The Great Mass Shooting Contest

What do a school, a movie theater, a shopping mall and a place of worship have in common? These are all places you might visit multiple times within a typical week, without even a second thought. Now consider the possibility that you might get shot at any of these places.

If the idea seems a little far-fetched, let’s try putting some names to these places. Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi could have been your weekend shopping destination. The church in Charleston, South Carolina could have been a Sunday staple with your family and neighbors. You might have booked tickets for this weekend at a movie theater, just like the one in Aurora. Or the school where you hastily dropped your kids off on a weekday morning could have been in Peshawar or Newtown. The very thought of that last one still hurts.

We have always witnessed violence behind the safety of a newspaper or a TV screen. War is fought far away. Terrorists attack important places. Kidnappings, bomb blasts and gang rapes happen to a few unlucky people who are too far away for us to even relate to. All of these incidents are minor blips on our news radar – just a bunch of unfortunate events that we stumble upon while shuffling through our daily lives. Gun violence is now just another uncomfortable yet unavoidable part of our reality.

Back when we were kids, we pretended to shoot guns at each other – not because they were powerful or dangerous – but because they belonged only in a fantasy world, far away from our regular lives. Like dinosaurs, capes and princesses. However guns have leapt off our screens into our lives with such jarring violence, that we now react by suspending a schoolkid simply for chewing his snack into an ‘L’ shape and pretending it’s a gun. That actually happened.

Every major violent news story in recent times has grabbed our attention, most likely because it was previously unheard of – church killings, school massacres, movie theater shootings. In several cases, the perpetrator has no connection to the place or the victims, but chose it simply to grab headlines or to make a statement – Charleston, Sandy Hook, Aurora. Every single time, we have witnessed the story blow up on national news, because we couldn’t believe that such incredible violence would explode into our common, boring lives.

But it gets bigger and scarier every time a new mass shooter picks a more vulnerable target or a less imaginable setting to outdo his predecessors. By the time gun violence eventually made its way to live television this week, I have lost the ability to even flinch at such incidents and statistics (below). Instead, I shudder at the thought of what is yet to come.

Source: Washington Post

Source: The Washington Post


I am pretty confident that I stumbled upon a valuable business idea. Its time hasn’t come yet, so there’s an opportunity to get ahead of the curve. It is backed up by science, which I will explain in three minutes. And best of all, it will be a positive influence on the world. Checks all the good boxes, doesn’t it? Now let me share that idea with you, because I am too lazy and stupid to monetize it for my own profit.

If you look back at your recent social media history, you might be surprised like me at the amount of negativity that we have allowed ourselves to be exposed to.

In some cases it was greatly justified – like calling out a TV channel for unfairly criticizing the Indian cricket team. Sometimes it was a matter of which side of an issue we chose to take, such as politics and elections. On several occasions it seemed like we were picking through an issue simply to take offense (‘PK’, ‘India’s Daughter’, the AIB roast aftermath), sometimes scraping the bottom of the barrel when we ran out of things to hate (Anushka Sharma’s lip job, or a single phrase in Deepika Padukone’s narration about women and their right to choose).

It is understandably in our nature to get carried away by minor flaws, while missing out on the beautiful, larger things they are a part of. For some inexplicable reason it is much easier for us to contribute to a commentary that tries to discredit someone or something, rather than support it. This trait hardly provides any value, unless we were part of a comedy roast panel or a political group with a self-serving agenda (in which case, bring on the power of hate!) However for regular people like you and me, the satisfaction that comes from expressing our discontent does very little to lighten our mood or brighten our day.

And that brings us to the worrisome trend I stumbled upon. A bulk of the negativity on social media isn’t merely caused by external factors outside our influence – like bad politicians or bad news. It seems to be aggravated by people in our own online circles. On any given day, at least one or two of our friends and friends’ friends are nudging us to pay attention to these negative posts, comments and shared links to articles. Accumulated over weeks, months and years, that adds up to a considerably large pile of hate.


Science shows that we have a fascinating tendency to subconsciously mirror our peers’ mental states. Apparently humans, animals and birds too tend to follow each others’ emotional cues and even breathing patterns by simply hanging around each other. Arguably it works best within members of the same species, of course. In plain words, see happy outside to be happy within.

This generates a very valid concern with all the negative commentary we are involuntarily feeding on for months and years. It might very well be working its way into our own emotional states, and our offline interactions with family, friends and co-workers. If you recall, this wasn’t what you signed up for back when you created your Facebook account.

By the time this phenomenon blows up into a red flag raising macro-trend (and ends up on your newsfeed as yet another negative story), the harm might very well be done at least in immeasurably small yet influential proportions. Now might be a really good time to start building a new social medium that filters out all the hateful talk, negative views and disheartening stories. Wouldn’t you love to wake up every day and see celebrations, happy announcements and positive thoughts on your timeline? Even if its benefits on your long-term mental health may be intangible, at the very least it might act as an encouraging pick-me-up, minus the caffeine breath.

Now get to work, you coding genius, before Facebook introduces it as a premium add-on for its millions of users caught in constantly depressing spirals.

Update: The missus rained on my parade with a harsh reality check, claiming that many people see only the glossy, happy snippets of others’ lives on Facebook, and hence get depressed because they don’t have that same bubbly life. Perhaps what we really need is a filter to cut out the negative comments from the missus.

Letters to Sia: Year Three. Her Words.

Now that I have started speaking in full sentences (my parents and I disagree on the frequency of non-vocal intervals in between), Daddy decided to write this letter in my voice. Most likely because by this time next year I shall have a full vocabulary, and would be able to deny his exaggerated claims outright. So here’s his version of my train of thought (ooh, trains!).

There may be a right hand, but there is no wrong hand. Get over it.

If you ask me to use my words, and then deny my well-worded request for a toy/snack/pick up/outing, you have thereby lost the privilege of communicating with me in words for the next 20 minutes. (It clearly says so in my being-a-toddler manual). Now prepare your brains to translate my high-frequency wailing!

I want my mommy.

What do you mean I cannot wear the pretty princess dress repeatedly every day? I do not understand the logic behind this draconian rule you just made up.

When I say there is a monster in the house, you bet your butt there is a monster in the house. Do not refute my claim until you have personally checked every square inch of my room with a flashlight, microphone, night-vision goggles, infrared camera, electromagnetic field dissonance measuring device, and a Geiger counter.

I want my mommy.

Goldfish crackers is a meal, not a snack. Stop making up silly rules to hinder my joy.

Daddy’s beard hurts. I sometimes wonder if he has enough money to shave more often.

I only asked to go to the park. You’re the idiots who decided to settle down in a wintry region. You know what, forget the park. Let’s go to California!

My grandparents live inside an iPad. One time after a frustratingly long plane ride, they popped out and turned into real people. Boy, that freaked the poop out of me!

I want my mommy.

Whenever my parents look like they are about to doze off while waiting for me to doze off, I say “I need to go to the potty!” It’s pretty hilarious to see how quickly they snap out of it.

This is a very strange world. It’s unbelievable how many women out there are not my mommy.

I like blue and my mommy, so nobody else is allowed to like blue or my mommy.

Grownups are weird. They like phones, rather than playing with toys that can actually dance or play music. You need to make a call first, people! Simply staring at the phone won’t do anything fun! Jeez, how silly.

I feel like I should say ‘I want my mommy’, because it’s been a while since the last time I said ‘I want my mommy’.

My parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties sometimes buy me presents with the most fun boxes ever!

I get to play all day long at school, and yet I sometimes don’t feel like waking up and getting ready. But Mommy and Daddy are always in a hurry to get to their office. I don’t know what that place is, but I really look forward to going there when I grow up!

Sometimes when I wake up after a nap, it’s morning. And sometimes it’s evening. You guys have no idea how confusing my world is.

Mommy and Daddy are really scared of the clock. I have no idea why. At least my fears are reasonable, like the possibility that somebody will break in and eat all the cheese in the fridge when we are not at home.

Enough about me. Is my Mommy here yet?

Eel in the tub

Eels are notoriously slippery creatures. Imagine trying to hold and control one. Now imagine you are also responsible for the darn eel, and you wouldn’t want to see it harmed. So during your futile efforts to subdue the eel in a confined space, your secondary objective is to be cautious against bumping its head, tail or mid-section against dangerous objects strategically placed all around you. This becomes even harder when you are required to calibrate your grip on the uncooperative eel, because you wouldn’t want to choke the life out of it. Of course, the eel doesn’t care about any of this, including its own safety, hence it doesn’t hold back any of its punches when trying to slip out of your grasp.

You may be an adult human and a small creature like an eel might not seem like a formidable foe. If you imagined holding a 3-foot piece of rope, you would be wrong. The eel’s long, slender body is all muscle, allowing it to writhe and wriggle and surprise you with unexpected strength. In close confines, size matters little and the opponent’s will to fight can make a significant difference. Even if you do win against the slippery enemy, it would be a tasteless victory that leaves you exhausted, out of breath, anxious for the creature’s well-being while you check to see if it is still breathing, and in general kills your appetite for physical confrontation.

You could try doing this every single day of your life, and you still wouldn’t have mastered the art of giving a reluctant toddler a bath.

5 Lessons for My Daughter

Inspired by a question from Archana Challa, who was in turn inspired by this article: 5 Lessons I’m Going To Teach My Indian Daughter


1. Act Confident. The operative word here being ‘Act’. That’s what the rest of us are doing anyway, even though we don’t have a handle on life. Acting confident might make people think you really are, and that’s the whole point!

2. You are far superior. Men cannot create life. They cannot phathom the pain of childbirth, nor the physical and emotional challenges that follow. They do not undergo visibly embarrassing physical changes during adolescence. They do not know to navigate daily life, while secretly enduring an awful thing like menstruation. Their hormones do not play havoc on their bodies and minds throughout their lives. The worst cards men have ever been dealt are facial hair and itchy privates. No contest here.

3. Be a critical judge of everything. Be aware that a majority of what a man does or says from age 13 to the day he dies is simply yet another attempt to impress the ladies. Do not be easily impressed, or impressionable.

4. Get your hands dirty. Know how to ride a motorcycle and change a tire. Play puzzles and video games. Learn how to administer first aid and build a campfire. Travel by yourself. Work out to be in shape, not shapely. Break out in a full-throated howl when your favorite team wins. Don’t hesitate to curse if they lose. A bad-ass chick is way cooler than a hot girl.

5. You are average. You are not the greatest person in this world. Some are way smarter, sexier, stronger than you are. Do not fear or envy them. Learn a thing or two from them instead. You are not the worst person in this world either. Compared to you, some are lacking in talent, others in tact. Some are downright evil. If you cannot make yourself better than another person, that is okay. Just never become worse than another person.

Letters to Sia: Year Two. Confessions.

  1. I have cried way too many times since you were born. More than I ever did before. Or Mom, for that matter.
  2. I have used you as an excuse to get out of social events, beg for extra chocolate-mints at Olive Garden, and cut in line at the post office.
  3. I have no idea what you say sometimes, but I smile and nod along. Mom doesn’t know.
  4. I once googled “GPS tracker for kids”.
  5. I have occasionally spent a few extra minutes hiding in the bathroom, sometimes wished you would sleep all day, and once dreaded a long weekend because the daycare was closed.
  6. I don’t think anyone else can raise you better than Mom and I can. See #5.
  7. I don’t give Mom enough credit for taking care of you the way she does. Or at least frequently enough.
  8. Whenever someone says you look just like Mom, I cry a little on the inside.
  9. I sometimes wish appadams weren’t your favorite food, just so that I get to finish the bowl.
  10. I always thought you would outsmart me by the age of 10 or 12. You counted to ten in Spanish, long before you turned two. I only know uno, dos, tres, cuatro and cinco.
  11. I deliberately say “I love you” a little too fast for you to understand, just to keep hearing you say “i laa loo”.
  12. I have been repeatedly beaten, bruised, kicked in the groin, and punched in the face. By you.
  13. I think you have gained a little weight.
  14. I am secretly plotting to turn you into a big fan of Batman, video games and zombie fiction.
  15. I spent months trying to keep the color pink out of your life.
  16. I sometimes stood outside your door, listening to you crying. When you finally fell asleep, I ran off to watch Netflix.
  17. I have – against all my will – begun to gradually enjoy shopping. For you. Don’t tell Mom.
  18. I sometimes fell asleep trying to put you to bed. Okay, several times.
  19. Once I went to work with banana smeared on my pants.
  20. ‘Butt’ was among the first 10 words you learned to say. I am responsible.
  21. I almost dropped you once. Just kidding. Twice. Actually, a lot. But I haven’t stopped throwing you into the air and catching you.
  22. You are the person I am most terrified of.
  23. And now for some shocking confessions. My apologies in advance:
    1. The moon doesn’t go to sleep.
    2. We don’t run out of cheese every third day.
    3. The iPhone is in my other pocket.
    4. Papa is not always ‘too tired’ to play. Sometimes he is just lazy.
    5. I use YouTube to entertain you more often than I like to admit.
  24. I love you a teeny-tiny bit more than I love Mom.


My grandfather once warned my dad that he would shoot him if he married my mom. When they eventually eloped and called home, he simply said “Congratulations on the wedding”. To me, this defined the man for many years. He had a notoriously short temper, and a scary one at that. Yet he also had a distinguished way of showing love and kindness when the situation called for it.

He was the grand patriarch of the family – the oldest of his generation, and a deeply respected man among those who knew him, and people who hadn’t even met him. He personified dedication to a cause one believed in. He spent his entire retired life in philanthropy, and religious and community service. At 79, he frequently rode long miles on his trusty old scooter to deliver groceries to a food shelter that he helped start and run. He cured jaundice in scores of people with a strict diet of cow’s milk and an herbal pill he concocted himself at home. None of us ever recall him being sick or exhausted. He had his shortcomings, but they were all redeeming in one way or another. He watched the TV too loud, but only because he couldn’t hear too well. He swore as a younger man, but never raised his voice on children. He proudly wore the badge of his priestly caste, but he accompanied it with sparkling advice from an exotic personal collection of idioms.

He shouldered the responsibilities for raising his brother and sisters, and supporting his step-mother, distant relatives and every unrelated person who came to him for help. His wife died 25 years earlier, and yet he always had a new fond anecdote to narrate about her. He raised his two sons with tough love, and they grew up to be tough men who showered their own sons with love. He went to great lengths to keep his daughter well-nurtured and cared for, and she transformed into an astonishingly resilient and kind-hearted person. He touched the life of every person he met, and always gave them support or saintly advice. Either way, he left an indelible impression. In my case, he left many lasting memories.

I remember while I grew up in his house, he would beep his motorcycle horn every evening as he turned into the street. I would abandon my toys and run to the porch steps to lay down a long wooden plank for him to wheel his bike up the stairs into the house. I remember he used to sit in front of the TV, wearing a dhoti and an undershirt, legs crossed at the ankles, one arm propped up at the elbow, and wearing a faint smile. I would watch him, an involuntary smile forming on my own face while I did. I remember the entire house reeking of ungodly smells from his druid-quality jaundice pills. I remember he took literally hundreds of photographs of us as a hobby – every single one of them a timeless treasure. I remember my brother once asked him what the greatest form of charity was, and he launched into an hour-long discourse on the virtues of feeding the hungry. I remember he remarked that my father and I had inherited his distinguished nose – ‘the trademark of the clan’, he called it.

I remember he took me a couple of times to a psychic, who I believe hypnotized me into seeing images of Lord Hanuman in an ink stain on my thumbnail. I remember he used to scare me when I was a little boy, that a frog was going inside my legs and it would ‘hatch’ out of my chubby thigh someday soon. I also remember his headphones – the very first pair I ever saw in my life, and I remember the first song I heard on them. I remember he used to take my grandmother and me to watch some unforgettable, classic movies. I remember he used to make all the four boys sit in a circle around him on the floor at dinner time. He would put gigantic balls of rice in our palms and we would hastily gobble them up before he came back around the circle to deliver the next one. I remember he would always answer the phone with a respectful tone, “Satyanarayana speaking…”

I remember the growing distance between us, as I moved away physically and emotionally from my extended family, drawn away by the circumstances of higher education, career and simply the pursuits of youth and life. Yet the few times I said “Hello, grandpa” on the phone, he answered back “Hi, grandpa!” every single time. I remember watching all my other grandparents die one after the other a long time ago, and being constantly reminded of this man’s mortality. In a way, I remember these words forming in my mind for several years now, like a morbid draft of his obituary. I remember hoping he would get to meet his great-granddaughter, as if to scratch that item off of my self-serving to-do list. It remains un-scratched forever.

The first time he fell ill in many years was merely a few months ago. His physical build and his endearing appetite were the first victims of the deadly disease. In the 17 days after his diagnosis, he slowly lost his strength, smile, the booming voice, and eventually his will to endure. But he never lost his mind. Even on the day before the end, he worried about the responsibilities my father and uncle would have to shoulder after he was gone. He politely endured the well-meaning, but increasingly depressing visits from all his relatives, near and distant – all falling over each other to get one last look at him. He became irritable and frustrated with all the pain he had to bear, but he never showed it to anyone who didn’t unconditionally love him.

The Mahabharata tells the story of the grand patriarch Bheeshma – he laid on a bed of arrows for days until the end of the Great Battle of Kurukshetra. He then literally willed Deliverance upon himself, surrounded by his kin. My grandfather endured everything that the cancer could throw at him while his family prayed for his relief, and eventually went to sleep in the loving arms of his three children.

Language fails us at the most unfortunate times, especially when it is desperately summoned. The job of a eulogist is to condense an entire human being and his life – all the memories, quirks, characteristics and events – into a single page. These pitiful lines do no justice to the man who was my father’s father. He was truly grand in several ways, at least to me. I have no pretenses about our relationship. I was not his favorite grandson, and neither was he my favorite grandparent. But I was his first, and he was my last. And that meant a lot to the both of us.