My Grandma died today.

Our beloved Nani, Ammi Jaan. I didn’t know her by name, true to Indian culture.

Ammi Jaan was one of the simplest, most clear-hearted women I have  known, of the kind that otherwise is only part of Indian folklore about the people of old. She loved her family and wanted everyone to live together, nearby, in the same hamlet, in the same town, close to each other. What’s the point of your education, she said, or your job, if it moves you away from those you love. I have been away from my family for a long time – over nine years now. And almost every time I saw her, she would hint at how I should move back in with my family. You should open a “shop,” a doctor’s office in her language, in Mysore, she said, of my sister and her husband, doctors in the UK, so they could live close to family.  . She raised my sisters when our family was away. They have many more fond memories of her than I do – her Dosa with extra ghee, her walking to my sister’s school for two miles every afternoon to give her a fresh, hot lunch, her loving smile.

Ammi Jaan knew no malice. She was delightfully innocent. To her, the world was full of kindness, empathy and care, just the way she was. When I talk about  caring for others, she’s on top of my mind as someone who embodied unconditional love when she cared.  She grew up in a now-small village of Srirangapattanam, where everyone knew each other. Contrary to other parts of India that saw Hindu-Muslim clashes, people were simple, nice and loving here, best known for one of India’s greatest heroes in the 18th century, Tipu Sultan, who fought the British colonial forces and brought in new technological innovations. She took great pride in her hero, and spoke of how, if Tipu Sultan had continued to rule, Srirangapattanam would have been  London. Of course, London still seemed the center of the world to her, having spent a significant part of her life at a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. As someone who loves history and wants to experience life the way others did, she was a treasure trove to me. She spoke of how everyone following the World War 2 on the radio thought Hitler would win, as the Luftwaffe were ravaging London.

Ammi Jaan was also deeply religious.  My sister said she pretended to sleep next to her while she prayed – she heard Ammi Jaan pray for every single person in the family several times a day. Her most painful time that I knew of, was when her only son, our Mamu, passed away young in front of her. She never seemed to recover mentally from the trauma. To those who cared for her, none more than my aunt, it was a painful period until her end. Her dementia worsened with time. Her prayers had become meaningless to those around her by now, because she forgot how to make the Muslim ritual prayer. She would ask the same question every five minutes, and ask silly questions, providing some comic relief and rest to an aunt who was otherwise overworked caring for her. She failed to recognize her own children and grandchildren many times. She perhaps never understood what my mom went through – in her long and painful cancer treatment. Near her end, she forgot how to swallow, or use the restroom. She had several health complications and was in considerable pain in her last days. My cousin talked of how, even at her end, Ammi Jaan would always answer queries about her health the same way – “Allah ka Fazal hai,” “Good, by God’s grace.” Her faith was embedded in her personality.

When they told me her days were numbered, deep inside, I felt that was probably the best for her- an end to her suffering. But God knows best, so I prayed for what was best for her. My mother had been very emotional. I didn’t know how to comfort her, but I decided to take the plunge anyway. Two minutes into my conversation with mom, when I talked about how Allah gives us what is best for us, she burst into tears and hung up. If I was calm about Ammi Jaan all this while, I was crying seeing my mother cry. It has been about a week since I have spoken with my mother, something that has happened very few times in life.

And then, the news came as I was driving out of state – Ammi Jaan  had passed away.   Hours into my long drive, I couldn’t hold back my tears, turned around and went back home.

In the messaging thread that I used to inform my cousins of her death, the previous message was of the birth of a baby in the family. It struck me how two consecutive messages for the family were about birth and death. That sums up the life of this world – it is but a brief period between birth and death. It is temporary.
Through the ups and downs in life over the past year, one lesson I have learned repeatedly has been simple – life goes on. And life ends when it is meant to. Old gives way to new, each with its own benefits and challenges. Until then, all we can do is make the best of our time and circumstances, preparing for an eternal life in future.

The prayer that I always make had found the best time for it – Ramadhan – may Allah unite all of us, everyone I love, in eternal paradise again. Amen.

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A Few Things I Love – from India

I had a wonderful time traveling to Bangalore, India recently.

 Coconut Water on the Streets

This was a familiar sight in Bangalore – a man selling coconut water by the roadside, with a sickle in hand to cut open your coconut right in front of you. Fresh, and natural. They were definitely a lot more expensive than the last time I was in Bangalore, but I totally love it.  Each time I see canned and branded coconut water in a store, I crave for simple coconut water from the roadside like in Bangalore.

There’s other delicacies sold on the roads and in street carts in India – in much the same way rice platters are sold on every block in New York or Philadelphia.

Street Cart

My family, and most people in Bangalore consume Chai (doodh-patti chai) several times a day. Someone flicked a line from Dunkin’ Donuts for Bangalore. “India runs on Chai.”

Chai

I do cook every once in a while, but I’m more known for burning my chicken curry. I tried to use my time in India to improve my cooking skills. Here I am, making a mean Roti from scratch, kneading and all. I was quite proud of myself.

Roti

What did annoy me sometimes was that some people tried to speak with me differently, and not as though I was any other Bangalorean. The auto-rickshaws and taxi-wallahs could figure out that I wasn’t living in the area and charged me exorbitantly, despite protests in my broken Kannada. Everyone speaks some English or Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani in Bangalore, which came to my rescue.

India

Buying Halal Chicken from the store. If you’re not buying from a fancy store with an inflated price, this is how the poor and middle class get their chicken from the store.

You get the (poor) live birds from their cage …

chicken

You weigh them to bill your customer appropriately ..

chicken

And then, Zabihah them.

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For the record, except for my severe allergies in Bangalore for which I was on nasal steroids, I never fell sick.

I came back to freezing weather while I was relishing the sun back in Bangalore.

temperature bangalore

I love Bangalore so much. The family of course, and the city, its people, its diversity, its temperate climate. Until next time.

PS: Google Now on my Android phone was a pretty good companion throughout my trip, and intelligent. Traveling through Bangalore and Abu Dhabi, it helped me in sightseeing, translations, and currency conversions without having to search for any of them.

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Back from a Dream Trip

It wasn’t hard to miss the difference in how Ettihad Airways treats customers bound for India or Pakistan vis-a-vis those for Western destinations.

Flying to Bangalore, India, my gate at the airport in Abu Dhabi was in a corner that could have passed off for an ill-maintained basement. There were no signs, directions or flight information except marked gate numbers. It was crowded. I had to ask cleaners for information or search around for staff who gave conflicting information about the assigned gate. I knew I was flying cattle-class.

Flying back to Washington from the same airport was needless to say, a pleasant experience with an ambience you would expect in a modern airport in an oil-rich Sheikhdom.

My time in India. The surprise I gave my folks when I showed up at their door with no prior warning or information, from thousands of miles away, was one of the happiest times of my life. India was just the way I had expected  – full of people with loving hearts and intrusive personal questions by strangers. Uncles and aunts trying to get me married. It seemed very expensive – from public transportation to restaurants to groceries. I didn’t do much sightseeing – all I wanted was to spend as much time as possible with the people I had missed so much. It was a wonderful experience  – a getaway that I needed in a place I wondered if I should call home.

In the few days before I left for India, I was stressed, dejected and sad. From a friend who hurt me a second time and wanted nothing to do with me. From stress about my career. From the relative loneliness in a new city even though I had made several friends. From pressure with decisions I had to make in personal life that would affect others. I was low on self-esteem and motivation.
And then Allah opened an opportunity for me. ‘Eid was only a couple of weeks away and I had a natural break at my job. It was perfect. I needed a break from everyday anarchy.. a holiday with those that love me unconditionally.

The three weeks after I returned were the best days I had in a very long time.

A Leap of Faith to the Motherland

In the end, all I needed was a moment of high courage – something I had backed out of, half a dozen times over more than one year.

I bought my ticket. I was going to fly to India the next day.

It was uncertain out there, and that’s why it was scary. Three years since the last time I was there. How much of it had changed? How would I feel about the life I had built for myself in another country? Would I feel guilty about leaving everything I knew for it? Would I be pushed into marriage with someone I didn’t know or wasn’t attracted to? Would I face trouble getting back to my life? It was stressful. I had my doubts. The thought of running back home crossed my mind even in the security line at the airport. It was only after the plane finally took off that it sunk in.

This was happening. It was surreal, and unreal.

If almost every trip in recent memory was preceded by chaos, stress and eleventh hour errands, it was a smooth ride this time.  Ettihad Airways, it was. I was a fussy traveler, complaining about the way they processed my paperwork at their counters, their response, their inflight entertainment, to the freezing temperatures they maintained in the plane from “mechanical issues,” and the lack of directions at Abu Dhabi for India-bound flights.

It was going to be a total surprise to my family I would be visiting. I landed without hassle. I couldn’t wait to get to my place for the out-of-the-world surprise. I took the airport shuttle to get to home and each time I saw something I remembered in the city through the windows, the excitement only grew stronger.

The total chaos on the streets, a rapidly growing city with construction every two minutes, the stray dogs outside, the super-rich with their fancy cars jostling for space with motor-bikes and auto-rickshaws, the honking, swanky offices interspersed with houses, people selling coconut water by the roadside…all of it made my heart tingle. The suprabhatam played in the bus, kids walked on pavements hand in hand.  This was and would always be a home to me.

I showed up at their door, and knocked. The reaction, the disbelief and shock on their faces will forever be etched in my memory. Genuine happiness and love doesn’t need to be expressed. When someone begins to cry out of happiness at seeing you, you know you waited far too long to make this trip. I wished I had taken this leap earlier.

The Desire for Acceptance

Among the things that make me teary-eyed, apart from the onions I cut every other day,  is when I watch an adoring large group of people  applaud someone.
It happened most recently when Rep. Giffords returned to the House of Representatives to vote. It happened when I saw people applaud Patch Adams in the movie by the same name. It happened when I saw huge audiences do that to Randy Pausch. It happened many times when they did that to Obama back in 2009.  It melted my heart each time,  and I felt as if the pinnacle of human achievement was being breached. I wondered dreamily if I could ever receive such a response. I wondered what I would feel like if I was in that position, at the receiving end.

While many may think I am over-reacting ( I think I am ), there is no doubt about the need for recognition, acceptance, approval and praise that everyone has. Closely linked is the need for acceptance by one’s peers and the need that a lot of people feel of maintaining a reputation that they already have or want to have.

But then, some questions prop up. What if people aren’t applauding you ? What if people do not recognize you and your efforts ? What if people do not recognize you the way you want to be recognized ? What if you are obscure and unknown. Does it mean you are doing something wrong ? Or as a corollary, if people are applauding you, if people recognize you,  does it mean you’re doing something right ?

I sat back to think about it. As much as I was moved by the sight of recognition, some cold hard facts stared at me.
Hitler was used to receiving rapturous applause, but he was a demagogue and a devil personified who was responsible for heinous crimes. Netanyahu is a right-wing hawk but he received many standing ovations and applause from the US Congress even as he thundered about the right to colonization.  The despots ruling or formerly ruling in the Arab world have been used to such treatment by their “chamchas” (spoons in desi parlance), i.e., by those who personally benefit from their rule and slavishly follow them.

What if someone wanted to do the right thing even if it was unpopular ? It would certainly not win any applause. Does it mean we shouldn’t do anything that’s unpopular ? I thought about the caste system in India. There were the “untouchables” who were treated as just that – untouchables and as dirt. They weren’t allowed to mix freely with the “upper castes”, they weren’t allowed into temples and so on. In extreme cases, their women weren’t allowed to cover their bosoms in public in a community. A second example was the Sati system in India – where the widow was  forcibly burned alive in the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Stopping such heinous and inhuman practices was highly unpopular in society, but it still had to be done. Even if the rulers weren’t going to get cheered for it.

A lot of volunteer activities that people did were all about photographs in newspapers. This was most exposed when volunteer organizations were given relief money to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake in Gujarat, India a few years back.

Closer to home and around my life, volunteerism on and off campus for some people seemed to be more about giving the right impression about themselves to others. The reason some of these people gave when asked about what they do or why they wouldn’t do something was that they had a reputation to maintain. This brought us to the same problem   – by consequence, they wouldn’t do something that they think is right if it was going to be unpopular or looked down upon. In another way, they would do something right more because of what others would think of them, than because of the fact that it’s what they think is the right thing to do.

This world is never going to be completely fair. Apart from the great people who win great applause, there are also countless but unknown heroes that go unnoticed. There are many who fight the world to do the right thing, facing flak instead of applause. On the other side, there are those who only play to the gallery and go against their own conscience and there are those who do good only to win applause or impress a people.  Real and true justice, therefore, can only be in the hereafter, where everyone will be judged and rewarded for their true worth and effort, and not on how the world treated and judged them. To me, satisfying my conscience was now more important than recognition. Doing what you think is right was more important. People are imperfect. People may not treat its greats equally. People may reward the wrong people. People may not reward the right people. But God is Perfect and Just.  So satisfy your conscience and let not the desire for worldly applause sway you !

An obsession called Cricket and the World Cup

Last week was one of the rare extended periods of time when I generally stayed away from news channels and news websites, and of course from a lot of my school work  – blame the Cricket World Cup craze.  I was like, “wait, what ? Why are hundreds of people finding my blog looking for something to read on a burned Koran ? Oh, here it is, Pastor Jones burned the Quran and there are riots in Afghanistan.” I’m saving this story for another time.

Cricket World Cup media

Image via Wikipedia

I hadn’t really followed or watched cricket for years now, but when India and Pakistan were playing in the World Cup semifinals, the frenzy and excitement among South Asians was as high as it could get – and some of it got to me too. I can only imagine the craze back in India and Pakistan for the world cup and this match. Indian and Pakistani media coverage was pathetically silly, stupid and biased, at least from the reports I saw on YouTube shared on Facebook. Prime-ministers from the rival countries were to watch the game together !

So much so, a South Asian student organization in my school arranged a screening of the semifinal game on a big screen and I did not let go of this opportunity.  Indians had an amazing time cheering  every dropped catch ( Yes, Pakistan dropped as many as four catches that would have got Sachin Tendulkar, the best batsman in the world, out) and every boundary or a six, and then later on, at every Pakistani wicket that fell when India were bowling. Pakistani wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal was a butt of jokes too after his horrendous performance, dropping more catches than he caught. His pickup line ? “Where can I drop you ?”


When Pakistan finally lost the match to India,  I did not lose any opportunity to have fun rubbing it into my Pakistani friends’ faces.  Most of them wouldn’t really care, but these were abnormal times.  And many of them would only say that the match was fixed. Losers! :-)

For most of my Pakistani friends (and I’m sure this is true the other way round too), regardless of whether Pakistan can win the World Cup or not, India should not win it. Not surprisingly, there were fervent Pakistani prayers that India lose the final against Sri Lanka.

I went to see the Final  match screening on a big screen with a bunch of die-hard Indian fans this time, and it was a dream come-true for them when Indians were world champions after a wait of twenty-eight years. The celebrations went on for days, and they still cannot stop gloating about it on Facebook.

Pakistani captain Afridi was large-hearted and accepted defeat, saying India played better.  He also won many Indian hearts when he questioned Pakistani special rivalry with India in cricket pointing out how Pakistanis watch Indian television serials, how Indian movies play in their theaters, how they adore Indian movie stars, eat Indian food, and yet oppose India this way.

And then, again, Pakistani media was at its best – the Final match was fixed, they said, only to have angry and abusive comments by Indian fans on such reports.

I enjoyed myself the whole time from the company of the people I was with and the frenzy around, not to mention by poking fun at friends whose favored teams lost.

We now have a billion people celebrating on one side and so is their diaspora, and millions on the other side of the border mourning. Both of these over  eleven people who rotated a piece of wood in a park somewhere.

I hope the hundreds of millions of Indians who sleep hungry and live on less than a dollar a day had a real reason to celebrate, and the millions of Pakistanis in poverty had a real reason to mourn.

 

 

Winter trip to the UK and India

After a grueling Fall semester in school, I got to get away from this place for a five-week long holiday and visit friends and family in two countries – the United Kingdom and India.

People are often surprised when they hear about how much my family and my extended family is spread out over three continents. A few days before I left, one of my lab-mates expressed his awe at how much of the world people like me have got to see. I told him that going to and living in different parts of the world has widened my horizons,  and that people who haven’t lived in different places tend to have skewed understandings of other parts of the world. They tend to believe more in stereotypes and are easier to fall prey to propaganda about other nations and cultures. No, Muslims don’t actually worship a black box in the middle of the desert and don’t actually kiss the ground five times a day !
Well, this guy did not actually say that (Yusuf Estes did in one of his lectures ), but he did have some of the wrong but popular impressions about Arabs and the brown people, and he’s always been in the area between Indiana and the east coast.

After a Christmas day shutdown in London when I landed, I had little to do but sleep at a friend’s place.  It was just my poor luck that my next and final day in London was going to be a strike-day for the London underground metro workers and none of the tube trains would be working.  A Brit replied to a ranting me: “Welcome to London”.
Apparently, strikes are not too uncommon here.

I still enjoyed riding the jam-packed double decker buses for the first time, but long waiting times for buses, higher walking time  towards stops, and a very early sunset meant I could cover only so many places. Our group got to be at  The Tower bridge, London Bridge, the aquarium, London eye, Piccadilly Circus, Liverpool station, ice-skating near the London eye , Trafalgar Square in the dark,  London Central Mosque’s closed gates and Madamme Tousadd’s closed doors.  At least I could tame a huge lion and sit upon its back – so what if it was a statue in Trafalgar square and the pictures were crappy in the night ?

Generally overcast skies and dull weather had me humming “Welcome to Seattle” as my next few weeks were spent visiting relatives and friends in Manchester, Blackburn, Cardiff, Liverpool etc. interspersed with visits to local attractions in these cities, the best being the museums in Manchester. I would recommend the Nawab restaurant in downtown Manchester to anyone who wishes to have the best of desi food in the area.(UK for me).

Next stop, Bangalore, has always been my absolute favorite city in India despite my allergies, the pollution and the heavy traffic.  Mysore, an erstwhile royal city in the south also had a bunch of relatives I had to visit and was my next stop. The Mysore Palace was definitely a better structure than the more famed Buckingham palace.  A musical fountain show in Bangalore a few hours before I had to board my flight back home was my last stop and provided for my last few hours until a long time with  some of the most beloved people in my life.
Pending work at school was enough motivation for me to gather enough courage to control my emotions as I headed back home.

I arrived back to a warm welcome by the customs and border protection folks at the airport, who opened all my bags and searched every inch, all the while asking questions about the books (most of them on Islam) that I had bought during my trip.
Okay, it has been enough procrastinating. Heading back to my work now. I’ve added a few pictures from my trip below.

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Did anyone say Chinese Economy?

Though I admit I am sometimes a little left-leaning, I cannot appreciate China, despite its phenomenal growth rate, efficiency and increasing influence on the world stage. I tend to feel that its awesome growth is USELESS, in the absence of basic human rights, democracy and freedom of expression and thought. I would any day prefer an India with the Constitutionally mandated freedoms(maybe not available practically though) with its slow growth, poverty , corruption and inefficiency to a China with awesome growth and infrastructure but which allows us to live only like animals, i.e. with the single -minded pursuit of wealth, and have no other aim in life.