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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Are we lost in the shuffle?

And even if not, is it too little too late? or does it matter?

This week's issue of "America" - the Catholic weekly - carried a story that threatens my already fragile sense of identity - or maybe not! It's the story of the Church's attempt to address the problems of the "historic churches of the Middle East" including the Syrian Catholic church.

Wait a minute, did they say 'Syrian Catholic' without mentioning that other (Kerala) Syrian Catholic church? did they forget to include the Syro-Malabar or the Syro-Malankara churches even as they talked of 'historic churches' (see picture below from Wikipedia's entry on same subject)? Yes, and, yes!

Ok, perhaps the issues behind the story did not really relate to anything that might resonate with Kerala Syrian Catholics?

Oh, wait another minute! The issues they are to talk of, are Immigration and Emigration! If anyone has experience of those two topics that would be Keralites indeed! Whether the issue is that of immigration into the Middle East (Saudi Arabia) "where public observance of christianity is prohibited" and so presents a problem, or emigration to host countries like USA, Canada, Australia, Kerala Syrian Catholics have direct and relevant experience of both topics!

So why would the Church not include the Syrian Catholic churches of Kerala (the Syro-Malabar Church or the Syro-Malankara church) in these discussions? Is it perhaps that the Church is not so much interested in tending to the needs of her flock, as much as playing politics in the Middle East??

According to the story emigration puts "their historic communities in jeopardy. When they assimilate in their new countries, they are likely to lose their distinctive historic identities. Even when they remain Catholics, they are likely to join Roman Catholic congregations." You bet it does that - puts their communities in jeopardy - it's been doing that ever since Kerala Syrian Catholics have been migrating outside of their home state of Kerala whether to neighboring states within India or to countries outside. From the loss of their genealogically significant and colorful family names, to the slow mainstreaming of their womenfolk from chatta and mundu of yore to saris and now to the ubiquitous salwaar kameez, or the withering away of songs and hymns and ritual in Syriac, in favor of christmas trees and fruit-cake, Kerala Syrian Catholics in the diaspora in India and abroad, I think, have lost, failed to hand down or be handed down a core sense of Keralite identity, instead assimilating the dress, speech, and rituals of the dominant elements of their host societies.

Whether it's totally a bad thing is debatable - better to lose an atrophied identity and remain a living vibrant tolerant human being, I would say! In some later posts I'll try and document what those losses and gains have been for me on a personal level.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Trip to Mumbai - with Amul cheese to show for it!

I know I hadn't posted for a while - but I wasn't idle!
Well - I promised you cooking with Amul cheese, in the desi Mac 'n' cheese post; but what I didn't know was how tough it would be to get the original tinned cheese that I remembered nibbling away during my childhood.

I checked the local Indian stores, and all they had were Amul singles - and I confess I had long ago switched to Krafts and whatever else our local Giant and Safeway proffered on their shelves. So my quest for the original Amul and attempt to recreate the mac-and-cheese of another day and age seem destined to stay unmet - EXCEPT that I had the wonderful opportunity to make a quick dash to Mumbai this past month. Met family, chatted into the wee hours of the morning with sisters, took a brisk early morning walk down Worli with one of them, all with a surreal feeling that if I stopped holding my breath the images would all come crumbling down like a giant Truman show make-believe ecosphere.

Anyway it wasn't imaginary, as I now have concrete proof here with me.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am now the proud owner of two 400g tins of priceless Amul-ya processed cheese (actually there were three, but the first got gobbled up pretty quickly within a week of my return!)

But here are pictures.Now, I know I promised to do a desi mac 'n' cheese with the Amul as soon as I got a hold of some. But I haven't been able to work it into my family dinner menu as yet.

However I have a bonus offer: I made desi-spinach frittata with Amul this morning for brunch, and I have a recipe and picture, for those of you who might be curious!

Here's the recipe:

half a red spanish onion chopped
1 green jalapeno pepper, chopped (reduce if needed)
1" piece of ginger chopped (or teaspoon of ginger paste)
1 sprig of curry leaves stripped from the stalk, and chopped if needed
half teaspoon of red chilli powder (if needed)
1 can of egg-beater ( or 6 eggs, if cholesterol is not an issue with you)
8 oz (half a bag) of frozen chopped spinach
quarter teaspoon of salt (or to taste)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
quarter can (100 g) of Amul processed cheese (or more, per taste), shredded

Heat a frying pan on moderate heat.
Pour oil when the pan is warm.
Add onions, jalapeno and curry leaves and saute till onions are translucent.
Add chilli powder, stir a couple of times then add spinach.
Stir till spinach well heated (never overcook spinach, as I believe the nutrients get lost);
add salt to taste;
spread the spinach evenly across pan;
spread the egg-beater till it covers the spinach evenly;
spread the grated cheese on top of spinach;
lower heat, cover frittata and cook for about 5-10 minutes till egg is set and cheese has melted.
Do not overcook.

Here's the picture - the proof is in the eating!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

On Apologies

Nothing to do with anything..

But I thought this would be as good a time as any to soliloquize about apologies. Top five things to remember:

  1. No one owes you an apology - so if they do, consider yourself overpaid!
  2. The world being as it is, never expect an apology - but if they do, be surprised, astonished, overwhelmed!
  3. Sometimes, those ingrates, they mean to ignore you, insult you, rub your nose to the ground, hurt you, all of those things...BUT sometimes, sometimes their error can be purely inadvertent, and so when they do apologize, let it GO!
  4. And then again, in pure self-interest, while you may think right now you can be done with them, and that you don't really need them, who knows there may come a time when you do - so if they do apologize, when they didn't have to (see 1 above), when many others don't (2 above), when it was inadvertent (3 above), consider that you may sometime or the other need them, so be a grown up and save their face for them, let them live another day to save your face for you perhaps!
  5. And last of all - even if 1, 2, 3, 4, above do not matter, remember:
"The quality of mercy is not strain'd;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this-
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there."

Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare

Crossposted at

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Traffic in India

Must-see TeeVee - this is funny!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Washington Post on India’s Schools and Caste system

Following up to my previous post - here’s something else that needs work in India - if it is to come up to the 20th century.

A WaPo story on Indian schools and another on the caste system. (see Indian Author Tackles Prejudice “Inspired by ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ storyteller seeks to raise youth awareness of unjust caste system.” by Emily Wax and India’s Schools Work to Break Its Iron Castes)

The government since independence has done various things to fight “casteism” following up Gandhi’s original fight for the “untouchables”. This includes the various “reservation quotas” for college admissions and jobs - similar to the affirmative action programs in the US. But as in the US, the wealth effects of a growing economy, has created anomalies, and it is not uncommon to hear educated (upper) caste hindus (and others that do not fall into such favored categories) bemoan the limited access to college and government jobs because these have been whittled down after various scheduled castes and tribal reservation (i.e. lower caste) quotas are included. And evidence (as if it were needed) that inspite of the so-called rigidness of the caste system, India is a dynamic society - Indians have adjusted to this artificial “quota” by turning it on its head: you often hear that there is a heavy blackmarket in fake documents certifying scheduled caste/tribal ancestry obviously for the use of upper castes - after all this is a country that has pretty much invented the parallel economy, with parallel colleges, parallel licenses for everything from driver’s licenses to building contracts, housing pugdees etc. -

But more later.

While my post on fighting child labor seemed as if I might be fighting for the status quo - neither there nor here am I saying that the status quo is satisfactory - but as in the case of fighting against the women’s veil in Arab countries, I think the groundswell of a country’s own internal public opinion is what should force change not the arbitrary or vested interests of foreign governments and media that want a slice of that country’s economic pie.

In India’s case I hope I am not a paranoid sitting here - but the US educational industry seems to have put India’s vast market potential in its sights.

As long as that is not the driving factor behind the push for change in India…

More later.

Monday, January 14, 2008

This, by Monica Ali - On stopping Child Labor

Another insightful perspective from Monica Ali's Brick Lane.. pg 301 - one of the many letters from Hasina, the protagonist's villager-sister:

Lovely tell me she will start Charity for stopping the child worker. Which ones will you stop I asking to her. Oh she say all of them. The maid next door? I asking her this. She look surprise. But really she like daughter to them. The boys on roof who is now mend gutter sweep leaves? She look bit cross. That different she say. Which are the ones? The boy who come around sell butter? Lovely say are you washing that floor or not?

Here’s a good commentary on the impracticality of anti-child labor activism. I'm not sure whether most of this activism began with the loss of jobs from the West to low-wage countries of South East Asia, but if so, it is the first clue to how progressive liberals have allowed themselves to be used to impede the cause of true liberalism. Is it really the urge to remove poverty and exploitation of the children of the world, that most anti-child labor ardor springs from or is it the urge to protect one’s own labor market? How is such protectionism consistent with a liberal’s aspirations for the world around them? Especially when there is enough evidence that employment, and the resulting increase in purchasing power of developing economies can only improve their economies, and create the foundations of a marketplace for exports of our own country's goods? It amazes me how we want to force the opening up of world markets, even if it requires the near dumping of our agricultural and farm products, but will not allow the equivalent "dumping" of their labor on grounds that it is "not on level playing field" - they have no health care (like we do? ha!), they allow child labor, they allow unsafe work conditions etc. etc. While these concerns are indeed important, Western countries must understand the local context before belaboring such issues. Sometimes, a child employed is a child that is off the streets, not begging, not stealing, but being apprenticed to a trade; I am not saying that unscrupulous businessmen do not take advantage of the vulnerabilities of such children, but what I am saying is that there is such a wide scale of unfortunate events that can and do happen to children, adults, women, men in the third world, that being forced to take up a job that can feed members of one's family, is sometimes not the worst thing that can happen to a 12 year-old - call it the mirror opposite, the third world version, of your expensive $1,500 kids' practical montessori training, lemonade stand, camp, or summer internship rolled into one. Children cannot be children, I can hear you wail, and my heart does go out to them - they should be in school, yes; but if the alternative is a poorly run government school, with absent or worse still, ill-taught teachers, ill-equipped classrooms, it could well be that a factory floor that guarantees the teaching of a trade, and a stipend to boot, is not such a terrible occurrence.

Why not allow the governments of developing countries, the child laborers of the world, their family and employers to be guided by your own norms - “think globally, act locally” ??

All this makes me sometimes question whether I am indeed a progressive liberal or a mean exploitative closeted capitalist – perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. Or perhaps the goals and core philosophy of the current crop of progressive liberals are not completely consistent with true liberalism.

_________________ .... _________________

As an aside, I must say I was a bit put off by the stilted language adopted by Ali for Hasina's speech/writing.
I couldn't put my finger on where the fault lay till I stumbled upon Anita Nair's website - frankly I hadn't heard of her (my deficiency entirely) until then, but was totally captivated by Anita's website, where under one of her FAQs (below) she gets exactly to the point I was having trouble with in Ali's prose for Hasina:

What makes your writing different from other Indians writing in English?

First of all, my books are set in the everyday world of India. Secondly, the characters who speak English in my book do so without making a farce out of it. To me, what a person says is more important than how they speak their words. And, this belief has found its way into all my writing. The other aspect is that in a book such as The Better Man that is set in a village, English is seldom spoken. But that does not mean that the average Keralite is illiterate or unaware of the world. He has probably read Omar Khayyam and Marx, Russell and Tolstoy in translation so that degree of education is perceived in the way he uses his words. So if some of my characters sound erudite, they are, in the language they grew up speaking. In such a context, Hybrid-English or the lack of it makes no difference to the atmosphere or plot or characterization.

Granted Hasina, who Ali forces to speak 'farcical' English is a villager and seems unlikely to have read Omar Khayyam or Marx; but even a villager such as she, a Bengali at that, who seemed to have such an expressive, original personality as shown through her letters to her sister, would speak her native Bengali fluently. The ill-phrased, ill-constructed, ungrammatical sentences made her seem to be more doltish than the spunky, tom-boy of a village-maid that her actions showed her to really be.

So here I am expressing some minor disappointment with that part of Ali's composition - but who am I to be disappointed at someone who has put together such an otherwise beautifully perceptive, almost fully believable tale of a people - something which every immigrant, whether Bengali, or Muslim, or Hindu, whether rich or poor, whether crossing into the US, or UK, or even urban Mumbai, can surely identify with!

{Crossposted at}

[UPDATE] I hasten to add that nothing I’ve said here absolves governments of developing countries who need to do their best to provide quality schooling and education (I heard that the Indian government has plans to open up a slew of high level universities across the country - I wonder whether, they first need to make sure that their elementary and high schools are fully up to snuff, and poor families have equal access to good education, and find it worth their while to send their kids to such schools instead of opting for short term gains at local factories.) But developed countries need to get off their high horse - no use pretending that labor activism of any kind is not out of the most inward looking, illiberal motives!!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Monica Ali - On immigrants’ complaints

Just finished reading Monica Ali's Brick Lane. Enjoyed it.

Some thing hit a nerve - on immigrants' complaints - p 53

Nazneen said, “My husband says it is discrimination.”

“Ask him this, then. Is it better than our own country, or is it worse? If it is worse, then why here? If it is better, why does he complain?”

I have heard variations of this comment myself here in the US. And my answer is this:

This is absolutely a false dichotomy. Life in the US is indeed better than back home, but it could be enormously better, given this country’s seemingly endless resources. The US holds itself as first among all; its policies affect the whole world whether it’s trade, or human rights, or spreading democracy, or spreading war and death and destruction. And that is why I cannot bring myself to refrain from complaints and criticism. My complaints are not on my own behalf, but on behalf of all those who would help make this country a better yardstick of civilization’s progress. Many of us came to this country because it was a “beacon of hope” as the cliché goes. I remember attending an event at a Kerala Church in NY a very long time back and listening to an elderly immigrant grandparent “karnavar” of sorts, bearing witness aloud, proclaiming his thanks to God for bringing him and his family to this Promised Land. To him, the US was indeed the Biblical Promised Land. My complaints, when I make them, (sometimes in less than diplomatic terms,) is merely an effort to bring this adopted homeland closer to an universal Promised Land!