Thoughtful


Over the weekend, I attended an Onam festival conducted by one of the Malayalee organizations in the Chicago area. We had a very busy morning that day at the end of which I had a pounding headache. I was tempted to skip the program because of that, and also the introvert in me felt that I wouldn’t enjoy being in the middle of about 600-1000 people who spoke a language that I barely understood, and celebrated something which I could not relate all that well.

However, there were commitments – people whom we knew would feel happy to see me there, and I also had to be the driver for a group of dancers who would be decked in fine, Bharatanatyam costumes. It would have been hard for them to drive by themselves dressed like that. The festival was at a high-school 30 miles away in the city – which also meant I drive. A couple of ibuprofens and a nap later, my headache and excuses evaporated. I decided that it was better to go out than sit at home, watch TV as the day darkened to night. Staying at home on a weekend particularly during the darkening twilight hour always seems like a dull prospect.

We arrived at the high school, and the festive atmosphere was immediately obvious. A group of men and boys were in procession playing the Kerala drums (Chenda) . I wanted to see the procession and take a few snaps – but this was Chicago, and I had to find parking. By the time I parked, the procession was over.

The auditorium where the cultural programs were held was pretty crowded. A lot of men (I guess more thanI have seen elsewhere) were in a half-traditional attire – i.e. a western shirt and a dhoti/veshti in traditional Keralite colors – off-white with gold border. Women and young girls were also dressed in saris, and half-saris with the same traditional Keralite colors. Sounds of Malayalam filled the air. There was standing room only, and I stood in the back – feeling very conscious that everyone probably expected me to know Malayalam and I knew squat. However, while a part of me felt out of place, a part of me strangely felt comfortable – perhaps it was the down to earth hospitality that our friends showed us when we arrived. But the real reason became more apparent once the cultural programs began.

The first program seemed like a very traditional Onam thing, where a group ladies dressed in traditional attire, each carrying a tray performed a kummi stle dance. What struck me was the song – it was in Anandabhairavi raga, and suddenly I realized how beautiful the Malayalam language is! I couldn’t follow a single word, but each of then seemed coated with honey and sugar. The song put me right at home. It was just like any Carnatic song with folksy touch in Anandabhairavi – very “homely”, always a winner.

Then a very little girl came and sang a couple of film songs – a Malayalam one and a Hindi one. Following this was a dance program which had a collage of classical styles – Mohiniattam , Bharatanatyam and even a little taste of Kathakali. The first two was under the backdrop of a familiar Purandaradasa song in Kannada.

A couple of semi-classical items followed, this time performed to Tamil film songs with a classical base. This was then followed by a presentation from the group I chauffeured. They did a classical Bharatanatyam piece where the song was in Telugu set to various Carnatic ragas. This was followed an extensive dance presentation celebrating India via 3 dance styles – Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, and folk (impressive costumes!). At the end of this, we realized it was getting very late, we had a long drive back, and so we had to leave.

During all this, I realized that this may be a celebration of Kerala, but it is also a celebration of India (perhaps mostly South India), and its diversity. That is why I felt right at home. I was glad to be a part of it, and I felt enlightened in more than one way. Yes, the people there spoke a language that I did not understand, and their food and customs were different from mine. But it did not matter at all when there is so much in common. We can either focus on the few differences between us, use them as a reason complain, ridicule, and come to blows; or we can focus on the many things that are common between us and celebrate life together. The choice seems obvious to me. In the end, I felt that I could relate to everything there because their culture is similar to mine, just as Indian as mine. I felt connected.

I also marvel at the openness, and tolerance exhibited by the Malayalee community here in Chicago. In a festival that specifically celebrated their tradition, they were being so inclusive, celebrating other languages, and other cultures of India. I salute them for this!

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I have had this fancy thought for a while. I don’t know whether I have run amock with it but here it goes anyway…

I think a country, any country, is just like an average human, a single person, a macro human if you will. I find that this applies most to a country’s external persona – i.e. how a country behaves/interacts with other countries, and most importantly how the country wants to be perceived by the “society” i.e. all countries in the world.

How does the external persona of a typical person look? We want others to look at us in positive light. I would say we breathe this thought sub-consciously night and day. For most of us, the thought of being looked down as a fool, a weakling, scares us silly and we overcompensate whenever that possibility could be there. I am not that well versed in psychology, but this insecurity simply seems like a reflection of our ego. Basically, we hate to admit we are wrong. When we are resigned to the fact that we cannot get our away – we would rather quietly slip out rather than bring ourselves to say I am sorry with sincerity. Also, in almost always anything and everything we do, if we look deep enough, we will find that there is some personal benefit to us. And that benefit could be This makes me happy but it is very rarely followed just because it made the other person happy. We also find it very easy to likes others who agree with us, and share our interests. When we come across people who are too different from us – we sorta close our shells.

I think all this can be safely applied to your country’s external persona. And “your country”, does not necessarily mean your current government – i.e. the government you didn’t vote for and don’t agree with and hence feel like disassociating with now. The external persona of your country is a collective (but selective) image of all its citizens, and has developed over generations. It is simply a reflection of the collective pulse of its citizens w.r.t how they want their country to be perceived by “foreigners”.

I wager that your pride in your country, your attachment to it, your patriotism – all sacrosanct things in our society, has the most impact on the external persona of your country. And the result is a self-centered, egotistical, hypocritical person, who likes to look good and strong to impress (even if it means intimidation) others:

  • You country generally finds it much easier to like other countries that “look like it”. This means countries whose people have the same race as your country, and it means countries whose people are culturally “not too different”.
  • Your country only gets along with countries that pretty much behaves like it in worldly matters. If it says something that it thinks is important, it likes countries which agrees with it.
  • You country starts acting cool with other countries that don’t agree with it or act/speak differently from it in wordly matters. If it says something that it thinks is important and another country completely disagrees – generally the voices in the country’s mind start speaking ill of the other country.
  • Your country in general will do things with other countries only if it benefits it. If it is giving charity, there is always some strings attached.
  • Your country hates admitting it is wrong. It never wants to blink first in a confrontation. It’s ego will rather make it prolong a bad situation forever rather than saying it’s wrong or more importantly have other’s say “you lost, you are weak”. If at all extricating in a bad situation has to happen, it is done very quietly and with mis-direction and camouflaged words. There is a saying in my native language which translates – even if I fell upside-down, the sand didn’t stick to my moustache (i.e. i didn’t look foolish). This safely applies to a country.
  • Your country likes to think it is very principled, and of course a “better person” than every other country in some respect or other. But inside it (i.e. via some voices within), it knows that it is hypocritical – and principles are broken as often as they are upheld. But in general, it would be caught dead rather than admitting this in public. In some rare moments, there may be a confession here or there – but fast forward a few months and it is back to Mr. Strong.
  • Once your country develops deep hatred for another, it would rather beat that country up rather than be even open to the possibility we can still work out our differences

It is perhaps not a revelation that a country is simply a reflection of its citizens. But is this the one we want? With this kind of a reflection – how proud should we be about our country and ourselves?

How can I still believe in that God, the God my mind created, the God I think I knew?
How can I still believe in that God, who would have knowingly allowed this to happen?
How can I still believe in that God, who could justify this as punishment for sins in previous lives?
How can I still believe in that God, who loves all but would let the defenseless be violated this way?
How can I still believe in that God, who champions the truth but also allows such monsters to be created?

The above probably reads haphazard and chaotic. I am certainly no poet, and it is certainly not intended as a poem (and neither it looks to be so). It is just a reflection of the raw feelings I had when I happened to run across this news today on cnn.com

Nowadays, I seem as if I run into this kind of news often. Every time, I feel sick inside, my heart feels as it is squeezed hard, my stomach retches and turns, and anger mounts inside, and my eyes cloud. I want a cure, a solution, which will fix this for good. I want to complain to someone powerful – a Don, a Dada, no a God who will make sure this doesn’t happen again – especially to the young. The God, most of us believe in from when we were young. The God society has created. The God who will make sure bad things don’t happen if you are good.

I used to ask why would that God, the one we all think we know, allow this to happen to the young and the defenseless? No justification seems possible and would be satisfactory. Even if that God supposedly will make sure the Truth eventually prevails – what’s the freaking point after all these kinds of atrocities?

Bad, horrible, unimaginable horrific things happen daily to many many people – the strong, the weak, the old, and the young. Yes – especially those little, sweet young ones. We all know this. Most of the time it is like the sound of distant gunfire, or a war in a far away land killing people we don’t know and hence it doesn’t matter as much. However, when it happens to the young ones, it is suddenly very near, very real with the horror of it all very clear. It affects me most and makes me feel weak, hopeless and in despair. I am ashamed, very perplexed, and very appalled as to how devolved humans are.

(PS: I still sort of believe in a God now. Just not the one I inherited, not the one I further developed in my mind, and believed in for many many years. I am not talking about specific religions or switching religions. But the kind of the God that seems to make a teeny weeny sense now is ironically, the true God that the religions always spoke about. But I am not sure He offers instant, permanent solution for the above either. There is no God who will do what I want here. So I feel like throwing up my hand and asking – what’s the freaking point?)

Yesterday, among the usual constant barrage of thoughts and images that cross my mind, a brief thought about an old friend suddenly appeared. And it rekindled some old memories. I decided to make contact again with that friend from my college way way way back in India. He has been a friend for almost 24 years now and we have maintained contact throughout although off late it had been quite sporadic. I was glad that the email address still worked and he responded. I am glad that contact has been reestablished.

All this sent me once again on nostalgic trip back to my college years all the way back to mid-eighties, to Trichy, India. Ah! Those lovely years! Truly unforgettable! I always thought so – nay in fact was sure of it. But …

Lately, I have noticed with some trepidation that I cannot remember some of the basic details of those years. These are details that I used to be able easily recollect before. Even as recent as a few years ago, I used to be able to reel out the names of all my hostel (dorm in US lingo) wing mates (20 of them) in order of the rooms they stayed in. I could remember at least five guys in pretty much every wing in the two hostels of my batch.

But I can’t anymore. I can remember many of the guys in my wing, but not all. The room order – details now appear hazy and haphazard. These were guys I spent the best years of my life with. And now I can recollect neither the names nor the faces of some of them! About guys in other wings – my memory is even fainter. In fact, I remember that a couple months ago, it took me a few of minutes before I could even remember the names of all the hostels in my college!

There is no question. Memories of one the best times of my life is starting to fade.

It is just the beginning, but it is a perturbing beginning. Not to be alarmed too much as I am pretty sure I am not suffering from any medical problem leading to unusual memory loss (I hope ;-)). I believe it is just a natural process orchestrated by something. And that something is Time.

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