How communities nudge you towards your goal

“Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you what kind of a person you are.” Many moons ago, a good friend of mine used to say this as we tried to understand the people around us. At the time, it was a way for us to reconcile the inconsistency between what people said and what they did. This was often triggered by something hurtful they had done to us, hence the amateur psychological evaluations over lingering cups of coffee.

It remains a useful adage, even when I’m no longer interested in psychoanalysing strangers. That’s because who you surround yourself with is a helpful indicator of whether you’ll achieve your goal, whatever that goal may be.

Who we surround ourselves with has a big influence on what we end up focusing on. If I find myself around people who love cricket, I’ll find myself drawn into following the teams, making time in my day to watch the matches, and pledging fandom to a particular cricketer. Soon enough, I’ll have passionate opinions about an umpire’s call or the crappy grass on the field. If those same people happen to be into football, and I happen to identify myself as a cricket lover, I’ll still get pulled into the world of football.

Whether it’s sports, cooking, politics, or any other topic under the sun, the same emulating behaviour can happen. Because I’m around people I like, I want to be like them.

It’s usually a subconscious thing – we gravitate towards people that interest us or have a quality we admire, and we try to find ways in which we are like them. There’s probably an evolutionary angle to this, where our chances of survival were higher if everyone adopted the behaviour that had been proven by someone to succeed in keeping predators at bay.

So what does this have to do with achieving goals? It’s a roundabout way to say that if you’re around people that are working on the same goals as you, you’re likely to make progress and hit that goal. On the flip side, if you’re around people that behave in a way that is the opposite of what you’re trying to do, it’s likely to slow you down or prevent you from achieving your goal.

The simplest example: food. I have found that it is much easier for me to achieve “clean eating” when I’m with others who also believe in it. It affects the choice of restaurants we go to. It reveals itself in the conversations, where little tips might crop up in the course of a discussion. In the most subtle ways, there is an easy acceptance of my grocery choices, an empathy for the struggles I may face, and an encouragement of my chosen goal. When I am with such people, I feel good about myself and I feel reassured and supported for what I’m trying to do.

The opposite happens with people who don’t believe in clean eating. Disparaging comments get made – they are often intended as well-meaning jokes, but they still have the same effect of putting down my chosen goal. Difficult foods show up on the table, the opposite of clean eating choices. There is an underlying friction that can be exhausting without realising it.  I end up indulging in those wrong food choices (because they are inevitably tasty, as greasy, salty, and spiced food will tend to be), and get taken further away from clean eating.

There are so many examples in my life that illustrate this idea of associating with a group that you like. Fitness is a big one for me. I’ve talked about fitness before, and the people, magazines and social media feeds that uphold fit lifestyles. It keeps me on track as I aspire to be like my strong and beautiful role models. Reading is another one. I have people in my life who read a lot, and share the new ideas they are coming across. They provoke me to form an opinion, learn more, and as a result, read more. Even without this, the fact that my group is reading makes me want to also engage in the same activity; it creates a sense of kinship.

It’s why book clubs and running clubs make sense. They bring you into a community of people who share the same goal as you, and this creates the environment and energy to propel you forward. In this day of social media and virtual connectivity, it’s possible to find your tribe from, literally, around the world.

It’s the single biggest nudge you can give yourself towards achieving your goal. Make a conscious effort to surround yourself with like-minded people. If you don’t, the default community in which you find yourself may end up holding you back.

 

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Slow Down

“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.”

That’s what the small cutout said in my brother’s college apartment bathroom. At the time, I thought it was a cute word play on a popular tv advertisement for headache medicine. It turned out to be much more than that for me.

These six words are among the most profound advice I have ever received. I have experienced their sageness over and over in the years since I saw the sticker on the bathroom mirror. Inevitably, across every situation, whenever I was trying to cram a lot of stuff into every minute because I was feeling rushed or stressed, things took longer to fall into place. As each little chore showed its stubborn, unwieldy nature, refusing to tick itself off my To-Do list, my frustration would grow. Eventually, those six words would loom into my consciousness. Slow down, they reminded me, a paradoxical suggestion for a fast-paced, high-stress situation.

It worked, every single time. Taking a deep breath, I’d let go of the different balls I was trying to juggle simultaneously. I’d pick one and focus on getting it done. My mind initially struggled, not believing that letting go of the other pressing tasks was going to get them done. But, in the face of disastrous results anyway, it relented. And, without fail, I got it all done.

Slowing down is, overall, good advice. Smell the coffee, it’s good for the heart. Move purposefully. The new thing these days, mindfulness, is all about slowing down. You can’t pay full attention to something if you’re zipping your head this way and that. FOMO is overrated, you miss out anyway because you’re distracted by everything.

Slowing down means many things. First, the physical act of slowing down, which includes deeper breaths, not shallow ones. This, in itself, makes things better for the body. (More oxygen, I think, and somewhere I read also that it counters the adrenaline in the body to let the body uncurl from its fight stance.) Taking a deep breath also takes longer, so it forces a slowing of things. With the body and mind more relaxed, more ideas are able to enter the consciousness. Instead of the narrowed vision, which a fighting mode induces, now creative juices flow and dots get connected. Ideas bloom, and a difficult problem doesn’t seem so threatening and intractable anymore. Last but not the least, it creates the space to engage on things beyond the immediate issue. It could be as simple as asking a friend about their welfare, even as you were seemingly absorbed by a crisis. They might feel touched. Or you can crack a joke, which cracks smiles on everyone’s face.

I know one thing. Slowing down creates space for joy. And isn’t that what we’re doing all this for anyway?

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Horn Not OK, please!

These days, around Mumbai, I’m seeing quite a few stickers and hand-painted signs on the backs of trucks and tempos exclaiming, “Horn not OK, please!” Is Mumbai in the midst of a behaviour change experiment to kill honking?

The perennial demand from trucks and tempos has always been the opposite of no honking. Painted on the mudflaps, bumpers or any other space on the back has always been the unrelenting declaration, “Horn OK, Please!” In curvy letters, sometimes in all capitals to underscore the urgency, these three words have been a quintessential element of a lorry’s identity. The politeness, captured in the “Please!” is a cute counterweight to the otherwise aggressive ask. There is no ambiguity in what is being asked for, that’s for sure.

India’s lorries are famous for their creative art: the driver’s cabin is like a bride bedecked for her wedding, with red, pink, green and other brightly coloured streamers and buntings adorning the top of the windscreen, the sides of the cab, and even flowing off the sideview mirrors. Kohl-rimmed, seductive eyes are painted alongside the rearview mirror, as if to gaze adoringly at the driver as he winds his way down highways across the country.

The “Horn OK, Please!” statement is also an essential part of the lorry’s identity. When I was growing up, I would always wonder why they were so keen to be honked at. From what I knew, being honked at was a scolding, that you were driving in a wrong way and to stop being a nuisance to the others on the road. So why were these vehicles so keen to be at the receiving end? I understood, eventually, that they are so large and bulky that they may not see the smaller cars and motorcycles around them and may inadvertently run into them if they’re not alerted to their existence with the honk. Like hulking whales, followed by shoals of tiny fish, they had been created too large for their surroundings. Not wanting to hurt their fellow beings, these gentle giants were requesting for help when they asked to be honked at. I always felt warmed in my heart when I saw those three words, and I always obliged with multiple, loud honks as I passed them.

So, when I started seeing “Horn Not OK, Please!” I felt confused. The ecosystem seemed to be thrown into disarray, the natural order being disrupted. The lorries were the same, big, awkward and bulky. Not only had they changed their tune, even smaller tempos were chiming in. Everywhere I looked, it was the same. I scratched my head, and then I realised why.

“Horn Not OK, Please!” must be part of a new campaign in Mumbai to reduce the honking around the city. Any visitor to Mumbai will realise within minutes that it is a city of cacophony. The air is ripped by mindless honking. Auto rickshaw drivers and motorcyclists are the worst perpetrators, but everyone joins into the awful orchestra. There is no reason for the honking these days; even at red traffic signals, there are enough rowdy vehicles pressing down on the horn, if not to magically change the signal then to bully those ahead of them to break the signal and run through. At traffic jams, which are happening with increasing frequency all over the city, it is the same shrieking and screaming. It has become so uncivil that there is no heed paid to the fact that hospitals are nearby, where patients may need quiet to survive and heal from their illness, or places of worship where there may be a service going on to save souls.

There have been countless diatribes on the noisiness of Mumbai – on social media, mainstream media and any other outlet, including dinner parties, office meetings and social dates. It is, undoubtedly, a favourite topic.

It seems something is finally being done about it. I think there is a larger campaign going on to end the mindless honking. It looks like the city’s goods carriers have come on board, allowing the use of their ubiquitous vehicles to relay the message.

It’s clever. Using the familiar phrase and turning it on its head is a witty way to catch attention and get the message across. With the vast number of vehicles seen in every corner of the city, the message feels big and broad, like a mass event. And seeing the message multiple times makes one absorb it and reflect on it, subconsciously at first and then consciously.

This is a clever set of nudges to change behaviour. No preaching from a pulpit, no dictate handed down. Small cues that keep the message front and center and make you feel like everyone is doing it.

It’s a fundamental behavioural urge, to want to belong, to not stick out. When the message is everywhere, presumably embraced by everyone, it feels socially unacceptable now to honk. Emphasising this change is to stand in traffic next to a car that is waiting patiently, not honking. Ditto for the auto rickshaw on the other side, also quietly at a still. The behavioural insight around in-groups and out-groups is at play here. Mumbai citizens are united in their love for and pride of the city. They are also united in their frustration with the quality of life being compromised by traffic and noise. Hence, anyone who isn’t on board with changes to improve the quality of life will be automatically in the out-group. No one wants to be in the out-group. It’s ostracising and uncomfortable.

Secondly, there is the insight around priming. The “Horn Not OK, Please!” message keeps popping up, reminding us to not honk. The exhortation is strong and creates a strong impression in our minds. With this as the backdrop, there is a reduced desire and energy to do the opposite and, as a result, we end up honking less.  Given the high number of opportunities to honk, the ubiquitousness of the message plays a key reminding and reinforcing role to keep us quiet.

I don’t know whether it’s working or not. It feels to me like it is – I see more cars flashing their headlights instead of pressing the horn. The traffic feels marginally quieter. I hope it works. We’ll all be less anxious, calmer and happier Mumbaikars.

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How to see Kyoto

This week, I had the good fortune to visit Kyoto. Readers of this blog will know that I visited Kyoto barely 6 months ago and fell absolutely in love with the historic, spiritual heart of Japan. It was sheer delight when I found out I would be back there this month.

This time’s visit was different, however. I went as part of a group from work, and the visit was much shorter, just a day. We had a guide to take us around, stayed at a pretty nice hotel, and ate at Indian restaurants.

The last time I was there, I was on a personal, solo trip, and stayed in Kyoto for a good 4-5 days. I stayed at a traditional ryokan inn and then a decent, low-key hotel. I took buses and trains, walked quite a bit, and ate at local restaurants in the Japanese tradition. I did barely two things in a day, like visit a zen temple in the morning, and then another one in the afternoon. I lingered and loafed, without hurry, without expectation.

Undoubtedly, the latter is the true way to see Kyoto. I mean, really see Kyoto for what she is. Kyoto is a city that doesn’t want to be anywhere else except where she is. While Tokyo and the rest of the world frantically speed ahead to catch who knows what, Kyoto rests in tranquility in her spot, like a lotus in a still pond. That’s why, you have to slow down too.

Walking through the bamboo forest at Arashiyama, the first time around, I breathed in the fresh green scent in the air. I heard birds overhead, I saw leaves flutter gently and then go still until another breeze stirred them again. At Nijo-jo Castle, I imagined the trepidation and awe with which visitors to the Tokugawa shogun waited in the third room, surrounded by menacing tigers on the walls around them, painted to intimidate. I pictured what life in ancient Japan must have been like, the immense power held by the shogunate.

The first time around, I walked through tiny lanes to find the oldest zen temple in Japan, snuggled within a residential neighbourhood. I meditated at another zen temple amidst a large campus, where apprentice monks could be seen going about their business. I hiked through thousands of bright orange gates at the Shinto site of Fushimi Inari to reach the summit point, from which I could scan the entire city beneath me.

There was no agenda except to be where I was. Because of this, I think, Kyoto unfolded herself. Her old stories flowed out. Her images painted themselves in the clear blue sky, in the grey pebbles carefully raked, in the brilliant green Japanese maple trees.

I loved being  back in Kyoto. I will go back every chance I get. Like an old friend, though, Kyoto will best show her real self if you give her time to be herself.

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People that know the ‘old’ you

I spent this weekend with people that have known me from 30 years and earlier, if not more. My maternal aunt, who has known me since I was born, and took care of me every summer (I have written about her and those summers elsewhere in the blog), and a school friend, who has seen me through my awkward perms, teenage angst and other eventful high school experiences.

While meeting people from our past is often a fun encounter, I found a new, additional benefit. With both of them, I felt myself slip into the old me effortlessly. It felt like a relief.

With my aunt, I fell back into joking and bantering with abandon. It was the kind of “safeness” that children experience – they trust, unquestioningly, that they will be understood as they intend, so they are fully themselves. And it was the case with me, where the chatter was free-spirited, bubbly and wholesome.

Similarly, my school friend and I caught up with our lives since we finished school – jobs, heartbreaks, marriages – and yet, I found myself mentally back in the school grounds in Battaramulla, on the outskirts of Colombo. I could see, from his face, that he too was transported to the same place. He, in his cargo shorts and heavy backpack, me in my floral dress and piles of binders. We served on the Student Council, played parts in the annual school drama, and did the sundry things that fill up a student’s life. The tone of our chat was hopeful, positive, and eager, just the way we were at 16.

It can be a wonderful thing, to have people who have shared your past with you. They know you in a way that more recent entrants to your life cannot. They know what you were like when you stood at the start of the line, and they are able to appreciate the distance you have covered since. They have an intimate view of who you were and who have become, the transformation of an ugly duckling into a magnificent swan. If you’re lucky, they choose to still be around and cheer you on from the sidelines as you continue on your way. This cheering squad is to be cherished because there is no one else like them in your life.

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Marathwada Diaries – Summer Rituals

All seasons have their own culture, and summers are no different. Falling roughly from April to June, Indian summers are defined by piles of luscious golden mangoes everywhere, lazy school holidays that promise to stretch for a long time, and visits to one’s native place to reunite with a vast and waiting spread of extended family.

In Marathwada, the part of Maharashtra to which I belong and which feels like the most rustic, untouched and pristine part of the state, age-old, local customs can still be found in practice in every household. One of the summer rituals is the making of kharwadya, wholegrain dried snacks. There isn’t really an English equivalent to describe this food. Think bite-sized croutons.

Kharwadya are made from bajri. Bajri is a pearl millet, an apt name for this dark grain. It consists of tiny, black pearls clustered on tall stalks that shoot out of the land. During October to March, you can see acres and acres of erect bajri popsicles swaying in the wind, ripening under the warming sun. Its normal harvesting time is around Feb and March.

Since it’s April now, it is prime time for making bajri kharwadya. Across homes, women will sit around a stone grinder and turn the pearly grains into fine powder. This powder is then steamed, with garlic, sesame seeds, chilli powder and other seasonings. The cooked dough is then broken into small, bite-sized chunks, over a clean, old sari, to dry under the summer sun. This last part is the most time-consuming, as it is done manually and has to be in small, appetising bits. On terraces and in courtyards, it is common to see these little munchkins waiting patiently under the sun, drying and crisping themselves. After a day or two, they’re collected and stored in a tin can, ready for consumption.

Bajri kharwadya can be eaten as is, or fried. I like to eat them as is. They have a hard crunch to them, and with each bite, the earthy flavour of the hardy pearl millet gets released. The rustic texture is demanding; this is a snack that requires you to devote your full attention. The spices excite the tongue, and keep you popping the croutons into your mouth.  Since they’re already spiced, you don’t need anything else to go with them. Traditionally, many people eat them with roasted peanuts and raw onion.

When I was a kid, during my summer vacations, I used to pick up a handful and munch on them as I went about the day. They’re a great filler if you get hungry in between meals – anyone who has lived in an extended family set-up knows that one is on their own to fend for themselves if they get hungry between meals. At such times, sticking a hand into a tin can and getting a tasty, satiating, ready-to-eat snack is the perfect solution.

My aunt in Ambejogai, my hometown, is making kharwadya right now. The sight of the old-style stone grinder, the unprocessed grain sitting next to it, and my aunt bent over to make the kharwadya from scratch reminds me of the old days, when families came together to make real food, filled with love. Next summer, I think I’ll join her.

personal pic

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Why Indians don’t say “sorry”

Indians, generally speaking, don’t say “sorry”. If we’re late, we are nonchalant and breezy about it. If we don’t do something we were supposed to do, we talk about unrelated things that we have done, as irrelevant as they may be to what was expected of us. Where Westerners find myriad situations in a day in which to apologize, Indians, it seems, are totally oblivious to all of them.

I have scratched my head about this for a long time. It just doesn’t make sense to me, and I’m Indian. Admittedly, I’ve spent a lot of time absorbed in other cultures, enough to make me feel like a stranger in my own land. When I look around at the behaviour of friends, family, colleagues and strangers on the street, I see glaring instances that feel rude, inconsiderate and thoughtless much of the time.

Yet, I know that Indians are not a rude people. They are actually amongst the most considerate and generous-spirited people on the planet. Riders freely share their lunch with each other on a join train ride, turning it into a spontaneous picnic. Wedding hosts warmly welcome invited guests plus another ten more uninvited friends without fuss. Grocers let you take your groceries home without paying if you happen to not have the money. In India, in small and large towns, people go out of their way to accommodate you.

The omission of apologies is also not out of ignorance. Indians are well-exposed to Western culture, well enough to be familiar with the expression of apology and how it is used. Hollywood is widely prevalent, and Western tv serials command a huge following. Indians hear characters say sorry in sitcoms and dramas, for every possible banal situation one can think of.

So what gives?

It turns out that I have been approaching this conundrum in completely the wrong way. I have been looking at it from a rational perspective, assuming a certain set of norms to be in place. This has been a grossly wrong assumption.

The whole issue lies in the fact that this is a cultural thing. “Sorry” is a culturally inappropriate term in the Indian context.

As a culture, we just don’t have anything equivalent to this everyday apology. In the vernacular languages, the words that do convey regret or remorse are grave and weighty, far more serious than is typically the need of a “sorry”. For example, take”kshama”, which translates to forgiveness. When someone asks for “kshama”, it is more like pleading for mercy. Picture a thief or a murderer, flogged, clothes torn, sobbing and brought to his knees, begging for forgiveness from a higher authority. It’s a bit misplaced to ask for “kshama” if you forgot to get the milk. Given the inappropriateness of the terms at our disposal, we just don’t say sorry.

I can understand this for the places where English is still not widely used. What about the bigger cities? in the 21st century, every vernacular language seems to have borne a hybrid baby, incorporating English into the language until it has become close to impossible to speak a sentence without at least one English word in it. In these cities, then, why is “sorry” still not said?

Well, while the language may have expanded to include the English word “sorry” in the dictionary, the culture is still Indian. Indians don’t see themselves as clearly carved individuals in the same way as Westerners. The space between an Indian and her world is blurred, so much so that she and the world are one. Distance is not adhered to nor valued – this is apparent in the physical, where we crowd each other all the time with no sense of personal space or boundaries. It is the same with emotional space – we don’t see any between us and others, especially those with whom we are acquainted and in friendship. If we are one, then how does it make sense to apologize to oneself?

Another point that sheds light is the Indian belief in service. This may be a predominantly Hindu thing, but it feels all pervasive, this philosophy of existing to serve, to fulfill our duty. Dharma. We are born to carry out a certain role, and we go through life trying to do it to the best of our abilities. Hence, if the intent is pure, why would one need to apologize for any shortcoming? It is accidental, without malice. The thinking goes, I have not set out with the intent to injure, or disappoint, or let you down. So, no apology required.

I read about this on Quora, in various answers. One, in particular, was incredibly enlightening to me, by Dushyant Chauhan. I want to quote his eloquent explanation:

“One needs to understand that personal relations and even day to day ones in India are not based on formalities.

In India, generally, people have this inbuilt sense of understanding and duty. What I mean is we understand that someone will not shove you deliberately and it’s only an accident so when the intentions of the other person is not to hurt you then there is no need for him or her to say sorry.

…There are very less formalities in India but what is present is a high amount of natural understanding.”

A high amount of understanding, yes. This is a good thing, one that other cultures and societies should consider adopting. If there is one thing wrong with our world today, it’s the lack of understanding and empathy for others.

In the spirit of understanding, however, I guess I have a question. In modern India, which is increasingly growing into a cosmopolitan place, with diversity on everything possible, can there be an understanding for some people’s need to hear “sorry”?

 

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