Thursday, October 30, 2008

What’s with the pleasantries?

In summer of 2007, one of my aunt and uncle visited us in New York. Over breakfast on a Saturday morning, as I gave my husband my share of samosa and thanked him for it, my uncle questioned the needless gratitude. He pointed out something pertinent. “You over use thanks.” He wasn’t far from the truth. If I was the one giving away my share, what was I being thankful for? It’s not that my husband expected a “thanks” from me. Did I just say it without thinking because politeness is pointlessly engrained in me (and most of us desis)? End of the day, we are all creatures of habit.

The philosopher in me took my uncle’s comment to another level of introspection and interrogation. I started analyzing our desi “verbal exchanges” under a microscope.

So, I was in India two weeks ago. Okay, I truly believe that Asian hospitality and services are probably the best in the world. In an airplane, the food, the service, the crew is truly there to serve you. Even in economy class, you are treated like borderline royalty. But, there is that problem of unrequited social graciousness—passengers don’t always listen to the flight crew’s directives.

Here is what happened: In a three-seater in front of me, a family of four was seated; a man refused to wear his seat belt; despite repeated reminders, majority on the people in the plane switched on their cell phones just as the plane landed in New Delhi from Mumbai and the list goes on. It’s not like the flight attendants didn’t verbalize the instructions. So, why did these passengers completely disregard them? One of them first apologized and then literally begged a passenger to remove her luggage from the overhead cabin due to her baggage size. The passenger replied in the negative and suggested the stewardess move it herself. I remember thinking, “You do this in New York, and FBI agents will greet you in an unpleasant way.” Anyway, the stewardess lugged the heavy baggage awkwardly out of the overhead locker and hauled it in front of the passenger’s seat and ended her statement with a “sorry.”

I believe that the flight attendants in some way are like marines—simmering with poise and eloquence. Not obeying their orders isn’t an option. They could take you down for endangering the safety of the crew or fellow passengers. I don’t think I felt that confident energy on the flight. As a result, in their deranged and unique ways, all of these passengers jeopardized the wellbeing of people onboard. Needless to say, my sense of safety, on a scale of 1 to 10, was about zero at this point.

Here is the problem from my perspective: right from the time the flight attendants made the announcements to the time they asked people to remain seated until the flight reached the tarmac, there was no authority in their voice. They were beseeching people. C’mon, hospitality is one thing but desperate urging is a different issue. The flight crew shouldn’t be apologetic about doing their jobs.

My uncle was right; us desis are too quick to let words like sorry, thanks, and please flow out of our mouths -- even when not required. This can be misconstrued as a weakness. Nothing wrong with being gracious, but to my uncle’s point, it should be time and action appropriate. Politeness can overkill. On a deeper level, do we mean any of these pleasantries as we use them or is it just another item on our list of socially approved behavior or maybe a mode to avoid confrontation?

More until next time.

Copyright © 10.30.2008

“How clever you are, my dear! You never mean a single word you say.” --Oscar wilde

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Taking the good with the bad…

Sorry about missing last week’s blog post. I was in India and had minimum access to the internet. Thank you for all the emails enquiring about the skipped post. This trip in particular was an enriching experience.

Right before I left for India, my brother visited us from Singapore. Over Dussehra meal, we got nostalgic and talked about India. He said something pertinent. “The foreigners take the good with the bad when they visit India; it’s desis who throw tantrums.” I couldn’t agree with him more. My American friends, who have traveled to India, expressed their unease with the slums in Mumbai and the free-roaming monkeys in New Delhi, but in the same breath, praised the country for its food, energy, culture, warmth, and people.

I have seen several desis being all courteous towards Caucasian stewardesses in the airplane, but the minute they land in India, they think it’s their birthright to be rude. How about folks who try to impress people with their gum chewing abilities? These Neanderthals don’t think twice before littering up the Indian airports with the gum wrapper, but in the west, they carefully place their hands inside of trash bins to organize the garbage. It bothers me when people, who make India trips once every five years, whine about the country. I am sorry, but they haven’t taken the time to feel and enjoy the essence of India. What they judge India is by the weak infrastructure. I agree we reek of third world, but in some ways, aren’t we all responsible for it?

My husband and I once had the misfortune of sitting next to this “wannabe American” boy on the plane--a graduate student at one of the schools in Rochester, New York. He was from the streets of Bareily, India. In his two year stay in Rochester, the small town idiot acquired an American accent and forgot Hindi completely. He was surprised that my husband and I were interested in Bollywood or spoke any Hindi. He then said something, which made me want to beat him to a pulp. “When I land in Delhi, my sister, bro-in-law, and I will go to a club. My parents can go home. Who wants to just sit at home with them?”

I wonder what kind of deprived lives such people led when they lived in India. Do they believe that they sound debonair and modern by ridiculing their own country? In today’s day and age, people run back to their roots in search of distinctiveness. These bunch of desis are so quick to relinquish their identity.

I am not saying India is perfect. I, for one, disagree with a lot of our traditions and the systems in place, but that doesn’t give me the right to loathe India. I know corruption rules the country and the economic divide is appalling; however, no country or culture is perfect. It’s impossible to believe that there is nothing good about one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Where else in the world would a random stranger walk up to you, hug you, and say “God bless you, beta. You are so nice.” I am sure it could happen in the west, but then the urge to run for your life would supersede any other emotions. Only in India will people welcome you into their homes at 12a.m. and offer to serve a meal. In India, not for a single moment does loneliness visit you; with all the comforts and modernism in the west, even in a crowd, you are accompanied by solitude.

I believe it’s not India that needs to change; it’s the Indian attitude that needs readjustment. A lot of Indians are too quick to badmouth their own country because it doesn’t match the comforts of the west. Is that a legitimate rationale?

Maybe I have matured with age or my recent trip is the true muse for this post or maybe the Diwali preparations have me sing India’s tunes. Whatever be the reason, I have come to realize that I love India for what it is—take the good with the bad.

More until next time.

Copyright © 10.23.2008

"When I die India will be found engraved on my heart"--Queen Mary

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Whose side are you on?

So, a couple of weeks ago, a bunch of us drove up to the Finger Lakes for the weekend. One of my best friends goes to Cornell, so my husband and I stayed with him in Ithaca. Our trip coincided with the fateful evening of the first presidential debate of 2008, on September 26th.

When we reached my friend’s place at 1a.m., he looked wired—full of fretful energy. If he was a teenager, I would have assumed that he had inhaled paint fumes; since he is an adult, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. My dear friend had consumed politics a little too personally. He seemed agitated that evening because Barack Obama was declared the winner of the debate. Just so you know, my friend is more passionately anti-Obama than he is pro-John McCain. He’s on a mission to open people’s eyes about “Obama’s lies and deceit.” My cheekiness didn’t help things either. I kept saying, “I can see Russia from my house,” in an Indian-Prairie accent. It hurt more than when the vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin said it.

Anyway, the weekend, aside from wine tasting and gormandizing on food, involved discussions over the current election scenario in the US and the perfect choice for the presidential candidate. Amazingly, all the participants (my friend, my husband, my friend’s French roommate, and I) in the room were ineligible to vote. It goes to show how much these elections matter to each one of us regardless of our status in the country.

Sure, in the moment of passion, I was expressive in my satirical humor towards Sarah Palin. Why wouldn’t I be? Her ridiculous attempts to prove her familiarity and credentials with foreign policies were almost blasphemous. In India, I can see dogs and cows from my house. That doesn’t make me an expert veterinarian or a zookeeper. Not to forget, her classic interview with Katie Couric. Palin couldn’t answer Couric’s one basic question (repeated thrice with exasperation) about quoting specific examples of when McCain pushed for regulation in his political career of 26 years. Her response was, “I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you.” Did Palin believe that she was a polite, diligent employee in a suburban store and Katie was a customer asking for gourmet ham? What kind of response was that? I guess her overall choice for words, “Doggone it,” and “betchya,” aren’t too classy either.

My friend thought I condemned Sarah Palin because I am different from her. My inability to relate to her “hard life,” middle-class vocabulary, and mannerisms made be skeptical of her. He felt I didn’t understand what Palin represented—a self-made woman who was the first from her family to go to college and work two jobs while I got to travel to Europe as a child and study at an Ivy-League.

He couldn’t be far from the truth. No one knows hardships better than an Indian woman. We are torn between two extreme cultures, demanding roles, societal obligations, and our split personalities (one for the older generation, one for our friends, one for our coworkers, and one for the generation younger than us). We constantly struggle to let all these personalities coexist in one body and that too with a smile. So just because Palin chose the life she did, I don’t think I need to “understand” where she comes from. She made her choices; our choices are made for us.

I am not appreciative of Palin because she seems unfit for the position. She lacks the experience and the diplomacy required for the job. Sure she looks hot, but we aren’t talking about vice-presidential candidate for Playboy here! Do we want another person like President George Bush to learn on the job at our expense? While these politicians decide our fates with their experiments, we, the public (pawns), spend sleepless nights fearing our jobs and mortgage payments. People who live in New York can relate to my plight as it’s a truth we deal with on the subway, at work, at home, and on the streets.

Why just deride Palin? Vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden has been unkind to Asian Indians with his racial slip. No amount of apology can convince me that he is not a bigot. Call me arrogant, but Asian Indians are one of the most influential minority communities in the US, and I am proud of it. We work hard to go to an Ivy-League or travel to Europe for that matter. Who cares if Biden won the vice-presidential debates! The democrats lost a few Asian Indian votes because of Biden's insensitive sense of humor.

The November elections in the US have become a global point of anxiety and concern. I am not a political fanatic. I base my opinions on candidates depending on their viewpoints on the issues that matter to me. I have to say, Obama’s unconfident stutter and McCain’s excessive use of “My friends,” at the second presidential debate made me nervous.

Honestly, if I had my way, Bill Clinton would still be the president of the United States. Since that won’t happen, I got to pick from the available line up. I have been invited to several informal fund-raisers, and I have attended none of them --maybe because I don’t support any of the candidates totally. I wonder if I am relieved because I can’t officially vote. From my perspective, the choices available are a compromise. That said, I am curious, who are you rooting for?

More until next time.

Copyright © 10.09.2008

"When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I'm beginning to believe it." ~Clarence Darrow

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What does success mean to you?

So, it’s been a little over a month since my first book of poems, Pabulum, got published. Anyway, like any event in life, my journey with Pabulum has been a fascinating one— along with bumps and blocks, it’s been an enriching experience on multifarious levels. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. No. Not even for a cup of coffee with George Clooney:-)

I am definitely exhilarated about the release of the Indian edition over the next few weeks. Not to forget, the book party my husband has organized for this coming weekend. After all, I am a newbie (as Dr. Cox from my favorite sitcom, Scrubs, would say) in the publishing world. Every little action has a high energy reaction from me.

So, several people have asked, “How is your book doing?” A fair question. I am no saint; of course I love it when a copy sells and people tell me they enjoy my work. I was ecstatic last week to read my first review online. It was the most “real moment” in my entire voyage. Having said that, it’s funny how emotions evolve in a moment and the perspective on “success” changes.

A week ago, my older niece, Diya, who is nine and a half years old, gave me the most heartwarming accolade. She said, “Bua, (which means “aunt” in Hindi) I read Pabulum three times in just five days. It’s awesome. When will you publish your second book? Please, please this year. Then you will become famous!” Incredible, right? Not just that. She wants to take my book to her school to show it to her friends. I mean, a nine year could simply choose to read Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew, or emulate Hannah Montana, but my niece chose to read my book. Not just once but thrice. Cloud nine has a whole new meaning in my dictionary. Funnily, it’s not like she understood all of the poems either but that didn’t deter her.

A friend’s little daughter made a bookmark with beads and painted my name on it--as a congratulations gift. That bookmark will always remain one of my most prized possessions. I am nervous using it as I dread wrecking it.

What else? My dad was the first one to officially “buy” my book and launch the celebrations. My mom treated my cousins to dinner to commemorate my small success. My mother-in-law cracks up every time she reads the poem on “Bollywood.” She likes to think I wrote that particular poem for her—given her hilarious obsession with Bollywood. My sister-in-law (brother’s wife) wants to organize a book reading in Singapore when we visit them next year; my other sister-in-law (husband’s sister) was more thrilled about getting my book in the mail than she was about receiving the clothes we sent for her newborn baby.

My brother and brother-in-law have made fun of the name of my book, over and over again, which means a lot to me—it’s their way of showing they care. What can I say; we are a riot of a mad, loving family.

My husband changed his iPod touch’s screensaver from some manly-testosterone-exhibiting- sporty image to my book’s cover. He was the first one to get my book autographed. He did the whole “formally standing in line” with a pen thing.

Most friends and extended family have been an incredible pillar of support and encouragement-- some were the inspiration behind Pabulum; while others ensured that I never forgot my aspirations. Whether it’s the “congratulations parties,” “a toast to your book,” “I am totally buying your book,” or “I’ll try and adjust the babysitter’s schedule to join for the celebrations,” all the gestures hold a special place in my heart. A friend, knowing my love for poetry and Broadway, gifted us tickets to “Romantic Poetry,” an Off-Broadway Show for tonight.

All these folks know that I am no Jane Austen or Virginia Wolf. Writing might be my passion, but I have a day job (the one that pays the bills), so there is only so much time and energy I can dedicate to my word passion. Several of them have heard me say what I didn’t like about Pabulum or how I wish I could change things about it or how I see a world of a difference between my first book and manuscript for the second (I have an offer from a publishing house for the second book). Yet, without a question, people have celebrated or bought my creation. It’s not the monetary aspect attached to the purchase; it’s the feelings and time they vested to dive into my colorful world. In a world of information overdose, people took out the time to indulge Pabulum. They had faith in my dreams when I was hesitant. So, thank you.

The writer in me knows I have miles to go, but the philosopher in me knows that the expedition will be barren without all the people in my life. This milestone in my life has revealed the truth behind relationships and the ways in which success can be measured. I realize that I assess my accomplishment and gratification with human sentiments more than sales numbers.

More until next time.

Copyright © 10.02.2008

“He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realise.” Oscar Wilde