Growing up in India when we had one radio station (All India Radio) and one TV station (Doordarshan) both of which mostly served up government propaganda, we used to listen to the BBC to get the “real” news (and I must confess I tried to model my English on some of those great newsreaders!).
During those days we marveled at the freedom that Americans seemed to have to say whatever they pleased without any fear or favor. We saw them even toppling a president (Nixon) whose Watergate cover-up was worse than the crime. Truly the land of the free and the home of the brave, we thought.
A couple of recent incidents made me wonder whether America today was that much different from India of the past when it came to freedom of speech and expression (guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution). And following are those episodes.
My multi-talented daughter, Sakshi, even when only 12 years old, combined her skill using technology and her flair for drama to make and post on YouTube several short, entertaining videos on various topics – you can see one of them at:
Then in December 2012 she made a fateful video that brought her video producing “career” to an abrupt end. Below is the video she posted on Youtube:
But oops – there is no video – because it got “censored”. And why did that happen? In that video (posted in a Youtube account controlled by her mother), Sakshi had depicted one of her elementary school teachers (without naming either school or teachers) as crazy enough to have mood swings and verbally abuse the children and another teacher putting her feet on the children and twisting their arms during PE class.
When the video was first posted, I was in India along with my mother and she and I had a good laugh at the video which we thought was clearly a parody (like a Saturday Night Live skit). But what followed was unbelievable. An EMail from the principal, Pam Mitchell, asking that the video be immediately removed and hinting at dire consequences if that was not done. And in the course of arguing that the school could not demand removal of a video that did not mention the name of the school nor the teachers and was not made during school hours nor using school equipment, I filed an Open Records Request and found a whole army of school officials (including Assistant Superintendent, Brad Hunt), seemingly alarmed by the video, were writing conspiratorial EMails to each other about how to deal with the “situation”. Clearly this video was not being treated as a childish parody – which suggested to me that something more serious was going on. Or possibly the cover-up was just worse than the crime – shades of Watergate!
Cutting to the chase, Sakshi caved in to the pressure (despite my total support, telling her to stand her ground) and wrote a letter of apology to all and sundry and the video was taken down. And, as I feared, Sakshi did not make another video in this series – and her budding video “career” came to an abrupt end.
Fast forward to several years later. Sakshi, now several years older, is in Newspaper class where she is a “reporter” writing articles online on various topics. One of them is titled “Kids in Asian families forced on to unwanted career paths” which as the title suggests is not flattering towards “Asian parents” in general and me (as her father) in particular. In her bid to make a point and add some drama, she had crossed over from reporting/opining on facts to writing fiction – and here is the link to that article posted on the school’s website:
But oops again – there is nothing there! So what happened this time?
This is the sequence of events. I posted a comment disagreeing with Sakshi’s contentions. Sakshi promptly deleted my comment. I took this up with her teacher suggesting that if any of his student “reporters” wrote and posted online anything controversial, then readers should be given an opportunity to respond on the same page and disagree. However, rather than allowing that, the teacher promptly had the article itself deleted. And that, in my opinion, was a pity because what could have been teaching moment was lost and Sakshi suffered the ignominy of one more her products (resulting from some hard and dedicated work) being “censored”.
And the irony of all this is when I brought this article to the attention to Brad Hunt (the Assistant Superintendent, who behind the scenes was doing his best to get Sakshi’s video deleted because “it would upset the teachers who are sensitive people”), his comment surprisingly was “Sakshi is a strong writer. I think given that this article is in the “opinions” section that it should be treated as such, her opinion. “.
Apparently what is not good for the geese is good for the gander!
And the unfortunate lesson Sakshi probably learnt from all this is that she lives in the land of the (not so) free and the home of the (not that) brave!!
I wanted to write something about democracy the day after Independence Day in the US and what came to mind was a posting I made on Facebook a couple of months ago during local election season and the reaction that resulted from it – see the string in its entirety below (except for some expletive-laden comments by, strangely enough, a couple of women, which the moderator deleted).
To give this some context, one of my American friends recently remarked to me that small town elections here tend to be the nastiest since, unlike in State or National elections, the candidates are well-known to the populace and any criticism is taken personally. Example: people can call Obama and Bush and kinds of names and attribute to them actions that they may or may not have been responsible for and it is highly unlikely anyone will even bat an eyelid, leave alone come after you in person. But try the same about someone running for City Council or Mayor in a small town, and all hell could break loose!
Finally, I cannot conclude without commenting one aspect of elections – voter turnout. A small town election, despite all the noise by rabid supporters on either side, could result in a turn out of less than 10% (and less than 5% for run-off elections). This is not necessarily because the voters are apathetic to the process – in my opinion, it is just a message from the majority of the electorate that “life is pretty good and we are pretty satisfied with the status-quo and we really don’t care who wins”. So to get at least their base to turn out, politicians have to portray a situation which implies that if they are not elected, the sky will fall down and the world as we know it will come to an end – so they resort to a host of negative ads and messages that increases the nastiness – and possibly demotivates many who don’t think they have a dog in the fight to come out to the polls.
Given that every politician who gets elected at any level (from local to national) engages in questionable tactics (including the current Mayor in the last election), I find it somewhat hypocritical for people (especially politicians) to pile onto Burrows for his (supposed) fake endorsements. (I think it would have been smarter for him to claim that he was endorsed by George W. Bush, a fact which no one could have verified one way or another!).
Anyway, Burrows’ only prior claim to fame was that he ran against me for the President of Coppell Republican Club and lost last year. However, the exposure he is getting in this forum of over a 1000 people will probably turn him into a minor celebrity and he will get the name recognition that he was missing earlier. Imagine, if you knew neither candidate personally and you were standing in the election booth having to pick between Yingling (whose name sounds vaguely foreign) and Burrows (whose name sounds solidly American) which one would you pick? Just due to this xenophobia among a large section of our community (remember the fate of Akula and Guduru?), the supposed underdog might end up prevailing on election day.
Sometimes ignoring your unknown opponent might be a better tactic than trying to publicly tear him down ….
After my last posting (http://venkyvenkatraman.com/2014/05/whats-in-a-name/) I realized after several weeks that the notification EMail that usually gets sent whenever I have posted something new apparently went out to just a few of my subscribers.
Ever since then I have been trying to debug this problem with no luck. Today I sent a Test EMail from my blog and several of you responded back confirming you got it. So it appears that this problem may now be resolved.
So in case you did not receive a notification when I posted my last blog item (‘What’s in a name?”) and receive this one, I hope will read, and as usual, I welcome any comment.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – William Shakespeare.
So does it really matter that the names of large number of cities and states of India got changed? This is a topic that I have felt strongly about ever since I was a kid. And recently my long dormant feelings were reactivated while watching, of all things, CSPAN, where I heard Justice Antonin Scalia (of the US Supreme Court) flatly refusing to refer to Bombay as Mumbai (see video):
When I was growing up in what was then internationally know as “Bombay”, it already had different names in various regional languages of India. It was called “Mumbai” by the Marati speaking (local) people, “Bumbuy” by Hindi speakers and “Bumbaai” by those speaking Tamil.
Since my parents had migrated from what was then “Madras” (now “Chennai”), technically, people of my ilk (Tamilians) were referred to as “outsiders” and not “sons of the soil” like the native Marati speakers called themselves.
The push to change the name formally from Bombay to Mumbai was also to signal to the “outsiders” that the city belonged to the “sons of the soil” and not to the “outsiders” – so the impetus for the name change was NOT to break-off from the British legacy (as sometimes wrongly portrayed by some).
Eventually, the “sons of the soil” prevailed in 1995 and the name of the city was formally changed to “Mumbai”.
And soon, like dominoes, “sons of the soil” in other cities swung into action – my parent’s city of origin changed from “Madras” to “Chennai”, my place of birth changed from “Calcutta” to “Kolkatta”, the city where I did my graduate education changed from “Bangalore” to “Bengaluru” and so on. And numerous other cities and states changed names creating a geographical nightmare.
And the laughable part of all this was that aside from losing names that were known internationally for centuries, the new names could be exactly pronounced only by people familiar with the local language and their respective scripts (example Marati, Tamil and Bengali, in case of Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkatta respectively).
So coming back to William Shakespeare and paraphrasing, “A rose by any other name might become unpronounceable!”
And in my opinion, Justice Scalia is justified in his insistence on using the original name for Bombay. And I believe it comes from his conservative perspective (that I share), which is, why change something without any valid rationale to do so?
And why should this topic of name changes in India be of any interest to my American readers? Here’s why:
My current home state of Texas was once part of Mexico. It is projected by the year 2030, Hispanics will become the majority in Texas. And they might demand one day that names of cities like Dallas, Houston, Austin, etc revert back to the “original” Spanish names. And the name of the great state of Texas be changed back to Tejas!
And if these demands are acceded to, one fine day, international tourists when making travel plans, will be left scratching their heads as to what in the world happened to Dallas, Texas! And that would be a real pity!!
My mother took her last breath on this earth at 4:45 am on October 9, 2013, with me sitting by her side and holding her hand as she lay unconscious on her hospital bed. In the background was softly playing the Hindu Mahamrityunjaya Mantra:
“OM. Tryambakam Yajamahe, Sugandhim Pushti-Vardhanam, Urvarukamiva Bandhanaan, Mrityor Mukshi Yamamritaat…” which roughly translates to “We Meditate on the Three-eyed reality Which permeates and nourishes all like a fragrance.
May we be liberated from death for the sake of immortality, Even as the cucumber is severed from bondage to the creeper.”
The doctor came in and pronounced her dead and although I knew the end was near even when I stepped onto the plane in Dallas, there was a moment of disbelief. I was told when I reached Bombay that my mother was clinging on to her life just waiting for me to arrive. When I reached the hospital, she was unconscious and breathing hard. As I sat next to her and talked to her hoping that she was sensing my presence at some subconscious level, I was also hoping against hope that she would suddenly open her eyes and give me the special smile that she had for me, her oldest child. But it was not to be and some 30 hours after I arrived, she left this earth without regaining consciousness. I never left her side once she passed, staying at her bedside, in the hearse which took her home, during the ceremonies which followed, back into the hearse to the crematorium for more ceremonies till I finally lit the funeral pyre, gently pushed her body into the incinerator, collected her hot ashes with my bare hands about an hour later and then immersed them in the sea at 1:45 pm on the same day.
Now it is more than 2 months since her passing and I look back on her life and the special bond that we had from the beginning of my life to the end of hers.
My mother was married when she was only 17. She used to tell me that she was a very smart student in school and wanted to be a doctor. But in those days, girls were not expected to be too smart – just get married as soon as they were out of school and have a family.
I was born to my mother when she was just 18. She used to tell me that I almost died at birth since my umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck and I choked to the point that I was blue when I was born. So my survival was like a miracle to her.
And the strange part was that all my life whenever I looked at her, I could see the infinite love she had for the baby who almost never made it. And from my side, as a child, my mother was this most beautiful person in the world, who could solve any problem that I brought to her, who was my biggest cheer-leader when I was succeeding at something and the person who would console me at times of loss and sorrow.
I realize now that almost everything I did was to try to impress her – and she used to be thrilled with whatever little thing I accomplished. And she believed that I was smart enough to achieve anything I wanted in life – and she also knew all my weaknesses that held me back from reaching some of my goals.
Now that she is gone, even as a middle aged man, I feel orphaned. But then I hear my mother’s voice talking to me, repeating what she has told me many times “You have always done your duty as my oldest son and unlike many other parents have about their children, I have no disappointments at all with you. So I will never be gone from your life. Even if my body leaves this earth, my spirit will be always be around protecting and guiding you”.
And, come to think of it, from my side I have no regrets as well. There was nothing left unsaid or any unfinished business between me and her. She lived a good life and had a relatively painless passage out of this world (which is ultimately what is sought by reciting the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra).
So I will move forward full steam ahead with my life and ensure that all the efforts that my mother made in bringing me into this world and nurturing me during sickness and health shall not have been in vain.
Finally, when it is my time to kick the bucket, I will have no fear whatsoever, since I have no doubt she will be out there somewhere waiting to welcome me back in her arms once again!
After the recent shooting at an Elementary school in Newtown, CT, I posted this question on Facebook:
This eventually resulted in an extended Facebook dialog between me and Boyd Hawkins (which I am posting in its entirety here). Just as an introduction, Boyd and I serve on the Board of the Coppell Republican Club. However, we have radically different backgrounds. Boyd is white, Christian, gun owner who has been around guns since he was a kid and an ardent defender of the 2nd amendment and gun owner’s rights. I am brown, Hindu, never handled a real gun in my life and a pragmatist (that is, a problem solver not bothered too much about any ideology).
Hope you find this dialog illuminating – and worth commenting about – your views (especially controversial ones) are welcome!
This coincidentally happened also last Friday but in China – same scenario – evil, crazy nut attacks children in school – except nobody appears to have died because the weapon of choice was not an assault rifle. There are and always will be some crazy, lunatics in all countries and cultures – challenge is for the “sane” majority to finds ways to minimize the damage that the loons could potentially do.http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/14/world/asia/china-knife-attack/index.html
Like most US citizens, I get the occasional Summons to attend Jury Duty and that usually involves going down to Court house and then being sent home with a “Thanks for being willing to serve” and a promise of a $6 check being mailed to you for showing up.
However, a few weeks ago, it was different. I sat in the main jury room (along with around 500 people) where the numbers were called out and this time there was a lot of cases and my number was picked. I was instructed to go to the 191st Civil District Court (presided over by Judge Gena Slaughter, a relatively young lady who told us later that she had 4 and 5 year old children) on the 7th floor of the same building.
About 75 or so of us lined up outside the 191st Court and we were shepherded into the Court room in batches by the bailiff. I got assigned to the seat at the left most back corner of the court. “Good” – I thought to myself, since it appeared I would be the least likely to get noticed and picked – and began to plan the rest of my day. Others in the jury pool, from their expressions, seemed be hoping for the same outcome (given that was a Monday and Judge Slaughter had just told us the trial could go on till the following Monday!).
Turned out there were 3 lawyers and a Pro Se (that is, a self representing individual) in the court room. Each of them then conducted a voir dire, that is, a process to find out more about the potential jurors. The lawyers / pro se eventually got to me and I recalled being addressed as Mr. V. “Another good sign”, I thought. “They can’t even pronounce my name, I should be out of here shortly”. However, some other questions seemed to suggest that they might be getting interested in me. They asked about my Electrical Engineering qualification, my IT experience, international travel and most interestingly my knowledge of water borne diseases such as cholera.
Afterwards we all trooped out into the lobby and waited for what seemed like an eternity. I did some reading and took a short nap. We were then called back into the Court room where Judge Gena Slaughter started announcing the names of the 12 jurors who were going to be picked. I was half listening since I was pretty confident of not being on the list when she called out for Juror #11 and it sounded like my name. I stood up, Judge Slaughter apologized for mangling my name. I told her she was close enough – and I was officially Juror #11 and I had to take my place on one of the jury chairs. The feeling was like the opposite of winning the lottery!
The judge gave us the jury instructions regarding dos and don’ts and the hearing then commenced immediately.
The case involved a company called Global Water Group (the plaintiff, a Water Purification company) who was suing another one called Force (the Pro Se, a one man Sewage treatment company) and another company (EMS, a pipeline services company) and its former CEO.
The details are of the case are not what I am looking to focus on in this blog entry – so I will explain it, with apologies to those involved for whom this was serious business, in the manner I did to my daughters Sakshi and Smrithi (13 and 11 respectively) after the trial was over. Here goes:
“There was this guy who knew how to really purify dirty water (like what might be found next to corpses in Iraq) and convert it into pure water (better than Avian!), who we will from hereon refer to as the Pure Water guy. Then there was this guy who knew how to take sewage and convert it into liquid that could be disposed off without messing the environment BUT could not be drunk by humans, who we will from hereon refer to as the Shit Water guy. Pure Water guy then hired Shit Water guy and made him part of his company. Both of them then went together and tried very hard to get some business in a place called Mejedia in Rumania, to take over and run their Municipal Sewage and Water systems and this (and other similar) business MIGHT have earned them profits of around $54 million. Pure Water guy spent a lot of money trying to get this business but Rumania being a very corrupt country, it was difficult to get business without bribing people and so after sometime, Pure Water guy gave up. Then Shit Water guy secretly started to try to get this business on his own without telling Pure Water guy, using Pure Water guy’s PowerPoints, contacts, etc. Shit Water guy managed to reach an agreement in Rumania but needed $1.5 million Bond money to get the contract. Shit Water guy’s finance partner went and asked his friend from Verline (from hereon referred to as Old guy) for a loan of $1.5 million. Old guy did not have the money but managed to find a few Board members at EMS (from hereon referred to as Rich guys) who agreed to give the loan. For this, Old guy and Shit Water guy signed a Promissory note. Shit Water guy then sent this Bond money to his partner in Rumania (hereon referred to as the Foreign Crook guy) who put this money in a bank account, where it was meant to stay for 3 months after which time it was supposed to be returned to Rich guys along with an interest of 15%. The money stayed in the bank account for 2 months after which the Foreign Crook guy made it disappear! When Old Guy found this out, he panicked – he told Rich Guys that their money was gone – EMS CEO (on behalf of Rich Guys) put pressure on Old Guy to compensate for the loss. Old Guy went to Shit Water guy to get the money from him. But Shit Water guy was broke and had no money. So he gave all his patents to Old Guy who in turn gave it to EMS along with his patents. And then EMS tried to get into the Water business to try and make money and recover the lost $1.5 million. And then Pure Water guy found out all this was going on behind his back and the shit then really hit the ceiling (so to speak)! Pure Water guy wrote Shit Water guy a nasty Email scaring the day lights out of him and gave him a lot of conditions to meet – and if he did not, Pure Water guy would “send him to jail”. Shit Water guy complied with all the conditions for fear of being sued. He stopped making any further attempts to do business in Rumania and transferred whatever agreement he had reached to Pure Water guy and made written apologies to all and sundry, confessing to everything and asking all his contacts in Rumania to do business with the Pure Water guy instead of him. However, given the corruption in Rumania, Pure Water guy still could not get any business there. EMS tried to use the patents that they got from Shit Water guy and tried to start a new Water business (in other countries like Mexico but not in Rumania) but failed to close one single deal and so did not make a single dollar in this new business.
To cut a long story short, Old Guy died of natural causes and so Pure Water Guy sued Shit Water guy and EMS claiming that he was owed damages of around $50 million due to the actions of the Shit Water guy and EMS (who Pure Water guy alleged were involved in a “conspiracy”) but Judge Slaughter dismissed the suit without any jury deliberation since she determined that Pure Water guy did not establish that he suffered any loss/damage and no one had made any money from the Rumanian adventure (basically agreeing with EMS’s attorney that the whole thing was just a “cow pile” for everyone involved)”.
Now here comes my impression of the whole process, especially vis-à-vis the jury system.
First of all, the parties had been going at it in front of this same judge since 2008 while the jurors were those who got “accidentally” (and mostly unwillingly) pulled into this matter for a relatively brief period. Although I, with my Engineering/IT/International background, could easily understand this whole matter (and in fact made 64 pages of notes during the trial which I later sent to the judge), I could tell that many of the jurors were quite disinterested and not comprehending any of the detailed technical issues that all parties were bringing up (with some of the jurors just doodling in their note pads). Although we were not allowed to discuss the case till we called upon to do so (which never happened), stray remarks (like “I like that lawyer, he reminds me of Matlock”, “I am waiting for the Pro Se to cross examine himself – that will be fun!”, etc) gave me the impression that if we had actually deliberated on this case, it would have been a sham with just a few of us having really paid attention to any of the testimony (and more importantly, understood what was presented). I would like to think that I could have swayed most of the jurors (with whom I established a good rapport during lunch time and while walking out to the train) and help arrive at the “right” decision – but then I might have ended becoming a de-facto judge!
Bottom line – after this experience, I strongly believe that parties in a dispute looking for a jury to decide their fate, are essentially rolling the dice – they might get lucky and win the lottery even they were completely wrong – on the other hand, they might lose big, even though they might be completely on the right side of the law!
I for one would any day prefer to have my fate determined by a learned, UNBIASED judge – and hope and pray that my fate will never be in the hands of a bunch of random, unqualified strangers!!
What about you? Feel free to comment here – I would really like to hear your thoughts – especially if you vehemently disagree with my opinions!
Last week I had a chance to comment on the 3rd debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama which was posted by Ross Kecseg (one of the program hosts) as below:
Ross Kecseg Check out this week’s show, we interviewed three great guests including Al Lee, Adrian Murray and Venky Venkatraman. We want your feedback!
NOTE: I am on in the last 20 minutes (start playing from the 99th minute by clicking on the bar) – this time the radio station had some technical difficulties (the volume of my voice is much lower than the others) but I was still able to make some points.
After receiving generally positive feedback from my first foray into the political talk show world (about which I blogged earlier), I was invited today to participate in a discussion about the second debate that took place between President Obama and Mitt Romney earlier this week.
In addition, this time I had the opportunity to express my views about the political involvement of Indians inAmerica as well.
As before, if you have the time and the inclination, you could listen (link below) and share your comments (NOTE: My participation begins around the 75th minute – so once the audio starts playing, you can click on the bar at around the half way point and move it forward till it displays 75 to skip the first 75 minutes):