Tag Archives: India

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This one is from the archives. This poem holds a special meaning for me because of two reasons:

  • It was recognized by UNICEF as a literary piece spreading awareness about child abuse, specifically that of the girl child.
  • It introduced me to my life partner — this was the first piece of my writing he encountered and was touched enough to drop me a line. The rest, as they say, is history.

This poem is based on the right of a child to be protected from abuse and exploitation. I have not titled this poem because I want the readers to feel that just as a poem is incomplete without its title, childhood is incomplete without protection from the law.

Dark brown eyes that are red because of crying,
All hopes of escape and freedom are dying;

Clothes have been torn, hair is a tangled mess,
The face has lost all its childishness;
Hands and feet show marks of the whip,
Blood flows down from the cracked, parched lips;
Since the past three days no food has been eaten,
Her faith in God stands totally beaten.

Only seventy-two hours have passed since the time
There was laughter in life and bright sunshine
There were mother, father, and a lovely baby brother…
So what if they lived in a hut near the gutter?
There was dearth of money and they couldn’t eat well
But life was peaceful, and who had thought of such hell?

Loving neighbors, all sweepers by profession,
Who cared, but were financially in depression.
City life was expensive and father wanted the best for his son,
So he came up with an idea that would give him returns;
The very next day he came wearing a new coat,
In his hands he held hundred rupees’ ten crisp notes;
Life changed its course from that very moment
But there was no thunder, no lightning in the firmament!

The door creaked open and light illuminated the room
That hulk of a man, that lubber, spelled doom…
The message was to ask her if she was ready to come,
A customer was waiting — his fear made her numb;
But she was too tired to resent any longer,
Moreover, the louts were much, much stronger,
They washed her clean and gave her a dress
How she looked, is anybody’s guess.
She was led to a room where she would spend the rest of her life,
A girl of twelve followed by a lecherous man of thirty-five…

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The “religion” of humanity

Note: Fair warning that this post might offend some people. You may find yourself outraged, but please know, I am not attacking your belief system, simply stating my own. I would appreciate if you’d extend the same courtesy to me when commenting.

Watching Religulous last night just made me realize how we give a lot of significance to things we know nothing about.

India, one of the most secular countries in the nation, is routinely shaken by communal violence. Headlines that rip your heart: “Thirty-eight people burnt alive, 12 among them were children.”

“Property worth lakhs of rupees gutted down to ashes.”

“Shops looted and vehicles torched.”

Vikram Patel, Swastik Mehta, Joy Lobo, Heeralal Shah, Brian Phillips, Iqbal Mehmood, Aslam Khan – casualties of a war they didn’t start.

Their names bearing no significance – becoming only statistics splashed in newspapers people eat paapri-chaat on.

And it’s no different anywhere else in the world – hundreds of thousands dead in the name of religion. Politicians and religious leaders use rhetoric. They instigate mass hysteria. And caught between this war of words, the common man suffers.

I’ve always wondered how we end up determining our religion. Who tells us whether we are Hindus or Muslims? Christians or Jews? Scientologists or atheists? Is it the blood running through our veins? Is it a chemical reaction in our brains? Is it somehow something we just “know” when we enter this world?

No.

It’s people.

Starting with our parents. Reinforced by our social circle. Validated by our priests.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation: if a child is born to a woman who practiced Islam and she dies in childbirth; no one knows how to ID her; a Christian couple adopt him, baptize him, take him to Church every Sunday; but he is raised by their devout Hindu maid who reads passages from the Gita to him all the time.

What is this child’s religion?

Is he Muslim by accident of birth? Is he Hindu because he bowed to all the gods and chanted the Gayatri mantra day in and day out? Is he Christian because that’s the religion his parents identify with?

Isn’t religion just an organized social club where membership is determined by birth? You meet people with the same “beliefs,” perform the same rituals, and bow to the same deity (or different “preferred” ones if you have an array of 300-million to choose from)?

People don’t understand most of the stuff they do in the name of religion but do it anyway because they “don’t want to make Him angry” or because “you just don’t question these things!”

I call this worshipping fear.

One would think that with all our technological advances and better understanding of the cosmos, we, as Earthlings, would acknowledge that religion was “invented” to build community, to give people something to affiliate themselves with. To try and explain the unexplainable.

In today’s world where we know how to reprogram skin cells into stem cells, when we’re inventing ways to turn water into fuel, when we’re  finding evidence of water and carbon dioxide on a planet outside our solar system, to still hang on to stories our ancestors made up to control societies …?

It just doesn’t feel right.

I vividly remember Bombay burning as an aftermath of the Babri Masjid debacle and witnessed gory scenes of communal unrest in Gujarat that followed a decade later. Countless children were orphaned, millions of national wealth destroyed, innumerable lives cut short unwontedly; and yet we fight over constructing a temple, a church, or a masjid.

Is the construction of any of these buildings worth a public massacre? Can these brick and mortar structures be rightfully called holy? Isn’t this just human slaughter in the face of religious superiority? And who is to say which section’s God is the all-powerful one?

The way I see it, no one wins.

Religion only makes us lose touch with humanity. With what really matters. The symbols, the edifices, the nomenclatures – they’re just things we, the people, created.

When a child wails, do you hear Ram, or Allah, or Jesus?

No. You just hear a human being crying for comfort.

All we need is compassion. Empathy for each other. Peace within ourselves.

And for that we need to look inward.

Think about it before passing judgment.


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If you sell it, we will buy

I always have a list when I go grocery shopping — whether it’s for the weekly produce or the monthly household needs.

I learned quickly I needed to do that lest I start exploring aisles and be lured into buying things I don’t need.

I’ve ended up with many a random thing thanks to my deviancy: a spinning spice jar that takes up much more counter space at home than in a warehouse; a citrus squeezer that’s dwarfed by my super-efficient juicer; cute notebooks that are still sealed in their original packing; plush flip-flops — really how many pairs does one need to walk the one wooded area in the house?

I didn’t need any of those things. Didn’t even really want them. But the advertising gimmick was so alluring, the packaging so inviting, and the price so right, that I gave in.

Yesterday, a friend shared this video which takes our obsession with buying anything that looks good and is marketed well, to another level. You won’t regret spending time watching it.

My favorite bit is where two women drink bottled water with a spider in it. A big, black spider in the water! Check it out:

In countries like India where filtered water in a bottle is more of a precaution than a status symbol, this won’t apply, but no matter where you are in this world, you will identify with falling for marketing BS.

I hate shopping, so I suppose that works in my favor. But even those of you who love to spend time in malls, making lists of things you really need before you head out the door might not entirely be a bad thing.

Think about the above video the next time you get enticed into buying something “fancy” — are you just making a laughing-stock of yourself?

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Not wired 24/7

What is the first thing you do when you wake up? Stretch a little, drink a glass of water? Rub your eyes and will your body into leaving the warmth of the bed?

That used to be me, a couple of years ago. I’d lie curled under my Jaipuri quilt, gazing out the window — sunlight streaming through the oak leaves, the sound of finches going about their daily business.

And then something changed.

My head propped against two pillows, still not quite awake, I would reach for my laptop, slowly open my eyes and stare at thousands of updates from bloggers, friends, and journalists around the world.

While I waded through the tweets, plurks, tumblelogs, Flickrs, Jaiku activity streams, Facebook and Plaxo Pulse updates, I was also e-mailing colleagues and speeding through RSS feeds in my customized Google Reader. I would spend the first 20 minutes every morning scrambling through the noise of Web 2.0.

Thanks to my iPhone, I could also carry the “noise” with me. As I scanned through another 1,ooo+ unread news items, I munched on my mix of pumpkin seeds and flax granola mixed with rolled oats and Cheerios.

My Bluetooth device in place, I would step out to catch the shuttle that would ferry me over to the light rail station a mile away. During the 40-minute commute, I would access my social networking updates through FriendFeed, continue scanning news items and sharing the ones I liked with friends,  tweet about the crowd in the train, and review work e-mails.

I had become a cyborg.

Even though at heart, I’m more of a floppy-disk than a thumb-drive person, I had been swallowed by the “need” to keep up with the millennials. Just so, I could feel relevant.

I didn’t have a cell phone until my first job in India at age 23 and we got around just fine by using pay phones, writing letters (yes, that’s right – handwritten letters on paper that we mailed), and meeting people face-to-face.

I distinctly remember when we sat around as a family to watch the one public television channel that was broadcast from 5 to 10 p.m. on our black and white TV.

That was it.

There was no pay-per-view, or 300 channels to choose from and we couldn’t “log on” to watch YouTube videos.

We read books for entertainment, we had real-time conversations at the dinner table instead of texting our friends while chomping down a meal, we went out and played softball, cricket and badminton (not as a structured activity, but for fun!) and we waited while the phone rang and rang and rang until it got disconnected.

And then we called again.

But things have changed – and drastically so. For today’s kids, being wireless is the norm, texting is the new e-mail, and voice messages have always existed. Even the two-year-olds throw a “regular” phone away in favor of swiping their index finger rapidly on an iPhone screen!

Now we have this ever-pressing need to be “connected” — not just online — but actually actively socializing on Facebook, LinkedIn, Orkut, Buzz, Habbo, hi5, Foursquare, Xanga or a plethora of other services.

I have 378 friends on Facebook and 162 people in my Orkut network — 99.9 percent of them are people I have met and known at some point in my life.

I love the fact that I can look at their profile updates, go through their public photos and scroll through their Walls or Scrapbooks to see what’s going on in their lives. But not everyone has this policy of “friending” — most social network users open up their network to strangers — that’s the whole point, they say, of networking!

And don’t even get me started on Chatroulette — the latest fad that pairs random strangers for Webcam-based conversations. Eek!

For me, the internet has made it a lot easier to keep in touch with family and friends. But when it starts becoming more real than the reality of your life, it’s time to take a timeout.

And that’s what I have done.

I log on to Facebook thrice a day: once every morning to check on friends’ updates and ask my question of the day, then sometime in the afternoon to post an update of this blog, and then for half an hour at night to beat my opponents at Bejeweled Blitz.

I’ve stopped following Twitter as rampantly and phased out all the other services that hogged my time and attention, leaving me no time to think. Just consume. Reams and reams of unstoppable information.

I’ve whittled down my Google Reader subscriptions to the ones I will actually read, not keep saving to pore over “some day.”

Now, I take a minute, sometimes two, to appreciate being alive to see another morning before “plugging in.”

I watch the weather and traffic reports while eating breakfast and listen to the radio during my commute.

Sometimes I take a break from the distant chatter in the background and just hum.

I like being able to think critically, stretch my mental muscles, and analyze, not just observe, what is. I like being able to share something meaningful. And as much as I want to be in step with the times, I’m not going be so obsessed with documenting irrelevant updates that I lose touch with reality.

I don’t want to be one of those people for whom events become real only when they tweet about them.

Maybe I’m just getting “old.”

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The festival of colors

It’s been more years than I can remember since I played Holi — the festival of colors — celebrated all over India regardless of caste, creed, religion, social status. The festival has strong religious undertones but that doesn’t seem to dissuade Christians and Muslims from celebrating the onset of spring with literally colorful exchanges.

Or throwing each other in tanks full of colored water.

I always enjoyed playing with the water colors more than the dry ones — you could squirt them on unsuspecting folks with a pichkaari (water gun) and mix colors to create your own trademark shade.

I didn’t have any siblings, so I used to gang up with the kids in my building … a group of 10 of us itching to engage in colorful combat. That was one day I would wake up before the alarm went off. Take care of my morning routine without any nudging. Demand breakfast before mom even had a chance to make the first cup of tea. And wear the whitest white clothing I could pull out of the closet.

I imagine every kid in our building could tell the same story.

We couldn’t wait to get outside and douse each other in color amidst a lot of shrieking and laughing. Running up and down the stairs, with no regard to the walls, doors, or vehicles. Everything, and everyone, was a shade of green, orange, pink, and red.

The picture on the right was taken when the boys in the building (there were seven of those little monsters) had broken my pichkaari. I wanted to pull their hair, rip their clothes off, slap them left and right, but all I could do was stare. I knew I was no match for them. I also knew that no matter what I did I wouldn’t get my pichkaari back — the one I had spent hours shopping for and even more hours cleaning and adoring. Thanks, dad, for capturing that moment of silent rage for posterity.

The only thing that could lure us back in after four to five hours of nonstop color-loaded mischief were the savory gujiyas. All the moms had the kitchen to themselves and they would solicit the help of their respective maids to create this absolutely heavenly concoction of crispy and sweet deep fried pastries.

The picture on the left shows my obviously upset mom who was pulled out of her kitchen at the time of gujiya-making by insistent adult revelers. Not a pretty sight. Note also the sprayed wall in the background. That was all us — no adult help required. 😀

We’d sun ourselves dry relishing each bite of the flavorful delicacy … and listening to the one song Holi was not complete without: “Rang Barse!” [watch below]

And then it was time to clean up.

This was the last real Holi I played … took me two hours to get the color off and even though my skin was wrinkly after those many hours in the shower, there were still some shades of stubborn blue and green that refused to be wiped into oblivion. They would serve as my badge of honor the next day in school … 🙂

We’d compare notes, sneak in some remaining color, spoil our uniforms, get chided by teachers and parents, but it was all in fun.

I was in my teens now and most of my childhood playmates had left the apartment complex … Holi then became just an excuse for the neighborhood boys to come and grope members of the opposite sex. I was no longer allowed to go out.

Just a simple tikka ceremony where mom, dad, and I placed a red dot on each family member’s forehead and then I’d help mom in the kitchen, or watch TV, or read a book — the festival lost its charm as soon as grown-up inhibitions emerged.

I lamented for a couple of years, but then moved on. I had had my fill for almost a decade. It had been a good run.

Now Holi comes and goes without any special celebration. Just a couple of phone calls to relatives in India and friends in the States … exchanging e-cards and e-mails … wishing people through status updates. And maybe something special for dinner.

I miss the squeals of laughter, the  joyful spirit of free abandon, the camaraderie, the sense of community the festival built. What I really miss is being 10 again.

Even though Asha organizes a Holi celebration at Stanford University every year, I’ve never attended the event. Not for lack of company … it’s just that playing Holi as an adult doesn’t compare to enjoying it as a child. It doesn’t even come close. Now I am too conscious, too inhibited, too “aware” to engage in a festival that requires physical proximity with strangers … to actually enjoy it.

And I don’t want to create any new memories of Holi that will overshadow the ones I have. So, this is my homage to the festival I once enjoyed.

A time of unbridled happiness.

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I am my own woman

We were newlyweds at the Lucknow airport checking in for our flight to New Delhi, onwards to San Francisco — we had been assigned seats a couple of rows away from each other, so we requested to be seated together. The agent refused. “You don’t have the same last names,” he said.

Wait. What?

I was still wearing the traditional new bride jewelry (the red and white bangles being the most distinct give-away) and despite repeated attempts at clarifying we were husband and wife and I had opted to retain my maiden name, he wouldn’t budge. Finally he called his supervisor. I, in turn, called my dad, who had come to see us off, to vouch for our matrimonial status.

After half an hour of back and forth, we finally got adjoining seats.

It was bizarre.

Two years later we made our first trip back as a married couple. During the last leg of the flight, the attendant asked my husband what he wanted to drink. He said, “Coke” and the attendant moved on. I turned to my husband and asked, “What about me?” He gave me a blank look and shrugged. I shouted “excuse me” a couple of times, but apparently it didn’t register. A couple of minutes later, the attendant got my husband and me the same drink.

I don’t drink Coke. So, I said to him — “I didn’t ask for this. In fact, you never asked me what I wanted!” He immediately shot back, “He is your husband. I assumed you’d drink the same thing as him!”

(Needless to say, we’re never flying Air India again.)

And I was treated like this during our entire stay — we were in Rajasthan for a week and the auto-drivers wouldn’t negotiate with me … they would only talk to my husband. The locals we engaged with would see through me. Some even gave me the look that said loud and clear “Shut up!”

I felt suffocated. And offended. Here in my own country, I had no voice. And I realized that all these years, I had only been my father’s daughter. When he “gave me away” on my wedding day, I became my husband’s wife.

That was all there was. My identity as an individual was determined by whom I belonged to.

For 21 years, my parents had sheltered me from the sexist attitudes of the relatively small town we lived in. The two times I stepped out of the house (once to do a year-long computer course and the second time for my job), I lived in the metros — Delhi and Bombay seemed to treat independent, working women with a tad more respect. Or so I felt in my limited experiences.

But having been exposed to life in the States where I was known for my work, respected for my professionalism, and recognized as “bright young asset” to my team, gender aside, going back in that environment made me realize how good women have it here. Here I have my own identity, my own place, my own voice. Decisions aren’t made for me and people acknowledge me as an individual.

I am valued for who I am, not the family I come from or the guy I married.

And heck, why do I have to be the only one to “belong”? Just as my husband married me, I married him. So, he “owns” me as much me as I own him.

And my name is a big part of my identity, just as his is for him.

I don’t necessarily claim to be a feminist, but it feels demeaning to me to be discounted just because by accident of birth I happen to be a female. I, too, have a place in this world. My place. My status. My identity.

I take pride in being a spirited individual and want to be recognized such. So what if I am a woman?

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P.S. I thank my parents and my husband — the former for raising me to be a self-respecting person and the latter for bolstering my confidence.

Submitted as a non competitive entry for Indus Ladies International Women’s Day blog contest.


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Fasting — why do you do it?

Note: I apologize in advance if this post offends those who believe in religious fasting. You may find yourself outraged, but please know, I am not attacking your belief system, simply stating my own.

There are several reasons why people fast: spiritual, political, therapeutic. In the three decades I’ve been on this planet, I’ve mostly observed orthodox Indian women engaging in said activity — for their children’s health, their husbands’ long life, or to appease one of their 330 million deities.

In India (and for Indians living abroad), karvachauth is a big thing — a festival now of sorts where an entire community of married women come together to support each other through the day. It creates a sense of sisterhood. They take pride in it. It’s something so pure. So selfless.

I am not a believer in fasting for something so logically disconnected. I mean, how in the world can my not ingesting any food or water for an entire day contribute to the length of my husband’s life? If anything, it’ll affect mine! My husband is the keeper of his own health. His exercise regime, his diet plan — he controls them. He’s an adult who can take care of himself for crying out loud. And if he wants to fast for a good, long life, more power to him! My fasting ain’t doing him no good.

To add to my angst, I see all these socially accepted “modifications” to this particular religious fast where now women have “agreed” to have tea, or a light fruit snack where 20 years ago you wouldn’t even *think* of taking a sip of water. They crib within. They post Facebook status messages about when is the moon going to finally come out!!??!! They wonder why their husbands won’t fast for them. But they do it anyways.  And, they get gifts in return for their “sacrifice.” So much for selfless.

There’s nothing selfless about religious fasting. It’s all for something. Heard of the famous Monday fast that helps you find the perfect partner? Apparently, there’s someone up there who listens to your prayers when you say no to meals any given day of the week. But make sure you fast on the right day in honor of the right deity for the right thing!

Pardon my sarcasm, but it really irks me how in this day and age we continue to fool ourselves into doing things that were established eons ago when people didn’t know any better.  A little Wikipedia search showed me that it’s not just Indian culture that sanctions this practice, it’s part and parcel of many faiths world-over. Did anyone think though that it might have been instituted as a means to cleanse your digestive system? And the only way it could be made popular was by associating it with religion? Mass hysteria. Mass acceptance. And then it takes the form of belief. If you believe it truly works, there’s no arguing against it.

Scientifically — logically — it makes sense to abstain from meat, cooked food, alcohol, and what have you once a week to give your inner machinery some rest. Also, it works if you want to test your will power.

But if you tell me that my fasting for a day will make my family life happier or get me that promotion at work, let me tell you I am “working” toward making those things happen.

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