June 19, 2007

Father’s Day at the St. Francis

I don’t know about other parents, but my response to any suggestion involving spending money is to ask my son, ‘can’t we do without it’? This was how I reacted when our son and daughter-in-law came up with this plan of our spending the weekend in San Francisco to do the sights. Couldn’t this be done without spending money on hotel? After all, we live in San Ramon, less than a hour’s drive to San Francisco.

I was evidently missing out on something. June15-17 was a weekend for celebration – of Ravi-Meera’s wedding anniversary. It was Father’s Day weekend. And then our son’s son Siddarth, who completed 18 months this weekend, had to visit the aquarium and take a ride in a San Francisco tramcar.

It turned out to be our weekend to remember. It is not every day you get to stay at Westin St. Francis, overlooking the Union Square; a hotel that has been witness to history for the last 100 years. Putting us up there was Meera’s (daughter-in-law) idea. And Siddarth enjoyed the rides in the bubble-top elevator, in which we went up and down, often, between the lobby and our rooms on the 17th floor; and, at times, to the top floor at Level 32.

St. Francis is a heritage hotel. It played host to delegates at the 1945 UN founding conference. Greta Garbo had stayed there. So had Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. The hotel has a MacArthur suite, so named to celebrate Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s stay at the St. Francis. A TV travel channel documentary recalled how St. Francis came to host Queen Elizabeth II. The queen who usually stayed in the royal yacht Britannia on her overseas tours had to be accommodated on shore because of rough weather conditions during her visit to San Francisco.

The Clintons dined there when in town. Actor Robin Williams, a San Francisco resident, could be spotted dining at Michael Mina, the hotel’s signature restaurant. So they said. I couldn’t bring myself to walk in there to check this out. Dining there could set you back by $100 plus per person. The four of us took to our rooms sandwiches and salad from Cheese Factory at nearby Macy’s; and parceled pizza from a Powell St. eating joint for lunch to be eaten at the Union Square.

I don’t know how much it cost us for the two-day stay. But room rent at the St. Francis couldn’t come cheap by any standard. I got a sense of the price level at the place when I discovered that a bottle of plain water cost $ 7. A six-minute overseas call made from the room would run up your bill by over $60. I ordered some roses from the hotel florist. The bill: $84 and 32 cents. I have the precise figure because the sales girl handed me back 68 cents when I paid out $85, in tens and five-dollar bills. If the florist found me weird, she didn’t show it. I must have been the only hotel guest who got away without tipping.

Cross-posted in Desicritics

June 13, 2007

Why Mysore?

Because it has a million residents with nothing much to do.Other than Infosys training centre a few small software companies there is nothing in the city. Its educated population need to go out of town to work.

Commute time for those locally employed is rarely more than 10 minutes.

Low cost of living.

Office space in Mysore is five times cheaper than in Mumbai; 43 times less expensive than Manhattan.

These are said to be the reasons for a US legal process outsourcing firm – Smith Dornan Dehn (SDD) Global Solutions – to set up shop in Mysore. But then the same factors apply to hundreds of other town. The company chairman Russell Smith is quoted in The Economic Times as saying his familiarity with Mysore had to do with yoga training.

Mr Smith, who learned yoga from Pattabhi Jois, said he decided to set up his LPO company after three yoga-learning visits to Mysore.The Mysore office located at Saraswathipuram handles legal work relating to leading entertainment companies in the US. The clients include Sony, HBO, a couple of British TV companies, the Clinton Foundation; and the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. The yoga institute is founded by Pattabhi Jois, whose yoga students include several celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Sting, Madonna, William Dafoe, Donna Karan. SDD is a Manhattan-based law firm.

June 10, 2007

NRI parents in the US: A life in slow motion

I have books to read, 24x7 Internet access at home, a collection of movie DVDs, cable subscription to desi TV channels, and 17-month old grandson Siddarth to clown around with. And yet, life in San Ramon, California, isn’t quite like back home in Mysore. It is not that I miss Mysore; it is more that I had expected much more from life in San Ramon. Creature comforts are okay. But there is only so much you can read during the day; only so long you can spend in front of a laptop. You get bored. You lack the stamina to keep pace with a grandson, making you go round and round to the chime of ‘Ring around Rosie’.

I may not lead any more active a life in Mysore. But I rarely find myself on loose ends in India, as I do in the US. Weekdays here can be bit of a drag;feel as if my life is being played out in slow motion. I feel like Siddarth’s toy train running out of battery. Apparently, many other NRI parents face this slow motion syndrome, which is not the same as life led at a leisurely pace.

This is evident from a post I read the other day on the Craigslist by someone from Sunnyvale, who is planning to engage NRI parents in the San Francisco Bay Area in group activities. After an e-mail exchange I learnt that the initiative comes from a public spirited NRI, Sundeep Chauhan, who says he has come across very many NRI parents in their 50s and 60s going through life in the US in relative isolation. Their working sons/daughters are not able to devote much time for them, except in the evenings and weekends. Weekdays of many NRI parents are marked by empty hours of waiting for their kith and kin to come home.

Sundeep attributes the slow-motion syndrome in NRI parents to ‘culture shock’ and the fast-paced working life of others in the family. He reckons that a support group to address the community needs of NRI parents would help them spend their US visit in a more fulfilling manner. Sundeep believes that group activities such as meetings to share ideas and interests with like-minded people and group outings to places of interest during weekdays could help.

This is our sixth visit, of my wife’s and mine, to the US, in as many years. We have seen it all and done all things touristy. At my age (68) doing the sights no longer interest me, though I have fun lazing about, with family on a sunny Sunday afternoon at San Francisco Union Square, over a glass of white wine, trying to keep pace with Siddarth running amok chasing pigeons.

The key is in grabbing as much family time together as possible. As I see it, the only reference point to my US visits is my son and his family. And if I don’t get to spend much time with them, I feel dissatisfied, disappointed, and, at times, defeated. That my son and daughter-in-law are not at hand whenever I feel like a gupshup puts me off-key. What makes it all the more frustrating is that I need to rely on them even for mundane things, such as visiting the local library or a used-books fair.

It took me a few visits to accept the fact that my grown up kith and kin have their own lives to lead. And that I am not the centre of their universe. Realizing this simple but tough-to-accept reality has made life a lot easier for me and, hopefully, for them. For visiting NRI parents, the point is not whether life is more conducive back in India than in the US. It is not an issue of Mysore versus San Ramon. I would like to have it both ways – live in India and also be able to visit often kith and kin in the US. San Ramon, for me, is a strange town where my only reference point is my son and his family.

Another aspect of life in the US for NRI parents has to do with their self-image. They might have been somebody big and important back home - a chief engineer, senior journalist, a chief secretary or a renowned businessmen. When in the US they are having to lead a life of relative isolation and social obscurity. They don’t get the kind of recognition to which they were accustomed back home, even from friends and colleagues of their US-based sons and daughters.

A 70-year-old NRI parent in Palo Alto who was a psychiatrist in a leading Mumbai hospital is quoted in San Jose Mercury News as saying, “In India I was in charge. Now, I don’t do anything; have to ask my daughter for money to go to the barbershop. It’s awkward”.

Reference: Indian Parents Association Yahoo Group.

Cross-filed in Zine5 and Desicritics

June 2, 2007

Watergate, the unreported story

June 17 marks the 35th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. And America isn’t planning anything to mark the occasion. This may be because Americans do not know much about Watergate. A survey by a US TV channel some years back reported that a third of the respondents said they were not familiar with the scandal that drove President Nixon out of office.

Watergate brings to mind in most of us in the media the names of Woodward and Bernstein. It was the story that turned the two Washington Post reporters into media celebrities, though scores of other Washington-based journalists from several other publications contributed to the uncovering of the Watergate scandal. Lesley Stahl of CBS, in her memoirs – Reporting Live, writes that Watergate had glamorized journalism as a profession.

Hollywood immortalized the Woodward-Bernstein story in All the President’s Men, featuring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the lead. Lost in all the myth-making was the fact that it was the US courts and the Congress that had played the crucial role, not the press. Yet an impression was left that the press had single-handedly driven President Nixon from office, giving media an aura of invincible power, writes Lesley Stahl, who was in on the Watergate story right from the start. Those in the media know enough to realize the limitation of its power. Newspaper and TV coverage do not alter the course of history. Reporters and columnists can nudge the pace of pendulum in its swing, but cannot reverse the swing of the pendulum.

Watergate, however, changed the way the media reported people in power. According to the CBS reporter, it ushered in a swarm-around-'em mentality where reporters and cameramen hounded people related to a developing story. Considerations of public dignity and decorum are thrown to the wind in the pursuit of a story.As Lesley put it, Franklin D Roosevelt’s wheelchair and John Kennedy’s women had gone unreported because newsmen in their times respected and protected the President’s privacy. Watergate brought an end to the protections.

Writing of her experiences Lesley Stahl noted that she got assigned to Watergate because there was no one else her junior available in the newsroom.The story then was seen as a third-rate burglary at the Watergate office complex. Incidentally, CBS was the only channel and Lesley Stahl, the only television reporter that covered the early court appearances of those arrested for the burglary. As a result Lesley's first 'scoop' in her reporting career came when she and her cameramen bet the competition by telecasting the first picutres of the Watergate burglars.

Lesley’s complaint was that finer points in her reports and exclusive findings about the accused often went unreported on the CBS radio. Her superiors in the CBS newsroom, who relied more on the print media,didn’t think much of the Watergate story that was, at that stage, not even being covered by The New York Times. Lesley was the first to report that the burglars were from Cuba, with phony passports; and they had in possession wads of hundred-dollar bills, consecutively numbered. But her reports rarely went on the air.

As Watergate story got bigger CBS weighed in with a senior correspondent, relegating Lesley Stahl to be his number two. Her input was used by the prime Watergate correspondent who, at times, neglected to give credit for Lesley's contribution.

Cross-filed in Zine5 and Desicritics.