Saturday, March 31, 2007


Learnt a great new word from reading this essay by an self-confessed over-involved dad - 'dadolescent'. Turning that gender neutral would give us parentolescent. Over zealous parents must have existed since time immemorial but only when the average number of kids in the household came down two or less did its full force come to bear.

Today's parents will pull words out of Vanity Fair magazine while waiting in the dentist's office to prep their kid for the spelling bee, nearly fall off their seats in their enthusiasm over their progeny's efforts on stage or on the playground with decibel levels to match. They will bore friends and family to tears by recounting the latest and greatest on their child's impressive roster of accomplishments every time they get an opportunity.

Enrolling kids to everything imaginable and possible is another venerated sign of adequate parenting and peer pressure to outdo the soccer mom next door is real and oppressing. You begin to second guess yourself and sign your child up for just about anything so her days would not go by fruitless and empty.

Spare time in a child's life is the enemy that must be stamped out with finality. The mantra seems to be : keep the kids so busy that they have no time to be up to no good. The general idea is that if you shove them in many random directions like a human cannon ball going off in the dark, sometimes they will strike the bulls eye; something will stick in the end. That would be your prize.

You have to keep trying until that happens or your little cherub is old enough to say "Quit trying to run my life like a project" whichever comes first. The dadolescent in the essay was trying to be uber-dad who is there in body and spirit for his son all the time. He tries desperately hard to do right by his boy, overcompensate lest he be viewed as distant and aloof. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing even when being a good parent:

There is today an epidemic of dads who won't let go – helicopter fathers, some call them, because they're always hovering. They try too hard, care too much, fret incessantly. You see these guys in a frenzy of parental concern, building backyard batting cages for their kids, hiring tutors and coaches, second-guessing teachers, or enrolling them in placekickers school when they're 9.

There was a time when one of the worst things you could say about a father was that he was distant and aloof, that he was never there for his kid. But my generation, having become fathers, seems bent on guaranteeing that we'll never be accused of not having time for our kids. We'll never miss a school play or a T-ball game, never let our kids navigate a single experience alone

Friday, March 30, 2007


McDonald's may even sue the OED to take McJob out of the dictionary but that will likely not help the cause of the word itself - a McJob will remain a McJob complete with all depreciatory connotations until the nature of a McDonald's job fundamentally alters.

Its interesting how a word after being around for a while acquires a life of its own and not even purging it from the dictionary will kill it. In fact, the use McPower to bully OED would make the McJob even more Mc (if there is such a thing). Taking the OED by the horns may be one thing, but the power of the masses these days is vested in Wikipedia where a McJob after a disclaimer about neutrality is described thusly:

McJob is
slang for a low-paying, low-prestige job that requires few skills and offers very little chance of intracompany advancement. Such jobs are also known as contingent work. The term McJob comes from the name of the fast-food restaurant McDonald's, but is used to describe any low-status job - regardless of who the employer is - where little training is required, staff turnover is high, and where workers' activities are tightly regulated by managers. Most perceived McJobs are in the service industry, particularly fast food, coffee shops, and retail sales. Working at a low paying job, especially one at a fast food restaurant, is also often referred to as flipping burgers.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Old Days

At dinner time today, I was telling J about how I never saw a computer or a television when I was her age. She giggled "That sounds like Abraham's Lincoln's time" and asked "Did you live in houses when you were young ?" I figured she must have learnt that early man lived in caves. I said "Yes, that I did". She sighed in obvious relief "Thank goodness".

In J's world view very little separates my childhood from that of Cro-Magnon man's. Maybe the advances in technology over the last few decades have been impressive and significant enough to close the gap between Paleolithic times and the pre-Internet era to a several thousand years instead of several million years.

Reading this essay about fountain pens made me nostalgic for those days from so long ago that it seems like prehistory to my child. I could not agree more with the author when he says:

In times of Biros and BlackBerrys, it may well be tempting to dismiss the fountain pen as anachronistic. But it is precisely in reaction to the prevalence of the high-tech in people’s lives that “nostalgic” products are now so popular.

“The fountain pen is about deceleration – it helps you to think deeper and move more slowly,” says Heinrichsdorff. “And we all need that sometimes. Goethe described ink as ‘liquid thoughts’. And I think he was right.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

This And That

Nice blog post about the perils of using social media for politics. The one saving grace is that the "offending" ad is context sensitive and will most likely go away in a bit to be replaced by one for Jenny Craig diets maybe leaving the readership part confused and part amused. One hopes amid all the noise and confusion, Obama is still able to reach out to his constituents.

Another one a about why its an
amazing stroke of good luck to be caught burgling in Austria and be imprisoned. The prison cell is beautiful ! However, gaining admittance is no cake walk: And even if you’d like to go, the place is booked to capacity: 205 “prisoners” at the moment. It’s probably harder to get into this place than it is for a woman to join the Vienna Philharmonic.

A story about use of social media gone very awry. In which a man in goaded into
cyber-suicide by the mobs in a chatroom. This would be a repulsive modern day version of a gladiatorial combat where spectators will be satisfied with no less than a death.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Armchair Traveler - Rahul's Story

When her mother named her Jacaranda, the in-laws were not pleased. What kind of name is that asked her mother-in-law scornfully. Chandni would have been the right name for her. The girl was born on a full moon night. But Jacaranda she remained. A large part of the first three years of her life were spent at her cousin Rahul's home.

Rahul was three years older than her and was delighted to have a baby sister he could spoil rotten. From being a self absorbed and a somewhat spoilt brat he turned giving and generous willing to share everything he had with her including his precious toy train. He would save the snack his mother packed for school and bring it home to feed the then toothless Jacaranda. He adored his Little Sister more than anyone else.

The next ten years Rahul and Jacaranda met only twice. Once when their grandfather passed away and the other time when their uncle got married. Even at sixteen Rahul found his little cousin just as adorable as she was as a baby. He still wanted to spoil her. He still loved her more than anyone else he knew. She loved reading and he was eager to talk to her about books, specially his favorites and introduce her to the writers he loved.

You have to read Edgar Allan Poe he insisted. He learnt foreign languages and spent hours at the library reading about countries he hoped to visit one day. Every summer he had a new country personality. The French summer he had learnt enough to read and write in French, had made a French pen friend and introduced Jacaranda to French folk music.

I want to go to America so I can savor the cultures from around the world in one place he would tell her. She had a question about her math homework and he showed her three different ways she could solve the same problem. He became her hero. Rahul went back to boarding school and Jacaranda returned home with her parents. I will write letters to you, Rahul promised.

He wrote about his friends, his teachers, his dreams and his fears. Sometimes he wrote a little poem and asked her for her opinion. He encouraged her to write as well assigning her an essay or a poem or maybe a book review. Though they did not see much of each other, the letters helped them stay connected and close.

Sudeshna came into his life in the first year of college. She was warm, funny, intelligent and really believed that Rahul had a future as a writer. The only other person who thought that was Jacaranda but she was just a doting little sister. As much as Rahul valued her opinion he could not take her admiration for his writing too seriously. Sudeshna and Rahul were officially "going steady" at the end of their second year in college. His communication with Jacarnda tapered off over time until a year had passed since he last wrote to her.

He saw her again after years at his wedding with Sudeshna. Aren't you going to America like everyone else ? he asked her. My parents want me to get married first. How hard can that be ? he laughed. Harder than you think she replied. What about you and Sudeshna ? Jacaranda asked. I want to but Sudeshna does not. I could get a full ride too he replied. So what gives ? Jacaranda asked surprised. Her mother is dying of cancer, so she needs to stay in the city. Maybe in a few years Rahul said with a tinge of resignation in his voice.

They have been married ten years now. Sudeshna does not want children . Her mother is still alive though very precariously. Rahul's study is filled with books and music. Sudeshna works long hours, often travels out of town. She encourages him to write full time so he can publish his first novel. He suspects she has a lover. She does nothing to dispel this notion.

When he talks about having a child, she is quick to say How can we raise a child in this day and age on one income ? He has grown so used to staying at home absorbed in reading and writing that he no longer knows how to get a job. It is ten years since he had one. He gets freelance assignments sometimes but has to depend on Sudeshna's income. Infact he would not be able to buy all the books he does without it. He loves her dearly and imagines she does too despite having a lover.

Jacaranda lives in America. She has a busy life. He e-mails her sometimes but the communication is nothing like what they had in their childhood. They inhabit worlds so far apart that they no longer understand each other's language. He misses his Little Sister. Maybe, if they could talk again like they once could, he could tell her about Sudeshna, the pain she causes him from being emotionally absent from their marriage, about how he felt trapped in his favorite armchair reading about about the world outside his own - the quiet 10 feet by 12 feet study lined with books. Only Jacaranda would understand the guilt and shame of his parasitic existence which is retribution for both him and Sudeshna.

He longs to see America through Jacaranda's eyes,verify what he reads with what she sees.When he sets a short story in Manhattan he wants her to help him soak in the ambience of Central Park on a summer afternoon where his character is walking her Golden Retriever and contemplating suicide. Would she pick up her coffee from Starbucks and drop a full box of prescription pills from Duane Reade in it and wait for it to dissolve. Would that ring authentic to someone who lives there ?

Recently, Rahul's entry for a short story contest won a prize. He sent Jacaranda a link to it online. She was amazed at how intensely he had traveled from his armchair at home. In a misplaced sense he was living the American dream without having set foot in the country.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Music And You

If your music does say something about you, chances are the verdict changes over time. The music you liked as kid or a teen is not likely to be what you enjoy as an adult unless it is of sentimental value.

Social psychologists (two of them, at least) have jumped head first into the waters of music research, learning that our music says a lot about who we are, and that we can make pretty accurate judgments about what people are like based solely on the music they like.

Should that be true all it would take to understand someone would be to have them share their iPod playlist or find out where they tend to gravitate on musicovery. Sounds overly simplistic but it is usually hard for people with completely different tastes in music to find much common ground in any other area.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ten Signs

Reading the tell tale signs of commitment phobia in women was no epiphany for me. I have almost all of them and generally suspected that I have a great fear of getting into a bad situation - once bitten, twice shy and all that. Of the ten on the list, I identify most strongly with 4,5,8 and to some extent with 3.

1. You have a long and elaborate list of requirements for your ideal mate.
2. You go from one short-lived relationship to the next.
3. You have a habit of dating "unavailable" men.
4. You consider your married friends’ lives boring and think they settled for less.
5. You stay in relationships that are rocky and offer little hope of commitment.
6. You back out of plans at the last minute and have trouble setting a time for dates.
7. You cultivate large networks of friends at the expense of a single romantic relationship.
8. You have a lot of relationship trauma in your past.
9. Your career is very important to you and you often choose work over relationships.
10.You are constantly blowing “hot” and “cold” in your relationships.

Several of my girlfriends who are single moms in their 30s, do not really intend to remarry or even want to be in a long term committed relationship. Interestingly enough these seem to be goals they appear to be pursuing with some zeal or so they tell themselves. After much talk about commitment, engagement and the like, there is almost always a compelling reason not to take the final plunge.

Their twelve year old would get all confused with two dads competing for turf and attention, they are not emotionally ready to start a new family complete with another child plus thirty seven is too late for motherhood anyways. They can't deal with another bunch of in-laws. His ex is shrew and he's not fully over her yet. Finally status quo is safer more certain territory - why fix something that is not broke ?

It is common for these women to be surrounded by a bunch of likeminded girlfriends. They hang out with the gang making it difficult for the interested man to break into the clique, test the waters of the dating market tentatively at best, fully prepared to withdraw if it gets too complicated. Marriage no longer has any special significance to them mainly because their desire for motherhood is fulfilled.

It would seem like a man is useful only for purposes of procreation and quite disposable thereafter. This is not to minimize the pain that these women have been through in their marriage and relationships but it does seem that attaining motherhood acts as the deal breaker for a relationship already on the rocks.

Having achieved a new lease of life and a second shot at being single (and this time in no rush to marry) they no longer find it conceivable to settle for less, to cut corners or compromise in marriage. The dread biological clock factor no longer forces precipitate decisions. It also helps that men are so abundantly and readily available for short term flings.

The attitudes I speak of are more commonly seen in the west though the women in question can very well be from the east. I am sure as divorces become more common back home, women there will feel a lot like their sisters in the west. In a society that accepts their marital status (or the lack of it) so effortlessly, they are able to discover the distinct advantages of their circumstances and make the most of it. The combination of motherhood, unbridled freedom and not needing to adjust and compromise at every turn outweighs the value of the "married" tag for women who have had to pay a high price to come out of one.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Comfortably Home

Instead of making the most of small spaces as these winners of the smallest coolest apartments contest do, I choose to leave spaces empty wherever possible. For years now, I have lived a minimalist extremist life - paring away everything that can be lived without which as it turns out leaves very little behind. In return there is a permanent state of rootlessness and detachment from the places I have lived. Like a traveler in transit, I am always prepared to pack my bags and leave.

My friend Estelle has a very tiny apartment and chooses to make it as cozy as possible. Every last detail is attended to until house turns into home. She has been a nomad for far longer years than I have and yet unlike me at every stop she attempts to plant roots. She will reach out to her neighbors, get to know the community and for as long as she is there act like this is where she will be for the rest of her life.

She often asks me why I don’t try a little harder to make the transient state more comfortable. I don't know which is harder, shallow roots that don't hurt to pull out or deep ones that cause pain but compensate by providing the shade and succor a true home is supposed to.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Escape From Parlin - Archana's Story

Archana became a window at the age of twenty four when her daughter Rashmi was a year old. From the comfortable life of well placed civil servant's wife, with a fleet of domestic help at her beck and call , she and her child had to become a burden on her brother's family - or at least that is how she viewed her situation. The widow's pension was decent but not enough to afford independence. She had no education to speak of and could not hope to find any reasonable employment.

Rashmi grew up with her cousins in her uncle's household as her mother made herself indispensable in the kitchen. Archana got along very well with her sister-in-law and considered that a blessing. Her brother pushed the kids hard to study and make good grades. At twenty five Rashmi got married to Sameer, her sweetheart from the college years. It was the early 60s and recession in the job market had made it impossible for them to aspire for more than their low paying jobs at a nationalized bank. They decided to immigrate to America and take their chances.

Archana first came to America when Rashmi was pregnant with her first child. Within days of her arriving, a few of Rashmi and Sameer's friends came home for dinner. One of the women, drew Archana aside and said I hope you don't mind me asking, but is Rashmi your biological daughter ? I have never seen a mother and daughter look so dramatically unlike.

She had merely echoed the thoughts of almost everyone who saw Rashmi and Archana together. Archana at fifty was still classically beautiful - soft spoken, perfectly proportioned, light skinned, fine featured and fragile like a porcelain doll. There was an unmistakable stamp of aristocracy in everything about her. When she walked into a room, people noticed.

Rashmi was raucous to the point of being obnoxious. In her late twenties, her curves were all in the wrong places, with her outlandish hairstyle and clothes, double chin, uneven features and loud makeup she managed to look ugly effortlessly. Back in India, everyone pitied her and her widowed mother and wondered how she would ever find a husband - in addition to her many "flaws" she was many shades too dark to be suitable wife material. When Sameer came along, Archana had heaved a huge sigh of relief.

In the weeks that followed, more friends came to visit and the incredulity about how one like Archana could beget a child like Rashmi was palpable though it was never even verbalized by anyone else. Rashmi became surly after the guests left and snapped at her mother at the least provocation. When her grand-daughter was born Archana took over all the domestic chores. She decided it was best to stay busy and out of Rashmi's way for the rest of her stay but it proved impossible not to incur her wrath. Sameer tried to be civil.

Six months had passed before Archana talked about wanting to go home and Rashmi said, You think we went through all the trouble to get you a green card so you could up and leave any time you wanted ? You'll be staying here for a while. I have to get back to work and I won't leave the child at daycare. What are you going to do in India anyways ? Haven't you slaved in your brother's kitchen enough ?

So Archana stayed on. Another child was born. Sameer had decided it was easier to follow his wife's example and treated her like she was their servant. She had grown accustomed to having her daughter and son-in-law give her instructions on what to cook for dinner and what chores to complete before she went to bed. Her days started at five in the morning and ended past midnight. She tried to count her blessings. She had a room of her own in Parlin, NJ. The grandchildren loved her. She had warm clothes for winter and never went hungry.

She was forbidden to answer the phone or come into the living room when there were guests. Anything she said to an outsider could stir up a huge argument so over time Archana learnt to keep silent. If Rashmi ever caught her watching TV she would berate her What are you watching ? You don't understand English. Why don't you go to your room and read one of your books. She referred to the two books she had brought with her twenty years ago to read on the plane. Archana wrote letters to family in India that she suspected were never mailed. She was prisoner in her own child's home and there was no way to escape.

Every night before going to bed, she prayed to Lord Krishna to rescue her. Often she cried from sheer desperation and hopelessness. Years ago she had become an US citizen. She wondered about her rights as a citizen but there was no way for her to find out unless she talked to someone. The neighbors were nice people and Archana longed to reach out to them for help. But she was terrified of what Sameer and Rashmi might do if they found out.

One year when both kids were in college, Rashmi and Sameer needed to go to India for a couple of weeks quite unexpectedly. Archana could not be left alone in America with the kids so far away from home. They had to take her along. Archana had been warned not to cause trouble while in India and she knew that was a thinly veiled threat of the consequences of trying to get help. Her prayers of twenty five years were answered Rashmi's cousin Suchitra came to meet them at the airport. Archana was able to slip a letter for her brother into her hand just as she was getting ready to leave.

She knew she had managed to escape from Parlin at last when her brother and sister-in-law arrived at their hotel the following day. Her brother said to Sameer and Rashmi, I challenge you two to stop me from taking my sister back with me. Archana's American nightmare was over at last.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Happy Woman

Geraldine Bedell’s essay on what makes the modern woman happy makes for very interesting reading. There are a million ways for women to find short term happiness in today's world but finding true and long term happiness is not as easy. As Bedell says :

Most Indo-European languages make some distinction between short-term pleasure and more persistent happiness (so in Italian, for example, between gioa and felicita) and it is the latter - not the passing moments, but a single and lasting state - that seems so elusive.

Choice overload causes both fatigue and confusion. When taking a multiple choice test, it is easy to pick one out of three and have a fair chance of getting it right. With fifteen options it is much harder. Likewise with several hundred channels to choose among when you want to watch TV for a half an hour. Women want to keep their choices, retrogression to an earlier, simpler, choice-less time is not even an option. Just like going back to one hour a day of state run TV programming is not.

The comparison between journal entries of two teenagers, one from 1892 and the other from 1982 tells a lot about the shift in women's priorities and what that means for her ability to find true happiness and be at peace with herself.

A typical diary entry from 1892 reads: 'Resolved not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and action. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself in others.'

By 1982, this was a typical teenager: 'I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can with the help of my budget and my babysitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good make-up, clothes and accessories.'

Whereas the goals of the 1892 teen did not require resources that she did not have access to, the 1982 girl is no longer in control of what it would take to make her happier. It will take a lot of external agencies to fulfill her goals and in that the stage is set for disappointment and unhappiness.

And finally, there is the identikit of a happy woman in today's world :

So what does a happy woman look like? She's probably in a romantic, generous relationship; is surrounded by family she is fond of, or by friends; works part-time or for herself and has plenty of autonomy and control over her time; is involved in the community; has activities or projects outside herself which are consuming and which provide her with a sense of flow; is physically active and has a more or less spiritual sense of something valuable beyond herself.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Single And Thriving - Piyali's Story

Piyali graduated from JNU at twenty two. Delhi had been her first taste of freedom from the cloistered ancestral home at Ballygunge, Calcutta. Her parents were readying to get her married and had already lined up a few prospects for her to meet. Piyali was soft-spoken, pretty, light-skinned and "slightly plump". In her Bengali milieu she would be considered perfect wife material. So when she announced that she wanted to take the GRE, the family was a little perplexed. Mother blamed father for letting her go to JNU when she could have just as easily gone to Jadavpur. Had she been home, they may have been able to find her a match by now.

She arrived in New York to attend an obscure school mainly so she could live in the city. When it came time to find room-mates her cheapest option turned out to be a man in his forties, who had recently gone back to school full time. Her parents did not learn of the rather unusual living arrangements but then neither did they know much about her life in Delhi. Knowing how easily they were shocked and outraged, Piyali had developed a parent and family friendly persona which had little in common with the person she really was.

The years flew by quickly. At twenty eight, Piyali was working on her PhD and had moved to Tennessee. On a trip home to India, her parents introduced her to Gautam , an IT professional who lived and worked in Memphis. Seeing more and more of her childhood friends getting married and becoming mothers made her feel left out - specially on these trips home. It did not help, that she had gone from being "slightly plump" to officially over-weight. That combined with her age and years spent alone in America had rendered her quite unacceptable in the middle class Bengali marriage market. She was almost relieved to find someone who wanted to talk to her about the possibility and potential of marriage.

Back in Tennessee, she and Gautam quickly got into a pattern of meeting at her place or his place every other weekend. He introduced her to his friends in Memphis as his fiancée though he had never formally proposed to her. The families back in Calcutta worked through the logistics of the wedding ceremony that could happen only six months later when they could both take two to three weeks off. It was a time of happiness and contentment. Shopping for housewares and furniture on the weekends with Gautam, Piyali sometimes forgot that they were not yet married. He had cleared half of his closet to make room for her things. They were proud of having found the perfect way to combine eastern and western traditions in this "arranged to date" situation that they had going. That it had the blessing of both families was wonderful.

The day they were supposed to go get their marriage license in Memphis, they had a small argument over breakfast at Gautam's apartment. It was about tea and coffee about how tea was the real Bengali deal whereas coffee was something acquired from living in America. Piyali disagreed. She always hated tea and loved coffee - and black coffee at that. It did not make her less Bengali. In an hour, the tiff had ballooned into something very serious. Gautam called home where both sets of parents were waiting to congratulate them. He explained to his mother that the differences between him and Piyali were of a magnitude that a marriage between them would never work out. He was wanting out with immediate effect.

It took Piyali months to reconcile with what had happened that morning. She remembered him loading her car with all of her belongings from the closet, them shaking hands as Gautam expressed regret at how things had ended and wished her good luck. It was an out of body experience, like he was speaking to someone who looked like her as she stood aside watching. She knew it would be a lifetime before she could trust anyone again or feel excited at the thought of marriage. Her parents were devastated and for once her mother admitted she was very glad Piyali was not in Calcutta, the social pressures would be too much to deal with after such a fiasco. The relatives would simply not quit asking uncomfortable questions.

At thirty two, Piyali had a PhD appended to her name and taught in a small state college in Oregon. Her tiny apartment was tastefully decorated with Ikea furniture , rugs and wall hangings from India. The Capresso coffee machine on her kitchen countertop was her pride and joy. Her circle of friends had grown over the years so there was always somewhere to visit on the long weekends and other vacations. Her place was the favored destination for impromptu potluck dinners with colleagues from the university. A lot of former students would drop in too.

She missed having a partner and children but she did not feel despair - life was full and happy just the way it was thought it could always get better. Coming to America had once been about a masters degree and a chance to live in NYC. Today, it is what allows Piyali to enjoy her singleness at thirty two and not feel like a social aberration. It makes not wanting to marry until she is emotionally ready for it perfectly acceptable. Gautam had been married and divorced. When he called her a few months ago to say "Hello" and talk about giving them a second chance, Piyali was proud of herself for being able to decline graciously and wishing him good luck in his search. She found it rather interesting that his ex-wife was Bengali and used to be a Starbucks junkie.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Paper Modeling

I love the utter simplicity of paper prototyping for user interface design. I've seen wire frames scrawled on white board, done in PowerPoint or Visio and using sophisticated modeling tools but never in paper cut-outs. Given the inherent fluidity of business requirements and short time to market whatever your tool, it should lend itself to change relatively effortlessly and with input from several sources. Paper sounds perfect for this.

I also like it that : you can also use paper prototypes to run a technology-free design meeting: turn off your laptops, stop checking your e-mail, and focus on the task at hand. Getting all hands on board for the duration of a design session is incredibly hard with so many e-distractions. You end up burning the hours and producing documentation that does not represent the team's best output.

Working with real things like paper, scissors, pen and glue stick is likely to increase involvement with the task at hand and also aid problem solving - kindergarten teachers swear by tactile and visual learning tools. Going back to basics could not hurt.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Toxicity And Gender

Priya's comment on my blog post Toxic Wife got me thinking. She wrote :

.. God knows few men are protective of their wives these days, with women being pressured to be all and do all. Let's not lose those few :)

As women get into formerly male dominated careers, earn more than their spouses and balance career and motherhood with what appears to be consummate ease, the pressure is on them is to continue "to be all and do all". Men don't see a need for them to protect and nurture someone who clearly has no need for either. The traditional husband role becomes more symbolic, titular and ritualistic rather than real or necessary.

Back in the day, the man of the family expected to have his wife wait on him after he got home exhausted from earning a day's living. Today's wife will often make enough money to raise a family and have plenty left over, help the kids with their homework and still have time to set a hot dinner on the table. A man in her life who waits to be served becomes acutely aware of his on incompetence not to mention redundancy.

I have wondered if having a financially and emotionally independent wife has an emasculating influence on men. When the woman encroaches upon territory that was once exclusively a man's, she must acquire some gender traits that go along with. To the same extent, the man who must "abrogate" in her favor must loose them or even imbue feminine traits to be able to adapt in his new environment and circumstances. If both genders were comfortable in the reorganized territory and all that it entailed, all would be well for marriage and relationships.

Reading this story about estrogen-like pollutants changing male frogs to female frogs seems to bring the theme of toxicity and its effect on gender and gender roles full circle.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Putting Trash To Work

Ran into this old news story on TOI about the enticement used by malls in Pune to lure shoppers. Trade the trash gathering dust in your home for shopping coupons. This is like a perpetual motion machine, shopping propelling yet more shopping - you just have to start the event in motion and the rest takes care of itself. Since controlling consumerism is not too realistic, this is a good way to recycle the excesseses of consumption.

The model seems highly likely to work in America where the average household is fighting a losing battle against growing piles of "stuff" no one needs. Community colleges offer courses on clutter management. While emptying the contents of an average self-storage unit can fuel a whole lot of shopping by way of junk redeemed for coupons, retail bussinesses and credit card companies would rather shoppers spent money than barter old goods for new. Thanks to eBay, closets do pay for themseleves if they carry a bunch of designer and limited edition labels.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


HBO's Addiction documentary is about the real nature of addiction and how it is a brain disorder that can be treated with medication. It also shows how popular stereotypes about drug addicts stand in the way of their recovery. Instead of being treated like any other patient with a medical condition, they are isolated and discriminated against.It is no surprise that insurance companies want to wash their hands off addicts as quickly as possible leaving their condition untreated and making them vulnerable to relapse and even death.

When it comes to teenage addicts, it is often a foregone conclusion that it is the result of significant parenting lapses. Not only does the addicted teenager become a social pariah, the family is viewed as lacking in some fundamental way. The story of addiction, the struggle against odds to overcome has in it a lesson in society's inherent Darwinism. It lionizes winners and shuns losers and leaves them behind to fend for themselves believing that to the best course of action for the greater good.

It is about the "normal" majority thinking in terms of "us" versus "them" and that addiction is "their" problem. The message the series tries to convey is that there is very little that separates "them" and "us"; and that ignorance about addicts and addiction can hurt those who think it cannot touch them. Besides, society as a whole pays a price for its lack of empathy.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Home Together - Sejal and Sajid's Story

When Sejal met Sajid in their college cafeteria, the spark of connection was instant. At eighteen, these things tend to be strong and overwhelming. She was studying English Literature, and he was doing Economics. After that first meeting, where most notably Sajid said something so funny that Sejal splattered a mouthful of tea on his shirt as she laughed uncontrollably, they could not have enough of each other's company.

Sajid's dad supplied auto parts to car and truck makers around the country. His only other sibling was a kid sister ten years his junior. His father was waiting for him to finish college so he could help out in the business. Both Sejal's parents taught at a local college - one History and the other Math. Her two older sister were married with kids.

When they first started skipping classes to go to the movies, it was more in the spirit of truancy than romance. The spark had been felt but not recognized for what it truly was. They had quickly become best friends. There were no secrets and nothing was too personal to share. This was a one of kind experience for both of them. Neither had ever been quite as comfortable with anyone else. The future and any plans for it was farthest from their minds.

When Sajid turned twenty, his mother broached the subject of Nausheen, his third cousin. Her question was fairly innocent. What do you think of Nausheen ? Sajid replied honestly that he never had never thought about her. But she is so breathtakingly beautiful his mother persisted. Sajid said he had never noticed what Nausheen looked like. Do you like someone else ? his mother asked grimly. It was at that moment that he realized that had been in love with Sejal for over two years and telling his parents would cause a huge domestic upheaval. He was Muslim and she was Hindu. He had walked away from the conversation that evening without responding to her question.

The next day, he asked Sejal, Do you love me enough to marry me ? and Sejal replied Yes. Unlike most couples, this expression and acceptance of the true nature of their relationship did not bring joy to either of them. Sejal's parents would not accept Sajid as a son-in-law any more than his parents would accept Sejal. Both families would do everything in their power to prevent their marriage. They would have to escape if they ever hoped to build a home together.

Sajid's father was deeply disappointed to learn that he wanted to go to the US to pursue his masters. He did not see the point when there was a family business that needed help managing. What good will a foreign master's degree do ? You won't be working for anyone else he asked. Sajid said nothing. Sejal's parents were a little surprised by her desire to take the GRE and made it clear that they would not be able to afford much more than passage money. But what about marriage her mother asked. Sejal reasoned with her that a two year delay would not be the end of the world. She'd still be young enough and more eligble with a foreign degree.

Waiting for the consular officer's decision on their student visa was the most harrowing day of their lives. Sajid asked Sejal What will we do if one of us gets the visa and the other does not ? Sejal replied We should take that to be a sign from God that we should not try to be together. Sajid quipped Whose God, yours or mine ? I think they both want the same thing Sejal smiled. They both got their visas approved and to Sejal that was divine sanction for their marriage.

At the time of their marriage, their worldly goods included a few hand me down pots and pans, winter clothes from Goodwill, a beat up Nissan Sentra, a bunch of second hand books, Sejal's silver Lord Ganesh and Sajid's prayer mat that once belonged to his grandmother. It was with great trepidation that they informed their parents of their new found status. It was met with much shock, anger and indignation as they had expected. Both sides said that they did not recognize the marriage. The parents had formally severed ties with them .

While they had known the consequences of their actions all along, it took a while to accept they were now truly on their own, dependent on the kindness and camaraderie of strangers to have any semblance of a social life. Going back to India to visit with family was not an option until the families came around to accepting their decision.

America had allowed them to fulfill their desire to be together for life, but it had also made this a life of utter loneliness and isolation. The happy, carefree days of college in Pune was a dream they both liked to visit often. It was a time when they still had families who loved and cared about them. Now they felt like orphans. Sometimes Sajid asked Do you think we did the right thing ? and Sejal would reply Only time will tell. America was bitter sweet like the togetherness they had fought so hard to achieve. It defined both their escape and entrapment.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Partying Babies

Back at Sheetal's baby did not have to love disco to party hard and into the wee hours along with their parents. They believed children were always better served being with their parents irrespective of circumstances than left behind with baby sitters. They did not endorse the western world view.

I never understood what part of Bharatiya Parampara these folks so zealously supported leaving six and seven year olds unattended at the bar so they could mix left over drinks wily-nily with their soda and run upstairs to their rooms to play video games. Sheetal and Jay are hardly an exception. A lot of desi parents tow their children along like body appendages wherever they go. As the parents, chat and drink till 4:00 a.m., the kids fall asleep bored and exhausted all around the house. Saturday mornings don't start till one in the afternoon.

All around me, I see elementary school kids dressing and acting like teenagers. Childhood used to be a brief yet beautiful bridge between infancy and adolescence. Increasingly, it seems like parents and other adults in a child's life are intent on burning that bridge down with finality. J's classmate Kylie longs to be a big girl so she can drive a car and have a boyfriend just like her cousin Julie.

Her friend Alicia promises to serve drinks the next time she has a birthday party and have plenty of music to go along with it. At six years old you wonder if she knows what she's talking about until you see her do hip rolls and pelvic thrusts to something that sounds like Reggaeton. You worry if she had a pink lemonade or a daiquiri in mind when she said drinks.

Second graders at J's school have hair stylist appointments and wear clothes that would fit the "slutty" categorization for a woman. Barbie doll underwear waistband is the agent provocateur of kindergarten. Independent reading is apparently an optional skill for most of these kids. I feel like an anachronism raising a child like we still lived in the dark ages. I am not nearly up to speed on current mothering best practices and will most likely never catch up.

Child rearing seems to be a lost cause both in the East and the West these days. The old ways that served both cultures much better is no longer good enough. Makes you wonder what folks were thinking when they decided to tear down and rebuild something that was working just fine. For instance, what gap in a child's life was an adult trying to fill by taking her to a nightclub at naptime ?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Lettuce Safe

For years my grand aunt had a shabby little sack in which she kept her wedding jewelry. The sack stayed buried under a pile of coal in the backyard. In her backward coal-mining town, getting a safe deposit locker was not an option.

A lot of people kept their valuables at home and not surprisingly burglaries were commonplace. Some of us in the family knew her secret hiding place and I thought it was disingenuous of her to share - what if someone overheard and decided to raid the coal bin one night ? Reading about the iceberg lettuce safe reminded me of her.

Though her gold never got raided, it had to be sold to make ends meet. By the time she died there was nothing left to hide in the coal bin. Somehow, it always sounded like the wrong thing to store gold jewelry the way she did. Feng Shui experts would doubtless attribute that to her declining fortunes by way of diamonds turning to coal in the figurative sense at least.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Remote Higher Education

When MIT first made its courses available for free online, it seemed to the beginning of something big and path breaking. In a few years online home work help for American students from Indian tutors would become common and post 9/11 the immigration process would become such a theater of absurdity that a lot of Asians students would prefer to go home after completing their education in America. More recently, Asians with years of experience in the IT industry have started to return home along with their school age kids.

For a lot of kids growing up in Asia, a placement in an Ivy League school continues to be the stuff of dreams.
How tos on the subject have been written to become bestsellers. The lucky few that get a full ride to school or are rich enough to pay their way can make that dream come true but for many of the equally meritorious the price tag is an impossible hurdle between them and their destination.

Given the combination of circumstances, the logical next step seems that American universities would make most of the potential of a global classroom. Employ alumni with the right qualifications as offsite faculty to augment their on campus staff and reduce the barrier to entry by lowering the tution for foreign students willing to get an education remotely.

The diploma would read Harvard, the admission process would be just as stringent but the dream of an Ivy League education would come within reach of who are deserving. It would seem the right move for America to remain the higher-ed superpower. While establishing presence in foreign countries is a good start, it is not nearly the same as becoming instantly accessible to the best talent world wide.

Universities would acquire greater autonomy simply from being able to generate vast amounts of revenue on their own. Local kids who slave for years to pay off their humongous student loans would have the lower cost remote, off campus option. It is surprising that the field of education has not reaped the benefits that would seem obvious in a time of globalization and that the only way to an American education for a foreigner is still the dread F1 visa and all the pain that goes with it.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Life Support

Life Support is a story about a former cocaine addict who is also HIV positive who is trying to reach out to the community so they don't repeat mistakes she made and have to learn the hard way. She hands out condoms and literature whenever she meets someone who she thinks may be living dangerously.

In a way this is a coming of age story.
Though you never see Anna Wallace as a young person, you get the impression she must have been passionate and driven about whatever her heart was set on doing. In her youth, that may have been cocaine, now it is motherhood and activism. Whereas in youth her abundant energy worked destructively, the combination of age and a losing battle with the AIDS virus helped channeling it positively.

She is a devoted mother to her second child and tries very hard to make amends with her first born whose custody she lost due to her drug addiction. The new Anna is nothing like the old Anna but family and friends who knew the person she once was are unwilling or unable to make peace with her past and make room in their hearts for the present. Her struggle with to regain trust and respect from her immediate family is no less painful than her fight against the disease itself.

One of the most poignant scenes from the movie has the support group standing on the rooftop of a high-rise in Brooklyn floating red balloons to commemorate everyone they have lost to AIDs. Anna's oldest daughter Kelly and mother are there too to remember Kelly's friend Amare. It takes the death of a loved one brings the Anna closer to her family and for her to be able to love and let go at the same time as she must with Kelly who has decided to move to Virginia with her grandmother.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Greener Grass - Anil's Story

Anil came to the US five years ago from Nasik in India. He had trouble speaking without lapsing into Hindi words to fully express himself. Often, his American co-workers lost him mid sentence of what sounded surprisingly English-like. He was just above 5 feet tall, dangerously underweight, wore clothes that were bought for really cheap from roadside hawkers back home. His watch was a trusty Titan and shoes Lakhani. When his mother called from India, he would ask his boss for permission to speak to her.

Just another code coolie, he tried very hard to blend in because fitting in was not a realistic goal. In three years, he had blended a good deal. The gallons of whole milk had given him several extra pounds. He had also come into a raggedy Corolla, an apartment he shared with just another room-mate and not five as it had been at first. The Indian footpath brand had been supplanted by Wal-Mart. He no longer lapsed into Hindi while at work. The desis who had been around for much longer than him, still treated him superciliously but they cringed a lot lesser.

Sometimes, he thought about how his life had been shocked into transformation from the instant of his coming to America, about the pain of being yanked from his comfort zone and what it was worth. Back in Nasik, his three younger siblings and parents longed to see him return with enough saved to rescue the family the family from their lower middle class existence. Though, they never mentioned anything other than how much they missed him, Anil could tell he was their great white hope. He scrimped and saved from the $2500 paycheck he got every month. The apartment was the cheapest he could find, the gas and electricity was free. He spilt all other household expenses with his room-mate. Every month he sent some money home.

Thanks to him, the family home got repaired and painted, the younger siblings wore hip clothes, his mother got a full time domestic help. Pictures of Anil outside his apartment, opening the door of his red Corolla and atop the Empire State Building were proudly displayed in the living room. Over time, Anil came to like how the distance between him and his family gave him this aura of greatness. His $10,329 bank balance converted to Indian rupees would diminish his stature to nothingness. He did not have what it took to land a cushy job in Mumbai like those MBA types from posh English medium schools and the right connections. They were born privileged and were destined to live privileged. Unlike them, he would never be chauffeured from a home on Nepean Sea Road to work, he would just ride the train with the teeming millions.

Instead of trying to find a comfortable social niche in America, Anil focused on what was within his ability to control and achieve. He worked tirelessly at his job, learning everything that he could get his hands on. It helped that he did not have a social life. If there was work to be done on the weekends or holidays, Anil was always available to do it. He had made himself as indispensable as anyone in his line of work could hope to become. The scepter of outsourcing hung a little less threateningly over him.

Sometimes, his parents talked about marriage. He would tell them that he was not ready just yet. At the workplace he watched the desi women who did not even know of his existence. Every once in a while there would be a new face, a younger woman who seemed unsure of herself, not nearly as well adjusted with the culture as the others. He would make tentative efforts to get their attention.

But following some instinctive rules of natural selection, even these women showed no interest in him. They gravitated towards men who were taller, healthier and confident. Anil was not sure what kind of woman may even consider marrying him. His mother expressed concerns about him falling prey to the temptations of the licentious western world. He felt sorry for her that she was naive enough to believe that those temptations would even look his way and sorrier for himself knowing that would never happen.

Unless he made a heroic effort he would die a virgin in America. His only hope was to let his parents find him a bride he could get married to on a three week vacation to India. But it worried him to see how the awkward small town girls in shapeless pants and loose shirts emerged from their pupae to become these charming butterflies in no time at all. They had the right clothes and accessories along with the first hint of an accent. He wondered why he could not transform as well. What if the woman his parents chose for him changed her colors once she got here ?

Anil loved how the quest for greener grass had opened an unexpected and welcome escape hatch. No one back home had to know about his insecurities and fears, to them he was the emperor of all he surveyed from the Empire State. He was the philandering, rich bachelor in their imagination and his own.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Almost Too Lovely Chronicle

I have been meaning to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for a while now. Finally, found the book and some time to read. It was love at page one that grew stronger as Murakami warmed up to his theme which interestingly is about nothing really but a lot of connected events and people who come and go out of each other's life like they were part of a design grander than any of their individual selves.

I loved the language, the pace which never slacked or quickened despite many long soliloquies and distracting side plots. In the end, like an expert puppet master Murakami always managed to pull all strings together in to feed his central theme - about a couple who loose a cat and then in a while the woman leaves the husband. The end of each chapter was a perfect segue to the next.

Yet towards the end, the expanding universe of characters seemed to dilute the essence of the story. It started to feel contrived as if the author was testing the limits of adding more twists and introducing few names into the cast of characters in what is essentially a plotless story to a reader who does not fully understand the historical and cultural references. Unfortunately the stone soup formula does not work quite as well with a novel - instead of getting richer and more flavorful it turns into a concoction of uncertain taste.

A few chapters shorter, the tautness of the storyline sustained to the end and this book would have been among my very favorites of all time. That said, I still loved reading it and will remember it as very exceptional.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Toxic Wife

Reading about the toxic wife syndrome reminds me of two women of my acquaintance. Deepa is still with her husband and Katie has left after taking him to the cleaners. For
Deepa it just made more sense to stay than leave because she would have a hard time fitting in the desi mileu where having an affluent husband and two kids is what makes her so welcome. Losing the married tag would convert her into a pariah right away. It is not worth it for her.

Katie's been married before and can be married again so having a nice chunk of change while she scopes out the next prospect is not a bad deal at all. The largish wedding and anniversary diamonds were all set in platinum and that was just the beginning of all things lavish and supersize about her way of life. Both these women fit the trophy wife bill to the tee "Domesticated, docile yet dazzling" They stayed at home, had nannies raise the kids while they shopped and partied, lived in suburban McMansions and ofcourse their husbands paid for everything without exception - all of which apparently are the signs of toxic wives

There are five tell-tale signs, apparently. First, she gives up work, ostensibly to care for the brood, only to have the children packed off to either boarding school or intensive (ie, lots of extra-curricular activities) private day schools.

Secondly, she suddenly wants to move somewhere more rural/suburban that suits her idea of family life, yet location-wise is horrendous for her exhausted, ever-commuting husband.

Thirdly, she demands wall-to-wall help, which nearly always includes an abused Filipina who works 12-14 hours a day, six days a week.

Fourthly, she refuses to fulfil in any way the traditional contract of the non-working spouse in terms of doing anything for her husband (such as cooking), while, fifthly, she expects her husband to fulfil the traditional but anachronistic male role in the household (such as paying all the bills).

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Friendship Breakpoint

There is a fine line between clinginess and healthy dependence and often the one who is accused of the former thinks they have the later. The partner thinks otherwise. It could be attributed to difference in perception and opinion sometimes blatant double standards. There is also a contextual basis for the categorization which makes it even more complicated.

Reading the article, made me think of my former co-worker Janet. We stayed in touch long after we stopped working together. She was fun to hang out with and sometimes stopped by at my place after work to taste some Indian food. She loves doing things for people she cares about and often with great pomp and circumstance as she has done for both me and J.

While we have been good friends, I find myself taking an almost perverse satisfaction in counting how many times, I have allowed her to get away with completely unacceptable behavior. It is like if I let this pass, I will know what else she may be capable of, it will help me understand something about the human nature I would not have otherwise known. I tread with great deliberation the blurred line between clinginess and friendly dependence as I try to keep everything in balance and my self respect intact. With Janet sometimes that can be tough.

Coincidentally, today was her tenth and final opportunity. After spending six months with us, J's grandparents returned home last week. The house feels really quiet and empty in the evenings. J has not been her usual cheerful and boisterous self. I asked Janet, if she would like to stop by one evening during the week for dinner with us because it would liven up the home and J. Its been several months since J saw her last. If not anything else it would be a pleasant surprise for her.

Janet said she was too busy to come to my place but we could meet at San Francisco Oven five minutes from where I live. That would be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. With some people, the more you know them, the more they reveal their inner good, like a diamond in the rough they need patience to discover. Others like Janet can keep up appearances only for so long, the more you let them relax the more ugly they reveal themselves to be.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

March Madness

This article on the corelation between month of birth and increased risk of certian mental disorders appears to draw its inspiration from astrology as the title suggests. January and August seem the two safe months of the year to be born.

Being born between April and May is clearly not a good idea which is bad news for all Taureans. It makes for interesting reading whether or not you believe there is any truth or scientific basis to any of it. The
March Hare was mad for a reason.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Thoughtless Gift

My friend Nishi bought me a copy of Vikram Seth's Golden Gate when we were in the third year of engineering college on a trip home to Delhi for summer vacation. In my little town, it would take another five years before it hit the bookstores and I was eager to find what the buzz was all about.

Three years ago, when we started at college, Anand and I had felt the first spark of connection, chemistry or what ever it is that gets mistaken for infatuation when really it is love. Around the time when I finished reading Seth's book and was still recovering from its mesmerization, Anand had finally summoned the courage to acknowledge that he felt something very special for me. Even after having known all along, it felt wonderful to be told the self-evident. Anand had been inspiration for prose and poetry like no else had till then though few have since. Maybe he set the right forces in motion.

Seth's sonnets made me think about love and the bitter sweet suffering that comes with it. Real pain was to follow in a few years. Anand returned to Mumbai where he had been born and raised. I found work in Bangalore. We wrote letters to each other the old fashioned way since a we did not have easy access to internet or email. Checking my mailbox every evening when I returned from work, made my heart skip a beat. If it was empty, there was hope for the next day or the day after. Then there would be the best day of the week when I found the pale yellow envelope with my name and address on it.

Inside would be a letter written in black ink. I read it so many times that every last word was etched in memory. We were still not convinced that what we felt for each other was really love. How can you know when you are so young. The fact that he was as good looking as he was worked to his disadvantage; we loved it how people noticed us when we went out together. There was no question that we found each other very compelling physically. At a certain level we were concerned that was all there was to our relationship – a superficial thing that would wear off all too soon.

Would we still feel so hopelessly drawn to each other when we were old and gray and our physical selves were not nearly as attractive. When we broke up, it was not ugly, painful or dramatic - in fact it was altogether too silent. I told him, we needed to let each other go emotionally so we could move on. That it was in our best interest to do so. He did not disagree. The letters that had been my lifeline till then had to stop. He agreed.

The silence between us seemed to carve out a huge hollow in my heart to be an infinite receptacle for pain. I had not imagined it would be so hard, that it would take so long to be over him. All the old letters and cards went into a strong brown envelope, taped and sealed firmly. These were memories too precious to throw away and too intense to recall without reliving the intense pain of the end.

I did not know then that I would go from relationships to marriage, divorce and more relationships and through it all, the memories of Anand would play like a soft background score, unobtrusive but unrelenting, he would come to define both love and loss to me. I was still hurting from his absence from my life when I picked up Alain de Botton's On Love from the local British Council library.

This was the book that helped me parse and dissect through the pain of Anand's loss. I wanted to have every last atom of my feelings for him explored and analyzed. Whereas Seth had given love the wings to soar into freedom with, de Botton helped me come to terms with its absence and that of the beloved. Since then, when I think love, I think these two books. Two personal milestones, one beginning and one end. One Anand and one absence of him. Coming full circle.

Years later, when I met H, I gifted him these two books. I was not sure exactly why. There was something amazingly comforting about his presence. There was none of the raw passion like being around Anand. In fact, it was quite the opposite. H was the kind of man, I could see myself growing old with, the strong tree under whose shade a world weary traveler might find comfort. I mistook that overwhelming feeling of comfort for love - specially the kind of love I thought was more appropriate at this point in my life. After we broke up, I asked that he return my gift to me. I am sure he found the request exceedingly odd, not to mention incomprehensible if not slightly over the top - maybe hysterical is the word I am looking for.

I thought about the two books, their meaning to me, the timing of their coming to my life, Anand and how they were gifted in error to who they were never meant for. How I should have given them to Anand as a parting gift to remember me by. I am not sure what I was thinking of when I gave them to H. I had been thoughtless in giving a gift and now expected the recipient to correct my mistake. It took several months and some prodding for H to finally return them to me along with my hand written note that had accompanied the gift. It was an error undone, a memory redeemed from a blight, things made whole and ofcourse closure in more ways than one.

A few nights ago, I dreamt of Anand again after many years. I saw him smiling brightly at me, waving excitedly. I was not able to hear what he was saying, but for the love that we once failed to recognize, I hope he wished me farewell and Godspeed just as I have done for him.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Suffering And Art

Art that makes you think has undeniable value even if provocation of thought comes through controversy as is often the case. Fusing bullets with crystal to create jewelry is unconventional but falls short of being labeled unethical like bio art. Both are about "social reflection, conveying political and societal criticism". The defining line that separates one from the other is the use of living cell and tissue as material to create works of art.

When PETA says "We're all in support of creativity but we're opposed to all suffering." they are in denial of the fact that most if not all art is derived from suffering. From the child labor involved in bangle making in Varanasi , to the Afghan refuges in Pakistan toiling in inhumane conditions to create Persian rugs to the Dali and Picasso wannabes starving to feed their passion, the theme of sadness permeates all art. Even the story of Thomas Kinkade and his uber happy paintings of light has a darker side.

Sure, PETA can argue "Transgenic manipulation of animals is just a continuum of using animals for human end," regardless of whether it is done to make some sort of sociopolitical critique" but the goal of disjoining artistic creativity from suffering eeen if laudable, is largely unrealistic and to that extent unrealizable.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Swiss Army Knife

Love the idea of a rollable display. There is already a cellphone only as big as lipstick. The state of the art should not be too far away from producing a gadget that combines a mirror, powder compact, lipstick, rollable display for WiFi internet access, mp3 player(naturally) and cellphone.

The size of this thing should be should be small enough to fit into a pretty beaded evening bag. It would the only thing a girl would need for a night on the town. If they could do what
Cartier's done to the USB flash drive, then she could just wear it on a chain. With a nail file and tweezers thrown in the mix, the device would be a Swiss Army Knife that a girl can covet.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Cycle Of Twelve


When love left from crossing the
threshold, tears were withheld
anger poured like rain instead.
warm, bubbly frothing indignation
outrage, betrayal – a heady cauldron
marking their callused course
through the bone and sinew of me


Somewhere where the road winds
into the Chesapeake - suddenly sand
and foam, lonesome
tufts of wild grass wave at the sea.
I would want to steep
in the water knee deep invite the breakers
to knock me down laughing silly.
Oh ! was I a dreamer. My womb was quiet with
longing. It did not feel the tickle of sand in
my toes, know of fine cracks in my happiness.
When the sun tumbled into the western sky,
we headed back home – carrying on my lap
shells, pebbles –beachcomber me, destined to
search infinity for one last rainbow colored hope.


They are holding hands
like we once did, laughter
fires the dream in her eyes
like they once did mine.
His speaks a foreign
tongue she does not know
to read like I once
did not know to know you.
I smell Organza over Pour Homme
as they walk past me
his eyes linger on mine for
an infinitesimal and I can see
what she cannot.
what I once could not.
In all love I see decay
I all yin I see you
in all yang - me.


I could count the days by the hour
or by their brooding weight. Either
way the year has been long. My
heart has been sick and healed.
the angel touch so longed for
is still out of reach, just by a little.
For having delayed to mother,
motherhood is now justly denied


Picnic by the pool,
Counting circles around the live-oak,
Following the brown kitten around,
Walking up to the mailroom
Waiting for Mamma's paycheck,
Walking red-lines and yellow-lines
On the parking lot,
Favorite music, stories,
Poems about Owls and Pussycats
dancing hand in moonlight.
Tear and tantrum blemished,
unbalanced, imperfect but real.
Just know little angel, when
you vivisect the past and me
for shaping it hurriedly and crude,
that you trudge through my
life's debris not it's substance.
Know that my longing for you
was strong enough to overcome
impossible odds yet not quite
it took to rekindle my dreams.


Seven perambulations by holy fire,
Five years and five hundred copulations later
oblivion devours at memory shred by shred.
Like my skin, my soul tries to forget.
Neutered by fangs of a love gone bitter
I guess at being a woman
Affirmation in clingy blouses,
strident notes of musk, patchouli
and the like –deepening shades of
carmine for lips long un-kissed.
The soul of me transcends to sexless


The seals whelped at the wharf
or were those sea lions
backs slick and glimmering ?
The chowder was bleak as was
conversation. They were
four and about whole.
We were two hoping to go
on three – maybe some more.
Escaping to the scythe of sand
around Half Moon bay,
watching surfers, sea birds
and sand castle builders -
we had been invincible – felt
our love was worth more
than their million dollar mortgage.


Who would have known that clouds
could weigh a ton, drape in
gray misery until one day sun burst
through a feeling bouffant, defiant of gravity.
To those more acquainted with light than I
that would be perhaps called " happiness".


In surgery they may cleave a cut
for skin to meet skin heal and turn whole.
When blood begins to flow through
veins newly joined , the body would
know to mend. Not so the figurative
heart. I wound yours, you mine ,we
come together in coital cinch or closer.
Heal we would not still. Proof is we haven’t


If youthful folly is excuse
the dragon fly had felt no pain.
But I, shudder to remember
the near death flutter of crisp wings
in the vise of my grubby little fingers -
and the grateful heave of life when
at last I let go. In Karma’s tally,
I had made a dark notch.
Awaiting Moksha, I feel now
the tightening clamp of circumstance.


Every evening sadness descends on me
like mist on the hills - slow, soft
and enveloping. It caresses me.
I drive home in fading daylight aware
of the deep void of words
strained by unexpressed longing.
I pause between life and emptiness,
to remember the promise of you. I hurt.
I wish so much to forget, to move on
like they all say I should, like I refuse
to believe I must, like I know I will.


Your silence is a lake in
first frost - icy and immovable.
Last year, driving
through the country
past sentinel maple and oak
catching their colors
the very last minute,
just as we had found each other
before all hope had faded.
You had been a river in spate -
maybe only in my imagination,
in my longing for one true love.
A week later the colors of fall
were gone and so were you.
A trellis of brown twigs
against the winter sky remained.
I sense being in your heart a
murmured undercurrent,
pulsating with life that is
fast giving away.
By when spring returns you
will no longer hear. Another
heart has learnt to love mine.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Stardom Week - Epilogue

A few weeks after J's infamous Stardom Week, my neighbor called me one evening to see if J and I might want go to school to watch her second grader's performance. Their class was staging a musical. Her youngest one goes to Mrs H's class with J and the two are good friends. So we tagged along with Terri and her two girls.

The parking lot was packed as was the auditorium. In the sea of white, a few oddities like myself stood out like sore thumbs. We so did not belong here. Near the stage armies of camcorder toting parents stood in readiness to catch their kids in action. After a few false starts involving a malfunctioning microphone, the performance finally got under way.

A year ago, my friend Chloe had invited me to watch a musical at her daughter's school. This is a private school and the ages of the kids who were performing ranged from 6 to 16. It was amazingly well done and the crew could pass off as professionals.

Watching the 7 years olds at J's elementary school was a whole different experience. Amateurism was writ all over it. The kids lacked energy and passion not to mention adequate training. It took an effort to sit through it for thirty minutes. I am sure I was not alone in my underwhelment - the applause from the audience was quite restrained despite the fact most were parents and grandparents of the kids on stage.

The second grade had six Asians and two African Americans. That was the extent of ethnic diversity. This came as no surprise given the racial makeup of my neighborhood. What was noteworthy was the fact that not one of these minorities got a chance at a solo performance.

Twenty odd kids got a chance to speak their lines on stage alone and not one of them was remarkable in any way. Surely Craig Hong or Shruti Pandya could have done equal or better. It may have been in my imagination but the Hongs and Pandyas did not appear to be having too much fun. Their demeanor was much too serious and posture unrelaxed.

I mentioned my observations to E and she said "I am not surprised at all. You have to decide between raising J in a backward place like that and being a victim of prejudice and moving someplace else." I did not bother to bring this up with other friends knowing by now that they would merely echo E.

Back in Mrs H's class, the next kid in line after J for the Stardom Week was her best buddy Alicia. Interestingly enough, her week was a replica of J's and J came home complaining that Alicia was not being treated fairly. My friend D chuckled when she heard this "Mrs H is trying hard to prove that J was not isolated for discrimination. She picked a random white kid to make her point. Too bad for Alicia but maybe you and J won this round". She must have been right. In her weekly report the following week Mrs H had written "J is a pleasure to have in class"

Advantage J. Game and Set Hicksville, America.

I revisited this piece when J started third grade in the same school. There have been many ups and downs along the way. I have come to realize that my color or J's is less important than our perceived social status. Some of the initial problems I had with the school stem directly from there. Being a single parent did not help either - there are negative stereotypes associated with single parent kids and J was possibly subject to some of that.

J or I don't go around dripping designer labels and what's worse I rent and don't own.This is a neighborhood where folks have been around forever and everyone knows everyone. The apartment people are drifters and usually the ones without the money to make a down payment on a home. Some of the most important people in the PTA are Asian, the spelling bee winners are almost always Indian but they don't participate in a great deal of non-academic activities. This is just another suburban public school.

J's experience has been very positive overall. She has complained of being bored very often but never about being singled out for "different" treatment by any teacher. She has made some very good buddies over the years. I have learned the hard way not to take every problem with the school to my diverse group of friends who out of their desire to protect me and J, tend to see us as victims who they need to rush out and protect - race, color and ethnicity are inevitably the first thing they see at play. It is only too easy to fall into the victim trap as I had done a couple of years ago.

As I have demonstrated time after time, that J and I are not the stereotypical Indian parent and child they have been familiar with, I have found attitudes to be far more warm, welcoming and inclusive.Acceptance, I have learned is a two way street and that it is never helpful to prejudge.