An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
Show MenuHide Menu

A Few Welcome Changes to International Adoption Rules

November 30, 2016

In the fall of 2016, the US Department of State presented new rules regarding inter-country adoptions for those adopting foreign-born children into U.S. homes.

As an adoptee, I always advocate for greater transparency about fees and the months-long process for international adoption. Not surprisingly, adoption agencies and other stakeholders in the adoption industry decry the proposed changes because they say it will make it harder to adopt.

I think they are more concerned about the declining number of international adoptions and its affect on their bottom line.

This is not about caring for children’s welfare.

Fee Transparency

Adoption agencies have a new standard for pay scales of foreign employees involved in adoption. Previously, they were based on ‘normal pay,’ what the agencies knew about pay rates in specific countries. Now, salaries will be given based on the services the foreign adoption official actually performs.

Now, salaries will be given based on the services the foreign adoption official actually performs. I think it’s fair that salaries will not be paid arbitrarily, which was the case beforehand.

Furthermore, I think the overall costs for agencies to continue as adoption service providers (ASP) will fluctuate more. The bigger potential consequence is agencies must clearly demonstrate what work their foreign or contracted staff is doing.

Standardizing good faith information efforts

That’s my language. This means that ASP’s present further evidence and proof of effort related to discovering the child’s medical or social background.

Previously this was not standardized. The effort one agency said was ‘sufficient’ in learning as much about a child’s history as possible, was different from another agency’s.

Foreign vs Domestic Fees

Adoption agencies must clearly show which fees prospective adoptive parents are paying for domestic and foreign services. This would end a type of ‘blanket’ approval that adoptive parents sometimes are required to give below a certain threshold. It ensures every cost is known upfront.

Agencies can no longer charge any fees to prospective parents to care for a child before the finalized adoption. Agencies were previously charging adoptive parents more money ‘caring’ for a child in a specific foreign country than needed.

This eliminates the temptation for agencies to recruit children, drawing out the adoption process. Additionally, this safeguards families against spending money on children who will never be available for adoption.

Telling the real story and making the best placement  

Agencies must provide additional training on grief, loss, identity, and trauma and characteristics of successful intercountry adoptive placements. They must also have a track record of compliance with post-placement and post-adoption reporting requirements.

It will no longer be enough just to want to adopt, have the money and go through the home visits. Agencies will further explore a family’s circumstances determining their fit for intercountry adoption.

I’m not sure exactly what this entails, but I like the idea of increased due diligence about the adopting parents. Agencies may feel this is an extra burden. But I say that you must get an adoption right the first time.

Another aspect of this change will be agencies cannot make referrals or require fees for specific adoption services until and unless the parents have completed this new advanced training.

Moving forward, agencies must discuss adoption disruption and dissolution. Both issues are huge black marks on the adoption industry.  The adoption arena has long downplayed and tried ignoring them. I could write a whole post about both circumstances. Here’s a quick primer if you don’t know.

Adoption disruption is when the adoption ends before finalization, but after the child is already in the new home. This forces the child back into foster care or to another family.

Adoption dissolution occurs after finalization and means legal ties sever between the child and the parents, either voluntarily or not.  One result of this drastic step is ‘rehoming. When adoptive families put their child up for private sale in an unregulated forum. These take place on sites like Craigslist or in newspaper classifieds.

The new guidance requires adoption service providers to include information about disruption and dissolution in training and preparation programs for prospective adoptive parents. Adoption service providers will be required to give specific points of contact for support in the event an adoptive family faces difficult adjustment or other hardships, which places a permanent home for the children at risk.

In the future, agencies must inform adoptive parents about all avenues open to them if a crisis occurs, including local and state resources and educate them about legal options, as well as appropriate procedures in case a child needs placement back in the system or requires removal from their adoptive family.

We’ll see what the final updated guidance looks like after the State Department has reviewed all the public comments. In the meantime, these alterations further increase transparency in the international adoption process.

I hope some are formalized.

Adoptees Inch Closer to US Citizenship and We Need Your Help!

September 22, 2016

Thousands of intercountry adoptees lack US citizenship. But there are two bi-partisan bills, in the House and Senate that would end this travesty.

The Adoptee Rights Campaign (ARC), a coalition of adoptees and advocates launched our Family is MORE than DNA campaign!

This postcard campaign, features a picture collage of adoptive families and our goal is to send 35,000 to Congressional offices during October and November to remind them to of the bill’s importance.

acapostcardcollage-1024x682

Adoption Campaign Postcard

Please visit www.adopteerightscampaign.org and sign a postcard! You can send up to five postcards; to your two Senators, your Congressional Representative and the Chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

We hope to get his legislation passed before the November elections and we need your help!

People across the country are filling out hardcopy postcards at events and through the online link. Visit our Facebook page to see more.

After being laid off in late March, I became more involved working with the ARC. What a learning experience it’s been and what a privilege to represent adoptees before Congressional staff.

The ARC spent the summer educating staffers about the bi-partisan Senate and House bills and their details.  For each Hill visit, we began asking staff about their familiarity with the legislation and if they had specific questions. We received a variety of responses to those two questions. Some had read the Bill, while others had worked for members heavily involved in children’s welfare, adoption or something similar and had very specific questions. Unfortunately, a few never heard of the bill, and knew nothing about it.

As expected, many Republican offices we visited equated the bill with an immigration agenda. We acknowledged that people mistakenly lumped it into the immigration debate, but we did our best to reorient it away from immigration and towards, human rights, ‘righting’ a wrong, family preservation, family values, etc. The ACA is not about letting anyone new into the country, the adoptees benefitting from it, have been here for decades and consider the US their home.

Our first Day of Action on April 21 2016 was so successful, that a few weeks later, House members drafted a companion bi-partisan Adoptee Citizenship Bill. It was exciting to know that our direct actions, advocates across the country calling their Congressional representatives and a coordinated social media campaign convinced the House advocates to officially sponsor a bill as well.

Working off the momentum of the first day of action led to another Day of Action on June 14, 2016, this time with coverage by NBC Asian America and this piece in the Huffington Post.

Let’s get citizenship for adoptees! This injustice has gone all too long.

 

 

Do you want to see the world? – Thoughts on Fatherhood

July 30, 2016

Our daughter Sonali Robyne Bryant was born on May 26, 2016. Her name means ‘golden’ in Hindi. Robyne is my mother’s name. I’m now a father.

Sonali Robyne Bryant

As I wrote about here, Sasmita and I decided not to learn our baby’s gender before birth, we both wanted the surprise. The doctors and attending nurses assumed we knew whether it was a boy or girl. We got caught up in the moment and forgot to tell everyone that we didn’t know. As they were cleaning the baby, Sasmi finally asked, is it a boy or a girl? Upon learning she was a girl, we let the joy wash over us.

Sasmita had a five-hour, uncomplicated labor. The biggest drama occurred when Sasmita crawled on the ground outside of GWU Hospital enduring a labor contraction.

Sonali is two months old, and we’re all doing great. I’m getting a modicum of sleep, usually more than Sasmita. We’re adjusting, creating routines and getting used to our new titles as Mom and Dad. I’m surviving with little sleep and reflecting on fatherhood and Sonali. read more …

Who is a ‘Real’ Indian?

May 14, 2016

Since Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister in May 2015, the definition of a ‘true’ Indian is a hot topic.

However, for me, people have always questioned my India bona-fides. Let me explain.

As an adoptee, raised without Indian culture on a daily basis, cultural Indians in the United States were always unsure how I fit into their world. I don’t speak any Indian languages, I attend church, the vast majority of my friends are non-Indian and my parents are white.

By any measure of a culturally engaged Indian, I was not raised as one of them. I fit none of the ‘stereotypical’ Indian roles. I am not a doctor, scientist or lawyer. I am terrible with numbers and figures. I cannot fix your computer, and I don’t engage in the conspicuous consumption and materialism that Indians in America have a reputation for.

Those were the ‘issues’ regarding my Indian identity growing up, but now the narrative shifted. Modi’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata is closely aligned with elements pushing among other things, that all Indians must be Hindu, that true Indians must hate Pakistan and Muslims and the West is destroying both India and its culture.

As a result, many diaspora Indians, and domestic Indians are considered ‘anti-national.’ Additionally, anyone distrusting big government, works with NGOs or social work programs, those who advocate for India’s Dalits, tribals and other groups considered outcasts, people who question tenets of any faith, particularly in film, books or music, all are labeled as not true Indians.

The situation has deteriorated to the point, that anyone critical of India’s policies, politicians or the established Hindu order is considered ‘un-Indian’ or ‘anti-national.’

A recent news story illustrates this case perfectly.

read more …

We don’t know if we’re having a boy or girl. In India it’s illegal to find out.

April 9, 2016

Sasmita and I decided against learning the sex of our coming baby. We do not want to cloud the joyous event, by placing expectations or hopes of a specific gender.

But there’s another reason; Sasmita is uncomfortable discovering a baby’s sex because in India it’s illegal.

Our 2016 baby shower

Prenatal sex determination testing is against Indian law.

Indian society across all levels devalues girls. As a result, the government passed a law called the Prohibition of Sex Determination Act 2003. It targets decreasing female foeticide.

Stories abound of Indian doctors and other hospital workers creating separate lists for people paying extra to discover if they are having the dreaded ‘girl child’ or a son.

Essentially, a pregnant woman arrives at a hospital or health clinic and receives typical medical checkups ensuring the baby is healthy.

But, for an illegal fee, a doctor may open a separate door to a room with a sonogram machine and there an expectant mother can learn the sex.

According to the Act, a woman agrees not to find out the baby’s gender from any gynecologist, or other health care practitioner. Many couples are so afraid that they’ll have a girl, they’ll pay this illegal fee to be sure. Then they abort it outright or kill it after birth.

read more …

‘Meet the Patels’ Dismissed India’s Complexion Shaming. That’s Unfortunate.

March 5, 2016

Sasmita and I watched the funny and sweet documentary, ‘Meet the Patels.’ But I did have one major issue with the film. It’s mockery of India’s complexion biases.

It’s a heart-warming tale about a 30-year-old Indian guy. His name is Ravi Patel and his quest (really his parents wish, but he acquiesces) to find an Indian wife. The events took place six to eight years ago. But the movie was released in 2015.

Without giving away too much, which I recommend if you are 1) Indian yourself and you want to laugh at the way your family or those you know pick spouses. 2) If you’ve always been curious about the Indian custom of arranged or semi-arranged marriages. Or 3) You’re a Patel because apparently, you all know one another as the film taught me.

It has a few funny scenes. Ravi and Geeta’s parents are hilarious on-screen.

Ravi recently broke up after dating a white girl for two years. His parents never knew the girl existed. The movie follows Ravi and his sister Geeta ( the filmmaker) crisscrossing the country and traveling internationally meeting Indian women.

Ravi lives in California but visits Toronto, New York, Chicago and a host of other places.

At each city, he goes on a couple dates with women he’s either met online or girls who receive his ‘biodata’ form.

A biodata form is a résumé of sorts that Ravi’s parents write about him to ‘market’ Ravi to daughters of friends and connections.

As far as I know, it’s a uniquely South Asian custom, and unimaginable for those who grew up in the West.

They include:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Education
  • Height
  • Caste
  • Skin complexion
  • Languages
  • Religion
  • Profession
  • Parent’s names and their occupations.

Single adult Indians do not make their own bio data forms. Most never see the ones about them. Usually, they are written by their own parents and passed around between families and informally throughout personal networks.

In addition to the biodata, Ravi joined dating sites both non-Indian, like e-Harmony, and exclusively desi like Shaadi.com (Hindi word for wedding), and Indian Matrimony.com

Ravi has a few non-Indian friends remarking on his journey and sharing thoughts about his search throughout the film. In one scene they lunch and discuss how ‘racist’ the bio data forms are. A few talk about how weird they find the question about skin complexion. They question why it’s a part of the process, and wonder why it matters if the two people like one another.

It’s a very Western way of looking at the issue because for Indians it’s a huge deal.

This is a topic that is personal for me and I’ve written about it before. The main reason is Sasmita is darker skinned. She’s suffered her entire life with the stigma and questions of self-worth so many Indian women endure. She’s told me tales about friends with darker skin still unmarried. Unfortunately, their parents were ashamed of their daughter’s skin color and couldn’t find a suitable partner for them.

Sasmita relayed a story to me about her friend who committed suicide because she believed her skin was too dark and unattractive.

That is appalling and heartbreaking.

At one point Ravi takes a comically thick Indian accent and riffs about dark-skinned girls. He talks about why they are least wanted by parents as daughters-in-law.

When this segment of the film began, I was glad the obsession with skin color was discussed. However, my satisfaction turned to disappointment because of the humor and dismissal that Ravi displayed talking about the subject.

Instead, he joins his non-Indian friends in mocking skin complexion’s importance. He begins joking and clearly has no idea how damaging the mindset is.

It is hard to overstate just how pernicious this ‘preference’ is. Indians call it ‘preference’, but it’s actually blatant racism. It’s rampant throughout India and as shown by the film, the diaspora community.

Look at Bollywood’s A-list stars, nary a one will be anything darker than a wheatish complexion. The only movies featuring darker skinned Indian girls or guys are from the Southern states.

Millions of Indian women and to a lesser degree men, spend untold amounts of money buying ‘skin lightening crème’s. These products are essentially skin bleaching agents. Advertisements for these lotions are everywhere. Indian commercials constantly tout their benefits.

In rare instances, a light-skinned actor will speak out against skin lightening cremes. Unfortunately, the majority hawk the products, making no mention of their inherent racist backgrounds and negative health effects.

Babies and Language; a Personal Story

February 20, 2016

Recently my mother and I had a conversation about infant children and language.

She was excited to see that her youngest grandson, barely one-year-old, recognized her voice. She recently returned from a trip to visit my brother’s family in Denver, Colorado and was ‘Skyping’ with them.

It was remarkable to her, she said, how much his little brain processed at one year old. Then she told a story about me at one-year-old that is one of her favorites.

A few months after my arrival in the United States in 1980, my parents and I visited an Indian couple. They were from Kerala, the Indian state where I was born, and spoke Malayalam, my birth language.

My mom and I were in another part of the house, within earshot of this couple. They both spoke Malayalam. My mom says, she never saw me turn my head faster in my life. Apparently, my head whipped around immediately at the sound. Though I could not speak the language,  I recognized the tone instantly.

Though I could not speak the language,  I recognized the tone instantly.

Sadly, a few months later, my parents and I visited this couple again. But this time I made no indication that their language was something familiar.

I relay that story because it’s both sad and amazing.

Incredible because even at that age, little babies pick up the different tones in spoken languages. Sad, because I wasn’t able to recognize my birth language less than a year later.

I’m 36 years old now and gave up speaking my native language. And frankly, I don’t consider it ‘worth’ it to learn. I have no family there, and no Keralite friends close enough either geographically or emotionally to speak with. It also would do little to bolster my job marketability.

At one point I wanted to learn Malayalam because I thought I’d become more Indian. However, I’m not involved with the South Indian community here in Washington, D.C. and barely with the Indian community at large.

Sasmita speaks Hindi and Oriya, not Malayalam so it wouldn’t make sense from that standpoint either.

As fatherhood looms, I’m thinking a lot of about language, and how my child will be greatly advantaged because Sasmita is a polyglot.

She’s already told me that she will teach our child both her native language Oriya and Hindi. Maybe I’ll try to learn either language when our child’s formally learning.

You may wonder what Malayalam sounds like, here’s a clip. I cannot imagine speaking this language at my stage of life.

I’ll impart other knowledge to my child, and leave the foreign languages to Sasmita. Or maybe I’ll be the one who teaches them ‘pig latin.’

It’s Time for All Adoptees to have US Citizenship

January 24, 2016

There are thousands of adults, adopted as children by US citizen parents lacking US citizenship.

Thanks to adoptees, advocates, and Congressional support, that will change in 2016.

The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2015, provides retroactive citizenship for certain intercountry adoptees no matter when they were adopted. It also provides a legal pathway for all deported adoptees to return to the United States.

This is the first US bill written with substantial adult adoptee input for adoptees.

I was involved in this process in 2012, when myself and a group of adoptees met with the  Congressional Coalition on Adoption Initiative (CCAI) and legislative staff in Washington, D.C

It’s wonderful to have a bill before the Senate.

You might be reading this and wonder what the issue is. Let me give you a brief background.

When international adoptions by US citizens began, many adoptees never received citizenship papers. This happened because adoptive parents misunderstood the process, agencies assumed the parents were filling paperwork themselves or a combination of apathy and misinformation.

Thousands of adoptees meeting criteria to become legal US citizens, never become one.

As a result, scores could not receive driver’s licenses, work promotions, and a handful was deported for small misdemeanors. Others ran afoul of immigration laws when receiving a traffic ticket.

Imagine, growing up in an American family, with your whole life linked to the United States. One day you apply for a passport and discover though you lived in the US for 18 years, you are not a US citizen.

Vocal adoptees recognized this problem, wrote a bill and created the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. But this only gave citizenship to adoptees 18 and under when the bill was signed. It did not give retroactive US citizenship.

In other words, the bill did not go far enough.

I recognize the huge controversy about letting immigrants and criteria for citizenship.

But for me this is not only personal, it’s obvious. If a family has adopted a child from their birth country into their US family, they should be a US citizen. There is no question that is the ‘fair’ thing to do.

If a family adopted a child from their birth country into their US family, they should be a US citizen. There is no question that is the ‘fair’ thing to do.

There is no question that is the ‘fair’ thing to do.

Let me be clear, for me and for all supporters and advocates of this bill; this is not an immigration issue. This is ‘righting a wrong.’

It is not something ‘new,’ but rather something that should have been given but for various reasons was not (US citizenship).

The new bill was introduced in the Senate in mid-November 2015, by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and co-signed by Senators Dan Coates (R-IN) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR).  It has bipartisan support.

Thousands of hours, hundreds of phone calls, emails, and face-to-face meetings happened to get this bill ready. I tip my hat to all involved, some of whom are good friends.

But we’re not done, it needs YOUR support as well.

Visit this website 18 Million Rising and call your Congressional legislators to support the bill.

Thousands of adoptees lack citizenship, yet they have American lives, including friends, family, and connections.  For all of them, the US is their ‘home,’ because they have been here for years.

Help them receive citizenship they are entitled to.

Facing Fatherhood as an Adoptee

December 20, 2015
Our 'pumpkin' arrives June 2016

Our little ‘pumpkin’ arrives June 2016

Sasmita and I will be parents in early June of 2016! We are excited, but not ready to be parents. Then again, who is?

We told my parents during Thanksgiving and called her folks in India, via Skype shortly afterwards, sharing our happy news across the globe.

As I contemplate Fatherhood, thoughts of my own beginnings are surfacing more than usual.

Our child will be the first person I know personally with whom I share DNA and blood. Sasmita will give birth to my first biological connection in nearly 36 years. read more …

‘A.J – I Saw a Creature Today’

November 21, 2015

Recently, Sasmita and I were eating dinner. About halfway through, her eyes got big, and she excitedly told me that she saw ‘a big creature’ today, in the yard by the mailbox.

Intrigued, as always, by such pronouncements, I told her to continue. She told me that it stood as tall high as my knee, with a fluffy striped tail. I smiled, prodding her to continue with silent attention. I still did not understand which animal she was referring to.

Then she added, ‘it had weird eyes.’ I pressed her, ‘what do you mean, weird eyes?’

She told me the animal had black color all around its eyes. I immediately understood; she saw a raccoon.

I pulled out my phone, typed ‘raccoon’ into Google. I handed the phone to her. ‘Is this what you saw,’ I asked?

Raccoons do not live in India and she’d never seen one. It was another reminder of our vastly different backgrounds.

She confirmed that she saw a raccoon, and asked me the same question she always does when viewing an unfamiliar animal. ‘Does it eat people?’

Laughing, I told her raccoons do not eat humans.  But it was best to stay away from them because they can be mean and aggressive.

One aspect of American life, which Sasmita initially found quite strange, but is slowly understanding, is America’s obsession with animals, especially pets and particularly dogs. read more …

‘My Brother’s Bomber’ and the Reminder of a Tragic Adoption Story

October 31, 2015

Last week I finished the exemplary PBS/Frontline three-part series ‘My Brother’s Bomber. The story is about Ken Dornstein, whose brother was killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

A suitcase with one-pound of Semtex plastic explosives, blew the 747 out of the sky, nearly 30,000 feet over the Scottish countryside, scattering debris over an 845 square mile area. More than 270 people died that evening, including 11 on the ground due to the fuel induced fireball and wings from the disintegrating aircraft.

Though young, I distinctly remember watching the news that night with my Dad in our family room. It was a fascinating story and crime that intrigued me since.

At first, no one knew it was a bomb and the explosion’s cause was mysterious. Within days, however, investigators discovered the crash was foul play, beginning a three-year investigation.

The Lockerbie tragedy was a deliberate terrorist act.

Ken’s brother, David, was on Pan Am Flight 103, coming home from a study abroad program for Christmas. The documentary follows Ken, learning who bore ultimate responsibility for the bombing.

Only one person was ever tried and convicted for the heinous act, a Libyan named Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. He was sentenced in 2001 to life in prison.

However, the Scottish government released him on ‘compassionate grounds,’ after being diagnosed in 2009 with prostate cancer and given only a few months to live. Adding injustice to injury for the victim’s families, al-Megrahi arrived in Libya to a heroes welcome and eventually died in 2012.

Ken and both Scottish and US investigators remained convinced that al-Megrahi did not act alone. There were others involved they insist, contending that former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi never told the truth to the world about the bombing.

Investigators certainly had other names, but never gathered enough evidence to convict them in court.

‘My Brother’s Bomber’ is the story of Ken’s search for truth as he traverses bombed ruins of Libyan cities seeking answers to his brother’s killers.

Watching the documentary reminded me of an adoptive mother’s story searching for answers, and finding them in a heartbreaking way through the Lockerbie tragedy.

Two years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the bombing, I read this piece, about a woman named Carol King-Eckersley who spent years trying to find the son she relinquished for adoption when she was 19.

While conducting a Web search for him in April of 2013, she found his name on a memorial page for passengers of Pan Am flight 103. She learned her son Kenneth, was one of the 270 passengers on that ill-fated journey.

I cannot imagine how painful that must have been for her.

She specifically did not try to find him for many years because she did not want to interfere in his life.

To dream of reunion and maybe even plan one eventually, only to discover that her child died in a terror attack had to be devastating. I wonder if she regrets knowing his fate? If she had not tried locating him, maybe she could have spent her life questioning where he was and living in blissful ignorance of his demise.

I think it would be very difficult to learn one’s child was dead, and after always wondering what happened to a child you relinquished for adoption. If you have no idea where they might be, there is always a remote possibility of being re-united again, maybe build a life together.

But knowing your child is definitely dead, well, Ms. King-Eckersley tragically summed it up, ‘it became a kind of double tragedy. I found him and I lost him on the same day.”

I say ‘dies,’ Sasmita says ‘expires.’ The words signal a major cultural difference.

October 17, 2015

Earlier this summer I read a fascinating article titled ‘Death, Redesigned.” As I read the piece, it struck me how vastly different the West views death and how Sasmita and Indians view death.

The story begins with Paul Bennett, the founder of Ideo, a design, marketing, and branding firm in San Francisco Bay. It’s famous for among other things, bringing the world a standing toothpaste tube, creating Apple’s first mouse and re-engineering Pringle’s potato chips.

Bennett realized the way the US discusses death, the funeral industry, and everything related to dying in the United States seemed outdated.

While he admits there is much about death beyond people’s control, there is he posits, all that happens after someone dies. We actively make choices about those things.

He started zeroing in on all the unspoken decisions around that inevitability: the aesthetics of hospitals, the assumptions, and values that inform doctors’ and families’ decisions, the ways we grieve, the tone of funerals, the sentimentality, the fear, the schlock. The entire scaffolding our culture has built around death, purportedly to make it more bearable, suddenly felt unimaginative and desperately out of date. “All those things matter tremendously,” Bennett told me, “and they’re design opportunities.” With just a little attention, it seemed a few metaphorical mirrors affixed to our gurneys at just the right angle he might be able to refract some of the horror and hopelessness of death into more transcendent feelings of awe and wonder and beauty.

To begin with, I have never once heard Sasmita say anyone died. She calls death ‘expiring.’

Her youngest uncle ‘expired’ on Christmas Eve 2014. It was a traumatic event, mainly because her family is on the other side of the world. She could not be with them as they celebrated his life.

By saying someone expired, it seems to me that she is more in touch with the act of dying. They see it as a natural progression in one’s life.

To say a person died seems harsh, separating their identity from their body. Whereas for me, to say one has expired is a gentler way of saying the same thing.

Food reaches an expiration date and is no longer safe to eat; humans reach a point where they can no longer survive. To clarify, for me, the fruit expiration analogy breaks down when one discusses sudden and early death. Death’s such as a child killed in a car crash seem weird to call ‘expiring’, however, Sasmita still calls it that.

The United State avoids talking about, contemplating or evaluating death. We are terrified of death. But many people across the globe have the opposite attitude towards life’s end.

In India, death is not taboo, because it’s viewed as a shared human experience.

One cannot escape it and people are unafraid of it. I think a few major reasons for this are:

  • Indian identities are wrapped up in the community, the strongest social bond in society. People are more connected, humanity enjoined, making death easier to examine and discuss. In the US, we value individual identity, relishing separation as unique people. Indians see individualistic tendencies as outside the norm, viewing people lacking social ties or strong group identities suspiciously.
  • India has a larger population. When there are 1.2 billion people in your country, death is common and not easily hidden.
  • Hinduism’s dominance in all cultural spheres, particularly its emphasis on karma and death. For example, the goddess of Calcutta, Mother Kali, is known as the deity of death and destruction. For millions of Indians, they view their life as one of small value, instead of living with the faith of a rebirth on a higher social plane or wealthier existence.

One of the oldest cities in the world, is Varanasi/Benares/Kashi, India (it is called all three names). It is essentially a city of death. Tens of thousands, perhaps even millions, pilgrimage to the river banks of the Ganges cremating bodies on funeral pyres.  In some areas, entire hotels are packed with Hindu pilgrims waiting to die in the ancient city’s holy confines.

Anyone can watch bodies being ceremoniously burned at the large Ghats which dot the Ganges riverfront.

It is a surreal experience because, for Westerners, cremation is an intimate, closed, family only affair. In Varanasi,  it’s still sacred. But there is nothing private about it.

My friend Adam and I visited there in 2011. It was mesmerizing watching a body burn just a few yards away. I will never forget it.

And the smell, well, you can only imagine how awful that was. But yet, my friend Adam and I sat there, transfixed, for nearly an hour as the flames consumed the entire body, head and all.

Even today, I could write a whole post just about my Varanasi experience. The memories are stamped in my mind forever.

There is no US city where people make pilgrimages to die.

Rather, we spend billions of dollars trying to extend our lives through medicine.

It seems as though every month someone publishes an article asking questions about the end of life care in the United States or ways to live longer.

Most people in the US never want to think about death and life’s end. We ostracize our elderly because they remind us our mortality. In India and many other parts of the world, older folks are revered and honored.

In Western funerals we wear black or dark clothing, signifying mourning. We’re finally embracing the reality that our loved one is gone.

When Sasmita and I discussed what color sari she would wear for our August 2012 wedding, I asked if she would wear white. Aghast she replied, ‘Definitely not, women only wear white saris when someone has expired.’ I had no idea that was the case.

Thanks to Sasmita, I’m learning about the differences between India and the United States on a variety of topics, including death.

Should India seek British Reparations for Colonialism?

September 19, 2015

Perhaps, but they should look internally as well, realizing they bear plenty of responsibility for their underdevelopment.

In mid-July 2015, MP Shashi Tharoor gave an impassioned plea for Indian reparations after more than 200 years of British colonialism. You can watch the 15-minute clip below.

Many Indians, both in the country and abroad lauded his words.

Prime Minister Modi, even endorsed Tharoor’s sentiments saying ‘Tharoor’s speech reflected the feelings of patriotic Indians on the issue and showed what impression one can leave with effective arguments by saying the right things at the right place.

I agree with most he said.

I disagree with his point about India and the railways. Yes, Britain originally built them to bring Indian goods to the British market. Thereby bypassing the Indian market.  But when the British ‘quit’ India in 1947, they didn’t pack up the trains and millions of miles of track and take that them with them.

The railroads played a prominent role in India’s development. It connects India in ways few other countries can match.

Beyond that one issue, I think his other points were valid.

Without doing hours of additional research, they probably were correct. However, after listening to his speech at Oxford I had the following thoughts:  read more …

The Privilege of Leaving Kabul

August 28, 2015

In the early weeks of August this year, Kabul was hit by a series of attacks, which killed more than 100 and wounded scores. Three weekends ago, I spent hours in the Baron safe-room and each subsequent blast, instead of being easier to process, became more difficult. The fact that they became familiar was more terrifying, not less.

I read an article recently about the moral complications of disaster rescue, in terms of socio-economic ability. Basically, if you have money, you are evacuated. It is a harsh reality. As I arranged to leave Kabul, I thought of my privilege as an American to board the plane, leaving the country and its unique troubles miles away.  read more …

Proof of Life – Contemplating Mortality in Afghanistan

July 26, 2015

The majority of my readers will never spend a month in a conflict zone.

I’m in Kabul, Afghanistan until mid-August for work, closing down a USAID community stabilization project. I’m staying at ‘The Baron’, a secure compound a few minutes drive from Kabul International airport. Barbed wire, armed guards of various nationalities, bomb blast walls and lookout towers dominate the landscape.

The US government and most other nations strongly advise against traveling here. The US State Department says on its website, ‘the security situation in Afghanistan is extremely unstable, and the threat to all U.S. citizens in Afghanistan remains critical.”

When I arrived on June 30, I underwent a security briefing that included orientation about safe rooms, underground bunkers and various other mitigation procedures in cases of direct or indirect fire, bomb blasts or suicide bomber invasions.

It was sobering. I rarely think of my mortality, but being here, I still feel uneasy sometimes. I think most folks do, but we never discuss it and talk about attacks and security problems in abstract terms.

We are in a war-zone. The Islamic State is fighting the Taliban about three hours away and many think it is just a matter of time before their particular brand of horror visits Kabul city proper. The hell of the Taliban insurgency constantly rears its devilish head in the form of suicide bombers, car bombs and other instruments of destruction.

We know that our compound is a target because it is full of foreign contractors and those associating with them. I receive a security briefing email daily, which lists in slightly vague language, intelligence snippets that my security team received in the previous 24 hours of possible attacks and suspicious militant behavior throughout Kabul and the surrounding environs. Constant targets include, foreign compounds, guesthouses and the Kabul airport.

The feeling of insecurity is always just beneath the surface. It is a weird feeling. I do not walk around scared, yet my senses are peaked and I am vigilant. I have my day-to-day routine here, but complacency and belief in a false sense of security is dangerous.

I am not allowed to leave the compound. I cannot even go close to the main gates here.

The Baron has never been directly attacked. But can I really take comfort in that? For sure, it would take a coordinated military undertaking to breach this compound, but just because it has not happened so far, does not mean it will never happen. The Taliban or ISIL would be ecstatic to receive notoriety for assaulting this place.

As part of the security training during the first few days I filled out paperwork, one of which was a Proof of Life form.

The form required me to write three questions and answers that only Sasmita and very close family would know. I also had to sign my full legal name four times and then write my initials four times.

In another section I wrote free-form text, and then repeated the same text in all capital letters in the next box.

One question asked if I had a distinguishing or unique physical characteristic. How do I answer that? Is there a part of my body that is just so distinct it could offer reinforced proof that I am who say I am, confirming that I am alive or dead?

The questions were jarring, making me imagine terrifying scenarios of forced abduction, being taken as a hostage or something else similarly awful.

Thankfully those thoughts are rare, and everyday life is pretty normal save for the look of the surroundings. I cannot be captive to negative thoughts.

As I sit in my nicely appointed, air-conditioned room and write this post I feel pretty safe. And then see across the room my personal protection equipment below

IMG_0319

and I remember that I am in Kabul, and safe is a relative term, even at The Baron.