Saturday, 21 January 2017


[This post can be read independently. But if you are interested, the story starts here:]

One thing that has stuck in my mind about the higher education system in the US is the flexibility to explore and cover ground slowly if that’s how one wants to go about it or one’s life situation makes it necessary to do so. Yes, by and large people there too go through college education in a structured manner just like in our country. But that’s not the only way possible. It’s also possible to attend courses, accumulate credits over an extended period of time and claim a degree in a certain discipline after one has accumulated enough credits and satisfied requirements for that degree.

That’s what Jim was doing when I met him. He had completed his high school education while at the foster home but his formal education halted for a while as he learnt farming, saved money and started establishing himself through the “Farmers’ Collective”. But his intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn persisted. Once he was reasonably well established and his organic food mart was doing steady business he started taking courses at the university. He studied physics, mathematics, explored fine art, took courses in world history and different philosophical systems before eventually settling down into a rhythm directed at getting a bachelor’s degree in physics. And he was doing this just out of interest. The walls in his office at the food mart were lined with books on various subjects and it was not unusual to find him engrossed in a book on quantum mechanics or calculus. Other than formal education, he had also learnt how to meditate and did Yoga regularly.

The presence of Yoga is massive in the US by the way. We of course don’t value it. And those of us who might are convinced that it ought to be taught free of cost. It's certainly not worth it in our minds to pay a fees and learn it from an expert just like we would learn anything else. The expert of course would have spent his or her time, resources and effort to become an expert - but they should then teach it free of cost else they are greedy and we won't learn from them. Our money is reserved for designer clothes, cosmetics, jewellery and cars. Certainly not for learning things like Yoga and meditation from experts that will probably help us live healthier and calmer lives.

The sheer absurdity of the logic! For any activity, skill and art to sustain and thrive in society we need to address its economic viability and ensure that the practitioners of these activities, skills and arts can sustain a healthy livelihood through them. There are no two ways about it. They have families too. They have expenses too. And yes, they too have every right to live a good comfortable life just like you and me if they are good at what they do and work hard. Take a good look around you, observe how limited we have become in terms of activities, skills and arts that are present in our society today. And realize that this is directly linked to the limited channels through which people are able to earn money and sustain themselves today.

I still can’t get over a question Jim once asked me:

“Say Brij, what is it with people in your country? Why are they giving up on all the good stuff they have while we are happily picking it up from you? We are doing Yoga and meditating while you guys yourselves don't value this knowledge that your part of the world has brought forward. And it’s not just this. I’ve been there and seen for myself: (Laughing) It’s nuts! Our way of life seems to have invaded your entire consciousness, at least in the cities I visited. I think there are people in your country who wear western clothes not just because they like them or feel more comfortable in them, which would be perfectly good reasons to wear them, but because they feel it's somehow more "progressive" to do so and feel embarrassed about wearing dresses that are traditionally Indian.  Worse, they scoff at those who do! (Smiling) That's just plain silly in my opinion.  It's one thing to be global in one's outlook, but to think that the way people dress in another part of the world is somehow implicitly better than the traditional attires in one's own country reflects a lack of self respect (he was placing equal emphasis on both genders by the way!); I observed that many of you are more comfortable speaking in English with each other instead of your own languages which are so beautiful: knowing English as a foreign language is one thing - it can help communicate with the rest of the world more easily - but English replacing your knowledge of your own languages is stupid - you don't see us Americans or Europeans or anyone else doing that, do you? Then why are you guys so eager to disown yourselves and become like someone else? Why aren’t you guys making your presence felt across the world when you have so much to offer? I mean they teach management, marketing and advertising in your country too, right? So why aren't you able to make your presence felt on the world stage with your fabric, with your kind of clothes, with your music, with your art, with your handicrafts and sculpture? And wasn’t it in your country that a library once burnt for six months when an invasion happened. Just imagine that…six months! How much written word would there have been in that library? When are you guys going to recover your lost ground Brij? It’s great to have you guys studying at our universities but shouldn’t you guys be able to offer something that’ll make us want to go and learn there too?”

Ouch! The man was speaking the truth. What could I do but nod an acknowledgment and shrug my shoulders? As I like to remark: the biggest damage inflicted on us by the British was perhaps not economical but that they left us with a completely eroded sense of self respect. They convinced us that their ways were better in every respect: their philosophical outlooks, their language, their way of eating, their way of sitting, their way of dressing, and even their way of shitting. And none of this was on logical ground. Our philosophical systems are profound, our languages are rich and diverse, our way of eating with hands is better, our way of sitting cross legged on the floor is better, and our way of shitting is better too : the thighs compress the stomach when one squats on his or her haunches which leads to a more complete passing of the stool [else some of it stays on in our bodies, can't be too good] : you can try this for yourself and see, it can be a bit uncomfortable at first if you've never been in that posture but the muscles adapt and one gets used to it in time.

As far as ways of dressing go, as Jim said: Sure one can have global tastes. And if someone actually likes the way people dress in another part of the world and wants to dress like them, it's of course entirely their prerogative. Then sometimes a manner of dressing in another culture can prove to be useful or preferable in specific scenarios (eg. nature of job, sport, etc) - so one can always adopt and adapt.

But that is not what has happened in our country :):

I know of women who are derisively referred to as "behenjees" when they wear traditionally Indian clothes and speak in an Indian language by their more "evolved" compatriots in short skirts or trousers speaking accented English with wise looking shakes and nods of the head and rolls and flutters of the eyes.

Men are of course not to be left far behind :). In fact, in this matter they lead shamelessly :):

We've reduced the traditional Indian male dresses to the level of "costumes" one puts on on specific occasions such as weddings or prayer ceremonies or in specific professions such as politics. I myself remember being laughed at once by a friend's father when I visited their house wearing a dhoti-kurta along with a snide remark: "What is this? Are you coming from some fancy dress competition?". Poor chap! What do I tell such people? Truth is what he believes to be "normal" today is what one ought to be wearing in a fancy dress competition if one were to portray an Englishman and what I was wearing ought to be "normal" in this country.

Many a men would probably lose their jobs and be called either crazy or "right wing fanatics" if they simply started wearing dhoti-kurtas or kurtas with chooridaar pyjamas to work. In fact, truth be told, the possibility of losing my job is the only reason I myself don't wear a dhoti kurta to work although I would love to do that. To feel this way in my own country is just plain awful. And if this is our mindset, if this is how derisive and stupid we are about our own cultural identities in our own country, where is the hope for expressing ourselves uniquely and confidently on the world stage?

As I said above :): Ouch! Jim was speaking the truth. And what could I do but nod an acknowledgment and shrug my shoulders?

It was during one of the courses he was attending at the university that Jim met Soo Jung.

Jim: Of course I remember that time Brij, it still feels like I just met her yesterday.

Me: So she was a stunner, eh?

Jim: (Smiling) What do you mean was? She still is, isn’t she?

But speaking more seriously: depends on what you mean Brij. She did keep herself fit then as she does now. And I respect that. I think people should stay mindful of their fitness. It doesn’t make sense to not do so. But by fit I don’t mean zero waist or anything. She’s never been like that. I simply mean fitness in the true sense of the word. And fitness brings along an attractiveness with itself naturally – which is very different from people continuously obsessing about how they look.

She’s also always been conscious about keeping herself presentable. In fact that’s one thing I’ve picked up from her. I used to be a bit slack about it earlier but I do see its importance now. I feel it’s important from an aesthetics point of view. See we are a presence on this planet. And just as we like things around us to be nice and presentable, it’s good in my opinion to bring that to the world from our side too.

But one thing she didn’t do was fret too much about looking pretty. Didn’t always keep worrying about her hair or make up. She was just someone very normal with a nice presence.

I observe people Brij. I notice the way they talk, pay attention to what they talk about, whether they are being authentic or pretentious, how they treat other people. I’m always noticing these things. Soo Jung’s always been very real Brij, and very nice. That’s what attracted me to her.

Me: So what was it that made things click? Did you have a lot of common interests? Were your conversations very engaging?

Jim: (A soft laughter) The way I grew up Brij, what became most important to me was that the folks I surround myself be real, be good. Everything else comes after that for me.

No, Soo Jung and I don’t have too many common interests. We like different kinds of music. She’s all classical and opera, I’m more into rock n’ roll, folk and world music. We have different tastes when it comes to books we read. At the university I’m taking more physics and mathematics courses while she went the business administration way. But here’s the thing Brij: she comes along with me when I want to go and do something that I enjoy and I go along with her when she wants to go and experience what she likes. You see what I’m saying? Each of us likes it when the other is happy and we participate in their happiness. And it’s always been like that for the two of us. We’ve never had to talk about it or anything. I think this: just being happy with each other, is what “clicked”.

And I really don’t see the whole fuss people make about this aspect when it comes to relationships Brij. It’s almost as if everyone’s prepared a multiple choice test for everyone else and you’ve got to pass that test to be with them (laughs)! I mean, this is small stuff. Why don’t people feel each other’s presence, sense whether they are comfortable and at home with each other. That’s what counts at the end of the day, doesn’t it? Then just do things together. Be with each other’s happiness.

Me: So how did you connect with her from your side? You probably faced some challenges. Was your having grown up in a foster home ever an issue?

Jim: With her, no. In fact one of the first things we did together was visit the foster home I grew up in. I wanted her to see where I was coming from, meet some people there and see how she would take it. It was that visit that made me realize just how humane she really is. She was just so normal with the kids there. Not trying too hard to make an impression, not uncomfortable either. We all just hung out and chit chatted.

But her folks did take some time to accept that their daughter wasn’t getting married into a family. They eventually came around though. They saw that Soo Jung and me were happy together. And it helped that I was actually studying at the university and had made something of myself by that time. That helped them relax about her future a fair bit.

Me: Well, you both’ve come a long way now. Three kids!

Jim: I’ll let you in on a secret Brij since you asked about her being comfortable with my background. One of them is biologically ours: John. Tim and Sarah are from the home. We adopted them a few years ago. That’s something I always wanted to do. To give kids like me a home. Soo Jung did want a child of her own and I respected that. We were very happy when John came into our world. But we also knew from very early on in our friendship that adopting a couple of kids and continuing an association with the home and doing whatever I could was important to me. Soo Jung never seemed to feel any discomfort about that. Never. It all just happened as a natural course of events.

Me: And there are no problems between the kids themselves?

Jim: Sure there were some issues to be sorted out initially. Tim and Sarah are coming from a different space and they took a bit of time to start feeling at home with us and respecting the role we play as their parents. We had discussed stuff with John before adopting Tim and Sarah. So he had some idea of what to expect. Full credit to him though: the chap displayed tremendous maturity for his age and gave Tim and Sarah the space they needed when they came. And they too responded well. (Smiling) They’re pretty tight now Brij, pretty tight.

Recalling this conversation with Jim gives me the opportunity to share my thoughts on the first aspect of the “Humanity Challenge” I placed before all of us a little while ago.

I present a two-pronged strategy that should help us start a discussion towards ensuring that not a single child grows up an orphan in this world.

Let me first talk about adopting children:

The first thing I want to say is that while I have never felt so myself I do respect the sentiment I find in many people about having their own children. In many a conversation I have found people to be particular about wanting to raise children that are biologically theirs. To be honest I have myself never felt this way but I respect their desire and sentiment. I also respect the idea of not giving birth to more than one or two children in a family. The world’s population has grown dramatically and I accept that it is perhaps not wise to keep bringing children into the world that we can’t take the responsibility of nurturing well.

But look here: where does it say that we can’t have one or two biological children of our own and then expand our families by adopting a child or two (assuming of course that one is economically sound enough to raise them well – and I think many of us are that economically sound)? What stops us? Think about it. I am saying have your biological children. Propagate your genes. Fulfil that desire. But why stop there? Why not go a step further and adopt too?

All it will take is heart and humanity. Nothing more.

And once we adopt a child, let us ensure that we treat it like our own. All the way. No distinctions to be drawn between the biological child and the adopted child in any aspect: the way he or she lives at home, the education and healthcare they receive, the clothes they wear, the food they eat. Above all the love and respect they receive and the sense of belongingness they experience. Let no doubt ever arise in the child that it is loved truly and equally.

Anyone who does this is a blessing beyond comprehension on this planet in my book. As far as I am concerned such a person is not a nano-millimetre short of having become a channel for divine love itself.

But no matter how great an act it cannot have force or compulsion as its basis. Every expression of love has to come from within. And sometimes it can take time for love to sprout and blossom to the extent I am talking about above. If it hasn’t blossomed to that extent in someone yet, that is fine too – they simply need to start from where they are. Step by step the journey unfolds and step by step the journey is completed.

This brings me to the second prong of the strategy I propose: Community run foster homes.

There are indeed foster homes (usually called orphanages in India – I do not like that title) that are run by the government or NGOs. But this state of affairs falls way short of how good it can be for many reasons. For one there is usually a paucity of funds at such establishments. Sometimes it can be because contributions are limited and at other times it may be due to corruption that leads to money being siphoned off. I have contributed significantly to one such orphanage, so I’m talking from first hand experience. Then there can be issues of management: whoever is deputed to run any such establishment at a given time may just not be keen about his or her job and end up making a half hearted effort. And it’s the kids staying there who suffer. Sometimes one may find criminal elements engaging in exploitation or abuse of children at such places. This can completely destroy children and scar their psychologies for life.

What we need to do is to get involved ourselves. Here’s what I propose:

We have housing societies and neighbourhoods. Let clusters of such housing societies and neighbourhoods take it upon themselves to collectively set up and manage foster homes that provide good living conditions, nutritious food, quality healthcare and education till a stage when the child becomes a responsible intelligent adult with a sound sense of self-worth and self-esteem and can integrate with the society at large and make it through life on his or her own. And during an individual’s years at such a foster home let the members of the community managing it befriend them, spend time with them, connect with them as human beings, counsel them in a manner that brings stability and clarity to their minds and hearts and inculcates a sense of confidence and self-respect in them. Even if some people can’t bring a child to their own homes, they can certainly love them and care for them at such community run foster homes to the extent they are able to. And each act of love and humanity matters. It brings hope. It gives strength. It lights up the way forward bit by bit.

Can this not be done? Am I suggesting an investment of time, money and effort that is out of proportion? Not at all. Just do the math. How many people would be present in a cluster of housing societies and neighbourhoods? And how many children would they collectively be taking responsibility for? It is nothing (I present some sample calculations in Chapter 14). As I have been emphasizing time and again: intent and heart, that’s all it requires, intent and heart. Once these are in place, everything else can follow.

And the first step that I recommend towards reaching this stage is that we take the time and make the effort to visit orphanages that are functional as of today. Locate those in your cities and towns. Go there. Meet the kids. See if you can help in some manner. That’s how it started for me too.

As the famous Nike advertisement punchline goes: #JustDoIt.

But yes, if you do have the capacity to adopt and think you will be able to give the child your love and care as your very own: please do step forward. Bring light and love to a soul. Such an act from your side will be a blessing to the child as well as the world. And you will be setting a tremendous example for many others.

The li’l girl, she was a throwin’ fishes into the sea when the ol’ man with yellow teeth and sun burnt skin asked of her…

Whaddya ya doin’ child?

Savin’ em fishes kind Sir.

But child, there be a so many o’ them washed ashore. How do it matter what ya do with a few, aye?

But kind Sir, it matters to that one…splosh…and that one…splosh…she said as she kept a tossin’ ‘em back into the sea one ba one, one ba one.

The ol’ man with yellow teeth and sun burnt skin smiled ‘is smile as he started a walkin’ with the li’l girl and tossin’ em fishes back into the sea too…this child, she knew, and she knew how to stay knowin’, and how to make a others knowin’ too…she be fine she be fine…

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