Friday, September 26, 2008

A season of hate

It's the NRI (non-resident Indian, or non-reliable Indian or non-required Indian: take your pick) season in Ahmedabad, when far-flung sons and daughters of the soil return for weddings, family meets, looking up on loved ones, or just a bit of shopping.

It's a mixed bag of feelings - as a couple, Nino's Dad and I have pretty much lost most of our friends to foreign lands, so we relish having our favourite adult company back and around, so much so that even school-nights have a party feel to them. But with these dear friends, comes the attitude that some expats are famous for: a right towards India, but no responsibility.

All these years, we had to grapple with the that's-what's-stopping-India kinda comments. They cribbed about not being allowed to vote, when I know for a fact most of them were too tied up personally/professionally when they were Indian citizens and had to exercise their vote. At times like these, we'd politely point out the positive changes, pull them up when they broke traffic rules, or pee-ed in the open, only because, well, you can't do it abroad.

This year, unnervingly, it's all been about religion. It could be because of the recent bombings in the country and this city and it definitely is because all of the expats we know belong to one religion. Removed from what the citizens are going through, or the people of India are going through, are these sons and daughters who believe in exercising their opinion on racial discord loudly, and repeatedly. Needless to say, Islam has taken a beating here - the recent activities of the so-called Indian Mujahideen being to blame.

And increasingly, I find myself side-lined as I look at friends I bonded with years ago. The words drip with hate, the verdicts are extreme, the judgement severe and unashamed. And as they turn to me, mouthing the now-famous phrase every right-winged person uses, 'pseudo-secularist', I wonder what happened to my friends who loved Mughali cuisine, spent hours listening to Sufi music, admired Mughal architecture, and adored artists/singers/painters/poets who all happened to be Muslim.

It was pointless reiterating the Muslims who've lived and loved India in a far more fitting manner than us. It was pointless quoting statistics that the world's fascination with Islamic militancy has managed to cloak the other terror acts in the world, and in India, that kill and maim more people and homes than Muslim extremists do. My voice struggles to be heard over the verbal gherao - and I wonder who these people are, who don't live here, but who come, to divide and help someone like them rule.

And then, I found this picture. And as the tears began to flow, I realised my friends could no longer look at this picture and marvel at its detail, the peace on the face of the subjects, the sharpness of the the camera. They wouldn't see the resplendent colours of the Indian flag, the child's curiosity, the father's loving glance. They would see a cap and a beard, and no more.

I remember my mother telling me a few days back that she had walked into my grandmother's room in the evening, to find her bowing her head, hands clasped to the forehead to the sound of the prayers read in the Mecca, on tv. Amma, 90, Tam-Bhram, had said, verbatim, 'I love the way they pray. It sounds so good. This tv channel is very nice, it shows all Gods.' Amma passed away a few days ago, and my uncle, one who's labelled 'pseudo-secularist' much more often than I am, had said that Amma was a 'true Hindu'. One who believed in the powers of the almighty, no matter what his/her name. One who believed in the power of spirituality to heal, no matter what the name, the method, or the requirement. One who believed in believing in the best in people. Just like the scriptures said - just as Hinduism, quintessentially a philosophy not a religion, urged. I hope to be a Hindu like her too.


For those, who are willing to listen and see, let's start with this. And then write to me, we'll talk it out.


pic courtesy: Reuters

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A parent's nightmare

I opened my inbox today to see the name of a dear friend in the mail. 'This happened to my brother' the mail said, and for a second I wondered how she too had fallen prey to the mass-guilt-inducing mails that spam our lives. Not like her.

Then I read the mail, and sat at my desk, shocked. It wasn't a forward from an obscure part of the continent that promised to send 60p to an obscure couple in the Philippines. This was her little cousin brother, all of six years, who almost did not make it home because of his school's policies.

This six-year-old child, and I cannot repeat it enough, six-year-old, was dropped by his school bus, on the wrong stop - a good kilometre away from his usual drop. The child walked home by himself, even as his frantic parents got no answers from the teachers/staff on board the bus. It was raining, and today's times are filled with people who constitute every mother's worst nightmare. I can only imagine how anxious, angry and vulnerable his parents must have felt, not knowing where to find the child. I shudder when I place myself in their position - and rage rises fast.

It gets worse. The school - a respectable one, considered among the better schools in our city - refuses to acknowledge that a mistake was made. Even more infuriatingly, the parents queries are not being entertained. Over the years - and I know more than a few parents who send their children to this particular school - no head counts are done in the buses, there is no way to ensure you child does not get lost.

I remember when I was kid, if there was a problem at school, parents could just walk in to the Principal's office - they'd share a cup of tea/coffee, and things would be sorted. Because back then, the 'management' cared as much about students as the parents themselves. Because back then, a school represented a window to the world, not an abandonment in the world.

This is a shocking incident - for parents, even more so. The child's father has come up with a unique way of expressing his angst, of getting through to the school's management. You can read more about it here.

This doesn't happen to all of us - but what if it did? Nino's Dad and I have so far avoided thinking about the school-buses that Nino will probably have to use to get to school. There are a few schools were using the school bus is compulsory. Who will watch over him there, if the teachers are too busy chatting and the driver doesn't give a damn? I know I'm going to loose sleep over this one.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

In ode to the Queen's language

I'm a mix-breed: My father is a bonafide Gujarati and my mother is a Tam-Brahm, who speaks a dialect of mixed Tamil and Kannada (thanks to her Mysore roots), but she was raised in Gujarat, so she ends up speaking a tri-lingual mix. Needless to say, I grew up with a smattering of all three languages, but my mother-tongue, to speak in purely metaphorical terms, has always been English. It's what I dream in, cry in, fight in and make-love-to in. It's like an extra limb for me - and it many be the Queen's language, but it's also mine.

One of the craziest things about education today, and even more so in Gujarat where English is still considered by many as an uncomfortable second language, is the insistence on kids speaking and reading English. Parents go out of the way to pick playschools and kindergartens where the principal/teacher proudly says, 'we insist on teaching in English.' It's odd to see them correcting small children when they speak in their native language, especially when there is no English being spoken/read at home. It's almost as if we force our kids to have dual identities - I say identity, because what I speak is such a firm part of whom I am, but many may not react to a language the same way - English-speaking at school and Gujarati/Hindi/Native language at home.

Nino started using words to communicate a little after he turned one. Nino's Dad and I made a conscious choice to speak to him, read to him in Gujarati - for two very basic reasons. One, his caregiver is comfortable in that language, and it is she who spends the maximum time with him, speaking/playing/sharing. The other reason was that we were sure that Nino would actually grow to love English the way I do and the way Nino's Dad has come to. I remember, before we settled on the current Montessori that Nino goes to, we checked a few pre-schools out, especially the 'latest trend in education' kinds. The insistence on English was borderline scary. 'What if my son does not respond to English,' I asked one such principal with a fancy chain of schools from Delhi. 'He will learn to - we don't allow children to speak in Gujarati,' she said.

Of course he'll learn to, but a child already traumatised with leaving home for a new environment need not be alienated by a new language as well. Thankfully, the current teacher actually believes in this philosophy and she uses a generous smattering of Gujarati/Hindi to settle the kids while communicating largely in English. We now read to Nino in both Gujarati and English, and we sing to him in about half-a-dozen languages. I express disappointment in English - and also talk to him more in the language, only because I'm more comfortable in it.

So far, he's picked up quite a bit of English - he understands most of what we speak, though we'd never heard him speak a full sentence (unlike Gujarati, where he can hold his own even in a debate!) till today. As I got him ready for school, my fledgling turns to me and said, 'Okay, I'm ready to go.'
Perfect grammar, delivered in a matter-of-fact tone as he turned towards the door to say 'bye'.
It's his first sentence in my mother-tongue and I'm delirious with joy. May he discover its beauties like I did.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The fear of fear - The Big Bang Experiment

Popular American ex-President Franklin D Roosevelt once said, 'The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.'

And while he could very well have applied it to the philosophies of governing a perennially paranoid country, FDR has summed up a major parenting philosophy as well. As parents, we all try to raise, brave kids, god-fearing yes, but not bug-fearing. We swallow the mortal fear that comes rising like bile in the throat when faced with a black and yellow heinous gecko - and describe it as a work of art of nature, a smart and independent creature for the kid who's basing his/her reaction on ours. It's how parents who are petrified of dogs, raise animal-friendly kids. It's how parents who are fatality-phobic, raise kids who whoop with joy while jumping from one precariously positioned chair to another. It's how we raise our kids to be able to choose what they want to fear - and not what their parents taught them to fear. It's also how we break free of our own paranoia and relieve some childhood moments where if guided differently, we would have walked away with a different view all-together, and perhaps a few lesser fears.

Unfortunately, this girl, will never get that chance.

Chayya, 15, killed herself on Wednesday (September 10), after being traumatised by media reports that the 'Big Bang' experiment that's currently being conducted on the borders of France and Switzerland, could bring about the end of the world. The experiment will look at how the universe was created, whether it is three dimensional and could lead to the hallowed substance, referred to as 'God's particle' or 'anti-matter', depending on which novel or author you've read.

'In the past two days, Chayya had asked me and other relatives about the world coming to an end on Sept. 10,' her father Biharilal said.

Every single Indian news channel has been airing discussions, with most of them regarding doomsday predictions over the machine. Hindi and Vernacular media have gone so far as to suggest religious options that viewers can undertake to 'save the world'.

Reuters said that in east India , thousands of people rushed to temples to pray and fast while others savoured their favourite foods in anticipation of the world's end.

Many women and children rushed to temples and observed fasts as they prayed for deliverance, officials and witnesses said.

"Assurances by scientists and the media that nothing would happen counted for nothing for housewife Rukmini Moharana.

'I visited temple, prayed to god,' Moharana said. 'I am observing the fast for safety because god can only save us.' "


On September 10, my colleague's daughter called her up, bawling over the phone. The seven-year-old had reached home and frantically called up the mother. 'Come home,' she said. 'Teacher said we are all going to die.' Her science teacher had told the students that God would punish everybody for allowing this experiment to continue, and the end of the world was coming.

Several colleagues at work - and we are all journalists, the definition itself usually guarantees a certain cynicism and disdain for mass thinking and also, by default, an education that teaches you to question what is being told - brought up the experiment again, in a very disturbing way. A power-failure in a normally no-electricity-cuts city, prompted some to suggest the experiment was causing havoc. Another one spoke about how his prayer group had talked about Man trying to become God, and how we could all die of radiation or obliviate into black holes. These are people who read news, hell, who create them. They ought to know the facts. Because people read/hear them. Kids like Chayya do too. And while the Big Bang will not kill us, it is not our fear that is killing us, it is theirs.


To read more about the particle accelerator experiment, popularly referred to as the Big Bang experiment, try this.

Of the 2000 scientists working on the project, nearly 200 are Indian, including a feted scientist couple from Jaipur - Sudhir and Rashmi Raniwala

'Cosmic rays in the universe send particles with much greater energies than those being achieved in the lab. So there is nothing to worry about,' Sudhir told PTI, allaying safety fears about the high-speed collisions in the tunnel.

'No matter what the results are, either it confirms certain things that we believe today or it refutes certain things that we believe today.'

'It is an intellectual stimulation that goes on as we try to unravel what the nature had unfolded for us.'

Isn't curiosity what marks our evolution as humans? Isn't it one of the most endearing aspects about children?

Monday, September 1, 2008

River of Sorrow

The floods in Bihar are the worst floods India has seen in 50 years. Millions have been displaced due to the Kosi - called Bihar's River of Sorrow for its frequent flooding - the actual number of the dead will be clear once the waters recede.

One of the poorest states in the country is facing the brunt of nature and government apathy. One of the many individuals/organisations doing their bit towards Bihar in Ahmedabad, Shvaas has a number of options for you to contribute/help with. Their sister organisation, that's overlooking the relief efforts, Goonj, is based in Delhi and has tie-ups with numerous agencies across India. You're likely to find such a group in your city as well. Please help.

Items needed:

Material support- Dry ration, Medicines, candles & matchbox, torch & batteries, utensils, tarpaulin, feeding bottles, buckets, ropes, bedsheets, all kind of usable clothing & footwear.

Logistical support-* Transport support to reach the material to effected areas. * Space for collection centers* Facilities for local pickups, * Transportation of material from Ahmedabad to GOONJ processing centers in Delhi, Chennai & Mumbai* Volunteers for sorting, packing in Ahmedabad, Shvaas

Large quantities of- Rice, Chiwra, biscuits, packed eatables, Water purifier tablets, Basic medicines, Sarees and children clothing, Tarpaulins or thick polythene, Bedsheets, Export surplus/ Cotton cloth for making sanitary napkins, Mosquito nets, Stoves, cooking and water storage utensils/buckets

If you're in Ahmedabad and can contribute, kindly call up Nirali at this number: 0999 893 7680. Alternatively, you can drop off the items/walk in to volunteer at Punjabi Sewa Samaj, Next to Navrangpura bus-stop. Timings: 10am to 6pm.