The War Of The Skies

I am a self declared AvGeek, or at the very least an AvEnthusiast, if there was one.

I used to consult for a living several years ago. It meant taking a flight out of my home airport (CLE at the time) every Monday morning and returning late Thursday night. Did it over and over and over for a few years.

Airports and air travel can quickly get boring unless you develop a hobby. So I did. The AvEnthusiast hobby, where one can recognize airline tails, their livery, aircraft types (and their variations) etc. Which basically means I can tell a 777-300ER from a 777-200LR.

So when the war broke out, it piqued my interest. Yes, the war. The war between the US Big Three and the Middle East Big Three.

For the uninitiated,

US Big Three (US3) = American, Delta and United

Middle East Big Three (ME3) = Emirates, Etihad and Qatar

The two have been at it for several years now, squabbling like boys in a schoolyard.

At the heart of the matter is international traffic to/from the US (and in some cases, EU). The US3 claim that the ME3 get government grants/bailouts which let’s them survive and prosper. They accuse the ME3 of unfair practices, underpaying their employees, violating fifth freedom rights (more on freedoms of the air) and so on. There’s a litany of accusations. Leading the tirade is Delta, and its CEO Ed Bastian.

The ME3, of course, refute all allegations. They laugh at all claims of government assistance and accuse the US3 of running inferior operations, while extolling their own newer infrastructure and aircraft. Some of their executives have snickered at the product being offered by the US3, saying it is sub-par and not up to international standards.

Let’s focus on that last item – the product. Airlines offer hard and soft products. The equipment (aircraft), the seats on offer in the different classes, their lounges etc. form the hard product. The service provided (on ground and in air) is the soft product.

The last time I flew the US3 on a long haul was in September 2014. As a disclaimer, I have to say this was before Delta’s Delta One (DO) and United’s Polaris (UP) J-class products. I haven’t flown those products since their launch.

That year I traveled internationally four times, 3 trips to India and one to Bucharest, Romania, all on different airlines. I flew Emirates (EK), Lufthansa (LH), Austrian (OS), Delta (DL) and Qatar (QR) on my international flights. All, except EK was in J class, pretty much each airline’s premier product (EK and QR offer F class which I won’t go into). Since 2014, I have traveled exclusively on EK’s J class several times on their 777s.

I have to say the ME3 executives are absolutely right in their assessment of the product on offer by US3. DL’s soft and hard products left much to be desired. The 777-200LR they used on the DXB route (the route has since been discontinued) was old and dare I say, rickety. The herringbone seating arrangement, with each seat having aisle access, was the only thing to write home about. The seats felt old, the TV console kept falling out, one of the seat functions didn’t work. When you pay premium price, you expect premium product. Specially on a 14+ hour flight.

What left me pissed was the soft product. The service was ordinary. The flight attendants were hit or miss. The food was OK. The worst part, they ran out of bread about 3 hours before landing. How can you run out of food in J class? When asked, the flight attendant said, “we’ll be landing in a couple of hours so hang on”. WTF? You don’t pay $4K for a plane ticket to be told to wait three hours for food.

Contrast this with EK or QR (let’s leave the European carriers alone for now). EK sends a chauffeur for pick up and drop off if you’re traveling J or higher class. Nice gesture. Their flight attendants are smiling and willing to serve all the time. When you go talk to them in the galley they’re willing to listen and talk, something DL’s FAs seemed reluctant to, with their one word answers and a general ‘keep away’ disposition. EK’s seemed to love their jobs. They are from all over the world, and live in Dubai, far from their homes. Yet they seemed happy with their work.

As for the hard product, EK and QR leave US3 in the dust. Although to give them the benefit, they’re relatively young. Which means their aircrafts are young. But their cabins exude a freshness that was missing in DL. I have to say QR’s was the best, even better than EK. The In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) at both EK and QR is awesome, offering hundreds of movies and TV shows. Their TV screens are large. Again, I haven’t flown DO or UP.

Their lounges are a-mazing! Large, airy and modern, the business class lounges at both DXB and DOH are a welcome bliss, compared to the small, cramped ones at US airports. The Admiral Club lounge at JFK (which I used while flying out on QR) seemed trashy in comparison. I mean, this is JFK. How can your international lounge be so shitty?

I wish to see US3 compete with ME3 on a level playing field. I believe government assistance is eventually detrimental to any private organization. So if ME3 is unfairly benefitting from their governments, US3 have reason to complain. But at the same time, I would like to see better products from US3. People turn away from your product. They don’t care much about your complaints or concerns. So fix your product first.

On Jul 13, 2017 Delta (Nasdaq: DAL) posted a $1.89 billion pre-tax income.  Which is a good chunk of change. I wish they invest in their service offerings. I wish they took a long, hard look at their product and did some honest introspection. Modernize your equipment (seriously, get rid of those MD-88s), invest in infrastructure, refresh your cabins, rebuild your lounges if you have to, have the FAs smile – genuinely.

You build it, we’ll come back!

The Case Against Minimum Wage Hike

Before you brand me as anti-labor, back off!

All across the country there’s a big movement, to increase minimum wage (MW) across the board. Several states have enacted laws to make a big jump – from 10% to 100% – spread  over the next few years. Unsurprisingly, California is at the forefront, with a schedule to raise it to $15.00 by 1/1/2022.

I understand the need to increase MW. I totally do. Wages haven’t kept pace with inflation over the years. The MW earners have the same right to basic needs as the rest of the world. All that is great. But there’s another side to this coin. Nobody wants to look at that side.

Let’s first see what industry the majority of MW earners belong to: Retail. Most retail is small business. Small business has been struggling for several years now, under onslaught from technology and eCommerce. The margins have shrunk exponentially in the 21st century. Most consumers do not notice it, because prices haven’t gone up commensurately. Business owners are loathe to increasing prices. It drives customers away. They would rather take a hit on the margin than raise product prices.

Case in point: Third-Party Delivery Vendors (TDV), like UberEATS or GrubHub. TDVs charge up to 30% commission on every order, from the business. Let’s say I am a restaurant owner selling a sandwich combo for $9.99. You come in for a takeout, pay $9.99+tax and leave. If you order that through a TDV, $3.00 goes to them. See the problem? I could raise my pricing on UberEATS. But will you pay $13.00 for that same sandwich combo that costs $9.99 in the store? Thought so!

How is this related to MW hike? Well, labor is a variable cost. Standard labor expenses in retail is between 30 and 35 percent. This, at a time when the Federal MW is $7.25. Increase that to $10 or $15, do the math and calculate the labor expenses for a business. It’ll make it impossible for small businesses to survive.

Now let’s look at your typical MW worker. Who is he or she? Why do they take up this retail job? What’s in it for them?

Traditionally, these were ‘stepping stone’ jobs. College students, looking to pay their living expenses working part time. People looking to learn a few skills and move up, make a life for themselves. Find a corporate job, start a business etc. The whole idea was that these jobs were temporary for the workers. Not many were interested in making a career out of these jobs. They didn’t come with any benefits. Unfortunately due to social, economic and political reasons these jobs have now become more permanent.

Most of the times these temp workers went on to take up a job at a manufacturing unit, thus setting themselves on a path to a career: shop floor technician to lead to manager to hopefully one day a plant manager, or even a corporate executive. Or, they went on to become retail managers, again setting themselves on a more stable career path within the industry. The decline in manufacturing in the US hurt MW workers dearly.

On the other hand, giant retail companies started offering benefits even for temporary and MW jobs, lulling the workforce into being quite happy working as a barista or a burger flipper.

I am not implying these jobs are any ‘smaller’. As a student at Cleveland State, I have been a busboy, a newspaper delivery person, a parking lot attendant, a clothing retail worker and some more. I know and understand the significance of these jobs.

Let’s now look at the other side of the counter. From our scenario before, if MW increases to $15 from the current $7.25, as a restaurant owner I am left with two options.

One, automation: To quote Mark Watney from The Martian, business owners will “science the shit out of this”. You’ll see automation from order taking to delivery systems. Requires tremendous initial investment but the equipment will pay itself off in a few years. Automation Industry 1, MW Workers 0. Game over! (Ever thought why big tech companies push for MW raise?)

Two, price increases. The business owner raises his prices by 10-25 percent to offset his costs. Problem is, his customers’ salaries won’t go up 10-25% over the same time period. As a result, discretionary spending is slowed/stopped. End result, the business closes down eventually. Oh, what happens to the MW workers when businesses shut down? My guess is they won’t have jobs.

Business owners understand the struggles of MW workers. They really do. They need to be involved in any far reaching regulation about wage increase. Their interests need to be taken into account. Somehow they are made out to be the villains in this. They are not. Work with them. Maybe lower taxes. Work with the landlords to lower their real estate taxes, thus enabling lower rents. It’s all about adjustment.

Any unilateral wage increase statue will only end up being a disaster for everyone.

The Roller Coaster Experience

I am not a big roller coaster person. I can get on some of those benign ones (OK you can call them kiddie coasters) but if it’s anything like the Hulk ride at Universal I stay away. I just don’t feel I need to get my heart rate up that high. I am a runner. My heart rate’s just fine thank you very much! But I do enjoy the ones I ride. I think it’s worth the thrill.

A trip to India gets you a similar experience. Almost everything about this country is unpredictable: the people, the traffic, the weather (more about that later), the punctuality (ahem!). The whole package is one wild ride.

It starts at the airport. You stand behind the line at immigration, eagerly awaiting to get past the dim ambience and the depressing officer, get your luggage, get in that ride and see your family members. You are the next person to be called. And suddenly, much like the roller coaster’s hard-right turn, a large “connected” family is escorted to the officer by an airport employee. Your blood pressure rises, but everybody else is enjoying so why bother.

Having been used to the very loose concept of timeliness in India, you think when someone says they’ll meet you at 8:30 he really means 10am. So imagine your surprise when at 8:20 he calls you and says, “Sir I am outside the gate”. Just like when you start to think “oh how many more curves and drops” on a coaster but it slowly arches around the corner for you to see the station, much to your relief and leaving you with the thought, “this ain’t so bad, we can do this”

When you’re driving on the highway at 80-100 kmph and you see a truck perpedicular to the road, poised to cross, the driver looking left and right, as if to wait until the high speeders pass. But you know deep inside that his mind and his foot are on different continents, because his truck is moving barrelling forward without a care in the world. If you didn’t know any better, you would crash into him head on at 60-80kmph. Much like on a roller coaster where you can see a dead end or broken tracks and we’re hurtling towards it, only to stop within inches.

Your friends want to hang out and down a few cold ones (with temps in low 40s, you won’t mind a lot of those ‘few’). You end up at this scruffy looking building, thinking “Huh! This is modern India?”. But when you enter the restaurant it’s so cool inside it’ll put some of the best bars in Manhattan to shame. And the food hits it out of the park. Similar to the rickety coaster you fear getting on, but leave thrilled enough to want to go back.

Finally, the people. You come across these saintly people you would want to worship. And then you find these  douchebags who are only alive because it’s illegal to kill them. No really, I want an open discussion on that law. It’s like on the coaster, one minute you’re climbing up the rails, viewing a different perspective of the world, and plummeting down the next, blood rushing to your head.

One thing’s for sure. There’s never a dull moment in this country.

The Magnum Opus

I finally watched Bahubali – The Conclusion (BB-2) this weekend, a little more than two weeks after it hit the screens worldwide.

My first reaction on exiting the theater – wow!

But this is not a post about the technical aspects of the movie, or how a regional film family pulled off the greatest commercial hit in the history of Indian cinema. Just do a google search on Bahubali and you’ll get reams and reams of content on that.

This is purely my reaction to, and opinion on the finished product.

To be honest, I was suspect about this movie. Not its success – the hype-meisters had taken care of it long before its release. But in general I am a bit circumspect about Indian period movies – real or fiction. I am yet to watch one that blows my mind. And yes, that includes BB-2. They usually tend to tip the balance: either grossly underwhelming or extremely over the top. Great visuals are crippled by a weak story. Great stories are corrupted by visuals unabashedly ripped-off from Hollywood or downright atrocious stunts and action sequences: we’re obsessed with one man shows than collaborative efforts. And yes, BB-2 suffers from this malaise as well.

There’s also a problem with the ‘critical’ viewer in India (including yours truly). We watch Hollywood movies quite extensively. Our bar is set higher, hence. Inevitable comparisons follow. It is easily forgotten that Hollywood has the benefit of decades of advanced CGI technology and a highly mature industry. Its audience is different too, more discerning and a lot more educated. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t even be comparing BB-2 with any Hollywood movie. It would be wrong on my part.

I looked at it purely from a layman Indian’s perspective. Someone that is not fortunate enough, or doesn’t have access to these foreign blockbusters. To such people, this movie is mind-blowing.

The average Indian movie-goer absolutely loves superhero actions; I suspect there are deeper (and worrying) psychological connotations behind this but that’s for another day. BB-2 more than gratifies them in this regard. The visuals are out of the world. Undoubtedly the best I’ve seen among Indian movies.

The story is tight as well – standard Indian masala but woven very well. All the nava-rasas are present from love to sex to valor to revenge. The actors acted out of their skin: the fierce but vulnerable Ramya Krishna, evil-personified Rana, the loyal Satyaraj, the defiant Anushka and of course the main protagonist: Prabhas. Kudos to all of them.

Where I really found a problem in this movie is the pace. It may not be the maker’s fault but BB-2 fails in this regard. Let’s break the story down into 2 parts: the flashback and the avenging. The flashback takes up almost 80-85% of the movie, leaving very little time for the son to avenge his father. The last 30 minutes of the movie goes at such a frenetic pace that it seems rushed, like a mad sprint to the finish-line in a marathon, if you pardon my running analogy.

I distinctly remember looking at my watch a couple of times, well into the second half and thinking “We’ve still not killed Amarendra Bahubali. When are we getting the retribution?”. I believe the director got so engrossed in trying to exalt the father, and thus generate the sympathy for his death, that he overlooked the fact that there’s a son out there waiting to kill the conspirators.

I hear Mr. Rajamouli is considering making the Mahabharata into a movie. I look forward to it. To me, as to many Indians, the Mahabharata is the greatest story ever written (sorry Tolkien, Lucas and Rowling). In order to bring that to life, his pacing needs to be spot on.

Back to BB-2, to me the best and worst parts of the movie were:

Best: The coronation setting and sequence. Such exquisite execution

Worst: The angry bird parallel at the end with soldiers bundled up and catapulted into the fortress from palm trees. Seriously! WTF?

The American Telugu Polarization

I’ve been living here in the United States for close to a quarter century, having arrived here less than a year into the Bill Clinton presidency. I was received at the Cleveland airport by a Bengali man, roomed up with a Mumbaikar for the initial few days and leased a rental studio with a Kannadiga.

Eventually, when we moved out of the studio apartment six months after, I had an all-Telugu set of roomies. The most amazing thing about the time that followed was the absence of that one social evil that plagues India more than anything else – casteism.

We never asked each other’s castes or made friendships based on last names. We were just a bunch of students away from their home country, come together for a common purpose – finish your Master’s, find a job and make it count.

Personally I have avoided caste like it was the plague. I was raised in a household that scowled at any discussion on caste, even though on occasion elders betrayed their preferences. Growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Hyderabad, and having friends that didn’t give a damn about my caste (or that of the others) laid a solid anti-caste foundation in me long before I landed on a Lufthansa 747 at Boston’s Logan on a chilly December evening in 1993.

Fast forward to 2017. Over the past 10-15 years there has been a massive influx of techie Telugus to the States. The inflow brought with it some much needed respite to India-starved long term residents: Indian grocery stores, restaurants, jewelry stores, temples, even specialty shops selling everything from furniture to beauty products to clothing. Some of the immigrants jumped into entrepreneurship, increasing the number of Indian-owned businesses. All in all, it was great for the economy in general, and fantastic for the Indian diaspora, which forms 1% of the American population.

Within the Indian Telugu community though, things soured. I’m not sure this happened with other Indian sub-cultures. Polarization based on region (Andhra vs Telangana) and caste (Kamma vs Reddy vs Velama vs You-Name-It) began finding its roots in cities with large Telugu populations. Multiple cultural organizations, split along caste lines, started dividing communities. The most vicious of these happened when a landmark split took place back in the homeland in 2014.

The formation of Telangana as a separate brought a cataclysmic change to the Telugu community in the US. Neighbors got alienated, friends grew apart and groups began to form contesting the merits and harms of the split. People that have lived in the US for ages, and that lost all connection with the home state began to fight for or against the split. Cracks appeared even in tiny, clean cultural organizations creating chasms that never existed.

I know. I’ve seen it first hand.

In a small city like ours, the lines have been drawn. Get-togethers are now parochial, conversations are petty and harmony has gone the way of the dodo. Mini-Andhras with all the evils are being formed, and cultivated, much to the community’s detriment.

It’s sad. But it’s true. And there’s no going back.

The only silver lining is that (hopefully) this evil will be contained amongst first-generation immigrants.

You can take an Indian out of India but you can’t take India out of an Indian.

The H1B Damage

I have to put up two disclaimers before starting this post:

  1. If you’re an Indian person offended by my opposition to the H1B program, don’t read further. Get out!
  2. What I write below does not apply to everyone. You know who you are.

The H1B program was instituted to bring in some the super-skilled, extremely talented, smart individuals to help out businesses in this country.

Every nation faces some resource crunch or the other from time to time. Wealthy nations face it more. They usually have a thriving economy, businesses ringing in profits quarter after quarter, products being released in a hurry but unable to push the R&D required to keep pace with development. The US has long had such requirement in various fields, mostly engineering related: automotive, industrial, construction and lately, computer science and information technology.

The candidates who are foreign nationals and otherwise not legally allowed to work in the US, usually have advanced engineering (or other) degrees, giving them the ability to analyze and solve complex problems. Most of the original H1Bs were foreign students who studied in US colleges for their degrees and went on to find a job to apply the knowledge they obtained.

That was how it was, until the turn of the last century. Some time in the late 90s and early 00s the game changed. Silicon Valley required hundreds of thousands of such people as technology leaped from its industrial confines into our homes. In order to build these amazing gadgets software companies needed programmers. With the education system in the US already on a downward spiral, it was much easier (and cheaper) to bring people from foreign countries to do the programming work for us.

Problem is, some of the companies entrusted with the job of finding the talent began to circumvent the rules. They brought in less deserving candidates using fake experience, and sometimes faking the candidates themselves in to this country. We ended up with tens of thousands of truly undeserving candidates learning on the job. They do a good job at work. It’s outside of the work that the damage happened.

Undeserving candidates, several of whom come from socially reckless backgrounds invaded the American society. These people usually pay no attention to culture, following rules or adapting to customs. Having come from generally underprivileged background back in their home country, they would splurge on cars, homes and other gadgets with their nouveau-riche status here in the US. It resulted in an unusual bloating of prices, culminating in the housing bubble that left everyone in the lurch. They may not be the single most reason behind the bubble, but their contribution is unmistakeable.

It has also resulted in a general soft-corner towards illegal immigration. See, if you are an undeserving candidate yourself, you’re more likely to condone an immigrant who just walked in without papers, rather than the righteous individual who earned his keep.

Another damage being constantly done to the American society – and one of my pet peeves – is the lack of assimilation. I could go on and one about the refusal to adopt new customs but I’ve already covered that enough.

There needs to be “extreme vetting” of the H1B program. Raising the minimum salary for H1Bs is not the answer. Businesses have to scrutinize every single hire (direct, temp, third party or even consultants) and make sure the candidates justify their position. Once you’ve identified the candidate is meritorious, maybe put them through some psychological evaluation to tune them to the American society and culture. Maybe even pay for the ‘Americanization’ of such candidates.

The Dangers Of Rapid Cycles

I have been working in the IT industry for two decades now, starting as an intern at Picker International – a medical imaging company. I’ve dedicated the last 17 years of my corporate life to a large software company.

Like many other sectors, IT has seen a fair share of down turns, starting with the dot-com bust, followed by the general decline resulting from the Great Recession. Within the industry itself, new technologies and platforms have led to many a casualty. Every little technology storm devours some small boats and occasionally, an ocean liner.

The work culture has undergone major changes as well. From an office-centric culture to “work from home” and now back to “collaboration”, it has come a full circle.

Staffing and resourcing has always been a challenge in this sector. Most software development projects require highly skilled computer programmers. It clearly requires analytical and systematic thinking to put together thousands of lines of code that perform automated tasks.

Traditionally, industries have production cycles for all products. The cycle is fairly straightforward – design, plan, build, test and release. That’s true for software as well. There may be more cycles in a year in this industry owing to tremendous competition and the sheer nature of technology. But in essence that’s what the cycle is.

Lately a rather disturbing trend has emerged. Rapid cycles. Perhaps it’s related to the advent of the much touted ‘Agile’ development methodology. Perhaps it’s just that this is part of the shake-off that keeps happening in any industry from time to time. Perhaps it’s the inherent need of the current generation to always crave for novelty. But there seems to be an unnecessary rush to turn out release after product release.

This is counter-productive on several counts. Quick turnaround does not necessarily mean putting out a great product. It shifts the focus from the product onto dates, which is a disaster to begin with. It puts unnecessary strain on systems – which never get updated thanks to the constant release processes. It also results in developer fatigue. Yes, that’s a real thing. At the end it becomes an exercise in futility, and a promotional vehicle for product management to go to the executives and say “we’re still relevant”.

Hopefully this will eventually stop and some sanity will return where the product and its quality are at the forefront. The character of the software industry will be revealed in the next few years.

 

The Turn Signal Pet Peeve

 

You can call me old fashioned, but I learned to drive the hard way, a long time ago in a country far far way.

We had but two car companies in India back in the 70s and early 80s – Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles. Each company had one passenger car model – the Ambassador and the Premier Padmini respectively. The Padmini was commonly referred to as ‘Fiat’, which is what it was – the Fiat 1100.

They both had steering column mounted gear shifters, a bench seat up front, a foot operated dipper (high/low beam), and a rather quirky dashboard design – undoubtedly antiquated by today’s standards. My most memorable feature – the hand crank up in front of the car. If the battery was down you used a Z-shaped handle to crank up the fan belt and rev the engine to life. Nostalgia!

Automotive safety features have come a long way from those halcyon days. Technology has taken over the dashboard and the engine compartment alike. You don’t dig your head under the bonnet (or hood as we call it states side) to figure out what’s wrong – you hook the car up to a computer.

Unfortunately , drivers have become highly distracted and dumber. Basic common sense is lost the maze of cell phone distractions and the mad rush of today’s lifestyle. The turn signal has become one such unfortunate casualty.

The other day I went to a FedEx retail store. It’s about 4 miles from my home. As soon as I got on the road from our subdivision I was following a light blue Acura. It made the same exact turns as I did, and in fact ended up at the same FedEx store. It takes 5 turns to get there. He also changed lanes 3 times. Not once – I repeat NOT ONCE – did he use the turn signal.

Every day I see tons of drivers changing lanes on the highway at high speeds, cutting too close in front of vehicles, weaving in and out recklessly, and not using their turn signals at all. It’s the I-don’t-give-a-rat’s-ass attitude that gets me.

I’ll be honest, I’ve missed using the turn signal from time to time. But I realized immediately on changing the lane that I didn’t, and made a conscious decision the next time.

It looks like self-driven cars are the future of automobiles. I can’t wait until all vehicles automatically signal a turn or somehow communicate with other vehicles of their intentions. Until then, I’d love a loud “You missed using the turn signal switch you dumb shit. Next time use some other car” prompt from the car’s console.

Oh, and don’t get me started on people driving with their headlights off at night. That’s for some other day though.

Assimilation

Before I start – if you’re are offended by anything said against India or Indians then read no further. Exit now!

Over the past few months several anti-immigrant incidents have been reported across the country. Some of them have been against Indians. An Indian software engineer was shot and killed and his friend injured in a bar in Kansas City. Others have been asked to “go back to your country”. Yet others have had feces flung at their homes – according to reports. A video emerged from somewhere in Ohio of someone recording a bunch of Indians hanging out in a Park.

This is not about why those incidents “reveal the ugly underbelly or racist America”. No. This is about the why. Why are Indians seen as aliens and outsiders? We are one of the best (if not the best) immigrant ethnic group any country can get. Most – if not all – of us go through often lengthy immigration process to become LEGAL and VALID residents or citizens of this country. We’re sincere. We pay our fair share of taxes. We – again most of us – are law abiding (law fearing) people. So – why?

Assimilation – or the lack of it.

assimilate

to bring into conformity with the customs, attitudes, etc., of a group,nation, or the like; adapt or adjust:

That’s the reasonable expectation – that an immigrant group conform to the local customs and practices.

Mind you – this is not about following rules or not breaking the law. This is about culture and customs.

There are several things we do as Indians that are so “Indian” that even the most open minded born-and-raised American can be pissed off.

Let’s start with the phrase “Personal Space”. Different cultures have different definitions of personal space. The more crowded the country – the more cozier people get in public spaces. Picture the friendly neighborhood grocery store. You need tomatoes. There is one person in front of you but there’s enough room for two . Now, the American way of doing it is to wait until the person finishes. But you, you don’t wait. You pull up next to the person, getting a bit too close to them (remember 18 inches or less is ‘close’ in the western world). You start picking these tomatoes. Several times your hand can be within an inch from the other person’s. In most western countries that’s defined as an act of war.

It gets worse when you’re in an Indian grocery store – mostly at the Tindora box. When two Indians (who’re already physically too close for comfort) are picking these veggies a third hand emerges from within the 2 inch gap. The hand invasion continues as you and the other person part a move away a couple of inches. The shoulder and eventually the owner of that hand then makes himself (or herself) a happy sandwich and continues gathering, blissfully unaware.

Scene 2: At the restaurant. The waitress is taking your order. The kids want coke. You want them to stick to water and stay healthy – knowing fully well that once they’re out of home they’ll be binging on coke and chips. Instead of saying in plain english “We talked about this at home kids, no cola. Period!”, you start off your Bhagavad Gita discourse in your native language. When the kids try to speak in english you reprimand them. You indicate that you don’t want to discuss this in front of the waitress. Your body language betrays your mention of her. She doesn’t know what you’re saying. All she can tell is that she’s being discussed. Strike 2

Scene 3: The Office. Oh boy where do I start. I know I’m going to take a lot of heat for this but I’ll say it anyways. If there’s one place that has contributed to the alienation of Indians in the US, it’s the IT workplace.

It’s a scene that is probably played out every single day in the thousands of cubed offices across the country: the polarization of Indians vs the rest. We tend to form and move around in groups, talking about obscure politics happening 8500 miles away, cricket matches and their heroes, Bollywood and its heroes (and heroines). Yet we seem to be totally oblivious to what’s happening around us. When someone says “out of the left field” we have blank faces. An acquaintance referred to the 2017 Super Bowl as “that popular football match”. We have that smug smile when an American talks about his son’s “basketball game last night” – somehow conveying that he’s wasting his time while his own son is competing in Math Counts.

We suffer from a severe lack of contextual awareness. It’s compounded by the fact that we refuse to learn. We don’t have to be an expert on American History. But some cursory knowledge of the Cuban missile crisis or the Watergate scandal would do quite well. When we hear Ford Bronco and OJ Simpson in the same sentence we draw blank faces. Why? Even talk of Kyrie’s clutch 3-pointer will render us absolutely clueless. And that happened in 2016.

I guess what I’m saying is that one doesn’t need to transform oneself to assimilate into this culture. But an earnest effort will go a long way in identifying Indians as an acceptable ethnic group as opposed to an alien one. None of the above mentioned scenarios are illegal or unethical. But they are irritants which usually bubble up and cause social issues.

Even in that video of the Park in Ohio, while the person was shooting the video you can see kids running around, crossing his path and cutting in front of him. What you don’t hear or see is a parent asking them to watch for people. If I were in his position I’d be thinking “what the heck – not even the minimum decency towards other people?”

There is a refusal to assimilate – and THAT is what alienates us.

Dealing With Grief

<Some of the elements in this post were written almost 2 years ago. But I finally found the courage to publish it>

Death – the only constant in life. The only guaranteed outcome of life.

The loss of a parent can be devastating. I lost mine a few months ago. Daddy was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia on May 31, 2014. He underwent chemotherapy in June, August and finally November. By mid-September it was fairly obvious that the treatment was ‘palliative’ – a euphemism in the medical business for “If you have money to spend on a terminally ill person you are in the right shop”. He died November 24.

The days following his death were a blur – the cremation, the rituals, the trip back to the US along with a grieving mother, the catching up at work while trying to deal with the reality of not hearing dad’s voice ever again.

Friends and family alike commended me on how I handled the situation. I took a screenshot of the text from my friends “Shravy – you just handled a key life situation gracefully – you are an inspiration to others now”. It felt good – to be honest. This is exactly how dad would’ve wanted me to handle it – stoic and dignified.

The months after his death were hectic. I was training for, and ran the 4-Day Dopey Challenge. When I think back, I guess it was more an emotional challenge I wanted to overcome than the physical venture. Work and family – which had taken a back seat during the tumultuous few months in 2014 – came back into focus as time wore on.

A book recommended by a cousin – Many Lives, Many Masters – brought some much needed solace.

One Year Later…

I’ve dug into myself the last year and tried to figure out why it hurts as much as it does when you lose a parent. My father was not an emotional man when I was growing up. He was detached, even aloof during my childhood and adolescence. He loved spending time with family but never given to things like “well done, great job, I’m proud of you” kind of stuff. To be fair, not many Indian dads of his era betrayed much emotion. As he became older he started being very emotional. As I went away and started living in the United States he probably missed me a lot. He always hinted at me taking up a job in India – without so much as saying “I want you to come back and live here”. But deep inside he would’ve wanted to live among his children and grand children, much like his father before him.

I guess it has to be the attachment. For most people there are 2 people that have always been with you since your birth – your parents. There is never a time when they were NOT there. You’ve always assured yourself of their security. When you lose a parent you’ve lost something innate, something elemental. In the Indian tradition, you’ve lost your umbrella, your emotional sunshade.

I felt a deep emotional void the past few months. Throughout the year we all felt the absence. I guess the first year is the hardest – the New Year, the birthday, the wedding anniversary, our own birthdays. The inexistence comes to the fore every single occasion. Daddy’s was invariably the first call on any birthday. He would remember our Hindu birthdays as well. He would not miss a festival. His ringtone was the song “Agar Tum Mil Jao Zamana Chod Denge Hum”. I miss calling that number. I miss expecting that song whenever I dialed his phone. I miss him terribly.

Two Years On…

I have started writing again – albeit intermittently. It’s March 2017.

Someone remarked at a party recently “has it really been 2 years?” Well yes, it has. Life has slowly moved on. I guess the best indicator (if we can call it that) is mother – she cries still but instead of every phone call it is now once every 5 or 6. We now fondly remember his quirks and habits.

For me, there are times when – out of nowhere – a memory flashes in the mind. The heart swells up with sorrow. Eyes moisten. Memories flash across the mind. The events of the last day, the last words, some last sights play back in the head. Sometimes I think if there could’ve been an alternate ending – anything we could’ve done differently. Natural treatment? Yoga and Pranayama? Voodoo (yes I’ve thought of this as well). What would you not give to have a few minutes with him, hear that voice, speak to him. Alas!

I noticed a strange thing lately. Few of my friends lost a parent in these intervening years after dad’s death. I felt an immediate affinity to them. An urgent need to commiserate. I spent a long time chatting with DV after his mother’s death. When I visited India I met him in Hyd. When our Alphonsus’ gang met in Nov ’16 I went out of my way to talk to two of my friends about their respective fathers, who had passed away at or around the same time as dad. I asked them how they felt, if they experienced any depression. PVL seemed to connect. He agreed he experienced grief and depression long after. He took to philosophy and religion. They say grief dwindles when shared. I’ve tried to share mine, in my own ways.

I started writing this in January 2015. I can’t say I have put the grief to rest. But it seems better now. I feel I can move on – at least for now.

I had started off this post thinking I’ll share my heartache, the loss of one of the most beloved persons in my life. It ended up being a journal. I’m not sure if this can be shared or published. But I think I will, in case it benefits someone who lost their loved ones.

I have come to believe – time is the best healer.

An account of his last day alive are published here (some of the entries are very emotional so forgive me)