Monday, May 31, 2010


An article I read about the widows of Vrindavan many years ago made such a deep impression on me that forever afterward, I could not hear the word "widow" without thinking of that article. There was a single photograph, showing tiny bowed figures dressed in greyish white, sitting by the steps of a temple.

Then on NDTV, recently, I happened to catch a glimpse of a documentary feature called MOKSHA, by filmmaker and friend Pankaj Butalia. The five minutes I watched were enough to make me want to see the whole thing, so with a few shakes of the e-mail tree and a month's delay because of my travel sched, the DVD was in my hands. Magic Lantern Foundation, the distributors of the film, were exactly as prompt and courteous as their name suggests they might be.

The film is quiet, powerful and very beautiful. I could say "sad" but the nakedness of what it shows us cannot possibly be covered by any mere words like "sad" or "tragic". At one end of the spectacle of Indian life there's the gaudy frenzy of weddings but at the other end ... these bowed figures, with their shaven heads, little cloth bags, scrawny hands and their bare bodies, blouseless, swaddled in thin cotton the colour of ash and bones.

The fragment I saw on NDTV quoted a nineteenth century account of a nine-year-old girl's death: she is a child-widow still living in her father's house. She falls ills and is burning with fever, but because it is a day of fasting she is forbidden water by a senior widow in the clan. She dies of thirst, having "licked the whole floor of the room (she was locked into) in search of a little moisture".*

What does one do with such stories, such images? One click away, on TV, there are girls striding about like gender empowerment shock troops, grinding their hips and sticking their glistening lips out at the world in quest of a better shampoo or a more meaningful potato crisp. Meanwhile, in Vrindavan, today, right now, even as you read this, there are thousands of these other women, unrecognizable as the same species so bent and shrunken are they, as they wait for death while eking out a living by singing bhajans to Krishna.

One of the achievements of this film, it seems to me, is that it manages to slide in between that moment when you want to turn your face away and that other moment, when you want to stare, to reveal the femininity of even these women who have been stripped of that very thing. There are the faint echoes of beauty that still cling to the shape of the nose, the calm straight lines of the brow, the ritual of applying white ash on the forehead, the bridge of the nose, some with dots on either side, some without. And there is that heart-breakingly steady gaze, without self-pity, as the life is described: yes, I am alone, yes, I have nothing, yes, my husband died in my arms, and then yes, my children threw me out.

(*not word-for-word)

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Now you see him, now you don't: the work of LIU BOLIN. From the New Yorker. DOES EVERYONE SEE THAT THERE'S A MAN STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS IMAGE??? My guess is that most people who've stopped here have not realized that there's a reason why that otherwise ridiculous bird's nest soup stadium is featured at my blog ...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Possibly the World's Best Op-Ed

This appeared in today's edition of the Asian Age, reprinted from the New York Times. It's an op-ed written by the DALAI LAMA, by-lined as "Tenzin Gyatso".

Many Faiths, One Truth

WHEN I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best — and that other faiths were somehow inferior. Now I see how na├»ve I was, and how dangerous the extremes of religious intolerance can be today.

Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.

Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more interconnected and cultures, peoples and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance — it demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

Take Judaism, for instance. I first visited a synagogue in Cochin, India, in 1965, and have met with many rabbis over the years. I remember vividly the rabbi in the Netherlands who told me about the Holocaust with such intensity that we were both in tears. And I’ve learned how the Talmud and the Bible repeat the theme of compassion, as in the passage in Leviticus that admonishes, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In my many encounters with Hindu scholars in India, I’ve come to see the centrality of selfless compassion in Hinduism too — as expressed, for instance, in the Bhagavad Gita, which praises those who “delight in the welfare of all beings.” I’m moved by the ways this value has been expressed in the life of great beings like Mahatma Gandhi, or the lesser-known Baba Amte, who founded a leper colony not far from a Tibetan settlement in Maharashtra State in India. There he fed and sheltered lepers who were otherwise shunned. When I received my Nobel Peace Prize, I made a donation to his colony.

Compassion is equally important in Islam — and recognizing that has become crucial in the years since Sept. 11, especially in answering those who paint Islam as a militant faith. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, pleading that we not blindly follow the lead of some in the news media and let the violent acts of a few individuals define an entire religion.

Let me tell you about the Islam I know. Tibet has had an Islamic community for around 400 years, although my richest contacts with Islam have been in India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. An imam in Ladakh once told me that a true Muslim should love and respect all of Allah’s creatures. And in my understanding, Islam enshrines compassion as a core spiritual principle, reflected in the very name of God, the “Compassionate and Merciful,” that appears at the beginning of virtually each chapter of the Koran.

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the author, most recently, of “Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.”

Monday, May 24, 2010


PENGUIN INDIA recently published a collection of essays under the title INDIAN ESSENTIALS

I was one of twenty authors invited to write an essay for the book and the subject suggested to me was "commuting in India". I wrote my piece several years ago and was quite pleased with it, so I thought I'd post a couple of excerpts here as a teaser trailer. If you want to read the complete piece, you'll have to buy the book!


Right until the moment that I sat down to write my piece for this collection of essays, I had expected to make a patchwork quilt of some fifty years of train journeys, from early childhood to now. Then I opened a new file on my laptop and in that instant the gently bubbling spring of memories changed into a trickle of stale anecdotes about lost tickets, colourful fellow passengers and the time I threw up all the way from Madras to Bombay courtesy my mother's mutton sandwiches. I’ve told these stories dozens of times and though they’re reasonably entertaining when accompanied by cheese sandwiches and tepid coffee, they're not exactly marble-plaque material.


So I decided to fashion an amusement from scratch, using myself as fall-gal and the Indian Railways as my stage. I decided to go on an actual trip from Delhi to Madras, on the Rajdhani, but to treat it as if it were an amalgam of all my previous trips.


Naturally, then, my first priority was to create a disguise for myself. Stage magicians will tell you that the main part of a successful trick is misdirection - drawing attention away from the mechanics of the trick by doing something just outside the plane of intention. With this in mind, I did two things. The first was that I bought myself a set of clothes of the kind that I never normally wear: a salwar-kurta ‘suit’ made out of cheap shiny cloth, mud-brown in colour, with an all-over print of dull red flowers. On my feet I wore a pair of vomit-pink slippers, one size too small and I took care to paint my toe nails metallic sea green two weeks in advance of the journey, so that by the time I boarded the train my feet looked moth-eaten and diseased.

My second move was to shave my hair off.

My reason for taking this drastic step was simple: I didn't have the time or inclination to grow my hair out, yet a woman with short-cropped hair not only suggests that she makes regular trips to a hairdresser but also that she has the money and leisure to pay for such indulgences. By contrast, a shaven head, in India, instantly communicates a message of traditional values, self-sacrifice and most importantly, loss. A woman will not normally remove her hair except for sober reasons - the loss of a spouse, catastrophic illness, mental derangement, louse-infestation or in quest of a favour from the gods. Whatever the cause, nobody doubts the credentials of a tonsuree. The very nakedness suggests an exposure to the elements and an absolute lack of secrets that is pitiable and for that reason, disarming.


‘Excuse me?’ I said.

Both men looked up. They were mismatched in the way of famous comedy pairs, Laurel and Hardy or Tom and Jerry —something intrinsically funny about the differences between them. The tall, broad one said, ‘Yes?’ while the smaller, more delicate one just nodded, with his head cocked to one side.

My immediate impression was that they were both young, perhaps in their twenties. Travelling salesmen was my first guess regarding their careers, but they might just as well have been cousins going home for a clan gathering or graduate students taking a Puja break. They were dressed decently, but without any flair. In the dim light all I could see was that they were clean-shaven, wearing long-sleeved shirts, with their luggage stowed neatly under their seats. The big one’s hair rose up in a poll of black curls on top of his head while the smaller man’s hair was straight and slicked back, parted on one side: a large hearty rabbit and a small nervous mongoose.

‘I’m doing a survey,’ I said. ‘Is it all right if I ask a few questions?’

‘Sure, sure,’ said Rabbit, as he shifted his bulk aside very slightly, as if to make
space for me, except that there was plenty of space and therefore no real need for him to shift.

‘- usually, we are the ones asking the questions,’ said Mongoose, unexpectedly. ‘Never mind! We will give the answers this time.’ He said this with a straight face, neither smiling nor frowning. There was something melancholy in his sobriety.

We were all speaking in English, though theirs was more accented than mine.

I said, ‘Oh! Does that mean you’re … ?’

‘- media consultants,’ said Rabbit, turning the palm of his right hand up, as if this were a self-evident fact. Something in the way he performed this gesture made me want to giggle.

‘We do market surveys,’ said Mongoose, nodding morosely.

‘Really!’ I said, smiling too brightly. There are certain circumstances which cause me to laugh uncontrollably. I produce a loud, chuckling rattle - sub-machine-gun with a touch of hyena - that is difficult to turn off once it gets started. I grow breathless, my sides ache and my eyes stream with tears. The fits usually occur when there is an obvious trigger, such as a comedy film or the company of friends, but sometimes, as on this occasion, the hysteria rises inside me like a volcano of soap bubbles, for no clear reason at all. An image flashed before my eyes, of me with my shaven head and green-painted toe-nails falling off my seat howling with laughter, as the two media consultants looking on, puzzled and a little pained. I clamped my hand across my mouth, hoping they wouldn’t notice.

‘How about you?’ asked Mongoose. ‘You are in survey business also?’
Further images were flashing in my head: scenes from Peter Sellers’ movies, of Herbert Lom’s face starting to twitch as crazed cackles leak out of him. I feared something similar was about to happen to me. I began massaging my cheeks as if I was in pain.

‘Uhh,’ I stammered, ‘not really, no. I’m - I'm a journalist -’

‘You should let her ask the questions,’ said Rabbit to Mongoose, in a reproachful tone.

The smaller man turned towards me, his eyes trusting and morose. ‘Please, Ma’am, you go ahead and ask. We will tell you anything.’

I was very grateful for the relative darkness of their cubicle. Sucking in a deep breath, so that the giggles were pushed back down into my stomach, I said, ‘I’m doing a series of articles about reincarnation. Maybe the two of you have some interesting stories to tell me?’

There was a brief silence. Rabbit cleared his throat and shifted slightly in his seat. Looking straight ahead as if reciting a passage he had memorized, he said,

‘Well … speaking for myself alone, I can say I take six eggs once a day.’

‘Eggs?’ I asked, unsure of what I’d heard.

‘Hard boiled,’ he said, thinking that I’d wanted clarification.

Mongoose was shaking his head from side to side. ‘He refuses to listen. I have told him so many times, but still he eats them. He says it is a question of faith.’

‘Just a moment,’ I said. ‘Why are we talking about food?’

‘You asked about it, so I am telling,’ said Rabbit, turning his palm over once more.

‘It is true,’ said Mongoose. ‘We have been travelling together on field trips for three years. He takes six eggs every night before dinner -’

‘I’m sorry but … what do eggs have to do with reincarnation?’ I had gone to a stage beyond laughter now. There was a floating sensation in my head, as if my giggles had transferred themselves to my sinuses without pausing to be released along the way.

‘You can read it in the papers every day,’ sighed Rabbit, raising his eyes to the ceiling with a long-suffering expression. ‘Some people are dying, some people are getting attacks. Excess of eggs leads to catharsis of the hearteries - leading to incarnation. But I am still eating my six eggs a day because … because … it is my belief!’ He closed his eyes.

‘No one can help him,’ whispered Mongoose, ‘no one’. He seemed on the verge of tears.

I got to my feet, knowing that I would explode if I remained in their company a second longer.
‘Thank you!’ I managed, before I fled. ‘You’ve been very informative!’

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Excellent Article

This morning I woke up unnaturally early, thinking: I need to use my blog in a more pro-active way. A blog is an extraordinary vehicle, if you stop and think about it, for putting private ideas and interior moments right out there where everyone/anyone can see them. But most of us use our blogs for hanging out our wet hankies and maybe passing around links that have done the tour of the universe half a dozen times already.

So anyway, when I got up and looked at e-mail the first thing I read was this article by Dr DAVID MICHAEL GREEN, Associate Professor of Political Science, Hofstra University and broad-spectrum commentator. He posts regularly to his web-site, THE REGRESSIVE ANTIDOTE and I'm subscribed to his automatic mail-out list.

It seemed like the ideal thing to post here on a day which began on a sober, I'm-not-doing-enough-with-my-life-note. Go click! It'll kick-start your day. Or what remains of your day. Or light up your evening. Or ... whatever.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On Self Censorship

Some of you may have visited this blog in the past couple of days and seen a link, which I have now removed, to a website called ... ummm ... well, obviously if I say what it is that'll be pretty much the same as posting a link to it. No-one asked me to remove it, but on reflection I decided it was kinder and safer to avoid displaying it here, even though the article (in the New Yorker) was/is fascinating and even though I will still visit the site now and then.

It's NOT a porn site, but then again, it's quite a bit like one, so I thought: nah. I think it's funny and very bizarre but then again, lots of people I know might find it (a) disgusting (b) child-unfriendly. I don't think I normally receive visits from Persons of the Youthful Persuasion, but then again, it's always possible that someone young strays here from TULIKA's website. So I decided to err on the side of being super cautious.

Hmmm. I feel the weight of every single gray hair on my head ...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

May 14th

That was the view from the upstairs window in my friends' home in Vermont -- barely two weeks ago. It snowed two feet in one day. Two days later, emerald green meadows speckled with brilliant yellow dandelions were all that could be seen in every direction.

But that was 2 weeks ago, and since then I have been trotting about -- I had another night in Lebanon and a wonderful dinner, in terms of company, conversation and food -- returned to Boston the next day and spent two nights at my niece's new home in Randolph and then two nights at the Fairmont, the hotel my sister was staying in while attending a medical conference. I hadn't planned to be there for two days, but that's how it worked out, because the volcano began sputtering again and my flight was delayed by two hours. That meant I'd miss my connecting flight through Frankfurt, so I opted to take an earlier flight the next day.

Got back to Delhirium on Thursday morning.