jump to navigation

About a boy June 21, 2015

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

A while ago, a friend in response to a video I sent of my son Samar asked me to describe what it felt to be a parent. I wasn’t sure if that was a serious request. I did sit down to write then and there but never quite went through with it. Recently though I thought might as well, even if merely as a record of my thoughts that have come and gone many a times over the past year and half.

fathers day

Well, Samar is special. That is an understatement, I know.

I don’t think about this everyday but I do quite often. Firstly, there are a few mundane things that actually describe a reality that is very profound about being a parent. There is no other thing, person or entity that has occupied my mind so consistently for so long. I have slept under the same roof as he, every single day of his life so far but one. I have seen him, held him and played with him and let him play with me on each of those days. He has gotten on my nerve on almost every single one of those days. I may not think about him every waking moment but at any given time he is either with me or he is someplace with someone that I know and trust. (All of this is mostly true for my wife as well except for the occasional overnight shift.) Sure, many of these things will slowly change or cease to be technically true, but even so, it is amazing to me that these could be true for any extended length of time.

When we are with him, we observe him, we keep track of what he is doing, what he used to do, what new thing he has learnt. When he cries we attend, every single time. No exceptions. We attend to him until he is not crying any longer, even if sometimes that involves just pretending to ignore him, but never actually ignore him. Crying is mostly how he communicates and we cannot afford to miss it!

We have seen him grow each day, grow from the totally helpless person to a somewhat helpless person. Even an occasionally helpful person when he takes the spoons out of the dishwasher (even when it is being loaded!). We have seen possibilities and capabilities emerge with time out of no effort from us except for having keep him healthy and alive. Yes, when you see someone grow each day you miss certain things, a wonder in itself. Looking at his photos over time we do see several discrete changes in how he looked but we don’t remember noticing it then, only in retrospect. And everyday we have spent our time and energies thinking about his current and near future well-being. Every single day we have loosely kept track of what and when he ate, how much and when he slept and woke up, how often and when he pooped and peed, and just what else notable he did when he wasn’t sleeping, eating or pooping. So much that his life and these stories of him are a part of us.

I remember reading about that ‘parental bond’ a few weeks before Samar came along. Merely valuing something is not the same bonding with it. I read about how one could go from not knowing a stranger to even be ready to “throw ourselves under the bus” for that ‘stranger’. The bond apparently often starts to begin a few days after the birth for fathers, earlier for mothers. I remember that for me the first couple weeks were more about responsibility and learning to do things (efficiently) that just needed to be done. It was much easier to bond when they start smiling, until then it is the one-way street of wonder and puzzlement about what just happened to you!

Being a father also means that I just understand and viscerally appreciate a lot of things better, some because I am living those moments and others because of the shared context of being a father.

I understand better where the expression “his/her baby” comes from in reference to someone’s piece of work. I hesitantly understand better why parents can be controlling and curious about their kids – they basically cannot help it; it is a habit that refuses to go away. Obviously, I understand my parents better. I imagine what my years as a toddler must have been. I can imagine the pain they must have gone through, their sacrifices to raise me even better. Those can’t be paid back, only paid forward as parents ourselves. I am more forgiving of people who advance having kids a few years so that their aging parents can enjoy being grandparents. It is good for the kids and even more so for the grandparents. I understand better if some people feel that in the end their children will be their greatest personal accomplishment/contribution to the world. Given how much thought and energy goes into raising them, it is not unreasonable to think/hope so. They take years from your life but add a few decades to your life’s reach on this planet.

On the darker side, I understand better if people might literally beg/borrow/steal to feed their child; a child going hungry is unbearable. I always give something to a homeless person with a child without pausing to think whether I am being taken for a ride. I think children dying (which is by definition not knowing what is happening to them) is unacceptable. Finally and I say this with much trepidation and awareness that I might be entirely wrong about this: I understand only marginally slightly better the loss of a child. Indeed, the law of nature should be for the child to lose a parent (at an advanced age), never ever the other way around. It is scary to think that the pain of the loss of a child is worse the later in life it happens.

Of course, we haven’t even spoken about his side of things. We also love them because they love us. It is clear that my wife and I are the special constants in his life (even though technically he may have (or may not; I have not clocked!) have spent more time with his grandparents). At the same time it is ironic that if I were to die today, he would go through his life not remembering a thing about being with me. He may know a lot about me through what he hears and reads and the photos and the videos but surely that is not the same thing. In that weird kind of way, I am one of the two most important persons in his life. Besides, it is also a legally incontrovertible fact that we are his biological parents. Just knowing and acknowledging these to yourself appears to reinforces that bond somehow.

I am not sure how much we love our kids because they look like us or because they share our genes. I think we love them because we have thought about them, watched them, been with them day in and day out and taken care of them at their most vulnerable moments, which for the first years is every moment of theirs. We love them because they literally embody own thoughts and energies. Perhaps, as evolutionary instincts go, we love them because we love ourselves.

Finally, here is something that to me today captures very well why, to me, having a child is unlike anything any other relationship in its own way. A young man on the street doesn’t remind me of my brother or a friend. Running into a rather older lady doesn’t really remind me of grandma either. An aging couple on the subway do not remind me of my parents. Surely, passing by a beautiful young lady doesn’t remind me of my wife (this might be a relief or of concern to her). But any toddler anywhere, of any race, color, creed or gender, reminds me of Samar. Anyone younger than Samar reminds me of what he was at that age. I imagine this will happen for the rest of my life.

Happy Father’s Day !


Did that offend you? January 5, 2015

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

If I say something that you disagree with, did that offend?

What if I did not say it to you but to someone else, did that offend you?

What if I did not say it but only thought it, did that offend too?

What if I thought it but only in my dream, surely that did not offend?

What if I thought it in my dream and then I recount it to you but then disown my dream, who has offended you?

What if you overhear me say something to X, really, did that offend too?

What if X is not offended, is that doubly offensive?

What if I’m offended that you are offended, is that retributive offense?

And if I’m NOT offended that you are offended, is that crossing the line now?

I think when instead of standing up for your beliefs, you go out of the way to not offend others’ beliefs, you implicitly give them permission to go out of the way to take offence at the frivolous. Its like telling them: “since I tried hard not to offend you, everyone else should do and if they do not, you have the right to take offence”.

Narendra Modi May 16, 2014

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
add a comment

Carl Sagan said this about science. Just for today, I will abuse this quote.

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.
 But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

Lessons from 1977-79 for Modi and 2014 April 20, 2014

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
add a comment

Once in a while it helps to step back from the heat of the 2014 election reporting and take the road less travelled. I have been watching the Pradhanmantri series for past few weeks. The series takes us back into post independence history through the eyes of the seat of the Indian government in Delhi. It is highly recommended viewing for Indian politics history buffs; the only wrinkle for some would be that the entire series is in Hindi. I, though, very much enjoyed this aspect as well since I otherwise rarely watch TV or keep up with Hindi movies.

While most of the episodes I watched so far have been interesting, one of them particularly stood out. This dealt with the period starting with the withdrawal of the emergency in 1977 until the return of Indira Gandhi (IG) 3 years later. By the time I got through to the end of this episode I could not but think of the many lessons for Indian politics today and the skeleton for this post was ready.


1. Do not write off the Congress

Even if they get fewer than 100 seats, which itself is probably a lower end of the estimate, they will still be getting over 25% of the votes. It is true that the Congress’ star is not looking too bright today. But recall that while the stock market is on a bull run, it feels like the market may never fall and vice versa. A handful of poor decisions by a new non-Congress government will naturally make Congress look like a strong contender.

I recently read this about political victories – seldom are they permanent and when victories come in the Indian context, they are fragile. If NDA wins, that will again be true. It is telling that in an atmosphere of such anti-incumbency, the most optimistic estimates for NDA give them barely a 35% votes and 50% of the seats, with the average poll giving them 235 seats. Obviously this seemingly incomplete victories is about the nature of Indian politics rather than about the relative strengths of NDA or UPA.

2. Public opinion can change really fast.

Indira Gandhi was ousted in the middle of 1977. It was not just the loss of the Congress but Indira Gandhi herself lost her seat, which is a bigger upset than Rahul Gandhi losing today. She was considered down and out, even within her own party. There must have been such anger against her to have been comprehensively defeated. Soon though her popularity was showing signs of revival. She split the party and went on to win the Karnataka and AP elections barely months later in Feb 1978. This result is not widely known relative to her eventual victory in 1980.

In the same vein, the new government cannot take its mandate for granted. IG faced a united opposition in 1977, even more than what Modi faces in 2014. The Janata Party was voted to power with nearly 300 seats. Yet they found themselves increasingly unpopular within a year of assuming leadership and within 3 years, unpopular enough to be voted out. Modi, if indeed he comes to power, will find an increasingly impatient public, a belligerent media and hostile civil society. And just like the BJP took years to get over the 2004 defeat, the Congress and the so-called ‘secular’ parties will also be in denial and in no mood to move on. One can expect the opposition to be obstructionist and baying for Modi’s blood.

It is said that if Kerry could not defeat Bush in 2004, democrats should feel really sorry for themselves. Likewise, with the BJP in 2014. If Modi comes in, he will have done so against all odds, but with lots of help from a non-performing incumbent government. Moreover, he will have done so by winning over a large number of voters who are outside the party’s core base. These swing voters are the skeptics, particularly susceptible to great expectations that are often followed by cynicism and disillusionment.

3. Do not get vindictive against political opponents.

And certainly not against the Gandhis. It amazes me that as someone who imposed the emergency and ran the country like a fiefdom with her son as an extraconstitutional authority was voted back to power within a couple of years. It is fair to say that the vindictive attacks on IG by the Janata Party Government did more for her return than any other single factor. If Modi is seen as going after the Gandhis vindictively, he will lose any hard earned political capital. Trials against IG became spectacles and while they probably made for great headlines and much drama, they did no good in terms of meeting the needs of the population at large. Obviously this does not mean that scams of the past 10 years should not investigated, but Modi should learn the lessons from 1977-79 about how it should not be done. He has said at least as much in a recent interview. With a generally forgiving electorate and a short public memory, don’t waste time going after people right off the bat.

4. Third Front led government will not work.

The intrigue and infighting within the Janata party period of 1977-79 is worth reading about.

If the NDA cannot make it, I would actually prefer a UPA-III to a third front government. Every non-Congress, non-BJP government has essentially consisted of a similar set of parties/people/lineage – the Lohiates, the various caste-based regional parties and the Left. We have had 6 such governments that between them lasted barely 6 years. In spite of such repeated failures, the same people have the gall to suggest that they will form a government all over agin.

A third front will always have more than one PM aspirant. If the third front came in, it is said that the constituent with the most seats will have the PM. Well, sounds good in theory but in practice, unless that party has an order of magnitude more seats, the setup will remain unstable. This is similar to how it used to be believed that the strongest military power in 19th century Europe had to be stronger than the next two combined; if it weren’t so, the strongest would always be susceptible to an alliance between the next two. Now, India has no political space for yet another national party that has the potential to win over 150 seats. And what Charan Singh did to Morarji Desai, Chandra Shekar did to VP Singh and Mulayam Singh will do to Mamata Banerjee. And what the Congress did to Charan Singh, it did to Chandra Shekar, Gowda, Gujral and it will do to whoever comes in.

5. Sanjay Gandhi

That man could do no right.

A part of the article assumes Modi led BJP will come to power, which of course, is a lesson from 2004 for me (that I am refusing to learn.)


Rememberance of (Indian Elections) past March 29, 2014

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

Think back to what might be your favorite recurring event, if there is such a thing at all. A birthday/anniversary perhaps but these are rather personal and observed in limited circles. For many it might be a sporting event. In my case, the day of results of the Indian general elections would be right at the top. It would be odd to say that I look forward to this day so much that I wish it came more often, so I will not say that!

As the elections approach, I thought I would go back to recall what, if anything at all, I remember about past Indian elections and rise and fall of governments. I somehow hope to see more of these retrospectives, and certainly so from those who have seen more elections than I have. It is hard not to color this with benefit of hindsight since I am having to remember what I knew then; never quite perfect but lets do this anyway.

My earliest memory of Indian elections goes back to October 1990, as a 9 year old. We did not quite have an election that year but the government changed and there was uncertainty about who was going to be Prime minister. Our school reopening dates after the October break kept getting put off due to the political uncertainty, although I was not sure then (or now for that matter) as to why that had to be the case. Chandra Shekar eventually became the PM but I do not remember knowing anything about him. My political awareness around the time was limited to knowing the Gandhi family tree somewhat, the symbol of Janata Dal (‘wheel’) drawn all over our town, hearing about Bofors guns (probably not knowing about the scam itself), hearing the phrase “Ram Janma Bhoomi Babri Masjid” but no details about it. I only knew of 2 parties – Congress and Janata Dal, never heard of the BJP. Also remember a cousin using V. P. Singh as an example of how all ‘Singhs’ are not sikhs; no recollection of the context around that discussion. That was then. I recently read a lot about that time in Indian history from Kuldip Nayar’s autobiography.

My next memory relates to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Remember being woken up to be told about this and tuning into the radio to hear the details. The local newspaper (Kannada paper Udayavani for those who know) said “Rajiv Gandhi Bheekara Hatye” ( which I am guessing translates to “Rajiv Gandhi brutal assassination”). I remember hearing the phrase ‘sympathy vote’ from my mother, but never really grasped the results of the elections, or the rise of the BJP. This was also around the time our family moved to Assam. I remember being asked by my Assamese classmates if I came from the same state as the Prime Minister since we shared the same last name “Rao”. Yes, just like rest of India sees that part of the country as “North-east”, my classmates also saw me as a South Indian/Madrasi.

1996 onwards memories are fresh, with some blips of course. I actually remember tracking election results and the debates live on TV, much like debates today. On Doordarshan it was Nalini Singh and Swaminathan Aiyar as hosts if I remember correctly. It was the first time I heard the phrase “communal party”, but cheering for Vajpayee nonetheless. Someone on TV even mentioned that Congress and BJP should form a national coalition. We had a residential summer camp at school from May 15-31st. On the way to the camp on the May 15th, 1996, at the Udupi bus station there were stacks of newspapers with Gowda’s photo on the front and one of the teachers suggesting that Gowda is almost certainly the next PM. When I went to the camp, it was PVN as PM. At the camp it was ABV as PM. When the camp was over it was Gowda – truly the India of the 90s. When I got back from the camp, I remember hearing about that magnificent ABV speech during the confidence vote at the end of his 13 day government. But those weren’t the days of youtube and it was not until over 15 years later that I ended up watching the speech (in parts) over a decade later.

Ah, here is some trivia, a really random memory from that time which I wonder how many would remember. Sushma Swaraj in her 13 days as I&B minister banned an ad with Mahima Chaudury for Videocon Bazooka TV; the TV woofer was supposedly so powerful that it displaced enough air that Mahima Chaudury ended up making an impression of Marlyn Monroe’s billowing skirt. That again was India in the 90s. (Actually I wonder what keeps Doordarshan from putting up its entire archive of literally everything online.) With the benefit of hindsight, I am guessing more Indians would have preferred had PVN come back to power rather than the 3rd front.

Ok, we move on to another memory from 1997. When the Gowda government no-confidence vote was in progress, I remember Jaswant Singh mention the phrase ‘bolt from the blue’, the first time I heard that idiom. But this was 17 years ago and sometimes one wonders if these are imagined memories. So imagine my excitement when a few minutes of searching online revealed the transcript here ; he mentioned that phrase 4 times! TV news in the post Gowda, pre-Gujral days consisted of headlines about who met who – “Harkishan Singh Surjeet met Mulayam”, “Chandrababu Naidu met Laloo”, “Moopanar met A. B. Bardhan” – to agree on the least threatening Prime Minister candidate from among the leaders of the ‘United’ Front. Yes, those dark years of the 90s.

When Gujral had to go, I remember that the BJP were the favorites to come back in some capacity given the 2 years of instability of 3rd front governments and the weakness of the Congress. Deve Gowda made a statement that if the ‘communal forces’ came to power, he would quit politics (pity that in the pre-web days it is hard to find links to such gems). BJP did come back but barely made it to 13 months thanks to JJ. Astonishing that for the second time in 2 years, Tamil Nadu politics had brought down central governments and it seemed fair to remark that if the route to Delhi goes through Lucknow, the route out of the Delhi should end up in Madras.

In 1999, it was clear ABV would return especially since the NDA was going in as pre-poll alliance. Kargil had just happened and there was a sense that he had been cheated/wronged, first by JJ and then by Pakistan. Somehow I have no memories of that election other than reading all polls where ABV was the most favored PM with Sonia Gandhi far behind. I was moving between cities and had just started college.

In 2004 again, the return of the NDA was a foregone conclusion, both sentiment wise and opinion polls, both feeding into each other. I was a research assistant at IISc Bangalore, where for some reason I often worked through nights and slept through the days. I remember getting home around 10 am next morning and being stunned as I walked by the TV playing the NDTV election results program. It was all but certain that there had been a massive upset. There are theories about what happened – primary among them being the violence in Gujarat. It could well be and well deserved too.

2009 was probably the least interesting election in my memory at least. The opposition was uninspiring and rudderless, the issues – national security and black money – apparently hardly moved the electorate. I was in fact pleasantly surprised when the Congress got 206 on its own. The arrogant left was decimated and it seemed like that the Congress would now have some elbow room to take bold decisions and continue growth-oriented economic reforms. Although never a fan of the dynasty or the modus operandi of Sonia/MMS combination, I did cheer the outcome on pragmatic grounds.

That brings us to 2014, an election so different, that it deserves a post or few of its own.

Hero worship January 19, 2014

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
add a comment

It was something I was absolutely sure I had not done in a long time. In at least 11 years. Probably as far back as 14 years when I last left school.

The fountain pen.

HP saw a Hero pen online and asked me I fancied one.

My face must have lit up as I said “Yes”.

What color ink?

When I said “Black”, I probably had just tossed a coin. I could care less about the color.

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 12.38.36 AM

Why would one say no to a fountain pain? Perhaps if one did not need one, which of course was the case here. But then how often do we buy things, sign up for memberships and subscriptions, pay more for features in gadgets that at the moment seemed essential but later seem like poor decisions. So it was with me in this case. At $15 – the pen and the ink – it was too inexpensive to be even called an indulgence.

There are our childhood developmental milestones – when one starts to smile, sit up, crawl and walk among several others. These are milestones we are ourselves oblivious of but that adults around us care about and keep track of. And then there are markers of progress that one keeps track of oneself. At some point I got old enough to take coffee/tea rather than a Complan or a Bournvita. At another point I was old enough to wear a watch. And yes, at some point I was old enough to graduate from using a pencil to a pen. That is, at least at home; it was a few more years before I was old enough to use one at school. Of course, these non-biological milestones are arbitrary – some are not even considered milestones in some households and the age you reach these depends on many factors, one of them being the presence of the older sibling.

Using a fountain pen was one of those milestones – you just had to be old enough to be able to do one.

All pens were not made equal. There was the ball pen, less fancy but more convenient and worked the same way for everyone. To my recollection, most ball pens were created equal in their user experience. Fountain pens were a different breed – they had to be held in certain position and each one wrote differently based on how and how long they had been used. The ink had to be filled from a bottle (often with a syringe (!)), these pens wrote better the more they were used until a point came where their nibs became too smooth and blunt resulting in a thick script which I am sure maps to some fancy font today. I remember that at school we were encouraged to use fountain pens because they helped discipline the practice of writing cursive and generally write legibly.

Now, even among the fountain pens there was a caste system – there were the ink pens with fat and short nibs and then the far more elite Hero pens with the thinner, longer nibs and the tip of the nib being visible. Some of them had a hood marked on the pen – for a while it was understood among friends that the hood was indicative of the authenticity of the Hero brand. I guess I have been so brainwashed that to this day I think the Hero pens look and feel way cooler than the regular fountain pens. 🙂 I spent 2 years in Assam in the 90s where these pens were called “Chinese pens”, rightly so since many of those had chinese script rather than the instantly recognizable “H E R O” on the bottom of the top. (“Niagara Solid” comes close)

So, yes, the Hero pen and ink arrived in the mail. Its amazing how they look, feel and work just like they did 25 years ago.

For the next few minutes, those moments I had long forgotten came back to me. The act of filling ink, spilling it, smell of it. In fact, I had forgotten that one does not need a syringe to fill ink in these Hero pens. I was soon on auto-pilot, the entire elaborate rigmarole came to mind – as I went back and forth a few times between dipping the pen in the bottle and twisting the transparent tube to let the ink flow down. When the pen would not work the first time, you shake it, let some ink spill, dip the nib in the spilt ink and get going again (Do not cry over spilt ink, just write through it). Oh, if you write on the wrong paper, it might blot too. It was like riding a bicycle after years, it just comes to you if you have done it before! I was that 11 year old again.

The pen itself wrote beautifully. Or wait, it is actually something about the pen that makes it hard to get away with scribbling sloppily. By forcing you to hold it in a particular position, it has already captured much of your attention and made the process of writing a conscious deliberate activity, almost an end in itself. It is like when you suit and boot up and generally dress to impress, everything looks up, at least for a while. The fountain pen, it may not make your writing better although it could fool you into thinking that it does.

Even today fountain pens are not in the league of floppy disks, VCRs and tape-recorders which have essentially been replaced by newer technologies. We have not given up on writing, but do less and less of it. I once wrote about how we spent much of our life writing and then transitioned to typing – at work, online and email – and along the way somewhere many in our generation got to a point where we had typed more stuff than written. Preteenagers of today have probably always been in that state.

That said, even when do write, fountain pen is not the instrument of choice. It now seldom makes for more than an exotic gift or the start of a nostalgia trip like the one you just took.

Of hyphenated last names December 26, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

We were filling in our son’s birth certificate form a few weeks ago. Having filled all but his last name, I asked HP. “Rao Sarathy” or “Rao-Sarathy” ? “Lets do it with the hyphen.”, she said. And so this boy now has a hyphenated last name.

The part of naming, which can often be contentious among couples, is to agree on what will be passed on to the child. That was something we had no disagreements on: his name will have both our last names. It just wasn’t obvious in what form it would go in. And there were several options – split between middle and last name, hyphenated last name, 2 words in the last name or something else. Neither of us had strong preferences either way and so, even while we oft and on wondered what it should be, it never quite got decided. Eventually the decision to go with the hyphenated last name was done without as much as batting an eyelid!

Hyphenated last names are not common, maybe unheard of, where I come from. I probably encountered one only when I came to America. I know of no others in our close circle of friends here either. So it was not surprising when some friends who asked if the hyphen is indeed a part of the name.

I then found this article about hyphenated last names. It speaks of the motivations behind them – a sense of equality in terms of having both the parents represented, which is frankly what motivated us. We are not big on symbolisms with few exceptions (which is probably how most most people think of themselves 🙂 ). The article speaks of how even as a marker of equality, this is a ‘one-generation solution’, a solution that scales poorly. What will the future generations do? Simply pile on names?

As we had agreed, HP retained her name after marriage as a matter of principle. The common option in such cases is for the children to simply take on the father’s last name. When it is not a paternalistic ritual, the act of taking on the father’s name is mostly about convenience. If not, I imagine that the same motivations that cause women to retain their names would lead them to pass on their names to their children. And passing on the names would mean one of the few options I mentioned above, including the hyphenated last name.

To us, the quandary that a hyphenated last name presented to future generations, while valid, was not deterrent enough. What they do with their kids’ names will be one of the million choices that they will have to make anyway and I do not intend to prime them one way or the other. It is unlikely that they will, for reasons of complexity, resent having both their parents’ names as part of their name. It then boils down to what might annoy them more – not having one of their parents’ names as part of their names OR having a composite last name that they cannot realistically pass on. Like many decisions that we simply have to take for them, we did.

That, of course, means there shall now be 3 last names in the family. I know there is a symbolism associated with the entire family having one last name. A reasonable way within our framework to accomplish that would have been for both of us to change our last names and also pass them on. Although I know a couple that went down that road, I am not sure we cherish that notion (one family, one last name) enough to make it worth the trouble.

What we now have is the possibility that our son might share his last name only with his potential future sibling. Not too bad for sibling revelry! (read: making virtue out of necessity)

Reference: A whole another post on the second choice for the first name.

Why we cannot afford UPA-3 December 26, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
add a comment

The Congress got a rude surprise earlier this month with the rout in the Assembly elections. While the rout itself was in some sense expected, the extent of defeat probably wasn’t. One of the consequences of this appears to be an expectation that this is a shape of things to come for 2014.

Perhaps as part of the effort to stem the bleeding, shore up some support, fundraising wise and otherwise, Rahul Gandhi talking to the FICCI tried to make all the right noises on growth and corruption. Or at least, he tried not to strike the same tone that he did earlier this year talking to CII. So is this the new Congress under a new leader who comes with a new language and a realization that growth and fiscal prudence matter? Is there a panic in the Congress that their rights-based populist vision might not carry the day for them? All of these are questions that are better left to those who follow the party and have inside sources. I can leave you with a question here though: Would you judge someone by what they say they will do or based on what you have seen them do so far?

Let me instead concentrate on how the man on the street might want to reason about 2014.

So, hey common man:

Chances are that for any number of reasons you will vote the Congress back to power. It is unlikely to happen in the manner that it happened in 2009 with Congress getting over 200 seats. But a repeat of 2004 cannot be ruled out, where non-Congress, non-BJP parties get enough seats to prop the Congress back to power. A repeat of the dark days of 1996 is also possible. What does UPA-3 bode for India?

Is there a reason to believe that UPA-3 would be worse than UPA-2. Yes, there is. One simple reason, a reason that is embarrassingly simple to state.

Renewed political capital.

Just like companies raise financial capital in the public markets, political parties and politicians raise (or fail to raise) their political capital in the elections. Each election defeat is a vote of no-confidence. If the defeat involves the incumbent government – as in Delhi and Rajastan recently – the message is – “You have not done a good enough job and you deserve to go”. If the defeat is of the challenger – as in MP and Chattisgarh – the message is – “We are generally happy; we could be happier but its not you who will take us where we want to.”

Likewise, each election victory is a endorsement of all the good and more importantly, a forgiving and forgetting of all the bad. And that is where if UPA-3 comes in, the message is – “Yes, you may have caused a lot of damage, but you know what, never mind. No big deal. No scam matters, nor does the wrecking of the economy. And, guess what, weakening and destruction of institutions, that is ok too. All forgiven, all forgotten, for all time to come.”

The signal it sends will not merely be implicit and in the abstract; it will be concrete and the effects will be on the ground. There will be no investigation of any scam of the past 10 years, there will only be more scams. In 2016 when the opposition asks about Coalgate, they will be reminded that they lost the elections and that they are poor losers and that the charges are politically motivated. Bush was emboldened when re-elected in 2004, although he arguably took decisions on Iraq (‘the surge’) that eventually changed things for the better. Obama, having re-elected in 2012, decided not to negotiate on healthcare reform since he claimed that the issue had been settled with his re-election. Fair enough, but scary when one thinks what UPA-3 will do once re-elected.

Not punishing poorly performing government emboldens politicians and subsequently things only get worse. It is extremely unlikely that a poorly performing government barely manages to return to power having won narrowly and then course corrects. A victory is seen as an endorsement, a ‘lets have more of it’ vote and more of it is what you get. India has already lost several years and in a rush to paint doomsday scenarios awaiting us with the advent of Modi on the national stage, nobody is talking about what it means to have the current crowd back in power. I know I am not saying anything terribly profound, merely pointing something that is seldom talked about.

The basis of appeal here is not personal, it is not based on conspiracy theories about the Gandhis or the predominantly left-liberal media or Mr. Modi’s rhetoric. It is not even necessary to entertain any of that to arrive at this conclusion – we cannot afford 5 more years.

What did you (almost) name your baby? December 1, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

As we neared the baby’s arrival date, we were often asked if we had thought of names. This can be a tricky question and people employ various strategies – evasive and otherwise – in handling this question. Sometimes the name is a well-guarded secret and is revealed only when the baby is here, leaving no room for comments. At other times there is less of a symbolism attached to the secrecy and names are discussed within a close group of friends/family. We generally went with the latter option. That said, even when we did not discuss names, we mentioned that the name shall not start with an ‘A’. I would love to find data on this but it seemed like there was a strong preference in the recent years for Indian babies with names starting with an ‘A’. I am told that this is done by parents to give their children that slight bit of advantage when list of names are made. (In India, names are sorted by the first names). Hoping to buck what we considered a trend, we steered clear of ‘A’ names.

We had a running list that was typically 2-3 names long and over several months some names dropped out and newer names crawled in until the list whittled down to one name 2 weeks before the boy arrived. What went in and out of that list? That is the kind of information one does not typically see out there – really why bother documenting it. I though have this general curiosity about the name that narrowly lost out to the eventual one. It is an odd question (or at least I find it odd) to ask most people, except someone you know really well. So that you don’t have to ask me that odd question, here is the approximate progress of that running list.


Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 8.30.39 PM


Of course, we are talking about first names here. The last name is another story altogether, for a future post.

To write and not to wrong November 29, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
add a comment

What does it take to write?

Kurt Vonnegut (of all) apparently said – “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” He wrote anyway.

I, however, am a lesser being. What does it take me to get down to writing?

I need the write/right environment, the ambience, the quality, the setting, the context and – what is the word I am looking for – the buzz. In case all of that was not conveying enough, I can even think of a word in a language I am even less comfortable with – a Hindi word – the right ‘Mahaul’. An elaboration follows.

Yellowish light. Incandescent is probably best, even if that yellow is not green enough. Not in the wavelength sense, but environmentalist sustainability sense. However, having researched this topic in the aisles at the University library local Home Depot, I think soft white is best.

The music needs to be right. That would mean instrumental because words can be very distracting. I might want to look up who wrote the lyrics. Have I heard this song before? Probably, but it was a different person singing because the voice isn’t as familiar as the words are. So I have to google it. Soft instrumental sure, but preferably no trumpet notes. Some violin and/or cello is ideal because there is a delicious melancholy to it and most of my writing is sad (I will let the pun be). I say violin or cello because I cannot often/ever tell between them. That apart, guitar and piano are always great. Among Indian classical, it will be Sitar, Sarod and (Mohan) Veena. What strings all of these instruments together? Yes, strings indeed. Or “string operations” if you will.

The time has to be right too – I must start writing preferably at the hour or half past the hour. Often the quarter hour too, but its tempting that if the time were 3:37 I would rather put it off till 4 pm than 3:45 pm. 3:45 is a nice enough as a round number but putting off to the nearest quarter hour does not satisfy the inner procrastinator.

Having found examples of music pieces that will do it, I need to create a playlist of these. Wait, will that playlist last long enough though. Hmm, either I can put it in repeat mode or maybe just find a pandora channel which lasts in perpetuity. Except it can be distracting if I am distracted enough by an unexpected piece – it is a pandora’s box after all – to have to google it.

Hey, its a midweek and wednesday is typically when Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s column is out in the Indian Express. Can’t miss any of those; I often feel like I live from one of his articles to the next. Oh ok, not out yet. Is it a holiday in India or maybe his column might be out tomorrow? Just to be sure, let me check pbmehta@twitter which he updates whenever his column is out. Verified that there isn’t one yet. But Indian Express has otherwise great op-eds. I will check th0se out.

Can I check twitter just once before I start? Maybe I will see a nice piece of writing, or well, a link to a nice piece and be inspired. Yeah, I have been there for hours in the past months and without being inspired enough to write. But maybe that inspiring article is just around the corner. This time it is different.

Actually brainpickings is the best source for just general inspiration. Never lets one down – except when it kills with the occasional monotony. Or Farnam Street.

Inspired. Ready to start.

Restroom break. Even before I start writing. While I am at it, I can take a bath too.

I need to find an editor I love. Actually I found one – its called Draftin. So, this is actually taken care of. Next one.

Its been a while since I changed the blog theme. Let me do that first.

Who is going to be reading this anyway? Those days of blogging back in 2005 were great. We had this group of people who blogged and generated conversations around each others’ posts. Nobody I know from those days or otherwise is a regular blogger anymore. Wait, perhaps I can contact some of these guys and get them to resume all over again. But then having myself made so many false restarts at blogging, I have little credibility now! So let me first write a few posts before I speak to them.

I should get a cup of hot tea. After that. I promise.

And to the most important thing for the last – what do I write about?

I could write about A but A might end up reading it.

I could write about B but B may not read it after all.

I could write about C but that might come across as being too opinionated.

I can’t write about D because I am not an expert on the topic.

It is hard to take a clear stand on E because I have never been in the other person’s shoes. I cannot write about E.

I want to write about F, this book that I am reading but maybe after I finish it.

I want to do some research before I write on G.

That is when I go meta and write about why I am struggling to write. That is why, coming back to Kurt Vonnegut, I remain the lesser being.

If you wake up mid-sleep do you want to know the time? October 17, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

Lets assume you  set up the alarm for a certain time every morning. Now if you happen to wake up in the middle of the night, do you, before you return to sleep, look for the clock? I know people who do. I don’t. I used to but I don’t anymore. 

I find that to me it has no upside and only a downside. If I have set the alarm for 7 am and I happen to be up at maybe 6:15, knowing that I have another 45 mins to sleep does me no good and simply ensures that I can’t go back to sleep. In fact, I may be tempted to not go back to bed if I know I only have 45 mins to go and thus give myself no chance at all. I therefore make a conscious attempt to not know the time, which means not even look towards the window. If, on the other hand I woke up at 2, knowing that I have 5 more hours to go does not necessarily help me sleep better either. I know people for whom this is supposedly an upside but it isn’t for me.

Of course, its a different story if the alarm is not reliable – perhaps then you can be more vigilant sleeping with only 45 mins to go. But that has better solutions including finding yourself a better alarm.

In a culture where keeping track of one’s progress and executing on one’s goals is prized, not knowing how much progress I have made through my (sleeping) goals gives me a better chance at achieving them.

Ignorance, for once, is indeed bliss.


On baby names July 1, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

I have been thinking a little bit about identity lately. And there is good reason – a junior on the way. Thinking of baby names I found myself thinking for Indian boy names. And then I paused and asked myself if this is simply the natural thing to do since both parents are of Indian origin and upbringing. Or is this something that is worth a second thought. What if we both love a name that happens to not be an obviously Indian name (eg: Simon) ? What is the universe of names under consideration?

I have been asked if I am proud to be an Indian. My answer was – “By the usual connotations of the word ‘proud’, No. I believe that one’s place of birth and parental heritage is not an achievement one can take credit for or derive one’s self-esteem from. Am I ashamed of being one ? No, and again, for the same reason. I would not like to be at an advantage/disadvantage based on the country of my birth. I am aware that it happens all the time, but it is less than ideal.

So what then do I feel about being an Indian? I spent the first 23 years of my life in India. I am culturally an Indian for a large part – it is where I grow up, and that is where most of my family and many of my friends are. That is where I went to school. I understand India and Indians better than I understand any other people. Indian food and music is the single first choice whenever such a choice is to be made.

I think India is an extremely interesting country – large, diverse, a lot of history and perhaps as much potential. I had some great growing up years there in a generally stable political and economically promising circumstances. I ended up learning 4 languages effortlessly just being there. I also grew up in a multi-cultural environment – born into a religious majority but a linguistic minority with a mother tongue that is spoken by fewer than 5 million, that has no native script or any rich literature to speak of. Saying I don’t feel bad about it is an understatement. It is impossible to establish causality about these things but I wonder if this makes it easy to accept diversity – these are facts of life that make life interesting. I think about moving to India more than I think of moving to any other single country.

Well, so what gives? What is it that I don’t feel about India that those who might expect me to be proud feel ?

A recognition of the accident of birth. Much of the above would have been true of country X if I were born and grew up there. Sure, I can imagine X excludes several places, certainly say Afghanistan/Somalia in 1992, or Iraq in 1987. I understand it could have been worse and given the many countries that have seen strife trapping many generations in gloom, this is not to be overlooked. For the moment though, I am keeping these considerations aside. Everything I like and appreciate about India, I would do even if I knew India as intimately as I do but in a capacity other than that of having grown up there. And so much would be true of any other country. India is as special as any other country.

I do not feel compelled to defend India and its greatness. If anything, it exists in spite of me. To elaborate:

– When I talk of India as being home to an ancient civilization, I do not say that with any pride. It is a historical fact and one that is as much true of many others – Sumeria, China, Egypt come to mind. I will not feel bad for myself if one day somehow, however improbable but for the sake of argument, it were proven to be a hoax!

– I may not agree with the historical Indian consensus on many issues, including Kashmir – I think Pakistan had, as of 1947, a stronger moral claim on Kashmir than India did. I might recognize however, on strategic and pragmatic grounds that it is not possible to redraw borders now.

– I do not condemn colonialism on the grounds of what it did to my country any more than what it did elsewhere. Arguably many countries had it worse.

– I will never defend/accept anything merely because that is the Indian (or some community within India) way/culture. I might concede that local problems often require local solutions (not because they are Indian solutions)

– I happened to be born a Hindu, which I think is neither anything to be proud or ashamed of. I have, since age 13, been an unrelenting, non-believing agnostic. I recognize that Hinduism is different from other major religions in its origin and among few that do not appear to have the history of proselytization by the sword (although caste-based discrimination mitigates that somewhat) but that does not make me feel better about myself (what has it got to do with me again ?). I do however, think Mahabharata is awesome story!

– Unlike food and music, I hold no special love for Indian dances/popular movies/literature/modern architecture. Partly unfamiliarity/ignorance, partly just taste.

In other words, my feelings and loyalty towards (not sure is the right word but anyway) India are probably similar to my feelings about some of the schools I went to or places I have lived (in India and US) – they emerge from familiarity and personal associations (makes me selfish? maybe). And to each her own, so everyone should be entitled to their own similar affiliations. I like these places and I have a strong stake in their success because of the familiarity, roots and pleasant memories, but I see no pride/honor to be defended and nothing to attach my self-esteem to. In fact, I feel that more often than not my professional and intellectual identity supersede the cultural counterpart. More on that another day.

Why then I am thinking about it now and why am I feeling so strongly as to write about it. Perhaps events such as these – the arrival of a baby – cast a different light on some issues. Perhaps the heritage counts for a lot even if it is a choice that is made for you.


Act Two June 30, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

I stopped blogging over 5.5 years ago. Before I blogged Epistles for about 2 years – 5.5 years ago –  I tried blogging 4 times. Since I stopped blogging, I twice attempted to return to blogging. Going merely by numbers, I have been such a failure at blogging that I would only wish this abysmal a success rate on someone trying to kill themselves.

Going by anything else however, I only have great memories of blogging. I returned to the blog every now and then and each time I wondered how I could have spent so many hours putting down my thoughts, read by a barely few friends. Often times, I have read a few posts almost refusing to believe I wrote them – not so much because I vehemently disagreed with the content but because today I can barely bring myself to focus enough to complete a post.

That said, I have never ceased to love the written word. Moreover, my broad interest in most of the topics I wrote about – culture, data/statistics, india, economics, policy, politics – remain intact (except cricket which has declined)  What has changed then? I am now older and feel a bit wiser, I have lived in more places, worked in more jobs. I have also gone from sharing a house for a year, from year to year, with people I had barely met to now sharing each day with a woman I plan on being in love with for the rest of our lives. (Meet HP)

It may not be entirely unreasonable that Epistles may have played a role in the HP affair. She traversed the length, breadth and depth – spatial and temporal – of this blog before we met and she credits these writings – which were written in her absence and oblivious of her existence many years before she arrived on the scene – with having helped her understand me more than anything else. Such is life.

Other things have happened too. Back in 2006 blogging was generally more popular and a few friends I had known and others that I made through the blog were a small network of blogging buddies who kept one another going. I do not see that network anymore; people have moved on mostly to facebook/twitter where it is far more convenient and light-weight to update one’s status, post a link and engaged in discussions. This, of course, is no criticism – I myself have had active twitter and facebook accounts and they have their place. Except that I have missed the breadth, space and the permanence of the canvas that the blog represented – if facebook were the city square, the blog would be the countryside. (I do recognize that the wild countrysides quickly turn into ghost towns if not well tended to.)

I also debated whether I need a different new blog or should I merely return and resume. Each has its own appeal – a new blog would have meant a new beginning, which would leave behind the baggage of an older (or is it younger ?) self. Returning here would mean a continuity – an understanding that acceptance of one’s past is not an obligation to defend it. (Not that there is much in Epistles in I will struggle or be called upon to defend). Evidently the latter won out, either for the apparently lofty reasons I just described or sheer laziness.

HP has been the greatest cheerleader of my writing. Not a fortnight has gone by in nearly 3 years when I have not been asked about the blog to come. And today is her birthday.

Here then is to many more years of the written word.

What we did with our wedding gifts July 23, 2011

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

As were were preparing for our wedding late last year, we decided that all our wedding gifts must be directed to charitable causes. We made an explicit mention of this in our wedding invitation cards.

Manipal Invitation

“No gifts/bouquets. Any gifts received will be channelled towards supporting education of financially underprivileged children”

Mumbai Invitation

Please do not bring bouquets of gifts. All monetary endowments will be channeled to support the education of financially underprivileged children. Details are given on our website.

First off, we thank you all for the gifts and contributions and are very moved by your support. There were several of you who specifically told us that you were making a gift only because of how we plan to spend it. On the wedding website, we committed to presenting a report of fund utilization by May 31st. Although we did manage to fully allocated all the contributions by mid-March, for various reasons including awaiting documentation, photos and some busy times, we finally have gotten down to putting together this post. So here we go:

We received a total of Rs. 51000 ($1160 )  from the ceremonies at Manipal and Mumbai. The amount was directed towards 3 different projects mentioned below. For project 1 and 2, we are thankful to Mr. Karunakar Shetty. We know Mr. Shetty through his son Sandeep who is a good friend of Sharath’s from high school years. The Project 3 effort was possible thanks to Krishna Ramkumar, CEO and founder of Avanti Fellows, who also happens to be a Little Rock alumnus.

1) Rs. 21600 to a high school in Panchanbettu, a village about 20 kms from Udupi, Karnataka. This is a Kannada medium government funded high school that had somehow been deprived of funds for about 7 years. During this period it survived mostly on donations from Bunt hoteliers based in Mumbai. Mr. Shetty has been teaching at this school in honorary capacity since he retired from work in 2001. We contacted the school principal asked him to list their most pressing needs. It turned out that they had been spending several thousand rupees every year renting sound system during ceremonies and stage events. We therefore sponsored the purchase of a sound system for Rs. 21600. The money thus saved may be otherwise better used. Sharath’s parents visited the school and delivered the check. Here are photographs from the visit.

2) Rs. 15000 to a high school in Rajivnagar, about 5 kms from Udupi, Karnataka. This school particularly serves children of daily wage laborers and poor farmers. The school management had been seeking to build a library but had not been able to do so. Our contribution of Rs. 15000 was split into 2 efforts:

  • Rs. 6500 for a bookshelf
  • Rs. 8500 for an initial set of books

A few photographs from the school visit are here.

3) A donation of Rs. 14400 was made to Avanti Fellows, a program run by a highly motivated and enthused group of IIT alumni that is dedicated towards helping children from the underprivileged community. In their own words:

The Avanti Fellows Program aims to be the largest mentoring program for underprivileged students in India. The organization is currently focused on helping students from poor homes gain admission to prestigious engineering colleges across India and ensuring that they are able to perform well academically and assimilate socially during their time at engineering school. In due course, the organization will expand operations to other disciplines including medicine, law and commerce.

Krishna, the CEO/Founder of Avanti has prepared a report of the expenditure. Indeed this report is testimony to the professional execution of this project. We are happy to recommend Avanti to any of you looking to make a philanthropic contribution.

Once again, thanks to Mr. Shetty and Krishna for helping us channel the money into productive and effective philanthropic efforts. It might have easier to just have sent a check to one of the scores of global charity/NGOs, but we chose to go down this route so we (and now you all) know exactly what happened to the money.

As a parting read, here is something to think about – The Ovarian Lottery.

(If you would like to do something similar and if we don’t already know each other, please leave us a comment here  and we will reach you via email)