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The hungry hands that feed
From Eshla:
When I see my dinner plate, I see stories of injustice.

I love good food as much as anyone else.  And I love rustic food–hearty, soulful, made with care.  The towers of exotic ingredients, piled onto a grand white plate, served at an exorbitant price in a high end restaurant make little sense to me.  For when I see a plate, I don’t just see food, I see the stories behind it – the hands that sowed the seeds, the hands that harvested the crop, the hands that cultivated it with care.  And I think of those hands – did they get their fair share?

One of the great ironies that I’ve never understood is that of farming.  Why is it that those who grow our food have so little to eat themselves?  Why is it that those who feed others often don’t have enough to feed their families?  Why is it that those who harvest that crop don’t get to share it with their family or community?  Rather, the best of it is exported to distant locales, to people who’ve never met that farmer, who’ve never visited his paddy, who’ve never seen his aged feet dipped in the wet earth as he tends to his rice?

Our affinity for global tastes has meant that so much of what’s grown never stays in the community.  Instead, its sifted, packaged, and shipped many miles away to be consumed on foreign plates at unknown dinner tables.  So much of the story is the lost; so much of our connection to the Earth is gone; so much of our understanding of food is connected simply to taste.

If only we understood what goes into growing a bushel of wheat, a sack of potatoes, an acre of vegetables, we would prize it more, give it the love it deserves, and respect the Earth for its offering.  Yet, around the world, in countries rich and poor, I see the well-to-do waste their food.  And I always wonder if they think of the toil, the love, the hardship that went into producing it.  Perhaps, that’s the flaw of our world today.  While we are increasingly interconnected, we are also disconnected.  We don’t know the faces behind our meals.  We don’t the hands behind our produce.  We don’t know the hardship behind each dinner.

Traveling through India, when you get past the globalized metros, where food is in abundance for many, where growing bellies are common, where overeating is the cause of disease, you see another India that still works hard, tilling the Earth, for their daily meal.  During a recent venture to the inner corners of Punjab, I got to see the true beauty of Vaisakhi.  Known as a time to celebrate the harvest, we gather together, cook, eat, and share each other company’s in thanks for another harvest.  But, we do little of the physical work.

The endless fields of gold, shining in the sun, are picturesque.  But look a little closer, and you see a man, elderly, with a thin, sickly figure, chopping away at the stalks of wheat, piling it into stacks, working quickly to beat the rain.  Dark, foreboding clouds are in the distance, with the capacity to ruin that man’s months of labor.  Too much rain and the crop spoils.  It’ll spoil before it even reaches the mill.   So, he works rapidly.  His scrawny body doesn’t seem equipped for this speed and ardor.  But he keeps going.  And I wonder, what fills his plate at the end of the day?  Even if his crop survives the downpours, how much of it will he reap, how much of it will he share with his children?  And yet, here I am, being fed endlessly, paratha after paratha. I certainly don’t mind.  It’s a luxurious feast for me.  But at what cost?

Why is it that we produce enough food to feed each other yet it gets distributed so unevenly?  Why is it that we go to the market and keep looking for lower prices?  How much lower can the prices go?  How much less can we pay for the hard labor of the farmer?  These are complex, contentious questions with even more complicated answers.

Recently, I attended a luncheon held by a group of community leaders.  They were meeting to determine how to distribute their funds to local charities.  Who should get what and how much-  that was their agenda.  One charity they were looking at provided food to the homeless and the needy in the community.  They were quite keen on supporting this cause as it’s the holiday season and everyone deserves a nice meal.  But as they tallied up the numbers, divided up the total, and wrote the checks, they pushed aside their plates to a corner of the table, plates which had half-eaten rolls of bread, small pieces of meat, and forgotten potatoes and vegetables.

Even while doing good deeds, they forgot.  Just cleaning your plate is a good deed.  Just sharing that plate is a good deed.  But, strangely, they forgot.  Or perhaps they don’t realize it.  They’re accustomed to the abundance.  They know it’ll be their tomorrow.

In visiting a school designed for children of the poor in Punjab, I happened to arrive at lunch time.  So, I got a taste of their day – literally.  The children were being served dal and two thin chapatis.  The dal was watery, more liquid, less lentils.  The chapatis were like air for a starved stomach, so light.  And, ironically, both were served on a large thali.   Yet before eating their meal, the children were taught how to say a prayer of thanks.  And they did – with great dignity.  And then they dove in.  After just a few minutes, I saw one child cleaning his plate – licking it literally.  He wanted every morsel.  He couldn’t have been older than 7.  He put the thali at an angle, stationed it in his mouth, and slurped the remaining bits of dal, drinking it carefully to not let any waste. And then he licked the plate.

Just a few metres away from where he sat, the school teachers had put together a little garden, sowing seeds for a few basic vegetables.  The children were taught how to take care of it.  They had labeled the rows, written down when they watered it last, and categorized the vegetables by variety.  They’d done it with their hands.

These were the children of those have little or nothing.  But they knew where their food came from.  And they savored every bite that they received.

Why are we, those who are given such abundance, so disconnected from our bounty?  Why do we not treasure it?  Why do we not allocate enough to the hands that grow it for us?  Why do we waste so much, simply because it doesn’t suit our liking?  Why are there such harsh paradoxes in our world?

These are not easy questions.  But if more of us asked them, we would be more mindful of our meals – of the resources they consume in getting them to the table, of the people whose lives feature on each plate.

As the Buddhist teachings tell us, we ought to be more mindful in our lives.  Be more mindful of what’s presented on your plate.  Eat it with respect, not greed.  Eat it with love, not in haste.  For the hands who grew it, may not have the chance to do the same.

Ban the phone co’s because you don’t like the conversations ?

Just as ‘ Facebook protests’ give rise to democratic protests in Russia against rigging of elections by Mr Putin, the Indian Government seeks to curtail the reach and the voice of individual protest in the world largest democracy.

Had this attempt not come so close to elections in India where the future of the new scion to the Nehru dynasty was at stake. Had this attempt not come at a point where there is a huge loss of faith in the very functioning of India ‘s democratic process. Had this not come so close to the Government’s credibility bring challenged by Anna Hazare’s movement.

Had it not come so close to all these events one might concede more credibility to the Government’s latest threats to Google, Twitter, Orkut and Facebook, as a means of coming to terms with the larger social objectives of our Nation as a whole.

In a flawed electoral system the rise and rise of Social Networking actually brings the nation closer to the intentions our founding fathers built into our constitution. It gives the electorate greater access to a world view. Dispels the ability of political parties to lie and attempt to cage their electorate in ignorance. Allows groups to reach out and create action groups and communities to fight for their rights and express their grievances to the rest of the world across geographies.

It brings the world together in so many more ways than ever possible before. I don’t need to quote Arab Spring and Global Warming as just two of the many social issues that Social Networking has managed to address and change.

So what’s the Government ( not only in India) afraid of ? It’s afraid of the unknown. Social Network is a game changer in the playing out of democracy, and the Government (and Governments all over the world) are caught unawares. All political parties, their elected representatives, whether they sit in opposition or in Government have spent their political lives based on a set of parameters they have come see as sacrosanct. Moral or immoral, those parameters are the only ones they understand. The world has changed beneath their feet.

How do they now fight elections when (in time) 300 million of their electorate does not play by the same rules anymore ? Not only individually but also through their ability to greatly influence each other ? A new breed of politician that understands this, understands how to use Social Networking, and works within it,  will rise.

The current politicians are afraid of that new politician. But the use of Social Networking by Barrack Obama for his fund raising a few years ago actually rang the bells of change loud.

No Government or system has ever been able to stand against the march of technology. Let me take the most simplistic example. Could you take away the microphone at a political rally ? Simplistic as it is, it is a medium of mass communication without which election rally’s in India would not exist.  If you do not like the conversations over the phone, would you penalize the phone company ? Of course where security issues are involved Governments do step in. But to hold the phone company liable would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

For any  ‘Gatekeeper ‘ the ability of the individual to communicate and share content with each other at a mass level is scary. If its true of Music Companies, Hollywood Studios and  major Corporations, it is true of Governments. Their very role as a gatekeeper of people’s expressions and ideas and lives is questioned. Companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook are successful because they are not ‘Gatekeepers’.  They are ‘Platformers’.  The 100 billion dollar valuation for Facebook exists because they do not ‘gatekeep’ your communications.  If they did, the companies would not exist.

Yes there are video’s posted, or content posted on the Internet that are immoral and against the law. That encourage racial conflict.  But I believe the platforming companies are pretty good about removing such content.  All you have to do is complain and if there are enough complaints then that content will be taken off. You only have to look at how quickly the Internet companies and Governments all over respond to child pornography on the net.  (least in India actually)  But hey ! if there is something against a politician (say a video) and that gets 10 million odd hits in a week, and thousands of comments, does that not say something about how the community feels ?  To try and stop that is completely undemocratic , is it not ?

One last thing.  Censorship on the Internet is only possible if you shut the Internet down.  Google, Facebook and Twitter are only vulnerable because of their size and desire for valuation. Take them down and thousands of alternate sites for platforming content will sprout up.  Take them down and ten thousand will sprout up.  People have found the power to express themselves and will not give it up easily.  The growing community of hackers, some still in their teens, have shown that no Government or Corporation in the world is able to ‘ban’ them.

The Internet and freedom of expression is here to stay.

My uncle Dev Anand, the man no one knew…

A suite at the Oberoi hotel. Dev Uncle’s film Ishq Ishq Ishq, had just released the night before.

I was the nephew that had, on a whim, given up a really successful career as a chartered accountant and a management consultant in London to be in the movie business. Somehow being from London made me special for him. It was the city he loved most in the world. Ishq Ishq Ishq was my break into movies. Tiny role, but hey, I got to romance Zeenat Aman, who had changed the very perceptions of what it meant to be a modern Indian girl to all of us.

We had shot the film in Nepal over two months. Trekking all over the mountains. It was an amazing adventure. All the way up to Namchi Bazar and then upto Lukla from where you could almost touch the Everest. It spoilt me forever. I thought this was what the rest of my life was going to be. The dizzyness of altitude matched only by the dizzyness of personal adventures. Much better than going to an office on a cold grey winters day in London.

We hardly saw Dev Uncle (every one called him Dev Sahib but me). Even Zeenat! Although she had this special way of purring ” Devvv Sahiiib” with a flash of her incredible eyes that told their story immedietly. And his sing song ‘Zeenieee’ would just confirm the story. But her ‘Devvv Sahiiib’ would be up at 4 am every morning ready with make up and announce we were going to be on the move again to another location. He would rally his reluctant troops and before you knew it he was off climbing the mountains to a spot he wanted to shoot from 10 kms climb away. The crew would groan and moan, but follow the leader. He was always the first one there, and would already be in his pitched tent writing the scenes for the next day by the time we got there. He must have been about 55 at that time.

I have many stories of those two months that I will have the courage to tell one day. Nadira, Premnath, Zeenat, Shabana, Kabir Bedi, 12 beautiful models. And of course my own unforgettable adventures. But the one I want to tell today, is the story I will always remember my dear Uncle Dev for.

Dev Anand had put all his own money, almost everything he owned into Ishq Ishq Ishq. Money had no value to him, except to make films. Nothing else interested him really. On this evening he was talking calls from the press and the distributors. As always they started with excited congratulations and jubilations. His face sparked with excitement and joy. But over the next two hours, the tone changed. I could not hear what was being said, but I saw it on his face. His voice going softer. That spark that was Dev Anand dimming. In a couple of hours and a hundred calls later the reality overcame the dream. The film was a disaster on the box office.

Then the calls stopped. No one called and the loneliness of failure hung in the room. Dev Anand has just lost everything. All his money and everything he sold to make his most ambitious project ever. There are few more intimate moments you could share with a courageous man than his coming to terms with complete defeat. He was sad. Reflective.

For all of five minutes. He then looked at me and smiled.

” I just be back ‘Shekharonios’ (thats what he called me) and went into the bedroom of the suite. I should have felt sorry for my first foray out as a (minor) actor flopping, but was too caught up in the incredible drama unfolding in front of me.

Ten minutes Dev Anand emerged. His his eyes were vibrant. His face excited. He was unable to sit down for his excitement. Looked me in the eyes.

” Shekharonios, I just thought of a great plot for my next film !!”

He picked up his register. Took out a pen and started to write. How does a man who just lost of everything come to terms with it so easily? I was left gaping. But knew it was time for me to leave him alone. To write and plan his next film. He never talked about Ishq Ishq again.

Thats the Dev Uncle I knew.

But the Dev Uncle I did not know. The Dev Sahib , the Dev Anand that the world did not know, was the man coming to terms with himself in 10 minutes in that room.

We will never know… maybe thats what true Karm Yogi’s are. People we cannot fathom from our own lesser standards of courage…

I wish I could be a kite
I wish I could be a kite, by Eshla
I crave freedom.

Everywhere,  I look around there are challenges burdening people.  Some are trivial, some are heart-breaking.   Some are losing loved ones to disease, some are struggling to make ends meet, some are trying to hold onto the small family business, and some are simply caught in the mad chase of life, yielding to what we’ve knocked ourselves into thinking is the utopia.

As a writer, I’m constantly selling myself to editors, trying to convince them not only is the idea intriguing, but that I’m the right person for it.  Why would I be the right person for a story?  Because I’ve gotten all the accolades, because I’ve published in so many “leading” publications, because I have the resources and contacts for this kind of story?  Rarely, does passion, love, fervor for the story come into play.  Why can’t I write because I write decently and genuinely love what I write about?  Why so many other pressures?  Why do I have to prove myself constantly?  It’s the endless selling of oneself in today’s world, the endless marketing, the endless chase to the top.  Technology has only helped us do that in many ways – all the social media platforms, I’m advised, are ways to market oneself.  Use them widely and you could be a global “name.”

But they don’t understand.  I don’t want to be a global name.  I just want to write stories that feed my soul.  I just want to do some good.  I want to use my hands to build something.  I want to use these platforms to learn from others.  Can I not be silent and listen to what others are saying?  Must I also chime in?  Must I also constantly bother others?

I have young students in high school come to me, seeking advice on how to get into a particular institution, how to market themselves for different colleges, how to get the top spot at an internship, how to do the “right” activities that will get them into the right school, then the right internship, and then the right job.   I’m exhausted.  I’m exhausted hearing them and I’m exhausted by the chase, by the quest for the ideal.

And yet, that ideal is what’s breaking around me.  Friends in comfortable jobs complain of boredom, stagnation, bureaucracy, lack of creativity, inactivity, and so much more.   Why don’t they leave?  They can’t, they say.  Why not?  You’ll survive on less money, I tell them.  But how can I let go of all these years of hard work, how can I let go of this “title,” that I’ve worked so hard for, they respond, anguished by the thought of even abandoning the so-called “ideal” world.

They’re not bad people, not even greedy really.  They’re just caught in what increasingly we’re told is the right path, the way to succeed.   Eventually, it’s the house, the family, the school tuitions, the bills, the car that begin to burden them and it’s too late.  Their burdens are far too heavy to escape, to fly freely.

So, the cycle of consumerism sets in.  The little purchases fill a void; it’s the tech gizmos, the vacation home, the fancy dinners out, the extra car.   But, why?  Do they really love these things?  I doubt it.  Rather they bring a short moment of excitement, a short excursion from the mundane, the thrilling detour that quickly loses its charm.

I recall the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, the one that endlessly exclaimed, “I’m late. I’m late.  I’m so very late.”  It’s as if we’re all too late, too wound up in what we’re told, chasing something; then, smack, somewhere along the way we realize, that in our tardiness, we’ve lost track of time.  For now, the days have slipped by, the years have too.  We must be content with what we’ve built.  We must make ourselves fit into the box, be it the lifestyle we constructed, the job we took up, the  “dream” that we achieved.

But why not be free?  Why not savor time?  Why not dismiss what we’re told?  Why not put all that energy, fuel, money into something that helps others?  Why not let the chase be for a different cause – for a gentler, kinder, more people-friendly dream?

Why not be a kite once in a while and fly against the wind?  Why not be free from the burdens that we’ve placed on ourselves? Why not get others to join us?

After all, I hear that “kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.”  Or so Churchill tells us.

The Speed of Light. Part 1. A never ending short story …

The string of a Sarod. Stretched, The finger feels its angst. Rubs against the string producing a squeaky sound.

Majid’s ‘s eyes squeezed together  concentration. His left fingers gently increasing the tautness of the string. Listening to its internal struggle. Stretch ..

Black empty space. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide. Is this infinity ? Claustrophobic. The emptiness clawing at you. Not as the Buddha described. Nothingness is like being in a coffin that closes upon you, till you scream. A silent black empty scream.

Majid’s eyes squeeze tighter. His face in a grimace. That one moment. That has to be perfect. No, not courage. But the moment. Catch that moment before it leaves you. Millions and trillions of moments buzzing by in a nano second. Catch one before its gone.

Majid plucks the string. It fights, struggles, unable to let go of its inertia. and then finds it rhythm. Majid’s face responds to the slavery of himself to movement of the string. To the seizing of the moment.  Both he and the string dancing together.

You let out a deep sigh as the note from the string resonates through deep space. Darkness is dispelled. A sigh, and another.

Karima sucks in breath, clutches her mouth. Eyes wide in fear. In wonder. In amazement. And then lets go, a strange deep sound escapes, the letting go of all that is herself. As an exhausted Majid slides off her. Karima cries softly. Majid looks at her. She turns away. Why do they do that ? Majid wonders. Are they able to travel somewhere to a place he does not know?

” Where was Time before the Big Bang ? Was there only Eternity before the Big Bang ?”

“Before the Big Bang there was no Time and no Space. The beginning of the  Universe was the beginning of Time. The Beginning of Space….

(to be continued ..  am in Goa… listening to the water lapping at the beach. The crows trying to drown it out. I should have got up earlier.. before the crows drowned out the sound. But sleep has two interpretations.  That which you feel you need, and that which comes in waves and then pass you by)

wonderful letter from Carlisle
Hi, Shekhar! I found your site surfing thru’ the 498a.wordpress blog.

I find this letter particularly refreshing. It made me go back many years when my (only) son was a pre-teen.

“Son,” I declared over breakfast, “I had a wonderful dream last night. I’d like to share it with you …”. My son, being one of those “No Nonsense, Type-A Personality Scorpio’s”, came back with, “Well, Dad; maybe it’ll stay that way when you wake up!” This threw me in for a loop. Was this a rebellious repartee? Was he being a smartass? Or was that “dream” reality, and breakfast with my kid a passing illusion?

“Do you ever have dreams, Son?”

He looks into his bowl of cereal and mumbles, “Yes, but I don’t like to talk about them!” Hell! I’m not going to let him go this easily so I ask, “Why?” He smiles, “Because it would make people laugh and think I’m weird or something …”. He went on to explain his dreams. They’re all cartoon-type characters … but before his dreams begin, there’s this scrolling screen listing character actors (he in the starring role, of course), Producer, Director , and other credits!! And there’s background music …

“Holy Cow, Son. Keep your dreams to yourself. People will laugh and think you’re weird or something …”. “Thanks for the advice, Dad,” he laughs. “You’re welcome, Son!” I shoot back. “By the way, do you ever dream of Jessica Rabbit?” (Now, THAT might be ‘normal’ in my books!). “No comment!” he shouts over his shoulder as he rushes off to school.

Yes, Shekhar. I’ve also been pondering on “reality” and “dream” since then. Some sage was once quoted as having observed that “We make our own reality”. Could we also direct our dreams? If so, could we choose where we’d want to be? If so, would this be a conscious decision? What is consciousness …? My son served 3 yrs with the US Army “securing” Iraq and watching scores of his comrades and “the enemy” die in an immoral war …

Maybe Jessica Rabbit is real ,and the horror of war and other unpleasantness happening all over the world is really a dream – a nightmare!

I enjoyed the visit and your thoughts are inspirational. Thank you.

peace ?

“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds- our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come. ”
― Thich Nhat Hanh (thank you cinda)

when we walk
“When we walk like (we are rushing), we print anxiety and sorrow on the earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the earth… Be aware of the contact between your feet and the earth. Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh (thank you cinda)
the morality of life saving drugs

Imagine a scenario with a quarter of  the world dying of treatable diseases while the cure is held closely by a few hugely rich corporations that refuse to dispense the medicines at a price that is affordable to the poor.  Sounds like stuff for a ‘oh my God’ sci fi movie ?

Sorry, but that is the situation right now in the world. Diseases like Hepatitis, Heart Diseases, Diabetes and Aids – all that have drugs to control them and often cure them are available.  But the patent to those life saving drugs belong to massive multinational corporations that refuse to allow ‘generic’ drugs to be manufactured cheaply in (say) China and India and distributed to save lives.

The argument of course is cost of development of these drugs. “How will the drug companies survive to do further research and go on producing life saving drugs of the future if they has sell their drugs at a loss ?”  It’s a strong argument that on the face of it seems absolutely reasonable.  But that in the word ‘cost’ and ‘loss’ lies the fallacy of the argument.

Looks deeply into the ‘costs’ of the major drug companies and you will find hidden it huge profits for the shareholders. Huge costs of highly paid lawyers to protect the patents. Highly paid scientists vying with each other to take out and protect their patents. Huge salaries to CEO and the management team with attached bonuses etc.  Huge marketing costs too. Add it all up and you will soon see that the what we call simply protection of ‘costs’ is actually often protection of ‘wealth’

And then the issue of morality kicks in.  What is the ‘cost’  of development of drugs that is fair for the populations of the world that desperately need them ?

Nor does the idea that “it mine and I can do what I want with it”  work.  We live in a global world and the fundamentals of globalization is fairness and equality. Otherwise Globalization is skewed in favour of the rich nations, and the rich within poor nations.  Globalization will then lead to conflict and war. Also the Western nations and /or the multinationals have for long had a policy of attracting the best scientific talent to themselves by higher pay scales. Its a skewed immigration policy that for years created a ‘brain drain’ that worked against scientific development in developing countries.  Thankfully that is being reversed now.

I do not deny the incredible innovation (say) in the US.  It’s ability to provide some of the best minds in the world with some of the best environments to develop their products in.  Its admirable.  But either we are a global community or we are not. And if we are, then at least availability of life saving drugs must not be used to support an ‘oasis of wealth’.

Ayurveda is a case in point. For centuries the knowledge and wisdom of Ayurveda was available free to the people. The best practitioners would dispense their knowledge and healing abilities free , being supported ore by the rich that could afford to do so.  Now suddenly there is a scramble to ‘patent’ Ayurvedic ideas and medicines.  Those that for centuries have been available free.

This has been a raging arguments – especially in light of drug companies in China and India that are producing generic formulations of drugs that were created by multinationals to be distributed at cheaper and affordable prices to those that would die without them. Gradually these ‘generic’ drug manufacturers are creating their own molecules and soon will file their own patents.  Hopefully they will turn out different,

So what is more moral. To infringe patents and save lives, or to hold on to the law of patent as a more moral stance – and lives be damned ?  I invite those with greater knowledge than I into this argument …

let the memory pass..

responding with grief

to moments of joy

shared with loved ones

that are no longer with us,

is the memory so fickle

that it turns from love and joy

in an instant to grief ?

the purity that lay in that moment

altered and prejudiced forever

by ever changing attitude

of memory ?

by fear of emptiness

by fear of loss,

hoping the tears

will wash away

those fears

leaving behind

just purity

of love

unfettered by loss

for

the mystery of death

being no greater than

that of birth

like eternal lovers

entwined

one has no existence

with the other,

but birth

brings no memory

no carbuncles on its hull

but only wonder

and death

leaves a lifetime of memories

of associations

of fear ,

of loss,

let the memories

be dissolved

in my tears

leaving an

overwhelming

sensation

of love

like birth