The Not-so-Golden Ratio: What are the Odds?

This post is written as a third part in a series of blog posts: “The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Where are they?” and “The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Why Should I Care?

I have spoken a little bit about “attention” in “Why Should I Care”. And hinted at several reactions to it in . Here I want to talk about navigating this attention that flows from demand to supply. I am not sure where to begin. This attention is such a woefully incorrect picture of the world that awaits you outside. And it will most likely render you so terribly unprepared for the blatant patriarchy that is headed your way at lightning speed, that you will mostly be blindsided by it. What do I mean by this? I will elaborate on that wave a little further down. 

Most of the issues surrounding women boil down to skewed narratives. There was a graph I talked about in “Where are they” . This graph shows how the number of women studying Computer Science took a decisive downturn between 1980-85. Researchers are still working on this puzzle. The most popular theory at the moment for the drop of women in computer science is that the narrative around coding and women took a negative turn at some point. It is an ongoing study but whether further research dispels this or not, the fact remains, your personal experiences will be at odds with some of the common narratives surrounding women.

The easiest place to be in is to not have a problem with any narrative. That you are at complete peace with the world as it exists. And that wave of patriarchy that I was talking about is not anticipated to be a problem because you don’t care, don’t observe it and frankly speaking can’t imagine being bothered by it. If this is the case, most of this piece is irrelevant, before leaving please scroll down and take a look at the last section. Pretty please.

For the rest, I want to start with:

Don’t pay Attention to the ‘attention’

Here’s a thought exercise I have for you. Imagine a guy came up to you and said, I would like you to be a part of my group because it is good for vaguely defined concepts like diversity and inclusion. And I may not want to state this directly but because it may help my dating life. And for all of this I am willing to do the “favor” of “lowering the bar” for you.

Would you agree to join this person? If you said ‘yes’, again feel free to skip most of this article and scroll down.

There are 2 major problematic aspects of this attention. Say you inadvertently or willingly joined a group/individual which for whatever reason thinks that they have lowered the bar to let you in. What exactly do you imagine your future is going to be like with them? 

You see, there are no free lunches, ever. It may sometimes seem great in the beginning, but the moment you try to negotiate for something more meaningful from the group/individual e.g. support, autonomy, control of resources, that relationship will fall through. Because, from their perspective they have done you a “favor” by “lowering the bar”. In the long run it is not going to end well. This is the reason why we have to deal with phenomenon like ‘glass ceiling’, ‘gender pay gap’ etc. Because someone may have ‘included’ you, but they still are not convinced that you deserve to be there.

There are only 2 ways of escaping the unhappy ending. 1) Never demanding more meaningful things (i.e. self fulfillment). 2) Changing the perception of it being a ‘favor’.

For (1), you know the drill, skip and scroll to the last section. Changing perception is a long, hard, thankless process for which at the very minimum you need to do good work. Cutting to the chase, due to the skewed ratio a lot of attention will flow your way to join and show up for many things. Some of you might even feel the pressure to show up just to compensate for the skewed ratio. However I would like to re-emphasize the principle of Occam’s razor for time management that I described in “Extracurricular“. Quantity and Quality, one at the expense of another basically doesn’t work.

The 2nd major problem is confusing “attention” with Respect. Simply put, they are not the same. And for some women this new found attention is so novel, taking it too seriously leads right to an adult version(*1) of princess syndrome. The princess syndrome has quite a few negative side effects. The worst effect being how it prevents any meaningful (but much required) change in narratives surrounding women.

Wave of Patriarchy

I have mentioned this so called wave of patriarchy as a reality in complete contrast to the scenario the undue attention might paint for you. Here’s what I mean. As you start to graduate and try to figure out what you “really” want to do with your life, many near and dear ones will start ringing wedding bells in your ears. Notice how that discourse treats you. Everything about your future: location, plans, goals, wishes, (even your name), rights to your time, rights to your income will be up for negotiation. You will mostly be referred to and addressed as a liability. Suddenly every digit added to your age will become a huge deal. Suddenly associating yourself with men at least half a decade older to you will become completely acceptable. You will notice how your current level will be compared to a man 4-5 years older than you I.e. someone who has had ‘x’ years of a head start.  

This basic calculation gaffe of society stumps me to this day. If we are evaluating the suitability of an older man for a younger woman, shouldn’t one also project the woman’s life that many years ahead to make a fair comparison? Apparently this never occurred to generations past and completely escapes most women of our generation too. (So, please don’t make that error). I personally have been part of conversations where young female acquaintances, failing to answer me proceeded to impress upon me how much bigger their older husband’s professional status/bank balance etc. was in life. Implying I would have a hard time getting there if I put in the same number of years. (Wow, so much for your support miss! :|).

Most of the conversation surrounding marriage optimizes for the man’s self actualization and for the women’s survival. More brutally, the bar for you is survival, without much consideration for what else you bring to the table. (*2).

There’s also this usual trope among some patriarchal girls that if they are X, their husbands should be X++. I am not playing a blame game here. This kind of a mindset is encouraged by our parents, culture. The kind where the entire point of your education is viewed as a piece of jewelry, to negotiate a better husband from your community. Moreover it is reinforced by misguided definitions of masculinity where sometimes it goes the other way. If the guy is Y, necessarily his partner must be Y- -. Is it really that much of a stretch of imagination to ask for, to attempt at being the ‘++’ for someone’s X?

A photograph I captured of the John Lennon Wall in Prague in 2019.

And again, it still amazes me that some sections of my extended circle, mostly older generations could only make peace with my professional success and drive for independence as they saw it as a technique to find a better, more educated husband. To this day, I find their lack of imagination about my life, irksome at best, disgusting at worst.


Male patriarchy is not the only issue though. It is by now a fairly well accepted idea that for many complicated reasons, women are not always good at supporting each other. Of many such relationships I want to focus on the one of mentorship. It is easy to mess this relationship up. The many problematic narratives associated with women results in a wide variety of baggages. While you may have developed your own mechanism to deal with it, it is very hard to be open with someone whose baggage may differ vastly from yours. But it is the same thing at the end of the day, baggage. And then there is also the age gap which introduces a natural time gap between the baggages two similar groups of women may develop. 

In an ideal world they would be able to help and learn from each other in dealing with these because the differing baggages are temporal-local instances of the same abstract inequalities, of the same thing expressed slightly differently in time. In fact it is because of cumulative actions of many ordinary women over significant swathes of time that narratives shift and your particular life has become easier (or occasionally harder). In reality however it is very hard to remember and appreciate this.

I remember at a NLP conference in the US one day, a BITSian female junior walked up to me out of the blue and went on to inform me: “I think you are a very sad person. You are super quiet and don’t seem to talk much.” I had never met this girl prior to this infantile accusation, and ofcourse had never had a conversation with her before this. Now you see, I care a lot about the issue of younger women who have walked and will walk the same path as me (its the reason I’ve now written an odd 5ooo words on the subject)so I did a little digging around. And it turns out that this specially affected case of princess syndrome walked up to me because she somehow felt that I needed to recognize her. Apparently I was on her checklist for acknowledgement thanks to a presumed BITSian connection.

While the changing times (thanks to the efforts of many men and women who have come before her), had done a great job of letting her know the historic odds she has beaten, is it that hard to factor in a little consideration for all the efforts that went in to make this possible? Of the communities of ordinary men and women who went ahead and did the right thing in their own small and big ways?

I had been rudely jolted into the realization that I now occupy that stage in my career where younger women are going to have expectations from me. And thanks to the skewed ratio, the exhaustion that follows from regular challenges and battles I face myself and their own baggages (like the princess syndrome in this case) I will be perceived to fall short.

Another time, in a conversation with a younger girl I was tackling the touchy topic of dating. I was trying to impress on the fact that it is hard to say ‘no’ to the right things. Staying single or alone or without a gang or without a community is always incredibly hard but I was insisting that waiting to find the right partner would make a transformational shift in her life experience and was therefore worth the trouble. This advice was tossed aside when this person informed me that “well, just because you got lucky does not mean everyone will”. In a different set of circumstances I would have laughed but the irony was just too excruciating. For someone who spent most of their 20s realizing just how much of an outsider I was for the world, I had felt anything and everything but lucky.

You see, this was 2 exhaustions colliding with each other. Just as 2 wrongs don’t make a right, 2 exhaustions do not produce something constructive, similarly 2 baggages do not a good mentorship make. It seemed like just yesterday that I was standing closer to the beginning, searching for someone to look up to, for someone to mentor me. And now I stand a little further up the chain. The conclusion is not very grand, anti-climactic even: Make some room for everyone’s baggage. If there’s nothing you can do to help up or down the chain, let it pass. 

This leads me to the main takeaway I want to emphasize for this whole piece:

Please don’t make it Worse

I have talked about the joint probability chains that result in a funnel. And then how the funnel leads to a skewed gender ratio. And then how other problematic cultural aspects load onto this to lead to havoc. To survive all of this you need to be very lucky, talented, strong and smart about maneuvering the many spanners that will be thrown in your works. In this piece I also at various points ask people to scroll down to the last section. This is that last section.

To quote a dialog from the excellent TV series Home Before Dark – “Familiarity brings Comfort. And Comfort brings Safety. And for most people Safety is more important than the Truth”. Our cultural and historic discourse wants to familiarize us with only a single, self serving idea of what a woman should be. Many words float around in my mind but I am a little tired of making sense of them. Anything that is not familiar, is not comfortable, possibly unsafe no matter how close it is to the truth.

As I was growing up and putting in the work to change the narrative surrounding my life, to shed some light on my truth, it inspired a proportional backlash in the form of isolation and ostracism, a lot of times spearheaded by other women. Your attempts at changing the narrative will provide an unwanted damning contrast to some people’s hyprocrisy, inspiring a backlash that will seem to come out of nowhere. Directly in proportion to how much the contrast highlights their actions (and lack thereof).

Please don’t be that person. 

You and I reading and writing this stand at some point in the funnel. Everyone of us is here because of many reasons like: slipping ‘up’ the cracks, extraordinary privilege and/or extraordinary merit. We may not appreciate this but we have beat some incredible historical odds to be standing here. I personally believe in the power of storytelling and that one single successful story makes it that much easier for many others. That a single submission makes it that much harder for many others to escape their mental bondages.

In my short life, some people have gone on to take painstaking efforts to remind me that it is not an obligation for them to do much with this privilege. Maybe so. But please, please don’t make it worse. If there is a journey or struggle you don’t understand and don’t want to do much about, at least don’t make it harder. At the very least, don’t fucking make it worse.


If you find yourself wondering why I wrote all of this, I answer that here.


*1- What I mean by adult versions of princess-prince syndrome is this class of people who confuse ‘attention’ with respect and interpret it as a measure of how ‘important’ they are. Such people usually graduate to then assuming that their needs are above everyone else’s needs and points of view. Moreover, the greed for attention keeps growing with time. You will notice how such people love discussing themselves at length in any and every conversation.  They will cultivate so called ‘friendships’ only with people who are willing to satisfy this need, in which case you are not actually a friend but simply a member of their ever growing audience.

*2- I mean there is the whole messy business of financial gifts/expectation flowing from the bride’s family to the groom’s family etc. etc. but that is for another day, another blogpost.

The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Why Should I Care?

This post is written as the second part of a series of blog posts starting with: “The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Where are they?”

I’m never one to mince my words so I would like to state it directly. The 1:7 (F:M) ratio is obviously going to create some supply-demand issues. Lets make it more (brutally) clear. There is an oversupply, under-demand of men and overdemand, under-supply of women. This creates some interesting unhealthy power imbalances. Add the cultural baggage of history and society and we are basically set up for failure, welcome Havoc. 

This imbalance starts playing out in the first few weeks itself at BITS Pilani during “interactions”. Every department, club and group, at least on the face of it tries to boost its “gender diversity”. The motivations for this are not very straight forward though as there is another factor at play here. 

On any given day, dating and sex are loaded issues that many different kinds of societies/demographics struggle to handle in any meaningful way. One of the outcomes of this in India is that we never discuss these topics much in schools and homes. A young person has to resort to picking up and deciphering implicit cues from parents, teachers, religion, media (and each other!) to make up their own minds.

Naturally, we also pick up on the hypocritical censorship of sexual relationships. What does that mean? It is apparently ridicule-worthy enough to simply express interest in another person for dating purposes. You have to do it opaquely, through a long drawn flirtatious dance which starts with creating “natural” situations where you are in proximity of the opposite gender. Cue all the undue “attention” flowing from demand to supply during “interactions” and recruitments and everywhere else where it is misplaced.

Mind you, this is just “attention”.

And mind you, this creates a problem for everyone. People who fail at doing it usually find it easier to fall into the “girls-have-it-easy” chant. People who do succeed at it mostly create more problems than make things better for anyone in the long run. And the target of such attention, girls have some amazing reactions to it. These range from distraction, insecurity, overestimating the meaning and importance of it to downright adult versions of princess-prince syndrome. (*1)

So, it usually sucks.

At this point it would be tempting to say “Oh, just chill out, this is the natural cycle of life and mating, why you so serious?”. (Some might even add, “You were a girl right, didn’t you enjoy all the attention?”) 

Well, I wouldn’t be “so serious” and possibly “enjoy” something except that I have been at the receiving end of this unhealthy attention quagmire and I think it has some serious implications.

On Campus

Let me start with a trivial example. In my first year we had this course called ‘Workshop I’, which was an assortment of tasks related to carpentry, CNC machines etc. Even before we started the course, the word on the street was that “girls have it easy” because they can get away with some tasks after throwing around a few smiles. I didn’t really understand this until I actually entered the workshop. Some maintenance dude at the workshop was willing to help out the girls a little more than usual with the carpentry task. Needless to say I didn’t really enjoy this weird interaction with this dude where some girlish behavior was expected from me, failed spectacularly at the task and came out of the whole experience quite unsettled. For the next 4 years I watched batch after batch perpetuating this ‘word on the street’. It still amazes me that for all the IQ and so-called intelligence that BITS is supposed to filter for, not one, let me repeat that, not a single male peer in my 4 years ever wondered, “Hey Aaksha, did that guy ever creep you out?”. Not one guy considered the possibility that this throwing-around-a-smile business could have been unwanted and creepy for the girl.

In the larger scheme of things (i.e. even outside the BITSian context), it still amazes me to this day how easily people accept this narrative. That it is the onus on the girl to be attractive. And that if she is receiving a perceived freebie, she should be both morally responsible and at fault for it.

The media discourse and social media echo chambers’ coverage of sexual assault allegations, lawsuits, divorce settlements etc. may have us believe that the public sympathizes with the woman. However, with the exception of ‘extreme’ cases, the discourse in our homes, schools, temples, and other cultural spaces of society i.e. when no one is looking, is very different. I could write another 1000 words on navigating this bullshit but I will keep that for another day. I do not want to digress.

Coming back, this will play out subtly in most aspects of BITSian life. As I have already written a bit about how to navigate the web of departments and clubs in Extracurricular:
Groups which are formed around hobbies or interests (like ‘Clubs’ in the BITSianverse) have better anchors for their vetting process. Groups (like ‘Departments’/college fest organizing teams) which don’t have such clearly defined needs are more subjective.

The higher the subjectivity, the more chance that you will be able to recruit and are being recruited for something other than your abilities or passion. Some will do it to create the aforementioned natural proximity. And further, some others will have the audacity to call it “lowering-the-bar”(*2). It is tempting to argue that all of this is inconsequential but this kind of behavior has long term repercussions. 

In my final year, two aspiring BITSian male comedians created a web series of satirical videos on the BITSian life. One such video depicts a placement (job) interview. A guy goes in for a coding interview. He is asked several programming questions. Next, a well-dressed petite girl goes in. The male interviewer starts smiling, tries to make small talk, asks her about her hobbies, likes and dislikes. At the end of the day placement results reveal that it was the girl who got the job, not the guy. The video implies that it was enough for the girl to be cute to get the job.

The one person the video, the camera angle and dialogs don’t focus on is the interviewer. What exactly was the interviewer’s moral standing when he did a professional “favor” for a young woman to curry a potential sexual return in the future. How come this whole incident is interpreted less often as “whats-up-with-desperate guys” and more often as “girls-have-it-easy”?

You see, because this symbolic interviewer was at some point a student like you and me. Whose behavior was not even worth a little bit of ridicule and considered normal even after going through several years of so called ‘education’.

It is easy to project one’s sexual frustrations on the other gender but the seeds for why you find yourself in this situation were sown by many who came before you, much before you.

The Timelessness of Incorrigibility

Here’s a series of mental animations that I noticed started playing out in my mind every time I met a young closeted male chauvinist and was expected to put up with their not-so-casual sexism with a smile. Their hair became whiter, a few wrinkles and a paunch started to emerge. They started resembling some of the older men I have met who have expected me to put up with their not-so-casual sexism with a smile. Similarly when I was standing in the company of these older men, another set of mental animations played out. They acquired darker hair, became slimmer, leaner, plump cheeks, healthy skin with jovial faces. I imagined what “jokes” that older man might have shared with his friends when he was younger. The sexism that years of life experiences had augmented/reinforced to culminate in the exact sexist statements I had the misfortune of listening to. I wonder what opinions the younger man might share with his colleagues in the future unchanged by his life’s successes and blows when he is older. 

Because you see, ultimately it is the same kind of incorrigible person, unable to think outside the convention of his/her times. In the past it was the same person who told your mother that she belonged to the kitchen and exists primarily for child-bearing. In the future it will be the same kind of person who will tell your daughter that she can’t do X because she is a girl. Substitute X with any number of things needed for her self actualization.

Locker room Talk”

If the situation wasn’t so dire, I would laugh at the inability of young men to see how much they are losing out because of patriarchy . If you don’t have enough options to date and you are doing stupid things because of that, its not because girls didn’t make it to your schools and within your “natural proximity”. Its because a generation of men and women before you didn’t let their daughters, wives and sisters make it to your school. I personally don’t enjoy crass simplifications of social issues but if Facebook, Sacred Games, GoT etc. have taught me anything, it is this: provocation apparently works. Instead of objectifying and making fun of girls’ body parts in the proverbial locker room talk, here’s a version of the locker room talk that would be more appropriate for our realities:

Khud toh tharki line marta phirta tha, abhi social media par ‘rational arguments’ deneka hai usko against ‘feminazis’
Baap dada, 18 main shaadi karaadi maa ki, padhaya bhi nahi, head of the family samajhtein hai apne aap ko
Haan bey, meri behen ko toh bachpan main hi bol diya, 22 ke baad idhar se kat lena
Haan yaar meri dadi ne jo meri maa ka tel nikala hai, woh saala cricket match dekhne main busy rehta tha
Kya kanjus tha be, ek plate bhi idhar se udhar rakha nahi kabhi, aur maa ko bolta hai, roti-kapda-makaan dene ke liye, meri puja kar
Mereko toh bada kiya nahi, upar se bola, mera naam laga naam ke peeche

Pardon my fantasy flight here, I got a little carried away. But hey, isn’t that the excuse thrown about for locker room talk, boys-will-be-boys and actions of mobs when they come together? I’d like to emphasize, I don’t derive any pleasure whatsoever from this locker room talk but I do want to highlight something. You see, you may be feeling like shutting me down which many peers have done for me on online forums. But before shutting me down, could you spend a moment thinking back to how many times have you stopped that friend who was willing to do anything for a girl, like anything to get into her pants and enlightened him on his debauchery. How many times have you shut down a friend indulging in Trump-esque-grab-em-by-the-pussy locker room talk vs. shut down a female friend who just couldn’t be ‘rational’ and ‘reasonable’ when expressing her frustrations with her life experiences, with the same ferocity and derision.

You may have ‘schooled’ a female in real life or on social media , and got a million likes from your male friends, giving you the delusion that ‘Oh see, I am so right, I know how to think straight, that other female is just a feminazi who fails to see the big picture and can’t think outside her I-am-a-victim mentality’. Because while you may blame a so called feminazi who can’t think outside her I-am-a-victim mentality, you might just be displaying ‘I-am-too-entitled’ mentality.

It is going to be exhausting to have any kind of rational perspective on this issue because of the attention deficit staring in your face and playing out everyday in your life. Remember that exhaustion. As I described in “Where are they?” This is the legacy we have been given, the baggage passed onto us by older dysfunctional systems.

The Weight of History

When you finally realize the weight of history in front of your eyes, messing with your sexual cravings, that the complicated, twisted gender imbalances in society are very much your problem, and that most likely you are going to be a part of the problem and not the solution, unless you have any capacity for courage and independence of thought (left after an education system that actively attempts to thwart both), you will feel helpless. In my experience, it is one of the hardest, most exhausting ideas to keep in your head. Most people can’t and won’t. It is simply easier, just like your father and his father and his mother and the ones who came before him to generalize. It is just easier to think to yourself: “Oh this human being is born with a few different body parts, there has to be something intellectually, emotionally, inherently problematic with them. Religion and culture are on my side anyway”. You get an ego bump as a side bonus.

I was sitting in London in my final year of BITS coding away in a friend’s apartment when he balked at his screen. His face spelt horror so I asked him, “whats up?” He managed to mumble something about the Nirbhaya rape case. This rape case caught India’s imagination over the next few days. There were a lot of protests and some soul searching. The national conversation was awash with questions about the physical safety of women. I remember being in one such discussion where a younger male colleague cried out in exasperation, “really is it THAT unsafe for you?” This question took me by surprise and it dawned on me how separated my reality was from the other gender. Things that I could never take for granted like what time to leave a party, how many people were there around me in a room, bus or train or how far I was from a safe space etc. were not even factors for another half of humanity.

Periodically such atrocious incidents capture the national imagination. (They happen far more often though IRL). Most people seem to be confused about why these “random” acts of violence take place. Thank god for the ‘MeToo’ movement which set the record straight a little bit at least. (Yours truly being very much a victim of such an assault). Which is to say that these acts are not really ‘random’. They are very much the outcome of our cultural subjugation of women. We like to sleep at night thinking that we caught the specific perpetrators of these acts and solved the problem somewhat. However clearly the problem is nowhere close to being solved. It allows some people, especially the intellectual and cultural male guardians of our times to set a low bar and avoid the issue of ‘psychological safety’ of women completely. I’ll take a page out of Noam Chomsky’s timeless exposition on ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’: “As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years—on what page of history do we find our proper place? Only the most insensible can escape these questions.”

I would like to end with this. You are not obligated to think about the other gender. You are not obligated to think or care about anybody. (Which way you choose, whether to care or not is going to however determine the quality of your life and future). Still there is one entity in your life that you must think about and for whom I do not believe that I need to make a case(*3). That entity is your mother. Do yourself a favor and run through this thought exercise. Imagine her when she was your age standing at the edge of her youth and prime. What was being told to her? What messages had society given to her about her life and what she should do with it vs. what you have been given? Did she stand a chance at self actualization? How did that shape her choices, life and freedoms (or lack thereof). 

Don’t do it as a favor. Don’t do it for charity. Don’t do it even to be ethical(what does that mean anyway?). Do it because you for better or worse have acquired the label of being ‘intelligent’. Do it for survival. Do it because if you cannot even think from the perspective of your mother, stand in her shoes for a minute, you will not be able to discern how you are yourself being taken for a ride by the educational, financial, religious and media systems surrounding you. Do it to get better at the game of life.


One month into BITS Pilani, I had joined or been recruited to some groups. There was this senior guy in one of these groups who decided that it was completely valid for him to force me to eat from the same plate as him in a group dinner. He sat next to me at the beginning of dinner, a few minutes later slid my plate away as food arrived. And then proceeded to serve himself large helpings of food, presumably for both of us. For sometime he kept asking me to take a bite from this common plate. It took me a while to process what was happening, and at first I was just surprised at the audacity of the whole thing. I started defying the situation by trying to make conversation with other people and ignoring this guy, not having a bite ever throughout the whole episode. As dinner progressed and other people’s jokes and conversations settled down, this guy’s nudges became louder and clearer. My appetite long gone, by now I was frantically running calculations of good ways to quietly slip away from the situation without being noticed. Unfortunately, this was close to the center of the table. This nonsense went on for some more time. Finally, this ordeal of a dinner was over and I walked back to my cycle. And sped off in the opposite direction as soon as everyone was out of sight. 

I was quite disturbed by the situation. To this day I wonder what went on in other people’s minds as they saw this whole thing play out. The questions that raced through my mind were: “Is this the modus operandi here?”, “Why did that guy think he had the right to display such unabashed coercion?”, “Why exactly was I recruited to this group?

After some consideration, I decided that I would let my actions speak for me. I decided that if I overcompensated by focusing on the group’s work over the semester, it would send the right signal and such future advances would be discouraged. Of course it wasn’t that simple. Over the next few months I watched in horror as such advances were attempted at other girls in the group and some even seemed to enjoy it. Meanwhile my own personal journey got harder and harder because a pretty and petite frame such as mine and the cultural stereotype that comes along with it was quite at odds with the goals I had set for myself. As the advances did not stop, I kept becoming sterner, quieter and less open as a person. I put in many sleepless nights working towards the keynote event of this group. After the event we had a review session during which many people doubled down on me criticizing many aspects of my efforts. However some girls who enjoyed the former kind of ‘attention’ continued to be a welcome part of the group and (without ever raising a finger for any stated work goals of the group) accumulated more ‘social capital’ than I ever could have . I can only imagine that many guys in my cohort observed the same thing. In this situation it would be understandable if some of them concluded that ‘girls have it easy’. It is disappointing though that so many of them don’t consider that these situations are not easy for a lot of girls and that these kinds of modus operandi further discourage girls who could break such vicious behavior.

Anyway, personally that review session was the last straw. Something broke inside me and I found it hard to trust most people at BITS Pilani moving forward. It took a lot of effort to get over this with the help of some amazing people (interestingly mostly men) I met later on in life .

I do believe that everyone would have been better off if people could be more straight forward about their intentions and did not have to resort to this kind of bullshit to find dates. And I still wonder what stops the same men from doing the same thing as they step out into real life with people who may someday in the future report to them? (Or does it?). I wonder if the stringent harassment policies that men’s rights activists have such a problem with, have a role to play in stopping such behavior?


*1- Of course there is the occasional fairy tale here and there but we’ll leave that under the category of exceptions or good marketing 😛

*2- There is a more problematic context in which this concept exists and I talk about it here.

*3- Because if I have to make a case even for this, I am pretty sure such a reader did not survive this far into the post and/or our basic premises in life are so different that most of what I have said would be lost or futile to that reader’s mind

Worth a read: The Story Behind BITS Pilani’s Girls’ Hostel Curfew Removal

The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Where are they?

This post is written in continuation of Musings on a BITSian Life: Basics and Musings on a BITSian Life: “Extracurricular”

In “Basics”, I wanted to address one elephant in the room. I call it that because that issue has a lot of bullshit surrounding it. My goal was to take that as a use case and demonstrate the act of building a framework. A framework to arrive at one’s own decision strategy.

I want to address another, larger, more complicated and more important elephant in the room. It is one of gender ratio. The despicable and obstinate gender ratio of 1:7 (F:M) that has persisted over the past decade in (Indian) undergraduate engineering batches (*Data Sources).

This matter is so complicated and by now I have been part of so many painful conversations, arguments that I hear a collective sigh. That is, an imaginary collective sigh echoing through my ears of a group of young people dealing with the gendered legacy passed on to us by the older generations. And there is hardly any acknowledgement of it, leave alone training or emotional tools to deal with it. 

So, one of the most common manifestations of this baggage is the question…

“Where are they?”

A question I hear often stated explicitly or framed implicitly. If I had a dollar for the number of times an older, younger or contemporary male has engaged with me in the following questions, I would be a millionaire:

“If women were as smart as you claim them to be, where are they?”
“Dude, come on, if so many men can crack these competitive exams, and women can’t, there must have to be some kind of deficiency, I mean it’s a pattern right?”
“So I guess we have to lower the bar now for more of them to get here?”

No, no. Don’t get me wrong. Simply asking the question is not wrong. However why and how you ask this question (out loud or in your head) is very important. Firstly, you are neither original for thinking it (in your head). Neither are you a trailblazer for asking it (out loud). You have plenty of company. In history. In government. In education. In laws. Take any aspect of society and you have plenty of company in asking it. So that moment when this question arises in your mind, remember to take a step back and recognize it as a larger echo of our society. This question and that moment is the legacy of our past generations. Remember that.

It is politically incorrect to ask this question but not for reasons that you might think so. Does it offend women? Yeah sure. Does it make you sound like a douche? Yes, maybe, depending on how you frame it. But this is not why it is weird to ask this question. The reason it is weird to ask this question is because up until recently society already had an answer for it. And our current society is designed assuming that that answer was correct. 

What do you mean?

Here are some examples of spectacular female scientists and the sentences that surround the description of their life stories:

Kamala Sohonie : “her application was turned down by the then-Director and Nobel Laureate Prof. C V Raman on the grounds that women were not considered competent enough to pursue research”….“She will not spoil the environment of the lab (she should not be a ‘distraction’ to the male researchers)”… “Though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded. I can never forget the way he treated me just because I was a woman. Even then, Raman didn’t admit me as a regular student. This was a great insult to me. The bias against women was so bad at that time. What can one expect if even a Nobel Laureate behaves in such a way?”
Lise Meitner : “…women were not allowed to attend public institutions of higher education in Vienna…”, “she and Otto Frisch did not share in the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for nuclear fission, which was awarded exclusively to her long-time collaborator Otto Hahn. Several scientists and journalists have called her exclusion ‘unjust’”….”According to the Nobel Prize archive, she was nominated 19 times for Nobel Prize in Chemistry between 1924 and 1947, and 29 times for Nobel Prize in Physics between 1937 and 1965”
Mary Somerville : “I resented the injustice of the world in denying all those privileges of education to my sex which were so lavishly bestowed on men”….. “The Morning Post declared in her obituary that ‘Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science”
Nan Laird : “I had to make choices early in my career….My first husband and I separated when I entered graduate school, and, as a single mother, I jealously guarded my time for the sake of my son….I decided to eliminate activities that did not lead to academic publications or teaching success….It was always a surprise to me that many men do socialize at work.”
Henriette von Aigentler: “She was refused permission to audit lectures unofficially.”
James Barry : “Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley and was known as female in childhood. Barry lived as a man in both public and private life, at least in part in order to be accepted as a university student and pursue a career as a surgeon, with Barry’s birth sex only becoming known to the public and to military colleagues after death.”

This is a small sample. You must be thinking, “So what? How does that answer “Where are they?” And why should I care why it is politically incorrect to ask that?”

1 – For most of modern history, Culture, Law and Religion have operated on the underlying idea that women do not possess the cognitive abilities and objectivity for science and engineering. (*2) They form a richly vicious self-sustaining feedback loop augmenting this idea in each other’s spheres. Every time some reform is attempted in one sphere, it is quickly inadequate in the face of feedback forces from other spheres.

For a moment imagine if we did not have the artificial barriers that women have faced over several centuries. We would today be talking of Noetherian Mechanics, Somervillean distributions or Hypatia’s Theorems. Young boys and girls like you and me would not be raised with faulty notions and unnecessary damaging doubts regarding one half of human species’ capability to do something.

Thanks to the insurmountable battles fought by a few men and women over the past decades to change the narrative, and painstaking research by psychologists, we have hardcore evidence that this underlying notion is nonsense. However large sections of humanity spanning multiple age, income and education brackets have completely missed the memo. 

If an alien read Indian memes,“its-just-a-joke” conversations that do the rounds on WhatsApp, or listened extensively to the conversations of husbands and young men over the past 100 years (if not more), it would seem that taking cheap digs at the feminine self esteem was the prevalent national sport, not cricket. “women can’t drive”, “wives are a nag”, “too emotional”, “too talkative” are several manifestations of the same thing, cheap digs at the feminine self esteem. In Silicon Valley this ugly zeitgeist surfaces its head regularly, sometimes by way of so-called “logical”, “rational” manifestos like these.

Any reasonably emancipated woman with some capacity of independent thought knows that this idea is nonsense. However convention is heavily armed against her. You, the unsuspecting young person are standing in the middle. This is why it is politically incorrect to ask this question. Convention is so sure about its wrong answer that it has religious laws and cultural norms going back 100s of years for backup in the face of any doubt. However, walk up to a young girl who’s spirit has not yet been thwarted or an older woman who survived society’s assault on her self esteem and you will find an attempt at compensating for this deficit.

Still doesn’t answer ‘where are they’?

The Funnel

2 – There is this concept of joint probability. While it is much easier to model probabilities of binary events like admissions conditioned on single factors, in reality it is a multi-variate problem. For an event to actually happen in real life, its joint probability has to multiply out in its favor. 

Why is this relevant?”

Just as an example, math performance on national tests have demonstrated no gender disparities in many countries. However this does not necessarily translate into better female representation in engineering or sciences. Because this is just one factor. For a girl to survive the journey to becoming a scientist/engineer (or anything meaningful in any career/endeavor), many probabilities have to work out in her favor to make it there. Here’s an example funnel:

The Funnel
The Funnel

In my personal experience I have met many men who have expressed outright disbelief that young girls still face such barriers. However hard it is to accept it, the reality is sadly just that. While growing up I heard some form of all of it. These are the exact verbatim sentences I have heard, no matter how well I did at school or may do in life:
“Ab khana banana sikhado, ladkiyon ki jagah kitchen main hi hai” / “High time she learnt cooking, girls belong to the kitchen”
“Beta badhai ho 1st aane ke liye…Par ghar ka kaam to tumhe hi sambhalna padega” / “Congratulations dear on topping your school, but you still have to take responsibility of the house”
“Engineer kyun banna hai? Ladkiyan toh doctor banti hain” / Why do you want to become an engineer? Girls usually become doctors.”
“Shaadi ke baad sheher aur job toh change tumhe hi karne padenge” / “Well, after marriage you will have to be the one to move cities and change jobs”
“Aap beti ko US bhej rahe hain? Log toh bete ki padhai par itna kharcha karte hain.”/ “You are sending your daughter to the US? People generally spend that much only for a son’s education.”(*3)
“There needs to be a shift in how families and female students think about professional choices for women. A large percentage of women decide not to join IITs despite having qualified the exam—their decision to opt out is a huge loss to the institutions and to the society at large,” said Ruchira Shukla, regional lead, South Asia, venture capital-International Finance Corporation. “This is often driven by the misconception that engineering is not an ideal profession for women.” (2018) (*4)
“Every year, many highly talented women just miss a seat at the IITs. The main reason is societal biases that place geographical constraints on women and deny them equal access to preparation for the highly competitive JEE (Advanced) entrance exam,” said Timothy A Gonsalves, director, IIT Mandi. (2018) (*4)

Just in the case of Computer Science, the scenario is even more special (worse):

Source (worth a read):


If you happened to click on the wikipedia links I listed above of a few women in history, you may have noticed that they all have one thing in common. All of those women jumped unimaginable barriers, were able to pursue their passions and survived censorship in history only because atleast once in their lives they met or had a phenomenally open-minded backer. In some cases it was a male in the form of a father or husband. In some cases it was an extraordinarily protective & supportive maternal family. And in the last case, the person decided to live out her adult life as a male, seeing no other way to match her potential with her reality.

Next, I did not quote some of those verbatim sentences that followed me around while growing up to give an excuse. No, no, they never deterred me, not even for a moment. But this was only because I also have extraordinarily open-minded and exceptionally supportive and protective parents. It was them who put in the back breaking hard work to build walls that protected me from bullshit till I turned old enough to not let it break me. 

Everyone does not have this. 

I can only imagine that if you don’t have some counter balancing forces for this perennial undermining of your self-esteem, you would have to break and give in at some point. It is not an excuse for not doing something but it is also a reality that countless generations of women have faced and continue to face.

What you see at BITS is a ratio that is the outcome of many such funnels. Of many joint probability chains that never made it.  
There is a significant difference in the joint probability distribution for men and women. This is hard to see, especially in the backdrop of social media echo chambers, “apparent” focus on feminism and the “attention” women will get on campus. 

However it is these multivariate factors which are going to play out over the next few years in front of you. They have played out already to some extent as you stand at the gates of BITS Pilani. But its about to get “better” (by which I mean worse). This is what I want to talk about next. The Havoc. That lays ahead of you.


There is a 3rd reason it is politically incorrect to ask “Where are they?”. This is when you are not really asking a question but looking around for confirmation of your biases, and for company in your prejudice. The kind of thing people do with Facebook statuses and social media in general, seeking out their own echo chamber. It is not very hard to discern this intention. Because in the face of mounting evidence or information which fails to satisfy the bias, such people get super personal, super fast. They already have Convention to fall back on. In case a complete picture or more understanding or more nuance offers a good fight, the next best thing is a personal attack. “Who does she think she is?”, “I will prove to her via ostracism how unpopular and wrong she is”, “I met this one other girl in my life who fit my bias and that is proof enough that I am right and generations of women are wrong”. Again you are not alone. Look at the world around you. We live in a broken world because many so-called “great” men before you have done the same. It is easy, comfortable and you have plenty of company. I want to explore the implications of this so-called comfort, not for the world (who cares dude :P) but for You, in the coming sections: Why Should I Care? and What are the Odds?

I have also spent some time in this piece entertaining a hypothesis, the underlying notion that women lack some cognitive abilities. And also, that we live in such a godforsaken world that we require proof to dispel these ideas. While I was growing up, this idea seemed so illogical and preposterous to me that I could not imagine that someone would actually believe it. However, its repercussions had started affecting my life as early as a teenager. I was “that nerdy girl” Sheryl Sandberg talks about in her book “Lean In”. I was bossy, headstrong and either too quiet or too outspoken. It took me many years to put my life experiences as a young girl in perspective. 

Still, before entering BITS I naively assumed that the basic IQ filter applied via competitive exams would ensure some rationality and decency about gender equality. In reality though, it was but a stepping stone in a spectacular, repeated and successive shattering of my assumptions and comfort zones.

And I do want to cite 2 most poignant reminders of this ugly zeitgeist, which I faced very recently. One was where a fellow male student reminded me in a private discussion that women must ultimately learn to bend and bow in front of him because that is their place in life. This person had the highest imaginable honor you can think of in Indian competitive exams, went through years of engineering studies at the most elite institutions in India and will possibly design some of the more influential AI systems in the future.

And the 2nd was when a male peer at one of my workplaces informed me that the only way we could fix the representation of women in tech was by “lowering the bar”. This is another one of those “politically incorrect” concepts that I want to talk about because in my opinion it played a major role in the gendered experience of my undergraduate years. And contributed much to the Havoc that I want to talk about.


(*Data Sources- I have been searching around for hard numbers for this infamous gender ratio and phenomenon that gets quoted often in media and otherwise. I would like to acknowledge this excellent set of data collected by Nirant Kasliwal. Some gender ratios for colleges other than BITS were quoted in this article by ET. PSA: I am totally in the market for more such objective pieces of data collection on other institutes across the country. Please let me know if you have similar numbers on institutions you attended and I would love to create a publicly available dataset out of them. Thanks!)

*2- This may come as a shock to some of you. Another name for this shock is acquiring historic perspective on modern inequalities and problems.

*3- Of course I wish I could show up in an invisibility cloak and capture such people’s expressions when my parents informed them that I was going to study on full scholarship.


Musings on a BITSian Life: “Extracurricular”

This post is written as a supplement to “Basics” focusing on the time management aspects of student life. Somewhere in the space of the first few weeks at BITS Pilani, one goes through the semi-formal process of “Interactions”. It is an interesting melting pot where ideally you meet a wide variety of individuals. Variety in age, interests, ideology, background (economic strata, upbringing) etc. etc. It is actually a great time to meet new people because this period does not come around again for the rest of the year (and possibly, for the next 4 years).

“Interactions” for most part are a less objective (sometimes just plain dumber) version of campus “Placements” which you might choose to go through towards the end of your BITSian time.

Humor me for a bit here. Interactions or Placements both lie someplace on the spectrum of forms of “Vetting”. Why would you need to “vet” someone?

  • Check skills to satisfy a need.
  • Check for team/group “fit”

Figure 4: Vetting Process

Figure 5: And the lack of it.

The quality of the vetting process is directly proportional to how clearly and specifically the need is defined (Figure 4). 

As the need becomes less defined or less of a consequence, subjectivity takes over and the process suffers. Sometimes the subjectivity is channelized into finding team fit. Leading to the common phenomenon, “birds of a feather flock together”.

Groups which are formed around hobbies or interests (like ‘Clubs’ in the BITSianverse) have better anchors for their vetting process. Groups (like ‘Departments’/college fest organizing teams) which don’t have such clearly defined needs are more subjective.

Of course there are some “interactions” which don’t have any of the goals laid out above (Figure 5). In line with the direct proportion relation, they are purely subjective and the only needs being satisfied is some form of personal agenda (ego massage etc.).

In any case, this is not meant to be an in-depth review of the complicated social phenomenon by which people who have come before, handle people who come later (“ragging”, “hazing” etc. also falling into this category).

However, it is to highlight the weakness of the nascent impressions that will be formed about you and might follow you around for a while. These impressions will be extrapolated to project how “interesting” it might be to have you around in a club/group/department. Just as the first impression of your skills will be extrapolated to project how well you might fit to a job at the time of placements.

It is not that important what others make of you. First impressions can be changed (whether good or bad) and hopefully become irrelevant as you realize your priorities over the course of a BITSian life (and life in general). But it is very important what you make of it in terms of understanding your environment and what kind of “management” sits on top of you. It is a survey of the land and the best chance to do it.

Most people who don’t treat their time with care are unlikely to extend that care for yours. The thing that you as an individual cannot solve is bringing accountability to others for your time. Because this problem is bigger than you and BITS Pilani. It is a cultural and societal issue which manifests itself in many forms like the success of Bollywood, popularity of Facebook or the many failures of our education system, etc. (In this scenario, the only way to handle this is to practice a hard cutoff, which is what I want to come to next).

In my third year in college, I came across a wonderful letter written by Harry R. Lewis, then Dean of Harvard College and an esteemed Computer Scientist, for the fresh(wo)men joining Harvard in 2004. The last 2 pages of this letter are something that I found to be extremely relevant for a BITSian life. I want to quote verbatim, the most salient point of the letter here:

“Don’t try to do two major extracurricular activities simultaneously. Taking this advice requires classifying extracurricular commitments into “major,” of which you should probably have at most one, and “minor,” which might involve a meeting a week, a few hours of volunteering, or some recreational athletic participation that does more to relieve than to create stress. But if you’re starting on the varsity lacrosse team, you probably shouldn’t accept the lead in the House musical the same term. If you are the go-to person for a weekly publication, you probably shouldn’t also be the manager of a conference that will be bringing five hundred students to campus. There are exceptions to this rule too — some people are exceptionally good managers. But before you take on too many simultaneous major extracurricular commitments, you should at least pause to ask yourself if you are trying to prove to someone, either yourself or another, that you are superman or superwoman, and maybe even setting yourself up for failure in that endeavor. Or if, perhaps, you are trying to avoid studying a subject that no longer interests you.”

I know this to be good great advice because I was definitely one of those people who had signed up for way more than was ideal. With the gift of hindsight (in my third year and now), I wish I had followed this.

Most of rest of what I want to say and have concluded over the years is put together and summarized more eloquently than I can, in the letter above. Verbatim key points of that being:

  • Look inside yourself for the question you are really asking.
    (Something I have tried to elaborate upon in at least one BITSian context in Part1).
  • Join a student group and work to change it, rather than starting a new one.
  • Don’t ignore your health, physical and emotional.
  • Don’t expect yourself to be perfect.
  • Finally, don’t treat my advice — or anyone else’s — as rules you must follow!

And so I, end here.

Musings on a BITSian Life: Basics

I wanted to keep this short and sweet. I couldn’t.

Over the past few years, I have received many questions from BITSian juniors about career, applications, relationships etc. The questions are very specific but I see an underlying pattern that doesn’t have much to do with the exact professional choice but which shares something more common and abstract.

Also, I had many burning questions when I was younger and I saw batch after batch coming in with the same fire and same confusions. Here is me looking back, ‘thinking’ about the experiences I know of and trying to make sense of it in the context of these patterns and questions. Hoping that all of this will be of use to some motley soul.

When you think too much, you invariably end up giving yourself a hard time. It’s the nature of Thinking. Anyone who is too happy/proud with themselves or the world around them has likely spent little time in this exercise, whatever their IQ and (past, present, future) achievements may have been.

I write this because I want to address all those daring souls who actually ‘thought’ during their college life. I write this to ease their burdens a little bit. I write this to tell them they are not and have not been alone.


Let’s get the basics out of the way.

First things first, something that everyone wants to know indirectly or directly. Some people are ‘too cool’ to acknowledge this. (I will address that kind of self-delusion shortly).


To GPA or not to GPA, that is the question

GPA is an interesting attempt to summarize a young person’s experience with a floating point number of 2 digit precision.

If you have had the good fortune of studying information theory, you would know that a single signal that is attempting to encode information about something as complicated as life experience, is likely to be extremely noisy. (It is then natural that most higher education adcoms across the world look for more signals, IIMs => high school grades, US univ => recommendation letters etc. etc.) So, I am not sure why people in general are so quick to judge each other based on GPA inside and outside of college.

Admission committees are working on a large scale and so they have systemic limitations to how effectively they can get a sense of a person’s experience. However, I see no reason why that same principle should carry over in one’s personal life where you are operating at a much smaller scale and can find out much more about a person apart from their GPA to truly get a sense of who they are. I would, at best, call the former kind of decision making stupid.

Most people try to place other people on this visualization of the scale of various approaches to GPA:

Figure 1: Scale

I would like to twist this a little bit because the scale might as well look like:

Figure 2: Scale

Let me talk about the two seeming ‘extremes’ of this scale.

On the one ‘end’ are people who decide to live out their ‘Americanized’ high school fantasies during college. Because who are we kidding. It is likely that you have jumped ahead in a huge rat race to get to BITS Pilani. It is likely that you have made the rounds of many coaching centre sweat shops (*1) to get here and just getting here was so mentally/emotionally/undesirably exhausting that you decide to put on a Bob Marley’s song, smoke your lungs, stomach and brains out, and look weirdly, condescendingly on anyone who still has some fuel left in them to try more.

On the (seemingly) other end are people so in love with GPA that it is the main thing that gives meaning to their lives. Its jumping from one rat race into another. And doing it because its a clear path to prestige in this kind of setting.

Many people exist in between. People who don’t care and still get a good GPA. People who care and still don’t get a good GPA. Sincere people with low GPA, smart people with low GPA, insincere people with high GPA and the list goes on.

The point is that it’s a pretty poor metric to judge someone or yourself. Blind maximization of this metric or giving up and ignoring it in all its complexity, both sound like sub-optimal strategies for your college career. Hence, while the 2 ends of the scale look at each other with much condescension and strangeness, they are actually very similar in their lack of thought about it.

Coursework, the origin of GPA, is widely known to be outdated and behind its time in most colleges (in India).  I am not sure why there is no comprehensive/effective review process for the curriculum that we are being taught and its quality of instruction. There seems to be no GPA equivalent for the GPA issuers. Moreover, with the availability of online courses, I don’t see the need to force such a large group of young people through poor teaching methods.

I don’t necessarily mean this as a personal insult to anyone because there are many complicated factors that go behind not having good faculty to teach in our country. The vicious cycle that ensues can be broken by technological innovation. Namely MOOCs and the larger internet sphere.

In my BITSian life, I found myself increasingly agitated at the prospect of being “forced” through an examination system for an outdated curriculum when it was so painfully obvious (to me atleast) that it had little real world value. I only mention “examination” because lectures/ instruction methods and all that other stuff, I don’t even want to go there.

Also, and again, I only mention “examination” because at the end of the day, that is what it is. A long drawn branding exercise, finding different (and yet lacking) ways to measure you and in the end stick a brand on you. (Some people actually relish this so much that they go onto do more of it, people of the em-bee-aayyy persuasion :P). In my career I have benefited greatly from being proactive about finding out what was important to learn and learning that from excellent books, MOOCs, peers and anyone who had something valuable to add to my perspective.

I think the world would be a better place, if some education institutions (global and otherwise)recognized that they are actually glorified certification/placement centres. And stop pretending that there is real knowledge/training going on there. Let the good teachers rise, get more credit and decision power while other (sometimes downright evil) “instructors” be prevented from wasting everyone’s time, money and energy. I did not appreciate this enough when I was at BITS but having an operational, honest system for grades, examinations etc. is also a relative luxury from many perspectives. If institutions want so much credit, at least let them have it for the right reasons.

BITS alumni are doing well but I think the system hides behind the law of large numbers. The sheer size of the youth of our country and a brutal selection process results in some people doing well because things lined up for them, or because of putting smart young people in close proximity to each other etc. How much of that happened because of, or to be more accurate, despite the current system is the real question.

Now I do think that armchair critics have a special place reserved in metaphorical hell and whatever “judgement” may be in store for me, I do not want to join that group. So now that our wonderful respectable honorable older generation has decided to subject us to this ill-designed objective, what do we about it?

Courses are a little bit like a buffet meal. Just as you are not required to (/should not) eat everything that is served in a buffet on a platter, similarly not every course is automatically worth your time. What is worth spending time on? This is the real question. The only one that will really ultimately matter.

GPA is a number. Treat it like one. The system designed it to apply a few rules on you, so you of course decide your rules for it. What is worth spending time on and how much of a GPA do you need to negotiate from your BITSian constraints to get there? That is the question.

And its answer is usually neither easy nor obvious.

No point in being a 9 pointer and wasting precious time of your life if that is not going to help you negotiate anything that you value. And worse, leave you with little time to think about what you might want to value.

No point in pretending to be a “cool” 6 pointer when you have a business set up by your “baap” to keep you busy for the rest of your life after college (yes bro, that pretense aint working :P).

You are not required to have this answer at the start, but whether you work towards it or not is pretty much going to decide your future.


We have talked a bit about the question part. Lets talk a bit about the advice part. Most advice or responses to your questions may fall in some leaf node of the tree in the following figure:

Figure 3: Advice Categories

Lets walk through this tree a bit.

Doesn’t matter-> Current Older Student

This answer usually says more about the Current Student than anything about the answer you might be looking for. The person may fall on one end of the scale in Figure 2. The other reason could be the existence of a hidden agenda. A hidden agenda to recruit you to some purpose of their own, e.g. “Department” work, “hangout with me/my group” etc. I usually took a figurative run in the opposite direction, when I met such people. Not only were they not helpful, their advice was potentially detrimental.

Doesn’t matter -> Alumni

I have found some version of this advice repeated by some alumni. The “sab-kuch-moh-maya-hai” types of advice. I think it is a convenient stand to take after one has already benefited from one’s struggles and labour. It’s a borderline taunt, “Hey, you know that number you are obsessing over, or that interview you are preparing for, or that project you are sweating over, and twisting your panties over, really, all that stuff doesn’t matter.” “Great! gee, thanks! That was so helpful (and btw, not hypocritical at all :P).”

This kind of advice could come from people who either have no idea how they got wherever/whatever they got or don’t want to shed light on it. Or it could come from someone who has regrets about how they spent their time in college. Unless they outline their learnings from that regret, hopefully this post will prevent you from being in that position (:D). In any case, not helpful and hence not worth your time.

Convention matters

This kind of advice may come from a person who falls on one end of the scale in Figure 2. If it is not backed by any kind of deeper analysis as to why GPA or analogous conventions are worth it other than that following convention is just easier, I think this should be borderline redundant/outdated information.

Depends -> No Nuance

If this is followed with no nuance, then either you are being dismissed nicely or they are out of time/energy/ways to articulate what they want to.

A lot of advice falls into some of the above categories.

Depends -> Nuance

There is a small subset of people who might say ‘It Depends’ but follow up it with a perspective/summary of what they did and how it did or did not help them.  This nuance with at least a tiny bit of curiosity for where you want to go, and how their experience might be useful to you is the real deal.

I have received a lot of advice in my life that wasn’t worth it. But occasionally and very rarely, I did strike gold too. It was the people who gave me nuanced advice, tried to understand what I was asking. And then, connected me to people whose experience could better answer it. This has made most of the difference.


It is important to formulate a good question. It is important to select carefully the people you will ask it to. Both require work.

It is unlikely that a person who hasn’t been curious in their life about the “buffet” they are being served will be able to help you with these questions. Personally, these are the kind of people who amaze me the most. People who have rarely thought about what they might want to make of themselves if they weren’t given a “buffet”, measuring stick and a prestige obstacle race.

A crude (yet personally effective) thumb rule has been: if a person is still worried about their grade in meaningless courses towards the end of their BITSian career, it is a good indication that they have learnt nothing from their time here and have little insight into how to proactively shape it outside of BITS.

Also, IQ provides a big momentum to some people early on in their lives. And that momentum lasts for a while. This does not necessarily mean that they have spent time evaluating how they will design their future and are worth taking advice from. I have covered this in its abstraction in an earlier post: “The Contrarian Question“.


One of the most interesting criticisms I have received for the ideas I have put forth here are that everyone cannot afford or handle clarity. E.g. if you need to be tied to maximizing your GPA for ‘Merit-cum-Need’ scholarships, how does it help to realize your lack of freedom?

In a larger sense, how is it a good thing to realize the external limitations to your dreams/desires?

I guess it is true that clarity is not always pleasant. At first. But clarity is quite liberating eventually because I do believe that there is some value in understanding how much of your choices are a product of your circumstances and how much of it is actually you. That kind of understanding may clear the path for better life choices and lead to more sustainable/meaningful happiness or outcomes.

History may not be on my side. Because this small question of clarity is actually analogous to the larger question of understanding the reality of your place in the world. Which can be a very harsh truth. Most historians, philosophers have cited that inability as the major reason behind Religion’s success.

Currently I take side with hard earned clarity. It may be because of my current phase/state in life. Maybe I will arrive at a different conclusion a few years down the line. If and when that does happen, I will reach out with an update. By different I mean that maybe I will develop more appreciation or acceptance for how much someone may want/need to live in denial.

But for now, this is what it is.

(*1) – which is not a reflection on anyone but the dilapidated education set up of our country.

This one’s for you my Love

When I was around 12 years old, I had the (mis)fortune of observing a girl’s (Indian) wedding from very close quarters. While most people partied, danced, ate and generally wasted themselves to death, something about the society’s norms and expectations from a girl and her family turned me off. Like, massively.

My prince charming for most part was going to be no one. Yeah, that sounds unromantic. But through my younger years I came to understand that girls like me had very little place in the world. When I was small, I was too quiet. When I was a teenager, I was too intelligent and just too disinterested in ‘peer pressure’. And when I was a little older, I was too independent. There are no brownie points for guessing what these labels progressed to in the latter years of my life. Here is a sampler: too stuck-up, too ambitious, too self-centered. Sometimes I was an outsider because I was an introvert. Sometimes because I was a girl. Sometimes because I was too different. Sometimes, because I was all three (*1). Pretty much always falling on the wrong side of the stereotype, I was starting to stare down an abyss.

And then, somewhere in the middle I turned out to be a late bloomer. Suddenly I found myself catapulted from being invisible to something of a new shiny object for male attention. The contrast amuses me to this day. The way one looks, elicits such a massive change in the world’s response. In some ways, I am still trying to digest that difference.  Many a time little of this attention comes packaged with consideration, respect or curiosity for who you really are.

Systematic sexism is in-built. Which is why some men can joke about it but still be great at a personal level. But girls are more serious about dishing out direct sexism to each other. A certain section of my so-called girlfriends (taking inspiration from ‘Gossip Girl’, maybe) tried their best to give me a hard time for my ambitions. And at some point, their pettiness was so tiring, so exhausting.

It did not help either that I disliked being vulnerable, something that is so nauseatingly acceptable for girls, by everyone.

The rhetoric in that damned institution media is always of guys wooing girls in trouble. Feeding off their vulnerabilities. What is this cultural frenzy that teaches men that their manliness depends on the weakness of girls? Is it not manly to respect someone you feel sexually attracted to?

I was lucky to have landed in a nurturing ‘first’ relationship with all this wariness in my heart, for a brief time, which deserves its own story someday. However, things were taking their toll and in 2012 I found myself in the final year of my college, a deeply unhappy person. By this time, I had outgrown the environment. I desperately wanted to get out and when I couldn’t do so, I descended into a curious kind of depression. I was tired of everyone. It was not that I couldn’t play those games, but I was very, very uninterested in them. Surely there were better and more important ways to spend one’s time? So, followed a year of internal recession. I would go to the library at ungodly hours to catch some alone time. Simply to be away from everyone. ‘Loneliness in a crowd’, the first time I understood that phrase. (Ironically, I did make some of the closest friends I will ever have during this time).

There were no takers for strength. And I simply wanted to disappear.

Amidst all this chaos I took refuge in my work. Sahil was a stranger enough for me. I could work with him and step away from everything familiar and still not be uncomfortable. For the first time in my life, I started enjoying coding and reading with someone else. Two otherwise intensely private activities. From speed coding each other, to giving hilarious names to our compiler versions, to working hours and hours on a pointless compiler to fix the most random errors, it was just so simple and so much fun. For the first time, I found it easy to be in sync with another person. And enjoy activities that I had only loved doing alone.

In my final year, I was set to go to London for 6 months to do research and before we could take it any further, summer had arrived and it was time for me to leave. And leave I did with great happiness. Finally, I was getting out. Sahil skyped with me over my lonely lunches in Regents park and from a million miles away he never let me feel lonely at all. It is an impossible feat I think. To make someone feel such companionship so far away. Here I was half the world away with quite literally no one to call my own and yet I did not feel lonely. In a land of strangers, he made me feel taken care of.  All my life I searched for freedom in my solitude but I was starting to find it in his company.

With Sahil, my world was very different. I had someone who could understand my whole perspective so well that it unnerved me. Who offered me a level of partnership that I did not think was possible and did not have a name for. I did not know but at that time I did not care for labels. The rest of the world does not afford you such a luxury, however. For some odd reason, everyone is in a great hurry to define and label everything for anyone but themselves.

Nothing is a bigger turn-off (for me) than a man interested in me who proceeds on that initiative by impressing upon me how much bigger than me he is. Whatever his notions of big are…money, intelligence, achievements etc. Because this instant flurry of attraction is usually followed by a relegation to a chapter in his life. But I did not want to be a chapter in someone else’s life. I wanted someone who could instead read my book with some amount of interest. Even that was good enough. But Sahil came along and at some point asked me, “Hey, by the way, you want to try writing the chapters together?”

I don’t need diamond rings, a nice house and pretty dresses. (I was raised to believe that I was capable of achieving / earning anything in life if I so desired, as long as I worked for it). What I needed was someone who would be as excited about my dreams and ambitions as I was, who would share my darkest hour and my happiest moments with as much intensity as I felt them. Who knew what passion meant and who would understand without explanation the pain that comes in the struggle to venture out into the unknown. Who would be the reason for my strength in my risks, who could see through my façade and help calm the storm raging within. Someone whom I could completely trust in every situation to let me know what was right even if that meant saying something I didn’t want to hear. Someone who was so wonderfully complementary to me and yet so fundamentally similar. Sahil brought all of that to the table and much more. Without asking. Without demanding.

Ultimately, the best gift that Sahil gave me and will ever give me is the gift of an open mind.

He was someone who was more interested in understanding me rather than placing me within the lens that society/culture sub-consciously teaches a male to look at the female.

When Sahil finally asked me out, he said, “I want to win the world with you”. Not for you. And that made a world of a difference.

There is a section of our fore’mothers’ and forefathers who worked hard, put their ingenuity and creativity to rich and painful realizations to show us the freedoms that we are capable of as human beings homo sapiens. Freedom from labour, freedom from slavery, freedom from chance. These political, economic, cultural & scientific creations strive to make us ‘human’. I live my life attempting to contribute to this effort in my own small way.

I spent the better part of my first quarter-life thinking about the 100s of ways in which I would cope with the eventuality of a marriage with these goals, being a female. And yes, I used the word ‘cope’. The universe gave me a pleasant shock in Sahil. That I could find such a soulmate to be with me on this journey. That I can be his strength and he mine. That we are equals and together more than the sum of persons we could be individually.

Over the past 5 years, I have been pretty silent about my relationship with Sahil. But that was only because I wanted to wrap my head around so many things about something that was so important to me. Also, I am one of those weirdos for whom words fall incredibly short of expressing the magnitude and intensity of everything that I understand and feel. So writing this and even more alarmingly, to ‘put it out there’ has been one of the most unusually hard things I have done yet. (I have mulled over this for at least a year now).

Sahil often says that I am too shy about talking about us. Well, no more. Here I am, 5 years after that starry evening in Dharamshala, on this virtual rooftop, proclaiming “I love you and cannot wait to get started on a new chapter with you.”

J.K. Rowling once said, “…….to have been loved and accepted so deeply, must provide us some ‘protection’ forever……”.

And in that sense, I did find my Prince Charming! 🙂








(*1)-The running stereotype for girls is of talkative shopaholics with high pitched voices who are routinely accustomed to swallowing their self-respect. I am the very antithesis of this idea and I have paid its price. And let only (that intensely male conception of) god help you if you are beautiful or naturally effeminate. Because femininity is usually associated with everything frivolous, trivial, weak or stupid. You will have to work twice as hard, be twice as serious and twice as scary to be taken on an equal footing as men. This would be to make up for all the men who assume you won’t be worth it and for all the women who will be forced to, or worse, willingly oblige them.

The Myth of Wonder Woman

William Moulton and Elizabeth Holloway. PC: Moulton ‘Pete’ Marston

So finally the much ado about (definitely something) ‘Wonder Woman’ has subsided. A female superhero who so far was only a sidekick in other male superhero movies, has her own thing now, her own story solely focused on her.

Last summer I decided to tag along with my friends for the (in)famous batman vs. superman movie. With all the assignments and deadlines, it didn’t take much to put a very sleep deprived grad student such as me, off to sleep. I only woke up with a startle at the landing of wonder woman on the battlefield in that movie. While my friends enjoyed a good laugh at my expense, I was genuinely surprised by her entrance. I can write a book about how disappointing I find (B/T/K/H/<insert whatever letter you like here>)ollywood’s depiction of women. I have grown up accustomed to disappointment. I took nothing away from that movie for spending my precious time and $17 on it except for my wonder for ‘Wonder Woman’.

What followed was a long obsession with studying her character. Who made her? Why did they make her? Why does her story progress the way it does? Why did this character come up when it did? Why so late in the movies and how come so early in history?

I am not sure why more people aren’t talking about all the people who were behind the creation of Wonder Woman. There were 2 main (and then some) characters of this story. William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway. I find their stories and characters (if you will) even more wonderful than ‘Wonder Woman’ herself. So let me take you on this ride. If you are not up for it, you can skip to the last few paragraphs of this blog post. I swear, I have a point that is more important than a comic book superhero and her creators.

Elizabeth Holloway was a remarkable woman by all standards. It was 1910 and this young American “package of dynamite”, “whip-smart tomboy” decided that she was going to get herself a proper education. To quote from Boston University’s Alumni notes: she started off with an A.B. in psychology. And then set out to fulfill her ambitions of law school. She applied to prestigious universities across the United States. Harvard Law did not accept women as a rule and usually turned them over to Radcliffe college. This was a policy Harvard continued up till 1950.

It is so common to come across such stories right? Yes? We tend to gloss over them because we are so used to them. I want to put this little tiny factoid into perspective.

2017-1950=67 years

Up until 67 years ago, Harvard Law did not admit women as a rule. This is at best a generation or less ago.

A few years back I found myself in a hot debate with a classmate over feminism. He believed that the overall statistics of female representation in every profession were so poor that there had to be something fundamentally missing in them. He shouted in exasperation, “Where are all these wonder women you talk about?” At other times, my very educated (sometimes even Harvard educated) male colleagues and friends have pointed out to the “unfair” advantage that women seem to have in higher education admissions. “Why should I pick up the weight?” (Several exhibits ,stored for another day, another blog post, from history are proof, that this small little question summarizes the ultimate human tragedy).

So here’s a picture. Just a generation ago, however bright you may have been, if you were a woman, you did not have access to the best educational and professional networks as a rule. Like, no questions asked. You were out because you were a woman and that was that. Today we publish report after report citing the lack of women in any meaningful decision-making sphere of life and today’s young expect them to make up for such blatant exclusion, obsolescence from the system in just 1 generation.

If you ever opened Harvard’s registers and simply counted the women who ever graduated from there, obviously, they would fall terribly short in numbers. But this would never be because women did not try or weren’t good enough. It was because, Harvard did not want them, something that no western publication will ever bring to your notice.

Coming back to our story, our heroine rejected Radcliffe politely, “lovely law for ladies”, and “because those dumb bunnies at Harvard wouldn’t take women”, opted for Boston University. She asked her father for support and he had this to say to her: “Absolutely not. As long as I have money to keep you in aprons, you can stay home with your mother.” Courage is a rare trait but lucky for Elizabeth (and for the rest of us), she took up many odd jobs over the next few months and managed to save enough to pay her tuition. She married William Marston around the same time and would go on to financially support him through his professional (mis)adventures as well for the better part of his life. She graduated one of only 3 women in 1918 from BU.

Once again, while William Marston started his doctorate in Harvard’s psychology department, and because women could not do so, Elizabeth had to settle for a Masters at Radcliffe. The couple worked on physiological responses to emotions and William would go on to invent the polygraph. William never recognized Elizabeth as a collaborator in his work but many writers and researchers who built upon his work in the future referred to her work directly and indirectly.

Head on to her wiki page and it is not difficult to see that Holloway was by all measures a ‘Wonder Woman’ for her times. She was a career woman at a time when society was not ready to accept her as such. “She indexed the documents of the first fourteen Congresses, lectured on law, ethics, and psychology at American and New York Universities, and served as an editor for Encyclopædia Britannica and McCall’s magazine.” In 1933, Marston became the assistant to the chief executive at Metropolitan Life Insurance, a position she held until she was 65 years old. It was not by accident that someone like her could not become an acclaimed Professor or professional, it was very much by that day’s design.

William and Elizabeth ran a household that is modern and original even by today’s standards of family life. Elizabeth not only accepted Olivia Byrnes, a paramour William developed during his brief stint as a Professor but supported him, their 2 children and Olivia’s 2 children fathered by William throughout their lives.

William Marston wanted to create a new superhero who would conquer not with fists but with emotions and love. “Fine,” said Elizabeth. “But make her a woman.” Comic books were going through bad press during the 1930s. William Gaines, the founder of DC Comics released Superman in 1938, Batman in 1939 and Marston’s Wonder Woman in 1941 as a face saving movement for comic books. It is a succinct reflection of our society that it took so long to make a movie solely dedicated to Wonder Woman even though all 3 superheroes were introduced to the world within 3 years of each other. (A sentiment also captured in this Daily Show segment).

I don’t know what to make of William Marston. While on the one hand he declared that he created Wonder Woman to “combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men”. On the other hand, his explicit sexualization of wonder woman was deliberate, stemming from such ideas as: “the secret of woman’s allure, is that women enjoy submission—being bound.”, or, “You can’t have a real woman character in any form of fiction without touching off a great many readers’ erotic fancies. Which is swell, I say.”(1)

Marston drew heavily from the works of Margaret Sanger, the leader of the birth control movement in America. But he was also determined to keep this a secret. Wonder Woman’s staff artist, Harry Peter was involved in the suffragist and birth control movements of the time both of which used ‘chains’ as a dominant symbol of bondage. However Marston’s interpretation of these chains was very sexual and eventually problematic.

Very predictably, it can only be so long that a strong, independent, sexually charged woman strolls through public imagination before she invites censorship. As in history, as in religion, so in comic books.  This pattern is sadly, a pattern.

The National Organization for Decent Literature (led by Roman Catholic priests, surprise surprise!) set the wheels in motion by blacklisting Wonder Woman for being insufficiently dressed just one year after her release.

A decisive blow came when a psychiatrist and activist, Frederic Wertham, created so much noise against Wonder Woman and comic books that a U.S. Congressional Inquiry was set up to explore the psychological impact of comic books. Wertham testified as a direct retaliation to one of Wonder Woman’s female board members, “As to the ‘advanced femininity,’ what are the activities in comic books which women ‘indulge in on an equal footing with men’? They do not work. They are not homemakers. They do not bring up a family. Mother-love is entirely absent. Even when Wonder Woman adopts a girl there are Lesbian overtones.” This was in 1954. Today while the CBFC in India refuses to certify ‘Lipstick under my Burkha’, not much has changed.

It was only in 2010 that Wertham’s private papers were made public. It was discovered that his hatred for Wonder Woman had more to do with professional jealousy with the said female board member rather than any real social apprehensions about Wonder Woman. (You could google the meaning of the word ‘douchebag’ at this point if you don’t already know what it means). Anyway, the hearing ruled at the time, “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.” The said female, Lauretta Bender, was duly removed from Wonder Woman’s advisory board.

After 3 decades, in 1985, Wonder Woman found an unexpected savior. George Perez. A star artist at DC Comics, he was not a fan of Wonder Woman as she existed back then. But for the right reasons. To quote him, “The stories were rather silly. She was basically the male concept of what a female hero was, with the stereotypical trait that they gave to a lot of their female characters, in which she was worried more about having a date than saving the world.”(2) He set upon redesigning Wonder Woman doing more justice to her character and making up for all the dilution and mismanagement of her storyline.

So we are back to the present day. Some of you may wonder, “so whats the big deal?”, “Its just another comic superhero, movie character etc.?” or even “I think the mainstream depiction of women is really just a social, cultural problem. It has nothing to do with anybody’s bottomline.”

Here is an article from The Economist “Equipping people to stay ahead of technological change”. Head on to the last paragraph of this op-ed: “Not everyone will successfully navigate the shifting jobs market. Those most at risk of technological disruption are men in blue-collar jobs, many of whom reject taking less ‘masculine’ roles in fast-growing areas such as health care.” The article outlines several remedies such as education, training programs, relaxed certification requirements etc. etc. but no where in those 1000 words do I find even a remote suggestion for fixing the perception mismatch of what the common person thinks as ‘feminine’ (and sometimes by default derogatory) jobs and what a ‘man’s gotta do’.

If the future of productivity and economy depends on improving efficiency, it depends as much on recognizing that the old norms of what a man should do and what a female should do did not have very ethical or humane origins to begin with. It depends as much on opening our minds to consider new possibilities in contradiction to old definitions. Today’s advancing technology exposes and challenges some of those archaic and hypocritical structures with each passing day and the best suggestion ‘The Economist’ has is essentially, ‘lets just babysit some of them through it till we can create an alternate reality where we provide jobs that they will find acceptable’. Yeah sure, good luck with that.

We live in a world where the work that women do in shaping the future of humanity (literally by raising children) and safeguarding the health of families has no formal recognition in that ever enigmatic metric of honor, GDP. Apparently I am not alone in thinking this. I could write a book on the damaging effects of this inequity (but that’s for another day, another blogpost).

Its ironic that while the sun was forced to set on Wonder Woman citing a lack of motherly activities in her depiction, in the real world this same work carries little formal economic importance. The strength of many wonder women who exist in our daily lives is completely ignored by just about everything and everyone. So much so, that the leading publication of the western world is claiming that many would rather do no work than ‘feminine’ work. I know this maxim holds true enough on this side of the globe.

Ultimately, the people who will be better ‘equipped’ for the future (that is not so far away in the future) will not always be the smartest people trained in the latest AI fad or management profession. It will be people who will be willing to readjust their old beliefs to adjust to the new possible freedoms of our times.



3 years of Swimming. In Data.

As 2016 is *finally* coming to an end, a year whose repercussions will be felt for many more to come, I cannot but help reflect on the past few years that I have spent swimming. Swimming in data that is.

I have had the opportunity to be a productive participant in the field of data science from many perspectives. Having spent time both in academia and industry, and as both a producer and consumer of data science solutions, I have plenty of lessons that I remind myself of.  Here are the key takeaways from all those years of swimming in data and finding things that would hopefully be useful for someone:

It takes a village.

‘Big Data’ was a big hype word very recently. Until everyone realized that the ‘game-changing’, ‘life-changing’ and ‘world-changing’ data either did not exist or was in the hands of very few people or companies.

There is an unhealthy disregard in academia and industry for collecting data. The way research progresses in AI, ML and all the related fields which collectively affect our abilities to make the most of our data, there is a race to publish the most sophisticated mathematical solution.

In an article on ‘Why Deep Learning is changing your Life?‘ I was happy to note that there was a small paragraph dedicated to Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford AI professor who started the first serious concentrated effort to collect data for computer vision. It was only after she created ImageNet, that the computer vision researchers of the world could show-off their sophisticated math skills at making sense of complex data. It was this effort that created the arena where thousands of researchers having Olympic levels of math skills could finally meaningfully use their expertise.

Which brings me to my first point: Creating and having good datasets is essential, crucial and possibly more useful than all those complicated math models that some people pine away hours at first to build and then to make sense of. A good dataset with a simple model can sometimes tell you far more than the most complicated function approximator run on a bad dataset.

In short, the prestige incentives of academia are not always efficiently aligned with the real world need for making (game/life/world)-changing data science advances.

Now onto why I title this section as ‘It takes a village’.

My hunch is that the ‘Big Data’ hype was generated because the way the world operates, what matters to the big guys is usually projected as what should matter to everyone else. For all the hype and McKinsey reports on the big data revolution, the number of big data companies that actually exist in my opinion are exactly these: Google, Facebook and Amazon. (Apple & Microsoft notably have their foundations as product companies).

Analogous to how the problems of the developing world are never even discussed, let alone be fixed, the real data problems of the rest of us don’t garner enough attention. Most research problems in the field today are trying to solve problems for scenarios that largely exist for these companies (and NSA, shhh, secret).

Most questions in the industry that people now want to answer in a ‘smarter’ way because they know that a (smart) phone exists in every hand don’t have the right datasets to answer them. And definitely not in the context of the developing world. (There is a connection that I see between this gap and the recent wave of the Indian Startup scene, but more on that in another post).

There is another hurdle to the willingness of creation of such datasets. Data collection takes time and it also takes time and resources to start generating dividends. In industry, the Chinese whispers that happens between the sales team, the deal makers and everybody else where it is necessary to quickly book profits and revenues, solutions are sold before there is time to figure out whether the questions the client is asking can even be solved with the data available.

It takes guts to ask that question: ‘Do we even have the data?’ and consider the possibility of hearing back a ‘No’. Then it takes deep pockets to fix that issue. And then it takes perseverance to come up with a meaningful solution. Which is why I am not playing a blame game here. Businesses and companies need to be run and what needs to be sold to that end needs to be sold. But in the end only long term thinking can produce anything valuable.

So, in the industry too, the incentives are not always efficiently aligned with the real world need for making (game/life/world)-changing data science advances.

So as a data science PM/engineer/researcher etc. what does all this mean for you? As much as possible, fix that misalignment. *It takes a village* to build a useful data science solution right from the engineer who makes the system for data collection (if you have the luxury of having such a person in your vicinity) to the designer who can finally make your beautiful insights visible to those who matter. Get in touch with all of them and take them along, up and onwards with you. Every link in that pipeline matters.

Get your language right.
When you offer insights about/from data to someone, you operate in an abstract space of ideas. In such a scenario, you could be talking about the same thing and still not be on the same page. This is usually the case because you are quite literally using words that mean something different to the other party or using different meanings of the same word.

Again the Chinese whispers that happens between the sales team, the client management and company management means that by the time the data and the problem reaches the engineering team, several things have been lost in translation. In academia, when you have researchers from different backgrounds or fields collaborating, there are several different ways of expressing the same ideas creating potential space for misunderstanding.

For example, when you talk to a natural language processing researcher, the audio and visual information is ‘context’ or background, i.e. all the extra information that they may or may not want to include in their machine learning models. Similarly, when you talk to a speech technology researcher, language and visual cues are ‘context’. As someone who has worked on building machine learning models to combine all these communication media, I very quickly realized that while discussing or presenting my work, I would have to avoid the word ‘context’ like the plague if I had to get my point across to everyone together.

Listen. Listen. And then listen some more.

To get the previous point, you must listen to your audience’s language in the first place. But there is a bigger reason why there is a need to keep one’s ears wide open. In my short stint so far, I usually find that people actually don’t know the questions they want answers to. However, people do know very well the pain points of the problems they are facing. Try to listen to these in detail and with great patience. Even to the egoistic (a*holes) who might come to you full of insight and in no mood of listening to what the data is actually saying.

This does 2 important things for you. First you can decide whether a person really has a problem or has something that they have already decided to hear. Next if they do have a problem, it is better for everyone if you can quickly assess the situation and come up with the questions that can be answered and then the questions that need to be answered. Many times, they are not the same. If you are ever part of a project in which these happen to be the same, jump at it with all you’ve got. This does not happen often.

This is analogous to the famous Steve Jobs mantra that the consumers do not know what they want. So, you must get good at listening because before finding a solution, you must transform a problem into a good question.

Math is beautiful.

When I had just started out, I was brash and naïve. I wanted to apply the full force of my training and change things everyday. But there was a slow and painful process of realization that the world does not a) know its problems b) is not always looking for solutions to the known problems c) so many years of my education had not quite prepared me to face the factors that were important in solving problems.

I immediately changed gears to try to fix some of those issues in my life. The world is hard and disappointing. However, Math is only hard, not disappointing. As a data scientist I place my bets on Math and it is that bet that inspires me to get up everyday and get to work, no matter what.

I hope this was useful! Here’s wishing a happy productive 2017 to all!


He swiped back his blonde hair with his huge hands. To get a better look at a beautiful woman walking past him.

The leaves of the bush heavy with snow, still swayed in the chilly wind outside the coffee shop. Just as he felt a little too warm in his fuzzy overcoat, the snow laden landscape outside ran a chill through his mind. Here he was sitting alone, while a thousand miles away, he pictured her sitting at her window, wondering where her life was going. A happy jazz song ’…you will always shine…’ pulsed through the background. A stark contrast to the environs of his mind.

What if they hadn’t met? What if he had stayed longer? What would happen?

It was that moment, when he walked away from her, catching a last glimpse through the glass shades, in the airport line, that her memories ran past his mind like the reminiscence of someone on a deathbed.

She walked away too. 22 hours of isolation would follow, with just a trite entertainment box for company. Two pulsating hearts, trying to overcome the negative void of absence. There was energy in love and there was energy in heartbreak too. It pushed everything down, against your brain, against your mind. Like anti-gravity. Cognitive dissonance.

“Would you like a painting? Would you like a portrait, Sir?” asked the lady outside the café.

“No not today. I don’t want a portrait madam. But could you draw me a heartbreak instead? Because if you drew me today, that’s what you would find” he thought to himself.

The song and the happy tourists walking past him were a contrast to the winter that had set in his life. He had come at a contradiction too early, too soon to understand. For the largeness and variety that the life and the world was, one’s life was too short. There was too much to do. There was too much to understand, too much to take care of.

Maybe he would win some awards. Maybe he would taste success but would this make it on his resume or blog or on any particular record of his life? Would anyone know that there was a huge part of his life, himself, that just walked away from him? Would anyone care to know? And then for everyone he would have to pretend that this was all easy, that he was here because it was meant to be. But would they know that behind the smoke screen lay a forced choice?

The Swartz Fellowship

circa 2011: Brijesh, Saurabh and me were standing outside the LTC. The last hope for a Conquest sponsor had pulled out. We simply did not have the money to pull off Conquest the next week. (We eventually did somehow).

But that day I went back to my room and wondered, “Why am I doing this to myself?” I could be doing so many other ‘expected’ things with myself. I could be doing ‘laccha’ (laughing & chatting with friends) and dispel some unflattering labels that my so-called ‘girl-friends’ loved throwing around in my absence. I could be ‘ghoting’ (generating heat on the table i.e. slang for studying) and gathering outdated knowledge. I could be on a date.

I guess I was obsessed with CEL a little bit because that was the only place where you could talk about not jumping hoops created by others. And be taken seriously.

In my meanderings since then, none of those efforts or hard work ever fit. The Indian MBA scene was a humungous turn off. Job? MS? What did all these people want? Grades? Smooth talking? Glorified internships in Europe? I don’t know.

The hardest and the best moments of my BITSian life were not even there on my resume, in some sense. I knew some of those moments will shape me for a long time to come. Yet I had no way of expressing the costs and the risks that I took with my time at BITS. Almost no one seemed to care and understand

circa 2016 : Swartz Fellowship Interview.

“One of your recommenders said: “There is one thing about Aaksha. She can be obsessed with making the right things happen.”

Welcome to the Swartz Fellowship.

And just like that. Someone finally cared.


(A yearly fellowship awarded to CMU graduates who show the most potential for excellence in Entrepreneurship and Technology)