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I see dead people…

I did not imagine, when my husband, Alfredo took this picture of me, some 9 yrs ago, that I would one day, use it here, in this way. This image was shot in the courtyard of the Museo di San Martino in Napoli. It is located at the summit of the city and offers a fantastic bird’s eye view of the sprawling city below. Adjacent to the 14th Century Carthusian monastery’s church, is the Chiostro dei Procuratori- the smaller of the monastery’s two cloisters. Amidst the incredible display of Neapolitan artistry, great paintings and marble statues, these somewhat spooky skulls, also sculpted in marble, were apparently mounted on the balustrade as a light-hearted reminder to the monks of their own mortality!

I was simply fooling around then, actively encouraged by Alfredo, but I didn’t think I’d lose him so suddenly within just a couple of years, myself. I remember how he regularly went to “visit” and to “talk to” his mother at the cemetery, after her untimely demise in 2007. Just a year later, his own body was interred into the same space, to accompany his “mamma”, almost as if that was how it was destined to be. Its hard not to imagine mother and son locked in a stream of continuous conversations even now. Although I’m not by their graveside in person today, I have done the unthinkable- taken pictures of my son and myself at the cemetery, so it gets easier to revisit, visually, sitting several oceans and continents away, in India.

Today, happens to be the Day of the Dead in Italy- Il Giorno dei Morti, (All Souls Day), also simply called “i Morti”. While 1st Nov is observed as Ognissanti (All Saints Day), 2nd Nov, is dedicated to the dear departed. Unlike Ognisanti, which is both a Catholic Feast day and national holiday in Italy, the Day of the Dead isn’t. Yet, in many ways this popular festival is more deeply felt than All Saints Day, having roots in folk tradition reaching further back than Christianity. Folk and pagan tradition have long honoured the dead at this time of year, as autumn was considered the counterpoint to spring and its symbol of rebirth.

Even today, Italians have a strong connection with their deceased, and many Italians make weekly visits to the local cemetery to honour their departed family members. This culture of remembrance comes to the fore on November 2nd, as cemeteries across Italy are crowded with visitors and many families make more-or-less symbolic welcoming gestures to the dead who are believed to visit their living loved ones on that day. As it turns out, there are elaborate rituals practiced across Italy on this day. From the regions of the north, where guiding lamps and fires are left lit through the night and a place set at the dinner table, to Sicily in the far south, where the departed leave gifts hidden around the house during the night for good children to find in the morning, the Day of the Dead is when religious and pagan beliefs meld into a celebration of family and tradition.

It’s amazing how so many cultures have evolved to accept death in a celebratory spirit. There’s perhaps no other way to honour the departed souls we hold so dear than to celebrate their memories joyfully. To remember all the energy and vitality they brought to the world up until that moment when they mysteriously stopped breathing. Sad, as it often is to realise that you will never hold someone’s hand again, feel the warmth of their being, the assurance they will walk through the door with their big smile and roaring laughter, its still possible to pass those memories on. Its possible to tell your children and theirs, that, their parent or grand parent was someone truly incredible. Often when the lump in the throat recedes, it leaves a lingering smile on the lips with haunting memories of times well spent, cherished moments that not even death can steal.     

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Interview with Alfredo Maiolese- President of the European Muslims League

Here’s the link to full interview on Trans Asia News Service

Dr. Alfredo Maiolese is an Italian, who embraced Islam from Catholicism more than two decades ago. He is now the President of the European Muslim League which is a non-governmental entity registered with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and part of the European Parliament. He is also the Ambassador of the International Parliament for Safety & Peace and General Secretary of a new organisation called World Organisation of States, based in New York and Rome. In a candid interview with me for TANS, he calls, ISIS a Western prop.

Category: TOP NEWS Published: Saturday, 19 December 2015 10:42

BANGALORE: From being a devout Catholic, Dr Alfredo Maiolese, an Italian from Genoa, embraced Islam 22 years ago in 1993. But he doesn’t call himself a ‘convert’. For him, one religion is an extension of the other, because at the age 27, he discovered “Jesus Christ and Mary” in a book on ‘Knowing Islam’. “I was shocked. How is Jesus Christ a prophet of Islam”, he says. “I was very confused, because, I was Christian” at the time. That was during his maiden visit to Saudi Arabia on an invitation from Prince Abdullah, whom he had befriended in London earlier. “Then I found out that it is logical. Because Allah, (is) one God and (there are) lot of prophets who are relatives, cousins. With books, Revelations, it was logical for me”, he says thinking back. Within a week, which he describes as a period of spiritual churning, he says he received “suddenly from the sky, Hidayat, the guidance, the light. And I was crying of happiness. First time I cry of happiness. I said ‘Oh, he’s calling me’! He had prayed “please God, give me some sign” he says, and that is when he felt “something that I never felt in my life.” He returned to Genoa, and continued to practice Islam, shocking his mother one day, as she happened to enter his room while he was performing namaz on the floor. She thought he was looking for something under his bed. When the rest of his conservative family found out, there was shock and disbelief.

Today, Alfredo Maiolese is the President of the European Muslim League which is a non-governmental entity registered with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and part of the European Parliament. He is also the Ambassador of the International Parliament for Safety & Peace and General Secretary of a new organisation called World Organisation of States, based in New York and Rome. The functions of these organisations range from defence of Human Rights, protection of minorities, to the promotion of security and peace, building focus on the Middle East & environment and also the ongoing conflicts between religions in the world.

Mr Maiolese, who served as a minister in the Italian government earlier as well,  is in a unique position to offer a viewpoint on the discourse of a clash of civilisations in the context of the raging war in Syria and its spillover effect on terrorist incidents across the world, given the trajectory of his own journey between two world-views.

In an exclusive conversation with Elizabeth Jane for Trans Asia News Service, Alfredo Maiolese offers his candid views on the real nature of current conflicts, the behind the scenes players involved, the complex web of conflicting geopolitical and economic interests at play, its disastrous effects mostly on Muslim populations and the lack of political will to find simple and obvious solutions to end these conflicts. He was in Bangalore recently to participate in an international conference.

NO CLASH OF CIVILISATIONS

“It wasn’t  easy for me to change. Of course Christians say Jesus is ‘Son of God’, we say Prophet of God. It’s more what’s in common between Christians and Muslims than what is different. People today, they are fighting but we get to reach this point” says Alfredo Maiolese explaining his transition from conservative Catholicism to Islam.

This is why he says, when people talk about the “clash of civilisations… I think they want clash of religion. But this is only by name because people are not fighting. This is a problem of governments, that have some interests- political. Today they take the ideology and they ‘Islamicise’ that ideology of being terrorist. But in the gospel, the Bible they don’t say, in the name of God, you kill. So, this is a very affirmative instruction… So, some people they are very bad inside. No clean heart. No contact with God, Allah. Take innocent people and brainwash them. Who are they?”

According to Mr Maiolese, the violent manifestations of conflicts in West Asia really began with “people who wanted a revolution. Normal people.” But then he says, the situation turned vicious when “some clerics with very bad intentions, they used this opportunity for their interests and now, we have two wars- the government’s wars and the group’s wars.”

He admits that there is a sectarian aspect involved. “There’s a war between Sunni, Shias. It’s a shame for us that we are fighting Muslims against Muslims. There’s no human rights. They’re raping the women and killing children. It’s really a disaster. Its not humanity. These are not human beings,” he says.

THE SYRIAN QUAGMIRE

Alfredo Maiolese compares the present situation in Syria to an Italian minestrone soup. “Minestrone is a mix of combination. Some enemies now they are friends. First, there is a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A proxy war, through Yemen and through Syria. It is a Shia-Sunni conflict on one side. But the beginning was not that. Because the beginning, we forget, the people after Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, they were saying, we want elections. We want freedom. And what did Bashar al-Assad do? Boom, he killed. The army was on the streets for two years, many people died. In the beginning, it was not religion. People, they wanted to have democracy. And then sectarian element came then Iran, Russia..”

ROLE OF SAUDI ARABIA

Alfredo Maiolese does not save his barbs about the role of Saudi monarchy in Syria either. “Saudi Arabia is making war against Iran, obviously. They want leadership. America has supported KSA for many years. Now, it has changed policy. The dynamic of relations between US, KSA and Iran is, KSA and Iran want to be the leader in the Middle East. But Iran, it says we have history of 1000 years, how these people of the last 100 years, they came from the desert, they want to be the leader? So, they are fighting. They cannot fight directly because they’ll create the third world war, so they’re using people, they give support, there is Hezbollah and Mossad and they are fighting. And it’s a war. There are no three or four kinds of different wars. There’s a war between KSA and Iran, through their allies, then there is a war with Russia and Syria against these people who have support from some other countries. It’s a very big mess. In the beginning it might have been a genuine revolution. Now, its only interests. But who’s losing? Populations. Then there’s another problem- Turkey and Russia. This is a very complicated issue, but at the end, we are the losers”, he said regretfully.
EUROPEAN JIHADISTS

As outside parties piled on the build-up in Syria, they drew young fighters in from regions unconnected to the conflict. Throughout Europe, jihadism is a fringe phenomenon, much debated but affecting only a few isolated individuals within largely peaceful Muslim communities. A study on Home-Grown Jihadism in Italy, by Lorenzo Vidino, mentions an important case study, he calls the Delnevo case. Genovese convert Ibrahim Giuliano Delnevo, was killed in Syria while fighting with a jihadist militia. He was the first Italian known to have died in Syria in June 2013. In the summer of 2012, Delnevo attempted to fulfil his desires to fight in jihad by travelling to Turkey, and from there seeking to cross into Syria. His attempt failed and he returned to Italy. Alfredo Maiolese, one of the leaders of Genoa’s Muslim community, spoke with Delnevo shortly thereafter. “He had been in two refugee camps, but he could not find the right contact, he could not get in”, recounted Maiolese. He describes Delnevo as “a really nice person.” However, “his ideology was White and Black.” He was drawn to the Syrian conflict out of concern to help those in need. “He said, why are they killing our Muslim bother. So he went there to defend the oppression of the regime of Syria. And he was really innocent at the beginning. But afterwards they make politics, many groups, they are receiving money from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, America, Israel, Russia… Its a big mess. You want to talk about the protection of a human being, but, in the name of Allah, they are fighting, Muslim against Muslim. Don’t forget, who are the first dying? Muslim”, he said.

MOTIVE FOR CONFLICT

Asked why the battle in Syria that started in March 2011 is still ongoing, adding newer twists and turns, whether this has to do with geopolitical priorities or mineral and oil supplies, Mr Maiolese says, “The situation of Syria is very complicated. It’s the position (strategic location) not petrol. I mean it doesn’t have much fuel, not like Saudi Arabia, or Iraq. This ‘Crocevia’ in Italian, or Crossroads, this land, there’s too much interest in this land. It’s position (placement). Israel’s position, Syria has interests, Russia has interests, Hezbollah is fighting for religion. Al Qaeda is  fighting for religion- Sunni sect, but it is small level. Sometimes, the countries, they’re fighting together and they use these people.”
DAESH NOT MUSLIM

Mr Maiolese does not consider members of the so called Islamic State group or Daesh as Muslims. “Technically, when you say, I witness, ‘there is no God than God’, he is a Muslim, but he should have purity in his intention and link with God, but I’m not God to judge. So he could be Muslim, but he is using Islam. Some of them are not Muslim because what they’re doing, its not acting as Muslim. Because our prophet did not say you have to kill people, apart from to protect family, to protect something else. Protection is something else, but to kill people in the name of Allah. In Europe they say Holy War. What holy? there is horrible, there’s no holy at all,” he says.

Talking about the extraordinary display of barbarism by the Islamic State group, he points out that “in the Quran, it says, if you are in war, take your prisoner and first you feed them, even you don’t have food. But respect the women, children, respect the environment. What kind of Islam they are doing? This is not Islam. This is nothing. This is only bad action. Its used in the name of Islam but in reality its  brutality, its genocide. Everybody (is to blame) when the West gives the army, use their planes, everybody is responsible. Not only the people who start but the people who are supporting them.”

According to Mr Maiolese, the ISIS group is essentially a Western prop. An invention, created to serve an ulterior motive. “This is the ex-secret service of Saddam Hussain. What is the IS? The Caliph is a person who has been chosen from the population to be the ruler because of their behaviour, because of their good Islam. So, this is a creation. Even Hillary Clinton said, a few months ago, it’s a creation of America, but now it has escaped from our hands! Hillary Clinton said it. I can’t believe that. Of course, this IS, the head, is only doing it for money. They are doing it for want of interests. They are like mafia. You enter, you can walk out”, he said without mincing words.

RADICALISATION

Most experts tend to agree that radicalisation is a highly complex and individualised process, often shaped by a poorly understood interaction of structural and personal factors. Several theories have been formulated to specifically explain the radicalisation of European Muslims, ranging from a search for identity to anger over discrimination and relative economic deprivation. In 2008 the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation argued that radicalisation takes place “at the intersection of an enabling environment and a personal trajectory.” Alfredo Maiolese said, the Conference- Peace for Economy, was an attempt to explore ways and means to identify and reverse the process of radicalisation. “we have to have a link in the world, because it is high level. Ambassadors, institutions, society, members of government. If we shut up, we cannot do anything. But, because there are member of govt that we report, of course we think, what we can do to get a solution. This is the starting. Of course when we have a boat, we need a captain but we also need a rope. So this is a beginning to take the boat in the right direction and to say, there’s a wave now, we have to report it. This is important but not only words but action. Not just to give interviews but to build pressure”, he said.

Asked about the much publicised view that murders secure a place in paradise for suicide attackers apart from earning them the prize of 72 virgins in heaven, Mr Maiolese denied this entirely. “No. In the Quran it doesn’t say that you have to kill yourself or someone else to go to paradise. What is paradise? According to Christianity and Islam, you have to work hard to enter paradise. Its only in the hands of God. Not that if you kill more people you get in. In the war between the Zionist and the Palestinians, because the balance of the army was stones against helicopters and weapons, the fighters said, ok, there’s nothing left. They started to blow up, some 20 years ago… the people they think, I kill myself I go to paradise! What paradise?” he wondered.

REFUGEE CRISIS AND XENOPHOBIA

Asked about the incredible refugee crisis involving millions of displaced Syrians including children left to fend for themselves and find places to hide, Mr Maiolese said, “first of all they have to remind themselves that they are Muslim. They have to ask Allah, why this test? Is there an explanation.” Describing the help extended by the European Muslims League (EML), he said “of course, we’re giving monetary support and education. We are sending containers, all these material things. But they need more support, spiritual support. That’s what we are doing. Because if you are a Muslim, according to our religion, Allah has created us to worship him, with Iman and Yakeen. So if you have to have Iman, or faith, you have to have Yakeen. We are teaching them that even though they are in this bad situation, they don’t have to lose their faith. Most of the people are waiting to go back to their country. They don’t want to stay in Germany, Italy or Switzerland, Sweden or Spain. They want to go back to Syria. But there is a problem with Syria. That problem is the government. Like there is a problem between Pakistan and India for Kashmir- that’s not a problem between Muslims or Hindus. It’s not religion. The problem is that the country has its own interests. So of course the European Muslim League, we are like an NGO. We’re not a government organisation. We’re registered with the UNSC, we are in the European Parliament. Our role is to defend them. When a person arrives at a refugee station, Subhan Allah, we all gather- even the Christian Italians, when they see all the Syrians at the stations, they go shopping and they get food for them. Each one has a responsibility. Each human being has love, pain.”

Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy is a prime transit point for illegal immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia wanting to enter Europe. Here, Mr Maiolese says “Italian marines send a lot of boats to rescue these people coming by sea. Some people they say, what we can do? We don’t even have work (employment) for ourselves. But this is not about work. It is part of humanity to help people when they are dying in the sea. So, what they have to do. But what they understand is, they found out, different types of migration. All the migration from Libya, from the Sahara- they are not educated. But these Syrians, they have high level of education. The people who welcome them say, they have good mobile phones, speak English, they are doctors and engineers. They come because they want to improve their way of life. They are forced. I know because I know many Syrians. I’ve been there many times. One of my friends, he has a villa with a swimming pool and the government took his villa. He has nowhere to live.”

But the recent attacks in Paris and California by outsiders claiming inspiration from outfits like the IS have added extra hurdles to the problem of migration. Now there’s fear and xenophobia to deal with. Mr Maiolese says, “now they confuse migration, terrorism and Islam. Actually Italy is not a destination. It is a transit route. They come, but they don’t want to stay in Italy. They want to move on to places like Sweden or Holland or in the North, Norway, or in Germany. These are the main countries. But now, the politicians a small percentage of them, they hold on to this ‘We’re Christian, you’re Muslim (rhetoric)’ It makes no sense,” he says. “They are forced to live in Europe because Europe sends their army to drop bombs and bombards them. What solution do they have? he asks.

“There is a persecution, Islamophobia all over the world. When you kill a person in Iraq or Syria, you kill them physically. But you are killing us when they consider us Daesh or whatever else. When a person does a terrorist act, you don’t judge me by my intention but by my action. So what do you do? We start with events like this conference”, he said about the think tank meeting he was attending.

SOLUTIONS FOR SYRIA

Bombing is no way to end the Syrian conflict, Mr Maiolese believes. “If you kill three terrorists, they’ll kill 1 million Syrians. That’s no solution. War against war, is not a solution”, he insists. According to him, there is a clear lack of political will to end the fighting because each player is pursuing their own end. “We can say that the interest of the government is different from interests of the population. We can speak about love and peace continuously, but this is not at our level. The level is at the top. Russia’s interest is to have a base in Syria. It doesn’t care about Syrian people. I spoke to one Colonel of Rome in NATO, I asked what do you think about 100,000 people dying in Syria? “Nothing”, he said. I was shocked. America is the first country for human rights. But if the country has different interests, if France wants to attack Libya, it’s not for or against Gaddafi. The country has interests. And the interests of countries are above human rights. That’s the defect.” Using a regional analogy, he said, “We have to realise, if India has a problem with Pakistan, for Kashmir, it’s not religion. It’s a fight for land, or for petrol for example or power, or something that is national interest.”

The solution to the seemingly intractable Syrian crisis is democracy, Mr Maiolese says. “The solution is that the government has to say we’ll renounce, to give some opportunity to respect the civilian population. Bring them back, because I think most of the people, they want to go back to Syria. But now, its how many years? Even if they go back, it takes them 10 yrs to rebuild. Its really not easy. If they say, tomorrow there’s peace. You take 12 million people to where? Where’s their house? Where’s their university? Where’s their work? Nothing.

So, until now, its a disaster. We lost. Everybody we lost. We lost humanity, we lost the peace, we lost the government, we lost the Sunni, the Shia, everybody.”

If they really want to, world powers can solve the Syrian crisis “in one minute” says Alfredo Maiolese. “We can solve this problem. Don’t give the army. Don’t bombard with Russian weapons…and make a political solution. What we have to do, is have elections. This Bashar al-Assad has to go, because he’s a state terrorist. Putin is accusing of what? Putin has interests, and other countries have interests. But logically, we have to help the population, so they are not killed. So if you want  to speak about democracy, we have to arrange for fresh elections and elect a new parliament and new President who is not an Alawite, not a Sunni, Ikhwani or whatever. The population of Syria, Christian, Muslim or whatever, they have to, elect their own representative and not to split into two and tree part like Libya”, he says.


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An Interview with the Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the Syrian conflict and its fallout

I spoke to Mr Sabit Subasic, Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to India for Trans Asia News Service

Here’s the link to the interview published by TANS

As always, I’d welcome your feedback here.

Category: TOP NEWS

Published: Saturday, 12 December 2015 11:02

An Interview with the Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina 

TRANS ASIA NEWS

BANGALORE: Of the many crises the world is facing today, one of the worst is in West Asia, centred in Syria. The fallout of the so-called Arab Spring which caused an upheaval across the energy rich region and unseated many a dictatorships, outside meddling and convergence of geo-political interests of many regional players in the Arab world’s ancient and most secular country has created the Syrian quagmire. 

Over the years the battle has acquired sectarian overtones, and turned into a global platform for political and military one-upmanship. As regional and global powers slug it out, amidst a complex array of terror outfits adding their agendas to the mix, Syria burns, forcing millions of its citizens to flee, seeking refuge far and wide. And as innumerable incidents of terror apparently motivated by Islamist extremism break out worldwide, it has started to set off a culture of suspicion, fear and xenophobia against entire Muslim populations, including refugees escaping chaos at home. On the sidelines of the “Peace For Economy” conference held in Bangalore, on 6 December, Sabit Subasic, the Ambassador of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) expressed optimism in the “progressive powers”, which he said would ultimately “prevail, definitely.” 

Speaking exclusively to Elizabeth Jane for Trans Asia News Service, the dignitary said, he does not see the Syrian conflict as a Sunni-Shia sectarian problem. He admits that “There is that regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry between Shia and Sunni in the region.” But he says, “that’s one aspect of the regional crisis, but only one aspect. It’s not just about that.” He also takes the view that highlighting this particular aspect could just be a smokescreen. “See, it’s very sensitive, you know, Shia-Sunni differences, every time they can be used for promotion of some other goals.” 

A POWDER KEG

Many believe that the Middle East has been conditioned by outside forces into a powder keg that is ready to explode with the right trigger. As the Syrian war escalates, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that by the end of 2015, half of the population of Syria will be in need of aid. This includes an anticipated 3.45 million Syrian refugees and 6.8 million Syrians inside the country, many of whom will be displaced from their homes. 

The crisis in Syria has escalated manifold since Russia landed heavy weaponry and boots on the ground apparently to fill the vacuum created by the Western dithering in taking on an enemy like Islamic State group, head on.

Reflecting on the history of the Bosnian war, the Ambassador of Bosnia-Herzegovina, while talking about the conflict brewing in Syria said, “Syria is a wonderful example of competition between different regional and global powers for their dominance, their spheres of interest. I mean Syria is a nice, beautiful country. It used to be very beautiful, with huge history, huge culture. But, at the moment, at the crossroads of different regional and global interests of some important powers. And people are competing. Powers are competing… Unfortunately many things in the world are a matter of national interest… and everything is messed up. That human aspect of the world is getting defeated nowadays. There’s a problem in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and many other countries. People are mostly under the umbrella of fighting for some high level goals, very often its a matter of national interest.”

CLASH OF CIVILISATIONS?

Asked about whether he sees the unfolding chaos as representing a ‘clash of civilisations’ that even the Dalai Lama spoke about, a battle of Islam Vs. other religions, Ambassador Subasic said, “It was a long time ago, Samuel Huntington wrote that famous book called ‘The Clash of Civilisations’. The famous writer predicted the clash of civilisations. At that time it was neglected but I strongly believe… I’m academically a political scientist. And I’m a realist in international relations. What I want to say is, everything is a matter of national or international interest. Sometimes you see an action that looks like a high-level human action, but behind it, it is often something else. Some countries try to use so-called soft-power to dominate other countries. Everything is a matter of economic interests of countries. Some country is stronger, it tries to impose on other countries, that’s the logic of international relations, international markets, and the international system. Although there are some institutions in the world that are trying to harmonise, to give some spirit of humanity to the process, but it’s not enough.”

ISIS MYSTERY

Asked about the ISIS and its ideology, the recent trend of radicalisation of the youth, the diplomat said, “Frankly speaking, I have many questions about that and I simply don’t know. I don’t know who is actually financially behind ISIS, who’s paying the money? Financially they’re doing very well. Who’s behind that? who’s paying for it? What’s the purpose of that? 

Mr Subasic expressed shock and disbelief about the way individuals, apparently unconnected to the formal structure or operations of terror groups like the ISIS, are acting on their own to unleash terror. Talking about the recent shootings in San Bernardino, California, he said, “now look at the lady bomber in California. She was not formally part of any group. Some kind of social network they say, and they go. That’s something very deep and very dangerous.” 

Mr Subasic expressed concern about the growing Islamophobia in the West. “People say, these people are coming from Muslim countries. You see what’s happening in Paris and sometimes what’s happening somewhere else… sometimes they don’t say, but they think that…Sometimes those kind of feelings prevail in public opinion, which is also very dangerous. I don’t know what’s the end. We should be optimistic, but, nowadays we have a very very dangerous situation,” he said.  

But he expressed optimism that although the sporadic attacks attributed to religiously motivated violence has the tendency to polarise non-Muslims to the opposite extreme, “many people are not like that, so that’s the characteristic of democracy of the West.” 

SYRIAN TRAGEDY

What does he think of the massive humanitarian crisis in Syria. The millions of people displaced, especially children made homeless and left at everyone’s mercy? The Ambassador says, “It’s a tragedy. And you have some other aspect of the crisis in Europe. You have those terrorist incidents that are happening in the West, combined with the Refugee crisis, it brings some unbelievable feeling in the European countries and I don’t know what’s the end of that.” 

Mr Subasic believes a military response, of the kind we see today is the need of the hour in Syria. However, asked if a war isn’t actually in the interests of the participants, given that most of them are big arms manufacturers and suppliers, feeding the conflict, the diplomat admitted the irony of the situation. “That’s again the reality and we need much more time to discuss this. You’re right about that. But at this stage it’s very important to have that coalition of countries, to you know, bomb,” he said. 

The Ambassador of BiH maintains that a joint military exercise is necessary in Syria. “It’s important that key players come together to fight. They recognise the problem. Recently there were few big gatherings of important international players. They all accept the fact that we are in danger. We have to do something… As a result, many countries have decided to come together to fight. That’s the only solution,” he says.

Syria could well be setting the stage for the possible emergence of a new world order in this chaotic landscape, Mr Subasic says. “You know that Russia is getting stronger. It’s different, not the same as some years ago. And Russia is a serious military power. And it has military bases traditionally in Syria, and it wants to protect it. It can protect it with Assad in power. It’s the only place where they have a military/ naval base outside the former Soviet Union region- the Tartus. So, from that point of view, they’ll try to fight, use all the necessary means to protect their interests, although their interests are opposite to those of other countries. So, it’s really from that point of view a very chaotic situation.”

PROJECT NEW MIDDLE-EAST

In 2006, a process was reportedly set in motion called a project for a “New Middle East”. It was an Anglo-American sponsored Israeli siege of Lebanon, of which, the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice had informed the international media. It reportedly involved plans to create an arc of instability, chaos, and violence extending from Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria to Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Iran, and the borders of NATO-garrisoned Afghanistan. This “constructive chaos” was apparently supposed to generate conditions of violence and warfare throughout the region, which would in turn be used so that the United States, Britain, and Israel could redraw the map of the Middle East in accordance with their geo-strategic needs and objectives. 

The Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to India believes the emergence of Iran from the shadow of US sanctions, “is something good to happen recently. It’s a very positive thing. Imagine the situation now in the world, with Iran totally on the opposite side. Iran is an important regional power”, he said, which “also has their national interest in the region (Syria).” He described Iran as “a state you can count on, for the fight on terrorism.” Mr Subasic does not believe the violence in Syria has necessarily worsened since the US and other world powers struck a nuclear deal with Iran and lifted sanctions. 

But what about Saudi Arabia’s deep grievance with the US, regarding a nuclear capability? Is that not a factor fuelling the tensions? Mr Subasic says, Saudi Arabia remains “a strong US ally even now… It is not the only country in the region without nuclear power. Turkey is also a regional power without nuclear capability.” He believes there are lots of forces at play in Syria at the moment. “The position of Turkey is very interesting in the region. Turkey is also a serious regional power. And they have interests in the region also, because a part of the population that lives outside Turkey in Syria, or in Iraq, Iran, or because of the Kurdish population. And Israel is also a power. They have their own interests there. I read in the newspaper that Israel is also bombing some targets in Syria. I didn’t know that. But I read they are doing that. To protect their interests. So everybody is bombing Syria now. Beautiful, nice country, now everybody is coming and bombing. The Ambassador of Syria is a friend of mine, and sometimes I talk to him and the Deputy Ambassador, I feel really very pity in such a situation. I used to go to Syria. It was very beautiful. This Assad regime was autocratic. Not democratic. But what you have now, is the total destruction. Nobody is benefitting. At least no one from Syria.”  

OPTIMISM

Asked if he thought events like the ‘Peace for Economy Conference’, could actually contribute positively for change, Mr Subasic said, “Actually I don’t know in this turbulent world, what can work at all. I mean it’s getting dangerous. We shouldn’t be over-ambitious with this conference, because the situation in the world is very complicated. Lot of things are happening at the moment. But… it is a good intention. Probably, we can project some signs to change the situation.”

Despite the gloom, Ambassador Sabit Subasic is positive about the future and the possibility of peace. He said, “I’m optimistic. I think there are powers in the world. There are progressive powers. They will prevail, definitely. In the West and also in some other countries. I mean the capacities of progressive powers is much stronger than those of regressive powers in the long run. In the short run we are in a big crisis internationally, but, in the long run, any crisis produces something positive.”


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Meeting and talking to the Dalai Lama

It isn’t everyday that you get to share living, breathing space with someone as special as the Dalai Lama. And to get to interview him, is one incredible bonus. After being quite overwhelmed just to be preparing for the possibility of speaking to him, I did finally manage a decent interview, I think.

In an almost hour-long conversation, for the Trans Asia News Service (TANS), we talked about a range of issues, from Tibet, to the disconnect between the real nature of Islam and the contemporary image of the religion, the eerie parallel between this and the teachings of Buddhism and radical Buddhists, feminism, the nature of India and the intolerance debate, and much more…

You can catch the entire interview here

The interview was also carried by the Kashmir Observer newspaper

A version of the interview published on the official website of the Dalai Lama, http://www.dalailama.com is available here

I’d appreciate your feedback and comments here. Thank you!

There’s a video of the interview on YouTube as well. Here’s the link:


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Turd-green remains my valley!

An open invitation to not just Carmelites to get a ringside view of turd-valley…

I spent five of my formative years at Mount Carmel College (MCC) in Bangalore. Right after school, MCC became my alma mater, growing up. That was 25 years back. Rahul Gandhi, the Vice President of the Congress Party who is only a few years older than me, was likely entering his 20’s at the time, and was hardly headline news material. But yesterday, as he spoke at the MCC auditorium, addressing an all-girl audience, the man once considered a sought-after bachelor with his dimpled cheeks, seemed to make quite another impression. If most media reports are to be believed, his supposed outreach to Bangalore’s youth, was not only a non-starter, they called it quite a disaster. In videos widely circulated, he is heard entering a direct Q and A with his audience, with the purpose of hitting out at the ruling Modi government. Targeting the BJP’s flagship Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign, he asks if the girls think, the project is working. Although what one hears is a mixed response, with voices saying both “Yes” and “No” simultaneously, the headline that aired was that “Rahul was stumped”. Caught somewhat unaware by the response, RaGa seems a bit slow with a comeback, posing a counter question, “You think Make in India is good”? Again the response is quite mixed. But given RaGa’s own awkwardness, and inability to think on his feet to turn things around, the story that went out was that he was out of tune with the “people’s pulse”; that the Modi government’s programs were successful, and appreciated and it was RaGa, who seemed to not know. The story had barely broken when those on either side of the camp began to post their versions on social media. For all those who cracked “Pappu” jokes about RaGa, there were spirited defences from the opposite side that called the reporting biased.

With my Facebook timeline already riven over the Aamir Khan episode, the misreporting, and selective reporting involved, this was the next one to evoke sharp responses. There was euphoria from RaGa’s haters and sympathy from those willing to give him the benefit of doubt. Meanwhile, I, sitting at home, watching the drama unfold was wondering what I’d have said and done, had I been right there in my college auditorium. MCC is quite well known in the city. In the past, it was more famous for the boys that hung around outside the high walls of the campus, just waiting to get lucky with the pretty girls inside. Mount Carmel was where the ‘hot’ crowd was supposed to be. If there was a wannabe beauty queen or one in the making, you’d be sure to find her on campus. But it wasn’t a beauty vs. brains thing. I, for instance was the typical plain Jane. I was there to study, get good grades, become someone. If you came from my kind of background, you’d be like that too. I came from the most regular family and had nobody to look out for me. So I was hardworking, driven and determined to be someone. I cycled to college, 8km one-way daily, for the lack of better options and never missed a single class. I couldn’t care less about the boys outside the gates. I worked so hard, to gain entry into the coveted Journalism/ Psychology/ English Literature course, that I became an overachiever by dint of necessity. I shocked myself by landing the third rank in the state of Karnataka. That was the first time that my mug shot appeared in the local newspapers! So, my guess is, had I been in that auditorium yesterday, I’d have been quite vocal and honest about the whole affair.

Now, here’s the thing. My blog post from five months ago about the problem of open defecation in my neighbourhood, still stands. You see, the crappers, have been making a beeline all along. I’ll admit, I just don’t have it in me to go embarrass them myself. Nobody else has done anything about it either, so they just keep coming, and going and doing their business. And yes, some of them are still fancy enough to drive-in, in their car, park it, take a walk to take a dump, and walk back as if everything was hunky dory, checking their smart phones as they return, newspapers tucked under their arms. This just happens to be the reality. So, all those young ladies at MCC, who think Swachh Bharat is a roaring success, here’s an open invitation to visit turd valley. Come, see, then opine. Here’s the other thing. They’re running a poster-making contest for children at my son’s school, for all grades, asking them to come up with innovative slogans and art work for the Swachh Bharat campaign. Those who participate, get short-listed and finally win the contest are promised commendation certificates and credits from the  Central Board of Secondary Education. This happens to be a programme coordinated by the Union Human Resource Ministry all over India. Trouble is, I don’t get the point of an exercise that names people like me as it’s target audience. Without me trying to make this about “Us and them”, the problem is already that. I’m not the one walking around ‘lota’ in hand. The program is targeting the wrong demographic.

Turns out, more than one crore toilets have been built in a year under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Then why is the government’s well intentioned scheme, despite massive infrastructural investments still a pipe dream? Why is this clean revolution still outside our grasp? The Economic Times reports, an all-India survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) found that “Not even half the toilets built under the cleanliness mission are being used…While just 46% of 95 lakh toilets built in rural India are being used, the figure is barely 50% even in urban areas”, as per the survey.

So, what’s with the people? Why won’t they just use the new toilets? According to the ET report, “surveyors found households using toilets for storing grains or as general storage space and still going to the fields early in the morning to relieve themselves.” Why is this happening? Because most toilets are apparently dysfunctional. Adequate and proper supply of water might’ve provided an incentive, but, the toilets as of now are only brick and mortar structures.

And here’s the gem- The report says, “The ministry of statistics and programme implementation, the nodal ministry for NSSO, had planned to release the report on October 2, the anniversary of the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. However, the ministry withheld the report after a review by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The PMO thought the survey report would be used by the Opposition to slam Prime Minister Modi’s cleanliness initiative”.

ET published this on 23 Nov, just a couple of days before RaGa landed at MCC. Could he have used this info as ammunition in his speech? Yes, perhaps. But we all now know he didn’t. Hope his team does better research next time.   

So, is the Swachh Bharat program working, then? Quick reality check for the ‘Yes club’ at MCC, not really.

I’m happy to extend an open invitation to fellow Carmelites to come explore that facts on the ground in my neighbourhood. The sights and smells should take care of things. And while we’re at it, we can also check out the frothing Bellandur lake, just a hop and skip from my place. The news of this toxic lake has made headlines world over, but we manage to remain blissful in our ignorance!

It would’ve been great to quiz RaGa on the pathetic state of civic amenities in Karnataka while he was here, especially since his party is in power in the State. The potholes, the apathy, the garbage and stench, not all of it is a by-product of the Centre’s cleanliness drive, after all. Meanwhile, I don’t know what draws the car-borne crappers to the open greens. Do they have unusable toilets too, or haven’t they bothered with it at all? Whichever it is, it is indeed sick and if driving up to empty one’s bowels is an indication of things to come in India’s silicon valley, then I dread to think what else might be in store…


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So, what did you shed today?

So, what did you shed today? the tree asked the lynch mob.

The mob, a sundry bunch of identical faceless shadows, all grinned at once.

Letting out a collective guttural howl, they said, why tree, what do you care?

Hands still soaked red, and dripping from their latest kill, they said, here’s what we spilled…

You ask, what we shed? Why blood of course, don’t you know?

Why not shed the malice, the madness, the hate, instead? Why not live and let live, said the tree.

But with ignorance and dogma for parents, stupidity and aversion for siblings, aimlessness and hysteria for cousins, loathing and sickness for aunts and uncles, the lynch mob could neither see nor bear to hear another point of view…

You stand too tall, you talk too loud, the mob said to the tree.

How about we cut you to size, show you your place, it said. You’re way too shady for your own good. So green, it makes us sick. It’s just not right, where you stand or how you curve. It’s way too much how you have us waylaid. You better be gone…

With that, up sprang an axe, and down it went, then this way and that, till the tree was all but a heap of wood on mud.

But yet, there it stood. The roots firmly in place, it’s spirit in tact, all it’s wisdom still awaiting the touch of spring…

The lynch mob had as always, missed the woods for the trees. It rampaged on, headless, rudderless, until it reached the edge of a cliff, rolling off in one big rumble…

The tree, with time, grew back. A leaf, a tiny branch at a time. It still stands tall, asking passersby, what did you shed today?


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Spectacular Stump

Posted by Liz Jane’s Lens on Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Same stump, new spectacle, and at no cost! That’s the amazing story of this humble stump of a once majestic drumstick tree in our garden. After a large part of its trunk broke off in a heavy downpour, the tree was cut down in the hope it would grow out new branches again. It almost happened, but not quite, and the tree slowly died out, until one day we noticed that it had become a magnificent host- to the most spectacular display of (magic) mushrooms, this August.

But we were forced to dig the stump out later and discard it to make space for new plants. Yet, in it’s discarded new location, it continues to play a stage. On show, are the most spectacular kinds of mushrooms every other day. The wet weather through most of November, is making sure there’s something incredible to behold when you least expect it. I especially like the little ones, soaked in shiny droplets that look almost like jujups

smile emoticon

If you didn’t know it was just fungus, I bet you’d want to pop one in your mouth…


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Shutter-bug alert!

Posted by Liz Jane’s Lens on Monday, November 23, 2015

This tiny beetle was in quite a hurry. Wouldn’t stop to pose, come what may, and the wind blowing the reed about wasn’t much help either! We’ve had really wet cyclonic weather for days now, and I just about managed to catch a few clear glimpses of this little fellow before the next rain shower. Not sure these do justice, but the combination of red and green has quite a compelling stop and go effect on me. What say?


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Kindle Paperwhite or Paperweight?

Why Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite is a rip-off in India

Oh yes, I’m a bit raw right now. I’ve been sweating, swearing and seething. I have been suffering since the family decided to invest in a Kindle Paperwhite. Bought over by the ongoing “we are the readers” advertising blitz on Indian television, we took the bait and joined the bandwagon. We ordered the “all new” Kindle Paperwhite, which Amazon promptly delivered to our doorstep. But who knew that the product delivered to Indian clients is altogether different from the version available in the first world!! Turns out, Amazon has some bizarre double standards when it comes to India. While there’s no compromise on the prices, no deals, offers or discounts, the product itself is substandard. It is actually deficient in its features, lacking most of the advertised attributes, available in markets outside India. Although the User Guide on the device itself mentions the ‘Household’ and ‘Kindle for Kids’ features, neither of these are available in India. Having bought the e-reader specifically for my son, to encourage him to read, I feel cheated and shortchanged by Amazon. Nowhere, does the company warn that these basic features, which are standard in earlier Kindles are actually not available in devices bought in India. The Indian consumer is left to rudely discover that she/he has been palmed off a below par product, without explanation. What compounds my anger is that this is not a mistake caused by an oversight. Its deliberate. Amazon’s design seems to be to deliver a dumbed-down, degraded, dummy version of the real thing for Indians alone. By directing Indian buyers to the Amazon.in portal where only the tweaked, dumber version is sold, Amazon is playing some twisted double-game, which only the company can explain.     

The 'Indian' Kindle Paperwhite

The ‘Indian’ Kindle Paperwhite

The Kindle for Kids feature is supposed to be a progression on ‘FreeTime’, available on previous versions of the Kindle e-reader. The feature basically lets you create profiles for kids so you can set reading goals for them. It tracks accomplishments, awards achievements, and generally encourages better reading habits. It also makes the Paperwhite kid-proof, locking out the Kindle Store, Goodreads, Wikipedia, and the rudimentary Web browser, so kids don’t get distracted or go shopping. Kindle for Kids is now an extension of an option to set up a Family Library of sorts, through a function called ‘Household’, on the Paperwhite. A ‘household’ can be shared by two adults, both of who can create reading lists and opt to share those. To this household, upto four independent children’s profiles can be added and loaded with reading material suitable for their age. But guess what, none of these features are available on the Kindle Paperwhite device bought in India!

If you saw their advertising, you’d think the Kindle was Amazon’s gift to readers awaiting enlightenment through the written word in digital India! That’s until you actually get one. And then, you want to throw it at someone, except you don’t know who. Because, you see, should you have a problem, with the Kindle, the only way to seek redressal is remotely, over the phone, where you deal with faceless voices, that could be sitting in some remote corner of the planet, well-insulated from your rage! Did you know that Kindle has no service centres anywhere in the world? So, should you be so unfortunate as to land a dummy product or have software/ hardware issues, all you get to do is call the Amazon helpline and let them talk you through likely solutions remotely, or perhaps not. You don’t get to see flesh-and-blood people or have anyone physically diagnose the problem or offer a prognosis. The company’s customer service is polite. They seem trained to handle irate customers. But their “thank you for calling, and have a nice day” doesn’t exactly fix your troubles. It certainly doesn’t help when they say, “I’m sorry to hear you’re facing this problem, but we can’t really help you. Thanks for the feedback.” Hello… What??

I really wonder why Amazon created a decent product with useful features serving an important segment like young readers and then unilaterally decided to switch off the function for buyers in India. Why, Jeff Bezos??! Is this some sort of weird racist thing?

I mean, imagine, paying real money in the real world, to get a real product and then having to discover a tech- apartheid that you didn’t quite account for. And of course I found out only incidentally, upon calling the customer care at Amazon.in. The man at the other end of the line said, “but ma’am we don’t have the features you’re looking for in India, I’m sorry. What I can do is arrange for you to speak to someone at amazon.com and if you can ‘migrate’, then it may be possible”. So, what do you think that means? That this is basically just a simple back-end thing that can be switched on and off like a tap, remotely. Yet, they insist on a digital divide. The first world gets the better deal. The Indian Kindle owner meanwhile, gets to, sweat, swear and seethe. Welcome to reality.

So, the supposed solution to my problem was that an Indian customer registered on the Amazon.in profile would have to migrate to amazon.com, to access the missing features on their Kindle Paperwhite. The representatives couldn’t explain the fact that they are actually heavily advertising the Kindle for Kids feature as being available in India, as is evident from this link to their user manual. 

Eventually, someone from amazon.com called to address my issues. But then again I hit a wall, when a Filipino sounding customer representative calling from Egypt told me that I needed to have a US address to “migrate” to their dot com profile. Since I happen to reside in India, and cannot fake a US address, the matter couldn’t be resolved and I’m stuck with it.

I wonder if Amazon has heard of India’s ambitious plans to launch a digital revolution in its villages. The term ‘global-village’ may also not mean much to the company, given the disdain it is showing a market as large as India even after CEO Jeff Bezos met India’s Prime Minister not long ago, and was photographed looking rather gleeful. The trouble is, Indians armed with the colonial hand-me-down- English, can spread the word, as I hope to. Oddly, there appear to be many ‘satisfied’ customers, leaving comments about the Paperwhite on Amazon.in. None of them seem interested in the ‘young reader’ segment. But for those of us actually keen on that aspect, this is a huge let-down.   

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with India's PM Narendra Modi in Oct 2014, New Delhi

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with India’s PM Narendra Modi in Oct 2014, New Delhi

It might have helped if those who review the Paperwhite actually published honest assessments instead of perhaps rehashing others reviews or maybe copy/pasting from Amazon’s press releases. Instead of working with company supplied samples, it might help if tech-reporters actually experience the whole deal- from ordering online, to delivery, setup and an overall evaluation of the product as is, on the ground in India. An honest review from the ground, in place of flattering five-star ratings written from the comfort of an armchair someplace, might have helped potential buyers such as my family.     

I think I’m angrier because I was naive enough to think, it was my fault for missing the instructions. At first, I thought my brothers hadn’t installed the device properly. So I reset it and started over. I read and re-read the user manual, but each time I tried to look for the promised features, the search was futile. The instructions said that once ‘Kindle for Kids’ was activated, “Access to the Kindle Store, the Experimental Web Browser, Goodreads and Wikipedia is automatically blocked. Children can only read books that you have added to their library.” I simply couldn’t locate the ‘Kindle for Kids’ item on the Home screen to get started. But I did find the restrictive parental controls. In desperation, I thought, that maybe if I activated the controls, the feature would show up too. But instead, what I was left with was a dummy device, that I as an adult was locked out of, because now the entire device was child-locked. So, there I was, making an SOS to Amazon to unlock my Kindle for me! Trust me, you can’t even start to imagine the fun of a telephonic conversation in our times of call-drops, especially when the participants speak in accents neither side can quite comprehend. Its like the blind leading the blind. 

Those of you who’ve seen the Kindle Paperwhite TV commercials in assault mode these days will remember the images of the many children shown in them, poring over their e-readers. I suppose most of them have “migrated”, to qualify. Well, I guess you could argue that even without the said ‘Kindle for Kids’ feature, children can indeed use the device to read downloaded books, comics etc. Yes, they can, but there’s every chance that a curious child will bump into the rather interesting reading list on Amazon that includes some graphic covers like ‘Indian Pleasures’. The child-lock, which I’m now unable to activate to prevent being locked out of the device, leaves the access open. Because I don’t want my child to read adult fiction before he’s ready for it, I will now have to personally supervise his use of the device.

That’s why I think the Kindle paperwhite should’ve been renamed Kindle Paperweight in India.

I hope those of you, planning to invest in a Kindle Paperwhite, especially for young readers, benefit from my experience. I really should’ve known better. I remember that while working with Prahlad Kakar in Mumbai, we did the most unbelievable things while filming the ‘pack shots’- the most important part of an ad-film, which showcase the product being advertised. These would be shot at the end, and would often take upto two whole days in a studio. For the best ice-cream shots, we used mashed potatoes mixed with the right colours (not always food colours) because it retained the texture, wouldn’t melt and looked just like the real thing. The vapour rising from steaming puris for a cooking oil ad would come from a cigarette placed out of sight. The wafers in layered chocolates were actually porous sponge dipped in colouring. Shots of melted chocolate being poured was actually just paint and glue, in the right tone and shade. When we shot toothpaste commercials, the chosen models would be taken to the best dentists to get their teeth done, before we actually filmed them smiling. I, of all people shouldn’t have fallen for a set of make-believe TV commercials before investing in an e-reader.

But there has to be a price on wilful deception, don’t you think? In the case of the Kindle Paperwhite in India, they can’t even claim refuge in some hidden fine print. Amazon simply fails to deliver what they claim to offer.


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What a September!

of Taxes and Tiger moms 

When I started to blog in July, I thought I was going to be fairly regular. But remember that quote, wrongly attributed to John Lennon- “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”? It was apparently writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders who actually came up with that a lot earlier than Lennon. Well, that’s what seems to happen to me, ever so often. So, after being fairly regular through July and somewhat regular through August, (mostly on account of discovering, that blogging is a poor substitute for a ‘real’ day job!), I have posted nothing through September!! That makes it my ‘lost’ month. So, where did my September go? As usual, doing all those supposedly mundane things that people, especially mothers do. The stuff nobody really talks about, even less write about. Why? Well, it’s just the stuff that needs to be done…that’s why. Two major events stand out for me. First, paying my taxes, and second, holding my son’s hand through the first written school exams of his life, by the end of which both of us have come away learning a few important lessons of our own.

About the taxes: Yes, I dutifully filed my returns to the government of India. I fought the temptation to resist but finally did the deed. I joined the bandwagon after the original due date had expired, but benefitted from an unexpected week-long extension of the deadline. Even though I haven’t had a ‘real job’ or a ‘salary’ to speak of, over the past financial year, it needed to be done. So, I went through with it, using the services of an online team of professionals at Quicko.com for the first time. They were polite, efficient and helped me right through the process as I did the paperwork from home. I’m sure many others are reluctant taxpayers too, each for their own reasons. My resistance stems from the realisation that as an Indian citizen, there are actually no ‘returns’ to be had from the process. I’m not talking about refunds here. I mean, where does the money go? What becomes of it? What’s the ‘larger good’ that I am contributing to, when I suffer multiple power cuts daily at home, pay for tankers full of water for basic domestic use, and drive on pot-hole ridden roads fearing for my life, jammed with traffic? Where’s the government that collects these taxes through all of this? What’s the point of this exercise??  Well, so I’m proud of myself for having been decent and keeping my end of the bargain (if only it buys me the right to complain), but I’m not particularly happy about it. More about that later.

Now, to the other milestone of the month. A big, personal one. My six-year old, going on seven actually appeared for the first ever written exams of his little-big life, this month. Up until mid-September, he had no clue what ‘marks’ and scoring meant. He had no idea about studying to pass an exam, exam-hall decorum, roll numbers, the concept of ‘copying’, not letting neighbours peek into your answer-sheets, answering questions on demand, checking and revising, etc. Now, at September-end, he’s that much wiser about the ways of the world and how it’s likely to be for him for several years, going forward. What these exams also did for us as a family, is flag areas of concern about parenting and teaching styles vis-à-vis academic performance and skill sets for the real world.

While prepping him for the ‘test’, I was rather hands on. I sat with him, getting him to read his text books and class notes, explained when he got stuck and sometimes went into the details he isn’t quite ready for, just yet. The idea was to go beyond the swallow-vomit style of ‘performance’ expected in typical exams, and focus instead on ‘learning’ through understanding concepts that would outlive the examinations. Where I left off, my mother would pick up, creating structured ‘model’ question papers for him, to see how he’d fare. When both of us were satisfied, we let him earn his reward- TV and gadget time, though on a leash.     

I guess the thing about having a single child and time to lavish on him has its unique advantages and pitfalls. My mother with her years of plentiful teaching experience and I with my academic approach were able to identify areas of weakness and strength in the child and work on those. But it was only when the results were out that we each discovered something else- the phenomena of ‘Tiger moms’ lurking beneath.

My ‘lost’ month was, as it turns out rather eventful, after all. My son’s exams were done and dusted, and the results declared within days. Interestingly, we were in for a big surprise when the little fellow who got to see and review his grades a day ahead of the PTM at school, kept the results from us. A chance discovery through a WhatsApp conversation with a fellow-parent revealed that all children had been shown their answer sheets for them to go over. But my son, who otherwise talks endlessly, had chosen not to utter a word about it. This after displaying many other kinds of curious behaviours. He had already checked with me, what I planned to “wear to the PTM” and made it known that a salwar kurta would be “funny” and a saree, “odd”! He had been really looking forward to me meeting his teachers and finding out how he’d done. But when it was actually time to talk, there was only silence. 

So, what had happened? Did he flunk? A little prodding brought on an unprecedented meltdown, I wasn’t quite prepared for! Through his desperate sobbing, I caught a few words that went something like “I didn’t get full marks…in all subjects”… That’s when I figured, where he thought the bar was set. 100% in all his subjects, no less! He was crying because he thought he had actually failed us!! Gradually it came out that he had scored 19.5 out of 20 in two subjects and 19.75 in another. Of course, he forgot to mention that he scored a 100% in two other subjects and got an A+ in art. The crying got worse because he couldn’t bear to tell me, that of all things he had misspelt the word ‘mother’ in English, which cost him 0.25 marks. He had actually spelt it as ‘mothor’ and couldn’t believe it himself. He was sobbing because he was sure I would be livid about it. Guess, who was livid? Not me, but my mother.

So, as it turned out, the satisfaction of actual ‘achievement’ had eluded him altogether, in his pursuit of apparently living up to what he thought were our expectations- cent percent marks!

My reaction came as a huge relief to him. I was a lot calmer than he expected, not breathing fire at all, reassuring him, that he’d done perfectly well and that nobody expected as much from him as he seemed to think. Not in the exams at least. To be honest, my mother said she did expect more from him and there was some amount of fire-fighting I was engaged in with her, at that point. At the end of the day, we seem to be turning into the Asian family of lore that pushes its children to their limits, just so they can realize their potential, whatever it may be. Now, there are no Amy Chua’s in our family but I still seem to be becoming someone I didn’t know I might. I wonder where this leaves a little boy about to turn all of seven. As for me, I’ve decided to go easier on him. What’s the point if learning turns into a chore for the little boy, just to please his family? Time to look for ways to make it a happier experience, for everyone concerned. Any insights?      

Look! There’s a huge snake, up on the tree!!

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When it comes to reptiles, especially the slithery snake, I belong with the vast majority that reacts first with fear before being able to switch on any other impulse in the brain engulfed by panic instinctively. The mere sight of a snake, spells ‘Danger’ for me like a flashing red beacon, ordering every part of me to act defensively to protect my own life and all those I care for. This natural reflex doesn’t follow a real-life encounter involving a venomous species, in my case. I think my extreme caution comes simply from being hard-wired to react that way. It’s probably an innate tendency reinforced by conditioning. The reason why I’m writing about snakes today is because of this rather rare sighting over the weekend at my brother’s farm.

Rat snake wrapped around acacia tree on our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu, India

Rat snake wrapped around acacia tree on our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu, India

This incredibly long rat snake resting on an acacia tree was photographed by one of my brothers, during their fortnightly visit last Sunday. I hadn’t accompanied my brothers, but my son, was with them. I have to say, this is the longest snake I have ever seen. It’s hard to tell just how long it might be, from the way it seems to casually spread its body rather languorously around the thorny branches of this tree. An Indian rat snake can apparently grow as long as 11 ft. From the looks of it, this is probably a healthy adult living up to its potential, and perhaps some more!

Looks like it went up to catch something- maybe a squirrel or to visit a bird nest for food, and then decided to sun itself because the weather’s been somewhat wet lately. I got to see the images only hours later in the evening, when everyone returned from the farm, but my first reaction was a jaw-dropping ‘Oh My God’!

For all my fear, I was still struck by the sheer magnificence of the creature. Its massive size seems to suggest an environment that must be rather conducive to its well-being. Lots of food- mostly mice, rats, bandicoots, squirrels, birds, eggs etc I suppose. I wonder what I might’ve done if I ever got up-close and personal with this snake. Given its huge body, it might have taken the snake a while to slither away, but I’m sure I’d have bolted out of there in a real hurry!

   

I’ll admit that I did not grow up with the kind of people who think of reptiles as being ‘beautiful’ in the way we tend to admire and dote over puppies and kittens. I have always been surrounded by animals, mostly dogs and cats, apart from the occasional bird or rabbit. I love nature and all things natural, but snakes… well, not really. I wonder if I’d have reacted differently, if I had been ‘trained’ to, in a sense. These days, there are lots of places you can go to where experts will help you overcome your fear of snakes through ice-breaking sessions where you get to know them better, in controlled situations. Once you find the nerve to touch them, you can actually learn to hold and handle them with guidance. Be that as it may, I doubt I can ever shake off my instinctive revulsion for snakes at my age. But regardless of how I feel, I don’t let the ‘fear’ dictate a violent reaction. There are many for whom the only good snake is a dead one. But I’d rather not get down to carnage. I realise that snakes are just as scared of humans and if you simply let them be, they’ll mind their own business and wander off. It’s not as if they’re on an aggressive mission to get you, just to get even for all the snakes humans wantonly kill or hunt for trophy. Snakes are not social creatures. They don’t seek association or approval from humans like domestic animals and they’re better off wild in their habitat.

I quite like how my little 6 yr old managed to stand alongside his uncle, a retired Army officer and a graduate in Environmental Science, as he patiently filmed the snake-on-the-tree episode. In the background commentary picked up during the recording, my son asks to know about every move the snake makes- from the flick of the forked tongue, to the turnabout it makes, wondering if the snake is stuck. “Lets get out of here before it comes down” he says before checking whether the snake can see and hear him, whether it will come down the tree and make a charge at him, and if there’s a chance snakes are “afraid of sticks”, because he has one. 

While he seems to cover a lot of ground, most of his comments are interspersed with genuine, heart-felt pleas to beat the hastiest retreat possible! The boy can’t for the life of him understand, why his uncle would put himself in harm’s way, along with his little nephew, just for a few pictures!! So, he tries repeatedly to draw the attention of his older uncle, in the hope that at least he might be a little more ‘sensible’ in the face of what he seems to perceive as an ‘imminent threat’. “I’m afraid of snakes…A lot” he can be heard saying. “I’ve never seen a snake this huge,” he goes on to say, before admitting outright, “holy crap! It’s so scary!!”.

When I posted these pictures on Facebook, I received a range of responses. Some found the snake “beautiful”, even “magnificent”, others went “eeeks!” I suppose, that pretty much describes the general spectrum of perceptions. Some are plain averse to the slithery snake, others find themselves “drawn” to them and are “fascinated” by them.

Turns out, a third of adult humans, actually suffer from a phobia of snakes. This makes ‘herpetophobia’ or the fear of reptile, and/ amphibians one of the most common reported phobias ever. There’s also ‘Ophidiophobia’, a more specific type of abnormal fear of snakes. In extreme cases people might even fear thinking about snakes and react adversely to pictures in a book or even on TV. No wonder so many films have been made around that theme- the fear of snakes. You might want to watch this incredible video showing the unedited display of fear by celebrities including Hollywood actress Salma Hayek a few years ago, when a snake suddenly appears on the location of a live TV show that she’s on.

Research suggests that humans are not born afraid of spiders and snakes, but that we can learn these fears very quickly. One theory about why we fear spiders and snakes is because so many are poisonous; natural selection may have favoured people who stayed away from these dangerous creatures. So, the fear of the ‘creepy-crawlies’ has been explained as an evolutionary bias that predisposes us to fear things that have posed a threat throughout human history.

Interestingly, researches have been able to prove a consistent gender difference in the incidence of snake and spider phobias. Women are apparently four times more likely than men to have fears and phobias for these, but not other stimuli like injections, heights or flying.

David Rakison of Carnegie Mellon University conducted an experiment with 11-month-old infants. He showed them a series of pictures- a snake, a spider, a flower, and a mushroom, paired with either a happy face or a frightened face. Baby girls quickly associated the snake and the spider with the frightened face, while baby boys did not. Amongst the explanations offered, one possibility is that social transmission of fears and phobias is more common or promoted among women than men. Alternatively, women’s fear mechanism may be more sensitive to snakes and spiders than males’ fear mechanism because they were more exposed to them over evolutionary time (e.g., during child-care, while foraging and gathering food). It has also been suggested that a fear of snakes and spiders was particularly important in women because it protects both their child and themselves. In other words, the fitness costs of being bitten by a snake or spider would have been greater for women than for men because infants and young children, historically, rarely survived a mother’s death. Finally, because of the higher reproductive variance for men, evolution would have selected against males with overly powerful fears because it could have inhibited risk taking involved in, for example, large game hunting.

I’m not trying to find scientific evidence to justify the way I feel and respond to snakes, but the empirical proof appears to explain my reaction to a great extent. I don’t know what kind of person you are- the kind that could bring home a snake as a pet, or the type that might wet their pants at the first sight of a reptile. Whichever it is, I hope you can find the calm and wisdom in your heart to teach your children that all snakes are not dangerous. Some, like the huge rat snake being discussed here are actually non-venomous, and will be glad to just hide someplace, doing its own thing, rather than get in your way and create trouble. Also that snakes are crucial to maintaining the delicate balance in the ecosystem.

Their presence or removal from an area can directly impact the environment. As a natural form of pest control, snakes are actually good for you. They tend to control rodent populations in particular. As predators, they feed on a variety of creatures. Small snakes feed on many harmful bugs and insects. Larger ones eat mice, rats, and other small mammals that can destroy crops or damage personal property. In the food chain, they serve as the link going higher up- becoming the food source for larger predators such as hawks, owls, herons, and carnivorous mammals. Mindlessly removing snakes from the equation can cause a crash, we can ill-afford. So, like them, or hate them, we sure as hell need the slithery snake in the backyard.   

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Fancy some Frittata?

Here’s a quick fix for leftover spaghetti- the Italian frittata. I made a huge portion of spaghetti al pomodoro or tomato pasta for dinner, and there was some left unfinished. So, I did what I learnt to do in Napoli years ago- saved it up, to reinvent it the next day. All it takes is a tangy egg-batter with all the spices and additional ingredients you think will go with the basic pasta sauce already in the spaghetti, then you stir it in to coat all of the pasta well, and cook up a great open spaghetti omelette, for breakfast or brunch. It turned out quite yummy. Crispy on the outside, softer inside, ready to pack for my son to take to school. Its the done thing in Italy, with all kinds of pasta, not just spaghetti. But it has to be said that spaghetti works best because it sets well and doesn’t fall apart when you want to cut out individual slices of the cake shaped omelette. Other kinds of pasta could pop out in pieces and get messy, unless, you choose to bake the omelette in the oven with extra egg to bind it all together.

The possibilities are endless for combinations of sauces to make your pasta with, and then again for the ingredients you choose to add to the egg-batter to make the frittata. What I have done here is to pick the most basic combinations. The tomato-basil sauce with garlic in extra-virgin olive oil is the standard thing to go with. Its like the other most famous export of Napoli- the Margherita pizza. The way it is made in wood-fired pizzerias across Napoli is the finger-licking best. The best pizza crusts ever, and the most delicious toppings- tomato, basil, extra-virgin olive oil, and of course mozzarella! This is a pizza you have to fall in love with. Tweaking this standard combination would be no less than a sin for the discerning. So too, with the pasta al pomodoro. You don’t add anything, or take away, if you want it to taste the way it’s meant to. But where you get to be creative is with your frittata, when using up the leftovers. The frittata lends itself beautifully to the way in which we tend to ‘Indianise’ most of our recipes. So I get to add as much chilli, pepper, olives, capers, anything I feel like. The frittata has of course been adapted by many, to serve a range of palates. Here’s what went into my frittata:

I’d have to start with the primary sauce of the main course pasta had for dinner first, which uses the classic Italian recipe. Fry plenty of garlic, peeled and cut length-wise (cut or crushed any other way will burn the garlic) I used a little more than one pod, because I cooked a kilo of spaghetti and used about a kilo and a half of fresh tomatoes for the sauce. This was mostly because we had a lot of farm-fresh tomatoes to go, and because I like really tomotoey pasta. You could change the ratio to suit your taste. I dice the tomatoes up and blend them in the mixer to avoid big chunks or rolled up skins that are harder for children to digest. I didn’t do this in Italy, because the vine-ripe tomatoes there were ideal for pasta sauces and would breakdown nice and even when cooked. I’m using local tomatoes in India, which are quite different in taste and texture, so I find the mixer helps. Its best to have all your ingredients on hand before you start cooking, so you’ll need a generous bunch of basil leaves too. I often use a mix of Italian basil and tulsi (holy basil) because I have so much of it growing at home and it feels like a shame to not use it, given its many medicinal properties. I also use chilli flakes and a bit of pepper in my sauce, although in Napoli it was only a few chilli flakes added towards the end.

Heat extra virgin olive oil in a large and open hard-bottomed pan (you’ll need one with a lid), add the garlic and fry till golden brown, you can add some basil now to infuse the oil with the flavour, and then the pureed tomato/ or chopped pieces if you prefer. Stir the mix immediately to stop the popping when the tomatoes hit the hot oil and cover it for a bit till it settles down. Then open cook it, stirring frequently, because you want all the water to evaporate and the sauce to thicken. Add salt to quicken the cooking and more basil, coarsely broken with your fingers. Around now, you could start to heat the water to cook your pasta as well. Choose a longish vessel to fit in the length of the spaghetti. 

Spaghetti

Spaghetti

Time taken for the sauce to cook through and thicken will depend on the quantity. You need to leave the pan uncovered until the water evaporates. As the sauce starts to dry out, it will start to pop a lot, and you’ll need to cover it with a lid, but still need to stir it often to prevent sticking and burning. Turn down the heat. When the oil separates from the tomatoes, the sauce will have reduced considerably, will start to glisten and be ready. Taste it to see if you need to add more salt or chilli flakes and or pepper. Turn off the heat on the sauce and set aside, getting the water for the pasta to boil. Add a good quantity of sea salt to the water once it boils (don’t add earlier, because that will delay reaching boiling point), stir it in, and into this salt water add all the pasta you intend to cook. Set the timer according to the time needed to cook indicated on the packing. Stir the pasta often, remove excess water into another vessel, if it tends to boil over and add it back later when the water reduces. Adding a bit of oil to the water keeps the pasta from sticking together. Check the pasta when the timer goes off. The way to actually have it is al dente, which is firm to the bite. But most Indians prefer it almost squishy and overdone. According to your preference, turn off the heat when done and drain the pasta using a colander. Don’t run cold water over the pasta at this stage, like we do with noodles or you’ll wash off the salt. Mix the pasta immediately into the sauce and serve with a generous sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese for authentic flavour.

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Set the leftovers aside and let it cool. You can even refrigerate it, well covered. But if your main purpose is to make a frittata with your pasta straightaway, then just let it all cool down completely. If you add eggs to the hot pasta, they’ll cook immediately and it won’t help. While it cools, crack up some eggs. Again depending on the thickness of your frittata, you could vary the quantity of eggs. I only had a little pasta left, so I used two eggs. To the eggs, I added chopped up olives- back and green, capers, salt and pepper, some leftover pizza seasoning combining oregano, chilli flakes, basil and thyme. You could see what else you have left over in the fridge to add to this. Beat up the mix vigorously, so its fluffy and airy, and then pour over the pasta. Mix it all up well. Heat up a nonstick skillet with a good handle, and of a size that you can flip comfortably. Its width will decide the height of your frittata too. Heat up some extra-virgin olive oil, and then pour the spaghetti-egg mixture into the pan. Open cook it on medium heat till the bottom is crisp and browned evenly. Then flip it either using the lid of the pan for help or a suitable ladle that can lift the weight of the frittata. Cook the other side the same way. Don’t cover the frittata while its being cooked or it will become soggy with the steam. Once done, transfer the frittata to a dry plate using something to prop it up a bit till it cools down- this is to prevent it from sweating under and getting soggy. It tastes best when its crisp on both sides and cooked through but softer inside. You could have this by itself, or with a dip, or serve it with a nice fresh green salad on the side. Frittata’s were often made and carried to the beach during lazy summer afternoons, or had as breakfast or even brunch in Naples. But in India, the same frittatas have mostly become quick breakfast/ lunch options for my son as he goes to school, though they remain popular with the grown ups too.    

If you fancy the basic concept, you may want to check out some of these interesting recipes:

http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/spinach-tomato-ricotta-frittata.aspx

http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/artichoke-leek-taleggio-frittata.aspx

http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/spaghetti-frittata-arugula-fresh-herbs.aspx

http://bakingbites.com/2008/09/frittata-di-spaghetti/

http://tasteofsorrento.sorrentoinfo.com/ricette/spaghetti_omellete.asp

http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/22116/leftover+spaghetti+frittata

         

It’s a world full of Yogis!

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VIEWS ON NEWS: Hey Radhe Maa!

My thoughts on why it appears popular to reject India’s latest ‘godwoman’

Here’s the thing…the day before India launched its historic Mars Mission in 2013, the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Dr K Radhakrishnan placed a replica of the Mars Orbiter Mission at the Lord Venkateshwara temple in Tirupati and performed a special pooja. He was seeking blessings to ensure the mission would be a success. His predecessor G Madhavan Nair also did the same thing before the Chadrayaan mission (Lunar Exploration Programme). While loud protestations came from the rationalists, most of India could see where the two ‘men of science’, were coming from. I mean, isn’t it most commonplace to crack open a coconut, and crush lemons under the wheels of your vehicle to ward-off the ‘evil-eye’? Don’t most Indians, even the ‘rational’ ones, drive around with a string of lemons and chillies hanging from the bumper of their car, for good luck? Well, Of course. This is just who we are. We believe, and we surrender- to unknown ‘higher powers’ who we presume, run the show. How else can most of us explain the deep mystery of how a nation like India carries on, in the immense chaos which is our everyday reality? This is why I’m a bit curious about the overwhelming reaction to the latest ‘godwoman’ to grab our attention- 50 year old Sukhvinder Kaur from Gurdaspur in Punjab, who now calls herself ‘Radhe Maa’, and an incarnation of goddess Durga. I’m curious not because she made it to prime-time news, but because of the logic that seemed to drive the TV debates. Most anchors argued from the point that it would be ‘unscientific’ to place self-appointed ‘godwomen’ such as ‘Radhe Maa’ on a pedestal. What makes me curious is why the same logic hasn’t been extended equally to question every other ‘unscientific’ ‘godman’ and ‘godwoman’. In fact all kinds of bizarre claims have been made about the supposed strides made by ancient India in fields ranging from plastic surgery and genetics to aviation technology.  These assertions blurring the differences between myth and reality have come from the highest offices of power but have mostly been dismissed with a snigger by cynics, not quite attracting the same degree of rejection we now see. So how come nobody has a problem panning ‘Radhe Maa’? One reason could be that she seems a soft target, an easy prey perhaps, one yet to find powerful patrons.

Don’t get me wrong- I’m not saying characters like ‘Radhe Maa’ should be welcomed and celebrated. All I’m saying is, maybe we need to keep an open mind and be consistent in maintaining our ‘scientific temper’. She certainly isn’t the first of India’s legion of ‘godwomen’. She’s the latest to gain publicity and has her fair share of ‘devotees’ too. The charges levelled against her, in a dowry related complaint  seem almost benign when compared to allegations made against several other of India’s  controversial Godmen– that range from fraud to murder and rape.

The charges against Radhe Maa also include ‘obscenity’. She has been photographed in a mini-skirt. That’s certainly a first for a so-called ‘godwoman’, but do we honestly consider wearing mini-skirts obscene in general? Radhe Maa has been shown on TV being physically carried by her ‘devotees’- both male and female. Its hard to see the point of this, but oddly, these sort of things are not new. In ‘Gods and Godmen of India’, the late Khushwant Singh spoke about the late Anandamayee Ma (Mother of Bliss). He wrote that Anandamayee Ma, who died in 1982 referred to herself as “the doll” or “the body” and that “She allows her devotees to bathe and dress her. She does not eat with her own hands; her female devotees take turns to place food in her mouth.”

A lot has been said and written about the peculiar phenomenon of self-styled ‘godmen/women’ in India and why they seem to flourish extraordinarily well here. I’d agree with Dipankar Gupta’s view that India’s godmen/women have their fingers in several pies- both religious and political, when he says “People everywhere are prone to mystics, but what makes our godmen seem so powerful is that our politicians use them as baits to catch votes.”

Given the symbiotic nature of relations between India’s so-called ‘holy’ figures and politicians, their patronage appears to be a thing of mutual advantage. Whether Radhe Maa’s stock rises or diminishes, could then well depend on the powers and influence wielded by her benefactors. The latest politician to come to Radhe Maa’s rescue is Union minister of state for social justice and empowerment, Vijay Sampla. After  pictures of the minister with the godwoman became public, he has claimed that all allegations against her are baseless. 

India’s fascination for human incarnations of gods, is a complex matter. There’s a reason why India is known globally as a land of mystics and mysticism. Prone as we are to accepting and believing in invisible forces, we also open the door for that faith to be abused by the smarter amongst a growing breed of self-styled ‘spiritual leaders’. 

Article 51A(h) of the Indian Constitution that makes it the duty of every citizen to develop a scientific temper and the spirit of inquiry and reform, is hardly an insurance against our proclivity to go in the opposite direction. Besides, science in India is not synonymous with atheism. In the complex plurality that is India, everybody and everything coexist. Of course, which forces thrive from time to time depend on the factors that nourish them. ‘Radhe Maa’ might just ride out the storm on her trident. She has already declared that she is “pure and pious” and said she’s prepared to endure the pyre if allegations of amassing wealth illegally are proven against her.

Of course, at the end of the day, it is to each his own, and who am I to say whom or what anyone else should or not worship? But in the unfolding circus, it might be nice if the discerning saw all the players equally, instead of letting the bigger fish get away.

Black Kite- Bird of Prey

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A first hand account of my battle for territory with the visiting Black Kite and its brood!

This gorgeous creature is no stranger to me. In fact, we’re engaged in a bit of a tango. This juvenile Black Kite, like the rest of its family and friends seems convinced, the house we live in, is actually its own! It isn’t that our house has invaded an area which may have been the traditional habitat of this bird. It’s just that we’ve kept our surroundings greener than the neighbours, which gives them plenty of perches from where to survey the lie of the land as it were and to add to that our home happens to have a large terrace with one section raised higher, with a water tank atop it. This area has been conveniently appropriated by the Kites, leading them to wonder if ‘we’ might be the unfriendly intruders in ‘their’ territory.

So much so, these otherwise magnificent birds have really pushed me to the edge, forcing me to test my resolve about cohabitation. To hell with the idea of ‘live and let live’, I have caught myself saying a lot lately. Of course I enjoy their presence. This display of comfort from them as they sit wings outstretched to the sun, perched on the eucalyptus tree outside our front gates, the morning after a night of rain is proof that they don’t mind me pointing the camera at them to shoot. But we both know we’ve had our fair share of encounters. Till a couple of months ago, I used the terrace as my open-air gym. I’d spread my mat, carry my weights and other equipment there and park myself in the shade each morning till done. But I was shocked when one day, these birds decided to turn aggressive. One unguarded moment and I’d have one of these huge things fly straight at me. They’d swoop down from behind when I least expected, strike me on the head and disappear. Not a friendly hello, I can assure you! One after another, they’d come for me, always striking the top of my head and mostly from behind. Their deadly talons would leave tell-tale signs. Once I ended up with a cut on my forehead and another time a scratch on my head. It got so unpleasant, I started to carry a long stick with me to scare them off. A running, screaming, freaked-out scare crow of sorts!

I knew they had a huge nest up in one of the tall eucalyptus trees nearby. I noticed that when the attacks became more frenzied, there were more of them rushing off to the nest, taking turns. I guess they had little hatchlings at the time and were feeling particularly vulnerable with a potential predator my size, at an elevation, on their beloved terrace. This was them working overtime and going overboard to protect their young.

By then, I had become quite paranoid about them. I wouldn’t even step out of the main gate on the ground floor without stick in hand, because they would attack all and sundry without warning. But I was also feeling somewhat belligerent and unwilling to cede space to them. So, I’d go up to the terrace each day and waste half the time meant for my workout, fending off these fiendish dragons in the air. I suppose what I lost in terms of exercise, I gained in honing my sixth sense, learning to read the bird’s shadow to predict where the next strike was coming from, developing what I thought was a third eye… well, I guess I was preparing for a full-blown battle for habitat. If it’s going to be about me or you, it’ll be me, I said. But I wasn’t all that methodical, precise or successful. I’ll admit I was simply no match for them. The truth is, I could hear myself screaming at random birds in the air daily, challenging them to come get a piece of me!! I think I nearly lost it 🙂

Then, in self-interest, I decided to become a bit more reasonable. Turning into a screaming banshee was plain foolish. Thank goodness no one was around taking pictures of me in action! I made a tactical retreat from the battle-terrace. I wondered secretly if there was some way I could get my hands on an air gun perhaps. Taxidermy crossed my mind too. I felt somewhat like a character from Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film, ‘The Birds’.

But that was then. Several months down the line, I’m back to liking the ‘Birds’ again. More recently, this juvenile Black Kite landed on our grape canopy. It sat there quite a while posing for pictures etc before taking wing. Must’ve made its peace too!

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It’s a good thing, I don’t need to fight for the terrace with my winged visitors anymore. I’ve moved to Yoga, which only needs me to find enough space to lay my mat, and I’m quite comfortable indoors. Quite likely, this was one the juveniles that was being protected all this while, because now that its out and about, the birds have all calmed down. For all you know, this is only a temporary truce… until the next breeding season!

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A Hospital for Dolls In Inimitable Napoli

 

If you had an inconsolable child, because his/her toy was broken accidentally- torn up in a fight with a sibling or chomped off by a hyperactive pet, now missing a limb or an eye, what would you do? Most times children are so attached to one particular favourite toy- their best friend, confidante, protector from the dark, that they insist on having it at their bedside at all times. You go shopping and the toy/ doll goes along in the car/ pram. You travel, the toy goes too. But should something happen to this irreplaceable ‘friend’, what if you could dial-in emergency care and drive down to get specialised ‘medical’ attention? Well, that’s exactly what the Ospedale delle Bambole or Doll Hospital in Napoli, Italy does. A unique place tucked into one of the characteristic narrow streets of the Spaccanapoli area, this ‘Hospital’ is in the heart of the old city, not far from the San Gregorio Armeno street known for its Nativity scene figurines. The doll ‘doctors’ at the Ospedale delle Bambole have been repairing toys since it was set up by Luigi Grassi, a set designer from the San Carlo opera house, around 1895. The legacy was carried forward by his son, Michael, who added his own special touch. He started to dress like a ‘real’ medical doctor in white lab coats, to treat the dolls, as if they were real people too. More than a century later, the ancient tradition of ‘restoring’ broken toys thrives under the guidance of his descendent Tiziana Grassi, who with great passion and dedication still heals the “patients” from around the world.

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The story goes that once upon a time, a desperate mother walked-in with her daughter’s broken doll and requested Luigi Grassi to fix it. When he actually ‘healed’ the doll within a few days, the relieved mother pronounced Mr Grassi a ‘doctor’ and a ‘magician’. The story understandably spread like wild-fire and many more mothers were soon bringing in toys and dolls to be ‘treated’. A passer-by supposedly said, “I think this is the hospital of dolls”, and the name stuck. Luigi Grassi hung a board outside his workshop, that read ‘Ospedale delle Bambole’ in red letters. He added the symbol of a cross, just like that of real hospitals, and there it was- the one and only Doll Hospital of Napoli.

The street the Ospedale is on, is quaintly named after bookmakers (‘Librai’) who worked their trade here centuries ago. I remember being quite struck by what I saw there- shelves cluttered with broken dolls. Some missing a limb or an eye. Masses of little bodies and body parts collected in a corner, a whole lot of eyes staring blankly, yet others still able to wink and manage a smile. They all needed some TLC. Not just denting and painting, but some specialised personal attention to restore them to their former selves- the inseparable companion of a child somewhere. That’s when I learnt that this is where people from around Italy and beyond send in their broken dolls and random doll parts. The Doll Hospital apparently has a resident doll ‘surgeon’ who tries to nurse most toys to health. But often they also create new and unusual ‘bambole’.

Back in 2006, I didn’t know anything about the Doll Hospital even though I was on the street where it was located. It was my second visit to the coastal city in Southern Italy. It was December and very cold. But what kept me from feeling the weather outside was the warmth of the large-hearted Neapolitan family I had almost become a part of. I had fallen quite hopelessly in love and the man in question had taken me home to meet his folks- a seriously large extended family- complete with at least three generations, all of whom I got acquainted with over several very large meals, spread luxuriously over several decadent hours, and many days- before, during and after Christmas. When we were not eating or talking about eating, we hit the streets. The city was alive and buzzing at all times during the festive season. There was always so much to see, and in my case, so much to live and take in! Of course, there’s nothing like being taken on a guided tour of a city on an unfamiliar continent by a local. Alfredo, whom I married five months later was the quintessential local. Born and brought up in Napoli. He loved his city dearly and lamented the fact that despite its unique history, gastronomical tradition, topography and scenic panorama, located as it was by the sea, Napoli wasn’t the tourist hot-spot it should have been, like so many other Italian cities. Tourists almost always used Napoli as a transit point to move on to other more ‘touristy’ locations like Capri. But I had stopped by and fortunately didn’t miss out on the many gifts Napoli had to offer. Of all the amazing places I visited, things I saw and experienced, the quaint Ospedale delle Bambole has somehow stuck in my head.

I quite like the motto of the Doll Hospital. In our consumerist age, the philosophy of the institution is to “use less toys to safeguard our planet”. Most children, especially in the developed world have so much of everything that the ‘use and throw’ culture applies to toys too. By providing an outlet to restore what we already possess, it encourages the culture of holding on to things, to cherish them for longer. The Hospital also actively encourages the idea of recycling and reusing by creating new toys out of broken ones.

Over the years, Napoli’s unique Doll Hospital has come to be promoted as a tourist attraction. Visitors accompanied by little children can book a tour of the ‘clinic’, equipped with a real hospital ward, with lots of sun beds, gowns and cookbooks. Small groups of upto 5 children can actually walk-in with their own toys if they wish, don a white lab coat and stethoscope and play doctor. The Ospedale delle Bambole even treats visiting children to a “doll pizza”!

Even though I visited the Ospedale delle Bambole some nine years ago and only incidentally, this is one place I’d like to revisit with my son. Even though children these days graduate quickly to the virtual world to ‘play’, the charm of real toys is not really lost on them. My big boy, is still small enough at six-and-a-half to sleep with a set of his favourite soft toys. In fact, these toys really come handy when I have to wake him up in time for school everyday. Any imaginary story or made-up song involving them is guaranteed to get him out of bed, smiling.

It’s odd, he doesn’t remember his obsession with a stuffed Winnie-the-pooh soft toy. For almost three years, between the ages of 1 to 3, ‘Winnie’ had to go everywhere he did. The affinity probably began when while transitioning from crawling to taking his first steps, I would place Winnie at a distance as his target to reach. He would happily grab his destination with his plump sausage-like fingers and send Winnie’s nose straight into his mouth to ease his teething-problems as his own reward. From there on, he and Winnie were inseparable. He would often wake up thirsty at night, but then start searching for Winnie to go back to sleep. Winnie was his shield against a stranger, his go-to in any new and awkward situation like the hair salon, and his comfort-zone whenever I was upset with him. Terrified of the prospect that I might lose the toy by accident, I tried to replace his Winnie with at least two other identical Winnie dolls. Both were promptly rejected. It had to always be the same old Winnie for him- frayed, faded, nibbled.  

David and Winnie

In my son’s case, I doubt the Doll Hospital might have been of any help. He didn’t want a repaired Winnie, much less a replacement. His Winnie was just as he wanted it to be. And after all those years of deep attachment, its hard to believe that he now laughs when I try to remind him about his Winnie-days! The missing Winnie memories go alongside his inability to recall anything about his early days from birth onwards in Italy. I’m his surviving link to his place of birth- Napoli, his Neapolitan origins, the sun, sea, sand, the Vesuvius, and his father, in heaven. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to take him to the Ospedale delle Bambole, as his ‘local’ travel guide to a forgotten land, and perhaps he will enjoy, even remember it as fondly as I do.        


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A Tale of Two Sets of Tails

The Baya Weaver and Purple Rumped Sunbird Vs. the Monsoon Session of Parliament

The monsoons in India may seem overcast by the dark clouds of disruption in Parliament during the ongoing ‘Monsoon Session’, and the habitual whining about how insufficient rainfall will cast a pall of gloom on the already beleaguered Indian farmer. But that doom and gloom apart, there is a brighter side in the real world- the natural kind, if you care to look. Aside from the fascinating cycles of nature that find perpetuation from the smallest rain-shower, this is a time for another beautiful phase- Nesting. Several species of Indian birds build nests in the months between May and July, lay eggs and await the birth of little ones. I’ve had the pleasure of switching off the ‘noise’  that has become Indian TV news lately to get a ring-side view instead of the breeding pattern of two amazing birds- The baya weaver bird that builds incredibly complex hanging nests single-handedly and the purple rumped sunbird, that builds somewhat simpler nests much closer to human habitation. This blog-post is dedicated to them. Their stories also pack in quite a lot about gender-roles and shared responsibilities in the avian world, geared towards the singular purpose of procreation, stripped of all the social trappings of family life the human species feels pressured to endure. There are surely a few things for us to take away from observing how these little birds live their short lives.

I would have to naturally begin with the brilliant baya weaver bird, whose skills and intelligence might almost make the average Indian politician, seem a bird-brain in the sense that the expression is derogatorily used by us humans in all our vanity. There’s unity of design, a classical consistency, a definite sense of purpose and lots of hard-work behind the meticulous nest-building exercise of the baya. The sheer ingenuity with which the baya weaver designs its cosy little home, using nothing more than paddy leaves, grass strands or long strips torn from palm fronds to build its waterproof nest, complete with heat-shield mechanisms can leave you scratching your head. The male of the species is known to make up to 500 trips to gather the material to complete a nest. On the other hand, the purple rumped sunbird native to the Indian Subcontinent seems to suffer from the ‘chalta-hai’ attitude endemic to its human neighbours. It’s somewhat basic ‘jugaad-type’, probably modernist nest is almost embarrassing when compared to the neat, well-finished home of the baya weaver. Choosing to live much closer to human habitation than the baya, the sunbird picks up nearly everything it can find- fine plant fibres, cobwebs, lichens, bark pieces, flying seeds and other materials. Even bits of plastic, and newspaper. In the case of the sunbird, it’s the female that almost exclusively builds the nest while the male hovers around. I’m reserving judgement on the role of genders to distinguish the finesse of the nests of these two birds. I’m clearly biased in favour of the baya weaver, but I assure you that has nothing to do with the fact that their nests are crafted by the male of the species.   

Once the male baya partially build the nests, reaching what’s called the ‘helmet stage’ (which takes a little over a week), they begin to display to passing females by flapping their wings and calling while hanging from their nests. The females then inspect the nest and, if they approve of what they see- the design and location, they signal their acceptance of a male. Only then does the male actually complete the nest by adding the entrance tunnel, which can take up to 18 days. The pair then homes in the nest and breeds happily thereafter. But it isn’t always rosy. When females reject nests, some male weavers have reportedly been spotted tearing up the nest in frustration! It’s all about natural selection. The best man wins, the female gets to pick its ideal mate based on the skills displayed and leaves with a polite no, thank you, if it’s not quite impressed. The purpose of the nest is to house the brood of the fresh pair and carry forward the line. No marriage contracts, no expectations of fidelity or loyalty, none of the complication of morality that afflict the human species. Both male and female baya weavers are believed to be polygamous. After mating with a female, the male often courts other females at other partially constructed nests. Females are on occasion known to lay their eggs in the nests of others. Males sometimes assist in feeding the chicks. It’s a pretty hippy kind of culture. 

The social and gregarious baya weaver is known to nest in areas where they can easily access grains for food. Nesting mostly in colonies, they typically breed during the monsoons and are usually found on thorny trees or palm fronds and the nests are often built near water or hanging over water where predators cannot reach easily. While baya weaver colonies in Asia are usually 20-30 nests strong, the African sparrow weaver birds even build ‘nest apartments’, with 100 to 300 nests within the complex!

This is the colony at our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu. The chosen branches of the tree are spread over an open pond, which fills up with water, depending on the strength of seasonal rainfall. I’m not sure where these birds have been feeding, but there are paddy fields not far from our farm itself. The pond certainly seems to be keeping off predators, keeping these birds happy to nest in peace.

Known as thukanam kuruvi in Malayalam, thookanaan kuruvi in Tamil and son-chiri in Hindi, both male and female baya weaver birds resemble female house sparrows in their non-breeding stage. From sporting a dull yellow colour with black markings at first, the males grow brighter in colour, with the yellows and the black markings becoming more prominent as the breeding season approaches.

Their pendulous bell-shaped nests are known to be elaborate, reflecting lots of attention to detail. Males are almost solely in charge of nest-building, though their female partners may join in giving the finishing touches, particularly on the interiors. Females may modify the interiors or add blobs of mud. Males have also been seen adding mud and dung to the nest chamber before pairing with a female. Although the real reason for this is not known, some believe the clay may help to stabilise the nest against strong winds. The nests have a definite design that includes a looped attachment to the branch, a roof, the egg chamber, antechamber and entrance tube. The expert craftsmanship is known to be instinctive to the baya weaver. Even one-and-half-year-old weaver birds have been spotted building fantastic gourd-shaped hanging nests, according to ornithologists based in Chennai.

One fascinating story about the baya weaver is the somewhat hard to confirm folk belief in India, that the bird sticks fireflies with mud to the nest walls to light up the interior of the nest at night! That’s an incredible vision. Imagine what that might look like…

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Compared to the baya, the nectar sucking, tiny purple rumped sunbird, is an also-ran when it comes to nest-building. They cobble together an almost comical set of items to build a dainty nest, attached very precariously to the end of a tree branch or even buildings and open porches as ideal nesting sites. They seem unafraid of humans and don’t appear to perceive them as dangerous predators, although they hardly approach them or stick around long enough even to be photographed. We have a few pairs choosing to nest practically outside our windows at home, in the city.

After admiring the work of the baya weaver, you can imagine why I find the sunbird rather disappointing. Just look at the materials it picks. I haven’t had the opportunity to peek inside, but reports say the nest is lined with soft fibres such as from the fuzz covering the seeds of Calotropis- also known as milkweed. That would make sense because we have plenty of those growing around and this is the season for seed dispersal. I sure hope the nests look better on the inside! Every time I look at this nest hanging delicately, I wonder how it might survive the strong gusts of wind and rain common during the Indian monsoon. But then there is much I don’t know… 

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I’ve often caught the sunbird tapping the window, possibly at its own reflection! Turns out they’re there collecting cobwebs for the nest and are startled by what they probably think are other birds staring back at them from the reflecting glass. Like the baya weaver, it is the males amongst the purple rumped sunbird that are brighter and more attractive. Classic mate-attracting traits, perhaps. Maybe the bird equivalent of muscular male bodies, successful careers, fancy perfumes and flashy cars, all rolled into one to grab the attention of the ideal female in our own species. The male purple rumped sunbird is quite a stunner. It has a dark maroon upper side with a blue-green crown that glistens at some angles, bright green shoulder patch and violet/purple rump patch which is generally hidden under the wings. I’m afraid my pictures hardly do justice to their true beauty. But they’re really small and terribly nimble to capture their brilliance on camera! The underparts of the male are whitish with dark throat, maroon breast band and purple/violet patch in the throat which is visible at some angles. The female is relatively staid. Something of a Plain Jane. It has a white throat followed by yellowish breast. The upper side is olive or brownish. That’s about it.

What’s fun is to see them foraging for nectar. They’re so small, they can hover over tiny flowers till their beaks find the hidden honey. They also dew-bathe, sliding over drops of rain collected on large leaves- a sight I haven’t managed to capture on camera yet. These are known to breed through the year and may have two broods, but mainly during the monsoons. For their size, they can be surprisingly loud. The sunbird lays about two eggs and the chicks are known to fledge in about 17 days. The eggs are incubated by both the male and female. I see constant traffic around the nest and research tells me the chicks are fed by the male for a few days. Helpers, females or possibly juveniles from the previous brood may sometimes assist the parents in feeding the young. The great thing about these birds is that they keep the garden blooming and happy by simply hopping flowers in search of nectar. They’re one of the key pollinators, and without them, we’d not have our fruits or the genetic diversity that makes evolution more exciting.      

I’d say, birdwatching has been time well spent, away from the nonsensical drama on TV, that has been my staple in the past. Watching a bunch of politicians hold any likely development in the country to ransom as they get down to a game of one-upmanship in stalling parliament is hardly what the monsoons should be about! What say?