Saturday, December 6, 2014

We Cannot Breathe...

Maybe if we were less accepting,
Of even a little unkindness,
Maybe if every living thing,
Was pointed out as precious,
Maybe if every child was taught to feel,
And not be deaf to the silent appeal,
Of starving men and suffering beasts,
Listening instead to unwise priests,
If we were not so unfeeling and cold,
Emotions in check, so richly controlled,
Maybe if we broke down and wept,
And refused to so easily accept,
The man on the pavement,
Broken and bent,
The dog all alone,
Dodging every cruel stone,
Maybe then the world would have far less,
Of criminals who transgress,
Of tyrants who oppress,
Of men who are able to sleep,
After deeds that make Gods weep.
For when the little acts are allowed to live,
They grow to proportions impossible to forgive,
Yet still we walk on by,
Masters of turning a blind eye,
Till the hand of fate,
And unthinking hate,
Reaches out and touches us,
Then we rail at the Universe.
This is life, I have come to see,
This is a side of humanity,
The pain is so hard to bear,
It chokes us of the very living air,
Till masses stand on the street,
And silently scream, "We cannot breathe."
~ Poornima Pillai
*Dedicated to the slaughtered Mexican students and Eric Garner.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Questions and Answers

As a teacher, I went into the field of education thinking that it was my job to teach children the answers to everything. In time, I've learnt differently.
It started in a quite literal fashion. I set exercises for all my students wherein I gave them a set of answers. Their job was to come up with the questions. There were many possible correct ways to do the exercise. At first, the children stared blankly, then they struggled to fit logic with language. I was surprised, but then I understood where we've been going wrong. It also took me back through my own life's journey of 'growing up'.
The first time I remember such a challenge was when I was a student. We were asked to write an essay about our favorite book. Back then in 6th standard, I think, I had left behind Enid Blyton and was going through Sidney Sheldon. I gushed for one page about this swashbuckling adventure called "If Tomorrow Comes". Ma'am Anuradha gave me the requisite marks, but she also wrote a note that froze me completely- she asked me why I so admired a protagonist who had taken to thieving, and justified it. I felt a few moments of deep shame. Then, I felt wonder at the fact that that was a question I hadn't asked myself. Why?
The second time I remember something similar was when I watched a stand up comedian make fun of the movie 'Titanic'. It was another bolt to my brain, as I realized that yes, I actually really didn't like that long-ass movie (his words, not mine  ). I had let myself be swept along with the tide of admiration that everyone around me had for the movie.
People like my teacher, and incidents like those are very visible markers that I can look back on and see how I was led into the path of questioning everything- my motives, my beliefs... it led to the most precious thing I have in my tool kit for life- my awareness.
Now, I see the children around me, going along- sometimes docile, sometimes defiant, and I am so amused at this process we all evolve by. And I am so grateful to the people and the circumstances that guided me. I look forward to giving back. (I am so moved I seriously considered adding a hashtag-feeling blessed, but thankfully the moment of weakness passed) 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Stuff my Soul!

We had a seminar in school today. Stress-free living. Most of us had a headache when the man finally stopped droning after 2 hours. The headache was a combination of fighting the eyelid droop and fighting the urge to flee. However, at one point I was completely lucid. It was when the man said, "Why are we suffering like this?" I'm sure he had a context for saying it, but at that moment, it felt like the cry of our collective souls. I ducked, laughed, then fell back into my comfortable coma.
The conscious part of me registered something baffling though. The first 15 minutes of the seminar, the guy made it clear that truth and belief are two completely different things. Truth was undeniable, whereas belief was faith in something that could not be proved. For the remaining 72 hours, I mean, two and three quarter hours, he talked about nothing but the soul and how life should be lived from the soul perspective, not the material one. And there were many, many minutes of cheesy-music-with-cheesy-video-meditation when he was chanting stuff about being immortal and all that. Most of the teachers slept right through them.
The whole time I was thinking, 'Bloody hell, isn't the soul a construct of your belief? When did it become truth, that you would make it the complete basis for your life philosophy, and what more, preach it as fact?' I like my job, so I didn't stand up and embarrass him, the principal and the school. But I was sorely tempted.
It's not just this fellow that has me annoyed. Working in various fields, I've been subjected to quite a few seminars and talks by people who have no business being on stage. I'm all for people sharing and learning from each other life's experiences, but it has blown out of proportion and given rise to an alarming trend.
I speak of 'gurus'. Lifestyle coaches, relationship guides, spiritual them what you like; I am very uncomfortable with the notion of a person who says he or she has answers that can satisfy en masse. They all sound like formulas to me, a kind of glorified version of the crap you find in fashion magazines- like 'how to get your ex back in 10 days' or some such drivel. Since when has life been so even across people that something that works for one person would work for another. And I must say, many of these gurus are utter crackpots who endow themselves with these titles- really scary shit. I wouldn't want to meet one of them alone in a dark alley, let me tell you. These people invariably are in a sea of denial, floating only because their egos are so bloated, you couldn't sink 'em even if you sat on 'em. A pity, really.
I'm toying with the idea myself. Being a guru, I mean. Why screw up a few people who call you a friend when you could reach a much larger audience? I'm off to buy boring white clothing. Peace out!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Invalid Search Strings...

There's a big difference between searching for something and finding something. To find, you don't always have to search. This difference is the answer to a question that's been on my mind- about what it means to grow up around books vs. growing up with an iPad. When I was a kid, I was incredibly fortunate enough to be surrounded by books- the complete Encyclopedia Britannica, the Tell Me Why series, comprehensive Space and Earth atlases... To me, discovery had very little to do with a search string, and more to do with stumbling, as in opening a book and stumbling upon things I never knew about, like echoes, or black holes. There was an innocent, wide-eyed wonder to my education, a feeling of it being precious since it came bound in pages that have to be opened, that have to be obeyed, not commanded.
As a teacher, I often get asked, often desperately, what a parent can do to make a child read more. Making a child read is like force-feeding an animal- a very bad idea, and counter-productive in most cases. Just leave a few nuts about, and watch a squirrel dance around, curious, afraid, toying with the idea, before it darts in and out. Children are very similar. They need to be around that which enriches them so that they reach for it themselves.
Any human growing up is going to eventually know that a round peg fits in a round hole. Yet we provide babies with such toys, not to make them curse (yep, we think it's cute only because we don't get baby talk), but to follow the educational principle simply known as i+1. This says that we introduce to a child information it is comfortable with, and then some more. A little extra jog to the brain to develop lateral pathways. Books do this naturally, because even when the content is unintelligible, we get a sense of logic, or little glimmers of understanding. We are challenged.
I love learning now as much as I ever did, maybe even more. Say what you will about knowledge now being at one's fingertips, I'll never concede the fact that I like my knowledge to be soaked up by starry eyes straight from crisp, light pages...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Of Buddhas and Bladders

Sometimes,when I step back from my own 'human existence', I am mystified. I've been watching re-runs of Star Trek, The Next Generation, and there's this episode where an arrogant alien being addresses humans as 'bags of water'. Data, the lovable android, says that the alien is quite close to the truth with that epithet. I mention this as a context for my mystification. On this piece of rock where nature has never really known this balance we love to speak of, cycling through ice ages, seas becoming deserts, tectonic forces re-arranging the landscapes, through the rise and extinction of entire species, in this brief moment of time that we happen to occupy earth in the history of its volatile millenia, our own arrogance is astounding. Our insistence that our intelligence is capable of explaining it all, when our our very perception is limited to three paltry dimensions with limited sensory organs, that we presume to be able to 'destroy' this planet, as the environmentalists shrilly expound everywhere you look, that we each have opinions that we rigidly stand by, when those opinions are only as good as the guesses that people call facts, that we seem oblivious to the fact that we're just another animal, and that we may one day become extinct as well.... the more I think about it, the more amazed I am. Even more so, when I see the sheer amount of explanations that we have come with to keep all this at bay.

Religion is one of those explanations. Going back to Star Trek again (love that damn show!), there's this episode where the crew accidentally reveal themselves to a prehistoric alien civilization, who promptly start worshiping 'The Picard', and move from being rational creatures to ones that 'fear God' (sounds familiar?). In one scene, Captain Picard rests his head in his hands in frustration. It's a sad yet funny pose, one that I imagine many, many mortals have done in our long history as they get shunted into the Immortal League. Buddha probably has tears in his eyes even now. All that dude wanted was to get people to be more zen. Now they roll around in front of huge golden statues of him, burning stuff, offering stuff, and stuffing stuff.

Never more so, apparently, than in the ancient city of Ayuthuya. Ayuthuya, named after Ayodhya, was once a thriving capital, but was ransacked by the Burmese ages ago and is now famous for the beauty of its ruins. The city truly is a peaceful, beautiful place. Not a skyscraper in sight, something you immediately pick up on when you land there. Going back to the topic at hand, I must say- even though I know of God's omnipresent reputation, I don't think I've come close to seeing one that fills it quite like Buddha. He's everywhere! In Ayuthuya, that's an understatement. There seem to be an infinite number of temples for him, and in some of them, an infinite number of his statues inside.

Now I know why this man so quickly became enlightened. He apparently did not do a lick of work. He stands, he sits, he reclines, he lies down...basically he redefines chilling out. If any lesson is to be taken from him, it's that we must do less, not more. I aspire to be like him. I even tried a few of those 'whatever' poses of his.

I stood. (I also realized I need to be more golden.)

I sat.

I leaned with him.

Finally, I found the best position that would take me closest to achieving what he did, and I think I owned it.

I also realized that to make a place beautiful, you need only two things- lots of grass and lots of bricks. For me, Buddha was mostly a side attraction. The structures themselves had infinite charm. However, I won't deny that he provides countless photo-ops. There's something about that face that attracts people in droves. Personally, I'm sticking with my chilled out theory. If Buddha had a greek tagline, it'd go something like this, 'Situm, Sleepum, No way no workum'.

I should add that there's nothing much to see in Ayutuhya except the temple ruins. Basically, visiting this place is like a real-life version of playing Temple Run. There are no feral apes chasing you, but the scenery does begin to blend after a while. If it's a hot day to boot, you'll wonder why you're doing this- it's not like you have Buddha fever, right? Um, many people around here do. He's just that kind of guy.

As inspiring as the Golden one is, I think another reason the Thais are such an easy going people is because they don't worry about going to the toilet. In India, this is a big problem. It makes us impatient, angry and murderous. Many flashbacks come to mind- the foot-tapping father waiting impatiently to lock the door as the mom rushes back in for the precautionary last minute visit to the loo, the flat out refusal of any liquid passing the lips for a few hours before travel,the horrible realization as you're whizzing by in a vehicle that yes, your bladder has managed to magically fill itself anyway, the forehead-sweat inducing grip of fear that strikes you as you pray for a clean washroom in that next hotel...

Personally, that fear is gone here in Thailand. I seriously think clean public facilities tell you a lot about the state of development a people are in. We learnt it in history too, remember?
Question (2 marks): List a reason why the Harrapans were thought to be an advanced civilization. Answer: Indoor Plumbing.
We Indian children shook our heads wisely at that. We'd already been on a road trip or two by that age.

Going beyond providing a service, it's amazing to see the Thais actually take pride in this. A popular mall called Terminal 21 proudly displays its "Best Toilets of the Year" Award plaques outside the spectacular bathrooms on each floor, which follow the theme of different countries. Some of them are stunning.

An hour or so outside Bangkok is a temple. Pretty basic stuff. But you'll find people walking around the structure to visit the washroom behind it. 'Visit' as in sit down, take pictures, and just hang around and gape. Apparently, this facility cost them thousands of Baht and I can see why. When you walk in, the first thing that hits you is the wonderful tropical fragrance. Then, there's the sounds of birds chirping as you walk around admiring the artificial jungle setup. Stained glass art on the doors of the cubicles and self-flushing toilets leave you shaking your head in disgust- why can't I live here?

Talking about living in unusual places, what about the Golden Boy himself? Near the I-covet-this-bathroom-temple is another one that just couldn't get enough of Buddha. They made him as big as they could, which isn't surprising. What is, however, is that they also made him hollow, and went ahead and built staircases inside, leading to three floors with walls depicting his life, culminating in a little corner where you get to touch his large golden heart, bless him.

Frankly, it was quite musty in there... Quite a few inappropriate things came to my mind as I typed the previous sentence, but I'm going to let them go. In fact, I think this is a perfect place to let this post go as well ;)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ah, how we comfort ourselves grin emoticon
When good things happen to good people, it's divine blessing.
When bad things happen to good people, it's a test.
When bad things happen to bad people, it's karma.
When good things happen to bad people, it's just a matter of time.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Glass and Steel

What is it that you want me to feel,
As I look upon your box of glass and steel?
Where are the ages when men lived in glory,
When each rising structure had its own story?
The theaters, the temples, the monuments of fashion,
The cornice edges of an out of the way mansion,
The little stone shed in a corner of a farm,
With a forgotten fence carved with intricate charm.
There was a time, not too long ago,
A time when time was somehow more slow,
When man put his hands on pillars of rock,
And out came a fairy, or a flower or a hawk.
When a house was more, it was a work of art,
Not just walls that keep people apart.
If I could take up those tools, wield a chisel,
I'd start by taking down every last cubicle,
Then move on to the act that even God adored,
When he let purposeless beauty and creativity explode.
What is it that you want me to feel,
As I look upon your box of glass and steel?
Why would you think this is what earth needs-
Nature breeds variety, a multitude of seeds.
From people who blessed her for what she willingly gave,
We now wield our whips; the masters, the slave,
Now we 'own' land, we cover with concrete,
Forgotten is the knowledge that the Earth needs to breathe,
Once, we took joy in the presence of life,
Now, we're in a jungle of geometrical knives,
Gleaming surfaces that reflect nothing important,
A world full of mirrors, empty, inconstant,
Tell me, what is it that you want me to feel,
As I look upon your box of glass and steel?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Step Into Another Shoe, My Species
~ Poorni Pillai

Greetings, human beings! It is indeed a pleasure to address all of you. As the leader of my people, I wish to clarify a number of things that my advisers tell me are causing unrest amongst you. As I understand it, they all pertain to the subject of your future and relative position on this planet. I agree that being demoted from the position of being the dominant species must be a disconcerting feeling. Rest assured, however, that as the NEW dominant species, we will be as benevolent in our approach to you as you have been to your own fellow creatures for these past few centuries.

You will enjoy a certain degree of freedom, of course. We reserve the right, however, to tell you where you may live. After all, our comforts have a higher priority and with our growing numbers, we will require more space to establish our homes and areas of commerce. This means that we will be pulling down some of your cities but then you can always make do with what space you have left. We will also be taking over a good portion of your agricultural lands for our manufacturing plants. This is not a very big cause of concern as we trust you will find ways to survive. You are, after all, a very resilient species. Two world wars and what not! Hahaha.

Moving on, we are excited to announce that some of you will be deported to our home planets for purposes of educational and recreational display, modeled after your very own zoos! Our young ones will not only benefit greatly from seeing creatures from another system, the observation of you in captivity will be immensely educational. With adequate space, timely sustenance and health care, many of you must be clamoring for the opportunity to be one of our captive exhibits. We'll even teach you to do some tricks that won't make sense to you, but we enjoy them. What a great purpose we give you! Freedom is so over rated, isn't it?! We wish you good luck. Keep your fingers crossed, as you say. Heh.

I remember when we first landed how excited we were to discover your many races. Rarely have we encountered such variety within a single species. We are planning on controlled breeding experiments to weed out certain traits that we do not think are desirable. This is a huge advantage for you. Imagine better looking, sturdier humans with longer life expectancies! In fact, my scientists even tell me it is possible to fine tune and perfect certain useful traits through this experiment. Maybe we can even make you serve us better. This gift we give willingly.

We actually discovered all this when we were experimenting a few of our drugs on some of you. As you know, finding cures for many of our diseases has become so much easier ever since we accidentally discovered physiological parallels between our species. I would like to observe a moment of silence in deference to those beautiful humans who were sacrificed for this great cause. The loss of their lives has resulted in the extended life span of many our own members and for this, we are grateful. It is sad that many more of you will follow them, but our medical research demands this. We need guinea pigs. Isn't that statement so ironical?! I cannot stop laughing. But to those who object, I say- the simple fact that we are capable of so much more than you puts the value of our lives above yours- this is the cruel way of nature, is it not? Or is it the cruel way of the human? Who cares!

We are also in the process of developing meat farms. This might be a touchy issue, I understand, but you will be relieved when I tell you how ingeniously we have tackled it. At great cost and much energy, we have developed a new sub-species of human. These creatures have no intelligence as they possess very little cerebral matter. Just enough to eat, sleep and procreate. This genetic material of yours is truly remarkable, I must say- so lending itself to manipulation that this breakthrough has become possible. Do not let their resemblance to your physical form sway your logic- to all intents and purposes, these are a lesser species and therefore, to be done with as we please. I hear they go very well with your commercial barbeque sauces too!

These and many more changes will soon be a part of your lives. The transition may not be as smooth as one hopes for, but then, for you, it is inevitable. I look to you for your co-operation, although we all know any resistance is futile. After all, my species is the dominant one for very good reasons. Our superiority, we have demonstrated through countless means. Any superiority precludes accountability, does it not?.....but, I am blabbering! Why would you resist at all? We have reviewed all our policies over and over again and I must say, we are personally greatly pleased at our benevolence and tolerance. I trust you share our complacency at how well everything has turned out. There is one earth saying that greatly influenced us, that we used to guide ourselves throughout this process- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Thank you!

Friday, June 6, 2014


I was lying in bed last night and I noticed again that my bedsheet had a rip in it. I've been using it for weeks that way without giving it a second thought. It comes with living alone. But I imagined someone else around, and what they would say, what I'd be expected to feel or do..... Ok, I admit - it was my mom's voice I heard. Years ago, my siblings and I started referring to mom as 'The Voice of God'. Not in any spiritual sense, but more as in it could land right in your ear when you were doing something you weren't supposed to. So anyway, what would the common response be to this? - Using a ripped bedsheet like a poor person? Or a cheap one? But you know, I'm perfectly happy with it anyway. It's just as serviceable as an unripped one. Yet rejecting it and getting a new one would be the expected course of action. Isn't everyone entitled to an unripped bedsheet? ...I need to get a life if I'm so hung up on a bedsheet, right? But as always, there's a point to the madness.
I've seen a lot of this in India amongst the poor. How they toil, sweat blood, scrimp and save, all just to buy a piece of gold that they can display on their bodies, for others to see. But its deeper than a mere status symbol. Its a feeling of entitlement that they wish to satisfy- a decent human being must have atleast one piece of gold on them, should they? It's only fair.
I think a lot of people are stuck in their lives because of the crippling feeling that entitlement brings about. I met a man who is a 'difficult' person. His personality is abrasive and he repels too much familiarity or affection. He is aware of it too and attributes it to one fact- his most defining moment in his life, if you ask him, is that his mother abandoned his family when he was one year old. Now, the thing is that he had a normal life afterwards, with stability and resources and love. He had something for 1 year of his life, and then some 40 odd years when he didn't. Yet that which he lost, which he barely even remembers, yet what society has told him he is entitled too, that psychology has told him that he is poorer because of, is what he uses everyday as a reason to be lonely and angry.
I've been thinking a lot about this as I meet friend after friend who cannot let go. Failed relationships, dysfunctional families, financial hardships, loss.... things that have put people through immeasurable heartache, I completely acknowledge that, but what is it that makes some grow through these experiences and some to hold on to them and shape their misery instead? I think its the conditioned feeling of entitlement. that somehow life was meant to be fairer, easier, happier. After all, there are people around us who definitely have it better. Maybe they do. So what?
This 'so what?', I must add, is not a cruel question. Yes, there are a few times, when I listen to many a hypocritical self-pity speech and think 'Bitch, please!'. But thankfully, there are many more times when I feel sad about it and I wish I could just make them see that the answer to 'so what?' is so important to how we live.
"Ma'am! It isn't fair!" I hear this a lot in my classroom as children constantly compare and compete against each other, and measure their achievements and lives against what they've been told to expect. I see the seeds that I can only hope will not grow into bitterness. But maybe I can do more than hope.
I've been preparing the pin boards in my classroom for the next academic year and one of the permanent sections that I've planned for is called 'The Way of Life'. Basically its a piece of wisdom that I take off the net or a book and I try to put in a comic or picture, because I believe my children need to be challenged to think beyond what they usually do. Whether they do or not and how they grow is up to them, but I'd like to provide the stimulus. So the first month touches on this feeling of entitlement. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

From my Facebook wall today...

This is a sensitive topic, so scroll away if you're uncomfortable with 'women's' stuff. If not, take a print out and put it up in your work place...

Mr.Muruganantham's wife left him when she could no longer stomach the fact that he had a goat's bladder attached to his waist as he tested out a new low cost sanitary napkin he'd created. She eventually went back to him, after he went on to revolutionize clean and low cost production of napkins, making it available to rural Indian regions that had been relying on unhygienic practices such as rags and hay for centuries. He has been featured in numerous TED talks and his name is familiar to all those who applaud such passionate rebels with a cause.

But the core issue itself is something that I find still largely ignored. The feminist movement of the 1900's was so caught up in its fight for equality, we seem to have de-emphasized our differences. Equal, but different. That should have made it on to more posters.

First of all, I think a large section of the population require education on some basic biological facts. Not all women are the same, just as not all men are the same. As the numerous ads for 'enhancement' and 'elongation' blatantly scream, each person has a unique sexual physiology as well. This includes women.

What this means, to spell it out clearly, is that each woman has a completely unique experience when it comes to her menstrual cycle. Some, like in those infuriating ads, cycle and jump off cliffs with a gleaming smile, barely aware of what their body is doing. Many and I mean it- many, suffer varying levels of pain. Debilitating, in some cases. At the least, it is uncomfortable. There is also an understandably heightened desire and need for more hygienic facilities.

In a world which ignores this issue and where women have had to 'man up' to be equal, this pain, these needs get shoved under the rug. Painkillers ensure we continue on our demanding schedule without rest and what's more, with a no-nonsense smile. I'm sure we women are proud of our strength and uncomplaining 'manning' up, but is it necessary? And is it always right? Why is this issue so desensitized that we have to find ways around it?

In all the places I have worked in in India, I have never encountered any consciousness of this issue. In fact, I have had to be creative and even sneaky to deal with something so natural, yet so taboo. In private conversations with my female colleagues, I have heard many bitter complaints that are never ever voiced. From washrooms to work place policies, there are resources and sensitivities that women require, that we shouldn't not have! We should not be silent.

In times gone by, there was an Indian practice that required a woman to rest during her menstrual cycle. She was relieved of all household chores and fed healthy foods that actually strengthened her body. The enforced rest and food is something I have tried repeatedly and I cannot emphasize enough how much of a difference it makes. Eventually, that practice became corrupted with customs and in modern times, looked down upon even more with contempt. I am aware it is unrealistic to expect that in this day and age, when even maternity leave is made as short as possible, but I am saddened by how far we have fallen in sensitivity to this issue. That is the point I wish to emphasize.

The work places of today could take a few leaves out of Mr. Muruganantham's book. His earnest desire to understand led him to don shoes that very few men bother with- that of a woman's. Work places policies and resources are largely set down by men in positions of power who have never thought about this. Even when women rule, this is ignored because that is the norm.

I would like to change that norm because I am tired of manning up and I do not want to- I am not a man. I don't have to act like one.  I have sent this post as an email to my former employers already, and I am going to ask for changes in my current work place. These are the points I will put forth and I hope that the women that I know at least will start by asking for the changes that they know they rightly deserve and need!

To my current employers,

I point out these necessities -

Separate wash room facilities for men and women should be compulsory. The rooms should have nooks and shelves for hanging/placing things such as disposable bags and napkins.

The facilities should be attended and cleaned diligently.

If the staff have enforced uniforms, then a dark color should be chosen for the pant/skirt so that a woman can deal with any accidents relating to her menstruation with dignity. There should also be an option to wear comfortable clothing instead.

If the job requires being on their feet in any capacity, then short periods of rest as and when required.


Monday, May 12, 2014

I like the idea behind this post. There's so much to the life of a teacher beyond the chalkboard, especially after the bell rings and the children leave. You're a bag of mixed emotions trying to balance itself out; so tired, triumphant because of the difficult students you managed to pull in, and the moments of fun where you all shared a good laugh, a successful lesson plan, the relief at the moments of anger you squelched to adopt patience instead, the feeling of failure as you recollect the unresponsive class, the moments of impatience, the resolve to do better, to work harder, smarter, anything to make sure that you don't let yourself down, because you know that each moment in your classroom influences a child's mind and heart, and that is such a responsibility.....

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A day along the river, in pictures...

A cheeky elephant fountain that I immediately coveted-

I found this temple guardian's face quite beautiful-

The ticket dispensing lady on the ferry loves her rings! -

Feeding frenzy along many of the peirs...for some reason, animal lover and vegetarian that I am, I looked upon these huge fish and could only see them as meat! Weird...

Glamorous temples for the Buddha-

Stumbled upon a row of nurseries with the most gorgeous plants, and this beauty-

Celestial beings painted on the wall of a Buddha temple-

A beautiful view-

Quirky art work in a restaurant beside a pier-

The slightly scary narrow steps of a temple (Wat Arun)-

Wonderfully rustic temple architecture-

All Thai men must ideally become monks for a few months of their life. The ceremony involves going bald as well as the shaving of all facial hair, including the eyebrows, which is collected in a lotus leaf and placed under a tree.

This dog was breathtaking, standing on the counter of a shop-

And finally, friends who make my day, even the ones already beautiful-

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Teacher Screecher

Since the time I lined up my teddy bears and dolls and taught my lessons to them as a child, I've harbored the dream of being a teacher. Something about the blackboard and chalk caught my fancy- they were tools that seemed as cool as medieval weapons to me. As I grew up, based on what I saw of my own friends, I slowly formed a preference for what age group would be ideal to teach. I zeroed in on the early secondary level- between primary and high school. The kids in primary were too young for me to appeal to their barely there intellect and the older ones were too far gone for to make a difference. So in between the snotty and the snooty, I thought my world made sense. My first teaching job confirmed this and all was well.

Which is why it came as a shock to me when I landed up in school in Bangkok and learnt that I would be a primary English teacher- classes 1 to 6. I was like 'oh-oh'. Didn't I mention that secondary was my strength during the interview? Yet I find myself thrown into these little jaws. Fine, I'll show them what's what.

I now am a slightly wiser human being. Class 1...what can I say about them? The chubbiest cheeks, widest eyes, so ready to smile and giggle for no apparent reason. And so damn earnest, it sometimes breaks my heart. I can barely hold it together when they smack their little chubby hands together in a high-five because they rhymed 'fan' with 'man' successfully. They're achievements are so tiny, yet their joy in them so huge...

And then there's the competition to outdo each other. All I have to do is open my mouth and say 'good' when I get an answer orally. Immediately, there's an outpouring of 'I said it first!" "No, I said it first!" "Ma'am I only said!"

Not all is perfect in paradise though. Class 2 is a bunch of devils that I would gladly send to boot camp for a week or ten. The other classes are okay and of course, fitting in nicely with my theory, classes 5 and 6 are a pleasure to teach. They can comprehend concepts, which is such a relief!

The thing about class 2 and 3 especially, that I find really tough to digest is that they don't know how to spell. What?! This is an alien concept to me because I have no memory of me at that age unarmed with spelling skills, and I don't hang out with kids that age. So, I find myself gaping in an unflattering manner in class often. It's so unbelievable that when a cherub asks 'Ma'am, how do I spell 'table'?", my mouth answers, but my mind is thinking, "No way kid! You need to get back in the womb and stay there longer coz you clearly need more development." It's a testament to my inexperience with toddlers that I expect humans to leave the womb well versed in phonics. So you could say I'm learning.

The other teachers find it funny that I have a cut off time with kids. I don't think I can be with the same set of them for more than an hour and guarantee their safety. So it may seem a strange career choice, but it does work. Classes last for 45 mins in most schools. They're safe. It's okay. Oh yes, they also have cameras in classrooms. Being monitored greatly reduces the instinct to crime, you know. I glance at it from to time like a religious man would look at an idol of his God to gain spiritual strength. It does work.

Which brings us to the other players in the equation. On my first day at work, I was warned about the politics that was common amongst the staff. In the weeks that followed, as a quiet observer, I saw it play out and I'm surprised. That a pleasant friendly woman who is so earnest about everything she does would go out of her way to talk about someone else. That a man who loves to make people laugh would be so quick at misunderstanding and misrepresenting them. But all this, I must add, happens only across the factions. Within them, they are all forgiving. And it pains me to add that these factions are all cut broadly along the lines of nationality and race.

One thing I think we must sit down and change are the classic fairytales that we tell our children-  to make sure that they know that evil is not always and just the presence of hate, but that most of the time it is an unthinking absence of kindness, compassion or acceptance. That it is what happens when you think it's okay to bend your ethics to accommodate your ambition or popularity or whatever.

I wonder at God or whatever creative force that may exist at the creation of this system- how can parents and teachers- people so flawed and so in need of growth ourselves be so completely entrusted with the upbringing of children? It leads me to another thought, this time about religion- most of us have faith in this creative force, this God. But heavens, He/She has a lot more faith- blind, reckless faith in us. Look at how much power we have! And we have the nerve to ask for stuff. If I were God, there'd be an apocalypse every other day. I'd be like, "Damn no, bitches! Where's my white out?"

So all in all, coming back to my apartment at the end of the work day is great.

That's a video I made for my family to see. I share it here so that I may draw your attention to the bath tub. I point it out not just to gloat that I have one, or even because I'm Indian. (We check out each others houses thoroughly when we visit, even the bathrooms.) I point it out for more spiritual reasons. If it is possible for a human being to have an object soulmate, meaning just that- one object destined just for you, then this bathtub is mine. Some divine voice whispered in the manufacturer's ear at the time of its creation, "She will be born, make it perfect" and then gave the man certain specifications- the chief of which was the measurement of my butt. I swear, you can make me sit in it and fill one half of the tub right to the top without even a drop of water leaking through to the other side. Like some human dam. It's way too short lengthwise, but since it doubles up as my clothes washing tub, I'm actually grateful for the dimensions. Like I said, soulmate. I grew up thinking my object soulmate would be a bike, but age changes you in mysterious and pathetic ways. Though I haven't given up hope yet. For the right bike, I'll cheat on the tub. Don't judge me...

So, to my friends who ask me how life is, this is it. Snotty kids, soul searching sessions and bottom fitting bathtubs. Perfect :)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Peace, my friend.....

People represent hope. That's a big part of why we cling to each other, even though we know deeply how alone we are and that when we leave, we go alone. Some might say it's love, but anyone who's been in a relationship that they want to last forever knows that it's hope. I learnt that someone I'd kept in a corner of my heart has passed away and it is devastating. I thought about what it was- what it was about you that you instantly lose when they leave your life, and to me, the answer is hope. The hope of the laughter you thought you'd share for the rest of your lives, the stories you were going to share, the memories you've made together that you could always go back to with a 'Do you remember when...', the hope of hearing a voice that lifts your spirits, the hope of talking about how life sucks just so you know someone else understands, the hope of simply being alive together.

When messiahs and spiritual gurus tell me to 'live in the now', I grasp the concept for what it is, but it is this beautiful, inspiring, smiles-giving hope that always looms in the way and I wonder how it is possible. I was told that it's not true, that it's all just expectations, just selfish desires but what's wrong with that? It's hope.

That's maybe why it hurts so much. People leave. Hope still stays, reminding you of them.

(Rest in peace, Lasheen.)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Back in Bangkok

I've been thinking a lot about the ideal of the romantic lately. Not romantic love exactly, but the kind of idealism we impart to all aspects of our life. Like spiritual growth. If life is a journey towards expanding, and accepting people for what they are is a part of that, then in moments of inspiration, I find myself so enthusaistic to do so that I sit still and can almost feel myself simultaneously absolving and absorbing the world. And then I actually go out into it and the illusion shatters. The self-satisfaction one feels when one is ready to forgive the evil man is suddenly gobsmacked when it faces an even worse enemy- the stupid man. Not as in less intelligent, but as in less evolved. Especially the ones that cannot laugh at themselves or the world.

What is it about pompous people?! How can a person exist without an inclination to humor? I made a joke recently, a small harmless one aimed at a co-worker I knew only by name. He responded with an offended "What are you saying?" It fell flat. Do you know why jokes fall flat with people like that? It's because they take the five foot pole out of their ass, beat the joke with it till it's as flat as can be and then shove the pole back in. This pole also works horizontally to keep people from getting too close to them. It is a multi-purpose pole.

I'm glad kids don't have it. It's why I like teaching them. You've gotten to them before they grow the pole and there's a slim chance you can make sure they don't. This is my classroom-

Teaching is a roller coaster ride. Good sessions and average ones keep you going up and down emotionally, but there is always, always humor. And times when I have burst out laughing...

"Ma'am Poornima, he called me a bad word!"
"What was it?"
"He called me Poo-Poo girl."

"Chuti, you need to add -ing to make sing into the present continuous tense- singing."
"No, ma'am."
"Why not?"
"Because sing already have 'ing'"

They laugh themselves silly for the oddest reasons and they make you see this invisible humor somehow. The weekdays rush by in a flurry of lesson planning- I create activities and games that make learning English fun, with a smattering of that pesky grammar.

The weekends rush by even faster as I explore with friends. I did a quick search for offbeat locations and zeroed in on, um, uh, a phallus shrine dedicated to fertility.

Yup. Now, stop snickering and being all judgy so that you can gawp at these!....

Bows and ribbons don't help, not really-

Dildo offerings. I was speechless-

 This has got to be the most bizarre thing I've ever seen! Unfortunately, my brain instantly named it. Meet 'Double-shooter'. Please don't try to shake hands....

Know your vowels, people. BELLS....BALLS....oh, what's the use...

Coz sequins make everything pretty :) -

Friday, January 17, 2014

Pongal 'O Pongal

I believe festivals are important because symbolism is part of how we express ourselves. Sometimes, its a conduit, sometimes an outlet. Pongal is a festival steeped in respectful symbolism. It is rooted in the land, which is why it has truer and deeper meaning in the villages where people still mostly live off the land. Spread out over four days, the festival is an expression of blessing and gratitude- a day to pay homage to the sun which nourishes life, a day to thank the creator of animals and plants, and the most sacred animal of them all, the cow. A day to burn old things, a metaphorical act of hope to bring in the new, and a day set aside to visit and revel in people- to enjoy the bonds that tie us together.

There are very few festivals that still retain their original intent and have not been totally swamped in the religious rituals which have overtaken and even blurred the very reason for celebration. Pongal is one of them. Since it is a celebration of nature, it is also my favorite.

We headed to our village, laden with gifts of clothing for the workers. I had a few extra things. Isn't my shiny fan toy beautiful? But alas, it wasn't mine for long...

"Listen, you people. I bought these shiny fan toys for myself. I love 'em. I want 'em. I don't care if you're a little human or a big one, just KEEP YOUR GRUBBY HANDS OF 'EM, I SAY!" - that's the gist of what I said and I was happy.

A few seconds later...

This is why I fear for the world- where's the honor in this act, hmm? I'll keep an interested yet suspicious eye on the child's future career especially, for sure... Moving on,...

Maatu Pongal, the one for cows is the most important of all the four days in the villages here. We celebrate  it with passion, I'd say. So, here's an account of how that day went down. First, here are the stars of the show getting their make up on-
Next, the stage is set up. On an open flame, pots of rice and grains are cooked.
Meanwhile an archway is constructed using the branches and leaves of trees that are auspicious- neem, banana, sugarcane...Under the archway a miniature cow dung temple is put together. It's a square partitioned into four smaller squares and filled with water, tender coconut water, milk etc. Flowers adorn it and the smaller lump of dung placed in front of it stands for the God Ganesha- it holds his favorite grass- arugam.

The stone leaning against one of the posts making up the arch represent the God Shiva. It is believed in the village that on the days of pongal, the Gods do spot inspections of the households and farms and see that we aren't mucking up things down here. I'd like to have a word with them about the other 361 days.

Once all the preparations are done, the feast is laid out and camphor and incense are lit. The entire family stands around in a few moments of silent prayer. I was thanking everything I could think of. Then people walk around the arch banging plates with sticks shouting 'pongal o pongal'. The din is simply awful, but people enjoy it anyway.

Then one of the cows is led under the archway. As she crosses it, she must step on the cow dung temple with her right foot- which signifies a good year ahead. That's something about our culture- a reverence for the right limbs while the left are shunned; poor poor side! Anyway, the production is quite riveting. And  funny. The guy leading the cow will be perspiring as he tries to maneuver the creature so that it literally puts the right foot forward. People around him shouting instructions, all tense. He backs it up, encourages it forward, this way and that, and finally, it's done right. There's a chorus of 'aaaaahs' and everyone smiles at their assured good fortune in the coming year.

The after party- once the praying is done, the cows get to feed on the cooked rice, mixed with ripe bananas and jaggery.

Then the humans get to eat. After that, we just laze around, talking and laughing, enjoying the rarity of having diverse members of the family together.

This villager stopped by for a brief visit. The reason I mention him and took pictures is because his conversation was amusing. He was talking about jalli kattu, the Tamil 'sport' that is called 'bull taming'. The amusing part was how animated he got as he recounted one year in particular. As you can see from the before and after shots, his hands started flying and ofcourse, the wastee (lower garment) had to be folded in half. So for the story.

He was a lad when the headman of the village, an extremely affluent and therefore revered, powerful man, brought in a bull renowned for his viciousness. It was taller than a man and horns so sharp they could cut cloth. It was so intimidating that when it turned its head to on side, the people gathered to gawk at it would take a few steps back in fright, even though it was secured with ropes. To this bull, as is the custom, many threads bearing gold and silver coins were tied on its horns before the jalli kattu. Men were prepared to try their hand even though no one had tamed this bull for years. But one man was more than prepared; he oozed confidence. It was said that before he left his village, he went to the police station there and told them that he would return victorious, so he wanted the Government to keep his prize money ready. He approached the affluent headman and told him he would tame the bull. The headman told him, "If you do so, half the gold and silver coins tied to its horns are yours."

So the jalli kattu started and the bull was let loose. It trampled and maimed men as it ran. But our hero was a strong man. He ran alongside the bull, out of its reach, then suddenly he leaped onto its back, his hand found its horns and he managed to wrap his legs around it and lock them in place. In this way, they ran till the bull tired and he was able to tame it. He led the bull to its pen and triumphantly went to the headman. He told him, "I cannot find anyone who will approach the bull to retrieve the coins now. You take them and give me my share." So the hero did so and was praised all around. And that's the story of the toughest bull ever seen in these parts and how it was tamed.
 (*I despise any sport in which animals are forced to participate, this is just a recounting of a story that caught a villager's fascination)

Signing off with...
The newest arrival on our farm-
Cleaning up weed plans in the groundnut field- a worker and Mom