Enchanted Air

I read Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle, expecting to read a good memoir about two cultures and two wings one grows as a result of hailing from mixed origins. What instead happened is difficult to describe in words for it was not a reading, it was a feeling. A transformative one. 

It is a children’s book. Each chapter is a small poem that stands in and of itself, but also ties into the whole narrative. There were so many places in the book when I found myself stopping to savor a poem, reading it again, and swirling the feelings it evoked in my mind. Later, I found myself passionately explaining it in far less elegant terms to the husband and children, scurrying to get the book, and fumbling through the pages to find the right poem.

For instance when she writes of ‘The Dancing Plants of Cuba’, she captures the essence of an island: 

In California, all the trees and shrubs

standstill, but on the island, coconut palms

and angel’s trumpet flowers,

love to move around,

dancing.

..

Maybe I will be a scientist someday

studying the dancing plants of Cuba.

Dancing Plants

How can one not love the child then who is later to task by her teacher for inventing dancing plants, as plants are supposed to stay still aren’t they?

Her father’s family escaped from Ukraine, from a communist regime, not knowing whether those left behind survived or not. Her mother immigrated from Cuba.

Two countries

Two families

Two sets of words.

Her paternal grandparents’ recollections are therefore muted, brief and vague. How starkly, concisely, she sums up the human condition for survival? When she asks her Ukrainian-Jewish-American grandma about her childhood, she gets nothing more than ice-skating on a frozen pond. 

Her maternal grandmother, on the other hand, regales her with richly detailed family stories, of many island ancestors, living their lives out on tropical farms.

In the poem, Kinship, she sums it up:

Apparently, the length 

of a grown-up’s

growing up story

is determined

by the difference

between immigration 

and escape.

This memoir is rich with details of her family, and her own dreamy self. 

She takes us along with her on her journey of growing up, and how her personality rows with ‘The Geography of Libraries’.

Spoken stories are no longer enough

To fill my hunger

I crave a constant supply 

Of written ones too.

As she grows, the mistrust between USA and Cuba, grows too. Their family is suspect simply for holding a Cuban passport, a part of her heritage cut off by souring diplomatic relations and the Bay of Pigs invasion. She first writes about the state of reality in the poem, Communications.

Abuelita writes letters in code,

inventing poetic metaphors,

to prevent the island’s censors

from understanding her words.

When she says Tio Dario 

is working hard in the garden,

Mom somehow knows that it means 

he’s been arrested and sent to a prison or forced labor camp.

In Secret Languages we learn

Right wing or left wing tyrants always

try to control communication

They always

fail.

The books ends with the poem, Hope.

It is no wonder that the book has won a string of awards. Looking at the history of the world, its themes are timeless too.

We Belong on Earth – Part 2

One sunny day, I felt a surge of happiness to find the latest book by Khaled Hosseini, Sea Prayer. I heard it was like none of his other books, but just as poignant. The moment of realization came a moment after the surge of happiness – how could I be happy to find the book that drove home the sad truth of refugees – of that child whose dead body floating in the sea inspired the book?

Child name: Alan Kurdi

sea_prayer

Was I really ready to have my heart wrung out as I am sure it will be when someone as competent as Khaled Hosseini wields their pen on the sad plight of refugees? I picked up the book late that night, long after the moonlight had transformed the late summer landscape into a luminous wondrous land.

I always hesitate to start a book of such deep issues, and for good reason. I was in a flight once, and delved into my book. I was about halfway in when tears started streaming down my face. A co-passenger asked me if everything was alright and I pointed to the book, feeling sheepish, but she replied that she had cried after reading that particular book too, and I felt like I had met a kindred spirit. Like P. G. Wodehouse said, “There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature. “ .

The book was In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner.

in_shadow_banyan

Vaddey Rattner writes of the child trapped in the horrendous events of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I said it before and I shall say it again: There never is an upside to War. The worst affected are the children, and we have no excuse to maim their psyches thus. I read the book more than 5 years ago, and yet it stays in my mind. Vaddey Ratner draws you into the human experience through the suffering so beautifully that words fail me.

The book made me realize what it must have been like for an old colleague of mine.

I remember the shock with which I realized she was a refugee from Vietnam. We were both heavily pregnant with our first-borns and often traded tummy-tales. We were hallway buddies. I wished her a Happy Birthday, proud of myself to have remembered, and she gave me a rattling wholesome laugh in response. Then, with her characteristic good sense, she told me about how someone took a look at her and assigned her an age when she got off the boat. “They said I was 5 then. Looking back, I see I was given 3 years of my life to live again. “

I did not know what ‘got off the boat’ meant at the time. I looked at her quizzically for she said, “Oh, because I was pretty sure I was 8 then, but I did not know English, and I did not know that when they pointed at me, they were estimating my age and they gave me a birthday too. With the war I was malnourished, bones sticking out, and I am short too, so I suppose I could easily be mistaken for a 5 year old when I came here. I don’t really know my birthday, so I just celebrate this day that was given to me. “

Over the course of our pregnancies, she told me tidbits here and there about how she had escaped Vietnam as a refugee and came to the United States.

The fast flowing rivers of my consciousness, combined with the changing people-scapes around me, meant that I thought about her every now and then even though I lost touch. I am fairly sure that she must be enriching the world around her somewhere. For her, this life was too much of a gift to throw away and not live and contribute to the fullest.

Who was it who said, that we affect the world around us simply by being, or some such thing? Just thinking of her gave me the courage to read Sea Prayer. I opened the book and was transported to the town of Homs in Syria.

Sea Prayer is more of a poem in the form of a short letter written from father to son. A few words is all that is necessary for him to take you into a grandmother’s hut where the child played.
“We woke in the mornings
to the stirring of olive trees in the breeze,
to the bleating if your grandmothers goat,”

IMG_0456
A sample of the artwork by Dan Williams

A few strokes of the brush is all takes for the artist, Dan Williams to set the tone for ‘The skies spitting bombs. Starvation. Burials.”

It is a very short book, and not like Khaled Hosseini’s other works, but it is a book that reminds you to think of the human condition. The book finishes on this note.

”Sea Prayer was inspired by the story of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach safety in Europe in 2015.

“In the year after Alan’s death, 4,176 others died or went missing attempting that same journey.”

Where do we belong? To Earth surely.

Read also: Do We Belong On Earth?

Do We Belong On Earth?

I envy these people who can quote things in passing with confidence. I have not that kind of eidetic memory. But I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that one of those great philosophers of yore, Socrates or Plato or one of their ilk, said something to the effect of the worst thing humankind has ever thought of was the concept of countries. I heartily agree. For what is a country boundary if not a line in the sand?

I was in a taxi a few years ago heading from somewhere to somewhere in the madness of Bay Area’s evening traffic. The driver looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked me if I came from India or Pakistan.

He then went on to say that he had just dropped someone who came from Pakistan. He loved the Biriyanis in the Indian and Pakistani restaurants. What delightful spices, he said and the conversation moved towards the role of spices in the world economy. He taught Economics in a small college in Greece before the country collapsed and he managed to move to the United States and he now drove taxis for a living.

While there are multiple things to spin out from this little interaction, I would like to draw the attention to a little thing said almost in passing. He thought India and Pakistan were one and the same, and I have often experienced the same sentiment and kinship whenever far away from the Indian subcontinent.

IMG_0280
Image from The Night Diary – By Veera Hiranandani

It has always been something refreshing to note – especially given the continuing tensions in the region ever since the partition in 1947. It amuses me and gives me hope when I see how Pakistanis and Indians bond over a common culture, similar culinary traditions etc outside the Asian subcontinent, but within the sub continent the tensions continue to simmer.

A friend had recommended Veera Hiranandani’s book, the Night Diary. One of the largest human migrations in Human History at the time took place during the Indian independence from the British Raj. The India-Pakistan segregation is fraught with gore, bloodshed and the unfathomable rivalry that can be brought about by politically divisive acts.

night_diary

The book itself is lucidly narrated – a twelve year old introverted child, Nisha, writes in her diary to her late mother as often as she can. She is lovingly cared for by her father, their paternal grandmother who lives with them and the cook, Kazi, who has been with the family for a long time. Her best playmate is her twin brother Amil.The mother, who passed away when the children were young, was Muslim, and the father is Hindu. It is heart-rending to read the way, the twins Nisha and Amil puzzle over what would have been the case had their mother been alive. Would they have to leave her and go to the Indian side?

“I had never wondered about being safe before. I just thought I was.”
― Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary

I thrust the book in my mother’s hands to read, for I knew she would appreciate how cooking forms the bond between Nisha and their cook, Kazi.

Image from Wikipedia on Indian Spices:

Spices_in_an_Indian_market
This image was originally posted to Flickr by judepics at https://www.flickr.com/photos/43546466@N00/409841087. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

The spices as they pass through the hands of Kazi and how Nisha derives a sense of creation and wholeness is captured as only one who loves the art of creation can. The feel of the dals and the peppers in the hands, the smell of the saffron in the rice and the whole time in the background a tension is brewing, a rift simmering when one night it is upon them – the pressure bursts, and the little family has to flee.

“I needed all the feelings to stop boiling like a pot of dal and be cool enough for me to taste them.”
― Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary

Millions of people fleeing Pakistan, and millions making it into Pakistan in the opposite direction. Mobs ready to inflict violence at the slightest opportunity.

War is meaningless, and it is particularly unfair to the children.

14 million people were displaced in those few months of turmoil and over 2 million killed during the partition. One line in the sand that suddenly determined belonging or the lack of it.

One would think one learns from these events, but look at the numbers.

In the world today, there are currently more refugees than ever before. The rise of populism and nationalism means that the situation is deteriorating everyday. As of Jun 2018, an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world had been forced from their homes. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 10.41.49 AM
Screenshot from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html – Jun 2018 figures

Source: UN Refugee Agency

We belong on Earth, do we not?

Where To Go During The Third World War?

We had been to attend The Physics Show a few weeks ago. Living in an area housing the world’s most frightful technologists does that to you. One scientist tells his neighbor, who tells his friend, an engineer, who tells his friend, a Biochemist, and from there it passes on from one to another, all bound together by the loose brackets of a parent. Before long, there is a list of folks beating it up the hill to The Physics Show. If you peered closely at that hill, you would have seen me there with the daughter and some friends. I can’t fool the public into believing that the Opera and Broadway are competitors, but the general populace was surging to the show.

The Auditorium was atop a steep hill, and the populace was huffing and puffing like Po the Panda stopping for water breaks every now and then. I felt like I was on a strange padayatra (Journey by Foot) to see a Gingko Tree, growing amidst a grove of Japanese Cherry Blossoms, atop the Great Wall of China. The holy path only required one to sprinkle a few drops of the holy Ganga-jal along the way, to make the ritual complete.

Pada Yatra to see Gingko Tree amidst Grove of Japanese Cherry blossoms on the Great Wall of China
Pada Yatra to see Gingko Tree amidst Grove of Japanese Cherry blossoms on the Great Wall of China

The populace making their way up the hill were mostly enthusiastic folks of Asian descent: Parents of Chinese, Japanese & Indian descent with their reluctant progeny.

The show by itself was reasonably good. The scientists did their best to enthuse the children. “If you can’t have fun doing Physics, you can’t be having much fun doing anything!” they boomed on stage. All the parents laughed heartily and clapped at this, while the 5 year old boy sitting in front of me turned and stared at me as if asking, “Really?! You can laugh at this, but not at the Tom & Jerry show I was uprooted from for this lark?”. It looked to me like he was having a lot more fun ogling at these specimens who laughed for that joke, than anything else. I detected a judgmental gleam in his eye, and did my best to cope with it by ignoring him and enjoying the atmosphere instead.

I scanned the crowd to see the number of children in the 5-7 age group. There were even a few 4 year olds and I hoped they were taking one for the sibling and not because parents hoped that training started early.

The scientists talked about Electricity, Temperature and Atmospheric Pressure. But the best attempts to educate drew the biggest engagement when the team on the stage fried themselves deliberately or made their hair stand up. It was hilarious to see the hopeful expressions on the faces of the well-intentioned parents, while the children enjoyed the parts of the show that looked like circus performers out at tea-time.

A few days later, the daughter and I were out and about sauntering around the neighborhood. The waning summer had few butterflies and we made them proud by flitting from one topic to the next. We were talking about progress, science, the European refugee crisis, the recent fires, dodo bird extinctions and so on. The gentle Dodos helped me steer our conversation onto humans and humanity’s path and how our Scientific progress always has a good and a bad fallout. I told her about what Albert Einstein said, “The Fourth World War will be fought with sticks and stones!”.
I went on to tie the plight of the Syrian refugees to explain how civil unrest, war etc always lead to horrifying effects on people.

“So, Albert Einstein said that the Third World War will wipe out everything as we know it right? So, then we are okay isn’t it?” she asked, her face crinkled with worry.
“Alas! Even if it is a big bang annihilating life in the end, the hurtle towards that instant itself is a long and difficult journey involving much heartbreak and agony. It will be a long drawn out affair with millions of people losing their loved ones, suffering with injuries and wretched atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and anxiety.” I said. .

The daughter was quiet and somber. A rare occurrence.I did not relish this Doomsday Scenario either. We walked in silence for a minute.
“Well then the only way out is for people to go to Oregon then.” said she after a few moments in a final sort of voice..
“Eh?! You mean the state of Oregon?”
“Yes” she said. “Oregon – above California.”

God knows I have braved enough conversations, but this still had me stumped. “Why Oregon?”
“Well. Only there you can kill yourself legally, and put an end to misery right?” said the daughter.

Enlightenment dawned. A few days before this, we had been discussing the case of Brittany Maynard (http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/) and we told her about Euthanasia and how it was legally allowed in the state of Oregon.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthanasia_in_the_United_States

So, if ever there is a Third World War and a lot of people are suffering, you know where to go.

Glad to have that straightened out.