BBC Asia Radio Interview 


The alarm went off at 3:00 AM and I stood sipping coffee in the cool back patio of my sister’s home while my Amma sat on the recliner inside listening intently to the radio online. She made a picture. Her eyes narrowed in focus, her glasses perched midway on her nose. Her coffee cup sat to the side. Watching her through the glass provided perspective. We are not a physically demonstrative family. We don’t do war whoops of joy on momentous occasions. We smile, nod our heads and go our ways. 

But we wake up when it counts, show support silently, tune in to the radio at 4:00 AM, read comments on shared pieces and quietly feel proud. 

The interview call came in 10 mins past the time I was told. I paced the tiny patio, blowing into my thumbs, practising deep breathing and thinking happy thoughts. The trees swayed in the mild breeze. I felt calm. Zen. 

For twenty minutes I participated in a conversation that made me think, process what was said and then reply. I held on to the phone long past the interview just savoring the moment. I walked inside feeling good. 

My amma and I traded glances and I walked upstairs feeling gratitude for everything. 

On Going Viral

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I sat sipping my coffee at a friend’s home at San Diego relaxing after a hectic day at Disneyland chasing faeries and princesses. The phone dinged and an email from a Huffpost editor popped up. I spent the next half hour crossposting an old piece I had written for Adoptive Families and emailed the editor back.

I spent the rest of the day and the week watching my words take flight. As of this moment, Facebook tells me that the piece has been shared 97,900 times. It is mind-boggling. It is surreal.  Initially I searched for and read comments on the shares. People from all walks of life emailed me. Adoptive parents, adoptees, people who know my children, people who are waiting in the trenches wondering if children are in their future. Their words touched me. I responded, friended and followed up on most messages. I have had people walk up to me at the airport, recognizing us from what was shared on their FB feed.

BBC Asia reached out on Twitter. India Abroad reached out as did Times of India Chennai. Tomorrow I will be on air talking about this particular piece on BBC Asia at noon UK time. I am a bundle of nerves. I am worried about the import of my words.

When I first wrote it, I wrote it for a niche audience, people touched by adoption. People who get what it is like to walk that path. People like me who grapple with questions that have different answers based on circumstances. I assumed they knew the stuff that happens in the background. I assumed they get the insecurity, the fears, the roller-coaster of emotions that is all things adoption.

When the post went mainstream, a lot got lost in translation. Then once it showed up on the Huffpost FB page, the comments got mean and nasty. It upset me.Then I took a moment to regroup. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. That people choose to twist my words, assume things about my life, about my convictions is their problem. I stopped reading and let go.

For years as I wrote posts and shared, I have wondered what it would be like to go viral. Today I know. The numbers are heady, the attention unnerving. I wish I had a finished manuscript to capitalize all of this spotlight that is on what I wrote. The truth is, nothing has changed. This will die down. The page views on my blog will drop back to the hundreds instead of the thousands it has been this week. I will look back on this two seconds of fame with nostalgia. Somewhere in my head, I will weigh what I write, I will heft words in my head before I release them into the wild knowing that without context, they may lose meaning.

Just today though, I am going to kick back, shake my shoes off and enjoy the spotlight.

I Am Jane Doe – Terrifying, Gripping and All Too Real

Late last night, I tucked my youngest into bed and watched her fall asleep before I crept away to the comfort zone that is my laptop. After writing a post that was a look back on 16 years of wedded bliss, I turned to Netflix. I scrolled through the sections aimlessly until my eyes stopped on “I Am Jane Doe.”

Assuming rather than reading the synopsis that this would be about unsolved cold cases of murder, I settled back and started to watch. The voiceover is soft, non threatening, timid almost, masking the horrors yet to unfold. A mother sends her child off to school. Another sends her child to the mall. These children are in their tweens and early teens. 13, 14 yrs old. Let that sink in.

They, the mothers panic and scramble when their daughters do not return home. They call the police, FBI and eventually months later, they are found on the Escort pages of backpage dot com a service much like craigslist except that their revenues each year is climbing based on the selling of children. The fine print on each ad states that the webpage is not liable for content. A catchall that is protected under section 230 of an act called CDA under the constitution. I will not get into legalities or what that entails.

But, I will exhort you to watch the documentary (on Netflix, YouTube, Google Play and Apple iTunes). I will then urge you to lookup the companies funding a non-profit that is helping backpage litigate and win each of these cases. I will ask you to put yourself in the shoes of those mothers, fathers and children who have been through trauma. Trauma that is being raped upwards of 20 times a day. Trauma that is being hooked to drugs, subject to brutal violence and kept in only what can be classified as modern-day slavery.

I am not talking about morals here. What consenting adult men and women do using classifieds on online spaces is not the concern. The concern is that these are underage children being trafficked openly and wantonly because the provider refuses to take them down or put in place measures like verifying age of the people hawking services online. This is about the terms like “fresh off boat”, “everything on the table” and innocuous sounding words that backpage instructs its ad placers to use to circumvent the law. Most of all it is about companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft that fund and abet companies like backpage citing freedom of speech and internet freedoms. There is legal and there is what is right.

I listen to each of these mothers who have persisted and are still fighting for their daughters. Fighting so that your daughters and mine do not have to go through the trauma their children did. This is about seventh and eighth grade children who should be learning violin and playing soccer. It is about innocence robbed, bodies and minds traumatized for money.

It is about fighting for and petitioning congress to add a narrow amendment to section 230 to specifically outlaw and criminalize selling of underage children online. One would think this is a no-brainer. Yet, here we are after many, many years when backpage has won more often than  not. Congressional committees have debated the section 230 and nothing has been done.

What can you do?

Spread the word. Share the website link. Share the documentary trailer. Encourage conversation.

Watch the documentary and share.

Sign this petition.

Support the mothers litigating. Ask your local libraries to arrange for a screening.

Keep these children and their families in your prayers.

Educate your children on what trafficking is and what to watch out for.

Most of all put yourself in those shoes and figure out where you stand.

State Of The Union – Sixteen Years

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I watch him squint in the twilight, his face looking bare without glasses.

“Can you read this?” he holds a tiny molded toy (Tsum Tsum for the initiated). I look at it in turn and give it back. I can barely see anything. “Made in China,” he reads and looks at me expectantly. I stare back not quite sure what the conversation is about.

“I can’t read it with my glasses on,” he states, leaving the silence to fill me in.

I gasp and chuckle for it has not been a week since I diagnosed myself with near vision. The thought cheers me immensely. Perhaps of all markers of aging, this one seems significant. A threshold that separates the prime from the middle age and in some sense old age.

We are over the hill. Resolutely. Unambiguously.

I am tempted to pull him into an embrace and celebrate the milestone but I demur. I am sitting on the recliner and I am loathe to get up. The years have crept up on us. The spontaneous, physical affection has given way to mostly grunts and looks across the room. On rare occasions like when Saathi moved from one job to another, he took a couple of days off in between and we spent the time roaming the local mall, eating lunch outside and walking purposelessly. If the years in the past had been centered on us, they are now squarely on the children, our highs and lows punctuated by theirs.

The sound of the garage opening in the evening, the rumbling snores late at night, the rise and fall of laughter as Saathi wakes the kids and brushes his teeth along side them, the almost metronomical cadence as he chops vegetables on a glass cutting board, the sight of snacks organized by size, shape and expiry date on the shelf, the sight of Saathi running behind Pattu as she first rode her bike sans training wheels, the image of Saathi looking at himself critically in the mirror each morning after he shaves. The moments are mundane, everyday and almost lost in the cacophony that is raising three children. Yet, as I take a moment to identify milestones, these are the ones that rise from the rubble of everyday living.

The very notion that he is there, physically to lean on, to count on when the going gets tough, to reassure myself when I feel overwhelmed, to approve of when my confidences dips a tad low, to cheer me on when I am unsure, to step in when I am not feeling up to the challenges of parenting, to provide without askance; defines the state of our relationship.

As I look back on the years I have been married, I feel a deep sense of contentment, happiness that is placid, peace that envelops my world the way it is now. No matter what the years ahead bring, there is belief that we can weather the storms.

Together.

Translating Angst Into Activism

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A little after 8:00 PM I sat at my desk, headphones on, still breathing heavily from having rushed through chores post dinner. The glass doors to the study were locked and the children peered from the outside. I waved and turned my attention to the screen. A video conference with over 220 people from all over the country stared back at me.

Yesterday was one of the initial introductory sessions by the MoveOn organization’s Summer of Resistance. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me the link over WhatsApp saying I should apply since I seemed to be so upset with what is happening with current day politics. I hopped over, looked at the requirements and figured I would never get in. Then on impulse, I applied. A couple of days later, I got an email asking me to watch a video and answer a few more questions which I did, more convinced than ever that I would not be picked. Then this week, another email with the subject “Yayy!” arrived and I was in.

So between June and September of this year, I will be working with 25 other local mobilizers on organizing community cookouts, listening to what the grassroots have to say and working on one actionable item (i..e., town hall with my representative). In September I will graduate hopefully having a rudimentary knowledge of what it is like to be politically active. There will be weekly video training sessions and local community outreach. Mostly, it will all be stuff that scares the living hell out of me.

So, when I signed in to the video conference, I was happy to see a very diverse crowd. The speakers were inspirational but the people randomly picked to state what drew them to become a mobilizer was what hit home. These were all people like me. Mothers, Grandmothers, Uncles, Dads all wanting a better future than what we are on track for. They spoke from the heart, the passion radiating through the monitor, sweeping me up in its wake.

For years, I have been an armchair activist, passing judgement, sharing opinion pieces and debating things I felt strongly about. Yet, I did not step up to campaign for either Obama or Clinton. I watched from the sidelines as my brother and many others went door to door speaking up for something that they believed in. For the first time, I feel like I am doing something. Even if there is no tangible change that my participation brings, I know I will sleep better at night, the angst having found a productive way to expend itself.

Wish me luck and tenacity on this journey. If you are local to me, reach out if you feel similarly. Let’s do this.

You Are Not Alone

“What is on your mind?” exhorts Facebook when I turn to my phone in a moment of despair

“Craptastic (pun intended)” I type and then backspace, watching each letter and my life disappear into an unseen void.

My fingers are smudged with dosa batter drying into a white powder that flakes off as my hands move with a rhythm of its own. I swap windows and type into Twitter instead.

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I figure this is the closest equivalent of a silent scream.

An hour earlier, I raged and dissolved into tears, the big, fat kind that fell on my cotton shirt and spread into a pool of wet that became a pattern of its own. One child came and hugged me, her body trying to absorb some of the sorrow and the helplessness I feel.

“I am sorry,” we both say, the words cancelling each other out.

It occurs to me that we exist, a circle of kindred souls, the special needs moms worldwide who are veterans of the silent scream, the angst filled nights, the worries about the future that stain the present. The beleaguered group of women furiously researching, reading and arming themselves to protect their spawn from the vagaries of a world that sees in one of two lenses: normal, not normal.

As my body calms down, my breathing eases, my throat itches and the tears have dried, I realize I am not alone. For every parent out there wondering why their child hasn’t aced the spelling bee or scored straight A’s in every subject, there are people like me just happy that the day was good, that their child came home happy, that they ate their lunch, that they remembered to pack their homework, that they actually focused and worked on Math for 20 minutes at a time. For every parent with dreams of college and scholarships, there are parents like me hoping and praying for a life that is functional. Good friends, family, staying power in relationships, the ability to hold down a job. For every parent complaining that their child is not as organized as the Joneses, there are parents spelling out each instruction, waiting until one is completed before issuing the next. There are mirrors with sticky notes, there is an insane amount of observation to ensure the most basic of human needs are met.

So, you, the mother struggling with discipline, with tears threatening to drown you in the parking lot as you sit a full five minutes at the wheel so you can regain your composure, I feel you. I know your pain. I understand where you are at. You, the mother wondering if ever you can take off the crown of responsibility you wear, even just for a while, I feel you. You are not alone.

As I tell myself, I tell you too. You are human. You are flawed. You are permitted to cry and rage. Take a timeout. Take two even. Life may not come with reset buttons, but it sure allows you to let the past be in the past. Start over. Intentions count as do actions. It really is OK. You will be OK. Your children will be OK.

Hugs.

Book Review: When Dimple Met Rishi By Sandhya Menon

I kept running into people on twitter raving about this book. They described it as cute and gushed over it. I am sucker for rom-coms especially the cutesy ones so I looked for it in my library and placed a hold.

I finished the book in a couple of hours. It is an easy read, breezing through with barely any hiccups. It is CUTE. I will give it that. I had to adjust my viewing lens quite a few times initially and remind myself that this is YA (young adult) and I am not quite the target audience. Once I had that part right in my head, it was easier to go with the flow. The other part that I had trouble wrapping my head around was that this book is set in the current day US but reads more like it was set about fifteen years ago. At least, I could relate to a lot of the shaadi talk about a 17-18 year old protagonist because at that age I was hounded by talk of marriage all the time. Even at that time, I was an outlier amongst my peer group. So, it took a lot of swallowing realism to let that slide for me. Having said that, it is pretty possible that even today there are families right here in the US where there is inordinate stress placed on getting married early to the right Indian ladka.

SO, if you can put these two niggling factors aside, the book is a lovely read. There has been a lot of thought put into what it is like being the other, of growing in a bubble that parents create when they immigrate. The story in a nutshell is nerdy girl meets rich dorky boy. Girl is the rule defying, career planning, forward thinking plain lass. Boy is smart, rich, good Indian boy. Throw in classic clique of cool girls and d-bag boys and the rest of the story practically writes itself. They meet, clash and eventually fall in love. There is dance, parallel love tracks, sibling bonds and lots of mamma sentiments.

What I would have liked to see is more tension, conflict and depth to characters.

Despite all this, I will rate this book a solid four stars. Why? Because in a field populated by mostly white protagonists, this is solidly desi. There is no watering down to pander to a different audience. Any Indian American teen will see shades of his/her life reflected in its pages. I can totally imagine teenage daughters of my friends reading this and enjoying it.

As an aside, I can totally see this as a movie perhaps with Shahrukh’s son and Alia Bhatt or someone similar.

On Politics, Liberalism And Being A Snowflake

Boots On The Ground

The year was 2000. I filed my first tax return. I think I was owed money from the government. I am not sure but I did not follow-up or deem it worth my time to find out. I was young, unencumbered and singularly apolitical. In the few years I had been eligible to vote, I chose not to exercise my franchise and I was proud of it. Often I remarked to friends that all parties concerned were horrible and what was the point of voting one in over another. I sat in a tiny circle of intellectual, politically aware friends feeling alien. The conversation was intense, their engagement a puzzle. Most of the issues they talked about went straight over my head.

Then I moved to the US. I worked, studied, paid taxes and did little to interact or engage in anything for two reasons. I was not a citizen. Paying taxes was not optional. All I knew was that the US has a President, not a Prime Minister and that elections were not the vibrant, chaotic, loud carnival it was in India. Over the years I figured that there were two parties. Beyond that I could not be bothered to figure out where I lay on that curve, what was it I believed in and what was worth fighting for.

All this changed in 2010. I became a mother. I became a citizen. The two were seemingly unrelated until the 2012 election. For the first time in my adult life I wanted to be part of the electorate that decided what policies would govern us for the next few years. The choice seemed obvious to me. I registered as a democrat and rooted for Obama. In the rare conversations that arose about politics, my friends tended republican and their resonant cry was “Why should I pay taxes to subsidize xyz for people who do not contribute to the tax pool?”

“Why indeed?” I wondered but felt strongly enough about womens’ rights and marriage equality that it overrode every other feeling I had. I did not pause to think. Then a few more things happened that affected me personally. I now had in my family children who were part of another family that was disproportionately affected by the policies that less government meant.

These people I had grown to love and respect did not wait for government handouts because they wanted to laze around and do nothing. On the contrary they needed a hand up so they could pull themselves up from situations that were circumstantial. They strived hard to go to college, to find jobs while they battled illnesses that consumed them because of their surroundings. They were the product of generations of sub-par policies. I cannot generalize and will not attempt to do that, however, it opened my eyes to very real need that exists. That religious and governmental interference on women’s bodies was not to be tolerated. That there were women and children who suffered because of these policies.

My children go to public schools. They are blessed with teachers who are vested in their success. The special education program has seen my children improve by leaps and bounds. That includes guidelines from the education department at Federal and State levels. Specialists  who evaluate children to figure out how best to help them. Tools and resources to optimize the time my children spend at school. Extended school year programs to make sure my children do not regress too much as they start a new grade.

As a mother of a neurotypical child, I probably would have wondered why schools need so much funding when my child is not using many of those services. As the mother of children who need help, I am beyond grateful to see my tax dollars at work raising the next generation of citizens to be productive, functioning adults.

All this because of investment in public schools and policies that are inclusive. The current political climate is aiming at destroying those provisions in exchange for lower taxes and cronyism. This is now personal.

My mother who has not paid into the social security system and who will one day be a citizen here will be bankrupt by the medical insurance industry if not for Medicaid. This is a system into which my husband and I have contributed for over 20 years without the expectation of anything in return. We are not talking of the impoverished here. I called many clinics for a consultation for my mother and was told I could not have an appointment because they do not take on patients without insurance. This, even when I was willing to pay out-of-pocket. The system is broken. There seems to be no will to fix anything but a savage need to destroy what little exists.

I am termed a snowflake and a liberal. I had to look up those terms. I realized that I am a liberal and perhaps a snowflake and I am darned proud of it. If I have been rabidly apolitical, the year 2016 made sure I morphed into someone who now knows more than the fact that there are two parties. I am actively engaged in finding out how local politics work. I am aware and listening. I am willing to raise my voice where it counts. I call, fax, email my representatives so my voice counts. I am now part of this system of humans who can make a change. The government which until recently was an alien, monolithic black box now appears to me like a beehive. A hub of active, dissonant voices doing their best to protect interests and going beyond the self. We may have failed as a nation in 2016. I sure hope 2018 and 2020 will change. Government and politics I now realize are the people. People like me.

Of Standing In Judgement

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A couple of days back, we sat as a family at the dinner table passing rotis and subzi and talking about our day when Pattu decided to show us her newfound trick of drinking water from a tumbler without touching it to her lips. We were suitably awed and I quipped “you have earned your last name.”

Even as I did, I felt uncomfortable. The kind of unease that comes from referencing problematic heritage. The fact that I take pride on and yet feel responsible for a subtle condescension for those who cannot drink that way. The moment passed only to insinuate itself into my head later at night as I sat at the computer browsing Twitter.

A week earlier, I read Alex Tizon’s recent viral piece on modern-day slavery. Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido called Lola by her family. I remember reading that piece and marveling at how well the essay was written even as I wanted to stop reading because of how it made me feel. I paused, read, reread and let it sit with me. The essay brought many feelings to the fore. Sadness, affection, horror, anger, empathy and a sense of resignation. It also felt uncomfortably familiar.

Pulido’s story is one of being sold, possessed and eventually set free though some might question the choice of the word free. She lived to primarily serve the family she was with. She toiled without question, was treated as subhuman and eventually it took the author until he was past his prime to realize and try to undo what his family had subjected the woman to. We hear of the story only through the author’s voice and are left wondering what it would have been like to hear Pulido tell her story.

Even as the piece went viral, the strident note from the western audience was one of horror, singularly missing the cultural connection and an inability to look at what perpetuates this kind of abuse. My first thought when I finished reading the story was that had this happened now, she would have been Sangeetha Richard. A difference in upbringing, exposure to the English language and knowledge of the options available to her would have made a difference.

I try to imagine Ms. Pulido chafing under captivity of sorts scared of running away, probably given to understand that escape meant a greater kind of torture. I imagine her viewing law enforcement and police with deep distrust. A legacy from growing up where she did. As an immigrant my first thought is about what kind of visa issues she would have had that would have limited her options. Most of all I imagine her growing up all her life with a family that is not quite hers yet there is no other family out there she can conceivably want to be with.

As for the author, I wish he had come to terms with what he was seeing earlier. I wish he had made reparations that were better than what he did. Most of all I wish he and his Lola rest in peace.

It takes great courage to put your story out in the world for everyone to read, to dissect and pass judgement on. I can only imagine this was his way of recognizing Lola for who she was and what she represented to him and perhaps as a beacon for other Lola’s out there thinking of escape. It also is a chance to bring those conversations on race and privilege out in the open. To create an understanding of the systems that perpetuate inequality and perhaps do something about it.

I’d love to hear from you if you read the piece. What reactions did it provoke and why? Did the story remind you of slavery, apartheid, caste system or any form of systemic abuse? Did it make you think about race in the larger context?

Odds And Ends

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I step out of Laddu’s preschool and walk leisurely.

“Are you Laddu’s mom?” the little girl walking toward me asks. I nod, pleasantly surprised to be addressed that way. She smiles, wishes me a good morning and skips behind her twin. Their mother walking a few paces behind stops and chats with me before she scurries off. I drive home, the radio more of background noise.

Slipping my sneakers off in the garage, my eyes fall on an array of sneakers, shoes, flats, flip-flops all tired, scuffed and frayed. Entering the home, I spy Ammu’s small bunny on the cedar chest. The image of her all sad and morose comes to mind. Today has been one of those days she woke feeling irritable. The morning went downhill from then until I scooped her up in my arms before she left to school, sat her on my lap and pretended to make the sadness bubble out of her. I did it a few times before she smiled. Perhaps it worked for she skipped, hopped and jumped her way to the bus. I pull the trash to drop orange peels and notice one of Pattu’s pants. I remember watching her come back from school Friday, a huge hole near her thigh. I remember asking her to drop it in the trash.

It is that time of the school year when clothes, school bags, lunch bags, shoes and socks are all in varying stages of disrepair. They look tired, faded and jaded. The school days seem to stretch too long, the weekends too short. The promise of summer is within reach. It shimmers just beyond reach holding out hope that the end is near. I am ready for a reset. For long languorous days filled with nothing. I am ready for mornings unharried by demands of lunch boxes and healthy snacks. I am ready for the impromptu ice-cream outings and evenings on the patio watching the sun go down. Most of all I am ready for shorts, sleeveless tops and overhead fans.

Saathi is home after what feels like eons. A mini break before he starts on a new venture after twenty years, practically his entire career at one company, in one group, with the same people. Everything feels new and apprehensive. The kids are off to school and we are headed out to the temple. A ritual that calms my head and makes me feel like we are all set to embark on a new journey.

The house is in disarray. The clothes are folded and stacked on the table in the hall, there since Amma folded it a day before. The kids have strewn puzzle pieces, the wooden ones all over the floor. I step over them eyeing piles of documents to be sorted and filed and moving away. I will get to it all I tell myself.

On another day when the sun shines a tad brighter, the kids tumble out of the home in joyous bubbles and Saathi is out slaying digital demons. I will conquer. I will crown myself a domestic goddess.