Saturday, March 28, 2020

Remember who you are!

The incident dates back a few years, I was living in Kansas City at the time ...

It was a summer evening and I had driven my family to 'The Cheesecake Factory' on 119th St. As I got out of the car I paused to go over the order with my wife and absentmindedly kept my drivers side door open. My door was partially blocking the next parking spot and I couldn't see that there was a car waiting to go in there. The car didn't honk or rev its engine - instead this person drove full speed and parked the car next to me! Missing my door by a hairs breadth! I was completely taken aback by the aggression of the moment and I tried to see who the driver of the car was. The driver got out with his middle finger raised and shouted at me - "Go back to your country!" 

I wasn't going to let this man stop me from placing my order - so I went in placed my order and waited in the to-go crowd at the restaurant. He was there, glaring at me and I glared right back - bemused at his insecurity. And yet ... as I drove back home, I realized I was hurting from the incident - overtaken by a profound sense of exclusion.

In that moment and in others over the years I had a distinct feeling that America had rejected me. That I, with my GRE score, my Masters degree and a decade of professional life in the Sciences was not good enough to stay in America. 

As the corona virus ravages the world - making the U.S. its epicenter, I had that feeling of exclusion return to me. Watching millions of people lose their jobs and livelihood was dispiriting enough - but to feel yourself invisible in America's eyes was even worse.

I spent a day working from home and watching the coverage of the pandemic. And as clips played one after the other, I marveled at how expendable I was. 

Government's emergency bailout with $1200 support for individuals - not for me.
Unemployment benefits for taxpayers - yes to the taxes, no on the benefits.
Furlough or reduced work hours ? - not an option for me on an H1B visa.
Reduced rent perhaps? - It wouldn't matter as I would be forced to leave the country.

I turned off the TV and wondered how excluded my father must have felt when he first came to Mumbai. 

Born right after India's independence in a rural fishing town, my father was one of 5 siblings. They lost their dad - my grandfather, quite early in their lives. And my Dad at the age of 16 had to figure out how to take care of the family with no one to guide him. 

He moved to Mumbai because at the time it was the one place in the country that offered social mobility. Upon reaching there, he realized, he was under-educated and didn't speak English. So my dad sold vegetables and fruits during the day and studied by the street lamps at night. He put himself through night school and taught himself English, eventually earning a Bachelors and an MBA. Later he found a stable job, married and bought a home. 

And in 1999, through diligent saving - he bought me my own computer. I have treasured the receipt of that transaction and kept it as a reminder of the sacrifices my Dad made for us. The pocket phone on which you are probably reading this is many magnitudes more powerful than my first PC. But to me - it was a Supercomputer! 

The bearer of my family's aspirations and hopes - I wove my dreams into that Computer through lines of code. I would rename it on a weekly basis, giving it names of the Supercomputers in the U.S. - CRAY, STAR, Paragon,  and so on. 

It was never just a machine to me. I would talk to the compiler - admonishing it for messing up a string or looping infinitely. When, 'The Matrix' was released next year, I started building 'agents' in C. One agent would jump into a structure of another and eat up all its power ... this and countless other games ... When I slept at night, the computer gave me dreams, sometimes showing me solutions that had eluded me during the day. 

When I started my Engineering program, it took a hellish commute to get home. I would travel more than 2 hours every day, in a crushing crowd of people on Mumbai's local trains. Eventually when I got home, it would be late evening and I would be bruised and aching from the travel. And yet ... all the stress of the day and the aches in my body would magically evaporate the second my fingers touched that keyboard. 

Even now decades later, if I am ever feeling down or have a bad interview - I remember that little Computer. And I remind myself of where I come from. It centers me and helps me confine this all prevailing sense of exclusion. 

The world seems to be spinning out of control today. People falling sick and dying .. economies in free fall ...  and nothing but uncertainty ahead. And yet somehow I know - I am going to be fine. I may not know when and where, but I know eventually I will land on my feet.

I may be thousands of miles away from home with the odds stacked against me. But the Cheesecake driver or the recession can never strip me of who I am.

I am my father's son!

- Sanket


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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Secular Beautiful India

On a chilly morning on December 14th 2012 a 20 year old mentally disturbed man walked into the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut - and shot 20 innocent little children to death. The incident prompted massive soul searching in America and a urgent effort for gun control in the US. For a moment it really did seem like America might move past being a gun crazy nation where 85 year old grand ma's need to own machine guns without questions or background checks .. but it was alas a fleeting moment. After a lot of hoopla the needle on gun control barely nudged a hair and the US remains at least in regards to guns pretty much the same nation as pre Sandy Hook. Most of the gun control activists having cried themselves hoarse eventually gave up. 

At the heart of the issue is the US constitution - a truly profound and timeless document in most aspects - it enshrined the rights of ordinary citizens to wage armed war against the government.  This can not be understood without the historical context in which the constitution was written. The Americans having gotten tired of Britian's unfair taxation and their inability to shape England's policies resorted to an armed independence struggle. After many bloody battles, the British were finally overthrown and a free America was born.  Its founders quite logically viewed the right of citizens to weild weapons and fight for their rights as sacred. Afterall that is how they got their independence - should the American Government at some point in the future become something that the people can't live with - they indeed should have the right to wage war as the freedom fighters did!

Four centuries later the US Government is undoubtedly the most powerful military presence in the world. It has battle ships the size of city blocks and nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over. And yet the 65 year old graying farmer in Arkansas expects to be able to overthrow his government with a machine gun ... This is the legacy of  the 'Right to Bear Arms' from the consitution - the second ammendment. Though its original intent is no longer practical it continues to shape the contours of todays democratic America.

Being from India I have always struggled with this aspect of American life. But it was not until the Sandy Hook shooting that I realized how truly superior the Indian freedom struggle was.  Most Indians value and honor their freedom fighters - but few actually appreciate its true greatness and character - that of non violence.  In fact you'll find a large contingent in India who would argue that Indians might have been freed far sooner had they all taken up arms ... and yet if they had we would have to live with the bullet's legacy. And in an India of millions of people of different shades and faith that would have been a truly devastating legacy to live with. 

The genius of Mahatma Gandhi in insisting upon a non violent movement was not only to prove that such a struggle could triumph - but that for a truly secular democratic form of governance it was the right path to conception.  It is that innate non-violence, its quiet strength and the acceptance of all faiths that helped India survive as a new country - that even till date shapes its policies.

If you go to my home town tomorrow in Maharashtra you will see many make-shift temples erected upon the city streets in celebration of Ganesh Chaturthy - and more importantly you will see Hindus, Muslims and Christians decorate the sarvajanik Ganpati and vie to win city contests .. We should be thankful to have been born in such a place and we should be grateful for the thousands of years of spirituality our ancestors left for us in our DNA.

And on that note I wish you all a very Happy Ganesh Chaturthy - may you fight for our India to remain secular and may you fight to preserve everyones right to worship any God they choose. 


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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Head in the sands!

In December of 2012, a 23 year old physiotherapy student was gang raped on a bus in the Indian capital city of New Delhi. It was a case of extraordinary brutality committed right in the heart of India's capital. A case of a small town girl trying to prosper in the new India by pursuing higher education - something India as an independent country has been encouraging and striving towards for the last 7 decades. The British film maker Leslee Udwin  made a documentary at the time comprised of interviews with the accused. In the documentary, the bus driver Mukesh Singh goes on to blame the victim for the rape - proclaiming that any girl who ventures out alone after dark is an "indecent girl" and should be rightly punished by being raped. It is clear from the interview that Mr. Singh has absolutely no remorse for his actions. While this fact in of itself is startling, it is not why the Government has proceeded with such haste to ban the film in India. The truth is that Mr. Mukesh's views are fairly common among India's male population.

The documentary - as do many truths - comes at an extremely inconvenient time for the BJP Government. After winning the general elections upon a promise of economic growth, the new government can't wait to roll out its business friendly policies and promote India as the go-to destination for foreign capital.  The documentary once again focuses world attention upon India's reprehensibly poor law enforcement and throws its outdated views on gender equality into stark relief. The pro-hindutva government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not yet been able to appreciate that the India they desire - one of booming industrial growth and new jobs can not become so without ensuring the safety of its female work force. Rather than confront these unsettling truths head on, the government's reaction has been to ban the documentary in India. It also tried to enforce a gag order on the BBC, but thankfully the documentary has gone public anyway. To most readers of the civilized world, this reaction is understandably incomprehensible but there are very specific reasons why India's government is reacting this way. The truth is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh are firmly in favor of women's safety. But they are equally unsure whether the Indian woman belongs in its theaters, night clubs, restaurants and public transport after dark in the first place. The prime minister wants to return India to its historical golden age - without subscribing to the western values. It is expressly why his voice has been conspicuously missing in the current debate. 

By all measures there has never been a more important time when India needs to see this documentary. A recent study conducted by the IMRB ( Indian Market Research Bureau ) spreading across 11 states has found that 44% of its college students believe that women must accept some form of violence, 65% of college students believe that boys and girls of different religions should not meet in public places, a large majority of students are also quite unaware that they are citizens of India.  It is high time that India as a country undertake a serious introspection of its society. The country is experiencing a clash of its past with the future, of tradition with modernity and while the upheaval is essentially uncomfortable, documentaries such as "India's Daughter" and the social dialogue around them are critical to this process. 

No problem can be solved without an honest admission of whats wrong. And the truth is that India has for far too long averted difficult questions. Its schools and colleges do not imbibe its young with a sense of citizenship nor do they encourage critical thinking. India continues to shy away from sexual education while confronting a population explosion. Its police officers, politicians and bureaucrats continue to view women as second class citizens and its institutions of governance are in desperate need of serious reform. Almost all symbols of India's government wear an ancient sanskrit motto "Satyameva Jayate" - "The truth alone triumphs". It is time the government heeds to the writing on the wall. 


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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

A love of Mumbai!

India's foreign secretary took the first tentative steps today towards normalizing ties with Pakistan. It is an important step and a necessary one. In the news analysis of this event, Pakistan media has been repeating its standard accusation that India has framed all bilateral dialogue with terrorism and the Mumbai attacks of 26/11 as its focus and that Pakistan itself has been a target of terrorism. While I sympathize with Pakistani civilians on the Peshawar incident, I have found the Indian explanation of focus on terrorism to be inarticulate and impersonal. So here is mine .. 

Maximum City
Quite simply put, Pakistan can forget any meaningful progress on all fronts until the trial for Mumbai attackers isn't brought to its rightful conclusion. Thats exaggerating things a bit, but its more or less true. A lot of people in Pakistan and certainly a lot of people from its intellectual class find this stance rigid and unreasonable.  So here is why we wont budge without 26/11 resolved.  Trial or not - judgments or not - the attacks of 26/11 will never fade and heres why - 

We love Mumbai. To the Mumbai born, Mumbai is our introduction to India. It is the first sound of our conscious voice. It is a DNA inherited love for rains, chai and music. It is a collection of experiences inseparable from our own identities. Experiences rich and vibrant, exhilarating and  exhausting, as varied in its shades as the colors of the city itself. 

It is the smell of popcorn at Eros where we watched the first movie after a lecture bunk. It is the hypnotizing sound of track changes as a fast local to CST takes speed. It is the sheer joy of changing sky colors as we chat endlessly upon Marine Drive. It is the smell of yellowing train passes we preserve. It is our ability to tell local stations from looking at the crowd. It is the weight of shopping bags from fashion street. It is the sensation of wet sand in our toes from countless walks on Juhu. It is the flavor of insanely delicious paani puris on the beach and a love of strong winds from midnight drives on the sea link. It is the half priced pirated books at Fort and the scent of kerosene on xeroxed study notes. It is the sound of Radio Mirchi with 3am burji pav. It is an irrational addiction for a female voice that makes our train announcements. It is the endorphin high of a Tendulkar straight drive and a love of all things Madhuri Dixit. It is the thrill of scoring a window seat and the sound of Shaan in our earphones.

These places and streets are not landmarks - they aren't our tourist spots - they are our childhood friends - as alive and as articulate in their personalities as our flesh and blood friends. The attack of 26/11 is not so much a distant over analyzed tragedy as it is a scar on our right palm, you only have to write, or type or wave or move to feel its presence. It is not to say we dwell in the past, as much as it is to own our past. Mumbai has been the constant and steady witness to our life events. It is where we grew up into adulthood, where we learnt about the world and where we fell in love.  It is this generation that will soon come to power in the halls of politics. You can rest assured, that they all have a scar on their right hand.


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Sunday, December 02, 2012


I saw the film 'Barfi' recently. Its a beautiful movie - flawed, but beautiful. The director of photography has done an outstanding job - some of the scenery is quite simply, breathtaking. But the director himself has shown remarkable finesse in his use of slow motion and unusual camera angles. The script is lacking a logical flow and there are a lot of holes that you'd later notice. I say later because Ranbir Kapoor's acting will carry you through it - with every role he is turning into a true actor - someone who acts so well that he becomes the role and when you see it on screen the performance seems effortless. But this post isn't about Barfi - nor is it a film review. This post is about the magic of beauty and youth. This post is about 'Ileana' . 

There are people who look beautiful when they dress up for it. There are people who look beautiful because of the range of their expressions or because of a specific aspect of their face, Julia Roberts's smile, Kajol's eyes .. you get the idea. But I consider truly beautiful people separate from these - true beauty is intrinsic and complete in itself, these are the kinds of people that you can look at them any time of the day, any place, in any attire and you'll stop and admire their sight. Ileana is of this rare kind - truly and purely beautiful. In fact calling her beautiful is not nearly enough. Ileana isn't so much beautiful as she is Absolute Beauty - as in beauty purified, then re-purified a thousand times over.

[Image credit - ]

Because of her, you have to watch Barfi twice - once to really see the movie and once so you can tune everything out and just see her.  You really have to pause the scenes and then look, no, stare and let it sink in - let your eye wander around her face - observe how the light reflects off her hair - really take your time to savor - because if you look carefully - there is just so much to her to see. 

It is almost like her DNA cheated - the way students cheat on an exam.  Like one fine day it snuck out in the middle of the night and figured out mechanisms of the brain governing our perceptions of beauty then snuck back in and emerged - as her. I am really not exaggerating - there are places in the movie when you don't really see her face completely, its a reflection in the mirror at an angle or a twisted image through a thick glass and it will still astound you. Stunning I believe is the word - but not the way we use it every day - not as a cavalier adjective, but literal - when you really allow yourself to see her - she will find your heart - place it in front and stun it. 

If I were a king, of the times of old, I would find a sculptor from Florence and commission him to capture Ileana in stone. Then erect those statues as part of city fountains to preserve  her for the people - to crystallize her beauty undimmed before the passing of time. And may be some day many years later a boy would wander across it - but then sit down and look at it and in his heart begin to understand the definition of beauty, then go on to find it in the rest of the world. If only ..

And then there is her youth.  Its not so much that she is young - its as if - youth was allowed to pick a time to represent itself - and it picked this specific month of her life. Her beauty isn't one to wax and wane with time. But if there ever  was a personification of youth - of what youth should be - its her in this movie.  She is perfect. Like the morning sun - not at the horizon, red and half formed - not yet the sun starting to yellow - but caught in that perfect moment - not too infant nor quite adult. Beautiful - but more importantly carrying the promise of beauty - of tomorrow. A face that tells you - if you think I look gorgeous today - wait until you see me tomorrow. 

Anyway - if its Ileana you are concerned with, you should be watching her and not be reading about her - and certainly not be reading my ineffectual attempts.  

Yet this one goes out to the artists of the world, to the painters - the poets - and the sculptors - take heart for our muse has arrived - for the Goddess of Allure has chosen a font and its name is 'Ileana D'Cruz' !! 

- Sanket


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