Monday, December 25, 2017


Flashback 2004, Mumbai: My second day as intern at Bombay Times and I had messed up an interview with VJ Maria Goretti. It needed to be 450 words and she talked worth only a 150. The editor said my word power was poor. It hurt. Then a senior journalist fell ill and I was assigned his story: to interview a disabled girl. I walked into the Fellowship of the Physically Handicapped at Haji Ali and met wheelchair-bound Vipasha Mehta who became first person in India with cerebral palsy to earn a PhD. She smiled at me. I started asking her parents questions. They answered a couple but then her father told me, "Vipasha does not like anyone to speak on her behalf. You must ask her questions." I looked at the shrivelled body of the 32-year-old who had spent 8 years keying her PhD thesis. She couldn't use her hands so they attached a stylus to her head and she typed by nodding. Her speech was unintelligible and I spent 3 hours trying to understand each word she spoke. Her father helped when I pleaded. I wrote a 700-word piece the editor liked. Since then I have faced many challenges but each time I wanted to give up I think of that one woman who showed the world that even she could do it. When you learn how to communicate with those who can't speak, you really learn about communication.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

How to create your Silicon Valley?

The popular recipe for creating the “next” Silicon Valley goes something like this:
1. Build a big, beautiful, fully equipped technology park
2. Mix in R& D labs and university centers;
3. Provide incentives to attract scientists firms and users;
4. Interconnect the industry through consortia and specialized suppliers;
5. Protect intellectual property and tech transfer; and,
6. Establish a favorable business environment and regulations.

It happens all the time all over the world. And it never works.

- Alec Ross in The Industries of the Future


Saturday, December 2, 2017

On how Palestinian engineers turn suicide bombers

“Each year, 2,000 Palestinians graduate from local universities in technical subjects, but only about 30 percent of them find work in their fields. As one young woman studying at Palestine Polytechnic University put it, “We must have a better economy to have better lives, and we must have 3G to have a better economy,” her reasoning being that if there is no Internet connectivity, then the basic conditions necessary to do engineering work are not there. This produces a dangerous unintended consequence: underemployment for young engineers. Radicalization, unemployment, and engineering skills are a nasty combination. Many suicide bombers and bomb makers that Hamas has produced have come with this background. The best way for the West Bank to not end up like Gaza is through economic integration and well-being.”

- Alec Ross in The Industries of the Future

#HowEngineersBecomeSuicideBombers #Palestine

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

On the back of my old visiting card

I've often wondered what to do with stacks of my old visiting cards. Sometimes, I use them as bookmarks and on other occasions as note-cards. The other day, on the back of a card, I scribbled this with sketch pens and used my fingers to smudge the ink. Then I drew some fine lines. A girl looked back at me from the card.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Why do people yell at dogs?

I always wonder why people yell commands at dogs, all the time. As if shouting will make a dog obey when even adult humans who know the language sometimes don't. A few months ago, I visited a friend in the US who was keeping his neighbour's dog while they were on a holiday. He kept yelling and the big male labrador toyed with him by pulling at his leash while they were out for a walk. The louder my friend shouted the harder the dog tugged. My friend almost tumbled. He asked me to watch the dog for a few minutes while he entered the shop. I wondered if the dog would tug at the leash. He looked at me. I whispered, "Sit." The dog sat. Ten minutes later my friend emerged. I handed him the leash. And the dog took my friend for a run.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

What is Done is Done aka Macbeth

Last night, we watched Rajat Kapoor's play What Is Done Is Done based on Shakespeare's Macbeth. Kapoor's spin on the great tragedy was to interperse the acts with clowns and humour (more grey than dark) where once a clown told the audience, "You've forgotten the murder in the last scene." The acting and lighting were great but I am not sure of the comic interludes. They made me laugh on their own but took me away from understanding Macbeth's (Macky B) dilemma, predicament, fear, paranoia and mania. I remembered the darkness in Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool (the Bollywood version of Macbeth) and how I had felt the fear felt by the protagonist. I missed that experience in this theatre.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

8 Nov 2017: A year after the commencement of Demonetisation

Many of us, over the coming years, will dismiss the 2016 demonetisation as a bad dream. For those 100-odd families who lost their near and dear ones as their savings were wiped out, bank staff who buckled under stress and guilt, people who succumbed to the trials of standing in long ATM queues for their own money, or those could not get admitted to hospitals because they did not have cash on their person, this will be the wound they have to live with forever. Will the upholders of the policy that promised to remove 'black money' from society ever be able to remove the blood that stained it?

#Demonetization #BloodAndBlackMoney

Monday, October 16, 2017

The many states of trance

A piece of art after a session of relaxation  conducted by Trupti Pandya at He-Art Circle, Vadodara.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The laundryman who will wait for his fiancee to grow up

Our 21-year-old dhobi has got engaged to a girl who is in Standard X in his hometown of Ajmer in Rajasthan. We told him that he should wait till she is 18 to get married otherwise the police might arrest him on the grounds of marrying a child. He tells us that in his community people hold weddings in secret when the bride and groom are underaged but he has told his parents he will wait for three years and marry in style instead of going into hiding. He then showed us the picture of his fiancee who he has not met yet (yes, they got engaged before setting their eyes on each other.) She looks like a mischievous child posing for the camera. We ask her name. He doesn't know. "That's why I will wait so I can talk to her. Till then, I can be happy and free."

#ChildMarriage #India

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Teacher Tales: Communication Barriers

When my Afghan, Iranian, Japanese or German students have a problem understanding or reading English they simply ask me and we resolve it. When I request Indian students to do the same if they have an issue with the language they either don't own up to it or do so after much prodding. I see that more with urban students in universities and colleges than those in rural schools. What kind of system of education have we created that hinders people from sharing their weaknesses and limitations to get better in life? When you go to the bank and you don't know the procedure, you'll ask a manager/bank representative without caring about what the other people think about you? Why then do you not do the same in a classroom?

#EducationInIndia #LanguageBarriers #CommunicationBarriers

Monday, August 14, 2017

Teacher Tales: How 19 students created a story in 50 minutes

I conducted an orientation session for the first batch of Bachelors of Journalism and Mass Communication students where I engaged the students in creating a story. I started with a stick-sketch of a 22-year-old woman journalist who is ready to leave for work and her phone beeps. Here's what they made, adding line after another one by one:
1. She gets a call from the hospital that her father is serious
2. She leaves for the hospital to meet her father when her phone rings again
3. Her boss asks her to report an event
4. She is confused
5. She goes to the event (August 15 Independence Day celebrations).
6. She sees a father giving a flag to his daughter telling her that duty comes before family. She feels glad she made it to the event
7. She is driving back to the hospital. She receives a call from the hospital announcing her father's demise. She's disturbed and is killed in a road accident
8. She turns into a ghost and goes to work
9. She discovers some documents that disclose her colleagues are corrupt
10. Her colleagues suspect she is a ghost because the CCTV at office captures some paranormal activity
11. They try to record her on video by fooling her about a reporting assignment. She does the recording but she does not appear on screen and they figure she's a ghost
12. They get a tantrik to office and do a havan to get rid of her
13. She kills them all but spares her boss
14. The boss figures he is in love with her
15. He cannot confess his feelings for her and gets depressed and starts smoking
16. Meanwhile, she finds a male ghost and falls in love with him
17. They marry each other and 'live' happily ever after

#TeacherTales #Storytelling

Why America is not the ideal vacation destination

I've always held the belief that the US is a great place to study and work but isn't quite the vacation destination in spite of some spectacular natural and man-made beauties. As much as I enjoyed my six-week trip along the east coast from Miami to Maine and around the great lakes this June and July, that belief has been strengthened. When you go to Europe, Australia or anywhere in Asia for a vacation, what draws you in are the cultures, languages, hospitality and the ease of commute and travel. For a tourist, multiple travel options mean flexibility in schedules, the ability to stay as long as you want to take in the beauty of a place and leave whenever you wish to. In America, what you get is a sense of urgency. Your dependence is completely on your hosts (unless you manage to drive yourself) and their ability and patience to navigate the endless traffic on the interstate highways. You could be marvelling at the beautiful countryside wanting to stop for pictures but the next exit might be miles away and you'd be put off by the familiar MacDonalds sign. You do have an option to fly low cost airlines but they're insular to any kind of warmth or companionship - things that make vacations more memorable. Unlike Mumbai locals, subway trains don't have a system where they display the next station so you keep guessing. My favourite journey was on an Amtrak train from New York to Boston, where I was the only person in the compartment who had the luxury of time to look out of the window at the beautiful countryside while my co-passengers furiously keyed laptops and phones. I almost felt guilty that I was having fun.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Not All Dragons Blow Fire

One of my best buys in the US was a set of Sakura pens. I tried them in this piece. This is my first work in archival ink.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Banking For The Illiterate

I spent the morning explaining to the illiterate domestic help that her bank passbook (she had asked me to photocopy) is incomplete and how, in spite of the fact she can't read, she can identify whether the credits and the balance match or not by crudely measuring the width of the columns. It's not the best way but I showed her how a 'thin' column of 400 rupees can't become suddenly 'wide' to accommodate 13000 when the credit column in between is as 'narrow'' as 10 rupees. Because she is illiterate she gives her money to her nephew to deposit in the bank. I asked her why she doesn't ask her daughter who is literate. "She's only a girl," was her answer. Mom-in-law urged her to send her daughter to the bank instead of the nephew so she could learn banking. I insisted that she go on her own to ask the officials to record the transactions. She hesitated. I pointed to my cook who is also illiterate but has a mental record of every transaction she has made, so much so that she can intimidate bank officials.

Friday, May 19, 2017

How I Became An Educator...

I had never in my wildest dreams seen myself as a teacher. A shy kid who dreaded public speaking, I performed on stage only as a dancer. My first memories of teaching was in 2000, when I had to earn a Social Involvement Program (SIP) credit for the co-curricular Honour's program (not to be confused by the Honour's degree) at St Xavier's College, Mumbai. Crissy, the coordinator for SIP, assigned me to St Stephen's Church at Breach Candy, where under the guidance of the very strict Mother Margaret, I would have to teach a group of domestic workers once a week. I was 17. Till that year, I never had an urge to do anything for anyone for free because I was too focused on my studies.

Most of my students were older than me. Many did not understand Hindi or English, the two languages I could converse in. I felt awkward to go there alone and would miss turns if my fellow-volunteers were not able to make it for some reason. Mother Margaret had given me a Grade 5 English textbook to teach from. Some of the students were irregular because they had to keep juggling the chores of the household they worked in with these 'English classes'. At the beginning of each session I would ask them the page number we left the previous class. They always said, “Page 19.” For six months, we started reading from that page. I did not enjoy the teaching experience and was happy that I got a 'C'.

With members of various editorial teams in Times Response, 2nd Floor, The Times of India Building, Mumbai, in 2006

It was during my stint as correspondent with Downtown Plus, the weekly South Mumbai supplement of The Times of India in Mumbai, did I learn how to mentor. A large part of it was by observing and interacting with my boss, Sridhar Ramakrishnan (the only person in my life I have called, “Boss”), and my senior colleagues Ashishwang Godha, Sanaya Pavri and Swati Soni. For all the things people say about the Times' brand of journalism, of what you can do and cannot do there, it has made me the person I am today and I shall be ever grateful to be given that chance to work with them. I got the confidence to write, edit, design, mentor interns and colleagues, recognise and recruit talent. I enjoyed my role as mentor.

My first batch of students at MS University of Baroda in 2009
Marriage brought me to Vadodara in Gujarat in 2008, a year when the global recession made thousands of jobs redundant. There were no positions for new copy editors in the city's two English dailies – The Times of India and Indian Express. I continued to freelance for the Mumbai papers but I really needed some local engagement. One of my husband's relatives, Dr Amit Dholakia, a political scientist, asked me if I would like to see the journalism faculty at The Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) of Baroda. My husband, Rachit and I teamed with Dr Dholakia and entered the office of the dean of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication at MSU. Dr SK Tiwari had served in that office for 14 years. He asked me if I would like to teach. I hesitated, remembering my previous experience of teaching at the church. “At least if you can share your knowledge, of what to expect when the students get out of here, that would be enough.” At that moment, Dr Niti Chopra, walked in. She asked me if I could teach Quark Xpress to the students. I agreed. I was hired to teach the students editing and coordinate the lab journal, Ittivritt (meaning chronicle).

The first batch of students I taught were an enterprising lot. I asked them if they would like to do Ittivritt in colour (till that point, the press printed only black and white) and they were ready to do it. I taught them Quark and they brought in ads so it could be printed outside. They did everything – logos, illustrations, stories, editing, pagemaking, photography, photo-processing – all with limited access to technology and computers. While I am still proud that they came up with the first all-colour issue of Ittivritt, I am prouder of the fact that they turned me into a teacher and encouraged me even when I shared my fears and hesitation with them. I have been teaching there for almost eight years now, and have learned a lot about people, cultures, education, problems, society and youth from the 180+ students I have encountered there.

Celebrating 25 years of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in February 2017

I got a closer look at what plagues the education system in the country while working as Documentation Consultant for Education with UNICEF Gujarat in 2012. Travelling to rural schools, meeting people who were not very different from the set I had tried to teach at St Stephen's Church in Mumbai, and learning their social norms made me realise that sometimes, even the best intentions of providing access to education may fail if we don't understand the communities we are working in. I had never tried to understand the predicament of my students at the church in Mumbai because they were domestic workers. They had failed to grasp Grade 5 English and I hadn't bothered to find out what I was doing wrong. Gujarat's villages taught me the need to put myself into their shoes: When survival becomes an issue, parents put kids to work in fields or beg for food instead of sending them to schools. When girls menstruate, they stop going to schools because it's a taboo and there are no toilets for their exclusive use. If you want a school built in a village of shepherds, you have to first share their lunch. Education became more about bridging the gaps in my understanding of people of different castes and classes.

Girls in a very remote village school in Bordha village, Vadodara district. I visited the place to document UNICEF's intervention in Education through photographs and success stories

In 2014, Rachit and I moved to Brisbane, Australia, to set up the sales and distribution arm of his mining equipment business there. While we worked together in the office, I took time out on Wednesdays and Thursdays to go to the Indooroopilly Uniting Church, where I would learn art and volunteer at the PlayCafe, a space where mothers and children would meet and socialise. At any given time, there were people from about 15 nationalities at the church. My art-teacher, Gabriella Veidt-Weidmer is one of the most skilled teachers and finest human beings I have met. She taught me (and others) art for one-and-a-half years for free in one of the most expensive countries in the world. She didn't care if you knew how to draw or paint, which country you were from or if you spoke English or not (she is Swiss). If you wanted to be part of the group, all you had to do is walk in and grab a chair. I loved the way she imparted her knowledge to us, without ever asking for anything in return.

With members of Art n' Soul at Indooroopilly Uniting Church. My teacher, Gabriella, is on the extreme left

It was through the art class, I met my dear friend Leyla Kesbi, who had fled Iran and come to Australia as a refugee with her husband and son. The Australian government had helped Leyla get into a TAFE course so she could work as a teacher-aide in school. Leyla was great at the practicals. What she hadn't realised was that she would have to write a lot of reports in English as well. One evening, she SMSed me for help. We met at the Indooroopilly library and she discussed her problem. She was about four days away from her deadline and she struggled to understand the workbooks she had to complete. For two days, we sat together, ate cake and worked our way through the questions. I helped her translate her experiences into English sentences. If she didn't understand a word I mentioned, she would look up the English-Farsi dictionary.

When I came back to India in 2015, I learned about Pax Populi Tutoring Program, from my former student, Nalanda Tambe's Facebook update, where she mentioned an interaction with a student in Afghanistan. Curious to learn more, I wrote to Robert McNulty, the founder of Applied Ethics, Inc, Pax Populi's parent NGO. After exchanging a series of emails and having a video-conversation, I was appointed as tutor to teach one Muhammad Qasem Jami in Herat, Afghanistan. An English teacher himself, Qasem's understanding of the language and fluency in English made me work harder to create assignments and find readings that would challenge him. We discussed peace, education, culture, countries, war, music, films, democracy, diplomacy, university applications, fellowships, conferences, etc. I taught him for seven months and we've become good friends. I then worked another student, Suraya Mehrzad, from Kabul, who introduced me to the difficulties of students who are not used to reading the Roman script and the various pronunciations of the five vowels to create different sounds. I learned how to improvise.

(From left to right):
Priya More, a student at the Faculty of Journalism and Communication (FJC) at MSU who conducted a study on Pax Populi for her Masters' dissertation,
Sayed Khalid Sadaat, an Afghan student at FJC (MSU), me and
Robert McNulty, founder, Pax Populi at the Lukshmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara

It was after I started posting my interactions with my Pax Populi students on Facebook, that I started being talked about as an educator. Till last year, I was known as a writer-journalist and people would ask me to critique the newspapers in Vadodara. Last year, I had little time to write in the media because I was too busy teaching. I taught the Bachelors of Journalism and Communication course at Navrachana University in Vadodara, two batches of the Masters' course in Journalism and Mass Communication at MSU, students at Pax Populi, guest-lectured students at Lincoln Learning Centre, Kandahar (Afghanistan) and Social Entrepreneurship Council at The University of the Pacific, California (USA) on Skype and collaborated with fellow-teachers for writing projects at University of Edinburgh (UK) and University of Iowa (USA). I engaged in dialogues and chats with students from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, USA, Germany, Australia, Iraq, Iran and UK, to understand the gaps in communication between educators and students. I even talked about my teaching experience for a Teachers' Day video produced by WideAngle Studio in Vadodara. I talked about safety and girls' education in a video for The Red Elephant Foundation. I haven't done videos about writing, yet.

It recently dawned on me that I have been teaching in a quasi-professional capacity for almost 17 years. That's longer than my writing career of 13 years! Wow! Now, who would have dreamt of that?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Book Buy: Who Killed Osho by Abhay Vaidya

If you lived in Pune in the early 1990s, you would have, at some point in time, learnt about Osho or Rajneesh. I first saw his picture at my grand-uncle's house. I was seven when we moved to Pune from New Delhi. It was 1990, the year Osho 'left his body'. Unfamiliar with the bearded man in the framed photograph, I asked my grand-uncle who he was. He replied, "He's a guru, Osho, and he lives here in Pune." "Your guru?" "No, we've been to a few of his talks." Osho faded from my memory as other things took over till I got married and moved to Vadodara and found his book on my mother-in-law's bookshelf. I read it and liked it but did not read more. Not till I found this book, 'Who killed Osho?' At Crossword bookstore, I took a second look at the book because the writer's name caught my eye. 'Abhay Vaidya.' And I have a faint memory of him introducing himself at a Times of India 'outdoor' workshop I was part of. I bought the book. It has been an eye-opener about how faith and business married to create entire communities of believers all over the world and how it led to the death of India's most widely-known new-age guru, who created his own brand of meditation, under the most suspicious circumstances and how the world was made to forget Rajneesh to make way for the most marketable spiritual brand, Osho. Of a professor who became widely known as a 'sex guru', multimillion dollar investments in his name, illegal transfers of intellectual property rights and fights over copyright, clashes between Western pragmatism and Eastern beliefs and the rise and destruction of a faith, this is a book that asks more questions than it answers and leaves you thinking, "How the hell did we miss this?"

Monday, May 8, 2017

Why Gujarat's villages are quick on the 'development' front

One of the things I have noted when I travel around rural Gujarat is that many villages are made of people who belong to a single caste/community/clan, unlike in north India, where you find a mix of castes, with the outer rings comprising of the dalits and lower castes and the inner ones of high castes. If you want to push a development project in a single-caste village, you essentially have to convince the village chief and the rest of the clan will come out in support. When people marvel at the pace of Gujarat's 'development' and industrialisation, this factor is often missed. In mixed-caste communities, getting consensus from all factions is important and can be long and tedious even in the most syncretic settings.

Pax Populi, now a subject of Intercultural Communication research

In September 2016, Priya More, a student at the Faculty of Journalism and Communication (#FJC) at #Vadodara's MS University (#MSU) told me she would like to study Pax Populi for her Masters' dissertation on Intercultural Communication. #PaxPopuli is a people-to-people #peacebuilding initiative founded by Prof Robert McNulty of Bentley University, Massachusetts, #USA. As part of the initiative is an online school, Pax Populi Academy, where tutors from all over the globe teach students in #Afghanistan. Since 2015, I have been volunteering my services as tutor and social media manager. After almost nine months of study, which involved interviews with students of Pax Populi in Afghanistan and tutors in India, surveys and lengthy discussions with Robert when he visited #India last year, Priya has completed and submitted her dissertation, "Intercultural #Communication: A Study on Pax Populi," at the university. This image of the cover brought a smile to my face. In her research she concludes that there has been a change in the outlook of Afghan students after they were initiated into Pax Populi Academy, in the way, they shared their ideas with people of other cultures, overcame their shyness while interacting with people from another country and learned about the cultures of at least two different countries (US and India, in this case). She even recommends that such education-for-peace projects "should be replicated in other colleges and universities to foster one-to-one understanding of different #cultures."

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

From Madhavan's Harvard Speech: Funerals Cost the Village Poor Dear

I was viewing Madhavan's speech at #Harvard and came across a point about what forces villagers into a cycle of debt: An unexpected death in the family. In India, the death of a loved one mandates that the family should spend considerable money on funeral rites and organise feasts for communities and priests during the mourning period. In Hindu custom, this is commemorated by organising feasts every year. Villagers are forced to borrow money from moneylenders. Weddings and dowry people can save up for, but death can push a family into penury. People in India sometimes spend more on funeral rites and proceedings than weddings, to ensure that the departed soul rests in peace. I asked my househelp, Rangaben, about how they get money to organise village funeral feasts. She said that they pawn off the jewellery and mortgage their fields. Rarely do economists talk about this when they study the Indian poor. At seminars on development and economy, we  always have experts talk about dowry, weddings, alcohol and tobacco but never funerals. And that's why #Madhavan's observations as an actor who travels and films in the remote rural villages of Tamil Nadu are remarkably important. #Death costs the Indian poor dear.
#WhyIndiaRemainsPoor #Poverty #Villages #Debt #Development #Economics #Customs #Funerals #India

Monday, May 1, 2017

Nostalgia: How I thought of becoming a journalist

As a child I believed I was made for science. I come from a family of surgeons, doctors and scientists, among the first Indians to be enrolled in British-run medical schools and colleges in pre-Independent India. Chemistry was my favourite subject in school and I wanted to become a scientist like Antoine Lavoisier. When anyone asked me about my ambition, that's what I would say. Until, April 1996. 1996 was an important year not only for me but also the entire Indian subcontinent. It was the year the Cricket World Cup was jointly hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. My favourite players were Pakistani and Australian and I watched all their matches, read up all I could about them and knew their batting and bowling statistics by heart. Pakistan did exceptionally well in the tournament till they met the worst opposition in the quarter-finals, India. I did not watch the match. The fall of an Indian wicket would be attributed to my presence. I sensed the hostility in the drawing room and have never watched India-Pakistan World Cup matches since then. After the match I realised that my favorite bowler Waqar was 'smashed' by my friend's favourite batsman, Jadeja. Those two overs had cost Pakistan the match. The next week, I became the  target of snide remarks during any debate on Indo-Pak cricket. The newspapers carried stories about how distraught Pakistani fans were that they warned the team not to return from Bangalore or else they would be killed. "Eleven graves for eleven losers." At that point of time, I chanced upon this piece, "The Last Namaaz in Karachi," by Javed M Ansari in India Today. I was so moved by the piece that I wanted to write, and write like him.  I was 13. From that day, when someone asked me what I wanted to become when I grew older, I would say scientist or journalist.
#IndoPak #WhenIDecidedToBeAJournalist #Cricket #WorldCup #journalism

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Teacher Tales: The Students' Farewell

Attended a students' farewell event at the Faculty of Journalism and Communication at MSU. It's the first farewell event I have been invited to in these eight years of teaching there (I am a regular at fresher parties). I taught this batch in two short stints in their first and second years and so I haven't had a chance to have a one-on-one with each student. It's also the first batch, where I have had to guide students through their dissertations and so there have been some students whom I've met more often, who've visited my home a few times, shared my meals and travelled with me. There were students who didn't show up in my class but would ask me questions as soon as I stepped out. Some are exceptionally good storytellers and moved me through words and pictures (still and motion). Today, as I delivered a speech that ended with the classic, "You can inspire others only if you are inspired," I wondered how their paths will diverge: Some will earn a lot, others will be famous, some will be silent crusaders of change, others will be content in the stability of the ordinary, some will be visionaries, some may marry quickly, some may keep searching for the one true soulmate, some may travel and work abroad, others will stay in India... And  then I thought, "They'll all do well in their own way."

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Why I don't drive

I am one of those people who can drive but choose not to. It's rare in a city like Vadodara where you have only autos in the name of public transport and even schoolkids ride mopeds and bikes. I did drive, albeit very cautiously, when I first married and moved here. I don't enjoy driving and a car for me is just a vehicle of commute, not a way to define me or what I stand for. We had two cars sitting in our parking lot and we were deciding if we should get a small city car for me to drive around. I worked out how many litres of fuel we'd be consuming and chose not to buy one. I'd rely on carpools, taxis, autos and inter-city buses and trains for transport. Anything within the range of 2Km, I walk to, unless I am in a hurry or am sick. Initially, I had people asking me why I don't buy a two-wheeler or car. I'd say I couldn't drive. Now I say, I don't want to keep hunting for a place to park. Sometimes I tell them, "At some point of time in life, I'll have lost the function of my legs and will have to be moved on wheels. I'd rather make use of them now." They laugh it off. Over the last five years, I have become very conscious of my individual carbon footprint. I remember the pride I felt when the power company in Australia wrote us a 'thank you' mail for using one-fourth the power used by a typical two-bedroom Brisbane household. I'd walk a lot in Australia too, because I didn't want to create my large carbon footprint.

Friday, April 21, 2017

AK-47, the True Symbol of Free Enterprise and a Measure of Human Rights Violations

I have been reading Roberto Saviano's brilliant book, Gomorrah, about the brutal mafia clans in an around Naples, Italy, and I haven't been able to stop myself from taking down copious notes. Here's an excerpt about why the author thinks the AK-47 is the absolute icon of free enterprise and its price a measure of human rights violations:

“Nothing in the world – organic or synthetic, metal or chemical – has produced more deaths than the AK-47. It has killed more than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more than HIV, more than the bubonic plague, more than malaria, more than all the attacks by Islamic fundamentalists, more than the total of all the earthquakes that have shaken the globe... AK-47s have been used by armies in conflicts in more than fifty countries over the last thirty years... It has been the prop for every role: liberator, oppressor, soldier, terrorist, robber and the special forces who guard presidents. Kalashnikov's highly efficient weapon has evolved over the years: eighteen variants and twenty-two new models, all from the original design. It is the true symbol of free enterprise. The absolute icon..."

“To calculate the state of human rights, the analysts consider the price of an AK-47. The less it costs, the more human rights violations there are, an indication that civil rights are gangrening and the social structure is falling to pieces. In western Africa, an AK-47 can cost as little as $50. And in Yemen, it is possible to find second- or thirdhand weapons for as low as six dollars..."

“The arms question is kept in the bounds of the economy, sealed in the pancreas of silence.”

Monday, April 17, 2017

Water drums and water woes

When I travel around villages I find a variety of water-storage drums. In many villages in Gujarat, you get water in a tap for an hour or two in the day. The villagers collect water in drums. The drums could be huge brass/copper vessels in a wealthy village home or it could be those plastic containers that are used as storage in the industries. And that's where the problem lies. Storing drinking water in industry storage vessels risks contamination of the water. Often highly toxic chemicals are stored in these drums and repeated washing also may not successfully remove some traces of these chemicals. We talk about providing clean drinking water but we must also think of low-cost storage options.

#BusinessForRural #CleanWater #ChemicalHazards #StorageIssues #Villages #contamination #SustainableDevelopmentGoals #SDGs

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An Unsuitable Boy

I loved An Unsuitable Boy because I felt that Karan Johar was having a conversation with me. I imagined how his face contorted when he expressed something, the movement of his brows, the rolling of his eyes and his laughter. If an autobiography makes you go through that experience, I think it's brilliant. We often dismiss him as being frivolous or even shallow, but you can't sustain a career in the Mumbai film industry if you are either. I knew he was a topper at HR College even before Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai released. He would have pursued an MBA as his parents had demanded but chose to risk it all and join the film industry, a place that had given his father more pain than pleasure in over 18 years as film producer. It's an amazing journey from an outsider to being an insider, of many failures and multiple successes, of how he turned a loss-making company into a multimillion-dollar business. If you want to learn about how Indian films are produced, marketed and distributed, this is one book you must read.

#KaranJohar #AnUnsuitableBoy #DharmaProductions #Bollywood #SouthBombay #MumbaiFilmIndustry #Films

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

World Poetry Day 2017

It's World Poetry Day
And I want to write
Pen scratches paper
But the ink dries
It's no occasion
To make hue and cry
Can words be stifled
If the ink runs dry?
I take my iPad
Fingertips on screen
It's the digital age
I've a Facebook page!
The words take form
Internet's freedom
Who's to judge
And why?
I sift my thoughts
I scroll my feed
Another poem,
Is there a need?
It's World Poetry Day
And I want to write
Throw Me A Word
And I shall write
The cursor moves
The letters dance
A poem takes shape
It's World Poetry Day.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Another semester of teaching at Faculty of Journalism and Communication at Vadodara's M S University comes to an end

My students from the Faculty of Journalism and Communication performed in a play at the Sayaji Literature Festival at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. They also launched the annual journal Ittivritt (Chronicle) which they've been working on during the semester. Teaching this batch of students helped me cope with two great personal tragedies last year. I found a way to battle grief by showing them Quark pages and design and watching them showcase their creativity through film, print and song. I found joy in their joys.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tawaif Tales

Vikram Sampath's book, 'My Name is Gauhar Jaan!' - The Life and Times of a Musician is an incisive account of the life of a tawaif (a woman of the arts) who went on to become the first person to have her voice recorded in India in 1902. The book also traces the journey of Indian music after the fall of the Mughal Empire in 1857 and before India gained Independence in 1947. I am glad it picked it up from Crossword because it is filled with facts and trivia that I'd like to share here:

Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni: Many of us have been exposed to the sargam at some in our lives, either by listening to Indian music or as a student of music. Indian music draws its seven basic notes from the sounds of animals and birds. Sa is associated with the peacock's shrill cry, Re with the bullock, Ga with the goat, Ma with the jackal, Pa with the cuckoo's cooing, Dha with the horse and Ni with the elephant. You might know the sargam but did you know this?

The Mumbaiya word, chhappanchuri: In Mumbai, the word chhappanchuri is used as a derogatory term for a woman who is shrewd and has the gift of the gab. In Sampath's book, I discovered where it may have come from. Apparently, it was the nickname of a tawaif, Janki Bai (1880-1934) from Allahabad. A jealous suitor, madly in love with her, had scarred her face with 56 (chhappan) slashes when she rebuffed him.

How the harmonium came into Indian music: Most people in India think the harmonium must have been invented here because it is inseparable from Indian classical or folk music. But, it was only in the late 1800s did this French instrument (developed by Alexandre-Francois Debain) become an accompaniment to an Indian vocalist. The credit for this goes to Bhaiya Ganpatrao, a son of Gwalior's Maharaja Jivajirao Scindia and Chandrabhaga Devi, a courtesan. The harmonium was despised as a lifeless, stiff-reeded instrument because it was incapable of producing subtle nuances. Ganpatrao modelled the harmonium to suit Indian music so muchso that it displaced the reigning sarangi.

The shellac in gramophone records: Lac is hardened resin secreted by the tiny lac insects which settled on twigs and sucked the plant's sap. These insects were scraped from the twigs, crushed, dried, sieved, winnowed, washed and again dried. The mangled mass was then passed through a hot melting system, filtered and stretched into sheets or 'shellac'. Since it was non-toxic, it was used to make gramophone records.

The hierarchy among the tawaifs: While most tawaifs were trained in music and dance, some chose to only sing. A 'bai' was a tawaif who only sang. A 'jaan' sang and danced. Interestingly, even when the dancer sat and performed, the tabla and sarangi players accompanying her always stood and played their instruments. (How many people play the tabla standing up, nowadays?)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Holi Flashback

Ten years ago, I travelled from Mumbai to Vadodara with my then boyfriend to meet his family. Since Rachit Mankad had just returned to India after 10 months in the US and was going to be leaving for Singapore for his MBA after a few months, my mother insisted that I should come to a decision/commitment about our future. "Since you want to marry him, go and see how they live." It's rare for a girl in the subcontinent to go alone to check out her prospective husband's family. But I did. As scared as I was of them rejecting me outright, my bigger fear was that I might stop loving him if I didn't like the family much. To my surprise it was his grandmother (Ba) who decided to put gulal on me first. My fate was sealed 😀 and my fears disappeared.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Speech to the Council of Social Entrepreneurs at The University of the Pacific, California, USA


My name is Eisha Sarkar and I am a writer, educator, peacebuilder and designer based in Gujarat, India. I thank Asef (Majidi) and the Social Entrepreneurship Council at The University of the Pacific for inviting me to share my stories.

I became interested in the idea of social entrepreneurship after reading Jacqueline Novogratz's book, The Blue Sweater. Some of you may be familiar with her work and Acumen, a non-profit global venture fund, she founded, which helps build financially sustainable organizations that deliver affordable goods and services and in turn, improve the lives of the poor. The organization is headquartered in New York and has offices in India, Pakistan, Kenya and Ghana. In the early 1990s, she founded the first microfinance institution in Rwanda called Duterimbere.

In Kigali, Jaqueline found a group of 20 unwed mothers who were in a baking project and undertook sewing orders. They hardly baked or sewed and the women earned fifty cents a day. The charity that was supporting them was losing $650 a month. They would have trebled the women's incomes by just handing them the money instead of 'giving the poor women something nice to do till all the money ran out'. Jacqueline proposed the idea that they run the organization like a business and not charity. They all agreed and The Blue Bakery was established. Within eight months, the women were earning $2 a day, much more than most women in Kigali earned and sometimes they even earned more than $3. For the first time in their lives, their incomes allowed them to decide when to say yes and when to say no. Money gave them confidence and choice and in turn, dignity.

About two years ago, I met an enterprising couple – Shyam and Swati Bedekar – in Vadodara, India. They run an organization called Vatsalya Foundation, which helps set up sanitary napkin-manufacturing units in rural homes. Swati, a teacher by profession, noticed how girls in tribal areas skipped school at the time of their menses. Within homes, they were forced into isolation for those five days a month. They had no access to sanitary napkins (the ones in the market were too expensive) and used old rags, newspapers, ash, mud, etc, during their periods. Naturally, the incidence of infection was very high. It took years of research for Swati and Shyam to come up with a viable solution: a low-cost eco-friendly sanitary pad that could be incinerated without creating any hazardous by-products.

While initially they started sourcing and distributing the pads, the couple realized the only way they could keep costs down is by creating manufacturing set-ups in people's homes. Shyam made a machine that would be easy to operate in a small room. Thus started Sakhi, an organization run by women that creates low-cost eco-friendly sanitary napkins. Rural women, many of them illiterate, run it like a business. I have met some of them. A few years ago, they would not even utter a word in front of their husbands. Today, they are comfortable walking up to a manager to open a bank account. A single unit in a village makes a lot of difference. Watching their mothers make the pads, encourages the girls to use them and makes them more hygiene-conscious. The women are able to financially support their husbands and girls no longer drop out of school citing menstruation as the reason.

Sakhi has been written about in various newspapers in India and abroad. On one occasion when I was with Swati, I was introduced to Amy Grace Peake from UK, who was so moved by the plight of 40000 Syrian women refugees in the Zataari refugee camp in Jordan, that she chose to do something about bringing them dignity and jobs. Amy managed to cut the red tape and get the UN sanction to create a small unit at the refugee camp where Sakhi's machines were installed to manufacture sanitary napkins and incontinence pads. The enterprise is run by women refugees. This is an example of people from different parts of the world coming together to solve a social and health issue in another part of the world. It's about collective social responsibility.

We look at enterprise in terms of income generation and jobs, but it's also about building capacities and skills and creating an employable taskforce. I volunteer for a one-to-one peacebuilding initiative called Pax Populi. It is a Latin phrase and means peace of the people. In 2007, Robert McNulty, a professor of ethics and Bentley University in Massachusetts, founded the non-profit, Applied Ethics, Inc, with the goal to support peacemaking through education and economic development. Pax Populi Academy is an online school, where students in Afghanistan are connected with English and Math tutors from around the world. Four decades of war have destroyed the country and ruined its education system. Since English is the global language for business communication, we try to build bridges between countries and cultures through our English tutoring programs. Pax Populi members are from Afghanistan, USA, Canada, UK, France, Greece, India and South Korea. I joined this initiative as a tutor to understand and learn about the very rich Afghan culture. I have taught students in two Afghan cities – Herat and Kabul. As Pax Populi's Social Media Manager, I interact with hundreds of Afghan students who dream of making their country safe and prosperous again. I always had tremendous respect for Afghan peoples and their literature and my respect for them has grown immensely since I joined this organization. I have made friends even outside the program and one such is Asef, who is one of the most hardworking people I know.

Education, health, poverty alleviation and peace rank among the UN Sustainable Development Goals that we seek to achieve over the next 15 years to make the world a better place. I believe cross-cultural, multi-platform social enterprises will become the driving forces to attain these goals.

Thank you.

To listen to me talk, please click here

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Patricia Chandrasekhar, Jonesh Sharma and I HaikuJAM together


Sunday, January 29, 2017


Birds and I

I got interested in birds when I was in the first year of college. (I earned a BSc in Life Sciences and Biochemistry at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai.) It was quite a coincidence that most of my projects through those three years were about birds: nomenclature and classification, field visits, migration and mating behaviours, etc. I had a designated table at the library of the Bombay Natural History Society at Kala Ghoda, where I had the chance to meet some of the most well-known conservationists and wildlife experts in South Asia including JC Daniel and Isaac Kehimkar. I became a journalist and among other things, wrote about the thousands of flamingoes  that would visit Sewri in Mumbai every year. After I moved to Gujarat, I discovered it's long coastline and the unusual topography of the Rann of Kutch created several breeding and feeding habitats for many migratory species from Siberia, Central Asia, Tibet and even Central Africa. I had the opportunity to travel around some of the wetlands here along the Narmada, in Kheda and Anand, Nalsarovar, Kutch and along the Gulf of Khambhat (Cambay) and write about them in the Lonely Planet-like book on Gujarat published by India Guide and edited by Anjali Desai. In Australia, the Ramsar Convention on Wetland Conservation (1971) became the starting point of a conversation with my Iranian friend, Azin, who had worked in UNEP, Tehran, before moving Down Under. I invested in Michael Morcombe's Birds of Australia which I picked at a book fair at The University of Queensland. After 1.5 years, a couple of weeks before we left, we were visited by Shreyasi, my friend from New Zealand who brought for me a model of the Australasian swamphen called Pukeko. It now rests in my mini-garden in Vadodara. Today, while watching the birds at Vadhwava reservoir, a place I had written about in Mumbai Mirror seven years ago, I reflected on my association with birds for over 15 years. When a fellow birdwatcher asked me to identify the species he had clicked, I leafed through Salim Ali's The Book of Indian birds, for having spent 15 years birdwatching, I know there is so much more to learn. My respect for these creatures has grown through the years, for their strength, their wisdom, their loyalties to their kind (watching penguins wait for other members of their gang in Australia touched me in ways I cannot explain), their ability to shatter boundaries and fences and their uncaged spirits.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Torn: Mixed media on paper

Walking around city streets I often find torn posters on building walls which have been randomly patched up. It inspired this piece of art, Torn.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

When Robert McNulty talked about Suraya and my interaction through Pax Populi

When you get a mention in an article written about Pax Populi by Robert McNulty for a community newspaper in the US, it brightens up your day, more so because both your students Muhammad Qasem Jami and Suraya Mehrzad feature in there too. To read more, click on this link