Thought Spindle

Finding balance z

By Rahool Gadkari:

Most of us are different people at work, at home, with friends, with family, with loved ones, on the sports field and many other places. It is often a necessity to adopt these multifarious forms to help compartmentalize different areas of one’s life. But usually there is a broad common basis of familiarity that weaves together these identities we adopt, shaping who we really are. The thought of reconciling with a person’s multiple identities (not the dissociative identity disorder kind!) is something I’ve always found intriguing. Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. How then does one discern who is good and who is bad? And for someone trying to reform oneself, can one thousand rights undo a wrong?

The recent death of Bal Thackeray — the chief of the Shiv Sena, serves as a good starting point for an argument I’ll try and discuss further, through other examples. Mr. Thackeray’s demise saw an outpour of emotions. People thronged the streets to pay their respects, national leaders called upon the family and the huge city of Mumbai came to a virtual standstill. Witnessing this, one would assume that he was a good, nay — a great man, having touched countless lives through his work and message. And I guess that would be a fair thing to say, I have friends who swear by him and his party’s efforts to further the development of Mumbai and Maharashtra. On the flip side though, we also hear of the Shiv Sena’s oftentimes — violent ways, xenophobic behaviour and divisive message. How then should history remember such a man, loved by many, but with a questionable doctrine? Is he a good person or a bad person?

There is unfortunately, no right answer here. It is an entirely subjective matter. But, it puts forth another question — do we ignore the bad if there is enough good? Isn’t everybody guilty of wrongdoing at some level? Perhaps, but I’m not talking about the plebs here, rather about our leaders, people with the power to influence young minds, to shape our country’s and in turn the world’s future. An ill thought message preached by a demagogic leader runs the risk of being further misinterpreted by ardent followers’ generations later. Consequentially, it is imperative that we endeavour to promulgate the right legacy.

No one for instance, will remember fondly the legacy left behind by Adolf Hitler. Neither will we remember positively the lives of Mussolini, or Slobodan MiloÅ¡ević, or Gen. Dyer (the British officer responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919) and many others like them. It is not people like these I’m concerned about, nor great people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa. They can easily be categorized into good or bad. I’m interested in people like Winston Churchill, or Mao Zedong, or perhaps even Yasser Arafat, whose legacies though largely good, were subject to a lot of dispute. Churchill was heartless and indifferent towards India, and should’ve been held accountable for the great Bengal famine of 1943. Under Mao Zedong’s China, countless people lost their lives during the Great Leap Forward campaign. And Yasser Arafat, though revered and respected the world over, was believed by many to have supported the terrorist movement within Palestine and promoted violence against Israel, while amassing a vast personal fortune.

Author Gerald Seymour wrote in his book Harry’s Game (1975) — “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, and it seems that in situations such as these there are always two sides to the coin. But somehow that explanation seems to be too convenient, too easy, and almost akin to allowing people to absolve themselves of the consequences of their actions. While good/bad are indeed subjective, there needs to be a better dialogue in society today to address the larger implications of our leaders’ actions. The Election Commission of India bans campaigns based on divisive racial/religious messages, but that hasn’t stopped many from continuing with their discordant rhetoric. As with most problems in our country, poverty and the lack of education lie at the root of the issue and need to be addressed before we can hope for the fructification of thoughts similar to what I’m expressing. At a community level, people will indeed vote for the leader who they feel would put in place policies and systems that give them the best chance to get two square meals a day. But very often the message of betterment is veiled in caste politics. Hence the analysis won’t and probably shouldn’t be expected to happen at the grass roots level. Rather it is only through greater awareness and control by regulatory bodies that we can hope that our politicians would focus only on their policies and plans, rather than on their kinship.

This issue also brings to the fore the question of how we should react to Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial aspirations. He is undoubtedly one of India’s savviest and most efficient chief ministers. I knew a gentleman who’d worked with him, and he described to me the amazing work ethic and the pragmatic attitude Mr. Modi possessed. He’s transformed the state of Gujarat into a vibrant business friendly zone, attracting billions of dollars in investments. His ability to get things done, efficiently at that, is unquestionable. But can we elect to our highest democratic office, a man accused of abetting communal violence? By the accusation itself (leading to a travel ban in several western countries), I fear that he has disqualified himself from that race. A representative of the country, no matter how astute, needs to be a unifying figure. Mr. Modi sadly doesn’t fit that bill. Mr. Modi’s example might prove (I’m speculating here) that even with a decade of brilliant statesmanship, certain things cannot be forgotten.

Unlike Mr. Modi though, there are several others who are skirting that thin line between right and wrong. So while the answer to my question about forgiving one wrong in favour of a thousand rights is very subjective, through an awareness of the facts and constructive debate, we can empower our citizens to decide on these people’s guilt. As author Gurcharan Das puts it — “When ordinary human beings err, it is sad, but when leaders do, it haunts us for generations”. Let us then, do our best to put the right people in positions of power.

Photo Credit: http:[email protected]/6266452817/

Laughing

By Rahool Gadkari:

A man calls up the prime minister and says — “Hello, I’d like to become the next prime minster”. A startled Manmohan Singh responds — “Are you an idiot”. The man quips back —“Oh…Is that a requirement?”. This was a joke doing the rounds on social networking pages a few weeks back. It’s quite funny, but is a rather sad commentary on the state of affairs in our country. Our nation has become disillusioned by its politicians and political parties that seem forever to be clawing their way out of some controversy or scandal. It’s no surprise then that a glance through any leading newspaper or magazine reflects this sombre state of affairs. I read the paper expecting to get my daily dose of political mudslinging, corruption scandals and sex scandals with some pseudo intellectual comment by a half baked ‘celebrity’ serving as the only jocund element. Having been programmed into reading the newspaper each morning by my parents, you can well imagine how dull a start I give to my day after only a quick perusal of the headlines. This also got me thinking about how ill humoured our politicians are. Witticisms and wisecracks aside, these days it’s only their tomfoolery that holds the potential to generate a few laughs.

Powering up my laptop early one morning to get my daily news fix, I was startled by the following headline: “Haryana khap blames consumption of chowmein for rapes”. WHAT? I asked myself. Early morning grogginess doesn’t lend itself well to comprehend such absurdity. Having re-read it though, I realized that it was the closest I’d come in the recent past to laughing at anything connected to politics. Like the layers of dust that settle upon a derelict statue, masking its shape and rendering it unappealing, our politicians have let the dust gather on their sense of humour’s and left but a vestige, at best. So why do Indians, and especially Indian politicians take themselves so seriously?

Perhaps the answer to that question lies in an analysis of Indian society. We are, it must be acknowledged, a serious society. Humour has taken a back seat to, and I don’t blame anybody for this, the trials and tribulations of day-to-day life. With 300 million poor and countless others struggling for their daily bread, it’s no wonder that the average politician probably doesn’t care two hoots about being funny. No politician wants to be taken too lightly by the people, and hence they rely on the possession of a seriousness demeanour to convey political acuity and commitment. But like a general who’s so obsessed with winning the battle that he fails to realize that he’s losing the war, our politicians have taken themselves so seriously that it’s become a joke in itself!

Yes, there are serious issues that we as a country face; yes, the political landscape is not the healthiest and yes, there is plenty of corruption. But, as Mahatma Gandhi said — “If I had no sense of humour, I would long ago have committed suicide”. Taking oneself too seriously never got anyone anywhere. I look for a keen sense of humour as the hallmark of a great leader. Not only does it ease tensions across the board, it also very often helps put things in perspective. And perspective is where even a 10 year old could beat some our more ‘colourful’ leaders.

Psephological studies in India show that it is the poor who vote in overwhelming numbers, and not our more privileged citizens. The harshness and drudgery of everyday life for many of our poor, necessitates that our politicians do something not only to alleviate their suffering, but also to add that much needed funny bone to their own repertoire. For nothing is as off-putting as having to listen to a serious Sam at the end of a tough day. Yes, the message is important, but just as there are several ways to preparing a presentation, there are myriad ways to efficaciously deliver one’s message; humour being one of the better ones.

The incarceration of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and the huge uproar that Shashi Tharoor’s ‘cattle class’ comment created not only underscores our leaders’ lack of humour, but in the case of Aseem, also violate the tenets of democracy (he was jailed on the basis of a dated colonial sedition law). Yet, this should hardly surprise me – if our leaders can’t crack a joke, I don’t expect them to take one either. For a country whose children grew up reading tales of Tenali Rama, Akbar Birbal and our very own Tinkle comics, it’s a real shame that we’ve morphed into a society largely bereft of humour.

Humour is certainly not the solution, only a means to an end that helps salve many a wound. In our embittered political landscape though, I think it’s the need of the hour.

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: Rahool is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities, and the University of Pune with degrees in electrical engineering. He writes part time and presently lives in the United States. To read his other posts,click here. Reach him on Twitter @RahoolGads[/box]

copassengr

By Rahool Gadkari:

I fear that I’m suffering from an incurable disease. I reckon it’s rather serious. No, no doctor is likely to have a cure. Have I given up? Well yes, almost. A sliver of hope does remain though, like the crack in the door of a dark room that lets in just enough light to prevent thoughts of entrapment. So what is this almost irremediable problem? I have co-passenger syndrome. You haven’t heard of this before? Here’s a quick definition:

Co-passenger syndrome: It is a condition in which a person suffers from having been made to repeatedly sit with the most un-talkative, unintelligent and downright boring people in airplane, bus or boat journeys. Symptoms are believed to vary from mild frustration, depression, and aggravated cynicism to rage.

Sounds rather frivolous, doesn’t it? Unfortunately this rather innocuous sounding problem, which afflicts one and all, drove me up the pole very recently. After spending hours standing in lines for buses, airplanes and even boats, rather I should say – hours of standing expectantly, the nervous excitement I felt before finding out which exciting, liberated, worldly wise, intellectual or artsy soul (preferably all of them!) would be keeping me company for the duration of my journey, always led to bitter disappointment. I would feel a sense of being deprived, deprived of what I used to I think was my fundamental right to an interesting conversation, if only to overcome the mind numbing boredom I inevitably suffered from en route. “You’re expecting the sky”, a friend of mine told me. “This is a dream dude, a dream that shall always remain a dream”, another one pointed out.

Let me expatiate. On a recent flight back home (a long haul one, mind you), I was checked in and waiting to board. So like any curious soul, I started scanning the wait area. Which one of these people would I be sitting with? Would it be the overly talkative American teenager, who seemed also to be a compulsive texter? (Please – NO!) Would it be the old man who looked like he would go to sleep before the flight even took off (bless his soul)? Or maybe, just maybe I thought, as my eyes wandered and settled upon a particularly striking French girl, I might just get to sit with her! Maybe she was the panacea that I was looking for (presuming she didn’t turn out to be a real bore – a thought I quickly brushed away as being ludicrous). The promise of a potentially delightful partner lay ahead! With that thought, I prematurely ended my hawkish examination of the pre-departure area. After what seemed to me to be an extended wait (but was probably more like 30 minutes), we got our boarding call. The line formed and slowly proceeded towards the aircraft. The usual confusion ensued en route to finding one’s seat, and I finally got to the right one — 23B. 23A was empty and a quick mental check told me that my French girl was behind me in the line. The heart was positively overrun with hope. I sat down quickly and waited. A few moments later, a queer looking chap (shaved head, wearing dark sunglasses inside the airplane, a down jacket, a fanny pack and carrying a rainbow coloured backpack. The outside temperature was +28 C. Imagine a bald Feroz Khan dressed like this to create the right image, minus the charisma) tapped me on my shoulder and said those dreaded words — “I’m in 23A”. But wait, this can’t be right, I told myself, the French girl hasn’t even passed by yet. Frantic, I asked him — “Are you sure you have the right seat?”, to which he whipped out his boarding pass and confirmed 23A. Resigned to fate I hoped (nay prayed) for better luck next time. As my French girl (I’d developed an inexplicable fondness for her) finally passed by, my Moroccan co-passenger (we’d exchanged pleasantries by then), shouted aloud — “Paris, Paris” in a French accent. “Oh, you know the girl?” I asked him. “No no” he said, “She looks French man! Isn’t she lovely! ”.

I should’ve given up then and there. Having eventually seen the light and fallen into a fitful sleep, I found myself being woken up by my neighbour — “Dude, I think the plane’s not moving!”, he said to me! The absurdity of that comment took me a while to recover from, but having done so I finally managed to convince him that the plane was indeed moving (and pretty fast at that!), and then thankfully fell into a deep sleep. This experience of mine stands out as being perhaps one of the funniest of the lot, but as I said earlier, I’ve had more than my share of “experiences”. From the American lady who asked me, and very innocently at that — “India is right next to Dubai somewhere, right?”, to the lady who spoke only Telugu (and managed to say only one word — “Atlanta?”, which after much gesticulation I managed to convey to her wasn’t my final destination), to the lady who spoke only German (I got a lesson in sign language that time), to finally a young accountant, who for some reason never stopped talking!

Journeys are meant to be fun. A good companion can go a long way in helping them become fun. After all, for how long can one look outside the window (in a bus or a train) or read/watch movies in flight. A good conversation is very often the difference between a great journey and a forgettable one. I find no better place to re-connect with people than when I’m travelling. For if you think about it, talking to someone new offers the same challenges as finding a job, from the initial uncertainty in establishing contact (the job application), to the initial exchange of pleasantries to establish commonality/qualifications (the interview), to finally getting into an engaging chat (the offer). So, if you can crack a job interview, you can most certainly strike up a conversation. You never know what to expect and who knows what doors might open up, only because you took that first step.

Taking some liberties with Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation, I’ve come up with my own formula for the how enjoyable your journey can be:

E = mc2

Where,

E = enjoyment of journey,
m = mass, quantified by the how much interest/intellect/humour etc. your fellow traveller exhibits,
c is a constant (or at least should be) equal to your commitment to letting yourself indulge in conversation.

So just maybe, I can cure myself of co-passenger syndrome. Journeys are inevitable in our fast paced globalized world, might as well make the most of them while you’re at it! As T.S. Elliot said — “The journey, not the arrival matters”.

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: Rahool is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities, and the University of Pune with degrees in electrical engineering. He writes part time and presently lives in the United States. To read his other posts,click here. Reach him on Twitter @RahoolGads[/box]

Search For Solution

By Rahool Gadkari:

This past week, two different events happened to grab my attention. The first one grabbed headlines the world over — Apple launched the new version of its iPhone, amidst much fanfare, selling around 5 million units in a little over 3 days. The second one, I suspect not nearly as many people might have heard about; Planet Read — an Indian NGO and a pioneer of same language subtitling (SLS), was one of the awardees of an USAID grant, to help improve child literacy worldwide.

The former outshining the latter is hardly a surprise. After all, Apple is now the world’s biggest company in terms of revenue; with a second quarter 2012 profit ($11.6 billion) almost equalling Google’s revenue during the same ($12.21 billion). Nonetheless the disparity in the coverage of these two admittedly dissimilar events evoked in me an intangible feeling of discomfort. The message of literacy is obviously in much greater need of advocacy than the launch of the iPhone. In fact, the news was so hard to get across to the public that an acquaintance of mine struggled to court interest from many of the major publications. And while I am by no means critical of Apple and the interest their products generate, I was left wondering about the state of the society we live in; where tech evangelism outshines social evangelism. Pondering on it a little longer I was forced to ask myself — are we serious about our social development goals?

Consider the following — India has the 4th highest GDP at parity in the world, the 11th highest GDP at exchange rate, but in GDP per capita terms we are ranked a miserable 186th. Almost 32 % of our population lives below the poverty line (considering a minimum wage of $1.25/day). Assuming the Indian population to be around 1.23 billion that translates to a staggering 393 million living in poverty. Compare this to the American population of ~310 million, with a GDP over 10 times ours. The challenge is enormous. But, surprisingly little seems to be happening on the ground. The same pernicious mentality prevails when it comes to climate change. The government has rolled out the universal ID project (UIDAI), MNREGA, SGSY amongst others, but once again, save the UIDAI project (partly perhaps due to its pioneer chairman Nandan Nilekani), not many receive much attention. Given the systemic nature of corruption in India (underscored recently by the many high profile scandals), the checks and balances put in place to ensure the smooth implementation of such schemes aren’t enough to put one’s mind at ease. Our government talks about inclusive growth (from the aam-aadmi to the business owner), but that dream shall remain a dream unless it finds a way for the aam-aadmi to see some tangible improvement is his/her standard of living. With our elected representatives spending more time arguing than formulating policy, typified by parliament being adjourned for 13 consecutive days over the coal block allotment scandal, I don’t garner much hope for change from a government standpoint. It thus falls upon you and me, as conscientious citizens, to help this movement for development, gather momentum, and address these issues by bringing them into the national consciousness and encouraging healthy debate.

A recent study by the Bellagio Initiative (working on philanthropic and developmental pursuits), very trenchantly expatiates on the need for wellbeing to be the focus of development, as opposed to economic growth. Development, the report argues, can only happen if we are able to reach politically sustainable solutions, which in turn necessitates that not everyone’s interests will be catered to each time. This regulation unfortunately, needs to be handled by the government. In the capitalistic societies that we live in today, self-regulation, although ideal, is hardly a realistic expectation. The Guardian in a related article argues that there is a feeling globally, that the very agencies entrusted to undertake our developmental projects, are losing the people’s trust. Not only is this a worrisome thought, but also very detrimental to achieving our goals. Large institutions and agencies, carrying considerable diplomatic/political/monetary clout, are best equipped to channel resources quickly and efficiently. What the development sector needs is a trailblazer like Apple, with a clear sense of the problem and relentless in its pursuit of the answer(s). To make that happen, governments need to be able to sell the idea of social development. Microfinance is a striking example, with its low principle, high interest rate model – it is both a calling and a business. It is only a matter then, of reaching out to the right audience.

The United Nations enlisted eight millennium development goals, from eradication of poverty, improving maternal health, combating diseases to ensuring sustainable growth. The 2015 deadline to achieving these is fast approaching, despite several goals remaining unaccomplished. With 1 billion people worldwide still living in extreme poverty, several million without access to basic sanitation, healthcare and primary education, there is precious little time left to waste. So far, especially in India, we have seen some intent, but what we need is greater resolve. More visibility for each of these problems along with better incentivization, to encourage the best and the brightest of our country to work on humanity’s greatest challenges is needed. The time is ripe for us to leverage our new technologies, be it through RFID cards, smart phones or collaborative efforts like crowd sourcing. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I can find no better way to conclude than to say — united we stand, divided we fall. Unfortunately, with the stakes as high as these, falling is not an option.

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: Rahool is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities, and the University of Pune with degrees in electrical engineering. He writes part time and presently lives in the United States. To read his other posts,click here. Reach him on Twitter @RahoolGads[/box]

Do-What-You-Love

By Rahool Gadkari:

“This is your life. Do what you love. And do it often”

These words are written on a poster that hangs on my wall. Seems pretty obvious, don’t you think? Yet, I doubt too many people do what they love even occasionally, let alone often. The practicalities of life come in the way; peer and parental pressure are often so overwhelming that people don’t spend time trying to understand their strengths and weaknesses.

India’s explosive, almost decade long growth was fuelled by a huge, young and skilled work force. Rapid urbanization, along with the global access to easy credit and India’s position as the developing world’s golden child, fuelled investment and in turn increased consumer spending, giving rise to the Indian growth story. An entire industry called knowledge process outsourcing was conceived on the strengths of India’s skilled workforce. India’s IT industry has been heralded the world over. All this has led to Indians being perceived as tech geniuses, with a flair for mathematics and the sciences. But is this really true? With a population of 1.2 billion, millions of fresh graduates enter our workforce each year. But how many are really good? How many love what they do? How many passionately believe in what they’re doing? While I don’t subscribe to utopian thinking, I think motivational speaker Simon Sinek (author of the book Start With Why) says it better than I could:

If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears”

Blood, sweat and tears. That’s what it takes to truly reach greatness. Our parents sometimes obsess and meticulously plan our careers like it was their very own puppet show. Everything, from which school the child would attend, all the way up to which college/university they should seek admission to, is planned in advance. In circumstances like these, what are the chances of a child discovering his/her true calling, and more importantly, acting on it? Are we a society where the pursuit of dreams is considered a legitimate exercise?

Schools and parents alike need to help create a healthy environment that fosters learning and independent thinking. A recent NYT blog post by KPMG partner Mohit Chandra (An Open Letter to India’s Graduating Classes, New York Times, India Ink, May 23, 2012) touched a few nerves while underscoring some of the deficiencies of our college graduates. While I don’t subscribe to washing one’s dirty laundry in public and found the article to be polemical, I cannot lightly brush off the author’s grievances. Undoubtedly, and I can say with some authority here (being a product of our education system), the Indian education system overemphasizes rote learning. As a consequence, how much you know becomes more important than how well you know it. Some of the other issues the author mentions, such as a lack of English proficiency, the overwhelming need to be spoon fed or the lack of professionalism, though probably true, aren’t the most pressing of our problems. Harping on about the deficiencies of the Indian education system is most certainly not my intention. These are systemic issues that need to be made a part of the national consciousness.

Amidst the throes of this transition to adulthood, confusion is inherent; and hence good guidance on part of parents and institutions is critical to the success of our youth. Sadly though, I think we are failing in our duty to guide our youth, instead subscribing to a form of subtle brainwashing and coercion. A decision made for want of choice isn’t an informed decision. I cannot explain the flood of fresh college graduates applying for MBA programs. How does an about-to graduate engineer know that having not liked 4 years of engineering education, a two-year MBA program is the best match for him/her? Going to business school, could very well be another in a sequence of calamitous decisions that had earlier led him/her to engineering school. Business school & engineering here are mere examples. My point being that, while a small fraction of students make informed decisions, and figure out the why’s/how’s and what’s before they go to college, most aren’t given the opportunity to do so.

Quality education is everyone’s right. How can we expect our youth to be good at something they don’t like? It’s akin to expecting all kids to be good artists. Absurd, isn’t it? That is why I think India needs career counsellors. I propose that every school make proficiency tests compulsory at all levels. That the students are given regular feedback on what they are good at, and that parents be discouraged from forcing their children to study subjects they don’t like. We need to create an atmosphere conducive to learning, so our kids can derive the maximum benefit from the Indian success story. For, like the American dream, I would love each kid to dream of an Indian dream. Imagine the potential we could have with 300 million enlightened souls, doing what they love; giving it their all, for themselves and for their country. In an ideal world this would all be easy, but all it takes is a few people, the rest will slowly but surely follow suit. I leave you with a line from Chaos Theory:

It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world”

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: Rahool is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, and the University of Pune with degrees in electrical engineering. He writes part time and presently lives in the United States. To read his other posts, click here.[/box]

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