Monday, November 26, 2007

Diwali - Mela

Hello readers. You all must be wondering, "Was Ravi asleep during Diwali?" The biggest festival in India, and no blogs on this? Yup, I have gotten a little delayed in my blogs. Thankfully, today is Saturday and I have time to write a few entries. But after writing roughly 15 entries, I have realized the following: the bigger the event, the longer it takes for me to get a blog out on it (because there is just more to say). And the more pictures I have, the longer it takes as well - because I have to transfer the pictures to my computer, delete the ones I don't like, compress the remaining ones, and upload them (one by one) to the website. Uploading is hard to do from home, because my Internet connection is weak. And worse, if the power goes out, the upload process is interrupted and I have to start over. And once I do get the pictures uploaded, I have to arrange them to fit with my text - or I can just push them to the bottom (which tells you that I'm feeling lazy). I think you will see fewer pictures from now onwards on my blog.

Diwali was Friday, November 9, this year. Like Christmas, however, the festivities began well before Diwali. As you saw from my SAP - Diwali blog, we had celebrations all week long at work. On Thursday, we had a Diwali Mela (Mela = get together) at Maple Heights (my apartment complex). The event was pretty cool - I went to the small field in the center of our complex to check out the action with my friends Jasvir, Saurabh, Saurabh's wife Manjari, and Saurabh's parents. We brought our own firecrackers (patakas) and burst them in the nearby parking lots. Of course, when we started doing this, the kids came running to us begging to have some firecrackers. Of course, we gave some to them, and of course, they helped themselves to some more. Net net, our stash got very low very quickly. We also had some sparklers which we used to light the crackers. The problem is that the sparklers were of low quality so we would sit there for 1-2 minutes waiting for one sparkler to catch fire. But after we got our sparklers going, we lit some high quality crackers - my favorite were the flower pots. These are incredibly bright - they remind me of smelting equipment where you just see a bright white flash of sparks. Once you light the flower pot - the sparks shoot up about 10 feet into the air and fall away like a fountain. Besides bursting our own crackers, there was a professional fireworks show along with dancing and food stands.

The professionals also launched these strange contraptions into the air - they looked like giant top hats. All in all, I had a great time at the Mela (and even had some South Indian food at the food stalls). The Mela was a great appetizer for the real thing on November 9!

It's Rocking in Delhi

Literally. Early this morning around 4:40 am I was awoken by a earthquake 4.3 on the Richter scale. The earthquake lasted about 15-20 seconds and the epicentre was at the Delhi and Haryana border. Normally, a 4.3 earthquake would elicit some discussions in California: 'Did you feel that?' etc. But in India, a 4.3 earthquake is borderline deadly given that the buildings in India are not exactly earthquake proof. I live on the 1st floor of my Maple Heights apartment. I think being on the ground floor is safer than being on the higher floors. Being on the higher floors, you're more susceptible to building sway. On the other hand, if you're on the ground floor, the risk is that all the higher floors can come crashing down on you. In any case, there was no damage as far as I can tell.

How does that song go: "It's Rocking, Yaara Kabhi Ishq Toh Karo..." Except the earthquake wasn't caused by anyone falling in love. More due to the 're-alignment of the Sohana tectonic plate fault line that has been in the past led to mild tremors in the region.'

Monday, November 12, 2007

Chotton Ki Asha

Service is one of those things that changes your perspective and fills you with a sense of purpose. In our daily jobs, most of us sit in front of a computer, evaluate scenarios, develop spreadsheets, write programs, etc. Physical labor is virtually non-existent. The only work-related physical labor we do get comes when we move the mouse or type!

Yes, thinking is our greatest asset and it's what separates us from other life forms. But from early times humans hunted, farmed, built houses, etc. We need to work with our hands and break a sweat. Why do I say that? Because on those rare occasions when we do this - exercise, gardening, sports, or even hands-on service work, we feel good afterwards. Of course, the 'good feeling' of service comes from more than just working with our hands. It comes from seeing the results of our work, and helping people less fortunate than ourselves.

We should realize that when the cards of life were being dealt, we got the high cards - the Aces (good families), the Kings (financial security), the Queens (good education), and the Jacks (safe locations). Whatever low cards we were dealt, we traded for higher cards. Our good fortune, then, comes from inheriting 'a good situation' with all the conditions ripe for success, and making a few tweaks here and there to create a great situation from a good situation.

But there are many people in the world who are disadvantaged from the start. The boys, girls, students, and women who attend the Chotton Ki Asha community center in Sonya Vihar, Delhi, are by no means the most despairing lot in the world - that infamy would have to go to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, or any other war torn country, where making it through the day alive is a miracle in itself. Here in Sonya Vihar, the people are on the 'border'. By lower class standards, they are living average lives. Things could be better and things could be much worse. A place like Chotton Ki Asha is there to tip the balance in favor of a positive life. With some encouragement, mentorship, access to technology, and hope, a better future is within their reach. A better future includes things like a college education, basic health awareness, and a decent job. And, of course, the gems amongst the lot will have an opportunity to discover and cultivate their talents and maybe they will go on to lead highly successful lives.

A lot of planning went into the day of service. Getting 70 people to even fit inside the center was a challenge! The Center consisted of the following rooms that needed work: 2 classrooms, a doctor's office, and a beauty parlor. The classrooms needed to be beautified while the medicinal supplies in the doctor's office needed to be organized. Another group of volunteers left for the Ashram orphanage about 20 minutes away from the Center to distribute toys to the kids. My job, after doing general cleaning with the rest of the group, was to work on beautifying the classroom. The work actually began the previous day, with the cutting of shapes in the office. We even hired a professional painter. Our theme was animal-based. The highlight of our room was the splendid mushroom, which the painter painted to perfection.

At the end of the day, the teachers and students were ecstatic with the results. We were equally happy with the results. But, to be honest, the Center was already in decent shape when we arrived there. We were told to be prepared for 'slum' conditions, but most of us agreed that Sonya Vihar was more like a simple village than a slum.

And seeing the USAID logo made me feel a few things. First, pride. People need to recognize that the US is a good country that does good things. No, we are not perfect, but our heart is in the right place. Second, this was one of those experiences (like seeing the oxen, or people running across the highway, or more recently, the smell of certain fragrant leaves on the road to Viyapar Kendra) that made me feel that I was really, really far away from the US. When you're in the US, you see things on TV about the work people are doing abroad to improve lives. And now, to finally be in one of those places, is a pretty amazing experience. It made me wish that instead of joining a standard i-banking job after college, I wish that I had joined the Peace Corps and lived the ultimate adventure. Here, I still have 2 Blackberrys, email, etc. I'm still too connected to the West. But in the Peace Corps, I would have been dropped in the middle of nowhere, in a village, left to do whatever I could to improve life in a rural area however I could. 2 years and 3 months later, I would come back to the US a new person, with a new perspective, and having left my adopted village a better place than what it was when I came there. That's the kind of full immersion I really want. In a shrinking world, I think it's good to maintain distances. These days, we are too dependent on IM, email, cell phones, etc. What ever happened to going abroad - and really going abroad and severing all but essential contact with home? You can't have 1 foot in each location if you are to truly get the most out of where you are. Full immersion is the only choice. That's when you can do the most good.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Diwali @ SAP

On Friday, November 2nd, we had numerous Diwali festivities at our SAP office in Gurgaon. In fact, for that entire week, we had festivities including almost daily games and competitions. This was the first year SAP - Gurgaon had festivities - largely because we recently hired a managing director for the office who helped organize the event. All in all, I'd say it was a pretty successful first year for Diwali celebrations.

Saurabh, Pankaj, and Rajwinder.

My friends from the GRC team with their elaborately decorated office space.

Me with Rohit Gupta, another Palo Alto transplant.

GRC office space....

The fashion show (all who were dressed up participated, including me =) )

Office decorations of the KMCC team.

Office decorations of the KMCC team.

And more pictures of the office lobbies (on various floors), decorations, and my taxi cab friends....

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Karwa Chauth - A North Indian Tradition

Every now and then (actually, pretty frequently), I come across something in India that grabs my attention. A couple of weeks ago, that something was the festival / ritual of Karwa Chauth. I first heard about this on my way to volunteering from a colleague who was observing a special, pre-Karwa Chauth fast. She described the basic ideas behind the fast. Later, on the actual day when Karwa Chauth is observed (exactly 9 days before Diwali), my office was almost deserted of women. What exactly was going on?

I came home and satisfied my curiosity by doing some good old fashioned Internet research. If your as curious as me, check out this website: It's where the picture above comes from. Here are the basics on Karwa Chauth.

On this day, wives get up before sunrise. They worship various gods and pray for a long lives for their husbands. If the mother-in-law is around, she gives the daughter-in-law food (sumptuous food, I believe). At sunrise, the wives begin the fast.

In the evening, the wives get dressed up in their finest clothes. They then receive gifts from their mother-in-laws. Everyone (I'm assuming that there are many people in the house at this point) starts to assemble a puja in one corner of the house. The women then carry out the puja.

At night, the wives break the fast when they see the reflection of the moon in a plate of water, or through a sieve. This part confuses me. Why does the wife look at the moon indirectly? Is it because their viewing the moon as a God? At this point, the fast over, hopefully the husband has come home from work, and everyone enjoys a sumptuous dinner.

According to some people, there are some additional procedures observed. The first thing the wife sees before the fast is her husband. In the evening, she breaks the fast when she glimpses her husband. So, in effect, her husband are the first and last things she sees before and after the fast.

Based on this description, Karwa Chauth is all about a women's devotion to her husband. But, this is not what Karwa Chauth was originally intended to be about. Women in India used to get married at a very young age (15 or so). They then left home and went to live with their new in-laws. In the new village, which could have been very far from home, the brides might not know anyone in the village. So, to solve this problem, the brides would befriend another woman in that village who would become like a sister to her. She would go to this woman with all her problems (in those days, she couldn't call or email home with her international Blackberry....). Karwa Chauth, then, was a festival to celebrate the friendship between the two women.

I think this is a very honourable tradition. Of course you want to celebrate friendships, especially when you are far away from home. However, I'm not sure how this tradition became about the husband. When I first heard about this, I was of two minds about the ritual.

On the one hand, it was nice to see because you would never see anything like this in Western cultures. A wife being devoted to her husband is a nice thing to see in this world, where couples are so often going off in their own direction.

On the other hand, where is the festival where the husband does the same thing for his wife? I don't think one exists. I also asked my mom about this. Her reaction was the same. Where is the festival for the wives? Plus what about all the women who perform this puja who pray for long lives for their husbands only to have their husbands die at an early age? Where is their reward? If you take the festival simply as a once-a-year act to celebrate the marriage, then I can accept it. But if you really think you're going to get a longer life for your husband from it, then I'm not so sure...

Still, I feel that Karwa Chauth made more sense in the olden days. Even if we accept that Karwa Chauth is no longer about the celebration of the new 'sisterhood' (which I think is a great idea) and is now about the all powerful Indian husband, I don't know how much sense it makes now. In the olden days, men were the protectors while the women tended the home. Those Indian men who were not vegetarian would go out hunting for food. If not, they would be working in the fields. And, they were the ones who were charged with protecting the village / state. So, their service might be called upon in battle. In short, the life of a man was more dangerous back then. Given that, I have no problem with a festival to wish for a long life for the husband. In those days, the man was making a great sacrifice for his wife and family. Without him, the family would lose significant income and protection. If I were a man living a tough life in those days, I would really appreciate something like Karwa Chauth because I know that while I was suffering, my wife might suffer for one day as well. Solidarity in suffering.

But now, this is not the reality except for military families where the husband is serving overseas. In those families, I think something like Karwa Chauth is a good idea so that husbands know that they have support back home. In most other families, women are just as important to the financial security of the household as the men are. The wife goes to work at Infosys as an IT consultant. The husband goes to work for Wipro as an IT consultant. They come home at the same time. The wife then cooks the dinner. And then once a year, the wife performs Karwa Chauth for her 'valiant' husband. How is what her husband is doing any different from what she is doing?

And then, there is the problem of women who are in loveless marriages who are silently pressured into observing Karwa Chauth. Imagine fasting for a day for someone who you don't really love. Instead of celebrating the marriage during the fast, if you're the wife, you're probably wondering how you got yourself in this sorry situation in the first place.

Here is suggestion: given that men and women are equal these days, we need to amend the festivals. Keep Karwa Chauth because of its nice cultural significance, but create a new festival where the husband does something similar: A fast, or perhaps he builds something for the house. Something which requires some sacrifice. The exception is if the husband is already in a profession which demands great sacrifice, then the status quo is fine. Wife should be devoted to husband and husband she be devoted to wife. If something like this already exists, then someone please let me know.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Glimpse of Goa

My Goa entry will be very short, unfortunately. Quite simply, I didn't spend enough time there. Goa requires more than 2 days - but even for the 2 days that I was there, it was very relaxing. I stayed at the Taj Exotica in South Goa. This hotel is part of the luxurious Taj chain.

Coming from Delhi, Goa was a completely different experience. The last thing I remember about Delhi (before arriving in Goa) was being prodded left and right at the airport when waiting in the security line. If there was 1 free centimeter of space in front of me and I didn't inch forward to occupy it, I would get nudged in the back. This has to be one of my least favorite things about India, along with the Gurgaon / Delhi pollution-dust-smoke amalgamation that is doing battle with my lungs every day.

But when I arrived in Goa, everything was pleasantly different. First, it was quiet. Gone were the honking noises and yelling voices in Delhi. The airport in Goa is small and touristy - you will see many people from all over the world. I had airport transfer to my hotel. The hotel greeter mentioned that I didn't look like a 'Raghavan' - meaning that I looked more like a Christian. I'm still trying to figure out what that means. Most of the Indians I met in Goa are Christian, and the only difference I noticed between them and the Hindu Indians was a lack of a mustache and maybe a more conservative haircut?

The trip from the airport to the hotel was 45 minutes through quiet jungle areas. Along the way, I saw countless Christian shrines, which were very cool. The whole time, I just didn't feel like I was in India. Come to think of it, anything south of Maharashtra feels completely different from the North. South of Maharashtra, people have no trouble understanding my American accent. North of Maharashtra, it's a miracle if anyone can understand me!

The hotel had it all - pool, private beach, life size chessboard, golf course(s), tennis, volleyball, Italian restaurant, seafood restaurant (on the beach), etc. I met many foreigners while there, including an American in the shoe business. He was evaluating India as a potential spot for manufacturing for his shoe brand, which I found surprising. After all, I had always thought that India was not good for manufacturing given our infrastructure problems. I also spoke at length with many of the hotel staff, who, I think, were very happy to see an Indian staying at their hotel (not that I was the only one) rather than the usual Western tourist. Also, many of the Indian working at the hotel are from South India - Kerala, TN, etc. so they were also happy to talk to another Southie.

In the end, I spent a relaxing couple of days here, and I realized that I need to come back see Goa properly. If I can get the vacation, then a week here would be great to see the historical sites in both South and North Goa. And of course, Goa would have been a fun place to go diving. Unlike the frigid, murky waters of Monterey, diving in India might actually be pleasurable.