Category Archives: Musings

Remember when…

Remember when…

…every tree you passed seemed to call out your name, in a very personal challenge, requiring you to at least try climbing it?

…the first rains of the monsoon produced an earthy fragrance that made you take the deepest breath you could manage, moments before you ran right into it for a good drenching?

…you fought your siblings in the rush to make paper boats that you could sail in the quickly swelling rain gutters?

…steep, pitched tiled roofs seemed to scoff you, as if saying, “you can’t climb me”. It was a challenge that couldn’t be ignored, even at the peril of slithering down the roof and hanging on for dear life to rain spouts.

…you played cricket for hours under the scorching May sun, never feeling the burn on your skin?

…you woke up on summer mornings and the sky was always perfect blue?

…the smell of newly sharpened pencils filled the classroom with a heady aroma?

…fountain pens filled us with a nameless joy, as we made a huge mess filling them?

…a new school year was filled with the excitement of new pencil boxes, new shoes and the glorious perfume of new books?

…everything you ever needed could be bought at the little neighborhood shop? Essentials included bubble gum and small candies wrapped in crackling paper.

…everything you ever bought came wrapped in old newspaper, be it fish or sugar or fruits?

…you wore hand me downs from taller siblings or cousins who had outgrown their clothes and shoes, with pride?

…parents could quell your public antics with just a look?

Childhood is that magical, faraway kingdom that you can always visit in your mind, no matter how old you are.

 

 

 

 

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The World According to Daesh (ISIS)

In the wake of the attacks on Paris, French President Francois Hollande used the word Daesh to refer to ISIS. The group put out a chilling video promising to cut out the tongues of those who use this word. It is a shortening of the Arabic term, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). It apparently has a derogatory connotation. Hence the threat to tongues everywhere.

Who are these people:

We hadn’t heard of ISIS until just a very few years ago. Today they are a very real and dangerously frightening threat to the world as we know it. They are no Al Qaeda, be very clear about that. ISIS adheres to the Salafi tradition of Sunni Islam, like Al Qaeda, but the similarity ends there.

ISIS is the Caliphate with a Caliph (Holy Leader). The self declared Caliph is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Whenever Islam has a Caliph, he is the supreme leader of all Muslims everywhere (except for the Shi’ia, the Ismailis, the Druze etc. But then the Caliphate does not recognize them as Muslims at all).

Most Sunnis, radical or moderate, don’t recognize this Caliph or his Caliphate. The last real Caliphate was held by the Ottoman Turks, though even that was contentious. According to early belief, only a Qurayshi, of the Prophet’s own tribe can ever be Caliph. That, Al Baghdadi certainly is.

In addition a Caliph must be a man of unquestionable moral purity, according to early laws. And he must have amr, authority, or a certain gravitas. Baghdadi and his followers believe he is that man. Heretofore, he shall be the Caliph. All right then.

The Caliph must by necessity enforce the Sharia. He cannot deviate from it. If he does so, he can be excommunicated. In return for his leadership, his followers pledge him ultimate allegiance, baya’a. Any or every person or nation that supports any other law, is an apostate.

The people who join ISIS are not all just psychopaths and adventurers. Though it certainly has its share of those. To survive within the strict confines of ISIS belief, the foot soldier must have a true belief in the relentless, nihilistic march to an apocalyptic end and Judgement Day. The path to said Judgement Day will be strewn with the bloody bodies of the many enemies of ISIS.

This is the key to understanding the success of ISIS recruitment efforts within a section of the disaffected, marginalized Muslims youth in European and Arab countries. In the US, where Muslims are more integrated and assimilated into the fabric of society, there is less radicalization. It also explains the returnees from ISIS paradise one hears about in countries like India. It is no Disneyland.

How are they different from Al Qaeda:

What is essential for ISIS, as the Caliphate, unlike for underground groups like Al Qaeda or any of its tributaries, is territory. There can be no Caliphate without territory. That is why Raqqa is so important. That is why it must have stung ISIS like a slap in the face when the Kurds took back Sinjar province. They cannot afford to lose territory. They must gain more territory wherever and however they can. This is the first essential.

They believe in the early forms of punishment for conquered enemies. Enslavement of women and crucifixion were never a part of Al Qaeda’s practice. They had a much more worldly goal to achieve and never got into the nitty gritty of 7th century punishments. Therefore instead of the brutal visuals of beheadings, what we saw most often in Al Qaeda’s heyday were bombings and justice (their style) delivered at the end of the barrel of a Kalashnikov.

Another key difference is the ISIS emphasis on Apocalypse. Al Qaeda never mentioned this. Elite Sunnis like Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri, the guides and leaders of the movement, did not indulge in such speculation. It was almost as if it was beneath them. But to ISIS it is a central concept of their thinking.

What do they hope to achieve:

ISIS is attempting a reformation of Islam that will take them back to the purest form of religion, Islam as it was in the glory days of the Prophet’s early territorial advances. They want a state which replicates exactly the legal and daily life of the Mecca and Medina of the 7th century.

They do cleverly and cynically use the online universe to make their plans known to people everywhere. To quote Graeme Wood from his exhaustive article in the Atlantic, entitled What ISIS Really Wants, published last week, “We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.”

Their clearest stated aim is global domination. They will stop at nothing to achieve it. It may sound like the mad ravings of a Dr. Evil style villain, but that is what they want. To be at the helm of all affairs, everywhere. This is why they have to focus on territorial expansion. They already hold sway over an area of land about the size of Austria. They have absolute power over the populations of this area, totaling about 8 million people.

Enslavement of the people they conquer is a consequence of their plan to rule the world. Countries and territories they conquer will have to learn to live by their rules. That is why they have now dropped the terms Iraq, Sham and Levant from their name, and simply call themselves Islamic State. Once the armed wars are over, the entire world, they hope, will be theirs, not just the areas their original name limited them to.

The Syrian city of Dabiq is central to the ISIS conception of the apocalypse and the ultimate reckoning. This is where they hope to draw the armies of the infidels and fight the last, great battle. They have named their online magazine Dabiq, in recognition of the battle to come. And so we await the End of Days as visualized by ISIS.

It is an ambitious and expensive course they have charted. However, funding seems to be no problem. A concentrated series of kidnappings has raised large sums. They also use the old Iraqi smuggling routes to move everything from the output of the confiscated oil fields to the antiquities they have plundered. However by far the largest sums of money seem to come from private donors in the middle east and fund raising efforts for so-called humanitarian aid.

Groups and individuals in Qatar and Kuwait have caught the eye of the US Treasury Department as possibly the biggest sources of revenue. ‘Uncommitted funding’ to Syrian aid groups has been suspect for a while. No one knows exactly who in Syria this money goes to. However, for reasons of internal politics, nothing has been done to stem the flow.

So, there we have it. In the ultimate analysis, ISIS is a Doomsday Cult with delusions of grandeur. It exists in a bubble, where everyone that does not exactly abide by its  precisely enumerated and narrow belief system, is an enemy. That means just about everyone and every nation other than the Islamic State itself.

This has created an extraordinary circumstance, where nations we cannot imagine as allies, are arrayed on one side and ISIS stands solitary in its extreme and bizarre beliefs on the other. Iran and the USA are allied after decades of suspicion and saber rattling. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Emirates, Egypt and every other Islamic republic with a common penal code, are as much an enemy as France, Belgium or Germany.

How do they designate a nation/people as an enemy:

The legal thinking behind the ISIS stand is rooted in certain specific early traditions and texts of Islam. Most of the 1.7 billion Muslims  in the world do not follow in absolute and exact detail the very early legal traditions of the 7th century. It is impossible, as they live in modern nations and are usually fairly well assimilated in the local populations, the US being a good case in point.

Most Islamic nations in our times have criminal codes, which are loosely the ‘law of man’. Any nation with  such laws is an enemy of ISIS. This includes Saudi Arabia, which has a watered down version of Sharia criminal procedures. Yes, they do continue stonings and chopping off of thieves’ hands. But this doesn’t quite cut it with ISIS. It is not far enough. ISIS thinks Saudi Arabia does not deliver the whole package.

Next we come to the great enemy, the Shi’ia. Baghdadi has categorically stated that they, are the first enemy. They must be defeated, their lands confiscated, the men put to death and their women enslaved. Today, Shi’ia controlled Iraq and Iran are the first frontier ISIS must conquer to increase their territory and the slave population. The Shi’ia must be annihilated. Hence, the brutal attacks in Beirut.

ISIS will then move on to the next enemy, what they call al sulul, the Sunnis of Arabia who support or are part of the Saudi monarchy. The Sunnis of Arab lands have too many adherents to the ‘law of man’. This is not to be tolerated.

And then they come to the lands of the infidels, which is all the rest of us. There will be no quarter given, no mercy shown. Canons of ISIS still use medieval terms like Crusaders to depict the west. We will destroy your Rome, they claim. Rome today probably means the alliances of the west.

What we need to understand to contain and destroy the ISIS threat:

For too long now the rest of the world has gotten it all wrong about ISIS. First we thought they were Al Qaeda Lite. And proceeded to deal with them accordingly.

After the Paris bombings, there have been attempted shamings of Muslims everywhere. We need to understand that to ISIS eyes, these are not even real Muslims, if they live within the confines of the laws of any state, be it Indonesia or Turkey, India or the USA. They are already the enemy. Why are we, educated, 21st century citizens of the free world, adding to this? Did we shame Catholics worldwide when the IRA was carrying out its bombing campaign in the last century? Or did we hold all Christians responsible for the atrocities of the Nazi regime? Stop shaming all Muslims. They feel just as bad as anyone else. And they are considered the enemy just as much as we are.

The long column of Syrian refugees in desperate exodus are another self styled feather in the cap for ISIS. The world must, as both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama have both pointed out in recent days, reach out with kindness and acceptance to the fleeing thousands. These are the first victims of ISIS intolerance and terror tactics. ISIS is who they are fleeing from. Why is this so hard to understand?

Let us understand, all of us, the genesis of this reprehensible beast of hatred and destruction. ISIS evolved like a venomous serpent in the dangerous vacuum created by George W. Bush’s misadventures in Iraq. The dissolution of Saddam Hussein’s huge standing army, not only left Iraq unable to protect itself, but also fueled the great disaffection that gave ISIS its early recruits.

The warmongering has already begun in the US. Putin clearly wants to send them to meet their Maker, in his own words. Governments in the US and Russia and the West as a whole, should learn to stay their hand, desist from the temptation to create more such vacuums for terror groups to evolve. The question is, can the west and its middle eastern allies really contain the ISIS threat, destroying it in dribs and drabs, as they have been attempting so far?

On the other hand, it seems war is inevitable. Perhaps the only way to stop the serpent of ISIS may be all-out war. It should give world leaders pause though, that, this is exactly what ISIS wants. Every move ISIS makes, when it strikes soft targets in Paris or Beirut or anywhere else, they are showing their driving need for all-out war. They are trying to draw the armies of their enemies into the mother of all battles in Dabiq, where their vision of End of Days will be enacted.

 

 

 

 

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Mangalore – My Place in the Sun

A Pristine Beach in Mangalore

A Pristine Beach in Mangalore

If I have one warning for young people out there, it is, be careful what you wish for. Growing up in a small town in India, it always felt like I lived in a fishbowl. Everybody knew you. Anything you did out of the ordinary would get a) reported back to your parents and b) gossiped and discussed. Or so it seemed to me then. Fueled by incessant reading and a rich inner world of the imagination, I dreamed of escaping Mangalore. Yes, I thought in terms of jailbreaks and Escape to Victory. Ironically enough, I lived on a street named, wait for it…Jail Road. I wanted out. I wanted to see the world, to travel the world and twice around.

In truth, life was great. I lived in a home, where even all those years ago, we had lots of freedom. My parents were liberal and rather easygoing, in an age when India was a very conservative, conventional society. My sister and I enjoyed freedoms very few girls of our generation enjoyed in the rather uptight Hindu society of the times. No one ever told us we had to learn to cook and sew, sing and dance and be ready to be the perfect wives for the husbands who would eventually and inevitably come. Instead, we read widely and played cricket and lagori with the boys. We avoided the kitchen as if it were plagued by rats. Our extra-curricular activities gave us a nice escape from academic drudgery. No one had experienced the joys of television or computers or video games yet, so we all had lots of fun stuff to do. Anything could count as a toy, an empty shoe box or the used shell of a coconut. We even traveled regularly with my parents and had seen a large swathe of South India and quite a bit of North India, before we even left for college.

There was nothing I could point to and claim as missing from my life. But my eagerness to travel knew no bounds. I knew the earth was big and round and I wanted to see a lot of it. We used to play an odd little game with our atlases, where we’d turn to a random page, close our eyes and place our fingers on any part of the map therein, and say “I want to go there”, or “I want to live here”. It was a great game, you might land on Timbuktu or Teheran, London or Luanda. The possibilities were endless. Life was a game then.

There came a time in our lives when the joyful, easy days of school were over and we headed off to college, away from the comfortable confines of home, the sheltering shadow of doting parents and  little Mangalore. Those were heady and exciting times. I headed for the big city, Madras, as it was then known (and will ever be to me). After college, it was on to jobs. My sister headed to the US and I to Bangalore. And in my 24th year, I began to travel, on my own. I am turning 50 in just a few short weeks and I can’t seem to stop. It has been over a quarter of a century, and now I find myself nostalgic for Mangalore, or home, as I shall always think of it.

Life since then has been a series of moves across the world. From the antipodes to the United States of America, and a few other countries in between, I have lived in and visited several cities across the world. And yet, with almost half a century of life under my ample belt, I have not found my place in the sun. This is the question that niggles at the periphery of my thoughts, where do I belong? Where is my place in the world?

I know lots of people who have been outside of India for as long as, or longer, than I have been. Most people are settled and happy in the foreign lands where they have made their homes. They have bought homes and cars, sent kids to college and fully intend to have a contented retirement in the future. Why is that, I wonder? Is it because most of these people have moved only once, or perhaps twice, since they left home? Many of my friends have been in one city for well over a decade and a half and that must be plenty of time for a place to feel like home. Right? I don’t know. I have never lived in any one place for that long.

It has always been 3 years here, 4 years there and before we knew it, two and a half decades of life have passed. We delayed everything in our lives, including starting a family, until we had at least a sense of a settled feeling. And one day, suddenly, we realized, a lot of time had passed and we weren’t that young anymore. Having a child has been a grounding experience, to an extent. We have moved only 3 times in the 14 years since our daughter was born. Of course the moves were all the way across the world and back, but hey, we survived.

Now don’t get me wrong, the nomadic life makes for colorful stories.There’s an upside to it. Our lives have been exciting and always filled with new possibilities. Every new country and every new city has thrown up a different challenge and we have surmounted them all. We are strong and vibrant people because of it and we can boast of friends in many little corners of the world. So many people to visit, so little time. I have enjoyed every moment of the journey as well the experience of life in various cultures. I have picked up a smattering of languages, like Bahasa Melayu and whatever it is that Australians speak. I have visited many of those places I inadvertently placed my finger on all those years ago, playing the atlas game. I have met so many interesting people, from terribly important ones to ordinary people in little towns across the world, real ‘characters’ in their own right. It has been a full, fulfilled and happy life.

But things seem to have come full circle for me recently. As I write these words (that I never dreamed I’d ever say), “I miss Mangalore”, I am assailed by the smells, tastes and experiences of the little town I grew up in. Piping hot goli bajes from Mohini Vilas, kaane fry from Anupam, mallige in fragrant bloom everywhere, long walks in the cool breezes of Kadri Hills on Sundays (as the girls and boys surreptitiously checked out one another), frolicking like dolphins at Panambur beach, the overpowering stench of dried fish floating from the docks, tender coconut water fresh off the trees, running up and down steep tiled roofs, Chinese food from Nanking restaurant, the ice candy melting in the heat, mutton puffs from Vas Bakery, stealing mangoes from someone’s trees as we walked home from school and so many more memories linger.

Golibaje

I have now lived away from Mangalore for far longer than I ever lived there, but the strongest memories are still those childhood ones, overlaid with a unique taste and smell. I have been back enough times to know that many of those places I so fondly remember don’t even exist anymore, except in a thousand memories. The tiled roofs have been torn down to make way for high rises, which present gorgeous ocean views many of us Mangaloreans hadn’t even suspected were there. Kadri Hills is unrecognizable but all is forgiven, because they built a Cochin Bakery there. Much has changed but it is still Mangalore in its essence. And my heart will always belong there. Not least because, that is where my mum still lives.

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The Temporal Feminine

Dan Brown wrote an international bestseller about the effects of removing the Sacred Feminine from religion. Thus began a global discussion of the Catholic church and the neverending success of The Da Vinci Code. I have been considering a much more mundane prospect but one that has great impact on daily life. I was considering the effects of removing the feminine presence from the daily life of a society. What happens to such a society? In one word, such a society becomes ‘ridiculous’.

Saudi Arabia is the clearest case in point. Afghanistan under the Taliban was another weird case. But then, that is just an effect of the importation of Saudi Wahabbism to other, poorer countries. It’s important to note that Afghanistan had a thriving society filled with female doctors, teachers, hairdressers and just about every other profession until the Saudi Wahabbi money and ISI’s sinister scheme created the many horned Taliban beast. Women were everywhere, doing everything, in Afghanistan, until the dreaded Taliban wormed their way into power at gunpoint, with the added ammunition of fundamentalist ideology. Today, Afghanistan is wending its slow way back to normal, with women in Parliament and other sectors of the economy.

As for Saudi Arabia, what can I say. I mean really, what can you say about Saudi Arabia? It is a society that actively strives for the title of ‘ridiculous’. If you look up ‘Women in Saudi Arabia’ in Wikipedia, you find one page that lists all the women in Saudi Arabia who are outstanding in different sectors. Here are the categories, alphabetised no less. A for Actresses, has 1 entry. The next category is under F, for Film Directors. It has 1 person listed. Next comes M, for Medical Doctors, with a paltry 4 names. The next entry is under P, for Politicians, with 5 names. Then we have a category under S, for Singers, 4 names. After this blitz, if you have the energy to carry on, is S for Sportswomen with a dazzling 3 names featured. The last category falls under W, for Writers with a truly impressive list of 8 women. One of these women, is actually of Turkish descent, not even really Saudi. She is the mother of Dodi Al Fayed, of Princess Diana fame, with that fact taking precedence over her writing in her bio. The whole list of eminent Saudi women equals a total of 26 luminaries.

So we have 26 women of renown, out of a population of 29.2 million Saudis (2012 statistics). Roughly half the population is female. If this statistic doesn’t make Gloria Steinem scream, I don’t know what will. It certainly drives me crazy. It is a crying shame that in the year 2014, when women have taken their place on the world’s stage and established their positions firmly in every aspect of life everywhere in the world, women in obscenely wealthy Saudi Arabia are so isolated. In the Asian Games held in October 2014, Saudi Arabia was the only country that failed to field even a single female athlete. If this isn’t the definition of a ridiculous society, I haven’t been looking hard enough I suppose.

The country has an entity called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or the religious police. This entity’s main activity seems to consist of restricting the movements of women in the country. Of course they are also well known for other human rights violations. But let us focus on the plight of Saudi women. There is a long list of things a Saudi woman is forbidden from doing. I read that a Saudi woman cannot open a bank account without her husband’s approval. Huh, I thought to myself, what is the fate of the Saudi woman who does not marry? She gets to stuff her mattress with banknotes I suppose. How appropriate. But wait, is a Saudi woman allowed to choose not to marry? The circles within circles are getting totally psychedelic now.

A Saudi woman cannot go anywhere in public, I mean anywhere, without a male chaperone. This person is called ‘mahram‘, usually a male relative. God forbid, it’s an unrelated male. In one bizarre case, a girl reported being gangraped. When it was established she had stepped out without a ‘mahram‘, she was found guilty. She actually got more lashes of the cane than one of her rapists! Wherever a Saudi woman is going, she cannot drive herself there in any case. Women are not allowed to drive, not by any specific law, but by decree of Saudi clerics. They believe women drivers ‘undermine social values’. Their words, not mine.

So the list of the forbidden continues. Women can’t drive, go anywhere alone in public, participate in international sports events, swim in a public pool or in the ocean, try on clothes in a store and so on and so forth. Some of the verboten are positively mental. A woman can’t read an uncensored magazine, buy a barbie doll, try on clothes in a store before buying or work in a lingerie store. I know countless women who’d love to go to a Victoria’s Secret staffed only by men. Wouldn’t you? It’s laughable. Think of the sizing discussions on bras, boggles the mind doesn’t it? However, as Maureen Dowd states in her Vanity Fair article, ‘A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia’, everything in Saudi Arabia is on a ‘sliding scale’, “depending on who you are, whom you know, whom you ask, whom you’re with, and where you are”. So at least some of the women are enjoying some freedoms, some of the time.

In another pesky comparison to the Catholic Church, Saudi Arabia is the only country other than the Vatican, where men have the vote, but women don’t. This differentiates them from countries where no one has the vote, aka dictatorships. Just to throw a dog a bone, there is a royal decree which will allow Saudi women to vote in local body elections in 2015. How magnanimous of the King. I’m guessing this is a man who stepped fully formed out of a magazine and produced his own kids the same way, because apparently he has no mother or wife (or is it wives?).

The biggest problem with making a society so ridiculous, by forcing women so deep into the shadows that they are practically invisible, is the public behaviour of men. People in Mumbai and London have long known of this. It is rumoured that the venerable Taj group in India actually built the far gaudier President hotel in Mumbai to cater to the large number of Arabian guests (known by the generic term ‘sheikhs’) and their tastes. And to keep them apart from other guests perhaps? The idea for this post occurred to me as I was transcribing an interview with a group of successful Saudi businessmen. Some of their speech was Ionesco in the flesh. Funny but true, when asked what were the peculiarities of the Saudi market one businessman responded,’the camels’. The interviewer was understandably taken aback. Pressed further, the interviewee says “camels are too expensive here. They cost much more than Bentleys”. I give you the Saudi male.

I certainly refrain from painting it as Arab culture. It is not. It is quite specifically Saudi Arabian. None of the nations nearby have such oppressive practices against women. Lebanon and Jordan are perfect examples. Saddam Hussain may have been a murderous dictator, but under his Baathist rule Iraqi women had tremendous freedoms, (more than a little lost since). Syria is certainly more progressive in women’s issues. The Emirates states are way ahead of the others in the region. It is Saudi Arabia that chooses to regress in women’s rights. It has chosen to relegate women to domestic roles, as housewives and maids and housekeepers. Oil rich and tremendously powerful in the region, it has chosen not to lead from the front.

Fortunately for them, Saudi women are highly educated. They will not stay in the shadows for much longer. Their sisters around the world stand ready to rally behind them. As they begin to push the envelope, slowly and steadily, they will themselves bring about the revolution that frees them from the oppressiveness of their society. Until then, the sliding scale will have to suffice.

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33 words for the Holy Trinity

Non violent struggle was Gandhi’s gift to the world.

Dr.King took non violence to the mountaintop.

Nelson Mandela made non violence the policy of a divided nation.

Ideas can change the world.

 

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Life Lessons In A Tough Year

Sometimes in life, a few short weeks can be transformative. This year, 2013, started on a rather low note for me. Very early in January a routine annual test threw up a huge problem. “You’ll need to come in for an ultrasound follow-up immediately” the radiologist’s nurse announced on the phone. My knees felt like jelly as she went on to tell me the doctor had noticed a large, dense mass in my mammogram. Suddenly I was no longer the confident 47 year old woman I was yesterday. Now I was just another woman peering into the murky darkness of a frighteningly uncertain future. A phone call that lasts a few minutes can shake your life to its very foundations.

I pulled up a chair as a wave of fear passed over me. No one is ever prepared to hear bad news. But life goes on right? So you get up off your chair and continue to do the things that need doing. Groceries to be bought, cars to be serviced, clothes to be laundered. The weeks passed, as they tend to, in a blur of inconclusive ultrasounds and scans. Finally I was told I had to have a core biopsy to ascertain whether the mass was malignant or benign. Those are two words I hope you never have to hear in your life. They simply take control of your mind and let nothing else intrude. My mind was a blank mess of swirling thoughts, none complete, mostly meaningless.

Through all of it I kept thinking “I need my mum”. Nothing like a bit of bad news to bring out the baby in you. My mum was in Singapore having a well deserved vacation. I could not bring myself to call her and tell her anything because I didn’t know for sure myself. My sister, my brother, my husband and my friends literally held my hands through the interim. The biopsy itself was simple yet complex for the non-medical mind to process. The wait for the results describe three of the darkest days of my life. When the call came through that the mass was benign, I sank to my knees in gratitude.

I know millions around the world go through this ordeal each year. Some like me, are lucky to escape the bullet but many thousands are not. The one thing, I am sure, we all have in common, is the opening up of our inner eye.  Suddenly there is a clarity that had been lacking prior to this. The audit of our lives is clear in the blink of an eye. The balance sheet of life doesn’t lie. Life has been so good to me so far, I thought.

So what did I learn from this experience? Life is beautiful. I have learned to enjoy each day as it comes, smell the flowers that perfume the air in spring, find hope in the laughter of children at play, sing the songs that resonate in the heart (albeit very badly). A positive attitude is not something you will learn from a self help book. A positive attitude is guaranteed when you acknowledge that there is beauty all around us, if only we could stop and look, smell, touch.

Some things that we might always have known, by instinct perhaps, take on the clarity of crystal in a shaft of sunlight. Your mother’s love for instance, you always knew you had it but suddenly it has the resonance of a country church bell on a quiet Sunday morning. The true meaning of family and why we love our siblings even when we have tried our best to drive each other batty for years. The value of your friends, that family you choose, becomes sharply defined. Friends are of particular importance when you live far away from home and family. My friends held me upright when I might have sunk into misery. And most of all I learned that my husband of twenty three years deserves credit for sticking by me these last twenty three years.

I made some promises to myself then. I will reach out to old friends whom I’ve lost touch with. If we don’t tell people how we feel, soon it might be too late.  And I will write again. For years friends and family have been urging me to write. Like most people, there is at least one book in me. It is time to get cracking on it. Fear of failure cannot stop the stories inside. When I do publish, it might get read or it might not. At least I will have tried. Can any of us expect anything more?

One of the most important life lessons I have learned is to be positive and supportive in all my dealings with children. They are fragile creatures and negative reinforcement (such an attractive transaction to adults) achieves nothing. Children constantly put themselves out there in a strange, hostile environment. If we can’t give them encouragement we should keep out of the way of their ascent.

Of all the things that have become clear to me none is clearer than this:  if you have nothing good to say about someone or something, don’t say anything. Restraint is better than seemingly cathartic verbal diarrhea. Each time I bite my tongue on a scathing remark an angel gets its wings. Believe me, many an angel has learned to fly thanks to me. And I feel better for holding my tongue.

So now I wake up each day full of zest and joie de vivre. Each sunrise holds a promise and each sunset wraps up contentment in its darkening visage. Life is an uncertain ride but it is always exhilarating. I hope your life may be as good as mine and I wish my happiness on all of you.

 

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Whatever happened to Christmas?

It’s December and the hype has hit its peak or shall I say  it has hit the abyss. Christsmas seems to come earlier each year, as the oldtimers might say. I kid you not, I saw Christmas decorations on sale when I was out hunting for Halloween stuff. That was early October. You shut the door on your Thanksgiving guests and the Christmas frenzy begins. They actually have a commercial for something or the other dramatising that very fact. The woman turns around from bidding goodbye to the last of her family after Thanksgiving dinner and looks amazed to find the tree up, lit and trimmed, husband sitting on the couch smugly offering her egg nog. It’s enough to make your head spin.

This year US stores went a step further and opened up Black Friday sales at the midnight hour after Thanksgiving. Let’s see, that gave store employees a whole eighteen hours with their families for Thanksgiving. Yippee for the most important family holiday of the year. When your ten year old tells you we’d better hurry to get to the Black Friday sales, you know something is very wrong. How does she even know the term? Television is constantly bombarding us with the need to shop, shop, shop. It is Christmas in less than four weeks they tell us. And you know, Christmas would never come at all if  God forbid we didn’t all go and do our bit by buying hundreds of things we and our friends and family don’t really need!

You know you are old when nostalgia takes over at holiday time. This year I have been missing Christmas in Mangalore since  before Thanksgiving came around. Girding myself for the onslaught of buy, buy, buy madness, I begin to think longingly of long ago Christmases in Mangalore. I look out my window and I see the gaudy, kitschy Christmas lighting on the fronts of homes around here and I dream of those simple,ethereal paper stars that began to make their appearance outside homes a couple of weeks before Christmas in Mangalore. Christmas in the suburbs is all about outdoing your neighbours in lighting and outstripping your own efforts from a year ago. I think of those childish Christmas cribs we made with such creativity in school to compete with the other classes. Today ‘crib’ means a rapper’s bling infested home and MTV decides who has the best crib, not Sister Carissima.

One of my dearest memories of Christmases  past was the clear, sweet music of young voices earnestly raised in singing solemn and sweet Christmas carols. I have seen nary a caroller in all these years in the US. I spent all last evening teaching Aditi to sing ‘Silent Night’ the way the nuns taught us. We sang it alone and together and then performed for Naresh. We tried singing in parts but that came to grief in a very short while. We spent an hour talking of the birth of Jesus in those desperate and dangerous conditions. I hope she gained a new insight into what Christmas means. Her favorite christmas song used to be ‘Santa baby’. I’m hoping she will love Silent Night and Joy to the World just as much.

In Mangalore, Catholic homes would swing into ‘kuswar’ making mode. Friends would bring around cakes and kuswar, most of it homemade. Oh the joy of having another friend drop by with cakes decorated with dazzling marzipan roses. We’d call dibs on the colors before the cake was cut. On Christmas eve the bells would ring clear and constant. The Catholics would go to Midnight Mass and we’d be outside in the front yard at midnight waiting for the bells of St. Aloysius to toll the hour of Christ’s birth. It was all a long time ago but in those days Christmas meant re-living the magic of the birth of a baby who changed the world. It was a magical night, even for us non-Christians. Who took the Christ child out of Christmas?

This year we have a no-gift policy in our home. Like other Christmases, Aditi will make a gift hamper for underprivileged children and go donate it at a shelter. I plan to spend Christmas Eve in New Orleans, a Catholic enclave if ever there was one in the US. Perhaps we’ll regain the Christmas spirit (as we imbibe other spirits). But as I remind myself, this is New Orleans, where the coming of Lent is celebrated with the manic partying of Mardi Gras. That town sure knows how to throw a party. Christmas Day will be spent celebrating the birth of Jesus and our own Christmas miracle from last year, little Saaket, my nephew, born on Christmas Day 2010, in the face of overwhelming odds. In the place of the manger in a stable we had an incubator in the neonatal ICU. Miracles do happen at Christmas.

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