Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Inspiration, personality, creativity

I've been away for a while now. Not really away because I am working on some blog posts that are not yet complete.

Last week, on a whim, I did some research on personality types and took some personality tests. I got slightly different results on some of them but there were certain consistent patterns. It was fascinating to read about the sixteen different personality types as described by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
This is a theory that was postulated by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, based on the work of the famous psychotherapist, Carl Jung. There is another system called the Enneagram, that has nine basic personality types.

I took MBTI style tests on a few sites:

http://www.personalitytype.com

http://www.16personalities.com

http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/Jtypes2.asp

http://teamtechnology.co.uk/

Of course, I think that these tests should be taken with a grain of salt just like astrology profiles. The Myers-Briggs test is far more scientific than an astrology profile but humans in general are complex. A psychological portrait tells one more about one's proclivities, talents and latent gifts as well as chinks in the psychological armor, however, in my humble opinion, it cannot map someone's abilities one hundred percent.
As for me, I got more inspiration and encouragement to continue writing and explore my other interests. I am not telling you which type I lean towards the most, I'll leave that up to you.

Next, I embarked upon a creativity test. You can try it here. I must confess that I was somewhat disappointed with the results. I was hoping that I would be rated as more creative:).

I was wondering - do our upbringing and education play a part in growing or hindering our inherent creativity? I feel a big resounding YES. Not only the education system but the surrounding culture.

When I first came to the United States, I was awed by the number of new books penned by random people from different walks of life and promoted on talk shows on TV. Equally inspiring was the number of newly patented inventions advertised on TV, yeah, the kind that tells you to buy in the next ten minutes for less than $20.00 or pay five times as much later.
Well, it's not the buy-now-or-else clause of the advertising that blew me over but the sheer number of ordinary people who were inventors. True, their inventions may not be on the scale of Marconi (radio) or Gutenberg (the printing press) but they are impressive nevertheless.
There are common problems that are faced in everyday life, for example, overflowing closets that are a nightmare of chaos and disorganization. Enter a vacuum bag to seal 10x the number of clothes that can fit in one cubic foot than just regular folding and stacking. This is just one example.

Have you thought about the humble safety pin? It is not so common in the US but in India, it is ubiquitous. In fact, a safety pin is a must-have accessory for every Indian woman, helping keep her sari pleats in place, "dupatta" (shawl) of the salwar kameez on her shoulder and substituting as an emergency clip for everything from stubborn, bent hooks of a brassiere or a blouse to missing buttons on a shirt. I have seen my own mother carrying them around like pendants on her wedding chain.
Broken sandals are hastily mended with a safety pin clutching the discordant straps so that the wearer can get home without having to go barefoot.
Here is a scandalous secret. The salwar kameez (women's outfit with a long tunic, loose pants and a covering scarf-like garment on the top) or kurta-pyjama in India (long tunics worn with loose pants by both men and women) are typically fastened at the waist by tying a knot with a string known as the "naada". Ditto for sari petticoats.
Often, one end of the "naada" gets pulled into the slot thus making knot tying impossible. Imagine this scenario in a public place! Another nightmare is the "naada" knot getting so tight that one can't untie it thus inducing a panic attack in a toilet. Only a knife or pair of scissors or Houdini with nails as long and sharp as a comic book evil character can snap the "naada" or in the latter case, untie it.
If you happen to be someone that is paranoid about germs and trims their nails regularly, woe unto you.

That's where our little hero, the safety pin comes in. My mother taught me how to insert a string into a slot using a safety pin when I was very young. If you have to cut the string, then a safety pin can hold the billowing ends of your "pyjama" together until you get home or can change.
Now one can understand why it is called the "safety" pin.

A few years ago, the famous model Elizabeth Hurley made waves when she showed up at an event wearing a Versace dress that was held together with safety pins.
Cheers to Walter Hunt, the inventor of the safety pin (thanks to Wikipedia).

Another commonplace invention that we now take for granted is the zipper. Had it not been for this, I guess, to tweak a famous phrase, we would all be having our "naadas" in a  twist. Google Doodle celebrated the inventor of the zipper, Gideon Sundback, recently. In fact, that's how I got to know about him.

Check out this page on inspiring inventions. Speaking of inspiring, there is this prodigal 15 year old boy, Jack Andraka, who has come up with an invention that could make early cancer detection much cheaper, helping to save many more lives (courtesy of Forbes).

Hope we all make use of our latent inventive skills, in small ways and large.


Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hiatus - Online learning and more blogs

Sorry for the long absence. I have been really busy, learning new things online through the mega-online learning portal, coursera.org. This is a site that offers proper college courses from various universities across the world,  from University of London to U.S. universities to universities from Europe, Asia and Australia. They cover a wide array of subjects - physics, biology, computer programming, even history, law, literature, music and architecture.

Coursera has been voted the Startup of the Year in 2012 and rightly so. This is a perfect example of social entrepreneurship, a business that adds value to its customers and society in general. Many people, especially adults who are past college age, who are married with kids and have full time jobs, may not have the time or money to go to school full time. Some are in the process of finding an alternative career, of finding their true calling.
Part time courses are a great way to explore one's talents and interests. However, not everyone resides close to top universities or gains entry to them. Online courses fulfill a gap, a thirst for knowledge from the best. Coursera has tapped into this need and the huge potential that lies untapped within each one of us.
Do check out their courses.

There are a few more blogs that I have been checking out and they are truly inspiring. I'll write about them in my next post.






Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Femininity, feminism and cultural baggage - I

Last Friday,  I came across this on Yahoo titled - Is Alaska the Worst State in the Nation for Women?

The article deals with issues faced by women in Alaska - comparatively lower pay that women get as compared to men, the domestic violence and alcoholism that have taken a toll on society and the rising rate of incarceration for women.

A glance through the comments will reveal that many people think that one of the reasons women get lesser pay is because men take up the more difficult jobs in Alaska - mining, logging, oil rigging being some of these. It is commonly accepted that women are physically weaker than men, hence are not suitable for certain kinds of jobs. The statement does have truth in it but social attitudes sometimes don't just stop at that.

There are some people who claim that women should ideally be running the household, raising children, cooking and cleaning because that's what nature intended.

Imagine my surprise when I read some of the comments on this article which was of all the pieces, a brief interview with Salma Hayek (I know...what??!!). The comments are not misogynistic but do reference feminism.

Feminism, anti-feminism seemed to be the rant of the day. And it was Good Friday, the day when everyone should be more compassionate and forgiving. Oh, okay...

To all those guys who think that women are best suited to feminine jobs (read - caring for them and their babies) and men are best suited to masculine jobs (all the hard work outside that civilization owes its existence to) and that men are the reason that we have everything from roads to farms to washing machines -

The Hunter Gatherers -
     Disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist but have read at least one book related to the hunter-gatherer way of life. Besides, I am gonna use reliable sources and then my imagination.

Firstly, if you accept evolution and that we are all basically animals, then pray, look around at the animal kingdom. Look at birds such as crows and pigeons, penguins and storks, wild animals such as tigers, lions, snakes and mammals such as horses, cattle and sheep and then at our immediate ancestors in the animal world - regular monkeys, chimpanzees, bonobos and apes.
Okay, when I say "look", I don't mean that you have to hurry to the nearest zoo or book that safari in Kenya.
For now, the Internet, National Geographic and Animal Planet should suffice:).

Even if the alpha male in the group has a harem, the females are just not sitting around doing nothing. Almost every animal that I can think of (with some possible exceptions like the female queen honeybee, even then worker female bees in the hive have a lot to do), whether male or female, hunts or forages for its own food. True, the females predominantly care for the young but that's not the only thing they do nor are they wusses.

In the case of the King of the jungle, the Lion, in open areas, the females do the bulk of the hunting but in certain wooded areas, the males and females hunt separately. There is an excellent source here on the African Lion Working Group site.
Wikipedia has an article on lions, do refer to the Hunting and diet section.

It is the mother bear/tiger that also teaches the cubs to hunt. Here is a very informative section  on Wikipedia, describing how the tigress coaches her cubsdocumented by none other than the famous conservationist and hunter, Jim Corbett.
And this is another great site on polar bears and the role the mother bear plays in passing on hunting skills to the next generation - Polar Bears International.

It is not for nothing that Rudyard Kipling said,  "For the female of the species is more deadly than the male." [Reference: goodreads.com]

In the case of penguins, the male and the female penguin both care for their little ones, see this touching section on Emperor Penguins, on Wikipedia.

Let's now transition to humans who were not merely satisfied with hunting.

Say, the men go out to hunt for their daily meal. Even if we assume that women never contributed to the hunt, what do you think they were doing in their caves all day?
They were certainly not watching "Cavewoman Bachelorette" and "The Real Housewives of the Paleolithic Era", were they?

There was plenty of work to do even otherwise, for example the "gathering" part of hunter-gatherer. Heck, even wiping a baby's bottom would have been a lot of work in those days, getting twigs and (shudder) what else to do the job. Fruit and berries would have to be picked, probably even a few medicinal plants, water had to be fetched from the nearby stream, the firewood had to be collected to light the fire, one of the most essential things for survival.
Our ancestral grandmothers also did the hunting of small game [see quoted sources below].

I am also thinking women would have been the ones guarding their precious little ones from scorpions, bugs and predators out in the wild so they would not be dolls sitting there all day and combing their hair and wondering if they needed to lose that extra fat in their thighs so that the dudes in their group would want to father their future children.
However, prehistoric women, just like us, also had a thing for fashion and looking good. They had jewelry and wore primitive short outfits.
Yes, cloth needed to be woven, baskets for carrying the young ones, etc. In fact, hunting for smaller animals with woven nets was a communal activity. Women may have played a very important role "from plant collectors and weavers to hunters and spiritual leaders" as posited in this must-read comprehensive article in Discover Magazine - New Women of the Ice Age.

So, they may very well have contributed to designing and making at least some of those primitive instruments that archeologists stumble on every now and then. Here's an interesting find on this site - World Archaeology.

They may also have very well been involved in fashioning pots and pans because if they were doing most of the cooking and fetching water, they would have to have had a hang of what they needed, no?

Here is an interesting article on National Geographic about the division of labor in the Neanderthal and Paleolithic periods and the possible reasons and benefits.

One particular scientific opinion in the article is quite striking:

'"That women sometimes become successful hunters and men become gatherers means that the universal tendency to divide subsistence labor be gender is not solely the result of innate physical or psychological differences between the sexes; much of it has to be learned," the authors write.'

Here is an enlightening post on Wikipedia about hunter-gatherer societies.

Do read the 'Social and Economic Structure' portion of the article.

'Although most of the gathering is usually done by women, a society in which men completely abstained from gathering easily available plants has yet to be found. Generally women hunt the majority of the small game while men hunt the majority of the large and dangerous game, but there are quite a few documented exceptions to this general pattern.
A study done on the Aeta people of the Philippines states: "About 85% of Philippine Aeta women hunt, and they hunt the same quarry as men. Aeta women hunt in groups and with dogs, and have a 31% success rate as opposed to 17% for men. Their rates are even better when they combine forces with men: mixed hunting groups have a full 41% success rate among the Aeta."[18]'

If one has the patience, one can go through this thorough academic article about different types of hunter-gatherer societies and the possible reason for different gender roles.

Okay, let's move on from the caveman era in the next post...








Friday, March 29, 2013

Opinions, bias and independent thinking

This is a post I wrote last year but had not published.

I must confess that I have gotten into a habit online over the last several years, one that has both benefited and harmed me.
I have been a news junkie, an imdb junkie, a Wikipedia junkie of people and, well, a person obsessed with lots of stuff periodically. Therefore, I silently prowl Yahoo, MSN and many other websites. These days, I only do it occasionally to keep things under control.
I can't resist reading the comments either. Yahoo and some other websites have comments that fall in the range of thousands.

Do you have time to kill that you can't seem to know what to do with?
All you have to read is a couple or more articles and before long, your entire afternoon of 3-4 hours is completely wasted on reading hundreds of comments which are mostly different versions of the same recipe of soup.


Why am I so attracted to op-eds and commentary? Maybe it is the avid student speaker/debater in me. Maybe it is because I have had family members in the legal profession or who are intelligent and opinionated with concern for social and political issues. Anyway, this tendency is a double-edged sword.

If you are trying to improve your reading speed or comprehension abilities, this is an excellent choice of activity.

The most fun are those comments that are replies and counter replies. Some are downright rude, some are clever retorts and some are, well, deleted or hidden due to their poor quality or extremely profane language. Sometimes, these hidden comments may have a valid point.

These days, you can give a thumbs up or down on someone else's opinion, just the way you like something on Facebook. I often wonder why some perfectly good replies get thumbs downs. Say, there is an article about religion. You post something to the effect that you don't believe in God and don't get why people believe in some of the irrational ideas that some religious book tells you to. I can bet on this - you will most certainly get a few thumbs downs. Depending on which country the site hails from and the political/religious bent of the majority of its readers, you can get more thumbs ups or thumbs downs.
The same goes if you post something to the effect that God controls everything and that the Bible/Koran/Gita/x-religious-book is the absolute and unquestionable word of God.

If you want to develop a thick skin and a spine, a.k.a. the courage of your convictions, try posting something that you truly believe in that is not exactly mainstream thought yet and get ready for the thumbs downs and worse.

All said and done, the quality of a website's comments does reflect on it. Personally, I have seen some blogs and websites such as MSN Slate where the comments are very articulate and intelligent. One can actually learn something from reading other people's opinions or about their experiences.

Participating in an online discussion is also good practice for developing your debating and overall communication skills, abilities that could come in very handy if you are in any position that requires verbal negotiation.
I remember going in for interviews when I was straight out of college. I have also heard this from my friends who attempted to get into MBA programs. There is a round called Group Discussion or GD for short, after the initial written screening in which you have proved your analytical abilities to the point where you can be considered competent enough to code or understand spreadsheets or pie charts or whatever else your job is all about.
In this round, one has to be able to discuss a topic with people without shouting out the competition or antagonizing them to the point where they corner you later in a dark alley:). Being a timid mouse won't do either. One has to be able to get one's point across eloquently to the rest of the group while weighing the pros and cons of other people's opinions.
Online discussions are good preparation for developing such discussion and negotiating skills.

For me, online forums are a way of sampling the society that I live in. People tend to be more politically incorrect and brash online, maybe because of the anonymity that the Internet offers. When I came to the United States, it was a great way to check out people's opinions on everything ranging from politics and religion to their personal relationships. I also got to know Indians better that way:).
Do you want to get a feel for people in a certain region of the world? Check out their major news outlets and the comments section. Of course, the readers of any publication only represent a small minority in that country so one has to be careful not to generalize.
To be better informed, check out both the conservative and the liberal ones ( know, I have too much time on my hands).

After the Colorado gun shooting incident, I checked out news sites in the US and the Guardian from UK. It is enlightening to see how vastly gun control ideas differ on both sides of the Atlantic.

                                             ......
                                                  ......
                                                      ......

Now, for the downside. How many of you watch a movie or read a book without checking out the reviews first? Well, most of us do because we simply do not have the time or energy to plod through an inane movie or lackluster book even if it were given to us for free.
However, we might entirely dismiss a work of art purely because it did not rank high enough on the critics/popular opinion scale. Ditto for restaurants.

Guess what, many artists who are today's legends were yesterday's great-but-not-the-greatest. For something to become a classic, it has to be tested by time. I was reading about William Shakespeare on Wikipedia the other day and learnt that he became even more famous well after his death. This does not mean that he was considered substandard in his times, he had certainly made a name for himself.
The spread of the English language around the world and the popularity of his plays on the stage led to further acclaim over the ages.

Another case in point - the tragic romantic Indian novel, "Devdas" by the famous Bengali author, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, that has been adapted into movies more than once, one of the most famous recent adaptations being the one that had Bollywood stars Shahrukh KhanAishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit in it.
"Devdas" was published many years after it was written and has achieved an astounding level of popularity in posterity. To its credit, the author did live to see its success with film adaptations even during his lifetime.

A few years ago, I was reading the preface to Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights". It is amusing to read contemporary critiques of her work. Many thought that the novel transgressed accepted social standards of morality and propriety. After so many years, we know that it stands in a league of its own.

I wonder though how many more legendary playwrights/authors existed whose work we do not read much these days? If you consider all the languages of the world, there must be a staggering amount of literature that falls under the category of 'timeless classic'. Yet, we may know nothing about it.

It is easy to get biased and praise a work just because it is a classic while overlooking its flaws. As an exercise, take any great classic author or artist and objectively look at their work. What did you feel was lacking as compared to say the work of a lesser known artist that you admire?

This tendency to be part of the crowd is precisely what Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about in his thought-provoking and ground-breaking book, "The Black Swan". He also warns us of "silent evidence", the great people or works that never made it to the podium of public acknowledgement but are nevertheless priceless in their own right.

This bias extends to virtually any sphere of life. Thanks to the "Please gimme a  break" cynics on the Internet comment boards, the media cannot get away that easily with "Sexiest Man in the World", "Most Beautiful Woman in the World", "Greatest Movie of All Times" and other superlative lists.

They say that a lie when told repeatedly, starts to sound like the truth. If we are not aware, we could be easily swayed by the images and words that we are constantly bombarded with.

                                              ......
                                                  ......
                                                      ......

Once, I picked up a novel without reading a preface or looking it up online. That was "The Citadel" by A. J. Cronin. It tells the story of an idealistic young English doctor who starts his practice in impoverished villages in Wales, his marriage and the slow corruption of his ideals with the passage of time. When I borrowed this book from my former local library, it was a plain hardcover edition with no pictures or jacket with a synopsis. I decided to read it with an open mind.
Although I must admit I skimmed through some portions or even entirely skipped them, I still enjoyed it. It is a story that is very relevant to every day and age and every society in the world.
The loss of our ideals and the compromises that we make at every stage in our life is a universal human experience.

Summing up, do try to watch a movie or read a book if you like the synopsis of the story. Watch a lesser known play. Go hear a local band play in your bar. See an art exhibition even if you know little about the artist. If you have some free time and if it doesn't cost much money, it is always worthwhile to expand one's horizons and develop critical thinking of one's own, not moulded by the opinions of others.
Admire the natural beauty of your friends and family, even though none of them may ever make it to any popular list. Take pleasure in and compliment them on their talents and accomplishments, be it a painting they made for you, a poem they wrote or a melody that they played proficiently.

While you are at all this, have fun!

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Friday, March 22, 2013

India Musings - I

In my last post, I mentioned my long trip to India.

What can I say? Going back to your home country dredges up deep emotions that you either never knew existed or just suppressed as you went about your daily life in a foreign country, slaving away at your job and socializing, having fun in general.
This time, the emotions were far more raw.

India, my home of several years, is growing and changing. Just like all other changing places and people, some changes are lovely and others are quite ugly.

On one hand, you see swanky new malls and multiplexes and fast food joints. There is also an aspirational youth, taking up all kinds of study and launching business ventures, making movies, music and art, participating in plays and competitions and all kinds of performances.

On the other hand, there is the ugly side of rising crime and cities that are pushed to the brink with overcrowding and pollution. The crime is truly worrying. The level of trust among people seems to be eroding with attacks on senior citizens right in their homes to the abduction, rape and murder of young children.

A few days ago, as the world celebrated International Women's Day, I was reminded of the braveheart whom a section of the Indian media had named "Nirbhaya" (Sanskrit for 'fearless') - the 23 year old gang rape victim in Delhi who shook the consciousness of the nation. There are countless other victims, some who are far younger and whose cases probably never get the coverage that this got.
While I was in Mumbai, within a span of a month, I read about two major assaults on young women, one of them was a foreigner who was raped in her own flat and the second one ended up losing her life.

Despite the outrage, the protests and some judicial reforms taking place, crimes still continue. There seems to be a tinderbox of anger and frustration that is resulting in crimes even in domestic environments. All the while, as my family members, friends and acquaintances lament the general state of affairs, we all ask the question - Why.

What is it that turns entire groups of men into gangs of rapists who show absolutely no mercy on their hapless victims? Every nation has its fair share of perverts and pedophiles but there are some places where sexual crimes have crossed the realm of explanation from mental illness to a form of social cancer. Social activists, media and politicians, joined by the general public, have all come up with explanations, the most common being the patriarchal culture that has long treated women as sub par.

All this in a country that worships Mother Goddesses, reveres mothers, whose religious epics exhort people to treat all women who are not your wife as your own mothers and sisters.

What is even more alarming is that we hear of more cases of acid attacks and other assaults on young women in the media, perpetuated by rowdies and jilted suitors.  In the past, such cases were heard of quite rarely, but somehow, these days, I see more of them spanning newspaper pages and grabbing headlines on primetime television.
Is it because the media is more aggressive in highlighting these incidents or is it the fallout of the increasing gap between the old India where women stayed home and wore traditional outfits and the new India where females are venturing out, making a statement of their own in every possible way?

Nirbhaya's ordeal and death and some other cases have truly left us deeply affected, searching for answers and solutions, and there has been a rise in anger, anger of the right kind that brings about fundamental change in society.

I was recently watching the wonderful movie, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", a hopeful comedy about a group of British expats in their golden years, who get a new lease of life and hope after they spend some time in Rajasthan, India. In the movie, the characters talk about all the "colors, light and joy" around and Tom Wilkinson's character makes a memorable statement along the lines of "how people here treat life as a privilege, not as a right".

Alas, in real news, you hear about stories such as these. I feel terrible for these victims. Foreigners who come to India with innocence and hopes of discovering an ancient, mystical, diverse land have not just their dreams shattered, but their psyche, too.

The Indian Paradox -

As I said before,  India has been a land of Goddess worshippers. Indian epics consecrate womanhood, motherhood and all things feminine.
However, Indian epics also extol the chastity and fidelity of a woman. Thus, the faithful and beautiful Sita of the Ramayana is made to undergo an 'agnipariksha' (literally translating to "fire test") to prove her chastity after being abducted by Ravana.
Draupadi of the Mahabharata is disrobed publicly as part of a wager and is saved by the grace of Krishna. In the end, her humiliation and violation are avenged by her husbands (yes, husbands - she was in a polyandrous marriage because of the word of her mother-in-law - read more on Wikipedia here).

The Indian Constitution gave equal rights to women from the day of its institution, including the right to vote.
Indian women have held the office of Prime Minister, Chief Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House and even the President.
There are women CEOs, school principals, professors, doctors, lawyers, film directors, singers, actresses and artists.

Yet, many have experienced molestation and violence, particularly the underprivileged sections. Many of the problems that any society faces have their root causes in culture; legislation usually falls in step with the prevailing mindset of the times.
Even with legislation that protects the life and dignity of every individual, there is the gap between the ideals that a society aspires to and the ground reality.

Indians have long lived with their troubles, making do with their own maneuvers and little getting-around tricks, never really challenging the status quo legally or culturally.
True, India had laws punishing rape and molestation and harassment of women was portrayed in cinema and protested against, but matters were only taken into the legal sphere when there was actual rape or severe molestation. Added to the already vitiated atmosphere was the notion that the woman had been "spoilt". In fact, this is the word for "raped" in some Indian languages. English has words like "deflowered", too, for a loss of virginity. Rape is one of the rare crimes where the victim is also blamed.

Girls dressed fashionably, but only after looking around to check the overall culture of the city or village they were in. Eve-teasers (guys who passed comments at girls, sometimes harassing or following them) were generally ignored unless the matter got serious. College authorities, parents and others usually kept an eye on the day-to-day happenings and had things under control.

Groping strangers in public transportation vehicles were usually dealt with loud words, slaps or protests, or instinctive maneuvering to avoid perverts (I now think many women are armed with invisible antennae, a kind of sixth sense that they use to protect themselves in crowds). Other right-minded passengers would usually rally for the victim and help her out.

Harassment was severe in some parts of India, not so much in certain liberal city neighborhoods where girls freely roamed around in jeans or skirts, sometimes even in shorts. Mumbai and Bangalore are typically considered open and relatively "safe" though crimes against women are on the rise there, too. There is no absolutely safe place in India, or for that matter, anywhere in the world.

I have heard stories of young girls whose education has suffered because they were being stalked by some random dude on the street. Girls are often advised to cover up, wear traditional Indian outfits so as to not attract unwanted attention, to not chat much with the opposite sex and stick to their books and classes, be good girls and get married to a suitable guy that their parents approved of, once they completed graduation. Woe unto the poor girl if she was blessed with uncommon good looks!

Even today, dumb politicians make dumb comments such as this - girls wearing skirts attract trouble.

However, I have rarely heard of any of the stalkers being reprimanded.
Can you imagine such things being tolerated in any developed country? Stalking and harassing someone can easily get you a prison term in those places.

As some newspaper columnists have noted, Indian movies openly glorified heroes chasing their objects of affection until they said, "Yes". Real life wannabe Romeos went about whistling and leering at girls and passing lewd comments, without any thought for their feelings and reactions. While I am not saying that movies and television cause people to behave in a certain manner, they do add to the white noise of the culture that silently shapes people's minds.
Note: There is a huge difference at attracting some stares on the street for your voluptuous figure decked in tight clothing and people just ogling, sometimes just because you are dressed differently.
There is a difference between a harmless sexual look and threatening lechery and almost every girl understands that on a deep level.

Today, many Indians blame Bollywood for its vulgarity and item numbers featuring skimpily clad dancers. They feel it is contributing to fueling passions that endanger women. However, most Indians recognize that it is the woefully slow law and order mechanism and corruption in government that have led to this state of affairs. Added to it is the deeply patriarchal culture where women are worshipped on one hand and made to pay dowry on the other hand, preserve their chastity and hold up the honor of the family.

Unlike common myths, all Indians do not abort female fetuses or pay hefty dowries or, gasp, burn widows. India has a multitude of ethnicities based on language and within those are castes and communities. Different groups have differing customs and some are more patriarchal than others.
What is probably a common thread running through all of them is a conservatism - no-sex-before-marriage, respect-for-one's-elders and following the traditions of the family.

Somehow, in walking the tightrope between preserving its unique cultural identity and embracing external ideas, India is facing the loss of compassion within. There is a lot of work to be done, by every family and every individual, to cultivate respect for another human's life and dignity.
Most Indians do a sterling job of parenting and imparting values to their children but many families struggle with alcoholism, abuse, poverty or simply neglect from parents who may not be that poor.

What is a sign of hope is that Indians are standing up and fighting for their country, their future and the safety and life of everyone who sets foot on this ancient land.
New laws are being framed against child abuse and assault, questions are being asked very publicly and people are taking matters to the police and the courts.
One day, I dream of an India where people can just be who they are, without being brutalized or violated, where children and women can move about freely without their innocence being robbed and where compassion rules the day.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., we all have a dream...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Back in 2013

Dear readers,

I am back online in 2013.

I was away in India for close to three months and have been busy getting back on track since then. I have lots to share and will do so in the coming weeks.

Ciao!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Starving artists, fame and luck

"Grub", penned by Elise Blackwell, is the novel that I recently finished reading. It is a very engrossing and touching tale of struggling writers - wannabe celebrity authors and the pure artists who would rather die in obscurity and penury than write something below their dignity to just pander to the masses.

Intertwined in all this is, of course, their love lives. However, the novel also explores the publishing business, the complicated mindset of editors and publishers and how their ideas, preferences and tastes could literally make or break a budding writer.

Many people have said that the Internet is one of the most democratic media ever. Just take a case of this blog that you are just reading. I am able to air my thoughts freely for free, without any fear of censure or even having a career as a writer. I am happy that I can inform and entertain a few of you who care to set aside the time to read my rants and reflections. For that, I am truly thankful.

Some people even publish books online. It is a risk in some ways because, I feel:

1. Unless you have a well-established readership and some sort of credibility online, your material could get plagiarized and no one would notice. I am not sure how this works under the Creative Commons License and such.

Sharing general ideas on a subject while linking to other relevant websites, blogs and sources is one thing. Writing an original piece of fiction is quite another.

2. Money - How does one market something online? Some people have posted free content online and then requested donations, if their readers are willing and able. Sometimes, they release books chapter by chapter and all a reader has to do is pay online with a credit/debit card and download the content.

Check out puttylike.com for an example.

Online pricing can be far less than that for a paperback or hardback as publishing costs on paper and the distribution fee, not to mention, the salary overheads of those who work in publishing, are all added to the cost of the book.

Even with that, you have to find a way to make your work visible to people online. Not all good writers would be good marketers.

Imagine the number of good writers who never found a publisher for their initial work, got discouraged and just gave up on their dreams of becoming a published author. Then, reality bites in the form of rent/mortgage to pay, families to feed and clothes to wear. Some people can manage a day job and continue to toil away at their passions on the side.

However, many people, particularly those who have entered the married-with-kids phase (even without kids has its complications), time is a real constraint. Commuting to and from work, a full time job, housework or cooking in the evenings, socializing and outings on the weekends, etc. take up almost all of one's energy and time. And, if you happen to have a soft spot for your TV or the vast spider trap known as the World Wide Web, you probably have little or no time left for hobbies.
Days roll into weeks, weeks into months and you wonder, "Is it the end of summer already?" Maybe you look at a photo album that is just two or three years old and think of how much time has flown by.

Maybe that is the reason many people don't "do what they love". Despite the mantra circulating on the Internet and in popular culture, most cannot find the courage to quit a lifestyle of security and take a giant leap into the unknown, especially if they have dependents. You have to build up a foundation first before you make your hobby into a monetary pursuit, whether it means taking acting or piano classes on weekends, writing late in the evening or volunteering at a charity you always wanted to work for full time.

I have realized this all the more as I grow older, with all the constraints of full time employment, social life and maintaining the bare minimum of domesticity.

One of my favorite bloggers, the author of the Unlost, has a lovely post on this subject. Do check it out.

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The book also raised the question of sticking to the high road of art for art's sake in a pure, unselfish way, expressing the creator's sentiments in their unvarnished form that will probably be appreciated only by a select few, versus trying to appeal to the masses, playing to the gallery. There is the middle ground where the artist tries to keep his/her soul intact while trying to charm the audience.

Most forms of popular entertainment try to walk this tightrope. Take Hollywood for example. While the industry makes movies such as the "Mission Impossible" and "American Pie" series, it also churns out numerous romantic comedies known condescendingly as chick-flicks. Then there are the truly serious and arty movies, sometimes made by studios and sometimes by independent film makers, which are not exactly mega crowd pullers. The Oscars are often awarded to movies and roles that the common public doesn't watch until the awards are announced or in the season preceding them.

"Finding Neverland", "The Reader", "The Good Shepherd", "Becoming Jane", "Atonement" and "A Dangerous Method" are some of the movies that I have seen in the last few years, which had both solid performances and stellar storytelling. Some of them probably were not as widely seen during a theatrical release as the Superman, Spiderman, Batman kind of movies.

There are some movies that touch one's heart and make it sing and still manage to garner both public adulation and critical acclaim. "Titanic", "Harry Potter" and "The Dark Knight" are some such films, in my opinion.

The same applies to other creative fields such as writing or music.

There is also an element of snobbery that comes with the territory. The reader who devours classics and discusses Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare will probably never be caught dead with a (gasp)"chick-flick". Heck, even "Pride and Prejudice" may be below his standards.
On the other hand, a person who loves to read anything and everything can be intimidated by the prose of Shakespeare or Thomas Hardy.

Some listeners may think of rap, hip-hop and even many pop songs to be populist and not worth their highly refined ears, confining themselves to classical and certain rock bands only. (I don't know of such types personally but I am guessing that it is a fair statement, considering the number of folks who tout the virtues of art films over mainstream cinema).

There is a fine line between tasteful discernment and pure snobbery.

I think I have decided to go with whatever touches my heart. There are popular films, books and songs that just flit by, leaving no lasting memory or making you vibrate with any sort of emotion other than temporary pleasure. Some popular entertainment may actually leave you with a headache and deep regret over hours of wasted time:).
However, there are several simple works of art that are composed with common words, sounds and mundane, everyday tidbits that truly get to your soul. Many of these are the works of lesser known artists. Popular movies and songs often lift you up out of a funk and look at the lighter, brighter side of life.
It is also quite possible that, sometimes, one just does not "get" a classic. Case in point - try reading Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea". It is not everyone's cup of tea regardless of its literary merits.
For those who are familiar with Indian classical music, try listening to the notes of a Carnatic or Hindustani 'raga' (for my non-Indian readers, Carnatic and Hindustani are the two streams of Indian classical music, a 'raga' is a set of musical notes that can be used in different permutations to create tunes that belong to the same family). If you haven't developed a taste for classical music, you may probably switch to your iPod playlist, frantically searching for the top hits.

I myself face this tightrope as a blogger. If you have been following this blog for some time, you must have noticed that this is not devoted to any particular theme.

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Another book based on the role of chance/luck/fate in success is Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "The Black Swan". No, this has nothing to do with the movie for which Natalie Portman won the Oscar. It is an excellent film, no doubt, but this book is about highly improbable events that leave a lasting impact on society.
Such events cannot be predicted. He talks about two areas, Mediocristan and Extremistan. Art, literature, scientific research all fall under Extremistan where one book or work that gets the right publicity at the right time, can eclipse many other equally good works. These are professions that have a kind of "winner-takes-all" setup though I personally believe that the term "winner" should not be strictly restricted to winners of prizes, be it the Nobel or Grammy or Oscar.

Initial publicity can lead to more work.  If the subsequent work is also acclaimed, the artist's reputation further solidifies, thus completing a virtuous cycle.

The only thing an artist can do, just like anyone else anywhere, is just focus on his/her work and not worry about the outcomes. As it is said in the Bhagavad Gita (rough translation), one of the holiest books of the Hindus,"You do not have the right to the fruits of your labor" (see Wikipedia for more results).

And that is easier said than done.

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Note:  All movie links point to imdb.com and book links point to Amazon.com and the rest to Wikipedia.org.
Many thanks to all these web sites.