Wednesday, March 31, 2010


(A tanka is a form of Japanese poetry. In English is written in five lines/stanzas, with the syllabic scheme 5-7-5-7-7, rhyme scheme not required. It is traditionally written to mark a moment of separation. For more information see

The red impression
Of your lips on the final
Cups of tea we drank
Stays with me even after
The water has rinsed them off

Note: Outcome of a Poetry Workshop conducted by Meena Kandasamy


The corporate jungle’s new telecom entrant
Has endorsed your right to life and habitat
Though they topple trees to build towers
And cough smoke to transport their products
A famous baritone laments your death
Your orphan cub’s image evokes dread
So we don the t-shirts and we blog
We ooh and aah over your golden form

We call 5-star press conferences for your cause
Shielded from the air-conditioning by shahtoosh shawls
School children vie to draw your features
Starlets tweet about your poor fate
1411, is all that remains
1411, you’re all the rage!
But when the poacher fires that shot
You will bleed, as you did always, alone

Note: Outcome of a Poetry Workshop conducted by Meena Kandasamy

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"My Story" by Kamala Das: Book Recommendation 1

Last week, I read Kamala Das’ autobiography, My Story. The acclaimed poetess passed away recently, and when I read the mention of the book in tributes to her in various publications the name rang a bell. I have read her poetry in college, and was particularly struck by the extract from this poem (An Introduction) which reflects the many identities we juggle as Indians:

I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak thre
e languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
Don’t write in English, they said,
English is not y
our mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of
you? Why not let me speak in
ny language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mi
ne, mine alone.

The interesting background on the book is that Das wrote it when she was in the hospital, being treated for a bout with heart disease that she was sure she would succumb to. She started writing chapters for serialised publication in a journal. It helped pay the hospital bills and clear her conscience. Imagine her mortification then, when she made a surprising recovery and had to contend with the consequences of laying bare her heart and unmasking the deepest secrets of her family. Yet she faces up to it bravely, as seen in these lines:
This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret having written it. I have written several books in my life time, but none of them provided the pleasure the writing of My Story has given to me.
What you notice immediately in the book is how she constructs sentences of simple beauty that hold profound meaning. For instance, “Like alms looking for a begging bowl was my love which only sought for it a receptacle. At the hour of worship even a stone becomes a idol.”

And her criticism is acerbic. “The obsession with sin destroyed the minds of several girls who were at the beginning of their adolescence normal and easygoing. If there was a dearth of sin, sin at any cost had to manufactured, because forgiving the sinners was a therapeutic exercise, popular with the rabidly virtuous.”

My Story is essentially an account of a woman’s search for love and happiness in the face of loss, loneliness and societal restrictions. She longed for some form of connectedness with the universe and her writing was one way of achieving this. With tools like the Internet, we often take for the granted the ease with which we can engage in conversations with like-minded people in far corners of the world, something that Kamala Das spent her whole life searching for.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On NGO Challenges and Volunteering In India

I’ve been interning with this really earnest NGO called VIDYA (don't judge them by their website; it's poorly designed and inadequate). It started out by focusing on providing education to underprivileged children, but over the years it has expanded its activities to include courses on life skills, vocational skills, setting up a production centre and engaging in microfinance. My work is mainly focused on their microfinance activities (more on that in a later post).

Recently, I was speaking to a part-time volunteer here, an American NRI who has taken a sabbatical from work to volunteer with various NGOs and I became aware of how different the social service scene is in these two countries.

From what I understand, school kids in America are introduced to volunteering at a fairly young age. There is ready infrastructure for those who want to engage in social service, both within America and abroad, such as through organized programmes like Peace Corps. Volunteer experience is an important component of one’s college application. The flip side is of course that there are many kids who participate in various volunteer activities not because they care but because it will help them get into a good college.

Nevertheless, the point I’m trying to make is that social service organizations and NGOs find it much easier to access skilled workers in the US than their counterparts in India, which is unfortunate. Most Indian NGOs are typically held together by a bunch of few passionate, committed people who do all the work and end up spreading themselves too thin. Administrative and funding issues end up taking so much time that they aren’t able to take as many initiatives or refine their functioning as much as they would like to.

I got my internship through this excellent NGO called Joining Hands, which connects people who want to volunteer with NGOs that could use their skills. But one Joining Hands is not enough. There are similar organizations in other cities but a unified central agency is missing. Of course, colleges have the National Service Scheme and I’m sure it does good work but considering the number of students it has access to, it would be fair to say that its achievements have been much below par.

I believe that this lack of social service infrastructure is one of the reasons why philanthropy is seen as something that rich people and a few not-so-rich sensitive people do. Unless someone has worked as a volunteer at least once, it becomes easy to ignore the difference that even a small amount like 50 bucks can make. Giving is not a way of life here, it’s a luxury.

Some people say that most NGOs don’t do good work but even if that’s true, the lack of skilled volunteers/workers is probably mainly to blame for this. Even a net-savvy teenager can make a stellar contribution to an organisation’s fund raising by setting up a cause on Facebook, uploading videos on YouTube or creating a snazzy newsletter. But that teenager needs to first realize his/her potential to contribute, the difference that potential can make and then be put in touch with a relevant organization. This would also make NGOs more accountable because the good ones would gain visibility through word-of-mouth spread of volunteer experiences.

I always wanted to volunteer with an NGO but I was “too busy” all through school and college. It wasn’t until the first year of my M.A. that I signed up to give tuitions to a boy at an orphanage and since I’ve realized that you can make all the excuses you want for not being able to volunteer, but if its important enough to you, you will find the time.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

An ode to the trees at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Do the trees in JNU have a life of their own?

Do they whisper to each other about mysteries unknown?

About lovers sheltered under bougainvillea blossoms

About CSRD students debating on wheat versus sorghum

Though most trees are welcoming, some can seem menacing too

The latter must be hanging out too much with the Naxalite crew

The tree in the picture looks like its going out to war

If you spot it on campus, be sure to hail Mao from afar

Their branches are now weary of Time’s sadism

Witnessing it divest naïve do-gooders of idealism

They remain behind gates through which generations have passed

On the threshold of the future, holding on to the past

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Love and a cigarette

Love kills slowly
Like a cigarette
You hold on to the damn thing on one end
Feel reassured by the fire on the other
You draw breath from it
It draws life from you
And just when you think you can't be without it
It fizzles out unceremoniously, like this post

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tagging photos/videos on Facebook: a social minefield

“Noooo! Don’t tag me in pics with my boyfriend. My mom’s on my friend list and she doesn’t approve of our relationship.”

“I removed my tags from your party album. I wore my roommate’s favourite top without asking her and if she finds out she’ll kill me.”

“Why do you have to tag only those photos in which I look fat?”

Tagging — attaching name labels to people’s faces in online albums — is a task fraught with risks. If you tag your friends, you could get reactions like the one above. If you don’t tag them, they’ll think you’re not considerate enough to identify them in your photos. Sigh!

To be fair, I’ve been on the other side too. A friend recently uploaded a video of us dancing and making totally silly comments on her Facebook profile, which she tagged me in. I was mortified, not to mention furious. She couldn’t see what the fuss was about, though fortunately she was understanding enough to remove the video. So one person’s entertainment can unwittingly become another person’s embarrassment.

Maybe there should be some sort of convention for this. Like you let your friends know that instead of wasting time tagging stuff that threaten their social life or self-esteem, you’re just gonna upload the photos/videos and they can tag themselves in the most flattering or appropriate ones. And save the really no-holds-barred stuff for emailing to only those people whom you trust, with the permission of the people involved.

The strange thing is, I thought technology was meant to make our lives less complicated.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lehman Brothers’ toxic legacy

It seems that when Warren Buffett referred to derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction”, he was being more literal than he intended. The Times of India reports that failed investment bank Lehman Brothers holds a nuclear stockpile of uranium, from a former commodities contract undertaken before it collapsed in September 2008.

The best take on this comes from the New York Post, “It turns out we were looking in the wrong place for weapons of mass destruction…They were not in Iraq. They were in Lehman Brothers’ portfolio.”

It seems Mr. Bush wasted all that time scouring West Asia when all he had to do was hop over to Wall Street and ply some chatty investment bankers with copious amounts of expensive alcohol; the truth would have come out sooner or later.

If Saddam Hussein is still alive, as some speculate, he must be falling off the chair laughing.