Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Is life a long-term project?

Working in IT for the last decade or so, all my work experience so far can be divided into well-defined projects. For every project, there is a mostly enthusiastic start and there is usually a satisfactory end, with lots of craziness thrown in between. I believe everyone in the project has their own version of their goals, no matter how miniscule they are, and trying to achieve those goals plays a big part in self-motivation. At least it does for me. One project ends and I start to think about the next one.

But there will come a time when I will retire - when there will be no more projects that will come my way through work. What then? I have realized that the amount of thought and planning that I put into any work-related project, I have never put into the long-term project that is life. Never have I stopped and asked myself, what will you do with your life when you are done with your final project at work? Granted that I have atleast 25-30 years of a working life ahead of me and it is a little too early to think about post-retirement plans, but these days for some reason, I can't help but think about it.

If your work is the only thing that defines you, all of a sudden after your last day at your job, won't you be lost? I know of friends who say that they will work at their jobs till they can't work anymore and I am happy for them. But personally, I somehow find that a waste of your time. As a child, you were happy playing games and generally not caring much about anything else. But did you do that permanently? At some point of time, you had to act responsible, get a job etc. So why should the phase of sticking to your job be permanent? Should you not move on to the next chapter of your life and do newer things?

Most people retire and do more or less the same things they did before, the only difference being that they have more time to do it. It kinds of makes me think that most people almost strive to be uni-dimensional when they really don't have to. Cliched and a little late it may be, but the world is their oyster. They can practically do anything they want. Just because you have stopped working does not mean you have stopped growing as a person.

As of now I have at least 2 things that are on my list of things to try out. I can't tell you exactly what it is because I myself am not very clear about it, but one of those things does involve travelling and teaching for extended periods of time, while the second idea involves cricket. Atleast these are my post-retirement plans when I am 35. We will see what happens when I am 60+. Some friends I have confided my plans to have asked me why I don't do those things now and why I have to wait till I retire. My answer is I have responsibilities now which I won't have when I am 60+. I am really looking forward to getting older! Are you?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Using Resources

Writing after a long time feels nice. I have no idea why I stopped writing. Today is Vishu, and I am glad I have chosen the New Year day to start afresh on my blog.

This happened when I was in Tanzania last year. Mzee and I were running some errands in the market area of Iringa(a beautiful town in the south-central part of Tanzania). We came across a cobbler and Mzee stopped there to get some repair work done on his shoes. The cobbler was an old man with a very kind face. He sat on the side of the road surrounded by his tools and lots of used truck tyres. A blue tarpaulin sheet above him supported by two wooden sticks protected him from the rain and sun. This makeshift arrangement was his shop. As Mzee was getting his work done, I sat down beside him on the side of the road. He was a pleasant man and we talked to each other in a mixture of rudimentary Swahili and English but mostly signs and gestures. Mzee would chip in with translations whenever things got too complicated. Just as he was almost about to be done with fixing Mzee's shoes, the shoemaker offered to make me some rubber sandals for 3000 Tsh (slightly more than $2). I said yes mostly because I was fascinated by the fact that he would be making these sandals from scratch and by his claim that it would take just 10 minutes. He took measurements of my feet and then leant over to one of the used truck tyres to cut open a slice of rubber from the softer parts of the tyre. Just as he claimed, in under 10 minutes, he had made my sandals.
And they felt quite comfortable as well. I mean not that comfortable that I would lounge in them the entire day, but decent enough that I would be able to walk in them every now and then. I moved closer to the tyre to see which tyre I would be wearing. And surprise, surprise - it said 'Ceat Tyres'. For those of you, who have never heard of Ceat Tyres, it is an Indian tyre manufacturing company, with a running rhino on its logo which says 'Born Tough'. I smiled when I realized that my sandals were going to be worn in the US, but they were made in Tanzania built out of a tyre made in India. 3 countries, 3 continents. A truly global sandal.

But more than this what got me thinking was how everything was used to the fullest extent possible. This is true recycling. This is use of resources until it cannot be used anymore. A few weeks back, at one of the campsites, when we had to fill diesel in the truck from a large can of extra diesel that we had, Mzee made a makeshift funnel out of a used plastic water bottle by simply cutting it in half and inverting it into the mouth of the gas tank. Simple solution but what a great use for something that would otherwise have been thrown away. I got inspired enough to use the other half of the plastic water bottle as a cup for shaving.

Thinking back , I came across quite a few examples of things being resued in contexts that I would never have thought of. Necessity does that. In the US, however everything is so readily available, that you don't have to think about reuse. The end result is that we use up so many resources when really there is no need to. The question I asked myself back then was would I even try to change my behaviour when I went back to the US. Would I change something as simple as using cloth instead of paper towels to wipe kitchen counters. I am ashamed to say that my behaviour has not changed since I still am sticking to the convenience of a paper towel which I can just throw away after use without the bother of washing it. It is sad but true that generally, people downgrade their use of resources only during necessity. Only a few minority are capable of doing this without the duress of necessity and unfortunately, I am not one of them. But I will keep trying.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Small Talk

At any given instant in time, people in this world can be classified into two categories. The talkers and the listeners. Listeners of course can be sub-categorized into listeners who actually listen and listeners who pretend to listen while dreaming about more pleasant things.

Talking is a gift. Especially making small-talk. People who can walk upto perfect strangers and talk like long-lost friends are indeed gifted. But then they are very few of them. Most people are bad at small-talk, including yours truly. But I am glad there are some people in this world whose ability to do small talk makes me look like God.

A few months ago, at a dinner that I had to attend, I was stuck between 2 people, whose idea of small talk was listing all the countries they had visited. In fact both of them were trying to one-up each other and impress their largely uninterested audience. Person A would say, "when I went to Vienna, it was like this...." and Person B would interrupt and say, "Oh, when I went to Paris, it was not like that that all...". And it continued like that the entire time we were having dinner. Initially I had shown some polite interest towards them which slowly morphed into complete disinterest. Thankfully the food was good and I kept my mouth stuffed with chicken and naan so that any verbal acknowledgements from me were ruled out. Anyway my lack of participation in the conversation was no hindrance to either of them at all. At one point of time, I was shocked when suddenly out of the blue, with absolutely no relation to the current topic at all, person A looked at me and said "You know, I am a graduate from MIT." I could see that he was bothered when I seemed largely unimpressed and continued with my chicken and naan strategy. Later that evening, after the dinner, I told my friend MS about this. Both of us were of the opinion that when you are in a situation where you have to make small-talk, you are not gaining anything by speaking about yourself. You already know who you are. So just by saying things about yourself, you are gaining absolutely no new insights. But on the other hand, if you ask questions and listen to the answers, you might gain something new and useful.

This has been specifically my strategy of small-talk. Asking questions. But I must confess that I have chosen this strategy purely because of its ease and the minimal effort that it needs. Coming up with questions is so much easier than holding a discourse on a topic. But many a time, I have been guilty of asking a question and not paying attention to the answer and then asking the same question to the same person again. My wife has pointed this out to me a couple of times, when I have repeated my questions with strangers. But repeating questions is at least not as embarassing as the time, when I introduced myself to a person, who I was actually introduced to just 5 minutes before that by my friend. All the witty things that I could have said to make light of the situation sadly came to me the next day when I was at work.

But nothing can be more embarassing than the time I talked to a stranger and I did not even know that I was talking to him. Yes, that sounds strange, but it won't when I tell you that I was talking in my sleep. Before you wonder why I am sleeping with a stranger, let alone talk to him in my sleep, this happened in a flight - when I was flying from Tanzania back home to the US. I fell asleep as soon as the flight took off and I had a dream that I was camping in a tent in the jungles. Having spent the majority of my time in Tanzania doing precisely that, the dream was not entirely unjustified. I could hear the whirring noise of the engine because my seat was right above it. For the life of me, I could not figure out what animal in a jungle was capable of making this constant whirring noise outside my tent. So I expressed my doubts aloud, "Do you hear that sound? What animal is that?". Nobody answered me, so I repeated my questions again, slightly apprehensive that my talking might provoke the strange animal outside my tent. And that is when I woke up, and I found myself staring at the man across the aisle who had leant forward with a quizzical expression on his face. A proper British chap that he was, he said 'Pardon'. I just looked at him, shook my head, closed my eyes and never looked in his direction again. Thankfully there was no one else to witness this (I hope) since the flight was fairly empty and there was no one sitting next to me or him. Well, if nothing else, at least I can now proudly say that I can make small-talk even in my sleep!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Racist/Sexist Dog

I went jogging a few days back after a gap of almost an year. This is part of my 'keep fit' endeavour for an ahem...'endeavour' (cannot disclose details now) that I am planning to attempt sometime next year with a friend of mine. Anyway I have never been a jogger nor have I been a gym-frequenter. I have always kept fit playing sports and I have been more or less proud about my fitness levels. That was when the Huntington beach incident happened. A friend SB was visiting and we went to Huntington beach. We were just kicking a soccer ball around when a group of people comprising of mostly girls in their early 20s passing by asked us if they could join us and if we could split into 2 teams. We agreed and what ensued was some 'total football' in which I was everywhere - I was defending, playing mid-field, playing forward. You name it and I was there. I was all over the place. It was some frenetic soccer. And it lasted 3 minutes. I could barely stand up after that. I realised this, when in an attempt to regain some breath, I stopped near our goal post and soon I found myself clutching the side of my stomach and falling over. I could barely breathe. And that is when a girl in our team offered me her goalkeeping job so that I could rest, while she went ahead and took care of a job that I clearly could not do. To say that I was ashamed is an understatement. That is when I realised that I could not measure my current fitness levels using statistics from 10 years back. And that is how my friends, I decided that I would run/jog every now and then so as to never embarass myself in this fashion again.

My layoff and subsequent travel out of the country for several months stopped my running for a while, but this endeavour that I told you about has given me the boost I need to start running again. Anyway when I started running again I realised that the dogs in my running path really don't approve of my exercise routines. Thankfully they are locked behind their fences. There is one particular house whose fences I am really grateful for. The dog here has a special dislike for me. While the other dogs are just happy to bark at me, most of them half-heartedly, this dog barks with unbridled vitriol and he hurls himself at the fence. I just hope that fence stays strong enough to withstand all his hurling atleast until I am running that way.

Now many of you might say "Of course the dog is barking. You are running, Stupid! What else can you expect? You are triggering the predator-prey instinct." To those I say, "This dog barks at me with the same hatred even when I walk in front of its house. Who's Stupid now?" And the interesting thing is when I am walking with my wife, it does not bark at her. If I walk with my wife near the fence and me near the road, there is no barking. But the moment we switch positions, the barking ensues. Ladies and Gentlemen, I think we have a racist and/or sexist dog.

I did a google search on 'racist dog' wondering if such a thing can actually exist and surprisingly a lot of other people have also pondered on this theory. Apparently there is a movie called White Dog made in 1982 which deals with the exact same theme.

Coming back to the dog in question, I really don't know if he is really racist or just sexist. Maybe his problem is just that he does not like men but is fine with women. The question as to whether this dog is racist or sexist has been bothering me for a while. The only way I can think of resolving this is by asking for volunteers. I need a White man or a non-White woman to walk in front of this dog's house and see how he reacts. If the dog barks at the man, he is sexist and if he barks at the woman, he is racist. And if he barks at both, he is racist and sexist. Of course, it might very well turn out that the dog is neither racist nor sexist and just singles me for out for special treatment. In that case, I think I will just change my running route.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Growing up a middle-class kid in Bombay, a city with one of the highest population densities in the world, I knew that when I grew up, I would most probably end up living in a 1-bedroom or 2 bedroom or maybe even a 3-bedroom flat. The thought of living in an independent house (or single-family home as we call it in the US) never occurred to me. Only movie stars or extremely rich people could afford such houses in Bombay. Like everyone else in Bombay, my idea of a dwelling was limited to an apartment. That is all that would be needed to make me happy. I just did not picture myself living in anything else. An apartment seemed the most natural thing to live in.

After living in the US for the last decade or so, my idea of a dwelling for myself has changed. Very few people live in apartments (or condos as we call them here). Most people favour single-family homes compared to flats. Most of my friends who have bought a home here have bought an independent house and not a flat. And if I ever buy a home here, strangely I picture myself buying a single-family home as well and not a flat, which just years ago seemed like the most natural thing to do. It is not like I have bought a bunch of elephants and I need space to keep them. The size and volume of my possessions have not changed drastically, but a single-family home is what I thought would be a dwelling to make me happy.

After I got laid-off from my job in November 2009, I spent a few months in Tanzania. Most of the time during those 3-4 months were spent camping out in the jungles in a tent which was barely big enough for my wife and I to sleep in. But I was content. I was happy. The tent was as much of a home as a flat in Bombay, a big house in the US or anywhere in the world.

So how big a place did I or anyone need to call a home and be happy? All of us have heard of the 'When in Rome..' saying. That rings especially true in this context. We may not realise it but is the idea of 'our perfect home' a case of keeping up with our neighbours in a broader sense? Some might argue that our needs are directly related to the choices we have and can afford. I completely agree with that, but in the end, we are the ones who make the choice - to end up with a crippling mortgage payment for a large home for a substantial portion of our life or make a less expensive choice and spend the same money on other life experiences that we can now afford?

I may be wrong but I think whether you buy a large mansion or a studio apartment, like most of your other possessions, you are only super-excited about it for some time and then it becomes a a routine taken-for-granted thing. It just becomes home. So why not make a more rational choice? Because in the end, when we reflect back on our life, we are more likely to reminisce fondly about our family, our friends, the vacations and other life-experiences that we could afford than remember the size of our homes.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


A few months back, in Tanzania, we were camping in Malinzanga - a death-ground for clothes. There are so many varied and very robust thorny bushes everywhere that no matter what material your clothes are made of, they don't stand a chance. Some of the thorns are so strong that they pierce through regular sneakers, so expecting cloth to be intact in Malinzanga is almost laughable.

Anyway, we set out on our walking transect at 7:30 am. I had not eaten very well in the morning primarily because eating left-over rice with peanut butter did not sound appealing in the morning (or at any time). I like rice, left-over or fresh. I love peanut butter. But I just can't accept the rice-peanut butter combination. It does not taste bad at all, but somehow psychologically, it just seems wrong. Anyway I still ate a little just so that I had something in me. Everyone else had seemed to have adapted to this strange combination of food. Maybe if you spend a long time in the bush, you tend to get less fussy about food. Maybe if I had spent a few more weeks in the bush, I would be devouring it by the mouthful.

Our walking transect consisted of walking 9 kms in a equilateral 3 km triangle. 9 Kms (less than 6 miles) does not seem a lot, but the terrain was such that it took us 9 hours to finish it. The terrain was the nastiest terrain I have walked over. We were constantly bending, kneeling and sometimes even crawling on our stomachs through thick bushes. The machete (Panga) was brought out constantly to cut down bushes and make way for us to proceed. And to top it all, most of the bushes were thorny- the nastiest thorns that I ever come across. And of course, the drinking water that we had taken fell short and we had to ration it. We had a few cookies with us because usually we would come back to the camp for lunch. But this had taken longer than usual and by the time we had come back, it was after 4. The hot sun blazed away, sapping the last drops of energy I thought I had. Just after noon, I started feeling nauseous. We had almost no water and I knew we were not even half-way through. I spent the next 4 hours thinking about all the water I would drink when we would reach the camp. I don't think I have ever concentrated on one thought for so long and with so much determination ever. I was feeling sick and ready to throw-up, but meditating on that reward of drinking water at the camp prevented me from stopping and got me through those final 4 hours. The others were miserable too, but none of them looked as bad as me.

As soon as we reached the camp, I grabbed a 1.5 litre bottle of water, went into my tent, laid down and just sipped on that sweet nectar for half an hour. I finished the entire bottle. I laid there for another 30 minutes, before I felt somewhat ok. Later when I emerged, Mzee said, "Bwana Jai, after this, you can walk anywhere for any length of time. No terrain can be as difficult as this". That felt good because I realised that it was not just me, who was having a tough time!

While I was laying in the tent with my water, I was thinking about how much part of endurance is purely mental and how much of it is physical. I thought about the farmer we met on the outskirts of Kitisi (another village), a few days back. We were on one of our walking transects there too. The distance was the same, but it was a much more pleasant walk. Mzee had stopped by to talk to the farmer. I noticed that the farmer had suffered a wound on his foot and it did not look good at all. It had swollen quite a lot and he was hobbling on his one good foot. But he was still working on his land. Partly because he did not have much of a choice and partly because he was mentally strong. I think a large part of the mental aspect of endurance is just a choice. Sometimes you make it for yourself and sometimes it is made for you. Either way, the choice determines what limits you can push your body to.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


One evening as we were relaxing at the camp, Mzee, the master story teller that he is, was telling us stories about the bush and he casually mentioned to me, "You know, Bwana Jai, you always have some chance of survival in the event an animal decides to attack you". After a deliberate pause, he continued, "Except when the animal in question is an elephant. If an elephant decides that he doesn't like you, you are most likely done for. You can't run because it will outrun you. You can't climb a tree because it will topple it. The only tree where you some chance of being safe is a Baobab tree but then the trunk of a Baobab is so wide and high that you can't climb it in the first place." So what I gathered from his little monologue about elephants was to stay clear of them.

My first run-in with an African wild elephant was in Ruaha National Park. My wife and I were standing in the back of the truck. Mzee and DE were inside. As we had finished our game-drive, DE was driving around the park just for fun and we were enjoying watching the animals like regular tourists. We came across this solitary bull elephant and DE stopped the car. The elephant was on the right-hand side of the vehicle, maybe 40-50 metres away. He looked at us and stared. Of course, we stared back, snapping away with our cameras. And all of a sudden, he started shaking his head and we realised that it did not like us standing there and staring. Had no one told us, staring was impolite? It did a little trumpet as if to shoo us away and DE drove away a little just to allay its fears and then stopped. All this time, I was asking my wife to get a good picture of me with the elephant in the background. I asked DE to stop and my wife was taking a few photos of me, when the elephant decided he had had enough and he kind of mock-charged us. He was not serious about it, but it was enough to terrify me. Being in the back of the truck, you feel completely exposed. Not that it would have made much of a difference if I had been inside the truck. But being in the back made mee feel so vulnerable. One swipe of the trunk and we would be history. All that time I was saying "DE, stop, stop." And then when the elephant started his mock-charge, all I could frantically say was 'DE, go, go go". We got away and the elephant barely ran a few steps towards us trumpeting loudly. I think it was playing with us, showing us who was boss. I, of course, had absolutely no doubts right from the beginning, as to who the boss was.

The next day, we had just come back from a round of sample collection in Ruaha and we were resting at the camp before we started processing the samples. My wife and I were sitting on the ground under a tree. Mzee was sitting on his makeshift inverted-bucket seat trying to put some tobacco in his pipe, when all of a sudden, an elephant walked up from the banks of the Ruaha river. It seemed startled to see us and so were we. It was hardly 15 metres away from us. We stayed as still as possible trying to convey that we were not at all a danger to it. It stared at us for a while trying to figure out if we were in any way a threat. The status quo continued for a couple of minutes and finally thankfully, it decided that we were harmless. It then started to rub its whole body against a thorny acacia tree and it was really amusing see it rub its body all over the tree. It was enjoying it a lot. I managed to captured that in video on our crappy camera.

The other elephant incident that comes to mind occurred in Kinyengesi. We were doing our walking transects and that involved walking 9 kms in a triangular transect, recording vegetation, animals and animal tracks. One of the transects passed through really thick foliage. Just as we were about to enter the thick foliage, Mzee called us all together and said, "This is elephant habitat. You can't see them from a distance because the foliage is so thick and they might very well be around a corner. Remember, elephants unlike other animals will not make noise or run away when they hear you. So we have to be as noiseless as possible as we move through this area. I will go ahead and when I raise my hand you stop wherever you are and if I gesture you to sit, you sit or crouch down as low as possible. They have a keen sense of smell, but their eyesight is not very strong. So if we come across an elephant, we will just have to move in a direction such that our smells are not driven to it by the wind. Just follow my movements, in case we come across one." Now I had never seen Mzee like that during my entire stay there. So pretty much, my level of comfort and ease in the bush has mirrored his demeanour. So when you see that Mzee is tense and cautious about something, you automatically take notice. I then turned around to see how MM and SM (our game scout) were reacting to the whole thing and that is when I noticed that SM had 2 explosive flares in his hand. I had never seen him like that before. Not in any of the other sites. I had no idea that he even had flares with him. Even my wife, who has gone out to these sites far longer than I have, had never seen both of them like this. This really made me realize the gravity of the situation as if Mzee's talk was not enough.

For the next 20-25 minutes, we moved as cautiously as possible. I winced at the snap of every twig I broke while moving through the foliage. But we were more or less noiseless. We stopped whenever we saw Mzee's raised hand. But his hand was mostly raised in caution than an actual elephant sighting. Those were one of the most thrilling 25 minutes of my life. I loved it. Soon we cleared the foliage without incident and we were out in a relatively open vegetation. Normalcy was restored and we started talking again. As we were walking with our heads down looking at animal tracks, my wife and I were debating over some animal tracks. MM joined us and Mzee was just about to give his verdict on the tracks, when suddenly SM shouted 'Tembo'. Tembo is Elephant in Swahili. We looked up and about 50 meters away, there was a large bull elephant standing under the shade of a tree. After coming out in the open vegetation we had dropped our guard and had been so engrossed in looking for tracks that we would have actually walked right into that elephant. Thankfully, SM, our expert game scout, who sees things that no one else usually sees , saw it this time as well otherwise we would have literally walked into quite a mess. We traced our steps backwards and stayed behind some bushes for a while. Soon the elephant walked away and we skirted its path, taking a larger detour keeping as far away as possible from it.

Elephants, like most animals, are most dangerous when they have babies with them. We came across quite a few of them driving in Ruaha as well as Serengeti. But thankfully, nothing untoward happened. They say, if you come across one on the road, you are supposed to put your gear in neutral and gun the accelerator a few times to scare them away with the noise. We did that a couple of times, but it did nothing. Finally we gave up and just drove as fast as possible besides them. Thankfully we were not chased.

Elephants are also responsible for knocking down most of trees in the parks. As Mzee says, 'that is the best way for them to get access to every part of the tree from the bottom to the top.' But for some reason, as I noticed, they seemed to be choosing to knocking down trees only near the roads thereby blocking them. One day my wife and I were driving in Ruaha as tourists and we came across 3 blocked roads because of elephants knocking down trees. We had to change our route 3 times. I was quite annoyed that the elephants did not have the decency to knock trees away from the roads. Maybe someone should take that up as a research project - elephants behaving badly.

I was really lucky that I got to see the African elephant in the wild. I have been around Asian elephants in India. But, of course, they were domesticated temple elephants. As a child, I have touched these temple elephants and even remember feeding one of them bananas once. After seeing the majestic African elephant, these gentle fearsome giants in the wild, I have promised myself that I definitely have to see an Asian one in the wild. And someday, I don't know when, I will.