electricity so that they can make sure everyone else can see the damage. They make sure they show you every piece of paper that supports their accusations, they make silent pleas by looking into your eyes – pleas that you can miss if you are in a hurry. They want to hear about good times, learn about the world outside their four walls, and speak out loud and clear till they get justice. They have not lost their focus to get back the roof over their head, clothing on their back and a chance to get education.

During my visit, I read angry outbursts by influential individuals, demands of accountability from the government, call for peacemaking talks between prominent Hindu / Muslim leaders, statements of Hindus blaming the Muslims and vice versa and I believe that all these are important actions following the carnage. As I heard of the horrific incidents, I felt as though I was being dragged through the dark alleys of cruelty that seem to lurk dangerously close to human decency. None of what I heard or felt prepared me for the determination of the people in the camps to return to normalcy. When those who have suffered so much are not letting the events defocus them from their duties and future, I too am inspired to keep my focus on my goal – to help educate every Tabu, to provide the financial freedom to every Saira-Bano and to connect every man, woman and child to the rest of the world so that they can see for themselves that we are all equal and open their eyes to their own potential.

Needless to say, I am still upset at the meaningless killings, I am sad about betrayal by neighbors, I am shocked by the physical destruction, I am heart broken by the Hindus and Muslims who are unable to see that by killing each other, they are only ruining their own lives. But after this visit, I am also hopeful of the healing of the indomitable human spirit and am convinced that education is a necessary foundation for a truly secular India. Now, my writing is not a way to tell the world of the suffering of my people but a story of their strength and desire for purposeful survival.

Love im Small Moments

The answering machine was blinking number 17. After a month long trip through India, I was in no mood to listen to 17 messages. If something was that important, they would call back .. right? Arrival on Sunday, a couple of days of jet lag and finally on Tuesday, I listened to all the messages. Buried in the middle of lengthy messages about low interest mortgage loans and birthday invitations, was a message from my long lost friend Sue, who was my classmate a couple of decades ago. It has been over 10 years since we exchanged even holiday post cards. The message informed me that Sue was visiting the bay area with her hubby and three daughters for a few days and could I see them? She left me her cell number, which I frantically dialed, all along kicking myself for being lazy about not listening to the messages earlier. As luck would have it, Sue picked up the phone. After a few minutes of squeals and excited exchanges of apologies for losing touch, I found out that they left the bay area the night before to spend a few hours at Monterey and were driving out to Carmel. Before I even fully comprehended what I was doing, I made arrangements to meet Sue and her family at Big Sur to have an early dinner together. It has been ages since we have seen each other and who knows when I will get to North Carolina next! I packed up my 21 month old son and my friend who was visiting me form India into the car and started driving. After doing the needy administrative arrangements like leaving a voicemail on my hubby’s informing that we were all absconding to a drive along the windy Highway 1 for the afternoon and filling up gas, we set off on our little adventure. For a typical Californian, driving 10 miles is considered walking next door, driving 100 miles a day could be routine drive to work and driving to Big Sur for the day is totally feasible. But I am no typical Californian! I hate driving vehemently and promised myself that I shall consider myself “successful” when I have a full time chauffer. So, this impulsive decision to drive for 5 hours round trip has not sunk in quite yet!! We packed up a lot of CDs and I drove to Big Sur while listening to the sounds of Norah Jones followed by Aretha Franklin filling up the space in my car. Taking us to the Big Sur Lodge, our clandestine meeting point a mere two and a half hours later.

Meeting someone you once were close to after a long absence is like going on a first date. Your heart beats just a little faster filled with the fear of not being recognized, of not liking what this friend has become and yet a sense of nostalgia holds a grip on you. As I saw Sue walked toward me, along with the hubby and three young ladies, I knew that nothing has changed. We both were as chatty as ever with her hubby and children contributing an occasional word or so into the conversation. We all had a wonderful time and a couple of hours later, I started my way home. On the way back, my mind started wandering. I thought of the carefree student days when all of us used to hang out together, late night beers at local bars, endless hours in the library, how we each lived on $300/mth of graduate assistant salary and felt rich! As it turns out, just the day before this impulsive trip, I resigned my job. I was going through pangs of separation from a job that has been my passion for the past five years and wondering if I did the right thing. I was wondering about my identity, about the irresponsibility of quitting a job without lining up something else, about reinventing myself YET AGAIN! As I drive back, I thought once again of my student days, when felt that I could do anything and all it took was to get up and do it .. just as I decided to take this drive today. What changed since then? Why do I feel this gripping fear of not knowing what’s next? As I was having this busy conversation with myself, I looked over to the other side of the freeway where there was a lookout point. It was a Tuesday afternoon at Sunset on Highway 1 and only an occasional car or two were whizzing past the spot. There was a car parked at the lookout point on the other side of the road with front doors wide open. Salsa or some other similar sensual music was playing. A man with a Sombrero and a woman wearing a skirt and blouse were holding each other and dancing. There was no sensual grinding of the hips, no fancy foot work but just a gentle sway to the sounds of the auto audio system. It was as though I was watching a movie and there was a blur in the rest of the scenery and the only clear image was that of the couple moving ever so slowly!! In that moment, it clicked for me. Life may be the journey where we make enough money to buy the car, plan a trip and reach a destination but true love is the time we take to be impulsive and pull over to dance a little, the time we take to meet someone we care about and a life time we take to look into our being. We often are so busy driving furiously to get to the destination that we miss out on pulling over to enjoy the sunset and have a little Sway! To that lovely couple, I send my gratitude for making me enjoy the moment.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Celebrating the Dearly Departed

As holidays approach, I see heightened emotions of joy, sorrow, anxiety, apprehension, excitement all around me. Personally, I abhor the entire holiday season. December 15th 1997 was the day I received a call from India, letting me know that my father was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. For millions of immigrants who live away from home, this is the much dreaded call. No matter how fast you act, it takes you over 24 hours to reach India, which is a life time when your loved one is making gargantuan effort to hold onto every breath by the second. I lost him before I made it home and I never recovered from that loss. I keep wondering what he would have said to me before he passed on.

This year, a trip to a local museum altered my attitude and gave me a new insight into the value of death. To make the usual lunch more interesting, my friend Anu and I decided to follow it with a visit to the Cantor museum on the Stanford campus. As we entered the museum, the right side of the wall was occupied by a large portrait of the Stanford family gathering in the park with a bearded, imposing looking Leland Stanford, Sr sitting back on a chair with his arm casually draped around the neighboring chair occupied by his teenage son and his namesake, Leland Stanford Jr. As I walked through the room, I was reminded that the Junior had a tragic death at age14 and that the Stanfords established the institution, in memory of their departed son. As I was reading about the accomplishments of Stanfords and witnessing a happy family moment, I could not help but feel a sense of sorrow for their loss. How many of us who attend the campus for degrees and events, understand that this is the gift of departure? If they did not lose their son, would they have established this institution that has become one of the most famous icons of learning in the world?

Then I started thinking of many non profits which have been set up when a person lost their loved one to a disease, to drunk driving or to a natural disaster. In that moment, I appreciated those who made the most of their grief by making a difference for many others. It is that sorrow that could bring out the best in us. Then I started thinking of all the things that I did after my father passed away.

Eight years after my father passed away, I am weaning myself out of the habit of calling him to get his advice on everything I do. I have grown up and become independent in ways that one can do only when there are no parents left. I have changed careers, followed my heart in choosing new paths and embraced my husband as a true partner in the way I shape my life. There is no running back to Daddy to give a new insight. No matter how old I got, I was not ready to let my father go and no matter how sure I was of every decision I took, I was looking for his approval. When I said “Home”, I meant the one in which he lived in India. It’s only when he was gone, when there was no place where I could be a child that I adorned the mantel of adulthood and made my abode in California my true home.

A month before my father died, I visited him in India. Before leaving from U.S, I called to ask him what he wanted and as usual, he asked me to bring a list of books and lots of pens. I took him the books but I forgot the box of ball point pens that I bought for him. When I apologized, he said “Don’t worry! Even when I am gone, I will come back to you and demand what I want from you”. We both rolled our eyes and had a good laugh. But now, when I see my two year old son, waking up every morning screaming “Mommy! Pen” and sleeping with a couple of pens tightly held in his hands, I wonder if my father was not joking, after all!

This holiday season, I am trying to see the positive side of death. Instead of mourning his loss, I am celebrating my independence, my son’s passion for pens and the new career that I embarked on after my father’s death. My father was a freedom fighter who was in love with the values of India as well as the innovation and the work ethic of America. He said that I ought to do something to bring the richest democracy, U.S and the largest democracy, India together. When I look back, I see that it was his death that brought a sense of urgency in me to quit my comfortable high tech career and embark on a new path to do just that. I realize that I am doing this not to follow his dream but because he knew me well enough to articulate my dream. I also realize that it is not important whether I was there when he died, but it’s most important that I took the time to be with him when he was alive. So, instead of dreading this December, I put a box of pens for my son under the Christmas tree and proposed a toast for the dearly departed for teaching me to let them go and move on with my life. And a special toast for Leland for putting it all in perspective!

Chrismukkahwali Mubarak

December is the time most people plan to travel. It’s a time of canceled flights, crowded terminals, anxiety attacks and anything else dreadful that is associated with travel. Despite these discomforts, I make my annual pilgrimage to India. It happens to be the best weather to visit India and that’s the time one can get the most days off using the least number of vacation days. Since I never spent the December holidays at my home in California, I never bothered to decorate it nor do anything to celebrate it.

In addition to the excuse of departure, there was the haughty attitude. When I was a hip single woman, I would escape to exclusive vacations with other single friends and scoff at those people who put dancing reindeers in their lawns. As I drove by stores, I would roll my eyes at those carrying plastic flowers, artificial railing decorations and cart full of knick knacks to their station wagons. I argued that if we could save all the money we spent on decorations, it could feed hundreds of hungry children around the world. Well! I guess it’s time to eat my words.

Two years ago, a little baby boy made his way from my womb onto this earth and turned my world upside down, definitely for a better view! He is two this year and is besotted with lights, Christmas trees and any type of decorations. As we drive by homes that are lit up, he yells from the back seat of the car “Mommy! Niiiiice!!” with such sing song appreciation that I decided to bring in a bit of Christmas into my home. I became one of THOSE people! The morning after I decorated my railings with make believe greenery, installed a plastic Christmas tree with lights, my son came racing out of his bedroom and exclaimed “Mommy! Niiiishhhce” with an emphatic enunciation of every syllable and gave me such a tight hug that I did not even care if I went into style purgatory for the rest of my life.

As my friends warned me, I am doing all the things that I swore I would never do just to see that glint of delight in my son’s eyes. Instead of being religiously agnostic, we have become all encompassing. My God parents are Jewish, I am Hindu, my husband is a foodie who only celebrates every Islamic festival by devouring the food made by local Pakistani restaurants on those days and my son is besotted by Christmas. So, instead of fighting over which religion wins, we decided to celebrate them all in our home. Christmas tree, Menorah, Diwali lights and and Id Mubarak cards are strewn around the house making me realize just why I love being in America. So, it makes me sad when I hear people argue about “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays”, when I hear of groups boycotting stores that do not use the word “Christmas”. America gained prosperity by opening its arms to the best talent from around the world. We all came here to not only flavor the local culture with our rituals but also to bring a bit of Americana in our homes. For me, the true spirit of any festival is in celebrating it the way it makes sense for each individual – be it taking vacation days to visit families or go to Church for the mid night mass or just use it as an excuse to throw a party. Why use only two words to celebrate the season? Why not express our joy in whichever language and whatever way we want?

So, what am I doing about it? In November, we celebrated Diwali, Passover, had a Thanksgiving dinner with family here; In December, after we watch our son tear open the gifts under the Christmas tree, we visited my God parents to wish them “Happy Hanukkah”, and in early January, my hubby will celebrate Id by enjoying the food. This is the first year that we did not go to India during the holiday season. We stayed back home in America to enjoy all the holiday parties and the holiday spirit. In not too distant future, I see my son wanting to go skiing in this season, keen to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his friends which might put an end to travel to India during Christmas season but for now, I am happy to do whatever it takes to hear the word “Niiiice”.