Saturday, January 29, 2011

Perception and Reality

When I started my architecture school I had a lot of trepidation. I was 17 almost 18 years old at that time and had heard my school, although one of the best in India had a reputation for being very bohemian. I led a very sheltered and protected life almost verging on being smothered by my very overbearing mother. I always had my own personality and was very independent but you always are led to believe that your mother knows the best. So on my first day in school, I was pretty nervous and intimidated. I believe that there is safety in numbers so I hung out with a bunch of girls to avoid getting hazed by the second year students. Hazing or “Ragging” as they called in India was a part of the process of being welcomed into professional schools across the country.

My school had a substantial student population from other parts of India so we had two distinct groups, one who was from Mumbai and the rest was from all over the country. I being very talkative and friendly and also being especially talkative when I am nervous went around introducing myself. At that time, across the room I saw a very tall dark guy looking lost and a little out of place. He didn’t look Indian and looked very African. I could sense that he was a little sad, lonely and looked a little lost. I thought I might introduce myself to him. So I walked up to him and said, “Hi I am Sai.” He said, “Hi my name is MM.” So I asked him which part of the world he belonged to and he replied that he was from one of the countries in East Africa. At that moment, two other women walked over and introduced themselves. We asked him a lot of questions and welcomed him to India and to feel free to ask us if he needed anything from us. I had never met a person from Africa before and I was fascinated by his culture. I remember asking him questions about his language, what his name meant etc. I am a xenophile so I was thrilled to meet someone who was from a different culture and nationality.

India is a very racist country and makes no apologies about it. An average Indian is complacent in his or her biases. One could attribute that to centuries of casteism and exclusionary behavior of Hindus. However I think the underlying reason is ignorance and fear based upon perception. I remember one of my classmates telling me after she saw me talking to MM that I should avoid talking to “that African guy as who knows what mischief he might be up to.” Then she said that I might get a reputation as being easy. I remember being livid and completely infuriated about people making assumptions based upon their ignorant perceptions. To date I have not been able to comprehend the fact that how do people develop these “reputations”?

After my fourth year and before beginning my final year architecture, I had gone to New Delhi with a bunch of classmates to conduct research for my final year thesis in the summer vacation. I was at the School of Architecture and Planning’s library in New Delhi when by chance I bumped into MM. He had come to New Delhi straight from his country's capital and didn’t know his classmates were there too. He was very happy to see me as he felt like he “saw family in this strange place.” At that time he told me that he might have to take a break of six months from school as his mother was diagnosed with cancer and he didn’t want to be far from home. I remember feeling terrible for him. He was going to be in Mumbai for a week and then fly back home. I came home to Mumbai and wanted to invite him to my place for dinner as I thought he must be missing his home. I asked my mother if I could invite him home. She asked me if I were inviting him with a group of other people. I said that there was no one around as it was summer vacation and that I wanted to just invite him alone. My mother, being the overprotective and overbearing parent that she was, said that she had no problem if he were coming in a group but didn’t want me to invite a guy just by himself! I told her that I thought she was being ridiculous. Then she said, “When you get married, invite him to your husband’s home.” That was the end of the argument. To date I cannot rationalize my mother’s reasoning! If I wanted to do something that she didn’t approve she would end the argument with “do that at your husband’s home.” I must say that I have married a great guy and have been able to do whatever I please at my "husband’s home”!

MM did come back to school and completed his final year with us. Upon completion of our graduation, MM was leaving India to go to London for a bit. I bumped into him on my way home from school. We were excited about graduating and were talking animatedly outside my school’s campus about our career goals and what we were planning to do. I was oblivious to the fact that people were staring at him and at me as well until some random person commented to me in Marathi, “Have all the Indian men died that a woman of your stature is talking to this African.” He actually used a derogatory word to describe my friend, which made my blood boil. This random comment was from a puny five foot tall man who looked barely literate. I was livid and almost wanted to smack this person across his face. MM was blissfully unaware, as he didn’t understand Marathi, and continued telling me about his future plans. I didn’t want him to know about this hateful comment so I did not show any emotion and continued talking to him. We planned to stay in touch but of course that never happened as life takes over. This was prior to the internet days when you really had to make an effort to stay in touch with people.

Years later, I read this article about racism in India as seen by an African-American PhD student staying in New Delhi for a bit. This article reminded me of this above incident. I remembered my classmate who was so young when he came to India. Recently thanks to Facebook and my alumni network, I renewed contacts with MM again. After living in the United States for the past ten years, I am more sensitive about a foreigner’s experience in my country. Therefore I asked MM to give me an honest opinion about India and if he enjoyed living in India. He said that he enjoyed his experience very much as all of his classmates were very supportive. He said that he always remembered me and three of my classmates as the ones who welcomed him on his first day. However outside this comfortable cocoon there were not many Indian people who were nice to him and it was based upon their negative perceptions about his continent and their people. As it is with all perceptions, it was far removed from reality. I suppose he decided to take that in his stride and enjoy his experience nevertheless. He has fond memories and considers India as his second home. He wants to return to India and travel to explore the country and to places that he couldn’t visit when he was living there. I suppose MM is a great person and also we were very protective of him so didn’t let him know the mean and hateful things some ignoramuses said about him.

I have to say that the author of the article is right when he concludes, “In most nations, the path of ending gender, race and class discrimination is unpaved. In India, this path is still rural and rocky as if this nation has not decided the road even worthy. It is a footpath that we are left to tread individually.”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Of Immigrants and Religion

Yesterday K and I woke up early in the morning and stepped out to do our errands, which also included a doctor’s appointment. We recently changed our family doctor as I wanted a female doctor. Additionally, I wanted a doctor who was not only from India but trained in Mumbai. I was fortunate to find one, ahh the wonders of living in New Jersey! So being Ms. Chatty Kathy, I broke the ice by asking her which part of the City she belonged to. I was pleasantly surprised to know that not only did she grow up in the same neighborhood as K but that she was fluent in Marathi. Those of you who are bilingual will know how great it is to be able to go back and forth in several languages. K on the other hand is reserved and doesn’t like to indulge in small talk or chat with people, which also includes his doctor. So after she examined me, she examined K and spoke to him as if he were her long lost brother. Did I mention that they both belong to the same caste? K shot me a glare as I walked out of the examination room with a broad grin because he would be forced to now have a conversation with her which was not related to his check up. After we were done, we stopped by to eat breakfast at a South Indian place. By far I was enjoying my morning as I spoke my own language at the doctor's and was going for an Indian breakfast! Who says that I am homesick for Mumbai anymore????

K and I go there pretty often when we crave South Indian snacks and I know that the owner is a devout Hindu as the entire day they play CDs with Sanskrit chants set to Carnatic music. In fact NY Times has given rave reviews to this establishment but has commented that it is pretty orthodox that they don’t like people getting their own alcohol to the establishment. So I asked the guy if they were open for business. When he answered in the affirmative, I like a complete smart ass, said, “Today is your lucky day as you are starting your new day with me as your first customer. You know I am like Goddess Laxmi, I bring prosperity with my footsteps.” (To those who are not familiar with Indian culture, they say that women are to be venerated as they bring prosperity. Of course women’s rights in India are a totally different story!) I was only joking but those who are from India will know that there is superstition in India among Hindu merchants about “bohonie” (as they call in the pidgin Mumbai Hindi) or the first earnings for the day. Anyway the kitchen had barely opened but he did not want to turn us away as we were the first customers. While we were waiting to be served, he brought out the hottest soup that ever was. It felt great to soothe our throats in the cold weather.I started asking him questions about when he started this restaurant etc etc. He was first slightly embarrassed and said to me "I am not highly educated as you people are so you will probably judge me." I said, “No but I am curious so tell me.”

He was born in a small village near Udipi in Karnataka. People from Udipi, as a source of livelihood, started Udipi restaurants in Mumbai. This is the equivalent to fast food in the United States. Anyway so this person started earning a living for himself by cleaning tables at a Udipi restaurant in Mumbai as a young lad. He rose to wait on tables and then to manage restaurants. He saved enough money to come to the United States and when he came here 21 years ago, he decided to marry an American woman so he could live here legally by obtaining a green card. He then started his own restaurant and sponsored his extended family who have settled here and now own restaurants all over the country. He said that the one thing he misses the most in his life is the fact that he couldn’t obtain an education. He thought K and I would judge him but actually I don’t. He took whatever opportunity life gave him to make a better life for himself and his family. In many ways his devotion to religion makes sense, because perhaps he must have sought solace in the philosophy. I think the man came a long way from being an attendant at a roadside restaurant to owning one in the United States. Being Chatty Kathy I continued telling him stories about K and my road trip to remote villages in Karnataka and the amazing vegetarian food we had there years ago. So at the end of the breakfast, K asked for the check.

He said that he was not going to take money from us as he felt that I was indeed Laxmi. I was thoroughly embarrassed by this and K was infuriated with me. K told the guy that he had provided a service and we should pay for it while glaring at me the entire time. Of course we walked out by quietly leaving a 60% tip. Still I felt like I cheated him as I was being completely facetious when I said that I was like Laxmi. I was teasing him about his devotion. To be honest, I practice Hinduism as well. I know Sanskrit, chant prayers every morning and also follow certain Hindu customs which are such a part of my so called “good Hindu upbringing.” That being said, my beliefs are very private that no one except my family and closest friends know it. I tend to make fun, albeit subtly, of those who wear their beliefs on their sleeve. For example a couple of years ago, I was working with a very religious coworker, a holy roller if you will. He always spoke about his christian beliefs (almost proselytizing) and when we become friends I used to tease him. Once he asked me, “you should ask yourself what Jesus or whoever is your Hindu Jesus would like you to do?” We were working late and it was almost 10 PM. I was tired and wanted to go home. So I had replied cockily, “I am sure Jesus wants me to go home, have a drink and sleep instead of talking about religion and faith.” So making fun of holy rollers comes very easily to me. However I have to be honest, this person’s naiveté and strong beliefs made me feel awful about my own cynicism.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Loss and Relationships

As always I had called to speak to my parent’s on Friday night. It was Saturday morning in India. From the tone of my mother’s voice I realized that something was wrong.. She however was assuring me that everything was fine. I goaded her until she finally told me that she had terrible news for me. I asked if she, my father and my sisters were all right. She assured me that they were fine but that my cousin who was in his mid thirties had passed on. It was my father’s older brother’s child. In fact my father’s older brother himself passed on when this child was a toddler.

My father’s family is very close knit and it includes the extended family as well. I have vague memories of my uncle as I was very young when he passed on. I do remember though that he was extremely mild mannered and the most gentle soul I ever knew. Unfortunately he was not as smart as my father. My father and his two cousins were overachievers and therefore were very successful. My uncle on the other hand barely finished high school and didn’t graduate from college. Unfortunately he made a lot of wrong decisions, which I remember used to pain my father. It was especially so as my father didn’t have his parents then. My father always tried to help him but somehow no matter how much you try to help others, it is unsuccessful unless the recipient takes it upon themselves to improve their life. When my uncle passed on, I remember how my father had cried to mourn the loss of his loved one. He must have thought that he was alone but he wasn’t. I, being very nosy, had snooped and was shocked to see this display of raw emotion from a person who always internalizes his emotions. That incident is etched in my memory.

All through my life, I always felt affection for my uncle’s family. I always thought that this particular branch of my father’s family was cursed. After my uncle’s passing his widow didn’t keep in touch with us. My uncle was previously married but had lost his two wives and this was his third marriage. The children from his first two marriages kept in touch with us. They were much older than my sisters and I but we had established a strong bond with them. The children from this marriage however weren’t close to us at all. That being said, I feel really sorry for the mother who lost not only her husband but her child. It is tragic but none of her children survived. All of them went into adulthood and died one after the other. She has outlived all of them. I cannot but imagine what must be going through her mind!

The last time I saw this cousin was 20 years ago when my older sister got married. He was very artistic. He had very shyly showed me his painting and I was surprised to know that he was left handed like me! So there was a feeling of affection because we are of the same blood but no memory beyond this one. Yet I feel sad for the loss of life. I feel sad for the hardships that he endured in his short life. As per my Hindu beliefs I do realize that it is everyone’s karma. They say that when you are born, it is predetermined as to what your life is going to be. However I believe in the law of probability that nothing is set in stone. Life gives you options and you make those choices. The choices you make and the end results is what your destiny eventually turns out to be. I think fate cruelly took away this life even before he got to live it.

I would like to end this post by quoting two verses or couplets (called shlokas in Sanskrit ; the liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism) from the Bhagavad Gita related to death:

"The soul is never born nor dies at any time. Soul has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. Soul is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. Soul is not slain when the body is slain."

"As a human being puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones."