Friday, May 31, 2013

The poor will always be with us ... NOT!

As I noted in this commentary at Planetizen, back in 2007, the graduate schooling in the social sciences, after an undergraduate in electrical engineering, was a result of wanting to do something to mitigate the suffering that was all around me, and caused by economic deprivation.

It didn't take much to realize that this was no easy project.  But, that made it all the more intellectually fascinating and an important one from a practical standpoint.  Of course, a few years after wrapping up the doctorate, I went the way of "if you can't, teach!"

It is exciting that even without my contribution to this project of poverty reduction, or perhaps because of me not being involved (ha!), the world has gotten incredibly better off over the two decades.  On a scale that I never imagined possible when I was a worrywart sitting on the railroad tracks by the college in Coimbatore. What an amazing transformation, as the Economist points out:

It's getting better all the time, as the Beatles sang.

The Economist notes that biggest reason, a no-brainer, behind this dramatic reduction:
China (which has never shown any interest in MDGs) is responsible for three-quarters of the achievement. Its economy has been growing so fast that, even though inequality is rising fast, extreme poverty is disappearing. China pulled 680m people out of misery in 1981-2010, and reduced its extreme-poverty rate from 84% in 1980 to 10% now.
In graduate school, and remember this was back when there was no sign that the Cold War would end and China was barely into the Deng reform period, it was a matter of routine for studies to compare India and China.  A theme that I have continued to explore here in this blog too.  There is simply no way any rational person can deny that China has done well, and much better than India, on the issue of tackling economic deprivation. It is a tragedy that India's politics is so dysfunctional that the country continues to be the home to the largest number of people in poverty.

There is a long road ahead.  The Economist identifies some of the issues, via the number of "ifs" that it employs, for instance:
If developing countries maintain the impressive growth they have managed since 2000; if the poorest countries are not left behind by faster-growing middle-income ones; and if inequality does not widen so that the rich lap up all the cream of growth—then developing countries would cut extreme poverty from 16% of their populations now to 3% by 2030. That would reduce the absolute numbers by 1 billion. If growth is a little faster and income more equal, extreme poverty could fall to just 1.5%—as near to zero as is realistically possible. The number of the destitute would then be about 100m, most of them in intractable countries in Africa. Misery’s billions would be consigned to the annals of history.
Consider that first "if" on maintaining the impressive economic growth rates.  For more than a year now, I have been concerned, like in this post, that India's growth rates have slowed down and that it could easily slip back to that old "Hindu rate" of growth.  The latest news further confirms that trend--India's growth rate over the past year was the lowest over the decade.  Not at the "Hindu rate" yet, and was a healthy 5%.  But, that simply isn't enough:
While growth of 5% would be high for a developed Western economy, such a rate is insufficient in India to create enough new jobs for a young workforce.
I noted two years ago (in the pre-Ramesh era of this blog!):
I fear that India will have a tough time tackling poverty while another half a billion is added: the politics in the form that is practiced in India precludes the kinds of direct policy interventions that are necessary. Unless the politics changes, the demographic dividend cannot be realized. But, it doesn't look like politics will change there for the better.
We will hope that better heads will prevail.  As the Economist notes, "The world now knows how to reduce poverty."  That knowledge itself is a world of a difference from when I began graduate school.  There are enough reasons to celebrate--the past quarter-century has been phenomenal in terms of poverty reduction.  Won't it be wonderful if we eliminated that acute deprivation well within two decades from now?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Can a man not working long hours get paid a lot? Yes, I can!

Consider this excerpt:
For upper-middle class men, notes sociologist Michèle Lamont, ambition and a strong work ethic are "doubly sacred. . . as signals of both moral and socioeconomic purity. Elite men's jobs revolve around the work devotion schema, which communicates that high-level professionals should "demonstrate commitment by making work the central focus of their lives" and "manifest singular 'devotion to work,' unencumbered with family responsibilities," to quote sociologist Mary Blair-Loy. ... How do the elite signal to each other how important they are? "I am slammed" is a socially acceptable way of saying "I am important." Fifty years ago, Americans signaled class by displaying their leisure: think banker's hours (9 to 3). Today, the elite — journalist Chrystia Freeland calls them "the working rich" — display their extreme schedules. 
Think about the professionals you know who are in that elite stratosphere.  (I know you, reader, are not one. Because, if you were, you would not have the time to read this post.  Elementary, my dear Watson!)  They are uber-busy, right?  Awfully packed schedules. Always on the go.  You will be lucky if you can get five minutes of their undivided attention.

We have turned the very idea of being rich upside down: we used to think that being rich meant that you had all the time in the world because you didn't have to work at all.  Now, it turns out that being rich means to boast that you have no time at all.

And, there is an unending rush, a long line, to join that elite club.

What's the deal?
It's not productivity. It's not innovation. It's identity. If you've lived a life where holidays are a nuisance, where you've missed your favorite uncle's funeral and your children's childhoods, in a culture that conflates manly heroism with long hours, it's going to take more than a few regressions to convince you it wasn't really necessary, after all, for your work to devour you.
It's identity.  I work, therefore I am.  I work incredibly long hours, therefore I am.  I am tempted to believe that it is not merely the money that motivates this extreme work schedule, but it is very much the identity.  Like the character that George Clooney played in Up in the Air.

I doubt that Max Weber would have ever imagined such an extreme version of the Protestant Ethic.  These rich are, ironically, not in the leisure class anymore!

I have a different version of identity: the good ol' I think, therefore I am.

In this identify, work is a 24x7 commitment.  Thinking is a lot of work.  Sometimes I wish I didn't think.  I worry that I overthink. I even wonder whether I am thinking in my sleep.

But, despite that intense 24x7 schedule, my calendar is always wide open.  Ask my neighbor who jokes all the time that he has never seen me at work.  You want to meet with me?  Say when, and pay for my plane ticket and I can be there.  It is not any BFD, to use Joe Biden's language!

I don't get paid for the 24x7 thinking work that I do.

Well, not in dollars.

I get paid a lot in so many other ways.  For one, I get to interact with you, dear reader.  Did you already know that you are a reward for my thinking?  Yes, without you, I will be infinitely poorer and I don't want to slide into that poverty.

There are plenty of payments that I receive, every single day.  Earlier today, on my way to the physical therapy appointment (now, that is an expense item, not a reward!) I flashed the hazard lights to warn the cars behind and came to a stop.

To collect a payment; this one:

Yes, it is an annual payment I receive for the long hours I work thinking.

And you thought I don't work long hours and that I earn pittance.  Now you know.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Can you hear me now?

The older I get, the more I can think about the mistakes, small and big, that I have made.  "How could I have been that stupid?" I often ask myself.  But, hey, stupid is as stupid does!

Thanks to the years, I have also had my share of marveling at how much the folks across from me may have completely misunderstood me.

I bet it happens in anybody's life.  Students misunderstand us. So do children, parents, spouses, gardeners.  Heck, even dogs misunderstand us!  Life is full of misunderstandings. We try to clear up things.

But then, sometimes, there might be people who consistently misunderstand us.  It is almost as if they are wired that way.  Like they live in a bizarro world.  You say up, and they misunderstand that you said down. Left becomes right, and then you tell them, "no, the other left!"

In such situations, perhaps you think to yourselves "how the hell do you manage to misunderstand me this much every single time?"

Or, maybe, sometimes you just feel like yelling at the other person for yet again misunderstanding your words or actions.

There you are with your nostrils flaring, blood flowing at increased speeds. You can actually feel the global warming.  You have been there, right?

So the next time you reach that explosive stage, take a deep breath.

And then, lean on the following poem.  
I wish to be misunderstood;
that is,
to be understood from your perspective.
From Bill Knott’s The Unsubscriber HT

Maybe you can even recite this poem at the height (depth?) of the misunderstanding. Recite aloud. With dramatic pauses.

If you do that, and if you live to report that to me, please update me :)

PS: I love you!

I like to think that the reason for the adoption of English as a dominant global language lies not in its adaptability or the geographic reach of the British Empire, but in a phenomenally easy one: the utterly uncomplicated, and simple-syllable, way of saying "I love you."

That phrase explains it all.

Many of the Tamil and the Hindi movies that I watched when growing up in India, if they were not stories that were strictly rural in their settings, had "I love you" sometimes even more than once in the dialog.  After all, most movies dealt the affairs of the heart and they ran for nearly three hours.

My guess is that thanks to the movies, even quite a few among the population who didn't know how to read and write were familiar with "I love you" as an expression and its meaning.

If one of the characters had to say "I love you" in Tamil, for instance, it is way more than three syllables.  நான் உன்னை காதலிக்கிறேன் (Naan unnai kaadhalikkiren)

Way easier to say "I love you" instead and seal the deal by running around the trees!

Or, consider in Hindi (I hope I am correct here with my rudimentary knowledge that is nearly 30 years old): मैं तुमसे प्यार करता हूँ (Main tumse pyar karta hun)  Isn't the English version way easier for the mouth?

I like to also think that the words and sounds needed to express that feeling is why those were also not said much when I was a kid.  To this day, I have never heard my parents tell each other "I love you."  Of course, it is the cultural aspect here--where such expressions were not a part of the everyday existence.  I wonder if India has changed, and whether my generation, or their kids, freely say "I love you."

Back in my life in California, once we had invited over for dinner an older couple, who had immigrated from South Korea.  It was hilarious when during the conversation the wife remarked that her husband doesn't say "I love you" to her.

She then looked at him and practically dared him.  He didn't bite though!  My guess is that it is way more syllables in Korean than it is in English :)

He had a wonderful sense of humor, too and maybe that was his key to success at home and at his business. Without a pause, he replied in his Korean accent, "but, what has love got to do with marriage?"

We all laughed.  Unlike "I love you" laughter is easy and the same in any language.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

If everyone does what they love ...

... the economy will collapse tomorrow morning
That is pretty funny, and profound when you consider the source: Samantha Who?

Yes, that Christina Applegate sitcom, which has been in the rerun world for years now, and I am slowly catching up.  It will be quite a while before I get to the Skyfall CD that is gathering dust.

If only everyone does what they love, right?  Well, not those who love whacking others, but doing anything that is constructive and not destructive.

It is not often in life we are in situations when work is hobby and hobby is work and we love what we do.  I lucked out.  Who cares if I am unlucky at many other things!

I kid around sometimes that I will do what I do even if I don't get paid, and that I am glad I get paid to have fun!  Or, I modify this awful humor with "I get paid only for the grading, which I will not do for free and, dammit, they don't pay me enough for that!"

More often than not, people end up doing whatever they can in order to earn their paychecks, and then drive around with "I would rather be fishing" bumper stickers.  "For the sake of the stomach, many acts do we put on" is how an old Sanskrit translates to in English.  If I dared to reveal my ignorance by recalling my Sanskrit and the phrase, it would be something like this: "उढर निमिथे बहु वेशः" (please let me know if you have the correct version of this phrase.)

I love blogging too.  I cannot imagine a world without blogging.

I love cooking too.  My frequent (and more often than not, the only) debating partner at this blog might even be impressed, despite all his wet-blanket-comments (ha ha!), with my latest project in a most frequented room at home--the kitchen, not that other room.

I made சுண்டல் :)

Here is to hoping that a lot more people would get to do what they love.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Oh, men! ... Everything is comedy

A few weeks ago, when I was in Los Angeles, I walked over to Trader Joe's, which was an easy fifteen minutes on foot.  I wanted to pick up flowers to brighten up my daughter's and son-in-law's charming home that was being dulled by my presence.  Plus, hey, which daughter won't like flowers, right?

I picked up a bouquet that I planned to arrange according to my own tastes.  It is like preparing food dishes the way I like them, even if not the best way.

When I reached the checkout counter, the young dude--perhaps not even twenty-five, did his part at small talk, from which one cannot escape here in these United States.

"Ooh, the wife will be happy" he said.

I smiled first.  Then said "no wife."

He should have called it quits.  But, I suppose that like me, he too wasn't all sauve.  I know that feeling of being a klutz!

"For your girlfriend, eh" .... and then he thought he was correcting himself to something more politically correct when he said, "oh, sorry, for your significant other."

Perhaps he switched to "significant other" because it suddenly occurred to him that I could be gay.  I don't blame him if after that he suspended any small talk for a couple of days; life is way too complicated for small talk now.

When walking back home, I kept thinking about the dude's failed attempt at small talk.  It seems like female checkout clerks are always more measured and careful in their small talk compared to the men.  At any age.  It has to do with us men, I decided.  Perhaps because we want to be funny.  Right from our elementary school days, the class clowns were boys and not girls.

I then remembered the wonderful line that Vanessa Lynn Redgrave sarcastically delivers with the accent of the character that she plays in Gods and Monsters:
Oh, men! Always pulling legs. Everything is comedy. Oh, how very amusing. How marvelously droll.
Yes, marvelously droll!

I reached home and put those flowers together as an arrangement.

The daughter returned home after another tiring day on the job.  As any father would, I waited for the daughter to appreciate the marvelous droll who brought those flowers.

She saw them.

She smiled.

She said a big thanks.

Made my day.

That Trader Joe's dude can rest easy.

Earlier today, I drove to the local Trader Joe's to restock my pantry.  Pantry, with an "r,"  See "marvelously droll" I am being even now!

At the checkout counter, it was a team--a young woman at the scanner and a young man bagging.

"Any fun plans for today?" she asked.

"If you call grading papers fun, yes" I replied.  See, we men want to be funny all the time!

The young man didn't want to be left out, I suppose.  "Oh yeah, what grade do you teach?"

I smiled.  "I teach at the university."

His face shrunk.  I wanted to tell him, "hey, no big deal.  I fail at small talk like you. Sympatico"

I didn't. I kept walking.  Papers to be graded were waiting for me.

Facebook is not a panacea for the world's problems. It is causing more!

I am no Luddite.  But, there is not a day that goes by without me wondering and worrying that this latest version of the Industrial Revolution might really be the job killer that Luddites have always feared.

Reading George Packer's essay in the New Yorker and this piece on Jaron Lanier in Salon add to my worries.  Here is what Packer writes in his blog, in a follow-up to his original piece:
life inside Silicon Valley can be a paradise (for its winners) of opportunity and reward. Meanwhile, life outside falls further and further behind. All those highly paid engineers, with their generous stock options and unheard-of buying power, aren’t making the Valley more equal—they’re making it less so. 
As one who grew up in the Valley, and as one who attended high school there, Packer is an insider as much as he is an outsider now.  He writes in his essay about the economic reality of the Silicon Valley, which is home to more than fifty billionaires and thousands of millionaires:
There are also record numbers of poor people, and the past two years have seen a twenty-per-cent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing.  After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America.
This new and improved Digitial Economy, version 2.0, as opposed to the internet boom of the 1990s, is changing the economic and geographic landscape that doesn't seem to be getting the attention it deserves.  

Lanier arrives at this with an example:
“Here’s a current example of the challenge we face,” he writes in the book’s prelude: “At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?”
Of course, this is not the first time I am blogging about such worries.  In a recent one, I referred to Twitter, which, Packer writes, threatened to move its headquarters away from San Francisco, and I wrote then:
At $10 billion, the company might still be quite a bargain.  For that kind of a valuation, Twitter employs only about 1,600 people.  And even that draws a remark as to whether that many are really needed!
@bill_gross What are 800 developers doing all day at a product that hardly changes? 800? That's like 80 Instagram-like Start-Ups. #wondering— Michael Hirschbrich (@MicHirschbrich) March 8, 2013
Jobs aren't being created directly, nor as multipliers, as they were in the past revolutions.  The result shows up geographically, as Packer notes:
San Francisco is becoming a city without a middle class.  Pockets of intense poverty, in districts like the Fillmore and the Tenderloin, are increasingly isolated within the general rise of exorbitantly priced housing.  
Lanier adds:
We kind of made a bargain, a social contract, in the 20th century that even if jobs were pleasant people could still get paid for them. Because otherwise we would have had a massive unemployment. And so to my mind, the right question to ask is, why are we abandoning that bargain that worked so well?
At Ramesh's post on Apple's tax avoidance, even when disagreeing, we both agreed on the need to rewrite the social contract.  A contract with the people on so many different levels.

Packer asks:
Why has a revolution that is supposed to be as historically important as the industrial revolution coincided with a period of broader economic decline?  I posed the question in one form or another to every one I talked to in the Bay Area. ... Few of them had given the topic much consideration.
Evgeny Morozov wants us to rethink technology:
a) What problems are worth tackling, and what problems look like problems only because we have technologies for solving them? 
b) Which of the “real” problems should be solved by governments and which ones by technology companies—given that it's technology companies that run much of this new infrastructure? What do we lose or gain once it's private technology companies that are tackling problems like climate change or obesity? 
c) If we do decide that, at least for some problems, technological fixes are OK and that private companies can be allowed to help with solving them, what should be the principles and values guiding problem-solving? Tech companies, like all companies, have a bias toward efficiency, but efficiency may not be the value to optimize in attempts to solve important public problems.
Yes, it is not merely about efficiency.  There is a lot more to humanity and life than efficiency alone.  How do we rethink technology in terms of the problems of the day and those we can anticipate in the future?  Why aren't we doing technology along those lines?  Packer's response is this:
It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that's who thinks them up.
That might be a tad too harsh, and exaggerated, yes.  But, there is also a great deal of truth in it.  Packer quotes a young entrepreneur on his colleagues:
"They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world's problems.  It isn't cynicism--it's arrogance and ignorance."
If there is any student or one younger than me reading all these: you have been warned.
(Full disclosure: I use Facebook and Twitter, and use them a lot.)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

I live in a sacred place. The vedas say so!

The news item on Srikanth "Sri" Srinivasan getting overwhelming Senate confirmation on his appointment to the country's second most powerful court was exciting at so many levels.  For one, an Indian-American. And  a Tamil name at that!

In this news item, I noticed that his origins go back to Mela Thiruvenkatanathapuram, which Google reported was near Tirunelveli and by the Tamrabarani.  Now, I was on full alert.  We are talking about the territories where my grandparents are from.  Father's place, Pattamadai is only a mile in from the riverbank.

The Tamrabarani at Srivaikuntam
I couldn't wait to check with my father.

I called him up.  "Hold on a second" he said.

A few seconds went by. I realized that I was no longer holding onto a live conversation.  In such situations, I miss the old landline for the unique sound it generated to indicate that the phone was off the hook.

So, a second call.  "Looks like I mistakenly pressed something here" father said.  After a few less trivial topics, I ventured into the "Sri" and Tirunelveli connections.

"Yes, there was extensive coverage here in the paper" father said.  I asked him if he knew where Mela Thiruvenkatanathapuram is.  Father didn't know.  He thought that maybe the village has another name by which the locals, and he, refer to.

"My guess is the village is along the river where it flows from the south to the north" he said.

"Wait, doesn't Tamrabarani flow eastward?"

"There is a small stretch where it flows north" father replied.  "According to the old Hindu faith, a river, flowing north, or in the stretches where it does, is very sacred" he added.

"So, I live in a sacred place" I chipped in.  The Willamette, which flows by not even a couple of minutes of a walk away, is on a northward drift from here on its way.

"Yes, I remember you telling me that the river there flows north" father recalled.  And he got back to the "Sri" topic.  "But, I don't know where exactly this village is.  When I talk to our people from Tirunelveli, I will ask them" he said.

So, that story will continue another day.

For now, I am excited I live in a very sacred place.  But, of course, the Indians here also knew that.  The Native Americans held sacred the rivers and the mountains.  I wonder, though, if the north-flowing river was any more or less sacred than rivers flowing in other directions.

The Willamette, Spring 2013

A wild goose chase is what life is, too

Every single dish that my neighbors had on the menu at dinner last night at their home was simply delicious, as always.  "The best food at the best restaurant in town" is how I, yet again, referred to the delightful dishes they put together.

One was a new item on the menu that I hadn't ever had in all these years of neighborly exchanges.  It was an eggplant dish.  The aroma from that as I walked towards the kitchen made me drool even before I had laid my eyes on it.  If the brain is the most important sex organ, the nose is perhaps the most important food organ for the all important sense of smell it provides us.

As we sat down to eat, they thanked the lord for for the food and remembered the fallen soldiers.  I thanked them for the food and friendship.  A friendship over a decade, despite our ages, and different perspectives on religion and politics, leave alone our respective cultural backgrounds.

As I greedily took my second, and a third, helping, I asked them if they could guess the geographic home of eggplants.  And then I pointed to myself.

"Oh, India."

It was damn tasty.  I was curious, as ever: "How did you make this eggplant dish?"

The response was a simple one with which I am all too familiar: "Oh, I made it up as I went along."

"Yes, the best kind of cooking" I said.

We agreed that one needs to know a bit before we get to making up things as we go about in the cooking.  A certain idea of the terrain.  When I don't know, I stay away from experimenting.  Cooking is no wild goose chase.

With a sense of contentment, I picked up the latest issue of the New Yorker for my bed-time reading.  The photo-essay on the Central Asian rivers appealed to me as the right kind of soothing read before drifting off to sleep.  I was wrong; it provided way more intellectual stimulation than I would have guessed.

The caption by the side of a photograph of a wild goose said:
A "wild goose chase" was originally a horse race with no fixed course: the rider in the lead improvised the route, until someone passed him.
How fascinating!

Something new every day.  Yesterday, it was more than one new thing.  An eggplant dish for the nose and tongue, and the "wild goose chase" for the most important sex organ!

The salad at the dinner. I forgot to take a photo of the eggplant dish!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Zen and the making of ... rava dosai!

Not a shopper by any means, during the rare visit to anything other than a grocery store, I make sure to scan the clearance shelves.  Works with my restricted budget status over the past few years.

At 50% off was a packet of MTR Rava Dosa mix.  At a non-grocery store. What a globalized world in which we live now!

I read through the instructions there.  Seemed like work, but not that difficult.  A wonderful way to kill time too--better than passively watching television.

Because I blog about my cooking, or thanks to posting photos of my food creations at Facebook, one might think that I have too much free time on my hands.  True to some extent--nobody at home to compete for my time.  But, there is an argument to be made that people do not necessarily allocate their time well, and not all are healthily spent.

"No time? People always have time for what they consider important, and what is more important than your health? Home-cooked food contains better ingredients, and you know what you’re eating."
To put that into proper perspective, because I had never ever made a rava dosa before, it was one heck of a learning process that took up a lot of time.  From the first step to cleaning up the kitchen after I was all done, it took up nearly two hours.  The time a typical Hollywood movie runs for.  Slightly less than the time for all the nine innings of a baseball game.  Way less than the time it takes for an NFL game.

I notice that over the years, I have become less and less a consumer of entertainment of most types.  It has freed up a number of hours.  And cooking has taken up the slack.  There is a great deal of truth in the idea that fun is when you do it, and entertainment is watching somebody else having fun.  And, dammit, I want to have fun.  Healthy fun. Tasty fun. I cook.  I cook, therefore, I am!

Cooking is fun also because of the quick and easy availability of the semi-processed ingredients.  Something my grandmothers, and even my mother for most of my growing up years, did not have access to.  To make dosa, for instance, the regular or the rava dosa, they had to work from primary ingredients.  I, on the other hand, rarely ever have to start from step one.  I can easily start from step four or eight depending on how much somebody else has completed those initial processes for me.  As a kid who was always amazed at the hours and hours that the mothers I interacted with worked every single day, I do not have any crazy notion of preparing food any old-fashioned way.  No false romanticism of food in those good old days.  Yes, those dishes were fantastic, but it pretty much restricted women to nothing but that work.  Practically condemning them to a life in the hot and smoky kitchens.
“Servitude,” said my mother as she prepared home-cooked breakfast, dinner, and tea for 8 to 10 people 365 days a year. She was right. Churning butter and skinning and cleaning hares, without the option of picking up the phone for a pizza if something goes wrong, is unremitting, unforgiving toil. 
The modern food industry has made my cooking so much easier:
If we romanticize the past, we may miss the fact that it is the modern, global, industrial economy (not the local resources of the wintry country around New York, Boston, or Chicago) that allows us to savor traditional, fresh, and natural foods. Fresh and natural loom so large because we can take for granted the processed staples—salt, flour, sugar, chocolate, oils, coffee, tea—produced by food corporations.
Thus, my approach to life, whether in cooking or in my chosen profession, is neo-traditional.  I value those old traditional habits and products, but pursue them via the modern means.

But, this rava dosa turned out to be a tad trickier than I would have preferred.  I followed the directions on the package, and added onions and cilantro and green chili too.  The first one was a disaster!

I had to think that I was the batter waiting to metamorphose into a pleasing looking dosa, and figure out what might be wrong.  Could it be that the flame was a tad too high?  Maybe I was pouring the batter in a way that was not working well to cook it up evenly?

The second one was slightly better.

The third dosa was even better.  Progress.

I flipped that dosa on to its other side, and it certainly looked like how a rava dosa would.

But, I couldn't afford to celebrate.  I have cooked enough over the years to know that all it takes is a little bit of disrespect, in terms of taking things for granted, and the entire thing goes awry.  Not unlike so many other aspects of life, I suppose.  Cooking makes one respect how even a small component is as valuable as a large and prominent one. All can be lost for the want of a horseshoe nail, as the old one that we learnt in school taught us.

Slowly, I completed making the dosas.  By then I had already eaten the first two that didn't come out looking good.  They didn't look good, yes, but they tasted as good as the ones whose appearance was unblemished.  But, humans that we are, we are always more fascinated by the outward appearances.  We discriminate against bananas because of some brown spots on the skin.  Better looking people we gravitate towards even if they are rotten inside, while making fun of the "ugly ones" who, for all we know, might be the kind of humans we would really like to be on the inside.

All the later ones came out well.   

I cleaned up the kitchen.  A habit that I picked up from my mother, who hates to leave her kitchen in a mess.  When I visit with my parents, I find that the least I can do is help her with washing the dishes and cleaning the countertop.  Mother protests all the time, and sometimes she hurriedly washes dishes so that I wouldn't have to.  She thinks that I deserve a break because I cook and clean here every day,whereas I think she deserves a break because she cooks and cleans every day.  Clean freaks that the mother and son are!

When done, I served myself two of those dosas and sat down with a glass of water.

The whole is much, much more than the sum of its parts, indeed!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Men lost their charm ... maybe we never had it?

Easy there, before you draw your weapons.  Calm down.  Don't jump to conclusions, yet.

First, consider this excerpt:
Most men hold charm in vague suspicion: few cultivate it; still fewer respond to it; hardly any know whether they have it; and almost none can even identify it. Women commonly complain about the difficulty in gaining any conversational purchase when, say, trying to engage the fathers of their children’s classmates or the husbands of their tennis partners. The woman will grab from her bag of conversational gambits—she’ll allude to some quotidian absurdity or try to form a mock alliance in defiance of some teacher’s or soccer coach’s irksome requirement. But the man doesn’t enter into the give-and-take. The next time they meet, it’s as though they’ve never talked before; the man invariably fails to pick up the ball, and any reference the woman might make to a prior remark or observation falls to the ground. Men don’t indulge in the easy shared confidences and nonsexual flirtations that lubricate social exchange among women. Even in the most casual conversation, men are too often self-absorbed or mono-focused or—more commonly—guarded, distracted, and disengaged to an almost Aspergerian degree. 
No, not the time yet to draw your weapons.  Put them back. Especially if you are a woman; "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" :)

The essay, from which I excerpted those few lines, comes at an interesting time in my life.  (Yes, every post is always about me.  It is my blog!)

You know, who better than me--a divorced, single, middle-aged guy who occasionally stirs out of his home to wonder how the world outside is--to ruminate on the male charm and how much it has disappeared!  "If I were charming" is a line that reminds me of "if my aunt had balls, she would be my uncle" ;)

I mean, we don't refer to Prince Charming as a yardstick for nothing!  Well, it is also a fictional character for all the compelling reasons!

No, put that weapon down. Behave!

Back to that excerpt.  I, as a straight guy, agree that there are very few men who I find to be charming.  If it were not for his utterly atrocious treatment of women, former president Bill Clinton would be way up there.  But, "no cigar" in more ways than one, unfortunately.

When it comes to personalities on the screen, which is what that essay is mostly about, I am not that different from most when I think of George Clooney or Bradley Cooper.  Though, when discussing the movie that we watched, my daughter thought that Cooper was overrated in this category.  Maybe charm, too, is in the eye of the beholder.
In the old days, the phrase a charming man was often code for “a gay man,” and undoubtedly the undying but unfounded speculation about Grant’s bisexuality is based on the suspicion that no man so charming could possibly be heterosexual. There is no getting around the basic womanliness of charm.
Maybe.  As one Seinfeld episode put it, we live in an age when a guy who is not bad looking, has healthy habits, and keeps a clean home, is easily thought of as a "gay man."  "Not that there is anything wrong with that" as the episode kept up the theme, remember?  Now, think about me: I cook, keep a relatively clean home, have healthy habits, without any protruding beer gut ... thank heavens I am far from good looking!

You worked up enough?  Calm down by watching Charade, which brings together a charming man and one of the best looking women to ever be a movie star--the one and only Audrey Hepburn.

If you are worked up even after watching it, then you may draw your weapons ;)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Must be raindrops, for a man ain't supposed to cry!

When I saw the seashells chocolates box on the dining table, I remembered, yet again, my daughter.  The image of her, from years ago, as a teenager having those chocolates while watching Grease for the nth time.

I walked back upstairs to grab the Grease CD, to play during the drive to work.  Next to that was the Simon-Garfunkel CD.  I hadn't listened to it for a while and I grabbed that too.

It was a cool and rainy morning drive and I plugged in Grease.  I was all smiles, as I am now even as I blog about it.

On my way back home, I decided that Simon and Garfunkel would accompany me.  I didn't want the songs to be played in the order in which they were listed, and opted for the random play.  Light rain, winding roads, cool temperature, and wonderful music.  I was having a good time.

And I felt water.

I realized that I had lost myself in some thoughts as Garfunkel sang Bridge over troubled water. His voice, the lyrics, the music, and the setting had slowly drawn out the emotions from somewhere deep inside, without me knowing about it.

I took a detour, and stepped out into the light drizzle.

I realized that my own drizzles were not from sadness but from contentment.  A feeling of everything peaceful and quiet within.  And so was the landscape that I was looking at.

I got back into the vehicle and resumed the drive.  No music.  Not because I worried about raindrops but because I wanted to absorb the scenery.  The wonderful spring, though on an unusually cooler side.

I stopped again, when I saw sheep lazily grazing.  I debated within about stepping out into the light rain when the gauge reported it was only 52 outside.

But, it was too good to simply stay in.

It was soothing and refreshing and exhilarating.

I noticed that one was staring at me. I stared back.

We stood staring at each other.  The drizzles I could feel more as they soaked their way past this animal's shirt.  The other animal on the other side of the fence couldn't care with all the woolly clothing.

I blinked.  

The warmth inside the vehicle felt wonderful.  I sat there and watched the animal staring at me.  Damn that patience!

I started driving.  Home, sweet home!

On the Latin American Indians. The "East Indians" that is!

In commenting on this post on the multinational existence of my extended family, Chris wonders about the Indian migration to Latin America, which then makes me recall old stories, in a Bill Cosby-like rambling fashion!  Pull up a chair, and get yourself a cup of coffee first.

About this time of the year, 25 years ago, I went to Venezuela with a few other graduate schoolmates, on a three-week study trip.

One of the very few photos from my Venezuela trip
In the initial couple of days, we were guided by a local guy, Carlos.  Right from the first minute of meeting him, I thought to myself that the guy looked Indian.  As in from India.

If I am an idiot now with no social skills, well, I was worse then.  I am guessing that I would have phrased it in the most awkward and politically incorrect way possible when I asked him if he had any Indian connections.

Turned out that he had!

Curiosity was, for once, useful—Carlos’ grandparents were from India. They came to Guyana, from where his father later immigrated to Venezuela, married a local and, hence, Carlos the Venezuelan!

The Guyana connection was especially interesting because a student in our group was from Suriname.  And, yes, she too was an "Indian" whose great-grandparents, I think, had emigrated from India to Guyana, if I correctly recall. Like many of Indian origin from there, she, too, was keen on getting out of the country.

She never said "Indian" but always used the phrase "East Indian."  Understandable--to differentiate from the "Indians" in the Americas and the "West Indians."  What a confusion thanks to Columbus!

I have in my mind this blurry image of her mother and sister cooking a fabulous meal for a whole bunch of us when they were in Los Angeles.  They all settled down later in New York.  The years have taken a toll on my memory and I have absolutely no idea about her name; how sad!

I do remember Trevor, however.

Trevor was from South Africa and, yes, was a product of the Indian dispersion into that country.  Not merely India, but from Tamil Nadu!

The common thread here is, of course, the colonizer--Britain.

So, after recalling those old stories, the nerd in me gets curious.  Would the British connection then have opened up a portal for Indians into Belize?  Are there people of Indian origin in Belize?  Can one get an aaloo paratta there? ;)

The web comes to my rescue:
The "East Indians" as they were referred to, perhaps in order to distinguish them from the original "Maya Indians" that inhabited this part of the world, were first brought to Belize to supplement the African laboring population.  It was not until slavery had been abolished that the first East Indians, between 1870 and 1880 first arrived in Belize. 
East Indian food, a significant aspect of culture, is still very much prevalent in the homes of the contemporary East Indian population, as well as Belizeans as a whole. Today the East Indian community is identified by a distinctively "Indian" appearance, either in hair, or facial features. Although they have adopted many of the social practices, customs and values of the creolized Belizean populace they have given as much in return, so much so that they remain among Belizeans a group that has truly become a dear collaborator, sharing their culture and most notably, their food.
So, any Indian eateries in Belize?  I am awfully curious by now.

Another search and Lonely Planet recommends Sumathi Indian Restaurant!  Meet the chef:

What a fascinating world!

By the way, why does the chef not smile for the photograph?  Not smiling is in the Indian genes?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On our Africa-less multinational existence

I doubt whether my parents would have ever imagined in the early years of their married life how multinational our family would later become: I am a US citizen, my sister lives in India, and my brother is an Australian citizen. Three siblings in three countries on three different continents!

Such a multinational existence is obvious when I visit India.  Among the extended family, and even my parents’ neighbors, rare is one without a son or daughter settled somewhere abroad.

The other day, when I called up my father, it turned out that father and son think alike--he had apparently been thinking about the American connections within the extended family.  "Not many on the West Coast" he remarked.  Indeed.  Most are in the Eastern and Central time zones.

“Foreign” is not foreign anymore.

But, African countries rarely seem to show up in such a global life—seldom do I ever run into anyone in India who has a son or daughter living anywhere in Africa. Other than a cousin of my dad's, who seems to spend half the year in Malawi, the familial connections don't extend to Africa, it seems.  Well, other than that prehistoric one, of course!

Things might have been different if that Sierra Leone connection had worked out.  As I noted in this post, I was all too excited when my father mentioned about a chance to work in Sierra Leone. This was decades ago.  

It is one heck of a statement on Africa's economic conditions, and the political stability too, when despite the global wanderings of the cousins, nephews and nieces, there is hardly any mention of any African country at all.

It is a small world, after all, yes.  But, Africa continues to be so far away.  That doesn't sound right.  Hopefully, not for long.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Like youth, money and education are also wasted on the young?

There were a number of reasons why I hated--yes, that strong an emotion--the college where I did my undergraduate studies. One of them was this: the pathetic library it had.

Now, maybe my expectations coming out of high school were unrealistic.  But, I had assumed that a college would have a library that would be way more than what my college offered.  Thus, whenever I went to Chennai, where my parents lived, I then spent quite some time at the libraries at the US Consulate (thank you, America!,) the British Council, and at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT.)

Sometime during my second year, I think it was, I had an unpleasant experience at the IIT library.  The security guy at the library door asked for my student ID.  I told him that I was a student at a different college not at IIT.  He said I couldn't go in because it was for students.  I got pissed off.  I got into an argument with him and asked to meet with the officer in charge of the library.

The security guy walked me over to some guy's office and I explained the situation.  He, too, said that it was for the IIT students and that he could make an exception if I proved to him that I was a student at the college in Coimbatore that I said I was.

This made me even angrier.  I explained to him that IIT was a government institution and that I had a right to use the library, whether or not I had an ID card. It being the India of 30 years ago where authority was to be respected--perhaps things haven't changed much since--my comments and arguments were not welcomed and I was shown the door.  That was, of course, my last time also at the IIT library!

The break ended, and I returned to my college.

I was asked to meet with the principal. I thought it might be over the graffiti that I had created in my dorm room ceiling.  Turned out that it was about my encounter at the IIT library.  Apparently I had created a bad name for the college with my behavior at IIT.  I thought to myself that there were a lot more things that the college had to be ashamed about and my behavior was not one of them. But, I kept my mouth shut.

Now, I am in a different part of the world, and in a completely different academic setting.  But, what troubles me is this: high school students and their families checking out our campus as one of their options do not seem to care much about the quality of academic programs or about what our library offers.  Instead, they are far more interested to know how good the gym facilities are.  They are more interested in whether the giant size television set will fit into the dorm room.  They want to know about practically everything that should not matter to them all that much.

What high school students and their families do not realize is that the more they ask those kinds of questions, the more colleges and universities are happy to provide state-of-the-art gyms with climbing walls.  Bigger and fancier dorm rooms.  Rich and tasty food opportunities.

What high school students and their families do not realize is that the more colleges and universities spend money on these, well, the more students and their families have to pay up as well.  They shouldn't be surprised at the end of it all that it is the students and their families who then end up in debt, which has now reached new heights (depths?):

The average debt load for each borrower receiving a bachelor’s degree this year is about $30,000, according to an analysis of government data by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at student-marketing company Edvisors. That number has doubled over the course of a recent graduate’s lifetime. Even adjusting for inflation, the average debt burden was half that size 20 years ago.
Other groups put the average debt figure even higher. A poll from Fidelity Investments earlier this week found 70% of graduates had at least some debt, and the average was $35,200. That figure is higher in part because it includes debt owed to family and credit-card balances
Tomorrow, the campus will hold a rally on the "dire" funding situation for public universities like the one where I teach.  Accusations will be hurled at every possible direction except one: ourselves.  I am willing to bet that there will not be a single placard denouncing the wasteful expenditures on fancy dorms, on the fancy gym, on athletics, .... A good time will be had by all at the BBQ, which will be paid for by the students themselves.

I will not be there, of course.  I do not have the youthful energy that I had when I protested at IIT thirty years ago.

ps: one of the many announcements on the event tomorrow:
WOU 082 SEIU 503, Western Oregon Federation of Teachers (WOUFT) and the Associated Students of Western Oregon University (ASWOU) are pleased to invite you to the

First Annual Western Oregon United (WOU) BBQ and Rally Tomorrow at 12 noon sharp on the WUC Plaza

We hope for a sun break but have inclement weather plans and a dry place for lunch and our incredible speakers. Please bring a jacket or umbrella because, rain or shine, we will be outside for a few minutes. We are Western and a little rain can't keep us down. LUNCH IS PROVIDED.
Tomorrow is about celebrating what staff, students and faculty have in common. The three groups will not always agree, but let's find where we do and work together to benefit all. One such place is state funding of higher education. Appropriations are falling. Tuition is rising. Services are decreasing. Benefits are falling. Wages need improvement.
It is apparent, business as usual is not working.
I think there is a better way. We need to move beyond fighting each other for diminishing funds with diminishing returns. Such tactics serve only to distract from the real issue -- the need for Oregon to reinvest in public higher education. Let's resist the politics of division and fund higher education without doing it on the backs of students. Or those who proudly serve them.
This won't be easy, change rarely is. However, change starts tomorrow. Join staff, students and faculty by gathering as close to 12 noon as possible on the WUC Plaza.

Monday, May 20, 2013

How many will support a petition to end petitions?

A few years ago, I had included in the syllabus a reading on the crisis in Darfur--this was back when it was a major problem.  I provided students with a map of Africa, with the outline of the political boundaries of countries without their names, and asked them to identify Sudan and a few other countries.  One student later wrote in an assignment how she had passionately signed up to the Save Darfur campaigns without ever caring to find out where exactly that place called Darfur was in the real world.

I think that her experience is not uniquely about Darfur alone.  I am willing to bet that the other favorite slogan, "Save Tibet," will also show a similar one--most passionate petitioners wouldn't be able to identify Tibet on a map.

The issue is not about simply geographic illiteracy either. While geographic illiteracy is one reason, I suspect the larger reason is that way too many people sign on to way too many petitions without really thinking through. They do that because maybe it just feels right.  Or their peers do it.  Or whatever.  Signing on to a petition is rarely a decision based on acquiring relevant information and thinking through.

I have always been suspicious of petition drives.  Even when the petition is on issues I care about.  Further, signing a petition means that we want to emphasize that issue, whatever it might be, as a much higher priority than most other issues of the day.  But, how do we know that deserves a top billing?  What are the tradeoffs that I am looking at?  Not that I never sign petitions; I do.  But, only after I carefully examine the argument and if I find that it is being ignored despite its importance and severity.

Two academic presidents--one of Lewis and Clark, and the other of Northwestern--write about taking "a vow against joining the lists":
we eschew petitions because, as researchers and teachers, we know that any important issue deserves more serious thought and discussion than can be captured in a list of demands. 
Exactly!  Especially when we are in the very business of critical thinking, right?

They note how many of the petition drives originate from  And they note the irony of it all:
Click around the website, the organization from which several of our petitions come, and you'll find photos of 164 employees. A page labeled "We're Hiring!" lists more than two dozen additional positions. "Like most companies," the site proclaims, " has a business model that allows us to grow rapidly and be financially self-sustaining, providing tens of millions of people with a free empowerment platform for change." also sells advertising—though it calls them "sponsored petitions." We're considering buying one that calls for divestment in companies that propagate petitions. We suspect others will enthusiastically sign on.
Yes, a hilarious Monty Pythonesque petition to end petition drives.  Like a bumper sticker that I once saw on the car that was ahead of me: I hate bumper stickers!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

What does it mean to be human?

The introductory class that I am teaching this term made me wonder and question, yet again, what exactly higher education is about.  

I have noticed over the past couple of years that students get a lot more focused when we discuss the economic rationale behind why anything that can be outsourced will be outsourced, and why activities that can be automated will be automated.  It is understandable--students immediately see the link between the concepts and their own lives and futures.

From the back row, a student’s hand went up.  "If robots do our work, then what happens to finding our purpose in life through work?  What about human interactions?"  Her voice seemed laden with emotions.

When it comes to such questions on what it means to be human, students know what my answer will be.  With a smile, I remind them that those questions are beyond the scope of the course in economic geography, and that I hope they would  take courses in the humanities and the social sciences to understand such important issues.

Technological advancements, which are difficult to keep up with anymore, will raise challenging questions on what it means to be human.  Even now, most public policy questions that we are grappling with are all variations of that very question.  The examples are endless and include abortion, healthcare, social security, unemployment benefits, and war. Technological advancements will only further muddy the issues.

Our responses to each and every one of the public policy issues depend on our own constructs of what it means to be human, and what it means to belong to a society and to a country.  Above all, what it means to be one of the more than seven billion humans on this wonderful planet.

One would imagine that education, especially at a level beyond high school, would prepare adults for such inquiries.  Unfortunately, that is rarely the case, for at least two important reasons.

The first is the simplistic formulation that higher education is about economic betterment.  Hence, for instance, all the rah-rah for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and professional-sounding majors.  This is flawed for a number of reasons, especially when we think about the fact that these jobs are subject to those same outsourcing and automation dynamics. I should note in this context that my undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering.

The second reason that students do not get to systematically think about these questions is because colleges and universities have practically abandoned those in their curricular offerings.  On their part, students typically treat the humanities and social science requirements of a liberal education to be nothing more than items on a checklist to be completed on their way to getting the diploma.  In order to attract the uninterested students, academia has gone after making courses “attractive” to them. My favorite, of the ones I have come across in the news, is a course on Lady Gaga.  It will require quite some effort on a student's part to use that course as a vehicle to understand what it means to be human!

The result is that I doubt whether students will really have enough structured opportunities to think through the kind of important questions that the student raised.  If this is how we "educate" students and prepare them for the rest of their lives that begin with Commencement, then what have we really accomplished?

What else do you do after a 100-day hunger strike?

When we were kids, my brother and I once were upset with something--the details I have forgotten now, and I am sure it was something absolutely trivial--and we decided that we would go on a hunger strike. I couldn't have been even at a double-digit age, and my brother is two years younger, and there we were refusing to eat my mother's tasty cooking.

What shocked me was this: my mother didn't get angry but was hurt.  It was almost like we had punched her awfully bad.  Yes, I know that kids do stupid things, but that image of my mother pleading with us on why we were torturing her that way was unbearable.  More than the hunger itself, we brothers simply could not bear to inflict that kind of a pain on mother and we ate in silence.  One of these days I ought to apologize to my mother for this.  But then that is one in a long list of apologies that are way past due!

When we care about the other human, it is impossible to watch a fellow human starve himself/herself as a protest.  I suppose Gandhi lucked out with his fasting to protest the British--the British were human enough to respond.  Imagine if Gandhi had protested against Hitler!  With that White Man's Burden, the British had no choice but to often yield to Gandhi's demands.  And when Gandhi fasted in order to end religious violence, even the killer mobs had no option but to put an end to their fanatical killings.  All because even the murderous mobs were not psychopaths--else, they would have gladly sent Gandhi off on an even earlier exit from this planet.

Hunger strikes are powerful.  They test the human in each and every one of us.

Which is why I am so shocked at the lack of media coverage on the hunger strike in Guantanamo that is now more than a hundred days old.  More than a hundred prisoners refusing food for more than a hundred days and yet this is being sidelined in favor of an incredible nonstop coverage of the hyped up Tea Party-IRS issue?
Out of 166 inmates, 102 are on hunger strike at Guantanamo, with 30 being fed through tubes. One inmate continued to be hospitalised but prison officials said his life was not in danger.
Inmates are restrained and a feeding tube is pushed through their nose and into their stomach - a practise the UN compares to torture.
Perhaps it is a sign of me getting old when I worry that we are rapidly losing any perspective on what it means to be human.  But, I don't think it is merely my old age at play. There is something seriously wrong here.
The frozen status of the detainees has fueled the hunger strikes, which grew from about a half-dozen inmates at first to more than 100 now.
"This is kind of the only option they have left, to say, 'Hey, we're still here. We are still your problem. Are you just gonna let us rot in here until the end of time?' " said Cori Crider, a lawyer who represents several detainees.
About 30 of them refuse to take even liquid nutritional drinks and have to be fed through tubes shoved down their noses.
The American Medical Association has criticized the practice, calling it a violation of the profession's core ethics. "Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions," AMA President Jeremy Lazarus wrote in an April letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The Pentagon says the feeding program is lawful and humane. But Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention facility, acknowledges that the options for the administrators are dwindling.
While the UN might consider this torture, the 100-days is nothing compared to the hunger strike on the other side of the planet--in India.  Irom Sharmila began her fast twelve years ago as a protest against the use of the  Indian military against its own people.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa), against which Ms Chanu is protesting, gives sweeping powers to the armed forces when they fight separatist insurgents or leftist radicals - powers which critics say are often misused.
She has been force-fed as well, and now Sharmila is being accused of trying to commit suicide:
Metropolitan Magistrate Akash Jain told her: “Madam, there is an accusation against you that you tried to commit suicide.” To this, Ms. Sharmila responded with an emphatic “No.”
“On April 20, 2012, an order was passed against you charging you under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code [attempting to commit suicide]. Do you plead guilty to the charge,” Mr. Jain asked.
Ms. Sharmila replied: “I don’t want to commit suicide. Mine is only a non-violent struggle to live as a human being.”
Mr. Jain said: “But the law of the land does not permit you to take your life.”
“I love life. I love life. I don’t want to take my life. What I want is justice and peace,” Ms. Sharmila replied. “I am protesting against AFSPA. If AFSPA is repealed I will take food again.”
The Magistrate told the activist that while he respected her sentiments, hers was a political stance, while the courts were concerned with the legal procedure. 
So, if a Sharmila can be set aside by a government for twelve years and be force-fed, then the Guantanamo prisoners can pretty much expect to be there forever?  Until their eventual death?

"Irom Sharmila Chanu is force-fed through a pipe in her nose"

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Don't wish me sweet dreams, please!

Paging Dr. Freud.

It is related to an important organ of mine for which he might have some answers.

No, not that organ.  The brain.

I want Dr. Freud to analyze why I had an awesome dream about a carrot halva.

It was a wonderful dream.  Some fuzzy face brought me a bowl of the reddish carrot halva.  The halva made from the red carrots that are available during the winter months in northern India.  

In the dream, the sweet was at just the right temperature.  I took a spoonful to my mouth and it was just the perfect texture and the right amount of sugar.  It was heavenly.

After I woke up, it was such a letdown to walk into the kitchen and realize again that it was all a dream.  

I made myself a dull and boring toast with peanut butter while the coffee brewed.

And soon after breakfast and a few chores, I set about making my dream come true.

I grated carrots, as Pandora offered me beautiful music.  I couldn't care about my tennis elbow as I repeated that same motion. 

Cooking is magic.  When everything is done, it is that awesome feeling of voilà!  Cooking is instant gratification, unlike hobbies like gardening or sculpting where it is a long time between the idea within to become real.  In the kitchen, the magic happens within a matter of minutes and hours.

I customized the recipe, true to my usual approach.  It is almost like somewhere back in my young age somebody whispered into my ears, "leave no recipe untweaked!"  Perhaps Dr. Freud can sort out why I am so unwilling to faithfully carry out recipes.  Why that rebellious attitude even in such matters?

I couldn't wait for the finished product to cool down to the appropriate temperature.  Anxiety meanwhile built up.  What if the entire thing turns out to be a disaster?  Not only will that be a waste of time and the ingredients, but the fact also remains that I am in an alien land where I can't casually walk to the nearest sweet shop and pick up carrot halva.

I took a teaspoonful to my tongue that was practically drooling all over.

It was awesome!

So, I then moved on to the next step.

A big scoop of vanilla ice cream in a bowl was the bed for a scoop of the halva.  On top of the halva, a small scoop of the same ice cream.

No reading anything.  No radio or music in the background. It was just me and this bowl.

If only making dreams come true were as easy as this carrot halva experience!

Friday, May 17, 2013

A toast to Pakistan: here is to hoping that democracy won't be toast!

As unfair as it might seem, one-term US presidents simply cannot ever return as presidential candidates to give the presidency another shot.  Thus, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush didn't need anyone telling them that their political days ended with their respective defeats.  Further, the constitution compels the re-elected President to pack up and leave the White House after eight years.  The presidency is the ultimate act in American politics.

This is not the case in most other countries, especially in the parliamentary systems where defeated leaders can come back again and again.

In the parliamentary system that Pakistan inherited from its erstwhile colonizer, Britain, Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister for the third time.  His first time was in 1990, and was given another opportunity in 1997.  On both those occasions, Sharif did not complete the full five year term in office.  In 1993, the military's opposition forced him to step down, and fresh elections were held soon after. He succeeded again in the elections in 1997, but his time in the prime minister's office was shorted yet again when Pervez Musharraf, whom he had handpicked as the army chief, ousted him in a coup in 1999.

Sharif then spent years in exile in Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.  We in the US might think that his political story ended there, given our unique idea of there is no second act in politics.   But, Sharif's recent election as prime minister for the third time reminds us that Yogi Berra was correct, after all, when he said "it ain't over till it's over."

Now, Sharif is in charge of the government. Ironically, his old tormentor, Musharraf is under house arrest after returning to Pakistan from his own exile in the UK.  Our television daytime soap opera stories seem to have less convoluted scenarios compared to the dizzying merry-go-around in Pakistan.

Amidst all these is the historic first ever in Pakistan--a civilian elected government over a full term handing over the power to another elected civilian government.

Nearly 68 years after its creation as a country, Pakistan has its first democratic transition in government.  It is a tragedy, no doubt, that it has taken this long, but what a welcome change when all other governments were interrupted by the country's powerful military.  Since independence in 1947, Pakistanis have been ruled by the military for almost as many years as they have been governed by people they had elected to power.

Whether or not Sharif succeeds as the prime minister, we ought to recognize this remarkable moment in Pakistan's politics, which is also something that President Obama did in his congratulatory phone call to Sharif.  According to the White House, "the President also thanked Mr. Sharif for his role in the historic transfer of power between civilian governments, a significant milestone in Pakistan’s democracy."

As with all elected governments, this is the honeymoon period when even opponents will remain quiet.  But, not everything is calm and peaceful there.  Violence continues on as it has over the recent years.  On the first Friday after the elections, bombs exploded in two Sunni mosques, killing at least fifteen and injuring more than fifty.  It is a gruesome reminder that Sharif and his government have a huge task of bringing about peace within the country, reducing tensions with the sibling across the border--India--and pulling the country out of its economic doldrum.

Perhaps Sharif will prove that third time is the charm.  Let us hope that this third attempt will help strengthen democracy in Pakistan, and usher in peace and prosperity to the hundreds of millions of Pakistanis who have been patiently waiting for better days.