Wednesday, June 18, 2014

5+ Years in India: Why I Came, and Why I'm Going

A few days ago I read a story in BBC Capital which quoted an amazing figure: between 2011 and 2015, an estimated 300,000 ethnic Indians will come to India to work.

When I first arrived in India 5.5 years ago, I thought I'd stay for 2 years. I didn't know why I'd come, or at least, I couldn't put the reason into words (which is unlike me) and so over the years I developed several inadequate answers to the question "why are you in Delhi?" I was surprised sometimes at the vehemence of this question, particularly when it was asked by other Indians, who seemed astonished that anyone would be in Delhi if they had the option to live elsewhere.

I tried to talk about India's burgeoning opportunity, or the chance to engage with a journalistic market that offers novel opportunities for engagement and depth. I talked about meeting and working with people who are on the forefront, in terms of defining media for a generation of users who will come of age with the Internet. I talked about the personal aspects of finding myself in a foreign country: about learning how to make friends in a city where I had no social history, about learning to rely on myself in circumstances that were alien and often dangerous.

Over the past 5 years, like any journalist, I've assembled many, many stories: about the science correspondents who first took me under their wing in New Delhi, about interviewing Indian policymakers and experiencing the policy process, about seeing stories that I'd written carried on the front page and (in one memorable instance) inspiring questions in Parliament. About the children in a slum school who adopted my iPad (once they realized it wasn't a phone). About jumping out the window when one of my apartment buildings suffered a summer electrical fire. About performing - for the first and last time - in a professional bellydance show. About chasing down reluctant editors and/or developers to form a news/tech community. About late-night picnics around embassy pools. About attending candlelight vigils and street protests for the rights of young people. And of course, about the minor and mundane facts of daily life.

After a while, the question "why did you come to Delhi" evolved. I arrived in Delhi with a standard story. I wanted to be a newspaper correspondent and write long, brilliant stories. As a student at Medill, I learned about the joys of this kind of "real" journalism. When I graduated, I witnessed print journalism's sudden and catastrophic decline. To that extent, I was searching for an opportunity that seemed scare at home. Yes, I could have found writing work in the United States. But the kind of stories I would have been able to write were so, so much less compelling to me than the joys and strangenesses of an entirely new country. Every day that I discovered something or succeeded at something, I felt as if I'd created something new.

But then things changed. I took a job in digital journalism, an evolving field. It had been two years. And people started asking me - or maybe I started asking myself - why am I still here?

A childhood friend sent me a Facebook message that said, "it looks like you're having a lot of fun in Delhi." I bristled at his comment, because to an extent his observation was true. I joined Business Today in 2011. I went from being a struggling newspaper journalist to a far more comfortable magazine editor. In 2011, after 1.5 years, I also started meeting some of the people who would become my regular friends. For the first time, I began to feel like I had a social circle. I went to book launches and gallery openings and parties in nice clubs. I felt confident and free in a way I never had before, perhaps because I was young, single and earning money, and living in a big city.

I'm no longer offended by his comment. Yes, I've had a lot of fun, and because of that, I feel profoundly lucky. If you know Delhi like I do, you'll understand that having fun in it can be an occasionally Herculean labor, not unlike slaying a multi-headed serpent. It's messy, chaotic, violent and often dangerous. But having fun can also be deceptively, delightfully easy. That last bit has nothing to do with location.

Physically, Delhi has undergone an enormous transformation in just a few short years.  I recently moved to GK2, a South Delhi neighborhood, and when a local coffee shop shut down, a United Colors of Benetton opened up in the same space just a week later. Then a Starbucks came in. Everywhere I looked, I saw young girls in tank tops and shorts. The stodginess of Delhi, its age, are being worn away by an energetic and vibrant new force. There are dangerous elements to this force, and an unthinking nature to its occasional rapaciousness, but it is exciting all the same.

And then the Delhi gang rape occurred. I wrote about the Delhi gang rape, because I felt like it fundamentally changed my experience of living in Delhi. I don't think I was the only one who felt that way.

But I still didn't leave. Living the millennial's rootless dream, I switched jobs again, this time to start an organization of my own. I went door to door and met editors and journalists. I started hanging out with entrepreneurs and developers. I found direction, uniqueness and focus. And then, through the people I'd met, I got another fantastic opportunity: this time to build a citizen journalism outlet on behalf of a major media house. There are only a few dedicated projects like this in the world.

Professionally, this project put me at the forefront of a global discussion around the future of journalism. I began to meet editors, journalists and activists from SE Asia, from Europe, from Africa, who were concerned about the communities we create on the Internet, and how those communities thrive. We wanted to know how to bring these communities into the journalistic process, and how to build tools that would enable trust and collaboration. We talked about user-generated content, about online activism, about net neutrality, about verification.  It was exciting to be part of these conversations, and I swiftly realized that the Indian voice would be essential to the evolution of this global dialogue. I looked at the young people around me and the ways they were interacting online, and I looked at global demographic trends, and I realized that the online voice of young India will be the online voice of the future world. I began to speak at conferences and workshops, and to write about the things I'd observed.

Back in the US, everyone seemed to be waking up to India. John Oliver and Jon Stewart were doing segments on the Indian elections, and BuzzFeed and Quartz set up India-specific sites.  Hacks/Hackers New Delhi threw an event focusing on interesting startups in news - yes, they exist, even here. Especially here.

So here's the final question - why am I leaving now?

I love New Delhi, but I know that to an extent, what I've loved about it has been the unparalleled experience I've had while I've been here. Sometime last year, I began to feel like the time was coming for me to go. I couldn't explain it, but the same inexorable force that drew me to Delhi was drawing me back to the US. I began to think about the future, and when I found out in April that I'd been accepted into grad school at MIT (to study the intersection of media + technology!) I felt as if my past experience and my future hopes were coming seamlessly together. I can't wait to study, to make new friends, to experience a new city, and to start work in my lab.

And: I can't wait to be in the same time zone as my parents and sister, to buy great wine at cheap prices, and to go biking in the great national parks on the East Coast (especially when autumn comes). I think about Washington DC, about the National Mall (where I spent hours as a kid, and where I would go running in the early mornings as an adult) and I feel a hunger so acute that it has a taste of its own.

The question "why did you come to New Delhi" suggests that our decisions have a single point of origin, or that one neat impulse can power a varied experience. The truth is, nothing in our lives is neat, and our journeys are never simple. I never expected that I would found Hacks/Hackers New Delhi, because when I moved here in early 2009, Hacks/Hackers (globally) did not exist. I never expected that I would help build a user-generated content portal, because when I moved here, Twitter had no official presence in the country. I never expected I would get to know my grandparents as more than fuzzy voices on the far end of a telephone line. I never, ever expected such affection, kindness, and generosity. But most of all: I never expected I would be so happy here, because I never had been before, not anywhere.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Danger of a Single Story: Vulture Reviews the Mindy Project

Every few months, when one of my favorite TV shows finishes, I go looking for a replacement. The decision to commit to a new show relies on an undefinable chemistry between me and the show. And once the commitment is made, it's irrevocable, barring really egregious decisions by the writers (for example, Downton Abbey - it's gone so steadily downhill, and yet I refuse to stop watching.)

I recently found The Mindy Project, although I didn't expect to. I followed Mindy Kaling on Twitter a few months ago because I expected her Twitter feed to be a barrel of laughs. It was more a barrel of convoluted inside jokes between her and a lot of people who weren't me. She's clearly intelligent, capable, and driven, but there's something about her general demeanor that suggested the sorority sister whom I avoided in college because she was constantly getting obsessed with things I didn't relate to: china patterns, frilled clothing, Kardashian love lives.

But I enjoyed The Mindy Project. And then I went and read a review of it on Vulture.  And the critic said this:

"There’s something quietly revolutionary about those images of a young brown-skinned Indian girl re-watching Hollywood rom-coms and memorizing the dialogue. We’re not just seeing pop culture cannibalize itself in these scenes. They’re also a statement on the messy emotional realities of assimilation — on how men and women who, for whatever reason, should naturally identify as outsiders in the American mainstream want to be in the middle of it."

This paragraph stuck in my craw. It just...bothered me, like when a fly gets stuck in a room and won't stop buzzing. But I couldn't figure out why I was annoyed. And then I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk, "The Danger of a Single Story," and I figured it out.

Adichie is one of my favorite authors. Several years ago, the New Yorker ran her short story "Birdsong" (paywall), the story of a young Nigerian woman who has an affair with an older, married, man. It's a beautiful story. But in her TED talk, Adichie talks about how she was once told that her stories weren't "authentically African," because she focused on educated, middle-class people. These critics - none of them Africans - urged Adichie to write stories that conformed to the African narrative they found familiar.

"The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete," she says in her talk.

And that's what bothers me about the critic's comment. Because there is nothing revolutionary about The Mindy Project. Of course Indian-American girls watch Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry met Sally, just like white and black girls do. Why wouldn't they? How could they not?  Does Matt Seitz believe that TV waves discriminate based upon skin color? That they sense the presence of a non-white face, and go scurrying back into the TV set?

There is another moment that Adichie talks about, and that is the moment when she first realized that the British stories she read growing up (about blue-eyed children frolicking in the snow) were all about white people from the UK. And that she was not a white person from the UK. In a strange demographic twist, most of us are minorities in some way.  And many have this moment of realization at some point. We look at the heroes of sitcoms, the heroes of history, and we realize, "wait a minute - these people are all white." Or "Hey, they're all men!" No matter how much you love the stories you grew up with, you can't go back from this realization. Because you also realize that although you have spent years seeing yourself as part of a community, that community sees you as an outsider.

We, the brown girls of the world (and by extension, the curly-haired girls, the Arab girls, the girls with big noses and unfashionable teeth, the brown boys, etc), have no trouble seeing ourselves in all the stories and culture we grew up with. It's people like Seitz - an adult man, who really has no excuse - who cannot see us there, because we are "brown-skinned." Just because something is revolutionary for him doesn't mean it is a revolution in any actual sense. (And that leaves aside the troubling phrase "should naturally identify as outsiders" - what does that mean? That there is some separate but equal cultural sidestream for non-white people, where they belong? That Indian-Americans should watch Bollywood, and Hispanic-Americans should watch Telemundo?)

Single narratives, Adichie says, are the result of power. Those in power have the luxury of choosing their narrative, or creating alternatives. Until recently, there was a single Indian-American narrative. It prompted much of Jhumpa Lahiri's success - her stories rely on a vision of assimilation that conforms to what people expect (that doesn't make them bad). If we have more Indian-American narratives today, it's because we have people like Mindy Kaling, whose show (whatever its other weaknesses) conforms to none of these types. But again - just because a show challenges one man's race-based perceptions, doesn't mean it is actually breaking ground. That is his narrative: a man who one day woke up and realized minority girls watch the same movies as everyone else. But it certainly isn't mine. I hope it isn't most people's.

As I prepare to move back to the United States after 5.5 years in India, I'm acutely aware that in the eyes of many Americans, India is a single narrative. I realize this every time I'm in a conversation and someone asks, "Gosh, how do you live in Delhi as a woman?" I wonder what to say. "Just like everyone else?"  Because this isn't just a narrative about Delhi. It's a narrative about Indian women, as well, a narrative that assumes all Indian women lead subpar and unequal lives. That we live under the constant looming threat of assault. Maybe this last bit is true. But so do women all over the world.

I don't know how to reconcile the hard and global truths about "being a woman in India" with the lived reality of my past 5.5 years, which has intersected with those truths but also superseded them.  I wonder what stereotypes I will encounter about India in the US - I'm sure there will be many - and whether I'll explain their incompleteness, or just give up, and stop trying to explain it at all. In some ways, I have new respect for my parents, who have navigated this journey every day of their lives. (The US, because of its cultural power, is not a single narrative country in this way, or at least, not to the same extent.)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Few Women Essayists Whom I Love

If we've known each other for any length of time, and you've ever suggested an interest in writing (or literature), then I've probably pulled you into some dark corner of a bar at some point to talk about the virtues of "essays by women writers."

"Essays by women writers" is a recent theme for me.  I read almost no essays while growing up. In college, I read love letters by James Joyce, Will Faulkner and Franz Kafka, mainly because these letters were obscene. But reading obscene letters didn't get me anywhere when it comes to understanding writing, although it told me a lot (possibly more than I wanted to know) about the kind of people who become writers.

After that, I started reading memoirs, and didn't fare much better.  If you're an American adult today, you've probably read a memoir somewhere, even if it's only NYT's "Modern Love."  I spent a few hours trying to crack "Eat, Pray, Love" - and then, totally bored and unimpressed, I went off to find examples that could redeem the genre.  It was the best and worst of times for memoirs, the post James Frey era, but for some reason I went retro and found "Burning the Days," and "The Great Railway Bazaar." And these were interesting. "Burning the Days" is good fun just like all of Salter is fun, and "Bazaar" was enjoyable, to the extent that you can enjoy someone like Paul Theroux in the world after Edward Said.

But the essays I'm talking about moved me more deeply, and it began with Siri Hustvedt. I was working my way through Siri Hustvedt's novels and had just polished off "What I Loved."  I walked away from that novel with an abiding sense that here was an author whom I wanted to get to know. I wanted to understand how her novels moved so smoothly between intellect and passion, and whether she'd figured out a way to make that work in real life.  So I bought a "A Plea for Eros," in which she talks about growing up, about feminine identity, about authors she's loved. I remember one piece, in particular, in which she describes how she met and fell in love with her husband (the novelist Paul Auster). Hustvedt captures perfectly the beauty, hope (and often despair!) of meeting someone whom you profoundly desire.  Her essays exposed a journey - mental, personal - that in many ways I wanted to be on.

Is it odd to turn to fiction writers for advice on how to live?

There is a streak of self-indulgence in Hustvedt's essays. And there's more than a streak of grandiosity in the writings of the other two women who make my list: Ayn Rand and Anais Nin. I've written about Rand's essays before, so I won't revisit them (and to be honest, Rand is an odd addition to this list because she's not a feminist, although she might be if she had lived in a different time or had a more forgiving past). Anais Nin's essays are passionate about the world of ideas, without neglecting the world of flesh and blood. In her writing, she lays out her vision for the "new woman", a woman who is sensitive and smart, aware of the power of both her emotions and her intellect. Nin also profiles several talented women whom history hasn't paid much attention to, often because they were overshadowed by the more famous men in their lives: Louis Andreas-Salome, Caitlin Thomas, Suzanne Valadon, Zelda Fitzgerald. Nin's essays are a conversation not just with herself, but with many women whose ideas have informed her. Of all the three women I've mentioned, she's the only one who deliberately makes a point of citing other women as examples and role models. It's amazing how many people can talk about feminism without ever naming a single female writer who has had an influence on their thoughts. You have to wonder what kind of feminism they actually aspire to.

Today's talented women novelists (Chimamanda, Jhumpa, Zadie, Jane Smiley, Jennifer Egan, Antonya Nelson) seem more able to reconcile their female identity with their drive for work than Jane Austen, the Brontes, or Emily Dickinson (although not a novelist) ever were. Being an intellectual or ambitious woman was in the past a lonely road, and these essays demonstrate an awareness of that fact. But they also illustrate to me ways in which women can reconcile - or at least try to reconcile - the challenges of ambition with the challenges of life. There is no shame in not being men, they say. That doesn't make us - as thinkers, anyway - any less significant.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Doniger Debate - A Personal Reflection

In the debate over Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus," a friend recently shared this link, an interview with the author from 2009.

In college, I wrote a personal essay about Diwali for the school newspaper, which concluded with "The legends don't say [Ram] returned home to a populace that wasn't segregated by class, or to a kingdom that wasn't paralyzed by dissent. They don't promise that he went without reservations or uncertainty. Only that he went."

The Ramayana is one of my favorite stories, and Sita is one of my favorite characters.  (Ayn Rand once said - I'm paraphrasing - that most people's moral compromises take the form of tiny acts of daily cowardice, rather than the form of grand battles. And she's right. Ram went into the forest for 14 years, which somehow made my 22-year-old self feel better about my inadequate ways of coping with homesickness.)

But like a lot of women I know, I was ambivalent about the story, especially the bit at the end when Ram rejects Sita in favor of his crown. I found this decision unacceptable and deeply unfair. I wasn't the only one. From my conversations with other women, I know that many of us gravitated towards Sita's story, and towards that moment of abandonment. We all felt that it was the low point of Ram's trajectory (we rejected entirely the idea that he did the right thing by leaving her).

In the introduction to"In Search of Sita," one of the editors writes about how young women have trouble relating to Sita's ideals and life. I'd always seen Sita as a woman who made her own decisions, although she was let down by a man.

In her interview, Doniger addresses Ram's repudiation of Sita thus: "But even so, [Ram] is afraid that people who noticed Dasaratha’s love for Ram will say that like his father, he too is keeping a woman he should not because he’s so crazy about her. So he fears public opinion will connect him with his father."

I don't know enough Sanskrit to quibble with Doniger's interpretation (other people do), but I understand what propels her question. Sita's situation seems quintessentially female, not in the sense that it embodies any archetype of ideal womanhood, but in the sense that she grapples with the same problems and dilemmas that women still face when it comes to the people they love. Understanding women's place in scripture and tradition doesn't mean drawing a straight line between a woman and the words themselves. It means asking about the motivations and behaviors and attitudes that shaped women's stories, and by extension, actual women's lives.

In their obsession with excising sex from the scriptures, puritans of all stripes have decided to remove women, as well. The debate is neither new nor restricted to Hinduism - massive controversy has arisen over the idea of Gnostic Gospels, or the theory that Jesus might have been married. I mean no disrespect to anyone's tradition, but isn't it hurtful that the worst thing you can say about a man is that he loved a woman? Or that the road to being a perfect man involves leaving women by the wayside?

The idea that sex is bad has often meant, in the existing tradition, that women are bad as well. Doniger's critics have accused her of being a "woman hungry for sex." Certainly, she's hungry for fame and perhaps willing to tolerate notoriety. But it's disingenuous to suggest that her critics are concerned only with the nature of her Vedic translations - they are deeply concerned about sex as well.

Consider this quote, from the petition against Doniger's book "The Hindus": "Pg 112 - The author alleges that in Rigveda 10.62, it is implied that a woman may find her own brother in her bed! COMMENT: The hymn has no such suggestion. It is offensive to suggest that the sacred text of Hindus has kinky sex in it." Indeed, much of the petition's complaints fall under "Derogatory, Defamatory and Offensive Statements." The petition itself opens with the word "scandalous" in all caps.

The debate is not about the translation or interpretation of a seminal book from India's past, or about the quality of Doniger's scholarship. It's about the structure of the future society we build here, who will be represented within it, and what information children will be permitted to access. It is about what those children will learn - whether they will feel they have the right to judge or condemn their peers for non-mainstream sexual or life choices - or whether they will value tolerance and inclusion instead. (Consider: the Indian Supreme Court recently upheld a faded provision criminalizing certain consensual sex acts.)  The petitioners who filed the report against Doniger's book (led by a former school principal) are fighting for their future society. And in this case, they won.  The real loss isn't "The Hindus," but the book that comes after it that will now never be released in India at all. And the conversations about Sita, about Hinduism, and about our tradition that will, in this context, be even harder to have.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Sunday Blog Post: Love What You Do

The other day, I read an essay in "Slate" in which the author dissects and dismisses the idea that we should love what we do.  In fact, Miya Tokumitsu argues that the "love what you do" mantra (meme?) has become pernicious - it glosses over differences in class that determine the lovability of work, and it allows employers to squeeze workers for more while offering little financial reward. She uses the phrase "elite", which is what we stamp these days on anything undesirable, never mind that much of America's population would probably fall into the broad global definition of elite.

There are certain arguments she makes that are very worth hearing. She cites the patron saint of DWYL (a truly obnoxious but nonetheless convenient acronym) culture, Steve Jobs. In his famous Stanford speech (watch it, read it) he said, "You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do."

To be fair, I don't think his is bad advice. To the extent that it encourages people to take professional risks on possibilities they feel strongly about, it's fantastic advice. Not that it matters. Almost everyone is capable of love, but not everyone has a very high appetite for risk. A few heartfelt words in a college auditorium aren't going to change anyone's fundamental character, and that's really what Jobs is talking about.

There is a dark side to Jobs' vision, however, and Tokomitsu makes her strongest point when she says that Apple would never have become a global behemoth unless it relied upon the labor of hundreds of thousands of factory workers all over the world. Most of them probably don't love what they do. Much has been made and said of the consumer electronics boom, and how it has empowered a particular upper class of world society. 

When most of us talk about loving our work, we rely upon a set of prejudiced and privileged assumptions, namely:

1) We will earn good money for our work - and we will earn more money for our work, relatively, than most of the human population. (For an excellent case study in what I'm talking about, read Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, in which her main protagonist works 12 hours a day as a garbage sorter for truly meager wages. Very few books so handily explode the myth of the meritocratic universe.)
2) Our hard work will be rewarded with greater responsibility (being the boss is, in fact, a less stressful way of life.)
3) Our work will be rewarded with prestige. Or will even start out prestigious.

The notion of loving what you do is built upon the assumption (not faulty, but not universal) that in exchange for hard labor we will receive appreciation, admiration, and reward. For most people, that is simply not the case. And it is impossible to separate DWYL from this assumption.

More disturbingly (and perhaps obviously) Tokumitsu suggests that this notion - that people should labor for love - allows modern-day corporations to exploit their workers' labor. She cites three industries: fashion, media and the arts.  These industries are prestigious, people enter them for love, and they earn zilch. Without citing any particular example, I'll apply her observations about media to the journalism industry. I went to a solid journalism school and have worked media industry jobs ever since. Along the way, more than half of the people who graduated with me have shifted focus and moved into other careers. As one of the people left in the field, I am aware that by and large, our industry pays far, far less than almost any other industry does for the same amount of work. The mental, emotional and sometimes physical challenges of journalism are enormous; but the job pays in prestige, not so much in cash. (This is not a universal truth, but an overall observation. News is 24 hours, journalists rarely take breaks. Other high-level jobs that demand such total dedication - medicine, law, finance - pay much more.)

As a college junior, I found myself choosing between four possible summer internships. One was in banking, one in technology, one in advertising, one in journalism. I took the journalism job. It paid the least, but it came with less tangible rewards  (And yes, I was lucky to find paid journalism jobs - I wrote about my decision not to work unpaid internships in another post.)  I was very happy, but emerging research suggests that if I were richer, I would have been happier yet (although, admittedly, this research is in its initial stages). Intertwined with the notion of DWYL is the idea that you are not working for money. At least not immediately. And there's nothing wrong with that, unless you're working for an organization that will keep whatever value there is in your labor that you leave on the table.  (Tokumitsu cites academia as the most exploitative profession of all.)

The argument becomes more nuanced in the world of the arts - where, the idea is, people often labor for public gain. Being willing to suffer total penury seems to be one of the requirements of any great artist. And maybe it is. But I also know that there are tons of museums (not to mention design shops) that rely on the unpaid labor of (mainly) young women. A friend of mine who works with the intern program at a well-known museum told me that they knowingly pay rock-bottom wages, and as a result their employees are mainly women whose husbands/boyfriends have more lucrative jobs that pay the rent (this is in an expensive city) or who come from large family fortunes. Think about the number of women in the world who have the option of marrying rich (Fewer than 5% of American men earn over $100k a year). Think of the number who inherit serious money. Now consider the question of diversity and representation in the arts, in media, and in fashion.

Which brings me to my next point: even within the rarefied world of the US elite, the notion of DWYL has devalued the idea of working for personal profit. The world is separated, according to many, into those who do what they love and accept that their labor - the production of ideas, goodness, art - carries little reward, and those who do machinistic jobs that they hate in exchange for a frightening amount of money. There's the idea of "selling your soul," whatever the hell that means. (We're all selling something, if not our souls, but some of us are getting a better price than others.)  Mixed in with the idea that you should DWYL is the idea that if you're working for money, you've somehow given up.

The notion of loving what you do has also justified - or perhaps permitted - the expansion of work to a point where it has become, for many of us, the most defining feature of our lives and selves.  Certainly, our parents worked, but they didn't work like us.  Back then, there was the notion of "job" and the notion of "life." Now the two have fused as we work more than we did before.  I don't know if DWYL permitted this phenomenon or merely evolved after it, like some kind of necessary adaptation. John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would be working three-hour workdays. Instead, we've gone in the opposite direction. The Sheryl Sandbergs of the world exhort us to lean in; they never suggest that the corporations we work for should lean out. (And why should she? Remember that Sandberg is more frequently to be found on the interviewer's side of the desk. If more women lean in, it benefits her.)

Certainly, there is no glory in doing a job you hate just for money (and frankly, not much long-term success, either. Not to be trite, but that's as true for your lovers as it is for your job.). There is value in exploring ideas, possibilities, the world. There is value in doing these things while appreciating that being able to do them at all is an extraordinary luxury.  There is truth to the fact that working to expand such opportunity to others less fortunate is not only a favor but a requirement. There is truth to the notion that the empires of people like Steve Jobs were built upon many, many individuals, not all of whom will ever be asked what they love.  And there is value in acknowledging that you labor for love, yes, but you also labor to keep the lights on when it gets dark.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

New Year's Eve, and Change

It's been two months since I wrote here! It's a new year, which suggests that something must have changed, but not that I can tell. New Year's Eve, every year, is a ritual I go through in the hopes it'll live up to its impossible symbolism.  I keep thinking that one of these years I'll have the New Year's Eve to end all the years, after which I can say, that's it, I've done this right, now I'll throw in the towel and stay home every year like a normal person.  But it hasn't happened.

I've been in Delhi for five New Year's, and when I tell people this, I start to feel a little uncomfortable, like I have to justify getting swept along for so long by fate.  The landscape of Delhi in winter lends itself to reminisces and possibly Gothic novels, with spooky white fog rising everywhere like steam off a pot of boiling water. Driving through the streets is largely a silent and isolated adventure, and every moment I expect some Hound of the Baskervilles to come up behind, or Heathcliff to entreat from an intersection. Instead, we barely avoid sideswiping other people who are jumping red lights.

Recently, I've been trying to address my anxiety about symbolic events by embracing them.  If New Year's disappoints, please imagine the many years I've spent hiding from the prospect of that other obnoxious annual event, the birthday. Who doesn't feel anxious about their birthday? I would like to meet that person. I think it was 2010 that I celebrated my first birthday in Delhi. I invited nobody, intending to suffer it stoically and then pretend it had never happened. But late in the evening some friends came over anyway. I blew out the candles on the tiny but delicious cake.  My power had gone out, and so we ate cake and told stories by the white light coming from someone else's living room across the street. The couches in my apartment were so close together that our knees touched the plastic table.

When I think about that, I think about the many ways my life has changed, but also, the many ways it has stayed the same. The other day, I read some post on Facebook that asked, "what would you tell your younger self if you could?" I don't know if I'm at the age where my younger self - any of my younger selves - would really want my advice, but the first thing I thought was, things change a whole lot less than you would expect. The locations and circumstances of life may have altered, but the thing I am most struck by, of late, is how seamlessly each phase of life has led to the next.  I don't think anyone who knew me at age 13 would be surprised at what or where I am now, and to be honest, that's probably true of most of us.

This realization doesn't coincide very neatly with the political situation in Delhi, or possibly in India as a whole.  Everywhere I go, I see slogans and Facebook groups promoting change. I've rarely seen so many people so whole-heartedly advocate a total break with the status quo.  And some of them, in daily and minor ways, manage it. If life accrues, then so does its alteration. Nothing changes overnight, but rather by a process almost chemical in its exactness, until years later the final object is nothing like what it was. Unlike in the case of two chemicals, we have no way of knowing how we will interact and react when faced with the things that change us.

A friend told me the other day that I'm a romantic; she said it with surprise. Someone else recently told me that many people spend a lot of time denying what they feel. And maybe that relates to the idea of romanticism, of holding what you love at the core of your life. I suspect that people who do that, also change less. Or surprise us less by the changes.


I wrote about living in Delhi, globalization, and women's changing place in the world in an essay for the Common. Read it here.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Why I Started Cooking

I know that some people are born cooks - or at least, born with an affinity for cooking. People like my sister, who by age 20, despite the vagaries and fits of college apartment kitchens, was hosting gourmet dinner parties for groups of ten.

But for me, like for many people I know, the revelation came much later. For most of my 20s (a terrifying phrase, in that I have to now admit that "most of my 20s" are over), the only constant in my life was transience. I went to college 700 miles from home, spent summers and autumns in various apartments and hotels in Italy and New York, and then made the most astonishing leap of all: to New Delhi, where, at last count, I have now managed to occupy six different houses. I've moved more than most people I know, and these moves haven't just crossed physical distances - they've been prompted by necessity and desire, sometimes by catastrophes, often by aspirations.

And despite all this, for many, many years, it never really occurred to me to cook. I rejected cooking as banal and ordinary, a surrender to the domesticity that I had spent so many years of my life trying to abjure.

My first independent kitchen - the first one that counts - was in my college apartment.  I bought pre-packaged hamburgers from the Whole Foods downstairs and ate them with lettuce and tomato but no bun. I learned how to make omelettes by accident, on a trip to New York. I was visiting a friend in Queens, and one evening we found ourselves at home with nothing to eat but eggs. I bravely volunteered to take a turn at the skillet, and was surprised by how delicious the results turned out. It was an experiment, not that I told her that.  And then I made pasta, but this too involved an element of quest. I became convinced, in senior year, that it was possible to make a pasta that fused perfectly the flavors of East and West. I ground cardamom into linguine, dusted noodles in turmeric, sliced ginger over lasagna. It was all perfectly repugnant, and I ended up tossing a lot of it in the trash.

Beneath these attempts there lingered an abstruse reverse competitiveness; the awareness of a fraternal separation of powers between my sister and myself.  She lived in nice apartments, matched her sofas to her drapes, scouted for castoff tables on Craigslist, reinvented her decor with mosaic tiles and embroidery. She owned multiple can openers. As for me, I was too busy for all of that - I was going places.

But where exactly was that? My second independent kitchen was in Neeti Bagh, in a tiny studio apartment above the house of a Bengali doctor and his wife. They treated me like their daughter, although this generosity didn't extend to the table. My counter was a narrow green granite slab, and my range was a single burner with a tiny gas cylinder attached to it by a pipe. I had seven or eight pots and pans, many of them - I'm now embarrassed to admit - gifts from my mother, who packed them in my suitcase when she learned just how ill-equipped I was for any semblance of adult life.

So I started cooking again out of a sense of nostalgia, perhaps. I'd trek to the tiny grocery store in Neeti Bagh, poring over $10 jars of imported olives and pasta sauce. As for cheese, I smuggled it from the US, in enormous Costco bricks that I laid in the bottom of my suitcase like ballast.  In Delhi, surrounded by Indian spices, I still managed an approximation of American food.  Pasta alfredo. Egg salad.  Omelettes. The only difference was the substitution of the occasional Indian cookware. For a while, I managed all my cooking in a single aluminum topiah, hoisting it on and off the burner with a pair of tongs. This arrangement will make sense to Delhi-ites, everyone else will find it literally unimaginable.

And I stuck to the recipes of my hazy past. It didn't occur to me to consult a cookbook, to explore new vegetables or flavors or herbs or whatnot. People would ask me why I didn't learn more Indian dishes; my answer was a thoughtless shrug.  I had come to India expecting that I would learn the dishes my mother made - her spinach rice, her dahi bhalla, her rajma. I don't know how or why I expected that after years of standing senselessly at her elbow, I would magically sprout this talent in her absence.

For a while, I surrendered to Delhi custom and hired a cook. This was no easy task. It's never easy to surrender control of your personal space, and with Shatrugan ("just like the actor, madam") I had more struggles than most. I wanted only Indian food ("but I cook for all foreign peoples") and quantities of oil that he found microscopic. Towards the end, I would wake up in the early morning and perch myself on the living room sofa, watching him out of the corners of my eyes to see exactly how much oil he was adding to our food.  This insane behavior quieted neither of us, and eventually the arrangement ended.

I don't know what I did in Green Park, where I lived for over a year. I did add one dish to my repertoire: after an enlightening dinner at a friend's house, I learned to make Thai curry. (It's not as complex as it sounds.)  I invited friends over for dinner once and made pasta, with a chicken that turned out disturbingly dry.

And then I moved to GK 2, and something changed. I don't know if it was the proverbial page being turned, or the fact that I was tired of eating nothing but pasta and eggs. It might have been this simple: one day, I went down to the vegetable vendor's cart to buy tomato and onions, and I realized - in a blinding flash! - that he had so much more available than that. Suddenly I was looking up recipes for beetroot and sweet kerala, for pumpkin and paneer. I realized - for the first time in 4 years - how much I could do. I realized that it was fun to cook for myself.

Or perhaps it was more complex. Sometime in the past, and without my really thinking about it, my vision of my future life had changed, or perhaps it had merely developed. I met friends at restaurants, at bars, in parks. We ate out, we still do. But I began to imagine a time in my future when I would want to make food for others - when I would want my home to be a refuge in the truest sense.  I remembered how my parents had hosted so many of my high school play rehearsals, and how my mother had cooked for us. I remembered her setting out a banquet at my high school graduation party, while I flitted around in a flowered white dress.

Suddenly cooking didn't seem like a chore, or even a skill, but a part of that complex process by which we create our homes and ourselves. And yet, it was also - like everything - an assertion of the individual self. They say that you cook like your mother did, but I almost never do. If you come to my house, chances are, you will not eat anything that I had growing up. Partly, this has to do with what's available. But mostly, it has to do with the ways I've used cooking as yet another destination on a journey that has taken me further and further into the world - into Thai food, Keralite food, meat (I grew up in a largely vegetarian house).  And perhaps these differences reflect the differences of my mother's life, as well - I grew up eating chicken, fajitas, stir fries. I doubt my grandmother, who has spent the past forty years of her life in roughly the same part of Mumbai, has ever made any of these things.

I don't know at what point a journey becomes a departure, and at what point we can say we have started to come back.