Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Travel Essay: Dreaming of Rajasthan

Given my experiences in and around Bangalore, I'm justifiably leery of road trips. Even so, when we were faced with the choice of waiting in an Indian Airlines lounge at the New Delhi airport for six hours for a delayed flight or getting in a taxi and driving to and reaching Jaipur within five hours, we chose the latter. Everyone (including the Indian Airlines customer service desk attendant who was happy to refund us the air fare rather than having us wait for the flight) assured us that the roads were good.

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And they were. The roads were wide, very well paved, well maintained and devoid of traffic. Suffice to say it was one of the best drives I've had in India (the drive from Jaipur to Ajmer to Pushkar and back is equally good).

As we entered Jaipur around 2 pm, we caught our first of many glimpses of Amber Palace sitting majestically on top of a hill to our right.

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Amber Palace


There are three ways to get to the top of the hill - by walk up a winding path, by elephant, or by car. With the April sun beating down on us and with me less than two months away from having a baby, we decided trekking up the hill was not the best option. And apparently, the elephants are mighty popular. They were all taken by 9:30 am - all twenty five of them!

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An elephant gets ready to ferry people back down from the palace


Amber Palace is a wonderful combination of brute strength and delicate beauty. The kings and queens paid incredible attention to art and architecture within the walls. The walls and the exterior of the palace are themselves foreboding and somber. The road leading up to the palace is lined with imposing, ancient houses in which ministers and courtiers lived.

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Once inside the palace, you will find that the structures are a marvellous coming together of form and function. There is an intricate, latticed vent through which air and water flowed to keep things cool - a sort of an ancient cooler,

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lawns laid out in the design of a carpet for the viewing pleasure of palace residents,

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mirrored and bejewelled ceilings and walls that retained warmth or rendered the room cool as the season demanded,

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Yes! That is a ceiling!


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and latticed fronts that served to shield the women folk from the men but at the same time allowed the women to witness all the action outside.

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The eldest queen sat at the window in the center to throw flowers at the king as he entered the living quarters


There is one courtyard, a rather large one, flanked on all sides by what appeared to be separate apartments (each section was walled off from the other) that has a rather fantastic story that our guide took enormous pleasure in recounting. The king that built the courtyard, one of the Mansinghs, had twelve wives. Yup! You'll have to use your toes too for that one. And, he did not want any of his wives to talk to the others (even though some of the women he married were cousins). So he built this elaborate apartment complex around that courtyard, three apartments to each side. There were also watch points "manned" by eunuchs to enforce that rule and to make sure they didn't pass notes to each other. (This photo was taken from one such watch point.)

See what you can accomplish with inexhaustible resources? Why, you can even keep all your wives apart!

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The Mansingh Courtyard


This outdoor hall used for musical performances brought on a sudden, intense longing for scallops. Wonder why.

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As you may have noticed, nature seems to have painted much of Rajasthan with a single palate. Which is why I think the thing we most associate with Rajasthanis is - color. It is everywhere. It is painted onto the buildings,

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The ultra-famous Hawa Mahal (another elaborate latticed front to hide the women folk


and it's most definitely an inextricable part of Rajasthani couture.

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Umbrellas used in Rajasthani weddings. I thought they'd make cool parasols


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The other thing that catches your eye is how ubiquitous camels and elephants are. Camels are like what cows are in south India. The elephants, we were told, are a vital part of Rajasthan's tourism and film industries. In fact, the day we visited the palace, there was a shooting going on with a few elephants thrown in (see the lawn carpet pic).

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Can you imagine this rush hour? Traffic jam!


The Rajasthan tourism department has done some wonderful things to encourage tourism. The roads are worth mentioning again. At the palace, we could hear local guides jabbering away in German, French, Japanese and Spanish to their wards. Our guide went out of his way to arrange an elephant ride for my son.

We ventured out of Jaipur, by road again, to Ajmer to visit the Dargah and to Pushkar to visit the only Brahma temple in the world.

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The Brahma Temple

I must say, the most striking thing about Pushkar was the clothes available for sale there. They were many, many shops dedicated to clothes, almost all of them selling western fashions. It was obvious they were targeting the insane number of foreign tourists Pushkar gets every year and not only during the annual camel fair.

But even as I appreciated this "know your market" attitude, I was totally unprepared for this:

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Monday, August 28, 2006

"Every Shoe Tells a Story"

We wear our hearts on our soles. "Shoes are the best indicator of how poeple are feeling", says June Swann, a shoe historian based in Northampton, England. To hear Swann tell it, you can chart the rise and fall of prosperity from the elevation of a heel; hear the distant rumblings of war in the configuration of a toe; measure social change by the thickness of a sole.

Every shoe tells a story. Shoes speak of status, gender (usually), ethnicity, religion, profession, and politics (the Russian writer Maxim Gorky said a strong pair of boots "will be of greater service for the ultimate triumph of socialism ... than black eyes"). Last, far from least, they can be drop-dead gorgeous.
Every Shoe Tells a Story, in September's National Geographic magazine. Do read. And take the National Geographic poll.

Are beautiful shoes worth the pain that sometimes comes with wearing them? Hell! No.

What say you, Shoefie?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Tagging Along

I've been tagged.

So here goes.

Eight things about myself:

1. Am a mom.

2. Am sleep deprived, but that's my normal state of being.

3. Am doing at least two things at once at any given time.

4. Am an extrovert, very talkitive.

5. Don't like talking to people about personal issues.

6. Love to cook once in a while for a lot of people, tolerate everyday cooking as a necessary evil.

7. Get grumpy if I have to tell people what to do.

8. Love to see new places.

I'm not going to tag anyone else, but if you do decide to follow this tag trail, please do and let me know when you do.

Girl Escapes From Captor 8 Years After She Was Kidnapped

What a story!
Yesterday Natascha's father, Ludwig Koch, said he recognised his lost daughter immediately. In an interview with Austria's Kurier newspaper, he said she looked in bad shape physically and had wasted away. "She has very, very white skin and marks all over her entire body. I don't want to think about where they came from," he said. After being reunited on Wednesday they had both wept. "She told me: Papa, I love you. And her next question was, Papa, do you still have my toy car?'

"I told her I did, and we had never given it away. We still have all her dolls as well."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Career Women's Houses Are Dirty, and Other Male Delusions

There's a bit of a brouhaha on the Internet over an article published on Forbes. The article was originally published on August 22. The following day, Forbes took the article down. A few hours later, the article was back up on the site, but this time right alongside an article with a counterview.

What was all the fuss about? Well, the article in question, written by a Forbes.com news editor Michael Noer, is titled "Don't Marry Career Women". That should explain it all. Right? But wait, there's more. The title is merely the tip of the iceberg. The article itself - in which rocky marriages, husbands' ill-health, dirty houses, dysfunctional kids, divorces, extra-marital affairs and lower rates of childbirth are all blamed on working women - is priceless.

In support of his assertion that men should not marry working women, Noer quotes many "studies". However, in many instances, the author's paraphrasing of the studies, or the quotes he uses, talk about "individuals", "spouse", "people" and not about women specifically. Here are a few examples that Noer ropes in to argue that career women are more likely to cheat and run away with someone:
  • When your spouse works outside the home, chances increase they'll meet someone they like more than you.

  • According to a wide-ranging review of the published literature, highly educated people are more likely to have had extra-marital sex (those with graduate degrees are 1.75 more likely to have cheated than those with high school diplomas.) Additionally, individuals who earn more than $30,000 a year are more likely to cheat.

  • "I also find that the incidence in divorce is far higher in couples where both spouses are working than in couples where only one spouse is employed," Johnson [who "examined data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation"] says.
It is baffling that the author relies on these statements to conclude that only working women cheat, run off, have extra-marital sex and are responsible for the rise in divorce rates. In a similar vein, Noer makes an argument about "labor specialization" - if both spouses work, the household suffers. Again, the argument should not and does not translate to mean that women should stay home.

Furthermore, people - men and women - will cheat if they are so inclined and if the opportunity presents itself, whether they stay home or go out. What about spouses who stay home and are exposed to the mailman (or mailwoman), the fedex man (or woman), the pool boy, the baby sitter?

The essay is chockfull of other "insights" into marital relationships.
  • Households in which the women work are dirty, he says. Really? Is it any surprise? This is a reason why men should not marry career women? And is this really a problem? Where are the men in the equation? Do they really expect the house to be spic and span? If they really do (which I doubt - someone should go check out some bachelor pads and see how they stack up on the cleanliness scale), why not pick up after themselves, take the trash out, mop and dust a little, eh?

  • Husbands in households in which the women work are more likely to fall ill, he says. Are men really such babies? Did anyone check to see if the women in households in which the men work are more likely to fall ill? No? Why not? Because women are expected to take care of themselves, but the men need handholding and need to be taken care of or else they fall ill?

  • Husbands will be unhappy if their wives make more money than they do, he says. Well, all the men need to do is to tweak their attitudes a little bit. How about feeling happy that the family is earning more money? How about feeling proud that your wife is earning more than you?

  • Wives will be unhappy if they earn more money than their husbands, he says. Well, don't worry Noer. This character flaw won't last long. I suspect this feeling stems from having a crabby husband around and women will stop caring what their husbands think or feel if their illogical behavior lasts long enough.

  • If women quit their jobs and stay home with the kids, they will be unhappy, he says. Sure, there will be some sadness. There's bound to be unhappiness over lost friendships, over the loss of professional connections. But that's life. Priorities change when kids arrive. But is this a valid reason not to marry a working woman? That's a myopic view if I ever saw one. And what about the unhappiness a non-working woman may feel that she doesn't work? Does this not count?
Just in case the men reading his essay are horrified and are thinking they will never ever marry, Noer exhorts men to marry. Do marry, he says, because marriage is positively correlated to higher incomes for adult men. How wonderful! If you want to make more money, you want to be happy, have children and children who are well-adjusted, stay healthy and have a clean home, marry. Please do. Just follow Noer's advice and make sure the woman of your dreams doesn't have a college degree and makes less than $30,000 a year.

The puerile and inane ideas expressed in this essay are trumped only by Forbes first pulling the essay from the web and then republishing it with a counterview written by Elizabeth Corcoran, also with Forbes. If Forbes did not think that the essay would not stand on its own merit, why did they publish it in the first place?

And oh, before we go, please do read Forbes? You Suck. Lively and quite on point.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Comments

Comments are back on! Thank you for your e-mails and feedback on this topic. They all made a lot of sense. While I may not be able to reply to all comments, I do look forward to reading them. Thank you for reading and commenting.

"Punny" Headlines Driving You to Pull Your Hair Out?

Puns have no place in headlines. That's what you are taught in Journalism class in that chapter on newswriting. The thought behind this edict is that puns can harm a story in several ways - they tend to distract the reader from the story; they make light of what may be a serious news item; headlines with puns may be clever, but they may not reflect the actual content of the story.

Two Gannett editors, Meg Downey and Frank Sutherland, exhort headline writers to avoid puns, which "elicit groans rather than draw readers in or they make light of a serious issue." They point to this headline to illustrate their point: "Levi Strauss to button up six plants" on, they say, "a serious story about the clothing manufacturer laying off 36,000 workers."

"The disease of pun-ism seems to be spreading," says Jim Barger, sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Used in moderation, like bourbon, they can leave the reader with a pleasant glow. But too many groaners can lead to glassy eyes and and readers wondering what's on television."

The San Antonio Express-News (via Poynter) went so far so as ban puns in its headlines after one particularly productive day in which copy editors produced nine pun headlines. According to Editor Robert Rivard, the decision to ban puns came on the heels of "predictable e-mails from readers dismissing us as a serious newspaper."

That, in my opinion, was a rather drastic step. I enjoy puns in headlines. If I don't go on to read the story following it, it's probably because the subject matter did not interest me in the first place any way. While there are terrible puns (such as the Levi Strauss one, for example), I have come across some mighty clever ones too that actually add to the story.

I was therefore happy to find that in spite of the prevailing wisdom in the newspaper industry, there were a number of "punny" headlines in the newspapers over the past couple of days - all relating to the one story of the forfeited cricket test match between England and Pakistan at the Oval and each one a play on the umpire's name Hair. (I haven't seen a photograph of Hair with his umpire's hat off. I wonder if he has any.)

'Pakistan demand Hair cut' read an August 21 headline in the Guardian (a clever headline, and I did go on the read the story). "A hair-raising past" says this Cricinfo headline. "Series with fraught histroy sitting on a Hair trigger" opines a Telegraph headline. "Pakistan lay blame on Hair for parting of ways". Now, is that a pun? The headline seems contrived. You can almost feel the effort that must have gone into the drafting of that headline. Moreover, "parting of ways" is not exactly how I would describe the Hair-Pakistan relationship.

Here's another "Hair cut" word play though not as good as the Guardian headline: "Hair cuts an over-officious figure in the game". "Pakistan no stranger to bad Hair day" according to The Times. "Hair's some more bad news for Pak" reads a not so good pun on the CNN-IBN website.

Before we go further, let me confess to my own attempt at punning in my post titled "Umpire Alleges Ball Tampering: Hair Today Gone Tomorrow?" Here's another in Desicritics writer Desh's post, "Darrell Caught in Pakistan's Hair."

Some of them - OK, may be a couple - are good, the rest rather insipid. So what makes a headline with a pun a good headline? A Capital Idea quotes a book called Headlines and Deadlines:
Two tests can be propounded for puns, whether in a headline or elsewhere. The first is whether each of the two meanings of the word forming the pun is appropriate. ...

The second test is based on the theory that the basis of humor is incongruity and unexpectedness. This means that the pun should not be obvious; it should not be just lying around waiting to be picked up ... The best advice that can be given to the headline writer is to avoid the pun unless he is convinced that it is exceptionally good. If there is one thing that most newspapers need, it is more sophistication. The bad pun, like the childish rhyme, is the mortal enemy of this quality.

Almost all of the Hair puns were just lying around waiting to be picked up.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Book Review: Hitchhiker, Vinod George Joseph

Most people cherish three things in their lives - family, friends and career. Ebenezer, the protagonist in Vinod George Joseph's debut novel, Hitchhiker, is no different. He loves his family the way most of us do - he grumbles at them, he complains about them, but he wouldn't know what to do without them. He prepares himself meticulously for a career in engineering, doing all the things one must to in India to get into a good college, and looks forward to the day he can become and engineer and lift his parents and sister out of the financial dire straits they are in. He falls in love with a smart, educated, independent young woman, the kind he had always dreamed of marrying. He and his friends plot and plan their way through high school, teasing each other about their dreams for their future lives, wives and careers.

In other words, Ebenezer is a normal kid with normal dreams.

There is also a crucial fact, however, that rules over Ebenezer's fate with a ruthless hand - he is born a Verumar, an untouchable. There is nothing he or his family can do to escape this unfortunate happenstance. Moving away from their ancestral village does no good because the necessary visits back to the village bring home to Ebenezer exactly who he is and what his place is in society; converting to Christianity proves to be a double-edged sword - on the one hand there is the suspicious eye with which society looks upon them (did they convert for money?), and on the other hand, Ebenezer loses the advantage of the quotas for scheduled castes in colleges because he is now a Christian and therefore no longer eligible for reservations.

This one fact, the fact that he was born the son of scheduled caste parents, lifts Ebenerzer out of the world he is so desperately trying to create for himself, spins him around and hurls him back to the ground, shattering in the process every single dream he has for himself and his family.

Ebenezer's mother and sister are hacked to death by the "higher" caste Edayars on a visit to his village; his family finds out that his aunt had been raped when she was a young girl by the son of her Edayar landlord, and subsequently drives her to commit suicide; his father loses his job because he joins a union demanding reservations for backward classes in the Christian institution run by his employer; his girlfriend's parents refuse to accept him because he's a Verumar although he converted to Christianity; a chain of events starting with the murders of his mother and sister ensures that he fails in the crucial exams leading up to admissions into engineering college, and culminates in Ebenezer never finding the engineering career he dreamt of.

Hitchhiker is a gut-wrenching story. As you read about young Ebenezer, you are hopeful for him and his sister Gwendolyn, two smart kids who seem to have spurned all that their history holds for them; two kids successful in their school, hardworking, extremely capable of achieving their dreams. You feel affection for Esther and Peterraj, Ebenezer's parents, who did what they thought they had to do to give their children the best possible start in life - they converted to Christianity, sought jobs and financial help from their church, obtained education for their children in the church's school and lived life quietly in their corner of the school compound. You secretly applaud when Ebenezer and Gayathri, his girlfriend, decide to marry.

It is almost too much to bear when the threads of Ebenezer's life start unraveling in such rapid succession as to leave you breathless.

Hitchhiker has all the ingredients that make for a great read.

The plot is very well thought out, researched and executed. The events leading up to Ebenezer's aunt, Karuppamma's suicide are set up brilliantly and the section ends chillingly,
Bhadrakaali [Ebenezer's grandmother, Karupamma's mother-in-law, who goads Karupamma into committing suicide] hugged Karuppamma by her feet and burst into loud sobbing. The tears were for real. Bhadrakaali had really liked Karuppamma. She knew that if she were in Karuppamma's position she would have acted exactly as Karuppamma had done. But, she had no choice. Her duty to Alagiri [her son and Karuppamma's husband] and his children came first. Matters had taken the only course they could and the world was now a better place.
Each character (and there are many, many, characters) is fleshed out and the attention to detail is welcome and refreshing in many places. In this passage, for instance, the author takes the time to paint a picture of Esther's workplace, the nursery section in the school run by her church,
There were three-year-olds all around her and most of them were crying out aloud. Deserted by their parents, they were making their fear and anger known in the only way they could. Many of the parents liked to hang out in the school after leaving their children in the nursery. But, Victoria Miss who had been handling the LKG class for the last twenty-five years, insisted that all parents clear off after depositing their children. A few parents, however, could just not be chased away.
The language is simple, and there is ample background information to round out the situations and events in the book. The life of each character is examined under the microscope of religion and its various aspects such as caste, conversion, reconversion, the politics behind reservations for scheduled castes in educational and governmental institutions and untouchability.

And therein lies one of a couple of minor drawbacks - every character in the book is somehow affected by some issue related to religion to the point where the reader feels the message is being pounded home relentlessly. The other is the sheer number of characters which the author spends considerable space fleshing out in such detail that the reader is left wondering where the story is going.

These drawbacks, however, are mitigated to a large extent by the author's simple and evocative writing style and the plot's ability to draw the reader into the lives of the characters.

At the bottom of it all, Hitchhiker is a simple story of unrequited love, of carefully laid plans going haywire, of circumstances beyond your control taking over your life, and it is well told. Reason enough to want to read the book.

Hitchhiker, Books for Change, 395 pp, Rs. 350 (India), USD 19.00 (outside India).

Monday, August 21, 2006

How sick is this

Did anyone, one man asked, know of girls’ camps willing to hire adult males as counselors? Meanwhile, elsewhere in cyberspace, the second group celebrated the news that one of their own had been offered a job leading a boys’ cabin at a sleep-away camp.

[...]

In this online community, pedophiles view themselves as the vanguard of a nascent movement seeking legalization of child pornography and the loosening of age-of-consent laws. They portray themselves as battling for children’s rights to engage in sex with adults, a fight they liken to the civil rights movement. And while their effort has brought little success, they celebrated online in May when a small group of men in the Netherlands formed a pedophile political party, and they rejoiced again last month when a Dutch court upheld the party’s right to exist.
How sick is this.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Of Furry Eyebrows and Hairy Upperlips

“On both coasts, everybody wants a thicker brow that reminds you of Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner,” said Robyn Cosio, an eyebrow stylist who works at the Salon by Maxime in Beverly Hills and Eiji salon in Manhattan. “People love that I leave the two bottom layers of undergrowth and don’t take out so much in between the brows so that they can stick up and look feathered.”

Ladies, lay down your tweezers. Facial hair hasn’t been this much in demand since the advent in 1978 of Brooke Shields. Indeed, this month French Vogue devotes an entire page to the tinted, brushed and glossed eyebrow, recommending a “dense and proud” brow as the best way to structure a face.

There's one fashion trend (NY Times link; requires free registration) I've been way ahead of. Now if they would only catch up to hairy upper lips and sideburns...

Friday, August 18, 2006

Meredith Vieira Moves On

There's a lovely story about Meredith Vieira in last weekend's New York Times Magazine. Here is a snippet.
Her repeated insistence that there was no paycheck big enough, no title prestigious enough, to give up her home life has made her a heroine to viewers who pay attention to such things.
[...]
Vieira is careful to say she does not think less of women who were more willing to leave home than she was and even allows that maybe she is "a little extreme" in her desire to be with her children. "The juggling act just never worked for me," she says now. "Maybe it was the three miscarriages, so all I was thinking about was a healthy baby, or maybe it’s just who I am, but I never wanted to prove I could be macho. And I was quite successful not proving that, wasn’t I?"
There are no universal solutions that fit all families when it comes to managing two careers and children. Some want to juggle both career and children, some don't, some need to juggle both career and children, some don't. Each family has to decide for itself what is best. One is not better than the other, one is not morally superior than the other. What is important is that we recongnize what works for us and we do it, as Vieira seems to have done and is doing.

The only show I remember seeing her on is "The View" which I enjoyed watching. I liked what I saw of her on the show. She was irreverent, seemed comfortable in her skin.

Please do read the whole thing (I think it requires free registration).

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

PostGlobal: washingtonpost.com's New Feature

PostGlobal is the latest offering on washingtonpost.com and is moderated by David Ignatius and Fareed Zakaria. According to the site,
PostGlobal is an experiment in global, collaborative journalism, a running discussion of important issues among dozens of the world's best-known editors and writers. It aims to create a truly global dialogue, drawing on independent journalists in the countries where news is happening -- from China to Iran, from South Africa to Saudi Arabia, from Mexico to India.
Started slightly over two months ago, PostGlobal is fashioned as a blog on which more than thirty journalists opine on questions posed by the moderators. Readers also have the opportunity to respond to these questions directly or to respond to the opinions of the members of the panel. Questions are posed "at least twice a week" and some recent ones have included, "Who will dominate post-Fidel Cuba and does it matter for the world?", "What two suggestions would you give the U.S. Secretary of State?", "Is the war making the world safer for Israel, America and their allies or more dangerous?".

Although it does not seem to be up and running yet on the PostGlobal page, there are plans for and "Editor's Inbox" area for "... assessments of the latest stories and for links to useful resources for making sense of what's happening." The "Debate" section pits two of the panelists against each other on a topic and allows readers to pitch questions to the debaters.

PostGlobal's layout is easy to navigate with clearly marked sections. Readers' opinions are right alongside the panelists' opinions in two columns on the main page and are given as much prominence in terms of placement and they make full use of it too. The readers appear to be much more vocal when responding to the questions and they stay around to answer other readers that may engage them which cannot be said for the panelists. Of the panelist opinions I've read, not a single panelist has responded to any of the comments on his/her posts. Readers' opinions are also much livelier, more passionate.

The feature is still in its infancy and it'll be interesting to see where it goes. With so many media sources out there, from mainstream media to blogs to online magazines, etc., I wonder whether PostGlobal will be drowned in a sea of voices. PostGlobal seems to be trying to distinguish itself from the rest of the field by offering the opinions of a diverse set of "experts" in one place,
... we'll post a question then solicit responses from members of our diverse network of experts, whose combined views, we believe, will reflect what the world thinks about important issues more quickly and completely than would those of any single commentator.

[...]

Understanding the world is a daily puzzle -- for the prominent journalists who make up the PostGlobal network and for our millions of potential readers around the world. We will try to make sense of where the world is going by putting our heads together.
We'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Tricolor Flies High

I headed out of the house at 7:25 am and made my way to where the flag hoisting would take place. As I neared the main street leading up the mast strains of Vande Mataram filled the air. More people joined the crowd of people moving toward the mast, little girls in silk skirts, boys in pyjama kurtas, men in Jeans, shorts and the women in chudidhars, sarees, having tried their best to incorporate white green and saffron in their dresses.

People stood around chatting, kids ran off to find their friends and generally run around excitedly. Two women with dogs straining at the leash stood at the fringes. A man placed a handful of flower petals in a folded tricolor and tried to get it up the flag pole.

A huge shamiana sheltered a stage and about a hundred plastic chairs. The sound system screeched as it came on and someone asked everyone to move towards the flag pole. Everyone - there were about one hundred and fifty people - gathered around in a loose semi-circle.

The head of the association untied the rope from the flag pole and slowly pulled it. The bunched up flag made its way up to the top, hesitated for a brief second and fluttered in the breeze.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Salsa: The New "In" Thing in Bangalore

"Four one, cha cha cha, two three cha cha cha," went my instructor. We, twelve of us students, tried to follow her steps as she sashayed her way around the floor. By the third or fourth session, we barely managed to keep up with her feet movements.

She, of course, was moving way more than just her feet. Her hips swayed, her arms moved fluidly in the air, her shoulders and spine were ramrod straight. I, on the other hand, punched my hands in the air, hunched my tense shoulders, took giant strides on my flat feet and tried not to crash into any of the walls or crush anyone's feet.

But I keep at it. Why, you wonder. Because I'm a glutton for punishment. Well, no. Ok, maybe yes.

But there are also a few other, perhaps more logical reasons. For one, the music is infectious; you can't help but dance. Two, I have delusions of being able to wiggle my hips a la Shakira, the operative word being delusions. (Did you see her FIFA World Cup Final performance? Aye, Caramba!) Three, once you get one sequence right you feel like you can do all of it. Four, my instructor is good at what she does, both the dancing and the teaching parts. Five, any form of exercise that is fun and enjoyable is gold. Finally, and most importantly, there are no mirrors where we dance. So while I feel ungainly and have a faint idea of how klutzy I might look, I really don't have concrete evidence of the blashphemy I commit twice a week.

Over the past few weeks I've been finding out that some or all of the above reasons are responsible for a whole lot of Bangaloreans to turn to Salsa.

And by whole lot I mean thousands.

Lourd Vijay, a businessman and purveyor of all things Salsa should know. He started the first Salsa school in the city, Lourd Vijay's Dance Studio, in 1997. Now he has three of them up and running in which he, along with four full-time and four part-time instructors, teach a total of six thousand students. Yup, that's right, 6,000. And he has plans to open three more studios in the next three months.

Vijay himself came to dancing and to Salsa like many of us do. He saw the movie Dirty Dancing and he was hooked. His sister, who lived in Australia, sent him books and video tapes of dances so he could get familiar with the art. He then went to Canada, to Vancouver and Toronto, to train in the various dance forms. Now he travels extensively all over the world attending workshops, conferences and congresses.

Although the average age of his students is around twenty-five, the classes are so popular among all age groups and among people from all walks of life that his studios offer exclusive classes for those over 40, those over 50, for homemakers, etc.

The reasons most of his students attend the Salsa lessons, he says, are to have fun (which is crucial to any activity that you intend to pursue for a long time), the studios are a great place to network, to meet like-minded people, especially if you are new to the country or to the city, to get fit, and because going to the gym can get boring pretty fast.

The dance form is so popular in Bangalore that the India International Salsa Congress is all set to kick off in Bangalore on August 16th. The official website has all the details of the Congress including the schedule, details of all the performers who are flying in from all over the world, competitions, workshops, parties, etc.

So if you've vaguely heard of Salsa but don't know squat about it, now's the time to go, watch and learn. Lead with your hips and don't forget your heels.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Looking Ahead...

When someone leaves a comment on my blog, I feel compelled to respond and feel pretty bad if I don't. But personal and work commitments don't permit me to do justice to all the wonderful thoughts and ideas that are expressed in the comments section. (Hats off to Greatbong. I don't know how he does it, but he responds to every single one of the 100s of comments he gets on his posts and he does it patiently and thoughtfully.)

So moving forward, there will be a small change to this blog. I've disabled the comment feature. I do hope that you will continue to read the posts I put up (they may become less frequent as well, but hopefully not). I hope to turn the comments feature back on once things get better, but in the meantime, if you have questions or comments related to the post, please do send an e-mail and I will do my best to respond.

Please note that I shall not respond to e-mails with personal comments or comments or questions that do not relate to the subject matter of the posts.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Radio Interview with Kavita Krishnamurthy Subramaniam and Dr. L. Subramaniam

All India Radio's FM Rainbow (101.3) in Bangalore is broadcasting my exclusive interview with Kavita Krishnamurthy-Subramaniam and Dr. L. Subramianiam tomorrow Saturday, Aug 12, between 8 and 9 p.m. This interview is the first in a series (called Pride of Bangalore) that will air every Saturday for the following few weeks at the same time (8-9 p.m.). I'll put up information about the other people I talked to for this series as and when the schedule is fixed. Please do listen if you can.

I interviewed them at their home one morning a few months back. One thing that struck me about them is how modest, kind and unassuming they are. Absolutely no airs about them. They offered us (myself and the sound engineer that accompanied me) coffee, made sure we were comfortable, gave us the best possible sound environment in their home and most importantly, gave me time which is a miracle given their extremely (and I mean extremely) busy lives. And in the process, did not make me feel like they were doing me a big favor.

It was an honor to have met them and talked to them.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Anatomy of a Miscarriage

It hit me finally on the British Airways flight from London to Washington, D.C. Something was terribly wrong. I was six weeks pregnant and I was bleeding heavily.

In the days leading up to the flight, I had refused to believe that my pregnancy was coming to an end. Two gynecologists and one radiologist (who performed the ultrasound scan) in Bangalore had told me that things were not progressing well - they should have been able to see the baby's heartbeat by then but they could not. Was I sure of my dates, each of them had asked. Any history of miscarriages?

I was convinced that the problem was not at my end. Perhaps the scanner was outdated. Perhaps the radiologist did not know what he was doing. Perhaps the gynecologist was counting the weeks from the wrong date. Spotting is common, isn't it, in the first few weeks of pregnancy? Perhaps this was implantation bleeding.

Things could really not be going wrong. There was not even an inkling of a problem the first time around, when I was pregnant with Big N. I did not even have morning sickness. So how could my pregnancy not be progressing well this time?

I decided I needed to get back to the US, back to the same environment that I was in during my first pregnancy. May be that would make the niggling problems of spotting and no heartbeat go away. I was not thinking rationally but my plans made perfect sense to me then. So I advanced the date of my departure flight and still upbeat about having a second child and a sibling for Big N, he and I started on our journey back to the US.

The flight from Bangalore to London was uneventful though a little hectic with Big N (then just past three years old) and two large suitcases and a carry on.

Once on the flight, things progressed smoothly. Big N walked over to the young, newly-married woman who was sitting behind us and was being his usual chatterbox (on every single flight, he ditches me at the first opportunity and goes off to find someone else to talk to and play with). I smiled apologetically at her, letting her know she could send him back if she had had enough. She said, no, she was having a good time. I was happy to let them both be, seizing the opportunity to visit the restroom.

I came out shaken. I sat in my seat, Big N came over to see where I'd been. I pulled him over, hugged him and willed the tears to stop. They did not. The sobs came out unbidden and the two mothers who were sitting to my left, both with small babies on their laps turned to me. Are you ok, they asked? I explained to them, between sobs and wiping my tears, what was wrong. Their expressions of concern relaxed somewhat. One of them told me she had bled as well when she was pregnant with her daughter but everything had turned out fine. There's nothing to worry about, they said.

By then Big N was getting anxious. He did not know why I was crying and was wiping my face with his forearm. One of the air hostesses (I named her Big Bertha) walked over and I repeated my story, feeling better somewhat and beginning to think once again that it was no big deal. But Big Bertha thought otherwise. She went on a war footing. She brought over the head steward who went around the plane looking for a doctor. He finally found one in First Class who advised that I should lay flat on my back and rest completely until we reached Washington. "We're flying over the Atlantic," the head steward said, "so we cannot land the plane anywhere soon." "Land the plane?" I thought. "It's not really that bad, is it?"

Apparently it was or they thought I would sue them or something if my condition got worse. Big Bertha decided it would be better if I went to First Class and lay down flat and she also decided that Big N should not be with me. I decided she was off her rocker. She had no clue how to handle a young child and was convinced that keeping him from me for the rest of the flight was the right thing to do ("he will have to deal with it" was her tone). I put my foot down and took him with me to First Class.

Big N had no place to sit on that one seat if I lay flat on it. After a few minutes of squirming around, we decided to head back to our original seats. At least he had his own space. Big N went back to his friend. "Take rest," she whispered. "I'll look after Big N." I pulled the hand rest between our two seats back, stretched my legs onto his and lay down.

Once we got home from the airport, I called my Ob/Gyn (the practice I go to has five doctors, each of whom I had to see when I was pregnant with Big N, the thought behind this being that each of them would know me and I would know them so there would be no surprises when I went into labor; it wouldn't matter which doctor was on call that day) who said to go get an ultrasound first thing in the morning. The ultrasound confirmed the three diagnoses I had received in Bangalore. By then, I had rationalized my reaction to the whole situation. The pregnancy was not too far along, I thought. If it weren't for those ultra sensitive pregnancy tests, I would not even have found out that early that I was pregnant, I thought. I called V, told him the result. I was calm. He was calm. I drove home and as we were driving, told Big N that the baby was not growing well. I wanted to get it over with, finish talking about it.

In the evening, we visited my Ob/Gyn who recommended that I not do anything but just to let the miscarriage take its course. I had no clue what she meant, but was happy not to take any medication since I'm not a big fan of medical interventions when there are natural alternatives. She told me to call if my bleeding or pain got so heavy that I could not manage it.

I only remembered days later that the ultrasound technician had said that my Ob/Gyn would probably not let me go through the miscarriage but would do some kind of a procedure. I did not make the connection between those two statements then. We just went home, Big N and I went to bed to sleep off the jet lag. V went to work the next day and Big N and I unpacked and got ready to leave for Chicago in a couple of days for a family get together.

Towards the afternoon jet lag had caught up with Big N and he was already in bed. I lay down, exhausted from the journey, the emotions, the unpacking, the repacking. Suddenly my stomach started cramping in waves, from left to right, from front to back. I instantly recognized what they were - labor pains. I was thoroughly confused. I had no clue why, if everyone said I had miscarried, I was going through labor pains.

I gingerly rolled over to my left side. The pain subsided. I relaxed and started breathing freely again. Two minutes later, the pain was back. This went on for a good fifteen minutes before it stopped. I was completely shaken out of my sleep by then. Perhaps this was what my doctor meant by pain. It was gone before I could take any medication. I got up and walked over to the closet. I might as well pack, I thought. I sat down on my haunches to get to a chudidhar that I wanted to take.

It was then that the worst imaginable thing happened.

Whatever it was that had grown in my body for six weeks into the size of two palms held together, that thing that was going to be my baby, that thing that would have fed my baby for the next nine months, came out in a rush. I don't know why I thought of this, but I wanted to save it. I grabbed a big wad of napkins and mechanically rolled the bloody mess in it. Other than cleaning myself up and saving that thing, there was no thought in my head.

I went down to the kitchen, got a paper bag and put the napkin wad in the paper bag and called the on-call doctor. She came on the line. I got my name out. That was all.

I held the phone and bawled.

I did not know why I was crying. I thought I had felt perfectly all right until then. But I could not bring myself to explain to the doctor what had happened. The doctor's kind voice did not make it any better. I was suddenly filled with sorrow. Sorrow for the baby that was not to be, sorrow for the placenta that had grown, so full of expectation that it would feed my baby but now was lying waste in the paper bag, sorrow for all the anticipation for the following nine months that had been laid bare, sorrow for the emptiness I felt in the middle of my stomach.

A while later during which the doctor patiently held on to the phone, all cried out, I asked what to do with the paper bag. She gently said to bring it to the clinic the following day and set up an appointment to see the head Ob/Gyn. They might have to do a D&C she said.

Two days later, we scheduled a D&C. They put me under and my doctor scraped out whatever residue was left. As we were driving home, V said the doctor told him I kept saying "home" over and over during the procedure.

They say in the stock markets that past performance is no guarantee of future results. That is a great life lesson.

P.S.: I never got to see the young woman who sat behind us on the London-Washington, D.C. flight when we got off the plane. I wanted to thank her for her kindness and for her help. I did not feel alone on that flight.

And thank you to my doctor who just listened to me cry over the telephone.

Update:

I wanted to draw your attention to an amazing but thrilling story. A friend of mine who was pregnant about three months ago started bleeding profusely. She went to her doctor who advised her to get a D&C done. Well, a few days ago she thought she had become pregnant again, visited another gynec and discovered that her previous pregnancy had not in fact ended in miscarriage and that she was 15 weeks pregnant!

This probably happens in the rarest of cases, but the lesson in this is to get a second opinion. I don't want to raise false hopes through this story, but do want to alert you to the need to be deeply involved in the medical procedures that are carried out and the medical advice that is given to you.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Read India Books: A Treasure Trove of Children's Literature in Indian Languages (and English)

When you read a well-written children's book, nothing seems easier than to write and publish one. What could be difficult? All you need is a good idea and simple words that a child can understand. Voila! You have a children's book. Right?

Wrong.

Just as a well-written book makes it seem so simple, a badly produced one is a lesson in how easy it is for a children's book to come out all wrong. Children's books are, or should be, all about capturing the child's imagination and making the child want to read. The language should be simple and straightforward (not at all easy to achieve, I tell ya), the illustrations rich and eye-catching, the layout easy to navigate, the pages child-friendly, and the length just right.

While there are numerous publishing houses that cater to the children's market, most of these books are written by non-Indian authors, primarily for a non-Indian market. Yes, Indian children can and do read these books. Most of us are familiar with and love Dr. Seuss (my review of two of his Horton books here), Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, etc.

But what about books that are set in India? Books that draw from our rich cultural heritage? Books based on the Panchatantra? Books based on our history? Most importantly, what about books in Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, our languages?

When my brother and I were growing up, we were fed a steady diet of Chandamamas and Amar Chitra Kathas. We read and our mother read to us many stories from Indian mythology and history. Both these books, however, were for the older children. The Chandamamas told stories in long text with few pictures while the Amar Chitra Kathas told the stories through dialogues and pictures in comic book format.

Moreover, the stories, especially those from our religion and mythology are not told in child-friendly terms. Here, I'm thinking of the story of Krishna and the events leading up to it, including the slaying of seven of his siblings by Kamsa, hardly appropriate for a child just learning to read or even slightly older children. When I first read the story to N from a "children's book" (he was slightly over three then) I had to skip the pages where the language was particularly gory.

My search for Indian books for N was proving to be hopeless. That is, until I found Read India Books, quite by accident. I found Indian stories with Indian characters set in Indian households, towns and cities. The language was excellent, not childish but definitely child friendly. Here's an example from a story called A Royal Procession:
It was early in the morning when Parvati and her brother Laxman entered the monastery through the tall gates. Their father was a potter and they had come to deliver earthen pots, plates, bowls and glasses.

Putting down her basket, Parvati looked around the courtyard, which was surrounded by a row of small rooms, and asked, "Is this where the Buddhist monks stay?"

"Yes," said Laxman. "They live in those rooms and pray to Lord Buddha in that temple. This place is called a vihara."
The Royal Procession is from a series called "Once Upon an India" written by Subhadra Sen Gupta and illustrated by Tapas Guha. The set contains four books, one each from the Maurya period, the Pallava period, the Mughal period and the Freedom Movement.

(N's thoughts on The Royal Procession, a story about two children who got to see King Ashoka in person: the story was good because it really happened (which he tells me he figured out from the last section of the book, "Fun Facts of History"), because he got to see the king on the elephant, because the art was good, and because the children were very lucky to have met the king.)

Read India Books is an arm of the Pratham organization. According to their website,
Pratham Books is a not-for-profit trust that seeks to publish high-quality books for children at a affordable cost in multiple Indian languages. Pratham Books is trying to create a shift in the paradigm for publishing children’s books in India. The low cost model proves that children’s literature can be attractive and affordable and therefore more accessible.

Read India Books is an imprint of Pratham Books and is the first of several publishing brands that we hope to create. Over the next one year Pratham Books will publish an additional 100 children’s book titles under the Read India brand.
The books are categorized by age groups and are available in a few Indian languages in addition to English. For example, the Tell Me Now! Series, Khikkhil Tota (Hindi, Marathi and Kannada), a series called Primers are all recommended for 3-6 year olds. Books such as Hum Sab Prani, Paheliyaan, Out and About with Ajja (available in Hindi, English, Marathi, Kannada, Urdu and Gujarati), Wild and Wacky Animal Tales (available in Hindi, English, Marathi, Kannada, Urdu and Gujarati) are recommended for 6-9 year olds and The Quirquincho and The Fox, The Magic Powder, Ganga ki Lehrein (English, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada), a set of short stories in Hindi, Marathi and Kannada are all aimed at 10-14 year olds.

The books are printed on glossy, high-quality paper and book lengths range from about 15 pages to about 30 pages each. The color and the quality of the illustrations are excellent, as is the print. The type face is large and spaced so children can follow the words easily. The books are priced from Rs. 5 each (the Tell Me Now! Series) to about Rs. 25 each, and can be ordered online from Read India Books' website.

If you've been looking for high quality children's books in Indian languages with Indian stories told well but have been disappointed so far, I say your search has ended.

Crossposted on Project Child.

All Things Rickshaw!

Gaurav has a lovely post on auto rickshaws on Desicritics.

A self-confessed auto fanatic, he has compiled numerous hilarious anecdotes (including the only two Kannada words you need to know if you decide to "catch" an autorickshaw in Bangalore) and writes about, get this, a musical called Rickshaaa! A Film on Three Wheels.

Enjoy!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Out of Babes' Mouths III

Big N came back from school today and was gulping down lemonade when it occurred to me that I should pass on to him the bit of news about the pesticides in soft drinks. Although he's not tasted Coke or Pepsi (yet), he's partial to Sprite (or 7 Up in India) when we go out to eat.

I said, "N, do you know what was in the news today? Coke and Pepsi and Sprite and Mirinda, they all have chemicals in them. Chemicals that are used to kill bugs like cockroaches."

"So?" he said, nonchalantly, knowing what was coming but pretending that it was no big deal.

"So if they have chemicals that can kill bugs, then they'll harm your body when you drink them."

"Oh, yeah."

A couple of minutes go by.

"So if I see a cockroach and I pour some coke on it, will it die?"

Somebody help! Will the cockroach die?

In the meantime, I've said to N, "yes, of course!" like there was nary a doubt.

The Words Are Not Coming

Ok, the words are simply not coming. My sentences sound so ploddy and heavy. I have to think for a few minutes for the right words and even then they may not come. There's a cloud in my head.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Indian American

The arrival of our mail package from the US is an eagerly awaited event in our house. Among other goodies, Big N gets his National Geographics and V and I get our Time magazines and Business 2.0s.

Of course, there's also a load of mail we'd rather not get, but that's another story.

In the last two packages we received, we found issues of a new magazine, The Indian American, the premier issue of which was launched in May. Published by Universal Health Care Inc. out of New York, the bimonthly magazine,
... seeks to be a window into Indian American life and times, ... [and] also serve as mainstream America's bridge to understanding its new compatriots.

Even as it celebrates the intellectual, professional and material successes of Indian Americans, as it profiles the rich and famous, as it gossips about celebrioties and scoops their lifestyles, the magazine will not hesitate to investigate and examine the darker side of life - the pride and prejudices, the struggles and failures, the crimes and misdemeanors - to which Indian Americans are not entirely immune.
Publisher's Note, The Indian American, May-June 2006.

The premier issue features a beaming Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the cover with the tag, "CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Doctoring America". Other cover article titles include a hodge-podge of topics spanning politics, culture, gender issues, etc.: "Different Strokes: White Girls who Love Classical Indian Dances", "Embracing India: A New Axis Between New Delhi and Washington", "Abe's India, 'Czar' of the New York Times Remembers", "White House 2008: Politicos Discuss Their Choices", "Men! Single Women on What's Wrong With Dating Indian Men".

In addition to the Mail section, the contents include Speakeasy (a collection of gossipy tid-bits from showbiz, politics, fashion, etc. with commentary by Sunil Adam, the magazine's Editor and Art Director) Books, Movies, Music and Columns. The July-August edition has added Saree Sense, Beauty Tips and Quiz.

The magazine features the usual suspects among Desi Americans in its first two editions - Deepak Chopra, Dinesh D'Souza, Naveen Andrews, Zubin Mehta, all of the Desi anchors on CNN (Sumi Das, Aneesh Raman, Monita Rajpal, Zain Verjee), Ashok Bajaj (the Bombay Club in DC), Srinija Srinivasan (Yahoo!, Inc.), Jhumpa Lahiri, Thrity Umrigar, Indu Sundaresan, even the recently famous (or notorious, depending on how you want to look at it) Kaavya Viswanathan.

Considerable space is also devoted to the decidedly lesser known among us, which is a welcome aspect of the magazine. There are all the politicos, most we've never heard of, but are apparently very successful in the corridors of power. There are actors and actresses with parts in prime time sitcomes and cable shows. Then there are the "man on the street" variety of Desi Americans - women discussing their idea of an ideal relationship, young girls giving us the low down on their relationship with their parents, those who've chosen a career in the arts (considered a non-conventional choice among Desi Americans and therefore deserving of an article in a magazine).

The magazine is certainly an eye-opener. I read about people I'd never heard of before. It showcases the talents of this considerably influential and successful group (many of which are not immediately apparent) and discusses issues that affect us uniquely as immigrants.

Depending on how the vision for the magazine pans out over the coming months, I would even go so far as to say that it could serve as forum that brings together the diaspora. Given our uniqueness as an immigrant group (various languages, religions, areas of expertise), The Indian American could be a useful platform on which we can all gather.

It is precisely this aspect that could also box us into a corner and end up identifying us to ourselves and to the rest of the country as nothing more than "Indian Americans". I do hope that this will not be the case.

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