Sunday, November 20, 2011

Musings on Validation

So I was wondering today about this deep rooted, deep seated need for validation that we, as mere mortals, have. How deep seated and deep rooted it is, depends on each of us as individuals. Our upbringing, life, circumstances, gender, society and culture all influence the depth and intensity of this atavistic desire. Or is it just me, who has this intense need for validation of self?

From what dark void inside me does this need arise? And why is it so intense? More to the point, why is it focused on external systems and means of validation? Oh yes, I have done enough self-introspection and psychoanalysis to know the answer. Still I struggle with the answers. Still it is not enough.

I have realized that seeking external validation, and getting it, is a mere drug. An addiction of sorts, that satisfies the occasional craving. Can an intermittent high from an ephemeral compliment even come close to satisfying what is, what has become, an eternal need? Yet I question the very existence of this need, if not its existence, atleast its strength.

Time and again I have seen this inside me, time and again I have realized the one painful truth, that I am not good enough for myself. Why seek external validation, if my internal validation was enough? What lack inside me, that my self-belief is weak and wavering? What depths do I plumb to find inside me worth and confidence in my self?

I know that is the answer. I need to believe more in my own abilities, my own choices, my own self, my own identity. It is only internal validation that will lead to lessening of doubt, fulfilment of self, and the ability to traverse life more confidently. Because internal validation is not ephemeral, not fleeting, not occasional. It is this deep abiding faith in oneself, this deep love for self that gives joy, fulfilment and freedom.

Yes, there is the line of one of my favorite songs goes, ...ik khalish hai hawaaon mein bin tere...(there is an emptiness in the air without you...). But the only person who can fill this void is me. I need to be there for myself. In this time when doubts rage, when things change, when I question my very worth and value. I need to tell myself that I am good enough. Not for the outside world, not for people, not for family, not for friends. I am good enough for myself.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Indian Socio-Cultural Dynamics of Eating Out Alone (OR a 12 Year Old Rant)

I’m talking about a long ago India here, and I have no idea whether this exists anymore. Eating out alone in the US is not a big deal, indeed it is the culturally acceptable norm. It is perfectly okay to sit and eat alone at some place- in fact, it is expected in some of the café/bakery sort of places. Where one can sit, eat, ruminate, read, write or Internet surf endlessly. And nobody will blink an eyelid.

As I was eating my lunch today- alone, mind you- I recalled an incident that had occurred almost twelve years or so ago. Obviously, it still rankles, since that is one memory that I have never forgotten. Chinese (Indo-Chinese) food was new on the Indian horizon at that time and I absolutely loved it. There was this one Chinese place near my undergrad school that we would often visit, named Golden Dragon (what else!). Once, I was craving that particular place, food and taste so badly that I just could not stop myself and decided to go there without further delay. Most of my friends were out of town, so I went alone.

I sat there and ate the most wonderfully unhealthy MSG laden vegetarian hot-and-sour soup and Manchurian (dishes that nobody in China has ever heard of). I suddenly heard a really snarky voice at my adjacent table say loudly … “mujhe pata nahi log baahar akele kaise khaa lete hain” (I don’t understand how people can eat out alone). Spoken out loudly enough to make sure I heard. I still remember the disdain in that voice.

I’ve never forgotten that incident. Almost every time I eat out alone, I recall this. I wonder what was going on in that person’s mind as he said this. I wish I had said something. I wish I had not been hurt. I wish I could meet him again and give him a resounding slap! I was just satisfying a primal urge- to eat some delicious food that I was craving. I wish I had not felt bad about doing this one thing I wanted to do for myself.

Eating out alone- especially for a girl, ye heavens! - was overstepping certain circumscribed societal norms. It wasn’t accepted, it wasn’t common, and hence it was worth commenting upon. Indian cultural norms are defined, created and delineated to keep women in their place, inside. The outside is seen as the site of potential breach, be it of norms, principles or people. Indian women, as the moral and physical upholders of Indian culture, are not allowed to breach anything. Be it norms, principles or boundaries. Be they physical, socio-cultural or psychological.

I can only hope things are different now. From what I hear about the new India, I sure hope that women can go and eat out alone as, when and where they want. All the Chinese, Italian, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, American, even Indian food that they want to eat. Without the world judging them in any way. Next time this happens to me, I’ll make sure I dump the bowl of soup on the speaker’s head.
No matter how delicious it is.

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Thursday, November 03, 2011

Blog Anniversary Post: Six years together

A friend of mine today mentioned that she wanted to start her own blog. So we were talking about it, and I was reminiscing about the day I started this blog. And suddenly it struck me, it was on THIS VERY DAY, six years ago. Yes, this blog was born on November 03, 2005. Went back in time (to the first ever post) and checked. Indeed, the first post was on November 03, 2005. Just "Testing" :-)

So many memories and moments came flooding back. I was extremely new to the US at that time, had been here only for about two months. Was lonely and miserable and had no friends and wanted to go back. That is how this blog was born. Since I had nobody to talk to, I decided to talk to this space. My blog, my friend that would listen to all my rants and pain and sorrow and share it with me.

That is indeed what has happened. We have come a long long way together, since that fateful day six years ago. My blog has always been the repository of my emotions, thoughts, feelings, expressions and rants. It has stayed with me through my highs and lows. It has been a true hamsafar of sorts, growing and evolving as my thoughts and I evolved. It has been both my aks and aaina...

I was wondering why it is not called a blog birthday, but a blog anniversary. And then I realized, that it is a day that we both came together. It marks an important milestone for both of us. So here is wishing us both a happy anniversary, and many many more years of sharing and togetherness!

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

It's only Words...

Writing is an essential life task for me, something that is very important for me as it gives me the vent I need to maintain my self and sanity. It is also my most important medium of self-expression. If I have not written for a long time, I feel restless, as if all the words stored inside of me will bubble out incoherently, toppling over each other in their haste to escape the confines of my mind and heart. I feel the incessant urge to write, to express my thoughts and feelings. And this blog is my one way of doing so, of arranging all those words in a semblance of coherence, of permutations that allow for self-expression and revelation. Words are a precious resource, our only commodity of exchange that we use to create mutual understanding and empathy.

Oftentimes, I talk to people who tell me that they don’t write (or read) much. And I can only think of the wealth they are missing. Isn’t everything we do, say, feel… just words? All my joys and sorrows, all my feelings, thoughts, ideas, expressions, sentences, pain, love, hate, emotion… aren’t words the only way to say it all? Even though, in the immortal words of Jagjit Singh, kaun kehta hai ki mohabbat ki zubaan hoti hai, ye haqeeqat to nigaahon se bayaan hoti hai…

The entire internet is based on only words. It is all about content- words that grip, entrance, captivate! Nowadays, a lot of my reading is on the internet, blogs and thoughts and articles of people. And I can’t help but admire them, people who use words to such effect. Who create and influence using words written somewhere on the internet. The writing can be inspirational, effective, motivational, controversial- whatever. But it makes me think. It creates an impact. I am the kind of person to whom words matter, be they written or spoken.

That’s what Twitter is, isn’t it. We click and read stuff we like and if we really like it, we retweet it because we want the world to read the same amazing stuff. We only follow people whose words we like to read. We read blogs we like and identify with. We link to articles that are good.

The power of words is endless. Words are a double-edged sword, while they can uplift and motivate, influence, they can also tear and rent apart, they can destroy and annihilate. They make us laugh and cry. Words are the only means we have to communicate- and if we stop communicating, the world ends right there. Words can be a bridge and a chasm. Words can be everything and nothing. Words can bind forever and break forever. And yet, words are all we have.

Of course, you know where this is leading. Towards It's Only Words. Because words are truly all we have. To tell each other everything. To listen to. To understand and feel and empathize and take our hearts away….

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Guest Post: Poetry and Thoughts

A few months ago, I had written this blogpost, Lost. A friend of mine really liked the post, and was inspired to pen down some of her own thoughts about life. She sent me this beautiful poem, that I am posting below. Thanks a lot for this, Vandana. And I hope to have more guest posts from you in the future :-)
By Vandana Toreti

Zindagi ke teedhe-medhe, kabhi janne kabhi anjanee,
rastoon ko tai karte karte hum umar ek padav se doosre par pahuch jate hain

Mausam ki tarah zindagi bhi badalti hai rang,
Kabhi khushi de jati hai, kabhi gum chod jati hai,
Kuch naye rishtee jud jatein hain, kuch appne kho jatein hain

Zindagi ke teedhe-medhe, kabhi janne kabhi anjanee,
rastoon ko tai karte karte hum umar ek padav se doosre pahuch jate hain

Mushkilen aur kathinayi jo kabhi hum se juda hotee thein,
Woh jaane pechane se lagne lagte hain,
Humari himmat ki pariksha leti hui yeh zindagi hume kahan se kahan le aati hai

Zindagi ke teedhe-medhe, kabhi janne kabhi anjanee,
rastoon ko tai karte karte hum umar ek padav se doosre pahuch jate hain

Duniya ke bhool bhulaiye mein,
Kabhi girte, kabhi uthe, kabhi fisalte,
kabhi sambhalte huye hum khud ko bhulakar aage nikal padtein hain
Mud kar aapne aks ko dekho tho lagta hai ki kya hum wahi hain

Zindagi ke teedhe-medhe, kabhi janne kabhi anjanee,
rastoon ko tai karte karte hum umar ek padav se doosre pahuch jate hain

Yeah raste bhi aajane se hain, yeh log bhi ajnabi se hain,
Aur hum is anjane duniya ki anjani rastoon par nikal pade hain
Apni hai sirf mann ki shakti aur upwarwale par bharosa,
Ki woh rasta dikayega aur mazil tak pahuchayega...

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Road less Traveled: Cross-cultural Entrepreneurship

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” said Dumbledore to Harry in the book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. This quote has stayed with me over the years, as I navigated my way through the myriad pathways of life. Dumbledore was talking about choosing to do the right thing under trying circumstances. Even though very often, the right thing turns out be the more challenging choice.

As I started work at a start-up recently, I was reminded of Dumbledore’s words. What made people choose to start their own companies? What made them give up comfortable and cushy jobs to bet their lives, savings, and family life- all on some nebulous dream of a better future? The answer could not merely be Dumbledore’s words, wise though they were. So I started reading up on entrepreneurship. On why the choices founders made were the choices they made. Was this really the right thing to do? And if so, right for whom?

Considerable research has been done on entrepreneurship in recent years, especially in Silicon Valley, CA. Dr. Wadhwa (2009) conducted extensive research to find the ‘anatomy of an entrepreneur’. Dr. AnnaLee Saxenian also conducted research exploring the nexus between immigrants and entrepreneurship in the Valley. Both of them agree that educated and skilled immigrants not only bring abundant talent to the country, but as entrepreneurs, are also responsible for wealth and job creation. As an immigrant myself, I could relate to some of the attributes of social and ethnic networks that Dr. Saxenian (2002) talks about, that foster immigrant growth

Dr. Wadhwa’s research shows that there are about double the percentage of Indian entrepreneurs than the next closest foreign-born category (3.8% vs.1.7%). Simultaneously, his research also uncovered that the single most important attribute that needed to be inherent in an entrepreneur was the ‘ability to take risks’. As much as 98% of the respondents ranked the lack of willingness to take risks as the greatest barrier to entrepreneurship. Another important attribute was the ability to adapt and change (Wadhwa et al, 2009).

As I pondered these findings, I could see an obvious behavioral pattern emerge. Most immigrants, before they turn entrepreneurs, already have successfully started-up their own lives in a new culture and country. These highly educated and skilled valuable members of society have already once given up comfortable lives, friends, family and supporting social structures to carve out a new life in a new socio-cultural setting. They set out to achieve everything anew starting from scratch, and mostly succeeded. I know how difficult this is from personal experience: even after so many years here, I am still struggling to recreate my sense of cultural and professional identity.

Dr. Saxenian, in her research, talks about strong cultural and ethnic networks that in turn lead to professional growth. A number of ethnic associations have also grown to support co-ethnic entrepreneurs. A strong sense of ethnic and cultural identity binds this group together. Similarly, Wadhwa talks about how friends and family provided funding for up to 16% of startups. Wadhwa goes on to elaborate on the importance of family/ spousal support in successful entrepreneurship. This is in accordance with Hofstede’s cultural dimension of Individualism vs. Collectivism, with both Chinese and Indian cultures rating high on the collectivist scale. Since we already know that familial support is essential to entrepreneurship (about 73% of respondents in Wadhwa’s research said that was an issue), and collectivistic cultures provide more of that support, we can infer a causal correlation that gives Asian cultures an entrepreneurial edge.

While the single biggest motivation for start-ups was the creation of wealth, Wadhwa’s work also uncovered that innovation motivated over 68% of founders. The founders wanted to get a good idea to fruition. This translates into attempting to make a positive contribution to the world at large. To solve a small problem in your area of expertise that makes life better for some people- or at least, try to make life better for some people, also motivates a large number of thinker-founders. This desire to make a positive change to the world and to do the right thing in the face of easier choices is what life is all about, not just entrepreneurship.

Therefore, one can make the obvious connections that emerge after reading all the research. I do think that immigrants are innate risk-takers. Having taken and successfully navigated the cultural, social, physical and mental trans-country divide, increases one’s inherent capacity to take risks. To take yet another leap of faith. In the immortal words of Robert Frost, to yet again choose the road less travelled. And hopefully, to make all the difference.

1.Rowling, J.K.(1999). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Arthur. A. Levine Books.
2.Saxenian, AnnaLee (1999). Silicon Valley’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs. Public Policy Institute of California.
3.Saxenian, AnnaLee, (2002). Local and Global Networks of Immigrant Professionals in Silicon Valley. Public Policy Institute of California.
4.Wadhwa, V., (2009). The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur: Making of a successful entrepreneur. Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation.
5.Wadhwa, V., (2009). The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur: Family Background and Motivation. Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Judgment and Opinion

It is a truth, universally acknowledged… no actually; it is nothing of the sort. I just felt like starting this blog post with Austen’s most famous quote ever. But indeed, it is true that we perceive and experience that as people get older, they tend to become more opinionated and judgmental. More rigid and inflexible in their thoughts, ideas and ways of doing, being, thinking.

However, the exact opposite has happened to me. As I get older, I realize that I am getting mellower. I am more forgiving of people’s faults and transgressions. I make and accept excuses for them- be it for any reason. In my brash and unforgiving youth, mostly everything was black and white. Either bad or good. I did not give anybody the benefit of doubt. I branded people and slotted them and that was it.

Now, as I have grown older and wiser (hopefully) I see that there are extenuating circumstances in a lot of situations. I have no idea what kind of pain, stress or troubles the other person is belaboring with. Life throws us curveballs and lemons and brickbats and everything in between, especially when we least expect it. Each of us reacts differently to the pain and stress. The pain may explode in any way, shape or form- and who cares who is in the way when the explosion occurs!

The single reason why I have become more forgiving and understanding of people is that I have seen and faced some really tough situations in the last few years. And have not always reacted well. I have understood that people do bad things when in bad situations. It is impossible to do and be good when difficult things and situations occur. I am more empathetic because of my experiences. I can condone almost anything now- maybe, just short of rape or murder.

This new mellow me set me thinking. Does this happen to all of us as we get older? Maybe not. Why not? Here, I formulated my own opinion. I think that if we have had a relatively easy life, we tend to be more judgmental. And if we have faced tough times and tough situations, we tend to be more forgiving. I have also seen this borne out in a lot of people. I was like this myself a long time ago. Having had a very easy and sheltered life in India, I was extremely judgmental and opinionated. Also, I had the overbrimming brashness and confidence of youth. But it all exploded in my face after I got to this country. I’ve faced some really difficult challenges and demons, both inside and out. I’ve reacted and behaved in the most unexpected and awful of ways.

And you know what- I’m not sure the earlier me would have forgiven myself. Understood or empathized or sympathized. But this me has realized that yes, there are extenuating circumstances in lots of cases. Anything can happen to any of us anytime. If the bad things do not happen, consider yourself blessed. But people with easy lives become opinionated or judgmental.

So that’s my opinion. Not only with myself, but I have seen this time and again with people around me. The easier our life, the more prone we are to judging others. The more we go through the agni-parikshas of life, the more mellow and soft we become. But of course, the new mellow me will not judge you and call you judgmental. I can understand where you’re coming from ;)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: If Today Be Sweet

Posting after a long time, here is review no. 5 for the South Asian Reading challenge. I read another few South Asian books in the interim, and will post here soon. In fact, my backlog is about four books already read and not yet written about! I better hustle and bustle. Here is today’s book.

Title: If Today be Sweet
Author: Thrity Umrigar
ISBN: 978-0061240232
Pages: 296
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Multicultural, Drama, Indian

Review: I have read almost all of Umrigar’s books, and loved them all. However, I was wary of reading this one, actually more scared than wary. There are some books that force us to look at the questions and quandaries of our own lives, which hit too close to home to be comfortable or acceptable. This book seemed the same to me. I am completely torn about the India vs. US issue- where to live long term. Where to work, what to do, where will I find more happiness? This eternal immigrant dilemma is nothing new, no novel personal crisis. Yet, it is my personal crisis and it bothers, troubles and anguishes me. This issue is compounded for me as I truly love both countries. If I deeply hated any one, the answer would be easy. But I love and value both.

So whenever I read the blurb of this book, I felt that this book would be like reading about my own dilemmas. And so I stayed away from the book. After all, denial is a pretty blissful place to be! But then a few days ago I picked it up and read the book. And I am glad I did. Oh, it made me cry. It wrenched my guts and soul. It made me sob in despair. I loved the book (stating that seems redundant by now).

The book is about an elderly woman, Tehmina, who recently lost her husband and is now staying with her son, his American wife and grandson in the US. The book talks about the challenges and issues that arise as Tehmina stays with her son’s family. The compromises, the discussions, the resentments, the everyday annoyances, yet the love underneath it all. We get to see the US as filtered through the thoughts and eyes of a sixty-five year old woman, who has lived in India all her life. And suddenly has to adjust to monumental changes in her life: death of her husband, loss of life as she knew it, shifting of life to a whole new culture, a whole new way of living and thinking and reacting and being.

The book centers around Tehmina’s dilemma- to go back to the familiar country she loves, her own home, her own life back in Mumbai. Or live here as a loved but sometimes tolerated member of her son’s family. She is torn between the two cultures, two lives, two ways of living, two disparate strands that shall never meet. But do they meet in her?

The elderly heroine is shown as an extremely independent gutsy woman with a mind of her own. If not, maybe she would have unquestioningly accepted living with her son. But this is a woman who is intelligent, courageous and self-reliant. She has carved out her own manner of living. And is reluctant to let go. At the same time, she longs to be with her son and grandson. She is also getting older, and is afraid of getting older alone (an entirely justified fear).

I do like the fact that this woman is not shown as a typical Indian mother-in-law, but as an extremely sensible independent self-reliant person. She is never shown to be overly dependent on her son for anything- financially or emotionally. She also never displays any traditional Indian curmudgeonly behavior. This thinking woman is the center of the book- one who is torn between two places that she loves equally.

Uptil the end, I had no idea what decision she would take. Neither did she. In the very end, she does decide to stay in the US. Because the people she loved and those who loved her, were here. Because in the end, all that matters is the people. Not the place. Be where your loved ones are. Be where you are loved. Be where people can take care of you. Be where you can be taken care of. Is that the answer? I still don’t know…

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Beautiful Concept

I just recently came across the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi and it touched my heart and soul. The Japanese really do know their Zen! T he idea is so heartwarmingly beautiful and simple and true and pure. Of how beauty becomes so much more than looks. Wabi-sabi means that beauty is that which is “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”. It means that beauty comes not from perfect looks, body or face but from the dents, bruises and wrinkles that come from a life lived truly and deeply. An idea that acknowledges that the thokars and dhakke of life mar us and scar us- only to make us even more beautiful.

It also encompasses the view that as objects age and accumulate more experiences in life, they become more precious. After all, we have so much more sentimental value in the stuff we own for longer. When translated, Wabi means simplicity and quietness and the uniqueness of each of us as we are: unadorned and natural and pure. Sabi translates into serenity that comes with age, along with evidence of its impermanence, wear and tear and repair. Therefore, Wabi-sabi is the aesthetic of beauty that comes from being imperfect. That comes from being human. That comes from being flawed.

Isn’t that a beautiful concept? Each of us carries both within and without, the battle scars of life. A life lived that was full of challenges and choices, dilemmas and difficulties, of parallel universes and parallel paths. A life which breaks your heart and tears your soul. An imperfect soul in an imperfect body in an imperfect universe. Yes, that is indeed what makes me beautiful. What makes all of us beautiful and blessed.

In our world imperfection means being less of a human being, not just less of a beauty. We are always striving towards unattainable ideals of beauty, perfection, work and life. In our world, carrying the scars of a painful life is not acceptable. Or at least, make sure they don’t show. The Japanese knew that Zen comes from acceptance and awareness. Of one’s flawed, human, hurting self. For through pain and joy and living comes experience. For hurting and healing happens all the time. The scars and scabs are proof of living with passion and love and sorrow and pain.

Yes, we are all living an imperfect life in an imperfect body. We are all living with incomplete joys and sorrows. Living a life that is ephemeral and transient. Living a life that sometimes leaves us doubled over in pain. Sometimes smiling in our sleep. Each experience that is lived outside is etched somewhere within our souls. There is the wear and tear and visible repair. This is us. This is Wabi-sabi. This is what makes us beautiful.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Sari Shop Widow

  • Title: The Sari Shop Widow
  • Author: Shobhan Bantwal
  • ISBN: 9780758232021
  • Pages: 352
  • Publisher: Kensington
  • Genre: Multicultural, Romance

Review: Here is review no. 4 (I think, I’m losing count now) for the South Asian reading challenge. This is my third Shobhan Bantwal book, though the first one I’m reading in 2011. The other two I read were the “The Dowry Bride” and “The Forbidden Daughter”. From the titles of the books, one can perceive an obvious attempt to sell an ‘exotic’ India. These titles offer a vicarious viewing of quaint and exotic Indian culture, where things like dowry and arranged marriages still exist, indeed, thrive. I know that a lot of Americans are fascinated by the idea of arranged marriages (Omygod, really? And you never saw him before the wedding? Wow!), dowry, caste system etc. I do think that a lot of the Indian-American genre caters to this curiosity. I don’t mean to disparage the same, if I wrote a book I’d probably do the same. But it’s there nonetheless.

A lot of stuff in this genre therefore has in it various descriptions of Indian rites and rituals, Indian cultural norms, certain traditional ways of living and thinking. So does the Sari Shop Widow. It is quite an entertainingly written book, call it an Indian American romance with a dose of desi. It is a quick and fun read, with the mandatory happy ending. Also, unlike a lot of the more serious US-desi novels, this does not have any pretensions to depth or profundity. In the large number of US-desi books I’ve read, I’ve seen that a lot of them have undertones of melancholia or imminent despair. Some do tend to be heavy reading! This one is a fun romance novel, nothing more, nothing less. Of course, a desi romance novel. The heart of the book is the same eternal tale of the financially burdened damsel in distress being rescued by super rich knight in shining armor.

Our heroine is a thirty-seven year old widow, Anjali, born and raised in the US. After her husband’s untimely death, she moves back with her parents, and renovates their tired sari shop into a hep sari cum jewelry boutique. After a few years, due to financial mismanagement, the shop is facing severe problems. So enter rich uncle from Gujarat and his even richer young and dashing business partner from London. Our half-desi, half-gora hero. They all get together to reincarnate the shop as a super-fab shopping destination, with boutique+ fusion eatery+ jewelry shop+ beauty salon. It works great and in the process the hero and heroine fall in love. There are the obligatory problems at the end- his ex, her parents, etc. But love and faith conquers all and everybody lives happily ever after!

Altogether, the book is the equivalent of a desi masala movie set in the US. Light, entertaining, quick, good timepass. The perfect combination of Indian culture, pujas, faith, cultural divides, and fairy tales of love and romance and angels coming to the rescue. In fact, a lot like Kal ho na ho!

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Friday, May 13, 2011

If you’ve got it, flaunt it

This is the mantra that most Punjabis live by. In fact, most seem to believe that even if you haven’t got it, you still need to flaunt it. Lavish displays of everything- money, clothes, jewelry, cars, weddings, homes, vacations, food, looks and words- are what are essential to the average Punjabi. And by average Punjabi, I mean me.

Over time, I have realized the importance of flaunting in my culture (read extended family). When I was younger, I did not quite get this game of one-upmanship. The things I valued most were my books, my education, my skills etc. Not that I did not value clothes, as I said here, I always loved wearing good clothes. But they were never a matter of supreme importance. Now, I have come to the conclusion that despite all those “educational” qualifications, I have to flaunt a lot of other things. It’s got to be subtle (not very subtle, of course) but it’s got to be done! Because, then they don’t accord you the requisite degree of respect. It has to be done to maintain “status” in the eyes of the world.

Chetan Bhagat got it right when he said “Marble floors are to Punjabis what US degrees are to South Indians” (2 States, 2010). Yes, that is a good estimation of what is valued most in the respective cultures. Punjabis have this innate need to flaunt. And they do it with such panache. Insert stuff in normal everyday conversation. That subtly but surely shows how awesome they are and how much awesomer their lives are. In a recent conversation with a cousin, I asked him why he hadn’t yet added me on FB, despite my friend request. Answer: I don’t go to FB much, but I’ve just bought a new Blackberry so I will definitely do more FB’ing and then add you. (Blackberry is India’s iPhone).

Since I live in the US, it is very difficult for me to flaunt my super-fabulous lifestyle such that my extended family gets to know (not that such a lifestyle exists). I mean, they still don’t know I have a gorgeous 46” LCD television, while they are stuck with measly 32” ones. How do I tell them? Or that I eat the most fabulous foods from over the world? Or go on exotic vacations (which I don’t, but even a random beach in SFO looks good in pictures).

FB now provides a means to do this. Atleast now I can let my family know more about my fantabulous life. But given the miserable internet connections in India and the fact that most of them login to FB about once a month, this still does not help much. So talking on the phone is the best way. However, if I can get a word in edgewise. Once they stop talking about their new marble-inlaid flooring house, teak furniture, new diamond necklace and the grand party they are in right now. Or their new Blackberry.

Once, I called up an aunt to wish Diwali. And was inundated with descriptions of the fantabulous Diwali they celebrated, with the entire colony getting together to dance and make merry. Of the great “Chinese” food that was served in the party. Another call, to wish my cousin a happy birthday and asking what he was doing, resulted in a description of the private farm house he was partying in at the moment. A third call ended with another aunt discussing the relative merits of Italian vs. Indian marble for their new mansion (Duh! Of course Italian). Another one was about the fabulous Chocolate Chiffon cake at the birthday party (you think you get such stuff only in Amreeka!). Another was about my aunt’s favorite perfume : Poison, of course. And she could buy it anytime in her boondock town.

My family is a master at the art of flaunting without actually flaunting. It is an art well worth learning. I find it very difficult to do, but am on my way. I am getting to know how to do it while not appearing to care. After all, this blogpost was all about my super-fabulous super-rich family ;)

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Sunday, May 08, 2011

Dressing on the side

I find this phrase infinitely sophisticated and alluring. There is so much that can be deduced about a person if they take dressing on the side. Yes, I am totally alluding to Harry’s classifications (from When Harry met Sally). He classified women as three types, high maintenance, low maintenance and the worst kind- the high maintenance who thought they were low maintenance. Of course, Sally had her salad, food etc. with her specific choice of dressing and sauce on the side.

I have been fascinated by this phrase since I saw “The Mirror has Two Faces”, in which Barbra Streisand orders her salad with dressing on the side. At that time, I did not even know what dressing was, but it all sounded very smart and sophisticated to a rustic like me. Even more so, dressing on the side. Customizable food as a concept caught my fancy. I really liked the idea.

Over time, I grew up, came to the US and unconsciously developed my own quirks and whims. This was not something I thought about till I was ordering salad for lunch the other day. I got the spinach changed to baby greens, gorgonzola cheese to mozzarella, and ordered dressing on the side (which I did not use, making my own desi dressing on lemon juice, salt and pepper). That was the day I realized that I had indeed become ‘high maintenance’.

I usually don’t have coffee after late noon, so that it does not hinder my falling asleep. I buy jams, bread and cereals from one particular shop only since the others are not good enough. I only shop in my own clothes bags, and never use plastic. I only ever eat chocolate or coffee ice cream and refuse to touch any other sort. I hate orange juice. I drink only white wines and don’t like red varietals. I buy clothes from only two specific shops. I always drink water without ice. And of course, I customize my salad J.

Maybe the above doesn’t really make me high maintenance. I think I’m just somebody with very specific choices. Or maybe Harry was right!

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Friday, April 29, 2011

The Importance of Being Vain

While growing up, I was taught that being vain was a bad thing. Being vain ranked high up there along with being dishonest and uncharitable. Even though I grew up in a cultural milieu where looking good was paramount, I was often too lost in my own world of books and studies to pay much attention to looking good. Also, I never had much to be vain about, so maybe that contributed as well. I did pay a lot of attention to my clothes- and was always the best dressed person in any gathering. Though I never had the perfect bod- far from it, actually- I realized that I had to pay extra attention to my garb. To this day, I plan most of my outfits with all the detail of a general planning a war. Dressing up well becomes very important if you (or me, in this case) do not have a good body!

Anyway, to get back to my main point, I grew up without any sense of personal vanity- that I looked good and needed to look good. Vanity implies that I know I look good. By extension, I realize that I get attention and people look at me! By further corollary, it means that I will work hard to look good because I take pride in doing so. So in a way, being vain does mean being proud of one’s looks/ body etc. This vanity/pride spurs us on to look good. To work hard at looking good. It is an innate sense of self-worth. And it keeps us on our toes.

In today’s age of skin-deep beauty, it is futile to deny that the more attractive among us are privileged. Call it shallow- I used to, and look at me now! I have come to believe that it is important to look good to feel good. Not just for the external world, but because being attractive makes you feel better about yourself. It is an added validation in this world ridden by self-doubt. Maybe your sense of self-worth comes from being a great genius, or your intellectual capacities or whatever rocks your boat. But for me, and most mere mortals like me, how we look is a big contributing factor.

I think being vain helps you take better care of yourself. Love yourself a little more. And we all need extra love- especially from our own selves.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book Review: The Wish Maker

Here is review no. 3, as a part of the South Asian Reading Challenge 2011. I did read a couple more South Asian/Indian books in the interim, but did not like them at all. In fact, simply hated one of them. Will get around to reviewing them soon! Here is today's book:

Title: The Wish Maker
Author: Ali Sethi
Release Date: June 11, 2009
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover

This book is based in modern day Pakistan. It is a wonderful portrayal of the travails, tensions and politics of the country. The story revolves around a young boy named Zaki Shirazi, son of a political activist mother and a pilot father (who was no more). It follows the small kid as he grows up, his relationship with his cousin Samar, his adolescent pains, friends and foes in school, and bits and pieces of his extended family (buas, tayis, mausis, dadi, nani, cousins etc.). The turbulent politics of Pakistan serves as a backdrop for this family, as their lives and activities are directly interlinked with the country's turmoil. Add to that the cultural restraints on women in the subcontinent, and personal intrigue starts fomenting within the larger picture of political intrigue. The story is gripping and fascinating, as one is drawn deeper into the web of Zaki's family's lives and loves.

The book does seem to be autobiographical in parts, since both of Ali's parents are prominent Pakistani journalists. Also, the hero in the book goes to "a prominent liberal arts college" in Boston for his higher education; Ali Sethi studied at Harvard. A large part of the book is devoted to his mother's political activism, which could be true in real life. The book also talks a lot about Benazir Bhutto and her regime.

The story develops on the beautiful relationship between Zaki and his elder cousin, Samar. They see Bollywood movies together: she weaves dreams around her "own" Amitabh coming and rescuing her one day. Samar is portrayed as an example of the adolescent modern-traditional Muslim girl-woman: desirous of love, making dangerous trysts with illicit love, shifting the boundaries just a little- and yet scared. She is obviously caught and exiled to a small village, away from all temptations of town! Zaki is her partner in crime, aiding and abetting her. This brother-sister love is the heart of this book, staying on through separation and distance and time.

Ali Sethi's book also captures the youth of Pakistan- caught between tradition and modernity, religion and belief. The book also has a brief flashback of pre-Partition days, when there was an undivided India. We get a brief glimpse of the terror and carnage of those days. Enough has been written about the Partition, yet I do believe that the pain will never completely go away. Its like a limb rent apart from one's body. I feel this way because both my paternal and maternal sides of the family came over from Pakistan then, barely saving their lives. They lost everything: land, house, money, friends, family, history... faith, hope and joy. It says a lot for their courage that they rebuilt totally destroyed lives from scratch in a new country. I've heard the stories from my family, and so everytime I read about the Partition I feel intense, personal pain. Its too close to me to be able to read about it.

Ali Sethi writes beautifully. Some parts are a bit vague, maybe intentionally, I could not be sure. For example, I just could not make out whether the narrator (Zaki) was gay or not. I think he was, this was slightly ambiguous. He, however, sketches a beautiful portrait of Zaki as an immensely sweet innocent trusting fatherless kid, taking in all the pain and pathos around him and trying to make sense of it. The book, narrated through this kid's eyes, takes us on a journey through Pakistan: we sense the growing pains of the author and the country. Its women and its men. Its beliefs, religion, culture and families.

To sum up, I loved the book and would recommend it. It is a great gripping book- I was emotionally invested in the characters. And that makes for a great book!