Sunday, March 18, 2012

Toronto diaries

I traveled down to Buffalo(NY) on my way to Toronto, on a bright day when I got my hour of daylight savings back. I was going to spend a week with my maternal uncle's best friend(Venkat) and his family - Priya Aunty and their 14 year old son, Bhaskar. The week gave me a lot of time to take my mind off the academics, work on my ideas and think about life in general. Some of the ideas which stuck!

Family - I have enjoyed being a loner for a long time now. Though I have been surrounded by great friends at BITS, Unilever, TFI and during breaks at home, my best times have been with myself. To be honest, as vulnerable as I feel and have felt for being single, I enjoy the opportunity it gives to explore myself. All of last week was an exercise for me to observe what nurturing a great family looks like - the amount of effort it entails, the trials and tribulations of having children of your own, the pressures of having a life style which matches your ideals and means and more importantly, recognizing the costs of giving up things that you love to do for things a family wants you to do. Being on the other side of the divide as a silent observer and as a primary school teacher who went to the extent of assuming parenthood, I could see how hard they tried and how anxious they were for their son.  Coincidentally, I was reading Obama's audacity of hope at the same time and especially his thoughts on family. Whatever be the criticism about him and his administrative abilities, I have begun to like him a little more after reading through the book. Maybe part of it had to do with having similarities in life maps, political idealism and ambitions. His chapters on politics and family were honest, moving and very instructive. I could easily imagine myself going through all of it myself. In short, in lot of ways he spoke to my very core - identity, struggles and ambitions. I will leave it to nature to take it's own course  but I can't help but wonder if I would balance a public service life well with family life. At least, I have role models to look up to - close and dear to the mighty and powerful!

Empathy -  “When we grow in spiritual consciousness, we identify with all there is in the world. Then there can be no exploitation. It is ourselves we are helping. It is ourselves we are healing.” This quote by Dr V from Aravind eye care has been going around in circles in my mind for a while now. Partly because it came from a person whom I consider very dear and important, and partly because it spoke to me. A lot of questions have  sprung up within me immediately. My usual way of thought having trained as an engineer and now being trained as an economist is to look for problems I guess. I looked back at myself in the mirror and asked if I could have done better with empathy. So, here goes my random list. If you feel that I am a bad person after reading through the list, you will be forgiven. I have no pretense of being a saint either!

Can I really feel what it is like to feel inferior, depressed or under-confident by virtue of birth, labels and circumstances? Do I really understand the pains of being labelled as dark or downtrodden or dumb or unhygienic or uncivilized?  Can I feel the indignity of having to defecate in public or drink water from an open stream? Will I ever understand what it feels like to be malnourished during my childhood? Can I imagine the suffering of watching your dear ones die prematurely because of hunger and disease? 

Did I realize how my close friends felt when I took the liberties to crack smart Alec jokes on them? Being at the receiving end now, do I have the empathy to believe in transformation? How long will it take before I realize that at a primordial level, all of us are the same? Our fears and hopes, pleasures and pains, love and loss, ambitions and failures, we all have same the currency of spirit. How will I translate all of these questions into understanding the people I come into touch with - my roommate, my classmates, my friends and family?

As most engineers and economists do, I have the innate ability to raise great questions with no solutions! At the root of answers to all the questions, lies my ability to listen and observe very carefully. Listen without filters, observe without bias. A warm heart and a full mind. A heat full of grace and a soul generated by love as Dr. King remarked. Or a Muslim body, a Christian heart and a Hindu soul like Swami Vivekananda said. In reaching for those ideals and following the simple processes I hope to grow in spiritual consciousness. Try to find what is more common and celebrate the uncommon, and in the process find some joy within. There are somethings I am sure plastic cards can't buy and I am glad that it was this way!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The difficulty of being good at Harvard - Part III - Soul

Let me jump to the disclaimer right away. I started writing this blog partly hoping that it would crystallize my amorphous thoughts. To give some channel to the circular nature of my thoughts. I did not have a readership in mind. Though I do not delude myself into thinking that this will be read by a lot of people, I am humbled when people mention that they enjoy reading my reflections. So, I have to accept that I think of a reader when I write nowadays. As much as I write to myself, I try to speak to people who might be thinking like me out there. I also started to think of critics who make a mockery of my spiritual inclinations. As much as I am least bit ashamed of having a part of me which is irrational, I think of those self proclaimed rational people with scientific temper. If you belong to that tribe, let me warn you that this will dissapoint you. 

There is much of what happens around in the world I cannot rationalize. That is a weakness of my limited intellect and even more limited wisdom of my experience. As much as I am willing to learn what science has unraveled so far, I am doubtful of it's ability to explain why things happen the way they do. Till the time neuroscience, microbiology, particle physics, nano technology cannot answer the root of our being, I have the right to be agnostic about science itself. I also have the right to be faithful of my own experience.

It is in that spirit I write about the struggles so far of not having the space to talk about what I deeply believe in with folks at HKS. And these conversations come so naturally with folks at HGSE(Ed School). Why is that educators and everybody interested in education have a strong correlation with being deeply spiritual? On the flip side, why is that everybody interested in power of harder nature - economic and political are hesitant to talk about the spirituality of their lives. What drives them to do good? Why are they born? What is the purpose of our finite lives? Why is spirituality or soul or consciousness such a taboo word in power corridors? Is it because of the proximity to religion and the all familiar distasteful baggage religion brings with it? Or is it because that when you are in power, it corrupts you and you believe that you always have been self made rather than by some fortuitous turn of events combined with your hardwork?

I struggle everyday just taking my head to Kennedy school. What motivates me is mostly irrational. I believe and go with my intuition. I then retrofit it with my rational mind. It is hard to get myself excited about writing Stata code, or solving dynamic general equilibrium models, or figuring out the endogeneity problems. I easily get excited about any discussions on nature of motivation at work place, life long learning and how it happens and what makes people make the decisions that they take. I am even more excited when I hear narratives which talk of excellence in the spiritual realm and in the realm of public service. Not the showbiz kinds but the quiet, untold humble stories of daily good. It is in those narratives I find more oneness with the world than in the game theory of it all. Sure it is exciting to solve those problems on paper. I find it much harder to listen deeply when it happens in real life. Swami Vivekananda said the key to all knowledge and wisdom is in the silence of your mind. I tell myself on most days to resist the impulsion to talk, just shut up and listen. Listen very deeply to the things which are common. Listen very deeply and empathize by truly being the other person where the uncommon comes from.

As I meditate more and more everyday, I have grown in this wisdom that silence within is the music of nature. It has all the answers for the questions you struggle with on a daily basis. It unties the circular nature of our thoughts which bog us down.  I can't point to science to convince me why it happens so consistently and so successfully. But I have faith that the only power I have like Gandhiji once said is that of a mute prayer.

The difficulty of being good at Harvard - Part II - Heart

It is hard to disentangle the heart/mind/soul. I am sure for eons sages, philosophers and more recently neuroscientists are wrestling with the same question. But I will use this loose working definition. Anything related to emotions and that which can be felt and articulated a little more concretely, as matters relating to that of the heart. Anything that can closely come into the realm of mystical, and incomprehensible to the writer himself, I will safely keep it for the soul(part III). Going to Harvard, writing the last part might get me labelled as being delusional(in some ways it has and I shall go into the emotional effects here!)

The title presupposes that I have been having a tough time. Which is not exactly true. I have been happy and more so grateful with all that has happened till date. But as Calvin rightly says, "Happiness isn't good enough for me, I demand euphoria!". This is about reconciling the kid within me who wants euphoria and the wise adult who is content with happiness. But if I stretch and ask myself, "Have I been myself in all the interactions?" "Have I had meaningful friendships which I wish to carry on for a lifetime?". The truth is a defnitely not a YES. I have struggled with my friendships at HKS. Especially come from a TFI culture, where deep friendships and heartfelt conversations were the norm, it was a hard transition to make. The fact that my best friends are folks at the Ed school highlights the disconnect between where my brain learns and where my heart yearns to be. More than anything else, it is a manifestation of who I am and what I expect from friendships. I have always been a relator, someone who will will risk himself with a few friends rather than the acquaintance of many. Share what is wonderfully common and give each other what we have in abundance. More often than not, speak more about mundane matters of heart than esoteric matters of the world. Bond over a quiet lunch or dinner rather than a loud ethanol and nicotine filled dance party.

While it has been disappointing to be on the fringes of a group and not totally belong, the feeling hit me more recently during a trip to Nashville. Over a period of 4 days, I felt I had more in common with some Fulbrighters than my classmates at HKS. I had exactly the kind of conversations, I had longed to have all the while. I had received and naturally gave a warmth of feeling which somehow was missing in the crimson red halls. I am not sure if it was the relaxed and holiday nature of the conference which bought out the best in everyone, or if it was a group which was not competing against each other, I could hear myself saying what I believed in. I realized in those moments how much my voice was stifled for the last 8 months. I could empathize in some way how it felt to feel inferior(self imposed or otherwise). I could imagine and empathize Dr.Ambedkar growing up, relegated to the last bench because everyone else belonged in the front. Being mocked for having a way of life and means different from the larger group. Voice and agency for him by virtue of his birth had to be much more hard earned compared to the others. I feel this way almost on most days at my school. My silence to most of the mocking that I get at school for being what I am is mistook as lack of voice. I can only barely imagine in a foreign land what it means to be a Dalit in India. Rather than reflecting a tone of victimhood, let me just say that I have found my objective equilibrium. Who am I to judge people around me? What I see is the color of the lens that I wear, a deep residual of negativity and bias which exists within me. The best response is to take a step back, accept all of it humbly in silence, and recognize the learning from the experience. One day I will have my share of respect for the person that I am, here in HKS and in future when I fight more tougher battles in politics in India.

“When we grow in spiritual consciousness, we identify with all there is in the world. Then there can be no exploitation. It is ourselves we are helping. It is ourselves we are healing.” said Dr. V. I will talk about the growth in spiritual consciousness or lack of it in the next part.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The difficulty of being good at Harvard - Part I - Brain

For the lack of creativity of making up an original title, I will borrow the title of Gurucharan Das's book. These are times I wonder if anything is ever original. Especially when I reflect on how our brain is influenced by the multitude of information and experiences we all go through. And as somebody who believes in Darwinism and consciousness in general, imagine the kind of evolution it has gone through before you got endowed with what you have. I will try and focus on challenges of being a Harvard jock for now though - intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. If someone is reading this, let me emphasize that I am a prisoner of my own past. This is only a colored reflection of how I view my experience at Harvard till date and in no way a judgement on how things are, at the most venerable institution of the world. 

How smart is smart enough? It is definitely one of the most, if not the THE most intellectually stimulating places that you could imagine. So much so that your brain simply does not have the ability to filter the inundation sometimes. When you are not worried about Hamiltonian or sub game perfect Nash equilibria or DGE models or probit/logit/tobit, you have the luxury of choosing between seminars, noteworthy speakers, discussion forums, study groups or random discussions with like minded friends. More often than not in the last 8 months, I never had the difficulty of having the luxury of such a choice. I literally picked up old pieces when I started working out the pre-read course work in June last year. I had to dust myself above my shoulders and start exercising some dormant parts of my brain. When I am not lost in the details of lectures, case workshops, problem sets and exams, I wonder like now what my objective function is! If it is to maximize learning, have I been free enough to learn without being trapped? Without being trapped by own ideologies, by my own delusions, by my own biases about countries, cultures and people. Almost everybody I have ran into at Harvard Kennedy School live mostly in their heads. It might be one of the highest IQ average surroundings I might ever get to be at. Having said that, I wonder how smart is smart enough? Having been a teacher myself, I have thought of learning as levels rather than absolute. Why do I care so much about my grades when I know that it is all a part of a learning curve. When I know that it measures a snapshot of my understanding at a certain point on the curve. Why I do not focus on moving to the next level instead relegating my self worth to a few letters? And more importantly, when nobody other than your imaginary competition only cares about them. Truly enjoying every moment of learning and being on the steep part of the curve has been the biggest challenge at Harvard. It has not been helped by an conventional culture of teaching and testing. There has not been a class so far where I have unconditionally enjoyed. Don't get me wrong. The professors here are exceptionally knowledgeable. But it is a classic supply-demand mismatch. What I get supplied is not stirring me enough? Or I am not demanding enough of what I really want from each course? Being an idealist and romantic that I am, I am still searching for that professor who is inspiring day in and day out. Whom you start thinking of when you get out of bed. Whose thoughts linger on when you eat your meals, brush your teeth or walk the yard. Maybe, I am a graduate student stuck with the delusion of wanting to be swayed by the power of a great teacher. I am not sure if any of my kids even remotely felt the same way about me?

Confucius said, " I hear I know, I see I remember, I do I understand". The noise to signal ratio is no different here than any other place. One of my commitments for ahead is to change that and do more by myself with what I hear and what I see. Hopefully, at the end of it I will be able to reach the Bloom's higher level of synthesis. And what I synthesize will be of practical utility!! Will move on to the challenges of the heart in the next reflection.