Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sundar Nagri

The winding path to my sunset days...

Came from a place my childhood knew...

and from being young to growing old...

I simply walked a block or two..........

A follow up on our balloons fund story.

Today we went to give the money to Dr. Amod. Ironically to a place called Sunder Nagri... Beautiful City.
Dr. Amod is the Head of the Dept of Community Health at St. Stephen's Hospital. And we met him at a dispensary that the hospital has set up in this slum cluster area. To focus on community health.

Community health is a complex and vast area of work. It goes way beyond treating diseases or providing medical care. It encompasses the economy, the psychology, the social fabric of the community that it works in. Child care, education, senior citizen care, vocational training, women empowerment, livelihood opportunities, health, hygiene, sanitation, even finances and fund management comes within its ambit.

After we handed over the balloon money, one of the volunteers at the centre took us around. Within that tiny two and a half floor narrow decrepit building we found dignity and hope, fun and childhood, confidence and self assurance.

From the masala factory on the terrace where women grind and sell pure, unadulterated low cost spices, to the senior citizen's resting centre outside the clinic, to the creche where children from ages two to five spend the day while their parents eke out a living, to a fund management division where the community is learning the art of saving lending and borrowing transparently, to - believe it or not - a multi media centre and a fashion designing centre - where kids and young adults are being equipped with the latest technological tools - the whole journey was not less amazing than Alice's through Wonderland.

This was a slum? I thought to myself. Dingy, cramped but spotless. I was amazed at the cleanliness, everywhere. Not just within the dispesary but outside as well. No garbage, no filth, no muck. Just smiling faces and confident open expressions.

The creche was the most overwhelming I think. Look at the kids swarming around Ranjit's knees, hugging him, touching him, holding him... this is the most unselfish spontaneous and generous show of love we'd ever experienced. We had not even carried any sweets or toys for these children so what you see in the images are not in response to any act of kindness.

We simply stepped into that courtyard. They simply came and hugged us. Just like that. On their own. Totally spontaneously. Totally joyously. It was completely incredible.

It was similar though obviously much more muted at the old age home. I particularly remember this frail old lady with a bright red wollen cap who literally leaned across and dragged herself over to us across the dari they were all squatting on. Just to stroke my face and Ranjit's hair. That's all.

Wizened hands, gnarled fingers, the gentlest touch.

There's a lot that is being done here, at Sunder Nagri, near Dilshad Gardens, close to Shahadra. There is a lot more that needs to be done, and a lot more that could be done.

Watch this space. And if you like, come join us at Wonderland.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Balloons for Christmas

On Christmas morning, we all woke up to a truly 'cheerful' story hogging the headlines - about how the MCD has demolished a night shelter on Pusa Road for 'beautification' prior to the Common Wealth games. And how over 250 people have been rendered homeless, including women and infants: the youngest of them being 3 days old.

All this at a time when the mercury was merrily swinging in the 6 degrees range. Wind chill factor not counted.

As I sipped my warm cup of coffee and attempted to read the story out to Ranjit, while our daughter romped around in 3 layers of warm clothing, Ranjit said 'whats the point of reading this? What are we going to do about it?'

That started a conversation and a chain of events that has led to Balloons for Christmas...

The writer of the article was Ambika Pandit from the Times News Network who Ranjit managed to reach thanks to the Central Address book of timesmail! Ambika was genuinely happy that her article had made an impact, and was extremely helpful, passing us on to the right person....

The right person was Dr. Amodh Kumar, who is with St Stephen's Hospital and works for and with these homeless people. When Ranjit spoke to Dr. Amodh and asked if we could bring across blankets etc he assured us that all that had been taken care of for the time being. But he would definitely solicit our help for other requirements.

That very evening we had the most amazing conversation on Dr. Amodh's speaker phone - with some of these street kids and adults... He put them on line, and Ranjit put his own phone loudspeaker on... and here's how the conversation went...

R: Hello!

Kids: Namastey!

R: Aap log theek hain?

Kids: Haanji

R: Aapko kambal wambal kuchh chahiye?

Kids: Aap hamein balloon laa deejiye bhaiyya!

R: Balloons? Itni thand mein aapko kambal rajai nahin, balloons chahiye??............

Kids: Hum balloon bechenge bhaiyaa... abhi to season hai...

Ranjit and I had been laughing up to that point thinking these are carefree kids who want balloons rather than blankets. (gosh, what a bubble we live in). Which is when they made us realise it was not for fun but for income that they needed these balloons...........

Since then Dr. Amodh has done some groundwork for us and informed us that:

a. The entire lot of balloons to keep these people going during the festive season, costs Rs. 23,000. They have already picked up the balloons in order to maximise the season's sales.

b. They have promised not to use children to peddle these balloons and Dr. Amodh hopes they will at least try and stick to their word.

Oh, and you know what? These street people want to take this money purely as a loan!! They are very clear that once they tide over the winter months and make their living, they want to return every penny. Obviously, while none of us expect anything back, I think this attitude is great. Great for their sense of self, their personal dignity and their pyschological freedom.

Dr. Amodh obviously wants to encourage that, for these very reasons. These people are very clear they want to pay us back whenever they can. Isn't that amazing?

Ranjit and I have promised to get the money across to Dr. Amodh by this evening. The entire amount. I wrote a mail to a selected few, those who would trust Ranjit and my word, because needless to say we would not be able to give any paper, any NGO receipt, any sort of documentation whatsoever for any contribution. We are simply collecting cash and going there this evening.

Barely a couple of hours into sending the mail and I've already received more than half the amount, either as cash or as a pledge.

Its amazing how much goodwill and generosity there is out there. And shocking how so much suffering carries on, none the less.

I am moved by my friends' and colleagues' trust, generosity and sensitivity. I am happy I know such wonderful people.

May 2010 be a genuinely happy new year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Quote Hanger

"I close my eyes.
And this image floats beside me.
A sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brain.
His hands reach out and choke me.
And all the time he's mumbling.
Mumbling truth.
Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.
You push it, stretch it, it'll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it'll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying, it'll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream."

- Todd Anderson, Dead Poet’s Society

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Bad Believer

Sheepishly I am forced to admit, I am a bad believer.

All through my life I was given an involiable, unquestionable orientation towards the existence of god. There was a lot of deep spirituality that surrounded my childhood. My mother and my grandparents were initiates of the Ramkrishna Mission, a truly philosophic, thinking branch of hinduism. My father, though shunning all options of formal initiation, was a devout follower of Sri Ramkrishna and his teachings; his soul stirred and responded with great emotion for that simple saint.

Since a lot of Sri Ramkrishna's teachings revolved around the sameness of spiritual message among all religions, we as children got adequately exposed to the basic principles of all faiths.

Add to this, my schooling at The Mother's International School, affiliated to the Aurobindo Ashram, and what you get is a heady mix of extremely tolerant, very high thinking, complex philosophical new age spirituality.

I grew up assuming that was 'religion'. It was only later that I understood that my perspective of god was not from a religious point of view at all. I had no resonance with meaningless rituals, the gestures of worship shorn of the meaning behind. At school we were taught the meaning of every bhajan, chant and shloka, and as a result, I could never fully understand the deep stirring of emotion people felt even when they did not understand the gibberish a priest uttered in a temple.

My father's side of the family was that of priests. Because of the brahminical lineage, what I did understand early on from conversations, was that if you wanted to do ritualistic hindu worship, it was serious business. You spent time understanding the shlokas, reciting them with the correct intonation, and you followed the complex step-by-step processes of worship which included intricate details of how to hold the prayer tray, when to ring the bell, what significance its resonance had at different points in the worship, why a certain fruit or flower or herb was to be placed at a certain angle near the idol and what that placing signified...

The old ritualistic priesthood that was my paternal heritage, coupled with the new age spirituality that my parents adopted, made worship a thinking practice for me.

Ritualistic worship had stopped at my home with my grandmother since my mother believed more in simple prayer and devotion. I did not grow up with a 'temple' in the house where I was expected to put flowers or light incense everyday. Nor did I think that ringing a bell and singing a bhajan was worship. Nor did I think that the family gathered around idols with folded hands and some hand me down songs was 'proper' religion.

When my friends would tell me in later years that they had done 'pooja' at home, I would be awestruck. Thats because I always assumed they knew their rituals the way my grandfather or father did, and they were so much more knowledgeable than me in hindu traditions and practice. I always assumed that what had been allowed to atrophy in our house had been kept alive in theirs. I was quite impressed, and often felt a tad inadequate.

Imagine my surprise then, when a friend said she'd done pooja at home on diwali - and she didn't even live with her parents. My jaw dropped - I asked her, 'you know how to do lakshmi puja???' She looked non plussed. Of course she did. I was amazed... she actually knew the lakshmi panchali and the specifics of this goddess' worship then?

My friend burst out laughing. Hey, she brought in some fresh flowers, cleaned the 'temple' at home, spread a fresh cloth, lit some dhoop and sang bhajans... and then distributed the sweets she'd placed in front of the idol, as prasad. There, you had your lakshmi puja.

I was shocked. From where I came from, this was like 'playing at worship'. The way kids would play at 'home making' or 'doctor doctor'. This was drivel... what did this have to do with actual serious ritualistic hindu worship? How was this any different from a children's game of imitating what the grown ups actually do?

Over the years of course my shock has abated. I have realised that this is what 'pooja' in almost every hindu home is. It is the 'playing at worship' accompanied with a sense of faith and belief in god, and a sheer reassuring quality of this 'game' that makes it sacred for those who play it. Lakshmi panchali be damned. God, being our best creation, is flexible to our changing ways. Yes, there is 'god' in that room where this game is played out. The sheer human faith behind the 'game' brings god alive in those moments.

I understand that now. I believe that those prayers, childlike though they may be, (and perhaps because of it) are heard. Somewhere. Somehow.

However, a maturer age intellectual understanding of a phenomenon is never quite as powerful as the instinctive adolescent rejection of it. My sheer disappointment and disdain at my discovery sort of stayed on with me... and perhaps this came from the arrogance of being from a very spirtually awake family, but I found the version of religion that existed around me, to be a childish needy dependance on a 'big daddy' figure to fulfil all wishes and fantasies. There was no god there, just Santa Claus.

Hence I found myself rejecting religion very early in life. A few encounters with chauvanistic narrow minded ways at temples, further eroded my respect for it. The religio-political situation in our country in the past 2 decades put the final seal for me. Religion was a sad, bad thing.

I don't feel good near temples or mosques or any other place of worship. I find no peace, no god, no beauty in any of them, except the architectural aesthetic of it, that too, rarely.

The sight of someone bowing in front of a roadside temple doesn't make me feel good. It fills me with fear and loathing. I imagine swords and knives in that person's hand. I imagine violence and hatred. Religion for me has come to represent the most bigoted, biased, intollerant, violent, conservative side of human beings.

I truly wish every temple, mosque and church in this country could be razed to the ground to make way for schools and hospitals. I wish there would be a blanket ban on all public display of religion - and I smile because I would have to sacrifice my biggest annual cultural experience for it - Durga Puja - but I think the sacrifice is worth it. Durga Puja for me is part cultural, part social, part deeply personally emotional and spiritual an experience. But it is actually a religious display and as far as that goes, it hides within its rich vibrant belly, the seeds of aggression and violence. So in my ideal world, it would have to go. Along with Ganesh Chaturthi, Navratri, Eid, Christmas and the rest of the brouhaha.

All this is still in the realm of 'religion'. Yes, I have in the past few years completely rejected religion. I believe it is the root of much evil across the world and we'd do well without it.

This however did not mean that I had rejected god. I was brought up not to question the validity of god, but to remain a thinking individual in the space of god. It was never a question of whether to worship this entity or not, but how to do so. The 'way' was the liberal, tolerant, secular way. The thinking, spiritually advanced way. But the fact that God 'was'... that was a given.

So why did I start this post saying I am a bad believer? Because over the past few years I have realised how fickle my faith is.

I had never before been confronted with a situation where I had to defend my faith to an atheist or an agnostic. Everybody I'd known before I met R was a believer. With the exception of my dear friend Gorky who's always been a nonbeliever, but a peaceful, non debating non believer. The only conversation I'd ever had about god with Gorky was one where he put our difference down in his amiable succint way - 'you believe because you feel a presence, I don't believe because I don't feel a presence' is all he had to say. And all that needed to be said. It was simple. And needed no further discussion.

Then along came R. A rabid atheist and a staunch rationalist. R cannot understand the need for adults to have this super santa claus. He finds it against reason, adulthood, the scientific temper and basic common sense. His arguments are from a scientific point of view and he asks for scientific elements vis-a-vis god: proof, evidence, emperical experience and material.

All perspectives, which the true believers say don't even apply to faith. Those who are good believers are unfazed by this onslaught of the scientific approach, saying we don't need to provide this proof because this proof exists outside of the space of faith. It is akin to trying to measure pressure with a thermometer or temperature with a telescope. The tool is wrong so the fact that god can't be measured by those standards is not a surprise. Faith cannot be defended with scientific tools any more than weight can be measured with a candybar. It is irrelevant and absurd.

And so the believers believe. And tell you not to apply apples to oranges. And the non believers continue to disbelieve, saying scientific tools are not specific to subjects but a macro approach to matter.

God is not 'matter' counter the faithful.

Show me the evidence of 'god' somehow, says the atheist. Any tool will do, but show me one proof that is not circumstantial or anecdotal.

The faithful don't participate in this line of argument.

And the eternal debate rages on.

Over the years, R has softened (if that is the right word) from being an atheist to an agnostic. He says he's willing to wait for proof but until he gets some he will reserve judgement. He has also discovered his spiritual side and with extensive study of various religious texts, he has started to absorb the message deeply, if not yet convinced about the source being anything other than human. So Mohammad for him is the bedouin in the desert with a vision, Jesus a true humanist ahead of his times, and Krishna a maverick king of ancient India. Were they more than human? He doesn't think so. Did they have deeply profound beliefs and ideas, some dubious, some brilliant? Yes, he does think so.

Sharing in R's journey, I too have changed. Except my journey has been in the reverse direction. I too have become an agnostic. I am not sure now what I believe. Who is this big daddy who we all turn to in our hour of need? Early on in my childhood, I had through some personal realisations, started to restrict my nightly prayers to 'thank yous' instead of 'wishes'. I'd figured we take too little time to acknowledge our blessings and too much wanting for more. Every night for those 3 minutes that I prayed, even on my worst days, I tried to thank this lonely hard working fellow up in the sky for all the good that life had given me. Coming from a reasonably privileged background, I found it shameful to ask for more, and not acknowledge what I already had.

So the wish fulfilling Santa Claus God was not my god in any case. However, this 'god' of mine continued to answer my unspoken prayers, grant my inarticulated wishes and stand by me, the way only god can.

I have had a colourful, chequered life. It has had its moments, both grand and miserable, it has seen death and illness, pain and beauty, and I have always felt that at the end of the day, if I have ever deeply truly wanted something, eventually it has happened.

I attributed it to the grace of this ubiquitous 'god', until R insisted that I question my belief. And I found myself to be a bad believer. His rationalistic approach appealed to me. When I found I could not answer his questions in his language, I did not fault his language, I began to question my faith. I like proof. I like logic. I like emperical evidence.

I shun all superstition and I have great disregard for the 'cover your ass, just in case' mentality, that I see a lot of educated, reasonable people give in to. I find that 'just in case' mentality very pathetic when you know that medicines will cure your illness but you will still wear that locket 'just in case'. When you know dates and positions of the sun and star doesn't really impact your life but you still conduct your ceremonies on those auspicious dates 'just in case'. When you know that a piece of wood or stone is just dross material, but you will keep an idol in one corner of your house 'just in case'.

I find the 'just in case' mentality worse than that of the truly faithful. The truly faithful don't do things in half measure. They believe, and they believe totally and the fact that reason has nothing to do with their convictions, doesn't dull their convictions in the least.

Its the 'just in case' people who make me sick. They are disparaging of the very things they follow, they attempt to defend their actions as 'pleasing parents' or 'following tradition' or 'keeping society happy' and yet somewhere deep down they seem to have a genuine fear that if they flouted these rituals, something bad might just happen to them. So while they know their science, they stick with superstition 'just in case'. This mentality prevents us from going either forward or backward with any strong definite steps. Its a limbo space that is vague and confused and highly irrational.

Hats off to the good believers, those who have no doubt, no complexes, no issues with their ancient beliefs. They bow to every idol, follow every ritual, truly believe that this santa claus, and not their own hardwork or drive, is the cause of every success. They are not aboard two different boats. They are true to themselves and their faith.

I am not one of them. And I am loathe to become a 'just in case' person. When R and I got married we picked a saturday so our friends could attend and we did the rituals that made my mother - and me, to be honest - happy. But at no point did I think that not chosing an auspicious date would in any way marr my marital happiness. I loved the sacred fire and the vibrant rich rituals around it, but I don't think not wearing my sindoor is in any way going to harm R. I wear the sindoor because I love it as a cultural cue.

God for me, I have realised in these past 3 years, is a cultural context, and not one of faith. Rituals are the same. I love them for their aesthetics and for their nostalgic value. I don't think not doing any of them will cause me any harm whatsoever.

R has understood that about me now. I don't try and defend some half baked faith that wilts under the white hot fire of his flawless reason. I simply concede these are habits, and cultural cues, which have strong emotional and aesthetic appeal, and nothing more than that.

I still find myself calling out to my 'god' on days when I am low, or when I wish to be heard by that omnipresent voice. But more and more I begin to realise its a need, not a belief. A dependency and not a conviction, a moment of weakness and not one of strength.

All religious ceremonies make me angry. And feel alienated. Vague references to god make me impatient. Why did god cure your child's sickness and not a pediatrician? If your faith is so strong, why didn't you just pray and not go to a doctor? How is god responsible for the success you saw in your career, and not your own hard work? 'Oh' the faithful counter 'god says you must act'.

Good lord. This god seems to have left a lot of the onus on us, and taken a lot of the credit.

And yet, can I truly say, I no longer believe in God? No, not yet. Its over 30 years of unquestioning faith, which is now beginning to crumble, and making me realise, I don't buy the whole 'faith' deal. It makes no sense to my educated, rational, thinking, sensible self. But still I can't wholly reject god. I need the god I grew up with, even though he's not making sense to me anymore.

That is why I say, I am a bad believer. Which is a far worse thing to be than a non believer, or a devout one.

I am rejecting a god that I cannot kill. 'Just in case'.