Tuesday, June 14, 2011

We really don't need to live in the past...

Another Midsummer madness...went out down with a cold, sore throat for a few days...just when I was beginning to think maybe, just maybe I am done with my sick days after all! But no big deal, it is on its way out too....
Anyways, to dispel the boredom brought about by this, DH and I visited the Calico museum, the famous textile museum of Ahmedabad. It was beyond anything lovely. Personally for me it was awe inspiring! I struggle to maintain my focus almost every few minutes when I am doing anything else other than reading and these people focussed for hours, days and years to create such beautiful pieces of cloth!. And to think they even supplied cloth for Egyptian funeral services where they buried a whole lot of household goods with their mummies and made them according to the designs provided by the Egyptians! To think foreign trade in such exquisite and highly refined ( custom made designer?) textiles has gone on for thousands of years from these shores is mind boggling. 
The guide who showed us around was knowledgeable and totally immersed in the glories of the past, extolling the virtues of the days gone by and bemoaning the sad state of people and affairs in the country today. She certainly has her points I suppose...but then life moves forward, demanding our attention and commitment to things beautiful and strange, regardless of how everything compares to everything else, past, present or future. Sometimes chaos does give way to clarity after it has destroyed a few extraneous things in its crucible...so why become so hopeless and keep running back to the past? Be it individually or collectively? 

Friday, June 10, 2011

R2I Blues? Don't let the monkey out....

Coping with reverse culture shock can get messy unless you develop some  internal boundaries and let them gate-keep your emotions. There's only so much emotional excitability that a body can tolerate at any given time. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say that you need to sit down and make a list of things that you will allow yourself to be bothered about (stuff you can do something about) or not be bothered about(stuff that is really not under your control), some sort of mental exercise along these lines wouldn't hurt!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Desi Bahu...or the Indian Daughter-in-law...

Those of you conversant with what's going on in India are probably familiar with the Baba Ramdev drama. In the midst of all that hullabaloo, one line struck me forcefully as one of the many ridiculous things that continues to drag our country down. His remark about Sonia Gandhi - "She is the daughter-in-law of India, she doesn't understand her mothers and sisters".

Let me analyze this line in its entirety as it does not make sense to me...

Sonia Gandhi has made this country her home for a zillion years now, she is clearly a citizen , albeit of foriegn origin and was a prime ministerial candidate who gave up her chance to lead the country  to Dr. Manmohan Singh. To begin with, she is an individual in her own right...not solely a "daughter-in-law". But then, despite her high profile status in the country, whenever there's a political issue, she gets branded as "the daughter-in-law". If someone of her exalted status is still open to attack as the "daughter-in-law" by an equally exalted yoga guru no less, is it any wonder that women continue to suffer because of their gender in this culture?

"Daughter-in-law" of India...I am sorry but Baba you need to get your facts straight, she is not the daughter-in-law of this country, she is the daughter-in-law of the Gandhi family and an ordinary citizen of India, an "individual" who also happens to be the president of a major political party.

"She doesn't understand her mothers and sisters".....????What? Now here, I am completely lost. Why does it become her responsibility to understand the rest of the women in this country? How many people in the sphere of political activity and social activism  including Baba Ramdev himself have tried to understand this group categorized as "mothers and sisters"? Oh! Since they are not the "daughters-in-law of this country", they don't have any duties in that direction...is that it?

Ever heard of any person, political opponent or social activist, taking on the government at the center, at any point in Indian Political History, attack each other saying, you are the "son" of this country, you don't understand your fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, dogs, cats, parrots, snakes....etc etc?

(I am leaving out the "daughter" tag because it's gonna get too tangled to explicate...for one, there are not that many compared to "sons"...for another...I would have to unearth their history to determine whether they should be referred to as "daughters" or "daughters-in-law" - because that matters right?? and it's beyond the scope of this blog article)

So who or what on earth is the concept of a daughter-in-law and/or a woman in Indian culture? An individual with the normal rights, duties, emotions and limitations that go with being a human being or a human ball of clay to be formed and reformed according to the ideas put forth by all these babas and swamis and acharyas or whatever...the so called "learned men" who wrote all those nauseating tomes about the rightful "position" of women in Indian society?

Any thoughts anybody?

P.S Women moving back to India, brace yourselves for some discomfort coming from having to negotiate with a culture that is still deeply androcentric, beginning with shamelessly demanding that women include marital details while filling out forms but does not require men to do so...etc etc.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Adiga's White Tiger...Author's Pride, India's Shame...

I don't like to keep referring to books that I read because this blog is not about books...BUT just finished reading Arvind Adiga's "The White Tiger" and feel rubbished and roughed up and what not...really, may be writers should have the freedom to write and publish what they want, however writers like these need to be dropped into those dungeons that have no outlets...only entry points through holes in the ground...and oh yeah! drop all the damn books written by them in there as well...right on top of their big fat brainy heads!

Whew! That feels good...actually I could get more violent but don't want to be clapped up in a prison somewhere myself as a potential threat to the author's safety!

I wonder what the author was dreaming when he wrote this book? Is he aiming to become a Voltaire or a Rousseau and incite a modern day Indian Revolution? 

Ok forget his intention...he probably just wrote a story that was sitting in his head slowly driving him insane...may be I should ask what possessed me to pick it up and read it?

To begin with, it is a smart piece of writing worth every penny of whatever the amount of that Booker Prize was. A free flowing, easier to read version of the Dostoevskyian novel...from beginning to end the book screams, everything is because it just is and that's the way it is. Ok...the reader gets it.

What the reader also gets, especially if you happen to be an average Indian is a massive kick to the gut, a bleakness and devastation that is beyond anything you have ever known could exist. When everything from your land to the person next door to you and everything else in your life in your country is presented to you covered with dog shit and arsenic but stinking of selective truth and reality, how do you come to terms with it? 

I finished reading the book at one sitting and came out with a depression so deep, I felt I had finally achieved a state of Nirvana...the nirvana of depression. Then, came the anger. What need for him to fill pages and pages with his sense of hopelessness and flood the markets with it? Yeah I know...it's not his hopelessness, it's the hopelessness of the poor that he's filled those pages with...however what rankles is the finality of the hopeless state. Is that all there is to life and art? A final resting place in the dungeon of despair?

Sure, the protagonist lifts himself out of his miserable state at the expense of one sure death, a few possible ones and maybe a future murder...Is this the best hope a poor man or woman has? If so, do we really need to create a work of art around it? Do we need to normalize it through non-judgmental, "realistic" writing? 

I have no quarrel with the possible reality of the picture portrayed by him. What I couldn't stand was the relentlessness of a single-minded and overwhelmingly bleak narrative that stubbornly refused to inject some sense of hope or beauty into the book. I suppose he can argue that that is how life is for a certain section of society. How real is that? Basic human nature contradicts this. No matter how difficult or harsh the life or circumstances, people find a way to find some relief, some joy, somewhere. Our survival instincts demand this...otherwise mass suicides wouldn't be uncommon. However, in this book, initially the protagonist's  joys are tainted by mere foolishness and stupidity, later by murder. That gets to me, in the entire book, there is no single instance of untainted joy or hope or happiness or even a mere lightness of spirit at any point in anybody's life. This actually makes me question the author's grasp of reality and his claim to have the authority to decipher the "real India" which apparently lies somewhere beyond current economic progress. What does he think is going on here? An economic holocaust? 

My ire boils down to this fact...writing an entire book focussed on one aspect of life, "poverty" and using it as a weapon to strike at the heart of hope and the dream of a decent life in this country is a petty war to wage against one's nation and her people in the name of exposing reality.

To quote Balram, quoting Pinky Madam, "what a fucking joke!". What a fucking joke Mr. Adiga, what a fucking joke! 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Growing Fatter and Lovin...it! Or where you live matters more than you think...

I am beginning to think that much of a person's ability to be productive, effective, whatever has to do with their surroundings especially the climate. Was dragged to the gym by DH yesterday, no matter how much I whined and complained about it and once there, it really came as a rude shock to me when I realized just how badly out of shape I have become since moving back to India. After 20 minutes, I had to bite my teeth, limp across to a chair and flop down carefully trying hard not to scream in pain...jeez!!

To begin with I never was much of a "gym" person but back in Cleveland, I loved working out at home and the local Metro Parks, so was in fairly good shape. Since moving here, my motivation levels are below zero. I simply feel too hot and lazy to lift a finger...forget working out. 

Going to the gym also gave me a chance to actually see myself in an alien mirror (which has become rare of late as I have given up shopping) where I looked so ghastly and unhealthy that I couldn't believe it was me! At home, looking at ourselves in our own friendly, gotten used to for a while mirrors, we never look as bad as we truly are I think! Strange mirrors have a way of shocking you out of your complacency! 

The final Piece De Resistance that I tried to prevent myself for indulging in but some kind of sick fascination with my deterioration led me to - the weighing scale - showed that I am slowly but steadily gaining those dreaded pounds.

The worst thing of all...my response....ah! Who cares? It is too hot to do anything...this city probably has to be the shittiest possible place that way...limited breathing spaces, no beautiful outskirts so to speak of...once read in the paper that this city is either the 1st or 2nd ranking place in India for lifestyle diseases...am not surprised at all. Soon, I'll probably be one of those "lifestyle diseases" statistic too....ah who cares....it is too hot to do anything and anyways there are good hospitals here, albeit expensive!!

So dearies...planning to move back to India? Start with your requirements, absolute must haves in terms of climate, city amenities, pleasant living in clean, pure, unspoiled settings (for this you may just have to move to Bhutan not India) anyways....what I mean to say is try to move to a place where you feel motivated to live and won't spend the better part of your days becoming a "who cares?" philosopher!!

To end on a reasonable note, there's pros and cons everywhere. For instance,  electricity is not a problem in Gujarat, no power cuts/failures etc which is a huge blessing in a place where life literally depends on AC systems ...at least for those who can afford it - the flip side of the coin...these very same things are increasing atmospheric heat.

Away from the city, the heat is intolerable but does not feel as lethal...makes me wonder, would it have been truly impossible for us to develop eco-friendly ways to deal with the heat instead of compounding the problem with heat generating climate control systems? In this case, we only had to look at history...after all, people lived, survived and thrived in this climate for centuries before electricity came in to save our lives!!

So life goes on in this blessed manner...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Killed by a speed bump? Do we really need to use our money to rain sorrows down our heads?

I woke up this morning to read some really sad news in the newspaper. Four young engineering students from wealthy families crashed an Audi and two of the kids ended up dead.

I couldn't help but question, what on earth were they thinking? Well, obviously they were not thinking....

Back in the US, for a while I used to drive a Subaru Impreza WRX, manual transmission. I still remember how we ended up buying the car. One boring weekend, because we had no plans and because DH loves cars, we decided to take in the auto show at the Cleveland IX center. Once there, we immediately fell in love with the Subaru STI...me the totally uninterested one in cars fell hook, line and sinker for that one and encouraged DH to get rid of his beat up old Honda Accord and buy this car. I used to drive a sedate Honda Civic at that time. Well, first of all an STI was impractical for our needs and secondly we couldn't even dream of affording it and so bought the Impreza WRX instead, as the next best choice. After DH left for India, we sold the Honda Civic and the Subaru was entirely mine.

Initially I found the sheer exuberant power of that car intimidating but eventually, I fell in love with it so much that it was a wrench to part from it when I left the US. In fact I can get quite maudlin and talk about all the drives my car and I took together and thoroughly enjoyed...one of the finest being tooling it around the curving, mountainous highways of West-Virginia. However, right from the beginning, I was conscious of its power and was careful to both give it its head and not take liberties unless I was absolutely sure of my skills in handling it on any fun or difficult stretch. Looking back I guess I was old enough and experienced enough to not lose my head and do something wild that would turn out to be a foolish risk, nothing more.

Coming back to these kids, the Audi is a powerful car for our Indian roads with its massive traffic, unusual occupants like dogs and cows and infernal speed bumps. These kids were driving along at 2.00 AM,on an empty stretch of city road, did not spot a speed bump, hit it full speed , the car flew high in the air and crashed, mangling itself and killing two of them.

Makes me wonder, do we really need to use our money so recklessly? I know this  is talking after the fact but   should young testosterone driven kids be indulged with stuff that's beyond their true understanding as they have neither the experience nor the patience for caution and forethought? Isn't it ridiculous that two kids on the threshold of life die on an empty stretch of road within the city limits because they didn't understand their car and didn't spot the speed bump? Killed by a speed bump? What can be sadder than that? And no, they were not drunk or high or anything like that.

I am beginning to think there's more to the traditionalists' claim of diluting our culture than what meets the eye. In some ways it worked in the past when parents were strict and the kids did not have a freedom that they were not capable of using responsibly. But then, most parents did not have the kind of disposable income that they have now to indulge their kids either!

So the question, how much freedom is too much freedom? Is it really necessary to spend money thoughtlessly because we have it and end up with heartaches and heartbreaks? How will the parents of these kids come to terms with such foolish tragedy?

For those of you planning your move back to India, please don't remain focussed on recreating your past lives here! The realities are far too different for life to flow along the same lines as it did on the other side of the world or any other country you might be coming from. But that doesn't mean you cannot be equally happy here. You can, if you work with the differences instead of going against it!

And now...let me go try to practice what I am preaching...working with the differences instead of against it....

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Is it my choice after all? To settle down or not settle down?

It has been a year since we moved back to India. However, the feeling of being a repatriate continues. I am beginning to think that this just might be a lifelong "feeling". On the other hand, being back here is beginning to feel good too. What a confusing mess this process is! Despite all this feelings I talk about, I can't for the life of me say that I am happy to have moved back or still unhappy about having moved back! 

It's not all about feelings either. Even, as I consider and compare lifestyles, vocational requirements etc, I still see how being here, makes everything a little harder, a little more difficult, somewhat crazy, sometimes impossible etc. On the other hand, I seem to be slowly growing into this personality who, if not able to do something to change the circumstances, can change shapes to accommodate myself within that circumstance, whatever it is.

Is this a positive aspect? I don't know. Am I truly making peace with it or compromising for now, which might just result in an outburst later?...I don't know that either.

But strangely, ask me, do I want to move back to the US now?...and I'll say no. Do I still miss living there? Yes I do. So, how does one make sense of this?

I am telling myself that this is just another step in the process of getting reoriented and settling down in one's home country after being away for a while. Maybe, just maybe, when I am writing here after another year has gone by, I'll be saying...yeah! this is where I want to be, in India and in no other corner of this earth!

As I write this, I am beginning to realize, it need not be that random or "happened to me" kind of event after all. Maybe I have the choice to work towards making that happen - towards putting myself in a place, or creating a state of being within me, where I am truly content to settle down here and put down my roots. Maybe in this journey of repatriation, I still haven't reached the place where I can make that choice...yet...but soon, I might just get there.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

First rains and spiritual joys...

It rained yesterday. I woke up from my afternoon nap to find the world enveloped in a pearly pink haze and the wind blowing strong, chasing immense amounts of dust in all different directions. And then, it rained. The first rains, especially in this part of the country feels so unbelievably glorious that you feel as though you've suddenly broken through the gates of hell and reached heaven!! Ok...too much exaggeration maybe and I don't really know what that feels like anyways...but truly, you not only feel a lift in your mood but also sense your entire body, mind and soul rejoicing in the event...the strength probably comes from the fact that every creature around here, human being, animal, bird or reptile is happy when the rains begin. It is almost like collective spiritual joy and you crave to squeeze out every last bit of beauty from it. The feel of it, the smell of it, the taste of it, the sight of it....

Sadly it ended almost before it began around my place...apparently on the outskirts of the city it rained a lot.

Can't think of many things in life that induce such an exquisite feeling of joy and wellbeing like the first rains after a torrid summer in the arid regions of Western India. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

What is home? Is it a personal concept or a political one?

I was up half the night reading Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna and was captivated by her vivid descriptions and fast paced plot. It being historical fiction set in my hometown of Coorg, I was further intrigued by the fascinating glimpses this book provided on the development of Coorg under European but chiefly British influence, their club culture, pioneering coffee plantation, influence on language, food and costumes but most of all their gift of education. Despite all this bonhomie between the colonizers and locals, albeit with lingering superiority on the part of the colonizers and distrust and equally lingering superiority amongst the locals, generations of Europeans continued to make Coorg their home, until the Nationalist movement and impending freedom from British rule, wrenched the connection apart and the Europeans left en-mass.

It made me wonder the question of "home", again. What is home? The Coorg-European relationship was free from formal struggle and surrender, the Coorgs having actually invited the British in as an ally against Tipu Sultan who was hellbent on not only annexing Coorg for Mysore State but even went in for forced conversions of Coorgs into Islam. So, despite starting off as allies, the relationship ended pretty much the same as it did everywhere else when India gained independence. The Europeans were the outsiders and they had to get. out. now. Seemingly, nothing that they had done over a few generations, qualified towards them considering Coorg their home as well. 

I am not romanticizing the colonizers here. Political supremacy and racial superiority as a collective evil did exist. However, beneath all this, there was also the matter of simple human connection, relationships built on shared land, society and economics. How easily that seems to have disappeared in the face of political freedom!

Why am I obsessing about this question of home?Well for one, I have been pondering this question ever since I first became an expat in the US and continued to ponder the question when I moved back as a repatriate. For another, home truly seems to have become an amorphous concept today.

Today, in the modern world, moving around from place to place in search of security and stability with even international borders feeling porous, what is home? Can any place where we settle down and be productive be called home? If this is so, then is there a place in our life for our heritage?

The Europeans had to get out of Coorg, because no matter what goodies they brought into the land, their heritage branded them as outsiders. Does this attitude hold good even today?

Although, individually we do not take up significant political space when we "move" to another country, will collective appropriation of economic space be considered consuming political space by default and thus come across as undesirable at some point? Does this mean, the meaning of home will always be in a state of flux changing with shifting fortunes and attitudes?

What is home? Any ideas, anybody?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Of Gandhiji and life in the check-out lane...

I was out shopping for groceries yesterday, deliberately chose a weekday morning as weekends are a downright bedlam in stores like Reliance and Big Bazaar. Then, I realized I had forgotten to count in the stay at homers...the stay at home, home-maker and mommy brigade was out in full force....oooooops!! I am a stay at homer too, aren't I??? Dang Dang!! Anyways...

The store was choke full of women, some with their houseboys (young male, jack of all trades live in servant) in tow piling their carts with enough fruit, vegetables and dry goods to outlast a famine but the ultimate joke was one such lady at the check out counter. Her cart looked as though she was planning on feeding a houseful of wedding guests, the amount of cash in her hand and the bored looking houseboy beside her did not by any means scream that she lacked for money...but she held up the line for a full half hour after her stuff had been priced and packed, haggling over the total, a couple coupons in hand and a bag of sugar going back and forth between her and the cashier. The coupons were worth a hundred rupees by the way, but her total bill was undoubtedly somewhere in the thousands. 

The lines were serpentine in every counter and the others and I in this line just kept waiting, thinking at least her stuff has been checked out, so there's no point in moving to the end of another long line - and ended up irritated and tired. At one point, I wondered if I should step in and ask her to stop haggling and leave, I mean, if she is that fond of saving every penny and bargaining for her rights, she shouldn't be shopping in a busy supermarket...she would be better off going to one of those veggie vendors whose prices go down dramatically the more you buy from them and the the local kirana stores where she can quibble and haggle to her heart's content while the shop fellow engages with her and serves ten other customers at the same time. He doesn't have to worry about fancy cashier machines, that won't let the cashier in a supermarket multi-task but accepts only one payment at a time!

But of course I did not do any such thing, can you imagine the fracas that would have resulted if I had done so? In a minute there would be a mob, two parties and for lack of stones to pelt( stone pelting is very hot on the hot streets here this summer) we would start pelting packets of potato chips and bottles of juice, both being the handiest items near the check out counter!

More and more, as the days go by in this hot hot summer, I tire of city life and look for ways to simplify. It is ironic that I should live in the city that houses Gandhi Ashram and dream of a simple life but remain absolutely clueless on how to make it happen here. But then again, the only simple spot in this city is the Gandhi Ashram. If you go in there and walk around the large open grounds, stand by the banks of river Sabarmati and take in the cool simplicity of the buildings standing under the shade of beautiful old trees it's hard to believe that life can or should be anything but simple living and high thinking like Gandhiji advocated. Then, you come out of the ashram gates to be stared at by the glaring face of  21st century, urban India and thoughts of simplicity simply flee like frightened rabbits...

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The New India...Where a Millionaire's daughter is my maid...???

It's been a long time since I wrote something here. Having fallen into a lethargy brought about by this stunning heat and focussed on survival and future plans, words kinda disappeared from my life...until today!

My maid came in requesting that I allow her to change her timings from morning to evening for a few days as she is busy scouting for a house that her father would buy for her. Ok, sounds reasonable...and then she goes on to say, he sold some land for a few million rupees...in fact just a little short of a million dollars and check this out, he only sold half his land!! So of course his darling daughter gets a house and some 50 odd tolas (don't ask me for conversions, the mind boggles simply at the thought of calmly paying cash for all this stuff) of gold, her older sister already owns three houses so she gets some 100 odd tolas of Gold.

Ok...and that's not all, apparently her brother has been dealing in gold bullions and has had some stacked up already so his sisters need not look far to buy their mighty tolas of gold. And then she says, I kept meaning to ask you if you wanted to buy gold from my brother but I feared that "Bhaiya" meaning DH, would wonder what these people are upto approaching me to buy gold....well I don't know what he would think about them but he would definitely be concerned for me if I suddenly started talking about buying gold bars and biscuits! When our house was burgled last year my first thought was for my "antique looking" Nataraj statue, thoughts of my gold only came much later but on the other hand my dear, I do have a lot of dreams and plans that require a lot of cold hard cash. So may be you could convince your "papa" to start a interest free, take as long as you want to pay back loan business!!! I would definitely sign up for that!!

All this while, she was calmly doing my dishes and was about start on my clothes....yeeks, the clothes I wear these days, especially my home-wear Ts are old, worn out, shabbily out of shape with a hole or two...simply because they are the most comfy clothes I can find to wear in this atrocious weather...hmmm, should I explain that to her? I mean, she might be thinking, forget buying gold, this woman seems to be unable to buy clothes even...Good God!  What a sobering, saddening thought!

On a serious note, this is actually a common phenomena here these days...rural farmers and landowners are becoming millionaires overnight due to the urban sprawl hiking up land prices in the surrounding areas. The developers of course make obscene amounts of money so in comparison what these people receive is probably a pittance and the implications of this kind of progress...better left un-thought! But then again, who said progress and development is clean, cool and linear...it is a messy messy process and that's where we stand now as a country and a people...one more thing to ponder over if you wish to move back. Do you have the patience to live in a messily progressing country? Or are you too comfortable in an already developed environment? A maid with a millionaire father is a non-issue compared to everything else that you have to get used to when you move back.

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