Wednesday, 14 December 2016

A Weekend In Chicago [A Mini Blog Novel]

1

Cafes have personalities. Well, this one certainly did. It certainly wasn't just about the coffee or dessert although that was quite alright too. What Vienna managed to do was to draw towards itself some very interesting and diverse people and keep them. My guess is this had to do a fair bit with small decisions Hussain, the owner, made that one perhaps doesn't think about upfront when visiting a cafe but at some places something subconsciously clicks and one just feels comfortable. The way the furniture was laid out persists in my memory for example. There seemed to be an option for a range of activities: you would find students working on their assignments or mulling over a research problem, small groups of people just chit chatting, there was a sofa set with a low wide table in one corner where one could find folks poring over a board game or just leaning back with a book. There was also a small outdoor area where one might find someone strumming away at an acoustic guitar or groups of people challenging each other at games of chess and backgammon. There was a sense of informality in the cafe and it never really felt like one was sitting in a business establishment. I'm sure the music they used to put on played its role too as must have some of the traditional middle eastern snack dishes the cafe served. Hailing from Turkey, Hussain brought an expression of a different culture in the small town of West Lafayette through his cafe. And the town was the richer for it.

If it weren't for the atmosphere of Vienna Cafe and many of the people I met there I may never have learnt how to play chess, although I must admit that I never got too good at it. One reason for this was perhaps that I insisted on figuring everything out myself. Never read chess books. I did eventually allow some of my friends to teach me a bit about openings and give me a few tips overall when I had lost one too many games for my “chess self-worth” to feel quite whole. But beyond that I would insist on staring at the chess board and figuring out possibilities till I thought I saw some light. This approach had its own joys. For one, it forced me to concentrate like crazy and I think that in itself was a rush of sorts. And every time I figured out a successful strategy myself, or what happened way more often: managed to save my skin and escape impending doom, it carried the fulfilment of having used my own native intelligence. But its not really an approach I would recommend or even one I would follow (at least to that extreme) if I had to live those times all over again. I think learning from the masters and appreciating expressions of genius and foresight that are already out there is also a great joy. This is perhaps true across a whole spectrum of fields: sports, music, science, mathematics, art, engineering, and of course, carpentry. The need to find a balance between exercising one’s own native intelligence, expressing one’s creativity spontaneously and acknowledging the need for guidance whenever it arises.

But this story is not really about chess or carpentry as such. It just happened to start when I was in the middle of a game one evening. I was only a year into my PhD program. It was the month of June and we were appreciating the warmth of the sun in a manner that can be appreciated only after one lives for a few years in a part of the world where the mercury keeps dipping below freezing for weeks at end and everyone outdoors is a potential snowman when the flakes begin to fall.

Umud’s eyes widened and twinkled with mischief as he looked at my cell phone that had just started ringing. The screen was flashing the caller’s name, Lan, and he asked me with a grin stretching right across his face: Hey Brij, What’s that? It seems your local area network is trying to locate you. Don’t tell me they assign PhD students IP addresses in your department so that they can ping them at will. Adam and Mark both let out a laughter and then Adam said with mock seriousness: Easy man, you never know when a CS guy might be listening. You can never trust them. They might actually do such a thing and then we’ll all be in trouble. There was a nod of heads all around. Sneaking out occasionally from our labs for late afternoon games of chess was our little pleasure and we certainly wanted to stay off the radar when we indulged.

I think every hostel / dormitory across the globe has at least one guy affectionately called gentle giant at any given point in time. That’s how I would describe Umud. Hailing from Turkey, he had a physical presence and strength that could very well have been overwhelming if he had wished. But that was just not his style. He exhibited a gentleness of spirit that was just exemplary. It reflected in how he related to everyone around him: from fellow PhD students to people serving him coffee to dismally struggling chess players like myself. Academically, he was a PhD student in the Department of Mathematics at Purdue and was working in the field of algebra for his thesis. Now you understand where the local area network thing comes from? Crazy mathematicians!

Other than being a brilliant mathematician Umud was also an excellent chess player. And his approach towards chess was just like his approach towards almost every aspect of his life. Methodical, thoughtful, systematic. He might have tried his hand at speed chess as well, I don’t really know. What I saw was the way he played his chess at Vienna and I learnt much from him. It helped that he was also remarkably patient. He was leagues ahead of me but he would still play game after game with me and give me the time and space I needed to figure things out and slowly improve myself.

Although the methodical and thoughtful manner of his mind was apparent in his chess playing it crystallized in my attention when I saw him solving the rubik’s cube once. He was so absorbed, content with going slow, deliberate, pausing after every move to think, to reflect, and maybe to absorb lessons he was learning along the way. It was remarkable to watch! Such a contrast from what seems to be the rage of the day: speed cubing: learn a series of moves from some book or youtube video and then practice them over and over and over again till one can separate the colours in a flash and win some competition somewhere that has zero interest in your intelligence, only how well rehearsed you are, how quick your fingers move and perhaps how “good” a cube you own. Whatever! I referred to the need for a balance between exercising one’s native intelligence and taking guidance from those who might be better above. This is no balance. This is essentially unintelligent behaviour. It’s worse than being able to solve multiple choice physics questions fast and fancying oneself to be a physicist. As I just said, whatever!

If only people lived their lives the way Umud was solving the rubik’s cube that day: thoughtfully, with a spirit of contemplation and reflection: I reckon we would automatically have more silence, grace and dignity in our world instead of the mad tumble through chaos towards utter disarray that we presently find ourselves in the midst of.

But coming back to the name flashing on my cell phone: Lan, short for Ilanthirayan Pragaspathy, B. Tech. in Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras and doing his MS at Purdue at the time, a nine point someone who was absolutely smashing at cooking puliyogare (a tamarind rice preparation from south India) with the puliyogare mix packed by his mother (a secret we guarded fiercely) and learnt how to play drums well enough to hop into a jam and hold his beat nice and proper within about 6-8 months. He was also a science fiction aficionado and must have gone through a fair bit of the scifi collection at the West Lafayette Public Library during his two years at Purdue. And all this while doing well enough in his MS program to land a job at Intel before he had written his last set of exams.

No, the idea is not to inspire a brain drain to Intel or any other company outside the country :) – I do wish that Lan were back in India and leading our high tech ECE sector forward – but just to make the point that its perfectly alright to aspire to do well in academics. It does not necessarily mean that the rest of life gets shut out. Quite on the contrary, just a bit of conscious time management can allow a healthy pursuit of both academic as well as extracurricular activities. One can certainly tilt a bit this way at times and a bit the other way at others. That’s understandable as one goes through his / her process of self-discovery, which is unique for each one of us. But I think it’s also true that there are many a student who end up neither focusing on academics nor go through a healthy pursuit of extracurricular interests. Often they aren’t trying to figure themselves out and what they want either. They just let time slip by, not realizing that time once lost is lost for good. It never comes back. That, I find tragic. There is nothing cool in my opinion about withering away one’s best years.

Lan and me were roommates at the time. So I was surprised to see that he was calling as we were to meet at our apartment in a few hours anyway. I snapped open my phone as I shook my head with bemusement at him being referred to as a local area network.

Hey Lan, what’s up?

Ptom just called. It’s the Chicago blues festival this weekend and Ruth Brown’s singing on Saturday. Prosh’s cool with going. How’re you placed? Any deadlines coming up or can you come along?

I’m coming, I’m coming. No deadlines loom immediately. Plus its Wednesday today so I have a couple of days to wind up some research stuff that I need to finish before my next meeting with my advisor. We leave on Friday, right?

Yep. Ptom said he and Sonali would be fine with us staying over at their place.

Cool.

Cool then. See you in a bit at the apartment.

See ya.

Can you imagine the excitement I felt? I was going to see Ruth Brown sing live in a few days. And a host of other live performances for two full days as that year’s annual blues festival unfolded at Chicago.

I looked around, beamed a smile, announced that I was headed to the fest that weekend and tried to focus once again on the game of chess ahead of me. Mark, who had been quietly strumming away some bluegrass music on his guitar promptly hit a twelve bar blues rhythm while Adam glanced at the chessboard and then back at me, as if to indicate that if I didn't get my mind back into the game nice and proper it may only be a matter of a few more moves before my little excursion from the lab ended. We both knew that staying in the game for long enough with Umud required every bit of attention one could spare.

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2

Prosh, Lan and me were roommates at the time. We had rented a standalone house on the other side of the Wabash, a not so wide river that separated West Lafayette and Greater Lafayette. This was not usual as most students prefer to stay closer to their university campuses. But we had a game plan while making this call and it worked out beautifully.

All three of us were music enthusiasts who wanted to improve ourselves on our respective instruments as well as enjoy the experience of jamming with each other. Prosh used to play the keyboards and still stands out in my mind as one of the best pairs of “music ears” that I have met. It was quite incredible really. I saw and heard him play with a diverse set of musicians across a range of genres. And this is what would often happen: folks would start playing, Prosh would cock his head slightly, go hmmm hmmm after a few bars and then his fingers would land on just the right chords. Phew! Lan had decided to pick up the drums after arriving at Purdue and was on a learning curve when the three of us decided to room together. But man, did he make that learning curve steep or what! I still remember the times when he would come home with a printout of some groove in notation and go about getting it under his belt with a really crisp sense of purpose. And once he had a groove down he would bring it into a jam to make sure he was able to translate it into actual music in a group setting. I used to play the guitar and was a very very happy camper with these two chaps.

This is what we did: we decided to use the living room area of the house as our jam room. No furniture, only our music gear. The drum set stood in one corner for Lan to practise as and when he wished and Prosh and myself would bring in our keyboards, guitar, effect processors and an amp whenever we all wanted to play together. The three of us weren’t into home décor anyway and simply had some basic paraphernalia to cook our food, mattresses on carpets in our rooms for beds and our instruments, books and CDs were our essential possessions. Having an idiot box was of course out of the question. It was a very simple and uncomplicated phase of life. One that I will always cherish.

When I reached the apartment late that evening Prosh was already home and was busy cooking up his speciality: a raging capsicum sambhar with rice. Named Shriram Narayanan at birth, the story goes that his hostel mates at IIT Madras thought that his tall and lanky frame resembled an exotic variety of tall grass that goes by the scientific name Exoticus Prosopis. I suppose he was rechristened that to start with but it eventually converged to just Prosh.

We were in the same department and worked with the same advisor for our research in the areas of computational fluid dynamics and fluid turbulence. In fact Prosh was probably one of the first fellow students I met when I arrived at Purdue in 1997. He had just come in from India for his M.S. and I was coming in after a M.S. at University of Cincinnati for my PhD. He too was a nine point someone from IIT Madras, held a fellowship at Purdue and I can honestly say that although he was junior to me I learnt much from him over the two years that we overlapped there: both academically as well as in extracurricular pursuits. As cool a chap as they come and, just like Lan, absolutely busted the myth that academic focus and extracurricular interests and pursuits are in any way incompatible. Fell in love with a wonderful girl during his M.S., married her and is now a happy father too!

There has been one commonality in about every such person I have met: they live every moment fully. They don’t loll around doing nothing. If they are working on an academic matter then they are doing that 100%, if they are playing music or chess or a game of pool or reading a novel or whatever then they are doing that 100% and having a good time doing so, if they are trying to figure themselves out and what they want to do at any stage of life then they are doing that with full seriousness. Work is cool, play is cool, contemplation is cool, but I hardly ever saw such folks while away time meaninglessly. That was a key realization for me to pick up and I keep trying to implement it more and more in my life.

Prosh’s efforts at cooking the sambhar rice combo had borne fruition by the time I took a quick shower and freshened up. The inevitable bag of potato chips and a bottle of cold buttermilk were also in place and he seemed to be ready to dig into the food he had laid out. Lan wasn’t home yet, so I asked about his whereabouts. One or the other of us “putting a night out” in the lab wasn’t uncommon but I had spoken to him just a couple of hours ago and hadn’t really picked up the impression that he was planning one tonight. I wondered if he had mentioned anything to Prosh.

Nah, he’ll be home in a bit. Dropped in to WLPL (pronounced WilPil, the emphasis on i really short: almost rolling through, short for West Lafayette Public Library) to pick up some books. But I’m real hungry, so digging in. You?

Sure :).

The public library system was one of the coolest concepts I came across in the US. Pretty much every small to middle sized town has its own public library: A superb collection of books across all genres and for all age groups, anyone and everyone is welcome to become a member, spend time browsing and reading in the library itself as well as borrow to read at home. Absolutely free (except for the late fines of course!). And the civic sense in that country is so good that this facility works like a charm and is really well utilized. In my several years in that country I never once saw unruly behaviour at a public library or anyone mishandling books. I so wish that this concept comes to our country some time and we are able to receive and sustain it with as much civic sense and responsibility.

I don’t think enough of us realize just how crucial an activity reading good stuff is! It can often mean the difference between an evolved and mature intellect and a shallow and immature one. Yes, a lot of our growing up and maturing is through a direct experience of life itself and the people we meet. But how much of a control do we have about either of these to rely fully on just these mediums for “life education”? Books give us an opportunity to get exposed to different cultural outlooks, viewpoints and life circumstances of the characters they embody. I think that’s precious. I do emphasize the “good stuff” part above though. There is enough junk out there as well and we have to be able to steer clear of it. Life is too short to waste with meaningless books just as it is to spend with the wrong people.

I also sound a word of caution: The pen is powerful, but just like the sword its power can cut both ways. The written word can also be a medium of manipulation. Peoples and cultures can be portrayed in ways that don’t reflect the truth and thoughts and ideologies that may not necessarily be based on good intent can be given momentum. So one has to always stay alert and exercise one’s intelligence and judgment in what to absorb, what to question and what to outright dismiss.

Lan ambled in while we were still at the dinner table. Which was a lucky thing for him because another 15-20 minutes and he might have had to do with bread and cheese that evening. As we all ate together he told us that he had gone ahead and booked a car at the rentals for the weekend. The plan was to leave on Friday evening after getting a full day’s work done at the university. Chicago was only some 2-3 hours away so that would still put us at Ptom and Sonali’s home at a comfortable time. We would spend all of Saturday and Sunday in Chicago and head back Monday early morning to be back at the university as it opened for the day.

All three of us were happy and excited about the coming weekend. But we also had to make sure we got enough academic work done so that our assignments, projects and research work stayed on course. So off we went to our rooms soon after dinner and got our noses in our books.

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3

While our apartment worked out really well from the point of view of playing music together in particular and living in a nice quiet neighbourhood in general, one thing we were mindful of right from the time we decided to stay there was the commute to the university. If we chose to walk it took us a good half an hour or so when it was not snowing. With snow coming down, it could take us a little longer and there were certainly times when we found ourselves huffing and puffing a bit or preferring to cover part of the distance by bus. But this was a cost we were quite happy to bear for the overall quality of life we were getting in return. A side benefit was that all that walking kept us fairly fit. And walking isn’t really a tiresome activity if the surroundings are “walk worthy”.

One of the first things that hit me when I first arrived in the US in 1995 was how clean it was. This impression persisted for the eleven years I was there and was deepened every time I visited India for a holiday and observed the contrast. When the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Campaign) was launched by our prime minister a couple of years ago I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that quite possibly no president of the United State of America ever had to launch a Clean America Campaign. Some things are simply understood there. It’s not that Americans don’t have their share of problems, they do, but not when it comes to basics such as keeping their surroundings clean. No one spits on the road, no one throws their garbage by the roadside – they use garbage cans and dumpsters that are placed for this purpose, they do not have the problem of drainages getting clogged by plastic bags and animals eating them. That one has to keep one’s surroundings clean is simply built into the fibre of their personalities. It is the obvious way to be and no one even talks about it. Someone who doesn’t get this is likely to face a few rather disapproving looks till the message sinks in. The janitorial / municipality staff does their end of the job, gets treated with respect and is paid what is due to them in return. All this just happens as a natural course of things to happen. Till we develop such a mindset and make keeping ourselves and our surroundings clean a natural and obvious part of our personalities, no mission is ever going to really work. What is needed is a personality shift, everything else will follow.

It was a pleasant morning that Thursday as the three of us walked to the university. The bridge we used to cross the Wabash was built aesthetically and specifically for pedestrians and we always enjoyed our little walk across it. The river was lined with a fair number of trees that were nice and green now that it had been a few months since winter faded. There was a freshness in the air, the atmosphere was silent and we could hear the water flow below us. We were all with our own thoughts, possibly preparing and planning mentally for the day that lay ahead of us. There were lectures to be attended, research issues to be sorted out, seminar talks to go to, ideas to be discussed with our labmates and advisors. It was a full life academically and we enjoyed every bit of it. Once we were at the university Lan said bye and walked off towards the electrical engineering department while Prosh and me ambled into Grissom Hall, home of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the time. All post graduate students were given desks and a small rack to keep their books, files and folders, etc and we went off to our respective workspaces to settle in for the day.

I was going through the process of debugging a computer program at the time and here’s sharing a practice that has helped me keep things organized and minimize the number of bugs creeping into code I have written over the years. I think this approach set roots in me out of sheer necessity when I went through my Introduction to Programming course at IIT Bombay. The year was 1991 and the era of easy access to personal computers had not yet set in. There were about 300 or so students in class and we had to key in and execute our assignment and project programs through terminals connected to the Cyber Mainframe computer at IIT Bombay’s computer centre. The number of terminals available were of course limited and the arrangement was that each student in class would get access to a terminal for one hour a week. This too worked on a 24x7 rotation, my slot was 3-4 AM on Wednesday nights!

(What coolness! This is one example of an appropriate use of the concept of residential campuses that provide accommodation to all the faculty, staff and students of the institute.)

So one had to basically write out his or her computer program using pen and paper and go through it a few times to catch as many logical / syntactic bugs as one could before reaching the computer centre. The one hour given to us was just enough to key in the program, compile it, catch any remaining bugs (which were hopefully few in number if one had pushed pen and paper effectively), execute the program, take a printout of the results (on a large dot matrix computer that went rat-a-tat-a-tat to announce your success) and be gone.

While I certainly no longer write out entire computer programs using pen and paper now that we have easy access to computers and laptops (and the computer programs I work with now are of course significantly longer than those we wrote for the Introduction to Programming course), I still believe in the merit of doing a bit of pen pushing at the “structure and flow of the code” level to get logical issues sorted out before starting to key them in. I’m convinced that this has helped me over the years in ensuring that the number of times my compiler has to raise objections to my programs has stayed minimal.

I was in the middle of trying to make a computer program work and it must have been about one in the afternoon or so when Dan dropped in to ask if I was up for a quick lunch. We occasionally went to what was called the Purdue Memorial Union (PMU) where I would get myself something to eat from a small restaurant while Dan would open his lunchbox that he would bring from home. I had kept myself busy since morning and could definitely use a small break. Plus I was a bit hungry too. So I said yes and we strolled towards the PMU which was just next to Grissom Hall.

Dan, as in Daniel Bodony, is presently a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). He was doing his MS at the time and went on to do his PhD from Stanford University in the area of Aeroacoustics.

I made many a friend from all parts of the world during my years in the US. But there are a few of them who persist in my memory as simply superlative human beings. Dan is on that list nice and proper. The chap had a character that was absolutely free of any blemish at least as far as I could see. Honest and sincere to his very bones, his integrity simply could not be questioned or challenged at any time in any situation and his work ethic was absolutely stupendous. Plus he had a heart of gold and was always ready to help people around him. I’m someone who constantly and fervently keeps wishing that good fortune befalls those who make an effort to live a good life. Things have gone well for Dan both in his professional and personal life, touch wood, and that has made me very happy.

The essential lesson I picked up from him was that of the value of thoroughness.

Pretty much any research endeavour has an aspect that involves becoming and staying aware of the work carried out by other researchers in the area. One has to often go back a fair bit in time to get a grasp of how the subject evolved, what questions were raised, hypotheses and conjectures made, experiments conducted, solutions attempted, insights obtained, etc. And then one has to stay aware of the present progress being made by different researchers across the world. Dan’s thoroughness in this aspect was simply remarkable. I still remember the detailed and organized manner in which he worked on his Master’s thesis and wouldn’t be surprised if it is one of the better theses to come from Purdue, which is saying a fair bit.

The Union was a place where many students went for their lunch and one often ran into friends and acquaintances from across the campus. This gave an opportunity to catch up and make small banter about sports, movies, general developments across the world, etc. A few of our friends from the department were already there and we joined them. A frequent topic in such gatherings would be college football and basketball. There’s a lot of enthusiasm about college level sports in American universities and people follow the progress of their university teams through championship leagues that take place every year. Purdue’s teams were called the Boilermakers and everyone got to chitchatting about their prospects in the coming season.

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4

Have you ever wondered what the purpose of sports is?

Whenever I wonder about the purpose of an activity or pursuit, I ask myself two questions:

1) Does the activity lead to personal growth? This growth could be at the level of the body in terms of physical fitness, or at the level of the mind in the sense of attaining more peace, balance and clarity, or at the level of intellect in satisfying one’s curiosities about oneself and the world around and being sharper in being able to distinguish between what’s of lasting value and what might only be a fleeting desire or experience, or in the realm of the arts (or mathematics!) wherein one might be drawn towards art forms such as music, sculpture, painting, poetry, literature, etc., pursue them and thereby grow in beauty (I see some sports as art forms and pursuits and expressions of beauty too, more on this later), or in a financial sense wherein one becomes wealthier monetarily, or emotional growth in terms of being able to relate with other people in a more mature manner as well as handle one’s emotions better, or spirituality that points the way to a compassionate heart.

2) Does the activity lead to a contribution to the society? Some examples are obvious: Doctors, nurses, carpenters, tailors, the cleaning staff in your house and paying one’s taxes and practising a bit of charity and philanthropy. Some contributions require a subtler appreciation: pure mathematics, the peace emanating from a meditator, words of wisdom, gymnastics, figure skating and a beautifully played game of badminton, soccer or basketball.

Sports has much to teach us, much to offer, if we are willing to receive and learn. Physical fitness, the discipline to persist with training even when fatigue comes and our patience and commitment get tested, capability to run and stretch when our goals seem out of reach, to manoeuvre and move deftly around any obstacles that may come our way, to be able to accept and relate with a range of personalities and work together towards realising a common goal, the capacity and maturity to stay equanimous in success as well as failure, the character to stay honest and play clean even if it is defeat one has to face, and then to take these qualities that we nurture and develop on the field into every aspect of our lives and live a life filled with intelligence, hard work and dignity.

If we are to talk about taking up a sport itself as one’s professional pursuit, then I ask you the following question: Are you able to appreciate what I mean above by a beautifully played game?

There are moments when the game lifts above the ordinary, there is complete concentration, the moves are beautiful and talent expresses itself fully, sometimes to the point of genius. In these moments sports takes on the status of an art form as far as I am concerned. To create these moments requires years of training and hard work and the honing of one’s talent. And all of it is worthwhile if the goal stays the creation of those beautiful moments.

You descend to the level of “Win at all costs” and all of the above is lost.

[Not to mention the ugliness of sports in which physical violence is inbuilt, whether it be boxing (a perfectly legitimate form of self-defense but an atrocious definition of sport) or some aspects of American football and, yes, cricket. Bouncers aiming for the head and the forward short leg and silly point fielding positions need to be banned, period. If you are a man or woman enough of a bowler, get the batters out without bringing anyone into harm’s way. Intentional tackles in soccer, sometimes with a willingness to pick up a card as a strategic manoeuvre (!), don't find favour with me either, no matter how correctly grammared the justifications might be. Bullshit is bullshit, never mind the perfume one tries to spray over it to mask the stink.]

And isn’t that what is happening now? Not just in many a sport but also in the way many people are being nudged to live their lives. You reflect: Is it proving to be a good thing for all of us? Just look around you. Look at the values with which people play and live.

Are we a happy society overall? Is there contentment, trust, friendship, humanity in the atmosphere or are we getting split into fragments and starting to live like isolated entities that just view each other as things to use and take advantage of?

Look at what is happening on the global scale. There always seems to be a simmering tension just beneath the surface, often erupting in volcanic acts of aggression and violence. Why are things this way? Why are we not embracing each other, accepting all the diversities, placing humanity above all other considerations and living a happy, fulfilled and peaceful global life?

The macrocosm is but a reflection of the microcosm. As is the individual, so will be the society.

Maybe we need to raise a whole new generation of sportsmen and sportswomen who have learnt to play in the right spirit. Maybe they will, in turn, teach us how to live in the right spirit.


It was with these thoughts floating through my mind that I returned with Dan and others to the department. I dropped in to the little kitchenette down the hall from my desk where we brewed coffee on a cost sharing basis and poured myself a cup. I still had an afternoon full of programming and code debugging ahead of me and I settled into it with as much concentration as I could muster. There was much I needed to complete before the weekend came.

[I end this chapter with the following remark: If we are to make sports a sustainable profession in India, we need to sort out the economics of it at the district and state levels and ensure that players get paid well enough to stick to their sports. And we, the audience, need to appreciate their efforts and encourage them.]

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5

Have you ever had this experience: When a day of work goes really well, not necessarily in the sense of all or most of your efforts resulting in success, but that you worked with a silent focus, actually went after stuff that needed to get done (instead of cleverly dodging some of the more difficult stuff, procrastinating on it, and fiddling with the easier tasks) and put in a good amount of effort instead of getting distracted with this and that, you feel nice and complete inside. You know within that you’ve been good, that you’ve put in an honest day’s work. It’s an unbeatable feeling, isn’t it? That’s how I was feeling that day when I finally logged out at about 5:30 PM, picked up my bag with the Gi packed inside and took off for Lambert Hall.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, Gi is the traditional name for a Karate / Martial arts uniform. I had just started training in Shotokan Karate and my batch would line up on the training floor (Dojo) at 6 PM sharp. Lambert Hall was only about a ten minute walk from my department. That would give me about twenty minutes to change into my Gi and maybe stretch for a few minutes before the command to line up was given. Being late was of course out of the question. You simply would not be allowed on the floor if you were not there and ready to go at line up time. It’s remarkable how discipline sets in nice and proper if the Master in charge of the training is clear that it’s required and implements it unapologetically and crisply. And Sensei Jaqueline Martinez, 3rd Dan black belt at the time, founder of the Challenge Karate Club at Purdue and the Master I trained under, was all crisp. And all unapologetic. You didn’t like any aspect of the way she ran things, you were absolutely free to be gone.  As simple as that. No problemo.

But if you saw and realized that every bit of discipline she required from you and every bit of gruel she put you through was only and only because she wanted you to be absolutely the best you could be, and this was so obvious that you had to be a complete nitwit to miss it, then you would stay. And listen. And train. Train hard. Very hard. There was just no other way with her.

(If anyone is wondering about men training in the martial arts under a woman, please don’t bother yourselves too much. It-does-not-matter. In any case, as far as Sensei Martinez was concerned, every one – man or woman – on that training floor knew that she could take down a handful of men single-handedly any day. The strength and spirit she exuded was unmistakable and we all knew and understood very very clearly that the kind smile that was normally on her face could get replaced by a grimace and a frown in a flash if we stepped out of line. We didn’t.)

I was only a beginner at the time and used to line up with the other white belts. As was the usual practice, she started us off with stretches to limber up our bodies. Then came the front snap kick practice. You would repeat them over and over again as she counted out in Japanese : Ichi, Ni, San, Shi … Ten with the right leg as you balanced yourself on the left with the knee slightly bent and then ten with the left leg. Each kick accompanied with a loud Kiai (a shout along with a tightening of the stomach muscles at the point of focus). Then back to the right and again to the left. Over and over again. Of course it would get tiring, and sometimes boring. But we knew why we were doing it: so that the technique would go so deep into our minds and our bodies would remember it so well that if we ever needed to kick in real life, we would be able to do so instinctively, correctly and effectively the first time around. Throughout the repetitions she would walk through the rows patiently and make small corrections to our postures and movements till we started getting them right. She had trained hard in her life herself and had the moral authority to demand an effort to strive towards perfection from us.

After the kicks came the punches. Same strategy: there was a technique to be mastered, a right way to deliver a punch with maximum impact and precision, and once she taught us what that was, it would be all about practice. Over and over again, each punch accompanied with a loud Kiai, till we started getting it right.

(This is something that holds true right across all the arts, doesn’t it? Music: once you know what the notes are, you practice them over and over again till you can play them instinctively, without thinking. That’s when you can start bringing in the element of “expression” into your playing. Sports too. You gotta practice those cover drives over and over again in the nets before you can unfurl them in a game. I’m guessing Messi, Beckham and all the soccer stars that can make us go “Ah!” on their day must have hours and hours of practice serving as foundation to their greatness and genius. 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration –Thomas A. Edison. Funny how so many of us keep missing this point in our lives. You should, for example, see the look on some of my Math students’ faces at times when I assign homeworks :)!)

When all the kicking and punching started getting our muscles sore, we were in for an even better treat: Stance training! This is as deceptive as it gets. To put it briefly, there are specific stances that help in moving with stability and efficacy when fighting an opponent. And once again, if one is to use these stances in an actual fight one must practice being in them for extended periods of time during training. That day she put us in what is simply known as the “front stance”: feet shoulder width apart, right leg forward by about a distance of two shoulder widths, right knee bent to make the hips drop low, left leg stretching just enough to leave a little slack in the knee, hips at 45 degrees. Then we were to hold the stance. Just hold it. No movement, no rising up from the stance till we were told to do so. Believe me, if anyone watching thought we were having it easy for a few minutes they were completely off the mark. The bent front knee and the thigh of the front leg start feeling the stress of the stance within a minute or two. And then one still holds the stance so that the requisite muscles can start getting stronger. Pretty soon our front knee would start shaking a bit and the right thigh muscle would begin to have a bit of a burning sensation, urging us to cheat a bit, just a little bit, and rise a little so that the pressure on the knee and thigh would reduce. That was Sensei’s favourite time to take our attention to the Dojo Kun, the ideals of Karate training that were placed in front of us: 

  1. Seek Perfection of Character.
  2. Be Sincere.
  3. Put Maximum Effort into Everything You Do.
  4. Respect Others.
  5. Develop Self Control.

Just reflect on these five points. Try and feel the amount of dignity they carry. It was made clear to us right from the first day of training that we were to hold these ideals before ourselves relentlessly. Needless to say the techniques we were learning were meant to be used only in self-defence. Using them to hurt anyone or even to just show off is an idea severely frowned upon by anyone serious about the Martial arts. But focusing on the Dojo Kun set our goal even higher. It was now a matter of training not just the body but the whole personality. That was what being a Karateka meant to us.

At the end of the one hour training session we were drenched with sweat and our muscles were groaning. But there was a fulfilment of having given it our best. We lined up again, bowed out of the floor and changed back into regular clothes. I wished my fellow Karatekas a good night and headed home.

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6

Thursday evenings were my turn to cook dinner. It was a good forty minute walk home from Lambert Hall and I was trying to keep up a brisk pace despite feeling pretty sore in the legs after an hour of intense training. So it was a feeling of relief when Ben pulled up his car next to me and asked if I wanted a ride.

Sure, where are you headed?

“That way!”, he said as he pointed forward and burst into a short laughter.

Ben was a bit crazy most of the time and I knew better than to try and get any further specifics from him. I just hopped into the car, felt the relief of sitting in a comfortable seat, strapped my seat belt across me and leaned back. As usual he had some interesting music on in his car stereo and we rolled forward.

“So what’s up?”, he asked.

Had my Karate training today. Feeling sore as hell. You?

Just got done with my shift at MM, now trying to figure out what I want to do for the rest of the evening. I’m hungry for one. So maybe I’ll grab a bite to eat somewhere.

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MM stood for Mad Mushroom, a local Pizza store in West Lafayette. Ben, as in Ben Schroeder, used to work there a few days a week baking pizzas to eke out his living. But that was not his forte.

What Ben was, and I kid you not, was almost a genius of a bass guitar player. He is probably one of the very best musicians I have met in personal life. He hadn’t made it big or anything at the time, used to just play in local gigs, but if he wants to, I’m willing to bet that he can go a long long way. He too had this near perfect ear and could just walk into a jam and start producing grooves and bass lines that seemed just spot on. His technique was amazing too and he could move around on a fretless bass with remarkable dexterity.

Ben also had his own unique way of looking at things. I remember urging him to go down the professional musician road once; he may have now, we haven’t been in touch for years, but he shook his head at the time and told me that he wanted to keep his music separate from earning his livelihood. I don’t necessarily agree with this point of view but I could see where he was coming from. He didn’t want to be in a situation wherein he might have to compromise on his music to ensure that it sold. I respect such an attitude in practitioners of any art, or for that matter in any sphere of activity. Placing the integrity of one’s discipline above commercial interests is a very remarkable quality to possess in my book.

Another time I asked him why he chose not to attend college. He just laughed his crazy laugh and remarked that he didn’t understand why he should pay all that fees when he could just as well get an education by reading books from the public library. Again, I don’t agree with him. I think it’s perfectly fair that one pays for education if one can afford it: if we are willing to pay for material goods, we might as well be willing to pay when it comes to gaining intellectually. But his remark did underline a fact: getting a degree doesn’t necessarily mean one has educated oneself. I think many a college graduate today don’t possess an education in the right sense of the word. Instead, they are merely a bit literate and possess some technique and skill to be able to get a job and earn money. Being educated is an entirely different matter and I think one needs to consciously stay aware of this as one goes through college to ensure that the education aspect isn’t overlooked and one comes out with just a degree certificate.
----

When Ben mentioned that he was hungry I asked him if he wanted to come over and have dinner with Prosh, Lan and myself.

Are you sure that won’t be a bother?

Not at all. Just that you’ll have to be content with some orange juice while I cook.

Hey no problem at all man, cool…so you’re going to cook up some Indian food eh?

Yep, some lentils (daal) and a potato-capsicum (aloo-simla-mirch) dish with rice. Sound alright?

Yeah of course…

With Ben’s dinner concerns out of the way we both just enjoyed the music he had on for a bit till we pulled up in the driveway of our house.

Prosh and Lan were yet to arrive. I quickly started up the rice cooker and put lentils to boil and hopped into the shower while Ben sat down with his glass of orange juice and started rummaging through Prosh’s CD collection to see what he wanted to put on.

----
I think a lot of Indian students in the US learn a bit of cooking back home before they arrive. It is simply not economically viable to eat out every day and pretty much everyone cooks at least one meal a day at home.

I hadn’t learnt how to cook before arriving. I learnt cooking as well as most aspects of how to negotiate my life independently in the US from my roommate for two years at University of Cincinnati (where I did my MS), Deepinder Singh.

Deepinder, a tall proud Sikh with a heart made of 24 Carat Gold, is one of my best friends till date. He is now back in his hometown, Chandigarh. With an educational pedigree of a B. Tech. from Punjab Engineering College (PEC) followed by two Masters degrees – an M. Tech. from IIT Delhi and a M.S. from University of Saskatchewan, Canada – and a PhD from University of Cincinnati, Deepinder could have been on the faculty of many a good institute in India. But he chose to respect some domestic constraints at his end and is now heading the mechanical engineering department at an engineering college near Chandigarh.

Deepinder and me hit it off from moment zero. I first spoke to him over the telephone when I was responding to an advertisement he had put out looking for someone to share an apartment rental with him. The conversation was brief and I simply trusted him and agreed to be his roommate. This may not be the wise thing to do in general of course – best to meet your prospective roommate, see the apartment and move in with eyes wide open – but I got lucky and found not only a roommate but a friend who continues to be as dear to me now as then.

Deepinder was some ten years senior to me and I must have given him ample opportunity to get impatient and fed up with me. But he has a magnanimity of personality that is hard to imagine. Ever the elder brother, he steadily taught me everything I needed to know: from cooking to managing my finances sensibly to grocery shopping to ensuring that my academic focus did not waiver to what were some of the best programs on TV and some of the best spots in Cincinnati to relax and enjoy when the weekends came around.

I visit him and his family in Chandigarh once in a while and maybe I’ll write about some of my visits one of these days.
----

The rice was ready and the lentils were boiled and soft when I finished showering and came back to the kitchen. I went ahead and chopped a couple of onions and was in the middle of sauteing them when Prosh and Lan arrived. They had seen Ben’s car parked in the driveway and enthusiastically greeted him as they walked in.

After a few minutes of general banter and catching up with each other, Prosh asked Ben if he was carrying his bass guitar in the car by any chance. Ben smiled, nodded and promptly went out to the car and got it along with a small practice amplifier. Prosh brought out his keyboard while Ben plugged his bass into the amp and set about tuning it. Lan perched himself on his drum stool and pretty soon the three of them were locking into a nice little groove.

I tapped my feet along as I diced some tomatoes and busied myself with cooking up the daal (lentils) and aloo-simla-mirch (potato-capsicum) I had promised Ben.

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7

Since we were heading to Chicago in the evening we decided to carry our weekend luggage with us to the university and head out directly from there after we were done with our day’s academic commitments. We packed simple and light: just changes of clothes, some CDs to put on during the drive and some munchies to snack on on the way. Although our usual backpacks that we used to take books, etc. to the university sufficed for this purpose and the extra weight really wasn’t all that much we still decided on taking the bus till Downtown Lafayette that morning. There was a bus that ran along our street and the stop was just a couple of minutes away from the apartment. It would drop us near the footbridge we used to cross the Wabash and we would walk the rest of the way. As was usual on this route, the bus wasn’t crowded at all. We got seats right away and covered the short trip comfortably.

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Although public transport buses and metro trains (whichever cities they ply in) in the USA run on time and are reasonably comfortable, I don’t think the Americans use their public transport enough. There is too much of a reliance on individual vehicles in that country in my opinion and this lifestyle pattern, that has now essentially pervaded pretty much the whole world, has played havoc with our fossil fuel resources, environment and public health owing to its impact on air pollution as well as global warming.

For the longest time I believed that a large scale switch from personal vehicles to public transport was the core change required to try and restore balance in the manner we are utilizing our natural resources and impacting our environment and lives. I still believe that such a shift would be very commonsensical and will go a long way in restoring the balance I have just referred to (yes, it will require us all to bear a bit of inconvenience at our personal levels for the larger good but I am convinced that we have it in us to find the necessary large heartedness within and do this). However, I have also come to believe that there is something more fundamental that has gone wrong.

Just as for all historical accounts one hears I suppose, this one too will require verification; but here’s something I have been told recently: Apparently several decades ago an automobile manufacturing company in the USA actively encouraged the idea of people living far from their places of work as a lifestyle to push the requirement of purchasing cars up in society. Now whether this indeed happened or it turns out that this is a rumour / myth: it is actually a fact that this lifestyle has set in nice and proper across the globe now. For some scenarios such as people working in noise/pollution generating factories or hazardous environments such as mines, chemical plants, etc. it makes sense to live a fair distance away from one's place of work. But for others it seems to me that it makes zero sense if you think about it in some depth.

Here’s elaborating on an aspect of this lifestyle pattern that impacts us at a very immediate level: the hours and hours we spend on our daily commutes add up to a significant magnitude of time that could well have been spent with our loved ones as well as on our own personal growth but are just lost, not to mention the severe dip in the quality of our life, health and time owing to the stress and fatigue all this commute generates. And all of the negative stuff at every level: fuel consumption and consequent expenditure, environmental impact, pollution related health concerns, time wasted, stress and fatigue generated – all of this stuff – could just be avoided if we lived close to our work places. Just one change and we could suddenly be living better lives and not hurting either the environment or our health as much.

Is this doable?

I truly believe it is. It is our society and our world that we are talking about. And we are in control (or at least ought to be). We can very well structure it in a way that improves our collective life experience as well as the quality of life that we bequeath to future generations. It’ll certainly require energy and effort to bring in this shift but if I have seen one thing in today’s youth it is that they are sensitive and committed to environmental concerns and there is certainly no shortage of energy or willingness to put in effort in them once they set their minds on something.

The shift won’t happen overnight of course. But this is a five year plan worth conceiving and implementing in my opinion: Let’s set an aim for ourselves that five years from now we would have set a different lifestyle pattern in place on this planet; one in which people would live close to their workplaces and, say in five more years, there would be schools, colleges and health care centres so well spread out that all the commute time that has today become “unescapable” would get slashed and we would all have more time to ourselves and for our loved ones. There would be some exceptions of course: people working in noise / pollution generating factories, for example, would still be better off living a little distance away. But these exceptions would be minimal if you think about it and long commute times pretty much for everything would no longer be the norm.

I anticipate that such an effort will find resistance from, yes you guessed it right, automobile manufacturers and people in the business of selling automobile fuel. It’s alright, I’m sure they will adjust from being multi-multi-millionaires to just millionaires. They would still have business as even in the new lifestyle pattern I expect that people will own and use automobiles: only that they would now use them to go out with their families in the evenings or on weekend trips instead of killing several hours a day just to get past the bare essentials of life.

Some may ask: Well what about the trickle down impact this would have on workers in automobile manufacturing plants and those working in service centres and repair and maintenance units. My response is: Look, once we stop spending all that money on fuel, maintenance, etc (not to mention that we may not need to own multiple automobiles in a single household), we would perhaps spend that same money in other directions. Maybe we’ll go out to eat more, maybe we’ll buy more fruits and spend more on health food, maybe we’ll buy more clothes, more jewellery, more artefacts to decorate our houses, more music, more books, maybe we’ll have more time to go to gyms and sports facilities and perhaps attend Yoga classes, to attend concerts and see theatre performances, maybe we’ll travel more in the sense of seeing different parts of the country and world, maybe we'll have the time and money to learn martial arts or maybe a dance form or two or perhaps to sing and play a musical instrument and we would need facilities and instructors to pursue these interests. So there’ll likely be a diversification and an increase in business / employment opportunities in other sectors. And this shift is not going to happen overnight. There is going to be time to readjust, for people to seek opportunities and grow in other directions, for the demand for other activities and products to increase thereby creating a need for increased supply and the consequent growth in opportunities for economic growth. Add to this potential shift that I'm pointing out in the demand-supply scenario a commitment from the government to (a) assure quality education and healthcare to those below a certain economic status and provide small recoverable seed grants with some sound advice to the really poor to enable them to start their own small scale businesses and (b) sustain and nurture endeavours that are known to be meaningful (eg: classical music, historical studies, archaeology, languages, fine arts, theatre, knowledge systems such as Yoga, etc.) but may not always be energetic in the popular imagination.

And that, to me, would be a "developed" society in the true sense of the term "development", wherein a whole spectrum of activities, interests and pursuits thrive, there is economic assurance for a whole range of professions, endeavours and crafts, and the human potential expresses itself in a multitude of ways, each adding colour and beauty to society and the experience of life itself. Who in the name of all that is good and wonderful fed us the present day interpretation of what it means to be developed, and how in the name of all the good sense there ever has been did we swallow it down without raising our hand to pose a question or two? Yes we need core manufacturing / industrial enterprises to become and stay self reliant in sectors such as energy and defence but why would we conceive of a society in which economic sustenance is linked to such a narrow field of activities and professions?

So I repeat: I think it is possible to bring in this lifestyle shift and it would be well worth setting about doing so with a serious intent to make it happen within the next five to ten years. And if we can do it, and I truly believe we can, I assure you we would have made a fundamental shift towards living more meaningful and healthy lives with lower level of personal stress and fatigue. And we would be living this better life in a far cleaner environment on a far healthier planet.

And in the interim period, can we please increase our use of public transport and reduce our usage of personal vehicles as much as possible. Please please __/\__ thank you kindly :).
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We passed Vienna café on our way as we walked the distance from the Wabash to the university. Although I didn’t have time to hang out there that day, I did drop in to pick up a cup of their classic black coffee. Hussain, the owner, was around and so was Umud, poring over the day’s newspaper as he worked on his cup of coffee. I said hello and chatted with them for a couple of minutes. As Prosh, Lan and myself got ready to move on towards the university, Umud decided to join us as he had to be at his department in a bit too.

The four of us ambled along together as we talked about our plans for the weekend. Umud remembered that we were headed to Chicago that evening. He also, of course, remembered his “Local Area Network” wisecrack and remarked with a wink just before heading off to the Math department: “So Brij, do remember to log out over the weekend – lest you get pinged right in the middle of a good guitar solo.”. I grinned back, waved him goodbye and told Lan: "Wait till I tell you what that was about!"

On that note we all headed to our departments and set about taking care of the tasks that lay ahead of us. The plan was to hit the road at around 5 in the evening so that we would be at Ptom and Sonali's place before 8 and in time for dinner. And there was much that had to be done before then so that we could all enjoy the weekend with an easy mind.

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8

The three of us walked in together at the car rental to pick up our ride to Chicago. Lan had done a thorough job of comparing costs and “weekend specials” offers across a few different rental agencies and landed us a deal that worked out a bit a cheaper than what it would have cost us collectively if we had taken a Greyhound bus instead. It was a relatively small “compact” car but we found it comfortable enough since it was only the three of us and our backpacks, which was the only luggage we were carrying, fit quite easily in the limited space the boot provided. We signed the rental agreement, said bye to Cathy (the rental agency staff member assisting us), put in a Robert Cray CD, and got ourselves on the road.

West Lafayette to Chicago is an easy trip to make. Within about 20 minutes one gets on to Inter-State 65 North and then its only one turn onto I 94 W which takes you straight into the city. Prosh was driving as Lan leaned back in the front passenger seat while I made myself comfortable with legs folded under me on the rear seat. All three of us were in an easy cheer and were just enjoying the music and the drive with occasional bits of conversation and laughter.

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Driving in the US is a pleasure. Going from India the first thing that hits you is the quality of their roads: perfectly levelled with basically no wobbles, lanes marked clearly (with people actually following lane discipline absolutely immaculately!) and repair work zones clearly cordoned off and traffic diverted systematically. They also have well spaced and secure rest areas along their highways where people can take a small break when tired, freshen up and pick up some snacks, fruit juice, etc. The second thing that gets you is the sheer level of discipline on the roads. I’ve already mentioned lane discipline above. Add to that the idea of obeying speed limits (which are very clearly indicated at regular intervals) and other instructions regarding how to change a lane, the signals to be given before executing a turn, etc. and you basically find yourself in a situation where driving / traveling by road is not something stressful but can actually be enjoyed. If anyone does violate traffic rules, the likelihood is very high that they will find a cop car behind them and asking them to pull over. And cops don’t take bribes there. They write you a traffic ticket and charge you a fine. If the violation of rules is serious enough, they make you appear in court. It can go to the extent of your license getting suspended and in situations such as driving under the influence of alcohol, you cooling your heels off in jail for a while. Yes, America proudly declares itself as a country of freedom and liberty. But they also guard the freedom and liberty on offer with a fairly serious implementation of law and order if you don’t respect the privileges granted to you. And that’s how it ought to be. As I’ve said in a previous chapter, yes, Americans do have their share of problems and confusions (their foreign policy, some acts of war they have indulged in and persisting elements of racism being examples of things I neither like or agree with), but they’ve also got some things really right and I think it would do us a world of good to learn from them on these fronts.

I’ve thought about why some things are so crisply in place in that country. Whether it be traffic discipline, professionalism in post offices and banks, getting electricity or water connections and paying for these utilities, the public library system, offices in the university or public offices in general, or taxi drivers who roll by the meter fair and square, a whole lot of engagement with the services available and the officials in charge of them is by and large smooth, hassle free and works on clearly stated and practiced principles. One reason might certainly be that they have a far lower population level to deal with and that helps in keeping things manageable and orderly. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I also think it has to do with a basic cultural tenet which is quite simply that people take their work and responsibilities seriously. This sounds so straightforward and obvious that one might miss its significance. In my analysis, it is the bedrock of many a thing going right in that country and I observed this cultural tenet expressing itself in practice consistently in all the three universities I was associated with as well as in the society at large in all three cities I lived in during my eleven years in the US. Whether it was the professors who taught us or the technical staff assisting in laboratories and workshops or the secretarial staff in the various department and university offices or the IT staff manning the computing labs or even the janitorial staff responsible for keeping the university sparkling clean, everyone did their job seriously. The same spirit was on display in our fellow students – right from high school students who would come in for short term internships in some of the labs to freshman year students at the undergraduate level to those working on their PhD theses. There was an overall seriousness of academic pursuit. So with officials and service providers I interacted with in society in general. I’m sure the same culture extends to the way people practice their engineering there. Hence the perfectly levelled roads and highways, a space program that has made space travel and living on the international space station seem almost routine and the silicon valley phenomenon that has brought the computer revolution to where it stands today. And this professionalism and work culture went along with a clarity on how much time in a day / week everyone was expected to work as well as everyone getting compensated for their services fair and square. Yes, there is crime in that country as well. But as I have pointed out above, they also have a law and order system that takes itself seriously to counter it as best as possible.

I think it would do us a world of good to adopt these practices from the west (instead of just settling for beer, burgers and big cars in terms of what we are willing to adopt :)!). To become a first world country like them, nay, even better, we’ll have to also work just as hard as them. We'll have to become absolutely self reliant, and more, in every critical sector: Food, Energy, Defence, Healthcare, Education. We will need to develop the knowledge and capability to make things that we need ourselves and make them as well as, if not better than, anyone else. There's only one thing that will get us to this stage: Work.

As of today I think we err on both sides:

On the one hand, while there are certainly those who maintain high ethical standards in their professional and personal lives, I don’t believe there is any shortage of people who are either lazy or insincere or corrupt (or all of these) either, and I think you will find these traits right across the spectrum from public officials and law enforcement personnel who either don’t execute their responsibilities or indulge in corruption to doctors who take money under the table to perform surgeries to auto rickshaw and taxi drivers who fleece customers brazenly. I think a lot of people underestimated the importance as well as the extent of applicability of the anti-corruption movement that was launched by Anna Hazare some years ago.

In contrast, I also believe we exploit some service providers. I am aware, for example, of security guards who are made to put in twelve hour workdays while getting paid only for eight hours on record (talk about exploitation!) to doctors, teachers and faculty members in colleges who get paid as little as ten to fifteen thousand rupees a month which, in today’s time, is plain pathetic (and I remark once again: talk about exploitation!).

We need to fix both sides of the problem and bring in a culture of clean, corruption free, sincere work that gets paid its due. Then we can actually talk about the country moving forward. Till then, I’m afraid it’s going to stay just a pipe dream.
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It was just about eight in the evening when we pulled up in front of Ptom and Sonali’s house. Sonali, beaming a smile as usual, answered the bell and called out to Ptom to let him know that we had arrived as she waved us in. Ptom stuck his head out from behind the door of his little reading room in the rear of the house, smiled a hello and asked if we would be up for some lemon tea.

[Lemon tea stays a most preferred drink of mine to this day and I readily recommend a cup of the same, specially if there is a bit of a chill in the air and you want something to make you feel warm, cozy and comfortable: Just heat some tea leaves in water, squeeze a bit of lemon to taste (you can add a dash of honey if you want a tinge of sweetness to go with it) and you would be all set. Lemon tea and a good book. There’s nothing quite like that really.]

Some piping hot lemon tea sounded just great after the drive and we readily accepted the offer.

We were to sleep right there in the living room later at night. So we just put our backpacks in a corner and went in to splash some water on our faces and freshen up a bit. Meanwhile Ptom made the tea and brought it out in nice big cups along with some oranges.

There were tales to be shared and plans to be made for the next two days as we all sat together peeling our oranges and sipping our teas. I reckon that was when it felt like the festival had started. Jaco Pastorius’ bass lines playing softly in the background on Ptom’s LP player certainly seemed to support this sentiment.

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9

I still remember the affection with which I was woken up that Saturday morning. It was a kick to my backside that made me open my eyes, only to see Ptom mock scowling at me with a command: “Get up or you miss breakfast!”.

Breakfast? Already? It was Saturday morning for crying out loud and it certainly didn’t feel like I had been sleeping for that long. So I pulled myself up on my elbows rather unwillingly, rubbed my eyes as I looked around the room to see everyone else already up and about, and asked what the time was.

“The Sun’s up, that’s what time it is.” said Sonali as she walked across the room.

(It was only around 7:30 AM! Lest anyone get the impression that I was slumbering beyond acceptable limits.)

This was something Sonali used to be particular about: waking up early. I had once asked her why. What was it that motivated her to get up early? Was it that she liked to go for an early morning walk or jog? Or did she do Yoga? Meditated? Studied? Her response was none of this. It was far simpler: “It’s beautiful in the mornings”, she said, “I like to see sunrises and enjoy the dawn.”.

Remarkable innocence, simplicity and straightforwardness in that response, isn’t there :)?

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I myself have never been too early a riser. Fell into the habit of reading or studying late early in life and that tendency still persists. Yet I have to accept the truth in what Sonali said. Whenever I do wake up early enough to see the sun rise and experience the silence, freshness and beauty that the dawn holds, I remember that conversation. I do recommend the experience to you if you haven’t had it earlier. Wake up early once in a while with no agenda, with no plan, but to just quietly enjoy that half an hour or so in which the Sun comes up. Just observe, experience and let the beauty, silence and freshness sink in. If this experience is deeper for you while taking a walk or jogging or doing Yoga, so be it. If you would prefer to just sit and observe then that’s fine too. But soak in the dawn as fully as you can. That’s the part I’m emphasizing. Fall silent for a moment and feel beautiful and new. It’s really quite something.

Then, let go. Let go of all that is unnecessarily occupying space in your mind. Yes, there are those who have genuine problems to deal with. There is a whole population out there who is not even guaranteed three square meals a day. Many don’t have a roof over their heads. Many who do live in conditions that are worse than how we would allow our bathrooms to be. In addition the whole wide world seems to have made it its business to hurt and humiliate them further, to show them what being treated with coldness and inhumanity really feels like. They have genuine pain and distress to confront. Many of us have not a worry in comparison. Compared to them, we are outright blessed with good fortune.

What is it that bothers us most of the times? He said this and she behaved like that and how could they be how they are? He has that and she has that too and I just have this? Why am I not more good looking than I am, or maybe: why is it that people can’t see just how good looking and smart I really am! Or perhaps: why are people so shallow that they can’t see the depth of heart I carry… What else? Why am I not more intelligent? Why don’t I get appreciated for my intelligence? Why am I here and not there?

This level of junk deserves simply this: Locate it in your mind, mark it, right click, move to trash. Then, empty trash. Be done with it. People are who they are and you are who you are. As long as you have your chin up and are giving it your best, it’s all good. You’ll likely win some and lose some. That’s just how it goes. Smile through it. Be happy.

You want to forgive and stay connected? Fine. You are ok with forgiving but not with staying connected? Fine. You would prefer that you neither forgive nor have anything to do with some? Fine. It’s really your choice to make. Make it. But offload all the negative emotions. Make your inner real estate more expensive than any out there. Space is limited. Resolve: Thou shalt not fill it with junk. Thou shalt fill it with beauty and benediction instead. It’s your choice. Make it.

And once you are done forgiving (or not) others reflect for a moment on your own life, times when you may have brought pain to others, acts for which you ought to be seeking forgiveness. See if you can reach out to such people, reconnect and seek their forgiveness. See if the past can be let go and friendships renewed. If yes, good. If not, then accept that eventuality gracefully. Learn your lessons and resolve to never repeat your mistakes again. Then that's it. Move forward. Move forward each day with a purer intent and character than before. Live a life of some caliber, some standard. You have all the right and opportunity to express the pinnacle of humanity, nay, divinity itself, through you. Do it.

As I said, let go. Soak in the dawn.

Am I saying that you and I don’t have challenges to face? That all is hunky dory? No. I’m fully aware of all the fights that need to be fought. There is gender inequality, persisting elements of racism, religious conflicts, caste oppression and conflict, poverty, excessive patriarchy in some places and maybe its contrasting scenario in others, workplace harassments and exploitations, limited opportunities, corruption. These are all real challenges and the last thing I would suggest to anyone is that they don’t meet them head on. I fight my fights every day as well and go through my share of frustrating moments and heartburns.

But think: What’s a better strategy? Face all these challenges while being burdened down and feeling depressed and negative or face them with a clear mind, sharp intellect and a firm attitude?

I don’t think what I’m pointing out is anything new. Isn’t this what Krishna also teaches Arjun in the Gita? Be centred within, then fight.

Experiencing a dawn silently and fully is one way to become silent and feel renewed. Then with a clear and calm mind, plan the day out. Meet its challenges with a firm resolve. Yet, try not to lose your centredness and smile through it all. Win or lose at the end of it all, whatever amount of joy you do have right now is what you have right now. Letting that go too wouldn’t make for sound economic sense, would it?
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“Did I snore too much?”, I asked, since all three of us (Prosh, Lan and myself) had slept on the living room carpet. They just gave me a silent look that indicated that the answer to that question wouldn’t be a pleasant one but Ptom didn’t hold back:

“Like an elephant with sinus!”.

Honest chap, he. Huh.

Anyway, what’s a few snores between friends? So let’s not dwell on that too much now.

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Ptom, as in Amartya Saha, was a senior of mine at IIT Bombay. We stayed in the same hostel and as you may have guessed based on almost everyone I have introduced you to so far I had gravitated to him and his small group of friends because of my interest in music. I was learning how to play the guitar at the time and these chaps were all about music. Amartya used to play the bass as well as the acoustic guitar. His sense of rhythm and groove was extraordinary and there were many an evening when he would be seen sitting outside his room and quietly strumming away. Then there was Zulfiquar Hyder Ali (we just called him Zulfi or Zulf), who wasn’t a fellow student at IIT Bombay but used to visit often. Hailing from Shillong he was evidence in person of the lore that music runs in the blood of people from the north east. A Master guitar player, he held the distinction of having played lead guitar for a legendary rock band from the north east called Blood and Thunder when he was just eighteen. A physicist by academic training, turned IT and software professional later in life, he had an elaborate repertoire of songs that he had mastered on the guitar. He used to often improvise as well and it used to be a great pleasure to listen to him. There was Shekhar, or just Freak Sheek, another non-student friend who was learning his ropes as a sound engineer at the time and I believe has now made it his full time profession. Ranjit Roy, or Usam, wasn’t a musician himself but was a great guy who used to love rock music tremendously. And of course, Prabhakar Kolli, who was a friend working in the middle east at the time and used to bring along cassette tapes as gifts whenever he visited. CDs and MP3 files hadn’t come around then and these tapes were gold for us.

It was a great group of guys to hang out with. I was younger than all of them but they absorbed me in their group quite nicely and I used to enjoy spending time with them. If there is one quality that I can pin down with this group of friends, it was non-pretentiousness. These were people who were frank, open and honest. They were living lives of genuine interest and had neither the time nor any inclination towards small mindedness of any sort. They kept it real.

There was also a sense of largeheartedness (or perhaps I should say what many of us would think of as largeheartedness; for them it was perhaps just the normal way to be). As an example, consider this: After finishing his M.S. in Environmental Science from Indiana University, Bloomington, Ptom took up a job in Chicago for a few years while Sonali worked on her PhD. Then after she had completed her doctoral program, he enrolled himself in a PhD program and earned himself the title of "Dr.". Can you see the level of maturity I am pointing at? And I doubt he even thought that he was being "mature" or "good" or "largehearted" or anything like that. I'm sure it was all just a normal course of events for him. He loved Sonali. They were happy. And that was that. Just normal life. Plain and simple.
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I decided to take my shower after breakfast and joined everyone in the kitchen after quickly freshening up. There was milk and orange juice to choose from along with bananas and toasted bread on which we spread honey, cheese or butter to our taste. There was also a box of cereal on the table for those who preferred some with their milk. We all lived lives that were fairly packed at the time and there hardly used to be time to cook ourselves more traditional Indian breakfasts. But we still kept it healthy and ensured a fair amount of variety by shuffling between different fruits, juices and types of cereal.

We dug in and discussed our plans for the rest of the day as we ate.

Sonali had to go to the university for a bit to attend to some experiments in her lab and the plan was to head to the festival after lunch. The rest of us decided to do some grocery shopping in the meanwhile and stock up for the weekend. So after breakfast and a round of chai, we all picked up a backpack each and stepped out. It was about ten in the morning so the weather was nice and warm. The Sun wasn’t high in the sky and bearing down with full intensity yet, so it was a pleasant walk as we made our way to Jim and Soo Jung’s organic food mart about a mile and a half from Ptom’s apartment.

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10

Ptom had been shopping for his groceries at Jim and Soo Jung’s organic food mart for a while now and had developed a good rapport with them over time. Soo Jung was overseeing the billing and checkout area when we arrived and waved out to Ptom as we entered. Although she had been in the US for over two decades now she still carried a fairly distinguishable South Korean accent. But you’ll have to imagine that part since I can’t type it in.

Soo Jung: Hey Amartya, good to see you. Jim and I were just talking about you last night and were wondering if you and Sonali will be going to the fest.

Ptom: Most definitely. We are headed there after lunch today and plan to stay till fairly late in the evening. We’ll be going tomorrow as well. Our friends from West Lafayette are visiting us for the weekend and we’ll be attending the fest together. What about you and Jim? Are you both going to be there?

Soo Jung: Yeah, we plan on closing early today so that we can catch some of the music.

Ptom: That’s great! Maybe we’ll run into each other there. Let me introduce you to our friends. This here is Shriram. And that is Ilan. And he is Brij. Guys, this is Soo Jung. She and her husband Jim own this store.

There was a round of hellos and she welcomed us to the store.

Ptom: Say is Jim around? Would definitely be good to say hello to him as well.

Soo Jung: He’s in the office going over inventory and accounts. He’ll be happy to see you too. Why don’t you pick up your groceries and leave them here with me. I’ll have them bagged and get the bill prepared while you guys chat.

Ptom: That’ll be great! Thanks! Ok, see you soon then.

Soo Jung: Certainly. Have a good one.

Soo Jung turned to assist a customer who was searching for something as we pulled a cart for ourselves and started walking through the aisles and picking up stuff we needed (and some) for the next two days.

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I’ll come to sharing a bit about Jim and Soo Jung’s lives shortly but before that let me dwell on something else for a minute.

Jim was an American while Soo Jung originally hailed from South Korea. But this marriage was not a case of Soo Jung wanting to marry an American or Jim looking for an Asian wife. It just so happened, as you shall see presently, that they gravitated towards each other and found fulfilment and happiness together. This was no different from Ptom, who is a Bengali, marrying Sonali who, if my memory serves me right, is from Madhya Pradesh. Or Prosh, a Tamilian, marrying Monideepa, a Bengali. Or Lan marrying Susan. All these people simply married those they wanted to be with. There was no pretence about it, no biases in the mindset that led to these choices.

This is very different from something I’ve been observing for a while.

I think there are several people who still run after the “white man” or the “white woman” and while I have nothing against either white men or women (I have many a Caucasian friend), I think this is plain shallowness. Not too far behind are fairness creams promising you freedom from your dark skinned self. This is just such plain rubbish that one often doesn’t know how to react when confronted with people who actually buy into it. Did you know that Draupadi from the Mahabharata, a legendary beauty, was dark hued? Hence her other name Krishna. Krishna himself was dark complexioned. Even today you will find very very beautiful and handsome women and men who are dark in complexion. Someone’s level of fairness or darkness has this much to do with their attractiveness: Zero. Yet millions continue to buy into this twisted outlook towards aesthetics and beauty. And we call ourselves an “intelligent” species.

Then there is the other side: white people seeking companions who are “exotic”. It gets worse: I’ve met people who are attracted to accents in which people from different parts of the world speak. Not what they may bring with them in terms of different cultural outlooks, different perspectives towards life shaped by a different flow of experiences, different value systems, but accents in which they speak! Imagine that! I don’t know about you but I’m left absolutely aghast whenever I encounter such mindsets.

What I care about above all other considerations is authenticity: whether it be about being in a relationship with someone or anything else for that matter. Authenticity, straightforwardness, a mature and dignified outlook towards life, depth of character and personality, these are the traits we need to nurture and be guided by. Not skin colour, fairness creams, exoticity and accents!
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Although I was meeting Jim and Soo Jung for the first time on this trip, we met several times in the years to come and a spirit of camaraderie and friendship slowly consolidated amongst us. Their story is worth telling.

Jim grew up in a foster home. He didn’t know or remember who his parents were and some of his earliest memories were of playing Cops and Robbers with his foster home brothers and sisters (as he liked to call them). Those were troubled times for him and his friends. It can be difficult to find focus and direction in life as it is and doing so with a sense of uncertainty at the back of one’s mind along with difficult to answer questions regarding belongingness and one’s place in society and purpose of life can be especially daunting. Jim talked about some of his brothers having run away from the foster home. He managed to track down a couple of them later in life but never found out what happened to some others. There were occasional run-ins with the law. Some would drift towards drugs and would need to be coaxed back into normalcy. Jim himself slipped up on this count on one occasion and when I asked him what saved him from losing himself, this is what he said:

“I would’ve been a goner, Brij, if not for one thing and one thing only: a few people who actually cared about us kids at the home and wanted us to turn out well in life. While some of the people who ran the home were no good themselves and only made our sense of isolation and despair more acute, there were a few who actually cared for us, tried to connect with us sincerely and without pretence, treated us with dignity and spared no effort in keeping our focus on the possibility of living a normal life in society when we grew up. Then there were also some people who didn’t work at the home but used to visit us regularly. Some of them who could made monetary contributions to the home, some gave stuff like books and CDs, some used to just hang out with us, tell us about their lives, try to answer questions we had about stuff like what kind of jobs we could try and get when we were old enough to go out and try and make it on our own, about college and what kind of stuff we could study, etc. Some of these folks would also help out with understanding stuff we were studying in school at the time. It was these connections, this time that I spent with good well-meaning people, being able to talk with them, ask them questions that I had about so many different aspects of life, share a few laughs, that kept me hopeful and sane. This is one thing about life that I can tell you Brij: never underestimate the power of true relationships. Love and goodwill are very powerful things, very powerful. They can save others from despair, give them hope and strength to carry on. There’s a whole lot of stuff people take for granted. Where I’m coming from, one learns to value everything. And by everything I mean everything. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the roofs above our head, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the education we get, opportunities to contribute and make ourselves useful. Absolutely everything is a blessing and nothing is to be taken for granted. And the biggest blessing of them all is the goodness in people and the love we receive.”
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I’ll come back to Jim and Soo Jung’s story in a bit. But right now I want to take inspiration from what Jim said above to place what I call a “Humanity Challenge” before you:

Can we, as a global community, resolve that not one, and I mean that : not even one, child grows up feeling an orphan, not one aged person has to spend his or her final years fending for themselves without anyone caring for them, not one disabled person has to be on the streets begging for money, not one person who is willing to contribute to the best of his or her abilities has to be without the basics of food, clothing, shelter and basic medical care (needless to say, without exploitation of any sort!). I want us to remove the word destitute from our languages. I want us to end this menace of inhumanity amongst us humans. Can we take this up as a challenge and not rest till we win?

One thing I can tell you upfront: The first thing we’ll need if we are to accept this challenge and win, and win we can, will be heart, the willingness to share what we have, the willingness to love and serve.

If we take this up, then I shall accept that we are an educated, civilized, enlightened society. Else, no.

I know that the first question that will arise in our minds the minute we accept this challenge will be: Ok, but how do we go about doing this?

Well, that certainly needs discussing too. I’m sure you will have your ideas to share just as I have mine…(I share some ideas in Chapters 12 and 14).

But for this moment: just thump your heart lightly and quietly if you are with me and whisper to yourself: “Yeah, I got heart…”. And start thinking: how would you go about participating in this challenge? What according to you are some strategies that can be adopted? What would be your game plan?
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11

Jim had come a long way from his days at the foster home when I met him. He had gone through high school while at the home (they had a provision for kids staying there to go through school). It did take him a couple of extra years to finish his schooling but by the time he left the home and took up his first full time job at a farm he had earned his high school certificate. The opportunity to work on the farm came from a gentleman by the name Bob who used to visit the home and had interacted with Jim regularly. Jim and a few of his brothers at the home used to visit the farm often and learnt a bit about farming practices as well as earned some pocket money by working over weekends. When Bob offered Jim the opportunity to work with him full time for a few years and learn farming in detail he was only too happy to accept. He had enjoyed his weekend stints and looked forward to this new phase of his life. This is what he had to say about these years:

“The years at the farm proved very useful Brij. For one I gained knowledge and skills that I have used to sustain a livelihood since. I also liked the work itself. There was a fair amount of physical work involved that kept me agile and fit and provided a channel for my physical energy to flow and get directed usefully. This kept me relaxed and grounded at an age in which youth often go astray and end up using that same energy to bring harm to themselves and others. Bob was a good person to work for. He gave me a place to stay at the farm, treated me well, paid me a respectable salary and gave me my holidays and time offs fair and square. But something else happened above and beyond all this that I basically feel really blessed about. I fell in love with nature. And I mean that. I fell in love with nature.

A big distance has set in now between most people and nature Brij. And this is a very unfortunate thing to happen. It’s like getting disconnected from a part of yourself. Many people don’t even notice nature around them. They don’t notice the trees they walk by, don’t appreciate the shade and freshness they provide. Many see flowers only after they have been plucked and arranged in bouquets to sell and buy at flower shops. They almost never see them blossoming in gardens or in the wild and just absorb their beauty and fragrance. Many buy frozen and canned vegetables instead of fresh vegetables coming in from farms, not to talk about growing a few themselves in their own gardens. So many people don’t spend quiet time just walking silently and being with nature now. And that’s so precious. Being with nature consolidates you, nourishes you, refreshes and rejuvenates you, makes you feel new and pristine yourself. On the contrary we are cutting trees recklessly and reducing the green cover on the planet at an alarming rate. Gardens are becoming dumping grounds in many places. They are not tended to regularly and have become dirty and unfit to spend time in. All this isn’t intelligent behaviour but we continue doing it despite knowing the pitfalls.

If you ever get an opportunity to have your own garden and grow vegetables, fruits and flowers, take it. If you have a gardener helping you, talk with him, learn from him. You’ll get a chance to see life itself thrive before you – from a seed to full blossoming. If you get a chance to go and work at a farm once in a while, just dig and shovel some earth, sweat a bit, and absorb how a farm has a life of its own, how it responds to different seasons, how people collectively nurture life itself, grab it. Connect with nature whenever you can Brij. I recommend this to everyone. It’s a precious thing.

We’re giving too much importance to machines and concrete now and too little to nature. Yes, everything has its place, there have been developments over decades and centuries that have helped improve the human condition and certainly not everything modern is wrong or bad. But there’s such a thing as balance. And I think we’ve gone far from it now, very far. We need to recover it, and recover it fast, else I’m afraid we might end up digging ourselves in a hole that we may not be able to get out of. We need to bring back respectability and economic health to activities such as planting trees and tending to them, farming, orchard rearing and gardening. And I have no doubt it can be done. Everyone has to come together for this. The people, their representatives in governments and administrations, policy makers, think tanks. And it all starts with us: me, you and the rest of humanity. If we want a certain way and quality of life why will it not manifest? It has to. It's our choice. We are in control. We decide. The planet can become nice and green again and we can get back to the simplicity of appreciating and enjoying the bounty the Earth showers upon us. We just have to want it and act accordingly. I hope I live to see this day Brij and these convictions and beliefs of mine are a large part of why I do what I do.”

After having worked at Bob’s farm for a few years, Jim had joined a “farmers’ collective”. They had started off by leasing a plot on which they grew seasonal vegetables and fruits which sold in the market themselves. It was a humble beginning but eventually they collected enough money to buy the plot and expanded their efforts and business. Jim and Soo Jung’s organic food mart was one of the stores that sourced a fair part of its produce from this cooperative society. They also sold other items such as grain, cereals, dairy products, poultry items, meats, etc. which they sourced from similar ventures. All organic and natural. No pumping of hormones for quick profits. As Jim once put it: “We chose to integrate our livelihoods with things that we care for, believe in and are passionate about. It hasn’t made us filthy rich but we have enough to live a good comfortable life. And that’s enough for me and my family.”

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Yes I have set up a garden myself once since (hope to do it again!) and I did get to do a little bit of farm work on a few occasions (will do more when I get the opportunity!). I can tell you from personal experience that Jim has a point in what he said. If you get such opportunities, I also recommend that you take them.

I am also happy to note that the culture of buying fresh produce persists in India and we haven’t gone too far with the frozen products paradigm.

But the heart breaks whenever I hear of a farmer committing suicide due to the burden of debt. I know there is some work being done to address this. But I think we need to do more. We need to find solutions to their problems. The food we eat has the farmer’s hard work and sweat as its soul. The farmer persists even when the elements of nature don’t favour him or her. We must do whatever it takes to ensure that their farms stay green and they are protected from drought and flood alike. What good is all our engineering knowledge if we cannot ensure that farmers don’t face water shortage? Likewise, can we not find a way to drain out excess water at a high rate when it rains more than necessary and maybe direct it to where it might be required? We must solve the farmers’ problems. And the first step is to actually find some time to understand what the problems are and take them seriously. I assure you we can find this time once the will is there. There is so much meaningless so called entertainment we have drowned ourselves in. There is so much pointless banter we engage in continuously. I think we need to take a step back and change the directions in which we allow our minds to flow a bit. Then a lot is possible.

And we must make our planet green and beautiful once again. More trees, more flowers, more orchards, more butterflies and more birds to chirp us a song or two. More early morning and quiet evening walks. Less cell phones, less TVs, less pollution, less noise.

It is our planet. It is our life. Why should we not live as beautifully as we can? To deny ourselves a good life for no good reason is a bit silly, isn’t it?
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You must be wondering about Soo Jung by now. I haven’t yet introduced her in detail. And we do need to finish our shopping and be back home in time for lunch. But there’s just so much to tell you about that it’s taking me a bit of time.

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12

One thing that has stuck in my mind about the higher education system in the US is the flexibility to explore and cover ground slowly if that’s how one wants to go about it or one’s life situation makes it necessary to do so. Yes, by and large people there too go through college education in a structured manner just like in our country. But that’s not the only way possible. It’s also possible to attend courses, accumulate credits over an extended period of time and claim a degree in a certain discipline after one has accumulated enough credits and satisfied requirements for that degree.

That’s what Jim was doing when I met him. He had completed his high school education while at the foster home but his formal education halted for a while as he learnt farming, saved money and started establishing himself through the “Farmers’ Collective”. But his intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn persisted. Once he was reasonably well established and his organic food mart was doing steady business he started taking courses at the university. He studied physics, mathematics, explored fine art, took courses in world history and different philosophical systems before eventually settling down into a rhythm directed at getting a bachelor’s degree in physics. And he was doing this just out of interest. The walls in his office at the food mart were lined with books on various subjects and it was not unusual to find him engrossed in a book on quantum mechanics or calculus. Other than formal education, he had also learnt how to meditate and did Yoga regularly.

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The presence of Yoga is massive in the US by the way. We of course don’t value it. And those of us who might are convinced that it ought to be taught free of cost. It's certainly not worth it in our minds to pay a fees and learn it from an expert just like we would learn anything else. The expert of course would have spent his or her time, resources and effort to become an expert - but they should then teach it free of cost else they are greedy and we won't learn from them. Our money is reserved for designer clothes, cosmetics, jewellery and cars. Certainly not for learning things like Yoga and meditation from experts that will probably help us live healthier and calmer lives.

The sheer absurdity of the logic! For any activity, skill and art to sustain and thrive in society we need to address its economic viability and ensure that the practitioners of these activities, skills and arts can sustain a healthy livelihood through them. There are no two ways about it. They have families too. They have expenses too. And yes, they too have every right to live a good comfortable life just like you and me if they are good at what they do and work hard. Take a good look around you, observe how limited we have become in terms of activities, skills and arts that are present in our society today. And realize that this is directly linked to the limited channels through which people are able to earn money and sustain themselves today.

I still can’t get over a question Jim once asked me:

“Say Brij, what is it with people in your country? Why are they giving up on all the good stuff they have while we are happily picking it up from you? How come you guys always give away the good stuff and take junk back in return? We are doing Yoga and meditating while you guys are taking the booze culture from us. And it’s not just this. I’ve been there and seen for myself. It’s crazy! People there seem to treat burgers, sandwiches and pizzas as some sort of exotic delicacies when you guys have a culinary expertise that is perhaps right up there with the most diverse in any world culture. I mean it’s alright to enjoy a burger, sandwich or pizza, sure, but what’s there to make such a fuss about? Our way of life seems to have invaded your entire consciousness, at least in the cities I visited. You wear the clothes we wear: which is fine, by all means be global in your outlook - but our way of dressing seems to be completely wiping out your way and I don't understand that (he was placing equal emphasis on both genders by the way!); you listen to music we listen to: again, there's nothing wrong with it, by all means be global in your tastes and appreciation of art and culture - but why disown your own heritage, your own art, you own music - I don't get it; many of you are more comfortable speaking in English with each other instead of your own languages which are so beautiful: knowing English as a foreign language is one thing - it can help communicate with the rest of the world more easily - but English replacing your knowledge of your own languages is stupid - you don't see us Americans or Europeans or anyone else doing that, do you? Then why are you guys so eager to disown yourselves and become like someone else? Even the clubs there are just like ours with the same dance floors, the same music, the same atmosphere… I just don’t get it. Why are you folks so eager to give up your own cultural identities and become just like us? Our businesses are making you be and look the way they want you to be and look so that they can sell their stuff to you. Why aren’t you guys making your presence felt across the world when you have so much to offer? I mean they teach management, marketing and advertising in your country too, right? And wasn’t it in your country that a library once burnt for six months when an invasion happened. Just imagine that…six months! How much written word would there have been in that library? When are you guys going to recover your lost ground Brij? It’s great to have you guys studying at our universities but shouldn’t you guys be able to offer something that’ll make us want to go and learn there too?”

Ouch! The man was speaking the truth. What could I do but nod an acknowledgment and shrug my shoulders? As I like to remark: the biggest damage inflicted on us by the British was perhaps not economical but that they left us with a completely eroded sense of self respect. They convinced us that their ways were better in every respect: their philosophical outlooks, their language, their way of eating, their way of sitting, their way of dressing, and even their way of shitting. And none of this was on logical ground. Our philosophical systems are profound, our languages are rich and diverse, our way of eating with hands is better, our way of sitting cross legged on the floor is better, and our way of shitting is better too : the thighs compress the stomach when one squats on his or her haunches which leads to a more complete passing of the stool [else some of it stays on in our bodies, can't be too good] : you can try this for yourself and see, it can be a bit uncomfortable at first if you've never been in that posture but the muscles adapt and one gets used to it in time.

As far as ways of dressing go, where is the question of any one way being better than any other? Each culture across the world has had its own ways and for any culture to start believing that their way is in some way inferior to another is plain unfortunate. Sure one can have a global tastes. Then sometimes a manner of dressing in another culture can prove to be useful or preferable in specific scenarios (eg. nature of job, sport, etc) - so one can always adopt and adapt. But that is not what has happened in our country. Our way of dressing has basically been wiped out, at least in urban India. And I hold the men far more responsible than women for this. I know many Indian men might prefer that Indian women continue to wear traditional Indian clothes but then many of these same men perhaps don't even realize that the trousers and shirts they wear are cultural impositions too. We've reduced the traditional Indian male dresses to the level of "costumes" one puts on on specific occasions such as weddings or prayer ceremonies or in specific professions such as politics. I myself remember being laughed at once by a friend's father when I visited their house wearing a dhoti-kurta along with a snide remark: "What is this? Are you coming from some fancy dress competition?". Poor chap! What do I tell such people? Truth is what he believes to be "normal" today is what one ought to be wearing in a fancy dress competition if one were to portray an Englishman and what I was wearing ought to be "normal" in this country.

I know of women who are derisively referred to as "behenjees" when they wear traditionally Indian clothes and speak in an Indian language by their more "evolved" compatriots in short skirts or trousers speaking accented English with wise looking shakes and nods of the head and rolls and flutters of the eyes. And I know that many a men would probably lose their jobs and be called either crazy or "right wing fanatics" if they simply started wearing dhoti-kurtas or kurtas with chooridaar pyjamas to work. And if this is our mindset, if this is how derisive and stupid we are about our own cultural identities in our own country, where is the hope for expressing ourselves uniquely and confidently on the world stage?


As I said above: Ouch! Jim was speaking the truth. And what could I do but nod an acknowledgment and shrug my shoulders?
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It was during one of the courses he was attending at the university that Jim met Soo Jung.

Jim: Of course I remember that time Brij, it still feels like I just met her yesterday.

Me: So she was a stunner, eh?

Jim: (Smiling) What do you mean was? She still is, isn’t she?

But speaking more seriously: depends on what you mean Brij. She did keep herself fit then as she does now. And I respect that. I think people should stay mindful of their fitness. It doesn’t make sense to not do so. But by fit I don’t mean zero waist or anything. She’s never been like that. I simply mean fitness in the true sense of the word. And fitness brings along an attractiveness with itself naturally – which is very different from people continuously obsessing about how they look.

She’s also always been conscious about keeping herself presentable. In fact that’s one thing I’ve picked up from her. I used to be a bit slack about it earlier but I do see its importance now. I feel it’s important from an aesthetics point of view. See we are a presence on this planet. And just as we like things around us to be nice and presentable, it’s good in my opinion to bring that to the world from our side too.

But one thing she didn’t do was fret too much about looking pretty. Didn’t always keep worrying about her hair or make up. She was just someone very normal with a nice presence.

I observe people Brij. I notice the way they talk, pay attention to what they talk about, whether they are being authentic or pretentious, how they treat other people. I’m always noticing these things. Soo Jung’s always been very real Brij, and very nice. That’s what attracted me to her.

Me: So what was it that made things click? Did you have a lot of common interests? Were your conversations very engaging?

Jim: (A soft laughter) The way I grew up Brij, what became most important to me was that the folks I surround myself be real, be good. Everything else comes after that for me.

No, Soo Jung and I don’t have too many common interests. We like different kinds of music. She’s all classical and opera, I’m more into rock n’ roll, folk and world music. We have different tastes when it comes to books we read. At the university I’m taking more physics and mathematics courses while she went the business administration way. But here’s the thing Brij: she comes along with me when I want to go and do something that I enjoy and I go along with her when she wants to go and experience what she likes. You see what I’m saying? Each of us likes it when the other is happy and we participate in their happiness. And it’s always been like that for the two of us. We’ve never had to talk about it or anything. I think this: just being happy with each other, is what “clicked”.

And I really don’t see the whole fuss people make about this aspect when it comes to relationships Brij. It’s almost as if everyone’s prepared a multiple choice test for everyone else and you’ve got to pass that test to be with them (laughs)! I mean, this is small stuff. Why don’t people feel each other’s presence, sense whether they are comfortable and at home with each other. That’s what counts at the end of the day, doesn’t it? Then just do things together. Be with each other’s happiness.

Me: So how did you connect with her from your side? You probably faced some challenges. Was your having grown up in a foster home ever an issue?

Jim: With her, no. In fact one of the first things we did together was visit the foster home I grew up in. I wanted her to see where I was coming from, meet some people there and see how she would take it. It was that visit that made me realize just how humane she really is. She was just so normal with the kids there. Not trying too hard to make an impression, not uncomfortable either. We all just hung out and chit chatted.

But her folks did take some time to accept that their daughter wasn’t getting married into a family. They eventually came around though. They saw that Soo Jung and me were happy together. And it helped that I was actually studying at the university and had made something of myself by that time. That helped them relax about her future a fair bit.

Me: Well, you both’ve come a long way now. Three kids!

Jim: I’ll let you in on a secret Brij since you asked about her being comfortable with my background. One of them is biologically ours: John. Tim and Sarah are from the home. We adopted them a few years ago. That’s something I always wanted to do. To give kids like me a home. Soo Jung did want a child of her own and I respected that. We were very happy when John came into our world. But we also knew from very early on in our friendship that adopting a couple of kids and continuing an association with the home and doing whatever I could was important to me. Soo Jung never seemed to feel any discomfort about that. Never. It all just happened as a natural course of events.

Me: And there are no problems between the kids themselves?

Jim: Sure there were some issues to be sorted out initially. Tim and Sarah are coming from a different space and they took a bit of time to start feeling at home with us and respecting the role we play as their parents. We had discussed stuff with John before adopting Tim and Sarah. So he had some idea of what to expect. Full credit to him though: the chap displayed tremendous maturity for his age and gave Tim and Sarah the space they needed when they came. And they too responded well. (Smiling) They’re pretty tight now Brij, pretty tight.

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Recalling this conversation with Jim gives me the opportunity to share my thoughts on the first aspect of the “Humanity Challenge” I placed before all of us a little while ago.

I present a two-pronged strategy that should help us start a discussion towards ensuring that not a single child grows up an orphan in this world.

Let me first talk about adopting children:

The first thing I want to say is that while I have never felt so myself I do respect the sentiment I find in many people about having their own children. In many a conversation I have found people to be particular about wanting to raise children that are biologically theirs. To be honest I have myself never felt this way but I respect their desire and sentiment. I also respect the idea of not giving birth to more than one or two children in a family. The world’s population has grown dramatically and I accept that it is perhaps not wise to keep bringing children into the world that we can’t take the responsibility of nurturing well.

But look here: where does it say that we can’t have one or two biological children of our own and then expand our families by adopting a child or two (assuming of course that one is economically sound enough to raise them well – and I think many of us are that economically sound)? What stops us? Think about it. I am saying have your biological children. Propagate your genes. Fulfil that desire. But why stop there? Why not go a step further and adopt too?

All it will take is heart and humanity. Nothing more.

And once we adopt a child, let us ensure that we treat it like our own. All the way. No distinctions to be drawn between the biological child and the adopted child in any aspect: the way he or she lives at home, the education and healthcare they receive, the clothes they wear, the food they eat. Above all the love and respect they receive and the sense of belongingness they experience. Let no doubt ever arise in the child that it is loved truly and equally.

Anyone who does this is a blessing beyond comprehension on this planet in my book. As far as I am concerned such a person is not a nano-millimetre short of having become a channel for divine love itself.

But no matter how great an act it cannot have force or compulsion as its basis. Every expression of love has to come from within. And sometimes it can take time for love to sprout and blossom to the extent I am talking about above. If it hasn’t blossomed to that extent in someone yet, that is fine too – they simply need to start from where they are. Step by step the journey unfolds and step by step the journey is completed.

This brings me to the second prong of the strategy I propose: Community run foster homes.

There are indeed foster homes (usually called orphanages in India – I do not like that title) that are run by the government or NGOs. But this state of affairs falls way short of how good it can be for many reasons. For one there is usually a paucity of funds at such establishments. Sometimes it can be because contributions are limited and at other times it may be due to corruption that leads to money being siphoned off. I have contributed significantly to one such orphanage, so I’m talking from first hand experience. Then there can be issues of management: whoever is deputed to run any such establishment at a given time may just not be keen about his or her job and end up making a half hearted effort. And it’s the kids staying there who suffer. Sometimes one may find criminal elements engaging in exploitation or abuse of children at such places. This can completely destroy children and scar their psychologies for life.

What we need to do is to get involved ourselves. Here’s what I propose:

We have housing societies and neighbourhoods. Let clusters of such housing societies and neighbourhoods take it upon themselves to collectively set up and manage foster homes that provide good living conditions, nutritious food, quality healthcare and education till a stage when the child becomes a responsible intelligent adult with a sound sense of self-worth and self-esteem and can integrate with the society at large and make it through life on his or her own. And during an individual’s years at such a foster home let the members of the community managing it befriend them, spend time with them, connect with them as human beings, counsel them in a manner that brings stability and clarity to their minds and hearts and inculcates a sense of confidence and self-respect in them. Even if some people can’t bring a child to their own homes, they can certainly love them and care for them at such community run foster homes to the extent they are able to. And each act of love and humanity matters. It brings hope. It gives strength. It lights up the way forward bit by bit.

Can this not be done? Am I suggesting an investment of time, money and effort that is out of proportion? Not at all. Just do the math. How many people would be present in a cluster of housing societies and neighbourhoods? And how many children would they collectively be taking responsibility for? It is nothing (I present some sample calculations in Chapter 14). As I have been emphasizing time and again: intent and heart, that’s all it requires, intent and heart. Once these are in place, everything else can follow.

And the first step that I recommend towards reaching this stage is that we take the time and make the effort to visit orphanages that are functional as of today. Locate those in your cities and towns. Go there. Meet the kids. See if you can help in some manner. That’s how it started for me too.

As the famous Nike advertisement punchline goes: #JustDoIt.

But yes, if you do have the capacity to adopt and think you will be able to give the child your love and care as your very own: please do step forward. Bring light and love to a soul. Such an act from your side will be a blessing to the child as well as the world. And you will be setting a tremendous example for many others.
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The li’l girl, she was a throwin’ fishes into the sea when the ol’ man with yellow teeth and sun burnt skin asked of her…

Whaddya ya doin’ child?

Savin’ em fishes kind Sir.

But child, there be a so many o’ them washed ashore. How do it matter what ya do with a few, aye?

But kind Sir, it matters to that one…splosh…and that one…splosh…she said as she kept a tossin’ ‘em back into the sea one ba one, one ba one.

The ol’ man with yellow teeth and sun burnt skin smiled ‘is smile as he started a walkin’ with the li’l girl and tossin’ em fishes back into the sea too…this child, she knew, and she knew how to stay knowin’, and how to make a others knowin’ too…she be fine she be fine…

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13

If Jim is coming across as a chap with a heart of gold then trust me, Soo Jung was no less. Here’s a conversation that I recall:


Me: Say Soo Jung, Jim has the cause of kids growing up in foster homes close to his heart and wants to do as much as he can to improve their situation. Other than supporting him in this goal of his, do you have a cause that is close to your heart?

Soo Jung: First of all Brij, that’s not just his goal. It’s ours. We’ve had a deep sense of belongingness with each other from the time we became friends and then decided to be together. So we don’t think of any goal as being his or mine. We take them as our goals. But to answer your question, yes, I like to see elderly people happy. They have bequeathed this planet to us. They’ve gone through their challenges to make the world what it is today. There are parts of our world we may like and parts we may not. But I suppose that’s how it always is and I think we need to ensure that their old age is as comfortable and peaceful as possible. Although my parents stay with Jim and myself, and we prefer it that way, several elderly people stay in old age homes and I direct a lot of my efforts and resources towards ensuring that they have a good life. In this country it’s not money that is the primary challenge when it comes to old age homes but providing the elders staying there with good companionship. They like it when people visit them, spend some time with them and talk with them. I do that a fair bit. But things are better in your country, right? From what I’ve heard the need for old age homes is much lesser there as it’s inbuilt in family values that people take care of their parents when they are old.

Me: Yes, that’s true. It is a part and parcel of our value system. And I think it’s a great thing. Parents make tremendous sacrifices to bring us up and I don't think it’s even something to be said explicitly that we need to take care of them in their old age. It’s an implicit and obvious responsibility and is certainly not a burden. It’s just a manifestation of love for one’s parents as it was a manifestation of their love for us when we grew up and they had to put up with many an inconvenience to bring us up well. I’m so glad to hear that your parents stay with you and Jim. Feels nice to hear that.

But I must also admit that not everything is always hunky dory in Indian homes. Many a time people don’t treat their parents well at all. Instead of living in comfort and peace parents end up becoming servile to their children and their spouses. They are made to carry out menial household tasks and shoulder responsibilities that their children should be shouldering as adults. In such situations I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if these elderly people had the choice of saying enough is enough and moving themselves into an old age home. Many parents in India make the mistake of bequeathing their wealth to their children too soon. It’s an act of trust from their side but not everyone respects it. I firmly believe that while bringing up children well and ensuring a good education for them is every parent’s responsibility, they should retain control of their own wealth too so that they never find themselves dependent on their children to an extent that they have no option but to put up with second rate treatment in their old age. Push come to shove they should also be able to take a decision to live independently or in an old age home instead and there need to be good provisions for this. I don’t think there are enough such provisions in India today.

Then there is the reverse scenario too. While a lot is good in terms of family values in India, I think it is also a fact that many parents exert excessive control on their children, I am not denying that parents have a disciplining role to play with their children but sometimes control can be and is excessive. This can start right from childhood resulting in stunted growth of children, frustrated youth and can persist even after adulthood. Many times they exert unwarranted control on their children’s spouses which can result in a lot of unhappiness for everyone involved but particularly the spouse. In such situations I honestly think that sometimes it might be better for the children to live on their own and parents to stay independently as far as possible and then live in an old age home. Once again, I do not think there are enough provisions for this today.

India is a great country and we have a great tradition of sound human values being passed from generation to generation. But I think it’s also a fact that not everything is perfect. As I see it, there is a need for honest introspection in many a family and a restoring of balance between generations.

Soo Jung: Oh…a lot of this is news to me. Certainly there needs to be balance. I think every generation should treat the previous generation with the gratitude and respect that is due to them. At the same time, it is every generation’s responsibility to bring up the next generation with a state of mindfulness and love. What is the point in raising children if you will just leave them frustrated and hurt behind you when it is your turn to depart? I hope things improve soon Brij. Your country’s heritage is so rich and it has so much to offer to the whole world.

Me: Yes, that is certainly true. I am very proud of my roots myself. I hope things look up in the near future. I think some honest introspection and course correction from everyone is all that is required. But often that’s just what we don’t do. Instead we keep blaming everything and everyone around us instead of taking responsibility for our intentions and actions.

Say Soo Jung, a personal question: Are there things you and Jim disagree and quarrel about? Have you had conflicts in your relationship at any stage?

Soo Jung: I know why you ask this Brij. We too observe that it’s almost become a norm that people in relationships quarrel with each other a fair bit. Sometimes it seems to me that friction in relationships has become a norm to such an extent that people have started justifying it as being part and parcel of romance. But no Brij, to be honest Jim and me have not had any significant conflicts. It did take some time for us to understand each other initially when we got to know each other and a friendship developed. But soon enough each of us saw and appreciated that the other was essentially good. And once that appreciation is there, respect arises naturally. After that where is the scope of any serious conflict? If either of us had any serious reservations about the other or if there were to be a serious conflict in our core value systems, we probably wouldn't have moved beyond friendship. Being able to take conscious decisions with as clear a mind as possible is part and parcel of being an adult. Luckily we both had this maturity.

If by disagreement you mean differences in views on different matters then of course, we both use our intelligence and differ in opinions on so many things. But I don’t understand why that should lead to quarrels and conflicts. We just talk through things and try to see things from the other’s viewpoint too. We're very open and honest with each other and there is an implicit trust between us that each of us is sincere about trying to understand the other's viewpoint. If a common ground emerges, ok. If not, then ok too: once in a while a disagreement can just stay a disagreement. It is no big deal. We are not binary entities. It doesn’t have to be 1 or 0 every time. Jim and me love each other. It gives us great happiness to be with each other. Why should we bring any bitterness between us? We want to celebrate life. Life’s short you know. Why waste any of it creating unhappiness?

As for having emotional ups and downs individually, yeah of course we have them. Both of us live our lives intensely and there can be moments and days when one or the other of us is not in balance within. But so what? We give each other the time and space we require to sort out our thoughts and emotions and deal with them. I think we've also learnt how to handle our emotions better with the passage of time. That's as much a part of being educated as anything else in my book. Having goals that are larger than our individual lives and being committed to them goes a long way in keeping petty emotions away in my opinion in any case. Plus we both meditate. I'm convinced that helps in keeping our minds equanimous.

At the end of the day the whole point of being with someone is that you are happy with them. The whole basis of a relationship is respect, love and trust. If these are there where is the cause for quarreling? And if these are not there why be with someone in the first place? 

You know what Brij, I think a whole lot of conflicts simply arise from one thing: a desire to control and come across as being right all the time. It is so silly! I don’t understand why people burden themselves with this? As it is life offers so many challenges. What Jim and me bring to each other is the support and strength to deal with these. Why should he burden himself with trying to control me and me him? And as for the idea of always being right, I wish people would understand that sometimes different people can have different views and opinions based on their life experiences and their way of thinking. When in disagreement, people can just talk through things and try to see things from the other’s viewpoint too. As I said before, if a common ground emerges, ok. If not, then ok too: unless it's really a deep conflict of values or ehics, once in a while a disagreement can just stay a disagreement. It's no big deal. We are not binary entities. It doesn’t have to be 1 or 0 every time. Life’s short. Why waste any of it creating unhappiness? Be happy!

Me: What you are saying about control is so correct Soo Jung. I think Indian families have been excessively patriarchal for a long time. Women in my country have had to to bear a lot. It’s a funny thing you know…we have a beautiful word for wife in my Mother tongue: Ardhaangini. It literally means half your being. People have forgotten that. Things are changing now though and I hope the future is better. I must add though that sometimes one sees the other extreme also in play. I think sometimes women end up treating their partners in a very manipulative manner. That is no good either. I don’t think a loss of balance on one side is any better than the other. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that the whole point of being with someone is that you are happy with them. The whole basis of a relationship is respect, love and trust. If these are there where is the cause for quarreling? And if these are not there why be with someone in the first place? That’s very beautifully and simply put Soo Jung, very beautifully and simply put.

Soo Jung (smiling): Thanks Brij. And balance is your keyword, isn’t it? You use that word very often in so many different contexts.

Me (smiling back): Absolutely Soo Jung, absolutely. I think pretty much everything in life is about finding the balance and keeping it. That’s key.

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14

In case you haven’t read chapters 12 and 13 I request you to please do so before reading the present chapter. It will provide the context for whatever I’m about to discuss and propose here. In chapter12, just search for the phrase "Humanity Challenge" and read from there. That will suffice for the present purpose.

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If you remember, I had put forward the idea of community run foster homes in the second half of chapter 12 wherein clusters of housing societies and neighbourhoods would collectively set up and manage foster homes that provide good living conditions, nutritious food, quality healthcare and education till a stage when the child becomes a responsible intelligent adult with a sound sense of self-worth and self-esteem and can integrate with the society at large and make it through life on his or her own. And during an individual’s years at such a foster home the members of the community managing it would befriend them, spend time with them, connect with them as human beings, counsel them in a manner that brings stability and clarity to their minds and hearts and inculcates a sense of confidence and self-respect in them.

Let me first clarify what I have in mind when I use the phrase “clusters of housing societies and neighbourhoods”. How large a set of people am I thinking of as belonging to a typical cluster?

I presently live in the Chittaranjan Park area of New Delhi which is also simply known as C. R. Park. I would peg the total population of C. R. Park at about 40000 residents. Structurally, it is organized in terms of about 19 blocks and pockets.

I would consider the entire C. R. Park area to be one such cluster.

An average contribution of only Rs. 100/- per month from each household (about 10000 of them if we assume about four people per household) would result in a net contribution of Rs. 1,20,00,000/- per year.

How many children and youth do we anticipate will stay in a foster home run by just the C. R. Park area? My guess would be no more than a hundred. With Rupees One Crore and Twenty Lakh available per year through a contribution of only Rs. 100/- per month from every household, can we not take care of these children really well?

Are you beginning to see what collective effort can achieve? Each finger may not be able to push aside poverty, helplessness and destitution from our society - but if the fingers curl together into a fist then I reckon we can pack quite a punch.

What about organizational and administrative aspects?

I think we can draw upon our knowledge of administrative structures in different organizations and bodies that we may already be familiar with and use what we think would work best. There may be different opinions on this and different clusters might use different organizational and administrative structures. I suggest one possibility that occurs to me keeping the block-pocket distribution of C. R. Park in mind:

Each block or pocket can nominate/elect an individual to be on the governing council of the foster home. This governing council can have a term of say three years and its members can elect a convener from amongst themselves to oversee the coordination and management details. The convenership can be on a yearly rotation so that the possibility of one person getting excessively fatigued with such a responsibility can be minimized. The governing council can also nominate individuals to oversee specific responsibilities such as accounts management, ensuring a sustained supply of utilities such as electricity, water and cooking fuel, running the kitchen, clothes provision, healthcare provision, education of children and youth staying at the foster home, etc. If the governing council so wishes, it can hire a small caretaking team that can stay at the home full time and interact with the governing council regularly.

This is one possible organizational structure that comes to my mind in the context of how one particular cluster that I am familiar with is organized. Needless to say, different clusters may implement different structures that work best for them. The main thing is to ensure that the goal of "providing good living conditions, nutritious food, quality healthcare and education till a stage when the child becomes a responsible intelligent adult with a sound sense of self-worth and self-esteem and can integrate with the society at large and make it through life on his or her own" is met. That's what's important at the end of the day no matter how we go about ensuring it happens.

Now for something that didn’t click in my mind till recently:

I believe it’s standard to think of foster homes and old age homes as separate entities that are designed to serve separate sets of people with their specific needs in mind. But think about this: Isn’t it a critical requirement in foster homes that there be grown up people who care for the children and youth staying there and guide them as they grow up? At the same time, wouldn’t it be nice if children and young people were present in old age homes to bring a sense of family to the senior citizens staying there?

Why not merge these two concepts into one? Change the title “community foster home” to “community home”. The community home would now house children and youth without parents as well as senior citizens with each set of people intermingling with the other and a spirit of caring for each other in place. Given their life circumstance, I would guess this spirit will come fairly easily. We can also explicitly discuss this aspect with the residents of the community home and make them understand the value of such a culture being in place.

I had put my guess on the number of children and youth staying at a home belonging to one cluster at being on more than a hundred. How many old people do you think would need to be cared for by any one such cluster?

There would be some who might be well off financially but would prefer to stay at such a community home instead of living independently (which would be understandable since it can sometimes be difficult to take care of oneself in old age) or with their children because they find the atmosphere in their homes oppressive or abusive. Such people would make the required financial contribution to enable their own stay. Their only requirement would be some amount of nursing and tending that sometimes becomes necessary in old age. And this requirement can be met to a large extent by the other residents of the community home themselves.

Then there might be some old people who just have nowhere to go. I see such people on the roads often, begging for a few rupees so that they can just get by their days somehow. I would once again peg the number of such people who would need to be accommodated in a community home being run by one cluster as being no more than a hundred.

If the above quoted net contribution of about Rs. 1,20,00,000/- per year falls short of what is required to care for a total of about two hundred old people and children and youth without their own families, maybe we can think of an average contribution of Rs. 200/- per household per month. That's still very very nominal and would add up to Rs. 2,40,00,000/- per year. I believe that will be more than enough for our purpose.

I reckon we have a good situation emerging, a very good situation: If we are willing to organize ourselves in clusters like this and share the overall responsibility I think we can ensure that not one child or youth grows up uncared for and feeling like an orphan and not one old person need feel abandoned and go through hardships in their old age.

Are you with me :) ? If you're feeling that all this is too new and are having doubts about whether it can be pulled off, just go over this chapter once again and mull over what I'm saying. Maybe I've got some numbers off and the figures need to be revised at places but I'm pretty sure that I'm zoning in nicely on the fact that such an effort is well within our reach. I think the only real challenge is being able to overcome whatever resistance we may be feeling in our minds.

What was it that John Lennon said once? "It's easy if you try..."
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15

“Hiya Marty!”, Jim called out to Ptom as we stepped into his office. That’s what many of Ptom’s friends in Chicago called him: Marty, short for Amartya.

Ptom: Hey Jim, How’s it going?

Jim: Doing good Marty, doing good. Soo Jung mentioned you were here with your friends and would drop in once you were done shopping.

Ptom: Yeah, she’s being very kind and getting our stuff bagged and billed while we chat. Let me introduce you to my friends who are visiting for the weekend. This is Shriram, that there is Ilan and this is Brij. Guys, this is Jim.

Jim: Hi guys, nice to meet y’all. So you’re here for the fest, eh?

Prosh (smiling): Yeah, and nice to meet you as well.

We all chatted about this, that and the other for a bit. The atmosphere was relaxed and we all felt at ease as we settled into our chairs and sipped on our coffees that Jim poured out for us. I no longer remember much of what we talked about that day but this was a quality that I remember having sensed in Jim right from that first time I met him. One would feel at ease with him right away. There was an alertness about him but it didn’t seem to be accompanied by any intent to make an impression, to come across as this or that, airs of any sort or defensiveness about anything. He was just naturally himself. I always enjoy meeting such people and talking with them.

The other thing that caught my attention within the first few minutes of entering his office were the books. Wall fulls of books, if there is a phrase like that. There were books on Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, Thermodynamics, Calculus, Topology and Algebra. There were also books on different philosophical and mystical systems. There were books by Descarte, Aristotle, Plato and Hume. There were also books on different schools of Buddhism. There were Upanishads and translations of all the four Vedas along with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and texts on higher states of consciousness written by Yogis, meditators and mystics. There were commentaries on different texts by Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya. Then there were books on literature – fiction as well as non fiction, prose as well as poetry. And this was in the office of a grocery store! My mind was completely blown away!

It was at another instance much later when I knew Jim well enough that I asked him the following question:

Say Jim, you have books that belong to completely different schools of thought. And you clearly have been reading them carefully. You yourself are pursuing a Physics degree and have a passion for the subject. But at the same time you seem to also hold an interest in the Upanishads, Vedas and Yoga philosophy and practice. Aren’t these conflicting ways of describing and understanding nature?

Jim (laughing): It doesn’t work like that Brij, at least not for me. Don’t you know that Schrodinger himself drew inspiration from the Upanishads during his work in the area of quantum mechanics? It’s all knowledge Brij. My way is this: I am curious about nature, about the universe I live in, about myself, my mind and my relation with my surroundings. And I keep myself open to pursuits of knowledge from different points of view. I read, I understand, I think, I practice Yoga and meditation. If there are connections between different schools of thoughts and viewpoints, I will see them for myself. If there aren’t and I need to choose one over the other at some stage then I will make that choice. No problem. But as of now I am a seeker. I am seeking truth. Why should I look through only some windows and not through others? In any case my ideal and goal is to be able to hold all of it together in my mind consciously and with awareness. Yes I am pursuing a degree in Physics right now, and I am enjoying the subject thoroughly. After that I might choose to get an advanced degree in Physics itself. Or I might move into mathematics and try and get a clearer grasp of the math that underlies a whole lot of theoretical physics. Or I might decide to move into Philosophy. You do know that science itself used to be called natural philosophy once, right? Or maybe I'll take up applied science and engineering. Applying knowledge to the benefit of humanity and the environment is something I deeply respect. So I’ll make the choice of what I want to study deeper when the time comes and based on my understanding and awareness then.

Just imagine having that conversation with someone who on the surface of it was simply someone who farmed and ran a grocery store. I was so inspired! I still carry that inspiration with me and try and follow Jim’s example as far as I can. Knowledge happens to be my fundamental pursuit too and Jim cleared up something basic for me that day. There really is no conflict as long as I stay alert and aware in my pursuit, keep myself sharp and questioning and keep moving forward with a quiet self confidence. I once heard in a talk that the word Guru is made of two parts: Gu (darkness) and Ru (the remover of). Jim certainly dispelled some darkness in that conversation and has been one of my Gurus in that sense.

I have observed recently that I don't tire of telling students in my classes to get excited about pursuing knowledge. I would give this advice to anyone without any hesitation: If you can, ignite the fire of knowledge within you. Ask deeper questions: Who are you? There is all this intelligence in you that you are able to use to understand things, navigate through life, overcome difficulties, make decisions. How does this intelligence function? So many thoughts and emotions arise in you. Where do they come from? Are you in charge of your life or are these tossing you around like a boat on a rough sea? What is the nature of your mind? You experience the world around you through your senses. What is the nature of this world, this universe? Become a seeker of truth. That will consolidate you and give you direction like nothing else.

You choose your principal path as per your interests: it could be science, it could be philosophy (science itself is a branch of philosophy called natural philosophy), it could be understanding the scriptures and contemplating over them, it could be Yoga and meditation, it could be music or dance (I don't know enough about music and dance forms from across the world to comment but I've been told that Indian classical music as well as dance can be, if interpreted and practiced correctly, paths towards self knowledge and not limited to forms of entertainment). Its your choice.

But at the same time respect other paths and stay open to learning from them. To not do so is shallow.

And remember that you can seek knowledge and truth regardless of the profession you practice to earn your livelihood. You might be a lawyer, a bureaucrat, a politician, a doctor, a nurse, a farmer, a businessman or businesswoman, a mechanic, a plumber, a carpenter, a tailor, a cobbler, an archeologist, a historian, a security guard, an auto or taxi driver: it doesn't matter. If Jim can seek knowledge and truth being a farmer and grocery shop owner, so can you and I. And once you are far enough in your journey (no stopping till you reach the goal!) and are able and inclined towards transmitting knowledge to others, by all means become a teacher or a professor.

As Swami Vivekananda once said: "Pleasure is not the goal of man, but knowledge". Its another matter that Knowledge perhaps bestows a magnitude of pleasure that perhaps nothing else can.

Finally, do I feel any conflict between the pure and applied aspects of knowledge? No I don't :). I'm comfortable with and interested in both. I'm digging deep and going after complete enlightenment but at the same time I also like to apply whatever I know to improve the human condition and make this planet a more beautiful, bountiful and purer place to live [which is different from working with a "profit at any cost" mentality - that's a level I have never stooped to and am committed to keep it that way].


Soo Jung walked in after a while and joined us.

Soo Jung: All your stuff bagged and stuffed in your backpacks guys. Here’s the bill Ptom. I’ve put the amount on your tab. You can go ahead and pay the total amount at the end of the month as usual.

Ptom: Thanks so much Soo Jung. This was really kind of you.

Soo Jung: Not a problem Ptom. You are very welcome. (Looking at us all) That’s quite a variety you guys have picked up today. So many different fruits and vegetables. You guys planning a feast?

Ptom: Yeah, I think we’re gonna lay out a big table today, what with so many chefs in the house. Come to think of it why don’t you two also join us? It’ll be fun.

Jim (smiling): Would’ve loved to Ptom, would’ve loved to. But will take a rain check on this one. It’s been a while since I took my missus out for a date. We’ve been so busy at the store and I’ve also been caught up with my studies a lot recently. So today I’m taking her out to the fest and then for dinner.

Married for years and raising three children, yet he could make Soo Jung go pink in her cheeks! She was smiling.

Ptom: Sure thing. You both have a wonderful evening. We’ll do something together another time. Say guys, should we head home? Sonali will be back soon and I guess we better throw together a light lunch by then. We can head to the fest earlier that way.

Ilan: Yeah, sounds good. (Turning to Jim and Soo Jung) It was really nice to meet you both. Hope we meet again some time. And thanks again Soo Jung.

Soo Jung: Don’t mention it. You guys have a great day. I’m sure we’ll meet again.

With that we said our goodbyes, picked up our backpacks on the way out and started our stroll towards home.

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16

It was about two in the afternoon when we stepped out to head to the festival. The sun was up and shining bright but Chicago being the windy city there was also a nice cool breeze coming in from Lake Michigan that adjoins it. All five of us were in good spirits and smiled, laughed and chit chatted about this, that and the other on the way.

We took the L (Chicago’s metro train service) to Washington (one of the stations served by the L in Chicago). Millenium Park, the venue for the annual blues festival, was only about a fifteen minute stroll from there.

If you’ve ever been to Chicago, you surely remember the street musicians. That’s quite something, isn’t it? From individual guitar players, saxophonists and singers to full groups with drums, bass, guitars and vocals belting out tunes right in the open and people actually stopping to either listen to them, or just for a moment to drop a dollar or two in their money collection boxes (which are sometimes just hats turned upside down!). Most of these musicians are actually pretty good and one often feels that for some a break to play in proper concerts and have a decent career in music is just around the corner.

I suppose one can view this street musician culture from two different viewpoints. One could feel that it’s a bit unfortunate that there aren’t enough venues for musicians to play in a more consolidated manner instead of making it happen at the street level. On the other hand I suppose its also true that there are perhaps always going to be more aspiring musicians and artists than venues for them to display their art and talent. From this viewpoint, I think its completely to the credit of the city administration, the musicians themselves, and most of all the people who take the time to appreciate and encourage the musicians, that this culture is being sustained. It creates an opportunity for musicians to sustain themselves as they work towards getting a better break, which in turn ensures that an active pursuit and appreciation of music itself continues to thrive.

Actually music (and art in general) are fairly strongly emphasized in the american culture. The story I’m telling right now revolves around one particular edition of the annual blues festival at Chicago. Chicago also holds an annual jazz festival every year. And these are not just features of Chicago. If you do a web search on blues and jazz festivals in america, you will find that many different cities have these. But once again, it must be emphasized that music doesn’t come alive there only in festivals. Pretty much every single city and town, no matter how small, has venues where musicians perform regularly and people collect to enjoy their performances. And not just blues, jazz or rock. Classical music is emphasized as well. There are venues where symphonies and orchestras play regularly. Even this is not the complete story. Most, if not all, universities (and they have a very large number of good universities - there must be at least a thousand good universities across that country) have a thriving school of music where students train to become professional musicians and composers in different styles and forms. Their pursuit of a career in music is not valued any less than careers in science, technology, medicine or law. That country and its people recognize the importance of art, the beauty and benediction it brings in society and life, and ensure that art thrives.

This must have been true at some point in time in our part of the world as well. Else what else explains the rich legacy of Hindustani classical and Carnatic music that has been bequeathed to us? The sheer variety of musical instruments that developed and evolved here: SitarSarodEsrajRudra VeenaTanpuraBansuriShehnaiSarangiSantoorTablaPakhavajVeenaGottuvadhyam and many more (https://www.swarganga.org/instrumentbase.php). It may be interesting to spend some time on a platform such as youtube when you get a moment and explore compositions and performances that have stemmed from our heritage.

Not just music: Art must have thrived here in various other forms as well. Dance comes to mind right after music: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_classical_dance. Then sculpture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sculpture_in_South_Asia): The next time you go to one of the older temples that are still standing (and there are many of them, here are some: http://www.indiatimes.com/culture/travel/13-beautiful-ancient-temples-in-india-that-will-take-you-back-in-time-231535.html) take a moment to appreciate the intricacy of sculpture on display there. I think we had taken sculpture as an art form to magnificent heights. Painting and fine art too: our legacy on this front is perhaps most visible today on fabric.

I believe we need to recover this spirit of artistic expression. Yes there are classical music festivals that happen in India too (here are some: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Indian_classical_music_festivals). But I do not feel that this is nearly enough. An appreciation of the finer aspects of culture and life has to soak into our very personas and the fabric of our society. This will only happen if we engage with music and musicians, art and artists, regularly. And while listening to the radio or the gigabytes of mp3 / mp4 files that we have downloaded and stored on our computers or enjoying music on platforms such as youtube does serve to maintain some connect, I do not believe this can ever replace the experience of live music. That is something quite different and I believe central to keeping music as a human aspiration, expression and appreciation alive. So with theatre, so with poetry sessions, so with art galleries.

That would be my central emphasis: we need to have venues in each and every city, town and village which feature regular music performances (light as well as classical, eastern as well as western), dance recitals (classical as well as popular, eastern as well as western), theatre shows, poetry sessions and fine art and sculpture exhibitions and we go to enjoy and appreciate these. This will (a) give an impetus to artists and their art and bring them a much needed economic sustenance and (b) create more avenues for us to step out, connect with the community around us and celebrate life.

Yes, for this to happen in a sustainable manner, which in turn requires that it be economically feasible for the artists, we have to be willing to spend money to buy tickets for these performances and exhibitions. For most of us this requires but a small mindset shift. It has been my observation that many of us are fairly comfortable shelling out cash for material goods: expensive hotel and restaurant food, designer clothes, cars and jewellery but are very very hesitant to spend money towards appreciating the finer things life has to offer. I may be wrong but I think this in turn starts reflecting in our personalities and the overall quality of life we live. A shallowness of thought, emotion and spirit creeps in and one lives a relatively coarse life instead of living with grace and sensitivity. It is my feeling that engaging regularly with art and finer aspects of life can start restoring us to a more balanced mindset and life. So in a sense the money we spend will not just ensure that artists and musicians are able to earn a livelihood while practising their art but will also feed back into increasing the quality of our lives and minds as well.

[I need to make a note here that I believe is fairly important: While I'm emphasizing that we need to take a cue from the americans and their appreciation of art and culture and take steps to rejuvenate the same in our country, I believe they have made one mistake (which we might have made too at some point in the past), which is this: a lot of musicians there get into drugs and alcohol and often destroy themselves. Many of their fans take themselves down the same road since their idols are doing it and end up wasting their potential. You will find a strong presence of alcohol in most venues that feature regular performances of blues / jazz / rock music. I think we can and should avoid this pitfall. We need to break this link. When we go to enjoy music, whether it be film and popular songs in different Indian languages or folk music or ghazals or Indian classical or blues or jazz or rock or western classical, let our appreciation be derived directly and fully from the music itself instead of necessitating the presence of alcohol or drugs alongside. I think that will lead to a far richer and deeper appreciation of music and our enjoyment of it will be cleaner and healthier. Music has the power to move us and bring us bliss by itself - anyone who has loved and appreciated music knows this.]

We came across some pretty good street musicians that afternoon as we made our way to Millenium Park. My personal favourite was a guitar player with a double neck guitar who was quietly finger tapping away Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” – his right hand tapping the chords and rhythms on one of the necks while his right hand tapped out the melody on the other – when we reached him. He had recorded cassettes with his guitar playing that he was selling for a nominal price. I bought one when we were ready to move on. What talent!

[Talking about the artistic aspect of our cultural heritage, I think we took culinary skills and food to the level of an art form as well, no less. The sheer variety of dishes in this country and the intricacy with which they are cooked is simply mind boggling. Plus it is my impression that many of the herbs and spices we use don’t just provide flavour and aroma – they are good for us as well. Perhaps they have medicinal value; maybe we’ll find more information regarding this in Ayurveda. This is not to say that we need to approach this topic and believe everything blindly. But why shouldn’t we look into things, on a case to case basis if necessary, and appreciate and persist with whatever good we may find? But the way we are going, how long do you think before we are overwhelmed on this front by burgers, pizzas, sandwiches and diet coke?]

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17

We found ourselves immersed in music and celebration from the moment we stepped into Millenium Park that Saturday afternoon.

Millenium Park is a fairly large and very well maintained recreational park. The organizers had set up four stages of which there were three relatively small ones that featured a variety of bands through the afternoon while the fourth larger stage was dedicated to feature performances in the evening. Ruth Brown was scheduled to perform a little after eight in the evening that day at the large stage and we were all eager to see and hear her perform. But there was a whole lot of music to be appreciated before that and the five of us were happy campers.

The different stages were set up sufficiently apart from each other to ensure that the sound emanating from any one did not interfere with the performances underway at the others. I suppose this also had to do with the directions in which the stages faced and the volume levels maintained at each stage. One could thus enjoy a performance at any one stage thoroughly for as long as one wished and walk over to another whenever one wanted to check another band out.


Homesick James (a slide guitar player; and yes, that must've been his nickname :)) and Henry Townsend (singer, guitarist and  pianist) came up on one of the stages about when we reached. Here are a couple of songs by them that you may enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kl7d2bJU5nwhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsBIivmINQI. We leaned back in our seats and enjoyed listening to these two gentlemen for a while. This was perhaps the realest (I know I'm just coining a word but its apt) blues I'd heard, and not on a CD or cassette tape, but live and straight from two old blues men.

Meanwhile, Deitra Farr was singing on another stage with Johnny Rawls accompanying her and we wanted to listen to them too. So after a while we got up quietly, gave Homesick James and Henry Townsend an imaginary tip of the hat, and made our way there.

Here you go, here's a Deitra Farr song for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPPNsuCVT08.

She can sing, yes? And it would be something to see her live, yes? Live music rocks, yes? That's what I keep telling folks. We need to take the live music scene in our country to the next level.

Sure we can have live blues and rock n' roll. I would enjoy that and I reckon you would find me at many such performances. I reckon discovering good blues and rock n' roll bands in India would be a journey in itself. Here's a live performance by Soulmate from Shillong that you may enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjGVp3JgvAs. Then there is Shakti that has worked for years on fusing Jazz with Indian classical music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p71QK5TZDCc. Here's another composition by them featuring Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdkhdICB3kc.

But what I'm also keen on seeing is a greater thrust to live performances of music that are outright indigenous. Indian classical music may come to mind first when I say this but my focus is also on folk music (and dance). Here's an example of a folk song from Rajasthan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6igYlWqhm-U. Here's one with music and dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PofLuZJxkVQ. Here's another song from Rajasthan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrgqkHUJtsg. Here's some Punjabi folk music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RT2mSmNjOZ0. And some dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgAF3O6layA.

I'm giving examples of folk music and dance from the northern part of India because that is where I hail from and this is what I'm more familiar with. But I have no doubt that there is a very rich texture of folk music and dance to be found no matter where one goes in India. And what I'm talking about is bringing all this art forward through regular live performances across the country. Maybe some folk musicians and dancers have already adapted to the modern day performance paradigm. Maybe some will need a little assistance. And maybe for some we agree to meet half way. But in every city, town and village: let there be regular performances of Indian folk music and dance. It will not only help in bringing these artists up and these art forms thriving again but also give us opportunities to step out in the evenings, interact with other people in our communities and celebrate our lives.

That would be something, wouldn't it?

But yes, as I said in the last chapter as well, for this to happen in a sustainable manner, which in turn requires that it be economically feasible for the artists, we have to be willing to spend money to buy tickets for these performances. For most of us this requires only a small mindset shift. We simply have to be as willing to spend on the finer things in life as we perhaps are for spending on material goods: expensive hotel and restaurant food, designer clothes, cars and jewellery.

But coming back to the blues festival for now :)...Deitra Farr was singing with Johnny Rawls accompanying her. Here's some Johnny Rawls for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9iKIZUkbTc.

There was another old school blues musician, David "Honeyboy" Edwards playing that afternoon. We decided to go listen to him for a while before heading to the large stage for that evening's feature performances. Here's one by him for you. He's the grandpa in the center and was 94 years old when this was recorded. That's some spirit eh?

Here goes...enjoy:


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18

The evening program at the main stage started with a performance by Carey Bell who specialized in playing the Blues Harmonica. Here, give him a listen :) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzIixtNFQT8. Carey Bell performed for over an hour mesmerizing us with song after song. I had no idea that a simple harmonica could be made to sound that good and one could do so much with it. It was just amazing to sit there and listen to him and the band backing him (which of course was awesome too!). He got quite an ovation when he completed his set, and yes, we had him back for an encore before we allowed him to take his bow.

Carey Bell was followed by two more greats, Texas Johnny Brown (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6MxGH7H5mM) and Olu Dara (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1N9hhVzuQg) before Ruth Brown took stage.

Ruth Brown, sometimes known as the Queen of R&B, was AWESOME that night. You want to see some A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E? Here, have a listen, that's the Queen singing with the King himself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfuQ4ZF0nF4. Here's one of her performances with Bonnie Raithttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fADIumYD4Tw. And here she is again with Bonnie Rait and James Brown: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3ly3tgsxFI.

Ms. Brown (gotta stay respectful to the Queen!) belted out number after number that night in that big booming soulful voice of hers. I had never heard the blues being sung that way and was completely blown away. And it wasn't just me. She had the whole audience under her spell for the entire hour and a half or so that she sang. We must have brought her back on stage two or three times for encores before we finally allowed her to end her performance and left our seats.

Ruth Brown was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993. Here's her acceptance speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y75T7qC1FY.

The next day was no less entertaining. We saw a bit of Michael Roach and Jerry Ricks, listened to Kelly Joe Phelps on the slide guitar and enjoyed some more old school blues with Robert Jr. Lockwood before joining the audience at the main stage in the evening. Jim and Soo Jung joined us after a while. It was good to see them again and we were happy that we got a chance to wish them well and say goodbye before we headed back to West Lafayette the next morning. Together we saw the vocal-guitar duo of Nolan Struck & King EdwardToni Lynn Washington and Tyrone Davis.

By the time we reached Ptom and Sonali's house on Sunday night the five of us were "blues saturated" (in a very good sense!). We were in calm, good spirits and wound down as we sat around, sipped on hot lemon tea and chatted with each other. We didn't stay up too late as everyone needed to start fairly early the next day, particularly Prosh, Lan and myself as we had to drive back to West Lafayette, return the car at the rental agency and get to the university in good time.

The drive back was really nice. There was very little traffic since we started quite early and the early morning breeze felt nice and fresh. We rolled down the windows and put in a CD. I don't remember who we were listening to now but maybe it was B. B. King and Lucille singing The Thrill is Gone.

I reckon Lan must have noticed that my mind was still at the blues festival. True to form, he chirped a question at me with a grin and a glint in the eye: Say Brij, Don't you have a meeting with your advisor in the afternoon? The punk!

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Epilogue

I hope you have enjoyed reading this mini novel as much as I've enjoyed writing it. Please do share it. It will help me get across my effort at writing to more readers who may enjoy it.

Here's sharing some thoughts as I put the pen down on this story:

Whether it is the blues, or rock n' roll, or jazz, or folk music, or the opera, or ghazals, or light Indian music, many songs are about love based on sexuality. I suppose that is only natural since sexual attraction and the manner in which the masculine and feminine aspects are drawn towards and complement each other is perhaps one of the stronger pulls many experience in their lives. Yet there is something that worries and troubles me and I would like to talk about it a bit as I bring this mini novel to a close.

It seems that some people are entering relationships at early ages nowadays. By early I mean in schools and the beginning years of college life. I do not wish to lay a morality based sermon on anyone but rather simply appeal to the common sense that I believe is innate in everyone.

There is something called "adulthood" that we all recognize and are aware of. There is a certain psycho-physio-logical development that needs to happen in our minds and bodies before we can call ourselves adults. Reaching this stage is essential if one is to appreciate the intimacy between lovers in its true sense. And this development takes its time. It cannot be hurried. If one enters a sexual relationship before this development has consolidated in their being, one risks either being overwhelmed by it or trivializing it to an extent that it may become difficult to appreciate and have a fulfilling relationship later in life. Worse, one can get emotionally and psychologically disturbed and this can take a long time to heal later. Sex and intimacy are not just plain physical acts and neither do relationships have to be just about responding to the highs and lows of emotions. Viewed in the right spirit, these lead to a communion between two human beings that can be very beautiful and deep. But one has to arrive at a certain stage of life within for this to happen first.

Your school and college years are for you to grow as individuals and consolidate yourselves. Use these years to understand yourselves, gain a mastery over your minds and emotions and consolidate your personalities. If this doesn't happen, if you are not consolidated within as a mature individual, where is the question of you actually relating with another individual in a meaningful manner?

As someone I have deeply respected over the years said once: In a relationship one expects that half and half will make one but it seems like today half and half makes one fourth! I would take that one step further. I think often half and half simply cancel out and arrive at a zero.

Isn't this what we are seeing around us? I think one significant reason for this is that people have not paid attention to and spent their younger years in growing in wisdom and maturity themselves.

Alongside, discover your callings and nurture them. Resolve to aspire for excellence in whatever subjects or pursuits you feel passionate about. It may be science or mathematics, or history, or art, or music, or sports, or law, or medicine. Focus your energies and attention in whichever direction you wish to grow in and develop the momentum that will propel you towards trying to attain a mastery of it in your lives. Your school and college days are precious from this viewpoint. This time and the levels of energy you carry with you now will never come back. Use these years very very sensibly.

And when you are consolidated, when you are clear about and focused on your goals, when you are grown up, wise and mature, and feel that having a companion would make your life and the journey through it more beautiful, by all means go for it! If you and your partner enter a relationship or marriage with a developed wisdom and maturity, chances are that you will have a fulfilling relationship. May it be so for you, may you be happy and may you sing many a song for each other.

But then sometimes things don't work out the way we want them to despite all our best intentions and efforts. This is where my emphasis on being clear about your individual focus and a commitment to aspiring for excellence in subjects or pursuits of your choice comes into play. If you develop this clarity when you are young, you will be able to handle the downs of life that much better. So if things are not working out for you and your partner or spouse despite your best efforts, well, sometimes one has to let go and accept that sadness also comes around once in a while in life. Let go when you know you've given it your best and its time to let go, sing yourself a few blues songs, and then move on...

I wish you the very best in all aspects of your life! Do not stop short of complete enlightenment! As one of my favorite personalities, Swami Vivekananda, once said:

"Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached."

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