Spotlight on Nigeria

Spotlight on Nigeria

This week in the news, the spotlight is on Nigeria where a local Islamic Fundamentalist group, Boko Haram has kidnapped more than 200 young girls . The Twitter hashtag “#BringBackOurGirls” has been trending at various points since the girls were taken, with many users from around the world demanding a swift rescue of the girls. The horror of their plight is worsened in the knowledge that the group plan to use and sell these women as sex slaves.

What is Boko Haram?

Loosely translated from the local Hausa language, this means “Western education is forbidden”. Boko originally meant fake but came to signify Western education, while Haram means forbidden. The group is fundamentally opposed to the education of women whom they believe are born to serve men, to cook their food, bear their children and provide free sex.

Schools were the hunting grounds for new “Jihadis” but as the group escalated into horrific violence, now commonplace in so many parts of Africa, they popularly came to be known as the Nigerian Taliban, despite no official connection with the mother organization. The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau gloated “I abducted your girls. There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell.

Islam and women

Neither the Koran nor Allah ever expounded any theory of deliberate suppression of women. In fact men only took more than one wife only if they could treat them all equally. Islam is one of the few religions that allows the woman to divorce her husband-Talaq. In fact, the husband has to return the “Mehr,” the bride price paid at the time of marriage. Mr. Abubakar is delusional and is venting his own psychological emasculation by enslaving innocent girls. It is unfortunate that men, Islamic or otherwise contort religion to give rationale for their own inadequacies. Education of women is seen as a threat, as men don’t wish to lose their control, which is a natural corollary when educated women  join the work force and gain financial freedom. Here in the US, women still earn 30% less than men and it makes me wonder, if Hillary Clinton becomes President, will they pay her 30% less? It is regrettable that one needs an incident as horrific as this one to make the world rise from their slumber and examine more fundamental issues. Issues that govern how men view women but more importantly how women view themselves.

World view of women

Women’s issues have preoccupied me and it comes out in my writing. When the Lotus Blooms, my first published book highlights several issues pertaining to women and though set in the 1930s are valid even today.This world view of women as basically inferior is at the core of all violence against women and this disease is rampant, touching every society in every country. Why do we raise our daughters to cook while our sons can play outside? How many women, after a 40 hour work week, cook Sunday dinner while their husbands watch the game with a six-pack of beer handy. Our children learn from our habits and imbibe hidden messages through our body language and the legacy persists. A 30 year old unmarried daughter is a liability who could potentially become an “old maid” while her male counterpart is a bachelor “enjoying life.” Hindu marriages concretize the belief that women are “property” in a ritual called Kanyadaanwhere the father gives his daughter as a gift or offering to her husband. Today, we continue this ritual in our marriages without examining its hidden meaning and what this means for the emancipation of women.

Emancipation of Women

Freedom doesn’t come solely with voting rights and equal opportunities. As long as we treat women differently from men, as long as we assign roles to women, as long as overtly or covertly subscribe to the superiority of men we can never stop the rabid abuse of women. The plight of these Nigerian women should make each one of us examine why world over this patriarchal belief system reigns supreme? Why do women need looking after? Why should  the destiny of women need to be controlled by men?  Are we unconsciously enabling the subjugation of women? Does the very fabric of society, the complex web of inter-gender relationships need to be re examined? And the last rhetorical question- Are we as women in some way responsible for these crimes being perpetuated against us?

Pongalo Pongal

Today on the occasion of Makara Sankranthi I was reliving the time I wrote an entire chapter in my book “When the Lotus Blooms,” about the festival of Pongal.

Pongal is a harvest festival, very important for farmers. For Tamils, it is a big occasion, with lots of preparation and festivity. Initially a celebration of the winter harvest, for farmers who toiled all year in the fields, Pongal celebrates the bounty of nature with great fanfare.

Many people believe it is Tamil New Year but that comes later in the year. I have very fond memories of Pongal which we thoroughly enjoyed especially if my grandmother Rajam was with us, as she was an outstanding cook. That was the only day in the year my mother allowed us to chew on sugar cane which she bought and washed thoroughly with soap and boiled water before serving us. Even though I grew up in Bombay I was never allowed to drink the notorious, diarrhea inducing sugarcane juice on the streets.

What was even more enjoyable was ‘Kanu” the next day. The colorful rice always attracted me and I loved watching the crows and sparrows vie with each other to get at the banana leaf laden with colored rice balls. I also remember how mad my mother got one time when our dog Raja decided to polish off the food! I didn’t realize we must be selective about our offerings.

The scene in the book shows the family gathered around the pongal pot which boils over, signifying prosperity in the future. Velandi the parayan watches the food being cooked, while hunger pangs in his belly distract him. Celebration in one household becomes the reason for envy in another.  The scene exemplifies opposites which continually rule our lives. Hunger and harvest, prosperity and desperation, bounty and death are all juxtaposed, mirroring the duality of perspective. Here is an excerpt from the book.

Nagamma had already put the rice and lentils into the pongal paanai and Sushila added the jaggery. The fire beneath the pot was flaming, burning bright and strong as the men kept adding more firewood so the pongal could boil faster. Balu had his brass plate and spoon ready and waited impatiently for the pongal to boil over. The water simmered as Nagamma added the milk. She turned to the family. “Pray all of you that as this pot of pongal boils over, so does our life boil over with good events and happiness.” She barely finished speaking when Balu noticed the pongal rapidly rising to the top of the clay pot.

“Pongalo pongal!” he yelled gleefully, hammering his spoon against the brass plate. Everyone shouted in unison, “Pongalo pongal!” clapping their hands and shouting as loudly as they could. Rajam stuck her tongue half out of her mouth, rapidly moving it from side to side in a warble louder than Sushila’s. Balu looked at her and tried to mimic her, but no one could hear his soft voice amidst the din. Rapidly removing some sticks of the firewood from under the pot, Nagamma reduced the intensity of the flame. The evil spirits hovering around the house were sure to have been frightened away with the racket they made. Rajam closed her eyes and prayed for all bad events to end and for new happy moments to surround their lives. In her mind she knew she was only praying for that one elusive event to take place.

When the Lotus Blooms has won two awards, one at the Great Southeast Book Festival and the other at the New England Book Festival.

The Dalai Lama endorses my new book ‘The Present: a gift from the Divine’

Holding onto  a dream 

Publishing When the Lotus Blooms was the realization of a dream. Many felt I would not be able to do it but I had supreme confidence in myself as a story teller. In spite of a million setbacks I self published in the US and got Supernova Publishers in India to market my book. Over 3000 copies of the book have been sold so far. A small achievement but a dream realized nonetheless.

Getting endorsements. 

No book sells unless recommended by someone important and I needed to get a well known name promoting my book. My mother and Lily Tharoor are old friends and through her I managed to get Shashi Tharoor’s office address after which I pestered his secretary for three months. Eventually I got the Foreword which is an added adornment to a book written as an offering of thanks to my first Guru: my mother.

The Power of Meditation

I perhaps would never have realized this latent talent for writing if my mind had continued to swirl in the small mind, with all my problems and daily irritations. Sudarshan Kriya and meditation transformed my life because it quietened the mind sufficiently to allow my natural talent to surface. This jump started my spiritual search and the transformation in my character, my ideals and values was so stark I had to express my gratitude to my spiritual Guru; My master Sri Sri Ravi Shankar without whose guidance my life would have remained colorless. His knowledge sheets became my daily inspiration and the move from the head to the heart was now in motion.

My foray into Inspirational-non-fiction

After I received SriSri’s verbal permission to write a book on the movement, I began reaching out to people within the Art of Living who had stories of such transformation. For two years I interviewed over a hundred people from countries like Togo, Argentina, Bosnia and Georgia, men an women with different ethnicities, race and religions affirmations. The common denominator was that all of them practiced the breathing and all experienced the transformation in different aspects of their life.

The Present: a gift from the Divine

The actual book spilled out over two months during which I wrote for 12-14 hours a day. It felt as though it was written through me and I was a mere spectator. Only the Grace of the Divine through my master allowed this to happen. I realized that life takes place in the present moment and all you require is a fistful of faith, gratitude and courage.

Shooting for the stars

In January, I was at the Hyderabad Literary Fair and someone asked me how I got an endorsement from Tharoor for my very first book. I remember laughing and telling them to wait and see how I would get the Dalai Lama to endorse my second. I knew I was aiming out of my reach but I had to try or forever regret my lack of effort. I spoke several times to my publisher and finally persuaded them to write on my behalf to some important people. They made requests to Dr. Karan Singh who immediately obliged with a fabulous message. Both President Abdul Kalam and the Dalai Lama‘s office kept prevaricating. Finally in the beginning of May, Kalam turned down our request and my editor felt nothing was going to come from the Dalai Lama’s office either. I gave up that dream believing it wasn’t in my destiny but within me was that Sankalpa, a tiny spark of intention that the Divine would take care of me because my intention for writing this book was pure.

A Monday morning Surprise.

Mondays always begin with a low note with hundreds of junk emails on my IPhone, so imagine my surprise when I received an email from my editor telling me that patience had paid off. I  continued to read and to my surprise she had attached an email from The Office of the Dalai Lama telling us the committee had reviewed my manuscript and that the Dalai Lama was  happy to endorse the book if we were still interested. My eyes were filled with tears of gratitude.

I must be the luckiest person in this world. I have had the fortune to write about the greatest spiritual leader of our time and am now endorsed by another globally acclaimed spiritual Giant: The kind and compassionate Dalai Lama

It pays to dream

,

My Friend Christine

In a world where everyone is immersed in their own circle of problems and work, it is refreshing to find a friend who takes a day off to support you and be there for you. Christine and myself spent a lovely afternoon together at the Miami Book Fair, for the second time. Looks like we might be on our way to making this an annual tradition.

I met Christine quite by chance at a writer’s group. She loved what I was reading, which at the time was an excerpt from the unpublished manuscript of “When the Lotus Blooms.”I never imagined that she would volunteer to read and edit the book before it went to print. We met for coffee and I gave her a draft of the manuscript. Christine gave me a whole bunch of tips on what I should do in terms of marketing my book in terms of social networking.

Christine has an amazing eye for detail and can find errors no one else sees. She was a very valuable resource when it came to presenting material in a way that non-Indian readers would appreciate it. Sometimes while writing you tend to use words you are very familiar with without realizing that an international audience requires more detailed explanation.

Christine’s recent passion is her new website , “I see dead Books,” a beautiful journey into old and forgotten book treasures. Christine Zambrano is an amazing, loving, warm and caring person. She always sports a cheery smile and her nature just comes through. She is talented at what she does and you can see from her review of my book, she writes beautifully. I cant wait to read her first book whenever she is ready to publish, although something tells me that I might be involved in the editing .:))

My Childhood Friend Ranjo Writes a Review in the Financial Times

I met Ranjo when I moved to Bombay at the age of nine and we hit it off immediately. While the others played Hide and Seek, we discussed the world’s problems and our philosophy on life. Our family’s were close friends and growing up with her and her baby sister Mona, was so much fun. She was an “intellectual” even at the age of ten and I knew she would take up writing as a profession. With an incisive and critical eye she took a stand for what she believed in. This is how I remember her.

What I didnt envision was my writing a book and her reviewing it. All the characters Rajam and Muumy, she knew well growing up, yet her review is balanced and very complimentary. Our soul connection will never go and I hope I can return the favor to her some day.

Here is a sample of her review.

The skill that has been displayed in dipping into all these issues without losing the human stories of both Rajam and Dharmu is remarkable. The author does not fail to make the point that women were forced to live subservient lives in a patriarchal society, no matter how strong or powerful they may be. Even Nagamma, who controls her family with an iron fist and no perceptible velvet glove, is limited to being a domineering householder. There is no outside role for a woman of her capabilities.

To read the full review go to my blog. Ranjona Banerji currently resides in Mumbai and works as a freelance journalist. This was our last meeting in Bombay. 

I enjoyed this post which Ranjo wrote featured in the Mid Day on the Guwahati molestation.

World Bank Bookstore Stocks When the Lotus Blooms

When I self published, I had no real plans of approaching bookstores; but when the opportunity came up I was all for it. Some exposure is better than no exposure.When my daughter Karunya mentioned the bookstore in the World Bank shelved fiction and were open to self published authors, I was really excited. Here was an opportunity for me to reach out to a multicultural audience. The Manager at the World Bank Infoshoplooked at my website and ordered 3 copies.

Here is a list of Indie Bookstores in the US listed by state. The only problem is that one needs to check each one out individually before approaching them. For a self published author this might be tedious and really not that profitable. Most bookstores take 50% of the cost and if you deduct the price of printing and shipping, it leaves you with a measly 25 cents:((

I go by recommendation and right now I have 2 stores stocking my book. Who knows what the future holds for me.

Books & Books

Being a Self Published author using Print on Demand, I had grown accustomed to the idea that I would not sell to Bookstores. It was too much work and book keeping is certainly not my forte.

But my dear friend Teva kept telling me about her friend who was manager for Books & Books  one of the leading bookstores in the Miami area often referred to as the Mecca of Miami. It wasn’t until April that we managed to arrange a meeting.

Books and Books on Lincoln Road is a charming store with an ambiance of its own; part bohemian and part erudite. Vivienne, the Store Manager, was such a joy to meet. I had prepared my speech to sell the book to her and was quite taken aback when she just took the books from me and gave me an invoice for it. My book was in.

Imagine my surprise when the following week I see a picture of the book kept with all the bestsellers. The store hosts over 50 events monthly and it very hard to get included for a book reading but like everything about my life I don’t give up hope. I keep trying and I know it will work out.

Check out the website and the next time you are in the store pick up your copy of “When the Lotus Blooms.”

Choosing the Right Publishing Option

 

New Jersey Book Reading

March 25th my dear friend Rajeswari arranged a Book Reading at her neighborhood Community Center in New Jersey.

I met Rajeswari in ’98 when I moved to New York from Argentina. I started music classes with her and our children Lavanya and Shyamala were buddies. We hit it off really well and the connection was deep enough for our friendship to mature over the years. What can I say about Rajeswari? She has the voice of a nightingale and is the gentlest and sweetest person I have met. There was really no reason for her to go out of her way to arrange the readings in New Long Island and New Jersey. She could have been like a lot of my acquaintances who encourage and support me verbally. Yet for no apparent reason, she decided to undertake this special event to promote my book and for that I am truly grateful.

We were around 7 ladies that met that morning. Rajeswari was a little disappointed, but it turned out to be an extremely animated and gratifying reading. The guard at the Center did everything he could to make us miserable including forcing Rajeswari to pick out her trash from the garbage and take it with her. I applaud her for remaining calm. I know I was ready to explode. Instead, taking my cue from her, I focused my energies on greeting the group of ladies that had honored me by taking the time to be present. Almost all of them had read the book and I had no need to introduce or promote the novel. They picked up on the characters and were generous with their compliments. One of them had tears in her eyes as she spoke about Velandi the untouchable and his wretched condition.

One lady remarked about how she was fed up of reading about immigrant “desis” who mix chutney in their cereal and are awestruck by the cars and technology in the US. ” We are not villagers from some remote corner of India. I have lived a very comfortable life in India and I’m tired of reading about the desolate, stereotypical Indian immigrant. This book touched my heart because it brought back memories of my own grandparents. The stories were familiar and the characters so vibrant I felt I knew them and had met them before in my life. The nostalgia was overpowering.”

When the lotus Blooms will probably appeal to that generation of Indians who spent their childhood in India. Although the book is set in Tamil Nadu and East Bengal the situations of the protagonists apply across the board to that generation of Indians.

Long Island Book Launch

On March 24th Dr. Kusum Viswanathan arranged a book reading at Herricks Middle School under the auspices of the Young Indian cultural Group of Long Island.

I sound a little naive saying this  but being the first time travelling alone and navigating the trains of New York and New Jersey was daunting. I worried more about getting places than talking at the readings

 

I reached Mineola, Long Island, without a hitch and was so happy to meet Kusum. What can I say about her? I have never met a more amiable, dynamic, erudite, multifaceted, talented, well spoken, friendly, cultured person in my life. Kusum takes my breath away, for I have never seen one one person with so many selfless qualities. She had spoken with Rathi Raja who very kindly agreed to host the event. I went there expecting nothing which turned out to be a great thing.

When we reached the school, no one had arrived and at 2pm only 3 of us were there. Kusum had arranged tea and snacks and we were busy setting up. As we turned around almost 30 people had come for the reading. This was unbelievable!

Other than a couple, no one had read the book and the reading took on a more informative tone.I introduced the characters and read out sections pertaining to each. It was also interesting to note that we had men in the room including an 87 year old who had read the book in its entirety. I also got a chance to talk about connected topics like self publishing, getting books into a library (almost impossible if you are self published) writing style and editing, areas of publishing that have taken up all of my time this past year.

I felt very satisfied as I boarded the train for New Jersey. I had sold all the books and perhaps generated enough interest for others to pick it up and spread the word.

Its is not enough to have good book. You have to tell others about it and though marketing is a bottomless pit, out of the blue a friend helps you out and when you speak to small groups like this it fills you with a feeling of accomplishment. For me this accompanied by waves of gratitude and awe as I looked back at Kanchana 4 years ago; miserable and lost and I wondered where and how  she had disappeared