Public Transport

I grew up in a city with an extensive public transportation network, and have used it for as long as I can remember. I was four when my first bus trip was cut short by a wave of nausea with my mother scrambling to get us off the bus before the inevitable happened. My ability to handle motion sickness has since improved. And while my love-hate relationship with public transport continues, it is my preferred mode of travel. I’m sure a lot of you have questions and apprehensions. Isn’t public transport dirty and crowded? Isn’t it slow and unreliable? My answer to the first would be, “Very often”. To the second, I’d say, “Sometimes”.

My mother is a big proponent of public transport primarily because it’s the cheapest way to travel. When I was younger, owning a car was a luxury. Auto rickshaws and cabs were expensive. Trips with my mother usually involved multiple hops on buses and trains to reach our destination. Saving time meant running to catch the first available bus or train. As a result, I was often exhausted at the end of our journey. After a while, I dreaded my outings with her. If the destination was too far, I would prefer to stay at home. My father joining us was rare but always good news. When we exited our building, I would look longingly at the auto rickshaws lined up outside our gate silently imploring him to make a concession. He would take the hint and ask us to get into one.

I admit my perception of public transport has come a long way since then. And, while part of it has to do with how environment-friendly and cost-effective it is, the other part is probably because of how stress-free I find it. Plus, I don’t really enjoy driving and have never taken the initiative to own a vehicle. You may doubt the part that says “stress-free”. The more accurate thing would be to say that I find it less stressful.

There are different kinds of stress associated with using public transport and driving your own vehicle. With the former, the challenge is in catching a bus or train and, reaching your destination on time. There are several things beyond your control like the availability of the transportation medium and the speed the driver will drive. This is mostly applicable to buses. Trains are more punctual and reliable in this aspect, at least in my experience. In fact, if you live in a city which is known for its traffic woes, travelling by train will probably save you a fair bit of time. In some cities, however, boarding or alighting from crowded trains is a challenge in itself.

Another reason for preferring public transport is the flexibility that it offers. There have been times when I have come across severe traffic jams when travelling by road. This could be either because a vehicle broke down, an accident, bad weather or even construction work. In these situations, I have found it prudent to alight from the bus and find an alternative. If I were driving my own vehicle, I would have no option but to wait until the traffic cleared up. This can be both frustrating and a big waste of time.

The overwhelming factor, however, is that once I get into a bus or a train, I don’t have to worry about the road. While this may not seem like much for those who drive every day, being on alert for almost every second of your journey can be exhausting. Especially when clogged streets are a norm and most of the other drivers are concerned with taking shortcuts to reach their destination faster than obeying traffic rules. I’ve seen enough accidents and near misses to want to avoid being in one. Once I board a vehicle, my only job is to purchase a ticket and wait for my destination to arrive. It doesn’t matter how others are driving because there is someone to take care of that. I can, meanwhile, listen to music, read, plan for things to be done when I reach my destination or even take a nap. All of these seem like better ways to use my time than worrying about a vehicle that might appear out of nowhere or cut me off.

I concede that if you’re travelling by road, you’re likely to reach your destination faster by driving your own vehicle than taking the bus. But I don’t mind the extra time spent if my sanity is preserved at the end of the journey.

Thanks for reading this. Please feel free to share your preferences and your experience with public transport.

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Money Matters

The first thing I learnt about money was that it doesn’t grow on trees. And that became a lesson for life. Okay, I admit I’m a miser. How much of a miser? Not enough to starve or deprive myself of necessities, for sure. But enough that the rational side of my brain trumps the part which wants something almost every time, especially when I look at the price tag.

Frugality is part of my genetic inheritance. My parents are both cautious about monetary spending, and their attitude shaped my understanding of the difference between wants and needs. They have their reasons. They grew up with nothing. Both my parents were raised in rented two-room houses with a kitchen for cooking and a living room for everything else. My father shared these quarters with my grandparents and three other siblings. As the eldest, he started helping at my grandfather’s store at the age of ten, balancing school and supporting the “family business” which yielded barely enough to make ends meet. He wanted to pursue a degree in science but switched to arts because the time spent in the lab reduced what he could give to the shop. Jobs were scarce, and he continued working there, leaving when he found a decent job – a couple of years after graduation.

My mother had it even worse if that was possible. Eight other people called where she lived home. Her father didn’t have a steady job. My grandmother took up things she could do from home like tailoring and repairing umbrellas to ensure that there was enough food on the table. The children assisted in whatever capacity they could. The house didn’t have a water connection. Water had to be filled in pots and carried up a flight of stairs to the house from a nearby community tap. This tap was functional for a few hours each day, and you had to queue up for your turn. “New clothes” were, often, donations by my grandfather’s employers. At times, there wasn’t enough money to pay for school.

In comparison, my childhood was very comfortable. Growing up, my brother and I never lacked for anything. We never worked during our time as students. My parents, like others, were determined to give their children a better life. They scrimped and saved for our education so we would never have to compromise on our career choices. We had everything we needed, but my mother ensured we didn’t get everything we wanted. My father, on the contrary, indulged our indulgences. But he had to travel for work, and our stay-at-home mother managed all our expenses.

We were not living hand-to-mouth by any means but avoided extravagance at all costs. Cars were a luxury and my mother dragged us everywhere by public transport. We never went to the movies and, rarely, if ever, dined at restaurants. We were reprimanded for our carelessness if we misplaced stationery provided for school. The need to build a safety net fueled part of this, and a strong desire to not return to the circumstances that plagued her childhood accounted for the rest. We saw that any expenditure on us came at the cost of our parents’ needs. When we got brand-new clothes, they wore the same ones until they faded and were beyond repair.

Even when things got better, she made us believe that we only had enough to survive. The primary reason was to teach us the value of money and the hard work that goes into earning it. My father missed a lot of birthdays and holidays because of his job. The constant travel took a toll on his health. She made sure we realised this so wouldn’t take his sacrifices for granted. The second was to ensure that spending never exceeded earnings. Credit wasn’t as forthcoming as today, and living with debt was not an option. Finally, she hoped that if things ever went south, we would find our way out of it. It was her way of preparing us for the worst-case scenario.

My mother was instrumental in moulding my monetary policy. We didn’t get allowances while in school. She expected us to ask for something when we needed it. Inquisitions followed requests for money and expenses sanctioned after much consideration. Initially, I found this difficult to understand because all my friends got pocket money and spent it on things they liked. When I entered college, I got a small allowance for travel and other expenses. But I had to provide a full account of the money spent to assure her that it was not “wasted”. Over time, I became so used to it that the minute I returned home, I would start reciting what I had started with, what I had spent on and how much was left. My mother was left red-faced one day when I, unthinkingly, did it in the presence of a relative who had come over to visit. Once the guest had left, she told me I didn’t need to give her an account anymore because she was confident in my ability to spend it “the right way”.

But this hasn’t affected their generosity. No one who comes to our home leaves empty-handed. They never hold back when sharing what they have with others. Their past has, also, made them empathetic towards those who are not as fortunate. Their miserly attitude affects them, and no one else. It’s another quality we seem to have inherited from them. I wouldn’t think twice about splurging on a gift for someone else.

My father once told us it is easy to upgrade one’s lifestyle, but difficult to go back. I beg to differ. After years of pinching pennies, despite being financially independent, I find it difficult to let go. My parents don’t want us to struggle the way they did and encourage us to make our lives comfortable. But I’m always looking for ways to save as much money as possible. Sometimes, this comes at the cost of time, health and, even, happiness. I’m hard on myself if I’ve overpaid for something, and I feel like a fool for obsessing over something I can not change. I’m still inclined to count every penny rather than splurge, even if I can afford to. I don’t own a credit card and the thought of a loan, even for something essential like a home, feels like an axe hanging over my head.

Have you bought something without looking at the price tag? I wouldn’t be able to. I have not learned to spend freely and don’t know where to start. What would I do if I won the lottery tomorrow and had enough money to last me a lifetime? Probably put the winnings in a bank account or invest it for better returns than spend.


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On “Scientific Research”

I don’t claim to be a “health nut”, but I like to eat healthy barring the occasional indulgence. Whether it’s reducing the consumption of refined grains or adding more fruits and vegetables to my diet, nutrition is a priority. This means reading up on the health section of the news to keep abreast of the latest developments.

I suppose I inherited this quality from my father who obsessively follows research in the health and medical fields. But, lately, I find myself very confused. The following will illustrate why. My family hails from the coast. Coconut is an integral part of our diet primarily because it is natively grown and abundantly available. Whether it’s grated coconut, coconut paste or coconut milk, almost every dish, savoury or sweet incorporates it. Coconut oil has traditionally, also, been the preferred choice for deep frying, sautéing or, even, as a dressing. In other words, the way Mediterranean cuisine uses olive oil is how we used coconut oil. I say “used” because this is no longer true. The reason was some research about thirty years ago which stated that coconut oil is very high in cholesterol and terrible for heart health. When my father picked up on this, the consumption of coconut oil in our home dropped drastically. We switched to alternatives for a lot of preparations. Now, almost three decades later, coconut has become the new superfood with ringing endorsements of coconut oil. The jury is still out, however, with some touting it as a panacea and others calling it “poison”.

It doesn’t stop there. Breakfast is a topic that invites contradictory opinions from the scientific community. Some call it vital while others say it’s dangerous. All of these people are scientists with exemplary credentials holding positions of importance in regulatory bodies and academia. For the consumer though, whom or what to believe, that is the question.

I am no scientist, but I wonder how such contradictory results are possible on the same topic. This resulted in my own bit of research. Here are some findings. To begin with, independent studies are few and far in between. A lot of these studies are funded by big industries to malign a rival product so that its consumption drops and, then, promote their own as a “healthier” option. The results are biased in favour of the industry or lobby that sponsors it. Sometimes, the purpose is to hide the ill-effects of their product by exaggerating the so-called “hazards” of another. A case in point is how the sugar industry funded a study in the 1960s to highlight the contribution of fats to heart disease and downplay the role of sugar. This was only discovered as recently as 2016. The fact that this was hidden from the general public for about half a century is a cause of concern. And, when reputed organisations claim that something is dangerous, it is natural for people to think twice about what they eat.

Sometimes, the number of participants in a study is in single digits. How, then, can the results be applied to the general population? No wonder terms like “may” or “could” are frequently used in the title so that if the findings are debunked tomorrow, they are covered and can shirk all responsibility.

In my opinion, there is another factor to be considered – genetics. Studies are often carried out on a specific section of the populace in a particular region. Olive oil, for instance, is healthy and highly recommended. I don’t dispute this. Food habits, at least the traditional kind by which I don’t mean McDonalds or KFC, are cultivated based on crops favoured by the soil and climate. Olive oil is a product of the Mediterranean. People who reside there have consumed it for centuries, and their digestive systems have adapted to it. When it is promoted in Asian countries where other oils are more common, will the results be the same? The same applies to coconut oil which has, only recently, been adopted by the west.

Superfood is the new buzzword in the health industry. The minute something is categorised as such, people rush to buy it. Sometimes, in the quest for health, the consumption of these products gets out of hand. People don’t realise that sometimes too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. Another thing that skyrockets is the price. If you don’t believe me, check the cost of a product when a study declares that it is the best thing for you. Everyday items become unaffordable when they are branded “healthy”. When prices shoot up, you wonder whether it is because of the demand, or sellers trying to make a quick buck out of the next “superfood”.

As health conscious individuals, we are always seeking ways to make our lives better by adopting good eating practices. However, we unwittingly end up playing into the hands of lobbies whose only objective is financial gain. We, all, need to be careful about what we decide to consume based on what is termed as “scientific research”. In a world where business often takes precedence over public health, there are reasons to be wary. Beyond headlines, there are a lot of things that need to be considered with studies about health and nutrition. Sources, researchers, industries, sample sets and target populations are just a few. Because I am not sure what to believe, I have stopped taking these headlines seriously. Consume everything in moderation is one piece of advice that has persisted over time. And, for now, it seems like the sensible thing.


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Being a Social Pariah

The inspiration for this article is a blog post in which the writer describes how limiting time online has had a positive impact on her life.

The Internet has transformed the way we gather and assimilate information. Social networking has made it possible for people across the globe to connect seamlessly. But, somehow, the trend of being online hasn’t found favour with me. People find it strange when I say that I’m not on WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Truth is, very often, I don’t even know where my cell phone is. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a recluse by any means. I enjoy conversation and good company. I, just, avoid social media like the plague. Call me old-fashioned, but I find it intrusive and impersonal. And, though it may not always be possible, I prefer to call or meet in person with friends and family. There are times when months pass by before I talk to a friend, which is not ideal. But on the flip side, there is so much to catch up on.

Many people share every part of their life online. But if people know about everything that is happening in your life, what do you discuss when you meet them? When I attend social gatherings, I end up feeling like a social pariah. To begin with, I get the overwhelming sense of being a dinosaur because while I am seated there wondering where to start, everyone else is glued to their phones. I’m not sure whether people want a conversation. Also, everyone else seems to know what the other is doing except me. I don’t know whether the lack of interaction is a result of being on social media or the other way around. But, the art of conversation seems to be heading towards an early demise. What irritates me most is when I am mid-sentence, and people pick up their phone to find out what’s changed since they put it down a couple of minutes ago. I don’t know whether this is because of a constant need to be updated or the fear of missing out. There is nothing more cringeworthy than asking a question only to hear, “Oh, you don’t know? I had shared that on WhatsApp/Facebook?” Forgive me for expecting information from conversations rather than a bulletin board.

Even when people are travelling, they are so engrossed in their devices, they wouldn’t know if their own parent was standing next to them. For some people, the need to be connected is so strong that they carry their phones to the toilet. I fail to recognise the urgency. Will someone not understand if they’ve taken a break to answer nature’s call? Social media aims to satisfy the innate curiosity that most individuals have about what’s going on in others’ lives. It is also an outlet for those who like to shout from the rooftops about every little thing. Whether the desire is to be appreciated or envied is open for debate. But, in my opinion, living so much of your life in the public eye is not just invasive. It’s outright exhausting. It’s human tendency to turn things into a contest which makes it easy for one-upmanship to creep in. And, in an intensely competitive world where so much value is placed on professional accomplishments, the last thing you want is for that to extend to your personal life.

I prefer to live by simple rules. If there is an event in my life that I wouldn’t call and tell someone about, then it is not worth sharing. Period. Just because there’s a medium that allows you to put this information out doesn’t mean you should. Every piece of information you share is being used by someone to target you – for better or for worse. If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will. I understand that it is cheaper and convenient to use social media than to call someone. You can use apps to make calls on the internet. But when was the last time you did that?

Children, nowadays, learn to use the cell phone before they start talking. They are handed electronic devices at an age where they should be learning to play and bond. Will this not affect their ability to communicate? Social media prevents the cultivation of deep-rooted relationships by reducing our interaction with colleagues, friends and loved ones. The more time we spend online, the less time we spend talking to them. Our bond with those around us is dependent not only on shared thoughts but also on shared experiences. Then, there are people from the previous generation who are not tech-savvy and rely on conversations for exchanging ideas and emotions. Their inability to use social media results in them being ignored, isolated and lonely. Ask them what they prefer – messaging, Skype call or a visit.

Social media was created to make it easier for people to communicate. But if we use it as a substitute for personal interactions, the purpose is defeated. If a medium makes you contented with messaging or broadcasting a part of your life rather than making a call, where is our future headed? A conversation is about more than what is said. The spoken word has a tone, an expression, an emotion that a message cannot capture. For me, there is no substitute for the sound of a person’s voice. But it is second best to sitting across from them as you spend hours in conversation because nonverbal cues add another dimension to dialogue.

So, take a break from social media. Pick up a phone and call someone who you haven’t spoken to in a while. Better yet, have a face-to-face conversation and forget about your cell phone while you’re at it. You’ll be surprised at how much you enjoy yourself. More importantly, you’ll realise what you’ve been missing all this time.


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The Blogger’s Curse

I read a post today which made me realise that, in my struggle with blogging, I was not alone. As I wrote a comment on the post, the idea for this article took shape in my head.

When I first started a blog, I knew nothing about blogging. I thought it was all about putting your thoughts out there for people to find and read, like or dislike. The most important thing was to create quality content. But my understanding couldn’t be further from the truth.

I have been actively blogging for a couple of months now. Yes, I know I shouldn’t be complaining after such a short time. I still don’t know much about blogging. But I’ve learnt some lessons.

The hardest thing about blogging isn’t the content. At least, this is true for me.

The first challenge is getting people to your blog. I began by searching for blogs with like-minded content. I invited their authors to look at my blog and share their opinion. I realised, albeit a little late, that tags make a big difference. I have not mastered the art by any means. But, I am making steady progress.

The second is to get people to read it. My blog hardly gets visitors. I used to rejoice when people liked my post. But when a post has fewer views than likes, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that something’s not quite right. Spotting discrepancies like these are some of the perks of getting pitiful traffic to your site, I guess. When you like a post, it means that it resonates with you. How is that possible if you haven’t read it? For the record, I’d rather not have people liking my post if they’d rather not read it. Unfortunately, the person this is meant for won’t be reading this post either.

The biggest test, however, is getting people to engage in a dialogue. I understand the challenges of modern life. We don’t have time to stop and smell the roses let alone comment on every post we read. I don’t comment on every article I read either. But comments do make a lot of difference. Comments aren’t just words. They are pieces of you that are scattered across the blogging universe. With comments, you know the reader’s thoughts. With likes, it’s hard to say.

I searched online to figure out why I couldn’t draw my readers into the conversation. Fellow bloggers were, also, kind enough to offer their words of advice. These are some suggestions I came across. Ask questions at the end of your post. Check. Ask people to comment on your post. Check. Blog on topics that you would like to read. I’ll be honest and say that I can’t write anything else. Visit other blogs, read their posts and comment on their work. I enjoy doing this for my own reasons. Use social media to promote your blog. No can do. Why? Because I avoid social media like the plague. You won’t find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a million other sites whose names I don’t care to remember.

Maybe, I don’t create good content. That’s fine. I just wish someone would tell me that. I don’t claim to be Shakespeare. I don’t, even, have a degree in English. I started blogging because writing is something I’ve always enjoyed. For a lot of reasons, I didn’t pursue it as a career. But that’s water under the bridge. And I don’t have any regrets. I just thought that if I couldn’t write professionally, at least, I’d do it to make myself happy. It would be an outlet for my thoughts. I would know whether I was good at it. Other bloggers would help me understand what I was doing right and where I was going wrong. It would make me a better writer.

Words of support and encouragement from the blogging community kept me going. But a part of me was frustrated by the lack of success. It dawned on me that I was spending more time on finding out how to get people to read my blog rather than writing.

When did writing become so complicated? Creating content isn’t enough. You, also, have to be a marketing professional and an SEO expert.

You may think that I am complaining without taking steps to fix my problem. You wouldn’t be wrong. But, from where I sit, I don’t see a problem. I see a choice. The choice to not market my blog. This is not to say that those who promote their work are wrong. I don’t envy them. The effort they have put in is remarkable. Their success is hard-earned and well-deserved. In the end, no matter how people get to your blog, they stay there only if they feel like it’s worth it. But, I don’t think it’s for me. This may mean that my blog will take years to generate the kind of following that many other bloggers enjoy. Maybe I won’t get there at all. The feedback I wish for may, also, not come. But that’s okay. For now, I’d rather enjoy the process of writing than worry about how many people read what I have to say.

I apologise for subjecting you to this rant for no fault of your own. But if you started out as a simple writer, like me, and not a marketing genius, I am sure you can identify. If you didn’t like this post, please let me know. But if you enjoyed it, please spare the like button. Instead, leave a comment. It doesn’t matter how long or short. What matters most is that it meant something to you.


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Growing Up

The idea for this piece came from a post that I recently read. Most people consider childhood to be the best time of their lives. I wish I could share that sentiment. While my childhood wasn’t particularly terrible, my feelings towards it can be best described as ambivalent.

When I started working, people asked me what I missed most about college. Without a thought, I’d say “vacations”. It’s the only thing that came to mind. I was a very lucky child. The first grandchild, a spoilt brat and the subject of undivided love till others came along. The first few years were spent without a care in the world. But that changed very soon with the burden of education. As a result, most of my years as a student were lost trying to meet high expectations. When school ended, there was college. Choosing to graduate in a field I wasn’t born for didn’t simplify matters. Exams were terrifying and the results even more so. I’ve lost count of the number of meltdowns over the years. So much so that my mother discouraged me from pursuing a master’s degree. So, yes, “vacations” was the most natural response.

That’s not saying that adulthood has been a walk in the park. Being “independent” isn’t all it’s made out to be. Career, money and relationships rule your life. The responsibilities don’t seem to end. Your words and actions are scrutinized and have serious repercussions. Sometimes, you just want to embrace asceticism and retire to the mountains. In these matters, childhood was not very taxing. Responsibilities were more personal than financial or social. People didn’t hold you accountable for what you said or did. The poor parents took the blame.

As a child, I was always riddled with insecurities and self-doubt. I never felt good enough. I was always conscious about what others thought about me. Following the crowd was the norm. Adulthood changed that. It provided a sense of freedom in making my own decisions. It made me financially self-reliant. It gave me an identity and self-confidence that was sorely lacking in my childhood. It enabled me to think for myself and form my own opinions. It brought me a seat at the table; it made sure that my viewpoint was heard and respected. I emerged out of the shadow of my parents.

However, there are some qualities in a child that I’ve lost and dearly miss. Innocence is the first. Unfortunately, I find it to be a casualty of our day and age. Children, today, grow up too fast. I will be the first to admit that I was a very stupid kid. But, looking back, that was not a bad thing. That is the only time of your life when no one is going to judge you for your stupidity. People will keep reminding you of it all your adult life. But the result will be more of a joke than a tragedy. The second is the wide-eyed curiosity. This is one that slowly fades over time. Things cease to amaze us. Maybe it’s the cynicism that comes with getting older. Maybe we just get jaded over time. Or, maybe, we are too worried about looking like fools when we ask too many questions. Third comes imagination. Maybe it’s just the engineer in me but I hold rationality responsible for its decline. When you try to find reason and logic in everything, it kills the imagination. Idealism is next. This one weathered quite a storm when the bubble of childhood burst. The harsh realities of life introduced practicality and the idealist in me decided to take off.

I will differ from popular opinion and say that childhood is overrated. When people rue their lost childhoods, it’s a case of the grass always being greener on the other side. When we’re children, we can’t wait to become adults. When we grow up, we cling to childhood. Maybe, it’s better to live in the moment and enjoy what the different phases of our life have to offer. The naivety that is part of childhood and the wisdom that comes with age and the understanding that life is not as simple as it once seemed are both worthwhile.

What are your thoughts?


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My Idea of Faith

My previous post on this subject dealt with the role of science and religion in our lives. This one is an attempt to share my thoughts on faith.

I grew up in a home with contradictory views on religion. My mother is very religious and my father is the exact opposite. It’s strange how they adopted such different ideas on faith. Both my grandmothers were terribly religious and superstitious. While my mother continued in her mother’s footsteps, my father went the other way. Growing up, my father’s job kept him away from home and my mother was a major influence. Worship became a part of our lives from a very young age. But, as we grew older, my brother and I started questioning religious practices. While my mother never discouraged this, most of her responses were, “I don’t know. I never asked my mother.” My father couldn’t care less about these rituals. I never saw him pray and remember asking why. He responded with, “I do pray. When I wake up in the morning, I pray for the well-being of everybody in this world. I don’t ask for anything else.” One thing my father repeatedly says is, “I believe in God but I don’t believe in godmen. And, I hate religion and rituals.”

Despite or maybe because my parents have such differing opinions about religion, we were never forced to choose one over the other. My parents may not agree with each other. But they’ve made their peace with each other’s choices. We, also, have discussions on God and religion. When my parents agree on something, we can be sure it’s right. We are lucky to be able to listen to arguments from both sides and form our own opinions.

Over time, we realised that religion has its limitations. My father may not indulge in prayer but he has some principles that he lives by. He says, “It’s okay if you can’t do something good for somebody but don’t do anything to harm them.” He forgives quicker than most people. Once, I asked him why he trusts so easily when so many have taken advantage of him. He replied, “I don’t dwell too much on such things. If I trust ten people and even one of them justifies my faith, I have gained a lifelong friend.” I wanted to know how he felt when people cheated him monetarily. He said, “In life, both good and bad things happen. Some days you gain, some days you lose. I only ask myself one question. Am I better off than when I started? If the answer is yes, then it’s all good”. This made us realise that you didn’t need to be religious to be a good person. My mother may not be happy to see us move further away from religion. But she accepts it, nonetheless. She, probably, takes consolation in the fact that we haven’t turned out to be terrible human beings. She has, even, been open-minded enough to give up some of her superstitions in the face of rationality.

My idea of God and religion has changed over time. It would be more accurate to say that my dependence on them has reduced. I believe in God but I am open to the idea that there might not be one. If there is a God, I try not to bother Him with my mundane problems. When I suffer a setback, I try to accept it as part of life. It is only when I am distraught and trapped on all sides, that I look to the Almighty for guidance and comfort. It is foolish to expect your entire life to be smooth sailing. Even more foolish is to expect that having faith in a higher power will ensure such a life. When we let go of such ideas, we learn to accept the bad with the good. In my maternal grandmother’s words, “When you get knocked down a few times, it makes you smarter. You don’t make the same mistakes again.” Devout as she was, her life was nothing short of a struggle. Perhaps, the only thing that got her through was her faith and the hope that her trials would mean a better life for her children.

I am convinced that God helps those who help themselves. Thinking that God will ensure that things fall in your lap, just because you are devout, is delusional. If this was true, most people would take the easy way out.

Many people accumulate wealth by cheating others. They, then, donate to religious institutions in the hope that their sins will be forgiven. This doesn’t sit well with me. I believe in karma; in “as you sow, so shall you reap”. If you do harm, it comes back to you. Regretting your action cannot save you. Only repercussions serve as a deterrent for the future.

Faith, to me, is personal and each of us has a unique equation with God. I don’t feel the need to prove my faith to others. Everyone has a right to decide what to believe in and I don’t have a right to impose my idea of faith on them. If God is everywhere, it doesn’t make sense for me to go to a place of worship to find Him. I prefer to talk to God directly without an intermediary. I think of God more as a friend or confidant than a fearsome entity.

You should never have to choose between faith and humanity because they are not mutually exclusive. The sole purpose of faith is to spread humanity. If it doesn’t, it’s not faith, it’s propaganda.

Ultimately, I have realised that it doesn’t matter which path you choose to reach your “destination”. As long as the road is not built at someone else’s expense and brings out the best in you. Religion, rules, spirituality or principle; whatever the name. I don’t need to listen to what someone else says or follow what someone else does. I need to find what I believe in and make my own path.


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Dealing with Conflict

My husband and I belong to two different schools of thought when it comes to dealing with conflict. The other day a man tried to jump the queue in the supermarket. I was about to intercept him and ask him to get back in line when my husband stopped me. He asked me to let it go. He said, “There is a difference between humans and animals. Some people are uncivilised and have no manners. If we fight with them, how are we any better?” Though that would not be my natural response, the explanation made sense. So, I didn’t push the matter any further.

Lately, confrontation has been my way of dealing with what I perceive to be a lack of regard for rules. I wasn’t always like this. For a long time, I would let these kinds of transgressions slide. Maybe, it resulted from being part of a society where the tendency to “not create a scene” is pervasive. And, phrases like “leave it be” and “anything goes” are particularly endemic. Most people think “It’s not my problem” or “There’s nothing to gain from this” and move on. But, one incident changed my perspective.

I was still in school. It was a weekend and, at around ten in the morning, a group of young men and women were talking in the building premises. There were four of them, probably, in their early to mid-twenties. The conversation, soon, turned loud enough to attract the attention of people living in the building. A few minutes later, one of the men started punching a woman from the group in full public view. The punches then turned into kicks. While there were several people observing this whole incident unfold, including the building security, not one of them said a word. I am ashamed to say that I was one such mute spectator. At this moment, my mother came to the window. The second she saw what was going on, she shouted, “Hey, what are you doing? Stop! Security, stop that man and call the police.” The assault ceased. But, now, everyone was looking at my mother. I was standing next to her. I pulled her back and said, “Why did you have to do that? No one is saying anything. Why did you have to intervene?” She told me, “He was kicking her in the stomach. Think of the consequences. Who is responsible?” At that moment, I realised that when you see someone doing something wrong, you must act to stop it. If you don’t, it is as good as condoning or, worse, partaking in the act. This made me realise that people, who have scant respect for rules or law, are bullies. When they are not opposed, they are enabled and emboldened. The reason for the assault wasn’t clear. But the degree of violence should have warranted immediate intervention.

But, the grocery store incident brought forth another perspective which also made sense. My husband believes that the best way to prevent arguments from escalating is to not indulge in them. He thinks that when someone in front of you loses their temper, the best response is to be silent. If you do that, they will eventually calm down and the situation will diffuse. I must admit I have been at the receiving end of this silent treatment several times. But, the irony is, the results haven’t really been to my husband’s liking. When I am all fired up, I don’t lose steam easily. My philosophy, on the other hand, is to give as good as you get. Living in Mahatma Gandhi’s country hasn’t brought out my peaceful side.

My mother recently told me about an incident. She and my brother were travelling by car to the market. Due to some misjudgement, the car brushed against a pedestrian. My brother, who was driving, immediately apologised. The pedestrian was unhurt but he started raising his voice and said, “If I slap you and say sorry, will you be okay with it?” My mother stepped out of the car and calmly said, “If hitting him will please you, go ahead.” The person was lost for words and just left. She told me that if she had argued with him, things would’ve escalated and gotten out of hand.

So, what is the best approach? When a conflict arises, is it better to be passive or to be aggressive? I suppose the answer lies in the situation at hand. The pros and cons of each approach need to be weighed to determine which one will yield the best result. Would wars be fought if the powers that be had carefully considered the cost and consequences? Would slavery be abolished if there was no revolt? Conflict avoidance may be the best solution in some situations but, in some situations, peace can only be achieved by conflict.

History has numerous instances where the initial strategy had to be changed to achieve the desired outcome. The anti-apartheid movement started out peacefully before resorting to an armed struggle to achieve its objective. On the other hand, the Indian independence movement began with violence but became largely peaceful towards the end. Many conflicts would be resolved if the right approach was adopted at the right time. Personalities of people involved also matter. Aggression is likely to escalate conflicts with megalomaniacs. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a classic example. Patience may not yield results with stubborn individuals like Stalin. No one size fits all.

So, which side are you on?

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Beyond Borders

It is strange that in this digital age, when the world is getting smaller, it feels as though we are being pulled further apart. It is human nature to seek out people like ourselves; people that we understand and identify with. When people are in their own countries, they connect with those who share their language, religion and region. When they are abroad, they bond with people of their nationality or subcontinent. The sense of safety in what we know and a fear of the unknown causes us to look for the familiar. But, isn’t exploring the unfamiliar the best way to get over this fear? When we surround ourselves with things we don’t know, we start learning about them and they become a part of our lives. In other words, they are no longer out of the ordinary.

So, what happens when we come across someone who is “different”? Are we curious or are we wary? Do we judge them based on preconceived notions or do we try to know more about them? Do we make them feel uncomfortable or do we make them feel welcome?

A few years ago, I took a sabbatical to pursue a short course in a city different from my hometown. I was going back to school after a long time and felt clearly out of place. But, on my first day, I noticed three girls who looked more unsure than I was. They had good reasons to. They were far from home in a foreign environment. With things like different weather and surroundings, unfamiliar people and culture and unknown food and language to consider, they had a lot more to deal with. Not to mention, their appearance set them apart and made them receive quite a fair bit of attention. As an introvert, I kept to myself while other students in my class acquainted themselves with each other.

After a few hours, we were asked to make our way to the lab for some practical sessions. As we entered the lab, it became clear that each system would have to be shared by two students. I took a seat at the nearest available machine. Most people had already decided on who they would pair up with and, as time went by, it seemed likely that my inability to socialise would lead to me having the system to myself. But then I heard a distinctive voice politely ask, “Is this seat taken?” I turned to see one of the girls, described earlier, pointing to the seat next to me. Two of the girls had decided to share one system and the third was left by herself. Since everyone else had chosen their lab partner, I was probably the only option she had. “No, you can take it if you like”, I said. She thanked me and took a seat.

We struck up a conversation and I learned that Agnes was from Ghana and was attending the course as part of a company sponsored initiative. This was my first interaction with someone from Ghana. But, I realised that I had more in common with her than my own compatriots. We were both married and had some industry experience before joining the course.

Over time, I discovered that, like India, people in Ghana have a strong preference for the male child. They also have a dowry system, but the groom’s side pays. They, too, have a tradition of staying with the family after marriage but the family custom determines whether the bride stays with the groom’s family or the other way around. In addition to English names, they have Akan names, which are influenced by the day of the week and the order of birth. I was introduced to Jollof and Fufu.

Agnes was very curious about Indian culture. She found the Indian habit of pouring water from bottles into the mouth rather than sipping from them hygienic. She couldn’t understand why Indians touched the feet of the person they had accidently touched with their foot.

The girls had a tough time with spicy food. A lack of options meant that they, frequently, had cupcakes and biscuits for lunch. Agnes was very adventurous and open to trying out local food. She was also in awe of the variety of biscuits and chocolates available in the supermarket and how cheap they were compared to Ghana; the land of cocoa. I remember the girls spending their leftover allowance on biscuits and chocolates for friends and family back home.

I had rented a small apartment close to the educational institution. Agnes and the girls insisted on visiting me. I tried to dissuade them because the apartment had absolutely no furniture, but they didn’t care. They didn’t utter a single complaint as they sat on a mat on the floor of the living room while I apologized for the lack of chairs.

When the course ended, I was very sorry to see them go. I wish I could’ve taken them home to visit my family. It made me wonder, what if Agnes had not come up to me that first day? I would’ve missed out on knowing such wonderful people; good, kind, polite and generous. I saw the girls face so much ridicule and disdain from some who were quick to judge a book by its cover. But they took everything in their stride.

Many people state their reason for visiting a new place as a desire to experience different cultures. But, should our exploration of cultures be restricted to when we are tourists in a foreign country? Isn’t interaction with people who visit from other parts of the world another way? Some people want everyone to be like them. But, wouldn’t the world be boring if we were all identical? Is it not the differences that spark our curiosity and give us so much to learn?

Having a dialogue with people from different cultures increases our awareness about them. It changes our perspective and makes us more sensitive and tolerant of their customs and traditions. It enables us to embrace and celebrate differences rather than dwell on them. It allows us to know the person beneath the surface. To understand their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations and their fears; to know that beyond the differences, we are all the same.


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Science and Religion

I recently read a blog post which dwells on the perceived conflict between science and religion. While I cannot claim to be an expert in either, here are some thoughts.

Many believe that our belief in a higher power originated with the need to explain where we came from and what happens to us after we die. For a long time, natural disasters and epidemics were considered a wrath of God. Human beings thought that the only way to avoid or overcome them was to appease the Gods. It seems, as though, when the answers to life’s questions eluded us, we wanted to believe that it was the work of an unseen and unknown supreme being. It is something that we practice to this day when we say “God knows” to a question that we don’t know the answer to. Maybe, it is our desire to believe that there is some way to influence things that are beyond our control that made us believe in God; that if we are in the Almighty’s good graces, things will work in our favour.

But, soon, science came along. It provided rational explanations for the same things that were once attributed to a divine entity. The reasons for earthquakes, hurricanes and other phenomena were determined and we, even, found ways to predict and mitigate their deadly effects. Causes of life-threatening diseases were identified and cures for ailments were developed. Science went on to explain how all living organisms evolved over time to become what they are today.

Maybe, science answering questions, that were once attributed to God’s handiwork, created an impression that it was encroaching on religious territory. Because, for people furthering the cause of religion, the more that can be attributed to God, the better. This view, however, would mean trusting the unproven over the proven. Religion may have been the only answer once upon a time. But evidence and facts cannot be ignored.

How much a person believes in one over the other depends upon their own experiences with the two. It is akin to a child who favours one parent over another because that parent fulfils the child’s every wish. A person who has experienced first-hand the miracles of modern science will tend to favour it over religion. Take a woman who, after being childless for many years, conceives using IVF. For her, science is nothing short of a miracle and the doctor is no less than God. Whereas, a person for whom science offers no hope, will turn to faith as a last resort. Consider a man who is in the advanced stages of a terminal disease where, despite all its advances, modern medicine can only do so much. If he recovers, his faith in God is sealed. If not, religion offers, at least, some consolation in the idea of life after death.

Science is based on proven facts. It can tell you about the sun, the stars and the galaxies beyond our own, the highest mountains and the deepest oceans. But it has its limitations. As human beings evolved, our lives became about more than just survival. We began to search for meaning in our lives beyond who we were and what we did; a purpose beyond our mundane existence. Scientific theories cannot help here. For example, science does not have an answer for what happens after death beyond the decomposition of our bodies. And, as human beings, who care about life and want to believe that it does not end with death, these existential questions can be very troubling.

Our internal struggles and conflicts cannot be explained or resolved by science. Science cannot tell you what is right and what is wrong. That is a question of morality. While morality is not synonymous with religion, for many, religion acts as moral compass. Morality is an important part of religion and every religion has some guiding principles on how to live a righteous life. Religious scriptures elucidate the idea of an immortal soul and heaven and hell to keep their followers on the straight and narrow.

Another shortcoming of science is that it is difficult for most people to understand. Religion, on the contrary, has a very strong hold. So much so that people tend not to challenge things that they are asked to follow in the name of religion. In some instances, religion has been used to enforce practices that, over time, have proven to be rooted in science. It is possible that people observed benefits of such practices and decided to codify them in religion without knowing the scientific reasons at the time. Or, maybe, it was just easier to get people to follow them if they were associated with religion.

Religion can drive people to be good and do good. It can provide hope and strength like no other. But, at the same time, it can be used to exploit people and justify horrendous acts. No wonder, Karl Marx called it “the opium of the masses”. This makes a scientific approach to religion necessary. We need to question religion rather than accept it blindly. Because, when you challenge something, and it survives, your faith in it only grows stronger. It, also, makes it difficult for others to mislead you. It is easy to blame God when something bad happens when the fact is that most bad things are caused by the actions of men. We need to accept responsibility for our actions rather than blame a higher power for it.

Science and Religion both have a place in human lives. Their purposes do not conflict. Facts are universal while faith is personal. Science deals with the tangible while the intangible is the realm of religion. Science enables us to understand things in and around us. Religion, on the other hand, serves to help us on the journey to discovering ourselves.


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