Thursday, October 29, 2009

Children's Sleep Cycles and End of Daylight Savings

If you have young children and you're wondering how to get them adjusted to the clock falling back an hour come this Sunday, you're not alone. The Washington Post's lead weatherman ponders his options and lays out his plan of action:

Sleep has become so sacred since the arrival of my first child 23 months ago that even the prospect of a winter wonderland outside my window doesn't lure this snow lover out of bed as early as it used to (imagine my disappointment when all I see is bare ground).

That's why, for several weeks now, I've been quietly plotting how to manipulate my offspring's sleep so that he'll awake Sunday morning the same time as always -- 8 a.m., on the dot -- and not a second earlier. (Yes, I know, some parents would kill for their children to sleep 'til 8).

Our plan of attack went into effect earlier this week...


So, for a few nights already, we've been putting our little guy to sleep a little later each night, and trying not to go to him in the morning until the full 11 hours are up. We've also been pushing the afternoon nap later, and will start doing the same for meals as well. (Lots of moving parts to this sleep manipulation thing!)

For whatever reason, this whole thing has completely escaped my radar this year. Not that I would have planned for it anyway. Weekends tend to be chaotic in the normal course and no amount of plotting will unravel the riddle of the early morning rush - no matter what time we get to bed the night before, we're all scrambling in the morning. As far as I'm concerned, if the kids wake up an hour early, no one will be happier than me. How long does the effect of gaining the one hour last? That's what I want to know. The longer the better, if you ask me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


From Autumn, by John Clare:

But give me, Autumn, where thy hand hath been,
For there is wildness that can never cloy,—
The russet hue of fields left bare, and all
The tints of leaves and blossoms ere they fall.
In thy dull days of clouds a pleasure comes,
Wild music softens in thy hollow winds;
And in thy fading woods a beauty blooms,
That’s more than dear to melancholy minds.

The entire sonnet here.

P.S.: I have been offline a lot and have not been able to visit your blogs. I hope to rectify matters soon.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Heene Story: Has Crying "Wolf!" Gone Hi-Tech?

By now you must have all heard of the story of the boy who was thought to be flying thousands of feet above the ground in a fly-away balloon. Alone, cold, scared and in mortal danger. As an entire nation (and probably a good portion of the rest of the world) followed every twist and turn in this improbable tale, we were sick with fear for the boy, we felt sorry for the parents and, finally and happily, we were relieved when we were told that the young boy was safe and sound and on solid ground.

Little did we know that the tale had yet another incredible twist left in it - turns out, if what the police say is true, the entire story is a hoax. We were set up, we were suckered in, and our emotions played on, just so the parents, allegedly, could attain their ultimate goal of appearing on a television reality show. The Larry King Interview where the six-year-old Falcon Heene suggested that he was told to hide in the attic of their home (fully stocked with snacks) "for the show", more television interviews where the boy threw up on camera, the subsequent police investigations, and now news that the parents had hired lawyers to defend them and were ready to surrender to the police - each one of them leading to stratospheric levels of disbelief and leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

The daily news and the internet are chock full of reactions to this story, all, as you can imagine, expressing shock, disgust and anger, even a feeling of being betrayed.

It also left in me a sense of wonder. The act of crying "wolf!" had undergone a seismic shift in tone. No longer was a lone boy yelling from the top of a mountain to the people in the village below. If the story does turn out to be a hoax, what we saw was grown people - a mother and father to boot - calling news stations directly with desperate appeals for news helicopters to chase the errant balloon, calling the police, imploring them for emergency help, giving hysterical television interviews over the telephone, and appearing on camera to perpetuate sympathy for an ordeal they had not suffered.

How we - the villagers in the ancient fable but in the twenty-first century a nation punk'd - behave the next time around may not be apparent right now but might become all too clear when we turn on the television and come upon another father crying inconsolably on camera at the disappearance of his child, begging for help.

What will we do then? Will we watch, riveted to our seats, and pray for the safe return of the child? Or did Aesop already give us the answer all those centuries ago? Will we roll our eyes, click the remote and move on to the next channel?

Updated to add a link to Wikipedia's page on Aesop's The Boy Who Cried Wolf and to the latest development in the story.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Covalent Immunology Foundation and the Possibility of a New HIV Vaccine

Sujatha at Fluff-n-Stuff asked me to take up a tag about the Covalent Immunology Foundation and the work they are doing to develop a new HIV vaccine. From Sujatha's post:

As Dr. Paul says [the scientist behind the Foundation's work] [...], the 'abzyme' approach to attacking the virus at the special weak point could pave the way to developing a low-cost and highly effective approach to attacking the HIV virus, and in the long run, other deadly or debilitating viruses. (More information is available at the website for the Covalent Immunology Foundation.)
I am not an expert in this field, but just the prospect of progress toward an HIV vaccine seems exciting. I'm not going to tag any particular person, but I hope you will all check out the work of the foundation for yourself and talk about it if you find it worthwhile.

Thank you.

Updated to include a link to a relevant op-ed piece, titled Have Faith in an AIDS Vaccine, in yesterday's New York Times:
Even before this controversy [over reports of a failed Thai vaccine] erupted, it had been an effort to maintain sufficient support for AIDS vaccine research and development. In 2008, private and public spending on this vital mission declined by 10 percent from the year before. A few fanatical AIDS activists have even called for ending the American government’s considerable support for AIDS vaccine research, and spending the money instead on AIDS treatment. Patient care is vital, of course, but it alone can only mitigate, not end, the pandemic.

Oct 29-30: Washington, D.C. Fundraiser for India Floods

From Mallika,

Event: Halloween and Fundraising Event for India Floods

What: Fundraiser

Start Time: Thursday, October 29 at 5:30pm

End Time: Friday, October 30 at 2:00am

Where: Dahlak, 1771 U Street NW, Washington, DC 20009

To see more details and RSVP, follow the link below:

Contact details for online flood relief donations here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Memories of Deepavalis (Diwalis) Past

My brand new clothes that I will wear tomorrow sit neatly in a box in front of the altar (the mantapa) in the prayer room, as do my brother's and my parents'. The heady aroma of our favorite sweets that mom has made, Mysore Pak, Coconut Barfi, Besan Unde, has been taunting us all day long. The prayer room has been cleaned, the idols washed and the pooja (ritual) items readied for prayers tomorrow. Fresh flowers, coconuts and betel leaves are arranged neatly in two or three plates for the prayers and to give away to guests that will arrive all day long the next day.

The night before Deepavali is a culmination of days of preparations for one of my favorite festivals of the year, and if you grew up in India, I suspect yours too. The bathroom has been washed down, the stone floors scrubbed clean with a heavy brush and every single utensil cleaned to a shine. A massive brass vat encased in stone and cement sits in one corner of the bathroom, with a medium-sized hole taking up one half of one of the two cement walls that has been cleared of all ash residue, wood pieces and coal. The brass vat is now filled with fresh bathwater and fresh firewood is at the ready to be lit the next morning for boiling it.

My brother and I and any of the assorted uncles, aunts, cousins and friends have already been to one of the massive outdoor fields that has been converted into a firecraker market. We have braved the crowds, shouted at the top of our lungs to make ourselves heard to the man or woman running a particular stall, hurried from one stall to the next to get our hands on the most popular firecrackers and come away with bags full of goodies for the next day.

When at last the last of the relatives have gone back home to finish up their own preparations and every little thing is in order in our home, we reluctantly get into bed, with the very firm resolve of waking up at 3 a.m. The goal, every year, is to be the very first in your neighborhood to burst a firecracker. Tradition demands that firecrakers be set off before sunrise so their light can chase away the darkness. Three a.m. is the goal so we have ample time to be properly oiled down, to have a bath and for a small ritual, where those sweets are the first thing we eat, before we are allowed out on to the street to light the firecrackers. We most certainly do not want a repeat of last year when someone else's firecrakers woke us up. Oh, the horror and the ignominy!

Groggy but excited we - all three of us, including dad - line up in front of the prayer room as mom pats some oil onto our heads and hands us our new clothes. It's a race to the bathroom to see who gets in first. In a matter of minutes, we are ready. It's barely even four. We tear into the firecraker boxes, pick the one that has the reputation for the loudest sound (aspiringly called the atom bomb), and head out into the street. Not a peep from anywhere else yet. Dad and mom walk out behind us with a matchbox and a box of incense sticks. We each hold the fuse of the atom bomb between two fingers and carefully snip off about an inch of the paper encasing the thread of the fuse. This, so that the fuse doesn't light as fast and gives us time to get away after lighting it.

A ten-thousand firecracker round

It unspooled to this length. At the far end, another family well into their celebrations.

Dad hands each of us one incense stick, we light them and with the firecracker in one hand and the incense stick in the other, both held far apart so they don't accidentally come together in our hands (that would not be funny), we approach the middle of the street. We stand a few feet apart from one another and light our respective fuses and run back towards our gate. We stand there, all four of us with our palms covering our ears. (We know it's loud, we chose the loudest firecraker, we want it to be loud. Pray, why then do we cover our ears? I look at photographs of Deepavali and the most I have are of a whole lot of us with palms, sometimes forearms because the palms are holding lit incense sticks, over our ears.)

Two loud booms and Deepavali has well and truly begun!

A few more varieties of firecrakers - a string of the longer ones, flower pots, sparklers - and we head back in. A couple of other early risers are already up and we hear sounds popping up from the homes around us, but content at being the first, we are ready to climb into bed again. The day has arrived but it's a long way to go before we'll allow ourselves any rest, so we might as well catch up on sleep before the house and the streets get too noisy.

Flower pots

A couple of hours later, it's breakfast time and then family starts arriving in drips and dribbles. By lunchtime we have a full complement of everyone in town. The more the merrier, especially at Deepavali. There's good-natured ribbing of the less brave among us, someone makes a loud noise just as your incense stick approaches the fuse making you jump, bravado and machismo are on full display as one or the other consistently picks the largest, loudest firecracker.

Soon this too gets tiring and it's on to a game of cards or carrom board. Bravado and machismo and teasing on full display here too. There is no space for everyone to sit down and eat together. But we've all been eating all day long and it continues well into the night when it's time for another session of firecrackers. This time around, the neighbors are also out in full force and somehow all the firecrackers get pooled and we're all into each other's stashes, laughing, running, hiding and covering our ears together.

Nighttime on Deepavali always has a different flavor. It's time for the more visually spectacular firecrakers to come out - the flower pots, the bhuchakras (they spin on the ground), the vishnu chakras (held in the hand), the rockets that shoot off into the sky (when they work as they're supposed to, or else they land on your neighbor's roof to be discovered months later). It's definitely time for the oohs and aaahs.

A rocket ready to be lit. It's in an empty bottle to coax it to shoot straight up.


The next two days of the festival are more religious, with the Lakshmi Puja (prayers to the goddess of prosperity) and Balipadyami. More visits from relatives and more visits to relatives' houses, but nothing compares to the pure fun of that one day.


My family and I wish you and your families a very happy Deepavali, and whether you celebrate it or not, no matter which corner of the world you live in, we wish you a very prosperous and healthy year ahead.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Morning Prayer and Maine's Bounty

We finally figured out how to record music onto the computer! It was such a struggle to get the music from C's digital piano to the computer in any usable format (MIDI was not converting to WAV). Today I downloaded Audacity and recorded directly as C was playing - from the piano to the music editing program. We used the piece, Tchaikovsky's Morning Prayer, as background music for a movie of our Maine pictures and voilà! A video of some pictures from Maine with C playing Morning Prayer.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Indian Rituals: A Hairy Tale

It's not that I'd never fiddled with my daughter's hairstyle before. I've had her hair up on both sides of her face in tiny pig-tails, turning her into the spitting image of Boo from Monster's, Inc (which, by the way, if you have not seen, you must. I will guarantee you will laugh more than the kids). I've pinned all manner of clips in her hair. I've tried to pull it all back into a severe pony tail only to have her silky strands escape the bondage a few at a time until there was not enough for the band to hold and it too fell away.

One fine day, however, I was seized with an urge to braid her hair. I sat her down on the bathroom counter top, partitioned her hair into two zones and proceeded to weave two plaits. She good-naturedly complied and held her head still while I tried to get the motions right.

Quietly, a feeling crept up on me. There was something surreal about the act, something about making three distinct strands on either side of her head, weaving each one by turn into a single plait. I was transported to another place, another time. I was on the floor in front of my mother, her hands working deftly on my hair to produce two long (and I mean long - they came down to my knees) plaits on either side of the back of my head. Every single day of my school life, she had braided my hair using the same motions I did with my own daughter.

My daughter's plaits turned out great, and for the first time since I became a mother, it occurred to me that hair - and all the things we do to it - is such an integral part of life in India, especially in the life of a child, especially during the time my brother and I were growing up. There are daily rituals, weekly rituals, rituals that take place perhaps once or twice in a lifetime.

Mom combing my hair when I was about three.

The daily rituals first. There was the oiling of hair. Every. Single. Morning. Coconut oil applied scalp to hair-ends and massaged in until not a strand was left uncovered, the constant movement of finger tips in your hair producing the kind of stupor that renders you putty in your mom's hands. Following the oiling, my brother got about five minutes of combing. Cow licks would be coaxed down towards the head with repeated patting, partitions drawn ramrod straight and cleared of hair trying to cross over the line.

I got about fifteen minutes. First came the combing. My head would be pulled back so my mom, sitting behind me, could see the hairline on my forehead and run the comb all the way through my hair to the tips. After about fifty strokes would come the braiding. My mom had a special trick - she would weave my plaits out of five separate strands, producing a stronger braid that did not loosen even a little bit during school. My hair was long enough that the plaits had to be folded up and secured at the top with ribbons according to the school dress code.

Weekly rituals took the form of the 'head bath' every Sunday. More oil, this time castor oil (no, not the kind you put in cars, thankfully, but equally sticky and heavy). We had to let it soak in for at least an hour before it would be washed away with seegekaayi, a brown-colored powder, and conditioned with a slimy concoction made of powdered leaves (chigaré pudi) mixed with water that left our hair shiny and silky. It really did, but it also managed to get in our eyes.

So Sunday afternoons were spent with blood-shot eyes and with hair banished of all traces of oil but smelling of leaves and nuts.

Summer holidays brought rituals of their own, although thankfully it was not every summer. One that I know nearly every South Indian Hindu family savors is the moggina jadé (literally braiding hair with flowers) tradition.

On the day I had mine made up, many summers ago in my ajji's (my maternal grandmother) house in Mysore, I remember her veranda being a beehive of activity. She had already been to the market that afternoon to get the freshest flowers she could lay her hands on - jasmine buds, jasmine blooms, jaaji flowers and the white insides of a banana plant. A couple of days before she'd already readied the colored threads, sticks of various lengths and thicknesses, hair pins, and the jewellery that she would use to decorate my hair.

A flower shop at the Gandhi Bazaar market in Bangalore. The orange flowers hung on the left are jaaji flowers. Swirls of white jasmine strung together lie in baskets on the right. The garlands are the kind that will be used in weddings for the bride and the groom to wear.

My grandmother's very capable fingers gently but firmly threaded the jasmine buds onto one semi-circular sheath of the banana shoot which she had cut to match the length of my hair. Slowly but surely the flowers filled the entire surface of the banana shoot. With the help of two girls who were learning art and craft from her, my grandmother strung the rest of the flowers into braids of their own with the help of some thread. When it was all done, the flowers formed a neat, colorful pattern. Then she weaved the colored threads around the now flower-covered banana shoot to add an interesting layer of color.

By then my mother had already braided my hair into a single plait falling down my back. They sat me down on a stool and went to work. With a whole lot of pins and black ribbons, they managed to get all of their art work onto my hair and this was the result.

We hot-footed it to a studio in the city before the flowers wilted. If you looked at that picture and noticed how the shoulders are hunched, you join a long line of very observant people. But in my defense, let me say that all the stuff on my hair was heavy. Very. My shoulders just sagged under the weight. So there.

These days, the moggine jadés are available ready made in flower shops in the markets, but watching it take shape right in front of my eyes was quite something else.

I asked my mom a couple of days ago why we did that - why we went through this elaborate process and took a photo at the end of it. She said it was a great way to keep the children occupied during the summer holidays and what better avenue for grandmothers to practice their craft than on their own grandchildren! Summer was also the time my grandmother worked on a lot of craft made of cotton and colorful foil paper. She conjured up beautiful garlands and other decorative items out of them and she would use them during the many festivals of the year. She employed us grand kids as gluers of all manner of shiny things on to the cotton.

The one other ritual most Hindu families follow is the shaving of the head. This has more of a religious flavor than cultural. According to custom, the child who has just turned two (i.e., during the third year) is taken to the temple of the family deity (this is one temple that the family tries to visit at least once a year, no matter how far it is from their hometowns) and the hair is shaved off as an offering to god and as a token of gratitude for the birth of a child. In most families, this custom is followed only for the boys, but some families get it done for the girls as well.

And so, finally, we come to this photo. Because the hair is not cut at all before it is shaved off at the temple, by the time the boys turn three it is very likely they'll have grown curly, shiny locks that would put any girl's to shame. Once the hair is shaved off and it grows back, regular haircuts become the norm. So mothers and the other women folk in the family see a golden window of opportunity - the one chance to properly dress up their darling boys as girls and acquire photographic evidence of their madness and the boys' utter helplessness.

Here it is, one such photograph of a boy that, alas, shall remain unnamed in this post. I have been threatened with the most dire consequences if I told you who he was.

I agree. Very, very cute! I'll be sure to tell him you said so.

Related Post: Grandmother Stories.

Updated (Oct 13, 09) to add a link to my post about traditional baby baths in India.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Not Becoming My Mother, Ruth Reichl

A couple of weeks ago we were in the check-out line at the library, standing right next to a shelf of newly released books. As the kids and and I waited our turn we scanned the shelf, picking up books and putting them back. One book - about the size of my extended palm, a black and white photograph on the cover with a middle-aged woman and a young girl, both sitting at a table - caught my eye. The woman's expression drew my attention as much as the title did - her face is resting on her palm and she is looking at the young girl, a gentle smile creasing her cheeks. The title of the book was Not Becoming My Mother, written by Ruth Reichl, the editor of the newly-defunct Gourmet magazine.

I know titles are meant to be provocative and grab the readers' attention, but it still managed to shock me. I added it to our pile of books and read it at the first opportunity I got - that night after the kids were in bed.

The tussle between mothers and daughters, the conflict-ridden relationships that many women have with their mothers, is not new to me. I had a classmate back in college who struggled with her mother's jealousies. That a mother could be jealous of her own daughter's good looks or appearance was unfathomable to me. Didn't all mothers and fathers want their children to be better, to do better, to have better than them? Since then I've listened as numerous friends talked about their daily fights with their mothers over trivial matters, about massive disagreements over deeply-held beliefs, about mothers not showing up at weddings, not even coming to celebrate the birth of grandchildren. And I have read about them. With all those women I could sympathize, but I could not empathize.

I could wax eloquent about my mom and the post would run ten screens long. It's not that I did not have disagreements with her, but even in the midst of my teenage rebellion years, I saw her for what she was. She was a mother looking out for her daughter and her best interests. She was a different human being than me - quite simply her DNA make-up is different than mine - so it was an exercise in futility to expect the both of us to react in the same way to a situation.

For me, in the grand scheme of things, she was and is an awesome human being with a wicked sense of humor that she turns on herself as frequently as she does on us, with a fierce sense of loyalty to her husband and her children (and now her daughter-in-law, son-in-law and the grandkids), a fantastic cook and hostess, practical to a fault ("if something needs to get done, put your head down and do it and quit whining" is her mantra), very strong sense of knowing one's place and doing what is expected, especially when it comes to respecting elders. Being a mother myself now, it is mind-boggling to me that somehow she's managed to impart much of her wisdom to us, without even seeming to try. All in all, she is trying her damnedest to do the best she can. And I love her to bits and respect her all the more for it.

Reichl has had a far different relationship with her mother. She writes that her mother was not good at many things and she was not "if truth be told, a particularly good mother. [M]y mother was a great example of everything I didn't want to be, and to this day I wake up every morning grateful that I'm not her."

The sub-title to her book is 'and other things she taught me along the way'. It gave me an inkling that perhaps the book is not the damning indictment that the title would have you believe, but my initial reaction to the book's title stayed with me until I made my way through a few more pages and it dawned on me what Reich was attempting to do.

At first blush, the memoir is a woman's effort to draw lessons from her mother's life. But it is so much more than that. If a child wrote a letter of love, appreciation, respect and deep gratitude to their mother, it would take the shape and form of Not Becoming My Mother. It is an attempt to peel away the layers and layers of hurt that had enveloped the author over a number of years. It is an attempt to put her mother's actions in context. A mother who was brilliant and wanted to be a doctor, but not that great-looking. In an age where women were expected to be beautiful but not ambitious, it was a double whammy that succeeded in decimating her chances at happiness.

It is so easy to give in to hurt, especially when the one person in the world that is supposed to love you unconditionally does not. Which is why it is all the more heartening that Reichl embarked on the journey to figure out her mother at all, to understand her as a woman. With the help of her mother's writing she finds in shoe boxes, on scraps of paper, on old receipts, Reichl pieces together the portrait of a woman who somehow figured out how to be the kind of role model that her own daughter did not want to emulate. As the sketch fills out and we slowly start to see the flesh and blood and color appearing on canvas, our viewpoint undergoes a change. We are no longer looking at the dark and foreboding image of a bad mother, we are looking at a woman who desperately does not want her daughter to struggle with the demons she did.

Meeting Mom - the real Mom - was even harder than I expected. I never thought her life was easy, but until I read her letters I had not known the enormous burden of pain she carried with her.

There are a few good reasons why it's worth reading Not Becoming My Mother. It is beautifully written, lucid, introspective and thoughtful. It is a personal memoir, but it manages to capture the life of an entire generation of women. It makes its point and moves on.

But the most important reason of all is the fact that Reichl wants to see beyond the veneer that her mother presented to the world. Some of us might undertake the same exercise and come up empty, but Reichl does succeed in seeing her mother for who she was. She places her actions in context, understands her mother's own upbringing, learns of her desires and ambitions, her disappointments and failures. And she sees that her mother tried to do the very best she could, given her experiences and her background and her circumstances. She sees that her mother manged to get her to a place where she could be happy. And she gives her mother credit for it.

The only want I see in this story is that I wish Reichl had reached this understanding when her mother was still alive.

Updated to add the first part of the second sentence in the penultimate paragraph.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Donating Toward Flood Relief in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh

Following a prolonged period of drought, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have been ravaged by floods triggered by torrential rain over the past few days. Around 250 people have died and about 2.5 million have been rendered homeless.

Mallika, who reads Blogpourri and often leaves some lovely and thoughtful comments, suggested putting up some information - for those interesting in helping - about aid organizations accepting donations toward flood relief and she provided the following details.

If you live in the United States and would like to help, you can donate online at

If you live in Bangalore (donations could be in cash or in the form of items such as groceries, blankets, medicine), these organizations and contact numbers may be useful:

Specifically, the contacts are:

1. Community Health Cell, 85/2, Ist Main, Maruthi Nagara, Madiwala, Bengaluru – 560068 (Contact Persons: Pushpa 9449070223)

2. Janarogya Andolana Karnataka C/o CHC, Madiwala (Contact: Obalesh - 9740524128)

3. Headstreams (contact: Naveen Thomas 9342858056, 080-25200318)

4. Association for India’s Development (AID India) (Contact: Guru – 9845294184; Prasanna – 9916937280

As with all things internet-based, please verify the information and proceed only if you are absolutely comfortable doing so.

Thank you, Mallika!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Mumbai Terrorist Attacks: Anatomy of a Siege

Nearly a year ago now, we went on a road trip to Asheville, North Carolina, for the Thanksgiving holiday. We had about an hour left on the nine-hour drive when a friend called us from Chicago with the news that Mumbai was under attack. "Are you close to a TV?" he asked. Two hours later we turned on the TV in our apartment and saw the horror unfolding right in front of television cameras.

The rampage, the deaths, the agony, the chaos and the destruction - they were all there, the images constantly and relentlessly flitting across our screens, the cameras documenting the mayhem minute by painful minute. We had questions. Why did it take so long for the military forces to reach the hotels and the hospitals? Why were reporters not cautioned about broadcasting the tactics of security forces? Could the attacks have been avoided in the first place? Could the damage have been minimized?

In an article titled Anatomy of a Siege, Marie Brenner weaves in the numerous strands of the events that transpired that day in a gripping essay for the November '09 issue of Vanity Fair:

The city’s rage had narrowed down to one issue: long into the night a squad of police and a contingent from the army had stood outside the Taj while terrorists roamed the floors above, taking hostages. The police were waiting for orders from a commissioner of noble lineage who stayed put in his car at the nearby Oberoi hotel and for the arrival of commandos and anti-terror forces from New Delhi. From his station a few blocks away, A. N. Roy, the head of the state police, screamed at his men, “Why can’t they go in? Why are they standing there?” But powerful as he was, Roy could not directly command the local police. India is a top-down society of entrenched bureaucrats, with appallingly inadequate communication among agencies.


One of those trapped was Dr. Mangeshikar, who had started her evening declaring that she would stay at the wedding one hour tops. The hotel staff passed trays of sandwiches and drinks at Chambers. “Leave this kitchen right now—the terrorists are on the way,” Kang ordered. “They refused to leave,” Kang told me. “They said, 'We are preparing food and drinks for the guests.’” Kang ordered them again, “Leave! Your lives are in danger.” Dattatrey Chaskar, a waiter, begged Kang, “Save my son!” No one could find the young man. Later he would be discovered huddled among stacks of lamb chops in a cold-storage cabinet.

Parts of the story leave you shaken, you look at some of the survivors and wonder what you'd have done in their situation. Would it have occurred to me to conjure up a make-shift toilet out of sheets in a corner of the room for hotel guests holed up in a room - as it did to Mallika Jagad, who happened to be in charge of a banquet that day?

The entire story is available by clicking here: Anatomy of a Siege.

Related posts: Volunteerism vs. Terrorism

Friday, October 02, 2009

Bangalore Life: A Bus Ride and a Lingering Memory

In my memory the thick stone walls rise to the level of four floors. The walls are covered with ivy and punctuated neatly with brown-colored windows. A sprawling stage backs to about a third of the back wall of the school. A little distance away is another imposing building, one that houses the convent of the Sisters of Charity. Still beyond that, a massive playground with a basketball court and another concrete stage.

A large open space behind the building is filled with girls in light-blue pinafores, white shirts, blue ties, white socks and black Mary Jane shoes. Girls with long hair have braids neatly folded in half and kept in place with blue ribbons. They are chatting in groups, headed somewhere in groups, eating lunch out of their lunch boxes in groups. Loners are few and far between. There is lots of chatter, shrieking, laughter.

From Sankey Road, a busy thoroughfare at somewhat of a higher elevation than the school (you looked down at the school from the road), it looks positively idyllic, straight out of my rendering of Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys and so different from any other school I've seen so far. This is where I want to go to high school, I tell my parents.

Our home is at least two bus rides away and then a long walk from the last bus stop to the school. In terms of time, that's at least an hour door to door with a heavy back pack on my shoulders. In India, there is no school districting. You pick whatever school you want to go to, but you figure out how you're going to get there. Some private schools provide buses, but it's not always an option. We have no car. All we have is a scooter that my father rides to work in the opposite direction from the school. There is no one else that goes to the same school from my neighborhood.

There is no dissuading me, however. So off to Stella Maris High School I go. On all my note books and text books, I write my name, my grade and the name of my school - Stella Maris High. Note the missing 'School.' That's because Nancy Drew went to Riverdale High and Joe and Frank to Bayport High.

One day after school, I walk the 20-minute walk from the school to the bus terminus (many bus routes begin and end at this one bus stop) at 18th Cross in Malleswaram. Most of you will know how crowded the buses get in India. Bangalore is no exception. Riders will make the extra effort to trek to a terminus because there is at least half a chance that they might get to sit, rather than stand in the aisles (perfectly normal in India) or even on the steps leading into the bus (yours truly has ridden many times on the steps of a bus).

Once you get on the bus, you must purchase a ticket from the conductor (unlike in the US, the conductor is not the driver of the bus - this caused a whole lot of confusion when I first arrived in the US, I tell you). When every passenger purchases a ticket, the conductor blows a whistle strung around his neck and signals the driver to start driving.

This particular day, the bus is so crowded there is absolutely no space. The conductor is trying to finish up selling the tickets as fast as he can, but people are still arriving and trying to squeeze in. The exasperated conductor and driver hold a mini-conference. The situation is untenable, they concur, and agree they should execute a plan they've come up with for conditions such as this. They decide to start driving and stop about half a mile away but before the next scheduled bus stop on their route. That way the passengers already on the bus can finish buying the tickets but the driver and conductor wouldn't have to deal with new passengers constantly trying to get in.

A few seconds later, the driver hears the whistle and we're off! The bus stops at the agreed-upon place and we all wait for the conductor to make his rounds. It is stifling, to say the least, in the confines of the bus. The press of people, the still air and an immobile bus are not helping. Soon people start craning their necks to see how far the conductor has to go before the bus can move again. The people in the front crane their necks toward the back and the people in the back look toward the front of the bus.

The conductor is nowhere in sight.

Now the driver is impatient too. He has a schedule to keep if he wants to be home on time. He hollers, "ಎಲ್ಲಪ್ಪ ಇದ್ದೀಯ ನೀನು?" (where are you man?).

Silence. Then groans and clicking of the tongues.

Just as it dawns on everyone that we've managed to leave the conductor behind, an autorickshaw whizzes past and comes to a screeching halt in front of the bus. Out comes the conductor, shaking his fist at the driver in mock anger, unable to control his laughter at the turn of events.

Then a routine that would put the Three Stooges to shame: "I heard the whistle." "But I didn't blow the whistle." "But I heard the whistle. I thought you blew the whistle." "I'm telling you I didn't blow the whistle."

At every stop that day, the driver and the conductor proceed to enact an elaborate skit to make sure the conductor is safely on the bus before it starts to move again.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Two Fascinating Portraits - The Dosa Man and the Fall Guy

First, this heartwarming, uplifting portrait of Thiru, the "Dosa Man," (Dosa is a South Indian crepe made of rice and lentil batter) in The Huffington Post.
Thiru arrived in New York City in 1995 via the green card lottery -- the U.S. offers 50,000 visas annually to individuals from underrepresented countries. "I applied on a whim," he says, in Tamil. "The future wasn't great in Sri Lanka for me."

He had many jobs in Sri Lanka, including being a diving instructor and working at a travel agency in Colombo. In New York City, Thiru worked a series of jobs, in construction, at a gas station, an iron factory, and then finally, a restaurant. After a lengthy wait for a city vendor license, he set up his dosa cart in 2001.


Every morning, Thiru starts work at 5 a.m., preparing food for the day at a kitchen in Queens. He hitches his cart to his roomy 1986 black Chevy, drives across the Queensboro Bridge to Manhattan and sets up by 11 a.m. at Washington Square. "I completely rebuilt it myself," he says, pointing to his truck (Thiru used to race and rebuild motorcycles). The sign, "NY Vegan Dosas - Price Range Inexpensive", is painted on the Chevy's rear, along with subway directions to his location.
The entire article is here: The Magic of Immigrant Charm.

Then there is the story of Andrew Young, the former aide to John Edwards. When it was revealed that Young was not really the father of Edwards' mistress' child, that he was allegedly taking the fall for his boss (Edwards has not admitted he is the father), you could not help but wonder just what in this world would persuade someone - a man with a wife and children - to own up to fathering a baby when he had not. What manner of loyalty was this? What level of commitment to a cause was this?

Politico's profile of Andrew Young provides some insights:

Young has fleetingly emerged from the wreckage of Edwards’s political career as a character from central casting. First he was the fall guy, and now he’s the sellout, peddling his story in a tell-all book. But the real story of Young is about the passions of politics and the classic political triangle of the candidate, his wife and the sometimes sycophantic aide. The consuming devotion that politicians command from a small handful of loyalists is familiar — and not just in presidential campaigns.


Young threw himself into Edwards’s Senate race with a passion, becoming Edwards’s driver and gofer. After Edwards defeated Republican incumbent Lauch Faircloth, however, he was bitterly disappointed to be denied a job in Washington, friends said. Instead he accepted a job on Edwards’s North Carolina staff, securing his role with the family by always being the one to meet Edwards at the airport and taking care of the family home when everyone was away. And when an animal or trespasser triggered the home alarm system, another former aide said, it rang on Young’s cell phone.

The entire article is here: Sex, Scorn and Videotape.

Two stories - one, the story of a man who hitches his bandwagon to his own star and rises by the dint of his own hard work; the other, the story of a man who hitches his bandwagon to someone else's star hoping to catch a ride on the way up, but ends up crashing right along.