September 11, 2009

9-11 contemplation...

It's been eight years since the 9/11 attacks, a day when I full realized that my heart considered this land to be home much more than the land I was born in. If you ask any immigrant a simple question on how often they go home or when was the last time they visited home or where was their home, the home in the answer is always the land that they were born in. Even if they have had decades more on this soil than their birth country!

I have gone 'home' very infrequently and after long gaps, but there is always an instant sense of belonging and the sinking into the familiar, akin to receiving a warm hug from my mother or grandmother. I would go through a similar, but far less intense feeling of being back to where I belong when I re-entered the US, but it was always relegated to tug of the US home to the fact that this was where my small physical footprint (house & belongings), and friends and the job that sustained me were.

The morning of 9/11, as I watched the attacks in horror and pain for the ones who obviously had not made it, a host of other emotions surfaced. One of them was a familiar feeling of insecurity that comes from your land being under attack and it brought me back to the last time I had felt that way.

It was in the winter of 1971 when India was at war with Pakistan. My hometown (about 100 miles from the Pakistan border) was in a direct line of one of their prime targets, the Bhakra dam. If they destroyed the dam, the flood waters would have destroyed my home town and many others. We lived through evenings of dimmed headlights on cars, thick layers of newspapers on our windows and frequently participated in kid patrols of the neighborhood to make sure none of the houses had light seeping out of the windows. We lived through the frequent warning sirens, which had us running to the nearest shelter, where we crouched with our arms over our heads until the clear siren would tell us it was safe to come out again.

9-11- 2001, in my adopted land, so many years later, as the twin towers collapsed, followed by the attack on the Pentagon, memories and images of those days of war in the winter of 1971, of that one night when I saw and heard planes and bullets in the sky, came rushing back, along with this new feeling of being of vulnerable as a nation. This was not something I associated with living in the US, wars and attacks from foreign nations or terrorists happened to other countries.

The anger and a thirst for retaliation to make the perpetrators pay for what they were doing, was visceral, it came from the gut. In the days that followed, I had a more than a few moments of self realization - one of them that I can never forget - this country was undeniably home!

As we go through today doing what we normally do, go to work; learn some new things and perform our job duties, I will try and remember and send a prayer for those who lost loved ones and had their lives changed forever on this dark day in our history eight years ago.

August 29, 2008

a speech, a dream, some tears

Does there come a time when some of us look at our actions and realize with a faint sense of irony, that we are becoming more and more like our parents? Not all my actions are an echo of my parents, for example in the last few weeks, I have been glued to the TV watching the mesmerizing feats of the athletes participating in the 2008 Olympics with rapt attention and sleep a forgotten memory. I watched in awe and frequently held my breath for the athletes as they crossed finish lines in record time; demonstrated steely control on narrow bars and beams; performed poetry in motion from diving boards or in floor exercises; defended goals; vaulted dizzying heights and so many many other feats. I accompanied the winners in my own victory laps around the room as my dog looked on in puzzlement, or shed tears with the ones who just missed getting a medal. No it was not the Olympics that made me wonder how much of me was evolving into my parents, watching any kind of sports was a waste of time for them. But it was the Democratic convention that did me in. The convention was broadcast live every night for the past week and I did not miss a speech or any piece of action from the audience that was broadcast to home viewers like me. Now granted that this is no ordinary convention, we were after all nominating our first African American candidate for the President of the United States of America! But still, to watch it as if I was reading a fascinating novel from end to end? Certainly this was something that I must have picked up from my parents. Since I remember vividly how they would come alive and participate in the Indian elections with fervor and dedication towards getting their candidates elected.

I must admit that my remote participation in this historic event has touched and moved me so much that it really does not matter if I can attribute it to either me imbibing my parents characteristics or to the importance and enormity of what I was watching unfold on my TV screen. It was only important that I watched and experienced the events. As I watched Barak Obama's passionate but controlled delivery of his acceptance speech, his remarks towards the end prompted this post, as it triggered a very real sense of connectedness within me. I truly felt that this exceptional nominee and so many others like him or me are connected by the similarities in our life stories, of successes against terrible odds in the pursuit of a better life for ourselves and our children in a land that provided a fertile soil that allowed immigrants to plant themselves, push down roots and reach for as high as they could.

Towards the end of his speech Obama spoke about America’s promise, a sentiment that resonates with all who have immigrated to the US or the first generation that has witnessed their parents strive for and become living proof of this promise. The words so true to my experience brought tears to my eyes -

This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what
makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what
makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but
that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

Instead, it is that American spirit - that American promise - that pushes us
forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our
differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen,
that better place around the bend.

That promise is our greatest inheritance. It’s a promise I make to my
daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours - a
promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a
promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot.

I am an immigrant, a single mother who has spent the last twenty five years living this American dream. Due to the nature of my entry into single motherhood, life on my own in the US began with no assets, a liberal arts education from another country and two young daughters ages 1 and 3 for whom I had to provide for. The kindness and generosity of strangers got us through the very early days but what helped me move forward with our lives was the safety net from social services. With food stamps and fees for child-care computed at a sliding scale supplementing the paychecks earned after working long hours at minimum wage. I found a an America very receptive to hard work and ambition. I did not even notice when survival issues like paying the rent every month and having food on the table every day turned into the joys of thriving in this world that gave back most of what I put into it. I found inspiration from all corners, one of my first employers told me that I could do or be anything I wanted to, her words have carried me forward since. I have proved to myself and my daughters that I could pretty much do anything I wanted to and set my goals accordingly. Better jobs came quickly, followed by a degree, and even better jobs, a house in a nice neighborhood, and all the things one wants to lead a comfortable life. There were ups and downs, brief periods of unemployment as result of shifts in the economy or by choice as my vision of what I wanted to do changed. Yes, I was making decisions based on choice - this is the true realization of the American dream - having choices and the freedom to pursue dreams. Today, my daughters having grown up in a nurturing, happy environment, have completed college and are now pursuing their own career and life goals.

So yes, Mr Obama, I got your message today, with a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes, and a smile on my face as I felt connected to you and the many many others who have lived the success of a life in the US. As I write this, I am thinking again of the many way in which I act or mirror my parents with whom I seem to have more in common as I grow older. This is not a new revelation, but a generally common experience about which much has been written and that many of us go through, but it feels unique when I apply it to myself.

August 7, 2008

memory joggers

Rugby Road a small road in suburban Northern Virginia , it begins at West Ox Road, intersects with Fairfax County Parkway and ends on Route 50. It's an unremarkable road, with the usual mix of houses except for the fact that it links three major roads - Fx Cty Pkwy, W Ox and Rt. 50 in addition to a Hospital. I had known this road as the land mark for when I needed to move into the right lane to exit at Route 50 from the FFC Parkway until it became an actual turn I had to make to get to the Nursing home that housed my mother for a brief period before she breathed her last in the hospital which was on the same road. And for a brief period, the land mark that signified a lane change had become the doorway to my destination.

My mother was in the nursing home towards the end of a long drawn out end-of -life dance, during which she was consumed by periods of terror and pain and the ones who loved her watched on helplessly, wrapped in their own pain and despair as they witnessed the suffering of a loved one. I would go see her in the evening, after I had completed the mechanics of what the day required me to do - work, cook, clean, walk the dog etc. I would usually find her tired from her day, frequently lost and scared in a place where no one spoke her language.

The call from her doctor came with a feeling of deja-vu, mom has high fever and was on her way to the ER, I needed to meet her there as decisions would have to be made. I watched myself go through the mechanics of informing my siblings on what was expected of us. I still held hope that the denial and the thin layer of feigned ignorance on their end of how sick she was would be abandoned for the truth of the situation. Our mother was tired, treatment was painful and was extending pain and not any form of quality to her life. But the clarity of this situation seemed to loose its simple truth in translation, and the message that this was the end of the road for our mother translated to a much murkier one as I went through the several rounds of calls. My words and messages soft and kind at first, went to a tired but imperative- "Her doctors do not expect her to last the night, come now." Direct and clear I thought, but it still left them wondering if they could have time to settle the pressing demands of life and work before they journeyed to her death bed. What they really wanted to ask in their normal double talk was a request for the doctors to continue to keep her alive, but there was no direct question. If asked, I was ready with the response from my deepest conviction, "I will not authorize any aggressive or invasive treatment to keep her breathing just so you may have extra time to get here." Some things are to be understood, I would also not give them the odds of whether this was their last chance to be with her, it was left to them to choose to cancel what the could and abandon other important deadlines and be with her or not.

The hours between the decision of not continuing treatment and her passing were the most peaceful for her and for me. She seemed to be on the easiest leg of her long journey. It was as if after weathering so many squalls and stormy weather, she was smoothly sailing towards a calm harbor. Her face reflected this inner calm with a suddenly smooth brow and a serene expression. And this how she passed away, without a struggle for breath or a glance back, she had reached her journey's end.

So back to Rugby road, I continue to pass it on my way to the various destinations that lay past it. Now, when I pass the sign for this road, my mind quickly shifts back to her last days and a series of images from the nursing home or the last day at the hospital flash in my minds eye with quick succession and for a few brief moments I re-live those moments. I struggle for a few moments to find my center and bring myself to the present where she is no more but she is also without pain.

One of my co-workers, Chris who lives in the vicinity of Rugby road recently starting a walking regimen and uses it as his turning point for his daily walks. He does not remember the name of the road where he turns back, for him its the road with the big H sign on it signifying its proximity to a hospital. As we gather around the coffee machine in the mornings, and he is recounting his daily walks, Chris will usually say, "I walk up to this road not sure what its called, but it has and H sign on it" and and I chime in with "its Rugby Road" and as soon as I say the name, I flash back to the now familiar flashes of images of mom and her last days. As I walk back to my office, now with a tinge of loss and sadness, I tell myself that I should stay away from any conversations leading up to the naming of this road or driving by it. Not until I can re-live memories of mom without it triggering the sense of loss and a reminder of how helpless I felt as I watched her suffer.

But I realize some things I can not run away from and memories will continue to be jogged into appearance and someday healing will occur and I will smile at the flashbacks rather then feel sad and depleted. So when a few days later, Chris is talking to someone and calls me over with a "what's the name of the road that I walk up to?" I hear myself say "rugby road" as I walk back to my office in a cocoon of memories, but now I softly cradle the familiar sad painful feelings with the knowledge that the sadness will remain, but the pain will eventually diminish.

July 7, 2008

A quest for a son at any age?

A woman said to be 70 years of age has given birth to twins in India's northern Uttar Pradesh state after taking IVF treatment making her the record holder for the oldest woman to give birth-

We already have two girls but we wanted a boy so that he could have taken care of our property. This boy and girl are God's greatest gift to us," Omkari said.

Father of the twins, Charam Singh, a farmer in his mid-70s, told ABC News he was very happy.

"The desire for a male child has always been there, but God did not bless us with a male child. Now, we are very grateful to God, who has answered our prayers," he said."

Are we to surmise that scientific intervention (IVF) was the offering made to God in place of the usual offerings of money, food and clothing to the temple priests. This made God happy and they were granted a son? That debate could wait as what is really bothering me about this saga is that since the couple used up all their life savings and took a bank loan out to pay for IVF treatments, with what source of income are they going to raise these new born children. And being in their 70's they are old by Indian longevity statistics, well past the age of when they should be taking on the responsibility of raising children. Will these babies ever see a childhood or will they be passed on to the care of their older siblings as the parents decline in health? And as then as soon as they are past the toddler age, its them taking care of the parents? I paint a rather bleak picture, but it seems a pretty real one given the circumstances. It's also ironic that the price this couple has paid for having a male heir so he may look after the property had robbed him of his inheritance.

The link to the BBC Article - Woman in India 'has twins at 70'

July 1, 2008

Gandhi in the morning

I woke up to what I thought was a normal day, the radio woke me up like it usually does and I groggily slipped into the routine of a weekday morning. I followed my exuberant dog downstairs and let him out in the back yard, started the kettle for the morning tea and brought in the paper. With cup of tea in hand, I scanned the headlines and turned to the Style section to read my horoscope which is usually in the back of this section. I never made it to the back as a familiar face was on the front of the Style section.

A black and white picture of Gandhi is accompanied by an article titled Saying His Peace - Rare recording of speech by Gandhi landed in safe unknowing hands . The author reminds us that
millions of people visualize Ben Kingsley as Gandhi and associate Ben's voice as what must have been Gandhi's voice. That can't be true for me, so I stop reading and reach back in memory and try to remember his voice. I try to conjure up the sounds from the scratchy recordings of Gandhi's speeches I had heard during history classes and independence day broadcasts. The voice that drowns the other memory is that of Ben Kingsley, the face is his and not of Gandhi, perhaps its because I never saw the real Gandhi in other then the one dimensional black and white pictures in books and magazines, or in his statues, or in grainy documentaries. My failure to remember his voice propels me to the computer, I must get online and listen to the recording.

I click on the link and wait impatiently for the introduction to end, wishing I could fast forward, even the voice of Sarojini Naidu introducing Gandhi is irritating, I am holding my breath as the first sounds come across the tiny laptop speakers. The tenseness eases as Gandhi's voice comes on, its familiar and not forgotten, I breath again and begin listening to what he is saying. The message to an English speaking audience is of love and forgiveness, of peace and non-violence, it's him, it's unforgettable. I finish listening, read the article and the associated commentaries, my morning routine is broken, I am a little behind schedule but the day has taken on a different hue.

The world around me seems connected to Gandhi, validation is all around me, Obama's nomination being the most visible evidence of an integrated tolerant world. The headlines from today's paper also illustrate the presence of violence in many parts of the world, of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's recent win with violence and coercion. We are still at war and so are other countries, but I see hope in this day for peaceful ends, of increasing numbers who believe that there is more to be won by non-violence, of a growing awareness and acknowledgment of the power of non-violence. And leave my house with a lighter step, the day has taken on a brighter look, and my two selves (desi and US) are back together, the desi blending in easily with the US self and a whole me leaves for work.

And just like that, what would have been another routine day in the life of this US desi, Gandhi, history and the past entered and with a single broad stroke painted my day with memories and thoughts of a great man who achieved so much for so many people Just like that......

Here's the link to the recording:

June 24, 2008

Yeh Youngistan Hamara

A report titled India's Young Spenders, in The Washington Post's Business section on 6/24 talks about the how the increase in spending power for India's younger generation is changing their outlook towards spending and becoming the largest growing consumers in the world-

"These middle- and upper-class consumers, known here as "indies," or financially independent young Indians, are also delaying having children until they are in their mid- to late 20s. Studies show that they are eager to put the latest iPods, brand-name sunglasses and cellphones on their credit cards, take out a loan to get an apartment or car, and worry about it all later. "

I grew up in a different India, in the 60's, amid the fresh memories of a newly minted Independent India after the hard won freedom from the British Empire. Independence had brought Partition with it and since my grandparents homes ended up west of the Radcliffe Line they became part of the 20 million population exchange as people crossed the new borders to reach their new homelands. They like many others refugees, they had to flee due to the increasing communal violence and found themselves in their new country with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Survival was tough in the early years as they had to re-build their lives amidst the chaos the British Empire had left behind. My parents had been in their early teens and seen their world change from a comfortable lifestyle to a struggle to survive. Despite the economic struggles and adjusting to a new way of life, these were heady days. Independence had brought hope, optimism and pride in India and all things Indian. The mood reflected the lyrics of a poem written by Iqbal in early 1924 which was later set to music by Ravi Shankar and recorded by Lata Mangeshkar in the 50's - sare jahan se achcha hindustan hamara, hum bulbule hai us ki, yeh gulistan hamara which translates to "better than the entire world, is our Hindustan,We are its nightingales, and it (is) our garden abode". I grew up listening to this song in its various incarnations on the radio, Independence day celebrations, school functions and other patriotic events.

For me growing up in India during the 60's and 70's both decades of very slow economic growth and economic policies that did not promote private enterprise and strangled entrepreneurship, and large import duties meant that "stuff" such as American jeans, shampoos, tape decks etc. that young children want was not available in the open market. Specially the much coveted Levi's jeans. Friends who had relatives in the US were a hot commodity, somewhat akin to friends with beach houses in the US. The US relatives were a source for US branded clothes and other "foreign" items. One could purchase jeans in the black market, but the prices were exorbitant, and my parents just did not understand the concept of paying three times for a foreign good. They were living the legacy of simple living as taught by Gandhi plus bore the scars of their own struggles to survive and build a new life in free India.

The younger generation with their newly acquired buying power are breaking away from the traditions of marrying early, living in joint families and handing over their entire pay-checks to the parents.  They are its seems spending beyond their salaries by using credit to buy some of the big ticket items such as cars and TVs.  

The spending habits of the country's young have even given rise to a new term: "Youngistan," a twist on Hindustan, a time-honored moniker for India. Pepsi created the term as part of an ad campaign, and it's now frequently invoked by ad executives and Indian bloggers trying to describe a generation whose habits in love, life and spending are anything but traditional.

Although I love reading about the new generation defining their own highly materialistic world with no more sneaking around or waiting for approval from parents to spend their own money, I am at the same time a bit envious of this new India of this young generation with their spending power,  their break away from the bindings of Gandhian austerity, living the new Desi American Dream.  The unfulfilled yearnings for Levi's jeans, Sony tape decks and Revlon lipsticks are fading away as memories of an old world order in stark contrast to the new booming India.

If Iqbal lived in today's India would he have written -

"Sare jahan se achcha youngistan hamara, hum shoppers hai us ki, yeh mall hai hamara" which translates to "better than the entire world, is our youngistan, We are it's shoppers, and it (is) our mall".

June 16, 2008

Relationship lessons for desi girls

How most of us deal with our adult relationships are a result of what we learnt from the relationships around us when we were growing up. One continues to be manipulative if we had to use round about ways to get what we wanted as children, we are less needy in relationships if we grow up surrounded by the love of parents and siblings, we are more trusting as adults if our trust has not been broken as children.

Growing up female in India brings on additional cultural lessons on our vulnerability and the need for a man in our life to protect us. We were reminded of this annually on Raksha-Bandhan, a day where Hindu sisters tie a sacred thread around their brothers wrists who vow in return to protect them in. The festivities of the occasion makes girls feel special, and this makes it difficult for girls who did not have brothers who would then turn to cousins or friends to become their Rakhi brothers. The message in this annual ritual was clear- women needed the protection of our brothers and the fortunate ones had brothers where the unlucky ones had to make up pretend brothers! All for a ritual that re-enforces women's inferior or dependant state year after year

Twice a year at the end of the Navratri festival, little girls were worshipped as representative of the goddess. It's a fun day for little girls as the ritual includes adults washing the girls feet followed by offerings of food, money and gifts. This continues till the girl reaches puberty, from when on she is considered impure and is not eligible to be worshipped any more. Girls begin to live a life of diminished value as they grow into puberty, as they become more dependent on the protection of fathers and brothers in a society that is supposed to be too rough for then to face alone. The messages of this dependency come from customs, rituals and media and the validation comes from girls being frequent victims of "eve-teasing", which covers the spectrum of leering, groping and rude gestures from men of all ages. The confident young girl is gradually replaced by a subdued version as these messages send her to a place where she needs a "man" to be anything in life.

The fasts begin when the girl reaches her teen years. The most common fast is Karva Chauth, kept by women to ensure a long life for the husband and to get the same husband for seven more lifetimes! Unmarried girls keep the fast to get the perfect husband. There is also a fast for Lord Shiva on Monday's. Shiva is known as the granter of good mates, so girls fast on sixteen consecutive Monday's to ensure a good husband and married women keep the fast to ensure a happy married life. I am not aware of any fasts geared towards boys or men so they may get a good wife.

The Hindu wedding ceremony includes the time honored ritual of kanya daan or the giving away of the bride. The ritual is a transaction, of ownership, the parents pass ownership of the daughter to the groom who from that point onwards owns the bride. The message is clear, the girls life was never her own, she belonged to the parents and now belongs to the husband.

Conditional love is the norm, love from the husband and his family will be a reward for acting as the model bahu - the one we see in the media. When good behavior fails to bring the promised reward of a loving husband and a happy married life, girls are often left rudderless adrift in a sea of unknowns. The lucky ones are able to change the way they look at the world and grow to become emotionally self-sufficient, others may spend the rest of their lives examining what they did wrong and continue with other rituals, maybe a chain of fasts to absolve themselves of bad karma.

All of this re-enforced by Bollywood and television where there are countless tales of women building relationships on drama, manipulation, jealousy and greed. We became outwardly demure, gentle, self effacing and perfect the art of passive aggressive behavior. We learnt to be accepting of all things by our husbands, to take the back seat in all decision making, to never never ask for anything directly but manipulate to get what we want. We don't know how to trust and to love or understand the concept of mutual commitment and we perpetuate the cycle in our unhealthy adult relationships. We believe that we need a man in our life to feel complete and to validate us as women. We consider possessiveness or controlling behavior as evidence of love. And our relationships reflect all our learning's.

So what do we teach our own children, our sons and daughters? Can our girls grow up in a secure environment where they hear us tell them that they are smart, pretty and capable of amazing things, can we teach our sons to treat women as equals, can we teach both the sons and daughters to be complete in themselves and not seek each other through neediness or control?

I have been fortunate enough to raise two wonderful girls away from the influence of the fasts and the rituals in an environment of trust and achievement. They continue to amaze me with the maturity they show in their friendships and relationships and I frequently find myself learning from them. I believe that there is hope that children of this generation will continue to spread the power of healthy relationships to their peers and will pass on the wisdom to their children.