Monday, November 21, 2011

We called her Aaji, we called him Bapu

Aaji--meaning grandmother. She wasn't my grandmother.

She was the wife of my music teacher--my Bapu. Bapu was as big an influence on my life as my parents. He gave my fledgling voice loving training for close to twenty years, and as a result, he gave it the ability to soar, the ability to produce music that makes me feel close to whatever higher powers there may be whenever I sing well.

People often ask me what I do with my music. I sing for myself, I say, for my kids. I don't perform in public--don't look for venues to be heard--as a struggling writer, I'm afraid in the quest for recognition I might lose the pure love and beauty of my music. And that is far too dear to me. It is my lifeline. My music is my religion, my meditation, my nirvana, and thanks to Bapu I will have this one thing until I die to give me pure joy.

But Aaji gave me something even more valuable than that.

As I stand at my kitchen sink now scrubbing two brass pots that once belonged to her, I wonder if I can make them shine like gold using lime juice and salt and a lot of elbow grease--like she used to. Her kitchen shelves were always lined with brightly polished brass vessels. Like orbs and cylinders of gold they would gleam from their perches.

I scrub hard, then harder and the shine comes through. The pots are gleaming. I beam...proud, happy.

I rinse them and keep them aside to dry. I think about her. She died a year or so ago. She was almost ninety.

All her life she lived quietly, giving Bapu and his students love, support, wondrous goodies to eat.

Aaji was not highly educated. She was not well traveled or worldly in any way. It was only in her seventies that she saw the ocean for the first time while on a holiday with my parents in Kerala. I was so moved by that fact--it had taken seventy years for her to see this wondrous thing--the ocean--while her reaction to that was so what? I am here now aren't I?

What Aaji was, was perhaps the most successful person I ever met. Successful for having fulfilled what she come on earth for. She lived life to its fullest. She gave joy to all that knew her and came in contact with her.

She taught me that the only way to live was by enjoying the smallest pleasures. And by a lot of laughter. And by not whining about things. I may not have been so mature a person--correction--I am not such a mature person that I can take in my stride every single thing that happens without breaking a sweat, without wanting to fight to change it. That is perhaps something lost in our generation of less tolerant people--the ability to just accept certain things.

However I did manage to take from that great woman, the ability to appreciate those small things. She never said, Now dear, you must learn to appreciate..." No, she never shelled out platitudes, she merely demonstrated them.

Because of her a cup of tea in the afternoons still gives me pleasure at that first hot sweet sip-- every single day. A spoonful of ice cream on a hot summer day, the iciness lingering on a parched tongue--she taught me to know that.

And it was magical that the scoops of ice cream she served us tasted so much better than any I have ever had eaten out of her small stainless steel bowl on her wobbly table, surrounded by her amused voice asking me what I cook for my poor husband who she was often convinced I starved. I have learnt so much from you Aaji, I used to say. He won't go hungry. And she'd nod with satisfaction and ask me if I knew how to make a pancake using chick pea flour. Tell me, I'd say and pull out a pen and paper.

Life was all about living graciously, simply, and most importantly, lived slowly. In their home, time wasn't an enemy to be conquered. There were things to do but a cup of tea would not hurt before rushing off to do them.

At Aaji's and Bapu's home, I felt like I had access to all the answers--the answers we all look for all our lives--I felt like I could just reach forward and grab those answers to the tough questions. But when I left their home, the questions continued to rage, the doubts continued to haunt.

Today I know that in that home, in that lifestyle, in their stoic happiness were the answers. They were meant to be emulated in order to be duplicated.

I wish I still had that place to go to. But they aren't there anymore--my Bapu and Aaji.

Bapu was the only grandfather I ever knew and how privileged I am to have known him, learnt from him, loved him. Bapu's music resonates in my home. The aching beauty of his compositions keeps him alive within our walls always. Between those few things I feel like I have the answers. I only have to find a way to not let my fears and insecurities overshadow those simple solutions to life's questions.

Aaji had no grandkids of her own but at least a hundred or more of Bapu's students called her grandma. And they speak of her with love still. Her recipes for life and meals keep her close to my heart. Aaji was a third grandmother to me but not in the usual way. She didn't tell me stories or kiss a bruised knee. She wasn't even much of a hugger. I don't think she even patted my head once. When Bapu died and I cried over the phone to her, she said, "First stop that crying then we talk."

Because of them, today I don't need someone to tell me what is important, what is meaningful and what is not. What makes life worth living. What I do need is someone to remind me of what I already know...during the tough times.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


An old sweet friend wrote in response to my previous post, that if I hadn't given up quite so soon, perhaps I might possibly have found Nirvana in India.

My mother too finally said after I went on long India bashing session that perhaps her generation was more tolerant of things, more mature even. She returned from Germany many years ago and also found a ton of things unacceptable. But she stayed and she thrived.

I had to agree with her. This is where the whole spoilt brat bit comes in. I'm not very tolerant or accepting of a great many things. I may even be a malcontent. A total loser.

But I am what I am and based on that I had to decide.

Last night I watched the documentary 'Inside Job' a powerhouse expose' on the financial crisis that shook Wall Street thanks to CDOs (collateral debt obligations) and sub prime mortgages and a boat load of greed. And suddenly I was wondering about the place we had come back to. And Obama, who was the great hope for change brought back every single last one of the big wigs who were part of the financial collapse. Few of the people responsible for the mess are in power, making zillions, unscathed.

I knew all this in theory but it was all brought back to me in a capsule that was so hard hitting.

Now suddenly every investment is suspect. The rating agencies are paid by the ones they rate. Who do you believe when the entire world seems to be in the hands of a handful of immoral men? And the foolish Americans who bought more house than they could afford are claiming to be victims. How idiotic! Yes the mortgage brokers were unscrupulous but everyone should know what they are signing, shouldn't they? Everyone is so entitled here. So full of their own wants and desires. Everything is about consumerism, acquiring more, having more and more and more.

The point is...there are problems everywhere. Big, small.

Yes I might have lived in India and found happiness. And maybe even made a huge difference helping people like I wanted to do. I plan to do that still but from here. Still truth is I miss that I cannot help those people I was surrounded by who were so in need. And helping them was so easy and so fulfilling.

But the truth also is that life has to be lived every single day. Not in chunks of achievements that happen every so often. Certainly not in leaps of years and months when incidents happen that make life worthwhile--the birth of your child, gratitude, a life helped, a promotion, a new kitchen, a new car, a successful business deal--whatever.

Life is lived every single day. Every hour, every minute. The drudge of daily living, or the routine or whatever you may call it, has to be experienced at all times. It is with you all the time.

I loved the idea of India as a long term plan. The place where we stay close to our heritage, where our sons grew up with positive western influences and yet surrounded by and living in a country so rich in arts, crafts, traditions, rituals and people and food. There is vibrant brilliant color in every aspect of life there.

But I could not live in India on a daily basis. I didn't like the idea of the everyday ritual in India--I just could not adjust to it. It was a novelty for a few months at a time. But not forever.

Forever, as I said, is a very long time. In India the daily life makes my mind shut down, I don't feel free, don't feel like anything if possible.

In America, I'm not so sure about the long term. It's not a bag of nuts I fully understand with respect to bringing up children, especially. I don't know if I can protect them from the sex, drugs and too fast growing up.

But everyday, I feel charged here. Capable, free. Anything can happen is how I feel here.

And so this is what I decided to choose. Because unfortunately I'm just an ordinary person who couldn't look beyond and sacrifice the everyday for the sake of the long term. Having an unhappy mother wasn't good for kids no matter how good their surroundings was the wisdom I received from wise minds and tongues. I had to agree.

It was a revelation of my ugly weaknesses. It made me look deeper at myself than before. It wasn't a pretty sight but it was something I had to accept about myself.

Now that I know it, I just hope I can live with it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Of stones and apathy

In the movie 'Outsourced', this American guy who had lived in India for a while gives advice to the new guy who has just arrived there. "Don't fight India," he says. "Let it wash over you. It's the only way to live here."

In India if you don't let things wash over you, they will hit you. Like a stone thrown in your eye. Some days it may be a pellet, on others it may be a boulder. On yet others it could be a flower. But it's always something. That is India. Now if you find a way to do a little dodging dance when you see a stone coming at you, you might be able to avoid being hit some of the times, maybe even most of the times when you get real good at it. It's an art staying for the flower, bending down and avoiding the boulder.

I wasn't able to dodge very well when I first got there. The stones hit me square in the face but then so did the flowers which felt like caresses of soft breeze. My highs were high, my lows, pitifully low. How could people be this way? How could they affect me this way....enter my life on a daily basis and affect my day this way.

Good sweet people, callous people, rude, horrid people. Why was it that in India they were able to get to me in a way I can only describe as intrusive. Completely. My life became an open house. Depending on who entered my day and did what to or for me, I was happy or sad or miserable or livid or...........enter any human emotion in the blank space.


This is good, I thought at first. Good for me as a human being to be this close to humanity--all forms of it. I tried to help the people who needed it. Some appreciated it, many didn't cooperate, others wanted more and more.

I tried to stay neutral to the people and circumstances that affected me badly. Its not a problem, I tried telling myself if I was almost run over by that guy, if the man cheated me of money, if that woman tried to sell me bad product, if the experience through security at the mall was harrowing at best. It's a good exercise learning to cope. It's good for the kids to know that there are so many different types of people in the world.

It was hard to dodge the stones that rained when we stepped out of the Hyatt after a Sunday afternoon brunch only to be confronted by a beggar woman and her three month old tied close to her chest. It became difficult when mistrust became the first emotion I began to feel while dealing with any new tradesman.

I started becoming a stranger to myself when I saw how I made appointments with people for 10:30 am and didn't think twice before staying away until 11:00 am and not calling to cancel. I had been stood up by so many people, it was no big deal to do it back. Sorry, I'd say to them. You came at 10:30? Wow really! Ok. I had to buy some eggs. Oh well, I'll see you next time. And he'd say ok, next time it is.

I had started dodging. All that dodging started making me apathetic. Apathetic slowly to that around me which would have previously made me cry, things that would have previously made me want to take a stand, make a noise. I realized that dodging was giving me more peace. I was surviving. I was making do.

The bad thing though was my apathy began to run into callousness. I became someone I didn't recognize. Mistrust took over fully. Lowered expectations became the norm. That and a sever case of disinterest in anything but that which affected me.

I had let India wash over me. I was back. I had become the survivor in India--the person who knows what cards they are dealt and learns to play only with those. I began to not care how many cards other people had. Most had less. A lot less. Some had more, a lot more. I became self absorbed only in what happened to me and mine. Kept my cards close to my chest and made the best of the hand I had.

Then it began to dawn on me that this was how I would now live forever. It was a choice I had made with much deliberation. I had persuaded my husband that it was the right choice. And now I was seeing him change too. He expected nothing and so when little he got he was happy with it. Fewer stones had to be dodged because he was already an expert at the dance. That and he stayed as cut off from society as he could.

What was pathetic was how much the few altruistic things I did made people gush on about what good people we were. If we were such good people, what did that make the rest?

Its not that people in the rest of the world are any better or worse than in India. In India as I'm sure in many other countries, various conditions of humanity are always close, always at the doorstep. You cannot glance in any direction without seeing the human condition up close and personal--be it ultra decadence or marked wretchedness. Its all there within arm's reach, sometimes closer. You can smell it, taste it, be in it. Its virtual reality extreme.

And all of it was changing me as a person. Not having lived most of my life in these typical Indian surroundings and later living in the US for fourteen years, I had thought I had lost touch with humanity, with my heritage, my people.

I wanted my boys to have a life where they could truly understand the world, truly be in touch with the human condition. And now I had it. My boys were thriving. The family--extended anyway was happy to have us back. Grandparents loved having the kids around. There were wonderful moments of joy.

But forever, I told myself is a very long time.

I came back to India for my family. If we went back to the US, away from this life in India, it would be for me.

I didn't want to change anymore. I wanted to be able to cry at the sight of a skinny, stray puppy. I wanted to feel a lump in my throat and feel the need to make a difference at the sight of a starving child. I wanted the soppy, un-cynical me back. The naive, trusting, foolish dreamer. The spoilt brat too, if one must call a spade a spade. I wanted all that back.

And so we returned. To Chicago. To the place we had once called home.

This may or may not be home. I'm not sure. I'm still torn. I miss the touch of all those human conditions sometimes. I miss India. Perhaps I miss an India I have created in my mind, an India that does not exist. Perhaps I am a big fool.

And so, I am not sure where is home or if there even is such a place for me in this world. But I plan to keep looking.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What can I say...

about my motherland without feeling disloyal. There have been times that I have wanted to say so much about the apathy that seems to be the undercurrent of every person's and business' method of survival here.

Some of us call it apathy. Here they call it fate-Karma. "This is just how it is madam. Live with it or you will die inside of ulcers most likely."

Deal with the crappy service, crappy products, the sweet talk that covers and sweeps over all the dirt. Yes India is a nation of apathy--was and still is--of this I am convinced. Else why would the sheer numbers of monied people allow themselves to get poor service and products, accept less than perfect as 'just the way it is' or worse allow the abominable condition of those less privileged than themselves?

And its so easy to get sucked into the state of apathy. Case in point--we live in a very nice rented apartment. The flat above us was bought by a rich couple who wanted the place to be as palace like as they could make it. For those not in the know, most middle class and upper middle class and of course the rich people who buy places of their own usually gut the place and add new flooring, new bathrooms. This is the rule not the exception. The richer you are the more the work that gets done. You get the idea.

So the flat above us belongs to a really well heeled couple. And so the trappings must reflect that no? And so for the past 7 months there has been construction going on during all hours. We of course are so affected by the noise that we kept picking fights with the only people we could--the construction workers.

Yes given that we have not yet fully been sucked into the vortex of total apathy, we did observe that these workers from Rajasthan--we guess--were living there amidst all the dust, cutting marble and God knows what else not even wearing a mask, breathing the worst possible dust, sleeping amidst the debris, hurting their ears that also are unprotected from the noise--if you have heard marble or stone being cut, the noise travels even 200 yards away. At close quarters it is death to the eardrums. Whenever we went upstairs to pick a fight, they were covered in white dust whose origins can only be unhealthy at best, toxic at worst.

This sad truth only entered our minds when there was no work going on, when we were at peace. But when at 10:30 pm or later we heard cutting and breaking of walls, all we felt was anger, irritation at them and we showed it in words, gestures even. Appalling.

So yes we are apathetic. Why else will we allow children, impossibly young ones to roam the streets begging, or worse work for us caring for our own kids. That is a sight I have seen too often and which breaks my heart like none other. A child caring for another--as an employee--and not being treated as a child either. Or a child serving an adult at a restaurant or store and not because his parent owns it either.

Among the myriad NGOs I have spoken to in my time here one thing I have heard over and over is how little money and volunteers are generated within India. Most donations and help comes from Indians and others abroad. The volunteers especially. I read a wonderful book by Pavan Sharma, I think--about what it means to be Indian--he propounds a theory about why Indians survive--every man for himself is basically the line of thinking. You are in misery--its your Karma. I have my own issues to care for.

I read an article in the Times of India about why Indian business owners give so little money away, compared to their shall we say Western counterparts. One supposed psychologist said and I am paraphrasing, 'these Western business owners haven't experienced poverty and hunger like the Indian business people have and which is why the Indians will protect their wealth even more.' Give unto me a break. If Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani with their cricket franchises and billion dollar houses have experienced poverty and hunger, I will eat my hat.

One the plus side, this apathy or acceptance makes the country resilient and able to sustain so much damage meted out on her by less tolerant countries that surround her. Another bomb blast--oh well, we are strong, we will get over it. And yet one more--are the police asleep--where are the terrorists that did this? The authorities are working on it you say? Good.

The mantra is, "Oh well, life must go on."

India is a place where one can be seething with rage about one thing with one person when another person can bowl you over to tears with a simple act of unexpected sweetness. It is a country of extreme emotions...irritation and happiness at their peak and lowest. A roller coaster ride that I feel ill equipped to handle.

So what am I doing about all this right? Besides writing this and kvetching?

More on that in the next.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

An aberration the Taj Exotica

The Taj hotel--the name conjures up images of luxury. The Taj Exotica at Benaulim beach in Goa wasn't a disappointment in that regard. The hotel was beautiful, the staff attentive. Every square inch of their space was wonderful.

We were there to spend a few days to celebrate our older son's birthday.

We enjoyed the room, the food, the lush green lawns.

Then we visited the beach.

That was a aberration.

I have seen Benaulim in the eighties. White sands, clean , pristine, it was free of five star luxury then.

Today under the care of the Taj resort it is a mess. Stray dogs roam freely, their excreta is often underfoot. The plethora of plastic water bottles the hotel provides the guests also litters the beach. Thermocol, paper, plastic bags. Dirty, sad muddy sand.

"Not our property, madam, it is government property," I am told when I speak of this aberration to the manager.

Yes but you do realize your guests might enjoy using the beach, don't you? When your staff cuts every blade of grass to perfection, could they not perhaps also extend that courtesy of care to a few feet beyond your grounds?

Guilty looks but apathetic minds, I sense.

They try and apologize. I ask them what they plan to do to make difference. Nothing specific is offered, just empty words.

A plaque proclaiming their commitment to the environment hangs by the manager's desk.
I point to it asking them why they bother? Sheepish grins result.

A one time aberration, says the area manager in an email to me. I respond with strong words. No reply. I ask them to tell me what if anything they plan to do. No reply.

Well, I am a small one time tourist but this I can do. I can tell everyone I know.

Don't go to the Taj Exotica on Benaulim beach in Goa. Not if you'd like to spend any time on the beach.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


The air is thick, moist. A strong whiff of jackfruit hits me every now and again--a dense, sweet yellow colored fruit, its aroma also sweet, sticky, strong.

Crickets ferociously cry even during the day.

Intensely green foliage between major thoroughfares deceives one into thinking one is in the middle of a tropical wood. Coconut palms rustle everywhere. There are small and large ponds of cool green water. The river Periyar flows into little rivulets creating the ponds.

Narrow streets lead one into the residential areas, their tranquility shattered every few minutes by the blaring horns of cars and motorcycles. Flanking the streets are houses of such variety. Red tiled roofs of glorious erstwhile beauty, boldly colored outer walls ranging from shocking pink to lemon yellow and pistachio green. Large wooden doors decorated with brass trinkets. Some are humble homes from years ago, many of the new are palace and pagoda like--over the top showing off opulence--symbols of prosperity earned in the Middle east. But tasteful all the same.

Temples of yore everywhere--black stone structures mostly. Idols are smeared beautifully with sandalwood paste giving the idol features. God is here. I can feel the presence of a higher power. Perhaps this is because of the peaceful surroundings, perhaps merely because the giant brass lamps lit remind me of happy childhood rituals, perhaps because the women temple goers with wet, freshly washed hair hanging down their backs remind me of how my mother looks during festival days or perhaps because the mantrams are chanted in sonorous voices and the drum beats during prayer time is haunting and hypnotic.

There are sweet expressions on the local folk accompanied by curious stares as I walk by with my baby in his stroller. Close to this little town is the village where my father is from. Not far is the town my mother's people hail from.

I look like the people around me with my dark skin, my unruly curly hair. And yet they know I am not one of them. My clothes, my demeanor, my aura perhaps screams outsider. I know that if I should open my mouth I would reveal that I am indeed an outsider. For although I am from here I speak but a smattering of the local Malayalam.

This is God's country--the tourist posters scream. This is my country, my past. My heritage. This is the place I had once thought could be something more. I had hoped, wondered if it could be home.

But no. This is not home. No, sadly, this is not home.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I think I can understand how a child of divorced parents must feel.

Choose one or the other, they are told. You can live with one and the other you can visit.

It is about as hard as choosing between your right eye and your left.

I did not become a citizen of India by choice. That was thrust upon me. But it is mine. I am proud to come from a land of such richness of culture and tradition and yet those things are part of what irritate me the most too. The US I chose to be a citizen of.

I remember at the swearing in ceremony, the judge, the son of Polish immigrants recalled his own parents' swearing ceremony years before. And he said, addressing the crowd of people from over fifty countries--'you have all come from a variety of lands,' he said, 'and now you must leave behind--emotionally--that land for now you are citizens of the United States. I don't mean you must forget where you came from or leave behind your culture or the richness of what you have left behind. No the US is richer because of what you bring to its melting pot. But the identity of it as being who you are must be left behind for now you are American.'

I remember feeling a little put off by those words but now I see that what he said makes sense in that it makes it easier if one can put certain things behind and move on. I thought all those 'Namesake' like identity blues were not mine. I was beyond that. As an adult immigrant, I had my values set, in place. I could truly belong to both places, be a dual citizen in all senses of the world.

And now, living in India and yearning for Chicago, I am lost for the first time in my life in a dilemma that has no easy solution.

Yes I am a dreamer still filled with the nostalgia of my relatively idyllic growing up years in India and seeking an India that sometimes comes so close I can taste it and yet in many ways remains so elusive. My husband assures me such a place does not exist. It does but those encounters of what I love about India although immeasurably wonderful, are fleeting. Or maybe I just don't know where to look.

And now I am torn between my two 'parents'. I love them both and yet it seems I must choose to live with one and have the other only with visitation rights. And I am not liking it one bit.

I know I must choose.But I cannot. It would so easy if I hated one or the other. I only dislike things about each--everyday life is so easy in one, so hard in the other. The idea of bringing up kids seemingly easier in one, an unknown for me in the other.

I love things about each. The smell of fresh bread baking and fresh ground coffee in one country, the sounds of ankle bells jingling in another, the relief of hearing 'may i help you' and knowing I'll be helped in one, the sight of women in colorful outfits decked out in jewelry walking along the streets with a gait one can only envy in another. The divine taste of tandoori fish and seek kakab accompanied by cooling fresh lime juice in one, the soaring sight of the Sears Tower in another, the warm sun in one, the wonderful snow in the other. The list is endless.

How am I supposed to choose? Is there any way these parents of mine can be brought closer together? Is there? Is there?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A day of sights, sounds, stinks and other smells

Only in India can the fragrance of a gorgeous bloom be quickly followed a few steps ahead with the stench of rotting garbage. The earthy smell of drying cow dung be quickly replaced by the reek of exhaust from an old truck. Life here is filled with an assault to all senses, everyday. Nothing is sterile to the senses here.

My morning sounds start with the rustle of the plastic bag outside the door. The milkman is leaving my bags of milk. It is 5:30. Strains of early morning prayer waft from seemingly all over the landscape. The mosque is speaking God's name over a loudspeaker. It is far away enough to be heard and yet not so loud as to be intrusive. I have a few minutes to myself before the baby awakes. Not enough even for a cup of tea. Just a few breaths of solitude.

8 am--the laundry man makes his first round for the day--bringing in the ironing he has taken in from the day before piled high on his bicycle, wrapped in bed sheets of varying colors. The crows cry out. Steel vessels clink close by. Cooking has begun for the day. Voices speak softly. As the time goes, the aroma of frying garlic and onions tease and tempt.

The vegetable supply truck arrives, crates are being off loaded to supply the small but amply stocked vegetable stand ten stories below. Young men's voices cry out urgently. They speak Rajasthani.

Late morning and the cleaning ladies for the building pick up the garbage I leave for them outside the door. The rustle of bags, the tinkle of glass bangles, the soft sweep of their broom.

The bell rings after 11 at regular intervals. First the laundry man picks up my ironing. Brings me back crisply ironed shirts, pants, skirts. Make my clothes look better than they are. My baby's shirt folded like an older man's is the size of my palm. I am in love...

Noon approaches. Cooking is in full swing. Pressure cookers sound, yet more garlic is fried, Depending on the floor one is on, the aroma of different spices fill the air. 3rd and 9th floor, pungent Korean ones, the others garam masala sometimes fresh turmeric, fried onions.

Afternoon and the cleaning lady arrives with some family drama story. I can barely understand her accent. But I nod sympathetically. She talks to the baby constantly keeping him busy as she deftly sweeps and mops the floors. Then she moves on to the dishes from the afternoon. Vessels clank, water flows.

Evenings and the swings start to move--they make a muted screeching, but rhythmic sound. They need oiling badly. But the sounds are far away enough to make one think only of a child playing happily by. Joy is in the air.

The day is peppered at various intervals with the sounds of marble being cut--a nasty grating harsh sound, getting flats ready for their well heeled owners. Strains of old Hindi film songs from the workers' radio. The lift floors covered with cement and mud that magically disappears every few hours only to re appear once again from careless feet and even more careless hands.

Night time. Parties in the distance. Some festival or the other, open ground nearby prepared for a fair. Harsh pop plays over tired loudspeakers. The sound shatters through the breeze as it floats towards our tenth floor flat. The cackle of Korean women having a party one floor below is somehow reassuring.

There is life everywhere, always.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Follow up to 'sickening contrast'

So I called the NGO I had promised myself I'd call. Deepgriha. They are based just outside one of Pune's slums/poorer areas. And have been around since 1975.

The place is bare bones, stark and yet full of life. Women and children bustling in and out.

Women are usually domestics dropping off their babies and very young kids in the day care being run by this group (again bare bones, a place for the children to be safe. That's it.)

Women may also be those coming in for literacy lessons or to see a doctor in the clinic.

Children might be part of the day care, or coming in for the one meal the organization provides to kids that they sponsor. Similar to other organizations that ask you for $25 to sponsor a child for a period of time, Deepagriha also has a program for children of low income from broken homes or who are orphans or who have lost one parent and are essentially living with relatives. Rs 10,000 (around $200) supports their education and living, a couple gifts for Christmas and Divali along with one meal, eaten at and provided by the organization.

Right away I ask for one girl child I'd like to sponsor. What I really like about the program is that they encourage you to stay for the ride. i.e sponsor the child ideally until he or she is independent--which is at 18 or so.

Many from the program have gone on to college and many want to give to the organization by sponsoring other kids. Nice.

There are rural projects where kids live and study. They are trying to get solar and wind companies to fuel those residences.

Projects are planned to help farmers harvest rainwater and such and educating their children about seeing agriculture as a modern occupation and not a burden to be afraid of. I ask to be involved in fundraising for this. My contact gleefully agrees.

I go back to the day care room. A small 7X8 or so area with sheets on the floor for naps. A handful are napping. some are playing with the ayahs there watching them, chattering amongst themselves.

A little girl about my son's age is at the door, with studs in her ears, smiling broadly. I stoop down and hold her. Heart wrenching and yet heart warming. I ask if I can donate clothes and toys. Sure, they say.

I spend a lot of time asking what their needs are. They have just lost a grant writer. I offer to help out in that area. And offer to ask friends for donations since I have seen what they do and plan to be involved.

Yesterday I conferenced with a volunteer from the UK who has been working as their grants person for five months. She is to send me the work she has done so I can see how I could help. Instinct tells me there is a LOT to be done. Can I do it? Should I volunteer more time than I can give? I'll do my best, I say bravely. I haven't written a grant but I know what it entails.

The room of volunteers is entirely white.

All the volunteers are foreign, I am told--the ones that come for a period of time anyway. Employees are dedicated locals but somehow volunteering just isn't in the Indian psyche.

Most of their donors, foreign (from abroad. Indians too from abroad but very low local involvement.)

I am appalled, ashamed.

I promise myself to do my best to help.

Make sure you see what it is that we do, Ashlesha, my contact tells me. People get stuck in the office with their computers and it becomes easy to forget what we do and whom we touch. Absolutely right. Will do, I say.

Soon it will be time to put my money where my mouth is. I wonder if I can.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sickening contrast

My driver drives me through a nice part of town.

A joggers park is being made here, he says eagerly. This is a quiet place, the kids can play without fear. There is no traffic although the town center is not far away. Posh, he declares. And only good people seem to live here, he says with some authority. The buildings are nice and I say I'd be interested if his agent friend can show us some places. Oh yes, he says and we drive towards my son's school where I have to pick him up in fifteen minutes. A joggers park, I think. That sounds like fun. And the river flows in front of the property. So no construction will ever block the view from these buildings. Not bad, I think, not bad at all. Might even be worth considering.

At the traffic light, we wait for a green. A beautiful mother sits on the side of the street. Her two sons are about as old as mine. She kisses the baby and holds him high up in the air. A blonde woman walks by carrying a soda or some drink, occasionally sipping on it distractedly. She looks at the woman and kids, hands her soda to the mother who takes it with one hand and with the other continues playing with her infant who giggles with abandon.

As my car leaves, I see the older child, not much younger than my older son sipping the drink. The blonde woman walks away. She is fervently searching for something. She has forgotten the young family, her drink, the baby, the boy. The beautiful mother. I want to stop, talk to the mother but I don't. The signal changes. The car moves away.

I should have stopped. I should have said something.

Instead I take out my phone and make the call I have "not had a chance" to make all these weeks to the organization I have been meaning to speak to. Women's and children's literacy is their focus.

I make plans to see them in a few hours.

I have to do something NOW or else a part of me will just wilt away seeing such sights.
Or worse, I might get used to seeing them and God forbid, I just might even not feel like crying at the sight of them. And that would never do.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Plastic Bag Menace

I hate to be fussy but what the hell am I supposed to do with my plastic bags? I never or lets say seldom, very seldom use plastic bags for almost anything I buy but one can't help it, they follow you everywhere. You buy milk, its in plastic bags, grain, plastic bags. I carry 7 to 8 cloth bags with me when I shop but I always end up with at least a couple bags. Provisions from stores come in plastic bags. You get the idea. They follow you no matter where you go.

End result, I have a big bursting bag full of small and big plastic bags of various kinds.

Now I obsess about recycling and every last pin that can be recycled is. But the plastic bags. No one wants to take them. Throw them away is the advice. For cows to eat and die on. For the environment to choke on.

And so I went online. I found lots of silly advice. Reuse your plastic bags for doggie poop, use them as freezer bags. Give unto me a break. These solutions are great for one or two bags per day. What about the dozens we collect everyday.

Then I searched some more and found this company Conserve. They buy plastic bags from rag pickers in Delhi and turn them into handbags. Noble. Yes. Useful to me? Resounding yes...well maybe. They don't mind getting raw material, as it were, from us. I plan to send them a sample of what I have. Fingers crossed. Maybe I can be a regular supplier.

Conclusion. My plastic bag waste just might be transformed into pretty handbags that have buyers in all parts of chic Paris and around Europe. Ironic that no Indian retailer stocks the bags that are made here.

My husband jokingly says we should start a kachra (rubbish) courier company and get like minded people to mail their rubbish through us. Right. I give him a wry look.

You can laugh at me all you want. I am looking for the nearest post office as we speak.

Environmentalism across state lines, here I come.