Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why Shit Happens

In 2016, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is marooned on the red planet in the Hollywood sci-fi adventure titled ‘The Martian’. There are two possible versions of the future. Version 1.1 – when food and oxygen run out in 212 sols (Martian days) Shri Watney will die. But that’s not the version he chooses to believe.

Mark Watney is an eternal optimist and a ‘take that! Neil Armstrong’ kind of guy.
He says to his webcam, “Maybe I will die, but I not without putting up a fight.” Thus with nothing but his own wits, willpower and determination he figures out a bunch of things nobody has ever done before.

He starts growing food, finds a way to communicate with NASA and stays sane without any human support or company. But it struck me that the stuff Mark Watney did on planet Mars is quite similar to what any entrepreneur must do right here on planet Earth.

When you start a company, you have no company. You are marooned on a planet called ‘My Big Idea’. There is very limited oxygen (read: funding) and even less food (read: paying customers). What sustains the entrepreneur is the will to survive.

On planet Mars, Mark Watney discovers that even his own shit serves some purpose. He uses it to make the red soil fertile and plant potato seeds. When, after many weeks, he sees the first green shoots appear, Watney is thrilled to bits. In India, we call this method ‘jugaad’.

‘The Martian’ is extreme jugaad. Watney is a botanist by training, yet he must now be physicist, chemist and rocket scientist rolled into one. Our astronaut can get some ‘mentorship’ from experts on earth but kaam to usey khud hi karna padega.

But none of this would have been possible if Watney had broken down. Kaise hoga? Nahin hoga blah blah blah blah. The biggest challenge an entrepreneur faces is not in the external environment but within himself. So forget about the ‘ecosystem’, first work on apne andar ka shaitan.

Unlike Mars, this planet offers many escape routes. Cut off those options. Unless you are as desperate as Watney, you won’t be able to look at your own shit and create life from it.

Robinson Crusoe did it 300 years ago on a desert island. Mark Watney did it on a different planet. We can take inspiration from their stories and write our own stories. There is no dearth of ‘planets’ to colonise. Look up in the sky and find the one that speaks to your heart.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

We all want to be happy but....!

Yesterday I attended a talk by Sunandaji, daughter-disciple of Swami Parthasarthy. It was a 4 day lecture series, of which I could attend only day 3. But what I heard was exactly what I needed to. It clarified several questions in my mind.

I did not record the talk or take notes, hence sharing only a few of the points which really made an impression. First of all, Sunandaji described life as anubhavdhara or stream of experiences. To make a building, the unit required is a brick. Similarly, the basic building block of life is experience.

The question then arises – what is our experience of life and how can we make it better? Today, many of us enjoy a far higher standard of living than ever before and yet, we are only more miserable. Why is this the case?

Sunandaji went on to give the example of a boat. This boat has a rod at the centre to hold the sail – yet the boat holds steady in the water. This is because of the ‘keel’. The keel lies beneath the water which cannot be seen. But it is designed to keep the boat afloat.

The problem with modern life, she says, is that our standard of living may rise higher and higher. But we have no ‘keel’ to keep us steady. In the human context, keel is a set of values which guide our actions.

The current values, in fact, are mostly greed, arrogance, hunger for power, beauty, fame and money. Verse 12 of Chapter 16 of the Bhagavad Gita says as follows:

'Bound by hundreds of bands of hope, succumbing to lust and wrath, they strive to maintain hoards of wealth unjustly for sensual enjoyment'. (broadly – that sums up the headlines of our daily newspapers!)

Verse 13 goes on to say: ‘This today I have gained, this object of desire I shall obtain, this is mine, also this wealth shall continue to be mine in future’.

But nothing in this world is permanent – not dhana (wealth), not maana (fame) or yavana (youth). Living with these principles can therefore only create suffering.

Many of us wish to escape to the Himalayas to find peace but this too is a delusion. Change of dress or change of address does not make you spiritual. The dis-ease is within you and you carry it wherever you go (that is why there is politics and scandal even at ashrams).

You can find peace right here, in the midst of chaos. By using your intellect, creating strength of character and choosing to be a ‘better human being’. Not that you are superior but maybe you are contrarian. People say you are different or even odd.

You help others without doing elaborate calculations about what you get in return.

You take up work which you find interesting and not for money alone. Money is important to you but nobody can buy your soul.

You enjoy good things in life but you are not addicted. If those things are taken away you can still see yourself being happy.

I can vouch for the fact that whenever I have worked with this attitude, I have received the greatest rewards from the most unexpected sources. Lately, I thought I should become more ‘worldly’ or matlabi. That maybe people are taking advantage of me. And I found less joy and less satisfaction in whatever I took up.

Having learnt this lesson I go back to the old way. The unfashionable way. The path of giving your best and leaving the rest.

Trusting that I will be taken care of.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Banno tera BTech Laage Saxy ('She's Got the Code')

Sharing a humorous piece I wrote for Outlook magazine recently on female engineering graduates. This is what they published under the title 'She's Got The Code'. Sharing the slightly longer unedited version below, with my original (Hinglish) title.

Banno tera BTech laage saxy

Colleges offerning BTech degrees are sprouting across the country, faster than Café Coffee Days. This offers equal opportunity for girls to become frustrated engineers.

Rashmi Bansal

Once upon a time people who owned land cultivated rice, white, jowar and bajra. Then, they discovered a new cash crop. They started cultivating engineers.

The first requirement of an engineering college is a building. If you have budget, do put marble in the lobby. Air-condition the classrooms. Orange and yellow benches in the canteen. Bhai, dekhne mein acchha lagta hai!

Now you need to do naamkaran. If the college is laundering black money for the local MP, simply use his name. Another good option is a hi-tech sounding name such as ‘Hi Tech College of Engineering’. Bhai, sunane mein acchha lagta hai.

As per AICTE rules, kuch teacher log bhi chahiye. In every university there are a few good-for-nothings who have spent many years of their life trying to get a PhD - and finally succeeded. Ask them to come and warm a chair in the college.

Then find the recent BTechs and Mtechs who have failed to clear TCS and Infosys aptitude test. They will happily join you. Yes, their English is weak but chalta hai. Unko kaun si Shakespeare padaani hai.

Okay – your college is now ready to admit students. The good news is you have a super-large pool of nerds who don’t think there is any future in Arts, Science, Commerce, Fashion Design or Reading Tarot Cards. The one and only career for the honhaar bharatiya bachcha lies in Sri Sri Cos, Mata Tan and Devi Sine.

The grooming of the good son starts before he hits puberty. Engineerification starts with ‘fitji’ to hit JEE - extra classes on Saturday, Sunday and vacations.

Ek time tha when eager parents pushed only their male children towards this teenage sanyaas. In the spirit of equality, some parents now encourage their female children to pursue this joyless path.

Consequently like the tiger population in India, the rare species of girls in IIT has gone up by a few percentage points.

Now engineering was originally about learning how to build bridges, work with machines and run factories. Luckily, now it is all about typing speed on the computer. Girls have always been good typists. So naturally you will see them in streams like computer science and information technology.

The ratio of boy: girl remains 1 Zillion: 1 in civil, mechanical and any other engineering fraught with heat, dust and ziddi grease.

Now back to our air-conditionwala local engineering college. This is where you will find girls, a lot of girls. 30-50% of the student population, to be precise. The girls can broadly be classified into 2 types:

- Kaam ke liye engineers : They are sure that they want to work somewhere after graduation.

- Naam ke liye engineers: They are sure their parents will not allow them to work after graduation.

Many naam ke liye girl engineers get an opportunity to work in nice software companies while their parents search for suitable grooms. Come shaadi season and these birds migrate to New Jersey, Texas, Santa Clara and San Jose.

A lucky few find liberation in foreign lands - a license to work, study further, wear tight jeans and roam free without sticker bindis. You see, the husband is broad-minded. The unlucky ones married average Indian blokes who don’t care a hoot what degree the wife is wasting, as long as the sambhar is nicely tasting.

These BTechs can be classified into 2 types:

- Domestic engineers : Girls who are happy to be homemakers. They see ++ in every Indian recipe they learn from youtube.

- Frustrated engineers: Girls who would rather work. But visa status and vegetarian ‘hot chapati’ husband have screwed their ambitions.

You see, in Amrika, the only affordable naukrani is an educated Indian woman.

That brings us full circle, to the small tribe of working girls. Fiercely determined, hardworking and professional - yet even they often get derailed. For we may study in the same colleges, get the same degrees and have equal ability. But the work life equation is always balanced by the female co-efficient.

Juggling clients and nannies, traffic and tonsils is the woman’s ultimate engineering feat. If she can pull it off.

But to do that, the work has to be interesting. It has to be meaningful. Which brings us back to the engineering degree itself. Who in their right mind really wants to be an engineer? Just 1 out of a 1000 students out there.

Good luck to the remaining 999!

Jai mata di, jai hind, jai engineering.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Coz I Still Haven't Found... What I'm Looking For

Last week I was in Rishikesh. My original plan was to spend 4 days at Ananda – the horribly expensive, exclusive ‘destination spa’ in the Himalayas. A belated birthday gift to myself. However, due to a combination of circumstances I found myself at Swami Rama Sadhakgram. Living the ashram life.

Each morning I woke up at 5 am, attended the hatha yoga session till 7 am. This was followed by silence meditation for an hour. A simple breakfast in the dining hall (where each one must wash their own dishes).

An hour or two of classes/ practice sessions on correct breathing, correct posture and ‘meditative walking’. Lunch. Rest. Evening hatha yoga. Another hour of meditation. Dinner. Some walking, some reading. And off to bed.

It was not easy. The first day my body ached with all the stretching and bending involved in yoga. It felt like some parts had actually rusted! I skipped the morning meditation to catch some sleep. My mind kept wandering through the evening meditation. My leg went numb and I had to get up and sit on a stool.

That night I googled ‘hotels’ near Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula, thinking I’ve had enough. But miraculously I woke up the next morning at 445 am without an alarm. And at the end of the yoga session I was feeling tired but also very light. Isme kuch baat toh hai…

I decided to stay. In the next 3 days I learnt many things about myself. Firstly, I need to breathe properly – through my diaphragm. Hooked up to a monitor by Dr Prabhu at the Meditation Research Centre I could actually see a pattern of shallow breathing on the screen in front of me.

Pehle to yeh correct karna padega.

It is said that the yogis learnt the important of deep breathing by observing nature. A dog, which is constantly panting lives barely 10-12 years whereas the giant turtle which breathes once every hour lives for a century. The spiritual head of Sadhakgram, Swami Veda, completes one breath in one minute. He is 83.

“Despite having 100% blockage in the heart, 5-6 collapsed discs, lung problems and many other health issues, Swami Veda works 13-14 hours a day!” remarked Dr Prabhu. “It is a miracle as far as medical science is concerned.”

The secret is the control that yogis have over their mind and body. Apparently, Swami Veda is able to control the vagus nerve – which is considered to be an ‘involuntary’ system. Of course, it takes decades of sadhana to reach that level but the fact that it can be done is pretty amazing.

An important thing I learnt here is that yoga is more about the mind than the body. Yes, you learn stand, sit and bend in various ways to perform asanas. The exercise may result in physical benefits. But fundamentally, yoga is a means to make your body relaxed and your mind focused. So that you are able to meditate with ease.

In Swami Rama’s own words: “Once you are healthy in body and clear in mind, you can easily contemplate on the higher purpose and meaning of life.”

Another big lesson was the power of silence. At the ashram, every Thursday is a ‘day of silence’. Swami Veda has, in fact, taken a vow of silence since the last two and a half years. Hence there are no discourses or speeches. You simply sit in his presence to meditate. And receive his mental vibrations.

Of course, true silence goes beyond ‘not speaking’. It is the silence within yourself.

On the last day, one of the teachers remarked, “If you have come here it is just by chance… you have been called here, aapko bulaya gaya hai.”

And truly, unlike Art of Living or Isha, Sadhakgram is not widely marketed or publicised. I had not even heard of Swami Rama before I came here. That could be because he left his body in 1996, and the organisation does not promote itself on letter boxes, twitter or facebook.

The interesting thing about Swami Rama is that he was raised in the Himalayas by his master and became a Shankaracharya at the age of 24. But he wasn’t satisfied with the rules and rituals of religion. In just 3 years, he renounced the title and returned to the Himalayas in search of the ultimate truth.

He later travelled to America where he became the first Indian yogi to be ‘studied’ by doctors and scientists at the Menninger Foundation. In one famous demonstration, he stopped his heartbeat for 17 seconds and then restarted it.

Swami Rama’s book ‘Living with the Himalayan Masters’ contains many such fascinating tales of yogis with astounding powers and siddhis. These are the result of intense sadhanas by those who have renounced the world to devote themselves to exploring the inner world.

For the layman, the end result of spirituality is a state of ‘vibrant tranquility’. You will know something is ‘happening’ when the people around you notice that you are happier, calmer, more loving, and more inclusive.

With that goal in mind, I have returned to my ‘normal life’. I am practicing yoga and meditation for 35-40 minutes each morning and 2-3 minute segments of meditation and nadi shodhanam through the day (as and when I remember). Certainly, I would like to go back and spend a week at Sadhakgram, to strengthen this new habit.

I would recommend Swami Rama Sadhakgram to any serious seeker of peace and inner bliss. A few things I liked about the overall experience:

- Beauty of the surroundings, in the lap of nature. However extreme care is taken to maintain the flowering plants, lawns and general upkeep of the campus.

- The red brick cottages offer all basic comforts, including air-conditioning (which was badly needed in the month of May!).

- The food is very basic and quite bland but I learnt to enjoy it. As in all ashrams, you wash your own plates, glass and spoons after the meal.

- Since there is no living guru there is no ‘cult of followers’. It’s all about understanding and practicing the teachings.

- I know, I have tried many other paths towards the same goal. Each time, I learnt something which brought me a little bit ahead. But I lacked commitment to stay on the path.

This time, I feel different.

I feel that I can and I will and I must.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

India's Other Daughters

I saw ‘India’s Daughter’ on YouTube the day it was released online. Despite the hue and cry it had generated, the video had a mere 103, 895 views, around 8 hours after it was uploaded. A Bollywood item number would easily have crossed a million.

The 59 minute documentary is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. It does not editorialise or pass any judgement. It simply gets everyone from Jyoti’s parents to the rapists’ parents to ‘bus driver’ Mukesh Singh himself to speak on camera. The viewer is left to draw his/ her own conclusions.

This is what I concluded after watching ‘India’s Daughter’:

1. Jyoti Singh was a very lucky girl. Although born in a traditional family, her parents had a modern outlook. They treated her ‘like a male child’ in that she was encouraged to study.

Her father said, “We sold our ancestral land in the village so that Jyoti could join medical college. My brothers objected but we did it anyway.”

Imagine the millions of girls out there whose parents don’t have this outlook. Their spirit is crushed so early that they don’t have hopes or dreams for themselves. The only future they have is to ‘get a husband’.

2. The Pati Parmeshwar (‘husband is everything’) mindset has crossed ridiculous limits. Many people are very disturbed by the statements made by lawyers defending the rapist. As ghinaune as those gentlemen are, one might say it is their job to defend their client – no matter what it takes.

If you have watched American legal dramas such as The Practice’ or ‘How to get Away with Murder’ you would see that lawyers have no ‘ethics’, the world over.

What really disturbed me is the statement made by the wife of one of the rapists. She said,” Without a husband I have no life, who will protect me, who will look after me… better that I too should die.”

Take a hypothetical scenario where the court acquits the man, this lady seems quite willing to accept a rapist and murderer as her husband. This is what her family and society would also advise her to do.

Instead of encouraging her to walk out on him and become an independent, financially self-sufficient woman. Educating her, giving her confidence and skills to lead her own life.

Because, you see, women have no life if they have no husband.

3. Education is not the answer (for changing the mindset of men). For women like Jyoti Singh the pursuit of knowledge equals freedom. The freedom to think, to have an identity, to stand up and be counted.

Jyoti worked in an international call centre from 8 pm-4 am in order to earn some extra money and pay her hostel fees. Jyoti benefitted from the new liberalized economy which created these jobs and did not care whether she was a man or a woman, as long as she was performing well.

But look at this scenario from the man’s point of view. At home, he is treated like a raja, superior to his mother and sisters. At work, he has to treat women as equals. This is not an easy thing.

It doesn’t matter whether the boy is educated at IIT or IIM. The sex ratio at these institutes is, historically, so skewed that it actually supports the theory that ‘men are smarter than women’. If someone installed a hidden camera in the boys hostels here is a sample of what you would hear:

At the beginning of the course: Discussions on vital statistics of various girls
At the end of the course: How X got a plum job only because ‘she is a girl’
(worse – ‘a good-looking girl’.)

You might dismiss this as hostel mein aisi faltu baatein hoti hain – youthful camaraderie and all that. But conversely, I have never heard discussions in the girls hostel about so and so boy got a plum job because ‘he is a boy’. (worse – ‘a boy with thick spectacles’.)

In fact said boy with thick spectacles but a very good salary slip will suddenly start receiving a hundred proposals. From parents of the very girls who would not give him ghaas throughout his school and college life.

Many of these girls will be highly educated but willingly sacrifice their careers to become ‘homemakers’. Nothing wrong in that, you say? The wrong bit is that there was never any question of who would make the sacrifice.

So how do we create that society where India’s daughters and India’s sons are different, but equal? The starting point is that women have to believe in themselves. Because unless you treat yourself with utmost respect, how can you expect that respect from others?

It’s easy to pontificate but hard to actually live by this principle. So let me share with something very personal: after years of dilemma and confusion, I took an important decision. I walked out of my marital home and start living by myself.

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with my marriage (by conventional standards). No alcoholism, wife-beating, etc etc. But there was silence, there was distance, there was loneliness. I could not maintain a façade just for the sake of society.

A year later, I am much happier. Most people around me are not. Those who know, avoid me and thus avoid the topic. Those who don’t I rarely enlighten. Because I know they would rather see a woman stuck in a dead relationship than have the courage to move on.

Today, I choose to share my personal life on this public platform because I feel by not talking about it, I am ‘hiding’. Making my life-choice a shameful secret.

I am one of the few women in this country who has a voice, who has means to be independent, whose parents did not command ‘chup chaap waapas chale jao’. But somewhere I too have been mentally raped by society, to feel a little bit ‘less of a woman’ without a husband by her side.

I am India’s daughter – that should be enough.

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