Air pollution is good for your marriage

Air pollution is good for your marriage

“It’s terrible, man.” said Anil. He was sitting at the wheel of his humongous diesel SUV as we were leaving the air pollution protest in Leisure Valley, Gurgaon.

“I was speaking to Meeta and we’re both really worried about the pollution.”

In the eight years I had known Anil, this was the first time he had mentioned Meeta and him agreeing on anything.

“There has to be something good in this.” I said to myself.

As a child I was always told “Look for the silver lining.” or “There’s always a bright side.”

Anil’s words were a clue. So I started researching what air pollution does to a marriage. I was shocked at what I found. Air pollution is the fount of conjugal and familial happiness!

The Centre for Research and Action on Marriage and Promiscuity (CRAMP) has done extensive research into the subject. Their research shows that Gurgaon has the nation’s highest rate of extra-marital affairs. Evidently, this is because everybody wants more than what they have, and everyone is stressed. Mumbai and Bangalore were a distant 2nd and 3rd after Gurgaon.

CRAMP focused their Air Quality Index – Marriage Quality Index  (AQI-MQI) research on Gurgaon because it has extra-marital action and bad air. (CRAMP considers extra-marital affairs the most measurable indicator of an unhappy marriage.)

The research found that pollution forces couples to worry about the same things. Men in the survey reported spending most time thinking about their next car followed by their promotion & raise. The Gurgaon women’s list was topped by what they would wear at the weekend party. The second spot for women was a tie between “next dress to buy” and “the rising cost of getting eyebrows done”.

But pollution unites spouses – they worry about the same thing. Consequently, they talk more and find more common ground to feel unsatisfied together. That is a sound basis for a stronger marriage.

The feeling of economic well-being that pollution brings about also helps marriages. Pollution is great for the economy and the stock-market. Industries such as healthcare and pharma are booming. With nebulizers, air purifiers, pollution masks etc. going through the roof, it is no wonder that the Sensex has climbed to an all-time high. The chart below shows the rising AQI and its disproportionate impact on the Sensex.

This unexpected boom makes couples feel wealthier. They are happy spending and in general feel well-off. The television anchors on the money channels talk about the resistance levels in the stock market – not in the human body. That further enhances the feel-good vibe.

This glee results in more conjugal action also leading to increased sales of contraceptives. For Pharma, it’s a win-win.

Pollution also helps spouses rediscover hidden love. CRAMP found that because of masks, low visibility and watering eyes, spouses were found frequently hitting on each other. When the masks come off, true love would sprout again. We interviewed Deepali, one of the survey participants.

“I was so overcome and surprised when Deepak asked me out. He seemed even more surprised when I took off my mask and said yes. We went on a date after five full years.” She said, wiping tears of joy from her eyes.

“Honestly, I mistook Deepali for Leena, but when we went on that date and sat and chatted, it was really wonderful. Like old times again.” Deepak confided in me. He too had tears in his eyes.

(All names have been changed to ensure the marriage stays happy).

Pollution also has a positive impact on families. School holidays, working from home – all this means more time spent together as a family. CRAMP surveyed a sample of families. They reported spending this time sharing original thoughts and rich intellectual content on Whatsapp and TikTok.

So, next time you feel depressed about pollution, seek out your spouse and talk about it. Find common ground. And look at the Sensex. You may be able to peer past the haze and see the bright side of things. Figuratively, of course.

___________

This piece is an outcome of “On the other hand” – a creative writing exercise useful for dealing with writer’s block. We practice it at the Himalayan Writing Retreat, where we help people uncover the writer hidden within. If you’re interested in writing, please visit https://www.himalayanwritingretreat.com/bootcamp/ .

That free Plastic water bottle on the train?

That free Plastic water bottle on the train?

We start our day with Plastic. I am traveling on the Shatabdi from Delhi to Kathgodam, and I find myself surrounded by the stuff. There is oceans of it waiting to be distributed.  These pictures speak.

But there is a simple, easy way to fight the scourge. A re-usable, refillable water bottle. I’ve owned mine (Picture below) for 13 years. The printing is getting worn out. I’ve used it on treks, while traveling by air, train, car, bus and on long solo motorcycle rides. If on average I use, say, 6 single-use plastic bottles every month, then this bottle has saved 13X12X6 = 936 bottles of water. In rupee terms that is over 10,000 rupees.

Reusable Water Bottle. Genius!

The Return On Investment (ROI) is an easy argument. I bought my water bottle for less than 600 Rupees, and it has paid me back many times over.

My reasons are beyond economic, though. There are 1000 fewer plastic bottle messing up our planet, thanks to this one re-usable bottle.  I am not done with this bottle yet. I intend to use it till it breaks. But it is a high quality bottle – it wont break easily. The printing on it will become illegible and the branding may go. But I don’t buy water bottles for reading.  I buy books for that. As long it holds water safely and is hygienic, I’m going to use it. 

The strangest pressures act on you on a Shatabdi. People insist that I should take that bottle of water because it is “Free”. I patiently explain that the water I carried in my waterbottle from my home is also free. Even more so because it frees me of having to think about how much plastic I am polluting the planet with.

“The attendant will probably sell it” comes the next argument.

Yes I know. But the point is that since I didn’t use it, it has replaced some other bottle which would have sold anyway.

Over the last decade it has become easier to travel with the bottle in India. Earlier I was often unsure about the quality of water I refilled the bottle with. Now the bottle is easily refilled. Airports offer free drinking water in fountains. Even railways stations – at least in some places – offer paid potable drinking water – mostly from an RO machine. Practically all offices have filtered, potable water.

When we travel we often eat out.  Restaurants are required by law to serve potable water free. They don’t tell you that because they want you to buy that plastic bottle of packaged water and add 4 rupees to their profits. But they are required to. In fact I once confronted that attitude at a restaurant in Nainital – a place called Zooby’s. They said they do not serve RO water – only regular water. I created a scene and asked the manager loudly how they got their license. He got into classic Hotel Management crisis management mode, opened the Bisleri bottle and with a genial smile proclaimed that they would not charge for it. I would have shouted at him some more if I hadn’t been gritting my teeth. Some people just don’t get it.

This is the tripadvisor review I wrote for them.

Not surprisingly, they haven’t responded.

Soda bottles are a similar, if smaller, bugbear. The picture is of a sodamaker I use. The plastic bottle is refillable and reusable. I do not buy soda bottles anymore. And on the rare occasion we drink cola it is from cans, which are recyclable. Sure it costs a little more. But the higher cost is offset by all the plastic water bottles I don’t buy. You can buy this “Mr Butler” sodamaker on Amazon. If you consume lots of soda, it will save you money too.

No, I don’t get any commission for pushing this. 🙂

Fact is, it’s easy to switch away from single use bottles. Carry a reusable bottle. An expensive one will help you make sure you don’t lose it (mine is a Nalgene bottle I bought from the US for $15, back when the rupee was 40 to the dollar).  Refill it when convenient. It helps if the bottle fits comfortably in your luggage – like in the bottle sleeve on your backpack. You’ll help save the planet, and save yourself a little money.

I feel good I’ve made a difference. I am happier still that I have instilled the same values and consciousness in my kids, and they too abhor plastic bottles.

They are 11 and 12, and they don’t consume single use plastic bottles. They carry water bottles and refill them as required. Think you can do the same?

Toilet paper & pen – American writers in the Indian village

Toilet paper & pen – American writers in the Indian village

“The American writers are coming.” I told my four staff members “We need to do a few things differently.”

Vandita and I discussed the meal schedule with the cook.

“The snacks are quite heavy at 6” he said. “We’ll keep a light dinner?”

“The 6’O clock meal is dinner, Vicky”.

He looked confused.

Raat ka khana 6 baje? Tab tak to andhera bhi nahin hota

(Dinner at 6? It’s not even dark by then.)

I told my staff to put toilet paper in the bathroom before the American writers arrived. When I went to check a pen was dutifully placed with each toilet roll. I inquired.

“Sir, yeh writer log bathroom mein likhte honge. Warna bathroom mein kagaz kyon chahiye?”

(Sir, these writers must write in the bathroom. Otherwise why would they need paper in there?)

We had drilled it into them that we ran a writing retreat. Ergo.

We were paranoid about the hygiene. Wash hands repeatedly. Nothing uncooked on the menu – all salads and cut fruit were gone. Only whole fruit and well cooked meals. Recyclable 20 litre Kegs of bottled water were brought up from Haldwani at an extra cost – we were unwilling to hand out a few hundred single-use plastic bottles.

We prepared hard before their arrival. The guests landed in Delhi and after 2 days in the plains finally reached the Himalayan Writing Retreat.

Their first response was love. They loved the décor, the rooms, the cedar-wood smell of the furniture. Then some basic questions came in.

“Why is there a bucket and a tumbler in my bathroom?” one writer asked.

That was explained.

“And that strange shower thingy next to the pot? What’s that for?”

Explaining a health faucet took a little more tact.

One of our staff has the habit of using rather graphic descriptions of our visitors.

“Sir woh moti wali madam garam paani maang rahi hai.”

(Sir the fat lady wants hot water.)

“Sir woh jo junglee baalon wali didi hai – woh ……”

(Sir, that lady with the wild hair, she …..”)

And so on. Indian village folks aren’t exactly famous for their political correctness. I’m glad they spoke in Hindi.

Picking a movie for Bollywood night was another challenge. We needed a masala bollywood film with song, dance and a reasonably illogical plot (Andhadhun was out). Yet it had to be short – less than 2 hour 30 minutes (Sholay was out).

Finally we watched “Jab we met”. It started well but the late hour and impromptu singing and dancing breaks in the story took their toll. Only 2 of the 10 writers made it till the end. The subtitles of the song lyrics had them bewildered.

“My beloved is like lemonade. I will glug him down.”

said the subtitle as Kareena Kapoor gyrated. My guests sought an explanation. I tried,  but how do I explain “Mahi mera sharbat warga. Mahi tainu gat gat pee laan.” In English?

Food was a high point. Only one participant fell sick, and that too just for one day.  Our neighbourhood baker Keith’s range of organic, whole-grain breads were a big hit. The writers picked three dishes they really liked from our menu and we held a cooking class and taught them how to cook those three dishes.

Many other little happinesses peppered the retreat.

The walk through the village resulted in an impromptu concert at the home of one of our staff members. The tall Himalayan peaks turned up in their full majesty, and doing yoga in their shadow every morning gave Yoga itself a whole new meaning. We went hiking and sometimes wrote in the surrounding forests. Meeting a real Sadhu at the Mukteshwar Temple added a layer of Hindu mysticism. Power was a challenge, so the internet was a challenge, but the hardy travelers had done their research and came with low expectations. The writers wrote a lot and seemed very happy with their progress.

We were grateful that everyone had something nice to say in the end.

Click on the above link to see what they had to say.

Before the writers left, we got some great suggestions on how to make things better next time. And next time isn’t too far – just another 5 months. Our next retreat is in the fall – details are at
https://www.himalayanwritingretreat.com/the-himalayan-fiction-writers-retreat-fall-2019/

Our staff was delighted to have this group over. Not just because they tipped in dollars, but because they were such a great, happy bunch to be around.

We’ve made new friends. We’ve learnt a lot more about writing from the amazing Erika Krouse. Most importantly, I think the retreat has changed all of us. We started off as Americans Writers and Indian villagers. Ten days later we had moved one step closer to being fellow citizens of a single planet.

Why I took my birthday off Facebook.

Why I took my birthday off Facebook.

“Many Happy Returns of the day. Happy Onam.” I type into the comment box of the birthday girl. Sometimes I replace Onam with Easter or something equally inane. Mostly, nobody reads the comment. Sometimes someone may like it. Rarely is it commented upon – even though I may have wished you Happy Moharram on your birthday. If I had 100+ repetitive, predictable comments on my timeline, I would ignore them too. Or mechanically like them. There’s probably an app for that.

So now when Facebook reminds me that it is XYZ’s birthday and “I should help them celebrate by wishing them” I don’t. The “wish people on facebook” has gone beyond farcical into the territory of satire.

More people communicating through Facebook makes Facebook richer. Not me. So I refuse to be a tool to be used by Facebook. Honestly, I don’t care to wish that colleague from the dark ages or the girl-I-met-once-on-vacation a happy birthday. And I really don’t care if they wish me. To me Facebook is a convenient way to keep-in-touch with people far away. Facebook calls it a friendship. I don’t. To check that reality, try borrowing large sums of money from each of your “friends”. That should be fun!

So I changed the privacy settings for my own birthday and made it invisible on Facebook. Yes, you can do that.

Nobody wished me on Facebook this year, and you know what? I feel great.

So how did I celebrate my birthday? What did I do?

I celebrated my birthday by doing the things I enjoy. I’ve wanted to explore the walking path from our home to a village named Lveshal. It is a IMG_20181209_13094740 km round trip by car. On my birthday, my-favourite-person-in-the-world and I packed a little day-pack and we ventured out to find the walking trail. We got lost, discovered a waterfall, had tea and oranges in the forest, then we found a road on which we walked for 4 km. We came across one vehicle in those 4 km and finally reached Lveshal. There we had chai-samosa, got directions to the actual trail and then hiked back on it along a stream. Along the way we also saw some beautiful birds, and found a gorgeous tail-feather almost 12 inches long. The 13k hike took us five hours, so after coming home I took a well-deserved nap. While I slept my-favourite-person-in-the-world – who was equally tired after the walk – baked me a cake. My kids gave me a birthday card which they had made by sticking beads on paper. Good luck buying those – and the feeling which comes with it – in a store. After dark we lit a wood-fire in the bukhari and I cut in the cake to loud singing by the kids. Then we had Chinese food for dinner.

It was my most wonderful birthday ever.

With social media we land up maintaining hundreds of superficial relationships instead of focusing on a few important ones. Instead of doing deep, we go wide. But I would take a few deep relationships over a thousand shallow ones.

If after reading this blog you immediately open up facebook to wish me a belated birthday, you really didn’t get it, did you?

P.s. This doesn’t fit with the article, but wanted to share anyway. I didn’t get a single gift, for which I am grateful. I already have way too much stuff, and way to little space to keep it. I don’t need another bobble-head or another mug with my name on it. The one thing hard to find where we live is decent beer. Everything else, either I already have or I don’t need.

So what is the price of clean air?

So what is the price of clean air?

INR 4,75,200 per day. Or INR 1.42 crores per month. And that is per person.

The math is simple. You can now buy pure Himalayan air @ 550/10 litres (1) . It is bottled from (ahem) the Himalayas of Chamoli, Uttarakhand. The average adult breathes 8640 litres a day (2). Multiply 8640 litres by the price of INR 55 / ltr and you get that 4.75 Lakhs per day.

So by living in the mountains you earn approx 1.42 crores (that is 2 million USD) a month per person. If you’re a family of two adults and two kids (lets round off the two kids to one adult), that means 1.42 X 3 = 4.26 Cr (approx 6 Million USD) for a family.

Another way to work it is to subtract that amount from your monthly income and see how you stack up. So if you’re living in a polluted city and earning less than 4.26 Cr per month, it isn’t worth it. And that is just the air.

We could consider air purifiers, but they don’t work 24X7, and at best they improve your Air Quality Index (AQI). They may reduce the AQI from 400 to 200. But in the himalayas we’re talking about an AQI of 4.

Besides, Air purifiers are cheap. And we’re not. Not anymore, honey.

 

P.s. If you haven’t seen / read The Lorax by Dr Seuss, it is time you did. Because you may be living in Thneedville without knowing it.  Check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bHdzTUNw-4 .

Dad, what’s a report card? (And other questions from the fear-free school)

Dad, what’s a report card? (And other questions from the fear-free school)

“Dad, why is being sent to the Principal’s office a bad thing?” Asks R Mahajan, my daughter, a fifth grader at the Chirag School.

“Where did you hear that, R Mahajan?”

“I read it in Calvin & Hobbes.”

“And I’ve heard it in Shin Chan and the other TV serials” chimes in A Mahajan, who also went to Chirag “Getting sent to the Principal’s office seems to be, like, the biggest punishment.”

“Well, there are certain schools where getting sent to the Principal’s office is a bad thing.” I answer.

“How can getting sent to the principals office be a bad thing? Sumit Da is so much fun. How is that punishment?”

“Well, the Principal may scold you.”

R thought for a while “But Principals don’t scold. Sunil Bhaiya or Rinku di never scolded us. And Sumit Da…” she smiled “…I don’t think he can scold. I would love to be sent to Sumit Da’s office. It would be so much fun! So why is being sent to the Principal’s office a bad thing?”

“If you did something really bad, the principal may ask for your parents to visit the school.”

“But why is parents visiting the school such a bad thing?”

_____________

(A few days earlier)

“Papa, Hema didi today said that if we are not good and don’t do our work then we will be made to repeat class five.” Says R Mahajan.

“Oh really?” I ask.

“Yes, since then Mansi and Aru and I – actually the whole class has been plotting how to not be good. That way we can all be in Chirag for one more year.”

“But that’s not fair.” wails A Mahajan, who left the school last year. The Chirag school is only till grade 5 after which the kids have to move to other schools. A Mahajan is now being homeschooled. “They never had that at our time. If they had that option when I was in grade 5, I would have repeated 5 and would not have left Chirag.”

_____________

The above are real conversations we have had with our kids. Their school, the rural, hindi-medium Chirag School, truly shows what a “fear free” school should be. And the school delivers fabulous learning, which I wrote about here. The school succeeds because there is no fear. Not despite it’s absence.

To learn more about the Chirag School, and to support it, please visit https://thechiragschool.wordpress.com/ .

______________

“Dad, what’s a report card?” asked R.

I shuddered at the horror the words “report card” still evoked in me. Then I laughed out loud for having spared my children it’s tyranny.

 

Village mein Start-up?

Village mein Start-up?

Pankaj addressed the 100 students in the hall at the ITI, a vocational training institute in Tandi village.

“How many people want to start their own business?”

Only 3 hands went up. The ITI teacher told them “Listen to me, you schmucks. After trying for a job for many years you will then look to start your own business. You should do it right now with their help.” (suitably translated from Hindi)

The teacher was referring to Udhyam’s offer to help aspiring entrepreneurs with financing and mentorship. Udhyam means enterprise in Hindi.  And this Udhyam is an organization that works in the villages to promote entrepreneurship.

The biggest challenge in villages here is poverty. People grow up with financial uncertainty and are vulnerable to things like weather and disease. Their dream is the highly coveted government job with its predictable, high income. Practically all boys want to be soldiers and all girls teachers. To even try for these jobs one needs to have completed school education, and often a lot more.

25% of boys and 20% of girls still do not complete school in Uttarakhand (source website here  ) and college Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) stands at a mere 32%. That means a large proportion of the youth are ineligible for the jobs. Even for those eligible, the competition is extremely tough. Most of the youth land up picking small jobs around here, and many of the young men head to the city.

Seeing all this, Udhyam is working to encourage the youth to get into entrepreneurship.

Udhyam poster 2
Posters like this one, and another featuring Jeevan (cover picture) dotted our landscape. Lalita & Jeevan are both successful entrepreneurs from last year. 

They started with a small pilot last year with just eight businesses financed and mentored. This year the target is to help 40 businesses with cheap loans and also offer mentoring to the ones that need it.

The idea is simple and the impact will be significant, but pulling it off is no easy task. The awesome Udhyam team visited 255 villages, put up 2000 posters, held 70 village meetings, and after all that received 499 calls. All that has been sifted down to 59 shortlisted candidades after the first round of the screening. The first round of screening interviews was on October 28-29 and I was lucky to be invited to be part of the interview panel screening the applicants.

IMG_20181028_105159
Udhyam selection Panel meeting

I requested permission for my 11 year old son,  A. Mahajan, to also participate. We are home-schooling him and I could not imagine a better forum to channel his inner entrepreneur. Many interesting dilemmas came up. Should we fund the guy wanting to start a DJ business (given that he will probably blow the neighbourhoods peace to bits?). What about the restauranteur who allows surreptitious drinking? And the goat farmer who will allow free grazing in the forest (which is terrible for the ecology) and may ask his school age kids to graze goats instead of having them attend school? And should women be encouraged even if their business plans seemed iffy?

Some of these were too heavy for Anhad, but I have given below his take on the experience (his English assignment).

But before we go there, I wanted to talk a little about the force behind this movement. Pankaj Wadhwa is an amazing guy. To call him dynamic and high-energy is like calling a cat nimble. He’s a classic example of people who Uncity and bring much benefit and good to the area. His first enterprise was started in 2008 to help rural producers sell their products, and currently supports some 18 NGOs. You may have seen shops named Himjoli if you’ve travelled around Uttarakhand. That’s his baby. And Udhyam is his most recent initiative. Pankaj is more action less talk, so predictably Udhyam doesn’t have a website yet.  And while Himjoli has a website (https://himjoli.org/ ), I was unable to find his name on the site.

Shark Tank* of the village

By A. Mahajan, 11 years

I had lots of fun yesterday and day before yesterday (the 29th and the 28th of October 2018). I liked it because we/I got to interview some interesting people like the photographer and the person who wanted to open/upgrade his Dhaba (which he called his “restaurant”).We also got to see how much money they wanted and how they would spend it and how they would pay it back plus how much risk there is in their businesses and how much can you trust them. I really liked it. It was lots of fun, at least the first day. The first day was in a KMVN in Bhimtal. The KMVN was definitely not the best – not great rooms, food was OK, but the view was great. At least the bathrooms were clean. The first day we had 9 interviews out of that 2 people dropped out, but 7 people did show up. And here were their ideas- mushroom farming, photographer, beauty parlor, clothing shop, herbal tea shop, knitting group and a music & arts school. After all the interviews all of us as in the selection panel met and discussed a little then everybody went home except for us and a few others. Anurag uncle was one of them, and we stayed back at the KMVN and partied – here is what we did. We got chicken pastas and Oreo shakes and ate our dinner while watching Netflix and then we slept. Next morning, we got up early washed up, packed and left, we had breakfast on the way then we went to Almora and did the rest of the interviews. This time we met 6 people and here were their ideas – 2 shop keepers, a restaurant, a tailor, a furniture shop and a cattle farm. And then again after the interviews we (the panel) met and discussed about the interviews chatted about people who we weren’t sure about and after all that we said our goodbyes and left for home.

Here are some of the reasons for rejection: if the applicant doesn’t need the money, capability of returning the money, bad business ideas, serving alcohol without a permit, etc.

And here are some reasons for acceptance: creating employment, benefiting the society, low risk profile, people whose business idea needed the money etc.

_____

*Shark Tank is an American TV series where entrepreneurs make their presentations to a panel of investors. Details here .