Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ladies Left at the Door

Kannadi Mama passed away in Toronto, few days back.

I always called him Kannadi Mama (Spectacle Uncle) because I’ve never seen him without the spectacles and it rhymed well and easily for a toddler, from which age his family is friends with ours. The best memory I have of him is that he usually stops by our house on his Raleigh bicycle, with a woven basket attached to the front bar, parking the two wheeler by leaving one of the pedals down to hold on to the paved sidewalk. Although a ten second event, I can replay it anytime with no lapse in details.

The funeral ceremonies of Kannadi Mama were held at a parlor in Scarborough, another multicultural melting pot of Greater Toronto. These parlors - large buildings with facilities to conduct many funerals simultaneously - once privately owned, are now part of a major U.S. chain of funeral arrangers. Having improved since the cooperate takeover, just like a wedding planner, the professionals at these establishments cater to multi-ethnic, multi-religious communities with their unique needs of last rites, ceremonies and procedures. Death being an event that received no impact from economical trends or recessions, theses parlors also churns out steady business, thanks to aging population of Canada.

Muslims and Jews bury their dead within twenty four hours. Hindus in other hand doesn’t have such restrictions. And due to globalization of families, it’ll be very hard and impractical to arrange and conduct funerals in such short notice and time. While researching on this subject, I found a good book, Saiva Funeral Rites with Explanations” written in Tamil with a one page summary in English, by Mr. N. Mahesan, an expatriate based in Australia.

While Kannadi Mama slept peacefully in his Mahogony box, in his trade mark spectacles, in traditional Tamil costume and garlanded by colorful flowers, while an unofficial funeral crier recited and chanted Hindu hymns, while a priest conducted poojas, while the only son of Kannadi Mama carried the 'kollikudam' - a clay pot - and splashed holy water around his soul-departed body, while he was symbolically lit by fire at the feet (the real pyre will be at a crematorium at another location), while all sobbed, cried and wailed, while the world came to a temporary halt, while the pall bearers assembled around, closed shut the coffin, then slowly rolled him away to the hearse, the ladies were stopped and left at the door of the funeral parlor.

According to Hindu custom, the ladies aren't allowed at the crematorium. Google doesn't help on this subject. Does anyone know why?

Krishna! - my Barber

National Post, one of Canada's semi-national dailies recently published an exclusive interview most people thought unattainable. While the article had nothing to do with Iraq, President Bush, President elect Barack Hussein Obama or recently infamous Illinois governor Blagojevich, it certainly created a little buzz amongst the Tamil Diaspora of Canada and around the world.

For my readers whom aren't Tamil, Sri Lankan, Canadian or any hyphenated versions of the latter or not necessarily care about dragging old bags along, here's a little history of the so called Tamil Diaspora and on "old-bags" they carry along:

The Post's interview was with the elder sister of Mr. Velupillai Prabhakaran, who is the supreme commander of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the most revered and disciplined freedom fighting organization in the world and the group which invented suicide missions - according to defense and security pundits. While Mr. Stewart Bell's - the Post's reporter - interview dived into the early days of Prabhakaran and made an attempt to extract information of his transformation to be guerrilla leader, the interesting part was of the link it made to Bagavat Geeta and Mahabharata, the Hindu mythological epic, being told and written over many versions over many thousands of years.

The Post however, erroneously notes that Lord Krishna told Arjuna, that he must fight in the war because he, the God, is saying so. The written scenario of the Geeta, in fact interprets differently that, Krishna, the God of Protection advises Arjuna of the evils of war and why sometime it is necessary to wage war against your relatives - for the greater good of the masses. Arjuna, a world class marksman during his era, who invented cluster archery – predecessor to cluster bombing, was having second thoughts while sitting on his chariot, well armed and ready to attack but looking for reasons and detachment. In simple terms, Lord Krishna's advice is like making sure you take the paint cans away if your brother happens to be the graffiti villain of neighborhood fences.

Recently, I visited my Barber, whose name also happens to be Krishna, for a number three bladed trim. Now, this Krishna is not a Lord of Protection or an advisor of any kind and in fact just a destroyer of evil, unruly hair and dandruff. He is also a very charming young man, who broke traditions with South Indian caste system, in which becoming a Baber is an hereditary profession that is usually shunned by non-Amabattan casted population (see: Having gone to hair styling college in Toronto, Krishna, against the wishes of his high-caste family, now cuts hair at twelve dollars per head and an additional two if you need art work on the back of your skull.

However, similar to Lord Krishna, the barber-ic version also advises me to fight the evils of grey hair that crops without fertilization, despite the high protein shampoo that I buy at four dollars a piece. He says that having thick full of hair is one thing, but having black thick full of hair should be the ultimate goal. Although grey spells wisdom, knowledge and in some instances loads of stress, the black hair showcases young, distinguished looks and during economic downturns and recessions helps to land jobs that would have been normally be allotted for young chaps, with real youth and obvious blackness.

So, like Arjuna, I'm also okay to fight my relatives, the grey colored little strands that peeks through my 'blackened' head, after the second week of sessions with 'Hair Color for Men', that I had with Krishna - my barber!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Looking After Dad..

I meet Kevin, in Kalookan, on the rooftop of his abode, nearby sits a wood stove with slow cooking meat; the aroma spreading over hurriedly built many roof tops of this semi-slum suburbia of Manila.

The alley-ways are five feet wide, stinking sewer, covered by concrete slabs, running in the middle, mothers sitting at their doorsteps, talking and children playing, staring at the new comer, clothes dry on extended poles that poke out of windows with iron grills, making a colorful 'pandal' overhead, while we walk towards Kevin's house.

The house is narrow and three stories tall and twenty feet deep with no windows on the sides, giving privacy to another two and rows and rows of houses. We climb steep stair cases that takes late afternoon breeze from the narrow alley, through an always-open door, upwards, towards the rooftop, where chickens and ducks and pigeons live in corrosive steel cages filled with aged bird drops, along a lonely rooster, tied at the foot with brown twine to the two feet tall railing, emitting coo-coo sounds and trying very hard to make acquaintance with a colorful female.

In an adjoined room with open and airy windows, a loud TV with wavy pictures, a blue step stool and a backless chair, lay a shirtless tall man with twisted face, in large diapers covered with over sized shorts, in an old hospital bed. Stink of old urine arrives and depart. A two inch thick rope hangs in front of him, for him to use his usable right hand to pick on, get up and sit, unassisted. The man is paralyzed. The whole of his left side. He's Kevin's dad.

It's been like that for the past five years, of which the man has seen the outside world only during the first year, during visits to many doctors, specialists and hospitals, when Kevin try to revive him form a near-deadly stroke. Nothing worked; no medicine, therapy or the continuous prayers Kevin placed at the San Roque Cathedral in Kalookan. After those 'trying' time, his father gave up treatment and had been bed ridden ever since, with the flickering TV, sounds of chickens, pigeons and occasional visits from his other children, living on the second floor and around town.

Kevin, 31, a fair skinned, little plump man, was working in Tokyo, as a driver for a Pakistani importer, who imported Halal food from Islamabad. His dream at that time had been to save some money, wear fashionable clothes, find his dream girl and settle down somewhere overseas with no aim of ever returning home. However, his father's sudden illness brought him back home, gave him some sort of a wake-up call or realization and since then Kevin leaves the rooftop abode only to his job, to buy medicine or groceries.

When asked for reasons, Kevin, now a serious church going man, smiled and looked away and then at his glass of Red Horse beer, that we bought on the way to the rooftop, a dark brown substance, hidden in a white bottle.

"All I did was to picture myself forty years from now, on this rackety bed and step stool, with no wife, children or people to take care of, with no way to move, eat or even to clean myself of my own natural waste."

I expected a biblical reason from the heavy lifting church go-er but he came out very practical.

Kevin remains single, unattached, with a job at a call center so to give him more time to tend to his dad, with a devotion, dedication and passion.

"Although I always prey for his well being everyday, I also know that he'll be gone one day, permanently. But my aim is to keep his integrity, so that he'll never get into a situation where a stranger has to wipe his bottom, to have him feel lost of his bond to people, the seeds he sow in this earth and to lose his self esteem that he's holding since young, able, rich and with plenty to throw away."

I didn't know how to respond to such a statement that my glass of Red Horse empties pretty fast.

As a traveling consultant, I work with teams of people who converge from different countries, different cultural and social background to do a project. These lonely home away trips would bring us together to chat about each others dreams, after long days, over beer at café's in language unknown strange countries. Then suddenly, one day, a phone call would come to one of us about their parents demise, a serious illness or death from a far away land to suck away the cheer, laughter and to bury our heads in sadness and shame. I have witnessed, in several occasions, when these professional and mature people, break, cry and lose all their hope in that moment of hopelessness, their inability and failure to protect the very people who provided every stones to build their career and success.

Many of us never had or will have Kevin's determination and courage to give up our dreams and be with a sick and dying parent so that he or she could sleep, un-awaken, with peace, love and integrity.

When my father passed away, I too was living in Toronto - secured in a dream refuge with dollars and a fancy car. When the news came with an ultra-early morning ring, I was only able to fly to his bedside, on the day of death with a firm time of departure. It'll be exactly nineteen years on January 20th, when Barack Obama becomes the first African American president, when my current project expected to go-live and when I became torn, low, small and hurt with shame at wards of the Cooperative hospital in Colombo.

In my situation, it was also strange and spiritual as to how a parent, who was left alone, without his children by his side during his dying years, could even help me to find a future wife.

I found my future wife at my father's funeral ceremonies and three years later our first son was born on my father's birthday! Only a parent can have that sort of built-in forgiveness, to give, give and give without any returns or expectations.

Here I quote, with a grand salute to Kevin - not his real name by the way, from the Nobel Laureate Mr. V.S. Naipaul:

"Most people are not really free. They are confined by the niche in the world that they carve out for themselves. They limit themselves to fewer possibilities by the narrowness of their vision."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Jackson Heights Video Club

The white lettered 7 on-a-purple-dot was the cause for the whole thing.
This little long thing never stopped running until two in the morning, rattling from Flushing to Time Square, through the drug infested borough of Queens, Puerto Rican Junction Blvd., Indian Broadway, Irish Woodside, Greek Astoria and crossing into Manhattan under the Queensboro bridge, rattling, rattling and carrying early morning commuters, mid-afternoon nurses, college kids and late night drunks.

It covered a mere twenty two stations, the shortest subway route in New York's mass transit system, like a baby snake in the farm of Anacondas. I don't know who selected the purple color for this line of non-air-conditioned subway cars, in 1980's by the way, but the color certainly emitted a queer look, an object of mixture and diversity

In late August, some brave affluent patrons from Manhattan would ride this subway line to get to Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows, the host of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, where history was made by men, women and at least one out-of-closet lesbian, with corn dogs to munch during sets that lasted many hours into the night. When Mets won their only World Cup in 1986, the subway line became an instant carnival on tracks, dancing to the tune of emerging baseball fans from the Shea Stadium, yet allowing some somber crowd to get to the Grand Central Station, catch a train to Boston and bury their sobbing head in Red Sox' sagged bosoms.

I lived in a derelict apartment block, four floors high. Built with dark brown stones, the building sucked in cold air like a hungry infant, during the winter, in a neighborhood called Jackson Heights. Queens Boulevard to the south and Northern Boulevard to the north sandwiched J.H. into a BLT with Cheese from a New York deli. There was nothing in J.H. to write home about, except that during summer, you could witness some liberal Puerto Rican beauties in their revealing attire, accompanied by admirers, large Chevy Impalas and salsa beat.

A United Nations of people lived in these apartment blocks, not cordially always, but with an understanding to not to mess with each other. From time to time, there would be skirmishes outside the Laundromats on 37th Avenue, between pouring the detergent into the washer, between folding dried clothes and between youngsters from different communities, mostly over the subject of girls, after few Ballantines ale that sold at dollar a liter.

Kavi did not come from these derelict communities. She rode the number 7 from Flushing, where middle class people stayed, close to temples, synagogues and the Queens College that proudly delivered Nobel Laureates every few years or so, with easy access to JFK and the parkway that took you to Jones Beach in Long Island, when summers become too hot to bear.

During our mostly silent relationship, I met Kavi only once a day, during the return trip from Grand Central to Jackson Heights, at night, after an exhausting day working at the Ham Haven on Warren Street, making ham sandwiches on wheat-bread to lawyers, stock-brokers and Wall Street alike, near the City Hall where Ed Koch ruled the City like a smiling king, earning five dollars an hour to save for college that would start around four in the afternoon to go on till ten at night. These exhausting days and long evening of books and lectures would bring instant nap on the A train from 23rd Street to 42nd; then during transfers I'd see Kavi, in her warm colored clothing and pleasant smile with dimple filled cheeks.

The ride on Number 7 at night is usually a non-event. Most passengers would be dozing, reading or listening to Walkmans with cassettes. An occasional transit police man would wander into train cars, stay near the door that said "do not stay near the door" for few minutes to wander away into the next one. A tired child would cry in her mother's arms; a drunken lost lover would be weeping at his loss; an over-dramatic teen-ager would be swinging to an unheard tune, such that it brought an entertaining variety of people who called New York as their home away from home, into this twisting tube.

After cruising through the tunnel for about eight minutes, the Number 7 would emerge onto outside overhead tracks near the Vernon Boulevard station. From that point onwards the subway would thunder over the Roosevelt Avenue, cracking every window that's close to the tracks, waking lovers embraced in passion and homeless drifters sleeping under cardboard boxes, neatly stacked near the entrances of Dunkin Donuts, with remaining aroma of honey-dew filling the cold night's air.

One dull evening, an old pal of mine, half drunk, made a grand entrance into the subway car I was riding, at the Queensboro Plaza station, near the double decker-ed grand bridge that would take you into Manhattan if you are brave enough to maneuver the traffic and yellow cab drivers, whom according to Hollywood movies, all wore turbans.

This 'grandly' entered friend started blurting to me in Tamil and that's what made the little connection between Kavi and I, who until that time only had a smiling acquaintance.

The next night, as I was getting out of the subway car at the Jackson Heights station, Kavi, who was seated near the door, slipped a note to me. The note, simply said:

"I think you're a Tamil person. Is there a store in Queens where I can rent some Tamil movies?"

As the train moved towards Flushing, with the light flickering inside, due to malfunctioning electric current that ran through the tracks, I saw a blushing little woman, with a look to hold your breath, to whistle your favorite tune, to open your jacket and walk through the wintery blocks, feeling warm in my good old and beautiful Jackson Heights.

Following Saturday, I walked twenty three blocks to North Corona, via 90th Street and Elmhurst Ave, past many brown stone buildings, past fenced out basketball courts and past a Hospital where my tooth was extracted, painfully, to Chettiyar shop, the only place during the early eighties-Queens that rented Tamil VHS movies.

And, in days and months following, many cassettes were delivered and returned and re-delivered, on the rattling, white lettered number 7 on-a-purple-dot that twirled through the borough of Queens, like half hour episodes of a mega serial. But, that first episode of romance, the glittering eye contact, the warmth on a wintery road never blossomed to any great length.

Kavi couldn't talk, even if she wanted to.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

To Amma

She turned seventy yesterday, an important milestone carved in a garden of rocks, colorful flowers, endless memories, relentless courage and limitless pure love. There's nothing I can elaborate nor to write to relive the past seventy years of her life - a life mixed with struggle and successes. All I can do is wish her seventy more so she can outlive and put me to bed when I reach the last juncture of my journey. Happy seventy Amma! 

Friday, November 21, 2008

Shattered windows of the St. Sebastian Library

It only displayed one long book shelf, about twelve feet in length, eight high, and five stacks of books in three languages. There were two desks with six chairs each around them. Most days it stayed empty with an L shaped reception and a sole librarian, looking bored, reading a Sinhala weekly that contained cartoon serials. The windows of the library rooms were shattered from constant cricket balls that came through an impromptu field, adjoined to the building. During monsoon and rain showers the window side of the library hall would be drenched and unusable however, no one seems bothered, since the bored librarian ran up to cover the bookshelf with rubber sheets.

If you climb the stairs that's to the outer-side of the library building, you'd come across a hall where youth played carrom and table tennis; one of them went to become a world champion, in carrom that is. And there were grown men who'd be immersed in news papers scattered across many small tables. Pass these people and through another glass-broken door, thanks to impromptu cricket, move into the small balcony filled with pigeon droppings, there, you could view the St. Sebastian church and it's front yard.

And, this is where lots my childhood was spent, in the dusty garden of God, though playing, not praying. The church, built during mid twentieth century had a tall, grand architecture, large front yard in thick red sand and sparkles of grass, adjoined by an elementary school and a convent for nuns. The perimeter wall on its left was the wall of a court prison where suspects were remanded to be brought in next day. Occasionally we've seen prisoners jumping off the ten feet tall wall into the church yard, unable to run off in their white baggy pants and only to be caught by Sub Inspector Jayawickrame who'd swoosh by in his Mahindra Jeep or an Enfield motorcycle.

We grew up in a neighborhood called Hultsdrop that later changed its name to Aluthkade (New Shop). A pre-dominantly Muslim neighborhood, surrounded my mosques that would call for prayers five times a day, some Hindus and Christians also lived amicably, in row houses and tiled roofs, emitting fragrance of multi-religious dishes. While our Muslim brothers went to under-staffed neighborhood schools, non-Muslims were bussed or van-ned to branded schools situated in affluent areas of Colombo.

In the afternoons, when religion, names of children, schools, clothing and culture became non-issue, we would gather inside the St. Sebastian's church's front yard to play cricket. Teams would be formed with youth of all ages, anywhere from six to eighteen, batting sides would be selected with a coin toss and we'll play the sport with home made bats and thick rubber balls. Evenly cut broom sticks will become the wickets. When there weren't enough children to form two teams, each person will get chance to bat base on a lottery method. Usually the unlucky last batter would go home crying because by the time he got his turn, it either be too dark to play or Sister Philomena would have unleashed the convent's little pomenerian to chase after the players.

I'm yet to know why Sister Philomena, a woman of faith, chose to unleash a little poodle on us however, on these dog-chasing occasions we'll go outside the church's yard and play in front of the library building, causing the windows to break that you read about earlier. I don't think any of the kids that I played with have ever stepped into the library, except may be to collect a wayward ball. The books of the library, neatly stacked on the single shelf, came on the Public Library System's truck that did its rounds fortnightly. Most times the driver of the truck would have nothing to exchange because the books seldom moved or circulated. It is not to say people weren't educated or interested in books. At that point of time, Sri Lanka maintained a 90% plus literacy rate, one of the highest in Asia, thanks for mandatory education act and British inherited methods.

Fortunately, the semi-haunted library, found me a refuge to collect these words, to run my imagination and to record my thoughts. The library became the Mecca for my thirst. The books I demanded became readily available, without waiting lists, undrenched, with a simple click of a date stamp off the hands of bored librarian who continued to read Sinhala cartoon serials. As a bonus, the electrical brown-outs implemented by the government to save energy didn't impact the library system. It always had electricity, until the closing time, to throw me out to the dark streets across the St. Sebastian church.

Over time, things changed. The cricket team and the carom youth and the news papers readers grew old. Sister Philomena became Mother Philomena and the poodle passed away peacefully at the feet of St. Sebastian. Another great library with historical collections was burned to ashes due to the civil war. Most of my Muslim friends didn't take up higher education and went into business as store owners, gem merchants and eventual millionaires. At least one of them got killed by a local mafia hit-man. Many left the country to build up their skills and talents offshore - including captaining the Canadian cricket team, build up families, children, and the Diaspora as we call it now.

The last time I returned to Aluthkade, four years ago, I walked pass the St. Sebastian library with shattered windows. The books have dissapeared. There was no bored librarian or the rubber sheet covered shelf. The building had been turned into a wedding hall.

I also noticed a padlock at the gates of St. Sebastian, I presume to keep young cricketers away and to give solace to escaping prisoners, inside the dusty garden of God.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Servants of nature and unseen bosses

After few days of unlimited flow, like a large keg of Efes - a Turkish beer that is in abundance in Kazakhstan, I'm hitting a slow moving writer's block. There's a half-full bottle of water on my desk staring at my half-emptiness. Surrounded by a TV, bed, couch and a dreary view through the windows of my hotel, the atmosphere refuses to bring color that is required to put letters on paper, or in this case, the keyboard.

People think travel is glamor and it brings curiosity like a child, adventure like a Dundee, freshness like a pretty girl and wisdom like an old man. All of them may be true, but if you travel for living, and live in a suitcase, the curiosity goes to sleep like an overplayed child, brushing teeth becomes an adventure, freshness is what I put on my lip to ward of the cold breeze off the streets of Atyrau, wisdom is silence that we keep at dinner tables, when subjects run out, like the BBC on a very dull day.

Mind is a funny thing, you may have noticed. It prepares itself before departing on a long trip. It ceases to miss your loved ones during the plane rides, because there's TV, rest or due to an annoying co-passenger. Then, as if it got pinched on the funny bone, it begins to miss the loved ones as soon as you checked into the hotel, by looking at the dreary view, worn couch, overslept bed and the TV that shows repeats of hard-talk. Then days pass by where you continue to miss and make attempts to reach-out and then all of a sudden that desire too cease to exist. You take up alternate methods to amuse yourself or entertain, Efes inclusive. You divide your mind between what happens at present with what could happen when you go back home, yearnings of physical kind inclusive. These divisions don't collide. They'll live in individual silos to ensure that your prestine-ness is kept for that return home, to greet your wife, husband, daughter, son, girl-friend, neighbor, dog and restart your regular life, for couple of weeks however, knowing that the bags have to be packed again.

This kind of mind-set builds only in a hard core travel man or woman. People I see at the airports with heavy hearts and tears seems very alien. They are from a different world and should depart from a different terminal, the one built specially with lots of Kleenex boxes. For us, please give us Wi-fi, Starbucks tall-cap and a place to sit and read a book. The delayed departure, missed connections, unruly babies don't really bother seasoned travelers. It's part of life of traveling, like dealing with traffic on a January winter on highway 401 (Toronto, that is). They become servants of nature with an unseen boss.

Talk about servants and bosses, I recently read two books - during plane rides, of course. One is "White Tigers" by debutant novelist Aravind Adiga, a Man-Booker Prize short listed candidate. The other is "Six Suspects" by Vikas Swarup, author of Q&A which has been translated into thirty five languages and made into a bolly-hollywood movie "Slum dog Millionaire".

Co-incidentally, both books addresses the servant class of India. The mentality, bound-ness, unquestionable loyalty, unable to break free and as such resulting cunning-ness and treason. Although both books may have been written at different times by authors who live in different part of India, or the World, their approach is identical and very authentic. If read back-to-back you'd think you're reading a book of the same author; yet the plots are different. While the "White Tiger" completely immerse in the servants' quarters, Six Suspects goes in-and-out to find the true killer amongst six unconnected people.

When I was growing up, I recall having two little girls as servants in our house however, both at various times. The girls, aged anywhere between ten and thirteen, were from the upcountry of Sri Lanka whose parents worked in the tea or rubber plantations. My parents weren't bossy type so these little girls were well taken care of and performed only menial things, like sweeping the floor, running to the nearby shop to buy sugar, milk, etc. I don't ever recall them cooking or serve us as normal servants are expected to do those days.

I strongly believe employing under-age children as wrong and punishable though in impoverished countries these are accepted practice because it brings food to their families whom otherwise would half-starve. The people who work in the plantations are the under-class of Sri Lanka. They are under-paid, thrown in poorly built shelters and exploited by companies and politicians. Yet, they work hard to generate most of Sri Lanka's GDP.

So, next time when you drink Lipton's tea with lemon and double sugar, just think for a second those hands that plucked the leaves from a cold plant on a cold morning at high-hills, shoeless. Next time when you wear a Bata shoe with rubber under sole, just think about a man who scrapes hundred rubber trees for mere two dollars a day. And also think about their children who should have been at school but potentially be serving tea to a parent-unseen boss. Then, after those few seconds, think about your children.

Aren't they fortunate?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Rahm at the helm: would "reaching-out" become one-sided?

When I was young, my father used to take me to our neighborhood Hindu temple for Friday evening poojas and bhajans. During these occasions I also have been sourced, unknowingly, to be a lead of these bhajans. Although the position gave me opportunity to score points with adolescent crushes, things changed over the years and fortunately my voice became horsy around thirteen, that the temple trustees got fed up and went to find a female lead singer.

Hindu temples, as many of you know, have an abundance of Gods, who's been tasked to, by us, to perform various duties at various stages of our lives. Their jobs are in essence to produce, bless, guard, educate, shower us with wealth and occasionally destroy the evils within and around us. Hinduism is also an 'affirmative action compliant' and 'equal opportunity' religion, that we have men and women Gods and even cross-sexed (Arthanareeswarar), physically challenged 'little people' (Bhairavar) and also with animal faces or bodily features.

The catch is, by design of the temples and also based on mythology, that to get to the altar of the God, a dimly lighted room where the main statue is affixed, you have to have several qualifications, not all at once, but few at least. The default settings or the privilege to enter an altar, is that you have to be born into the Brahmin caste however, not necessarily as a priest. The Brahmins can enter the temple's altar provided they are clean and pure based on certain 'Vedic' conditions. While the Hindu Gods are equal-opportunity beneficiaries, the women of Brahmins aren't allowed to enter the altar and that 'that' subject will be discussed on another day since today's subject is not about women's rights.

If you're not a Brahmin, then you have to seek virtual permission from the 'Vahanam' - an animal versioned guard that either sits in front of the God, beside or under him. Seeking of virtual permissions are similar to the long prayers and bhajans that I have been, involuntarily, asked to lead. We sing hymns with our hearts-out so that these 'Vahanams' - whom are considered guardians of God's activities - will hear us and render schedule to meet the almighty in good terms so we can negotiate for blessings, benefits and eternal, warless life. All virtually of course!

In other words, this 'Vahanam' can be compared to a chief-of-staff, who guards, grants or keep unwanted people at bay from interfering with the almighty's grand objectives.

But, what if the 'Vahanam' him/her or itself has it's own opinions and little biased background that even if the God wants to 'change the world' that he can't implement his 'yes we can' attitude as straight as once he promised?

Dear readers, welcome to the new White House, where the next president, who generally considered to have God's powers (hint: the "football"), of at least for next four years, going to reside and guarded by a 'Vahanam' who could potentially limit the 'reaching out' policies propagated during the campaign.

Mr. Rahm Emmanuel, congressman of the Illinois' 5th congressional district, and the chief-of-staff of the new white house, is a known commodity to have biased and tempered attitude. A trained ballet dancer, Rahm was born to Israeli parents - his father served in the secret militant group Irgun during Israel/ Palestine partition - and grew up with strong Jewish cultural and political views and also served in the Israeli army as a volunteer techie. He was a key advisor to the president during the Clinton era and had been known to say "don't fxxk it up" to then British prime minister Tony Blair, during the Monika Lewinsky crisis, before a speech to the press at the White house.

Although Rahm is a Chicago pal of the Obamas, he wasn't necessarily part of Obama's policy-maker team during the presidential campaign. And there's no proof that Rahm had or would act against Obama's promised policies as his C.O.S.

So what's the issue?

We all know the U.S.A. is extremely pro-Israeli, for the purposes of it's own interests and to maintain power in the Middle-eastern region. There's nothing wrong with guarding a nation's interest, in any which way one can. Therefore, the Unites States' such policy is not going to change in the foreseeable future. However, Mr. Obama, during the campaign, promised(?) that he would reach-out to Iran, an ardent enemy of Israel, the axis of evils and the likes to sit down, talk and mend differences to bring peace to the world that presently dislikes America as an arrogant, unfriendly power. Mr. Obama's statements also putting welcoming thoughts in many freedom fighting movements (ex: LTTE) that are presently considered terrorists due to situational policies of the world. Please mind that even Nelson Mandela and PLO leader late Yasser Arafat were declared terrorist at one point of history then were garlanded happily at the White House as nation builders.

I'm not sure appointing a pro-Israeli 'Vahanam' at the gates of the Oval offices could achieve positives in potential dialogue with unfriendly countries or entities. The C.O.S. could technically block or dissuade any attempts of traffic either way and influence his own opinion on issues, just as we know, based on historical 'alpha male' behavior of Mr. Emmanuel. Although this is highly speculative and my own opinion, he could become the main hindrance of this 'reaching out' policy.

Would you say; time will tell? It may, but if I'm Mr. Obama, I wouldn't take such a risk that could railroad my promises. Or, may be he has knowingly taken this decision so that to keep people at bay and continue past eight years' unilateral policies..?!

On a historical note, the biggest Bull-shaped 'vahanam' ever built, can be found at the Thanjavur Brihatheeswarar Temple in Tamil Nadu, India. A U.N. heritage site, the temple was built by King Raja Raja Cholan of the Chola regime, some 2000 plus years ago.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Philippine Normal University

For those who never been to Philippines, the land of eighty plus million people, of which a good ten percent works overseas and remit money on a regular basis that keeps the governments cash flow at surplus, and for those who have been or had traveled to Manila but chose to stay close to more touristic or business spots such as Greenbelt, Makati, Edsa and Forbes areas, strolling the high-end malls, smoking cigars at the Havana, sipping semi-authentic Mojitos and talking to locals as if they’ve seen and enjoyed all of Philippines; would not have known the Philippine Normal University, situated amongst the historic Walls of Intramuros, a vibrant, academically stimulant neighborhood, energized by young Filipinos who wants to build the next wave of skill supply overseas, who’s on the verge of re-taking the great Indian outsourcing market and threatening China with it’s power of English as the first language; if you’d consider Tagalog as just a living dialogue.

Although the name Philippine Normal University raises genuine concerns about the normalcy of the person who named this university, it certainly is not abnormal by the shape and form of it’s historic buildings, surroundings and the presence of companionship around it: the Letran, a college started in 1620, the Institutes of Technology that produces best engineers of the country, The Lyceum that showcases the hotel industry’s top notch customer oriented personnel and much more.

The pedi (short for paddle) cabs, a tricycle with an attached sidecar that could sit three people at twenty pesos each and bruised ribs, ferries students from the LRT to this abundance of academia, across the wide, unruly road of Roxas Boulevard, splashing muddy water from a morning’s rain. The SM Manila, a sprawling shopping center attracts everyone for lunch, little shopping and movie theatres that charge one fee for a whole day’s sitting, if you’d suffer repeats of a bad movie, in plastic covered red seats and lovers in embracing positions not wanting the lights to come on.

Even a stormy rainy evening bring sudden entrepreneurial ability to the crowded, flood filled path. Within the throng of people looking for cover emerge a hoard of little street children, carrying over sized umbrellas to help out the stranded, assist to hail a taxicab or to become an impromptu porter. The sudden storms and unannounced typhoons are a lifestyle here. There are no unhappy faces against the splash of Mother Nature. They smoke; chat, text and wait out the nature that they know will pass in an hour and to visit unannounced another day.

That is when I met Grace and Tom (names are changed to protect the innocence or in their word, ‘the guilt’) at a coffee shop where I seeded asylum, with an office colleague, to ward off the rains. The shop was packed with steamy lattes and cappuccinos, with opened laptops, books and an even a bible studier sipping vente mocha frap, no whip cream added. Tom took the effort to ask if they could share the table with me. I looked up and met Grace’s eyes, a shy smile running across a pretty half opened mouth, water dripping from her dark hair. Tom’s red shirt was all wet that he crossed his arms to warm up, I presumed.

“We are lovers”, they declared, after few minutes of keeping silence, focusing on coffees followed by semi-introductions, filmy handshakes and talks about weather. I couldn't think otherwise, so I nodded in agreement. Then it hit me: They both are female. Tom’s crossed arms didn’t actually used up to warm up the body. It in fact blocked her bodily features; nothing to write elaborately about because ‘he’ didn’t look like a ‘she’.

By now, Grace is looking down and frowning at Tom for declaring their secret to an unknown.

Now on a side note, please mind that I don’t have such charming personality for strangers to come and drop their sorrow and sometime happiness on me. But it has happened in the past, during my previous job, when I was the only man in a department of several mature women. So, I wasn’t entirely surprised at this rainy day confession.

Philippines is a very Catholic and conservative country where abortion and divorce is illegal except for in life threatening situations. Abusive relationships are annulled in court however, not declared ‘unmarried’ in the church. Even living-together situations are frowned at although it is non-factual common knowledge that it happens, again for the same reason and restrictions placed on legal marriages.

So, two women to become tangled in a romantic relationship can’t be publicly announced nor celebrated lavishly. As we all know by now, even the ultra liberal Californian population recently voted against gay marriages. The Canadians are still up for it however, the world normally don’t bother with social attitudes of ‘people up north’.

Grace and Tom appeared very friendly, normal couple with full blossomed love. I even noticed they were holding hands discreetly under the table. While Tom talked about discrimination against their relationship within their families and circle of friends, Grace avoided eye contact and probably felt embarrassed in front of the whole of ‘straight’ world.

Tom runs a cafeteria in a university - not the ‘Normal’ one that is the subject of this blog – which Grace attends and that’s how they met. To work against world’s - or the Filipino kind, according to them - perspective of their relationship, they have decided to live together over the past two years. While this decision also is very discreet, without the knowledge of their families, it according to them works well however, without a definite knowledge of the future.

And, that’s where my Canadian citizenry came into place. Having gathered that I am an adopted Canadian (how it happened is another story, another day) they were very curious about Canadian laws on gay marriage and whether the country would legally allows immigration of an unmarried gay couple. While I am neither lawyer nor a legal consultant to shed information on this subject, it did bring ethical questions about Canada’s immigration policies.

Presently Canada only allows married, straight couple to apply for residency as skilled or independent immigrants. There’s no clause that I know of for exceptions, unless the couple shows that they are persecuted for their beliefs in their own country, which we all know it’s tough to prove when you really can’t declare yourselves openly as gays, even to invite persecution.

So, Grace and Tom are in a dilemma.

For the record: I do not personally endorse nor against homo-sexism. It’s beyond my imagination to be one; no pun intended.

On another of my visit to this friendly city of Manila, I was privileged to be invited to Grace and Tom’s residence for dinner. They served lovely Puchero - a traditional meal-in-a-bowl soup that contains vegetable, sea food or meat and sometime rice or noodles -, grilled Lapu Lapu and an obvious supply of San-Miguel light. It was delightful company of two women of conflict, against the nature, against the normal sexuality, against the odds of building an acceptable family.

The abnormality in life is a judged opinion. Normalcy lives within and by your beliefs.

I made some factual errors in the initial post and now corrected. Thanks to my pal and Manila native Bles to observe & notify. Here's an interesting article on History of Manila and the author apparently runs alternative tours of the city:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Walk on the wild side

The week of November 10 has been declared Road Safety week at my client's sites across the world. My client is one of the largest public companies in the world (hint: oil & gas) and have operations in over 180 countries. As one the concerned and caring organizations (believe me, it's true), they enforce and empower safety awareness amongst employees and hundreds of thousands of contractors whom are socially, culturally and linguistically as diverse as a ride on an A train on the New York subway.

I have been fortunate to travel with or to my client's locations in over twenty countries over the past many years and have been subject to diverse road and pedestrian habits at the cities visited. Some of these experiences are fascinating and some would just make you cringe:

Perth, Australia: One of the best I would say. Neat side walks. Brail surface at intersections for blind people and also for people getting out of the pubs at late night. And, a novice concept of diagonal crossing at major intersections. This is the first I've seen where all traffic stop in all directions in order to give pedestrians to cross the road anyway they want. Now I hear that this method has been adopted in few other cities as well, including Toronto at the Dundas Square.

Jakarta, Indonesia: The nightmarish traffic and pollution in this city would test your patience to the extreme that you'll be happy negotiating with a three year old toddler at the Wal-Mart toy section. However, for pedestrians, the Jakartans have implemented an "invisible force field" in which, if you ever wants to cross the road, just put your wavy hand in front of an incoming vehicle - and hundreds of motor cycles that surrounds that vehicle - and just walk across. Most likely they'll come to a stop and will give you the right of way. Now, please note, this hasn't been scientifically proven or sanctioned by the Jakarta traffic authority but I've seen hundreds of time that it worked. And, we also took the precaution of putting Rama - the biggest guy of our team, on the left or right depends on which way you crossing - to protect our bones and loved ones back home, just in case!

Bangkok, Thailand: Good that they have lots of over pass bridges built for pedestrians. Although it helps to reduce the driver - pedestrian conflict, the format of these bridges aren't entirely user friendly. If you're, like me, not in very good shape, climbing these bridges can be a breath taking task (mini-aspirin helps at night). Beside, they aren't disable-friendly and very few over passes have elevators or escalators to support the physically challenged population.

Atyrau, Kazakhstan: Well built sidewalks - designed from the Soviet era, I presume, when most of the population didn't own vehicles - are found in most places within the city. Once you emerge into residential areas, the roads are dusty or muddy and there won't be any sidewalk for pedestrians and you are at the mercy of passing vehicles however, the traffic isn't bad to enough to worry. The only worrying observations is that at intersections, a 'walk' signal doesn't always mean that you can close your eyes and cross the road. The right turning vehicles or drivers who are intentionally color blind are to be cautioned of. I've had near 'wipe-out' scenarios at least three times so far. Now, the winter is yet to blossom. So more care is needed for we, the poor pedestrians.

India, Sri Lanka, Angola and many other countries: You are either at the mercy of the driver or you better be good at slalom maneuvers. No rules are followed by all parties however, somehow you'll make it to the work place or home. It's called 'common sense' and not relying on other person or drivers to obey any rules. Just like that!

Toronto, Canada: We are the best. $100 spot fine if you're caught not yielding to a pedestrian. If you hit a pedestrian by any chance, either on a crosswalk or otherwise, better be prepared to forgo your life savings and sign-up for slavery.

Walking on the wild side can be adventurous however, make sure you and your loved ones are safe!

Man on the subway

I don't exactly remember the date, time or the subway station we met. But I neatly remember the event, the impromptu nature of it and how it would become a life changer for both of us.

It was RRSP season at the Canadian banks and a time when they'd normally hire temps to process over flow work. As a recent Canadian immigrant, during the late eighties, when foreign qualifications were ignored and foreign sounding names were snored at, I was fortunate to find a temporary job at one of these banks. The open ended job lasted few months, at $7.00/ hr, enough to share the rent with few others, pay for donuts & coffee, subway tickets and occasional beer and phone calls back home to say that I live quite comfortably in Toronto.

It was a cold morning, mid to late November I think and the setting was a subway station platform. As I waited for arrival of the next train, a man approached and stood next to me. He was short haired, looked very young, thin and tall. His aim of life or on that particular day looked as if to get into the subway car to block the brisk cold draught and get warm. There was no smile or introductory nod of any kind. However, without thinking, I reached out and asked whether he is a Tamil. And the answer was 'yes' and that's how our friendship started, 22 years and still counting.

We had lots of common interests, nothing of life ruining kind that normal youngsters take a habit of these days. He also became part of a group of five regular hang-around friends and families. Our bond lasted through good and bad times and he was there to lift and cheer me up when I was wounded or needed a shoulder. I'm not sure I did the same for him but his gracefulness wouldn't claim otherwise. The times moved on. He went on to university, jobs, marriage and kids and I also did similar upwardly mobile steps of life. The usual touch and closeness we had drifted away to other important priorities in life.

However, the one thing that lasted till today, after four presidents of the U.S., many prime ministers of Canada - one that lasted just a month -, two Gulf wars, unfounded WMDs, scores of lives and deaths in unwanted civil, racial and ethnic tensions, bull & bear markets, crashes, lost pensions and such, was that we never forgot to wish each other on our birthdays, no matter where we were and what has been going through in our lives. There was always an email that waited in my inbox on my birthday. Without expectations, without any show-biz kind of courteousness. It was always there; few simple words to say that I still think of you.

And, my friend, I do too. The blog I used to write had gone missing in the virtual clouds, so I'm starting this new blurb; The Daily Sprinkle. And, the first dedication is to you.

Today is November 13th. Happy Birthday!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Children of a Lesser God (not about the movie)

Well, there are only two. They hang around near the Mosque or the central monument which I pass by everyday on my way to work. The children, two boys to be specific, are in the 10s or early teens if you'd count their malnourishment factor, in ragged shorts, dirt covered t-shirts and with looks of a goat that is about to be butchered. There is also the one legged man, in crutches, standing straight-up and without movement as if a statue had been planted at the entrance of the Mosque to remind something, that I yet to realize, to attendees and passersby.

This morning, as I headed towards the office, which is a ten minute walk from my hotel along a wide four lane highway of this former Soviet Republic, admiring morning rays and the beauty of Mongol descendants in colorful summer attire, who sometimes mildly startle at the sight of this brown-foreigner, I was in fact thinking of our son, who'll turn fifteen in few months, and his future to become a real man. He is a great kid with personal and physical traits of his maternal grandfather and with computer and artistic skills that'd exceed my abilities as an IT man, in time and with experience. However, we also noticed that lately he's becoming someone who keep things to himself and not expressing thoughts in a productive manner. This could be a teen thing and since he's our first child, we are also "learning the ropes while climbing the mountain".

So, we decided to find him a summer job to polish-up his soft skills and found one with a neighbor as a video/ photo editor. Mind you, this video business is run out of a basement and the only other employee is my neighbor's wife! Although my son seems to like his job, I still found the surroundings inadequate to achieve his or our objectives. While, I'm sure there are other jobs and avenues to go by, as a traveling dad who's home is mostly a hotel room somewhere in an oil-patch country, it was disheartening in my inabilities to deal with the situation.

Yet, as I was walking this morning, along the highways of Atyrau (in Kazakhstan), admiring the morning rays and Mongol beauty and about to pass the Mosque that is with a view of central monument in sight, things changed.

The one legged man didn't move as usual. But the kids, who usually mind their own, ran towards me and in a non-recognizable language (not Kazakh nor Russian) started to say something, tapped on my shirt and also touched my feet. Startled at their behavior, it took me few seconds to realize that they are asking for money. As a person who spend my early years in South Asia, I knew how to shoo away roadside beggars and instinctively, I did exactly that. Somehow, it didn't work. The kids were persistent however, very abnormal to the country's humble nature and culture. While I was dragging myself away from them, one of the kid pulled the trump card from his shorts' pocket, as if to have perfectly read my state of mind.
It was a picture of his family, a dated, crumpled black & white photo with dirty-brown crease marks all over. He pointed himself in the middle, a baby faced six year old standing amongst five siblings and his parents, with scary look and no smile. He also pointed at his parents and acted out as if they are dead. We spoke no language, no words were exchanged yet I understood his dilemma or the perception of such, and everything else didn't matter and deceased to exist. I saw my son in his eyes, a distant young person sleeping thousands of miles away in his cozy bed, computers and a play station to wake up to. I saw two children of a lesser God, one with everything to enjoy yet with a bit of challenge in getting out of his comfort cage and another one with nothing material but with competent skills, how low the objective may have been, to communicate, negotiate, use and achieve it. I fell and my heart broke thus came five hundred tenges ($4) out of my pocket!
Ones the money and the unknown languages of thank you-s were exchanged, as I continue my walk towards the trimmed lawns and beaming offices of an oil giant in this under-developed land, I thought of how important social skills are to survive this world. As globalization requires learning, accepting and working with unknown people, culture and diverse social lives - to be must-have skills, even an experience with irrelevant beggar-kid becomes important. Every task we undertake requires presentation, communication, positive negotiation and persuasion to achieve best results.

The child of a lesser God I met today doesn't seems like that anymore. He is also a child of our generous Gods, such that he's blessed with certain skills of which some of us are still facing challenges.

I decided to take my son of out his video editing job and put him in a more diverse environment where he can polish up on soft skills. A summer job at a super market comes to mind, with no regards to the pity minimum wage he'd earn. I'm not worried anymore.