Showing posts from May, 2006

Religious Tolerance

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

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

Religious toleration has long been the paradigm of the liberal ideal of toleration of group differences, as reflected in both the constitutions of the major Western democracies and in the theoretic…

Cultural Absentee

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

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

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

A gaggle of giggly teenagers from Louisiana were greeting everyone who got on and made cute small talk with them. First time out of their home state, they were excited by the diversity of their encounters which …

One "Happy" Family

I was visiting with my friend A's family this weekend. Her folks are first generation immigrants with the difference. Her Dad went to grad school in the US, returned home and worked in India twenty odd years. He immigrated with his family when the kids were in high school and he had retired. Having started at an executive level position, he has not had to work his way up like most immigrants of his age group. It has been about ten years since they arrived. From speaking with her dad, it seemed that he wanted the children to have gone through the rigor of the Indian education system and be rooted deep culturally so America could not undo either. Seems like the perfect plan for everyone. The kids are acutely aware of the sacrifices their parents have made in uprooting so late in life – there is a larger than life quality about it. They understand the rationale of the timing calculated for them to benefit from the American system sans any second generation confusion and angst. After,…

Unwilling Brides

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

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


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

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

How crowdsourcing is different from outsourcing is aptly summarized in the Wired article :
“Outsourcing is when I hire someone to perform a service and they do it and that’s the end of the relationship. That’s not much different from the w…

Library Fines

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

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

I remember my first time inside a public library in the US - feeling overjoyed at the abundance, unlimited checkouts and the eagerness of the staff to help me find things and answer questions. J and I use the local public library a lot - its one of our favorite pla…

Gizmo Lust

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

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

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

Lost And Confused

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

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

Duo, Not Quartet In Spring

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

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

She looked about ready to cry but thought the bet…

Doing The Indian Thing

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

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

However stories in India are linked infinitely. It is an ancient civilization, there is not one but 330 million Gods, innumerable languages, dialects, parables and myths. The taste of food, the sound of folk music, the rhythm of dance changes each time you travel a few hundred miles in any direction of the country. Most lessons learnt in one part of …

Organic For The Hoi Polloi

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

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

It would be fun to watch Wal-Mart apply to physicians the same energy, ruthlessness, and ambition it now uses to squeeze costs out of suppliers. Imagine a radiologist from Seattle trekking to Bent…

Eloquent Silence

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

A colorful poster announcing a presentation "The Truth About the Da Vinci Code" on the grounds of the church across the street caught my eye this morning. It made me wonder why a religious establishment was dignifying claims made in a work of fiction by discussing it. Would it's distance from and denial of the premise of Da…

Suddenly Bollywood

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

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

Simple And Refined

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

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

An Old Cracked Tune

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

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

First Love

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

Her m…

His Take On Her Life

It sometimes takes a couple of triggers in quick succession for my conflicting views on a contentious topic to finally coalesce. I watched The Cider House Rules (a deeply disturbing movie about the ethics of abortion in the context of incestual rape) within a few days of reading that 83 percent of recent op-eds on the abortion issue in New York Times (a supposedly pro-choice publication) have been written by menNot having enough women to weigh in on the subject has been justified thuslyEditors explaining the dearth of women on op-ed pages, a subject that has in the last year received a great deal of attention, will frequently point to the broader society for explanation: Congress is 86 percent male; very few women hold executive positions in the business world; the academy remains overwhelmingly male at the level of tenured professorships; military leaders, diplomats, world leaders -- all are overwhelmingly male. Thus, they say, it’s not entirely the fault of newspapers that their op-…

Ratty Social Fabric

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

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

The Social Fabric is a representation of your social world, displayed as a single visual array on your cellular phone. It does not replace your address book or…

Conspiracy Of Marriage

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

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

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

Relative Time

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

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

Fifteen minutes of a harried adult's t…

Miniature Living

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

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

Under Parenting

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

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



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


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


At twenty three I imagined,
I had come into my own.
I wore my hair in a chignon
for gravitas beyond my years.
Felt flushed with pride when
men held doors open for me
and addressed me ‘Ma’am”
Yet deep inside …

Purely Jazz

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

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

Cooking Under Pressure

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

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

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

Successful parents are able to transfer the sum total of their pressures without any loss to the child - from then on the kid is a self-propelled machine that has two possible end states programmed - to make it or break it. At my college, I saw a sui…

ET Staying Home

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

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

"Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shin…

Stories In Motion

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

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

India Revealed

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

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

She says :

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

Turning Brown

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

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

Her love of brown extended to rich chocolate cake, coffee, leather satchels and a mood of melancholy that approximated the bleak season when trees tu…

Sensory Deprivation

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

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

In the last seven years, I have never cooked fish in my mother’s style. It would take professional cleaners to get rid of the smell. My recipes are modified to work in an apartment kitchen. The end product is …

On Life Hacks

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

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

Yet in not having one, I have c…