CategorySociety Culture


In India, people—especially when they are your elders, relatives, or close friends—tend to feel that by thanking them, you’re violating your intimacy with them and creating formality and distance that shouldn’t exist. They may think that you’re closing off the possibility of relying on each other in the future.

[Source: The Atlantic]

A few outrage cycles ago, this story on Atlantic made the rounds on Twitter. Obviously, Indians were pissed off at the implication that we’re not thankful or express our gratitude to people. However, I think people misinterpreted the article and I can see the point that the author was trying to make.

In India, most informal transactions that do not involve money rely on the implicit and often unsaid understanding that if I do a favor for you, I can count on you in the future to return the favor. Also, you do favors only for people that you consider your friends so introducing any formality often clouds that interaction. This is true especially within a family.

As much as it is obvious to say that you are thankful and yet you will be there for them in the future, saying ‘Thank You’ and especially in English, suddenly makes it sound like a deal that’s concluded. The person whom you say thanks, interprets it as if you’re no longer in their debt. Additionally, people often consider it their duty to help others out and if you thank them in explicit terms, it diminishes their help at least in their eyes. You’ve suddenly robbed them of the joy it gives them when they help others even though like giving for charity, it is for a ‘selfish’ reason.

That said, not thanking anyone for the help they provide is very different from not actually appreciating their help. At times, even saying thanks may help. But cultural differences help you understand why continuously thanking others, like it sometimes happens in the U.S., may not go over so well in the desh.

You Need Humanities

Last week, Indian Twitter [1] was discussing merit and its role in social or professional advancement. While this correlation is tenuous at best (see this comic strip), there is an underlying assumption that smartest people on this planet are those in the STEM fields. You may definitely earn much more in STEM fields but the assumption that it is due to the smartness of the people is erroneous.

My training was in architecture which is one of the rare fields that necessities the use of both sides of your brain. It’s an art as well as a science (while not being the best at either but that’s a different story). Luckily we had a smattering of humanities in our coursework through architectural history and other topics. Most treated it as something that we needed to study to tick off the courses checklist but at least under that excuse, they were exposed to certain social and economic topics which sparked interesting conversations in the canteen.

On the other hand, my countless friends in engineering and medicine were never exposed to any humanities education after 10th grade and even as they matured, most never understood or appreciated the nuances of society, culture, and its indelible impact on our behavior. I regularly saw misleading and erroneous arguments made on blogs (and now on Twitter) not due to malice but simply due to ignorance. Some generalizations like – blacks are lazy and prone to crime, Muslims are violent religious fanatics, the poor just want handouts and loot stores, etc. – are common.

Some are open to learning beyond their prescribed textbooks and have done exceedingly well but for the most part, I think engineers and medical doctors are largely ignorant of economics, sociocultural norms, and history. I blame the lack of exposure to these subject and very narrow specialization that our education system has subjected them to. Not only are they ignorant but a subsection of them feel superior to the rest of us just because we opted to study the humanities, as expressed in the photo in the tweet above.

I used to but nowadays I don’t try to change their minds. I wish them all the best in the discovery of their ignorance which is what our education should be. My education in architecture, public policy, and urban science hasn’t taught me everything but it has definitely made me more curious and aware that there are factors underlying every behavior and even if it doesn’t justify those behaviors, it certainly explains them. All I ask is to acknowledge this.

  1. If nothing, it’s an excellent source for topics to blog about []

Violation of Free Speech – the Mozilla CEO resignation

Much has been said about how the termination of the recently-appointed Mozilla CEO was in violation of his free speech rights. In a nutshell, he made a donation of $1000 to Prop.8, a measure that ultimately passed in 2008 banning gay marriage in California. It has since been deemed unconstitutional and overturned by a federal court. The revelation of this donation had people up in arms clamoring for his resignation which they eventually got. Many complained that this would have a chilling effect on people’s free speech rights and make them hesitant to donate to or voice their support for their causes. Even people like Andrew Sullivan who ought to know better.

Most people often misunderstand that protesting against views or actions that they don’t like is not infringing on the other person’s right to free speech. It is only when the government steps in that it becomes such. In fact, as long as violence is not threatened or you don’t physically prevent the other person from voicing their unpopular opinion, expressing disapproval and protesting is also a form of free speech. People protesting Westboro Church’s protests at funerals were never deemed to violate the church’s free speech. In fact, that’s exactly how you protest against hateful speech. As long as you don’t get the government to prevent the Westboro church from traveling and protesting, it is not a violation of their free speech rights.

Similarly, protesting against the Mozilla CEO’s donation and threatening to abandon your development of their products is not gay-bullying. It is simply an act of taking your business elsewhere by voicing your protest against the actions of a symbolic head of an open-source corporation. The protests in fact started right within Mozilla when three of their board members quit [1] and several of their employees protested against the appointment even to the extent of going on unpaid leave. In such a case, you would wonder how did the CEO even get offered and appointed to his post. Also, the public protests against Mozilla was significant due to the nature of the corporation’s existence, as Farhad Manjoo explains. If you live by the public’s good-natured sentiments, then you also die by it. Any other corporation can just ask the protesters to fuck off and they’ll be fully entitled to. Heck, even Mozilla can do that although to a greater peril of their existence.

Corporations are free to bend to the will of their customers if they consider the protests will result in a significant downtick to their business. The caveat here being that the protests are from their customers and not just anyone random who thinks their feelings are being hurt. The government can only provide assurance that no violence occurs and no one is being intimidated with physical harm. Apart from that, if the government stays away, it is not an violation of free speech.

Update: Coincidentally, xkcd – the famous explainer of all things Internet – has an apt comic:

free speech xkcd

  1. There were six board members at Mozilla so how the heck did he even get appointed if three disagreed? []

Farewell Padmini

View from a Mumbai Taxi

In remembrance of this loyal vehicle that served Mumbai well all these years.

Another excellent view from within by Rehab who is no longer with us.

Loss of Urban Life

On Twitter today, I spotted this image that epitomizes the problems women face in Delhi.

At first glance, most will agree with the sentiments expressed by the person sharing the image. But then you think beyond the rage that certain current events in Delhi have wrought upon the nation and you begin to understand the gradual yet unmistakable tearing of the urban fabric. Looking past the misguided message that the sign implies (why should the leecher go home and stare at his sister?), it indicates problems that may soon be the undoing of a great city like Delhi. No longer do people perceive it safe for anyone let alone women to be out in the streets. I have always thought the situation to be a bit overblown but as Gone Native suggests, it might not be so:

The situation in Delhi now assumes all men are lecherous. If you even happen to look at a woman for a second longer, you might be a potential rapist. There is no way any settlement will remain amicable if you view your fellow denizens suspiciously. If safety is the first thought that pops in your head after a simple and innocent act of simply looking at a person then any further contact is automatically voided. We live in dense cities because we value human companionship and being social animals, we thrive by being around people, even the ones we know nothing about. It is this unspoken camaraderie that defines any city’s social fabric and attracts people from other places. At times, these relationships are economic, and at times, they are cultural but nevertheless social interaction is what keeps people living next to each other in close quarters. Otherwise, this earth is large enough to have more than a dozen acres for each one of Earth’s seven billion people.

But when half of the population i.e. the women are compelled to view the other half i.e. men suspiciously all the time, like it seems to be in Delhi right now, there is an unmistakable tear in the invisible ties that bind us. If safety is our only motive then security check-points at every public square or cops swarming any public park would be considered optimal but would we want to hang out in such a public square or amble along in such a pubic park? Soon the city will wither away and die a slow and sad death.

I have no definite solution for this problem and for the sake of Delhi, I hope they find one soon. Perhaps the answer lies in strict and reliable law enforcement that will win back the confidence of the people. Ensuring safety and well-being without having to look over your shoulder is the primary responsibility of the state. It is why we pay taxes and obey laws. But when the state fails at this basic duty, society begins to unravel. Delhi has always been a resilient city and has withstood worse problems but mostly, those threats have been external. These problems fester within and the responsibility of regaining Delhi’s spirit lies with its people as much as it does with the state governing it. I hope they succeed.

Relying on the middle class in another country

This is what the liberal writer Matt Taibbi invokes when, in Rolling Stone magazine, he deplores the rich for living “in a stateless global archipelago of privilege — a collection of private schools, tax havens and gated residential communities with little or no connection to the outside world.”

But you could also find the idea far afield from Rolling Stone in The American Conservative magazine last month, where Mike Lofgren, an aide to Republicans in Congress for 16 years, decried the “secession” of American elites. “Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it,” Mr. Lofgren wrote. “If one can afford private security, public safety is of no concern; if one owns a Gulfstream jet, crumbling bridges cause less apprehension.”

Source: NYTimes.

An excellent article by Anand Giridhardas highlights the malaise that I have been for long thinking afflicts America. As he points out in the paragraph following the one excerpted above, this was and still is often true in countries like Brazil, India, Haiti, etc. but not yet in America. One of the most populist lines in every other American political speech describes how anyone can come here and succeed. But now more than ever, it is becoming more of an applause line that is rarely true in reality.

One of my personal favorite ‘conspiracy’ theories (or not) for this decline or feeling of apathy among this country’s elite/rich is that, they don’t have to rely on the middle class that lives in the U.S. anymore. After globalizations, most companies find their markets spread all across the world so even if America’s middle class can’t afford it, perhaps the sheer number in China or India’s middle class make up for it. More so for the investing class of rich people like Romney who live off capital gains who no longer have to rely on the American companies. So when your livelihood doesn’t really depend on how your countrymen are doing, you are less likely to be sympathetic to their declining wages or quality of life. You have no rational self-interest in protecting much less preserving their welfare. Earlier, proximity was a big factor but with rapid strides in telecommunication and transportation, that is no longer a factor. Hence as inter-countries’ ties get closer, intra-country ties get further.

The whole notion of Ford paying their workers enough to buy the cars they manufacture goes out of the window when instead you increasingly rely on Chinese middle class buying your cars. Why care if MediCare is going bankrupt when you can simply afford the best care anywhere in the world or can simply fly to India to get the cheapest comparable healthcare? Although this country was founded on individualism, there was a strong sense of community and societal responsibility. This sentiment cannot be put into law and nor should it be. It was part of their moral fiber and institutional memory. I’m just afraid that this sentiment that make this country great might just be eroding a little.

Dads Are Taking Over as Full-Time Parents?

New Yorker Dad Parenting

Perhaps the title is a little too early but there is plenty of truth in this article and it is slowly seeping into the pop culture through TV shows like, Up All Night. It is not applicable to our household although before we had Ruan and when blogging was more fun (and popular), I had joked quite a few times that I would be glad to stay at home and blog while she can earn the big bucks. Of course, taking care of a kid especially in its first year is not an easy task and I probably wouldn’t do it on my own. But this following excerpt made me laugh because even if you are not a full-time parent, it happens all the time:

“We were walking through the park, and I had a nice alliterative line drop into my head, so I pulled out my phone, opened up the tiny little word editor, trying to frantically type this good line. And of course, as soon as I opened my phone, she wants to show me this bug that she has found.”

(Via NY Times)

Christopher Hitchens on Freedom of Speech

An excellent debate on freedom of speech featuring Christopher Hitchens and Shashi Tharoor [via]. This took place around 2007. As much as you may detest Hitchens, you cannot dismiss his arguments for absolute freedom of speech (or atheism) as frivolous. This is part 1 of a 9-part series each approximately 10 minutes long. Listening to this interesting exchange definitely made my day. Enjoy and understand why free speech should be sacrosanct in any society irrespective of cultural or religious influences.

You may be racist if…

If you write an article that results in a mass of people denouncing your article and possibly yourself as racist, it’s not going to be for some arbitrary reason. Though it won’t be comfortable, you need to accept the idea that you may have done what it is you are being accused. Calling the large group of people whom you offended irrational is not going to help.

[Source: Race-Talk] Amen. The first and only refuge of a racist is to claim that he isn’t one. The next one is to claim that he has black friends even though it might be just one and he hasn’t spoken to him in ages.

Managing Tiger Woods’ Married Life

Ben Crane, a PGA player, has even harsher words. “This is no surprise to anyone who knows Tiger,” Crane tells Life & Style. “He’s a phony and a fake and he can’t retain that squeaky-clean endorsement deal any longer.” Crane also believes Elin may have known about Tiger’s other women. “She’s no fool,” Crane says, adding that perhaps Elin “turned a blind eye because of the money and the kids and the lifestyle he provides.”

PGA golfer Charles Warren agrees that it may have been more than love that attracted Elin to Tiger but that she should definitely leave him in light of what’s happened. “She was very young when Jesper introduced them,” Warren tells Life & Style. “She had stars in her eyes and maybe dollar signs too. But no, she should not stay with him. What kind of message would that send to her sister and mother and all the women out there? That your husband can be a bastard but as long as he makes the deal worthwhile, you’ll stay?”

[Source: Golfers Hammer Tiger Woods: ‘A Phony And A Fake’] Flaming hypocrites. Even if Tiger Woods is a sleaze bag according to his wife, he probably still can wipe the golf course with these guys’ asses. Just because he has cheated on his wife doesn’t make him any less than an awesome golfer. And if if Crane is to be believed and Tiger’s wife knew about his affairs then it is even less of an issue. We cannot dictate how any couple chooses to live their married lives; if they are alright with their spouses cheating on them because they get to enjoy a life of luxury, so be it. Do these guys secretly wish they had such an arrangement? And of course, we didn’t know that Mr. Warren the golfer was the unofficial decider on who should stay married in the PGA tour.

Whatever Tiger’s wife saw in Tiger is none of his frikkin’ business and all he should care is how less badly he can get beat on the course when Tiger is playing. If our Presidents and Senators are sending similar messages by continuing to stay married to their spouses after having cheated, how would a golfer doing the same cause any turmoil in the moral fabric of our oh-so-pious-society? I’m sure Sen.Vitter and Sen.Ensign to name just a current few could really use your advice. Mind doling it out to them and see what happens?

Multicultural Thanksgiving

Our older daughter goes to first grade with Calix, Yoni, Sophia, Joel, two Zoes, Samir and Jade. You may think you can infer ethnicities from those names. But a few weeks ago, when I picked up Elise at the playground, she clambered across the monkey bars with a pal who is Asian.

The boy’s father asked, “Your daughter is Chinese?”

“Yes,” I told him. “Her name is Elise Jia-Mei. Excellent-Beautiful in Mandarin, as I’m sure you know. And what’s your little boy’s name?”

The Chinese father patted his son’s head. “Dylan.”

Some people who thump their chests over being Americans at times forget what it really is to be one. If we for a moment forget what happened to Native Americans ultimately, Thanksgiving is as multicultural as it can get in America. It is one of those rare holidays that you can adopt and start your own traditions around. You don’t have to worship anything or make any obligatory offerings but simply get around the table with friends and family and say thanks. With tons of food to pig out on, I cannot understand how anyone cannot love Thanksgiving.

Getting Offended at a Diwali Party

Desis are offended. What’s new, you ask? Well, the White House Diwali party will be celebrated IN the White House instead of an adjacent building on the ground. President Barack Obama will attend. Yet the Indian-American community seems to be miffed at the Obama administration [via Uber Desi] in spite of the fact that Bush never attended a Diwali party although he started hosting the event. Why? Because the Indian-Americans want to join the growing bandwagon of disenchanted supporters who envisioned Obama as the Second Coming? Or because getting offended is in our blood? Nope, simple because the community activists haven’t yet received their invitations yet. And of course, because the event also invites other Asian-Americans. I kid you not.

Granted that Kal Penn, Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House, who is in-charge of organizing this event is perhaps overwhelmed with responsibilities of massaging everyone’s egos and has not sent out the invites yet. But we expected you to do better, Kal. Did you leave ‘House’ for this? Your parents must be disappointed. I bet it is Comrade Obama’s fault for indoctrinating you with atheist thoughts and keeping everyone in the dark on the bright occasion of Diwali. Why, Barack, why?

Mumbai Meri Jaan

An excellent list on 50 reasons why Mumbai is a No.1 city. Plenty of hidden gems that you might not have explored yet.

Texas executes the innocents?

Cameron Todd Wilingham. Remember this name. He just might be one of the many innocent that the state of Texas has executed. No better case for abolishing the death penalty. Heck, as the article says, it is even cheaper to incarcerate a man for life than it is to execute him.

Pregnancy Rates in Red States

“The CDC says that southern states, where there is often the greatest emphasis on abstinence and religion, tend to have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs” [via Guardian].But then why should that surprise us?