Navigating a “gendered” world – starting a startup with a spouse – Part I

The first post I wrote last Sunday received a good number of responses. I am not going to dwell too much on the responses and the post itself. I have changed the way I am now approaching the subject of “gender” in this post. I have put “gendered” in double quotes because the first post and the responses got me thinking me whether some behaviours and attitudes I experience in the tech and startup world actually have a gendered angle or not. I hope that this series of my personal reflections and what I observe will help arrive at a fair conclusion. 

Before I begin with the second post, I want to acknowledge that some of the people I have worked / interacted with during my journey at HasGeek have been remarkably insightful and sensitive. Many are practising programmers with some great reputation in the community. Some of them are individuals with an active interest in technology and communities and have been ardent supporters of HasGeek. I have sincerely had the good fortune of working with them, learning the intricate mazes of technology, industry, economy and community. Thanks to all of you!

Figuring out the starting point of the second blog post was very tough. I spent the last six days wondering where to begin. As some of you may have perceived by now, the issues I confront are highly intricate (not necessarily uniquely) because they combine both the personal and the work elements of founding a company with my spouse. Further, as I mentioned in the last blog post, Kiran is a highly visible and respected person in the tech and startup communities. This further makes it tough to determine whether certain behaviours and attitudes are the result of gender biases, or whether they stem from issues of visibility-invisibility, voice and lack of voice, and uneven trajectories.

I thought I will start by reflecting on my very journey in HasGeek – how we started the company together, how I got involved and what I do here. This will give me clarity on issues and the world out there.

Kiran and I have been married for a little over four and a half years. Before our marriage, we had known and been together for two and a half years. We had a unique meeting. Quite honestly, for a very, very long time, I did not know who I was dating and was married to. My choice to be with him was based on his remarkable and clumsy sensitivity, my desire to make a difference to someone else’s life, and many other nice aspects of him that I started to care and appreciate. I knew that he was a fairly known and respected person – from academic circles, from his BarCamp Bangalore days, from his associations with circuits connected and unconnected with my worlds.

Quite immediately after our marriage, Kiran decided to take a sabbatical because of the burn out from his previous employment stint and desire to explore something different in life. His decision was a shocker for me since that was the year I was beginning my PhD fieldwork and was hoping that I’d have emotional and financial support. PhD students are perennially faced with the angst and worry about lack of money and finances. Writing about a PhD student’s insecurities is a full treatise altogether. For now, see this post to get a good perspective: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/07/21/the-awesomest-7-year-postdoc-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-tenure-track-faculty-life/

The first two years after our marriage were particularly tough. I was trying to get a hold on my PhD and support myself financially and build on my financial capital while also dealing with various crises in my family. Kiran was busy figuring out his ideas for starting up in life. Initially, I dismissed all his ideas and insisted that he should take up a job. Each time I insisted that he take up a job, I felt very guilty and unfair that while I was living life on my own terms, I was subjecting him to do what I wanted him to do. I spent many nights staying awake and questioning my values and hypocrisy until such time in September 2010, in Coorg, when I found myself saying to Kiran that he has to jump into the waters he wants to because if he does not, he and I won’t know whether he will swim or drown. I felt a great sense of relief at having reconciled that Kiran had every reason and right to pursue his dreams. Come to think of it, that was one of the happiest moments of my life. 

While it is easy to say that a person has the right to pursue his/her dreams, it is difficult in practice. When I read this blog post this morning – http://www.feld.com/wp/archives/2013/08/startup-couples-when-is-it-time-to-ask-for-help.html – I could resonate with everything that the wife felt in this case. However, during those initial years, I had to keep reminding myself that Kiran and I were friends first and spouses afterwards. And that good friends always stand by each other. Therefore supporting him was a standard I set for myself. I am not a paragon of virtues and despite the high standards, I kept struggling with my inner insecurities and desires. 

In Dec 2010, we incorporated the company. Kiran chose me as a partner for reasons he knows best. I decided to join the partnership because I wanted to start my own research firm and not be dependent on academia’s wretched and miserable hierarchies and poisons. I always wanted the freedom to function as an independent individual. So here was a fairly good opportunity to start a business together where I could run an independent unit within the company and do what I wanted to.  

The struggle with a startup husband and a PhD wife (or vice-versa) is that one rides on high energy whereas the other has variable energy levels and extreme mood swings. In 2011, while I was trying to concentrate, build on my dissertation arguments, deal with isolation and the conflicting desires and disdain for social company, I could feel every moment of high energy that Kiran was going through as he was building the foundations of HasGeek through coding, organizing events, networking, learning, growing, etc. Our worlds were quite apart at that time because we were each trying to achieve something we really wanted. Our time together in that year was a fortnight’s vacation in Ladakh, which I will admit was terrible because I could feel the constant stress and pressure (positive and negative) he was going through in trying to organize an event remotely. Even then, I had no clue what business my husband was into. All I knew was that he was happy while I was trying to build a career and reputation as a researcher.

After our return, we were fairly immersed in our worlds. I tried to support Kiran whenever he needed assistance with an event – whether it was finding a venue or fixing a caterer or help on the actual day of the event. It was a nice break from the routines of writing (and the anxiety and sleepless nights I was experiencing then because of the intensity of my dissertation writing). Being with some members of the tech community was also a welcome break and experience after all the isolation I was constantly immersed in.

By early October, I had started to experience the extreme stress that Kiran was going through in trying to put together two back-to-back events, including one of an international scale. I was trying very hard to set boundaries for myself because I did not want to be affected by his emotional states and disrupt my focus. At some point, I felt the effort to separate our lives was becoming too much. I still remember that night when I went over to the coffee shop after a meeting at Jaaga and realized that just the act of sitting together with him while he was working and offering unconditional love, support and care was critical for him to tide over his tough times. I was the tea-making person for him in the ensuing month when he stayed up at nights trying to build a website or reply to innumerable and piled up emails. Those were very satisfying moments!

My dad was a businessman in the late 1970s. When he married my mother, he was struggling with his finances and was under the constant pressure to be successful and support a young family. I remember all those times when my mother went all out to support him. I have a lot of appreciation for those early days of my parents’ marriage because they set an example for me. I felt I could do the same for my husband, or more importantly, for my closest friend. I also have memories of those early days of growing up when my father was not around. My mother was the only person we could go to for all the world’s problems and she held the fort at home while also building a financial future for us with my father’s limited savings. She has been the fortress that I took inspiration from early in life. Later, I was scared of her when I realized that in the years when my father was not around, she had grown resentful of all the sacrifices she had made. She had a fairly turbulent 40’s. During my teenage years, I was determined not to have a marriage like my parents’. More importantly, I did not want to ever become like my mother who made sacrifices all her life. I grew fiercely independent and yet vulnerable from deep inside.

Coming back to Oct-Nov 2011, I was the fortress for Kiran. I decided to put my writing and studies on a short break and support him in every way I could. That was the start of my active role in the company. I became ‘the organizer’ – getting people together to run an event, collaborating with sponsors and vendors, working out deals, etc. Droidcon 2011 was an interesting spiritual experience because it reinforced the power of collaboration. I was forced to think about my PhD world which reinforced isolation and independent work. It was quite a period of surprises.

Back then, I did not foresee myself as playing an active role in the company. I kept telling myself, “I am only helping my husband”. Seemed sufficient to rationalize this way at that time. Not any more!

[to be continued]

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Navigating a gendered world – some questions

Last evening, Kiran and I walked into a dinner organized for entrepreneurs (or some such event Kiran asked me to come for). One of the guests, who seemed like the co-host, introduced Kiran as “this is Jonnalagadda and he runs a group called HasGeek”. At that point, I intervened and said, “we both run the company. And I am also his financier.” The co-host immediately corrected himself and said “of course”. I settled into one of the chairs in the balcony rather uncomfortably.

I started talking to one of the women who was sitting in the gathering. I asked her “what do you do?” Just as she started to tell me about her company, the co-host said “she is my wife. She is also my financier and banker.” He then went on to elaborate the story of his marriage with her, how he had been living on the edge and how she had accommodated and been with him all the years. I wasn’t sure how to read this turnaround. I let it be.

Later, when the other guests started stepping in, he continued to introduce his wife as his “financier and banker.” The host for the evening looked at me and asked why I was silent to this introduction. I said, “well, I have set a trend.” I wasn’t happy with the tone of my responses because I felt the responses were stemming from reaction, defense and anger. Having been through the Vipassana school of meditation, I have come to realize the value and importance of responses that are free of reactions.

Through the evening, I forced myself to sit in the balcony. Gradually, the host’s and co-host’s wives went to the living room and the balcony was occupied by men. I was the only woman sitting there. The wives of other men joined the women in the living room. I tried to put myself in an optimistic, positive mood and genuinely talk to some of the ‘entrepreneurs’ and engage in their conversations. I found I could do it most of the times but my heart was definitely not in the right place. At dinner, I felt the need for my own space and did not want to force myself into making conversation with men just to be part of the group.

Years ago, I rarely went for dinners and gatherings with my parents’ friends from our religious community because the separation of genders affected me very strongly. By the age of 19, I was part of an organizational culture where our leader was a woman and she had imparted to us a culture where men and women were equal. Since then, I could not tolerate discrimination or any separation of genders on the basis of intelligence quotient, power and roles. I have picked fights with my father, father-in-law, ex-boyfriends and male friends on issues of a woman’s entitlements and marginalization of women in households, professions and society.

In recent times, I admit I hate to go for entrepreneur gatherings, startup founder meetings and other such events because I find these spaces to be very “male”, like boys’ clubs. The figure of an ‘entrepreneur’ is typically a ‘man’ and in Bangalore, largely ‘male, engineer’.

In the past, I have felt uncomfortable about my position as a non-engineer, newbie to the jargons of the technology world, ‘woman’ and unknown to the world of SAS and media business. I perceived my role in the company as someone who has simply been managing the company and ensuring smooth running, and that this is a no-brainer activity. This perception of my position in such a simplistic fashion has made me feel very vulnerable and marginalised in tech and startup spaces. My silence reinforced my position of marginality. In turn, I was marginalised because I was not speaking up. Clearly, I was doing disservice to myself.

In the past few months, I have started pulling myself up and asking why I have been behaving like a victim in this space of a gendered startup and tech world, and why am I doubtful of my own position in this space and the company I run with my husband. I realize I have caved into one of the biggest pressures and glamours of the startup world – the glamour and sexiness of being an engineer, and the assumption that engineers can help to achieve scale in businesses. I am not an engineer and the pressure of not being one has been getting to me. And this pressure gets to me even more when people don’t recognize that in some of the technology conferences, I have played a part in framing the content and agenda of the events. Neither have I spoken up to those who have failed to recognize this role.

I also have to question my relationship with the technology community since this is the primary community our company works with. For Kiran, his relationship with technology communities has been organic by virtue of him being a developer, open-source programmer and a person who is passionate about the freedoms and logics associated with open source software. He has also spent many years of his life thinking about interactions in the community and interfaces that facilitate more interactions. I have no such ties or history. Further, I have found that members of these communities respect practising programmers. I am not one. And I am also not sure if I feel a sense of belongingness to these communities despite my active interest in developing ideas for hacknights and curiosity to participate and learn by organizing more technology conferences.

This blog post is not a rant. It is an attempt to question some of my deepest angers and resentments against the tech and startup world and to separate my emotions so that I can understand the situation more objectively and why it is so. Why is it so much easier for my spouse and co-founder to be part of these communities – is it simply because he is male, engineer, ‘product oriented’ and visible in social media and networks? What causes invisibility for me? Is it because of my non-sexy role in the company, not being an engineer and practising programmer? Is it because I am a ‘woman’?  And if being a woman is what works against me in the tech and startup world, then what it about being a woman that is uncomfortable and unacceptable in tech and startup worlds?

I am emotionally and intellectually invested in these questions because the subject of ‘entrepreneurship’ is very, very close to my heart for 34 years now. My father was an entrepreneur, a true risk-taker, and growing up with him made me a risk taking woman. I have taken risks in love, in career, in finances and I have been amply rewarded for each of these risks – sometimes with tangible outcomes, sometimes with life’s most insightful lessons, and on one occasion, with the man I married four and a half years ago.

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Notes about tentative-ness. (Alternatively, notes from London.)

Thursday 25th April, 7:30 PM. George Tavern Pub, East London

I walked into the pub. It was dark inside. And outside was an expanse of an empty road with shops (mostly) run by Bangladeshi immigrants.

I was feeling uncertain about the pub and my place in there. I felt like a stranger among the groups of Bengalis and firangs who had gathered to listen to Sahana and Aurko sing that evening. I decided to be present with an open mind, an open heart, open to a new experience. As I was moving around the pub in my tentative state, a man with beautiful tresses, wearing a black outfit, walked in. He smiled at me with a smile which seemed to indicate that he knew exactly how I was feeling and empathised with my tentative-ness. I smiled back at him to reciprocate the generosity of the emotions behind his smile. 

As the performance began, I realized that the man who smiled so generously at me was Aurko, the performer. Aurko had a beautiful voice. He moved seamlessly between blues, Sufi, folk Bengali and African music. He seemed very passionate about his music, his purpose as a singer and his songs.

As the performance proceeded, I kept moving into the depths of his rustic voice. At times I felt the pretence in the rustic tone that he seemed to skilfully project. Sometimes there was pure joy and strategy in his voice. When the performance got over, I decided to say bye to Aurko and congratulate him for his voice. Riju insisted that Sahana introduce me to Aurko and make the exchange of goodbyes a memorable and dramatic experience.

Meanwhile, everyone was busy congratulating Sahana and Aurko on the performance. It was getting difficult to get Aurko’s attention. Finally, Sahana insisted and got him to meet me. She said to him:

This is Z. Not only does she like your voice, she is madly in love with you – prochond premer pode gaise!

I stood still as Sahana uttered these words. I felt like I was shedding the robes of my 34-year old person and adorning the desires of a young girl.

Aurko, on his part, did not seem very impressed with a starry-eyed woman. He had changed his robes from an equally tentative person at 7:30 PM to that of a successful performer by 10:30 PM. His half smile shattered the initial connection we had made through our tentative-ness.

Where are you from?

Kolkatta.

You have a nice voice.

Thanks.

As we walked out to board a bus, I wondered about the identities we adorn in a city, the clothes we wear, the nakedness we feel comfortable sporting, the nakedness we hide. We are all vulnerable and sensitive. And, there are times when we turn our vulnerabilities into manipulation, our tenative-ness into sure-ity, uncertain grounds into slow and sure pathways. Yet, we will never fully know (and be sure) of the robes we adorn, the clothes we shed, what we show of ourselves and what we hide inside … … …. 

Wednesday 24th April, 12:01 PM. Shoreditch Grind, East Central London

I wasn’t sure what kind of a person to expect when I set up the meeting with Chris. I had known him in HasGeek as some sort of a rockstar speaker. One of the main reasons for this visit to London was to meet him and convince him to come to India. I had known him briefly through his photos, even more briefly through geeks around me, and rather more briefly through short email exchanges. 

I walked into the meeting with an open mind, an open heart. Somehow, this trip to London has naturally driven me to open my heart to new experiences. I walked into the Shoreditch Grind, looking for him. Had he arrived yet? I looked inside. I peeked outside. I grabbed a table and seat. Someone sitting on the opposite side seemed like him. I sent a SMS.

I am wearing a bright pink tunic. 

The man on the other side immediately looked at his phone and then looked up. I pointed my index finger at him and then to myself. We had met, at last. 

Meeting Chris was one of the most fantastic experiences of this trip. We spoke about everything under the sun: Bombay, Bangalore, London, Brighton, geeks, developer ecosystems, Indian culture, hotels, mix-ups with room bookings, squat toilets and the habit of washing the backside with water versus toilet paper. The conversation moved seamlessly and unlike the rustic tone in Aurko’s voice which was a mix of pretence, strategy and beauty, this conversation was beautiful in all aspects of its mundanity.

I have often wondered what is it about people, their spirited nature and the vibes they transmit that makes the encounter such an evocative experience. I met several people in London after the meeting with Chris. With many of them (as also with Aurko), I adorned robes of pretence, came naked in my vulnerability, loathed the outfits of (over)confidence and dwelled in the mirth of patience and understanding. 

Chris and I hugged when we were leaving. The spirit in this exchange gave me a firmer grounding, a sense of courage to be vulnerable. I have often felt that places are about people. People make places. As I walked towards the Thistle Barbican, I also realized that my life’s endeavour has been this yearning and seeking for people. I am glad I found some folks in London.

Thursday 25th April, 7:30 PM. George Tavern Pub, East London. Actually, it was my phone!

And I also lost some people in London.

Sahana started the performance with a song about sleep – ghoom – and how someone had lost sleep over a loved one. As she sang this song, a sense of pain pierced my heart. I had hints of tears in my eyes as she moved from lyric to lyric, verse to verse, word to word. Soon after the song got over, I continued the conversation with EM, this time pointing to how relationships were transactional for him whereas I sought depth in emotions and relationships.

EM and I were trying to meet that day but I decided to forgo the meeting with him and dinner with the conference delegates, instead going to the performance.

The meeting with EM was causing me tremendous amounts of tentative-ness. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from the meeting. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to meet, especially after 8 years. I wasn’t sure what his expectations from me were. My heart was not at peace. But the sudden insight about transactions and depth in relationships set the course of destiny for us. It brought peace to my heart. It set his heart fluttering. He decided not to meet and let our memories, persons and journeys remain like oasis where thirsty travellers come up to but cannot get the draught of water they so very much want. I now desired to meet him, to repose the trust in our relationship. But the windows were closed and the clouds had come over.

Next day, the skies were cloudy and the rains had taken over. I could see some white clouds. I was rejoicing the vulnerability and the strength I had experienced in the space of a song, in the space of an insight. The dark skies and rainy clouds were having the effect of a romance for life, once more! 

The strength was brief, but while it lasted, I felt peace, comfort and most importantly, a song in my heart.

Dear London, has the romance for life that I once sported returned to me? Is the comfort in tentative-ness becoming  more and more manifest? Do I still have a yearning to live and know more about life?  

To London, music, Sahana, Aurko, Riju, James, Thibaut, Chris, Andy, Neha, Paul and many others.

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Time Series II – Imbalance: blocks in the flow

Imbalance I: About one and a half years ago, I purchased a Scooty to ease the hassles and pains of commuting in Bangalore. In the initial months, I was constantly dogged by the fear of losing balance on the bike. My tendency to panic made my relationship with my Scooty even worse. I ended up in two accidents within a space of two months.

The fear of losing balance led to tremendous anxiety. I avoided taking the Scooty on the roads as much as possible. In the middle of last year, it became imperative that I ride the bike if I was to get around comfortably and cheaply. In that period, I turned fear into a source of zen. I started watching every moment when the sensation of fear and imbalance arose. In each one of those moments, I’d calm myself down by saying “move forward”. When I passed the rough terrain, I’d say to myself, “phew! negotiated”. This was an empowering experience – I had learnt to deal with that which was once a source of fear.

Imbalance II: When I started writing up my thesis in 2011, I was stricken by a terrible bout of anxiety. For the first time in my life, I was having trouble falling asleep at night. I was always in an anxious state, trying to define my research question and putting a finger on the most perfect way to articulate my arguments. I was stuck with concepts. I kept reading more and more books and journal articles to clarify my ideas. Each time I was left with feeling that I knew very little about my field.

In the meanwhile, I kept fighting the boundaries of my relationship with my husband so as to keep my focus and concentration intact and not be distracted by external circumstances. Each time I fought, the emotional fault lines got stronger. Eventually, I was neither writing my thesis nor was I happy about the state of my friendship with my husband. There was no flow in my words. There was no flow in our relationship. I was a loser on both counts until I finally decided to support my husband in what he was doing. This was also my way of reclaiming the spirit in my writing. In the first few months that followed, I regained the deep friendship between Kiran and me. I also triumphantly wrote an essay and moved forward in co-editing a journal.

These days though, the words have dried up in the (s)pool of my mind. I don’t have a fantastic relationship either. I have found my husband, but I have lost my friend. There is an imbalance in my life’s journey. There is imbalance inside me.

Imbalance III: Yesterday, the cycle at Devrayanadurga was an 18 inche frame Trek mountain bike. It was too high for me. In my mind, I decided not to ride it because I was afraid of falling. TBD insisted that I try standing and riding. I don’t know how to stand and ride. I had given up hope even before I even tried. I was in a state of panic, frustration and wanting to give up as soon as possible.

Eventually, TBD got me to practice pedalling with a single leg and learning how to tilt the upper half of my body and balance the bike. All the small lessons I learnt yesterday culminated in me being able to stand and pedal, and even stand and get on the frame of the bike. It was my moment of triumph, my moment of empowerment, my moment of having opened my mind and moved forward despite the fear of falling down and losing balance.

Seeking balance: 

The words have dried up.

My mind is not imaginative anymore.

I think of tasks and task lists, of missed and to-be-achieved deadlines.

Time is dead wood. The tree of my life is stunted.

Are the roots still there? Are they alive? How do I know? How do I nourish them?

What is the first step I have to take to find flow, to find balance, to seek comfort despite the discomforts within myself?

Will the words return?

Will they return if I let go?

– Dedicated to love, one of the most powerful emotions that humanity knows

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Time Series – I: I lost your watch, but I kept track of our time

Some days ago, I lost a wristwatch which was gifted to me many years ago. Needless to say, it had several memories attached to it. When I realized that I had misplaced the watch, these words came to my mind: “I lost your watch, but I kept track of our time.” Again, needless to say, I am not terribly happy to retain time and the memories associated with things, places, people. Memories can be very painful, especially when they build into layers of resentment and attachment.

I lost your watch, but I kept track of our time.

About one and half years ago, I decided to participate in running HasGeek. I started the company with Kiran in 2010 because I wanted my own independent research outfit. I was not actively involved with operations and planning at HasGeek until October 2011. I knew how to organize conferences (minus all the technology that we now have at HasGeek events) and work with people. I was interested in understanding communities. Community building was always at the heart of many activities and projects I had initiated and been part of: starting Phase Five with Les, Vinod and Ayesha; working with Gowhar, Idhries, Sarwar, Aabid, Altaf and others in Srinagar; ethnography of space in Mumbai; my PhD on property relations, share-holding and entitlements in squatter settlements and rehabilitation and resettlement sites. This attracted me towards the HasGeek model of learning and living.

What started out as ‘supporting the running of the company’ in late 2011 soon became full-fledged involvement by mid-2012. There was one other crucial factor involved here. About five months after working at HasGeek, I had a bad PhD review in March 2012. Here, not only did I get criticised publicly for (presumably) not moving forward in my thinking and central research question; my advisor also said things which implied to me that he no longer had confidence in my project. This, and the subsequent reactions, started the downward spiral leading to a state of morass that I now find myself in.

In the last one and a half years, I stayed away from academic life, thinking that this life is not for me. Add to that I got into a field whose language and concepts are completely alien to me. I kept nursing the hurt and anger since March 2012 and got into a self-deprecating cycle. I lost confidence in my own abilities and kept doubting my place and purpose in life. None of my achievements in HasGeek gave me satisfaction. Each time, I felt that something was sorely missing in every activity, in each accomplishment. Yet, I kept drowning myself into activity in the hope of finding a new purpose and losing my cherished dreams of writing and completing my thesis.

I also lost touch with the running group that I was part of from 2010 to mid-2011. This group had nourished me in the most difficult times in life and had helped me to move closer to writing up my thesis. I could not keep pace with the running schedules because of the hectic life of running a startup. I missed running and kept yearning that I will get back to it someday or the other. NOW was always the moment for responding to some email, for attending to some emergency, for dealing with some operational issue. But, fundamentally, NOW was the scary moment of confronting what lay beneath the compulsive frenetic pace of activity. Hence, NOW always became the moment of dealing with something else, and LATER was meant for cherished dreams. I became promiscuous towards myself.

I realize that the time has come to shed the layers of anger, resentment, stress and worry and to move towards something larger that my life is meant for. Two days ago, my PhD advisor and I got in touch. We spoke to each other after one year. I realized that both of us were each confronted with life situations that made us respond to each other the way we did at that time. This evening, when we chatted like good old days, I realized how vulnerable we are as human beings and that accepting vulnerability is strength.

For the last one and a half years, I have been fighting this vulnerability. I have masked my fears as hurt. Consequently, I have remained stuck and depressed. When I lost the watch that ‘I’ had gifted so lovingly, I felt a sense of relief because while our relationship was over, the residual hurt, anger and resentment had stayed inside me all these years. This evening, when I spoke to SV – my supervisor – I felt that I had loosened up and that we could still be the backslapping buddies that we were, and that we were companionate in our respective uncertainties, vulnerabilities and life situations.

I lost your watch, but I kept track of our time.

It is this time that I want to lose and live my life not as if time were a dictator, but as if time were flow. If I can go with this flow, my life will be worthwhile.

In the meantime, I remain bundled up in layers of hurt, vulnerability, beauty, resentment, desire and hope … … …

– dedicated to Anja, Muthu, Santhosh, @rakesh314, and the one and only @threepointone

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Dealing with depression and burnout

I cannot remember the date of my last post. Neither have I bothered to look at the last post to verify the date. All I know is that the last post made it aptly evident to me that I was suffering from depression, and that I had to find a way out.

Depression has taken root in me for various reasons. I think it is a pointless exercise to list every reason here because reasons can sometimes be rationalised, and rationalisations can be convenient lies. In the last few days however, when I came across Aaron Swartz’s post on depression, I was reminded once again that I needed to set myself a goal. Working towards the goal may motivate me and help me get out of the situation I am in. After writing my last blog post too, I realised the importance of setting myself a goal in the running programme if I were to stick to it. For the next few days, I decided that the goal will be to complete the 10k run at the Auroville race. However, I soon fell out of the rhythm with the running programme because of my inability to motivate myself to wake up early in the mornings and mile the runs.

In December, I felt that by trying to revive my academic career and moving towards writing, researching, lecturing, etc, I may come out of my depressed state. However, I soon realized that trying to run HasGeek and build my career at the same time could be fatal for my mental and physical health. I was also facing a burnout at that time because of the stress at work, and no rest despite a break from organizing conferences. The visit to Bombay in that period only depressed me further because of the pain I felt at being removed from fieldwork and ethnographic writing.

One of the best decisions I made in that period was to somehow reduce the pressure I was putting on myself about reviving my academic career.  I decided to go on the cycling trip which was postponed from the first week of Dec to the last week. The dates clashed with a panel discussion in Mumbai. I decided to drop the panel discussion invitation, thereby relieving myself from the pressure of building a career. Instinctively, I knew that the cycle ride would be good for my emotional health. And boy, two days of riding 100 kms did make a difference the next day! Having finished the ride, I felt accomplished. The workout also made me feel better about myself for couple of days until work stress got to me once more!

I have now been doing a cycle ride at least once a week. We did an adventurous 110 km ride the following Sunday followed by a shorter 50 km ride last Sunday. I also decided to do pushups regularly since I wanted to build on my core fitness and arm strength. Kiran helped me find an Android app which has a daily training schedule for pushups. I followed it as diligently as I could. I have now started doing squats as well. I keep hoping that I will motivate myself enough to get back to running. But this hasn’t happened yet.

I also started reading more voraciously since mid-Dec. I have completed reading three books in all – one about a mobile platform in South Africa, Catch-22 and Life of Pi. I am now reading an interesting history about the evolution of the modern computer with graphical user interface. I also read a lot of articles posted on my twitter timeline, thanks to the Pocket app and my new Android phone.

I have also taken to cooking. I have been thinking of getting more scientific with proportions and flavours, and getting back to baking. I decided to fix my food habits, in the hope that by eating healthier, I might get better with waking up early in the mornings to go for a run. I now eat breakfasts at home and also try and get home-cooked food for lunch. We have asked the office help to double up as a cook and make dinner at office. I have reduced my in-take of coffee, especially from Coffee Day and Costa joints. I have switched to drinking green tea in the mornings, and now prefer to drink lighter tea. It makes my body feel better. Also, reducing the intake of fried foods, especially chips, has made a world of difference for me. I don’t feel so sluggish anymore as a result of these changes.

I still feel goal-less though, and I have been wondering what kind of goal to set for myself.  Any goal that has to do with research and writing is demotivating, still. I find instead that setting a goal about improving my speed and times with cycling makes me feel more motivated. However, this does not seem like a tangible goal. What this makes me realize that I am still keeping up the pressure on myself to “do” something “substantial”. Unless I let go of this pressure and the mental talk that I feed myself, I will not be able to lose the handles that I have set out to lose in 2013, and understand the world afresh, anew.

Dedicated to Hobbeś the John.

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Hopelessness

I have rarely felt hopeless in my life. I can’t even remember when was the last time I felt hopeless.

When I first traveled to Seoul, I read a quote by a Korean actress in the newspaper on the flight: “When you feel down, there is nowhere else to go but the top.” I was very inspired by the quote. Since then, I have always motivated myself to feel hopeful about every situation, however difficult the situation may be. I am a driven person and I almost always try and achieve everything I have set out for myself, despite difficulties. I find that adversity is my best friend – I end up redeeming myself in adverse situations by standing up to them.

Currently though, I have been experiencing hopelessness. Every little thing I do – whether it is a goal I have accomplished or a milestone reached – I feel hopeless, as if nothing is going to change in my life and I will continue to rust and rot. I am not sure what is the source of this feeling. When I think over it, I feel it is the distance between me and my PhD thesis that is causing this state. For over a year now, I haven’t worked on my PhD thesis. Each day that passes by reminds me that I am moving farther and farther away from something I had set out to do which I haven’t accomplished. I feel a constant source of pressure inside me, the pressure to get out of my present situation and take charge of my life. But then, I feel hopeless because I feel I have no control over my life and that I am simply drifting from one day to another.  I am not sure if this is what it means to feel hopeless. And if this is indeed hopelessness, I now realize what it means for another person to feel similarly.

Running to lose hopelessness: Over the past few months, when I have tried to wake up in the mornings to go for a run, I have felt hopeless. I go to the park and begin to feel that I don’t know how to run. Then I start, unsteadily, and pick up and feel happy about the fact that I haven’t lost touch with running. I feel calmer after a run. Next day again, I wake up in the morning and tell myself I don’t know how to run. And I fall back to sleep. I have been very erratic with running in the past few months.

I started running this season in the hope that I will lose some of the flab that I have developed over the last one year, and regain fitness. It hasn’t been a great start to this season. I have already missed training sessions. I also realize that the training schedules are now designed to be more challenging than they earlier were, perhaps because many of the runners are continuing from one programme to another. If I lose even a single day of training, then I have a lot of ground to cover and that may be bad for my weak muscles and knees.

I also set myself the goal to be a strong finisher by training this season. By this, I mean that I literally finish strong. Often, when I run, I pick up pace and motivation in the middle of the run. But, by the end of the run, I get tired. I am panting and my breathing is terrible. Resultantly, I end up walking most of the last leg of the runs and then somehow push myself to finish. I feel I end up doing this even when I start a new writing project. I get anxious, I tire myself out and then I don’t end up with a happy, strong finish. So I thought that trying to establish this as a goal may change my present mental and physical state. When I ran by myself on Tuesday, I started with the same feeling that I don’t know how to run. But by the last lap, I was actually pacing well. That made me feel good about myself.

This morning, I again woke up feeling hopeless. I felt I wouldn’t be able to be do the run. At the venue, Kaiwan announced that the 10k runners had a bonus of an extra kilometer. This meant I’d have to run 6 kms instead of 5. I was already feeling terrible and this announcement did not make me feel any better. I thought I’d barely be able to finish the run because I felt I was not in the physical state to move from 3k the week before to 6k this weekend. I had bad attendance in the past one week because I was stressed with trying to finish revising a research proposal. I was skipping runs because of the stress and anxiety. Overall, I was only miserable most of this week.

The run began. I kept telling myself that I will not be able to finish it. I ran with few breaks in the first three kilometers, perhaps because most of the run was downhill. I managed the first two uphills decently, but noticed that I wasn’t able to lift my feet off the ground much. Perhaps this is because of the glute problem that I have or it could be because of the amount of weight I have put on at my hips and thighs. Or, it could also be because of my bad breathing patterns which make me feel heavier each time I lift my feet off the ground. I don’t know the exact reasons. I’ll have to run more to find out.

On many days I avoid doing the runs because I feel very uncomfortable during the runs – I become anxious, I feel tension building up in my neck region and muscles, my face and ears become hot and my head is hot to touch. By the end of the run, I sometimes feel nauseous and I am gasping for breath. These are aspects that I am trying to improve by running and trying to accomplish the goal of finishing strong.

In the second half of the run, I was terrible. I walked the first uphill and then I walked every uphill I came along, instead of making the effort to run. It wasn’t a strong finish, even though I completed the distance. At the end of the run, I did not end up feeling happy. I continued to feel hopeless. But one thing that did occur to me when I was doing the foot drills was that perhaps this is a good time to lose all the handles that I have on life – everything I have learnt now needs to be unlearned so that I can let go and start afresh. I am not sure to what extent I will be able to accomplish this unlearning. It requires letting go of ego, living in the moment and being introspective only when necessary.

For now, I have this much to log. Let’s see if I can motivate myself to run tomorrow.

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