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What Women in STEM Need

Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.

As I mark an important milestone in my scientific career, I notice that not much has changed since the time I joined the workforce making my goal of staying in the workforce sound like an achievement.

Recently I completed twenty-five years as a scientist. Not surprisingly, I remembered my first day at work, eager to reap the rewards of my hard earned education that had begun in India and culminated in the US with a Ph.D. As a diligent student growing up in urban India in a family that valued education, I had pursued a science education, unaware of the challenges of being a woman in STEM.

The young are optimistic and naive. I was no exception. My ambitions were modest. I hoped to contribute to the field, make a small difference to people’s lives, and derive satisfaction by doing meaningful work.

Today as I look back through the lens of hindsight, I can confidently report that I have achieved one solitary (and far from lofty) goal. Despite many obstacles, I have continued to remain in the workforce.

A foreshadowing of things to come

On a beautiful sunny January morning when I reported for duty at a pharmaceutical company in California, I had to sign a form agreeing to ‘promptly’ disclose pregnancy, a procedure that was mandatory for all female employees. It was supposedly to protect my unborn baby from potential harm, since my work involved chemicals of unknown toxicity. Although loathe to admit that I was already in my first trimester of pregnancy, I acquiesced. 

With that auspicious beginning I embarked on a career which has spanned three countries – USA, India and Singapore. I have been employed at multinational companies and research institutes, run my own consulting business and taught at a university. I have travelled alone for work to Switzerland and Malaysia, and visited state-of-the-art facilities and hole-in-the-wall operations. I have attended meetings with corporate bigwigs and worked with non-profit organizations.

Although much about the world has changed since I began my career, certain fundamental aspects about STEM fields, particularly as it relates to women, have stayed the same. The UN has declared 11 February as the International Day of Women in Science as a way to draw attention to the gender imbalance in STEM fields. However, as per the World Economic Forum, women are still excluded from participating fully when it comes to careers in STEM.

Why are women deemed to “not fully participate”? 

I looked back at my own career for answers. More than public role models who graced magazine cover, private interactions within my immediate circle made a greater impact on my fledgling career. In the era before the internet became the main source of information, before influencers channeled public opinion, I sought inspiration from fellow women scientists. 

My youngest aunt, the first person in the extended family to pursue a science education, a female professor at my university in Baltimore, and women colleagues at my workplace were my de facto advisors. They served as sounding boards and working examples who also provided valuable practical advice.

“Don’t give up your financial independence.”

”Adjust your job role or work part-time if you’re in a bind, but stay in the workforce.”

“Always lookout for opportunities for advancing in your career but also for ways to reduce your stress.”

“Don’t try to be a superwoman.”

While I appreciated their encouraging words, aware that this was not standard career advice offered to men. In a fair world without gender bias and discrimination, I would be paid on par with my male colleagues, and have a similar successful career trajectory. In reality, I was constantly firefighting to find alternate ways to manage my career and accommodate life changes including marriage and motherhood.

To make a difference, you need to run the long race

Almost a decade ago, I was asked to speak to a girls-only science college in Hyderabad on the occasion of the centennial celebration of Marie Curie’s Chemistry Nobel Prize win.

“I am not a chemist,” I demurred, surprised at the request, feeling awkward and grossly under qualified, although by then I had worked in two countries.

“We would like you to inspire the young women,” the principal insisted.

What could I say to a new generation of women scientists preparing to enter a field where the stakes were certainly not in their favor? 

I spoke of dreams and hard work, of opportunities and failures, of constant learning and self-belief. But I also spoke of my own experiences. I had experienced miscarriages and migration, divorce and displacement, bereavement and loss, but at every crossroad, I had asked myself one question –

What is the smallest change I need to make to keep my foot in the workforce?

At one point I had moved to working fewer hours per week, at another, I had signed up for a course to add new skills to facilitate a lateral change. From moving closer to my workplace to save time, to paying more for better quality childcare and finally, going from a full-time employee to a freelance consultant, I had reinvented my work life repeatedly to suit my changing lifestyle.

It is not about the fame

While I would like to think that times have changed, they really haven’t changed that much.

While I enjoyed watching the popular show Big Bang Theory in which two major female characters were shown to be scientists, I was surprised by a tweet depicting Flavia Tata Nardini, co-founder of Fleetspace Technologies, standing behind a podium with an infant in her arms and a toddler by her side, delivering a speech to high school girls, made an appearance. The former had more viewers but the latter was a true representation of a woman’s work life.

For a brief moment Indian women scientists at ISRO received recognition for their role in successfully sending a satellite to orbit Mars. But many more women who have made major scientific contributions continue to be routinely eclipsed by the familiar visages of their pop culture celebrity counterparts. 

Most women falter in the face of what may seem like trivial issues – reliable daycare, financial support, flexibility. In recent essays in the Working Life column of the American Association of Science website, women researchers and faculty spoke about struggles with miscarriages and work-life balance, about taking time off to care for sick parents, and about their inability, as a single parent, to travel to conferences outside their city to present papers without resources or backup support. Many, or all of these issues have a direct impact on their professional prospects and career trajectory.

It is not surprising therefore to find women dropping out in large numbers from STEM careers. It is shocking that women endure at all. 

Against this backdrop, having achieved my solitary goal of not dropping out of the race seems like a great achievement. Perhaps I was lucky. From a supportive (male) boss who offered me flexibility when I returned to work after eight weeks of maternity leave to parents who stepped in whenever I had a crisis, from the kind lady who watched my infant to a close-knit group of friends who jumped in at short notice to assist in various ways, I am indebted to an army of silent supporters.

In a bid to pay it forward, along with a colleague, I helped lobby for and set up a daycare center for employees at my workplace in India. I went on to hire young mothers on a flexible, work from home schedule in my own business. I continued to mentor and remain available to my students for guidance long after they graduated. 

Change happens at its own pace, despite our impatience. Until then, I refuse to despair. 

By continuing to maintain my tenuous toehold in the workplace, supporting initiatives like the  Life Of Science project and writing about my experiences, I plan to continue championing the cause of women in STEM.


Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is presently working on a memoir. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

The Queue: A Story About Loud Music & (Un)civility

Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

My article on cancel culture was published a couple of months back. It highlighted situations in which private disagreements sometimes lead to permanent breaks in relationships. Using sources as diverse as the Ramayan and the Mahabharat on one hand, and the Marshall Plan and President Lincoln’s famous Civil War speech on the other, I came up with strategies for being gracious and generous on one hand and principled on the other, even under trying circumstances.

But, what about situations that are public rather than private? When ignoring the issue would be unfair?  What is a person of goodwill to do? The below is an exercise in learning to answer such questions. 

Late in the afternoon of the first working day of the New Year, I visited the post office to mail some letters. I was surprised by the long line that stretched way out on the sidewalk. The social distancing mandate was only part of the reason for the long queue. The other was that there were many people who needed to return packages (gifts?) received over the holidays.

Goodwill

Seeing that it would be a while before she would reach the front of the line, the woman standing in front of me (I will call her Wanda) requested that I hold her spot while she went to her car to get her jacket. I readily agreed.

By the time Wanda returned, more people had joined the line behind me. As previously agreed, she got in line ahead of me. Seeing this, the elderly woman who had joined the line after Wanda left asked her if she was joining the line. It was her civil way of making sure Wanda was not jumping in unfairly into the line.

“I would never do something like that,” Wanda proclaimed with a smile.

“She was here before I got here,” I clarified.

All three of us nodded in goodwill, reassured that the queue remained inviolate.

Ill will

Soon after this conversation, Wanda started playing music on her phone. She did not have headphones and so the sound wafted into the air around her. She swayed gently to the song.

Twenty minutes later, the line had moved. Wanda and I were now just inside the front door of the post office. I heard loud music and didn’t think much of it… maybe it was playing on the PA system.

But, the music seemed to get more shrill and impossible to ignore. Looking closely, I soon realized that the loud music was actually coming from Wanda’s phone. Either she had turned up the volume, or being indoors, the sound was reverberating a lot more than when we were standing outside.

After a few minutes, it became quite unpleasant. The sound was tinny and scratchy, impossible to ignore. The line was still advancing very slowly.

“Is the music playing on your phone?” I asked Wanda. When she confirmed this, I continued, “Could you please turn it down?”

“It is gospel music and it inspires me,” she said.

“That’s great,” I said with a smile. “Could you please just not play it so loud?”

“What, you don’t like gospel music?” Wanda was becoming aggressive.

“I am not familiar with it,” I admitted.

“Well, I am going to keep on playing it. You can go to the back of the line.”

“I am not going anywhere.” I responded.

“You have some nerve!” she insisted angrily and said it a couple more times for good measure.

I admit to being quite taken aback by Wanda’s response. A person who had, just a few minutes earlier, professed her commitment to civic rules and order, was now being quite rude. Moreover, she was being unkind to the very person (me) who had spoken up for her.  

I looked away. Having made my point, I was not interested in continuing the disagreeable dialogue.

Civility restored

Amazingly, after a few more minutes, Wanda turned down the decibel level of her music.

My turn came soon after. My business at the post office completed, as I walked out, I happened to make eye contact with the woman behind me… the one who had asked Wanda about her place in the queue. Despite her mask, I saw a smile in the crinkled edges of her eyes and an almost imperceptible nod of her head. I felt validated. 

This was one of the rare times when I took a public stand in an attempt to check an inconsiderate person. I might have expected a racing heart and clammy hands, especially after Wanda’s outburst. Instead, I felt calm both during and after the brief exchange. 

I am glad that, rather than chafe in silence, I raised my voice against sound pollution. It was a small act undertaken in the interest of preserving civility in the public space.

Civic Responsibility

As an immigrant of almost forty years standing, I have a particular appreciation of the orderly society in which I live. It would be fair to say that through the decades I have been a student and observer of what it takes to build and preserve such a society. And, I daresay I have tried to do my small part in that by being a civic-minded participant in the communities in which I have lived. This has taken the form of volunteering in the local school, returning library books on time and picking up litter (when I come across it, which is fortunately quite infrequent), and writing the occasional letter to the editor of the local newspaper. 

The storming of Capitol Hill on January 6 has added a whole new urgency to the topic of the responsibilities that accrue to citizens of a democratic country, and what each one of us can and must do to preserve and extend democratic norms. 

By itself, my experience in the queue was a very trivial one. But it is not difficult to imagine the chaos, disorderliness, and just plain meanness that would result if incidents like that were to multiply millions of times over. I think it brings out the importance of upholding bedrock principles and not letting them be eroded by loud-mouthed bullies. Maybe we would not be where we are today if Trump had been checked early on. 

As Dr. King put it,

Those who do nothing while witnessing injustice and wrong-doing do worse than those who commit acts of injustice.

Have you been in a situation where you took a stand? How did it feel? Did it make a difference?


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. 

imagecredit: noisy neighbor by Gan Khoon Lay from the Noun Project

 

Looking At The Brighter Side Of A Pandemic Year

Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.

In December of each year, my family sits around a glass jar for our annual appraisal ritual. The ordinary jar purchased from Ikea and previously used for storing mango pickle, contains notes and index cards, quickly scribbled and dropped in by each member of the family at various times during the year. It holds the trivial details of our individual lives and serves as a short term repository of our collective memory, before they are transformed into our annual family newsletter.

The four of us sit cross-legged on the carpet and take turns to pick out one short hand-written message each. We read it aloud and hand it to the person who has written it. Every message captures an event, accomplishment or significant moment, typically documented soon after it happens, and narrated in a format that represents the different personalities of each family member. 

Messages come in various formats and lengths. From a cryptic “No more Hindi exams” (younger daughter) to tweet-sized “Yayy, landed my first paying internship, can’t wait to spend it” (elder daughter) to longer ruminations – “went on weekly treks, played squash twice a week, and swam everyday for 16 weeks”(husband). Mine read like tiny letters to myself, annotated with a date, sometimes a listicle, and always a signature.

It’s a fun way to close the year, reminiscing about small things we had forgotten about because memory suffers from the recency effect and life has a way of expanding the once-in-a-lifetime kind of moments while obliterating ordinary ones. 

In years past, our newsletters have captured memorable moments like skydiving in New Zealand, watching an unforgettable sunset from a beautiful hotel in Santorini and spending a night in a tent in the Serengeti. Individually and collectively, we have challenged ourselves with yoga teacher training at an ashram (elder daughter), climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (husband), launching a book (me) and obtaining scuba-diving certification (everyone but me).

The husband glues together these disparate, often sparse notes with his wacky sense of humor, adds a few choice photographs and sends it to our large group of extended family and relatives. We receive heart-warming feedback from our readers, usually mentioning our fabulous travels and overachieving tendencies. The exact reason why we dreaded gathering this year for an annual ritual that we all used to look forward to.

How could we put together an interesting writeup for a year that has ‘pandemic’ as the word of the year?

Our jar, not surprisingly, was almost empty. A few notes from the first two months reminded me of the successful launch of my book in Hyderabad back in January. And the pleasure of watching ‘Little Women’ in the movie theatre with my daughters. There hadn’t been much to report for the rest of the year. Travels to Bhutan and Europe had been cancelled. Plans for a party to mark the elder daughter’s college graduation had been put on indefinite hold. Diwali gatherings had not materialized. We hadn’t seen family members for months. In fact, even familiar faces had become hard to recognize while hidden behind masks. 

We had not only missed splashy outings but also the simple joy of sitting across with a group of friends. We had witnessed job loss, deferred dreams and positive Covid cases within our inner family circle. We had conveyed condolences to friends whose loss had been compounded by their inability to say goodbye in person. Thanks to unsatisfactory work-life balance I missed a highly anticipated live-streamed wedding that I had hoped to attend in person. 

The list of all the things wrong with the year was long. Finding something to celebrate was going to be tough. But treasure lies exactly where you least expect to find it.

At the bottom of the jar, we found four little gems that we had forgotten about. In response to an NPR post back in May, I had convinced my family to participate in a group project – to create a “quaranzine” – a record of pandemic life. It was suggested as an activity to engage little kids by asking them to respond to certain prompts with words and pictures. 

My teenage daughter and her older sister rolled their eyes but good naturedly brought paper, pens and color pencils. Each of us created a mini-diary capturing our version of the life we were living. We didn’t share our creations with each other then, so when we pulled the booklets out months later, they looked like little time capsules.

Our responses to the prompts like “what was the hardest thing about pandemic life”, “what had changed the most”, “what was most surprisingly delightful” were unique to our stage in life. I tried using fewer words but failed in comparison to my younger daughter whose one-word responses accompanied by cute cartoons spoke volumes.

Despite our best hopes, the end of 2020, had not brought an end to the Covid-19 ordeal. Our lives are still curtailed. Although we had no great outer achievement to share, we had all grown. By adopting new exercise routines, demonstrating interest in new hobbies and even embracing existing technologies such as audiobooks, each of us had progressed. We couldn’t host large parties, but we had made small contributions to our neighborhood. Like in previous years, we found that we were not the same people we were at the beginning of 2020. 

Our newsletter project taught me the true value of tradition. The simple act of gathering for a common purpose gave us exactly what we needed during these trying times, faith that even though we may not know what the year ahead will bring, we will grow, individually and together, as a family, and as a community.


Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is presently working on a memoir. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

 

I Will Not Cancel Us!

 Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Cancel culture is a form of boycott in which a person is expelled from one or more of their social or professional circles. This happens in real and virtual arenas.

A friend called. “I texted you a couple of hours back and you haven’t responded. I just wanted to make sure we are good….” Her voice trailed off. She did not need to complete her sentence. I understood her predicament. Having become used to my quick responses, the delay had seemed abnormal to my friend. The message to which I had failed to respond was one in which she had declined to participate in a group project. Afraid that I had taken offense, she was worried that I was “canceling” her.

The ubiquity of instant communication has primed us to expect quick, albeit short, responses. When such responses fail to appear, our minds fly to catastrophe. At the same time, the geographically dispersed manner in which many of us live, and the non-overlapping nature of the communities in which we participate, have made it easy to sever ties with seemingly little collateral damage. It is therefore tempting to think that “cancel culture” is a bane of present-day society and that it did not occur in the “good old days.” However, this is far from reality.

The event that gives the Ramayan its momentum is the banishment of Ram to a fourteen years-long exile. His stepmother Kaikeyi demanded this because she wanted her son Bharat to inherit the throne. She knew that the mere presence of this beloved prince (and rightful heir to the throne according to the laws of the time) would be an unceasing reminder of the underhanded way in which she secured the throne for her son. And so, Ram, together with his wife Sita and younger brother Laxman, removed himself from the kingdom. In effect, Ram was canceled.

The Ramayan has another more heartbreaking episode in the same vein. At the end of the war with Ravan, Ram and Sita returned to Ayodhya and Ram ascended to the throne. Some subjects of the kingdom rejected Sita’s “normalization” because they believed her to be impure as a result of having been in the custody of a man other than her husband. When Sita heard about this, she took it upon herself to leave the kingdom. She did not want her presence to compromise her husband’s honor among his subjects. Ram did not try to stop her. In effect, he prioritized his own reputation over standing up for Sita. In effect, Sita was canceled because of a remark uttered by one judgmental person.

The contrast is stark. The wife shared her husband’s burden and stood by his side when he was exiled. But, the husband did not hesitate to let his wife cancel herself at the mere suggestion of scandal. Too often, those who have less power and less protection are held to a more exacting standard and a bigger price is extracted from them.

The Mahabharat has its own instances of ex-communication. After the Pandavas lost their kingdom to their cousins, the Kauravas, in the game of chess, they were banished from the kingdom. Wanting to completely erase them, Duryodhan, the oldest of the Kauravas, had a palace built for his cousins. Lac (wax) was the building material used, the better to burn without leaving any traces of arson. Fortunately, the Pandavas managed to escape unhurt. But, the facts of the two attempted cancellations remain.

As the philosopher, Kant, proclaimed, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” In other words, humans are imperfect and, like Duryodhan and even Ram, are capable of dishonorable actions out of malice or cowardice. In such situations, it is human nature to seek restitution and justice. Unfortunately, too often this urge manifests itself as an unwillingness to compromise, to forgive, or to make a fresh start. So, the challenge is to devise strategies to respond to infractions in a measured and rational way.

From time immemorial, societies have had only a few ways to encourage preferred (“good”) behavior and discourage “bad” behavior. Religions promise reward and punishment in the afterlife. In the present, the threat of religious ex-communication is used to keep individuals on the straight and narrow. Social customs and traditions use the mechanisms of public honor or shaming. In modern developed societies, civic fines and taxes do the work. When all else fails, a person who offends the norms of a society is jailed.

 

Amazingly, a way to temper the impulse to cancel an offender and deploy a more thoughtful and measured response is also found in the Mahabharat.

The conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas ended up with both sides locked in a fight-to-the-death battle. Arjun, the Pandava brother who was also the most skilled warrior, felt deeply conflicted. Was it moral to seek to kill his cousins, who were, after all, his own flesh and blood? What was the righteous option given the fact that his cousins had cheated and had even tried to kill him and his brothers? Even though Arjun sought restitution, protection against continued threats, and yes, maybe even revenge, he struggled to convince himself that war and annihilation were an honorable way to achieve those ends.

Arjun’s charioteer was Krishna. Cousin to both sides, he was unaffected by their rivalry. With no skin in the game, (and maybe thanks to his divine wisdom) he was able to be principled, deliberative, and detached. He told Arjun that his duty was to fight injustice. But the right way to execute this righteous duty was to act without hatred or the expectation of a reward or a desire for personal glory.

Ironically, the words in President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address echo the same sentiments. “With malice toward none and charity for all…” A further irony is that these words too were uttered at the end of the bloody and devastating Civil War in which brothers fought against brothers and families split over their positions on slavery.

Indeed, it was by putting this principle of generous grace into action that the victorious United States helped rebuild the societies and economies of its erstwhile enemies, Germany and Japan. I am referring, of course, to the Marshall Plan.

My personal Marshall Plan works like this: If I feel hurt or offended by a friend, I don’t react at the moment. If the infraction is not too severe, I file it away and carry on as graciously as possible. If it is, I convey my thoughts using forthright and compassionate words.

Sometimes, the differences are irreconcilable. In that case, I also state what needs to happen for the relationship to be repaired. In this way, at the very least, the person knows exactly why there is conflict and they know how they can fix the issue through compromise, communication, or some other form of healing. Agree to disagree, but do so agreeably.

Finally, it is helpful to remind myself that I may have unknowingly hurt a friend. So, consistent practice of open dialogue has the potential to empower my friend to express her views and seek wholeness.

As for my friend who had worried that I was miffed at her, I reassured her that my response had been delayed for no other reason than that I had become caught up in other tasks. In addition, I told her I appreciated her reaching out because I would not want her to feel anxious. Lastly, I told her that, in the event of a conflict, I would not resort to canceling without having at least one conversation to clear the clog in our friendship. The antidote to the impulse to cancel or “ghost” a person, at least on the personal level, is to always keep the door of honest and compassionate communication open.

My new mantra is “I will not cancel Us.”


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. 

We Called Them Blessings

Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.

The word ‘privilege’ that has become popular in debates and discussions worldwide, reminded me of an old quote. 

The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.

This quote by Eric Hoffer appears in my autograph book, a relic from my school days in Mumbai. Amidst pages filled with colorful drawings, and silly messages from classmates, these words, neatly copied out by a soft-spoken nun who taught math, looked incongruous, but apt. 

I grew up in a small apartment in a suburb of Mumbai. Our multifunctional living room, filled with conversations and laughter during the day, would transform into a bedroom at night. The space where my brothers and I watched TV, played and argued, was always noisy. Whenever I whined about the lack of quiet, my father would tell me about how he and his eight siblings studied under a street light. Even as a young girl I could sense that a room with adequate lighting, if not ambience, was a definite step up.

When I was ten years old, a new girl joined our class. Petite and soft-spoken, Bina was the second of five siblings in a family with a difficult financial situation. The charitable arm of the community to which she belonged paid for their tuition and books. In return, she was required to earn good grades to ensure funding for the subsequent academic year. Bina’s diligence and good cheer made me less inclined to grumble about the hand-me-down textbooks that I received from my older brother.     

In my teens, our apartment was upgraded by enclosing the fairly large balcony that bordered the living room. With the addition of an antique desk, installation of a wall-mounted fan and a table lamp, the rectangular room became a study. And the quality of my student life improved manyfold.

The living room was no longer flooded with morning sunshine but the new sliding glass doors of the balcony helped keep out the dust from the adjacent plot. A narrow abandoned stretch of land overflowing with litter, weeds and stray dogs, was being developed into a new apartment building. 

Among the workers who toiled day and night was a young girl about my age, who carried freshly-mixed cement in a shallow metal tray held atop her head. A coil of cloth protected her scalp from the heavy load. When our eyes met, I responded to her open smile with a wave. I felt compelled to connect with her, despite warnings to stay away from the bustle of a construction site.

‘Shobha’ although a few years older, had never been to school. During our summer holidays, two friends and I taught her to write Hindi alphabets using a small black slate and a piece of chalk. We brought her snacks, a notebook, and pencils. She enjoyed spending time with us, probably more as an escape from her hard life, than from a desire for education. When the building came up, she left with the crew, having learnt how to write her name. 

Urban poverty was real. Inequality was an inescapable consequence. It was impossible to not acknowledge the benefits conferred on me by the accident of my birth. For every pretty shoe or school bag I coveted, I could always find someone who was happy to receive my outgrown clothes and dog-eared books. 

Years later, as a graduate student in the US, I was surprised to find that some of my peers were the first in their family to go to college. My eyes had been trained on the wide range of opportunities available in America. Inequality, although not as visible as in India, was an unacknowledged reality. 

Time changes many things, including vocabulary. 

In today’s parlance, would my childhood, which I considered modest, be classified as ‘privileged’? The dictionary defines privilege as ‘a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available to a particular person or group’. 

Every child has the right to be educated. Yet, not every child receives education. I learnt this lesson early on. 

With no accumulated wealth or ancestral property, my parents decided to invest in quality education for their children. By opening the gate to learning, they put the key to a better life in my hands. 

My ‘privilege’ was not the schooling but the recognition that the opportunity itself was a gift, one that I should not take for granted or frivolously forfeit. By diligently applying myself in school, I participated in building the foundation for my future.

Was I blessed? Fortunate? Lucky? Entitled? 

The words being tossed around in the debate over privilege are powerful, pedantic, and sometimes, petty. But they are just words. Semantics can only go so far. 

The words written by my teacher lodged in my consciousness decades ago. I tried to master the arithmetic of counting my blessings at every major crossroad in my life. And each time, it stirred in me the long-buried desire to help others, just I had done with Shobha that long-ago summer.  

Actions speak a different, more powerful language.

Whether I offered to read books for the blind in Baltimore or volunteered at the adult literacy center in California, I tried to do my small bit, knowing that it might be just a drop in the ocean. 

There will always be much more to do than what a mere individual can accomplish. 

For me, the first step towards building a more equitable world begins with gratitude, not just for my blessings but for the people who taught me to focus on the right things. 


Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

When Wishes Come True

Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!

This popular phrase attributed to the Aesop’s fables came to mind as my workplace scrambled to put measures in place to implement new directives issued in light of the Coronavirus situation last week. 

Finally, my long-held wish to work from home was coming true. Yippee!!

I had first toyed with the idea of requesting my boss to let me work from home more than twenty years ago. I was a young mother then, enjoying my first job as a research scientist.

It was the best of times. I loved my job, my home, even the short ride to work. It was also the most precious of times. My long to-do list refused to shrink despite the many items I crossed off each day.

If only I could get one day a week to work from home – I could fold laundry while answering emails, attend calls when my toddler took a nap, and get dinner started in the precious minutes salvaged from the daily commute. And just maybe, have those extra minutes to chase butterflies and hang out in the playground with my child.

It was my first job and I worked in the laboratory most days which meant being tied to the physical location. As expected, my request was denied. 

The following year I received a promotion which added managerial responsibilities to my job description and reduced dependence on lab work. My duties now included supervising the people who reported to me. In the pre-Skype/Zoom days, this could only be done in person. Again my request to work from home one day a week was denied. 

For a short period during the decade I spent in India, I was self-employed. This was the only time I worked from home. I felt I had overcome the tyranny of the clock, choosing to work during my most productive hours of each day. 

As a consultant, I did not have one boss, I had many. Early morning flights, late evening calls, and impossible deadlines kept me on my toes. I didn’t mind. I could extend a business trip for a short excursion to a nearby resort or even slip away to watch a matinee move on a weekday depending on my schedule. This flexibility and freedom came at the cost of a monthly paycheck but it gave me control over the most precious commodity – time.

The quality of our work life is determined by the work culture of the place we live in. Despite having worked in large corporations in the USA and India, after the relative freedom of an independent consultant’s life, when I moved to Singapore and landed a full-time job, I found it difficult to get back into the groove.

My commute on air-conditioned trains and buses, although civilised and comfortable, took away almost two hours each day and drained my energy. When health conditions added to my daily fatigue I once again started praying for respite in the form of the occasional option to work from home. 

My prayers were finally answered in response to the Coronavirus outbreak. 

Except for one caveat. My family members had also been mandated to stay home.

Instead of having the house to myself, I moved from room to room with my laptop in search of a quiet location with a comfortably cushioned surface to attend to work. The family had the same exact thought. All four of us scrambled to sequester to the guest room, the only room with a formal desk AND good internet connectivity.

With technology enabling online classes for the kids, and phone calls to people locked down in their homes but scattered across various continents and time zones, the house was constantly buzzing with activity. It might have been easier to designate each bedroom as Meeting Room 1, Meeting Room 2 indicating times that demanded silence from co-workers, in this case, family members.

Laptops and phones were constantly being charged. Everyday at least one person madly searched for their earphones, yelled at others to keep quiet, or interrupted important calls with trivial questions. We clearly needed a written standard operating procedure for household interactions during pandemics.

Another hazard of working at home is the lure of an afternoon nap. To resist the temptation, I avoided the master bedroom completely. 

The kitchen, on the other hand, had no such restrictions. This led to a severe drop in quantities of junk food which qualifies as “essential” during such times. I made a note to add unhealthy snacks to the pandemic preparation list, in addition to toilet paper. 

Naively assuming that ordering online would take me a few minutes, I logged on to my favorite shopping website to find that it had crashed owing to surge in demand. A task that took me a few minutes once a week now turned into an obsession with hourly checks to find an open delivery slot. 

Another irritant was my phone – reminding me of the number of steps that I had not walked this week. On most weekdays my commute and a short post-dinner walk helps me complete my target of 10,000 steps fairly easily. Not so during this week. It’s 4 p.m. and my phone shows 475 steps for my daily count. 

I look forward to a nice long walk in the evening but the rain gods have different plans. There’s thunder and lightning, a heavy downpour that looks pretty from the comfort of my living room which has a pleasant green view that becomes particularly striking on rainy days. I sit with a cup of coffee and brownies (baked due to popular demand) to watch the sight, aware that less walking and more calorie consumption is probably not in my best interest.

Coming back to work, it is getting done. Not as efficiently as when I am in the office, but enough to keep the wheels churning at a time when every project timeline and priority has been turned upside down. 

The chaos within and outside the house mirror each other. In one week, we have made one run to the emergency room (for a sprain which luckily was not a fracture), a couple of runs to the grocery store, and several long walks on wet walkways at night.

I miss my colleagues though. For the interim, we are all stuck at home whether we wished for it or not. Unlike me, some of them have a harder time as single parents or with little kids who don’t take easily to staying home. We communicate through whatsapp groups – sharing forwards with scary news and dire data, funny jokes and silly strategies, hoping to get through the next few days (or weeks).

All we can do now is keep our fingers crossed. And perhaps make a new wish. For things to go back to back to normal. I just hope this wish is granted soon. Going back to the office no longer sounds banal, it could quite possibly classify as an adventure.

Desi Roots, Global Wings – This is a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, former resident of USA and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

YouTube is the Desi Mood

We gave up cable TV over seven years ago and thanks to sites like Netflix, Amazon Video, and HBO Go, we haven’t missed it at all. But, the real treat that resulted from cutting the cord is that it pushed me to seek information and entertainment on sites such as Youtube and Vimeo.

As I am sure most people know, Youtube is a universe of an endless variety of shows, shows that cater to the most niche of interests. 

For example, my son sent me a link to Primitive Technology, where a man who builds small structures using only the tools and materials that would have been available in pre-industrial times.

Primitive Technology

A friend sent me a link to Grandpa Kitchen, a channel of a man in South India who, seemingly single-handedly, cooks food outdoors on a massive scale, and feeds disadvantaged kids. As she put it, “He is so cute… his wrinkles have wrinkles!”

Grandpa Kitchen sharing Banana Pancakes

Finally, there are art and craft channels that feature everything from rangoli made using forks and bangles to reusing old newspapers to make Ganesh Chaturthi decorations. 

Watching these and other videos provides a mental health break, a creativity inspiration boost, and  pure entertainment. Even if I cannot do any of these things, it feels good to know that such creative people exist and also that the technology exists to make it available to me for free (or for the price of internet connectivity). Indeed, I would go so far as to say that at a time when the news is filled with grievances and acrimony, which in turn lead to feelings of helplessness or cynicism, videos such as these as well as their easy availability offer a sense of hope and possibility.

~~~

Sometimes I need a culture or nostalgia fix–something that is as familiar and comfortable as a walk in the old neighborhood. The collection on Youtube is vast and I wouldn’t presume to offer a comprehensive survey or even a “best of” list. However, I have found some videos and channels that I recommend repeatedly to friends and acquaintances. So, I am doing the same for the India Currents community.

Old Bollywood songs: remixes, re-recordings, new voices

  1. S. Qasim Hasan Zaidi: A Pakistani professor of engineering and an accomplished musician, his channel has videos of him playing and singing old Bollywood songs. 
  2. Mayuri: Russian performers who love Indian dance and practice it with uncommon grace. I especially like their rendering of “mera naam chin chin chu” and “na moonh chhupake jio.” 
  3. Within India, a great revival of old hits appears to be in vogue. Pran Katariya’s channel features many accomplished singers, among them Anil Bajpai and Sangita Melekar. Similar groups have sprung up in many Indian towns and cities. 

Web series

  1. Sumukhi Suresh as the Maid is sassy and authentic.
  2. Tech conversations with Dad are funny and heartwarming.
  3. Episodes of “If apps were people” are original and hilarious.

Aam Aadmi Family is like Everybody Loves Raymond, but set in contemporary India and featuring quintessentially Indian situations. It features the middle-class Sharma family consisting of the parents, their two young adult children and Mr. Sharma’s elderly mother. What makes this show remarkable is that the situations are completely believable and the characters are as likeable as the people from one’s old neighborhood. This, even while the show breaks down stereotypes through its gentle sense of humor.

So, for example, the grandmother is not orthodox at all and is completely up on the latest lingo used in texting and other apps. The daughter breaks up with her boyfriend and upends the “girl-viewing” ceremony. The grandmother never misses an opportunity to gently jab at her daughter-in-law. These and similar situations are presented with a quirky and light touch. And then, of course, there are the quintessential Indian situations such as the ever-present, well-meaning neighbor, and the relatives and friends  who drop in unannounced for tea. For me, watching an episode of Aam Aadmi Family is like a quick 20-minute trip to India without leaving my house.

The show is truly innovative when it comes to its ad model. Each episode has a passing mention of a product or service, such as a mutual fund or diabetes-friendly oil. The advertisers deserve credit for sponsoring such creative and enjoyable shows and for delivering their message in a refreshingly subtle way.

Another show that revolves around Indian family life, but pushes the envelope in doing so is “Permanent Roommates.It features Mikesh and Tanya who have had a long distance relationship for several years. When the series opens, they have moved in together and Tanya is pregnant. Alternating between serious and funny, the series offers a what-if and believable depiction of situations that would have been unthinkable a few years ago and are probably unthinkable even today except in a cosmopolitan metro like Mumbai. 

For interesting short films I recommend channels such as Pocket Films, Whistling Woods International and Terribly Tiny Tales. For stand-up comedy there is East India Comedy and various comedians performing under the Canvas Laugh Club banner.

As a bonus, here are links to two short films that have very unexpected endings: “Rishtey and “Jai Mata Di

What did you think of the above suggestions? What would you recommend? Do post in the comments. In the meantime, happy watching!

Desi Roots, Global Wings – This is a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. 

Dance Lessons Bring Romance to a Midlife Marriage

As a single mother with a teenage daughter, when I decided to marry a widower with a daughter, I knew what I was getting into. Or so I thought. From one half of a mother-daughter duo, I became the key piece of a puzzle which held four very different people, all wary and a little apprehensive about this new midlife adventure that Aditya and I had jumped into. 

There was much to be learnt, both inside and outside our home. Moving from India to Singapore meant, among other things, giving up the luxury of driving our own private cars and relying exclusively on public transport in a tiny but super efficient metropolis far removed from the chaos of India. The girls entered a new school, skeptical about making friends, and nostalgic for the familiar faces they had reluctantly left behind.

Inside the home, I bore the brunt of figuring out meal plans and food preferences, sleeping habits and unique quirks of my new family. My hopes of finding a job started fading after a few months. Even as I ranted against the unfairness of the job situation, the most frustrating part of the early months of our marriage was the lack of private time between Aditya and me.

At home, we hesitated to hold hands in front of the kids, unsure of what they would read into such gestures of affection, given our conservative Indian outlook and upbringing. I missed the one on one time that we enjoyed during our courtship through late night phone calls. We would say goodnight after sharing stories about our day and making each other laugh. My idea of a happy marriage involved a spouse who would be my friend and confidant, my buddy and my muse, my better half who would make me want to be a better person. 

Our daily life however, was buried under to-do lists and spreadsheets, our schedule filled with meetings at the school and appointments at the immigration office. All of our conversations centered around the home or kids or finances. 

Perhaps I was wrong to want romance in a midlife marriage. Candlelight dinners and walks on the beach were only for the young, not for couples with bills to pay and homework to supervise in the first year of marriage. But a part of me still craved alone time with my new husband. 

As newly-weds didn’t we deserve some time to find an equilibrium with each other before being inundated with family priorities? 

One day at the library I found a flyer announcing ballroom dancing class at our local community center.

“Let’s sign up for this,” I suggested, hoping it would give us something to do together while providing an excuse and a focus away from the kids. Aditya agreed. 

On the first Thursday evening, I waited eagerly for Aditya to return from work. Although unsure about the dress code for such an activity, I knew comfy shoes were required. I convinced Aditya to not change into his usual home attire of shorts and t-shirt. We took the bus to the community center and found our way to the dance studio on the third floor. 

The spacious room with floor to ceiling mirrors on two sides of the large, smooth, rectangular floor looked intimidating. The registration sheet showed at least ten names but we were the only couple to show up for the class. The instructor, a tall elegant gentleman dressed impeccably in formal pants and long-sleeved black shirt, looked as if he would have been happier had we not shown up. 

In spite of his misgivings, the agile instructor tried to teach us the basic waltz three step.  One-two-three. One-two-three. One-two-three. He paired up with us, one by one, to demonstrate. We were happy to be led and tried to follow. Soon he asked us to pair with each other and repeat. 

Despite our best intentions we were unable to complete more than two ‘1-2-3’ counts without stepping on each other’s toes or bumping into each other as we navigated the corners of the room. On the way back home, we laughed at our feeble efforts but sincerely showed up each subsequent week. At the end of the ten-week session, there was no discernible improvement in our technique. We continued to hobble around the dance floor like disjointed robots but we optimistically asked the instructor,

“When does the next session start?”

“I will call you,” he replied wryly, not impressed by our enthusiasm.  

 After ten weeks of missing cues, not getting the rhythm, and stepping on each other’s toes, we were forced to conclude that we were no Fred and Ginger. Our dance lessons, in addition to making us laugh, did teach us a few valuable lessons – how not to step on each other’s toes, literally; how to leave behind our disappointment with our lack of progress at the studio, and how to laugh about our two left feet. 

Our joint effort towards a common goal was all that mattered. By providing a relief valve from the stress during the early days of our experiment of a second marriage, the ballroom dance lessons served a purpose – of allowing us to lighten up and let ourselves some slack. Who said we had to get everything right? 

Five years later, on a family holiday to Alesund, Norway, I paused midway on a hike to Sukkertoppen hill, not sure I could make it. Suddenly, a familiar hand appeared. With his lean build and athletic frame, Aditya could have easily raced ahead with the kids, but he had stayed back to check my progress. I took his hand. 

Sometimes he walked ahead to check the best path. At other times, he walked besides me. We moved, not in unison, but in response to each other’s unspoken prompts until we reached the summit with its breath-taking view. Did the dance lessons help? I’m not sure. But romance in midlife, that’s a different story.

Desi Roots, Global Wings – This is a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, former resident of USA and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

Thanks to 7 SeTh and Alex Iby on Unsplash for the images.