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I am Bihar (an ode)

May 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Back in Nov 2009, we had a big reunion of St. Xaviers Bokaro alumni and their families. If you haven’t bumped into anyone from Bokaro (formally known as “Bokaro Steel City”) yet, you need to know that the mere mention of Bokaro is enough to send them into raptures and wax eloquent about this utopian steel township in a part of Bihar that’s now Jharkhand. For all the Bokaro alumni, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and I daresay the non-Bokaro spouses had a decent time too. A few mini-reunions later, I heard about Bihar Foundation from one of my classmate’s husband. Ajit Chouhan’s blog post Bihar Foundation – Connecting Biharis Worldwide does a good job outlining the foundation’s charter and ambitions.

For a variety of reasons, Bihar doesn’t rank high on India’s list of states (on many indicators – be it socio-economic, literacy, or governance). When I found this ode (authored by Mayank Krishna), it felt like a gust of fresh air. I present to you – I am Bihar (a proud and optimistic ode on Bihar)!

(Reproduced with permission from the author Mayank Krishna)

I AM BIHAR

I am the history of India,
I gave the world its first Republic,
I nourished Buddha to enlightenment,
I gave world its best ancient university,
My son Chanakya was the father of Economics,
Mahavir came out of my womb to found Jainism,
My son Valmiki wrote Ramayan, the greatest Epic
Rishi Shushrut, the father of surgery, lived on my soil
My son Vatsayana wrote Kamasutra, the treatise of love ,
My son Ashoka – The Great was the greatest ruler of India ,
I gave birth to Aryabhatt, the great ancient mathematician ,
I gave Ashoka Chakra that adorns India’s national flag ,
My son Dinkar is the national poet of India ,
I gave the world its first Yoga University ,
I gave India its first president ,
I am the land of festivals ,
I am brotherhood ,
I am humility ,
I am the past ,
I am the future ,
I am opportunity ,
I am revolution ,
I am culture ,
I am heritage ,
I am intellect ,
I am farmer ,
I am power ,
I am literature ,
I am poetry ,
I am love ,
I am heart ,
I am soul ,
I am yoga ,
I am global ,
I am inspiration ,
I am freedom ,
I am force ,
I am destiny ,
I am Bihar ,
…Come with your dream
I will make it a reality

Three Coincidences

October 26, 2008 1 comment

Put two Indians (perfect strangers mind you) in a room and it’s merely a question of time before they find a few common connections. As you might suspect, I epitomize this quintessential Indian quirk.

  1. The Paper Cup Saga: In our first week in Bangalore, during that honeymoon period when work had not yet consumed me, I had the luxury of reading the Times of India (TOI) cover-to-cover. I read a very interesting story in the business section entitled After all your paper cup is not that eco-friendly. The story was about a Texas Instruments (TI India) employee creating an informative video that persuaded the employees to significantly reduce paper cup usage. Being ‘green’ at heart, my thoughts immediately raced to achieving a similar outcome in the Adobe India office. Since TOI publishes the reporters’ email addresses, I was able to dash off a quick note asking them whether they could share the video produced by TI. My attention then went to one of the authors – Sujit John. Was it the same Sujit who was school captain (three batches my senior) at St. Xaviers Bokaro? A quick LinkedIn search confirmed it. Turns out, he’s Times of India’s Bangalore-based Business Editor. Wow! my first solid contact in the Indian Fourth Estate. To top it, Sujit is married to Alice (one of my Xaviers Bokaro classmates).
  2. The Intel Folsom Connection: As I mentioned in The First Week in Bangalore, we spent the first three weeks in a guest house flat on Bannerghatta Road. The flat was in an apartment community called Adarsh Vihar – two buildings next to the Adobe office so it was very convenient for us. As Bangalore apartment communities go, Adarsh Vihar was small (less than 100 flats) but they have a decent playground which the kids and I would frequent on most evenings. One of the kids mom (Sharmila) had moved to Intel Bangalore (from Intel’s offices Folsom, California). I knew exactly ONE person in Intel Folsom – BTV Anant Kumar (my dear friend and classmate from BIT Mesra). Turns out Sharmila and her husband (who also worked at Intel Folsom) knew BTV and his family very well, in fact they were even next-door neighbours for a few years in California. Gee! What are the odds? We exchanged updates on BTV’s miraculous recovery after a month in the ICU.
  3. The Bokaro/Jamshedpur Connection: P and I were sitting in Alok & Babita Sinha’s (owners of the Raheja Residency flat we are renting) living room relating about our life’s ram kahani (“life’s story” for my non-Indian readers). The conversation eventually led to Bokaro and Jamshedpur (two eventful places in my past). Alok runs a division of Symphony Services and had a long fruitful stint at Tata Motors Jamshedpur (previously known as TELCO). Turns out that yet another Xaviers Bokaro classmate (Aman Sinha) used to in Alok’s group at Telco. Not only that, Alok and Aman (who is in the SF Bay Area) met as recently as a few months ago. On a final coincidental note, I had reconnected with Aman (at Hobees Cupertino) just a few weeks before our exodus from California.

Asthma, Bangalore and me…

August 29, 2008 5 comments

Pic: courtesy myhealthguardian.com

Asthma and I go back a long way. One cold winter in Bokaro, when I was either 6 or 7, asthma came uninvited into my life. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that it changed my life. Besides taking a lot of medicines and being bedridden more than the average kid, the big lifestyle impact was that I didn’t play much of any sport during my school or college years. In the 70’s and 80’s, asthma was not well understood – I mean besides the medicines prescribed by allopathic & homeopathic doctors to suppress asthma. Sports Star used to be part of my staple reading during my high school years. I was deeply puzzled when I read that Morten Frost Hansen (Dutch All England badminton champ) and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (heptathlon Olympic uber champion) suffered from asthma in their childhood. I was to learn later that the best way to combat asthma is to exercise “more” (not “less”).

My first job (in India) was with Tata Steel at Jamshedpur. Perhaps it was finally the release of academic pressure or maybe it was finally time to beat my nemesis. Whatever the reason, Jamshedpur was where I won my first battle against asthma. Thanks to my dear friends & colleagues Vochak (squash champion from BITS Palani) and JD (squash champion & amateur coach from IT-BHU), I was introduced to the wonderful sport of squash. I scratched and struggled around on the squash court of Beldih Club for nigh on two years. My squash game didn’t threaten but a worthy side effect was that it kept my asthma at bay and I gradually built my cardiovascular fitness. When I moved to USA, I experienced asthma-free bliss for 16 years (barring a few minor episodes of exercise-induced asthma in Chicago).

As I wrote in Why are we moving back to India now, we came very close to moving to India in 2005. A casual one week stay in Bangalore suddenly turned into a very real possibility. I had an offer to take up a key role in the Yahoo! Bangalore organization and Poonam also had a great opportunity at a biotech startup. At the eleventh hour, we pulled the plug. The asthma factor was not a major reason but it did figure in the calculations. In all my trips to Bangalore (including this one), the wheezing would start by the second or third day.

Fast forward three years. I was planning my 2-week scouting trip to India and wondering Where in India we would be moving to. By our original reckoning, Bangalore should have been on top of our list of prospective cities. However, it had fallen out of favor and was at #3 (behind Delhi and Bombay). This was partly because we were steadily reading stories about Bangalore’s worsening traffic situation, Delhi/Gurgaon’s rise as a techno hub, and of Bombay’s seduction. The elephant in the living room was actually my old nemesis.

Poonam (our Chief Research Officer) read many articles about how asthma was getting worse in Bangalore.

50% Bangalore kids hit by asthma screamed this Times of India headline in 2007. Dust mites in the humid atmosphere of Bangalore trigger around 60% of asthma, while vehicular emissions like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, benzene, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, aldehydes, sulphur dioxide also act as trigger agents.

‘‘Continuous exposure to allergens like Parthenium could prove fatal for asthma patients as it can lead to a permanent damage of the lungs affecting the respiratory functions’’, said Dr. Rao in this blog post Bangalore still carries ‘asthma city’ tag. Then came a study from WHO and UNICEF that declared that over 30 per cent of Bangalore’s children suffer from asthma. Whoa!!

Then out of the blue, Twitter provided a glimmer of hope. I saw the following tweet (or maybe it was a Facebook status message) from one of my Bangalore friends: “down with asthma. Bummer.” You might find the following email exchange interesting.

— start of email thread —

Hi [friend],
Sorry to hear you are down with asthma. I was reading a few blog posts recently about how the air quality in Bangalore keeps getting worse – pollution + pollen. Why you might wonder? So I suffered from asthma for years – it only stopped after I moved to US (14 years ago). Actively in the throes of moving back to India (looking at Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore as Pune) as prospective cities. The biggest ding against Bangalore (for me personally) is how severely my asthma would return – my last 2 trips to Bangalore were memorable (not!). Would like to know your thoughts..
Thanks.
– Vishy

Hi Vishy,

I can relate a lot to what you say. I was in the US for about 6 months – and was perfectly fine through the period. I am fine elsewhere in India too, In general : Asthma for me is local to Bangalore. I have been here about 10 years, and have learnt to fight it. I am generally fine as long as I am exercising in some form or the other – even a 10 minute walk would do it, as long as its regular. Through various stages, I have practised pranayama, played badminton, gone running, etc regularly. The moment, I get a little lazy – stop exercising for a few days, and asthma reminds me that I cant afford to be lazy in Bangalore. I believe, as long as you are religiously regular with exercise – you can keep asthma away. I myself have considered moving to other cities, but for internet products focussed on the global market – this is the place.
There is enough India focussed internet work happening in Bombay & Delhi, but not as many global companies/startups as in Bangalore.

Let me know if you have anything specific you are looking at in India – might be able to connect.

All the best with the move,
[friend]

[friend],

Thanks for your detailed note on asthma. That certainly re-emboldens my heart towards Bangalore. So I just booked my trip to India – flying in to Bombay on Jun 3 & returning on Jun 18. Plan to cover Bangalore & Delhi as well. Would love to hook up when I’m there.

— end of email thread —

In my blog post chronology so far, a few posts are still incomplete (and hence unpublished). One of them is the “Bangalore Calling” post where I make the case for Bangalore. (Still intend to finish that post but might take a few more weeks). Anyway, I spent 6 days in Bangalore during my 2-week trip and I didn’t feel a single asthma symptom. This was baffling and miraculous. In all my previous three trips to Bangalore, I had asthma trouble so what was different this time? I tried to contain my excitement. Maybe it was the allergy medication which I was taking regularly that acted as a shield. Did it? I have no idea.

What this asthma-free Bangalore trip did to me (& Poonam) was that it removed the we-cannot-move-to-Bangalore straightjacket. We still had a healthy apprehension about how this factor would affect the kids and me. The net score in Bangalore’s favor definitely tipped things over for us. I’m completing this post on day#13 and, so far, (touch wood!) I have not felt any symptoms. The traffic is as bad as it was touted to be but ‘maybe’ the pollen counts have come down. Only time will tell.

First 3 days in India (Delhi & Bangalore)

August 18, 2008 2 comments

Aug 15

The prodigal son returns to India on Independence Day exactly 16 years after he had left for America. Left on a Lufthansa flight and returned on an Air India nonstop flight.  We had the closest thing to a red carpet welcome. Our very dear friends had arranged for ‘Man Friday’ (no less) and two vehicles to whisk us away to a comfy guest house in a neato Delhi neighbourhood. It was 10pm by the time we reached, nobody was hungry but we played safe anyway and ordered some takeout. At 3am, the kids woke us up and we realized everyone was hungry and non-sleepy. We finished the food in no time and spent the next 3 hours trying to persuade the kids to go back to sleep. You can guess who won that round. Almost forgot to mention that we were VERY impressed by the service on Air India. Seriously!

Aug 16

Went hunting for soymilk in the morning. Thanks to the ubiquity of Silk, the hunt was successful. After breakfast, spoke to the Avtars (dear friends of ours who had moved to Ghaziabad/Indirapuram from SF Bay Area 2 years ago) by phone. Started calling a bunch of friends from Bokaro days and struck pay dirt. Amitabh came over to the guest house – we had lunch together and had a great time catching up. Later in the afternoon, called another old classmate Rahul who promptly invited us over for dinner. Amrit’s first auto-ride in India – he enjoyed it, The kids became friends with Rahul’s son (and his toys) in no time. Excellent chinese food (“Indian Chinese” variety) and catching up on our last 20 years made for a great evening.

Aug 17

The Jet Airways flight to Bangalore was in the morning. Man Friday was again instrumental in making our airport experience very very smooth. The good vibes must have rubbed off on the Jet Airways because they waived the 12 lbs excess baggage fee. The special treatment from Jet personnel didn’t end there. We were the last people that disembarked from the plane in Bangalore and what do I see when I reach the baggage claim? A pleasant and attractive lady from Jet Airways greets me by name and asks me to confirm whether the 6 suitcases and 2 boxes stashed on 3 carts were ours. Cool! Then an entourage of 3 Jet baggage attendants escort us all to the way to our transport. Double cool!

Flash update: In the midst of our Farewell USA tour (Cedar Falls to be precise), I had accepted an offer to join Adobe Bangalore. It’s a very exciting role and I’ll elaborate in a separate post – sequel to Searching for a forcing function.

The nice people from Adobe had sent a Toyota Innova (the Indian minivan) with a luggage rack. I needn’t have worried about the luggage not fitting. The drive from the new Bangalore International Airport to the Adobe guest house on Bannerghatta Road took one hour. Our driver pointed out all the neighbourhoods along the way – our education and settling down in Bangalore had begun.

P.S. Has anyone noticed that I’m gradually switching from American to British spelling (colour instead of color)? Strange thing is that this happened subconsciously.

The Bombay Seduction

June 12, 2008 6 comments

Two centuries ago, Mumbai (Bombay) was a small fishing village consisting of seven islands. Its natural harbour held an opportunity for investors, who realized that it could become an important trading center. The British era saw the creation of a bustling seaport that was used as a gateway to transport natural resources to Great Britain, an airport that was considered the best in this part of the world, the birth of trade and commerce in textiles with cotton and bullion dealings at the forefront. People soon migrated to this booming business center from all over India and various parts of the world… and eventually, the small village was transformed into the bustling metropolis that is Mumbai today.

..as described by Niranjan Hiranandani (Managing Director of Hiranandani Group) in an article where he addresses what is available for home buyers looking for a green and healthy lifestyle in (yes) Mumbai. The bustling metropolis boasts a population of 12 million which represents 1% of the Indian population. Approximately 6.5 million of Mumbai’s residents live in slums, according to the 2001 census. This is the shocking dichotomy called Mumbai. The city is the financial capital of India, has a per capita income which is almost three times the Indian average, contributes 25 per cent of industrial output and 70 per cent of capital transactions to India’s economy. For more amazing facts and figures, the Wikipedia entry on Mumbai will not disappoint.

The biggest selling point of Bombay are its people. You won’t find anyone arguing this point. It’s India’s most cosmopolitan city – by a wide margin. It is India’s New York City, its pride and joy, the cricket capital, the cultural capital (not just Bollywood), a populace with an undying spirit and indelible character. Wow! Wouldn’t you want to live in Bombay?

My 2-week India started and ended with Bombay – 2 1/2 days at the outset and two days after covering Gurgaon/Delhi and Bangalore. My flight reached Bombay at 11pm and it was past midnight by the time I got done with the immigration and customs formalities. I walked out to the usual throngs of Mumbaikars holding placards of people they are supposed to be picking up. Soon I spotted the happy face of my friend Dheeraj who had come to pick me up. I had last met Dheeraj three years ago but I’ve known him for 25 years (since my Xaviers Bokaro days). We drove to his flat in Powaii where he graciously hosted me during my Bombay stay. Dheeraj is the co-founder of FinEng (a financial software services startup) that has achieved a lot of success in a short period. He had adjusted his busy business travel schedule in order to accommodate my trip to India – what a friend!

The next two days were a bustle of excitement on the personal and interviewing front. The next morning we drove to Dheeraj’s office in Santa Cruz (East) – my first set of interviews were in the afternoon. As it coincidentally turned out, Dhananjay’s (another classmate from Xaviers Bokaro) office was right next to Dheeraj’s office so he stopped by. The next hour was spent catching up on our respective lives, reminiscing about Bokaro days, and planning a Xaviers Bokaro ‘get-together’. Dhananjay is a top economist honcho at Centrum and had recently moved back to Bombay (from Bangalore) after spending 3+ years at Infosys BPO. His explanation: “Bangalore was not as much fun as Bombay”. Spoken like a true Mumbaikar, my friend. The next evening, Dhananjay, Dheeraj, Saurabh (another Xaviers Bokaro classmate), and I got together at the Orchid – a nice little 5-star hotel alongside the domestic airport. Saurabh works for Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and had recently moved to Bombay from Guwahati. It was a great evening of bonhomie with warm toasts welcoming another Bokaroite to Bombay – heck! I felt we were already moving here.

Meanwhile my interviews with the two Bombay startups had gone very well. One of them made an offer on the 2nd day itself. My meetings with the other startup were also very promising. I was impressed by all the folks I met at the two startups. Considering these were startups, the high energy I saw among the people was not surprising. What was surprising was the number of young people I saw – made me feel old (which I am – only chronologically of course).

I had spent a scant 60 hours in Bombay before I boarded a plane to Delhi but I was feeling that helpless sense of being seduced by Bombay. The warmth exuded by the Bokaro gang, Dheeraj’s hospitality, Dheeraj/my planning the hypothetical joint family vacation to Coorg, the offer from the startup, sights and sounds of Bombay, and Poonam were all adding up. Hitherto, Poonam had maintained a very neutral attitude towards Bombay (even thought she grew up and spent her first 23 years here). Now that Bombay had become a very credible and tangible possibility, she got all excited. “Oh! we’ll live in Bandra. I’ll show you the cool spots of the city, my favorite haunts” and so she gushed. Her excitement rubbed off on me – after all it doesn’t take much to get me excited.

Let’s see what the 3-day weekend in Delhi/Gurgaon has in store for us…

Where in India are we moving to?

May 30, 2008 2 comments

So we are moving to India but to which city? For better or worse, the list of candidate cities is fairly small.
Before we get into discussing the merits and demerits of each city, let me outline the key V+P criteria (V=Vishy, P=Poonam) in evaluating the candidate Indian cities. In no particular order, here are the criteria:

  • Career prospects
    • Is the city a one-trick pony? or is there a critical mass of hitech and biotech companies? (Biotech because Poonam’s background & experience is in biosciences/neuroscience)
  • Livability
    • Some blend of city infrastructure, traffic, pollution, pollen, schools, non-outrageous housing
  • Character of city
    • City of Djins? Cosmopolitan? old-world or new-world city?
  • Proximity to other cool places
  • Primary spoken language
    • Poonam is Punjabi by lineage but Bombayite by birth and upbringing. I am Andhaite by lineage but have honorary Bihari/Jharkhandi citizenship since I spent most of my growing years in Bokaro, Ranchi and Jamshedpur. Hindi happens to be the Indian language that both Poonam & I are comfortable speaking. Of course, a high proportion of our conversations at home tends to be in English but we fully expect the Hindi/English ratio to significantly increase after we move to India.
  • Quantity of friends already living in city

Now that we’ve squared away the city evaluation criteria, let’s dive into our short list of cities…

New Delhi/NCR

National Capital Region (NCR) encompasses the entire Delhi metropolitan area as well as the neighboring satellite towns of Faridabad and Gurgaon (in Haryana) and NOIDA & Ghaziabad (in Uttar Pradesh). The V+P definition of NCR includes Gurgaon and NOIDA but excludes Faridabad and Ghaziabad.

  • (PLUSes)
    • Relatively speaking, Delhi has the best infrastructure among all the Indian cities.
    • Delhi has a rich and old history worthy of exploration.
    • Reasonably strong hitech action in New Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon.
    • Gurgaon is arguably India’s fastest growing city & most modern city (at least until Nanocity goes live
    • Close to Himalayas and several exciting destinations in Uttaranchal
    • Tons of friends from Bokaro and BIT Mesra days
    • Housing still affordable (esp. compared to Bombay & Bangalore)
    • Excellent food & dining options
    • Hindi is defacto language
  • (MINUSes)
    • Infested with politicians (and all the associated baggage)
    • Delhi-wallah syndrome
    • Punishing summer heat
    • Severe winter for most (not for us since we braved Chicago for 4+ years)

Mumbai/Bombay

  • (PLUSes)
    • Probability of bumping into Preity Zinta or Rani Mukherji high (compared to any other Indian city)
    • Arguably India’s most cosmopolitan city. Entertainment & financial capital of India.
    • City has great & unique character. Energy is palpable all around.
    • Excellent food & dining options.
    • Sizable number of friends from Bokaro days, BIT MESRA days, and Timpany School, Vizag days.
    • Hindi is defacto language
  • (MINUSes)
    • Monsoon season and Bombay don’t play well together
    • Housing almost unaffordable
    • City’s infrastructure roadmap unclear
    • Commute times potentially very high

Bangalore

  • (PLUSes)
    • Silicon Valley of India. Reputed to be cosmopolitan. Hotbed of innovation.
    • Even before hitech hit feverish pitch, Bangalore had a strong tradition of science & engineering institutions.
    • Humongous number of friends from Bokaro days, BIT MESRA days, Jamshedpur days, and Timpany School, Vizag days
  • (MINUSes)
    • Traffic has become horrendous.
    • Double P whammy (Pollution + Pollen). Tough to ignore pollen since it triggers asthma. More on this topic at: Asthma, Bangalore & me
    • Housing costs approaching American and Bombay levels?
    • Need to learn Kannada?