Roundup 2019

We are two weeks into the new year and I realize that some behaviours get so much more difficult to gain control of as one adds years. To include some writing everyday, has been a constant struggle. Ahead of tomorrow’s Mumbai Marathon, this yearly round up must go out.  Since some years, a typical year for me begins with this marathon. As I run the course, a cycle of time, a phase, seems to end. It is interesting how so much in life now pivots around sports and outdoors, especially running.

In 2019, I ran some bucket list runs, lost chance of participating in some and DNFed one. I am picking up at least one DNF a year. May be, that keeps me from getting overconfident. Speaking to a friend, it was interesting to see our perspectives on not finishing a run. It dents confidence for some, it leaves the door wide open to improve, for some. DNFs are not a nice feeling, but three years down, I realize how these keep me hungry and force me to live the next year with a feeling of incompleteness. As far as the overflow of learning from running into personal life is concerned, I find myself in agreement with Sakyong Mipham’s lines in Running With the Mind of Meditation. He writes – 

By paying attention to how your mind and body feel, you are empowering both yourself and your running. Developing this res[ect for your mind and body changes running from simple exercise to a journey of discovery and growth. Respecting how you feel during run allows you to appreciate who you are in the very life you are leading. 

I cycled into Himalayas again. This time with a friend and filmmaker. We cycled from Manali to Leh and then ran the La Ultra 111 km. During a work trip to Nepal, another friend and I explored a few villages of Mustang region on horseback.

Lower Mustang, 2019

Among other things in 2019, I resumed teaching kids. I joined GenWise and had the opportunity to design and deliver short courses for kids in K-12 education. A highlight was a course on inequality for 12-14 year old kids at Pravaha Foundation. Personally, this was a very satisfying experience and a clear reminder of how much needs to be done in education in India. A short film on that engagement is here. I am convinced that I will continue contributing a part of my time to teaching at high school level for as long as I can. 

On research front,  at the Institute of Public Policy we began a focussed effort on understanding the nature of work, wages and experiences of people working with app-based platforms in food delivery, ecommerce delivery and other jobs. I spent time experiencing these jobs briefly to attempt a limited version of participant observation. Ethnographies like that of Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day and Erving Goffman’s has fascinated me in their potential of revealing aspects of work and contexts of people that interviews and data cannot. I kept a log of some of these experiences of delivery jobs on Twitter.  I am genuinely fascinated by the ways in and through which technology has been transforming work. While these jobs have now shaped my outlook about gig economy and future of work, I am far from writing an ethnographic account of this engagement. I am glad that I could find time to do this. This year we hope to contribute to policy making in gig economy jobs in India.

Work travel in 2019 led to interesting experiences. I traveled to Russia to participate in the annual academic conference at the Higher School of Economics (HSE). It is a different world out there in terms of their research focus in social science and humanities. I felt I had a first hand look at Central Asian and Russian research and stories. It wasn’t through the newspapers but from students and academicians from universities in the region. Of course, there can be more to what meets the eye. It is a big block of world whose ideas, events, people and cultural narratives are consistently absent from global media reportage. It was a revealing experience to be in Russia. There’s remarkable stoicism practiced from academia to running trails. A runner runs his trail in complete silence, taking on the elements. There’s hardly a cheer in the air encouraging him to go on. Chances are he will anyway. Academic research environment felt the same. Do the people here carry a sense of isolation? Moscow, for some reason seemed to do okay with itself and within its own self. I am definitely returning to the region this year to spend some time in Central Asian countries. 

There was more work travel to the UK and Europe. While these keep shaping my general outlook about the world and people, every engagement outside India gets me back to thinking about the challenges that this country faces, from citizen services to infrastructure and of course in governance. ‘Governance’ is my catchall term for politics, law making, institutions and civic action. Even as a bunch of its people sit coding advanced machine learning algorithms, another bunch is digging trenches to lay fibre optic cables, in hard sun. No matter how cliched this sounds, the spectrum of people and possibilities here seem overwhelmingly large. And yet, it moves along, improving one thing at a time. Watching Uber’s navigation algorithm battle it out with Dharavi’s highly precipitous traffic and road condition changing by the hours, with hardly any sense of space legibility is striking. I continue to think about daily life challenges in our cities as I go about my work.

Moreh Plains, 2019

The spell of social media continued in 2019, though I tried to limit its influence. Maybe, it is easier to live a compared life in these times than an examined life. I tried to run a conscious check on whether the opinions on issues of the day were mine, or was I conditioned by what was on my twitter timeline and what I read through those long twitter threads. These social media posts is the discourse now. A few short lines of thought take a life of its own and reaches several hundred thousand people in a matter of minutes. Of course, there is only a subset of people who are ‘connected’ to the internet, and those using social media are a  further subset, but then it has always been so. Whether a public speech or a book, it reaches a fraction of people. We tend to work with these fractions as though they are a whole. Social media has a special ability to construct this warped sense of world among its users. I have tried to be mindful of this fallacy of forming a sense of the world through what reaches me via the internet. The larger world out there is perhaps ordered differently and conducts itself differently. One of them is the village where I bought a small farm in early 2019. This opened a new space of experience. 

Kuch naya karo idhar

Walking the short trail that separates our two farm plots, I stopped by at another farm that had turned into a sea of white due to the cotton bolls bursting open with radiant white fibres. They were near harvest. It was a remarkable sight. A whole year’s toil stood behind it and it was remarkable because I had seen that toil by women and men of the village over the last several months. Few things bring a person into a close relationship with nature and weather as farming. We planted our first crop soybean in June after spending the preceding months preparing the land. This was soybean mixed with a few rows of pigeonpea. Soybean is a short crop, with a 90 day duration. Harvesting it in September, we were through our first experience of growing a crop. And with this came a wide range of reality checks about farming, nature, ecosystem, resources and of course about what it means to be a farmer. There is so much to be written about that experience. Sometimes, I find this a sort of homecoming that Steibeck feels as he drives around America, in Travels With Charley as he drives around Michigan – 

I had forgotten how rich and beautiful is the countryside – the deep topsoil, the wealth of great trees, (…). It seemed to me that the earth was generous and outgoing here in the heartlanld, and perhaps the people took a cue from it. 

 My fellow farmers from the village are curious about my move into the village and farming. Our region in eastern Maharashtra has seen the young migrate to cities in west and south for work. For someone setting himself up back into the rural, they find my move welcome. An often repeated advice by my fellow farmers is – ‘kuch naya karo idhar’ (do something new here). They insist that farming needs a revival through newer techniques, new technologies, new seed varieties and crops that can help improve farm incomes. There is a quiet desperation amongst men here, which needs complementing energies. That hasn’t come forth in our region from the state or the market. Pattern of cropping and farming methods haven’t changed here in decades. They insist that things will not change with people moving out. At the same time, I understand that people will not be moving into rural areas either. Farming is a labour intensive job. The returns do not match what a young person joining the labour force can earn in a month with a job half as intensive as farming. Moreover, rural India cannot offer a lifestyle that the youngsters aspire for. There is more to these trends. I have only started exploring it through this part-time farming life. 

Multidisciplinarity in work and living can be deeply satisfying. I am sure about this today than any other time. Shane Parrish writes about how multidisciplinarity has worked for him. He is someone whom I have read for some years now, and whom I have seen evolving over this time. I agree with him when he reflects on multidisciplinarity, while writing about Charlie Munger’s approach to life, work and living – 

It’s made life more fun, it’s made me more constructive, it’s made me more helpful to others, it’s made me enormously rich, you name it, that attitude really helps.

On the whole, 2019 felt balanced and energetic because of the spread between a university, a farm, an education company and consulting. I hope to continue seeking places that inspire and people who inspire. 

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