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Homelessness, poverty and crime in the world’s richest city, and what it says about the unequal world we live in

For the past six weeks, I’ve been living in San Francisco and loving it.  It is important to note however that San Francisco is really two different cities. There is a city of progressiveness, leading-edge technologies and business models, wealth, beauty, abundance, fancy restaurants, organic, vegan food, weekend hikes – the city I’ve been loving.

And then there is then the city of cold breezy nights spent on the road; moving one’s stuff around in a shopping trolley; rummaging in bins for food and recyclables; lining up in the Mission waiting for the truck for day workers and hoping you get picked for a job today. There is a city riddled with pain; poverty; addiction and untreated illnesses juxtaposed cruelly with the lifestyles of twenty-somethings on six-figure salaries.

If you walk around San Francisco, you also get a sense for how normalized this juxtaposition and inequality has become – it’s almost as if everyone just accepts this is the way of life. There’s no sense of change or ‘we must do something’ or ‘this can’t go on’ in the air.  There is a sense of ‘we must install better burglar alarms’ in the air. A few locals have commented on the gridlock in local Government here. Mostly, we, like our politicians, are resigned to this never-ending tragedy. It’s the people who’ve known and lived in other cities that point out how grotesque this pain and crime-ridden equilibrium is.

My goals in this blogpost are to share my observations on the dark side of the city – something we don’t talk about enough due to our moth-like attraction to glamor; to argue that this is a relevant issue for everyone – the rich are delusional if they think they are insulated from this mess; and that we must do something because even if you (falsely) believe you can be insulated, it’s a moral issue.

The impossibility of insulation: one person’s poverty translates somehow into everyone’s poverty

Last Sunday, my friend parked his car in pretty Valencia at mid-day. He returned to a broken window and all his belongings (laptop, clothes, passport) stolen. I felt terrible just hearing this story, let alone having gone through it myself.Not only did he lose his material possessions, but also photos on his laptop of all his travels. Irreplaceable. And it’s not unusual or a one-off. Colleagues tell me about break-ins to their cars, to their houses, of bikes being stolen. “Never ever leave a bike parked out for more than a few hours in the day, or over night” said my Landlady when I moved in. Another classmate had his car window broken into when parked outside a restaurant whilst we were having dinner.

People tell me they’ve moved to the East Bay to avoid being in the city which is “ruined by the homelessness and destitution” you encounter everywhere. Ten minutes walk from my office in the Financial District, is a small strip of a refugee camp of homeless people – near 1st Street and Mission Street. Civic center is full of people ‘living in a different reality’, and people talk of the Tenderloin as a place to be avoided, despite its good bars and restaurants.

Everyone is affected, no one is insulated. San Francisco is a microcosm for the world, where the rich invest ever more in security systems and guards to protect their lifestyles from the hungry and desperate poor.

Poverty, Escapism and Illusion

I’m a well-travelled person and I’ve seen and known about poverty – in India, in Mexico, in Bolivia, through my volunteer work at Oxfam GB. But nowhere have I seen so many people who are coping with poverty by escaping its reality through substance abuse.

Nowhere have I seen so many people talking to themselves on the street, or talking to other people. Nowhere have I seen so many ‘crazies’. Whether you hate the word or think I’m being judgmental aside, the truth is the truth. Certain behavior is out of the realm of usual human interaction and well, we have a word for it: ‘crazy’.

There is a ton of ‘crazy’ in San Francisco. You see people yelling on the streets. I saw a woman at the Embarcadero going up to different sea-gulls and yelling at them. Yesterday, whilst walking in Valencia, a man looked at me and screamed ‘I see middle-eastern, Mediterranean!!’ (I’m so obviously Indian so this is also a sign of craziness). It was scary.

A classmate told me the story of a 40-year old man he saw on the street blowing bubbles and looking excited and happy. We sighed in sadness hearing this story.

Despite the substance-induced illusions of a fraction of the poor, I would argue a higher proportion of the rich are under the even more dangerous and unsophisticated illusion that they somehow deserve their wealth and poor people deserve to be poor. They’re also unaware of how complicit we are in a capitalist system that keeps the poor poor, and lets the rich get richer – but the rotten core of modern capitalism is another blog-post for another day.

The moral issue of poverty and inequality

If we would just step back and think about this, we would realize what a giant lottery ticket life really is – no one chose their genetic endowment (there’d be an awful lot of white men in the world if we did!) & no one chose their family background or the random events that would shape their life. Mostly, we were assigned, and some of us had to make do with a rubbish assignment AND then get constantly punished for it by the well-assigned blaming us as if it was our fault.

That’s how I feel about poverty for the most part – that if we’re better off, instead of being smug or rubbing it in, we should help those who are not and recognize humbly it could have been us.


Misogynist India: what the ancient forts in Rajasthan tell us about the status of women in Indian society

History has been cruel to women everywhere. I write about India because I know it better than other countries, and because the legacy of cruelty continues here until today, more so than in many countries.

Fort 1: Amer Fort

On our first day in Jaipur, we went to the stunning huge Amer fort (pronounced Amber by western tourists). Amer fort has a 12 km wall surrounding it and encasing the old Amer city. There are watch-posts along the wall where guards stood in olden times. It was built by Raja Man Singh I in 1592. For those of us who watch Bollywood movies, this might mean something to you if I say Raja Man Singh I is Princess Jodhaa’s dad.

Watch tower on the 12km wall around Amer city


And by the way, the Bollywood epic Jodhaa-Akhbar romanticizes things extremely and actually glosses over very important facts:

  • Jodhaa was Akbhar’s third wife. He also had many concubines and was a total womanizer like most Indian Kings. The movie makes out like they’re both falling in love for the very first time.
  • Jodhaa was converted to Islam before marrying Akhbar. Her muslim name was Marium. The movie incorrectly makes out that Akbhar accepts her as a hindu bride. Though we have to credit the Mughals for being a bit more accepting of other religions as they created another religion called ‘Din-e-ilahi’ which allows its members to be basically hindus or muslims and marry.

I found all this out from our cheerful Kazakh-descendant driver from elefamily.

In a previous post, I called Jodhpur the city designed around caste. I call Amer fort the fort designed around oppression of women. Though that’s probably not how the architects thought of it, constrained by the cultural views of their time and unable to hold a mirror to themselves and take a deep first-principles-based look at their thinking.

The fort has four main quarters: Diwan-e-Aam or the “Hall of Public Audience”, the Diwan-e-Khas or the “Hall of Private Audience”, the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace) or Jai Mandir, and the Sukh Niwas which is a courtyard designed to be cool even against the hot Rajasthani summers. The beauty of the fort is undeniable. The cruelty to a modern feminist shocking.

Women had their own quarters where they lived. There were 12 wives and many other concubines. They could only go in women-only areas so that they never came into contact with any men other than their shared husband. Wonderful.

They never ventured outside the palace. Their only contact with the outside world was through female servants. Female servants would carry merchandise into the female quarters and here women would look at clothes, art, jewellery, furniture and decide what to purchase. They each had their own ‘apartment’ in the palace, which they tried to decorate in the most elaborate ways possible, vying for the attentions of the King – “Please do come visit, I love you so much I’ve had your face embroidered in this hanging carpet and I worship it every day”.

Under this parapet, women servants would bring merchandise for the queens to inspect
Blushing, our guide was like ‘And this is the hot-tub in which the King and other royal men sat with their concubines’

Twelve “Queens” competing desperately for the attentions of one King who rarely visited and also had multiple concubines. Pains me to see how these women were forced to be pathetic. Poorly educated, unable to rise up to their oppressors, unable to even realise they were being oppressed…and worst of all, contributing to the oppression of each successive generation of women. Women oppress women in India, sometimes more than men do. Look at cases of dowry deaths: in the majority of cases, mother-in-laws burn daughter-in-laws for dowry money.

Another symbol of patheticism was a wheelchair for women. Women wore heavy dresses and jewellery and would sit on the wheel chair and be wheeled from one place to another by eunuchs. It’s funny how different mindsets can be. Some women would have thought of this as a luxury. To me, it’s sickening to be so heavily laden with jewels and cloths that you cannot move independently and have to be wheeled around.

They watched any event, any ceremony through blinds on the top floors of the palace. They could see out but no one could see them. The poor women were better off in some ways, they were out in the open at least, only their faces veiled with scarves.

Imagine looking through this your whole life

Fort 2: Jaisalmer fort

‘Sati’ is the ancient Indian practice of forcing widows to jump into the fire that their husbands are being cremated in. This is now ILLEGAL, and the last recorded case happened in 1987 in Rajasthan (way too recently for my liking). The ‘logic’ is that women are property of their husbands and their life revolves around their husbands. Once their husbands are gone, there is no point in their life and they better go with him.

In Jaisalmer and in Mehrangarh fort, we saw the handprints of the women who’d been forced into the fire.

Sati handprints

Fort 3: Mehrangarh fort

On the entrance of Mehrangarh fort is a painting that tells it all. It shows a wedding happening, with the members of the man’s family on one side and the woman’s family on another side. The woman’s family have their hands folded and are hunched over in humility. The painting is too faded and fine to make this out via a photo, but you get my point.


And these are three forts I’ve featured in this article. The others were similar, designed to keep women away from the outside world and from advancement.

Faces unseen, voices unheard and worst of all, their own minds undeveloped. These are the ancestors of modern Indian women. The women who we must NOT be like.

The Elephant village in Jaipur: incredible and unforgettable

Sometimes the best days on a trip, and in life, come about unexpectedly. We were looking for something to do for our last day in Jaipur. We were almost lamenting that we hadn’t planned properly and had an extra day in Jaipur. In hindsight, an extra day in Jaipur is never anything to lament about. EVER. It’s a city spilling over the brim with art, talent, beauty, wildlife.

Thank you to my travel companion for not letting me be stingy (a trait I abhor in myself) – we decided to visit the elephant village and spend a few hours hugging elephants, learning about elephants, painting on elephants, riding elephants and bathing elephants.

 Upon arrival at ‘Elefamily’, one of the companies that works in the elephant village, we took part in a ceremony where we tie Rajasthani turbans – they even do this for girls! Which is really nice because I do think girls in India should start wearing turbans to make a statement that we are equal. In fact, would that not be a cool idea for a day in a year – girls wear turbans to show that we can do anything men can do? I’m sure women’s rights groups will object to this on one basis or the other, probably saying that I’m suggesting we have to imitate men to be heard or whatever.  But turbans are fun…for a little while. I took mine off after a while because it was a) falling apart and b) just plain weird for all my photos to be like that. Vanity is something I fear I’ll never be able to get rid of in my life. My late grandmother cared about the kinds of salwaar kameezs and jewellery she wore until she was 80. I probably will too. But hand on heart I can say I’m a hell of a lot better than most girls – you know the types we see on facebook who’ve taken a picture like a million times to get it ‘right’. Eugh. Anyways, like Colonel Haathi from Jungle book I digress…

 Our host, Kabir from Elefamily, has 9 female elephants. In the elephant village, there are a total of 120 female elephants and 4 male elephants. (Guys reading this are thinking that’s a great ratio – you’re all so predictable!).

The female elephants are all working elephants. They carry tourists up to Amber Fort, about a 10 minute ride. They do five rounds up and down and then they can spend the rest of the day just being elephants. I’m happy the Government has come up with this smart arrangement.

 It’s funny when we were at Amber fort, in a queue of tourists from all around the world, there were a number of fairly fat tourists. We watched a fat my-guess-is American woman get on the elephant and my friend goes ‘Poor elephant, having to carry another one of its kind up the hill’. Hehehe.


 Anyways, so let me tell you all I can remember about elephants!

1) Their favourite food is bananas…..


 You’ll notice when you feed them that they store four or five bananas in their mouth at a time before swallowing them. They eat a LOT. We saw the room with all the hay(?) for one day’s feed. They only sleep for an hour in a day and they eat all night. At night in the elephant village, the owners chain up the elephants so that they don’t go wandering and kill someone. They also place sugarcane all around each elephant which the elephants eat all night.

2) They love each other. Like us, elephants have deep bonds with each other. Herds are known to come back to the place where a fellow elephant was poached or died and mourn his/her death.

3) I’d always been curious about the discolouration you see on Indian elephants, on their trunks particularly. Kabir said it was because that’s where the driver and riders climb up the elephant from. Simply rubbing the skin in one place repeatedly causes them to lose pigmentation. Interesting. I like elephants being grey, it’d be weird if they were all pink.

 4) Elephants are very good huggers.Image 

Unrelated to the hugg-ability, they are actually pretty hairy sometimes. I didn’t expect that.

5) The elephant language has around 34 words. Impressive vocabulary, no? We learnt a few. For reference, for the next time you’re on an elephant: ‘agat agat agat’ means ‘go go go’. ‘Dhut’ means stop. ‘Che ghoom’ accompanied by the right foot moving the right ear tells the elephant which way to turn. ‘Peeche hut’ means reverse. Most of these are hindi words as hindi-speakers will recognize.

 It’s actually not that hard to ride and steer and elephant once you know the language. It was an absolute marvel to me that I could steer an elephant and make it go and stop as I pleased. I also marveled at the whole concept of taming elephants. It’s so strange to see a small human telling a huge creature what to do. This particularly struck me as I watched Kabir tell the elephant to back into its ‘apartment’ and it did as it was told. Kabir had his hand outstretched and was angrily saying ‘peeche hut’ as he stepped towards the elephant and the elephant kept stepping back, a little bit reluctantly like she couldn’t really be bothered but she did step back. And then it was bath-time!


 Elephant-riding is also really good assertiveness training for the human involved because elephants do not listen to gentle instructions. You have to be loud, and sure. I should try and get it introduced into the Harvard Business School curriculum as part of leadership and assertiveness training. 

At the start of the day Kabir had told us ‘You’ll fall in love with the elephants’. I thought that was an ESL way of putting things – how can you fall in love with elephants? and that too so soon? But at the end of four hours, I didn’t want to leave and I loved elephants so much – still do. And I was looking at our elephant  ‘Moti’ lovingly (Moti is hindi for pearl, also hindi for ‘fat’ with a slightly different pronunciation) and Moti had tears in her eyes. I was touched. And then Kabir said their eyes are always moist to protect them. Of course.