Monday, 28 May 2012

The Green Green Grass of Home...

After leaving the Army, I did a year’s stint in Iraq, setting up mobile communication towers in the immediate aftermath of the war.  During my interactions with the British Army troops, I was surprised to see their total apathy towards their homeland, and the fact that almost none of them chose `back home’ as a place to finally settle down. They were mostly reservists, and served in Iraq for only six months. This included a two week holiday which they could spend anywhere in the world. Most of them `paired up’ (seriously!), and flew off to exotic locales like Thailand, Bali or Philipines. Going back to Blighty to look up the family, or to re-connect in any way was unthinkable!

Having travelled a fair bit around the world, I cannot think of any place other than India, my beloved Poona, to come back to – chaotic traffic, noise, heat and dust notwithstanding. Be it howsoever humble, et al... 

Settling abroad? Not the best option certainly. American Born Confused Desis (ABCD’s) may sound harsh, but the confusion is very real. Sheena Iyengar, the acclaimed author of `The Art of Choosing’ describes it beautifully.  As the blind daughter of immigrant Sikhs to the US, she says she was always in a state of conflict.  "I had a dual identity — I was a Sikh at home, and an American at school. We are told at school 'Just pursue your dreams, do what you want'; that you get to decide what you can eat, what you get to wear, who you would marry. As a Sikh, I was taught the importance of doing your duty, doing what your parents, your God said".

The parents are Indian, the children are American – if that isn’t a recipe for conflict, I don’t know what is! How many generations does it take for the transformation to be complete – for a Piyush to become a Bobby Jindal, for a Namrata Randhawa to become a Nikki Haley?

My nephews and nieces are abroad, and I’ve seen this confusion first hand. Quite naturally, the parents want to retain their Indian-ness, and pass it onto their children. Rohit and Sumi perform rituals and pujas in Seattle and Chicago which they never dreamed of at Poona. Amit and Nisha go to such great pains and harbour loads of patience to instill Indian values (as distinct from Hindu rituals, mind you) into Alisha and Neel.  But when they reach the stage, as they surely will when the kids grow up, and they will have to let go – where will the kids go? Is there a base, a safe haven to come back to, and if so, where is it??

The other day, I was on my way from Viman Nagar to FC Road. As we crossed Jehangir Hospital, I looked up and sighed wistfully `So this is where it all began..’ Barely a kilometer away, I crossed the ghat at Sangam bridge, `And this is where it will all end..’  The start point and end point stood fixed and unmoved. And in between lay a lifetime’s journey – meandering, maddening, and yet so intricately balanced..  Today, so rich in all my yesterdays, and tomorrow – well, tomorrow’s another day, another promise... 

The future, as Richard Church says, owes all to that past - as every graveyard shows...

Friday, 18 May 2012

Guzaara Nahin Hota!

The biggest attraction of being posted to Udhampur (and these were the pre satellite TV days), was the access one had to Pakistani television. The choice was between Doordarshan and PTV, and it was a one horse race really. All discussions centred around PTV serials, and mess functions were scheduled to make sure they didn’t clash with `Dhoop Kinaare’. Rahat Kazmi had our ladies weak in their knees, and Marina Khan was the heart throb of all young officers (my personal favourite was Anji, but that’s another story).  A small aside here – how can the Pakistani public, reared on such brilliant serials as `Waris’, `Dhoop Kinare’ and `Raat’ now lap up India’s saas-bahu baloney?

Anyway, one of the most heart warming programs I saw on PTV was a short story called `Guzaara Nahin Hota’. A middle class couple, let's call them the Ahmeds, over dinner discuss the problems of making ends meet – school fees, food prices going through the roof, how difficult it is to stretch the monthly pay packet to 30 days.. Ahmed shakes his head ruefully, and mutters `Guzaara nahin hota..’ . The next day, he runs into an old schoolmate of his, driving around in a plush car, and seemingly quite well off. They proceed  for a cup of coffee, and try and catch up on the different paths that they have taken in life. Ahmed is shocked when he hears the rich guy confide in him “Yaar, kya karein, guzaara nahin hota!”.  He talks of fuel prices, high maintenance costs, eating out etc... As Ahmed narrates this to his wife back home,  a simpleton from his village lands up at his doorstep – he has been told that he can expect a simple bed n breakfast at Ahmed’s house, as that’s the custom of the village. Reluctantly, Ahmed opens up his house to the simpleton – who is dirt poor, and obviously on hard days. But he seems blissfully unaware of the difference in their status, and is irritatingly cheerful about his lack of means. Surprised, Ahmed asks his `guest’ “Achcha batao, TUMHARA guzaara ho jata hai?”, to which the man responds “Bada sona guzaara ho jata hai ji!”. Seeing his host’s quizzical expression, he explains “Bookha main kabhi soya nahin, beemaar kabhi padha nahin, bachchay bilkul theek hain – bada sona guzaara ho jata hai!”

This afternoon, I had a plumber over to repair a leaking faucet. I was watching the England – West Indies test match in High definition. The plumber gazed in rapt admiration at my 55 inch LED TV and Home theatre, and asked me how much it cost. When I told him, he shook his head with a wry smile and replied that that was what his whole house in his village had cost him!

Face it. Mukesh Ambani has his `Antilla’, and my plumber has his hutment. We faujis lie somewhere in between, much closer to mother earth than to Ambani's hideous 27 storey monstrosity. There are just as many people above you on the ladder of `affluence’ as there are below you. You can look up and feel miserable or you can look down and feel elated.

My friend bought a BMW for the cost of a modest flat, I bought my Home Theatre for the cost of a modest car, so does one look up or down? If he has four times the `assets’ that I have, what does that translate into – does he have four pegs of single malt for every single peg that I down? Does he own four cars to my single Honda City? Does he have four houses to my one apartment? The truth is that beyond a point, the law of diminishing returns begins to apply quite rapidly. The hike in life style, if any, is only marginal. The vintage of the Single Malt may escalate from 12 to 21, the Absolut vodka may be replaced by Grey Goose or Belvedere, but that’s about it..

The secret is to gain a sense of perspective. Your Home Theatre may equal someone’s entire household, yet someone’s flashy limousine may equal your own. Should you be feeling large or small? Neither – just count your blessings.

If, like the poor man from the village, you never go to bed hungry, enjoy reasonable good health, and your kids are doing fine, then God has been kind, BADA SONA GUZAARA HO RAHA HAI!!

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

A rose by any other name - Samina responds...

Here is Samina Rizwan's charming response to my reference to her in my last post. Apart from being heart-warmingly delightful, it is a MUST READ for all Gen Next girls bent on hyphenated last names.. (Samina is a Pakistani friend, who heads Oracle's Middle East and N Africa region - she is currently based at Dubai) ..
Harish, Naming conventions amongst us South Asians remain yet more exasperating, although don’t make that claim before the Chinese, who surely outdo us in complexity.

My mother (Ammi) was named Zahoor (one of those names, like Krishna, carried by both men and women). Story goes she fell ill as a child and was renamed Roohina (the spiritual one). At school she was registered as Roohina Akhtar, her last name having nothing to do with her father's (Col Dr. Mohammad Sharif of the Indian Medical Corps) or her mother's (Badshah Begum). Her sisters had different last names, in fact not last names at all since `Zubeida Begum’ merely conveys something like Lady Zubeida, rather like Kaur establishes the gender. Thus did I come to begin life as Samina Akhtar, taking Ammi's last name, not my dad’s.

My Dadijan didnt get along with anyone, she was opinionated they say. I was her first grandchild, and a first girl in my dad's family of 5 boy siblings. Dadijan (whom I called Ammijan and my dad called Bey-ji), was ecstatic to have me (also unusual for a Punjabi village woman who typically abhors a girl child!), and called me "Ainie" or `my eyes’. To this day, in our village, I hear people calling after me "Ainie?" and I look around me for a little girl with that name. Anyway, I hated not being my father's daughter, so somewhere between 7 and 8 years of age, while re-registering at school yet again due to a posting, I took it upon myself to write my name as Samina Rafi. Ammi kept introducing me to teachers and sundry as Samina Akhtar but I knew better. The Rafi stuck, especially after I arrived at my real childhood home, the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Murree, I am told a replica of the same name school in Simla, and introduced myself to Mother Mary Andrew as Samina Rafi.

As Defence Attache to the US, we were the most `regular’ named people amongst the Pakistanis. We were `The Rafis’ now, Ammi having learnt her lesson and converted to Roohina Rafi and naming my younger siblings Haroon, Umar and Ayesha Rafi. Btw, there is a story to my dad’s name Rais Ahmed Rafi too which I shall tell later (no one in his family was a Rafi prior to his birth, and all his brothers were subsequently Rafi being named after him, not their father...STRANGENESS!).  Anyway, life name-wise was simple in the USA....and then I got married.

Rizwan was Raja Rizwanullah Khan. None of those were last names. I fretted over this aplenty, unbeknownst to all, since I was just `Amreeka returned’, where a last name would define you, only the social security number doing better. I asked Rizwan what I should call myself and he, taken aback, said "Samina!?". Then I asked "what is your last name?" and again he was taken aback "Do I need one? I am Raja Rizwanullah Khan - isnt that enough?" Rizwan was so adorably uncluttered in mind and heart, bless him.

Short short, I experimented with Samina Raja, Samina Rizwanullah, Samina Khan, even considered Samina Rafi but it was bad enough everyone in the Air Force referred to my husband as "Rafi's son in law", I didn’t want to stretch that one further. I arrived at Samina Rizwanullah, sounded perfect for a future political career, until I became employed by Oracle. At the time, the Balasubramaniams and Venkateshwarans of IT had not yet arrived, so Rizwanullah was terribly complex. I cut off the tail and redefined myself yet again - Samina Rizwan. My children had already arrived, at least the older two had, and their fate was sealed too after exasperated considerations of this or that version by me and characteristically calm responses from Razi "Yaar, Khan kar do, Rizwan kar do, Raja kar do...mere hi bachey hain!". Raja Taimur Khan, Andaleeb Rizwan. TK and Billu carry their own cross now - what to do with the Raja prefix!

I end on an anecdote. In Arabic, the word Samina means FAT, FERTILE. Although it is embarrassingly relevant to me in both instances, my mother did not intend to name me it. She meant to name me PRECIOUS, NAYAB - which is an Arabic word using the alphabet "the" not "se". Thamina is my name - Precious, Priceless, Valuable - that’s moi! Unfortunately, in Urdu, while I write it with a "the", the pronunciation remains more Hindi-like, 'se'. Now, in the Middle East, I invariably end up starting my talks and presentations with "Although my card says Samina, let me tell you my mother did love me and did not mean to say I would be name is.....".

A rose etc... Touche!

Monday, 14 May 2012

A rose, by any other name...

Hindu marriage rituals conclude with the `Bidaai’ ceremony, in which the bride, as she leaves her parent’s house, tosses behind her shoulder, handfuls of grain (rice, mostly). This is meant to symbolise her `returning’ all the `ANN’ (grain) that she has partaken of in a household where she was basically merely a guest. My daughter, never much of a `rice person’, wondered if, in her case, it wouldn’t be more appropriate for her to toss legs of tandoori chicken instead!

Another appendage that newly married girls are expected to toss or leave behind them is their family name/last name. My generation did it without a murmur, but the present lot seems totally reluctant to let go. How will my facebook friends recognise me with the new name, is the refrain most commonly heard. I mean SERIOUSLY? The compromise, if one can call it that, is that most asinine of concoctions – the hyphenated last name! Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit-Nene!  Heaven and angels of mercy protect us!!   

But what can you say to a generation of feminists where Angelina Jolie insists she is an ACTOR, not an ACTRESS! Really?? And what of the scores of salivating hulks gleefully getting off on clips from `The Original Sin’ who will swear to the contrary?? But let’s leave that for another day..

Last names, family names, surnames, call them what you will, have an interesting diversity. Take the case of Pakistani cricketers.  Apparently, the first name of the father becomes the last name of the son. Consider. Nazar Mohamed’s son was Mudassar Nazar, Jehangir Khan’s son was Majid Jehangir. Remember the `Seamless Pakistani’ game suggested by Shashi Tharoor, which consists of seeing how many Pakistani cricketers' names one can string together so that the surname of one becomes the next player's first name, and so on, till you run out of possibilities. Tharoor came up with 11: Saqlain Mushtaq Mohammad Wasim Akram Raza Hasan Iqbal Qasim Umar Akmal. 

Col Qurban Muhammed’s daughter is Aasia Qurban, who is married to Zafar Mahmood Nadeem. While Aasia retains her last name of Qurban (as do all her 4 sisters!), her kids are Haider Zafar and Lamia Zafar. 

Samina’s case is even more interesting. The daughter of Air Cde Rais Rafi, she married Rizwanullah Khan, and became Samina Rizwan – now while her sons are Taimur Khan and Bilal Khan, her daughters are Andaleeb Rizwan and Sabine Rizwan!

South Indians, of course, are a law onto themselves. My good friend Joseph Mathew’s son is Mathew Joseph, and his grandson will again revert to Joseph Mathew!  Shyam and Satish are brothers, with Katathil and Rajeeva being their middle/last names. Now Shyam calls himself KR Shyam, whereas Satish calls himself S Rajeeva! The problem doesn’t end there – Shyam’s daughter is Sowmya Katathil, whereas Satish’s daughter is Sandhya Satish! Apparently, one can take one’s pick from your dad’s first name to his middle name to the name of your ancestral village! A true blue Keralite of course will have his entire postal address as part of his name!

In Maharashtra, ones father’s first name automatically becomes ones middle name – hence you have Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, Sunil Manohar Gavaskar and, since I was born and bred in this great Maratha state, Harish Bararsilal Puri! My kids, to their everlasting chagrin, will always be Puja Harish Puri and Siddharth Harish Puri.  Of small mercy is the fact that they're not in Sri Lanka, where a certain left arm seamer goes by the name of Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas!

Bongs, being Bongs, will spell Basu as B-A-S-U, but pronounce it as BOSHU! For them, Bandopadhyay equals Bannerjee, Chattopadhyay equals Chatterjee and Mukhopadhyay equals – you guessed it – Mukherjee!  But since these guys have gifted mankind the most heavenly of sweets in Mishti Doi and Nulen gur, I have long since forgiven them ALL their sins, the latest of which goes by the name of Mamata Banerjee (or is it Bandopadhyay?).

A rose by any other name, did you say, Shakespeare sahib??

Friday, 11 May 2012

On Taking Offence...

If RK Laxman is the Sachin Tendulkar of India’s cartoonists, Shanker Pillai was its Sunil Gavaskar. The doyen of the freedom struggle era, his takes on Nehru, Gandhi, Patel and Jinnah are the stuff of legend. I remember my dad’s fond references to `Shankar’s Weekly’, and our `Shankar vs Laxman’ debates were only matched by our `Saigal vs Rafi’ spats. In 1949, Shanker published a cartoon to draw attention to the slow pace of the Constitution formation process. Both Nehru and Ambedkar are depicted with whips in their hands, trying to egg on a snail labelled `CONSTITTION’.

It is this cartoon of 63 years back that has drawn the ire of Mayawati and her flock. Even if I was a diehard Ambedkar loyalist – and clearly I’m not – I would find little that I could label as being remotely offensive. The NCERT guys, including the supremely sane Yogendra Yadav, had included such cartoons in the Grade IX and X text books in order to make the teaching of Indian History less dreary. It has been in the text book for the last 3 years, so the timing of the uproar raises a few questions. Congress baiters claim that the furore in Parliament has been engineered merely to take the heat off P Chidambaram, who is under fire over the Maxis-Aircel deal.

In September 2005, a Danish newspaper, in what was clearly an asinine idea, invited 40 cartoonists to forward cartoons depicting Prophet Mohamed. The idea was to open up a debate on freedom of expression and the perceived Islamic intolerance towards their religion in general, and their prophet in particular. 12 of these cartoons were published, creating a furore and a backlash across the muslim world. The cartoons themselves are in extremely poor taste, and far from humorous. Logically, they should have been dumped into the dustbin where they belonged, but the muslim world erupted in flames, and loss of life and property was reported from as far apart as Algeria to Pakistan. 


We are great ones for taking offence.  Ashton Kucher in an extremely poor imitation of a Bollywood producer called Raj, appears in an ad for Pop chips. The ad is spectacularly unfunny, but the furore raised by Desi Americans has assured a huge turnover for Pop chips, apart from depicting all Indians in a drab, humourless light.

If we as a people are thin skinned and jump to being offended easily, there are also enough of us who exploit this for their own gain. A tells B that C says such-and-such about him. B is infuriated, and roars “Achcha, AISA bola, saalay ki toh main...” followed by a graphic description of what B would do to C’s mother and sisters..

There is no sense of perspective, not an iota of self depreciation left – we have long lost the ability to laugh at ourselves, and shrug off these slights – hence this blog's appeal to `mitti pao’. 

But what can one say, the malaise is too far spread for any real hope..

Ek hi ullu kaafi tha, barbaad gulistaan karnay ko
Anjaam-e-gulistaan kya hoga, har shaakh pe ullu baithay hain...