The Lament Of An Environmental Migrant

I arrived in Gurgaon on the 16th of March 2014 with two suitcases. In the nearly six years since, I’ve prospered in a new career, fallen in love with a lifelong Delhiite, gotten married, and become a father. I’ve developed friendships and connections that have enriched me intellectually and professionally. In five short years, my life has become inextricably entwined with Gurgaon. Despite living in three other cities during the past sixteen years, Gurgaon is where I have finally been able to sink roots and hang out a Home Sweet Home plate. It didn’t last long though – in January 2020, I tore up my nascent roots in Gurgaon and relocated to Hyderabad with my family.

In the months following my daughter Vivien’s birth in the summer of 2018, every attempt I made to stay in the moment with her was tainted by anxiety. I was continually aware that come September, the season’s pernicious mists would be upon us, wreaking unknown damage inside her tiny body. We got through her first winter with restrictions on going outdoors and the use of an air purifier – not ideal, and by no means adequate, but we were relieved that all her biological markers seemed on track and her doctor was pleased with her growth milestones.

Two days shy of her first birthday, Vivien got off her bed and crawled towards our living room as she always did after her morning nap. When half the way there, she got to her feet unsteadily and took her first steps without support – seventeen bold strides into the arms of her grandmother. She hasn’t stopped running since. She’s growing to be the outdoorsy type, spending several hours on our balcony and an hour and a half in the park each day. Like any other child her age, she loves the playground – the swings, slides, and rides that she’s barely old enough for, and it feels criminal to deprive her of these things. But there was her wheeze – the sharp hiss of her breath when she ran across the playground – it was hard to tell if it was merely panting, or something far more insidious.

The autumn-winter air quality problem in Northern India is a complex issue with multiple contributing factors: there’s the most discussed cause – stubble burning as farmers prepare their fields for the Rabi crop; altered wind patterns thanks to climate change; and comfort fires that homeless people or those who work outdoors light to stay warm. Within the National Capital Region, these factors are compounded by garbage burning – of which the Jindal Group’s Okhla-based garbage burning power plant is perhaps the largest perpetrator; emissions from the thousands of unauthorised industrial units that dot the region; and construction regulations deficient in provisions restricting the release of particulate matter. Barring climate change, all of these factors can be immediately countered with an integrated effort that has not been made thus far.

For four years, I have been a part of the circus around air quality in the Delhi area. The protests begin as a murmur in August, reach a crescendo in November, and diminish to a whimper by spring. It is my personal opinion that the Bharatiya Janta Party, which rose to power with a landslide electoral victory in 2014 and repeated a powerful performance in the 2019 elections, is holding back on decisive steps to curb pollution in its efforts to discredit and dislodge the Aam Aadmi Party which controls Delhi’s local government. The AAP has made some sincere efforts, but with the root cause spanning multiple states, their ability to do something truly transformational is limited. In Punjab, where a lot of stubble burning occurs, the Congress government wants to avoid antagonizing farmers in a desperate effort to hold on to one of the few states where it still holds power. In Haryana, the BJP Government is sitting tight to avoid upsetting the farmers that form its vote bank. The hapless citizens of northern India – farmers and urbanites alike – are mere cannon fodder in this pitched political battle.

While the rural population suffers in silent helplessness, the urban knowledgeable have been desensitized to the issue. Some were actually overjoyed when the AQI stayed within the 400s over the Diwali Holiday – forgetting that anything over 50 is bad, and 400 is “Hazardous”. Also, barring those with existing respiratory problems, people who don’t have extraordinary demands from their bodies do not understand how this pollution is affecting them. As a recreational runner and former martial artist, I am acutely aware that my body is not functioning optimally. While running in Gurgaon during winter months, I’d be lucky to go 4 kilometres at an even pace – in comparison, in February 2019, I ran 10 kilometres across the Ashwe and Morji beaches in Goa, barely breaking a sweat. For three years, I’ve been suffering a mild chest congestion that waxes and wanes with shifts in air quality. Extreme exertion such as sprint training causes me to cough up globs of green phlegm. For four years, I’ve been indifferent to this, but I cannot afford to any longer.

Like most crises in India, the pollution problem is characterized by staggering intersectionality. Most of the people who are concerned about it are those who can afford the tools to protect themselves to some measure, or like us, to move away. Those most vulnerable can only afford to look up at the drab sky and dive back into the struggle of making it to the next day. Unfortunately though, those who are vocal about the pollution crisis are the minority. As we have seen in the past six years of the current government, rhetoric, symbols, and gestures are prioritized over actual performance, and any minority, however vocal with its grievance, is ignored. Except for arming ministry offices with air purifiers, the central government has done nothing to acknowledge this terrible crisis, and there is no sign of a credible movement to protest the slow poisoning of the region’s residents.

The economic impact of this is catching up. During September 2016, I accompanied a friend seeking to buy a home in Defence Colony – one of the nicer Central Delhi neighbourhoods. The going rate at that time was INR 100 million (about USD 1.4 million) for a three-bedroom unit in a modern building. Today, a similar property can be had for about INR 60 million (USD 0.85 million). A local estate agent recently told me that the previously high prices were driven by rental potential as the neighbourhood was popular with foreign workers – particularly those working at embassies and UN agencies. Apparently, since Delhi’s pollution situation has become common knowledge, most embassies and international agencies have cut local staff and some even prohibit officers with young children from taking up a Delhi posting. This shift is having a devastating effect on the local economy. Foreign workers typically employed highly experienced domestic staff – chauffeurs, housekeepers, cooks, and nannies – and paid high wages commensurate with skills, experience, and personality. These professionals are now finding it harder to find work, often taking up roles with far lesser pay and poorer working conditions just to meet their expenses. Now that the rental demand from foreign workers has been taken off the table, rents have plunged, and many long-time property owners have sold their homes and moved – often to places where their children live. The aforementioned estate agent claimed that about two dozen of his long-time clients have sold and moved to Goa, Canada, Australia, the USA, and the UK. I may have been prescient when I ran the numbers in a 2018 article and made a business case for wealthy Delhi residents to migrate.

This exodus is sure to gather momentum – I know of many local families with young children who have plans to relocate. While the pollution is a key reason, other motivations are the higher cost of living; and an absurdly competitive educational system, with admission to some elementary schools requiring bribes of over INR 1 million (USD 14,000). Our former housekeeper just told us that several of the flats in the gated community we lived in are empty. The former occupants – all DINKs or families with younger children have left for other cities.

With Hyderabad and Bangalore already known for their tech-friendly business environment, many companies will look to these cities to expand their footprint. Friends and acquaintances who are recruiting for both larger companies and startups have spoken about high-skill, high pay workers – earning INR 5,000,000 (USD 70,000) and above – being reluctant to move to Delhi. In atleast two cases, this resulted in these positions being created in another city – one in Bangalore, and one in Bombay – to accommodate the right candidate. In the longer term, Gurgaon may lose out to the benefits of any growth if the current government’s economic ambitions do eventually materialize. For instance, Deloitte employs over 40,000 people in Hyderabad and plans to double its headcount in the city by 2022; Google’s new campus in Hyderabad can accommodate 13,000 workers; Amazon’s Hyderabad office has a capacity of 15,000. All these jobs are middle and high income jobs, and will infuse liquidity into the local economy and drive tax revenue. With the current pollution situation and highly publicised law and order problems, will Gurgaon ever see these numbers? Will Noida? The governments too are certainly feeling the pinch. Gurgaon, for instance, recently raised levies for property transfers in the upmarket wards of the city.

It’s been an agonizing decision for us to take. Varsha, my wife, is anxious about leaving her parents and it breaks her heart to leave the city of her birth. Vivien is much adored by her maternal grandparents, who frequently drove a 150 km round trip just to have lunch with her. Varsha has a large extended family in the Delhi area, whose company we enjoy at festivals and family events. I’ve enjoyed their warmth and affection from the day I was introduced to them as Varsha’s fiancé. It deeply saddens both of us to take Vivien away from her loving uncles, aunts, and cousins – a diverse bunch of artists, activists, entrepreneurs, professionals, and civil servants – role models whose presence would surely influence her future happiness and success.

Through all this anger and sadness, we are aware of and grateful for our privilege. This wouldn’t be possible without the financial resources and social connections that afford us the career risks that Varsha and I are taking with this move. Our hearts break for the families tied to Delhi by circumstances, filial duty, or the compulsions of a livelihood. We yearn for a day when the political will to improve Delhi’s air will emerge and manifest, and we will bring Vivien back home.

Review: Bombay Shaving Company

I have been using a straight razor with replaceable blades for the past 18 years. It started during my college days as a private protest against the ludicrous price of Gillette Sensor blades. The habit endured – with my horsehair brush and a straight razor, I could go from Weekend Stubble to Monday Debonair in under four minutes. The added bonus was that a year’s supply of Wilkinson Sword blades cost me less than a single Gilette Sensor cartridge. As I grew older and became a little more plastic conscious, I stuck with the open razor because a tiny sliver of steel every two weeks casts a lesser ecological burden than the blister-packed cartridge-du-jour with six (or whatever they’re up to now) blades in a plastic housing.

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My Old Straight Razor

This Christmas, I received Bombay Shaving Company’s six-part shaving kit as a present. Now I’m usually skeptical of these internet-only brands that “reinvent” the classics for 10 times the price. After all, my straight razors cost between INR 40 and INR 120, and the Wilkinson Sword blades cost about INR 15 for a packet of 5. The tubes of shaving cream and after-shave balm included in the box were fancier than my usual Old Spice shaving cream and after shave lotion.

In the box were two 10-packs of Feather razor blades. Feather blades, made in Japan, are widely regarded as the best wet-shaving blades in the world, and BSC now had my full attention. The included razor is a solid metal item, very well constructed, and impeccably balanced. Also included, is a faux badger brush. I’ve always been skeptical of these nylon shaving brushes, but BSC’s brush does the job and does it well. Goodbye horsehair.

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My new Bombay Shaving Company kit minus the gimmicky scrub

For many men, the morning shave is a meditative and mindful rite of self-care. BSC’s kit certainly supports this. Having been my daily shaver for the past ten days, I’ve enjoyed the experience with the brush and the razor, and the insanely sharp Feather blades make for a very comfortable shave. BSC includes a second razor head – marked “aggressive”. This piece, visually indistinguishable from the regular head barring the letter “A” marked on it, makes the blade cut closer to the skin. This seems to work best for my mature and somewhat rough growth.

The included shaving cream and after-shave balm are good, and have a pleasant modern fragrance. My wife seems relieved that I’m transitioning away from alcohol-based after-shave lotions and the consequent “white face” dryness that she finds unappealing.

With shaving products, re-supply of consumables is always a challenge, especially if you use uncommon products. BSC is cognizant of this, and all the in-box items – razor, brush, accessories, Feather blades, and in-house cream and balm, are available at competitive prices from the Company’s website.

BSC is not without gimmicks though. They include a scrub – touted as a pre-shave exfoliant to prepare one’s face before a shave. Well, a razor blade is perhaps the most effective exfoliant on the planet. As long as you use a proper shaving cream, you will be taking all the dirt and dead skin off your face with your razor itself. But again, this is more a matter of personal preference than shaving canon.

The only area for improvement is the fragrances. Bombay Shaving Company offers only one fragrance – a contemporary fragrance that will not appeal to all men. In my opinion, the fragrance in the after-shave balm is pleasant, but lacks depth and complexity. They need to diversify their range with at least two additional fragrance types – a ‘spicy’ type  with a musky/woody base such as Tabac or Old Spice; and a citrusy classic eau-de-cologne variety similar to 4711 or Premium. These two fragrance lines will drive customer “stickiness” among a major proportion of wet shavers – else most “converts” like me will return to them only for the Feather blades.

In my opinion, BSC makes the nicest shaving kit that I’ve encountered in ages, and is a must buy for the man looking to drop the hideously expensive and gimmicky multi-blade systems.

Note: This is a review of a kit that I received as a Christmas present from a family member. Bombay Shaving Company has not offered me any incentives for this review.

Chemical Lessons

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My body reminded me of something important today. Due to unusual circumstances I ended up drinking two cups of coffee (double stovetop Moka Pot and a large mug of French Press) this morning. Today is a busy day – I’m traveling on business, and will be in the air for much of the day. I was trying to get as much done between 0700 and 0900. Within 20 minutes of the second cup I was in a near panic – dealing with things that are routine for me in the course of my work. What the hell was going on?

Sitting at my (home) work desk, I tried my three minute mindfulness meditation. It did centre me mentally, but I could feel the panic in my limbs – a scary sense of detachment very similar to being severely drugged – when your body does not feel the way your mind expects it to. I managed to get out of the house and to my cab with that lingering sense of dread. I did more breath meditating in the taxi – then it struck me. Caffeine. The jumbo overdose of caffeine.

Sitting here in the boarding lounge, it all came together. I recalled a period of three months last year when I went off all stimulants. This had been an intensely painful time for me, as I was dealing with a devastating life event. Life at that time was just work, exercise, yoga, and meditation. No sugar, no alcohol, and no coffee. The daily meditation kept me centred and functional – important when a desperate sadness is hanging over your entire life like a dark cloud. The sugar free diet kept my energy levels constant throughout the day – nice when you’re living a high-stress consulting industry lifestyle. The yoga and exercise gave me killer fucking abs.

So now I think back – perhaps that is a good way to be. Minus the chemical stimulants, perhaps I’ll be more focused and thus able to vanquish the distractions that mock my plans to study and write. There is the social impact of not drinking alcohol and coffee – but as with that time, people get used to it rapidly.

Simplicity

Since December 2014, I’ve been working on two fitness goals – first, to drop the flab that I’ve put on since mid-2013, and second, to strengthen my left shoulder after a round of physiotherapy. I’ve had a lot of tools at my disposal – because of my background in the martial arts, I’m a strong believer in bodyweight exercises; I also have kettlebells that I’ve used to shed some serious weight in the past. Additionally, I’ve always supplemented any weight-loss effort with High Intensity Interval Training, usually in the form of sprints.

Since February though, I’ve faced trouble with my left foot, which made me drop sprint training. To compensate, I built a weekly programme of alternating bodyweight and kettlebell training. This went on for a while, but the lack of gains in strength and endurance sent me back to the drawing board. After all, to come home on Friday evening with sore shoulders and no energy is not what I expected from my exercise regimen.

Two weeks ago, I stopped the Kettlebells. My exercise regimen now comprises only bodyweight workouts, with alternating days of upper-body and lower-body work. For weight loss, I relied on a high-protein / low carb diet that has served me very well in the past.

The change has been amazing. With a good 48 hours between workouts, my body now has time to recover, and I’m able to push the performance envelope, with data to prove it. I’m also losing fat. The best thing of course, is the improvement in temperament, which makes me look forward to each day’s workout.

There is a lesson in this – simplicity.

My goals were simple. I had enough (too much?) information. I wanted to try everything to get the maximum effect; however, what I did was to just wear myself out. It’s scary to think that I brought myself so close to another injury that would have taken me out of action for 3-4 months.

This is what my current workout looks like:

Upper body: Push-ups; Pull-ups; seated dips; Scapular pull-ups. I do two failure sets of these exercises in this order, with a timed one-minute rest between sets.

Lower Body: Deep Squats (butt to heels); forward lunges; single-leg Romanian deadlifts; side lunges; calf raises. I do two sets of these exercises in this order, with a timed one-minute rest between sets.

Further reading

Mark Lauren’s You Are Your Own Gym is a fantastic resource for bodyweight exercises. This is a well-illustrated book suitable even for beginners. A related app available for iOS and Android helps users build workouts and follow a 40-day plan.

Mark Lauren’s You Are Your Own Gym (Flipkart): http://fkrt.it/Ggn4MBNN

Mark Lauren’s You Are Your Own Gym (Amazon) http://amzn.to/1CycgJ2

Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras is for athletes who want to get more into the dynamics of each exercise. This is a great resource for instructors and trainers.

Bret Contreras: Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy (Flipkart): http://fkrt.it/GA~kXYNN

Bret Contreras: Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy (Amazon): http://amzn.to/1BR8ZK5

Desperate Measures

Every now and then, I see posts in the social media, where people wishing to “get in shape” go on a “program”, “cleanse” or “detox” for anywhere between three and 30 days. In India, this has hit a whole new level of insanity, where brides to be embark on an extremely aggressive programme that includes weight loss and skin lightening in the weeks leading up to their wedding. It is perhaps thanks to a culture of instant gratification where people expect tremendous results in an unrealistic amount of time. The fad diets aside, these unrealistic expectations coupled with a supersize helping of slothfulness have spawned a multi-billion dollar industry of pills, potions, and machines that are supposed to give you that body of your dreams.

Coming back to the fad diets and detoxes, a large number of these are “very low calorie diets” that will cause a serious calorie deficit, and consequently some weight loss. However, the first few kilos lost are usually “water weight” which will return within days of resuming old diet habits. Frustration aside, there are potentially dangerous side effects. Sustained low calorie intake can destroy muscle tissue and weaken vital organs. Fad diets that focus on a single food or food group can leave the body deprived of essential nutrients and trigger other illnesses. Even if there is some weight loss, it is unsustainable in the long run.

In my journey from 108 Kgs to a peak-fitness weight of 74 Kgs, I learnt 3 key lessons that ALL the information on weight loss breaks down to.

Firstly, no matter what TV infomercials, pumped up fitness trainers, or that overweight diet expert in your office tell you, weight loss is a function of calories consumed vs calories expended. If you burn more than you eat, you lose weight and if you eat more than you burn, you gain weight.

Secondly, good health has a little to do with calories and everything to do with nutrition. Your diet must include a complex range of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals to ensure optimum health.

Thirdly, exercise is critical to preserve (if not build) strength, mobility, and endurance.

Getting healthy is not a weekend project or a month-long plan. It is an aggressive reprogramming of your mind and body and includes critical changes to every aspect of your life. If you make the changes and follow what works consistently, you will succeed – else, you will be stuck in the vicious cycle of crash diets and magical supplements.

A Fitness Lesson From The Red Queen

In Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Alice complains to the Red Queen about remaining in the same spot despite running for quite some time.

“Now, here, you see,” the Red Queen Retorts, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

How like fitness.

For the past month or so, I’ve been following an upper body training programme to recondition my shoulders and arms after about six months of disuse in the aftermath of the latest episode of my pinched nerve acting up.

I’ve been doing two sets each of push-ups, pull-ups, dips, and hanging scapular retractions. In case I encounter muscle failure before hitting my target, I cut intensity – moving from push-ups to kneeling push-ups and from pull-ups to negative pull-ups for instance. For the few days I seemed to have plateaued – though somewhat smug about the numbers that I hit.

Today, however, I decided to push harder, and raised my targets by 25 per cent, counting my reps backwards. Interestingly, I hit my enhanced targets on push-ups without any issues, and exceeded my previous counts on all the other exercises. This means that for the past one week, I wasn’t really growing – silly, silly me!

Sometimes, in the absence of an instructor or pace-setter we tend to be too easy on ourselves. This temptation is particularly strong when one works out solo in the privacy of a home. Fitness is like the Land Beyond the Looking Glass – you must run twice as fast just to stay in the same place!

So, here’s the change in strategy – my new targets are a minimum of 25 per cent beyond my highest good-form reps, with targets revised every 10 workouts.

Let’s see how this works. Watch this space!

Don’t Shun Water!

In the quest to lose weight, curtail ageing, and deal with many chronic illnesses, one of the most overlooked tools is Water.

 The human body is over 70% water, and even a 5% deficit triggers severe symptoms like nausea, fatigue, and disorientation. It is surprising though, that most people today live in a state of chronic dehydration. Indeed, many problems, ranging from obesity, to kidney and bladder complaints have been linked to insufficient water consumption.

 Water, in its capacity as a solvent, is a potent cleanser, and helps eliminate toxins via sweat and urine. Without adequate water intake, this mechanism is impaired, resulting in an accumulation of toxins in the body that could cause other illnesses. Also, water is very important for fat loss, as it plays a major part in fat metabolism.  Additionally, when water intake is inadequate, the body may retain water to compensate, adding weight, and a visible bloat.

 Also, for those worried about the effects of ageing on skin, increasing your water intake will restore cellular hydration and improve the elasticity and suppleness of skin.

 Dian and Tom Griesel, in their book Turbocharged, suggest that people often mistake thirst for hunger, and thus consume unnecessary calories, contributing to weight gain. In fact, this diet, that worked best for me, has a very strong emphasis on water consumption.

 Those of us who work in an air-conditioned environment are most certainly dehydrated, as the air is usually dry and the temperature delays the perception of thirst till it manifests as a dry mouth. The fact is, if your mouth is dry, you’ve likely been dehydrated for quite some time, and the effects of dehydration have already started to manifest.

 The most effective way to tell if you’re dehydrated, is from the colour of your urine. If it is dark yellow or brown, you may be dangerously dehydrated. Clear to pale yellow means you’re alright – the clearer the better. Caution though, certain medications and vitamin supplements tend to colour your urine, so you may want to be careful while making such a judgment.

 If you feel lethargic in the middle of your workday and have difficulty concentrating, you are likely dehydrated. It is best to carry a water bottle and sip every few minutes, so that your water intake remains adequate. For the first few weeks, you will be dashing to the rest room every now and then, but as your system expands its capacity, you’ll be able to go for longer without even noticing it.

 If you’re working out, the stresses on your body may make it harder for you to perceive dehydration. Make sure you sip water between sets, as dehydration also saps your athletic performance and thus your ability to get a good workout. Remaining hydrated during a workout also helps your body flush the by products of metabolism accumulated in your muscles. Several studies have also found a connection between muscle cramps and dehydration, so if you’re an aspiring runner or are taking part in any form of endurance exercise, keep this in mind.

 How to get water? The simplest way, of course, is to drink water itself! Carbonated drinks, coffee, and alcoholic beverages, though water-based, may actually contribute to dehydration through the diuretic action of some of their components. Fruits are a good source, with watermelon being my personal favourite source of water. 

The Turbocharged Diet:

http://turbocharged.us.com/

PS// I have used the Turbocharged Diet, and have had good results from it. I am not being compensated for this endorsement.