On the Nose and Over the Top

I’ve always had a soft spot for puns, silliness, and on-the-nose humor, much to the chagrin of my grad school poetry professor (it was “poetry in immersive virtual reality environments,” for those wondering how my master’s degree in computer science included a poetry class). Hyderabad is a paradise for those who share my appreciation of things that go a little over the top.

First up we have this gem, which we passed on our way to lunch one Saturday afternoon. As far as anybody can tell me, it is just the house of a random rich guy. Google was unable to provide any more details. But it’s not so surprising. In a town where this other guy (be sure to scroll down to the best photos) took out billboards promoting himself, not anything he was selling, you definitely have to up your game.

It’s not just a thing of individual rich guys; above is a nearby hospital. Another one of our neighbors up the hill has a full-on castle, complete with moat and draw bridge (sadly I didn’t manage to grab a picture of it). But saving the best for last, my favorite Hyderabadi building, by far, is the office of the National Fisheries Development Board .

Photo credit: http://nfdb.gov.in/ My attempts at a photo, taken while driving by on the highway, all came out super blurry.

This town clearly shares my style enough that I’ll never feel like a fish out of water.


About a week after I arrived in India, I experienced my first holiday–Sankranti, a Hindu holiday honoring the sun god Surya. People told me that it was a celebration of the winter solstice, which confused me, since the solstice had been about three weeks earlier. A little Wikipedia research explained it– the Hindu solar calendar doesn’t skip a leap year every hundred years (like our calendar does), so it slips by a day every 72 years. Thus, over the last 1,500 years or so, Sankranti moved to January 15 .

The first stage of Sankranti involves people making beautiful chalk drawings on the ground, and according to my Lonely Planet guide, decorating their best cows and proudly parading them through the streets. I was incredibly excited about the prospect of decorated cows. The naysaying of Mansi (one of my new bosses and temporary hosts) was not going to change my mind. At 7 am, I awoke to loud drumming and some not very melodious singing. Outside I found a very ordinary looking cow with a little bit of paint on it. Apparently, another part of the tradition is showing up outside people’s houses with your cow and singing loudly until they pay you to go away, but since we live on the third floor, we just waited the cow (or our neighbors) out.

Undaunted by my first Sankranti experience, I asked if we could go somewhere to see the kite festival, another traditional component of the holiday. Unbeknownst to me, my request set off a chain reaction of India’s legendary hospitality. Mansi called her father, who called an old schoolmate, who called his brother-in-law, and the next thing you know we’re headed into the old city.

Even generations after they’ve moved to the city, Indian families retain a lot of the traditions of the native state of their family. Rajasthan, the origin of my friend’s father’s schoolmate’s brother-in-law, is famous for its over-the-top hospitality, even by Indian standards. The family was all dressed in colorful, traditional Indian attire, and they proceeded to bring out tray after tray of snacks– dried fruit, nuts, about five different types of fried dough, and a delicious fried lentil dish. But the highlight was the multitude of sweets that are all pretty hard to describe. The most memorable and most delicious was the “Old Lady Hair,” named for its stringy texture and white color, which was eaten dipped in a rice pudding called kheer. (Sadly, I failed to take any pictures of the incredible spread. I’m also extremely glad I didn’t realize until after we had left that this was all occurring as a result of my request to see some kite flying .)

After stuffing ourselves full of dough and sweets, we grabbed a giant stack of paper kites (also provided by our incredible hosts) and headed to the roof. The kite string is coated in invisibly tiny shards of glass that make it sharp enough to cut another kite string but not your hand. The goal is to wrap your kite’s string around the string of an opponent’s kite, and then reel it in quickly, cutting it before they can cut yours.

The sky over the old city is filled with kites and every roof is full of people, young and old, battling to cut each other’s kites free.

The sky was full of kites as far as the eye could see. I tried snapping a few photos, but they can’t really do justice to how many kites there were in the sky. Every rooftop in sight was full of people, young and old, flying kites into battle.

One of my fleeting attempts at kite flying. Mansi’s father, Ajay, can be seen in the background, flying with a lot more skill and style.

I’m amazed Mansi managed to get a picture of me flying a kite, as I probably lasted about three minutes combined on my two kites. Our rooftop avoided attacking each other’s kites, so I don’t know who got me, but I like to imagine that my incompetence made some nearby 8-year-old very happy. But it just as easily could have been someone older than me. Our hosts and Mansi’s father were cutting kites left and right, despite having not flown them in years.

As night fell, the rooftops all lit up with floodlights illuminating the kites above. Chinese lanterns, kites with candles attached, and reflective kites filled the sky (but proved nearly impossible to photograph, unfortunately). We were told the festivities would continue until well after midnight, but having exhausted our kite supply and our energy, we headed home.

That escalated quickly

Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down. And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there I’ll tell you how I became a software engineer for a small healthcare startup in Hyderabad, India.

It all started with my first job in San Francisco, as a software engineer for a fairly large online advertising company. After some time doing that, I’d decided that I needed to find work that was as close to my principles as possible. So I took a job at a very, very small startup, and despite the fact that we were only two employees, I formed a worker’s council. My plan was for the council to serve as a place holder for a real union while we were still small, helping to set work rules and company policies and negotiate collectively for benefits.

The company grew to 5 employees, and initially, the worker’s council was incredibly successful. We met bi-weekly and employees shared ideas for the company handbook we were collaboratively writing. Our first real win was when an employee wanted additional health insurance options. As our elected representative I met with the boss and we found a way to make it work without any additional cost to the company. The council also worked on creating 401k accounts for the employees and obtaining tax-free commuter benefits, all at minimal cost to the company.

After the company got our series A funding, the employees voted to collectively negotiate for a small amount of 401k matching. (I’d pushed for charitable giving matching as our demand, but that’s the trouble with democracy!) So I met with my boss, the chief technology office who was also the head of HR, and presented our demands. He said, “Thanks, we’ll see what we can do.”

A team meeting was called to tell us about updates to the benefits and I was very excited. I expected at least some negotiation, so jumping straight to the meeting must mean we were getting everything we wanted!

Instead, we were told during the meeting that we were not getting any 401k matching, the bosses were not willing to negotiate collectively with us, and the worker’s council was not going to work if it was going to create an “us vs. them” division in the company. I suggested we make all the company’s financial decisions democratically if we wanted to avoid an “us vs. them” mentality. That went over about as well you’d expect.

The general sentiment in the worker’s council was that we should back down. I didn’t feel that way, but it wasn’t until the next day that the bosses really got my union-loving back up. They booked a visiting employee in the Marriott where workers were currently striking for a living wage and decent working conditions.

After that, there was no way I could keep my peace. I said if the worker’s council couldn’t collectively negotiate, didn’t get at least a token amount of 401k matching, or have any say on financial decisions, then I was leaving. Despite the total amount of money in our demands being less than the recruiting cost of replacing me, the bosses chose option two. I offered to stay a few months to finish our big project, but they said my presence was divisive and would make it hard to hire, so I should leave at the end of the following week.

Tired of living in a city that prides itself on its leftist politics but is increasingly becoming an anti-union capitalist dystopia, I asked Facebook for ideas about what to do with my life. Fifteen minutes later, my phone rang with the peculiar sound of a Messenger call, and an old friend from grad school asked, “How do you feel about moving to India?” Without hesitation, or any research, I said yes. So here I am two months later, sitting in his living room in Hyderabad, starting a blog about my new life in India.

To quote my new boss, I hope 2019 is the best.