Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Finding A Book

While cleaning my closet a few days ago, I found a book I had forgotten about for years. Zen Wisdom by Timothy Freke. This was a farewell gift from a co-worker. Meant to be daily reader, I found it hard to not read more than my allotted daily dose of wisdom. As a result of trying to take in too much too fast, I did not enjoy the book and it got put away somewhere. I am going to start reading again and hopefully I'll do it right this time.

Don't meditate so that one day you will become enlightened. Meditate to make your life richer now. Meditate when you sit and walk, when you embrace your mother or care for your child. Meditate to bring joy to your existense - Shan T'Sing

This was the quote for the day the book resurfaced in my life. I could not help thinking that the timing was significant. May be this is as the Buddhist proverb goes "When the student is ready, the Master appears". I must not have been ready of any Zen wisdom until now. Time will tell if I am ready yet.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Blank Noise

I read about Project Blanknoise in Ms. Magazine and felt immensely proud of the amazing women who started this. Growing up in India, a girl is cautioned about undesired male attention even before she attains puberty and after getting a whole lot of it in the form of groping, touching, stalking and leering they turn conditioned to accept it as a fact of life.

Back in my day, I was considered dangerously bold because I stepped on the toes of a man with my stilettos in a crowded bus after being "eve-teased". He yelped in pain and I told him that was the only way I could stand unless he put some distance between us. My girlfriends were in awe of me but not everyone dared to fight back like I did.

My aunt and I once slapped a guy in a crowded marketplace until our hands turned blue. A ring of silent spectators had formed around us. Several of them wanted to know what exactly the guy had done - such voyeuristic curiosity followed by complete inaction was typical. We did not expect better.

While there were always a few "firebrands" who did not mind slapping a man publicly or screaming obscenities to call attention to the molester, the fear of consequences (or more accurately retribution) was too deeply ingrained for any of this to turn into a grassroots movement.

Something has changed in the positive direction within the last decade for women in India; they feel empowered enough to come up intervention strategies collectively. Maybe with the booming economy, more women are financially independent than ever before and like they say money talks. It definitely enhances confidence. This has been long overdue and I can't say how strongly I identify with the cause of Blank Noise. More power to these determined young women and may their tribe increase !

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Indian IT Couples

My most recent Indian workplace experience is four years old now so I have missed out some of the hottest action in the IT scene there. But I was very familiar with the insane work hours and the absence of work life balance. My typical day started at 6:00 a.m. (to give me enough time for the commute) and ended at around 9:30 p.m. when I finally got home. I typically did not work weekends but most of my team did so regularly and without complaint. Though I was a single parent, I had family to help me with J and that was a huge blessing. There is no way I could have made it past the first year of my child's life without the support I had.

My martial situation was an anomaly at the time but there were plenty of drifting couples at work. One woman's husband spent most of the year outside the country working onsite at client locations. She had a child about the same age as J and had her parents looking after him. Swapna and I went out for lunch sometimes and conversation would inevitably turn to her absent spouse.

Apparently the distance between them was as much emotional as it was physical. Part of her wanted out but she was not ready specially because of the child. I could tell she enjoyed the male attention she got at work and sometimes it was hard to not think of her as single. There were several others at the office like Swapna. The couple was not necessarily apart geographically but the work hours made it impossible for them to spend any quality time together. The children were inevitably being raised by two sets of grandparents. It was common to see a married co-workers in what would appear to be a romantic relationship with someone at work. Their spouses were most likely working their 14 hour days elsewhere in the city.

Apparently, the undecided and floundering couples are deciding to end it these days. It was only a matter of time. Someone had to start and the exodus would follow. Keeping a marriage going is tough for an IT couple in India but it is not any easier if the wife is a homemaker - it is possibly worse. I had a newly wed bride accompany their husbands to work on weekends. She would sit in his cubcile and watch him work all day long- this was possibly better than being alone at home with little to occupy her time. We felt sorry for her knowing that he would not be able to take a vacation until the marriage had turned relatively old.

The IT wife has the ability to support herself and the kids (if needed) financially and is more likely to get out of a marriage that gives her no comfort. This is not an option for the stay at home wife and it is likely that her discontent will manifest itself in more unhealthy ways. Outsourcing has been a boon to the Indian economy - its Hindu Growth Rate is now ancient history - but all of this comes only at a great social cost.

This is like the line from the ads by EggIndustry "Most eggs are so cheap because the birds are forced to pay the extra price". People don't always pause to consider what the caged chicken went through to put a hard boiled egg on their plate. Likewise, the IT industry is not loosing any sleep over mounting divorce rates among its employees or the larger questions of what this means for the socio-cultural fabric of India.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Modern Fairytale

Lindsey lent me her copy of He's Just Not That Into You. I had read reviews of the book before and was curious to know what the buzz was all about. It is short, easy to read and takes no more than a couple of hours to reach the last page. That's the end of the good news.

For a book by a man that is supposed to tell women the honest to goodness truth about why their relationships suffer and inevitably fail, the analysis is flippant and blatantly one-sided. Life is not black and white as Greg would have us believe. Relationships are neither simplistic nor formulaic so any one size fits all theory (which this book is all about) is dead on arrival.

Reviewers at Amazon who have given this book a one star rating have gone to great lengths about what is wrong with it, so I will not belabor the point. A good male friend once told me that to ascribe more sophistication to men than an unicellular organism is a huge mistake women make when they get into a relationship. The issue not so deep and complex for them. I am sure he was being facetious but there is some truth in the fact women sweat the small stuff more than men do in a relationship. Or perhaps the difference in male and female coping mechanisms leads to such an impression.

Greg has one central message which is if a man is seriously into a woman he will pursue her relentlessly. Even the most stressful circumstances in his personal life will not diminish his zeal. This may be true of a man looking to make a conquest and take home what he considers a trophy wife. Trophies abound and the thrill of chase grows old with time. There are men out there who have no interest in trophies and in as such pursuit of one is moot. They seek an equal partner in the relationship which is based on healthy respect for each other.

A relationship reaches stable equilibrium when both can be their natural selves. This would include being able to call each other without needing to scheme and plot. While it may fun for a while, to persist in the cat and mouse mode is unwholesome. Greg also neglects to mention that a man who is currently in hot pursuit of a woman (as he deems necessary for a viable relationship) would be a man who has pursued others in the past with equal ardor.

Does a woman really need a man in her life who has a long history of chasing things in skirts ? What's to guarantee that a new woman will not intrigue him enough to warrant pursuit even after he is married or in a committed relationship ? Many "happily married" men have no qualms about flirting with fascinating strangers. Even if it leads to a hook up it does not change how much they love their wives. Sex without emotional investment does not "count"

Greg imagines he is empowering women by telling them how they can or should jockey for power and control in a relationship to their best advantage. He would have them get rid of losers who can't decide fast enough and hold out for the fairy tale Prince Charming who is so absolutely certain and smitten that he will move heaven and earth to become her lawful wedded husband. It is a worthy goal and has been addressed exceptionally well by the Grimm Brothers two hundred years ago.

I find it a lot easier to relate to and understand Connie Colbert's "good enough" marriage. She is a realist and is happy to live in a flawed and imperfect world. Hers is a message that is both encouraging and empowering for women who are being constantly chastised by Greg and his ilk for being willing to "settle" for less when they could have so much more. Peddlers of relationship utopia like Greg would no doubt consider Colbert's marriage a disaster and feel sorry for her.

This seems to be a telling effect of consumer culture in the realm of relationships. The advise is to cut your losses early, so you don't miss out on bigger, better opportunities out there. Become an informed and an aggressive consumer. Have the car salesman and the real estate agent pursue you for your business and offer you a deal that you like. Greg would have women turn into buyers in the relationship market and get men to sell them the dream of "married happily ever after". This book is profoundly disturbing if taken seriously.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Happy Birthday Call

This year on my birthday, I had J's friends trooping into the house with hand made birthday cards and gifts. One kid had made a bird feeder by gluing a plastic bowl inside a envelope and filling it with birdseed. This was my new bird-feeder. The other had a card with a picture of herself in the soccer field complete with a gap-toothed smile.

I was very flattered to be remembered by so many cute little kids. J had already wished me, filled a bag with "treasures" - little notes of love and birthday wishes. Being a mom in a neighborhood full of kids brings unexpected joys such as this. I felt loved and grateful. Then late in the evening, I got a happy birthday call from Versicom.

Apparently, my tax preparer had decided to wish me using this service where a recorded voice signs happy birthday to you . I am glad they skipped the personalization because I would have cringed to hear my name butchered. Since this was a first for me, I was amused at the idea. I would have not liked it if every service provider who deals with me and has my date of birth and phone number on file decides to go the canned birthday greeting route - it would be very seriously irritating.

It was slightly annoying that the Versicom service called me a few times until I answered - a voice mail message would have sufficed. When it comes to cards made on random pieces of paper by five and six year olds, each on is a treasure because it is the thought that counts. With an automated system that starts calling and singing whenever a birthday trigger event occurs the idea turns pesky right after the first instance.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Play Quotient

When I look at other parents playing with their children, I wonder how do it - act like they were three again and do such a convincing job of it. The kids usually have a lot of fun with this kind of parent. This is a skill I just don't have and feel constantly guilty about not doing right by J.

Another mom would have played Barbies with her, but I tell J to find something to do so I can finish reading my book or complete my chore. So when J spots a friend in neighborhood, she dashes at lightning speed to be with them. Bringing her back home is not easy either no matter how many hours she has spent with this friend. She seems perpetually play deprived.

When at home, I encourage her to have conversations with pretend friends, dance to some music from our collection, color, read, write her journal - anything but ask me to play with her. J has heard me go on at length on the importance of being able to find happiness in solitude and how her happiness should not be dependent on something or someone, that she should learn to enjoy her own company before she can truly enjoy the company of others. Being make friends is most desirable but to need them desperately is not. I know I frustrate her at times but that does not seem to diminish my zeal for preaching the truth as I know it.

She often complains that she is bored and wants someone to play with. The demand for a sibling comes up frequently in these conversations. I make peace by calling Lindsey or Sirisha to see if their kids would like to play with J. Most often they do and I am off the hook for a bit. Once J has skipped out the front door, I start to wonder what long term damage I am doing to my child by unwilling to be her playmate.

To say that I don't know how is not an acceptable excuse - maybe I should take lessons from those other moms who are so good at it. Nothing is impossible if you apply yourself to it diligently. In the end, I have to admit I just don't enjoy the idea of being five again and playing with J.

I love talking to her, teaching her things, getting her to help in the kitchen, working on craft projects together but I can't for the life of me play with her like I was a kid again. Reading this article was gratifying for a couple of reasons. First, there are other parents like me who are not able to play with their kids and second parent-play is not necessarily a good thing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

High Tide

After the tide,
followed many cat-paws
breeze nudging water
without upheaval
or event.
And each time
mistakes were made.
New ones and riffs
on old ones.
All washing ashore

like nothing had been
before or since.
The moon curved
and filled
in endless cycles
as desire
ebbed and flowed.
Before a new tide,
the sea is calm
deceptively crystal.
The familiar
salt wind heads
from the west
golden and moist
from the
dipping sun
Here is one last
time before the
sea gulps me whole.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

White Light, Black Rain

White Light, Black Rain opens with scenes from present day Hiroshima. The vibe of the city is upbeat and very western. Random young people on the street are asked one question - do they know why August 6 1945 is a very significant date in history. No one knows. All it takes for a nuclear bombing and its aftermath to pass into oblivion from public memory is sixty years.

Then we meet with the survivors themselves who tell their stories with amazing grace and stoicism. There are no tears or hysterics as they recall in graphic detail the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and how it altered their lives for ever. We meet a woman who has had six unexplained miscarriages, another one who has tumors erupt randomly on her body, a man whose flesh had melted away from his ribs to where he can see his heart beating.

There is pain that goes far beyond the horrifying physical mutilation that they have lived with all their lives. They are called the "Pika-Don" people (survivors of the A-bombing). No one knows what diseases they have, how they may manifest themselves or how they can be healed. No one wants to be around them fearing contagion. Their children find it hard to find marriage partners due to fear of genetic defects that could be passed down the generations.

When you listen to the interviews with the survivors you begin to wonder if an event as horrifying as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings elevates pain and suffering to an inhuman and therefore unfathomable level. We neither have the words nor the sensience to communicate and comprehend what happened.

The images of the victims being nursed to health in the hospitals are too gruesome to watch. Some of those images are the survivors that the movie introduces us to. You do not have the option of recoiling from the sight of melting flesh and eyeballs missing from their sockets. You are forced to see the remnants of the human being talk to you about how it was to be that stomach churning photograph taken sixty years ago.

Then we meet the team that dropped the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At least on the surface there does not seem to be a lot of guilt about what they caused to happen though some voice their regret quite candidly. For the rest, it was mission like any other except the damage was far greater than the norm. War is inherently about death and destruction and this one was no different. Ultimately, it was what caused the war to end.

You see footage of the jubilation in America after Japan surrendered. You also see people go about their daily lives in modern day Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In 1945 perhaps not enough was known about the extent of damage for people to be able to react appropriately. In 2007, in Japan the significance of day far back in 1945 has been lost due to the passage of time.

In end you are left wondering if the most unspeakable horrors of the past are better forgotten or remembered and how do you truly honor and acknowledge the pain of the victims and survivors.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Warm Colors

I saw this pretty desi woman dressed in a sunflower yellow shalwar kameez with turquoise details. The neck line was particularly interesting with turquoise beads and cutwork. She was the solitary splash of brightness in the monotone of blue jeans, sweat pants, khaki shorts and non-descripts tees at the grocery store.

Like me, several others noticed her. Back home seeing women dressed in bright colors was so commonplace that I never gave it a second thought. I used to be like her once - dress in colorful cottons paired with terracotta and silver jewelry. Wearing a contrasting two-tone outfit like this woman seems very unnatural now. Not sure at what point it became difficult to feel at ease in the color palette that I grew up with and loved as well.

Maybe being exposed constantly to the western color palette has alienated me from my native sensibilities. Even some of these beautiful combinations inspired by the masters lacks the warmth and pizzazz of a Indian woman's colorful attire. Yellow and turquoise may not be very masterful but it brightened my day just to see them paired and I'm sure a lot of us girls in our faded tees and jeans wished we could pull off that bright plumed tropical bird look as the yellow and blue chiffon dupatta trimmed with hand-made blue lace floated past us.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

MySpace Girls

I have been reading Candice Kelsey's Generation MySpace with mounting trepidation. Ever since J was born, I've had it in mind to take a long break from work at the end of her last year at elementary school. The idea (which may be completely impractical and hair brained) is to combine travel with homeschooling until the hormones have had a chance to stabilize and J has had opportunity to see how underprivileged kids live elsewhere in the world. The Buddhists have a practice I really like - that of sending their youngsters to the Sangha for a year. This would be my version of the idea - if a Sangha would accept her, I would love nothing better.

We have been aware for sometime of the hugely lucrative consumer pool that the online tweens and teens present. It comes as no surprise then that products acquire personalities on MySpace and can be "friended" like they were a real person. The polls and quizzes trying to elicit honest responses from kids on taste, style, likes and dislikes is a massive data mining exercise by marketer researchers for consumer goods and services. While the messaging is a lot more invasive and personalized, it is not radically different from what has happened for years preceding through television ads. Kids have survived for the most part.

The book highlights a problem far more serious than Victoria's Secret trying to peddle push-up bras or Coke its new drink to teens. The medium makes possible the sexualization of young girls on a frightening scale. Not to mention, this works like a magnet for pedophiles.

In her interview with Melanie C. Klein, professor of Sociology at California State, Northridge, Kelsey asks some very important questions about what it means to be the MySpace girl. One of them is about identifying the real culprit - the out of control girls who will do the most undignified things to get male attention, MySpace or someone else. Is there another culprit ?

MK : Absolutely, there is another culprit. This behavior is merely a symptom of our schizophrenic culture where women are considered either a whore or a mother (and as a teenager, the choice of motherhood is not too appealing). Simply put, the MySpace girl is the product of a culture that teaches girls to be available and disposable.

I could not agree more with that assessment. There is another side to this story though. That of the boys who are partaking of this feast of "available and disposable" girls who are constantly upping the ante on flamboyantly promiscuous behavior to get male attention. They are growing up without developing any ability to form meaningful relationships with women. When it comes time to transit from the whore to find a mother for future kids, the whole pool of prospects looks dubious and tainted. Along comes commitment phobia, series of failed relationships and inability to forge an enduring emotional bond.

This book is a must read for every parent. Even if MySpace goes out of circulation by when the child turns tween or teen, most of the ideas will transfer quite well.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


A tsunami as it wrecks havoc blurs vision too but hindsight is always 20/20. Three months ago, Lipika was no less discerning of humankind than she is today or any less gifted with prescience yet the inevitable happened.

In retrospect there were signs a plenty that she would have read had she known they were talking to her. Shaded by the rosy clouds of happy delusion, she failed to see the obvious. In having failed she is left with the detritus of an approximate relationship and a story to tell. In the final analysis there is no absolute bad.

In a time when online relationships are getting to be more the norm than the exception, it is surprising how ill-equipped we are emotionally to handle the aftermath of failure. Indeed breaking up from a real time relationship has established conventions if not rules of engagement. Everyone is aware of the fifty ways to leave their lover.

The in brave new world of cyber-relationships, there are undocumented landmines that one stumbles upon, hurts, recoils and learns. The key thing is to be able to move on as Lipika is doubtless striving to do as are many others out there. No one knows the rules quite yet, you zip through like you were on the Autobahn, when you stop you realize it is all over. The ashes are smoldering by the way side of what had seemed until then “the relationship” you had waited for all your life. What is left is a story.. memories that you would rather not have.

Belle and Helios are imminently replaceable handles afloat in cyberspace – with or without equanimity. They know the rules – have largely been there and done that on-line dating wise. They are both selective and need to feel that very special spark to carry on an on-line conversation. At thirty even and odd they both have a pressing need to get their life back of track as through marriage and the stability of a real home.

They have a need to have a real life and to stop philosophizing over a life that does not exist. Her marriage lasted just over two years , his a little under ten. Offline their lives are at antipodes or worse and hence the feral attraction. Belle is a suburban single mom with a tendency to throw a dramatic sense of pathos into her rendition of her circumstances – but to be fair to her she does it with considerable flair. She glamorizes the past in a valiant effort to render it more meaningful than it had really been. It is her anodyne for suffering and her crushing sense of loss.

There has been much pain of which much has long since been overcome if not forgotten but she lives a lot in the past – it is her nature to do so. Helios is a man with a wild streak – all different from Belle and that is what intensifies their chemistry – he lives on the edge likes a relationship that works like a morning shot of Jolt – something about Belle gives him that.

He is a dad estranged from his children – dragged through deep trenches of pain and dumped by a spouse he once (perhaps still) considered perfection incarnate- a woman who held power over him and wielded it to cause the most destruction. A man with a sad story to tell but more often than not he does not say it with sadness – instead there is a bouffant sense of exhilaration when he talks of his happy memories – the wild, carefree days of total abandon – that draws Belle to him.

They both have stories but the telling is so different. There is another side to Helios, a side he does not immediately reveal.. it is where there are lurking secrets, half truths and worse. There are no sides to Belle. She is a steady note overlaid by several harmonics some discordant others dulcet. In all there is a theme, a meme maybe. To know here all is to hear all those notes..she not one or the other of them.

Belle is online one evening scrolling downwards through a list of forgettable faces propped by neo-literate blurbs in a dating site – she is bored as can be, wondering if indeed being forever singleton will be her fate . One face catches her eye. After being in a marriage where physical chemistry was non-existent, the face surprises her with the sheer degree of animal attraction she feels at a picture and at a man’s face. The sense of connection, a subliminal form of recognition takes her aback.

It strikes her as out of the ordinary in her experience. The profile reads extremely well too.. she knows a literate man when she sees one and this is surely one.. There are a couple of flags she has known to recognize from her forays into the on-line dating scene – the man is shorter than he claims, the picture is a good ten years younger than he is, he has children but professes to have none, he makes less money than he says he does. There is a lot of “fluff” as she terms it but inside it resides an interesting person.

He is marketing himself and is doing a decent job of it.. once the woman contacts him he hopes to hold her in thrall of his charm – so a lower salary, a couple of kids, lack of hair and inches will all seem trivial. Her curiosity is piqued and she send him an “interest” notification – it’s been so long since she had good conversation.. The man is obviously not marriage material and she is under no illusions that he may even be. She has a strong gut feeling about these things. She reads the profile yet again .. and wonders if he will respond to hers .. short, terse and without the benefit of a picture to put a face to the words.

A conversationalist and a woman of good humor and high emotional intelligence. Someone who has experienced much in life, and have harbored the hope that life has more challenges to offer, and that she has and will continue to foray into the adventure that the future extends to her.

Will be an added bonus that she also has a streak - nay -- several streaks of spontaneity in her - that she could just as easily walk down the street with the most outrageous outfit, and do so without batting an eyelid. Yep -- that she is the queen that will ambulate in the space that she creates for herself -- that will be a cool person to hang out with.

Of course, but she must always know that being confident and being arrogant is more than a mere distinction of words -- it is the make or break of having or ceasing a relationship. Me: I have been told that I am attractive, and despite all entreaties, I am foolish with my heart. That it is readily given or loaned at a moment's notice, and that I pay usury to get my own heart back.

If that is something for starters, I have a penchant toward reading and writing, and love music and movies. Yes, in the heydays of youth and guts and glory, I did much of all and not less of any :) So I am what I am --- and if that be an example of circular logic - OK - then that is consistent with the fact that I am on "Personals" looking for a cool friend to hang out with -ciao

Relaxed, Humorous, tongue in cheek, have a knack for puns and British comedies, rather throw her hair up in disgust than her hands, will be able to spice up the room with international cuisine - I cook and u taste ---- well read, eclectic, give a damn yet don't give a damn when it counts --- smooth rider on the dance floor -- and a smile --- a smile that fleets between seconds, hovers like a butterfly and wisps away into this mental oblivion -- and I beg for more :))

She wonders who it is that he seeks. Through that slew of words a picture does not emerge. Instead she sees a pale ghost from the past. He seeks someone like someone he once loved. Loved so much, that he has no capacity left to love again. Maybe the love turned to vitriolic self-destructive hate. He wants to be a younger, brighter , happier version of the person he truly is. He wants to negate years from his life, yet cannot negate what those years meant to him…or the person that compels the need to negate. A pity.

A man who is here and wants to enjoy what there is to enjoy but in his heart he is elsewhere. In all the time that she has been online, she has never come across someone who is so obviously caught up with his past and makes no effort to hide the fact. She is curious about him, about his story which she is sure will be told well should he decide to communicate with her. She is also curious about the woman who fills the contours of however and whatever he finds desirable.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Desi Predilections

When I compare the quality of life for desi women home and abroad, its seems that that the grass could be greener on either side depending on their personal circumstances. This blog post has some interesting details. For a single woman in her thirties, the US may be preferable because it provides the much needed insulation and distance from inquisitive friends and relatives.

She can actually have a normal life instead of being stewed in a pressure cooker to get married. Likewise for single mothers - she does not have to live like a social pariah for not having a husband. If you happen to be a your twenties and make good money, India can be very fun these days. Career opportunities abound and travel is often part of the deal. In the twenties, you are not old enough to be classified as "old spinster with slim matrimonial prospects" Chances are that you have a romantic interest and/or your family is match-making.

These women are likely to have generous amounts of disposable income and freedom. Life is good. If however, they chose to come west for education or work the picture would turn suddenly grim. Money would be in short supply, matrimonial prospects with a desi guy would be bleaker because they have chosen to assert their independence in a way that fills the boys with much angst. Then there is the whole visa and immigration hoopla of which the less said the better.

A married women who is working can benefit equally from living home or in America and the preference for one over the other is an entirely individual consideration. There is no life more miserable than that of an H4 wife who wants to join the workforce but is not allowed to because of her visa status. Frequently they become victims of depression, domestic violence and emotional abuse in the marriage.

For a non-working married woman, India would be the better choice simply because she will not die of ennui like the H4 wives do. I guess there are some parameters that can determine if a desi guy will fare better home or abroad. When a desi dad in America finds himself distilling the essence of the Ramayan thusly to his son, he might seriously consider the R2I( Return To India) option. Though by then it may a little too late to make amends.

Reading this delightful post about
ten most boring things that desis do abroad made me wonder if we end up this way when we come to and stay on in America for the wrong reasons

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Pale Fire

My tenderest, youngest love
eighteen then now
graying and receding.

Only in dreams do your eyes
hold the pale fire they once did.

I seek your face in nameless
crowds like a bright blob
of red recognition.

Ten years this August
maybe seventeenth - a day
whose minutes stretch
for miles in memory.

I asked you to define
"this thing we have"
Your silence buried
whatever it was.

And since then I have
wondered, if I should
have paused, looked
back - maybe smiled.
I may have had my answer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Some thought provoking quotes on globality that will strike a familiar chord with expats anywhere in the world. I particularly love this one

You cannot be international if you are proud of your nationality.

I am only too aware of my desiness and my sense of belongingness to my culture and ethnicity. Should that context be stripped off, I would feel a terrible identity crisis. It would be nice to wake up one morning and no longer be conscious of one's faith, race or color.

When you spend the largest part of you life in the country of your birth surrounded by people who are just like you, achieving that state is almost impossible. The best you manage to do, is to seek points of intersection with what you have little in common so can relate and connect.

You stand a much better chance if thrown into an ethnic and religious melting pot at birth and left there to fend for yourself. You may emerge from it completely unaware and even unconscious of your "roots" but a have a "truly" global world view.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Creek

Since J started at summer camp, I have a new route from and to work . It winds through a wooded parkway and you drive at a languid 35 miles an hour because going any faster can make you a little dizzy at those sinuous turns. You slow some more as you near a large creek.

The water is still and a lustrous green. The sun makes the tiny ripples glitter like sequins on emerald silk. On the grass embankment by the side of the creek are large flocks of ducks. They look uniformly well fed and content. Sometimes they amble across the road like time would pause for them just as you in your car do. I make the crossing ducks my excuse to linger longer than I need to along the creek, slowing down to a crawl. The signs for the interstate are less than two minutes away from here.

The little slice of heaven between one highway and the next disappears like it were a dream. I have lived within a couple of miles of this creek for close to three years now and never knew of its existence until Mapquest told me it was the shortest route to work from J's summer camp.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Trading Karma

Its always good to stack up on the good Karma while you still can. In some countries, when you are old you can trade your former goodness for money. This sounds a lot like sin-eating I blogged about a few days ago. Instead of a lifetime of bad deeds, the good guy takes on the points for someone else's bad driving. The system is obviously not smart enough to figure that a barter took place and the bad guy paid is way out of trouble.

In India, petty criminals often employ beggars to do time for them in prisons. From the beggar's point of view this is a good deal. He comes into free food and shelter for a while - maybe some money as well. The bad guy does not have to deal with any interruption to his business. This might be an example of collecting the wages of sin and making a profit on it.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Setup For Failure

One of my co-workers who had a reputation for being incredibly hardworking and resourceful had suddenly started to slack off. At first it was showing up a couple of hours late in the morning or disappearing at the lunch hour and not coming back until much later in the evening. Later, emails would remain unanswered for days and he looked spaced out in meetings. He made up for lost time by working weekends and looked sleep deprived all week. Our manager grew concerned about him and asked some us who knew him well if there was anything she could do to help.

It turned out that his wife had not been well for a few months now. Even after consulting an army of specialists and getting a battery of lab work done no clear prognosis had emerged. They were fast running out of time and money. Her condition was steadily deteriorating. When they were not in a doctor's office, they were on the phone with the insurance company to figure out how much they would have to pay out of pocket. The bills for prescription medications was mounting by the day. Their parents in India were urging them to bring her home for treatment.

So they finally gave up and went home. The doctors at Apollo Hospital were able to figure out what was wrong with her fairly quickly and in a couple of months she had recovered from what had seemed like a terminal illness. The locals were very impressed when they heard. Many wished they could have done the same instead of struggling to pay medical bills. What Rajan and his wife had gone through is commonplace in America. Everyone agrees healthcare reform is desperately needed but
viable alternatives to the current system seem hard to come by.

Unlike the western world, India does not have any real "system" as far as national healthcare. Despite that, a few things work to the advantage of both patient and doctor. Mistakes by doctors are rife but suing is not. Prescription medication is very affordable even for the middle class. If you have the money, you have immediate access to world class facilities.

Good doctors are able to diagnose with confidence and accuracy so a lot of expensive lab-work is avoided. Finally there is the reputation factor. In India, a good doctor or a surgeon is household name in their city or state. Everyone can attest to their credentials. You go in with complete faith in their ability to cure you and faith is possibly the biggest part of the healing process.

When Rajan and his wife went to Apollo Hospital, they already knew doctors who were going to see her had a terrific track record and reputation. Half the battle was won even before the clinical process had begun. Back in the States, they had to pick a physician from a directory provided by the insurance company. He or she was just a name and that is not likely to inspire much confidence in someone who is seriously ill. Each time a test was ordered, they wondered if the doctor knew what she was doing and it eroded what little confidence they had to begin with. The process is perfectly set up for failure and it did so spectacularly.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Baby Naming

My only experience with baby naming is that of naming J. Her formal name is a mouthful even by desi standards and everyone state side warned me of dire consequences in the school yard with a name like that. It would get mutilated horribly and beyond redemption. It would a life-long cross for the child to bear. She would hate me when she grew up for saddling her with something like that. I should brace myself to seeing my child turn into an out of control teen.

Desis recommended that I tone it down to be more mainstream and not go near anything that was more than two syllables long. Meaningfulness was not of consequence, ease of pronunciation was of essence. The locals did not have any input on the kind of name I should pick but they knew that the one I had set my heart one was a disaster waiting to happen. I would regret my choice at leisure.I ignored public opinion and wisdom and had it my way.

Until recently when someone asked J her name, she refused to tell it and expected me to do so instead and then teach them how to pronounce it. In the best case, she would mumble it in an inaudible undertone. The name had indeed become as everyone had promised a source of much pain and embarrassment for her. It was becoming an obstacle in the way of normal social interaction and her ability to build a friend circle. J is extremely outgoing and loves people so this is much harder for her than it would be for a more introverted kid.

Thanks to my efforts with friends, teachers and kids, everyone who has known her for some length of time pronounces her name correctly. I was willing to help J along until she was old and strong enough to fend for herself. She is close to six now and I knew it was time to stop being her crutch. I decided that she would not be well served by a name that she was not able to identify with or felt a sense of pride in. One evening a few weeks ago I sat her down and we had a little conversation.

Me : "Why do you get a mouse's voice when someone asks you your name ?"

J : "No one understands my name and they don't know how to tell it"

Me : "Do you know the significance of your name ?"

J : "Yes"

Me : "Are you proud of your name and its meaning ?"

J : "Yes"

Me : "Do you want Mama to change your name to something that everyone can pronounce easily ?"

She gives this some thought and says "No"

Me : "Do you like your name enough to keep it for the rest of your life ?"

J : "Yes"

Me : "Then you will need to show more confidence in it. Your name has a very special meaning for me but it is also about your Indian identity. You were born here but your roots belong in India. You can either decide to hold on to the Indian part of you or let it go. What you decide to do about your name will decide that. It is your choice because it is your name. If you don't like what you have now would be the time to change it and Mama is willing to do it"

I am quite sure J did not understand all of what I was saying but enough to get my drift.

J: "I want to be both American and Indian. I don't want you to take away my name"

Me : "I'll give you two more chances. If you don't speak up confidently and say your name when people ask you, I will change it to something every recognizes, easy to pronounce and ordinary. You will no longer be special because you have decided that is not what you want"

The change was almost immediate. A random guy at the grocery store asked her what her name was a couple of days after this conversation. J surprised me pleasantly by telling him her name clearly. I hope things get better from here and her name is no longer her cross.

I used to think that my personal circumstances made naming J such an ordeal but it turns out that the problem is fairly widespread though the reasons are quite different from mine.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Sin Eating

I had heard about rudaalis (thanks to the eponymous movie by Kalpana Lajmi) and celebrants before. Today I found out about sin-eaters.

Sin eaters and the custom of sin eating seem to come from Wales. Early descriptions of the ritual all mention the bread eaten over the corpse, as well as the payment of sixpence to the person assuming the sins of the dead. Below are two 19th century accounts of sin eaters.

Apparently, a "good" Brahmin is also supposed to function as a sin-eater. I did not know this either.

Not only does the 'good' Brahman model himself on the world-renouncer, but the status of the priest is irremediably compromised by his calling. So far from being a paragon of purity he is an absorber of the sins of his patrons, which are transmitted through their gifts. The perfect Brahman could theoretically 'digest' these sins without jeopardy to himself; but the paradox is that he is precisely the one who spurns the priesthood.

There are more references to sin-eating in this essay about Varanasi and Bhairava

Bhairava has the truly bizarre function in Kâshî of taking upon himself or devouring the sins of the pilgrims so much so that one of his titles is ‘Sin-Eater’ (Pâpa-bhakshana). “Here in Kâshî the place called Kapâlamocana comes to symbolize the power to make sins fall away, for here ‘Where the Skull Fell’ the worst of sins was shed” (Eck p.119).

The temple of Kâla Bhairava itself was, according to the Kâshî-Khanda (31.138), located on the banks of the Kapâlamocana Tîrtha, in the Omkârezvara area north of Maidâgin. “Bhairava stands right there,” says the text, “facing Kapâlamocana Tîrtha, devouring the accumulated sins of devotees” (cited from Eck, p.193).

Bhairava is the ‘sin-eater’ par excellence not because of his newly found office of policeman but by virtue of having himself been the worst of criminals, for Kapâlamocana is the very place where the skull of the murdered Brahmâ fell from him along with the sin of brahmanicide that had been relentlessly pursuing him in his wanderings. “The one freed from the worst sin now devours the sins of others” (Eck, p.192).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Change Agents

Reading this account of the demise of an old fashioned mishtana bhandar (literally the sweetmeats cornucopia) in Kolkata made me wonder what I would notice gone for good. It has been more than four years since I was there and it may be a while before a trip home happens.

Coming back to Calcutta from elsewhere in India used to a comforting experience until the early 90s - you were never taken aback by change and transformation. The construction work for Metro Rail had been a work in progress for decades. On the way to South Calcutta to my grandmother's house, Rashbehari Avenue was full of construction detritus, makeshift dwellings of the workers, mounds of earth and huge puddles of water. The cobble-stoned road and the lane leading to my grandmother's house had been the same for over a hundred years.

Time flowed at a slower pace the moment you got off the train at Howrah Station. You felt sorry for Calcutta's death and decay as you watched other cities around India prosper and flourish. Yet, here was one place that always remained faithful to your memories. The mishtana bhandar, the fish markets, the hand-drawn rickshaws and the pan shop stayed unravaged by the passage of time. You saw Haru, the proprietor of the corner grocery store that sold a little bit of everything, go from a youth in his twenties to a graying man in his forties. That was the only sign of time's flow all else stood still.

Apparently, Kolkata is no longer immune to change. The first sign was the completion of the Metro project. No one thought it would see light of day but in the end it did. Then came the fancy bridge and some random bypasses and fly-overs. No big deal in the life of any "real" city but then one expects so little of and from Calcutta that every baby step calls for celebration.

Now the bastion of Bongness, the ubiquitous mishtana bhandar is under assault from the forces of globalization. They will be missed only by those of us who have memories eating piping hot singara and jilipi on a rainy evening, the air thick with the aroma of spices, ghee and boiling milk mingling in exuberant confusion.

Mishti is not quite as popular with today’s kids they prefer Monginis fare - an attestation to changing times and tastes. It comes as no surprise when my friend Mita, who has a masters in music from Rabindra Bharati University, tells me that the younger generation does not care for Rabindrasangeet either.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Flying Chair

Wanting to fly away with a helium balloon must be one of those universal longings of childhood only rivaled by wishing scenes from fairytales could come to life.

Some folks apparently get to live their childhood fantasies and take off to the sky in their lawn chairs. Those of us who don't have what it takes to find a goose that lays golden eggs, or limber up a beanstalk to outer-space there is hope yet. We may win a few days working the job that was our fondest kindergarten dream.

There is an Erma Bombeck quote that reminds us the importance of these often fantastic dreams and the need to act upon them even if childhood is far behind us

"There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, 'Yes, I've got dreams, of course. I've got dreams. 'Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they're still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box…"– Erma Bombeck

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Virtual Flowers

At first glance the idea of watering a virtual bouquet of flowers to keep it fresh seems clichéd and a copy cat of Tamagotchi and the like. But there are interesting spins on a well-worn idea like being able to embed all the bouquets you receive in your blog. You have incentive to water your flowers to keep them alive, the blog will likely remain fresh as well.

It would only be a matter of time before the readership loyalty could be translated to masses of healthy and happy blooms. A quick glance at the flowers could tell the blogger and visitors how the blog has been faring.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Roulade Run

I found a recipe for chicken roulade by chance and was so pleased with the results that I am on now a roulade cooking binge. Though, I did not follow a recipe for the whiting roulade, my version turned out pretty good. The fillets had been sitting around for a while because neither J and I care too much for whiting. I have too try the black olive paste stuffing with what is left over in the freezer.

Next was tilapia roulade and that fared even better than the whiting number. J did not even know she was eating fish until I told her. I don't believe she has seen the last of my roulades yet. I will wait until she protests before I move on to the soups - specially the ones that use fish. It is ground I would need to tread with much caution because J loves soups just as much as she dislikes fish (at least lately). The idea would be to sneak fish into the soup without overwhelming it.

Baby Sitter Co-op

My town does not have one but the baby-sitting co-op is a wonderful idea. It is the village everyone needs to help raise a child and it is mostly free. The barter of time could naturally be extended to trading skills. One sitter could teach Mandarin Chinese in lieu of the other's piano lessons.

The more diverse the community in ethnicity, background and profession better the opportunities for creative trades. More than anything, this gives children an unique opportunity to savor different cultures and lifestyles from the comfort of someone's living room. It challenges their comfort zone as they go from one baby sitter to a community of care givers.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sacred and Profane

If you have lived in America for even a few years you can't but help notice the one-line gems that show up of church marquees. While I have never been inside a church, I love this somewhat irreverent call to believers. Being that references to pop culture are rife, the message should get across to a majority of the constituents.

When I compare this with my experience in India the differences are stark. You are taught early on that religion is no trifling matter. The gravitas can weigh you down. This is not to say that we could not have a close, personal relationship with God but when acting as a community reverence toward scriptures and rituals was of paramount importance.

The church signs make me wonder if Hindus may benefit by allowing a certain amount of levity take over their religious discourse. Reading The Art of Living by Swami Chinmayanada in high school was the first time I felt my religion spoke to my condition in simple easy to understand terms.

Not everyone needs or is ready for the esoteric aspects of Vedantic philosophy - I know it intimidated me to a point where faith was no more than ritual observations. I did not dare to approach the charmed inner circle of punditry who understood what it was all about. Gheehappy maybe a step in the direction of taking the Hindu pantheon the way of American church marquees.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Tween Lit

Reading Ragweed by Avi is my madien foray into the world of tween fiction. I am trying to stay ahead of the curve so when J's time comes to speak in tween-speak, I can fully comprehend. This is a story about cat and mice, good and evil, haves and have-nots.

For an adult it is easy to draw a number of parallels (a lot of them quite distasteful) between the story and the real world we live in. Like the rat in Ratatouille, Ragweed desires more from his life than the average rat and that is his undoing. The underdog (aka the mice) win in the end. Right is not decided by might but by strength in numbers, quick thinking, sense of community and organization.

Avi's book reminded me of Haroun and The Sea Of Stories. I read it in my late teens and interpreted it as an adult would. It seemed like a parable for the Indo-Pak conflict. Though an intensely satisfying read, I wished I could have approached it with the wide-eyed wonder of a child and savored the fairytale elements in it.

With Ragweed, I tried to go back in time to when I was nine or ten and undestand it from that frame of reference. It seems easier to think as a child might now that I am mother even though the distance from my own childhood is far greater than it was at the time of reading Salman Rushdie's Haroun.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Future Imperfect

Ineresting essay about how we envision the future for the society very differently than that for ourselves and our loved ones.

" We tend to see utopia as relentlessly personal, while the apocalypse is one of the few shared universals. In other words, while we can posit a future for ourselves as individuals (and even as members of a family) we have little in the way of positive imagination for the realm of the social, much less the political."

Fear of the future is apparently something that grows because
media outlets feed it. The 24/7 coverage of bad news from around the world is hardly conducive to nurturing hopes for a happy and peaceful future. We imagine the worst will happen, the media seeks out just the kind of negatives that would align with our imagination until it becomes a virtuous cycle.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Petri Dish Lifeforms

Mythology from across the world is rife with instances of half-human, half-beast creatures and you wondered where the ancients came up with such fantastic ideas. Looks like we are on our way to do much the same. The beginnings of modern day chimeras are incubating in state of the art biotech labs.

The categories we've taken for granted—mommy, daddy, people, animals—are blurring. We're losing our innocence.

But there's no going back to the days when humans weren't beasts and everyone had a daddy. Those days never existed. O brave old world, that has such creatures in it.

It is hard enough to do a birds and bees lesson with a child growing up in a world where the definition of a "family unit" is fluid at best. They already know all moms and dads are not made equal. In the future a kid might find out that their tennis buddy with the mean backhand is the product of commingling a lion's genes with those of this mother.

The kid himself may have come from the quick frozen eggs of his grandmother but grown in his own mother's womb. In a hundred years from now, Are You My Mother ? may acquire iconic status for speaking to the confusion about origin and identity so eloquently.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

One In Many

The concept of 6 Billion Others is as beautiful as the aesthetics of the site itself. In a time when "I" is the society's reigning deity, this is a refreshing departure encouraging us to seek the common, unifying themes that join diverse cultures and peoples.

The idea of
mapping states in America to countries with similar GDPs is interesting in that it brings far flung countries together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Political and geographical boundaries turn insignificant in the context of their collocation. You wonder what might happen if borders could morph at will and regional tensions be eased merely by bringing in some new neighbors.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Keys To The Cage

When I went to pick J up from Sirisha's a few days ago, she invited me in. Though we have traded bowls of sambar and halwa a few times, we have never been inside each other's home. Her daughter comes over and J goes to their place but our interactions have been limited to phone calls and short exchanges from the balcony.

As it turned out her husband was out of town that evening and would be back only much later. This is not the first time that a desi wife has turned more convivial than usual in the absence of her husband. I feel like I am participating in something clandestine akin to an extra-marital affair had I been a man. I would much rather visit them when Suresh is at home but that apparently is a bad idea.

So we got chatting about this, that and the other. Sirisha is back in the job market after a few years and is finding it very hard to land one. He wants the second income but does little to help her find the source of one. In the meanwhile, he controls the purse strings. They have only one car so she feels caged in the house and recalls with nostalgia the carefree college days in Pune when she zipped around free as a bird on her Kinetic Honda.

She wishes she had some money of her own that she could spend as she liked - buy gifts for her family on her trip to India. Suresh threw a fit when she wanted to buy a little trinket for her favorite aunt. A second car would open the doors to paradise. Right now it is a far distant dream. I listen for the most part and don't have much to say. I realize she wants to vent and does not expect me to magically solve her problems.

Since school is out and J is going to daycare full time, I ask her if she would like to babysit her. It would be a win-win. I know she is a good mom and would take adequate care of my child. She would come into some money. Her face lighted up at once. She said she'd let me know after talking with her husband. Needless to say, I never heard back from her.

From talking to her that day, I realized that the cage she spoke of included the kids as well. Suresh does not allow them to watch any movie even if G rated without reviewing it for objectionable content by his exacting desi standards. Suggestions or depictions of intimacy between a male and a female character would disqualify a movie from being kid-safe. He plans on sending the oldest, a nine year old boy back to India next year so he can be enrolled in a "good school" and get a "real" education. J's buddy Rashmi will follow suit in a few years.

In the context of all that the attitude of the two kids is very interesting. They detest anything that has to do with India. Rashmi has told me to my face that she "can't stand the smell of Indian food" and refused to do lunch with J. She looked at me in horror when I said that I don't have chicken nuggets in the fridge. Culturally, there is nothing remotely "Bharatiya" about them - atleast in the sense that Suresh has in mind. She disdains the "desi-ness" that her upbringing is all about. I doubt if either kid will accept the idea of going back to India. They are Americanized in a very decisive sort of way that J is not.

Yet on the outside, in their ethnic clothes, weekly Telugu lessons and hoards of desi friends they seem to be living in a microcosm of India that I feel J is completely missing. To me Rashmi and her brother are the kind of kids that will "get" India even while living in America but my daughter will flounder from lack of cultural awareness and assimilation.

After interacting with them so closely, I am no longer sure if that is really true. J is intensely curious about India, my childhood, the city where her grandparents live and the extended family she has seen very little of. She does not speak Bengali but understands most of what I say to her. She loves Bengali food over anything else. Kishore Kumar is her favorite Indian singer and she tries to lip synch to his songs. I expect she will be fascinated by India when she does get there because there is so much pent up curiosity. Maybe it is a good thing after all that the I don't live the desi way of life to the point that J is compelled to assert the American in her.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Rewarding Creativity

Creativity is not as generously rewarded as it should for a Java developer spending their free cycles doing OSS work. While it brings them peer recognition and admiration, it does not automatically translate to better job prospects or even career growth.

The day job may still remain the mind-numbingly dull thing that gets the bills paid. SourceKibitzerBio seems to be a great way for these folks to showcase their contributions and get the well-deserved attention of prospective employers.

A nice extension to the idea might be to mock-up real world applications which uses one or more of the components someone has in their portfolio. That would give the not-so-technical hiring manager a better grasp of how the developer's work can be useful to their business.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Desi Feminazis

Read this essay by Madhu Kishwar about Indian women, their objectification via beauty contests, social standing relative to age, advantages to women in an arranged marriage and a myriad of related themes. While Kishwar makes a compelling case all around, she also reflects upon some unexpected and unintended consequences of her own actions.

When she lobbied to abolish the elitist tradition of beauty contests in Miranda House in the 70s, she had hoped it would give the long suffering , second class behenjis (a desi allusion for homely, unfashionable women often without a posh address or a rich and powerful father) a level playing field.

As she looks back, that was not what really happened. The beauty queens of the 70s have gone on to become third world feminists (maybe feminazis in their overzealousness) because they have kept up with the dictates of fashion. These women look chic in ethnic and head up organizations dedicated to South Asian studies. The behenjis have done what they were fated to do, play catch up and are therefore turning into beauty contest entrants.

Kishwar observes that the change of guard from the westernized elites in Miranda House to the more conservative Swadeshi types did a great disservice to the liberal ambience of the college and retrogressed to the desi version of Victorianism. Her Miranda House experience is like an incubator for social change in India. Most if not all of it translates wherever Indo-British dominance gave way to the upholders of Bharitiya Sanskriti.

There is not a dateline on the story but judging from the context it is at least a decade old but it is entirely germane to India and the desi condition even today. Definitely worth reading .