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Respectful & Necessary: India’s Daughter

I am posting this on March 9, 2015. A regular Monday. Rape is not just an International Women's Day issue. It is an everyday-of-the-year issue.

Death and Birth of Nirbhaya

On the night of December 16 2012 a 23-year-old woman, a medical student, was gang raped by 6 men in a moving bus in Delhi. She had boarded the bus with her male friend after watching a movie. There was no one else in the bus but them and a group of intoxicated men who were out for a “party”. An altercation between the woman’s male companion and the group led to his beating and her brutal rape. All the while the bus kept circling a strip of highway. The rapists then dumped her and her friend, naked, by the side of the road into the cold Delhi winter night. She died a few days later in the hospital of her wounds. The doctors were surprised that she had lasted as long as she had, given the extent of internal organ damage that she had suffered.

On December 17 2012 when the news started circulating about the horrifying rape and its shocking details young Delhi-ites took to the streets demanding justice for ‘Nirbhaya’, as the young woman was metaphorically named to keep her identity safe. Nirbhaya means “without fear”. The demonstrators cried for justice for rape victims, for equal rights and equal freedom for Indian women everywhere.

(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY-SA 2.0

(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY-SA 2.0

The fire spread to other major cities of India. All this is very reminiscent of chapters from our history books on the Indian Independence Movement, and it rightly should because we, Indian women, are still fighting for our independence from the Patriarchal Raj.

The controversial India’s Daughter

When I first learnt that the incredibly insightful documentary series, BBC4’s Storyville, will be premiering a documentary film-“India’s Daughter“-on the Nirbhaya rape case on March 8, to coincide with International Women’s Day, I was nothing less than proud. I was proud of being a citizen of a country which was open to unbiased documenting of an incident that had cast such bad light on its gender values for the world to see; that was mature enough to revisit the trauma, not to rekindle pain, but to educate; was unafraid to expose its weakness in order to give voice to its weakest. Having been a long time viewer of Storyville documentaries and appreciative of its programming quality I knew that the film would be well done (to say the least). I marked the date on my calendar, sent out a tweet about it as a ‘to whomever it may concern’ (as I thought it should concern everybody), and went to bed.

Over the next couple of days I picked up on some odd goings-on. I caught snippets of Twitter chat on…the idiocy of giving airtime to rapists…disrespect to society…the commercial interests of foreign channel…ban of a documentary…

No, it could not be!

Quick searches on Google and Twitter led me to these outrageous headlines,

Read article by clicking here.
Read article by clicking here.
Read article by clicking here.
Read article by clicking here.

My pride in my nation was replaced by bewilderment which soon gave way to anger. It seems we are not a rational country, we are an emotional one. The ruling party of India, BJP (which recently cut expenditure on its initiative for rape crisis centre by 92.6%!) was extremely annoyed by BBC4’s documentary and banned it from being aired in India.  The reasons for the ban against the film as a whole are superficial, ironically mocking their own logic:

“…rationale that the ban was in the interests of justice and public order as the film “created a situation of tension and fear amongst women” and the convicts would use the media to further his case in the appeal that was subjudice…”

(as summarised by the Editors Guild of India in its public appeal for revoking the ban)

If a convict’s statement of his innocence is considered to be true just because it was on television and on no other merit then  our Judiciary clearly doesn’t know how to conduct its business. I think it’s insulting and shocking that that is how much faith the Executive and Legislative branches of our government have on its most precious democratic institution. #JudgesAreNot Stupid.

As the ban was announced the public became aware of the aspect of the film that had stirred up the controversy: giving a convicted rapist (who was driver of the bus), Mukesh Singh, a public platform to profess his views on rape. If you thought that was soul cringing then how about dedicating film footage to the defense lawyers, (so-called) educated Indian men from higher social and financial classes, whose arcane ideas of female decency and role in Indian society weren’t so far away in their essence from that of the rapist’s notions. Now that struck a sensitive nerve. While many applauded the dissolution of the thin veneer of modernisation that Indian society boasts at any given opportunity, thousands took to online forums to voice their anger against the presentation of the film. The director of the film, Leslee Udwin fled the country in fear of arrest and BBC4 decided to air the film early (in the UK) on March 4 stating that the issue had been handled responsibly and refusing to bow down to external pressure. A BBC effigy was burnt in a protest in Varanasi, a sacred city for Hindus as a warning to BBC.

The key lessons that make India’s Daughter necessary

I didn’t want to enter the debate without first seeing India’s Daughter in its entirety since placing judgement on anything seen or heard out of context is much too similar to high school drama for me and I swore to stay away from all that the day I graduated high school.

The film makes a compelling case for facing the evil spread of the cancer that is gender inequality“.

Although it is the rapist’s voice that has stirred so much controversy making it seem as though that is what the documentary is all about it in fact makes up only for a fraction of the film. Yes, I knew beforehand what he could say in his defense. We’ve been given excuses for rape for a long time and they have come to be used as scare tactics/advice/disguise for misogyny: girl was “under-dressed”; was out late; was “mixing with boys” and other such banalities. So when I considered his statements they did not shock me. I was certainly angry. On the contrary I am surprised by people’s shock at Mukesh Singh’s unrepentant stance. Even those who have seen the documentary and reluctantly appreciate it seem to not understand the impact of the film.

Rape is about power, a misplaced idea of power. Power is the real source of the evil here, as is the case in many other circumstances. (I wonder how many people realize this.) Singh’s statements make this abundantly clear. He still feels powerful because he believes he is right. He believes he is right because we live in a society that propagates the same ideas. Society however does not condone Singh’s and his friends’ chosen expression of power (rape), which surprises Singh because he thinks he was acting within the rights given to him by society. That is a crucial message that hits home and makes the documentary necessary: Indian society as we know it right NOW gives POWER to men and not to women.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

– Lord Acton

Also, I can’t imagine why a man who could indulge in such a heinous act would change his lifelong-held beliefs just because of incarceration. We like to think that if we caught sexual offenders, locked them up, sentence them to death our job is done.

So why should we hear a convicted unrepentant rapist?

Because the solution to making India a safer place for women is not by locking up rapists, it is EDUCATION ABOUT GENDER EQUALITY, and that is the primary lesson of India’s Daughter.

The other major lesson gleaned from hearing Singh speak his mind is that of a sobering reality that exists not only in Indian society but also worldwide, a message that is amplified by the point-counterpoint nature of the narrative. The realization came when I heard from his parents and also relatives of the other rapists: These rapists (or devils, demons, animals, scum as we usually refer to them) are PEOPLE. They are OUR people, born to ordinary folks and who were living ordinary lives. They weren’t born as sociopaths they were made into one. We use language to distance ourselves from horrifying acts and their actors. When we give dehumanizing labels to people we remove society’s culpability. We can then sit proudly in judgement of these “others”. I suppose here’s where many of the detractors of the documentary chime in: “Why does this animal need to be heard?” Because by calling him an animal and giving him a sub-human status we refuse to face the ugly aspects of our species-nobody is above or beyond evil. Scary? Yes, it is. Right now it is scary to be a woman. (What is scarier however is a moralizing government for a seemingly democratic country.)

The main question here is could we have learnt all this without Singh’s interview? Was his interview necessary? I think so. He is a concise representation of the mistakes we are making. Perhaps some of these lessons are out there in the obtuse reviews made my investigative committees and in court documents; social scientists’ theses; lost amongst the indecipherable shouting matches dubbed as TV talk shows; or even rant-y blog posts on the internet. How far and wide would these sources of information reach when compared to an hour-long hard-hitting documentary on cable TV? Let’s take into account here the populace that does not use the internet regularly for social commentary and relies on television for everything.

A lot can also be learnt from the delusional statements made by the defense lawyers (ML Sharma and AP Singh), that are anachronistic to the point of hilarity. Especially when paired with the liberal views of Nirbhaya’s parents (whom we would consider of being from a lower social class and “unqualified”), make for the disturbing realization that India’s gender equality problem is not class-based or educational degree-dependent. How many Indians believe that only poor, uneducated people rape; women are oppressed only in the lower classes of society? Prejudice doesn’t play favourites. We need to stop generalising about our societal problems.

It’s convenient to blame the British for everything

I am also happy to note that India’s Daughter does not generalise. People were certain that a documentary made by a foreigner would provide wrong and overly generalised inferences about the problems in India. The film makes so such claims. It does not spin the idea that ALL Indian men are misogynistic with rapist-like tendencies. Neither did I hear a foreigner’s view on the issue. The film has been produced for a TV show that has a dedicated following. I think if Udwin or the BBC wanted to make money off it then we’d have heard of them submitting India’s Daughter to film festivals. I find this argument highly ridiculous especially given how ubiquitous rape scenes are in Indian cinema. I learnt the word Balatkaar (“rape” in Hindi) synchronously as I learnt Pyaar (“love”).Where did I first hear the term “ Uski izzat loot lee” (“stole her honour“)? It was Indian cinema. There is even a wiki page dedicated to Indian movies ON Rape (which now includes India’s Daughter)! How many generalisations have we gleaned from these other movies and how much money has been made? How much of this went to the  supporting rape victims? Also, I don’t think Udwin, who has been a victim of sexual abuse, would make this film for commercial gain (Source: “India’s Daughter” – A Young Woman’s Open Letter to the Prime Minister).

Will giving Singh a public platform encourage those who think like him to rape?

I don’t think it will; but ONLY when put in context of the film. When watching the film I realised that it is Nirbhaya who is the champion here and it is her life that needs emulating. The heart wrenching accounts from her parents and tutor paint a picture in such bold, resilient and joyful colours that Singh in comparison is a dull, ugly blotch. His act and his ideology pale into nothingness in comparison. The film crew have not been “disrespectful” as touted by many before the film’s release. They haven’t killed her memory. They have immortalised her achievements and her person forever. Even though there is quite a bit of eulogising in the beginning of the film towards the end we see Nirbhaya simply as a daughter who was taken away, in the most horrific manner possible, from her parents. She is the average Indian woman that we can relate to.

However over the past week we have just been hearing about Singh’s statements. He has received more publicity than ever before. If we were to believe that “publicity of rapist can entice rape” then the ban and the media circus that ensued has done more to further this cause (dubious as it may be) than the movie could ever have. Ironically the ban intended to protect our society has silenced the one who needed to heard the most: Nirbhaya.

Why should you want to watch India’s Daughter?

  • Because only by facing your biggest fears can you fight them.
  • To talk about things that make us most uncomfortable because that is how we tackle ignorance.
  • Because you need to know that every woman in India country is disempowered right now.
  • To realise that the ban is a myopic stand taken by a government that has essentially shot itself in the foot. (For more on the incredulous reasons given by politicians for the ban please read the op-ed piece (“BJP Government, Don’t Embarrass India“) authored by writer, ex-diplomat and politician Shashi Tharoor.)

It must however be said that India’s Daughter is by no means the BEST documentary ever made. It is certainly good. It is also not a piece of comprehensive investigative journalism. I don’t know if it was ever meant to be one. There are some open questions, which are best outlined in the article: “The Selective Amnesia Of ‘India’s Daughter’ – What The Film Conveniently Ignores!” by Dr. Shivani Nag.

Let us remember

Your parents remember you, Nirbhaya, in the name they gave you. They call you Jyoti, “light”, that was born to remove darkness from their lives. I use your name now because your parents think that you, as a person, should be remembered in as much detail as your death, if not more. You have achieved more than what your parents dreamed. You have brought your searing light to our entire society, to burn through prejudice and patriarchal interpretation of Indian cultural values. You have made me nirbhaya to carry your jyoti for the freedom of all women. I don’t know what you looked like and I don’t need to. I see your face in every woman. Those who have missed the point of the documentary on your life and death have missed the point of all revolutions: to depose oppressive ideas by public activism.

(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY- SA 2.0
(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY- SA 2.0

Meeting strangers on the Swiss rails

Here's my confession: I have travelled about 10 times around the earth on Swiss rails. Approximately 400,000 km. I have spent more time on these trains than I have with my friends and family. I can't go into the Whys and the Hows. It wasn't an easy life but it surely was an interesting ride.

I don’t drive. I have a driver’s permit, from India, but the day I received it my Dad told me that he would never let me take the car out. He feared that I wouldn’t be able to handle Indian traffic by myself, that I was too nervous. Also that the majority of the population behind the wheel is male and just seeing that I am female is enough for them to harass me. Thus, my license is now a decrepit old plastic card with my face on it, that’s turning white on the edges. It hasn’t seen the light of day in close to a decade. Practically speaking, I can’t drive.

(c) Jeton Bajrami from Flickr. CC-BY-NC-ND2.0
(c) Jeton Bajrami from Flickr. CC-BY-NC-ND2.0

I use public transport unless someone is kind enough to drive me to the place I wish to go. When I moved to Switzerland I realized immediately that I was in a privileged position. The standard of transportation facilities in this tiny country that has just 8 million residents is remarkable. The country runs on time (and on money), like no other place I have ever known. I had never before understood punctuality in its intended meaning until I started using Swiss public transportation, which is ‘Be on time indicated or get punched in the gut for missing the meeting.’ If the bus is to arrive at 8:04 and the driver sees you running towards the bus stand 20 meters away at 8:04 he’ll not wait for you. You are late! He will not wait because it is disrespectful to the people in the bus who were on time. He is doing his job by following the rules but you still feel like punching him. In these ways I learnt what it means to be Swiss – orderly, law-abiding, disgruntled by the system at times but still proud and very much adherent to the social norms.

My personal and professional lives in Switzerland were at two ends of the central railway line. I bought the GA/AGGeneralabonnement (de) or Abonnement Général (fr) – the brilliant and expensive travel pass for residents that let’s one use any mode of public transport to go almost everywhere in Switzerland. Some premium mountain passes and tourist traps are not covered but the GA holders get a discount. If used regularly the holder comes out the winner. The GA/AG card also lets one experience and appreciate (after a while) that those who hold this pass are under a self-imposed gag order. Also the reason why I call the GA the GAG pass. They usually take fixed lines at fixed times and hence there is no talking or ooh-ing or aah-ing. They work. Or sleep. Or catch up on the news. If a ‘foreigner’ or a teenager or a tourist is seen yapping away on the phone or chatting loudly about the beauty of the Swiss landscape during rush hours then s/he will be stared at. That’s the rudest thing to happen to you in a Swiss train: the Swiss death stare. I know because I have done it. I  have tried using my mind to get the person sitting opposite me to shut up, and it’s almost always failed.

The times I took the train outside of the main GAG hours (yes, that’s what I am calling rush hours) something remarkable happened. I ended up conversing with interesting strangers and also noticing the strangest of behaviours. If you, the reader, are from any other country you’d probably think I am making an Alpine mountain out of a Marmot hole. But you’d be mistaken. It’s normal in your part of the world to talk to people sitting next you in a bar or a bus or a plane. It is not so normal here. Swiss people respect privacy above all else. Why else do you think there are so my famous people living here? Along with the tax benefits they get anonymity. I feel oddities should be recorded. So here’s my collection of the best meetings I have had on the Swiss trains,


Never judge a book by its cover

I read, more than most but less than some. If I know I’ll be out of the house for more than 2 hours then I carry a book with me. I take books to weddings. It is no surprise then that I read on the train. It’s a normal habit. A lot of people read on Swiss trains. Nothing extraordinary. Except, the books I have read has led some very cool people to talk to me. The first book is Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk. It is one of the best memoirs I have read. I was so engrossed in it that I was unaware of a very handsome young man who’d been staring at me (and the book) for a while. When I looked up he had the broadest smile and told me how much he loved that book. He went on to suggest Snow by the same author and we had a very brief chat. It isn’t a ‘Wow! That’s such a cool story’ story admittedly . But it was the first time a stranger had spoken to me in a Swiss train. Until then I had always felt a little out-of-place and rather oppressed by the silence. I was too mindful of the social protocols and was always on edge. That man broke a stereotype for me that day. I began to relax more.

Some time later when I was reading an Indian author (I forget whom) a South Asian gentleman who was seated opposite me introduced himself. He wanted to talk about the book and the author. We started chatting easily. He was clearly a very well-educated man who knew his books. We started talking about movies based on books and then he asked me if I had seen (this was a few years ago now) Game of Thrones. I said no but that I’d heard of it. (HBO right? I love HBO.) He went on to tell me about George R. R. Martin and The Song of Ice and Fire. I wasn’t convinced, since I hadn’t read a fantasy novel since the Harry Potter series. He insisted I read it. I did and fell in obsessive love. We kept meeting on the train, we had the same hours it seemed and we started talking about new books, movies and TV shows. He introduced me to Anime, to the great Hayao Miyazaki. I would have never known the wondrous beautiful world of fantasy art if it wasn’t for him. I still can’t believe that this one stranger has unknowingly made my life so much richer. I am more open to new genres of literature because of him.

My final story is my most special. One Saturday morning I was stretched out on an empty seat in a largely empty train with Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry. fry_moabAn elderly Swiss gentleman walked by looking for a vacant four-seater. I suppose he wanted to stretch out too. I straightened up when I saw him but he moved by too quickly to have noticed. I kept the book on the serving table and was rummaging through my bag when I heard, “I know this man”. I looked up and it was the old man. He said, “I know this man who wrote the book. Stephen Fry. Funny man.” He asked if he could sit down and I couldn’t have been happier. I think he saw that he had shocked me with his confession. He introduced himself and went on to tell me that he had been in London for many years where he had the opportunity to work with Mr. Fry. He told me that he charges £10,000 per talk in a scandalised tone. “Such a smart man.”, he said. Yes, indeed. All I could do was nod vigorously trying to soak in every bit of information. I now felt so close to Stephen Fry. I was star struck.
Then the conversation went on to our daily lives and he happily spoke about his life in Switzerland, his social work,  his love for the quiet life in Bern and his distaste for the big money and bad service in Zurich. He bought me a coffee from the mobile snack bar! That one coffee has meant more to me than so many fancy meals in fancy places here in Switzerland. It was a random act of kindness shown to me by a Swiss stranger. A couple walked by whom he happened to know. They joined us. He introduced me to them and then I let the three of them catch up. I read for the rest of our journey together. Soon it was time for them to leave and as he departed he apologised for not having spoken to me more. I hope we meet again someday. There is always so much talk about this country being unfriendly to immigrants and passing right-wing laws. Whenever I get offended by such propaganda, the black sheep and crow ruining the pure white Swiss cross, I remember this elderly Swiss man and I reason my way out of generalisation.


SBB: Swiss Bafflement Bonus

A Swiss rail staffer who worked the mobile snack bar would always stop by my seat, blocking the path for those wishing to move around. He’d want to exchange pleasantries with me loudly to the annoyance of others. I would get the stare. At some point he’d leave and I’d cower inside my book and smile weakly at my neighbours. (He he. Sorry. He’s a friendly guy.) I guess he saw me frowning too often and decided I needed a friend. I can’t understand why else he’d do it!


The iPad guy

There was once a man on the SBB CFF FFS
Who loved to show off I must confess
He’d buy all Apple products in triplicate
And take off the dust jacket for effect
He’d then proceed to sit next to you
And open his bag as if on cue
He’d put one iPad on the ground discreet
Then wait for you to kick it with your feet!

Every time. Every single time I have met this man he’s done this. I have seen all the upgrades of the iPad at my feet. I couldn’t help but tell this tale poetically.

People never cease to amaze me!

(c) Sam Rappaz
(c) Sam Rappaz


I didn’t think I could ever put a positive spin on my lack of independent mobility. For a while I have been telling people that using public transport keeps my carbon footprint low. What it actually did for me is keep my human footprint really high. I would have never guessed when I first came to this country that the one place I would meet people not affiliated to any part of my life would be the one place that has no address, is regulated but sees no boundaries and all the while is very Swiss. It has been all about the journey.

Note: I was approached by the wonderful people over at meetingsbooker.com to write a post on my favourite meeting place. The Swiss rail stories seemed like a perfect idea. They are all true. This is not a sponsored post and all views are my own.

Taking stock of the shock


I was already perturbed after the hostage situation in Sydney on Monday, December 15. But nothing could have prepared me for the horrendous act of brutality perpetrated in Peshawar the very next day. It has taken me a while to collect my thoughts and assemble them with enough coherence so that I could express them in the written form.
 Last week I had started to draft a post on this year’s Nobel Peace Prize awardees. Here’s what I had saved,

There is immense power in One. I come from a land of a more than a billion Ones and we are here and free because of One Mahatma who inspired our collective intelligentsia to peacefully assert our identity. Yesterday saw the amazing testament to the Power of One in Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai winning the Nobel Peace Prize to bring the plight of children in South Asia in world’s view again, to reintroduce it into the limelight. I absolutely loved their Nobel lectures.

The speech for the awardees was flawless and incredibly moving,

While it is in the nature of extremism to create enemies and frightening images, and to divide the world into us and them, the laureates show us something else: A young girl and a somewhat older man, one from Pakistan and one from India, one Muslim, the other Hindu; both symbols of what the world needs: more unity.

Fraternity between the nations!

This is exactly what the world needs right now. I am so thrilled to see the Nobel committee press upon this while the entire world watches. We, in South Asia, take tremendous pride in our ‘golden stars’; our blazing thinkers and doers who have shined on the world stage. We are young democracies that seem to be still battling for freedom. There are, after all, different sorts of freedom. So, it gives our collective ego a huge boost to see one of our own shining above the people of the so-called ‘developed’ part of the world. With such glory at hand, for Indians to see that it must be shared with a young Pakistani woman is a much-needed lesson in distinguishing humanity from politics.

I leave you with Malala’s thoughts that shook my core,

I had two options.

One was to remain silent and wait to be killed. And the second was to speak up and then be killed.

I chose the second one. I decided to speak up.

We could not just stand by and see those injustices of the terrorists denying our rights, ruthlessly killing people and misusing the name of Islam.

We decided to raise our voice and tell them: Have you not learnt, have you not learnt that in the Holy Quran Allah says: if you kill one person it is as if you kill the whole humanity?

You may read the awardees’ lectures here and here. They make me believe that there must be good in people. There must be.

I never published this post. I never got to it. The terrorists did their needful first. I re-read this yesterday and I was in tears. Is there any good in people?

My understanding

Of religion

After following #sydneysiege on Monday on Twitter my husband and I discussed it in the evening over dinner. We were talking about Taliban, Islamic State (IS) and the Islam religion. I realised that growing up in India had given me a tremendous advantage: to understand and interact with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. I definitely had more personal anecdotes to share than him. The great part about growing up in secular India is that you have days off school for special days of all religions. So as a child you inevitably like all religions and unintentionally learn about them (since they get you off from doing schoolwork!).

I was born a Hindu but suffice to say, for the time being, that I am not a religious Hindu but a philosophical one. I have had Muslim friends growing up; many actually. We have wished each other on our respective religious holidays. I have been invited to Ramadan feasts. In our cities, in India, we have the ‘Muslim quarter’ where the best tea is served and also the best food. There is discrimination and it works against them. They suffer the plight that any minority suffers and probably the worst of them all due to our troubled history.

I have heard bigoted remarks by own family members that I have borne in silence because ‘one must not speak against elders’. It is not the right way to behave to go against the grain. I wonder when it became right to judge a person’s integrity based on their religion. I have also heard the most amazing story of public display of kindness – shown to one of my family members in her time of great need – by a young Muslim who was a complete stranger, who was poor and who also went on to call her ‘Mother’ when addressing her. He stands for what Islam truly is about, as is any religion at its core – compassion and kindness to all living things. I have immense respect for all my Muslim friends. It also extends to the Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, Jewish, Afro-Cubano, Athiest, Agnostic friends I have made in my life. This has nothing to do with me being born a Hindu but has everything to do with me being willing to understand and learn from people different from me.

What happened this week is not about Islam, that much is obvious to me. I am going to have to disagree with Richard Dawkins.

This is not about faith. I am a scientist but I know that one’s belief in one’s own ability or another ‘power’ can help sustain us. It is naïve to think that this attack was a cause of faith and rather glib to say so. These acts came out of fanaticism, ideological extremism and irrational anger at the world.This was Faith Delusion, Mr. Dawkins.

For everybody who takes a moral high ground claiming their religion is superior to Islam because it doesn’t condone violence I say read your history books and then dump those and read others’ history books. Everybody has a different version of the events. I recently visited Andalucia, Spain and saw the beautiful ‘fusion’ architecture – combining Moorish and Christian styles. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The cathedrals are amazing but, stand on Mosques long gone. I admired the beauty of the place but it didn’t escape me that we were standing on lands that have soaked blood. It’s been so long that we see only the red rust of the sand and think it is the iron content but maybe it is not.

Everything goes both ways. It needs to – in order to survive the oscillating nature of history. In India I have seen monuments for Islam built over ancient Hindu ruins and vice versa. Everyone has suffered. Alas, suffering cannot be tallied neatly and neither can emotions; hence it is only our emotions that have always caused the greatest catastrophes. They cannot be reasoned with and cannot be questioned.

I propose logic and reason.

Please think, think deeply about why this has happened, I try to tell myself. Man Haron Monis was mentally unstable, a self-styled clergy and was well known to the Australian police (read here). The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that claimed responsibility for the massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar said that they had targeted the schools because “nearly all the students are children of Army personnel.” Read article here. A survivor of the attack said that the gunmen played ‘sadistic games’ with them and said this to a teacher who was asked to watch his students being shot, ‘Watch as your loved ones die. Ours are also being killed in the same way.’ Read article here.

This is not about Islam. Violence always begets violence. When, as an impressionable youth, you see your friends and family being murdered and then you see and hear nothing but hate for the killers, you then do go on to kill their children and loved ones. You can no longer empathise. It was destroyed the day you saw the first act of violence. I have witnessed this, at much milder tone, in my own life. I have lived in Delhi for many years and have heard from Sikhs about how it was for them after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. They were not harmed themselves but their community was butchered and that was enough for them to be scarred for life. I have heard from a daughter for an Indian army official who has seen loss in her life and in her friends’ lives because of the ‘Kashmir issue’ and she openly speaks about how she will never forgive Pakistan. These people have been directly affected but I have been fortunate enough to witness it from the sidelines. That gives me the opportunity to be objective and at the same time, however, doesn’t give me a right to judge their feelings, precisely because ‘feelings’ cannot be adequately judged and should not be either.

If you want to learn more about Islam’s history there’s a great series ongoing on Lex Solo’s blog. You can find it here.

Of history, politics and society

I had my own misconceptions about what had happened and who’s to blame for the events that have led to the rift between India and Pakistan. My ideas were coloured by my surroundings. I had never hated Pakistan. I disliked their cricket team but I had nothing against the country. When I witnessed hatred amongst my people I was ambivalent at best (or worst). Then I read ‘India After Gandhi’ by Ramachandra Guha and I realised that I had been so wrong about so many things.170920_afterghandi_jkt I shouldn’t have been ambivalent. We are two nations despite being the same people. We hate because we tell different versions of the same events. It’s a marriage undergoing a divorce that’ll never be settled since we need to live together despite our differences and we are also continuously fighting for custody of our beautiful heavenly baby – Kashmir – with eyes of blue, skin of green and hair of white. The process has ravaged both the ex-partners and has left Kashmir hollowed, shell-shocked and abandoned to its own devices. Why won’t hate breed there? What’s there to stop it?

If there ever could be a personification of evil we all saw it this week. B5C-C3TCEAA0e19.jpg-large There are so many horrifying images of blood soaked auditoriums, shoes, books, bullet-ridden classrooms, tiny coffins, waling family and friends that I wouldn’t even know which one I should try to reconcile with first. The truth is none of it will be erased from my memory.

Family members at the hospital looking to see if their child is on the 'Death List'
Family members at the hospital looking to see if their child is on the ‘Death List’

B5CYmkDCEAA3pms The only thing that brought some consolation was the solidarity of people this week seen over social media with #illridewithyou (where Muslim women were offered escorts in Sydney so that they feel safe) and #IndiawithPakistan (where Indians showed their empathy for Pakistan’s tragedy) trending. We seemed to all bear the burden for the loss of humanity. It was all too perfect.

School child in chennai keeping vigil (c)Indian Express
School child in chennai keeping vigil (c)Indian Express

Then I see a newsclip where Mr. Pervez Musharaff is blaming India for supporting terrorist factions,

I decided not to indulge in this nonsensical war-mongering. Then this morning I see this,

You can read the article here... http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Pakistan-court-grants-bail-to-26/11-accused-Zakiur-Rehman-Lakhvi-Reports/articleshow/45560638.cms
You can read the article here… http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Pakistan-court-grants-bail-to-26/11-accused-Zakiur-Rehman-Lakhvi-Reports/articleshow/45560638.cms

26/11 2009 saw the terror attack in Mumbai orchestrated by the Lashker-e-Taiba based in Pakistan and Lakhvi is said to be the commander of the operation.

The hate is back again. I don’t know how many people actually took the time to hear the news report before putting up banners detailing the cross-border atrocities in the past 6 decades. His bail is not politically motivated. It is a judicial decision. When there is not enough proof, as judged in an impartial court of law, then there is nothing that can be done. I don’t think Pakistanis are rejoicing right now knowing that a terrorist is out on the loose. I just have to read the comments’ thread here, running into 100s, to know how deeply entrenched this hatred is.

Am I absolved of being part of this hatred completely? I can’t even say that. A family member a while back, when choosing a restaurant for lunch, saw that the cuisine was described as North Indian and Pakistani at which point they went on to make out as if they were going to throw up and said , ‘No! I will never go there!’ I didn’t say anything. I wish I had. I have wished every day since then that I had said something. Is it ignorance that makes seemingly educated people speak this way? If it is then it is certainly not the proverbial blissful ignorance. It is such ignorance that has led to violence. It is people like me, who don’t speak up against such ignorance that also share the burden. We must be held responsible.

Of the future

I am writing this today because I wanted to record my thoughts, so that I can revisit them whenever I choose: as a reminder  to think before judging, before saying and definitely before acting; as a reminder that there is still great power in One and there are people like Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai in this world; to know that I can choose my humanity. I hope that the children who have survived the massacre,  and have seen horrors I can scarcely imagine, grow up in a loving world. I hope they don’t see and hear hate alone. I hope we don’t ask them to kill but instead ask them to distill the true meaning of religion. I hope we teach our histories in a more balanced way and keep our politics out of the way of innocence. I would one day like to share this with my own children, for them to see what had happened on December 16, 2014 through my eyes, not shadowed by hate. I hope that they will be living in a better world.


Today I blog to feed to a child

I admit that I have been selfish. I haven’t been able to look past my own needs and write something for the sake of another. I have been procrastinating, thinking I will do it at some point before Christmas. Now I realize that today, midnight (IST), is the deadline. I have to hand in my minimum 300 words for a child in India to eat for 300 days of his/her school year.

I have known Akshaya Patra since its inception in 2000. When the NGO started in Bangalore our school organized a donation day and all us kids brought in a kilo or so of raw rice. Rice that we, as privileged children, never considered something that is worthy of presenting to others. When we opened our lunch boxes we hated the look and smell of it. We went instead to the canteen and bought oily unhealthy samosas, or if finances were running low we’d just chum it up with those of us who had better options – macaroni, sandwiches or even a nice chapathi wrap. The rice would surreptitiously then be emptied into the garbage/gutter close to school or outside the house (but just far enough that mom never suspects). The days we forgot to cover our tracks were the days when routine phrases like ‘You are ungrateful’, ‘You have no sense of the privileges you have’, ‘I slave and slave and slave…’ and my personal favourite from the arsenal of parental guilt – ‘When I was your age I did not have…’ story. So, that simple request to bring just rice – not money or clothes (things we were more interested in) made me realize for the first time that in the order of things a child truly needs provided FOOD always comes first.

Food as incentive to education

In 2001 the Supreme Court of India decreed that “Cooked mid-day meal is to be provided in all the Government and Government-aided primary schools in all the states.” But Akshaya Patra had been at it for a year already. The idea being that if parents with lesser means knew that if sent to school then at least one meal time a day their child would eat heartily and healthily and they wouldn’t have to pay for it then they would be eager to send their kids off to get an education rather than have them labour for wages. Akshaya Patra’s website has listed studies that show that its work has had a positive impact.

What I can offer to this rhetoric is what I have witnessed in my own family. My father comes from a poor family and was born in a little fishing village on the coast of the Arabian Sea. My father had to walk many miles to attend school and could not afford a pair of slippers. He made the walk with calloused feet and a fresh mind eager to learn. My grandfather, having sired more children than he could afford, moved to a city 800 kms away on the coast on the Bay of Bengal with his eldest son (my father) and worked at a menial position in a restaurant in the big city. He sent back all he could to his wife and kids in the village. My uncles and aunt attended the local village school run by a temple trust foundation and temples in that part of the country provide food (mid-day meal) as well. It’s part of the tradition there; a form of blessing. My grandfather wanted his children to study and work hard and not having to worry about them going hungry must have been such a relief. This school with its practice of providing free education and free food has consequently provided our family with 1 banker, 1 teacher, 1 NASA engineer and 4 highly successful doctors. I will not say that my uncles and aunt studied so that they could eat. No. They knew that education was their only ticket out. But I am sure that the commitment they have to education and the respect they have for their parents, country and its traditions has to do a lot with the school that fed not only their hungry minds but also their hungry stomachs.

Hunger Games is creative non-fiction

While preparing to write about hunger among children in India I did some light research. I went on to World Food Programme’s website and learnt something I didn’t know about my country: India is home to a quarter of all undernourished people in the world. There are some shocking statistics in there about the situation worldwide for you to read and they motivate you to be at least thankful this holiday season if not giving.

I wanted to learn more about malnutrition in children in India and I found an article recently published by The Economic Times helpful and disturbing despite its optimistic undertones.

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It seems that my country has gone from being 63rd out of 76 countries to 55th in the Global Hunger Index, which is determined and reported by the International Food Policy Research Institute in collaboration with the NGOs Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide.

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The reason India has moved ahead is because a lot has been done, successfully, to undercut malnutrition in children over the past few years. This has taken India from being “second to last on underweight in children, [to] 120th among 128 countries with data on child undernutrition from 2009-2013”. Compare this standing with another fact: India is the tenth-largest economy based on nominal GDP and third-largest based on Purchasing Power Parity in the world, according to the recent IMF report (2014). It doesn’t take a degree in social sciences to know that something’s wrong. We are still behind Nepal and Sri Lanka on the GHI but ahead of Bangladesh and Pakistan in case any one is keeping track of competing countries in the sub-continent. Nothing gets us going like wanting to beat our neighbours at everything.

Social responsibility is taught by example

Donating food and sharing food with strangers is not a new concept in India. In the days of yore Brahmins who had given up their right to possessions used to go by houses for alms. The very act of supplication was considered a lesson in humility since one can become very egocentric as a Brahmin, as an intellectual. My maternal grandmother would always cook for an additional person for, ‘You never know who may turn up’ and ‘We must never refuse anyone food’. As children growing up in India you are taught that it is your moral duty to provide food from your own plate to your guest even if it all that you have. It is part of Indian hospitality: ‘Athithi Devo Bhava’, a Sanskrit adage which is translated as ‘Guest is God’. Anna-daanam or rice donation is considered a form of prayer.

So why is it that while we have such core beliefs about food so many of us go under-fed? It’s obvious really – we share only within our own worlds. Robert Pirsig had it right when he wrote,

We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

But it’s not very difficult to take it a bit further than our doorstep I find. My parents have set a fine example for me. I have seen them regularly contribute for years to a local school for it to buy supplies and even for its structural renovations. My mother, when she lived in Ukraine, visited an orphanage with toys and edible goodies even though she does not speak any Ukrainian or Russian. She has been fortunate enough to have had enough to eat growing up but it has come at a cost of her father eating only boiled peanuts for dinner so that his children (mostly girls no less) could eat and study. Neither of my parents have ever taken their comforts in their adult years for granted, for the precise reason that they were hard-earned. They studied, ate what they received, worked hard and made our lives so easy. They were right to tell us those guilt-inflicting stories. That’s also how they taught us social responsibility.

I look back on those lunches I took for granted and I don’t think I have committed a bigger crime. The idea of wasting food now makes me cringe and I cannot abide by it no matter where I am. Here in Switzerland there isn’t any obvious poverty but that doesn’t mean there are no hungry people. We took the left-overs from our Swiss wedding to the local homeless shelter. The people were shocked to find a Swiss man in a three-piece suit and a brown girl in a white wedding gown dropping off a lot of expensive food at 9pm on a Wednesday. In turn we received such sincere wishes for a happy married life that it left us both aglow with contentment.

As Indians living abroad it is easy to fall into a shame spiral and feel like we are not contributing to the betterment of our nation. Even if you don’t actively contribute to an NGO and rather want to do this yourself it is still not so hard to do. Ask your family or friends back in India about the schools in your community that could use monetary assistance or fresh stationary. In fact when we were having our wedding in India my husband’s best friend considered it worth his while to engage a major Swiss retail store, Migros, to contribute some stationary to be taken to an under-privileged school in India. We had organized a trip across Mangalore-Udupi districts for our friends and we took them to a school in the tiny fishing village called Uchila, the origin of my paternal grandmother. They were really happy to receive the gifts. The children were thrilled to see white people and I witnessed for the first time a mid-day meal in progress. If you have ever felt that your tax money is not doing enough then go to a school while they are serving food. I guarantee that you will come out smiling. Taking some chocolates with you is not a bad idea either. It was a great day and here are a few photos from that day,

This and all the images herein were taken by Laura Zimmermann (2013). All rights reserved by Laura Zimmermann.


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Q & A

How to eliminate classroom hunger? I am not a policymaker or a social scientist to have the ‘right’ answers or a POA. All I can say is do what you can in every way you can wherever you are. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. There are many platforms where you can contribute. Heck! All I am doing right now is writing a blog. And while you are at it, why stop at classroom hunger?

What will it mean to have a generation that is fed and educated? You will have peace and prosperity. If every child is educated and not just literate then we’ll have less rape and abuse and more empowerment. We’ll find that a nation can, not only produce efficient professionals, but also caring patriots who act as global citizens.

I leave you with this touching video by Akshaya Patra presented over a lovely song composed by the amazing A. R. Rahman. It’s a song in Tamil about the purpose of one’s life but you don’t need to understand the words to get the message. I wish you all a wonderful life without hunger.

I am going to #BlogToFeedAChild with Akshaya Patra and BlogAdda.

Dan Brown’s Inferno must burn

…Or be sent to Recycling – depending on how green you are.

I paid for it and read it a while back. I seem to have a knack for paying for bad books. And oh boy! Do I pay!

It’s always easier to rant about a bad book soon after you have read it. I don’t keep notes on everything I found wrong in a book, but I do take care to detail all that I find right in one. I am just a half glass-full, happy sort of a person. No troll here. Please cross the bridge. Thank you.

So why this sudden declaration about Inferno? Well, Enter, Stage right. Clive James. He’s Australian but has lived and worked in the United Kingdom since the 60’s. He’s an author, memoirist, poet, essayist and many other cool things. He’s totally brilliant and a very funny man and sadly dying of cancer. He has been awarded the Cultural Commentator 2014 award and the President’s Medal from the British Academy.

I am totally chuffed! So, I re-read some his reviews published in Prospect Magazine. My favourite has to be the one on Dan Brown‘s Inferno titled, The heroic absurdity of Dan Brown: The less his talent, the more amazing his achievement. This may well be one of the great reviews. Here’s how it starts,

As a believer in the enjoyably awful, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly if I could. But it is mainly just awful. Nevertheless it is still almost worth reading. In the publishing world they have a term, “pull line,” which means the few words of apparent praise that you can sometimes pull out of a review however hostile. Let me supply that pull line straight away, ready furnished with quotation marks: “The author of The Da Vinci Code has done it again.”

Once again, that is, he makes you want to turn the pages even though every page you turn demonstrates abundantly his complete lack of talent as a writer. The narrative might be a bit less compulsive this time but you still want to follow it, if only to find out whether the hero and the heroine will ever get together. But to do that, they will first have to stop running to escape the heavies.

If you liked that then read the rest here.

I am sorry if you liked Inferno. Or if you are a Langdon fan. Or if you like Dan Brown. To be honest, I did like The Da Vinci Code. I am going to chalk that up to being young and impressionable; bored basically.  I can own up to that and not be ashamed. But Inferno was horrible. I am so glad I read it on a beautiful white sandy beach, in Porquerolles, which helped mitigate some of the acrimony. I did however wish I had chosen some other easy-summer-read.

I did not have a blog then and so could not vent to my satisfaction. And Now *evil laugh* the time has come. I have forgotten most of what annoyed me about the book and that is why I have referred you to the brilliant review by Clive James. He has picked up/on almost everything. Yes, I dared to say almost. For me, the point when I had to shut the book and close my eyes and calm my nerves was when I read this (Chapter 10; I had to google it),

“Okay… I guess that beats ‘I am Vishnu, destroyer of worlds.'”

The young woman had just quoted Robert Oppenheimer at the moment he tested the first atomic bomb.

Arrgghh! It STILL hurts. On so many levels. Firstly, Oppenheimer never said that. This is a misquote of a very famous Oppenheimer quote. In fact, it is so famous that it has its own youtube video,

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

(Which may in turn be a misinterpretation of The Gita I am informed, but let’s not get too picky)

Secondly, all he or his assistant/fact-checker or someone in his editorial team had to do was know a little bit about Hinduism. Just the very basic. They could have even asked the great gods of the internet for some direction and the truth would have been revealed in 0.06 second. Shiva, as part of the Trinity, is the destroyer and Vishnu is the protector, while Brahma is the creator.

Thirdly, the ‘young woman’ referred to here is supposed to be a genius with an IQ of 208.

Okay. That felt good. That was the one thing I had to get off my chest about the infuriating Inferno. For every other thing, please read the linked article and enjoy it with a nice beverage and biscuits.

Thank you listening dear Void.

Life is too short to…not write

I started, 2 days ago. I am finally feeling introspective and self-destructive.

I wrote a lot when I was a wee girl, barely able to get my cursive penmanship up to the standards held by my primary school English teacher. In fact even in secondary school a teacher who was handing out the corrected quizzes was surprised to find out that the squiggly untidy submission belonged to a girl. I love gender stereotype-stories. Don’t you? It is comforting and revolting to find that people don’t change.

That digression aside, I wrote a lot back then– poems, stories, journal entries, essays – real opinion pieces too. I went from using an old tattered diary, which doubled as my poetry collection (‘Notes’ section at the back) during my pre-teens to a pretty notebook with a colourful hardbound cover during my teens to, well, nothing! I had to study; get better grades than that nerdy thick-rimmed-glasses-guy sitting across the aisle. I had to focus my efforts, focus my education and get a technical degree. There is no time for wishy-washy feelings and angst and God forbid someone reads your innermost thoughts and realises what you really want. God forbid you realise what you really want! The house of cards will then come crashing down with one strategically breathed whisper of doubt.

Years go by, and still, Words don’t come easily. I felt I would never be able to write again. I would read and revel in others’ intelligent turns of phrases and clever analogies. But that skill is lost in me, and I don’t even know if I ever had it to begin with. I was too self-conscious to ask. I collected quotes from books that affected me deeply or which, I felt, summarised the book, to come back to years later when I missed these books or authors. I thought I could use these to one-day write something of my own.

Eventually, I completed my Ph.D. Fifteen years of burning ambition seemingly calmly assuaged one hot afternoon in a seminar room. Now what? What was stopping me? I have made many excuses since that afternoon to not start writing again; some legitimate and others imagined. Soon, I ran out of either. I shamefully admit that I actually got the WordPress domain name registered 3 months ago and did nothing after! I was content, to an extent, that I had (at least) started the process. Procrastination: 1, Sam: 0

Finally, it was a book, a not-so-great book that helped me find my words. My head screamed throughout my reading of it to let someone know how I felt. And so, it came to pass. My Another Voice. My Reading to write. After all these years of painstakingly jotting down memorable, intelligent, hoity-toity quotes in my still squiggly untidy handwriting into my (now) very pretty colourful cloth-bound notebook – it took something exactly the opposite to get me to write. Irony: 1, Sam: 0.

My books of quotes: Two of my most personal items in the world.
My squiggly handwriting. Life is also too short to BE NEAT!

I have gone about ten years not giving room to a part of me that I have loved. Life is too short to not love yourself. Life is too short to not let you be you. The final tally now is Life: 1, Sam: 1.5; because life is still short, but not by much.

Much love.