Tuesday, July 31, 2007

In the Eyes of the Beholder

I realise that digital cameras have created photographers out of us all. Have camera, will click. No one needs to worry about wasting a shot or film-development costs. Capturing beauty for eternity was never so easy. I have been a shutterbug since I got here and managed to get some memorable pictures. Have put up some pictures of this beautiful country minus us beautiful people.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Road Sign

Caudan Waterfront, Port Louis, Mauritius

A picture is worth a thousand words...

Friday, July 27, 2007


Is this a Babel-ish dream? All around me, people who look Indian are chattering away in French. The sky is so blue and the clouds so white it looks like I'm in a Disney animation. The trash cans are bright blue and look more like letterboxes! And I'm sitting in the middle of it all and blogging.

Seen from the plane, Mauritius is a green island in the middle of green ocean. But what shades of green those are! There's vegetation green, then turquoise, then sea-green. Waves break in white on the rocks 25-50 metres off the shores, resulting in a white, foamy necklace encircling the island and separating the two separate shades of green. The drive from the airport was down smooth black roads stretching through sugarcane fields and eventually we saw Port Louis spread out before us as we descended from a slight elevation, driving to this capital town with the ocean glittering beyond it.

I've tagged along with Anando on a subsidised holiday and the discovery that there was a wi-fi hotspot in the middle of it all meant of course I had to sit in it and blog! Our hotel is on one side of the water and the Caudan Waterfront on another. So every morning, Anando puts on a suit and tie, takes his papers and his laptop and gets on a boat to go to work! (Of course, that might even happen in Bombay someday if it rains hard enough!) Today, I took the boat as well and came here to access the world wide web as I sit in the southern hemisphere of our planet for the first time in my life.

The Caudan (pronounced as co-dawn) Waterfront is a popular commercial area of Port Louis, set by the business district of Mauritius. While the words 'Business District' may conjure up images of skyscrapers and fast cars and men in suits I must specify that the Port Louis business disrict is an exception. The tallest building here is 16 storeys high and its neighbours mostly 6 to 8 floors tall. The busy street has 2 lanes and most people are dressed in casuals. There are more restaurants than offices and more people seem to be outdoors than in.

As everyone probably knows, Mauritius is inhabited by a large community of people of East Indian ethnicity. They look like us, but they've been here for generations and no longer know exactly where they came from. So the driver who met us at the airport is called Das, but has no way of knowing whether he is Bengali or not. Most people speak either Bhojpuri or French. I went through an elaborate act of charades to ask the Housekeeping lady when the laundry would be back. Her name was Poonam, she looked like a neighbour of mine back in Bombay and had a parting full of sindoor, wore a bindi but did not understand a word of what I said in English or Hindi. It was strange to think that I would only have been able to communicate with her in French!

The names of local 'Indians' (though they do not consider themselves at all Indian) are generally strange, oddly-spelt variations of common Indian names. So you have their venerated former President, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (Shivasagar Ramgulam?), who smiles benignly from all government surfaces---coins, statues, stamps etc. I wonder if these people have ever considered that they have distant relatives who are possibly eking out a living pulling rickshaws in small-town India. Most of them, I think, really don't care.

Even as I type this, a group of 3 Indians is sharing the bench with me and chatting in French. In what I can only call an RSS nightmare, Hindu youngsters who have known no other country cuddle up in public displays of affection and in completely 'inappropriate' attire. This all looks so strange. The faces are familiar but the setting and the sounds are not!

The little kiosk called Mystic Masala sells Indian fast food, suitably (if inaccurately) explained for the foreign sensibilities. So one could eat Uttapam if one was interested in 'thin Indian pizza'. Or pharatas (sic). Or Fish Goa curry.

All of the Caudan Waterfront is designed as a popular area for tourists to come, shop and eat. Lots of souvenir shops that sell a curious mix of souvenirs with Indian and African influences on the design. Other than dodo miniatures made of every material possible, there's nothing that I wouldn't find in Dilli Haat, though it's 3 times more expensive and being hawked, again, by women with whom I share an appearance but not a language.

The foodcourt has options to eat Indian, French, Lebanese, Chinese, Mexican. The halls have a running exhibition on what I guess are popular print ads, almost all in French. The exception is in English: a picture of a little boy and girl ('Indians', both) and it asks, on behalf of an insurance company, 'have you thought about his future?'

I looked around at the 3 variations of the ad and none of them asked about her future. I wonder if this has stayed with the Indians even as time stripped them of their original language.

The lamp-posts around me are bright blue, there is a casino with a giant stone lion guarding the entrance. The cobblestone streets are for pedestrians only. A loudspeaker blares an unmistakably black voice saying things in French. A carousel plays temporary home to a bunch of happy kids and momentarily-reprieved parents. Its music is typical and annoyingly repetitive. I feel like I am in a Disneylandish world. Away from reality.

And in a way, I am. For next week I will leave this to walk the streets of Bombay, dodging puddles and people, listening to Hindi and Marathi, eating roti-sabzi instead of French-style seafood cooked by once-Indian chefs and served by black women. And it will all seem like a dream. I'm glad I set this down before I woke up.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

"I Believe", in Keeping it Personal

A friend from a mixed marriage talked of the religious identity (or lack thereof) for her children in a recent post, and while reading it, I found links to a couple of other similar posts. As a fairly passive atheist, I have always observed these debates from the sidelines. But increasingly in today's world it is a serious responsibility for parents what religion their children grow up to follow. For the world seeks to categorise, to classify. You can bring up children to believe in an abstract notion of God, or to believe in nothing and therefore everything, or to skirt the topic of religious identity entirely. But your task doesn't end there. As they grow up, the world will ask them what their identity is, and you should ensure that you have given them the confidence to cope with the looks the answer "nothing in particular" will bring them. For this will happen at an age when they will want, desperately, to belong, to fit in, not to stand out for any reason.

At the same time, I hope that, with the world opening up and people's minds keeping pace, there will be plenty of little mixed-creeds, children with mixed identities who choose to remain ambiguous on their religion of choice. Who are therefore sensitive to all faiths but fundamentalist about none. Who can accept that others may believe in different or more or fewer or no gods. As battle-lines are drawn and people are urged to fall in line behind one particular flag, such an army of mixed-creeds will be helpful in retaining sanity and balance in a world that can start leaning, dangerously, perilously, to one side or the other.

For the problem with religion is when people take it outside their hearts and use it as a lens to see the world around them. Sheltered Sanity, another blogger I read, starts her post by saying that organised religion can do more harm than good. That is something I have believed for a very long time. The problem lies not with religion itself, but with interpretations of it. For no one seems to be content with believing that there was a wise man/woman/group of people out there who are our shelter and guide and saviour. They must construct stories around them and when those stories are at odds with other realities there is, literally, hell to pay. So you have Darwin getting flak from Christians for dethroning Adam and Eve as our parents and putting apes in their place. So you have Hindus telling Muslims that we had a temple here first, and then you people built a mosque over it. So you have Israelis telling Muslims, hello, this land is ours, move it! So you have ... a right royal (un)holy mess.

Why is it that something which is just supposed to bring us inner peace becomes a turf for war? How can someone rest his/her conscience if they have used their faith---an intensely personal thing---to commit violence? Religion is a private matter. It is supposed to bring us peace, not snatch the peace of others. We need to keep it individual and personal. After all, at the core of each religion is morality, forgiveness, piety, faith, humility, and spiritual calmness. It is crucial to recognise that every person, from every faith, is just another human being trying for inner peace. Only then will we learn to coexist.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Why Me?

I have no dignity left. The craziest things happen to me and to make light of them I tell my friends all about my stupidities and embarrassing moments, making them laugh with me so it doesn't hurt to laugh alone!

This is an account of one such incident.

Flash back to the year 2000. A trio of giggling girls enters an elevator in an Andheri building in Bombay. The elevator (going down) has 2 serious-looking boys, perhaps 2 years our senior, who look down their noses at us, because we are friends of the summer intern, Alka, also staying in their building. Alka does not exist for them. She is therefore meant to be looked through, and, if looked at, to be looked down on. Alka nudges us silently to behave in the presence of the morons.

We continue to laugh about some random joke. Inviting more frowns in the process.

The elevator empties out at the ground floor and we all go our separate ways.

Later that night, Alka, Gauri and I return from a visit to the grocer, with essentials such as bread and chips in our bag. Being unstable, slightly crazed 21-year olds, who, to make things worse, are on vacation and away from parental supervision and discipline, we are laughing a lot at rather nonfunny (to the mature world) things. We enter the building and Gauri heads for the lift. Alka and I, in a Chariots-of-Fire moment, decide that we will race her, taking the stairs as befits young hotbloods like us. The lift is for losers. Gauri doesn't mind. She trudges her loserly way into the lift and Alka and I dash up the stairs.

We race up as the lift creaks its way up. Gauri can hear our taunts each time we meet the lift. The stairwell resounds with our comments. The flat is on the 4th floor. It's a long, steep, high-paced climb, up a spiral stairway, straight out of a Bond flick. Except, instead of a bag of chips, Bond would be carrying a gun. And instead of rain-resistant chappals, he'd be wearing gleaming leather shoes. And instead of tattered Sarojini Nagar pajamas, he'd be wearing a tux. Which would make the upcoming events look much cooler than they did when they happened starring us.

We reach our door a crucial 30 seconds before Gauri's lift clicks into place. We ring the doorbell like maniacs, trying to break down the door so that Alka's flatmate lets us in before Gauri gets here. The door starts to open and we push it aside, dashing in and shouting "We're here, we're here, we're here."

Of course we are. And guess who's here too? The boys from the lift. The TV is on. There's food on the dining table. This is Alka's senior in his boxer shorts. This, too, is Alka's senior, in his pajamas. This is an unfamiliar environment. On cue, we hear Gauri yell (from one floor above), "Where are you?" This is the boys' apartment, not Alka's.

I whirl around to see an Alka-blur dashing out of the apartment. I slowly turn my head, start to say "Sorry, we..." and decide that no explanation can make me look good right now. I can't even say "The name's Bond, James Bond." I whiz out too. As I leave the flat, I hear loud laughter behind me.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Eternal Darkness (even) of the Spotless Mind

I just read a post by someone who has a fair complexion, fuming at colour-discrimination in our own country. It is a topic close to my heart which is neither dark . I have heard so many people rant about it that I always stayed away from adding to the debate. What could I say that lots of women have already not said before me?

Today, the anger stems from seeing Dilnavaz talk of a six-year old who has been taught, by her mother, that she is black and must rub besan to improve her complexion. This girl wil soon be a shy, insecure teenager, convinced that her complexion is the reason she can never be attractive. She will one day be a mother who will try to ensure a fair daughter, via genes or via besan, so that her child need not have the same handicap that she grew up with. And so the vicious circle will continue, a loop, a ring, a noose around all our necks.

At the age of 8, I came home from school one summer afternoon, my uniform and smiling teeth dazzlingly white in contrast to my genetically dark plus sun-baked, spent-the-day-in-the-field face. A relative was visiting and he was rather taken aback when he opened the door. When he saw me as a teenager, he admitted that I was quite attractive despite my dark skin, reminiscing how when he saw me that day long back, he'd wondered how on earth I would ever get married! It's a funny story, amusingly told by him, but deeper issues lie beneath.

I was always a dark child. Joining a new school mid-term in class 2, I was taunted by the boys: kaali-kaluti. Friendless and shy, it did not help me to be judged on the basis of my complexion. Luckily no one whose opinion I valued as I grew up cared about my colour, and I exulted in outdoor sports, not caring one bit about the sun beating down on me and destroying my prospects of a good marriage!

A recent ad on TV shows how women are now the ones who visit the boy's home to see him, to watch him exhibit his talent at singing/dancing, etc., and make the decision whether or not to marry him. Why the empowerment? Because these girls have become beautiful thanks to XYZ fairness cream, of course! So at the same time that it tries to subvert stereotypes, it also reinforces other harmful ones.

I condemn all women who endorse fairness creams. Stop capitalising on a national weakness. Women of African origin can choose a line of beauty products called Dark and Lovely. When can we in India do the same?

There are much bigger problems on the insides of human beings in today's world to continue to worry about what's going on outside. Children need to be taught to look deeper than skin for beauty or the lack of it. That is when we will learn to find true role models who will inspire us to be good, to be compassionate, to be fair, darkness and fairness be damned.