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?

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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.

 

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.

Wanna change the world? Change the mindset…

               

                “We are what our thoughts have made us, so take care about what you think.”

– Swami Vivekananda.

                Our thoughts shape our mindsets, which in turn influence our actions; our actions determine how society and the world at large is shaped. Every act of violence begins in the mind, so take care of not only what you think, but what your friends, your neighbours think; what your family thinks. When you think you have seen it all, out comes a crime so depraved in nature, so chilling in its details that shames you to your core! It makes you wonder whether the perpetrators belong to the same species as you. What kind of monster will walk into a classroom and spray 6-year olds with bullets? What kind of monsters will rape and torture a woman with an iron rod in a moving bus and throw her out to die? As the year draws to a close, and we try to make sense of the recent horrendous crimes, there is one thing that may give a clue on how to minimize them: Actively try to change the mindset of yours and those around you for the better. Even if one life can be saved or changed for the better, it will be well worth the efforts.

Gun-culture in the US

                 When I wrote earlier  “..And so the stalemate will continue and human beings will continue to be butchered…”, I never imagined that the next victims of a mass-shooting will be innocent 6 and 7 year olds in their classrooms. For the families of the 26 who died that day, the rest of the their lives will never be the same. The parents of the 12 girls and 8 boys will live the rest of their lives with a hole in their hearts. I have written about this issue earlier, where we looked briefly at how powerful the Gun rights lobby (including NRA) has been aided by money and power. But it is also the mindset of its supporters that enables the NRA to have such a clout.

Weapons of Murder

Weapons of Murder

                According to Wikipedia, USA has about 5% of the total world population but its residents own about 42% of all the world’s civilian-owned firearms. The homicide rate in US is 30 times higher than in other advanced countries. Gun laws vary from state to state. So in some states, it is perfectly legal to carry guns anywhere from school to church to a pub.

                A question on everybody’s mind is about Nancy Lanza, the murdered mother of assassin Adam Lanza. What was she thinking?  Teaching a mentally ill son to use guns, stockpiling assault weapons whose sole intent is to kill people – all these enabled the massacre that followed. An oft-repeated argument by Gun Rights activists is : ‘Guns don’t kill, people do’. True, it took a madman to kill children, but what definitely aided the process was possession of guns by the mother. The same day the Sandy Hook massacre occurred, another madman in China went on a stabbing spree attacking school-children with a knife. 22 kids were hurt, but every one of them survived. See the difference?

                I had mentioned this earlier too – As opposed to the rest of the world, keeping guns is seen as a right by a large number of Americans. A lot of this thinking comes partly from history, partly from tradition, partly from movies and games that glorify guns and violence. May be it is a time to reconsider those traditions, change that mindset. If not now, when?

                Many of us had signed a petition to the White House to immediately address the issue of Gun Control through stronger laws. You can go here and look at the petition as well as see the response from the US President Obama and from the Chief of Staff to the US Vice President.

Rape-culture in India

                Many of us Indians might take offence to this seemingly blasphemous title – What!? How can our great Indian culture be a rape-culture? Yet, that is what it is at present.

                Rape is but the subjugation of a person in a most depraved manner. It is not about sex. It is about humiliation, perversion, torture, violation, cruelty inflicted on a body and a soul. I am no psychiatrist to decipher what causes one to rape, but even I can tell you as a layperson that – Rape starts with the dehumanization of the victim by the rapist – the attitude that the woman or child or man(in rare cases) in front of me is ‘easy meat’, with lesser rights as a human being than I am entitled to.

                What I have termed as a ‘rape-culture’ prevalent in India is actually the collective mindset of people – A mindset that treats women as subservient to men. It starts at the womb really and continues till the grave.

                It is our mindset that allows new parents to kill their infant or unborn daughters instead of cuddling them and showering them with kisses.
                It is our mindset that allows more than 70% of women to face some form of sexual harassment; it does not matter whether the ‘woman’ in question is a 2 month old infant or a 75-year old grandmother.
                It is that mindset which enables 57% boys and 53% girls in India to think that a husband is justified in beating his wife, according to Unicef’s Global Report Card on Adolescents 2012.
                It is the kind of mindset that makes a highly educated doctor in Andhra or an IAS from Bihar or an engineer from Maharashtra ask for dowry as a sort of ‘fundamental right’, the ‘rate’ of dowry being dependent on the status of or income from the position.
                It is the mindset that makes India the 4th most dangerous place for women after Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation Survey.
                It is the same mindset that allows a politician to refer to another woman politician to speak in derogatory language thus – “चार दिन हुए नहीं आपको राजनीति में आये हुए और आज आप चुनावी/राजनैतिक विश्लेषक बनके घूम रही हैं! कल तक तो आप टेलीविज़न पर ठुमके लगाये फिरती थीं और आज आप नेता बन गयीं?” ( It’s just recently you’ve stepped into politics and today you’ve become a psephologist! Till yesterday you were dancing on TV screens and today you’ve become a leader?)
               It is the sort of mindset that makes an Indian in USA exclaim after the birth of his daughter – ” I’ll have to go back and settle in India now to teach my daughter proper values; with a son it would have been different!” (You see, sons in Indian families do not need to be taught proper values :-), the onus of carrying on Indian cultural traditions is always solely on the womenfolk.)
               It is the kind of mindset that makes everyone from politicians to police personnel to ministers to judges to your everyday road-ruffian remark after every single incident of rape/molestation thus – she must have worn inappropriate clothes; or she must be of loose morals; or she must have provoked the rape somehow; or she must have asked for it; or she must have been inebriated; or she must have been in the wrong company; or she must have been out at an inappropriate time. No dearth of excuses to hide the inefficiency and complacency and utter uselessness of the system, if there is ever one.

               There is a lot that can be done through legal and judicial means…and this goes for curbing both gun-violence and sexual violence. But the ultimate change in mentality must come from within us. Many of us would be able to come out of it in our lifetimes, but the vast majority will probably take generations to change this mindset. If the recent incidents jolt even some of us into action, if they result in a safer society in the long term one step at a time, then only there is some meaning in saying ‘RIP Nirbhaya, RIP Sandy Hook victims’. Finally, this is the song I dedicate to the memories of the victims:

Photo credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/portablematthew/3652202637/

Indian Festival season in USA

                The Forms and Facilities may differ, but the Spirit remains the same. 

                This is what I came to conclude after attending the Dashahara mela at Washington DC center of Iskcon temple earlier this month. And this is also what this blog is about…the spirit of India in us and of Indians in the US 🙂 Before I left for the mela, I had promised one of my dear friends that I’ll share with her some pictures from the fair. Puja season is a time when all Indians in faraway lands get nostalgic about the memories with which they grew up. Sure the ways of celebrating Durga Puja, Dashahara, Lakshmi Puja, Diwali differ in different parts of India, but the spirit remains the same. The victory of good over evil, of light over darkness, of the eternal over the transient!

                These are some of the Durga Puja pics at Washington DC Kali temple (Click on the pics to see an enlarged view). You can enjoy the Dhak here.

Durga Pratima at Kalibari

               
Devis at Kalibari

                We also regularly attend the Ramakrishna Mission Durga puja. This is held in Briggs Cheney middle school every year. This is how Pujas are usually held abroad in schools by those different Hindu associations that do not own a big temple. The Bhog offered here to the deities and later served to the devotees is to die for! And I suspect this is because of the utmost love and devotion with which each lady prepares her portion of the Bhog. It is like a big potluck party, where everyone comes prepared with a different dish! Everything from the decorations to Bhog-preparation to serving and cleaning up to the various cultural programmes are done by the devotees themselves.

Vedanta Center DC Durga Puja

               
                Next are some pics of the Dashahara mela at Iskcon DC. We have been attending this one too for quite some years now. It has always been lots of fun with ample activities for the old and the young alike! There were lots of stalls put up – food, clothes, prayer-items, games and so on. There was a bow and arrow game, that drew lots of kids. Another activity involved making one’s own demon using the material provided – straw, paper, marker, threads – and putting it beside the Ravan to be burnt later that night. The metaphor was well driven home with the message that one has to burn the bad qualities that exist within ourselves – anger, greed, jealousy, pride etc.

Make Your Own Demon for Burning alongside Ravan
              There was a game in which one had to throw off the demonhead using rings of smoke. That was the one which caught the maximum attention.

Demon Head
Make the Demon Head disappear
             
Ravan
               
Ravan
               
Hanuman

Ram-Sita
                And finally, I have some videos to share… The first one is a bit poignant that includes Lakshman Rekha (Lakshman’s boundary), Jatayu-Vadh (slaying of Jatayu) and Sita-haran (capturing of Sita). Don’t miss the Vanar Sena Yuddha, it’s hilarious! Lastly, a snippet of the Ravan Dahan here.