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Kindle Paperwhite or Paperweight?

Why Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite is a rip-off in India

Oh yes, I’m a bit raw right now. I’ve been sweating, swearing and seething. I have been suffering since the family decided to invest in a Kindle Paperwhite. Bought over by the ongoing “we are the readers” advertising blitz on Indian television, we took the bait and joined the bandwagon. We ordered the “all new” Kindle Paperwhite, which Amazon promptly delivered to our doorstep. But who knew that the product delivered to Indian clients is altogether different from the version available in the first world!! Turns out, Amazon has some bizarre double standards when it comes to India. While there’s no compromise on the prices, no deals, offers or discounts, the product itself is substandard. It is actually deficient in its features, lacking most of the advertised attributes, available in markets outside India. Although the User Guide on the device itself mentions the ‘Household’ and ‘Kindle for Kids’ features, neither of these are available in India. Having bought the e-reader specifically for my son, to encourage him to read, I feel cheated and shortchanged by Amazon. Nowhere, does the company warn that these basic features, which are standard in earlier Kindles are actually not available in devices bought in India. The Indian consumer is left to rudely discover that she/he has been palmed off a below par product, without explanation. What compounds my anger is that this is not a mistake caused by an oversight. Its deliberate. Amazon’s design seems to be to deliver a dumbed-down, degraded, dummy version of the real thing for Indians alone. By directing Indian buyers to the Amazon.in portal where only the tweaked, dumber version is sold, Amazon is playing some twisted double-game, which only the company can explain.     

The 'Indian' Kindle Paperwhite

The ‘Indian’ Kindle Paperwhite

The Kindle for Kids feature is supposed to be a progression on ‘FreeTime’, available on previous versions of the Kindle e-reader. The feature basically lets you create profiles for kids so you can set reading goals for them. It tracks accomplishments, awards achievements, and generally encourages better reading habits. It also makes the Paperwhite kid-proof, locking out the Kindle Store, Goodreads, Wikipedia, and the rudimentary Web browser, so kids don’t get distracted or go shopping. Kindle for Kids is now an extension of an option to set up a Family Library of sorts, through a function called ‘Household’, on the Paperwhite. A ‘household’ can be shared by two adults, both of who can create reading lists and opt to share those. To this household, upto four independent children’s profiles can be added and loaded with reading material suitable for their age. But guess what, none of these features are available on the Kindle Paperwhite device bought in India!

If you saw their advertising, you’d think the Kindle was Amazon’s gift to readers awaiting enlightenment through the written word in digital India! That’s until you actually get one. And then, you want to throw it at someone, except you don’t know who. Because, you see, should you have a problem, with the Kindle, the only way to seek redressal is remotely, over the phone, where you deal with faceless voices, that could be sitting in some remote corner of the planet, well-insulated from your rage! Did you know that Kindle has no service centres anywhere in the world? So, should you be so unfortunate as to land a dummy product or have software/ hardware issues, all you get to do is call the Amazon helpline and let them talk you through likely solutions remotely, or perhaps not. You don’t get to see flesh-and-blood people or have anyone physically diagnose the problem or offer a prognosis. The company’s customer service is polite. They seem trained to handle irate customers. But their “thank you for calling, and have a nice day” doesn’t exactly fix your troubles. It certainly doesn’t help when they say, “I’m sorry to hear you’re facing this problem, but we can’t really help you. Thanks for the feedback.” Hello… What??

I really wonder why Amazon created a decent product with useful features serving an important segment like young readers and then unilaterally decided to switch off the function for buyers in India. Why, Jeff Bezos??! Is this some sort of weird racist thing?

I mean, imagine, paying real money in the real world, to get a real product and then having to discover a tech- apartheid that you didn’t quite account for. And of course I found out only incidentally, upon calling the customer care at Amazon.in. The man at the other end of the line said, “but ma’am we don’t have the features you’re looking for in India, I’m sorry. What I can do is arrange for you to speak to someone at amazon.com and if you can ‘migrate’, then it may be possible”. So, what do you think that means? That this is basically just a simple back-end thing that can be switched on and off like a tap, remotely. Yet, they insist on a digital divide. The first world gets the better deal. The Indian Kindle owner meanwhile, gets to, sweat, swear and seethe. Welcome to reality.

So, the supposed solution to my problem was that an Indian customer registered on the Amazon.in profile would have to migrate to amazon.com, to access the missing features on their Kindle Paperwhite. The representatives couldn’t explain the fact that they are actually heavily advertising the Kindle for Kids feature as being available in India, as is evident from this link to their user manual. 

Eventually, someone from amazon.com called to address my issues. But then again I hit a wall, when a Filipino sounding customer representative calling from Egypt told me that I needed to have a US address to “migrate” to their dot com profile. Since I happen to reside in India, and cannot fake a US address, the matter couldn’t be resolved and I’m stuck with it.

I wonder if Amazon has heard of India’s ambitious plans to launch a digital revolution in its villages. The term ‘global-village’ may also not mean much to the company, given the disdain it is showing a market as large as India even after CEO Jeff Bezos met India’s Prime Minister not long ago, and was photographed looking rather gleeful. The trouble is, Indians armed with the colonial hand-me-down- English, can spread the word, as I hope to. Oddly, there appear to be many ‘satisfied’ customers, leaving comments about the Paperwhite on Amazon.in. None of them seem interested in the ‘young reader’ segment. But for those of us actually keen on that aspect, this is a huge let-down.   

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with India's PM Narendra Modi in Oct 2014, New Delhi

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with India’s PM Narendra Modi in Oct 2014, New Delhi

It might have helped if those who review the Paperwhite actually published honest assessments instead of perhaps rehashing others reviews or maybe copy/pasting from Amazon’s press releases. Instead of working with company supplied samples, it might help if tech-reporters actually experience the whole deal- from ordering online, to delivery, setup and an overall evaluation of the product as is, on the ground in India. An honest review from the ground, in place of flattering five-star ratings written from the comfort of an armchair someplace, might have helped potential buyers such as my family.     

I think I’m angrier because I was naive enough to think, it was my fault for missing the instructions. At first, I thought my brothers hadn’t installed the device properly. So I reset it and started over. I read and re-read the user manual, but each time I tried to look for the promised features, the search was futile. The instructions said that once ‘Kindle for Kids’ was activated, “Access to the Kindle Store, the Experimental Web Browser, Goodreads and Wikipedia is automatically blocked. Children can only read books that you have added to their library.” I simply couldn’t locate the ‘Kindle for Kids’ item on the Home screen to get started. But I did find the restrictive parental controls. In desperation, I thought, that maybe if I activated the controls, the feature would show up too. But instead, what I was left with was a dummy device, that I as an adult was locked out of, because now the entire device was child-locked. So, there I was, making an SOS to Amazon to unlock my Kindle for me! Trust me, you can’t even start to imagine the fun of a telephonic conversation in our times of call-drops, especially when the participants speak in accents neither side can quite comprehend. Its like the blind leading the blind. 

Those of you who’ve seen the Kindle Paperwhite TV commercials in assault mode these days will remember the images of the many children shown in them, poring over their e-readers. I suppose most of them have “migrated”, to qualify. Well, I guess you could argue that even without the said ‘Kindle for Kids’ feature, children can indeed use the device to read downloaded books, comics etc. Yes, they can, but there’s every chance that a curious child will bump into the rather interesting reading list on Amazon that includes some graphic covers like ‘Indian Pleasures’. The child-lock, which I’m now unable to activate to prevent being locked out of the device, leaves the access open. Because I don’t want my child to read adult fiction before he’s ready for it, I will now have to personally supervise his use of the device.

That’s why I think the Kindle paperwhite should’ve been renamed Kindle Paperweight in India.

I hope those of you, planning to invest in a Kindle Paperwhite, especially for young readers, benefit from my experience. I really should’ve known better. I remember that while working with Prahlad Kakar in Mumbai, we did the most unbelievable things while filming the ‘pack shots’- the most important part of an ad-film, which showcase the product being advertised. These would be shot at the end, and would often take upto two whole days in a studio. For the best ice-cream shots, we used mashed potatoes mixed with the right colours (not always food colours) because it retained the texture, wouldn’t melt and looked just like the real thing. The vapour rising from steaming puris for a cooking oil ad would come from a cigarette placed out of sight. The wafers in layered chocolates were actually porous sponge dipped in colouring. Shots of melted chocolate being poured was actually just paint and glue, in the right tone and shade. When we shot toothpaste commercials, the chosen models would be taken to the best dentists to get their teeth done, before we actually filmed them smiling. I, of all people shouldn’t have fallen for a set of make-believe TV commercials before investing in an e-reader.

But there has to be a price on wilful deception, don’t you think? In the case of the Kindle Paperwhite in India, they can’t even claim refuge in some hidden fine print. Amazon simply fails to deliver what they claim to offer.


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What a September!

of Taxes and Tiger moms 

When I started to blog in July, I thought I was going to be fairly regular. But remember that quote, wrongly attributed to John Lennon- “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”? It was apparently writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders who actually came up with that a lot earlier than Lennon. Well, that’s what seems to happen to me, ever so often. So, after being fairly regular through July and somewhat regular through August, (mostly on account of discovering, that blogging is a poor substitute for a ‘real’ day job!), I have posted nothing through September!! That makes it my ‘lost’ month. So, where did my September go? As usual, doing all those supposedly mundane things that people, especially mothers do. The stuff nobody really talks about, even less write about. Why? Well, it’s just the stuff that needs to be done…that’s why. Two major events stand out for me. First, paying my taxes, and second, holding my son’s hand through the first written school exams of his life, by the end of which both of us have come away learning a few important lessons of our own.

About the taxes: Yes, I dutifully filed my returns to the government of India. I fought the temptation to resist but finally did the deed. I joined the bandwagon after the original due date had expired, but benefitted from an unexpected week-long extension of the deadline. Even though I haven’t had a ‘real job’ or a ‘salary’ to speak of, over the past financial year, it needed to be done. So, I went through with it, using the services of an online team of professionals at Quicko.com for the first time. They were polite, efficient and helped me right through the process as I did the paperwork from home. I’m sure many others are reluctant taxpayers too, each for their own reasons. My resistance stems from the realisation that as an Indian citizen, there are actually no ‘returns’ to be had from the process. I’m not talking about refunds here. I mean, where does the money go? What becomes of it? What’s the ‘larger good’ that I am contributing to, when I suffer multiple power cuts daily at home, pay for tankers full of water for basic domestic use, and drive on pot-hole ridden roads fearing for my life, jammed with traffic? Where’s the government that collects these taxes through all of this? What’s the point of this exercise??  Well, so I’m proud of myself for having been decent and keeping my end of the bargain (if only it buys me the right to complain), but I’m not particularly happy about it. More about that later.

Now, to the other milestone of the month. A big, personal one. My six-year old, going on seven actually appeared for the first ever written exams of his little-big life, this month. Up until mid-September, he had no clue what ‘marks’ and scoring meant. He had no idea about studying to pass an exam, exam-hall decorum, roll numbers, the concept of ‘copying’, not letting neighbours peek into your answer-sheets, answering questions on demand, checking and revising, etc. Now, at September-end, he’s that much wiser about the ways of the world and how it’s likely to be for him for several years, going forward. What these exams also did for us as a family, is flag areas of concern about parenting and teaching styles vis-à-vis academic performance and skill sets for the real world.

While prepping him for the ‘test’, I was rather hands on. I sat with him, getting him to read his text books and class notes, explained when he got stuck and sometimes went into the details he isn’t quite ready for, just yet. The idea was to go beyond the swallow-vomit style of ‘performance’ expected in typical exams, and focus instead on ‘learning’ through understanding concepts that would outlive the examinations. Where I left off, my mother would pick up, creating structured ‘model’ question papers for him, to see how he’d fare. When both of us were satisfied, we let him earn his reward- TV and gadget time, though on a leash.     

I guess the thing about having a single child and time to lavish on him has its unique advantages and pitfalls. My mother with her years of plentiful teaching experience and I with my academic approach were able to identify areas of weakness and strength in the child and work on those. But it was only when the results were out that we each discovered something else- the phenomena of ‘Tiger moms’ lurking beneath.

My ‘lost’ month was, as it turns out rather eventful, after all. My son’s exams were done and dusted, and the results declared within days. Interestingly, we were in for a big surprise when the little fellow who got to see and review his grades a day ahead of the PTM at school, kept the results from us. A chance discovery through a WhatsApp conversation with a fellow-parent revealed that all children had been shown their answer sheets for them to go over. But my son, who otherwise talks endlessly, had chosen not to utter a word about it. This after displaying many other kinds of curious behaviours. He had already checked with me, what I planned to “wear to the PTM” and made it known that a salwar kurta would be “funny” and a saree, “odd”! He had been really looking forward to me meeting his teachers and finding out how he’d done. But when it was actually time to talk, there was only silence. 

So, what had happened? Did he flunk? A little prodding brought on an unprecedented meltdown, I wasn’t quite prepared for! Through his desperate sobbing, I caught a few words that went something like “I didn’t get full marks…in all subjects”… That’s when I figured, where he thought the bar was set. 100% in all his subjects, no less! He was crying because he thought he had actually failed us!! Gradually it came out that he had scored 19.5 out of 20 in two subjects and 19.75 in another. Of course, he forgot to mention that he scored a 100% in two other subjects and got an A+ in art. The crying got worse because he couldn’t bear to tell me, that of all things he had misspelt the word ‘mother’ in English, which cost him 0.25 marks. He had actually spelt it as ‘mothor’ and couldn’t believe it himself. He was sobbing because he was sure I would be livid about it. Guess, who was livid? Not me, but my mother.

So, as it turned out, the satisfaction of actual ‘achievement’ had eluded him altogether, in his pursuit of apparently living up to what he thought were our expectations- cent percent marks!

My reaction came as a huge relief to him. I was a lot calmer than he expected, not breathing fire at all, reassuring him, that he’d done perfectly well and that nobody expected as much from him as he seemed to think. Not in the exams at least. To be honest, my mother said she did expect more from him and there was some amount of fire-fighting I was engaged in with her, at that point. At the end of the day, we seem to be turning into the Asian family of lore that pushes its children to their limits, just so they can realize their potential, whatever it may be. Now, there are no Amy Chua’s in our family but I still seem to be becoming someone I didn’t know I might. I wonder where this leaves a little boy about to turn all of seven. As for me, I’ve decided to go easier on him. What’s the point if learning turns into a chore for the little boy, just to please his family? Time to look for ways to make it a happier experience, for everyone concerned. Any insights?      


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I have to force my son to play! And you?

Saturday morning, my son woke up bright and cheerful. After all no school means, getting to sleep in. I was already stretched out on my Yoga mat, so he tried not to bother me. He went to the loo, and then got his toothbrush and declared he would brush his teeth himself! Now, that’s quite an event, because I still help him with it most of the time. He’s six and half, can add and subtract numbers faster than the grown ups at home and teach you a thing or two about how to use the latest iPad, but when it comes to the simple everyday stuff, he still needs a little handholding. It took me about two minutes to figure out the real reason for his voluntary show of autonomy. He wanted to be done with the boring rituals to begin the day, so he could get to the exciting stuff- he needed to get back to where he left off overnight on Minion Rush, Asphalt8 and Vector- his preferred computer games of the season. Obviously, this meant, I and my lil boy were on collision-course first thing in the morning! That has become something of a ritual too. I catch myself regularly giving him an earful just to get him to play ‘regular’ games, outdoors, like I believe is the normal thing for children his age to do. At least that used to be the ‘normal’ thing when I was once a child. But it turns out, this is the new ‘normal’.

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It can get quite bad, this gadget obsession! But then, I have to confess, I am part of the problem. If I hadn’t introduced him to ‘Angry Birds’ on my smart-phone to ‘kill time’ while waiting to meet the teacher at his school PTM, and then not encouraged him to graduate to ‘Talking Tom’ on the Tab while waiting for the doctor’s appointment, and then again let him get addicted to the ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Ben Ten’ on the PSP, could he have reached where he now has? I still remember how as an infant, he would hammer away on the keyboard of my Vaio years ago. And I should admit, when I’m not doing the chores, I am myself on some gadget or other most of the time. It can’t be fair for me to expect model behaviour from from my child, with the example I set! The cold, hard truth is, children do as we do, they don’t do as we say. The answer then perhaps is the battered cliche: to be the change!

Mixed messages only confuse little children. As a parent, I cannot afford to have double-standards. It won’t work for me to ask him to switch on a gadget, just so he can be occupied and stay out of my hair, when its convenient for me, and then reprimand him for doing the same thing when he turns to it on his own. How fair is it to encourage your child to get comfortable with a certain activity and then decide to unplug them, when they have just started to enjoy it? Expecting compliance with multiple sets of conflicting instructions will backfire. So, unless I want to develop a life-long pattern of confused signals, it might make sense to sort out the mess before its too late.

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What truly put the fear in me is the story of this father’s bizarre experience with his 7 year old son, being hooked to the virtual world of Minecraft. Reading about it was almost like a glimpse into the future for me. If I let him, I’m quite sure my son will get there too, and that seriously scares me.

The lure of the virtual world can hardly be underestimated. Its easy to see why a child would get hooked to a fast-moving, snazzy, multi-coloured fantasy world, where everything is always exciting and challenging. The games have been designed to appeal to their sensibilities and they succeed in ways nothing else can, to get the undivided attention of children we otherwise whine about having poor spans of attention. There’s something completely addictive about the combination of the graphics and the music, not to mention the exhilaration of getting to the next level, so they can brag about it to their school-mates the next day. Its plain irresistible.     

But the argument in favour of technology that speaks to me, is its positive aspect. Of course there are people across the globe that have been surviving without state-of-the-art technology. Some because they are too remote, others because they cannot afford it, many because they have been denied by vested interests and yet others because they choose to have nothing to do with it. Be that as it may, what effects me directly is the subject of my interest. I find technological advancements quite inevitable and technology almost indispensable. As more and more aspects of our lives get mechanised, I can’t see my son missing the bus. I’d rather not see him bumbling around with gadgets not knowing what they are or how to use them. As someone who uses technology positively, I do feel the need for him to keep pace. He studies in a smart-classroom with electronic boards often used to explain concepts. He’s taught about computers and their uses and his curriculum requires him to clock supplementary hours on specific apps at home to reinforce his math skills- both numerical and spatial. The problem I see is of over-dependence. Worse, one of addiction. To me, the solution is to strike a balance. Depriving a child of access to gadgets can’t be the best idea. Limiting the time they spend on them, may be a good place to start.

There are many for whom technology is the enemy. I’ve decided, that isn’t my path. I’m not going to fight the inevitable. I’m going to try to use it to my advantage. Much as I rue the state of affairs- the fact that I have to routinely go from cajoling to yelling at my son to just get him to cycle or play ball instead of ‘Temple Run’, and can’t prevent the sinking feeling when I think of how far we’ve come from enjoying simply taking a walk to getting planted to the sofa in front of our TV sets, I’m not giving up just yet. It can’t be all that bad. I’m optimistic that the situation can still be saved.

Those of you who might be struggling with a similar situation, feel free to share your experience, pitch in with your views, comments and possible solutions. Meanwhile, here’s the via media we’ve come up with, as a family. We’ve agreed to agree. One thing that seems to work with my son, is to make a deal with him, before we start on a task. We negotiate the terms of the deal in a way that both of us can live with, and go forward from there. Breaching the terms calls for treatment in the silent corner! This should work at least until the terrible teens strike, so why the hell not try…

I’ve decided that if the iPad is the most important thing in the world to him right now, he only gets to use it once all his assigned tasks are completed to my satisfaction ( I know how skewed in my favour, this sounds!). So instead of waking up in the morning and switching on the gadget before anything else, all regular tasks including downing the glass of milk and outdoor play will be done before he earns half an hour on the gadget of his choice. Based on his performance, the duration of his reward can go up somewhat. Likewise, we now have rules that gadgets won’t be touched if homework is pending. Electronic games have been made a leisure time activity with a stop-watch attached. To beat the couch-potato syndrome, physical activities have been built into the week- swimming, tennis, using the two-wheeled balancing scooter, cycling and some yoga practice are being tried. The practice of taking our three dogs for an evening walk has also now become a ritual. As we’re lucky enough to have some farmland, my son also gets to do what I and my siblings did as children- climb trees! Nothing beats clambering up tree branches like monkeys, finding the balance to stay there, feeling the high and being able to find your way back down.

It definitely is hard to accept that life has changed so much for us that from one generation to another we’ve forgotten the use of our body parts beyond our thumbs, forgotten the value of good-old social etiquettes to withdraw into our little fantasy worlds on our smart phones and computers and found joy, succour and validation in online communities rather than real flesh and blood individuals. But all is not lost just yet. Even if only by the dint of compulsion, those of us who still appreciate the value of ditching the car occasionally to take a walk when possible can hopefully pass on the benefit of that wisdom. Explaining the notion that gaming should only be a recreational activity to engage in, in one’s spare time instead of being obsessively pursued single-mindedly, is proving to be a task. I’m not sure if this is more of a ‘boy’ thing, or a generational phenomenon. But I’m relieved we’re making some progress on keeping things in perspective. How about you? Get in touch if this is something you’re grappling with too. It would be nice to know how you’re dealing with it…

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Inside Out- A great watch

Mum turned 65 over the weekend, an obvious occasion to celebrate. The celebrations included a big decadent family meal followed by a trip to the cinema. We picked Inside Out- the latest Disney Pixar release. For years now, our movie-viewing lists have been decided by the youngest member of the family- my son, who turns 7 this October. Anyone with little children will see exactly what I mean. To my surprise though, I have enjoyed every children’s film almost as much as my son. Inside Out, happens to be exceptional. I can’t decide, which of us enjoyed it more. For one, we haven’t stopped talking about the movie since watching it on Saturday. My son is so full of questions and observations about it, that while answering them I have started to realise how complex the film really is. What’s incredible about it, is that it manages to concretise one of the most intangible things- human emotions. It deftly goes about explaining the nuances of the inner-workings of one’s mind, even the subconscious, in the simplest and easiest possible way. I doubt this has been done before through an animation film targeting little children. It is so effective in its story telling, that it works perfectly well for grown-ups too. There were many adolescents and adults in the theatre, all of whom seemed to enjoy the film. They’d laugh and applaud on cue, but I’m not sure if they realised the many levels the script seems to work on. While the film is ostensibly for children, I suspect there’s quite a lot there for an older audience too. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d really recommend that you do. Why don’t we share notes afterwards?

Pixar Post - 03 - Inside Out Poster - Walt Disney Pixar Facebook Page

The film is essentially about a pre-pubescent girl- Riley. When her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, the changes are too much for her to handle. A normally cheerful Riley starts to feel lost, can’t quite find her bearings in the new city or school and has no friends. A pro at ice hockey, in frozen Minnesota, she can’t even find her peace in the artificial ice-rink in her new city. The film describes her state of mind in the most ingenious way- by taking us physically into her brain, where we see a bizarre landscape populated by the many centres that keep her upright and functioning normally. Her ‘headquarters’ are linked to her main emotional anchors- the core aspects of her personality depicted as a series of islands: family island, friendship island, goof-ball island (fun), hockey island and honesty island. These are the building blocks of her identity. But as Riley struggles to cope with her life-changes, her basic emotion- Joy is tinged with Sadness. Both emotions are depicted as female characters. Joy, painted a bright yellow and Sadness, predictably blue. Each time Riley tries to get back on her feet and navigate her way out of the crises, Sadness intervenes, to the point that she touches Riley’s ‘core memories’ depicted as a series of balls stored up in a massive library of racks. While attempting to correct the course, Joy gets sucked into a seeming wasteland on the edges of Riley’s consciousness accompanied by Sadness. The two are engaged in a gripping roller-coaster as Joy tries literally to pull Sadness out of the shadows in vain through most of the movie and somehow make it back to HQ, which seems to slip farther away with each successive attempt.

In the meantime, there are three other emotions left in-charge of HQ- Fear, Disgust and Anger. As you might imagine, this makes for quite a deadly combination. While these three try to keep Riley afloat, the result is a veritable disaster. Riley inexplicably breaks down while trying to introduce herself at the new school, she can’t bring herself to confide in her parents about what she’s experiencing, withdraws from her best friend in Minnesota, gets into an unnecessary and unprovoked argument with her parents at dinner-time, which ends in an explosion of anger…in all, Riley is a mess.

The rare occasions when Riley and her emotions do get a break is when she finally gets to sleep. As she hits the REM phase, we’re introduced to a hyper-active brain, busy producing dreams. These dreams come out of a fantastical film-studio, with a range of bizarre characters- people, animals, the works. The dreams change unpredictably as they normally do, with new characters stepping in depending on which emotion is at work. During this chaotic interplay of emotions, there are also amazing detours to Riley’s ‘subconscious’! A labyrinth, amazingly pictured with staircases leading into hidden dark alleys that bend into even deeper corners. There, Joy and Sadness are constantly startled by Riley’s latent fears- from the sudden burst of sound coming from her grandma’s vacuum cleaner to the fearsome giant body of the clown- Jangles from her many birthday parties. And you also get to meet Riley’s endearing imaginary friend- Bing-Bong- with a body of pink cotton-candy, that’s part elephant (with a trunk), part cat- bushy-tailed, has striped legs, and oddly drips hard candies from his eyes every time he cries. He’s Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend, trying desperately to re-enter the HQ of her control centre. He helps Joy and Sadness find their way back out of the maze in her head, by hitching a ride on Riley’s “train of thought”.

As the plot progresses, Riley hits the wall time and again, leaving her sad and miserable. Without Joy in command she is unable to find her balance and lunges from one heart-tugging moment to another, as we see her many core- centres collapse. Joy persistently tries to walk the tight rope to each of Riley’s personality islands, just to find them shattering under pressure, one after another. Riley crashes her last island- ‘honesty’, when she steals money from her mother’s wallet to buy a bus ticket to return to Minnesota. She practically runs away, like many young people do. In her confused emotional state, she feels she might find her equilibrium by simply revisiting the city where she once belonged, while forgetting that the sense of normalcy she felt, actually came when she was with her family and friends, had fun and played hockey. After having abandoned each of those ‘core areas’, in moments of irrationality, she is still clinging to the mistaken notion that Minnesota, minus her family is the answer to her woes.

The plot turns when Joy suddenly realises that while she has been trying to suppress Sadness all along, it might be this emotion that holds the key to linking her back to HQ. Sadness, who is always sulking or trying to hide from view comes to life when Joy asks for her help to restore order inside Riley. This is the turning point, when Riley comes to her senses as it were, and steps off the bus to Minnesota mid-way. She returns home to face-up to the truth with honesty in front of her parents. She doesn’t realise then, that her change of course implies affirmative action in getting on top of her predicament. 

Once she’s home, there’s an emotional scene where she breaks down before her parents and comes clean on what she has been going through. This ‘Sadness’ she experiences proves to be the glue, to bring mom and dad back to Riley. As they hug and promise to set things right together, the warmth of that embrace repairs her broken emotions. There’s an outburst of emotions where Anger, Fear and Disgust, all rise to the occasion to let Joy and Sadness break through the glass-panes that are blocking them from the HQ. Once Joy and Sadness are both in, Sadness is in the saddle to bridge the way for Joy to finally kick in. From there on, Riley’s back on track. She has a brand-new confidence, from her experience of having been down in the dumps and back. We get to see a brand-new console take shape inside her brain- one with a whole lot of shinier and flashy buttons. The broken bits are welded and soldered, all emotions have found their seats and are less confused and crucially, Joy and Sadness discover a harmony, they didn’t know before!

When all of this unfolds in 3D with surround sound in a darkened cinema hall, its not easy for an adult to imagine the impact on the mind of a toddler. But from the barrage of questions we have had to answer as a family, I think, the effect was nothing short of profound on the impressionable mind of my little son.

Interestingly, the character he most identified with was, ‘Anger’! As a parent, that set off alarm bells for me at first. Parents, I think are coded to imbue their offspring wrongly with only the positive elements. In hind-sight I realise that I tried quite hard to make him see the value and significance of Joy, by trying to get him to identify with it. I remember repeating several times that Joy was most important as it is a ‘positive’ emotion. I also insisted that ‘Anger’ was negative and hence destructive and he should try to distance himself from it. While this was just me being a well-meaning mother, what I was trying to also do is undo the good work the film and its makers had done. They tried to convey the importance of all the emotions in their right proportion, while I tried to make the negative ones seem unnecessary and dispensable.

By day two, I began to realise I was making a hash of interpreting things. I changed tack to explain that Sadness and Anger are both required and good, though in the right measure. I also realised that one other reason for my son identifying with Anger could be the fact that it was one of the few characters that was ‘male’. Fear was male too, but only a very fearful person will identify with it as the primary character. My son pointedly asked me one night before going to bed if Joy was a girl. That’s when I became convinced about the gender-typing through the narrative. I tried to explain that it was just the way the story had been told, and emotions were not feminine or masculine.

It has been hard over the days to explain that there really aren’t any ‘little people’ of varying colours living and talking inside our heads. It has also been hard to explain that ‘Anger’ is not ‘cool’ and its primary purpose is not to “destroy and beat” the others up, as my son believes. But I’m glad we’ve finally come to the understanding that each emotion has its role and significance and that we’ve understood why it’s as important to feel sad, as it is to feel happy, afraid, angry or disgusted. That a good cry can leave you much lighter, relieved and happier!

As we go, we’ve also come to an understanding that its Riley who actually pulls the strings. That she controls who should run the show, because she’s the owner of the brain, which houses the ‘little people”. A part of me is trying to use Yoga to explain this to my boy. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev talks extensively about the interplay of the physical body, mind and emotions. He talks about the power of meditation to create a situation where, your mind is your slave, rather than being your boss. He talks of using Yoga to first discipline one’s body into stillness, and through that to force the mind to become still too. From that point of stillness, he says it is possible to instruct your mind to do what you wish it to do. This is essentially self-control where you are on top of your mind and body, and in charge. From there, it should be possible to control your emotions, their expression and the reaction to those emotions. Of course that kind of power only comes with understanding and maturity, but knowing that such a thing is possible is empowering, considering that most of us succumb to their first impulse.

I guess, this is a great deal of wishful thinking on my part right now. I doubt my efforts will spare me the experience of eventually seeing my son struggle with the horrors of puberty or the terrors of adolescence. But regardless, I’m really glad a film like ‘Inside Out’ got made. I’m even more glad, we got to see it together as a family. It’s heartening to see a child grappling with so many complex ideas simplified so appealingly for him to grasp. I think it’s really important that people of every age start to talk about how they feel and what they think about how they feel. The value of emotions and empathy have often been underrated in our quest to feed the intellectual appetite. This film hits that goal- it gets you thinking and talking about your emotions. 

The approach of the movie may not be terribly scientific, but if it gets viewers across the board to visit the recesses of their minds to explore hidden ideas, forgotten and unacknowledged memories, realise the potential of ‘negative’ emotions to unlock the ‘positive’ ones, all in the form of popular entertainment with popcorn on the side, what more can one ask for? Paisa Vasool 🙂