Tuesday, August 29, 2006

vineyards, sonoma and silence

I'm here. I made it. After a harried 2 weeks of near cancellations, near breakdowns and near death, I have made it to my retreat center to begin my LEAPYear. I have met a few of the kids, they are all 2006 high school grads except one gurl that i met who seems cool. I'm staying at Maacama, a retreat center nestled in the hills of Sonoma, right next to Napa. It is beautiful out here, classic northern cali; tall trees, clean streams, rocky, moss covered hills, quiet, sunlight, scorpions and poison oak. I am currently illegally using the internet, after today, it is 6 or 7 days with no internet or media of any kind. i am staying in a unfinished cabin that students of this program built about a year ago, sleeping on the top bunk of a rickety bunk bed; there are spider webs all over the room. if a spider falls or climbs on me when i'm asleep, i'm going to scream bloody murder. everyone seems nice; everyone here is white. there are apparently two kids from CT, a gurl from Darien and a boy from weston. there are a few really crunchy looking kids, and most ppl i've spoken to so far are vegitarian or vegan. i have free time right now, but later on tonight there is a presentation ceremony where we get introduced to our leaders and they get introduced to us. i'll take pictures and post them as soon as i can. i hope i dont get stung by a scorpion before i can. i'm exhuasted, i need sleep. i know we will be doing lots of deep touchy feely stuff soon, but i need some sleep before i can get outta my cranky-trying-to-be-open-totally-suspicious attitude. here goes!!!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Earth's devastation

Originally posted on Saturday, July 29, 2006

I am including a comment in response to this post that does a really good job of completing the thoughts I started while in a very emotional state; I hope this helps articulate what I was thinking and feeling more completely.

I just watched Deepa Mehta's film Earth. It is about a Parsee family in Lahore at the time of India's independence and the partition. I am completely emotionally devastated. I don't know what it is about cultural story lines that cut me to the quick, but I feel so affected by this story. The millions of people forced to flee their homes because of religion and geopolitics, the millions injured, and the over a million killed. Proud, beautiful people whose only crime was being from the wrong place once it was August 15, 1947. If your religion didn't match the city or state you were in once the country was divided up during partition, you were marked: dead, dying, or fleeing. The merciless wanton violence that turned friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor is the shame of humanity.

Watching this film was an intensely personal experience for me. I felt like I was there, discovering the train from Gurdaspur, filled with the mutilated bodies of dead Muslims, trying to escape anarchy and reach their families or refugee camps. I could smell the fear around me, remembering the future as if it were the past; knowing with a leaden heart that faith based killings, especially on trains, would haunt Indias future despite democracy, nuclear weapons, globalization or economic prosperity. Forty years later, this movie was protested so widely in India that places banned it. Movie theaters were burnt down by extremists to ensure that this film could not be shown.

The souls, names, faces and lives of innocent people mean nothing when money and colonialism is involved. The British raped and exploited India, leaving her with a severe case of survivor's guilt. So what did India do? Hurt herself. She cut at herself, within herself, as her Hindu, Muslim and Sikh parts did their best to kill her. For fifty nine years, the very veins of India, her streets, have writhed with the pain of memory, reliving the trauma and violation with blood spilled on every corner, and the resentment and fear that resides in every heart.

Are we all so mired to the groups we come from that we must kill to maintain the status quo and defend the purity and superiority of these groups? Will the educated ever prevail over the disgusting blood lust that seems to lie in our deepest Id? It is merely an accident of time and place that I wasn't there, that my family wasn't one of the many forced to choose between an attempt at survival and the lives they had known and led their entire lives. Why is humanity doomed to repeat this over and over? Murder, rape and arson- why are these the first products of anarchy? The evil in people seems to overpower all else. Those men who rape and pillage will burn in the depths of hell. All men who use their religion to exact revenge or terror on others are the worst kind of people.

This free will God gave us- how many have suffered and died at its hand? I love my God, but what difference does it make if we marry outside of our religious boundaries? Don't more partitions make us worse people? Humanity flourishes with variety, with diversity, with choice, with education, with REASON. Why do religion and reason never seem to co-habitate? Is a book worth the blood of people? The honor and virtue of countless women and girls? The orphaning and widowing and scarring of individual people, of whole peoples of subjugated nations? To me, I see a pattern:

Religion doesn't equal Reason
Reason doesn't equal Radicalism
Religion is lesser or equal to Radicalism

Themindframe's posted comments:

I really need to see this movie. From your blog, it seems to be a testament of the pain and suffering so many innocent people have gone through. Something most of us in the West are completely unaware of.Your blog raises a number of points worth exploring.To me, the problem lies not with religion, but with those so called leaders who use religion as a way to incite violence for their own gains. Granted, me saying this is the easy way out. But I really, truly believe that the harm comes when religion is used as a weapon to prod people into mindless action.

Our deen preaches submission to Allah, but it also promotes understanding, respect, and compassion for others. Its something that other faiths do as well. The problem comes when religion is stripped off its purpose and becomes a spark to ignite other tensions and fractions among people. India,like just about every other colonized territory, suffers deeply from what the survivors guilt that you mention. One of the manifestations is the self-loathing and the self-hating that allows its own people to turn on one another because of whatever labels have been exploited. The issue is not only Indians seeing themselves as Pakistanis, or Bengalis. The problem is that people recognize themselves and others as such, and hate because of it. One of the biggest crimes, and the longest running tragedy, coming from colonialism is that it destroyed any sense of pride in individuals, in communities, in entire nations. People hated and feared their colonizers until what was left was the desire to colonize others to get rid of the pain inflicted upon them.

Oppression takes many forms. Put down people long enough and the only way the will feel tall is by standing on the heads of others. Even if that other is their own reflection. Socioeconomic injustice is just as much to blame for what happened in India (and I could be completely wrong writing this without knowing much of the history and without seeing the film). People are destitute, in materialistic, spiritual and personal ways, to the point where the situation became a zero-sum dynamic:Your loss is my gain.

Humanity is moved to repeat these catastrophes because the oppression and the forces used to keep people down will continue to be effective in inciting those afflicted to strike one another. This might seem paradoxical coming from a soldier, but humanity needs to move beyond the striving to be better than the others. I really feel that violence and anarchy do not go together, but when people have been stripped of their self-worth, of their identity, of their livelihood, of the pride in their existence, it is more than possible to have violence occur. It is to be expected. Religion does not equal reason.No argument there. Religion requires faith. Reason requires evidence.But religion and reason, in their pure terms, go side by side. Religion breeds Radicalism when it becomes distorted, used and corrupted to serve the wants and plans of those lusting after power.

Your domain? My domain? NOPE! Eminent domain!!!

I dropped off my car to get serviced at our family mechanic on Wednesday morning
since the check engine light was on for the first time and the car shook when I started it.
The lot outside the auto place looked emptier than usual. There didn't seem to be much going on, but I figured it was because of the Fourth of July weekend lull.
So I tell Tony, the proprietor of said establishment, my car woes and he tells me he'll give it a look, but he can't promise anything since he is closing.
I said "What?"
He laughed sadly and repeated "What?"
Now I have to add here that I have gone with my dad to this mechanic since I was a kid, and he is the only mechanic who has really ever worked on my various cars over the years (not always to the best end however) but he has always been our mechanic. My mom hates him, since he did a really bad job on her car once and screwed her over, but my dad swears by him.
So I don't understand why he would close such a successful, long running business.
I tell him this, and he agrees, but explains to me that the city wanted his land, and so they took it. He had to be out of the area within the week.
I was shocked.
He further explained that the city didn't pay him enough for it for him to buy another place and start over, so he was closing the business for good.
After handing him my keys, I looked around all the land that surrounds the auto shop with a hard stare.
I remembered then that this area had been under consideration for years, the city wanted it for some urban renewal project.
I looked behind the mechanics where the old Greyhound station used to be, now a disassembled, weed choked yard, and a large wasteland that was once the giant lot where Maritime Autos shiniest, newest cars were kept. There is a small family owned gas station that ages ago I had heard the city was going to buy out, that in the meantime had upgraded and added a Dunkin Donuts, right by the 95 N on- ramp.
In the lot right in front of Professional Auto Center was an old, Victorian style house.
It is slated for demolition, its gingerbread style shingles weathered and falling off. Its doors have DANGER: ASBESTOS signs plastered on them, and the front porch had yellow caution tape where the welcoming railing had once been.
As a kid, I used to watch that house when I would come to drop off my dad's beat up old Nissan truck. I always noticed that there looked like an impossible number of people lived in this shabby house, and they were always brown. I wondered how uncomfortable it must be, having strangers and gas fumes right outside your doorstep every time you went to get the mail or ride your bike.
The rose bushes that the hardworking tenants would care for, despite the house's age and disrepair stood alone, no longer cared for or noticed. The yellow caution tape fell unheeded into their brambles.

I wondered where those hardworking families lived now that their old house was going to be destroyed. I wonder what the city wants to build here, what was so important to the area; something that was so vital that many homeowners and business owners livelihoods need to be seized? I wondered just then if the justices of the Supreme Court really knew how far their pens reached, how deeply their words and decisions were felt across the country in the lives of everyday Americans.
The "takings clause" serves to let city and state governments take private property as long as it is for "public use" and the private owners are compensated.
The lines in Tonys face as he tries to smile through his hard luck story show me what the takings clause really means.

No one in America thinks that once a house is bought, or a business is owned that some land baron, some city council or condo developer with a gleam in his eye can start a legal fight to take it all away. Not Tony, not Suzette Kelo, not anyone. Its ironic that this case originated in my home state and it is on a visit back to this place that I see my first example of what this ruling means.

Old? What's old?

My little sister turns eighteen today. It is such a strange sensation to know that our 6 years apart have caught up to us in such a real way. Six years ago last month I graduated from high school.Now she's done. In my family, the closest thing we have to reunions is graduation parties, which started 6 years ago with my graduation. My grandparents, their 4 kids, two spouses, and 11 grand kids, including me, crowd into my average size house to get together and celebrate this milestone. We live on the east coast, in the mid west and on the west coast. We’re like dandelion seeds, blown across this new nation state we call home by the wind of post colonialism. I am often disappointed by how little happens when we all get together, everyone simply eating together and talking. My planner happy self wants to go on day trips, have events and activities that we can bond over and make memories about since our time is so precious and so scarce. I'm slowly realizing as I grow older that if our families were all still in India, or even in England, that we would be in close proximity to each other, and we would be able to get together for the mundane, and not just the momentous. That is why when we get together, the first thing that happens is we break bread (the children eating first while the parents/adults wait and help serve, clean up spills and fuss over what the kids are all eating, adults next, laughing and talking as they enjoy their much spicier versions of whatever the children had) and then have tea. If blood is the tie that binds, tea is the manna and quail in the desert for my family. Tea keeps us together and keeps us going. Our conversation, our memories, our traditions, they all revolve around that crucial leaf that got us colonized in the first place. Our countries change, the years change, the generations get added to, but tea is the first and last thing we always share together.

I just found out that in the motherland, in the city my family is from (on both sides) there are hundreds of people who are related to me. Who I belong to. Who belong to me. Up until this point in my life, I had never known these people existed. I knew we had some relatives somewhere, but I had no clue that my family has lived in Hyderabad for hundreds of years, for countless generations. I had known that my family descended from some royal line, some time in the expanse of Indian history, but I have a name, and a time. The Khutoub Shahi, who ruled India before the Mughals did, had a king by the name of Loudi Khan. It is his line that my grandmother's family has descended from. My grandfather’s family is apparently a well established, deeply religious Sufi family, which is part of a very old Sufi order. Apparently, one of grandfather's ancestors was a well known, revered saint. (Now I'm very confused about a lot of this, because I know hardly anything about Sufi Islam, and sainthood in Islam is pretty much forbidden, so I don't really know what that is about, but it is still a pretty huge deal.) My family is from Hyderabad, a city in southern India that is larger than New York City and older by at least double. It was the largest independently held state in India while the British occupied the subcontinent. There was a dynasty of kings called the Nizam who ruled on their own up until India's independence. It was larger and more powerful than Rajasthan. I have for most of my life felt rootless and unclaimed. Unbeknownst to me, there are generations of people that claim me and hold my history who I have never known. My journey, my struggle to find who I am, to build who I am around ghosts of the past and scaffolding that is rickety at best is only the latest struggle in a long line of people whose history I don't know.

I feel more like a child who is of multi-ethnic descent than an Indian American. I can’t even go so far as to claim that. I am Desi, which slides off the tongue easier, and I know that I fall into the American Born Confused Desi category no matter how hard I fight it. So many cultures and peoples have informed the person I am, almost no labels, no words exist that can define me. I'm first generation, sure. I'm brown, yup. I'm diglossic. I'm American. I'm a feminist. I'm a woman. I'm a daughter. I'm a girl. I'm confused, alone, and need a guide through the messy entanglement that is culture and history. There are some around me who seem to get it, who seem to effortlessly just live their lives, with no apparent evidence of any struggle with self hate, or white standards of beauty, of growing up Muslim in a harsh, un-accepting western environment, or the idea that is strongly held in America that there is only black & white, of having to be the walking reminder that diversity is more than color, folks. I feel like I constantly try to reach out to them, for some support, for some understanding, some validation, but when I do question and wait, all I get back are dismissive answers and very little, if any, understanding.

I'm about to embark on a journey that I hope will give me some clue as to who I am, and the blood that lives on in me. I will be going to India for the first time, not to Hyderabad, not yet, but to northern India. I will, of course, be headed there with a bunch of young white Americans, but I will be going none the less. I read as much literature as I can get my hands on by brown Desi writers, looking in their words for a reflection of my voice. All the news I read about India says that the cities are changing rapidly, the old world, the older worlds, are all crashing down, unsustainable in this age of globalization and outsourcing. Independence led to a world different than my grandparents grew up in, leading them to Britain. My mom's family settled Luton, England, dealing with the taunts, the ignorance and the hate of the very white English people. My mom married and moved to America, becoming one of the few Indian families in our area, while England became more deeply entrenched with brown people, Islam and the cultures of the colonized. I grew up here in CT, where kids asked me in elementary school what I was, since I wasn't white or black, and there were no other others. I graduated from high school with 2 other brown people in my class of 400. My sisters went to that same high school in a time where there were many more brown kids. My sister just graduated from a class of 345, where there were at least 10 brown kids. Being Indian is not unusual anymore. We aren't as populous as the Greeks or Italians or Irish families in the area, but it isn't as rare as it once was. My sisters both have brown friends. There have always been enough brown people for them to have their pick of whom they like and who they don't. I had to leave, go to DC for college, which is a city teeming with Desis, before I found my first Desi friend.

For years, I have felt uncomfortable around large groups of brown people. I have no context for being surrounded by so many other people who look like me. I don't know how to define myself once I'm no longer the raisin in the rice. I feel so isolated from most Desi culture. I'm too American, too modern, too opinionated, too free-thinking, too critical, too independent, and too strong. I'm not polite enough, I'm too familiar, and I’m too challenging and controversial. I'm too loud, too audacious, too impetuous, and shameless. I'm not modest enough, I'm not traditional enough and I don't have enough respect. I'm not Muslim enough, I don't speak Urdu or Hindi, I don't watch Bollywood movies and I don't wear Indian clothes to anything except a party. I don't know. My best friend says I should take comfort in the fact that other people feel alone too, that there is relatability in feeling culturally isolated. My other best friend, who has a great deal to say about being a cultural transplant, just tries to relate. His otherness is different, he feels distant from a place he once knew that no longer exists, whereas I feel distant from something I've never known.

My family doesn't understand why I'm going to India. They don't understand this emptiness that eats away at me, this blackness where context, history and ancestry should be. How can I know who I am and where I am going if I don't know where I've (my family) been? How can I lay claim to my adulthood if my childhood has been so incomplete? It hurts me that the only way I have seen, heard or understood India is through the fiction I devour. That some white child that has no ties to the country knows as little or as much as I do about the place my family comes from. I feel so betrayed that there is all this history that is relevant to my life, to my family, that no one has ever bothered to tell me. no pictures of Hyderabad, no pictures of the extended family that lives on my great grandfather's compound, no pictures of the masjid my great-great-great-great grandmother built, no pictures of the 10 acres of land in the middle of Hyderabad that my grandfather's Sufi family lives off of, no pictures of the tombs of my ancestors. Now I've resolved to see these things in person, to take my own pictures, to meet this family and hopefully be fluent enough in Hindi to speak with them. To own this culture, this history that claims me, no matter how far I go, or how hard I try to deny it. My children will have a ready claim on the deeds of our shared history. They will not be ill equipped to face the culture of their past or the culture of their present.