Saturday, December 29, 2012

The story of a rape

The story of a rape

This is not the story of the young girl who died today.  The circumstances of that rape were so brutal and public as to make a nation cringe.  This is one of those stories that will never make headline news.  Not because it lacks brutality.  Not because it is done in a private place where consent is in question.  Not that.  Only because it has not been labelled as such.  Not called rape out of fear of the perpetrators and the even greater suffering such a label could inflict, in a society that treats rape victims as social pariahs.  I will call this young girl Mahalakshmi because that is what she is.  A goddess to her mother.  A mother who is critically ill.  

Mahalakshmi is a teenager now.  She has a hard time staying in school and has run away from several over the last four years.  She does not like to take her anti psychosis medication because it makes her sleep.  When she does  not take it she violently assaults her ill mother only to express remorse and plead with her to live for two hundred years.  

Sadly, her mother Meena (not her real name) may not have very long.  Huffing and panting she came to see me yesterday, requesting my help to find the girl a home where she will be treated, cared for and protected from the big bad world.  She gave me a dossier on Mahalakshmi's medical history.  Behind the test reports and medication history was her detailed biography by a young psychiatrist who has recently returned from abroad.  I had a hunch and was stunned to see it borne out by the facts in this case.  

A young child with a lot of promise being raised by a poor single mother in a slum.  The apple of her mother's eye.  Precocious and bright.  Mahalakshmi attends a well known private school even though the fees are beyond her mother's means.   She returns home to a caregiver and waits for her mother to return, at 9 p.m. every night, doing her homework, reading and reciting Tamil poetry.  One day when she is 11 she does not come home at the appointed time.  After a couple of hours of waiting, the caregiver in a panic calls the mother who rushes home at 6:30.  Still no sign of Mahalakshmi.  They comb the school grounds and find the child in a hidden corner in the school.  She is a crumpled heap and shaking.  Mahalakshmi identifies the boy by his name.  He is several years her senior.   She pleads with Meena not to tell the school because he has threatened to kill Meena she did.  Notwithstanding this entreaty, Meena takes the matter to the principal, afraid to go directly to the police out of concern for the family's reputation.  No charges are laid.  There is no disciplinary action against the young man, who the school says is from a " good" family.  What was the young girl doing, wandering about in the school anyway?Meena has no money or strength to pursue the matter.  She decides to focus on her child.  Mahalakshmi does not return to that school and has run away from four schools after that.  She has never been the same.  She now has failing grades, has emotionally regressed and torments her mother.  No rape kit was ever administered to find out the extent of physical damage.  The psychological harm appears deep and irreversible.  

Mahalakshmi is the victim of a brutal assault.  However,  she is only being treated with medication for the  psychological harm she has sustained and it is clearly not working.  Now 4 years later - where does one begin?  I dread to think of the millions more out there that need help, healing and safety from repeated assaults?

I welcome your suggestions on assistance for Mahalakshmi.  

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sharing my journey with Suzanne

Suzanne Kuehne is Swiss.  She lives in a small town 45 minutes from Zurich.  She sat beside me on my flight from Frankfurt to Chennai, India.  I dozed during the first hour and woke up for the meal noticing she had been served special vegetarian fare.  I wondered if she had gotten mine by mistake.  But blonde, blue eyed Suzanne is a strict vegetarian and, I soon found out, India- bound to attend Oneness University run by her guru Kalki Swami, 3 hours from our destination and my hometown Chennai.   Over the next 7 hours Suzanne and I shared our thoughts on our  respective life journeys over the past thirty years.  Trials and triumphs, loss and learnings, relationships and realizations.   I was amazed at how our paths which had originated at such divergent places, mine in India and hers in Switzerland, were now converging at a place of no space and time.  To add to this mystique was the date and time of our travel, the 21st of Dec 2012, prophesied by some to be doomsday.  During our conversation we were literally and figuratively in a state of "kaivalya" (suspension)!  As we talked, we acknowledged the limitation of language in keeping us in that present state of suspension, given our habit of always speaking in past or future tenses;   of explaining the present in terms of our past, or the future in terms of effort - of "becoming", "trying", "changing", when we know fully well that the future does not exist except as a projection of our minds.  By wanting to become something we fall short of accepting who we are now and postpone realization of our present reality.  We spoke in shorthand and continued in an animated state of excitement from understanding each other so completely.  

Growing up Suzanne was taught to experience life through her mind and through rational thought and logic.  She was well attuned to cause and effect, opposites and action and reaction.  What she had not done was experience life with her whole being.  She had always censured "irrational" impulses, thoughts, words and action as she had been taught to do so.  She was strongly discouraged from making decisions or engaging in actions that were not born of thought and hence the concepts of grace and faith, were totally foreign to her.   I, on the other hand, had grown up listening to myth and fable, cultivated the concepts of grace and faith and these had often collided with rational explanations of phenomena.  I grew up confused, tentative and uncertain.  While I knew life was not just experienced through the mind I lacked the courage of conviction to explore how or why.    When I made my journey to the West, I grew more rational and less accepting of anything that was not explained in logical terms.   It has taken several years of undoing to get back to my roots of being spontaneous, curious, open to all possibilities.   For Suzanne and me the last few years have been of "unlearning" of "abandoning deep rooted conditioning" of just being rather than wanting to become.  We acknowledged that we were still triggered to react and retreat to safe places with predictable paths on charted roads.  Only now, we bring our awareness to every such occurrence thus peeling off one more layer of learnt behaviour.  We both engage in habitual rituals, me yoga and meditation and she spiritual retreats and intense contemplation of the self,  but this time in awareness that all this is only a means to an end. 

As we neared our destination, we wondered aloud about the spiritual evolution that was occurring all around us that we could legitimately have these conversations without shame, self consciousness or preconceived notions about each other.  The seven hours flew by.  We hugged, shared contact information and vowed to follow each  other on our respective journeys through life!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Enjoying music season

For several years now I have found myself in Chennai for the music season ("season").  In the month of December, the holiest month of Markazhi in the Hindu calendar, the city comes alive with the finest display of devotional South Indian fine arts by preeminent artists of the day.  Chennai hosts over 3000 concerts between December and January, its most temperate months.  Visitors come from around the world to listen to music, reconnect with friends and savour the food at concert venues around town.   

My mother, in laws, aunt and uncle abandon their sedentary routines to attend the annual music conference and concerts at The Music Academy (Academy) and other venues around Chennai.  I bring the group's average age down a notch but can barely keep up with their rigorous 12 hour concert routines and zeal.  They fortify their arthritic knees, pack a picnic, carry a consolidated program and flit from one concert to another, sometimes at different venues.  Academy concerts being the  most coveted, they jostle long line ups to purchase season tickets.  I arrive just on time to enjoy the last half of the season and revel in their company, while also taking a page from their book on zest for life.  

The average age of the audience at the Academy is 70, so my family is hardly unique.  Many are their contemporaries, long time concert goers and there is much swapping of stories and critiques about artists, venues and of course canteen fare.  As interesting as the music is the time spent with this amazing group of elders.   Dressed in the latest sarees with matching jewellery and wearing jasmine flowers in their hair, the women carry themselves with elegance and grace.  The men, true to  all ages of that gender, are careless and casual.

Today is Vaikunta Ekadesi, a day of fasting.  The canteen is sparse with all its older patrons observing the fast while keeping up their concert routines.  

Vaikunta Ekadesi, notwithstanding I have a full meal.   I relish the communal lunch served on a banana leaf,  with other heretic young patrons.  I do justice to the feast of vadai, payasam (almond kheer), another sweet, ghee and dhal, served with a variety of vegetables, rice dishes, rasam, sambar, chips, papad, pickles and yoghurt.  I have two servings each of the hot almond kheer and rasam mentally postponing my fast by another year.   We are on our third concert having started today at 9:15 with one byTrichur Ramachandran, this year's Sangeeta Kalanidhi (music laureate), who took us on a 50 year musical journey paying homage to his many teachers.  We have two more concerts and will conclude the day at 9 p.m.  We have settled in nicely, with the older folks wrapped in shawls and mufflers to shield themselves from the effects of the AC.  They doze from the calming effect of the music but wake up at the beginning of each song to chime in its raga.   I too stop intellectualising and fall in with the crowd.   It is peaceful and I am truly in the moment with no place to go and nothing to prove, so in tune with the company around - mellow, content and simply biding time, surfeit with amazing food and song! 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reading lists

MCIS staff pick their favorite books !

Nino's picks

I absolutely love Mario Vargas Llosa, he is a Peruvian writer/journalist and who won the 2010 Nobel prize. My favourite book by him is “Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter”.

Milan Kundera’s “book of laughter and forgetting” is absolutely brilliant.

If you are interested in Japanese writers Haruki Murakami’s “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” is excellent. It is my sisters favourite book J.

I would also recommend Lasha Bughadze, who is a young Georgian writer, but I am not sure how available his books are in English.


My list of suggestions, they are of course Latin American/Spanish novels J

1)      Julio Cortazar- “ Hopscotch”
2)      Garcia Marquez – “Love in the time of Cholera”
3)      Carmen Laforet – “Nada”
4)      Juan Rulfo – “Pedro Paramo”
5)      Jorge Luis Borges – “Ficciones” this is an anthology, I think you can find it in English
6)      Eduardo Galeano – “Open veins of Latin America”

Veronica's picks

Two Canadian novels:

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys

Also, a little bit of my own cultural background: The Appointment by Herta Muller - she is a Romanian born novelist, currently living and writing in Germany. She got the Nobel Prize for literature a couple of years ago. This novel is about pre 1989 Romania - a very sad story, but an excellent novel.

And an old favorite... I could read this over and over, it's really clever and funny: A History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters by Julian Barnes

Sea of Poppies

This is my review of one of my favourites!

Sea of Poppies is Amitav Ghosh’s gripping tale of a perilous journey in the high seas, and the events leading up to it.

In the 1800s the British colonists replaced food crops in Western India with poppy fields, paying exploitive prices to the rural poor who farmed and processed them in ghastly factories.  The colonists then exported the opium to China to support the habits of addicts there.  Several Englishmen became extremely wealthy as did the British Empire, until one day the Chinese authorities woke up to the devastation inflicted on their population by this malaise and issued an ordinance for the enforcement of a strict ban on the import.  Ironically, the ripple effect of this action was penury for the rural folk of Western India who had lived off the poppy trade.  Several then choose to indenture themselves as coolies to serve the colonists’ interests in other parts of the world and set sail to islands around the world where the British needed plantation workers.   

It is against this backdrop that some desperately poor people venture out on their journey in the high seas, this time to Mauritius.  On this slave ship, the Ibis, accompanying other desperate souls like them and a crew of social misfits, are the protagonists who include a bankrupt Raja, an opium addict and an abandoned spouse.  A few perish from the heat  in their overcrowded quarters, located in the underbelly of the ship.  However, most find cause for celebration with courtship and marriage, singing songs and revelling in their newfound friendships clearly frustrating the colonists' efforts to quell their spirit.  

This is a tale of epic proportions not because of the grandeur with which it recreates another era and captures the social, economic and political mood of that time, but because of its nuanced depiction of the minutia of everyday life, be it a farmer’s, a local Raja’s or a British Memsaheb’s.  So we vicariously experience lavish dinner parties and the varied hue of accents and dialects used by the book's many colourful characters, which include the ship’s crew members, and a self proclaimed avatar of Lord Krishna.  The Indian reader will be bemused and angered by the the colonists Hinglish, mostly pejoratives, used to put in place their army of servants and subordinates.    

Even though Sea of Poppies is a sad tale of brutal oppression it is not a depressing read.  It is tragic and funny, brimming with hope under impossible conditions and replete with heroic and subversive acts by ordinary women and men.  In some ways good triumphs over evil at the end of this first book of a trilogy.  Except for the nautical language which is challenging at times, this book is eminently readeable and demonstrates Ghosh’s preeminence as a writer and researcher par excellence.  

Friday, December 14, 2012

Just imagine - my thoughts post this tragedy

Just imagine walking in the shoes of one of those parents.   So violently were their beloved children's lives snuffed out.  The details are sketchy.  The deceased mother of the deceased killer had legally purchased the three guns which he brandished as he stormed into that school wearing military fatigues, stop  He was mentally unwell stop.  His mom was rigid and isolated him from other kids stop.   His parents were divorced and his father had remarried stop.  His older brother who is a tax expert with E nd Y was initially named the killer and was handcuffed and brought in for questioning, stop.  Could have been an average family, before this gruesome incident.  What then happened in that small affluent community just 90 minutes from NYC?  Why were there no telltale signs? How could this have occurred in a place wealthy enough to have social structures in place for all forms of harm reduction be it infliction of harm upon self or others?  A person does not just snap.  This was a culminating incident where the people in contact with the killer had buried their heads in the sand,  distracted or in utter denial, with no motivation to probe and understand.  I am sure a few people who were willfully blind, his father and bother to name a couple, will not sleep easy wondering if their inaction was tantamount to recklessness.  There are probably a few physicians whose heads will roll if it came out that they medicated inappropriately or did not intervene more proactively when they could have.  Every incident such as this warrants a public inquiry to examine the minutia leading up to it.  With an inquiry may come legislative reform in the form of mandatory reporting of behaviour likely to result in harm to self of others by persons in positions of trust, and/or revocation of a family member's license to hold firearms if they are custodians of persons diagnosed with mentally illness. Better still would be media bans to discourage copycats trying to gain notoriety imitating these heinous crimes.  I, for one, will not gratify my voyeuristic urges watching CNN which under the guise of journalistic thoroughness fills countless hours of airtime with long, tiring and repetitive reports while shamelessly pedaling cars and wares.  I will get my news from a public broadcaster such as the CBC, and will spend time quietly praying for those who have lost loved ones.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Holiday thoughts and cheer

Those who live here know that North America winds down mid December. There are holiday parties galore and much talk of food and celebration everywhere you turn. The Christmas lights are up in most homes and this holiday cheer pervades the malls and all public places. Families go on expeditions to buy freshly felled trees to bring into their homes the sweet and spicy fragrance of pines that they decorate with ornaments and glitter. Children meet Santa wherever they go. However, political correctness prompts us to refer to this time not just as Christmas but as the holiday season to include, prominently, Jewish holidays, Kwanzaa, a celebration of African heritage, and a multitude of others representing the religions of its diverse population. Religion or no religion it is that time when folks wind down work and just chill. When we first landed we were fascinated by the frenzy and rushed to the malls to catch the deals on thanksgiving, brought a real tree into our home, baked cookies and cakes and did everything except roast the bird. We joyfully joined in on parties where we tasted mulled wine or hot apple cider and eggnog, exchanged gifts wearing Christmas colours and Santa hats, and even made snowmen with a carrot for a nose, buttons for eyes whom we dressed with mitts and hats in festive colours. We kept cookies and milk under the tree for Santa and did the gifts exchange so our daughter did not feel like she was missing out. Over the years the real tree was replaced by a fake one and all those adopted Christmas traditions have fallen away so like the pine needles from those trees. Today, true to our agnostic selves we treat every religious holiday as a reason to celebrate with friends, making a happy social event of each. We attend Passover meals, part-take of Id Iftar and of course attend a multitude of Diwali parties. But those holidays notwithstanding, it is at this time of the year that people release their collective breaths, abandoning the routine and the mundane, while making a concerted effort to spread cheer among friends, family and even strangers. Every email sign off includes joyful wishes and the mail is peppered with cards carrying tidings of love, peace and hope. Customers and vendors shower us with confectionary, cakes, cookies and gifts and office parties abound. Its also that time when we remember our less fortunate brethren and give generously to charities and food banks. All these rituals make for a happy preoccpuation so we can put off commiserating about winter, when the days are short and the air is cold. I must say off late, with climate change, we see few signs of a white Christmas even here in Toronto, much to most people's disappointment. As we take stock and reflect on whats important, I realise,for me its about embracing who I am, at any given time. For now, a fan of Atif Aslam and romantic hindi serials on the one hand and pass-times like yoga, walking, cooking, reading and indulging my passion for social justice, on the other. Happy and safe holidays, everyone!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Lessons from my coaching sessions -hitting the pause button

To my amazing co-workers: Generally we are a happy bunch.  But we do have our skirmishes and differences.  Some of us are vocal and others are not.  In life and work it would bode us well to have open, honest conversations.  Here are some thoughts based on techniques I practice.  Hope you find them useful.   We all work closely and there is bound to be conflict between us because our egos clash and we want to be recognised, acknowledged and respected for who we believe we are.  However, often what we project into the world is an image of ourselves that evokes a range of responses in others not based on who were are but on the assumptions they make about us. This sets off a vicious cycle because we react to those responses and on and on till the conflict spirals out of control.  We would be wise to push the pause button.  When someone expresses something that we believe is directed against us and is negative, we can do three things and each of those actions will have a different set of repercussions.  One, we can react and escalate the conflict and negativity. Two, we can notice actions by others towards us that trigger our responses to know which buttons we don’t like having pushed.  This could be an education about us, our conditioning, baggage that we carry from past experiences or closed ideas or dogmas that we cling to. We may have had a negative experience with a boss or co-workers and may be carrying the memory of that and reacting to the memory rather than to the present situation.  By noticing we begin to let go of that conditioning. Three, we could approach them with an open mind and tell them how we feel and ask them open ended questions about why they said what they did.  We could do this without getting defensive but allowing them to speak and be prepared for the responses we get.  People will often surprise us with their responses.  They may not have meant what we thought they did based on assumptions we made.  It is possible, however, that they did make the assumptions we thought they did and then we can probe in a non-threatening way and ask them to think about other assumptions they could have made.  This usually gets people to reflect and alter their perceptions in the present moment and going forward into the future.  The organisational review process we went through last year was not an easy one for me.  It resulted in two senior staff leaving.  However, their departure was graceful and mutually respectful, the result of listening without assumptions, responding in a compassionate way and honouring people for who they are.  It takes a lot of courage and a lot of practice to take the third approach.  However it works with bosses, peers and subordinates.     I remember when I was new in Canada I was defensive and combative every time I went for a job interview, thinking everyone was racist and would not hire me because I was a minority.  Obviously, my reaction did not endear me to folks as a potential employee.  After graduating from law school, my confidence was built and I was much less defensive.  I went for one interview where the managing partner at a large downtown law firm made some remarks about my community.  My immediate reaction was “why is he singling out my community, what a racist”.  However, I hit pause and asked him what he had meant to which he said “the South Asian community is thriving and we could do well by bringing in that business”.  Two things happened as a result.  I found out he had actually meant something positive.  The lawyer who had introduced me to the partner said he was impressed by my courage and my ability to stand up to the guy and I got offered the job.   Thanks for listening and if you want to share your thoughts please write to me in confidence or to the group, whatever you prefer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Getting over an obsession

Sometimes I write about my ridiculous obsessions. I dont watch TV, have never watched serials or soaps and have never hero worshipped anyone. So this is somewhat out of character (or so I believed till I got sucked into a vortex called ipkknd (Is Pyar Ko Kya Naam Doon)- savour it here and watch all episodes from 1 - 399 on youtube or downloading the dailymotion app). If Barun Sobti becomes even bigger than SRK then you read about it here first. He is a consummate actor with versatile, broodingly sexy and suave good looks..ipkknd concluded on 30th Nov rather abruptly when Barun quit the show. See here for why...and then watch it all... I am in need of some urgent help to get over ipkknd. Cursed be the iPAD through which, aimlessly browsing one day, I came upon a youtube video of an Arshi (Arnav and Khushi ("Arshi" the protagonists) scene). I only know that I was immediately fascinated by this man with his brooding good looks and dark mood. I was intrigued by his vulnerability to this waif of a girl whom he did not know whether to break into two under the might of his power or passionately love till she was senseless. Wow, I remember the rush of emotions and the awakening of feelings long forgotten. Deep longing for that elusive high that comes from being in bated anticipation , where only those moments in the presence of that loved one matter and every other moment is just a preparation for that. This also became the metaphor for the Arshi scenes in ipkknd. None of the other scenes mattered. That mass appetite for their spellbinding chemistry in every scene may have doomed the show to its premature end, with producers scrambling and at a loss as to how they should manage this ocean of emotion they had unleashed from within all of us. I remember the irrational anger I experienced when Sheetal, (Arnav's ex girlfriend) came on the scene. I felt so possessive on behalf of Khushi and was thrilled when that plotline was scuttled to appease us fans. Here is what I cannot fathom – what am I, a lawyer practising in the West, drooling over a show when I had held all Indian serials in disdain? Was there something wrong with me? Alas, I sent a link out to my sister also a quasi intellectual, who lives elsewhere in the world, and now she cannot have enough of Arshi. When she skypes me we blush like teenagers discussing episodes in detail like they were real life. And I must have watched the Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai scene 10 times and every time I see more of their nuanced responses to each other. They are incredible actors, gorgeous humans and well they must feel this amazing chemistry to portray it in such an unabashed way. Sadly the last few episodes were patched together with Arnav not being in the frames (due to his premature departure) to respond soulfully to the heartfelt expression of gratitude by Khushi for his presence in her life! However, we have past episodes to savour, a happy ending to smile to and hope of another season and great things in store for Barun and Sanaya (Khushi in real life) in Bollywood. Kudos to the entire cast, crew and team for their top notch performances, creative use of music, amazing scores, awesome costumes and character development. It was quite a ride and one we can savour again and again through the wonders of youtube and the dailymotion app. I feel part of this ipkknd fan family, just 3 short months after coming on board! And Barun you are beyond sexy!

Monday, December 3, 2012

A rant of the mentally well?

I grew up with a brother who had a perspective on reality which was not considered “normal”. A brilliant mind who mastered chess and did complex math algorithms at age 10, he never understood the progression through the time ordered stages of life that we take for granted - employment, parenthood, retirement and maybe, for some, renunciation. He turned these concepts on their head and decided he would, after his education, pursue renunciation first, much to the family’s dismay. So much potential gone to waste was the refrain on everyone’s lips. When he took off on his spiritual jaunts, locked himself in his room meditating for hours, starved himself for days on end, refused to take up a job, post his Masters in Engineering, and decided he just wanted to seek that elusive state of Nirvana, I struggled with one persistent thought “Why could he not be normal like everyone else? Why did he embarrass me so much being so off kilter? Why could he not have gone to Harvard or MIT and done something that people would rave about, so I could associate with him with pride rather than shame?” In those days he prodded and challenged me on life decisions that I made to please my parents. As I reflect back, I did everything I could to make it up to them, to ease their disappointment in him. My brother’s spiritual quest turned out to be a ten year detour since he folded under the weight of society and has since stumbled through life along the beaten path. Happily he has two beautiful and brilliant kids and an adoring wife. Yesterday, many years since my early adulthood exchanges with my brother, I had an encounter with another young man who is mirroring my brother’s actions. The key difference here is that, there is an official diagnosis of mental illness, because he has lived in the West and because he is much more intense in his pursuit. My reaction to this young man is very different. Having gone through the perfunctory stages of life and having done everything by the “normal” person’s book, I question my sanity now. Is there something this young person so single-minded in his quest for effortless, spontaneous and holistic existence, know that I am missing? What do we really “achieve” or how do we actually “progress” when our lives are so compartmentalized with work and life, ordered by our calendars and punctuated with the ever elusive leisure that we work towards, never really being present in what we do? But most important of all, I spent the night thinking about how we will actually, with our need for normalcy, break down anyone who threatens our predictable and well-ordered existence just because we do not have the collective will for social structures that accommodate difference. We label them, drug them into stupor and break their fragile psyches and then convince ourselves that we treated them for their malady. What a tragedy!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hai hai Hindi serials

I am always fascinated by why we watch TV, and what makes shows popular. I remember having been mystified by the success of Wheel of Fortune and the celebrity status that Vanna White attained just turning over missing letters in a phrase.  Today I have a new preoccupation. Following people's comments in chatrooms about one popular Hindi TV serial ipkknd ( iss pyaar ko kya naam doon?) There was one recent comment where a viewer threatened to fly down to India to kill the villain in the show if he followed through with his plot to murder a popular character!  Talk about merging real life and fantasy.  The TV producers of these popular shows have to carry the burden of people's emotional well being even as they make decisions to pursue certain story lines.  For eg, recently two plot lines were scuttled as a result of public outcry over their unpopularity! The soap opera industry in India,  still in its infancy, is a victim of its own success.  Too much audience involvement curbs creative independence of writers and results in actors working long hours to record different plot lines because of decisions to can unpopular themes.  Also ruining the show are the inappropriate use of body doubles given these resultant time pressures.  And get this, life can become downright risky for folks who dare leave a show when they have become the darling of their fans.  Barun Sobti the popular protagonist of ipkknd is a case in point.  He is being mobbed and reviled just because he has decided to take a break and pursue the silver screen.  There are some wonderful elements to this show - great acting and aesthetics, wonderful music and clever gimmicks, whereby musical scores are tied to characters and moods, making for layered appeal and comforting familiarity.  However a good show can become great only if maniacal serial watchers lighten up.  So here is a call to them, in the interest of improving the quality of the fare being served up.  Allow these serials to happen without becoming emotionally entangled.  There are life lessons here in deferred gratification and remaining intellectually and emotionally curious!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Diwali Memories

My fondest memories of Diwali are from 1973 the year my sister Jai had her Thalai Deepavali (first after her marriage). I was eleven and discovering bell bottom pant suits, which my parents could ill afford to purchase ready-made. So when our dashing brother-in- law took us on Diwali eve to one of the few Sindi owned ready-made children's clothing stores in Trivandrum, Children's Corner, insisting he buy them for us, we were over the moon. Mine was lime green, long sleeves with an inner vest and tassels that tied the vest together in the front and my younger sister Suja's purple with puffed sleeves. We could not wait to get home and try them on. However Amma insisted we wait till after our baths early the next morning. We did not sleep a wink that night and after the obligatory oil bath, donned our clothes uncaring that we would have oil stains on them by the end of the day. What was it that made those clothes so special? Really it had nothing to do with the look! Picture us in those pant suits, with oily hair and flip flops. Well it was just the fact that we had been to a classy place to buy our clothes and no matter how they fit, they beat out our ill tailored frocks or skirts, any day. Those clothes commanded instant credibility for us among our class-mates who had lived abroad, smelt of perfume, chewed bubble gum and wore fancy lace dresses and shiny black shoes with bright white polyester socks. We wore those pant suits, till we outgrew them, to special events at school, wedding receptions or to the homes of our parents' wealthy relatives and friends so as not to feel out of place. When you come from fixed income, middle class moorings and are self-conscious that everything about you is likely to give away your class status, you yearn for the casual ease that comes from wearing "imported" clothes, and a fancy suit from Children's Corner is the next best thing. I am grateful that this Diwali I had three new sarees to pick from. I am also happy that I am at a time and place in my life when maintaining an image is no longer a priority.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Go Obama - thoughts on election day

A co-worker at my office said to me – Obama has fixed the election. Knowing his politics I hope this is an attempt by him to save face, while projecting a Romney loss. How does the average unemployed American relate to Mitt Romney? Are they so delusional that they believe he will somehow serve their interests by picking them up and helping them out? He will not because that is not his intent. He believes they are where they lie because they are lazy and need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. He will not level the playing field for those who come out of schools with huge student loans and no jobs, for those who get disabled on their jobs and for those who are struck down by illness while riding high in their careers. He will not because he cannot, given his politics and given America’s place in the world. America is now part of a world economy where the division between production and consumption is so ordained that things get made where it is cheapest to make them, thus offshoring jobs. How can such a society be sustainable in the long term and build local communities if there is no role for government policy to shift that paradigm? A role to level the playing field for young graduates who find themselves at the short end of the stick due to no fault of theirs but of the consumerist world order? Or for those folks who are made ill by a country that does not regulate what gets sold as food and does not focus on preventative health measures as a part of social policy? How is Romney’s trickle down politics of more production for consumption at the cheapest price really going to grow the American economy in a world where things can be made cheaper elsewhere? How is he going to stimulate the economy to create more jobs here? The details are missing because there are none. He has a good rhetoric but his analysis is not based on the present world context, which is different from the one Reagan presided over 30 years ago. That train has long left the station.

Monday, November 5, 2012

From the ridiculous to the sublime

So I was filling gas and saw before me this incredibly gorgeous male specimen. I was twice his age for sure and have a daughter his age. So the rational mind kicked in and said "so suitable for Uttara". Of course I glossed over the fact that Utta has a poor opinion of my taste in men. So I ogled on. The right height, physique and color - but most important of all his suit was slim fitting and well tailored. And as if for the benefit of his singular audience he undonned his suit jacket to reveal broad shoulders under a crisp white shirt. I had this urge to lurch forward and tell him "do you actually know you are wasting your life driving around in a Toyota Corolla when you could be on the silver screen somewhere with a bevy of swooning women fans! " Which in a long winded way brings me to my topic today. Only in Canada have I seen Adonis and Helen of Troy cleaning shop floors or managing cash registers at the 7/11s. How incredibly sad that these perfections of nature for a good 10 years of their young adulthood live in obscurity only to soon become nondescript- looking in sweat pants and oversized shirts, covering oversized bodies, like the rest of us. In a metaphorical sense, it is true of all of us that we dont see and therefore unleash our potential. We have a jaundiced view that focusses on our inadequacies, trivialises our strengths and wallows in "what could or should be but not what is". Our moments are thus frittered away in negative ruminations and yearnings or escapes into other realities, the present moment forgotten and scorned. Sadly for us we will never see that man on the silver screen and we will never all be our absolute glorious selves.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Beautiful philosophical text from China translated by Jack Xu

何谓求诸人?人同类而智殊,贤不肖异,皆巧言辩辞,以自防御,此不肖主之所以乱也。凡论人,通则观其所礼,贵则观其所进,富则观其所养,听则观其所行,止则观其所好,习则观其所言,穷则观其所不受,贱则观其所不为,喜之以验其守,乐之以验其僻,怒之以验其节,惧之以验其特,哀之以验其人,苦之以验其志,八观六验,此贤主之所以论人也。论人者,又必以六戚四隐。何谓六戚?父、母、兄、弟、妻、子。何谓四隐?交友、故旧、邑里、门郭。内则用六戚四隐,外则用八观六验,人之情伪贪鄙美恶无所失矣,譬之若逃雨,汙无之而非是。此圣王之所以知人也。 What does it mean to depend on others? We are all human, but our intelligence levels vary greatly. The wise and the immoral, although different, all use rhetoric to sweet talk and defend ourselves, which is why the unwise leaders become muddled in their judgment. To assess a person: When he’s successful, observe who he respects. When he’s powerful, observe who he recommends. When he’s wealthy, observe who he helps. When he’s given advice, observe how he reacts. When he’s not busy, observe his interests. When he’s learned, observe what he says. When he’s impoverished, observe what he would not accept. When he’s ill-fated, observe what he would not do. Make him ecstatic, to examine his conduct. Make him overjoyed, to examine his demeanor. Make him angry, to examine his self-control. Make him frightened, to examine his integrity. Make him sorrowful, to examine his character. Make him endure hardship, to examine his resolve. These are the eight observations and six examinations wise leaders use to assess a person. But there are also six direct; and four hidden relationships that must be considered. What are the six direct relationships? These are the father, the mother, older brothers, younger brothers, wife, and children. What are the four hidden relationships? These are friends, acquaintances, neighbours, and confidants. To assess a person’s inner character, use the six direct and four hidden relationships. To assess a person’s outer character, use the eight observations and six examinations. Then a person’s sincerity, hypocrisy, greed, awfulness, virtue, and wickedness will all be captured without error – as if he were running through rain, where it is impossible to avoid the raindrops landing on him. This is how sagacious leaders value a person.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Conditional Status for Sponsored Spouses – “Is the Jig Up on Marriage Fraud”?

The Minister of Immigration tells us that the new amendments to the Immigration Act will ensure “the jig is up on marriage fraud”. The changes to the Act which are ostensibly intended to deny permanent status to persons who abdicate their marital obligations soon after they land in Canada on a spousal sponsorship may appear reasonable to some. The law will require spouses to cohabit for a period of two years for their conditional status to be commuted and made permanent. There are several problems with this amendment. We now have a situation where there is a presumption of guilt. All couples have to endure one spouse's conditional status, just because a few may have married for the purposes of obtaining their immigration. There is no empirical evidence as to the numbers of these fraudulent marriages for the Minister to back up this amendment to the law. We also dont know whether the perpetrators are the sponsors, the sponsorees or both. I just know it will inhibit bright young professional men and women with busy lives and international careers from moving here. They usually meet through dating sites and start their relationship upon marriage. I have nieces who are professionals and will choose not to court men from Canada or to move here now just because of the risk to them, or their spouses, of giving up a promising career for what would be for them tentative status since it is not clear if an employer will invest in someone with conditional status. Potential immigration status in the destination country ranks very high among criteria to enter into marriage because lack of connectedness and insecurity around career prospects impact both parties’ commitment to the relationship as a whole. From a policy stand point are we inhibiting Canada’s ability to attract and keep the best and brightest? Rather than put in foolproof measures when assessing applications for genuineness or following up on those who abused the system, the Minister has taken the radical measure of shifting the burden of proof on the immigrant. The end result is a stratified society where immigrants once again start out as second class citizens. Immigration to Canada may be a privilege. However, we need bright young men and women to move here as much as they need Canada and by creating all these barriers we do ourselves a huge disservice, shunning human capital that will help transform an aging society into one that is young, vibrant and viable.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Being a Global Soul is not all bad

The immigrant experience can be isolating, given people never feel like they fit into mainstream culture, and often pine for their roots. This article from the Harvard Business Review, albeit for global leaders, provides a refreshing perspective that I thought I would share in this blog.. Being a global soul is not all bad Leelia walked into my office to introduce herself as one of our new Russian interpreters. In a million years I could not have placed her, given her personality is so endearingly global. I was absolutely stunned when she spoke to me in chaste Hindi and I could only stare while I stuttered a response that was grammatically incorrect. Leelia grew up in Russia, moved to Israel to explore her Jewish roots, and ventured to New Delhi where she pursued a graduate degree in Islamic Studies. She has numerous languages under her belt, is a connoisseur of all the cuisines of these familiar cultures and can fit in and adapt anywhere. She is what Pico Iyer refers to as a Global Soul! The following article states that a global soul “becomes familiar with local and global communities, and uses neither to escape the other. This takes physical and emotional presence. It requires staying put long enough and traveling a fair amount. Spending time with those who live nearby and staying close to those who are far away — showing and being shown around. Leaving a piece of heart with people and places, and keeping them in your heart wherever you are. Hard as it may be to reconcile local and global homes, it is a privilege to have a chance to inhabit both. “

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Have you been to the Pacific Mall?

Today I wandered into the Pacific Mall, which is located in Markham just North of Toronto. I have lived 10 minutes away for 15 years and have never walked it's corridors. Talk about a cultural experience. With tiny cubicles filled with "random crap" (to use Uttara's coinage) from China and other Asian nations which abut the Pacific ocean, this was our go to place to set right a shattered front screen of an iPhone. This not so legal activity is carried on with great aplomb by young Chinese women who look like teenagers but manipulate those iPhones with the competence of Sensei, their delicate, dexterous fingers performing surgically precise operations to save the injured phone. It was 6 p.m. on a Monday night but we saw a long line forming behind us. The experience was utterly surreal. I had been transported to the Far East with hundreds of Chinese, Korean and Indian customers milling about me. Some Hong Kong rock star was belting out a song and the smell of pancakes wafted around us -teasing and tantalizing. We deposited the phone for what we were told would take half an hour and discovered more of this "mall" which had all the features of a Malaysian night market. There were piles of knock offs of every conceivable designer item, pirated CDs and videos, booths that will unlock your phones and hawker stalls which beckoned with interesting aromas of a wide variety of food prepared in tiny hole in the wall outlets. The whole place had the feel of transience as though this was reality being streamed in technicolour, obsolence built into everything on display and with stalls that can immediately be dismantled based on a tip regarding a possible raid. This thriving and bold haven of what is considered intellectual property fraud in the West, stands tall with no dearth of satisfied customers who leave it with a smile on their faces, mission accomplished. I obviously cannot admit to whether ours was. Whatever else it is not, the Pacific Mall is a cheap trip to the exciting East where commerce is done based on a different set of rules.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The gift of music - the gift of. tVS

There are some moments in life which you want to capture in some tangible way to re-live in their entirety.  Not just in a video recording but in a very real sense with all their accompanying poignancy.  Last night is case in point, when I came home to T.V. Sankaranarayan seated in front of our altar pouring his heart out in virruttams set to my favourite raagams – Hindolam, Shama, Brindavani and Hamsanandhi.  He rendered Paasurams from the Divya Prapandham in these raagams and gave me commentary on the meaning of this most beautiful form of divine tamil poetry -  Aandal’s courting of  her consort and her father Periya Azhwar’s devotion of him.  I was moved to tears and felt humbled by this simple man whose surrender to music and reverence for his guru, his uncle Madurai Mani Iyer, is so complete. Sukumar and I have known T.V.S for several years now and host him every time he visits Toronto.  I have never felt intimidated in his presence since he is so guileless and childlike regaling us with stories about his early adulthood and his tentative entry into the daunting world of Carnatic music.  Until our close encounter with him I had no idea about the courage it takes to delve headlong into this world where you are only as good as the concert you sing today and memories of your glory days are short.  That effortless flow of music can never be fashioned in the intellect and rehearsed but has to emerge from a wellspring of inspiration that is between thought and action.  And yet it is the intellect that stores the body of knowledge, polished and perfected through years of reflection and nuanced use of vocal chords.  It takes a self effacing man who sees himself as a conduit for the flow of this divine music to demystify this most challenging art form for us lay people.  However, the concert he gave, with little planning for order of songs, but with constraints based on conventions in Carnatic music was replete with mystique -heartfelt and moving, an homage to his guru, a romantic tryst with his God, a conversation with his audience and an expression of gratitude for the gift of music.  

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Finding Blue Oceans

Today I had lunch with a dashing young Can-Indian IT entrepreneur.  He picked my colleague and me up in his white Range Rover and talked about upgrading to a Karma Fisker to leave less of a carbon footprint and leave more in his pocketbook from the gas savings.  We talked business over lunch and planned tech projects to stabilize our company's manage and store IT services.  I anxiously peeked into my phone to find out if we had a response to a quote for a contract renewal I was expecting, apologizing for my rudeness and stating the reason for my anxiety.  Alex understood.  He talked about lost bids to cut throat margins, diminishing returns on existing contracts and companies waiting to snatch away his flagship customers.  I felt oddly comforted to hear him echo my sentiments.  This was the worst of times.  However, we both talked about moving out of bloody waters where we compete with sharks in gory price wars and finding blue oceans.  I reflected on that age old adage of adversity being the mother of invention and how with every setback has emerged the need to innovate.  So at our little firm we have moved from in-person training to online, from translation to transcription and trans-creation (creating ad copy from Enlish into Spanglish, for eg). Soon we  may launch our online language schools offering tutoring in all languages through our five thousand strong language professionals.  But these will bring in revenues in the future.  What about now?  To which the fortune cookie at the end of the meal said "hope is the stimulant of life".  Also smart companies like Qualcomm and IBM invested in new product and leadership development, and customer centric programs through their most difficult times rather than cut back.  When the going got better, they reaped in spades.  Sigh - we just need to stick with the program and keep looking for those blue oceans.  Oh through all the commiserating I also knew that in facing the pitfalls that I do every day, I can legimately call myself an entrepreneur now.  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Guilty pleasures

I thought that the romance in my mundane life was over when suddenly I stumbled upon this mushy Hindi soap that I can’t seem to get enough of. YouTube be cursed, since I can watch the episodes on it over and over and vicariously experience its thrills. It’s not all bad news. Surely the spring in my step and the smile on my face as I listen to its evocative musical score, set to urdu poetry, is worth something? Other than a short phase, ten years ago, when I drove around town with my rooftop open listening to A.R. Rahman’s songs, rivalling my young Sri Lankan compatriots, I don’t remember being so enthralled over the portrayal of romantic love, where the protagonists pine and unite only to be ripped apart again. Needless to say, I am mystified by this soap’s profound impact on my state of being. I get transported to an era when life was simple and a look meant everything. Is this just a heaping dose of nostalgia with memories of juvenile crushes on boys whose names I did not even know and unrequited longing for life as portrayed in movies where the girl was wooed and courted? Or is it something much more primordial, as has been unleashed by “Fifty Shades of Grey”, whose 100 million strong readership has unabashedly admitted to their craving for the romantic and erotic? Whatever it is I will be glad when this phase is over so I can once again retreat into the comfort of familiar and (pseudo) intellectual pursuits. On that note – here’s a link to something unabashedly romantic for you…

Monday, September 10, 2012

Market values and moral values

Today I heard this great interview of Harvard Professor Michael Sandel where he explained how market values are replacing moral values in those parts of our lives we considered sacred. In other words, we are moving from being market economies to market societies. How so? In extreme cases, our societies outsource wars to mercenaries, we have companies that provide line standers for lobbyists who do not want to line up to get airtime before congressional committees and we have people who use body tattoos to advertise products and make a quick buck of it. The darker side is in the illegal organ trade or in people paying for prison cell upgrades (where prisons are privately run – really!). The process is insidious and is slowly eroding all our domains. We do not think twice about the commodification of water for example, a natural resource we thought should be readily available to all. Our wars started with one such natural resource oil. The next era of wars would be over water. In short, there were parts of our lives which we did not reduce to dollars and cents. It turns out now that nothing is so sacred. In my business which involves providing language services we experience the pressure of markets every day. We speak about quality and yet we know that price trumps everything, even for governments that purchase service. This is a disheartening trend especially in the delivery of human services. This is not to say we should not be efficient. We should be and lower our costs using technology as much as we are able. However, we need to stand for some breakthrough values such as building local community capacity and providing employment within our communities, measuring a service’s value based on the human rights it protects not the dollars it costs and looking at social impact in the long term of all the decisions we make for short term gains. Can we all make a decision today to stand for something other than market value? Harvard professor on American society: Everything is up for sale | The Raw Story Harvard University professor Michael Sandel on Monday lamented that almost every aspect of life in the United

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Daughters and Rituals

As daughters grow older and move away they become adults whom you have to get reacquainted with.  Their tastes in music evolve, their friends change, they have travelled and have developed likes and values you did not see in them.  When they visit it is for a short while, a week or two maybe.  A few years ago when things got a little awkward between my daughter and me, we developed rituals.  Things we would do together when she visited.  Now we start her visit with a trip to the grocery store to buy healthy foods we both enjoy together.  I love to surprise her with new and tasty salads and healthy snacks.  This trip I introduced her to quinoa, a new brand of veggie burger and a delicious new salad.  We do early morning treks when we ask each other questions and get caught up with each others lives.  We always end up at Tim Hortons for coffee and Timbits.  There is always one trip to our favorite Indian Chinese restaurant as a family.   I drive her downtown to her friend Laura's for a night out and pick her up the next morning.  I do it because I love the time we spend together during those drives, even though she does most of the driving around town.  We shop at Joe's and Yorkdale, watch Survivor, the Biggest Loser or sitcoms.   She likes to visit the temple once and eat the prasadam.   We order her favorite whole wheat crust broccoli pizza from Pizza Pizza one evening and go out another for beer and snacks at a pub.  If time permits she and I  go to King West and look at consignment and antique shops for quaint stuff.  There is usually one community or social event where she meets up with aunties and uncles she grew up knowing.  Other than that she plays me her favourite music,  gives me clothes that she does not plan to use anymore and gives me advise on how to tackle work problems.  I offer my thoughts on her aspirations.  We have fallen into such a pattern that if i try to introduce something new, she will weigh in on whether or not it should be part of our rotation.   These rituals enable us to just be, rather than think about how to make "quality time".  I help her with her final packing, sending her off with nuts and cheeses she likes and eagerly await her next visit.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Feeling Inspired

Today I needed some inspiration. It started out as one of those days when I found myself spinning my wheels, faced with threats to my organisation’s financial health as a result of some contract changes. I then thought about my uncle and the iconic business he set up and grew over 25 years (while he was at its helm) to be a forerunner for tutorial colleges in India. Sadly, I had news from home recently that the business he had set up had been taken over by creditors. These are different times. Technology has changed the terms of engagement and outcomes of business. Most are only as good as their operational efficiencies and it is hard to tell if this outcome could have been avoided with him still running it. However, it gave me a moment of pause to ponder over the achievements of an extraordinary man who was a visionary and micromanager all rolled into one. Starting out as a cartoonist, he started his business at age 50 and over the next 40 years it went on to represent the tutorial college for entrance into the elite schools of India. Aptly named Brilliant Tutorials with a logo that sported the hat worn at graduation, it sold hope to hundreds of thousands of young folks, where only a small fraction actually made it to the schools but the rest came out with confidence, knowledge and problem solving skills that they would use throughout their lives. I took the course, while briefly flirting with the idea of an engineering degree! In any event, Periappa (or Dad’s brother) was and will always remain my role model. He coined all the ad copy for his relentless ads plastered all over India’s top newspapers and hand- picked the professors who would create curricula and exams and teach all the courses. Many retired professors thought this a worthy avocation and so it was a win-win all around. During his tenure at the business he faced competition from copycats, since imitation is the best form of flattery, and pressure to constantly innovate. It was the beginning of the computer era and hence of revoluntionary change. He started the first computer skills training schools in India. I recalled today that he never stopped learning, trying and innovating well into his seventies. He demonstrated tenacity in his pursuit of excellence and never shied away from a challenge. Inspired by his memory, I put on my best face and set out today . Fortunately there was much to be optimistic about as it day ended and it may have had a lot to do with how I approached it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mothers and the law

Recently, I spent a beautiful Saturday bailing out an acquaintance who was charged. Since I choose not to spend my time in filthy jail cells interviewing society's unfortunate I was not there as his lawyer but as a supporter and potential surety.  The court house was abuzz with a close community of cops, crowns, counsel ( private bar and legal aid) and they all spoke a unique language peppered with words like "remand", "conditions", "first apperance" etc.  It took me a while to figure out the orchestrated fashion in which everything ran, albeit too slowly. While I got lulled into boredom by the tediousness of the process, I was struck by the number of mothers who were there, having perhaps spent a sleepless night following that initial phone call with tidings of the arrest.  What if they had heard their child had shot and killed several people as in the case of the Colarado shooter? The cold and ponderous machinery of the State which had entered their living room in that moment was now here to stay for a while.  They had brought into this world someone  who had taken other lives.  Had they actually missed the writing on the wall ?  Were they blindsided?  Or both?  Or were their kids those true "originals" who have an alternate perception of reality and are just incapable of compliance.  On that day in bail court, the predominant emotions expressed by the moms were disbelief, shame, self blame and guilt.  In several of those cases the blunt instrument of the law had been invoked for relatively "minor offences" bringing the  mother child relationship to a point of no return heralding a wake up or a break up call.  Trust had to be earned again and the terms of engagement between mother and child renegotiated.  Not in the case of this Colardao shooter who is clearly mentally ill.  I sent up a prayer of gratitude for not having to deal with this and for the collective group of parents and  kids who were present that day, to resolve, restore and heal without greater harm to themselves and others.  Parents must take over where the legal system stops.  What role do the state and guns have, you might ask? That's a topic for another blog!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lessons from my coach

The past 6 months of my professional life were really challenging with a reorg and staff departures.   I thank my coach the amazing Bonnie Flatt for her stern yet compassionate approach in setting me on this path of discovering the leader in me and helping uncover the leader in others.  She held a mirror up to me so I can see myself truthfully and bring honesty and gracious collaboration to all my interactions and relationships.  I am writing this blog, as I near the end of my coaching, so people can support me through this process of growth in the following ways.  Ask me questions about the assumptions I make during my interactions no matter how difficult the conversation.  Point out if i am reacting without first seeking clarification as to why someone is saying or doing what they are.  Demand that I live truthfully without the artifice that comes with maintaining an image.  Call out my half truths and mind traps,  when I try to do things for them and to protect them rather than allowing them to rise to their greatness.   I have come to realise that wisdom is about letting go of the need to keep up the edifice of one's personality and being truthful is simply being present, aware and curious. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

The bane of alcohol in Chennai

We were at a mehendi ceremony a few nights ago.  When we got back in the car, the rental car driver who had taken us there said he had joined the dancing and festivities.  I was amused but curious.  This sounded like Dutch courage to me.  His rapid fire speech made me suspect he had helped himself to a couple of drinks at the bar.  I knew then that he had a problem.  Abandoning the driver coterie he had crashed into the hall and partaken of the booze.  Rather unheard off.  Now he was going to drive three of us women back in his inebriated state.   To top it all he hit me for money.  For his daughter's fees, he said  - which I could sense was a bald faced lie since schools have long since reopened.  Alcohol has been the bane of lower class families in Chennai, with the proliferation of the Tasmac ( government contolled)  liquor stores.  To increase their revenue Tasmac stores have recently decided to open earlier and close later. They are stealing from the back pockets of the poor to feed the corrupt appetites of politicians and the liquor barons, who keep them in power.  Women and children are the victims of this bane.  Social taboos are strong enough to prevent women from drinking - thank god - but they have to forebear wretched lives of abuse and penury.  Recently, at least three women I know were nearly killed by their spouses.  These are all super women raising their children and working multiple jobs to protect their dignity.   Back to said driver.  The first call I received early the following day was from this driver who told me his wife had suffered a heart attack and could I give him Rs. 3000.  I confronted him and said I did not believe him, that he has a problem and needs help.  I would not give him money but would assist with getting him help.  He meekly agreed.  I made several enquiries and am referring him to Voluntary Health Services which has an excellent addiction prevention program that is geared to income.  The rest is up to him and his family.   However, we need systemic change.  On June 3, 2012 Tamilaruvi Manian's Gandhiya Makkal Iyakkam (GMI) has called for prohibition and offered suggestions for alternate sources of revenue for the INR 18,000 crores that the TASMAC stores bring in.  GMI has a statewide campaign and a petition going out for all state residents' signatures.  Is there the people power and consequent political will to make this happen as they have done in Gujarat?

Friday, July 6, 2012


Yesterday I lost a dear uncle.  We called him Kannan Mama, fondly.  He was a very fit and disciplined man shy of 70.  Had recently become a facebook "friend" posting comments and sending emails!  I took it all for granted not complimenting him for adapting technology with such ease, at his age.  It was from a very preventable cardiac arrest.  Nothing an angio could not have taken care off, I believe.  The churning in the pit of my stomach has not stopped since the phone call.  In the unlikeliest of places, a gorgeous apartment, with a view of the sea, amidst an avenue of trees on a beautiful summer day, death had come knocking.  Unannounced.  His body was in an icebox in that apartment, looking well dressed and pious with the ash on his forehead a premature fixture of years of prayer.  As I stay here among old people,  I am shaken by the immediate and visceral realisation that death cannot be defied.  No matter his call with me last week promising to meet or the text just an hour prior.  So close yet no cigar as they say.  Eight years ago when my Dad died he had made all the arrangements.  He was the first person early that morning to arrive and console us.  Sadly, he is not around to hold our hand through his death. My only consolation is that I was meant to be here at this place and time to say a final goodbye.  He would have wanted that.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mangoes everywhere

I have not been in India, for as long as I can remember, in the midst of such mango bounty.  The day starts and ends with mangoes being consumed in every shape, form and concoction.  Take yesterday for example.  Fresh ripe mango for breakfast.  Then rice with yoghurt and the tiny mangoes pickled in brine (mavadu) along with cut mango spiced and seasoned with mustard seeds, as part of lunch. Then mango custard to refresh the palate after afternoon siesta.  Dinner at a friend's included mangoes in sugar syrup spiced with green chillies and seasoned (pachadi), sweet and sour mango chutney, gol kheri or mangoes picked with jaggery and spices with steamed savory rice dumpling ( pudi kozhakattai), and spicy Andhra pickles made with raw mangoes (avakkai) paired with refreshing curd rice. The fitting finale to this meal, chilled mango puree with fresh cream for dessert.  Of course, our friends have mango trees which lend themselves to several different methods of pickling representing the culinary styles of all the Indian states.  We took mangoes to them from our yard and they offered us theirs.  In an edifying moment, our horticulturist extraordinaire friend, also a guest, entertained us by biting into the mango from my inlaws yard and identifying it, for the first time in 50 years, as belonging to the "Palgova".  He further  offered that the Theosophical Society gardens which he tended for several years boasts the maximum variety of mangoes at 40.  Following this overindulgence in mangoes, we found ourselves embroiled in a fierce argument over which variety should be crowned queen of mangoes.  The Banganapalli (Chennai) and Malgova ( Bengaluru)  rivalry is as serious as the one  between the respective cricket teams of those two cities.   Mangoes are in the news too.  On a sobering note, mangoes which are artificially ripened with carbide stones are being raided and dumped by the tonnes due to the health hazards they pose. As I set out to enjoy another mango filled day I am preparing for the withdrawal I will experience upon my return by jotting down recipes so I can do interesting things with the mangoes I find in Canada.  Heck, mangoes warrant a cook book.  Hush - don't steal my idea!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A moving experience of religious communion

When the daughter says so, I must.  Well this time she beseeched me to pray for her, typically outsourcing all prayer to me, while she does all other things that make her happy. When i enquired into her strategy, she explained in typical Bschool parlance "it would be highly inefficient for you Amma to edit my calculus just as it would be for Appa to edit my essays.  And so with prayer- it is much more efficient done by you Amma, than by me.  There is much technique to prayer and you optimize better than I do". Ridiculous as this sounds, I buy her argument only because I thrive on the feelings prayer dredges up. For starters  I love the paganistic appeal of our religious rituals, the smell and look of our temples with their ash, vermillion, incense, flowers and oil lamps.  But most of all I love the religious communion with people at different stages in their lives as they purposefully saunter in and out of temples at all hours of the day, seeking divine grace.   This morning when the daughter bid me to pray, I took my mission seriously and walked to the Shirdi Sai Baba Mandir in crowded Mylapore on it's most auspicious day, Thursay ( of importance to our spiritual teachers).  At 6 am there were already 500 people crowding the main hall waiting in an expectant hush for the door to open and the deity to be revealed.  There was a chant and loud music on the nagaswaram rising to a crescendo in anticipation of a climactic moment.  After a 20 minute wait the door opened with much ceremonial clanging of the bells, the large oil lamp was held up to the deity's face and there was much religious fervor expressed.  I was moved by the sheer power of this mass appeal to something incomprehensible and humbling.  As I walked the precinct and observed the symbols of Jesus lit with candles, that of Allah similarly venerated and all the indicia of Hindu worship as well, I sobbed uncontrollably experiencing a deep sense of religious communion with all my fellow human beings and immense gratitude for whatever had brought me to this place at this time, besides, of course, my little girl!  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mobiles and computers in India

Every time I land in India I am amazed at how little has changed on the surface and how much has changed in people's daily lives. India still looks the same- shabby and disorganized, congested and confused.  But our maid, a primary school dropout has a child who is college bound, as is every child in his class and age group.   Even though he will not have access to the best schools and therefore the best jobs, perpetuating this society's stratification, he will have a cell phone and computer to keep him sufficiently distracted.  According to his mom he is constantly exploring the limits and bounds of browsing on his cell and is already on facebook.  He is fascinated by mobile technology and knows to take his cell phone apart and put it back.  Now he wants a computer which his mother can ill afford.   In my limited world view we have not explored the potential of telecom and Internet technology with policies that afford opportunities for our poor and less enfranchised to engage in self learning and to explore the world on their fingertips from where they are.  This world is still a hodge podge of devices, services and courses flooding the market with the promise of a good life.  People stumble upon them, are distracted by them and use them in limited ways - to text inane nothings, flirt, listen to popular songs and pay for the odd purchase.  Often relationships build on mobile platforms are aborted since the flirtation is with the device not with the person.  Mobiles and computers are not used to educate. The reverse.  They kindle desires that remain frustrated at best.  How can we sytematically mobilise the power of the web to educate in efficient and effective ways.  Why does Google, which ostensibly wants to change the world, not come up with a system for global education on a mass scale that fascinates, inspires and educates?  Can people through a global portal not reach out and learn "one on one" and in groups through interactive sessions.  Online learning platforms abound now. Let them be made available free, become available in multiple languages and be leveraged by the Indian education system to augment existing school curricula.  They will introduce students to guided study and eventually self learning and  research, thereby setting them on a path of lifelong learning - something the Canadian and American education systems do so well.  Thoughts ? Ideas?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Diversity does not mean Political Correctness

Diversity is a word that is part of our everyday vocabulary.  On the positive side we have legitimised it.  On the negative side, the overuse of the term results in some people paying lip service to it and glossing over what it actually means in terms of how we act, feel and live.  Even worse, diversity has come to be associated with political correctness!  

Since what MCIS does demonstrates our commitment to diversity, I asked my co-workers to express ideas they associated with the concept. I was pleasantly surprised  by the wonderful bouquet of responses I received.  First, more than half the staff who were asked, wrote back.  Second, people who waxed poetic, were the ones I least expected to.  Third and most surprising of all everyone had something original to say.  Since I offered to compile their responses in a blog I will make best efforts to do it in a manner that does justice without being repetitive.  Before that, I must thank people for their willingness to share some deeply held values in such eloquent language.  

Two staff borrowed literary references, both of which are worth sharing

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.
There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.
There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Freedom and tolerance of all ideas is essential to the discovery of truth, as everyone has a piece of the truth, but no one has the whole truth. Diversity is a reflection of this ideal and the foundation to the success of our modern liberal democracies.

J.S. Mill

Others said it meant variety, difference, multiplicity, acceptance and respect of differences on all the enumerated grounds protected under human rights laws and of joining, enjoying and being inclusive.  In a society that promotes diversity, people saw it as the blending of differences, of creating a beautiful whole that is much better than the sum of its parts, where one can be unique without being the odd one out, like a beautiful quilt or tapestry.  Yet others, chose to describe the concept in terms of its impact on them or on society as a whole.  So diversity as a value provides checks and balances in our political system and allows us to live in a safe and tolerant environment which is positive and endorses our unique values and lifestyle.   Another interesting take was on the freedom it provides people to create opportunities and overcome hardship based on their unique perception of their shared environment.  I particularly liked the  expression of diversity as not meaning “saris, samosas and steel drums” but an openness to accept traditions and the openness to voice our opposition if we disagree.  This last thought is an interesting one and reminded me of a CBC interview where Tariq Fatah founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress commented on the "honor killing” murders that took place in Kingston recently.  He criticised the social  service agencies’ failure to intervene and protect the murdered women due to their misplaced “respect” for what they saw as cultural norms.  He pointed out that when we speak out against the mistreatment of women in some communities we are not disrespectful to them but are expressing our outrage over basic human rights violations.  In other words, diversity should never be about being politically correct.  

Friday, March 30, 2012

Legalizing Prostitution

I have been reading and listening with interest the discussions surrounding the controversial decision made at the Ontario Court of Appeal overturning some of Canada's prostitution laws.  The majority found the law to be unconstitutional and decided to decriminalize prostitution to protect women so they are able to report any abuse without fear of being criminally charged themselves.  On the face of it, a great decision.  However, I cannot shake the tremendous discomfort I feel with a decision that condones a trade that objectifies women.  Further, issues around substance abuse and patriarchy will continue to prevent women from reporting abuse. Is there enough will and institutional muscle to ensure women receive the support they need before they choose to enter this high risk career, when they choose to stay in it or to leave? Will they be educated on having themselves screened regularly for physical and mental health conditions? While criminalization is not the better alternative, have we thought this through, in terms of the messaging to our young girls and women? Of particular concern for us at MCIS is the plight of young women who are trafficked here. They are usually brought here under a false pretext and then become trapped due to their inability to speak the language. It appears traffickers will now be able to operate legitimate businesses under the protection of this new law? How will the new laws protect these women?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Canada's Immigrants - hardworking or bogus?

I was at T and T Supermarket today marveling at the array of goods there, limited only by the human imagination.  Who knew coconut water could be canned or bottled and consumed in so many different ways, as liquid, with gel cubes, beans and so forth.   I noticed that few among the throngs milling around the dim sum counters spoke English, and marveled at the sheer efficiency of the food preparation enterprise and the exchange of goods for money.  I was filled with gratitude that Canada had brought the far corners of the world to me to experience and enjoy.  Why just this morning I had partaken of Navroze celebrations with a Farsi co-worker.  

I naturally lament the very narrow view that Jason Kenney and his party is now taking of Canada's immigration policy.  They are trying to fix a system that is not broken. That immigrants struggle initially to settle is true, but it is not entirely their fault.   90% of 27 employees at my office are immigrants who could not get a job because of lack of Canadian experience.  They are an extremely bright and dedicated bunch who have bought cars and homes, invested in professional development and are working hard to give their children a University education.  They just needed that first break.  It is worth noting that while Canada may be spending money settling immigrants, this is nowhere near the benefits it has reaped from investments made by the source countries in educating their best and brightest, who end up here.  The above is all trite knowledge.  What Kenney is overlooking the most when he turns applicants to Canada into a repository of resumes whom employers can pick from to come here, is the immigrant population's diversity and entrepreneurial spirit.  What he does not see is that newcomers who end up here without jobs but with all their savings, by the very act of coming demonstrate their risk taking ability.  When they cannot find work, they create their own opportunities as small business and franchise owners.  While bringing immigrants who can immediately settle because they come with jobs is a good idea, what shapes this country is the creativity that comes from adversity.  After all, do we want a homogenous group of smug professionals or do we want people who reinvent themselves, make discoveries about their ability to survive, change careers and thereby serve as wonderful role models for their children.  When did the hardworking immigrant stereotype get replaced with this government's notion of bogus one?!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day

Some thoughts on the role of Development, Globalisation and Religion on Women’s Rights

Today is International Women’s Day. After listening to an interview of Nayantara Sehgal on the radio I decided to wear my“native” dress today. The story goes that when she was on a book tour in America in the late sixties, a woman in the audience asked of her saree, if it was her native costume and if she would show the room how she wore it. Nayantara is said to have quipped back, “these are my clothes and I am not about to undress in front of everyone”. The point here is of course the tendency to make exotic or into a “native costume” anything that is not western. Interested in carrying out a social experiment, I wore a salwar kameez to work today. First thing, I went downstairs to the coffee shop. I noticed that people were extra polite to me. People remarked how nice my outfit was, tried to make conversation and even made way for me in the coffee line. I also noticed how I made it a point to respond with a deeper voice to reflect my confidence as though to dispel any stereotype they have of me as a meek and coy ethnic woman. I don’t know that I can stand the attention wearing these clothes every day. There is great comfort in being invisible and blending in. As this realisation dawned on me I realise how much further we have to go in the West to break down barriers associated with racial and gender stereotyping. Oddly enough, in India now you can navigate in a Western suit in most cities without drawing much scruntiny. What does that say about development? Is it about becoming westernised?? I hope not.

On this day, I reflect on the role development, globalisation and religion have played on women’s rights and here are some of my thoughts.

Dont you agree that "development" has been a double edged sword for women? For middle class women, it has meant taking on the role of breadwinner over and above gender defined roles. As a result there is considerable added physical strain and mental stress. Add to it the reality of women predominating in low paying jobs in the profit centres of the East which serve the Western corporations. They often work nights under hazardous conditions at risk of sexual harrassment and assault. Since market forces trump everything and laws are rarely enforced against the powerful, particularly if the perpetrators are bringing in the profits, there are few accommodations made to protect women from harrassment and sexual abuse.

For the poor women of the world, increasing development has meant a more precarious life with the widening gap between rich and poor, high inflation and increased cost of living. The land grab has meant loss of traditional land and homes to the multinational corporations and no alternate place to farm or earn a living. It seems like a return to the feudal set up where agricultural labourers were bonded to the landlords, the difference now being there is less agriculture and more construction for the large corporations. Women work in construction under poor and unsafe conditions – and in less skilled jobs and earn lower wages than men. In addition, and due to their indoctrination that they are the nurturers responsible for the home and children, they do double duty. Their plight is made even more precarious by the alcoholism that is rampant among their male folk.

It is not easy to unravel gender politics, given it is inextricably tied to religion, caste and class. The unequal treatment of the genders is so entrenched in our social structures that it is accepted as part of gender identity. We try to fix gender equality by paying lip service to society’s structural context but attempting all fixes from the perspective of gender. We therefore have people who point to how far women have come or the successes of some women – as though to suggest it is the fault of the rest that they have not taken the opportunities given to them. Unfortunately, what goes unacknowledged is that religion, caste and class have a differential impact women. For eg, the return of all forms of fundamentalism in the religions of the world, as a backlash to western capitalism and its "seductive" allure, has resulted in women’s gender identity being defined by their role as the preservers af family, clan and cultural purity, represented by their virginity. Therefore, depending on their context women need varying degrees of support, competence, confidence and courage to withstand scrutiny when they buck role stereotypes. They have to be imaginative and negotiate with people who are rigid, prejudiced and unimaginative. Among the “have nots” women are still the world’s poorest and the gap between rich and poor keeps widening giving them less and less access to the resources they need to do this successfully.

So what are some things that need to change immediately. We need strong sanctions against the abuse of women in the workforce that hit the pocket books of large corporations and also individuals. We need affirmative action programs to provide access for woman to an imaginative educational system that teaches them to break traditional barriers to employment and negotiate gender inequalities with skill and minimal hardship. We need the education of entire socieities on the negative effects of globalisation on women’s condition. Most important of all, we need to demystify the sanctity of religion, particularly its role in curtailing women’s freedom.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Yesterday we began renovating our kitchen and bathroom. The last two weeks have been spent planning a smooth transition to renovation mode, setting up a make-shift kitchen with a two element electric stove, the fridge, coffee maker, utensils, basic groceries, and planning simple meals that might make their way into a recipe book entitled "simple vegetarian recipes for renovators". I feel joyful in my temporary kitchen which takes me back to my childhood days of playing house. In addition, the "hardship" from making do is romantic since it makes me feel quite righteous and triumphant against odds. You see this "kitchen" is not centrally heated and the access to it from the rest of the house is past the rubble of the areas being renovated. Given our below zero temperatures it feels like a Delhi kitchen in the winter or worse. I have to bundle myself up, shoes, coat and all before commencing work in it. Adding to the "hardship" element is the necessary trudge to the bathroom down the hall, past the rubble to wash dishes. I find myself more mindful, with greater awareness of all that I take for granted and greater empathy for people whose lives are makeshift due to abject poverty, war or both. In a very practical sense, this attentiveness helps me plan ahead given that cooking is a lot slower and often requires coordination with pressure cooker, rice-cooker/steamer, since I have a low capacity stove and no oven. I wake up super early, while it still seems like night outside, to cook breakfast and lunch before leaving the house. As I increase the space in my house, I am experiencing greater space and silences between my thoughts. Maybe from the mindfulness?!

Here's one to get you started

This dish reminds me of days spent eating spinach, picked from the shores of the river Cauvery, cooked in a stone pot on a firewood stove. Takes me back to my uncle's house in Mayavaram where i spent summers as a child!

In a little pressure cooker add a tablespoon of oil and once it is heated add half a teaspoon of mustard seeds, one teaspoon of black gram dhal (urad), 1/4 spoon fenugreek seeds, pinch of asafoetida, curry leaves, a couple of dried red chillies- add 1 bunch chopped spinach, quarter cup cooked red gram (tur) dhal. Add quarter cup water, let the steam come out, add the weight and turn off after one soundb. Lightly hand blend with salt. Great with hot rice and mango pickle.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

My mom's companion

Today as I watched "The Big Year", a wonderful movie about "birding", I thought about our intimate relationship with crows while growing up in India. The caw was probably the first sound I heard outside the nursing home window as I wheezed my first breath. The crow then
bore witness to all the important events in my life, curious and present and oddly comforting as the only constant through all the changes brought on by us changing cities, schools and just coming of age. Even now through all the radical transformation that economic growth has brought about in India you can count on the crow to trigger warm, fuzzy nostalgia. On a
recent trip home, I watched with delight this wonderful bond between my mom and a
crow that caws sitting on her window sill. It is funny how they communicate, with him
responding to her call, sitting for hours on her sill cawing while she shuffles around in her large and airy kitchen. He even expresses disapproval of some of the food she sets in his bowl by picking it up with his beak and placing it inside the sill! He is there beside her through her lows and highs, more than her children. I am convinced this crow that loves my mom's cooking is my Dad from the nether world, true to my Brahmanic belief that crows are the manifestation
of our ancestors. I had so many folks respond to my post on my mother and this crow with similar stories about their moms who lived alone, with these crows as companions and eating buddies through their lonely coffees or meals. The simplicity of this bond of mutual benefit made me feel warm all over.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Xbox and Foosball

Xbox and foosball

On a cold winter night, like the one last night, I am a veritable couch potato. My idea of fun is being curled up in front of our gas fireplace, part dozing, part reading (so as not to become a complete vegetable) and part watching TV which the husband is glued to. No one dare force me to make any effort more than that. So when I was dragged by a friend to his fancy apartment complex with bowling alleys and foosball I was not thrilled. The evening started with
us "golfing" and "skiing" with help from his xbox ( a first for me). Not known for my coordination, I was not a happy camper, but perked up when I actually beat the guys! Then it was downstairs to play foosball. "Come on" i grumbled, "this looks like a toy game that no one over 12 should be allowed to play". Soon we were a bunch of mostly thirty plus somethings ( we had some young folks join us) going at it like we were in the world cup. The playing "field"
is a small square table with 8 levers on it; the players, plastic toy men, are attached to these levers. There two teams are colour coded with blue and red players. Each team member grabs 2 levers with both hands, one playing offense and the other defense. The object is to block your opponent or score into the goal post. What makes it tricky is the limited scope for movement- just the flick of the wrist to block or hit -, coordination between both hands, all the while keeping both eyes on the ball. It became addictive, what with me trying to intellectualize and perfect my technique even as I got more and more competitive. I noticed in retrospect that it was in those moments when i forgot to think that i did the best and had the most fun! I broke out into a sweat, my cheeks flushed from the heat of the exertion and learnt all about being a member of a team, even as I brought out the child in me. Who would have thought foosball could teach me life lessons!