Monday, May 27, 2013 13 comments

WHAT THE HELL!


The last week has been one of sleepless nights as I sat glued to Dan Brown’s “Inferno” ( gone are those days when I could finish books of such volume  in one night!). The book makes  a number of references to Dante’s “ Divine Comedy” and through that introduces readers  to “Hell” as a concept in the Judeo Christian faith!  In a way, it has been a fascinating experience reading the book ,doing some web search to understand more and then discussing with my husband ( who is a Christian) about sin and hell!

I now wonder why are we so obsessed with the idea of heaven and hell? As a Hindu by birth and upbringing ( now that is a difficult identity to sustain given the different facets of this unique religion) I have a vague idea of the words “Swarg” and “Narak” – heaven and hell but the religion as such does not clearly indicate who deserves to go where. There are no catalogued groups of sins with their defined punishments. But Hinduism does have its own laws ( if I may say so?) of reward and punishment in the form of birth and rebirth! How many times have you heard someone tell you that in their next birth they do not want to be born as something?

Whatever be the religion, the idea of reward and punishment seems to be the driving force in instilling “virtues” among the common man/woman. This in itself defeats the entire purpose of what religion should be all about. If religion is about teaching us to be good human beings then one should be able to do it without the fear of being roasted in fire or being reborn as a grasshopper! We extend unto the world beyond our comprehension, our own desires and fears! Whoever said that there are Apsaras in heaven was probably a lecherous guy, a womanizer for whom sexual bliss was most important in the list of desires. Now there is nothing wrong in that except that these same feelings are also listed as “sins” in some other contexts.

In terms of listing vices, I must say that there is certainly a cultural or contextual  bias. “Gluttony” for example is not viewed as a sin in India given that many of our mythological characters like Bheem were known for their large appetites. But “lust” and “adultery” seem universal vices that can make you suffer terrible torture in the Judeo Christian version of hell or be born impotent in the Hindu context!

While the issue of reward and punishment being the drivers behind any religion is one issue there is also another –whether hell or heaven are indeed other worldly places? I believe that they definitely aren’t! You can experience either or both right here, everyday of your life depending on your life conditions. A child laborer who is denied education, made to work , being scolded and beaten by the employer experiences hell every day of his/her life. There is no way we can justify it saying that he is suffering the fruits of the sins of his previous life because that would condone what others are doing to him/her! It is also no point saying that he should suffer in silence because god is testing him and that his patience will pay off at some point after his death in some other world!

We only have one point of existence on this planet and that is the present. Whatever happens to us at that point is our experience of heaven or hell! Our conscience is the God who lives within us and it is he who guides us . It is up to us to listen to him or silence him.  It is but natural that anything good or  bad we do comes back to us at some point of  time in our lives. If we help someone the person remembers it and returns the favor and if we harm someone people remember that too…!

It is meaningless these days to pontificate about sin and describe creative and philosophical ways in which it would be punished. If you love to eat , eat by all means but do not deprive someone else of food in your desire to fulfil your appetite. If we indulge in “adultery” then it is important to be open about it and tell one’s partner that the relationship is over because by doing it in the sly one is being dishonest to the relationship.

In Dante’s description of hell there is one sentence that stands out. He says “ The darkest place in hell will be reserved for those who maintain neutrality at the time of moral crisis” – this sums up everything else! When we do not speak out against injustice we are allowing hell to rule and preventing the power of heaven to act. And whoever said that one had to die for this to happen?
Sunday, May 19, 2013 13 comments

THE QUEST FOR IDENTITY AND THE FIGHT AGAINST STEREOTYPES


Those of you  who have studied psychology would be familiar with Eric Erikson’s theory of human psychosocial development.   One of the interesting stages that  he describes in his theory  is adolescence which he says is the period in one’s life when the quest for identity begins. All of us have gone through it ; some of us twice -once as teens and again as parents! ( Of course the later stage is probably more painful because we are often at the receiving end as emotional punching bags of the frustrations of this quest)

Can you imagine how much more complicated this identity issue becomes when you are in a different culture trying to assert yourself on one hand  while attempting integration on the other?  

This is what  author Randa Abdl Fattah deals with in her novel  “ Does my head look big in this” . Targeted at the teen reader this is the story of a Palestinian teenager in Australia who decides one fine day to start wearing the hijab. This girl, Amal is the only child of doctor parents who had immigrated to Australia even before she was born. An Australian by birth, Amal is raised there and is in every way a typical teenager having her good and bad times with friends, parents and extended family in Australia. As part of her quest for identity she decides one day to adopt the veil. For Amal, it is a personal choice –a way to define her identity as a person of Arab Islamic origin. She spends a lot of time thinking about it and finally decides to go for it. Her parents counsel her to think it over carefully because what she plans to do is not just adoption of a clothing but a way of asserting her identity. Amal’s mother who is a successful dentist who also wears a hijab tells her the consequences of taking it up – it would mark her out as a Muslim in a world that has labeled them as terrorists. It would involve more struggles in getting jobs. But Amal is firm and from then on the story is about how she deals with the prejudices of the western society –her snobbish private school , the nasty so called “popular” girls, the support of her friends and teachers to help her cope with  the implications of her choice.

A very confident  and academically bright student, Amal  convinces her principal that wearing a head scarf is not a violation of the school uniform rules. Ofcourse, like all teenagers she has her misgivings on the first day when she walks into the public sphere wearing her head scarf. The author describes it beautifully! As she gets used to the stares, she realizes for the first time that being “covered” makes her free of being “judged” by others on the length of her skirt, the depth of her neckline and her hairstyle. She finds that she is suddenly able to connect with rank strangers simply because they also happen to be wearing the head scarf. For her, at that moment it becomes a symbol of cultural identity.

She fights stereotypes of being the oppressed Muslim girl . She defends her faith when she says that she is successful in whatever she does “because” of her faith and not “in spite” of it! She argues beautifully in passionate teenage rage about how people who  resort to violence in the name of Islam don’t know a thing about the religion! Politics is different from religion she says at one point and those resorting to violence are making political statements and not religious ones. She cites example of the Israeli violence on Palestinians and the IRA violence in the UK asking why these are not branded in as acts of religious fundamentalism.

On the personal front, Amal’s family is not exactly a ghettoized one as they live in an up market multicultural neighborhood where her mother encourages her to reach out to other neighbors. A typical teenager, Amal has her rebellious moments at home arguing with her parents, her crushes on boys and her  stress of having to live up to her parents’ high levels of  academic expectations. Parallel to Amal’s story is that of Leila, of Turkish origin,  whose parents want her to quit her aspirations of becoming a lawyer and get married. Leila’s mother is extremely conservative and thinks too much of studying is not good for girls. This is where the author gets Amal’s mother Jamila to explain about the difference between religion and culture.  Jamila explains about how Leila’s mother was from a village which had a certain kind of behavior expectation from girls and this was what she was imposing on her daughter. She tells her that Leila’s mother could not read the Koran as she was illiterate and therefore went more by what the village dictates said rather what the religion advocated.

This book  takes me back to my teens when I was going through similar experiences like that of Amal’s as a South Indian living in Calcutta.. I was the “Madrasi” who spoke a language that the locals could not understand. I picked up quarrels with anyone who teased me asking if I ate “idli dosas” and whether I spoke “Andu Pandu  ( their version of Tamil sounds ) at home! At home I was fighting my mother who wanted to impose the South Indian identity on me by making me wear “pavadai”, pottu, flowers in my hair and too much of gold! It was a struggle trying to come to terms with who I was and what my culture stood for! I remember feeling ashamed of my culture on one hand while being proud of it on the other.

I suppose many of the teens from Asia who are living in western countries are facing the same challenges as Amal and I faced. It is like a trial by fire. You want to integrate but you want to assert your identity too. It takes many more years and a lot of growing up before you are able to balance the two. But stereotypes are never easy to live down. It still irritates me when some North Indian tells me “ You don’t speak like a south Indian” . I mean what is a South Indian supposed to sound like? Do I have to prefix every sentence I speak with “Aiyayo”?

One has to often make that difficult choice of integration vis a vis maintaining one’s cultural identity when living in a different culture. I have relatives living in the US some of whom send their children for Bharatnatyam and Shloka classes . I also have some others relatives whose children speak no Tamil or Malayalam and do not eat any “Indian” food at home! I don’t know whose life is easier.

One does not have to practice everything that defines you culturally to actually assert your identity. I do not believe in the caste system but I cannot negate my Brahmin roots. There was a time I used to be ashamed of it taking upon me the sin of all the oppression that generations before me had imposed upon others in terms of the purity pollution issues. But today I am more comfortable with it. I do not carefully mind my Tamil language to ensure that my caste dialect does not slip out. If it does slip out and people want to stereotype me then it is their problem- not mine!

I wonder how it is for my daughter who is the child of an interreligious marriage. She has negated religion from her list of identity descriptors. But people still want to know what her religion is. Some of them assume that she is Christian after hearing her surname. Both groups annoy her. I try to tell her that religion may be unimportant to us but for many others it is an important parameter of identity. One has to understand that and deal with it. But I think in other ways she is she is more grounded as she has not had that many upheavals in her cultural environment. The India of today is more integrated than it was when I was growing up. One is not classified as “North Indian” or “ South Indian”. The IT sector has made the South a “cool” place to live and work in . There are more inter marriages and more children like her.

However that does not reduce the “teenage angst”- the frustration of not knowing what or who you are. As a mother I have in recent times  had to deal with a lot of “Whys”. I don’t know at what point you reason it out and what point you assert your authority as a parent on some issue. Sometimes her logic is more sound than mine. When I tell her not to wear shorts while taking public transport as there is no telling what kind of creeps travel in them, she in turn asks me why then do I post messages on social networking media saying “ My dress will not be influenced by a man’s inability to control his behavior”. I have no answers. She is as stubborn as I was when I was her age.

Life has come back to me as a full circle! I seem to now have again the job of dealing with the issue of MY  identity –as a mother and as an idealist. I may think that I will NOT deal with these issues the way my mother did but every time I open my mouth these days I hear my mother speak!
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 10 comments

STATUS UPGRADE


I am sure many of you have watched the movie – “ Pati, Patni aur Woh” ! Literally translated it means husband, wife and “the other” ( could be man or woman I guess). Now imagine a situation where the     “ Woh” gets a status upgrade to “Patni”. How would you describe her feelings? Elated, thrilled, relieved?

As the person to whom this happened, I would  it  was  all of this plus a feeling of amusement because the  “upgrade”  came a week before our seventeenth marriage anniversary!  Ahh! For those of you  who are thinking “ No wonder she wrote a post  titled Three is a crowd  let me prick your bubble! The reason was a  bureaucratic error that we did not realize had happened until about a year ago. It is a very interesting story and can rival a middling TV serial in terms of the originality of  plot!

The main protagonist of this interesting story is the Ministry of External Affairs. I will not call them the villain because that would be trivializing their contribution to the plot. Mr. Salman Khurshid’s ministry  is the central actor with the requisite shades of grey. My Pati Dev ( husband) is .....ummm... the comedian? An absent minded(hassled) guy who has more important matters to think about in this world than verifying whether the name entered in the column “Spouse”  is  that of his father’s  or his wife’s !

Now let us use the flashback mode of Indian films and travel back in time to 2003.  Mr. Absent Minded Prof (henceforth to be referred to as AMP)  was going about his work in his routine manner until he was asked by his boss one day to get ready to go abroad for an important meeting. A typical Taurean who dislikes any kind of sudden changes to his schedule, he was thrown off balance by this request. Matters became worse when he discovered that his passport was to expire about a month later. And you know how very helpful our fellow Indians can be? They frightened him with stories about being denied a visa on a passport that was near expiry. Meanwhile things got a little more complicated when his mother fell down and had to rushed to the hospital for an emergency hip replacement surgery. So here was our AMP rushing between office, home and hospital. He also realized that now he did not have the complete time or attention of his very own “personal secretary” (aka WIFE) to help him with the passport issue. So he decided to delegate the job of passport renewal to a travel agent.  The deed was done and the visit completed. Life came back to normal with occasional shake ups as more foreign trips flung themselves unannounced on poor Mr. AMP.

Then in 2012 I decided to renew my passport and also apply for my daughter’s. As part of the procedure I took both mine and AMP’s with me to the Regional Passport Office. It was only when I submitted the documents that it was pointed out to me that may be I was not the wife. “What”!! I asked (exclaimed)  the counter clerk. She showed me the name listed against the column “Spouse”.  I tried to explain that this was an error-a man cannot marry his own father ! But then representatives of the MoEA are rather lacking in imagination and so all  I could do was submit my own application and take  the other passport away to demand of Mr. AMP how did this “incestuous” situation come about! The poor guy as you can imagine was flabbergasted! He almost started behaving as if I was accusing him of being a bigamist!

We then started working on getting the problem “fixed”. The web site of the MoEA is rather unclear about such matters ( told you they lack in imagination!). We went from pillar to post and meanwhile this “offending”  passport which had delegated me to the “Woh” status expired. Now that was in a way a relief because we could now apply for a fresh passport providing all the details required to establish the fact that I was the “WIFE” !

After a lot of effort we got an interview date ( I did not realize that one had to be glued to the computer screen with finger on the mouse at a particular time of the day).  It took more time to explain to Mr. AMP that unfortunately the interview date could not be at our choosing – we had to take the first date and time that the system offered. So, grumbling a lot he agreed to take the afternoon off and go for the interview while I left for Coimbatore on official work!

Well, the man was given all details of the documents that he had to take. But did he remember them?  He did, except that he forgot one important document – MY PASSPORT! So he could not go beyond the A counter ( or was that the Z counter?). The person scrutinizing the documents apparently felt that the marriage certificate was not enough to prove I was the wife. He wanted to be sure that we resided at the same location!

The next time I decided to take no chances. Fortunately for us we were able to get an interview date the very next week.  We decided to consult with a friend who had recently renewed his passport as also that of his wife’s and son’s. We were sure that he was the right person to consult given his unique status as a man who was married earlier and has two children through his previous marriage and one through his current one.  He is also older ,closer to AMP in age and given his life experiences can deal with him with more patience. He told us to go prepared with some additional documents – a recent photograph in which we were both there together and also be ready to get an affidavit from a notary if required.

As we got the documents together, I added for good measure, our wedding invitation and my father-in-law’s death certificate ( last being a master stroke)! This time AMP took the whole day off and I accompanied him for moral support. Unfortunately, the guard at the entrance of the Passport Seva Kendra did not recognize the need for me to be with him. So I was left standing outside texting my beloved every ten minutes until he texted back “ DON’T TEXT me! It is distracting. I will TEXT you “ ! So there I was gazing at my phone for a while until I decided that I would have to either go home or do something to occupy myself there. The going home option did not seem right because remember I had those wedding photos, wedding invites etc which might be required at short notice? I had also located a Notary’s office nearby and I knew if required I might have to get an affidavit done and send it across to AMP inside. I sat there on somebody’s compound wall watching all the people getting in and out of the Passport Seva Kendra. Ladies with newly delivered babies ( I should have got my baby a passport along with her birth certificate!), old couples, burqa clad lovelies and political types…! I also started a conversation with a couple of others who were similarly waiting. Unfortunately they were all men and so I could not ask them to accompany me to the coffee shop across the road! Soon, I found that I was like the “boy on the burning deck” as two hours passed, then three ! Three and a half hours later I got a text that said- “Photo taken and fee paid”.  I was now getting ready to go but did he come out? NO! The wives of my three male companions sailed out one by one. The last one had gone one hour after my Patidev. She told me that if he did not come back in another fifteen minutes we would have to come the next day! I was just planning to scroll on to the passport.gov on my phone to verify what she was saying, when I saw him coming down the steps looking harassed and every bit the AMP! “ What “ ? I asked. “Over” he replied. Looking at the receipt I realized that Dad’s death certificate, our marriage certificate and my passport were the only documents that was required to prove who I was!  He did not have to pay any penalty fee either ( “ There was a nice Asst passport officer –a Malayalee lady who waived it for me” he said with a grin)

A week later, we received a call from a policeman who wanted to come for “verification”.  I wondered what he wanted to verify –whether it was the address or my residence there as the wife! Whatever, before I could change out of my uniform of frayed track pants and T shirt, our friend from the home ministry had arrived. As a matter of common courtesy I offered him some tea. He declined. Water? He declined that too! Meanwhile I was hoping the husband would emerge from the shower. I mean what sort of conversation can one have with an honest cop? After about six attempts from me at hammering the bathroom door down he emerged and ran out to meet the police man in equally disreputable pair of shorts and a T shirt. The cop gave us both the “once over” and then asked if we had received the passport. I shook my head. He took the husband’s signature on a document and also his thumb print. After he left I asked my AMP- “What was that document you signed?” And guess what he said? “ I don’t know”!!! Really…..! He could have easily signed a document admitting to having committed some local robberies!

And thereafter began my love affair with Mr. Salman Khurshid as I started “tracking” the passport status online. I saw Salman Sahab’s photo about three times a day for three days until I was convinced that he was probably the most handsome politician among the present lot. He was also very much on TV thanks to the Chinese antics in Ladakh. So he drew me like a magnet on to the other screen too!  I began comparing him to his predecessor..! I seriously think I was developing a crush on him. Ofcourse, crushes have their life time. Mine ended on the evening of the 2nd of May when I saw the message “You passport XXX has been dispatched   by speed post”. I bid goodbye to Mr. Salman Khurshid and started looking out for the post man.

The poor guy never realized that a woman was waiting at the other end of the door when he rang the bell the next morning!  Passport kondu vandurkingla” was my opening line. He nodded and wanted to meet the passport holder. After about ten minutes of discussions he agreed to give me the passport provided I could furnish my photo id that proved that I was the WIFE and also my husband’s photo ID that proved he resided there. And then with trembling hands I opened to the page that had the family details. And sure enough against the column Name of the Spouse was MEERA SUNDARARAJAN!!!

( An experience that might seem funny but is not! I urge all of you to please review information that you provide in your passport application. The Passport Seva system is really professional and state of the art. It keeps out the touts who used to rule the roost. However I wish it would be easier to get a passport submission appointment! One cannot just keep refreshing the page on the site waiting to “click”  or “pounce” the moment the clock strikes. And lastly I think it would be better if the  MoEA can be clearer on their website about the documentation required for submission of an application. As of now it is only the affidavits that they mention clearly)
 
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