When Jayalalithaa Ruined My Birthday

As the Babri Masjid was being brought down, I celebrated.

I had come up with this line a few years ago, and said that whenever I write my autobiography, I’m going to begin it this way. And while I’m not as certain nowadays that I’ll write an autobiography, in case I write one I’ll still use this line to open it.

This line could also be used in a logic class, the kind of lectures I delivered fairly frequently between 2012 and 2016, illustrating logical fallacies. For this one might induce the correlation-is-causation fallacy in your head, and you might think that if I celebrated while the Babri Masjid was being brought down, I must be a Muslim-hating bigot. So here is what will be the second line in my autobiography, whenever I write it:

It was my tenth birthday, and there was a party at home.

There is something special about your birthday falling on Sundays. The first time that happened, in 1987, was also the first time that my parents organised a birthday party for me. I’m too young to know how many people came, but there were a lot of people filling our house that evening. We had professional catering and I got so many gifts that I got to using some of them (such as Enid Blyton story books) several years later.

Maybe I read some of the books around the time my birthday fell on a Sunday once again, which happened in 1992. That also happened to be the next time I had a party at home, and this one was different, with less than ten guests, with all of them being my classmates in school.

My mother had done the cooking that day. We played cricket and hide-and-seek, and some other party games (which I don’t remember now). And then later that evening, news on television told us that the Babri Masjid had been brought down that day and riots had started.

 

The only thing that registered in my head then was that there would be no school the next day, and I didn’t know when I would distribute the chocolates I had bought for the customary school distribution.

The long term impact, though, was that my birthday got inextricably linked to the Babri Masjid demolition.

So over the years, when people have searched for an anchor to remember my birthday, they’ve inevitably used news of the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition. This morning, for example, I got a message that said “Happy birthday. Babri Masjid article came up somewhere 🙂 “. Another friend messaged me to remind me of what I’ve written to being this post.

A couple of years back, a friend messaged me later in December apologising for missing my birthday, adding that he had missed it because there wasn’t much news about the Babri Masjid anniversary. This must have been in 2016, which was among my worst birthdays because beyond close family, hardly anyone wished me that day.

And I blame former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa for that, for after a rather prolonged illness, she had passed away the previous night. And that meant that the news waves in India on the 6th of December 2016 were filled with news of Jayalalithaa’s demise, with any Babri Masjid anniversary stuff being pushed to the backburner.

The situation got rectified last year with it being the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, so the number of people who wished me went back to “normal levels”. And perhaps with elections being round the corner again, and without an important death to distract the news, I’m guessing that Babri Masjid has made enough news today for enough people to remember my birthday!

I must also take this opportunity to thank certain entities who unfailingly wish me on every birthday.

Oh, and I discovered this morning that today is 6/12/18. And my wife helpfully added that I turned 36 today.

Now I feel really old!

Shouting, Jumping and Peacock Feathers

The daughter has been ill for nearly the last two weeks, struck by one bacterium after one virus, with a short gap in between. Through her first illness (a stomach bug), she had remained cheerful and happy. And when I had taken her to hospital, she had responded by trying to climb up an abacus they had placed there in the children’s urgent care room.

So when the virus passed and she recovered, the transition was a rather smooth one. The day after she recovered I took her to the park where she jumped and ran around and rode the swing and the slide. Within a day or two after that she was eating normally, and we thought she had recovered.

Only for a bacterium to hit her and lay her low with a throat infection and fever. Perhaps being a stronger creature than the earlier virus, or maybe because it was the second illness in the space of a week, this one really laid her low. She quickly became weak, and rather than responding to “how are you?” with her usual cheerful “I’m good!!”, she started responding with a weak “I’m tired”. As the infection grew worse, she stopped eating, which made her weaker and her fever worse. Ultimately, a trip to the doctor and a course of antibiotics was necessary.

It was only yesterday that she started eating without a fuss (evidently, the antibiotic had started to do its work), and when she made a real fuss about eating her curd rice last night, I was deeply sceptical about how she would get on at her nursery today.

As it happened, she was completely fine, and had eaten all her meals at the nursery in full. And when I got her home in the evening, it seemed like she was fully alright.

She is normally a mildly naughty and loud kid, but today she seemed to make an extra effort in monkeying around. She discovered a new game of jumping off the edge of the sofa on to a pillow placed alongside – a sort of dangerous one that kept us on the edge of our seats. And periodically she would run around quickly and scream at the top of her voice.

To me, this was like a peacock’s feathers – by wasting her energy in unnecessary activities such as jumping and screaming, the daughter was (I think) trying to signal that she had completely recovered from her illness, and that she now had excess energy that she could expend in useless activities.

The upside of all this monkeying around was that soon after I had helped her get through 2-3 books post her dinner, she declared that it was “taachi (sleep) time”, and soon enough was fast asleep. This is significant in that the last few days when she spent all the time at home, her sleep schedule had gotten ruined.

Reading Boards

Today was a landmark day in the life of the daughter. She looked at a bus this evening, and without any prompting, started trying to read the number on it.

Most of today hadn’t been that great for her. She’s been battling a throat infection for a few days now, and has been largely unable to eat for the last couple of days because of which she had developed high fever today. As a result, we took her to hospital today, and it was on the way back from there that the landmark event happened.

Having got on to the bus at the starting point, we had the choice of seat, and obviously chose the best seat in the house – the seat right above the driver (I’m going to miss double decker buses when we move out of London). She was excited to be in a bus – every day on the way to her nursery, we pass by many buses, prompting her to exclaim “red bus!!” and expressing a desire to ride them. The nursery is five minutes walk away from home, so no such opportunity arises.

I must also mention that we live at a busy intersection, close to the Ealing Broadway “town centre”. From our living room window we can see lots of buses, and the numbers are easily recognisable (it helps that London buses have electronic number boards). And sometimes when Berry refuses to eat, her mother takes her to the window where they watch buses come and go, with one spoonful for each bus. Along the way, the wife reads out the bus numbers aloud to Berry. So far, though, Berry had never tried to read a bus number from our house window.

But sitting in a bus herself this evening, she “broke through”. Ahead of us was bus 427, which she read as “four seven”. I asked her what was in between 4 and 7, and she had no answer. Maybe she didn’t understand “between”.

A short distance later, there was bus 483 coming from the other side. She started with the 3 and then read the 8. And then the bus passed. And then there was bus E1 in front of us. Berry read it as “E”. I hadn’t known that she can recognise E. I know she knows all numbers, and A to D. So this was news to me. Getting her to read the number next to that was a challenge. 1 is a challenge for her since it looks like I. After much prompting, there was nothing, and I told her it was E1. Five minutes later, we encountered 427 again. This time she read in full, except that she called it “seven two four”.

I grew up at a time when our lives were much less documented. The only solid memory I have of my childhood is this photo album, most of whose photos were taken by an uncle who had a camera, and whose camera had this feature to imprint the date on the photos. So I have a very clear idea about what I looked like at different ages, and what I did when, but the rest of my growing up years were a little fuzzy.

There is the odd memory, though. My grandfather’s younger brother, who lived next door, had a car (a Fiat 1100). I loved going on rides with him in that, and I used to sit between him and my grandfather. I don’t remember too many specific trips, but I know that my grandfather would make me read signboards from shops, and I would read them letter by letter.

My grandfather’s younger brother passed away when I was two years and seven months old. So I know that by the time I was that age, I was able to read letters from signboards.

It is only natural for us to benchmark our children’s growth to that of other people we know – ourselves, if possible, and if not, some cousins or friends’ children. Thus far, I had lacked a marker to know of whether Berry had “beaten me to it” at various life events. I know she started walking quicker than me, because my first year birthday photos show me trying to stand on my won. I know she spoke later than me because multiple people have told me I would speak sentences at the time of our housewarming (when I was a year and half old).

Thanks to the memory of going on rides with my grandfather’s brother, and reading signboards, I know that I would read them before I was two years seven months old (or maybe earlier, since I’m guessing I did it multiple times in his car else no one would’ve told me about it).

And today, at two years and two months, the daughter started reading numbers on surrounding buses. She doesn’t know the full alphabet yet, but this is a strong start!

I’m proud of her!

Branding and positions of strength

I had an invitation to attend a data science networking event today. I had accepted the free pass for option value, but decided today to not exercise the option. Given I was not going to speak at the event, I realised that the value of the conversations at the event for me would be limited.

One of the internet gurus (it might be Naval Ravikant, but I’m unable to locate the source) has this principle that you shouldn’t go to networking events unless you’re speaking. Now, if everyone applied this principle events would look very different, with speakers speaking to one another (like in NED Talks!).

Thinking about it, though, I see clear value in this maxim. Basically when you go to a networking event and speak, you can network from a position of strength, especially after you’ve spoken. This is assuming you’ve done a good job of your speech, of course, but apart from elevating your status as a “speaker”, speaking at the event allows potential counterparties in conversations to have prior information about you before they talk to you.

So there is context in the conversation, and since you know they know something about you, you can speak from a position of strength, and hopefully make a greater impact.

It is not just about speaking and events. For a long time, a lot of my consulting business came from readers of this blog (yes, really!). This was because these people had been reading me, and knew me, and so when I spoke to them, there was already a “prior” on which I could base my sale. Of late, I’ve been putting out a lot of work-related content here and on LinkedIn, and that has sparked several conversations, which I have been able to navigate from a position of strength.

A possibly simpler word to describe this is “branding”. By speaking at an event or putting out content or indulging in other activities that let people know about you and what you do, you are building a brand. And then when the conversation happens, the brand you have thus built puts you in a position of strength which makes the sale far easier than if you didn’t have the brand.

You need to remember that position of strength as I’ve described here is not relative. It is not always necessary for the brand to elevate you to a level higher than the counterparty. All that is necessary is for it to put you at a high enough level that you don’t need to talk from a position of weakness. And if you think about it, cold calling and door to door sales is basically selling from a position of weakness – while it might have worked occasionally (which makes for fantastic stories), it is on the most part not successful.

And in some way, this concept of branding and positions of strength is well correlated to what I recently described as “the secret of my happiness“. By being really good at what you are good at, you are essentially putting yourself in a position of strength, so that people have no choice but to tolerate your inadequacies in other areas. Putting it another way, being really good at what you are good at is another exercise in brand building!

Brand building efforts can sometimes fail. There are times when I have given talks and got few questions – clearly indicating it was a wasted talk (either I didn’t talk well, or the audience didn’t get it). I have put out content that has just sank without a trace or any feedback. The important thing to know is that somewhere it all adds up – that these small efforts in branding can come together at some point in time, and make it work for you.

 

The secret of my happiness

Ok that’s an exaggerated title, but over the last few days I’ve figured how I like to “manage life” so as to increase my happiness – basically overdeliver on the things I like or am very good at, so that I can slack on other stuff.

In fact, this has been a formula I’ve followed through my life, and my periods of frustration have coincided with times when I haven’t been able to use this formula.

Let me take a few examples from recent life to illustrate how I’ve used this.

  1. Health: I like to eat lots of sweets and fatty foods (well, that’s a tautology – we’ve all evolved to like eating such foods), and in the past have been massively overweight and had issues with blood sugar and cholesterol. However I find diet control massively taxing mentally (though I did pull off 50 days of intermittent fasting earlier this year, though I think that contributed to a worsening of my ADHD).

    A few years back, however, I discovered weightlifting – more specifically, a combination of squats, bench press, shoulder press and deadlift. I only need to do this for about 45 minutes on 2 or 3 days a week, and I’ve found that it keeps me fit enough – irrespective of whatever junk I eat.

    So, having deadlifted 130 kg earlier this evening, I’ve felt “entitled” to eat whatever the hell I want, knowing it won’t harm me. And I will feel this way for another 2 days, when it is time to hit the gym again.

  2. Family responsibility: On weekday evenings, our parental responsibilities include preparing dinner, feeding the daughter, playing with her and putting her to sleep (I’m possibly oversimplifying). Of these activities, I’m not particularly fond of the second one, since it depends on a major factor outside of my control, which can tend to stress me. So I like to leave it to the wife to feed her.

    So on most days I grab the activities that I love doing – cooking and playing with the daughter (though maybe her mother’s games are more fun. I either play football or play songs on the keyboard for her to recognise). Doing these allows me to remain free of guilt when the wife undertakes the other responsibilities.

Going back several years, the secret of my happiness in school years was being insanely good at maths and science, which allowed me to slack off in the languages and social science. Being a topper also meant that I could talk my mind (including occasionally talking back to teachers), and people wouldn’t mind so much.

And then when I went to IIT, I was neither a topper nor was I good in a majority of the subjects, so these privileges were taken away and I was miserable. Towards the end, though, when I started preparing for CAT, which was something I was insanely good at, and that allowed me to make peace with not being particularly good with my academics at IIT. Later on, in my first job, things I’m good at such as lateral thinking or certain kinds of maths weren’t highly valued, and that didn’t allow me to slack on things I hated, and I quit in 3 months.

I don’t think this phenomenon is anything specific to me – I suspect that is how the human race operates (and hence we have lots of specialisation and trade). We maximise the benefits from stuff we’re good at, and hope that this allows to slack on other stuff. And in situations where we aren’t allowed to play to our strengths, we remain miserable.

Bridge!

While I have referred to the game of contract bridge multiple times on this blog, today was the first time ever since I started blogging that I actually played the game. I mean, i’ve played a few times with my computer, but today was the first time in nearly fifteen years that I actually “played”, with other humans in a semi-competitive environment.

It happened primarily thanks to the wife, who surprised me yesterday by randomly sending me links of two bridge clubs close to home. I found that one of them was meeting this evening, and welcomed newcomers (even those without partners), and I needed no further information.

One small complication was that it had been very many years since I had even played the game with my computer, or read bridge columns, and I needed to remember the rules. Complicating matters was the fact that most players at this club use four-card major bidding systems, while at IIT and with my computer I was used to playing five card majors.

I installed a bridge app on my phone and played a few games, and figured that I’m not too rusty. And so after an early dinner, and leaving a wailing Berry behind (she hates it when I go out of home without her), I took the 65 bus to the club.

The club has a “host” system, where members can volunteer to play with “visitors” without partners. My host tonight was Jenny, a retired school teacher and librarian. We quickly discussed the bidding system she uses, and it was time to play.

There were some additional complications, though. For example, they use bidding boxes to convey the bids here (so that you don’t give out verbal signals while bidding), and I had never seen one before. And then on the very first hand, I forgot that bidding takes place clockwise, and bid out of turn. That early mishap apart, the game went well.

We were sitting East-West in the pairs event, which meant we moved tables after every couple of hands. Jenny introduced me to our opponents at each table, helpfully adding in most cases that I was “playing after fifteen years. He had never seen a bidding box before today”.

I think I played fairly well, as people kept asking me where I play regularly and I had to clarify that today was the first time ever I was playing in England. Jenny was a great partner, forever encouraging and making me feel comfortable on my “comeback”.

At about three fourth of the session though, I could feel myself tiring. Hard concentration for three hours straight is not something I do on a regular basis, so it was taxing on my nerves. It came to a head when a lapse in my concentration allowed our opponents to make a contract they should have never made.

Thankfully, I noticed then that there was coffee and tea available in a back room. I quickly made myself a cup of tea with milk and sugar and was soon back to form.

Jenny and I finished a narrow second among all the East-West pairs. If my concentration hadn’t flagged three fourths of the way in, I think we might have even won our half of the event. Not a bad comeback, huh? After the event, someone told me that he would introduce me to “a very strong player who is looking for a partner”.

Oh, and did I mention that I was probably by far the youngest player there?

I’ll be back. And once again, thanks to the wife for the encouragement, and finding me this club, and taking care of Berry while I spent the evening playing!

Mental health triggers

My ADHD seems to have become much worse over the last couple of days. Like this morning I had this episode where I couldn’t decide whether to go back home to get an umbrella, and thus turned around twice while I was in the middle of crossing a road.

In part, I blame this on having just read a book on ADHD – the second such book I’ve read in the last week (I found this book from the bibliography of previous one). While this book told me the impact of ADHD on relationships, and helped me understand what someone married to someone with ADHD goes through, in the course of doing so it reminded me of all the problems that one faces when you have ADHD.

So in some way, as I read through and “revised” the list of problems that one has with ADHD, all these problems have started surfacing (more likely I have noticed these issues every time they’ve come up). And this has led to a positive feedback loop, and thus much shorter attention spans and massive distractions and even mild addiction (to online chess).

This is not an isolated incident. In the past as well, when I’ve read material related to mental health problems that have affected me as well, the precise problem gets triggered. So when I read some stuff about depression, I’m likely to have a depressive episode after that. Similar with anxiety.

Interestingly, there is no impact when I read something related to a problem that I myself have never faced – like I once started reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s essay on bipolar disorder and it had no effect whatsoever on me.

It wasn’t always this way. Long back, before I got diagnosed, reading stuff about mental health issues which I later got diagnosed with would make me feel hopeful – hopeful perhaps that there was in fact a diagnosis for what I was going through and it wasn’t simply “laziness” or “ineptitude” on my part that was causing me all that I was going through. But once I got the diagnosis, and figured out lifestyle changes to deal with my issues, reading more has only triggered the respective issue.

I guess the solution for this is simple – unless absolutely necessary (say there is a specific issue for which I seek help on) I shouldn’t read stuff about mental health issues that I might be facing.

I won’t spare you, though – here is an essay about ADHD that I had written three years ago (which I dug up after a conversation on ADHD with a friend yesterday).