Determination in Reverse

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Heroic individuals surmount insuperable odds to achieve greatness. They persevere single-mindedly against financial and social pressures to achieve their dreams. But this narrative is about a person who did exactly the opposite.

It was my fathers dream that I become a violinist. He loved the sound of the instrument and during his own formative years had strongly desired to learn to play it. But due to financial constraints and other family responsibilities, he never got the opportunity. So when I was around five years old, he bequeathed the dream to me. Only I did not want it. I found Bharatnatyam with its beautiful clothes and jewelry so much more preferable to sitting around drawing a bow over 4-strings. Moroever, at the time, classical music did not sound appealing.

Given that we were in an place where carnatic violin teachers were non-existent, father started me off on Hindustani track with Mr R.S. Mr R.S was a skinny, kurtha-clad, partially bald Marathi gentleman in his 50s who was employed at the local All India Radio station. He patiently taught me the basics and that is where we got stuck. We stayed at the basics for years. Having no interest in the instrument, I never practiced outside of his classes and consequently Mr R.S did not see it fit to teach me advanced lessons– much to father’s frustration. Luckily for me, Mr R.S. (who incidentally rode a moped) decided to accept a job offer in the US and brought to an end our mutually frustrating efforts – to teach on his part, and not to learn on my part.

After a blissful but all too brief lull, teacher #2 was presented to me. Mr G was a scooter-riding professor at the local music college and insisted on revisiting the basics – again. So we spent a whole year before he (thankfully) became consumed with preparing for the festival of India in which he was participating. So consumed that he had no time for me. How serendipitous!

Unfortunately, by this time, father had upped his game and managed to locate not just one but two experts in carnatic-style fiddling. He was apparently determined to ward-off any potential discontinuity in instruction…so he hired them both! Teacher #3 was an idli and filter coffee loving bachelor who worked at a local bank branch. He had a fascinating unibrow, and his moustache, which was half the unobrow’s length, was equally lush. All-in-all, he was a hairy, pudgy, motor-cycle-riding bachelor who was more interested in regaling an audience (me) with his musical talent than imparting knowledge. Mom gave him coffee and snacks after each lesson. Teacher #4 was a old retired gentleman who bicycled miles from outside the city to instruct me – his lessons were intermittent.

As if these irritating classes were not enough, whenever “dignitaries” (mostly relatives) visited our home, father would casually but proudly, without my consent, volunteer me to play for their entertainment. Very much like in those Jane Austen based BBC productions where one of the daughters is randomly asked to perform at the piano while a small crowd of visitors sits around…

When I revisit those days now, it confounds me to realize that I made so limited progress beyond the geethams inspite of extraordinary efforts on part of my father and well-intentioned instructions from so many teachers.

What finally bailed me out were SSC and HSC exams. Both these provided perfectly valid excuses to discontinue further attempts by father to make me perfect the violin. Mom would intervene by saying “avalluku tution ka apparam timeay kadakyaruthu illai” (she has no time at all after tution classes.) Whew!

Lest I appear ungrateful, I am very thankful now for all the efforts put in by father and the teachers. Despite remaining a relative novice with the violin, those classes were not a waste. I understand and appreciate all kinds of music today in no small measure because of those years. From Debussy to Muthuswami Deekshitar, from Paul Mauriat to Harris Jeyaraj…and everyone in between, I can enjoy.

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Meetup in Vegas. Hangover style.

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Da Man asked me to check out an email trail from his college-group mailing-list. I did and was amused. The first email (verbatim except for name of the sender) in this trail reads as follows:

Hi Mubbers,
I, for one, will not be able to make it to the June reunion in Madras. I think many of you probably won’t be able to either.
What say you to a meetup in Vegas in August? Before school starts, and just us, no family, for a weekend. Like in “The Hangover.
Perhaps the second weekend in August, 8-9th…let me know your thoughts.
We will have a lot of fun. Let’s do it. Oversea’ers are most welcome too.
-xxxx

Let’s analyze the hive-mind of this group of grown men. First thing to notice is their moniker– Mubbers. The word, Mub, means under-the-influence in street Tamil lingo. That tells us something. At first, I’m tempted to wave it off as teenage stupidity because these fools apparently picked the moniker when they were still in college. But then I go on to see that so many of these men remain boyz. The invite has received numerous accepts. “I’m in”, “Count me in”, “Me too”, “Let’s do it” are the tame responses. The outrageously enthusiastic acceptances, which I can’t reproduce, would make any violet shrink.

And I’ve met all these guys, their wives, and their children. Everyone of these fellows is a sober looking professional. Each is a family man yoked to a never-bar-hopped-type wife and diligent school going kids. These men are, in the Vegas sense, lame with no game. I can only picture them in the casino discussing topics such as Tesla cars, stock picks, and the wisdom of joining a startup. In this context, their excitement to reunite in Vegas to cavort “Hangover” style, that too after leaving wife and kids behind, is more than a bit comical.

Couldn’t they just own up to their station in life and meet-up at Yosemite for a manly hike up the mountains? Or share a few pints in a sports bar within downtown San Francisco? Of all the places in the world, why Sin City sans family?

Here is some more background. The “June reunion” mentioned in the afore-quoted email is the one that has triggered this rush to Vegas. That reunion, the real one, is being organized in India by Da Man’s classmates who still reside there. I know because I’ve seen that email trail also. That reunion is to take place in a nice resort, explicitly welcomes wives and kids, and even lists out a variety of family friendly activities for the attendees.

It would appear that the Indian chapter is going about its business organizing a “tame” event in line with their proclivities. Da Man’s cluster of “mubbers” for various reasons feels pressured into entering a kingdom of cool. It is best that I leave this post by stating the obvious without delving into underlying reasons– there is quite the difference in attitudes, perhaps even world views, between the two classmate cohorts.

Tom Cruise, Marjorie x, and Macaulay create quite the stir

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We swing by the library to pick up a “hold” for Bee. I promise to pop-in and pop-out, so Da Man and the kids wait in the running car. Automatic doors part, a swoosh of cool air hits, and then…I hesitate. Within the premises of our local public library, located right at the entrance, is a used book-shop. Despite being in a hurry, I am unable to help myself. Just 2-minutes, I tell myself. I scan entire racks of fiction, cook-books, political science, biography, and kids books. Then I turn around to take in two shelves of classics. Many familiar titles but nothing piques my interest…until suddenly, a tiny decrepit volume beckons. I extend a finger and pry it out. Lays of Ancient Rome by Macaulay. It’s a small hardbound copy. Feels nice and old and tattered. I open the book at a random spot and read–

“For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,”

The tiny little volume is marked at five bucks. Something in me really really wants to buy it but there are rational reasons not to. First, I am not overly fond of Macaulay– his disrepute (he once wrote– “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India…”) precedes him. Second, poetry doesn’t appeal to me– in fact, I’ve never even heard of this book. Third, I hate to be pressured (running car, remember?). Fourth, five entire bucks. Fifth, book-shelf space at home is in short-supply. Still, it takes me great effort to quell a surprisingly strong instinct to buy. The book seems to be calling to me but I manage to leave it behind.

Inside the library, I pick up Bee’s book. The “Holds” section is right next to several racks of movies. Once again, I hesitate. But I am already here– so I decide to take just an extra minute. As I scan through racks of movies rapidly, still on the move, I instinctively reach out for just one. It’s a Tom Cruise flick that I’ve never heard of called Oblivion.

Later that evening, we pop in the movie. About half-hour in, after surviving an ambush, Tom Cruise hesitates, bends over, and picks up a slim book. He dusts it off. The title is Lays of Ancient Rome. Hairs on my nape unfurl. On the screen, Tom flips open the book, these words leap at me–

“For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,”

A chill envelopes me. Only a coincidence. But what a magnificent coincidence, and what are the chances? I make a rough calculation. At least 5000 books in that shop. I touched one. At least 5000 movies in the library. I touched one. 145-pages in the book. I glanced at one. Just this combination yields 1 in 3.6 billion.

On Monday, I head back to the library-store. The book is still there. I grab it, pay for it, and hold it tightly all the way back to my car.

Since then, I’ve finished reading the book and decided that the preface was more interesting than the verse (which has its moments, I concede). But as for why Macaulay was thrust upon me in this manner…this copy hasn’t provided even the hint of a revelation.

If I ever run into Marjorie <very-unique-last-name>, the name scribbled in cursive on the inside cover, I will be sure to strike up a conversation. Heck, I am even prepared to chat the breeze with Tom Cruise should he stop by my place for chai. But all in all, I won’t be pressing things anymore, so the wait might be long. In the meanwhile, I will endure Da Man’s amused glances at the book, which now sits on the side-table on my side of the bed.

Final notes:

  1. Tom Cruise’s copy was a black-soft-leather-bound version, my find is a green-hardback. So there’s that difference.
  2. If I had spotted a copy of Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle or Rand’s Fountainhead in the shop, and then run across the namesake movie (or a movie with a corresponding reference), would I have found the coincidence noteworthy? The answer is a resounding no. At first, this realization made me wonder whether I’ve made much ado about absolutely nothing. But then I also realized that my finger wouldn’t have reached out for these books and movies. So, if pigs had wings, if my aunt had a beard..and all that jazz.

Psychodynamics of everyday fashion

dancingdrums-sari-professionalI’m jolted by a momentary flash of bright red and yellow. I don’t believe my eyes, so I give chase around the corner for confirmation. Indeed, what I think I saw is starkly manifest. The vibrant colors are affixed to an Indian girl in the form of a Salwar-Kameez suit and dupatta. The girl senses me and turns. We exchange smiles and the encounter ends. But this marks a first. The first time that I’ve seen a girl come in to work attired in a SK. Needless to say, the episode spawns a spate of thoughts in me.

My closet at home. An entire section devoted to Indian clothes, which see little to no use. Most of these well-made, dignified, even stylish garments have spent years on hangers or in boxes. For I never wear them to work, I don’t even take a stroll around my neighborhood in them. Physical comfort has nothing to do with my apprehensions, which are apparently psychological. To the extent that I suspect I might feel less self-conscious in a pair of short shorts than in a Sari while going about town– which is saying something– because I don’t favor skimpy outfits.

I sense and reciprocate the warmth and welcoming embrace of America. I know that even in my part of the world, where immigrants comprise only a small fraction of residents, Indian clothes won’t attract hostility per se. So my own circumspection puzzles me. Am I an extra-sensitive individual, perhaps prone to imagining things and worried about being exoticized? Or do my inhibitions have a basis in reality?

Chances are that it’s the latter. After all, despite serving as home to immigrants from the world over, there isn’t concomitant diversity of clothing on the streets of America, not even in the metropolises. Chinese suits, afore-mentioned Indian outfits, African garbs and so many others are almost entirely absent– the exceptions usually adorn visitors, that too of elderly persuasion, who interestingly exhibit a reverse-inhibition– they find it impossible to set aside their beloved Sari (or equivalent.)

In India, I wore pinafore uniforms, salwar-kameez, paavadais, ghagra-cholis, Sari-blouse, jeans-polo, and more. While there was often context to my choice of garb, they were displayed on street, at home, in school and college with abandon and without inhibition. A girl can wear the paavadai (from the south) in North India, display the salwar-kameez (from the north) in the south, and western styles anywhere — without having to engage in complex thought. Even on television, Indian and Western styles co-exist easily on the same show/stage. That’s certainly not to say that everything is welcome there. The “free spirited” woman still experiences self-doubt on Indian streets leave alone the beach for there exists an invisible “revealability” threshold. Even her male counterpart is known to come up a cropper sometimes.

So for now, in the USA, women enjoy uninhibited freedom to display as much or as little of their bodies but within a set of prescribed styles. In India, they revel in any style but must stay within prescribed bounds of “decency.” And the beat goes on…

Who let the aunties out

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Great grandmother. From a poor family. Became the third-wife of a twice-widowed man old enough to be her father. Bore him ten children and mothered the progeny from his previous marriages. She lived and died without ever exercising choice in education, profession, or marriage.

Paati (Grandmother). From affluent (thanks to the serial marrier) family. Consented to become wife (at sweet sixteen) to a college-educated office-going boy a little older than her. Matrimony (and motherhood) ended her schooling as she bore kids in quick succession even before exiting her teens. She remains enamored with her husband to this day and the toothless recipient of her affections reciprocates in every way.  Thus Paati, who lucked-out with a good man, can be said to have done one better than her mother for she was denied choice only in education and profession.

Mother. From middle-class family. Did well enough in school to get admission into medical college. Her parents however dissuaded her from pursuing a career in medicine because the funds set aside for her were ear-marked for (her) marriage (expenses). So her male siblings went on to receive excellent education while mother ended up with an “ordinary” college degree. She subsequently began an office job until a man showed up on the scene and insisted on marrying her. She happily resigned her job to take up homemaking as her life vocation. The only choice lacking in mother’s life pertained to education.

Then there’s me. Let’s just say that while there were obstacles, in the main part they were surmountable. I haven’t been entirely denied choice in education, profession, or marriage.

That, in a nutshell, is a story that spans four successive (matrilineal) generations of women. The improvement in choice (and freedom) is obvious. The slope of the tilted playing-field has gradually become less steep, at least for the Indian middle-class. Every generation has apparently chosen to push the bar towards better-equipping their girls with the tools for lifelong security. (Government sponsored programs that offer subsidized education to girls also deserve a good measure of credit.)

All said, there still remains much ground to cover. A plethora of choice is not the same as freedom to make intelligent choice. Lacking the latter is also bondage, albeit in different form.

Switching into anecdote-mode. I just received an email out of the blue from a stranger claiming to be a relative (whose existence was unknown to me) from India:

Akka,
I am —, daughter of —, whose grandmother is the…<very convoluted family tree connection, which I subsequently verified>. I got your contact from —. I have been admitted to the CompSci graduate program at xxx University <located where I live> and I arrived last week.
I am reaching out to say hi.

I responded and made a date to meet her over the upcoming weekend. Then I checked her out on linkedin. Her profile revealed a B.S. in Computer Science from a top Indian University, a paper as first-author in a peer-reviewed International journal of some caliber, and multiple hackathon participations. And she isn’t even 21 yet. I smiled in delight…I can’t wait to introduce Bee to the new girl in town.

First-world problems: parenting

As a mother, I find myself having to take a stand constantly in matters big and small. In some areas, such as nutrition and hygiene, popular opinion is on my side– my struggles are confined to finding ways to get and keep Bee on-board. Then there are areas where I must wage battle on a second front– against gender-stereotyping and the sociocultural grain. dancingdrums-dinosaur

Bee’s first Halloween celebration in pre-school. I take her costumed as a little dinosaur. As soon as we get there, I can foretell the storm that is coming. Instead of encountering a diverse bunch of astronauts, doctors, superheroes, and the occasional dinosaur, I find that every boy at this event is a superhero accessorized with a plastic firearm, and every girl is a princess. Later at home, Bee wastes no time in letting me  know that she will require a “pretty” costume the following year.

Bee in kindergarten. Her best friend is a boy. They play every single day, frequently forgoing lunch, at monkey-bars, swings, and the like. They even keep in touch over summer-break and begin first-grade still best friends. Midway through the year, however, classmates begin to repeatedly inquire whether they are going to get married. The teasing is not malicious but it makes the best-friends self-conscious to the extent that they stop playing together at school. What Bee experiences in real-life, she encounters again in a book (from Dan Gutman’s weird school series)– where the protagonist (boy) is teased along similar lines. Now Bee primarily sticks to playing with girls on the school playground.

The toy aisles in stores do their bit in telling little girls about their place in the grander scheme of life. Aisles overflow with pink and glitter, with miniaturized versions of homemaking and vanity related paraphernalia. One cannot entirely escape this even in a LEGO store with its themes (for girls) that include beauty-shop, model-catwalk, and park-cafe. I’ve realized (but not accepted) that stores will be stores. After all they are in the business of sublimating demand after subliminally creating it. But what about schools? To my dismay, even here the messaging persists. Bee gets rewarded for classroom work/participation/behavior with assorted pink goods and plastic dolls.

Bee, a girl who was not intrinsically biased towards a color, type-of-toy, or gender-of-friend, began exploring the world with an open mind. She gravitated on her own accord towards objects and people based on her personality and preferences. However, popular (and contrived) messaging stepped in to interfere with the child’s inner voice and chip away at her personality.

Thankfully, there exist scattered beacons for watchful parents to point out (to their wards.) Characters like Hermione (from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series) and Avatar Korra (not to forget Toff, the Kiyoshi warriors, Kitara, and Azula), the occasional v-blog in which girls revel in journals instead of makeup, Intel science-talent winners, the odd message pertaining to education from the White house…and so forth. All said, however, it remains a pity that parents must play David with slingshots against a Goliath-esque toxic milieu.

Finally, a more recent incident–

Da Man brakes our car to a halt at a traffic light. A gaggle of teens wave signs at us — they are fundraising and want to sell us a car-wash. All the girls in this group are in two-piece bikinis, the boys in over-sized t-shirts and baggy shorts.

“Mommy,” Bee says from the back, “look, the girls forgot to wear shirts and shorts.”

Da Man and I chuckle. “They took them off because it’s such a hot day,” I say.

“But why aren’t the boys feeling hot?” Bee counters.

I squeeze Da Man’s hand and decide to interpret Bee’s words as a minor victory. It remains to be seen how long she gets to retain this bit of clarity.

Recalibrate this spotlight: IITians

Preface for readers who are not familiar with the IITs: The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are India’s premier technical institutions and churn out graduates who are considered the country’s best engineers. Doing well on the JEE (Joint Entrance Exam) is the only criterion (available to Indian citizens) for gaining admission to the IITs. A huge number of high-school students take this exam, only a fraction make it.

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IITians have succeeded in assuming important academic and industry positions in India and abroad. They have ascended management ranks in various industries and begun to make the cut as authors, and even politicians. It is thought that even if the IITs themselves are not world-class institutions (in terms of facilities and research output), IITians possess world-class minds with a penchant for individual brilliance and financial success.

Against this backdrop, let us take a look at what happened at the recently concluded 2014 Annual Finals of the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest. Even though it has the word “programming” in it, the contest is really about thinking up algorithms with the added requirement of implementing them into code (for validation purposes.) This is as level a playing field as it gets, a test for minds that offers no advantage to those with access to better facilities per se. Out of India, teams from all IITs participated in regional competition (within India). Several IITs, along with a few “other” institutions, made the cut for the international contest.

122 teams from around the world made the trip to Ekaterinburg, Russia to participate in this IBM sponsored event. 8 were from India. The top Indian team to place was from IIT (Indore) at rank 42 for solving 3 of 12 problems. They were followed by teams from IIIT (not to be confused with IIT), Anil Neerukonda Institute of Technology and Sciences (ANITS), and IIT (Madras)– which ranked 50, 55, and 63 respectively for solving 2 problems. The team from IIT (Bombay) came 87th by solving 1 problem. The rest– teams from Delhi University, Amrita University, and IIT (Roorkee) tied at the bottom without solving a single problem. Top overall ranks were dominated by Russian and Chinese teams. Within the SAARC footprint, teams from Pakistan and Bangladesh fared best with ranks of 25, and 27 respectively. The details are available on the official page at http://icpc.baylor.edu/scoreboard/

Rankings aside, it comes as a surprise to learn that the JEE cream solved so few problems. Even though all but one valiantly refused to be dismissed for a duck, they did nothing of note. Pedestrian would be a reasonable way to describe their feat. Since Computer Science is the most coveted major and attracts cream of the JEE (and others) crop, it is safe to say that no matter who ended up going, nothing was being held back. To put a positive spin on this turn of events, one would have to observe that students from the so called “also-ran” institutions did about as well or even better than elite IITians.

This article is certainly not intended to flagellate the participants but it would be a mistake to gloss over the showing. The results demonstrate that the IITs are filled with intelligent but unsuitable (for engineering) men and women. They are a subset comprising those that succeed in gaming the brutal JEE via access to coaching classes. The best-suited minds for engineering, the ones who might create original blueprints for next-generation railway, aircraft, power-plants, reactors, armaments, bridges, machine-tools, consumer-gadgets, and buildings are apparently falling through the cracks for various reasons, the JEE being one. Would-be world-class engineering minds rarely make it into the IITs via JEE.

At least some of the disproportionate worldly success that IITians go on to enjoy is owed to extravagant press and societal tendency to put them up on a pedestal; these ancillary benefits are put to good use by the pragmatic winners of the JEE. The downside of this misplaced celebration is that it comes at the expense of persevering technical innovators, those who could’ve otherwise had a chance to make a real difference. Instead the IITs largely serve as stepping-stones in the creation of capable administrators (managers) out of the very intelligent.

Today, it has become possible to make a case that the IITs would be world-class if they could be filled with better suited undergraduates. This is exactly the reverse of popular opinion.