Friday, November 26, 2010

The small stream of sunlight

Like every morning, this morning too Mom and I carried on with our early morning prattle. I call her for an hour most days, which could become two some days. Generally we talk of the maladies that life poses like how our very kind husbands are taken for a ride by this utterly base world because both my Dad and my husband happen to be such simple hearted folks and how we (my Mom and I) have to valiantly defend these hapless men from the cruel and mean world. Amidst all the talks of us poor Vikings having to save our men, she mentioned that her everyday house help Jahaanara did not come to work. Jahaanara is a very diligent and loyal lady; one of those rare house help who don’t think that help rendered by their employers is the employee's entitlement. She is honest and cheerful. She is also very poor. She quite reminds me of Friday in Robinson Crusoe.

Jahaanara , a mother of two, is in her early forties. I hate to call her a maid because as I said before she is a very ethical human being, very clean and she is unthinkably fit thanks to the everyday hill climbing to get to work from home; her waist line and abs can put true blue health freaks and celebrities to shame. She also proves very eloquently the point that most of eat us 100% more than what we need for sustenance. Jahaanara survives on two plates of rice with occasional meat and lentil, lots of tea and few slices of breads. I don’t endorse this less than 1000 calories diet. She has no other way because she is poor. But if you are reading this maybe cutting 400 or 500 calories from your diet will not be impossible. (By the way, you can easily cut 500 calories from your daily intake by drinking 10 cups of black tea with no sugar and not drinking any other beverage other than black or green tea, eating no sweets and dumping colas, eating three chapattis less or two helpings of rice less, avoiding fried stuff and walking for 40 minutes briskly. Clich├ęd but tried and tested by yours truly). Jahaanara works at two houses. At my Mom’s she gets her mid day vegetables, carb and taffeine fix. She has a late breakfast sitting next to Mom as Mom indulges in her elevenses. Her husband a daily wager these days is of no help to the family. Some heavy work has hurt his elbow and has rendered him temporarily incapacitated. So bearing the expenses of the house is now Jahaanara’s sole responsibility. She has so far managed to educate her son as an electrician. Her daughter unfortunately this year had to repeat her metric exams.

This year due to incessant rains in Guwahati one beetle nut tree near Jahaanara’s house lost soil due to erosion and in matter of time collapsed, caving in one of the walls in her house. Given that her house is a typical rural thatched and mud house, one of those many houses that dot Assam’s hill tops and valleys, it was not a very conducive living condition for her and her family. With incomes low and only her salary of less than 3000 Indian Rupees to bank on, getting an advance of ten thousand from a bank is an impossible feat. But don’t they say for every one door shut some windows just yank open. Jahaanara and her neighbours, one of the poorest of Assamese denizens are nonetheless a cohesive and a surprisingly smart lot. For years now her neighbourhood has a community micro-finance facility where everyone deposits some money and depending on someone’s pressing needs a micro loan of about 5000 to 10000 thousand rupee is doled out. The interest is very minimal of just 1 rupee a month. Jahaanara with this scheme could borrow a sum of 7000 rupees to rebuild her house. She would be repaying her loan at the rate of rupees 601 per month. Every few months a few non-profit NGOs supply her and her neighbours with spools of white and red threads for free which they spin into fabrics called “gamoosa”, an Assamese cotton towel, best suited for a very rain prone region like Assam where terry towels take ages to dry. Jahaanara earns some money through this. She also makes brooms which my Mom and likewise buy from her. Very recently she has started growing papayas in her back yard, which are organically grown and ripened. She supplies them too. So Jahaanara a very poor but ethical lady is doing every bit that she can to keep her family eating and living decently. It would have been easy for her to join a factional terrorist group and gun down people and extort money. But better sense prevails and she is leading life with courage and dignity. There are occasional gifts during festivals and my Dad generally gives her "pocket" money more than once a week which he misses giving me and my brother now that we are all grown and away. She appreciates the help my Mom and her other employers give her but like any self respecting human being she does not consider these help as her right and always over delivers through her very good house work. She also, despite being illiterate, unlike lots of urban house helps I have experienced and am currently employing, is cognizant of the fact that charity can only assist till a point. From that point on your own hard work, ethics and a pleasant disposition can get things rolling.

You rock Jahaanara. I just love your ways. You reiterate oft searched but seldom found perspective of humility, a sense of humour and hugely help to endorse that hope is a very strong prop. I am glad I got to know you and I am sure brave that you are, life will see you through

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Please turn on the lights

Festivals are a part of an Indian life. Though I try to celebrate Eid as best as I can, replete with retail, eats and prayers (do I sound like Elizabeth Gilbert here?), there are two other festivals that totally leave me thrilled and happy: Christmas and Durga Pujo. Sadly no other has left me starry eyed because may be there is no treating business.

I especially like Durga Pujo and that is because I have many Bengali friends or is it because I have read too many Jhumpa Lahiris and Amitav Ghoshes? Infact it could be also because of the way it is celebrated by the entire Bengali community... the food, the new clothes, may be the cultural proximity to Assam, the spirit and so on and so forth. Whatever be the reason, I find it bright and it is really the juggernaut of celebrations. What is but celebration without great food and great hospitality. I really can’t relate to people offering me sweets in a sweet box (not even a decent plate) or dry fruits to munch on. Perhaps I am being biased because I come from a family where festivals translate into great food and good clothes and warm hospitality. But can u blame me???...I have seen petite women cooking large meals in a jiffy in my family and I have tried my best to be a chip off that monolith...

For a few years now, a very close friend in the US, a quintessential Bengali woman or a Bong, as it is popularly connoted, has left me weak with joy that I am no anomaly in this eat well and cook better dictum of life. Not once a week eat well, cook better...but all the meals that go with this mantra of eat well- cook better. Let us just say that there are two anomalies now orbiting this strange world of people who can eat like there is no tomorrow but cannot cook or even serve? Is hospitality really so complex? Or like everything else, as prevalent today, not doing it is fashionable, modern, liberating?

In the West celebrating festivals (I am not talking Christmas and Thanks Giving and Halloween) is a wee bit tricky. One does not want un-necessary attention drawn to themselves so I can imagine the lack of too much glitter and sound. Does not the world know that lights, bright colours and sound offer panic attacks to most non-Asians!!! Which is fine. It is like aesthetics, muted colour tones and good lifestyle leading to panic attacks in Indians especially. So we are even. Really. Balance. Chi . Call it whatever you wish to. But how difficult is to celeberate festivals in a non-awkward, non-loud, non-obsequious yet family – oriented way?

How difficult is a little glitz, a little food, a little spirituality, say for the sake of the next generation? Why do we have to be antiseptic and earn other panic attacks. Remember we are Indians?...We already have our bane towards order, discipline (elbowing in the supermarket happens to me all the time, hell at times I do it too), and like I said before, the eternal Indian bane of looking healthy and aesthetics. Can’t we atleast redeem ourselves by being warm, hospitable and if you want to look shapeless what bad is Biryani over Burger? Or Parathas over Pizzas? Be fat. Be Indian fat. Please also gym and wear nothings to look good if you have to as well and if it is your thing. But please serve me my food well, please don’t serve me mithai in a cardboard 2 by 2, please don’t make me wince by buying your ABCD kids Halloween garb and nothing in our desi festivals, both in India and abroad. Come on, it is fun. It is just another reason to blow money, keep the economy going, and an extravaganza that keeps us realising one thing- nothing including values, traditional and ethical, are indispensible. But if you can imbue that to the next generation, what is the harm.

Just like health, traditions once let gone, go away. Being obstinate and totally inflexible about rituals and traditions is one thing. Shunning it altogether, because it is un-cool, is quite another thing. There is always a middle ground. May be that heavily brocaded saree stifles you, wear a lighter one with a halter perhaps. If it isthe cooking that gets to you, you could order in some good food from a decent place but how difficult is serving the ordered in food in a nice dish. Walk up to a Lifestyle or Shoppers Stop. Believe me you will find a serving dish well within your means. I am fine with a Khurja plate too. Every yearly salary increment is not about more investments. Please up your standard of living a wee bit. It will make you want to sit and admire your own house. Just please do me a favour. Don’t become mutants- those people who try to totally throw away what was theirs and emulate something which can’t be theirs or worse still is half baked? That is really sad. I mean eating pasta is Italian and cool, so why can’t a biryani or a luchee and kacha manksho be cool too. Recently I was so glad that there was this biryani noon at my place and all my guests.....all except maybe one or two who have never used their hands to eat rice with, used their god given good hard working hands. Hell, even the Westerners eat with their hands if you think using your digits is cringe worthy. Food like burgers and fries and even donuts is often seen being eaten with hands and sans cutlery. So well, we as Indians have the official certificate to.

The funniest thing happened to me almost a decade ago. A hulk of a batch-mate in my T-school decided to take me out for lunch. I was 19. So don’t blame me for thinking that it was a date. He took me out to this amazing restaurant called the Only Place. This place served the best All American Cheese Beef burger, before Hard Rock Cafe happened to Bangalore. While I was chomping, as daintily as burgers can be decimated, he asked me if I could tell, what was special. I gave him many options- his birthday, his Mum’s, his Dad’s, I almost even said that must have managed to deficate well that morning. Nope, none of these answers was the reason why he took me out for them burgers that day. No sir. ‘Twas 4th of July. American Independence day. I just shrugged and ate. 10 years later when I wanted to connect with him on Facebook, I was debarred. Apparently I am not in his network. He only allows US and Europe regions in his network. I could only laugh. I cannot blame him if after watching Eat Pray Love and India’s piss poor depiction therein he has stuck to his stance. Poor ex-Indian.

In the mean time my Bong pal went the whole nine yards this Durga Pujo and for two good reasons- for herself and for her son’s sake. The clothes, the food and the Pandaal hopping, she did it all. How else will her son learn? I am impressed. And away from India? Wow. Way to go, girl!!!

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Currency of Faith

Nothing is more tragic than losing faith in oneself or the instinct to trust in oneself. When you feel that the whole world has taken turns to judge you and make you feel like an outcast, it is but natural to lose your confidence. Our lives are individual destinies. It was never meant to be similar to another destiny. If that were the case, would not have there been another JFK or John Lennon. No, each of us have a reason to live our lives a certain way. Call this the Big Guy’s quirk. And when you too join in your own booing, the death knell is sounded. You have killed the very human spirit the Rands of the world exhort about.

Losing faith is perhaps the root cause of militancy and hatred, for when you hate yourself, loathe yourself, disrespect yourself, all this because you have lost faith in yourself, the void thus created needs to be filled with other negative emotions. That is why sometimes utter cruelty is meted out to a very good soul. Good souls are happy souls, content, full of faith. And when people who lack this gift see a happy soul, they know that no wealth and no fame can buy that faith. And so they are cruel because they are shamed or maybe they basically have not learnt the art to imbibe rational things. And who is better than the happy soul to turn the cruelty towards….

I feel that the foremost thing is to try and accept that we keep losing little measure of faith every now and then. Once, only after one accepts this fact, can one rationally think through, weigh in option and stop the whole spiral of negative dance. The human brain has three parts to it- the cortex at the top, the brainstem as a stock attached to the cortex and the cerebellum behind the brainstem. The human cortex is what differentiates humans from primates and other mammals. We can think and perceive non essential activities- just not the basic activities like eating, drinking or reacting to survival instincts like fear, reproduction drive or hunger. We perceive wealth, status, societal norms and much more. So a long haul problem is not about panicking and taking sudden uncalculated steps. God knows we do it, all the time. Even for smaller decisions in life really.

Now, interestingly the culture that I am currently part of boasts of lots of money, year on year promotions, exotic holiday destinations, brands, name dropping, swanky jobs and sleek cars. People stand in pubs and terraces and discuss how much they make. Often I see one-upmanship that casts a shadow of pain on the poor victim when Mr. Benedicted says he or she makes a hell raising amount of money or is a rockstar. There is this pan-world phenomenon- loss of shame and decency. When the self sees all the good things, or what one defines as good things, happen to others, Loss of faith is bound to happen.

What sometimes very good souls don’t realize is that some in his brethren praise themselves because perhaps faith gets restored by telling the other person how lofty he stands. So is gaining faith at any cost the most important thing? No. Nada. The importance is in really putting your cards on the table and honestly seeing them. We all are sentient beings. No one knows us better than ourself. We are our best judge and jury and we can regain faith by analyzing ourselves. Brutally and honestly.
So gaining faith is not achieved by looking down on someone and but intelligently analyzing the relativity that exists in the have and have not spectrum of things. As one starts doing it, it will only become clear that the law of life demands that someone will have less than you and yet someone who will always have more than you- be it wealth, health, power, happiness or grief. Now that one has established this very basic truth, it is up to oneself how to use this knowledge. You may choose to fester and wring your hands in utter despair that someone has more than you in the parameter you want to compare yourself in or you may decide to make a poor hapless “lesser mortal” feel miserable because you feel you have more. Further still you may truly count your blessings.

After all no human being is Nature’s aberration. No one is totally good and horribly bad. No will have the exact same path drawn out. So to regain faith of one-self by belittling and disliking someone may seem natural, given that negativity is easier to prop on but that is not faith. That is re-assurance at any cost.

Faith is a very strong and positive emotion which like warmth must suffuse in anyone who comes close to you. Faith is something that keeps hope alive in an intelligent and rational way. Faith does not say keep sitting and you shall get food. Faith is about keep walking and you may getting to see your own vista, your own vista. Faith is to exist as a core that does not seek out for labels to define and prop you. It is very difficult to have this kind of faith. There are more diminishing forces that re-iterating forces.

Faith is also not about condoning inability and inaction. Inability and inaction robs us of the essential element of creativity, which leads to angst and loss of faith. Faith is about doing fundamentally the right, the just, the brave acts with a mix of conviction, pride and rationale. These small but firm acts of self motivation and growth are like Systematic Investment Plans that banks talk about, a small but highly effective medium of an impressive collection of wealth.

Collect small measures of faith every day and when you look back you shall see a sizable repository that will allow you to share this vital life force with another human being. If only we are replete and filled and sated can we offer help to those who may need a little restoration of faith. The small measures of faith can come from learning from others or through your own previously unnoticed acts. That someone who you may learn from could be a friend, a colleague, a leader, a spouse, an offspring, a sibling, a parent or even a perfect stranger. I have found faith in the expected quarters of those few precious who mean a lot to me...my parents, spouse, friends...and also in quarters that do not touch my life intimately and very often.