Kamal bhena: My brother-in-law–brother–father-figure and a Good Samaritan to countless

Massachusetts, USA

Started: December 8, 2020, 11:47pm

Kamal bhena: My brother-in-law–brother–father-figure and a Good Samaritan to countless

Kamal bhena and Anita didi during their daugher Shalu’s wedding in Siliguri in 2017

I wanted to write this for the past 2-3 days, but was too grief-stricken – my own, and that of people I dearly love – to get myself to write. Kamal bhena was a man so strong and so tall that you didn’t realize he was the foundation pillar until he is gone.

“Nares, tyo Facebook ko profile picture kina haaleko? Hami eti bela barah din ko mourning ma chaun.” [Naresh, why did you update your Facebook profile picture? We are in a twelve day mourning period], he had said when I put up the picture of my shaven head on Facebook after my father’s passing on September 10. I told him that I was getting surprised expressions from different  people when they saw me with a shaved head and didn’t want to keep explaining, and thus decided to share the picture. There aren’t very many people in a person’s life who will pick up the phone and scold you. We are lucky when we do. These are the people who are there for us, who watch out for us. On Diwali, he personally came with sweets for my mother and brothers’ families to ensure that they were not left without sweets, being the first major festival after my father’s passing.

Kamal bhena watched out not just for me, but for countless other people. He would ask questions to make sure you’re alright, offer spontaneous help – be it financially “paisa chahiyo bhane bhani haalnu” [let me know right away if you need money], physically, or logistically.

Whenever there were major family events where planning was required – weddings, other events, or any crisis situations of any sort – deaths, property issues, etc., I could bank on him for wise, sound, compassionate, and unbiased advice. I believe there are two types of people in the world – those who like doing “us versus them” and those who believe in taking everyone along. He was among those who looked out for all. Generosity and largeness of heart came naturally to him. 

We would call him ‘Kattu bhaiji’, as everyone else did. His name was Kamal Agarwal. A fair-skinned man with a smiling, round face, and a moustache, and a husky voice owing to a vocal-cord issue, he used to be around next door in the neighboring ‘R.K. Agarwal’, the shop-house of my grandfather’s youngest brother.  With three brothers and three sisters, he had grown up in Singtam, a small town by the Teesta river, about 30 kilometres from Gangtok. Sitting by the fire or heater in cold Gangtok evenings, he would tell us stories of the myriad experiences he had had, even as a young, self-made man. His own father had died in his 50s in Arunachal Pradesh, and he and his mother had traveled the hours-long journey in a car with his dead father seated between them. There were stories of handling various situations, and of people. 

My sister Anita didi is six years older to me, and is smart, kind, and loving. We got along extremely well growing up, and she shared everything with me. She soon realized that ‘Kamal’ was the person she wanted to marry and have as her life partner. Once, she and I went and bought a maroon, half-sweater for him – I was thinking for ninety rupees, but she says, sixty. She gifted it to him. Anita didi was very happy to see him wear it, and equally upset when she saw his elder brother wear it one day. Kattu bhaiji had to do a lot of explaining. 

My mother was initially against their getting married for multiple reasons – financial, educational, his voice, and also for the fact that the both his family and ours had the same Garg ‘gotra’ or lineage. One was expected to marry within the community, but not within the absolute same gotra. Finally, when my mother’s father in Kalimpong told her, “Jab ladka-ladki raazi, to kya karega kaazi” [When the boy and girl are ready, then what can the judge do], she relented and agreed.  They found a workaround for the gotra issue, with my mother’s sister from Jalpaiguri doing the kanyadaan – the giving of the bride, and my sister getting our aunt’s gotra for the wedding. My cousin got to do the ceremonies meant for the brother of the bride that I had looked forward to. The wedding took place in the winter after my Class X in Tashi Namgyal Academy – on January 28, 1993 in Gangtok’s beautiful Hotel Tibet in Paljor Stadium road. We had to switch from calling Kattu Bhaiji to Kamal bhena, which seemed odd at first, but we soon got used to it. My school friends were there for the wedding. It was attended by hundreds of Kamal bhena’s friends and people from his large network. People kept pouring in. I had to rush home in a car to ask for more pooris to be made and missed their ‘varmala’ or the garland ceremony – something I regretted for a long time. I remember heaps of wedding gifts and khatas, the white, silken traditional Tibetan and Buddhist scarf used in Gangtok for various ceremonies. Kamal bhena contributed to the reception cost – something unheard of in a patriarchal society where the girl’s family was expected to bear all the wedding costs.  He also refused to take ‘Tika’ or ‘Tilak’ money, where cash was often demanded by the groom’s side. That single act perhaps elevated him greatly in my eyes, and I started looking up to him, and in doing so, joined many other people and families whose lives he’s touched and made a difference to.

When I went to study in Singapore in 1995, he was one of the two sureties who signed my scholarship bond. When I bought my first computer while at Nanyang Technological University, I had borrowed money from him. ‘At every step, whenever I needed someone, he was there’. This line could not just be mine – but that of hundreds of other people – whose lives he would have similarly touched. As his daughter Shalu told me, “Unhone kitni families ko apne upar dependent kar rakha tha.” [There are so many families that he had made dependent on himself.] When Anita didi, Kamal bhena and my nephew Neel finally visited me in Singapore in 2007, I had to move houses immediately after their stay. For a person who had his staff to help him while at home, he had asked as he physically helped me move, “Coolie paundaina?” [Don’t you get porters?] I had told him, “Hoina bhena, paundaina.” [No, we don’t here]. The memories with Kamal bhena are too many to write in a short essay. His face flashes right before my eyes. His voice speaks to me in Nepali, the language we conversed in.

My sister, Anita didi, and Kamal bhena were totally co-dependent. Their’s was a love that had developed into deep care for each other. If I spoke to Anita didi on the phone for ten minutes, she would say, “Tero bhena, tero bhena…” ten times. As her childhood friend, Leena didi also told me, “Jaile ta Kamal, Kamal, Kamal bhani bascha.” [She’s always saying Kamal, Kamal, Kamal…] Whether concern or worry or being upset over something – it was all about him. When Kamal bhena would fail to convince my sister over his point of view on something, he would ask me to speak to her. Once, there was a wedding in Surat (of my cousin who had conducted the brother’s ceremonies at her wedding) that she really wanted to attend, but the city was gripped by plague at that time. Kamal bhena was worried about her safety and wanted her not to go. 

Kamal bhena had multiple health issues ranging from ulcerative colitis to diabetes. His uncontrolled sugar levels took a toll on his kidneys, until he required dialysis. Small wounds, like a infection in the big toe, took long to heal. Once he had to be airlifted in a helicopter from Gangtok in order to get better medical care. His goodwill ensured that he always had a stream of people standing up for him. They managed to find a kidney donor for him, and he got a new lease of life, supported by immunosuppressant drugs, medicines that reduce the body’s immune system.

Anita didi took it upon herself to take care of his strict diet, along with the care of her first son, Sahil, who was born premature in 1994. The lack of an incubator in Gangtok’s STNM hospital, and an oxygen overdose during delivery led to his permanent brain and eye damage. He is now a 26-year old, 6-month old baby. Anita didi has always seen Sahil both as blessing and her purpose.

Kamal bhena and Neel in 2017

Their second son Neel was born in 1998, and has been an ideal child, excellent in studies, and devoted to his parents.

In March this year, as the coronavirus pandemic raged across the world, and I saw people taking it lightly, I recorded a video in Hindi to sensitize people of its dangers, and how to maintain social distancing and wash hands often. Along with public concern, I was also scared for my 83-year old father who had survived a stroke, and for Kamal bhena, who had had a kidney transplant. I had long conversations with various people over the phone, and also with Kamal bhena telling him the do’s and don’t’s.

When my father died earlier this fall season in September and was tested as COVID positive upon death, hard as it was, I ensured that Anita didi, Kamal bhena, or Neel wouldn’t come to my house. Kamal bhena himself was mostly careful, and was following guidelines. 

In mid-November, there was another death in town. The man who died was close to Kamal bhena, and he went to the condolence meet. Kamal bhena soon took ill, had fever, and his oxygen level started dropping in the coming days. When it fell below 90, his son consulted with his nephrologist and decided to immediately take him to Siliguri, four hours away. He was hospitalized there at Neotia hospital on November 25.  He was tested for COVID, came out as positive the next day, and was in ICU, with family not allowed to visit. He was allowed a daily short video call with a family. His doctor called during the day with updates. He had breathing difficulty but was stable, and was given 10 liters of supplemental oxygen. 

On the 27th, he was given 15 liters of oxygen to help maintain his oxygen level around 95-96, his immunosuppresent drugs were highly reduced to help improve his immunity, and he was given remdesivir and a steroid. We were told that his lung infection is high. By the next day, he had severe lung infection, and was not stable with 80% external oxygen being given to him. His oxygen levels were around 80 despite supplemental oxygen. In the video call on the 29th, he told his son that he had some breathing difficulty (after 15-20 seconds of talking), “par theek hoon” [but I am okay]. He was still being given 80% oxygen. His oxygen level improved to 94-95 with external oxygen. The ICU in-charge said that he would take time to recover.  By the next day, his oxygen requirement had been reduced from 80% to 70%, but he was still critical. 

In the video call on December 1, Kamal bhena was panting a little, but looked better than the previous day. He said he wanted fruits. He asked his son to come visit him. When Neel said he wouldn’t be allowed, he said he can persuade the liftman. By afternoon, the external oxygen required had been reduced further to 60%, and his oxygen levels were 94-95 with support. 

Anita didi had been getting anxious to speak to him, so on December 2, the morning video call was with her. However, he couldn’t speak without his oxygen mask. He was asking to meet. After the call, she got more anxious seeing him unable to speak normally. In the afternoon update, we learnt about his severe pneumonia. The external oxygen support was increased back to 80% from the earlier improvement to 60%. The doctor said that the patient is serious and at risk. In a later video call with Neel, he had his oxygen mask on, was communicating by waving his hands, and asked for skin balm. Neel told him, “Aap bilkul theek ho jaoge.” [You will get totally fine], and that he was not allowed to visit. 

As I was able to get normal work done, I wrote this note to myself, “The ability to feel an emotion, compartmentalize it, postpone it, and to transform it is an important ability.” Meanwhile, Neel had been getting more than 60 phone calls each day inquiring about his father’s health. I told him it was the goodwill earned by this father which was eliciting concern from a lot of people. 

On December 3, Kamal bhena said, “Mujhe theek nahin lag raha hai.” [I don’t feel good]. He was pleading that at least one person from his family should come visit him at the hospital. His creatinine was fine and below 1, which indicated that his kidneys were okay. His sugar levels, which were earlier high, were now in control. His oxygen saturation level, which were being maintained around 95-96, was immediately dropping to 75 when his mask was removed to give him food. The 80 percent external oxygen indicated that he was still critical. In the video call on December 4, Kamal bhena said he was not feeling good, was adamant saying he didn’t want to stay in the hospital, and asked for a skin balm. In the daytime update, the doctor asked to wait and watch, and that his status was critical. Oxygen level was being maintained at 80 with 100 percent external supply. He was adamant not to allow food tube through his nose (which would have helped maintain the oxygen level), so was still being fed orally.  His lungs were infected, but he was not in a condition for a chest scan. 

On December 5, I got a message from Neel, “He has been put on the ventilator. Doctor said highly critical. I’m going to the hospital right now.” The doctors said that he would need ECMO therapy. I found out that ECMO or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation is a technique of providing prolonged cardiac and respiratory support to persons whose heart and lungs are unable to provide an adequate amount of gas exchange or perfusion to sustain life. However, Siliguri hospitals didn’t have the ECMO facility, and he was not in a position to be shifted to Delhi or elsewhere. In the daytime update, we learnt that his blood pressure had fallen to 70/40, and his oxygen was between 60 and 80. The doctor said, “Aap log prepared ho jaiye.” [You all get prepared]. On December 6, his vital parameters were fluctuating. 

For the first time, I discussed with Neel about what would happen if he didn’t make it. Also informed my younger sister and aunt for the first time that Kamal bhena has gotten COVID and is hospitalized. Anita didi was in Gangtok with Sahil. I assured her, and spoke to her normally. Neel and I discussed getting her to come to Siliguri early morning. 

At 1:46 am US Eastern time on Sunday, I got a message from Neel, “Papa is no more.” He had passed away at 11:45am India time on December 6. Later, Neel told me that when Anita didi had just reached Siliguri and was with Neel, he had gotten a call from the hospital. The person said, “Unka heart band ho gaya hai. Unko revive karne ki bahut koshish ki par nahin hua.” [His heart has stopped. We tried a lot to revive but couldn’t.] Neel asked, “Uska kya matlab hai?” [What does that mean?]. “Uska matlab hai ki [it means] he is no more.”

Between busy phone lines, I could only get to speak to Anita didi after a few hours when she was waiting outside the hospital to get one last glimpse of his face (which she did), as, following the hospital COVID protocol, he was to be cremated the same day in Siliguri itself, with two family members – his son and his brother, allowed to perform the last rites. 

While I had anticipated this eventuality for the last few days, facing the reality of it was not easy. A pillar and guardian of the family was gone. Kamal bhena was a mentor to me. A lot of the people skills that I have learned are imbibed from him. I told Neel, “Until now, I was your Maama [maternal uncle]. Now, I am your father too. Never think that you don’t have a father.”  

I was on the phone with crying family members. Ma was saying, “Tera Bapu gaya to mein bardasht kar li. Ab kyaan karoon?” [I tolerated when your father left. How do I do it now.] I heard my aunt in Vrindavan cry for the first time in years, “Meri choti si chori ko ke howgo?” [What will happen of my little girl?” My sister in Nepal said, “Abui na bhan na!” [Don’t say like that] when I informed her of his passing. Leena didi was saying, “Yo ke gareko bhagwan le! Kati dukkha dine mero saathi lai! Pahila euta chora lai esto banayo, pachi Bhaiji lai etro health problem, aafno health, pheri bau lai, aba bhaiji lai laane! Kasto gareko ulle!” [What is this that God is doing! How much suffering will He give my friend! First, he made a son like that, then health problems to [Kattu] bhaiji, her own health, then took her father, and now bhaiji. What is He doing!]

Kamal bhena at the Baan ceremony of my wedding in 2003 in Gangtok

In 2009, I had created a Facebook album of beautiful people in my life. Including a picture of Kamal bhena with me at a ceremony during my wedding in 2003, I had written, “Kamal bhena: For showing how a son-in-law can be more than a son; for touching and making a difference to countless lives; for saying, ‘Aru ta malai thaha china, tara mero malaami ma chaiyn tumpro manche aauncha hai.’ [I don’t know anything else, but lots of people will come to my funeral.] For being a person with faith in his ‘duita haath duita khutta.’ [two hands and two feet].” He, of course, did not know then that he would die during the Coronavirus panedemic, where funerals would have limited people, and which would also take his life. 

In 2011, when my father’s elder brother passed away at 76, Kamal bhena had told me. “Heri haalnu. Bau aba dui barsa bhanda besi banchdaina.” [Mark my words. Your father won’t survive for more than two years now.]. My father lived for nine more years after that. But little did I know that Kamal bhena himself would not complete three months since my father’s passing. 

Facebook walls have gotten filled with messages like, “We have lost the best person from our community.” “A person with a very big heart that I have come across.” There are many condolence messages, and a beautiful bouquet of flowers from my colleagues at Simmons University, Boston. 

Anita didi has been inconsolable during the past few days. “Mo theek chuina Naresh” [I am not alright Naresh]. Ma was saying, “Chori bhot himmat karke chale thi. Ba toot taat gi. Kyan dheer bandhawa chori ne!” [The girl had been very brave all this while. That strength is shattered. How do we console her!]. Composing herself, Anita didi says, “Mein himmat karoongi – Neel ke vaaste, Shalu ke vaaste, Sahil ke vaaste, aapke vaaste, sabke vaaste. Mane himmat karni padegi.” [I will be strong – for Neel, for Shalu, for Sahil, for myself, for everyone. I will need to be strong.] 

Completed: December 12, 2020, 1:20am

Addressing gender inequality in Indian homes

What does this International Women’s Day mean for women in India?

India as a country faces numerous challenges – massive corruption, inequality of various types, unemployment, lack of basic health and sanitation, education, among others. The Indian actor Aamir Khan ran a successful television show Satyameva Jayate in 2012 that went into the depths of many of these issues. The second season has just started. One thing is evident from all those episodes in 2012 (ranging from female foeticide, child sexual abuse, dowry system, love marriages and honor killings, domestic violence, alcohol abuse) and to the first episode in 2014 (on rape), as well as from other online/news sources and narratives, that women in India have a raw deal. The systematic inequality and dis-empowerment of women is at the heart of many of the problems plaguing India.

J.P.Datta’s remake of an earlier film – the 2006 Umrao Jaan had a powerful song:

अगले जनम मोहे बिटिया न कीजो agle janam mohe bitiya na keejo
रो भी न पावे ऐसी गुड़िया न कीजो ro bhi na paawe aisi gudiya na keejo

It’s the cry of a battered and helpless woman imploring God not to make her a woman again in her next life, not a doll who couldn’t even cry.

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Had the protagonist known about other countries where women have a better deal, her song could very well have been: “May I be born again as a woman in my next life, but let me choose the country where I am born and live.” (see the Appendix below).

The people of India like to look to the government of the day to solve many of the issues they face (and debate endlessly whether the Congress, or the BJP or any other party will solve their problems). The government of the day can frame policies and laws, which are important. Yet, many of the issues that concern women, whether it is economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment or health and survival, are things that need to be addressed at the individual, household, family, and social levels.

The problem is, gender inequality is at the very heart of the Indian cultural and value system. You start considering man and woman equal, and much of India’s centuries-and-millenia-old cultural pride needs to be rethought and reconfigured, and that’s no mean task. For most Indian families practising gender inequality, any suggestion to reform or address the inequality is seen as a strike at the very root of its cultural, community or ethnic ethos.

On deeper analysis, one will find that gender inequality is largely linked to two issues: 1) passing on of surname and lineage, and 2) social security. While many Indians would care about the first issue (where your son carries forth your surname, but your daughter does not), it is the second issue which is of more practical concern. Most Indians don’t plan well for their old age. With the societal expectation of a daughter getting married and moving to another house, a son is seen as economic security as one ages. The daughter-in-law is tied to food security. Thus, living together with the son and his family assures sharing of resources in a country with growing population and limited land. It assures economic, physical, food and emotional security as one gets older.

Summarized below are ways in which gender inequality is manifested in many Indian homes:

The scenario here is more dire now than in preceding decades. Earlier, families would keep producing children until sons were born. The birth of a girl was frowned upon, and still is, but foeticide was not as rampant. It was common to see families with many children, and a mix of boys and girls. Where the older children were girls, the younger ones would be boys (the girls being born while waiting for the son).

With the family planning and population control campaign of the 1980s and 1990s, the value of having only 2 children (shown in advertisements as boy and a girl) was widely propagated. Many Indian families have realized the value of being better able to provide resources to fewer children and ideally like to have no more than two children. Now, if the first child is a girl and the second is a boy, that’s not an issue. If both the children are boys, that’s fine as well. The biggest fear is what if the second child is also a girl.

That’s where a lot of families (and often economically well-off families) resort to female foeticide (which is illegal but rampant). When that’s not the case, there is pressure on the woman to produce the third child, in the hope that the third would be a son. When all else fails, and as a last resort, some families choose to adopt a male child.

The only day a married woman gets valued and (relatively more) empowered is when she becomes a mother. However, this empowerment only comes when she becomes the mother of a son (but not when she’s the mother of a daughter). By bringing in the son to the world, she would have assured the economic, lineage and food security, as well as the power equations of the family for a long time (the groom’s family is socially more powerful than the bride’s family).

Education and growing up:
1) The son(s) would often get more or higher quality education than the daughter(s). This includes sons being sent to better, private schools, and daughters being sent to government schools. Girls have had better chances of a quality education when they had no male sibling to give up resources to, and had only girl siblings. This trend is reversing in the past few years with both sons and daughter’s being sent to good schools (this is, of course, also linked to economic prosperity and being able to afford quality schools for all children).
2) The daughters being expected to take a greater load in household work than the sons.
3) When daughters get university education, there is pressure to study/work in the same city, while sons have more choice to travel to another city for education. This is also slowly changing.

Marriage and property:
1) The daughters having to leave their parental home and move in with the husband’s family is an integral part of the Indian cultural ethos and a major source leading to inequality. An attempt to change this status quo would require a change in the very structure of Indian society. This is also a reason why daughters are seen as an “investment that does not pay off” (as opposed to sons), leading to issues such as foeticide and no education or a lower quality of education.

Many of the issues – ranging from 1) dowry to 2) subjugation to 3) lack of right to work, stem from issues relating to living with the husband’s family. Personality and power equations often play a role in it. Once married, a woman is forced to adhere to a certain dress-code after marriage, while a man can continue to dress as he pleases. If a woman were to lose her husband, she is forced to give up the dress code that she is, by now, used to, and adhere to a different, more difficult dress-code and lifestyle.

A daughter is given less than 5% of her parents’ property in the form of wedding costs. Even in that, a major part is spent in pomp and showing-off. The gold ornaments that a daughter gets from her parents and in-laws is often the only security she has. Rest of the money is frittered away in wedding expenses in the name of the daughter. The son(s) end up inheriting a major part of his parents’ (father’s) property. While Indian laws allow for property rights to daughters, this is often not implemented.

Thus, if a daughter faces abuse in her in-laws’ house, she often has no-where to go. This, along with the cultural expectation of ‘leaving her husband’s house only after death’ ensures that she has no financial security whatsoever.

1) Pray for a healthy child, not a boy or a girl
2) Give the best education you can afford to both the son and the daughter
3) Do not limit the choices of the daughter when growing up, or force her to adhere to gender stereotypes; allow the creative potential of each child to flourish
4) Make sure that the daughter gets professional college education
5) Insist on ‘right to work’ when you marry your daughter off. An earning woman will be empowered [many families know this, and systematically prevent the daughters/daughter-in-laws from studying/working/earning]. In turn, she will provide economic security to her children, her family, and also contribute to the economy of the country. Do the math: Which country will progress more? Where all its’ grown-up population is earning versus only 50% is.
6) Insist on simpler weddings. Instead, spend the wedding/dowry cost on property for the daughter, or bank balance in the daughter’s account.
7) As a husband, insist that both the husband and wife earn, and that both husband and wife share in the house work [a recent OECD survey ranked Indian men very low on contributing to housework]. Apart from giving birth, there is no other task that a man cannot contribute to. This would also empower both the man and the woman in many ways.

Solution in the longer term (one that will require a change in mindset and a major overhaul in cultural and value-system):
The only way to address this in the long run would be to see both the sons and daughters as equally bad investments for old age: meaning that both would move into their separate homes after marriage. This is how Singapore, US, and many other societies with greater gender equality have addressed the issue. The expectation (or lack of it) of living with your children and grandchildren as you get older is the major difference between Indian and western societies, and also the major reasons why they are on two opposite sides on gender equality (see Appendix below). If parents would know that they’d not live with either their son(s) or their daughter(s) as they grew older, they would plan ahead for their retirement, or at least be better prepared. At the moment, many Indian parents would shudder at such a thought. As a bird takes care of its young, and lets them fly once they develop their wings, that’s the only way for parents to avoid disappointment at old age. It would be hard, but that’s the only workable solution I see for the long term.

So, what about needing help when you become old and frail, or if you want to spend your golden years seeing your grandchildren grow?
In the Indian context, the long-term solution to this is for parents and grown-up children to live close to each other (in attached but separate homes). The homes could be on the same floor, neighboring or in two separate floors/apartments of a building. When that is not possible, families should plan two separate kitchens in the house once the son gets married. Parents need to plan this right from the outset, rather than letting deteriorating relationships drive this. The idea is to provide space to each other, and yet be close-enough to be there for each other.

We need to reach to a stage where we see every human life as precious and sacred! Each person, irrespective of gender, has a right to grow, right to make one’s life choices, and the right to realize one’s true potential! If we are denying this right to the women in our lives – be it our wife, daughter(s), sister(s) or daughter-in-laws, we’re doing something wrong. The song from ‘Umrao Jaan’ talks about the next life. The Indian woman deserves better in this life itself! Happy International Women’s Day!

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The 2013 Global gender gap report by the World Economic Forum examined the gap between men and women in 136 countries in four fundamental categories: 1) economic participation and opportunity, 2) educational attainment, 3) health and survival, and 4) political empowerment.

Countries in the top of the list on gender equality include: 1 Iceland, 2 Finland, 3 Norway, 4 Sweden, 5 Philippines, 6 Ireland, 7 New Zealand, 8 Denmark, 9 Switzerland, 10 Nicaragua, 11 Belgium, 12 Latvia, 13 Netherlands, 14 Germany, 15 Cuba, 16 Lesotho, 17 South Africa, 18 UK, 19 Austria, 20 Canada, 21 Luxembourg, 22 Burundi, 23 United States and 24 Australia.

Those towards the middle and sliding down in the rankings include 55 Sri Lanka, 58 Singapore, 69 China, 75 Bangladesh, 93 Bhutan, 95 Indonesia, 101 India, 102 Malaysia, 105 Japan, 109 UAE, 111 Korea, 112 Bahrain, 115 Qatar, 121 Nepal, 127 Saudi Arabia, 130 Iran and 135 Pakistan.

India ranks towards the bottom in the gender inequality ranking (rank 101), and of it’s neighbors, does better than only Nepal (rank 121) and Pakistan (135). Yet, as we look closely at India’s rankings in the 4 indicators:

1) economic participation and opportunity (rank 124)
2) educational attainment (rank 120)
3) health and survival (rank 135)
4) political empowerment (rank 9)

we find that India ranks towards the very bottom of 136 countries in most scores that concern the average Indian woman. It is only political empowerment of women where India does well, and which moves up its overall ranking to 101.

The story of ‘Samundra Manthan’ – the churning of the celestial ocean of milk

The churning of the ocean

Many of you might have seen this sculpture at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. Here is the story behind it.

Background. There are numerous ancient Hindu scriptures ranging from the 4 Vedas, the Upanishads, the epics – Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita (the essence of all knowledge of the scriptures – the Bible or the Quran equivalent for Hindus) and the various Puranas (which contain narratives about Gods and demons, and form the bulk of ancient Indian mythology). The story of ‘Samudra [Ocean] Manthan [the Churning]’ appears in two of the puranas (Bhagavad Purana and Vishnu Purana, as well as the Mahabharata). Hindus see God as one but with different forms and attributes, primarily as a trinity of the creator (Brahma), the preserver (Vishnu and his 10 avatars/incarnations as Ram, Krishna, etc.) and the destroyer (Shiva and his forms such as Hanuman). There is also the female energy in the form of Durga, Kali, Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth, workshipped during Diwali; the wife of Vishnu), Saraswati (the Goddess of learning and knowledge; the wife of Brahma), etc. Subsurvient to these are other deities or divinities who control individual forces of nature (referred to as ‘devta’ or ‘deva’ in Hindi) – Indra (the king of the devas; king of ‘swarga’ or heaven; controls thunder and lightning), Varun (the deva of rain), Agni (the deva of fire), Vayu (the deva of wind), etc. The evil forces are represented by the ‘asuras’ (the demons), who are in constant battle with the ‘devas’ (allegorically, the battle of the good versus evil within our minds). The devas and the asuras are both sons of the same father, but two different mothers – Diti and Aditi respectively. Both the good and the evil, or the ‘daivic’ and ‘asuric’ natures, reside within humans. Qualities such as fearlessness, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, charity, self-control, austerity, simplicity, non-violence, truthfulness, freedom from anger, renunciation, tranquility, aversion to faultfinding, compassion, gentleness, modesty, steady determination, forgiveness, cleanliness, freedom from envy, etc. are classified as ‘daivic’ or godly qualities (Bhagavad Gita, 16:1-3). Materialism, arrogance, pride, anger, conceit, harshness, ignorance come under ‘asuric’ or demonic qualities (Bhagavad Gita, 16:4). Both the ‘devas’ and the ‘asuras’ draw their energies from the supreme trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

The Story. In the story of the Samudra Manthan, the devas (Indra and the other divinities) were once cursed by the Sage named Durvasa, such that they lose all their strength. The asuras then win them in battle and take control of the universe. The devas go to Lord Vishnu for help, who advises that only the nectar, which resides at the bottom of the celestial ocean of milk (Ksheer [milk] + sagar [ocean]; sometimes alluded to the Milky Way galaxy) can make them strong again, and they would become immortal. However, the ocean would need to be churned in order for the nectar to surface, and this was a task they coudln’t do alone (considering they were bereft of energy). They would need to seek the help of the demons/asuras for this, with the lure of the nectar.

Now, churning is the process of making butter from milk i.e. vigorously shaking the milk to separate the butter/cream and the water elements from milk. Yashoda, the mother of Krishna, is often depicted in images were she is churning milk by pulling 2 ends of a rope tied to a wooden rod that is dipped in a pot of milk. For the churning of the ocean, the devas sought the help of the mountain Mandara to serve as the churning rod. Vasuki, the king of snakes (the snake around Lord Shiva’s neck) was approached to serve as the rope for the churning and to be bound around Mount Mandara. The devas were to pull one end of the giant serpent, and the asuras, the other. The demons/asuras held the head of the snake, while the devas, its tail. The churning went on for a 1,000 years. The force of the churning was so great that the mountain began to sink. Lord Vishnu then took the form of a huge turtle (Kurma avatar) and, like an island, supported the mountain on his back. The asuras turned pale due to the fumes and coming out of the mounths of Vasuki, the snake (as they were closer to the head). Then, a terrible poison came out from the ocean. Lord Shiva swallowed the poison and his throat turned blue since then. A number of valuables (14 in total) emerged from the ocean, which were divided by the devas and the asuras. Kamadhenu, the wish-granting cow was taken by Vishnu and given to the sages. Uchhaishravas, the 7-headed horse was given to the demons/asuras. Airavata, the white elephant, was taken by Indra, the king of devas. Parijat, the tree with never-fading blossoms was taken by the devas to Swarga or heaven. Varuni, the creator of wine or alcohol, was taken by the asuras. Then emerged Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. She chose to marry Lord Vishnu. Also produced was Chandra – the Moon, which adorned Lord Shiva’s hair. Finally, Dhanvantari, the divine physician emerged, holding a pot of nectar. The devas and asuras both began to fight over it. Garuda, Vishnu’s eagle [adopted as the national emblem of Indonesia, and the name of its national airline], took the pot and flew away. A few drops of nectar fell in Prayag (Allahabad) and 3 other places – Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik, where the ‘Kumbh Mela’ is celebrated every 12 years. One of the asuras got hold of the pot. The devas then appealed to Vishnu. He took the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini, and distracted the asuras. Volunteering to distribute the nectar to all of them, she gives some nectar each to each of the devas. RahuKetu, an asura, took the form of a deva and joined the line of the devas receiving the nectar. He gets a sip. Vishnu immediately cut off the head of the demon, but it had become immortal in two parts – Rahu, the head, and Ketu, the body. Rahu swallows the sun and the moon at regular intervals, causing eclipses 🙂 By the time the rest of the asuras realized what was happening, and that the beautiful Mohini was actually Lord Vishnu, the nectar had been distributed to the devas. The rejuvenated devas were able to defeat the asuras in battle, and regain their glory.

[Reference: Wikipedia and other online sources, Amar Chitra Katha comic, “The Churning of the Ocean: Vishnu saves creation”]

Deepchand Agarwal (Rampuria) – one who treaded the high passes of the old trade route between Sikkim and Tibet

A deep voice and a man of authority – those were perhaps my first impressions of दीपचंद अग्रवाल Deepchand Agarwal.

‘Agarwal’, is, but a generic name used to classify a large number of people from a migrant, trader community who were called (and now call themselves) Marwaris (in parts of Sikkim, Darjeeling and Nepal, sometimes, one might hear the more derogatory variant – कईयां ‘kaiyan’). The Bengal Code of Census Procedure for 1901 defined Marwari as “a trader from Rajputana” – “includes Agarwalas, Mahesris, Oswals, Seraogis, etc. The true caste should in all cases be entered.”

The more specific name for Deepchand Agarwal was दीपचंद रामपुरिया Deepchand Rampuria – the word ‘Rampuria’ implying hailing from Rampur – a village in Rajasthan (though I found a village/town with the name Rampur in a few states in India, and also in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal). The Rampurias, pronounced ‘रामपरिया Ramparia’ (with an ‘a’ following ‘Ramp’) by the Marwaris (who are adept at mutilating any given name) were supposed to have been given a boon whereby they, with their mere touch, can heal a skin eruption called ‘करांत karaant’. I’ve seen my Rampuria cousins (much older in age than me) being called upon to touch and heal those in Gangtok who suddenly had an eruption of ‘karaant’ on their bodies.

The other name of Deepchand Rampuria was ‘Deepla’. A Nov 7, 2002 article titled, ‘The truth about Sikkim’ by Major General (retired) Ashok K Mehta in rediff.com mentions how in 1911, the British Captain Francis Younghusband pioneered the invasion of Lhasa through the Chumbi valley fighting battles at Yatung and Gyantse. He writes, “Till the late 1950s, Indian Army detachments were posted at Lhasa and Yatung, protecting the trademarks. Until [the year 2000], the owner of Gangtok’s Hotel Tashi Delek, Mr. Hira Lal Lakhotia [the owner actually is Moti Lal Lakhotia. Hari Lakhotia was his younger brother who passed away a couple of years ago — as per a clarification by Tenzing Chukie and Rajni Sarda Khemani], whose parents came to Sikkim much before Younghusband, had a bank account in Yatung. Along with fellow Marwaris, they still own much of the businesses in Sikkim.” Motilal and Deepchand, better known as Motia and Deepla, were close buddies. Both partnered in trade with Tibet (I often heard Yatung mentioned). I would assume it must either have been through the Nathula pass above Gangtok or the Jalepla pass near Kalimpong (a small hill station 2 1/2 hours by road from Gangtok, but part of West Bengal – currently fighting, along with Darjeeling, Kurseong and surrounding areas to form a new state with a distinct identity called Gorkhaland ). The stories I heard included Deepla often driving in the roads in Gangtok in old classic cars and his dining with the Chogyal (the King of Sikkim). I wonder whether it was Chogyal Sir Tashi Namgyal, the founder of my school – Tashi Namgyal Academy, who ruled till 1963, or Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal, the last king of the independent kingdom of Sikkim, who was forced to abdicate in 1975. It is fascinating I’m writing this on the day a cover story on Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal hits the stands in ‘Talk Sikkim’. Yesterday, 4th April, was the 45th anniversary of the coronation of the late Chogyal (as per a status update on Facebook by Tenzing Chukie, who wrote the cover story).Other stories included his returning with Tibetan stones and jewels and his wife throwing them away as they were touched by the ‘Bhotias’ (the ‘we’ versus ‘them’ happened on all sides, and continue across the world today, at various levels). My child’s mind (along with those of my siblings) would feel sorry for the loss and wonder how rich she’d have been had she kept them. There was another tale of Deepla being put behind bars once (was it in Tibet?) and his wife taking money to him (100 rupee note inside a ‘फुल्का phulka’ or ‘फलका phalka’ – chapatee). I imagined the process of the rupee note making it safely inside the phulka without getting burnt. Was the note rolled or put flat? Or, was it inserted once the phulka was made? I’m not sure the extent to which these stories were true, but they helped build the mystic of the man who these were attributed to. In 2003, after then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to China and the talks on the resumption of trade between Sikkim and Tibet, now India and China respectively, through the Nathula pass close to Gangtok, Deepla was very excited and full of energy. Despite his age in the 70s, he wanted to seek permission to resume trade again (and demanding priority treatment owing to his status as an old trader along the route).

The other, more respectful, name for Deepchand Agarwal or Deepchand Rampuria or Deepla was दीपचंद जी Deepchand ji. This was how he was referred to in my immediate and extended family, and one that I heard all the time. All the stories about him I heard were told using this name. The ‘ji’ is added as a mark of respect, in this case, for being the जंवाई janwai or son-in-law of the family (a similar measure unheard of for daughter-in-laws). The deference in pronouncing the ‘ji’, I suppose, came from being the husband of the elder (only) sister of my father and his two brothers. There was something more to it, though. The man himself demanded respect, commanded it, and got it – respect not by following the norms of society, but by being himself; by living life in his own terms.

Deepchandji had one daughter and three sons with my aunt (father’s elder sister) – all of them doing well, with grown-up children, and grandchildren, in some cases (one son had once gone to Bombay wanting to be an actor – I was intrigued to see old photographs of Devanand, Vaijyantimala, etc. on a film shoot during a visit to the Kalimpong home of my aunt). Deepchandji continued to live life on his own terms. The not-so-nice mentions included his visiting the casino in Kathmandu (much before casinos became a ‘hip’ term, with even Singapore bowing down to having its own), drinking, eating ‘अडंगो adango’ [stuff i.e. meat] (not sure how true – a complete ‘No, No’ in Marwari families), etc.

The name I used to address Deepchandji was फुम्फोजी phumphoji. फुम्फा phumpha is the Marwari term for father’s sister’s husband. My father would call him जीजोजी jeejoji (brother-in-law). His kids (at least from the first family) called him बापू bapu (father). Phumphoji attended the weddings of all my siblings (my four sisters and two brothers), including my own in 2003. He would visit otherwise as well. What impressed me was his forthrightness. Even when I was 10-year old, he gave me the kind of respect people would give the grown-ups, and had no compunctions referring to his virtues or his vices. The only other place where I’ve seen such forthrightness is in Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography ‘My experiments with truth’. He talked about how he had studied only till Class IV (fourth grade), but managed well, during all his experiences. He greatly respected my mother. I remember him once mention his age as 74. He would surprise the youngsters with his energy and the elders would be forced to listen to him, as he talked sense. Once the room he was staying in had a faulty (fluorescent) tube light, and had been faulty for years. He immediately got that fixed. In the days leading up to my sister’s wedding in 1990, there was a shortage of water. He got a pump installed and personally made sure there was adequate water during all the days of the wedding. I really respected him when I saw his stature during a particular incident. There was an undue demand from the groom’s family, and he (the main person), and other elders from the family took the lead to go and give a stern warning to the family that we would withdraw from the wedding (even at that stage – and considering we being the bride’s family) if they did not behave. Everyone quickly fell in line. He would be there wherever he could make any difference. He took the responsibility to see his granddaughters married and oversaw the entire process. These are, but surfaces of his life I know about. His success reflects in the success of his kids today.

In the last decade or so, he developed a skin condition called psoriasis. One would find his skin peeling off. He had told me about the disease and how it is non-infectious. During one of the weddings, where some people were perhaps avoiding his flaking fingers, somebody was taking a big ‘thaali’ of ladoos around. He expressed interest in them, touched almost each one of them, and returned them saying he didn’t want them. It was perhaps an indication to the crowd around not to make a big deal of his skin condition. He had once, perhaps similarly, taken my engagement ring, and tried it on his flaky-pink finger. He told me how he is getting old, and how, he must (or how he had already – I’m not sure), now, start praying and thinking of God.

During my last trip to Delhi in July 2009, I saw him in my cousin (his son’s) house. I forget the exact words, but he spoke in Marwari. “कद आया kad aaya – when did you come?”…and something else. Every 3-4 minutes, he would come back and repeat the same set of questions again. After about an hour or so, he suddenly recognized me and asked if I was still in Singapore and how was I doing. A few minutes after that, it was back to “कद आया kad aaya – when did you come?”…and something else. My भुआ bhua was lamenting how he refused to be shaved for days (he had a short white beard – in the preceding years, he would always be clean shaven). He had developed amnesia and didn’t remember things. I was sad to see him in that state. The person with so much of zeal to do things, and with his vast treasure trove of information on Tibet and Sikkim – and one who was a part of Sikkim’s history, had lost all he knew. I was told he had gotten lost in Delhi for a day or two. The police helped find him back. My भुआ bhua said she watches over him all day, fearing he doesn’t venture out. The next day, when I touched his feet to leave (he was sleeping; then got up and came outside). He asked me, “सारो काम हो ग्यो? saaro kaam ho gyo? Is all the work done?” I asked, “कुन सो काम? kun so kaam? Which work?”. He thought hard, then said, “बो पुजा हारो? Bo pooja haro? That work related to the worship?” Then he raised both his hands slightly, as if to bless, and asked again, “सारो काम हो ग्यो नी? saaro kaam ho gyo ni? I hope all the work is done.” “बो पुजा हारो? Bo pooja haro? That work related to the worship?” I said, “हाँ फुम्फोजी, हो ग्यो haan phumphoji, ho gyo. Yes, phumphoji. All’s done.”

That was the last time I met him. A month or two ago, I was further saddened to hear that he had fallen down and fractured his hips (and supposedly underwent two surgeries). He was bound to a wheelchair and was bed-ridden (with somebody taking care of changing and feeding him). Last night 4 April, after I’d reached Boston from New York, and sat at my desk around 11:30pm Eastern time (5 April, 9:00am in India) preparing Powerpoint slides for a lecture on ‘Observation Research and Usability Testing/Think Aloud Protocols’ to teach my class this morning, I got a call from home saying, “दीपचंदजी गुज़र ग्या Deepchandji guzar gyaa. Deepchandji has passed away.” He was supposedly alone at the Delhi home of his son with the caretaker (and maybe a grandson – not sure). His sons and their families had gone to Haridwar to attend the Kumbh mela and were rushing back. My भुआ bhua (even though she was in the same house, but too fat and frail to climb upstairs) had not yet been informed. My sadness on the news was coupled with a sense of relief for him for getting freed from his misery, especially after the fracture. My mother advised his son to take out a ‘बैकुंठी baikunthi’ – an elaborately-decorated funeral procession given to a person who had lived a long, fulfilling life and leaves behind children and grandchildren who are all doing well (I hear this was eventually not done due to lack of time or know-how). He supposedly was 85 years old.

I spoke to two of his sons who were on their way to Delhi. The elder of the two said, “फुम्फोजी तो गया भाई phumphoji to gaya bhai. [Your] phumphoji is gone, brother.”

Further telephone calls this morning told about the extended family coming to my house in Gangtok condoling his death.”को को आयो? ko ko aayo? Who all came? (in Nepali)”. Among the people who came, I’m told, was Moti Lal Lakhotia – the Motia to the Deepla, both of who traversed the high passes from Sikkim to Tibet (he said, in a matter of 2-3 days, he had lost his only 2 friends in the world; and that he was older than the two).

I was asked a question, to which I gave a simple answer without much thought. The question was, “चेतन के छोरो है की छोरी? Chetan ke choro hai ki chori? Does Chetan [his grandson from his second son] have a boy or a girl?” I had met all of them last year and had taken photos. I thought the question might be related to taking a gift for the baby when people from my family go to Delhi. I replied, “चेतन के शायद छोरी है, रशमी के छोरो है Chetan ke shaayad chori hai, Rashmi ke choro hai. Chetan, most likely, has a daughter. Rashmi (his sister) has a son.” The response was, “ओ, फेर तो सोना की सीडी कोनी चड O, pher to sona ki seedi koni chade. O, then a ladder made of gold can’t be made”. “अगर पड़पोतो होतो तो सोना की सीडी चड जाता agar padpoto hoto to sona ki seedi chad jaata. If he had a great grandson [instead of a great granddaughter; and not counting that his granddaughter has a son], then his body could have been accompanied by a golden ladder [and he could have climbed the golden steps to heaven]”. What followed was a brief argument on gender divide and whether such views are applicable anymore, with both sides too deep in their conviction to budge.

My phumphoji was the tallest person of his generation I knew. For good or for bad, he lived on his terms. If only for his sheer honesty and his ability to face up to and confront things squarely for the way they were, and for not distinguishing between कईयां kaiyan and पाड़ीया-भोटिया padiya-bhotiya, and seeing humans as humans – equally gifted and equally flawed, I hope, on the 45th anniversary of the day Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal of Sikkim ascended his throne, Deepchandji gets a golden ‘सीडी seedi’ to heaven!

P.S. When I shared the article with his son a couple of days later, he added a few more things I hadn’t known about, “A good footballer, photographer. Amiable and could mix up with people easily. Fond of playing Mhajong too and could be seen playing with the Chogyal of Sikkim and the Dorji,s of Bhutan. Would not give up easily once he made up his mind.”

How to deal with words you don’t like to hear?

Whenever someone says something hurtful, insensitive or something you don’t want to hear, remember:

1) You are not a fig-leaf that can be blown away by the words of anyone
2) You are giving the person TOO MUCH importance by thinking about and being affected by the negative words
3) Separate the words from the person – discard the words (if they are not constructive) and love the person
4) Don’t see intention behind the words
5) Say ‘I forgive you for the words’ and give a mental hug to the person who’s said words you don’t like
6) Listen to the song in the video below 😀

[youtube 9frGc5beJPg 600]

शब्दों के जंगल में तू क्यों फंसा है रे Shabdon ke jungle mein tu kyon phansa hai re
Why are you entangled in the jungle of words?

परब्रह्म के रस से तेरा नस नस रमा है रे Parbrahm ke ras se tera nas nas rama hai re
The nectar of God flows through each vein of yours => there is God in you

आनंद तू ही, परमानन्द तू ही Anand tu hi, Parmanand tu hi
You are happiness and bliss; you are the creator of the supreme bliss

ॐ में खो कर, ॐ में रम कर, ॐ में मिलना है Om mein kho kar, Om mein ram kar, Om mein milna hai
We are to get lost in Om, to blend in Om, to to be one with Om

शब्दों के जंगल में तू क्यों फंसा है रे Shabdon ke jungle mein tu kyon phansa hai re
Why are you entangled in the jungle of words?

परब्रह्म के रस से तेरा नस नस रमा है रे Parbrahm ke ras se tera nas nas rama hai re
The nectar of God flows through each vein of yours => there is God in you

मान अपमान होता कहाँ रे Maan apmaan hota kahan re
What is respect and insult after all?

ये तो है शब्दों की पकड़ Ye to hai shabdon ki pakad
This is just play with words

भले बुरे शब्द तुझे हिला दे Bhale bure shabd tujhe hila de
For good and bad words to shake you

इतना तू नहीं है कमज़ोर Itna tu nahin hai kamzor
You are not that weak

ॐ में खो कर, ॐ में रम कर, ॐ में मिलना है Om mein kho kar, Om mein ram kar, Om mein milna hai
We are to get lost in Om, to blend in Om, to to be one with Om

शब्दों के जंगल में तू क्यों फंसा है रे Shabdon ke jungle mein tu kyon phansa hai re
Why are you entangled in the jungle of words?

परब्रह्म के रस से तेरा नस नस रमा है रे Parbrahm ke ras se tera nas nas rama hai re
The nectar of God flows through each vein of yours => there is God in you

Michhami Dukkadam: Why I must forgive to be happy?

Click here for an audio podcast of this blog post (recorded Sep 13, 2013 in Boston)

I have a simple motto in life, “to be happy always”. This is what I wish for all my friends and all the people I interact with – that they be happy always. I’ve learnt that happiness is not something that comes with circumstances – you don’t become happy when you get something or achieve something. Similarly, happiness is not something you postpone UNTIL you get something or achieve something. We’ve got to be happy right here, right now! Happy with all that we have, and all that we don’t have. It is important to realize that You and I are not leaves, that can be blown away by circumstances – one person says an unpleasant word, and we become unhappy; the train is late and we become unhappy. It’s like exposing our cheeks to the whole wide world, where each person and each event is free to come slap us every now and then in whichever way it pleases. I read somewhere that happiness is an art that ought to be learnt, practised and perfected like playing an violin. I think it is true.

There is an important prerequisite to happiness — forgiveness. To be happy and in peace with ourselves and the entire world, we’ve got to forgive EACH and EVERY person in the world. I was once told a story where there was a man who said that he was ready to forgive the whole wide world, but he could NEVER forgive two people Mr X and Ms Y, who had really hurt him in the past. The fact is, nobody can hurt you without your permission. This person was told that if he wanted, he was free to hold grudges against the entire world…all he had to do was to forgive these two people.

Until we forgive people who’ve pained us, we continue to give them a lot of undue importance and they continue to dwell in our minds. Thus, contrary to our liking, we end up closely holding those people who we supposedly dislike.

The Jains have a lovely festival. Each year, at the end of an 8-day festival, they ask for forgiveness from all and sundry, saying, “Michhami Dukkadam” [Michchami=fruitless; Dukkadam=bad deeds] [“My bad deed (with you) be fruitless”] [“May any bad deeds I have committed towards you be forgiven”]. I got to know of this lovely festival when I received an email from a friend and his wife about two years ago with the subject: “Michchami Dukkadam”, and with words something like, “I request your forgiveness, if I may have hurt you, intentionally or unintentionally by thoughts, words or action.” I couldn’t remember them having hurt me, but it didn’t matter. The greeting (whether in person, on the phone, through a letter, email, sms, a facebook message or a tweet) is to be sent to (or felt for) one and all.

Today happens to be that day for 2009. So to everyone, Michchami Dukkadam!

क्षमा Kshama [forgiveness] वीरस्य Veerasya [of the brave] भूषणं Bhushnam [is the ornament]

Forgiveness is the ornament of the brave! So forgive all those who’ve hurt you, seek forgiveness from all those you’ve hurt, seek forgiveness from yourself. On this day, let us all endeavour to forgive and be happy!

If you want to practise forgiveness, I found the following steps on the world wide web, attributed most likely to Dr Christiane Northrup in her book on women: “Northrup, C. (2006). Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing, 3rd edition. Bantam Dell: New York, NY.”

step 1
close your eyes….for a moment just reflect on what the word
might really mean.

What is forgiveness?
[ponder for a short while and after contemplating goto next]

step 2
And now, very gently — no force — just as an experiment in truth —
just for a moment — allow the image of someone for whom you have
much resentment — someone from whom you have anger and a sense
of distance — let them just gently — gently, come into your mind —
As an image, as a feeling.

May be you feel them at the centre of your chest as fear, as resistance.
However they manifest in your mind body, just invite them in very gently
for this — moment — for this experiment.

And in your heart, silently say to them, ‘ I forgive you’.
‘I forgive you for whatever you have done in the past that caused me
pain, intentionally or unintentionally. However you have caused me pain,
I forgive you’.

Speak gently to them in your heart with your ownwords- in your own way.
[close your eyes and talk in your heart with them- only for forgiveness]

In your heart, say to them, ‘I forgive you for whatever you may have done in
the past, through your words, through your actions, through your thoughts
that caused me pain, intentionally or unintentionally. I forgive you.’

Allow….Allow them to be touched… power of your thought is immense
and it would touch them….
just for a moment at least…
by your forgiveness.
Allow forgiveness.

It is so painful to hold someone out of your heart.
How can you hold on to that pain,
that resentment, even a moment longer?
Fear, doubt… let it go… and for this moment,
touch them with your forgiveness.


Now let them go gently, let them leave quietly.
Let them go with your blessings.

step 3
Now picture someone who has great resentment for you.
Someone near or dear
May be a friend, customer/client oremployer/employee…..
staff or family…
supplier/creditor or a banker/broker of insurance
anyone who has any cause of resentment for you.
Could be spouse or parent, children or neighbour
who had any cause of resentment for you in recent past.

Feel them in your chest, may be in heart, seeing themin your mind as an image
— sense of their being. Invite them gently in.
Someone who has resentment, Anger —
someone who is unforgiving towards you.
Let them into your heart at this moment.
And in your heart, say to them ‘ I ask your forgiveness,
for whatever I may have done in the past that caused you pain,
intentionally or unintentionally —
through my words, through my actions, through my thoughts.
However I caused you pain,
I ask your forgiveness. I ask your forgiveness.’

‘Through my anger, my fear, my blindness, my laziness.
However I caused you pain,
intentionally or unintentionally — I ask your forgiveness.’

Let it be. Allow that forgiveness in.
Allow your self to be touched by their forgiveness.
Power of your thoughts is immense… they are forgiving you.
If the mind rises up
with thoughts like self-indulgence or doubt,
just see how profound our mercilessness is
with ourself and be open to the forgiveness.

Allow yourself to be forgiven.
Allow yourself to be forgiven.

However I caused you pain,
I ask for your forgiveness.
Allow yourself feel their forgiveness.
Let it be.
Let it be.

And gently …. very gently … let them go on their way
in forgiveness for you — in blessings foryou.

step 4
And turn to yourself in your own heart and say
‘ I forgive you’ to you/rself.
whatever tries to block that
the merciless and fear.
Let it go.

Let it be touched by your forgiveness andyour mercy.
And gently in your heart, calling yourselfby
your own first name, say,
‘ I FORGIVE YOU ‘ to you.

It is so painful to put yourself out of your heart.
Let yourself in. Allow yourself to be touched
by this forgiveness.
Let the healing in.
Say, ‘ I FORGIVE YOU ‘ to you.

[ you will feel very peaceful…light hearted and relieved
if not, try repeating step 2,3 & 4….
till you have softened your heart, feel your inner peace…
then goto step 5]

step 5

[ say with immense love and joy,….openly, loudly…]

Let that forgiveness be extended to the beings all around you.
May all beings forgive themselves.
May they discover joy.
May all being be freed of suffering.
May all beings be healed.
May they be at one with their thru nature.
May they be free from suffering.
May they be at peace.
Let that loving kindness,
that forgiveness,
extend to the whole planet…
extend to entire universe
to every level of existence, seen and unseen.
May all beings be freed of sufferings.

May they know the power of forgiveness,
may they know their true being.
May they know their vastness
their infinite peacefulness.
May all beings be free.
May all beings be free.


Kesariya Baalam – A rich, colourful, Marwari wedding in a Sikkimese winter

“Kesariya Baalam the to aao ni padharo mahre des” (केसरिया बालम थे तो आओ नी पधारो माहरे देस) [O beloved with the saffron coloured turban, I heartily welcome you to my country], is a folk-tune from Rajasthan based on Raag Maand. Part of the Indo-Pak composite culture of Hindustaani music, it is a song of the Thar desert and has been sung through centuries. The tune has been used in movies (Dor, in Lekin by Lata Mangeshkar with lyrics changed, the Oscar-winning Little Terrorist, and recently in 99.9FM by Zila Khan), in Classical Music albums (Ustad Zakir Hussein in the album ‘Music of the Deserts’), in TV soaps (Balika Vadhu), reality-singing shows (Raja Hasan in Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Aishwarya in Chote Ustad), and sung by Singers from both Pakistan (Mehdi Hasan, Ustad Naseer-ud-din Saami) and India (Allah Jilai Bai, Manganiyars 1, 2, 3). As Siddhartha puts it, the Manganiyars are “a great example of Hindu-Islamic synthesis – practicing muslims who sing praise songs to Hindu gods!  And that is besides their musicality!”

In 2005-06, I made a painting with the same title

Painting by Naresh 'Padharo Mahre Des'

After my wedding on 8 December 2003, I had 10-hours of video footage. I’d imagined that I’d edit the video into a 10-minute or 30-minute version (where this song would find a prominent place). I haven’t yet gotten around to doing that (as of 7 Jun 2009), but found some time today to create 4 shorts 30-second music videos from my wedding photos  (archa-na-resh wedding) using an online tool. These 4 versions are based on 4 versions of Kesariaya Baalam sung by different singers. The copyright for the music resides with the respective owners (I’ve used what was available freely on youtube). The photos are mine.

Let me know which version you like the best.

Manganiyar version

[youtube _2wKXiQgWqs 600]

Instrumental Folk version

[youtube 7iT0nFF1lGI 600]

Raja Hasan version

[youtube 9iwqAORj1RA 600]

Lata Mangeshar version from Lekin

[youtube FT3CRJhpun0 600]

Which name of God is greater?

Ever since organized religion has existed in the world, people in different parts of the world have tried to establish the name by which they call God as greater than any other name used to call God. Those who use the same name as theirs come within the ‘We or Us’ circle. Those who use a different name are addressed as ‘They or Them’ and fall outside the ‘We’ circle.

Some say “Krishna is the greatest”, some say “Shiva is the greatest”, some say, “There is no God but Allah”, some say “Christ is the greatest”…

Those who call God by the names of Rama/Krishna/Vishnu, they call themselves Vaishnavas or Gaudya Vaishnavas (represented in ISKCON or Hare Krishna movement today that establishes Lord Krishna as supreme). Those who call God by the name of Shiva call themselves Shaivas. In India, if you go to Maharashtra, you’ll see people remembering God by the name of Ganesh. If you go to West Bengal, you will find people chanting the names Durga or Kali. In India and in other parts of the world, those who know the son of God by the name of Jesus Christ call themselves Christians (or Roman Catholics or Protestants, etc. when they disagree over various aspects). Similarly, those who do not recognize any other name for God apart from Allah call themselves Muslims (or Shias or Sunnis, a distinction established after the death of Prophet Mohammad when his followers couldn’t agree on whether the leadership after the great Prophet should be based on lineage or capability).

Remember God by any name (including those of Energy, Time, Consciousness, etc.), and He (or She if you see God in the female form) will manifest within you in that particular form [जाकी रही भावना जैसी प्रभु मूरत देखहिं तिन तैसी Jaaki rahi bhawna jaisi, Prabhu murat dekhi tin taisi “One sees God as per his/her feelings”, or “the form of God you see is a reflection of your thought process”, says Tulsidas in Ram Charit Manas]. Call God by any name you wish, s/he’ll present himself/herself in the image, form, symbol (or lack thereof) you wish to see.

In this beautiful video from the new Ramayan made by Sagar Arts and presented in the Indian channel ‘NDTV Imagine’, Lord Ram establishes that He is a bhakta or devotee of Lord Shiva (thus, He’s a Shaiva). On the other hand, Lord Shiva establishes that He is a devotee of Lord Rama (thus, He’s a Vaishnava). Thus, Lord Rama sings and plays the instrument in devotion of Lord Shiva. On the other hand, Lord Shiva dances in devotion of Lord Ram. Each is trying to please his Lord. Each is the devotee of the other. Each is the Lord of the other.

In Hindu scriptures, there are 18 puranas – each dedicated to a particular name for God – and each establishing that name as supreme. The Shiva purana establishes Lord Shiva as the greatest. The Vishnu purana establishes Lord Vishnu as the greatest. The Shrimad Bhagvad Purana establishes Lord Krishna as the greatest. Do you see a contradiction? There is a welcome contradiction. It has been done purposely so that the devotee can be free to choose the name/form of God s/he is most comfortable with, and also be assured that the name s/he is chanting is the greatest. Similarly, there is nothing wrong when we, as Christians, recognize the name Jesus Christ as the greatest or when we, as Muslims, recognize the name Allah as the greatest.

However, we should understand that while we have the right to call the name we know for God as greatest, other fellow human beings have the right to call the name they know for God as greatest. This essentially means that call Him (or Her, if you’re a feminist) by any name, we are all reaching out to the same God within us and outside us and all around us. Instead of fighting over which name is greater, devote yourself in realizing the name/form/words of the God you worship deep within you. If you’re a Hindu, be a good Hindu. If you’re a Muslim, be a good Muslim. If you’re a Christian, be a good Christian.

While it is perfectly fine to have your favorite name for God, don’t give your faiths a bad name by looking down at those in other faiths who address God by their own favorite name(s), or by having the misconception that those who address God by different names or try to reach him through different paths will go to hell. Observe the other path(s), go for a trek using the other path(s), meet and speak to people who’ve taken that way, read the guidebooks detailing those path(s) and you’ll find that it may be better or worse laid out, there might be more people treading them or less people treading them, but they too lead to the same peak up there! We are giving ourselves too much of credit when we think that there is only one superhighway leading to God and that anybody who is not on it will land up nowhere and that it is our moral duty to coerce them, beg them, pull them into the highway – even if the person was already on a well-paved road leading to the peak. If you really want to help the person, show him how to be a better driver or trekker on the road s/he already is, instead of trying to change his/her road to the peak.

When the missionary E. Stanley Jones had met with Mahatma Gandhi, he had asked him, “Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?” Gandhi had replied, “Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.” “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today,” he added (Dibin Samuel, 14 Aug 2008, Mahatma Gandhi and Christianity, Christian Today).

On quest for conversion to Christianity, Gandhi’s message was that instead of preaching Christianity, if a Christian Missionary was to live his life in service as exemplified by Christ, the message would be better received…”live the life according to the light…. If, therefore, you go on serving people and ask them also to serve, they would understand. But you quote instead John 3:16 and ask them to believe it and that has no appeal to me, and I am sure people will not understand it.” “A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon; the fragrance of religious and spiritual life is much finer and subtler than that of the rose.” (Dibin Samuel, 14 Aug 2008, Mahatma Gandhi and Christianity, Christian Today).

For Martin Luther King: “Mahatma Gandhi was the first person in human history to lift the ethic of love of Jesus Christ, above mere interaction between individuals and make it into a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. We may ignore him at our own peril”. When an American churchman upbraided him for this he replied “It is ironic yet inescapably true that the greatest Christian of the modern world was a man who never embraced Christianity.” (Ambassador (Retd) Alan Nazareth, Gandhi and Christianity, mkgandhi.org)

“Ekam sat vipra bahauda vadanti” (There is but one REALITY, though the wise speak of it in many ways), declared the Rig Veda [I.164.46 ], the oldest scripture of the oldest living religion in the world. In the few millenniums since the Rig Veda, the human race is still struggling to understand this simple truth.

Thus, instead of trying to establish the supremacy of Krishna or Rama or Shiva or Allah or Christ, we should recognize that they are different ways to address the same God (who is all pervading and within each one of us and all around us). Our quest should be to realize this God within us – to remove the layer of dust that is covering our inner soul. As a Hindu and as an Indian, I can safely say that this is the essence of Hinduism. This is the essence of India!

हर मानव में छिपी हुई है दिव्य गुणों की आग – Har maanav mein chipi hui hai divya gunon ki aag
दिल से मर्म शिखा बस छू दो तुरंत उठेगी जाग – Dil se marm shikhaa bas choo do, turant uthegi jaag

“Inside every human is hidden a fire of divine qualities
Simply touch the molten tip with all your heart, and it will immediately set ablaze”

So forget about establishing which name of God is the greatest! Go seek out the God inside you. Once you know that there is God within you, and that God can do anything, you’ll see that nothing is impossible! Go, outshine the stars!!

Walk Alone একলা চলো রে Ekla Chalo Re

[youtube ErbH7dT8prk 600]

When I watched this beautiful video, was reminded of the great Rabindranath Tagore’s message through his song penned in 1905 when Bengal was to be partitioned:

Have tried to translate it in English with the help of Tagore’s English version and Nikhil Kulkarni’s blog, and the Hindi translation from the English one arrived at). Here’s the song in Kishore Kumar’s voice. [Update Jan 7, 2013: Other versions by Shreya Ghoshal and by Amitabh Bachchan in the movie Kahaani] :

যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে তবে একলা চলো রে। (2)
Jodi tor đak shune keu na ashe tôbe êkla chôlo re, (2)
जोदी तोर डाक शुने केउ ना आशे तॉबे एख्ला चॉलो रे (2)
(यदि तोरी डाक सुनके कोई ना आए तब अकेले चलो रे
If they answer not to your call walk alone)

তবে একলা চলো, একলা চলো, একলা চলো, একলা চলো রে॥ (2)
tôbe Êkla chôlo, êkla chôlo, êkla chôlo, êkla chôlo re. (2)
तॉबे एख्ला चॉलो, एख्ला चॉलो, एख्ला चॉलो, एख्ला चॉलो रे (2)
(अकेले चलो, अकेले चलो, अकेले चलो, अकेले चलो रे
walk alone, walk alone, walk alone, O walk alone)

যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে তবে একলা চলো রে।
Jodi tor đak shune keu na ashe tôbe êkla chôlo re,
जोदी तोर डाक शुने केउ ना आशे तॉबे एख्ला चॉलो रे
(यदि तोरी डाक सुनके कोई ना आए तब अकेले चलो रे
If they answer not to your call walk alone)

যদি কেউ কথা না কয়, ওরে ওরে ও অভাগা,
Jodi keu kôtha na kôe, ore ore o ôbhaga,
जोदी केउ कॉथा ना कोए, ओरे ओरे ओ अभागा
(यदि कोई बात ना करे, अरे अरे ओ अभागा
if no one speaks to you, O you unlucky one)

যদি সবাই থাকে মুখ ফিরায়ে সবাই করে ভয়—
Jodi shôbai thake mukh firaee shôbai kôre bhôe—
जोदी शॉबाय थाके मूख फिराए शॉबाय कोरे भॉय (2)
(यदि सभी तोसे मुह फिराए सबको हो भय
if they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,)

তবে পরান খুলে
Tôbe pôran khule
तॉबे पॉरान खूले
(तब पूरे मन से
then wholeheartedly)

ও তুই মুখ ফুটে তোর মনের কথা একলা বলো রে॥
O tui mukh fuţe tor moner kôtha êkla bôlo re.
ओ तूई मूख़ फूटे तोर मोनेर कॉथा एख्ला बॉलो रे (2)
(ओ तू मुह खोल के तेरे मन की गाथा अकेले बोल रे
open what’s in your mind and speak up alone.)

যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে তবে একলা চলো রে।
Jodi tor đak shune keu na ashe tôbe êkla chôlo re,
जोदी तोर डाक शुने केउ ना आशे तॉबे एख्ला चॉलो रे
(यदि तोरी डाक सुनके कोई ना आए तब अकेले चलो रे
If they answer not to your call walk alone)

যদি সবাই ফিরে যায়, ওরে ওরে ও অভাগা,
Jodi shôbai fire jae, ore ore o ôbhaga,
जोदी शॉबाय फिरे जाय, ओरे ओरे ओ अभागा
(यदि सब फ़िर जाएँ, अरे अरे ओ अभागा
if everyone turns away, O you unlucky one)

যদি গহন পথে যাবার কালে কেউ ফিরে না চায়—
Jodi gôhon pôthe jabar kale keu fire na chae—
जोदी गॉहोन पॉथे जबॉर काले केउ फिरे ना चाए (2)
(यदि गहन पथ में तेरे साथ कोई फिरना न चाहे 
If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness)

তবে পথের কাঁটা
Tôbe pôther kãţa
तॉबे पॉथेर काँटा
(तब पथ के कांटे
then the thorns on your path)

ও তুই রক্তমাখা চরণতলে একলা দলো রে॥
O tui rôktomakha chôrontôle êkla dôlo re.
ओ तूई रॉक्तोमाखा चॉरोनतॉले एख्ला डॉलो रे (2)
(ओ तू रक्त सने चरण तले दे के अकेले डोल रे
O you trample them under your feet and travel alone with your blood-soaked feet)

যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে তবে একলা চলো রে।
Jodi tor đak shune keu na ashe tôbe êkla chôlo re,
जोदी तोर डाक शुने केउ ना आशे तॉबे एख्ला चॉलो रे
(यदि तोरी डाक सुनके कोई ना आए तब अकेले चलो रे
If they answer not to your call walk alone)

যদি আলো না ধরে, ওরে ওরে ও অভাগা,
Jodi alo na dhôre, ore ore o ôbhaga,
जोदी आलो ना धॉरे, ओरे ओरे ओ अभागा
(यदि दिया न जलाये, अरे अरे ओ अभागा
If they do not hold up the light, O you unlucky one)

যদি ঝড়-বাদলে আঁধার রাতে দুয়ার দেয় ঘরে—
Jodi jhôŗ-badole ãdhar rate duar dêe ghôre—
जोदी झॉड़-बादोले आधार राते दुआर दऐई घॉरे (2)
(यदि घोर बादल में आधी रात में रौशनी दूर हो घर की
When its the middle of the night with stormy winds and clouds, and the light of your house is far)

তবে বজ্রানলে 
Tôbe bojranôle
तॉबे बोज्रनॉले
(तब दुःख की वज्र ज्योति से
then with the thunder flame of pain)

আপন বুকের পাঁজর জ্বালিয়ে নিয়ে একলা জ্বলো রে॥
Apon buker pãjor jalie nie êkla jôlo re.
आपोन बुकेर पाजोर जालीये नीये एख्ला जॉलो रे (2)
(अपने मन में ज्योत जला के अकेले जलो रे
ignite your own heart and let it burn alone)

যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে তবে একলা চলো রে।
Jodi tor đak shune keu na ashe tôbe êkla chôlo re,
जोदी तोर डाक शुने केउ ना आशे तॉबे एख्ला चॉलो रे
(यदि तोरी डाक सुनके कोई ना आए तब अकेले चलो रे
If they answer not to your call walk alone)

The mouth-organ piece with the soul of the song well preserved:

[youtube tuP7ai0DFuc 600]