Life’s been a whirlwind, reader. So much to do, and somanythings inspiring me. Grateful for the days when energy and good health can keep up with my intentions! Here are some drawings from the past few months –
A sunrise walk with the brown boy, who tells me that I steamroll across life with my overblown sense of purpose. Good to know that I guess. Anyway, who can be mad at him for long? At breakfast we caught up on gossip we couldn’t share in front of the little tornado (who was in school).
We took an overnight train from Cairo and went to Aswan. From there, a felucca took us to Kato Dool, a resort in a Nubian village. On the way the felucca broke down in the backwaters of the Nile (sketch below) but luckily all the crocodiles in the Nile had either been mummified or left out in Sudan.
There was a wedding going on in the Nubian village that night and it was rather crowded. The brown boy almost got caught in a camel stampede during the wedding procession!
Finally, the ancient ruins of Egypt began…we took a Nile river cruise, and drifted down the Nile, stopping to visit the ancient ruins as we arrived at the sites. First, we visited the Philae temple, our first glimpse of imperial grandeur on the banks of the Nile. Here’s the David Roberts painting of the wonderful colors of the pillars.
This wonderful itinerary had been devised by Mishta, who even managed to squeeze us in for a lunch at the Old Cataract hotel, where Agatha Christie had stayed, writing her Egypt novels!
From Aswan we took the 3 hour long drive over miles of Sahara desert to visit Abu Simbel. I have never seen anything like the majesty of that temple. Rameses not only succeeded in convincing the god and the Nubians of his might, he almost convinced me too, nearly 3000 years later! It’s a massive Santa letter to the god Ra Horakhty asking for more power and wealth, and in case the god forgets, the inside walls of the temple are covered with details of his request.
In between the historic ruins, we chilled out on the river boat, drawing the countryside that passed and some of our fellow passengers as they sunbathed.
I skipped Kom Ombo (and the crocodile mummies!) but saw Edfu and of course the Karnak temple in Luxor, the most magnificent of all the ruins. It was too much to draw, all that imperial majesty, transferring down across centuries to transfix us in our present. We could barely think of the past and future, we were so caught up in the sense of place of these ruins.
Finally the last site we visited was the Valley of Kings. On the way we saw the fabulous ruins of the Colossi of Memnon. In my humble opinion, at some point, the pharaohs realized that it was more cost-effective and scalable to build their tombs in a conveniently located, pyramid-shaped mountain instead. All the tombs were brilliant and beautiful. I was awe-struck at the colors and the massive systems that kept the same consistency of output, and the sheer volume of labor that pulled it off across centuries!
Throughout our fortnight in Egypt, these were the insights I took away about ancient Egypt –
their fascination with death and mortality
their use of visual language – for communication as well as regal branding (this surely has to be the earliest use of regal insignia and branding). The strong sense of graphic design that permeates even today.
how they scaled their artwork and systems across centuries
these feats of engineering and architecture that broadcast the imperial narrative across centuries. A most masculine testosterone-fueled architecture of phallic forms, in my opinion…(except for Hatshepsut’s constructions).
And though defaced and obliterated, the need to adorn persisted through centuries till the present day – adornment not for vanity but as a way to worship, or appease, the prevalent religious faith…
Let me be honest, I don’t read Bengali literature frequently, so it was with a lot of trepidation that I started reading অগ্নিসম্ভব (Ognisombhov/ Inflammable ) earlier this year. It’s a novel set in the second half of the twentieth century in Kolkata. Written by my aunt Reeta Basu, it’s loosely based on the lives of my grandparents and their family.
For me, this book was a revelation into these two generations: the generation of my grandparents, who came over from the eastern part of Bengal (that is now Bangladesh) before the Partition of India; and that of my mother and aunts, who grew up in the late sixties/early seventies in Kolkata. It is illuminating how much society, and our outlook has changed within these fifty-odd years, especially in its expectations and attitudes towards women.
The second part of the narrative, called অগ্নিকুসুম (Ognikusum / The spark), is set in the past decade and the main character is drawn from our generation.
When I was growing up, the Bengali books I mostly read were the Feluda books by Satyajit Ray and the historical fiction by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Though I’ve also read a smattering of other Bengali fiction and our bleak literature canon in school, and apart from Pratham Pratisruti, I hadn’t come across a strong feminist perspective or many well-crafted female characters in the Bengali literature in my youth. So what stood out for me here was the specifically Bengali female gaze of the narrative, carried through by the inner monologues of the main characters, and the empathetic and compassionate depiction of all the characters.
For me, reading these two books was a very special experience.
Even though it was fiction, the characters that were based on my grandparents (my mother’s parents) were very lovingly drawn, right down to their inner lives and the little details of their day-to-day rituals. The history unfolding around them influenced their generous natures and community-driven values. Getting to know them through this book, learning about their challenges, the integrity of their choices, and how little they asked from life, was a proud and humbling experience. They have always been revered and cherished by us, and they are even more of an inspiration now. I felt lucky to get such a rare and deep connection to our family history.
The narrative arc illuminated how rapidly lifestyles have changed for middle-class women of that milieu – from being mainly confined to housework and child-rearing in their homes, to having the opportunity to be employed and financially independent in the seventies. Even then, it was no cakewalk – without a supportive husband, who didn’t see it as a detriment to his male ego, and an acceptable profession – it was fairly impossible. The academic profession, teaching in colleges or schools, was acceptable, but most other professions were deemed unsuitable. In these middle-class circles at the time, society and the norms it imposed were rarely questioned. In the second book, the daughters of the current generation make their own non-conformist career choices, and that creates great unrest among the parents – first for choosing an “unsuitable” profession, and then, the realization that their daughters were independent and empowered, and that their resistance was futile.
Another theme that was insightful for me was the rise of individualism in the second book. In অগ্নিসম্ভব, the sisters were good, dutiful daughters, who accepted their father’s decisions as final. On the rare occasions they had a different opinion, they did not dream of expressing themselves, and always accepted their father’s choices as the righteous ones. On the other hand, we saw ourselves reflected in অগ্নিকুসুম, where the main character doesn’t hold back in expressing herself through her behavior and life choices.
While reading this book, I finally understood the discord that had defined much of my adolescence and early twenties – my expectations and those of my parents were clearly at odds. Around me, I saw cousins being highly individualistic and took my cues from them, but what I didn’t realize was that the rules were still different for girls and boys! My parents were not prepared for this either and their tolerance (or the lack thereof) was the cause of some radical life choices.
Wise men have said if you don’t know your past, you don’t know where you are going in the future, and these books really serve that need – for us to know the world of women and their history, through their own voices.
A few months ago when the weather was cooler, we went on a day trip to Bidar Fort and the Bahmani Tombs.
Bidar is a formidable 15th century fort. According to history there was an old fort at the site, which was captured by Prince Ulugh Khan in the 14th century, who later became Muhammad bin Tughlaq of Delhi (who we are of course familiar with). Later the fort became the capital of the Bahmani dynasty when they moved to Bidar from Gulbarga. The fort as we see it today, was built by the ruler of the Bahmanid dynasty Ahmad Shah Wali Bahman. Eventually Aurangzeb annexed it in the 17th century.
For us it was our first sojourn into the Deccan (as adults) and I was curious to see the color palettes and the foliage and the red stone of the Deccan. Here are some quick sketches made from memory.
One of the things I love about living in India is how we rub shoulders with centuries past. That was the charm of Delhi too, living in close quarters with everything that that had gone before at that very same place. Puts our lives in perspective I often think.
I just came back from DesignUp 2019 which isn’t just a design conference, it’s made by designers for designers. This year it was bigger and better than ever. In the conference lineup there was a mix of data+design, the pluralities that exist in India with design for the social sector, design leadership and a number of varied workshops. Here are the sketchnotes of the talks I attended:
Jon talked about four ways in which design leaders can help to enhance creativity of their teams – to acknowledge feelings, tame ambiguity, drive a vision and let teams run wild. For example, designers feel vulnerable when putting up their work for a critique, so respect and acknowledge that. In a critique, he said, there should be no hierarchy. The highest paid person in the room is equal to everyone else, it should be a democratic process so foster trust. Another aspect of a design leadership is to set a vision – frame the problem and humanize it.
“Show the team why there’s a reason to believe. Bring the design criteria to life.”
Dave Malouf: Design Ops – The power to amplify design value
Dave’s talk finally gave me a name to some of the activities I’ve been engaged in over 2019 – hiring and setting up the design team and the comms for Microsoft Edge Design in India. For a long time, until I heard from Dave, I didn’t really think I was doing real “design” – but I realized after this talk, that I was setting the foundation for the team now to start performing at their best.
Design Ops basically creates time for design teams by streamlining effort and communication, to focus and put their best energy on the most creative aspects of the work. For scaling a design team and ensuring a quality practice that creates quality experiences, design ops is a must. Dave’s talk focused on principles and values to guide with.
“So that we mutually understand and value what is quality design output, AND quality practice is. Design Ops carries the burden.”
Socialise design quality
Critical design language
Monitor to learn and adjust
The design process (and proud to say we use the shiny double diamond in our team) that helps to explore multiple approaches:
Dave also explained how should design teams use quantitative and qualitative data:
Methods for collecting the right data as part of the design process
Instrumentation to be built in to capture the right data
Dashboards to turn data into insights
BTW, Dave founded the ixda – and that’s where I learnt how to be an interaction designer way back in 2004…
I had been reading Andy’s blog since 2004, and he was one of the early designers, and his talk was about the roles and responsibilities of design leaders.
An absolutely fantastic talk that made we wish I had a design mentor back when I was struggling to understand how to lead design teams. Now after 5 years or so, I may have learnt all these, only with a few battle scars and heart burn.
Andy talked about 5 things: Hiring the right designers for your team, retaining them and helping them stay creative, giving them the space to thrive and managing up and down.
“Give your team the air cover to support learning and growth.”
Another awesome talk which I couldn’t draw – because my pen had run out of ink – was “Design Leadership without losing your hair” by Param Venkataraman.
“The higher you go, the deeper you need to look.”
What was nice was that lots of speakers recommended books like Orbiting the giant hairball, Design the life you love, etc. There were so many more talks that were happening in parallel that I missed, including Alyssa Naples’s talk. It was really difficult to be at each of them. Plus there were all the wonderful conversations that happened at the edges of the conference.
All in all, a great conference – lots of validation, new learning, new ideas and new people to connect with! Looking forward to the next!
It was my first ever Grace Hopper India Conference for women in tech and having a reputation as a top conference for tech, I had high expectations from it. And more so because it was organized by women – who were, from my experience in corporate life, organized, efficient, empathetic and warm. And this year there was even a Design in Tech track. Naturally I was curious and interested.
This year the event was very large with nearly 5000 attendees, 440 companies, and about 300-400 odd attendees from Microsoft itself. There was also 1% men in attendance, the largest ever in GHCI, as we heard in the keynote.
A celebration of women in tech
Beyond the usual welcome and introductions, the first keynote speaker was Lori Beer (Global CIO, JP Morgan Chase). She shared her journey of moving from technology to finance. The key takeaway from her keynote was her message to Pay it forward – what kind of impact can you make in your own way, how you can support other women in the field and what can you give back to the women in tech community.
All the first day talks, including the keynotes, were almost calls to action to the women attendees – about owning their career and believing in themselves. It might seem redundant for some, but for most of the audience, these messages really resonated because we work in a primarily male-dominated profession, even now.
I’ve always been a designer in tech and for most of my career I have been the only woman in the room and had never seen women at the India leadership level until recently. Younger colleagues have asked me why that matters, but it does.
It takes a lot of grit to speak up when you’re the only woman in the room when you might be the only one with a different point of view. It takes a lot of determination to overrule interruptions and still make your point. It takes a lot of perseverance to imagine your own career path when you don’t identify with any of the role models in front of you because they didn’t have to make the same choices of pregnancy, motherhood and parenting. It takes a lot of courage to come back to work and prove yourself again and again because you made different choices than the people in power.
For many, this set the tone for the rousing and motivating experience for the next 3 days.
However what could have been done better was to include the male attendees into the conversation, but there was no acknowledgement of the men and how the genders can collaborate/support each other better. After the first initial mention of the 1% men stat they were forgotten in most of the sessions I attended. Like SheroesSummit, this could have been a great platform to not repeat the biases of the past and start on a more inclusive note, and possibly including different gender identities.
Design and tech
The conference content was significantly tech-intense and of good quality from what I heard and experienced. There were at least 5 parallel tracks running so it was quite easy to miss out.
Though the organizers had tried to address multiple themes within Design in tech, like de-mystifying Design, Design Thinking, the journeys of a few well-known women Design leaders, and how to transition to a UX career if one is so inclined, there was a fundamental lack of interest in the evolution of Design in Tech or in trying to understand the relationship between Design and UX – the terms were used pretty interchangeably. For a number of attendees, this was an intro to Design so there was a risk of miscommunicating the concept of design and its role in technology.
These were the talks that stood out for me:
Inclusive Design and Accessibility: Swami Manohar from Microsoft Research
Dr Manohar began by talking about recognizing your privilege and exclusion, before addressing inclusive design, and why diverse perspectives matter. His point of view, which is Microsoft’s point of view about Inclusive Design is that if we make it better for the usually excluded group of users, we make it better for everyone.
From How to Design, Innovate, and Create Designs that People will Love: A panel with women design leaders.
“Wait for the right moment of insight – a non-obvious, disruptive insight.”
“Ask yourself, does this idea fit into the narrative of the company?”
It was interesting for me to see how much curiosity there was around design. It shows that not only is there a lack of designers in the field, but also not enough designers who can demystify and evangelize their process and work to their tech partners in meaningful ways. There was a whole session on developers who want to become designers.
A case study about how these developers, Sampada and Aslesha, used design thinking to solve a real problem. I was quite impressed by their level of empathy and how they learnt and applied the design process while solving this problem.
This talk Design for Conversational Interactions by Vidhya Duthaluru and Vandana Abraham was really good, crisp and useful. From a project they had done for Uber, Vidhya succinctly identified all the steps one needs to think about while moving an interaction to a conversational experience.
This was a set of useful conditions to know while Designing for Emerging Markets by Muzayun Mukhtar.
The gender conversation
As I mentioned above, this was a celebration of women in tech. But the idea of “women in tech” itself was a bit fuzzy to some. In almost every talk I attended, by women and men presenters both, there were some sweeping statements about why women would be good at design or women would be good at accessibility or women would be good at storytelling – it’s not about gender, it’s about the person and the skills! This not only reinforced gender stereotypes but also diminished the content of their talk for me.
Despite this and some other logistical challenges, #ghci18 was a great experience and I also managed to catch up with friends from elsewhere at the conference. I met a number of really nice women and found that spending time in the company of women can be very supportive and affirmatory. If nothing else, that’s one good reason to go to women in tech conferences every year!
A couple of months ago we lost our beloved Dida, our mothers’ mother. When I lose someone from my life, I have a ritual of committing to paper all the memories before they grow dim in my mind. This is one of those ritual drawings.
For all the cousins: Rishi, Ribhu, Reshmi, Ruby, Nikon, Bimbo, Josh-da, Mishti-di, Babun-da, Pushan-da, Raja-da, Ruchi-di, Rinku-di, Badshah-da and Tupshi.
Hall-ghar: the big room, literally the hall
Adda: A gathering for gossip, among other things. Wikipedia definition
Kodbel: A fruit
Putiram: a sweet shop
Eecha: A sweet made with coconut in the shape of prawns from East Bengal
Cheet: A gur candy probably invented by my Dida
Patla Dal with kaalo jeera: Watery dal made in the East Bengal way
Daler Bora, Daler Paturi: Dishes made with lentils, from East Bangal
Mourala Maachch: Tiny fish from the Bay of Bengal
There is something special about a midweek holiday. Being the crazy workaholics that we are, we surprised ourselves with this rare treat last week, and drove up to Rishikesh in Uttarakhand. The last time we went on holiday, there weren’t any people to sketch, so this time we made sure that we’d get some suitable moments.
[At the ghats we look around for peace, shade and people to draw.]
[The photographer sits and talks about another two months…and then. I couldn’t keep up with his Hindi.]
This is not the brown boy, though it looks like him.
And here’s a restless little flower seller.
[Drawing from life is tough, but it must be done. It’s the only way to get away from the pre-conceived imagery in my head.]
[Here we are at Triveni Ghat waiting for the arati to start. It was very beautiful when it happened.
Prayer and worship always catch me unawares and I never know what to do.]
At one of the ghats we met Or, a graphic design student from Israel. He wanted to talk about moleskines and pens.
“Everyone is a hippie here, or a yoga nerd! I don’t want to talk about yoga or music.”
He was rather funny. “But India has karma, I love that concept.”
Our spiritual quest was punctuated by birthday calls from friends, all recommending their special things to do in Rishikesh, with love. And I kept thinking about all our beloved apps and digital services, which are just isolating us from each other more and more, and that just hearing the voice of a dear one on the phone is all it takes.