A tour of the Alcatraz island is found on every “things to do” list for the San Francisco Bay Area. When one visits this famed island, the tour guide mentions the story of the prisoners who tried to escape the island by attempting to swim to shore. This gave rise to a now world renowned event where swimmers gather in hundreds to swim the 1.5-mile distance from Alcatraz back to shore. It’s almost a bucket list item on every open water swim list. Meet Angel More, the 15-year old open water swimmer, who has completed this route more than 50 times!
Angel’s latest accomplishment is a recently concluded 22-mile swim across the Catalina channel. She is attempting the California Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming which includes 12-mile in the Santa Barbara channel, 22-mile across the Catalina channel, and 22-mile trans Lake Tahoe.
We met this young lady to learn about her pursuits, accomplishments, and plans for the future.
What was your experience at Catalina and what training goes into a marathon swim?
The swim at Catalina started at 10:36pm and I swam more than 14 hours to shore. When I jumped into the water around 10:30 pm, I was very nervous as there was darkness all around, and I had never experienced this level of darkness before. I knew I had to swim 22 miles, but I don’t think I had internalized this very well. It was pitch dark with only moonlight shining on the water surface, and the sound of the kayak beside me. It was surreal and pretty at the same time, and felt like I was swimming in a marble!
In such marathon events, wetsuits are not permitted and participants wear a regular swimsuit, a silicone cap, and a pair of goggles. The water temperature in Catalina was 66-68F. My training for the event included swimming 5 km in the pool everyday. On Thursdays before school, I would swim in the San Francisco Bay for 3 hours from 4:30-7:30 am. The longest I’d swum before the Catalina swim (22 miles) attempt was a swim in the Santa Barbara channel (12 miles). Although I was nervous at the start of Catalina, I felt prepared.
During the Catalina event, what was most challenging and what was the highlight?
Along the way I had dolphins swim alongside me, and it was one of my favorite parts. The hardest part was when I got stuck in a current for a very long time. I could see the land, but wasn’t moving forward. This was mentally challenging as I had to keep going despite knowing that I would not be making any progress in distance. Even though I was swimming continuously, I was stationary for almost 2 hours. I had to keep swimming just to counter the current, which would have otherwise pushed me towards San Diego.
What was your reaction when you finally reached the shore?
While I was swimming I wasn’t tired, but when I reached the shore, that’s when I realized how exhausted I was. The exit from the water onto shore was rocky and my guide swimmer couldn’t help me through that for two reasons; one it’s against the rules and also nobody can touch me for a while after I finish. Even my parents cannot hug me at the finish line because my body temperature is low and the instant heat transfer can send my body into shock.
How do you feel about your next challenge, the Trans Tahoe swim in August?
The Trans Tahoe swim is a 22-mile swim across Lake Tahoe. It’s the third and final swim of the California Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming series. It will be more challenging as it will be at an elevation. It is a freshwater swim and I won’t have the buoyancy of saltwater to my advantage. I’ll also have to ensure that I swim in a straight line to avoid any extra mileage. To acclimatize, I’ll to go a week before my event to get my body adjusted to the water. Thus far, I’m the youngest swimmer to complete the Santa Barbara channel swim and the Catalina Island swim. I’m excited about Tahoe!
You’re also organizing a fundraising swim for Children International. Tell us about that.
In the past I’ve raised $40,000 for Children International, which is a non-profit organization that helps children around the world escape poverty. I’m organizing a swim from Alcatraz to the SF shore which is open to high school students in the Bay Area.** All proceeds from this will go to Children International. I’m drawn to this organization because I want to help other kids who don’t have access to the same resources that I do.
** To join or donate towards Angel’s fundraiser swim from Alcatraz, visit her page at: https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/escape-from-alcatraz-to-escape-from-poverty/angelmore
Defects in the design of Facebook’s WhatsApp platform may have led to as many as two dozen people losing their lives in India. With its communications encrypted end-to-end, there is no way for anyone to moderate posts; so WhatsApp has become “an unfiltered platform for fake news and religious hatred,” according to a Washington Post report.
WhatsApp is not used as broadly in the U.S. as in countries such as India, where it has become the dominant mode of mobile communication. But imagine Facebook or Twitter without any filters or moderation — the Wild Wild West they were becoming during the heyday of Cambridge Analytica. Now imagine millions of people who have never been online before becoming dependent on and trusting everything they read there. That gives you a sense of what kind of damage the messaging platform can do in India and other countries.
Earlier this month, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology sent out a stern warning to WhatsApp, asking it to immediately stop the spread of “irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation.” The Ministry said the platform “cannot evade accountability and responsibility specially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants who resort to provocative messages which lead to spread of violence.”
WhatsApp’s response, according to The Wire, was to offer minor enhancements, public education campaigns, and “a new project to work with leading academic experts in India to learn more about the spread of misinformation, which will help inform additional product improvements going forward.” The platform defended its need to encrypt messages and argued that “many people (nearly 25 percent in India) are not in a group” — in other words, only 75 percent of the population is affected!
One of the minor enhancements WhatsApp offered was to put the word “Forwarded” at the top of such messages. But this gives no information about the source of the original message, and even highly educated users could be misled into thinking a source is credible when it isn’t.
WhatsApp owner Facebook is using the same tactics it used when the United Nations found it had played “a determining role” in the genocide against Rohingya refugees in Myanmar: pleading ignorance, offering sympathy and small concessions, and claiming it was unable to do anything about it.
Here is the real issue: Facebook’s business model relies on people’s dependence on its platforms for practically all of their communications and news consumption, setting itself up as their most important provider of factual information — yet it takes no responsibility for the accuracy of that information.
Facebook’s marketing strategy begins with creating an addiction to its platform using a technique that former Google ethicist Tristan Harris has been highlighting: intermittent variable rewards. Casinos use this technique to keep us pouring money into slot machines; Facebook and WhatsApp use it to keep us checking news feeds and messages.
When Facebook added news feeds to its social-media platform, its intentions were to become a primary source of information. It began by curating news stories to suit our interests and presenting them in a feed that we would see on occasion. Then it required us to go through this newsfeed in order to get to anything else. Once it had us trained to accept this, Facebook started monetizing the newsfeed by selling targeted ads to anyone who would buy them.
It was bad enough that, after its acquisition by Facebook, WhatsApp began providing the parent company with all kinds of information about its users so that Facebook could track and target them. But in order to make WhatsApp as addictive as Facebook’s social-media platform, Facebook added chat and news features to it — something it was not designed to accommodate. WhatsApp started off as a private, secure messaging platform; it wasn’t designed to be a news source or a public forum.
WhatsApp’s group-messaging feature is particularly problematic because users can remain anonymous, identified only by a mobile number. A motivated user can create or join unlimited numbers of groups and share hate-filled messages and fake news. What’s worse is that message encryption prevents law-enforcement officials and even WhatsApp itself from viewing what is being said. No consideration was given in the design of the product to the supervision and moderation necessary in public forums.
Facebook needs to be held liable for the deaths that WhatsApp has already caused and be required to take its product off the market until its design flaws are fixed. It isn’t making its defective products available only to sophisticated users who know what they have signed up for; it is targeting people who are first-time technology users, ignorant about the ways of the tech world.
Only by facing penalties and being forced to do a product recall will Facebook be motivated to correct WhatsApp’s defects. The technology industry always finds a way of solving problems when profits are at stake.
Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering at Silicon Valley. This piece is partly derived from his new book, “Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain — and How to Fight Back”. This has been reprinted with his permission.
Jul 1, 2018 - Aug 19, 2018
11:00 am - 5:00 pm
The House Imaginary
San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose CA
Jul 14, 2018 - Jul 22, 2018
SF Ethnic Dance Festival
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco CA
Jul 20, 2018 - Jul 22, 2018
5:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Yogasanas (Hatha Yoga)
Masonic Center, Folsom California
Jul 21, 2018
Jul 21, 2018
10:00 am - 12:30 pm
Heart Notes: Music, Meditation & Inspiration
Ahiah Center for Spiritual Living, Pasadena CA
My name is Sri Ponnada – and I’m a software engineer at Microsoft. At Microsoft I work on products that empower people around the world to maximize how they use technology and to accomplish more each day.
Today I am going to tell you a story about how someone with proper documentation has to leave the country they were brought to as a child – the country where they grew up, where they went to public schools, where they graduated from a public state university, and where they led multiple volunteer projects to promote STEM education and projects to help their communities and cities – because of the green card backlog.
I am that someone, and in 6 months, I am going to be forced out of my home – the United States – because I aged out of a broken immigration while my mom has been waiting almost a decade in the employment based green card system to actually receive the green card she was promised for her service as a physician in an underserved area in Iowa.
I want to tell you a little bit about my journey in the United States.
I moved to USA from Jamaica when I was 14, with my brother Sam, who was 10 at the time, because my mom started her Internal Medicine residency in New York. She was doing Cardiology research at Mayo Clinic in 2008, and fell in love with the Midwest. She told us that when she finished her residency, we will absolutely be moving to the Midwest!
So, after I finished high school, my mom got a job as a physician in a small town in Iowa that desperately needed doctors. My family realized how important that was and believe everyone – no matter where they lived should have easy access to health care – so we moved to Iowa together and I enrolled at the University of Iowa, despite being accepted into other universities.
I was super excited and immediately got involved with my new community. I was writing articles for my college paper – the Daily Iowan, and I’d spend my weekends tutoring students in Computer Science and volunteering at the public library to teach kids how to code for free. I was also a volunteer at the Women’s Resource and Action Center; I helped revamp and served as President of our Women in Informatics and Computer Science club and advocated with many companies that previously didn’t recruit in Iowa to start considering Iowa students for jobs in the tech industry; I also served as News Director at University of Iowa’s campus radio station KRUI 89.7 FM, where I created tons of programming to bring art, culture, and awareness to our community. And given all my involvements, I was even elected by my student body to represent them in our student government as a student Senator.
But while I was doing all this stuff, I was still struggling with major anxiety and depression because I was scared about whether or not me and my family would get our green cards.
My mom’s work as a doctor in an underserved community in Iowa guaranteed her a National Interest Waiver in the green card process, but the fact that she was born in India meant she still had to wait in the backlog for decades. Normally USCIS sees National Interest Waiver cases like hers in 6 months to a year, so we thought we’d be okay but because of the decades long wait times, we found out that once I turned 21, I could no longer stay here as her dependent.
My mom is still waiting for her green card today, and since I’m now an adult, I won’t be able to get my green card when the rest of my family does. Sam, my brother, is a junior at University of Iowa right now doing Math and Physics, but he’s going to lose his status in a couple of years, unless Congress does something.
This backlog has affected me since high school. If my mother had been able to get her green card, I could’ve been paid for the work I did as a Teaching Assistant at University of Iowa (which I had to battle my university to let me do it for free). I could’ve joined the Army and had the honor of serving my country, but instead, I was turned away when I tried to enlist just because I didn’t have a green card.
So, when I was 20 years old, I graduated early with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Computer Science (with numerous awards for my academic excellence and community service) and landed my job as a Software Engineer at Microsoft. Even though my day job is “software engineer” I am extremely involved in the community with various nonprofits that promote STEM education for kids – specifically for young girls. I am working on open source projects that I’m trying to partner with City of Seattle on and have been trying to get on a project with Accelerator YMCA to revamp their social services site to make it easier for people to access information about things like veteran services, programs for kids at risk of going to juvenile detention. I have also helped to start a local chapter of the global non-profit Technovation Challenge in Washington which is all about getting girls into STEM fields and I work with senior leadership at Microsoft to improve our recruiting practices and to be more inclusive.
Everything I’ve learned, I learned in America. My family is here, my friends are here, my life is here. I think of myself as an American and contribute not only to my communities but also to the greater American economy, and I hope you see me as an American, too.
I have had great opportunities in this country so far, but I still face the same anxiety I’ve had since childhood about my visa status. Even though I have lived here practically my whole life and work at Microsoft, I had to apply for a H1B visa – which is a LOTTERY – just to be able to stay in the country because there is no way for kids like me to stay here with our parents who become lawful permanent residents through the green card process. I haven’t been selected for a H1B in the lottery – so when my STEM OPT expires next February, I’ll have to leave my family, my friends, and my home in the United States – the only country I’ve known since I became a teenager. Where should I go? Jamaica – where I came from? Or to India where I was born but haven’t lived in since I was 3 years old?
Just imagine the situation I’m in. I came here with proper documentation on a dependent children’s visa. Due to the huge green card backlog for individuals from India, I lost my dependent visa status at the age of 21 as I was no longer a minor. I converted to a F-1 visa just so I could finish my college education and graduate, and got a job at one of the world’s best companies – Microsoft. Yet, I still have to self-deport when my student visa expires because I wasn’t lucky enough to get a visa to stay in the country even though Microsoft hired me for a permanent job, not a temporary contract.
Congress needs to pass legislation fast. Nothing exists to protect the status of kids like me and my brother, who were legally brought here by our parents.
That makes no sense to me. And I hope it doesn’t make sense to you either.
Please reform the employment based green card category. And more importantly, please think about kids of high skilled immigrants who are aging out due to a decades-old law which never predicted this critical scenario of kids aging out of the system. Please help us. We need your support.
This article was first published on Facebook.
Summer is when time slows and there are comings and goings, family reunions and outings. It seems that the days are longer, and there is more time, to read, and to just be.
This might be a delusion, but for one, I was able to make some headway in my summer reading: Why Buddhism is True, (WBIT) (2017) by Robert Wright. And I was able to watch a hindi play by Naatak called Rashomon, based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In the Grove.” And listen to a lecture by Joshua Pollock at the Commonwealth Club called The Heartfulness Way: Heart-Based Meditations for Spiritual Transformation. The connections between these surprised me.
Rashomon, the 1950 Akira Kurosawa classic film, had been about multiple, contradictory and self-serving perspectives of a single event. This film had been a bit difficult to watch, with Toshiro Mifune as a bandit who raped a woman and murdered her husband. The adaptation of the Japanese play by theater group Naatak, directed by Savitha Samu, was similarly disturbing in its unflinching depiction of sexual violence. The wife, played by Ekta Brahmakshatriya in the play, was given a far more assertive persona than the simpering Machiko Kyo, the filmic counterpart of 70 years ago. The salience of this story over more than half a century is interesting, and not just from the perspective of the contemporary moment of #metoo.
And that brings me to Robert Wright, and his book WBIT. This exceedingly well researched and thoughtful book is full of references from Buddhist texts, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience research as well as the personal meditative experiences of the author. Our capacity for self-delusion, or at least the inaccuracy of our senses seems to provide a rational within Buddhism for the Rashomon effect.
Wright’s book was very helpful in understanding common Buddhist concepts such as of ‘emptiness’ and ‘not-self,’ of identifying the difference between Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of the self, as well as the variants within Buddhism such as Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. The book can help you understand the hedonic treadmill, the nature of dukka (sorrow), and the irresistible allure of a powdered donut. The antidote?
We’ve heard it before. Meditate. Repeat.
Wright argues that Western Buddhism, as the author refers to the more secular version practiced by many Americans, has been sanitized of the more supernatural and disgusting aspects. Rarely, Wright points out, are we encouraged to meditate on the blood, pus, and feces as traditional Buddhism suggests. “What is presented today as a ancient meditative tradition is actually a selective rendering… in some cases carefully manicured.” Wright points out that not all those who identify as Western Buddhists accept reincarnation, for instance. Yet, this secular or science-based perspective comes at a cost, he claims. “Science brought about the disenchantment of the world, draining it of magic.”
A good story needs a villain. In traditional Buddhism, there are hungry ghosts, and the dastardly Mara, the nemesis of the Buddha, perpetually trying to tempt the Buddha by sending beautiful maidens to disturb his meditation. Wright settles on natural selection as the villain; why we have such trouble resisting tribal thinking or a powdered donut. Our intense emotions that have been hardwired into us by evolution, are, in fact, delusions.
“These feelings — anxiety, despair, hatred, greed — … have elements of delusion, elements you’d be better off without. And if you think you would be better off, imagine how the whole world would be. After all, feelings like despair and hatred and greed can foster wars and atrocities. So if what I’m saying is true — if the basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed in large part the product of delusion — there is value in exposing this delusion to the light.”
Besides a delightful analysis of why the Matrix (1999) is the ultimate Dharma film, Wright raises some provocative questions. Does meditation make you happier? Inasmuch as you realize that your feelings are unreliable guides to your wellbeing, and are fueled by (that enemy!) natural selection, and because meditation affords clarity of vision, the answer is yes. Can meditation cause you to love your children less? Perhaps meditators can love them with less attachment, and love orphans and other people’s children more, he offers. Are all meditators good people? Apparently not. When meditation is twinned with dharma, a number of moral and ethical precepts, a clarity of vision allows for more moral outcomes. But meditators are fallible, and bad behavior can coexist with meditation, as recent accusations of misconduct at Shambhala International attest. (#metoo).
While Wright refers to an Insight (or Vipasana) Meditation retreat, Joshua Pollock follows the path of Raja Yoga, as laid down by Swami Vivekananda. In his talk, he refers to mindfulness meditation as being not about controlling the thoughts, but gently observing them. His discussion of pranahuti, yogic transmission during meditation and reference to direct experience rather than knowledge were especially interesting. You can hear Joshua Pollock’s lecture online.
Wright makes a compelling argument that the world is moving towards a single brain, and that tribalism, with its variants of identification with religion, nation or ideology, is the threat that could eradicate sentient beings from this planet. The entire world would be better served if people would meditate, see our interconnectedness more clearly, and save ourselves from our delusions such as our individual specialness. Oh, and let go of the notion that fulfilling our desires will make us happy.
Feeling rebellious? Go against natural selection.
“Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and… its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important,” claims Wright.
Meditate on that.
Geetika Pathania Jain is the Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. (Or at least she is under that delusion.)
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“It will rain when you sing this raga,” said my music teacher encouragingly. I was all of fourteen years old, excited at the prospect of taking on such an intriguing challenge. In all earnest, I closed my eyes, concentrated on the notes and was prepared to move the rain gods through my voice. With anticipation, I began singing the notes of Amruthavarshini raga.
Once I started singing the distinctive notes, the raga always drew me into its magic and I would soon forget all about the purpose that guided me and I began singing – to bring rain! As the name suggests, Amrutha in Sanskrit means nectar and Varshini means raining, with its name translating to nectar rain.
A raga in Indian classical music is a combination of musical notes. But, to me, Amruthavarshini is not merely a pattern of musical notes that are strung together in a certain sequence. The raga itself brings forth a host of sensory details in my mind – images that I have not seen in a long time. It awakens my senses, making me feel water splashing against my skin. A ferocious waterfall, the fragrance of earth drenched in the rain, flowers bathed in the first drops of rain, the gush of muddy water on the streets, the perky green trees dripping wet and shaking their heads to the powerful notes, these are just some of the visuals that my mind conjured up each time my voice brought the raga to life.
If I was singing during the monsoon, it certainly would rain, irrespective of my attempt to do justice to the raga. Nevertheless, I was always delighted and ever ready to try out the experiment. The results of singing this raga never ceased to amaze me. Rain or no rain, Amruthavarshini certainly brought tears to my eyes with its appealing quality that felt soothing on my vocal chords.
Hearing the well-known anecdote of rains pouring down as an answer to the prayers of the famed composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar gives this raga an added sense of mystical power. Indeed, this unique raga Amruthavarshini possesses the divine quality to compel the clouds to break open and bathe us in showers of nectar.
Every time I sang Sudhamayi, composed by Muthiah Bhagavatar, I felt soaked in the showers of nectar. Amruthavarshini will always have this magical effect on me. The more I sing it, the deeper I delve into it, I feel engulfed in it’s notes that ooze nectar.
Listen below for the song Sudhamayi set in raga Amruthavarshini sung by M.L. Vasanathakumari.
Surabhi Kaushik is an Indian writer, based in Charlotte North Carolina.
Her works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and parenting essays have been published in various websites such as yourstoryclub, halfbakedbeans, writer’scafe, perfection pending, herviewfromhome and India Currents.
She is part of various writing groups and is closely associated with “Write Like You Mean It”, a writer’s group in Main library, Charlotte. She also leads a monthly Fiction Writing workshop and conducts writing workshops at various libraries across Charlotte.
According to reports, there are approximately 700,000 heritage structures in India. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) administers 3,675 ancient monuments and archaeological sites. The rest come under state archaeological departments, private trusts and other bodies, like the Wakf Council.
Several are ‘lawaaris’ monuments, and there is little documentation of their current status.
Many have “disappeared” as a result of encroachments and development. Still others are repeatedly abused, turned into sites for graffiti, and habitually treated as open lavatories. In most cases, there is neither proper conservation nor adequate funding and awareness about these monuments.
That Delhi-based photographer Amit Pasricha is passionate about historical monuments is not unknown. Since 2007, he has put together several award-winning coffee table books such as The Monumental India Book, The Sacred India Book, Mughal Architecture & Gardens and India At Home. Over the years, however, as the popularity of digital media and the Internet continues to grow, he feels that the book market in the country has plummeted because very few people are actually reading. Not just this, Indians today hardly visit museums and exhibitions. The result is that we are spending too little time engaging with our history.
After having learnt and experimented with the language of photography for about three decades, Pasricha felt it was time for him to actually put this skill to bring about a difference in the way people engage with history and monuments. This pushed him to start a yatra through the country, to identify “lesser-known monuments” and bring their stories to the world.
So, what qualifies as a lesser-known monument? Pasricha’s parameters are simple—the monument must be an aesthetic structure which has some historical or architectural value. “Apart from the list of 100-odd monuments (like the Taj Mahal and Qutab Minar) that Indians know about, all the rest are on my radar,” he says. “For instance, Champaner, a historical city in Gujarat, is one of the 36 World Heritage Sites in India. Unfortunately, Indians and even most Gujaratis are unaware about its existence,” he adds.
He decided to change the medium he used to explore his passion from books to an ever-increasing, participative process that people could engage with and contribute to. The ‘India Lost and Found’ project was born out of an attempt to put together a “virtual museum of thought of a time gone by”. It is not about discovering monuments, but rather about discovering our heritage. “When we studied about the Lodi period in our history textbooks, no one really connected it to the Lodi Gardens or the other monuments they built,” he says, as he explains how it can be difficult to imagine what those times would have been like, in the absence of heritage documentation. “Did people wear white? Did the men wear turbans? What food did people eat?” — these are the kind of questions that remain unanswered. Lack of adequate information means that often, we don’t know why certain monuments were built. In a sense, his project wants people to be able to re-imagine everything we have been through, to get to present times.
Unfortunately, discourse surrounding these subjects has been restricted for a very long time to historians’ and architects’ circles. By drawing from the knowledge of people who are subject matter experts in various fields, the project aims to use the monuments as the base for ideation and conversations about what our past was like, in terms of the culture, craft, folklore, mythology, cuisine, fashion, textile, the environment, and materiality, among other things. By working with experts who can talk about quotidian things like the cuisine of different periods of history, Pasricha is putting together a variety of thought on a public social platform (Facebook), where 37 posts are shared per month—thus making thousands of people more aware.
This Patron Network of experts comprises a mix of conservators, designers, landscape designers, museologists, historians, heritage enthusiasts and history students. Parul Pandya Dhar, an associate professor with the Department of History, University of Delhi, is one of the experts in the Network. “The India Lost and Found project foregrounds many admirable aspects of our built heritage—aesthetic, historical and socio-cultural. The images are very captivating and draw the interested mind to know more about them: Who built these magnificent structures? Who were the patrons and artists? What are their hidden narratives? Who lived in them? What were the rituals practiced there? What do the painted and sculpted details reveal?” she explains. “I hope to see this movement grow and transform into a people’s movement for heritage awareness and conservation,” she adds.
Noted social worker, designer, writer and craft activist, Laila Tyabji is another expert on the Network. She says, “Having worked with crafts and craftspeople all over India, I keep encountering extraordinary yet unknown architectural gems, and also amazing rituals and practices that are linked with the communities in that area. Culture and aesthetics are part of a holistic social cycle, just as built heritage and intangible heritage are closely intertwined. We need to make those connections,” she says. “We are so rich in terms of these unknown treasures and traditions. We need to share our experiences and value them,” adds Tyabji.
How will this imitative help restore heritage? “If you become aware about a time gone by, you will care a lot more about it,” says Pasricha, “By redefining our heritage for ourselves and our children, we can make them understand its importance, and in turn make them want to visit these monuments.” Essentially, the idea is to understand our relationship with India’s heritage today, in order to make sure that it is not lost and forgotten. “This discussion is the means by which restoration can be enabled. Also, through this, the imagination of our children can be stimulated, as opposed to things like technology, which mostly consumes them,” he adds.
While the feed will continue to grow until June this year, Pasricha plans to start travelling next month to other states—Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu—which haven’t been covered by the campaign thus far. “Covering each state will take about a month,” he says. In tandem with this, Pasricha also plans to conduct smartphone photography workshops for school students which will impart photography skills that they can put to use in the future. A one-day workshop will be conducted at one of the lesser known monuments in the city to teach children how to click pictures on a smartphone. An INTACH volunteer will talk about the monument for about 15 minutes, which will be followed by technique-oriented workshops and group sessions.
This article first appeared in Firstpost. It has been reprinted here with permission of the author.
Recently at my local grocery store I was juggling a cartful of groceries, while my toddler who was sitting in the cart was screaming and throwing protein bars from the nearby shelf onto the floor. Ugh! I apologised to every passing shopper for the noisy mess, and was ready to pull my hair! While checking out, I glanced at the magazine rack. Right on the cover of a recent issue of Time magazine, it said- “Mindfulness- The New Science of Health and Happiness.” The whole issue was devoted to various articles on the same topic – mindfulness, of course – that’s what I needed!
I needed to be mindful of my body while lifting my tot, mindful of my mind while losing my temper and mindful of my emotional and spiritual being – okay, that was an easy sell! The magazine found its way into my grocery bags and waited by my bedside, until my toddler fell asleep later that night.
When I finally picked up the magazine, the issue surely drew me in immediately. The articles spanned from yoga to the science behind mindfulness and its benefits. One would pause to think – what’s new about any of this? Well exactly. While looking through the magazine, I found that almost every article mentioned India. Indeed, it is the land of the mindful, it was where meditation and yoga originated.
My first thought was – Wow! this whole issue focused on mindfulness is now part of mainstream media in America. How far we have come! Yoga, meditation and mindfulness were a part of the counterculture movement in the 1960s. Infact, when B.K.S. Iyengar came to America for the first time in 1956, he was surprised by the lack of interest in yoga. Well, fast forward about seventy years and we have 36 million people in America practicing yoga. I was proud of the fact that my Indian heritage related to yoga is no longer a mystical and unknown entity. Continuing research in the West finds scientific evidence of the myriad benefits associated with mindfulness which include better sleep, less stress, better family relationships and just an overall better quality of life. It is exciting to view these practices in a new light drawn from a scientific point of view as opposed to following practices because our ancestors did so.
As I reflected upon this, I broke out into a peel of giggles. My husband shushed me and I went back to reading. But the fit of giggles was induced by the question that popped into my head – are we really a mindful people? Are we really from the land of the mindful? Well we sure are not mindful of our land. When I visit India, there are various things that I have observed which makes me think otherwise. We throw trash out of our front doors and onto the streets. We have no traffic sense, we are not mindful of crowds, noise or pollution. We can be loud while celebrating festivals and weddings. We thrive in chaos and we sure do not seem to be affected by it. We roll our car windows up when we see beggars banging on them and we believe in maintaining societal hierarchy with haves and have-nots. Modern Indians are hooked to their cellphones to the extent of clinical obsession (the mindfulness issue warns against excessive use of gadgets) How ironic then that this was the land where yoga and mindfulness began.
On further thought, there were other ways in which we continue to be mindful in the way we live – truly ironic! For example one of the articles in this issue focused on slow eating. Slow eating is sitting down to eat your food, feeling it with your senses, giving it full attention and respect and seeing the nutritional and nurturing element in it. Slow eating creates better metabolism, weight loss and body consciousness. Aha, that sure describes every meal in India. No wonder the idea of fast food was quite foreign in our land until recently. Indian families eat together, slowly – everything comes to a standstill while food is enjoyed with all the senses including the hands that touch the warmth and texture of each dish.
Another story was about mono tasking, which is the practice of doing one thing at a time. Multi tasking is the expected norm in the West. You do everything and you take pride in it and you take greater pride in doing it all together at the same time. Even though multi tasking definitely has its pluses, new research has found that it links to high blood pressure, sleep issues and anxiety. Mono tasking as the name suggests is doing one thing thoroughly and finding joy in that. India is all about monotasking, I hate to generalise but I do it here anyway; without the societal pressures of multi tasking, our laid back but bright minds don’t mind working on one thing at a time. Growing up, I remember plenty of tea breaks at government offices. While I was ready to display rage towards the employees for interminable wait times as I waited in the sweltering sun, they were sipping their tea slowly. Looking back, I can forgive them for truly they were practicing mono tasking.
Other articles talked about faith, early rising, intention and prayer. All these ideas were not new to us. I am grateful in my daily life for the faith that I was raised in. In fact all world religions have their roots in meditation, pointed out another article. The Vedas in Hinduism talk about meditation and yoga, Buddhism believes in meditation which is how Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha, early Christian mystics talk of it and Islam professes meditation through the salat and Sufism talks of union with God and Zikr. Prayer centers us and as an Indian, I am proud of our culture’s firm belief in prayer.
We often hear of setting an intention in the modern world, whether it is a New year’s resolution or the intention of going to the gym every day or even the intention of being more mindful. Intention as pointed out in this is issue is called samkalpa in Sanskrit and is a very important concept in Hindu philosophy. So is gratitude. We are all told that gratitude has its health benefits and is just a kind thing to do to yourself and others. You can buy gratitude journals or just check Facebook where many posts are often about what people are grateful for. My earliest memory of gratitude is of praying before a meal and being thankful for it. Our culture places so much importance on giving thanks. The same beggars that we shut are windows to, we go feed on holy days as a gesture of gratitude for our own good fortune – ironic but true!
Reading the mindfulness issue, brought me peace, giggles and pride. We as a people have resources, a history and traditions that we can draw from at any time that we want. As a people we also have an objectivity to appreciate the irony that exists in being acknowledged as the birthplace of mindfulness, and the humor to get through it. Henry James once said, “ Don’t underestimate the value of irony, it’s extremely valuable.” I for one am surely becoming mindful of my own ironies.
Preeti Hay is freelance writer. She grew up in Mumbai, India and has a Masters degree in Post Colonial Literature and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. She has written for major publications in India including The Times of India, Hindustan Times and DNA India. She is passionate about creative writing and is currently working on her first novel.
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My Early Brush With Yoga
My mother was a Yoga teacher, an alumnus of a Yoga school where yoga was taught in a comprehensive manner: breathing, diet, attitudinal training, etc, accompanied the asanas, and when done sincerely, and over a period of time, yielded results of better living and good health. So, as a family we did practise Yoga, and my sibling and I even became demonstrators for my mother’s classes at Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan and other places. But needless to say, very reluctantly.
Though we knew the benefits, as we saw her students get relief in countless cases of illness – asthma, back pains, high blood pressure, upper respiratory disorders, obesity – and also stress. In fact, there was actually a case of a young schoolboy, who had lost his voice owing to what my mother figured could be excessive body-building efforts; within few months of her yogic care, he actually got back his voice.
Despite all this exposure, we children dreaded Yoga-time in the evening, and as soon as we got a chance, we dropped it out of our routine.
Couple Of Decades Later…
On Diwali day of 2005, I found myself checking the word `leukaemia’ in an online dictionary: the dreaded word had made its way into my blood report, and I was sure it couldn’t be what I thought it was.
But it was. My boys were then five years and six months old, respectively. Bone marrow transplant, the known permanent cure was not an option for various reasons. Thankfully, there was a breakthrough chemotherapy drug – though how long it could prolong life was not known. However, one had to take it daily, life-long, and endure all its attendant side effects – also daily.
Thus began my debilitating journey with cancer and the promise of life sustained by chemotherapy – at the age of 33, and with one little boy and a toddler in tow.
My Real Tryst With Yoga
Chemotherapy was prolonging my life, but it came with very heavy quality-of-life costs. Plus, the drug was new and no one knew how long it would offer remission. There were also instances of people turning resistant to it. I desperately searched and tried all kinds of alternative therapies for support. One by one, I read about and tried them all out – You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay; past-life regression; affirmations, healing stones, nutrition therapy. Though begun with gusto, none of them really seemed to be helping really.
My mother was gone by then, so that refuge was not available to me. But my father knew an elderly gentleman, Dr Sivananda Murty – an embodiment of compassion and wisdom. It started with taking homeopathic medicines from him for symptomatic relief; his concern and his soothing words inspired confidence and trust – and the fact that he had a radiant face, was extremely energetic, as also aware, sharp, knowledgeable and a terrific sense of humour. Later, I got to know he was a practising yogi, of quite some stature.
Though there was no imposing schedule I had to follow, I knew a few changes would need to be made.
Diet, of course, was to be nutritious, though light and I cut out the heavy and toxic. Here, I cannot stress enough the importance of a wholesome diet, and according to ayurvedic principles of eating according to season and time of the day. I would go so far as to say that the current trend of veganism could lead to serious imbalances later in life, both in body and mind. Food cannot be broken down into nutrients alone; it is the totality of the food that contributes to our being.
Asanas, again, according to body type, morning and evening walks, to soak in sunlight and the early morning oxygen. I was taught pranayama or breathing exercises, not too vigorous.
Gradually, I was able to accommodate meditation – different kinds of meditation, for different purposes, and at different times of the day. Mantras helped me to invoke the Sun’s healing energy, some general chants to keep calm and feel connected with the higher power. I realised the power of herbs – in providing stamina, in helping digestion and elimination of toxins.
What I realised is that many of these things were Ayurveda in practice, which is nothing but a sister science of Yoga. Or perhaps, Ayurveda forms the base for Yoga; either way, they work hand in hand and reinforce each other. Herbs, mantra, foods, colours, stones and many more things are all part of Ayurveda. Later, I found good resources in the works of Vedacharya David Frawley, Dr Robert Svoboda and Vasant Lad.
The biggest revelation was music. I had always been passionate about music and thought I knew about its “healing effects”. But here was a different suggestion: I was told to listen to classical ragas of Hindustani music at the appropriate time (each raga has a time that it has to be sung in). And though initially it was pleasing only to my ears, I realised that it was impacting me at a deep level: there were episodes of relief in severe neurological issues caused by the chemo drug, which the doctors had neither been able to identify nor cure. As I discovered later, classical music and its time-theory is part of Ayurveda, and that the ragas’ notes penetrate deep into the spinal cord, creating healing effects.
The best part about the entire experience was that I did not have to give up anything or change anything in my life – my likes, my preferences in food, people, dressing, recreation, entertainment, sense of humour. Some changes occurred on their own: for instance, I realised that honey taken three times a day had tremendously aided my digestion by helping eliminate toxins, and given me strength. In their turn, the toxins that left also left me bereft of the craving for such foods that would harm me.
I suspect the other positive impressions I was taking in had a role to play too – music, the right food in the right order, eaten at the right time – they had effected subtle changes in my psyche, and that had also a role to play in my unhealthy cravings disappearing. Perhaps, the connection back with nature and its cycles was helping.
The explanation for all this, I found recently in David Frawley’s book Ayurveda and the Mind. I understood that we have three vital essences that are responsible for our vitality, clarity and endurance – they are called prana (life force), tejas (inner radiance) and ojas (primal vigour).
All these three have psychological and emotional functions to perform: prana helps the mind respond to the challenges of life; tejas enables the mind to judge correctly; ojas gives patience and endurance that gives psychological stability.
Again, on an emotional level, prana maintains emotional harmony and creativity; tejas gives courage and vigour to help accomplish extraordinary actions, and ojas provides peace, calm and contentment.
It is obvious that all these three are desirable for a peaceful, meaningful existence. And how are they built up? These are built up in two ways: a) from the essence of nutrients we take in from food, heat and air, and b) by the impressions we take in through the senses.
Thus, the right food and impressions ingested – in accordance with ayurvedic principles, would help impact the psyche and mind and, bolstered by the effects of Yoga, would create and restore health. Viola!
My own experience was that, over time, and I don’t know how and when it happened, I had adopted things that I had no idea existed, and often didn’t even believe in. Just incremental changes – so gradual that they went unnoticed – that worked on each other and added up. As toxins left, strength at both the physical and subtle levels was built, and that further gave me strength to let go of other toxins. Some of my worst phobias went too – as did my acid reflux, and my hypothyroidism, my eczema.
Cutting a long story short, it’s now 13 years since I began considering alternative ways of living. The chemo continues, but it is a small fraction of the original prescription. I have gone back to working, and pursuing other interests. There’s no denying that I am a work in progress – we all are – but if it is nothing short of a miracle that I am where I stand today.
Just a small clarification is in order here. We hear about different forms of Yoga today – power Yoga, hot Yoga, Kundalini Yoga and others. While these surely have their purpose, it needs to be clarified that while dealing with serious life issues, what comes handy is the comprehensive Yoga, which deals with all aspects of existence – body, life breath, psyche, the consciousness.
What I now realise is, that without really thinking about it, a good number of steps of the eight-fold path of Yoga laid out by Patanjali were scaled. At one time, they had seemed so daunting and non-negotiable!
I didn’t have to change anything, or exclude any materialistic activity or eschew its fruits. All that was needed was to mentally dedicate everything to the higher truth. The rest was left to the higher power.
There is a verse in the Bhagawad Gita which translates to:
Whatever you do, whatever you eat, what you sacrifice, what you give, whatever austerity you engage yourself in, offer it to me.
(Yatkaroshi vadasnasi vajjuhoshi dadaasiyat, Yattapasyasi kaunteya tatkurushva madarpanam)
For a near-atheist, it was an unimaginable thing to do, but I had no choice, and so I did. Krishna was my chosen one – the powerful but fun, multifaceted, enigmatic god. It’s not a coincidence that he is, as I realised later – Yogeshwara.
Over the years, I also realised that our Indian deities and idols were only a means to an end. Just as an example: Mahalakshmi, the supreme mother is the Aadishakti, the original energy. What is the harm in connecting with that energy, with tools like mantras, meditation and appropriate worship? Many such benefits are available to all, at specific energised places all over India.
The Last Word
Religions, with their prescriptions of activity, are a way of life with each section of humanity. However, they widely differ in content from each other, and to the extent that they are based on the assertions of a few and vertically divide society irreconcilably, they become selfish, and a kind of materialism.
The Gita seeks to make every man a Yogi. Ultimately, the state of being unaffected by the results of action, and therefore, the ability to sail smoothly on the waves of the vicissitudes of life – is Yoga. It first benefits the individual and then permeates his surroundings.
Perhaps all heroes are empathic. To test that hypothesis, let’s first define hero and empathy.
- Hero (as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary): “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; an illustrious warrior; a person admired for achievements and noble qualities; one who shows great courage.”
- Hmm. Noah Webster and his publishers, the Merriam brothers, help a bit, but we must go deeper. Here is Joseph Campbell’s definition of a hero, based on the world’s myths he studied and popularized: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”
- Empathy (as defined by Daniel Goleman, the author of “Emotional Intelligence” in the “Harvard Business Review”): “cognitive empathy – the ability to understand another person’s point of view; emotional empathy – the ability to feel what someone else feels; and empathic concern – the ability to sense what another person needs from you… Compassion takes empathy a step further.”
- Let’s take that next step with the Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
That helps, for years ago when I conducted a small survey on whom young people find heroic, just as many youngsters called out their mothers, fathers, and teachers as those who referenced Gandhi and Lincoln. So perhaps there are two types of heroes: (1) those who play out their journeys on the world’s large stage as so-called fathers of their nations or saviors of the union; and (2) those who stay closer to home to quietly fulfill their heroic duties by feeding children or educating students. To inspire aspirational awe or to simply serve as accessible role-models, these heroes must be empathic. After all, who wants to emulate a Debbie Downer or a Pessimistic Pyush?
Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO and the author of “Hit Refresh,” can be read in many ways (part memoirist, part futurist, part social activist, part corporate cheerleader, part inspirational business leader), but half-way through the first chapter, I elected to read him as an interesting test case of whether one person can be both a hero of the supernova type (giving his life to transforming Microsoft and thus being featured in the Harvard Business Review) and also hero as dedicated-dad (giving his life to Anu – his wife – and their children in a way that was featured in Good Housekeeping).
With his gift of empathy, Nadella seems to have pulled off the magical and mythological coupling. Somehow he is able to make his extraordinary journey from Hyderabad Public School to Microsoft Chief Executive seem ordinary, and his ordinary life as son, husband, and father seem extraordinary.
At HPS, he “was not academically great.” His dream was “to attend a small college, play cricket for Hyderabad, and eventually work for a bank. That was it. Being an engineer and going to the West never occurred to [him].” And his Sanskrit scholar mom nurtured the dream of a balanced life: “That’s fantastic, son!” While his civil servant father was less enamored with young Satya’s provincialism, he was more “amused than annoyed,” when Satya flunked the Indian Institutes of Technology entrance exam. Even after catching the wave of entrepreneurship, drive, and ambition in college at Manipal Institute of Technology, Nadella still “never wanted to leave India.” Despite hoping to be rejected from American graduate schools, he found his way to the frozen middle of the country at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Clearly Nadella was no wunderkind of the Bill Gates variety; no mythical Harvard dropout narrative for Nadella. His special genius seems to have been to work hard, apply himself to the task in front of him, find himself in the right place at the right time, and the willingness to take full advantage of unexpected opportunities by hitting refresh. “No master plan.” Just a small-town boy with no chip on his shoulder, but a willingness to take on whatever his slender shoulders could carry.
After his Masters degree, Nadella worked for Sun Microsystems back in the day when Sun was a darling of Silicon Valley. Since Microsoft “needed someone who understood UNIX and 32-bit operating systems,” Nadella found his way to Redmond, Washington. But he really wanted to go to business school at the University of Chicago and become an investment banker, so the pull of Microsoft’s headquarters was not single-mindedly alluring. With his ability to balance multiple interests, Nadella flew to Chicago on weekends for a part-time MBA and during the rest of the week flew all over the country trying to sell Microsoft’s operating system value proposition to corporate CIOs.
Nadella’s professional story meanders along like this for so long in Chapter 1 that the reader begins to wonder how in the world did this guy become a CEO of Microanything, let alone Microsoft. There were clearly men and women who were more academically gifted, more monomaniacal in their focused drive, more connected to sources of organizational power, and quite frankly more ambitious. And yet, this enigma-of-a-wannabe-cricket player became only the third Chief Executive Officer that Microsoft has ever had. Perhaps it was the three guiding principles that he learned from his cricket-playing days that put Nadella into the proverbial corner office:
- Principle 1: “Compete vigorously and with passion in the face of uncertainty and intimidation.”
- Principle 2: Put “your team first, ahead of your personal statistics and recognition.”
- Principle 3: Recognize the “central importance of leadership.”
While these principles have internal validity and make for good copy, it is more likely that Satya Nadella was appointed CEO of Microsoft by Bill Gates (who has written a gushing forward in “Hit Refresh”) because he proved himself to be indispensable to two product lines that were linchpins of the company’s comeback: online search and cloud computing.
Of course, there are plenty of CEOs who have been appointed with great fanfare due to their engineering talent or their marketing IQ, but crashed and burned faster than a California wildfire (classic example: Carly Fiorina’s destruction of Hewlett-Packard from legend to laggard). So maybe there is another attribute that contributes to leadership success, something that is the opposite of the headline-grabbing hubris that defines the crashers and burners. This is why our definition of heroes needs to be expanded; heroic leaders must also be able to empathically “build shared context, trust, and credibility.” This was what Nadella learned in business school while reading Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire.” While an uncommon business text, this book certainly shows Nadella’s literary bent.
Although trustworthiness is a must in all aspects of life, it is a sin qua non for leaders (not many lifelong HPers would say they ever fully trusted Carly Fiorina to carry forward their HP Way culture). Those with a healthy sense of empathy are likely to be trusted not only by family and friends, but also by colleagues and customers.
In rather direct language, Nadella writes: “Ideas excite me. Empathy grounds and centers me.”
While this reader imagines that young Satya’s empathy began when he was in short-pants playing cricket in Hyderabad, Hit Refresh suggests two dramatic turns that served as catalysts for moving this key aspect of emotional intelligence to the forefront for Nadella as he strove to be a leader of hearts as well as hands and heads: the first was feedback he was given at the end of his interviews to join Microsoft; the second was a more personal learning upon the birth of his first child, Zain.
Towards the end of a full day of interviews which tested Nadella’s “fortitude and … intellectual chops” (i.e., his hands and heads), the future CEO of Microsoft came across Richard Tait, a rising manager who asked only one question: “Imagine you see a baby laying in the street, and the baby is crying. What do you do?”
Nadella’s engineering background kicked in with a problem-solving, transactional response: “You call 911.”
Although Nadella got the job, Tait’s avuncular feedback was perhaps of greater value than the first-year salary Microsoft offered: “Richard walked me out of his office, put his arm around me, and said, ‘You need some empathy, man. If a baby is lying on a street crying, pick up the baby.’”
A few years later, Anu and Satya were blessed with the first of their three children. As a result of utero asphyxiation, Zain was born with severe cerebral palsy, a disability that to this day has resulted in his being reliant on loved ones and caretakers. To be sure, Zain is on his own journey of life, as are his sisters and parents.
Perhaps the following paragraph from his father’s hitting the refresh button is an apt ending to this book review:
“Being a husband and father has taken me on an emotional journey. It has helped me develop a deeper understanding of people of all abilities and of what love and human ingenuity can accomplish. As part of this journey I also discovered the teaching of India’s most famous son – Gautama Buddha…. I discovered Buddha did not set out to found a world religion. He set out to understand why one suffers. I learned that only through living life’s ups and downs can you develop empathy; that in order not to suffer, or at least not to suffer so much, one must become comfortable with impermanence. I distinctly remember how much the “permanence” of Zain’s condition bothered me in the early years of his life. However, things are always changing. If you could understand impermanence deeply, you would develop more equanimity. You would not get too excited about either the ups or downs of life. And only then would you be ready to develop that deeper sense of empathy and compassion around you.”
Or perhaps the above paragraph is an even more apt opening of our collective hearts.
For my hero, Siddhartha, who is on his own mindful and heartful path to using business as an agent of change.
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