Monday, September 14, 2009

FAMILY TIES Borrowing ideas from Gandhi — for renewal and reconciliation

Originally Published in the Centre Daily Times, January 31, 2009

Mahatma Gandhi is honored all over the world as a champion of truth and nonviolence, teachings that still have value today, when both fresh violence and economic crisis have gripped the world.

As the world this week marks the 61st anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, the United States finds itself at the end of a momentous journey — from the birth of the nation in 1776 to the end of slavery, the civil rights movement and the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Arun Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who gave the keynote talk at Penn State’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Jan. 21, said he considers this historic inauguration a testament to the power of nonviolence to create change in the relatively short span of 60 years.

Many who were involved in this journey, figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, were directly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi’s writings showed King that the power of love could be effective not just in individual relationships but also for creating political change. With his Christian ideals as background, and the Mahatma’s techniques, King became a powerful proponent of nonviolence.

Gandhi espoused a life of simplicity and integrity and valued the use of honest means to achieve any result.

Can Gandhi’s ideals of love, sacrifice, truth and nonviolence work for the United States and the rest of the world today? Gandhi’s grandson thinks so.

Arun, who was born and raised in South Africa, hated his childhood under apartheid, where he was beaten up by blacks and whites for being the wrong color. When he began to consider fighting back as an option, his parents sent 12-year-old Arun to live with his grandfather in India to learn about nonviolence.

The lessons below, which Arun learned from his grandfather, may provide some fresh guidance as Americans deal with the economic crisis and wars abroad and reflect on President Obama’s first proclamation: Declaring Jan. 20 a “National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation” and calling upon all to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this nation.

Understanding nonviolence
Nonviolence is an active philosophy, based on positive feelings such as respect, understanding, compassion and acceptance, Arun said. Violence is based on negative feelings such as hate, greed, jealousy and anger.
Nonviolence requires courage to stand up against injustice and accept the consequences.

Anger-Violence Connection
Arun recalls his grandfather asking him to create a genealogy tree, with violence at the head, and two branches — Active violence (killing, beating, pushing) and Passive violence (hating, name calling, stereotyping, wasting resources).
Recording his acts of violence daily on this tree made Arun realize how much passive violence he committed each day. His grandfather explained that the objects of his passive violence could resort to active violence and perpetuate a vicious cycle. He showed Arun how he could break the cycle of violence by being aware of and stopping his own acts of passive violence.

Nonviolent parenting
Arun offered an example from his youth. At 16, he had to drive his father 18 miles to Durbin for a conference and had to pick him up at 5 p.m. for the drive back home.
Arun was late because he went to see a movie. And then he got caught lying to his father about it.
His father did not shout at him. Instead, he told Arun, “There must be something wrong with the way I raised you that you did not have the confidence to tell me the truth.”
His father decided to do penance by walking the 18 miles home to figure out where he went wrong. Arun was miserable and chose to follow his father in his car as night fell. He also resolved to never lie again.
“What if I had been punished?” he asks. “I would perhaps have lied again but made sure that I did not get caught.” He believes that his father taught him a more powerful lesson with love than if punishment had been used.

Arun Gandhi’s tips for daily life
•“Keep a diary — understand your own acts of violence, including hating, putting down, stereotyping others and wasting resources.”
•“Be your own role model — imagine you are climbing a ladder, each day do a little better than yesterday.”
•“Put aside some money daily, even as little as a quarter. After a year, figure out a way to impact someone else’s life with it.”
•“Teach children at all schools to identify their anger, understand their capacity to commit active and passive violence and to break the cycle of violence.”
•“Shed labels — based on gender, religion and even on country — as patriotism too is a narrow idea and can sometimes be a cause of violence.”
•“We can think of the world as a global village, but we need to consider social and cultural globalization in all our global interactions in the global economy.”
Current work

Be the change you wish to see in this world
Arun and his late wife, Sunanda Gandhi, founded the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence to promote the principles of nonviolence. In January 2008, he resigned from the institute after a negative reaction to a piece he penned for the Washington Post. Today, Gandhi is invited to talk about nonviolence around the world and works to help children out of poverty via education through his institution, The Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute. ( Arun has authored several books, including his grandmother’s biography, “The Forgotten Woman: The Untold Story of Kastur Gandhi, Wife of Mahatma Gandhi.”

Gifts that only leave a Memory behind

Originally Published in Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 19, 2007

I have always been ambivalent about shopping.

And the season of “Holiday shopping” usually brings this ambivalence to the forefront.

I grew up in a middle class family in India, with parents who shopped only for things that were needed. And so, as a child, I perceived shopping as nothing more than a necessary adult chore to assist daily living.

My parents, who lived in Mumbai (Bombay), shopped for most of their non perishable groceries once a month.

“2 kilos of rice, 3 bars of soap…,” they would tell the store owner in person, or by phone, and someone would deliver the packages home, wrapped in newspaper.

On other sporadic shopping trips for incidentals, a person behind the counter would get the items my parents wanted and put them into their tote bag. My parents would pay cash, and move on to their next errand.

They did not have much opportunity for browsing or for impulse buying of unnecessary items.
Milk was delivered daily, and vegetables were bought once in two days at the nearby vegetable market.

Shopping for clothes was also based on need. My sister and I got new school uniforms every year, new clothes on birthdays and on some religious holidays, and before our long summer visit to our grandparents’ homes.

My parents bought clothes for themselves occasionally - sometimes on special holidays, but mostly to replace old, worn out clothes.

As we got older, my sister and I were sent on shopping errands – something that we initially enjoyed, reveling in our “semi-adult” status, but then got weary of, and tried to escape from.

Armed with this general apathy towards shopping, I arrived in the United States, twenty years ago, as a graduate student. Since I was here by myself, I could not delegate the chore of shopping to anyone else, and learnt to shop even for necessities in a completely different way.

Initially, shopping was an intriguing new cultural experience.

Even a trip to the grocery store required new skills of negotiating multiple brands for the simplest of items like toothpaste, checking unit prices, understanding the rhythm of sales, and searching for customer assistance.

And since I could now browse amongst the aisles, I sometimes bought things that I did not really need.

Thankfully, my busy graduate student schedule, my small income and my aptitude for a simple life, kept me from buying too many clothes or accessories. My downfall came when I found books at bargain prices, which I often bought, with the hope of finding time to read in some distant future.

While in graduate school, I met and married my husband, who also shared my love of leading a simple life, my love of books and my indifference to shopping.

Over the years, we put down roots in the US, and formed new friendships and relationships.

As our ties with people here became stronger, we began to give and receive gifts during the Holiday Season. And when our daughter was born nine years ago, we also began to experience the giving and receiving of gifts at birthday celebrations.

Gradually, the two suitcases that my husband and I had each arrived with, multiplied many times over. And about five years ago, the clutter of possessions in our home began to bother us, as we realized how much we had strayed from our ideal of the “simple” life.

During my Christmas shopping expedition that year, I had an intense reaction at the mall, as I watched people going around shopping for gifts, laden with bags, and buying even more things.
I could not shop anymore, and walked out without buying anything on my gift list. I simply could not bring myself to add clutter to other people’s homes.

My husband and I talked a lot that night about the practice of giving “things,” to symbolize love. We agreed that receiving gifts felt good, but only because they expressed that “we mattered” to someone. And giving gifts felt good, when the gift was something that the other person needed, or enjoyed.

But, what could we give people, who could buy everything they needed and wanted? What could we give, instead of objects - to show them that they mattered to us?

We reached back into our childhood for other ways of showing love, and remembered our mothers making snacks, to give to friends and family during the holidays.

We remembered our six month stay in Tokyo, where gifting food was common, and the stores were filled with elegantly packaged food items.

We adapted these two memories to create a new tradition in our family.

We decided against burdening our friends with snacks and packaged foods, which are sometimes unhealthy.

We opted instead to gift a healthy, homemade food that our friends liked, but did not make themselves. Since my husband and I are both vegetarians of Indian origin, we settled on two favorites - Vegetarian Chili and Channa Masala (a spicy chickpeas and tomato stew) – to give as gifts.

We spent a weekend, making both dishes and delivering them to a few neighbors and friends. They loved the food, and we got several requests for recipes.

We have continued this tradition ever since, adding more dishes to our gift list. We still buy gift cards or books for adults whose culinary preferences we are yet to learn. But we hope that as we get to know them better, we could make more gifts of food, as a labor of love to lessen their burden of cooking on a busy night.

Our nine year old daughter, in particular, has come to love this tradition of making and delivering food, and it has become part of her expectation of the Holiday season. This year, she has suggested that we add her new favorite food, Saag Paneer (a spicy, spinach and cheese dish), to the list of gifts.

We hope that our friends continue to enjoy our annual offering of thanks - of smells, colors, tastes and cultural experiences from faraway lands - from our home to theirs in Central Pennsylvania.

An annual offering that hopefully brings them some joy, while leaving no trace behind, other than that of a cherished memory.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pongal, another chance for renewal

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, January 15, 2009

This New Year is already beginning to feel a little old, as the days go by very quickly. Our family was lucky to have another opportunity for renewal yesterday, another chance to start afresh, as we celebrated the festival of Pongal, or Makara Sankranthi, which falls every year on January 14th.

This day marks the Sun’s transition from one sign in the zodiac (Sagittarius) to another (Capricorn), and is celebrated widely, all over India. It is also referred to as Uttarayana, or the northern movement of the Sun, and is a joyous occasion, reflecting the gradual movement in the northern hemisphere towards longer days, and eventually summer.

Houses are cleaned, the old is discarded, and schools are closed in preparation for and celebration of the festival. The central role of the sun in all our lives is celebrated, as also the role of animals and birds, and nature. And people consider this a good day to start new ventures in their personal and professional lives.
All of these celebrations are of course accompanied by a whole lot of delicious and special food.

At our home in State College, we celebrated Pongal without the holiday that accompanies the festival in India, and tried to pull it off on a weekday, as best as we could. My husband and I shared stories of our childhood experiences with our daughter, managing to transfer a little bit of family traditions, some history, some memories, and some experiences to look forward to again next year, in the context of our life here.

After all, isn’t that what life is all about? The creation of some special memories, which we hope to recreate year after year – of using the day to get in touch with family, to make a special meal, to offer prayers, to capture the sense of continuity and renewal, all in one single day.

Now, if we could only manage to keep all the wonderful energy of today intact, and find the sense of renewal and continuity, day after day.

A violent beginning to 2009

Originally posted on the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, January 8, 2009

I do not find myself very enthusiastic about 2009 – mainly because of all the violence in the world during December2008 and now in January 2009.

If we are still solving our problems in the 21st century, with wars - which are akin to fist fights - is there much hope left for the human race?

When the terrorists attacked Mumbai, there were fears of a war between India and Pakistan. If that war had taken place, and it still might, would it be justified? Even if it were justified, would it be worth it? If there are other options, other than war, can countries pursue them, and be considered winners in the eyes of the world?

Brute force is easy to use, if we possess the ability to amass weapons. Right now, we are getting rationales for the war in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Many innocent people have lost their lives in this war, pitched as a battle between the state of Israel and Hamas. Is this loss of life justified? Perhaps to some.. Was this loss of life avoidable? I think the answer for me is a resounding Yes.

Today’s Washington Post carried an editorial by former President Jimmy Carter. It was entitled “An Unecessary War.”

I loved the title of the piece, a ray of hope for me in 2009. Even before we decide which side is in the right or the wrong, if we are able to use the adjective “unnecessary,” with the noun “war,” then we will be forced, and find ourselves able, to find creative solutions to our problems, without resorting to war.

Consider this example. When it was considered ok for parents to hit their children, then disciplining consisted of spanking. When that option was taken off the table, parents found new ways of disciplining, which did not involve corporal punishment.
And the world continued to move forward..

Similarly, there must be new ways of engagement between nations. Even when our sovereign territories are infringed upon, are there new ways of interacting with others that preclude violence?

To me, wars are not acceptable in the 21st century – humanity has come a long way, our destinies intertwined, and our abilities to negotiate enhanced.Right now, much of the international community is calling for the war to stop. I hope we will have a cease fire immediately, and am hopeful that we can sort out any problems with dialogue.

This month, many of us will be engaged in honoring Martin Luther King, the US champion of Non Violent Resistance, an idea he got from India’s Mahatma Gandhi, whom he admired very much. As we take part in our local events, I hope we can muse on this question - can we honor his legacy, if we do not protest violence around the world, whether they are caused by terrorists, or by the wars conducted by countries?

Comments: Interesting perspective
Submitted by checkmate on Thu, 2009-01-08 16:26.

It's too bad we can't all live the Golden Rule but for some unexplained reason humanity is not capable of this feat.
When the recent peace accord expired, one side lobbed rockets while the other side did nothing. After several days, one side issued a warning--stop the rockets or else. Pretty simple humanitarian request I think. The rocket launching side answered the request by lobbing more rockets. What outcome did the rocket-launching side expect? Peace? Roundtable discussions while their woman and children headed for cover when the incoming ordinance soared over head?
If the rocket launchers would have simply honored the Golden Rule they wouldn't be running from tanks and grenade launchers today. I realize that is a simple approach but it is the truth.
And yesterday, peaceful, loving allies of the rocket-launching side standing on American soil suggested that the peace keepers be ushered into ovens SCHNELL! SCHNELL! SCHNELL!
What is mankind to do in a situation like that? By the way, I try to live the Golden Rule every day and I hope you do too.

What did Harish Iyer do, when the Terrorists attacked Mumbai?

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, Dec 9, 2009

Harish Iyer, 29, is an ordinary citizen of Mumbai.

When the terrorists attacked Mumbai on November 26 , Harish felt particularly helpless. He is quoted in a piece in Khaleej Times as saying, "I was near the Taj Mahal hotel when the blasts went off. I couldn't do a thing as the whole place had been cordoned off. My friends, from all over the world, were calling me, asking me to find out if their relatives were safe. I had to something - so I came back home and set up”

He posted his mobile number on this blog,, and offered his services to anyone all over the world, looking for a friend or relative, but who were unable to get to Mumbai.

And the calls came in – he helped however he could - by finding any information he could by calls to hotels, hospitals, cell phones, and even physically going to the hospitals to get more information. He then called back with the information he had found or posted it on his blog.

Harish who has since been profiled on CNN and in many newspaper articles stands out for innovatively using the web to connect us at a time of divisiveness.

Reading Harish’s blog, especially the early entries, had me reeling as I identified with that well known feeling of worrying for the safety of a loved one; I could sense the anxiety of those who were calling in or writing to him, frantic for some way of getting news of their loved ones.

Harish responded to this primal need and offered himself, and his physical proximity to the scene of the terror, to help. He found out information, visited hospitals, and then called all these strangers back with any news that he was able to find.
And sometimes, strangers called him back, to tell him not to check anymore - they had already found out that their friend had died, or that their father had survived.

Harish had become part of their family, and they a part of his.

He reached out to help, and thus become a beacon of hope, amongst all that senseless terror.

Even in the bleakest of times, this one human being had changed the little world around him. He had recognized our common humanity, and had identified with those who were frantic in their sorrow.

And that does offer us some hope for the future.

Comments: Harish Iyer(Aham) here
Submitted by aham on Wed, 2008-12-10 02:41.
Thanks for the appreciation. Cannot deny that any kind of positive energy, helps me go on.
When you rub onto so much of people's sorrows, some rubs onto you as well. Thats when an appreciation brings a smile on your face and helps you in your endeavour.
Harish Iyer

Listening - the StoryCorps Gift Idea

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, November 18, 2008

I was intrigued when I heard the concept of the National Day of Listening, on NPR.

Thanks to Google, I soon found out about StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization, that has declared November 28, 2008 the first annual National Day of Listening.

StoryCorps was founded to help Americans record their stories, thereby preserving Ourstories - not just the histories of our leaders, but the history of common people. StoryCorps booths have been set up in different geographical locations.

They are also being used to capture the specific history of groups dispersed across the country – some examples of these are of people affected by 9/11, African Americans and even those who are losing their memory to diseases like Alzheimer’s.

As I read about StoryCorps, I thought of their slogan of “Listening is the greatest gift.” Of course, each of us has a story. And that story can be discovered only when someone else takes the time to both ask questions and to listen.

To the grandparent that lived through a recession, or a war, and the one that did not do either. To the parent that had a fairy tale childhood and the one that did not. To the aunt that broke barriers and the one that did not. To the uncle that was scarred by the death of a sibling, and the one that did not live up to his potential.

Each one of us has a story, a story of being defined by the details of the particular cards that are dealt to us. And our lives are but a collection of the memories that make up our story, as we respond to these specific cards.

Our memories can also create and affect the history of the others that wander into our lives, and into whose lives we wander. They can empower them or affect them negatively – but they certainly can teach them about the lessons of possibilities, about forks in the road, about choices made, and journeys undertaken.

More importantly, though, listening to each other’s stories creates bonds, and we are no longer strangers. Both participants gain value to their lives by the act of speaking and listening with empathy. And bit by bit, like “The Little Prince,” we may begin to care, and may even understand - both the meaning of their lives and that of ours.

This National Day of Listening is a good thing. I do not plan to rent the StoryCorps kit, but I certainly like the idea of practicing more listening in my life. More active listening to my daughter and the rest of my family, my friends and my acquaintances – that would be the first step. We all seem to run around in our own little worlds, and I know that even if I have the inclination, making the time for it would be a very hard challenge.

But I plan to try, and once I do more of this, perhaps actively “listening” to strangers would also come more naturally to me – and the precarious world we live in today could certainly use more of the empathy that would come with such interactions.

Calling on Mr. or Ms. Smith to go to Washington

Originally posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, Sept 30, 2008

I do not fully understand the financial mess our country seems to find itself in.

As a layperson, who is slowly gathering information, I am beginning to understand that both Democrats and Republicans share some blame for getting us here.

And that both the Executive branch including President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson, and the Legislative branch including the House and the Senate bear some responsibility for getting us into this mess.

Some of those who appear to have had a hand in getting us into a corner, are now calling for drastic action, in the form of a $700 Billion Bailout. And are surprised at not getting our enthusiastic support.

My own feelings about this situation are complex – there is surely anger and frustration at this mismanagement of our economy, but I am also saddened because I do not know which politician, from either party, to trust on this matter.

I feel cynical, and don't expect any of them to tell us exactly what is going on, or to own up to any mistakes, let alone to investigate several options of benefit to the taxpayers.

I keep wishing for a “Mr. or Ms. Smith” amongst our Washington politicians - a real leader, modeled after the Mr. Smith played by Jimmy Stewart, in "Mr. Smith goes to Washington." Preferably, a very Independent Smith, who would not worry about the identity politics of being a Democrat or a Republican.

An Independent Smith, who would simply be American first, would not care about party loyalty or election year party politics, and actually put the interests of American citizens ahead of the interests of other special interests.

But can there be an Independent Smith in Washington, without Independent voters all across the country?

Let us get rid of our partisanship first - not think of ourselves as being either Democrats or Republicans, and find our common thread of being only American. And with that strength, we can surely hold our politicians accountable to all of us Americans.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Summer Connections

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, Sept 4, 2008

I have been away from State College for a little more than five weeks now.

My family and I travelled long distances physically and emotionally as we made our way to India, where we spent a few weeks. My husband and I met family, and also got some work done – our ten year old daughter however, was determined to exclusively make it a family oriented vacation.

She played with first and second cousins, and any other children she befriended in India. And I watched fascinated, as the kids made their connections with each other.

My daughter spoke Malayalam or English, and sometimes a little Tamil, with most of the children she met – they could be seen running around, reading, working on art projects, watching movies, playing computer games or engaged in pretend play.

And even when she met children with whom she did not share a common language, they resorted to universal games like catch or hide and seek, and had a delightful time.

Often, I heard them trading stories about their school experiences. They exchanged email addresses to keep in touch, and I am soon expecting emails to be flying across the oceans.

Then came our stay in the United Kingdom. At the international conference my husband was attending, attendees came from forty different countries, and my daughter met a few children of other attendees. Some spoke no English, or were shy to use it. And yet, during our days at the conference, the kids found ways to interact with each other.

My daughter made friends with a 12 year old from Korea, who initiated contact by asking for my daughter’s signature in an autograph book she was creating.

My daughter learnt how to ask her yes/no questions, and forged a working relationship with her. Then there was the 8 year old from Portugal, who used his camera to capture everything around him, and who promised to keep in touch by email.

And a ten year old from Japan who made origami creations for my daughter, who reciprocated by drawing pictures for her.

All these children were able to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers to find a way to connect. They used the common language of childhood, sometimes playing, building, and even simply smiling – managing to form bonds, in spite of being raised on different continents.

I wonder how their relationships will evolve, and whether they will manage to stay in touch.

All of us adults, who got to watch these children connect, shared a common language too - as we watched the children indulgently, and laughed at how easily they got along, and how similar they were in what they wanted to do with their time together. Children will be children, our laughter and smiles seemed to indicate… they are the same everywhere.

I wonder if the adults grasped how similar we were to each other, and how we too could easily find myriad ways to connect. As long as we are willing to acknowledge and understand the language of our common humanity.

A wonderful movie for all ages

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, July 7, 2008

I took my daughter and her friend to see the new movie, "Kit Kittredge: an American Girl," on opening day – which was Wednesday of last week.

As I was entering the theatre, two adults and a child exited from the previous show, and the woman took the time to whisper to me that it was a FABULOUS movie.

The three of us settled down in the theatre for the movie, the sole audience for that showing.

And loved every minute of it.

All of us were familiar with the “Kit books,” and the story of Kit Kittredge, a spunky girl who wants to be a reporter, and whose family’s life unravels during the hardships of the depression. The Kittredges find the inner strength to creatively meet their challenges through ingenuity, sacrifice, hard work and love.

Kit’s life changes, as her father moves in search of work, and as she is forced to devote most of her spare time to chores and helping out her family to survive from day to day. The movie also explores class bias – the negative attitudes against hobos and against kids at school, who are going through hard times are particularly revealing.

This well made movie (Rated G) by Canadian director Patricia Rozema is a gentle sensory experience of what was, several years ago.

And a reminder of the timeless values of honor, hard work, compassion, familial and community love. It showcases the dignity of living within one’s means, and of fulfilling our responsibilities, and of not giving up on our dreams.

As I left the theatre, my only wish was for more people - boys, girls and adults - to see this movie, which is so relevant in today’s world - as we read about and experience rising prices, an uncertain economic future, foreclosures and layoffs.

So if you are looking for a movie to watch, with or without your kids, in the next couple of weeks - Kit Kittredge, portrayed by the talented Abigail Breslin, may be a worthwhile choice – you may find it a couple of hours well spent.

Enjoying the Summer Break from School?

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, July 7, 2008

It has been more than two weeks since local schools were let off for summer vacations.

The joy evident on most faces, as the kids rushed out on their last day, at my daughter’s elementary school, had a primal quality to it. A joy of rushing into a world of imagined possibilities, a world without the predictable rhythm of school.

I did see a few tears, and also heard a fifth grader tell another that vacations were nothing to cheer about, because there were still seven more years of this thing to go through!

But mostly I saw a unifying atmosphere of happiness, of being let out into something more wonderful than what they were going through.

Fast forward to more than two weeks later, and the pictures vary from family to family.

Some kids are in structured programs, others are not. Some are looking for things to do, while others occupy themselves in different ways. Some are out of town, and others have family and friends visiting.

Some are already bored with their summer break, and others want it to stretch forever…

At my home, the highlights of my ten year old daughter’s summer break so far have been a two day camp she went to, summer band and orchestra, and the house guests we have had – friends and family who have come to stay in the last several days.

She is also looking forward to some future trips, play dates, going to the pool and so on.

She is still cherishing every day of summer break, but I know that there will be the inevitable occasional letdowns of boredom, and the disappointments when real life does not match up with the expectations that summer vacations held when school let out.

Perhaps that is a hidden value of summer vacations – they teach and remind both kids and parents that even much anticipated change is not all good or bad. That everything, even something as “wonderful” as a break from school has its pluses and minuses. And that very often, the changes we seek could end up bringing us a mixed bag of results.

And it is possible that by September, we may get to hear a primal cheer, though perhaps slightly muted, for another new beginning – of all the imagined possibilities of a new school year.

Calls to quit are not part of American or Global values

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, May 20, 2008

Last week, I was at my fourth grade daughter’s first intramural track meet.

As the children competed in running, relay, long jump, and wheelbarrow races, the audience of moms, dads, sisters, brothers, grandparents and teachers wildly cheered them on.

We cheered the winners, those in between, and those who came in last.

Our cheers hopefully taught them to stay in their races and do their best, and to never quit on themselves, no matter what race they were in, and no matter how good or bad they were at it.

We hope that they will remember this lesson, in other projects they are involved with, in future years, and well into their adult lives.

If any of them run for political office, in the future, I hope the lessons from their track meet would tell them to stay in the race and never give up on themselves.

And if any of us are watching those political races, I hope that we would emulate the cheering hordes at these elementary intramurals and encourage those now grown up kids to do their very best.

And cheer them on for staying in and fighting the good fight, and for not giving up.

I think we can be assured of this future scenario, because most Americans feel this way even today.

A Gallup Poll released on May 6, 2008 indicates that 60% of Democrats think that both candidates for their party’s nomination should stay in the race, and that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama should quit the race midway.

And a Pew Research Poll found that 73% of Americans do not want the media to be declaring Barack Obama the winner of the race for the Democratic nomination, at this stage in the race.

Looks like we Americans like to have our contestants compete all the way through, and to declare the winner only at the end of the race.

We Americans are also not in favor of anyone calling on someone to give up.

Perhaps, we as a nation - voters, politicians, pundits and journalists are all at our best, when we emulate the cheering parents in the elementary intramural track stands.

Parents who cheer on everyone’s best efforts, and remind their kids that enjoying their day in the sun, learning to run with the wind in their face, and doing their very best is far more important than winning.

That staying in their respective races and giving it their best is the honorable way all over the world, compared to quitting or giving up.

And the cheering parents also teach us that no spectator should ever do the dishonorable thing of asking anyone to quit a race.

Comments : Finishing the race
Submitted by Eye on Eisenhow... on Tue, 2008-05-20 10:59.
What an apt and intelligent perspective.
Thanks for sharing.

A Perfect Mother's Day Gift?

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, May 9, 2008

President Woodrow Wilson officially designated the second Sunday in May as a national observance of Mother's Day, in 1914.

And since then, we have found myriad ways to commemorate it - with flowers, gifts, calls, visits, cards, and special gestures, including taking Mom out to dinner. The National Restaurant Association says that Mother’s Day is the second most popular day to dine out, with about 38% of adults heading to a restaurant (the most popular reason is for a birthday celebration)

My daughter looks forward to eating out when we travel, or when we are busy, or when we go out for some other reason. Unlike me, she would probably like to go out for dinner on Mother’s Day.

But I grew up in India, where my family typically did not eat out, unless they had to. And as an adult, I find that I enjoy eating out sometimes, but usually prefer home cooked meals.

For me, there is something special about food cooked by those who know you, made specifically with you in mind. As when made by people (parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, friends) who know your individual tastes and preferences. As a friend of mine said, “It is made with love for you, and that is hard to find elsewhere.”

Perhaps that is why, when I go back to India to visit my parents and other family, I find myself wanting to only eat at home. I enjoy our family time together, both while creating, and partaking of the food.

Taking my mother out to dinner for any celebration would not work, because she considers food prepared at home supreme to all others.

When I call her to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day, she thanks me graciously, but I know that she believes that a mother is to be valued every single day – that every day should be Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day and Grandparents’ Day and Children’s Day and so on).

And she does not care much for things, so gifts of things are ruled out.
What she does care for are relationships, embodied in connections and time spent together.

So a phone call would be a good gift. And perhaps there can be a gift in the content of the conversation.

Perhaps I could share with her that I do finally “get” some of what she said and did when I was growing up.

I can tell her that I am grateful for her persistence at the daily routines of mothering, for always showing up and being there for me.

That I now realize the extent of the hard work she put into sustaining the daily rhythms of our lives.

That I value the nuggets of wisdom she imparted daily, in the midst of ordinary routines, wisdom gleaned from scriptures, stories, common sense and her own experiences.

I can tell her that these nuggets are the founding steps of my evolving philosophy of life.

I can also tell her that she was right, when she told me that I would eventually understand her words and actions, when I have a child of my own. Because I have begun to understand.

As I think of the possible content of my phone call on Mother's Day, I remember the words of a friend’s adult daughter.

She shared with me that she truly valued her parents now. “But don’t tell them, yet,” she whispered with a mischievous smile.

I hope, though, that she has already told them, on some very special day, or better yet, on an ordinary one.

I know her parents would cherish this knowledge of their value to her.

The knowledge that the phase of “rolling her eyes” has changed into an appreciation of them, and of all the rhythms they created, day in and day out, as they wove the matrix of her life and her memories.

Now that I am a mother, I know that if this was the conversation at any mother’s day dinner, it would certainly constitute the perfect gift.

Women's History or Our History?

Originally Posted in the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, March 25, 2008

It is March again, and time for another Women’s History Month.

This whole month, schools, colleges, and organizations plan special events to celebrate our focus on women’s realities.

My daughter, who is in fourth grade, has been designing postage stamps along with her classmates, that celebrate women’s achievements. She finally settled on a “Women Save the Earth” theme, focusing on Rachel Carson’s pioneering Silent Spring,that first elaborated how the chemicals we put out into the world seep into our environment. Her classmates focused on many other achievements by women in space, and other frontiers.

Celebrating these pioneers of the past is important for fostering our leaders of the future. It is also important to celebrate ordinary women, who are creating small improvements in the present time, by following their dreams and performing their duties, changing our collective landscape, one step at a time.

On the first day of spring break, my daughter and her friend got to meet one such present day ordinary woman - as they climbed aboard an FA-18 Navy Fighter plane at University Park Airport. They got to ask a lot of questions of the female pilot, one of the two people in the two seater plane, and learn about her job - of both piloting the plane, and dropping the missiles.

The peace-loving part of me was happy that my daughter did not like the “missile dropping part,” but loved the “piloting part” of the job. And I could sense the enormous impact that interacting with this woman had on the two nine year old girls - it expanded the possibilities of women’s roles in their eyes. And I know she would have had the same enormous impact on nine year old boys too.

I thought of that pilot yesterday, as I heard that the US death toll in Iraq has reached 4000. Of these, 95 were women, 2% of the total death toll, which is small compared to the 50:50 male female ratio in the real world, but is the largest death toll of women in any war since WWII.

These deaths of female soldiers are a part of Women’s history, and Men’s history, as much as the deaths of male soldiers are a part of both histories. For each of these soldiers has a family of men and women, whose lives and realities are unalterably changed by the deaths of their loved ones.

Ultimately, celebrating the history of women in March is a useful exercise, if we remember this history is just a vital subset of our collective history – and that if we focus on it throughout the year, we will not need to set aside a special month to celebrate and reflect on it.

How Unbiased are our Judgements?

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, Feb 27, 2008

The first two months of 2008 have brought us reports about the divisive riots in Kenya, the sectarian rivalries in Iraq, the tensions in Serbia and Kosovo, and the divisiveness of our own election primaries.

As a writer who focuses on the common threads that link us all, it has been depressing to try and figure out why the links between people break down, and why nations fracture along religious, ethnic and tribal lines, and even along gender, age, race, and class lines.

How do we lose the common bonds we share as human beings? When do certain aspects of our identity, be it religion, gender, ethnicity, political ideology become more important than our common humanity? When do our differences begin to matter more than our commonalities?

I don’t know the answers, but know that we lose a lot when we begin to divide up into groups.

I have often seen little kids, separating out into groups of “boys” and “girls” at elementary school. And now, a friend who lives in a major metropolitan area tells me that in the very diverse elementary school her child attends, there are many kids from different racial and ethnic groups, and kids in elementary school play at recess in groups formed along racial and ethnic lines.

Are these groups inevitable, I wonder?

I turn to Blink, the wonderful book by Malcolm Gladwell, in an attempt to understand how we are arriving at these groups - how do we judge who to hang out with? Is it similar to how we judge on who to vote for? Who to hire for a job?

Gladwell uses scientific research to demonstrate how we make “judgments” in the first two seconds of any interaction, via an “unconscious” mechanism. Many a time, these snap judgments, which we may call our instinctive reactions, may be right on the dot.

But they are not always infallible. Many of our prejudices and dislikes towards others can stem from these snap judgments. So that we can pronounce that someone looks a leader, or that someone looks like a terrorist, just on the basis of a snap judgment.

In the last chapter of his book, Gladwell writes about how the number of women in orchestras in the US went up by five times, once the rules for auditions were changed three decades ago, to have musicians auditioning from behind a screen. Once the screen hid the gender of the musician from the selection committee, more women were hired, thus proving the previous existence of bias on the basis of gender.

Perhaps a similar process to select our presidential candidates will help – analyze their records, without giving them any face time with us – in order to make sure we simply vote for the most competent person. Would such “screens” have given us presidential candidates who are more diverse – including more women and more people from all races? And filtered out irrelevant parameters like gender, race, age, religion and so forth?

The data from the classical music world showed us that women were being excluded when no screens were used. And it is not a stretch to say that this has happened, and is happening in other areas too.

After all, women were the last group to get the right to vote, are playing catch up in getting to positions of power, including the presidency, and are judged differently by our society, which includes the media.

I wish there was a way to use such “screens” in the world of politics, like in the world of classical music auditions - "screens" which would help us judge, based only on the records of the candidates, and not based on any other irrelevant factors which can cloud our perceptions.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Caught staring at another..

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, Jan 25, 2008

I just read a thought provoking piece by Ray Sikorski in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor, A legless artist documents the world in 32,000 stares.

The essay describes the journey of Kevin Connolley, who was born without legs, through 15 countries, documenting the stares he got from people all over the world.

Some of his photos are available at – the photos, and the article lead me to believe that we can be pretty similar in our response to “difference.”

And that we not only smile, but also stare in the same language…

The Influence of the Eight Green Bags

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, Jan 14, 2008

Each of us influences others. By what we say and do. And also by what we don’t say and don’t do.

Several friends, acquaintances and strangers got back to me regarding my CDT column asking Santa to forgo Gift Wrap , and my Christian Science Monitor essay on Giving Gifts that Leave Only a Memory Behind.

They shared their decisions to forgo wrapping paper, or give a gift of food … but more importantly, they shared with me their ideas and their actions for consuming less.

A neighbor shared with me some of her childhood memories - of how her parents had always left unwrapped gifts for her and her siblings under the tree, and how the kids “somehow” knew which gift was for whom. Her story showed me that forgoing gift wrap was not only a future possibility, but that it was a tested and workable idea from the past in other homes.

A friend shared with me her idea of giving a gift of "a recipe for a favorite food, along with all the ingredients needed to cook it." And presented me with an alternative to my idea of gifting healthy, home cooked meals.

I heard from a few people about traditions of baking special holiday cookies, and delivering them in brown bags.

I also learnt about a mother and daughter, who each keep a basket for the other in their homes, fill them with gifts over time, and then trade the baskets when they get full. No gift wrap needed here – all that is needed is the love to figure out what the other needs.

Fast forward to the first week of the New Year – when I found myself at the grocery store - my cart holding groceries in the six brown bags I had requested instead of plastic bags. I looked up to see another woman, also leaving, her cart filled with eight green cloth bags of groceries.

Suddenly, in the face of her example, I had no excuse for the three tote bags that I had left behind in my car, thinking that I would need more than that for the groceries I needed to buy.

The image of those eight green cloth bags stayed with me; and made me carry my tote bags in during my next trip to the grocery store.

One tiny step….among many that I will hopefully take, in this New Year, thanks to the inspiration of another person using her eight tote bags.

As I described my new “tote bag” ritual to my husband and daughter, I shared with them the hope that the sight of my mismatched, lumpy tote bags would inspire more than laughter in someone else.

Perhaps get them to commit to cloth bags? Or to work to ban plastic bags in Pennsylvania? Or to do something even more momentous?

All within the realm of possibility – considering how unpredictably simple and powerful ideas get transmitted amongst us, sometimes going on to catalyze changes and create new traditions, all because of our power to influence, and our openness to being influenced by each other.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Helping Santa Save the World - One Gift at a Time

Editorial Column by Nalini Krishnankutty, Centre Daily Times, Dec 10, 2007

I am a bit worried about Santa and his elves this year. Not about their ability to deliver gifts on time — they are proven masters at that. But about how much danger they are in, with global warming and all that accelerated melting of ice caps at the North Pole.

In a few years, will Santa still be living at the North Pole?

Surely, Santa must have a handle on that problem. But what if he doesn’t? Should we be sending him some ideas along with our gift lists?

It surely cannot hurt, and Santa may even be thankful for them.

Perhaps Santa could alleviate global warming by fighting consumerism and going cold turkey on gifts, but I don’t think he would be ready to do that. His kind heart would not allow him to disappoint all the kids who expect his arrival every Christmas.

But what about gift wrap? Could Santa perhaps go cold turkey on gift wrap or at least think of some alternatives?

What if I shared with Santa some of the ideas our family has been using over the past few years?

What if I told him about our family’s idea of giving gifts in special bags, which we call journey bags, with a mandate to the receiver to reuse them?

Santa could inscribe a bold “From: Santa, North Pole, To: Jane, Pennsylvania, December 2007” on one corner of the journey bag. And the child could reuse the bag, perhaps for a gift to her grandmother, inscribing “From: Jane, Pennsylvania, To: Grandma, Wisconsin, January 2008.”

And Grandma could send the bag off on further journeys, perhaps to another country, or town. And as the journey bag travels, we would venerate it — for its chronicles of givers and recipients, documenting our interactions in space and time, and our human expressions of celebration, joy and gratitude.

What if I shared with Santa our practice of using white packaging paper to wrap gifts, on which my daughter obligingly draws a scene or pattern? Perhaps Santa and his elves would enjoy drawing on recyclable paper wraps too.

Or maybe they would enjoy reading the comics section of the newspaper while wrapping gifts in them.

What if I told Santa that I recently got my gifts wrapped by the store a few times, because I was buying gifts a half hour before I needed to give them? And I disliked doing it, as I reflected on how our society has traveled so far from the fulfillment of our basic needs that we need to do more and more to make us feel good.

Consider this example: Here were some nice gifts, already in their own packaging, being made more wonderful by the unique wrapping of the store and beautified further with some ribbon and bows.

There was a time, someone told me recently, when people received an orange and an apple as gifts at Christmas — unwrapped — and were happy to get an orange and an apple. Does Santa remember that time?

What would he say if he heard of gift giving in my parents’ generation, in faraway India?

For our New Year (Vishu),in April, my family followed a tradition ofVishukaineetam,literally translated to “extending the hand at Vishu” for giving and receiving gifts.

The oldest person in the house gave gifts to all the younger people and anyone in their employment — gifts of money and fruits to family members and money, fruits, vegetables and rice to employees — all given unadorned and received with thanks.

As a child, I happily received my Vishukaineetam money directly in my hand while calculating my total “loot” for the day.

No envelopes, cards or gift wraps were used, no indulging a need to surprise — saving so many trees and creating less pollution.

But I had traveled far from those traditions, from being so easily satisfied to standing in a store, receiving complimentary gift wrap and yet feeling dissatisfied about the relatively bad job the employee was doing in wrapping the gift.

I wonder if Santa would stop using store-bought gift wrap if I shared all this with him. It is worth a try.

This year, I suggest that our kids tell Santa how they want their gifts packaged.
“Please leave my gifts under the tree in a journey bag,” or “a brown paper bag” or a “tote bag.”

“Please wrap my gifts in the comics pages of the newspaper.”

Or even, “Please lay my gifts under the tree, without any wrapping.”

Our kids would be ready to do this to save our Earth, and Santa would be more than willing to indulge these requests.

He may even be more creative than us and wrap gifts in useful gifts such as towels or scarves for the sake of reducing global warming, saving our forests and his home at the North Pole.

And once Santa takes the lead, there is no doubt that millions would follow him by forgoing gift wrap for all our other gift giving, too.

Now wouldn’t that be a genuine and Santa-sized miracle worthy of all our efforts?

Adults and Kids on a Snowy Afternoon

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, Dec 6, 2007

Our first snowstorm of 2007, and I gave myself a few extra minutes as I drove to pick up my daughter from school.

I had to drive slower than usual, as I navigated the already parked cars, the ones pulling out, and the others pulling in.

As I stepped out of the car, and crossed the street, I was only vaguely aware of the beauty of the white, snow covered trees, grass and buildings.

I did sense the refreshing cold air, but my adult mind was a little busy figuring out all that I had to do later in the day – the longer times for each errand, as I had to forgo the back roads which would not be ploughed yet, and other logistics.
But slowly, as I waited for school to be over, the whiteness seemed to spread some calm over me.

And then the kids rushed out, or did they just spill out of the school in their enthusiasm?

They seemed happier than usual, or was it my imagination?

My daughter's first question to me of “Can I go sledding today?” was probably being replicated in other parent child reunions, as the kids dreamed up many other possibilities in the magical, cold snow..

They slowed me down, with their happiness…

And got me to notice the beauty, and the magic of the first snowfall.

They got me to be thankful, that the snow was still arriving, fairly on schedule, even with all that global warming.

And left me cognizant of doing my part in ensuring that it would still arrive next year, and the year after, and for many years to come.

I imagine it is the same with adults everywhere - sometimes, we miss the beauty of the first rains, or of a beautiful summer day, as we consider the practical implications of "weather," on our daily routines.

And it often takes kids to show us other possibilities, and awaken deeper feelings of gratitude, and of course, more responsibility to make it all endure.

Give Thanks, Mourn or Find a Middle Way?

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, November 20, 2007

Twenty years ago, I celebrated my first Thanksgiving as a graduate student at Penn State. I travelled by Greyhound to New York to visit relatives, and made my first trip to the Statue of Liberty.

I spent subsequent Thanksgivings mostly in State College, using the break catch up on work, and other pending matters. I spend the day in the company of friends and family, using it to pause and offer thanks for the circumstances of my life.

When my daughter was in first grade, she began to ask for more. She wanted to know what the menu for Thanksgiving dinner was going to be. We asked her what she thought it should be, and together fashioned a vegetarian menu that we use to this day.

She began to read about the origins of the holiday at school and in books, and we began discussing them. We started reflecting on the many sides of the same story, and how one group’s cause of celebration can be the cause of sadness for another.

The same Thanksgiving that is a national holiday, and occasion to give gratitude for many of us, is also marked by some Native Americans as a National Day of Mourning, and by other Native Americans as a day to focus on healing and going forward.

The Teaching Tolerance website gives two native American viewpoints of this festival, in a module for grades 7-12.

The first viewpoint is a speech written in 1970 by Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, a Wampanoag elder and Native American activist, for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 350th anniversary celebration of the Pilgrims’ arrival on Wamapanoag American Indian Land.

The speech, which was based on a Pilgrim’s account of the first year, was reviewed by the planners and deemed inappropriate to the tone of the celebration. Wamsutta decided not to attend the celebration and led a protest at Coles Hill, near the statue of Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag when the Pilgrims landed.

Thus began the First National Day of Mourning, in 1970, and which continues to this day.

The second article, Thanksgiving, a Native American View, is written by Jacqueline Keeler, another Native American, about how she has tried to give meaning to Thanksgiving.

The same day, commemorating the same event in history. And multiple experiences of that reality.

This year, my husband and I plan to take the Thanksgiving celebrations a bit further, by discussing these writings with our nine year old daughter. And understand better what debts we owe to our collective past, and what it is that we are or are not celebrating.

A Festival of Lights

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, Nov 12, 2007

This past week, my husband, daughter and I celebrated Deepavali (also known as Diwali) – the Festival of Lights.

For most of the 900 million Hindus around the world, and for 2 million Hindu Americans, Deepavali is a major festival, spread out over five days, and celebrated with special prayers and rituals, lights, decorations, fireworks and of course food.

It is also a day of significance for around 4 million Jains the world over - as the day on which their founder, Mahavira, attained salvation. It is also a day of importance for around 23 million Sikhs the world over, as the day when one of their religious leaders, or Gurus, attained freedom from captivity.

Deepavali, which gets its name from the Sanskrit Deepa, meaning light, and Avali, meaning row, celebrates the victory of Good over Evil, which is symbolized by bringing light into darkness. The word is today also shortened to Diwali in many parts of India.

In Mumbai (Bombay) where I grew up, schools were closed for about 10–14 days. Adults got a day or two off work. Deepavali day at our house started with a ritual bath in the morning before sunrise, with special oil massages before the bath. This was followed by the bursting of fireworks, and a day of fun and festivity. Rows of clay lamps were lit on our window sills and doorways, and neighbors, friends, and family exchanged homemade sweets and snacks with each other.

In State College, we celebrated the holiday this year by lighting lamps at home, preparing special food on one day, bursting fireworks after dinner with friends on another day, and then celebrating on a third day, with an evening of performances and dinner, organized by the Hindu Students Council on Campus.

The celebrations put together by the Hindu Student Council, a Penn State Student group, were especially touching to the heart. The event provided a common space for those celebrating the festival, in the midst of a larger community, whose calendar and rhthyms of life, do not include Diwali.

The diverse performances - which included a skit, dances, chanting of prayers, and vocal and instrumental music - gave both the performers and the audience an opportunity to pause and create a special memory, while commemorating their own cultural and religious traditions.

And it also provided a wonderful opportunity to share these traditions with those who were of different ethnic or religious origins. And there are surely few ways better than sharing music, dance and food - as first steps for building bridges between people in an atmosphere of respect and celebration.

The Seven Wonders of Centre County

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, Oct 10, 2007

I like this idea of the CDT poll to find the Seven Wonders of Centre County.

An interesting exercise, to look at the place we call home, from a fresh and positive perspective. A home, which is so familiar to us, that we may take it for granted. And may not appreciate what it has to offer, amidst a search for novel and exciting things.

I remember a moment from a long time ago, when my husband and I had spent a week in San Francisco - enjoying time with family and friends in San Francisco and Yosemite, and the freedom from our daily grind.

How could our life in State College, with its chores and routines, ever compete with that experience?

But the morning after we got back, a beautiful, peaceful scene of the sun rising above corn fields, with mountains in the distance greeted us.

If we had been visitors in San Francisco, we would have stopped to click some photographs, and savored and enjoyed the moment. But on our way to work, as part of our daily routine, it simply became the backdrop for our life.

When guests visit us in State College, my daughter asks to take them to the Creamery and the Nittany Lion statue, to walk around campus, and to spend some time in front of Old Main – all part of her Seven Wonders. We go to Penn’s Cave, or the Arts Fest – and any other places or experiences that catch the visitors’ fancy. Some like to hike, others prefer a visit to the library, or a stroll downtown.

A couple of years ago, my daughter came up with the idea that we should spend a day in State College, pretending to be visitors. We had a great time that Saturday – it felt like we had discovered a magical, peaceful town, which we had the free time to explore. We visited all her Seven Wonders and more… and enjoyed every minute.

I cherish that day - it reminds me of the beauty in our daily lives and landscapes, if we have the time and attitude to appreciate it.

A sentiment verbalized well by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, when he wrote in a poem – that he had travelled all around the world, spending time and money in search of beauty. And finally realized that all the time that he had been wandering the earth, he had missed seeing the splendor that lay just outside his house – the dewdrop glistening on a blade of grass.

Perhaps the seven wonders contest will help us seek and admire our dewdrops and our blades of grass.

Gandhi, Munnabhai and Us

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, Oct 2, 2007

Last year, a comedy movie from Bollywood, “Lage Raho Munnabhai” (Translated as “Carry On, Munnabhai,” and available on DVD) took India and the International Film Festival circuit by storm.

The movie deals with the travails of Munnabhai, a gangster from Mumbai. Munnabhai accidentally discovers Gandhi and his ideals, and then uses Gandhi’s principles of Satyagraha (Endeavors firmly based in Truth) and Ahimsa (Non violence) to deal with issues in the underworld, and in his other relationships.

When my husband, daughter and I saw this movie, we laughed a lot, at the comedy in the film, as Munnabhai uses Gandhigiri, a word he coins to express his understanding and practice of Gandhism, to solve his and others’ problems.

And Gandhigiri, with its emphasis on truth and non violence, and loving the enemy, while resisting unjust actions, goes on to win the day in a span of two and a half hours.

Last year, the movie, which was a blockbuster in India, was screened at film festivals and at the United Nations. It spurred a revival of an interest in Gandhi and his teachings, in a fast changing India.

So that, for the first time in several decades, Gandhi’s birthday or Gandhi Jayanthi, on Oct 2nd 2006, was more than just a holiday from work and school in India, more than just paying lip service to his teachings. Bollywood had managed to show people some practical ways of using “Gandhigiri” to solve current problems with self respect and dignity, and without falsehood and violence.

Fast forward a year to Oct 2nd 2007 – once again, Gandhi Jayanthi in India, and also the First International Day of Non Violence, declared by the United Nations.

Yet in our minds, there are fresh images of violence from around the world. Can we cease hostilities, just for one day, in Iraq, Darfur, the Middle East, or Myanmar? Can we truly embrace non violence, even for one day?

The courage of the monks in Myanmar, as they marched peacefully in rows, supported only by the strength from within, reminded me of the courage of Gandhi’s followers, the satyagrahis, who marched peacefully in rows, and received their blows from the British army. It reminded me of the simple courage of the Little Rock Nine from fifty years ago, as they tried to get into high school, blocked by their own police.
Gandhi’s satyagrahis won their freedom from the British in 1947, and the Little Rock Nine integrated their school in 1957. But I wonder what today will look like, fifty years from now - how will the stories in Myanmar, Darfur, Iraq and the rest of the world shape up? What anniversary footages will we be showing on Oct 2nd next year, and fifty years from now?

What we do know for certain is this – that 114 years ago, a white man threw Gandhi out of a train, at Pietermaritzburg station in South Africa, for travelling in a first class compartment, while being Indian. That seminal moment and experience transformed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and led him to give us the gift of Gandhism or Gandhigiri – ways of living a truthful, simple life of non violence.

So that today, if any of us go through our own “Pietermaritzburg” experiences, we are lucky, like Munnabhai, the gangster, to have Gandhi as our role model, and to be able to use Gandhigiri to find our own non violent solutions.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

An uncommon passion

Originally posted in the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, on Sept 27, 2007

This past Saturday, I went to a music performance of North Indian Classical Music, along with my husband and daughter.

The venue was the Center for Well Being in Lemont. The singer was Arijit Mahalanabis, a former resident of State College, who attended State High and Penn State, and now lives across the country in Seattle, Washington. He was accompanied on the tabla, a percussion instrument, by Kuntal Roy of Kolkata, India.

As Arijit began his concert, music in the classical traditions born a long time ago, from a world afar, filled the air.

I could not understand the nuances, but I could still enjoy it.

Enjoy the pure offering of music being made, by someone who obviously loved it.
As I listened to the music, I was filled with wonder and awe. At the powerful forces that have sustained the love of Indian classical music in a boy who grew up in State College.

Forces that made him teach himself, since there were no teachers of the art in State College.

Forces that made him study music, even as he pursued degrees in math and computer science, and worked as an engineer.

Forces that have now led him to commit to music and its study full time.

Arijit did not have the benefit of listening to Hindustani classical music in the classical selections on NPR on a daily basis, or of having teachers at school, who could facilitate his study of this kind of classical music. What he was pursuing was largely unknown in the wider community he lived in.

And that makes his sticking to his quest worthy of salute - sticking with it long enough to enjoy the support group of other musicians in Seattle, to sustain him further.

At the concert, I was touched by Arijit’s commitment – and thought of a book my daughter had recently recommended to me - “To dance, a ballerina’s graphic novel, ” by Siena Cherson Siegel. The book documents a ballerina’s entry into dance, and the role dance plays in her life. Unlike Arijit, Siena has the support, at a young age, of an assortment of classes, and established institutions to support her passion.
Siena writes that she dances because “dancing fills a space in me.”

Perhaps, Arijit sings, I thought, because he has to… because “singing fills a space in him.”

And the rest of us are lucky that they do so - our world made better because of their passion for and their single minded pursuit of their art.

We are also lucky to have the Center for Well Being, East West Crossing and the other individuals who participated in bringing this experience to us.
To Arijit and to all of them, a big thank you…

An Evening with College Students

Originally Posted in the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, Sept 18, 2009

Yesterday, I attended the National Issues Forum on “The New Challenges of American Immigration: What Should We Do?” at Penn State.

I was curious about the ideas that would come up, and how the discussion amongst strangers would manifest.

I arrived at the room, saw a roomful of about fifty participants – all of them young college students.

And that almost made me leave…

No peers of my age group, no “town” represented in what I thought would be a “town and gown” meeting, and my immediate instinct was to leave.

But then I thought of my previous experiences of being a minority of some kind…
Of studying in a class with only two other female, and forty seven male students, as an undergraduate student in chemical engineering.

Of pursuing a graduate degree in chemical engineering, under fairly similar gender ratios, while also being a foreigner.

Of our family’s experience of being the only Asian Indian Americans in so many situations in State College – right now, my daughter is the only student of Asian Indian origin at her elementary school.

Of traveling in foreign countries, of being an American in India, and an Indian in America.

And I realized that these experiences had been mostly rewarding and joyful, especially as long as I considered the incidental differences, to be besides the point and irrelevant.

And so I decided to stay at the forum and enjoy the journey…and got rewarded..
…by getting to hear respectful comments voiced on legal and illegal immigration, the process and the people, the economy, and our policy options - by the young participants, the moderators and the organizer.

….by being able to voice my opinions and raise questions and contribute to the thought mix.

….by being part of the exercise of finding common ground and identifying tensions, and ideas for improving future forums.

Like students in generations before them, some of the students spoke with conviction and candor, some were willing to voice their opinions strongly, and some were more reticent, representing many shades of thought and belief systems.

As I left the forum, I realized that there is not much opportunity in modern life for a discussion across the generations – since each age group is busy with its own phase of life, and therefore mostly inhabiting different physical spaces.

But chances to interact do come up... like at the Forum - I got to be part of a younger universe; they expanded my horizons, and I hopefully expanded theirs.

So, How's School Going?

Originally Posted in the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, Sept 11, 2007

Another school year has begun –with new challenges and opportunities for a lot of learning, excitement and fun. At least that’s what I am hoping for.

Often, adults ask my daughter how her new school year is going, and I too ask this question of other kids.

And get a one word response.


How is your teacher?


What did you do in school today?

“Nothing much.”

This uniform answer of “good school days, with fine teachers, and doing nothing much,” puzzles me.

But I have decided that we cannot blame kids for coming up with these standardized responses - when we parents do it so often ourselves.

A casual “So how’s the school year going?” to another adult almost always comes up with a response of “Good,” or “Fine.”

And most of us end the conversation there, not having the time or the interest for the details.

But continue the conversation, and we may find out that all is not “good.”

Someone dislikes a teacher, another has issues with the curriculum, a third with bullying….

And just one parent opening up, and straying beyond the cursory “good,” brings forth new stories from the others.

But sharing these experiences requires the investment of time.

I recall exchanging stories about school, as a child, with family and friends - comparing notes about teachers, and laughing till the tears ran down my cheeks, at a cousin’s or friend’s narration or enacting of a funny incident.

We were able to do this because we visited often with other kids and adults – listening over tea, or board games on a lazy afternoon.

And that kind of time, is in short supply today, as we run from one task or activity to another.

At our house, we try to catch up on each other’s day over dinner. As my husband and I share the highlights of our day, our daughter competes with us to tell us about the “good,” “the bad,” “the ugly,” “the terrible,” and everything in between, and a clearer picture of all our lives emerges.

And I am hopeful that other kids who I know, will describe their school day to me too, in more than one sentence, if I only stayed and listened.

As long as I am willing to spare all that extra time…

Penn State Football - a Fan?

Posted originally on the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, Sept 5, 2007

It is football season in State College…again…and I find myself the rare species, the “non football” fan in Centre County – even after twenty years of living here.

I remember walking downtown as a graduate student, and wondering aloud to a friend, “Who is this person – why is his cutout and picture everywhere?”

“Shh!” replied my friend, “don’t ask that in State College… that is Joe Paterno – Joe Pa, you do not want to be so ignorant around here.”

“But who is Joe Paterno?,” I whispered back…

I am a little wiser since then – and have even attended a football game, where the half time show captivated me more than the game.

My husband is interested in the game, and sometimes gets my daughter’s company to watch a Penn State game on TV.

Thankfully, my husband stopped going to the games after experiencing four or five of them at the stadium, because the long time commitment was incompatible with his other obligations of teaching, research and life.

My family has periodically tried to get me interested. I sometimes watch the replay on TV, when I am told that something great has just happened, and still am not converted to becoming a fan.

A good thing perhaps, considering the number of hours in my life that have been saved, by my lack of interest in football.

But I do understand the power of the game in this town, and the lives it supports, and modifies - of businesses, of football lovers, who plan their weekends around it – tailgating, attending the game, watching it, hosting visitors, traveling, analyzing the game and so on..

I also understand the visibility it brings to Penn State, and the resources it attracts to the university.

I also understand how memories are built around football, and entire lives are remembered and played out in the context of these games.

I realize too how the games will bring people together this weekend - in their support of Penn State versus Notre Dame - people who otherwise may have nothing in common.

And I have also come to appreciate the quietness in town when the football fans are busy watching football – the perfect time for all of us non football fans to enjoy the quiet.

But then, perhaps that does make me a “fan” of football after all…

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Onam in State College

Originally Posted in the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, August 29, 2009

Our family celebrated a special festival, called Onam, this past weekend. We wore special Indian clothes, and set out to collect some flowers from our garden, to create a Pookkalam, or a design with flowers, on our front porch.

Just as my daughter was beginning to sketch the outlines of her design, her friend arrived on his bike.

“Nice dress,” he shouted out, “What are you guys doing?”

He came over, along with a lot of questions…

My daughter told him about the special festival.

Is it a neighborhood festival or just at your house?

No, No, No, not that kind of festival, this is a “holiday” festival. You want to stay and watch us?

Sure, this is so cool… Can I bring a friend over?

Moments, later, we were joined by two more kids, a nine year old and a middle schooler.

It smells so nice here, one of them said, perhaps on getting a whiff of fragrance from the incense.

My daughter and I told them about the 10 day celebrations that lead up to Onam in Kerala, a southern state of India, the days off from school that children would be enjoying and so much more.

Is it a festival like Kwanzaa or Hanukkah? Does it have a story behind it?

Yes, but it is a Hindu festival…

The four kids were soon creating the design together. As they finished their handiwork, I told them how my mother would create a different design on each of the ten days, from the flowers in her garden.

I shared pictures of her Pookkalams with them, and was rewarded with cries of “Wow” and more admiration.

Later that evening, I stood outside taking photographs of our Pookkalam – and realized how much we adults could learn from these four children.

My daughter had extended a welcome, and together, the four kids had made a trip across cultures and countries in the span of seconds, with dignity and respect –and without any judgement.

Now if only we adults could be more like them ….

Back to School “Must-Haves”

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, Aug 22, 2007

The end of summer vacations is here.

And it is “Back to School” season…accompanied by marketing efforts announcing the “must-haves” for this new season.

The other day, my daughter showed me a flyer which said “Send your kids back to school in style.”

I could go on and on about my frustration with this…

Yes, children outgrow their clothes – and they need new ones, but do they “need” the latest fashions to be able to learn at school?

Yes, they need a sturdy backpack, but do they “need” the latest kind to carry their stuff?

Yes, they need comfortable shoes, but....

Do they need to wear these “must-haves” – the uniforms dictated by the fashion industry?

Imagine all the consumption, that turns kids into clones of each other, in the name of individuality.

And imagine all the resources spent, in making these items and then transporting them from all parts of the world to us.

Getting ready for “back to school season,” needs a change in mindset, rather than a change in wardrobe.

Would it not suffice, if we got ready for school,
….by mentally getting ready for the structured learning environment?
….by getting used again to early bedtimes and waking up early ?
….by adjusting to learn in the midst of other children ?
….by polishing up attitudes towards classmates and teachers ?
….by learning to manage time to handle the demands of schoolwork and other work ?

These changes are hard enough for many kids, after a long summer vacation, even without having to figure out if their clothes are “cool.”

And I know some kids may be waiting for school in order to wear their “cool” clothes.

But as a society, should we really be encouraging this notion in our kids, that we are only the sum of our material possessions?

Goodbyes at Dulles Airport

Originally Posted in the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, August 14, 2007

I was at Washington Dulles International Airport yesterday - to see off my parents, who were returning to India.

They had been visiting us over the summer, and had suddenly cut short their trip on hearing that my grandmother, who lives in India, was unwell.

My parents checked in, and had an hour to spare, before they headed out through security and to the gates.

An hour to sit down and take a breath, after the whirlwind of the previous 24 hours leading to this abrupt change in plans and sudden departure.

An hour to reflect on the possibilities of the future, and hold on to the hope that my grandmother would pull through this illness.

An hour to reflect on the good times of the past months we had spent together - and put the interrupted plans of the month ahead in the larger perspective of life.

An hour to tell each other to take care of ourselves.

An hour that led to the time to wave our goodbyes - each of us, especially my mother and my daughter, struggling with the sadness of the moment, and learning to deal with its inevitability.

I waved goodbye till I could no longer see them, and then turned to leave - and saw the face of another woman, also turning, with the same expression of sadness I had, trying not to let the suppressed tears flow out..

I looked ahead, and saw a couple standing together, taking a photograph of themselves with a polaroid camera held out with an extended hand.

I heard someone, asking a child “to be good and take care of mother when I am gone.”

I saw a group of people, craning their heads and trying to get a glimpse of someone who had just gone past the security area.

I heard a woman, checking the departure screen, voicing the thought in our heads, “Should we leave now, or wait till the plane departs?”

And I could not help feeling the common humanity of all our lives - in the intensity of the connections that we all share with those we care about...

Like me, each of these people, no matter what their race, religion, ethnicity, gender or nationality - must have had a story which had brought them to this airport, and this moment of goodbye.

More than six billion people on this earth, and yet at that moment, each of us had eyes and thoughts only for the ones we were being separated from, by circumstances of our individual lives.

And as I finally left the airport, after my parents plane had taken off, I realized that if we could only hang on to the universality of such human experiences, our other “differences” would cease to matter..

Update - Good News
Submitted by Common Threads on Fri, 2007-08-31 10:40.

My thanks to all of you who called, or emailed, or stopped me on the street to ask about my grandmother, and my family.

My thanks to everyone who was touched by this article - thanks for sharing your positive responses, and for being able to relate to the common experiences that link us all.

I want to let you all know that my grandmother is doing well now, and is almost back to her normal routines.

Again, many thanks for your concern and support.

Submitted by CommonMan on Sat, 2007-08-18 12:09.

Thanks for writing such a beautiful piece. It brought memories back for me. I hope humanity can get connected through the common thread of love, affection and care.


Brands, Fashions and Uniforms

Originally Posted in the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, August 8, 2007

Preschoolers prefer any food, including carrots, that is wrapped in a McDonald’s wrapper and think that the McDonald wrapped food tastes better than identical food wrapped in plain wrapping – this was the finding of a recent study of children’s food preferences by Stanford University researchers.

The study concluded that marketing and brand names are affecting the reactions of even preschoolers - an interesting commentary on the world we live in today, where marketing efforts on electronic and print media, store displays and word of mouth routes get both adults and kids to desire certain products.

My family is lucky that fast food places do not cater much to us vegetarians – so we only have to deal with the occasional requests our daughter makes for “French fries” and “apple pie.”

But we do get to deal with other desires that are created in all of us for fun or cool things, and often struggle with our “needs” and “wants.”

And all the recent “Back to School” advertising that I have seen makes me long for one aspect of my childhood in India.

I did not have to think about brand names or fashions, because shopping till 10th grade meant ordering two or three sets of uniforms from the neighborhood tailor, buying shoes, socks, raincoat, umbrella and a book bag, text books, pencils, pens and erasers.

What a freedom that uniform afforded – every morning, I joined other children walking to school in their uniforms, all with a collective identity of belonging to a particular school. And no one was defined by what they wore – there was no “cool” or “uncool” kid at school, based on attire.

Many schools across the world require uniforms, and it is a growing trend in the US. And there are parents and teachers on both sides of the issue.

Some believe that having uniforms stifles the expression of individuality, or that they are expensive. Others think that uniforms foster a sense of collective identity, discipline, and that it offers a level playing field with respect to clothes.

But then again, can we require that kids wear uniforms, when so many of us grown ups base our identity on what we wear? And can we ask them to be less brand conscious, when so many of us adults define ourselves by what we own?
Perhaps all this back to school shopping is just a “real” training for the real adult world.

Indian President Pratibha Patil

Originally Posted at Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, July 25, 2007

On July 21, 2007, I read Gavin Rabinowitz’s news report entitled “India names its first female president.” My family and I were amused that he focussed more on gender discrimination in India, than about the new president of the largest democracy in the world.

Rabinowitz reduced Pratibha Patil to one aspect of her whole self, the female aspect, in this article written for the Associated Press. This reduction is similar to the labeling of politicians as “female” or “black” or “Mormon” or “Hispanic” or “Muslim” or “Hindu” or “some other one thing we use to define them.”

Once we label them, we wonder what they will do for their special “Religious,” “Racial” or “Gender” constituencies. Consider Rabinowitz’s comment “Still, it's not clear how much 72-year-old Pratibha Patil - a lawyer, congresswoman and former governor of the northern state of Rajasthan - can or will do in the mostly ceremonial post to improve the lives of her countrywomen.”

All I hope is that Pratibha Patil, in her past jobs, improved the lives of all her constituents who shared or did not share some parts of the multiple aspects of her identity - of gender, religion, language, or her identities as mother, lawyer, woman, wife and so on.

Pratibha Patil is a lawyer by training, and has been in politics for four decades - as a legislator at the state and national levels, as a minister at the state level, and finally as a governor of a state. And she has done all this by wearing what she chooses to wear, and looking how she chooses to look.

On Wednesday, July 25, 2007, she added one more thing to her resume - she was sworn in as India’s 13th president after winning 66% of the votes cast by national and state legislators. And just like other presidents who governed in spite of being male, she will govern in spite of being female.

I am happy that her election to the Presidency has done one thing – it has given us another picture of possibility of how a president can look, and who can aspire to be president – it can be a person who happens to be a woman from Maharashtra, who wears saris, who covers her head, who is a lawyer, a former legislator, and a governor, a mother, a wife, and so much more.

And that for me is the expanding opportunity of this historic moment.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Moving, Goodbyes and Lessons

Originally Posted in the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times on July 18, 2007

Life in a university town is marked by the constant cycles of seasons, and also by the cycles of semesters and graduations. Cycles which bring change with them, moving people in and out of town, all to start new lives.

I came to Penn State during one such cycle - after twenty years of living in the same city, amidst family and friends.

The importance of those I left behind became fully visible, only when they were rendered physically invisible by my move.

Now, after 20 years in State College, I am used to friends, acquaintances and others moving away. And the landscape of my routines changes, for the better or the worse, due to these moves.

Some who move keep in touch – some love their new home, others still yearn for State College.

My husband handles several goodbyes each year – a professional hazard in his job as a professor.

Particularly hard for him are the partings with graduate students, whom he has advised for four or five years.

I see him, happy and proud as a "parent," when they land their jobs. And I also see him sad about their inevitable departure from State College.

It is a familiar routine at our house, to have students call, to tell us they are leaving that day – and whether they could stop by, for one last time, sometimes with their families, to say their goodbyes. We bid them farewell, knowing that we may never meet up again.

This summer, he is saying goodbye to four graduate students – and realizes that having experienced it before does not make him a veteran. For each goodbye is different, and a reminder of the relentless passage of time.

My eight year old daughter has lost some friends to such moves. She does better than us - enjoying her friends while they are here, and dealing with their moves with a resilient spirit. She is happy as long as she is not the one moving.

These moves force us to deal with the only constant in all our lives – the constancy of change. They teach us to savor the only guaranteed thing in our lives - the present moment, and all that exists in it. And they remind us to use that present moment well.