Friday, December 6, 2013

Poem: David and the Hummingbird


David and the Hummingbird

For Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)


Joyce tells a story of the day
the bird flew into the shed
and would not leave;
it beat its wings until it fell
exhausted to the floor.

But it didn’t end like that,
nor was this the beginning—

The morning of the Kill,
the hummingbird flew through the open door
and circled round and round the blood
“It was not interested to feed,” she said,
but just to see and understand.

It went up into the rafters
and then down again
towards the cement floor.
Its blues and greens dancing in
the light and dark;
the corners hiding it and then
like magic, letting it be seen.

David tried to make it leave;
first, sugar feeders lured it outside;
then, when it was noon, the
darkest noon they’d ever seen,
the thunder began.
He set the sugar water inside the garage door
“It must not starve,” he said.

The day was hurried, like the
wings—it beat and beat.
The world grew still behind the
murmur of the bird
as if to move, to breathe, would be too much.

The rain was sheets of ice;
it pierced the ground, it tore into the hillside’s heart
forcing the mountains to slide and the roads to close.
At dusk the rain stopped, bringing on a night that had not known a day.
The sky cleared and that was when she said she knew
the bird’s heart had begun to burst,
“You could hear it banging in your ears.”

The small buzzing body lifted up to the
ceiling one last time and dropped.
From where it lay the stag’s head was a foot away;
the eyes of the beast, strained and dead;
the bullet hole straight through its neck
revealed the moon in the night sky which shone
like a polished coin.

He picked it up to rest it for the night
in a shoebox with soft muslin cloth.
She said, “Its eyes brimmed with tears.”
Was it fear? It did not tremble.
Was it relief? Did it not know it was only David?
And he said, “It is bereft. It must be saved.”

Then began the longest night.
He left the bird to sleep beneath
the stars. It did not know
the inside of their house.
It could get disoriented in that space.

He lay beside her in
their bed, his ever faithful
heart racing beneath her hand.
Kindness cannot be measured by a single good deed—
a few here, a few there, some withheld.
Love measured out in spoons
as if it were a finite bucket of gold dust.

He would not sleep—
he tore the covers off
and shot down the stairs—
It would be cold, the raccoons might overturn the box.
The bird twitched and murmured in its sleep,
he put it on the garden table and
covered its feet.

Back in bed he tossed and turned—the coyotes would not spare its life
One a.m. and out he went again.
Carrying the box in, he saw its
eyes open and look at him.
What a strange look it gave, as if
there was no meaning there—
a still hard look, but liquid eyes,
as if it was not a bird to
speak of anything—
its mystery not a mystery at all
for it hid nothing
and revealed nothing both at once.

He sat beside it in the hall
he wrung his hands
he stood up
and paced and breathed
he towered over it, afraid of it
and yet he had to watch it once again.
It had been resting while he paced
now it turned its head
a movement so small an immeasurable dot in space
and looked up at him.
They stared into each other’s eyes
this grown man and this miniature creature of the flower world
Decades he had lived so well
this small bird seemed to know it too.

“What is the meaning of it all?” he asked aloud
The hummingbird closed its eyes and went to sleep.
He sat down again and prayed a while
As the bird’s breast rose and fell;
the morning light would bring it back;
he dreamed of it in his garden years from now.

As the sun came fiercely into the room
it was not clear any more who slept and who kept vigil—
the bird watched him as he slept
but closed its eyes again when he began to stir.
The hummingbird stayed with David until
the stag was gone, a day late, in the butcher’s van.
Their friends who’d shot the beast would send them some to taste.

David’s heart leapt with joy,
the sun was hot and the
little one was gathering its body and
shaking the sleep away.
He tried to catch its eye again but it did not look at him,
and then, as if the night was no time to go,
as if it had tried for David’s sake alone,
it died under a blazing morning sun at eleven o’clock.

There are many sorts of men—
some of them are cruel to humans
and rescue animals; they are kind to dogs.
“Some men are good for all to see,
Some men are always good,” Joyce said to me.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Essay: What kind of society do we want to live in?


A reflection on crime & punishment

September 12, 2013


Unimaginable acts of terror are perpetrated on undeserving people all the time. As we pass the twelfth anniversary of 9/11, each of us remembers where we were when we first saw thousands of people murdered on television. I was in Goa and my host, a Jewish Indian who volunteered his time teaching young Indian soldiers photography said, “Bomb the hell out of the m*f* who did this.” No act of mass violence in recent memory was more sensational and no retaliation more morally complex. As Americans debate how to punish Syria, Indians await the decision of one judge, Mr Yogesh Khanna. What will he decide should happen to the four men who brutally raped and mutilated a young woman on a Delhi bus? On Friday, he will possibly echo the sentence that many people have already given: “Hang them.” As the woman’s father said in a BBC documentary, India-A Dangerous Place to be a Woman, “Until these barbarians are alive, my mind will not rest, my sorrow will not abate. It is not that through their death I will get my daughter back but as fast as they can be hanged, the faster I will find peace.”

If the judge fails to deliver such a sentence riots may break out again and many Indians will feel their faith in the judicial system terribly shaken. So I ask all of us awaiting the sentencing, is this the society we want to build? Does a hanging bring us closer to an ethical state?

Every time I think of what happened to this girl, I have the same visceral reaction that millions of men and women have.  In the heat of the night, I want these criminals dead now. I don’t want our society to spend any time on caring for them and feeding them until they die of natural causes in prison. In the same BBC documentary the murdered woman’s father says, “My greatest regret was that I could not tell her what was in my heart before she died, nor could I hear what was in her heart.”

After watching the outcry at the torment that this woman and countless others suffer, it appears that the collective rage of our society needs to be channeled into due punishment. I feel this rage too; particularly since I have seen abuse that has not been acknowledged. But until this case, I opposed the death penalty. And so I keep asking myself: in this instance can I not make an exception?

I cannot. In the cold light of day I am committed to moving towards a society where the human rights of women and children can be upheld without the death penalty being imposed. It doesn’t discount what men like this do to women and children and even if it is a fitting punishment for these crimes, on a longer ethical paradigm, imposing the death penalty is a step backwards to a more tribal society.

I know what I want. I want freedom, liberty, justice.

Just like my mother hoped for me, I want my girls to experience public spaces without being at risk. As a woman I have the same right to inhabit a public space as a man. My place is not only in the home even if that is where I may choose to spend most of my time. Although I have to say that no one ever pointed out to me personally that the home was where I belonged.

I want journeys to be safe. Every day millions of working class Indian women have to commute long distances to jobs and return home each night to care for their families. Every time they set foot outside their home they are at risk, every time they re-enter their homes they are at risk. Theirs is a heroic battle to survive and they have to do it on their own, because so far many have had almost no support from their families and little justice if they are violated, just like I was denied justice. The framers of our Constitution gave us freedom of movement—they did not single out this right only for men and I want to live in a society where I exercise this freedom: to have the right to go where I want, when I want, without risk to my body or my life. I want my idea of India to thrive: an India where more women keep breaking the glass ceiling and run organizations and law firms, state governments, political parties and the country. I have run a legal services company in India, and in that instance I was fortunate not to have experienced any gender discrimination in the work place.

I want homes to be safe for children and women. Many of us women in India are not safe in their homes. I want perpetrators of crimes to be held responsible and their crimes to be punished but their trials to be fair. I wonder, is there real justice to be had with anything other than hanging these men? Is life in prison with hard labor or solitary confinement the answer?

I belong to a heterogeneous, complex society, with cross cutting cleavages of class, gender, religion, and ethnicity. Some say to me, you are not from the real India, because I come from a privileged class of English speaking elites educated in the private schools of South Mumbai. Others may accuse, but you don’t live here anymore. I agree with these qualifications, in many ways I have lived a somewhat sheltered existence. However, I have also travelled around India, used public transportation and had very diverse experiences. Like every Indian I have many identities. I spent most of the first 29 years of my life in Mumbai. But this is where it gets much more complicated. On the one hand I feel a little defensive of the city of my birth. I love this city, its energy is like a drug. I enjoy exploring its streets. For the most part I did not feel any more unsafe on the streets of Mumbai than in the many Western cities I have visited. Perhaps in retrospect this was a false sense of security. Possibly one of the safest cities I have ever been in is Tokyo, but then a girlfriend of mine got beaten up by a Japanese man on a crowded train only because she was a foreigner. I guess every city has its tales of unexpected violence.

I know that terrible things happen to women in Mumbai; most recently the gang rape of a photojournalist on the job. When I worked at Marine Lines, a young woman was raped just below my office building by a policeman who forced her into a police chowki in the middle of the day. I worked with a criminal lawyer who advised any woman who would listen, that the last place she should go to complain about a rape is a police station; he also advised that if a woman ever needed to go to a police station, she should always take an escort.

The threat of violence for a woman on the streets of Delhi is palpable. I recall an incident a few years ago. I was showing an American girlfriend around Old Delhi and as we exited the Jama Masjid around five in the evening, we were given the third degree by a young man on the street, “What are you doing here? Where are you from? So Bombay girls are allowed to walk around like this?” His tone and behavior became very menacing and a few other men started to close in on us. We were terrified. Suddenly, an SUV came to a furious halt in front of us and its driver told us to get in and raced us home. This taxi driver was a good man, but my uncle was livid that we had risked our lives by getting into an unknown vehicle. The girl and her friend who boarded the bus in Delhi last December made a similar choice and she ended up dead.

Mr M. Sharma, one of the defense lawyers for three of the accused rapists, was asked in the BBC interview if it was true that he had said that he had never heard of a respectable girl ever being raped. He confirmed, “Yes, certainly, certainly. We have a different culture.” The interviewer asked him “What is the difference between a respectable girl and non-respectable girl?” Mr Sharma answered, “Respectable girl and non respectable girl means if you see someone, if you feel respect about her she is respectable. If she would be respectable, this would never happen to her. Respect is a very strong shield which can’t be crossed by anybody at all. And respect comes by character, respect comes by your behavior, respect comes by your actions…You cannot say that only the rapists are responsible. She is also responsible equally. You have to protect yourself. Any dog can bite you, and that’s happened.”

The idea that the victim is to blame has to be reevaluated. The argument that you are asking for it because of the way you dress or because of your questionable choices to go to a movie with a boy is bullshit. My friend and I were in long sleeved kurtas and I had a headscarf on to shield myself from the sun. How would Mr Sharma explain one of the worst things I have ever encountered in my work for an NGO—a baby raped in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar in Mumbai until her internal organs were destroyed.

Mr Sharma has it in reverse. Sexual violence is perpetrated on people who are vulnerable and cannot defend themselves effectively. Women and children in India do not have a framework within which to fend off sexual violence, and until recently they did not have a justice system that took care of them. Acknowledging this vulnerability and not taking advantage of it is the essence of respect. At the opposite end I know Indian men who will not have sex with a seemingly consenting partner who is inebriated because they are not sure if she is really consenting to the sex. The objects of desire do not need to possess any inviolate qualities. Otherwise, when Sita passed her trial by fire, why was she rejected by Ram and sent to the forest? It was the perception of a patriarchal society that was at fault.

At the same time, I know that there are gentler spaces in this sea of violence. I want to live in the same Indian society I spent my late teens and early twenties in, where my male friends treated me as their equal. My male contemporaries come from a variety of backgrounds, some studied and lived abroad, many of them have not, yet they help around the house, they cook, they like and indulge strong women who pursue their dreams. They grapple with the role of men and women in Indian society just like we do in America.

In his essay, A Hanging, George Orwell recounts the hanging of a man. 

The thing that I think very striking is that no one, or no one I can remember, ever writes of an execution with approval.  The dominant note is always horror.  Society, apparently, cannot get along without capital punishment—for there are some people whom it is simply not safe to leave alive—and yet there is no one, when the pinch comes, who feels it right to kill another human being in cold blood.  I watched a man hanged once.  There was no question that everybody concerned knew this to be a dreadful, unnatural action.  I believe it is always the same—the whole jail, warders and prisoners alike, is upset when there is an execution.  It is probably the fact that capital punishment is accepted as necessary, and yet instinctively felt to be wrong, that gives so many descriptions of executions their tragic atmosphere.  They are mostly written by people who have actually watched an execution and feel it to be a terrible and only partly comprehensible experience which they want to record.”

According to Amnesty International, 174 of the 193 member states of the United Nations were execution-free in 2012, so there are many societies that see merit in abolishing the death penalty. Amnesty International (http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty/numbers) has been monitoring developments around the use of the death penalty and campaigning for its abolition for more than three decades particularly since research has shown it is not a deterrent. In 1977, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. In 2012, 21 countries around the world were known to have carried out executions and at least 58 have imposed death sentences. There are many voices in India that oppose the capital punishment. See for instance, Kanimozhi's recent opinion in The Hindu.

I like the question that my husband recently posed, if we believe to act is moral, is every action we take moral? Can our actions to correct injustice create their own injustice? Just because we cannot sit by silently when chemicals suffocate children in Syria, does it mean that missile strikes are ethical or even useful?

The idea of India is a very powerful concept for me. As the world’s largest democracy, I have a great deal of faith and pride in it. We are a nation of social movements, of men and women who stood up to sati, to dowry, to colonialism. It isn’t convenient for me to oppose the death penalty in the light of such terrible crimes, and my view is not from the trenches. My grandfather worked for a British company that doled out luxuries, and life was much less comfortable for him after he retired. Yet, he held on to this idea of India as a place where we were free, a better place than the one he knew during the Raj, even if it was less comfortable for him. It was a place where famines were less likely, the press was mostly free, and the common man who had gone without a shirt on his back was now clothed. But for the vast majority, justice has always been out of reach. Now, with the tremendous social outcry to end violence against women, it might just be within grasp. The police and courts in Delhi have been shamed into appearing to respond more effectively to a woman’s right to safety and freedom of movement.

I learned quite early that sometimes we need to use force to defend those we love, the integrity of our ideals and our country. I was greatly influenced by my childhood hero, Khusro Rustamji, my grandfather’s best friend. Rustamji was Prime Minister Nehru’s personal bodyguard and rose to be the highest ranking police officer in the country. He was the founding director of the Border Security Force and later Secretary of the Home Ministry. He had dealt with the worst atrocities that human beings are capable of including war crimes. He was a master at conflict management, he was prepared to use force when necessary but always worked tirelessly for a diplomatic solution. He orchestrated India’s support of the Bangladeshi resistance in the struggle for Bangladeshi independence, and cleared the Chambal ravines of notorious dacoits that had historically terrorized the region. My grandfather and Rustamji would talk politics, and I was allowed to join in. I picture this discussion with him. He always seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the nation, and he may have said to me that the crimes of the Delhi rapists could only be punished by death. I imagine I would have told him what I thought, and he would have listened attentively like he always did, and then, perhaps he would have said, “Maybe I agree with you.” So though I am not sure what he would say about the death penalty in this case, Rustamji, like Nehru, Gandhi, King and Mandela, was invigorated by a vision of a future that was kinder than the reality of the trenches. These men had a longer view of society. They were humanists who preferred to use non-violent resistance and persuasion to drive home their ideals for human communities. They too felt the everyday rage we feel at the shackles of colonialism, racism, and the degradation of women. In such leaders we have a paradigm for resistance and change: we are not weak when we choose a more ethical punishment for those who harm us. It reflects well on us. This is the idea of India that I hope that Judge Khanna will find himself holding on to when he delivers his sentence tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Essay: Riding the Metro Bus





The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, August 24th, 2013

On the 24th of August 2013, my five year old and I plan our trip to the Mall to see the March on Washington. She likes protests. Living in DC, she has been on a few marches and the whole family did a parody on the Occupy Movement for Halloween a couple of years ago. She was a protestor: “Share Share Share!” screamed her sign. My baby was a banker in a black suit and tie. I was Wall Street — I wore a brick wall made of cardboard with a green street sign and we perched the baby on my wall for photographs. My husband was a giant inflated bull.

We are looking at the March on Washington website. I read my daughter excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and then play the audio: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” She runs off to play. I think of the painting by Norman Rockwell: The Problem We All Live With. I want to talk to her about it, ask her if she remembers seeing it at the National Portrait Gallery, along with New Kids in the Neighborhood. Two stunning visuals of a segregated world from a child's perspective. 

We are a biracial family. I am an Indian Parsee Zoroastrian and my husband is a white Catholic American. I am not sure what box to check when I am confronted with most official forms in the U.S., which have a section, albeit non-mandatory, on race. Check all that apply: White, Black, Asian, American Indian, and then a separate question whether you are Hispanic. When I first came to the U.S. and had to fill in the social security application, I was puzzled. How do I classify myself in racial terms? In India I was used to ethnic and religious classifications, but racial classification seemed anachronistic. What was I? I was not white, even though Parsees sometimes refer to themselves as and I say this with some trepidation Aryans, as if the last century never happened and that’s an acceptable label. I was not black. I was Asian, but that was hardly a racial classification — out of all the races I was physically most dissimilar to Far East Asians. And although South Asians consider themselves to be a broad ethnic group, I can’t think of any other group that has every single racial type represented and then some.

After doing a degree in public policy I get it that data on race is very important for formulating policy in America. We are not living in a post-racial America and religion and race are the primary cleavages, if you set aside social class. But times are changing. When I first came here in 2004, I rarely saw a person of color in Georgetown. Not so any more. We have a Black President in the White House, we have restaurants buzzing with diversity on 14th street, and we are all learning to assimilate. Like ink spreading on a sheet of paper, North West DC is getting color in its cheeks.

As an Indian I am well attuned to the subject of color and how it enters into the everyday. When I was growing up, girls and boys were considered more likely to find eligible spouses if they were fair skinned. I had aunts who did not go outside when it was sunny and always wore long sleeves and avoided tea and coffee to keep their skin from darkening. The Indian fairness cream market, led by multinational behemoth Unilever's Fair & Lovely, is estimated at about $400 million in annual revenue and was most recently featured in the online edition of The Atlantic Monthly in an article by Elizabeth Segran. Matrimonial advertisements gloss over darker complexions as ‘wheatish.’ We all know the truth that a person cannot determine the color of his skin. Fairness creams can disfigure and lead to serious health issues, including cancer. And yet, like that elusive elixir of youth, lighter skin continues to be sought after in South Asian, Far Eastern and even some African cultures. Why?

In The Dangers of not Talking to your Children about Race, KJ Dell'Antonia of the New York Times explains that research shows that children become aware of skin color at a very young age. They won’t always manifest this knowledge, avoiding the subject if adults ignore it, which in turn magnifies its importance in their minds. But if adults address it, children reveal interesting observations of their own, often reflecting social biases, making it wiser to address race and color rather than letting it be an elephant in the room. My elder child is white like my husband and she has always been aware of this. When we bathed her when she was very little she would say, “I am the same color as daddy.” For a while she seemed to asking, “Why don’t you and I have the same skin?” I could tell it was something that preoccupied her and still does, particularly since my younger child has a skin tone similar to mine. There is no moral significance given to identifying these colors, just a sense I have that sometimes my daughter would like to be the same as me and at other times just like daddy. She is trying to understand how biology works and if her sister is somehow special because she shares her skin color with me.

I look up to find she’s back, ready for an explanation. “So mum, what is freedom?” I had asked her earlier if she knew what it meant.

“Can you imagine there was a time when kids who looked different from each other couldn’t go to school together?”

As if it’s the most preposterous thing, she rolls her eyes and says, “Oh Mum!" She adds, "I don’t like that.”

“Well,” I say, a little heavy handed, “that’s freedom, you are free to go to school with your friends. Tell your sister we are going on a bus ride today. Do you remember Rosa Parks? We can think of her on the bus.” A couple of weeks ago I had bought stamps with Rosa Parks’ face on them and my daughter and I watched a documentary on YouTube about who she was. Thinking of Rosa Parks always makes me emotional.

So we feed the girls breakfast—fresh local peaches from the Women’s Market in Bethesda, banana oatmeal—and pack our bags to head to the Mall. It takes about an hour of focused energy to get ready to go out with the kids. That hour does not include showers for the parents. We need to get out before nap time.

Checklist: water bottles for each of us; flax and buckwheat banana pancakes and raspberries for the girls; full change of clothes for them, in case they head into a fountain on the Mall; diapers, wipes, sunblock, hats. Big decision: which stroller? The easy to fold one that grandma insisted we would not be able to live without and gave the baby for her birthday—that really just fits one small kid, but allows the two year old to ride on the five year old’s lap for short distances—or the heavy-duty Bob jogging stroller we have on loan from a kind friend, which allows both girls to be pushed uphill without breaking my wrists. (Since our rental apartment burnt down in October 2012, we have had more offers of strollers from our generous community than one family can possibly use).

The girls are very excited to take the bus to Farragut Square, just North of the White House. From there we plan to walk a mile or so South to the Lincoln Memorial to experience the March on Washington, which began at 9am on New Jersey Avenue and will end at the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial, where we will greet it. Fifty years ago on the 28th of August 1963, Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the original March on Washington.

We all tumble into the N6 bus. I am hauling the stroller folded up into its awkward shape, and find the wheels don’t lock in this position. I struggle with it at the back door and realize it is blocking access so I move it into the handicapped section, which is empty. It wobbles and I am afraid that it’s going to brush against someone. I have observed that in America people like their space respected more so than in India, where strangers will just pick up your children to help out and seat them on their laps. Luckily the bus is not full. The kids and my husband find a spot to settle down and my husband keeps a hand on the toddler so she doesn’t topple over with the jolting of the bus. I decide it is safer to open up the stroller and lock the wheels so it doesn’t slide into anyone. It’s not ideal but there is enough space in the gangway to walk by.

A lady from our apartment building who is riding on the bus sympathizes, “It’s a lot to do, isn’t it.

“It’s not so bad,” I say. I am thinking of Rosa Parks. We are riding a bus on a historic anniversary. Fifty years ago we couldn’t have all sat where we liked, mixed into this bus, black, white, me and mine. This is a special day.

But then another voice pipes up, surprising me, “You shouldn’t bring that stroller on the bus.” The tone is offensive.

A stranger starts to berate me. “You are taking up two people’s seats, you could hurt someone if they trip over that thing.” I count at least ten vacant seats around us.

I try to justify myself. We need the stroller for the kids since we have more than three miles of walking ahead of us. She cuts me off, “You are disrespecting everyone by riding the bus. You should have taken a cab.

Sure I could have. I could have even taken my own car. How could I explain to her that on this day, this of all other days, riding the bus was symbolic, our own small, token homage to Ms. Parks. 

People stack bicycles on the front of buses, holding up traffic while they haul them on, we regularly have wheelchairs on the bus that are bigger than the stroller. Bus drivers have to come over to help out all the time. I feel the woman is being unreasonable but she continues to scold me. My eyes begin to smart. The other passengers are embarrassed and look away. The woman is being mean spirited and I feel hurt. When I express that to her she backs off. Later, someone reassures me, “You did the right thing. It is important to stand up to bullies. Maybe next time she won’t be nasty to another mother.” When I remark that other people on the bus seemed to be uncomfortable, he says, “People don’t like conflict. But you could tell they thought you were doing the right thing.”

Every time we are in a public space we have a choice. We can voice our opinions kindly and respectfully, or we can make a person uncomfortable and defensive. This lady was rude. Her opinion could have been voiced differently, but since it was not, I also have the right to push back.

It is interesting how, now that I am a parent, I have become more aware of petty intolerance. Like the time my friend was approached by a resident at our building complex who told her, “You are not welcome here, children were never allowed to use the pool before.” And the man sat and stared threateningly at the family, making them so uncomfortable that they had to leave.

This sort of community policing has to be seen for what it is — it is curtailing the freedom of certain groups in public places. We all need to look out for our communities, but not at the expense of other groups living respectfully in a shared space. Communities that support vigilantes are not necessarily safer, they can be hostile and sometimes even violent. They assume that parents are not doing their job, and at another extreme, that kids like Trayvon Martin do not belong and need to be monitored.

It’s a subtle thing. I am not likening my ride on the bus to Rosa Parks or to Trayvon Martin or to the men and women who cannot get the jobs and opportunities they seek because of their race. The small battles I have fought in my community — for example, disabling the ban on young children using the pool — were supported by laws like the Fair Housing Act, that have been put into place by people like Ms. Parks.

I grew up in a new India struggling to teach its citizens the values of freedom and equality. In my school, J B Petit, differences in ethnicity and social class were played down and hidden behind school uniforms; it was drilled into us as children, “United we stand, divided we fall.”  Which is why I assert, I have not suffered any form of racial discrimination, and I imagine my children will probably not be discriminated against. We are likely more free and entitled than any generation before us. However, I do see the need for more balanced communication in public places and in our communities, so that we can relax and enjoy one another. Negative interactions make one feel small, unwelcome, on edge. They make us wary, petty, cautious, and after many such experiences, a person can become angry and militant.

The bus stops to pick up a handicapped man. I fold up the stroller again so I can move out of the way. My husband gets up and takes it over, putting it on his seat and I sit with the baby. The man who takes my place is in a wheelchair. He looks at the girls and smiles. I smile back at him.

But I know the battle for a safe, just community is not over. Many boys are still especially at risk on our streets in America just like women are especially at risk in both public and private spaces in India. Near the Lincoln Memorial, Trayvon Martin’s story is on many placards along with the same issue that raged fifty years ago: jobs. In every single age group, black men and women have double the unemployment rate of whites in the same category (See the Bureau of Labor Statistics). On the news another woman is gang raped in India. As we walk around the Mall, people have their signs upDream in Color—their faces shine and the spirit of the March washes over me and calms me. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. I too “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”




Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Short Story: Watching the Fifth War

Originally published as 'Writing Home' in The Little Magazine,  
 & in International Gallerie, http://www.gallerie.net/issue10/story1.html



Bombay, October 12, 1999


Dear Feroza and Shehnaaz,

I came home today from Pune. Had to stop there after Kargil and Delhi, before I could get the leave to come home. The kids seem younger since I left, though Rohan is taller and Aditi actually manages to finish her sentences. They say on the mountains, you age decades in a few months.

Somehow I could not make eye contact with the watchman. He was so happy to see me, he asked me if I had been with the same battalion as the young soldier whose wife was on TV saluting his hearse, and the other one who had lost his leg. It was not that he considered them to be heroes. He says rather harshly that battle is for men who have nothing constructive to occupy themselves with. He does not venerate army men, but I can tell he likes me. I said to him, I just need a cup of tea right now, that’s all. He must have known something was wrong but he respects privacy. He’s not one to ramble on if you stay uncommunicative. I wonder if he ever dreams about any other job. He is a good watchman, but I imagine sometimes that he would have made a fine leader. I think it’s that caste business that we Hindus are so caught up in. You know, I married my wife from the same side of the river and the same caste and all that. I happen to be much older than she is but that was not cause for concern – that I was twenty years her senior and away most of the time.

The other day the newspapers carried a story about villagers who killed a man and woman for eloping because they were not of the same caste. I wonder sometimes if it’s worth all the effort, you know, running after people with machetes and sticks when there’s so much to do, so much to learn. I thought I would join the army and experience the world. When I fought at twenty-one against China, in 1962, my white canvas Bata shoes (the one’s school children are made to wear for P.T.) gave way. At one point we were at 18,500 feet. I think you should be appropriately dressed when you travel the world.

You can look at the pictures I have sent you - my wife Aarti and the kids. Rohan is fifteen, Aditi is two and a half. She was a surprise. We always wanted a girl. But I am pretty old now. Never mind, I look forward to my retired life, where I can be a normal father and give Aditi time and energy, something Rohan never did receive from me. He is a sweet child. Likes to paint. I hope he will be an artist. It’s a nice thought.

I try to be gentle and romantic when I am at home but it isn’t easy when you have been apart from a woman for so long, when you have been living off condensed milk cans and wonder why the tea at home is so phikka. I work at shutting out the culture shock. But a civilian’s life hits me every time.

You may say that he’s writing all this to humanize his killings, to come to terms with his sins, to ask for forgiveness. I wish it were that simple. I will be sixty. It’s easy to sentimentalize the wars, but I fought in four of them. While India made her destiny, whatever that destiny was for each of her billion-odd people, I trained to defend it. It was an interesting defense because I think people are so quick to judge, to simplify, to make enemies, to slot. Perhaps they should only allow fifty-year-old academics and ex-servicemen to be politicians and legislators, and this should be a random selection so that in the end even if you are choosing bad apples you haven’t chosen an entire rotten stock. Oh, yes, I was saying, it was an interesting defense. We were fighting off invasions into our territory, we didn’t appear to be the aggressors. But I am not sure if just who we are is aggressor enough, because there is something oddly despicable about us sometimes, the good ones and the bad ones. Sorry, I rambled off… It is interesting because it is especially at the time of war, (when everything should be simple, you know, bad against good, and so forth), that the real gray areas raise their heads and yet, to act, you cannot be in a gray area at all, you have to take a polar position. Then you become a traitor or a patriot, and god forbid one of us decides to be the former and opposes war.

I think that is why I am writing. Because it will be easy for you and your family and your children’s children to see your husband and son as a martyr who died for his country; to hate me as the enemy. Especially since I am alive and have children and there seems so much hope for us in India where life only gets better for many people, where we are ‘progressing’ so to speak, even if it is a material progress that the self appointed spiritualists despise.

But that would be a disservice to your children. I hope that like my child, Rohan, they prefer to be artists. Artists can be so much more compelling than soldiers. Many artists, (some can be horrible people, I hear), live in the gray areas like I do but they never touch the extremes of evil and good like I do, murderer, again and again, patriot too, each time.

You may ask if I am demanding you to forgive me. No, Feroza, it is not forgiveness that I want for killing your son, please don’t misunderstand. I am asking for much more, I am asking that in some small way civil society in Pakistan comes to understand that I really don’t want to go on killing. It is more a plea for mercy. Have mercy on me. I didn’t ask to be the gate-keeper of the Kashmir valley. I’ve never had the feeling Kashmir belonged to anyone but itself. Why are we imposing our nationalisms on a piece of land that is only swaying from one side to the other because it cannot protect itself?

How do I know so much about you, you may ask, how do you seem to be able to talk to us as though you have known us all your life when this is only your first letter to us?

The answer is a memory. The watchman, he’s eighty-two now, used to be the watchman of our little building, Pil Court, from the time he was twenty four. He was born in 1917. He used to talk about the Muslim family that lived in my flat, overlooking the railway tracks, the kindest people he ever knew; they were charitable, spoke to him in their shudh Urdu, making him feel like a courtier. The men were ‘army’ like me but they chose to live in civilian quarters because they had this extended family and each was closer to the other. They left Pil Court during Partition. You know, he told me, I once said to Feroza bai, now I know why people turn to Islam, it is to give everyone equal respect, then no one feels lesser when they are with you. She laughed and told me, “If you are in India, it’s better to be Hindu. Hindus don’t treat everyone as equal, but it’s better to be one step higher in their ladder.” I guess, Feroza, your husband and your family must have had many aspirations for an equal society in Pakistan.

The watchman also told me that Feroza bai had just had her son, Farukh. He was a baby when they left for Karachi. The most beautiful child he had seen, and so happy. He talked so much about Farukh. I think part of him feels he was a god father to that child because he says you allowed him to push the pram and even hold the baby, something that would mortify my wife, Aarti.

When I read Farukh’s name on his dog tag in Kargil I was curious if it was the same child grown up. We sent Farukh’s body back to the Pakistan side and I inquired some more about him from a Pakistani POW, who happened to know Farukh well. I was right about who he was and the POW told me your family’s address. It is a strange thought, you know, that I sleep in your bed, Feroza. And you sleep in my ancestral home in Karachi. You see, Sea Wind, 9-B New Queen’s Road, was where my mother gave birth to me in 1941, in Karachi. Like many Hindu Sindhi families we left everything behind to catch the train to India. And you gave your fully furnished house in Bombay with the sound of the trains going past, a sound I came to find difficult to sleep without, to a man who then sold it to my grandfather.

I heard you were pregnant, Shehnaaz. I wish you luck and every one of God’s blessings. I never saw my father you know, after 1947. He was on the train that followed ours from Pakistan. We were on the last train that came back to India safe. The one that came after, there were only corpses.

I don’t like it that it appeared to be in my blood or my fate or my religion or my country to avenge my father’s death. I don’t like that feeling of being controlled by fate. I have been. I have come full circle. Today, I will go down and tell the watchman about Farukh. I think he should know. I hope he tells his people and they tell theirs. If only the word would spread fast, but that’s the irony of it all, that the good stories always find a way to end quietly and the bad ones, they fly. Too many years of death and propaganda. But how can I take on the whole wide world? I can only act for myself.

I am counting on you.

Brigadier Jeri Mansukhani


The Brigadier’s letter never reached the women. It was intercepted and he was brought before a Court of Inquiry. But his son, Rohan, had read it before he sent it. Rohan vowed that one day he would visit his ancestral home in Karachi in Pakistan and read out the letter his father had written, from his memory. For the moment, all civilian movement between India and Pakistan has been frozen.

-The End-

Notes:
Independent India has had five armed conflicts since 1947: The expulsion of armed intruders in Kashmir, 1948; the Indo China War, 1962; the Indo Pak War, 1965; the Indo Pak War, 1972 over Bangladesh’s secessionism; and the Kargil War between India and Pakistan, May 26, 1999 – July 14, 1999.
phikka - bland or not sweet
P.T. - Physical Training
shudh – pure



Published as 'Writing Home' in The Little Magazine,  
 & in International Gallerie, http://www.gallerie.net/issue10/story1.html

Monday, August 5, 2013

Short Story: The Woman Who Willed Her Son to Die

Published in ‘The Reader’, No. 14. http://www.thereader.org.uk/magazine.aspx                                        



The first time I met Mrs Feroza Jamshed Karkaria I stared quite hard. She had brown hair that sat in perfect static curls on her shoulders and dangerous eyes. I had heard the hair was a wig, like Dev Anand’s. Mummy would have been appalled by my stare. She would have ticked me off, “Don’t be appalling, Lizzy!” I loved big words like that, they made me sound like I was a grand bad sort.
Mrs Scary-face stared back at me. She had beady eyes and well plucked eyebrows which were housed within the weight of her starched wig. She looked like a mean Womble. Wombles were creatures I had read about. They were not given to meanness though. So in a way you can’t be a real mean Womble. There were no stray hairs on her chin. She obviously went to the parlour often. Even mummy who rubs her chin probingly with her fingers and tweezers her hairs has a couple of stray pokies.
We were in the corridor of her family’s apartment that overlooked the railway tracks and it was a dark, sooty space. I was nine, going on ten. I had finished the Famous Five, Nancy Drew and had sneaked a bit of ‘Endless Love’. I had read all of my Pramilla Aunty’s Mills and Boons on the sly on the pot earlier that year while on holiday in Delhi. Mrs-horror was old enough to be my grandmother, about sixty. I asked for her sister-in-law, who I had come to visit. My mother was parking our Herald downstairs and would be at my side to rescue me any minute. I had to be brave. I said, “Feroza Aunty may I go in and see Sheroo Aunty?”
My mother appeared. Feroza Aunty’s plan to swallow me, Bata shoes and JB Petit blue school uniform included, if she was short on time, was foiled. I squeezed past her as mummy said, “Hello Aunty, kem cheo? All well?” Mummy fled too, into an inner room, not waiting for her to speak.
Once in the cool space of Sheroo Aunty’s room I ignored the faint smell of Mrs Feroza Jamshed Karkaria’s shadow as it filtered through the door hinges. As a Parsee I was another generation of gatekeepers of oddball stories and half-demented souls. I knew about weirdoes. We Parsees were small in number and fast depleting. “Soon we’ll be bred in zoos,” says mummy. “Visitors will say, ‘Oh there’s a Parsee next to the emus and giraffes,’ and we will perform our daily rituals behind a glass screen. ‘9am to 10 am – Sadra-kusti hour at the Zoo’, the sign will say. ‘So cute, no!’ the children-visitors will exclaim.”
My mummy doesn’t want to have my Navjote or thread ceremony, like most Parsees have by the age of eleven. “I don’t believe in ritual,” she says, “Rituals give you the chance to be bad and then get away with it by praying and putting sukhar, sandalwood, in the fire. To be a true Parsee all you need is good thoughts, good words and good deeds.” My real dad wants me to be a real Parsee, do my sadra-kusti in the morning, wear my sadra vest and tie the string or kusti the way a good Parsee is supposed to. But my real dad won’t pay for the ceremony and the banquet after. Even for the sake of it mummy can’t do it because she has no money for it.
“Have something cold? Duke’s lemonade?” I am asked. Duke’s lemonade was the ultimate Parsee drink. Some grownups drink Parsee Cinzano. That is Duke’s lemonade with Goan red wine.
I looked at mummy anxiously, she nodded, I said, “Yes, please, can I help myself?”
“No, the fridge is locked. I’ll get it.” Sheroo Aunty said.
The refrigerator was at the door of the room, in the passageway, and it had been locked to keep Lady Feroza, as mummy called her, out of the food. She loved poisoning it. I stood behind Sheroo Aunty as she unlocked the ancient white door which had been fitted with a metal latch from which hung an enormous lock. I knew that the Lady was lurking behind her daisy-printed curtains. Her feet, in English Scholl’s, were visible below the hem. Parsee ladies love wearing Dr Scholl’s. Mummy has a pair too that her Pappa gave her; she looks beautiful in her cotton dresses with her wavy brown hair tied up in a bun and her Scholl’s on her feet. I can’t imagine anyone liking me when I grow up. The minute they see my beautiful mummy, I’ll be forgotten.
We ate lovely chocolate cake and Sheroo Aunty and Framroze Uncle made me feel like their granddaughter and I was allowed to sit on the cot bed and shake my legs. We wished Sheroo Aunty happy birthday and mummy gave her the box of prunes. I wanted to touch the soft smooth skin on her nose. She had knowing eyes, that shone like a teddy bear’s. Her hair was short and she was slightly hunched, though she wore her little sleeveless dress with an air of clean elegance.
The Lady was Sheroo Aunty’s sister in law – her husband’s brother’s wife. She was as different from Sheroo Aunty as a crow is from a pigeon. Pigeons, you see, are the vermin of the air and crows are Parsees reborn as crows. Pigeons are for shot-guns and poison-seed and crows are for choicest titbits of malai-soaked-rotli or bread soaked with cream. The doorbell had rung and we could hear voices in the Lady’s room. Her only son, Ratan, ‘dayo, obedient, good Ratan’ had returned from a flight. He was a purser.
Aré muo! You are back again! You son of a devil. Why didn’t you die on the aeroplane?”
“Mama, aren’t you happy to see me? Look I brought you cheese and chocolates from Switzerland.”
The packet must have been handed over, because there was a moment’s silence, when she must have looked into her bag of goodies.
Then suddenly “Chal, ja ja,” she said, screaming, “Shoo! GO away! Next time I hope your plane crashes.”
Mummy was embarrassed for Sheroo Aunty because of this bad fight between the Lady and her son and she said we were to go home. I said thank you and jumped off the cot and made my way past the daisy curtains. I tried hard not to look inside. In the kitchen, a meal was being prepared on a kerosene stove. Smoked chicken livers in onion sauce, fried gharab or fish eggs. Sheroo Aunty was a cook. My grandfather said of her, “She is no ordinary stirrer of vegetables and broiler of chickens but a sensual keeper of culinary magic – a chef!” I could taste the liver, fresh and succulent. It made me drool just like a packet of tomato Chipnick wafers or a Marmite sandwich did. The only others who drooled like this were dogs and Kalu or Blackie, the crow who visited our kitchen every day. “Greed, my dear, greed,” that was what mummy said.
But we had to go and that was that. Sheroo Aunty would send us food on my birthday, or anytime she felt like, she was a doer of good deeds, a keeper of gracious ways and kindnesses, a giver, a pickler of mangoes. Those who pickle know the soul of food, and if you know that, well, you know a lot. Mummy didn’t say that, but I read it in granny’s recipe book. I’ll ask granny if she made it up. Granny writes poetry and paints. She has a great rhyme about monkeys:
As mamma fries purees
Fat and round
From the coconut tree
The monkey jumps down –
In from the window
Out through the gate
He snatches the purees,
Empty plate!

The monkey sits
On a Gulmohar tree
And strips off the flowers
So wicked is he!
Into his mouth he pops them
One by one,
Till the mali shouts
And makes him run!*

            Sheroo Aunty was saying to us as we waited for the lift, “Sorry, ah, really sorry. She does that every time he visits. I don’t know why he comes. She should be put away, but her husband loves her so much, he won’t allow it. He worships her. Su kariye, what can we do? This is their house also. Sorry darling, sorry.”
We went on to Lohar Chawl to buy panties – you got them on the pavement, three for twenty-five rupees. Nice soft cotton panties. We also bought a small blue bucket to soak socks in.
On our way home we decided to buy two little spring chickens for dinner. I think we were inspired by Sheroo Aunty. It was a rare treat, a break from mummy’s cabbage and chappati. It was five in the evening. Fortunately Francois Maison, the butcher’s place, opened after his afternoon siesta at four. He weighed two chickens and it came to seven hundred and fifty grams for both of them.
We roasted the chickens and ate one each, listening to a cassette of ‘Camelot’ on the stereo. It was my favourite tape and I sang along.
Three days later, I returned from school at one o’clock as usual in my carpool and decided to play a practical joke on mummy. The front door was open. I wrote a ransom note and stuck it on the floor and hid in the toilet. Time passed, I think maybe about five minutes. There was no sound of panic. I waited and waited, maybe five more minutes and finally, hungry, I was too impatient to wait any more. I emerged to find mummy making my daily lunch of cabbage and chappati.
“Mummy!” I said, “Look I was kidnapped, see, here’s the ransom note. I escaped just in time.”
She laughed and hugged me. Then I sat in her lap and she cuddled me. “Would you like mushrooms for dinner?” she asked, “To celebrate your escape?”
“Yes, please,” I said, mushrooms were my favourite, made with white-sauce and pepper.
I ate my lunch. I washed up the dishes and went and played with my Lego. I built a house, for the hundredth time. Mummy was sleeping and I kept it aside to show her. Then I took out my small blue uniform for ironing. The ironing board was in a cupboard built by Bachubhai, the best carpenter in the world. He was six foot five inches tall and very gentle. When mummy fell off a stool and broke her jaw he was so upset by the blood that he fainted. I ironed my uniform and sat on my cane chair at my desk and did my homework. I was glad that we had five days to ourselves. Mummy and me.
The phone rang and I ran to it, barefoot. When daddy, my stepdad, was at home I was not allowed to run to the phone, I was not allowed to walk barefoot, he would come home from the office and examine the top of the fridge for dust and scold mummy if there was any to be seen, he would check if anyone else had used his bathroom. His bathroom always smelt of anti-dandruff shampoo, Selsun.
“Mummy,” I shouted, “It’s Sheroo Aunty.”
Mummy didn’t like being woken up from her nap. It gave her a headache. She came into the hall and sat down with the phone in her hand.
She was silent after the phonecall. She didn’t say, “Oh how inconsiderate people are to call at three in the afternoon. Such bad manners.”
I went into my room, and finished illustrating my composition book. We had been asked to write about aliens and draw our own alien. Mine was purple with many arms. Mummy says, “You are what you eat.” They ate only brinjals on the alien’s planet.
Mummy came in after making a few phonecalls. She sat down on my bed and said, “Sometimes it’s good to have a TV. We could see what was happening on the news. There was an Air India plane crash. Ratan, Feroza Aunty’s son, was on the plane.”

-The End-

Note:
*From the unpublished poems of A.S. Shroff, the author’s grandmother.

Published in ‘The Reader’, No. 14. http://www.thereader.org.uk/magazine.aspx