Discovery of America : 30 in 30

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The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.
—Senator J. William Fulbright

My name is Rajeev. I am a Fulbright Scholar from India.  Three years ago, I took a journey from India to Indiana to pursue graduate education. That made me fall in love with this country. I became a lifelong Hoosier.

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I live in New York City now and it’s time for me to go. Go back to India and contribute to understanding between the two largest democracies. I came to America to share my India with you and now as I go home, I will share America with my folks there.

BUT

My thirst for learning about America and Americans is not over yet. To conclude my Fulbright journey, I have a goal – 30 in 30. I want to take a road trip from New York to California and meet 30 American families in 30 days as I pass through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Dakotas, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and end up in San Francisco, California.

“It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears
is said to be seen in San Francisco.
It must be a delightful city and possess
all the attractions of the next world”

–          Oscar Wilde

The Route

I want take this message back home that there is lot of America between NY and CA. I wish to take back home, the vastness of American land and water and people and food –  between the skylines of NY and CA.  I want to learn from a family in Wisconsin, what it means to be American, what work they do, what keeps there family together, what their concerns are, what dreams they have? I want to learn from a family in Montana what they think of India and Indians and Indian food and Bollywood. The goal of this Indo-US friendship tour is to initiate a dialogue of friendship between the two massive nations. The final product will be a documentary film titled “Discovery of  America”. You can find my itinerary further below and every day I will post story here and Twitter @rajeevcinema  about my whereabouts and experiences.

I want you to be a part of my journey. To find those American families, I need your help. If you have a family or friends who can break bread with and chat with me in any of the towns and cities listed on my route, please help me connect. I believe in America, I believe in humanity. I am confident that with the help of my friends, I should be able to line up American homes opening the doors for me as I keep moving westwards.

Here is the tentative plan –

CITY/TOWN STATE STATUS DATE
Central Park, New York City NY START

Jul 12, Saturday

Harrisburg PA Found

Jul 12, Saturday

Columbus Ohio  

Jul 13, Sunday

Bloomington IN Found

Jul 14, Monday

Chicago IL Found

Jul 16, Wednesday

Madison WI Found

Jul 17, Thursday

Minneapolis MN  

Jul 18, Friday

Sioux Falls SD  

Jul 20, Sunday

Badlands National Park SD  

Jul 21, Monday

Denver CO  

Jul 22, Tuesday

Rawlins/Laramie WY  

Jul 25, Friday

Salt Lake City UT  

Jul 26, Saturday

Grand Teton National Park WY  

Jul 28, Monday

Big Timber MT Found

Jul 31, Thursday

Coeur d’Alene ID  

Aug 1, Friday

Seattle WA  

Aug 2, Saturday

Portland OR  

Aug 3, Sunday

Crater Lake National Park OR  

Aug 4, Monday

Bandon OR  

Aug 5, Tuesday

Eureka CA  

Aug 6, Wednesday

San Francisco CA  

Aug 7, Thursday

Can You Recall The Five Faces You Saw Today?

 

Subway-smile

Last Friday, as I was rushing for work and walking into the subway station on East 86th street, I was so lost in my own world and thoughts that I did not see a man coming from the opposite side at the same turnstile where I was about to swipe my card.  I noticed that only after swiping my metro card. Not even after swiping,  I actually saw that when I had moved turnstile in to enter the station and came in less than an arm’s distance from that man. Now I saw that he was blind and that he was now inching back to make room for me to move forward. I could not feel more shamed of myself, of my absentmindedness. This was so not mindful living. That man began doing without having any eyes, what I could not do, with two perfectly functioning eyes. A woman now assisted him in making the exit. She gave me a look of contempt, which I clearly deserved. These few seconds now were the moments of very high awareness and consciousness for me. I can never forget the faces of that man and the woman who assisted him.

Feeling awful about this, I got into thinking about the cloud of our personal thoughts that surrounds us, ALL the time when we walk around in New York City. The things that are allowed to be a part of this cloud are devices – our cell phones, our e-readers, our music players. We don’t really lift our heads up or take our eyes off our devices or books to make an eye contact. Even when neither of the devices are engaging, our thoughts are still elsewhere. We say New York is a melting pot of cultures, but we don’t even know the language of the person sitting next to us in the subway because Spotify is streaming into our ears, screening off any linguistic treat from commuters. From the time we leave our apartment in the morning, till the time we hit the bed in the night, we must be coming across at least 30 new faces ( no Maths done), but can we recall even five of those faces when our head lands on pillow for a good night sleep?

There was another face I will never forget. Few days ago, I was taking a cross town bus from west side to east side ( I don’t take buses otherwise ) and the seat to next to me was empty. A noticed a really old woman approaching towards this seat. I just smiled, which I usually do when I see someone coming towards me. Not a big wide grin, but just a moderate smile of acknowledgement. And I resumed reading the Metro News. The woman took seat and said, “Thank you for your smile”. I can’t even forget the tone and warmth of that voice. There are many people of her age who probably didn’t grow up in a time of wired humans. For them, it’s hard to comprehend this new generation that is wired in an individual virtual cloud. So possibly, it was a pleasant surprise for her to receive smiling acknowledgment of her existence from a random stranger. And it was a surprise for me, for I did nothing extraordinarily out of my way to please here, I did what I usually did.

I know that it might be too much to ask from urban dwellers to always stay in the present and notice every human they see and make eye contact with everyone. That will be a lot of visual information to process each day. But that done in moderation might make each day a more pleasant one as the researchers Nicholas Epley and and Juliana Schroeder found in their research at University of Chicago, which I still believe is nothing earth shattering. Often, the clouds are full of thoughts about past and present. Engaging with strangers help us distract from them and get back in present, at least for time. Looking in other’s eyes and seeing their faces make us more empathetic towards them because we begin to see them as humans and not as objects dotting our way to some destination. Who knows, you might not need to go to Match.com or OkCupid, because the person you were looking for was sitting right next to you on the Q train to Times Square, if only you two had allowed each other in your virtual clouds.

So, will you try to recall five faces tonight?

Where are the holy women of India?

meera-bai--prem-deewani-mokshika

India is a land of mysticism and spirituality. From the time immemorial, people concerned themselves with the  search for truth. They  pursued their quest through various means. Some meditated, while others sang and walked. Few days ago I came across some intense portraits of holy men of India – sadhus in the northern plains of Ganga. This wasn’t the first time I saw those images. People in the west have been fascinated by them for as long as they existed. Perhaps not that long, because when British first discovered the Hindu religion, they were turned off by the torso flashing sadhus of India and therefore they did not find this religion very pleasant to their eyes and preferred Islam , which was how they thought the East should look like – pure and clean with the followers and preachers fully covered. But the question is that how is it that most sadhus that I came across – living or dead, on website or in real blood and flesh –  they are mostly male? I myself visited Gangotri once in the middle of melting glaciers and there was not a single woman there.  Like cold, hunger, warmth, anger, shouldn’t the quest for truth or a desire to be with God pervade the souls of men and women alike? Any Indian can desire to eat mango irrespective of the gender.  I began thinking why I found more men in this pursuit than women. 

Siddharth Gautam went to find the truth. Why didn’t his wife think of doing the same? I might not be completely correct, but all the twenty four Tirthankars of Jains are males. From Bhakti movement, apart from Meera Bai and Akka Mahadevi, there is no one else carrying the female flag. And so far, I was considering only the ones that focused on truth and God and nothing else and not the ones that speak on TV every day. Even if one discounts for the fact that there are less women anyway in the world, the holy women will still be disproportionately less than male sadhus. I wondered why.

First, the thought of pursuing spirituality must have visited many women. But they were more tied to responsibilities. The patriarchal and male dominated world we live in, which was even more so in the earlier times — would such system allow a woman to leave the parents, if she was not married, or leave her children and husband, and put ashes on her body and meditate under the Banyan tree? Siddharth Gautam left ( and of course returned later), but could his wife leave for the same reason? Is it the society that does not allow that independence for women or are women biologically wired to not not care and can think of being a wondering saint only after ensuring that their families are happy?

Second, Safety. Is a woman living alone in the forests of western ghats or some cave in Gangotri safe? One sexual violence and she would be in misery for many years to come.  This is very unfortunate though. The responsibility of creating and bearing life has pulled women down even in this noble pursuit. If anything, world should thank the female gender for choosing to allow her body for the purpose of continuum of life.   And not punish her for having this gift.

Finally, deserting a regular life or never having one  is not the only way seek salvation and pursue spirituality. It could very well be possible that many housewives  have been enlightened beings. But why they did not become popular or immortal in religious and historical texts? Because that visibility might require leading an ascetic life. Not to say that that is why sages have that lifestyle – for visibility.

Holy or unholy, women are an important part of the diversity that makes it worth living on this planet. Hopefully, with more re-engineering of society, women too will enjoy freedom to pursue their desires, in they way they want.

Happy Diwali

 It was sometime in October it struck me that soon it would be that time of the year again. Diwali. In past many years, I would not be at home for this occasion. Not that it would a big pompous celebration. More so after my sister’s wedding and her transplantation into her husband’s home, the pomp at our home has rather been reduced. Yet, even reduced pomp would be much brighter than Diwali in America, which is usually celebrated either in advance or after Diwali due to the event often falling on a weekday. Moreover, Diwali in India is not just about celebration at home. It’s also a lot about being soaked in the spirit of the festival experienced through the idiosyncrasies of the neighbors, of the kids blowing up crackers even at 4 am, of the insulin-injecting-diabetes-pained aunts slyly devouring extra sweetened gulab jamuns, of the brightening up of all the houses and buildings and not just Empire State building. I have a very poor memory. I don’t know if I ever had all these experiences or this is just my unusual romanticism with most things Indian. Regardless, I felt that I would miss all this if I decided to stay in New York. This, thus, sowed the first seeds of the idea of coming to New Delhi for Diwali.
What pushed the idea significantly ahead was the fact that off late, I hadn’t delivered any strong happy news to my parents. Fine, I recently completed my MBA from an American University. It was no where close to something like I got married. Or I became father. Or I came home for Diwali unannounced. There you go. Their happiness would know no bounds if I get home for this biggest family festival of Hindu calendar. My mother’s complaints about being lonely on Diwali in the past years had given me a fair picture of what they would be like if did not come home. My father would be asleep by 8:30 in the evening after the laxmi pujan. My mother would be watching TV like other three-sixty-four days of the year.
Thus I decided to come home. After all, doesn’t the romanticism of Diwali include home coming of Ram? At a short notice I got cheapest tickets with Kuwait Airways, which I regretted later though. 
In America, a usual greeting is ‘What’s up’. Of course, all cultures of have their own versions of what’s up. India or the Hindi-speaking India has “Aur sunao”, “Nayi taazi?”, “Kya haal chaal”. Irrespective of the flavor, this greeting would often annoy the hell out of me because I detest pattern repetition, more so such repetition in my own responses. I just could not stand me saying ‘Nothing much’ or ‘bas badhiya’ all the time to someone. I am ready to be accused of having retarded social skills for not coming up with new responses each time. I just didn’t like boring the crap out of a person by responding to him or her with this redundant reply every time.  But now,  when any friend or colleague who would say, ‘what’s up’, I would launch into an excited reply, “Well, I am going home for Diwali. What’s more, I am landing on the day of Diwali. My folks have no idea that I will be there! It would be just like K3G movie. Except a helipad.”.. And now, the innate entertainer in me would feel so happy to see the other person so engaged and excited and enthused. In any relationship, I often take it upon myself to engage and entertain the other person. I do not know the name that the social psychologists give to this disorder. I just like to crack people up. Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I end up embarrassing myself. But with this reply, everyone was excited and happy. I wasn’t even worried about anyone spilling beans to my family about my arrival because I knew damn well that my life outside my family is highly insulated from the one inside. This and any other blog I ever wrote,  has never been read by my folks. It’s quite interesting to have this dichotomous life. I guess many Indians or many bi-lingual people lead those lives.
In my flight to New Delhi, I sat next to this interesting country girl from England who was on her soul searching trip to India. She gave me useful tips of reducing the ear-disturbance during landing and take-off of the planes. Well she offered me sweet candies for that. Interestingly, she used those candies for many purposes, including keeping her breath fresh every time I popped a Wrigley’s gum. The best gift she gave me was the phrase ‘country-bumpkin’. That’s the British version of the funny American phrase hillbilly !
As soon as I  landed at the Airport, I changed from my country bumpkin’s clothes into  a three piece suit and cleaned up real well. When I emerged out of the Men’s room, the Brit conceded that I didn’t look sexy, I looked New York sexy. She had never been to New York. But I took that as an assurance that I had completed this part in my theatrics of Meet the Parents. I do not usually dress up to see my family. They have seen me in all shapes, sizes and colors. Yet, on my last visit to India, I drew a lot of flak for not being nice and clean ( after completing an over 20 hour ordeal across continents). Outside the airport, I approached a pre-paid taxi stand and on hearing the fare of Rs 360 for getting home which was less than 8km from the airport, I got my first reverse cultural shock. Even though I had no bench mark for taxi fare because I either drove or used public transport in India, this first exposure to a three digit expense in last two years woke me from my sub-conscious slumber of jet-lag now. I surrendered though; theatrics had to be complete after all.
The taxi-driver was friendly. He met me first time this morning and asked, “kaise ho”. I launched into my overly enthusiastic detailed reply about my unannounced visit to home. He told that he also did the same when he would go to Bhagal Pur. He wasn’t going home for Chatth this time though. Too much time and rising prices would force his wife to observe chhath in a makeshift pond in Delhi this year. While chatting, I would adjust my place in this rickety taxi every once in a while to make sure that I was not overexposing my head to the wind that would screw up my recently made hair. There would be no big a** mirrors like those at Indira Gandhi International and the only comb I had was now buried deep in one of the two identical bags I carried.

Despite preparation for over a month for this moment, as I opened the gate of my house at 7am  and started walking upstairs, my heart was pounding like the dog that chased me on my last visit to Delhi. I blame my funny looking red short for that though. I was here, in front of doorbell. There was no mirror for a last minute check. I took the name of Bhagwan Shankar and rang the bell, assured that I was all good. Out of anxiety and nervousness, I rang multiple bells. Something that only I or my sister do. My father opened the door thinking that it was my sister. My mother stood by refrigerator, staring at me, probably just having finished with a call to her brother. I could sense a pause of one second in the timeline of universe. I really did. Our eyes were frozen. Our minds were pacing. To understand what was going on. And now it happened. She cried. They hugged. We hugged. We were oblivious of the two identical bags and the friendly taxi driver from Bhagal Pur on the street downstairs. Three of us hugged  for several minutes we took to absorb that this happened. I knew my parents were happy. Very happy. But I wanted to experience that happiness. I wanted to know how much happy they were. When someone is enjoying a chocolate and making those umm sounds, I know she is enjoying that chocolate a lot. But I can’t experience that by just looking at her and by hearing  those sounds. I was happy too. I knew my parents were happier still. I probably can never experience their joy till I become a father.
Regardless, I was happy that all this meticulous planning and theatrical delivery resulted into a Happy Diwali –

Is it any wonder then that not many attempted to defend India from the writings of Sahaja Patel but Michaela Cross’ story got attacked from left, right and center?

Once at a workshop on race issues in the United States, I told an African-American colleague, “These race matters are indeed quite serious, I have one suggestion about it.”
“Don’t you have caste system in your country?” she said before I could continue.
***
During my usual Sunday morning calls to friends and family in India, I shared with a friend who I have known for over eight years, “Man, these sexual harassment stories in India just keep increasing.”
“Does that not happen in your America?”, he snapped.
***
These and many other similar incidents made me observe a pattern in the reactions. Reaction is not completely based on the content of the original comment. A significant weight on the attribute of the creator of comment goes into that reaction. Attributes can include the location, or gender, or race or countless other dimensions. What would have been the first reaction above if I were African-American?  What would have been the reaction of my friend if the same remark was made by an Indian living in India?
This kind of offensive defense describes many of the arguments that many Indians have given in their reaction to the CNN narrative of American citizen Michaela Cross about the alleged sexual harassment she went through at the hands of some Indian men during her travel in India. Often, the statistics about number of rapes in America is quoted in those reactions.  Before making comparison of crime statistics, we must take into cognition that rape statistics in India are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Getting a case registered is a herculean task and the police are often a major hurdle. A few of my closest female friends told me that they have gone through some of the troubles in the recent years that Michaela Cross faced. But their troubles have never been recorded as a statistic in police record because they would never share that with police or anyone they can’t trust or feel comfortable with.
Granted that the veracity of Cross’ story and her intentions behind that story are under scanner now due to some contradicting stories appearing on web about her experiences on the same trip. But interesting irony is that if the same narrative was written by an Indian woman, the dialogue would have taken another shape. There might not be even a dialogue. Incidentally, another blog, written by an Indian woman Sahaja Patel about disrespectful experiences that Indian girls go through could not become the trending piece. Of course, the marketing dollars of CNN’s brand name too had to do with the exposure that Cross’ story received. But Patel’s story did not cause as many Indian readers to act or react. Possibly because they knew it – it was an all too familiar story. Patel is a metaphor for so many Indian babies, girls and women for whom this is an unspoken part of life.  Is it any wonder then that not many attempted to defend India from the writings of Sahaja Patel but Michaela Cross’ story got attacked from left, right and center?  

To the Indians who point to rape and crime statistics in US in their attempts to defend India’s pride, here are some questions. Are you concerned more about safety of women in India or in the rest of the world? Where do most of your sisters and female relatives live? Even if Europe or North America has more rape cases, would those more cases make any India safer for  women? Concluding that all Indian men are predators is grossly inaccurate and dangerous. But is the observation that safety of women is a concern in India (in no relative context, but absolute context) inaccurate? Even if there is one case in a year in all of India, will Indians not be doing disservice to themselves in defending the country by comparing themselves with the countries that are worse? Isn’t even one a matter of shame?
Imagine India being a mass of land that happens to have the name India. People are trying to live on this piece of land productively and there is a safety concern for these people. Whether one of these people highlights this or some visitor to this land points it out, it is in the benefit of the people of this land to acknowledge and fix it. Visitor won’t be always enjoying the benefits of living on this safe land, but people of this land will. For a long time.
Next time when someone points to the alleged acts of Asaram Bapu, please do not mention the history of molestation of young boys at the hands of the priests in the Vatican. That won’t make him holier if the allegations are proved to be true.
PS: “Dude, you have ink on your shirt.”

“You have that too.”

“Well this is New York, people take different paths to reach their destination.”

Morning time is quite a crowded time at subway stations  and while emerging out of station, many people (at times me too) walk up using the left part of the stairs when right one is moving too slow. I saw this Asian guy waiting at the beginning of stairs for the right lane to get clear. In front of him were many commuters (including Asian girls)  walking up the left stairs. When crowd cleared from the right lane, this guy began walking up and I just followed the Asian guy.  When we came out, I said, “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”

“Yes”

I asked him why he did so. First, my articulation skill in English is quite poor in describing physical scenarios. I really need a pen and paper. I can’t put things in words as easy as I could describe visually. So I take longer to frame my question and convey what I meant to ask. During those 40-60 seconds, I feel so much pressure about what’s going in the mind of my subjects. I look at their eyes and their face. They are very attentive, after all I am asking a question about them, about their action, and not about why sky is blue. Their face is not relaxed and they are not smiling. They might as well be feeling that I am judging them. When I finish my question, that’s when I see a faint smile or sometimes laughter on their faces.


So this guy explained to me that right lane is what people use to go up. People come down from the left.

“Yeah exactly, but there were many who were going up from the left too..  .. in front of you”

“Well this is  New York, people take different paths to reach their destination.”

Are you going to work?

The temperature was 95 degrees Fahrenheit. My feet were almost melting in socks further enclosed by a pair of leather shoes. Walking on 8th street, I noticed the feet of a woman in a sky blue foot wear that was letting every pore on her feet to breathe. I wondered how comfortable this woman must be feeling. I was quite happy for her because she could chose to wear what is comfortable for her. I was proud of her as well for making a choice for herself. As we got into the building and walked into elevator, she pulled out from her purse another pair of footwear, which was fancier and apparently more office-like.  All the stock points she gained in my head in last 120 seconds, she lost in no time now. Rate at which stock price of the woman-with-sky-blue-footwear fell, was exponential. I could not ask her why.

Another hot morning to work. Just when I was about to get off the Q train, I saw a gentleman in a nice grey suit. What caught my attention though were his feet, which were interestingly not covered in shoes or any other close footwear. He was casually and comfortably walking out of the subway station. But this time I asked him, “Are you going to work?”
“Yes, why?”
“I am quite amused by what you are wearing on your feet, which is in stark contrast with the rest of the paraphernalia that is covering your body. I wish I could wear slippers like that. But I have logistic dilemma – is that appropriate to wear to work?”
“No, not really. I change into formal dress shoes when I reach work.”
“Where do you change?”
“In my office, I have a big office room.”
“Oh, alright, great. Have a great day!”
I started wondering about my options. I don’t carry a purse to place an extra pair of shoes. I don’t have a big office room either. Should I continue to burn my feet? But more importantly, why the woman and gentleman above had to change their footwear? Would the seriousness of their actions at work   be doubted if they continue to wear something they are comfortable with and something that is not conventionally counted in formal office wear? Are human feet so ugly they need to be covered all the time to do any kind of business?

Few days later, I decided to wear flip flops. I really did. I had to attend a workshop that day. A woman asked me, “What is it that you are wearing there?” I looked at her feet, and I noted that bottom of her feet were covered by a flat black sole and top of her feet were covered by a pair of black slings. Essentially, the only difference between hers and my foot wear were that mine were made of rubber and hers were made of leather, and mine were white and hers were black. So I was quick to reply as I pointed to her feet, “What, you can, and I can’t?”