On blogging and commenting…

It’s a funny business – this blogging. Especially our kind of blogging, where we write about general everyday stuff that’s not of earth-shattering importance to anyone.

When I was an active blogger, I used to average a couple of posts a week. That meant spending at least an equal number of hours writing, and many more reading different blogs.  The two usually go hand-in-hand, at least for me. Naturally, many posts I read struck a chord somewhere, or were just so funny or well-written that I had to stop and comment. Commenting on other blogs is the best form of publicity for your own blog I have found. Some call it networking, while a lucky few form genuine friendships on the net. Again, of those who network, some do it intentionally, some inadvertently, and for many it’s a mix of all these (I think), as is the case with yours truly.

Whatever be the reason, when I was an active blogger (and commentator), I had dozens of comments on every post. And now that I rarely find the time to write on my own space, leave alone on others’, I feel happy to get even a couple of comments here. Not that I am blaming anyone. But it’s a vicious cycle, this. The lesser number of comments I get, the worse I feel about my blog and the tougher it gets to feel enthused to work on my writing.

I think it’s time to break the cycle. For that, it’s important I realize exactly why I am doing this.

I blog because I like to write. I am not very good at networking or forming friendships online. Very rarely, I blog to vent out my frustrations or fears here. But mostly I just enjoy playing with words, trying to create something meaningful out of them. And I am particular about my spellings and punctuation and grammar. I re-read my posts multiple times to check these things. Have I repeated a phrase too many times?  This sentence just does not sound right! Is that paragraph too long? I can spend hours polishing a post till it sounds just right.

Does she think she writes all that well, I hear some of you say! Perhaps not, but I do enjoy the process thoroughly. And it’s time I appreciated the simple pleasure I get from creating an honest and well-written post from the jumble of thoughts in my head.

After that, if a kind soul takes the time to comment, well, that’s just the cherry on the cake, isn’t it?

What would you do?

A simple soul from a village in interior Maharashtra. Migrated to Mumbai after marriage. A housewife, literate but not highly educated. The early years of marriage were probably a struggle – to bring up the kids on her husband’s modest income, manage with the mother-in-law who lived with them, as well as play host to sundry other relatives who came to the city for education or work and stayed with the family for extended periods of time. And all this in a small one bedroom flat typical of Mumbai.

The woman is now sixty plus. Life is anything but a struggle now. The flat is larger and far more comfortable, a swanky car and driver await her instructions downstairs.  But the woman’s life seems strangely empty. The husband has done very well in his career and still keeps himself busy with work – his energy and interest is admirable for his age. The children are all married with kids, busy careers and homes of their own. Ditto the relatives who lived with them from time to time. The mother-in-law is no more. What should the woman do all day?

The children and their families visit as often as they can, and are genuinely loving and interested in her happiness. But they have their own interests and commitments now. What more can they do? Ditto the husband. Of course he would like to see her happier, but is it fair to expect him to be home all day when he still has the drive to carry on with his work?

Who has gone wrong and where? Here’s what I think. The woman has lived for her family all her life. For lack of time, or more likely inclination, she was never able to cultivate a hobby, an interest or a social circle of her own. Perhaps that was par for the course in her times, but society has changed a lot since then. Joint families have made way for nuclear ones. And the woman, like many of her generation, has been caught in the midst of this social change.

The past cannot be changed, nor can the external circumstances. But I don’t see why should it be too late to start building a small life of her own? The time and the resources are in place. She could start small. Explore different activities to see what suits her the best. Join a yoga class. Befriend someone. Volunteer time, keeping in mind health constraints of course. Join a library. Learn to sing or paint or even cook a different cuisine. Or simply make it a point to plan a visit somewhere once a week – a movie, a drama, a shopping mall, a relative’s house. The possibilities are immense. But the drive has to come from within.

I see the woman struggle with loneliness and wish she would try making these small changes.  Others can help only up to a point. I know it’s far easier to write about change than implement it, but in the past few years as I’ve struggled to overcome some of my shortcomings, I’ve realized this one truth above all. Most goals can be achieved, difficulties can be overcome and habits can be changed – if you make the effort. No one can help you if you don’t help yourself.

That’s how I see the situation friends. What do you think? Put yourself in the woman’s shoes and tell me – what would you do?

Motherhood makes you judgmental!

Anybody read Madam De’s latest post? The furor in the comment space is largely over just one part of the post – the bit about admiring Anjali Tendulkar for giving up her career to be the perfect homemaker, wife and mother. But Ms. De also talks about other stuff – bringing up a hugely popular celebrity’s kids in as normal a manner as possible, staying out of the media glare etc. – that I too find admirable. I wonder why no one’s talking about that!

Anyhow, I don’t agree with the homemaker bit at all. To stay home with the kids, juggle family and work, remain a DINK couple, or even not marry at all – is each individual’s personal preference. What makes you happy could make me miserable! So it’s futile to argue over which is the best choice.

It’s hard to say what Ms. De was thinking when she wrote this post. Was it meant to be a cheeky piece pretending to admire while gently poking fun at the so-called ‘perfect wife’? Was it, as I heard someone suggest, a PR advert? Or was it a genuinely fawning fan-post, never mind the seemingly regressive statements like – “The Perfect Wife, who has understood her position in marriage (secondary)…”? Who knows! Or more importantly, who cares! But her post did get me thinking.

Now that I am myself a mommy-to-be, I find myself forming some strong opinions on child-rearing, a departure from my completely non-judgmental stance before. I still don’t judge those who choose not to have kids, but once you do, these are a couple of no-nos in my books nowadays:

Choosing not to breastfeed because we need to get back to work. I keep reading about the lifelong health benefits of breastfeeding for both mommy and baby and I wonder how could a few month’s pay/seniority/career growth/mental stimulation possibly weigh against all of that? Remember that bit about health being our greatest wealth? We spend nine months trying to eat right and natural for the baby and end up feeding it an artifical food later! Of course, some moms are just not able to breastfeed and that’s a completely different scenario. But wanting to get back to work in a hurry ‘because we need the money’ or ‘I’ll go crazy staying home all day’ – I don’t buy that. In most cases, finances can be adjusted for a few months I think.

In my case, I plan to breastfeed for as long as I can (although those tales of cracked and sore breasts give me nightmares) and everything else will just have to align itself around that!

My former non-judgmental self butts in: A possible solution might be to express breast milk for when you are in office. But a lot of my friends tell me that this does not work for too long and you end up feeding the baby formula anyway. If someone has a different experience, I’d love to hear from you!

Asking grandma and grandpa to stay over and look after baby. Now this is a common occurrence with desi couples in the US and no one seems to find it amiss.  I can understand if you’ve stayed in a joint family all along. In that case, you take the good with the bad. But this is different. Parents and in-laws come over for the delivery and stay back for months on end.  I always wonder how comfortable the grandparents feel with this arrangement? Sure, everyone knows grandparents dote on grandkids, but don’t they have a life of their own back home too? Don’t they get lonely alone all day at home in a strange land? And don’t they sometimes wish they had been invited over before baby came along, just to visit or have a nice time? Finally, how do the new parents manage to bond with the baby if grandma’s always around to take care of everything? Not to mention the practical difficulties – how do you enforce your parenting rules when you are not the ones doing the parenting?

Again, in our case, my mother plans to stay with us for a couple of months when I’ll need her the most, but beyond that I know she’ll be itching to go back home and we wouldn’t ask her to stay back either. Sure, we’ll very likely struggle to handle baby by ourselves for the first few weeks, but hey, baby’s going to be a part of our little family and the three of us will just need to get used to each other!

My former non-judgmental self butts in: Perhaps I am being too harsh here? If the grandparents and parents don’t mind, who am I to complain? But somehow this practice makes me very uneasy. What do you guys think?

And that brings me to the familiar stay-at-home versus work-outside-the-home mommy argument. I am still a fence-sitter on this one. As long as mothers stay home with their babies in the initial few months when babies physically need mommy, I don’t see a reason for women to give up their dreams and ambitions for their kids – unless they wish to do so. After all, kids will grow up and get busy with their own lives someday. What does that leave mommy with?

But yes, younger kids need a lot of time and attention. And after a certain age, a dad can probably meet that need just as well as (and sometimes better than) a mom. Again, each family needs to sit down and work out what suits them best I think. Perhaps one parent can choose to work part-time or from home. Or perhaps you will be amongst the blessed few to find a loving caregiver nearby or a day-care right in the office!

As for me, I am still undecided. I just know my impending motherhood is a great time to re-examine where I am headed. Am I happy doing what I am doing? Would I be just as happy ten years down the  line? Nothing like a baby to jolt you into some major soul-searching!

Similarities and Differences

A North Indian friend with two kids and a packed schedule offers to drive fifteen miles out of her way to pick me up for a movie outing. She knows I am itching to join the movie plans but cannot drive myself over. Didn’t she hear Raj Thackeray was hounding Northies like herself in my hometown of Mumbai?

A Muslim friend from Tamil Nadu brings over an extra helping of kheer for us over Eid. She knows the husband has a sweet tooth and would love to take some kheer home. Did she forget Babri Masjid and Godhra?

All our other Indian Hindu friends are horrified to hear of this same friend’s daughter suffering a nasty head injury while playing at her babysitter’s. Each one of us can imagine the mother’s pain and offers to help in any way we can. Why didn’t we think instead of the several terrorist attacks that take place with alarming regularity back home in India these days?

Our Pakistani friend is constantly beseiged at lunch with requests for his wife’s sumptuous gajar halwa and other Punjabi delicacies. The sociable and generous soul that he is, he promptly obliges. Didn’t someone tell him Indians and Pakistanis were supposed to be fighting each other?


Living outside India, one comes across South Asians of different cultures and nationalities. Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, people from Delhi, U.P., M.P. and Mumbai. And then there are the Americans whose country we live in of course.

But thousands of miles away from home and our loved ones, the barriers seem to melt away. It is no longer important that my Muslim friend celebrates Eid, not Diwali, or that our North Indian friends do not understand Marathi. It is enough instead that we can share some laughs over the new Bollywood comedy. It is comfort enough that a group of ladies from these diverse backgrounds can come together to host a baby shower for a pregnant woman whose own mother cannot be with her during this special time.

Even as the barriers fall, the cliche of celebrating our differences becomes true too. Be it the variety of cuisines at the office potluck, our American friend taking us hiking in the mountains he’s been scaling since childhood and which we’d never know how to explore on our own otherwise, or our lengthy lunch-time discussions on South Asian politics with each nationality bringing a fresh perspective to the table, differences are good, they open up our minds, we realize.

Most importantly though, sifting through the differences, we understand how similar we all really are. That a mother will always grieve over her child’s pain, be she a Hindu or a Muslim. And that kheer will taste just as sweet, whether it is prepared by a Hindu for Dussehra, by a Muslim for Eid or as a Christmas pudding by a Christian.

Living and working next to each other, going on picnics and for movies together, celebrating our festivals and caring for each other’s kids, past wounds hardly seem to matter. And with the understanding and empathy built from such interactions, it becomes easier to accept our troubled history and move beyond it towards a more harmonious future. Yes, terrorist attacks are ruthless and hurt us all, partition was horrible, 1984 was shameful, the Babri Masjid and Godhra riots were horrific, forced conversions and violent methods used to protest against them are both wrong and if one chooses to go all the way back in history, the Mughal destruction of Hindu temples was wrong too.

But the bottomline is that we are all good people despite all this, we are all human beings with hopes and fears and loved ones and dreams just like each other – this is the understand we gain living in such close proximity with one another. It’s not as if diverse communities do not interact in India, but the interactions are becoming rare and increasingly fraught with suspicion these days I hear. Which is what saddens me the most. If we can all live together as friends, as a community and even as a surrogate family in this strange land, why can it not happen in our own countries I wonder?

A Thanksgiving Tale

There is this sweet old lady in our office who’s one of the most talkative and friendly Americans I know. She must be over sixty years old, but she’s the one greeting us all first thing in the morning with a smile and a chirpy ‘Good morning’, she asks after our weekends and remembers all our birthdays. A warm grandmotherly sort of person is how I always think of her.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I got chatting with her about our holiday plans. She was planning to go over to her daughter’s place. ‘No more cooking for me, I’ve done it for so many years, let the daughter do it now!’, she declared. And then she wanted to know our plans. ‘We are going to Vegas’, I told her.

She seemed slightly shocked. ‘Do you have family in Vegas? Thanksgiving is supposed to be family time!’, she told me, a somewhat disapproving look on her face. It would have been rude to tell her I didn’t know what Thanksgiving was until I came to America two years ago and that it wasn’t exactly the most important festival on my social calendar.

So I did the next best thing and told her our family was in India and we had no family here, so we thought we might as well take advantage of the long weekend and have some fun instead. She seemed to get it, I think, for the frown gave way to her usual smile once again as she piped up, ‘Oh yes, enjoy while you can dearie!’

Long after our conversation was over, her words and her reaction stayed with me. And made me re-think my views on Thanksgiving. Why were we so disassociated from the festivities? I couldn’t think of a good reason except that we had never really given a thought to it!

Thanksgiving isn’t a religious festival at all. So there’s no reason we cannot celebrate it. And we don’t believe in any such religious restrictions anyhow. Even for Christmas, which is a religious festival, I learnt Christmas carols for the office luncheon and we brought home a tree and decorated it in our amateurish desi way and had great fun in the process.

The problem was in our perception, I realized. Here was an American treating us as fellow Americans while we thought of ourselves as Indians after all. In our minds, we were still living in India.

Was it time to assimilate a little more? At least for the time we are here? We could have vegetarian Thanksgiving dinners, couldn’t we? Call over friends, if not family. Maybe we wouldn’t want to it every year, but trying it once in a while wouldn’t be a bad idea either, would it?

I am still thinking about this. Perhaps it will never make much of a difference to us either way, but if we decide to bring up our kids in this country, we’ll need to be much more participative in this whole Thanksgiving/Christmas scene, I feel. Do you folks agree?

What’s a drink between friends? Part II

So we were pretty overwhelmed with this girl’s hospitality and made it a point to let her know how much we appreciated it. But there was one small thing I did NOT appreciate and unfortunately could not discuss with her, considering I barely know her and she was our host and a very nice person otherwise AND I hate confrontations and all! Naturally then, I had to vent myself here.

So we were in North Carolina for the weekend and Sunday night found us wandering about downtown Chapel Hill, a beautiful little town, by the way. Tired from the day’s sightseeing and wanting to rest our aching limbs, we chanced upon a Chipotle, one of the few non-desi places we desis can get good wholesome but spicy food in America. Their burrito bowl is as good as rajma-chawal I think!

So the husband was having his fajitas, I was enjoying my burrito bowl and our friends were nursing a glass of margarita each. Now I was raised to be a teetotaler, in a family where alcohol, tobacco and meat are all considered the original sins, next to drugs, fraud and murder probably! I am pretty sure my mother has never sat next to a person enjoying a glass of wine and will not be doing it anytime soon either. Me, I am not that fanatical at all but I stick to my teetotaler upbringing out of choice. I don’t think alcohol is a sin but I am not a great fan of the effect it sometimes has on people.

Let me clarify. Most people I know are social drinkers and they’ll be up in arms against me for clubbing them with drunks and alcoholics. I understand the difference, you know. I just don’t like the idea of indulging in something that can turn so ugly when over-indulged in. Maybe there’s nothing wrong in having a social drink from time to time if I can stay within my limits. But what if I forget them? Or worse, what if I am just not able to stick to them? Why even go down a road whose end is so ugly? Sure, I can always turn back but what if lose my way instead?

And then there is this weird concept that says you cannot let go and enjoy yourself completely without a drink or two. Which is basically what our friend’s wife kept saying once the first margarita gave way to the second. And which irritated me no end. I had absolutely no issues when she was sitting next to me, enjoying her drink and all of us enjoying our conversation. But then she wanted to know why the husband and I weren’t drinking. Didn’t we like to have fun? Didn’t we wish to experience the lightheadedness and total abandon that can only came with a drink?

This idea that I couldn’t enjoy myself as much as she would just because I wasn’t drinking made me see red. I didn’t try and foist my morals upon her, did I? Why, then, was she trying to impose her concept of fun on me? I might have had more *fun* than any other person at that table. Or I might be a total loser. What does that have to do with drinking?

I prefer to have my share of fun without the aid of a drink. Basically, I hate the idea of losing control, the very idea that was being advocated as the biggest joy of drinking in the first place. I prefer to be in my senses all the time. Call me a control freak or whatever, but that’s the way I am.

I wish I could have said all this to her but then I’d be violating my own rules. Which basically say – to each his or her own. As long as you aren’t throwing up on me or insisting on driving us straight down a cliff, I don’t mind you drinking. So as long as I’m not playing moral police and spoiling your fun, why not let me be? I’ll jump up and down and crack silly jokes and giggle like crazy in the spirit of the occasion and I’ll do it even though I’m not drunk and I’ll still have as much fun as you and not spoil your fun, promise! Just let me do it in my own way, will you?

Sigh! We are traveling to Vegas with these friends and another couple (more college friends) for Thanksgiving next weekend. So I thought I’d get this rant out of my system before then. They are all great people and very good friends, but I know many more such remarks are going to come our way in Vegas. I think I’ll manage to laugh them off now that I’ve ranted here in advance!

Living within our means

The scary economic times we are living through make me think about our finances more than usual these days. Each time I panic, I run through a mental checklist – jobs, expenditure, savings – are we doing something wrong? Is there some way we can be more prudent? I think not. We were pretty conservative in our lifestyle much before all this happened anyway. But what about the people around me?

Most folks I know here live in five bedroom houses and own two or more cars including the mandatory gas-guzzling SUV. The homes are usually mortgaged, the cars are often leased. The husband and I live in a one bedroom loft apartment and drive a second-hand Honda sedan. Everything we own is fully paid for. One of our friends with four kids spent thousands of dollars at a swanky Disney resort last year. He was worrying over paying for his kids’ education when we spoke with him last. We have no kids yet but we preferred to stay in a decent hotel outside Disney at half the price when we visited Florida last year.

I often read articles on personal finance that advise Americans to consolidate credit card debt and urge them to pay off a little more than the minimum balance every month. A credit card is a mere convenience to us, a better option than carrying around paper money. We pay all our bills at the end of the month, without giving a moment’s thought to the deferred payment or minimum balance options. They might as well not exist, that’s how much they figure in our scheme of things.

It’s common practice here, I am told, to borrow money against one’s home equity, ‘unlocking’ the wealth ‘tied up’ in the home. The borrowed money is supposed to be used for important expenses like paying for college education but sometimes more frivolous indulgences pop up as well, I’ve heard.

Just before we came to America, the husband and I invested our savings in a modest two-bedroom home in India. The bank was surprised with the loan amount we applied for. ‘We’ll give you five times that’, they offered. ‘No, thank you, this is all we need and can afford right now’, we countered. Besides, why do two people need a bigger house anyway? We’ll get a bigger and better home when we need one and can afford to pay for it, we figured.

There are several more examples, but I’m sure you get the picture. So are the husband and I both saints? No! This is simply the way we were brought up to think. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious and go on about how wise I am. Fact is, I am no different from most people I know back home in India.

When I opened my first bank account in the US, the bank executive offered us a savings plan that would automatically transfer the cents left off from my transactions to the savings account. ‘This way, you’ll have some savings at the end of the month’, the guy very sincerely told us. ‘Thanks, but no thanks!’, we told him, struggling to control our smiles. One of the things the husband and I fought over the most when we landed here were my penny-pinching habits. I didn’t need to save cents while I watched and fretted over every dollar I parted with!

This is a complete shift in culture and perspective we are talking about here. Like two people who see the same glass as half full and half empty, one of us looks at a paid-for home and rushes to unlock and spend the wealth in it while the other sees an outstanding home loan as debt and strives to repay it. It’s difficult to say who’s right and who’s wrong when confronted with such a clash of cultures. After all the glass IS both half full and half empty. Economists, who obviously understand these things better than I do, tell us it’s American consumers who fuel the world’s economy. And most folks would think I am a worrier who doesn’t know how to enjoy life.

Perhaps they are right. It all depends on one’s perspective, I guess, but I feel happier choosing the more prudent option for myself. And I don’t think I’m missing out on life’s pleasures at all! Is living in a two-bedroom condo all that bad? Both the husband and I lived in one-bedroom homes all through our childhood. We were four of us in my family while his had over ten people living in the same 500 square feet of space at one point of time. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, all our memories from this period are of laughter and games and sharing and warmth and togetherness.

Perhaps neither of us can imagine going back to living that way again, but we definitely can imagine bringing up our kids (when we have them!) in our cozy two-bedroom home in Pune, we are deliriously happy in our tiny condo right now, and we sure had loads of fun during our trip to Cape Cod last summer! Sure, I go berserk each time I see a glossy travel ad or one of those gorgeous remodeled homes on HGTV. I’d love to indulge in a five-star spa or decorate my home like that someday, but I’ll do it when I can afford to pay for it. And not have to worry about the kids’ education fund a few months later!

What about you? Do you think we are forgotting the art of living simply and within our means? Do we need a jolt like this recession to remind us of the simple and fun things in life?

Disclaimer: I am not an economist or a financial expert. This post is a collection of my thoughts and impressions from the news articles I read and the people I speak with. I mean absolutely no disrespect to anybody.

Finally…

an example of responsible and constructive journalism? I am no great expert on journalism but I certainly felt so. And more importantly, although it is guilty of promoting stereotypes in a sense, I found this piece of news extremely heartening.

For it brought on my old familiar pride in being Indian again. The kind of pride I used to feel acting in sappy national integration plays in school and watching ‘unity in diversity’ songs on Doordarshan. Yes, I felt some of that old pride returning after a long long time today, along with the familiar accompanying tingle in my spine.

And I felt a glimmer of hope. As long as common folk like you and me are able to look beyond their differences and feel each other’s pain, there is hope for all of us, don’t you think?

Amidst the usual spate of gloomy stories about hate, mistrust and growing chasms in Indian society, this one is a welcome ray of sunshine indeed!

Delhi Blasts – A Reaction

Naadaan Hain Hum To Maalik, Kyoon Di Hamein Yeh Saza
Yahan Hai Sabhi Ke Dil Mein Nafrat Ka Zaher Bhara
Inhe Phir Se Yaad Dila De Sabak Wahi Pyaar Ka
Ban Jaaye Gulshan Phir Se Kaanton Bhari Duniya

(Excerpted from the song ‘Ek Tu Hi Bharosa‘ from the movie Pukar)

What is happening to our beautiful country? Who are these bloodthirsty countrymen we never knew about? Why didn’t we see them before? And what makes them thirst for innocent blood? Did we do something to make them think this way?

Historians and more learned folks might claim otherwise (and they may well be right) but for me December ’92 was when the desecration of my beautiful homeland began. When a little known (to me) political party capitalized on a little known (again, to me) religious feud to spur its rise in national politics.

Yes, that’s where it all began, to my mind. When my beloved hometown, a cosmopolitan city where Hindus thronged Muslim markets to shop for Diwali and where Manmohan Desai made a sappy national integration movie like Amar Akbar Anthony, Mumbai, a safe city that stayed relatively calm through the horrors of partition, was rocked by gruesome religious riots. And the terrifying bomb blasts that followed a few months later.

I have no love for the terrorists (who would!) but I am ashamed of what you did too. Our two communities may not have been the best of friends, but we never had it so bad before, did we? So much mistrust, hate fueling hate, revenge begetting another bloody round of revenge… Where does this all end?

Religion is a very personal matter, it belongs in our minds and in our families and homes, at most. How can we fight and kill each other over something so personal and subjective? Would you kill me if I said my husband was the best husband in the world? Would you mistrust me only because I did not marry yours? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I am sorry, but I find the other argument just as ridiculous too.

I am Hindu and I’d like to tell the so-called saviors of my Hindu pride, I don’t really care about rebuilding a temple that may or may not have been destroyed so many years ago if it is to happen at the cost of communal peace. And I have no interest in reclaiming the so-called lost honor of my religion. I never thought it was lost in the first place. I am very proud of my religion and would have been prouder still if you had never entered the picture.

Having said that, I am also least interested in establishing the supremacy of my religion over others. I am quite okay if you consider your religion superior to mine. Maybe it really is, who knows! I respect all religions equally, I truly do. I find as much peace of mind in a church as in a temple. I bow my head in reverence each time I pass a mosque. And I have Muslim friends who I am sure would like to say something similar to the terrorists supposedly waging war on their behalf.

So let me ask you both, fanatic Hindus and Muslims, do you care about the thousands of innocent lives being lost in this farce, lives of the very people whom you claim to protect and later avenge? Did they volunteer to be sacrificed in your war? Men, women and children, the bombs did not distinguish between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians – simple folks like yours and mine out for some Saturday evening fun with the family. Did any of them personally murder someone in Gujarat?

WHAT CRIME DID THEY COMMIT? None? So they were simply a statistic then? A statistic in the grand war you are fighting on behalf of us all? Ah, that explains it all.

Note: This was my emotional and personal reaction to the Delhi blasts. I may have got some facts wrong or you may disagree with my interpretation of events – I’ll be glad if you would politely correct me and explain your viewpoint in that case. Thank you.

Edited to add: Roop and Phoenix Ritu have something similar to say too. I wish we could implement some of Roop’s suggestions. I have a feeling they would work but vested interests would never let us try.

Remembering – But not 9/11

‘Nice tie!’, the husband greeted our colleague walking in to work today. It was a red, blue and white tie with a beautiful Bald Eagle on it.

‘Oh, that’s for September 11, at my previous company we lost six of us that day’, our colleague, a former US marine, somberly explained.

Snatches of coffee table conversations I overhear all day tell pretty much the same story – WTC, loved ones, loss, hijackings, war, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bush, Mcain – each hushed word a tragic tale in itself. And last year, there was the ‘Good Morning’ announcement, a stark reminder to all – ‘Never forget’.

Not that the Americans I see around me need reminding, I tell myself. How difficult is it to remember the one attack occuring in your homeland in so many years? As for me, an Indian and a Mumbaikar, what all do I remember? I remember 6th December and 13th March and 7th July but what about the blast that ripped through a local train at Mulund station? And the one in the BEST bus at Ghatkopar? And Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Malegaon and Akshardham? What all CAN I remember? But does that mean I should forget?

Horrific though the 9/11 tragedy was, guilty though the American government may be of excesses in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, longdrawn and misguided though the war against terror might seem, there’s one thing I admire about the country I live in right now – there has been NO attack here, big or small, after 9/11, has there? I admire that spirit and commitment, the value it places on human life.

Some might ask if it’s only American lives that are worth protecting? But at least their government cares for and protects its own people! What about ours? How long will our Prime Minister offer empty condolences after yet another attack? For how long will our police point fingers at the all-too familiar foreign hands and shadowy Islamic groups? What steps are they taking to prevent it from happening again? And why don’t they say or do something that will truly reassure us?

Someone else might ask, how can I, an ordinary and selfish individual living and working in a foreign land to better my prospects, point fingers at my government? Do I devote my time to public service, do I have a loved one in the army, do I even pay my taxes in my country right now?

True, I don’t. But isn’t that why we have a government in the first place? To do what ordinary citizens cannot. Or we would have situations like the one shown in ‘A Wednesday‘ coming up every other day. (A must-watch Naseer movie, by the way.)

I know it is a a tough task for a populous developing country like India to follow America’s example in the fight against terrorism. We have so many other pressing problems that plague us. Farmers commiting suicide, violence perpetrated in the name of caste and religion, children dying of malnutrition…

I don’t see what can we do. So for now we live on in hope. And sometimes in fear. Do you see something I don’t?

Groupism – The next logical step?

Let’s face it, groupism happens everywhere. Neighborhood aunties have their fiercely competitive kitty party circles, Bollywood has always been famous for its clans and camps, the Democratic party is nicely divided into Obama and Clinton loyalists (or so the media claims) and even tiny tots in playschool have been known to prefer their chosen circle of best friends over other playmates! Why should we grownup folks be any different then? So I have my own little groups and social circles. There’s my office lunch group. And my lunchtime walkers group. A 4 o’clock tea break group. A circle of my music class friends. And then there is the neighborhood desi group.

Now there are some desis in America who look down upon other desis spending time together. Closed minds, herd mentality, unworldly, unsophisticated and so on, these are the labels hissed at us. But I, for one, couldn’t care less. I don’t find anything wrong in wanting to be with people of a similar background, people with whom I can identify better, with whom I can be completely comfortable. I might love trying out Greek and Lebanese cuisines, but at the end of a long tiring day, it is simple saru-anna (Kannada-speak for daal chawal) that I crave. In just the same way, I enjoy speaking with Americans and Mexicans and I love getting to know different cultures, but when I feel the need to indulge in a good old gossip-fest, when I feel the urge to celebrate my festivals, when I want to catch the latest Bollywood movie at the local theater, it is my desi girls group that I think of – always.

Honestly, I find no harm in it. It is a great comfort to have a surrogate family of sorts in a strange and distant land, believe me. But what got my goat today, was the discovery of a group within our group, a startling and unpleasant discovery that I was entirely unprepared for. We are all desis, we laugh at the same jokes and understand the same cultural connotations, we even speak a common desi language but at the end of the day, most of us are Indian Hindus and the others, not part of the so-called inner group, are Pakistanis, Indian Muslims and Christians, I was told. And that is all that matters in certain situations, it seems. Which explains why the latter have not been invited to dinner at a friend’s home next week. No plausible-sounding excuse was given, no attempt at secrecy was made. They were simply not invited and that was that!

The non-invitees have been graciously mum so far. Quite obviously, they must’ve been hurt but are probably too decent to mention it. Then there is the hostess. I know her fairly well. She is a friend and a very nice person in every other respect. Warm, friendly and helpful, she is the oldest in the group and fills the mother hen role perfectly. But I know she is from a very orthodox South Indian family. The kind where ‘madi’ is still practiced, I suppose. Coming from such a family myself (in parts at least, most of the younger generation is fairly enlightened, hope), I can see where she is coming from. And the dinner is being held on a festival day, a pooja is the highlight of the evening, which is probably her excuse.

But although I can understand where this lady is coming from, I simply cannot condone what she is doing. I discussed this with another friend I am close too, someone who has been invited and was glad to know the friend agrees with me and had, in fact, openly questioned our hostess on the omission. (She is far closer to the lady in question than I am, I suppose.) And the hostess had been pretty matter-of-fact, explaining that she knew her behavior to be ‘somewhat wrong’, yet ‘she just couldn’t bring herself to invite non-Hindus home for a festival’!

The friend and I debated over our options for a while. Do we decline to attend the dinner on a matter of principle? But what difference would it make? We would hurt our hostess and embarrass our other friends, including, and perhaps especially, the non-invitees. So why create a scene? And who are we to dictate the guestlist to our friend, my liberal and contrary soul asked me? It is her home and she should be allowed to define her own values. And I hate to sound shallow, but I love the Ganpati festival with its aartis and rituals, I love to dress up for festive occasions, and I love our hostess’ food! Do I give up all this fun just to prove a point?

Besides, isn’t our hostess just taking the concept of groupism to its next logical level? If I am okay with having a desi friends group, why am I making a big deal if someone else wishes to have an exclusive dinner party with her Hindu friends? Who am I to decide just what level of groupism is acceptable? I think the difference is that (I hope) I do not hurt anyone when I spend time with my ‘desi group’ – I’m not consciously excluding anyone – no non-desi I know has shown even a remote desire to join our group!

But the question remains – where do we draw the line? Is my friend perfectly justified in her own viewpoint? Am I making a big issue out of nothing? Or am I being apathetic and trying to talk my way out of a difficult situation? What do you think friends?

Sicko – Are we going the American way?

“Do we have our insurance cards with us? Which is the in-network hospital closest to our home? Do we even know what plan we are on? What do we do if there’s an emergency?”, I nagged the husband in full panic mode last night. We had just finished watching ‘Sicko‘, a critique on the American health care system and I was terrified of falling sick while in the US, as a result.

‘Sicko’ is a hard-hitting documentary from Michael Moore of ‘Fahrenheit 9/11‘ fame. Here’s how IMDB’s synopsis describes it – ‘Writer/producer Michael Moore interviews Americans who have been denied treatment by our health care insurance companies — companies who sacrifice essential health services in order to maximize profits. The consequences for the individual subscribers range from bankruptcy to the unnecessary deaths of loved ones.’

Sounds chilling, doesn’t it? I am not sure whether to take the entire narrative at face value but surely the tragic first-person accounts must be real? Sample this. A cancer patient allegedly died because his bone marrow treatment (for which a donor had already been found) was deemed ‘experimental’ and hence not approved by his insurance company, a drug costing 120 dollars in the United States was being sold for just 3 cents in neighboring Cuba, medical practitioners employed by health care companies claimed they were paid bonuses for denying medical expense claims and ‘saving’ their employers money… and all this supposedly happened in America, thought of as utopia back home in India and most other parts of the world.

My first impression was of shock, horror and disbelief. Then there was some guilt – I once worked on a project for one of the insurance companies named in the documentary – was even a tiny part of my salary made through such means? And finally there was relief – I know we always have the option of traveling back to India if ever (God forbid) one of us needs expensive medical treatment while we are here.

Once the personal thoughts were dealt with, I started to think of the larger picture Moore has tried to present – should something as basic as health care be entrusted to a profit-making industry? I am a great proponent of wealth-creation in general, but what sort of people see profit in life and death situations? And is it right for a government to allow such an opportunity in the first place?

“Most of the world’s research is funded by American pharmaceutical companies. They need lots of money for research, don’t you want to see a cure for cancer?”, a friend reminded me. Fair enough. But are we naive enough to believe funding research is the sole motive for profit-making here?

As is my wont, my thoughts raced from America to India as I tried to relate the documentary to the situation in my own country. Health care is still thought of as both competent and affordable back home in India, but I wonder how long it can remain that way. Will it not soon become big business in India too?

And from whose point of view exactly is it affordable even now? From a well-off middle class family’s point of view? How about a poor peasant or factory worker then? Government hospitals are free, I have heard, but are they well-managed, clean and hygienic? Are the doctors qualified and committed or overburdened and underpaid? Are there long queues to get in? And are sophisticated medical treatments ever performed in such hospitals?

From a middle class family’s point of view too, I see things changing around me. My uncle, a doctor, is associated with a charitable hospital in India, a hospital founded long ago with the sole aim of providing affordable health care to all. A few years back, a business conglomerate took over the hospital trust. There is new machinery with the latest technology now and the hospital’s peeling paint and broken flooring has made way for a color-coordinated new look, my uncle tells me, but the locals are not very impressed. The charitable hospital is not so charitable anymore, they say.

Then there is a sad incident that happened in our family last year. Another uncle, retiring from a comfortable job in Mumbai, wished to live close to his only daughter in Bangalore after retirement. Bangalore home prices are sky-high these days, but my uncle and aunt invested all their savings to buy a beautiful new house near their daughter’s. Everyone was happy, until last year, when the uncle suffered a heart attack. A critical heart surgery and a long hospital stay followed. My uncle is fine now but the couple lives in a rental apartment these days. Their home was sold to pay the medical bills.

Several of our friends and relatives rushed to get private health insurance after my uncle’s experience. Many large Indian companies, (especially software firms, from my own experience) provide health care insurance to their employees as part of their pay packages. From all accounts, the Indian health care insurance industry seems to be a growth story. But do we really need an American-style profit-motivated system in India? As medical costs increase, we might not have much of an option.

Yes, our saving mindset makes us somewhat better prepared to handle a medical emergency. While Americans go around spending most of what they make (and a lot of what they expect to make) on new homes and fancy cars, most Indians I know still believe in saving as much as possible for a rainy day ahead. Sadly, with the advent of consumerism and the credit culture, that seems to be changing too. And even for a frugal family, how far can our savings go? What if we are looking at not one, but multiple medical emergencies in the future?

If change is inevitable, universal health care as practiced in the U.K. or Canada seems more humane to me, but given our population and poverty, is it something we can even dream of for our country? Tax payers, a small fraction of our population, are already overburdened in India. Would it be fair to burden them even more? I think not. Not to mention the corruption that would inevitably enter such a system.

What is the solution then? Are we going down the rocky American path after all? Is there a better choice? Does our government have a policy in place?

I apologize for the rambling post friends, my mind is full of questions today! Any answers?

Seasonal Musings

Favorite seasons are tied to places in my mind. In Mumbai, I loved the monsoon, but there was hardly any choice, was there? Summers in Mumbai are unbearably hot and dreary, and as for Mumbai winters, what are they and where do I find them please? So monsoon it was and will be in Mumbai. (I know the monsoon is more feared than enjoyed these days, but I refuse to blame the elements for the mayhem caused by our bursting-at-its-seams city’s poor infrastructure and indifferent officials.)

Lush greenery, wet and misty mornings, the thrill of the first rumble in the sky, the clichéd bheegi mitti ki khushboo, the gay abandon of getting wet in the first rains, the relief from the horrible May heat and dusty roads and brown hills and pale woebegone trees, waterfall picnics in the hills, garam-garam butta and onion bhaji and wada pav, splashing around in rain water puddles, twirling my colorful umbrella and soaking everybody around in the process, coming home and changing into dry clothes and perching myself on the swing in our balcony, a warm cup of coffee in hand, to enjoy the rains outside – these are just some of my wonderful memories of monsoons in my hometown.

(Incidentally, I splashed around in puddles of rain water in our complex this morning without a guilty thought – unlike in Mumbai, I knew this puddle contained rain water and little else! This simple and innocent moment of fun brought back all these childhood memories – I remembered walking to the bus-stop in my white raincoat with big green and blue flowers, spoiling Aai’s saree by jumping around in the water, I remembered blocking the drainage hole, much to Aai’s consternation, to fill up our terrace with rain water and then splashing away to glory while getting wet in the torrential downpour from above.)

I had no love for the monsoon in Pune though, where I lived for a couple of years after college – the dull lackadaisical drizzle throughout the day made me long for a straightforward torrential Mumbai downpour to get it over with – but winters in Pune are simply delicious. Cold, but not unbearably so, the mornings are perfect to snuggle under a warm razai (and miss the bus!) and an added attraction are the gorgeous and heavenly fragrant rajnigandha flowers one can bring home by the armful in the evening, without emptying one’s pockets for the privilege.

Now you would think me crazy if I said I love winters in the Northeast United States, my home for now, wouldn’t you? (Although they have their moments, I must admit – I like the peace and quiet of winter here, and I enjoy snow-mobiling and snow fights and building snowmen.) But the New England spring is the closest equivalent for my beloved monsoons – it is a similar harbinger of hope and freshness and new beginnings. I especially love the transition from spring to summer when tiny green leaves and colorful little flowers peep out into our hitherto dull gray world. The air is nice and crisp, not-too-hot and not-too-cold, and it is such a relief to finally get out after months of being cooped indoors.

Phew! As usual, this post turned into my ramblings on a dozen random memories rather than a simple answer to the question ThoughtSafari had tagged me for – What kind of day would you be? But what a rush of beautiful memories it brought on! Thank you so much for this lovely tag TS, I thoroughly enjoyed doing it.

Now to cut this rather long post short and answer the question, I would be an exuberant, playfully romantic and tempestuous monsoon day, the kind when ten foot high waves lash the walls of my beloved Marine Drive. And finally, I am very curious, M, D, MadMomma and Usha, what kind of day are you like?

Currently reading…

I was excited to pick up two old favorites from our local public library yesterday. Both books are fairly new, but while I had reserved John Grisham’s ‘The Appeal‘ a month in advance, I was pleasantly surprised to find Jeffrey Archer’s ‘A Prisoner of Birth‘ available on the New Releases bookshelf.

Why so, I wonder? Do other folks share my waning enthusiasm for Archer’s recent narrow choice of themes and slow and (dare I say?) pompous style of writing? Or is the American public simply not as crazy about British authors as most of us in India are? Back home, I read a few random pages from both books to decide which one I’d read first. Surprisingly, ‘The Appeal’ won hands-down. Is Archer losing his magic touch then? I would say yes, particularly since the disappointment of the monotonous ‘False Impression’ is still fresh in my mind. As you can imagine though, for someone who so enjoyed ‘As the Crow Flies’, ‘Kane and Abel’, ‘Honor among Thieves’ and other Archer classics, this is a pretty tough admission to make.

To be sure, the same accusation could be directed against John Grisham too, but I like the fact that Grisham has experimented with different styles over the past few years. I especially loved the warm and funny ‘Skipping Christmas’ from amongst these experiments and ‘The Painted House’ was quite interesting too. And the legal thrillers, though repetitive in terms of theme and treatment, manage to hold my interest for the most part. The lure of Grisham’s unique writing style has not yet worn thin for me. I love the short snappy sentences, colorful character descriptions and caustic interplay of dialogues, especially during his famous courtroom brawls.

So ‘The Appeal’ is what I am going to be reading for the next few days and ‘A Prisoner of Birth’ will follow. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Archer will surprise me with one of his famous red herrings this time around though! Will let you know if that happens.

Disclaimer: I agree that there is no basis to compare the two authors, their genre and styles are completely different. I am not attempting a comparison here. It’s just that the two have been my long-time favorites in the thriller category and a few years back, making a choice would not have been easy for me at all. I was simply intrigued by my shifting preferences and hence this post. Now any Archer fans out there who would care to disagree?

Another Book Tag

It’s raining book tags! Right on the heels of Shruthi’s tag, here comes Chakli’s. The rules are – Get the book closest to you. Open the book to page 123. Count to line five. Write the next three lines.

I am currently reading Thomas Friedman’s ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’, so this is the book closest at hand. The lines to be reproduced do not make much sense by themselves, but that’s the fun of doing a tag! So the lines are – ‘The P.L.O. leaders were archetypical petit bourgeoisie. They were neither notables nor educated professionals, but rather school teachers, like Abu Iyad, or engineers, like Arafat…’

Thomas Friedman is better known for his most recent book ‘The World is Flat’, but I found this book, his first, far more riveting. Based on his first-hand experiences reporting from Lebanon and Israel for the New York Times, the book is an honest attempt at making sense of two different but interconnected Middle East tangles. (The first half of the book focuses on the Lebanese civil war, while the second is about Israel and the Palestine conflict.)

For folks like me who are not so familiar with the details, it is a good starting point to understand a drama that has been at the center-stage of world politics for more years than we can remember. The fact that the book is dated (from the late 80’s or so), makes it even more fascinating in my opinion. Imagine looking back at what we now consider as ‘history’ through the point of view of ‘current affairs’! As I was reading, I was plagued with questions. What was the outcome of the conflict? Is the situation peaceful now? How were these seemingly insurmountable differences resolved?

I was glad to read that peace, or some semblance of it, has returned to Lebanon. Unfortunately though, the Israelis and Palestinians are hardly on better terms today. In fact, had the author not mentioned dates in the book, I would have just as easily believed the events described in the book to be contemporary. (The headlines on Google News yesterday read ‘Three dead in fresh Gaza clash‘.)

Finally, there remains an unresolved question in my mind. In spite of all the strife and uncertainty in Israel, why do Jews continue to migrate there? I am reminded of a Jewish Indian family, family friends of ours, who moved from Mumbai to Israel a few years back. To my knowledge there is no antisemitism in India. An average Indian would probably be unaware of a religion called Judaism even. What, then, was the inexplicable hold this country had over our friends, a hold far stronger than the comfort of a peaceful and familiar life in the country of their birth? Can religious affinity be this strong in our ‘modern’ times?

This was fun! Thanks Chakli! I tag Silvara, Trupti, Indian Home Maker, Cee Kay and Usha. No pressure though, feel free to ignore the tag if you’ve already done it, or are otherwise unable/unwilling.