The Pandemic Paradox: How MORE Time Became LESS Time

When I made my New Year Resolutions for 2020, I obviously did not incorporate the impacts of the upcoming pandemic into them. My resolutions weren’t  even that fancy to begin with. It had all the usual suspects in them – eat healthy, work out more, write more, read more, travel more, etc. Those were all things I had attempted and succeeded (and failed) to various degrees on many many previous occasions.  But the fact is I was about 1-2 months into working towards my ‘resolutions’ – in a manner of speaking – by the time 2020 rolled around.  I was already quite set in my workout routines and was completing a book every 2-3 weeks. My diet was the easy part that didn’t even need a resolution as such. But I figured it was the beginning of a new year, and I decided to formalize these goals or processes into resolutions anyway. 

The first 2 months went great. I kept up with my workout routine, had lost more than 15 lbs, and had developed good strength in my muscles. I had completed 4-5 books and had even written reviews on them. My Reading List on GoodReads was growing and I was pretty confident of completing most of them that year. All in all, I was feeling great. 

Then the pandemic hit, Toronto went into its first lockdown, and both the wife and I began to work from home. The immediate consequence of this was that our new routine – one without the commute – gave us an additional 2-3 hours overall everyday for ourselves. I was obviously overjoyed when I considered what those 2 extra hours could do towards my goals each day. I presumed it would give me the flexibility to move around my activities and still have all the time available to do what I needed to. Plus, if I couldn’t do something on time, I always had some extra time available later in the day to squeeze it in. To make use of this time, I even purchased some home weight equipment as the gyms were all closed. All in all, I was excited about what this new lifestyle was able to offer to help me achieve my 2020 resolutions. 

But what actually happened was the complete opposite. My workout routine practically evaporated within a few weeks. I probably read a grand total of 1-2 new books for the rest of the year. And I think I maybe wrote about 4-6 posts in here at most. I was obviously very disappointed with what I initially perceived to be a lack of discipline on my part. To an extent, that initial perception was indeed correct. But over the past several months, I have also understood something about the nature of time, my own perception of it, and how this impacted how I make use of it.

The paradox at the heart of this was that I was making significantly more use of my time when I had LESSER time available as compared to what I did when I had MORE time available. If I had only 3 hours of time available for myself each day, I made a bigger effort to use that time than those days when I had, say, 5 or more hours free time available. It definitely appeared counter-intuitive. If I have more time, I SHOULD be able to accomplish MORE, not LESS. But there I was – having accomplished A LOT when I had far lesser time on my hands, as compared to achieving practically NOTHING when I actually had MORE time. 

I could attribute this to a combination of procrastination, lack of discipline, and absence of motivation arising out of staying home for extended periods of time. But that would not paint the complete picture. At a more fundamental level, I have realized that just being aware of the availability of more time can lead to a general attitude of “It’s OK. I have more time to complete these tasks or goals.” This ultimately leads to not doing anything in the present with the expectation that there is enough time to do it in the future. But when there is no extra time available, I do not have the ability or option of ‘doing it later’ – inevitably leading me to utilize the available time in a much better way. 

Perhaps it is like Supply-Demand-Price-Value. The lesser I have of anything, the more valuable it is – leading me to put in more effort to utilize it. If the same thing is available in excess, it is not that valuable and I am more prone to simply waste it. The extra time I got during the pandemic, in essence, made the time already available to me seem LESS valuable, leading me to waste ALL my available time – existing and new. So what in theory should have allowed me to achieve more of my goals was actually what made sure I did not achieve ANY of my goals. More available time does not mean an increased ability to do what you really want in life. On the contrary, it leads to the dilution of the value of the time you already had. This will then ultimately make you believe that it is OK to waste that previously available time AND the newly available time. 

And so going forward, the biggest lesson is that I have to be acutely aware of how much time I have available and my own perception of how valuable I consider it. 

And as far as setting any resolutions for 2021, I just made sure I didn’t jinx myself by making fun of others and their own resolutions – like I did in early 2020. 

On Gujarati Food: The Dhokla Family of Dishes

This is the Third post On Gujarati Food. Find the rest of the posts here.

Perhaps the first thing most native Bangaloreans will mention when asked about Gujarati food would be the Dhokla. It was literally the ONLY thing I knew about Gujarati food until I met my wife. Gujarati Food = Dhokla. Period. It was almost like people in Gujarat never made anything else at all and ate Dhoklas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A lot of this, of course, boiled down to my own lack of exposure to the cuisine. But in a way, it also speaks to the popularity of the Dhokla as a tasty, convenient, and easy to make side. 

Dhokla: The only Gujarati dish I knew growing up

The way I see it, the Dhokla belongs to a certain family of dishes that involve the use of soaked/ground lentil, rice, some spices and vegetables. This mixture is then baked, steamed or pan fried in some manner resulting in different dishes with different tastes, consistency and texture. So while the Dhokla is the most popular dish in this family, the Khaman and Handvo are close relatives that are equally common in Gujarat. I can certainly add Karnataka’s own (and one of my personal all time favorites) Nuchinunde to this family of dishes too.

It is hard for the lay person to spot the difference between the Khaman and the Dhokla, but once you are familiar with it, you WILL know the difference. A lot of times, the Khaman masquerades as the Dhokla but never the other way round. For what it’s worth, I like the Khaman more than the Dhokla, but will eat either anytime. Regardless, all the dishes in this family are infinitely made better with a good dose of seasoning (oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves), and the presence of a green chutney.

Ultimately, the Dhokla and Khaman serve as a very good tea time snack/side. I personally do not prefer to eat it as part of a bigger meal in itself. I mean, make no mistake. If you offer it, I WILL eat it. But my preference is to eat it over tea in the afternoons.

Handvo: My personal favorite in this family of dishes

But perhaps my personal favorite of this family of dishes is the Handvo. The Handvo is relatively more stiff when compared to the Dhokla or Khaman as it is most commonly baked (and sometimes pan fried too) instead of just steamed like the latter two. The resulting product is more cake-like and packs a denser flavor punch than the Dhokla or Khaman. So it is also a lot more filling and feels like I am eating something substantial rather than something that is filled half with air. 

There is, however, one more reason why I like the Handvo. During the baking/pan frying, the edges and corners of the Handvo get additionally stiff and crispy giving that extra bite to that piece. The first time Devanshi made Handvo, I promptly went to the kitchen by myself, cut out all the corner pieces and ate them without saying a word (and certainly without sharing any of it). Apparently, these corner pieces of the Handvo are completely appropriate things to initiate fights over. So when the wife found the corner pieces (and literally just that) conspicuously missing, she went livid. I got to hear stories on how she would have fights with her brother over them and how, in the end, her dad would trick them into eating it himself.

These stories were recited not without veiled threats of similar ‘incidents’ taking place in our own home in the future. Suffice to say that I got the message and we have had a healthy program of sharing the corner pieces whenever the Handvo is made. And when we have guests over, the general plan is to eat the corner pieces ourselves beforehand, and cut the rest of the Handvo into squares so nobody suspects the missing corner pieces. 

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.

Moving from USA to Canada – Part 5: A Matter of Dignity & Integrity

This is a series of posts (5 total) where I describe why Devanshi, my wife, and I moved permanently from the USA to Canada after spending close to a decade in the US. You can find all the posts here.

This has been a long series of posts but please bear with me while I offer some final thoughts.

In the history of mankind, human beings have acted on something only after things got sufficiently bad. The inertia is so big that taking proactive measures is just not wired into our brains – or into all our institutions. It is certainly very true in my case and of those in similar situations. Though it might look proactive to some, we made the decision to move to Canada only after we went through sufficient hardships.

It would also be incorrect to simply point the blame at the Trump administration for making people like myself leave. What this administration has done is to simply take an already bad situation just beyond the tipping point. They took that narrow path of survival and made it more and more narrow – to a point where people like myself were forced to re-evaluate our lives and make the decision to leave out of our own choice.  And make no mistake, there are thousands of people like us in the US who are in the process of moving to Canada – unable to bear the burden of the long green card wait time. Every Indian I speak to who is in the same position I was, has either stated their intent to migrate to Canada or is already in the process of doing so. Some of our friends even made the move with us. Immigration status seems to be the default topic of discussion in any conversation between Indians living in the US.

Everyone is concerned for various reasons and yet there are many, many people who are seemingly content with where they are. There are even more who are not even in the US yet, but are looking forward to making a life there in the future without any knowledge of how things work there. With no sarcasm, I wish them all the very best and hope they find what they want.

As for Devanshi and I, we have landed on our feet after our move. After an initial struggle to find a job, she is now working and we are both finally living the lifestyle and routine we have been wanting to since our wedding. As much as that is satisfying, it would be incorrect to reduce our entire new lives in Canada to finding jobs and living together.

Fact is, this is the first time in almost a decade that we are not living on a temporary visa in a foreign country. In fact, it took several months for that to sink in. And truth be told, there is a certain sense of dignity and integrity that comes with being a permanent resident (and especially in not being classified as an ‘Alien’). This is something that can be truly appreciated only by those who have lived an extended period on a temporary visa in a foreign country. People who move to a new country and get their PR status within a short period of time (or beforehand) can easily take the associated privileges for granted – seeming like it was always meant to be. But it is only people like us – who have been made to struggle to find a sense of belonging, a place that lets us be who we want to be, and a place we can proudly call our new home – that can fully acknowledge and appreciate this paradigm shift in our circumstances.

Yes we could have tried to make it in the USA in some capacity if we really wanted to and if we had tried real hard. But ultimately, that just boiled down to us surviving. And we wanted to do a lot more than just surviving – we wanted to LIVE, and we wanted to live with dignity and to our fullest abilities with no shackles and no fear. And that is why we are very happy with our move to Canada and starting a new chapter in our lives.

Moving from USA to Canada – Part 4: The Power of Complacency

This is a series of posts (5 total) where I describe why Devanshi, my wife, and I moved permanently from the USA to Canada after spending close to a decade in the US. You can find all the posts here.

In the previous post, we discussed the issues of living with fear and a lack of freedom in the US. Here, let us see what it is that keeps us here.

So, to repeat the question: If things are so bad living in a Green card backlog, how come there are still so many people willing to live under these circumstances?

The answer to that lies in the fact that, in spite of all the issues I have highlighted, there still remains a path to be in the US legally, work, grow professionally, and lead a good lifestyle WHILE waiting decades for your green card. Make no mistake, the path is definitely a narrow one, is getting more narrow every passing week, and it can terminate at any point – but it exists nonetheless. And therein lies the true answer to why so many of us still continue to live here in spite of all these constraints. In one word, the answer is COMPLACENCY.

We Indians are a truly complacent bunch. If things are going fine now, we are more than happy to simply bury our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is going to be just fine and dandy in the future as well. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we look the other way and sometimes truly believe that nothing is going to happen to us.

It might happen to others because others may have broken the rules somehow, but it would never happen to us because we have done everything by the book.

Not only are we complacent, we are also timid and naïve. Most of us live our lives truly believing ‘someone else’ is going to ‘do something about it’. It is actually mind-blowing to see most Indians blindly seek and follow the advice of the very people who have all the incentives to exploit them for their own selfish benefit (think lawyers, employers). Couple this naivete with the complacency, and you have a deadly recipe for exploiting an obliging workforce.

(I am happy to admit that, in the past several weeks, there is a noticeable uptick in the Indian involvement in demanding change and justice against this discrimination. But it is still a very small fraction of the total populace.)

Fact is I was no different until 2-3 years ago when I finally came out of the bubble after the 2016 election. The anti-immigrant rhetoric finally made me pause and ask myself some hard questions about where I was, what I wanted, what I could get and what I could lose in the future. By that time, I was also married and had to think of the wife’s freedoms as well. I came out of my complacency, but I was still in the same situation.

(That was when I joined Immigration Voice, a grassroots advocacy group, and started making my voice heard with the lawmakers. I learnt a lot about how the system works, how to bring about change, and the root cause of all the issues. Over the course of the next 2 years, I did my fair share of advocacy to get this issue fixed. To this day, that has been the best learning experience I have ever had. But that deserves a separate post in itself)

It started with my own concerns on if I would face any issues with my visa renewals. The administration was issuing new rules to process visa applications introducing new constraints on the renewals. I began to hear many cases of visa extensions being rejected for what were previously sure shot cases. I asked myself what I wanted to do 5-10 years down the line. Would I be happy with the roles I would be permitted in my career within the constraints of my green card petition? Or did I want something more? Do I want to live in one single place for the rest of my life or did I want to live in other cities in the future? How much was I willing to risk my career on the unpredictability of my visa extensions every 2-3 years? The answers were obvious.

I wanted more freedom and a life of far lesser fear and uncertainty – not the one I was going to be given if I stayed in the US. When it came to my wife, it was fairly direct. The administration stated explicitly that they intended to revoke the Spouse work permit in the coming year or two. We went from a wait and watch approach initially, to getting frustrated on just waiting for something – anything – to happen, to living with extreme amounts of uncertainty, and to finally realize that we actually didn’t need to and didn’t want to live like this in the first place.

We began to explore options for our move out of the US. We considered Canada, New Zealand and Australia. After deeply researching the immigration processes for each country and our own prospects there, we decided to make the plunge into Canada.  Even after that initial decision, there was still some hesitation on our part though. Perhaps things would get better here – after all we both still had our work permits and were working. The pull of complacency was real and, in hindsight, I feel it almost made us abandon our plans to move. But on that cold December day in southwest Kansas, after a bout of argument, we realized that we both really just wanted to live together. And as long as we were in the US, that was never actually guaranteed.

And THAT was when we made the final decision to not only move to Canada, but to also start acting on it. Act we did, and towards the end of August 2018, we received our permanent residency documents from Canada. I then told my company that I was moving to Canada, following which they offered me a position in their Toronto office. We crossed the border on the 9th of November and moved into our apartment the following week.

In my next and final post, I discuss my situation and the decision-making process with the power of hindsight. I also briefly talk about settling in Canada and what it means to finally be a ‘Permanent Resident’.

Moving from USA to Canada – Part 3: (Abundance of) Fear and (Lack of) Freedom

This is a series of posts (5 total) where I describe why Devanshi, my wife, and I moved permanently from the USA to Canada after spending close to a decade in the US. You can find all the posts here.

In the previous post, I wrote about the specifics of how the legal, employment-based green card system works to discriminate against people from India. Here, I will highlight some of the issues we Indians face in decades long green card back logs.

Personally for Devanshi and I, at the crux of the whole situation, lay two basic ideas – fear and freedom. In our lives, we all want little to none of the former and an abundance of the latter. But the reality for people like us is quite the opposite. We live in the US with an abundance of fear while the freedoms we enjoy are significantly constrained by our immigration status. Let me start with fear.

The fear comes with knowing that if you are let go from your job (for whatever reasons), you literally have a few weeks to find a new employer who will hire you AND incur all the costs associated with the work visa. The fear comes with knowing that your kid who was born in India, and who moved and has lived with you in the US for over a decade, will have to leave the country once they turn 21. The fear comes with the knowledge that every time you apply to extend your visa, you can be denied without reason, forcing you to just simply up and leave this country for good – with all your family. The fear comes with the knowledge that you could be approved for an extension in the US but can still be denied a visa at the consulate in India – again without reason. The fear comes with knowing that you have to put up with your current work environment – however bad it may be – because you are unable to find another employer who will do all the paperwork and pay the fees to sponsor your visa. The fear comes with knowing that your spouse (predominantly women) live every day not knowing if they will lose their work permit – forcing them to stay home and feel worthless. The fear comes with the knowledge that even if you join a new employer who is willing to do the paperwork, your new green card petition from that new employer might still get denied, forcing you to simply up and leave the country for good – with all your family. The fear comes with the knowledge that every other year, your fate rests in the hands of immigration attorneys and their competency (or lack thereof) in filing the right paperwork by the right time. The fear comes with knowing that one small mistake by the immigration attorney can force you to simply up and leave the country with all your family. The fear comes with knowing that one small misdemeanor or felony – regardless of circumstance – pretty much spells the end of your stay in the country for you and your family. The fear lies in the knowledge that if something fatal were to happen to you, your spouse and kids immediately lose their immigration status and are no longer allowed to stay in the country. (Don’t you dare think the last one is an exaggeration).

Moving on to freedom, or lack thereof.

The lack of freedom is on display when you are unable to change jobs – even if you are being harassed or abused in your current job – just because of your visa requirements. The lack of freedom manifests in your inability to even change job descriptions within the same company if your education was not in the same specific field. The lack of freedom is for you to see when you cannot get promoted to a position that is inconsistent with your green card petition. You will know your lack of freedom when a junior foreign worker from a different country surpasses you in seniority just because they got their green card and you haven’t. Your lack of freedom is there to see when you are unable to travel back to India for a funeral because your visa extension application is still pending. The lack of freedom manifests as your inability to register any intellectual property in your name. The lack of freedom manifests as your inability to start and open your own medical practice if you are a doctor. The lack of freedom manifests as your inability to quit your job and start your own business, company or non-profit. Your lack of freedom is on display when you realize you cannot take up another job – in addition to your day job – to make ends meet during emergencies. The lack of freedom manifests as your spouse’s inability to work anywhere if you are not already approved for a green card – forcing them to be a homemaker even if they are highly educated. The lack of freedom lies in your inability to relocate to a different city because your green card petition is tied to your current city. Your lack of freedom lies in not knowing if you will be able to legally drive every other year when your visa extension is in process.

Like I said, an abundance of FEAR and a lack of FREEDOM.

Yes, it is true that anyone impacted by this system typically ‘only’ suffers from a subset of the issues I have outlined above. But the mere acknowledgment of this is sufficient grounds for concern on how the system impacts people like me. So the next logical question that comes up is: If things are so bad, how come there are still so many people willing to live under these circumstances?

In the next post, we will look into what it is that keeps people like us in the US.

Moving from USA to Canada – Part 2: The Broken and Discriminatory Legal Immigration System

This is a series of posts (5 total) where I describe why Devanshi, my wife, and I moved permanently from the USA to Canada after spending close to a decade in the US. You can find all the posts here.

In the previous post, I wrote about how the general population is typically unaware of the true nature and scale of the immigration issues – especially when it relates to legal, employment-based immigration in the US. Let me elaborate on what that entails.

There are approximately a million people like myself – Indian citizens who have lived in the US legally for up to or more than a decade on a temporary work visa. For us, the phrase ‘the immigration system is broken in the USA’ primarily means that, under the current immigration system, we will not get our permanent residency for the next decade or two (or three or four or fifteeneven though we have already been approved for it. This has been an issue for more than a decade and is unique to people of Indian origin (and to an extent the Chinese). It stems from an arbitrary cap on the number of Green Cards that can be issued to citizens of any single country each year regardless of when those people had their applications approved.

Since the foreign workforce in the US has a large presence of people from India (and China), this has essentially come to mean that people from India like myself have to wait for decades to see a green card (even though we were approved for it several years ago), while people from almost every other country obtain theirs in a year or less. So, while it is illegal for employers to discriminate against a person based on his/her nationality during hiring, the immigration system requires a discrimination against the same person based on his/her nationality – when issuing employment-based green cards.

So, what exactly does it mean to live in the USA while being on a perpetual wait for permanent residency? Is there even a legal way to live and work here while we wait for our green cards? Turns out, the same system that caused this issue, ironically, also provides what on the surface appears to be ‘a solution’.

Since almost all of us get approved for our green card while on temporary work visas, the immigration system simply allows us to keep renewing our ‘temporary’ visas indefinitely until we actually get our green cards! For those of you who were not aware of these details previously, I promise you I am NOT making this up. As much as this may all sound fantastic and ridiculous, this is actually how about a million Indian citizens live and work in the US currently – by extending their ‘temporary’ visas indefinitely! And for those of us who have been living like this for years, it has long ceased to be a matter of absurdity. On the contrary, we have all mostly just accepted this as a basic fact of everyday life. But yes, the system does appear to provide a pathway for people like me to stay here and work legally while we go through our decades long wait for our green cards. In fact, for the last 3-4 years, there has even been a provision for the spouses of those approved for a green card to be able to work. So what’s all the fuss about you ask?

This is the point where I emphasize that the true nature and scale of the problem is only known to the people who are directly impacted by it.

Over the years, the impacts from this system of legal immigration – where people from one or two countries are discriminated against for green cards – have manifested in ways that go well beyond just the allotment of green cards. An entire ecosystem of different players with different incentives has mushroomed from this flawed and discriminatory system. It has impacted the way companies do business, why people from specific countries are hired, the legal status of children, workplace harassment, career stagnation, forced deportation, family separation, among many others.

In the next post, I will highlight (some of) the problems faced by people (like myself) who are stuck in a decades long green card backlog.

Moving from the USA to Canada – Part 1: Acknowledging an Existential Crisis

This is a series of posts (5 total) where I describe why Devanshi, my wife, and I moved permanently from the USA to Canada after spending close to a decade in the US. You can find all the posts here.

The decision was made on a cold and windy December day in 2017 – between Christmas and New Year – in Garden City, a small town in rural southwest Kansas. Devanshi and I had been married for a little over 2 years and she had just started working in Garden City, while I lived about 9-10 hours away. By December of 2017, we had truly come to terms with what our future held in store for us if we decided to stay in the United States of America. To say that it didn’t look good would be an understatement, yes; but that would simply confine it to an issue of scale while completely ignoring the nature of the problem.

Over the previous several months, we had walked through all the different ways we could make our lives in the USA while trying to incorporate the not so infrequent constraints (or threats thereof) being imposed on our immigration status by the US Government. We had explored every strand of possibility branching out of these paths and tried to come up with a way to make it work in America for both of us. And at the end of each and every path and possibility that we explored, one thing became abundantly clear: our future lay outside of the United States. 

I am writing this series of posts for three reasons: One, to document the reasons behind a very significant decision in our lives lest I forget; two, to articulate what thousands of families in the US have been going through for several years, and; three, to provide some much needed reality check for those who wish to come here to the US to start a new life so they can make an informed decision.

It all starts with the acknowledgment that the general population are mostly unaware (either by choice or circumstance) of what living in this country (USA) entails for people like me. By ‘general population’, I am including everyone – from Americans to immigrants from India as well as other countries. It also (and especially) includes those from India who are looking to come here to study or work.

When you hear the phrase that the “immigration system in America is broken”, you have to understand that it means different things to different people. Unless it is someone who is directly impacted by the immigration system, its understanding is almost always limited to the rhetorical talking points that are repeated ad infinitum in the media. For conservatives who want more control on the flow of people across the border, it means the lack of laws and infrastructure to prevent that. For liberals, the administration is just not doing enough to help refugees from all over the world or is just making it too hard for new immigrants to enter the country. In many instances, American workers (of all skills and knowledge) have their own cases to make about their journeys trying to find employment. Notwithstanding that, American employers always seem to seek more foreign workers citing the low unemployment rate. The Agricultural industry wants its own share of foreign workers since, apparently, very few Americans actually sign up to be farmers. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.

But what about the perspective of people who are directly impacted by the ‘broken immigration system’ – you know, the actual immigrants? We only ever hear about the ‘plight of immigrants in the USA’ through the eyes of someone who has no skin in the game (a.k.a the mainstream media). When we do not hear directly from the people who are impacted, our understanding of any situation is always limited to the rhetorical talking points that cater to a specific narrative. Which is why, when it comes to legal, employment-based immigration, very few people are aware of the facts and/or truth.

I say this because I was, in hindsight, one of the naive, uninformed students who traveled to the US full of optimism to do their Masters in 2009. I graduated, found a job, started working and was leading a good lifestyle. I even met and married my wife along the way. Everything was seemingly going to plan. After all, there were hundreds of thousands of people just like me in the US who were all seemingly doing just fine, and more were coming every year. Eventually, though, I got sucked into a state of immigration limbo where the lines between risk and reality began to get increasingly blurred – leading us on the path of an existential crisis. It was then that we began to ask tough questions to ourselves and found that there were even tougher answers awaiting us.

In the next post, I will elaborate on the specifics of what the ‘broken immigration system’ means in terms of legal, employment-based immigration in the USA.

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.

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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.

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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