Sunday, February 10, 2008

Is mommy-in-law equal to mommy?

Among many south indian brahmin families - a new bride is expected to call her mother-in-law as "amma " (mom). According to the mothers-in-law, it sets the tone for a deeper relationship, but many educated daughters-in-law don't like calling anyone else other than their biological mother as "amma".

This is one of those rules and customs from the past, that made sense before, but not anymore. Just a few decades back, girls were married away at a very young age - like 8 or 12 years of age (Child marriages still happen in India, but many communities have come far along). As the young girl went into her in-law's household, even after puberty, she was still young, and it was probably comforting to look upon the mother-in-law as another mommy. Also, the culture was pretty much to follow what elders said, and expectations on individual freedoms were pretty low. This environment allowed her to accept someone else as an additional mom. Even a couple of decades back, though women married in their late teens or early twenties, many were still submissive due to the culture and upbringing, and this practice was still acceptable to most of them, though such comfort to look upon someone else as mom was not necessary.

Today. the girls are full grown adults in their early to late twenties or even thirties at the time of marriage, likely well educated, indpendent in their thinking, earning on their own, and don't need any comfort entering a household nor can be expected to be submissive. As such, an expectation to call someone else as mommy hardly makes sense - imposing such an expectation only hurts the relationship.

It should be left to individuals to agree upon how they'd like to call and be called. For mothers-in-law, the deeper relationship is established by setting expectations together - not imposing old practices that worked in the past. For daughters-in-law, it helps to remain flexible and find innovative ways to negotiate an acceptable term - perhaps "mom" in another language rather than "amma". Or call them "mummy" - they may not know what that means!

Divorce laws poles apart

I have always wondered why some of the laws are poles apart, on opposite ends of the planet. Below, are some differences in divorce laws between the US and India, to highlight the point (I am not a lawyer, and you should not take any of this as legal advice).

1) Sizing: One size doesn't fit all, so how do they divide the population? In the US, each state defines the divorce law, so that makes it 50 different possibilities. In India, it is based on religion, which is roughly 85% hindu, 10% muslim, 5% christian. Both make sense, since in the US, the culture is predominantly "American", and what matters is the states are either conservative or liberal to a certain degree. In India, the culture was distinctly based on religion when the founding fathers drafted the constitution, so they defined the family law based on the religion - else, they'd have tried to fit a square peg in a round hole.

2) Grounds: In the US, most states allow a "No Fault" divorce, meaning one spouse can file a peitition and get a divorce decree, usually after 6-12 month waiting period. California voters first approved no fault law in 1970, and other states followed suit over time (except New York). Prior to that, courts were going nuts trying to break their head on who's at fault. The idea was allow adults to make the choice, and even if one spouse doesn't want to cooperate, the marriage is broken.
In India, either the parties agree mutually, or some fault must be proven (desertion, cruelty, cheating etc.). Muslim husbands are however allowed "No Fault" divorce! This makes the justification not so easy. Why doesn't a muslim woman not get the benefit of "no-fault" divorce? Why christians have to prove two faults to get a divorce (courts recently ruled over this)? The law is based on religion, and thus hardly updated to suit current socio-economic environment. Courts get innovative, but lawmakers don't want to deal with a hot potato that involves religion, unless the voters feel strongly - that still seems a stretch.

3) Support: The non-earning spouse is an extra mouth to feed. However, the state doesn't want to pay, nor do the relatives around. Who is forced to pick up the tab? And for how long? In the US, the higher earning spouse pays "spousal support", an amount based on difference in income levels, taxes, child support etc, regardless of who's at fault, and regardless of gender. The time limit guideline is half the duration of the marriage (e.g., if the marriage lasted 6 years, payment for 3 years). The idea is to provide a leash to the lower earning spouse to be able to move on, while not penalizing the earning spouse life-long, even for even a short marriage. In India, the law is written gender specific - husband pays the wife, and time limit is open, until the wife remarries or is able to sustain on her own. Lately, the laws were changed to increase the alimony limit based on income formula as opposed to a fixed paltry amount, but the time limit was still left open. Also, in the case of muslims, the Wakf board provides some support to the woman for a limited time. Thus, it is lot more unpredictable, though courts try to settle by coming up with an acceptable lump sum settlement.

4) Property: Who takes the bank account? Who gets to keep the home? In the US, property settlement can be separated from issue of dissolution, and has no bearing on who's at fault. Thus, it may be possible to get a divorce decree without fully settling support or property issues. Assets and debts acquired during the marriage are considered "community property", and are divided "equitably", generally 50-50, though not an exact split. Any property held before marriage or after separation belong to the original owner. In India, "conjugal rights" are determined based on who's at fault - meaning property rights, not the right to sleep on the same bed! Thus dissolution issue is not separated from property or support issues. Sometimes threats to use stringent dowry laws are used by an angry wife (or should we say smart?) to bring about a favorable lump-sum settlement, without regard to what assets or debts were obtained during the marriage.

5) Child Custody & Support: In the US, both parents are expected to work with the court to come up with a "parental plan", which determines custody, visitation rights, and child support payments. It is again gender neutral, and support payments are determined based on income levels, who has custody etc. In some cases, one party might try to make a case to show the other as an abusive parent in order to gain sole custody. In India, the mom is awarded custody, and is considered to be more important for the well being of the child. Dad gets to pay and visit.

So what? Why is all this comparison useful? A few reasons below:
  1. It allows us to first get the facts straight, and dispel some media misinformation or myths
  2. It allows for critical thinking with the right perspective - esp, for lawmakers and legal community responsible for providing sensible conflict resolution.
  3. It influences voters to think differently - they ultimately drive for change in a democracy.
  4. It allows individuals to evaluate risk and exit options before entering a life time contract
Sounds convincing? Time to sell you bridges. The reality is that only a small percentage of divorces end up in court - mostly ego-centric, revenge oriented type where one party has no interest moving on. Others just settle out of court. In general, lawmakers will not bother to address a minority, even if the laws are unfair in the current context, as the issue may become a political or religious hot potato. And, in reality, people are not going evaluate risk and stop marrying because it is difficult to get out of the contract - countries like Chile and Brazil didn't even allow divorce for a long long time, and yet people there tried their luck with marriage all that time! Also, though the US laws appear more predictable, it is still fraught with issues, complex and expensive in using lawyers (e.g., to enforce support payments, to value stock options).

But every perspective helps, and the key take away in my view is the following:

  • Marriages may be made in heaven, but some of them are dissolved on planet earth, and for a good reason. It is mostly to get out of living hell (viz, a bad marriage, violent relationships).
  • In many cases, divorce is likely to result in financial or emotional ruin, atleast in the short run, but that doesn't necessarily make it a choice between the devil and the deep sea.
  • Divorce has its purpose in reinvigorating an otherwise defunct and unproductive life, and in escaping violence in some cases. Economically speaking, divorce helps individuals contribute to society (or GDP) in the long run, when they are no longer able to do so being together.
  • Intriguingly, societies have come up with dramatically different ways of skinning this cat with the stated goal of “benefit to overall society” (which implies better GDP, but never stated that way).
  • This is a complex problem with no elegant solution - but, societies that show resiliency in changing laws to reflect current socio-economic environment, create win-win situations and provide fair and predictable guidelines on host of issues will be more successful.
  • I think Indian laws will catchup with the US!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Travel Travails

I travel fairly often on business. Luckily, I haven't had any major adventures, but there have been a few anxious moments to write home about. Or perhaps, I should say, to blog about, as people at home can get more anxious if I write home about them.

Fresh off the boat: It was in 1992, when I arrived at the JFK airport in New York, first time to the US, and first time ever on a plane! It was uneventful and safe experience all the way from India. However, at JFK, it was rainy weather, and my connecting flight was supposed to depart closer to midnight. After coming out of the international terminal, I managed to find my way to the domestic terminal, and to the right departure gate. However, several flights got canceled due to bad weather, and I got worried about my flight. I had already spent more than 24 hours on the plane from India to NY, and I just wanted to get to my final destination. Also, being fresh off the boat, I did not know how to get around, where to get vegetarian food etc., in case they delay the flight. Luckily, my flight did depart on time, making life easier.

Last minute before departure: It was a trip to El Paso, Texas, leaving from Oakland, CA. The idea was to go over to the US consulate at Juarez, Mexico, and get our visas restamped. The ride to Oakland airport was during a nasty evening commute traffic from San Jose. The friend who drove us down did his best, skipped even a red signal (I'd never advise that one), and managed to get us to the airport like 5 minutes before departure. We made a dash to the gate, and it was exactly one minute before departure. Luckily, they let us in, and we got on the plane. I doubt this would be possible post 9/11.

Sleeping on the floor of LA airport: While on a flight returning from India to the US, I noticed on the flight path channel that the plane was returning to Tokyo Narita airport soon after take off from there. Shortly, the pilot reported someone was having a heart attack, and therefore they had to return to Tokyo. He can’t land with a full tank, so he wasted fuel by flying in circles for an hour and finally landed in Tokyo. After another hour of paper work at the airport, and of course, dropping off the person who had the heart attack (hope he or she survived), the plane took off again and reached Los Angeles airport about 7 hours behind schedule (12 midnight vs. 5pm). The airlines didn’t inform the immigration officers about the delay, they had all left home, except for one, who I guess provides coverage through the night just in case something comes up. Well, 400 of us just landed, and it took almost 3 hours for the one remaining immigration officer to process all of us. By this time, it was 3pm, and the airline folks said they could put me in a hotel that was 1 hour away. My connecting flight was in another 3 hours, morning 6:30am, so traveling up and down 2 hours for a 1-hour stay didn’t make any sense. So, I ended up staying at the airport, and caught a little nap during the remaining couple of hours, sleeping on the cozy LA airport floor!

Waiting forever in First Class Lounge: Too much good is bad. I got a chance to travel first class all the way to India, on a company related offical trip. It was a United flight from US to Japan to Singapore, then Singapore to India. When waiting in Japan for a connecting flight, being a first class passenger, they asked me to wait in the first class lounge, and look for the flight announcement. I had lost sense of the time due to time zone changes. I waited, helped myself to all the niceties in the lounge, and waited and waited for the flight announcement that never came. It seems, they have been announcing in Japanese, and I never understood what they were saying. I finally went up to the counter myself, since I felt it should be close to departure. They told me the flight had just left the gate! Luckily, there was another Northwest flight in half hour, and they put me on it with my first class status intact. If it were not a first class ticket, I guess they would have made me wait another day - or wait, I wouldn't have missed the flight, since I would have never gone to that first class lounge in the first place!

Twice in Security Line: I checked in at the Southwest terminal kiosk. It printed the boarding pass, I picked it up and headed down the security line. It only took a few minutes since it was pretty early in the morning, and when I almost cleared security, the last guard told me that the boarding pass I picked was for my return flight, and she couldn’t let me in to the gate area. The kiosk can print round trip boarding passes if the return flight is on the same day - the return flight first, and then the onward flight. Since the second print out took a while, I thought it was done printing the boarding pass, and didn't bother to check what's printed. I went back all the way to the kiosk and printed again, this time waiting for both boarding passes to print out. Again, I went to the security line, but by now, it had filled up with plenty of 7am travelers, extending all the way to the garage. I thought this was going to take a long time, and I will miss my flight. The line moved, slowly but steadily made progress, and took about 30 minutes to clear security. Luckily, that was still in time for my flight – I had some 10 minutes left.

Purchase ticket at the gate: I booked this flight to LA on American, for a 3pm customer meeting. It was supposed to depart at 12:30pm and reach LA at 2pm, which was good enough time to get to the customer’s office. However, the flight got canceled due to technical problems. The guy at the gate was slowly processing each passenger on alternate flights, which were all in the evenings, and I knew I will miss my meeting if I stick around for my turn. So, I called up the travel agent, and they were also offering me an option that lands in LA earliest at 5pm, which was beyond the meeting time. Luckily, when I booked this American flight online, I had also noticed a Southwest flight leaving at 1pm and arriving at 2:30pm. When I asked them about this flight, they looked up and said it doesn’t allow them to book it since there was less than an hour left for the flight. But, I could go to the gate and purchase the ticket right at the gate. So, I hurried to the Southwest gate, doled out additional money for the new ticket, and made it to the meeting at 3pm.

24-hour east-coast round-trip: This was a trip to Florida, to meet with the customer at 1pm. I took a red-eye from San Franscisco, and spent 11 hours traveling with a stop over at Chicago, and made it to the meeting well on time. Soon after the meeting ended at 4pm, I got a call from my wife that she had to take my kid to the emergency room, and she badly wanted me to get back. So, I had to cancel the hotel and other travel plans (was supposed to go to Atlanta the next day), and rebooked a flight back to San Jose. I left at 7pm and arrived close to midnight making it a round-trip within 24 hours. Other than the 8 hours spent at the customer site and traveling up and down the airport, I spent 16 hours on the plane.

These days, I don't panic as much. I have learned from experience, there is always a way out in most situations.