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.