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 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.


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.


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.


Note:  All movie links point to and book links point to and the rest to
Many thanks to all these web sites.



Friday, September 21, 2012

Ganesh Chaturthi, astrology, fate and free will

Lately, I have been reading a lot on astrology, particularly Western astrology. Coming from India,  the land of mysticism, spirituality and practices such as yoga, astrology is a subject that is not far removed from the important matters in life.

For example, September 19, 2012 was Ganesh Chaturthi, the birthday of the elephant-headed deity of Hindus, Ganesha or Ganpati as he is popularly known. Each year in Mumbai, there are ten day celebrations with gigantic idols being brought into various city neighborhoods amidst great pomp and street revelry. Massive 'mandaps' (temporary tent-like structures erected for ceremonies and festivities) are decorated with themes, sometimes featuring tableaus of Indian religious tales and even contemporary social issues.

I miss the festivities in India, being far away here in America. My memories of the various Ganesh festivals of my childhood and youth are not perfectly photographic, but the gist remains.
For ten days, the entire vicinity of the abode of the Ganesha idol would be agog with activity, music blaring from the speakers, local competitions and prizes and an air of gaiety that would last for typically ten days.
At the end of this festive period, all the idols would be taken for immersion to the nearest water body, be it a lake or the sea. Apart from the community festivities, individual families would have their own small Ganesha idols and take them for immersion on one of the following days: second, fifth, seventh or tenth.
Some people say that the bringing of the Ganesha idol into the community and then immersing it is symbolic of birth and death, finally our bodies merge into dust.

Indian festivals follow the lunar calendar. Therefore, Ganesh Chaturthi falls on the fourth day of the waxing phase of the moon in a particular month. The word 'Chaturthi' itself refers to the fourth day of the lunar fortnight (not sure about the origin, but the word 'char' pronounced in the same way as the first four letters in 'charcoal', means 'four').
The day of this festival, like all other festivals, corresponds to the moon being in a particular zodiac sign within certain degrees. This is called a 'nakshatra'. A 'nakshatra' also refers to a particular star or constellation. Please read the above-linked Wikipedia article or sources on Vedic astrology for more information. The 12 signs of the zodiac are further divided into 27 nakshatras. Ganesh Chaturthi falls under the 'nakshatra' of 'Svathi', with the moon in Libra.

In arranged marriages, where the parents seek matrimonial alliances for their children, compatible horoscopes are extremely important for the matter to even proceed into the phase of boy-meets-girl.

Note to non-Indian readers: Arranged marriages are not forced marriages. In many cases, particularly in urban areas, the prospective groom and bride are introduced by family members and typically at least communicate over the phone or Internet for several months before tying the knot.
In liberal families, they even go out and date. There are, of course, several other cases where people often marry the first person they are set up with because they have zero relationship experience and experience family pressure to settle down with the 'best' available match.

Surprisingly, on visiting certain Western astrology forums, many folks were comparing their charts to ex-boyfriends and husbands, crushes and current romantic partners, drawing up synastry points and karmic aspects, etc.

The difference, I think, is in the way people approach relationships in the West and places like India. I have never heard of anyone in the US or in European countries starting to date someone only after vetting their astrological compatibility. In India, at least in the case of many arranged marriages, that is precisely the approach.

I am starting to think of astrological charts being a sort of ancient personality analysis. I am not asserting that astrology is true or false, just the reflections that it has induced in me.
Sites such as eHarmony claim to match personalities and bring up profiles of suitable matches, an approach that is not dissimilar to filtering out astrologically incompatible matches.

Western and Indian astrology follow different zodiac systems, so your Sun and Moon signs may be different in each system. The interpretation of charts is different in each system, too.

I have personally noticed that many Western astrology sites, particularly those managed by individuals, tend to be encouraging and offer readings based on potential, not predicting destinies. There are some who merely list individual characteristics and relationship potential in a kind of inflexible manner.

On the other hand, many Indian (Vedic) astrology sites offer hard predictions related to fame, career, family, marriage, etc.

The cultures of the East and the West are seen reflected in the astrology readings and predictions, too.
An Indian site may offer advice to help solve marital issues whereas a Western site may ask you if you want to stay in or leave the relationship.

Even if one believes in astrology, I think one should check out an astrologer's views on marriage, relationships, etc. For example, if someone tells you that you are compatible with person X, what does that mean exactly? A relationship that is good on paper in the bedroom may still be lacking in emotional sensitivity and intellectual understanding. Over a period of time, the other incompatibilities may start eating into the good areas, too.

A person's individual personality, family background and education all influence his/her capacity to relate to other people. I wonder if synastry aspects alone would do any good if a person is not truly committed to marriage.

The same points apply to career, too. Your parents determine your genes while your education and exposure to opportunities determine your native and developed mental faculties and talents.
Your own efforts, desires, focus and attitude determine how far you can actually go in life. There is an unknown factor though and that is luck/the hand of God/fate/karma. Does astrology point to this unknown? I don't know.

Why do some people become more famous and beloved than others, even if their peers are hardworking and talented, too? Why do some people seem contented with perfectly ordinary lives? Even siblings raised in the same environment are not similar in this respect.

Do addiction, criminal behavior and psychological disorders have a fatalistic component?

Society has always struggled to balance the viewpoints of individual free will against preordained destiny. Books on success in pretty much anything, be it relationships to career and life in general, focus on individual effort. Work hard for your dreams, your marriage, ... fill in the blanks and you shall have it.

This is, of course, a very inspiring message and absolutely necessary. If I treat my partner with indifference, how well will that relationship be? If I don't study hard for my exams, how can I hope to score highly? If I don't work productively and aspire to something, I may fritter away precious years in my career.

However, there is no guarantee of satisfaction or happiness by merely toiling away. Relationships have aspects such as chemistry, long term compatibility and individual viewpoints and desires gradually diverging over time due to factors that are beyond one person's control.
Likewise, some people seem to catch all the right opportunities and get noticed, helping them reach the very top of their field, whereas some of their peers fade into the unknown, even if they worked really hard.

I look at astrology charts for introspection and finding out what my interests and desires may be. It is good to derive inspiration from the positive aspects in it, for example, if my chart points to a great imagination and I find it to be true in my past, I should try to capitalize on it.
Sometimes, chart reading may point me to latent talents that I never explored.

Scientists routinely dismiss astrology as weird superstition. However, I wonder if there is something more to it than we know. I admit there is a heavy element of fatalism in many astrological profiles and forecasts.
What if the position of the stars is more indicative of events rather than the cause of them? I mean -maybe a certain planetary configuration is not going to get you fired from your job or wreck your married life, but is merely an external indicator of things that you already know such as a crappy job or relationship.

I have often wondered how ancient astrologers were able to study concepts such as houses, which constellation the moon is in, how some planets move slower than the others, what constellation is just above the horizon, which planet is going to enter a particular constellation years from now, which constellation an eclipse is going to fall in and when, etc. There is quite a bit of mathematics involved. This was all done in an age where there were no fancy telescopes, satellites, space shuttles or computers.

Astrology, in its benign form, is mathematics mixed with mysticism, star gazing combined with psyche gazing.

However, like any other field, it is not free from dogma. For example, a statement that person X born under sun sign or moon sign Y has certain characteristics and may or may not be famous/successful, should be subjected to scrutiny. People should be asking - who defined the characteristics for each zodiac sign? How many scientific studies done in today's day and age can validate these points?

This brings us to the question of free will.

There is a temple in the southern state of India, Tamil Nadu, that houses manuscripts based on an ancient form of fortune-telling in India, called 'naadi jyosiyam'; the word 'jyosiyam' means 'astrology'. Check out this fascinating article on Wikipedia about 'nadi astrology'.

These are ancient documents that apparently have the details of each person ever born on this planet, with their destinies, too. A couple of people in my circle of friends and acquaintances have visited this place and were blown away by the details that the person reading their charts, was able to tell them just by knowing very few things about them such as their full name. They were even told things about their future that eventually manifested.

Legend has it that the 'rishi' (sage), Agastya, wrote down these predictions thousands of years ago.

Elsewhere in Europe in the 16th century, Nostradamus is reputed to have predicted cataclysmic events.
In far recent times, there was a famous psychic in the United States called Edgar Cayce, who was able to make starting predictions about both individuals and world events.

People still consult psychics to gain insights about themselves, their relationships and the future.

Personally, I don't think I would want to know my future because the uncertainty and opportunity that life presents are what makes it fun. I also feel that I may get biased and change my behavior subconsciously to match these predictions, thus making them self-fulfilling prophecies.
And, last but not the least, it seems extremely unfair that the game has been fixed before it has even begun.

If my memory serves me right, I once had a mild argument with one of my school teachers. She said that God already knows your destiny. I questioned that because I felt that this line of thought completely negates everything about free will and individual responsibility. Why then should criminals be punished? What then is the point of sin, punishment and karma?

The Universe is full of mysteries. We should do everything we can to rise to our best but have the humility to accept that we don't know everything.

There is a famous prayer that comes to mind:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can and
Wisdom to know the difference."

Whether one believes in God or not, the last line seems to be as hard as or even harder than the first two - wisdom.



Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Idols and distant objects of affection

There are great loves and then there are infatuations, the unrequited loves and the loves that exist merely in our imagination. The objects of our affection may be distant and may probably never even get to know us.

Even those loves have a potential to transform us, release our potential and make something out of our lives.
I was watching the movie, "Julie and Julia" the other day where a young woman, Julie Powell, decides to cook all the 524 recipes from the famous TV personality and chef, Julia Child's book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking".

Spoiler alert: The real Julia Child is not impressed with her efforts after Julie gains acclaim through her blog in which she documents her daily efforts. In fact, her idol is offended. Julie is hurt at this reaction but, the bottom line is, her inspiration served a purpose, to fire her up and dare a task outside her comfort zone. It helped unleash her own creativity and achieve something useful in her life.

Idols can inspire and motivate us to reach for the stars. Even if our admiration and adoration are never reciprocated, we can be rest assured that our affections were not in vain.

There is a story in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, about a young boy called Ekalavya. He was a great admirer of the sage Dronacharya (this name is a combination of Drona, the name and Acharya, which means sage), who instructed princes of his day in archery.

Every day, Ekalavya would practice his shots in front of an idol of Dronacharya. He became an expert in the course of time. When Dronacharya finally discovers his secret admirer and his proficiency, he asks him for a 'dakshina' (a fee) - Ekalavya's thumb, which would effectively reduce his archery skills considerably. This was to ensure that no one would surpass his favorite royal pupils. Courtesy of Wikipedia, there is another reason Drona supposedly asked for such an outrageous fee - he was angered that Ekalavya had stolen his education and not obtained it the right way.
Ekalavya gladly gives his thumb to Drona. I know, it is all very unfair and this was way back in the ages when emancipation of the lower castes had not yet occurred.

In my opinion and that of many others, Ekalavya emerges as a true hero and an ideal disciple in this story. Some parents would probably lament - if only students these days had the motivation and determination of Ekalavya...

That is the power of devotion, of unconditional affection and respect.

In a more spiritual story that had a happy ending, the medieval saint Mirabai of India, fell in love with Lord Krishna, the flute-playing, cowherd charmer deity of Hindus. Yes, the deity who was no longer present physically on this planet. She composed songs of ecstasy for her beloved, danced to the tune of them, inspiring throngs with her 'bhakti' (devotion). This was scandalous for a young, married woman in India of those days but, fortunately for her, she had a sympathetic husband. Finally, she is supposed to have merged into the Divine, thus achieving union with her Beloved.

Mira is now celebrated as a Saint (Mirabai is again a combination of the name Mira and the suffix, Bai).

The object of one's affection can be a huge inspiration to create, write, paint, excel, achieve and even emulate qualities of humility, grace and courage. Your favorite celebrity crush can actually do you a lot of good:).

This post is dedicated to one of my celebrity crushes, someone I hold in awe and respect and secretly hope to meet someday:).


Monday, August 13, 2012

Nationality - Olympics and representation

Note to readers: Spelling conforms to UK English. I am going back to my pre-US days and since the Games are being hosted by London, it is a nod to the mother country of the English language. 

Not that there is any law stopping me from using whatever version of English I please, US, UK, Australian or even Hinglish (Hindi mixed with English) or, for that matter, pig Latin. Just thinking, I am going to try pig Latin one day and give you readers the legend, it will be like an encrypted message, ha ha.

There are always some heavyweights when it comes to international sports. Countries such as the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Australia and the United Kingdom along with some European countries such as France and Germany, always come out on tops in the overall medal tally.

As a native born Indian, I usually share the common lament of my compatriots: When, oh when, are we going to see our tricolour fluttering at the medal ceremony and hear "Jana Gana Mana" being played?

To their credit, Indians did win a handful of medals this time. And I wholeheartedly congratulate our athletes, Vijay Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, Sushil Kumar and Saina Nehwal for keeping our 'jhanda/kodi' ('jhanda' - meaning flag in Hindi, 'kodi' meaning flag in Tamil) flying high. Check out this slideshow on Indian medal winners at this year's Olympics on India Today.

I really did not want to get into whining mode. Honestly. I am not going to whine about how our government doesn't do enough, how our parents don't encourage us to pursue sports, blah, blah, sniffle. This post is not about one particular country. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is about how many nations participate in the making of a champion or a series of winners.

Training away from home, or at home with foreign help -

Take the example of the 10, 000 metres winner, Mo Farah. He was born in Somalia, emigrated to the UK when he was about eight and trained in Portland, Oregon, United States with one of America's famous long distance running and marathon coaches, Alberto Salazar. His training partner, the American, Galen Rupp, took home the silver medal. Isn't that a sweet victory for the trio of coach and pupils?

To add to this pinnacle of achievement, Mo Farah also took home the gold for the 5, 000 metres.

I found this article on the British newspaper site, the Telegraph, about how his move to the US transformed his athletic career.

[Incidentally, Portland, Oregon was my residence of a few years and still is a place I call home in my heart. It is a verdant green city surrounded by the snow capped Cascades, forests, trails and waterfalls and gets a lot of rain, just like the British Isles.
The flag bearer of the US Olympic team at the opening ceremony in London, the fencer, Mariel Zagunis is from Beaverton, part of the Portland metro area, too, so that makes me doubly proud.]

Mo Farah's win is a prime example of a product of multiple nationalities. This goes not only for athletes who represent their home country but train abroad but also those who train at home with foreign coaches.

CNN had a few inspiring stories of athletes from lesser privileged backgrounds and impoverished nations, who were helped by either emigrating to a developed nation or help from athletes of well-to-do nations.
The runner who was born in Sudan but who trains in and represents the US, Lopez Lomong, and this Rwandan mountain bike rider, Adrien Niyonshuti, featured on CNN's site, are two such respective examples.

Then, there is the fabled Chinese 16-year-old swimmer, Ye Shiwen, who apparently had a lower split time in the last 50 metres of her 400 metre swimming race than many male greats. She trained in Australia.

Major International Sports

In recent years, India, with its mad craze for the game of cricket, had its national team coached by top notch former players from abroad such as Australians, John Wright and Greg Chappell. India's World Cup winning team of 2011 was coached by Gary Kirsten of South Africa. Many top Indian players have honed their skills on the green fields of English county cricket grounds, as mentioned in this article on Indian Express.

There are many athletes who have benefited from training and competing in the US. European and Asian basketball players such as Rudy Fernandez who played for Spain and Yao Ming who has represented China, have been members of NBA teams in the US.

Similarly, many international soccer players are members of top European leagues, helping them to compete with and learn from the best in the world.

Sponsorship -

Many athletes are sponsored by multinational companies such as Coca Cola, PepsiAdidas and Nike, who by their very definition owe their roots to one country but subsequent reach to many.

Immigration - 

If you noticed, there is quite a bit of racial diversity in the delegations of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, countries that typically attract a lot of immigrants from Asia, Africa and other European countries.

The US gymnastics team is the quintessential immigrant success story. I probably don't need to emphasize why I picked this, gymnastics nut as I am:) but there is another reason. Unlike basketball or tennis, gymnastics was not traditionally a US-dominated sport. Sure, America has a tradition of acrobatics, too.
However, utter the word gymnastics, and one would always be reminded of Russian and Romanian girls and guys, with their pointy toes and toned, graceful bodies like ballet dancers. The former USSR, Romania and some of the other Eastern European countries, along with China and Japan, were the leaders on the international gymnastics stage. Even today, Russia dominates events such as rhythmic gymnastics, just check out these London 2012 results on BBC.
Here is a great piece on Russian gymnasts in Splice Today.

In the 80s and 90s, this slowly started to change. Today, the Americans are a force to reckon with and it is very rare to not see the Stars and Stripes being raised at a gymnastics medal ceremony.

This is the site of USA Gymnastics with records of champions from the revival of the modern Olympic Games until now.

Here is a very informative slideshow on the history of US gymnastics on the bleacher report. I learnt that Americans did win medals at international events in the early 1900s but lost out later to European countries, Japan and China.

If you watched the drama of the women's balance beam final with Aly Raisman of the US initially being pipped to the bronze by Catalina Ponor of Romania, you might have noticed a certain grey-haired gentleman rise up in the stands, asking Aly's coach to appeal the decision.
There was a subsequent appeal and after re-evaluation by the judges, the bronze was awarded to Aly.

That distinguished gentleman was Bela Karolyi and his wife, Marta Karolyi, was sitting right next to him. Bela and Marta Karolyi are the famous coaches of champions past and present, one of whom happens to be the icon, Nadia Comaneci, the first woman to score a  perfect 10, the shining star of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. This couple defected to the US from the Romania before the fall of communism. Marta Karolyi was the Team Co-ordinator for the US this time.

Nastia Liukin, the Beijing Olympics individual all-round champion, was born in Russia to a father and mother who were both gymnastics champions. They emigrated to the US when Nastia was a little girl and the US got a gem of an immigrant family. The rest, as they say, is history.

Then there is Liang Chow. This is the coach of Shawn Johnson, the silver medalist in the individual all round final of the women's artistic gymnastics event in Beijing four years ago.
This year, he is the proud coach of the gold medalist in the women's individual all-round final, Gabrielle Douglas, known more famously as Gabby Douglas. She made history as the first African-American woman to win the title. I haven't seen any non-Caucasian win it before.

Liang Chow represented China as a world class medal-winning gymnast before emigrating to the US. Many former champion gymnasts such as Daniela Silivas and Nadia Comaneci of Romania and Svetlana Boginskaya of the former USSR have moved to the US, too.

The United States is not the only one to benefit from immigration. Among the young, pony-tailed, teeny-bopper brigade of gymnasts in London, there was a veteran, Oksana Chusovitina. This woman is 37 years old,  a gnarled old tree in the world of gymnastics where even 25 is considered over the hill. She is one of the two older gymnasts in competition in this Olympiad.
She managed to surprise us all with her somersaults and flips. Her story is remarkable not only because of her age. Her unique and trying circumstances have contributed to a life full of twists and turns, just like her routine. [Do read this column on Slate about the perils and triumphs of gymnastics and the book, "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes". I got the link for the older gymnasts from the Slate article.]

Oksana originally represented the USSR when she was a young girl. After the Soviet Union collapsed, she performed for Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, her son was diagnosed with leukaemia and the quest for his treatment landed her in Germany, her current home. She now sports the German team colours. At this age, she still made it to the event finals of the vault. Oksana is truly an example of humans being parts of different countries and being a positive contributor to every one of them.

I heard of the American footwear giant, Nike's programme to encourage basketball at the grassroots level in China. [Nike is from Portland, Oregon, too, woo hoo!]. Read this article on Oregon Business.

I am just thinking, may we see a LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal coaching a budding Indian basketball team some day? Or a Russian coaching an Indonesian gymnastics team? It would be great to see more variety, more healthy competition in every sport.
The world would be a fitter place with more inspired youngsters both physically and mentally.

Many thanks to all the original sources I have linked to.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Reflections on the Olympics, London 2012

Note to readers: This post conforms to spelling according to UK English rules. Just thought I'd go back to my pre-US days and since the Games are being hosted by London, this is a nod to the British:).

For the past ten or so days, I have been glued to the television for several hours, watching NBC's telecast of the London Olympics of 2012.

The Olympics and also the Asian and the Commonwealth Games were part of my growing up years. I have always been fascinated by the parade of virtually all the nations on this earth, and all the events with the best of each country pitted against each other.

The Olympics are, of course, the king of all sports events, in my humble opinion. This is THE most varied, best known, most prestigious sporting event there is. It is a truly international pageant.

It is one of those rare occasions where even people who normally don't care much for sports sit and watch even lesser known events such as water polo, judo and synchronised swimming. And, I wait with bated breath for my favourite event, gymnastics.
If you have read my previous posts, you might be aware that I am a huge fan of the gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, even though she had retired by the time I was old enough to even comprehend what the Olympics meant. I had watched a four-part movie about her life when I was in school and was completely blown over. I scribbled doodles of gymnasts on random scraps of paper, nursing the impossible dream that I would be one, too:). Ah, the imagination of a child!

The names of various past gymnasts and athletes from other disciplines from countries such as Romania, Ethiopia, Ukraine and China still ring a bell in my head, though I can't utter a single word in any of their languages. Some of these athletes are Svetlana Khorkina (Gymnastics, Russia), Ecatrina Szabo (Gymnastics, Romania), Daniela Silivas (Gymnastics, Romania), Carly Patterson (Gymnastics, USA), Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson (Gymnastics, USA), Haile Gebrselassie (Long distance running, Track and Field, Ethiopia), Sergey Bubka (Pole Vault, Ukraine), Wu Minxia (Diving, China), Ian Thorpe (Swimming, Australia) and Dara Torres (Swimming, USA). Stars such as the legendary swimmer and Olympic record holder for the most medals, Michael Phelps of the US and the runner, Usain Bolt of Jamaica will be remembered and will continue to inspire for years to come.

I would (and still do) eagerly wait for events such as gymnastics, swimming, diving and synchronised swimming. The Games are a place where you can savour the breadth and beauty of human diversity, hearing obscure, normally unpronounceable names from Latvia to Laos, Ecuador to Ethiopia, and the United States to the United Arab Emirates. It is one common ground to see the multicoloured flags of so many nations and also get to know the new countries that have recently been born.

As one of my friends said, you also get to see the people from every corner of this planet, what they look like and sometimes even hear a smattering of their languages.

The opening ceremony was a delight for history and literature buffs featuring scenes from the Industrial Revolution, the pre-Industrial pastoral lifestyle, the various literary characters from Harry Potter to Alice in Wonderland and all that make Britain a great contributor to humanity.
Some comparisons to the spectacular show that the Chinese put up about four years ago at Beijing did pop up in my circle, but, I think each country showed us something unique, their culture and history, beautiful people and garments, dance and music.

The highlight of the evening was, of course, the James Bond clip, featuring Queen Elizabeth II with the actor Daniel Craig, and then the Queen jumping off a helicopter above the actual Olympic stadium:) (even if it was a stunt double who did the actual jump). I have watched many opening and closing ceremonies, full of pomp and colour and co-ordinated dances, but, wow! This particular sequence will be probably etched in my memory for years to come.
Dances and costumes, parades and visual effects fade from memory but characters like Bond and a very formal, famous royal, known for her reserve, performing such a daring act, stay much longer.
Danny Boyle, the well known director of movies such as "Slumdog Millionaire", pulled off a commendable feat.

Now that the Games will soon come to a close, there will be withdrawal symptoms for sure. The motto "Inspire a Generation" does hold true, I believe. Along with my friends and family, I have been inspired to work out, stretch, get fit and accomplish my goals. If an event can get you off the couch and do something, it is well worth the time, money and media coverage.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Colorado shootings - Senseless violence and Guns

About two weeks ago, there was a terrible tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, as a lone gunman opened fire at a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises", in the wee hours of 20th July, 2012, killing about 14 people and severely wounding several others.

My condolences and prayers towards the families of those affected, including that of the perpetrator.
May the souls of those who perished, rest in peace.

I read several Internet comments for and against gun control by impassioned people who are rightly outraged. Here is an article on Yahoo honoring the victims. There are tons of comments.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the US and its laws, there is a certain part of the US Bill of Rights that is related to this discussion. It is the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights that allows citizens to bear arms for self-defense.

Overall, the sentiment does seem to lean towards the idea that such crimes cannot totally be prevented as crazy people and criminals who are hell bent on breaking the law, always manage to get hold of weapons, legally or otherwise.

Gun advocates say that if common folks are always armed, there will always be some sane, concerned citizen in a crowd of unfortunate victims, who might fire at such perpetrators and prevent them from unleashing their insanity on the rest. That does seem like a wholly plausible line of defense.

On the other hand, proponents of gun control say that as long as guns are freely available, the chances of such crimes occurring are very high with a resulting high number of casualties. This is also true.

Gun advocates further argue that if guns were banned, violent criminals would always find other means such as knives, explosives, etc. So should we start banning knives? Given the worldwide newspaper accounts of people being stabbed every now and then by loved ones or strangers, knives are a very lethal weapon, too.

Their opponents say that there is no way a knife can be used to kill so many people at a time. I have to agree with the opponents on this one.

Extent of damage
A knife can cause as much damage as a gun or worse when held at close range. When it comes to operating in a crowd though, the situation changes completely.
Unless the attacker happens to be some highly skilled medieval-era-type warrior that can throw an entire array of knives at moving targets in quick succession with a high level of precision, the chances of killing many people in a crowd, who are running helter skelter, are extremely low.

Just take a look at history. How did some nations and cultures manage to subjugate others on the battlefield?  Superior warfare technology was one of the many factors. Of course, the history of colonialism and world wars is far more complex with lots of intrigue, backstabbing, infighting, spying and politics at its Machiavellian best.
However, advanced guns and modern artillery did offer some countries significant advantages over their counterparts.

Do you think an army of aboriginals/natives with poisonous arrows and spears would ever be able to compete against an army with sophisticated machine guns and cannons? Unless the army with guns were to be vastly outnumbered and showered with a sky full of arrows, it is extremely improbable.
There are some exceptions when native armies have outnumbered and conquered invaders largely with their traditional weapons but the reasons were better organization, formation and greater numbers as seen in this very informative Wikipedia article about the battle between the British and the Zulu warriors. Another related article is the armed Maji Maji rebellion in Tanzania.

Physics supports bullets far more than arrows.

When a large weapon such as a spear is thrown at a target, it is visible enough to be thwarted or avoided if seen in proper light. Also, there is a limit to the speed with which a human being can hurl any weapon with his/her bare hands. A bullet, on the other hand, is tiny and travels so fast that there is not much time to react. What the bullet lacks in mass, it makes up several times in its velocity, hence the total momentum of impact is enough to cause substantial damage.
And, if it is a series of bullets in a sophisticated and powerful gun, the chances of hitting targets at close range are very high with not much human body power needed.

Simply put, the number of probable casualties that can be inflicted with a gun in a short period of time, is significantly higher than with a knife or some other common weapon.

Unintentional casualties
There is another problem with guns. Even if one were to keep a gun under lock and key in one's house, if a child were to accidentally get hold of it and pull the trigger, a terrible tragedy could occur. A knife, unless used to stab someone deliberately, causes cuts and deep wounds at the worst. A bullet, if it hits someone in a vital region at close range, can kill almost instantaneously.

Then, there are issues with irresponsible adults. Overreaction to perceived threats can cause loss of innocent lives. A perfect example is the recent Trayvon Martin case in Florida and the resulting uproar over "Stand Your Ground" laws. Check out this article in The Week for details about the case. There are some excellent blogs on this point elsewhere on newspaper websites such as the Guardian from the UK (sorry, can't find the exact posts).

Human reaction time
Unless a weapon is within reach and the victim has enough presence of mind, it may not serve the purpose of self defense. Imagine you had a weapon locked up in your garage and are attacked in your bedroom by a masked intruder in the middle of the night. If you are half asleep and the attacker succeeds in overpowering you, will your weapon be of any use?

Most crazy mass murderers succeed precisely because their victims are vulnerable, exposed and completely unprepared.

State laws versus private regulations
Secondly, even if the state or country of residence allows guns freely, a private institution may still have the right to ban them from its premises. Examples include religious and educational institutions.

Gathering from several user comments on Yahoo and other sites, that is apparently what happened at the Colorado theater. The theater itself had banned guns from its premises although the state of Colorado has not. Law abiding, sane patrons complied with the rules whereas the gunman who intended to cause mayhem, did not.
Neither gun advocates or opponents can do anything about this discrepancy. After all, we can't insist that a sacred place of worship such as a temple or church, be forced to let deadly weapons on its property.

Those who quote the Second Amendment must realize that freedom always comes at a price. There are people who will misuse their freedoms to hurt people and unlike free speech, the right to carry weapons comes at a much higher price.

Violent Crime, Law Enforcement and Deadly Weapons
In any society, there has to be a certain amount of trust in people if it is to be called a civilized and progressive one. If one has to constantly look over one's shoulder and be prepared to draw out a weapon, there is very little law and order to speak of. As much as people enjoy the Wild Wild West kind of movies, I don't think many people would want to be transported to that era.

There are a couple of scenarios.
(a) Poor law enforcement, strict gun control and availability of guns outside legal means - 
This is a scenario similar to tin pot dictatorships, nations with civil war and/or those infested by mafia or drug cartels. In such cases, the gun becomes the tool of oppression. Law enforcement officials are encumbered by niceties such as subpoenas, arrest warrants, lethal force only for self defense, yada yada, but the outlaws run loose, killing anyone who does not toe their line.

Would it help if common folks were armed, too? To some extent, maybe. Unfortunately, getting hold of an effective gun is hard for most poor folks especially where strict gun control laws exist.

I shudder to think what would happen if everyone had guns and there was lawlessness all around. Even the good folks might eventually end up on the wrong side of the law some time. Revenge and counter revenge might be the order of the day. You might as well toss out penal codes in the trash bin and tell the police to go home and find other jobs.

(b) Poor law enforcement, very little or no gun control and availability of guns - 
If there is a law and order problem in such a society, it would still be a mess. If general poverty is added to the mix, common people who cannot afford guns would still be at the mercy of those who do.

(c) Strict law enforcement, strict gun control and availability of guns outside legal means -
This is the situation in some US states. Law and order is generally good, calling 911 gets the police to the spot quickly and there is severe punishment for offenses. It is not that one can buy a gun just like buying a pair of shoes.
Law abiding citizens do not own guns but the outlaws do. Psychopaths and crazy killers manage to get illegal weapons and then go berserk. Guns are freely available in the country if one knows the right channels.

However, hardcore criminals such as drug lords and career hit men never go into a crowd and randomly fire at people. Their crimes are never without motive and profit.

The kind of shootings that have happened in Colorado and earlier in Virginia Tech and in Columbine about 13 years ago were not acts of career criminals or even jihadists. These were the actions of regular young people who were disaffected and disturbed. It is in such instances that guns cause more harm than ever.
Of course, even if there were no guns, these people might have done something worse, just like many terrorists do.
Neither the lack of guns nor their universal presence can provide complete insurance against crime.

Take a look at this excellent article in the Guardian on statistics about gun ownership by country. Wikipedia has a comprehensive summary of gun control laws by country, too.

There are crimes committed in probably every nation on earth but the extent and nature vary. It is extremely rare to hear about a disgruntled youngster killing random strangers for no gain unless he/she happens to belong to or identifies with the cause of some terrorist or militant organization.

It is not enough to merely devise systems to punish crime. Punishment can act as a deterrent for criminals without a conscience but the bigger question that we need to ask is - how do people reach that threshold when conscience is no longer a barrier?

Now, some cases have been traced to mental illness of the perpetrators. But, where do we draw the line between a pure act of evil and that  of madness? Isn't a complete lack of empathy for another human being itself the sign of a sick mind?

There have been debates all over on prevention of crime. MSN Slate had a fine article on combating such mad acts as a society. You may or may not agree with the premise but the discussion is worth pondering.

Just as a healthy diet, exercise and sanitation are needed to ward off disease along with life saving drugs, crime prevention must be employed along with incarceration and the thump of the police baton to have a healthy society.

Eventually, the overall culture, family and social constraints and individual morality are the best deterrents against crimes.

Friday, July 13, 2012

I am obsessed, fantasy and real world vigilantes - Part I

Over the past three weeks, I have been in a different world, the world of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist in faraway Sweden. I first encountered them when I started reading the third book in the Millennium trilogy, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest".
This book was purchased on my iPad one or two years ago but I hadn't gotten past a few pages before now. I had a lot of free time so I delved into it because I needed something fast paced and suspenseful. It sucked me in like quicksand!
Before I knew it,  I was torturing my retinas, trying to read faster and tried telling myself that I would put it away at a certain time of day but those promises to self often came to naught as I got more and more entwined in the author, Stieg Larsson's fantasy world.

Here is Stieg Larsson's site on the Literary Magazine of Swedish books and writers where you'll find lots of discussion forums and news about the author. Some people have criticized the quality of writing in the books on the site and there are even some controversial speculations that he did not write those books all by himself as mentioned in this New Yorker article.
I did observe that the style of writing was more in line with a daily conversational tone. There are very few words that one needs to look up in the dictionary if one's vocabulary is average, and swear words are peppered throughout the text.

Guess what, I don't care. Every author has his/her own style and I appreciate it.

There are authors whose prose is flowery and packed dense with words that an average person cannot make sense of without a dictionary. Take Thomas Hardy's "The Woodlanders" as an example. A moving, simple love triangle in English that is decorated with the English language.
Then there are novels densely populated with characters such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" that spans generations.
These are not novels that one can breeze through but that does not mean that they are not enjoyable or mesmerizing. Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" is another epic that I plodded through but it was well worth the effort.

Stieg Larsson's books may not contain poetic prose but they have well-developed characterizations and brilliant, plausible, tight plots told in an intensely suspenseful manner.

The Millennium trilogy consisting of the books with their English translation titles are:

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 
The Girl Who Played With Fire
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The first one has recently been filmed and released in Hollywood and there are original Swedish film versions of all the three books. I have to yet watch the Swedish movies though I did see the Hollywood one. I thought that the Hollywood movie was quite true to the novel down to some of the dialogues with one key difference (that would be a spoiler). However, I am not sure how much a viewer who has not read the book would be able to grasp of the characters and plot.
The casting, in my opinion, was excellent.

There are articles about the popularity of these books such as this interesting one in the New Yorker magazine (same as the one quoted above). While all the reasons given could very well be true, I personally feel that one reason stacks up above everything else. Why are superheroes such as Superman, Spiderman and movies such as The Dark Knight so popular? Why are there legions of fans for Lara Croft or Xena, the Warrior Princess or Buffy, the Vampire Slayer? We, the public, seem to have an unending thirst for superheroes, detectives and even rescue machines such as the one in the popular Japanese TV series, Giant Robot.

Basically, we want the bad guys whooped, given a dose of their own medicine and even done away with for good. That's the reason Bollywood and regional films such as Tamil cinema in India can get away with letting their human heroes thrash a pack of villains even if they do not have any supernatural, science-fiction-conferred abilities such as those conferred upon Superman or Spiderman. As one of my friends would say, just suspend all logic and watch.
We may rave and rant about letting the law take its own course and denounce harsh punishments such as those enshrined in Sharia law but will gleefully watch Rajnikanth, that South Indian superhero that defies all laws of physics and aging in biology, bash up an army of hooligans with a single gesture.

There are films in India such as the Tamil "Indian" remade in Hindi as "Hindustani" where a former freedom fighter of the British Raj quietly sends corrupt Indian officials to the Great Unknown. The role was brilliantly essayed by the versatile thespian of South Indian cinema, Kamal Haasan and the audience faithfully added to the box office earnings.

The genius of Steig Larsson's books is that he has concocted a heroine who possesses kick-ass fighting skills that would be the envy of Jackie Chan, brains that would have sent NASA, the CIA, Google and Apple to come knocking at her door, the riveting personality and attire of a punk rock rebel and a horrible, frightful past that could very well last an entire season of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit".  Lisbeth Salander makes the phrase "damsel-in-distress" sound like an antiquated fairy tale.

FBI Special Agent Dana Scully, played by the gorgeous Gillian Anderson, in the television series of the 90s and early 00s, "The X-Files" was another female character whom I loved like millions of fans for her brains and investigative abilities, not to mention a quiet beauty that did not require any shedding of clothes to get noticed.
However, Scully as an agent of law and order, mostly played by the rule book. Lisbeth Salander would certainly equal Scully in her investigative abilities but doesn't even care if the rule book exists. Laws, common social niceties and conventions are not among her favorite things. She circumvents rules with impunity and yet maintains moral standards, somewhat along the lines of Robin Hood and Spiderman. She is no cute, popular  mainstream amateur detective like the pretty Nancy Drew.

Her unlikely partner in the adventures is the celebrity investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist of the magazine, Millennium,  hence probably the name "Millennium trilogy" for the series.

Together, they send serial killers and gangsters scampering for their lives. Lisbeth also has to save her own future. I won't tell you more, just read the books.

I may not agree with Salander's means or methods, but I still felt happy as she came out on top each time.

There was a New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof when some women in India took the law into their own hands in bashing up a serial rapist. I am sorry I could not find a free link to post. One has to be a subscriber to access this archived article but you can find references to it online. I found one of them here on a blog, Sepia Mutiny

What if the law fails miserably at protecting innocent people again and again? Would there be real life versions of Lisbeth Salander? I can already think of one case. Phoolan Devi, also known as the Bandit Queen and immortalized in Shekhar Kapur's film of the same name, was the victim of many injustices and abuse both as a child and an adult. She became an icon among the lawless and was later accepted into the mainstream as she surrendered to the authorities and subsequently entered politics. 

I feel that the public secretly loves vigilantes, at least some of them. If you asked someone what they thought of the electric chair for execution or the hanging method, they would probably say they are inhuman. However, the same person may have no qualms seeing a serial killer die a horrible death on screen. I am not generalizing, just saying that at least a few of us share this dichotomy of opinions.

All I know is that I was transported to a different world, just like my childhood days spent reading Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" and "Secret Seven" series. Hope you all enjoy Stieg Larsson's books, too.

I was saddened to learn that the author was dead even before the trilogy was published so there will be no more books from him. I was further impressed when I found that Stieg Larsson was a fearless campaigner against racism, sexism, fascism and exploitation. Read these touching interviews with his longtime partner, Eva Gabrielsson, in Vanity Fair and this interview with his father and brother in The New York Times
May his soul rest in peace! 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A brief hiatus

To all my readers,

Thank you very much for your time, patience, encouragement and comments.

I have been off the blogosphere a little bit due to personal reasons. I had been busy with relocation to a different place and have hardly had the time to relax, let alone put down my thoughts in a coherent manner.
However, my mind has been picking up signals and information all along and the thought and memory machines have been busy in the background.

I'll be back soon. Until then, take care and have fun!

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Education, IT and Outsourcing - The US/India perspective

Listen up, there is a great post on TechCrunch about the great engineering shortage of 2012.

The article bemoans the fact that fewer students in the US now opt for careers in computer science at the college level but there are more drama majors. On the other hand, tech companies are still looking for great talent. Do read the comments for the article. They are extremely enlightening as to why some people simply got disillusioned with IT or that some others feel that outsourcing and the trend of preferring to hire young people have made the profession unattractive.

There is an interesting article in the Atlantic about the creative class in general and its rising presence in Asia (sorry, can't find the exact link). Here's a link to the author, Richard Florida's book on this topic. The creative class refers to jobs that require creativity, as you guessed right, education and skills. Jobs such as those in programming, journalism, research of any kind would all fall under this category. As I had posted earlier, these include professions of the head and those of the heart.

It is interesting to see how President Obama talks about out-educating and out-innovating everyone else in the world and about creating jobs here in America.  There is a discussion on one of my favorite authors and respected writer, Malcolm Gladwell's site about school performance and math scores in the US versus that of other Asian countries. This topic is discussed in his thought-provoking and brilliant, IMHO (in my humble opinion) book, "Outliers".

From my personal experience working both in India and the United States and having seen a fair bit of both countries, I have started to wonder if such a comparison is really an objective one.
I can't speak for other Asian countries but I can talk a little about India. Being a developing country that has traditionally valued education over mere wealth and power (wealth and power are of course important in any society but a well-educated, wealthy executive is likely to be more respected in India than a powerful, rich politician who is poorly educated), Indians typically invest in the education of their children.
One of the driving factors behind the craze towards IT and other intelligent white collar jobs is economics.
The standard of living differs widely between the classes as compared to the US. When I was much younger, someone once jokingly remarked that poverty in India meant living in a slum with no water or electricity or toilets or worse still, on the streets whereas in the US, 'poor' meant you could probably not afford a car.
Maybe the US was a more equitable society back then because looking at Occupy Wall Street and all its sister movements across the country along with people living off food stamps and out of their cars, not every American is now in that golden land where even the poor had access to basic necessities.

However, I still repeat - life in America for the average worker (someone who makes a little more than the minimum wage) is a lot better in at least some respects. One can still send the kids to a public school free of charge, buy groceries, have some cheap food, rent a decent apartment which usually comes equipped with a dishwasher, at least a common laundry room if not a washer/dryer in the unit, cooking range with oven and a refrigerator. One can buy used cheap furniture from craigslist or Goodwill and at least own an old used car. In short, basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, school education and even basic appliances that are commonly used in modern life are reasonably accessible.

Indians who are fresh off the boat in the United States typically covert dollars to rupees to cross check prices with that in India. This applies especially to certain items such as clothing, not items such as electronic ones. I have realized long ago that this is really not the way to compare unless you are on a short term visit and have no permanent income in the United States. Consider a television set, something brand new and cutting edge such as a Plasma or LED flat screen TV. What percentage of the average monthly income does this cost? The prices of electronic items have fallen so that even the average person can now buy a smaller flat screen LCD TV if not an LED TV at least during a massive Black Friday sale.
Ditto for laptops and touchscreen tablets such as Kindle or iPad.

On the other hand, let us consider the average Indian, someone who works in a factory or in an administrative job, not a hot shot IT professional or investment banker.

Renting in many Indian cities is very expensive so people prefer to buy property which means a portion of the monthly income has to be set aside to pay the loan. Most of the white collar jobs are concentrated in cities that are bursting at the seams with human population so even a single bedroom apartment in a far flung suburb of a megapolis such as Mumbai could cost you lakhs or even crores of rupees (1 lakh = 0.1 million and 1 crore = 0.1 billion, these are numeric units used commonly in South Asia).

One has to shell out all the money for appliances from one's own pocket as most apartments do not come built in with these. A car used to be a luxury even as late as the 1990s but with the introduction of cheaper cars such as the Tata Nano and more urban middle class professionals, car ownership has gone up significantly.
Public schools in India are far fewer than private schools and government schools have horrendous reputations (isn't that a paradox considering that India is supposed to be socialist and the US is supposed to be capitalist?). Gaining admission for a child to a 'good' school is getting expensive not to mention the need to save for college education. When I was a child studying in a private school that was government aided, I paid hardly any fees as the state government subsidized education for girls and also because schools that fulfilled certain government mandates could get additional funding. This may not be true for all Indian schools in all states.
On the other hand, a Bachelor's degree in the US costs an astronomical sum of money, especially if you send your son or daughter to a private University or an Ivy League school. Therefore, all is not hunky dory for a middle class family in the US either.

There are a couple of areas where the average Indian is better off than the average American.

1. Access to affordable everyday health care - Unlike the US, Indians generally do not need health insurance or even an appointment to see a primary care physician for a fever, eyesight or hearing problems or other common ailments. In fact, one can even see a specialist without insurance though they charge a lot. It is still not as bank-balance-draining as it is in the US. These are private practitioners not government clinics or state sponsored health care that I am talking about.
Owing to malpractice suits and the strain on the American health care system due to other factors, insurance has become a must-have and losing it when say, one is laid off from work, can be terrifying. Of course, one can buy insurance on one's own means but it is expensive in general.

2. Getting by without a car - Indian cities generally have good public transport as well as private providers such as auto rickshaws. One can walk to neighborhood stores and markets in many places making it a lot easier to get by without buying a car.

In general, the average standard of living in the United States is much better for someone in the middle/lower middle classes as compared to the same in India.
If you don't run a successful business, entry into the middle class and the ladder of prosperity are virtually impossible without education and landing a respectable, well-paying job.

After the formation and expansion of giants such as Microsoft and Apple and the need for computerization is every industry from banking to health care, information technology jobs have flourished and boomed in number.
The amount of code that needs to be written for large systems has been expanding and with it, the need for more programmers, quality assurance analysts and associated professionals such as those in management, marketing and sales has been burgeoning, too. Seeing what IT can bring into their lives, more and more youth have been opting for degrees in computer science, engineering and related fields and jumping onto the IT bandwagon.
IT offers jobs that give some scope for analytical ability and learning skills and thus the mental challenge along with pretty handsome salaries and a nice, modern office environment.
IT also gives professionals the chance to travel and live abroad, get acquainted with other cultures and enjoy a far better standard of living than in India. Even in India, top IT guys and gals have higher standards of living than probably the poor in the West.

However, this also means that many who get into programming or testing software do not do it because it is their passion. Bill Gates founding Microsoft, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak establishing Apple or Larry Page and Sergey Brin birthing Google happened not because these people wanted to get into well paying, secure jobs with all the accompanying perks but because of their natural interest in computers and the passion to impact the world with their innovative products.
Of course, we have Indian techies who are knowledgeable enough to co-author books and contribute to online forums and tutorials and some are instrumental to their project teams abroad but there still remains a sizable number for whom IT is not exactly their calling.
What was creative, fulfilling work for the likes of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple or Larry Page and Sergey Brin has taken on the nature of grunt work or drudgery for thousands involving fixing bugs, testing and re-testing and performing customer support tasks. Don't get me wrong, there are several who would excel at these tasks and even find them enjoyable but not everyone does and even an enthusiastic, intelligent worker may tire after years of repetitive work sitting alone in a cubicle for long hours.

Even in a country like India that values gurus and intellectuals to the highest degree, droves of young people started to march into IT and call centers while few became scientists or innovative entrepreneurs. The reasons for these are also because there are very few research centers other than those funded by the government and starting a business in India was not exactly a piece of cake even a decade ago.
Wonder what would happen if more Indians started to follow the current mantra of the developed world - Do what you love?
Would outsourcing be the same then? Maybe some other countries would step into India's shoes...
We do not know.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Conscious capitalism, Indian entrepreneurs and an awesome well-known Indian blogger

For a long time now,  I have been following the blog, Youthcurry, of a famous Indian blogger and author, Rashmi Bansal.

This is a blog about youth affairs, trends, education and careers. Opting out of the science-stream-engineering-medicine rat race of the Indian educational system at a young age, she majored in economics instead and went on to graduate from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, also known as IIM A, one of India's top business schools.

Again, instead of merely continuing to climb the corporate ladder and drawing a hefty pay check, she went on to launch her own magazine - JAM (Just Another Magazine), a youth magazine.

Besides maintaining a popular blog, she has also authored three books on Indian entrepreneurs. Some of them are social entrepreneurs who have launched ventures that benefit the poor or further the cause of education.

Now, she has a new book coming out on Dharavi, nicknamed Asia's largest slum, located in Mumbai, India, titled - Poor Little Rich Slum. There is a great article on Dharavi in the National Geographic magazine here.

Ever watched the movie - Slumdog Millionaire? Well, coming from Mumbai, I know that slums are not just about poor, helpless people. Dharavi residents work and run businesses and their children go to school just like other people living in comfortable, legitimate apartments and houses.
The poor there aspire to a better life, too, and, in fact, Dharavi is known for some of its economic activities. For example, while I was still living in Mumbai, I knew that Dharavi had a famous road side leather goods market where one could buy leather jackets and the like before embarking on a trip to colder climes in America or Europe.

It would be interesting to read this book.

Entrepreneurship in India was lesser known in the past, confined to only the sons (and occasionally daughters) of families who were traditionally into business. There was even a stereotype that only Indians belonging to certain ethnic groups, such as the people who were natives of Gujarat (Gujaratis) or Rajasthan (Marwaris, one particular sub group from the state) had a knack for it.
Now, Indians are gradually waking up to the fact that one can do one's own thing and be successful and, better still, create jobs for other people and even make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate.

Meanwhile, I checked out the websites of some of her other books and it has been absolutely fascinating and inspiring. I lost myself in the stories of the people featured in her books and received a jolt of enthusiasm from it. Do check them out here:

Stay Hungry Stay Foolish

Connect the Dots

I Have a Dream

I popped in on a site called Goodreads to check out the page on her third book and was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of new books featured on the side bar, both fiction and non-fiction, penned by budding Indian authors.

This is another thing I admire about America and was struck by, during my initial years here. I was fascinated by the number of books that were being written by all sorts of people from journalists to professors and even politicians and how they promoted their books on various news channels such as Fox News, CNN, etc.
And, of course, American entrepreneurship. In my previous post, I had talked about the things that I was struck by when I came to the US. This is a key point.
In America, as a general observation, individuals do not wait for the government or some external entity to make changes in their lives. They start their own ventures, get organized as a community and take action.

When I lived in India, there was a columnist I followed very avidly in the Times of India, the economist, Swaminathan S Ankalesaria Aiyar. Having no educational background in economics except for a basic, introductory course in just one semester during my degree program, I learnt about terms such as 'trickle down effect', 'free market economy' and 'protectionism'.

India only started liberalizing its economy and allowing foreign direct investment in the early 1990s so we were a little late to the game. Foreign goods were looked upon as a luxury and were sometimes smuggled into the country. All this encouraged corruption.
Of course, there were big corporations that are British or perhaps a combination of British and Indian in origin that have been around since the days of British rule, for example, Britannia, Cadbury (now acquired by Kraft Foods) and Hindustan Lever (the Indian arm of Unilever).  The American giant, Johnson and Johnsonopened shop in India after independence in 1957. However, it was extremely difficult for newer companies from other countries to enter and directly do business in India.

Mr. Swaminathan Aiyar asked the question (paraphrasing is all mine) as to why should India only be afraid of being overrun by foreign corporations. Rather, why couldn't Indian companies compete and stand tall with them? This has certainly proved true.

Recently, Ford sold its Jaguar division to Tata, an Indian company. The Indian steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, founded a company that took over Arcelor and is now one of the world's largest steel companies, ArcelorMittal.

There was a time when there was a certain amount of paranoia against foreign companies. Today, American companies such as McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza, Subway, Kellog's, General Motors, Ford, Coca Cola and Pepsi, to name a few, have a major presence in India along with Japanese, German, South Korean and British biggies such as Toyota, VolkswagenHyundai and Vodafone.

Although India was never a Soviet-style Communist economy, it wasn't the open, all out capitalist economy that the US is. Over the last two decades and more, India has been embracing more free-market economics and capitalism. Ordinary Indians, besides just being consumers, are waking up to the potential that increased competition and economic opportunity bring.

There is another side to capitalism besides the large corporation that kills all the Mom-and-Pop businesses and cares more about its bottom line than workers. Not all large corporations are devoid of responsibility and concern for their workers and other staff.

Capitalism, in its benevolent form, has the potential to transform society in a very positive way. I call this conscious capitalism, borrowed from the term 'conscious living' from many spiritual movements and one of my favorite personal development gurus and bloggers, Steve Pavlina. Companies think about their impact on the environment, their employees and society at large and act responsibly like a good citizen, even going beyond the bare minimum expectations at times.

Small businesses offering some unique products that are more environment friendly and affordable, can command a market share, too. One sees this a lot in the green products area. In the US, some of these products such as eco-friendly, natural cleaners and cosmetics, have spilled over the shelves of specialty stores such as Whole Foods into regular departmental stores. One such brand is Seventh Generation Inc. which now has natural antibacterial cleaners and cleaning wipes, even infant diapers and baby wipes.
A lot of local, environment-friendly, biodegradable baby diaper companies such as gDiapers, are now gaining a market niche in the presence of heavyweight brands such as Pampers and Huggies.

As for dairy and other food products, local is the new powerful. There is something so comforting about knowing that your milk comes from local farmers that send out their cattle to peaceful pasture with lots of fresh air and sunshine and without pumping them with hormones, that many of us tend to prefer that over some big name dairy brand.

Then, there are the socially conscious companies such as Toms that donate shoes and other items to people in need. In fact, Toms donates a pair of shoes for every pair purchased! Take another example, Zappos, that motivates its employees including call center workers, giving them freedom to grow and perform their jobs without treating them like assembly line robots. Check out their corporate culture on Zappos Insights.

Imagine if every country in the world embarked on a path of economic freedom for its citizens and created opportunities. That would probably mark an end to global poverty and underdevelopment, needless wars and destruction...

As the famous John Lennon song goes - Imagine...