24 December 2008

All in a day's train ride

This story begins quietly, in the soft light of the morning. I was in Chennai catching a bit of the glamour at the music and dance festival as well as catching up with delightful friends. I caught the Brindavan express to return to Bangalore, which leaves Chennai at 7:15 in the morning, IRT (Indian railways time). We had been up talking and drinking the night before so I wasn't feeling bright eyed and bushy tailed as I made my way to the train compartment. Thanks to tatkal I managed to get tickets in the second class compartment and settled myself into the 10 inches of bum space my co-passengers had generously left for me. Luckily I had the aisle seat so I could spill over anytime I wanted to.

The first half of the train journey was quite boring mostly because I was trying to sleep and my neck kept wanting attention. Every time I propped it up straight I had to realign my spine and reclaim the 2 inches that were stolen while I had dropped off into dream state. At some point I think the person next to me was asking me questions and I stared back blankly so he gave up on the conversation. About midway I ran out of drool so I had to get up. I fortified the system with a bit of tea (it is one of those train journeys where the food and drinks never stop coming around) and sized up my fellow passengers. We were 6 of us in a coupe with each person being allocated roughly 20 inches. Next to me were two gentlemen, one who gave me a dirty look so I shot back my best NRI disdain. Opposite us were seated one youngish champ who looked like he ate a lot of bajjis and considered his morning walk to be the one he makes to the bathroom. Next to him were a sweet mother and daughter pair. We were a peaceful coupe.

Towards the end of the journey the compartment which up to this point was 100% reserved and carrying about 40% extra riff raff suddenly turned into the Dadar local. There were people everywhere and in between suddenly, was the shrill cry of "Carrots". Let's call her the carrot lady. She had a basket full of veggies wrapped quite nicely in plastic (department store ishtyle) and was selling them at a flat price of Rs 20. In the opposite direction was another veggie seller, screaming his head off about his Aurekal (they look like fava beans; very distinctively local fare) which too were nicely packed in bags and selling for Rs 20. Like two intersecting lines the twain met, right next to my coupe. Now if you remember I was planted in the aisle seat so I had front side tickets to the show that followed. In order to get around the carrot lady who was busy with a sale, the beans guy asked her to move aside and went around her. Ok, so there was no excuse me and polite waiting but considering the train was packed it's possible that there was no space for such manners. Anyway, the carrot lady took major affront.

How dare the beans guy ask her to move aside? I mean, does he own the train or what? So in her best voice she proceeded to rain comments on the beans guy who actually had stepped away quite aways. Finding that her object of derision was walking away the carrot lady stepped up her ranting. Now she included the mother and father of the beans guy in her insults. So of course, the beans guys does an about face and asks her if she was Ok in the head. All this screaming is happening in Tamil so I'm in a great drama at this point, with no subtitles. I could only pick up vague words that overlap with Kannada. The argument was quite heated and was going to reduce to fisticuffs when the audience demanded the volume be toned down. Oh boy, that went down even worse with the main characters. More screaming ensued when finally a smart passenger asked for some carrots. The sale circumstances changed everything and they dispersed into the crowds.

All in all, spectacular time pass. I have mentioned about my strange romance with the Indian railways and this time too, it didn't fail to amuse.

23 December 2008

Spot checks

For the last few months I have been staying with my parents. Its been a fabulous experience. I have not had to worry about food, laundry, rent, bills or cleaning. But this luxury has come at a price I call "spot checks". My parents give me all the love in the world, in the healthiest of doses, which is why they subject my room to spot checks frequently. Recently, my father came thundering down from his office demanding to know why there were two towels in my bathroom. In his honest opinion there should just be one towel. Even one bath towel and one hand towel are acceptable but not two bath towels. He would brook no explanation and just wanted to know which one I wanted to toss in the wash. My attempts to explain my toweling system were in vain because even after going into detail about body towels and hair towels my dad refused to accept two towels in the bathroom. Besides my bathroom, my dad is also particular about the way I maintain my shoes. I have a pair that were black once upon a time but dust and nonchalance had given them a healthy coating of brown. Given his military background, this status quo was unacceptable and, he wanted me to go forth and polish my shoes. This took me back about 15 years when every school night we were punished to polish our shoes. Anyway, Bangalore is such a dusty city that I really see no point in wasting my precious lazy minutes polishing shoes but naturally, such frank explanations have no weight. Ultimately my dad got fed up of my deaf adder routine and just polished my shoes himself!

Then a few days back while I was sipping my morning cuppa and drinking in the Hindu my mother shoved a half empty dustbin under my nose with the loud question, "What is this?" I wasn't sure if she wanted to know why it was half full or if she wanted me to explain the contents of the dustbin but either way she was in red alert and I could not mess with it. So, I batted my eyelids a few times and resorted to the baffled "Howooda." Meanwhile my mother had already launched into a full scale lecture series on public health and the importance of being clean. The whole thing ended with her lamenting that the cleaning lady had already collected the day's garbage so I missed my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have an empty dustbin. All through this monologue my grandma was shaking her head and tut-tutting despondently, "You used to be such a neat girl...tsk tsk"

Occasionally I come back home to find that contents of my room have been neatly stacked into completely unorganized bunches. Basically the size of the object determined its place in the decorative aesthetics. Then I open my wardrobe, the only place where I have a strict filling system for items, to find that my night clothes are all mixed in with casual pants. Turns out that on such days instead of giving me a look and a stern invitation to clean up, my mother just decided to take things into her own hands. This prolonged visit also ends up with her re-making my bed because I don't have the sheet tucked in just right.

If all this tension weren't enough, Astro stops by sometimes when he wants to sleep on my bed. He first examines the room to make sure there aren't any undies or socks or other light weight clothing items that he shouldn't just grab and scram. After a through sniff to make sure I am not eating biscuits in private he whines till I give him a heave-ho to climb the bed. Once on top he normally stands and checks out the terrain before plonking himself on exactly the spot I was sleeping on. Then, he proceeds to gather the sheets about him all the while lightly drooling. And my mother wonders why my sheets are not properly tucked in...

My parents also feel that I have a particularly bad sense of dressing. My dad thinks I dress like a bhangi (indian hippi?) and my mom thinks I deliberately wear mismatching outfits. So every time we have to go out as a family there are endless conversations on what I should wear. I thought I solved the problem by just throwing open my cupboard and asking them to pick the outfit, but to no avail. They pull the you-are-29-you-should-know-how-to-dress card and soon enough I am pulling my hair out trying to get the right combination for tonight's evening number. The tragedy of this story of course, is that no matter what I wear, it's below par.

These are but the few instances of insanity I have to live out in the name of luxury. It's not a bad deal really, but once in a while, I wish I could determine how many towels I should have in my bathroom!

P.S. This is an update. I have now discovered that on the garbage incident day my mother also threw out the paper bag I was collecting all my recycling waste in. Great! How long can one live with such atrocities? sniff.

19 December 2008

Indian Institute of Food

As we enter the age of instant food and general migration within the country the one area we are sure to loose a lot of information is our age old food culture. I am specifically talking about recipes and regional cuisine. We live in a country where language, food and customs change every 300 kms (approximately, based on my general perception). The only way to sustain this diversity is if we conserve it. Therefore I propose to invest my millions (which I might make or borrow) in the Indian Institute of food (IIF).

The mandate of this institute would be three fold:
  1. It will archive and store recipes within a given geographical perimeter. All ingredients (vegetables and spices) of recipes to also be archived.
  2. It will make all the information it collects available free of cost.
  3. It will hold cooking classes, not only in the cuisine it specializes in but also import the know how on other cuisines being investigated by other IIFs.
Each IIF will be a local institution but networked into a much larger chain of IIFs. Its board would be constituted of neighbourhood grannies, popular restaurant chefs (this includes pavement golgappawallas), food bloggers and anyone who gets about 200 people to certify that he can make certain dishes very well. The one flaw I already foresee is that the ego of aforementioned personnel would make it difficult to come to a consensus on the recipe for any one item. Therefore I also propose that multiple entries be archived. The initial investment would only be that of infrastructure - building, cooking toys and computational power. The community would have to sustain the costs of the institute by providing catering services and cooking classes.

I haven't overlooked the wonderful work food bloggers are doing archiving their family recipes. In fact the only reason I know about food blogging is through the wonderful effort of N at One Hot Stove. But these efforts still do not encompass the whole breadth of Indian cooking knowledge because they are distilled efforts based on the food bloggers' interest. My idea will hopefully act as a bridge effort between their interests and all other traditional food.

This school would eventually also address such questions of major scientific importance like - When was the first dosa made? How did the British change Indian cuisine? Hey, who decided that there should be onions in my upma? etc.

If any of my readers would like to help me make or lend me the millions for this initiative my lines are open.

18 December 2008

Why not to dream big

During the past few months I have interacted with children of various age groups from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some are first generation learners, some are the first to complete Class X and some have only seen a computer for the first time in the last six months. These kids have heterogeneous backgrounds - north vs south, urban vs rural, slum vs village etc. but ALL of them have aspirations and these are by no means duller than what the kid at the local private school near my house has. They aspire to be doctors, engineers, policewomen, teachers and lawyers. Sadly no one wants to become a scientist. I attribute this to our poor brand management.

Well, the trouble does not lie is having these aspirations but fulfilling them. For e.g., in my days if one wanted to get into a decent engineering college you had to go to tuition, subscribe to brilliant tutorials and generally spend your best years in front of book not gaining knowledge but memorizing information or sharpening your skills with pattern recognition. That status quo hasn't changed much. So for my kid in the village who has to finish school and then till the land or take the cows out to graze where is the time for all this extra study? How is she going to compete with all the other kids out there. A very simple retort to this would be that the kids come from backgrounds where reservation ensures them a better playing field to get admitted. This in my opinion is just gobbledygook. There are two aspects which are inter-related here that I want to discuss. The first is about fulfilling these aspirations and the second is about having realistic aspirations.

In order to fulfill aspirations the kids need access to higher education (high school), information (what to study for a particular entrance exam or professional degree) and financial assistance. Access to higher education is a big problem right now. Thanks to SSA there is a huge thrust in primary education but once the kid is done with Class VII the next school might be too far away. On one of my site visits a gang of high schools kids were playing cricket on the primary school playground. I was curious about this and enquired. Turns out they weren't in school because the only morning bus that brings them to their school broke down, the next service was only in the afternoon and so they had the day off; for technical reasons. The next issue is one of information. Most kids are aware of state level exams for technical courses but they are clueless about what type of marks they need to get and how to prepare for the exams. Lastly, more higher education courses require a significant investment of time that families cannot afford for their child to be involved in simply because they need that earning member of the family. Even if all these issues are taken care of there still a problem with these aspirations i.e., are they realistic?

Why cant becoming an engineer be a realistic aspiration? I am hurting as I write these words... for the simple reason that we don't have enough infrastructure or universities to cater to our population. This is abundantly clear if you were to read the report put out by the National Knowledge Commission on higher education. The other disturbing fact is that all these kids aspire to become something not wholly related to their environment i.e., no kid wants to become a farmer (even though that might be the ultimate profession they end up in) or a forest officer or water conservationist. They aspire for professions they see in TV or read about in newspapers that bring to them an ocean of financial security and upward mobility.

This issue has been vexing me a lot recently so at a recent book launch of "Imagining India", I put forth this as a question to Nandan Nilekani; that we are building aspirations but not laying the foundation to fulfill them, to which he succinctly replied "Well, they'll experience a expectation backlash. Next question?" Now this bothers me a lot. Are we supporting our children through various projects, sowing seeds for a better future only so they can experience an "expectation backlash"? I'm at a dead end with regards to a solution. For most issues that I feel strongly about, I look inwards for solutions because I want to be the instrument of change myself. But this time I am floored. Do we continue encouraging the kids and hope that the few who make it across the threshold of higher learning would eventually lead the entire society forward? Or do we revise our course curriculum and encourage the children to embrace professions more suited to their local environment and needs? What type of system can we build where your circumstances don't dictate your professional ambitions - this means a kid from urban school should aspire to be a snake charmer while a rural child aspires to become a orthopaedist. Any thoughts out there?

15 December 2008

Doing as Astro does V

Here is the latest advice from Shri Sree Sri Shree Astro ji.

Lesson # 5 Get some sun.

As you will notice from the pictures Astro is diversifying his nap time locations by shifting himself into the sun. Normally at this time he is to be found curled up on his bed or my grandmother's (depending on domestic vigilance and mood of occupants at home on that day). I remember a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip where Hobbes wishes that he had a big sunny field to lie in and, this is the same with Astro. Only he loves his mental security too much to trust sleeping in an open field so one finds him safely sunning himself in our driveway. This advice from Astro needs no more explanation and is pretty easy to execute. So slap on that sunscreen and get some sun.

11 December 2008

"Me, a scientist?" Ha!

For the last week I have been visiting an Asha project in Kanakapura and evaluating them. I spent a lot of time talking to children, teachers and project staff. Here I would like to record one of my incidents with the children.

My usual game plan is to enter a class (I wish I could let out a dozen white doves upon entry) and greet the children with an effusive "Hi". Yeah, it's a bit lame, I wish I had the foresight to say something far more zippy. Preliminaries concluded the game of sizing up begins. As soon as I say a few sweet words in Kannada its clear to the kids that I am some sort of urban delite with bad language skills. While speaking to a Kannada audience I tend to get my grammar, vocabulary and tense quite nicely mixed up and so, not only do the kids have to answer my questions but they also have to understand what exactly I meant. There are lots of pauses along the way and I finally stumble (with prompting on the sidelines by the mentor and teacher) on the right set of words to convey my idea. Usually this was a math question that I was unable to articulate correctly and at the end everyone is happy because in the time it took me to figure out the words the kids solve the question. After a few back and forth rounds of math challenges and banter about what the kids want to do in their future I throw the floor open to them. I figure since I have simply waltzed into their lives asking questions they should be allowed to do the same. In some classes, they take this challenge seriously so after the mere formalities - name? father's and mother's name? native place? etc., they move on to profession. "Scientist" I announce, looking furtively at my prompters for the Kannada translation when a kid says, "vigjnanika".

The buck doesn't stop there, now they want to know what kind - did I help send chandrayaan to the moon? No. I help solve mysteries in biology (jaivik shastra). "What mysteries?" scream the kids. Hmm... this was not on my anticipated list of answers. I have worked in the field of membrane biology and infectious disease. The world of lipid rafts, the subject I did my thesis in, continues to remain a hotly debated subj and one I certainly could not find the words to explain in two-line English let alone Kannada. Even though lipids are far far more dear to my heart with cowardice, I decided to talk about my work in infectious diseases. Now Salmonella pathogenesis isn't the type of subject to populate my Kannada vocabulary so I started to scratch my head on how to explain it.

First, had the kids heard of Bacteria? Yes. What do they do? Give us Disease, cause us to fall ill. Right ho, we were on the same page. Had they heard of a cell? The unit of functionality in our bodies? Yes. There was a chart in the room with a mammalian cell so that solved another point. As I wanted to make it proactive I told the kids to think of a bacteria as a robber, trying to break into a house (cell). How many ways can a robber enter a home? Door, window, break lock, roof, tunnel (this needed a bit of convincing because tunnels are only dug by jailbirds according to the kids!). Then I asked them similarly to guess how a bacteria might enter a cell. A stunned silence broken by a few giggles. Ok, I thought, maybe I'll prod them along. So I drew a big fuzzy cell and a tiny bug next to it. Visualize this my champs and you can figure it out, I thought. The bacteria breaks the lock of the cell shouts one child. Yes, and it uses a needle to do that (for the geeks: Type III secretion ). We played around this way and came up with some more ways for the bug to enter the cell. An absolutely delightful time.

While traveling on the bus after this incident I was thinking about the situation. I believe that as a scientist I should be able to successfully communicate my work to any type of audience. It seems my major drawback is that I can only do so in English (or so I think!) and in either Hindi or Kannada I find this an uphill task. I really feel bad that I couldn't talk about lipids. But on the other hand, I was patting myself on the back for coming up with the robber analogy and was blown away with how fast the kids picked it up. Now I have set myself a new standard, I should be able to explain to a 6th standard kid what it is that I do and then only, will I really know my job! Oh, also I intend to practice in English, Hindi and Kannada. :)

4 December 2008

Angry but not focused

I just got back from Thippsandra where enough people commit civil sins that you can get all your inherent anger out in a 'justifiable' manner. Well, I thought I wasn't angry. My trip was supposed to give my aching body something else to do and I wanted the cement in my chest, courtesy a bad sore throat, to move about a bit. It certainly was not my intention to talk to anyone because speaking is more taxing than climbing a hill at this point. So it's with dismay that I found myself screaming at an Innova driver who was exiting from a side alley onto the main road and decided not to look left or right while making this merger. The vile remonstrations that came from my lips left me shaken. On the grand scheme of things that happen in Thippsandra this was very small, yet in spite of an inflammed chest, for 5 minutes I got into a one way tirade.

Why was I really angry? Sure, I'm very upset about what happened in Bombay and am feeling the pulse of public reaction via tv and web. I'm certainly internalizing the anger and hurt expressed. But just like the public at large I think I am not using my anger effectively. I am not focused on what is causing this feeling and just want to be rid of it. If I didn't consider myself an ocean of germs right now I would be at Cubbon park joining my fellow citizens to protest. Then again, I'm thinking, to protest what?

I'm a bit tired emotionally and physically but I do know that whatever happened, whatever the feelings we can't simply vent the feelings without an action plan. Here is my suggested action plan for myself.

  • Vote - I can get myself on the electoral register. I can encourage my friends and family to do the same. In fact I can hound them to do it.
  • Stay fit - Do people fathom that for the 60 hours our forces were battling the gunmen these folks held out and chased them around in circles? For 60 hours and more (if you count the time they were on their way for the mission) - no naps, no rest and adrenalin. How many of the youth today can survive that? For a strong nation we need a strong population - mentally and physically. So get on that treadmill and start meditating.
  • Be informed - Who is your local councillor? MP? MLA? SP? Where is the closest police station? How long has that traffic cop at the junction been working? Do we even bother to ask these questions. People of my generation don't necessarily work in the place where they grew up and might continue to move around the nation. Should that stop us from knowing about the people who make laws and govern us? Think and be aware of the world you live in. In your colony, city, village... any place you are living in.
  • Be proactive - Don't like that garbage piling up? Think a junction needs a cross bridge? Shoot off an email to the editor of your newspaper or walk into your councillor's office. Many times when I talk to people about my projects and causes I find that many want to help. But they hold themselves back because it might not be enough or that their little effort is useless in the big picture. We must give up these perceptions. Try and effect change to the best of your ability. Not everyone can move mountains so do your bit and don't judge yourself for it. Don't judge the type of activity and don't judge the outcome. Just do your bit when something civic annoys you.

As I type this I realize I myself don't know answers to many of the questions I have posed. So as soon as the cement in my chest dissolves and my throat stops being on fire I will have to initiate a fact finding mission.

1 December 2008

Commiserating with Mr. Unnikrishnan

Hoy! Mr. CMs: what's the deal with showing up at people's home and not respecting their privacy? I don't ever recall you having an open door policy for us citizens to merely walk in one afternoon for a cup of tea at your residence. So, how dare you decide that you need to pay respects to a family who didn't want you there? Mr. Unnikrishnan has a right to his rage and privacy so you have no business to expect him to welcome you with open arms. Your comment just shows to go that your fragile ego is no match for the love and bereavement of a father. I wish I could offer Mr. Unnikrishnan a citizen's cordon from dingdongs like you who think that simply winning an electoral mandate makes you popular guest # 1 in any residence. 

29 November 2008

Mumbai meri jaan II

I'm feeling sick to the stomach so much that I have managed to come down with flu. Since writing is the only way out for me to feel better I decided to come online.
I'm feeling paralyzed. About a dozen young men decided that their vile methods of killings and terrorizing was the solution to a grievance. Our politicians have spent little time in pointing the finger to our neighbour. What is clear though is they were superbly prepared, well trained and committed to their mission. How does one human being reach such a state of intoxication that killing another person becomes an action as inane as drinking a glass of water? What lies at the root of their hatred? I'm afraid with our finger pointing and dealing with the current situation we continue to ignore the underlying causes for these frustrations that boil over into violent acts. It's important for us to understand how these young men got where they did for I firmly believe that no human being is born with an ideology of hate; this is something that has been taught to them. 
      The media is doing a fantastic job and I mean that with a complete force of sarcasm. Barkha Dutt, needs a few days in the mountains to learn about compassion and integrity. Her incessant questioning of family members who had kith trapped in the hotels was brazenly insensitive. Sir, what are you feeling right now? Gah! and of course her blabber on how many people are holed up and this obsession with the numbers? I feel compelled to single her out because she symbolizes the extreme selfish end of journalism which asks what can this situation do to my career. I wonder if we can file a PIL to have her removed. 
The other news channel are no better. Giving us a blow by blow account of the maneuvers being executed by our forces. The militant who had access to a blackberry would sure have found that useful.  
Right now the media is covering the funeral services for the fallen officers. Of course they continue to abuse their cameras by not allowing the families to grieve in peace. Joining the party are politicians who probably can't do a single sit up but are ever ready to have their photos taken with the brave. If I were one of the fallen families I would have to ban all politicians from the prayer service. 
Served up next is going to be the political tamasha on this issue. Waiting for this... breathlessly.   

27 November 2008

Mumbai meri jaan

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I was a proud Indian. Well, I still am. But I am also feeling like a sad, helpless and angry Indian today.

I have been watching the coverage of the Mumbai attacks since morning and not since 9/11, when I lived 40 miles from NY have I felt this type of urge to stay glued. The images are disturbing: bodies being hauled away by their arms and legs; militants shooting from a police van they abducted. The senselessness of it all is overwhelming.

The media coverage has been largely annoying. By covering it 24/7 they have certainly helped keep the public pressure on our police and political machinery. But their questions are really off putting. For instance: How many of the killed were foreigners? Really, does it matter what was the nationality of this person who died? People are dead. For no reason other than they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. This obsessiveness on part of the media to keep quantifying the causalities every time they get a mike near an official is exasperating. How about asking instead - Who is in charge of the ops? Who are the leaders spearheading the mission to rescue the hostages? I want a bio on all the cops who were killed because they died in the line of fire and they should be honoured for their commitment. For while we sipped chai and watched in horror, they lived the horror. I also want to know - Why aren't any of the cops and army marines I see wearing anything resembling a walkie talkie? Why aren't film crews respecting privacy of the common citizen who is trying to flee the hotels?

The debates on this incident have just begun. I'm just angry that they are all about the numbers and not about the people.

23 November 2008

Learning at school

Yesterday, I popped over to a government school that Asha-bangalore supports. Visiting the school is perhaps one of the nicest experiences I have had after coming back to India. Along the way there were plenty of signboards that confirmed why I think teaching English is the best service we can give our children. I passed by the "Umemployed youth chicken and egg centre" (If they were selling eggs, how are they unemployed?) and the "Hearbel Beauty Parlor". Evidently, having English signs are a must to glamourize your shop but getting the words edited before making the sign is optional. I'm sure my readers have come across many such signs in India.

The school is a cacophonous joint with children and teachers trying to get in a word edgewise. To be fair I was visiting on a Saturday when the election commission had taken up a classroom to complete their voter registration drive. So they were children, teachers and loony citizens crammed into the small school yard. Some kids were giving a test while the rest who weren't interested in filling in circles were having their notebooks corrected. My grand plan was to play a game with them that would have them interact with me in English. A 'flop show' sums up my efforts.

I divided them up into teams and asked them to pick names. Prompted by the teacher they picked names of flowers - Gulabi (rose), Sampige and tavuur (lotus). Then I asked them to think about movies they have seen and try their best to tell me its story, in English! Boy, that was a tall order. Since no one wanted to say a word in English I tried to introduce new vocabulary in the script as they were narrating the story. One team was prattling on for over 10 minutes so the rest of the crowd lost enthusiasm and soon, they were just talking amongst themselves about the movies. Then I tried to switch tracks and asked them to fill out a sheet with their info on it - team name, team members, their age etc again all in English. The smarty pants that they are, the kids simply took the sheet out to their friend who was fluent in English and had them fill it out.

I'm not bummed about the way things turned out. I just need a better game that uses their energy more creatively and yet is a good way to teach English. Suggestions, anyone?

19 November 2008

One chapter ends, another begins

It's been 3 months since I broke away from my life in Seattle and flew back to India. In that time my sister got married, my possessions are being shipped to me piecemeal, done a part time research project, visited all my Asha projects and started reading like crazy. I have also started a process to heal from the betrayal of someone I trusted and a system I thought I could use when my emotional world was rocked.
Today that system has been legally severed and I am in the position to start over again - personally as well as professionally because as luck has it I have landed a lovely job which couldn't reflect my philosophies of living any better. A journey of relationships that was started with much anticipation ended and I am starting a new journey now.
Each such journey should make me wiser and stronger but all it seems to do is make me thinner and balder. Whenever friends asked for advice on how to deal with tough situations, I would recommend a haircut. In my case I feel like I just need to shave the whole thing off - go bald; because only such a drastic step would justify the craziness of situation that I got myself into. Of course the baldness thing isn't going down well with the family. They thought the buck stopped at a shorter than usual haircut.
Healing is an interesting journey by itself. I can sense my thoughts spiraling out of control when I remember all that happened. Small phrases catapult me straight into the entire saga over and over again. Then I think of all the things I should have said, but didn't. All the poisonous insults build up inside and there is no one to release them on. So the venom spreads deep inside my body, driving my mind to despair and ultimately shaking my faith in my own constitution. Am I weak or was I made weak? Did I make all the choices or were some choices forced on me? How did I get there? Will I get there again? Round and round the mind takes me through anger, guilt and shame. A three part mini series with no commercial breaks or comic relief. Snap. Out. Of. It. So says sunlight, a roomful of smiling children and a pushy bus conductor. Life moves on.
I have a strong family, good friends and health. and I am off to drink to that. Peace.

14 November 2008

Swift-kick-in-the-butt clinic

This idea evolved a few years ago after bar hopping with a couple of people in NYC. The whole experience appears so ridiculous when I think about it today: the dressing up, hoping the bouncer thinks you are hip enough; drinking 20$ drinks in a low lit lounge; loud music; sitting on overcrowded but terrifically comfortable couches; smoking Hookas because of the smoking ban; perhaps, the zenith of my hedonism. This would spill over into early morning perogis, wanderlust in lower manhattan and finally, the magical doors of the LIRR. The hangover was simply awesome. Lolling in bed one afternoon after such a fright I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice if someone had simply given me a swift kick in the butt and reminded me that I'm not particularly suited to such pleasures?"

Then the humanist in me kicked in. Don't we all know someone in our lives who could use a swift kick in the butt? My execution of this idea is pretty simple. All you need are some decent shoes of varying weight. The clinic is a small set up, preferably in the back room of a cosy tea shop and the appointment has to be made by someone who knows you. I would be happy to administer the kick but I think it would more effective if it came from someone you know (they also get to pick the weight of shoes). I would like to nominate my mother to administer all of mine.

Alright, there are some caveats to this idea. Foremost, many people are not aware they need a swift kick in the butt. Denial is one of the more wonderful emotions our brains have adapted to with ease and efficiency. In this situation - let the mountain go to Mohamed; bring the shoes to the butt, as in this case. Then you have actual administration. It has to be quick and painful, well at least a level better than a spank. Since I haven't really had a chance to administer this myself I really don't have answers to this sticky point. Readers are welcome to post suggestions. Lastly, remuneration. This is not a business idea. It's a socialist idea based on the premise that everyone either needs one or will need one. Therefore it's best administered between friends. So you can create one in your own social group. This also has the advantage that what goes around, comes around. All kicks are universal.

Why is my idea better than an intervention? Well, it's quick. No willy nilly talks about life, love and the world. It's to the point. You don't need a group of people. 2 is the minimum, I would recommend 3. It needs no elaborate planning; you simply walk into a tea shop and mysteriously end up at the back room.

I believe in the potential of the swift kick; a jolt to propel you into a state of pain thereby making you forget whatever anguish/depression you may have or delaying any important decision you might have to make. It's a temporary respite designed to put you in touch with your inner feelings, at least those with regard to pain and annoyance. Those brief moments and hot cuppa tea with a dear pal is all one needs in order to receive clarity because the heart always knows, it's the head that actually confuses matters. So get yourself a swift kick today and divert your head while your heart can tell you what to do.

12 November 2008

India after Gandhi

Penned by Ramachandra Guha, this book left me emotionally stunned possibly because I read it straight through, like I would a murder mystery and was doing so in the background of the Indian railways, an institution that always elicits great nationalistic pride in me. My foremost comment about the book is this - if you are going to be a voter in the upcoming elections then this needs to be your research material.
The author provides a clear picture of India's political history from about a year before our Independence up to 2007. There is a small section towards the end that talks about our culture and cinema but for the most part it details how the world's largest democracy was built and is still buzzing along. For me personally, the book nicely details our *deterioration* from a constitutional democracy to a populist democracy.
I am sure there are better reviews of this book out there so I'm going to talk about issues that struck home to me the most. To start with, I finally understand that the Kashmir issue is not just about its strategic location and land but a fight about principle; by retaining Kashmir India wants to demonstrate its secularism while Pakistan wants to vindicate the two nation theory based as it is, on religious ground. The perverse nature in which our countries have decided to resolve this is of course, open to debate. I learnt about the violence that has been perpetrated by tribals and the government over the separatist movement launched in various parts of the north east. Sitting so far away it's easy to wish for peace! Our turbulent history with Chinese aggression was also nicely captured. Who knew that the word "naxal" comes from the village naxalbari, Assam where the first such rebellion was conducted?
Finally, the book made me think about my identity in this large subcontinent. To be politically relevant it would appear that I need to define it either by state or caste or religion. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the number one perception that I define myself by is as a woman. Everything else takes a back seat to that. Also after having lived much of my life as a defense brat and later abroad I have never had the need to define myself either by caste, religion or regionality. This book has reaffirmed what I always felt rather intuitively that in spite of our diversity, differences, lunatic religious sentiments and hundreds of languages, I am proud to be an Indian.

11 November 2008

Huffing and puffing away!

Today, I finally read the law that was passed banning smoking in public places. Its labeled glamorously as THE CIGARETTES AND OTHER TOBACCO PRODUCTS (PROHIBITION OF ADVERTISEMENT AND REGULATION OF TRADE AND COMMERCE, PRODUCTION, SUPPLY AND DISTRIBUTION) 2003 and filed under Section 31 (of the constitution I assume!). You can read a copy of it here. Be warned it's 4 pages and the first two are in Hindi. I spent the better part of an hour deciphering the language only to discover that the English translation starts on page 3!
The basic point is that you can't smoke in public place. This I had read in the newspaper and was vigorously enforcing when two incidents occurred. The first happened a few weeks ago at a restaurant when the chumps next to our table were smoking in an el fresco milieu. I popped over and in my politest desi english asked them to put it out as ahem, it's against the law. The bohemian with at least 20 earrings in one ear merely cocked her head and said, "Excuse me?" Not to be undone by such frivolous contempt I dropped the desi accent and said in my best clipped voice, " Madam, smoking is banned here." To which our siren replied that it was the smoking section of the restaurant. Well, I bought the story, tucked my tail under, apologized and sauntered off. Only when I got home did mummy dearest inform me that Ms. Chimney Stack was wrong and I should have boldly approached the manager. And if I had actually read the bill at that point I would have known to go to the top dog instead of wasting my time on the offensee.
The second incident was at the local shop around the corner with whom I have been having an ongoing battle to install a dustbin for all the litter his motley consumers spread around. Now this pal is a Mallu and his kannada is only for commercial purposes so communicating words like 'smoking' 'illegal' in my broken kannada is quite a theatrical event. Plus I honestly think he has no compunctions in trying to understand me better as I rarely speak outside the bread-eggs exchange if not to complain. Consequently my ire is now reserved for all the jobless youth who stand right outside his store and puff away. These youth just give me the stink eye and walk away 5 ft to continue smoking. Today, I have learnt that he's actually required to plant a sign outside asking people not to smoke there. So tomorrow I am going to assail him about the sign. 50 bucks says he'll come up with a way to hide the sign; probably place a hanging basket of chips right in front of it.
The last thing I want to talk about in this area is about fining. How does one get hold of a person who can issue the fine? In both the instances I reported, whom am I suppose to complain to, in case the person in charge doesn't listen to me - I mean one can hardly summon the police for such things. I guess I better go around my colony looking for an Inspector of Income tax ...

2 November 2008

Eco friendly floating candles

To all readers: Happy Diwali! Hope the coming year brings prosperity and peace of mind.

For our celebrations I adapted candles I saw at a devi temple to become floating candles. I'm sure many people already know about these candles but, here's the protocol that my grandma and I optimized. 
  • Cut lemon in half.
  • Squeeze out juice throughly. Make sure not to bruise the skin or puncture it. Use lemon juice for refreshing lime soda.
  • After feeling refreshed, turn the lemon inside out. Wipe the skin with a dish cloth to remove all moisture. Place in a bowl of water to make sure it will float. We laid the candle gently on the water and watched it for 3-5 minutes ...basically the time it took for us to clean the rest of the lemons. 
  • If lemon floats, set it aside. Test all lemons before turning them into candles. 
  • To make candle take a cotton wick dipped in ghee and place in the center of lemon boat. Pour about 2-3mL of oil. Gently lay candle in the bowl you want it in. Now light it. 
  • Candles prepared this way lasted 30 - 45 mins. If you want them to last longer you'll have to top off the oil or change wicks.  
  • We placed our candles in a brass shallow pot (urulu) in the midst of flowers. 

24 October 2008

What the Abbe thought of us

I just completed a book by Abbe J.A. Dubois, a french priest who has recorded all what he observed and perceived about "Hindu manners, customs and ceremonies" during his stay in India from 1792 to 1823. This thick book reflects the state of our social system in southern India. The most remarkable aspect of this book is a complete record of the Abbe's observation, much like a student of anthropology. No detail seems to be trivial. The descriptions are usually followed by an analysis clouded as it would expected by the Abbe's religious and european beliefs. The Abbe honestly lays out the culture of the land in those years remarking about the ritualistic nature of our worship as well as the caste system. He echoes what is true even today - our emphasis on idol worship and cleansing of sins without understanding hindu philosophy. The chanting of mantrams being far more important than actually assimilating their meaning into our lives. 
The bulk of the book catalogues all the rituals and ceremonies mostly followed by the Brahmins. Indeed if one were to follow all the rituals set out for this caste in today's day and age it would be impossible to have a day job! The most interesting piece I read concerned Brahmin women. Now, according to tradition only the man who has been invested with the triple cord (jannivara) becomes the twice-born Brahmin. Women are not invested with the jannivara and by default therefore, remain Sudras. Thus when Brahmin men marry, they are doing so with a Sudra woman with Brahmin ancestry. I suppose the counter argument is that caste is inherited so having the jannivara is not a prerequisite to be a "Brahmin" woman. But if one were to follow the scriptures and the thread ceremony is what separates the Sudras from the Brahmins then I would have to buy the argument that all so called Brahmin women are Sudras. I just find this vastly amusing and know that any Brahmin woman who believes her caste to be her badge of honour would refuse an intellectual discussion. 
Certain sections were certainly incorrect or incomplete. For e.g., he only captures two thirds of the gayatri mantram starting at "Tatsavi turvaranayam..." and suggests that Buddhism predates Hinduism. Certain extrapolations are intriguing, like hindu scriptures contain references to the Flood and that the seven penitents who are credited with starting the Brahmin race can be traced back to Noah's children. His conjecture that Indians have deified the cow because of its indispensable nature to our lives (milk, milk products, tiller of fields) might be right. He has only briefly referred to hindu philosophy  and offers a very short summary of the various branches. He blatantly refutes the authority of the vedas as a superior text - a text we don't even know how to read and follow to the tee simply on the directions of another. 
I came away with mixed feelings while reading this book. Certainly the way people are subjugated under the caste system is very apparent and boosts the affirmative action laws we have embraced after independence. The abuse of this action is a subject for another day. From an anthropological viewpoint its a great read but from a scientific point its more fiction because the author doesn't refer to the sources of his information. I don't know how much he has observed vs how much he simply heard off vs how much he wrote in based on perception rather than actual investigation. On the whole though, I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning a bit of peninsular customs and how they were perceived by a European.  

23 October 2008

Citizen cop

I would like to issue citations and levy fines for the following -

                       * littering
                       * smoking in public
                       * peeing in public

Actually I have a much longer list but these are my top three picks. What are yours?

I have three interesting experiences with litterers. Two of them happened on the bus. The ladies I sat next to promptly discarded their items (one packet chips and one ice cream cup) right through the window on the head of some unsuspecting motorist. My usual opening line in this situation is to ask them if they would like it if someone littered the same stuff outside their homes. I get a smile and oh ho, just forget about it! One woman assured me that other people do it so it's OK. Both looked embarrassed but regarded it a crime one step less than stepping on an ant. The thrid experience I had was with an SUV driver at a traffic light who pushed some swanky button to roll down his window and threw a bill out, cooly pushing same swanky button to roll the window up again.  I brought my scooter up to his window and went tap, tap, tap. Window down. Oh, mister why did you litter? Shouldn't educated people like you not abuse public property?  Window up. Tap, tap, tap I went again. Don't you feel ashamed of littering? This time the voice spoke, " Look it's happened already and it's only a piece of paper." Wah, kya logic!
I think this whole habit of littering has what has got us into the mess of pile high garbage in any place.  Shouldn't we say something?
Smoking in public is another pet peeve. The way I see it: smokers have consigned their lung epithelia to an early apoptotic death so why invite me along for the ride? Thanks to the latest govt. ban on smoking, enforcing this is way easier and most smokers look quite guilty with their puffed faces anyway so a gentle rebuke is all it takes for them to saunter away. Doesn't exactly solve the problem because the smoke is now in someone else's face!
Peeing in public seems to be an activity generally males indulge in. Yes, we lack easily accessible clean toilets in our cities. But how did this become so acceptable that I see well dressed youth stop their scooters, get off and pee on a boundary wall all the while making their pillion rider (usually a female) wait on the street with the parked vehicle? It's an epidemic. I have seen men in twos and threes peeing at the same wall. My first thought was to call my project the PP project (PeePee or Prevent Peeing; get it?) and launch a public campaign against offenders. I thought public humiliation was the way to go but due to the lack of nerve and a good video camera this plan has faltered. Besides talking to a man while he is peeing is quite awkward! So it's back to plastering pee spots with pictures of the divine gods who rule us.
The second part to this discussion as I see it is - Why should I be allowed to issue citations? Well, it is true that I neither litter nor smoke/ pee in public. But as far as an offender is concerned I might be issuing them a citation after having discarded my empty cigarette packet on the street and enjoying a smoke while I peed around the corner. So what should the qualifications be for this Citizen Cop? Here are my random suggestions:
                 * they should have a clean chit from the Income tax dept for the last 5 years. Don't pay taxes? Too bad, you don't qualify. Yeah, life's not fair.
                  * they should have voted in at least one state or lok sabha election.
                  * they should know the bus numbers to their locality.
                  * they should know the local language.
                  * anyone over the age of 80 qualifies instantaneously.
            * if found littering, peeing or smoking in public their driving license is revoked and passport impounded for 2 years. 
                * All citations to be accompanied by a picture of the offensee committing the offense. Camera to be purchased and maintained by citizen cop herself, at her expense. 

I invite readers to send in their ideas for a qualifications. I'm sure in true indian ishtyle we can brand and package this idea effectively and, never actually get around to changing anything. Who's game? I think I have an idea for the logo already - a crumpled looking piece of paper, yellow and surrounded by smoke rings...


22 October 2008

Therapeutic Thippsandra

I found myself peeved this Monday, mainly because I signed up to run a half marathon (Kaveri Trail Marathon) and never bothered to actually prepare so of course, I never got around to doing the whole loop. Instead I lamely turned around at the 8Km point, grabbed a bunch of sandwiches at the aid station near 5Km and walked the rest. All this put me at 16Km when I should have done 21Km.  Blah! The trail BTW was fantastic. It was a hot and humid day for the run but the scenery was splendid: a canal on one side and paddy fields on the other. Lots of bulls with pointy horns and attitude, with occasional farmers wondering aloud why we were running. I'm yet to come up with a nice one liner to answer that question in Kannada to a person who probably walks that distance everyday just because he has to. 
Sigh, so Monday was dawning to be a depressing day when I was sent on errands by mater. I unlocked Chameli and we were off. This is where the therapy started. My first encounter was with an SUV who has decided to turn our lane into a one way street and expected me to simply vanish while he overtook another car. We met head on and I didn't want to yield. He gave me the graceful chin flick suggesting I should pop off while I just started ranting. It ended with me having to give up my road space but the stream of "Ayyyes" and "ninne maggnes" helped clear my sinuses and air out my lungs. The road leading to Thippsandra is a nice ride downhill and I was enjoying this when a huge Innova cut me off. I braked, and gave him the stare. At which point he suggested by honking that I should take my bike and myself off the damn road if I didn't intend to go anywhere. Well, I wasn't having any of it so I let loose another barrage of comments about the common man i.e., bicyclists and how the car drivers (I also drive a car and curse motorists while behind the steering wheel. Yes, that's not fair) are the scum of the earth for not treating us like we were equal partners in road usage. This session concluded I joined the main road. Here bang in the middle of the road were two friends chatting away about home and family. This would hardly classify as inconvenient if they weren't actually sitting in their cars while carrying out this conversation. But quite oblivious to the pile up behind them they continued to reminisce about the good old days. Well, this certainly deserved a public outcry so I decided to be the spokesperson of this mission. I invoked the laws of human decency and civic sense along with the upbraid that if *educated* people like them abused traffic laws then what of other mere mortals? I would have gone on to tell them about the bad example they were setting for their children only I didn't see any kids in the car and I didn't want to drag family into this. 
Well, in the space of 10 minutes I got a chance to rant and rave to just about anybody who cared to listen. My Kannada is definitely getting better and so was my temper. The volatile ride to Thippsandra served the perfect circumstances to get all my anger out on the world and in circumstances where they were mostly deserved. All this has convinced me that in the future I need to just take a bike ride to my Thippsandra to legitimately get some aggression out of my system. 

14 October 2008

Feeling Awake.

Here's a post that will have lots of errors because it's going to be published straight from the heart. This is specially for R, with all my love.

I feel awake. Like an entire layer of cobwebs have been swept away from my mind and I have been scrubbed clean with Lysol (with bleach - got to keep the fairness of course!). I was riding with my mum on our scooter, her in front, because she doesn't trust me on the driver's seat and me as pillion. We were weaving our way through the back lanes of Thippsandra. The wind was blowing through my hair, I could smell bajjis being fried and yet another temple was announcing its presence with the shrill clanging of the bell. And I just felt awake. The beauty of this experience is that I didn't know I was sleeping till I woke up.

My entire body felt alive to my five senses. I didn't realize the emotional lethargy that had set into my system which enabled me to simply absorb and channel all the negative energy I had. Oh, I worked, I ran, I volunteered, I communicated and I laughed - but I was still sleeping. I was on auto pilot without knowing where the on/off button was and who/what had turned it on. Our feelings are so powerful that sometimes they decide to tuck themselves into our subconscious lest we do harmful things with them. I think this was my "fright" response. A bunch-of -nerves decided to get together and manufacture a reality that my brain accepted as status quo because my feelings of being separated from my family, my country and continued attempts at a job that I knew didn't click with me, was just too powerful to deal with in any rational manner. Well, good show, bunch-of-nerves. They suddenly decided last night to release me from the environment manufactured reality. This is going to sound absolutely flaky but I am thinking and feeling from the heart now. I hope I don't go to sleep again because this is a wonderful place to be.

12 October 2008

Doing as Astro does IV

  In my continuing study of how Astro lives I give you the latest lesson:

Lesson # 4 Bear misfortune with fortitude

This lesson was inspired by the way Astro deals with his bath - with fortitude. By and large Astro is a stinky dog so we have various levels of Astro's cleaning: every morning he is brushed and combed, a ritual that culminates with application of Emami talcum powder; his paws are cleaned if they are wet and muddy; he is hosed and dried after his walks if it has been raining; he gets a sponge bath if he is smelly but it's not at the levels of public health concern; and the last resort of giving him a bath is applied when his aroma permeates our bed linen even when he doesn't directly come in contact with them. 

Out of all these cleaning methods his favorite is the brushing and combing and, least favorite is the bath. As soon as we mention bath (in English, Hindi or Kannada) and he sees us assembling his bathing stuff, Astro ascends to the top of the staircase. He knows that resistance is futile but he puts up his price anyway. Since he weighs well over 70 kgs it's impossible to simply carry him to the bathing spot. Instead we have to trick him in to descending after which we leash him. This is followed by him "sitting it out" (for sit outs see this post) and us dragging with all our might. For his descent various cajoling tricks are employed: sweet talking  accompanied with biscuit or bread bribe or; ringing the bell and announcing the arrival of his favorite visitor or; pretending that we are eating something that he would love to partake of (remember the togetherness theme? that applies to eating as well). 

Once at the bathing spot though, Astro gives in. He allows himself to be soaked, shampooed and rinsed. For a dog who starts whining at 7:30pm for his 8:00pm dinner this is quite remarkable. Not a peep out of him is heard through the ordeal and he patiently waits for it to be over. He does distance himself from the water and doesn't employ any body language that conveys cheerfulness but he doesn't complain.

Well, misfortune visits us all. From big to small misfortunes we have to brace ourselves to face situations out of our control and Astro teaches us that in these circumstances one must just suck it up and wait for it to pass. To lament and curse our luck would be a foolish waste of time. Good luck with this one - isn't whining so much easier? :)

The last few Lessons:

8 October 2008

I can squat

Hurray! I can now venture into new yoga positions. I recently started paying attention to the fact that I couldn't squat. My sister and her fiancee tried hard to teach me the trick but my heels refused to touch the ground and whenever I attempted contact, I would tumble over and fall. But today, when I was playing with Astro I suddenly realized I was squatting. I jumped up with glee and announced this to my mother who rolled her eyes and said, "Congratulations! Now you can use an Indian toilet." I wanted to give her one of my petulant and acerbic howudas but I was also demonstrating my newly found talent and exactly at the point of delivery, I toppled over and fell flat on my face. As usual Game. Set. Match to mother. Hrrumph.
Ironically I spent a better part of my childhood and hostel years using an Indian style toilet so there was no dearth of practice, still I was unable to master the art of planting both heels down. So today I feel like I have reached a new level of body understanding although I am mystified why this muscle flexibility only just manifested itself. It wasn't like I was practicing squatting everyday. Bizarre. Anyway, as long as I retain this power tomorrow I am not going to worry about how it happened. Yipee!  

6 October 2008


I would like to introduce my family's phrase for all occasions - "Howooda." For the non-kannadigas in the audience this is how it is pronounced: How -oo (the oo as in goop) -DA. I'm not sure how to define it exactly but in conversation you can use anywhere the phrase 'Is that so?' applies.
 In my family we agree on pretty much two things - life is all about good food and wit is the only way to have a conversation. Consequently, we spend most of our time eating and making snarky but funny remarks about each other, the world at large and just about anyone whom we come across while eating. It's a game of constant rebuttal, back stabbing and intellect but sometimes in the heat of the moment when all possible jokes have been made and yet, there is a statement we want to make, we resort to: "How-oo-da?" 
Delivery is the key component of this powerful tool in our society. When you have to sound incredulous (most often employed by my uncle when he is informed of any simple matter such as, "The sun is setting in the west",  he goes, "Howda!") you simply make the oo disappear and cut short the DA. Of course, DA also happens to be a very popular ending in sentences when communicating between friends so if you put too much of an accent it sounds like "How, da?" as in, "How is that possible, da?" which is why you need to simply spit it out in order for it be totally surprised. If you can raise both your eyebrows and stroke your chin while simultaneously uttering the phrase you would have pulled it off to a tee.  The incredulous howuda is most useful when you are presented with a zinger fact that you should know, but since you don't really wish to reveal your ignorance, you can cloak it with incredulity instead. I also commonly employ it when I have been given chores and after a five second turn around time my mother asks me if they have been completed. Bambi eyes and the incredulous howda buy me precious time before my brain synthesizes an appropriate excuse.
The next potent howooda is the patronizing one. Simply stretch the oo and da part for this rendition, so it goes something like - howooooodaaaaaa. If you can sing song the oo part this phrase will give you the seconds to either come up with a brilliant repartee or change your body language significantly to that of a threatening position so that your opponent forgets all about wit and engages his nerves in a "flight" response instead. I normally employ it when some aunty corners me at a wedding and asks me in sugary sweetness, "beta, what's the good news?" The correct response to this is, "The good news is that I'm not pregnant and not married" but since most aunties do not get the hidden sarcasm its better to resort to the long howoodaaaa having thus answered the question but, to the utter discontent of the questioning party. This completely spoils the mood and I can now walk away triumphantly, having convinced aforementioned aunty that I'm recovering from brain fever. 
The next in series is the I'm-too-cool-for-this-gab-gab-gab howooda. First, for this you need to wear sunglasses (or any type of glasses) and learn how to smile without showing your teeth. This howooda can be interjected during any point in the conversation and doesn't require a lead in, which means you could potentially nap through say... a treatise on marxism in India and, still opine by simply employing this word right after someone has said a really long sentence. Of course, if you nap through the end of the sentence this phrase cannot help you. To deliver simply pull glasses down to end of nose bridge, raise eyebrow and say "Hoooowooooooda?". Oh, also try cocking your head to one side. Use mirror to practice till all fine points are executed as one fluid motion. This exact sequence can also be used to feign boredom. 
I'm sure there are lots more exciting situations where this versatile word combined with facial expressions can deliver a deadly yet concise blow to logic. Maybe we need more of it in our diplomatic corps. If you have a howooda moment please do share it! 

4 October 2008

To the man with no perspective

I'm livid. It's amazing how one email from the person who set off the chain of events that led me to quit my job and move countries can make me feel. And the matter is trivial - a $30 utility bill for the home we both shared. I want to share something called perspective with this person.
In a matter of two weeks I shut down bank accounts, said goodbye to friends I might never meet, packed up seven years of life that I accumulated in books, kitchen stuff and memories, boxed things I wanted and sent them away, wrapped my work at lab, sold my car, had an auction for the things I couldn't take with me, sent away my carefully nurtured plants and filed for divorce. There's a lot of I in this para but to be very fair I had a wonderful circle of friends who kept me swimming against the tide of depression and disgust I felt. Depression about ending this relationship and disgust that I allowed myself to fall in love with a deeply selfish and cunning individual who showed me the exit sign the moment the giving (by me) in our relationship ended and the taking began.
Let me ask you - after all this Mahabharat was it fair to send me a bill for utilities for an amount that I'm sure I have spent in gifts on him, or on produce with which I cooked for us? What's his perspective when he expects me to settle a utility bill from India for a home that we both shared, for a city and country that I left two months ago?
My mind is racing through a stream of gaalis which will never reach the ears they are intended for. I'm just praying that Karma really works. It sure is giving me a bloody hard time!

2 October 2008

Teach English

This entry come from New Delhi. I'm getting a dose of sisterly love, excellent hospitality of her fiancee and visiting an Asha project that is dear to my heart and unexpectedly, has become a symbol of all the things I want to do with and for the next generation of Indians. At Asha, I have two very different projects that I am involved with - one works with adults with various types of disabilities and the other, which I am visiting, runs a number of centers that provide after school education for underprivileged children. Actually, I would be doing project WHY (We Help Youth) injustice if I labeled them as just providing education. They also run creches, a foster home, women's center and, a center for physically and mentally challenged children. I'm going to summarize my visit as a 'site visit report' and will post a link to it later. For now, I want to talk about what I think is the single biggest thing I have learnt from this visit and that is, everyone, teachers and children, want to learn and speak good english. 
Even in a metro like Delhi the predominant language is hindi and there is little or no conversation that takes place in english. As a language english is taught early on in government schools, from the 3rd standard in fact, yet this translates poorly to the daily use of english as a spoken language and as a written means of communication. Most children read just fine but they do not comprehend what they are reading. In a typical english textbook there are lessons in english (short stories or essays) followed by questions. The students merely underline the answers in their books and reproduce it verbatim in the exam. The same rote learning skills applied to learning the 15 times table is applied to a language. 
Quite often when we listen to activists working in the field of education or directors of NGOs who speak passionately about their kids we feel inspired and inevitably ask the question, "What can I do to help?" So, I think I have a simple answer to that - Teach english. There are two goals we need to achieve with our children who come from backgrounds where parents may not know or talk in english. First, we have to give the children the confidence to speak in a non-native language. Second, we have to give them the skills to truly comprehend a passage in english. 
For whatever reason the ability to speak fluently in english is taken as a defining standard of your education and background. Thus, for the parents, teachers and children of the slums, speaking english is a necessity which I think will help liberate their confidence. And this is a skill that would certainly help in any vocation the child wants to pursue later on. I strongly believe that we should never assume what people want and certainly applied that to this situation. So, it was gratifying to learn that the children and teachers are also keen to learn english. At project Why there is volunteer who will be working on teaching them english over the next 9 months and I am excited to see if their desire is strongly backed by commitment to learn the language. 
Strangely, this desire was also reflected by the teachers I met in a govt. school in Bangalore and I also remember Dayamani didi talking about the tribal children in Bihar for whom she wished a better english education. Certainly my examples are not exhaustive but it's interesting that people from different parts of India echo the same wish. 
I suffer greatly from angst on where to begin on the various fights that are important to me which, I recorded in my previous post. I think I have the tiniest glimmer of where I want to start my education fight! Teach english. 

22 September 2008

So much fight!

Fight to end hunger!

Fight to end poverty!

Fight to end illiteracy!

Fight to end the use of GMO crops!

Fight to end child labour!

Fight to end dowry deaths!

Fight to end abortion of female foetuses!

Fight to end discrimination by caste!

So many fights I want to be involved in and in none, can I make a noticeable difference, right now. This isn't a defeatist speaking. In fact, I am quite charged. I only don't know which fight is the most important and which would unleash the domino effect that would create the social change we must have.  

21 September 2008

May I help? No, thanks!

I was sitting under a shady tree on stone benches with a group of friends discussing the progress of our projects when a boy with a virulent looking skin infection on his underarms, arms and chest showed up. He wanted money to buy medicines for his infection. This was unusual because most people who beg at parks only want money and hardly qualify the request. Of course, this child had a gross infection to aid his plea and he had probably figured that people were more generous when he asked for money to heal his wounds. Accompanying the request were two tubes of cortisols (topical steroidal applications) apparently prescribed by a doctor for these infections. The child also wanted one of us to accompany him to a pharmacy to purchase the drugs. 
I volunteer for an organization whose broad aim is to help the underprivileged children get an education (Asha for Education) and ironically, this was an Asha meeting. So, there were 7 motivated individuals listening to this boy's story, who wanted to do more than just help him buy medicines. Being the only one in the group to fluently speak (ha!) Kannada I became the ad hoc chief interrogator. 
The child's story - he lives in the park, his parents are close by but don't like him coming home because the neighbors complain about him coming in with an infection and they beat him. Most child beggers come up with stories that they think would give them the money so we weren't too sure about any of these details except that from looking at his skin they were possibly burns and that due to the elements they had turned pustulous. We were able to corroborate from other vendors that he has indeed lived in the park for a few months and no body knew if he had family.
I called my mother who works in an organization for abandoned children and she gave me the number of a shelter that we could bring the boy to. The shelter would take care of his infection and try to track down his family. It was a home for street children. The catch was that we had to bring this child to the shelter since they can't simply come by and pick him up. The other authority that could pick him up was the police but the child was too afraid of them and our instinct is not to trust the cops (which by itself is rather pathetic). Anyway, I tried talking to the boy and promised that we would take him to a home with a nice bed, hot food and medicines for his hurt. The plea fell on deaf ears - he claimed to have a nice bed, get food from a hotel and didn't need a home. With each declaration he walked away even more and the more we pled the further he got. While talking we also discovered that he knew english so at some point he went to school! Finally he was far enough that walking away was easy and we didn't have any more words to convince him to come with us. 
The irony of the situation still stings me. Here we were, offering the child every resource at our disposal but we couldn't get him to trust us. We thought we were being helpful but instead we were rebuffed. There are two aspects to this incident that struck home for me. One, trust is a valuable commodity. Why should anyone trust that you want to help them? Second, not everyone wants your help. You might want to reach out to every child and adult in your life with the words "May I help?" and get a "No, thanks." This was a hard lesson to swallow. My heart still bleeds for this poor baby who is wandering with a bad infection that I couldn't help. I know we did our best and this is something I need to digest philosophically. Not everyone wants your help so allow yourself to offer it without expectation and when your help is accepted, be grateful for the opportunity. 

20 September 2008

Doing as Astro does III

To the Astro faithfuls here's another note from the master.

Lesson # 3 Don't be afraid to ask for love

Too often we like to congratulate ourselves on being independent, for some it's financial, for others it is emotional or like for me, it's both. I spent the better part of this decade proving how I can make decisions and forge ahead by myself. The pride in doing-it-alone forced me once to dig out my car buried under 5 ft of snow (should have simply looked hapless err... helpless and waited for muscled youth of the student's housing complex to show up) and move to a city where I knew no one (the family and social network not having stretched out to Seattle as yet). Was this wrong? No, says the master, but you can work on it. There are certain activities that only you can do such as, sleeping, thinking, breathing and eating. For everything else, Astro believes you need a pal. That's why he never goes for a walk alone, even if we leave the gate open and when at home, he generally sleeps in the room where maximum density of household members are collected. Astro also maintains a vast social circle so he can use a rotating batch of pals for his activities but, there is one activity he does with all of them - he never shrinks from asking them for some love.

For those of you who have seen his picture, you may think, "Sure, he's cute as a button, why wouldn't anyone want to love him?". Well, there are amongst us non-people, commonly referred to as people who don't like dogs, whom Astro approaches with the same cuteness only to be rebuffed. What does he do when his winsome personality, big brown eyes and rapidly shaking tail fail to get him a pat? He moves on. Actually he briefly tries to bribe them with a newspaper in his mouth but after he senses that only loud Aaas and Ooos are emerging from the person he skips to the next person. That's right, he asks for love, gets rejected and moves on to the next person who is willing to give him a pat and perhaps, a slice of bread. 

I think this lesson is one of the hardest for me to practice. We of the microwave generation don't like asking for anything let alone something intangible as love. Yet, that's what Astro does without fear. I sort of used this technique in the last few days before leaving from Seattle, when I felt I was living a life from a tragic book, which ultimately led to the love and blessings post. Anyway, if I am committed to living as Astro then I have to practice this lesson more frequently, without adverse conditions preempting it. One issue is that I don't particularly like being patted or scratched behind my ear. My friend E likes to be hugged which is much more acceptable to me. So, next time I meet you reader, I'm going ask for some love in "huggable" currency.  

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