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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

In Defence of the Animal called Family (not that it needs me to defend it)

It's the middle of the post-holiday workweek, and it's the perfect time to look back on the amazing three weeks I've come back from, three weeks of a very people-filled existence across four cities. The joys of a location agnostic job became very obvious during this holiday season - I worked from Goa (not at all funny and not all original to say that 'working from Goa' is a misnomer) through the middle of December and spent the end-of-December-start-of-January in Chandigarh, Amritsar and Delhi being the giddy couch potato that I excel at, all the while surrounded by various members of my loving and lovely family.

All my family holidays in recent years have been 3-5 day affairs, and all of them have been amazing. This December was especially memorable not just because it was three weeks of uninterrupted family time, not even because it may have been the first time in our lives that my brother and I did not get into fights and name-calling, but because I had some amazing epiphanies about the value of this animal called family, which I will now proceed to try and summarize:

It's a little bit of everything. I think I've cracked the code of why joint families work. Sort of. When you live with one person, the apple of your eye that he is, there's so much pressure on him to be entertaining, generous, available, wise and crazy, every single day. When you live, on the other hand, with a large bunch of people, that pressure gets distributed. The fact that this animal is made of some utterly unique components makes for so much entertainment all around. There's a dad who cracks dad jokes like no other, there's a mom who is so generous with her time and hugs and kisses, there's an aunt who is funny and kind, there are cousins who have turned sarcastic one-liners into a fine art, there's a brother who introduces you to five new gadgets a day. I feel like I grew at least a thousand new brain cells this vacation.

They keep you humble. Every once in a while, you'll do something half decent at work, and colleagues will praise you to the skies - "No one negotiates as hard and as charmingly like you do, Manjot!" And just when you're starting to bask and grow a permanent smirk, you will see two family members almost crack a rib, laughing at that unnecessarily long-winded and utterly embarrassing story that your mom loves to tell about you, a story that involves watermelons and bed-wetting at a shockingly grown up age.

They make you feel like you're cat's whiskers. The point above notwithstanding, the same above-mentioned mom can make you sound like Einstein and Edmund Hillary rolled into one when describing childhood feats of intelligence and bravery. And nothing beats overhearing your father bragging about your career to his buddies.

There's always someone crazier than you. Want to go for a dip in the sea at 2 AM? I have a cousin who will be up and throwing swimming shorts on before you've finished thinking that thought. There's always someone who has done and dusted through all the crazy ideas that you might come up with - changed careers for the nth time, driven five hours to a hill town for lunch just because they felt like it, started two businesses before 30, decided to become vegetarian at age 10, traveled through 8 cities in 10 days because they had '10 days to kill between two vacations' (this last is my retired parents), and so on.

So, yeah, my holidays were awesome.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The report card of the millennium

A few weeks ago, on September 25 2015, the world sat down and reviewed its 15-year performance report. This was done with some fanfare, not in the least because the coolest pope in history attended, but the discussion did not receive as much attention as it deserves. Shouldn't the world be talking about this more? How did we do on the promises we had made? Did we meet our targets, did we miss them by a whisker or a mile? The discussions emerging from the UN Sustainable Development summit remind me of the days when I was part of one of the most organised workplaces possible - a consulting company. The same wordy discourses on strengths and 'development needs' which, if someone wanted to simplify them, could be said like this: There are three things you did well last year. There are four things you absolute suck at and you need to get better at them fast if you want to survive. Get to it. And this is how I'd like to simplify the world's 15-year report card:

In September 2000, the world's leaders got together and adopted the "Millennium Development Goals", also called the MDGs, which were time-bound, quantified targets to address the inequity and injustice in the world. There were 8 goals in total, each broken down into targets and indicators. For example, the slightly lofty-sounding Goal 1 -"To Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty", had two targets and five indicators:

Target 1: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day.
Indicators (World Bank ratios):
1. Proportion of population below $1 (1993 PPP) per day
2. Poverty gap ratio [incidence x depth of poverty]
3. Share of poorest quintile in national consumption

Target 2: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
Indicators (UNICEF, WHO and FAO ratios:
4. Prevalence of underweight children under five years of age
5. Proportion of population below minimum level of dietary energy consumption

...and so on for the remaining 7 goals. This internationally agreed framework of 8 goals, complemented by 18 targets and 48 technical indicators was going to address poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter, and exclusion-while promoting gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. They included basic human rights-the rights of each person on the planet to health, education, shelter, and security.

Cut to September 2015, and to my original question: how did we do? We did well in some goals, messed up others. While the proportion of people living under $1.25 PPP a day is lower than it was, the proportion of women dying in childbirth remains unacceptably high and 6 million children are still dying before reaching their fifth birthday. As the MDG dream drew its last breath, it gave birth to MDG 2.0, with bigger and more numerous arms and legs. The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are 17 goals with 169 targets. They are more ambitious and they have greater world consensus. We're now going to have NO ONE living under $1.25 a day by the time we arrive in 2030, we're going to have no one dying of AIDS, and we're going to do all this while taking care of the planet.

The infographic below summarizes our performance on the first six MDGs and their evolution into the first five SDGs.

Next: MDGs 7 and 8 and SDGs 6 through 17.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Working out of Bombay cafes

For the past year or so, I've lived with the dubious joys of working from home. The advantages are many - I can work from Goa or Macleodganj, I can go get a foot massage in the middle of my work day, I don't need to buy work clothes, etc. But overall, it's been a mixed bag, because making this work, week after week, takes a high level of discipline, which I have, and a low dependence on social contact, which I don't have at all. 

At some point last year, I realised that the only two people I saw from Monday to Friday were my loving husband and our lovely domestic help. So I was either putting a lot of pressure on these two people to provide me with all the human contact I need, or I was postponing all non-work related stimulation to weekends. A narrow, middle path that suggested itself  was that I work out of coffee shops and restaurants, which provide lots of opportunities for random conversations and people watching while you work. So I scouted locations in Bombay (with Bandra as the epicenter of the search) where I could sit and work productively. And what a fun project this has been! I've been working out of various cafes, and restaurants  and evaluate them on the basis of five criteria:

Birdsong Cafe
  • General ambiance - how bright, airy and cheerful is it, does it have comfortable tables, chairs
  • WiFi quality
  • Staff philosophy of I'll-leave-you-in-peace-until-you-need-me
  • Quality of food and coffee
  • Productivity, or average % completion of my To-Do-List for the day
I'm very aware that all the metrics in this analysis are subjective and prone to inconsistency, but it's better than what is out there - Zomato doesn't have a filter for "suitable for working", and the small handful of existing blogs on this subject are even more subjective. 

So here's my list of the top 5 working spaces in Bandra:  
  1. The Bagel Shop, Bandra WMy favorite thing about this place is the sheer number of potted plants - some days you can imagine you're sitting in a leafy verandah of an old colonial bungalow. The food is amazing too - sandwiches, bagels, salads made fresh and falvorful, innovative milk shakes, yumm! Cons: It's slightly expensive, and the chairs do not encourage long hours of sitting
  2. Taj Mahal Tea House, St. John Baptist Road, Bandra WThis place has the nicest staff you'll ever see! That, plus the sheer variety of teas alone would have made this place a workplace 10 for me. You can sit and work out of here for hours with one cup of tea; they'll just keep refilling your water. The food is above average, and the seating is so comfortable that I've done multiple 8-hour workdays here. Like almost all the coffee shops I've been to, the WiFi is patchy, so it's a good idea to always keep an internet data card handy.
  3. Birdsong Cafe. Delicious organic food!
  4. Bru World Cafe, Pali Hill. Great coffee! And the WiFi is fast and consistent.
  5. The Yoga House
Also great: 
  1. Saltwater cafe
  2. Candies
  3. Sassy Spoon
  4. Bru World Cafe, St  John Baptist Road

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