An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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Hearing a suicide car bomb less than 1/4 mile away

October 13, 2014

On Oct 12, 2014 at 7am I was getting ready for work here in Kabul, and heard a huge explosion. I immediately went to my window and saw a plume of smoke rising. I knew right away that it had to be a bomb of some sort, even though I’d never heard a bomb blast in my life.

A few minutes later I discovered it was a suicide bomber on one of Kabul’s main roads that had driven directly into a foreign military convoy.

I travel that road at least two times a day for my work commute, so I know precisely where the blast occurred. I literally drove on that exact stretch of road the previous evening.

At least one person died and multiple folks were injured. The bomb was less than ¼ mile away from where I’m staying. Security told me that we had to wait an extra half-hour before we left to drive to work, in order for the traffic to thin out.

Now I know what a bomb sounds like. I’ll never forget it.

It’s strange to be in a place that is on the news so often and yet in day-to-day interactions and routines feels totally normal. I work in a Western style office, where most people can speak English (they mostly speak Pashto or Dari) and the Chief of Party (program head) is an expat US citizen.

But I’ve been told many times by folks working here, either for NGOs or as security contractors, complacency is dangerous. Not that I had become complacent, but driving on the roads every day seemed routine, beyond the security and bad traffic.

The blast today was a sober reminder that Kabul and Afghanistan as a whole remains as unstable as ever and quite unsafe.

Mostly though, I’m thinking about the Afghan people, who live with this overhanging specter of daily violence. It’s heartbreaking. This is a country that for decades has been without stability or cohesion, which I’m sure affects the  nation’s collective psyche.

People say, Kabul is ‘safer’ than rural areas, but what does that really mean? A suicide attack only once every 10 days, as compared to every other one?

As I came into work, the local Afghan staff asked me if I had heard the blast, I was a little visibly shaken and they picked up on it immediately. But they didn’t bat an eye, it was completely ‘normal’ for them to know that something so devastating happened. It’s a weekly occurrence and in a sense they have become desensitized to it.

Indian Justice is Sloooow

September 16, 2014

Two stories came out of the sub-continent recently regarding India’s courts.

The first one, details just how many court cases are pending in India. It’s an astounding number. 32 million.

Even the 1,000 fast-track courts, many set-up after the horrific gang-rape of the 23-year-old student in Delhi in 2012 haven’t really impacted the court backlog. Fast track courts (FTCs) received a lot of press recently, as they are where a number of the sexual abuse and violence cases are tried. But they also hear cases about children, disabled and the elderly as well as caste based issues.

While they give the impression that Indian law enforcement and the criminal justice system are improving, even 1,000 specific courts barely alleviate the problem.

The usual culprits of government inefficiency apply in this case, as does a lack of political will manifested in budget allocations and India’s massive population. Plus, with prosecutors spread so thin, they lack the bandwidth to truly investigate cases as they should. Many are completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases.

The second story, builds on the nature of the first and it’s about a recent Supreme Court ruling based on those 32 million cases.

According to the SC, anyone who is still in jail awaiting trial verdicts, longer than half what they would have received if they had actually been convicted, should be released.

Think about that for a second.

“In other words, if the maximum punishment for a crime is three years and a person who was arrested for committing that crime has been in jail under trial for one and a half years, the person should be released.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the SC ruling will work. For starters, Indian jails don’t keep computerized records, if they keep records at all. If people move jail locations during their sentences,  usually no record exists of the total time they will have spent in jail.

Secondly, most prisoners and prosecutors don’t know enough about current laws and regulation. As usual its India’s poor who suffer the most, as they await sentencing for petty crimes.

Many problems plague India’s criminal justice system. These are just two of them. With the new government of Modi and and renewed emphasis on government efficiency, I’m curious to see if India is able  to decrease the number of pending court cases during his time as Prime Minister.

Indians just elected Narendra Modi Prime Minister. This news upsets me.

May 17, 2014

India’s populace spoke loudly.

Narendra Modi eviscerated Rahul Gandhi in the nationwide elections.

It was Congress Party’s worst showing at the polls in their history.

The final result, a landslide victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi has been predicted for months. But the utter annihilation of the Congress party caught many by surprise.

India has chosen a new leader, who in my opinion is not only bad for India, he’s terrible for democracy and secularism.

Modi is not now, nor has ever been, interested in bringing people together. He is a ‘divider.’ His campaign speeches and his political rhetoric focused on separation: Hindus from Muslims, rich from poor, educated from un-educated, Hindu nationalists from everyone else, all the while talking aggressively about both China and Pakistan relations.

Do not misunderstand — I am no Congress sycophant. I think both Modi and Rahul Gandhi were awful choices to lead India.

The second most populous nation in the world just elected a man who allowed Gujarati textbooks, which not only downplayed the Holocaust and its horrors, but also extolled the leadership of Hitler and the Nazis.

His party, the BJP, is closely aligned with a group that explicitly formed itself to look like Nazi brown shirts of the late 1930s, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). That is Modi’s background, now Prime Minister of India.  The BJP is a hard-line Hindu party, ideologically far-right, and espousing a view that India is for Hindus and Hindus only.

Some individuals, respected publications, including the Economist and others sounded the alarm bell on Modi during the last few months. Some used his cult of personality as a reason to vote against him, others his alliances with radical right-wing groups or his role in the 2002 Gujarat Riots.

For me, his role as Gujarat’s Chief Minister during the 2002 Gujarat Riots, an abhorrently violent pogrom by right-wing Hindus against Muslims, forever taints him.

Even if though the Indian Supreme Court exonerated him of all responsibility, some of those under his direct command were found guilty of riot involvement. If Modi was fully in charge of Gujarat, as he says, then he HAD to know what was going on. He was involved, somehow.

It cannot work both ways. He cannot claim to have omnipotent knowledge about Gujarat, while then declaring that the Gujarat Riots took place without police and political involvement. He also refused to call outside forces to intervene while Gujarat burned for three days. Is that leadership?

The Supreme Court has returned ‘not guilty’ verdicts for his involvement, but most of the evidence that would prove guilt was either destroyed (intentionally or accidentally) or is missing. While I understand evidence is paramount in a trial, the fact is that most of the primary documents establishing guilt or exonerating Modi were not evaluated and it’s suspicious that the most important ones are missing.

Modi never apologized to anyone about the riots that occurred during his leadership. He never said he was sorry anyone lost lives and livelihoods. He could make a simple statement like that, without taking any blame. However, he patently refuses to make even that small concession to the aggrieved. What kind of leadership does that show? Even if he had nothing to do with it, which I highly doubt, it still occurred ‘on his watch.’

Perhaps I will be wrong. Modi will turn into one of the best things that ever happened to my homeland. I won’t hold my breath.

Modi enters national leadership of the world’s largest democracy facing myriad problem, which he’s claimed solutions to during his campaigning. Some of the biggest include tackling youth unemployment, government corruption and the abysmal infrastructure holding her development in tangles.

Can he deliver? That’s the biggest unknown for India’s future, and I, along with 1.2 billion plus others await the result.

The largest democratic exercise in human history has begun – India is voting

April 15, 2014

National elections are under way in India, a nation so massive voting occurs in nine separate phases. The numbers are barely comprehensible.

An estimated 815 million people will vote between April 7 and May 12.

India is a democracy, meaning both the uber-rich, along with the destitute and illiterate get an equal say in her future.

There are approximately 930,000  electronic polling stations throughout India. India is growing so quickly that for these elections, 100 million new voters are now eligible. The Parliamentary elections, for the Lok Sabha’s 534 seats (Lower Congress) take place every five years. A political party needs 272 seats to form a majority.

Illiterates will vote also, by entering a booth and picking a symbol representing the party and its candidates. While there are three bigger parties, only two have realistic winning chances. A Lotus represents the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while a hand symbolizes the Congress Party. A broom denotes the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), representing the ‘sweeping away of political corruption.’

Millions of election officials, including the military and citizen volunteers ensure the voting process functions. For a nation as corrupt as India, voting is one exercise it does impressively well. Vote-banks and other voter enticement schemes aside, the actual process of casting one’s vote in Indian elections is surprisingly straightforward and for its size, mostly ethical. The Election Commission is serious about preventing fraud. All voters leave the booth with permanent ink on one finger, a 52 year-old practice safeguarding against double voting.

This election is one of the most important in recent memory, pitting yet another Gandhi, Rahul this time, against the former Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, whose very name is a lightning rod for controversy. People are generally tired of the Congress Party, which has seemingly always ruled India.

The most recent iteration of Congress rule saw slow economic growth and numerous billion-dollar national fraud schemes.  Arvind Kejriwal leads the new AAP party, which lost national popularity and momentum after Kejriwal decided to abandon his post as Chief Minister of Delhi after only 49 days.

The two main parties portray their candidates in vastly different ways. Modi, already the former Gujarat Minister has a cult personality around himself, and his campaign centers around him more than his party. Rahul Gandhi on the other hand, preaches team and the benefits of working together.

Modi’s eyed the Prime Minister prize for years, while Rahul has reluctantly run out of a sense of duty to the party, rather than being passionate about leading India post-2014. No one but the most die-hard Congress supporter expects anything less than a victory for Modi and the BJP.

The mystery is; can the BJP garner more than 272 seats, forming a majority that does not require regional cooperation?

On May 16 we will know the answer.

‘God’s Own Country’ in the Washington Post

March 26, 2014

One of my co-workers, a fellow Malayali, forwarded me this story from a freelance writer describing a few scenes from a trip with his girlfriend to Kerala, recently published by the Washington Post.

When people ask me where in India I am from and I reply ‘Kerala,’ they are either familiar with it — saying that it is on their ‘list’ of places to visit’ — or they have no idea where it is. If I am near a computer when we are having this conversation, I quickly type Kerala into Google images and let them feast their eyes on its magnificence themselves. If they have never heard of it, by the time they are done scrolling through just a few pictures of the South Western state, they are eager to book a ticket.

Another bonus, it probably receives half the tourist foot traffic of its northern neighbor Goa, or the other major cities, Delhi, Mumbai etc. When I last stayed there, the monsoon was just beginning, but it still had perfect weather and I had nearly the entire hotel where I stayed to myself. There were only a handful of other tourists. However, I also visited in high tourist season and it still lacks the overwhelming suffocation of masses that other Indian tourist spots have.

Being a Kerala tourism worker must be one of the easier jobs in the world. How hard can it be to sell one of the most beautiful places on the planet to perspective visitors?

I enjoyed this article and it made me really miss the land where I began my life. The one thing the article barely touched on was the delicious fare that Kerala offers. Otherwise the writing really makes the place come alive and gives the reader a good sense of the diversity of only just a few cities that he visited.

You should go. Don’t take my word for it. Read the article and then Google ‘Kerala’ to see the myriad of images yourself.

Seeking Balance When Writing about India

February 27, 2014

I began this blog more than four years ago, to write mainly about my experience and thoughts regarding international adoption. As time progressed, I became more passionate about my roots, and that means writing and thinking increasingly about India, and her issues.

Add to this fact that I married an Indian national and that my consumption of news and analysis about the homeland exponentially increased.

However, an issue has arisen: I need to strike a balance when writing about India. On the one hand, stand Indian subjects that are glossed over and remain outside of the ‘India Shining’ narrative the government and media sometimes portray. I found I must balance these with positive stories about my homeland — those that inspire, bring joy, and cause my readers thought.

Sharing the stories of India’s marginalized is one of my passions, along with educating others, by writing and highlighting India’s many development and growth issues. Nonetheless, I realize that this blog’s content may easily become too negative.

India, never a headline stranger, prominently remained in the news for a number of horrific stories during 2013. The abhorrent Delhi rape, and continuing rapes and women problem; its massive corruption; the heart-breaking story about children who died from poison food…the list goes on.

Her population is 1.2 billion and growing, so there is, of course, the issue of scale. Do not read that wrong. I am not minimizing injustices, or their horrific nature, but it is fair to keep her mass of humanity in perspective when throwing around numbers.

I believe it is important to discuss and examine the underlying causes of many Indian social ills, but my conundrum arises: do I focus on that stuff too much? How can I do it less? I seek a serious and legitimate balance.

I am proud to be an Indian. Yet I am sickened, saddened and disgusted by her myriad problems.

The way I write about India is very similar to the way I write about adoption.

I want people to see nuanced stories of India — not merely what mainstream media reports, which is usually negative, or what you read in Time or the Economist, which relays tales of her high flying economy and burgeoning middle class etc. I hope to combine both. As I frequently say about adoption, the feel good story is only one part of the adoption narrative; the pain, the hurt, the anger and loss are also parts of it for some of us, and all facets remain valid.

As I write about India, I wish to keep that same perspective.

Do you have any suggestions or sites that you use to find ‘positive’ Indian news?

Against convention: the story of an Indian luger at the Sochi Olympics

February 5, 2014

Imagine you were an Olympic athlete. Now picture competing in a sport that your home country had no physical infrastructure in which you could practice. Lastly, envision after your hard work, paying your own travel costs, having friends develop your equipment and lastly, due to circumstances beyond your control, being unable to represent your home country in the Winter Games.

Welcome to the life of Indian luge participant, Shiva Keshavanread more …