Have you seen it rain? I mean really rain. I mean the kind that starts with some grandfatherly clouds with their grey hair and cloudy beard moving overhead at the kind of pace that only grandparents move? They’re not slow, strictly speaking. They look like immovable objects who’d really rather not be moved. Those clouds. The kind that grow bigger and darker by the time you’ve made some tea to enjoy by the window. They’re not bursting at the seams quite yet. They’re biding their time. Just hanging out and watching the baby sparrows learning to fly and the humans below scurrying around to find shelter before the downpour. The only ones who aren’t, are some kids playing football. The sparrows aren’t retreating just yet either. The breeze is now a little more brisk than a moment ago. It’s brought with it that familiar petrichor which makes me want to step outside and raise my face to the clouds, arms outstretched like we used to as kids. Someone in my house is yelling (at me?) to get the clothes from the balcony where they’ve been hung out to dry. As I stretch out to grab the last ones, a huge droplet of water lands on my hand. I accidentally drop the clip that had secured the pyjama on the line. I yell at my sister to run downstairs to retrieve it. She ran out, leaving the main door open behind her. The wind was stronger now. It would momentarily force the door shut, loudly. My neighbor’s clothes, I noticed, are still out on their clothesline.
And then it starts. One by one the massive drops of rain hit the ground. Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, pitter-patter. It gets heavier by the second. In the distance, a solitary rod of lightning. Thud-Tut-thud. Thunder. It’s a bit muffled but powerful. It’s not just a loud sound. It’s like music in three syllables. Thud-Tut-thud. It’s only the first one but it sounds like a drumroll but like the short notes the dummer plays before the gig begins. Just a playful warmup act. The birds seem to have got the message. They’re nowhere to be seen. The kids too have gone home in a hurry, it looks like. They’ve abandoned the football outside. I should probably unplug the TV. The rain is now heavier.
I can no longer see anything outside my balcony. If I stood by the window, the rain would hurt my face. They raindrops are heavy. From here, it looks like a curtain of water. Perhaps this is what it’s like standing under a waterfall. Occasionally, a powerful enough gush of wind will cause the curtain to flutter. But it’s resolute and unrelenting and it will be this way for hours. Just bouncing off leaves on trees and disappearing into the shrubs below and soon forming a little river on the roads and a muddy stream on the footpaths. The sound of thunder is now coming at me from multiple directions in quick succession. But even those aren’t loud enough to be heard clearly over the sound of the rain. There’s no electricity now. We’re shrouded in darkness. For a split second, the lightning reflects off the million drops of rain and lights up the entire neighborhood. This is theatre. The rain is dancing. The sky provides pyrotechnics and the clouds, sound. I’m only watching on in awe. How is this all for free??
It’s no longer so loud. You can heard the thunder, though. Those kids have ventured out to the ground, unfazed. They’re not interested in the football anymore. The puddles are more inviting. They’re splashing each other like that advertisement for surf excel. I see their parents out on their balcony, hands on hip, absolutely fuming but reluctant to step out to retrieve their offspring for fear of getting drenched. I think they’re shouting but their voice isn’t quite carrying.
The clouds are now clearing up. The birds have returned to carry on with their sorties. The kids are throwing the football into the puddle and laughing at whoever the water splashes on. It looks like fun to be honest.
Now, the only falling water is the residue from the leaves and the soaking wet clothes in my neighbor’s balcony. The earth feels fresh. Everything feels alive now. The birds are in full flight and chirping. The kids have started playing football again. The distant roar of thunder has been replaced by the cacophony of traffic. My poor neighbor, entirely drenched and probably famished, has just parked her scooter. She probably doesn’t share my enthusiasm for this weather.
I want to start this post with the following quote:
Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error, but the greatest error is not to move, the greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.
Mike Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Program
Mike Ryan was one of the key figures involved in the response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Two weeks ago, he made the above statement which has resonated with me to no end especially in the context of the work I, like so many thousands of others, am doing. But it rings especially loudly in the Indian context now. In an earlier article I praised the bravado it took for PM Modi to declare the nationwide curfew in India. And the problems that bravado has now thrown up are slowly turning into a humanitarian crisis in some states. The scenes from Delhi and other parts of the country are heart-wrenching, shameful and belie the notion that PM Modi is some sort of administrative magician who can do no wrong. But once again, let me reiterate. India is an unenviable situation. The outcome of any action the government of India took last weekend was likely to result in chaos. The question was if we could steer the chaos in a direction that we had the capacity to manage. The answer is unclear but one thing is certain. At that point, inaction was not an option.
The reason I’m writing today is to drag out a point I mentioned briefly in my earlier post: Why is Modi so mind bogglingly allergic to a (virtual, unscripted) press conference? In Today, more than ever, there is a need for a two-way interaction with the Prime Minister and his team to clarify some extremely important questions about the execution of this national curfew and other steps the government is taking against the coronavirus. Perhaps, had an interaction of that kind happened instead of his 45minutes address to the nation, the questions about “essential supplies”, the plight of migrant workers and so on could’ve been answered BEFORE the lockdown and we could’ve avoided the confusion that resulted in the following days. My intention isn’t to say India isn’t doing enough. India simply isn’t being told why (or how) it is doing some things.
For someone hailed as a great communicator, modi’s reluctance to face tough questions is a failing that we can’t afford at this time. The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Home Affairs has put out at least a dozen notifications to clear up the confusion regarding the implementation of this curfew. In the process, they’ve added several exemptions, created new rules and guidelines for state and local administrations to follow. We know from the disastrous excursion that was demonetization, that these reactionary bulletins create more, not less, confusion and by the time these messages trickle down to implementation, it has probably already caused too much damage.
Modi’s “governance by diktat” is problematic. India is far too big a country for someone to show up on TV, announce something and hope that it all works out. Again, that isn’t to say that announcing the curfew was the and decision. It certainly wasn’t. But the fact that it came with little or no notice to the general public, to local police and, it seems, even the finance minister, suggests that there was only one plan: “Dekha jayega” (We will see). The result? The police hitting the “aam aadmi” with lathis for defying a curfew. People trying to buy medication and groceries aren’t “violating the curfew”. They’re trying to prepare for a 21 day lockdown of which the PM gave nearly zero details.
And still, at the time of writing, other than some choreographed PR appearances, the man leading this crisis response has not answered a single question about the steps he has personally announced. The Jt. Secretary (Health)’s press conferences are the only other avenue for clarifications and while the officials answer some questions, even they have been evasive in recent days especially regarding questions around testing, confirmed cases and community transmission. But he too has little to do with some of the PM’s other policy decisions. Take for example, the trust that has now been set up under the name of “PM CARES” (Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations). PM-CARES is a laudable crowdfunding initiative that Modi announced for people to donate to in response to the coronavirus. Donations have poured in by the crores in the short period since it has been set up.
But it begs a basic question which has now been asked on Twitter with no real answer: Why did the PM set up this trust when we can all donate to the PM's Disaster Relief Fund like we do all the time for every other disaster?
In 2018-19, the fund had 3800 crores in it. It is regularly audited by an external auditor and is a trusted place for people to send in donations for emergency response. We know basically nothing about this newly set up PM CARES trust. And sure, it might be a well intentioned financial vehicle set up to distribute resources quickly and perhaps it is audited in the same way as the disaster relief fund but we would’ve known that on day one if someone would only take these important questions about things he announces. At the time of writing, the distinction between the two funds remains unclear and has given rise to entirely avoidable controversy about its legitimacy- a controversy which a country battling a deadly virus can ill afford.
Let me circle back to the top. Inaction is not an option. I will stand by every step Modi takes, as we should all, because there is no playbook for this response. Nobody knows the “right way” to deal with this deadly and we shouldn’t believe any quack who claims they do. The only people we should listen to are the experts. And for them to work, we need to clear the decks and wholeheartedly support the implementation of some rather dramatic steps. But it is incredibly difficult to follow someone in the dark. And that is exactly what Modi expects India to do. Like some guardian angel, Modi wants everyone to trust his instincts without explaining his logic or his plan. I don’t hide my resentment for his policies and the bigotry of his colleagues but in this moment of time, I will give him the benefit of the doubt if he claims that he has a plan. My problem is, he won’t tell anyone what that plan is unless we stick a needle to the TV at 8PM on a random day and absorb his fine oratory straight into our veins. What is this? North Korea?
I’m mad. I’m upset. I hope you are too. The uncertainty into which we threw our fellow countrymen is unforgivable. This was supposed to help, not hurt them. Giving migrant workers who work on daily wages just 4 hours to figure out what happens to their lives is ridiculous. It seems only obvious now that so many of them tried to go back to their homes by train, or bus or even by foot. Is that Modi’s fault? Probably not. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 so perhaps I’m being too harsh because who could’ve seen this coming? But that is too long a rope to throw to a man who did exactly the same thing with the demonetization and seemingly learned absolutely nothing from it. Instead, the ministry of Home Affairs under Amit Shah has refused to take responsibility and has doubled down by reiterating that states must prevent mass migration at all cost. I agree with that idea because it was accompanied by several notifications that could’ve prevented the chaos in the first place. Things like ensuring those laborers would be paid on time despite not having work and that they wouldn’t be evicted from their homes until the lockdown is finished are absolutely the right things to do. But I can’t think of a single reason why those things weren’t part of the PM’s address because those were questions that were raised immediately after his speech by several people on social media and on news channels alike.
I trust Modi to fix this mess soon. Not because I want to trust him but because we have to. We have to be patient while he maneuvers the country out of the way of a deadly global pandemic and if we, the people, pull in different directions we will only make it infinitely harder for all of us. But Modi needs to reciprocate that trust and shed whatever anxieties or complexes he has which prevents him from simply answering some goddamn questions about his actions. Modi has not failed but now, more than ever, accountability matters. One of China’s earliest mistakes was to suppress critical information which could’ve helped people in that country and everyone else to prepare for the spread of this disease. Modi’s information opacity is leading India down an eerily similar path. The shockingly high numbers of confirmed cases in the US is definitely sending out alarm bells globally but it is also helping the authorities and the people here to respond appropriately. The fact that our authorities deny that community transmission of COVID19 has started in India is outrageous and a flashing warning light we should not ignore because according to experts, India isn’t testing nearly enough people to make that assertion.
Modi and other leaders in India including Pinarayi Vijayan, Shailaja teacher, Uddhav Thackeray and others have done plenty right in this response. I hope that continues. But Modi is making a mistake that the others aren’t – he’s making big decisions and not standing around to be held accountable. In fact, they helped is cause by holding their own press meets to calm the public and share more information. I can’t overemphasize enough the importance of this seemingly small step at this early stage in our response. There is no point laying the blame at his doorstep after this blows out of proportion. There is precedent even within this government of how to do this correctly: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman does a commendable job with her public announcements and provides great clarity on the schemes she announces. Why won’t the Prime Minister do the same for his??
Mike Ryan is right. We can’t be paralyzed into inaction by the fear of failure. But with Modi it seems like he’s so afraid of being held accountable for potential failure, that he has chosen to abdicate that responsibility entirely. In the weeks after his monumental announcement of demonetization, Modi had made another massive, emotional public appeal: “Give me 50 days and if you find any shortcomings with my actions, I’m ready to face any punishment”. Not only did he (or anyone else) not face any punishment, he conveniently changed goal posts and spun that horror show into a “win”, the consequences of which our economy is still reeling from. It seems like he’s trying the same strategy again except this time, the goal posts aren’t for him to move. The virus has set the goals. And again this time, irrespective of whether he faces the consequences or not, several of our fellow Indians will and that, I think, is unforgivable.
By the time I post this, India would’ve started day 1 of a 21 day curfew. It’s an insane idea which will not just inconvenience a lot of people but also throw lives into disarray. The economics of it is of course terrible but the human costs are much more severe. Lots of people will be out of jobs, out of their homes, hungry and unable to access basic resources. We will hear heartbreaking stories about people who are beaten up by the cops for no real reason. We will hear about the ridiculous lack of capacity at government hospitals. There’s no denying that for the foreseeable future, we are going to hurt just as the rest of the world has. There is nothing “right” about this decision to confine people to their homes and, in many cases, to the streets.
India is an unenviable situation. But we’re at that stage in this pandemic where inaction is not an option. A lot needs to be done. But the first step is to ensure that this is a crisis we can handle and the only way to do that, is to stop the spread. Two weeks ago, New York City where I live had 21 confirmed cases of Coronavirus. Today, 14 days later there are in excess of 14,000 confirmed cases (with more to follow). There are all sorts of statistical disclaimers which need to go with that but one thing is absolutely clear – left unabated, this virus will spread and do so quickly. For sake of transparency, I should add that the death rate in NYC is far, far less than that in Italy (where a majority of those who died where older people). But that is neither comforting nor the point.
The point is simply this: Our hospitals in India are desperately and depressingly under-resourced. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi is the premier government medical institution in the country. Wait times for critical procedures at AIIMS is so high, people often have to camp outside for weeks to get in. AIIMS is no outlier. According to the World Bank, Italy has 3.4 hospital beds per 1000 people in the country. The United States has 3. India? India has 0.5 hospital beds per 1000 people.
A 2017 study in Madhya Pradesh, found that there were only 2.5 critical care beds per 100,000 people in the state (and 75% were in private hospitals) and only 13% had a round-the-clock intensivist. These shortages of infrastructure and personnel are not unique to India but they’re especially acute given that a majority of our population rely on government hospitals.
All of that lack of capacity, is on a normal, business-as-usual day. But we don’t live in normal times.
There are people with life-threatening disease OTHER THAN coronavirus who aren’t able to access critical care in India. Now, imagine you add even a small number of “critical” coronavirus patients on a list to be on ventilators. You might save some coronavirus patients but you’ll almost certainly kill the others. And THAT, is the point. An overwhelmed healthcare system will collapse if we add strain to it and while statistically the coronavirus’ death rate maybe low, all the other life-threatening illnesses haven’t been put on pause.
What makes coronavirus special? Why shutdown the country because of coronavirus and not, say, because of Tuberculosis? GREAT QUESTION. India’s “contribution” to global TB cases is, a slightly terrifying 20%. But TB is, in theory, with the right treatment protocol curable. But the fact that drug-resistant versions of TB have emerged and we’re too under-resourced, too untrained and overall still struggling to deal with it is all the more reason to take the coronavirus seriously. In 2019, Prime Minister announced at the United Nations that India will aim to eradicate TB by 2025. A laudable mission and one that we must absolutely win. But in the meantime, we cannot afford another disease outbreak.
We cannot afford another disease outbreak
That’s the point. That is the only point. It isn’t whether coronavirus will kill us all. It probably won’t. But you only have to turn to China, Italy, the UK, the US or any other country to see what kind of strain it puts on the system. The system is put under strain when people who are vulnerable (the “at risk” population – people with underlying chronic medical issues or old people) need to get critical care. Even if you asked them to stay at home, people around them might be infected and, in turn, infect them. So it is beyond urgent to make sure that we reduce the number of carriers and spreaders of this disease.
Go back to the top of this article. Think about the consequences of the curfew for all those people who are likely to be affected by it. Now think again if, under that circumstance, someone in those families needed urgent critical care. We simply wouldn’t be able to give it to them.
It might turn out that in a week’s time, after widespread testing, the virus hasn’t spread that much at all. If that happens, it is easy enough to roll back the 21 day curfew and “re-open” the country. Doing that backwards, is not an option. Three weeks ago, NYC was open to business. Day before yesterday, the governor imposed a state-wide shutdown but only after 10,000 cases were already confirmed. A shut down, as evidence shows, is inevitable. WHEN it happens, is a hard decision and one that I’m glad Modi took seriously.
Demonetization was a pea-brained idea and I roundly criticized it at the time and I continue to do so. I can count on the fingers of one hand, the things that I like about PM Modi: 1. The Swacch Bharat mission and 2. That hilarious troll video of him placing garbage on a beach. This curfew ranks highest on that list because it could literally save the country.
There’s one thing he still needs to do though. That is host a (virtual and unscripted) press conference where he and his covid response team takes questions about India’s preparedness and gives the people answers. It is mind boggling that in his 6 years, PM Modi has done exactly one press conference. The lack of accountability is astounding and that can’t be the case with this crisis. This “governance by diktat” where he shows up one evening, broadcasts a video and disappears is unsustainable.
If you don’t think coronavirus is serious enough to mandate a curfew, please critique the decision (from home). If you really like the decision, please celebrate it (from home). As I said in an earlier post, the Janata curfew was a test which a large portion of the country passed but we also saw exactly the stupid, irresponsible, illogical, irrational behaviour that we’ve come to expect from some people. The reason YOU should take it seriously is so that you can then convince others to do so too. There will absolutely be challenges in implementing this curfew. We have to figure out how to get food and money to the people who need it most for these 21 days. But that is a far, far easier problem to solve and its the kind of goal-oriented, mission-mode task that our colonial bureaucracy is optimized for. We have to figure out rules for allowing people to buy groceries and medication. That will be challenging too but if we’re not all collectively crazy, we can get through with it.
I haven’t thrown thoughts onto a page this incoherently in a long time but it is really hard to focus my thoughts on this subject. Please just follow up the rules. Please stay safe and stay at home. If you’re sick, you will most likely recover at home over time. Just make sure to stay away from other people especially those who have old and/or vulnerable people at home.
This is for all of us.
Of course this is all the government’s job. But the time for passing the buck is not in the middle of a crisis. Where we can help mitigate the damage this will cause for the poor and the disadvantaged, we must. This is for them. Got ideas? Share them! Lets try to find some support and do it! (Crowdfund a weekly PayTM deposit to your regular sabziwallah aunty or someone similar who you know personally who needs it?)
I can think of my neighbors, even those who refused to give us back the ball when we accidentally hit it into their balconies or those who ratted to your parents because they saw you with “some boy”. Those aunties and uncles may mean nothing to us but they’re someone’s parents and grandparents. This is for them.
There will be cops under scrutiny to keep the streets clear 24×7 even now instead of being with their families like the rest of us. Don’t add to their job. Thank them later. This is for them.
The grocery store employees who have to show up to work despite the risk of contracting the virus? Don’t be rude to them! Be nice. Keep a safe distance. Wear gloves. This is for them.
If you have a driver or a gardner or a domestic help, please pay them and ask them to stay at home. If you have a security guard in your housing society, ask them about their families and help them in meaningful financial ways. This is for them.
There are people working crazy hours, behind the scenes in some government office somewhere creating the policy response to this, creating the solutions to these problems and who have to take critical decisions by the second. This is for them.
The people who are going to be under most severe stress in the next few months are our doctors. I could hear your pots clanging and bells ringing all the way in NYC. Now don’t forget them. This is so that they can focus on their (already insane) stressful jobs. This is for them.
This is 21 days for all of us.
P.S: Don’t forget to wash your hands (and don’t touch your face).
Late last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered what can only be described as a statesmanlike address to the nation regarding India’s response to the Coronavirus. The 30-minute speech is one I’d encourage us all to watch and take to heart because the full force of that crisis is yet to hit India (and long may it stay that way).
Wishful thinking aside, there is nothing to suggest that India will be spared by this global pandemic which has already killed 13,000 people. All over the world, several strategies have been deployed to varying impact but they all seem to be some combination of social distancing, large scale testing and whatever hospitals can do to keep patients alive. Alongside “social distancing”, the phrase “flattening the curve” has dominated public discourse (at least in the US) and for good reason. If you haven’t heard of it yet, flattening the curve refers to the concept of slowing down the number of people who need to be treated by the health system of a country so that the total number of patients doesn’t exceed the capacity of the system at any given point of time. In other words, treat the same total number of people but over a longer period of time.
It is in that context, that Modi’s latest call to action becomes relevant. Per his call, on Sunday, March 22, India will observe a “Janata curfew” or a curfew, as he described it, “for the people and by the people”. Modi has also called for people to step out to their balconies, windowsills and doorsteps at 5PM and make their appreciation heard by clapping their hands or ringing bells for the millions of first responders, hospital staff and others who are on the frontlines of this crisis.
Many have criticized, indeed mocked, the Prime Minister’s appeal for being too insouciant in the absence of any other discernible policy response. Yet, as insignificant as it may sound, the Janata curfew and 5PM applause, in my opinion, will prove to be a significant policy tool in India’s toolkit in the weeks ahead.
I’m living through a shelter-in-place in New York City right now. That means, that for the foreseeable future, we’re not allowed to go outside unless it is unavoidable and we can’t gather in groups for any reason. Yet, despite how serious community transmission has been in the US, I see people walking to the park nearby with their friends and family as if nothing is happening in the world around them. Not far from here, in Prospect park, the scene is no different. People are craving for some of that spring time sunshine and it turns out, not even a pandemic will stop them. That isn’t to say that it isn’t working. For the large part, it is. Times Square is nowhere as crowded as it usually is and that’s a great thing. But it is impractical to think that enforcing a curfew for long periods will work perfectly when you try it especially in the middle of a public health emergency. The scenes from Miami, are unfortunate testaments to that fact. As I write this, somewhere in the distance I can hear an ambulance. Even by NYC standards, the frequency of those sirens has increased in the past few days. Make no mistake, this virus is dangerous and fatal for some but an overwhelmed health system means life or death for many more.
Every Indian knows that implementing something like a shelter in place in India for an extended period is going to be next to impossible. “We are Indians and we are like that only”. But, the Janata curfew is a chance for both, our people and our system to recalibrate and get ready to fight this. If it fails to get the response it deserves, there’s no cause for panic. It will last only one day. A Sunday that too. No one cares. We can dust ourselves off, pick ourselves up and try it (or something else) again. But, if it succeeds, it can be a true force multiplier. Low-hanging fruit, as it is called. A chance for the nation, amid these trying times, to say that we achieved something. And on that brick we shall stand and lay the road forward, one brick at a time -nudging people into action (or in this case, in action. Stay at home).
This isn’t only philosophical. It has practical consequences. Rather than. throwing a system into disarray, it gives everyone the opportunity to practice social distancing one day at a time. It gives the police and the rest of government a chance to identify where the messaging needs to reinforced by observing the response. The weird idea that ringing bells at 5PM will “deactivate the virus” (which is a real theory circulating on WhatsApp) is well…weird but it certainly forces India to remember those faceless doctors and staff on whose backs we will ride out this crisis and all we have to do, is to sit exactly where we stand and do literally anything other than getting out of the house. It is also subtle reminder to Modi’s own cabinet colleagues that there are other ways to display activism other than “Go Corona, Corona Go“. Remember, as inevitable as it is, community transmission has not been confirmed in India yet. Which means that we can start taking these steps sooner than most countries did. These measured, nation-wide announcements will, indeed must, become more common. And the time for them is now, before the panic sets in. The time for quick wins is now, when you need to start getting people’s attention. The time for action is now, before the real crisis begins.
p.s: Stay at home, wash your hands and don’t touch your face.
Late last week the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) published its findings after an investigation into the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines aircraft crash disasters of 2018. The report established that Boeing’s flawed assumptions of how aircraft crew would use the new safety sensor mechanism on the 737Max plane in the event of an emergency was to blame for the disasters which resulted in the death of 346 people. Neither FAA safety assessments nor Boeing’s training modules took into consideration that in real-world experiences of aircraft crews, pilots were faced with multiple alarms and alerts at the same time and consequently, their response to these alerts was inconsistent with Boeing’s assumptions.
This gap between design assumptions and real world user experience is not uncommon in other sectors. Consumer product manufacturer Samsung Mobile, announced their new “foldable” phone earlier this year. The new flexible screen on the phone had a thin, protective layer of plastic which was critical for the display to function. But when the product was delivered to the first set of customers this summer, users instinctively (and contrary to Samsung’s expectations) removed the plastic layer assuming it was simply temporary packaging material which all smartphones, including Samsung own phones, ship with. The display stopped working instantly and Samsung was forced to recall the device from market.
What is Human-centered Design?
These examples reinforce the need for more “human-centered design” (HCD). Sometimes referred to as “design thinking”, HCD is a simple but powerful set of tools to consult with the target audience of a service or a product and arrive at innovative solutions which respond to their needs.
HCD also finds application in the public sector especially since government must design services for a diverse spectrum of beneficiaries with differing needs and circumstances. Yet, it does not find widespread adoption in traditional public sector service design. A recent survey by the Governance Lab at NYU of 380 government officials found that less than half of them had used Human Centered Design practices in their job and within that group only 20% had done basic tasks like testing ideas with residents for feedback prior to implementation. The result is sub-optimal service delivery (often disproportionately affecting minority populations), frustrated residents and wasted public resources. Take the example of California’s food stamp program. While the state allowed people to apply online, that application was 50 web pages long with over 100 questions. Most families who started the process would end up abandoning it. The NGO Code for America, after engaging with the end users of the service to analyze it from their perspective, re-designed the application process so it only took 10 minutes to complete it resulting in a substantial increase in enrollments.
How do you do it?
There are several well-documented approaches to design thinking comprising surveys, creating user personas, observing human behavior, beta testing products with focus groups, creating “journey maps” and so on. Organizations like IDEO, NESTA and the GovLab have toolkits, courses and practical guides to help entreprenuers learn and practice this skill. Thorugh each step, the aim is to understand the problem from the point of view of the person experiencing it. In some cases, this can be done by observing them “in the wild” by letting users have a go at using the product and making detailed notes of how they use it. In other cases, more structured questions might be required to guide our understanding of a problem. There is no single “right way” and often one might have to employ multiple techniques to arrive at a conclusion. To do it well and to set oneself up for success, defining our hypotheses, laying out assumptions explicitly and identifying those who are most impacted are all pre-requistes to the design thinking process.
But to obtain any meaninful results from it, HCD can not be treated as a mere “checklist” item. It is a manner of approaching a problem and acknowledging at the very beginning that we often have blindspots simply because of the fact that we do not have the lived experiences of the people we seek to serve. Making empathy an important of our problem solving process is at the heart of design thinking. The resources and techniques are simply a way to structure that mindset into a process which can be taught and learned.
Of course, design thinking is not a panacea. It is only one of the implements in a 21st century problem solver’s toolkit. For instance, identifying new sources of data and analyzing them to make more data-driven decisions is a technique that increasing numbers of entreprenuers, organizations and governments are employing. But neither design thinking nor data analysis works in isolation. Whether you’re designing safety systems for an aircraft, making consumer tech products or delivering public services, in order to get a clear understanding of a problem or the impact of a certain intervention, we must do both – look at the data AND speak with people.
This story is written as part of the “Once…At School” contest on Tell-A-Tale – Bringing together stories and storytellers to create a positive change.
“Rahul added some extra things to that green Beyblade. Otherwise he would not have beaten me. I asked him to let me see it but he didn’t agree” Anthony said.
“Let it go” Gurpreet said. “Cheaters never prosper”
There weren’t many things more insulting for a 7thgrader than being beaten by a junior at a Beyblade challenge. He swore to take revenge and bit into the chapatti jam roll his mother had packed for him, ripping it into two unequal pieces. He looked like a predator tearing its prey’s head apart from the rest of its body
“I will show that stupid fellow. Just wait and see.” he said, making sure he’d be audible across the room and the corridor.
When the bell rang, everyone scurried around the class, back to their respective seats except Anthony. Anthony sat on top of the desk meddling with his Beyblade, mumbling to himself about the form of revenge he was going to extract. Lost in thought, he didn’t notice the teacher walk in. All the others stood up, hands folded and in a robotic, unostentatious voice said “Namaste ma’am”. Mrs Mo insisted that her students greet all the teachers similarly. Respect, she said, was a trait fast vanishing from this generation.
“Anthony” she called out but he didn’t hear her.
“ANTHONY” she said, a bit louder this time but to no effect. She walked towards him and grabbed him by the pocket of his shirt. He jumped out of his trance even as she held him by the shirt trying to shake him out of the daze. But the sudden movement left the teacher with only his shirt’s pocket in her hand. He dug his hand in his face and burst into tears. He hoped that he’d earn some sympathy points from the teacher but her heavy hand landed on his back with a loud sound that stunned the class into a pin drop silence.
“Stop crying like a baby” she said and the crying stopped instantly. As Mrs Mo turned to go back to black board, she noticed the Beyblade.
“What is that? Give it to me” she said.
“Nothing ma’am. It is nothing.” He said, trying to hide it under a book. He had to hide it all cost. He was planning to challenge Rahul that evening to a re-match.
Mrs Mo reached over the desk and pulled the Beyblade from under the book. She examined it carefully.
“What is this?” she asked. She didn’t actually care but she asked nevertheless. There was no right answer to that question because she wasn’t planning on returning it. The school’s policy about toys was very strict. Anthony began thinking and re-thinking non-cliché excuses to reason with the teacher but he had none. Even as his brain overclocked thinking of an excuse, Mrs Mo tossed the toy out of the window. Anthony stood, his eyes popping out of their sockets.
“Madam!” he yelled and took a couple of paces toward the window. He was promptly sent back to his place by Mrs Mo. Anthony put his head down and cried again. This time, a more genuine outburst of emotion. There was only one thing more insulting for a 7th grader than being beaten by a junior at a Beyblade challenge- To be beaten by a junior at a Beyblade challenge and not going back to take revenge.
“I hope I never see her face again. I HATE her.” Anthony went on a rant. “How dare she throw my Beyblade? I hope her kids never get to play with Beyblades. Or Pokémon cards. Imagine how boring that would be. That’d serve her right” Anthony’s resentment for Mrs Mo was clear. He’d carry it with him till he graduated high school 5 years later.
15 years later…
Anthony stepped into the staff room of his old school and exchanged pleasantries with his teachers. At the far end was Mrs. Mo, now old and fragile but still teaching part-time. Nobody’s lessons had had as much effect on his life as her admonitions. He walked sceptically toward her wondering how he’d have to introduce himself for her to recognise him.He walked up to her and stood near a rack. She was deep in meditation but she waved at him to come toward her. He obeyed, almost out of fear.
“Good evening ma’am. I’m An…” he started.
“Anthony Rodriguez.” She completed. “Eat some ground nuts. You’ll put on some weight. You’re as skinny as you were in school.” She motioned to him to grab a chair. He sat down and updated her with his life. National Law School, Harvard Law School and now employed with one of the best law firms in the world. He had an enviable resume but, she said, she was only as proud of him as she was of all her other students. He nodded with a smile. You can’t ever please Mrs Mo. She expects better than the best. Suddenly, a young boy ran into the staff room. He wasn’t much older 6 and he ran straight to Anthony.
“Francis! I asked you to stay in the car, didn’t I?”
“I want to go home papa!”
“Francis, have you forgotten something?”
The 6 year old stared into the ground, shy, kicking his feet around for a few seconds. He looked up at Mrs Mo and folded his hands.
“Namaste ma’am” he said and then dug his face into his papa’s arms.
Mrs Mo laughed out loud. “Namaste little one. You’re a smart little fella, aren’t you?”. She got up and walked to her cupboard and came back with a little box which she handed to little Francis. “What is that?” Anthony asked. “Nothing. It’s nothing” she replied. Anthony remembered instantly what it is. “You kept it all these years? I..” but she wasn’t listening to him. “If you don’t know how to use it, ask papa ok?” she told Francis who looked carefully at the slightly damaged Beyblade without the slightest clue about what it was.
Anthony lifted his impatient bundle of joy, bid Mrs Mo farewell and turned to leave.
A hand landed on his back. His mind raced back 15 years. He was stronger than he was in 7th grade and she, older. But it sent shivers down his spine just like old times.
“It’s nice to know that you haven’t forgotten what I used to say about respect.” she said, “And you’ve raised a wonderful son” she continued. Anthony was delighted that he’d finally done something that Mrs Mo was pleased with.
“Your son did, but you forgot to say Namaste when you entered. So you, Anthony Rodriguez, have failed me again” she said, with a sly grin on her face.
Anthony smiled. “Good bye Mrs Mo.” he said. One always falls short of Mrs Mo’s expectations he thought to himself. But secretly, she was proud and he knew it as he walked out.
Disclaimer: There is no chronological order to read these entries. They are independent of each other and not necessarily in any logical order. Some are short. Others are long. Some are nascent understandings of a city that are heavily biased by stereotype. These maybe inconsistent and could, overtime, even be contradictory. They are meant to be read as singular moments in time without any context or background. You may have had similar experiences as some of these entries or entirely different ones but these are mine alone.
#1 Times Square
We went back to Manhattan and on to 42nd street, possibly the most famous address on earth – Times Square. Times Square was crazy. It was MG road on steroids. The buildings were taller, the billboards were bigger and brighter and there were 20 times as many people and much more diverse than the crowd back home. To come from a place like India and find a place more crowded was quite something. It was an ocean of tourists, clicking pictures of themselves that would eventually be cover photos on Facebook. There were all the regular characters, Spider man, Iron man and a walking statue of Liberty posing for photos. There was also a recent addition, topless body-painted women who also posed happily for photos with tourists.
Times Square – The crossroads of the world
We walked and walked to find a spot to sit and finally landed at the spot of the famous 31stDecember ball drop. Sitting on those stairs one had a good view of the crowded streets and the shiny billboards. There was activity all around, people moving, clicking photos, open bus tours, street musicians and a whole lot of other maddening things. But for some reason, the mind was peaceful. It was the kind of sanity that comes out from seeing the insanity around you. There was so much diversity, so many different kinds of people going about their business without intruding anyone’s space. You could be yourself in New York, be unique, be free. Sitting there, one thing became very clear very quickly to me about this city. You didn’t stand out in New York if you’re odd. You stand out in New York if you’re not.You don’t need to put on an accent and wear a certain type of clothing. You do what is important to you, what needs to be done for your good and everything around you is irrelevant and yet enabling at the same time. You can stand in the middle of Times Square with your headphones on and sing out loud. You can dance if your feet feel like it, you can walk by quietly if you don’t. If you have any inhibitions, you need to let go of them. If you can’t do it, you can keep to yourself too. Either way, you’ll fit in. You’ll find people who are happy to have conversations with other random folks and you’ll see people who are lost in their own world. As long as you’re doing what makes you comfortable, no one bothers you. Trying to mimic someone else is probably the biggest mistake one can make. It is next to impossible to put on an act here for too long. You can try, but this massive city will overwhelm you soon enough. By the time we decided to leave, it was 8:30PM. We went back to the 33rdstreet and took the path to Journal square from where we started the hour long drive back home.
#2 Lady Landlady.
“Is there a pest problem?” I asked the old landlady.
“No” she replied, nodding her head sideways, clearly offended by my questioning the integrity of her house. “The only pests in my house are my tenants” she grinned as we laughed along sycophantically to her quip. “And I could kill them too” she continued after a pause, laughing heartily, to our shock.
#3 Celebrity Status
I craned my neck to look over the sea of people that had gathered in front of the fancy looking hotel on the way to 59th street. There were a few important looking black SUVs at the front and a lot of security personnel dressed in black as well. People were standing behind a barricade across the road too, holding their phones aloft to take pictures. It became obvious that someone important was either about to leave or enter the hotel but the identity of the mystery figure was entirely unclear. From the chatter in the crowd it could’ve been Obama, Jennifer Aniston or even AC/DC. I looked around questioningly only to find more bemused faces looking to me for an answer. Suddenly, a flurry of activity ensued that resulted in more important looking black SUVs moving into the street. This required some rearrangement of the existing SUVs and the general crowd who had, by now, spilled over from the footpath to the street. One of the security personnel walked towards us to make sure we weren’t standing on the road when the young lady next to me took the chance on behalf of the entire crowd around us and asked him “Excuse me, who is here?”
The gentleman in black replied with a sly grin on his face, “You are!” paused for a second to let the answer sink in and walked past to clear the messy crowd from the end of the road.
#4 Home away from home.
I opened my eyes groggily to my 13th dawn in the United States and rolled over to the side of the bed where the sunlight through the windows were less excited to greet me. As if by the devil’s design, my phone buzzed repeatedly under my pillow leaving me with the option of rolling back to the sun baked side of my world or just waking up and dealing with the world as I’ve been doing for nearly 22 years now. I swore that those overly eager rays of sun were never going to see my face at such ungodly hours as 8AM on a Saturday morning so I sat up on the edge of the bed and contemplated life, love and liberty. After witnessing a rather depressing 2-1 home defeat of Chelsea by Crystal Palace, I had lunch and scheduled multiple events for the month ahead.
I’d been warned by more persons than one that I’d start feel homesick rather quickly. That seemed like a perfectly good reason for a lot of people to carry a lot of Indian things while travelling from home to the US. These included things like Eastern Sambhar powder, Priya’s mango pickle and a few packs of MTR ready to eat food stuff among multiple other “Non-Firang” things. My experiences in this country so far had proved that the warning was accurate. On day 2 of the trip, we’d been to an “Indian restaurant” called Taj Mahal. It was a small, actually narrow place. There was only enough room for two rows of tiny tables and about 8 tables in total. There were grand chandeliers hanging above and paintings of the beautiful Taj and the king who ordered its construction, Shah Jahan and his beloved wife Mumtaz for whom he had it built. BUT, the food was as far removed from truly Indian as an American restaurant called Taj Mahal run by Bangladeshis could be.
Which was why when I was told that you could get anything you need at the Indian store in New Jersey, I was a bit sceptical. I wore my Bata Hawaii chappal and set foot on American soil with those for the first time on my trip. One small step for this man. One giant step for the Hawaii chappal clad version of this man. Few things make one feel as ‘at home’ as familiar footwear. (The other famous one, of course, is using the bathroom at one’s own house. Seriously. What is it about that?). The Indian store was located next to a small restaurant and a shop selling kurtis and other Indian apparel. My trusty Hawaii chappal got stuck under the mat at the entrance and I tripped a bit. So as I entered the store, my eyes were pointed downwards cursing at, in true Indian style, an inanimate object. When I looked up, it was as if I had been teleported to some supermarket in Bangalore. There were Indian faces everywhere, Bollywood music bleeding out of the speakers and even some small wrappers and tags lying around on the floor- an unmistakable signature of the stores back home. I was even sure that there was some fishy tampering of the AC to make the air inside familiarly Indian- although that was probably only in my head.
Every step I took through every aisle was slowly dispelling every notion I had about life in America. There were stacks of Priya’s mango pickle stacked right next to rows and rows of Amma’s lime pickle. There was chutney pudi and dosa batter. There were endless racks of pulses, rices and masalas. There were bars of medimix soap, bottles of Dettol and cans of moov. There were even packets of Tiger biscuits and Parle-G. (I must add, with some disappointment, that there was a rack full of “Indian carrots”, the kind of which I have never seen in India. Clearly some scam to convince Indians living abroad that their families are prospering, munching on carrots the size of half litre bottles of coke. Someone call Arnab Goswami. #CarrotGate). It is near impossible to miss Indian food here. In fact, the supermarkets in Bangalore stock less Indian stuff and more American stuff. So in many senses, this Indian store in New Jersey is more Indian than a whole lot of stores in India. So to everyone back home, if there is some Indian stuff you miss at home in India, a certain 2 minute instant noodles brand for instance, give me a call. I’ll bring it from “home” on my next trip home.
When I first realized that I’d be staying at an apartment by myself (and a couple of flat mates) in New York City, I was rather excited by the whole idea. Of all the things that excited me though, the idea of ‘moving in’ to a new house fascinated me the most. Many sunrises before I set foot in this country, I’d dreamed many a Utopian dream about walking up a flight of stairs, bag and baggage behind me, stepping into the house, heaving a sigh of relief, tossing my favorite black hat on the coat hanger at the entrance and admiring the spectacular view of an empty house that would soon be teeming with activity.
As it turned out, the actual act of ‘moving in’ was rather underwhelming. We’d been hunting for an apartment for roughly two and half weeks before finding this particular place. In that time, I’d climbed more flights of stairs than I’d bargained for, stepped into more houses than I’d imagined and heaved more sighs of relief than I thought humanly possible. In fact we went to one particular apartment at one point in our search. A beautiful apartment on the 6thfloor, wait no, the 7th floor of a pre-war building (People here count the ground floor as the first floor. They also flip the switches in the opposite direction, turn the key the other way, drive on the other side of the road and, this is my favorite, their toilets flush in the anti-clockwise direction. I won’t vouch for the accuracy of that last one). It wasn’t the biggest house we’d seen but the view from the bedroom was that of the gorgeous Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the distance. There was a subway station immediately to left side of the entrance to the building- a feature that appealed so much to us that we’d have booked the apartment for that reason alone. But as fate would have it, the Realtor was incompetent, to put it very mildly. After promising that we’d get the flat, he called back 4 days later to say that someone else had got the place. We could’ve comfortably lived under the mountain of our collective disappointment at that point.
It was in that near-depressed state that we came to see this new place. A 3rd floor apartment in a quiet neighborhood. We loved it. The day after signing the lease, I packed a small bag with a week’s worth of clothes from my cousin’s place (I planned to bring the other suitcases later from there) and caught the NJ Transit train from Jersey Avenue to Newark, switched to the PATH train to world trade center and then got on the subway train to my humble abode. I climbed two flights of stairs, stepped into the house and walked straight to my room and left the little bag there. No sigh of relief, no tossing the black hat, no admiring the spectacular view of the empty house. Nothing. But ‘moving in’ was over. I stood in the balcony that overlooked the street, my hands rested on the railings, and eyes stared down at the road. It felt as though a massive burden had been lifted off my shoulders. So what if my dream didn’t come true? I don’t even own a black hat in the first place! I’ve come to understand a basic fact of life. Utopia shouldn’t be one’s expectation but it can always be the aim. “I have a place to live in New York City now” I thought to myself, “It’s time to make it a home”.
After an hour and a half on three subway trains I finally reached 110th street. I got out of the nearest exit and landed right next to the entrance to Central Park- that park from that chick flick you saw recently. Now, I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before but crossing the roads in this city is one of the most empowering experiences. The moment the lights turn red, the vehicles stop. THEY STOP. (I’ve learnt not to compare anything here with its equivalent back home including, but not limited to, currency, internet speed and, of course, adherence to traffic rules. And so, I will not dwell on the subject). I crossed the road and found Larry’s Free-wheeling just down the street. Larry’s was the meeting point for the Central Park bike tour I’d signed up for a few weeks ago. Cassidy, our wonderful host for the day, was there already with two others. I introduced myself albeit with a shortened version of my name to make the greeting more friendly and less A-Dummy’s-Guide-to-Indian-Name-Pronunciation. After all what’s in a name? We waited for a few more minutes for the rest of the group to join us and in the meanwhile selected our bikes for the evening. (Mom, don’t freak out. Bikes here mean cycles. Not motorbikes). Cassidy told us the route we’d be taking and then we set off on our biking trip through Central Park.
“This is the first time I’m riding a bike since I got to New York” Susan turned to me and said.
“This is the first time I’m riding a bike since I was 10 years old or something” I replied, breathing laboriously. (At this point, we’d cycled for almost exactly 3 minutes. If anybody has found my stamina, please return it. Sigh).
After a brief stop at the reservoir named after JFK’s wife, Jacqueline, where we got some gorgeous pictures, we moved on to the location I most looked forward to when Cassidy announced the route. Remember that fountain from the F.R.I.E.N.D.S intro song? That iconic round base fountain in Central Park! We got off the cycles as we reached the clearing in the woods where the fountain was and I began picturing the intro song in my head. The couch in the front, the lamp by the side, Ross getting drenched under the fountain and the rest of the cast playing around. Except, I couldn’t actually picture it. I googled “the friends fountain” and found a picture of it. The one I was standing at was a nice fountain- it just wasn’t THAT fountain. I walked up to Cassidy, held out the phone and said “Are you sure this is that fountain? It looks a little..different”. She took the phone from my hand looked at the fountain and back at the screen a couple of times and said, “They lied to me. They LIED to me.” I could see on her face the betrayal she felt at that moment but as it turns out, she’s not the only one who’d fallen for that urban myth. If you ever go to Central Park, just remember- that round fountain on Cherry Hill is not that fountain.
The Faux F.R.I.E.N.D.S Fountain
Just up ahead was Bow Bridge. Even if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve probably seen it. If you haven’t seen it, you probably haven’t seen Spider man 3 or Made of honour. It isn’t the fanciest bridge in the world. It’s small and unassuming but it just automatically makes the whole place look rather romantic.
“Do you see those two tall buildings?” Cassidy said “That’s not where John Lennon lived.” We stared blankly at her face.
“He lived in the building next to that” she continued. I looked at her skeptically but she was confident about that information especially because there is a memorial site called Imagine close to that building at the place where he was shot.
We laboured along the cycling trail when Cassidy stopped at one point and pointed to a giant circle on the side of the road.
“That’s the centre of Manhattan” she said. Then, after a brief pause, “But then again, the same people who told me that was the friends fountain told me about this. So who knows.” her voice descended in tone, distraught. Geez. F.R.I.E.N.D.S fountain. What a scam.
The Bow Bridge.
Until about two hours ago, this was not the article I had planned to post. It isn’t for the lack of interesting episodes that I haven’t written anything recently. For instance, I missed out on potential opportunities to meet Frank Lampard (Chelsea Football Club legend and my sporting idol) and Tim Cook (Top Boss of that evil corporation trying to take over the world, Apple Inc). Probably the biggest thing to write about though, was the Global Citizen Festival featuring Cold Play, Ed Sheeran, Beyonce, Sunidhi Chauhan, Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio, Hugh Jackman and multiple other big names which I was surprisingly lucky to attend. But those are stories for another day. In fact, there isn’t much to write about that. The festival was awesome. You’re just going to have to take my word for it.
Somewhere in South Bangalore circa 2012.
It’s a typical Bangalore morning. I throw aside the double layered blanket I had created using a fat blanket and thin, soft blanket so that I’m warm and comfortable in my cosy bed, surrounded by pillows, a hand kerchief and my phone. I get up and roam around aimlessly and settle on the couch in the fetal position, trying to steal a few last minute winks before the mad rush to get ready for college starts. Eventually, I get up again, remove my ear mufflers, then my hoodie and then my socks. I am now warmed up for the rest of the day.
The temperature is 26 degree Celsius and I’m cold.
Present day New York City.
I was trying, and repeatedly failing, at logging into a remote server to run some programs for the VLSI assignment that is due in three days. It was around 6PM and a little hint of hunger was beginning to sway my focus. Suddenly, it occurred to me that it was Friday a.k.a laundry day. I decide to shoo two birds with one stone by going to do the laundry and then eating a gyro from a street cart on 4th avenue while the washing machine did its job. By sheer coincidence, the phone rang. It was my housemate and he made me an offer that I could not refuse. Many weeks ago, we’d planned to go eat Shawarmas from a Lebanese restaurant on 86th. It so happened that the R train he’d taken today from college ran express from Atlantic Avenue to 86th, skipping about 7 stops including the one he was supposed to get down at. Surely the universe had conspired to drag him to 86thstreet to finally eat the shawarma. I stopped what I was doing and postponed my laundry plan for a little later in the day. It had been raining all day thanks to the wide-spanned effects of Hurricane Joaqin. So I grabbed my jacket and an umbrella and stepped out.
As I stepped out of the door, I was still zipping up the jacket. I walked a couple of steps on the footpath when the wind decided to introduce my face to the rain. My face, understandably, was not pleased. I shook off the water and opened the umbrella and walked further. The wind returned, this time just sneaking in through the sleeves of my jacket and causing me some discomfort. I smiled to myself because despite the best efforts of this heartless wind, I wasn’t shivering yet. Suddenly, my phone rang again. As I took my phone out of my pocket, I found my fingers were responding to my brain with the kind of delay you’d normally find when you’re using whatsapp call over a really bad 2G network. Suddenly in the background, I noticed a broken umbrella lying on the ground. And then another. And then many more. I valiantly walked through the ruins of these once-robust repellers of water, proud that my Made in Kerala umbrella was still standing tall in the sky. Drunk in arrogance, I forgot to pay attention to the ground and stepped into a puddle of cold water. Freezing, cold water. It made its way through the clothed lining of my sports shoe, drenched my socks and, I’m pretty sure, froze instantly on my foot. I remember skipping, jumping and hopping my way into the warm safety of the subway station. The station was, after all, just a hop, skip and jump away from home.
I got off at 86th and stepped out of the station, trying to regain the feeling in my feet. The omnipresent wind blew straight into my face again. I hurled a few abuses in the general direction of its origin and looked around for my house mate. We walked into the restaurant, placed the order and sat ourselves in a corner where it was warm (all adjectives especially those with respect to temperature, are relative). In hindsight, sitting right by the entrance was not such a smart idea because every time someone opened the door they brought behind them a large trailer of cold air. After eating some rather terrible food, we walked back to the subway. I was careful not step into any more puddles and safely made my way into the station.
When we stepped out of the station at our destination, I opened the umbrella once more and walked on. Out of nowhere, the rain, the wind and the leaves ganged up in one insane move that made me hold the umbrella in front of me to offer some resistance to wind. In that awkward pose, I left many gaps in my jacket uncovered and the cold air found every single one of them. I readjusted my body and pulled myself back together and marched on. The wind was now colder than earlier and a lot less well mannered. It was blowing along the streets and avenues and causing particularly nasty problems at the intersection of the two. We somehow battled against the forces of nature and made it home. Home, where we were finally safe from the very real dangers of hypothermia.
The temperature is 11 degree Celsius and I’m cold.
“Just imagine” one of my friends in San Diego had said just this afternoon, “By December..”
“Let’s not talk about December please” I replied, “I don’t want to talk about negative numbers”.
The temperature is 11 degree Celsius and soon, minus 5 won’t be just another insignificant value on the number line in a 4thgrader’s math book.
#8 Home again.
After paying our tributes to John Lennon at his memorial near Strawberry Fields, tossing a few pennies into that pseudo “friends fountain” (which was now, apparently, a wishing well), hanging around a festive gathering of South Americans near the bow bridge for some time and then dancing with an ethnically diverse group of strangers to some catchy music being doled out by a make shift DJ in the middle of Central Park, we walked towards 79thStreet because someone uttered the words “There is a Saravana Bhavan in Manhattan”.
There are a few things one tends to take for granted after living in South India for two decades. At the top of that list are dosas, sambar and filter coffee. That isn’t to say that I’ve been craving dosas or anything. I just haven’t given it much thought because I’ve been busy trying to imbibe as much of this new atmosphere as possible. New cuisines have always excited me and I’ve enjoyed the Gyros and pretzels from the street carts as much as I have the pizza slices, shawarmas, salads or sushi. Two months isn’t enough time for that excitement to wear off and so I’ve been living in my little bubble of satisfaction rather comfortably. But this night out was about to test that resolve.
A few weeks ago I’d written about my experience at the “Taj Mahal hotel” (If you haven’t read it, just scroll up to “#4 Home away from home). For me, that and another similar experience at an “Indian restaurant” established one cold, hard truth. There is no genuine Indian cuisine in New York so I’ll just have to live with that knowledge for two years. With that thought repeatedly ringing in my head, I walked with the rest of the guys through the chilly streets of Manhattan in search of a saving grace for Indian cuisine in the western world. When we got to 79th and Amsterdam Avenue, my shoulders drooped. It looked a very familiar story. A fancy looking restaurant that was crammed into what little space was afforded to them in the extremely expensive avenues of New York. There were a few tables outside, about 5 tables inside, chandeliers hanging above and stereo-typically Indian designs drawn on the tables. That there were large shelves of fine wine stacked near the counter did not help establish the authenticity of a traditional south Indian hotel based out of Chennai. We seated ourselves and were greeted by a friendly waiter who handed us menu cards. It had all the regular stuff- Idlis, dosas, uthappams, bisi belle bath, thalis, rotis, curries and everything else you’d expect from a south Indian hotel. Skeptically, I ordered a paper masala dosa and a filter coffee and decided to share a sambar vada with a friend.
But from the instant we placed the order, I knew this place was going to be different. We ordered 4 coffees and one tea in total. The waiter turned to another elderly waiter and shouted “Anna, Naal coffee, oru tea” (brother, 4 coffees and one tea). It had the tone, the pitch, the accent and the style of an Indian fast food restaurant and it immediately made the environment a lot more homely. The sound of that order was the first of many feel good moments that evening. First to arrive was the sambar vada. I took a spoonful of sambar in the hope that it wouldn’t disappoint. As soon as it went into my stomach, a warm feeling engulfed me. Whether that was because of the hot sambar or the warmth of nostalgic familiarity, I don’t know. But it was beautiful. The dosa came next and it was spectacular as well. But what had me sold was the coffee. Of course, the taste was great but how it was served was even better- In the regular steel cup and saucer with the coffee overflowing just a tad bit and staining the rims as it flowed out of the cup sloppily into the saucer. It lacked the finesse of an American hotel and I loved it. It was rustic, authentic and done perfectly. Nothing in the hotel- not the food, neither the ambience nor the communication among the waiters had been bastardized to suit the standards of the west.
A sophisticated NRI family walked in after a while. The father was in a polo t-shirt and shorts, the mother in casual western wear too, the grandparents in grandparent clothing (which included 3 layers of jackets) and a young son playing on an iPad. They conversed in English and spoke with a faux-American accent to the waiter, asking for bottled water and extra napkins. And then, they began placing their order. But this is where the authenticity of the ambience kicked in. No matter how much you try to hide it, you can’t help but say “2 masala dosai, 2 plate idli vada and one saada dosa” even though there was no such thing as a saada dosa on the menu. The entry in the menu read “plain dosa” but every south Indian in his element knows that it really is a saada dosa. That, for me, was a tribute to the atmosphere that place had.
Was the food out of the world? Arguable. But did the experience remind me of home? Absolutely. And that is as much a part of gastronomy as the taste, probably more. Do I now crave dosas every week? Meh. That craving suppresses itself when you make the rookie mistake of converting the bill from dollars to rupees.
Rs. 1800 for a dosa, vada and filter coffee. Sacrilegious.
#9 Burn Notice
We were all rather fatigued by the stress that the mid-term exams brought and sitting in class at a time like that isn’t the most ideal thing. Which is why we were all grateful to Microsoft Windows for starting an update on the professor’s computer 15 minutes into class. With the slideshow shut off, she shifted to the printouts she had of some revision for the midterms. The class was suddenly paying rapt attention, hoping to decode some clues she might throw regarding the questions on the exam. Everyone had their eyes on their laptop screens, vigorously highlighting key points and making detailed notes of important concepts (some even typing, verbatim, what the teacher was saying). The difficulty of the topics being discussed went on increasing and the ferocity of the note-taking reached a crescendo when suddenly, bright white lights began flashing all around the room. They glinted at a steady rate accompanied by a loud, arrhythmic, vexatious sound that had by now filled the room. It took a couple of seconds for everyone to realise that the lights were actually from the otherwise insignificant little box that read “Fire alert” and the sound was the unartistic tone of the fire alarm. A sudden panic set in and everyone looked around, perplexed. 99 students and one teacher broke into a nervous laughter while slowly putting laptops back into their bags, ready to run with our lives.
“I’ll go find out what’s happening” the teacher said and walked out of the class leaving most of the class with a confused expression. I have watched enough Bollywood movies to know how to over react dramatically to a situation so I had my bag in one hand and my legs out of the desk in the kind of starting position for a 100m dash that would make Usain bolt proud. We all turned our collective stare to the door from where the teacher had so calmly left to investigate the situation. The alarm was still ringing and the lights, still flashing. She returned soon enough with a smile on her face that relaxed most of the tension in the class. Surely it was a false alarm. Some sort of mock drill (that we completely failed at because we made no effort to escape). She walked insouciantly to the front of the class and announced nonchalantly,
“The lectures in the other classes haven’t stopped”. We heaved a sigh of relief and I dropped my bag and dragged my feet back into the desk, relaxed.
“So at least we won’t burn alone” she added with a grin and then continued with her lecture as if the fire alarm ringing in the background was irrelevant to our current situation. 99 jaws dropped simultaneously in disbelief, the flashing white lights adding the requisite amount of visual dramatics. The only thing missing was a better background score and the fire sprinklers. But I suppose New Yorkers aren’t very experienced with the use of visual theatrics involving fire and stuff. Oh wait…
P.S: As it turned out, there was no fire or emergency of any kind. But if the real story behind this false alarm turns out to be interesting, I’ll make a post about it!
#10 Saving Sunshine
I was, as usual, scrolling through the multitudes of diverse and often largely garbage information on twitter when I came across it. I’d only heard of it when I was in India and I had never bothered contemplating its effects then because it was never going to affect me in any way. I am, of course, talking about that extraordinarily curious concept called Daylight Saving Time. Apparently at 2AM on the 1st of November daylight saving ended, which was really a pity because I was rather enjoying saving daylight without even knowing it. Maybe in some parallel universe, we were all heroes saving that damsel in distress who gives us light, heat and is the very basis of organic life on our planet. But for some reason, we’ve had enough of her innocuous trouble making and we’ve ended the project of saving her..for now. Soon it will be spring again and we’ll rekindle our affection for her and save her once more but for now, we will take a much needed winter vacation from all that saving we’ve been doing and concentrate on more muggle tasks such as going to work or college and doing our laundry and other menial goings on.
In this universe though, the concept is a lot less interesting but equally innocuous. It meant that I woke up at the exact time of the morning as I did the previous morning except that I had woken up one hour earlier when in reality I had not. Confused? Basically, they changed the time. They made it one hour behind. No. Not some uber-cool time travel technology. They just changed the time on the watch. Thus, marketed brilliantly as “Fall back and spring forward” where you changed the time on your watch to be one hour ahead in the spring and an hour behind in the fall. (You get an extra hour of sleep in the fall and one hour less in the spring). What purpose this serves is not evident to me yet. I will probably find out soon but until then, I’m going to fall back and enjoy that extra hour of good sleep. As for Ms Sunshine, she’s just going to have to stay out of trouble till the spring when everyone is out to save her once more.
I’d mentioned right at the start that some times these updates will be few and far between and incoherent at times. This one is the “far between” and incoherent post because it comes after a gap of two months and is about nothing in particular. Just a few post-mid night musing on a day when I was sleepless in New York.
As it turns out, the annoyance, frustration, anger and helplessness that comes with exams transcends boundaries both geographic and academic. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 5thgrader in India or a masters’ student in New York- you go through the same set of emotions anyway. But apart from that, the semester was largely interesting and a lot of fun. Speaking of which- HOLY SMOKES THE SEMESTER IS OVER. “That year went by quickly” is a scientifically inaccurate cliché that is uttered every year. But it’s hard to disagree with that statement primarily because it is that time of the year when you sit back and reflect about the year gone by and wonder what exactly you did all year.
It’s 3AM as I write this. In the last two months, I’ve spent 3AMs’ in the library studying, out by the pier chilling with friends, at home singing out loud and occasionally in the subway station waiting for the ‘R’ train. The ‘R’ train, by the way, is a mythical creature that runs between Brooklyn and Manhattan under the constraints of no particular schedule. I joke (although that’s exactly what it feels like). The ‘R’ takes me to college and brings me home everyday no matter what time it is. As frustrating as the wait for the old, slow fellow can be sometimes, that is just the dynamic of our little love-hate relationship. Over time, I’ve come to enjoy the time I get to spend on the train with no cellphone network or internet- the necessary evils of our time- because of the numerous people of varied cultures that you get to come across from business executives to homeless people and from young students to old street musicians. More about the train in another post. But why am I not doing those things during more godly hours of the day? Well because alternative perspectives are amazing. This is a city, like any big city, that is more than bustling with activity during the day. People rushing to work, others waiting for their dates, still others waiting in vain and a multitude of others with a plethora of other things to do roam here. These streets have seen more stories than we think possible, these skies have heard more cries of joy laughter than we can imagine, these buildings have witnessed more history than we can document and everyday dawn brings more. But late at night, when nothing is happening and nobody is watching, to sit in silence in this theater of madness is an experience like no other. Like leaving the camera rolling after the scene and watching the set come alive albeit only in your mind.
Now that the vacations are upon me, I won’t have to wait till those ungodly hours to find a moment or two to breathe. But being sleepless in New York isn’t a sickness, it’s an addiction. Even while nothing is happening, there is so much to see and hear. All you need to do, is to pay attention.
Happy new year everyone!
“Drama, my darling, is when you watch something happen while nothing happens at all. Like when the sun sets on the horizon and the clouds hang from the sky, and I watch these glorious moments just as they pass me by”
Outside, water has decided to take another one of its many forms. Dancing in the air, twisting and twirling in circles to the tunes that the night seems to be humming without a care in the world. Gradually the world turns into one big picture with a white filter permanently fixed in front. Every half an hour, I peek out to see what has changed. A solitary car revs past, clearing the snow on the road where its tyres rolled. Those dancing above aren’t perturbed because they’ll dance through the night and into the morning and soon, the car’s tracks will be covered again. The grass in front of my house is no longer visible- in its place lies a cottony carpet sent from the heavens above. When it clears in the morning the grass will look up again but without the emerald joy it oozed the day before. But alas, my friend announces, that the worst is yet to come. The dancing party must twist and twirl to their heart’s content now for in the morning the breeze will leave for some distant shore across the ocean. When dawn breaks, a strong wind will drag the little flakes against their wish past the lamp shades they love so much to settle on some insignificant car on Bliss avenue. I squint my eyes as I look through the patterned curtains in my room and there’s been a flurry of sudden activity. The dance has already mellowed and like soldiers in a blinding white, they now march along in organised waves on their way to colonizing whatever land they will be dropped on. There’s no sound outside but I suspect that will change in the morning. The sun might even be out and look on with guilt as the blizzard roars, the winds howl and the snow-flakes fall silently in line. After all, if he’d been a little closer this whole mess could’ve been avoided. But even without his micromanagement, this whole affair has been handled well. While the rogue few continue to dance in the silent tones of the middle of the night, the others march on robotically. When the storm hits in the morning, we are all prepared for the worst but the ones who really don’t want it to happen are those- those little fellows in white who want to dance and sing all night and just be happy. Soon, I’ll be fast asleep and they’ll be gone too without a word of good bye. Because soon, Jonas will say hello.
Background: The intention is to read and review 50 books this year. While the original is a 100 book pact, I decided to do 50 for a start and maybe progress to 100 next year. There’s no specific genre- Fiction, non-fiction, self-help- if it’s been published, it’s up for consideration. I’m not ‘rating’ these stories because it is not my place to judge these amazing writers. If you have book suggestions, drop comments or leave me a message! I encourage you to take up the challenge too and send me the link to your reviews! Start with 5 or 10 if you’re not confident but give it a go! We spend too much time reading click bait nonsense on the internet- it’s time we got back to reading real stuff. Here’s hoping that this works!
#1 Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories by multiple award-winning author JhumpaLahiri. Each story is incredibly detailed both in setting and character and vary in location and genre. While some are set in the United States, others are based in India and while some are set in times gone by, others are set in more recent times. But what Jhumpa manages to accomplish is to take the reader through the different time-lines of her stories effortlessly. They end, sometimes, rather abruptly but not in a way that would make the reader uncomfortable. The book is named after one of the stories in it about a part-time taxi driver who also works as a translator at a doctor’s clinic. There are stories of love, loss and everything in between with a distinct Bengali touch in at least one character in almost every one of them.
The stories are light reads but touching, some of them heart wrenching. In the space of a few pages Jhumpa tells soulful life stories that introduces the reader to the entire little words around the protagonists so beautifully that it feels almost like you’re intruding sometimes. The winner of the Pulitzer prize and the New Yorker’s Best Debut of the year apart from featuring in Oprah’s Top Ten book list, it is the perfect book to read over a cuppa in the middle of the week. Highly recommended!
Raymond Champs is an illustrator of assembly manuals for a home furniture company who is convinced that everybody is sick. Mentally. He believes that everyone around him and the world in general is suffering from clinical depression and they’re either hiding it or not aware of it yet. But to back his theory, he needs proof. Proof that he can then show to the world and hopefully help save the world. He sets out on making a survey to test his theory and distributes it to everyone in his office. The story follows Raymond as he receives responses to his survey from everyone including his boss using whose name he had started this entire experiment in the first place.
Even though it gets a little monotonous in the middle, this satirical story based on the life of a generic 9-5 employee is enjoyable. The ending is thoroughly fascinating and that is truly what keeps the book alive but it isn’t a book that I’d recommend to someone looking to read good satire. A read-it-and-shut-it book that isn’t going to linger in your memory for too long.
When Mary, the widow of Wade Barsad, confesses to having shot her husband everyone believes her. Wade had set the barn on fire, killing 8 of Mary’s prized horses. Nobody had any doubt that this was a crime of vengeance and Mary was certain to be found guilty of murder. Nobody, except Walt Longmire the sheriff in-charge of the prison where she was being held. When Walt digs deeper into the case, he finds that almost everyone in town had a reason for wanting Wade dead.
An absorbing thriller set in a quite brilliant location, the dark horse is a beautifully written story. Craig Johnson switches between two time lines repeatedly without making it a nuisance to read. There’s a certain inevitability about the end for anyone who is familiar with the mystery genre but there’s a rather unique emotional touch to it nevertheless. Without overdosing the reader with descriptions, Craig paints a picture that you can imagine in your head, places the characters in it and moves them around at will very naturally. If you’re looking to gift a young relative a mystery book, this should be one you should consider!
Lily Elizabeth Evans is a seventh year student and the head girl at Hogwarts. When she finds out that James Potter was going to be the head boy that year, she couldn’t believe, like many others, that Dumbledore had actually chosen him. When James, irresponsibly decides to get drunk with a bunch of juniors, her apprehensions about giving him such a big responsibility were reaffirmed. But destiny (and Dumbledore) had brought them together for a reason- to save Hogwarts. Other characters from JKR’s original Harry Potter series like Snape and Sirius Black feature in this fan-fiction prequel with Sirius playing quite a standout role as the funny friend (whose carol dedicated to Lord Voldemort stays in your head. I’d quote but I’m not sure if I stand on firm enough copyright footing to do so).
Fan fiction, in general, is amazing. Part of the magic of Harry Potter is that the entire fandom has grown up with the characters and know them- almost personally. While the books will be enjoyed by many generations to come, the kind of connect this generation of Harry Potter fans has to the story (remember, pre-Twitter and Facebook madness), will probably never happen again. This little spin-off is the handy work of a 15-year-old from that “first generation” of HP fans. It’s a cute story that ends abruptly because the 15-year-old ran out of patience, got bored and decided to stop writing the story at a certain point. That also probably explains why the title and story don’t match. In my possession, is the “original manuscript” in all its glory, fervor and flaws and hopefully the 15-year-old (who is slightly older now) will complete it at some point.
Book: The Trials and Tribulations of Life
Genre: Fan fiction.
Author: Mishika Ravishankar under the pen name “GoldenPhoenix261”
Read Time: One-day casual reading.
#5 Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, The First Personal Computer
The story of Steve Jobs and a team of Apple employees going on a tour of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is tech folklore now. On seeing Xerox’s Alto computer which had a bitmap display with pictures (“icons”), a pointing device to select them (the mouse) and multiple windows, the Apple co-founder was amazed that Xerox wasn’t selling this marvel already. The Apple team went back and used those elements and more to build their own computer and the rest, as they say, is history. But long before that historic moment, Xerox had already dug themselves into a very deep pit.
Fumbling the Future is the story of how the Haloid Photographic Company a.k.a Xerox- the unrivaled leader of the photocopying industry-whose machines were so popular that the term “Xerox” came to be used as a verb that means “to photocopy”- essentially lost the plot when it came to computers. Starting with the acquisition of Scientific Data Systems for an ungodly $900 million in Xerox stocks, Xerox’s plan to compete with IBM in the “personal distributed computing” industry never really took off. Far from being an asset, SDS turned into a burden that they eventually off-loaded but not before it cost them almost $1.3 billion. Riddled with organizational silos that often led to stand offs between heads of department and the fact that PARC was located an entire continent away from the rest of the company, Xerox’s management fumbled on multiple occasions when they had a chance to redeem themselves. The risk-averse, sales-accountant mentality that had crept in to Xerox led to them losing not just the computing segment to IBM, Apple and just about everyone else but also the photocopier industry to the likes of Kodak.
An excellent documentation of the fall of a mighty giant to the nadirs of the tech world, Fumbling the Future is a must read for everybody, especially those who judge success through the narrow lens of revenue and quarterly profits.
#6 The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language.
The First Word is an intriguing read. It explores the various theories about how humans came to use language. It seeks to present multiple points of view to answer a large set of questions about language that we don’t normally think about too much. Is it language that separates humans from the apes? Why is language unique to humans? Did we develop language thanks to the flipping of “genetic switch” that caused a mutation in one ancient human who then passed it on to following generations or did language, like everything else about humans, evolve from nothing? Is there a basic set of rules that all languages have in common? Is there a gene responsible for language? Christine Kenneally presents a whole host of varied opinions that demonstrates just how complicated this topic is. From Chomsky’s early theories that formed the basis for early research into the origin of language to other theories, some in support and some contrasting, but equally interesting ones that open your mind to whole new area of study. A book that makes you question something so fundamental in everyone’s life that we often take it for granted. Great read. Book:The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language.(Viking Penguin, 2007) Genre: Non-fiction. Author: Christine Kenneally Read Time: 8 days
#7 Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing.
In order to function efficiently and serve the citizenry well, governments face a critical challenge- they need the right people to provide the right answers at the right time. In the traditional form of governance, the “experts” who advice government may not have right answers and very often may not be available when needed. It is hard to believe that in the age of the internet, finding people is a hurdle. Beth Noveck argues that what is fundamentally wrong with this system begins with the definition of who an “expert” is. University degrees and vague titles like “deputy director” tell you close to nothing about the skills and expertise of a person. The other part of the problem is the lack of public engagement in governance. Noveck provides examples like The GovLab’s Network of Innovators that solves the problems of finding expertise and apps like Pulse Point, that notifies registered members of the public (who are certified to administer CPR) when 911 reports that someone has had a heart attack near them thereby saving thousands of lives. The role of the government, needs to be one that enables this sort of public engagement. Smart Citizens, Smarter State redefines the role of citizenry in governance and the way that government must approach governance. The marriage of technology and governance is one key part of this new paradigm and leveraging citizen’s expertise is another. A must read on governance innovation and technology’s role in it. Book: Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing.(Harvard University Press, 2015) Genre: Non-fiction. Author: Beth Simone Noveck Read Time: 8 days
#8 This Unquiet Land.
Barkha Dutt is one of India’s most prominent journalists. While she’s found herself embroiled in controversies ranging from being accused of compromising the position of Indian soldiers during the Kargil war to incurring Narendra Modi’s wrath which continues to the day, she has seen and reported it all. Wars, kidnappings, hostage situations, secret envoy meetings and everything in between. This Unquiet Land is Barkha’s summary of India over the past two decades. While it’s intriguing because of the backroom stories it tells and compelling because of the narrative it so brilliantly describes, the greatest quality of this book is the honesty with which it is written. Barkha does not attempt to hide behind nuances or word play and offers her take on major events in India while exposing the fault lines that run deep through the Indian society at the same time. The book shot to unwelcome glory when it received less-than-flattering reviews online almost as soon as it released because of right-wing internet trolls who aren’t exactly Barkha’s biggest fans. Amartya Sen wrote a book that aptly described a large number of us as “Argumentative Indians”. It is a title I found fascinating because of the simplicity with which it describes a complex people. “This Unquiet Land” is another one of those thoughtful titles which does a magnificent job of describing our nation.
When heaven and hell go to war on earth the outcome is obvious- Armageddon. But the only problem is that the antichrist in charge of the event has been misplaced. An angel and, a liberal devil set out to find him before it’s too late. But there are others who must find him too in order to fulfill the ancient prophecies. Good Omens is about the journey of all these characters to the end of the world as we know it. The story is witty and gripping and the last part of the book is an absolute must read for every single person on our disturbed planet. You’ll need to read the book to find out why and it’s no wonder the book has cult following.
This book is a heartbreaking story that captures the history of violence and instability in Afghanistan through the eyes of three generations of Afghans. The most incredible part of this book is how well Khaled Hosseini tells the story of the unrest without focusing on the actual conflict but instead focusing on the impact it had on one family. His descriptions are haunting and stay with you well after you’re done reading the book and without a doubt will bring more than a tear to your eyes. With so much war and violence around the world, this book makes you stop and think about the people affected by it less as numbers and figures and more as human beings. Without a doubt, this book is a must read.
Railonama is a collection of short stories about traveling by trains in India. It is a lovely selection of experiences that anyone who has traveled by the Indian railways can relate to instantly. It brought back memories of the conversations I’ve had with co-passengers in sleeper coaches and AC compartments, of the chaiwallas early in the morning, of the singing children, the folks selling hot vadas wrapped in newspapers and my mom packing chappatis and curry for our train journeys to Kerala. The biggest compliment I can pay to this book is this: It made me want to travel by the Indian Railways again. A feel-good read!
Book: Railonama Genre: Short Stories Author: Anupama Sharma Read Time: 2 days
On the night of the 23rd of December 1982, a police control room in southern India received a distress call from a woman who only said that she was calling from Redwood trail. Inspector Sarah Joseph was asked to find out what was happening at Redwood trail apartments. Sarah and assistant Issac “Ice” Hamilton turned their patrol vehicle towards terrence road where the apartments was located. What happened from then on formed the script of a story. One that was written by fate and guided by destiny.
“Aaron” Purva said softly, “Stand up slowly baby”. Her voice was filled with fear but masked with confidence. She slowly put her hand out so that the 5 year old could grab on to it. “Aaron. Hold my hand” she said again and stretched her hand out a little more from around the ledge. He stood up, unsteadily. His tender fingers trying to get a hold of any support the brick wall behind him could provide. He took a step towards the voice of his caretaker, unaware that a thread from his dress had gotten stuck on a nail in the wall behind him. “Aaron. Come here slowly, baby” she said, stretching her hand as far as she possibly could. She was sweating bullets and her legs were trembling. A gentle winter breeze sailed through the window . Her heart was now beating faster than ever. But she had to remain calm. Aaron shouldn’t see that she’s afraid. That’s what the man from the fire department had told her. They’d be arriving soon but she had to make sure the baby was in her sight. Another breeze entered the house. Momentarily, she withdrew one of her hands to wipe off the sweat on her eyelashes. Instantly, she reached out again. “Aaron, Baby. Come to vapa.” she said, reassuringly.She looked out into the vast expanse of the city landscape, hoping to see a fire truck on its way. Aaron took another step forward. The thread loosened from his dress. He took another step, shakily. “Slowly baby. Slowly”. In his excitement of hearing his vapa’s voice get closer, Aaron giggled and clapped his hands, not knowing that he was standing on a 3foot wide landing, seventeen floors above the ground. Clapping happily, he tried taking another step and lost balance and sat down again. Purva’s heart jumped into her hands. “Stay there baby. Vapa can see you. Stay there”. He heard her voice and giggled and clapped his hands in joy again and tried standing up. The thread was now stretched to its limit. He stood up and turned, the thread put him off balance and tugged him back.He lost balance again and slipped.
“AARON!!!!!!”, she wailed. Her eyes were frozen in shock. Her face, white. Her hands and feet, paralysed. She coudln’t react.
A little while later..
“Are you absolutely sure?” Inspector Sarah asked her assistant Isaac, bewildered. “Positive.” he replied. “How’s Purva doing?”she enquired. “She’s inside. Depressed and traumatised. We should get a psychiatrist here ASAP” he said. “How many people did you talk to?” “27. That’s everyone on this side of the building” he said, pointing to the side facing the balcony they were standing in. “Who called the police?” “Control room said it was an anonymous call from a woman but the residents say that it wasn’t one of them. Must’ve been Purva herself” Isaac answered. “And nobody saw or heard anything other than her screaming?” she asked, amused. “SJ. There is no body. There’s no blood. No crime scene, no witnesses. Just a depressed complaintant. What are we even investigating here?” Isaac asked, trying to convince Sarah that there was no case. “Where did the baby go, Ice? We have to find him. There’s no way Purva will recover from whatever it is she is suffering from without finding Aaron.” “There wasn’t a baby Sarah. Nobody around here has seen a baby in this house or with her. She was probably hallucinating. I’ve called the medical team, they’re bringing some help for Purva. Let’s get out of here”
“Alright. Wait in the car. I need to talk to her again. I won’t be long” Sarah said, not convinced by the overwhelming evidence.
She walked into the room where Purva was sitting, wrapped in a blanket with a mug of coffee in her hand, staring at the wall opposite her. “Purva..Who was Aaron?”she asked. Purva said nothing. “Did you call the police, Purva?” Sarah walked closer and put her hand on Purva’s drooping shoulder.”Purva..I need you to talk to..” she stopped her sentence midway as Purva fell to the ground. “Jesus Christ.No way” she murmured and sat on her knees next to Purva and checked her pulse. There wasn’t one. She reached into her jacket to get her phone but she’d left it in the car. She ran to the balcony and looked down. Isaac was in the car. “ICE! ISAAC!! ISAAAC” she shouted at the top of her voice. He couldn’t hear her. She looked around for something she could throw at the car to get his attention.
Unable to find anything, she took off her shoe and used that. Isaac jumped out of the car, startled and looked up. Sarah was waving frantically at him to come up.
Sarah was waiting at near the elevator for him. She told him what had happened as they walked back into the house. “She just fell. Dropped dead. Something is wrong here ice. I just kn..” she stopped midway through her sentence again and put her hands over her mouth in disbelief. There was a knife through Purva’s stomach. Isaac instinctively took his service revolver out of its holster and searched the house for the culprit. Sarah coudln’t believe what she’d just seen. She looked around the room to check if someone was hiding there. She found the windows locked. So were the cupboards. “This room’s clear” she shouted,to let Isaac know and then looked around for some clues. Isaac came back in the room looking stupefied. “There’s nobody here”
The response to Kerala’s worst natural disaster in a century has shown us (again) that citizens mobilize widely and rapidly when called on. So why doesn’t government take advantage of that more often?
“We were trying to find victims, but everywhere we found only heroes”
Large, white parcels, all safely wrapped up in packing material line up against the wall by the entrance to the club house in a swanky apartment complex in Neotown, Bangalore. Labelled clearly – “Sleeping mats”, “Blankets”, “Bedsheets”, “Gloves”, “Gum Boots”, “Cleaning Supplies”- they are all ready to be loaded on to trucks headed towards the neighbouring state of Kerala where almost a million people have been displaced from their homes and many of them are still living in relief camps and temporary shelters after a devastating flood last week destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, resorts and everything else in its path.
Over 400 people have died so far and many of those who have survived have little to go back to.
The estimated financial loss to the state runs into several billion Indian Rupees but the true magnitude of what has been lost by many families is unquantifiable. For most families in Kerala, a house doesn’t simply provide the security of shelter- it is their life’s toil and savings and building a house is the bedrock of the middle-class dream. For many families, the floods have shaken that bedrock and for some of them, destroyed it entirely.
The task ahead is daunting but while the rivers roar on, a glimmer of hope shined brightly through the grey clouds. All across the state, political and religious lines disolved as people turned out to help those in distress. Fisherfolk with their boats helped move thousands to safer lands, the Indian Navy and police airlifted hundreds of others and classrooms and prayer halls became relief camps. From neighbouring states and cities, thousands of people pitched in to raise funds for emergency supplies and made sure it reached those in Kerala who most needed it. Once again, heroes were born when they were needed the most and with their help, kerala is sure to power through this tragedy.
Tech-enabled Disaster Management
Kerala has one of the most decentralized governance structures in India and it was in full force in response to the floods. Emergency decision-making and crisis response at the local level were left to the the district administrators who were given the authority to do what was necessary to save lives and mitigate the damage. Over time, it would be worth studying the impact this step had on mobilizing resources and manpower to the right places quickly. But at the scale that disaster struck kerala, it was always going to be too much for government to do on its own. 13 out of 14 districts in the state were on “red alert”- the highest level of alert issued by India’s Meteorological Department (IMD). The deadly cocktail of torrential rains (257% more than anticipated for that time of the year) and the unexpected release of water from some 36 dams brought “God’s Own Country”, as it is popularly called, to its knees. Every single dam in the state was filled to capacity and all of them had to be opened (some for the first time in over two decades) in order to prevent a dam burst which would have had even more severe consequences.
Almost overnight, the government’s IT department was able to set up keralarescue.in to help coordinate the rescue operations. Some 1500 engineers (from all over the world) who are part of the Kerala chapter of the IEEE made the website in just 96 hours for the government (for free). The state government deployed it and made it the center of their rescue and relief efforts. The website had everything from district-wise emergency supplies requirement lists to a facility to request to be rescued (which the disaster response teams used to locate survivors) to a portal for solicting financial contributions and even a map of flooded streets using satellite-driven data. The site has logged over 10 million requests for aid in the short span of time that it has been active. It is unclear how many of those very fulfilled by government but citizens certainly responded to the call.
Several organizations and individuals who were able to organize the logistics to send trucks into the worst-affected regions of the state began collection drives all over south India (with financial contributions coming from the North too and organizations like Punjab’s Khalsa Aid setting up camp in Kerala to make food for the survivors). Several truck loads of food, clothes, sheets, sanitary napkins, diapers, water bottles and other essential items reached the survivors with little or no involvement of government. In Bangalore, where I was, heartening stories poured in about auto rickshaw drivers who refused to take money from those who were transporting these supplies in the city and grocery stores offering discounts to those buying supplies in bulk for Kerala. My taxi driver to the airport earlier today narrated how he spent some of his day’s meager savings on buying fuel for the trucks ferrying the supplies to Kerala. The middle-aged domestic help at home donated her new saris to those who’d lost everything to the floods while several others in the city pitched-in in quantities both small and big, realizing that every drop in the ocean counted to making someone’s life a little better.
Through Instgram, Whatsapp and Facebook, those on the ground in Kerala sent updates to those in other parts of the country in real-time (faster than government and even faster than news channels) about the new list of requirements in specific relief camps in each district of the state. These social media powered volunteers were even able to identify and resolve problems with an agility and efficiency that would have been hard for government with its fatigued and anachronistic bureacracy. For example, with some camps housing over 5000 people, a major sanitation issue was reported through instagram- used diapers and sanitary napkins were piling up outside the camps since there was no state machinery running to collect trash. Instantly, a request went out to those in neighbouring districts who had access to incinerators to dispose the waste. In a matter of hours, several people responded with locations and drop off instructions. The problem, of course, is that these informal channels are only anecdotes. But these little anecdotes from all over the state certainly went a long way in mitigating the humanitarian crisis that these floods have set off.
When I put out a request to my friends to contribute in anyway they can, several of them readily agreed to send me supplies or money for supplies if I would hand over supplies to responsible organizations. While some of them even contributed to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund directly, others were more cynical. There was an element of doubt in giving more money to government. I noticed this lack of trust in government even in speaking with some other people around me. It was a curious contradiction given that Indian’s trust in government as per Gallup’s recent poll is among the highest in the world.
Trust or not, the fact is that people turned out on the streets to help Kerala when they could just as easily have sent some money to the CM’s fund online and let government do its thing. But why does this civic activism in our citizens only awaken during times of crisis? What does it take to be active citizens 24×7?
In reality, the assessment that civic activism awakens only in response to disasters like this one is probably a bit harsh. Even in just the past decade, Indians have shown a healthy appetite for mobilizing to effect change. Starting with the protests to Nirbhaya’s rape in Delhi to the massive public support for Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal bill, the incredible response to the net neutrality debate and most recently surrounding issues being heard in the supreme court like the right to privacy and decriminalizing homosexuality, we’ve shown that we will turn out for a wide range of causes provided that there is a clear call to action. People on informal channels of communication like Instagram have figured out that being extremely specific about what you need from the crowd is the most effective way of engaging with it. It is unlikely that a message from the Chief Minister saying “Please help Kerala” would have mobilized even a fraction of the support that the state received thanks to the specific requirements lists that were shared on social media and through keralarescue.in. This is an important lesson that we’ve seen multiple times in other citizen engagement efforts. For instance, asking people for their opinion about a particular issue through an online portal has been proven to be ineffective in multiple projects around the world. At the same time, asking people for solutions to solve that issue based on rigoursouly defined problem statement has led to several innovative suggestions that have helped solve issues ranging from computational biology and astronomy to urban transportation and trash management.
Redefining our democracy
A democracy can’t simply be for the people and of the people. It needs to be made BY the people too. We’ve shown that we have so much to offer to government, not just financially but by way of our sheer capacity to mobilize, ideate and implement on the go. Citizen engagement is not a panacea. It will not solve all our problems but there are some situations where our involvement will help government make better decisions, provide better services and implement projects more efficiently. There is no dearth of organizations (both in India and around the world) doing research on identifying in what context and in what form citizen engagement is most effective. But irrespective of the context, there are two precursors to executing widespread citizen engagement in government. The first, is that citizens should be willing to engage with government and take part in reasoned, informed debate with space for compromises and experimental ideas and the second is that government (and its entire bureaucratic machinery) should be willing to listen to the people. The question is, are we ready to engage? And if we are, is government listening?
To help rebuild Kerala, you can contribute to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund at this link: http://www.cmdrf.kerala.gov.in
For updates about the situation in Kerala, check out keralarescue.in or follow the Chief Minister on Twitter @cmokerala
To contribute to NGOs, consider volunteer groups working on the ground such as: http://rebuildkerala.gtechindia.org