Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Superkids

A few months ago, a co-worker gave me a copy of Joseph Epstein's WSJ article In American Culture, Children Rule. Our kids are the same age and we share the feelings of inadequacy as parents - we are not doing what it takes to make superkids out of our normal, happy go lucky brats. Teacher conferences terrify us - they depict us as penny pinching sloths who are set on ruining our children's future. The essay made for amusing reading though I can't agree that America is more child-centric than other cultures and countries as several comments on the blog post that references Epstein's essay correctly point out.

Around the world there are indigenous versions of suburban American soccer mom. While their aspirations for their children may vary, their tactics are largely the same. The kids are overcommitted and trying to best the competition at everything the parents sign them up for. The modern day nerd may also be prime NFL material. They become a hard act to follow but over ambitious parents will not quit trying even if a fiasco on the scale of Kaavya Vishwanathan results from their efforts.

One popular theory many teachers including Mrs H, J's kindergarten teacher have is that children must be exposed to everything out there until they recognize their true calling. In J terms that would be signing her up for hockey, ice-staking, theatre, clarinet, karate, painting, salsa and everything in between until she has her epiphany.

Some people I know have masters in multiple disciplines and are still in school because they haven't found that one subject that is just right for them. The parents are bankrolling these experiments in education even into their late twenties and early
thirties. Now, that is the kind of parent Mrs. H would whole heartedly endorse. She would love nothing more than for me to become one of them and is understandably frustrated by my obdurate refusal to comply.

After all the time and money invested in getting J to find herself she may discover that she wants with her heart and soul to be a professional clown and travel with a circus company. According to Mrs. H and her ilk, I should gladly bring myself to the precarious edge of bankruptcy if that is what it takes for J to know her mind. Apparently, that is the only way to get our children ahead in life and succeed in a world where meritocracy reigns supreme.

The last line of Epstein's essay is worth remembering for all parents "..meritocracy is merciless, and hardest of all on those it would at first seem to favor"

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Acronym Soup

You know you are on the other side of generation gap and fighting a losing battle when you can't even keep from drowning in technology acronym soup, less be able to keep up with it. When I came out of the caves, they were talking about MoSoSo and I thought that sounded a lot like MoMA.

The irony of discovering that MoSoSo referred to the latest social networking enabling technology and not a new art museum was not lost on me. I am so over the hill that even watching kids in action with their Gameboys and Nintendos makes me anxious as does a lot of recent cinema.

The pace and choppiness of the action wears me out. I seem to be retrogressing to an earlier generation that was happy to listen to really slow music, play solitaire with real cards and curl up on the couch with a good book and a cup of tea. I can find peace and joy in all of those activities. The chances of me catching with any of the myriad MoSoSo applications is remote to non-existent. Maybe I can leap frog a couple of generations in technology and catch up when J comes of age.

High up on my wish list for future technology is to see user interfaces that don't have multi-function keys that need to be toggled between modes and devices that don't need me to study the user manual like I were preparing for the board exams. A readable font size would be most welcome. How difficult can it be to devise something that the lowest common denominator such as myself is able to understand without burning out every last grey cell that have ? I'm not surprised that Alzheimer’s is getting to be so common these days. The demands of modern technology can burn out older people mercilessly quick.

To my credit, I am perfectly capable of using the self check out system in the public library and only sometimes need help with it at the grocery stores. It seems that the gaming and wireless communication industry has no use for the likes of me and can safely ignore us when designing their goods and services.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Whole Truth

A few months ago, my friend Poorvi wanted me to meet her boyfriend. Her family believes that the only way to marry is to have the parents arrange it. Needless to say, they knew nothing of the existence of Steve. I met them, we went out together and had a wonderful time.

Late that night when I was half asleep, Poorvi called to ask the inevitable question "So what did you think of him ?" I know of no other question that is quite as difficult to answer. My answer was truthful but incomplete. I told her I thought Steve was a decent guy, very easy to talk to and like.

The part that I did not tell her was that I saw no real spark between them and feared they would grow apart emotionally once the exhilaration of a new relationship faded. As hard as I tried, I could not visualize them as a couple. I told myself it was not my place to say any of that and besides I could be entirely wrong.

Since that meeting, whenever Poorvi calls me it is always about how Steve's interest in her seems to be waning and how he tells her nothing has changed and its all in her imagination. She is not convinced and asks me what she should do. She wonders if she should break up and move on but likes him too much to summon the courage to do so. The longer she waits the more she will hurt.

Though she lives with her family, she can't share any of this with them. Each time we talk about Steve, I feel guilty. Maybe I could have spared her the pain by telling her the whole truth but what if I had been wrong. Instead I dispense platitudes on the nature and purpose of relationships and how all will be well in the end.

A few years ago when I lived for a couple of weeks with Naina and her husband, she confessed that she always knew my ex and I would not work out and had wanted to warn me before we got married. I asked her "Why didn't you ?" Her answer was no different from my reasons for not wanting to tell Poorvi that she and Steve will not work. There is a fine line between honesty and presumption and like Naina I fear to cross it.

Naina's own marriage has been difficult but she has chosen to accept her fate and stay on. Poorvi trusts my judgement because I am the veteran of a few failed relationships. It is incredibly sad when we learn lessons the hard way and yet when our friends look to us for help, we let them slide down the same slippery slope of mistakes we made ourselves.

We want to believe that there are exceptions to the rule and for those that we care about the exception will apply. Both Naina and I are guilty of this.

Reading this poem by Nikki Giovanni made me think about Poorvi

Balances

in life
one is always
balancing

like we juggle our mothers
against our fathers

or one teacher
against another
(only to balance our grade average)

3 grains of salt
to one ounce truth

our sweet black essence
or the funky honkies down the street

and lately i've begun wondering
if you're trying to tell me something

we used to talk all night
and do things alone together

and i've begun

(as a reaction to a feeling)
to balance
the pleasure of loneliness
against the pain
of loving you

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Vasudeva Kutumbakam

First off, I do not profess to be the Cliff Notes for raising the best adjusted desi kid in the west. It will take another decade and something to test the efficacy of my theories being that my child is only all of five at this time. That said, I have always been an interested observer of the coconut syndrome that kids of Indian origin growing up in the west are supposed to suffer from. I am sure other ethnicities who are relatively recent immigrants would have similar travails and like us desis pour their angst out just as copiously.

One would think given the great diversity of India, the desi has a distinct advantage over most other immigrants when it comes to being able to acclimatize with ease to a new culture. Even within our own country this is an essential survival skill that those of us who have not have the chance to grow up in their native state already have. It should be a skill we can teach our kids quite easily.

Yet children born and raised in this country continue to feel cleaved in the soul. Maybe as parents we set them to an impossible and unrealistic standard of being more desi than the desi back home. To expect a child who has never been part of a Ganesh Chaturthi celebration to be able to relate to cultural and communal aspects of festivals in India is unreal. You can simulate it to death in suburban Chicago and never have come even close. In fact the difference between the real thing and its simulation can result in a sense of not belonging and not quite "getting" it. There is no local context they can relate that experience to and so it will be met with disinterest, resistance and finally rejection.

The child may be better served coming in cold to India and actually seeing what happens for themselves. There is always a first time for everything in every child's life. Parents abroad often turn overzealous fearing that they are not desifiying the kids nearly enough. No longer is it enough to just visit the temple sometimes like they may have done if they lived in India. Active participation is deemed necessary to get the most of the experience.

Growing up we walked in and out of whatever temple grown ups took us to. We went through the motions of puja like we were told to. That was the most anyone expected of us. We were lead half way and left to discover on our time. There is a lot to be said for leading a horse to the water but not coercing it to drink.

Having been born as raised in India , I find it hard to understand the exact dynamic of feeling like a coconut though it has not been for the lack of trying. I never lived anywhere close to my home state, had at best a smattering of Bengali until reaching adulthood and most definitely did not have any friends that spoke the language I spoke at home. I learned to adapt to fit my surroundings, learned new languages to be able to make friends and assimilated culturally over time so I did not feel left out. All of this came about quite naturally and without any concerted efforts from my parents.

To my advantage, I am a Hindu and most people I knew growing up were Hindus as well something that a desi kid growing up in America would most definitely not have. Being a religious minority is obviously much more difficult than being an ethnic or cultural minority and I had no experience of the former in India.

Far be it from me to suggest that my childhood growing up without the Bengali context in India is similar to the first generation immigrant kid experience in the west. But there are undeniable parallels. The minute you step out of your cultural and lingual comfort zone, you are challenged to do one of two things – assimilate and blend in or maintain your indigenousness and stand out. You also have the choice of going to extremes of each way.


Left to my own devices, I happened to choose the middle road which was also the path of least resistance. I imbued new cultures and languages and held on to some things that suggest the essence of Bengaliness to me. Whether that is indeed the true essence of my culture is debatable at best. It worked out well for the most part though I was never an insider in either world. My Bengali credentials were suspect in Calcutta and the cousins teased me to death over my ridiculous accent and relative unfamiliarity with traditional customs and rituals.

Back “home” elsewhere in India , the locals thought it charming how well I had adapted and learnt to participate in their way of life despite not being one of them. They befriended me, indulged and included me but I still remained an outsider in their world. The pan Indian experience enriched my life in innumerable ways and I would never trade that for living in the cocoon of Calcutta all my life.

Raising J outside India to me is merely another step away from that cocoon. I think my own childhood prepared me for this adventure. Not only does she lack the Bengali cultural context, she also lacks the desi one that I had. The challenges are proportionately greater. Just as I was left to fend for myself and figure out how I could participate in the lives of those around me, I have left J alone to find her own way.

Just as Bengaliness was not thrust upon me, I do not thrust desisness upon her. I am convinced that it will grow on her organically. It is important to spark a child’s curiosity, lead them half way and let them discover on their own thereafter. My love for my language grew from listening to my mother recite Bengali poetry and my father sing Bengali songs. In time, I would grow curious about the books my mother read and ask her to read them aloud to me. She read and I absorbed even if I did not fully comprehend.

If parents have a passion for something, kids are highly likely to gravitate towards it. The key is to leave them alone and allow time to work its magic. J is as familiar with songs from Madhumati, as she is with Spongebob. At this point, she is only acquainted with both. Over time, one of them will turn into a more meaningful relationship. My role as I see it is to share with her everything that I care about deeply and chances are she will end up sharing some of them with me.

Sending me to Bengali school to bone up my language skills would have been the surest way to snuff out any interest I might have had in the subject. Knowing that, I am wary about force feeding J any desiness. If this country is what she will call home, she will need to reach out, absorb, assimilate and make herself comfortable. Home and the world outside will continue to be significantly different if not divergent and she must learn to manage multiple cultural identities with consummate ease.

You can feel like a coconut only when you try to juxtapose one identity upon the other specially when they are so disparate in nature. It gets that much easier if you are able use the right identity depending on context which is what I want J to be able to do. To me there is no such thing as an internal and an external identity or any dichotomy thereof and to that extent feeling like a coconut never made any sense to me. Each identity is internalized and externalized to become a composite thing – I have a pan Indian self just as I have a Bengali self. Over time, I might even have a western self.

They are all self sufficient and self contained entities and what is more they do not compete with each other for resources as they have access to the exact same ones. They are all me and skins that I am very comfortable in. I would love for J to have all those selves and many more given the opportunities in a melting pot so she feels at home anywhere in the world. It would make her life incredibly rich and all for taking a chance and venturing further away from the cocoon.

I would know that I have desi-fied J enough if she is able live the mantra of
Vasudeva Kutumbakam every day of her life.

Part 1 : Desi-fication of J

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Friends Of God

Alexandra Pelosi's Friends of God is the story of one amazing road trip. She captures the many faces of the 50 to 80 million strong evangelical Christians community in America - a community anyone with political ambitions may ignore only to their own peril. Their strength is in their numbers and ability to influence constituents to vote for candidates who share their religious and moral values.

As a recent immigrant and a non-Christian, this documentary was an eye opener at many levels. A few key themes emerge in the message of the religious leadership. Marriages are sacrosanct and the only kind that has Bibilical sanction is between a man and a woman. The sole purpose of such unions is to procreate. Planned parenthood is almost as evil as abortion. Finally, God created the world in six days and evolution is scientific myth.

And that is the end of their message. Not once did anyone talk about kindness and forgiveness which most non-Christians believe to be the cornerstone of Christian faith. Christ's life is replete with examples of both. Not once did anyone argue if there was religious sanction for the war in Iraq. For a religious outsider this seems to be a highly selective and opportunistic dissemination of Christian philosophy.

Interestingly all of the religious leadership that the movie features is male and not surprisingly they are pursuing an agenda that will strip women of their hard earned liberation. Twelve years and ten children later, a woman will be completely worn out physically and trapped in marriage until death delivers her. The man can just walk away from it all his freedom completely intact. He can rape and leave but she must bear his child because abortion is a sin and she is a believer. As a woman I have to wonder, what's in it for us.

If adherents really followed through on what their leadership was asking of them - i.e. married early and continued to have children until they were able to, it will not take long for America to join the ranks of overpopulated third world countries, with their women shackled and children impoverished.

Whenever a religious group begins to wield political clout, the fate of the democracy is sealed. Electoral math will override every other concern when millions of voters start to vote as a single entity. The men on the pulpit accquire unprecedented power because they can determine the fate of political leaders. Mixing politics with religion is what it takes to create a crisis like the Middle East. It is sad to think that America could one day sink to the same levels of chaos and anarchy.

No where in the lines
"Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me." is it implied that there is room in this great country for only one religion to the exclusion of the rest. After watching Pelosi's intrepid movie you wonder if you belong here if you are not Christian.

About Friends of God - A HBO documentary, “FRIENDS OF GOD: A ROAD TRIP WITH ALEXANDRA PELOSI” directed by Alexandra Pelosi which premiered on Jan 25th at 9PM EST.

The estimated 50 to 80 million evangelical Christians living in America today have become a formidable force in our culture and democracy. But the evangelical movement is a big tent. To try and get a better understanding of the range and diversity of this community, intrepid filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi hit the road to meet some evangelicals and learn about what their influence may mean for the future of the country.

With her unique brand of road-tripping reportage, and driven by an unflagging curiosity and genuine interest in learning about this increasingly influential community, Alexandra Pelosi (whose previous HBO credits include 2000’s Emmy®-winning “Journeys with George”) embarks on a fast-paced cross-country journey, offering snapshots of a cross-section of evangelical America .

Friday, January 26, 2007

Men, Women And Religion

Thought provoking post about why women are more religious than men in all societies and cultures. In an average Indian home, it is the mother and grandmother who perform the pujas and practice ritualistic observances but the temple priests are almost always male. One western commentator explains with characteristic disregard for facts and scant understanding of Hindu religion what women were used for in Hindu temples - but that is a whole different discussion.

The division of religious duties home and outside is not unlike the role of men and women in the kitchen. When at home it is typically a woman's domain, a commercial enterprise would more likely find a male chef in charge. Women may have a more personal relationship with their religious faith as they do with cooking. As Grandma's rice pudding is to Ferran Adrià's molecular gastronomy, so is Mother's soulful recitation of the Shanti Mantra to a strident Ashta Prahar (chanting for twenty four hours) led by a religious guru. It is more about different than less or more.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Fluffing Wikipedia

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others (or at least try to be) comes to mind reading about Microsoft's latest woes trying to doctor Wikipedia.

While Wikipedia is known as the encyclopedia that anyone can tweak, founder Jimmy Wales and his cadre of volunteer editors, writers and moderators have blocked public-relations firms, campaign workers and anyone else perceived as having a conflict of interest from posting fluff or slanting entries. So paying for Wikipedia copy is considered a definite no-no.

"We were very disappointed to hear that Microsoft was taking that approach," Wales said Tuesday.

Sounds like all MS had to do was to hire someone whose entire job description would be to monitor Wikipedia and the like, prettify and fluffify everything that the dissenters were saying. The official title for this position could be Web Media Hygiene Specialist. They would have been playing by the rules and not be causing so much "disappointment".

This could be Wikipedia's finest hour yet and a huge win for the vision of a democratically edited encyclopedia.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Lunch Break

I stopped taking a lunch break from the time J started going to daycare. It gave me an extra hour of work and I could head home sooner. Among the many things in life that I have had to adapt and abbreviate to make room for the demands on my time, eating lunch at my desk while working is a terribly insignificant change - or so I thought.

After almost four years, I ate lunch at my desk without a single distraction - no emails flying back and forth, no status reports being prepared, so phone calls - nothing except complete silence. I could hear myself eat, I could tell the difference between the fruit, vegetables and bread. They were not the composite lump of "lunch" that I go through along with green tea. Lunch was not an interruption to the main event today but the event itself.

The twenty minutes of silence was at once magnificent and frightening. I think the Sanskrit word that comes closest to describing the ambiguity of that feeling is Vibhatsya. My mind having nothing to focus on and being unaccustomed to focusing on eating, started to wander in ways that I was not prepared for. Like a wild horse it refused to be reined in or controlled.

It took me back to happier times when silence did not connote alone, when it was the desirable pause between events, the tiny synapse joining threads of frenetic activity. Today silence is more onminous -it forces me to look back, revaluate and worse think of the road ahead. Suddenly, it is no longer possible to live in the moment - the past and the future jostle for room and consideration that they have been denied.

I realized how unacquainted I have grown with myself - I could as well have met a stranger at lunch today.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Too Much Detail

Not sure exactly how I ended up at this NYT article on evolution in the definition of beauty while looking for a funny birthday card to send N, my self appointed "relationship coach". With the advent of wide-screen high-definition television, beauty is faced with greater challenges. You probably see more detail on screen than you could with your naked eyes - every last flaw magnified.

It could be God or Devil that is in the details. While some viewers may like it that the stars are only mortal like the rest of us troubled by acne, spider veins and cellulite others may demand they be perfectly airbrushed down to the last pore.

Depending on the numbers on either side, the beauty business may further the cause of the "real" and "natural" look or make people strive towards impossible standards of physical perfection. If only it were possible to bring one's mental and emotional state into such sharp focus - it may have been able to shock us into recuperation.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Desi-fication Of J

Unless you live in southern Hicksville like I do, and the Bharatnatyam teacher with two left feet is the only game in town, enabling the desi-fication of Indian children born in this country is much more than a cottage industry.

The offerings in the burbs of Boston for instance are mind-boggling. My good friend and our former "Activity Director" is using that as bait to lure me into relocating to Lexington, MA. Apparently, the public school system is head and shoulders above what I have going on in my town. I figure she is tired of me bellyaching about a) J's hidebound elementary school b) J's near complete cluelessness about all things desi for want of socialization opportunities.

The Hicksville sensibility seems to be a contagious thing because the desis in my town stereotype me in ways that are not very different from the locals who have lived in the same county for three generations and never crossed the state line. I recall having met desis of a very different stripe when I used to live in bigger more vibrant cities. The only people I can safely socialize with are the ones who are passing through town on temporary assignments and can't wait to head out of here the moment they are done.

While I believe J will benefit from assimilating Indian culture and getting to know people of her own ethnicity, I think I will stop short at the sampling platter. The results of a la carte desi-fication are less than desirable from what I have seen. These kids seem to hang out almost exclusively with other desi kids whose parents have likewise pursued desi-fication with a messianic zeal.

As adults, they serve on the committees of desi organizations, wear desithreads, party with others like them, post pictures of themselves in various degrees of undress and inebriation on their Friendster profiles and speak English with a strange gangsta slant. The quaintest phenomenon has to be the desi "professional networking associations" where they go to find future spouses - I can't think of a better transliteration of the arranged marriage into a western context.

You wonder if they may not have been better served if the parents had not taken desi-fication to such extremes. The kids may have had a fighting chance to blossom and grow outside their all-desi topiary framework. The road to hell is paved with good intentions including but not limited to teaching the kids to read and write the native language when they can barely speak it, Odissi, hot yoga and Vedic chanting classes, Saturday afternoon visits to the local Hindu temple, elaborate Diwali celebrations, innumerable trips to India, Sat Sanghs, annual Sammelans where desis of their particular state in India from around the country congregate for a week of cultural immersion. Surely, all of that was for the edification of the children. It must be a case of too much of a good thing.

While I have no use for full service desi-fication, I could definitely use some self-serve.

Part 2 : Vasudeva Kumtumbakam

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Old Wounds

The third and final part of the Cold Attic series

Meeting Clara and Mahesh again

V was so terrified that I feeding her a line about the intent and length of stay at her house, that she decided misbehaving with me was the best pre-emptive action. The things that bothered her were quite strange. Clara and Mahesh were over at their home one weekend.

Clara was shopping near Trenton for some kind of specialty wood for her furniture and had stopped by at V’s. We got chatting after a late Sunday brunch – it was mostly about my situation and I was telling Clara how things had been during and after my deciding to walk out of my marriage. It was pedestrian conversation at best. She was curious about what it was to be in my situation in India and seemed to understand why I was so desperate get out of there.

At the time, I felt so detached from the event and the dramatis personae that I could as well have been narrating a third party observation of facts. V stayed on the living room futon not bothering to join us at the dinner table and I could see her rage mounting by the minute.

A few days later she tells me “You are so upfront about your personal life – you can talk about it with everyone – even Clara – who is she anyways , you don’t mind discussing your problems with my husband using him to get job leads – so why can’t you be just as upfront about how long you plan on staying here. Why do you need to be so ambiguous about that ?”

Explanation Redux

I went over the situation all over again with her for the nth time because she had been browbeating me around the same issue ever since I had come. For the nth I explained to her that I had not planned much – things had just fallen into place the last day when I was at the client’s site. Out of the blue I had a headhunter call me and offer to process a work permit. As always, she just refused to believe me. Her theory seemed to be that I had slyly wheedled my way under their roof without disclosing my real intent.

That morning like many other times before, V managed to reduce me to tears. For better or worse I will remember those few weeks in Philadelphia for how many times I cried and how much when after the end of my marriage I used to think I had no more tears left to cry. I came to realize that you never know if there are still more tears to come, only time can tell.

Maybe doing that made her feel like she was even with me - I prayed for deliverance each time I cried –“God, take me out of here while I still have some pride left, while I still feel human” It hurt like hell to have to stoop so low trying to survive.

Three Years Ago

Another interesting detail came out during the course of my stay. V told me why she had been upset me with for quite some time – maybe a couple of years or more – I must have been too tied up with my own problems to notice the difference in her behavior with me. When she had visited us (me and my ex when we were still newly married) she looked so frazzled –a bundle of nervous energy trying to do everything on her own that it got me really upset.

Back in the day, my cultural sensibilities were entirely desi – I was too new in this country to have assimilated anything. The fact that I had only recently come out of a long period of stress related to my parents trying to find me a match without success – made the wound pretty raw – my heart went out to her because she had been through much more than I had and God had not thought it time to give her a break yet.

I felt the deepest empathy for her but no condescension or pity and there is a world of difference between the two. She was always confident, smart and perfectly capable of taking care of herself. She had no “need” of a man to take care of her. I wished ardently that she would find the companionship that she did need – have a home and family of her own.

After spending the weekend with us, she was to leave for Washington DC to renew her passport and left at the crack of dawn. When she called from DC to tell me she had reached safe and the breakfast I had packed for her was good – something about the way she spoke anguished me so much that I cried – I really wanted her to find someone who would take on some of her strife – I must have cared that much about her to feel her pain like it were my own. For a moment, I felt I could have been in her shoes, if I had accepted the job offer in DC four years ago.

V had an entirely different slant on the incident. She was already low and I had pushed her decisively into the lowest nadir. I realized then that the other reason and perhaps the more important one for her being so upset at my staying over was that she thought of me as an unlucky omen that would be a harbinger of bad luck.

She definitely would not want my shadow to fall upon her home and matrimony and blight it. It takes a while for anyone I think to realize that they are looked upon like an ill-omen – they try hard to think this is not for real – it’s just in their magination. I know how hard V had to belabor the point with me until it actually sunk in.

The here and now

We all evolve with time – I must have changed in fundamental ways that may not be obvious to me. V has become this very superficial and artificial person, making polite conversation with everyone – inflecting her voice just right to portray concern for everyone just the same way. She probably has no real friends and if I ever was one that is obviously history. Losing a good friend is always hard thing for me to accept – when I was younger I would try again and again to go back and start anew – over the years I have come to realize how futile those attempts at restoration were – I don’t try anymore.

For a while I feel the absence of someone that was once important in my life – just the force of old habit maybe but then I withdraw. With V, I don’t have much to do because she had shoved me far away from her thoughts with much violence and deliberation making sure that all the doors leading back are bolted and secured. She is not the type that will leave anything to chance. It hurts my vanity a little to think that I, as a person was not of consequence enough for her to even feel any loss at the end of a decade long friendship. Well, such is life perhaps.

While at V’s I meet with this uber-cool desi dude by name VeeJay. He gave me hope and inspiration to continue with my job-hunt which to most people was no better than a wild-goose chase. He is in the recruiting business and thought I’d ace any interview – provided I got one. I felt much better hearing him say that – he also gave me plenty of leads and contacts for jobs. His wife is quite a smart lady too – studying something to do with Bio- informatics – they make an interesting though not a very compatible looking couple.

Chazzez and Dechazzez

I also had a chance to see the widely published “unemployment statistics” up close and personal at a Philadelphia career fair. Endless streams of unemployed or underemployed humanity lined up at the fair from 10 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. There were three companies only and they merely chatted with candidates for 2-3 minutes, took their resumes for their “database” (read trash bin).

The whole scene reminded me of the employment exchange and the jobless hero standing in a serpentine queue so poignantly portrayed in old black and white Hindi movies. Here I was in such a queue myself and having any hope was potentially impossible. The air was so thick with desperation and depression that I was glad to be back "home".

In the meanwhile, V gave me a dead-line of 21st March to find another place to go and live. Her general behavior with me goes through ups and downs. If she is pleasant for a few days – my hopes are up and I start to think maybe she will not evict me on the 21st after all – maybe I can stay a little longer and get my visa before I decide to do anything else – and I start to relax a little.

The moment she perceives that I am getting too comfortable with the status quo her attitude changes dramatically and once again I’m frantically looking out for a place to live. I call Madhavi, an acquaintance from the city I last lived with R. She very firmly says “No, it won’t be possible”. She comes up with what she thinks is a smart move. A month ago she was not sure if she is even going to India for a visit and I could come over whenever I was done with my client assignment. However, now she was on her way out of America for good and could most definitely not accommodate me.

I’m not sure what kind of emotional insecurity leads her to do this but there I was being given out hope and then when I needed help the most – I was just told that was all make believe. I’m getting used to people playing these little mind games with me – and I’m not even surprised. There is no better way to know somebody than to reveal your weaknesses to the point they can take advantage of you. I’d advise Madhavi to become a little more secure and sane before getting married – that way she’d spare a man’s life from being trashed unnecessarily.

In their shoes

Sometimes I think there is this thing about making one’s bones in the US that makes people the way they are. Most new immigrants start out being gullible and naïve – get hard knocks every inch of the way – hardening little by little until there is no tenderness left at all. It is as if the human element vaporizes to form an impentrable crust of stability. The good beneath their feet is firm at last and it will be over their dead bodies that someone will disturb it.

Everything turns calculated and cautious – you have to look out for yourself if you want to survive – no one wants to take a chance and risk what took many years to build. Sometimes, this gets taken to an extreme point that its strikes one such as myself as motivated cruel behavior when perhaps it is not.

Both V and Madhavi are worried that I have no future – that I am on this kamikaze mission trying to get a visa and a job in a market where people with many more years of experience and much better legal standing have been jobless for months sometimes years. What if I want to stay on with them as an illegal ? They could jeopardize their future harboring an illegal immigrant not to mention the costs of doing do – they’d much sooner not have anything to do with me.

I see where they are coming from but they’ve gone through too much to even care to look at it from my perspective. Ego-centrism is the primary bane of this country and is what makes it such a cold and bloodless society. Madhavi and V have definitely assimilated this part of the American character very successfully. I don’t want to become like them – but who knows it may well be inevitable.

A room of my own

I contact my terminally ill American friend A next– she is more than happy to have me over but she lives in an assisted living home and is not allowed have guests for more than 3 weeks. I check out the air-fares to Phoenix – I just can’t afford it. By train it would be four days before I even reached – I did not have that kind of time – and what after the three weeks were done ?

S and V suggest that I move into a transitional home for women – but they take only battered women in an immediate crisis and I am not a candidate – the next suggestion from them is to get a cheap student accommodation near the University – but that does not feel so safe – all the money I have is in cash plus there is an expensive laptop.

I feel sad that a friend from ten years ago does not think twice about telling me to go to place full of traumatized women out of marriages and relationships that are figuratively if not literally killing them – that she does not think that my mental state would be affected living in a place like that. I find it laughable when V says that I must stop driving myself so desperately and return to a normalcy – unless a transitional home is her concept of normal life.

I can’t believe that she has really grown so heartless – she tells me “ I can’t put my life on hold – I’ve wanted to visit Minneapolis for a weekend and this happened long before you came over, so those plans cannot change now. You need to figure where you can stay that weekend.” And then a few days later S tells me “ I want V to go out and do volunteer work, meet people around Philadelphia – she can’t stay home all day. We’re not comfortable with you living alone here all day.”

Here is someone draining their life away to get a toehold in a hostile environment, an eighteen month old baby far away in India who is counting each day to when they can be together again – and what seems infinitely more important than all that is “volunteering” and “getting to know the city” and the “planned weekend at Minneapolis”. Life's a bitch like my ex mother-in-law or maybe I am one hell of a self-entitled bitch. It would have helped me immensely at that point in my life to know which of the two was true.

Relative Priorities

This is revelation to me and I’m glad God gave me the opportunity to know the people I thought I could count on. I keep trying to place myself in her shoes and think – what would I have done. Common sense says anyone with even an iota of reason would not ruin their career and their future by staying on indefinitely in a country as an illegal. With a baby back home I could not go on job-hunting forever– things would have to reach closure before my business visa expired. Was that asking for a lifetime ? Was I being so unreasonable in my expectations ? I really do want someday to be in their shoes just to know myself - would I do the same too ?

I post ads everywhere to look for room-mates – am very scared doing so because I’m revealing my identity on the internet and maybe my co-ordinates will be known to my ex after all my efforts not to let it out. They have pushed me to a corner so I have no choice left. I create fictive mail ids and put out the ads. As the days run out, I have to divide my time between job-hunting and roomie-hunting while panic and uncertainty grip me like a vice.

Nitin and Mike continue to hound me about giving a firm date of return to India and taking charge of my newly expanded team that is floundering without a manager. I make up creative reasons for not being able to provide an exact date. I have a single thread of lies running for their benefit – a complete scenario verified for accuracy by A who had been through the same situation - and I stick to it like my life depended on it because in a way it did.

At a time like this I call Naina and ask her if I could stay over at her place. She has her mother over and is hesitant but says we could manage for a week or so. By an amazing stroke of luck, I have also found a room-mate in the DC area so that gives Naina an idea that I would be with them only for a bit – she is okay with that and so is her husband. She sounds happy that I’ve worked out something so she does not have to say no to my request.

The journey thus far

Through out this long journey alone after walking out of my marriage – I know I have been the object of envy to both friend and foe, men and women. That people living in what is generally termed as normal lives should even think of me as an object of envy never ceased to surprise me. I think the reason is my state is closer to nature and God.

I am a very fulfilled mother blessed with a lovely child. I have respect for the child’s pedigree - my marriage was no youthful folly or a regrettable error of judgment. I could not live with this man because in he equated love with control. Unless he could be my puppet master, I did not love him enough.

I felt emotionally abused by him and this touches a raw nerve in most married women because they are emotionally abused to varying degrees though they may choose to be in denial of it – as is the case with most abuse. I chose to walk out because I believed I could give my child a much better life if I were alone - that I would be freer and happier alone than in a marriage that suffocated me.

I have accomplished what is at best a dream for most women – I may not be wrong in saying this is their most cherished utopia. They cannot believe that someone can actually do it and do it well. They envy me and would not like me to be happy because that would only prove while they are entrapped , I have set myself free – and I had the guts to do it and they don’t. In nature the father is usually gone after the mating season while mother and cub fend for themselves – what is natural is perhaps Godly as well.

I have also mailed out my papers for the work permit to my new employer – the lawyer comes back with questions and the filing takes place two weeks after it was originally supposed to. I feel the pressure mount on me and a sense of agitation. There is a choking pain in my chest sometimes – I have read somewhere it has to do with prolonged grief – as I write this I have not felt it in a while.

The cold at V’s bothered me too – it was close to being out in the open in winter – the heating duct did not work – I tried to sleep with a woolen cap at night for a few days – and my head was still stone cold when I woke up in the morning and it felt like a dead weight. I mentioned the heating a couple of times and then figured they were skimping on gas so it was best not discussed. Interestingly, they have asked me a few times about my medical insurance coverage and I have told them I am covered by my company for the time allowed on my business visa. They are anything but convinced. I feel worried because I don't want suspected illness to be another reason they get desperate to throw me out.

Goodbye, V

My telling them that I was all set to go to Washington DC on 21st had an amazing effect on V and S. They were at once warm and cordial all over again and kept insisting that if I did not like it there for whatever reason I should feel free to head back. I could not help feel amused. Here was Naina bailing me out of an impossible situation and I was supposed to think that they were not treating me like royalty like I was used to being treated here. That was a hoot !

Anyways, I made the best of the brief respite from tension this gave me and concentrated once again on the job hunting. The visa papers were sent out to INS in the meanwhile and the lawyer thought it looked fine in all respects. I was to have my permit by 2nd April, giving me enough time to deal with Nitin and Mike.

I came away from Philadelphia – with a heavy heart – whatever V’s compulsions to behave the way she did has sealed the fate of our friendship. Nothing that either of us do would make any difference anymore – it would be a strenuous exercise of trying to keep a dead thing alive through artificial respiration of pleasantries. I am also worried for her – she is anything but happy – her depression spread a pall of gloom all around her – if there is anything at all about her present life with S that she finds happy, it would have lifted the clouds.

I am worried about how she is going to turn out – she is probably not going to tell me because she feels no emotional connect to me anymore – or has severed it during my stay at her home – knowingly, unwillingly or however – but the act is committed all the same. I feel like I have lost a friend – a very good one. We can still depend on each other for logistics but there is a much more to life than that. In my heart I know she regrets it too.

Hard Times

I decide to take the 12:00 noon bus to DC instead of the 10:30 a.m. because of a seven hour layover that would force me to take. V and I hang around at a nearby mall and I pick up a crafts and hobbies book for Naina from Waldenbooks. I guess this will be a nice gift for her – maybe God did not will for me to go to their home empty handed. I gifted V and S a small bottle of Godiva liqueur and a volume of the “Rubaaiyaat of Omaar Khyyam.” as a token wedding gift – which they really appreciated.

V is a little wistful seeing me off – there is something final about my going away – the lady at the counter asks me “One-way or Round Trip ?”. I pause a brief while and say with conviction “ One-way” – V probably did not expect that. I also make a surprise discovery – my driving license is still valid - I had been sure it had expired a year ago.

V is astounded that I could miss something as obvious as that. The date of validity is printed clearly on the license and I never noticed it. She exhorts me to check that my passport and visa are valid – just be sure that they are. Well, everyone misses some in life – and mine has been a roller-coaster so I guess I’ve missed a few extra.

Naina had asked me to come to Arlington because that would be closer to their home – this meant yet another change of buses. I was tired from lugging my belongings all the way and the waiting for the bus connections. I had an interesting experience as I got ready to board the bus to Arlington – there were two African American guys helping stow the luggage in the luggage compartment.

One of them starts to speak with me in Spanish and the other interjects “She is no Spanish” and then he tells me “Your luggage is over-weight. You’ll have to pay extra”. I say “I came all the way from Philadelphia and no one said this was over-weight” He replies “But it is and you have to pay extra – or we don’t take this. Maybe you can work something out with this guy here” he says pointing to the other chap – this I realize is a blatant attempt to collect a bribe.

I tell him “I can ask someone to pick me up from here, that way I don’t have to go to Arlington.” The guys says “It’s ok , We’ll take it”. I’m a little surprised at the experience but figure it’s probably natural in economic depression and joblessness.

These are desperate times for many of us and we may all be excused for what it drives us to.

Part 1 : Cold Attic
Part 2:
One NYC Trip

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Schooling Of J

It was a surreal experience meeting with J's homeroom teacher and guidance counselor yesterday afternoon. After requesting an audience with the later for half a month, I was finally granted one with both. I had expressed concerns about J's potential to get bored with the curriculum and explore the possibility of challenging her mind some more. I have already heard her say "I wish I could stay home and not have to go to school" a few times.

They were both quick to point out that I had a cultural background that found enrichment only in learning but there was much more to life besides that. This after my emphasizing to Mrs. H several times that the blossoming of J's social skills was key to me and that she should keep me posted on any concerns in that regard.

They know that I am a single working mother. I had thought this was useful information for the school to have so the teachers would know to be sensitive about J's absent father and that they have always been. It is also helps because they know not to expect me to be a PTA superstar like some moms are.

Today, was however different. Talking of enrichment outside learning, Mrs. H said "There are plenty of opportunities in the area but everything costs money". I wondered for a moment if I looked like a case of teenaged pregnancy, stuck with a baby and no high school diploma. I was so astounded that I did not know what to say. Soon thereafter we got talking about after school programs and Mrs. C mentioned the Y had excellent programs and "also a sliding scale membership fee for low income families. As a single mother that would be helpful for you".

Here I am brown skinned, divorced and a concerned mother of a child with unconventional learning needs living in a posh neighborhood that is 95% white, talking to two white women with wedding bands associating me with every negative stereotype that my "kind" engenders. I had to tell Mrs. C. "I would not qualify for the sliding scale membership so it really does not matter if it is the Y or someplace else".

Once my financial solvency had been established I was given a plethora of enrichment choices for J - theatre, a quarter violin, the piano, a week of skiing, art lessons at the museum of fine arts. I was just waiting for one of them to suggest that I fly her to NYC and get her prepped to audition for a Broadway musical - that would surely be very enriching and completely unrelated to "rote learning".

When I asked Mrs. H what I could do at home to help J, she asked if I had computer and an internet connection. By now I was prepared to be asked if I was lived in the trunk of my car or had a real home. They were having a hard time believing that one such as myself actually lived in their neighborhood - infact just across the street from the school.

This is the best elementary school in the county and everyone in my town raves about what a great place J is in. At the going rate, it will be the school that will make me relocate from here. It is at times like this I wish I could be a stay at home mom and home school J.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Sparklessly Married

After hearing one KANK reference too many from friends, acquaintances and strangers on blogosphere over the last few months, I decided to watch the movie. I was curious to know why it resonated with so many people who apparently had little in common. They most definitely did not share a common taste in cinema. What was the draw then, I wondered.

The story seems to make sense to the young, affluent and urbane desi of today - specially those who are or have been married. The message is simple : feeling the vibe, the click, the spark and having chemistry is not optional while entering the state of matrimony. Just having one nice person marry another nice one is no guarantee of a lifetime of happiness.

This turns traditional wisdom on its head which said that any two nice people once married would inevitably come to love each other, that the vibe, click, spark and chemistry were impermanent and should never form the basis of a durable relationship. You were taught to think of the very long run - the real dividends from marriage came when the two were nearing death, up until then you continued to nurture and invest in it, you never sought solace elsewhere to ease boredom.

Whereas our parents and grandparents were saddled with a lot of responsibilities from an early age to late in life in the form of dependent siblings and aging parents, we have the incomparable luxury of contemplating the nature of relationships into our thirties and beyond. We delay starting a family because we can afford to do so. We are willing to try several relationships for fit, spend the time and effort it takes because "the journey is not less important than the destination".

Our options have increased to the point where no one choice is truly final. In the west, all of this has been true for a while. While KANK is no great cinema, it is an epiphany of the state of desi matrimony today. Small wonder then that it strikes a chord with such a wide variety of people.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Mural To Music

I knew that the word I was looking for belonged to the mural family but was not exactly that. I was wanting to suggest that S get a trompe l'oeil of a rustic courtyard bathed in warm sunlight on one of the walls so there would be an illusion of the tropics in the Midwest. He managed to get the drift even as I fumbled for the word trompe l'oeil.

"Where do you find those things ?" he asked. I had no idea but figured getting one painted would cost an arm an leg. "You can look it up on the net" I said. "My nephew would suggest I download the image and print it out on wall paper. Kids these days will never buy if it can be downloaded. He thinks I am old fashioned because I buy music CDs" he laughed. So from talking about the best shade of yellow for kitchens, we wandered away to discussing the ethics of using Gnutella type file sharing services.

Back in the 80s when we were kids, mixed tapes were cool, hip and fun. Everyone borrowed from everyone, you copied from copied tapes ad infinitum until the sound quality was so severely degraded that you no longer recognized the song. As kids, we thought it was a harmless pastime and adults did not tell us any different.

The storage media today are different but kids are still being kids and doing what comes naturally at that age - they want to rip, burn and mix until the ultimate desert island album is born. It is a project that takes years, is often punctuated by coming of age experiences, love, loss and heartbreak. Then in the mid twenties, you begin settle and you start to buy more than you burn. Trying to put the brakes on Napster clones is as futile as trying to take the raging hormones out of a teenager.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Amusing City

My friend A has been living in Dubai for about ten years and has been trying to get his folks to visit with him for almost that long. They insisted that he get out of his bachelor pad and find a wife before they came. Finally, last year his dad arrived to meet with his brand new grand daughter. I asked "So did he like it there ?" and A replied "He found Dubai very amusing and knowing you, I think you'd feel the same way too."

I suspect he might be right though I have yet to make the detour through there on the way home to India as promised to A. Reading this
essay on Slate tempts me to this time around though I might need a trip to Disney to primer me for the high octane "amusement".

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Shoe Storing

This has got to one of the coolest shoe storage ideas I have seen - any woman owning upwards of twenty pairs has got to love it. Back in the day when I lived and worked in Bangalore, had no care in the world except making the difficult choice between several pairs of shoes that I loved equally well, Rakku would have been so perfect. Me, Ritu and Tanvi gave the Commercial Street stores the better part of our slim paychecks each month. Thankfully, I did not enjoy shopping for clothes and trinkets nearly as much as they did - window shopping was good enough for me as long as I was well stocked up on the shoes.

Now that I am older and wiser and the paychecks support enterprises less frivolous than fancy shoe stores, life is different all around. The shoe rack has been drastically downsized. No longer can I wear those absurdly high heels. After untying countless knots on J's shoe laces each day (apparently the kids in her class are learning to lace up shoes and use hers to test their skills not to mention strength) , the maze of spaghetti strap sandals is more torture than I can bear. I have to choose between one pair of sensible shoes and the next if I plan on being able to walk and have little use for such fancy revolving, configurable shoe storage.

Monday, January 15, 2007

One NYC Trip

Around this time, four years ago. In which I go out with V and S, and spend a night in Brooklyn instead of in their cold attic :

Arriving in the City

One weekend we went over to NYC to Clara and Maheshs'. The occasion was a reception Clara's was having at her studio. I had heard a lot about these two – S’s brother and his American wife. The woman was a jeweler and a vegetarian. The studio was somewhere in Upper East Side and that sounded incredibly cool and artsy. We reached NYC at night and the skyline looked gap-toothed. I could not tell where the towers had stood but something that defined the Manhattan skyline was gone forever – it looked stunted and powerless. The symbolism of it all hit me suddenly and I began to see the great need they had for waging war on Iraq and all that was a perceived threat to their way of life.

The studio was a little shack . There were plenty of Art-Deco touches in the interior including a rather stylized commode – thankfully it was easy enough to use ! The hand-crafted jewelry stood in a few glass showcases. It would take a lot of practice to see where these pieces were different from their machine made, mass produced clones. To my Indian eyes nothing I saw there appeared truly out of the ordinary but the atmosphere was nice. I have some red wine in a plastic glass and hors de oeuvres – I can’t place any of the music that was playing and noticed the crowd was more on the scruffy side than sophisticated. This is my first foray into anything even remotely artsy in the west. I am hardly dressed for an evening on the town but blended in quite okay.

Clara is a petite woman with a tiny golden nose stud and hair that curls backwards in the 70s style. We make small talk and I tell her she must make a stop at Calcutta to see the jewelry designs – it might give her new inspiration. There is this other woman V introduces me to – she works for a drama troupe – has what looks like lacquered hair and over done eyes. She wears a deep scarlet lipstick that makes her mouth look like an undefined splash of strawberry jam.

She is Clara’s childhood friend and is passing through town. I am fascinated by her profession and tell her as much. She tells me that her life is hardly as romantic and glamorous as it sounds. To help pay the bills, she also teaches acting in Shakespearean plays. This is presumably the fixed income part of her job and apparently its not a big chunk of change. She says I’m lucky to be in a profession that pays steady and well. Grass is greener etc..

The Studio

Along with the guests come a couple of dogs one is a Terrier and the other is a nippy little Chihuahua. V is very dog-unfriendly or whatever it is that describes people like us that like dogs from about a mile away on a tight leash. However the Chihuahua is taken up by her and keeps trying to get on her lap as she tries to squirm out of its way.

She has already warned me of the cat at Clara and Maheshs' that sheds like crazy and sometimes curls up in your bed uninvited. I am already dreading the prospect of spending the night at Brooklyn with the cat in my bed. V has told me before that she hates staying the night at their place because of the cat.

Mahesh comes in the door and I know it must be him because he looks exactly like his mother who I’ve seen in V’s wedding pictures. He and Clara make a very nice couple. He hardly looks Indian - with his complexion and features he could pass off for Eastern European. We head out for dinner at a South Indian restaurant – it’s a few blocks away from the studio. The food is almost home-made in taste and simplicity.

The interesting detail of the dinner is that the bill is divided between everyone equally. Clara and Mahesh pay as individuals as does Strawberry Splash. S however pays for V and me. I feel distinctly uncomfortable at the inequity of it all. V I think does not feel much better. I know she always talks about how much she regrets not working any more. The bill-pay scheme leaves a strange after-taste in the mouth of a otherwise wonderful south Indian Thali dinner. Mahesh hates driving and they don’t have a car. Living in the city works out good for them. It would be a cold day in hell before they moved either upstate or to Jersey burbs.

Leaving for Brooklyn

S drives us all to Brooklyn – the place looks a little better than seedy but it I figure must be expensive anyways. We walk up to their apartment on the second floor – they recently bough this place for about half a million. Inside it’s nice – the furnishings are few but they are in good taste and look expensive. There is a spray of orchids in a vase on the kitchen counter-top and rows of books on vegetarian and vegan cooking in the book shelf.

The infamous cat is by the corner propped up on a chair. The sleeping arrangements are quickly made – I opt immediately for the living room with the cat. The down comforter and pillow feel immensely comfortable and a hugely welcome change from sleeping in V’s cold attic with two sweaters, socks and slacks and getting up in the morning with a head heavy from cold. Since they pay for the utilities the heating is used very sparingly and in a winter that was completely unsparing it sure got tough.

I got up several times that night to check on the cat – it had moved into the kitchen but kept away from me. In life I realize it’s difficult to have everything at once – a warm bed comes with the price tag - a lurking somnambulist cat.

The next morning – Clara has to leave early and Mahesh fixes breakfast for us – the frozen bagels are thawed and toasted, the tofu scramble is made – I see the connect clearly now. V's tastes are more evolved since I saw her last about four years ago – she wears only designer labels now – and shops at the more expensive stores. Cooking and baking are her new hobbies – talking of which (hobbies and interests ) there is simply no end- who ever does what ever she must do too.

The Clara and Mahesh effect

It may be wood burning, stain glass making painting, quilt making, knitting – you name it and even before she embarks on her new passion she has bought her books on the subject and all the supplies – and then she drives herself to do all these things which probably interest her only very little – if at all. Her home is full of remnants of many still born hobbies. She has about a dozen picture frames she intends to frame her art work in some day. She is keeping up with a host of real and imaginary Joneses and Clara is definitely one of them.

S plainly hero worships Mahesh – the guy who covered himself in glory working by making a successful career as an investment banker , marrying a vegetarian “gori-mem” and owning a nice home in Brooklyn. V must equal or exceed Clara in order to meet his expectations from his wife and by God she is doing all she can to get there. She has lost all sense of self – the precious little that she had.

One rule of thumb – any woman who eulogizes all of her in-laws and all of their remote collaterals at all times has most definitely got some serious issues in her marriage – mine was a case in example. V is pretty far into the game already - her husband ranges from “pleasant looking” all the way to “handsome” depending on how hard she’s trying to seek happiness in her new life with him. He is a good way off from either description as far as I can see and V I’m sure is not blinded by “love”.

Well, I went through the appeasement and self – delusion routine for three years until I gathered the guts to call my mother-in-law a “bitch” which is by far the mildest word I know to describe her. Marriage precludes options and that makes some of us claustrophobic – it’s like “So, here we are – this is the substance of my marriage and here is the man who for whatever he is worth – my husband. I can’t get out of this reality for all of my life.” The further this reality is from one’s ideal greater the degree suffocation. We seek escape through delusions of grandeur in our situation - we go out on a limb to imbue it with substance that does not exist.

Returning to the Cold Attic

Anyways, we head back to Phily making a brief stop over at NJ to meet a friend of V’s there. She is a single mom with a 7 year old son separated from a physically abusive husband. Apparently, she had a serious drinking problem that almost cost her the child’s custody but she’s doing better now. She is a spaced out looking woman – and I don’t blame her. We go out for lunch at Sukhadia’s and she picks the bill for all of us. Again I feel very guilty – I don’t know what gives me the right to freeload off a struggling single mother – but she simply refuses to split the bill with S. Not that I have any more rights with him but it is just slightly better – its does not seem so unethical at least.

We drop her home and continue our journey home to Phily. S buys V some “meethi pan” at Edison and comments “ It takes so little to please V – she is happy just to eat pan” – if he really means what he says then he knows her very little and /or V has morphed herself to appease his him and personify his ideal of an ideal wife. Either way it is a sad state of affairs and I see uncanny similarities with my own marriage that bother me. For the longest time R knew only an imaginary me by when he got to know the real person , our marriage was over.

Part 1: Cold Attic
Part 3: Old Wounds

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Serendipitous Discoveries

I was looking for audio recordings of the Bhagwad Gita online for J and the search lead me to places I would not otherwise found.

Autobiography of a Yogi
I have seen this book several times but have managed to never read it. As luck would have it I jump right to Chapter 8 that is about J.C Bose and his experiments on the consciousness of all matter animate or not. I read about this last in a school text book when I was about twelve.

Then after wandering some more, I arrived at some writings of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh
reminding of my childhood visit to the ashram in Pondicherry. There was no Auroville then as I recall. Encouraged by the discovery, I looked for the text of Savitri online and found it too ! I remember having looked for it when my friend P had first shown me the amazing series of pictures she had painted in Photoshop inspired by this reading this epic poem - I had not found it then.

She had said "As an adult, Savitri became the link between me and my father. He liked to read it every year and said that it conveyed some new meaning to him each time. I think it does the same for me as well" Her dream was do a different series of paintings after each reading based on her understanding and interpretation at that point. Her father died five yeard ago I realized that I have not heard from P since then.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Summer Of 2003

We went out to feed ducks in the lake in our community earlier today and were disappointed at not finding them in their usual numbers. The few that were around were not interested in food - I theorized to J that they must already be full. Sitting on the wooden bench, enjoying the mild weather and the silence all around, I found myself thinking of a time few years ago when things were much different both for J and I. I felt grateful for the passage of time and its healing touch. But for a while today, I was back in April of 2003 when I wrote this :

A Short Walk

I change into a red, pink and white striped tee – red is color of my happiness – I need to try these new shoes I bought, so I can survive in them the first Monday at work. My first job after coming back to America in such difficult times. Decide to take a walk to the strip mall across from the apartment community. It is cold outside, I step back in to grab a cardigan – my room-mate of two days snaps at me “ Did you lock the door behind you ?” I say “ I thought I told you I was going out and you said you were going to be in”. She says “But try locking it so you can learn how it works”

In two days and in lieu of $500 per month including utilities, she has decided that she is a better and happier person than I can ever aspire to be and so she can teach me how to live my life – I have decided to humor her. She has a “husband” in LA she says and they spend the better part of Saturday morning on the phone – looks more courtship less matrimony to me – fours hours of mid morning pillow talk is quite a lot !

The Holy Roomie

After college, I never lived with a room-mate and promised myself I never would - but here I am creature of circumstance living with one because I cannot afford a place of my own - at least not right now. The wall between our bedrooms is wafer-thin though I have to wonder if my room-mate realizes it as phone sex each night reaches fever pitch - I presume it must be with the "husband" in LA.

I don't know whether to be sad or amused at their plight. She prays aloud for two hours each evening - her singing is accompanied by ringing bells and clanging cymbals. On the weekends she repeats the performance in the mornings as well. I was always nervous around overtly pious people and here I am living under the same roof with a Hindu zealot.

Anyways, I step out again, up from the basement down the stairs and into a summery afternoon. Two trees full of white blossoms stand right in front of the apartment. They look desolate, a fragile beauty that would not be able to weather a storm.

Remembering R

The walk takes me from Le Havre Place to King’s Chapel Road – it’s a long straight walk – I chose this route because I don’t want to meet anyone – the neighborhood does not feel very safe, the kids look scruffy, the cars are uniformly shabby, the women are over-weight - all the signs of impoverishment in America.

The memories of my first time in this country come back – the pretty community that looked out of this world in it’s picture perfection to my Indian eyes. The same trees, the same summertime skies and mild breeze. When I walked there was someone who walked beside me, someone who almost always held my hand when we walked together like it was the most natural thing to do and wanted to rush home so we could kiss "properly".

I missed him terribly when he went to work and my happiness was truly complete when he knocked the door in the evening. Sometimes he surprised me by coming home to lunch turning the afternoon into a thing of exciting possibilities . If that was not love, what else was it ?

Walking Alone

And how the seasons changed and the with it everything – I look at this country with new eyes – the eyes of a frightened woman in a big unknown world, with very little money trying to make some rather impossible dreams come true. Something tells me, he knows how passionately I want to make a beautiful life and wherever he is, he wishes me well. That inspite of everything he does not admire me any less than he once did - for the strength of my convinctions and my passion for life.

I feel bitter about having my world being turned upside down – like I deserved the happiness that he once promised me. I feel alone in America – the road ahead feels incredibly long. If I must build a future, I must fight every fear , every hesitation and doubt and come out strong. Do I really desire that kind of strength ?

I was happier by far to depend on him, have him take care of me – to go about my life knowing that the big things would be taken care of – I had to dream, keep the magic of our relationship alive, work at a job and save up a little for the future. I cherished my innocence and would give up a lot to keep it. When I woke up this morning, my eyes had that child-like look for a bit then it was gone again - it was almost as if I had imagined the look that I longed for.

Longing for what is gone

Every step that I take alone, I remember him – that I had truly loved him and had lost him to forces beyond my control. I think he must miss me too – in the past year there has not been a minute when I’ve not thought about him – sometimes in the sheer white hot fury but many more times in sadness of nostalgia – but through the myriad of conflicting, confusing emotions I missed him. He was not perfect but he was still a very good friend – maybe the best I ever had.

Fleetingly, I wished we were back together, taking on new challenges and making a fresh start knowing fully well that it was impossible - I had chosen to burn every last bridge so I would never fall prey to the temptation of returning. It took effort to accept the truth - that it was over, that we would never be able to fulfill our promises to each other - long and dark shadows from the past would always fall in the way. I long for someone who will let me lay my head on his shoulder and rest just for a little while – take a break from this ceaseless running , trying to beat the impossible odds.

Aisle gazing

I wander across the aisles picking up the bare necessities to survive. I stop by at the cosmetics section and spend an inordinately long time thinking if I really need a Body Gel and a Facial Scrub – I look at the price tags and decide to wait until my first pay check. I can’t help feeling very poor. When I shopped with him – I never thought twice about buying anything and he would only insist that I buy more and more – forcing on me a lipstick or a nail polish or yet another dress that I did not need. Was I happy then ? No. Am I happy now ? No. I needed the sense of balance in my life that was missing then and still is.

I buy food to last me a while. I’ve spent about $80 on groceries and I should be good for the better part of this month. I need to now estimate how much it costs me to survive – all of a sudden I have one fourth of the income that I was used to and it’s panicking me because I am used to a life style that I cannot afford any more. How can I bring my child here if I cannot afford to give her the life she deserves ? How can I stay in this cold heartless country alone without her. Why do I want to be here ?

For the first time in my life I feel financially insecure – I have to think twice before I spend anything. While I would want J to value money, I want her to feel like her small material needs are well within reach – just like I did growing up. I realize what a long way I have left to go.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Unlikely Heroes

I have been reading The World Is Flat the last few days. Of the many sound bites that pepper the book, the one that will stay with me is on page 256 where Friedman talks about how young people in China hang from the rafters and scalp tickets just to hear Bill Gates speak. He says "In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears - and that is our problem"

Elsewhere he talks about how at the height of the cold war, most average 11 year olds in America dreamt of being an engineer. Today kids that age are far less likely to see engineering as a career choice. He talks about the role of parenting in enabling future generations to take on the world flattening forces of globalization - about how they need to wean kids from the many distractions of Game Boys, TV, iPods and the like and get them to work hard.

Being that there is no contest against Sputniks or a space race to be won, rallying the masses around the cause of challenged national pride is that much harder. Maybe the movement should be at the grass roots level, at dinner tables where parents do their bit to make celebrities out of Sergey Brin, Vinod Dham and Bill Gates instead of Britney Spears.

From my vantage point in American Hicksville, where J is the only non-white person in her kindergarten class, I can tell that the current dinner table discourse in the average all American family is not nearly as sophisticated. It makes Dylan tell J "I don't play with brown skinned people". When she told me, I wondered for a minute if I had time traveled to the 60s or even earlier - I thought the sentiment was rather quaint in this day and age. I had to stop laughing before I could even begin to explain anything to J.

Clearly, that family has not heard about quiet crisis in America that Friedman is talking about.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Indulging A Nihilist Impulse

Bloggers get applauded or dissed by the punditry depending on what value they perceive the community brings to online social, political and cultural commentary. This article in eurozine presents some very interesting views on the subject of what blogging and bloggers are good for and not. One excerpt feels particularly germane to most if not all of my posts :

Blog entries are often hastily written personal musings, sculptured around a link or event. In most cases, bloggers simply do not have the time, skills, or financial means for proper research. There are collective research blogs working on specific topics, but these are rare. What ordinary blogs create is a dense cloud of "impressions" around a topic. Blogs will tell you if your audience is still awake and receptive. Blogs test. They allow you to see whether your audience is still awake and receptive. In that sense we could also say that blogs are the outsourced, privatized test beds, or rather unit tests[9] of the big media
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Like mine, a lot of blogs don't progress from being a test bed for thoughts and ideas to something more functional. They are somewhat like pet IT projects in big companies that are officially canned but continue to be invested in a little at a time by those who had once invested time and energy in it and continue to have a passion for what it stands for. Every once in a while, the powers that be will threaten to really kill it only to discover that a small population has use for it and would really hate to see it go.