Tag Archives: news

Little Life, Giant Joys

5 Jun

Early last year, I began volunteering for a local nonprofit that supports literacy for visually impaired children in developing countries. This is where I was introduced to Sudha. Whip-smart, thoughtful, and uncannily perceptive, Sudha had arrived in the United States from India in 1998. She worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley (surprise, surprise!) until an event occurred that changed her life. Sudha began to lose her sight. The decline was steady and unstoppable, and soon, she could only perceive light and shade, and hazy shapes. Her condition compelled her to quit her profession and I can only imagine how challenging things must have been for the young family.

She took refuge in her immense faith in Sai Baba and spent her days supported and loved by her spouse, daughter, and giant circle of Baba devotees who popped in and out of her home all day to check on her, sing bhajans of praise, and volunteer for worthy causes. A magnet who was never short of goodwill or company, Sudha attracted well-wishers to her by the force of her optimism, faith, and incredible ability to deeply listen to words and the sentiments behind them.

In the course of our work together, we brainstormed, strategized, chatted, laughed and swapped unique cultural nuggets in the manner of people from very different backgrounds. I’d drive her to events, subjecting her to ‘80s American music that must be anathema to someone with a Carnatic vocal background. She’d laugh at my ardent meat-eating ways. I would rant about how most Indians simply don’t consider non-religious charity a part of citizenship. We would talk long and deep about karma, life purpose, and what drove us to believe in an underserved cause. A beautiful singer, she frequently lent her voice and heart to fundraisers for our nonprofit, singing devotional songs that made the audience choke with emotion. I, who didn’t know what a Hari Katha was before we met, was stunned at the energy she generated across the auditorium—not just through her vocal chords, but from a deeper, divine place.

In the later months of last year, I saw much less of her, engaged as I was with family weddings, visits, and travel. This past February, Sudha went to India for eye surgery and treatment, in the hope of improving her condition. The last few months have been a whirl of the everyday, and we weren’t in frequent touch. Until she called 2 days ago. Patiently, she heard all my news, getting excited over the small measure of positive updates I had to share. Finally, when asked how she was, she stated without fanfare–in typical Sudha style—that her surgery had been successful, and she could see her own hand!

Between my exclamations of delight and tears of gratitude and her quiet joy at this restored gift, she asked to see me—for the very first time.
“I want to see you, your face,” she said.
“There’s a lot to see!” I laughingly warned her.
And I haven’t stopped smiling since. We plan to meet next week, along with the wonderful colleague through whom we were lucky to be acquainted, and I can’t wait to celebrate this thrilling blessing that has me sniffling in gratitude and wonder and overall bleeding heart foolishness.

So each time you read about one more horrific rape, or yet another mass shooting, whether the California drought alarms you or the murder of innocents by right wing organizations makes your flesh crawl–or you’ve just had a decidedly crappy day and are perched high on your pity pot–think about Sudha and her miracle, and know that there is joy and justice on god’s good earth.

If you have a message for my friend and colleague, feel free to leave it in the comments space and I’m happy to relay it to her. Now hand me a tissue, will you? Unfortunately, through boon and bane, the consistency of snot remains exactly the same.

*deafening trumpet*

Aah. Much better.

She Shall Have Music Wherever She Goes

16 Feb

I awoke on Monday morning to the blinking light on my phone, telling me an email had arrived. Groggily, I reached out, half-knowing what to expect. “She’s dead,” I said to the Boy, and buried my face in his chest.

It was another email that had arrived the previous Wednesday that started it all. Noorjehan, said the subject, and I wondered what Mum had to say about our maid of a few years. “You remember her, don’t you,” she asked rather unnecessarily, for Noor had shared the story of her young life with me while she swept the floors of my parents’ home. In the blur of lines that followed, Mum wrote that Noor had been set on fire and was in a trauma ward with 92% burns. She had visited her and Noor acknowledged her presence by moving her lips, though no sound emerged. The prognosis was poor and her fastest relief, according to the doctor (whom we know personally) would be through death.

What followed was an interminable week of communication, police statements, counter allegations, accusations of murder vs. self-immolation, testimonies supporting both sides, and a veritable he said-she said circus as a charred woman lay in agony, waiting for death to claim her. I will not go into the details of the case here. They have made headlines in the Times of India, the Mumbai Mirror , the Indian Express,  the DNA, and the Hindustan Times already.  What I will state is how wretched and helpless and horrified I felt and still feel that a woman no older than 27, a mother of four children who was married when she was a mere child herself, lived a life of subjugation and want that ended in this ghastly fashion.

I prayed with a doggedness I am surprised to discover I possess. I resented my comfortable Californian existence that has me so far away from being any use. I sobbed at the memory of that frail, dark woman in the burkha she was forced to wear, even as I waltzed out of my home showing bare legs and open tresses. I am startled at how gutted I feel. How shaken to the core. Most of all, I am angry at myself for making this about me. And I ask you to turn your attention to her and think of her kindly—Noorjehan: self-immolator/burns victim, tired mother, unhappy wife, polite domestic, half-hearted duster of furniture, occupant of a small life few will notice has evanesced.

Rest in peace now, Noor.

Your death has brought me one degree closer to life as it can be.

Phase Two

1 Jan

Happy 2012! Here’s another tale about the good folks at Soonawala Colony. To read The One that Came Before, go here.


At the precise minute the earthquake struck, Silloo Damania was perched on the potty, making a mental checklist of the tasks ahead of her that morning. Must be the Chick Van, she muttered, as the floor began to quiver, but five seconds later, Burjor, newspaper and choy abandoned, was banging on her door, demanding she cut the crap and quit the shit. (Not that she recalls his exact words, but she wasn’t one to let go of some good word play if it were served to her on a ses.)

They gathered in the children’s playground, women in hurriedly wrapped shawls, the men still in their sadras, watching swings sway ominously and the ground rumble like an ogre’s belly. So animated were their numerous opinions on geophysics, that it was several minutes before any of them noticed the tremors had stopped. Of course, not all of them blathered on about the Day of Judgment. Some, like 14-year-old Sanaeya and 16-year-old Daraius, gainfully employed themselves by making eyes at each other and blushing furiously, but let’s turn a blind eye for now, shall we?

They trooped home and a gaggle of the most opinionated voices congregated at the Pardiwalla home to watch the news.  Scenes of devastation sprang to life behind the anchor, who announced in near-frenzy that an earthquake in Kutchh had wiped out villages and many of their denizens. A hush descended on this usually noisy group. Shrieks and cries of despair rent the semi-arid land and home to thousands now meant only the endless sky with its benign January sun. Nature had taken a bite of earth and snacked on it with Marie biscuits at breakfast.  You could see its teeth marks where the ground had split. The residents of Soonawala Colony, like the rest of Bombay, hung suspended between horror and disbelief, with the occasional tear cruising down an unaware cheek.

After an hour of repeat telecasts and frequent switching between Star News and Doordarshan  that drove Banoo’s glaucoma-accursed eyes batty, the phone rang and Homyar Pardiwalla walked over to answer it. A 5-minute conversation that 12 neighbors intently listened in to ensued.  Homyar ended the call to announce that Jamasp Patel, chairperson of the colony association, was rounding up a group of able young men to accompany trucks of supplies to affected areas. A cheer went around the room as the men, who had hitherto ventured only as far as Udwada for their annual pilgrimage, welcomed the idea of rumbling off into nebulous clouds of dust to assist their countrymen.  A round of tea was eagerly accepted and “Planning the Mission” began in right earnest.

In the midst of the chatter and raised voices, sat Dolat from the ground floor, listening silently, a knob of discontent growing ever larger in her throat.  Never married and in her early fifties, she shared a flat with her younger sister Persis, cooking and keeping home while the latter went to work. It was a quiet existence, but not a lonely one, surrounded as she was by friends and neighbors from her childhood, but lately, Dolat had begun to get a sense of having missed out on life. Satellite television was her bridge to the world beyond the colony and she wanted a taste of the action for herself. “I’ll go too,” she said evenly, her voice belying the burbling she felt in her stomach’s pit, and drew a deep breath in anticipation of a response.

The clamor continued. They hadn’t even heard her. Food packages, antibiotics and warm clothing were being zealously discussed, and you’d have to be a foghorn to be heard. “I will come too,” she tried again, and this time they turned. The Wall of Voices collapsed on her slowly, brick by dissenting brick, logic and reason crumbling to dust under its red onslaught and Dolat stared in seeming resignation ahead of her.

The day of departure dawned all too quickly, and after two days and nights of ceaseless activity, in which every man, woman and child played a part, the trucks and their occupants were ready to roll. Leading the pack of do-gooders was Jamasp, with Homyar and Dara as his able assistants. Khushroo, Feroz and their “gang” that hung out until the wee hours, racing bikes on Marine Drive and risking the ire of police and parents alike, provided back-up support and muscle power, as they searched the crowd for the impressed faces of Soonawala Colony’s waifs. Packages and sacks had been hauled on to the trucks the previous night, the men cursing quietly at the heavier loads. Saying their goodbyes and waving to adoring fans, they climbed on, and engines roared to life. The convoy edged out of the parking area, winding onto the street and as the men settled in for a long ride, no one noticed a tiny corner of a rather curvy gunny sack lift itself up and take a quick gulp of air before subsiding into the potatoes again.