The Arrogance of The Elite

Back in 2016, prior to the US elections, I listened to a US radio show where a truck driver had called in to share his confidence that Trump would win based on how many more Trump yard signs he saw across America compared to Clinton. I remember laughing at his ‘insights’ and conclusions – being pretty smug myself on all the probabilistic election forecasting & commentary that I was following on Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com. At that time, I considered myself ‘well-informed’ and took pride in having some knowledge about the many issues being faced by Americans – mostly by reading the newspapers and watching cable news. Suffice to say, I had to re-examine my own standing in short order. 

Four years on, what we have seen is an unprecedented and shocking amount of negative reporting, criticism and hate – a lot of it justified, some not – on Trump the person, on the people in his administration, and maybe some on their policies. But, during the same time, what we have seen very little of commentary or reporting on, are the perspectives of everyday people from different backgrounds – emphasis on ‘different backgrounds’. 

The media’s dedication has always been to Trump (positive or negative) – never the people who voted him in. The only times they do cover the people who voted Trump in are while associating him with far-right extremists – usually of the white supremacists kind. 

Actually, we have to go one step further, so let’s try this again. 

The media’s dedication is to Trump – never the people who voted (or not). Period. 

The people who control the news and make editorial decisions are increasingly far removed from the everyday, regular people in the country – especially those they do not personally see or interact with regularly. These media elites are typically based in big cities, have an office in the downtown area, and work/hang out with other media elites. They discuss the issues in the country with other media elites and develop an opinion about it  – without ever actually having personally interacted with the people impacted. They decide that their own perspectives are the ones that the people of the country need to hear and proceed to publish or broadcast those news stories or opinion pieces. Other media elites read it and the cycle continues.

And somehow, amidst all this, no one seems to ask if the opinions of these elites are actually representative of the people on the ground. The answer to that is ‘very rarely’. But never underestimate the everyday person, because they DO see their problems not reflected – or worse, actively dismissed – in what the media elites have to say. And these people do vote – especially to a candidate who is giving voice to their problems, however rhetorical it may seem.

This ever-increasing gulf between what regular, everyday people ask for, and what is actually covered in the media is one of the reasons why Trump got elected in the first place. The media did do a brief introspection on that aspect – but never really acted on them. On the contrary, they doubled down and went on a rampage against one man – while completely ignoring the realities and issues of the people on the ground.

And that is why the media’s obsession with Trump is toxic. It is because what matters is not just what they choose to focus on – but also who they ignore, and who they (incorrectly) claim to speak for. The former is what we all SEE, the latter are only seen when their ABSENCE is highlighted. 

There are a thousand different reasons why Trump doesn’t deserve to be President, and almost none of them have to do with the media’s hit jobs on him. Joe Biden may well make an infinitely better President than Trump. But then, the elites in the media would still only be talking about Trump and Biden – and no one would be discussing the issues of the everyday American.

The arrogance of the elite and their categorical conviction of knowing what is right for the masses may well be what dooms America to 4 more years of someone clearly unfit to hold the office of the President of the US. This makes me almost – almost – WANT to see Trump being re-elected, just so I can witness the media elites implode and self-destruct once and for all. 

The Idiocy of the “Proportional Restrictions” Approach to Fighting the Pandemic

In the previous post,I described briefly the 4 different stages of increased restrictions that Governments appear to be taking to contain the COVID virus in their countries. But what this approach amounts to is what I call as the “Proportional Restrictions Approach” – and that is what most Governments are taking up. In this approach, the restrictions imposed on the country’s population evolves directly proportional to the extent of the spread of the virus – number of infected cases and deaths.

So essentially, it is Virus Spreads first,  Restrictions come in later. With the exceptions of countries like Italy, where the outbreak happened very quickly before any meaningful measures could even be implemented, most countries are taking a ‘step by step’ approach wherein the restrictions are a direct and proportional REACTION to the increasing infected cases. So it means the Governments start by advising and suggesting people to stay indoors, then move on to declaring symbolic emergencies with no real action items, followed by restricting movement to only ‘essential’ services, but then inevitably ending with a complete lockdown of the entire country.

Simple fact is that every country all over the world which is taking this ‘proportional restrictions’ approach will inevitably reach the complete lockdown phase of restrictions in 2-4 weeks. Why? Because it is simply not possible to make humans stay home.

We humans are simply not wired to take things that we can’t see seriously. If we see a pack of rabid street dogs (or a horde of zombies) roaming the streets, we stay home. But we are completely OK heading out as long as we don’t actually see the virus or its direct impacts (a.k.a lots of sick and dead people).

So no amount of ‘suggesting’, ‘advice doling’, ‘pleading’, ‘educating’ will make mankind simply change some of the most fundamentally hardwired habits and activities within us, and make us stay at home. All over the world, there are instances where people willfully go outside for reasons that are not essential. And they will continue to do so until the Government tells them (and even demonstrates by example) that it is illegal to do so.

Which is why this ‘step by step’ or ‘proportional restrictions’ approach actually MAKES SURE that every one of those countries WILL reach a stage where the virus is completely out of control, at which point the ONLY option available is to put the country in a complete lockdown and FORCE the population to stay home. So my basic question is this:

If a country is going to a complete lockdown anyway, then why won’t they just enforce it upfront – when the number of cases are low and manageable, and when the healthcare systems actually have the resources to take care of these people?

Or put in other words, there are two options: Impose complete lockdown when you only have a small number of cases and contain the spread completely. Or impose a complete lockdown only AFTER the virus has spread sufficiently that it is no longer possible to control it with lesser measures.

As an example, here is a timeline of how New York City responded (or has still yet to respond) to the pandemic sweeping it now. Fair warning: it is a scary collection of statements and (lack of) actions from every side over the past one month. But it perfectly illustrates how the restrictions in place evolved in direct REACTION to the spread of the virus. As it stands today (March 28), the city’s parks and playgrounds are still open to the general public with the City only ‘advising’ and ‘suggesting’ that social distance be maintained. Who wants to place a bet that they will close in the coming days? Does anyone expect this to NOT be inevitable? The only difference between shutting down parks and playgrounds in early March vs early April is over 30,000 sick people and over 500 dead (with more heading that way).

So if anything, the Governments have a MORAL responsibility to shut down the country and place them in complete lockdown for 2-3 weeks with no travel into, out of or within the country. But who actually has the balls to do that? 

The Redundant Stages of Government Restrictions Before Complete Lock Down

Every country has imposed some or the other measures of restriction to contain the spread of COVID-19. Allow me to document these largely redundant stages of restrictions, that come before the inevitable lock down.

Stage 1: The ‘Recommendation and Advisory’ Stage

Here the Governments ‘generally suggest’ and ‘advise’ the population to avoid crowded areas and to stay at home as much as possible. Most travel is still taking place – both international and domestic and local public transport. Out in the city, it is generally business as usual except maybe lesser overall traffic and people. During this stage, the virus infects an additional few hundred or so.

Stage 2: The ‘Declaration of Emergency’ Stage

Here, the Governments declare emergencies! Woo-hoo! It may make headlines, but really this only means that the Govt gets some additional powers to do some procedural shit – like bypass bureaucracy, implement measures faster, etc. Keep in mind, it doesn’t necessarily mean new restrictions on people’s movements – though it could contain some more ‘suggestions’, etc. It just gives the impression that some people are doing some shit. (Reminds me of that line “Jesus is Coming…look Busy!”)

jesusiscomminglookbusy

Here, people still go to work everyday, a bunch of companies will ask their employees to work from home, traffic becomes lighter, maybe crowded areas get closed (think malls, movie theaters, concerts, etc.). But no real enforcement or clear direction on who should or should not be out. Schools may still be functioning (think UK). Some international travel is restricted, but domestically all is normal. Then the virus spreads even more – maybe a couple of thousand cases or so.

Stage 3: The ‘Non-Essential Restriction’ Stage

You know your country is in this stage if the word ‘non-essential’ is thrown around by your Government a lot. Usually it goes something like this: “…blah..blah…blah..blah…..non-essential…blah..blah is not allowed … blah … blah….” But then it is absolutely essential for a bunch of high school kids to go throw hoops in the park’s basketball court. And right next to them, of course you see a bunch of small kids (with their parents around) playing on the swing – because that is so god damn essential! Maybe there are few more restrictions on international travel. Maybe you will see a news story of, at most, ONE person getting fined or jailed because they are skipping quarantine, leading people to believe that their Govt must be ON IT like a pro! Then the virus spreads to greater than 10,000 people.

Stage 4: The “Shit Just Got Real” Stage

Complete lock down! Nobody allowed to go out for anything except emergencies. All travel – domestic, international, and local – is suspended. Widespread deployment of the police and military to enforce this lock down. This is the point the governments realized that ‘generally suggesting’, ‘declaring emergencies’, and ‘blah..blah…non-essential…blah blah’ won’t make people get off the streets. And usually by then, the virus has spread so much that they FINALLY realize that the shit just got real – and very likely out of control!

***************

In the next post, I will talk about what I call the “Proportional Restrictions Approach” and why it should be made illegal.

The Perils of a Trump Impeachment

Everybody seems to be talking about it, all the media outlets are covering it, social media has it trending 24/7, and everyone has their own opinion on the legitimacy of all of it. And I honestly have no interest or stake in what happens to the man at the top of it all – President Trump. But what I do have an interest in is in the maintenance of civility and unity in any society – especially one that is already as divided as the United States.

Most Presidential elections in the US are truly just an exercise in the demonstration of the division within that country. It is Us vs Them, Left vs Right, Democrat vs Republican, Liberal vs Conservative – name your labels. But nobody seems to point it out for what the division really stands for today – Americans vs fellow Americans. Now how about that label, eh?

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I am not an expert historian to tell you when exactly this division started to take its present shape. Was America truly ready for a Black President in 2008? How did Obamacare’s passing impact the legislative process? What about MitcConnell’s obstruction of Obama’s judiciary appointees? How much did Obama’s executive orders piss off Republicans? How angry did the ‘Liberals’ in America get when Mitch McConnell refused to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court – only to later confirm Gorsuch and Kavanaugh? How confused were people when Donald Trump became the President? What about that Republican bill giving tax breaks that was passed behind closed doors? What did the relentless criticism of Trump tell those who voted for him?

And how do you think society reacts when every one of the above events were amplified by a biased and loud mainstream media – print and cable – along with a significant dose of extreme opinions accompanying it from all the different parts of the internet?

I am not even going to repeat the talking points that are propagated in the media for and against this process. To me, they are rhetorical at best, and political at worst. Nowhere do I see the actual interest of the people being represented in any capacity. But I will quote a statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from back in March this year (emphasis mine):

Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.

The media, of course, just focused on the last line of “he’s just not worth it” because it was a great soundbite – nothing else. That statement about how an impeachment process can divide the country unless it is based on something compelling and has bipartisan support is the absolute truth. Which is why it is rather unfortunate that Pelosi herself is the one championing the impeachment process now.

For the sake of discussion, let us say the President has just been impeached along party lines in the House. What do you think will happen? You think the nation will rejoice? Is this some sort of a victory? If so, can you tell me who won? What constructive things do you see happening after this? Oh you don’t say it will help elect a Democrat President in 2020? Because clearly that is NOT what this impeachment is about right? Oh I hear you say he just deserved to get impeached? Well, in the immortal words of Snoop Pearson from The Wire, I think what you really meant was:

Deserve got nothing to do with it. It’s his time, that’s all.

I will tell you what WILL happen. CNN, MSNBC, ABC, WaPo, NYT, and the likes will rejoice – openly, and with an in-your-face attitude. Half the nation will rejoice too. Operative word being ‘half’ – because the other half will be pissed off. All Dem politicians will claim victory and try to sell that to their base – you know the half that rejoiced. Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge Report, WSJ, and the likes will continue questioning the legitimacy of the process. All the Republicans will cry unfair, play victim and sell that fear of ‘Dem takeover’ to THEIR base – you know the other half that did not rejoice. There will be some superficial pressure created on Mitch McConnell and he will hold a hearing and eventually Trump will not be convicted. The media will get all the coverage and pageviews and get rich with all the divisive and biased rhetoric.

And the poor American people will come out of it more divided and entrenched than ever before. There will be even lesser room for civil debates and discussions. It will be harder to change people’s minds on any damn thing. The ideas of subtlety and nuance will cease to exist in any conversation even remotely political. Friends are chosen based on their political leanings. Extreme positions will become even more common. More politicians will begin to endorse extreme positions. As the Left goes more woke, the Right will double down on rejecting any change at all. Supreme court justices will be confirmed depending only on which party holds the Senate. No significant legislation will ever get passed in the House and Senate. And yes, impeachment of a sitting President will become more common. Everyone will have an opinion, but the American people will ultimately bear the brunt of it all.

Fact is divisive events have a cumulative effect on society over time. And division breeds further division, thereby cementing a dangerous spiraling loop. In the USA, I strongly believe that these events have led the society close to the point of no return. There is a tipping point approaching and this impeachment will make the American people see what lies beyond. Just remember, there is no way back from that.

What I would like to see is a new leader emerge who works not to ‘energize their own base’, but instead seeks to unite the country – and wins the next elections. There are very few in the Democratic primary field who can be fit into that category. I will not take names but just know this – the more to the left the Dems go, the more to the right the Republicans go. So by that metric, figure out for yourself who is likely to unite and who is likely to further divide. But really all that is a redundant exercise because Trump is going to win in 2020 regardless – the impeachment would make sure of that.

So, yeah, have fun.

In Memory of Blackie: The Creatively Named Black Color Dog

About a month ago, Blackie passed away at the age of 15 and a half years. Even though he was officially a ‘street’ dog, he was the closest I have had to what I can call my own pet. He was born in my home in February 2004 and was one of the two pups that survived in the first litter – the other one being Brownie (take a guess why he was named that way). Not sure whatever happened to Brownie – it just disappeared one day – but Blackie stayed put and lived its entire life in the annals of Shankarappa Layout in Rajarajeshwarinagar, Bangalore – with an occassional trip outside of those boundaries.

My parents and I fed Blackie, Brownie, and their mother Trixie almost every single night early on. Even after Trixie and Brownie disappeared, Blackie continued to eat at my place – except, of course, when the neighbors would give Blackie some meat dish! God knows how many hundreds of packs of Tiger Biscuit (among other things) we have fed Blackie over the years – right until its passing. In fact, we no longer called it Tiger biscuit – it just became Blackie Biscuit, and the box became Blackie Dabba (box).

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Blackie, in 2008

There was nothing remotely special about Blackie that you typically don’t find in other loyal street dogs. It had its boundaries, left its mark when and where necessary, had its skirmishes with the other dogs in the hood, knew everyone in the layout, ate what was given to it, followed all the neighborhood people wherever they went (within its boundaries of course), was mostly healthy and clean, got neutered by the municipality, and pretty much lived out its days without much to worry about. But, over time, I realized that Blackie taught me a lot about the world and the people in it.

If you think about it, the typical life expectancy of a dog is a very useful measure to gauge all the changes that take place in our lives. 15 years seems to be just the right amount of time to take stock of where I was when Blackie was born, and where I am now after it had passed. After Blackie was born, I got into Undergrad, graduated, worked for a bit in India, moved to the US, finished my Masters, started working, met my wife (the wife met Blackie), got married, and moved to Canada – meeting many many people along the way. And through all this time, Blackie had been a constant to see me go through all of that – all the highs and, especially, all the lows.

But it was not just what happened in my own life in these 15 years that deserves evaluation. You can even track all the changes society has gone through in the past 15 years and Blackie was still a constant through all of that – and blissfully oblivious to it all. Well, most of it. But there was one change that did affect Blackie and it is something that has made a very large impression in my own mind as well.

In its early years, one of the most endearing sights I remember was seeing Blackie play with all the neighborhood kids after they came back from school. The kids aged anywhere from 6-10 years old and they all got together every evening on the road to play whatever it was that kids played. And I remember Blackie would be hanging out with the kids. The affection was always reciprocal. All the kids would make Blackie part of their activity – simple things like ‘Who touches Blackie’s tail first?’, or trying to use Blackie as some kind of a prop in their games, or trying to make Blackie do something. Whatever it was, Blackie was just happy to be part of all the fun and excitement. There was an unmistakable tint of innocence to that sight, and I believe that is what makes it both endearing and enduring in my mind. But then, like everything else, it didn’t last forever. All the kids grew up and stopped playing outside. They all still petted Blackie when they saw it but that age of innocence had passed and the road would remain empty of that fun.  And now I wonder when exactly Blackie realized that there would be no more games where its tail would be a target or where he could serve as a prop to all the fun around him….

15 years is a long enough time to expect to see a lot of changes in our lives. It is also the general life expectancy of a dog. Blackie has seen me and others in the neighborhood grow older by 15 years and all the changes that come with it. It may have lived an extremely ordinary life, but it has given me some extra-ordinary memories and life lessons. So while it is now undoubtedly in dog heaven, I have to live with the fact that there will no longer be a friendly presence in front my home that would be happy just to see me; and that Blackie’s dabba will now forever remain empty.

The Generation of Sacrifice

About a year ago, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the findings of their study on the issues of social mobility. One of their central findings for India showed that it takes about 7 generations for a low income family to move to a median income family. Over the past few days, this got me thinking about my own state and how my family came to be the way we are now.

1-520generations

I initially thought any upwards social mobility would be a linear progression. But in my family’s case, there was an exponential jump in my parent’s generation. The question, of course, was why and how? What would explain that sudden jump in a given generation?

Let me propose my hypothesis which I know for a fact rings true in my own case. My hypothesis is that most generations of a given low income family typically lead their lives without much forethought on the future living conditions of their children or grandchildren (thus leading to at most linear progression). Most of them lived hand to mouth and their only forethought probably went as far as planning for groceries for the following week. So this observation is in no way an indictment on their choices. But then, there comes one generation where the family members – typically the husband and the wife – break the cycle. They don’t break the cycle of poverty by working hard and moving up the ladder themselves. Instead, they break the cycle by doing that one thing that perhaps the previous generations did not: Work hard, but completely sacrifice every aspect of their own lives for the future lives of their children and grandchildren.

And that is what my grandparents did. My maternal grandparents practically dedicated their entire adult lives to ensure that their children were equipped with everything to become successful when they became adults. My grandfather also practically raised all his younger siblings in the same manner after his father passed away very early on. But perhaps the biggest credit to be given to my grandparents lies in the way they brought up their 3 daughters. Everything from emphasizing education, helping them get jobs, and getting them married to the right families – my grandfather made all the right choices to ensure his daughters would later on lead a good life.

Simply put, he had a very clear guiding principle: Do nothing for himself, but do everything it takes to ensure his future generations lived comfortably.

In all their lives, I do not remember my grandparents doing anything for themselves. I remember that after the longest time, my grandfather finally bought an Onida color TV to much fanfare in the then joint family (sometime in the mid 90’s). Then came the telephone. They didn’t even have a refrigerator or a washing machine till after they retired – something that was practically forced on them by my mom and her sisters. Even now I am unable to think of a single comfort – let alone luxury – that they ever procured for themselves. Even trips to Tirupathi, Dharmasthala and Nanjangudu were more of entire family affairs rather than personal pilgrimages. (I wonder what he prayed for there…)

As a grandchild, I can easily attest to his complete generosity towards us. So many things – from my longest serving cricket bat, to random sci-fi books I decided I wanted to read, to not even blinking an eye before agreeing to guarantee my funds for doing my Masters in the USA – were a direct result of his desire to see his grand kids do well. My cousins would easily attest to that as well. Come to think of it, even the late family dog got whatever it needed!

Perhaps, from my grandfather’s perspective, we were all his achievements. Even though he may never have expressed it out loud, I know he felt proud of us all. In the end, we – my mom and her siblings, my cousins, my grandfather’s younger siblings and their children – are all certainly the beneficiaries of the sacrifice that my grandparents did. The absolute least we can do is to first recognize and acknowledge that fact. God knows my grandfather had his own long list of quirks and unpredictable tempers. So while we may have seen how his quirks and tempers manifested, we will never know all the problems he solved and the sacrifices he made behind the scenes.

He passed away last week after a long, long battle with, well, old age. His passing was expected so I know he is at peace now with my grandmother. As time goes on, we will all accept his passing and move on in our lives. But every time we celebrate our own achievements, we will never forget that a big part of that celebration will always be attributed to my grandparents and their generation of sacrifice.

Life Lessons from AFC Ajax: Living With Societal Expectations

Read Part 1 here.

The more I thought about how Ajax expressed themselves on the pitch without fear, the more I got drawn into society’s own predicament at large. We, as a society, have always lived at the bottom of the ocean of expectations. It is an ocean of our own making, and our objective in our lives are all about just finding ways to get that Oxygen from above the ocean – but without actually rising above the water. Many have indeed tried to rise above the water. Some of them were crushed by the force of the ocean, and some were simply dragged down by their fellow humans just because the bottom dwellers could not stand being confronted with the possibility of a life beyond their complacency.

Expectations are what we are born into, grow up being fed, learn to live with, and ensure to pass it along to the next generation. This is a cycle that is as old as civilization itself. It is true of almost every person I have ever met or known in my life, and it is certainly true of my own life. I am 33 years old and vaguely remember that time when I thought I could do whatever the fuck I wanted to do. That attitude did not stem from rebellion, but from a healthy ignorance of societal expectations. I lived without fear of what I would become in the future because one, I simply didn’t care; and two, I thought I could be anyone I wanted to be! But that was an extremely short lived time though. The burden of being a ‘smart student’ in my childhood was that I HAD TO top my class, score more than 90% every time, and avoid all other forms of activities in order to achieve those objectives.

Eventually, after many years, I came to realize that those were not in fact my own objectives, but societal expectations that had trickled down through society’s different layers and eventually appeared as parental and peer pressures. But like everyone else, I just went along with it and made those my own ‘goals’ and ‘ambitions’. Over time, those ‘goals’ and ‘ambitions’ may have taken on different forms, but still continued to be manifestations of societal expectations at large. And so, ultimately, I became one among those bottom dwellers living under the ocean of expectations set by a society we did not get to choose.

It may appear that these goals or objectives are our own and come of our own free will and volition. But mostly it is just a manifestation of what society has defined as the broad expectations from all of us – depending on where we are born into (think race, economic status, caste, skin color, gender, etc). Even if we somehow live with the complete ignorance that these all are our own goals and objectives, the problem is that we still live with the associated expectations. And because, fundamentally, they are not our own, we will always pursue these ‘goals’ while living with the fear of having something to lose if we don’t achieve them.

And there you have it: FEAR. It is at the back of our minds to varying degrees depending on our circumstances. We do not live in a society where we are told “Do what you want”. We are in a society where we are at best told “Do what you want as long as it is within the general framework of what the society expects from someone in your position”. At worst, it is “This is what you are expected to do and this is what you are supposed to dream of.” I am now seeing the next generation being beaten down to submission by the same societal expectations that got me more than a decade ago. I also see the even younger ones – the truly free spirited ones – who are on the cusp of getting sucked into the ocean. Somehow, in all this, I feel that the age of that healthy ignorance seems to be getting lower and lower with each passing generation.

I am reminded of ‘The Logical Song’ by Supertramp:

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, oh responsible, practical

And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical
…..
I said, watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical
Liberal, oh fanatical, criminal
Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re Acceptable
Respectable, oh presentable, a vegetable!

As the song says, I do believe that in the end, we become a vegetable. Maybe an acceptable, respectable and presentable vegetable – but a vegetable nonetheless. At the age of 33, I have been through enough institutions to have had my own interpretation of ‘freedom’ become narrower and narrower. So much so, that even if I were to simply decide that I would break free of these shackles and quit my job and do my own thing, I wouldn’t know what the fuck it is that I even WANT to do! Never mind the question of whether I have the resources or knowledge to accomplish it, I am unable to even figure out what it is that I truly want in the first place.

In fact why think that far ahead? Let us just look at this blog right here. What I write, how I write and when I write on this blog all inevitably are (at least in part) decided by what would be ‘acceptable’ or ‘popular’ by those who read it. Why don’t I just simply write whatever it is that I want to and not care about if it is ‘correct’, or who reads it or how people feel about it? Why am I currently thinking that people nowadays have the attention span of a goldfish, so this post would be read by more if it was split into two? Why do I even care about who reads my post? Why do I seek any form of validation at all?

The unfortunate answer to all these is that, like most others, I have been sufficiently institutionalized to seek society’s approval in whatever it is I do. And it is simply not easy to break away from that mindset. This is what living in fear of not meeting the expectations laid out by someone else can do to our lives.

I am reminded of a quote in a Daft Punk song “Giorgio by Moroder” where Giovanni Giorgio has this to say about making music:

Once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So nobody told me what to do, and there was no preconception of what to do.

Now imagine a world without societal expectations, where children are brought up to be what they want to be, where people truly pursue their passions, where people are not taught what to think, do or say, and where it doesn’t necessarily take the innocence of a 5 year old kid to come up with a question like “What Would Happen If There Were No Number 6?” (No seriously, why couldn’t I think of that question?). There would be no fear of not meeting expectations, no fear of missing out on something, and we could pursue our own goals just because we want to have fun.

Ajax may have knocked out my favorite team from the Champions League. But in doing so, it has also given me a life lesson on what it means to live without fear or expectations – societal or our own  – and what it means to pursue something just because we want to express ourselves and have fun.

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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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.

5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 1 of 3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. Find my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) here

Easily the one thing that both my wife and I were looking forward to the most during our stay in Manhattan earlier this year was all the food that New York City had to offer. After spending 5 months eating all that we possibly could, I realized that there was so much to write about the food in New York – apart from the food itself! And so this post is not going to be about what dish was best at which place, but more about the whole food industry in general, along with some rather interesting experiences that we encountered on the way.

First up, before anything, I would like to clarify that both my wife and I are vegetarians. So, yes, we were unable to eat probably more than 90% of the food on offer in the city. If you are a meat eater, then you would have a (admittedly valid) case to say that we never actually got to sample the best food there. I won’t argue that. But I will say that my general observations of the food industry and systems in place will still stand. And if anything, my extra attempts to find vegetarian food led me to discover places and things I otherwise would never have found.

Midtown East Restaurants
Restaurants in Midtown East in Manhattan

I will start with the general accessibility and distribution of restaurants and food in general. I lived in the Midtown East (E 50th and 1st Ave) neighborhood in Manhattan, right by the United Nations building. There were quite a few restaurants within a one block radius – including Thai, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and American. And if you traveled about 2-3 blocks, you would find pretty much every cuisine. The nearest ‘proper’ Indian restaurant (that I liked visiting) was Adiyar Bhavan on 1st Ave and E 60th St – which was still a reasonable walking distance (or one short bus ride) from where I lived. (There were others within 2-3 blocks but I didn’t like them). And, from my general exploration of all of Manhattan, this was pretty much the case everywhere. That is to say, you could find a restaurant from any cuisine within about 3-4 blocks of where you lived. Just let that sink in. Pretty much any cuisine you want within 3-4 blocks of where you live – yes this is what you get in Manhattan! Of course there are small geographical pockets of specific cuisines that you will see all over – from Little Italy to China Town to Lexington Ave/24th St where a lot of the Indian restaurants are.

As far as Queens goes, I generally found that the food establishments were focused in some specific areas with a slight suburban feel in the rest of the area. So if you wanted something specific, you would still get it, but you would have to travel to that specific place. And Queens being the large geographical size that it is, it could take you a while to travel to, say, Flushing to eat some Asian food, or to Jackson Heights to get the best Indian food.

Brooklyn was about the same, except I cannot say I got to explore it as much as I would have liked to. And I never visited much in The Bronx and Staten Island.

So far I have written about the ‘distribution’ of the restaurants. But one thing I quickly learnt was that distribution meant nothing. What was more important was the accessibility to the food, regardless of where the restaurant was. That is to say that if you wanted food from a certain restaurant, which was more than just a 3-4 block walking distance, you should still be able to get it without making the journey there. Yes, I am talking here about the food delivery industry here.

The food delivery ecosystem in Manhattan fascinated me to no end during my stay there. It was the first time I saw people delivering food on bicycles – which, if you think about, really is the only obvious choice in a city like NYC. It probably employs hundreds of part time (and maybe some full time) food delivery bikers to bridge the gap in access between the customer and the restaurant. Services such as Grubhub, Yelp, Uber Eats, etc further help customers gain access to these restaurants through a one-stop app/website. It is not that there are no food delivery places where I live in Des Moines, IA (though it is largely restricted to Pizza, Chinese and Thai restaurants). But it was in NYC that I first saw how this whole ecosystem of food delivery worked like a well oiled machine round the clock – 24 hours a day!

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Barring any inclement weather, these bikers work all the time – rain, heat, snow, etc. Typically, there is about a 30 minute to 1 hour wait from the time you order to the food being delivered, which is really reasonable if you think about it. The delivery ‘radius’ is usually about 1 to 2 miles – which considering the density of the restaurants, is mostly not going to matter much. Most of the restaurants did not charge any delivery fee (but did specify a minimum order) and no “separate” tip was expected from the biker. Most of these bikers that I personally met were immigrants who did not speak much English, just knocked on your door and delivered the food before heading to their next destination. Many were also students at NYU or CUNY. (Read this piece for a full picture of the delivery folk in Manhattan).

Which brings me to probably the most comical conversation I had in NYC.

I had developed a sort of a routine where, after finishing my field work at around 3 pm, I would order my lunch for delivery from an Indian restaurant on my Yelp app – just as I left my work site (at Ave C and E 14th St). It typically took me about 20 to 30 minutes to reach my apartment. The food would generally arrive a few minutes after I arrived, so I would already be there to take the delivery.

But inevitably, there would be times when my bus would get delayed and the delivery guy (DG) would reach my apartment before I did. When the Concierge told him that I was out, the delivery guy would call me on my cell. The first time this happened, the following was how the conversation panned out. Remember, this guy doesn’t know much English.

Me: Hello

DG: Delivery!!

Me: Oh hi! Sorry I am not at my apartment yet. Are you already there?

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: OK looks like you are at my apartment building. Please leave it at the Concierge and I will pick it up later.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, please leave it at the lobby or front desk. I will pick it up.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, leave it at the lobby!

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby???

Me: Yes. Lobby! Lobby!

DG: OK!

(Hangs up).

When I reached my apartment, the Concierge promptly handed me the delivery package!

I am not exaggerating or changing anything here. That is exactly how the first conversation panned out. You have to also realize that I was in the bus surrounded by a whole bunch of people in close proximity while I was yelling “Lobby! Lobby!” into my phone, not sure if the guy at the other end could hear and/or understand what I was saying! Since I ordered from the same restaurant around the same time on most days, I always bumped into the same guy either in person or on the phone regularly. So on all future occasions, when I got a call from this guy while I was still in the bus, the conversation went like this:

Me: Hello?

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby?

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

It was a beautiful thing! An immigrant guy who spoke no English was able to make a satisfactorily work in NYC by talking in English to a customer in a conversation that had successfully condensed itself into two words: “Delivery!” and “Lobby!”. It made me smile every single time! It was these small experiences that gave me brief, but insightful glimpses into the subtle beauty that lies hidden within New York City!

I do have more to share on the topic of food – including the ‘vegetarian/vegan’ options in NYC, thoughts on all the Indian food I could find, and of course more interesting interactions. All this in the next post. Stay tuned!