Tuesday, January 31, 2006

NRI Parents: Empty Nesters, But Lonely No More

Here's a social sub-group that my parents belong to, but it never crossed my mind until I read this article in the Feb 6, 2006 edition of Outlook magazine - NRI Parents.

In other words, parents of Non-Resident Indians.

These parents have a lot more in common than just their children living away from them in foreign lands. They face common issues at home - loneliness, lack of a support system, travel issues, management of funds, etc. So they banded together to form associations. Many such associations are already up and running in almost every major city in India including Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Baroda, Ahmedabad and Coimbatore.

How do these associations help? In more ways than you can imagine:
They meet every month; organise excursions, get-togethers and recreational activities; celebrate festivals; bring out newsletters and directories of members; and in times of need provide a rock-solid support network. At a more practical level, they provide lists of recommended vital service providers, hold lectures and workshops on typical concerns like travel, insurance, healthcare, and foreign exchange; teach members to become computer-savvy enough to stay in regular e-mail contact with their children; help those travelling abroad, especially first-timers, with visa and passport modalities, ticketing, medical insurance and the like; and stand guard over each other's personal and material well-being. Some associations even advise their members' NRI children on investment, property ownership, taxation, repatriation of funds, inheritance, and dual citizenship, and help returnees relocate and resume careers and children's education.
One aspect of this banding together that I love is the fact that these parents watch out for each others' well-being, especially in times of medical crises. The article tells the stories of aged parents having to go through medical procedures, but not having to have their children catch the first flight back home. Because this time around they had their buddies accompanying them on doctors' visits, staying with them at the hospital and taking them back home with them to recuperate after the procedures.

What a sense of comfort this must be, not just for the parents but for the children as well.

So if you're living abroad and have parents living in India, directing them to these associations may not be a bad idea.

Crossposted on Desicritics.org.

Monday, January 30, 2006

How the Other Half Lives

How the Other Half Lives - A Reality Called India is a group blog started by a few of the excellent bloggers in the Indian blogosphere - Uma, Dilip, Vikrum, Shivam and Anand. This is how they describe their blog and their efforts:
We know that India still remains deeply divided between its elites and its have-nots; a divide so great that much of the elite does not even see it, happily believing that the nation as a whole is on its way to superpower status. There is no doubt at all that economic liberalisation has helped a section of the economy, yet there is equally no doubt that there are faultlines in economic growth and equitability. Rifts across the lines of caste and communalism intersect in complex ways with the changing economic landscape.

This blog will attempt to explore that uncertain terrain. It will focus on the “other half” that is often ignored by the mainstream media. It will attempt to present a fuller picture of India and a fuller examination of issues of concern than what we normally see around us.

To this end, we hope to ask questions and suggest answers. Some of the questions we ask include:

  • Fundamentally, what are the aims of liberalization; what should they be; and what else defines India in the 21st century, apart from the growth of our economy or the successes and failures of liberalization?
  • Which sections of Indian society and the economy have benefited from liberalization, and which ones have not? And which ones have been adversely affected because of liberalization?
  • Is poverty decreasing? If so how much and how fast?
  • What are we doing to push growth and opportunity in rural areas, where over two-thirds of Indians still live?
  • What about issues of caste, class, gender? What about food, housing, water, sanitation, education? What about corruption, crime, social justice, rights and responsibilities?

Because India is changing, in many ways and dramatically. Yet in many ways India is also much the same. This blog is a fruit of the tension between those two thoughts, an attempt to examine the ground in between.

Surely it is time for us to pay attention to how the other half lives.
Check it out. I expect it to be well worth your time and thought.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Of Babysitting and Stolen Childhoods

At least twice a month, Saturday nights were movie nights. We hired a babysitter to play with our young son for a couple of hours, drove to the nearest movie theater, got tickets to whatever movie still had a few seats open and watched that movie.

The neighborhood where we lived in northern Virginia had three girls in their early teens who were interested in babysitting and earning some money along the way. All three had obtained training in CPR (cardiac pulmonary resuscitation), were Girl Scouts (Girl Guides, as they are known in India) and were very professional in their approach to babysitting. They arrived at the appointed time and never canceled if they had promised they would be there on any given day.

One of them, in particular, took her job very seriously. The first day she was to babysit for us, she whipped out a one page, typed form for us to fill. The form asked for everything from our emergency contact information to our son's bedtime, his medications, if any, allergies, if any, his dinner time and what he liked to eat for dinner.

We were taken aback, to say the least.

She was also very well prepared to handle our son for the two odd hours she expected to play with him. She had brought along with her some crayons and pictures for him to color, and some games.

This Saturday night arrangement worked well for all parties involved. My husband and I got to hang out together and watch a movie or attend work-related events, our son had a fun time with a babysitter who wasn't averse to squealing like a child herself and running around the house after him, and the babysitter got to earn money for whatever she was saving for (one of them financed a trip to Mexico through her earnings).

When we moved to Bangalore about a year ago, I was delighted to find a lot of teens in our neighborhood. I, of course, saw potential babysitters in all of them. Fully expecting to have at least five potential babysitters in my rolodex by the end of the week, I approached two of them who were hanging out in the childrens' park in our apartment complex.

"Hi, I was looking for a babysitter for my son. Do you guys babysit?"

"Whaaa...?" read their expressions. They didn't have a clue as to what I was saying.

They looked at each other and got up and walked away, leaving me with my mouth hanging open.

I thought I had approached the whole thing wrong. May be I should've asked the parents.

So I talked to the mother of one of the girls. Her reaction was not much better than the one I got from the girls. Finally I got something along the lines of "I don't think she'll be interested," from the mother.

I couldn't figure it out. It's not that no one had ever heard of babysitting here. Moreover, what did the other parents do? Most families have both parents working and most families are nuclear units, so the need for a babysitter (as distinct from a full-time nanny) must arise at some point.

A couple of months down the road the picture became somewhat clearer. Most of the families with young children had someone staying with them. In some cases it was a grand-parent, but more often than not, a young girl, practically a child herself, transplanted from some village to live at the house and take care of children not much younger than herself.

I saw them everywhere. I saw them at the park with the kids (I saw more such young girls than the childrens' mothers in the park), I saw them at the grocery store handling the cart and the children while the mother piled the cart with groceries, I saw them at the school gates waiting patiently to pick up their wards.

You don't have to look very hard to find the irony in this picture. We hesitate to have our own children "work" while apparently having no objection to young children working long hours to care for our children.

And children don't just work in homes. They work in extremely hazardous conditions in factories and construction sites, in the cities as rag pickers and in the fields. Here is a heart-breaking story from a Human Rights Watch report from a few years ago about a girl forced to work in a beedi-rolling factory:
My sister is ten years old. Every morning at seven she goes to the bonded labor man, and every night at nine she comes home. He treats her badly, he hits her if he thinks she is working slowly or if she talks to the other children, he yells at her, he comes looking for her if she is sick and cannot go to work. I feel this is very difficult for her.

I don't care about school or playing. I don't care about any of that. All I want is to bring my sister home from the bonded labor man. For 600 rupees I can bring her home - that is our only chance to get her back.

We don't have 600 rupees. We will never have 600 rupees.
The entire report is here.

More recently, Outlook (January 23, 2006 issue) carried some horrifying stats on the state of child labor in India.
Nearly 17 million children have to work for a living, many of them in hazardous environments. Close to 30% of the 2 million sex workers are underage. Less than half of India's 430 million children go to schools.
And in any given month, there are at least two stories such as these about the discovery of child labor and the rescue of the children.

And there is something we can all do about it.

Next time you see a child working somewhere he or she should not be working, please report it to the authorities. Organizations such as Akshara Foundation will work with the families of such children and will give them lessons at least for a few hours everyday so that the endless cycle of lack of education and financial indebtedness is not repeated.

This post began on a somewhat facetious note about babysitters, but the point, really, is about children and their right to their childhood, to an education, and to at least the opportunity to get out of whatever financial morass their families have gotten into.

Crossposted on Desicritics.org.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

3 Knights in India and Chinese Take-Out

John Steventon is a cartoonist who's working on his second publication, 3 Knights in India. After seeing my post about the Jayanagar IV Block Shopping Complex, he sent me an e-mail with an interesting question.

He wanted to know what kind of containers are used by Chinese restaurants for packing take-out food so he could depict it appropriately in his illustrations.

In Bangalore, Chinese food comes in round, white, plastic containers with plastic tops. Some restaurants have their name on the containers and some don't.

Has anyone seen any another kinds of containers for Chinese take-out food? Do they pack some food in aluminium foil?

John has visited Bangalore twice to research the series and has some lovely photographs of those visits. Check out the one captioned "Why spelling really does count". It's hilarious.

But even better than the photographs are his cartoons that were inspired by his visits. He's uploaded them as well right alongside the photographs.

Here is his depiction of the Jayanagar market.
Cartoon by John Steventon (www.happyglyphs.com)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Did a Double Take, Anyone?

Woke up at 4 this morning (jet lag has been unusually severe this time around) and had a hankering for less color. So started tinkering around and came up with this.

Now that I'm looking at it, just too bland. But will stick with it for a while. May be it'll grow on me.

Whaaa...? Come again?

I was at a wedding yesterday.

Towards the end of the marriage ceremony, but while the rituals were still going on, the band switched from traditional carnatic music to that song from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, "Tujhe Dekha To Ye Jaana Sanam"!

I know I sound like a stodgy old woman, but it was a little weird at first. A while later, it was quite enjoyable.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Clash of the Worlds

N and I were at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) a couple of days after we got to the US to get our car license tags reissued.

We took a number to get in line, I filled out the application form and we sat in the row of chairs facing the 17-odd customer service counters. Christmas decorations were everywhere - green imitation pine streamers hung from the doors, windows and ceiling, red bows punctuating them every two feet or so, and red stockings hung from every counter with the name of each employee written in shiny colorful markers across the white furry borders.

As we sat waiting, we read the names on each of the stockings. When we came to the one with lettering in gold-colored marker, I blinked. The name looked like it had been written in Kannada. I blinked again, but it wouldn't go away.

I asked N to go up closer to the stocking and see if it was written in Kannada. He looked at me like I was nuts ("You've got to be kidding, mom"), but he went to the stocking and looked. It said Safiana. In English, of course.

Snippets of conversations I could not catch in crowded places seemed like they were spoken in Kannada. I looked around and there was not a single Indian face to be seen. It's not just me. On this trip, N sometimes thought he heard Kannada too.

This was not the first time my two worlds have clashed in my head. When we're driving around in the US on a stretch of road empty of other vehicles, with relatives or our Indian friends in the car, listening to a Hindi CD, it comes as a complete shock to me when we come to a traffic signal and there are cars with non-Indian faces in them.

We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

And my brain doesn't just transplant India into the US. The reverse works very well too.

A few months ago I was at my uncle's house in Bangalore for a pre-wedding family get-together (my cousin was getting married). I was dressed up in Indian clothes, of course, with bindis going a mile up on my forehead and bangles clanging on my wrists. On the way back home I needed to stop at the grocery store for something.

As I was leaving my uncle's house, an image flitted across my head. I was going to show up at the grocery store in all my Indian finery. Just a thought. And an awareness that I would get a lot of stares and smiles and perhaps some questions.

A second later it struck me.

Duh! I'm in India! I'm not going to the local Safeway, I'm going to Monday to Sunday!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Am baaaaack....

Got back to Bangalore yesterday.

Had a wonderful time in DC, seeing all the old familiar landmarks, meeting up with old friends, visiting the Christmas Tree and the Minora at the White House, roaming the malls choking with the rush of year-end shoppers....

Things hadn't changed much - the neighbors were the same, our favorite restaurants remained (even some of the waiters), Trader Joe's was still there, Beltway politics was in full swing.

Well, may be one thing had changed - the Redskins are on a 6 game winning streak!