Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Religious Tolerance

I have always thought it curious how religion comes to assume the significance it does in our lives. Besides the believers, there are those of us who do not practice any organized faith, question or worse reject the tenets of their own religion. And finally there are undecided fence-sitters like me. We do not participate in anything ritualistic, oversimplify the religious canon until it is reduced to a set of positive affirmations. No matter where we stand in the spectrum as far as our relationship with religion, we cannot claim complete indifference to the question of faith and God. We also expect tolerance of our specific world view in a civilized state and society.

Brian Lieter of the University of Texas asks a very pertinent question "Why Tolerate Religion"
Here is the abstract :

Religious toleration has long been the paradigm of the liberal ideal of toleration of group differences, as reflected in both the constitutions of the major Western democracies and in the theoretical literature explaining and justifying these practices. While the historical reasons for the special “pride of place” accorded religious toleration are familiar, what is surprising is that no one has been able to articulate a credible principled argument for tolerating religion qua religion: that is, an argument that would explain why, as a matter of moral or other principle, we ought to accord special legal and moral treatment to religious practices. There are, to be sure, principled arguments for why the state ought to tolerate a plethora of private choices, commitments, and practices of its citizenry, but none of these single out religion for anything like the special treatment it is accorded in, for example, American and Canadian constitutional law. So why tolerate religion?

It is a great article with a thought provoking conclusion where Lieter says:

The worry, baldly stated then, comes to this: there may be compelling principled reasons for the state to respect liberty of conscience, but there is no moral reason why states should carve out special protections that encourage individuals to structure their lives around categorical demands that are insulated from the standards of evidence and reasoning we everywhere else expect to constitute constraints on judgment and action. Singling out religion for toleration is tantamount to thinking we ought to encourage precisely this conjunction of categorical fervor based on epistemic indifference. And it is hard to see what utilitarian rationale there could be for that.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Cultural Absentee

Wandering in and out of museums in DC this weekend got me wondering about the value of preserving artifacts of a culture that is not yet extinct. Seeing the many African American families in National Museum of African Art provided part of the answer.

While it could be good introduction for kids who are growing up cultural absentees, yet in being a showcase no intimate connections can be formed. They could come away educated, awed and proud about their roots - absenteeism is not remedied.

For a cultural outsider the museum is a visual sampling platter calculated to pique interest. One may go away wanting to find out more or travel to the country to immerse in the culture more satisfactorily. We met a bunch of unlikely museum visitors in the elevator of the American Indian Museum.

A gaggle of giggly teenagers from Louisiana were greeting everyone who got on and made cute small talk with them. First time out of their home state, they were excited by the diversity of their encounters which was quite unlike anything they had seen. In one day they had met people from around the world without even stepping out of the museum elevator. I thought it was a charming idea - trust kids to think out of the box.

Monday, May 29, 2006

One "Happy" Family

I was visiting with my friend A's family this weekend. Her folks are first generation immigrants with the difference. Her Dad went to grad school in the US, returned home and worked in India twenty odd years. He immigrated with his family when the kids were in high school and he had retired. Having started at an executive level position, he has not had to work his way up like most immigrants of his age group. It has been about ten years since they arrived.

From speaking with her dad, it seemed that he wanted the children to have gone through the rigor of the Indian education system and be rooted deep culturally so America could not undo either. Seems like the perfect plan for everyone. The kids are acutely aware of the sacrifices their parents have made in uprooting so late in life – there is a larger than life quality about it. They understand the rationale of the timing calculated for them to benefit from the American system sans any second generation confusion and angst.

After, spending three days with the family I felt sorry for everyone. The mother never quite made the transition. She does not have any of the dad's smarts or social skills. From the Indian backwaters to the US in her late 40s has been more than she has capacity for but she is the soul of perseverance. Your heart goes out to her – you wish there was way to put her out of her misery.

The older boy went to grad school and is working - nothing spectacular but good enough. A tells me that he is almost always been in relationships with older women of non-Indian descent including married women. The parents are blissfully ignorant. A and her siblings play at being good, obedient, conformist desi children when in truth they are all but that. Dad I am sure is smart enough to see through the flimsy façade.

The parents are in India in the heart and soul, with the body only reluctantly here. They are not exactly sure when to leave the children to fend for themselves and turn home where they belong. In ten years the bonds back in India have weakened -over time staying back here with the children may make more sense. I came to the sobering realization that there is no such a thing as a perfect, water-tight plan for your children. I needed this experience to disabuse me of my illusions about my ability to make J’s Indian-American experience relatively painless. I am more concerned about knowing about her suffering so I can suffer along and learn as we go.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Unwilling Brides

Wedding rituals and the physical adornments that mark a married women often have unromantic and grotesque origins. The galloping white steed of Prince Charming was once his means to carry a woman away against her will. She would then be bound, shackled and upon being deflowered marked as his property. Necklaces, bangles and anklets are symbols for things more primitive and uncivilized.

Apparently women are
kiddnapped and turned into protesting brides in Kyrgyzstan to this day turning marriage to entrapment in the literal and figurative sense. That some of these abductee brides are quite happily married goes to prove that the odds of a marriage being successful are equal however it came to be solemnized. Eliminating choice and preventing exercise of free can result in resignation and acceptance that may in due season turn into "happiness"

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Crowdsourcing

I was listening to Mohammad Yunus talk about the beginnings of microcredit on NPR . Though principally very different, it seems to have much in common with crowdsourcing

Whereas in microlending, a large number of people may chip in to raise money for a poor farmer to buy a cow, crowdsourcing is about a large number of people producing goods and services on their spare time that are orders of magnitude cheaper than commercial alternatives. In both cases the crowd offers a better value proposition to the buyer than an individual (the village moneylender in the case of the farmer) or an institution ( a corporation trying to license stock images). Both have to do with the strength in numbers and how sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

How crowdsourcing is different from outsourcing is aptly summarized in the Wired article :
“Outsourcing is when I hire someone to perform a service and they do it and that’s the end of the relationship. That’s not much different from the way employment has worked throughout the ages. We’re talking about bringing people in from outside and involving them in this broadly creative, collaborative process. That’s a whole new paradigm.”

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Library Fines

Like many new immigrants in America, one of the most positive experiences I had about the country when I first came here, was the public library system. The small town where I grew up in India had a library too. So scanty was its collection that I had managed to read everything of interest to me in two or three years.

I would compile long lists of books I'd like to see in the library and hand it to the powers that be. Sometimes my wishes would come true and being the librarian's best buddy I enjoyed privileged access to all the new arrivals. It was a good arrangement considering how limited my options were but I longed for more all the time. I could check out two books at a time for two weeks and the fines were steep.

I remember my first time inside a public library in the US - feeling overjoyed at the abundance, unlimited checkouts and the eagerness of the staff to help me find things and answer questions. J and I use the local public library a lot - its one of our favorite places to go on Saturday afternoons. I have not paid a lot of fines but never feel any diminished goodwill when I have had to. I think the modest fines keep borrowers disciplined and help them value the generosity of a service that they would otherwise take for granted or worse abuse. I would definitely not support abolishing library fines.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Gizmo Lust

Many years too late, just when I was getting interested enough in the iPod to start looking up prices online, I find out about a niftier little gizmo - the MP3 Walkman flash

Smaller, lighter and more colorful are three reasons I would prefer it to the iPod. Plus I'm not an Apple aficionado - just not geek enough for that. I find that the Sony version of the player MP3 flash player is much more expensive compared to other variants in the market

I wonder if there is a word for gizmo lust that waxes and wanes but remains unfulfilled because whenever the craving for it nears purchase threshold, a much more desirable (fiscally unviable and therefore unattainable) alternative is discovered. That approximately describes why I have two rolls of APS film sitting in my bag
for months waiting to be printed while I consider my digital camera options in vain - as I have been for the last few years.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Lost And Confused

Here is technology the directionally challenged, ochlophobic mothers of recalcitrant brats will be grateful for. J is very capable of walking as far and as long as the next kid her age and yet she is strapped to her stroller when we are anywhere remotely crowded or chaotic. A lot of people give me strange looks - clearly the child has way overgrown her stroller and is evidently not in need of one.

I prefer to brave the silent censure of the masses to losing track of J in a crowd - the stroller sure beats a
baby-leash. This is one of the many phobias that motherhood has brought in its wake - the other is not being able to recognize a pedophile at twenty paces or less. I have come to believe that otherwise sane people loose their reason and ability for rational thought when they become parents.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Duo, Not Quartet In Spring

I took J to a Lebanese food festival yesterday. The place was unbelievably crowded and the food we sampled absolutely delicious. I expected J to have fun time - there was everything she loves - clear blue sky, warm but not hot weather, lots of people including kids having a good time, trying something different to eat. She was disappointingly quiet and complained about how it was cold and windy and I should have dressed her warm.

I was puzzled, hurt and and then plain angry. It was like she owed me her laughter and joy for the trouble I had taken to find us something interesting to do on the weekend. I am painfully aware of the clockwork monotony of our lives, the absence of family and friends. I reprimanded her for fussing - my exact words being " This is the last time I am going to put up with this kind of behavior from you. If you want to sulk and fuss instead of enjoying yourself, we'll go back home and just stay there"

She looked about ready to cry but thought the better of it seeing how mad she had made me already. The sweetness of the fragrant kanfeh dipped in orange blossom essence helped lift our spirits. By the time we were done with our desserts, J and I were smiling again. She was her usual cheerful self once we got home and said to me "When grandma and grandpa come here, we'll take them to the food festival". When J says that about something it is incontrovertible proof that she loved it. I felt gratified to hear her say that - it made all the trouble worthwhile.

The unpleasant episode from earlier that afternoon lingered on my mind. I had noticed the longing look in her eyes as she looked at the "families" (by J's definition, a unit consisting of a full set of parents and a number of children. J's preference is to have at least one sibling if she cannot have her wish for one brother and one sister). The sound of a child calling out "Daddy !" does something to J's face that is hard to decipher but heartbreaking to watch nevertheless.

When we are home, there is nobody to compare with and she does not miss what is missing in her life. A concert hall, a bistro, a bookstore, the library, the park, the mall, the doctor's office, the daycare are some of her other comfort zones. None of these places spell "family" as unambiguously as a fairground or a family restaurant does on a Sunday afternoon. I have been guilty of trying to keep J away from sightings of "family" because I am afraid of dealing with her reaction to it. My not having an anodyne does not take her pain away.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Doing The Indian Thing

John Irving's The Fourth Hand is an example of doing-the-Indian-thing gone bad. Obviously other examples of the genre abound but Irving is one of my very favorite writers - I expect him to have more sense than to allow a circus lion in India eat his protagonist's left hand.

Doing the Indian thing is sadly very tempting - its lures many but few emerge from its quicksand unscathed. Being native does not help and likewise being a foreigner does not necessarily hinder. The country, its history and its people is replete with ideas for stories - it seems deceptively simple to pick one strand and imagine it has a finite beginning and end.

However stories in India are linked infinitely. It is an ancient civilization, there is not one but 330 million Gods, innumerable languages, dialects, parables and myths. The taste of food, the sound of folk music, the rhythm of dance changes each time you travel a few hundred miles in any direction of the country. Most lessons learnt in one part of India have to be re-learnt in the next. It takes a lot of time, cultural and emotional immersion until stories grow on you organically and flow as in a stream of consciousness.

Doing the Indian thing well is far more challenging than may seem at first - even for a master storyteller of Irving's caliber. It is a tantalizingly tempting trap and I am sad to say that in creating Patrick Wallingford - the hero without a left hand - Irving fell where many have fallen before. And yet, because it is Irving, the story overcomes the very avoidable lion-in-India fiasco and turns out to be quite a fun read. In lesser hands, it would have sunk without a trace. I am going to give his
A Son Of The Circus a shot to see if he fared any better with the dread "Indian thing" on that one.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Organic For The Hoi Polloi

I have been pleasantly surprised to see the local Wal-Mart carrying organic milk and yoghurt. As I gleefully stock up on my supplies of both, I wonder how organic, low-cost and mass production could possibly jive - the same questions this WorldChanging article talks about.

With something as big and influential as Wal-Mart, nothing is as good as it seems. When I read about small businesses (and I guess in time individuals) could buy affordable medical insurance plans from Sam's, I thought it was great news. The competition would heat up and drive down prices for the consumer. Detractors I'm sure have a long list of concerns about the move and maybe rightly so. As far as I'm concerned, in my limited understanding, the author of the Slate article hit the nail on the head when he said:

It would be fun to watch Wal-Mart apply to physicians the same energy, ruthlessness, and ambition it now uses to squeeze costs out of suppliers. Imagine a radiologist from Seattle trekking to Bentonville, Ark., eager to get a contract to review X-rays for $400 a pop. Purchasing agents would laugh in his face and tell him to do it for $50—or they'll find somebody in Oklahoma or India who will.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Eloquent Silence

I was surprised to read that the Indian government has allowed the release of Da Vinci Code movie even as protestors staged hunger strikes. In India, it has not taken more than that to get a ban on controversial literature and art. I recall the bans on Rushdie's Satanic Verses and Taslima Nasreen's Lajja coming through a lot more expeditiously than that. Clearly the right to get something banned is not as equal opportunity as it ought to be. There is much to be said for being perpetually belligerent and being ready to carry out terrorist strikes at the drop of a hat - the powers that be can't seem to be galvanized into action any other way.

A colorful poster announcing a presentation "The Truth About the Da Vinci Code" on the grounds of the church across the street caught my eye this morning. It made me wonder why a religious establishment was dignifying claims made in a work of fiction by discussing it. Would it's distance from and denial of the premise of Dan Brown's story be better served by not speaking about it ? A far superior response came from the
NYT reviewer of the Da Vinci Code movie who concluded his case by saying :

"So I certainly can't support any calls for boycotting or protesting this busy, trivial, inoffensive film. Which is not to say I'm recommending you go see it."


As a Hindu I know we lampoon and parody our myths and religious epics relentlessly. Starting from middle school students in small Indian towns to the Standford Indian Association anyone can stage a skit parodying the Ramayan and be none the worse for it. Such transgressions are viewed as clever and entertaining. As a culture and a religion, Hindus have the ability to laugh at themselves. We are taught not to accept anything without question, not believe anything without good reason. To a Hindu, no holy cow is too sacred to be ripped apart and analyzed.

While our religious leaders ( I refer to spiritual rather than institutional leadership in which is thankfully scant anyways) encourage questioning and an intellectually rigorous debate on Hinduism, they ignore us completely when we seek to denigrate ignorantly. In doing so, they succeed in rising above our attempts at profanity and disrespect. Their imperious silence conveys the strength and enduring power of a religion that remains unfazed in the face of contradiction and ridicule. The histrionics of political rabble rousers, the self-styled upholders and defenders of Hindutva can't hold a candle to such eloquent silence.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Suddenly Bollywood

With Indian call centers becoming a fun and attractive short term destination for young Europeans, Bollywood agents trolling around for Western extras may find their job turning easier. Thinking gora, call center and Bollywood starlet in the same breath brings my co-worker Molly to mind. Since she is single, brunette, dances, loves Bollywood musicals, drools over 22 carat gold jewelry and wants to own googobs of them. She is waiting for her desi best friend to get married so she can go shopping in Delhi.

With her background, landing a call center job would be simple enough. Then if she's at the right place at the right time a Bollywood agent could have her star in a music video for $5000 for a couple of weeks of work. With disposable income like that she would be able to splurge on gold, clothes and shoes without guilt. Next time she rants about how management in its infinite stupidity is readying to outsource her job, I have to paint her this pretty picture.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Simple And Refined

Reading the David Hume essay "Of Simplicity And Refinement In Writing" particularly the line
"
I shall deliver it as a third observation on this subject, That we ought to be more on our guard against the excess of refinement than that of simplicity; and that because the former excess is both less beautiful, and more dangerous than the latter." reminded of some Stanley Kunitz poems I had read recently.

His writing feels like it has had words pared away
deliberately, little by little until poetry is rendered light and transparent - that perfect blend of refinement and simplicity Hume talks about.

An Old Cracked Tune

My name is Solomon Levi,
the desert is my home,
my mother's breast was thorny,
and father I had none.

The sands whispered, Be separate,
the stones taught me, Be hard.
I dance, for the joy of surviving,
on the edge of the road.

First Love

At his incipient sun
The ice of twenty winters broke,
Crackling, in her eyes.

Her mirroring, still mind,
That held the world (made double) calm,
Went fluid, and it ran.

There was a stir of music,
Mixed with flowers, in her blood;
A swift impulsive balm

From obscure roots;
Gold bees of clinging light
Swarmed in her brow.

Her throat is full of songs,
She hums, she is sensible of wings
Growing on her heart.

She is a tree in spring
Trembling with the hope of leaves,
Of which the leaves are tongues.

Monday, May 15, 2006

His Take On Her Life

It sometimes takes a couple of triggers in quick succession for my conflicting views on a contentious topic to finally coalesce. I watched The Cider House Rules (a deeply disturbing movie about the ethics of abortion in the context of incestual rape) within a few days of reading that 83 percent of recent op-eds on the abortion issue in New York Times (a supposedly pro-choice publication) have been written by men

Not having enough women to weigh in on the subject has been justified thusly

Editors explaining the dearth of women on op-ed pages, a subject that has in the last year received a great deal of attention, will frequently point to the broader society for explanation: Congress is 86 percent male; very few women hold executive positions in the business world; the academy remains overwhelmingly male at the level of tenured professorships; military leaders, diplomats, world leaders -- all are overwhelmingly male. Thus, they say, it’s not entirely the fault of newspapers that their op-ed pages rarely reflect women’s voices.

I find this asinine “explanation” beyond ludicrous. Why does it take a woman in position of power or influence to opine on abortion ? This is an equal opportunity condition for all woman-kind and one woman’s view should be as good as another’s. Rose in The Cider House Rules is an illiterate apple-picker’s daughter and knew where she stood as I believe does every woman who has ever needed to make that difficult decision.

Every time I hear a man take a pro-life stance, I wonder how he might feel if his own daughter were pregnant from rape - incestuous or otherwise. Then I figure, his opinion does not count for anything - he has no jurisdiction over a woman's body or soul. She alone can decide what is right for her.

Several woman in my close acquaintance in India have aborted either by choice or by force of circumstance. In every instance the burden of guilt has rested squarely on the woman. The man involved in the decision feels no obligation to share her anguish. His life moves on, even as the foreboding shadow of bad karma continues to haunt her.

As a divorced single mother, living in India was a continual strife against a society that refused to accept me within the bounds of my circumstances. I longed for a more hospitable refuge, more generosity of spirit, a place “Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit”

I believed that America was that which I sought and came here trusting my instincts. While I have always felt vindicated in my decision, I feel deeply disappointed that women don’t have it much better in this country than they do back home in India.

Men in America continue to tell women that they have a moral and religious obligation to be pro-life and yet the morning after contraceptive pill cannot be made available over the counter. Whereas the first edict emasculates her emotionally, the second forces her to relinquish control over her body and then suffer the consequences.

Like men in India they are quick to transfer the burden of guilt on the woman despite having contributed equally or more to the denouement. The unfairness of it all outrages me. This is not the “free”, “liberal” and “progressive” culture that I had sought and hoped to thrive in. Maybe I have mistaken apathy and nonchalance for acceptance of my way of life. A woman in India possibly enjoys more freedom in that she has access to the birth control pill even without a prescription, the laws do not make abortion illegal and finally religious zealots don’t pontificate relentlessly on the subject.

The raging pro-life versus pro-choice debate in America has given me perspective on India than comes from distance both physical and emotional. I am no longer sure if the standards I have applied to measure freedom, acceptance and progressiveness of a society are reasonable or even accurate.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Ratty Social Fabric

While updating the address book on my cell phone this weekend I realized that some names did not so much as ring a bell anymore. It took some spring cleaning before the list turned representative of the people I do keep in touch with even if on a very irregular basis. Where the name made sense, the work number was at least two jobs too old. Chances were, I looked it up from a post-it note stuck in my cube.

Not surprisingly therefore, several numbers I call frequently are not even on my address book - I've made do with the saved caller-ids without bothering to assign names. The state of my social fabric clearly leaves much to be desired. A constant visual reminder of where (not that an analysis of why would hurt) it is fraying would be most helpful. I'm hoping Gmail will do something similar with all of my e-mail contacts.

The Social Fabric is a representation of your social world, displayed as a single visual array on your cellular phone. It does not replace your address book or calendar but keeps you subtly informed about which relationships are prospering, which you have neglected, and the overall state of your social fabric. (photo to be credited to Steven Blyth)
via interaction-ivrea

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Conspiracy Of Marriage

Kristin Armstrong's opinion piece about marriage hits the nail on the head when she says :

Here is the truth as I see it: Marriage has the potential to erode the very fiber of your identity. If you aren't careful, it can tempt you to become a "yes woman" for the sake of salvaging your romantic dream. It can lure you into a pattern of pleasing that will turn you into someone you'll hardly recognize and probably won't like. I am warning you because I only wish someone had warned me.

Though she writes of lessons learnt as a celebrity ex-wife, the potential of marriage to erode a woman's (and in many cases a man's) identity is equal opportunity and applies to regular folk. When one partner's sense of self is irretrievably lost, the marriage is on the rocks - they are no longer interesting to themselves or their spouse. The end can come in that epiphany moment when the answer to the question "Who am I ?" turns out to be " I don't have a clue"

Friday, May 12, 2006

Relative Time

I always try to sneak upon J unawares while she's at daycare before the chorus of "J, your mom is here !" alerts her to my presence. Yesterday was different. There was a Mother's Day tea party and I was supposed to be there at 3:15. As luck would have it, last minute stuff came up at work and I could not arrive until 3:30. In my estimation, I was just a little behind schedule but definitely not late.

When I opened the door to her classroom I was nonplussed. Mine was the only unoccupied seat. J eyes were brimming with tears and a bunch of moms and Miss A were trying to placate her. It took many minutes of holding J close to me, explaining to her how I had got delayed before her smile broke through the tear-clouds like a ray of sun. On the way back home J said "I thought you would never come to my tea party but now I know why you were late. I'm not sad no more" A great burden was lifted off me to hear her say that.

Fifteen minutes of a harried adult's time had felt like eternity to a child. She may have been able to count to the nanosecond in her heart as she waited for an infinitely long time for me. She reminded me of how I had grown desperate to become a mother when in fact we had been married only a year. No logic or reason would convince me that I had all the time in the world. The days felt like deadweight until at last God granted me my heart's fondest desire.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Miniature Living

My friend E, has a microscopic ( and hence affordable) apartment in Boston. Once upon a time it used to be a fruit stand. Over the last several weeks she has made a home out of what sounds like an impossibly small place for one human and two cats to live in. A bed that converts into a desk for the computer seems just the thing for her.

She's been asking me to come visit her and insists that J and I will fit in "quite snugly" into her fruit stand apartment. I worry that we'll fit in so snug that it would take the demolition crew to come get us out of there. I'm not a McMansion person, but can't share E's passion for miniature living spaces - they give me claustrophobia.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Under Parenting

Today I overheard one parent tell another that they allow their seven year old play Grand Theft Auto. There was an audible gasp from the other parent. The guilty party said "He's too young to understand what's going on. I'll make him stop when he turns ten". Now was my turn to gasp. Later in the day I read the news about an eight year old girl being sexually assaulted by 1st and 2nd grade boys. I am still trying to recover from the numbness that the news brought on me - that could have been my little girl.

You prepare your children for pedophiles and other perverts - you assume they (the perpetrators) would be much older and stronger than your child. I thought I was being irrationally paranoid when I told J she may not kiss, hug or be kissed, hugged by any other kid at daycare- no exceptions. I made this rule for J the day she mimicked a coital "Oh Yeah" moan over and over again like she had learnt to from her buddy Billy. Nothing J has brought back from daycare has stunned me more than that.

Now, little Billy is a good kid with criminally negligent parents who are well on their way to making a train wreck of his life. The same is perhaps true of the parents of these underage molesters of the eight year old girl. As long as there are those among us who have orgasms loud enough for their children to hear and let them play AO video games, the rest of us who allow sanity to prevail over their primal instincts will have plenty to worry about.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Payday

I

At twenty three I imagined,
I could be free if I had money –
like the little bit it took
to buy five diamonds
and a pretty Geneve watch.
“When you earn you living
go buy those foolish trinkets”
My father once said.
It was not much more
than loose change for him
to grant me my harmless whim.
It was his habit to deny me
such and other “trinkets”
and my freedom to be
me, craft my life as I willed.
Go where my heart lead me.



II

At twenty three I imagined,
my first paycheck would
pry open my gilded cage.
I would no longer need
to conform or oblige,
or be arranged to marry
a “good” Bengali boy
of verifiable antecedent.
Not someone with dreamy eyes
who loved me with quiet fervor
only to be dismissed as
“an unsuitable adolescent crush”
I could wear my five
diamonds and watch
to feel richly fulfilled
on those ordinary days.


III

At twenty three I imagined,
I had come into my own.
I wore my hair in a chignon
for gravitas beyond my years.
Felt flushed with pride when
men held doors open for me
and addressed me ‘Ma’am”
Yet deep inside I felt pain.
My days at work were steeped
in mediocre mostly trivial pursuits.
I was forgetting what they
taught me in college and
learning to look busy,
while feeling empty
about how far I was from
where I longed to be.

IV


At twenty three I imagined
I would go buy five diamonds
with my first paycheck.
To prove to my father what
he would not even notice.
It was a short walk down a
tree-lined road to where monies
were doled. I stood voucher in hand
waiting my turn to be given
my three thousand something
in bills of fifty. I felt richer
than I ever did as I counted
what I had made for twenty
days of work. I had earned
my right to buy foolish trinkets -
five diamonds and a Geneve watch.


V

I twenty three I imagined,
I was a creature of circumstance
and could be liberated from ties
that bound when I earned my
daily bread. I did not know then
I would never go to the jewelry store
for my beloved trinkets – not that
first payday or ever after. Instead
I would save for rainy days that
would come visiting in due season.
I would trade diamonds for
a piece of candy – celebrate in solitude.
I did not know that one day, I would
have enough to last ten years of rain
and not have a dream left to dream,
or a cage left to pry open and flee.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Purely Jazz

J attended a performance by the local philharmonic orchestra yesterday and as with all firsts in her life, I was the one dizzy with excitement. The conductor was a young woman. From what I could tell from J's reactions, she liked the Rossini overture and the last movement of Brahms 1st symphony. The flashy piano improvisations for Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue did not impress her much. I could not help laughing to her remain seated frowning with disapproval as the pianist received a standing ovation from the audience.

On the way back home J asked me "Mommy can you take me to a jazz concert ?" She's been listening to weekend jazz and swing program on the radio for months and really looks forward to it. I told her she had just listened to a jazz concerto. She seemed disappointed at the news. Not that I know anything about jazz but I guess J likes it without classical pretensions served a la Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. So I still owe taking J to a real jazz concert.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Cooking Under Pressure

One desi's analysis of how the Opal Mehta snafu saved Kavvya's life is spot on. I cannot comment on how it is to grow up inside a model minority pressure chamber in America, but I can imagine it is as terrible as the author describes.

Parents back home are over-achieving and pushy. Academic and other success of their children are trophies on permanent display. There is not much to separate a high-achiever Indian kid and a performing monkey - except with the kid, the show never ends.

My kid is bigger, better, smarter than yours is a theme I am only too familiar with. I felt cooked, stewed and ready to be served by the end of high school except I was allowed to sneak out of the crock-pot before getting myself into a name brand college.

Successful parents are able to transfer the sum total of their pressures without any loss to the child - from then on the kid is a self-propelled machine that has two possible end states programmed - to make it or break it. At my college, I saw a suicide every year I was there - the shock quotient reduced over time. There was rampant drug addiction too though it had ceased to be characterized as problemo numero uno by the time I came of age.

It is not for nothing that I keep J and myself away from the desi community here - the brethren can shove her into the communal crock-pot so quick, that J won't know what hit her until she came out cooked beyond salvation, spelling aardvark to zuchetto in her dreams.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

ET Staying Home

I don't remember ever reading news (at least in mainstream media) of alien sightings or abductions yet such events are routinely reported in the UFO-friendly publications. When it does get some coverage in the regular world, the reporting is rife with skepticism as Frank Warren's article UFO ignorance points out.

George Miller (
assistant professor in the department of psychology at University of New Mexico and author of The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature) has an interesting theory about why we don't meet aliens as much as we should. He opines :

"Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain's ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels…ever so good."

Friday, May 05, 2006

Stories In Motion

I had read a review of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” in the late 80s. I’m not sure why the name of the author and the book stuck to my memory like a burr – I had until then been unfamiliar with both. The reviewer described Maupin one of the first of a new breed of openly gay authors the appeal of whose stories lay in their inclusiveness.

Having not so much as one non-conformist bone in my body, his comfort and confidence in his “non-mainstream” identity fascinated me. The review included a short excerpt from one of the stories. Reading it left me with something like an unexpected sugar high. I was not nearly satiated and wanted much more. In my little town, the most I could hope to get of a newly published book was its review. The most recent book our local library was published twenty years ago. Of course I got my fill of 18th and 19th century classics but modern literature remained far out of reach. Maupin got added to my long list of “authors I’d love to read if I ever got a chance”.

Last week while browsing aimlessly around the public library, I chanced upon the book and managed to read it over the weekend. Maybe watched (as in watching a movie) describes the reading experience much better. The stories are so visually alive that you want the characters to be on screen instead of on paper. Each chapter could be an episode or a self contained short story. You are satisfied with the denouement for the present and yet stay tuned for more – which is a familiar audience response pattern to a favorite sitcom.

I wondered if the gradual progression of Maupin’s uber-tale through each story made that feeling possible. I compared it to reading a Roald Dahl’s collected short stories - as a reader I am fully satisfied by reading, I feel no need for visual translation to enhance that satisfaction. Each Dahl story is proudly sovereign. It does not depend on the rest to progress a larger theme – there is no larger theme. Whereas Dahl’s is a personal and intimate conversation that you don’t want to be distracted from, you want to “watch” Maupin with food and friends and have a good time.

Whereas Dahl allows a peek into his fantastic world, Maupin is throwing a party that welcomes gate crashers. In summary, a very fun and unusual short story experience. I’m very glad I remembered the name Maupin all these years.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

India Revealed

I found the portrayal of lesbianism in Deepa Mehta's "Fire" very contrived. Seemed to me more like a device for controversy and resultant publicity. Shabana Azmi's acting was awesome as always but did not lend much credence to Mehta's lesbian angle. That said, I won't be in any hurry to watch her latest offering "Water".

Apparently Mehta's strategy for promoting her movies remains unchanged. The
NYT review of the movie by Elisabeth Bumiller, is as much an eye opener about India as Mehta's movie I am sure would be.

She says :

"This is the disturbing India of the Hindu widow, a woman traditionally shunned as bad luck and forced to live in destitution on the edge of society. Her husband's death is considered her fault, and she has to shave her head, shun hot food and sweets and never remarry. In the pre-independence India of the 1930's, the tradition applied even to child brides of 5 or 6 who had been betrothed for the future by their families but had never laid eyes on their husbands."

If I am reading this right, she is depicting modern day widows in India here and saying the only thing that has changed from the 1930s is the average age of the widow. For some reason, western media throws editorial diligence to the winds when there is so much as a hint of bad news to report about India. There is nothing like a dozen "satis" burning atop a pyre to singe the wings of the "emerging superpower". The subtext reads "The invisible millions beyond the shiny, modern face of the technology powerhouse still lives in the dark ages. This is a story of India's shame"

According to Bumiller :

The sorrowful film is nonetheless a triumph of conscience over blind faith, and a powerful message about how much, and how little, has changed in India. "I think it's slightly naïve for me to think that films make a difference," Ms. Mehta, the director, said in a telephone interview from Toronto, where she lives half the year, when she is not in New Delhi. "But what it can do is start a dialogue and provoke discussion."

Mehta's chosen vehicle for provoking discussion and dialogue is so wrong in so many ways that I can't even begin to count. Had this been a news story or a documentary that reached the farthest backwaters of India, it may have made a difference. Please Ms. Mehta, spare us the platitudes and stop insulting our intelligence. A Lisa Ray, John Abraham starrer to "provoke discussion" on the state of underprivileged widows ? Come on, give us a break. Unlike Elisabeth Bumiller, we are desi and know the score.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Turning Brown

My cousin Mimi wore brown on her brother's wedding because she wanted to be understated. At Indian weddings, the sister of the groom is perhaps the most over-dressed person after the bride and here was Mimi in a dull, depressing shade of brown several shades lighter than her deep brown eyes. She could as well have come to a funeral. We had to field questions from inquisitive guests about her "unusual" attire all evening.

She used to be my favorite little sister - Mimi of sparkling eyes, pretty smile and quick wit. I don't recall exactly when all of that changed for the color brown to take over her life. She stopped singing. I don't remember what her laughter sounded like. Increasingly that was the only color she wore - to her the color of understatement. I was not aware that Mimi had ever been guilty of overstatement.

Her love of brown extended to rich chocolate cake, coffee, leather satchels and a mood of melancholy that approximated the bleak season when trees turn leafless - an endless sea of brown. Because of Mimi, brown came to be associated with sadness and loss for me. I no longer recall what it meant to me before it turned synonymous with Mimi. Because of her, I panic when my wardrobe starts to become dominated by any one color. I make haste to break the pattern, throw some randomness in. Because of her, I know I can't let a color overpower me.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Sensory Deprivation

When my mother cooked fish, a stray cat would materialize out of nowhere on the kitchen window sill meowing plaintively. Soon thereafter some crows would gather in the courtyard outside interspersing meows with their raucous cawing. Until medical researchers wised up to the many ills of mustard oil, it was the favored cooking medium for frying fish. The other thing used in liberal portions was turmeric .

The smell was overpowering and definitely an acquired taste. After all was done, the maid would mop the kitchen with with soapy water and all the windows would be opened to let sunlight in. A combination of Dettol, sunlight, water and cross ventilation took care of all kitchen odors. We never had to deny ourselves the pleasure of a favorite food because of the odor it produced.


In the last seven years, I have never cooked fish in my mother’s style. It would take professional cleaners to get rid of the smell. My recipes are modified to work in an apartment kitchen. The end product is not nearly the soul food that my mother served. When I first came to America I wondered why it made sense to have wall to wall carpeting instead of flooring that could be mopped with soap and water as I had seen done back home. Or why no apartment had cross ventilation – so you could stay cool on a summer day without air conditioning. Or why natural light was not used more inside homes.

Maybe I was bringing a tropical sensibility into a colder climate. Not to mention my world view of thrift where conspicuous waste and consumption are the norm. As a transplant to a foreign country you make so many adjustments to fit in, denying your palate the tastes you loved and grew up with seems a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things. Yet the primacy of food is undeniable – it soothes the body and soul. It has much to do with feelings of well being and happiness. Why else would we congregate at our ethnic grocery stores and pay ungodly prices for a taste of home.

It is ironic that I strive as hard as I do to keep the air around me sterile and odorless while longing so much for the full blooded smells of home. This is sensory deprivation created by artificial barriers between nature and my living space – something that did not exist back home so many years ago. The summer heat, yowling cat and the dust from the courtyard made their presence equally known indoors.

Monday, May 01, 2006

On Life Hacks

I watched Tuesdays with Morrie last evening. The story is nice but a little too saccharine and Hallmarkesque for my taste. All the life hacks you will ever need in a notebook is too simplistic. Were that true or even possible, we would have no incentive left to learn and grow from our experiences. It is somewhat akin to resorting to religion unquestioningly for all that ails us and arriving at less than optimal to incorrect conclusions.

My personal struggles with family, relationships, marriage, divorce and motherhood has shown me conclusively that one size does not fit all. Blessed as I have been with many mentors in my life, even their collective wisdom could not prepare me for my individual and therefore unique circumstances. I have sometimes felt the need for a religious guru (maybe an euphemism for an emotional crutch) – the guiding light who has wisdom and depth of knowledge to interpret religious teachings and show me how it applies to my situation.

Yet in not having one, I have come to depend on my self and find answers on my own. A notebook can take you only so far. It is a good idea to have one but foolhardy to assume that it is all you will need to live your life well.

For instance, my notebook on motherhood culled from a diversity of trusted sources does not answer a very simple question – "Will J sit through this movie or walk away bored ?" Each time is a surprise and a revelation for me. Whereas, Shrek, The Secret Garden and Lion King did not make the grade, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ( I am almost postive that she would have not liked the more recent Johnny Depp version), Narnia, some Arthur and Friends, and My Louisiana Sky did. Unless there is adult or disturbing content in a movie, I let J watch what I am watching. Very rarely has she walked away from a "big person" movie.

I find that puzzling given she does not follow the dialog and the themes are not child friendly. J will sometimes come up with her own understanding of the story based on the visuals. She seems to gravitate towards what I find interesting but when it comes to a "little person" movie she makes choices very independently. That I enjoyed Lion King did not prevent her from walking away to play with her toys.

I wonder if J feels she is empowered to like or dislike any "little person" movie because it was made for her and she can make her choices at will. Not so for a "big person movie" where she seems content to follow my lead. Its like "It's a big person movie, Mommy is a big person, she likes the movie so it must be good and I must like it too". The same is true about music. She will give Rashid Khan, Bhimsen Joshi and Handel a patient hearing even when her first instinct is to listen to something more accessible to her. She believes me when I say "This is the kind of music that you will love with time even if you don't like it at first."

In time J will make choices that she does not feel like she is able to make now. It will reflect in the clothes she wears, the music and cinema she likes, the relationships she forms, keeps or breaks. Some of these early influences will wear off, some will linger on to grow stronger. What stays and what goes will be determined by her alone. The sum total of her personality would be shaped by forces I can only partly control less direct. No notebook can tell me what I must and must not do to mould her to be the replica of my dreams. She will in the end become the person she is destined to be and without much help from me or my notebooks.