Nirbhaya revisited – by India’s daughter

 

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

- Gandhi

              No, I haven’t seen the documentary. I did not find any compelling reason to. As one of India’s daughters, I know exactly what the conditions are that drive seemingly ordinary looking men to commit horrendous crimes against women. This is what I had pinpointed at the time of the incident more than 2 years ago: mindset.

              Let’s look at what happened since then.

              – There were massive protests cutting across class, gender, regional barriers.
              – Nirbhaya became a symbol of resistance and bravery (e.g. 2013 International Women of Courage award by the US State Department), but also a symbol of the massive failure of our system and public rage around it.
              – Public outrage forced the then UPA government to appoint Justice Verma Committee appointment. Sexual attack laws were redefined and strengthened.
              – Several apps and services were introduced to strengthen women-safety.
              – The Delhi High Court found all the adult accused guilty and reconfirmed the death-sentences by the fast-track court. The case is pending in Supreme Court.
              – Modi cabinet approved a bill to try juveniles as adults for heinous crimes in August 2014
              – Parliamentary Committee rejected the above proposal in Feb 2015.
              – The minor involved, who was the one to call out to Nirbhaya and her friend to the bus, will walk free in Dec 2015 after spending 3 years in a reform home.

              Let me narrate a true incident here. It is comic and tragic at the same time: The year was 2001. It was my maiden trip to any foreign land and I landed at the JFK airport in NY with a female colleague of mine early in the evening. Due to some misinformation about flight timings, those who were supposed to receive us at the airport were not there. We spent more than 2 hours with our luggage, not venturing out of the airport even once. We tried to call up the rest of the team at various numbers; spent time being skittish at the unfamiliar sights, accents, currencies. But never once did it appeal to two women in our early 20s  to take a cab to the address given. In hindsight, it was a simple thing to do really. But for the 2 of us Indian women that grew up hearing things like ‘Be safe; don’t go out at odd hours; avoid strange places; always remain with the crowd; avoid deserted areas’ – the possibility that any new place could be safe at night simply did not exist!

              Subjugation of women is not endemic to India; it has been done all over the world since time immemorial. But what ails India in particular are these: low conviction rates, justice delayed (and hence, denied), no fear of the law, patriarchal mindset, big social and economical divides.

              What are some of the solutions? Fast-track courts, swift delivery of justice, efficient and gender-sensitized police force, gender equality, bridging the gap between haves and have-nots.  While a lot of these are beyond our purview, we can do a lot as ordinary citizens to transform the mindsets, and even more importantly as parents. The encouraging fact is that many Indians are and have been already doing this:

Respect everyone: What every child in my son’s preschool in the US was taught is this: Respect and treat everyone equally. The first year there was full emphasis on behavior and very little on ABCs or numbers or months-of-the-year. This is what they teach 2-3-4 year olds here like a Mantra: Respect others; Be nice; Follow the rules or be ready to face the consequences; Learn to share with others; Be responsible; Understand and Express your feelings. Initially, I was a bit concerned about the lack of rigorous academic curriculum in the schools here. But now, the way I look at it –  you can live with some crooked handwriting, but not with crooked mentality. You can live with imperfect grammar, but not with improper treatment of others. Your degrees are useless if you don’t have a minimum level of empathy for others.
              Women do not need worship or protection or special status in the society. What they need is respect and equal treatment just like anybody else. Respect for everyone – irrespective of their gender, paycheck, physical appearance, class, language, culture, religion. Respect…not because she’s a woman, but respect – because she’s a human being first and foremost.

Raise equally: Indian PM Narendra Modi nailed it in his maiden Independence speech in 2014, and I quote verbatim: “Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but have any parents ever dared to ask their son as to where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are. After all, a rapist is also somebody’s son. He also has parents. As parents, have we ever asked our son as to what he is doing and where he is going?” We have to totally do away with the sense of entitlement males are given in a large section of the Indian society. Both boys and girls should be raised to be able to cook a meal, to make their own beds, do the laundry; in short, to be able to take care of their own basic needs. I have had both my son and my daughter help me in the kitchen and at home, right from age 3. They enjoy peeling eggs, sorting out utensils from the dishwasher, cutting vegetables (under my supervision, of course), watering the plants, cleaning up after a meal. The list of chores will increase or decrease with time, but my kids can rest assured that it will not at least be based on their gender.

Name and Shame: There’s a lot of social stigma associated with rape-survivors. Change the equation. Let rape or pre-marital sex not be made into an issue about a tissue. Name and shame the perpetrators of the crimes, not just for rapes but for molestation (euphemized as eve-teasing), female infanticide, dowry, acid attacks, honor killing, domestic violence – all these are symptoms of the same malaise. Take a stand; refuse to give or take dowry. A lot of these social ills is due to the ‘Chalta hai’ attitude we have.  The laws can do only so much, but the real change has to come from within the society.

Redefine customs: If there’s a tradition that you feel is discriminatory, either discard it or redefine it so that it goes with your values. e.g. Karva Chauth (observed in some parts of India) has traditionally required only the wives to fast for the well-being of their husbands. However, I know of several friends that do observe this as a couple and for the well-being of the entire family. I personally celebrate Rakshabandhan in US every year, where each kid ties a Rakhi to the other. This is a way of saying to each other – I’ll be there for you in good times and bad. And who says that brothers do not need the support of their sisters? See further examples here of women as priests and performing last rites, again done traditionally by men.             

Basis of Marriage: Let marriage be a beautiful union of two souls where each connects with the other based on shared values, understanding, love, trust and respect. A lot of times, the decisions about marriage are based wrongly on factors like biological age (as opposed to maturity age or readiness for marriage), physical appearance, social status, parental pressure, astrology, ability to give and command dowry – in short, everything except the will and personalities of the two people that should matter the most. Unless the husband and the wife are on an equal footing in a marriage, the next progeny will grow up seeing the same misogynist attitudes being propagated and will continue the cycle.

Be a Role Model: We do not realize this that often, but each of us influences the other. Especially educated, liberal, upper middle-class, urban elites in India can do a lot for the economically disadvantaged by just being socially aware and responsible. The cooks, drivers, gardeners, delivery guys, repairmen, security guards, maids – they all may be looking upon you and learning from your behavior while you are not looking.

Redefine culture: A lot of discriminatory practices are perpetuated in the name of culture. What we fail to realize is this: Culture can never be stagnant. Culture shapes us, and we shape it – in turns. Culture is what we choose it to be. India, especially, is a land of mind-boggling number of cultures, traditions, customs. What is true in one part at one time, may not hold true for another region at any time. So the argument of not changing for the better just for the sake of saving your culture holds no water at all.

WomenMistreatment

              While change of outlook/mindset takes time or may happen instantly, the one thing that can be seen for sure is the judgement in all these cases. So coming back to the Nirbhaya case, I would have preferred if the juvenile had been tried as an adult, as done in some countries on a case-to-case basis. I definitely hope it ends with the strongest punishment for all the accused adults. I have seen the following arguments against it by various people:

Human-rights activists: They shed tears for the human rights of the accused. What about the human rights of the relatives of the dead? Don’t they have a right to closure, a right to see a just punishment in proportion to this kind of rarest-of-rare crime meted out to their own blood? Let the message go out strong and loud – The moment you violate others’ rights, be ready to lose yours.

Statisticians: They argue that there are not sufficient statistics to show that death-penalty acts as a deterrent. One can argue on the contrary too that there is not sufficient evidence to prove otherwise. We have had the lackadaisical attitude towards convicting and delivering justice for gender-violence crimes for decades. Let’s try the other approach at least for brutal crimes, even if for symbolic value, before dismissing it altogether.

Spiritualists: They are concerned about healing for the accused, who are ‘spiritual beings having human experience‘. This is a dangerous notion camouflaged as compassion. I too believe that we are all spiritual beings and Hinduism considers every being at a conscious soul level, not just human beings. Yet, two of our Itihaasas, the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, deal with atrocities on women – abduction of Sita and disrobing of Draupadi – in very unambiguous terms. And, what is our duty, what is the central message? As Krishna says very clearly in SrimadBhagwadGeeta – Fight Adharma.
             
              A lot of times, we see misogyny and gender-violence being justified in the name of traditions, scriptures, religions. But, in my opinion, our scriptures or our traditions have been absolutely clear on how to deal with the Ravanas and Duhshaasanas of all times. The question we should be asking ourselves is: Are we?

PK : Not just a review

 

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

- Voltaire

              I must admit that I am not a regular movie buff. I see very few Hindi or Bangla or English movies per year. I was interested in seeing PK though after reading about it online – about the film being a revolutionary one, that delivered its message in a hilarious manner, leaving one to ponder upon some deep questions about religion and concept of God.

              My takeaway?

              PK is a film with an outstanding packaging but with a very superficial look at the issues it raises. My problem with the movie PK is not in what it showed; it is in what it did not show…rather did not dare to show!

              Don’t get me wrong. I did like most of the movie; loved the funny scenes dealing with the idiosyncrasies of our world, confusion about language, sex, dress, religion. We humans are indeed a confused and confusing lot! We knew that already, didn’t we? But it is always refreshing to see ourselves from an alien’s point of view. I also liked several things about the movie: Mr. Perfectionist Khan’s adorable Bhojpuri act; superb acting by the support cast; Hirani’s treatment of a challenging subject through humor, lovely music; the points the movie makes about rogue Godmen duping people in the name of God, about veneration of Gandhi only when he comes in the form of money, about people urinating/defecating everywhere else except at places of worship, about taking the name of God only in difficult times and so on.

              But here’s what I didn’t quite reconcile myself to.

Not an honest film: What constitutes an honest film/ book/ debate/ art? That you show, or at the very least, touch upon both the good and bad aspects of a particular topic. Now I agree that a film is an art of fiction; it is just another story to be told. But an Aamir Khan movie that usually comes with a message, that tomtoms itself as holding a mirror to the society should have at least pretended to present a balanced view. If you are going to be preachy, you are expected to adhere to the standards you are preaching about. Isn’t it ironic that a film that attempts to bring out the dishonesty of Hindu godmen itself does not honestly show at least one voice of reason, one redeeming Hindu character in the entire 150 minutes of its length?…Which brings me to the next point.

One-dimensional: All the characters are one-dimensional. There are only black and white characters in the movie..no shades of grey. So much unlike life! It shows only a Hindu Godman as a villain, but there’s no other Guru who can soothe PK. There are Pakistani people that are sugary-sweet in their behavior towards the Hindu girl, but no glimpse of the extremism-hellhole that Pakistani society has allowed itself to descend into. There are Hindu parents objecting to marriage of their daughter to a Pakistani Muslim, but no real discussion on what their reasons could be. The Hindu followers are shown devoid of any mind of their own. The sole character that is shown to have any intelligence is the alien.

Just another film: There was nothing revolutionary, nothing earth-shattering in the film. May be I expected a bit too much from the movie after all the hype? But didn’t we have a whole lot of serials and movies in the 80s and 90s that showed the exact same thing – Godmen duping and instigating people in the name of God? Didn’t time and again we read in news about Godmen taking advantage of women or piling up obnoxious amounts of money? Didn’t our parents caution us many a time against falling for foolish and lazy paths to reach our goals (see the extra devotion by students just before exams)? PK is just old wine in new bottle, albeit, an attractive one.

Wrong religion: If the film was against organized religion as it was made out to be; well, it chose the wrong religion! Hinduism is as dogmaless as a religion can be. There’s no Pope, no Dalai Lama, no Imam in Hinduism whose diktat one has to follow. Hindus are free to choose between various concepts of God (Saakar-vs-Niraakar; Saguna-vs-Nirguna; Dvaita-vs-Vishishtadvaita-vs-Advaita; worshipping God in the form of mother, father, friend, lover, teacher, child or master; worshipping God with various names and forms as per one’s temperament). There are Hindu followers with all kinds of diets all over the world – from vegans to vegetarians, to lacto-ovo-vegetarians, to non-vegetarians, to beef-eaters). There are all kinds of books revered in Hinduism – Geeta, Ramayan, Mahabharat, Upanishads to name just a few.

              There are all kinds of Hindus – from atheists to agnostics to theists. No follower is persecuted for their belief or lack thereof. Hinduism is perhaps the one and only religion that recognizes the different  (emotional, reflective, intuitive, active) temperaments of human nature and one is free to follow any path(s) that best suits one’s abilities and nature – the paths of devotion/love (Bhakti), reasoning (Jnana), meditation (Raaja), action (Karma) – respectively for each of them. You are free to pick your own path and hardly anybody forces you to do one way or the other. You are responsible for your own actions and thoughts that eventually determine your destiny. Isn’t there a vast difference in the worldview of these two persons? Not as per PK, that paints everybody with the same brush.        

Person A: ‘I love red apples and survive only on red apples. Not just that, you should also eat only red apples. (Not just that, if you don’t eat only red apples for the rest of your life, I’m going to kill/ rape/ maim/ shoot/ colonize/ enslave you)’.              

Person B: ‘I love red apples; you can also eat red apples or daal-roti-mooli-cake-pie-biryani – whatever you want as long as you let me eat mine and take responsibility for the consequences of what you eat’.

              Why am I bringing up all this? Because all the Hindu believers depicted in the film are shown blindly following their religion without any real understanding of why they are doing whatever they are doing (i.e. following Hindu rituals), without any real understanding of the higher philosophies.

Rationalism: The followers in the movie are seen having unfaltering belief in Tapaswee, who rules with an iron hand. It gives the impression that Hinduism does not brook dissent nor questioning. Nothing could be further from truth! Many great Hindu scriptures, starting from Geeta to Kathopnishad to Mundaka Upanishad are in the forms of dialogue. Questions and answers. Doubts and their resolutions. Arguments and their rebuttals. The very goal of life in Hindu philosophy is to know and experience one’s self. Note it is called Self-realization, not salvation or eternal damnation or reward/punishment by some Saviour or faraway God. Do your own search, experience by yourself to come to your own conclusion. It is almost akin to the scientific method, only much harder to achieve.

              Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna each tested the other many times before accepting each other whole-heartedly. Sri Ramakrishna spent many years just testing different philosophies and paths to experience for himself what they meant and what they led to. Swami Vivekananda emphasized the need for reasoning in all his writings; In Swamiji’s own words, “I am sure God will pardon a man who will use his reason and cannot believe, rather than a man who believes blindly instead of using his faculties He has given him.” From Schrodinger to Einstein to Tesla to Carl Sagan, numerous scientists have appreciated the principles of Hinduism. If Science is the process of enquiry into the external world, Vedanta is the process of enquiry into our internal world.

Murti Puja: There are several scenes in which PK ridicules this. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, PK is seen asking for help from Hindu deities – all of whom are deaf, of course! The scene could be interpreted in several ways – that of God not answering his prayers, that of PK getting tired of begging before God, or that of berating the Hindu practice of worshipping Murtis. And this is where OMG scores in my opinion. It gave the Gods a chance to answer back. :-) No such leniency in this Aamir Khan movie.

              When Hindus worship Vigraha or Murti, we do not worship a stone/rock/metal that the Murti is made of. Rather we bow down to the energy of God in that particular form, the energy that comes only after Praan Pratishtha, not the Paan-pratishtha as done by PK in the movie (Praan = life-force, Paan = betel leaf). Why do that? To help you concentrate, to help you focus and to help you come to love God in a form that is easier to comprehend. It’s similar to why lovers separated by a distance used to carry each others’ photos in their wallets, in an era when there was no facebook, skype or whatsapp :-). Does that mean you love the paper the photo is printed on? No. It just helps you fondly remember your sweetheart when he/she is not around. At the same time, nobody’s going to shoot you if you don’t want to carry your beloved’s photo!

Need for temple-visits or pilgrimage: Another message is there’s no need for pilgrimage and temple-visits. I both agree and disagree. When we intend to study, we retire to a library, a study or a quiet place. We need to shut out the external noise and focus on our subject. It’s the same with spiritual practice. We need to go to a quiet place for meditation, for uplifting our soul, for connecting with the sacred. Especially, a Hindu temple is supposed to be constructed on the basis of special Vaastu that is supposed to elevate our consciousness from gross to the sublime. Note, Aamir Khan himself does not believe in real life in the lines he spouts in the film about not visiting places of pilgrimage.

              We also have this concept of ‘मन चंगा तो कठौती में गंगा’ (If your heart is pure, even the crucible you have will hold the holy Ganga). It means, for a realized soul, there is no need for rituals. Sri Ramakrishna used to tell a story – “Suppose you want to go from Dakshineshwar to Calcutta and your friend has given instructions about the path in a letter to you. You follow the route, you sometimes even memorize the instructions carefully lest you forget them. But once you reach Calcutta, there’s no real need for you to keep on carrying the letter with you.” Like the letter in this story, rituals are just the means, not the end.

Need for a Guru: The central message of the film is that there is no need for mediators or business managers to communicate with God. Again, I both agree and disagree. Suppose you want to learn about a subject. What do we do? We turn to books or the library or Google/Wikipedia these days. That is perhaps sufficient to gain a certain level of competence. But what do we do if want to be a Ph. D or an expert in a field? We train under the best minds in that field; we get an adviser, a guide, a mentor. So it is with spiritual sciences. But even there, we have several examples such as Sri Ramakrishna in recent times, who realized God the first time without any Guru on the basis of sheer willpower.

              What is erroneous is not the need for a Guru, but the way we search for a Guru! In an era where even a small piece of software or phone or any product is not user-accepted unless it undergoes rigorous system-testing, what makes us think we can accept any Tom, Daler or Hari as the Guru? Our own laziness of course, our tendency to look for quick-fix solutions to life’s problems. Finding a true Guru is many, many times more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack.

Marriage to a Pakistani: Of all the things I did not like in the movie, I found this to be the most objectionable and it is not even related solely to religion. If any of my Hindu male or female friends would have called from a faraway country to ask my advice on whether to get married to a Pakistani (where I had no way of knowing that person personally), I would have given him or her the same advice as Tapaswee did in the film, though not for the same reasons. (I admit I did not like it too much coming out of Tapaswee-ji’s mouth. :-) But hey, don’t kill the message due to the messenger!).

              The very birth of Pakistan was rooted in fear and hatred for the Hindu way of life. How can I advise any Indian Hindu friend (even Muslim ones for that matter) to get married to someone who has not been brought up in an open multicultural society like India’s? How can a liberal Indian girl used to wearing miniskirts and shorts be with someone who may as well have learned the alphabet thus – A   for Allah, B  for Bandook (I’m not kidding; see this and this ) ? It is bound to lead to marital tensions in the long run, not to speak of a possible sinister plot of using you against your own country. A clear case of conflict of interest. In an age where bombs go off left, right and center every other day in Pakistan, where even Muslim kids are not spared by the Islamic radicals, where even Pakistanis have to pose as Indians due to the bad name given by their extremists – how can anyone in their right minds advise a friend to marry someone from or possibly live in a country, termed as the epicenter of terrorism? What’s the probability of her being converted, being made to wear the Burqa, being ruled by the Shariat? Entire generations of Pakistani people have been taught to develop, and I quote, “prejudice, bigotry and discrimination toward women, religious minorities, and other nations, especially India”. Remember, love is blind, but marriage is a life-long commitment. And marriage without shared values is a recipe for disaster. Being liberal and progressive does not mean sacrificing basic common sense on the altar of political correctness. It is not jingoism; it is called self-preservation. Even animals with limited intelligence practice it.             

Photo credit: http://desiwhatsapp.com

              Understandably, the makers of the film took some calculated risks and targeted only Hindu practices. They knew very well that it will generate just the right amount of controversy and attract revenue, without causing serious damage. Some wannabe-liberals termed the protesters as the Hindu Taliban. Really!? A more-than-2 hours Indian film by one of the top actors that targets the majority religion goes on to become the highest grossing film in Hindi film industry; while cartoonists in France at a not-so-mainstream newspaper that targets a minority religion there get murdered in broad daylight. Events speak louder than words. The last time I checked, India was still a democracy. Just as the filmmakers have exercised their right to freedom of expression by making this movie, the protesters have a right to oppose it by filing legal suits or calling for a boycott or coming out on streets. What they do not have, of course, is the right to violence. Personally, I do not consider boycotting of a film or banning of a book the solution to anything.

              So, do I think films like PK should be made? Absolutely!

Gives us a chance to introspect, to correct, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

              At the same time, do I wish PK had been a well-made, well-rounded film? Absolutely!

Gives us a chance to write blogs like this. May be, just may be, films like these in future will be unbiased.

            निंदक नियरे राखिये, आँगन कुटी छवाय |

            बिन पानी, साबुन बिना, निर्मल करे सुभाय ||

(Keep your critics near you, even making their dwellings in your own courtyard. Without the use of soap or water, they will cleanse your nature. )

- Kabeer

Dashabhuja Devi

 

I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been.

- Sir William Golding

              Bengalis, with the exception of a few, will tend to agree with the above. Right from Sharatchandra’s women protagonists to Bankimchandra’s Debi Choudhurani, we see a whole gamut of emotions and virtues that the female characters display. Many of them were the epitome of beauty, compassion, patience and courage in the face of adversity. The authors celebrated their triumphs and tribulations. But even the most depraved women characters had some redeeming quality about them.
              An average Bengali kid is raised with the stories and displays of a ten-armed goddess year after year – a different weapon in each hand, each serving a different purpose. The sight of a woman in power mounting on a ferocious animal like lion and slaying a demon at her feet – what kind of feelings do they evoke in a child’s tender heart? Reverence, fear, awe, shock? May be. Definitely, it makes a lasting impression! At such a sight, while a boy may learn not to evoke the fury of womenfolk in general, a little girl may think of the power she can have and the many ways to wield that.
              The purpose of this article is however, not to extol Bengali literature heroines, nor to sing paeans to the mother goddess,. That we have been doing since eons. To be absolutely honest, the purpose of this one is to give myself a pat on the back. That’s right! I have written an entire article just to give myself and others like me a little credit for trying to measure up to such ideals. I’m a mere mortal. I don’t have the strength of a goddess. Yet I, along with countless of my counterparts, try to fight the demons of modern life.

              Women like me are racing against time from the moment they get up and till the time they retire to bed. Especially in a country like the USA, where there are no domestic help available and where help in the form of extended family is limited, if at all available. জুতো সেলাই থেকে চন্ডী পুজো – (A Bengali idiom: From mending a shoe to performing Chandi Puja) – everything has to be taken care of under the discerning eyes of the mistress of the household! Surely, the master of the household does his share. But fortunately or unfortunately, we are not all married to Mr. Perfectionist! Moreover, the volume of tasks ensures that it will overwhelm even Mr. and Mrs. Perfect.
              Let’s start with the basics. Globalization and increasing financial prosperity has ensured that we are exposed to many facets of life unimaginable even a few years ago. Our tastes have expanded, so have our demands and items in our wishlists and hence, so have our day-to-day tasks and To-do lists! Cuisines, wardrobe, vacations, forms of entertainment – we see more, we know more, we crave more. If a trip to Puri or Goa used to be talked about fondly even many years later; nowadays we feel our life would be in vain without that trip to Europe or Egypt! If a few sarees once a year during the Pujas delighted our Ma-Mashis, today we are not satisfied unless we have the best of Paithanis, Jamdaanis, Kanjeevarams and designerwear from all parts of India, not to forget branded westernwear from top stores.

Modern Dashabhuja

              We don’t consider ourselves to be cooks at all unless we have tried our hands at making 10 types of Dosas, 12 types of Biryanis and 20 types of cupcakes – not to mention Chinese, Italian and Mexican dishes!  Advertisements and promotions bombarded every minute have made sure that we keep watching out – both online and offline – for the latest apparel sales, grocery coupons, discounted cruises. As if it was not enough to be glued to Ipad and smartphones 24/7, we have a new demon to face in the form of social media. Balancing the art of Likes and Comments will put to shame even the most competent tightrope walker. If you forget to Like for the umpteenth time your best friend’s daughter’s piano recital, who knows what she might make out of  this act, er, inaction of yours?! Holding on to a job is not enough any more for a woman; role models of the ilk of Sandberg, Hillary Clinton, Indra Nooyi beckon us to climb yet one rung up the corporate ladder, to break yet one more glass ceiling.
              If you are a mom on top of this, it is a different ballgame altogether! We become a doctor, a nurse, a counselor, a teacher all rolled into one, caring for our kids’ physical, mental and intellectual health. Every mom can negotiate like an astute diplomat for every lollipop her toddler daughter wants, every video-game her teenager son fancies. We are ready to chaperone our kids for their Bharatnatyam or Bollywood dance classes; for karate or swimming lessons; for birthday and sleepover parties; for Kumon or Mathnesium classes. Every non-resident Bengali mom worth her frozen-Hilsa-from-Bangladeshi-stores eyes for the best of schools and colleges for the apples of her eyes.
              Did I forget to mention about the wellness aspect? Yoga, Art of Living, mind-body balance, meditation – we are not ‘in’ unless we are in one of these. Whereas an inability to fatten up and continuing a slim figure post-marriage indicated unmistakeable marriage-troubles in a bygone era, today’s mom-of-two-kids gives Bollywood actresses a run for their money. After all, যে রাঁধে, সে চুল’ও বাঁধে । (A Bengali adage: One who cooks, also ties her hair)
              If you ran out of breath just by reading all the aforementioned tasks, just imagine how multitasking and full of abundant energy the Devis of modern times have to be in order to actually accomplish them! That’s why, I say, for the Dashabhuja Devis around me –

              Ya Devi Sarva Bhuteshu Shaktirupena Sansthita,
              Namastasyayi, Namastasyayi, Namastasyayi, Namo Namah.

 

India Elections 2014 – Time for change


That we have the vote means nothing. That we use it in the right way means everything.
- Lou Henry Hoover

                The elections in India are round the corner. Wherever you go, whether on the streets or at home when you switch on the TV or on social media, you can’t escape the ubiquitous propaganda by various political parties. Election times are like falling in love! At least that is what it seems for some of the supporters that I have seen. Having a hard time believing this? Well, here’s how: While in love, you put your beloved on a pedestal. You are not willing to listen to anything or anybody that makes him a mere mortal, not a God. You daydream about that person fulfilling your dreams, your desires. You feel that the panacea for all your ills, for all your afflictions – lies only with your beloved.
                But….Love is Blind. And one can not afford to be blind when it is the solemn question of governance of a country, one as diverse as and with so many complicated issues as India. One has to analyze things and not become just emotional. I was trying to find a link that would analyze the plus and minus points of the PM candidates of each of the major groups, but couldn’t find this. That’s when I decided to make my own list. You know, the kinds of lists that we make while making a major investment, or major decisions like switching of jobs, moving to a new house or changing one’s kid’s school.
                Now you may ask: why am I so interested in Indian elections while being on the other side of the globe? Well, please read up the About page of this blog if you haven’t already. You’ll get your answer :-) One more thing. An important term or concept that you should be aware of : Depending on which side of the political spectrum one belongs to; DOWS OTPS OBT in short. Nobody knows the truth absolutely, what we see and get closest to is the Perceived truth and that is colored by a lot of factors including our own experiences, political or ideological leanings, friends, family and so on. So one person’s truth is another’s myth.  With no further ado, here we go: 
                
Rahul Gandhi (INC): Rahul Gandhi
Pros:

  • Commands the whole-hearted support of party-workers
  • Has age on his side
  • Can take decisions that benefit the country as seen occasionally such as in the convicted lawmakers ordinance case 

Cons:

  • Seen as the face of a party and a family that is neck deep in corruption, DOWS OTPS OBT
  • Inexperienced in administration
  • Vague, confused utterances on policy matters
  • Seen as lacking a coherent vision for the country – either short term or long term, DOWS OTPS OBT 

Arvind Kejriwal (AAP):            Arvind Kejriwal
Pros:

  • Perceived as honest, educated and having his heart at the right place
  • Seen as the face of a common man who is tired of the system and has the courage to change it from within
  • Good ideas such as decentralization of power, time-bound delivery of services, police/judicial/land reforms
  • Commands the allegiance of party-workers
  • Has age on his side
  • Has charisma and ideology to attract eminent personalities from different fields to the party. 

Cons:

  • Seen as the face of a party that is good for protests, not yet for governance, DOWS OTPS OBT
  • Inexperienced team players
  • Not enough information on policies concerning economy, national security, energy
  • Resorted to populist socialist measures during the brief tenure at Delhi
  • Made U-turns on several issues, giving an image of not being decisive or clear enough.

  Narendra Modi (BJP): Narendra Modi
Pros:

  • Perceived as a decisive and assertive leader
  • Proved fairly well his administrative skills in Gujarat for 4 terms as evidenced by growth in industry, energy, infrastructure, IT, agriculture (Contrast this with the numerous wasted terms by the Left in West Bengal)
  • Good strategist
  • Has a vision for the country – well articulated through blogs, speeches, social media
  • Good ideas such as – ‘Minimum Government Maximum Governance’, ‘India first’, 5 Ts  (Talent, Tradition, Tourism, Trade, Technology) , Surajya is my birthright, P2G2 (Proactive Pro-people Good Governance)
  • Humble origins; has worked his way through the ranks

Cons:

  • Seen as a polarizing and communal figure, DOWS OTPS OBT
  • Belongs to a party infamous for internal politics; not clear how much goodwill he has within the party
  • Seen as an authoritarian leader, DOWS OTPS OBT
  • Will have major difficulty getting support if/when the NDA fails to get majority

May the best man, i.e. best for the country at this juncture, win!

Parenting: East vs West? – II


Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.

- Rudyard Kipling

              Like food, music, culture, politics and a host of other things in life, parenting styles too differ between the East and the West. As Indians residing in foreign lands, it is better if we educate ourselves on a lot of things including the local laws related to child protection. Sometimes, a little awareness goes a long way in avoiding unpleasant situations like these where the kids involved in both the cases were taken back to India as a result of custody-issues.
              While the world is coming closer as a result of globalization and barriers are breaking, there still exist differences between the traditional ways of parenting in the eastern and western worlds. Please understand that the purpose is not to criticize one above the other – rather the idea is to present both the perspectives and let you be the judge of how you want to deal with these issues while raising your kids. Another thing is – traditions change too. What was the norm a few decades ago in the US or India does not hold true today in many areas. This might be as a result of the latest research, a consequence of changing demographics and laws or just a sign of the changing times. I’m covering just the basics here, not the bigger aspects like education, disciplining, morals or spirituality etc.
               So here we go:

    • Pregnancy:  Though there’s no baby born yet at this stage, I included this because the journey with your baby begins well in womb. The traditional Indian way till recently used to have very less involvement from the would-be dad during the 9 months of pregnancy. In many instances, the would-be mom used to go to her parents’ place for some much-needed rest and pampering.
                     Traditionally, American women go through all the 9 months of pregnancy – throw-ups, swollen feet, heartburn, shopping for the baby, lamaze classes and all – with just the husbands by their sides. Surely, there are advices and help from parents, in-laws, neighbours; but having someone else other than the spouse stay to help you during pregnancy is not the norm.
    • Birth:  In US most hospitals offer the option of having your husband or any close relative by your side when you welcome your child to this world. Roughly one-third of births in the US are Caesarian while in India, C-sections account for 9% of all births. The reasons for Caesarians differ though between the two. In USA, C-sections are performed mostly for medical reasons such as placenta issues, breech position, fetal distress, multiple births etc.
                     According to a WHO study, in many Asian countries including India, the reasons for C-sections apart from medical ones are: Fear of pain during labor, less time consumed during C-section compared to the natural process (for both patients and doctors), financial gains for the doctor and/or the hospital, wanting birth to occur on auspicious days and times, wrongly perceived notion of C-section being less risky.
    • Eating: The traditional Indian way is……. to feed your child in any way possible! The adage ‘ The ends justify the means’ was probably coined to describe the obsession of Indian parents and grandparents to feed the kids as much as possible employing any means of distraction.TV, laptop, Ipad, books, stories, acting, music, outdoors, bribing, threats – everything is tried, tested and justified in order to put that last morsel into the baby’s mouth.
                     What’s the American way? Well, the kids here learn to feed themselves at an average age of 18 months. They start feeding themselves with finger-foods and graduate to using spoons and forks in a few months or years. I have never seen an American mom running behind her son imploring him to finish off his food. Our pediatrician told us specifically that we as parents should take care of only the quality of food; the quantity of intake should be left to the kids.
    • Toilet Training: The Indian way is based on, what I call,  cues and clues. A soft whistling or a grunting (cues) by the caregiver makes the baby associate those sounds with pee/poop. The caregiver, in turn, looks for clues that the baby is ready to relieve and to be carried to the toilet. All this comes under Elimination Communication.
                     Interestingly, the American way used to be similar to the above earlier until the advent of mass-scale diapers in the 1960s. That changed things for sure and the average age of potty-trained US kids jumped from less than 1.5 years to  well over 3 years in recent years. Here’s an interesting article on how there are different approaches at play even here within the USA. Don’t forget to check out the funny ‘naked and $75‘ technique in there :-)
                     Then there’s the issue of usage of toilet-paper versus water. There used to be an ad showing a person eating and then cleaning his plate using paper instead of washing it with soap and water. I don’t remember the context but the question was probably of hygiene. Toilet-rolls, wet wipes, bidets, hand-held sprayers, or just good old water and mug – there are more options out there than you’d think!

Baby sleeping separately from parents in a crib

  • Sleeping: When I used to read Calvin and Hobbes, I always used to wonder why there were so many ‘monster under my bed’, ‘monster in the closet’ chapters. But today as a mom of 2 and 5 year olds, I fully understand where all that fear comes from! The standard norm in the Western world is to have separate beds and/or bedrooms for each of the kids, depending on affordability and comfortability. Audio or video monitors are used to keep tabs on the child. There are various variations of this in No Tears or Cry It Out methods.

    Baby sharing bed with parent

                   The traditional Indian way has been what is termed as Co-sleeping. A few neighbours and friends asked me this – “If you share your bed with your kids, how do you manage to get …err…intimate with your spouse?” Oh, come on…, looking at India’s population, do you really think existing kids have been a problem? :roll: If a couple is into each other, they will always find time and space to be intimate; On the other hand, if emotional barriers exist, then even being next to each other you can be far apart forever.

              What works for your kid at 3 months of age might be different from what works for her at 3 years of age. The key is to be flexible and keep your options open. Also, you might find that a combination of both styles works the best for you. A perfect example would be the attachable crib called bednest, using which you can care for your baby lying right next to you, while the baby has a separate space to sleep nonetheless.

Baby in an attachable crib

              Normally, parents everywhere love and care for their kids with the best intentions in mind. There’s no reason to deduce that just because your neighbour makes her kids sleep in a separate room, she loves them less. Just as you do not become less hygienic if you feed your baby with your own hands as long as you wash them properly beforehand. However, proper communication is a must in order to avoid misinterpretations. For example, we never shy away from explaining why our daughter’s head has been shaved off this summer. What is unknown is feared. As soon as you explain the unknown, it becomes known to them and you would find on your end that most people are open-minded about knowing new stuff. Different? YES. Something to fear or despise? NO. And – it goes both ways. Because…Human emotions are the same everywhere, be it East or West!

But there is neither East nor West,
Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
though they come from the ends of the earth!

- Rudyard Kipling

Happy Holi!

        

      Colors are the smiles of nature. 

- Leigh Hunt

                And nature surely smiles the broadest during spring! :-) Of all the festivals in India, Holi is perhaps the one that elicits the most mixed emotions. There are people who just looooove it and miss it a lot when away from the Indian soils. Then there are those who would rather hide themselves in a closet away from the rest of the world on this particular day. I consider myself somewhere in between, but definitely leaning towards the former.

                When I was a kid (this is sometime in the 80s), the day would start early with preparation of colors i.e. mixing up of colors with water in buckets and filling up of pichkaris (spray guns) and water-baloons. We would roam around in the neighbourhood collecting friends for ‘playing Holi with’ as well as tasting various sweet and savoury items prepared meticulously beforehand by the aunties in the colony. Between the drill of preparing colors in different proportions to get the desired combination(s),  the thrill of drenching your close friend in bucketful of color and the sheer joy of tasting delicacies like gujiya, gulab jamun, malpua, dahi bade, nimki, thandai – what is your favourite Holi moment? Difficult to say, right? So come spring time…and my husband and I would get nostalgic recollecting to each other the different times we played Holi back in India.

                So naturally, as soon as we came to know of the Holi mela in Iskcon DC this year, we decided to go there. The temperatures luckily were in 50s that day. And weren’t we glad that we attended it!? The atmosphere was magical!

                We started with a visit to the temple. The deities were clothed specially for the occasion in pristine white, but the garlands were multi-colored; and in the background were the many colors of life; even the offerings were of different colors. The overall effects were dramatic! (Click on the pics to see an enlarged view).

Radha Krishna at Iskcon DC

Radha Krishna at Iskcon DC

                Next we ventured into the actual festival area. Being in the US where privacy and freedom are valued a lot, I was pleasantly surprised to experience what I term a perfect Indo-American style of Holi. Total strangers approached us gleefully and put gulaal on us…after asking our permission, of course :-) Initially I was a bit apprehensive. After all, any woman who has grown up in India, knows to be wary of and cautious about drunken revelry especially on occasions such as Holi. But after some time, I too let my hair down and started soaking in the atmosphere fully. There was pinata for kids; several stalls for the grown-ups. There were huge queues for the food – one could buy vegetarian thalis, snacks, baked items at reasonable prices.   

           pinata

                Especially interesting were the reactions of the kids, some of whom were being introduced for the first time to this grand festival. I  spotted a few that were bawling; my own son was kind of overwhelmed at first. Which 5-year old wouldn’t at the scenes of seemingly crazy people dressed their worst and smeared in all kinds of funky colors from head to toe? (There were some young men even with torn clothes amongst the crowd.) However, soon he got the hang of things and started approaching other kids with a fist full of color and a silly grin on his face. :-) There were dances to the music of Radha-Krishna bhajans.

dance

                What was my favourite 2013 Holi moment? Undoubtedly, the one where there was a countdown from 10-9-8-…and at 0, the airs got strewn in a myriad of hues – from pink to purple to green to red and orange. It was beautiful!

dance

                There was Holika-dahan at the end.

Holika

                Finally, we headed back home humming to the highly addictive tunes of Shri Radhe Radhe and with promises of returning next year with loads of friends and colors.

The first Swami in the US

Photo credit: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/swami-vivekananda-wikimedia-commons?size=_original

Swami Vivekananda

                 I often start the articles on this blog with quotes from the great master – Swami Vivekananda. January 12, 2013 was his 150th birth-anniversary. The theme of this blog is being an Indian in the US; and I couldn’t help but note that Swamiji was the first Hindu Swami who gave the message of Vedanta to the US and to the West at large. He paved the way for many that followed – Swami Yogananda, Swami Prabhupada, Mahesh Yogi and so on. The list of lives that he influenced and transformed either directly or indirectly in just 39 years of his life reads like a Who’s who of both the Eastern and Western worlds:   Netaji Subhashchandra Bose, Rabindranath Thakur, Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Aurobindo, Bagha Jatin, Max Muller, Salinger, Nikola Tesla, Leo Tolstoy, John D. Rockefeller, Lord Kelvin, Sister Nivedita, Hermann von Helmholtz.  Though every piece of his work is inspiring and every sentence is like a drop of nectar that can transform one’s personality and life, I have compiled below some of my favorite quotations by Swamiji. They show a man of great wisdom, intellect and strength – one clearly ahead of his times!

On Soul/Religion

  • Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divine within, by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy, or one or more, or all of these –and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines,or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.
  • Religion is not in books, nor in theories, nor in dogmas, nor in talking, not even in reasoning. It is being and becoming.
  • The mighty word that came from the sky of spirituality in India was Anubhuti, realization; and ours are the only books which declare again and again, “The Lord is to be seen.”
  • Each individual has to work out his or her own salvation; there is no other way.
  • Soul is the circle of which the circumference is nowhere, but the centre is located in one spot; and God is an infinite circle whose circumference is nowhere, but whose centre is everywhere.
  • Unity in variety is the plan of nature, and the Hindu has recognised it. Every other religion lays down certain fixed dogmas, and tries to force society to adopt them. It places before society only one coat which must fit Jack and John and Henry, all alike. If it does not fit John or Henry, he must go without a coat to cover his body. The Hindus have discovered that the absolute can only be realised, or thought of, or stated, through the relative; and the images, crosses,and crescents are simply so many symbols — so many pegs to hang the spiritual ideas on.
  • What is material and what is not material? When the world is the end and God the means to attain that end, then that is material. When God is the end and the world is only the means to attain that end, spirituality has begun.

On Reason

  • I am sure God will pardon a man who will use his reason and cannot believe, rather than a man who believes blindly instead of using his faculties He has given him. 
  • All religions are going beyond reason, but reason is the only guide to get there.
  • Everything can be sacrificed for truth, but truth can’t be sacrificed for anything.
  • Comfort is no test of truth; on the contrary, truth is often far from being comfortable.
  • Truth can be stated in a thousand different ways, yet each one can be true.

On Women

  • The best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women.
  • The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence. Woman has suffered for eons, and that has given her infinite patience and infinite perseverance. Women will work out their destinies—much better, too, than men can ever do for them. All the mischief to women has come because men undertook to shape the destiny of women.
  • The first manifestation of God is the hand that rocks the cradle.

On Education

  • Our supreme duty is to advance toward freedom—physical, mental, and spiritual—and help others to do so.
  • Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man.
  • You have to grow from the inside out…There is no other teacher but your own soul.
  • Knowledge can only be got in one way, the way of experience; there is no other way to know.
  • As long as I live, so do I learn.
  • If any of you believes what I teach, I will be sorry. I will only be too glad if I can excite in you the power of thinking for yourselves.
  • To me the very essence of education is concentration of mind, not the collecting of facts.
  • The powers of the mind should be concentrated and the mind turned back upon itself; as the darkest places reveal their secrets before the penetrating rays of the sun, so will the concentrated mind penetrate its own innermost secrets.

On Work/Success

  • Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.
  • Work on with the intrepidity of a lion but at the same time with the tenderness of a flower.
  • Never mind failures, they are quite natural, they are the beauty of life,these failures. What would life be without them?
  • Great convictions are the mothers of great deeds.
  • Fortune approaches him who is industrious. It is the weak-minded who says ‘fate gives’.
  • Never mind if your contribution is only a mite, your help only a little. Blades of grass united into a rope will hold in confinement the maddest of elephants.
  • Each work has to pass through these stages—ridicule, opposition, and then acceptance.Those who think ahead of their time are sure to be misunderstood.
  • In the world take always the position of the giver. Give everything and look for no return. Give love, give help, give service, give any little thing you can, but keep out barter.

On one’s own Self

  • My own experience tells me what food is good for me, and no army of doctors can tell me that. So I know from my own experience what path is the best for me.
  • It is our own mental attitude, which makes the world what it is for us. Our thoughts make things beautiful,our thoughts make things ugly. The whole world is in our own minds.
  • The greatest religion is to be true to your own nature. Have faith in yourselves! If you do not exist, how can God exist, or anybody else?
  • I, for one, thoroughly believe that no power in the universe can withhold from anyone anything they really deserve.

On Strength/Fearlessness

  • You must not say that you are weak. How do you know what possibilities lie behind that degradation on the surface? You know but little of that which is within you. For behind you is the ocean of infinite power and blessedness.
  • Stand up, be bold, be strong. Take the whole responsibility on your own shoulders, and know that you are the creator of your own destiny. All the strength and succor you want is within yourself.
  • Why are people so afraid? The answer is that they have made themselves helpless and dependent on others. We are so lazy, we do not want to do anything ourselves. We want a Personal God, a Savior or a Prophet to do everything for us.
  • Be strong, my young friends, that is my advice to you. You will be nearer to heaven through football than through study of the Gita.

On Love

  • Love is the only law of life. He who loves lives, he who is selfish is dying. Therefore, love for love’s sake, because it is law of life, just as you breathe to live.
  • Love opens the most impossible gates; love is the gate to all the secrets of the universe. Every step that has been really gained in the world has been gained by love. 
  • When there is a conflict between the heart and the brain, let the heart be followed.
  • First, believe in this world – that there is meaning behind everything. Everything in the world is good, is holy and beautiful. If you see something evil, think that you do not understand it in the right light. Throw the burden on yourselves!
  • We must not look down with contempt on others. All of us are going towards the same goal…. All difference in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.

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