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Suffering September

11 Sep

This piece appeared under another title in India Currents magazine last Fall. I’m sharing it here, given that recent geo-political developments sadly keep it as relevant as ever.

Apologies for being AWOL. Daily life currently demands huge parts of me and the best I can do is ride the wave.

~

On a crisp September morning, a dozen years ago, I emerged into the sunshine feeling happy and ravenous. Having finished an intense summer at Syracuse University’s famed Newhouse School of Communications, I was easing into the Fall semester, thoroughly enjoying the thrill of learning. Breakfast was on my mind as I walked over to the Schine student center and waited in line for an omelet. Maybe I’ll add hash browns and toast, I was thinking, when an undergraduate student interrupted my thoughts.  “What are they showing on those screens,” she asked, and gestured toward two pull-down panels showing planes and buildings and smoke. “Probably a movie,” I shrugged and took my tray over to a table to watch. That omelet, those potatoes, and the carefully buttered toast grew cold and unwanted as I watched with dilated pupils and mouth agape a moment that changed the course of history.

Of course, when events occur that change lives, nations and entire lexicons, you hardly hear the warning bells right away. The enormity of shift that will follow isn’t always estimated accurately. Especially when you are a recently-turned 23-year-old who landed in the country with two bulging suitcases and a crock of naiveté. What I remember of the day is the not-so-flattering peach top I had worn with my jeans, a leaf pattern around the neckline. What I remember is running through the Bird library, to tell a family friend who had already heard. I remember being inundated with calls from folks in India, because nobody knew the difference between New York the city and the state—or maybe they didn’t care. I remember being in the World Trade Center, a mere three weeks earlier. I remember a picture taken in its foreground, young 20-somethings leaning into each other, laughing into the camera, unaware that this would be the last time we would see the twin towers standing.

 
You don’t need me to tell you that America changed that day, twelve years ago. Human anguish, horror and anger hit all life within a 1000-mile radius like a ton of bricks. Rhetoric and war and a decade long manhunt were only the most high-profile casualties of this emotional earthquake that equally crumbled bricks and the notions of security, terror and insularity. America darkened, its economy crashed, and against the backdrop of the nation’s struggles, my own newly-minted life in the country rode the crests and troughs of immigrant life. Industries creaked to a crawl, jobs grew scarce, and the then-President’s reaction to this atrocity bubbled over and scorched lands and people. Relatively cocooned in my student existence, grad school provided a buffer from the ugly realities of the next year. But there comes a time when the door is thrown open and you finally must walk.

The graduating class of 2002 walked out into a drastically changed reality—one of a tanked economy, financial uncertainty, and no warm welcome from a suddenly hostile America. Engineering students, fattened on stories of bulky sign-on bonuses and Silicon Valley embraces, felt like dethroned monarchs. Ph.D. candidates desperately delayed graduation for the next few years. Young people from India who never had to lift a finger in their lives were now grunting it out in food courts, temp jobs, and limited projects, the golden H1-B nowhere in sight. Many returned to their home countries. The ones with loans looked on in despair as ends simply refused to meet. America’s manpower loss, a small casualty in the face of the larger horror, was India and China’s gain.

Two years later, another war was announced. And I’ve always wondered how many rallied against it only for the havoc it would further wreak on their lives. Even as I traveled and worked and plodded along my own 20s journey of self-discovery, relationships and independent living, the rumble of 9/11 was never too far away. Millions before us were fed narratives of the American Dream, but we, those who arrived in the year of 9/11, saw the country at her naked worst—her breath craggy, her vision blurred, refracting her trauma on other innocents of the world.

I sometimes wonder how it must have felt, being part of the wave before that date seared in collective memory. To have known the tech boom, the easy green cards, the ubergenerous land of plenty. A country preceding brown skin hostility.  A time before I had to say my name, spell it out, and quickly share I wasn’t Muslim even to my fellow Indians, because my horns, you see, were simply waiting to burst from my skull if I happened to be one.

A dozen years later, as I write this from my serene couch in the heart of Silicon Valley, I marvel at how we survived—both America and I, on our respective but not discrete journeys. That we held on through the harsh times with resilience I didn’t know existed. That it is this country, and not the land of my birth, that has taken me on the ride of a lifetime—one I know is far from over yet.

Maybe we choose some of our difficulties. Or perhaps they choose us. We come out on the other side with battle wounds and weary spirits, but I live with the faith that I survived—and the hope that America, strange bedfellow in a stranger journey, will as well.

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Motherhood Above All?

29 Jul

This piece was first published in this month’s issue of India Currents magazine. Weigh in–I’d love to hear your thoughts!

~

Amidst all the chatter and marketing gimmicks that make up Mother’s Day celebrations, I came across a quote by Ralph Lauren, which said, “My wife Ricky has accomplished so much in her life, but being a mother has always come first.” In this seemingly simple sentence, a globally-renowned fashion icon and figure of our times placed a giant emphasis on motherhood, simultaneously outranking his spouse’s other accomplishments as a human being. He is hardly alone in this declaration of priorities, with millions of women around the globe asserting it is the most important thing they will ever do.

Fair enough. The sheer physical metamorphosis a woman undergoes when producing a child, followed by a transformed-for-life sleep cycle, relentless emotional and mental demands, and a heart permanently bumping around on a leash is enough to make the toughest soldier wimp out. To anyone who goes through it, I have no argument if they believe it is the most crucial role of their life. If that is what they choose to be defined by, more power to them. I, too, believe it will be among the most critical things I do in my years on earth (but not the only one!)

What fascinates me is how—and more specifically, why—entire cultures feed into this belief and generate narratives to support it to the extent of passively punishing those who don’t conform. I struggle with understanding exactly why we as a society—nay, societies across the planet—endorse this prominence of motherhood to the point where any other achievement—whether it be the Nobel prize or Prime Ministership or the rescuing of trafficked children—is deemed relatively less significant. (Case in point, Hilary Clinton recently stating that Grandmother is the most important title she—U.S. Secretary of State and past presidential candidate—will have.)

First, a home truth: Not all mothers are created equal. Their circumstances are not equal. The extent and manner in which they engage in caregiving and nurturing and the rearing of little human beings is far from equal. Yes, there are certain sentiments mothers are definitely more predisposed to than other categories of the human race. Still, speaking of the experience in absolute terms does nobody any favors (except perhaps the slackers who are happy to scurry under the umbrella—and as a therapist for socially disturbed and abused children, I’ve met more than my fair share of those).

Why does society put such absolute emphasis on motherhood? Because of its significance in shaping the future or because it serves a distinct purpose to do so? Would our social structure be threatened if women one day believed other tasks were more important or satisfying? Does the unabashed promotion of mothers as the more important parent serve a social purpose?

It behooves us to consider who society is made of: men and women. Parents and non-parents. Those who value their work (whatever it may be) and others who get by just because they have to do it. Given the ratio of men to women on the planet, it is only natural that mothers do not form a majority of the world’s population. However, by virtue of the nature of their job, every creature has one—as it has a father. But do we hear of fatherhood being the most important job a man will ever do? He has a company to run, that ladder to shimmy up, and no one thinks badly of him for leaving a colicky baby to finalize a deal. Have we as a society decided fatherhood is not Life Position #1 because it doesn’t serve us to do so? Are those global profit margins we’re sneaking a look at? Industries, incomes, and other concepts that fade into the background when the parent in question is female?

As products of social conditioning who may or may not question this narrative, we need to check if we’re merely being pumped up to serve a social purpose—especially if our hearts are not in it. As much as I believe that parenthood—not just motherhood—is a joyous, rewarding experience for many people, equally, it is not for everyone. Unfortunately, the strength of this all-encompassing motherhood narrative does not account for individual differences and choices. It does not count the woman who feels her role as an international development expert is more important. It scoffs at those who would rather follow a map than a trail of diapers. It disallows space for reflection and questioning, for you must be a really selfish person for thinking you could be complete without a person emerging from your body.

In and of itself, this smothering social story is polarizing and inconsiderate of variations in personalities, ambition, and temperament. It allows no debate on whether a person may actually be a better human being without producing one. It gathers all their life’s work—no matter how significant or exceptional—and hangs it in unfavorable balance to human beings who have utilized their uterus. And in doing so, this overarching myth fails us.

In far too many cultures around the world even today, Jane Austen, Frida Kahlo, Noor Inayat Khan, Emily Bronte, Florence Nightingale, Ellen Degeneres, Anne Frank, Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sotomayor, and Mother Teresa would have questionable social standing for failing to fulfill their proscribed social role. I will repeat: It is not for us to diss motherhood. If a woman believes that is her only destiny, then she deserves (and definitely requires) all the support she can get. Equally, it is not for us to glorify motherhood to such extremes that we look askance at those who prefer another life mission—whether by choice or circumstance. May we find it in us to applaud their work, vision, and contribution to the planet with the same gusto we reserve for the parents of bonny, chubby-cheeked, dimple-elbowed, fat-toed, three-toothed little folk.

I will be a parent in the future. And already, I know the shift in attitude that will occur by those not closest to me. Finally, I will fit the mold. And once satisfied that I’m propped safely on that pedestal, they will walk off into the distance, looking for other matrons to idolize. And from that vantage point, I will throw darts of doubt in their direction, hoping my aim is not amiss.

 

The Non-Redundant Indian

5 May

This piece was originally published in this month’s issue of India Currents magazine.

~

As a keen follower of Indian politics and the upcoming national elections, and someone who is very active on social media year-round, I have lately been confronted by an interesting phenomenon: The tendency of resident Indians to a) diss NRIs and render them irrelevant by virtue of not residing in the country anymore, and b) actively criticize and debar them from having an opinion about their home country. The logic: You left, therefore you have no right to a voice. So that you understand exactly what I mean, here is a sampling of comments about non-resident Indians by people ostensibly living in India:

NRI types who would go out on a limb for foreign citizenship are the first to invoke patriotism.” (This tweet has been retweeted 15 times and favorite 4 times, so clearly others share this sentiment.)

No one will give you more concerned perceptive and farsighted advises (sic) on how India should be ruled than a NRI who has no plans to return ever!” (7 retweets and 6 favorites.)

All these NRI types vote for Modi, they’re the ones funding him, and we’re left to suffer.” (125 comments on Facebook, of which 83 were in agreement with the sentiment.)

Nasty comments and raging debates on Facebook apart, I and several of my fellow NRIs sense a thinly-veiled resentment directed toward us. Past what may or may not be jealousy of about perceived better living standards, or a residual sense of abandonment, there is the not-so-subtle accusation of betrayal and it scowls “You left.”

Let’s get some basic facts first: Of the 22 million Indians living outside India, at least 10 million still hold an Indian passport. Remittances to India totaled to $70 billion at last count, amounting to 4% of the country’s GDP. Yes, NRIs fund political parties they believe in. And yet, how many Indians in India do you know who would do the same? If you think being an NRI is all political money talk, think again: more than 50% of the funding for India’s top education nonprofit comes from the US, Indians abroad work beyond their full time jobs to actively volunteer for causes back home that range from education to disability to maternal health issues. I am likely to be an exception in that I volunteer for no less than 4 nonprofits working in India. But working right alongside me are Indians who have been here anywhere between 5 and 35 years. Those who form part of the “stop complaining and get it done brigade”. Those who put their money where their mouth is and ensure that millions can access the basic rights that we enjoy in our new countries—ones that successive governments have failed to provide Indians. For this, we are not even given our basic right to vote through consulates, and have to either spend on flying ourselves down to do it— a very expensive proposition, and not always logistically possible—or watch in silence as our country goes to polls and our voices are deemed irrelevant.

I have been on both sides of this apparent divide. As someone who has spent 5-year chunks of time in the US and then India and now the US again, I have been witness to plenty of non-resident Indians and Indian non-residents, a term I used to describe the many people encountered who complain loudly about the state of affairs, won’t move a finger to change them, and, while physically present in the country, won’t even bother to visit a polling booth. “What’s going to change,” I am defiantly asked, and labeled a sentimental fool for hoping.

When it comes to chowing down the latest New Zealand rack of lamb recipe that costs the equivalent of the working class’ monthly paycheck or going berserk at the Zara sale, plenty of Indians will be the first to declare that with the world going global now, it doesn’t matter where we live. Why then this discrimination against those who choose for whatever reason to live away from their homeland? Our money is gladly accepted, Indian-origin celebrities and achievers are proudly touted by the motherland as one of their own, but when it comes to having an opinion about the country we grew up in, we’re suddenly pariahs? It is all very convenient to declare oneself a global citizen and then deny a fellow Indian the right to a voice about his/her country based on their location—rest assured it reeks of hypocrisy.

One argument against non-resident Indians is that we are unaware of the ground realities by virtue of being physically removed from them. This is certainly true of some part of the NRI population. It is also equally true of some part of the resident Indian population. But in this age of global connectivity, instant news updates, round-the-clock media, and Twitter frenzy, the premise does not hold true anymore. Gone are the days when we would land in India after a span of several years, only to find we were serious misfits and the country of our birth was unrecognizable to us. More than ever, with the first generation Indian migrant population ballooning, especially in places like Silicon Valley, service providers, both Indian and local, have worked toward bringing the land into our homes on a daily basis. Our passports are perceived as unavoidable inconveniences, temporary pit-stops on the way to other colored ones, and our very nationality is questioned for our audacity in getting on a plane out of the country.

Over the last decade, there have been waves of NRIs returning to their home country, not just to visit, but to establish roots and make a life where they started theirs. There are others who divide their time between lands. Whether we choose to return or stay on, our cultural and emotional connection is, believe it or not, stronger than the iron-clad US immigration system, and no, we don’t all come down in droves every December to whine about smog and dug-up footpaths and the myriad failures of state that seem to especially embarrass you in our presence. Our ties to India are primarily emotional. Almost all first-generation Indians still have some family there, and, as is human, we worry about their safety, comfort, and peace, as they worry about ours each time there is a mass threat. The sheer number of phone plans and calling cards and now video conferencing options are testimony to our efforts to remain connected to our loved ones, and the land of our birth and heart.

It is time our opinions are heard and considered—if only for the unique perspectives we bring from being exposed to various governance systems around the world. We live in 205 countries and it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. We have learned to discard that sense of entitlement that many in our old home still carry, and build lives and families and meaningful existences in all corners of the globe, while a piece of our heart remains where you live. No Indian, resident or otherwise, has the right—moral or legal—to tell another their opinion is irrelevant. If we are to raise India to new heights, and truly make her an equal, competent world player, can we really afford to discount 22 million of her people?

 

Daddy’s Not-So-Little Girl

15 Apr

This opinion piece was originally published in this month’s edition of India Currents magazine. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject!

~

One of my strongest memories of childhood is from age 9, where, propping my eyes open with thumbs and forefingers, I willed myself not to doze as I waited behind metal railings for Daddy to emerge from the airport. I had never been on a plane myself. Foreign travel was many years away. But none of that mattered because I was finally going to be reunited with my beloved parent after a two-month gap. When he came into sight, tall and French-bearded, I dashed straight into the exit aisle, head first, running as fast as my chubby legs would carry me, pigtails bringing up the rear. Thankfully skirting the trolley, I hurled myself into his belly, determined not to let go.

I’ve never been one for diplomacy in declaring love. I had a favorite parent and made no bones about it. I have a favorite friend and think nothing of calling her my bestie in the presence of our other close pals. I even have a favorite spouse, but he says that isn’t applicable, since he’s the only one who has ever occupied the position. Circling back to what I meant to share, yes, I was always Daddy’s girl, and remain so to this day.

My discomfort with the tag begins with the insertion of the word “little.” When grown women voluntarily declare juvenility, it is cause for concern. It signals a refusal to mature, a hankering for continued protection, and the rejection of the possibility of a loving adult relationship with your parent. We all grow up. Most of us even manage to add maturity to the checklist. We spend the maximum chunk of our lifetime in adulthood. Who, then, are these women who declare their undeveloped-in-some-aspect status and are they fully aware that it entails connotations of emotional stuntedness?

Some are those who lost their father/father-figure early in life, leaving a gaping hole in their emotional development. I am truly sorry for them and understand at some level the need for comfort and protection. Then there are those who, despite having a living father, go all cute and helpless in his presence and think it is perfectly okay to exhibit this inappropriate behavior. We beat men up for being tied to their mothers’ apron strings. They are called sissies and contempt is showered upon them, because adults are expected to operate within the parameters of healthy, mature boundaries. Why then is it perceived as culturally acceptable to have women in their 20s, 30s and 40s openly declare that they will always be little girls to a parent or parental figure? Does one have to be a “little” girl to spontaneously hug one’s father and laugh over childhood memories? And more crucially, how healthy is it if your parent still sees you as a child when you have one of your own? You’re probably thinking “this is socially acceptable across pretty much all of India” and you’re right: infantilizing one’s adult children is a predominantly Eastern trait, but in the case of Daddy’s “little” girls, this phenomenon seems to cut across cultures with the stereotype readily accepted and fostered in Western society, a classic example being grown-ass Jewish-American Princesses (JAPs).

As women in an era that affords increasing freedoms and gender neutrality, how relevant is this “little girl” position and why do we even want it? Are you less of a daughter if you share a loving, positive equation that includes talking about your work, your dreams, and those cookies you charred in an adult manner? Do you see no need for self-determination when Daddy dearest is around to arrange it all? Even if you did not have a positive paternal role model during your childhood, how does clinging to a false image benefit your growth as a fully functioning adult human being?

In Dr. Peggy Drexler’s book Our Fathers, Ourselves, she points out that daughters feel more at ease around their fathers when they are treated like intelligent beings and not delicate playthings. Perhaps it is easier to continue in the rut of set relationship patterns. But there is pleasure in realizing your father, whom you looked up to as a child, now listens to your thoughts about the upcoming elections. There is the joy of explaining how you tweaked that favorite family recipe. There is fun in trading musical experiences and recommending new reads. There is even an undeniable pleasure in bashing the relatives, now that you can see their follies through adult eyes!

Eric Berne, of Transactional Analysis (TA) fame, states that we operate from three states: Parent, Adult, and Child. Our relationship patterns usually crystallize over time such that we tend to relate to one another in predominantly one state over another. Some, for instance, will react to a spouse as a child or a parent. Plenty of parents, out of sheer habit or perhaps not knowing any different, will respond to their adult children in parent mode, occasionally deploying child mode as a guilt trip. This unhealthy scenario does women a disservice, helping to enforce stereotypes of weak, helpless womanhood. There is no shame in being weak or helpless when you truly are, but a lifetime of interaction on those lines can only harm you.

It is true, ladies. Our fathers are frequently the first male loves of our lives. But then we GROW UP. Like ALL healthy human beings. And the evolution of our loving relationships is the best indicator of much-needed maturity. You’ll always be Daddy’s girl. But you haven’t been little for a really long time. Take ownership of your adulthood. Embrace its unique perspective. You will find that your daughterhood won’t diminish because of it.

Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month: CSAAM 2014

31 Mar

Would you believe how the first three months of the year ganged-up against us, racing right by and paying no heed to our gasps?

Reluctantly or otherwise, this brings us to April, and another year of Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month on the blogosphere.

CSAposter

Again? Yes, again. It hasn’t gone away, has it? Neither should your attention.

Please direct it to this page, and learn about our partners, the problem, and the crying, aching, screaming need for AWARENESS.

Share the URL with your friends: Facebook, Twitter, email, your own words over a cup of coffee. Whatever your method, get talking.

Join Twitter chats that address the issue from various professional angles (I will be doing one and will update time and date details on this post).

We want to hear your stories. If you have none to share, lend us your ears because the world has far, far too many.

Thank you yet again, lovely readers, for sharing with me this month of personal experiences that break our hearts and make us want a better world for our children and their adult avatars.

Lizard’s Tail

25 Feb

It’s fascinating to watch the morphing of an entity that has been severed or disconnected from a larger part. Whether it is a country partitioned from its old composite avatar or a person who forsook their religion because of marriage, they seem to be propelled toward polarization, creating identities more extreme than otherwise necessary. This has happened, I chose this, now I must take a stand and be different, stand up for my act of separation, perhaps even justify it. Ignore the sameness. Ignore the city streets with approximately the same amounts of garbage, because there is a heightened sense of Another Religion in the air. Ignore how nothing has really changed about your food, your clothes, your very colloquial exclamations, because now you are Married Out.

While some are compelled to change, feel an obligation to become The Other, a few dig their heels in and stoutly choose to be driven by factors that prod us to take these steps. Still fewer others fling themselves between identities, but who likes the dissonance that produces? One over the other is easier, safer, infinitely more convenient than duality.

In the rarest of cases, it is a personal blessing for those who never really belonged to one space to begin with. A chance to seize the molding clay of circumstances and fashion from it at will. Those who say I will not be driven, pushed, compelled. Who acknowledge that many factors may change external situations, but we choose to renew our identities-or not. Even as I hear the constant drone of “change is ever-shifting” in the background, I am intrigued by the endless buffet of change, what whets its appetite, what platters we pick from, and the choices that fill our senses and identities, keeping us alive, moving us forward, nurturing stability, dulling our nerve endings into half-burying ourselves into the ground and sticking Velcro-like to the comfort of our original realities.

What do you fashion for yourself? Does your sky take on a different hue? What drives you to be still or shed layers? Do you see it as a necessity, inevitable, or a painful metamorphosis? When you throw off your tail, does your yoke get cast off with it? Or is it warmer to wrap a familiar milieu around your being and rock it close all the live long day?

I thrive between answers. So from the looks of it, I am in no tearing hurry to grab the nearest available one. Let me go arrange a bowl of flowers in the meantime. Nothing like petals and stems to dissipate a whorl of question marks. 🙂

The Season of Rust

23 Dec

I wrote this post 2 months ago, but clean forgot about it in the non-stopness that has been life lately. Apologies for the delay, especially since it was a time-relevant subject, but without any further delay, here it is.

~

Northern California has two seasons: sunny-and-pleasant, and sunny-and-mildly-chilly. And oh, three- drops-of-precipitation-before-the-sun-colonizes-the-sky-again. For about 2 and a half days a year. Last week, we awoke to Season Two. And felt a delicious shiver on throwing off our down comforters and savored that warm, milky coffee a teeny bit more.

The leaves have changed color. Like an earnest child who can’t quite catch up with his peers. You love him for trying, but you know he’ll never make the League of Sporting Champions.  He’ll always be the one with “Good effort” on his report card, and a slightly patronizing smile from his teacher, glory reserved for his siblings further east.

The pumpkins are out in all their plumpness. And if, like me, you enjoy the national color of this blog, you’re in for a treat, because it’s everywhere.  Crunch through piles of raked, dried foliage in your chocolate suede boots, wonder whether you can sneak in a swim for a few days more, and smile as your favorite hot drinks make a comeback at Starbucks. Apples and caramel abound. The soups are hearty, there are spices in the air, and ovens begin their annual overtime. Suddenly, sugar is a friend.

But this time of year isn’t special just for what it offers. It carries the promise of what lies ahead: Halloween costumes and Bingo night. The sparkle of Diwali, the colors, the lamps, the family time, the mithai. Thanksgiving, our annual mini-moon, and another year added to our legal partnership. Bringing home our Christmas tree, stringing lights while drinking eggnog and spiced cider, picking out new ornaments to add to our collection, watching our holiday traditions—The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol—baking brownies and hosting our annual Christmas gathering. Playing Holiday Radio until it comes out of our ears. Singing hymns into the clear, starry night. Spending time with loved ones, exchanging gifts, Christmas Day dinner and the food coma after, and festivities until another year is properly welcomed. All of this, permeated with that delightful winter chill that has us wrapped in light scarves and jackets, with not a snowflake in sight.

This year, our already-busy season is topped with two special family events. The excitement mounts. We trade updates about outfits and coordinate schedules. Calls fly across the globe as we prepare for visitors and make lists of places to take them.  Much lies ahead. We bubble with plans to celebrate. But for now, I’ll enjoy the moment. Watch another leaf drop and the season turn, as I grab the chance to stand still. The pleasure of anticipation is half the fun. But the other half lies in letting the future take its time.

Here’s a toast to the season of rust. As the earth evolves, so must our destinies with it.