Friday, October 28, 2005

The Incalculable Wisdom of Simplicity

To give you fair warning, the following is a sort of raw trip (read: philosophical rant) into the subject that’s dominated my mind the last two days. The account is kind of big and clumsy, and probably full of errors and contradictions…but then, so am I, and you all put up with me.

In a poetry class I took in college, we were taught to avoid clichés in our writing. At all costs, we were to refrain from using phrases from pop culture (or even ancient culture) – neither Seinfeld nor Confucius should be found in the middle of our verses. Our professor regarded clichés as if they were cockroaches scrambling down an otherwise decent page. I’ve begun to notice that many people in academia denounce clichés as trite, overused, unsophisticated…unintelligent. This confuses me, since clichés have withstood the test of time and therefore must carry something of value. But for poetry’s sake, for individuality’s sake, I denounced them too (nevermind the irony of that).

Let’s switch gears for a moment. Why did I start thinking about all this? It started when I became impatient. The first school to return my autism questionnaires had returned less than half of what I had given them, and not all of the forms were filled out properly, meaning I couldn’t use them for my data. The next school returned only a third of what I had given. A familiar churning happened in my stomach, one I thought I had left behind when I took a break from school. Frustration spoke – how am I going to get this project done? Things aren’t working according to plan. Nothing is efficient in India. Not even me. I haven’t even started my yoga classes yet, and almost two months have already gone by. Didn’t I say I was going to be committed to changing myself for the better? Why am I not trying hard enough?

I sat down and miserably listened as the churning happily told me that leaving America didn’t mean leaving stress. The terrible familiarity of the feeling struck me. I was used to this. Long nights spent at the hospital being a few minutes behind schedule to see a dozen patients…getting that paper in at the last minute…sneaking in lunch when I could hide in the stairwell and eat whatever I’d been hiding in my white coat pocket. Stress hasn’t left me entirely in India, because it’s tough to run away from something you’ve internalized.

A realization was upon me – my life to this point has been toyed with by the twin mental constructs of Desperation and Efficiency. I’ve spent much of my life searching for efficiency…how much food can I stuff in my mouth before I go out to play? How quickly can I finish my homework? What’s the best way to memorize two thousand facts for the boards? The urge for efficiency inevitably leads to a subtle background desperation, which helps fuel efficiency and thus can be viewed as adaptive (from a very western mechanistic point of view). So I let this urge grow. I worked fast and hard at everything. Whenever I met with success, part of me knew it was because of the twin constructs that lived inside. I accepted them, and saw myself as a more effective person for doing so. Desperately Efficient. Efficiently Desperate.

Our educational system, indeed our society as a whole, tends to encourage such behavior. People who engage in it are seen as successful and intelligent, to be able to handle such complexity in life. However, in much of human endeavor, webs of complexity end up finding direction and usefulness only when they produce simplicity.

For example, take science, and its attempt to understand matter. At one time, understanding the material world was simple. Things existed as themselves – a table was a table, a chair a chair. Then we looked deeper, and someone had the nerve to say that all matter is made of indivisible units called atoms. This complicated things, and led to a series of desperate calculations and experiments, which brought confusion and was seen as quite intelligent. However, the confusion eventually gave birth to a new simplicity – these atoms each have neutrons, protons, and electrons in certain simple configurations that we can describe with whole numbers and little arrows. Peace, mystery solved. But someone intelligent delved deeper, and that simplicity was challenged – there were quarks, leptons, other subatomic particles hiding under the carpet. More desperate calculations ensued. Finally, an idea to bring simplicity back – don’t worry, it’s all simple in the end, all particles are just different manifestations of the same psychotically vibrating superstrings. That’s it, strings, and that’s why the table is a table and you are you. This is supposed to be close to the Unified Theory of Everything that physicists are trying to find, but I’ve got a sneaky feeling that someone intelligent is going to shake things up, and we’ll be hopelessly lost in the intricacies again.

What I’m trying to illustrate is that many things progress in waves of complexity and simplicity. Simplicity exists, but is inevitably challenged by a problem; complexity is used to tackle the problem, and if the endeavor is successful, simplicity may rise again. Complexity seems to be tied culturally to intelligence and individuality (and therefore to Desperately Efficient behavior). Simplicity is tied culturally to wisdom. When we engage in complexity, we distinguish ourselves as intelligent individuals, but the danger here is that we may forget that the end goal of it all is simplicity. We may come to highly value, as a society, the very complexity which makes us desperate inside for resolution. We may encourage it, and internalize it, to the point that we actually denounce what is simple and wise in the world as being, of all things, “unoriginal.”

Intelligence is quite a circuitous route to simplicity (notice how I’m taking forever to make my point). It’s interesting to note how these ideas are coded in our language. When describing someone, the very word “simple” can be used to mean “dumb.” Arguments are easy to criticize if they’re too “simplistic.” It’s also interesting to see how these ideas have manifested themselves in literature and in folklore. We seem to have a sense that wisdom often comes from those on the margins of society, from such (cliché) character types as the wise old hermit in the forest or the unlikely poor peasant in the marketplace. From uneducated people who do not engage in our complex societal games, people who do not constantly seek to distinguish themselves from others, we are reminded of the common wisdom that binds us all. They challenge us and make us uncomfortable, so we both revere (in the case of monks and saints) and denounce (in the case of the socially marginalized) those who do not participate in our convolutions. Those who have their own solutions, and who may reach wisdom through a more direct and simple path. Those who, unfathomably, do not seem desperate like we often do.

Have you ever spoken to a psychotic person? (Stop thinking that, I didn’t mean me.) The unnerving thing about conversing with a psychotic is the under-your-skin feeling that they know something you don’t. That they have access to a realm beyond your understanding and are empowered by it. We fear that while we can intelligently denounce them as crazy and hide behind our textbooks, we cannot so easily say that we are wiser than they. A voice inside us says, this is someone who doesn’t even play the game…so why does it seem like he’s winning?

I’ve been noticing that inside, what I really value is wisdom. What I want from my life is inner growth, but when you try to accomplish this in the same way you accomplish things in school and at work, it fails. Desperation and Efficiency are not necessary, and indeed harmful. Success, in the way we often define it, doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t been changing or growing efficiently. (If Gujarati takes a long time for me to learn, if I haven’t begun yoga yet, if schools don’t return my forms.) By living, by experiencing, we all do it in our own way, and this is something we share in common.

If we do choose to play society’s games along the way, we can help ourselves by remembering to listen to the voices of the margin, the voices of the inside, of philosophy and wisdom. Wisdom says that the churning in my stomach is pointless (insert timely clichés here: Life is a journey, and we should enjoy it…the results are not as important as the process.) Wisdom takes away our originality and makes us express ourselves in “trite” clichés that reveal our fundamental connection to the rest of humanity. It takes away our desperation to be something more, or something different, and shows us that we are exactly that which we rarely think of ourselves as being. That the answer was simple all along.

My favorite quotation is by T.S. Eliot: We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

In the beginning, there is simplicity. We may engage in complexity to live in this sometimes ridiculous and sometimes fabulous world of ours, but in the end, all our endeavors shall return us to simplicity’s cradling hands. And we shall know ourselves for the first time.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Top Ten List - Daily Things in Ahmedabad That Make Me Smile

In no particular order…have you ever tried to rank things that make you happy? It’s harder than it seems at first, and there’s not much point to it anyhow. About as much point to it as writing a top ten list in no particular order.

10. Bhanumummy calling Shankar – my grandmother’s voice booms through the walls to call our servant Shankar, and always, from behind some unexpected doorway or out of the pantry, will come his loyal and constant reply – “Eh, ha?” I need to start answering the phone like that…“Eh, ha?”

9. Animals – the black-on-black silhouette of a bat coasting above the trees at night. Lizards perched tensely next to the tube light. The incomprehensibly pleased look on a camel’s face amidst human street pollution. Frogs, who convince you they’re not rocks by jumping suddenly away.

8. Street vendor man – don’t know what to call him. Don’t know how to describe him. (Never seen him.) But every day his voice comes through the windows, in a crescendo yelp – “Eeeeoooooooooooooooooooop!” Don’t know what he’s saying, but people must be buying it.

7. Garam roti – ghee-shiny, placed double-folded on your plate even when you can’t eat any more.

6. Bhanumummy smiling – every morning when I wake up and come downstairs for breakfast, she looks up from her newspaper and smiles as if the day has now truly begun. I can’t tell you how good that feels.

5. Pappa shaving at the table – you knew this would be on here. I finally asked him why he does it, and his explanation is worth saving for posterity – “You see, everything in life has tension. There should be no tension. Everything should be done with relaxation, stress-free. So I enjoy shaving like this, sitting down comfortably.” It’s true, isn’t it? Even the smallest of daily routines can bring stress if we let it, but can bring peace if we make it.

4. Evening walks with Pappa – Sometimes philosophy and news are the subject of conversation, and sometimes silence is just as good. On occasion, a peacock will disagree with our musings and squeal at us.

3. Dessert (pronounced “desert” in desi) – everything’s eggless here, and there’s a Cookie and Brownie Festival at the café right next to our house. ‘Nuff said.

2. Emails from family and friends – yes, I miss you all.

1. Quiet time – it’s been a while since I’ve spent so much quality time with myself. I’m a rather strange and interesting person, it turns out. Even 15 minutes of quiet introspection at the end of the day can bring appetizing tastes of that elusive thing called self-awareness. You should try it sometime, you may be surprised by who’s in there.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

A Phone Conversation

"Hello?"
"Yes, your good name is Rishi?"
"Yes."
"My grandson goes to Sunshine Nursery School. He brought home a form with him about autism. Your name is here on it, so I thought I'd call up and ask you."
"Thank you for calling. I'm glad to answer any questions you have."
"What is this autism?"
"It's a developmental disorder in childr-"
"My grandson doesn't have it."
"Oh...yes."
"He is an exceptionally brilliant child. So, why are you sending this form home with him?"
"You see, I'm working on a project-"
"He knows multiplication. He can multiply the numbers. You are a Jain, yes?"
"Yes."
"You must be Deravasi Jain, going to temple. He has memorized his prayers. Perhaps you also have memorized prayers."
"Um..yes. Maybe I can help you understand my project. I don't mean to imply that anything is wrong with your child, but there may be childr-"
"He is an exceptionally brilliant child, you should not be asking us such questions."
"I'm sorry if I offended you. I'm glad to hear your grandson is doing well, and I have no reason to suspect anything is wrong with him."
"You are a psychiatrist?"
"I'm a medical stu-"
"I know psychiatrists. My cousin is a psychiatrist in U.S. only. In New York."
"That's nice."
"Then he moved to Los Angeles. Pranav."
"Pranav? But...he's my uncle!"
"He's your uncle?? He says Pranav is his uncle! What about Bindi?"
"She's my mother."
"He says Bindi is his mother! Bapray! Then you are Neel?"
"No, I am Rishi."
"He's Neel! You remember me? From Rajkot. I was at your uncle's wedding, beta!"
"Oh."
"Listen. Let me help you with this project of yours. Give me your forms, and I will send them to other people's children."

Monday, October 17, 2005

Bewildered by the Universe of Blogs

I’ve been writing this blog for about a month and a half, but honestly had not taken much time to skim other people’s blogs until tonight, when for some reason I’ve gone surfing. Browsing people’s blogs from around the world, I feel strangely like I’m window-shopping; and on display are not manikins with pricey layers of cloth, but personalities – not for sale, yet seeking attention nonetheless, through that desperate medium of expression, words. I’m awestruck and penniless. Suddenly I’m worried. Each person here has a depth that their words struggle to show…how many people that I’ve known in my lifetime have had such revealing words hidden inside (or gleaming secretly in cyberspace), whose depth I’ve never felt? How many lifetimes would it take to feel? I’m momentarily overcome with fear that one lifetime may be sufficient to scratch a thousand surfaces, but only enough to plunge deeply into a single soul – some seek their own through spirituality, some seek another’s through love. Many windows, one mirror. But how is one to choose?

(By the way, instead of continuing my binge-and-purge blogging style, in which I occasionally spew forth a few days’ worth of experience, I’ve decided to try the smaller-more-frequent-meal method – text-bites. This way, things may be more…digestible. And it gives room to write random thought-morsels like what's above and below.)

Today I bought some Indian clothes from a shop on C.G. road. When I left, I realized that the clerk had made a mistake, and I still owed him 60 rupees. First feeling: happiness. Next feeling: slight tinge of guilt, for aforementioned happiness. Third feeling: resolution, by instinctively deciding to play Robin Hood and offer the mistakenly acquired money to a beggar on the street. Then, feelings stopped and mind kicked in…I’m not Robin Hood…Robin Hood was poor himself, and he took money from the rich and offered it to the poor. I’m not poor, but here I’m taking money from the rich and choosing where it will go…if I’m going to give charity, shouldn’t I give my own money instead of making that decision for a presumably honest businessman? It was my choice to spend that 60 rupees in the shop, which I could have chosen to give charitably in the first place, rather than waiting for a calculation error to stimulate my sense of goodwill. But through it all, that nagging feeling that it would feel damn good to give 60 rupees of a successful shopowner’s money to that kid across the way whose skin has turned the same color as the street from years of being one with it. I’d like your opinion – what would you have done? And a related but different question – what’s the right thing to do?

(Another by the way...a couple of people have mentioned being hesitant to leave comments on the blog, since anyone can read them...but it's more fun for me if this blog creates a dialogue, so if comments are not your thing, you can email me any thoughts you have at my regular address or at rishiblogpics@hotmail.com).

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Nine Craaaaazy Nights!

Navratri is a festival with many meanings. Literally, it means “nine nights,” and on these nights many dance with a fervor that can border on hysteria. Religiously, explanations vary – the most prevalent concept involves the Goddess Durga, or Amba, also known as Mataji, or “mother.” Legend tells of a time when the gods were all driven from heaven by Mahishasura, the buffalo-demon; the gods fused their energies to form Mahadevi Durga, who was a manifestation of Shakti, the infinite energy. The Mother Goddess challenged and defeated Mahishasura in a nine-night battle, thus restoring order to heaven and the universe. During Aarthi, the prayer that precedes and sometimes concludes the festivities during each night of Navratri, we chant “Jayo, Jayo, Ma Jagadumbeh,” or (very loosely translated) “We bow to you, Mother of the world.”

However, many different conceptions exist. Some break the nine nights down into thirds, where the first three nights are devoted to Goddess Parvati, the next three to Goddess Lakshmi, and the final three to Goddess Sarawati. Another theory says that it took Ram nine nights to defeat Ravana, and that Dussehra, the tenth day which marks the end of the festival, celebrates his victory. Whatever the original explanation for Navratri was, it seems clear that the festival has attained such status that its meaning may vary from region to region, person to person, and yet still retain its undeniable importance.

For most of the young generation in Ahmedabad, Navratri means nine nights of partying, staying out late, and ditching school the next day. It means expensive clothing and makeup (not just for women, as metrosexuality would have it). And it means letting loose, in many different ways – which sparked the Supreme Court to issue a deadline for all loudspeakers to shut off at 10 pm, and various NGOs to promote HIV prevention by passing out condoms at the larger events and nearby hotels.

The main form of dance is garba, which, according to an article I just read, means “womb,” and is thought to have originally been a fertility dance performed only by women dancing in a circle with earthen pots on their heads (nowadays, it’s for both sexes, and you only see the pots in the villages and slums). Raas, which is performed with decorated sticks called dandiya, is popular in the U.S. but has become “out of fashion” in India – no one cares for it here, and it is rarely seen. In the U.S., we don’t dance for nine nights straight, but for a few weekends in a row; and rather than stomp around outdoors, we dance mostly in the gyms of nearby universities. I’ve always been eager to see how Navratri is done in the motherland, and this year I’ve finally gotten my chance. Every night after I went out to a garba, I came home and wrote a few lines about it – so for your reading pleasure, here’s a real-time account of my nine crazy nights!

Night 1: Went to Indrapras Towers, Rajumama’s house. The Supreme Court had just announced that it had relented and changed the 10 pm “no loudspeaker” deadline to midnight. Newspapers were abuzz with excitement, and filled with articles about “anti-Romeo police” who were to stop sexual harassment at garbas and private detectives who were hired by local parents to spy on their kids, ensuring they did not engage in taboo premarital sex. I was all decked out in Indian clothes, ready to dance. But to my surprise, hardly anyone was at the garba; it didn’t get going until 11 pm even though it closed at midnight, and everyone there was in American clothes. It was the worst garba I’ve ever seen. I learned today that everyone thinks of the first couple nights as just a warm-up for the rest of the festival, and no one’s going to waste their best clothes or dance moves on a warm-up.

Night 2: I decided to get a haircut today, as I was starting to grow fuzzy. After the barber figured out that I meant “slope” when I told him to give me a fade, he ended up doing a decent job. Not nearly as scary as the time many years ago when Neel and I got a haircut here and the guy busted out a gleaming blade at the end and said, “YOU WANT SHAVING??” This barber decided to give me a facial massage after the haircut, which seemed to be standard procedure from all I could tell. He rubbed some white goo on my face and started to slap me around. After he hit me with the heel of his hand three times on the forehead, Homer d’oh style, I couldn’t stop cracking up, and when I opened my eyes to see my grinning white reflection I felt like the Joker after his plastic surgery in the first Batman. I stopped short of smashing the mirror on the wall, thinking it uncouth. Looking very American after my cut, I decided I would go back to the Indrapras Tower garba in jeans and a polo shirt so I wouldn’t look so out of place. Of course, just to ensure I wouldn’t fit in, everyone there was now dressed in their best Indian clothes. I was even more the subject of attention because I’d brought with me Amil’s friend Cheryl, who is Chinese American. (Okay, so she was the subject of attention, but aunties kept glaring at me too, no doubt considering me delinquent for being seen in public with a non-Indian girl). We tried not to notice everyone staring as I taught her some garba steps, and even managed to have some fun before midnight announced the death of the music.

Night 3: Somehow I found myself in the company of three other NRIs (non-resident Indians; some use the term to mean “not really Indians”) from California, whom I’d met on various occasions in the past. As we grabbed dinner at Havmor QuickBite, I learned that they, too, had been disappointed by the different garbas they had attended the past two nights. One main frustration: at most garbas here, people don’t dance in big concentric circles like we do in the states. Here everyone has their own clique, and they dance in small circles doing extraordinarily elegant moves in clothes that are nicer than what we wear to weddings. It’s very intimidating, although fun to watch. However, after our dinner, at a small samaj garba in the middle of nowhere, we struck gold at last. This garba was what we all had imagined Navratri in India would be like – a live band on a field of grass, everyone dancing barefoot in huge circles, all ages of people in one massive dance where anyone could feel welcome. The mood and atmosphere were incredible, the garba moves were new and interesting (yet manageable), and no one paid any attention to the midnight deadline. This was what we’d been waiting for, and for the first night we went home very happy. Warm-ups were over, it seemed, and the festival had truly begun.

Night 4: Night of the NRIs. Tagging along with a larger group of NRIs from Indicorps, I went to the school of architecture’s garba. We expected some hip new garba scene from the college kids, and were amazed when instead we found the twilight zone. This will forever live in my memory as a sort of abstraction in the world of Navratri, a quantum improbability…the circles moved clockwise (I’d never stopped to realize before this that in every other garba I’ve ever seen, the circles have moved counterclockwise), and everyone performed the same robotic, mantra-like moves for hours, barefoot on the soothing sandy dirt. I’d never seen these moves before; there were only two, and I can only describe one as The Trance and the other as The Caveman. I wish I could describe them better for you, I really do. But throw together the twilight zone, night of the living dead and Navratri and you’ve got the idea. Even stranger: we had fun.

Night 5: Went to Kalol, to Roopamasi’s place. A large garba at a nearby fancy hotel, where they projected live video of the dancers on a giant screen so all the spectators could have a close view. Here, people were really decked out, the men even more so than the women. A couple of guys were even dancing with matching parasols! (see pic) Unfortunately, this was one of those garbas where everyone danced in their own cliques. I tried to casually join one of the groups, only to be told by one of the local guys to leave. At first I was stunned, until one of my uncles explained to me that many guys will show up to garbas alone with bad intentions. The one who asked me to leave was probably just protecting the girls in his group, just as I would do if going out with a group of friends back home. Although that guy killed my night, I thought of the newspaper article about the need for “anti-Romeo police,” and I couldn’t blame him. Of course, it seemed ironic that he wanted to throw me out when a moment later, another local guy drove in on a scooter wearing a mask from the movie Scream. Yeah, protect your women from the harmless American desi, and let that guy right in – good call.

Night 6: Scored a free pass to the National Institute of Design garba with Minal’s group. This is supposed to be one of the best garbas in Ahmedabad, and it really lived up to that reputation! An absolutely amazing night – fantastic new moves, huge circles, great music, and a diverse crowd. The locals were so friendly, they never minded when I jumped into their groups; in fact, they would do their best to teach me in spite of our language barrier, and even would call me back into their circles when we got separated! All this and some fresh steaming samosa for 12 rupees. So far, easily the best night of Navratri, and the first night I’ve danced until my feet couldn’t take it any more. I’m going to try and remember some of these moves to show you all – people here dance with incredible style and creativity, and though my body doesn’t have enough joints to match them, imitation should be enough fun for the whole family.

Night 7: Met up with Sajan auntie and Mita (Toralben wasn’t feeling well and unfortunately couldn’t come). We took the National Expressway (a very modern recently constructed highway) to Vadodara (Baroda) to see what most people claim are the best garbas in all of Gujarat. The National Expressway itself was entertaining; every few hundred yards a large blue sign with white block letters would tell drivers “Don’t Stop on Expressway,” “No U-turn on Expressway,” “Lane Driving is Safe Driving,” and even “Speed Thrills, But Kills.” Constant reminders that modern streets don’t necessarily make modern drivers. Once in Vadodara, we went to the United Way garba. This was the most incredible sight of the week – the grounds were gigantic, and there were an estimated twenty thousand people! (The largest garba I’d been to until this point carried at most a thousand.) And everyone danced in almost perfect rhythm, forming dozens of huge concentric circles…this was truly the mother of all garbas, the best I’ve ever seen. The long drive from Ahmedabad meant we got there fairly late, only in time to have a short experience, but it was worth all the trouble. It removed any doubt – Vadodara is the place to be during Navratri, and if you’re a garba enthusiast, it is something you should try to experience at least once in your life.

Night 8: On the eighth day, he rested. Sigh…I thought I could go nine nights in a row, but seriously, going to bed at 3 or 4 a.m. for several days straight really gets to you.

Night 9: Today was Dussehra, the tenth day. Wait, I’m confused…isn’t the tenth day tomorrow? Apparently, things like this happen when you try to plan festivals on the lunar calendar but live on the solar one. So, we invited a bunch of family over for the traditional Dussehra meal, fafda and jalebi (see pic). Then, my cousin Pavan took me out to the YMCA garba, which was supposed to be the hot spot for the end of Navratri. The place was packed, and man, did people go all out for the final day…more exquisite outfits than you see in movies…they had a "best-dressed" contest in the middle of the field, and I stood for a while just watching the contestants sway about, looking like exotic birds in a seasonal mating dance. The most adorable were the little kids, adorned with thousands of sequins and jingling their colorful bangles as they tried to keep up with the adults. The center of the field also had a stage, where for the first time I saw a traditional garba, women only, carrying pots on their heads. As time went by, the women started to elevate their game…what started off as one pot on the head became seven, with six brass plates between the pots, and each plate filled with lit divos, so that each woman had 90 to 100 little flames dancing above her head. With one slip, any one of them could have set fire to us all. The woman in the middle balanced an entire murti on her scalp, devoted to Mataji. The troupe retreated for some time only to come back in full force, with the center woman now balancing a large wooden platform carrying seven stacks of pots, for a grand total of 175. 175 silver pots on a woman’s head, and she was dancing garba with more grace than I could ever hope to achieve (I’m going to have enough trouble keeping the hair from falling off my head). I didn’t dance much tonight, so mesmerized was I by all the brilliant sights of this final evening – all in all, a spectacular end to the festival. And yes, don’t worry, that also means an end to this ridiculously long blog entry.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Earthquake

The magnitude 7.6 quake that recently devastated Kashmir has no doubt been the subject of worldwide news. Unfortunately, there is not much insight I can give you into the disaster that is not gleaned from the same sources of information you have. Apparently, the worst that Ahmedabad felt was a few tremors in its high-rise towers, which made some residents suffer flashbacks of the Bhuj quake of 2001…otherwise, our life has gone on much as usual. The Times of India has an interesting slant – I’ll just copy a couple of paragraphs from the newspaper here, and you can judge for yourself what it says about the current situation, both concerning the damage and the relationship between the two nations.

From October 10th article titled No response from Pak on India’s offer: “Though India was first off the mark offering help to its neighbour-rival-peace partner, there is little surprise in Delhi that the phone has not yet rung. As military rescue teams fly in from China, UK and other parts of the world to help out Pakistan in its hour of need, it will deny itself the expertise of Indian teams who boast of unparalleled experience in coping with similar crises just next door. The reason is simple: even a disaster of this magnitude will not open Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to the ministering attentions of the Indian Army, which is the only organization equipped to deal with such disasters.”

From October 11th article titled India to send relief to Islamabad: “For the first time since 1971, an IAF Il-76 aircraft will land in Pakistan on Tuesday evening with India’s first consignment of 25 tonnes of relief material…Keenly aware of Pakistan’s sensitivities, India has asked Pakistan to choose the spot where it should land. Indian officials said Pakistan is understandably jittery about allowing Indian military aircraft in PoK, which has been worst hit.”

From October 11th article titled Joint relief work ruled out: “Pakistan has ruled out joint relief operations with India in quake-hit Kashmir. ‘There is no possibility of any joint relief operations on both sides of the LoC. There is no population on the LoC,’ Pakistan foreign office spokesperson Tasleen Aslam said in Islamabad.”

The night of the earthquake, I struggled to imagine the damage it caused. Unrelatedly, I recently talked to a man who was trying to educate women in small villages about the laws that protect them from domestic violence. Somehow those two images combined to give the following poem.

“Broken”

My bedroom wall wails at me
In crumpled tones of my mummy’s voice
All the wood in the world
Would not shelter me from such sound
Sobs dying, only to be revived
Angrily
By barks from the stranger
We call daddy

Then the dull thuds
That solemn drum accented
By a cymbal crash
Plates and glass on the floor
Pieces of mummy to sweep for the dustbin
Within my room I am to stay
Until daddy creeps out the back door

Except today – a loud bang
Mummy’s bones break on my bedroom wall
And the sleeping house wakes
In a rage

Rumbles the pots off the shelf
Shakes the pictures in the hall
And I surround myself with a sheet
As the ceiling hails flakes of drywall
Windows crack and send battered light
Bouncing off my eyelids, always too thin
To block unwanted sight

A world crumbles
When at last I peek out of my cloth cocoon
To see mummy on the floor
Daddy staring through the gaping wound
Where had been my brave bedroom wall

One unshattered glass in his grip
Satisfies a last craving
But between us, not a word spoken
Our throats share the ground’s new slumber
Nay, I cannot cry, for I always knew one day
Our home
My wall
Would be broken.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Check Out My Pictures!

Finally, I've managed to upload most of my pictures to Ofoto. There are three albums, one each for Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Ahmedabad (through the end of September). To see the pics, go to www.ofoto.com, and enter email address rishiblogpics@hotmail.com, password blogpics. Right now I'm enjoying Navratri, and will write about that and post those pictures next week. Enjoy the pics, and please leave comments!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Lightly Down a Darkened Way

Love stories and tragedies never make me cry. Yet, a great sports movie can bring the sting to my eyes – why, you ask? Because they’re always about an underdog whose fierce will leads him to victory. It’s the triumph of personal achievement, of knowing, at last, that you’ve done something right, in spite of the odds.

My new favorite movie is Black. I finished watching it five minutes ago, and the sting is still behind my eyes. This is a rare achievement in a Hindi film, and it touched me very deeply. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, it’s about a young girl, Michelle, who is blind and deaf. Her world is black, until a brilliant and eccentric teacher pierces that shell and lets in the light, teaching her to communicate with the outside. He helps transform her world from a dark place of confusion and aggression into a continuous struggle for achievement, where her determination to learn gives her a unique view into the world that we all occasionally fail to see.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like I failed to see the world as it is. Every time I pass a certain street near our house, sarcastically dubbed “Hollywood” by the locals, it gets to me. It’s a slum street, where the smell of human excrement fills your rickshaw and you watch with decidedly foreign eyes as young children squat on the sidewalk, play in the dirt, labor with their frail bodies. A minute later, you’re back on the main road, and you can breathe again, though you don’t feel particularly worthy of it.

It gets to me every time I continue to work on my project in autism. I sit and read more about the disorder, which affects an estimated 1 in 500 children, and I can’t help but become slightly ashamed of what I’m doing. Here I’ve come to India to help out, to put my wealthy and educated hands to some real-world use, and I choose to tackle a problem that seems exotic compared to the overwhelming common ailments of the public. For months I read esoteric papers about autism screening, labored over project design, convinced my university to approve and fund me, and now that I'm finally here, I’m spending my time convincing others that yes, there is a problem and it’s called autism and I know you’ve never heard of it but yes we need to solve it and no you can’t cure it but something must be done…

I pass that slum street every day and realize that I could have tried to tackle a problem that affects a much larger percentage of children in India. Wouldn’t my hands be put to better use giving vaccines to these children? Helping with development in the slums? Doing something other than spending weeks looking for that needle in a haystack autistic child, whom I may never find? Did I need to read research papers for months to figure out how to help others?

I’ve continued with my work; but every time I hear of someone who's come to India to work in the slums or the poorest villages, I feel, to be honest with you, almost like a phony. Like I came to an ocean and refused to wet my feet. And then today happened. Today, one of those inspirational days that often forms the turning point of a great sports movie.

This morning I met a fantastic woman who has created an integrated school, one where special ed and “normal” kids are put in the same classrooms. Creating such a school takes smashing through tons of societal misconceptions and parental anxieties, and she’s done so in style. She beamed with the pride of a mother as she showed me the neatly filled notebooks of children who, when they first came to her, could not speak, let alone read or write. We walked into one classroom that had 4 autistic kids among the others. When I stepped in, three of the children, including one of the autistic ones, came up and hugged me, with the innocence of children who have never been told that this is not “proper” classroom behavior. For a child with autism to show warmth to a stranger is a minor miracle.

Back in her office, the principal told me that most children with autism remain unrecognized in regular schools, or are never sent to school at all. Those who are not sent to school may be the lucky ones, since those in regular schools are often punished daily for their unusual behavior. She receives these children when parents become open to “last resort” thinking. When I told her the purpose of my project was to find these kids and bring them to rehabilitation earlier, a light came to her eyes. From her, I understood that no one else is really trying to do anything about this issue. There are scattered schools, doctors, and psychologists who know how to treat autism once it is brought to their attention, but they lack the supplies or resources to do any community outreach. Even those who are aware of the disorder do not have the time to spread awareness. I promised to create and bring to her information packets for parents who wish to know more about the disorder, and for her it was like Christmas had come at last. I walked out of that school with hope…an idea that maybe my seemingly esoteric project could do some tangible good after all.

And then tonight I watched the movie Black and gained an even greater respect for teachers who have the courage and determination to bring hope to those who live in darkness. Though children with autism are not entirely like Michelle, they too live in a confusing and aggressive world, one where they cannot trust their senses. The few wonderful people here who are teachers for such children can transform those frighteningly dark worlds with their love and their knowledge. In the movie, Michelle’s greatest fear was that she would be forgotten by her teacher. In Ahmedabad, many kids, misunderstood by the society into which they’re born, face the danger of never being known.

I’ve begun to picture all of India’s troubles as one giant black mansion, and those who give themselves to service as an angry mob outside with torches and pitchforks, seeking to burn the house down. I won’t be with them, attacking at the front gates; instead I’ll be slipping in through the back. I won’t be able to set fire to the house, but I’ll be able to sneak into a forgotten basement and light a candle. Suddenly, I’m okay with that.

When I pass the slums, I will continue to hope that one day I can help those poor people, or that someone does. For now, my role will be to try and achieve the dream of Black…to have even one child come out of that dark place and learn to share in our world. To give that child a chance to show us that an underdog can triumph if he’s got fierce will at his side. If that day comes to pass, nobody blame me if my eyes sting.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Don't you try learning me nothing

I sincerely thought I was making progress learning Gujarati. I had figured out some of the differences between the past, present, and future tenses of verbs; most tellingly, our servant Shankar wasn’t laughing as much when I spoke. But today I made him crack up, as my temples throbbed trying to understand why some words are masculine and others feminine. I mean, who felt that “exercise” was a feminine thing? In the first place, one has to wonder about a culture that ascribes male or female status to objects with no obvious reproductive structures. Some sociologist somewhere, no doubt, has been endlessly tickled by the implied gender relations. Then, when you try and predict whether a particular noun will be graced with two XXs or an XY, you realize that prediction is futile – there doesn’t seem to be a pattern at all.

The trouble, as I’m rapidly discovering, lies in trying to learn a language through logic. It won’t get you very far. And to understand why, you have to think back to how the language probably developed. For an absurd yet illustrative example, I’ll use a fictitious language called Orgook. Let’s look back on the very creation of this language: a very long time ago, two cavemen, Org and Zorb, were grunting over a piece of meat. Wait, no, let’s make them vegetarian – it was a cucumber. Zorb made the mistake of trying to understand Org further than he could club him, and this took place:
Org: Zaftyquok!
Zorb: [Grunt]?
Org: Zaftyquok zammebe!
Thus, the words for “Let me eat this cucumber or I’ll kill you” were created; since the rest of the tribe had to respect and obey Org’s new grunting style, so was a new language. Now, try showing up 10,000 years later and deducing Org’s logic from a modern dialect, and you’re in for quite a spin. I imagine all languages must develop from analogous circumstances, where people for some compelling reason come to accept the random noises that other people make as symbolic. If language is truly just a communal agreement to share the spontaneous squawking of a few, it would seem logic need have little role in its creation, or therefore in its learning. My college linguistics professor would faint if she read this, but even after learning all she taught me about the complex structures of languages around the world, I feel it could be true.

So somehow someone who thought exercise had distinctly female qualities to it won out over the rest of Gujarati civilization, and his (or her) view stuck. I could try to tie this in to the previous discussion on Freud, but I’m pretty sure Org would rise from the dead and club me, and rightly so. You see, I’ve decided that language must be learnt before logic kicks in, during an age where you’re still building intuition and learning not to soil yourself. And if it’s not learnt, maybe it should be learned. I wish I had taken several different language courses back in my childhood, but all I wanted to do was watch cartoons. Can you blame me?

After all, shouldn’t kids be allowed to do as they please? (Except assign genders to other children, of course…leave that to the wordsmiths, my friend). Which brings me back to that old discussion on edumacation. You recall my friend here, Chandresh, that decided to raise his children outside the artificial boundaries of the educational system. His argument is compelling, but debatable. It got me thinking quite a bit about the relationships between curiosity, structure, and learning. It is easy to imagine ways in which the presence of formal standardized education can thwart a young child’s natural curiosity. I’m sure it’s even easy to find examples in your own past – how many teachers were very understanding of your interests when they lay outside the chosen curriculum? Curricula themselves are subject to the influences of societal biases, school board politics, teachers’ personalities, etc. What they are not generally subject to is the students’ wishes. Looking back, it’s easy to imagine that I might have learned a great many things differently (and retained much more of it) had I been encouraged to follow my own lead.

However, arguments to the contrary also present themselves. I always hated math, and would never have bothered with it had I not been forced. And yet, from the vantage point I now have, I definitely value my skills in basic arithmetic. In fact, I just finished reading a fascinating book about the mathematical patterns inherent in nature, and I even found myself glad that I had some background knowledge of differentials with which to understand it. Can a child be counted on to learn practical skills like arithmetic of his own will? Forget even practical skills – that argument makes the assumption that all children left to their own devices would spurn mathematics and become artistic hippies. I recall when I made the transition to junior high school, and was faced for the first time with choosing elective courses. My parents forced me to join the band. I went through the door kicking and screaming, but in the end I learned musical appreciation, and though I long ago dropped the clarinet, I believe those years gave me the building blocks which later allowed me to teach myself the guitar. (As a side note, it’s been kind of disconcerting to learn during my guitar lessons here that I’m a much worse guitar player than I’d previously thought. Self-teaching can take you far, but can’t always take you where you want to go). Only now do I appreciate the wisdom behind some of the structures that were imposed on me at that time.

But when I really think about it, the main things I remember learning from my years in the primary education system did not come from the chalkboard or the textbook. They came from being around dozens of other students in the same predicament, learning how to handle interpersonal relationships, learning how to operate within the structures that society has built. And so I wonder about my friend’s children – will they come out with the same implicit knowledge? I tend to agree with the spirit of encouraging a child’s natural curiosity; but unless one wants to decide for one’s children whether or not they will fit into society’s structures, shouldn’t they be taught how to live within them before being taught to rebel against them? I haven’t thought these things through fully, and I welcome your ideas on the matter.

To get another opinion on this, I asked Kiran, the founder of the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, for her thoughts. She’s a design graduate who spent a few years doing interior decorations for restaurants (including the Mexican festival one) until her daughter reached a school-going age. When Kiran found that no school met her idea of what education should be like for her daughter, she decided to build her own school. Like my friend Chandresh, she is a very dynamic person with a lot of inner creativity. Her school is quite unique in Ahmedabad; her first priority is to show the children that they have opinions, that their opinions matter, and that they need to demonstrate initiative if they wish to shape what they learn. She had the children draw up posters of a child’s basic rights and hang them up around the school (see pic). Whenever a child has an idea for something new to learn, she and the other teachers challenge the child to come up with a lesson that the whole class can share in.

For example, her fifth-graders recently decided they wanted to know more about Ahmedabad’s most popular radio station, Radio Mirchi. Kiran told them they should interview the radio station’s head of operations, but that if they chose this line of inquiry, they would have to handle the details from beginning to end. So the children sent an invitation to the radio manager, auditioned to determine who was going to interview him, decorated a classroom to look like a talk show, and voted on what questions they would ask him. The final product was incredibly professional, and as I watched the kids interview the manager, it was clear that he was as impressed as I was. The children are going to continue to interview people as a monthly series they’ve named “Coffee at Riverside.” This is the first school I’ve seen where the kids complain when they have to go home.

Back to my original line of thought – I asked Kiran how much structure children really need in order to learn effectively. She said that while children definitely need to learn structure, the important thing is what kind of structure – one that they have chosen or one that has been imposed upon them. She was somewhat critical of those who would deny formal education altogether, since in her view they are denying their children the opportunity to learn in a space that is initially unfamiliar. By going to school, children learn to face the unfamiliar and deal with it in a way they may not need to in the safe space of their home. She was equally critical of those who impose unnecessary structures upon children, giving as examples several instances in which parents she knows have answered questions for their children without letting the children speak their own minds. So in some sense her solution is a compromise – keep some structure, but change the way it is used, and be open to the idea of new structures born from the ideas of children.

I’ve struggled to try and remember how I used to want to learn, how my teachers in elementary school used to handle my crazy imagination, but I simply can’t. That’s part of the danger, some say – you get to a point where you’re so accustomed to structure you may not even remember what it’s like to have that crazy imagination, to follow those creative impulses. Many of society’s greatest innovators have, at a certain point in their development, rejected the standardization of their intellectual journeys. But the very reason we have such structures is that not everyone can thrive like that when left to themselves, isn’t it? Or is that selling people short?

Writing the word “short” has made me realize that this entry has become far too long. It started out just as my way of ranting about my inability to learn Gujarati quickly (which, I’ll admit in the end, is my own fault and probably has nothing to do with the way languages are created). Other interesting things have happened recently (I saw an Italian woman dance a bharatnatyam set to an Italian lullaby), but I’ll pass on writing more until next week. (What the heck, I’ll post the pic of the bharatnatyam arrabiata lady). Go take a break from your computer, and do something you used to do as a child! Except soil yourself, of course.