Jan 18, 2013

Diary of an unemployed alien



“Hello” I said into the phone of a pizza parlor. I had wandered here looking for jobs. The owner told me there was a vacancy for a receptionist cum teller. Since it was a pizza parlor, I would have to take orders on the phone.  He gave me all the required information, and asked me to “audition” by taking a call from a customer. Soon enough, his friend called as arranged.
“Hello” said the person at the other end of the phone. There were times when I, with a master’s degree from an American university, would never imagine myself at this end of the phone.
             “I would like to order a pizza please” said the caller. The owner was listening hard on the extension to make sure I got everything right.
“Sure sir, what kind?” I asked him. There was a point when I was only interested in the kinds of recruiters.  All my friends wanted to approach consultancies for recruitment, but I was sure I wouldn’t have to, I could get jobs on my own. That was before I emailed hundreds of companies, and received exactly three responses, all of which were rejections. There were very few job openings in my tiny university town, consisting of 5,000 residents and 15,000 students.  So I started applying to faraway places like New York, not realizing that they had no reason to call me when they had pools of local talent to choose from. Once they did call me for an interview, but I was so broke I couldn’t afford the plane ticket. I wanted to move to a bigger city for more opportunities, but this sudden leap was so scary. I would have to lug my entire collection of possessions crammed into two suitcases and a hand carry. How would I manage with all that stuff?  Where would I stay? How will I support myself until I find a job? Will I even be able to pay the rent?
“A pineapple pizza” the man was saying to me on the phone.
“What size?” I asked him again. After applying fruitlessly for months, I didn’t want to linger on the topic of fruits like pineapples. Realizing the importance of a local address, I had finally gathered enough courage to shift to New York. I started living with a friend and learning strategies. People told me to register in all employment sites, like LinkedIn, Craigslist and Monster. I did. People told me to increase my network. I did. People told me to tailor my cover letter and alter my past experiences to fit each requirement, and I did that too. E.g. if a job asked for HTML, I said all my experience was in HTML, though some of it was in Java. But all these strategies failed. Finally, after several more months of rejections, I finally decided to join a consultancy.
“Large size” said the man.
“Great, can I have your credit card number?“  One benefit of being with a consultancy is that I don’t have to worry about any credits and bills. Food and lodging is free until we get a job, because it is to the consultancy’s advantage as well that we get jobs. After all, when we are employed they get a cut from our salary, their share may be up to 40%. If we want to take the next step and apply for green card, then we make further contracts with them, which entitles them to percentages from our salary for many more months.
                “12345678” the man was reading out his credit card number in typical east European accent. European, Chinese, Korean, Middle eastern, Latino, or Indian, whatever accent it was, now I could tell them easily. They were so important in consultancies. Consultancies usually cater only to their ethnic communities. I mean, there is no such written rule, but that is how it generally works. Since there are no Nepali consultancies, I am with a foreign one recommended by my friends. I am the only Nepali here, and nobody lets me forget that. These consultancies usually specialize in hotshot degrees like computers or business, thank god I hadn’t studied anything silly like English or Sociology!
“You pizza will be there soon, bye bye!” I said cheerily into the phone. The owner gave me a thumbs up. I fought down the urge to laugh out wildly at this drama, we all knew nobody wanted a pizza. I so wanted to end it and get on with a real job. Sure, life isn’t so bad with a consultancy, but there’s very little to do. The consultancy forwards our resumes to companies, and we wait for their calls. Mostly we field calls from “vendors”, who are links in the chain of employment, and once in a blue moon we get calls from “clients”, the people at the end of the chain who actually need an employee. The rest of the time we talk to each other, play games, cook, eat, watch movies, and spend time online. I talk to my family twice a day, and to my friends once a day. My PR has never been so good, I have had heart to heart chats with each and every one of my facebook friends.
                “Where are you going to deliver it?” I hadn’t realized that he was still speaking, I thought I had said bye! Today I would be saying bye to my life of inertia too, I got so tired of doing nothing that I started manual job hunting. Go to a shop, restaurant, or any business, ask for the manager, and ask for vacancies. Most of the times I was turned down because I had no experience of coffee making, waitressing, henna art, manicure, or some other such sundry job. But today looks like my lucky day, no one needs expertise to answer phone calls! I might even learn to make pizza while I am at it!
“Sorry?” I was confused by this still speaking guy.
“The pizza, where are you going to deliver it? You did not ask for my address!” He sounded irritated.
“Umm, sorry sir, umm, where do you live, actually?” I tried to make amends. But too late, the restaurant owner had put the extension down, and was shaking his head at me. I noticed his thumb wasn’t up any more.
Pfft! There goes another job down the drain! I walked out of the shop completely dejected, and headed “home”. After all, I have so much to do: wait, watch movies listlessly, wait, listen to foreign jabbering, wait, try to convince clients, wait, go on a pedestrian job hunt like today if I am motivated, wait, chat with everyone in Nepal, wait, yawn, wait, wait, and then wait some more……..

Jan 11, 2013

Mahabharata Myth-busters




Once upon a time, a curious friend of mine requested me to tell her the story of Mahabharata. I jumped at the chance to show off my obsession with myths. But I was soon interrupted by a question. “Before you begin, I want to know, does Krishna always have that round thing behind his head?” It took me a while to even figure out that she meant the golden halo that appears behind the heads of deities.


I assured her that the orb was there just for effect on television, and that there was no mention of any such halo in the book. But her questions did not stop there. (“Didn’t Kunti get her children magically?” “No she didn’t, they were all born the perfectly natural way”) (Read here for a detailed explanation of Kunti's method of conception) After a while, I realized that all the questions could be traced back to one source: the television serial that many of us grew up watching. (“Why doesn’t anyone helping that man sleeping on arrows?” “He made a vow…” “To sleep on arrows?” “Umm it’s complicated…”) My curiosity piqued, I began collecting the instances where the TV serial differed from the book. Some of them were obvious and easily disproved, like the ones mentioned above. Others are not disproved so easily, because though they do not come from the original text, they are taken from already popular folklore, and are important in setting the theme and tone of the story.
The disrobing of Draupadi is one of the most memorable scenes in Mahabharata. Imagine how the scene would e different if Krishna, in fact, did not save Draupadi. But that is exactly what the original text says. According to the story, Dushaasan continues to pull at Draupadi’s sari, after which she cries out to Krishna. Krishna even comes running from wherever he is, but after that, no mention of him is made. Instead: “While Yajnaseni (Draupadi) was crying aloud to Krishna, also called Vishnu and Hari and Nara for protection, the illustrious Dharma, remaining unseen, covered her with excellent clothes of many hues. As the attire of Draupadi was being dragged, after one was taken off, another of the same kind appeared, covering her. Owing to the protection of Dharma, hundreds upon hundreds of robes of many hues came off Draupadi's person” (sic).


As we can see, somebody else called “Dharma” came and saved Draupadi from being ashamed. This name has confused many readers before me, and I found people advocating that Dharma could mean either Yudhishthir or Vidur, as both are believed to be parts of the god Dharmaraj, and are addressed by the name “Dharma” throughout the text. However, this does not seem to make sense in the story, as neither Yushishthir nor Vidur have any magical powers to remain unseen and supply clothes to Draupadi. Instead, an abstract interpretation of “Dharma” as goodness makes better sense here, meaning that Draupadi was saved by her own innate purity. Krishna’s absence from this scene is corroborated by several circumstantial statements, the most reliable of which occurs when Krishna comes to meet the Pandavas in the jungle. Draupadi pours her heart out to him, who regrets that he was unable to help her as he was busy battling his minor nemesis Shalva. The contradictions in Krishna’s alibi can be attributed to the fact until centuries after it was written, continuous additions to the core text were made by different people, resulting in the inconsistent tome that we have today (Read here for a detailed explanation of Mahabharata's evolution). But thanks to the TV series, there can be no debate on the inconsistencies any more, as one of the variations is firmly established as the official version.
Mahabharata stands out from most other mythological texts because unlike other religious texts that deify its heroes and vice versa, Mahabharata does not shy away from the failures of its heroes, or the valor of its villains. In a reflection of real life, all characters are gray, the villains just have a slightly darker shade. In contrast, by manipulating the tone and tampering with story angles, the TV serial presents manages to completely villainize the antagonists. Among many minor tweaks, one incident stands out: of the final battle between Duryodhan and Bheem. The popular perception is that Duryodhan had a boon from his mother that made his body rock hard, leaving only his upper thighs unprotected. In the original text, there is no mention of Gandhari’s tapasya that gave her the power to strengthen her son, and Duryodhan enters the battle ground with no superpowers.  In fact, before the battle, the Pandavas have a serious discussion with Krishna regarding the outcome, and Krishna frankly says that though Bheem may be strong, Duryodhan is the better fighter, and Bheem would never, ever, gain victory in a fair war. The decision to incapacitate Duryodhan by targeting his crotch was therefore made in cold blood, but according to the television serial, Bheem was forced to forego the rules of lawful battle because he had no other option. By rendering the incident in stark black and white, this version undermines the story’s potential for reflecting reality, and unfairly glorifies the hero.

To change course, while Brahmins far and wide hotly debate the issue of meat eating, and some even don’t partake of onions, garlic, and tomatoes, Mahabharata is quite clear on this issue: Brahmins, and everyone else, are supposed to rejoice in the nutritious values of meat. In one example, Illwala and Vatapi are asur bothers who enjoy killing Brahmins. Illwala has the power to transform human beings into other animals. He changes his brother Vatapi into a sheep, and cooks the meat. He then feeds it to Brahmins, and after they have eaten, simply says “Vatapi, come forth”. From within the stomach, the pieces of Vatapi begin reassembling into human form, and this process bursts the eater’s stomach, thus killing him. They brothers try the same trick on Rishi Agastya, but Agastya instead kills Vatapi by digesting him before Illwala calls out to him.

 This story clearly depicts Brahmins eating meat with a lot of relish and enjoyment. It has been said that Illwala disguised the meat as vegetarian dish to make Agastya eat it, but the original text does not support this idea. It clearly states that the meat was disguised as sheep. Sure, Brahmins are said to be mild in disposition and are recommended to eat satwik food, but those are just recommendations, and not rules. In fact, the Mahabharata expounds the virtue of meat on many occasions, and meat is mentioned as the best bali (sacrifice) because of its nutritious value. (The purpose of bali is for human beings to eat what is offered to deities.)
Some of these variations may have been popular even before the highly glamorized TV series. The concept of vegetarian Brahmins, for example, was deeply entrenched in our society long before BR Chopra’s television opera. But what the TV series did is to firmly establish these variations in the minds of an entire generation that got their religion from television. 
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