Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

Working from home sucks: Why Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer is right

In Culture and Society, Lifestyle, Management, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm

In a decision that is certain to cause heated debates in HR circles, not to mention office cafeterias and water cooler hangouts, Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer has banned working from home for all her employees. As per a memo sent out last Friday to Yahoo employees, those who have been working ‘remotely’ now either have to move to the nearest Yahoo office by 1 June or put in their papers.

This won’t go down well with the world’s digital evangelists, who would have you believe that everything – from meetings to matings to partings – is best done via the internet. And as the CEO of an iconic digital company, Mayer deserves to be applauded for demonstrating the courage needed to take an unpopular, counter-intuitive decision.

A lot of nonsense has been written about stuff like ‘telecommuting’ and how organisations can ‘leverage’ technology to cut costs and improve productivity. So yes, having a chunk of your staff work from home will trim your overheads. And yes, if they are self-driven and reliable and sincere and their astral bodies roam the corridors of your office during working hours, hovering benevolently in conference rooms when strategies are being thrashed out, by all means get them to work from home.

AP

Marissa Mayer in this file photo. AP

But most companies don’t require only individual contributions from individual employees. A lot of value is derived from team interactions – from top-down, at the same level, and from downward-up. And a lot of fruitful team interactions are informal, serendipitous, and unplanned – something you simply cannot have with remote employees. And this dimension of value and employee contribution that can only come from being physically in the same space is completely lost when employees begin to operate from home.

Mayer is too smart not to have figured this out. She took over as Yahoo CEO in July 2012. In October, she had a baby. She could have easily taken maternity leave – and for as long as she wanted, a privilege she would obviously enjoy as the new CEO. But she skipped maternity leave and chose to come back to work immediately after having the baby – and with this new directive, she is evidently preaching something she believes in and already practiced.

The memo announcing this new regulation asserts, “…to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

It remains to be seen how Yahoo’s 11,500 employees take to this diktat. But Mayer makes a strong case. The leaked memo is quoted as saying in AllThingsD, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings … Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” You can’t but agree with Mayer here. Nothing can beat walking up to someone for an input, as opposed to laboriously composing email or text messages for something that could be resolved by walking across a corridor.

Of course, working from home does have its rightful place in the professional world. It is ideal for consultants, for mom-and-pop outfits that have two or three employees and cannot invest in office space. It works well for businesses that need to have just one representative each in multiple geographical locations – say, a media house that needs to have a correspondent in every continent or major commercial capital.

Some work-from-home flexibility should always be on the agenda when it comes to managing talent you cannot otherwise tap into. The smartest of tech companies – Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP – don’t have a fixed policy on this. They have neither banned it or nor do the particularly encourage it, preferring to go on a case-to-case basis, to be decided by the concerned manager.

Mayer’s directive will reportedly only affect a few hundred employees, but it would also cover those who have a work-from-home arrangement only one or two days a week. A disgruntled ex-Yahoo employee commented on this news at the digital media website AllthingsD, arguing that working from home was more productive than being in the office: “Why? I didn’t have to put up with numbskull self-important programmers constantly yakking to each other LOUDLY from the next set of cubicles about non-work-related stuff, and I wasn’t being distracted every 20 minutes by some bored soul coming over to my desk to go for coffee or foosball, or just to talk about the spreading ennui of knowing we were working for a company who’s (sic) glory days were long over…”

But then, the home environment is hardly insulated from distractions. As someone who tried working from home for a few months, I can vouch for the fact that, in the absence of the structure offered by the office routine, you need highly evolved self-management skills to be able to manage distractions and work at optimal efficiency.

Also, if you are in a phase where you are trying to rebuild the organisational culture and team spirit, which is presumably what Mayer is trying to do, then it would be difficult to get through to staff who are hardly ever there on your premises.

Incidentally, the strange phrasing of the directive has also led to much mirth on tech websites. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together,” says the memo. Well, for those Yahoo employees used to only being spiritually together, not being “physically being together” will not be an option anymore from 1 June. And it would be interesting to see how this Mayer’s edict impacts work-from-home policies in other companies.

How I miss the Mumbai winter

In Humour, Lifestyle, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm

 

Illustration by Ravi Jadhav

I moved from Mumbai to Delhi last April. And in all that time since, I never missed Mumbai as much as I did over the last ten days or so. I’ve just taken up a new assignment that requires me to step out of the house at seven in the morning, and with only the vapours from my mouth for company, I’ve been negotiating the Delhi winter with the ‘winter clothing’ that I had originally bought in Mumbai some half a dozen years ago, on a whim and a sale.

If you talk to non-resident Dilliwalas, they will wax eloquent about the ‘Delhi winter’ – as much if not more than how Mumbaikars romanticise their monsoons. But reality has a way of pouring cold water (pardon the double pun) on warm hallucinations of nostalgia.

Just as Mumbai’s monsoons mean flooding, traffic jams, and disruption of the local trains, Delhi’s winter means extreme fog, clothes that don’t dry, and a bone-chilling cold that leaves your brain frozen in mid-thought.

Please don’t think I am exaggerating – as I’m writing this, 233 people have perished already to the cold wave sweeping north India. Last week, the temperature was 0.7 degrees in Gurgaon – which is my commuting destination. In fact, yesterday, outside the Huda City Centre metro station, at half past six in the evening, there was half a kilometre long queue of shivering men waiting to get in through the security check.

Yours truly was one of those, and I consoled myself by thinking of the Labrador I passed on the way – it was wearing just a single piece of woollen ‘jacket’ wrapped around its belly. Its face was uncovered, its ears were uncovered, its tail was uncovered – I couldn’t believe the poor animal was warm enough in this ‘dress’ bang in the middle of a Delhi chill that is reported to be the “harshest and longest in 40 years.”

Everywhere you go, you see men in street corners huddled around bonfires created from leaves, twigs and garbage. And then, of course, there is the fog – which becomes a part of the landscape, and even occupies your living room. I don’t know how – but last week, I was sitting in the living room watching TV and suddenly I could only hear Arnab Goswami and not see him anymore. Then I realised it was the fog, and the television set was enveloped in it.

This never happened to me in Mumbai, though. When it comes to winter, the maximum city becomes the minimum city – it knows how to offer a human being a finely calibrated winter: cold enough to deliver days that are perceptibly cooler and more attractive than summer, but not so vastly different in terms of temperature that you have to invest in a whole new wardrobe.

When I moved to Delhi, I had with me just one sweater – that too with a hole in it, most likely made by a Bambaiyya rat tasting wool for the first time in its life. This apology of a sweater probably did less for me than what the ‘wrap’ did for the Lab.

Then on December 31st, we decided to go for the ‘Take Back the Night’ protest at PVR Saket, and it was so cold, so cold, that we took a detour to a nearby market to get some really solid overcoats and thermal wear for each of us. Now my wife wants to segregate all my clothes into two sets: ‘summer wear’ and ‘winter wear’. Honestly, I used to think that only fashion designers dealt with stuff like ‘summer collection’ and ‘winter collection’. Now I have one of each too – that’s what Delhi forces upon you, whether you like it or not.

But come to think of it, what is the purpose of winter? Basically, to give us a little respite from the heat and sweat of summer. Mumbai, whose default climate setting is summer, has got this sorted out. When its summer gets rainfall, they call it the monsoons. And when the monsoon is finished, summer resumes. It is only December-January that gives well-heeled Mumbaikars some excuse to try out their ‘winter collections’. As for me, when I was in Mumbai, my ‘winter collection’ was simply to wear a T-shirt beneath a shirt, and that was enough to keep me warm.

But I am in Delhi now, and I am going to stop this column right here because I can’t type with the gloves on and my fingers are freezing.

Why gymmers should swap roles with workers

In Labour Rights, Lifestyle, Satire, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:52 pm

In his memoir of running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami lists the advantages of running versus other kinds of sport: “First of all, you don’t need anybody else to do it, and no need for special equipment. You don’t have to go to any special place to do it. As long as you have running shoes and a good road you can run to your heart’s content.”

Evidently, Murakami, who runs a marathon every year, has never tried running in India. If he had, he would have known that there are cities where you do have to go to a special place to run (a park or a ground or a gym) because the roads are too crowded and too polluted.

So going for a run outdoors is not easy if you’re in an Indian city. I can say this with some assurance because I’ve run in most of the Indian metros. I began running on a regular basis as a student in Hyderabad. I lived in a big, green campus where there was no dearth of running tracks. My only problem was getting up early. If I woke up late, it would be too hot to run. In the evenings, it remained too warm to run even till 7 or 8 pm.

During vacation time I’d go home to Chennai, and try to keep up my running schedule. But invariably I would fail, and have to start again with lazy, temperamental muscles when I got back to the university. The problem: Chennai’s street dogs. Running isn’t much fun if you keep getting chased by a bunch of half-starved animals barking their guts out and snapping at your heels.

One of the better cities for running has been Pune. In the late nineties, it was ideal – clean air, not much traffic, lots of greenery. Those were my best running years, in terms of timing, distances, and sustained fitness level. The gentle slopes added variety. But precisely because it was such a great place to run, I pushed myself too hard, and the tarmac almost killed my knees.

I console myself with the thought that in this regard I’m in good company – the great Shoaib Akhtar also ruined his knees running on city streets, and was a goner before he played his first match for Pakistan. That he still managed to make an impact just goes to show what an extraordinary athlete he was.

After Pune ruined my knees, I quit running. It took almost a year of physiotherapy and some very expensive footwear before I could hit the streets again. But I had to mix my road-running with ‘softer’ runs on a treadmill.

But I get quickly bored on a treadmill – it’s the same scene in front of you from the time you get on the machine till you get off. You’re either looking at your own mug in the mirror or at a fogged up window.

Most people try to ward off the boredom with headphones. But whether it’s music you’re plugged into or Emily Dickinson, it cuts you off from your immediate physical environment. Which of course is no big deal considering that a treadmill is itself a form of withdrawal – from the very ground beneath your feet, and you bounce instead on a rolling belt of ground-substitute.

With most public recreational spaces either swallowed up by construction or usurped by private parties, Indian cities are not runner-friendly. So the well-heeled, those for whom running is a part of their daily fitness routine, end up going to a gym. When I see all these grim, sweating faces I can’t help but wonder what a criminal waste it is – all these people huffing and puffing, consuming energy (the treadmills in most high-end gyms run on electricity) in order to expend energy.

What if all those calories being burnt can somehow be captured and channeled to some power station which would then convert it into electricity? Wouldn’t that light up a few thousand villages at least? In fact, Gurgaon, which is facing an acute power crisis and also has several up-market gyms, should seriously explore this.
I’m serious, this isn’t as dumb an idea as it seems. At least no dumber than the way we live. On the one hand you have millions of people who are forced to do hard, manual labour to save themselves from starvation; and on the other, another million or so engage in intense physical exertion that consumes a lot of energy (their own and those produced from power plants) and produces nothing but sweat.

What if everyone who has to work out and is currently paying a gym for this privilege, volunteered to do hard manual labour (for example, by carrying cement at a construction site) for as much time every day as their exercise time, say 30-60 minutes? Or maybe put in some time at a factory in Manesar or Faridabad?
This would be a win-win for everyone concerned. You are happy – you get your workout for free and stay fit. The workers are happy to let someone relieve them for an hour or so. And your gym owner is happy because he can do some cost-cutting by switching the treadmills off and reducing his power bills. To top it all, it would also better acquaint India’s gymming class with the life of the working class. Now that’s a ‘labour reform’ and a healthcare masterstroke rolled into one. Are Santa and Banta listening?
G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi.He’s reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com

Where the books go when you’re not reading them

In Lifestyle, Literature, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:30 pm
First published in DNA, May 19, 2012

I don’t enjoy shifting cities. Setting up a new place can be very stressful. Perhaps the only thing about it that I enjoy is the opportunity it gives you to arrange all your books. In the process you end up spending many pleasant hours with some old, long-forgotten friends.
You open the carton and pick one up. As you wonder which shelf it should go to, you flip through the pages, and start reading at random, something like “To Helen, a gift was not something you gave to person number one, but something you didn’t give to person number two. This was how we wound up with a Singer sewing machine, the kind built into a table.” You want to read on, but you have a task to complete — emptying all the book cartons (there are eight of them) and transferring their contents either to the book shelves or to the loft.
You sigh, put off the decision of where it should go, and pick up another book. You again open a page at random. “An erection is a thought and the orgasm an act of imagination. The male has to will his sexual authority before the woman who is a shadow of his mother and of all women.” WTF, you say to yourself, and continue to read. Before you know it, three hours have passed, it is lunch time, and the wife peeps in to check, gives you that look, and says, “WTF, you haven’t emptied even one carton yet!”
It was to avoid this scenario that in Mumbai the wife had taken over arranging the books, with the result that I could never locate a book when I wanted it. How is that possible, you ask. All I need to do was look carefully, no? No. As it happens, the ease of locating a book depends a lot on the logic of their arrangement. If the logic of the arranger is not the same as the logic of the searcher, then the searcher and the searched may never meet. At least not until the searcher and arranger move cities and the books have to be arranged again.
In our Mumbai place, the wife had taken a ruthlessly pragmatic approach. Initially, I had trouble figuring out her logic. How could you mix poetry with sociology? And Foucault sitting next to Stephenie Meyer? One day she told me: she had arranged the books according to height – yes, height! Like how kids are made to line up in school for the morning assembly. The shortest on the extreme left, the tallest on the extreme right. So if you ran your finger across the spines, you could begin with Billy Budd and end at Guide to Effective Marketing Communications or some such tract I wouldn’t dream of admitting to owning.
And it wasn’t only height. The wife’s selection criteria, not unlike that of a college girl appraising potential boyfriends, was a complex matrix of age, height, good looks, and hygiene. So the physical attractiveness of the covers, the newness of the title, and whether it was a 1948 edition stolen from a hotel in Goa or purchased last week on Flipkart, decided whether the book went to the Gulag or the top row of the new bookcase the carpenter will make. That’s how Padma Lakshmi ended up in our living room while Rushdie went into the loft to co-exist with lizards and spiders.
Granted, in a situation where there are more books than there is shelf space (which is always the case, isn’t it) you have to choose, much like Sophie did, between your beloved children. But put yourself in the book’s shoes for a moment (I know books don’t wear shoes, but still try). If I was a book, I’d do anything to be out there on a shelf in the living room, I can tell you that. It doesn’t matter if I am Chetan Bhagat, I want to be sitting up there with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Kenzaburo Oe. So the point is, as a book arranger, you need to be fair, and follow a logic that books can live with – and that doesn’t include height or good looks. Not in my book.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing the past two weeks — curating my bookshelves. Arranging and rearranging, casting Delillo into the dungeons, retrieving Agassi from oblivion, moving Follett to the middle row, commanding Llosa to take Follett’s place.
I feel like the warden of a huge, cosmic hostel for living and dead writers. And I get to decide who shared a room with whom. Should I put Theroux alongside Naipaul? Or have the arch-MCP Henry Miller trapped between Greer on one side and Steinem on the other? Would Sylvia Plath be uncomfortable with Russell Brand, or would she be happier in the company of Emily Dickinson?
I shuffled them around, trying out different rationales — nationality, genre, author, subject, century of publication. Should I put all the French authors together? But how can Flaubert be on the same shelf as Catherine Millet?
Do I put the books I love the most closest to my desk? Or should that honour be on rotation basis — with the books on my current reading list sitting within arm’s reach?
I banish literary giants from my presence, on a whim, and summon them back when I wish. Come to think of it, even the world’s most powerful literary critic (who’s that, by the way?) can never wield such power – except in her study.

Are you a Delhi person or a Mumbai person?

In Lifestyle, Trends, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 11:42 am
G Sampath | Saturday, April 7, 2012
First published in DNA

It’s not been a week since I moved to Delhi, and I miss Mumbai already. If you ask me what is it about Mumbai that I miss, I can’t give you a convincing answer. I miss nothing in particular, and I miss everything in general.
I know that this Delhi-Mumbai debate — which city is more worthy of love and human habitation — is a touchy subject, especially for Dilliwalas. I’m a Dilliwala myself, or used to be, when I moved to Mumbai seven years ago to help launch this newspaper. There were also a couple of Delhites who had moved with me and they would go on and on about how Mumbai sucked and how Delhi was so much better, cleaner, easier to get around, etc.
Now, I am not the kind of person to develop roots in, or affection for, large, overcrowded, urban spaces full of smart people living and working in localities and offices that are increasingly beginning to look like localities and offices in other large, overcrowded, urban spaces full of smart people living and working in — well, you get my drift. But I’ve lived in each of India’s metros (except Bangalore) at different times in my life, and I’ve found that temperamentally, I am most compatible with Mumbai. I don’t know if it’s the sea, the local trains, or the humidity, but it didn’t take me long to get used to the rhythms of the city, the Bambaiya lingo (just yesterday an auto driver in Lajpat Nagar turned and stared when I told him ‘aage se left lene ka’), and yes, the traffic jams too.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m writing this sitting in Delhi, but it seems to me that the Mumbai traffic jam is somehow more tolerable than the Delhi traffic jam. In Mumbai, there is a sort of hidden camaraderie born of shared misery — we are all in the same jam together kind of thing. But in a Delhi jam, all I feel is a cold hostility that could, it seems to me, erupt into fatal fury at any moment. And I worry that I shouldn’t do something to trigger it. So I try and honk politely if I must, and smile apologetically into the rearview mirror when I do.
But this applies to not just jams on roads but jams elsewhere too. I’ve never seen people hustling their way to the front of the queue at the bank I used to visit in Mumbai. But earlier this week, I stepped into a Delhi branch of the same bank and the first thing I see is a well-built, middle-aged woman screaming at the bank manager because her queue was not moving fast enough. For someone like me, who is easily intimidated by official-looking people, and especially people like bank managers, to see an average citizen intimidate an intimidator was even more intimidating. Delhi is full of such people. Quite a few of them carry guns. Some use them too.
One thing Mumbai has over Delhi is its more equable climate, with the extremes limited to a few days during the monsoons. Yet the national capital’s climate is not without its advantages. I now scoff at Mumbai friends who dare to complain to me on phone about how hot Mumbai is already. “Mumbai? Hot? Hahahaha!” I laugh at them for a full minute. Delhi’s climatic extremes give me the upper hand in all weather-related discussions with Mumbaiwalas for a full eight months of the year, when Mumbai can never be as hot or as cold as Delhi. From June to September, I’ll need to avoid all talk about the weather, for I’d rather not hear disparaging references to Delhi’s micturitional monsoons, especially from Mumbaikars who think nothing of wading to work in neck-deep sewage water.
La Shehrawat in a deglam role as a Delhi girl in the
2006  Hindi movie Pyar ke Side Effects
is a quintessentially Delhi girl who hates Mumbai
Then there are the usual comparisons — about quality of life (where Delhi scores), cost of accommodation (where Delhi scores), cultural and ‘intellectual’ life (where, again, Delhi scores), safety of women (where Mumbai scores), public transport (where Mumbai scores, though not by much after the advent of the Metro in Delhi). There is also the old cliché about how ‘connections’ is the currency of power in Delhi whereas the size of your wallet determines the pecking order in Mumbai. Other aspects that are too subjective for a meaningful debate keep popping up every time — the food, places to hang out, fashion sense, and yes, the people. Delhi men talk about ‘Mumbai girls’, usually appreciatively, while Mumbai women talk about ‘Delhi men’, usually with disgust. It is never the other way around — no Delhi girl will speak of ‘Mumbai men’, and Mumbai men don’t speak of ‘Delhi girls’, though Delhi men themselves do.
All said and done, I guess the city one prefers is as much a matter of sensibility as other, less nebulous, factors like where one grew up, studied, has close friends/family, etc — all of which, in turn, play a role in shaping your sensibility. In my own case, I grew up in different cities, and my friends/family are scattered all over. Yet I prefer Mumbai. Don’t ask me why, though. As I said before, there’s no convincing answer to that. I believe you’re either a Delhi person or a Mumbai person. It’s like your sun sign, but unlike a sun sign, this one can, and sometimes does, change during a lifetime.

When you were a teenager and in love with books

In Lifestyle, Literature, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:58 am

G Sampath | Saturday, March 24, 2012

First published in DNA
Last week, I reread Agostino and Disobedience, two short ‘adolescent novels’ by Alberto Moravia, a writer I first read as a 16-year-old and was told I’d outgrow. I’ve often wondered what it means when people say you’ll ‘outgrow’ some author. I’ve noticed this is usually said of writers you first discover when you’re growing up, especially in your teens. As an adult, you might look back at their works with nostalgia, as books that belong to an age inhabited by a more innocent version of yourself.
Perhaps something about these novels appeals to the adolescent sensibility. A sensibility marked by a certain disconnect from the adult universe, and an inability to inherit its preoccupations. It often traps the adult-in-the-making in a profound moral and emotional paralysis — leaving him or her unable to take decisions, even simple ones like whether to get up from the bed or bunk school. It fills you with self-loathing at the same time as it fills you with a sense of superiority, detached as you are, from the necessarily petty concerns of a middle class existence — do well at school so you can go to IIT-IIM (or at least a foreign university), make tons of money, get your own car-house-spouse, have kids, attain a position of power/influence in and beyond your sphere of work, then die post-retirement of a suitably prestigious disease.
Speaking of adolescent angst, of course, the first novel that comes to mind is JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. And it occupies this preeminent place for a reason — Salinger was perhaps the first novelist in English to craft an original narrative voice that was pitch perfect for expressing the adolescent resentment against a world ruled by mercenary grown-ups and rigged by them in such a way that you cannot make the transition to adulthood without doing violence to your own recalcitrant humanity. 
In this sense, the quintessential coming-of-age novel, or the bildungsroman, as it is called, is nothing if not a record of a character gradually, and successfully, sawing off his or her own unthinking goodness, compartmentalising, and learning to parcel it out in a calculated manner in a world where goodness too is part of a larger economy of good(s) and bad, right(s) and wrong (s), and favours given and received.
Coming back to Moravia, in Agostino, which was written during World War II, and banned by fascist Italy when it was published, the 13-year-old eponymous character is the son of a beautiful, rich and fairly young widow. During a summer beach holiday with his mother, Agostino gets involvedwith a gang of working class boys, and in a reversal of the usual class snobbery, it is Agostino who is harassed, bullied and teased by the rowdy kids on account of his wealthy background and ‘superior’ upbringing. Agostino, in order to fit in, starts wearing his oldest and most worn-out clothes, imitates the rough style and crude mannerisms of the lower class boys, and sets out with them on dubious adventures into the neighbouring woods.
But most tellingly, it is the way these ‘lower class’ kids view his mother — as an object of sexual desire, and possibly an easy conquest — that subject him to the defining conflict of his adolescence: what attitude to take towards his mother, who still treats him as her little boy, but who he can no longer look at as just his mother?
In Disobedience, 15-year-old Luca decides that he will disobey all the commandments of urban middle class adolescence — despite being a bright student he consciously neglects his studies, gives away his stamp collection, sells off his books, avoids his friends — until finally, he finds that his ‘game’ of disobedience would remain incomplete unless he disobeyed that most fundamental of all commandments — the commandment to live, and to go on living, which, in his case, meant to go on being a school boy. He decides to die, and almost succeeds, before life intervenes.
When I first read these novels as a 17-year-old, I was convinced they were about my own inner life, which Moravia had accessed through some kind of telepathic literary alchemy. Reading them today, I am struck by the precision with which he charts a teen’s painful confusion as he experiences for the first time the gentle shock of self-consciousness — when we confront the impossible truth that the world does not really care about our wishes.
It is therefore not surprising that students have been at the forefront of revolutionary movements throughout history. Be it Paris in 1968, or Prague Spring or the Naxalbari movement in India, the youthful idealism that powered these movements is essentially born of the deep introspection that begins in adolescence. What passes for a successful passage into ‘well-adjusted’ adulthood is simply the exchange of this idealism for a more pragmatic worldview. And such a personality change cannot but also alter our opinions of the authors we loved during those tumultuous years of self-questioning, the years before we formally made our peace with the adult world.
I suppose the longevity of a writer is to be measured not merely in terms of whether she survives in historical time, but also whether she survives personal time. Does a writer who grabbed you by the eyeballs when you were 15 still do so now that you’re 30? If she doesn’t, then perhaps you can say you’ve outgrown this writer. But if she does, you’ll consider her works a ‘classic’, depending, of course, on the reading culture you’ve been socialised into. After all, there are also people who consider Chicken Soup For the Teenage Soul a classic. And who’s to say it isn’t?

The importance of being depressed

In Humour, Lifestyle, Satire, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:31 am

The importance of being depressed

G Sampath | Saturday, November 26, 2011
First publsihed in DNA
For a long time now, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that I’ve been depressed for a long time. Finally, last week, I mustered up the energy to Google the symptoms of depression. It was depressing to find that I have all of them. They are: 1. Feeling sad or empty; 2. Irritability; 3. Decreased interest or pleasure; 4. Weight changes; 5. Insomnia or sleeping too much (I have both, serially); 6. Physically slowed down in one’s movements; 7. Loss of energy; 8. Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, feeling inappropriately guilty over things you have no control over; 9. Brain fog; 10. Thoughts of death or suicide with or without a specific plan.
I can’t say whether there are certain things in my life that depress me or if it’s just that being depressed has become the default setting of my existence. Fact is I am depressed all the time.
But this does not mean there aren’t individual charging points that keep my depression fully charged. For instance, I am depressed by the sun, particularly by its habit of rising every day and leaving a morning on my plate even when I have no appetite for it. I am depressed by the sound of cell phones and television. But most of all, I am depressed by the banality of my emotions, the pettiness of my worries, and the pre-programmed futility of hope.
To give you a simple example: whether or not I cut myself during my morning shave can sink or save my day. My biggest sense of accomplishment comes from finding a parking space where my vehicle won’t be covered in pigeon shit by the time I return to collect it. And a cutting remark from the vegetable vendor can plunge me into despair for weeks.
If these are individual trigger points for the spikes (or troughs) in my mood flow, there are other things that, together, act like an emotional climate control mechanism designed to keep me just short of killing myself. These include the following: my job, my domestic life, and my inability to nurture a sense of self-esteem that is sustainable over the long-term (say, a 24-hour cycle).
Also, I am depressed by crowds, which is a terrible thing to be depressed by if you happen to live in Mumbai. I am depressed by individuals too. My shrink says I can’t relate to people. But I don’t see the point in talking to anyone — unless the person I am talking to is also as depressed as I am and can therefore comprehend the sense of dread that envelops me when I have to talk to someone. But then, if the other person was as depressed as I am, then she wouldn’t want to talk to me either. And yet, unless she talked to me, or I talked to her, neither of us would ever discover that we could talk to each other only because we do not want to talk to anyone. Yet, because we do not want to talk to anyone, we would never be able to talk to each other, either.
If I can continue to live as a depressed person — and evidently I can — should I still seek a remedy for my depression? Or is there some value in being depressed such that I wouldn’t want to let go of it? Maybe we need a constitutional right to access that value — a right to be depressed. The right to death, liberty, and the pursuit of sadness.
Nobody has, to the best of my knowledge, explained why people who have a natural gift for sadness and melancholy should not be allowed to remain sad and melancholic but instead, are looked down upon with pity and condescension by those who are desperate to be happy. This fetishism of happiness and the fascism of fun depress me more than my own sadness.
Say, if each one of us were to pick our favourite song, what are the chances that we would pick a song that celebrates the power of positive thinking, as opposed to a song about loss or grief or pain or sorrow? It can be safely stated as a universal law that sad songs are more beautiful than happy songs. Why is that so? Perhaps, as Keats said, if beauty is truth, then the truth is a sad one. As sad as loss or death or deprivation, all of which are in excess in this world we’ve made for ourselves.
Most of us don’t have the time, or as they say these days, the ‘bandwidth’, to think of loss or deprivation unless it hits us directly. We are in denial about the fact that our society — including many of the things in it that we like — is founded on deprivation.
We are told, day in and day out, that this is the best of all possible worlds. And we force ourselves to believe it, even as we lead lives of quiet desperation in a society we know to be sick. The sicker we are, the more desperate is the need to have fun, to blank it all out. But then, most of us have a rather low threshold for truth. Whoever said that the truth shall set you free got it wrong. It only gets you depressed.

The burden of the married man

In Lifestyle, Relationships, Trends, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:23 am

G Sampath | Saturday, October 15, 2011

First published in DNA

I am a married man, but I believe marriage is not for everyone, which is not something everyone believes. So any time I advice a friend against getting married, it is taken as a comment on my own marriage — people tend to assume that I must have an unhappy marriage, for why else would I advise my friend not to marry? But as I said, marriage is not for everyone — marrying because you are expected to or because all your peers are doing so is possibly the worst reason anyone can have to get married.
But all the time one sees people, especially girls, getting married for exactly those reasons. And quite a few of them end up in unhappy marriages, when they could have had far more fulfilling lives if they had never married. While many manage to make their peace with the institution, basically by lowering their expectations from the relationship, and losing themselves in bringing up their children, some women tend to store up a big drum of resentment in their hearts that breaks open and spills its toxic contents once the children have grown up and moved out and the husband has retired.
Some resentment is inevitable, for marriage is nearly always a losing proposition for women (Go ahead, deny that you are in denial!). In the less than perfect matches, they are beaten, abused, raped, burnt for dowry, and suffer harassment at the hands of in-laws. But even in the so-called ‘happy’ marriages where none of the traditional atrocities are inflicted on them, women somehow end up with the bulk of the responsibility in running the household.
Ironically, though it is women who are likely to come off worse, they are the ones who generally take the lead in prodding the relationship towards matrimony, while men tend to find marriage a most threatening idea. Of course, not in all cases is the threat perception justified — it depends on the man, and the woman.
Nevertheless, every man who has ever married would remember waking up with a sinking feeling the morning after the evening he had proposed (or was manipulated into proposing) matrimony to his girl and she said yes. It feels like your heart went under water for a few, lengthy seconds. You come back up into the cold air of reality coughing and spluttering, and feeling less dead than before.
Last week at a party, when the discussion turned to how so many of our friends were ‘already divorced,’ I remarked casually that we should carry our marriages ‘lightly’. Later, on the drive back home, my wife asked me if I felt burdened by our marriage.
That being a potential landmine question, I answered carefully.
“Marriages, like all institutions, are heavy,” I said. “A marriage is like Iridium. Very heavy.”
“You are wrong,” she said. “It is not marriage that’s weighing you down.”
“Then what is?”
“The idea of masculinity.”
I said I didn’t think my masculinity or whatever had anything to do with it. But she went on to explain her hypothesis.According to her, the real burden weighing me (and all my male friends, in case you are reading this) down are the stereotypes of masculinity. Stereotypes that I have internalised, feel compelled to live up to, and feel inadequate if I can’t.
I asked her what stereotypes she was referring to. “You’ll find every one of them in a magazine like GQ,” she said.
“But I am not a regular reader of GQ.” It didn’t matter, she said. Men sort of absorb these values by atmospheric osmosis. And they absorb it from the men they admire, or are taught to admire.
And what are these stereotypes? She rattled them off. The first cliché of masculinity, of course, being that marriage itself is uncool, and reflective of low GQ — unless you are married to a supermodel who is rich, has the brains of a Nobel laureate, and the wisdom to acknowledge, with sufficient subtlety, your right to do whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, with whomever you want.
But in case you are unfortunate enough to be married to a woman who doesn’t fulfil the above criteria, then god forbid that you should enjoy her company, and under no circumstances are you allowed to prefer her company to that of male friends, for that is as uncool as it gets in the macho stakes. From the marital perspective, there is just one saving grace about the GQ man: fatherhood is cool.
Apart from that, the fabled freedom of unfettered manhood that men dream about is basically the freedom to chase women, booze, cars, gadgets, sports channels, and whatever else they want to without the sobering effects of a wife or marriage — the role of a wife or marriage being, essentially, the sobering role.
This is the GQ burden of masculinity that every man carries into his marriage, and so long as his ego is constructed around it, he believes that it is his marriage that is weighing him down, summed up my wife.
I’ve been mulling over her theory, and I haven’t decided yet if she is right, but I don’t think I’ll admit it to her even if she is.

When it comes to vacations, the departure is the destination

In Lifestyle, Relationships, Uncategorized, Wife on March 30, 2012 at 10:16 am

G Sampath | Saturday, September 17, 2011

First published in DNA
Every time I am on holiday, I am faced with a dilemma: should I spend my time reading, or ‘exploring’ the place I happen to be visiting? This question becomes more complicated if I’m travelling with someone inherently restless, someone who finds it hard work to remain immobile in one place with a book. Someone like my wife.
And it becomes even more complicated if you’ve spent good money to travel to the holiday destination. “How do you get ‘paisa vasool’ on the travel expenses if all you want to do is sit in a room and read a book?” is a question I’m faced with time and again.
My own counter to this is: “What’s the point of being on holiday if I can’t read the books that I don’t get the time to read when I am not on holiday?” Or, what is the point of a holiday if it has to be spent in activities that stress you out — such as stepping out of the hotel, or shopping, or being in a vertical position? Pushed to a corner, I play my trump card: “What’s the point of being on holiday if I can’t do whatever I want?”
To which, my wife’s response is: “Why travel thousands of kilometres, to a place full of natural beauty, only to shut yourself up in a room with a book?” Yes, I say, we could have stayed at home for the duration of the holiday. Apparently, there is even a term for it: ‘staycation’.
Indeed, a ‘staycation’ has many advantages over a conventional vacation. Its chief merit is that it’s the cheapest vacation anyone can have: no expenditure on plane or train tickets, no getting ripped off by taxi drivers, food is home-cooked, and accommodation is ‘free’. You also save yourself from the economic obligation to ‘go out and explore’ the place you’re holidaying in, since you’ve spent nothing to arrive at your holiday destination.
So I try to convince my wife that the ultimate holiday destination is home — which, I am told, is also the profound truth discovered by Santiago, the hero of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. But while Santiago realises it only after many years of travelling, I was born with that insight.
But alas, my insight, like that of other thinkers who are ahead of their times, is wasted on minds whose conception of ‘travel’ involves boring tasks like packing suitcases, waiting in queue to be publicly groped (not that private groping would be an improvement), and taking pictures of oneself in different surroundings. Not to forget shopping, for things that are ‘local’. If I happen to be in Mexico, I cannot not buy some native Indian artefacts — even if all of them come with a label that says ‘Made in China’, which is where all ‘indigenous’ crafts are manufactured these days.
But despite these irrefutable arguments about the existential futility of being a tourist, we never take a ‘staycation’. My wife, as usual, comes up with a Brahmastra that burns my objections to cinders — the need to get away. There is no getting away from the need to get away.
Daily life in a city is so stressful that it wears us down, psychologically as much as physically. And travelling on holiday is nothing but an escape — not an escape to, as much as an escape from. What is important is not the destination, not even the journey, but the departure. Go elsewhere, anywhere, as long as it is not within walking distance from this wonderful but terrible city where we live and work and commute and buy groceries.
I suspect this is the reason why most otherwise sensible people who have no interest in travelling become tourists. I am not talking here of people who travel because they love travelling — a lot of people think they love travelling but they don’t. They just want to ‘have travelled’. Or get away. They are the ones targeted, and rightly so, by the tourism industry, whose ‘packages’ convert entire nations and cities and landscapes into conveniently consumable morsels known as ‘destinations’.
So, confronted with this indisputable need to ‘get away’, I give in. We pack our suitcases and get out of Mumbai. But after checking into the hotel, when faced with the prospect of having to trudge out to some lake/monastery/market/garden/cave, I prefer to escape into my own private holiday destination: an 800-page novel by an author I love.

No country for sick men

In Health & Medicine, Lifestyle, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 9:53 am

G Sampath | Saturday, August 6, 2011

First published in DNA 

Whenever I fall ill, I first visit a gynaecologist. Although I don’t possess the body parts that might make her professionally appropriate for me, in this vast city of 20 million, she is the only qualified allopathic doctor that I can trust.
Not that all other doctors in the city are untrustworthy — but this doctor, my wife’s gynaecologist, is the only one who doesn’t make me feel like a wallet with a body attached.
Why has it become so difficult to find a doctor one can trust? Earlier, when I was growing up, my parents’ anxiety would be about finding a ‘good doctor’, someone competent. But today there are enough doctors who are as competent as the best in the world. But sadly, they don’t see a patient walk in — they only see a revenue source.
I haven’t conducted a poll. I speak from anecdotal evidence and recurrent personal experience when I say that, today, putting profit over patient has irrevocably corroded the bond of trust that ought to be the basis of every patient-doctor interaction.
Some years ago, a reputed urologist made me go through a surgery that later turned out to be unnecessary. Actually, he was the third ‘specialist’ I had consulted after the first two, who I suspected of being infected by the profit bug, couldn’t come up with an effective treatment even after making me take innumerable tests involving every possible bodily fluid save my tears.
Thanks to this needless surgery, I suffered twice over — the severe post-operative physical pain it caused me, and the mental, emotional and financial pain I went through because the reputed health insurance company refused to reimburse the costs, stating that the surgery was unnecessary, which it was. But is it the patient (or patient alone) who should be victimised for going through an unnecessary surgery? After all, which patient would want to be operated upon just for the pleasure — or pain — of it? (I admit I have masochistic tendencies, but I’m sure they are not medical in nature.)
Instances like these have convinced me that public health cannot be at the mercy of private profit. This urologist was obviously getting compensated on the basis of the number of surgeries and tests that he generates for his hospital. And same is the case with thousands of doctors, private clinics and hospitals. Similarly, the very revenue model of health insurance companies is based on how many claims they can reject, and get away with. The guiding principle of our healthcare system is simple: the patient’s pocket is more important than the patient.
In this scenario, the human element — the suffering patient — takes a backseat, as doctors and hospitals hurry past him to reach their revenue targets.
And I am talking here only of healthcare accessible (sort of) to the middle class — the private clinics and hospitals. What about medical care for the poor? To call it pathetic would be an understatement. But that’s 
another story.
So, the only people who can afford proper medical care in this country are the wealthy — who can shell out enough to take a second or fourth opinion on a single ailment, and do the barrage of tests (both needed and not needed) without feeling the pinch financially.
Strangely enough, while our government spending on health, as a percentage of GDP, is one of the lowest in the world (it is not even 1%, in case you were wondering), our spending on internal security and the so-called war on terror is ballooning up.
Sure, it is all very well to splurge on drones and bombers, but what about security from disease? What about the terror of being unable to afford treatment for an illness? Lot more Indians fall prey to terrorist attacks from a virus or bacteria than to terrorist bombings. But neither the government nor the media respond to those deaths with the same degree of seriousness.
Everyone knows that the bulk of healthcare spending in India happens in the private sector. And I’ve pondered over what it says about our society. I think this is what it says: only those Indians who can afford to pay deserve to live; if you are too poor to pay for treatment, go and die somewhere. It’s hard to accept that this is the kind of ‘superpower India’ our freedom fighters fought for.