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Gandhi: The Saint and The Sinner?

Gandhi is to India what George Washington is to the United States:  A heroic, sometimes mythical figure who embodies the conscience and destiny of a nation.  At home, Washington demands historic respect and remains a symbol of our Independence.  In India, Gandhi engenders an almost feverish reverence for his struggle for moral perfection and his non-violent campaign to free India from British rule.

I mention him because as I learn more about Gandhi, I am reminded that like many leaders,  his story is far more complicated than the reputation formed by popular culture.

Apparently, Gandhi led an ascetic life partly to atone for making love to his pregnant wife, a sin in strict Hindu households.  As the story goes, Gandhi took a break from nursing his sick father, lost himself in the comforts of his wife, and while he was with her, his father died.  Afterward, he denied himself all realms of pleasure:  food, sex – comfort of any sort.

He was not particularly nice to his wife, Kasturba and I doubt that he consulted her when he later decided to become celibate.  He was also unusually cruel to his sons and there are questions about his own racism.   The stories are endless and as you read more about Gandhi you see that he was a bit nutty, extreme, dogmatic and like all of us, imperfect and desperately human.

There’s a big stink in India now about the latest biography of Gandhi, written by Joe Lelyveld, former Executive Editor of the NYT.  (He hired Jim.)  Two Indian states have banned his book, Great Soul, and the central government was under pressure to follow suit.  It rightfully decided not to get involved in censorship.   Even a few organizations in the US have cancelled book talks and there are rumors of extreme Hindu groups calling for Lelyveld’s death.

Why all the fuss?  I haven’t read the book yet, but apparently Lelyveld excerpts letters from Gandhi to a German man whom he met when he was working in South Africa.   The letters suggest intimacy.  Lelyveld says that he lets the reader draw their own conclusions about the relationship between the two men;  some Indians say he wrongly suggests Gandhi had an affair.

India is very conservative and the details of sexual indiscretions are rarely aired in pubic here.  Gay or not, celibate or not, I think it’s clear that Gandhi struggled with his sexuality and sadly considered it demoralizing.

Gandhi’s deeds for his country are indisputable  – his peaceful stand against the British and the unfair practices imposed on his people;  his struggle to enfranchise and not marginalize untouchables;  his work to seal the fissure between hindus and muslims – all this unfettered by his personal life.  That he was not insanely perfect makes him more interesting – and more worthy of the worship of a nation.

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Happy Easter and Passover dear family and friends.  We celebrated Bunny Day as usual here, dying eggs, hunting for them, overdosing on chocolate and even, surprise of all surprises, making it to church for the first time in… far too long.  In the car on the way to church, George declared after complaining about having to go:  “Fine, I’ll go – but I’m NOT doing the Jesus thing!”  He hung outside the building for a while until he figured out that Jesus came with air conditioning… (as noted by a friend of mine.)

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This moment wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as I wanted it to be.  It fast descended into bickering about how may eggs everyone had to dye, who was hogging all the good colors, etc…

Lala hunting for eggs:

Eddie counting his stash:

Little bunnies:

The annual Easter photo.  (Note how miserable George looks as we prepare to leave for church):

I shot this photo at a friend’s house:

And our mangy neighborhood stray taking liberties in my kitchen:

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Flies in My Wine (and other things that bug me…)

I’m really pissed-off at this place:

That’s where I used to go to dye my gray roots and to keep my toe nails ablaze in icy-hot blue, the only color I wear down there.

Until I discovered that they use little boys to lug their dirty towels to the wash wallah.  Very little boys.  George’s age.  Maybe younger.

It’s no secret that child labor is a thriving business in India – even in the capital city, home to an upstanding national constitution that guarantees, among many things, six fundamental civil liberties:  equality, free speech, freedom of religion, the right to education, equality before the law and FREEDOM FROM EXPLOITATION, prohibiting forced labor, child labor and human trafficking.

Sadly, India fails miserably on the latter.   I’ve already written about young girls stolen from rural poverty, sold and resold into the infernos of sex slavery.

In India, children mine coal, iron ore, diamonds;  they weave carpets and sew clothes.  I’ve seen some statistics that say there are more child laborers in India than in any other country in the world – from 20 to 50 million little souls sweating through a day’s wage and getting far less in compensation.

I didn’t see the little boy at the salon doubled-over carrying a sack of towels, but my friend did.  She came to me because she knows that I, too frequent this place and she was very upset.  Rani is half India, half German and she speaks Hindi.  She overheard the staff talking poorly to this boy who came into the salon to gather the dirty towels.   When she saw him walk off, clearly struggling with the burden on his back – she asked to speak to the manager.  Manager, owner, staff – all shrugged their shoulders and said that it wasn’t their responsibility.  The salon hires a washing service and they argued that they couldn’t control who the service sent to collect the towels.

That’s the problem here, no one seems to think that they’re empowered to do anything about the raging injustices that often define this place.

I have another friend whose driver, every morning  hired a little boy to wash their car.   When you live in a place where it’s not unusual to have a driver, it’s often the driver’s responsibility to take care of everything car related – including maintenance and cleaning.   It’s not too outlandish to think that this driver may have considered it below his status to clean the car and so he hired a child  to come at 7 a.m. and clean it instead.

If I thought that this was more like having a paper route (I had one when I was 13), or working at Mcdonalds (I did that too, age 16) or cleaning houses (started a business when I was 14) than I wouldn’t mind so much.

But the driver didn’t hire an over-eager middle class kid from down the street. He probably hired a waif – because they’re everywhere here, because he probably thought he was helping in his own way, because he saw nothing wrong with using little hands  to do a man’s job.  ( No gender reference intended…)

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Should I give Delhi the benefit of the doubt and assume that there are culturally arguable reasons why city law does not require women to wear helmets when driving or riding a motorcycle?   The law insists that men wear them and I hear that it’s strictly enforced, as it should be.  My own informal survey shows that most men do wear helmets.  That’s not a 60-percent-sort-of-most…. more like a 95-percent-most.

Sikhs are exempt because they wear turbans and it would be difficult to get a helmet over a turban.

So, I wonder why women are exempt?  Hmm…

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I was teaching a health class the other day.  The kids were studying a unit on drugs.  In this  particular lesson we looked at cigarettes and nicotine addiction.  After the kids took a pre-test to see what they actually knew about cigarettes, smoking, nicotine, statistics, etc… we watched a movie about the health effects of smoking and the powerful addiction of nicotine.  Afterwards, we discussed what they learned.

One boy raised his hand and asked me this:  If nicotine is so addictive, why isn’t  it considered an illegal drug?

GREAT question.  Mrs. Yardley thought quickly and came up with this:  If you smoke a cigarette, your senses are not impaired.  But if you smoke a joint, they are.  Perhaps this is one reason that cigarettes are not considered a “drug” in the legal sense.

Remember, I’m no expert here – I was just covering this class for another teacher.  I’m really good at stepping-in and taking-over with  authority and with breadth of knowledge (versus depth of knowledge) and getting through 90 minutes of most disciplines.

Anyway, my answer elicited stares.  Blank stares.  Until finally, one child asked me, “What’s a joint?”.

Ooops.

Do you think that a class of 14 year olds from the US could easily answer that question?  Are my expat kids that sheltered?

Or maybe there’s another, more modern name for a marijuana cigarette?

This incident made me think of a friend’s comment:  that my children, who are growing up in a third, unaligned culture, are an odd mix of mature and naïve.

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Tonight I took a sip of my red wine and there was a lump in it.  It wasn’t the first lump that I’ve nearly swallowed with my vino.  The season that breeds all manner of winged and crawly nuisances has arrived.  And the flies, big and small, use my wine class for their swimming pool.  Drives me batty.  I used to dump the contents of the glass – now I just scoop and flick – and drink quickly.

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With helmets:

And without:

Nap time outside the US embassy:

It’s harder to nap here.  A typical scene beneath an overpass:

Science Fair Season:

Beer season – Desperate for new beer coozies…. hint hint.  The trashier the better!



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Antidotes to India

Beijing is still sweet home to my children and to see them happy and carefree there makes my mommy heart swell.   This was our second visit back since we moved to Delhi nearly two years ago.  I think it’s important that the kids understand that moving doesn’t necessarily mean leaving.

The landscape of Beijing has changed a lot.  Neighborhoods disappear and new buildings rise in a mere blink.   There’s now a subway station near our old compound and an outlet mall on the corner.  Our nanny’s village is gone.  It’s covered with dozens of apartment blocks, row after row of windows and concrete.  Our cat Winston is buried below one of them in what was once the village cemetery.

It’s easy to be a kid in Beijing.  There are parks and playgrounds and indoor jungle gyms.  You can eat street food and walk around without fear of stray dogs or other animals.   It tickled me to see my children teasing and giggling with our old driver and using chopsticks to eat spaghetti.  Now that we are home, Eddie insists on eating every meal with chopsticks.

We stuffed our bellies with juicy dumplings and feasted on duck ( Eddie asked if this was the chicken that goes “quack quack”, versus the chicken-that-bah’s  or the chicken-that-oinks.)  We also ate a lot of beef:  minced, stir-fried and BBQ’d. A friend cooked us a generous 2-kilo slab of tenderloin and the Yardleys made sure there wasn’t much left of the chicken-that-moos.

Oddly, the air was clear but the skies were that monochrome white that doesn’t have depth, doesn’t move.  There’s rarely a sky with definition or dimension in Beijing.  The city was brown and far from lush – a noticeable contrast to Delhi where color bleeds into everything.

We left Beijing for Hong Kong, a city that blends to perfection the best of the Chinese and the best of the British.  The children loved riding the double-decker buses, the ferries and the tram up Victoria Peak.  The food is delish, the shopping endless.   There’s sea and mountains and views in every direction. And all those buildings packed tightly, rising from seabed and mountain side – it looks other-worldly:  a galactic city in a future century.

“Who told Daddy to move to Delhi?” Eddie demanded when we were walking the yellow brick road around Victoria Peak.  This is a city paved in gold and it takes a bullion of it to get through one weekend.

“Daddy’s work”.  It was easy to displace the decision when no answer would satisfy my beautiful son.

Here he is in my driver’s arms in Beijing.  Shao Qiu Lan helped me raise Eddie – she held him from the day he was born and she never let go.

Fishing in Chaoyang Park:

There are never enough dumplings!

Lala at play:

Girlfriends and foot massages – a perfect combination!

Hong Kong at night:

Swimming in the sky:

Daddy joined us for our last two days in Hong Kong.  He kissed me after this photo and Georgie declared that is wasn’t “Happy Hour”.

A matter of physics or age?  When the kids were in the air I was just leaving the ground and when the kids were landing I finally made it into the air.  Being silly on the beach in Repulse Bay:

Hong Kong is humid and tropical with palms at sea level and lush rain-forests on the mountain sides:

Again, Repulse Bay.  This is where the kids say they want to live:

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Ooh La La!

Just a quickie  from the Hong Kong airport to say:  She’s back!  Safe and happy….  Thanks for the oodles of sweet notes asking about Lala and her trip.   There were no tiger sightings (“whew!”) but lots of signs that the cats were lurking, such as nail scratchings on trees.  Also, evidence of elephant herds, but again, no sighting.   Lots of laughter and pranks and bedside chatter reported; long hikes, crafting – all the usual camp past times like anywhere.

I’m posting this in a hurry before we board to Beijing where blogs are blocked. More on the Middle Kingdom on our return next week.

Happy April, all…