A Few Good Things

"Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller." – Ibn Battuta

A Few Good Things

Month: December 2013

TAMBRAM Marriages – Changes in 4 Generations across 100 years

Tambram’s (Short for Tamil Brahmins) are a small minority in T Nadu. I guess less than 5%. A section of the Tamil Brahmins migrated to Kerala many centuries back and established themselves with the Kerala Kings in the Palghat region. This community called Palghat Iyers (PI’s) is a nice blend of Tamil & Kerala traditions. By sheer hard work and brainpower they grew in fame & prosperity and became large landowners. In the late 50’s with land reforms  the landowners in Kerala lost their land. With no livelihood the PI’s started migrating en masse to Mumbai, Calcutta & Delhi. Matunga & Chembur in Mumbai, RK Puram in Delhi and S Calcutta became their hubs. Temples sprouted and so did traditional S Indian restaurants. The secretarial jobs, accounting jobs , IAS , Administrative and then the managerial jobs slowly were taken over as Idly & Dosa spread its wings to the breakfast table of every Indian. Rich tradition of music & dance also spread across the country and the globe. From Rekha to Vidya Balan , T.N Seshan to Bala Murali Krishnan they made their impact globally. 

But this is not a blog about the successful TAMBRAM’s and Palghat Iyers who have become successful all over the world. That requires separate treatment.

I belong to this community. My grandfather was born in 1900. Let us call him Generation 1. He was happily married and had 8 sons & 3 daughters. You can’t blame him – with no Internet, Facebook, movies there was really no entertainment. There was also a sense of healthy competition as most brothers and sisters were racing towards double-digit children count. And as the adage goes – you do in Palghat as the others do. They were very talented and entrepreneurial but were primarily farmers and landowners. 

Lets move on to the enterprising Gen 2 – all of who had moved out from the villages to Mumbai & Calcutta after completing their education. In the 50’s moving from a small village in Kerala to W Bengal was probable;y tougher than going to the US in the 80’s. One enterprising uncle even took off to S.Arabia – the first to go abroad and was very successful. Generation 2 was mainly graduates with the odd one being an Engineer or a MSc Soon there were 11 happily married couples. All married within the community – even the odd love marriage was painstakingly positioned as an arranged marriage. The average age gap between the couple was 7 years. Between them they had 35 kids (averaging slightly over 3/ couple). Look at the progress in one generation – 11 to 3.

But this is not a blog about how India’s population is coming down because of higher education and migration from villages to cities.

Generation 3 was born between 1955 – 1985. Well educated (the 1st IIM & IIT Grads), jet setting, good jobs, many have settled abroad – US, UK, NZ, Singapore, Dubai. A significant change in lifestyle. They still love their curd rice but have graduated very easily to pasta & pizza and some even to meat !!

We belong to Generation – 3. All the 35 (barring two cousins) are married. The eldest cousin is 60+ and the youngest barely 30 – so there is a wide gap between cousins. Only 1 was courageous enough to marry outside the community and earned the ire of many. The rest married within the community – but by now arranged marriage was coming down – less than 75 %. Amongst the younger cousins even lesser.  The average age gap between the spouses had come down to 3 – 4 years. They have fallen into a pattern and all have 2 – 1 kids apiece. Finally the population explosion has been stopped.

Generation 4 is now getting married.  This is where the interesting trend starts. Of the 7 marriages that have happened or are on the anvil of happening only 2 have married within the community. The rest 5 have found companions in Marathi’s, Malayalees and Punjabi’s. The age gap has shrunk – they are almost the same age. This is not a trend in our family but across many  South Indian TAMBRAM families. There was a time when a Iyer marrying an Iyengar was a No No. Even a Palghat Iyer marrying an Iyer from TN was rare. But all that has changed in the last 10 years.

What is driving this change? Marrying out of the community is a big jump in culture , tradition , eating habits – How is this change being accepted with hardly any resistance. It talks highly of the community and its broad minded approach.

Lets take a look at Iyer Girls. They are smart , beautiful , highly educated, super talented. They can cook a great meal of Avial & Sambar and also Pasta and Pizza. They can sing melodious Carnatic music and dance Bharatnatyam – while they are equally comfortable with hip hop music and a drink at a late night party. They look beautiful in a traditional kanjeepuram saree and are equally at ease in a 2 piece bikini. They can be a great housewife and a successful professional. They are an asset – they are ambitious , adventurous and deserve the best.  And now they are stepping out to get the best. All this because Tamil Iyers are one of the few communities in the country where girls are treated at par with boys. And unlike the Parsi’s if the girls marry outside the community they are not excommunicated. 


In contrast the Iyer Boys are still simpletons. They have a intellectual inclination bordering on being nerdy. Hard working , they rarely break the rule and are risk averse. They are Mr Predictable , they are Mr Nice. They are thin or puny or jiggly wiggly fat. Not the lean mean machine with a 6 pack Gym hitting the Gym every day. They experiment with food but are most comfortable with curd rice and would love to have a traditional housewife welcome them in a saree with jasmine flowers with a cup of steaming coffee at home when they come back from office. ( I hunted for a photo of a Traditional Tambram Nari serving coffee in google images – but none like this is available)

Most want a bride who is a replica of mom. I may be generalising here – but this is broadly what I see in the community , maybe 80 % +. And let me clarify this is purely my inference.


This is where the gap is. The adventurous girls don’t want to be trapped with Mr Nerd. And they step out to find their dream man on their own. And then we have male dominated N Indian communities where many a smart girl from N of the Narmada would be a lot more comfortable with Mr Nice from down south. And that works well for the PI guy who is on the edge – almost stranded without a mate.

The vast majority of Tambrams and PI’s are simple folks. The marriage is a 2 session, 3 sumptuous meals, and 3 sarees affair. Day 0 evening is the formal engagement and Day 1 morning is marriage – all is over by lunch on day 1 as the happy couple heads off for the honeymoon. There is no dowry and no demands for jewellery  cash, house, car etc. The girls are highly educated and the families are at par.


Now compare this with a Delhi marriage – full of pomp & show. Spread over 3 days, lavish performances, gifts for all and the poor parents struggling for years to meet the trousseau & dowry demands. A PI groom is ideal for an N Indian family.

S Indian cooking is simple, quick and tasty. Not as elaborate and complex as a N Indian meal. Add to this it’s all veg. Easy for the new “bahu” to learn this quickly. Yes the taste buds need to adjust to the spicy tangy taste of sambar & rasam – but that happens quickly. Rice in the morning and Roti at night is the staple food across most PI households – so that looks a fair equitable mix for a N Indian. Not too many family get together where you need to cook a wide variety of complex dishes in quantity & quality.

PI families are perfectly fine with both husband & wife working and there is no pressure for the 1st born to be a boy!   (Thats probably a reason why 60% + in the community are girls , nature does have a way of setting a balance) Rarely or never do you hear a case of mother in law tormenting daughter in law.

So a clear win for the N Indian lady. What’s in it for the guy. Clearly a change. Stronger genes and a bit of aggression & street smartness for the next generation. Maybe the subconscious desire of a PI man for a fair complexioned wife. ( Thats not me saying but my intelligent learned friend Mr Kapoor) A more elegant & classy front room and furniture (N.Indians are good in home decorations). Lesser investments in Gold. A good mix of CPU & I/O. (And I am not saying who contributes to what)

The beauty is that Gen 2 & Gen 3 seems to be completely at ease with this change. Yes even if many outside the community are Non Veg. Even if eggs have entered most kitchens Non Veg cooking across the community is almost always banned at home.

And I am sure not everything is rational – there is cupid playing his game and love is blind. With no barriers and challenges cupid’s job just became easier.


That’s Gen 4 – and may the tradition continue. I hope it soon expands to Bengalis & Kashmiris, Jains & Buddhists so that we can have better national integration. But let it not stop there. I would really love for the rest of Gen 4 & all of gen 5 to start thinking out of the country and be a truly global citizen. French, Dutch, Italians, Spaniards, Brits, Americans – Go guys go and make the world your playing field. Let the PI gene spread far & wide in the global melting pot. Yes we may cease to exist as a community 100 years from now – but I am sure we will make a wider impact globally.

One last point – today there is no dearth of entertainment so Gen 4 and Gen 5 bears the burden of trying to rectify Grand Dad’s population explosion program. Mother earth is heavily burdened with too many people – so play your part and help set right the errors of Generation – 1.

Young & Restless – The Real India

I recently had an opportunity to interact with a team of 400 + people who sell high-end phones. A young team whose average age is 22 – 25. Most are graduates – some even engineers & MBA’s. They come from lower middle class families, struggled in life, value money and are waiting for an opportunity to break out from the crowd. They work in excess of 10 hrs a day – 6 days a week and earn anywhere between 15 – 25 K / Month. And for every such job there are 20 applicants for 1 job. It’s scary.

India churns out 5M + graduates every year and over 1M are Engineers. Infosys this year will hire 16,000 and the IT industry as a whole may hire 100 – 200K engineers. That still leaves a lot of people unemployed. They end up taking jobs for which they are overqualified – and very soon get frustrated.


Take a look at the classified section of any newspaper – the only jobs available in the country are for Sales or in the BPO sector. The quality of education is deplorable and outside the top 10% of  colleges the quality is abysmal.

A recent report from Aspiring Minds states that 47% graduates are not employable in any sector of the knowledge economy. The employability of graduates varies from 2.59% in functional roles such as accounting, to 15.88% in sales related roles and 21.37% for roles in the business process outsourcing (BPO/ITeS) sector. A significant proportion of graduates, nearly 47%, were found not employable in any sector, given their English language and cognitive skills. http://www.aspiringminds.in/press_doc/47_graduates_in_india_are_unemployable_for_any_job_aspiring_minds_national_employability_report_graduates.pdf

Business Line reported yesterday that 83% of secondary school students rely on coaching to pass their exams. http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/industry-and-economy/the-coaching-class-industry/article5490245.ece. 

I have interviewed MBA students for the role of Training Admin’s who can’t do basic maths that a class 7 student is expected to do. Many with means land up in Australia , UK post graduation – but with unemployment there in excess of 50% they come back to India and enter the pool for the entry level sales jobs once again. IIM Bangalore in 1993 had a batch of 140 – today they have a batch of 400. The 1 Lac tuition fee has become 15 Lac’s. So every batch generates 60 Crores – the student staff ratio has collapsed and so has infrastructure availability / student. The brand exists the quality has dropped.

So whats going wrong – The education system has collapsed , the job market has become a trickle. Quality jobs in the knowledge economy have almost vanished.


When you have 5 M people like this coming out every year – its scary. They have energy , aspirations , ability to work hard – but no visible goal or destination to which they can embark. They are the post 90’s generation – seen the benefits of economic boom , most come from families where they are probably the first to attend college. They carry a heavy burden to secure their future and also take care of the family.

The few who are employed in sales jobs are routed through a placement agency as contractors. There is no skill development / HR / hand holding. Its a long hard lonely struggle to figure out how to succeed. No wonder attrition is high and people jump jobs for every 1000 Rs hike they see.

As I saw these 400 high energy people , eager to succeed , hunting for that one break in life – it just made me feel how lucky the kids in the top 1% of Indian families are. The kids who live in the bubble economy – in gated complexes , born with a golden spoon , graduating to an iPad before you turn 5 , the best of schools & facilities , luxurious holidays, cell phone at 10  – these kids are going to struggle when they land up in the job market and face the other 99% who are just waiting to grab that one opportunity life throws at you. And when you see the determination in their eyes – you know that there is hope. These guys will succeed against all odds. They have energy & burning passion – all it requires is some direction and they are ready to take off.

Now you know why the AAP & Modi wave is catching traction – 10 years of mismanagement by UPA 2 has messed up the lives of millions , leaving them young & restless –  and now armed with a vote in their hand they are ready to rebel. Lets hope 2014 brings about the change we so badly need.

My Vipassana Experience – Interesting insights

I have wanted to attend a Vipassana program for ages. There are friends who have attended multiple sessions who vouch by its benefits and others who say they had no/limited impact.  I decided to experience it.

There are over 40 centres in India (and many more globally) and most get booked months in advance. A little research helped me make my shortlist of 3, Igatpuri – Near Nasik, Bodh Gaya & Dharamshala.  I was lucky to find that Bodh Gaya had a course at the time in which I could take a 10-day leave. What better place to start your meditation that the town where Siddhartha got his enlightenment! Its an interesting location – with Nalanda and Rajgir at a 3 hr drive from Bodh Gaya.


I made my bookings in August for the Dec 1 Program, Bangalore – Delhi – Patna by flight and then a 3 hr. drive to Bodh Gaya and finally reached my destination. Coming so far I made time to visit the Bodh Gaya Temple and the famous Pipal tree spot where Siddhartha got his enlightenment. The temple is a world heritage site and very well maintained. Lots of positive energy and sitting below the massive tree at 5 AM even a layman can start his meditation journey.


I planned to be amongst the first so that I would get a single room – which I did. The camp is spread over 18 acres, lot of trees, about 25 – 30 cottages and buildings that can house about 100 inmates. Calm, peaceful, rustic, clean and Spartan.


My room was similar to my college single room with its own attached bathroom. Functional – meets the need very well. The place is rustic and beautiful – but has seen better days.


Day 0: Registrations happen in the morning and you handover all your gadgets / pen / paper everything except your clothes and toiletries. At 6.30 PM the participants are briefed on the rules. You need to take a vow and follow the foundation of the practice  sīla — moral conduct. Sīla provides a basis for the development of samādhi — concentration of mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through paññā — the wisdom of insight.

The key percepts are – Maintain Noble Silence (Silence of body , speech & mind  – even eye contact is not allowed). Other rules –  No Stealing, No Lies , No Killing ( I struggled to live with 5 large spiders in my room) , Maintain Celibacy , No Liquor /Intoxicants / Non Veg food and total segregation of male and female meditators. Others are no Yoga , no exercise , no chanting of mantras , removal of sacred thread etc.


Day 1 : The session starts at 4.30 AM – so you need to be up at 3.45 AM take a bath (not compulsory but I did) and report at the meditation center at 4.25.  All the instructions are taped / videotaped conversations from Guruji (R.P.Goenka  – The passionate founder who brought this movement to India in 1969 after learning it in Burma. He is not related to the Goenka business from Calcutta). There is a very Sr Acharya who program manages the whole event and a few Jr Acharya’s assist him.


The routine is rigorous and spans almost 18 hrs/ day. You get about 6 hours of sleep.

A day in the camp

 4.30 – 6.30 AM Meditation, 6.30 – 8.00 AM Breakfast & rest, 8.00 – 11.00 AM Meditation , 11.00 – 11.45 AM Lunch followed by rest till 1PM , 1 – 5PM Meditation , 5 – 6PM Tea , 6 – 7 PM Meditation , 7 – 8.30 PM Dhamma Talks by Goenka Ji  and instructions for the next day , 8.30 – 9.00 PM Meditation , 9.00 – 9.30 PM  1 : 1 Q&A sessions with the Acharya, Retire to bed at 9.30 PM

The Dhamma Talks are interesting. The content is simple & good, but Goenka Ji is a moderate orator. The teachings are a reiteration of how Vipassana is simple, practical and the essence of how Siddhartha got his enlightenment.And how with practise and commitment everyone can learn it.

Breakfast is simple and healthy – Poha Or Upma Or Sabudana Khichdi with some fruit and Tea/ Milk. Lunch is grand – Rice / Dal / Roti / 2 Sabji’s / Curd / Pickle. Tea break is just Tea and some puffed rice. Between evening tea and breakfast is a 13.5 hr break  . Food is tasty, piping hot, homely and very healthy and nutritious. I loved it.  And you don’t feel hungry given that there is hardly any energy spent in physical action


Day 1 to 3 is spent only in practicing and perfecting a breathing technique called “Anapana Sati”. Before I explain what this technique is lets step back a little and understand what Vipassana is all about.

Vipassana is a 2500-year-old technique that Gautama practiced to achieve nirvana. It’s all about observing and getting deeper and deeper into your body. The most important thing here is to OBSERVE, not have feelings of like or dislike. By this process your mind slowly moves from the gross to the subtle.  You sharpen the mind to cut thru the body and look deeper and deeper. “Anapana Sati” is a breathing technique that helps you sharpen the mind. The mind then acts as the tool.

Gautama found thru this process as he went deeper and deeper that at the final innermost layer the body is nothing but wavelets. The smallest subatomic particles that are in constant transition – replacing itself almost a trillion times every second. When you reach enlightenment you are able to see your body as a light wave and the energy balance becomes perfect.

In the process of going deeper and deeper using your mind like a knife you also eliminate from the root all the layers of impressions, dogma’s, filth, emotions, desires that choke you and cause unhappiness and suffering.

 Here is a quick look at how the course evolved over the first 5 days. The end objective being to teach you the technique practised by Buddha.

Day – 1 : You just observe your natural breath going in and out. This technique is used to eliminate thoughts. The mind constantly wanders and you focus the mind on the breath. It helps you increase your concentration and control the meandering mind. It’s frustrating initially but by the end of the day one does get the hang of it . At the end of day – 1 I was still a sceptic – I had spent 10 hrs. just observing my breath and it did seem like a waste of time.

Day – 2 : You observe the breath hitting the inner walls of your nostrils. It’s like watching the path of the breath as it bounces along the inner nostrils. You observe the temperature of the breath – cold going in warm coming out. At times it goes thru both nostrils, at times only thru one. 10 hrs. of this – By end of Day – 2 I started seeing some excitement – but still a skeptic.

Day – 3 : You observe all the sensations in the triangle that borders the upper lips as base extending along your nose.  This is tough. Initially you feel no sensations but after a few hrs you start felling the first small tickle. Then slowly with time you experience other sensations – a small throbbing, at times warmth, sudden burst of cold draft , some pin pricks , at time pulsing, sometime an indescribable sensation – a variety of sensations which you thought never existed.

As the mind has become sharper it is able to start identifying these sensations. They always existed – the gross mind does not see or experience them, the subtle perceptive mind does.  This was a very interesting experience and a great discovery. Something that can be used on a ongoing basis.

Day – 4: In the first half we start getting more precise. We now observe the sensations in the small area above your upper lip and below the nose. Now you are focused on a much smaller area, this is like sharpening the pencil even more and making it ready for Vipassana. The mind is concentrated to the point and at the end of 1 hr your forehead begins to heart with the intense concentration. You do this practice for about 4 hrs.

With this you have now prepared your mind to be able to concentrate on a small area of your body,

Now that you are ready Goenka Ji introduces you to Vipassana. The technique is to run your mind from top of the head to toes covering each part of your body in a certain flow and observing the sensations. Each journey of the mind takes about 10 – 15 minutes and whenever you don’t observe any sensations you stop for a minute at the spot. You suddenly realize that the full body is actually throbbing with sensations.

I found this to be similar to “Yoga Nidra”. Yes the Anapana Sati has helped you to assess and observe the sensations in your body a lot better. But conceptually it is similar. You do “Yoga Nidra” for 10 – 15 minutes after Yoga to relax your body , while this is a lot deeper and you spend days focusing on the sensations across your body.

I was a trite disappointed. I was expecting more. Post our learning we practiced for some more time. By day 3 you could see some change in the room. People were beginning to cough, burp, sneeze, and fart –  by day 4 night this was increasing a very rapid pace.

This just psyched me out. In a dark, dimly lit room with about a 100 people creating funny noises was not a pleasant experience. It affected my concentration and I was struggling to focus from Day 4. Add to this the level of energy is very low. People lost in their own world walking like zombies with slow steady steps starting into space made me feel that this was somewhere a mix between an asylum and a government hospital.

Day 5 you continue with the practise of Vipassana but now start spending 1 hr sessions ( 3 times ) sitting absolutely motionless like a statue. Mind becomes calmer when the body is still. This is not easy

I exited on Day 5. Most people exit on day 2 or Day 6 – I am told that 25 – 30 % of attendees exit. The reason most leave is because of the frugal food, Spartan facilities, the inability to communicate, or a struggle to sit cross-legged for 10 hrs. None of this affected me. I loved the simple food, enjoyed the peace and quiet of noble silence and my living quarters reminded me of college. I was beginning to enjoy this like a resort and hoping I could make it a yearly trip.

But two things that did not work – One the negative energy. You come to a program to get the adrenalin pumping – to get motivated & charged. Even the Acharya and successful returning meditators look like people from another planet. Weak & frail. That’s not something I want to be. Maybe they have tremendous internal bliss. But I guess I am not ready for that – YET.

And secondly the effect of meditation and the cleansing process was releasing all the impressions from the mind. The only way it can get released is thru yawning / burping / coughing.. . I somewhere saw this as a cloud of negative emotions hovering around the dimply lit room like a shadow of negativity – and that freaked me out.

Am I disappointed – Yes & No. Yes because I did not complete a project I wanted to do for long. No – because I learnt the tool of Anapana Sati which I can put to use effectively on a day-to-day basis. I have learnt the right way to meditate – rather than focus on Om, a lamp, a mantra – its better to focus on sensations on your body. Also I got an opportunity to visit the world famous Bodh Gaya Temple and to understand Buddhism a little better. It’s interesting to speculate why Buddhism lost out around 500 AD and Hinduism revived (That’s a separate blog – Coming soon). I also missed out visiting Nalanda that was just 60 Km away ( 3 hrs on Bihar Roads) . This whole stretch is worthy of a holiday Varanasi – Khajuraho – Bodh Gaya is a interesting 1 week circuit.

I am sure millions have benefited from this program. It surely delivers value. The organization is committed and the band of volunteers (Dhamma Sevak’s) is amazing. Most Sevaks in our program were from abroad – France, Kosovo, Prague. More than 30 % of the participants were foreigners. They don’t charge a pie for the 10-day program and exist purely on the charity of people who complete the course.

In todays world who would invest in your well being for 10 days with food and lodging free of cost with so much committment ? As I left I requested them to accept a donation – they were categoic that they take donations only from people who complete the course. This did upset me a little – but I hope I can contribute in some manner or come back later when I am more prepared.

Vipassana is a great example of how good things don’t need marketing. Every year 1300 teachers train over 120,000 people globally. Compare this to Baba Ramdev, Sri Sri and many of our current age spiritual gurus who run marketing campaigns to fill up their paid classes.

What Goenka Ji has started and built is indeed very impressive. Sadly the media (paid media) hardly gave Vipassana any visibility. Even the recent death of Goenka Ji in Sep 2013 a Padma Bhushan winner was poorly reported.

So what next – Isha Inner Engineering was high energy & fun and Vipassana was different & interesting. I have Osho in my mind. But as of now – I am going to let deep spirituality and inner well being take a bit of a back seat – its back to family, work, gym, yoga and my weekly Vodka!

Other Useful Information

1.     Visit www.dhamma.org for more details on program & Registration

2.     Carry your own bed sheets / blankets / toiletries / Alarm clock  / Torch / Odomos / Skin Lotion / Water Bottle

3.     Don’t go with a friend / family – one may connect the other may not, exit then becomes a challenge for both

4.     Once you have completed the initial 10-day program you can attend others – there are 10, 20, 30 & 45-day programs. There are also 2-day refresher sessions on Anapana Sati sessions dedicated only for Sr students who have attended 1 course – many keep coming back for repeat sessions.

5.     A 10 day program gets you started – but to constantly be on the journey you need to keep coming back (This is what some of the Sr meditators who have attended 5 + sessions told me on the day of registration)





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