Thursday, December 17, 2015

It was a night to remember

Last night, we welcomed several Syrian refugee families with a warm hug. Prior to their arrival, the energy at the airport was positive and expectant. The long hours of hard work were paying off finally. And yet there was no sign of any fatigue. Everyone walked with a spring in their step, with a lightness of gait, a new sense of freedom. And when the Prime Minister walked in looking much younger, fresher and joyful than most, he was greeted with loud cheers reserved for rock stars and sex symbols. He obliged with selfies and group hugs. He generously shared the limelight with the Sikh Minister of Defense a decorated veteran sporting a shaggy beard and turban, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, Citizenship Canada and the Premier of Ontario. His security detail was well hidden, if it was even there. Greeting the refugees was more than a photo opp. There was just a culture of kindness and compassion that permeated the place and the people set up to greet them were as divergent as the world could offer all colours, religions, shapes and sizes. They were also unselfconscious, non hierarchichal and caring.

Over these past two weeks we have dealt with a most amazing, responsive, hard-working bunch of federal government employees. They have worked collaboratively with us to address minutia, while being uncompromising with respect to quality standards. At the airport, there was a Welcome Centre, complete with a play area for the kids arriving, lined with teddy bears for each one. There was a was resting area, food and drink and there were buses to take the newly arrived exhausted but elated group of refugees to hotels nearby. Our interpreters were booked to be everywhere, at the entry point, the welcome centre, the buses and the lodging sites. We had fifty of them all pumped up and eager to be part of history. Crowning moments were when they got their selfies with their superstar Prime Minister and interpreted for him as he interacted with the first families that arrived here on the Department of National Defence’s plane from Amman Jordan. Two short months ago, things would have been much different. Then there was a culture of fear and suspicion of everything foreign.

But last night the mood was best summed up by the Prime Minister when he spoke extempore from the heart and said:
"They step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada with social insurance numbers, with health cards and with an opportunity to become full Canadians. This is something that we are able to do in this country because we define a Canadian not by a skin color or a language or a religion or a background, but by a shared set of values, aspirations, hopes and dreams that not just Canadians but people around the world share."

Yes a leader can made a difference and raise the morale of a nation. There will always be naysayers but I am not about to let them detract from yesterday’s jubilation. It was a night to remember!
Justin with Team MCIS Interpreter in the yellow vest at 1:00 am ! A proud moment...

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Yoga and cultural appropriation?

The aim of yoga is to obtain a broader and clearer perspective on the boundless nature of experience instead of being stuck in a limited material world. Yoga can be seen as a practice designed to achieve sustainable happiness through the realization of this true boundless nature (Feuerstein, 2008, 2011).

Why is this then the domain of any one culture? It is universal like prayer or chanting. The argument can be made that the practice has been commodified. However, yoga is not about postures or breathing – even a court in California recognised this when it said the founder of Bikram yoga had no copyright over his sequence of asanas.

In the truest sense yoga is not an end in itself. It may be the means to an end in a journey that is very personal. There is no guarantee of nirvana from a perfect pose and therefore no one holds the key to enlightenment through yoga.

The idea of property and ownership is rooted in the Western concept of individuality which runs contrary to the spirit of yoga which talks about the oneness of all in spirit. It must be accessible to all and yet it can be possessed by none. Yoga is about letting go and not holding on.

So when you bring in concepts like cultural appropriation, oppression and hierarchy you presuppose that the West can claim it, modify it and promote it as something that it discovered and which the East was not capable of doing on its own. That may make sense for those who do not practice yoga and who measure “success” and “visibility” in Western terms of profit making. However, success in the true yogic sense is the true opposite of that; it is to become egoless and to identify less with the material aspects of the world.

I believe the objection is more with the commodification of yoga (although in this instance with the University of Ottawa, it was a free class provided by a volunteer). However, yoga works and heals. So with anything that works you are going to have people exploiting it for a profitable purpose. But given yoga is a state of being and not of doing or becoming can it really be manipulated for gain by Western society? Well if it can, that’s not yoga any more. That’s just a bunch of exercises that deliver a temporary state of wellness but do nothing for our state of being.

To look at this issue another way, the result of treating the practice of yoga in the West as cultural appropriation would be completely absurd. Would this mean that only Indians can do yoga? Or that only some Indians can do it. Would we become prescriptive about what we can and cannot do? If we do then that too is not yoga anymore?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mental Wellness

As several of us enter the dark days of winter and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lurks – I thought I would share some thoughts.
I am obsessed with mental health and wellness, especially combating depression, and therefore am a great proponent of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). In most societies people have to act like they have had the happy pill. We need to give ourselves permission to be sad. However, we also need to recognise that depression is not just sadness. It is despondency. If you have never walked in the shoes of someone with depression (and I have, early on in life) then you cannot know the feelings of anxiety, negativity, pessimism, lack of self- worth and hopelessness that comes over one. MBCT was something that I stumbled upon quite serendipitously when I suffered 30 years ago. It came to me through a most obscure source and I did not even know it was called that until several years later. I interpreted J.Krishnamurthy’s teachings (and if you have read them you wil know why I call them obscure!) which I absorbed through his books and in-person lectures, to mean just that. The phrase that stuck with great resonance was this, “the thought is not the thing described”. And just like that light bulbs went off in my head and I was able to separate perception from reality.

However, mere words can do nothing. Two derivative practices have endured for me. One, a discipline of noticing the filters through which I observe my actions, thoughts and feelings, clouded as they are by past experiences, learnt stereotypes and fear of the unknown. Two, facing all thoughts, feelings and sensations without trying to shut out those which evoke unpleasant bodily reactions – a churning in the pit of the stomach, tremor, racing pulse or dry mouth. I suffered through it all. Those initial years were tough. I needed the strength of my own conviction that this was the only way to live and I had to soldier on, one excruciating minute at a time. Thankfully today MBCT is a credible field gaining every day.

Simply defined MBCT “involves observing thoughts and emotions from moment to moment without judging or becoming caught up in them. During a practice session, when the mind wanders, the meditator ideally takes note of where it goes, and calmly returns to the moment at hand, perhaps focusing on breath, bodily sensations or a simple yoga move” (

I have had several people speak to me about symptoms which could amount to depression. While I am not one for labelling anything, I think it can be liberating for an individual to know that their “sadness” is not a character flaw but possibly a physiological condition made worse by an unconducive environment (represented by life’s stressors). They can be proactive. We don’t still know what MBCT does to the structure of the brain and physiology but it does dramatically and pleasantly alter how we react to our experiences.

No reason - I just felt compelled to share these thoughts today. There are number of youtube videos on MBCT which can give you more information. However, feel free to ping me if you want suggestions. Keep well!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Eulogy for a dear friend

On that awful day in Oct 2014 when I got the news of Latha’s diagnosis, I knew several lives would no longer be the same, mine included. What I did not know was how much I would learn from my dear friend during those 10 months that followed. I saw someone who never for a moment drew attention to her condition or got emotional, but who continued along, business as usual, in the most practical and inspiring way. Who continued to joke and laugh over how she did not have time for all the potions she was being prescribed, who said “breast is best no?” (meaning a diagnosis of breast cancer would have been so much better) and who actually indulged others’ minor distresses – ie my sciatic pain or someone else’s headache. When I asked her once if she was not afraid– she returned “where is the time man? All I think about in this moment is if I should have green tea or dandelion tea”. One day on a more serious note she said to me “when I wake up at night and find myself wallowing in self-pity, I remember my dad telling me that it would do me no good and I stop”. Even as the disease progressed and her pain got worse, her humour and presence of mind never abated. One morning in July I asked her how she was feeling and here is her response verbatim “with the onslaught of the nuclear missiles of modern medicines like oxycodone and aleve I must say I am comparatively peachy. I even made curry yesterday. I am seriously considering becoming a drug addict. Forget the blessed tiger balm and what not. Whatcha doing?”

Latha did everything well. She was artistic, organised, incredibly clever and engaging, an amazing gardener, a fantastic cook, a great and loyal friend and above all a wonderful wife and mother. She was elegant, bubbly and expressive infusing any atmosphere with her exaggerated and funny facial and verbal expressions and her mirthful infectious laugh. But, she was by no means frivolous. She was very disciplined, ran a beautiful and well kept home, celebrated all festivals with gusto and reverence and raised her kids Neeraja and Prashant to speak Tamil, be kind, loving, affectionate, respectful and practical just like her. She was a wonderful companion and a pillar of strength to Sunder.

With her friends, she epitomised fierce loyalty. She had a wide circle through her personal and professional circles and also endeared herself to people easily, inviting newcomers to Canada, and people she had just met into her larger fold. She is the only one I know who had boundless capacity to maintain friendships over decades even with friends who have moved away.

Ask any one and they will tell you that she was their go to person for all kinds of information. When she sick in the hospital, I asked Sunder where I could get something and he turned to Latha and said “I don’t know but she does.” Alas she was unable to respond and selfishly I thought about how much I had taken her presence in our lives for granted.

Some things in life are incomprehensible. Why would such an amazing person who took such good care of her mind, body and spirit fall sick? Someone who ate right, practised yoga, exercised and always kept good cheer? Who had so much left to live for? Well we can only take comfort in her own words to me one morning in July “Baba says work off your karma and I will help you. Why carry over your karmas when you can finish it off in this birth. Be patient and I will help you.” It was probably not a coincidence that she died on Baba’s birthday and after all that she had faced so valiantly, she definitely had more wisdom than most.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Paris will have to wait!

I never understood what makes people different until I spent 2 weeks with an adult daughter whose priorities and approach to life are different from mine. Or maybe it is this generation of professional women. They are fiercely independent and uncompromising in their attitudes and principles. They are clear and guilt free about life choices - or seems that way for the most part.

We of the sandwich generation are yo yos, vacillating between pleasing and serving someone or other - parents and siblings, kids and grandparents. In fact our identity and relevance are wrapped around who we serve. We therefore make few decisions to plan our time off and wait till we are needed somewhere for someone. The icing on the cake is the gratification that comes from feeling useful. And as though addicted to that feeling, we keep coming back for more. Now, whether we are really useful is another matter. People may have managed even better without us? Very likely.

However, for once, on this recent trip to India, I found myself being useful. Along with my little sister, always the rock, I provided some physical and emotional support to Amma who underwent a complicated surgery.

So how was I useful ? For one, we managed her fears by consciously taking the drama out of everything. This we did by being the filter through whom she communicated with the rest of the world. Given the Indian context, where people have a natural flair for "showing concern" (aka meddling), this was a useful function.

Second, my sister and I also protected her as much as we could from a system where nurses are glorified personal support workers, overworked, exploited and directed by doctors. Being twice removed from the logic of a decision, around pain management, for eg, and unable to second guess a distracted doctor's decision or omission, they cannot be relied upon to know fentanyl should be administered at no more than 3-5 ml per hour. My encounters with a few, over that week we spent in the hospital, must have definitely given them PTSD.

Last but not least, I took charge when Amma got home, as her primary care provider, cooking for her, helping her with ablutions, motivating her to eat and to exercise per the physiotherapists' instructions. Poor thing had to relinquish control of the kitchen and endure my cooking. Wow I really enjoyed the power that came from wielding the spoon and shushing her objections! The last week I spent training my successor, and her substitute and hers...ok don't get me started.. the newly appointed help(s).

Not to be outdone by me, my husband has been focussed on the care of his parents during the past year, over 3 different trips to India. I was there on two of three and missed one to travel to England, where I helped our daughter move house and settle in! Since this has been and will be our lot over the next few, alternating between care of various family members, Paris will have to wait!

Chennai tales - Jasmine all around me

Jasmine all around me

Chennai's stifling humidity is unmatched. I came home with Amma from central air conditioning at the hospital to the spacious three bedroom flat she has by Elliot's beach on the Coramandel coast off the Bay of Bengal. I don't know if the humidity is inspite of it or because of it. I don't know if it is always this intense at this time of year. Anyone who has not lived through this cannot imagine the feeling of being completely soaked in perspiration 24/7. While the A/c in the bedroom provides some reprieve, the movement in and out of A/c is hard on the body and just makes the experience of being outside even harder for someone like me who never breaks a sweat in Canada. So I decided in order to cope I had to stop complaining and go with the flow. I wear thin cottons, I shower a few times, keep hydrating and tell myself how incredibly healthy it is to dispose of bodily waste this way! By the way, I have a new appreciation for why the cotton "nightie" is the preferred choice of dress for young and old here. Wrapping oneself in a saree and keeping it on longer than necessary is monumental effort.

So now that I have come to accept this humidity with self aggrandizing righteousness, I have started to smell the jasmine (and not the sweat!) all around me - literally. Enter Kala. She is a young woman in her forties who works at an eye clinic and boards with Amma. She has a meagre income. She pays no rent and does light duties around the house while being company for Amma at night. Her presence gives us a lot of comfort since we did not want Amma, who is in her late 70s, living alone. Kala's meditation every evening, as she sits and watches TV serials with Amma, is stringing jasmine flowers. She spends a portion of her income to buy bags of loose flowers by the pound everyday, and patiently strings them close together with immense skill. By the end of the evening, the entire house is suffused with jasmine, the fragrance clings to the thick still and humid air, and she has made a long garland about 2 feet long. Early the next morning she cuts them into small 4 inch bits and adorns Amma's altar of gods in the kitchen. The sight and smell of the jasmine flower gives me a sense of homecoming! Kala is unique in that no one I know does what she does as a hobby. However, jasmine flower vendors making a living off selling flowers is ubiquitous here, and was a very important part of our life in Chennai growing up. It is no longer as affordable as it use to be to wear jasmine in your hair. For me it completes the experience of being home, humidity and all. A neighbour who has relocated from Delhi summed up Chennai for me. She said it is like a mother's lap. I could not have put it better and the jasmine flower which is unique to Chennai and the state of Tamilnadu makes it more so.

Recently we had a celebration in Toronto where you find me wearing jasmine. Now you know why TO, where jasmine is abundantly available, is also home! Also, Kala's handiwork!


So Uttagirl called me up one day and said, “mom can I have a chain with a pendant that says gratitude in Sanskrit so I can remind myself to be grateful.”

I said “consider it done”. So she went on to send me a picture – a thin chain with a rectangular pendant and the words inscribed on it. Her preference was either white gold or silver. I looked up the word for gratitude in Sanskrit online and found there were two mentioned – Kritagnya and Kritagnyata. So I turned to a Sanskrit scholar friend, my sister and a few other folks and decided on the latter. I was all set to give the order to have it made, when my husband astutely said “you know the lettering should be in Sanskrit not English”. “Huhn?”, I muttered incredulously, not letting on that I had actually only intended for it be engraved in English lettering. My daughter who got wind of this conversation that happened in Toronto, way out in the UK, said “Ya mom, I cannot believe you had planned to have it engraved in English letters.” Now they were all mind-readers!

Anyway, the thing did not get ordered or made till my recent trip to India. Knowing Utta’s particular aesthetic sense, my sister Suja did not have the nerve to take on this mission and offered to go with me to the store when I was in Chennai. 10 days before my departure I still had this project weighing on my head. We finally made time to go to a known jeweller who named an outrageous price. He suggested also that the letters should not be engraved but should appear as letters and insisted also that we send him a printout of the word so the jeweller does not make any mistake in the spelling. This was all a bit much. We had not even asked him for the design ideas he was selling us on. So as not to displease him, we bought the chain from him but not trusting him to execute our chosen design, headed over to a silversmith located in tiny alley beside the Kapali temple lined with stores peddling temple jewellery that dancers wear. We found jewellers intently striking pieces of metal on an anvil and molding them on a small flame in that stuffy hole that passed off as their work space. We showed the owner the design and handed him the lettering. He said no problem, come back and pick it up next week and quoted us a fraction of the cost. It was as easy as that! The husband picked it up on the appointed day and we took a picture of it and sent it to Utta.

When I next checked my phone I found a message from the T girl which I then excitedly proceeded to open and read. One word said it all "Yikes". "What's wrong" I countered. "It’s all big and shiny. I was visioning something more delicate. That looks like a gang chain." I was rolling on the floor laughing. I said "Utta, what am I going to do with you?!" She said "Nada. Lol." I then pointed out "Gratitude?" She said "Yeah...its silver so I don't feel so bad if I have to change it." Did not sound like gratitude to me. Lol. But I grudgingly do have to agree with her!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Why "Inside Out" is all the rage!

Inside out is a delightful comedy that will bring out the kid in every adult. It is a tale about how human emotions, joy, sadness, disgust, anger and fear influence how reasonable humans act. The colour coded embodiment of these emotions and the voices that are lent to them are all so apt and heart-warming that we found ourselves giggling joyfully and headily throughout the movie. A simple story about a young girl Riley’s reaction to her move to San Francisco from Minnesota, it delves into the human condition in literal and profound ways. If you ever wondered what flight of imagination, train of thought, long term memory, forgotten memories and abstract thought look like, then you will be treated to some pretty spectacular representations of these.

Peter Docter, Pixar’s ultimate talent is said to have based the storyline on his own daughter and to have consulted extensively with psychologists during its creation. A Pixar veteran, Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear character is partly based on him and he has been nominated for several Oscars already. This latest creation, a sure bet at the Oscars for its depth, imagination and visual appeal, is said to have been inspired by Japanese Anime, the fore-runner in all animation today.

The voice talent makes the film! Amy Poehler is irrepressible as joy and Mindy Kaling brings attitude as disgust. However, my hands-down favourites were Lewis Black as anger, erupting at the most inopportune moments to make poor decisions, and Phyllis Smith as sadness, wise but dragging herself and everyone down with her infectious pessimism.

The plot thickens as joy and sadness leave Riley’s emotional console on an accidental adventure to have anger, fear and disgust kick into high gear and rule Riley’s life. As a result of this mishap, the former, in their bid to return, encounter long term memory and the minions that are destroying fading memories, take a near catastrophic walk on the memory tunnel, enter abstract thought, have an accident on the train of thought and finally end up in forgotten thoughts where with the help of Riley’s fantasy friend, joy takes a flight of imagination to join sadness who, floating on a cloud, returns them both to Riley’s emotional command centre, with a little help from anger and disgust. As this is happening in the background, Riley’s parallel actions have included quitting hockey and running away from home to return to Minnesota. However, when joy and sadness return to the command centre, Riley gets off the bus heading to Minnesota to return home to her parents, to give her life in San Fran another shot, to get on a new hockey team and to make new friends at school! Watch it and you will know what I mean!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Let us call it a spade – Lessons for work and life from gardening

If any of you are deluded into believing I am gardener, let me dispel that notion right now. I am a lucky person who came upon a nice piece of land which was once a very nice garden. However, I received it quite like a monkey given a garland, with utter disregard for its beauty and value, ignorant and unschooled to take on the responsibility. I knew not the difference between annuals and perennials let alone the subtleties of nurturing and cherishing a garden. I did not get the bother. Why would people slavishly devote so much time to a pastime which meant naught, since everything disappeared in the winter anyway and you had to start all over every spring? I just did not comprehend why anyone would invest so much time,money and effort especially in annuals which were then replanted year after year. Or the hours of backbreaking toil, weeding, when even the most stubborn among them, disappeared in the winter? The race against those weeds is often a losing expedition, since they grow a couple of inches everyday during our short summers?

Now, I finally get it. And what that means is that I get the rhythms of this country with its four seasons, the cadence with which life alters and the importance for us of aligning with these rhythms to enjoy life and nurture one’s soul here. It’s almost a study in Eckhart Tolle. With the garden you have to be in the “now”. But the personal growth that has brought on this realisation, has been a painful one full of bloopers.

When we bought our house, it came with a landscaped garden which had a collection of wonderful plants well suited to and aligned with the contours of the land, the soil quality and the sun exposure in different parts of our front and back yards. Sadly, I had taken a scant interest in plants until then and knew not the difference between the good ones and weeds. I realised quickly that I had to work hard to keep it in its pristine form. It was not long before I saw the land as an adversary which had set out to embarrass me with overgrown weeds. I struggled with feelings of resentment for all the work I had brought upon myself. Finally I decided I needed some help. So I hired a gardener to clean the garden of weeds and he simply went over it all with a rototiller. He was not going to spend the hours that I was not willing to spend on it. He took my objective quite literally and just wiped out all plants, good and bad. I still remember it as the Friday massacre. I had a frantic phone call from my mom who was visiting from India. Heart pounding, I could hear her wail at the other end of the phone, “who are these guys and why are they killing all your lovely plants”. I rushed home but not on time to witness the carnage. By the time I arrived, it was all over, swept clean and stark, no sign of the beauty and grace that had thrived amidst those weeds.

A garden is a doozy. It takes, muscle, will, intelligence and lots of knowledge to take on plants. You are like a teacher managing a class of juveniles. You can bring them in line and get them to behave and realise their potential. But it takes care, individual attention, patience, time, knowledge, intelligence and lots of good intentions. A quiet mind and patience are the meditative elements that allow one to persist despite the critters that sting you, the dirt that gets into your hands, when gloves just will not do it, and when the sweat pours down the body through back breaking work. Like everything else it is about building a sound relationship and gaining intimate knowledge of your ally, the land, and adversaries, those stubborn weeds. Just two years ago I discovered the spade. Wow what a difference it makes to clearing and weeding. I had been struggling with lesser tools. So using the right tools is key to taking on this challenge.

Hidden in every garden are some wonderful life lessons. There is an awareness of the cycle of life as beauty re-emerges every spring and the summer when the plants are in full bloom. And then there is an appreciation of the wonderful worker bees of nature, the pollinators going about their duties as karma yogis and the birds that bring it all alive with unselfconscious song.
Work and life lessons I have gained:

I must,
Use the right tools to take on any challenge
Immerse myself in knowledge
Understand my allies and manage them wisely
Understand my adversaries even better
Ignore the gross and understand the subtleties
Give myself up to the “now”
Know that change is inevitable and embrace it
Trust that renewal is always around the corner
Engage in hard work which pays off in spades
Realise that when it all seems bleak and futile there will always be a bloom bringing on hope and renewal

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Tongue in cheek 2 - Mom needs knee surgery

My mom needs knee surgery. She has the forbearance of Job and never once complains about the constant pain she is in. This is a problem, because as we all know, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Her pain must have escalated beyond a certain level of tolerance because she is now talking about getting knee surgery. No laughing matter and a bit concerning given we want no complications. However, as I am learning to see humour in all situations, I thought I would relay the conversations we have had but with the greatest of love for Amma.

So she went to doctor number #1. He took one look at her x-rays and said he would give her a package deal and that she was making the right decision coming to him as he was an expert in these surgeries having studied abroad. But "what about my bone deficiency due to Paget's" my mother spluttered? To which he nodded reassuringly - "don't worry it will be fine". But would it? Given he got to pocket a cool couple of lakhs? We needed a second opinion and went to the next one who said someone by the name of the first doctor has consulted him about my mom's chart and also assisted him in surgeries. Really? So this was our man! He was slightly more pricey - but then he seemed the doctor of doctors - so maybe he was the one?! He also quoted a package deal, smiled reassuringly and did a great sales job. Amma swore he would be her surgeon. Except my sister decided to do some sleuthing and found out our first doctor knew nothing of this man and had never consulted him!

The plot having thickened thus, Amma was a bit disenchanted. So she called her friend and neighbour who has just come out of surgery. I then called Amma to find out the final verdict. She sounded triumphant and said "Globus it is! The patient gets delivered excellent food in the room, the guests can eat in the five star cafeteria downstairs, the room comes nicely fitted with all amenities and the whole atmosphere is like somewhere abroad". "But Amma, what about the doctor?" I queried. To which she said "Oh he is a North Indian with impressive degrees. I am sure he will be fine" (Are we trusting North Indian doctors more now?)Ever the practical one, Amma had decided that she just needed to choose based on the things she could control. She definitely had a point. Knee surgeries are where the money's at. Who can tell competence through all that sales talk?! What more could I say?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Tongue in cheek series 1 - My close encounter with a bodycam"

As I am learning to lighten up here is the first in my tongue in cheek series

Ok so I have lead feet. I may have pressed a little hard on the brake preventing the car from rolling to a complete stop. But only just about. I was coming off the ramp still mumbling profanities at the man who had cut me off as I had attempted to cross over two lanes to the exit ramp, which I then barely made short of a collision with another unsuspecting vehicle,… when it happened!

Back up to how the day had begun. Given the late movie that I had indulged in the previous night, I had not rolled out of bed in great form. To add to that, no yoga and no coffee yet. Showered, but bleary eyed I was not about to impress anyone with my sunny personality, let alone the cop who came out of nowhere, smacking his lips at being able to meet his day's quota so easily. What a disaster!

I don’t trust the men in blue. They are always up to something. Lurking around on side streets with their radar guns, looking through binoculars or worse yet, as in this case, stopping you smack in the middle of your miserable morning with a body-cam strapped to them. I must say this man was easy on the eyes, young, strapping and nicely tanned with strong arms befitting a person hired to maintain law and order with those errant wild things that pass off as young men these days. But me? And on the worst of days and also on camera? I nearly reached for an object to throw at him for not picking a more convenient time, when in a deep voice he said “Mam I have a video camera on me and you engaged in a traffic infraction.” Duh, what? My dull brain took a moment to register as I tried to lip read to help my brain process. “Yes mam, see that stop sign there, well you failed to come to a complete halt.” I wanted to stomp my feet, through a tantrum and scream “I am not dressed to be caught on camera you dumbass”, when I restrained myself and sweetly smiling for the camera, said through gritted teeth “I have driven this route for 15 years and have never failed to stop..”

He pointed to his camera , daring me to say another word, and asked for my identification papers. I reached for my purse and gave him my license and insurance, still saccharine sweet to be caught on camera doing the right thing! Who knew I may be hailed the poster woman for how to behave when caught on police body-cam - the fully cooperative citizen with utter regard for the men in blue. I was drifting into a fantasy where I saw officers huddling over and picking mine out as the winning-est recording following this body cam blitz, to justify their intrusive exercise with the naysayers, and the new Chief of Police holding a special recognition ceremony for me for my model behaviour..when a nicely muscled hand gave me back my papers rudely snapping me out of my reverie. “$110? What? This is a highway robbery”, I muttered still cloyingly sweet curbing all instincts to gun down the road in defiance. Body-cams be damned. They had taken away from me the pleasure of getting really mouthy and obnoxious with cops. What will they do next to curb my freedom of expression?!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sunday reflection 16 - The Smug Non Resident Indian

Recently, I had an epiphany about my life as a first generation Indian in North America. This has been further reinforced in gatherings I have attended. We believe we have the best of all worlds. We imitate the superficial elements of life as lived in India. With food, temples and Indian finery ubiquitous in cities like Toronto and even in smaller locales, we don’t feel the need for India any more. We have all the trappings of an upper class life right here – the supermarkets with every possible Indian food item, restaurants, grand banquets and shaadis, cable and online access to Indian TV, the local bangra events, Bollywood/Kollywood extravaganzas, classical music, ghazal and dance concerts, bharatmatrimony, street food fairs, chaat experiences, langar at gurudwara, puliyodarai at temples and movie theatres which participate in global releases of Bollywood blockbusters. And then to assuage our guilt we raise money for causes in India. We also make that occasional trip to experience Jaipur, Agra, Kerala or to take in a yoga retreat and come back with more of the latest stuff, which we may have missed out with the shops here not having caught up.

Our children have attended ivy league schools or have stellar careers, are scaling the corporate ladder and breaking glass ceilings, are in blended marriages and every wedding has white, Chinese and black women in sarees and all these men in kurtas. Mainstream organisations celebrate diversity with all things South Asian – samosas, bindis, Indian clothing and music. We wear our Indian-ness with pride and speak with confidence about our cultural practices, where in the past we tried desperately to blend in. Our kids look like us but are nothing like us. Their values and lifestyle micmic the average North American’s and yet they give Indian-ness a good name just by how they look. Our confidence thus buoyed, we live out visually more Indian than ever before. And yet? Are we really Indian with all these superficial feel good experiences? We have not really experienced India in years. Haven’t drunk its water, withered from its heat, suffered its politics, the congestion and pollution or witnessed large scale injustice and the suffering of those who have nothing. In short we do not experience any of the pain of being Indian and just cherry pick all that provides us entertainment and a nexus to mobilise around an answer to that call to our womb. We are shallow at best and hypocrites at worst. We are smug from having found the perfect formula to maintaining our identity as Indians in a foreign land. However, we are not that. We have spent years re-making our identities, acquiring our accent, compromising to redefine our Indian-ness and have mutated into beings that could not survive in India. We know none of its subtlety, relying only on sound bytes from popular media and stereotypes from our short trips. We have not had to adapt and negotiate conflicts or to fight for basic amenities and rights. Our kids make no bones about their lack of Indian-ness. We, caught in between, fit in nowhere except in artificial cocoons created by us to comfort, insulate and ease us. Do we have much to be smug about?!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Facilitating community conversations!

Arriving late, we only got to watch the last part of the heart-warming Cyber - Seniors in the beautiful Sanctuary Room of the Davenport Perth Neighbourhood Community Health Centre. A church converted into a community space, it has stunning ambiance with its stained glass windows, wooden rafters and high ceiling. Usually there is a facilitated discussion after the film.

However, this time around, the volunteer run advisory committee of said centre had group activities planned where they asked folks to get into discussion groups of 6 to 10, come up with ideas for community building and action. The suggestions from the 5 groups ranged from the creation of resident associations to karaoke nights, community conversation spaces, a Latin festival and social clubs. People of all ages engaged in this inter-generational activity.

A model city needs these kinds of gatherings and even though Toronto is better than most, we do wrestle with the problem of social isolation. MCIS and Doc Institute ,with support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, were delighted to help facilitate tonight's conversation and we are confident the advisory committee of DPNCHC will carry the ideas that were generated and bring them to fruition. They have wonderful programs - visit their site and do not hesitate to get involved!

Also, be inspired by watching or participating in Cyber- Seniors screenings - a project that has now spread to several communities across North America! Become a Mentor, a Cyber- Senior or a Partner , and help spread the word about "the wonderful things that can happen when generation gaps are bridged, and new ways of connecting are explored".

Friday, May 15, 2015

Vulnerabilites of a modern day sex slave

On Wednesday, May 13, 2015, I presented on the topic of Sexual Violence and Trafficking at the Impact of Family Violence Conference held at Ottawa University (May 13-14) in our nation’s capital. We had light streaming into the greenhouse like glass board room which overlooked the lush green of early spring and the Rideau Canal, with its crystal clear water. A halcyon day for such a sad and dark topic. And yet with a group of passionate participants the discussion was probing, animated and sometimes contemplative. We were there to understand together what the nature of modern day sex slavery was where a perpetrator harbours and violates individuals’ human rights with threats of violence, to their personal being or of persons close to them, for personal gain. Who is most vulnerable? Its young girls and women, young boys, children under the age of 16. The indigenous population is disproportionately represented and most trafficking, contrary to popular belief, is domestic not international. A typical story may evolve like this. A young person is lured by someone she believes she is in love with. He plies her with gifts and then increases her emotional and financial dependence on him. Often he gets her hooked on drugs and then makes her repay the debt she owes by prostituting herself. There is use of physical violence and threats of violence to keep her enslaved, completely altering her perception of reality and debilitating her independence. The perpetrator lives off her avails and sometimes gets her to become the “bottom bitch” to ensnare into the “game”, and control, other young girls/women like her. Sometimes he gets her to engage in illegal activity such as credit card fraud and drug trafficking and uses these as additional threats to keep her psychologically bound.

As the discussion progressed we all recognised that a survivor may not self identify as a victim of trafficking and hence getting her to leave is an extremely sensitive and tricky issue that has to be done with a “do no harm” approach. One has to carefully weigh the potential harm in any solution before offering it up. The best approach is therefore to address their basic needs for food, shelter and sleep because tackling the big issues relating to their physical, psychological and emotional well-being could take years. With the commodification of sex on a global scale and the thriving porn industry controlled by large mafias this issue has to be addressed at many levels. Sadly though, perpetrators of domestic trafficking may be local gangs or even sole operators such as "boyfriends" or, in some cases, parents! We had more questions than answers at the end but did recognise the need for strategies in Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnership as common themes among agencies that are set up to help.

In India the circumstances may be different but the basic elements of the trafficking crime - kidnapping, harbouring, controlling and violating all forms of human rights for personal gain and profit - are essentially the same!

Coincidentally, on the day I was presenting, the following news item made headline news in the National Post.

As a first step let’s all learn a little more about this issue by taking MCIS’Online Training to Address Human Trafficking. It is rich with videos where survivors tell their stories!

Impact of Family Violence Conference is an initiative of the Social Services Network

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Airline seats, religious accommodation and our multicultural societies

Recently, I flew a budget airline to London. As is always the case I had a seat in economy. Mine was an aisle seat in the middle row. There was a middle aged Indian woman seated beside me in the centre and beside her, on the other aisle seat, a young Englishman. This woman was clearly agitated with the seating arrangements. Her teenage daughter was in the middle seat in front of her flanked by two men and her husband was two rows behind us flanked by two women. She began by wildly gesticulating to the airline stewardess to request a seat change, to which the woman said since the flight was full she could do nothing but maybe her co-passengers would oblige. At this point I knew what was coming and my spine stiffened. Clearly I was a candidate for the switch with her husband. I am usually not mean and like to oblige - but not in this instance. I was not charitable enough to trade an aisle for a middle seat, especially one that was a closer to the toilet. I must have repelled her with a fairly defensive and stern stance because she immediately turned to the guy seated to the other side of her and asked if he would switch with her daughter who, she claimed, was afraid to be seated beside two men. To my astonishment, the young man immediately obliged and squeezed his gangly body and limbs into the middle seat between two portly men, to allow her daughter to sit beside her. Now she could have ridden on her wave of success and made the same request of me. Alas she did not because she had read my body language.

These kinds of requests touch on many issues that are quite close to all of us - personal space, our sense of who we are and our individual rights balanced against the need to accommodate under reasonable circumstances. I am motivated to share this story because on a recent CBC radio program ("The Current")I heard Alana Stockman ("Alana"),a feminist writer, say she was made to feel like I did, guilty for no reason, when an Orthodox Jewish man on an El Al flight refused to sit beside her. She stayed put in her window seat refusing to move. On this show, she and another writer Sharon Shapiro ("Sharon") shared their views on what El Al should have done under these circumstances. Sharon said they should have ensured they have a policy (given this is a frequent occurrence) whereby they designate rows, or they have people make specific requests at the time of booking that the airline could then try and accommodate. Alana opined that such policies have the effect of entrenching a social system which can discriminate against groups at will – in this case, women. In her view we would once again be handing over to fundamentalists, the right to make women “invisible”.

For our purposes the point I am making is that as religious fundamentalism gains societies are having to make more and more decisions around accommodation and, given the intended and unintended consequences that could ensue, these must be given careful consideration and thought.

A recent example of such a fundamentalist act is Indiana’s Religious Freedom Bill. Signed into law by Governor Mike Pence last month, this law actually allows individuals and corporations to deny services where it goes against their religious conscience. In effect, this draconian law actually gives people the right to deny other people their rights in the name of religion. The groups most vocally opposed represented the LGBT community which saw it as a direct attack on them given recent incidents where businesses had denied services for gay weddings. However, under this legal regime anyone can potentially be denied a service under the cover of religion.

In light of the above, the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling last month in MLQ V. Saguenay, which went the other way, came as a breath of fresh air. In rejecting a Municipality's right to have a prayer at the beginning of their meetings, the court held "the evolution of Canadian society has given rise to the concept of neutrality according to which the court must not interfere in religion and beliefs".

So coming back to the El Al story what's the right treatment of someone seeking religious accommodation. I believe Canada’s legal approach is best, to buck the rise of fundamentalism. There would be two tests that the person seeking accommodation would have to respond to. One, would the accommodation result in the violation of values in a civil society? If it would, then there would be no accommodation. If however there is not likely to be a violation of such values, the person seeking a different seat may have the right to be accommodated. However, the request would then have to pass a second test- whether their religion obligates the individual to act in a certain way that they would require such accommodation? Here is where, in our example, the Orthodox Jewish person's right to be accommodated may come undone. It appears there is nothing really in Judaism which calls for such segregation of the genders in physical space, therefore this trend towards increasing state sanctioned segregation is recent. Apparently, the first bus lines segregating genders was introduced in Jerusalem in 2001 and now there are over a 100. If the strict practice of Judaism does not obligate genders to be segregated then this man's argument that it would go against his religious conscience to remain in close proximity with women would have to fail, with the airline having no duty to accommodate. These tests do not provide all the answers but they do provide some direction for how societies should be grappling with these complex issues as we become more multicultural and global.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Enriched by a Community Screening

It was a nice Saturday evening and I went to attend the documentary screening of Deepa Mehta’s “Lets Talk About It” just to show my support to MCIS Language Services' Doc fellow, Roxanna Nastase, and our DOC Program Manager Sree Nallamothu, both of whom were hosting it. However, I came away enriched and quite exhilarated.

All I knew ahead was that this was a screening at a low income neighhourhood, 100 Lotherton Pathway in North York. It seemed like we had to drive forever on Lawrence Avenue West to get to our destination. Finally we hit Caledonia Street and turned into 100 Lotherton, a residential condo, tucked away in relative obscurity. I had been to this part of Toronto, pre law school, when working as a welfare worker for about six months. There had been no reason, since, to experience a slice of life among this cross section of the population. I always bemoan the fact that my life follows a set pattern giving me little reason or opportunity to veer from its mundane path. I therefore was truly grateful for this chance.

We arrived late because I did not know if we were at the right location and had to make a few phone calls to figure out where exactly in this residential building the screening was being held. When we finally made it in, we were ushered into a crowded space on the ground floor beside the elevator. It served as a meeting place for the building's residents and consisted of two rooms with an attached toilet. Although, this was a private condominium, it appeared degraded and in need of urgent work which the residents could ill afford. The smell of stale food hung heavily in the air. We joined the 30 odd people squeezed into the inner room watching the film which was projected onto the wall. In the adjoining room the hosts had provided an array of refreshments which were laid out on two tables. There were fruits, muffins, pastries, pita and dip, coffee and hot chocolate for people to help themselves to. But no one stirred till the film was done.

After the film concluded, the attendees helped themselves to food and drink and then gathered once again to engage in a conversation about this film on domestic violence. They were mostly West Indian and ranged in ages from 30 to 80. There were only 3 men. Samuel Park, who wears many hats as MCIS Training Facilitator, Korean Interpreter and a Community Worker was there as an expert panelist to engage with folks and to moderate the discussion. Also present was Tara Bootan a community worker who is involved in an initiative called the Action for Neighbourhood Change in this, one of Toronto City's 31 priority (high needs) neighbourhoods, which though vibrant, is ridden with poverty related issues.

Samuel started the conversation by framing the subject matter well. He highlighted the film-maker’s unique approach to the topic of domestic violence through the eyes of the affected children. Deepa Mehta has used an interesting approach, filming the children’s videotaped interviews of their parents where they ask them why they had done what they had. In some instances the interviewed parent is the abuser and in others, the victim. Our discussion was kicked off by a male audience member who remarked that the film was biased and that abuse was gender neutral. Samuel handled that comment cleverly by pointing to overwhelming statistics pertaining to women being the victims and then sought comments from others. At this point the women began to speak up and I was astounded by their clarity and their feminist analyses as they spoke of their experiences leaving abusive relationships, and of helping others who had decided to. They spoke about tricky situations they encountered where they did not know what the right response or course of action was and suggested that they be provided some training handling these situations in their community. They talked about the need to form informal community networks that women could reach out to, when close family did not offer the requisite support fearful of the “shame” it would bring them. They talked about elder abuse and the need for a different approach to ensure the safety and dignity of seniors in precarious situations, uncared for, either living by themselves or within extended families.

I have been to several conferences on domestic and sexual violence and have listened to academics speak about their community based research. However, I have never been as impressed as with these women who moved me with their passion, pragmatism and powerful voices. They are the women in the trenches confronting these difficult issues every day and reaching out and supporting each other with compassion, courage and caring. Samuel did an amazing job, elevating the quality of the discussion so sticky and nuanced issues were explored. After coming home, I researched this neighbourhood and found out that a model community is emerging where the residents are actively involved in community capacity building. Several of the participants at today’s screening had in fact voluntarily assumed leadership roles ( Sree and Tara had picked an appropriate venue for the screening of a film that could mobilise people around thoughtful movements in communities. I came away gratified with MCIS' role in making these screenings happen and determined to think of ways in which to engage this cross-section of women in future solutions to address this complex issue in our work at MCIS.

Thanks to the Trillium Foundation for their support of this amazing project which is igniting several such conversations in the City as we continue on with these screenings to the end of this year! Those in Toronto, please come out and attend our free screenings and engage in some awesome conversations!

Check out the schedule at

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A beautiful City, Music and Education

"A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education." George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday, I enjoyed a beautiful night out on the town with a close friend. We were at the iconic Royal York Hotel rubbing shoulders with the City’s well known “do gooders”. The night was crisp and cold but the sky was clear and the City sparkled with a vibe that reflected its diversity and modernity. The crowd at the banquet was a friendly and cheerful one representing the City’s cultural richness. We had wonderful dinner companions. An Associate Professor of Music, Stephanie, who taught music history, played, composed, sang and taught classical and choral music, a singer in one of her choirs, and a Turkish real estate agent. The conversation was scintillating especially when Stephanie reminisced about the time she played the organ accompanying evensong at the enchanting St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. She waxed prolific about the choral music scene in London and I rushed home to message my daughter Uttara, a London resident, about potentially joining a volunteer choir there, given her musical interests and latent (!) abilities.

Dinner was lovely. There were delectable spinach pastries and vine leaf rolls as starters, a delicious pasta dish for the entrĂ©e, salad and, for dessert, Noah’s pudding, which came complete with the recipe.

Following dinner came the headliner. The key-note by the University of Toronto President, Eric Gertler, which ended up being a missed opportunity. At a time when universities have to rethink their relevance functioning in their current form, given the debt load students carry unable to find jobs in the current market, the largest university in Canada bears responsibility to shine light on a new path? With several key influencers present in the room, this talk should have challenged us to re-imagine a world where physical classrooms are replaced by all forms of synchronous and asynchronous learning, where the portals of education find students wherever they are in their lives and where there are dynamic and synergistic collaborations with alumni, industry, other institutions and even nation states! This is the time to rethink the revenue model that universities operate by, given the role education has come to play as a life- long pursuit what with technological advancements altering our reality at break-neck speed. We simply have to keep up with these changes, to do better at work and to live fuller lives! Gone are the days when we could pay lip service to words like innovation and civic engagement, without actually demonstrating how this would look. If universities are only concerned with maintaining market share and boundaries, in traditional ways, then all they will be left with are empty classrooms and expensive real estate, while the educational start-ups ride the high waves. Do we want Canada’s largest university to maintain the status quo, with a deluded sense of its importance in its current form, or do we want it to rise up to the greatest challenges that universities are facing today and pave the course?

I marveled at the symbolism of having a music professor at our table. Especially one who was disrupting the world in her own little way. She was bringing classical music from the ivory tower to untrained singers and lay audiences, breaking down barriers and unraveling the mystique surrounding it. And the diversity of folks gathered in that room each had a similar story to share, a piece of wisdom to impart to help both Toronto and Canada stay ahead of the curve, with a shared commitment to achieving excellence in this knowledge economy. I am proud to say that we have contributed to this in our own small way at MCIS. We continue to help newcomers get a leg up in life qualifying them to work as language professionals, making our courses both geography agnostic and asynchronous.


MCIS offers several on line skills building courses related to language training (
Free online training to address human trafficking (built under the auspices of the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General) is being offered to social work students at some post secondary institutions with wonderful results! Check it out at

Sunday, January 4, 2015

On Walking !

All I needed was a great pair of shoes and a warm coat!

I love to walk. My mom says I started early and once I did there was no stopping me. We lived in a large colony in Bombay up to my 6th year and search parties were on the look out for me every single day, following my long disappearances. I made friends easily and therefore invited myself into my mother's friend's homes when I needed to rest from my wanderings. Those were innocent times and luck was on my side in that we lived in a locale where people looked out for each other. However, this was no small colony and my mother's panic must have known no bounds especially after I was once found stuck between 2 floors in one of those cage elevators when a cruel young kid had pulled the door shut with me in it and someone from upstairs had pressed the button. Anyway all this notoriety resulted in my being nicknamed Odukaali (wandering legs).

The fact is I simply loved to walk. I must have inherited the gene from my father who walked everyday, rain or shine, from before I was born. As a teenager I joined him on weekends and school holidays. He loved having mom or us kids as walking buddies and regaled us with interesting stories about ordinary people and I lapped it all up, especially the one about how my future husband would be the best match for me! I tried to keep up my walking after coming to Canada. However, with the demands of a yoga routine and career my walks became more sporadic and even more so in the winter.

It was too cold or too slippery were the excuses that I readily used to talk myself out of it. I took to the treadmill sometimes. And yet, the hill on which our house is located is a favourite with my friends Sophia, Bill and Diane. Sophia a deeply spiritual woman who considers the hill a sacred place with divine energy. The three of them walk every day, through the winter. Bill is 87. In the fall he raked the leaves in his yard by himself and filled 28 bags. This hill is not for the faint-hearted and he does at least 3 everyday. Sophia who is in her mid 60s does 8 in under 2 hours and Diane who is in her mid 50s jaunts up and down as if she is taking a walk in the park! Sophia is the one who lured me out a few summers ago. Like my dad she is a wonderful storyteller and has bags of tales about her healing practice, her patients, her beautiful mediterranean summer garden, health fads, gluten free recipes and of course her trips to Corfu, Greece where she hails from. I have joined the group in the summer and on weekends but have chickened out when the barometer hit 0 Celsius.

Not this year. No more excuses. I went out and invested in a good pair of walking shoes. The daughter left me her Canada Goose jacket and hiking boots as further incentive and I apparelled myself with the rest of the cover. I am out on the hill with the first light on weekends and holidays. I will figure something out for weekdays. I still pant up and down and am kept buoyed by Sophia's stories, Diane's words of encouragement and Bill's sheer presence. I do at least an hour. And really there is no substitute for filling your lungs with fresh air, listening to the cadence of your walk, feeling the incredible gratitude that you must for your limbs and lifting your mood with the endorphins that flush your system at the end of it. I am convinced that Pharma companies will do no business if everyone walks away their depression, insomnia and what not! I have overcome serious sciatic pain with this. And the mental clarity and quietude that follow are just the icing on the cake!

So put on your shoes and a warm coat and walk your troubles away!