Monday, December 31, 2012

Ladoos and Barfis

'Will you distribute ladoos or barfis?', a nurse at a Delhi hospital had asked my mother, just hours before I was born. My mother did not understand the gist of this question, but my aunt who had lived in the capital long enough to understand quickly responded, indignant that it was even asked. 'It doesn't matter to us', she replied.

Barfis are usually distributed to mark the birth of a girl (assuming that a family obsessed with having a male heir does not resort to female foeticide). Ladoos, the richer, more expensive sweet of the two, are distributed to celebrate the birth of a boy. See how the birth of a girl is merely noted, but that of a boy is celebrated? And therein begins a journey of inequality, right from the proverbial cradle to the grave, sowing the seeds of a chauvinistic, misogynistic society.

A girl is taught to dress appropriately, talk and conduct herself in a manner that doesn't bring herself or her family any shame. A girl who is provocatively dressed 'deserves to be raped' because 'she asked for it'. How about men? Oh! They are men, and after all, 'men have their needs'. I have often heard people state, 'Even if you say a thousand things, she is only a woman'. Just take a look at all our movies, which is perhaps a reflection of  our society. The femme fatale is the bad woman, using her charm to seduce unsuspecting, innocent men. She is always the English speaking, pub frequenting, provocatively dressed woman who smokes, drinks, and sleeps around. On the other hand, the good heroine is always dressed conservatively, knows her 'place', sacrifices her own identity, gives up her dreams and ambitions, so that she can become an ideal wife. Incidentally, these things do not apply to men, of course. We are not only a misogynistic society but also a hypocritical one. We ask our daughters to cover up, as if that will stop rapists, and yet, we have no qualms watching the thousands of item numbers that desperate movie makers include in their mindless movies, just so that they can sell. And in a country that is crazy about Bollywood, they sell like hot cakes! Indeed, who has not heard of Munni or Shiela? A society where women are objectified, routinely harassed just because they are women, where respect seems to have vanished- this is our society today.

The past fortnight brought with it one of the most shocking incidents our country has ever witnessed. Like thousands of people across India, I was struck numb. The brutality of the rape stung me, and I was horrified that it could ever happen in a society which is supposed to be civil. Even worse, I soon realized that this could happen to anyone! Collective outrage against our impotent laws, against our corrupt system, against our indifferent chalta hai attitude poured into the streets. Candlelight vigils were held all over India, expressing our sorrow for India's 'braveheart', calling for stricter laws (Castrate the criminals! Hang them!) I fully agree that there needs to be a fear of law, and there have been far too many rape cases where the survivor is reduced to the label of a 'rape victim', destined to live the rest of her life, burdened with social stigma. Indeed, look at the phrase used to describe such circumstances- she lost her honor. How unfair can it get! Remember the Park Street incident? A politician allegedly stated that this was not a rape case, but rather a 'misunderstanding' arising out of a deal with a client. I cannot even fathom how a woman can say such things about another woman. Remember Soumya's story? The beast, who brutally raped her and left her to die, is still alive, living comfortably on taxpayers' money in prison. These stories are frightening, but what remains even more distressing is that the rapes continue to happen, the misogynistic attitudes remain defiant. And there seems to be deafening silence all around when it comes to concrete long term solutions.

One of the perpetrators behind this extremely heinous incident is a juvenile. I cannot even believe that someone who is of my younger cousin's age could even think of such an act. Isn't this a sign of how the government, schools, families, our society as a whole, have failed? Ironically, this incident has brought to light our mindset, even within the elite so-called educated society. When former actor Smriti Irani, a member of the Parliament, spoke about the issue, she was ridiculed by Sanjay Nirupam, another Parliament member, the gist of the entire remark being- till today you were dancing on TV and today you have become a politician? Abhijit Mukherjee, another MP, and the son of our President, recently passed a remark on how the women protesting against the streets of Delhi are 'painted and dented'. Even as young women gathered at Raisina Hill and other locations across the country, there were cases of them being groped and eve-teased. I read about how certain Haryana politicians think that reducing the marriageable age for women would be a solution. Let's reduce it to ten or twelve maybe, shall we? That way we can kill all hopes of an education and a future for young girls! As they say, nip it in the bud! Another honorable politician went on to recommend that skirts should be banned as school uniforms since 'it attracts sharp and dirty glances and lewd comments'. He went on to suggest that they should be made to wear salwar kameezes or trousers instead. Note that there was no mention about implementing strict punishment for eve-teasing or taking the men to task. What next? Ban girls from going to school all together? Because you know, it's all this education that is making girls bolder and taking them far from where they are supposed to be; stopping them from attending schools would teach them a lesson, and put them back in their places. If this is the attitude of our elected leaders and urban citizens, I shudder to think of the plight of those in rural areas, buried in some forgotten corner of the nation.

This is probably one among hundreds of blog posts written about the issue. I write about this because it angers me, it makes me feel helpless. Our society is crippled, our justice system flawed, and our attitudes frightening. As a woman, as an Indian, as a human being, I hang my head in shame for being a part of a society which has permitted this to occur. I do pray that Nirbhaya's death does not go in vain. An eye for an eye does make the world blind, but in a society such as ours, only fear of the law will work. My opinion may not matter much but I do believe that India can learn a lesson or two from Singapore and Saudi Arabia in this regard. The six accused in this brutal gang-rape must be brought to justice. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg for these incidents continue to occur, and very often they go unnoticed. Think about rapes by family members, forced prostitution in rural areas, honor killings, dowry deaths...The only long term solution is to change the way we think. Our children must see good examples in their parents. From childhood, they must be taught that men and women are equal, and that should be practised in reality. Inequality starts from the choice over a ladoo or a barfi. Sometimes it starts even before a child is born. This isn't about politics or feminism. It all boils down to respect and dignity, something which is central to the existence of any human being. Women deserve to be treated with respect and dignity; we too are human.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Books and Memories

Books have always been an important part of my life. I cannot remember not having one with me at any point in time. Of course, there was a brief period when I just couldn't find the time to read, or even if I had time, I was too tired and preferred to switch on the idiot box instead. But I am glad that I did return to books, and although I don't read as fast as I once used to, I still love to curl up on the sofa, and soak in the pages, savoring the smell of the paper, (which probably explains why I still cannot come to terms with e-books) and drowning myself in the stories unfolded in those pages.

Now that I am back home for the semester break, I spent some time looking at old books on the bookshelf, and realized why I am so attached to them. To me, each book is a memory, and looking at those books helps me revisit those memories. At home, every birthday, vacation, or special celebration has always been remembered through books. Indeed, I received my first book when I was three years old. It was a tiny Ladybird book, titled 'Story time for 3 Year Olds', and Appa had also written in a small message- For Dear Sruthimol. A number of other books followed, each one with a message from Appa or Amma, each one as precious as the very first. I came across a Laura Ingalls Wilder book (Little House on the Prairie), a gift for my eleventh birthday, with this message from Appa- Dear Sruthimol, Eleven today! (Going on fifteen?). I loved the Little House series, and I got the last one (On the Banks of Plum Creek) in celebration of me getting a school leadership position. I re read the message from Appa, and it brought back so many memories, a time when Appa would lovingly call me poochakutty,  me wearing my blue school pinafore and proudly pinning on the Assistant Literary Secretary badge, the school in Bahrain...

It's not just the books on the shelf that bring back memories. There are also prayer books in the puja room, old yellowed pages, often dog-eared and slightly torn. The old Bhajanamritam copies remind me of bhajans sung together as a family. The Lalitha Sahasranamam booklet reminds me of Friday mornings, where we would sit together and chant the 1000 names of the Goddess. Each time I use the book, I remember how Amma and I would always smile at each other, in between the chants, whenever we reached the 879th name, Sudha Sruthi. (My mother's name is Sudha, and most of my family and friends know me as Sruthi, so this name of the Goddess is a combination of both our names.) The faint fragrance of vibhuti in the folds of these pages is a reminder of God's omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience to me, and it brings me tremendous solace in trying times. 

Every book is a memory, and that makes each book special to me :)

P.S: I'm finally out of my blog-hibernation mode! Although I would like to think I have been really busy, it was sheer laziness that prevented me from blogging this past month.

Mol is a Malayalam term for daughter.
Poochakutty literally means 'little cat' in Malayalam.
Puja is a Sanskrit term for worship/prayer.
Bhajans are devotional hymns
The Lalitha Sahasranamam is a Sanskrit prayer, consisting of the 1000 names of the goddess. (Sahasra meaning 1000, and Namam meaning name)
Vibhuti refers to sacred ash, often worn on the forehead as a sign of faith.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

This is the Day!

Around eight years ago, when I was at middle school, studying in Bahrain, my school had organized a summer camp in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India. My parents were organizing the whole trip, so I was automatically included in the team. The week long trip included visits to wildlife centers in Bandipur, Top Slip, and Parambikulam Dam, all of which are well known among nature and wildlife aficionados in southern India. But the highlight of the trip for me was a visit to Avalanche lake, about which I have blogged earlier.

If you were to ask me to describe paradise, I would point out to Avalanche. Far from the glare of city lights, (in fact, not many people, even from Ooty and around, are aware of the existence of such a place) surrounded by the pristine blue waters of the Avalanche lake, and the emerald green expanse of forests, this place is an absolute reminder of God's wonderful ways. I could go on about Avalanche, but rather sadly, I haven't been able to visit after that particular trip.

What reminded me of Avalanche all of a sudden was a song that has been stuck in my head all day long:

This is the day, this is the day
That the Lord has made, that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice, we will rejoice
And be glad in it, and be glad in it!

The camp at Avalanche was run by the Scripture Union, and I remember the volunteer who guided us along our journey. Wilson  helped us with our kayaking expeditions around Avalanche Lake, and organized trekking trips across the mountains and forests. Best of all, after dusk, we would gather around a camp bonfire, and sing together, and this was one of the songs Wilson taught us, an unruly set of school kids, that day. Ever since then, when this song comes to my mind, I am immediately transported back to Avalanche, where the heady scent of the eucalyptus trees mingles in the refreshingly cold mountain air. At the same time, the tune and the words are so cheerful that it instantly puts a smile on my face, even if I am having an absolutely horrid day. Just goes on to show that every day is the Lord's day, and each day needs to be celebrated. This is the day! :)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kerala Summers

A pond near my granduncle's house in the heart of a typical Kerala village.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the holidays I spent as a child in Kerala. A sense of nostalgia, maybe? Or some kind of sadness that those are times that I have probably lost forever? I really don't know. Today, even if I do go back, times have changed, and so have people.  So, these are some of the things that came to my mind:

The rain. Monsoons in Kerala are amazingly beautiful. To just sit and watch the fierce rains swathe the lush greenery with a dash of pristine white is pure bliss. I have spent many a summer sitting at the verandah of my valiamma's house doing just that. Or simply reading a book and listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops.

Games and discussions with the cousins. This used to be super fun. No adults involved, just us kids. Whenever I visited Palakkad, after we finished gossiping about films, books, and people, our topic of conversation would always turn to the supernatural. The cousins always had something new for me, the so-called outsider. They told me tales of yakshis and rakshasas, handsome gandharvas and spirits that could be summoned through an Ouija board. I used to be petrified then, but looking back it does bring a smile. 

Temples, temples, and more temples. Shashi Tharoor, in his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, also writes about his school holidays in Kerala. He describes it as a cross between a pilgrimage and a penance- his parents' pilgrimage, his penance. Well, my holidays were also a bit like that. :D 

Ever since I can remember, every trip had visits to at least seven or eight temples. First, the temple town of Guruvayoor. I used to hate the serpentine queues at the gate of the temple, often making our wait stretch into hours. According to the temple rules, women and girls sporting western clothing couldn't enter the temple, and I would always be dressed in a pattu pavadai. That in itself would annoy me, thanks to the indignity of clutching onto the long folds of the skirt lest I trip and fall on my face. And then there was always the possibility of my parents becoming over zealous in their devotion, leading them to suggest standing in the queue for another darshan which translated to more hours! I would be perpetually hungry, (I used to have a definite preference for 'bhojanam over bhajanam'. :D) and asking about meals was rather futile, since the purpose of the trip was to visit Bhagavan, not the Brahmins' pure vegetarian mess outside West Nada. (By the way, I've always been curious- what exactly do they mean by 'pure' vegetarian? I'm vegetarian myself, but I have no claims of being purer than the rest of humanity.)   After Guruvayoor, the next stop would be the nearby Shiva shrine of Mammiyoor. Then, on our way back to Palakkad, a stop at the adima kaavu or the family shrine. Ours is a matrilineal society, so it is customary to stop at Amma's family shrine, a temple dedicated to the goddess Bhagavati, nestled in the corner of a village, buried deep in the Western Ghats. I remember looking forward to the trip since the route to the village is so scenic- brown mountains in the distance, lush green fields, and the vast blue skies, this is God's own country at its best. Following trips to these compulsory temples, there were always visits made to nearby ones as well, especially for birthdays, special archanas, and prasadam which inevitably would be the absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious neipayasam. Dusk at these temples is beautiful, and watching the evening deeparadhana is splendid.

Naamajapam with my grandmother. As a child, I would be asked by amaama to go place a lamp at the entrance to the house when dusk set. This is considered auspicious, and I was taught to chant Deepam deepam while going about this act, since it essentially brings light to the household. (Is it a metaphorical reference to prosperity? Or is it just a tradition carried forward since there was no electricity in the olden days?) I don't see anyone doing it these days, even in Kerala. Once this was done, I would follow amaama to the puja room, and listen to her chant from the scriptures.

Road trips in Kerala. I especially remember long bus journeys from Coimbatore to Kochi where my uncle lives. Watching the ubiquitous toddy shops (where there are surprisingly well disciplined queues), banana chips stalls, Che Guevra posters announcing the next hartal, and roadside eateries with names like 'Emirates Hotel' whizz by is indeed an interesting experience. The potholes on the roads make the journey even more interesting. These are God's own roads, after all.

I'm unable to type any more. I want to go back, both in time and place. :(

P.S: I really did come across 'Emirates Hotel' last August. We stopped there for a chai break and I got to try some really good pathiri :D

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Identity Tags

How would you define yourself? This is a question that has been plaguing me for quite some time. Do you answer it with respect to where you come from, what language you speak, what faith you follow, your traditions and beliefs, or are these factors merely incidental? Throughout my growing years, I have been conscious of these factors etched onto some forgotten recess of the mind, but I soon realized that they don't really matter.

As a case in point, I have always been somewhat sceptical of the phrase 'Proud to be Indian'. (Yes, this phrase is usually put up as Facebook statuses every 15 August/26 January). Now don't get me wrong. I cherish my 'Indianness' and my Indian roots, but I am sure I would have felt the same way had I been born on the other side of the Radcliffe line! What I mean to say is that whilst it is good to cherish your nationality, religion, or even something like caste, these are just circumstances of birth. These identity tags should not really define one's identity, since they could well have been the other way round. But it's really sad that we still stick to defining a person through these terms.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this blog post and realized that I have been in the same situation as the author. Apart from the similarity in our names (or at least a part of my name), I also hail from Kerala, Palakkad to be precise. However, my parents were brought up in Tamil Nadu, and I myself spent a significant portion of my childhood in that state. So it isn't all that surprising that there are specks of Tamil thrown into my Malayalam. The fact that I am a vegetarian, together with my dad's Tamil sounding last name is enough to make anybody assume that I am a Tam-Brahm. My question is- does it really matter? What difference does it make? Should it even be a question of importance in the first place? I was amused at an incident that occurred a couple of months ago. I used to go buy lunch at one of the numerous Indian stalls on campus. The uncle working at the stall is quite chatty with students who frequent the area. So the first day, having seen him talk to others in both Hindi and Tamil, I chose to speak in the latter. (Both my Hindi and Tamil are rather laughable, but my Tamil is subject to less ridicule, so...) Then a couple of days later, the friendly uncle asked me whether I was from Chennai or Coimbatore. Well, I did have family in Coimbatore, and when we returned to India for the holidays we always went back there, so I replied Coimbatore, but originally from Palakkad. All this combined with my being vegetarian seemed to confirm that I was twice born, and so one day, out of curiosity, he asked me what my full name was. I was rather puzzled, but I did tell him. And then came the next question - Yen maa, nee Iyer aa, Iyengar aa? (Are you an Iyer or Iyengar?) Aah, so that was why he wanted to know my full name! Resisting the urge to reply with 'Manushya jaati' , I laughingly said, 'What is there in all this?' And he replied, 'Very important, ma. All this very important.'

I couldn't really blame him, since I have seen instances of this amongst my own family members. When I forgot to wear a pottu that confirmed my identity as a Hindu, someone remarked that I looked like a Christian. Or there was a time when someone asked me whether I was Christian because I happen to wear a rosary ring. There was another time when a school friend saw me reading a copy of Our Daily Bread and remarked in surprise, 'But, you aren't Christian!' I found it futile to explain that whilst I am a Hindu by practice, I do believe in Christ, the same way as I trust in Swami.

Does it really matter whether I follow Christ or Krishna? Does it really matter if my dad wears a sacred thread or not? Does it really matter whether I hail from the north or the south of the Vindhyas? Does it really matter whether I speak Malayalam, Tamil, or even Tulu? Indeed, does it really matter whether I am coloured, black, or white?

Who am I? That is a question that many have not found an answer to, and if the wise ones are to be believed, finding an answer to this elusive question is the purpose of life. I am still searching for the answer, but I do know that these tags do not define me. Yes, I cherish them, for they bring about a great deal of familiarity, and thereby solace, but then I do know that I am much more than all of them.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

21 Before 21

I like to think of myself as an avid reader. I almost always have a book in my bag and there is nothing that makes me happier than spending long hours in a bookshop or library. For me, there is something mystical, something magical that lies within the pages of books. A form of escape from the numerous worries of the world? Maybe. But more than an escape, they are also an avenue to reach out, explore, discover things for oneself. Curiosity, a sense of wonder, amazement- that would define books for me. However, I have realized that I'm not reading as much as I would like to, and to say that it is because of a lack of time would be a poor excuse. If only I used the time I spend in worrying and complaining, or even random facebook stalking (ahem, ahem) on reading instead! So, I decided to take things on track and promised myself to read more- I decided to come up with a list of 21 books and see whether I can finish reading them by the time I turn 21. I do hope I will be able to catch hold of these books, but anyway my goal is simply to finish 21 books, and these are the books I would like to read by then. Here's the list:

1) Autobiography of a Yogi
I have read this book in parts, but I really don't think one can claim to have read it unless it's read in its entirety. At one point in time, this was the world's most translated book, and from the few chapters I have read, it has immensely powerful lessons in spirituality.
2) Does He Know A Mother's Heart?
In this book, Arun Shourie discusses the one question that haunts many: 'If there really is a kind, compassionate, all-knowing God, how can there be extreme suffering in this world?' The book also describes his own experience as the father of a child, diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
3) The Great Indian Novel
Shashi Tharoor, in this book, uses the Mahabharata to explain the story of India's Independence, and its journey following the first few years of freedom. According to Tharoor's website, the title of the book itself refers to the Mahabharata- Maha, meaning great, and Bharata being an ancient name for the land beyond the Indus.
4) City of Djinns
I am a big fan of William Dalrymple. I loved reading The Age of Kali, Nine Lives, and more recently, From the Holy Mountain. Naturally, this book should be on my list! City of Djinns tells the rich history of the city of Delhi, beginning with the Moghul dynasty.
5) Fantastic Mr Dahl
The biography of one of my most favorite, favorite writers, Roald Dahl! The title of the book is in reference to one of Dahl's most popular books for children, Fantastic Mr Fox. :D
6) Reading Lolita in Tehran
The book narrates Azar Nafisi's journey as a professor at the University of Tehran, and her forming a 'secret' book club consisting of seven of her female students in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Till now, I have never been able to get hold of this book for some reason or the other! :/
7) Once Upon a Time in The Soviet Union
This book, by Dominique Lapierre, describes his journey across the roads of erstwhile USSR. At a time when it was difficult (almost impossible) for foreigners to get free travel passes in the Soviet Union, Lapierre and his photographer colleague, document what it must have been like to live behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
8) City of Joy
Another book by Dominique Lapierre. This is the incredibly inspiring story of his journey in the slums of Calcutta, and why it truly is a city of joy. (I've read an excerpt of this book in another book called A Thousand Suns and I found it so humbling!)
9) Chanakya's Chant
I just cannot understand how I missed this book. I stumbled across it a few days ago, and the plot sounds ingenious to me! Ashwin Singhi, in this book, tells us two parallel stories- one of Chanakaya, the 'cold, calculating and cruel' strategist, creator of the Science of Wealth, who succeeds in making Chandragupta the emperor of the Mauryan kingdom, and the other of a modern day Chanakya, born 2500 years later.
10) The Miracle
The book by Irving Wallace, is a fictional take on miracle cures that many people believe can be performed by the Virgin Mary at Lourdes. This is another book that I have been hunting for ages but to no avail. :/
11) The Immortals of Meluha
12) The Secret of the Nagas
I have been wanting to read the first two books of the Shiva Trilogy for AGES. And I'm yet to get hold of them.
13) Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion
I stumbled across this book while reading a few course related case studies. Intrigued by the description of the book, I went on to read an excerpt and I found it really inspiring. The book tells us the story of the Aravind Eye Hospital Group in India, and the incredible journey of its founder, Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy, who is popularly known as Dr V.
14) Life of Pi
15) To Kill a Mockingbird
These two books have been on my shelf for a very long time, but I have somehow not got around to reading them yet.
16) The Emerald Route
This book by the master of Malgudi, RK Narayan, is an account of his travels in the lush, green regions of Karnataka. But to simply describe it that way would be gross injustice to both the writer, and the book. Sample this book review: http://thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/the-emerald-route/
Again, this is another book that has long eluded me. :/
17) The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone
18) Pax Indica
I really don't think anyone else can talk about India or 'Indianness' better than Shashi Tharoor. I've read India: From Midnight to the Millennium which describes in detail India's journey till today. (One of my favorite chapters in the book talks about 'Scheduled Caste, Unscheduled Change' and perfectly explains the caste cauldron that India is drowning in.) These two are Tharoor's more recent books on India, Pax Indica being released just a couple of months ago.
19) Ruby of Cochin
I cannot remember how I came across the book. I only remember reading an excerpt and hunting for the book ever since, but again to no avail. The book, by Ruby Daniel, tells the story of the Cochin Jews.
20) Lament of Mohini
Again, I stumbled across this book a few days ago. I am currently reading Anita Nair's The Better Man, and was curious to find other recent works of fiction by contemporary Indian writers. This book, by Shreekumar Verma, tells the story of a royal Kerala household, spanning five generations. The reviews seemed very interesting to me!
21) Is Paris Burning?
I came across this book while reading A Thousand Suns, where Dominique Lapierre describes his partnership with Larry Collins and how the duo began writing books together. Is Paris Burning? was their first book as a team, and the title is a reference to the question asked by Adolf Hitler to his general on the eve of the Liberation of Paris. Lapierre and Collins later interviewed the general, Deitrich von Choltitz, who refused to follow the Fuhrer's orders to burn Paris.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thoughts on Tolerance

The dictionary defines tolerance as 'a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc.,differ from one's own'. Now imagine using its verb form in a sentence- for example, I can tolerate you. Meaning, your presence is a nuisance, but yes, I can still live with it. It doesn't sound nice to me, because you are merely willing to tolerate me, not accept me for who I am. I could be black, white, brown, or yellow; gay or straight; Christian, Hindu, Muslim, agnostic, or even atheist...You wouldn't be able to empathize with me, you wouldn't agree with my views and we wouldn't meet eye to eye, but you can still put up with me, and we could at least agree to disagree. And yet, today, being able to tolerate is the least that we can do. Sure, if we could put aside all our differences, and move from mere 'tolerance to acceptance to (even better) celebration of differences', we would be living in utopia. But somewhat ironically, it seems as if we have even lost this ability to tolerate. While the human race, supposedly progressive, should be moving forward from tolerance to the highest form of celebration, it appears to me that we are actually regressing.

Why do I sound so pessimistic? Well, it's got to do with the release of the trailer of a movie titled Innocence of Muslims, released a few days ago on Youtube. The director of the movie went by the name of Sam Bacile, allegedly an Egyptian American although he claimed to be Israeli-American. There are several rumours about the actual identity of this director, but I don't think none has hitherto been proved true.Well, the nationality or the religion of the director doesn't matter so much (at least to me) more than the fact that this film has been made with the sole purpose to enrage, infuriate the faithful. It was built on the ugliness of hate. As simple as that. He neither apologized nor felt much remorse for what he did. On the contrary, he still believes in his mission, and that is what disgusts me.

I genuinely find it difficult to believe that a person could actually have so much hate for someone, just because they happen to follow a different religion! And really, is religion even something over which we should fight? I agree that organised religion is more about an identity, a feeling of belonging to a particular group united by common beliefs and practices, influenced by cultural norms, and it is not just about God. However, isn't God still the centre of every religion? And after all, isn't God the same, no matter what name you call Him by? I remember as a child I was confused over whether I should call Him Krishna, like my parents, or Jesus, like Sister Sheeba who taught me math in primary school. As an answer to this confusion, Appa used an analogy- A lady has many roles to play in her life. She is a daughter, a mother, a sister, and a wife. Accordingly, different people call her by different names, but no matter what name is used, the lady remains the same. In the same way, God is the same, no matter what name you use. Well you may or may not agree with me over this. After all, if you cannot see my point, you still have your God, and I still have mine. I simply fail to see why there should be so much hatred towards someone whose view of God happens to differ from yours.

To be fair, the reactions to this video are also quite disturbing. Protests and riots, mostly across the Middle East, resulted in injury, and sometimes even death. While it is true that the religious sentiments of many have been hurt, is violence of this nature the solution to the issue? It saddens me to think that we have foolish hate-spewers like Bacile or whoever he is on the one hand, and then we also have people who react impulsively, fuelled by anger and no surprise, hate again. The wise ones told us a long time ago that hate begets only hate. And yet we don't learn. When did we become so hateful?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Ring (55 Fiction)


Tina fumed at the loss of her ring. She was sure the maid had stolen it. Tina saw her eyeing it the other day, enviously, wistfully. And now it was gone! She’d teach her a lesson. Enraged, she dragged the sheets off the bed. Something fell. It was the emerald ring, sparkling in the light.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses- My Thoughts


I came across Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses at a second hand book sale. I had heard of Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife before, but somehow hadn't been able to read them, so I was somewhat sceptical about picking this book, which happens to be her third. However, my insatiable urge to buy something got the better of me and I soon found myself clutching a slightly worn out copy of The Hundred Secret Senses, with yellowing dog eared pages. And then the book found its way to my bookshelf and lay forgotten for a long time.

I rediscovered it last month, and lost myself in its pages. The Hundred Secret Senses tells the story of Olivia Laguni, born to a Chinese father and an American mother, and the complex relationship she shares with her Chinese half-sister, Kwan. After her father's death, her mother promises to take care of his elder daughter from an earlier marriage who has been living in China- and that was how Kwan came to America. Olivia finds Kwan's presence annoying, frustrating, mostly due to her lack of familiarity with anything western: By the first grade, I had become an expert on public humiliation and shame. Kwan asked so many dumb questions that all the neighbourhood kids thought she had come from Mars...She'd say 'Who this Popeye Sailor Man? Why one eye gone? He bandit?'. Added to this, Kwan also had some rather eccentric ways. She claimed to have 'Yin' eyes through which she could not only see but also communicate with ghosts.

Olivia grows up, constantly embarrassed, always irritated with Kwan. In retaliation, she is often mean, even spiteful to her sister. For example, when Kwan asks her about the American name for the delicious pear fruit they ate one night, Olivia says 'Barf' and covers her mouth to stifle her snickers. Poor Kwan rolls this new word over her mouth and says, 'Wah! What a clumsy word for such a delicate taste!' I was somehow reminded of the relationship between Amir and Hassan in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. Amir, convinced that the illiterate Hassan would not be able to learn or appreciate more advanced literature due to his status as a Hazara which ranked low on the Afghan social ladder, would only read out to him the misadventures of Mullah Nasruddin. And whenever Hassan stopped to ask him the meaning of a new word, just like Olivia, he would mock at his ignorance. Like the time Hassan asked him the meaning of the word 'imbecile'. Amir said, Let’s see. ‘Imbecile.’ It means smart, intelligent. I’ll use it in a sentence for you. ‘When it comes to words, Hassan is an imbecile.’ Just like how Hassan never seemed to understand how spiteful Amir was, and how he continued to admire him, Kwan also adores her sister and showers her with love- it would always make Olivia guilty later.

 There is something endearing about Kwan. The way she fusses over the rather selfish inconsiderate Olivia, calling her Libby-Ah all the time (she was never able to say Olivia), or the way she went on about her story from another life about a one-eyed Chinese girl called Nunumu and her American missionary friend who went by the name of Miss Banner. Or the delightful way in which she speaks broken English. Or maybe how she could still continue to like, even love, her half sister despite all the hurt. The more I read, the more I began to dislike the protagonist Olivia. Although I could see traces of myself in her, and it was possible to empathize with her, it was really difficult to like her. Maybe that's why I was more drawn to Kwan's character?

The book's turning point is a strange twist of fate which leads Olivia, her estranged husband Simon, and Kwan make a trip to China. Returning to China after nearly thirty years, Kwan helps Olivia explore her real roots, and it is here that Olivia understands what Kwan means when she keeps talking about ghosts and a hundred secret senses.

The description of the village back in China, Olivia and Simon's courtship, and Kwan's story from the other life are delightful. Whilst I found the story within the story, relating to Kwan's other life slightly weary at the beginning, it soon picked up pace, thanks to certain colourful characters like the missionaries whom the locals called Pastor and Mrs Amen. There is one part of the book where Kwan (thanks to her Yin eyes) has a hilarious conversation with the ghost of her deceased aunt, Big Ma. However, there are other parts which I found quite long winded, and thought could have been better dealt with, for example, a chapter on Kwan's childhood friend Buncake. But it is made tolerable by traces of humour- Big Ma's friend, Du Lili, explains why she chose to remain a spinster, Many times I'm glad I never married. Yes, yes, what a lot of trouble, taking care of a man. I heard that half a man's brain lies between his legs, hah!

I wouldn't call this book a brilliant read, but there is something about it which does strike a chord. I found parts of it dreary, parts of it which didn't really weave into the plot, but there were also parts that did bring a smile to me, and despite the rather bittersweet climax, I was somewhat able to relate to the hundred secret senses. In the beginning, when Olivia asks Kwan what she means, the conversation goes like this:

Olivia: What do you mean, secret sense?
Kwan: Ah, I already tell you so many times. You don't listen? Secret sense not really secret. We just call secret because everyone has, only forgotten. Same kind of sense like ant feet, elephant trunk, dog nose, cat whisker, whale ear, bat wing, clam shell, snake tongue, little hair on flower. Many things, but mix up together.
Olivia: You mean instinct.
Kwan: Stink? Maybe sometimes stinky-
Olivia: Not stink, instinct. It's a kind of knowledge you're born with...

Olivia understands at the end- If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them any time with our hundred secret senses. Indeed, our loved ones do not really die, unless they are erased from our memories, fading away into oblivion. I understood this to mean that as long as we are able to cherish them in some way, some memory, they continue to live on. Profound message, yet I feel the book could have avoided a number of rather tiresome episodes. All in all, it isn't a bad read, but it isn't amazingly brilliant either.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A Grand Story, Indeed!


Being a non-resident Keralite all my life, naadan food and Malayalam films are two things that help me connect back to my roots. I have spent many a weekend at home, laughing over the antics of Dasan and Vijayan, or watching the gorgeous Ganga transform into a murderous Nagavalli seeking revenge on a Durgaashtami day. Needless to say, there are a number of Malayalam films that I am likely to remember for a very long time, and this post is about one such film that I recently watched.

I have always been a Mohanlal fan, and can never tire of watching some of his old films. Remember classics like Chitram, Kilukkam, Devaasuram, Thenmaavin Kombathu, Aaraam Thamburan...and I could just go on! However there is no denying that certain more recent films show him in a less than flattering role, and many of us thought that he should be playing roles his age. And that's when he came out with Grandmaster, once again proving to us what a versatile actor he is, bringing back the magic on screen.

Directed by B Unnikrishnan, Grandmaster tells the story of an IPS officer named Chandrasekhar (played by Mohanlal) who leads a rather lonely life, struggling to come to terms with a broken marriage. We are told that he used to be a brilliant cop, but ego clashes over professional issues between him and his lawyer wife Deepthi (portrayed by Priya Mani), have torn him apart. Even as the head of the Metro Crime Stopper Cell in the city of Kochi, he prefers to spend his time playing chess with himself, seeming to have lost the zest and passion he once had for his job. However all this changes when he hears of a mentally unstable young man named Jerome, who in a fit of anger at being ignored by a young girl, abducts her and two of her friends. Being the father of a teenager (whom he gets to meet only twice a month), he immediately sets out to rescue the girls, and we see traces of the old Chandrasekhar return. The next day, he sees a stack of letters and enquires about it. His colleague Kishore (played by Narain) tells him that most of these letters are pranks, and they shouldn't be taken seriously. However, Chandran tells him that he should be able to differentiate a genuine letter from a prank, and proceeds to pick out one addressed to him, in red ink.

To his surprise, the letter is from an admirer, impressed that he was able to make a comeback of sorts by arresting Jerome. But the letter also contains a rather chilling message- It is an invitation to Chandran to stop playing chess against himself; a challenge to play against the writer of the letter instead, and the stage would be a place called Adityapuram on the 10th of February. Chandran remembers that date to be inauspicious for him, and he wonders what's in store for him. Fast forward to that date, and we see a woman named Alice lying dead in front of her coffee pub. She has been murdered, and the murderer has left behind a children's alphabet book, opened at the page for A. The word 'Apple' has been struck out and in its place the page reads 'A for Alice'. Rather chillingly, the murderer has also used his weapon to inscribe a cross on the victim's forehead.

As he tries to trace who could be behind this murder, two other murders take place, and the names of these victims begin with a B and a C. He is convinced that these murders are all linked, and somehow uncannily each victim had a visit from a travelling salesman before their fateful deaths. Who was this person? What is his role? And why on earth did the murderer insist that Chandran gets involved in this game? 

Based on Agatha Christie's book titled The ABC Murders, Grandmaster has all its elements in place. It has none of the over-the-top heroism usually associated with thrillers of this kind, nor does it rely on soppy romance in the flashback used to describe Chandran and Deepthi's marriage. Jagathy, as Chandran's colleague Rasheed, once again proves to us that he is an actor par excellence. Narain and Priya Mani, as Kishore and Deepthi, have pulled across really good performances. Anoop Menon, playing the role of Deepthi's psychiatrist friend named Jacob, was brilliant-I felt there was a quiet dignity about this whole character. There is one scene where he proposes to Deepthi, and I especially liked the way he dealt with her rejection. Babu Antony, as the travelling salesman, sent shivers across my spine. Especially the scene where he opens a Bible and prays to God in repentance, or the scene where he confesses to a priest that 'they deserved to die since lust was their sin'. But undoubtedly, the film belongs to Mohanlal. With his salt-and-pepper hair, and a graceful dignified demeanour, he plays his age, and oh my, he does it incredibly well. This role seems to have been scripted especially for him, and he brings sheer magic to the film- almost like the old days when his Midas touch transformed many a drab movie into a blockbuster hit. Lalettan's top notch performance puts the 'grand' in Grandmaster. A movie NOT to be missed!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Random Acts of Kindness

A couple of days ago, I turned my room topsy turvy, hunting for a stapler. I had a lesson the next day, and wanted to prepare for it, by analysing the readings assigned to us. There were three in total, and each was quite a few pages long. It felt good trying to get things in order, and for that I needed to file them in, which meant neatly stapling them together. Sadly, I'm a trifle messy when it comes to things like this (When will you ever learn, Amma says) and in the midst of shifting rooms, I think I must have lost my stapler somewhere. That ruined my entire good mood. I began to get cranky, but since nobody was there to tolerate my tantrums, that also passed away. It was nearly midnight, and I was tempted to go to bed without reading through, but felt a little guilty at that. I heard my neighbour moving around her room, and decided it wouldn't hurt to borrow her stapler. Now, it's just been around two weeks since the new semester began, and I really don't know her well, not even her name. We have met each other, of course- in the cluster kitchen, in the lift, and so on. Exchanged polite smiles. That's about it. Any way, I knocked, and when she opened the door, asked her whether she had a stapler. This was a little awkward- I'm guessing she's a freshman, and she is obviously not a local student. So she might have found the new environment daunting, or maybe she couldn't figure out my 'Inglish' (Indian way of speaking English :P). Finally, I resorted to gestures by showing her my file and the papers. She shook her head, gave an almost apologetic smile, and said that she didn't have one.

So I returned to my room, too tired to ask anybody else.  Around 15 minutes later, I decided to hit the sack and wake up early instead to complete the reading. That's when I heard a knock on my door. Tired at best, irritated at worst, I opened the door. My neighbour was there. She had a bunch of papers in her hand, held together by a paper clip. No, she didn't have a stapler, but she did have some paper clips. Would those be okay?

I was really touched by the gesture. This is a person I hardly knew, and if I were in her place, I probably wouldn't have taken the trouble to get back to someone I was barely acquainted with, at such a late hour, even if I had eventually found a stapler. So thoughtful and considerate of my neighbour! It may sound like a very small thing, but it does leave a huge impact. I'll definitely remember this the next time I jump and quickly explain  why or how I will not be able to help someone else.

Another incident occurred today, which once again proved to me that you can always help people if you try. I had gone off to the hawker centre for lunch, (I converted my summer internship into a part time one, and now work twice a week) and was returning to my office, when all of a sudden, it began to rain. Singapore has an extremely unpredictable weather- tropical and humid, sunny one moment, gloomy the next. You may need sun glasses one moment, an umbrella the next. Waiting at the zebra crossing without an umbrella was dreadful. I was beginning to get drenched and cursed myself for having ignored the darkening skies when I left my desk for lunch. An elderly gentleman was standing near me at the crossing, and noticing my deplorable state, offered to share his umbrella with me. The office was just a stone's throw away, and it really wouldn't have mattered, because I could have reached quite quickly, although I would still be drenched. But having discovered that I was going the same way as him, this elderly uncle didn't hesitate to share his umbrella. I couldn't thank him enough. Would I have done it? Sure, if  it was my friend or even a casual acquaintance, the latter although hesitatingly. But for a random stranger on the street? Food for thought indeed! I surely have miles to go in my journey to be a better human being. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ouija Board (55 Fiction)


Playing with the Ouija Board was a mistake. She should have known better than to use it to call spirits of people, long dead and forgotten. She felt an unnatural presence around. Disturbed, she ran outside, and dumped the board in the dustbin. When she returned, the board was still there, almost smirking at her.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Back in God's Own Country

I'm back in Kerala, after nearly two years. It does feel great to be back, although I'll be here only for  a few days more. Every time I'm back in this part of India, I feel a sense of wonder, joy, amazement, probably because I'm back to my roots, something which I haven't been able to explore, as a result of being away from home.

Sometimes, like Khaled Hosseini's Amir in The Kite Runner, 'I feel like a tourist in my own country.' I frown at the potholes that frequently scar the roads. I complain about the power cuts, and at the same time, note with relief that at least we are not plunged into darkness, like the north. I criticize the numerous hartals that bring things to a halt, almost every other day. I feel embarrassed by the lack of cleanliness in restrooms, annoyed by the buzz of flies and mosquitoes. Yet, deep down, I know this is home, and this is where I belong.

Last evening, we walked down to the temple nearby. On the way, Appa and I discussed Kerala politics- I feel bad to admit it, but I was quite lost, so it was a good place to start learning more about the political dynamics of God's own country. When we reached the temple, I was mesmerized by the sight of lit lamps spread all around the temple courtyard- in the Hindu calender, the current month is Aadi/Karkitakam, a supposedly inauspicious month, for it brings with it humidity and the wrath of the south-west monsoons, and in the old days, this would spread illness. As a result, special prayer ceremonies are usually held during this season. The familiar chants of numerous slokas in the air, the smiling faces of deities in the garba griha, the priests handing out chandanam which we carefully applied onto our foreheads, and the wonderful, splendid aroma of neipayasam which would later be served as prasadam... Apart from the presence of family and friends, these are some things that make me feel I'm back home.

This morning, I woke up to the gentle pitter-patter of the Kerala monsoons beating against the window pane, accompanied by the chanting of the Ramayana from the nearby temple. (In the olden days, during the Karkitakam month, people would stay indoors to escape the rains, and they would read the Ramayana to give them solace and confidence in those difficult times.) As I type out this post, I hear women washing clothes in the nearby Kalpathi river. This feels foreign to me, but at the same time, I know this is home. In this land of saris and pavadai thavanis, I sometimes feel out of place in my jeans. I feel awkward when English words slip into my clumsy Malayalam sentences, or when I struggle to read the headlines on the Matrubhumi newspapers, but then I do know that this is home. And it's good to be back home :)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The More I Shop, the Happier I Get

Shopping usually makes me happy. There's something about just going out, and coming back with something, neatly wrapped in a bag. Of course, the worries don't disappear magically, but the world seems to be not such a bad place after all. And that is why I turn to retail therapy. Of course, it isn't like I jump into every shopping mall in the vicinity, every single time I feel upset, otherwise I would be broke by now. And I don't mean to say I shop only when I'm upset. I don't really need reasons to go shopping- as they say, 'A girl can never have enough shoes'. At the end of the day, it brings me happiness, and maybe takes away the worries, even if it is only for a few hours.

This morning, a friend and I decided to meet for lunch, following which we decided to go shopping in Chinatown. So there we were, walking in the hot afternoon sun, gossiping along the way, and hunting down bargains among the rows of shops that sold scarves, sarongs, beads, bags, necklaces and a million other trinkets. The original purpose of this shopping expedition was to help me get a gift for my dear granny. It's been nearly two years since I met her, and since I'm going home soon (YAYYY :D), I wanted to get her something from my internship allowance. So we hopped from shop to shop, in search of the perfect gift. Finally, after walking through the alleyways, we came across a shop that sold beautiful Pashmina shawls. They were just perfect- neither too thick for the humidity of the fierce tropical Kerala monsoons, nor too thin that they could pass off for scarves. I imagined Amooma, sitting at the dining table after dinner, quietly writing Sri Rama Jayam in her diary, the shawl gently draped across her sari. So, I went ahead and bought one. I do hope she'll like it! And this post would have had no meaning, if I hadn't shopped further. We decided to go to more shops, and there I was spoilt for choice. Pretty sarongs in every imaginable hue, bracelets of jade and emerald, silver bangles, batik bags... I decided that I just HAD to buy something. So being the impulsive shopper that I am, I went ahead and bought a sarong. Usually, that would have made me really happy- I would have come back, gingerly opened the bag, taken out the sarong, and admired it, before trying it on and prancing around in it. (Yes, I'm slightly crazy that way.) But today was different. There was something that was nagging me at the back of my mind. After the initial exhilaration from buying the skirt (I told you, shopping gives me a high!), we began discussing some serious issues, and I felt a slight dip in my energy levels. I felt my old worries creeping into me, and all of a sudden, the bag I held containing my newly acquired treasure, did not seem so precious any more.

As I returned home, I mulled over those issues. That led me to thinking about a number of other issues- how X was better than me in a number of ways, how I had not done well in something while Y was immensely successful, how I could have probably done better in something but didn't, what I didn't have which others had, and so on. It was a completely futile exercise, and it left me feeling sulky. A few minutes later, I overcame my grumpiness, and began to admire the skirt, and that made me happy again. Then I began to ponder over the nature of happiness. Was it the skirt that brought me happiness? Would I have continued to feel sad if there was no skirt to 'cheer' me up? What makes a person happy? What is happiness, anyway? Why do certain issues upset us, and what helps us overcome those? I recalled reading something on the wisdom of the ancient Hindu scriptures- Happiness is the very essence of man. Unfortunately, in the course of this journey called life, he forgets his true nature, and finds himself a victim of maya, worldly illusions. When man realizes this, he is said to have achieved that state of perfection, the ultimate goal of Sat-Chit-Ananda. Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. Hence according to the scriptures, happiness is within ourselves for it is the very nature of man. If happiness is indeed at the very core of our being, why equate happiness with something? For example, I will be happy only in the absence of sorrows, I will be happy only if I get a job at a prestigious firm, I will be happy only if I get that new dress... And therein lies the magic of maya. We forget our inherent nature- happiness. Ironically, we believe that material wealth will bring us happiness, which is why it is so difficult to be happy all the time.

Imagine slogging away in order to earn yourself an extremely precious item- for example, a diamond necklace. After months of hard work, you find yourself robbed, and thus deprived of the necklace. Can you comfort yourself and continue to remain happy, in the same way as you would have been if you got the necklace, because happiness is within yourself? You would eventually overcome it, of course, but at the very outset? Tall order, indeed. One would have accomplished the purpose of birth if one achieves this state of realization.

But since that is so difficult (and I don't know how many more janmas I have in store for me), I might as well stick to my old policy of getting happiness, albeit for a short time. 'Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping!' :D

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Odessa File- My Two Cents' Worth

I first came across The Odessa File quite a long time ago. Appa had rented a DVD of the movie, but it was beyond my comprehension and I soon lost interest in it. I must have been around ten or so at that time. A few years later, when I started high school, it was Appa (as usual) who introduced me to Frederick Forsyth's novels. I began with a book called The Veteran, a collection of five stories, the only one of which I remember is a vivid story revolving around Saint Catherine of Siena. I thoroughly enjoyed that particular story, and quickly moved on to The Day of the Jackal next. That was another gripping read, and I quite loved the plot. I soon ended up watching the movie based on the book. (Interesting trivia, pointed to me by Appa dearest- The Day of the Jackal, starring Edward Fox, produced by John Woolf!) At the end, while we were discussing the thrilling plot, it invariably ended up with The Odessa File, which was the book that followed The Day of the Jackal. Ever since, I've been wanting to read this book, but it evaded me till a week ago! I suddenly chanced upon it, and I can safely say that I've never been this engrossed by a book before. If The Day of the Jackal was good, I would have to say that this is infinitely better. (Some say it is the other way round, but maybe because I read The Odessa File only recently, the impact seems more powerful?)

It is the winter of 1963. On a cold November evening in Hamburg, Peter Miller is driving back home, when he hears about John F Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. As he listens to the news on the radio, he pulls his car to the side of the road. Suddenly he sees an ambulance drive past. As an investigative journalist, he instinctively senses that something is amiss and begins to follow the ambulance. He ends up in front of a house in the slums of Altona, and finds that a man has gassed himself. The next day, his friend in the police hands him a diary belonging to the deceased man, Salomon Tauber, who as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, had escaped death at the concentration camps of Riga. Reading through the diary, Miller comes to know that certain members of Hitler's Schutz Staffel have taken on completely different identities, and have gone into hiding in order to escape being brought to trial for war crimes. In fact, they are more than alive- most of them, under new identities, have become part of West Germany's respectable society, hiding the ugly scars of the Holocaust, an uncomfortable past which everybody seemed eager to forget. Tauber's diary begins with these words- My name is Saloman Tauber, I am a Jew and about to die. The pages soon reveal the atrocities committed by Eduard Roschmann, an SS commander who soon came to be known as the Butcher of Riga. Tauber writes that he was forced by Roschmann to send his wife, Esther, to the concentration camps, and that was the day he lost his soul. Two decades later, Tauber, now living all alone in Altona, is astonished to see Roschmann, walking freely down the streets of Hamburg. The elderly Jewish man writes in his diary that his last wish to see the SS commander stand before a court and tried for his war crimes wouldn't be fulfilled. All his efforts to survive so that justice could be achieved had failed. It had all been a waste of time. The last page of the diary states that if someone ever comes to read it in the land of Israel, that person should please say khaddish for Tauber's soul.

Something mentioned in the diary prompts Miller to go on a hunt to track Roschmann down. Why should Miller, a pure Aryan, embark on this wild goose chase to bring a former Nazi officer to justice? It all happened a long time ago, and he soon finds that not many people want to help him out. As a young man, he seems to have everything- a lucrative career that earns him well; he drives a sleek Jaguar of which he is fiercely protective; he has a girlfriend who works in the nightclubs of the Reeperbahn district. Then was it just sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust that moved him to undertake this mission? Or was there something else?

Also weaved into the plot is a project undertaken by the Odessa (the organisation of former SS officials) to develop powerful rockets against Israel. These rockets are being developed by German scientists, working in the Egyptian city of Helwan, but the entire research project is controlled by a man working in West Germany, who is only revealed by his code-name, Vulkan, named after the smith who crafted the thunderbolts of the gods in Greek mythology. On the other side, the Israeli Mossad does its best to thwart these plans. The Odessa chief in Germany, only known as the Werwolf, is given the task of ensuring Vulkan's safety. When he comes to know of Miller's quest, he is required to take care of Roschmann's safety as well, because of the latter's role in an extremely important Odessa mission. Hence the Werwolf hires an assassin known as Mack the Knife to handle Miller. There is also an episode where Miller meets Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish 'Nazi-hunter', from whom he derives much information about the Odessa. (Coincidentally, the first news that I came across my twitter feed this morning was this. So there really was a Simon Wiesenthal!)

Some parts of the book, especially, are written poignantly. For example, in Tauber's diary are these words- There is a French adage, 'To understand everything is to forgive everything'. When one can understand the people,their gullibility and their fear, their greed and their lust for power, their ignorance and their docility to the man who shouts the loudest, one can forgive...There are some men whose crimes surpass comprehension and therefore forgiveness, and here is the real failure. For they are still among us, walking through the cities, working in the offices...That they should live on, not as outcasts but as cherished citizens, to smear a whole nation in perpetuity with their individual evil, this is the true failure. And in this we have failed, you and I , we have all failed, and failed miserably. Was Tauber referring to the general apathy of the society? Was it written in anguish, pained by the indifference of the people in power to something that happened a long time ago? After all, despite the scars, West Germany had risen like a phoenix from the ashes, and to bring these former SS officers to justice would be akin to opening old wounds, 'an inconvenient truth' indeed.

Here's another passage from the book which made me pause and think. Forsyth writes about Klaus Winzer, an expert forger who worked for Hitler's army during the war, and later for the Odessa, by providing important members fake documents through which they sought refuge in Latin America. At the end of the war, Winzer forged sheets of American food rations which could last for months. He explains that they were not forged, 'just printed on a different machine'. He soon begins forging passports, driving licenses and other important documents. He explains it this way- A document is not either genuine or forged, it is either efficient or inefficient. If a pass is supposed to get you past a checkpoint, and it gets you past the checkpoint, it is a good document.When a person is blinded by a certain ideology and pursues the same with zeal, he will come up with any excuse to justify it! Zeal slowly gives way to madness and then he loses sight of the real issues, because he has fooled himself into believing that his ideology is true.

Was Miller able to track Roschmann down? Why did he want to bring the Butcher of Riga to justice? What happened to the rockets of Helwan? Who was the Vulcan? These are some of the questions answered in the climax. A thrilling plot, written so very convincingly, this is one book I'm unlikely to forget in a long long time!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Thousand Suns in the City of Joy

Two weeks ago, we celebrated Guru Purnima, the auspicious day held in remembrance of the sage Vyasa, who was believed to have been born on this day. Legend has it that Vyasa was responsible for 'dividing' the ancient sacred texts known as the Vedas into the four major components that we have come to know them as today- Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. Hence, he is also known as Veda Vyasa, and in Hindu tradition, he is regarded as a guru of gurus, a teacher of teachers. Not unsurprisingly, Guru Purnima became an occasion to reflect upon the greatness of one's guru and pay respects to that teacher. The term guru, in this context, is used to refer to a spiritual teacher- the syllables gu and ru referring to darkness and removal respectively. A guru is one who can destroy the darkness of ignorance and bring you to the path of spiritual enlightenment. This year, however, I came across a different perspective- learn to view everything as part of the guru's divine form. Seek divinity in everything, for the entire universe is a manifestation of the divine. I thought about this for sometime.

It's very difficult to look at everything positively, especially if a particular incident is not up to our liking, let alone seek God in it. And then I came across something that exemplified the very essence of Guru Purnima. I just finished reading Dominique Lapierre's A Thousand Suns. The book is a collection of memoirs, various anecdotes from Lapierre's journalistic career. He writes about his meeting with Larry Collins, a meeting which led to this 'literary duo' giving us many a best-seller; From a chance interview with Henrique Galvao, a 'modern day Don Quixote' to his epic journey across Soviet roads behind the Iron Curtain to his own battle against prostate cancer, the common thread that binds all the chapters in the book is 'the will, buried in human hearts, to fight for what we believe in'. The stories in this book amazed me- to come across anecdotes as inspiring as this is indeed like a breath of fresh air. But none inspired me as much as the story of Gaston Grandjean and his journey to the City of Joy.

Following the success of his book Freedom at Midnight (co-written with Larry Collins), Lapierre and his wife travelled to Mother Teresa's home for leper children, in Calcutta. There he chanced to meet with Gaston Grandjean, a social worker from Switzerland, who had come all the way to India to do his bit and help those less fortunate than us. In that Calcutta slum, marred with leprosy, tuberculosis and other fatal illnesses, it was difficult to live. Food, water, shelter, everything that we take for granted were the least of the concerns of the slum residents, for everyday survival was their immediate priority. Yet, there was so much joy, so much vitality, so much life in that slum. Lapierre writes about a man who used to beg outside the Kali temple- he was almost blind, and yet, he took a little 3 year old orphan under his protection. These people, to whom living itself was a burden, were actually 'life- LIFE in capital letters, life pulsating and bustling and throbbing' away. Sample this anecdote from the book- Lapierre was sitting with Grandjean, in front of his room in the slum, when he saw a band comprising of people dressed in festive attire. The band followed a procession of musicians. When they enquired what it was all about, pat came the reply. 'We are celebrating the birth of spring!' Lapierre writes 'In this slum, where I had not seen one single tree, one single bird, one single butterfly...people had the guts to celebrate an event of which they would never see the manifestations!' If only all of us were able to look at things in the same way!

Grandjean indeed was able to see divinity in that slum. After meeting an old woman, whose flesh was ravaged by the savageness of leprosy, and seeing her attitude of hope and happiness, he wrote in his diary- ...My prayer for that poor woman can no longer be sorrowful. Her suffering is like that of Christ on the cross; it is positive, redemptive. It is hope. Every time I come out of my sister the blind leper woman's hovel, I do so revitalized. This slum should be called 'the City of Joy'. (And that was how Calcutta actually got its sobriquet!)

I do not know whether it was a coincidence that I came across this chapter in the book just a few days after Guru Purnima or not. Serendipity, I would like to believe. But it did drive home the point. There is divinity in every single incident, every single creature, every single place. Lapierre concludes his story with this lovely message- The proverb I had discovered in the torrential rains of the monsoon had once again proven to be right. There are always a thousand suns beyond the clouds.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On Fortune Tellers, Fate and Faith

Last month, a friend helped me explore some parts of Singapore that I hadn't discovered yet. We met for lunch, where I had a chance to try the absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious vegetarian version of laksa. We promptly followed it with ice kachang, and then having decided that all that gobbling warranted some form of exercise, decided to walk a bit and explore the area.

It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and the street leading to the Goddess of Mercy temple in Bugis was bustling with people. A Hindu temple, built in the south Indian architectural style, dedicated to the Lord Krishna, is situated just a stone's throw away. What I found interesting was the fact that a big copper urn was placed at the front of the Hindu temple, and many passers by offered their prayers and planted joss sticks in the urn, exactly like it is done in the abode of the Goddess of Mercy. My friend and I prayed at both the temples, and as we stepped out of the temple, I realized that the busy street was also home to a number of fortune tellers. Palmists, sitting under the shade of umbrellas, charts showing the many paths of the palm, hanging by their side. Vendors selling colourful beads, bracelets, charms and amulets. Curious about your fate? Well, you could quench that thirst for just a few dollars. There were even fortune tellers with caged parrots that could pick tarot cards predicting the future. Just like kili jyotsyam, which is still quite popular back home. (Kili refers to parrot, while jyotsyam is astrology. Parrot astrologers are usually found sitting under the shade of a tree, or they go about from house to house. When a person approaches the astrologer, he coaxes his parrot to pick out a card, and voila- your future is no longer a mystery!)

I was reminded of a time when I was extremely curious to have my palm read. Could my future be really predicted? Whenever I would return home for the vacations, I had an insatiable urge to go to the fortune teller's shop, located just outside the housing colony. Away from the neon city lights representing the glitz and glamour of an urban city, this fortune teller decided to set base in one of the many quieter suburbs of Coimbatore. My aunt, who claims to have seen him, tells me that he is a quite a frightful sight. Tall, hefty, with a fierce moustache and a huge red pottu at the centre of his forehead, he could predict your future, explain your past, anything! When I was younger, each time I passed the place, I would see a serpentine queue, waiting for the consultation. Even the neighbouring general physician's clinic was not graced by such a large number of people. I used to beg Amma to take me there. "Why?", she would always ask. Nothing ma, I would mumble, I'm just curious. "Mannankatti. Nonsense. You don't need to know about the future. Just live in the present. And anyway, what are you going to do even if you know about the future?" That would be her standard reply every single time.

I was somehow baffled by this answer. If that was the case, why do we still follow the practice of asking an astrologer to write a horoscope (It's called a jaathakam) whenever a baby is born? Indeed, when I was born on a cold February morning in Delhi, my grandmother called an astrologer, giving him my exact time of birth. I was born under the Thiruvonam star, according to the Hindu astrological system, and based on that, my horoscope was written. A couple of years ago, I chanced upon it, when Amma and I were emptying old boxes, and when I asked to get it interpreted, she promptly refused! Then why have it created in the first place? I guess it is one of those traditions that we follow out of deference, not really bothering to understand why in the first place. Or is there really something behind all this, something that we have not dared question?

Anyway, suffice to say, I was quite curious to have my fortune told that day at Bugis. That's when my friend said, 'We're still young. If we come to know about our future, we will only keep worrying about it, and forget the present.' Something typical to what Amma would have said. It did make sense to me- what would I do, knowing about the future anyway? What could I do? Not much, except wait for the future! And in my worry, I would forget all about the present. So, we just walked along, towards the magnificent mosque at Arab Street, enjoying every minute of the present.

Later, I narrated the whole episode to Amma, who promptly quipped, 'At least you have sensible friends!'. Whatever that was supposed to mean! As I pondered over this issue more, I realized that this too boils down to faith in the end. When we go to sleep every night, we have faith that we will be able to get up the next morning. It does sound macabre, but isn't that true? We never will be able to know what happens the next day, or even the very next minute. But rather than engaging in the rather futile exercise of trying to decipher fate, isn't it better to cling onto faith and live in the present?

A small verse found in a cave temple comes to my mind. This cave temple, situated on the Marudamalai Hill buried in the Western Ghats, is dedicated to a mystic, a siddhar. It was said that he could transform himself into a snake whenever he wanted to avoid being seen by others, and hence he came to be known as the Paambaati Siddhar, 'paambu' meaning snake in Tamil. The mystic was supposed to have practised penance and attained moksha in this cave. Engraved in the shrine are these words-Naal yenna seiya, Kol yenna seiya, Namah Chivayam yennul irukayile! Roughly translated, this means- What can days, dates, planetary positions or movements of stars do to me, when I have God living in me?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thoughts on a Sunny June Afternoon

I walk out of my office building on a sunny June afternoon
Soon realizing it is too sunnier than I would have liked it to be.
As I move towards the metro,
I catch a glimpse of myself on the glass of buildings-
Denizens of a vast concrete jungle.
I look at my reflection;
Dishevelled hair, flying across my face,
Too bad it's getting thinner, and not me.
I must convince Amma to let me get it straightened.
My legs look a bit fat; I should start wearing heels soon.
I glance at the light purple polish on my nails.
What the heck, I just applied it last night,
And it's already begun to fade!
Maybe it's the brand. I must buy another.
Oh, and those new jeans...

More. More. More.
Simply not enough.
Thoughts. Thoughts. Thoughts.

Suddenly, I see the old uncle.
Weak and frail, old enough to be my grandpa.
Sitting cross legged, right under the wrath of the noon sun
Beside the busy bustling pavement.
His crutches in front of him,
Stretching out little packets of tissue,
Hoping that someone will stop to buy.
Women in pencil skirts and high heels,
Men bursting with self importance and pride,
All rushing away, too busy in their own busy worlds.
I wonder what the old uncle is thinking.
What are his thoughts?
Circumstances, situations, what brought him here?
A family too 'busy' to care?
Or did they care at all?
Accident of Birth?
Thoughts. Thoughts. Thoughts.

An hour later, I return to work.
A mountain load of studies, waiting to be analysed.
Black letters against a white background.
My own notes, painstakingly handwritten.
Glistening blue ink against yellow notepaper.
Timetables, schedules, appointments, to do lists.

More. More. More.
Simply not enough.
Thoughts. Thoughts. Thoughts.

I see the old uncle again.
Same place, same gesture
Stretching out little packets of tissue.
I stop. He says, 'One dollar, miss!'
As I hand him a golden one dollar,
He presses five tissue packets into my palm.
I wonder what the old uncle is thinking.
What are his thoughts?
Was that his first sale for the day?
It's just too hot to even walk! How is he sitting here all day?
Has he had lunch? Will he be able to?
Thoughts. Thoughts. Thoughts.

As I walk away, I decide to get lemon tea.
I deserve a treat for having braved the noon sun.
But my thoughts return to the old uncle.
How do you justify his state of being?
An unfortunate turning in the wheel of dharma?
Or is it determined by the cycle of karma?
Or, again, is it just an Accident of Birth?
There is no answer.
Yet, the old uncle continues to plod on.

He doesn't want your charity.
He is earning his livelihood.
Despite all odds, stacked against him.
Frail and tired, ignored and neglected.
How much will he earn in one day?
Will there be enough?
There are no answers.
Yet, like the warrior prince in the Kurukshetra War,
He continues to simply move on with his duty.

What are my thoughts?
How much I can learn from the old uncle!
Honour for his dignity of labour.
No job is too low for anyone.
Hope that he doesn't give up his hope.
Even in the darkest day, hope brings a spark of light.
Respect for his courage, his will to move on.
Imagine facing such adversity in old age!
And above all,
A prayer for the sweet old uncle,
Old enough to be my grandpa.
A plea to God almighty-
Please take care of him.

More. More. More
Simply not enough.
Prayers.Prayers.Prayers.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

SWOT Analysis for Self

I am currently doing a research based internship at a global management consulting firm, and part of my work involves analysing articles, surveys and case studies. This morning, in the midst of my work, I came across this article, rather outdated, but interesting nevertheless. I really do not agree with the writer's recommendations on how to answer the question on one's weaknesses, because they all seem to wriggle away from the core- trying to focus on circumstances, rather than facts. For example, the article states 'having a degree from a college that is not well-known in the Mid-West' could be a weakness. With due respect to the author, I believe that a weakness is something that is either inherent in us, or developed as a habit. It definitely isn't caused by circumstances. As I read through the article, it set me thinking. Whilst it is indeed difficult to talk about ones' weaknesses, it is important to keep in mind that each of us has an Achilles' heel. Whether we realize the weakness or not is a different issue altogether. I think the very fact that one has identified a weakness is, in itself, a strength. 'He who knows not and knows that he knows not is simple- teach him. He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool- shun him'. Ancient words of wisdom.

As I made my way to a nearby hawker centre for lunch later, I thought back to how I would answer that question if I had attended an interview. I realized that as important as it is to identify your weakness, it is also important to identify your strengths. Strengths and weaknesses define the sort of person you are. At the same time, one should also focus on the external trends- opportunities and threats, depending on the way one handles them, could turn into strengths and weaknesses as well. Not so different from analyzing strategy for a business after all- step 1 is always conducting a SWOT analysis. So here goes, a SWOT analysis for myself.
At the risk of sounding like an 'I-specialist', I'll start with strengths.
1) I am focused and committed. I am not afraid of rolling up my sleeves and getting down to work, and even if the task seems difficult, I try my best to accomplish it.
2) I am willing to take initiatives, the first step forward.
3) I am enthusiastic and eager to work on new projects- maybe it is just Beginner's luck- some sort of naïveté (since I am yet to work on a full time basis), but one definitely cannot deny that optimism does influence the way we work.
4) I adapt well- I guess that can be attributed to changing nearly five schools, and moving across different regions.
5) I am able to work well in a team. Having had an opportunity to spend a few years in the Middle East, combined with my childhood in India, and now, in the Far East, I have been able to witness (and integrate) into different cultures, all of which has, I believe, influenced my people skills.
6) I am not afraid to voice my opinions. If I strongly believe in a cause, I will stick by it and fight for it, no matter what.
Now, moving onto the weaknesses.
1) I get upset very easily. This is probably because I tend to take what people say very seriously, so something mildly annoying can cause me a great deal of trouble.
2) I worry way TOO MUCH. About EVERYTHING. >.<
3) I go to extremes, and am like a pendulum. Either I'm way too happy about something or way too worried. Either I like the person or completely do not. It's a bit difficult to follow the Middle Path that the Buddha spoke about. I'm trying to look at things dispassionately, but it's really hard.
4) I sometimes feel I need to be more aggressive. This could be because I'm a bit uncomfortable talking about my own achievements, since I myself have always been weary of people who talk too much about their achievements.
5) I find it difficult to say no at times.
6) I should probably talk to people more on a self initiated basis. Many people think that I am reserved and a bit of an introvert (I am, to a certain extant)- while some attribute it simply to my nature, I am concerned that some people interpret this as arrogance/being egoistic.
7) I can flare up instantly, though I don't show it to anybody else (except Amma :P)

How about opportunities?
1) A much smaller world has made a number of impossible things possible. I feel, given today's scenario, there are many opportunities available in my chosen career field of audit/accounting. Job security and exposure to a wide range of clients in terms of industry, function, size and geography are definitely some of the main advantages of audit.
2) It is much easier to change jobs today, compared to the past. So, should I feel the need to change the scope of my work, it will not be impossible for me to change to other areas such as tax, risk management, financial services, banking, or even consulting. After a number of years in the industry, it might even be possible for me to write a book or consider teaching. These two are my long term goals, and I think I would like to reach there sometime in the distant future.
I would like to believe that every problem that we face presents in itself an opportunity, and it's up to us to make use of that to our advantage.
Moving onto the 'threats', I think of them more as challenges- problems, but they are not insurmountable.
1) The extremely competitive nature of today's society in general, and a trend where achievement is seen as the key to most issues. Sometimes, the rat race bogs me down. This mad rush to achieve something, that extra something, always more, always better than your neighbour. I think the answer to this challenge is to think about the issue from a long term perspective- address things on the basis of how important it is for life, (not for a livelihood), what motivates/inspires you to do this rather than simply thinking about moving on.
2) The LONG working hours at audit. Stories of staying at the clients' offices till as late as 2 or 3 AM (especially for end-of-year peak audit) don't bother me as much these days- they seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Achieving a work life balance seems quite difficult in such a scenario. But then I guess it all boils down to your attitude at the end of the day.
3) I sometimes feel I might be a better position if I had working knowledge of another language. Arabic, Mandarin or French. I think my goal for the December break this year should be trying to learn basic Arabic- I do hope to go back home to the Emirates, and I probably should make use of that opportunity!
4) Certain unpredictable factors- take the economic crisis, corporate scandals, natural disasters, events that remind us that Apocalypse may well be on its way. Well, one particular individual alone is obviously not affected by these factors- it makes things difficult for all of us. We tend to think that the world is unfair only for us. However, in reality, unfairness, just like death, transcends all barriers.
I think that surmises the SWOT analysis for myself. I am glad I have analysed this, so that I can start taking steps to become a better person. Is there anything that I have missed? If you have worked/interacted with me, or simply feel that there are other factors that I should take into consideration, please let me know! It always pays to listen to feedback :)



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Crushed (55 Fiction)


It began as a crush. An itsy-bitsy one. But, it slowly grew. From a small spark to a furious fire. In her heart. Except, she never told him. She kept her distance; she wasn’t gutsy enough. Hoping against hope that he would somehow come to know. And then, she saw…the other woman. She was crushed.

Post Script:
Amma, I know you will read this. Don't read too much into it. I'm NOT lovesick or anything.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Walking along the Eucalyptus Trail

Image courtesy  thewanderers.travel   
I spent a major part of my childhood in Ooty, nestled in the cradle of the Nilgiri Hills of southern India. A little village called Lovedale, on the outskirts of the town, where Appa and Amma taught at a residential school. I have very fond memories of my childhood in Lovedale. The lush greenery all around, the beauty of the blue hills in the background, the ancient chapel on the school grounds, camp trips in the pristine woods, and the lovely eucalyptus trail which became a shortcut from our house on the campus to my primary school. And whenever I think of the eucalyptus trail, the forest floor perpetually covered with a dense carpet of fallen leaves, and carefully filtering in sunlight through the thick foliage, I think of Kannamma Akka. She must have been much older than Amma, and I took to calling her akka, just like how Amma would address her. Kannamma Akka would help to look after me, since my parents were busy with their respective classes.

As a result, Kannamma Akka would accompany me on the eucalyptus trail, from home to school. Every afternoon, she would come to school, carrying my neatly packed lunch, and would ensure that I ate it all, even going to the extend of feeding me, when I threw tantrums. And she would be there, when I went back home. She was my companion, when I arranged all the soft toys on the carpet and pretended to teach them all. As I scolded each and every toy for not doing their homework, imitating Agnes Miss who shouted at others in the class (not me because I used to be a chamathu then :P), she would watch the scene amusedly.

As a child, one of my greatest worries was not having long hair. I almost always had a mushroom haircut, which I detested since it wasn't 'girly' enough. So I would take one of Amma's long black duppattas and ask Akka to drape it around my head and weave it around like a plait. Each time this happened, I would throw back my 'plait' and prance around, believing myself to be some incredibly beautiful heroine. And each time, there was a twinkle in her eye. She became a confidante, and there wasn't anything about me that Kannamma Akka didn't know. 

I remember only one incident when I fought with her. I was upset about something that happened at school (cannot remember what exactly ticked me off). I was quite angry about it, and both Appa and Amma were busy in their classes. So, there was nobody whom I could vent my spleen on, and added to that, I was really hungry. Hunger, together with anger, is a really bad combination. So I asked Akka if there was anything to eat, and when she replied in the negative, I stomped to the kitchen, took a glass of water and spilled some sugar into it. Watching the entire tantrum unfold, Akka said, 'Indha ponnuku headweight romba jaasthi. Iru appa vandhaa, solren'. I had no clue what headweight meant, but her threat of telling Appa about the tantrum was enough to silence me. Later, when I asked Amma what headweight meant, she laughed and explained it to me, but was curious to know how I came across the phrase, and then I was forced to tell her the whole story. It was a bit like digging my own grave, since good old Akka had of course not 'betrayed' me.


My mind wanders back to the eucalyptus trail- me, holding Akka's hand, and chattering away about school,the heady scent of eucalyptus in the air, and the crunchy noise of fallen leaves as we walked by... I have come a long way from then, and Kannamma Akka has played an important role in my childhood. Today, I have no idea where she is or what she is doing. I haven't had an opportunity to meet her after we left Lovedale, which was nearly twelve years ago. However, I do know that I shall remember her with gratitude and shall always have respect and love for her.


Updated Amma sent me this picture of me and Kannamma Akka, taken years ago. Akka looks a bit angry- we never could get her to smile for photos. And there I am, acting goofy as usual :D

Monday, December 31, 2012

Ladoos and Barfis

'Will you distribute ladoos or barfis?', a nurse at a Delhi hospital had asked my mother, just hours before I was born. My mother did not understand the gist of this question, but my aunt who had lived in the capital long enough to understand quickly responded, indignant that it was even asked. 'It doesn't matter to us', she replied.

Barfis are usually distributed to mark the birth of a girl (assuming that a family obsessed with having a male heir does not resort to female foeticide). Ladoos, the richer, more expensive sweet of the two, are distributed to celebrate the birth of a boy. See how the birth of a girl is merely noted, but that of a boy is celebrated? And therein begins a journey of inequality, right from the proverbial cradle to the grave, sowing the seeds of a chauvinistic, misogynistic society.

A girl is taught to dress appropriately, talk and conduct herself in a manner that doesn't bring herself or her family any shame. A girl who is provocatively dressed 'deserves to be raped' because 'she asked for it'. How about men? Oh! They are men, and after all, 'men have their needs'. I have often heard people state, 'Even if you say a thousand things, she is only a woman'. Just take a look at all our movies, which is perhaps a reflection of  our society. The femme fatale is the bad woman, using her charm to seduce unsuspecting, innocent men. She is always the English speaking, pub frequenting, provocatively dressed woman who smokes, drinks, and sleeps around. On the other hand, the good heroine is always dressed conservatively, knows her 'place', sacrifices her own identity, gives up her dreams and ambitions, so that she can become an ideal wife. Incidentally, these things do not apply to men, of course. We are not only a misogynistic society but also a hypocritical one. We ask our daughters to cover up, as if that will stop rapists, and yet, we have no qualms watching the thousands of item numbers that desperate movie makers include in their mindless movies, just so that they can sell. And in a country that is crazy about Bollywood, they sell like hot cakes! Indeed, who has not heard of Munni or Shiela? A society where women are objectified, routinely harassed just because they are women, where respect seems to have vanished- this is our society today.

The past fortnight brought with it one of the most shocking incidents our country has ever witnessed. Like thousands of people across India, I was struck numb. The brutality of the rape stung me, and I was horrified that it could ever happen in a society which is supposed to be civil. Even worse, I soon realized that this could happen to anyone! Collective outrage against our impotent laws, against our corrupt system, against our indifferent chalta hai attitude poured into the streets. Candlelight vigils were held all over India, expressing our sorrow for India's 'braveheart', calling for stricter laws (Castrate the criminals! Hang them!) I fully agree that there needs to be a fear of law, and there have been far too many rape cases where the survivor is reduced to the label of a 'rape victim', destined to live the rest of her life, burdened with social stigma. Indeed, look at the phrase used to describe such circumstances- she lost her honor. How unfair can it get! Remember the Park Street incident? A politician allegedly stated that this was not a rape case, but rather a 'misunderstanding' arising out of a deal with a client. I cannot even fathom how a woman can say such things about another woman. Remember Soumya's story? The beast, who brutally raped her and left her to die, is still alive, living comfortably on taxpayers' money in prison. These stories are frightening, but what remains even more distressing is that the rapes continue to happen, the misogynistic attitudes remain defiant. And there seems to be deafening silence all around when it comes to concrete long term solutions.

One of the perpetrators behind this extremely heinous incident is a juvenile. I cannot even believe that someone who is of my younger cousin's age could even think of such an act. Isn't this a sign of how the government, schools, families, our society as a whole, have failed? Ironically, this incident has brought to light our mindset, even within the elite so-called educated society. When former actor Smriti Irani, a member of the Parliament, spoke about the issue, she was ridiculed by Sanjay Nirupam, another Parliament member, the gist of the entire remark being- till today you were dancing on TV and today you have become a politician? Abhijit Mukherjee, another MP, and the son of our President, recently passed a remark on how the women protesting against the streets of Delhi are 'painted and dented'. Even as young women gathered at Raisina Hill and other locations across the country, there were cases of them being groped and eve-teased. I read about how certain Haryana politicians think that reducing the marriageable age for women would be a solution. Let's reduce it to ten or twelve maybe, shall we? That way we can kill all hopes of an education and a future for young girls! As they say, nip it in the bud! Another honorable politician went on to recommend that skirts should be banned as school uniforms since 'it attracts sharp and dirty glances and lewd comments'. He went on to suggest that they should be made to wear salwar kameezes or trousers instead. Note that there was no mention about implementing strict punishment for eve-teasing or taking the men to task. What next? Ban girls from going to school all together? Because you know, it's all this education that is making girls bolder and taking them far from where they are supposed to be; stopping them from attending schools would teach them a lesson, and put them back in their places. If this is the attitude of our elected leaders and urban citizens, I shudder to think of the plight of those in rural areas, buried in some forgotten corner of the nation.

This is probably one among hundreds of blog posts written about the issue. I write about this because it angers me, it makes me feel helpless. Our society is crippled, our justice system flawed, and our attitudes frightening. As a woman, as an Indian, as a human being, I hang my head in shame for being a part of a society which has permitted this to occur. I do pray that Nirbhaya's death does not go in vain. An eye for an eye does make the world blind, but in a society such as ours, only fear of the law will work. My opinion may not matter much but I do believe that India can learn a lesson or two from Singapore and Saudi Arabia in this regard. The six accused in this brutal gang-rape must be brought to justice. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg for these incidents continue to occur, and very often they go unnoticed. Think about rapes by family members, forced prostitution in rural areas, honor killings, dowry deaths...The only long term solution is to change the way we think. Our children must see good examples in their parents. From childhood, they must be taught that men and women are equal, and that should be practised in reality. Inequality starts from the choice over a ladoo or a barfi. Sometimes it starts even before a child is born. This isn't about politics or feminism. It all boils down to respect and dignity, something which is central to the existence of any human being. Women deserve to be treated with respect and dignity; we too are human.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Books and Memories

Books have always been an important part of my life. I cannot remember not having one with me at any point in time. Of course, there was a brief period when I just couldn't find the time to read, or even if I had time, I was too tired and preferred to switch on the idiot box instead. But I am glad that I did return to books, and although I don't read as fast as I once used to, I still love to curl up on the sofa, and soak in the pages, savoring the smell of the paper, (which probably explains why I still cannot come to terms with e-books) and drowning myself in the stories unfolded in those pages.

Now that I am back home for the semester break, I spent some time looking at old books on the bookshelf, and realized why I am so attached to them. To me, each book is a memory, and looking at those books helps me revisit those memories. At home, every birthday, vacation, or special celebration has always been remembered through books. Indeed, I received my first book when I was three years old. It was a tiny Ladybird book, titled 'Story time for 3 Year Olds', and Appa had also written in a small message- For Dear Sruthimol. A number of other books followed, each one with a message from Appa or Amma, each one as precious as the very first. I came across a Laura Ingalls Wilder book (Little House on the Prairie), a gift for my eleventh birthday, with this message from Appa- Dear Sruthimol, Eleven today! (Going on fifteen?). I loved the Little House series, and I got the last one (On the Banks of Plum Creek) in celebration of me getting a school leadership position. I re read the message from Appa, and it brought back so many memories, a time when Appa would lovingly call me poochakutty,  me wearing my blue school pinafore and proudly pinning on the Assistant Literary Secretary badge, the school in Bahrain...

It's not just the books on the shelf that bring back memories. There are also prayer books in the puja room, old yellowed pages, often dog-eared and slightly torn. The old Bhajanamritam copies remind me of bhajans sung together as a family. The Lalitha Sahasranamam booklet reminds me of Friday mornings, where we would sit together and chant the 1000 names of the Goddess. Each time I use the book, I remember how Amma and I would always smile at each other, in between the chants, whenever we reached the 879th name, Sudha Sruthi. (My mother's name is Sudha, and most of my family and friends know me as Sruthi, so this name of the Goddess is a combination of both our names.) The faint fragrance of vibhuti in the folds of these pages is a reminder of God's omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience to me, and it brings me tremendous solace in trying times. 

Every book is a memory, and that makes each book special to me :)

P.S: I'm finally out of my blog-hibernation mode! Although I would like to think I have been really busy, it was sheer laziness that prevented me from blogging this past month.

Mol is a Malayalam term for daughter.
Poochakutty literally means 'little cat' in Malayalam.
Puja is a Sanskrit term for worship/prayer.
Bhajans are devotional hymns
The Lalitha Sahasranamam is a Sanskrit prayer, consisting of the 1000 names of the goddess. (Sahasra meaning 1000, and Namam meaning name)
Vibhuti refers to sacred ash, often worn on the forehead as a sign of faith.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

This is the Day!

Around eight years ago, when I was at middle school, studying in Bahrain, my school had organized a summer camp in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India. My parents were organizing the whole trip, so I was automatically included in the team. The week long trip included visits to wildlife centers in Bandipur, Top Slip, and Parambikulam Dam, all of which are well known among nature and wildlife aficionados in southern India. But the highlight of the trip for me was a visit to Avalanche lake, about which I have blogged earlier.

If you were to ask me to describe paradise, I would point out to Avalanche. Far from the glare of city lights, (in fact, not many people, even from Ooty and around, are aware of the existence of such a place) surrounded by the pristine blue waters of the Avalanche lake, and the emerald green expanse of forests, this place is an absolute reminder of God's wonderful ways. I could go on about Avalanche, but rather sadly, I haven't been able to visit after that particular trip.

What reminded me of Avalanche all of a sudden was a song that has been stuck in my head all day long:

This is the day, this is the day
That the Lord has made, that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice, we will rejoice
And be glad in it, and be glad in it!

The camp at Avalanche was run by the Scripture Union, and I remember the volunteer who guided us along our journey. Wilson  helped us with our kayaking expeditions around Avalanche Lake, and organized trekking trips across the mountains and forests. Best of all, after dusk, we would gather around a camp bonfire, and sing together, and this was one of the songs Wilson taught us, an unruly set of school kids, that day. Ever since then, when this song comes to my mind, I am immediately transported back to Avalanche, where the heady scent of the eucalyptus trees mingles in the refreshingly cold mountain air. At the same time, the tune and the words are so cheerful that it instantly puts a smile on my face, even if I am having an absolutely horrid day. Just goes on to show that every day is the Lord's day, and each day needs to be celebrated. This is the day! :)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kerala Summers

A pond near my granduncle's house in the heart of a typical Kerala village.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the holidays I spent as a child in Kerala. A sense of nostalgia, maybe? Or some kind of sadness that those are times that I have probably lost forever? I really don't know. Today, even if I do go back, times have changed, and so have people.  So, these are some of the things that came to my mind:

The rain. Monsoons in Kerala are amazingly beautiful. To just sit and watch the fierce rains swathe the lush greenery with a dash of pristine white is pure bliss. I have spent many a summer sitting at the verandah of my valiamma's house doing just that. Or simply reading a book and listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops.

Games and discussions with the cousins. This used to be super fun. No adults involved, just us kids. Whenever I visited Palakkad, after we finished gossiping about films, books, and people, our topic of conversation would always turn to the supernatural. The cousins always had something new for me, the so-called outsider. They told me tales of yakshis and rakshasas, handsome gandharvas and spirits that could be summoned through an Ouija board. I used to be petrified then, but looking back it does bring a smile. 

Temples, temples, and more temples. Shashi Tharoor, in his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, also writes about his school holidays in Kerala. He describes it as a cross between a pilgrimage and a penance- his parents' pilgrimage, his penance. Well, my holidays were also a bit like that. :D 

Ever since I can remember, every trip had visits to at least seven or eight temples. First, the temple town of Guruvayoor. I used to hate the serpentine queues at the gate of the temple, often making our wait stretch into hours. According to the temple rules, women and girls sporting western clothing couldn't enter the temple, and I would always be dressed in a pattu pavadai. That in itself would annoy me, thanks to the indignity of clutching onto the long folds of the skirt lest I trip and fall on my face. And then there was always the possibility of my parents becoming over zealous in their devotion, leading them to suggest standing in the queue for another darshan which translated to more hours! I would be perpetually hungry, (I used to have a definite preference for 'bhojanam over bhajanam'. :D) and asking about meals was rather futile, since the purpose of the trip was to visit Bhagavan, not the Brahmins' pure vegetarian mess outside West Nada. (By the way, I've always been curious- what exactly do they mean by 'pure' vegetarian? I'm vegetarian myself, but I have no claims of being purer than the rest of humanity.)   After Guruvayoor, the next stop would be the nearby Shiva shrine of Mammiyoor. Then, on our way back to Palakkad, a stop at the adima kaavu or the family shrine. Ours is a matrilineal society, so it is customary to stop at Amma's family shrine, a temple dedicated to the goddess Bhagavati, nestled in the corner of a village, buried deep in the Western Ghats. I remember looking forward to the trip since the route to the village is so scenic- brown mountains in the distance, lush green fields, and the vast blue skies, this is God's own country at its best. Following trips to these compulsory temples, there were always visits made to nearby ones as well, especially for birthdays, special archanas, and prasadam which inevitably would be the absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious neipayasam. Dusk at these temples is beautiful, and watching the evening deeparadhana is splendid.

Naamajapam with my grandmother. As a child, I would be asked by amaama to go place a lamp at the entrance to the house when dusk set. This is considered auspicious, and I was taught to chant Deepam deepam while going about this act, since it essentially brings light to the household. (Is it a metaphorical reference to prosperity? Or is it just a tradition carried forward since there was no electricity in the olden days?) I don't see anyone doing it these days, even in Kerala. Once this was done, I would follow amaama to the puja room, and listen to her chant from the scriptures.

Road trips in Kerala. I especially remember long bus journeys from Coimbatore to Kochi where my uncle lives. Watching the ubiquitous toddy shops (where there are surprisingly well disciplined queues), banana chips stalls, Che Guevra posters announcing the next hartal, and roadside eateries with names like 'Emirates Hotel' whizz by is indeed an interesting experience. The potholes on the roads make the journey even more interesting. These are God's own roads, after all.

I'm unable to type any more. I want to go back, both in time and place. :(

P.S: I really did come across 'Emirates Hotel' last August. We stopped there for a chai break and I got to try some really good pathiri :D

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Identity Tags

How would you define yourself? This is a question that has been plaguing me for quite some time. Do you answer it with respect to where you come from, what language you speak, what faith you follow, your traditions and beliefs, or are these factors merely incidental? Throughout my growing years, I have been conscious of these factors etched onto some forgotten recess of the mind, but I soon realized that they don't really matter.

As a case in point, I have always been somewhat sceptical of the phrase 'Proud to be Indian'. (Yes, this phrase is usually put up as Facebook statuses every 15 August/26 January). Now don't get me wrong. I cherish my 'Indianness' and my Indian roots, but I am sure I would have felt the same way had I been born on the other side of the Radcliffe line! What I mean to say is that whilst it is good to cherish your nationality, religion, or even something like caste, these are just circumstances of birth. These identity tags should not really define one's identity, since they could well have been the other way round. But it's really sad that we still stick to defining a person through these terms.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this blog post and realized that I have been in the same situation as the author. Apart from the similarity in our names (or at least a part of my name), I also hail from Kerala, Palakkad to be precise. However, my parents were brought up in Tamil Nadu, and I myself spent a significant portion of my childhood in that state. So it isn't all that surprising that there are specks of Tamil thrown into my Malayalam. The fact that I am a vegetarian, together with my dad's Tamil sounding last name is enough to make anybody assume that I am a Tam-Brahm. My question is- does it really matter? What difference does it make? Should it even be a question of importance in the first place? I was amused at an incident that occurred a couple of months ago. I used to go buy lunch at one of the numerous Indian stalls on campus. The uncle working at the stall is quite chatty with students who frequent the area. So the first day, having seen him talk to others in both Hindi and Tamil, I chose to speak in the latter. (Both my Hindi and Tamil are rather laughable, but my Tamil is subject to less ridicule, so...) Then a couple of days later, the friendly uncle asked me whether I was from Chennai or Coimbatore. Well, I did have family in Coimbatore, and when we returned to India for the holidays we always went back there, so I replied Coimbatore, but originally from Palakkad. All this combined with my being vegetarian seemed to confirm that I was twice born, and so one day, out of curiosity, he asked me what my full name was. I was rather puzzled, but I did tell him. And then came the next question - Yen maa, nee Iyer aa, Iyengar aa? (Are you an Iyer or Iyengar?) Aah, so that was why he wanted to know my full name! Resisting the urge to reply with 'Manushya jaati' , I laughingly said, 'What is there in all this?' And he replied, 'Very important, ma. All this very important.'

I couldn't really blame him, since I have seen instances of this amongst my own family members. When I forgot to wear a pottu that confirmed my identity as a Hindu, someone remarked that I looked like a Christian. Or there was a time when someone asked me whether I was Christian because I happen to wear a rosary ring. There was another time when a school friend saw me reading a copy of Our Daily Bread and remarked in surprise, 'But, you aren't Christian!' I found it futile to explain that whilst I am a Hindu by practice, I do believe in Christ, the same way as I trust in Swami.

Does it really matter whether I follow Christ or Krishna? Does it really matter if my dad wears a sacred thread or not? Does it really matter whether I hail from the north or the south of the Vindhyas? Does it really matter whether I speak Malayalam, Tamil, or even Tulu? Indeed, does it really matter whether I am coloured, black, or white?

Who am I? That is a question that many have not found an answer to, and if the wise ones are to be believed, finding an answer to this elusive question is the purpose of life. I am still searching for the answer, but I do know that these tags do not define me. Yes, I cherish them, for they bring about a great deal of familiarity, and thereby solace, but then I do know that I am much more than all of them.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

21 Before 21

I like to think of myself as an avid reader. I almost always have a book in my bag and there is nothing that makes me happier than spending long hours in a bookshop or library. For me, there is something mystical, something magical that lies within the pages of books. A form of escape from the numerous worries of the world? Maybe. But more than an escape, they are also an avenue to reach out, explore, discover things for oneself. Curiosity, a sense of wonder, amazement- that would define books for me. However, I have realized that I'm not reading as much as I would like to, and to say that it is because of a lack of time would be a poor excuse. If only I used the time I spend in worrying and complaining, or even random facebook stalking (ahem, ahem) on reading instead! So, I decided to take things on track and promised myself to read more- I decided to come up with a list of 21 books and see whether I can finish reading them by the time I turn 21. I do hope I will be able to catch hold of these books, but anyway my goal is simply to finish 21 books, and these are the books I would like to read by then. Here's the list:

1) Autobiography of a Yogi
I have read this book in parts, but I really don't think one can claim to have read it unless it's read in its entirety. At one point in time, this was the world's most translated book, and from the few chapters I have read, it has immensely powerful lessons in spirituality.
2) Does He Know A Mother's Heart?
In this book, Arun Shourie discusses the one question that haunts many: 'If there really is a kind, compassionate, all-knowing God, how can there be extreme suffering in this world?' The book also describes his own experience as the father of a child, diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
3) The Great Indian Novel
Shashi Tharoor, in this book, uses the Mahabharata to explain the story of India's Independence, and its journey following the first few years of freedom. According to Tharoor's website, the title of the book itself refers to the Mahabharata- Maha, meaning great, and Bharata being an ancient name for the land beyond the Indus.
4) City of Djinns
I am a big fan of William Dalrymple. I loved reading The Age of Kali, Nine Lives, and more recently, From the Holy Mountain. Naturally, this book should be on my list! City of Djinns tells the rich history of the city of Delhi, beginning with the Moghul dynasty.
5) Fantastic Mr Dahl
The biography of one of my most favorite, favorite writers, Roald Dahl! The title of the book is in reference to one of Dahl's most popular books for children, Fantastic Mr Fox. :D
6) Reading Lolita in Tehran
The book narrates Azar Nafisi's journey as a professor at the University of Tehran, and her forming a 'secret' book club consisting of seven of her female students in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Till now, I have never been able to get hold of this book for some reason or the other! :/
7) Once Upon a Time in The Soviet Union
This book, by Dominique Lapierre, describes his journey across the roads of erstwhile USSR. At a time when it was difficult (almost impossible) for foreigners to get free travel passes in the Soviet Union, Lapierre and his photographer colleague, document what it must have been like to live behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
8) City of Joy
Another book by Dominique Lapierre. This is the incredibly inspiring story of his journey in the slums of Calcutta, and why it truly is a city of joy. (I've read an excerpt of this book in another book called A Thousand Suns and I found it so humbling!)
9) Chanakya's Chant
I just cannot understand how I missed this book. I stumbled across it a few days ago, and the plot sounds ingenious to me! Ashwin Singhi, in this book, tells us two parallel stories- one of Chanakaya, the 'cold, calculating and cruel' strategist, creator of the Science of Wealth, who succeeds in making Chandragupta the emperor of the Mauryan kingdom, and the other of a modern day Chanakya, born 2500 years later.
10) The Miracle
The book by Irving Wallace, is a fictional take on miracle cures that many people believe can be performed by the Virgin Mary at Lourdes. This is another book that I have been hunting for ages but to no avail. :/
11) The Immortals of Meluha
12) The Secret of the Nagas
I have been wanting to read the first two books of the Shiva Trilogy for AGES. And I'm yet to get hold of them.
13) Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion
I stumbled across this book while reading a few course related case studies. Intrigued by the description of the book, I went on to read an excerpt and I found it really inspiring. The book tells us the story of the Aravind Eye Hospital Group in India, and the incredible journey of its founder, Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy, who is popularly known as Dr V.
14) Life of Pi
15) To Kill a Mockingbird
These two books have been on my shelf for a very long time, but I have somehow not got around to reading them yet.
16) The Emerald Route
This book by the master of Malgudi, RK Narayan, is an account of his travels in the lush, green regions of Karnataka. But to simply describe it that way would be gross injustice to both the writer, and the book. Sample this book review: http://thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/the-emerald-route/
Again, this is another book that has long eluded me. :/
17) The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone
18) Pax Indica
I really don't think anyone else can talk about India or 'Indianness' better than Shashi Tharoor. I've read India: From Midnight to the Millennium which describes in detail India's journey till today. (One of my favorite chapters in the book talks about 'Scheduled Caste, Unscheduled Change' and perfectly explains the caste cauldron that India is drowning in.) These two are Tharoor's more recent books on India, Pax Indica being released just a couple of months ago.
19) Ruby of Cochin
I cannot remember how I came across the book. I only remember reading an excerpt and hunting for the book ever since, but again to no avail. The book, by Ruby Daniel, tells the story of the Cochin Jews.
20) Lament of Mohini
Again, I stumbled across this book a few days ago. I am currently reading Anita Nair's The Better Man, and was curious to find other recent works of fiction by contemporary Indian writers. This book, by Shreekumar Verma, tells the story of a royal Kerala household, spanning five generations. The reviews seemed very interesting to me!
21) Is Paris Burning?
I came across this book while reading A Thousand Suns, where Dominique Lapierre describes his partnership with Larry Collins and how the duo began writing books together. Is Paris Burning? was their first book as a team, and the title is a reference to the question asked by Adolf Hitler to his general on the eve of the Liberation of Paris. Lapierre and Collins later interviewed the general, Deitrich von Choltitz, who refused to follow the Fuhrer's orders to burn Paris.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thoughts on Tolerance

The dictionary defines tolerance as 'a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc.,differ from one's own'. Now imagine using its verb form in a sentence- for example, I can tolerate you. Meaning, your presence is a nuisance, but yes, I can still live with it. It doesn't sound nice to me, because you are merely willing to tolerate me, not accept me for who I am. I could be black, white, brown, or yellow; gay or straight; Christian, Hindu, Muslim, agnostic, or even atheist...You wouldn't be able to empathize with me, you wouldn't agree with my views and we wouldn't meet eye to eye, but you can still put up with me, and we could at least agree to disagree. And yet, today, being able to tolerate is the least that we can do. Sure, if we could put aside all our differences, and move from mere 'tolerance to acceptance to (even better) celebration of differences', we would be living in utopia. But somewhat ironically, it seems as if we have even lost this ability to tolerate. While the human race, supposedly progressive, should be moving forward from tolerance to the highest form of celebration, it appears to me that we are actually regressing.

Why do I sound so pessimistic? Well, it's got to do with the release of the trailer of a movie titled Innocence of Muslims, released a few days ago on Youtube. The director of the movie went by the name of Sam Bacile, allegedly an Egyptian American although he claimed to be Israeli-American. There are several rumours about the actual identity of this director, but I don't think none has hitherto been proved true.Well, the nationality or the religion of the director doesn't matter so much (at least to me) more than the fact that this film has been made with the sole purpose to enrage, infuriate the faithful. It was built on the ugliness of hate. As simple as that. He neither apologized nor felt much remorse for what he did. On the contrary, he still believes in his mission, and that is what disgusts me.

I genuinely find it difficult to believe that a person could actually have so much hate for someone, just because they happen to follow a different religion! And really, is religion even something over which we should fight? I agree that organised religion is more about an identity, a feeling of belonging to a particular group united by common beliefs and practices, influenced by cultural norms, and it is not just about God. However, isn't God still the centre of every religion? And after all, isn't God the same, no matter what name you call Him by? I remember as a child I was confused over whether I should call Him Krishna, like my parents, or Jesus, like Sister Sheeba who taught me math in primary school. As an answer to this confusion, Appa used an analogy- A lady has many roles to play in her life. She is a daughter, a mother, a sister, and a wife. Accordingly, different people call her by different names, but no matter what name is used, the lady remains the same. In the same way, God is the same, no matter what name you use. Well you may or may not agree with me over this. After all, if you cannot see my point, you still have your God, and I still have mine. I simply fail to see why there should be so much hatred towards someone whose view of God happens to differ from yours.

To be fair, the reactions to this video are also quite disturbing. Protests and riots, mostly across the Middle East, resulted in injury, and sometimes even death. While it is true that the religious sentiments of many have been hurt, is violence of this nature the solution to the issue? It saddens me to think that we have foolish hate-spewers like Bacile or whoever he is on the one hand, and then we also have people who react impulsively, fuelled by anger and no surprise, hate again. The wise ones told us a long time ago that hate begets only hate. And yet we don't learn. When did we become so hateful?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Ring (55 Fiction)


Tina fumed at the loss of her ring. She was sure the maid had stolen it. Tina saw her eyeing it the other day, enviously, wistfully. And now it was gone! She’d teach her a lesson. Enraged, she dragged the sheets off the bed. Something fell. It was the emerald ring, sparkling in the light.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses- My Thoughts


I came across Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses at a second hand book sale. I had heard of Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife before, but somehow hadn't been able to read them, so I was somewhat sceptical about picking this book, which happens to be her third. However, my insatiable urge to buy something got the better of me and I soon found myself clutching a slightly worn out copy of The Hundred Secret Senses, with yellowing dog eared pages. And then the book found its way to my bookshelf and lay forgotten for a long time.

I rediscovered it last month, and lost myself in its pages. The Hundred Secret Senses tells the story of Olivia Laguni, born to a Chinese father and an American mother, and the complex relationship she shares with her Chinese half-sister, Kwan. After her father's death, her mother promises to take care of his elder daughter from an earlier marriage who has been living in China- and that was how Kwan came to America. Olivia finds Kwan's presence annoying, frustrating, mostly due to her lack of familiarity with anything western: By the first grade, I had become an expert on public humiliation and shame. Kwan asked so many dumb questions that all the neighbourhood kids thought she had come from Mars...She'd say 'Who this Popeye Sailor Man? Why one eye gone? He bandit?'. Added to this, Kwan also had some rather eccentric ways. She claimed to have 'Yin' eyes through which she could not only see but also communicate with ghosts.

Olivia grows up, constantly embarrassed, always irritated with Kwan. In retaliation, she is often mean, even spiteful to her sister. For example, when Kwan asks her about the American name for the delicious pear fruit they ate one night, Olivia says 'Barf' and covers her mouth to stifle her snickers. Poor Kwan rolls this new word over her mouth and says, 'Wah! What a clumsy word for such a delicate taste!' I was somehow reminded of the relationship between Amir and Hassan in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. Amir, convinced that the illiterate Hassan would not be able to learn or appreciate more advanced literature due to his status as a Hazara which ranked low on the Afghan social ladder, would only read out to him the misadventures of Mullah Nasruddin. And whenever Hassan stopped to ask him the meaning of a new word, just like Olivia, he would mock at his ignorance. Like the time Hassan asked him the meaning of the word 'imbecile'. Amir said, Let’s see. ‘Imbecile.’ It means smart, intelligent. I’ll use it in a sentence for you. ‘When it comes to words, Hassan is an imbecile.’ Just like how Hassan never seemed to understand how spiteful Amir was, and how he continued to admire him, Kwan also adores her sister and showers her with love- it would always make Olivia guilty later.

 There is something endearing about Kwan. The way she fusses over the rather selfish inconsiderate Olivia, calling her Libby-Ah all the time (she was never able to say Olivia), or the way she went on about her story from another life about a one-eyed Chinese girl called Nunumu and her American missionary friend who went by the name of Miss Banner. Or the delightful way in which she speaks broken English. Or maybe how she could still continue to like, even love, her half sister despite all the hurt. The more I read, the more I began to dislike the protagonist Olivia. Although I could see traces of myself in her, and it was possible to empathize with her, it was really difficult to like her. Maybe that's why I was more drawn to Kwan's character?

The book's turning point is a strange twist of fate which leads Olivia, her estranged husband Simon, and Kwan make a trip to China. Returning to China after nearly thirty years, Kwan helps Olivia explore her real roots, and it is here that Olivia understands what Kwan means when she keeps talking about ghosts and a hundred secret senses.

The description of the village back in China, Olivia and Simon's courtship, and Kwan's story from the other life are delightful. Whilst I found the story within the story, relating to Kwan's other life slightly weary at the beginning, it soon picked up pace, thanks to certain colourful characters like the missionaries whom the locals called Pastor and Mrs Amen. There is one part of the book where Kwan (thanks to her Yin eyes) has a hilarious conversation with the ghost of her deceased aunt, Big Ma. However, there are other parts which I found quite long winded, and thought could have been better dealt with, for example, a chapter on Kwan's childhood friend Buncake. But it is made tolerable by traces of humour- Big Ma's friend, Du Lili, explains why she chose to remain a spinster, Many times I'm glad I never married. Yes, yes, what a lot of trouble, taking care of a man. I heard that half a man's brain lies between his legs, hah!

I wouldn't call this book a brilliant read, but there is something about it which does strike a chord. I found parts of it dreary, parts of it which didn't really weave into the plot, but there were also parts that did bring a smile to me, and despite the rather bittersweet climax, I was somewhat able to relate to the hundred secret senses. In the beginning, when Olivia asks Kwan what she means, the conversation goes like this:

Olivia: What do you mean, secret sense?
Kwan: Ah, I already tell you so many times. You don't listen? Secret sense not really secret. We just call secret because everyone has, only forgotten. Same kind of sense like ant feet, elephant trunk, dog nose, cat whisker, whale ear, bat wing, clam shell, snake tongue, little hair on flower. Many things, but mix up together.
Olivia: You mean instinct.
Kwan: Stink? Maybe sometimes stinky-
Olivia: Not stink, instinct. It's a kind of knowledge you're born with...

Olivia understands at the end- If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them any time with our hundred secret senses. Indeed, our loved ones do not really die, unless they are erased from our memories, fading away into oblivion. I understood this to mean that as long as we are able to cherish them in some way, some memory, they continue to live on. Profound message, yet I feel the book could have avoided a number of rather tiresome episodes. All in all, it isn't a bad read, but it isn't amazingly brilliant either.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A Grand Story, Indeed!


Being a non-resident Keralite all my life, naadan food and Malayalam films are two things that help me connect back to my roots. I have spent many a weekend at home, laughing over the antics of Dasan and Vijayan, or watching the gorgeous Ganga transform into a murderous Nagavalli seeking revenge on a Durgaashtami day. Needless to say, there are a number of Malayalam films that I am likely to remember for a very long time, and this post is about one such film that I recently watched.

I have always been a Mohanlal fan, and can never tire of watching some of his old films. Remember classics like Chitram, Kilukkam, Devaasuram, Thenmaavin Kombathu, Aaraam Thamburan...and I could just go on! However there is no denying that certain more recent films show him in a less than flattering role, and many of us thought that he should be playing roles his age. And that's when he came out with Grandmaster, once again proving to us what a versatile actor he is, bringing back the magic on screen.

Directed by B Unnikrishnan, Grandmaster tells the story of an IPS officer named Chandrasekhar (played by Mohanlal) who leads a rather lonely life, struggling to come to terms with a broken marriage. We are told that he used to be a brilliant cop, but ego clashes over professional issues between him and his lawyer wife Deepthi (portrayed by Priya Mani), have torn him apart. Even as the head of the Metro Crime Stopper Cell in the city of Kochi, he prefers to spend his time playing chess with himself, seeming to have lost the zest and passion he once had for his job. However all this changes when he hears of a mentally unstable young man named Jerome, who in a fit of anger at being ignored by a young girl, abducts her and two of her friends. Being the father of a teenager (whom he gets to meet only twice a month), he immediately sets out to rescue the girls, and we see traces of the old Chandrasekhar return. The next day, he sees a stack of letters and enquires about it. His colleague Kishore (played by Narain) tells him that most of these letters are pranks, and they shouldn't be taken seriously. However, Chandran tells him that he should be able to differentiate a genuine letter from a prank, and proceeds to pick out one addressed to him, in red ink.

To his surprise, the letter is from an admirer, impressed that he was able to make a comeback of sorts by arresting Jerome. But the letter also contains a rather chilling message- It is an invitation to Chandran to stop playing chess against himself; a challenge to play against the writer of the letter instead, and the stage would be a place called Adityapuram on the 10th of February. Chandran remembers that date to be inauspicious for him, and he wonders what's in store for him. Fast forward to that date, and we see a woman named Alice lying dead in front of her coffee pub. She has been murdered, and the murderer has left behind a children's alphabet book, opened at the page for A. The word 'Apple' has been struck out and in its place the page reads 'A for Alice'. Rather chillingly, the murderer has also used his weapon to inscribe a cross on the victim's forehead.

As he tries to trace who could be behind this murder, two other murders take place, and the names of these victims begin with a B and a C. He is convinced that these murders are all linked, and somehow uncannily each victim had a visit from a travelling salesman before their fateful deaths. Who was this person? What is his role? And why on earth did the murderer insist that Chandran gets involved in this game? 

Based on Agatha Christie's book titled The ABC Murders, Grandmaster has all its elements in place. It has none of the over-the-top heroism usually associated with thrillers of this kind, nor does it rely on soppy romance in the flashback used to describe Chandran and Deepthi's marriage. Jagathy, as Chandran's colleague Rasheed, once again proves to us that he is an actor par excellence. Narain and Priya Mani, as Kishore and Deepthi, have pulled across really good performances. Anoop Menon, playing the role of Deepthi's psychiatrist friend named Jacob, was brilliant-I felt there was a quiet dignity about this whole character. There is one scene where he proposes to Deepthi, and I especially liked the way he dealt with her rejection. Babu Antony, as the travelling salesman, sent shivers across my spine. Especially the scene where he opens a Bible and prays to God in repentance, or the scene where he confesses to a priest that 'they deserved to die since lust was their sin'. But undoubtedly, the film belongs to Mohanlal. With his salt-and-pepper hair, and a graceful dignified demeanour, he plays his age, and oh my, he does it incredibly well. This role seems to have been scripted especially for him, and he brings sheer magic to the film- almost like the old days when his Midas touch transformed many a drab movie into a blockbuster hit. Lalettan's top notch performance puts the 'grand' in Grandmaster. A movie NOT to be missed!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Random Acts of Kindness

A couple of days ago, I turned my room topsy turvy, hunting for a stapler. I had a lesson the next day, and wanted to prepare for it, by analysing the readings assigned to us. There were three in total, and each was quite a few pages long. It felt good trying to get things in order, and for that I needed to file them in, which meant neatly stapling them together. Sadly, I'm a trifle messy when it comes to things like this (When will you ever learn, Amma says) and in the midst of shifting rooms, I think I must have lost my stapler somewhere. That ruined my entire good mood. I began to get cranky, but since nobody was there to tolerate my tantrums, that also passed away. It was nearly midnight, and I was tempted to go to bed without reading through, but felt a little guilty at that. I heard my neighbour moving around her room, and decided it wouldn't hurt to borrow her stapler. Now, it's just been around two weeks since the new semester began, and I really don't know her well, not even her name. We have met each other, of course- in the cluster kitchen, in the lift, and so on. Exchanged polite smiles. That's about it. Any way, I knocked, and when she opened the door, asked her whether she had a stapler. This was a little awkward- I'm guessing she's a freshman, and she is obviously not a local student. So she might have found the new environment daunting, or maybe she couldn't figure out my 'Inglish' (Indian way of speaking English :P). Finally, I resorted to gestures by showing her my file and the papers. She shook her head, gave an almost apologetic smile, and said that she didn't have one.

So I returned to my room, too tired to ask anybody else.  Around 15 minutes later, I decided to hit the sack and wake up early instead to complete the reading. That's when I heard a knock on my door. Tired at best, irritated at worst, I opened the door. My neighbour was there. She had a bunch of papers in her hand, held together by a paper clip. No, she didn't have a stapler, but she did have some paper clips. Would those be okay?

I was really touched by the gesture. This is a person I hardly knew, and if I were in her place, I probably wouldn't have taken the trouble to get back to someone I was barely acquainted with, at such a late hour, even if I had eventually found a stapler. So thoughtful and considerate of my neighbour! It may sound like a very small thing, but it does leave a huge impact. I'll definitely remember this the next time I jump and quickly explain  why or how I will not be able to help someone else.

Another incident occurred today, which once again proved to me that you can always help people if you try. I had gone off to the hawker centre for lunch, (I converted my summer internship into a part time one, and now work twice a week) and was returning to my office, when all of a sudden, it began to rain. Singapore has an extremely unpredictable weather- tropical and humid, sunny one moment, gloomy the next. You may need sun glasses one moment, an umbrella the next. Waiting at the zebra crossing without an umbrella was dreadful. I was beginning to get drenched and cursed myself for having ignored the darkening skies when I left my desk for lunch. An elderly gentleman was standing near me at the crossing, and noticing my deplorable state, offered to share his umbrella with me. The office was just a stone's throw away, and it really wouldn't have mattered, because I could have reached quite quickly, although I would still be drenched. But having discovered that I was going the same way as him, this elderly uncle didn't hesitate to share his umbrella. I couldn't thank him enough. Would I have done it? Sure, if  it was my friend or even a casual acquaintance, the latter although hesitatingly. But for a random stranger on the street? Food for thought indeed! I surely have miles to go in my journey to be a better human being. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ouija Board (55 Fiction)


Playing with the Ouija Board was a mistake. She should have known better than to use it to call spirits of people, long dead and forgotten. She felt an unnatural presence around. Disturbed, she ran outside, and dumped the board in the dustbin. When she returned, the board was still there, almost smirking at her.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Back in God's Own Country

I'm back in Kerala, after nearly two years. It does feel great to be back, although I'll be here only for  a few days more. Every time I'm back in this part of India, I feel a sense of wonder, joy, amazement, probably because I'm back to my roots, something which I haven't been able to explore, as a result of being away from home.

Sometimes, like Khaled Hosseini's Amir in The Kite Runner, 'I feel like a tourist in my own country.' I frown at the potholes that frequently scar the roads. I complain about the power cuts, and at the same time, note with relief that at least we are not plunged into darkness, like the north. I criticize the numerous hartals that bring things to a halt, almost every other day. I feel embarrassed by the lack of cleanliness in restrooms, annoyed by the buzz of flies and mosquitoes. Yet, deep down, I know this is home, and this is where I belong.

Last evening, we walked down to the temple nearby. On the way, Appa and I discussed Kerala politics- I feel bad to admit it, but I was quite lost, so it was a good place to start learning more about the political dynamics of God's own country. When we reached the temple, I was mesmerized by the sight of lit lamps spread all around the temple courtyard- in the Hindu calender, the current month is Aadi/Karkitakam, a supposedly inauspicious month, for it brings with it humidity and the wrath of the south-west monsoons, and in the old days, this would spread illness. As a result, special prayer ceremonies are usually held during this season. The familiar chants of numerous slokas in the air, the smiling faces of deities in the garba griha, the priests handing out chandanam which we carefully applied onto our foreheads, and the wonderful, splendid aroma of neipayasam which would later be served as prasadam... Apart from the presence of family and friends, these are some things that make me feel I'm back home.

This morning, I woke up to the gentle pitter-patter of the Kerala monsoons beating against the window pane, accompanied by the chanting of the Ramayana from the nearby temple. (In the olden days, during the Karkitakam month, people would stay indoors to escape the rains, and they would read the Ramayana to give them solace and confidence in those difficult times.) As I type out this post, I hear women washing clothes in the nearby Kalpathi river. This feels foreign to me, but at the same time, I know this is home. In this land of saris and pavadai thavanis, I sometimes feel out of place in my jeans. I feel awkward when English words slip into my clumsy Malayalam sentences, or when I struggle to read the headlines on the Matrubhumi newspapers, but then I do know that this is home. And it's good to be back home :)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The More I Shop, the Happier I Get

Shopping usually makes me happy. There's something about just going out, and coming back with something, neatly wrapped in a bag. Of course, the worries don't disappear magically, but the world seems to be not such a bad place after all. And that is why I turn to retail therapy. Of course, it isn't like I jump into every shopping mall in the vicinity, every single time I feel upset, otherwise I would be broke by now. And I don't mean to say I shop only when I'm upset. I don't really need reasons to go shopping- as they say, 'A girl can never have enough shoes'. At the end of the day, it brings me happiness, and maybe takes away the worries, even if it is only for a few hours.

This morning, a friend and I decided to meet for lunch, following which we decided to go shopping in Chinatown. So there we were, walking in the hot afternoon sun, gossiping along the way, and hunting down bargains among the rows of shops that sold scarves, sarongs, beads, bags, necklaces and a million other trinkets. The original purpose of this shopping expedition was to help me get a gift for my dear granny. It's been nearly two years since I met her, and since I'm going home soon (YAYYY :D), I wanted to get her something from my internship allowance. So we hopped from shop to shop, in search of the perfect gift. Finally, after walking through the alleyways, we came across a shop that sold beautiful Pashmina shawls. They were just perfect- neither too thick for the humidity of the fierce tropical Kerala monsoons, nor too thin that they could pass off for scarves. I imagined Amooma, sitting at the dining table after dinner, quietly writing Sri Rama Jayam in her diary, the shawl gently draped across her sari. So, I went ahead and bought one. I do hope she'll like it! And this post would have had no meaning, if I hadn't shopped further. We decided to go to more shops, and there I was spoilt for choice. Pretty sarongs in every imaginable hue, bracelets of jade and emerald, silver bangles, batik bags... I decided that I just HAD to buy something. So being the impulsive shopper that I am, I went ahead and bought a sarong. Usually, that would have made me really happy- I would have come back, gingerly opened the bag, taken out the sarong, and admired it, before trying it on and prancing around in it. (Yes, I'm slightly crazy that way.) But today was different. There was something that was nagging me at the back of my mind. After the initial exhilaration from buying the skirt (I told you, shopping gives me a high!), we began discussing some serious issues, and I felt a slight dip in my energy levels. I felt my old worries creeping into me, and all of a sudden, the bag I held containing my newly acquired treasure, did not seem so precious any more.

As I returned home, I mulled over those issues. That led me to thinking about a number of other issues- how X was better than me in a number of ways, how I had not done well in something while Y was immensely successful, how I could have probably done better in something but didn't, what I didn't have which others had, and so on. It was a completely futile exercise, and it left me feeling sulky. A few minutes later, I overcame my grumpiness, and began to admire the skirt, and that made me happy again. Then I began to ponder over the nature of happiness. Was it the skirt that brought me happiness? Would I have continued to feel sad if there was no skirt to 'cheer' me up? What makes a person happy? What is happiness, anyway? Why do certain issues upset us, and what helps us overcome those? I recalled reading something on the wisdom of the ancient Hindu scriptures- Happiness is the very essence of man. Unfortunately, in the course of this journey called life, he forgets his true nature, and finds himself a victim of maya, worldly illusions. When man realizes this, he is said to have achieved that state of perfection, the ultimate goal of Sat-Chit-Ananda. Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. Hence according to the scriptures, happiness is within ourselves for it is the very nature of man. If happiness is indeed at the very core of our being, why equate happiness with something? For example, I will be happy only in the absence of sorrows, I will be happy only if I get a job at a prestigious firm, I will be happy only if I get that new dress... And therein lies the magic of maya. We forget our inherent nature- happiness. Ironically, we believe that material wealth will bring us happiness, which is why it is so difficult to be happy all the time.

Imagine slogging away in order to earn yourself an extremely precious item- for example, a diamond necklace. After months of hard work, you find yourself robbed, and thus deprived of the necklace. Can you comfort yourself and continue to remain happy, in the same way as you would have been if you got the necklace, because happiness is within yourself? You would eventually overcome it, of course, but at the very outset? Tall order, indeed. One would have accomplished the purpose of birth if one achieves this state of realization.

But since that is so difficult (and I don't know how many more janmas I have in store for me), I might as well stick to my old policy of getting happiness, albeit for a short time. 'Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping!' :D

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Odessa File- My Two Cents' Worth

I first came across The Odessa File quite a long time ago. Appa had rented a DVD of the movie, but it was beyond my comprehension and I soon lost interest in it. I must have been around ten or so at that time. A few years later, when I started high school, it was Appa (as usual) who introduced me to Frederick Forsyth's novels. I began with a book called The Veteran, a collection of five stories, the only one of which I remember is a vivid story revolving around Saint Catherine of Siena. I thoroughly enjoyed that particular story, and quickly moved on to The Day of the Jackal next. That was another gripping read, and I quite loved the plot. I soon ended up watching the movie based on the book. (Interesting trivia, pointed to me by Appa dearest- The Day of the Jackal, starring Edward Fox, produced by John Woolf!) At the end, while we were discussing the thrilling plot, it invariably ended up with The Odessa File, which was the book that followed The Day of the Jackal. Ever since, I've been wanting to read this book, but it evaded me till a week ago! I suddenly chanced upon it, and I can safely say that I've never been this engrossed by a book before. If The Day of the Jackal was good, I would have to say that this is infinitely better. (Some say it is the other way round, but maybe because I read The Odessa File only recently, the impact seems more powerful?)

It is the winter of 1963. On a cold November evening in Hamburg, Peter Miller is driving back home, when he hears about John F Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. As he listens to the news on the radio, he pulls his car to the side of the road. Suddenly he sees an ambulance drive past. As an investigative journalist, he instinctively senses that something is amiss and begins to follow the ambulance. He ends up in front of a house in the slums of Altona, and finds that a man has gassed himself. The next day, his friend in the police hands him a diary belonging to the deceased man, Salomon Tauber, who as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, had escaped death at the concentration camps of Riga. Reading through the diary, Miller comes to know that certain members of Hitler's Schutz Staffel have taken on completely different identities, and have gone into hiding in order to escape being brought to trial for war crimes. In fact, they are more than alive- most of them, under new identities, have become part of West Germany's respectable society, hiding the ugly scars of the Holocaust, an uncomfortable past which everybody seemed eager to forget. Tauber's diary begins with these words- My name is Saloman Tauber, I am a Jew and about to die. The pages soon reveal the atrocities committed by Eduard Roschmann, an SS commander who soon came to be known as the Butcher of Riga. Tauber writes that he was forced by Roschmann to send his wife, Esther, to the concentration camps, and that was the day he lost his soul. Two decades later, Tauber, now living all alone in Altona, is astonished to see Roschmann, walking freely down the streets of Hamburg. The elderly Jewish man writes in his diary that his last wish to see the SS commander stand before a court and tried for his war crimes wouldn't be fulfilled. All his efforts to survive so that justice could be achieved had failed. It had all been a waste of time. The last page of the diary states that if someone ever comes to read it in the land of Israel, that person should please say khaddish for Tauber's soul.

Something mentioned in the diary prompts Miller to go on a hunt to track Roschmann down. Why should Miller, a pure Aryan, embark on this wild goose chase to bring a former Nazi officer to justice? It all happened a long time ago, and he soon finds that not many people want to help him out. As a young man, he seems to have everything- a lucrative career that earns him well; he drives a sleek Jaguar of which he is fiercely protective; he has a girlfriend who works in the nightclubs of the Reeperbahn district. Then was it just sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust that moved him to undertake this mission? Or was there something else?

Also weaved into the plot is a project undertaken by the Odessa (the organisation of former SS officials) to develop powerful rockets against Israel. These rockets are being developed by German scientists, working in the Egyptian city of Helwan, but the entire research project is controlled by a man working in West Germany, who is only revealed by his code-name, Vulkan, named after the smith who crafted the thunderbolts of the gods in Greek mythology. On the other side, the Israeli Mossad does its best to thwart these plans. The Odessa chief in Germany, only known as the Werwolf, is given the task of ensuring Vulkan's safety. When he comes to know of Miller's quest, he is required to take care of Roschmann's safety as well, because of the latter's role in an extremely important Odessa mission. Hence the Werwolf hires an assassin known as Mack the Knife to handle Miller. There is also an episode where Miller meets Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish 'Nazi-hunter', from whom he derives much information about the Odessa. (Coincidentally, the first news that I came across my twitter feed this morning was this. So there really was a Simon Wiesenthal!)

Some parts of the book, especially, are written poignantly. For example, in Tauber's diary are these words- There is a French adage, 'To understand everything is to forgive everything'. When one can understand the people,their gullibility and their fear, their greed and their lust for power, their ignorance and their docility to the man who shouts the loudest, one can forgive...There are some men whose crimes surpass comprehension and therefore forgiveness, and here is the real failure. For they are still among us, walking through the cities, working in the offices...That they should live on, not as outcasts but as cherished citizens, to smear a whole nation in perpetuity with their individual evil, this is the true failure. And in this we have failed, you and I , we have all failed, and failed miserably. Was Tauber referring to the general apathy of the society? Was it written in anguish, pained by the indifference of the people in power to something that happened a long time ago? After all, despite the scars, West Germany had risen like a phoenix from the ashes, and to bring these former SS officers to justice would be akin to opening old wounds, 'an inconvenient truth' indeed.

Here's another passage from the book which made me pause and think. Forsyth writes about Klaus Winzer, an expert forger who worked for Hitler's army during the war, and later for the Odessa, by providing important members fake documents through which they sought refuge in Latin America. At the end of the war, Winzer forged sheets of American food rations which could last for months. He explains that they were not forged, 'just printed on a different machine'. He soon begins forging passports, driving licenses and other important documents. He explains it this way- A document is not either genuine or forged, it is either efficient or inefficient. If a pass is supposed to get you past a checkpoint, and it gets you past the checkpoint, it is a good document.When a person is blinded by a certain ideology and pursues the same with zeal, he will come up with any excuse to justify it! Zeal slowly gives way to madness and then he loses sight of the real issues, because he has fooled himself into believing that his ideology is true.

Was Miller able to track Roschmann down? Why did he want to bring the Butcher of Riga to justice? What happened to the rockets of Helwan? Who was the Vulcan? These are some of the questions answered in the climax. A thrilling plot, written so very convincingly, this is one book I'm unlikely to forget in a long long time!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Thousand Suns in the City of Joy

Two weeks ago, we celebrated Guru Purnima, the auspicious day held in remembrance of the sage Vyasa, who was believed to have been born on this day. Legend has it that Vyasa was responsible for 'dividing' the ancient sacred texts known as the Vedas into the four major components that we have come to know them as today- Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. Hence, he is also known as Veda Vyasa, and in Hindu tradition, he is regarded as a guru of gurus, a teacher of teachers. Not unsurprisingly, Guru Purnima became an occasion to reflect upon the greatness of one's guru and pay respects to that teacher. The term guru, in this context, is used to refer to a spiritual teacher- the syllables gu and ru referring to darkness and removal respectively. A guru is one who can destroy the darkness of ignorance and bring you to the path of spiritual enlightenment. This year, however, I came across a different perspective- learn to view everything as part of the guru's divine form. Seek divinity in everything, for the entire universe is a manifestation of the divine. I thought about this for sometime.

It's very difficult to look at everything positively, especially if a particular incident is not up to our liking, let alone seek God in it. And then I came across something that exemplified the very essence of Guru Purnima. I just finished reading Dominique Lapierre's A Thousand Suns. The book is a collection of memoirs, various anecdotes from Lapierre's journalistic career. He writes about his meeting with Larry Collins, a meeting which led to this 'literary duo' giving us many a best-seller; From a chance interview with Henrique Galvao, a 'modern day Don Quixote' to his epic journey across Soviet roads behind the Iron Curtain to his own battle against prostate cancer, the common thread that binds all the chapters in the book is 'the will, buried in human hearts, to fight for what we believe in'. The stories in this book amazed me- to come across anecdotes as inspiring as this is indeed like a breath of fresh air. But none inspired me as much as the story of Gaston Grandjean and his journey to the City of Joy.

Following the success of his book Freedom at Midnight (co-written with Larry Collins), Lapierre and his wife travelled to Mother Teresa's home for leper children, in Calcutta. There he chanced to meet with Gaston Grandjean, a social worker from Switzerland, who had come all the way to India to do his bit and help those less fortunate than us. In that Calcutta slum, marred with leprosy, tuberculosis and other fatal illnesses, it was difficult to live. Food, water, shelter, everything that we take for granted were the least of the concerns of the slum residents, for everyday survival was their immediate priority. Yet, there was so much joy, so much vitality, so much life in that slum. Lapierre writes about a man who used to beg outside the Kali temple- he was almost blind, and yet, he took a little 3 year old orphan under his protection. These people, to whom living itself was a burden, were actually 'life- LIFE in capital letters, life pulsating and bustling and throbbing' away. Sample this anecdote from the book- Lapierre was sitting with Grandjean, in front of his room in the slum, when he saw a band comprising of people dressed in festive attire. The band followed a procession of musicians. When they enquired what it was all about, pat came the reply. 'We are celebrating the birth of spring!' Lapierre writes 'In this slum, where I had not seen one single tree, one single bird, one single butterfly...people had the guts to celebrate an event of which they would never see the manifestations!' If only all of us were able to look at things in the same way!

Grandjean indeed was able to see divinity in that slum. After meeting an old woman, whose flesh was ravaged by the savageness of leprosy, and seeing her attitude of hope and happiness, he wrote in his diary- ...My prayer for that poor woman can no longer be sorrowful. Her suffering is like that of Christ on the cross; it is positive, redemptive. It is hope. Every time I come out of my sister the blind leper woman's hovel, I do so revitalized. This slum should be called 'the City of Joy'. (And that was how Calcutta actually got its sobriquet!)

I do not know whether it was a coincidence that I came across this chapter in the book just a few days after Guru Purnima or not. Serendipity, I would like to believe. But it did drive home the point. There is divinity in every single incident, every single creature, every single place. Lapierre concludes his story with this lovely message- The proverb I had discovered in the torrential rains of the monsoon had once again proven to be right. There are always a thousand suns beyond the clouds.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On Fortune Tellers, Fate and Faith

Last month, a friend helped me explore some parts of Singapore that I hadn't discovered yet. We met for lunch, where I had a chance to try the absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious vegetarian version of laksa. We promptly followed it with ice kachang, and then having decided that all that gobbling warranted some form of exercise, decided to walk a bit and explore the area.

It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and the street leading to the Goddess of Mercy temple in Bugis was bustling with people. A Hindu temple, built in the south Indian architectural style, dedicated to the Lord Krishna, is situated just a stone's throw away. What I found interesting was the fact that a big copper urn was placed at the front of the Hindu temple, and many passers by offered their prayers and planted joss sticks in the urn, exactly like it is done in the abode of the Goddess of Mercy. My friend and I prayed at both the temples, and as we stepped out of the temple, I realized that the busy street was also home to a number of fortune tellers. Palmists, sitting under the shade of umbrellas, charts showing the many paths of the palm, hanging by their side. Vendors selling colourful beads, bracelets, charms and amulets. Curious about your fate? Well, you could quench that thirst for just a few dollars. There were even fortune tellers with caged parrots that could pick tarot cards predicting the future. Just like kili jyotsyam, which is still quite popular back home. (Kili refers to parrot, while jyotsyam is astrology. Parrot astrologers are usually found sitting under the shade of a tree, or they go about from house to house. When a person approaches the astrologer, he coaxes his parrot to pick out a card, and voila- your future is no longer a mystery!)

I was reminded of a time when I was extremely curious to have my palm read. Could my future be really predicted? Whenever I would return home for the vacations, I had an insatiable urge to go to the fortune teller's shop, located just outside the housing colony. Away from the neon city lights representing the glitz and glamour of an urban city, this fortune teller decided to set base in one of the many quieter suburbs of Coimbatore. My aunt, who claims to have seen him, tells me that he is a quite a frightful sight. Tall, hefty, with a fierce moustache and a huge red pottu at the centre of his forehead, he could predict your future, explain your past, anything! When I was younger, each time I passed the place, I would see a serpentine queue, waiting for the consultation. Even the neighbouring general physician's clinic was not graced by such a large number of people. I used to beg Amma to take me there. "Why?", she would always ask. Nothing ma, I would mumble, I'm just curious. "Mannankatti. Nonsense. You don't need to know about the future. Just live in the present. And anyway, what are you going to do even if you know about the future?" That would be her standard reply every single time.

I was somehow baffled by this answer. If that was the case, why do we still follow the practice of asking an astrologer to write a horoscope (It's called a jaathakam) whenever a baby is born? Indeed, when I was born on a cold February morning in Delhi, my grandmother called an astrologer, giving him my exact time of birth. I was born under the Thiruvonam star, according to the Hindu astrological system, and based on that, my horoscope was written. A couple of years ago, I chanced upon it, when Amma and I were emptying old boxes, and when I asked to get it interpreted, she promptly refused! Then why have it created in the first place? I guess it is one of those traditions that we follow out of deference, not really bothering to understand why in the first place. Or is there really something behind all this, something that we have not dared question?

Anyway, suffice to say, I was quite curious to have my fortune told that day at Bugis. That's when my friend said, 'We're still young. If we come to know about our future, we will only keep worrying about it, and forget the present.' Something typical to what Amma would have said. It did make sense to me- what would I do, knowing about the future anyway? What could I do? Not much, except wait for the future! And in my worry, I would forget all about the present. So, we just walked along, towards the magnificent mosque at Arab Street, enjoying every minute of the present.

Later, I narrated the whole episode to Amma, who promptly quipped, 'At least you have sensible friends!'. Whatever that was supposed to mean! As I pondered over this issue more, I realized that this too boils down to faith in the end. When we go to sleep every night, we have faith that we will be able to get up the next morning. It does sound macabre, but isn't that true? We never will be able to know what happens the next day, or even the very next minute. But rather than engaging in the rather futile exercise of trying to decipher fate, isn't it better to cling onto faith and live in the present?

A small verse found in a cave temple comes to my mind. This cave temple, situated on the Marudamalai Hill buried in the Western Ghats, is dedicated to a mystic, a siddhar. It was said that he could transform himself into a snake whenever he wanted to avoid being seen by others, and hence he came to be known as the Paambaati Siddhar, 'paambu' meaning snake in Tamil. The mystic was supposed to have practised penance and attained moksha in this cave. Engraved in the shrine are these words-Naal yenna seiya, Kol yenna seiya, Namah Chivayam yennul irukayile! Roughly translated, this means- What can days, dates, planetary positions or movements of stars do to me, when I have God living in me?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thoughts on a Sunny June Afternoon

I walk out of my office building on a sunny June afternoon
Soon realizing it is too sunnier than I would have liked it to be.
As I move towards the metro,
I catch a glimpse of myself on the glass of buildings-
Denizens of a vast concrete jungle.
I look at my reflection;
Dishevelled hair, flying across my face,
Too bad it's getting thinner, and not me.
I must convince Amma to let me get it straightened.
My legs look a bit fat; I should start wearing heels soon.
I glance at the light purple polish on my nails.
What the heck, I just applied it last night,
And it's already begun to fade!
Maybe it's the brand. I must buy another.
Oh, and those new jeans...

More. More. More.
Simply not enough.
Thoughts. Thoughts. Thoughts.

Suddenly, I see the old uncle.
Weak and frail, old enough to be my grandpa.
Sitting cross legged, right under the wrath of the noon sun
Beside the busy bustling pavement.
His crutches in front of him,
Stretching out little packets of tissue,
Hoping that someone will stop to buy.
Women in pencil skirts and high heels,
Men bursting with self importance and pride,
All rushing away, too busy in their own busy worlds.
I wonder what the old uncle is thinking.
What are his thoughts?
Circumstances, situations, what brought him here?
A family too 'busy' to care?
Or did they care at all?
Accident of Birth?
Thoughts. Thoughts. Thoughts.

An hour later, I return to work.
A mountain load of studies, waiting to be analysed.
Black letters against a white background.
My own notes, painstakingly handwritten.
Glistening blue ink against yellow notepaper.
Timetables, schedules, appointments, to do lists.

More. More. More.
Simply not enough.
Thoughts. Thoughts. Thoughts.

I see the old uncle again.
Same place, same gesture
Stretching out little packets of tissue.
I stop. He says, 'One dollar, miss!'
As I hand him a golden one dollar,
He presses five tissue packets into my palm.
I wonder what the old uncle is thinking.
What are his thoughts?
Was that his first sale for the day?
It's just too hot to even walk! How is he sitting here all day?
Has he had lunch? Will he be able to?
Thoughts. Thoughts. Thoughts.

As I walk away, I decide to get lemon tea.
I deserve a treat for having braved the noon sun.
But my thoughts return to the old uncle.
How do you justify his state of being?
An unfortunate turning in the wheel of dharma?
Or is it determined by the cycle of karma?
Or, again, is it just an Accident of Birth?
There is no answer.
Yet, the old uncle continues to plod on.

He doesn't want your charity.
He is earning his livelihood.
Despite all odds, stacked against him.
Frail and tired, ignored and neglected.
How much will he earn in one day?
Will there be enough?
There are no answers.
Yet, like the warrior prince in the Kurukshetra War,
He continues to simply move on with his duty.

What are my thoughts?
How much I can learn from the old uncle!
Honour for his dignity of labour.
No job is too low for anyone.
Hope that he doesn't give up his hope.
Even in the darkest day, hope brings a spark of light.
Respect for his courage, his will to move on.
Imagine facing such adversity in old age!
And above all,
A prayer for the sweet old uncle,
Old enough to be my grandpa.
A plea to God almighty-
Please take care of him.

More. More. More
Simply not enough.
Prayers.Prayers.Prayers.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

SWOT Analysis for Self

I am currently doing a research based internship at a global management consulting firm, and part of my work involves analysing articles, surveys and case studies. This morning, in the midst of my work, I came across this article, rather outdated, but interesting nevertheless. I really do not agree with the writer's recommendations on how to answer the question on one's weaknesses, because they all seem to wriggle away from the core- trying to focus on circumstances, rather than facts. For example, the article states 'having a degree from a college that is not well-known in the Mid-West' could be a weakness. With due respect to the author, I believe that a weakness is something that is either inherent in us, or developed as a habit. It definitely isn't caused by circumstances. As I read through the article, it set me thinking. Whilst it is indeed difficult to talk about ones' weaknesses, it is important to keep in mind that each of us has an Achilles' heel. Whether we realize the weakness or not is a different issue altogether. I think the very fact that one has identified a weakness is, in itself, a strength. 'He who knows not and knows that he knows not is simple- teach him. He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool- shun him'. Ancient words of wisdom.

As I made my way to a nearby hawker centre for lunch later, I thought back to how I would answer that question if I had attended an interview. I realized that as important as it is to identify your weakness, it is also important to identify your strengths. Strengths and weaknesses define the sort of person you are. At the same time, one should also focus on the external trends- opportunities and threats, depending on the way one handles them, could turn into strengths and weaknesses as well. Not so different from analyzing strategy for a business after all- step 1 is always conducting a SWOT analysis. So here goes, a SWOT analysis for myself.
At the risk of sounding like an 'I-specialist', I'll start with strengths.
1) I am focused and committed. I am not afraid of rolling up my sleeves and getting down to work, and even if the task seems difficult, I try my best to accomplish it.
2) I am willing to take initiatives, the first step forward.
3) I am enthusiastic and eager to work on new projects- maybe it is just Beginner's luck- some sort of naïveté (since I am yet to work on a full time basis), but one definitely cannot deny that optimism does influence the way we work.
4) I adapt well- I guess that can be attributed to changing nearly five schools, and moving across different regions.
5) I am able to work well in a team. Having had an opportunity to spend a few years in the Middle East, combined with my childhood in India, and now, in the Far East, I have been able to witness (and integrate) into different cultures, all of which has, I believe, influenced my people skills.
6) I am not afraid to voice my opinions. If I strongly believe in a cause, I will stick by it and fight for it, no matter what.
Now, moving onto the weaknesses.
1) I get upset very easily. This is probably because I tend to take what people say very seriously, so something mildly annoying can cause me a great deal of trouble.
2) I worry way TOO MUCH. About EVERYTHING. >.<
3) I go to extremes, and am like a pendulum. Either I'm way too happy about something or way too worried. Either I like the person or completely do not. It's a bit difficult to follow the Middle Path that the Buddha spoke about. I'm trying to look at things dispassionately, but it's really hard.
4) I sometimes feel I need to be more aggressive. This could be because I'm a bit uncomfortable talking about my own achievements, since I myself have always been weary of people who talk too much about their achievements.
5) I find it difficult to say no at times.
6) I should probably talk to people more on a self initiated basis. Many people think that I am reserved and a bit of an introvert (I am, to a certain extant)- while some attribute it simply to my nature, I am concerned that some people interpret this as arrogance/being egoistic.
7) I can flare up instantly, though I don't show it to anybody else (except Amma :P)

How about opportunities?
1) A much smaller world has made a number of impossible things possible. I feel, given today's scenario, there are many opportunities available in my chosen career field of audit/accounting. Job security and exposure to a wide range of clients in terms of industry, function, size and geography are definitely some of the main advantages of audit.
2) It is much easier to change jobs today, compared to the past. So, should I feel the need to change the scope of my work, it will not be impossible for me to change to other areas such as tax, risk management, financial services, banking, or even consulting. After a number of years in the industry, it might even be possible for me to write a book or consider teaching. These two are my long term goals, and I think I would like to reach there sometime in the distant future.
I would like to believe that every problem that we face presents in itself an opportunity, and it's up to us to make use of that to our advantage.
Moving onto the 'threats', I think of them more as challenges- problems, but they are not insurmountable.
1) The extremely competitive nature of today's society in general, and a trend where achievement is seen as the key to most issues. Sometimes, the rat race bogs me down. This mad rush to achieve something, that extra something, always more, always better than your neighbour. I think the answer to this challenge is to think about the issue from a long term perspective- address things on the basis of how important it is for life, (not for a livelihood), what motivates/inspires you to do this rather than simply thinking about moving on.
2) The LONG working hours at audit. Stories of staying at the clients' offices till as late as 2 or 3 AM (especially for end-of-year peak audit) don't bother me as much these days- they seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Achieving a work life balance seems quite difficult in such a scenario. But then I guess it all boils down to your attitude at the end of the day.
3) I sometimes feel I might be a better position if I had working knowledge of another language. Arabic, Mandarin or French. I think my goal for the December break this year should be trying to learn basic Arabic- I do hope to go back home to the Emirates, and I probably should make use of that opportunity!
4) Certain unpredictable factors- take the economic crisis, corporate scandals, natural disasters, events that remind us that Apocalypse may well be on its way. Well, one particular individual alone is obviously not affected by these factors- it makes things difficult for all of us. We tend to think that the world is unfair only for us. However, in reality, unfairness, just like death, transcends all barriers.
I think that surmises the SWOT analysis for myself. I am glad I have analysed this, so that I can start taking steps to become a better person. Is there anything that I have missed? If you have worked/interacted with me, or simply feel that there are other factors that I should take into consideration, please let me know! It always pays to listen to feedback :)



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Crushed (55 Fiction)


It began as a crush. An itsy-bitsy one. But, it slowly grew. From a small spark to a furious fire. In her heart. Except, she never told him. She kept her distance; she wasn’t gutsy enough. Hoping against hope that he would somehow come to know. And then, she saw…the other woman. She was crushed.

Post Script:
Amma, I know you will read this. Don't read too much into it. I'm NOT lovesick or anything.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Walking along the Eucalyptus Trail

Image courtesy  thewanderers.travel   
I spent a major part of my childhood in Ooty, nestled in the cradle of the Nilgiri Hills of southern India. A little village called Lovedale, on the outskirts of the town, where Appa and Amma taught at a residential school. I have very fond memories of my childhood in Lovedale. The lush greenery all around, the beauty of the blue hills in the background, the ancient chapel on the school grounds, camp trips in the pristine woods, and the lovely eucalyptus trail which became a shortcut from our house on the campus to my primary school. And whenever I think of the eucalyptus trail, the forest floor perpetually covered with a dense carpet of fallen leaves, and carefully filtering in sunlight through the thick foliage, I think of Kannamma Akka. She must have been much older than Amma, and I took to calling her akka, just like how Amma would address her. Kannamma Akka would help to look after me, since my parents were busy with their respective classes.

As a result, Kannamma Akka would accompany me on the eucalyptus trail, from home to school. Every afternoon, she would come to school, carrying my neatly packed lunch, and would ensure that I ate it all, even going to the extend of feeding me, when I threw tantrums. And she would be there, when I went back home. She was my companion, when I arranged all the soft toys on the carpet and pretended to teach them all. As I scolded each and every toy for not doing their homework, imitating Agnes Miss who shouted at others in the class (not me because I used to be a chamathu then :P), she would watch the scene amusedly.

As a child, one of my greatest worries was not having long hair. I almost always had a mushroom haircut, which I detested since it wasn't 'girly' enough. So I would take one of Amma's long black duppattas and ask Akka to drape it around my head and weave it around like a plait. Each time this happened, I would throw back my 'plait' and prance around, believing myself to be some incredibly beautiful heroine. And each time, there was a twinkle in her eye. She became a confidante, and there wasn't anything about me that Kannamma Akka didn't know. 

I remember only one incident when I fought with her. I was upset about something that happened at school (cannot remember what exactly ticked me off). I was quite angry about it, and both Appa and Amma were busy in their classes. So, there was nobody whom I could vent my spleen on, and added to that, I was really hungry. Hunger, together with anger, is a really bad combination. So I asked Akka if there was anything to eat, and when she replied in the negative, I stomped to the kitchen, took a glass of water and spilled some sugar into it. Watching the entire tantrum unfold, Akka said, 'Indha ponnuku headweight romba jaasthi. Iru appa vandhaa, solren'. I had no clue what headweight meant, but her threat of telling Appa about the tantrum was enough to silence me. Later, when I asked Amma what headweight meant, she laughed and explained it to me, but was curious to know how I came across the phrase, and then I was forced to tell her the whole story. It was a bit like digging my own grave, since good old Akka had of course not 'betrayed' me.


My mind wanders back to the eucalyptus trail- me, holding Akka's hand, and chattering away about school,the heady scent of eucalyptus in the air, and the crunchy noise of fallen leaves as we walked by... I have come a long way from then, and Kannamma Akka has played an important role in my childhood. Today, I have no idea where she is or what she is doing. I haven't had an opportunity to meet her after we left Lovedale, which was nearly twelve years ago. However, I do know that I shall remember her with gratitude and shall always have respect and love for her.


Updated Amma sent me this picture of me and Kannamma Akka, taken years ago. Akka looks a bit angry- we never could get her to smile for photos. And there I am, acting goofy as usual :D