When experience doesn’t give rise to empathy

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Some day last month, I was taking the Picadilly line back home when I gave my seat to a pregnant woman who walked into my compartment. She asked me for the seat before I could offer it. So the first two seats on either side are reserved for either old people, pregnant women or people carrying little children. Some people automatically offer them to you even before you ask whereas sometimes people don’t. However, you can always ask people to get up if you want to claim your reservation. I carry Berry on the tube everyday and I usually don’t ask for the seat unless offered. Sometimes I don’t accept even when I am offered a seat.

Maybe it has something to do with my upbringing – having never been eligible for any sort of reservation, I have fundamentally been opposed to the concept of reservation. I think reservation makes us less human. It leaves very little room for character. I appreciate that someone came running to the train before me and was glad to get a seat and it is unfair for them to get up just because I walked into the compartment with a baby. Sometimes I am super hungry and tired and all I long for is someone to offer me a seat but something very innate in me stops me from demanding a seat. Having said this, I immensely appreciate the people who do offer me their seat, especially when they aren’t even sitting on one of these reserved seats as this gives me hope for humanity.

Since I don’t claim my reservation on the tube and a lot of times I am dying from tiredness (is that a word?), I like to distract myself with a little game. I like to watch the people who are seated to see who is noticing me and how they are feeling about being seated while they aren’t offering their seat to someone who could use it more than them. This is classic capitalism in the train right? A lot of people show guilt, I can almost read the conversation they are having with themselves if they should offer me their seat or not, while some pretend to be too busy to notice and some others are blissfully in their own worlds. The best are the ones who won’t themselves offer their seats instead ask others to get up to offer me a seat.

You’d think that people who’re subject to difficult situations themselves would be more empathetic of me carrying a child on the tube, but it’s quite surprising to see the number of people from minority communities that don’t give a damn. You’d imagine that people who are supposedly subject to discrimination (based on their gender, race, community, etc.) or have lesser opportunities would be more sensitive to people in need of support but we probably don’t think about topics like disability, racism, sexism, etc. most of the time unless it personally inconveniences us or our loved ones.

So experience doesn’t necessarily give rise to empathy always. I think people are more likely to be empathetic when they are shown compassion in times of their need and feel indebted to give back. Since I am offered a seat on the tube ever so often and I am met with smiles of compassion by random strangers on the street, I am more conscious of giving back, even if it’s just a smile in acknowledgement of someone’s pain. Strange you think? Sometimes just acknowledging someone is a show of empathy and it can take both of you a long way!

Letters to my Berry#9

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If I had observed you too closely this month, I probably wouldn’t have realised this because this change in you is so subtle that it’s easy to miss. No, you haven’t learnt to walk on your own yet. Neither have you learnt to talk. But what you have learnt is to disobey your parents. Yes, apparently, it does start this early. So you see, children disobeying their parents has very little to do with parents and there’s no reason for us to be hard on ourselves for not “discipling” you. You clearly have a mind of your own and I highly doubt I can control it too much, so I’ll remember not to try too hard as you grow up and be more difficult.

Ever since you started crawling, you have been too busy exploring the world on your own terms. You go from one room to another in the house in pursuit of everything dangerous – be it to lick the sockets, eat the ends of chargers, fiddle with the heaters, eat chappals, pull out drawers, hang onto the floor lamp as if you are a pole dancer, drum on the dustbin, try to get into the dishwasher or washing machine or try to open the kitchen cabinets to pull out everything inside. You won’t stop if we asked you to, you won’t stop if we pulled you back and in fact, that only makes you go back to it faster. The only weapon I still have is to attract you with some food. Mwuahah. You love the sound of opening a packet (of food!).

Yet another step change we have seen this month is your ability to communicate. You know how to ask for more food. You scream and signal for us to continue feeding you. You also understand what we tell you, although you conveniently act like you don’t since there is no way for us to verify either way. When we try to show you different animals in your animal book and make noises that animals make, you laugh because the sounds are strange and something we don’t make normally. This is the only way to keep you quiet or sane on the tube everyday. Sometimes I even swing the swara of all the geetes I can remember and when all else fails, I stand up in the corner and pretend like we are getting off at the next station.

You have learnt this really funny fake laugh (very much like your dad’s) that you keep using to act cute so we pick you up. This reminds me of what Ajit had told me about Arhita being a master manipulator even though she didn’t talk yet. Ahem. But I’m not complaining because I love your laugh, even the fake one because it shows how happy a child you are. I remember ajji always telling me that you’ll turn out to be a grumpy baby because I was always so grumpy/ deep in thought through the pregnancy that I might pass off some of that energy to you. I know it’s too early to say, but let’s hope that you keep this happy spirit about you.

You are super friendly, you like to extend your hand to anyone who says hello to you. You like touching their face or maybe even plucking their nose. You like kids who are slightly older than you. You wanted to play with Vasu (Appa’s friend ID’s son) when we visited their house but he was so into his own younger sister, Anika that I felt a bit sad for you. But you have Rehan (Amma’s friend Sam’s son) and he absolutely loves playing with you. You like hugging him and following him everywhere whenever we visit his house. Sometimes I secretly wish I could buy you an older sibling (Yeah, I used to think you can buy them in a shop when I was a little girl). Sigh.

Another big achievement of the month is that you have two teeth (I can attest for it because I have been bitten!!!) and you can eat on your own. In order to make sure we feed you healthy food everyday, we have a fairly standardised non-creative eating routine for you which includes feeding you a small portion of our breakfast, mashed vegetables (carrots, potato, tomato, spinach) with salt, pepper, ghee and cheese for lunch and a portion of our dinner as your mummum. Most days we let you eat your own breakfast and feed you the other meals. Check it out.

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That’s Rehan’s highchair btw. He is probably the first kid I have seen till date who happily shares all his toys with you, in fact, he even lets you take some of them home with you. I am still a bit unsure about if this is a trait I want to actively nurture or not because I think you shouldn’t share if you don’t want to and if you want to, you should absolutely do so. Ok, I am on the fence but I know I don’t want to force you just to seem like I’m doing the right thing as a parent. So, I will allow you to beat me if I shove some random parenting gyaan on you that I don’t truly believe in.

I can’t believe as of this month, you have lived longer outside of me than inside of me. Happy 3/4th Year Berry!!

P.S – Here’s a list of all the random names I call you (some are super mental, sorry!) – Berry mumma, tinamma gundu, gundamma, halka laudi (you are super light!), gundamma bitheth, missklaudi, Berima, mumma, billi, tinamms, chinnamma, smileypaaps, smellypaaps, baeripaapa. Ok the list goes on..

 

 

 

 

 

Is age just a number?

Ever heard someone say “Age is just a number?” Don’t believe them. Age is a number, yes but not “just” a number. A few hundred years ago, when people asked you “ASL?”, you couldn’t just say “14/F/Bang” because 14 was never a good enough age on the internet. You had to be “18/F/Bang” for anyone to remotely continue a conversation with you. Sure, it would usually be with a guy who’d eventually creep you out with a dick pic but atleast that made you feel like you belong. Early teens is an awkward phase to be in because you are battling all these adult like feelings in a kid’s body and it always feels like no one gets you. Fast forward a decade, and you start feeling the exact opposite – battling kid like feelings in a fully grown adult’s body and again, it feels like no one gets you.

For the first time in several years, I wasn’t nervous about my birthday. I didn’t pull out my notebook and make crazy lists of people who wished me. I didn’t mind that I wasn’t woken up by any midnight calls. I didn’t expect anything  from the husband, who is forever nervous in the days leading up to 10th June every year. So, it was pleasantly surprising to see that he’d spent whole of 9th sitting and writing 13 blogposts for me (I keep bugging him to do that, in case you thought he was being creative!). All I wanted to do was have a quiet day with no grand agenda or unnecessary drama because I wanted nothing to remind me of raging.

Within the last one year, I have grown by several years. Gaining new relationship status does that to you. Your age doubles when you have a child or atleast, it feels like. You could go to an ex lover and he’ll probably mistake you for your grandmother. Sometimes when a stranger walks upto me and tells me that I’m just being cynical, I go back and ask my old pair of jeans. They are stretch and so I don’t entirely trust them. Then, I go and ask my husband if he’ll buy me Olay anti ageing cream and he promptly says yes (because his instincts are trained to say yes for anything over the last 7 years), but quickly comes back to check if it was a trick question. So, thank god, maybe I am indeed just being cynical.

Every time I begin a new decade, it feels like I have started a new descent. This starts with a phase of denial followed by bitter acceptance. At 10, I said good bye to frocks. At 20, I said goodbye to innocence. At 30, I am saying good bye to a 26” waistline (just kidding, I am sure i’ll be 26” again, soon!). But hey, I am saying hello to unwanted wisdom and knee pain. What more could I ask for?

P.S – This ageing thing clearly doesn’t suit me.

 

 

The curse of the keep-in-toucher

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Recently, I touched base with a friend I hadn’t spoken to in ages (2 years almost) and sometime through the conversation, she mentioned she wasn’t good at keeping in touch at all and so was glad that I reached out. And so you’d think that she’d reach out the next time we lose touch right? No, wrong. This is the exact thing she’d said two years ago when I’d reached out to her after a gap of 4 years. Now, you’d think that I’d be pretty stupid to think she’d ever reach out on her own right? No, wrong again! This was a friend who kept in constant touch back in college when we were physically around each other, so much so that I don’t ever remember initiating a single conversation.

This is not a story in isolation. It happens to my all the time. I just thought people grow up, get very busy in their own lives, hardly find time to keep in touch and so, I am doing a great thing by giving them an opportunity to reconnect with old friends except when recently, an old friend who I’d (obviously) reached out to after years, needed no updating on my life as he’d already stayed upto date about it through my Facebook feed. This is when I started reconsidering my argument about people not having the time and realised that the real problem was that I am a big “keep-in-toucher” unlike most of my friends.

When I reach out to friends and they say they’re glad I got in touch, I assume that they’re going to take the cue and reach out on their own the next time. But they don’t. Also, they don’t stop saying how glad they are that you reached out since they are terrible at keeping in touch because they’d much rather stalk you and ask you to mark yourself safe from a terrorist attack on the internet than pick up the phone and text you. It’s a vicious circle – a curse on every keep-in-toucher.

It’s strange, but not unexpected that nature of relationships change over time and place. I always found the phrase “Keep in touch” very funny, especially when really close friends wrote that in slam books because you’re so young and unmarred by life that you think nothing could ever change the fervour of your friendships. But I can tell you, even if I exchanged a 100 messages one day with a long-lost friend (that’s the only way to speak with friends strewn all over the world) and felt like nothing had changed between us, I could bet that the next day won’t be the same as a following day in the previous era when we were best friends. This certainty of loss of ferocity over time which completely replaces the certainty of the ferocity, is hard to deal with as adults.

So, if you ever get a text from me, it’s because I am a compulsive keep-in-toucher, not because I am trying to kill time on my commute  (there’s no signal on the tube, mind you).  And don’t apologise for not being good at keeping in touch because I know you better than that!

 

The work-life balance

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When you are constantly slamming (fn+C) on your Mac, you know that your work (where you use a Windows PC) has completely consumed your life. I could try to get a Mac at work as well or switch to a Windows laptop at home, but I wouldn’t. I am one of those people who likes to keep work separate from life because when you mix the two, you are bound to be partial to one over the other and it’s not fair for either. For the past month, I have everything mixed up so badly that it breaks my heart when my 8 month old daughter constantly crawls up to me and tries to shut my computer, even late into the evening. This is also probably why I haven’t written in the longest time, because I’d rather play with her in the little time I see her awake than tap away on another laptop.

A lot of people like to make their jobs, their entire existence. I, on the other hand, is always fighting to make the two disjoint. I fundamentally believe that a job is a means to fund my living and as long as that job is making a net positive contribution to the world, I am doing the right thing. We trade our skills for money because we can then trade our money for happiness, which seems a bit convoluted but given that Tesco on street won’t give me a bag full of groceries in return for my number crunching skills, I am forced to rely on money as a middleman. Having said this, I’ve always had a choice in terms of what skills I trade for money but apart from changing the perception of contribution I make to the world, this doesn’t change a thing about wanting to strive a work-life balance.

I know that the west and east differ very much in terms of how we view our jobs, and so my view of this could be severely culturally biased. I am reminded of something an ex-colleague once told me, “I have a side business because I can’t live the life I want with the salary my employer gives me. I only work for money, and if my employer needs loyalty, they should hire daawgs (read kannada accent)”. I will not speak for the entire world, or for the east or for India, but I play many roles apart from being an employee – a writer, a thinker, a painter, a cook, an organiser, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a grand-daughter, a daughter-in-law, a niece, a cousin, an aunt, a friend and much more. So it’s very important for me to be able to make time for everyone in my day. The only way I can do this is by living every role as efficiently as possible.

Whether as an employee or as an entrepreneur, I simply hate carrying the burden of my inefficiency at work into life or the other way around and so, this commitment to be fair to every bit of me makes me try harder to be as efficient as possible, on an average. I am nowhere near the efficiency I’d like, and hence, I continue to constantly fight to keep every bit disjoint.

You live only once!

I was listening to a podcast the other day about correlation between our childhood and political views during adulthood. Given that we are governed for the very first time at home, our political preferences are very much shaped at home. I have mostly been a very obedient kid at home, where I’ve constantly feared the consequences of being otherwise. Having said that, I have done my share of sneaking behind my parents back to do things that they’d have never approved of, but everybody does that.

I have seldom challenged this invisible rule book for an acceptable format to life  – You study, you get a job, you get married, you buy property (more than one is preferable), you have children, you attend all family functions, you organise a few yourself, you go on foreign vacations, bring back presents for family, you continue to keep your job, go on business trips, bring presents again, religiously market your life on social media and so on. I may not have necessarily followed this myself, but I acknowledge the need for such rule based existence.

Naturally, when Karthik left a stable job within the first year of our marriage, you can imagine how distraught I must have been. I could never come to terms with his need to “take a break” because I was raised to slog my ass off in the hope of a post-retirement hibernation when I’d be free from all my familial duties. Karthik and I fought lots, not because he didn’t have a constant source of income, but just him sitting at home all day, everyday was just not healthy for him or our relationship.

The only way I knew how to get him to do what I wanted was to threaten him, and obviously, that didn’t work and we fought more. Sometimes it got very ugly, but none of that convinced him to get back to a job. He was so stubborn because life had been so unfair to him in the last few years that he genuinely believed he didn’t owe anyone anything. But I wouldn’t give up either – I revived my own dreams of studying further to make up for our combined dreams being shattered.

Recently, Karthik met a friend of his who was visiting London for a business meeting. This chap lives the epitome of a professional life that I had once aspired for. He found it hard to fathom that Karthik had moved to a new country just like that without a job. When Karthik told me this, I found myself getting extremely defensive although in the last 6 years I would never been seen defending Karthik’s life’s choices. I realised that I am incredibly proud of everything Karthik has done ever since he quit a stable job with Goldman Sachs, including moving to a different country just to support his wife live her dreams.

For a child prodigy, having always been miles ahead of his class, having topped JEE and CAT, it must have been incredibly disorienting to see that one needs a very different set of skills to survive the corporate world unlike in school years. After having been disillusioned at his first consulting gig, having gone through several less than stimulating jobs consequently, and dealing with the death of both parents, it must have taken enormous efforts to pull off a stellar consulting business, become a faculty at his alma mater, become a national newspaper columnist and a soon to be published author (Skipping the part where he has been an amazing partner putting me through business school, managing an entire household and surviving long-distance, because this would need an entire blogpost).

Over the last few years, I have begun to make peace with Karthik’s aspirations being very different from mine, and how we optimise for different things in life – me for stress and he for the lack of it. As a couple, if our focus had been on nurturing common formula driven dreams, building complexes and farm houses, we’d have learnt so little about embracing differences and me, about challenging meaningless rules.

Most people just cannot take risks and in turn impose the limitations of such a life on everyone around them. Anyone not following the prescribed path for success is warned of the potential dire consequences instead of just being understood. We think we are doing this out of concern for the other person, but in reality, we are trying to validate our own path by being skeptical/ condescending about someone else’s. It’s this lack of curiosity that deams us to failure as a society.

P.S – In our madness of shuttling between abiding and challenging, we have managed to study, get jobs, buy properties, have a child, travels loads and have the balls to quit jobs and move countries whenever we’ve wanted because you live only once!

The London tube life

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“A 100 years ago, when I decided to work in London, taking the tube at rush hour made me feel like I was a part of something really big getting into a packed train every single day”, my colleague laughingly exclaimed. The very same evening as I walked into St.Paul’s station after a long day of work, carrying Berry over my shoulders, I thought about what my  colleague had said earlier and strangely, I felt the same as I hung at the door crushed between a bunch of bankers in the train (see pic above, that’s what I got into). But to be honest, I am just a regular person getting home in the evening and there is no other grand scheme around that. But making it seem more complex than it is makes for a fun commute.

I have learnt a few things about the tube in the last couple of months and this knowledge is in no way exhaustive as I only take one train straight from home to work and back everyday, with no changes, etc. When I get into the Ealing Broadway station in the morning, I make sure I quickly scan the entry gates before I approach them to find the least crowded one. I thoroughly enjoy the cheap thrills I get when I pass through the gates fairly quickly bypassing a long queue.

When I am with Berry, I don’t mind what compartment I get into since I am offered a seat anyway, but unfortunately I can’t accept the offer since Berry prefers that I stand (ok, I prefer to stand simply because Berry won’t scream her lungs out!). If I am alone, I usually going into the second compartment from the last with school kids in it so I can get a seat in the first couple of stops. The important thing is to stand in the middle of the compartment, strategically, making sure that I am equidistant from all usual suspects who are expected to get out of the train soon enough. You don’t want to be sitting near someone who is extra formally dressed because they won’t get off till Bond Street.

When I get out at St.Paul’s, I usually take climb up the escalator since that’s the fastest path out, even with a baby. If you wait to stand on one side of the escalator, just getting onto the escalator can take ages, especially if both east and west bound trains arrive at the same time. Once you have gotten ahead of the crowd, getting out of the exit gate is a piece of cake.

On my way back is usually crazy, with or without a baby. Its peak hour with most people getting out of offices and desperately trying to get home soon. If the frequency of the train is pretty high, then I usually go stand at the head of the platform near the beginning of the train since it tends to be less crowded with more people getting off than on. If frequency is low, then the platform gets very crowded all the way and it doesn’t matter where you stand. All trains to Ealing Broadway, tend to be more crowded than other destinations and so its okay to let them pass if its impossible to get in.

But if I find myself letting more than 1 or 2 trains pass, I immediately gear up to board the 3rd train irrespective of how crowded it is. Remember, there is always place for one more person on the tube and as long as you believe that, you have a chance to get home sooner than later. Its like the Hilbert’s hotel problem. You just get in and even if every person around you in the train moves 1 mm, you will have enough space to let the door close behind you. The moment you are at Tottenham Court Road or Oxford Circus, the change over helps empty the tube a little bit and if you once again, go stand in the middle of the compartment, placed strategically equidistant from people who might get off soon, then you have a seat.

It’s not like I am the only one doing all this. When you do the same thing over and over again, you device all these silly little games to give you cheap thrills, to make your commute seem grander than it really is.