Does grocery shopping confuse you? You are not the only one

Having too much choice defines our lives in 2016 but when simple chores like grocery shopping feel like complex decision making exercises, you really begin to wonder. My first grocery shopping experience in the local supermarket in UK was overwhelming (and unforgettable) and this chore remains a mental exercise even till this day.

Picture this. I wanted to buy eggs and went to the relevant shelf and what I found was varieties that I had never seen or heard of before. Barn eggs basic, Free range eggs large, Golden Yorked free ranged eggs, Free range eggs rich grocery-shopping-column-sep-2016in Omega and so on. Add to this multiple brand options and pack sizes to choose from. For a person like me who was used to simply buying eggs worth Rs 10 (irrespective of their brand, background or colour) from the neighbourhood shop before multi-brand retailing took off in India, this was and still is nerve wracking. I am almost tempted to move on without buying but then I pick up the one offering most value for money.

The mind boggling ‘choice’ extends to all household products you can think of. Yoghurt comes as 0% fat Greek, 0% fat natural, fat free Greek style, low fat Greek style and plenty more. I feel like little Alice in Wonderland, going around supermarket aisles instead of a rabbit hole, far from having an adventure. Supermarkets with their multi-brand offerings provide lots of choice to their customers but the effort required to make a sensible purchase outweighs any potential benefits of having that choice in the first place.

Online shopping is supposed to make the experience more convenient and cheaper at times but by offering even greater variety than the store it simply adds to the confusion. As I write this, a browse through one supermarket chain’s website throws up more than 100 options for bread, 90 for milk and nearly 200 for shampoo. Then there are also marketing led deals and you are tempted to buy more quantity than you need or worse be tempted to spend on things you never intended to buy. There goes any saving. It can easily take me a few hours to browse through the options for all the things I need. My only solace is that there are people out there who spend so much time each day thinking what to wear.

Market research confirms that people are bewildered by so much choice. According to an extensive research about food trends conducted by British retail chain Waitrose last year, most people who participated in their study said they felt overwhelmed by the choice available to them in different aspects of their lives.

The next time an interviewer asks me how I navigated a complex situation or what kind of decisions I find difficult to make, can I describe my grocery shopping experience, I wonder.


Things you can do without in your hospital bag

Packing a hospital bag during late pregnancy is exciting and it is easy to go overboard (with raging hormones and emotions). I had spent hours browsing through online posts and magazines and packed and repacked my suitcase endless times before I was finally admitted. After spending a couple of days at the hospital with my newborn I realised how a lot of things I had stuffed in my bag weren’t needed at all while there were many others that we needed urgently now.

Here’s a list of items from my hospital bag that I didn’t find of much use:

Breast pads
These might be useful for some but I always found them difficult to wear. Also, given it took me a few days to establish breastfeeding I could have easily done without them in my hospital bag.

Books and music
After 3 days of labour that didn’t progress, I was finally admitted when I was totally exhausted. The gas and air couldn’t relax me so it is highly unlikely that books and music would have helped.

Make up and lip balm
Honestly, these were nowhere on my mind after a long labour. At that time, I was relieved to have safely delivered my precious one and was totally enamoured with her.

Multiple packs of nappies 
The first few nappies that my daughter wore were provided by the hospital even though my bag was overflowing with them. Simply because my full term baby was too tiny for the Pamper New Baby Size 1 nappies I had stocked.

Toiletries for baby
Baby soaps, shampoos and powders definitely don’t have to be in your hospital bag. In my case, the hospital nurses gave a water bath to my daughter four days after her birth. They also advised us not to bathe her too frequently in the first few weeks.

Maternity mats
Started placing them on bed in the weeks running up to my due delivery date but never found them useful as they always used to move to a side while sleeping

Instead, soon after the birth of my daughter we realised how much we really needed the following:

a breast pump, formula milk, a thermometer and a baby sling.





UK varsities now more affordable for Indians

July 2016 jpg

Did you know that studying at a British university now has become more affordable to you than it was a month ago? Since many years, the UK has remained one of the top preferred higher education destinations for many aspiring Indian students. I remember frequenting the British Council in New Delhi as a high school student many years ago, in search of gathering more information about British universities, scholarship programmes and so on and so forth. In the English speaking world, Britain was not the only country with prestigious universities, but to be honest, no other name stuck a chord like Oxford and Cambridge, which remained the aspiration for many.

Official historical data on student numbers indicates that India has continued to be among the top 10 origin countries of students enrolled in British universities. During recent years, however, the number of higher education students coming to UK has declined. According to the UK-based Higher Education Statistics Authority, the number of Indian student numbers in 2014-15 were 46% lower than in 2008-9. Falling rupee combined with stricter visa rules and fewer post study work options for students have been cited as some of the main reasons for this shift. Recent turn of political events in the UK might make UK financially attractive to Indian students once again.

Brexit vote and the plummeting pound
In a historical vote held on 23 June 2015, a majority of the British public voted to leave the European Union, a membership of nearly 28 member states that the UK has enjoyed for over forty years. The results that were announced on the day following the election, shocked politicians and people not just in the UK but across the world as most had hoped for an outcome to remain in the EU. The ‘leave’ vote also hurt the value of the pound, plummeting it to a seven year low. Within a day, the value of the pound dropped from Rs 100 to Rs 88, a 12 per cent decline.

While the impact of Britain’s exit from the EU, or so called Brexit, on UK’s economy and future prospects remains uncertain at this moment, one thing is clear. The drop in pound value in the short term can be a boon for aspiring students wishing to study in the UK as they now have to pay fewer Indian rupees compared to what they would have paid a month ago. They would also have to spend less in rupee terms on their living expenses. For instance, for a one year Masters course at a London based university one would have to pay nearly £22,000 towards tuition fee and £12,000 on living expenses, a total of £34,000. Prior to Brexit vote, this would have meant spending roughly 34 lakh rupees. At today’s exchange rate, this amounts to nearly 30 lakh rupees. Applications for most courses are closed by this time of the year but it might be worth keeping an eye on the admission sites of your top choice universities.


Chinese higher education students drive non-EU enrolments since 2010

I am quite excited as my research briefing about the impact of non-EU higher education students on UK’s economy was published today by Oxford based The Migration Observatory. International higher education students make economic and other less quantifiable contributions such as producing research output. I analysed previously published studies and HESA data to identify incoming student trends over the years.

Key findings:

  • The number of non-EU students enrolled in higher education in the UK more than tripled between 1994-95 and 2014-15, from 98,000 to 312,000.
  • Growth in non-EU student enrolments since 2010 has been driven primarily by Chinese students, while the number of Indian students has decreased.
  • Growth in non-EU student enrolments since 2010 has been driven primarily by Chinese students, while the number of Indian students has decreased.
  • Non-EU students generated up to £7.2 billion per year in export revenues in the 2011-2012 period, although estimates vary. Tuition fee income from non-EU students has grown over the past decade and made up over 12.7% of the total income of UK HE providers in the 2014-15 academic year.
  • Limited available evidence suggests that non-EEA students are likely to make lower-than-average use of public services like health and education; there is less evidence on their impacts on transport congestion, the housing market and labour market.

Full briefing can be found here


We need cleaners and pizza delivery boys as much as high tax payers

Beata (name changed), my elderly Polish cleaner, does multiple jobs at hotels, restaurants and houses to pay for her council house and to meet other expenses. At the hotel, she is required to clean five rooms in an hour at national minimum wage of £7.20. She is efficient, and is thus very popular in my local area where legal, hourly rate cleaners are hard to find.

My friend’s babysitter Anezka from the Czech Republic works as an assistant at a leading fast food outlet and does extra jobs so that she can pay her share of rent for a private accommodation she shares with her friends.

On 23 June, the UK is going to vote whether it wants to remain in the EU or exit (Brexit) its membership of over four decades. Immigration is at the heart of UK’s EU referendum and I wonder what would happen to potential workers like Beata and Anezka who want to come to this country in the pursuit of a better pay.

Workers like Beata and Anezka engaged in low skilled play an important role. By doing the (paid) work they do using their skills and time, they allow people like me and my friend to focus on the tasks we can do with our abilities.

Migrants (not just European) are everywhere, at the supermarkets, workplaces, at the doctor’s clinic carrying out jobs ranging from low skilled to the very high skilled. My local taxi driver is a Pakistani, I myself am a first generation non-EU migrant living in the UK, and my husband’s colleagues at a leading consulting firm in London are from as many as 30 different nationalities including a significant number of EU nationals.

There are different rules of entry into the UK depending on a person’s nationality. EU nationals have a free right to live and work in the UK while non-EU persons are required to qualify an entry criteria for working in the UK, such as having a job that pays over £20,800 per annum.

As a first generation middle class non-EU migrant who often competes with EU workers for work, I feel tempted to vote out in the referendum and wish for a fairer system that assesses potential EU workers on the basis of their skills and income too. But then there are statistics that make me think.

According to a report published by Oxford based Migration Observatory, the largest number of EU born workers living in UK are employed in low paying occupations and industries and are unlikely to qualify for an income linked work permit. The distribution, hotel and restaurant sector was the largest employer of EU workers in 2015, and only 6 per cent of these workers earned a minimum of £20,000 per annum. Industries such as banking, finance and education, that educated migrants like myself fancy, already had a large share of highly skilled and well paid EU workers. This suggests that a Brexit followed by a skills and income based policy (if this happens) would mainly hit lower skilled workers like Beata and Anezka.

For society to function at its optimum, we are going to need pizza delivery boys and cleaners as much as we need millionaires and high tax payers. The key question is who should do these jobs and at what wages and conditions.

Desi groups keep culture alive in foreign land

HT 2016
It has been nearly six years since I moved abroad and in these years my desire to learn more about India’s heritage, traditions and culture and celebrate them have only deepened. My discussions with friends reveal that I am not the only one who feels this way. Thankfully, there are Indian community groups across the UK that bring people of the Indian diaspora together through cultural celebrations and meet-ups and provide them with a sense of familiarity in a foreign land.

Apparently, there are hundreds of such local groups across the country and these are either run voluntarily by members of the community, or as a charity. Some charge a membership fee while most collect a small amount only for attending events. Almost all major festivals, from Durga Puja to Holi are celebrated by community groups with great zeal in the same way as cultural fairs are celebrated in India, complete with stalls selling Indian food, jewellery, dresses and handicrafts. Chants, Indian music and dances complete the show.

Connecting with your roots
Most of these groups were formed several years ago with the simple aim of bringing together Indians living in their local areas. Where I live, a voluntary group of local residents aptly named Prabashi to symbolise an Indian living outside his country, recently organised its seventh annual saraswati puja (a ceremony to worship Goddess Saraswati who symbolises knowledge and learning).

In the run up to the event, one of the members kindly hosted Bollywood dance practice sessions for children at her home. This reminded me of my growing up years in India where one of my mother’s friends in the neighbourhood would teach us kids to perform at local cultural gatherings.

The actual event saw participation from hundreds of Indians living in my locality and surrounding towns and made me feel festive and connected with my Indian roots. With a priest performing the religious ceremonies, women decked up in sarees and children performing saraswati  vandana, dancing on Bollywood songs and playing Jan Gan Man (India’s national anthem) in front of an audience, I forgot for a moment that I was in London.

By organising cultural events, community groups such as Prabashi play a pivotal role in passing on the knowledge of Indian culture to the children of first generation migrants.

Recreating India’s communities
Several groups go beyond celebrating festivals and serve a larger role in the community. For instance, there are groups that organise meetings for the elderly where passages from the Bhagvad Gita (Hindu scripture) are read and language related assistance is provided in filling forms. There are others that host monthly gatherings for women. Activities like yoga and meditation workshops are fairly common too.

To my mind, such initiatives help one feel at home in a new country. The greatest pleasure is simply in knowing that there is a familiar community that understands your culture, your yearning and will always be your home away from home.

(First published in Hindustan Times on 19 Feb 2016)

Living with uncertainty as a cancer carer

breast-cancerIn the summer of 2015, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I still remember that day very clearly.

It was a Monday morning, and right there in front of my eyes on the computer screen was a biopsy report that confirmed malignancy.

The previous Saturday, my mother had got a needle biopsy done for a breast lump she had for nearly two years. My mother did not complain of any symptoms but recently she was worried that her lump had started to grow in size. She had continued to have routine mammograms done and her recent one was borderline suspicious. The mammogram screening coincided with a random (or rather god sent) visit from a doctor cousin who upon examining the report and the lump literally pressed for mother for having a biopsy the very next day.

I spent the next two days searching online for causes of breast lumps and kept telling myself and my parents that my mother’s lump wouldn’t be cancer. My mother, a very religious lady, had complete faith that her lump would be just a piece of fat.

I was in complete denial, my mother couldn’t be suffering from cancer. I quickly emailed the report to my doctor cousins in India who suggested that my mother was in need of urgent treatment. I was still not ready to believe it, perhaps there was a sampling error. But there was no getting away from it.

The hardest part was to break the news to my parents. I called up my parents and calmly told them that some cells in the biopsy didn’t quite look alright and further investigations were needed. I didn’t want to highlight the cancer word a lot.

The next two days then seemed the hardest days of my life, I couldn’t sleep at night as the thought that it was our neglect that caused this haunted me. Being far away from my parents at this time didn’t help. Thankfully, I was able to find a lot of information, contact numbers and emails of oncologists in Delhi and most of them were quick to respond to emails. Treatment depended upon the stage of the cancer and more tests were required. I was on the plane to Delhi a day later.

My mother’s illness restored my faith in the doctors. Cancer treatment across hospitals in Delhi follows international protocols and it is reassuring when different doctors do not vary a lot in their opinions. We met a couple of oncologists and finally decided to proceed with the one who made my parents most comfortable. Many more diagnostic tests followed in the next week to plan for the extent of surgery but even then the onco-surgeon maintained that it all depended on what they discover during the operation.

The uncertainty made us anxious but this was just the beginning. There were question marks all along, and one could only tackle it step by step during the course of the treatment. There was no way to know it all. Had the disease had spread? How curable was it? How likely were the chances of having a disease-free survival?

It made my insecurities about career and future etc seem trivial in comparison. I remember once asking the oncologist if my mother would be totally cancer free after the recommended treatment and he smiled and said, “With cancer, you can never be 100% sure.”

That’s the thing with cancer treatment, it teaches you to learn to live with doubt and be grateful for what you have.

I am thankful that my doctor cousin visited when he did, I am glad that my mother’s disease could be treated and I am grateful to everyone who supported us with their uplifting words along the way.

Being a cancer patient or even a carer can also teaches you to deal with your demons yourself. I had the full support of my husband, extended family and friends every step of the way but the stress I went through while awaiting scan or biopsy results, or the sheer helplessness of watching my previously active mother now weeping in bed due to radiotherapy induced burns was only mine to deal with.

World Cancer Day was on February 4 and Geneva based Union for International Cancer Control that works towards preventing cancer is running a three year long campaign under the theme “We Can. I Can” to promote cancer awareness. I am no doctor but as someone who has experienced cancer closely I can say that don’t take yourself too seriously in life but when it comes to health, one shouldn’t take themselves too casually either.

Finally, I do hope and pray that my mother remains cancer free and healthy for the years to come.

(published on the Huffington Post