Friday, December 19, 2008

Ross Douthat on Torture

But anyone who felt the way I felt after 9/11 has to reckon with the fact that what was done in our name was, in some sense, done for us - not with our knowledge, exactly, but arguably with our blessing. I didn't get what I wanted from this administration, but I think you could say with some justification that I got what I asked for. And that awareness undergirds - to return to where I began this rambling post - the mix of anger, uncertainty and guilt that I bring to the current debate over what the Bush Administration has done and failed to do, and how its members should be judged.
More here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Superman of Malegaon

"This is the first time I am taking on Hollywood. I hope to get overseas rights for my Superman film," Nasir said with a dimpled smile. "There are many flying scenes. When my Superman flies, Malegaon will fly, too."

There is one problem. Malegaon's Superman is no muscleman. Instead, he is wafer-thin, wears flip-flops and has cotton strings hanging from his shorts. His father makes him sit on a truck tire and pushes him into a river, ordering him, "Go save Malegaon!"

But when this caricature tries to rescue children drowning in the river, he begins to gasp for breath and has to be pulled out. He wants to prevent children from falling off the roof but gets stuck in the electric wires. He slips into the gutter when he tries to stop a school bus with his hands. He is thrown into a tub of milk to gain strength; he catches a chill instead.
The entire story here. Do read. Sure to make you smile and marvel at the creativity and the will of one man.

Monster in the grocery aisle

Went to the grocery store to pick up some stuff last night and found this in the fresh vegetable section.

My first reaction was "Ewwwwww!" before I whipped out the cell phone and snapped a couple of pictures. It had the texture and color of a lemon. A label slapped on the thing told me it was Buddha Hand.

Wikipedia offers more pics and some very interesting tid-bits:
The fruit may be given as a religious offering in Buddhist temples. According to tradition, Buddha prefers the "fingers" of the fruit to be in a position where they resemble a closed rather than open hand, as closed hands symbolize to Buddha the act of prayer.

The origin of Buddha's Hand is traced back to Northeastern India and is believed to be the first citrus fruit known in Europe. It is speculated that the Greeks and Romans brought them back from Asia.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Time's 2008 Person of the Year...

... is Obama. A foregone conclusion, but Time labors to explain its reasoning:
In the waning days of his extraordinary year and on the cusp of his presidency, what now seems most salient about Obama is the opposite of flashy, the antithesis of rhetoric: he gets things done. He is a man about his business — a Mr. Fix It going to Washington. That's why he's here and why he doesn't care about the furniture. We've heard fine speechmakers before and read compelling personal narratives. We've observed candidates who somehow latch on to just the right issue at just the right moment. Obama was all these when he started his campaign: a talented speaker who had opposed the Iraq war and lived a biography that was all things to all people. But while events undermined those pillars of his candidacy, making Iraq seem less urgent and biography less relevant, Obama has kept on rising. He possesses a rare ability to read the imperatives and possibilities of each new moment and organize himself and others to anticipate change and translate it into opportunity.
On another note, here's Obama in 2008.

In 2012, it'll be interesting to go back to this photograph or to any of his recent ones to see how much grayer he's gotten. If recent history is any indication (Bill Clinton, G.W.), Obama will be silver-haired by then.

Picture credit: Callie Shell/Aurora for Time.

Edited to add a link to the Time article (Dec 18, 08).

Preparing for the What Ifs

Whenever self-pity threatens to wash over me, usually about the fourth day after the husband has left on yet another of his frequent trips, I think about one of my friends. She managed two kids, a dog and a home on her own for an entire year while her husband served in Iraq. In the neighborhood that I live, her story is not uncommon.

The days and weeks before someone leaves to go a long way away from home and family and for a long period must be, of course, intensely emotional. There's the spectre of days without contact, not knowing what's going on. There are those moments at the end of the day when the entire family is meant to be together chatting happily about the day's events or cribbing about the boss. (Lisa, the wife of one of the men who died on Flight 93 on 9/11, said of all the times she missed her husband the most, the most soul-crushing few moments that she relived day after day was the time every evening she expected him to fling the door open and yell, "I'm home!" and he never did.) There are the weekends stretching endlessly, during which you actually look forward to the mind-numbing routine of the week. There's the uncertainty - what if? - your wife or husband does not make it back?

Worst of all, knowing all this, you must plan for that eventuality. Of the few times my friend has talked to me about her experiences during that time, she described the agony of going through finances to prepare for the eventuality that her husband might not return.

Terri's Mom's recent post prompted by the premature death of the husband of one of her friends poignantly ponders the issue of losing a spouse and how the survivor might manage in its wake. In our rational minds, we know we must prepare. We all have heard horror stories of surviving friends and relatives who got blindsided by poorly managed finances. But somehow our recessive ostrich genes suddenly assert their dominance when it comes to having to think about discomfiting problems.

There's another infinitely more grim issue that we've been grappling with - who will take care of the children if something happens to the both of us?

We have never gone away overnight, or even for more than a few hours, without the kids. But what if? These days, with all the horrible incidents taking place everywhere no one is really immune. It's easy to imagine all the ways. I'm not even going to enumerate them.

It is not the actual act of sitting down and figuring out who to designate to be the children's guardians. We did that within weeks after we had C.** It's the necessity of having to imagine how their lives will be like in the immediate aftermath.

This thought process is made that much more excruciating because we live far away from our extended family. Grandparents are more than a day away. Other relatives at least a few hours away, that is if they get to know within minutes. If not, they are days away too. You cannot escape the horrifying thought that for a few hours, for a couple of days, your children will become wards of the state. They will be in some strange home, in strange beds, eating strange food. That is, if they stopped crying at all. Sometimes I can't get two-year-old Moshe's crying face, in his grandparents' arms but wailing for his mother anyway, out of my head. I remember reading the story of a six-month-old baby who cried for days after his mother died on 9/11, his sobs starting anew every time the door opened and it was not his mother.

As the lawyer went down the details of who the court will accept as guardians (a relative in the US preferred over relatives in India) and how they will decide on where to place the children in the absence of our instructions, my stomach roiled as my mind imagined every ghastly scenario.

A few weeks ago in a fit of wanting to do something I sent details of every relative and close friends that need to be contacted to two friends. They see me every day and C knows to go to them or call them if necessary. Until the kids are collected by whoever their guardians are going to be, I want them to be with familiar people, with friends, and see familiar faces, people who I know adore them, who will care for them and make them feel safe.


** This was not something we had ever thought about before having children. One of our friends had a child before C was born and in passing they had said it was important to designate someone to step into your shoes. It was also important to keep this decision from your designated person, they said. They would find out when the executor (of their affairs) opened the papers. The reason for this was that your opinion of your designated person might change in the interim and it was best that there was no fuss or misunderstanding after you're gone and no longer able to control anything.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Darth Vader and Veggie Tacos

It's 8:40 already and I'm scrambling to make lunch for C. I've cut up the veggies, roasted them and have the rest of the fillings ready for his soft tacos. In the usual last-minute rush of the morning - C can't find his socks, D wants milk - I leave one of the tortillas in the pan for a little longer than I should have. It turns out crisp and flaky.

As I try to roll up the tortilla around the stuffing I show C what's happening. I tell him to be careful at lunch time so the insides don't all spill out. He says he has an idea. Why don't I wrap aluminum foil around the taco so it doesn't fall apart, he suggests, just like Darth Vader's suit kept his insides together.

I could do without the visual but I follow his suggestion.

Later in the afternoon, I find a clean lunch box with no evidence of the mess I had feared.

Writing - Process and Routines

After dragging my feet for a while, I recently found a women's writing group. I just needed to have a sense for how other people like me, attempting to write but finding themselves pulled in a hundred different directions, got any writing done at all. I signed up three months ago, but haven't been able to attend one of their monthly meetings yet. Argh!

But all is not lost. Via The Daily Dish, I found this website called Daily Routines, devoted to "how writers, artists and other interesting people organize their days".

What a find! The entries about Alice Munro ("As a young author taking care of three small children, Munro learned to write in the slivers of time she had, churning out stories during children's nap times, in between feedings, as dinners baked in the oven.") and Toni Morrison ("Writing before dawn began as a necessity--I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama--and that was always around five in the morning.") are heartening. Of course, they are accomplished writers and I'm still languishing in wannabe land, but one can always dream, right?

There are other fun nuggets - Kafka was a procrastinator (yay! so am I!), Emily Post wrote in bed and did not get off it until noon (sigh!).

The posts reminded me of the time a couple of years ago when I interviewed author Sashi Deshpande for AIR's FM station in Bangalore. One of the questions I asked during the interview was what her advice would be to people who wanted to be writers. The lady looked at me, wagged a finger and said, her voice gentle but admonishing, "You can't want to be a writer. That's the wrong way to look at it. You must want to write."

I think I've got the 'want' part down. I was up at 4 this morning, little ideas that demanded to be put down on paper doing the jiggy in my head. Just don't ask me how I ended up on The Atlantic's website.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


A few days ago C asked how salt was made. I gave him some vague answer about salt beds and evaporation and crystallization. Today's Washington Post has the story of one family that works on those salt beds. The latest in its series called A Woman's World - The Struggle for Equality Around the Globe, the story is about the unequal schooling opportunities for boys and girls in South Asia and traces the harsh life of one family as they leave their homes and spend part of the year near the salt beds.

Though the village of 12,000 is a seven-hour walk from Jyotsna's isolated hut on the salt pans, it might as well be England, it feels so different and far away.

"It's easier to be a boy," said Jyotsna, who was forced to drop out of school at 10 to help her parents. "They get to go to school." Jyotsna's mother said she could not afford to let all three of her children study, so she picked her daughter to work.


"I regret she has this hard life," said her mother, Ranjanben Patadia, 35. "But this is the destiny of girls. It was my destiny, too." Unlike her mother, who never set foot in a classroom, Jyotsna did study on and off for a few years, thanks to a major government effort over the past decade to enroll all children. Though Jyotsna can still barely read or write, that progress has made her more aware of what she is now missing.


Clack. Clack. Clack. The "machine," as everyone calls their water pump, sounds like a heartbeat. And in a way, it is. If it stops, so does life here. No more salt, money, meals. Jyotsna's parents earn $500 annually from mining salt, and that all depends on the rickety old pump sucking briny underground water to the surface.

Once there, the water is channeled into hand-dug ponds. The sun bakes it, and the salt crystals left behind are sold to flavor potato chips and scrambled eggs in distant lands.


Her parents had left before sunrise. They earn 35 cents for every 220-pound bag they fill with salt, so they start early and work late.


Her parents struggle in the heat, and her father, Bhopabhai Patadia, 39, sometimes collapses. He has high blood pressure, as do many people here, because too much salt seeps into his body through cracks in his bare feet.

I don't think I'll ever take salt for granted again. The photo gallery is especially gripping.

From the reporter's notebook, a wry look at toilet facilities, or the lack thereof, near the salt beds.

The entire series is a fascinating, sometimes hearwrenching, look into the lives of women in various corners of the world - Germany, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Pakistan, UK.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Is it true...

... that we are closer to our maternal grandparents than we are to our paternal grandparents? If so, why do you think that is?

Thursday, December 11, 2008


As I was going down the list trying to check off the things I'd done before I turned 30 for one of the posts below (150 Things To Do Before You Turn 30) the one event that jumped out of the list was number 92 - "Buried one/both of your parents". My first thought was, How morbid!, but then it occurred to me that the creator probably meant this to be a list of things that have may have transpired in a 30-year-old's life.

Sometime during the following day, in between shuttling the kids around, the housework, the newspapers, a fight with the electrician, etc., it occurred to me that the list said nothing about grandparents. It's more likely for 30-year-olds to have lost their grandparents than their parents.

By the time I was 30, I'd lost all four of mine.

I know my paternal grandparents as Avva and Thatha, but only by way of referring to them in conversations with my father. I never called them by those names because I never knew them. My grandfather died when my dad was eight years old, so all I know about him is that he was tall (6ft 2), dark, a math teacher, soft-spoken and that he died penniless. My grandmother died when my dad was 30, before he got married. She was all of four feet tall, fair, a fiercely independent woman who brought up ten kids, half of them boys, much of the bringing up done on her own.

My maternal grandparents were very much part of our lives. For most of our childhood they lived in Mysore, in a decent-sized house with a huge front garden. The house had a porch, a veranda with wire mesh windows the size of half a wall, two rooms along the street, a hall with built-in showcases, a tiny, dark kitchen, a large bathroom and a room my grandparents mostly used to store the coconuts from their two coconut trees.

The house was an unending source of fascination for me and my brother. It boasted many features that we did not have in any of the houses we had lived in. Through the wire mesh in the veranda, you could look way up the street, watch buses whizzing down the road, keep an eye on the bakery and smell its delicious buns and puffs right around tea time. The coffee powder shop and the mill were the two other sources of olfactory stimuli. Then there were those built-in showcases with all those books and dolls on their shelves. A huge garden full of rose plants, daria flower plants, jasmine bushes and creepers, a sampige tree, a papaya tree, a large curry leaves tree and two coconut trees graced the front of the house.

Best of all, in that house lived our grandmother. She was a large woman, slightly bigger than my grandfather, but all of that real estate was put to excellent use - she was soft and cuddly, and was the owner of a cozy lap. From her capable hands flowed one delectable delight after another - obbattus, sakkaré achchu, chaklis, kodu balés. During festivals, her long fingers, gnarled and wrinkled from constant use would conjure up the most delicate flower patterns out of foil and cotton to decorate the idols, some of which she would have dressed carefully with saris and dhotis made of colorful paper. And all year round, her strong arms tilled her front yard, dug up flower beds, planted seeds and saplings and cajoled even the most recalcitrant ones into a bountiful life. She strung together jasmine buds and roses and made her famous moggina jadés (flowers would be arranged decoratively and stitched onto a long cardboard strip so that the strip was entirely covered with the flowers and then tied to braided hair) for young girls headed to the studio to have their picture taken (forcefully by the mothers) or headed to a dance recital.

My abiding sense of her is that she was a purposeful woman who worked very, very hard. Other than sitting down exhausted at the end of the day, I don't have a memory of her complaining about any of the things she had to do. Things needed to get done and so she did them. And then she did some more on top of that. She and my grandfather raised five children on a shoestring budget, educated them and got them all settle and married. Then she threw herself into her community. She made things for people, she got people to go to the Rama Mandira for hari kathé sessions or for special pujas. She taught them how to make all the beautiful things she created with her hands and her imagination. She conducted veena classes. She had a large circle of friends who she mined for information about prospective grooms and brides. Armed with horoscopes a few inches thick, she was a fearless matchmaker, her mind assessing the various possibilities when presented with a query, even on the street, her mental Rolodex flipping furiously.

Sometimes, standing in my own kitchen early in the morning before the sun has risen, with a boiling pot of hot water for my tea and the ticking of the kitchen clock for company, I remember dark, pre-dawn mornings from a long time ago. The milkman would be making his rounds on his cycle, calling out "haalu" once in a while, jataka gaadis would already be clip-clopping up and down the street, there would be the stray moped. From the kitchen, I would hear my mother and grandmother, their voices thick in the way voices are when you first wake up in the morning. They would be gossipping, catching up on all the news that had remained undelivered in the age before there were telephones in every home.

I can picture my grandmother sitting just inside the kitchen, probably making coffee in her small stove on the floor while my mother waited just outside, in the hall, giving her company without crowding the kitchen. My grandmother would talk in Telugu and my mother would respond in Kannada. Of her five kids, my mother was the only one she spoke to in Telugu, perhaps because that's what we (my parents and us two kids) spoke at home. Which is why I always called her Ajji but referred to her as Avva when I spoke about her with my parents or brother.

(If you diagrammed the languages spoken in my house and who spoke what to whom, it would produce an illustration akin to a bowl of spaghetti. More on that in another post. Updated to link to the languages post: One Family, Three (or Four) Languages, One Fine Legacy.)

When I think of her getting ready to go somewhere, the image in my mind is one of her with her butti, a basket woven out of plastic strings with four metal rivets at the bottom so they would not topple when set down on the floor. She would hang the two handles on her arm, pull the pallu of her sari around her shoulders, put her head down and be off.

I don't know if she was deeply religious or not, but festivals were a big deal in her house, especially the Gauri and Ganesha festivals and Dussera. And I do know that she believed very strongly in some things - such as her mangalasutra. I remember once a hook needed to be repaired and we went to the goldsmith. She took it off from around her neck very reluctantly but refused to let go. She held on to it tightly with her hands while the goldsmith did his job. And to watch my strong and strong-willed grandmother be so afraid was a revelation. As if for a fleeting second, I had been allowed a peek into her soul. Perhaps it was this memory that spurred me to take mine off a few days after I got married, afraid that as time wore on, I would invest it with powers that I knew it could not have.

Ten years have gone by since she passed away, after a protracted battle with bone cancer that left her exhausted and racked with pain.

I am happy that she was there when I got married. But I wish I had spent more time with her, getting to know her as a person. And I wish my children had known her. She was one of those real-life heroes. Unsung, because she did the things that ordinary men and women do every day. The ones that bring up their children, take care of their families, are good neighbors and don't let anything else get in the way. The ones you can actually touch.


As I was writing this I got the feeling that I had talked about some of the things in other contexts in earlier posts. I went back into the archives and found these:

Updating to add a link to Sharanya's moving tribute to her grandmother and to Bird's Eye View's post about her ajji.
And to add a request: I would be thrilled if you would share stories about your own grandmothers in the comments. If you decide to write posts on your own blogs, please do leave a link here. Thanks.
Update (Dec 12, 08): Adding a link to Choxbox's endearing post about her grandmother:
At night we'd huddle around her and she'd tell us stories. There are so many delicious memories involving all kinds of yummy things associated with the huge house overflowing with uncles, aunts and cousins. I had my first baby at mom's place and she came over and stayed for a month or so; she is the prime reason I got through it with barely a scratch. She always has a very calming effect - her simple wisdom makes everything seem much less complicated.
Update (February 20, 2009): Adding a link to Tharini's lovely tribute to her Raji Patti:

I wanted to remember Patti the way I had always known her to be. Sweet, smiling, with a red kumkum in the middle of her forehead, walking in little steps with her hunchback, the strength of her character always shining through. And I wanted no part of reality to slice up this remnant of my childhood and make me face its glaring truth. That times change, that people change, strengths fade away, that the body weakens and succumbs to old age, and that the one I looked to as my source of strength would be needing that same kind of strength from me. When we climbed up those 3 floors to my Uncle's flat, my heart was sinking with each step. But I knew, I must see her, and accept her the way she is now.
Update (March 1, 2009): Linking to Frankie Anon's 'Party Grandma'story - a trip down a windy, bumpy memory lane that evokes the many complex relationships that are the stuff of every family's lore:
The Party Grandma had been a flapper in her youth, sporting bobbed hair and cigarettes, and to her dying day at 81 she liked make-up, music, and martinis. She loved a good joke, and when I picture her, she is laughing. But somehow, in spite of the laughter, something about her the Party Grandma made me sad. Her eyes rarely smiled, and even when I was very young, I sensed that her exterior was a lie.
Update (March 9, 2009): Ardra shares cherished memories of her Ammamma:
Ammamma has been a very strong influence in our lives. She is well read and keeps abreast of current affairs and has a strong opinion on everything and does not hesitate to express it. She takes good care of her health and follows a disciplined routine. People who know her come to her seeking advice and Blessings. She gets invited to grace and speak at functions in our village. She commands a lot of respect from everybody around her. She does have a somewhat strict countenance which makes some people a little wary about approaching her. However once the ice is broken they realize that it is just a veneer.
Update (May 27, 2009): Sriram writes a loving tribute to his Patti:

My Paati (Paati is the Tamil word for Grandmother) is an influential figure in my life. She is everything to me. After my mum, she is the first person to see me. From paaladai to ooti-vittufy, she has fed me. She has told me stories. She introduced God to me. She taught me how to pray. She taught me the value of having values, the importance of doing one's duty, to love unconditionally. From her, I learnt how to be soft and yet strong, how to be innocuous and still be assertive...Most importantly, I learnt who I am and who I can be.


People dream. They aspire to do lots of things. Many aspire, but only few steadfastly work towards it and realise the dream. My Paati is one of the few. I believe she has achieved her dreams. Her life is punctuated with many challenges which she has overcome with grit, hardwork, determination and sense of faith. To me, my Paati is a real achiever and a true all rounder.

Update (October 10, 2009): Minal shares loving memories of her Aaji:
Mom called me at 9.30 on Thursday night and her voice was shaking when she uttered Mothi Aai’s name. At that very moment I knew what had happened. Mothi Aai was no more. My Aaji, my only granny was no more. When I was finally getting to be close to her and letting her know that how important she was to me, god decided it was enough.
People tell me she lived a good life, I know she did. She did not trouble anyone till her death, she was independent, loving, talkative and fun-loving. She travelled places and loved visiting people. She was fit and fine and on her 2 feet despite 3-4 operations. She refused to accept any diet restrictions cause she believed in enjoying her life to the fullest.
She had 5 lovely children, 2 wonderful son-in-laws, 3 doting daughters-in-law and 8 loving grandchildren. She was not perfect, I know she was flawed, she had her biases , did not make the best mother-in-law but she learnt, tried and improved her self with times. She adjusted to her rebellious grand children and came down to being their friend instead of an over-bearing grandma.
Update (October 12, 2009): Shoba remembers her Ajji with fondness:
There was a hall and two small bedrooms, where all of us, including cousins visiting from their respective places, used to sleep together. With children running around, Granny used to feel frustrated with her “Madi” avatar. Special mention has to be given to her “Madi”. Very few were allowed in the kitchen to help her out. Even when she ate food,rice was molded as a ball and thrown in to the mouth, with the correct trajectory.Never missed the target.Yes, both my grandfather & grandmother were proficient at that art. Personally hand washed sarees hung out to dry on ropes tied up above, very close to the ceiling using long rods. Wonder where she had the strength to use those rods.
She was always busy in that dark kitchen, looking for something, grinding some powder,cooking for everyone or in the bathroom getting the hot water ready. One had to pour water in to these huge copper vessels called “Handi”, and heat water using charcoal. In Bangalore, hot water was a must and there were not geysers around.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Blog Worth Your Time

All Sounds to Silence Come, where the stories are beautifully crafted vignettes. Made my way there today after a long while and came upon a treasure-trove.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Volunteerism vs. Terrorism

It has been a week since a handful of terrorists brazenly attacked Mumbai and mowed down innocent people going about their lives. A twisted ideology, a few guns and hand-grenades caused enough mayhem and destruction over a span of two and half days to roil already sensitive relations between two neighboring countries and evoke anger, rage, sadness, anxiety and fear in a whole lot of people, as many Indians as non-Indians.

Since then we have heard from commentators, politicians, policy-makers, victims, reporters, activists, writers, bloggers and ordinary citizens the world over.

Some of these reactions assess how we got where we are - helpless, at the mercy of a few youngsters who take it upon themselves to end human lives while giving birth to chaos. They don't hesitate to point fingers at a whole host of reasons - bad intelligence, a government asleep at the wheel, police and army branches stymied by hierarchy and politics, inadequate security in public places, a down-trodden Muslim population in India, a two-faced Pakistan saying one thing on the world stage but doing something entirely different in the dark corners within its borders. Some ask, frustration and desperation oozing from their words, what do we do going forward? What is the solution to this vexing problem?

Here's Amitav Ghosh ("If India takes a hard line modeled on the actions of the Bush administration, the consequences are sure to be equally disastrous."), and Suketu Mehta ("But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever."), and Thomas Friedman ("The best defense against this kind of murderous violence is to limit the pool of recruits, and the only way to do that is for the home society to isolate, condemn and denounce publicly and repeatedly the murderers — and not amplify, ignore, glorify, justify or “explain” their activities."), and Pankaj Mishra ("Indeed, the outrage in Mumbai is the latest and clearest sign that the price of India’s uncompromising stance on Kashmir has become too high, imperiling its economy as well as its security."), and Manjeet Kripalani ("Lists of suggestions are being posted on the Internet on how to rebel, from tax revolts to shifting corporate headquarters out of Bombay to other Indian cities with better governance. Additional ideas include starting a Better India Fund for security infrastructure and running it privately without political input, sealing the coastline, starting policy institutes, getting Bombay to secede from Maharashtra state (where the city is located), creating a chief executive for the city, and going back to calling the metropolis Bombay, not Mumbai."), and Jack and Suzy Welch ("Because the attack in Mumbai, striking as it did at India's financial heart, showed just how risky doing business in India may become."), and scores of others who also mourn the repeated assaults on their beloved Mumbai.

Every point of view expressed by these and other commentators has been dissected, criticized, commended as the right thing to do or dismissed as being totally the wrong approach to take at this time. Frequently, these opposite points of view appear as comments on the same article. In response to the attacks, there have been candlelight vigils, marches and protests.

But the sentiment that it's time to do something more than show up at a vigil is also strong.

The spectre of terrorism doesn't seem to be going away any time soon, and it is obvious that certain aspects of the necessary steps to be taken at this point are beyond the ken of the average citizen. We need a strong and responsive government. We need well-equipped armed forces and police. We need intelligence services. There are things we can do to exert some influence, of course. Get engaged and stay engaged in the public affairs of whatever place we live in - become aware of the issues and vote, for instance.

There are, however, other things that we can do, as individual citizens.

Over the last week, I've been reminded a lot about Noor Ayesha, the young woman who opened her home to the little children in her poor neighborhood in Bangalore so they could have a place to learn. She saw a need - there were no nursery schools in her community and the children suffered when they started in first grade with no prior exposure to any type of learning - and she got involved. She got the training and support she needed and is now running a school out of her home.

The same is true of my neighborhood here. The public schools, the sports teams, the community services, nothing would be the same without the tens of residents who give countless hours voluntarily to their cause of choice. The swim team reps spend more than 60 hours a week running the summer league competitions. That's in addition to their day jobs. The PTA at our school is manned by a number of mothers that volunteer in the class rooms, in the cafeteria, in the library and raise funds for the school. The neighbors care enough to shovel snow off of each other's driveways when they know someone or the other can't do it for some reason.

This is how I remember the neighborhoods I grew up in in India even though we moved a lot. There were no formal volunteer programs and very rarely did an entire neighborhood's problems get solved, but neighbors knew each other and they cared enough to step in when a neighbor needed help.

Volunteering and getting engaged in your neighborhood and with your neighbors, stepping up fill in the gaps in services (of that we know there are a lot) where necessary, might seem like a drop in the ocean in the face of the power and ruthlessness of global terrorism. But if we look around in our communities and band together, I firmly believe we can have some impact.

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Created by J. Howard Miller.
Modifications © Jone Lewis 2001.
For one, we'll get to know our neighbors and this seems especially important given that many of us are migrants - across countries, across cities, across neighborhoods. Strangers and strange goings-on are more likely to be noticed in such communities (on a facetious note, what we need are bands of aunties and uncles on every street poking their noses in each others' business). In communities already working together, it is easier to accomplish this next step - form volunteer cells of our own. Not only can these cells be the eyes and ears of the community, but can also be on the front lines of the response to a terror attack, not the military kind, but organizing emergency care, food, water and medical supplies, housing those people in need of temporary shelter, etc., be responsible for disseminating information. Growing up, we had youth clubs in our neighborhood with energetic teenagers organizing contests, festival celebrations, parties. Could we not channel that same energy toward preparedness?

As I'm typing this, I can think of a few reasons for not doing any of this - no matter what happens at the neighborhood level, you still need the police and the intelligence services to listen to you if you go to them with tips and they may not as was the case with the fishermen who tipped off the police(?) about the strange goings-on off the coast of Mumbai; the scale of the attacks might be such that no matter how large the band of volunteers, they might still be overwhelmed and ineffective; there may be instances in which suspicions could easily degenerate into witch-hunts; all terrorist attacks will not be prevented just because of volunteer groups forming in various communities. I'm sure there are ten other reasons.

But, why not start somewhere? What if at least one terror attack were prevented because neighborhoods decided to live up to their name? What if the impact was at least 10% lower than it could have been because well-organized groups stepped up to respond to the needs in the immediate aftermath of the attacks? What if this just lead us to being more aware of what is going on around us?

There seems to be no magic bullet (no pun intended) to solve the problem of terrorism once and for all. For the long term, there are excellent suggestions for secular schools, for better outreach to the marginalized communities, for better dialogue among the South Asian nations. But in the short term - as in tomorrow - looking inward into our own neighborhoods and engaging in some grass-roots organizing is something we can all do.

As the saying goes, Think global, act local. If each of us worked to protect our neighborhoods, surely, it would add up to something.
December 9, 2008
Updated to add two links:
This blog is an effort to help. Help India, help ourselves to help ourselves. Because if we dont do it, no one will. Anyone with an urge to do more than just be a bystander to the carnage and mayhem that wrecks the parts of our country everytime we have a disaster causes by external elements or through natural causes, can help. We will maintain a database of people who are in a position and are willing to be of assistance, either immediately during the crisis itself, or later in relief and rehabilitation. We will put people wanting to contribute financially to victims in direct contact with NGOs doing the same or the victims directly. We will look for good samaritans who are willing to contribute towards medical expenses, post traumatic therapy requirements, and prosthesis requirements for those rendered disabled in such situations. We will attempt to sponsor the education of the bereaved children by putting dedicated and serious citizens who wish to do so in direct contact with the bereaved family. We have many hopes. And need all the help we can. And we need all the people who can help out to write in. We need people with only a desire to help. We're looking for those who can contribute skills at the times of crisis: Doctors, medically trained personnel, ex-army personnel, even anyone who has a vehicle and is willing to drive critically injured people to hospitals or ferry people from danger spots to safe zones. Anyone with a space that can be used as a refuge area for people stuck in times of natural calamities like floods or total power blackouts which renders the local train service dead, please do write in. Write in to if you would like to help in anyway, or have any suggestions.

Good luck and godspeed.

How did Obama make that happen? Not just by carrying the black, and the young college educated voters. But by galvanizing a vast volunteer base that became a force multiplier. This volunteer base contributed to his campaign with money, but most importantly with their time. They went to phone banks and called undecided voters to explain Obama’s positions. They never tired of talking to their friends about why Obama was the right choice. And calling in to radio talk shows on politics. And of course the bumper stickers. If each one of them got two others to change their vote, that would have been enough to ensure victory.

In India we need our own political revolution. This has to be led by educated voters who are more discerning, wherever they are. They need to roll up their trousers (or sarees) and wade into the murky waters of Indian politics. They don’t have to become politicians but they must become more engaged. Politics is a contact sport. You can’t bring about change by shouting advice from the stands.

December 15, 2008

Updated to add two links:

1. To Kids For Mumbai (also at, started by Maryland-based 8 year-old Priyanka (via Conversations With Dina). Whether you donate or not is your personal decision, but kudos to Priyanka.

2. To Known Turf's commentary on staying engaged in the business of running a nation:

We are, politically speaking, such an ignorant country that it makes me cringe to think of it. Forget elections. Many of us cannot even name our own prime minister and president and the local councillor or MLA. The vast majority of this country simply does not know! A lot of this has to do with illiteracy, yes, but a lot of it also has to do with not wanting to know. And it’s not just the poor and the illiterate. It is because anyone who can afford to takes pride in saying ‘Oh, but I am not a political person’. We want to cut ourselves off from the business of running a nation, or a city. We want the government to function like some sort of sub-contractual service provider. We don’t have leaders because we don’t want leaders. We wanted thekedaars; we got thekedaars!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Sometimes you have to lie to your child

Judith Warner in the NY Times today:

“Why are there only shoes and blood and no bodies?” she [Emilie, Warner's 8 year-old daughter] asked me after the attacks in Mumbai, when The Times ran a gruesome photo.

“The bodies were taken away,” I said.

She didn’t say anything, but she looked relieved. She thought, I guess, that the bodies had been vaporized right out of their shoes.

“Tell me the story of the atom bomb.”


“How can Wal-Mart sell things so cheaply? Why do people want stuff so badly? Why do they call it Black Friday?” She can’t get the questions out of her mind.


“There’s nothing on YouTube,” I told Emilie [responding to whether the death of the WalMart salesman might have been captured on video and posted on YouTube], plagued by a memory of the long legs outstretched. Damour was a big man – 6-foot-5, 270 pounds – news reports said. How could he have been knocked down? How could he not have managed to get up?

“Do you think people just walked over him? Do you think they saw him? Did they run away when the police came?”

“I’m not sure that they knew that they’d done it,” I said.

That sounded, even to me, like a lie. Perhaps it was. But it felt like good parenting.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Face of the Great Depression

Image source: Wikimedia; Original photo by Dorothea Lange

In Salon today:

In the black-and-white photograph, known as "Migrant Mother," Katherine is the child on the left. Her mother, then-32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson, had seven children at the time, who worked with her in the fields, picking cotton.


The next day, when the photograph ran in a local paper, the family had already moved on, but they heard about it. "The picture came out in the paper to show the people what hard times was. People was starving in that camp. There was no food," McIntosh said. "We were ashamed of it. We didn't want no one to know who we were." Living in tents and cars, sometimes her mother would go hungry so her children would have food.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Citizen Movement

Priyanka Joseph on the need of the hour:

What I would like to see is a grass-root, decentralized guerrilla movement of our own-- Not one that equips youth, the lonely and the estranged with hatred, propaganda, fanaticism, weapon skills and fake passports, but one that equips that same youth, the blissfully ignorant and brooding, the passionate and the complacent, the middle-aged, student and everywoman with an awareness of what it takes to preserve one's home and city-- the community skills and ideas that make individuals realize that they are the first care-taker and good neighbor, not the police, and that there is no entitlement to safety & well being based solely on social or income levels, anymore.

Not just idealism. Practical facts of life as well, such as-- don't crowd around an attack site. Don't hang around because it's exciting. Don't participate in rabble-rousing. Just the basics, really.
Priyanka's post grew out of a comment on Ingrid Srinath's essay on the need for a response that is not the usual knee-jerk reaction.

And no, we don’t need a Festival of Mumbai or a candle-light vigil to heal the wounds. And we certainly don’t need stronger laws. Or crackdowns on people based on their class and religion. Or hasty rushes to justice or revenge.

We need to each redefine our own priorities. Take the time to be a Mumbaikar rather than parasites that live off its resources. Stop looking the other way when
unscrupulous politicians and crass media barons offend our sense of civility. Speak up when family, friends or colleagues voice their bigotry. Turn up to vote. Look at, really look, and listen to, and care about the people we share this city with.

Cooper races Phelps and comes little short

60 Minutes snagged Michael Phelps for his first extended post-Beijing interview. During the 13-minute segment, Anderson Cooper (guesting on 60 Minutes for this assignment) challenges Phelps to a race. Watch Cooper run down the rules governing this race and Phelps' reaction.

CBS News Showing Video of Train Station Terrorist's Arrest

According to CBS News online:
A grainy cell-phone video obtained by CBS News shows the moments before police in Mumbai arrested the only living suspect in the 60-hour terror rampage that began last Wednesday and eventually left at least 170 people dead.

The one-minute, 35-second video opens with images that apparently show bystanders and Indian security forces beating a man on the ground with sticks.

The journalist from whom CBS News obtained the video says the man is Ajmal Qasab, who, according to a senior Indian police officer, confessed to interrogators that he is a member of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
For the cell-phone video, click here.

The video is very grainy and it's difficult to tell who the people are (CBS' headline reads, "Video Allegedly Shows India Terror Arrest"), but it's hard not to miss the rage of the people hitting the person on the ground. Reports of the lone terrorist's arrest and subsuquent interrogation have been around for a couple of days now. I really hope some solid information comes out of this.

Watching Mumbai's Terror From Afar

We were on the road on Wednesday, driving down to Asheville, North Carolina, for the Thanksgiving break when we heard. We ended up watching way more television than we intended. It helped that there were two television sets in the condo we had rented. C watched some of the coverage but the kids were focused on movies for the most part.

A few stray thoughts:

  1. MSNBC carried sporadic live coverage with feeds from NDTV, but CNN pretty much stayed on Mumbai for the entire duration of the siege with live feed from its "sister" network, CNN IBN. It was not long before CNN got its own reporters, Sara Sidner, Matthew Chance and Nic Roberts into Mumbai. For much of the time, CNN's own reporters and MSNBC's anchors provided voice-overs or commentary on what was transpiring on the screen.
  2. As the coverage progressed it became hard to ignore CNN trying to distance itself from IBN's pronouncements, choosing to slap a disclaimer - "Our sister network CNN IBN is reporting .... However, CNN is unable to independently confirm this information."
  3. One striking aspect of the coverage is the stark difference in the demeanor of the Indian and the US reporters (panicked vs. calm, intent on providing information vs. stoking the already rising passions). The Indian TV channels' coverage has come in for some criticism and might be on the hook for more than just bad journalism. Variety reports that the channel bosses have already been summoned to explain their actions (via SAJA).
  4. Even in the middle of the terror and the chaos and the sorrow, a mob suddenly converged around the CNN reporter Sara Sidner did not pass up the chance to harass her (via Huffington Post and Mediabistro). It was sickening to watch. I wondered why she went off the air towards the later stages of the siege and sent in her reports via telephone. Perhaps this was why. She had stood her ground in the face of the carnage in progress just a few yards beyond her position in front of the Taj - the bombs still going off, the intermittent gunfire - but perhaps the physical assault on her person proved too much. Who can blame her? Click here to see the video (also see update below).

    According to Mediabistro, "Sidner would later report, "As we were standing outside a large group of people came around, many of them young, with the smell of alcohol on their breath, frankly. They were standing very, very close and suddenly chaos erupted.""
  5. What was with the funny map of India on CNN? All of Kashmir seemed to be gone. Trying to find a picture of it. Will put up a link if I can find it.

The CNN Sara Sidner video showed up on the published post. I still can't see it in my draft or on the Edit Html page. Hmm.

Update 2: Argh. Now I can't see the video. The link still works I hope.