Friday, December 20, 2013

For all those creating, inventing, re-inventing anything under the sun, including themselves.

I was re-reading Booker prize-winning author Ben Okri's 'Astonishing the Gods' the other day and came across a section that seems appropriate for people brave and curious enough to blaze their own trail and yet human enough to experience moments of short-lived aloneness and apprehensions. The symbolism embedded in his words is as delicate as it is powerful that I feel compelled to share it:

The bridge, completely suspended in the air, held up by nothing that he could see, was a dazzling construct, composed entirely of mist...made of light, of air, of feelings...
'What holds up the bridge?' he asked his guide.
'Only the person crossing it,' came the reply.
'You mean that if I am to cross the bridge I must at the same time hold it up, keep it suspended?'
'But how can I do both at the same time?'
'If you want to cross over you must. There is no other way.'
'But if I am heavy will the bridge bear me?'
'If you can bear yourself, the bridge too can bear you.'
'And I must cross this bridge?'
'Yes, you must cross the bridge.'
'And if I do not cross?'
'I assure you, it is better to try to cross that bridge and fail, than not to try at all.'
When he did look back,...he found himself at the end of the most magnificent bridge...He thought of it as the bridge of self-discovery...When he looked back, he was astonished to find that the bridge had disappeared...[H]e had somehow managed to walk across emptiness... 
[T]ouched with a magical humility, he realised the nature of the small miracle he had enacted in his life.

-- Excerpted with awe and care from 'Astonishing the Gods' by Ben Okri and published by Little, Brown & Company (1995).

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Protest songs

Oh, where have the years flown?
I may not have any photographs with me to chronicle my journey, but my life in years just opened up as I unpacked a battered box full of tapes and CDs -- the earliest music tapes from about 30 years ago.  My first set of protest songs -- received as a gift from S for writing my first angry feminist poem (printed under Julie's name on the back cover of a major international women's conference proceedings and lost from my own files now) -- with songs of Donovan Leitch, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Marley, John Lennon...There are a few sad-sounding songs in Spanish too (from Nicaragua? Ecuador?) How I cared for this tape and worried I would lose it or tape over it (yes, the two squares at the bottom are carefully broken to prevent that from happening). 

Then I did not know that 'Universal soldier' was written by Canadian Buffy Sainte-Marie.  Here is Donovan's rendition.

Catch the Wind by Donovan.

Pete Seeger singing 'What did you learn in school today?'

John Lennon singing 'If you had the luck of the Irish.'

Farewell Angelina by Baez. 

Baez at her saddest and best in "Cambodia" brings a flood of tears from such a long time ago for me.
If I ever have a chance to go back in time and do a PhD all over again, it will be in figuring out why protest songs move you in such a powerful way.  

Here is a page dedicated to protest songs in Russia.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


An old favorite of mine is Tori Amos' 'God'.

God sometimes you just don't come through
God sometimes you just don't come through
Do you need a woman to look after you?
God sometimes you just don't come through.
 And a friend commented that she supposes God is a man...

I wanted to respond that Tori's 1994 video for this song was shot inside a Karni Mata temple; that while her dad is a Reverend (United Methodist), she explored pantheistic religions through her paternal grandfather, and by the way, what leads my friend to assume that Tori's God is a patriarch (don't women with power need looking after too?).  

Instead I just offered John Lennon's response.   Nothing as powerful as Lennon's lyrics to herd all of us cats...

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Kid speak -- Part One

Divya: Rahul, you put water in my eye!

Rahul: Well, just spit it out of your eye!

Mom (fascinated): Spit it out?

Rahul (correcting self): Well, just drop it out of your eye, Divya!


Rahul had his hand on the window (glass) of the car and was pressing the power-window button up, down, up, down, with the other.

Mom: Whatcha doin', Rahul?

Rahul: Nothing. Just giving my hand a ride.


Rahul: Is a documentary a dictionary on TV?


Divya: Are people the best animals?


Rahul (at 6 years of age): You look too cool, Mommy. Like a rock star!


Dad (loading the dishwasher): Rahul, can you bring the glasses from the living room?

Rahul (cheekily) brings his eye glasses that he hates to wear.


Lekha: Do you want pepperoni?  Or pepper only?


Divya: If you eat yourself, will you be inside out?


Rahul (at 5&1/2 years of age; impatient for Mom's attention to turn to him): It is boring to hear about Lekha's and Divya's dreams. It is fun when you listen to my dreams.  


Rahul: Is that a thinking job or a doing job?


Rahul: What is that thing in the hotel room that you and Daddy kept your computer?

Mom: A safe?

Rahul: Yes, and I think my memory is in a safe.



Friday, November 1, 2013

The Ethics of Aesthetics

The caption says, "30 unique photographs from 1959. Christian Dior in Moscow."

And somehow these photographs make me sad, sad, sad. Audrey Hepburns strategically inserted into the pages of 'Soviet Woman' for the sole reason of breathing life into the Hepburns alone.  No give; just take.  

Perhaps not as obviously stark and troubling as malnourished, bow-legged, rheumy-eyed children in remote villages serving as backdrop extras, but the ultimate effect belongs in the category of deprived people serving as props to sell a lifestyle that they could not attain at that time and in that space.  

The cringe-worthiness is made worse when I wonder, 'Did they know exactly what they were doing? Or did they not?'  

Which is more troubling? 

Monday, October 28, 2013


By Lekha, age 11.

Halloween. Scary costumes and candy.  There are tons of candy choices at the store that it's a chore to pick.  What will you buy? I'll make it easy for you: Mounds.

I won't go on an on about the obvious, how Mounds are the best candy in the world, but I'll tell you why.  Mounds are the most delicious, mouth-filling, sweet, chocolaty candy in the universe!  Everyone loves Mounds.  There are different flavors like: milk chocolate and white chocolate, but I personally think the dark chocolate ones are the best.  Dark chocolate is very healthy, and these types of Mounds are filled with coconut which adds a sweetly unique touch of flavor. 

If you are an adult, go ahead and treat yourself to the rich, creamy chocolate!  If you are a kid, go to your parents right now and beg them for Mounds or money to buy them.  They make the best snacks.

Again, everyone enjoys Mounds.  Although I would recommend them to children mostly. Mounds are the perfect Halloween candy to give out.  The moment you drop the lovable treats into their bags, their impatient faces will melt into smiles at the deliciously tempting candy.

So in my opinion, as you already know, Mounds are the most fabulous, mouth-watering, tasty, craving pick. If you don't believe me, go ahead!  I know this very well.  That Mounds are the ultimate Halloween treat!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Speaking in silences

Ketaki Chowkhani reflects on her experiences teaching caste in an upper caste school on Round Table India.   An 18-year old, 12th grade student approached her to help him out with a project on caste.  According to Chowkhani, the student, who was from an upper caste community, went to a school with only upper caste, and mostly middle class, students and teachers. Chowkhani was familiar with the school and its politics since she had studied there herself. "No one ever talked to us about caste there," she says.  "There was a resounding silence around it."  Chowkhani explained to the student that no one talked about caste in the school spaces because everyone was upper caste.

"This was of course, because caste was believed to be ascribed to only lower castes and Dalits and not upper castes, and that they seemed strangely absolved of any caste identity. The middle class, upper caste idea of castelessness was the prevalent norm there."
While I like how she explains the upper castes' version of castelessness, I disagree that no one talks about caste in places where upper caste privilege dominates. I have a slightly different take, hearing as I do, unintended, ubiquitous caste talk on all sides. Such conversations, seemingly innocent, involve foods, culture, festivals, bhajans, favorite singers, beloved music genres, party invitations, temple matters, gods and goddesses, thread ceremonies, mantras, planet positions, auspicious days, saints, holy books, scriptures, modern pilgrimages, who's who, favorite colleges, cool schools, professorial uncles' experiences, mannerisms, dialects, writings, readings, love stories, marriage ceremonies, naming ceremonies, thread ceremonies, death ceremonies, ideas of humor, preferences in silk, taste in jewellery, concept of beauty, cousins with US visas, nieces with IIM degrees, aunts bringing marriage proposals, grandfathers earning PHDs -- all topics that simultaneously exclude me, my kind and many more.

So I assert that people engage in caste talk all the time without being aware that they engage in caste talk all the time.  "How?," you may ask.

I can explain but you have to promise to experience my world, to carry my baggage, whole-heartedly, in order to understand.

Let me put it this way:

Have you ever fasted?  When you are fasting, especially in the beginning when you are learning how to fast effectively, have you ever thought to yourself that there are too many references to foods, beverages, aromas, food rituals, eating practices and routines in a normal day? Have you ever wondered how it is that you did not pay attention earlier to how often food innocently confronts you in your everyday life?

If you are a vegan who obsessively tries to avoid animal products, do you not find animal-based ingredients in every food label, restaurant offering, and meat-eating culture's norms?

Caste is like that. 

Just as,
Atheists can tell that our societies rely on too many God-based cultural references;
People struggling economically can understand that middle-class lives are full of activities that are money-based and consumption-based; that middle-class worries revolve around issues that matter only for those with some money;
Orphans can see that too many stories are rooted in mother's love and father's care;
Rationalists notice the extent to which superstitions rule all our lives;
Girls recognize exactly when boys have it easy;
The homeless in the city see buildings galore and yet know which doorways are off-limits to them and which benches in which parks are safe to sleep in;
Street children of the perpetually hungry can find perfectly edible foods thrown into garbage bins, 
Only a person born not into upper caste can tell you how many cultural norms and expectations are unavailable to him or her.  

When you are lower caste but move in upper caste circles, caste tends to be talked about under the umbrella of culture.  Rarely do we seem to notice or pay attention to it, at least not until major life events such as college admissions, marriage, babies, in-law visits take over lives.  In fact, people seem to not even be aware of this social capital that they have been given, without asking. Yet caste culture is omnipresent to those on the outside, living in the margins, looking in from the fringes through walls that let you see, watch, observe. But not touch, mingle, blend.

Walls. Glass walls. Fragile glass walls.  Yet, walls.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

July 11th

It's that fateful day again.
I am lost, simply spent.
Drenched in despair,
Soaked in sadness,
My womb, literally,
Bleeds and bleeds
Its inside out.
To hell with
"No right
To mourn your fourth (that never quite was)
In a crowded world."
My world is half-empty
Even though
Only one corner
Of a tantalizing hexad
Was snatched.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A new koan for our facebook age

Our new universe
The facebook universe
Brand new koans.
Here are a few
To ask our friends
At our next
(Facebooked) dinner party.

Does our fried calamari
Not exist
If picture not flashed?
Have we really, truly eaten
If we dine, in full obscurity,
At Olive Garden?

If we shop at
Schaumburg Mall
After announcing the fact,
Do we have
To pay the store?
Should not we be paid
For advertising?

If we believe
That we are
The Perfect Family
It wouldn't mean anything, would it,
The endorsement
Of our dear facebook friends?

If our happiness
With each 'Like' received,
Are we reduced to
'Zero' happy state
Without a respectable
Status update?

And what about the corollary?
Does our sadness
Not take a shape or form
If we give it
No facebook life?
Can this be true?
Can this be the promise
Of a new Zen way?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

HemaMalini (Vidyodaya, '86)

A year or so ago,
When I came across
A class photograph
From my past, I
Touched faces,
Saw smiles,
Heard distinct voices
Across the miles;
Across the months, the years
Of life that slipped away...
Like so much fine sand.

If the persons behind the faces
Switched off their TVs,
Shut out the traffic,
Turned down their chatter,
Quieted their families
For a moment,
Will they hear my thoughts?
I wondered.
Will they hear me whisper
"Hey, how are you doing?
Do *you* see my face too?
Do you wonder
Why I flashed in your mind's eye?
Can you hear me?
Did we connect?"

Yet, so busy that I was
Doing the asking,
Lining up the questions,
That I failed to
To the silence
That came away
From the corner
That I imagined
Held one classmate
Turns out,
*I* didn't sit still enough
To recognize
That her voice
Was by then
No more.

R.I.P. HemaMalini.

October 6, 2012.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Two sides of a coin, yes?

Those who don't believe in divorces
Are forced to get one.
Yet those who yearn to be free
Of a mistake
Are likely to stay imprisoned.

That's not strange enough, you say?
OK, how about this?

Family, friends, social support,
All prerequisites for a good marriage. 
So how come
Family, friends, social support
Also propel one to step into a good divorce?

If undisputed truths of the world were told, tell me:
What chances does an orphan have
For anything? 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Hidden Universes

A universe
Explodes inside me
(Not unlike the real Big Bang)
Each time I stumble
Onto music
From my teens.
How is it
That neither my Zambian-assembled husband
Nor my "half-Indian" kids
(the other half is "Canadian" or "American" as the case may be;
so says a 6-year old)
Nor even my sis-from-another-gen
Notice this world,
This oh-so-real-that-it-is-painful world
Hidden well
Inside me?
And so I come to ask
My peers
Does your universe
Explode too
Into millions of unexpressed moments
Occupying spaces that you didn't know existed
With every song, tune, beat
From our past?
Do you stop and wonder
'Who am I? What am I doing here?
Where is the world
That once used to be mine?'

Kodai kaala kaatre

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The world would be a lesser place without these books and movies.

Iranian movie: Border Cafe
If you want to understand how 'benign' masculine protection turns into insidious control of the feminine, how social structures ultimately protect the economic interests of the patriarchy, why women's issues have no boundaries, how dry, difficult and dense political science can be conveyed effectively through cinematic art, why Iranian movies occupy a special place in my heart, then you have to see this (not-so-recent) movie, 'Border Cafe'. Story-telling at its best.

'The Wandering Falcon' by Jamil Ahmad.
This book is a precious gift to this world!  I wasn't aware that I could find common grounds and identify with some of the simple yet richly complex characters from the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran border region, but I do.  I don't think anyone could have resisted being in the shoes of any of Ahmad's characters.  Such is the power of his stories and story-telling ability. 

The language--lyrical; the writing style--beautifully brief; the writer's heart--always tangible.

Please pick it up if you haven't read it, but don't look for reviews online.  All the ones I found give away too much of the book' structure and details of the story.  Reviewers who cannot write reviews without spoilers in every sentence need to be left wandering in the desolate lands of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  You need to enter the world depicted in this book without knowing anything about it.    

The story of Ahmad's book seeing the light of day is a story in its own right.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif
What a stark and audaciously biting novel about human strengths vs. vulnerabilities. This book is testament to Hanif's ability to turn tragedy into comedy for just as long as it takes you to swallow the bitter truth about nations and humanity. The deeper message about the limitations of all semblance of order in this universe (especially the hospital universe), however, lingers on long past you put down the book. I respect that he bravely took digs at stingy Caucasian nuns willing to let brown people starve. I love that his absentee fathers can write soulful petitions when necessary. I agree that tender love lasts only as long as viciousness, with or without reason, stays away. I am not quite sure why we rushed through the last scene abruptly or the timeline of what exactly happened above the hospital roof, but, perhaps, short, swift novel ending is metaphor for how quickly everything comes to a close if you are an Alice Bhatti in this world.

There are numerous themes in this book -- class, caste, religion, misogyny, poverty, marginalization, sickness, hospital management, physicians, professionalism or lack thereof among physicians, police power -- but the ones I picked out in the previous paragraph are not necessarily in order of importance or coverage in the book. Above all, the book is about how unconnected women learn to survive, live, thrive in a patriarchal society. If they make it past survival, that is.

The book is not all raw and stark; there are layers of nuance. And you will come to know a bit more about a little known demographic -- Pakistani Christians from the sweeper class/caste.

'In This World' directed by Michael Winterbottom
Last but not the least, watch this docudrama that will leave you with an idea of the tenacity and maturity that some children have as a result of being born on the other side of the fence.  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Our Selective Outrage

There was so much outrage last week when a certain made-for-entertainment Tamil movie by a certain actor was in danger of being snuffed out (or at least shortened).  A man's life was snuffed out this week, even though the facts leading up to that decision were, at best only circumstantial, and, at worst prejudicial, troubling and not untainted for judicial purposes. Enough questions were raised to make even those of us not trained in law feel uncomfortable about verdicts carrying terminal consequences.  Yet, there is utter silence from us everyday people, from us convenient cogs in the wheel, who have the luxury and power to withhold outrage.

As a common person, I am aware of feeling intimidated when the State is the entity about whom I ask uncomfortable, even scary, questions. I am afraid of exposing any ignorance from my side about details and facts that make a conversation appear intelligent; of losing face if at all I mistakenly take the wrong stance.  But when enough doubt is raised by those who have done their research, risk their safety and write to raise our consciousness (or prick our conscience, as the case may be), it seems wrong to not pause, take time from our relatively uncomplicated, untroubled, apolitical-on-the-surface lives, and wonder why a man -- a father, a husband -- was hanged in relative secrecy by the world's largest democracy.  It seems wrong to uncritically accept the words, '... and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender'.

This page is my attempt to keep a small lamp burning in my corner in place of the life taken from Mohammed Afzal Guru, "a man who was hanged who was not guilty beyond reasonable doubt".

Unanswered questions are the remains of the day by Anjali Mody
A perfect day for democracy by Arundhati Roy.
Four statements on the execution of Afzal Guru. Compilation at
And His Life Should Become Extinct by Arundhati Roy.
A Collaborator in Kashmir by Amitava Kumar.
Afzal Guru is dead, whose conscience is satisfied? by Jay N. Jayaram.
In Tihar, officials feel 'tinge of sorrow' by Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar
Unlocking the secrets of a secret execution by Nitya Ramakrishnan
The day India sullied itself again by Rajiv Kumar.
Citizens statement on the execution of Afzal Guru on India Resists.
Secret hanging a major setback: Human Rights Watch on the execution of Afzal Guru on
Afzal Guru's story in his own words at
We haven't even heard Afzal's story by Nandita Haksar at

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Moving mountains

About thirteen years ago, in an online discussion group that was set up only to discuss literary fiction, I talked about the aftermath of a rape of a fellow student some years earlier. I knew not to name the student or 'out' her in any way, but I used my feelings from this incident to contribute to a public discussion. I believe I tried to make a point in the context of an ongoing discussion about the helplessness and unfairness experienced while being a young, unprotected, unconnected female.

I was no less passionate about this topic then as I am now because I know what it's like to negotiate your own way in this world when you come from a family where the men are either absent or uncaring and the women are fighting their own respective devils. I know about the unfortunate misunderstandings that happen when you anxiously search for a father or a brother in most men you meet while young -- the good ones wisely stay out of the picture, the wily ones hardly think of you as their child or sister.  I know what it feels like to be touched prematurely--when you are not yet ready to be touched--even by the guy on whom you have a crush: It feels as revolting as when his brother and his father decide they can touch you inappropriately too.  I know that when you question the 'why' of it to older women--Indian women, kind women, well-positioned women--you should never be surprised to hear at least a handful of them tell you that it is the job of a child to be safe and that it is irresponsible for the women in the family to encourage or allow any naivete in their children.  So when I had a chance to share my insights, on behalf of faces known and unknown to me, I communicated what I knew by using the unnamed student's more recognized, more defined, yet less understood experience in life.                    

But I was chastised through the back-channel by an Indian woman teaching English in an Australian university. She accused me of garnering sympathy for myself at the expense of the student whom I was careful not to identify. The briefly narrated incident from my past was presumed by her to have left me, the young observer, unaffected. Her disapproval of me, which I now understand as a power play, was executed in that unique, ruthless way perfected by older, composed, established Indian women when chastising younger, less articulate, more unsure women trying to find their place in this world.  Power play or not, back then I was too insecure to understand it and, instead of demonstrating defiance, I wrote the most emotional piece of publicly apologetic poetry I have ever written in my life. Then I proceeded to lose three nights of sleep and several months of self-respect, and, as an additional self-imposed punishment, temporarily buried the writing voice I was hoping to find within me.

Today in India, it appears as if things are suddenly quiet different.  A gruesome rape and murder of a young student on a moving bus by a gang of men who left her (and her injured male friend) to die on the side of road has finally lifted the lid off of this long-simmering issue of rape in Indian society. Discussions about rape are no longer confined to one's own solitary mind but happen out on the wide, open streets. Students, many of them first-time protesters, rallied spontaneously in places as significant as Raisina Hill. Sometimes the crowds at these gatherings represented diverse groups that have previously rarely had a chance to come together.  Press coverage focused on rape statistics and opinion pieces by activists and the overall effect of the coverage itself, as some worriedly pointed out, even bordered on the sensational.  One of the most thought-provoking articles I have ever read on this subject was written by a rape survivor.

I can only hope that the Indo-Australian professor is watching, listening and resigning herself to the thought that she can no longer bully unpolished, talkative, young women into self-censorship and silence. She may have the language and authority but they come with the experiences--sometimes not their own, but borrowed. And they will find a way to craft all those experiences into longer-lasting, meaningful stories, whether she approves or not.  Indian women, along with their men, are moving mountains. Those not helping them should at least get out of the way, lest they be crushed into the dust.