Bangalore, Family, Happiness, India, Serious Writing, society, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Updates

Our Small, Lean Indian Wedding (Part 3): Setting a Precedent

This is the third and final part describing our wedding in India in December 2018. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

My family is pretty big. OK I am not talking in the thousands. But when we were trying to come up with a guest list for our original ‘full fledged’ wedding, my parents easily came up with at least 350-400 guests to invite – and it could have easily been more! (And I am not even including Devanshi’s family here). In the coming months, some of these would-have-been guests will meet or talk to my parents and convey their wishes, and no doubt some of them will make some kind of a remark about not being invited for my wedding.  To be fair, most of them are people whom my parents or myself rarely meet, if at all. And so it really doesn’t matter that much.

But what did matter to us to an extent was what the people who had attended the wedding thought about it. My dad may well be on his way to becoming an ‘elder person’ in the family himself, but he still valued his own elders’ opinions and continues to seek their advice. So while he was understandably apprehensive initially about how this might all be perceived, he was not at all ready for what actually transpired in this regard. While we were expecting some sort of suggestions (perhaps bordering on criticism) from family and friends about how the wedding could have been done, what we actually got was quite the opposite!

We had our own family and friends pleasantly surprise us by complimenting us for the simple wedding and for eschewing all the excesses. One Uncle of mine who had his own daughter’s wedding coming up soon was left wondering if such simple weddings were even possible at all! I had friends tell me how they literally suffered through their own weddings having to stand hungry for hours on end while the steady (and seemingly unending) stream of guests came to get their pictures taken with the couple. But most of all, what blew my mind was when the elders in the family unanimously praised the simplicity of the wedding! But they didn’t stop there. They went one step ahead and said:

I am glad that someone in our family finally took the bold step of conducting a simple wedding like this. I hope more people will now look at this and do similar weddings in the future!

Knowing that these were words coming from what we would consider as the generally very conservative generation, I was really very very pleased. And my dad was definitely overjoyed to hear that as well!

As much as I was very happy with the way things went, there were inevitably some things that I wish circumstances had allowed. The foremost is the absence of family from Devanshi’s side apart from her parents. Considering this was done at my place in Bangalore, it was always going to be difficult for her family in Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Baroda to make the trip here at such short notice. I certainly wish her brother could have made it but that was not to be either. So a lot of credit goes to my wife and her family for understanding this and still go through the wedding in great spirits.

Looking back now, when we planned for this small wedding, we had certainly not thought about having our wedding be some kind of an example or precedent for others to hold similar weddings eschewing the excesses. But now I hope it does act in some capacity to let people know that this is still very much a feasible way to conduct a wedding. I am acutely aware of all the societal pressures and expectations that come with conducting a wedding in the family – invite hundreds (if not thousands) of guests, a massive buffet, sharing a professionally done wedding video online, grand setting, fancy invitation cards, etc. Make no mistake!  We had those pressures and expectations as well. But we took a leap of faith and courage and went ahead with a very simple wedding. And not only did it go just fine, we also received compliments for doing just that.

Yes there will always be families who have vast networks – huge families, business contacts, government officials and clients that need to be invited and pleased. But what people need to realize now is that the requirements that such families face are not necessarily true of most middle class and upper middle class families. I am not asking everyone to hold their weddings at their homes with a 50 person limit for the guests. All I am asking is for families to exercise basic fiscal restraint and avoid excesses – especially if they are stretching beyond their means to conduct the wedding. I am also asking them to understand that it is OK to not have a lavish wedding.

And as counter-intuitive as it may sound, that is a progressive idea right there for society to take up.

I have seen people spend money they don’t have on their child’s wedding, often making loans. Some justify it quoting the “Once in a lifetime event, make it big” idea but I personally do not buy into that. Just because something is happening only once in your life doesn’t justify making large amounts of loans that could have otherwise been used for the couple to start their new lives together. If a family can genuinely afford it, then I cannot fault them for holding a wedding within their means – however grand it may be (think Ambani). But I can never comprehend people stretching well beyond their means to have a grand wedding simply because of their own perception of what is acceptable or necessary.

So in the end, what I realized was that most of these pressures and expectations stem not from other people in the society, but mostly from within ourselves. Some of these pressures and expectations come from our own perception of what we feel is necessary to maintain our “image” in the society, some comes from the “Keeping up with the Joneses” attitude, and some comes from the lack of precedents and examples – thereby making us believe that there is simply no other way to conduct a wedding!

Ultimately, when it comes to people’s perception of what is acceptable or necessary for a wedding, Devanshi and I cannot address the issues of people wanting to ‘maintain their image’ or their “Keeping up with the Jones’s” attitude. But we have certainly tried to contribute to addressing the lack of examples by providing one of our own and hopefully setting a precedent for other weddings in the future.

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Bangalore, Family, Happiness, India, Serious Writing, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Updates

Our Small, Lean Indian Wedding (Part 2): Planning and Wedding Day

This is the Second of Three parts describing our wedding in India last month. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here

The planning had to start with a complete acceptance by everyone involved regarding the small scale of our wedding. And this is where I was so happy to see all of us come together to plan the wedding – suggest ideas and make compromises. Turns out, it is much much easier to get everyone’s approval for the details in a small scale wedding than in a full fledged wedding! Who would have thought!!???!? Yes we had a few instances of disagreements that required negotiation on my part but in the end all things were agreed upon.

Then we had to figure out the venue – which actually ended up being the easiest of all decisions. We simply decided to have my wedding at my home!

So what about the guest list? Who to invite, who can we skip? This was after all the biggest sticking point between my parents and I in all previous discussions. My parents inevitably wanted to invite people they knew but whom I had never met and probably never would, and I was dead against it. The cliched thinking of “How can we not invite X when we have invited Y?” or “X invited us to their son’s wedding so we have to invite them to ours” was in full play. But we found a way out without having to actually make any compromise as such. Our home could accommodate about 45-55 people at most, so our guest list had to be planned accordingly. As it turned out, my parents have been doing a small ceremony every year for the past 12 years at my home where they invite about 40 of their close relatives and friends. So they pretty much took that list, added a dozen more and we had our guest list at about 55!

But what about the ceremony? How elaborate would it be? That was the biggest sticking point with my wife. Overly long and admittedly redundant ceremonies were her (and to an extent my own) complaints from our first conversations about the wedding. But then who comes to our rescue other than our own Purohit – the priest in charge of the ceremony itself?!?? He was more than happy to conduct the wedding ceremony and be done with all of it in less than half an hour! My parents (especially my dad) and I have some strong opinions against practices like the ‘Kashi Yatra’ and ‘Vara puja’ – the former redundant, and the latter just plain inappropriate (and should probably be made illegal) – and we were definitely going to avoid that. In fact, of all the different parts of the Kannada wedding ceremony, we only planned to perform the Mantapa puja, Mangal Sutra tying and gruhapravesha. (The kanya daana and nischithartha parts were performed previously while we took our vows in Des Moines). Our Purohit was more than happy to facilitate this simple wedding!

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Moving on to an equally important facet of the wedding – the food! Of course we gotta talk about the food! We had arranged for one full fledged meal for the afternoon of the wedding with the usual gamut of wedding dishes – Savige Paaysa, Puliyogare, kosambri, Usali, beans palya, aloo palya, Kootu, Majjige huli, Pineapple gojju, rice, rasam, aloo bonda, mysore pak and Chiroti. (I had specifically requested that the chirotis be smaller in size but the cook provided normal big sized chirotis. When asked about it, he candidly remarked “Sir our cooks cannot comprehend the idea of a small chiroti!”) We had also arranged for breakfast for about half the guests (Idli, chutney, upma, coffee, tea). And that was all we arranged for the food! End of story!

Wedding gifts was one aspect that I did not interfere even slightly because I knew it meant a lot to both our parents. Gifting nice silk sarees to all the women in both our families was something that they took a lot of satisfaction in and I was in no way going to cast a blot on that experience – in spite of the costs involved. This was one thing I was more than happy to step back from considering all the compromises they did for the wedding.

When it came to our wedding attire, I wore a silk dhoti and shalya that belonged to my dad for the actual ceremony, after which I changed into a silk Kurta and a Koti – both gifted to me by my in-laws. Devanshi wore a silk saree with some basic jewellery for the ceremony  and a nice flowing lehenga after that. I was very happy we kept the cost of our clothes to a minimum considering the circumstances.

We never printed any invitation cards and simply called everyone to invite them. Nobody seemed to complain and everyone showed up! So I guess it was fine??!!?

And that was all the planning we did for the wedding!

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The evening before the wedding, my mother surprised us all with a very cute wedding cake that she had ordered (and no one knew about). I had all my aunts, uncles and cousins and we spontaneously decided to play music and dance together. So for the first time, I saw my parents, aunts and uncles dance. Come to think of it, it was the first time they all saw me dance since I was probably a kid. And we all had a great great time dancing to old 90’s songs, gharba songs and even a song (“Masthu Masthu Hudugi Banthu”) from the movie Upendra! This has to be put in perspective because nothing like this happens in typical South Indian weddings. As ridiculous as it may sound, we were actually breaking new ground in a South Indian wedding with the whole dancing and singing. It definitely helped that my wife is from a state where they definitely know how to have fun at a wedding! But overall, even though the dancing was a spontaneous activity, we all enjoyed it and I was very grateful for my mother to have planned anything at all for that evening.

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On the day of the wedding, things couldn’t have gone smoother and easier. Both our parents were up at 630 or so and they performed the Sankalpa around 8 AM. Devanshi and I got up around 730 and were seated at the ceremony around 930 AM. Most of the guests had arrived by then and some had even had their breakfast. The purohit performed the ceremony for about half an hour – a rather simplistic ceremony. At the right muhurtham, I tied the mangal sutra knot, everyone showered their blessings with the akshathe and we were pretty much done by 1015 AM! Devanshi and I sought the blessings of our parents and all the elders in the family, and they in turn blessed us and gave us gifts. We then did the gruha pravesha with her knocking over a glass of rice and entering my house (again) – this time as my wife and as a daughter of the house. Everyone had their lunch between 1 and 230 PM and were pretty much gone by 3. Then we all went to visit my grandfather to seek his blessings. We rounded off our wedding day with a visit to the nearby temple – the first time as a married couple.

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The whole wedding ended up being completely stress free and without any issues. Though I was personally very happy with the small scale of the wedding, I was very curious to know what all the guests thought. In this day and age where weddings are getting bigger and bigger, here we were having our wedding at our home with about 50 guests. Approval from the elders in my extended family is something my father has always valued and he was understandably hesitant while we planned the wedding at my home.  After all, this had never been done in our extended families and possibly among all our friend circles. Would people opine that we should have had a full fledged wedding as a matter of general principle? Or would they accept this for what it was and just move on to the next big wedding?

 

America, Bangalore, canada, Des Moines, Family, Serious Writing, The things that happen only to ME...

Our Small, Lean Indian Wedding (Part 1): The Long Wait

This is the First of Three Parts describing our wedding in India last month. Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here. 

Devanshi and I finally had our traditional wedding in Bangalore last month. This came more than 2 years after our registered wedding in Des Moines, IA and after having moved out of the United States to Canada (more on that in a separate post). Predictably, our traditional wedding had been in the works soon after we got married in the USA. There were a few false starts and disbanded plans – largely due to my work travels and constraints arising from our immigration status. But things (mostly) fell into place for a wedding ceremony during our visit here and we got it done last week.

But ever since plans for our traditional wedding (henceforth just referred to as wedding) began to be formulated (from back in 2016), there were always points of disagreement between Devanshi and myself, my parents and myself, and my family and her family. The fact that we both were from different states (she from Gujarat and I from Karnataka) and having different wedding customs certainly contributed to the difficulty in planning the wedding. But whatever our disagreements, we all had one common objective – to have a wedding without any excesses.

It started off as a plan to have about 250-300 guests at a reasonably sized venue (we were looking at Ganjam Mantapa in Basavanagudi) over the course of one day – with the ceremony in the morning and reception in the evening. The devil, of course, was in the details, and we soon began to have our differences. Do we hire a professional photographer? What about the flower decoration? What’s on the menu? Who to invite? Needless to say, we were disagreeing on what each of us considered to be ‘excess’. Spending lots of money on a wedding photographer was excessive for me, while inviting guests we would likely never see again in our lives was an excess for her. There were many more arguments and disagreements with each of us wanting something that the others did not necessarily agree with. I understand this is all part of anyone’s wedding preparation, but it was still not a pleasant experience. Ultimately, due to all these small additions from each of us, the total cost of the wedding began to balloon out of control and we were all dissatisfied for different reasons.

I was probably in a fantasy land when I initially believed we could have a wedding as described above for less than 5 lakh Indian Rupees (about $7,000). When I eventually crunched the numbers, it became painfully obvious that that number was woefully inadequate and that it was going to cost at least 2-3 times as much (emphasis on ‘at least’). Attempts to introduce cost cutting measures were only met with more arguments and unpleasant interactions. Even though I was repeatedly told by my parents to “not worry about the expenses”, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable and hesitant to proceed with spending all that money for my wedding. In the end, I was tempted to simply give up and let my parents have their way – after all I have heard most brides and grooms end up doing exactly that. But in an unexpected intervention of circumstances, our process of immigration to Canada practically put a veto on any wedding plans till we had actually moved there. (I will not go into details, but suffice to say that we needed to stay put in the US and save our money till we finished our move).

Yes it was a little painful for all of us – especially for my parents who had already put in a lot of effort and were very excited about the whole thing. After all, I am the only child and they had been waiting for this for a long time. But these circumstances were beyond our control and we called off the wedding.

Fast forward to November 2018 when Devanshi and I have moved to Toronto and I am visiting India after 4 years towards the end of the month. Talks of our wedding inevitably resurfaces as this provides us all with one more chance to complete the ceremony. But with less than a month of notice, there was clearly going to have to be a big change in the planning of the wedding. My parents were understandably hesitant to drastically reduce the scale of our wedding – especially considering it had never been done before with anyone in our families. In the case of such a scenario, they were also not sure who to invite and who to not invite. Add to this their general desire to have a reasonably sized wedding for their only son, and it was going to take a leap of faith and courage from all of us to actually proceed with something like that.

America, Bad Journalism, divided states of america, media, Serious Writing, Thoughts, TRUMP

Consumption of Information in a Divided Country

This is the 2nd installment in a series of posts outlining the divided nature of the United States of America. All posts can be found here

One of the hallmarks of a functional society is not just the availability and constant dissemination of information, but also the diverse sources that perform the act of dissemination. As an extreme, take North Korea for instance where there are a few media outlets (radio, print and TV) but they are all controlled by the same one source – the leadership of Kim Jong-Un. Contrast that to a country like the United States where there are approximately 1300 newspapers, hundreds of radio stations, and hundreds of news channels – and they are controlled by many different groups including many that are independently owned.

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So yes, the United States has way more freedom of press than North Korea (duh!). But this is not a binary measurement with North Korea as 0 and the United States as 1. There is a full spectrum of possibilities in between. We all know the consequences of the lack of freedom of press in a country like North Korea. But it would be incorrect to presume that the other extreme is perfect. Far from it. As we will see below, a free press doesn’t necessarily mean a fair press. It is not just the veracity of the reporting that counts in a free press. What counts equally is what is and what is not reported by each source of information.

(For the sake of ease of putting my point across in this post, I am going to use the phrases ‘sources of information’,  ‘information outlets’, ‘media house’, ‘news outlet’ and ‘media’ interchangeably. But what they will refer to is any platform through which information is disseminated on any topic. Additionally, when I refer to news outlets covering and presenting only ‘specific topics’ or ‘different sets of facts about a topic’, it is implied to include instances of news outlets presenting selective facts on a topic, covering only developments that peddle a certain narrative or that are favorable to an organization/ideology, providing disproportionately large amounts of airtime/print space to people espousing a certain point of view, present information/opinion in an us vs them format, etc).

The Ideal World and the Real World

In an ideal world, people think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information on hand and with no inherent bias. But we do not live in such a world. We live in a world where people believe that they think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information, and they believe that they do so with no inherent bias.

Another aspect of an ‘ideal world’ would be that any information disseminated by a source is both complete and unbiased. This means that any news outlet would provide all the different pieces of information on a given topic while providing the appropriate emphasis on each of those different pieces. But we all know that is also not the reality.

The reality is that different media outlets provide and emphasize different sets of facts on the same topic, but rarely present all the facts about it. Each outlet, of course, strongly believes that the specific sets of facts that they are emphasizing are the ones that deserve the attention of the society. So what we end up having is a large number of sources of information disseminating and emphasizing different sets of facts with each believing that their ‘coverage’ is the more relevant (or even important) one to the society. However, none of these media outlets would cover all the facts of the topic at hand.

How We SHOULD be Consuming Information

There is a very important distinction to be made here. It is one thing to have different media outlets emphasizing different pieces of information on a given topic but still doing so within the context of the overall umbrella of information on that topic. It is something totally different when the various media outlets choose to present and emphasize only certain pieces of information while partially or completely ignoring the rest of the facts on that topic. The former is an instance where the diversity of the information outlets becomes an asset by being able to provide a voice for those specific (parts of) topics that would otherwise have not been emphasized elsewhere. The latter implies straight up bias where the media outlets are deliberately disseminating a specific set of information while withholding another set of information.

Now let us take our real world where we have the latter scenario – one in which there are many different outlets that are disseminating information on different topics or different parts of the same topic, and exhibiting clear bias. In such a society, what would a rational person do if they sought information on a wide ranging topic such as, say, immigration?

First and foremost, they would go to one source of information and gather all the facts from that source. But importantly, they would also identify and acknowledge that the first source does not necessarily provide all the facts of the topic. This would then compel them to seek out a different source of information that would provide the facts that were necessarily not part of the first source’s coverage. Then they would repeat this until they believe that they have reasonably covered all the different aspects of the topic at hand. With this, they would then have a perspective on the topic based on complete information about the wide ranging aspects of that topic. And if society was filled with such people, we would have a very well informed population who would call for specific and reasonable action to address the issues of the society.

How we Actually Consume Information

(OK now let me return from that awesome parallel universe to our own less impressive one.)

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But unfortunately, we human beings are not a rational species. We are not even meant to be a rational species based on the way our brain works – which means we have to put in that much more effort to behave rationally. So what this means is that we all have inherent biases that are hard to get rid of. It also means that it is extremely hard for us to actively seek out information that contradicts our pre-existing beliefs or opinions. These two fundamental traits influence and manifest in the way we consume information.

Because of our inherent bias, we are already predisposed to certain sources of information. These outlets typically cover and emphasize specific people, topics or parts of topics that we are already in (at least) general agreement with. Consuming information from such a source will further reinforce our pre-existing beliefs and opinions about a topic while gathering no new or potentially contradictory facts about the same topic.

This will lead us to a deeper entrenchment into the same set of beliefs and opinions thereby helping our brain get even more cozy in its comfort zone. And then, the vicious cycle turns into more like a spiral where we get entrenched deeper and deeper into our own sets of beliefs and becoming increasingly incapable of processing any information contradictory to it.

But unfortunately, that is how information is consumed in this day and age. We gather our information from sources that typically disseminate the kind of information we already agree with, while (consciously or sub-consciously) avoiding sources of information which provide information that could potentially be contradictory to what we already believe in. Essentially, we are all slaves to our confirmation bias.

In the next post, we will look at how such a mode of information consumption impacts society in general. 

Dudeism, Movies, My sense of Humour, Sadness, Serious Writing, Thoughts

Life Lessons from Uppi 2

In 1999, the Kannada movie director and actor Upendra released what is probably the most intriguing Kannada movie ever made. The movie was literally named after him (Upendra) – because why the fuck not? After all, the movie was largely about a self-obsessed man (named ‘Naanu’ – which literally means ‘I’) entangled in the human condition, with the 3 female actors portraying the ideas of fame, happiness and responsibilities. I can talk for hours on end about all the insights I have gained from that movie. In fact, every time I watch it, I gain a new profound insight into the human condition. But this post is not about that movie.

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In 2015, 16 years after the first one, Upendra finally released the sequel to Upendra. It was titled ‘Uppi 2’ – possibly a play on the popular breakfast item ‘Uppittu’ (Upma), or not. The general premise of this movie was that the same character – now going by the name of ‘Neenu’ (meaning ‘you’) – is now living life completely in the present moment. The movie compares and contrasts this with other characters who live in the past or in the future.

The general principle of ‘living in the now’ is not at all new. There have been many many books written about that idea. It has also been represented well through characters in the movies (think of ‘The Big Lebowski’:  “Is this a… what day is this?”). So it is not something totally earth shattering what Upendra explored in his sequel. But what stands out in Uppi 2 are the scenes that show the different specific manifestations of the main character’s ability to live completely in the present. There are many to list here so I will stick to the one that made a big impression on me and has stayed with me ever since.

In this scene, ‘Neenu’ and his friend visit his home where he finds his entire family apparently massacred – with corpses in pools of blood all over the place. It is a rather gruesome scene which is made even more strange by Neenu’s continued calm and smiling nature even as he examines the massacre in his own home. Rather alarmed by his lack of response or shock, his friend asks him if he does not feel shocked, sad or angry looking at the tragedy in front of him. To this, Neenu responds by explaining (and I am paraphrasing here):

After a tragedy like this, most people take years or even decades to accept what has happened and to come to terms with it. After that, they are able to lead a normal life without the pain or sadness. I just accepted all this immediately and have already come to terms with it. So where is the need to feel sad or angry anymore?

Of course, it later turns out that his entire family was acting all of it to expose Neenu’s apparent apathy towards his own family members.

But the message was very revealing to me. Of course, we don’t need to go through a tragedy of the magnitude that his character did in order to make us realize the utility of the idea. Instead, we can just look at the daily frustrations and struggles we face that are beyond our control: a delayed flight, a trivial argument with the spouse, bad traffic, your sports team losing a game, you name it. We typically see many such incidents every single day of our lives stretching as far back as we can remember. We probably got frustrated, angry or sad at that time and likely stayed that way for a while depending on how severe the incident was. But over time, we almost always move on. That incident loses its significance and impact on our mood and its impressions go away.

So if we can confidently state that most of these daily frustrations eventually lose their hold over our state of mind, then we have to ask ourselves why get angry or frustrated in the first place? It is a legitimate question, and one I have formulated in a slightly more specific manner:

Say I have a frustrating experience today, what would my general thoughts be 5 years down the line:

  • Will I still get frustrated, angry or sad thinking about it?
  • Will I feel like exacting some kind of revenge or retaliation towards anyone or anything?
  • Will I even give a shit about it?
  • Come to think of it, will I even remember the damn thing?

If the answer to these above questions is a NO, then I simply have to ask myself why would I get frustrated, sad or angry in the first place? There is just no point in doing so if I know that it will eventually pass. So, much like how Vincent Vega responded after shooting Marvin in the face, Uppi 2 taught me how to immediately come to terms with and let go of the daily frustrations in life.

Of course, it takes a little practice to incorporate this into our daily life, but it is actually pretty easy. And once we are able to remind ourselves to ask this question every time something goes wrong, it becomes that much easier to come to terms with all the daily frustrations.

America, divided states of america, Serious Writing, society, Thoughts, TRUMP, US Presidential Elections

The United States of America: A Blueprint for a Divided Society – Part I – The Issues

NOTE: This is the first installment in a series of posts outlining my observations on the divided nature of this country. All posts can be found here

In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, the New York Times wrote the following in an opinion piece titled “The Divided States of America”:

Most large cities, college towns, the Northeast and the West Coast are deep-blue Democratic. Ruby-red Republican strongholds take up most of the South, the Great Plains, the Mountain States and the suburban and rural areas in between. Rather than compete directly against each other, both parties increasingly occupy their separate territories, with diminishing overlap and disappearing common accountability. They hear from very different constituents, with very different priorities. The minimal electoral incentives they do face all push toward nurturing, rather than bridging, those increasingly wide divisions.

From a macro perspective, those observations are very valid and true. But they only speak about one of the many factors that divide the people of this country into two rather distinct categories – Liberals and Conservatives.

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The Divided States of America

The history of this country may have taken whatever route it did to get here. But simply taking a long and hard look at ‘the system’ now  can go a long way in explaining the growing divide among the people here. What I present below (and in future posts) are  some simple observations that have had a profound influence on the divided state of this country. I do this with the ultimate objective and hope of informing people from other countries to keep a look out for these very symptoms in their own country, lest they become victims to the same divisive power plays.

What are the Issues?

It starts with a simple question: How can you divide a set of people if you don’t have anything to divide them over? It has an equally simple answer: You can’t. So any process with the stated or implied objective of dividing a set of people has to necessarily start with the identification of issues that can be used for that purpose. But it cannot be any issue. Trying to divide a large group of people over a debate such as “Should Government funding be increased to Arts or Science education?” is far less likely to have an impact than a debate such as “Should Muslims be allowed to migrate to the USA?”.

The key to coming up with a divisive issue is to use a topic that has a very visceral basis. For instance, issues arising out of religion are usually safe bets when it comes to their ability to generate strong and conflicting feelings (think abortion and gay marriage). Real or perceived threats against strong traditions that also have a controversial side-effect are also equally effective (think gun rights/control). Role of Government in the day-to-day working of the economy is yet another topic that can generate strong feelings (think socialism/free market).

It is not enough to simply identify divisive issues. It is equally important to create two (and only two) very distinct approaches to resolve the issue. And once these approaches are identified and articulated, it is then that the crucial act of labeling one approach as ‘liberal’ and another as ‘conservative’ can be taken up. This labeling is the final step in the ‘creation/identification of divisive issues’ step of the process. And in a country where most of the people identify as one of liberal or conservative, once you label a particular approach to any divisive issue as either liberal or conservative, you have then automatically scaled up the division on that particular issue to the entire population.

It is a scary observation, but one that is far too commonplace in this country today. Perhaps the more relevant aspect of this process of creation of divisive issues is that the ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ approaches to these issues do not necessarily have a common overall basis. That is to say there is no defined set of values for either of these groups from which these differing approaches take shape.

The most glaring example of this lies in the perception of socialism and religion. Both are divisive issues that this country has fought over for decades. For liberals, socialism (or at least some form of it) is generally perceived as a necessary means to address issues such as income inequality and capitalistic greed. The conservatives, on the other hand, view socialism as absolute evil and denounce any form of it. Fair enough. But what about religion? The bible and the values and messages derived from it are by far the most important guiding principles for conservatives. The liberals, on the other hand, vehemently oppose any interference between the church and the state. Again, fair enough.

Now I ask this simple question: What kind of a society does Christ/God preach in the Bible? Does he preach a socialistic society where each person looks after the other? Or does it preach a capitalistic society breeding a dog-eat-dog philosophy where one looks out only for oneself? Even the most cursory reading of the Bible will tell you overwhelmingly (and categorically) that it is the former. (Click the links and you can see for yourself)

So if the Bible preaches a socialistic society, then why do the group of people (Conservatives) who so vehemently propagate its message also support the exact opposite in capitalism? It is an open and glaring contradiction. And so, like I said, there is no basis of common values from which the approaches of a particular group of people spring from.

The damaging significance of a divisive issue in a country cannot be understated. The USA is a country where legislatively bringing about a big change (think Civil rights) is a deliberately slow process. In such a ‘system’, a divisive issue inevitably leads to a situation resembling more of a trench-warfare between opposing groups rather than that of an open and fact based debate and resolution. Needless to say, trench warfare over the same issues over a long period of time only works to divide the society that much farther and deeper. This deepening of the division leads to a feedback loop that incentivizes the systems in play to propagate these divisions even more.

But a society cannot be truly divided into two distinct groups just because people have differing opinions on some specific individual issues. To better understand this, consider a (hypothetical) middle aged man in rural California who owns a small farm, employs legal AND undocumented immigrant workers to work his farm, carries guns with pride, goes to church every Sunday, wants universal healthcare, opposes abortion and gay rights, wants the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, advocates for tuition-free college, advocates for climate change initiatives and wants tariffs on goods (including food) imported from outside the USA.

How on earth would you label him – a Conservative or a Liberal?!!?? He supports issues on both sides as it would be perceived today. It is simply impossible to put him in one or the other category as these categories are understood today. Now imagine if America was made up with people like him – people who have strong and differing opinions about the seemingly divisive issues, but do not have a set pattern in their opinions across these issues. In such a situation, when everyone has differing sets of opinions about the same issues, there cannot be a sufficiently large population group that can be thrown into just two distinct categories. Instead, there will simply be dozens (or hundreds) of different groups where the people within that group share common opinions on ALL the issues. But this does not lead to a divided society! This actually leads to a lot of different groups of people with lots of different priorities – but no sustained division. So then why exactly is it so hard (or just plain impossible) to find such people?

The answer lies in grouping. The ultimate key to generating a divide  is to identify these divisive issues and the two contradictory (for or against) opinions about these issues. Then allocate a ‘for’ to specific issues and an ‘against’ to the other issues. (Which ones get a ‘for’ and which ones get an ‘against’ are not necessarily rooted in any common basis or philosophy. And the question of exactly WHO decided these ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’ is for another post). This becomes one group – say liberals. Reverse the allocation of ‘for’ and ‘against’ and we have the second group – the conservatives!

So, for example, one group of such opinions would be to stand for gun rights, oppose gay rights and abortion, for free market, for lesser taxes, against Climate control initiatives, for religion, against immigration, against government programs for general population, pro-business, etc. These, as we understand them today, are considered conservative opinions. The opposite group of opinions would then be considered as liberal opinions. So once the opinions of people on these issues are grouped in a certain set way, the label can then be applied to that entire group.

So instead of having dozens (or hundreds) of groups with each group having different sets of opinions on the same issues, we now have two specific groups where the set of opinions on the same issues are pre-determined. In the former, there is no real way to create and sustain a deep division between dozens (or hundreds) of groups of people. But in the latter, it becomes very simple to create the divide when you only have two groups of people with pre-determined and contradictory sets of beliefs/opinions about the same set of issues.

(Yes there are obviously many many people who do not identify themselves as a strictly conservative or liberal in the way these terms are understood today. But there is no one representing these people in Congress or anywhere for that matter. In other words, they are not large enough in number to actually have a voice that can make a difference. This, unfortunately, makes their presence quite redundant. Similarly, it is also true that the current administration’s trade policies aren’t exactly favoring a ‘free market’ – which has led to some conservatives getting rather confused on how to respond to this).

And that is what has happened to this country. There are exactly two groups of people – liberals and conservatives – each seemingly represented by one specific political party. And with each group having a pre-determined (and opposite) set of beliefs and opinions about the same issues, the ease of creation and sustenance of division becomes that much easier.

But then this leads to further questions: WHO exactly creates these divisions? WHO sustains them? And HOW?

Future posts to discuss these and other aspects of a divided society in detail.

America, Serious Writing, Thoughts, Travel

When the Cops Were Called on a Black Man at a Starbucks in Charleston, WV….

There is a lot of outrage at Starbucks and the Philadelphia Police Department for the arrest of 2 black men at a Starbucks for literally doing nothing. This post is not about that. This post is about the time I saw the cops being called on a black man in a Starbucks in Charleston, West Virginia. Please read the entire post before forming your opinions. Also, please note that this is being written as I recollect the incident from my memory, and should be treated that way.

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I was in Charleston, West Virginia on work for two months between December (’17) and January (’18). Knowing my disdain for staying alone in hotels, I naturally sought the slightly more likable atmosphere of a coffee shop to stay alone in. Charleston is a beautiful town, but it is not a big city and there weren’t too many options for a coffee shop. I just wanted to sit in a nice, comfortable spot with an internet connection, not be bothered but still have people around me, and be allowed to spend hours together without being questioned.

The Starbucks on East Kanawha Blvd ticked all those boxes in addition to having a great riverside location, and I happily chose that spot. Over the course of 2 months, I went to that store several times – maybe up to a dozen or so. I generally liked the ambiance, and the baristas were friendly and courteous. (I remember once when I forgot to ask for almond milk, they happily remade the drink for me at no extra cost). The crowd generally consisted of either people who came there to study/work/read by themselves or a small group of 2-4 for a brief meetup. I generally spent at least 2-3 hours there on each of my visit, spending my time mostly reading or writing while listening to my headphones.

It was a Sunday (if I remember correctly) afternoon in the second or third week of January. I was at the Starbucks and working on my computer at one of the smaller tables. A black man was also inside the Starbucks and he had a drink with him at his table. The man had a backpack of sorts with him and the condition of his clothes made it appear that he was perhaps homeless. It looked like he had purchased a drink and so was well within his rights to stay at the store – just like everyone else there. And no one seemed to think otherwise.

As time passed, a group of 4 women (in their 30’s or 40’s) came to the store and sat at a round table that was adjacent to where the black man was sitting. They were there for a good hour or so, and they spent their time talking to each other.

Now, prior to the women coming to the store, the man had begun to pace the entire place – inside and sometimes outside. He did not seem to have any specific purpose in his walking around, and did not appear to indicate any kind of threat or harm to the other customers. After the women came in and sat at the table, I remember the man continuing to pace the store. And I distinctly remember him beginning to just stand and hover around the table where the women were sitting. The women, per my recollection, did not seem to pay attention to him and continued their conversation unaffected by his close proximity.

I remember the man continuing to pace the store and/or hover around the table where the women were sitting. I remember him also walking and/or standing close to other customers. (He never came very close to me as I remember sitting far away from his table). This continued to happen for an hour or more.

My overall recollection of the situation then was that of a black man, who was very likely homeless, pacing around the store without any specific purpose and sometimes hovering around a person or group of people without initiating any kind of contact. I do remember him talking to himself on a few occasions without being loud about it.

My personal thoughts at that moment when I saw him was that, firstly, he had every right to be there just like the rest of us. And no one thought otherwise – including and especially the baristas. Secondly, as much as his aimless and continuous strolling through the store was a harmless act in itself, I did wonder how the 4 women at the table felt when they noticed someone just hovering around them and possibly listening in on their conversation.

From a purely objective perspective, if someone was hovering around me while I was at a coffee shop (with or without friends), I would feel uncomfortable. It has nothing to do with the race or economic status of the person who is potentially invading my space. And if it was something that had continued for an extended period of time, I would have brought that to the attention of the store manager. Specifically, I would have told them that the said person was making me uncomfortable and maybe that they were even creeping me out. Again, this has nothing to do with race. I would have made this comment if it was a black man who was homeless, or a white guy who was dressed in a suit and a tie. (Just a reminder – I am neither black nor white nor Hispanic). It is a simple matter of invasion of space in a public location where there is a general expectation of respecting one’s privacy.

These were the thoughts that were going through my mind when I saw the cops show up! I remember there were 2 of them who came in and went to speak to the store manager/barista. They spoke for a few minutes, and by their general body language, it was obvious that it concerned the black man. The man himself was seated at his table minding his own business at this point. After a brief discussion with the store manager, the cops then walked to the man and spoke to him for a few minutes. I could not hear what they were saying specifically, but I definitely remember them being polite and courteous to the man. They must have spoken to him for about 5-10 minutes, then left the man to his table and went back to speak to the store manager. After a brief conversation there, the cops left the store.

The man continued to stay at the store and from that point on, he stopped pacing the store or hovering around the other customers. (I do remember the 4 women having left the store by the time the cops showed up). All the other customers justifiably showed no visible reaction to whatever had happened – considering it (whatever it was) was resolved without any drama whatsoever. He continued to stay at the store well after I left the place.

So yes, a black man was at a Starbucks in Charleston, WV and the cops were called on him. But that is the kind of sentence you would write if all you wanted to do was manufacture outrage. (Well the title of this post got you reading so far didn’t it?!?) If anything, I would say this is a perfect example of how things SHOULD be managed. Let me explain:

First of all, I believe that Starbucks has a policy of letting people stay however long they want to as long as they have purchased a drink. I know this because I have stayed there for hours on end multiple times. In this regard, the black man was not asked to leave at any point of time as he was well within his rights to be there for as long as the store was opened (based on the drink I saw at his table).

Second, I do believe that any customer who is causing any kind of discomfort to other customer(s) should be informed that they cannot do so. And if they continue to do so, then they should be considered eligible for removal from the premises. This is a common sense policy that I believe most establishments have. If this includes the calling of cops, it is still justified. But I do believe that the right thing to do would be to first ask the said person to cease their actions, and have him/her removed only if they do not oblige. In this instance, (and I am speculating here), the black man was indeed told – politely and courteously – that he had to cease his ‘hovering around’ of other people. He obliged and nobody questioned him afterwards.

So yes, I will firmly state that the Starbucks employees and the cops performed their duties in a very appropriate manner without any racial prejudice towards the black man. One can always argue whether the baristas would have called the cops if it was a white guy in a suit who was doing all the ‘pacing and hovering’, or if they would have spoken to the man themselves. But that is a purely hypothetical argument that may or may not provide any constructive insights. I also do not know if the 4 women who, in my opinion, perhaps felt affected by the man’s actions, ever complained to the store manager prior to leaving. But regardless of that, from a purely objective perspective, I would personally feel very uncomfortable having any person of any race just hovering around me and invading my space and privacy.

In this day and age of easy outrage, it is very important to document the instances when people do the appropriate thing and show basic courtesy and respect when needed. This is one such instance and due credit should be given to all those were involved in this situation.