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!

Market for renters

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For most of my life, I have lived in owned houses and the few times that I have rented one, I’ve been super fortunate to get some great landlords who haven’t been “Ramanamurthys”! They’ve always attended to all requests quite promptly making the renting experience quite comfortable. Having said that, I am a fairly decent tenant who will go to great lengths to get my full deposit back. Twice, I’ve had landlords tell me at the time of exit that the house looked better than when they had given it to me making me nervous about landlords who doubt my credibility of maintaining a property.

I recently moved to a new home in London. While laws, attitude of landlords, etc. vary by region, my current renting experience had a rather stiff start with a detailed check in inventory being carried out before I moved in and the landlord not providing an awful lot of appliances/ utensils. I wondered why the landlord was more uptight compared to my previous landlords given that the market for renting is not favourable to landlords in London, given Brexit, etc. While some bits can be attributed to culture, there was definitely more to it.

I live in the first floor of an old victorian styled house with my landlord staying downstairs, a house he probably inherited from his parents/ ancestors. This essentially means that any additional income he receives from rent is fringe benefits only. So, even if he didn’t receive any additional income, he’d probably be okay. So clearly, he has little incentive to make the renting experience super special unlike in my previous experiences, where I stayed in flats that were investments of my previous landlords. If they weren’t occupied, the investments wouldn’t yield and hence, incentives of landlords were super aligned with tenants unlike in this case.

With a tenant living right above, rental price is usually a function of pain the landlord is willing to endure since having the landlord downstairs makes a tenant more likely to complain about little things. I find myself being more fussy than usual about silly little things just because I can. Now, in hindsight, I get why my parents are so reluctant to let out their house upstairs. The additional income hardly compensates for the pain of attending to a tenant’s infinite needs, let alone the high cost of damages a tenant could possibly cause to the property, given the power balance between a landlord and tenant in India, unlike in the west. But I realise that in India, very few landlords are softies like my parents.

The initial deposit in the west tends to be 4-6 weeks of rent, which is quite insignificant compared to the deposit charged in India, which is usually 10 months of rent. When you compare the absolute amount in dollar value, they are probably comparable but its not typical for landlords in India to claim the entire amount against damages, cleaning, etc unlike in the west where you can easily be penalised for the smallest of wear and tears. So, financial incentives are designed for tenants to take better care of properties in the west as compared to that in India, making landlords in India somewhat more hostile like Ramanamurthy in Ganeshana madhuve.

P.S – I know a friend who fought a 3 year court case in Germany just because a leak in the dishwasher had caused some dampness to the woodwork around.

Saigon – the remnants of a colonial era gone-by

Ho Chi Minh city, earlier known as Saigon used to be a French colony for about a century until 1954 when it marched into freedom led by it’s communist leader Ho Chi Minh. The influence of the colonisation simply cannot be missed since the city still retains most of the beautiful buildings built in those times. There are also a few ugly glass facade buildings that seem out of place at first but then what city today can truly do away with that. Although it is a strongly communist country and you will see traces of this everywhere, apart from taxi drivers providing very diligent receipts, I didn’t feel the effects of a strong national political opinion unlike in Jakarta, where the strong religious influence leaves you with a bit of an aftertaste.

A statue of Ho Chi Minh in the midst of the central part of Saigon opposite the city hall.

A statue of Ho Chi Minh in the midst of the central part of Saigon opposite the city hall.

I ran into a tiny street side restaurant and settled down to gorge on a “Pho Ga” as it rained cats and dogs outside. Rainy afternoons seem like a usual affair here in Saigon as it has rained heavily for a short while every afternoon in the last one week. As I quietly savoured my pho, a guy sitting at the next table waved at me and asked if I spoke English. His accent was American but his face was Asian. Without wasting much time at all, he asked if I’d like to go dancing with him and I just sheepishly thanked him but declined the offer. I was almost about to feel flattered for it’s not very common that other Asians find Indians exotic, when he announced he was 21 (Yes, 21!! well, it’s hard to guess an East Asian’s age) at which point the rain had stopped. So, I picked up my things and left.

While it was clear outside, I decided to walk up until the Saigon Opera house to see if I can watch the much recommended AO show. This show that depicts the life in Saigon is a combination of a musical and a circus – kind of like a Vietnamese version of the cirque du soleil. When you look at the Opera house filled with foreigners (tourists) and the mere ticket price of the show, you start wondering if this has anything to do with “real” local saigon culture and if it’s just a tourist trap. But the show was simply breathtaking. As each act led to another, I could find my brain being hijacked by the performance with absolutely no bandwidth for distractions. The movements are swift, the stage is small enough for one to be able to look at most things at once and so, you don’t have a choice but to devote your full attention to happenings on the stage. To me, this represented how we submit our thoughts to wander with little control.

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“When I sent a picture of the Opera house to some friends, they kept insisting that I send them pictures of Vietnam instead of Europe. This is the best part of Vietnam – the natural blend of west with the east, large pavements with motorcyclists on them. Saigon 2015.”

Towards the second half, the transitions from one act to another slow down a little bit and that’s when I became conscious of having lost control of my attention to the show. The performers move about as a crabs, flamencos and little bug like creatures using woven baskets as props to the sounds of the sea sprinkled with oriental music. The part that seems a bit disappointing yet interesting is this one act that depicts modern day urban life in Ho Chi Minh city which seems out of place at first but then you realise that’s the part this generation associates with and is most proud of.

After having paid homage to Spanish food the previous night, I had to get my Indian food fix and hence headed straight to “Ganesh – Fine Indian cuisine”, a popular chain of restaurants across Vietnam owned by a Nepalese. The menu included both North Indian and South Indians dishes but I suppose one needs to eat the south indian dishes with an extra pinch of salt given that it’s in Vietnam and it’s run by a non-south Indian. However, this is the part that makes Ho Chi Minh a tad bit cooler than any other city I’ve ever travelled to. It’s welcoming of the whole world yet has it’s own culture. It reminds me of Bangalore in that sense.

I tried my best to keep away from the “Masala dose” but I think I might just give in after all tonight. It’s been way too long!