Sunday, August 9, 2009

Forty Gallons of Milk

According to United Nations Development Program's 2008 poverty index, Sri Lanka ranks at 99 and India at 128 out of 177 participative countries. 17.8% percent of Sri Lankan and 31.3% percent of Indian nationals are statistically determined to be under the poverty line. Even if you're not a math whiz like me, the writer, it's easy to presume that Sri Lanka and India fits at the bottom half of this index.

According to a UNICEF report about 148 million children in the developing world are malnourished or under weight and half of these children live in South Asia.

Although these statistics paint a raw and painful picture, the real situation may be worst in most cases due to complex demography, remoteness of this population and challenges in gathering real information.

Now, let's switch gear and relocate to Longitude 44N and Latitude 77W to a divine place in Rochester, New York.

The Rajarajeswari Temple is located in the Rochester suburb of Rush on 23 acres of rolling verdant ground. This Hindu temple with an approach to allow non-Brahmins and even women to conduct pooja ceremonies is famous for equal opportunity and oceans away from traditional temples' hierarchical methods of priesthood. The temple follows the Sri Vidya tradition of teaching Sanatana Dharma rituals to all, regardless of cast or creed. The expansion of the temple is visible and impressive. Every year the temple conducts youth camps to enlighten westernized children with Hindu culture and philosophy.

The equal opportunity status also extends the visitors and devotees, regardless of differences, to perform Abishekam on godly idols. An Abishekam, for non-Hindus, is similar to bathing a religious idol with liquefied items (milk, yoghurt, honey, sandalwood, crushed bananas, etc.) however, is only a ceremony of ablutions and symbolic offerings, according to the Hindu Temple of Rochester (no relation to Rajarajeswari temple).

However, a recent visit to the Rajarajeswari temple gave me a jolt on one of their rituals.

During this visit, while the Yaga being conducted at a big hall with huge exhausts, the devotees were asked move on to an altar to perform Abishekam on the main idol, Sri Rajarajeswari Amman. People lined up in colorful saris, veshtis, children hanging to the tail ends of their parents. As they reached the altar, there they witnessed a line up of milk cans, about forty of them, each with four liters of fresh milk. A young man constantly poured milk into a metal container and handed over to devotees who in return poured the milk over the main idol. All forty gallons of them!

I too stood in line, watched the events then asked someone if the poured milk is collected at the drain-end and reused. This person didn’t know the answer but looked at me in amazement of my question. When I got close to the altar, with a feeling of guilt spiking through my backbone, shouting that ‘this is wrong’ when 140 million children go hungry every night, I backed off.

For the record, I am a born Hindu, brought up a Hindu and have practiced Hinduism extensively during my early years. I believe and trust that Godly things are to be delivered through human beings and that it’s human responsibility to spread and spend God given wealth to the most needed. And mainly when it comes to food, wastage is crime when millions are malnourished with no hope of revival.

I do not think that God asked us to pour forty gallons of milk on his visuals. I don’t think the God will become angry if we give him or her a symbolic offering and donate the rest to the needy and vulnerable of our society. I don’t think the God, which is sometime a statue carved out of stone; sometime a framed picture and sometime just a thought in our frame of mind will punish us for doing humane things.

Instead of following rituals of abundance and flaunting our wealth based on how many gallons of milk we pour on an intricately sculptured statue made out of black stone, the temples of modern society must guide their membership in righteous thinking; just like how the same Rajarajeswari temple dissolved cast, creed and sex discrimination to learn and perform pooja ceremonies.

An email sent on August 3, 2009 to get the Temple's side of view remain unanswered at press time.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Meeting the "killer of a child" - Part II

Chinnaiah (pronounced chin-na-ya) is a colorful personality. A man fond of life's amenities he is known to enjoy God's givings with plenty however, within means of his family and surroundings.

Chinnaiah was taught to drink and smoke by my father, so I've been told, when they were in their early teens, behind their house, hidden in Palmyra forests and near railway tracks, sitting in between parked railcars that carried provisions to Jaffna from the South. They both got immersed in many non-curricular activities together, again - I've been told, that their parents almost gave up in controlling and disciplining and that both were let to live and learn from their life experiences alone. The schools they were enrolled would have seen only a less than acceptable attendance. The girls they befriended would have had their hearts broken many times over. The pranks they played may have wrecked havoc in many lives. Yet, they remained committed friends for a long time.

Years moved on. Teens became adults. My father became a journalist and Chinnaiah formed himself as a pharmacist, working for Doctors, clinics and hospitals.

Chinnaiah also had a son, amongst other children, who was a Major with the Tamil Tigers during the mid to late eighties. Major Naren - the nom de guerre given to him by the Tiger leadership - if lived, would have been my age by now, with a family and possibly wife and abundance of children. During the Indian Army's involvement in the Sri Lankan affairs in late eighties and during a conflict in the North West Mannar region, Major Naren took his life by swallowing cyanide capsule to ensure not to be captured alive, a non-written pronouncement of committed Tiger cadre.

A devastated Chinnaiah and his wife moved to India and then onto Toronto, to live with their other children and extended families. Few more years moved on with monsoons, draughts, snow storms, riots and peace times. Then one fine day in late summer Toronto, I got married to Chinnaiah's older brother's daughter - not by arrangement for the record - thus becoming a relative-by-marriage to him.

Chinnaiah, a fan of Scotch, when under little influence would tell us stories about his past endeavors and experiences of meeting people and places. We would sit around him, during family gatherings, BBQs and wintery evenings to indulge in these past that we never saw, of the dusty streets of Jaffna peninsula, of the beaten path of railway tracks and palmyrah forests.

Chinnaiah is also known to have faced the LTTE supremo one evening, at their house in Navalar Road, during the times when Mr. Prabhakaran was free enough to roam the lanes of Jaffna, without much security and pomp. During this intersection, knowing Chinnaiah's "state of affairs", Mr. Prabhakaran apparently had made a comment stating that "Chinnaiah would continue to drink whether the Tigers are alive or dead". Then Mr. Prabhakaran laughed heartedly and patted Chinnaiah's back to go off and have dinner with Major Naren at their kitchen table.

Few days ago - let's let go of the past for a while and move to present day - I read a blog written by a former Indian Military Intelligence Chief named Col. Hariharan. This gentleman had served and spent three years in Northern Sri Lanka during the IPKF time, from 1987 to 1989, I think. While reading the blog, something struck me as if I have already knew the story that Col. Hariharan tried to describe and detail in his writings.

Immediately I called up Chinnaiah in Toronto and asked him to recall few incidents that were in Col. Hariharan's blog. Now, what you need to know is that Chinnaiah has already transformed himself into a teetotaler. No scotch, no Gold-Leaf, and no beetle chewing. And as such and unfortunately his memory isn't as crispy as before. So, he noted down what I said however didn't say much in return. Disappointed, I emailed one of my cousins to print and deliver the article to him to jog his 'sober' memory.

Then the next day, while I was sitting at the lounge of Renaissance hotel of Atyrau, in Kazakhstan, looking out at the frozen streets, sipping an Efes, I got a call from Chinnaiah. He was in rather anxious mood with a broken voice. I noted emotions through the receiver that was abnormal to Chinnaiah's usual calm and cheery manner.

He apparently had met the "killer of his son" - a second time over, in black and white, in precise print and in writing. However, this time the presumed "killer" himself seems to have come to terms with war and tragedy and that with emotions of reminiscence he's trying to heal, reconcile and reach out.

I expressed to Chinnaiah that we must eventually reconcile our past and move on. He paused for a while then said, "Look Thambi, Col. Hariharan was a friend of my son before he passed away tragically. So, as long as I have fond memories of my son, I too will have fond memories of the Colonel. I wish him well with all my heart".

[Please read Col. Hariharan's blog to dot and connect the lines]

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pongal: A Reminder

Time is tense; past and the present

Not a bright day to celebrate

The night is still on, dark and gloomy

With no sight of dawn..


When bombs fall around our loved ones

With no roof to cover their dignity

Hunger and thirst goes unnoticed

By the wrath of God or someone related to our almighty..


But we can still thank for

What we have until this morning

What we hope for tomorrow, near and the distant future

So, what we gather next become treasures

To cherish, preserve and for many more Happy Pongals to come..

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Blowing in a Police Car

The early-eighties New York was a den of crime and corruption. While mugging and murders seemed out of control the corruption jumped out from an unexpected source. Then District Attorney Robert Giuliani, who last year contested to become the Republican Presidential nominee, fought hardly, and in the media limelight, to bring corruption to a halt and corrupters to justice. But the people he tried to put away were the same group of people whom were expected to implement raids and arrest warrants.

They were the men in blue; the mighty police force of the Big Apple. Disproportional percentage of these fine men and women in blue were charged with drug trafficking, running prostitution rings, shakedowns, neglect of duty and Blowing in a Police Car.

The raw meaning of "Blowing in a Police Car" is self explanatory and no one in the right mind would want to experience such an inhumane scenario. But it happened to me at the end of 2nd day of this new-year, about thousand kilo-meters away from New York City, on a road covered with snow and sleet.

We were on highway 401, an expressway that runs east-west through the city of Toronto. Returning from a family visit and dinner, one of my little occupants wanted some mid-night treat so we exited at Markham Road, picked up McChickens then re-entered back onto 401.

Upon entering I saw flashing blue and red lights ahead of me, on both sides of the on ramp to the highway. A man in black uniform put his hand in front of the car. I slowed down, stopped near him and rolled down the window. Before I got to react with a customary question of “What’s wrong, Officer?” he put his head literally inside the driver side window and asked: "Sir, have you been drinking today?”

Being a good citizen I answered, "Yes, one Scotch, Officer", hiding the second drink under my tongue, with a clear, ‘I’m smarter’ look and hope that the episode would finish soon with happy endings.

"Hmm.. I see.. But smell strongly of alcohol on your breath, sir. Would you mind taking a breathalyzer test and proving that you're okay to drive?"

Now, by this time the occupants of the car are getting uneasy. "I told you that I'd drive" - my wife yelled softly into my ears, in Tamil. There's sibling rivalry ensuing between two brothers and a sister about the unwanted visit to the McDonald's.

I obediently got out of the car and was led to a police vehicle that sat idling on the right side of the shoulder. The officer opened the rear door and commanded me to get in.

"Sir, not to worry, you are not under arrest but we have to conduct the test inside a police car".

I'm not sure how many of you have been in a police car. But for me, this was the first time. And to talk about the state of modern police cars, if you're not a front seat passenger, this is probably the cramped rear compartment ever been assembled at a Ford plant (no wonder they are losing out to Toyotas!). I practically had to squeeze my legs in between the bullet proofed front panel and the floor. The rear seat was made of thick rubber (easy to clean of blood stains and vomit, I guessed), a tiny video camera stared at me from rubber covered hood and there was stuff lying around on the right side of the seat with no intention of providing comfort to a suspect.

Two officers got in through the front doors of the car. One of them opened a little slider off bullet proofed glass panel that separated front and rear. He had an off-white gadget in his hand.

"Sir, this is the alcohol breathalyzer. And I'll explain how to use it. However, beforehand, I need to read some of your rights and options" - Then he went on to read a paragraph of my right to refuse, options and the ramifications of test results.

I practically had no options. If you refuse a breathalyzer test, you spend the night at a police station and wait for your lawyer to show up in the morning. If you take a test, the ramifications are as follows:

0.45 Or less alcohol level - you go home
0.45 Or greater - you go home with an immediate six months suspension of driving privilege. Your car gets towed away to a police yard if you don't have another driver
1.00 Or greater - you get arrested for drunk driving, lose your license for one year, if a first offender, and a charge with potential fine and imprisonment will commence

I opted to the test and as such conformed to the term "Blowing in a Police Car". The blowing took six seconds into a little plastic knob that was attached to the breathalyzer. Then it took long, life threatening, game changing two more seconds for the results to pop up on the digital meter.

God knows what helped me; I wondered. Was it the six-Dosa dinner with Sambar and chutney, was it the caramel pudding my wife made with love, was it the late night smell of McChicken that somehow got mixed into my Scotch filled lounges?

While I was led out of the police car (yes, you can't open the rear door from inside) by the man-in-black, while I walked up-chested for beating the system however, feeling low for drinking and driving, towards the fogged out windows of my car with panicky and worried four pair of loving eyes, I heard another policeman pondering in a sad voice:

"How come tonight is so slow..?"

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Unplugged: A New Year Resolution

It's tough being a forty four year old.

There are so many expectations. You are expected to be in the peak of your career, with no regards to bank failures, bailouts, stock market plunge, recession and economic Katrinas. You have to play tutor to kids, sports coach, behavioral consultant, fashion commenter to the wife - only the 'you look marvelous Billy Crystal's kind' -, home theatre installer, perfect gardener, lawn mover, snow plower and many thanks to my un-cuisine abilities, the kitchen at least is off-limits.

To top it all up, I recently paid a visit to my doctor for a routine check-up. This lady of pristine white coat is a tough woman, who regularly eyeballs firmly through the top of her glasses with a 'are you following my recommendations' look. She usually checks the pressure, weight, height - which ceased to change two decades ago, and the beat of my heart with a cold stethoscope. All this would take few minutes then she'd return to her desk to check the records of a thick file of over twenty years. And, that's where the bad news started. The recent blood results didn't turn up satisfactory. There are moderate traces of cholesterol, nothing of a worrying kind however, against my doctor's previous preventive recommendations.

So, the questions began about my physical and dietary habits and I comfortably lied to all of them against the universal principle of not lying to your doctor. The difficult part of her challenge has been that I work out at least one hour per day to reduce cholesterol build-up and to prevent an eventuality of heart attack that is common across middle aged South Asian men living in Canada.

Most of you know that I travel extensively for the job, stay at hotels, and eat non-customary food prepared by unknown cooks, with unknown ingredients and lots of meat. Although the hotels I stay have excellent gymnasiums and work out facilities, I seldom stop the elevator on these floors. One of the reason being that we usually have an off-site meeting, after work, which end up with few pints in the tummy and it's not fair to expect a gym facilitator to entertain tipsy-turvy clients on a treadmill or trying to lift forty pounds in each hand. So, against my will, the work-out sessions never materialized and the elevators kept going, missing those floors of men of six-packs and women of perfect bodies.

Along came another new year, the dawn of 2009 and the media is filled of people making new resolutions that they know for sure to break within few weeks. I too paused and thought, as in other new-years, then declared these resolutions as a memento-breaker that prevents us from partying and indulging in 'usual' human behavior. A human behavior according to my dictionary is to live life fully, in moderation, with no greed or excess that goes beyond your abilities. I believe that such methodology of life is an implementable approach to most of us.

Then, at three a.m. on New Year eve's night, I woke up thirsty. The room, mouth and throat felt very dry. It's dark around the bed. I reached out to the left for a tumbler of water and found it empty. I got up, worked my way around to the bathroom and turned the switch on. The light didn't come up. I twist opened the faucet. There's no water. The floor felt icy cold. Looking through the window, the trees in the forest, past my backyard, stayed still; snow that was there before I went to bed is now gone. I returned to the bed and found the right side of it flat. I hastily removed the covers and found no one underneath. I ran through each bedroom of the house. All of them stood empty. Everything seems strange. How is that all of a sudden I've become alone?

I woke up again; this time for real, from this strange nightmare. I made sure the wife and kids are sound asleep. I went down to the basement and found the elliptical machine sitting idle and covered in dust. A weight resistance machine sat next to it in similar neglect. And suddenly it occurred that beyond dusting, these machines needed someone to work on them, to maintain a healthy metabolism, to burn off those unnecessary calories, to get rid of the occasional visits to my spectacled lady physician.

Most importantly, to not to be left alone, on a cold floor, waterless tap, lightless room, snowless winter and breathless trees so that there will be someone to yearn for under the sheets, children to coach, guide, to see their children, the fruits of our generation.

I have unplugged a new-year resolution that is going to live and make me live longer and healthier.

"The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people - that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature." -
James Thurber