Friday, April 30, 2010

The people we were meant to be

the people we were meant to be
in shiny cars
with matching clothes
drenched in eternal strength
who were we when we believed?
in a laugh that lasts forever
in a sleep that always comes
in the blood that never bleeds
when we were going to be the people we were meant to be

Friday, April 23, 2010

Imperial Hubris

The Brown Man's Burden
by Henry Labouchère (1899)
In response to Rudyard Kipling's 'White Man's Burden'

Pile on the brown man's burden
To gratify your greed;
Go, clear away the "niggers"
Who progress would impede;
Be very stern, for truly
'Tis useless to be mild
With new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Pile on the brown man's burden;
And, if ye rouse his hate,
Meet his old-fashioned reasons
With Maxims up to date.
With shells and dumdum bullets
A hundred times made plain
The brown man's loss must ever
Imply the white man's gain.

Pile on the brown man's burden,
compel him to be free;
Let all your manifestoes
Reek with philanthropy.
And if with heathen folly
He dares your will dispute,
Then, in the name of freedom,
Don't hesitate to shoot.

Pile on the brown man's burden,
And if his cry be sore,
That surely need not irk you--
Ye've driven slaves before.
Seize on his ports and pastures,
The fields his people tread;
Go make from them your living,
And mark them with his dead.

Pile on the brown man's burden,
And through the world proclaim
That ye are Freedom's agent--
There's no more paying game!
And, should your own past history
Straight in your teeth be thrown,
Retort that independence
Is good for whites alone.

Pile on the brown man's burden,
With equity have done;
Weak, antiquated scruples
Their squeamish course have run,
And, though 'tis freedom's banner
You're waving in the van,
Reserve for home consumption
The sacred "rights of man"!

And if by chance ye falter,
Or lag along the course,
If, as the blood flows freely,
Ye feel some slight remorse,
Hie ye to Rudyard Kipling,
Imperialism's prop,
And bid him, for your comfort,
Turn on his jingo stop.

Also see 'The Black Man's Burden'

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Polly wants a mathematical solution

My primary and middle school years were spent in dread and avoidance of multiplication tables. I was always a good student and adored school, but I learn differently, and by that I mostly mean that I cannot blindly memorise. And unfortunately, that, together with fear tactics, seemed to be the educational technique of the day (and the way most workplaces function too). Me, I have to understand the basics of the subject and then my mind flowers open and the subject becomes interesting and effortless. Jargon and expectations of memorisation, on the other hand, just shut my mind down.

I understand this now, but back when I was a small spindly shy kid in braids and ponytails, every day began with a sense of terrifying apprehension - what if today the teacher asked me a surprise question and I wasn't able to answer? This is when I first became acquainted with tunnel vision. Thank goodness the only question I was ever asked was mercifully a simple one I knew the answer to, "what's 4 times 6?" or something. I still get confused between 24 and 32, but that day, I answered 24 and my self-esteem was spared.

This was my dirty little secret that often caused me short shallow quick breaths, a racing heart, and hot-cold flashes. I kept my shortcomings a secret - I never told my friends, teachers, or parents. How could I? My classmates would laugh at me, my teachers would mock me with shrill sarcasm in public, and my parents would I don't know what. Kids can be cruel; I had seen my classmates gang up on unlucky students and point fingers and laugh at them following the example of the teachers. As for my parents, I was growing up in Oman as an only child with my two elder siblings in college in India, and my parents always overwhelmed me. On the whole, I felt isolated and ashamed and terrified of my inabilities being discovered. What made it worse was how all the other kids around me were able to memorise and repeat things back like smug parrots, no problem.

Multiplication tables were terrifying because they were made into such a big threatening deal, as if your entire self-worth depended on it. And you couldn't escape - the teachers would publically test random students with surprise sums. "Shabana, stand up, what's 8 into 6?", "Sneha, what's 4 into 7?" If you couldn't answer, the teacher would zone in on you with all the svelte of a criminal interrogator, terrifying when you're small and the teacher is so much bigger and louder.

The looming threat of a surprise sum wasn't confined to school either. I was afraid of my parents, particularly my mom, who had designated herself the tables inspector. For years I avoided my mother when I could sense that she was about to spring a surprise sum on me. "Come here and tell me your 8 times table." I'd make some excuse and lock myself in the bathroom or fake a headache or stomachache until I felt my mother might've got busy and forgotten all about me. Summer vacations were no respite. I was constantly reminded sternly that I had the summer to master my tables. I was always able to avoid any confrontations, and now that I look back, I had got really good at it.

The numbers got higher every year. By the time I hit middle school, we were expected to be fluent in tables until at least 20. I had only been able to easily manage until 5, and after that, I knew parts of tables until 11 after which I had given up trying. 6 wasn't bad, 7 was okay until 5, 8 I hated, 9 was easy because it had a hidden pattern, 10 was a joke as was 11. I was a good student though, even at math, and I had developed my own tricks to breaking down large tables into its smaller components. And it worked - I realised I didn't have to memorise anything if I knew my basics really well.

I remained a good student, almost always in the top 5 of my class because I had made my own rules to learning. In the years since then in the real world, I've realised that superficial memorisation isn't confined to academia, and that jargon doesn't mean anything except that you really don't know much. The really smart people are the ones who have questions, not the ones who have memorised other people's second-hand answers.

Somewhere in time and space, a little girl called Khadija sits in a classroom in a grey uniform, but she doesn't feel nervous or guilty anymore.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Our World Today

This was a huge trend in girls'/women's fashion.

This is a huge (under-18) Disney star and idol to many female children.

These are hugely popular children's dolls.

This is public advertising posted on various websites.

Real improv

It was 1985 and I was in kindergarten. I was the youngest in my family, much younger than my two elder brothers, so I was usually left to my own devices to entertain myself. One such evening I was dancing about the house to the tune inside my head when I waltzed into my brothers' bedroom where my father and second brother, then 13, were sitting on the large bed, talking to each other. They seemed to be having a real grown-up talk and were laughing.

No one ever included me in real conversations or took me seriously, and I was used to hovering around outside other people's interactions, watching and invisible. So I strolled up to my father and my brother and watched them not notice me as I stood in front of them. They seemed to be taking turns to talk and then laugh together.

Without warning, they noticed me. My father said, "Khadija, now you tell us a joke!"


I was stunned. I did not know how to handle this new feeling of being included in a conversation. I was mostly just talked about or at. Nobody ever really listened to what I had to say. I didn't even know what a joke was. I could talk in Urdu and in English, but what was a joke?

My father and brother, their faces relaxed from laughter and their eyes expectant of a joke (whatever that was) from me, looked at me, waiting. I had been caught unawares. But I was not going to let this chance go. And so I opened my mouth and said whatever came into my head:

"Once upon a time, you know, there was a clown. One day he went to this big building and he climbed up and up all the way to the top. Then he jumped off of the building and fell down and broke into hundreds of pieces."


I couldn't wait to grow up when I was a kid. I had three major issues with being so young:

1. I didn't like my face and was dying to see what I would look like as an adult. All the Hindi movies showed the knobbly-kneed female child growing up into the most glamorous woman ever, complete with a ruby pout and butterfly eyelashes. I often wondered, and with impatience as I spent hours primping and posing in front of the mirror, about which beautiful face I would have - Sridevi's, Kimi Katkar's, or Parveen Babi's?
2. Nothing mainstream was ever in my size. The walkman's headphones kept falling off of my head, the bathroom mirror was too high, and I always had to climb on a chair to check out if we had any ice cream in the freezer. I absolutely hated having to ask and wait on others to help me with things out of my reach. I envied the adults who lived in a world that was built for them. Heck, even my dolls had houses and furniture their size.
3. The grown-ups looked like they knew everything about everything. I hardly knew the names of more than 2 movie stars (Amitabh Bachchan and Sridevi) and Michael Jackson. The grown-ups knew what to do, where to go, how to talk and to whom - they never made any mistakes! Being the youngest of the family, no one ever took me seriously, and my frequent crashes after bouts of excitement had me erroneously labelled as the poor weak child who would never have any physical stamina. I existed on the edge of society. I was physically smaller than everyone else, and I always felt like I didn't know enough things - I still remember the day when a friend mentioned how she'd discovered the magical fact that you knew the movie was about to start right after the director's name showed up on the beginning credits. Even my much older siblings knew what they wanted to say. I couldn't wait for the day when I'd grow up and suddenly know how to do everything right.

That was 1985. In the time since then, Sridevi has had multiple nosejobs, I stopped growing after 5'2", and Michael Jackson...well, he died last year. The beautiful people took off their makeup and grew old, and I discovered the farce of adulthood.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pecking order

My birdfeeder was a success! The green plastic thing dangling in the balcony of my Tulsa apartment never failed: my balcony was now the place for what felt like all the sparrows of the world. The tube birdfeeder would sway side to side as my famished feathered friends would ferociously flap their wings around it while in flight for the choicest feeding locations.

And boy, were they aggressive! Sometimes they'd shake the birdfeeder so hard that some of the birdseed would sprinkle onto the wooden-planked balcony floor (and I'm sorry to say, between the planks and into the balcony underneath - guilty as charged). The sparrows, sometimes a single Red Cardinal (sheer delight!), would be so focussed on their task, they wouldn't even notice my observing them from behind my huge window just a foot away. If they weren't directly eating from the birdfeeder, they were on the ground, pecking away at the secondhand spoils from the war above.

Spoils of war?

I took another look at the big picture. The most aggressive birds were up there, defending their feeding space, going for the jugular, taking their pick directly from the fresh stock of birdseed. And then there were the birds on the floor, quietly pecking away at the scant half-eaten leftovers of the other birds, trading quality and quantity for safety. And there were more birds on the ground than there were up by the birdfeeder.

It struck me. That's the law of the jungle, the law of life, the real secret you only hear about in motivational quotations or inspirational movies. To really possess your goal in its most unadulterated and abundant form, you have to get out and take it. You absolutely must make that effort. If you never bust out of your comfort zone, if you never put yourself out there, if you don't hold onto that ride, then you'll only be in the way of those who do. You'll never get a piece of that action, and you'll have to be content with life's leftovers. And the tragic thing is that it wouldn't have had to turn out that way.

Now that really is for the birds.