Friday, July 29, 2011

Take the flight

We are a Sikh couple with a difference. The man is a proud Sikh of the Deccan and I hail from the Jat-land of Moga. While his Deccan Sikh community is fiercely assertive over their Sikh legacy, my folk back home wear it quite a bit lighter. Perhaps it was their distance from the original home land that caused the Deccan Sikhs to so closely define their identity in terms of the five Ks. I am not sure but there are other quirks.

When I see them pushing food at fellow diners on the table, I get flashbacks of my Moga kin with their wonderfully nurturing mantra, “The reason you don’t like this dish is you are not hungry!” Long drawn out and involved sessions on the day’s menu at my Hyderabad home juxtapose starkly against the “cook what is growing in the field” operative policy back home. Their rich spice counter is to date a contrariety to my minimal salt, turmeric, chilli and garam masala fed palate. I have not stopped marvelling at their ‘dabbal ka mitha’ and ‘khoobani custard’ in the light of the humble ‘sooji halwa’ and ‘sevian’ that I grew up on.

They claim superiority on more counts than one. No narrow caste based ‘gotra’ preoccupation for them. They declare allegiance to Guru Gobind Singh’s edict of the ‘Khalsa Singh’. I listen to the roll of honour being read out at the Ameerpet Gurudwara: Sirdar Harpreet Singh, Sirdar Jagpal Singh, Sirdar Manpreet Singh.... all the while casting about for the sound of one Sandhu or Brar or Dhaliwal or Lehl. It is an inferior, non-Sikh practice I am told, to be using a second name distinct from the universal and Guru given “Singh”.

The Deccan Sikh culture is rich with home-made remedies and charms. Mine seems ruthless and barren by comparison. The most we rustled up was a hot glass, not cup but a glass of good old tea, at its medicinal best, without ginger or basil, if you please. Alternately, there would be the ever present tumbler of pure buffalo milk. In one of his nursing highs, Dad would have us dunk down a table spoon of brandy for the odd cold. The rest of the ailments either healed on their own or ended with a trip to the doctor. There was no turmeric milk on the boil or the Deccan concoction of dates and saffron, forget about the pepper and cinnamon tea potion. There was a half-hearted wielding about of the mustard oil as some kind of a panacea but that's about it.

It therefore does not amaze me how attuned the Deccan Sikhs are to every muscle and sinew in their bodies. At any given time, they can recount with precision what is hurting or ailing and where. Time is reserved in the course of a typical day for enumeration of the aches and pains and allergies and remedies. It does make me wistful for the expression on my grandfather’s face if we so much as breathed discomfort; why, he took delight in snapping our fingers and joints for joy. My grandma was no less; she made us walk respectable distances and carted us around in the bus or atop the tractor, viewing our whines with a ‘have you taken leave of your senses’ look.

All this acculturation had to come to a head some day. And it did, right before Asawari was to leave for her Bridge Year Orientation at Princeton. Everything was going well. Twenty four hours to countdown, she developed redness in the left eye. While I dismissed it mentally as a minor inflammation, the father was dead certain it was the onset of a deadly case of Conjunctivitis. Several parleys with the medical world followed including consultations with the alternative medical practitioners. While I was content to have her rinse the eye and irrigate it with eye drops, the father launched an urgent mission to abort her departure until such time as the red eye settled down. I went half crazy with fear. A huge amount of preparation had gone into her itinerary and she would end up missing the all important Bridge Year Orinetation at Princeton. I did not want her landing in Belgrade straight from Delhi without the preparatory detour to Newark.

In panic, I called up Aqseer at Bangalore. As my charged monologue abated, she calmly asked me the name of the doctor her father had taken Asawari to!

“Kohli”, I said weekly, “Col Kohli.”

“Ah, Kohli is it? Don’t worry, she will go!!!” My mouth had not recovered yet when I got an sms from Asawari at the doctor’s, “Doctor says, take the flight!”

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Elementary sisterhood

My Class on picnic, Lodhi Gardens
Yes, there is a difference. The Primary teacher spends her working hours on roller blades while the rest of them can survive the day on their own feet. The parity is in the degree of momentum, the pace and space. Junior wing is a giddy, slightly breathless place. For some reason, the occupants keep bumping into each other, a tumble here, a tumble there, teachers suffer shooting episodes of amnesia, it is as though a fast forward button has been pressed in the vicinity and before anyone is the wiser, the drooping Ma'ams are leading out the still high strung lines to dispersal area. Whoa, believe it or not, school is over! What did we do today?!

It is in this hive of a milieu, on the all-time gyroscope of academic structures, among a tight band of people tuned to shifting gears at the sound of a bell that teachers make it magically convenient to bond. The occasions are aplenty! A quick family update in the corridor, on the way to or from the washroom. Sartorial admiration at the stair-landing while catching breath on the climb up. Exchanging notes on the common enemy, over stay back duty. A smile across the auditorium, a look from behind the soft board, a gesture coming round the basketball court, a lot is going on in addition to the teaching and learning in that edifice.

And then, there are the things that are sure shot brighteners in a junior teacher’s day: a hot cup of tea, her steaming tiffin wending its way from the hot case, the eager beavers lying in wait for her bag early morning. Some more that keeps the smile on her face: an approved leave application, a substitution teacher who does not make her wait, a day when her ‘free’ period is not messed with by the time table in-charge, a prize at an inter-school event, an old student popping in to say hello, an empathetic ear from the Head Mistress, some praise from a colleague, oh they live for this! No, there is no denying their camaraderie in a non-threatening profession with nary a scope of any great meteoric rise for one of the band.

They understand what it means when a parent comes calling on the Principal, regarding one of them. They identify with the self-berating agony of the teacher who has crossed the line with a child that day. They can hazard at the reason one of them came to put a tick mark on a blank page! They know they can bank on colleagues for cues on the best tailors, jewellers, doctors and insurance agents. There are the universal undercurrents of course and the byplays as with any other professional community but the two issues I have seen dissolve the toughest of these pedagogues; in-laws and their own children. A whole lot is forgiven and overlooked if any of the staff is on the back foot over these two commitments. It’s a merry band there in-spite of the loaded day. Drawing, colouring, singing, dancing, miming, running, rejoicing, crying.

Show me a junior wing building and I will show you the hearts on display. It is elementary, the sisterhood and in some cases, the only positive stroke in a typical day of the Indian woman who is a Mom, wife, daughter-in-law etc etc.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Evolving through pain

Thoughts dedicated here to Arun Shourie’s courage as evinced in his new book, “Does He Know a Mother’s Heart?”

Arun Shourie, one of my favourite journalists, tells a personal story of pain and the potential of service born of suffering.  

A must read.                                                                                                                                                               

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chuck them out !

"Just as soon as a child turns seventeen, throw them out of their home into the big bad world,” is Aqseer’s theory. “It makes them better human beings and they crib less about their parents,” says she.

The veracity of this postulation has been brought home to me yet again, lately. I do believe Aqseer is right!

Asawari has been even more of a delight around the house since her return from the nine month stay in Serbia. She assumes responsibility for herself in more ways than one. There is a good natured acceptance of the minor, daily inconveniences. Her dinner plate and bowl is regularly rinsed and washed after the meal. There is an urgent self-direction in her work, study and social network related affairs. The all too rare teen-sulk is camouflaged well! I sense the self-talking going on all the time. She radiates a confident but grounded sense of humor.

We appreciate her efforts to maximize on her time at home. There is a hunger to learn and grow and explore. The house is crackling with energy and spinning a roller skate motion with her around. She is appreciative, understanding and sporting.

Keep it up Chidia ! You are pitching in beautifully and for good measure, you just proved Sodhi Senior right!!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Practise or preach

People who preach rarely practise. How many Urologists drink eight glasses of water a day? Would you know of several teachers who regularly invest in their own continued education? There are journalists who think nothing of going out on a limb to expose the world but are quick to cast the veil over their truant brethren. Of the Politicians who canvass the poor with a briefcase of Swiss Bank Passbooks, the less said the better! And there is no dearth of parents who complain about their progeny’s late night TV viewing while themselves not leaving a single serial to chance.

Gyan is easy to disperse, tough to follow. Little wonder that the country is crawling with preachers but dry of robust practitioners. Preaching is endemic in India. It is quite possible that the preachy gene came marked with a capital 'I'. Every Indian moralizes a bit just as they are sure to hum and sing a little. 
I have been the recipient of several gems: Why are you walking the baby in the rain? How come your kids do not speak their mother tongue all that fluently? You should not lose your cool! Are you not setting a bad example with your conscientiousness? Come on, don’t be so very serious!

No great qualification or experience is needed to practise this art. In every desi heart, there hum the ancestral echoes of the yogi. And heaven help us if these come supplemented with the robes of religiosity. I have never been able to make up my mind. Has my country suffered from a distracted start up because her people talked more than they actioned. Or, is it that all the prophesizing and the sermonising has in fact, kept them sane and free of the consequences of any actions they might have taken. 

Where would we really be without our philosophy of Kismet and Karma?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Art after life

It is the age old egg and hen puzzle. What came first? Who imitates whom? Does life mimic art or is it the art that draws from the living?

My magic formula and one that I have tried to transport to the girls through osmosis is based on the premise that everything happens twice. The first time, it occurs in the mind and the subsequent, real life model flows from this original daring gall. Art therefore comes after life. Whether it is a cross country you aim to run, a painting you wish to paint, a song you would immortalize or a mountain you dream of conquering; it has to happen in the head first of all, before it can play itself out in the three dimensional reality.

City Center Skoplje
Is it any wonder then that we are told the only thing holding us back is our own thoughts, or the lack of them!

Whatever it is that you want to accomplish in life, follow through in your mind first. The world's stage is vacant and waiting. Anybody, just about anyone who has the gumption and imagination to, can walk on from the wings into the spotlight and take it all over.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Race to the edge

The Indian, middle class, social fabric has become drastically porous in the recent years. It is as though the entire country went to sleep one night in kurta pyjama and rose the next morning wearing nothing but body paint. What used to be social censure, all of a sudden transformed into social resignation or is it acceptance, I am not sure which word works best here. The word ‘taboo’ most certainly became the vanishing tail-light of yesteryear’s wagon; the neighbours overnight forgot the art of batting their eyelids and ‘personal happiness’ came to be increasingly accepted as the guiding mantra….all of this, as though in the blink of an eye. A social quadruple promotion! A bungee jump without the rope neck of tradition!

Look at me. It is 2011. I am as regular an Indian Mom as they come. My daily interaction is with parents, teachers and young people preoccupied with the business of education. This segment is also representative and reflective of changes in the social and emotional ether pervading our spaces. And it is talking. In grey! There is no black and white, right or wrong. Whatever works best for an individual, whatever makes her happy? There used to be a time when the group, the family, the society came first. It was critical to take their views and welfare into consideration when making personal choices. Not anymore.

What is this symbolic of? Is it mid-course correction? Does it signify a breaking free of the spirit? Is the so called ‘westernization’, a coming of age? Release from social repression at long last? Have we found the magical key to everyone’s personal pot of gold? Time will tell. Many of today’s modern trends were in evidence during the India of ‘Mahabharata’ as well, somewhere on the cusp of Dwapar Yug and Kal Yug. India’s transformation into a puritanical society has since been well documented and researched. The educated Indian today, often prides himself on his people’s apparent ability to be traditional and modern at the same time. But one wonders if in fact, the two terms are not quite mutually exclusive?

No matter how evolved we do become therefore, the following will take us to the edge:
*Decreasing age of the first sexual experience   
*Rise in juvenile crime 
*Increase in single-parent households
*Growing divorce rates
*An estranged youth
*Experiments with alcohol

Perhaps the trick would be to hang on to some of our universally disliked ‘moral and sanctimonious’ colour. We might be right in continuing to focus on knowledge, education, music, books, sports and the extended family. Maybe the new pre-occupation with ‘hot’ looks at the age of 13 or 14 is in fact, as abhorrent as we think it is. Religious trips with the family just might be the thing to do, after all. Let’s have our kids continue to lay the dinner table and chop the salad, in that case! If we do in fact have no choice but to make it to the edge, well then, where is the hurry ?!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mom, Grandma or me?

A recent survey has it that Indian women are the most stressed of all, anywhere in the world.

Interestingly enough, the stress is not of suppression or deprivation. The stress is a positive one ! It is the stress of empowerment !! As per the study, with greater enablement comes the responsibility of getting ahead, of making tough choices and of reaching out to grab the opportunities.

It is a bit confusing! Who has had it all? Mom,Grandma or me?!

Osmi Mart, 8th March
International Women’s Day Parade, Belgrade

Monday, July 11, 2011

Where is the heart?

The benchmark of mutual respect, in this hurtling aeon we all inhabit, could well be that rare trait of keeping one’s word.

It has to be the rarest of the rare. Like an old fashioned obscurity, occasionally springing a sparkling surprise from the grubbiness of the all too prevalent, easy going and disrespectfully casual air. Yes, it is disrespect that I smell most, in the daily humdrum dealings. Not so much amongst friends and acquaintances as in the spaces between strangers. There is an unmistakable readiness to believe the worst of others, a willingness to pass an instant and authoritative judgement with the accompanying quickness to condemn. Where is the heart?

Subotica, 10 KM from Hungary
Is it an innate, homo failing that people will respect and acknowledge only if they know you? Does a lack of common history render everyone, any less human? How is it that unfamiliarity has come to license incivility so? It does seem as though the unlikelihood of any future interaction, liberates people from the effort to behave. No common ground, therefore no nuisance or benefit value and everyone is free to indulge in social plunder.

It is appalling: the baring of fangs, the snorting of the proboscis, the waving of the extremities and the bellowing from the throats. Of the facial contortions, the less said the better. If one is to get away with their infinitesimal of self-esteem intact, glaring and frowning eyes are best avoided on the busy roads. That motorist you just overtook can abuse you down, the line jumper who shoved you aside can also stamp you out, the trolley stealer who beat you to the stand can well shoulder you down, don’t even try. There is a perpetual war zone on railway stations, canteens, Big Bazaars and movie halls in India. It has to be the human density that keeps everyone wired for survival, all senses on alert for the grand fight to stay alive.

It is against this sandpaper canvas that we are talking of the archaic art of keeping word! There is an adage in Hindi, “Praan jaye par vachan na jaye”, loosely translated, “Death preferable to breaking word.” When interpreted, abiding by a promise is as much a test of mutual respect as a canon of the esteem we hold ourselves in. It may have been a promise to call, a pledge to deliver, a treaty to follow up. Did we make good our word? Or did we plead an obviously selective amnesia or worse still, ask the recipient of our proposed act to call us up and remind to execute! An Indian invention, like the 'missed call'.

I have surprised a few with my stubborn insistence on delivering. I have to admit, that I suffer from the affliction of keeping my promises, for the most part. It is another story that often times, the resultant reactions have made me feel like the proverbial ET.

Extra-terrestrial in act as well as in spirit!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Indian in English

Diwali in Nis, Serbia
What is it like, to represent your country in a foreign land that has not seen many an Indian? Do they view you with a preconceived notion? What is their perception of your Indian-ness? And more important, what do you, as an Indian feel about your national identity amidst strange people? Do you feel proud? Do you feel ashamed? Is there irritation at the worldwide stereotype? Or is there a ledge of advantage that your nationality perhaps pegs you on?

Ever since her return from the Balkans wherein she visited Macedonia, Croatia and Montenegro apart from long hauls at the base country, Serbia, Asawari has been ruminating on the intangibles of her presence in the region. And her Indian identity keeps coming up again and again.

Strangely enough, none of us here in the subcontinent give our being Indian any more thought or consideration than strictly necessary, while inland. It is only when we step on to foreign lands that our Indian-ness hits us most. There is a new found and keener awareness of the place we come from. There is also a frantic drawing upon the memory to explain symbols, stories and the occasional scams. There is this worldview cookie cutter shape that we try to fight or fit.

Several of Asawari’s Roma students presumed she was an “Indian Princess” who rode to school on an elephant! There was also some heartburn over the content of the dance lesson. While they wanted to learn the Bollywood moves to “Dil lae ja lae ja’, their Indian instructor was eager to share the grand
Diwali dinner hosted by Asja & Nada
classical tradition of ‘Kathak’ with them. Asawari further chafed a little at the recurrent phrases ‘poverty’ and ‘slum'. Around the same time that she was boasting of her ancient culture, the international media was spewing the Commonwealth corruption saga. There was also some degree of discomfiture at her presumed ‘spirituality and religiosity’ by virtue of her being an Indian.

Were there aspects of her country that made her swell with pride? Yes. She felt great that even though Urban India was apparently selling out to the McDonalds and Jeans monoculture, large rural tracts still retained their unique ‘desi’ flavour. She drew upon the richness of variety and diversity in her country. Her seventeen Indian summers had left her grounded and better prepared to face life’s challenges, she opined. What’s more, her command of the English language gave her an international edge!

Talk of an Indian identity wrapped in an English package.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Social Capitalists

It is one of my favourite TV programs.

YOUNG INDIAN LEADERS presented by CNN_IBN, IBN7 and IBN-Lokmat .

Their website asks the question: Why Young Indian Leaders and they answer:
"As young as your faith, as old as your doubt.
As young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear.
As young as your hope, as old as your despair."

By their own admission, the effort was initiated to set right an observation made by Dr. Abdul Kalam who once remarked that “there was no credible platform in the country to recognize the achievements of youth across various walks of life”. It is of course not just per chance that there are more than 700 million under 35 years Indians in our country.

On their site, “An inspired Young India means that India is on an accelerated path to take its rightful place in the world order as one of the greatest nations in the world.”

I feel moved, overawed and touched by this show. While the audience is the who’s who of India, the awardees are remarkable for their self-contained dignity and humility. They walk up on stage with a firm gait, a Mom in tow in some cases; they speak about their work in simple terms, and they do not complain or criticize. Many say that they are not looking at the government or the corporate sector for any support. Several come with the tag of an Ivy League education. They are clear that they do not care to struggle for any acceptance by anybody. They want to do what they want to do because it is they who want to do it. They call themselves the social entrepreneurs or the social capitalists. As far as they are concerned, development will have to begin grassroots upwards.

I watch and I marvel at their courage and self-belief. To me, they are India’s rarely seen face of hope and authenticity. Bravo Young India! You may make this country proud and inclusive yet.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Birthday

“When was God born?” asked a fifth grader in my General Knowledge class today.

I fumbled, broke pace and glanced out of the third floor window. Right across, invisible to the eye but just beyond the school boundary wall was the Jain temple. Walk past it on the right, a few paces and you were at the famed Sai Baba Mandir. Local lore had it that he school’s happy and prosperous air derived from the positive vibes in the proximity. Several Lodhi Road inhabitants including many of my colleagues were regulars at the temples. ‘Prasad’ in one form or the other, was a recurrent component of my school snack. While I functioned as the school hostel’s deputy warden, some of our student examinees were persistent in their desire to visit the temples right before their critical exams. Early morning sandal tilaks were common on small foreheads, as were the red coloured religious threads on plump forearms and wrists.

We celebrated the days of the birth of Vivekananda, Pandit Nehru as also India, the nation but God’s birthday? Was He born? At all? Ever?

I turned back to the forty odd pairs of eyes with their question marks flashing at me. The author of the query stood close to my table, patient and expectant.

I cast about in my mental hard drive. God as in a representative figure like Jesus or the Prophet or the Avatars?  There were historical figures available to pin their arrival on the planet. Would that be an age appropriate and accurate answer? Although, were they God or His sons? What really went on before them? Is God an immutable reality or an idea that sprung forth after the Big Bang and in the first man’s head, of all the things? Or does it work backwards, to say that God existed before existence came into being.

I heard a notebook fall to the ground followed by some scraping of the chairs. “May I drink water”, asked the originator of the train of thoughts!! I nodded absently and gazed after the hurriedly scampering form.

Like most Indians, I dipped my head just a shade when within visual distance of a religious place. At every significant family happening, there was the mandatory thanksgiving trip to the Gurudwara. My conversation was peppered with the word ‘God’. Thank God! Good Lord! Wahe Guru! Hey Ram! God promise! Lord have mercy! Allah be praised! In the name of heaven! God willing!

But when was God born?! 
I gathered my cerebral tumult as the end of period bell jangled harshly. One look at the rapidly disintegrating class and some words fell out of my surprised mouth, “It is hard to say since there really is nothing like time in reality. It is us humans who made calendars and days and hours.” I stole a quick glance at my audience, gathered up my teaching paraphernalia and made good my escape just as their trance dissolved and they began to nod their heads in acceptance, reserved exclusively for the junior school teacher. 

Note: Pics by Aqseer

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Animus bay

Eyes! The eyes don’t lie. They are pools that reflect human lives as they were actually lived, in the shadows of the public smiles and tinkle cheer. Those pupils flash vignettes of pain, disappointment, hurt, loneliness and fear. In the irises is a snapshot of man’s intrinsic vulnerability. There are pictures there of love, longing and the need to be needed. Frames of elation. Hues of despair. Sepia shots of poignancy and hope. The eyes don’t lie.

There can be the strangest of moments with the eyes. It is not only entirely feasible but quite common for two people to be saying one thing to each other while their eyes speak a silent language of their own. Eyes are hugely talented. Eyes can cloud. Eyes can mist. Eyes can stroke. Eyes can even burn. Eyes do glitter, seethe and glow. Smoulder, prance and twinkle, they are versatile to the core.

Prima Donna, Crepe Parlour, Nis
There are eyes that are open doors, guileless and unafraid. Then there are those like curtain chinks, in a reticent window. Some pairs have a binocular vision, right into your innards, no hiding from them. Others can barely see you, past the rose tint or the jaundice yellow. Every day of one’s life is a tango of the eyes; meet some, lock with a few, avert from the rest.

What makes a person tick? What are they ravenous for? What is the recurrent theme of their life’s saga? Are they to be trusted? Do they inspire fear and rebellion? The eyes hold the answers. They reach out even before the hands can come together for a shake.

Eyes! Window to the soul and skylight for the grand exit when it is time to go.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Feminist prototype

It makes me proud to see your heart

Beat for women, all torn apart
You sense the paradox of their lives
There is anger at the social lies

An edgy status, a secondary citizen

Despite their elitist education
Prickly, constant and inbuilt
This shattering sense of eternal guilt

That adjustment, compromise and appeasement

Will be her grandest statement
And should she dare to veer any
There better be an engine many

While you perceive this with appal

Aflame at the unfairness of it all
You forget to extend that charity
To the shuffling piece of maternity

Her tear bounces off your arrogance
Of the cord there’s a certain severance
As though a boning with the Bowie
Spare her this dear God, she is my baby

Defunct and desolate she might seem

Bright but bitter in basic theme
The one you ladle wisdom to
Was once as fiery and free as you!

Note:All pics of the whiz baker and Asawari's Serb home-stay Mom Nada, taken by Aqseer.