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