Thursday, December 23, 2010

As I celebrate my one-year anniversary of freedom

It’s that time of the year when majority of people party and pause in the same breath. They take out a notepad (mental or literal) and make a list of New Year resolutions. And few even tally if they truly followed up with last year’s determination. It’s that feeling of control. That adrenaline rush that comes from the hope: The ability to change the upcoming year. To have learnt from the mistakes of the past year. To make your life better.

I, for one, take my list of resolutions very seriously. Maybe because I am a planner. I am an artist at heart but a professional at mind. I need structure. I work better if I have goals laid out for me, both personal and professional. I like to hold myself accountable for my efforts. Some don’t get why I thrive the way I do because unlike them, my dreams and desires aren’t borrowed. I make the effort to find my own world, not live in someone else’s shadow.

Who does that you wonder? We all know women who get their husbands to buy them nice cars, handbags, diamonds, and houses ONLY because someone in their universe got it. We all have met men who chastise successful women just because their wives are incompetent or not driven. I feel sadness, not anger, towards such people. Often times, people with bigger wallets have smaller minds and even tinier hearts to accommodate anything that’s against their grain of familiarity.

Anyway, about a year ago, close to this time, I had made the decision to quit my traditional, day job in marketing to pursue my dream of becoming a full-time writer. It’s not a decision that I made overnight. It was one of the items on my list of New Year resolutions, which I shared with only a handful of people. Call it self-preservation. This way, if it happened, you saw it; if it did not, well, I could avoid the questions.

In this year, I have discovered myself both as a writer and a human being. Writing makes you very aware of your surroundings. And you might not always like what you find out. But along with the hypocrisy, inadequacy, and delinquency of my world, I have seen the value of true friendships and relationships.

God and many people have been kind. I feel humbled by whatever each one of them has done for me. Though quite a few chose to be around when the glamorized aspect of being a writer was on display; many of them were there through thick and thin. Those days when I was unsure of my future, these bunch of folks put their lives on hold to just hear me. And sometimes, all we want is for someone to lend us an ear. A special shout out to all of those generous humans in my life. You know who you are.

Time and commitments have taught me, like other writers and artists, to look past comments like “So, what do you do when you don’t write? Like your real job.” A couple of days ago a high-level professional said to me, “But I thought writers write anytime they feel like.” The old me would have reacted and perhaps justified my choices; the new me used the comment as an anecdote in this blog post. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn ya. J

Every one seems to have a suggestion on how a writer should lead their life. The number of hours they should spend. The content. The list is endless. I don’t need others to tell me how to handle my work. Writing is my full-time job. If I have had three book releases this year, several articles, essays, and poems published, and have two books coming out in the next 4-5 months, I must have done something right! Is it a surprise that the creative types are bit of a recluse? If your every move is speculated and judged, would you really want to share what you are dealing with? You live inside a cocoon with a select group.

I gave every single day of 2010 my sweat and blood. I dealt with my share of rejections and personal interjections. I said to a friend the other day that most folks see the finished product or your name on a piece and exclaim, “You are so lucky. How many books in one year.” Just because I don’t whine doesn’t mean I don’t face my own share of troubles and challenges. But I look at it pragmatically: I have twenty-four hours in a day. I could either waste it on people who blabber or use that time to write. I choose the latter. But I have an elephant’s memory, and I don’t forget.

I have come to an understanding that someone who doesn’t have their own dream can rarely appreciate anyone else’s. At the end of this year, I choose to spend my energy on people who haven’t perturbed my night’s sleep. I refuse to waste my breath on the others because “I have miles to go before I sleep.”

More until next time,


Copyright © 12.23.2010

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” 
Eleanor Roosevelt

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Honey, I am home...

So, the Srivastava-Vikram household is a buzz with holiday festivities. Yes, yes, yes, we are back in town from Dubai, India, and Singapore. And I never want to leave home again. Okay, I kid. Not!

Four weeks is a bloody long time to leave your own place even if you spent the entire time working and meeting family/friends. Even when most people are outrageously hospitable, a big part of you yearns for “home.” And home is where your heart is. Or where your butt is comfortably stationed.:-)

I reached NYC on the morning of our wedding anniversary. When my parents called to wish us, my Mom asked what I was doing. I responded, “Hugging every piece of furniture and gadget in my house.” She laughed aloud and said, “I can understand.” I didn’t step out of our apartment for two whole days. My heart wanted to soak in “home.”

My husband reached NYC a week before I did. He called me, “Never again are we doing a trip for longer than two weeks!” Funny, he isn’t the only one who’s said that to me. Over the years, all of our friends and family members (from our generation) have shared the same emotion. Maybe because my husband and I never really had the opportunity to stay away from home for longer than 12 days, we, perhaps, didn’t understand the vulnerability of those words. Believe me, now we do.

The emotions aren’t necessarily a reflection on the experiences of the trip. At least not in our case. In those four weeks, I spent time with most people from my personal universe. Family members and friends went out of their way to shower generosity. They took care of the minutest of things. And we so love them for that. I have come back with irreplaceable memories and resolute decisions.

Even on a professional level, this trip was more gratifying than any other. Despite all that, my husband and I missed home once the two-week mark approached. Something felt strange.

While in Singapore, I saw my two nieces, Diya and Sana, involved with their parents (My brother and sis-in-law) during their winter break. It was so fulfilling to watch them do activities both with my brother and sister-in-law. Sana cooked us breakfast one morning with the help of my brother. Diya wrote the introductory speech for my reading with a few insights from my brother. My sister-in-law made sure the girls finished their assignment or baked with her etc. My sister-in-law’s sister (Deepa) and brother-in-law (Paul) too live in Singapore. I saw the same equation in their house. While Paul made ice cream for the children, Deepa took them to activity classes.

The experiences in Singapore made me realize that my generation is so much more fortunate than my parents in some respects. Most women from our parents’ generation were told to pack their bags and children every summer for three months. They were asked to spend that time with either set of the grandparents. No one asked the woman what she wanted. Or the man if he was okay with not being around his children for an extended period. Needless to say, nobody once considered the children might miss their father. The ritual was followed. Perhaps, it never occurred to anyone that the grandparents too could travel and this way the entire family could still be together. And no one party had to be without their “home” for a long time.

I asked my mother, “How did you spend those many months away from your own home?” She responded, “We didn’t have a choice.” My mother-in-law shared similar stories with me when I was in Bombay, and I felt bad for her. How can anyone own such a significant amount of your time without asking what you desire?

Thank God in today’s world we have that choice to quite an extent. And maybe that’s the reason relationships these days are based on friendships and not a blob of compulsion shoved down your throat. You don’t have to be related by blood to love someone and vice-versa. And end of the day, you have the warmth of your own home keeping you safe.

More until next time,


Copyright © 12.16.2010

Home is a shelter from storms - all sorts of storms. ~William J. Bennett

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Wanted to share

I am in India after a brief stay in Dubai. The flavors of food and words are flirting with my soul. Family and friends are showering my husband and I with indescribable generosity. My head is full of ideas. My heart is itching to write about my voyage (Believe me, I got tons of anecdotes and tales). My laptop and journal are waiting to be drowned under the pressure of my finger tips. So much to tell but such little time. The clock betrays me along with the traffic here. I promise to pen down what's been on my mind. Soon. But until I get the chance to do so, I wanted to share a couple of things with you:

It's a big evening tonight, professionally. But enough about me. For those of you celebrating Thanksgiving, have a wonderful holiday! Enjoy your time with family and friends. And nibble on a piece of turkey for me. I am sad to miss the celebrations this year!

More until next time,


Copyright © 11.23.2010

“Time discovers truth.” Seneca

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I have converted

One of my Nana’s (maternal grandfather) good friend was Muslim. Apparently, one day when my Nani (maternal grandmother) had organized a Satyanarayan Puja, he showed up. She asked him if he wanted the prasad. He accepted it readily with both his hands. But within seconds, he threw the religious offering on the floor, stomped it, and spat on it. My Nana didn’t say anything, but my Nani, who was four feet eleven inches of fierceness, fiery temper, and indescribable beauty, decided to teach this fellow a lesson.

A week later, she told my Nana’s friend that she wanted to visit a mosque. He was thrilled, but informed her that she couldn’t enter the place of worship. My Nani confirmed said she was fine with it and would be happy to see it from the outside. As the three of them drove up to the entrance, my Nani turned to this man and said, “Oh brother, is this where you sacrifice pigs?” My Nana’s friend threw a hissy fit and asked my Nani how she could ever say something so sacrilegious. She retorted back, “The same way you could insult my prasad.”

After that day, the families didn’t speak with each other. My mother’s family grew up with that anecdote deeply embedded in their subconscious. How powerful was that story, you ask. Even decades later, I can regurgitate it as if it happened yesterday. And I can bet you the man’s family wouldn’t ever erase that one interaction with my Nani. As a result, two families of different religious faiths grew up generalizing, stereotyping, and mistrusting “the others.”

Truth is, my Nani and the Muslim man weren’t exceptions in their “judgment” or “reaction” to the other community. At least they had the guts to express (To the other person’s face) what was on their mind, however inappropriate on the social and sentimental front. Every family has its own personal story that it considers sacred and uses it to defend against the “enemies.”

Most people from my parents’ generation were born around the time of India-Pakistan’s partition. It was impossible for them to see the good in another community because of their experiences. And a broken heart is mistrustful and sometimes unintentionally malicious. The potion of hatred was brewed in all homes. People drank from it and passed it on to us. And apparently the same happened in Pakistan.

The first time I realized that we hear only one side of the story, is when one of my Pakistani-American friends narrated the India-Pakistan partition horror to our professors at Columbia University. At first, I was affronted. How dare he badmouth India? We didn’t do any wrong. But as his stories got descriptive, I backed off. They sounded just like what I had heard from Indians. The only difference was that instead of Hindus being victims in his story, Muslims were the suffering characters.

I conceded that it wasn’t just Indian women who were raped or brutalized by the “enemy.” It wasn’t just Hindus who had lost their land or were embittered. When a country is divided, both sides deal with excruciating pain. The British Government then was the master of this puppet show. And they made sure the two sides hated each other with a passion. The young Muslims were told that Hindus killed uninhibitedly while the Hindus were informed that Muslims massacred without a blink.

Because of where we live, the truth presented and often available is only one-sided. We all grow up with baggage. Our parents’ experiences influenced our thoughts. Their stories shaped our opinions. But I wonder if they blinded us, even if partially?

Our ancestors were a part of the history that cost them their loved ones and homes. It won’t be easy for them to forgive, forget, and move on. But what about us? We still have the time to make a difference. Can we move past the notion that every Hindu is a Shiv Sena representative, every Muslim is an Islamic fundamentalist, or every Christian is on a mission to convert the weakest link?

Isn’t it our responsibility to make an effort to blindly not accept everything presented to us? Our parents didn’t have the same exposure as we do. Thanks to them, we are well educated, well traveled, and well read. So why are we fooled by the games of politics every single time? Why do we fall prey to the guile of riot-causing, home-wrecking, people-burning, self-centered politicians? It is in their best interest that religion be the choice of weapon. If there is anyone in the world enjoying deaths and differences, it’s people in power.

A friend said to me, “What? You like Pakistanis more?” I replied, “I don’t have such a big heart, yet. But I am learning to not label all of them as murderers out to get Indians. I am trying to see the difference between the Pakistani government, whom I still don’t trust, and the Pakistani populace.”

Some one dear to me recently shared that their closest friends, who happen to be Pakistanis, are petrified about moving back to Pakistan. This couple has boys of impressionable age. The parents aren’t sure how the government and school will tamper with the kids’ minds and show them the “wrong” way. As far as I see, the government is causing the mess even in Pakistan, like other countries.

Why can’t we choose to absolve humans of the religious faith they were born into? Most of us weren’t born into acceptance, but we have to at least make an honest effort to break the shackles of bigotry. Shouldn’t we stop punishing today’s generation for the mistakes committed by their forefathers?

When I was talking to a writer-friend in London the other day, she said, “I like what you write. Your voice and the force of truth.” I said to her, “I discover myself and the world around me with writing. And it’s not always pretty. It’s not a surprise my husband thinks I will be on the death list of "people" before I turn forty.” I am unsure if I should add a smiley or a sad face at the end of that last sentence.

More until next time,


Copyright © 11.10.2010

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

We need writers, not politicians, to make the world a better place, I think!

I have heard many people say that Arundhati Roy should focus on what she knows best: Literature. Politics isn’t her field, and she should restrict her opinions to books and writing. Okay, here is my question: As a citizen of democratic India, doesn’t she have the right to her opinion just like any of us, including the people who made this ludicrous suggestion? She didn’t instigate a criminal act. Are folks so generous with their dislike because she is a writer who knows her words and can articulate her thoughts better than most of the nation’s uneducated, biased, and corrupt politicians who have only their personal agendas at stake? Or is it because the majority fears a thinker will nudge the populace out of their comfort zones?

My mother has always said, “It’s your thoughts that make you modern, not your clothes.” Today when I look at the Indian middle class, I understand exactly what she means. News headlines all over the globe predict that the Indian middle class is expected to lead the world economy by 2025. Impressive, right? I too was proud about all this growth until I realized that some changes are only superficial. And growth is a loaded word. It seems modernism is equated with the brands stocked in wardrobes, or the cars driven, or the vacations taken. What about thinking?

I have met socialites in Pune who confessed they wanted non-Maharashtrians to move out of their state. Of course, they admitted their feelings in a drunken state of stupor; they were courteous to the *outsiders* while sober. It makes me wonder if all this exposure has taught this ever-expanding segment to camouflage their dislikes better. They pretend to be liberal, but are closeted conservatives who want to censor and ban anything that they don’t have an appetite for.

Aditya Thackeray made sure Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey, was banned from the syllabus of University of Mumbai because he thought the book reflected poorly on his state and family. A twenty-two year-old boy, not professors, decides what the entire second year students at the university should read because he’s related to a powerhouse? Are we so self-centered that we have no room for respecting an opinion when we don’t agree with it? Is nationalism confused with patriotism and leads to a display of vandalism?

We have made a mockery of ourselves in front of the world by calling ourselves the world’s largest democracy. Again, no one is saying that you have to agree with Arundhati. I don’t for sure. But vandalizing her home because you don’t appreciate her thought process reflects small-mindedness. Or excluding Mistry’s book is a gross display of ignorance and abuse of power. Because people didn’t get what the two writers had to say, they tried to silence them! God, is this world a high school and all the players delinquents who want their egos petted?

My father worries about my provocative and cynical writing (Click here to see the latest). Don’t for a moment think that he’s isn’t proud of me. But as a father of an Indian woman, he fears for my safety. I didn’t quite understand his “warnings” until the whole Arundhati Roy episode happened. I can no longer blame him. In a country where the majority doesn’t like to be intellectually challenged or defend the right to freedom of speech, democracy will always go to the highest bidder. The super hit goon movie, “Dabangg” and record sales of badly written books are a testimony to the infallible taste of the Indian middle class.

On Tuesday evening, I attended Terror-Stricken: Benefit Against Islamophobia. It was an intimate evening with words and wine, to say the least. Amitava Kumar, finalist for the biggest literary prize in India, and Hari Kunzru, one of Granta's top 20 writers under 40 had a compelling discussion with Faiza Patel, Counsel in the Liberty and National Security Project at the Brennan Center for Justice. I can’t even begin to explain how much I learnt in one evening. Did I agree with everything that was said? Maybe not. But that’s not a reflection on the panelists or the audience. They were all brilliant! But it was enlightening to hear different stances on the same issue. Disagreeing while respecting someone else’s viewpoint. Reaffirming Voltaire’s words: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”

At dinner that evening, a writer and a new friend said to me: “As writers it is our responsibility to stand up for our beliefs, express our opinion, and fearlessly raise questions. Cynicism might be a shield to protect ourselves.” I agree with her. We offer what the world lacks most: Perspective. It might not always be easy. And often, owning a spine might involve risk (Sorry, Papa). But you know what, we owe it to the human race which is simmering inside a broth of prejudice. Honestly, I can’t imagine some one else doing a better job, especially when politicians around the world are very happy to milk ignorance and create rifts for their bloody benefits!

More until next time,


Copyright © 11.04.2010

“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Joan Didion

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The world’s largest democracies are screwed up

Section I

Not too long ago when a Jewish colleague of mine said, “I love the holidays,” I responded, “You mean Christmas?” She retorted, “I don’t celebrate Christmas! I am not Christian; it’s the holidays for me.” When I said, “I would like to visit your synagogue,” she looked surprised. “Sure. But you will have to seek permission from the rabbi. Maybe get a letter?” I was taken aback. All I wanted to do was learn about a religion I didn’t grow up with. Why the automatic assumption that I was up to something?

When I said to a friend recently, “India is truly a secular country,” she looked confused. Being an American, she knows that America was built on religious freedom. How could any country beat that? I told her that religious tolerance and acceptance were not really the same thing.

Unlike India, there aren’t many countries where people are involved in inter-faith holidays: Muslims in India celebrate Holi and Diwali. Hindus await platters of biryani and sevai on Eid from their Muslim friends. I remember my mother baking cookies for Christmas and hanging stockings for Santa to leave us presents. The finger-licking food at gurudwara was to die for. And most of us grew up visiting gurudwaras, churches, and temples. Despite all the other political and inter-faith chaos, when it comes to festivals, Indians don’t care which faith you are born into.

In my yoga studio, a South Korean place focused on breathing and energy balancing, there are laminated charts depicting the significance of each chakra. One of the yoga postures requires everyone in the class to turn their body at an angle. And it so happens that turning at that angle ends up in you bowing to the laminated chakra illustrations. Frankly, I didn’t notice anything unusual on the wall until two middle-aged women refused to complete the asana. When the yoga teacher asked them the reason, they said, “We can’t pray to the God you have on the wall.” Amazing how someone shows up for yoga without knowing what “chakras” mean! But in any case, can you argue with someone who believes that appreciating another faith makes you less loyal to your own?

I wonder if religions in the US, in their quest of being exclusive, forget to become inclusive. We might have carved out a place for different religious faiths on paper, but have we made room in our hearts for them? We have been so busy, for generations, preserving traces of our own heritage that we never truly learnt to accept someone else’s. And tolerating and embracing are not the same thing!

Celebrating Diwali or Eid or Chanukah won’t make you any less Hindu or Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or Christian, but it will make you more open-hearted and compassionate. It can bring you closer to a culture other than your own.

The other problem is that we sometimes give each other a little too much space. We are too different and have too many differences of opinions on God. But we fear asking the wrong questions and offending people. Curiosity is the foundation of growth. This obsession with “I,” “Me,” and “Myself” ideology is manifesting misconceptions and stereotypes. End result: The distance between dissimilarities is growing at a rate faster than closeness through similarities.

Look at the mess we are in today. How can a nation truly emerge victorious from an emotional and religious crunch unless it teaches its citizens the true meaning of acceptance?

Section II

The first time I watched Saturday Night Live and one of the late night (Maybe Jay Leno or David Letterman) news show in New York, the then president of the country was being made fun of. I was shocked and impressed in the same breath. I had never seen anything like that in India. Sure, in the movie “Roja,” the female protagonist alluded to the 1989 kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed and her release in exchange for five terrorists. But that was the extent of it.

You must have read about the latest brouhaha consuming India. Author-activist Arundhati Roy might be facing “sedition charges” for backing Kashmir’s independence. BJP suggests that Roy should be hanged because she said, “Jammu and Kashmir was never an integral part of India and that British imperialism was replaced in 1947 by Indian colonialism.”

Roy might be arrested for voicing her opinion? I am baffled. I bet she’s not the first person to utter anti-government and pro azaad-Kashmir words. So, why her? Because she is a woman and a famous writer, so it’s easy to single her out and attack her?

People don’t have to agree with what Roy has to say. Hell, they don’t have to like what she says. As a person of Indian origin, I don’t fancy Roy’s stance or necessarily agree with her. But one can express our disagreement in a civil way. How can anyone deny her the freedom of speech—something that India guarantees its citizens? How can anyone suggest silencing her? Isn’t that against democracy? As Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”

New and Renewable Energy Minister and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah said there was 'too much freedom' in India, which is being misused to 'destroy' the nation. Umm, interesting. Instead of worrying about what one person has to say, shouldn’t Abdullah be anxious about the one billion people behaving as dimwits? Shouldn’t he be concerned that in a country of above-average academic intelligence, the majority lacks the innate willingness to evaluate and process information thrown at them?

I am given the argument that freedom of speech and responsibility go hand-in-hand. But I ask a basic question: How much is “too much” freedom? And who decides the limits of liberty? Politicians with only their personal interests at stake? Writers who want their voices heard? Or millions of people who wear goulashes of callousness?

I am sorry, but a nation that doesn’t permit its citizens to say what’s on its mind can never truly progress. One man’s terrorist is another man’s martyr. If Raja Ram Mohan Roy had chosen to be silent like the rest of the society, Hindu widows in India would still be following the heinous practice of sati! If activists hadn’t spoken against dowry and bride burning, dead women would adorn the streets of India.

The younger generation needs to be taught to examine and interrogate. We are so blinded by our day-to-day lives that we forget that our brains can accommodate more than math problems, Bollywood dialogues, and cricket statistics. Parents and teachers need to encourage inquisitiveness not shun it. Questioning the older generation doesn’t mean you are disrespecting them. Disagreeing with adages doesn’t make you any less of an Indian.

The changes have to be brought at the grassroots level in both India and the United States. To quote a friend, “Pity the nation that has to silence its writers. Pity the nation that's afraid of dissent.” I will add to that: Pity the nation that practices selective democracy. Pity the nation that is afraid of opening its heart and mind.

More until next time,


Copyright © 10.28.2010

“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.” – Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Confessions of a New Yorker: “I am glad I left America when I did.”

When I was in London last week, my friend, Tony, said to me, “I am glad I left America when I did. The situation there has become disgusting!” I got defensive and my faced turned red (The same color when a non-Indian makes *nasty* remarks about India). I swallowed my anger along with a sip of wine and asked his reason behind such an accusation. Tony said, “You guys are so blindly influenced by your media that you forget to use your own judgment.” If possible, I got more cynical and told him to articulate his issues. I was loud and lived up to the global image of a rambunctious American.

Tony asked what I thought about the Islamic Center in New York City—the one that’s been in the news for months now. I have even blogged about it. Never shy to express my views, I told him I was against the Islamic Center or any other religious institution. In my eyes, religion has no place near Ground Zero. Only humanity should be given a room. He went on to ask if I was okay with mosques being built in the United States. I snapped, “Of course. America was built on religious freedom. People of every religious faith should be allowed to build their places of worship. I think it’s ridiculous that the pastor in Florida even suggested burning the Koran.” To his credit, Tony recognized that I didn’t categorize all Muslims as terrorists.

He then changed his line of questioning. “If you are okay with mosques being built anywhere in the US, why not the proposed site?” I told him that the suggested location was too close to Ground Zero. He chuckled, “How close is too close and how far is too far for you? Two blocks, twenty blocks, or two cities?” I didn’t have a concrete answer for him. I went on to rave about New York’s resilience and New Yorkers’ untainted attitude.

Tony looked at me blankly. After a few quiet minutes, he said, “If you think New Yorkers are that open-minded, why do you think people are opposing building an Islamic Center, which would basically be like a YMCA?” I knew I had the answer for this one. My haughtiness was evident in my tone as I defended my peeps, “Why provoke people? Their wounds are still raw. If the Germans decide to build a shrine in Jerusalem today, even with the best of intentions, do you think there will be no resistance from the Jewish populace? We are humans, and it’s not always easy to forget.” By now Tony had poured himself another glass of wine (We both knew this was going to be a long night) and said, “See, that’s the problem with America; you guys pigeonhole everyone. You automatically assumed all Germans are Nazis just like most Americans assume all Muslims are terrorists.”

His last few words turned me numb. I realized he wasn’t wrong. I might be a left-leaning, super-liberal, religiously tolerant-writer, but somewhere, my ability to trust another human has diminished both on big and small issues.

I have friends from various religious faiths, including Islam, and religious identity has never been criteria for my friendship. So what was this knotted feeling? Many of my friends have confessed to me that the minute they see a man with a beard or skullcap, they give the attire a *thought*. They don’t intentionally want to do it; their subconscious mind just does it for them. Where do these doubts stem from?

Has media sowed most of these malignant seeds of suspicion? America is very contained and limited with what its people see. I am not sure if it’s because of it’s ideologies or geography. I mean, how many foreign news channels do we get to watch? Or television shows? How many international perspectives are offered to us? It could be argued that people in other parts of the world too watch limited foreign television. But is that true? I compare apples to apples when I say that my friends in Europe watch as much BBC as they do CNN. They have a benchmark for comparison and variety of media outlets to follow. But we don't have that here. "World news" is pretty much news beyond the five boroughs of New York City. Over a period of time, do we begin to believe whatever is drilled into our heads because we aren't really exposed to options?

My hairstylist, a wonderful woman from New England, actually said to me just last afternoon: “I don’t think any of these people from Middle America have ever met a Muslim. But the television channels have provided them with biased information against Islam. In their heads they have figured they need to hate Muslims or anyone with a beard.” She didn’t stop there. She admitted that she doesn’t watch the news any longer because she doesn’t trust the media. She said, “It’s all a conspiracy theory.”

London and Paris are under higher levels of terrorist threats than the US, yet I never once felt that energy of “Ooh, beard at three o’ clock; he’s out to kill me.” Or, “watch out for that headscarf.” For some reason, Europeans confuse me for an Arab woman, yet every single time I took a train or a bus in London, people offered to help me with my luggage. And I didn’t once ask them for assistance. I never got "the look." It was nice to spend a week loving humanity as opposed to assuming the worst from people.

I am all for precaution and safety, but I don’t appreciate racial profiling. Just the other day, my friend Hena shared a Benjamin Franklin quote with me: "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." Mr. Franklin’s words got me thinking. Where do we draw the line? When is enough truly enough and when is it not?

I didn’t see any random bagpack checkpoints in London or Paris train or bus stations. Remember, the whole 2005 suicide bomber case occurred in London, not New York? I was told by my friends that undercover police was present everywhere in London. Uniformed cops and people from the armed forces patrolled busy areas in both London and Paris, but that was about it. You could approach them. Hell, I asked them for directions because I knew they wouldn’t send me on the wrong road. But the minute you land in JFK, the officials aren’t that welcoming. There is a difference between being professional and being rude. Everyone entering America is judged and looked at with suspicious eyes. I know 9/11 has changed the world we live in, but do we automatically have to assume that everybody is out to get us?

We have to learn to accept that one person or group doesn’t represent the entire religion. The way all Germans aren’t Nazis or all Caucasians aren’t representative of the Ku Klux Klan, not all men with beards and women with headscarves are killers. Muslims too die when the Islamic fundamentalists strike. Haven’t fanatics from other religions committed heinous crimes as well? Looking at world history, Hindus and Christians have enough to be ashamed of.

Whether we openly accept it or not, we are all, to a certain degree, tainted with filth poured by the government and media. Muslims are the target these days of public fear. At one time, America went through this wave of Anti-Semitism. I fear that our inability to trust is fast becoming our biggest handicap. And something needs to be done to rectify this problem sooner than later.

More until next time,


Copyright © 10.21.2010

“We're never so vulnerable than when we trust someone - but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy” ~ Walter Anderson

Friday, October 15, 2010

I am alive and here to tell the tale

In my last blog post, I had hinted at a city I wanted to visit this week while I was in Europe. Given that I was going to be to be in London, for Britain’s first and largest South Asian Literary Festival, I thought I would make a day trip to my artist haven—Paris.

But in the past few weeks (or has it been years?), news everywhere has been scary and bloody negative. France and Germany have issued severe terror alerts and the US has warned its citizens in Europe. Net result: my husband and friends, all with just the sweetest and caring intention, urged me to cancel my visit to Paris.

I think some of their suggestions were based on my experience from nine years ago: My husband and I were in Paris when 9/11 happened. We were sitting in a café on Champs-Elysées when I saw three Arab men flaunting a newspaper. It had the image of a plane going into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I knew something wasn’t right with NYC. Around this time, my husband had walked inside the café to bring us a few napkins. Since the newspaper was in French, I turned to these men and enquired about the story. They all blatantly laughed at me and chuckled at the horrific picture in the newspaper. It wasn’t a friendly giggle; it was pure sinister. One of them said, “You have a Christian accent. We can’t help you.” Before I knew it, tears flooded my face. When my husband returned, I told him what had happened. He read the headlines and told me that America was under attack. I can’t even tell you how helpless we’d felt at that moment.

We rushed back to our hotel. The manager, a wonderful man, comforted us with hot chocolate. He asked us to maintain a low profile, as the danger on America and Americans wasn’t over. When I told him that I was Indian, he said I didn’t sound or look like one, so it was imperative I exercised caution.

I am a very cautious person normally. But I refused to let fear win, again. Or any terrorist threats ruin my plans. I said to my husband and friends that I would make the decision, of whether or not to travel to Paris, only upon reaching London. American media has a tendency to exaggerate the situation. But in all honesty, I had decided to go to Paris come what may. Maybe it was this note from a dear friend right before I boarded my flight for his city: “You don't remind anyone of the typical American (as far as I remember, you're not loud, white, Caucasian or male) :) - so don't worry, just be aware and alert as usual - as you would on the streets of Mumbai or NYC.” Or the fact that at JFK, while waiting to board my flight to London, this woman with a headscarf asked me something in Arabic and looked baffled when I didn’t respond in her language. Or at London Heathrow, two Arab officials asked if I was an Arab. They had a look of disappointment when I said a no. And almost every time I fly a European airline, somehow my name shows up in the “random” checklist. I was convinced I would be safe in Paris.

The first thing I saw when I reached Paris was a strike. Mobs of youngsters and cops crowded the Opera area. There were banners and loud words. But instead of running away, I walked towards the crowd and took pictures of the craziness. I broke my own rule, and it felt good. Later, I met up with a friend for lunch and indulged in French goodness. He told me that these strikes were a part of the French day-to-day, and they weren’t violent. I walked all over the city and went to “that” café on Champs Elysees. I asked an Arab man for directions, and he was rather generous. It brought me closure.

Parisians, overall, were just amazing. And they smiled every time I mispronounced French words but appreciated my effort. I felt no unrest or threat while there.

It was liberating living that one day on my own terms and smelling moments without any biases blinding me. Media has done enough damage. Sadly, it has the power to heavily influence how we perceive people, countries, cultures, and religious faiths in today’s world. You'd think education would show us the right path. But as a dear friend over dinner said today, "Education only teaches us to pretend better."

Often times, we base our opinion on just a singular experience. I wonder how much of this fear psychosis is manifested by governments of different countries. Is it an insidious effort to misdirect attention from their own mistakes?

More until next time,


Copyright © 10.15.2010

“When I am abroad, I always make it a rule to never criticize or attack the government of my own country. I make up for lost time when I come home.” Winston Churchill

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Does my new passport endanger my life?

As promised, I am back with part deux of the story.

Desis often use the Indian passport as an excuse to justify life’s choices. Somebody we know, who makes it a point to be snarky every time my husband and I make travel plans, once told us that the minute they got their American passport, they would indulge in world travels. When I asked why they couldn’t travel on their Indian passport, the guy said, “It is a hassle getting visas.” The expense of visas is a different issue, but that’s not what this man meant. I chuckled internally. Who could explain to this person that the intent to travel precedes the passport you hold in you hand? Sure enough, despite their American passports, this couple has still maintained their travel-route: US – India – US. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to travel; however, it’s not appropriate to hold a country responsible for lack of your own desires.

As I had mentioned in my last post, I was in India recently. On my way back, I flew Turkish Airlines. With a sixty-minute or so layover at Istanbul airport, I was hoping to grab some baklavas and coffee at the airport. I was excited.

But then the flight from Bombay to Istanbul got delayed. Forget stuffing my face with baklavas, I barely had time to grab my carry-on from the airplane. I was so sure I was going to miss my connecting flight to NYC. And that wouldn’t have been fun.

Now let me preface by saying that I love Turkey: Great food, rich culture, tremendous hospitality, and marvelous history. My husband and I were there about five years ago. But whether you like a country or not, being stranded in a foreign nation is no fun.

After sprinting across like a mad dog and going through multiple security checks, I finally reached the travel desk. The gentleman behind the counter, with a warm smile, assured me that I wasn’t late; the flight to NYC was delayed. I decided to breathe. But then he asked me to show my passport. The minute I handed my American passport, the smile on this guy’s face morphed into resentment. He asked me to step aside. And then he shot multitude of questions at me like I was some sort of convict. I was so sure he would not let me board the flight and maybe just detain me forever. I was baffled. The Turks were so nice to us the last time we had vacationed there. Fortunately, while dishing out the third-degree, the official flipped over my Person of Indian Origin Card tied to my passport. I tell you, at that very moment, he gave me a look of “genuine love.” He asked me about India and chatted for a few minutes. I stood shocked through it all.

When I narrated my experience to my co-passenger (She’d worked for one of the American airlines’ for over forty years), she said to me: “It’s sad, but we are not liked in many parts of the world.” For a second I was confused; I couldn’t decipher what “we” represented: Indian or American. Eventually I realized what she meant by “we” and the "responsibilities" this new identity brought along with it. That’s when it dawned on to me, the last time I was in Istanbul I was still considered "an Indian" on official paper. Perhaps that’s the reason the local folks showered such generosity.

I leave for Europe tonight for this huge literary festival. In fact, I am participating in it! I feel humbled for being invited as one of the three chief-guests for VAANI’s book launch.

Anyway, one of the cities that I am visiting on this trip has a high level of terror alert for US citizens. My husband suggested I cancel my trip, but I refuse to live in fear. Maybe it’s my Indian determination or American confidence or adult stupidity, only time will tell. But as I swim through my two identities, I can't help but wonder at the irony – with my Indian passport, countries made it difficult for me to visit them, but I never once had to wonder about my safety when I finally did get the tourist visa. And with my American passport, I am welcomed into all countries, on paper, but in a surreptitious way.

More until next time,


Copyright © 10.11.2010

“The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open” Gunter Grass

Friday, October 1, 2010

All passports come with a baggage—part #1

I believe, a significant number of desis, who move to the United States, have a two-dimensional focus: (a) Get a U.S. passport (b) Have kids in the United States, so if all fails you can still stick around in the country -- thanks to the nationality of their US-born children. In fact, if there are ten desis in a room, conversations about permanent residence and citizenship almost always occur. Often times, “words of advice” accompany drinks and appetizers. But people forget that no two couples are in the same situation; soliciting advice might not be the best measurement of their social skills.

As if enquiries about the value of the house and salaries weren’t bad enough; we are obsessed with other people’s work and visa statuses too?! So much so, even the desi parents visiting from the Indian subcontinent assume it’s part of the social etiquette to ask their kids' friends and relatives about their residence status. I have actually heard a desi mom comfort her daughter because her friend got her green card but she didn’t. I politely wanted to say, “It’s not a competition auntyji, and it’s sad that your immature kids have made you a part of this conversation.”

When my husband and I got our US passports, it was an unsaid rule that we wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. We didn’t think to announce it to the world because there was so much to say yet nothing really. It was a personal moment. But despite our low-key attitude, we were asked insipid questions about our American passports--if we felt any different or if our dream had come true? An Indian woman, in all seriousness, said, “Thank goodness. Now you can feel proud while walking through immigration.”

Giving up our Indian citizenship was an emotional journey that can’t be articulated. Most desis (at least from professional and educated backgrounds) from my generation moved to the US to study or because of a lucrative job opportunity. It wasn’t because we needed to earn money and send it back home or wanted to escape the parental-clutches. Our parents did well for themselves, lived in nuclear families (we always had that "space"), and introduced us to opportunities on a global scale. We are where we are today because of their support and encouragement. And probably that’s why most of us get homesick, even today, after returning from India. See, we didn’t abandon India or our families; we embraced America and newer prospects.

The nationality of your passport doesn’t make you a good or a bad person. It doesn’t change your ideologies. Getting the American passport brings along with it many interesting experiences and responsibilities, similar to any other passport, but sometimes more extreme.

Tune in next week to read about how I was singled out at one of the airports (not in the US) recently because of my American passport. I have to say, it was the most baffling experience of my life!

More until next time,


Copyright © 10.01.2010

“My face is my passport” ~ Vladimir Horowitz

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wanted in India

I love India and the simple complexities and complex simplicities she offers at her airports. Each experience has a novel hidden inside it. Like most people who have voyaged through Indian customs/immigration, I have a few stories stashed under my sleeves.

A couple of years ago, my bag was misplaced on my way to Bombay (Mumbai), India. I tried *lodging* a complaint with the airports authority, but an old uncleji used his, “I am older than you,” line from Bollywood movies from the 70s and made me wait for eternity while he screamed his lungs at frail bodies.

I was stressed, as my trip was ten days long and split between my parents and in-laws, which meant two different cities. Lo and behold, I didn’t receive my bags until after I had visited my parents and returned to my in-laws place to return to NYC. Did I mention that was the bag with the food-related goodies?

When my suitcase finally arrived, I got a call from the airport with rather discreet instructions. While my mom-in-law waited outside, I ventured inside the secret world of customs. My bag looked like a cadaver in a morgue. I heard rodents squeaking or maybe it was nauseating words pouring out of mouths.

Let’s not talk about the guy who asked if I would marry him, so he could get a green card. Or the not-so-gentlemanly gentleman who was convinced I hadn’t been married for as long as I was. I wanted to laugh loudly and cry softly. Finally, after haggling over my bag and incessant probing revolving around matrimonial quests and green card acquisitions, for forty-five minutes, I was given the okay to waltz through the green channel. Seriously, all that for a bag full of chocolates, mixes, sauces, and pastes??

Funny story: This one time, a custom’s officer at Delhi airport tried messing with my brother, who has the world’s most awesome sense of humor. This guy wouldn’t let my brother carry the officially permitted quota of whiskey. He wanted the fancy alcohol left behind, so he could trash it. We all know what “trash” in this case means. My brother, with a serious face, told the customs officer that he would pour out the whiskey in the drain himself, as he didn’t want to break any rules. The officer insisted he leave the bottle behind, but my brother was persistent. Eventually, the public official got flabbergasted and let him go.

But this time around, at immigrations in Bombay, I had a heart-wrenching experience. My immigration form, with “writer” under the occupation field, caught the fancy of the officer behind the counter. He started chatting me up. He wanted to know what kind of writing I pursued and if I had any books out. I was unsure of the amount of sharing, so I took the extra conservative route. He stayed quiet for a few seconds and then confirmed the name of my latest book release. I was bewildered. Where was he getting this information? He looked at my passport and said, “Madam, will you only write for USA or something for India also?” In a defensive (almost guilty) tone I said, “Next year I have a fiction novel coming out in India. Yes, yes, book in India.” He shook his head like a pendulum. The woman standing at the counter next to me wasn’t shy to eavesdrop into our banter. Instead of answering questions asked by another officer holding her passport, she chose to pump up my ego. With my American passport and Indian heart in hand, I smiled at the unanticipated interaction.

The excruciatingly long flight offered me the opportunity to reflect on what had transpired. Is it true that the Indian line of questioning can make you feel wanted? (Whether it’s in a good or a bad way, is a matter of perspective or the situation you are in.) Is that why people are in each other’s business because they really care or am I traversing through the path of biased understanding because I want to believe that?

More until next time,


Copyright © 09.26.2010

“There's nothing like an airport for bringing you down to earth” ~ Richard Gordon

Monday, September 13, 2010

Pakistan floods: why are the donations so low?

Pakistan was hit with a tragedy in late July of this year. The floods have left millions homeless and caused massive devastation. International aid agencies are hoping to prevent an outbreak of water borne diseases. [1]U.N. and U.S. officials declared the Pakistan flooding to be worse than the 2004 Asian tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake combined. Yet, the donations made to Pakistan are disappointing lower compared to any of the recent disasters in history.

I first noticed the unusually slow reaction to Pakistan floods on Facebook newsfeed. Remember how our online world responded to the earthquake in Haiti? Or even the 2008 Mumbai bombings? I have friends, who volunteered to work in Haiti and lived under harsh conditions. But I detected that just a handful of people on Facebook talked about the disaster in Pakistan or urged others to donate.

Intrigued by the online behavior I started to ask around. I wanted to know if people had sent money to Pakistan. Or if they even intended to. It’s been a few weeks, and I haven’t even heard ten positive answers.

So, why the poor donation? I can understand why Indians, not Indian-Americans, didn’t want to send any money to Pakistan. There is a bitter history between the two countries and a complete lack of trust. Even Pakistan initially refused to accept any financial aid from the Indian government. Most Indians I spoke with (both in India and the US) feared that Pakistan would use their money to proliferate terrorism in India. They empathized with the poor in Pakistan but lacked faith in the country’s government.

But it’s not just Indians, is it? The international community over all has responded differently this time. Every now and then you see articles focused on humanitarianism, but how many minds has that changed?

Why just question the west or India; how much money has the Middle East donated to the evacuees? I read an article about many Pakistani-Americans being wary of sending money to their homeland.

The media has reiterated that the evacuees practice Sufism, not Wahabism (an austere form of Islam that Osama Bin laden and Taliban follow). But according to an article in the New York Times, polls conducted by CNN showed that 78 percent of Americans hold mostly “unfavorable” views of Pakistan. The same article talks about a similar poll conducted by Gallop in 2010 with 47 percent of respondents saying “they were mostly negative on Pakistan,” while 24 percent said “they held "very" negative views of that country.

Why is there such little empathy for Pakistan? After all, there are innocent human lives at stake. More will die if nothing is done. Does Pakistan really have the wrong image in the eyes of the world? Or is it donor fatigue? Is it the recession? Is it the type of disaster? I don’t have answers, but I am definitely curious.

Sending love from good old Bombay, India. The music on the local, desi radio reminds me that some of you had requested a recording of my interview (on Blog Talk Radio). If you'd like, click here to listen.

More until next time,


Copyright © 09.17.2010

“What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What's the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?” ~ Gautam Buddha


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Learn about colors with poetry

Dear all,

Thirteen months ago, I signed my first, meaningful book contract with Modern History Press. Today the final product is ready. The hint of autumn in the air brings my new chapbook of poems,

“Kaleidoscope: An Asian Journey of Colors.”

The book is available for purchase in: US, UK and everywhere else in the world!

About the book: The book delves into the implication and philosophy of colors from a Hindu woman's point of view, from birth until death. The color she adorns herself with almost depicts the story of her life. Expressed through different poetic and verbal forms, each color in the book has its own tone and is specific to different age groups.

Reviews so far:

“In this innovative series, Sweta Srivastava Vikram re-appropriates color. Cultures and mythologies collide along the way, and the result is a chapbook that feels like a quest. In the end, the colors are a map to identity. The child’s pink tonsils or the bride’s red sari are not symbols, but rather mile markers. Like Vikram’s poems, they lead toward understanding.” – Erica Wright, Senior Poetry Editor, Guernica

“Vikram’s wordsmithing is outstanding. I have read much poetry and have never seen such creativeness as that of this author. She allows her words to flow with rhythm and deepness. The wisdom that comes through her is beyond any I’ve seen.” – Irene Watson, Reader Views. To read the full review, click here.

“This chapbook is the dazzling display of a poet who teases us with fresh imagery and delicate linguistic craftsmanship.” – Orchid Tierney, Editor, REM Magazine, New Zealand. To read the full review, click here.

Thank you all for your support, encouragement, love, and warm-fuzzy notes!

More until next time,


Copyright © 09. 09. 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My first: a story that must be told

In August of 2009, I signed my first, meaningful book contract. It was for my chapbook of poems, “Kaleidoscope: An Asian Journey of Colors,” with Modern History Press.

I was a newbie in the publishing world then sending out query letters to publishing houses. Quite a few of them got back to me and several didn’t. A significant number of editors expressed interest in my project but with a few hiccups. Poetry is difficult to sell, as there are fewer people reading it compared to fiction or nonfiction. Plus, I don’t really use the race-card in writing, so it was difficult to “categorize” me.

But I didn’t give up. I had faith in both my work and kismet connection (No, not the terrible Hindi movie). I knew when my book did get an offer, it would be from the right publishing house. A company that would accept my work & me as a writer for what I bring to the table, not my ethnicity or religion or other politically suave-markers.

I am into yoga, reiki, and meditation or as my brother and hubby tease me, “All crazy stuff.” Good energy and gut feeling influence the path I walk on and the decisions that I make. I cannot ignore that voice. Whether it’s buying a house, accepting a job, eating at a restaurant, talking to a doctor, or interacting with a publisher, I have to have that conviction at the pit of my stomach or else I walk away.

I am almost incapable of business-type, one-time gratification. The loyalist in me believes in building relationships. Opportunities come and go; people stay. I am also a realist apart from being an artist. I know that with my attitude, I will never have a lot of money. But that’s okay with me. I am my Dad’s daughter after all. Though I feel sorry for my husband; his desire of retiring before forty and going fishing/golfing while I earn the big bucks will remain a distant dream.:-)

I digress but what’s new, right?:-) I was talking about Kaleidoscope and how it found its home. Anyways, I heard back from Victor Volkman, publisher of Modern History press, in less than twenty-four hours of me sending the query letter. He’d liked my samples and wanted to see the entire manuscript. I sent him all the material towards late afternoon, met up a friend for drinks after work, and went back home. When I reached home, I saw it—there was an email from Victor. He wanted to sign me on. In fact, he’d already sent me a contract to look over. Victor, I don’t know if you remember, but I sent you an email asking what your note meant. :-)

When my husband returned from work later that evening, I showed him Victor’s email. He jumped with ecstasy. I just held him and cried. And I am not a crier by any standards. We called up our near and dear ones and wrote to a few friends. Everybody either screamed or shed tears of joy. After all, poetry and fairytales are never uttered in the same sentence.

This was around the Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan where the sister prays for her brother’s long life and ties him a thread (rakhi). And the brother blesses the sister and gives her a gift. I remember telling my brother, “Bhaiya, this contract is the best rakhi gift, ever.” See, his good wishes travelled from Singapore to NYC. At least in my heart it did. Thus began the journey of my first chapbook of poems.

I have heard horror stories where writers had no say in what their book’s cover looked like. It’s like telling a woman she can’t name her newborn. But Victor gave me artistic liberty in terms of images for the cover. He was open to suggestions and feedback. It doesn’t mean we had the same vision all the time. But we respected each other’s strengths. We debated a lot, but we never lost sight of what was important—the book.

My Facebook family has been so supportive with providing feedback on the cover. Few reviewers have written to me that they loved the bowls of color on the front cover. Thank you to all of you for taking out the time for commenting, suggesting, supporting, and encouraging.

The needful is done and thirteen months later, the book is all ready. The release date is set for Thursday, September 9, 2010.

I want to take this moment today to say that throughout this journey, Victor has been as dedicated and committed to the project as I have. I wasn’t just another author or a mere number to him. Of course, he has a business to run, and I have bills to pay. But humanity and professionalism hold a big place in our rapport.

Thank you, Mr. Victor Volkman, for your faith and friendship. I hope to work with you on many more projects.

Dear readers, if you are fascinated by colors, philosophy, simple poetry, this book is for you.

If you’d like to stay updated on my upcoming book releases, bookmark my new blog cum website ( For all other information (including but not limited to book releases), you know where to find me:

More until next time,


Copyright © 09.07.2010

“To write what is worth publishing, to find honest people to publish it, and get sensible people to read it, are the three great difficulties in being an author.” Charles Caleb Colton