The Late Comment

Thought Express

24ls1 This post will be posted almost four hours later than its scheduled time. That must make our readers think, “Oh they’re so irresponsible!” I bet no one would hire us if they thought we never replied in time or wrote anything when they needed us to. So, how do we feel when Narendra Modi reassures us so many days after religious intolerance has been rampant in the country?

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New Year, New Beginnings

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Each year, in the first week of January, we are joyful and hopeful. We hope that the New Year brings us bucket-loads of happiness; we hope that everything that had disappointed us in the previous year will straighten up and present itself in a better way. We hope for many such little things that might make our lives better.  It has been two years since the horrifying news of Delhi gang rape splashed across newspapers, and the protest it had generated has mellowed out.

Recently, I read a post that said- “This incident happened two weeks ago. I had an exam and my exam centre was at Nangloi, near Kashmiri gate Metro station, Delhi. As I reached the metro station, I took the escalator. On the escalator, I had a guy standing in front of me, who had a girl in front of him. The girl was wearing high-heeled footwear and was carrying a big trolley bag. The girl lost her balance for a moment and was about to fall down. This guy in front of me noticed this and out of reflex and courtesy opened his hand facing out to support her. His hand happened to touch her back. Her balance was restored. As we reached up the platform, to my surprise she slapped the guy and yelled at him “How dare you touch me?!”

You probably think that the girl is ungrateful, and arrogant to first accept the help from a stranger and then turn all the fury on him as if he had molested her rather than helped her. In india, even though women trot in high heels and short skirts, they cower in fear. To them, every man walking on the road is a rapist. Women are suspicious of any benevolent act. If a guy offers you a ride- he could be a rapist, if an auto-wallah is willing to drop you to your destination at night- he could be a rapist, if some men are standing beside you at a bus stop- they could be rapists, if a male friend asks you to come alone- no matter how much you trust him, he could be a rapist. A woman feels unsafe even in the protection of her own family, because who knows if her own father or uncle could force her into doing things she never wanted to do.

In a time when people ask to be treated equally, women in India silently pray with hands clasped and quivering lips to keep them safe from any attention that might lead to her “shame”. This year, I hope that we take a few steps towards making women feel like they have their own space to breathe in, and that they do not need to feel defenceless against those who disrespect them and do not care about their wishes.

ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACKWARD

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When Narendra Modi was elected as the Prime Minister of India, I was overjoyed. After all, I had voted for the first time and it had been to bring this epitome of success to power. I wanted a relief from the scams that were continuously being unearthed from the deep, dark recesses of the parties in power. I wanted a relief from politicians running rampant and arresting any innocent citizen for stating their opinions on social networking sites. I wanted a country that would be brought back to its feet with revolutionary economic reforms and renewed vigor in development. I wanted a country free from unnecessary limitations that would curb the democratic authenticity of this country. Thus, I was very happy when the prime minister announced Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (Prime Minister’s People Money Scheme, a scheme for comprehensive financial inclusion), Swaccha Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean Indian Mission, a national level campaign by the Government of India, covering 4041 statutory towns to clean the streets, roads and infrastructure of the country) and admonished ministers who behaved inappropriately.

Lately, the Hindutva leaders have reigned in the attention with the news of religious conversions that are happening all over the country. The Ghar Wapsi (return home) program, that plans to help Christians and Muslims that had earlier converted from Hinduism to reconvert to their original religion, has been set up in different regions. About sixty Dalit Christians reconverted to Hinduism in Kerala, and many other programmes have been setup by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (an Indian right-wing Hindu nationalist non-governmental organization) all over the country to lure in people to reconvert.  Even though it seems like all there is to it is the news of some people converting to a different religion, it fills me with apprehension. It feels as though we are back to rudimentary fundamentals that we were supposed to have left behind a long time ago. One would think that India has come far ahead and that now its priorities lie in developing the country, but what the people of India have to worry about instead is religion based reservations, caste based reservations, and now forcible conversions to Hinduism. Of course, the members of organizations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization or National Patriotic Organization is a right-wing charitable, educational, volunteer, Hindu nationalist, non-governmental organization) will claim that it is voluntary, and it is high time that we brought back and strengthened Hindu culture, and that muslims and Christians forcibly converted or lured in the poor and the mistreated.

I cannot help but feel cornered and frustrated with what the ruling governments do each time their pressure groups change. Is it not time for us to stop meddling with a person’s beliefs just because she/he doesn’t feel the same?

The Times We Live In

Ten years ago, when I was a little child, when my mother told me that we lived in the Kalyuga the Age of Downfall (The fourth stage of the world development that we are currently in. As the corruption gradually developed wider in the earlier stages), I would screw my face up, and tell her that the world seemed pretty nice to me even though I was not happy with my name, my school, my teachers, and with the neighbor who would pop up at my place each time to take my candy.

Now that I’m a grown-up, it upsets me to accept that this age truly is the Kalyuga. After all, how can one explain barely fifteen year olds getting pregnant or the vulgar songs that play at every night club- be it Hindi or English or the leers a woman gets even if she is wearing a salwar-kameez (an Indian attire worn by majority of women. It is a pair of loose pajamas and a long dress) or eminent politicians advising women to stop going out at night because they are too lazy to do anything about harassment?  The horror of the above list diminishes as the newspapers fill their spaces with gory details of the rape of little children in the most unthinkable ways, of the world fighting for no reason in the name of religion and people from all over the world coming together- not to promote peace or cleanliness- but to terrorize the rest of the world! That is not even the end of it all. How in the world does one explain killing about two hundred innocent children at a sacred institution where they went to grow and bud into better humans? There lie thousands of hopes and wishes and aspirations buried along with the lifeless little bodies of the helpless, never to turn into anything more than hopes and wishes and aspirations. Who are to blame for that? Are we to blame for the selfish leaders of Pakistan who are deluded by the power entrusted to them by the people of Pakistan? Or are we to blame the Taliban? Or are we to blame Lord Krishna for predicting that we were going to live in a gory world?

To me, the people with big guns and by that I mean the terrorists like Taliban and the members of Islamic State seem to be the face of the problem whereas it runs very deep. The village of Ajmal Kasab , the terrorist (of the Lashkar-E-Toiba terrorist group) who was sentenced to death for killing hundreds of innocent citizens of India in the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, cried over him and cursed India. They even pelted stones at the reporters who had gone to cover the story and instead of condemning the horrifying act, they worshipped him.  I still remember the maid who worked at our place in 2008, Zahira, told my mother once that Osama Bin Laden was their God, and that he was the rightful ruler of the world. As astounding as that is, it does not seem to surprise me now. Families tell their sons that they can live in whichever fashion they want to and that the daughters are to stay at home and cover themselves from head to toe. And if they are harassed even after that, well too bad, it is still the girl’s fault because she provoked the “pious” man who can do no wrong. Men recruit little children and train them into doing wrongful things because these children have been taught that it is their duty to kill for religion, or that their families are living in peace and comfort because of what they are doing.

What we are told is what we believe. People are brainwashed and told things that they eventually start believing. It is similar to a little child believing in the tooth-fairy or magic or monsters under the bed. I believe the problem starts at the base, it lies in what we are taught is right. To curb the big problem of terrorism, I believe people must be shown how to interpret situations in a different way than they do right now. People must be educated- in the right manner- in a way that promotes harmony and peaceful living rather than destruction and violence.

The Snob…Something After That

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The start of the story is on the link given, i have just given it an ending which made me feel better about the characters- (http://www.risd.k12.nm.us/assessment_evaluation/ImprovSBAscores/SBA%20Reading/The%20Snob3.pdf)

“Do you want to go to the parlor you like so much? We can have tea with cupcakes of your choice” John said to mask how truly wretched he felt. Grace peeked from underneath her hat and shyly answered, “I would like that.”

As they sat in the parlor, drinking tea and talking about everything but what had happened some hours ago, Grace clutched his hand and looked deeply in his eyes. With a quivering voice she requested, “John let’s agree never to disagree. It does a thing to my nerves. I realize the argument brought us closer than we were before, but I wish we wouldn’t talk like that to each other. It is very unpleasant.”

Taken in by her speech and soulful eyes, John ardently replied, “I wish I had never been so stupid Grace. I swear on my life that I shall never lash out on you again. I feel ashamed and wretched to have been so unpleasant to you when the fault was all in my head.”

Seeing him troubled Grace felt that she should comfort him and tell him that everything would be fine. But she knew not of the matter that troubled him so.

“Oh Grace, how do I even begin to tell you what I have done. It is unspeakable and it horrifies me to have done something so bad. You see, I belong to a plain and simple family. My father and mother wear shabby clothes that have been worn for too long. They do not possess the fine qualities your parents do. I love them just s much as every son loves his parents, but there is no denying that they could use some mannerisms. I know I sound like a snob and that makes me feel even worse. I love them fiercely and would never want them to change in any way. But today, when I saw my father in the same room as you, I panicked, I felt constricted. I did not know if you would want to meet him. And it made me feel agitated to not know what to do and I cannot afford to lose you.”

Grace had turned from happy to somber. Almost violently, she withdrew her hand and looked the other side. “How could you think of something that awful? I have wanted to meet your parents ever since you met mine! If you would never give me a chance to meet them, how ever will I know if I like them or not! I would never leave you John. I care for you, passionately. But this behavior of yours makes me question my decision to spend time with you!”

“Oh Grace please forgive me! I wish you would meet them right now! Please do not be disappointed in me! I shall do as you please. Do you want to meet my parents? We could do that.”

Startled at how odd this day had been, but thrilled to know that she would finally meet his parents, Grace agreed to accompany him to his house where he knew his family would be right now.

The house of the Harcourts was a quaint one. Although the paint seemed to be chipped from certain places and it was clear that the house needed some repairing, Grace thought it had a certain charm to it. Grace marveled at the fact that John had never before asked her to come here and in a way she was glad that John had embarrassed himself since now she got to meet his parents.

The door creaked open as they entered the house. They heard a voice along with some hustle and bustle.

“John? Is that you dearie? Be an angel and fetch me some needles from the top shelf in the cabinet!”

John apologetically looked towards Grace, only to find her silently laughing. He nervously smiled, still wondering if she had been put off by anything yet.

“John! Why haven’t…..” the voice trailed off as an old woman stood before them, slightly surprised. Her grey dress seemed faded and loose strands escaped her bun. “Why hello! Come in dear. Do introduce yourself to me. I am John’s mother you see.

James! James, look who’s here!”

John’s heartbeat quickened, he felt his face starting to flush and he couldn’t meet his father’s eyes as he descended the stairs. As he chanced a sight of him, he saw that his father was regarding him with cool blue eyes and a grave expression. He could not imagine the hurt he had caused him. After all, to be ignored by one’s own son when you are so proud of him, is nothing short of humiliation of the highest level.

“Hello sir, I am Grace. It is a pleasure to meet you” Grace said cheerily, trying to diffuse the stuffy atmosphere that had been created when his father had come in the room. James looked at Grace, and his eyes seemed to melt into a softer tone. He kindly looked at her, and said “it is nice to meet you too. You look lovely dear. Lovely indeed.”

And that is how they got to talking- Grace, his mother, and his father. They talked, they laughed, and they ate together until it was time for her to go. It was clear that she liked them as much as they liked her. As John watched them talk to each other in happy spirits, he would later go to his father and beg his forgiveness, and although what he did was heartbreaking for his father, he would try to forgive him.

The Trip- Day 5 and Day 6

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On the fifth day, a pre-hired taxi was at the hotel door to take us to the Siliguri airport. As it had rained the other night, the river Teesta seemed swelling with water. It seemed like a powerful force that would wipe anything in its way. As the river drifted down towards plains, so did we. It is hard to think about nausea overpowering everything when the sight around you is so beautiful. As we sat at the quaint airport waiting for our flight, I imagined how Guwahati, the capital of Assam, our next stop, would be like. After two testing hours, our plane was finally ready for take-off. Unlike the vast plains that were green with trees in Siliguri, Guwahati from above looked like large areas of the trees had been grazed down. The terrain was uneven- some parts of were hilly, some were plains- and the mighty Brahmaputra snaked its way in and around Guwahati. Although we stayed at the outskirts of the city, because it was closer to the airport, and we only had to spend a day, it was noticeable that the Muslim population was dominant here. In the main bazaar, one could spot a masjid every hundred meters. After walking in the city for more than an hour, searching for a good vegetarian restaurant, we finally found one. The food was delicious. But the happiness of finding a good restaurant was short-lived because we had lost our way. The once lively bazaar was now eerily quiet. The personnel stationed everywhere made it gloomier. But as our hopes seemed to be squashed and we bordered on desperation, we found a familiar path. We let out a breath of relief and skipped towards the hotel. The next morning, we woke up at five in the morning. It still filled me with wonder to see that the sun rose so early here.

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 We were to go to the famous Kamakhya Devi Temple. It is a temple that sits atop the Nilachal hill, an important pilgrimage destination for general Hindu and tantric worshippers. This temple is one of the shakti peeths. The story of the Shakti peeths goes like this; once Sati fought with her husband Shiva to attend her father’s great yagna. At the grand yagna, Sati’s father Daksha insulted her husband. Sati was angered and in her shame, she jumped into the fire and killed herself. When Shiva came to know that his beloved wife had committed suicide, he went insane with rage. He placed Sati’s dead body on his shoulders and did the tandav or dance of destruction. To calm him down, Vishnu cut the dead body with his chakra. The 108 places where Sati’s body parts fell are called Shakti peeths. Kamakhya temple is special because Sati’s womb and vagina fell here. The mythical womb and vagina of Shakti are installed in the ‘Garbhagriha’ or sanctum sanctorium of the temple. The garbhagriha is small, dark and reached by narrow steep stone steps. Inside the cave there is a sheet of stone that slopes downwards from both sides meeting in a yoni-like depression some 10 inches deep. This hallow is constantly filled with water from an underground perennial spring. It is the vulva-shaped depression that is worshiped as the goddess Kamakhya herself. In the month of Ashaad (June), the goddess bleeds or menstruates. At this time, the Brahmaputra River near Kamakhya turns red. The temple then remains closed for 3 days and holy water is distributed among the devotees of Kamakhya devi. There is no scientific proof that the blood actually turns the river red. Some people say that the priests pour vermilion into the waters. But symbolically, menstruation is the symbol of a woman’s creativity and power to give birth. So, the deity and temple of Kamakhya celebrates this ‘shakti’ or power within every woman.

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The wait was long and tiring. Hundreds of devotees stood cramped in narrow passages as they waited for their turn to have a glimpse of the shakti peeth. While waiting in one of these queues, I noticed a buffalo tied near the temple calmly chewing cud. I took it to be someone’s property that would collect it later. And then my father informed me that the buffalo was meant for bali, a ritual of sacrificing an animal to present it to the goddess.  As we waited for two long hours to get to the sanctum sanctorium of the temple, where the yoni or the vulva of Sati was situated, I noticed people taking kids (goats’ offspring) to sacrifice. In a matter of two hours about fifteen goats were dead. It was like a gothic temple.

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Tantrics, long hair matted atop their heads, white paste slathered on their foreheads, red cloth draped across their bodies sitting everywhere; goats being sold to sacrifice; diseased pigeons walking about; the sound of the goat pleading to be left alone and then just eerie silence as its throat was cut. When we finally entered the garbhagriha, it was dark. An offering of flowers, money, vermillion, and goat head sat at a platform. The vulva of the Sati was downstairs. It was dingy and dark and stifling as tens of people gathered to be blessed by the pundits. I was sorely disappointed to see the priests bullying devotees into putting money there. The pundit refused to bless a devotee just because he refused to offer money although he had done that already at the earlier platform. i emerged from the sanctum sanctorum angered by the outrageous attitude of the pundits just in time to watch the sacrifice of the buffalo that had watched so many goats die before it.

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The animal writhed and tried unsuccessfully to free itself from the clutches of the priests that held it. They then tied it to an apparatus which pulled the buffalo’s hind legs behind as another apparatus held its head in place. The neck stretched and stretched until the flailing animal started to lose its consciousness. The priest who administered its head signaled to the people who pulled the buffalo’s legs to stop. The other priest who stood beside the neck of the animal quickly washed it with hot water as another readied a curved sword. He mumbled a prayer, lifted the sword above his head, and with remarkable precision separated the head of the buffalo from the body. The priest that stood at the head quickly lifted the head from the horns, swung it on his shoulders and scurried into the temple to offer the sacrifice while it was still fresh. On the other hand devotees- people of all ages eagerly gathered towards the body of the buffalo that was oozing blood. The priest collected it and offered it to the devotees who gathered around and eagerly cupped their hands and put them forward to take the “prasad’’. One feels for an animal when it is still alive, pleading for its life. One is moved to tears. But as its legs are stretched back and it loses its consciousness, the “poor buffalo” becomes an animal. The monstrous cold-blooded priest becomes nobody with a sword-wielding duty. Everything turns into nothingness as your senses zoom into the horrible thing that is happening right before you. The temple left a sick feeling in me and I couldn’t wait to get out. I was glad as we went to watch the mighty Brahmaputra calmly slither beside the city. And thus our stay in Guwahati ended.  

 

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The Trip- Day 3 and Day 4

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The next day we visited Tsongmo Lake, the holy lake in Gangtok, about 12,400ft above sea level. As the roads wound upwards, I found myself a bit bored because of the rain that poured insistently. It seemed like we were more on a mission to a gory work than the happy, tourist times. The condition of the roads was bad. We drove on the potholes ridden roads and it was scary because the driver drove perilously on the edge. But as we ascended, we saw huge waterfalls cutting roads and thundering and descending downwards to an apparent nothingness.  I say that because the visibility was so poor that one could not see beyond a meter. I could see a marked difference between the heights in Uttarakhand and Sikkim. The chill becomes cutting and unforgiving in Uttarakhand, whereas it seems as if the heights are calling to you in Sikkim. As we went up higher, there were notice boards informing us of being under Chinese observation. We stayed at the lake for a while. It was here that I saw a yak for the first time. They are adorable ox like animals with curly white or black hair. Their horns and torso was covered with decorative clothes to attract customers to ride on them. It was afternoon as we started descending. It has been and will be the most strikingly beautiful thing I have ever seen. On one side, blindingly bright clouds shielded the sight of what lay below them and on the other, waterfalls cascading down on the moss ridden surface of the mountains. The view was so overwhelming that all thoughts of boring monotony and restlessness to reach the hotel room fled and were replaced by awe. It was exactly what children imagine heaven to be- fluffy bright white clouds to jump on and sleep in, and beautiful scenery at your disposal all the time. As I slept that night, flashes of the scenery haunted me and filled me with yearning to see it one more time.

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The next day we visited the famous monastery. The walls that led us to the main worshipping place were adorned with praying rolls till the top of the mountain, where the monastery was situated. Unlike the Hindu temples, red, blue, green colors dominated the building. The walls were awash with a very different style of painting, depicting the folklores. The sanctum sanctorum of the worshiping area was quiet and calm. And the same feeling rushed into me as I entered it. Intricately woven scrolls hung down from the ceiling and lamps flickered as wind rushed in. the most enchanting part of the sanctorum was the gigantic idol of Buddha, serenely sitting cross-legged. As we walked down the mountain to the car, we came across a very amusing scene. Generally, one expects cats to scamper away as soon as they see humans. Here, a cat sat stoically as children tried to bother it. Some other cats slept without cares, and some rolled along with dogs.

DSC05222DSC05273DSC05413As we rested in our hotel room that night, I knew the coming days were going to be as good as the past four days had been and I was certainly looking forward to what all delights the east had in store for me.