Charlie Hebdo and Islam: How I see it

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 11:17 PM
Who defines the limits of journalism? Who decides when the journalistic pen crosses the boundaries of objectivity and ventures into obscenities? You would probably say that common sensibilities define the boundaries of journalism. But I believe that the field of journalism is too dynamic to be defined by boundaries. I guess that that is the whole point of the exercise of the freedom of expression: it is hit and trial, like medicine, with the use of discretionary perceptions aiming at not hurting or targeting anyone in particular without a solid reason. That is a loose definition, one that you won't find written anywhere. But the principle purpose of journalism, to show the world as it is with its several shortcomings, inevitably allows space for some expression of freedom. And it isn't logical to expect all journalists to be artful with this freedom. Or moderate. That would be like an attempt at controlling people and free will. And who has ever been successful in doing that? The field of free writing can only prosper and continue to part-deliver on its promise of a well-informed world where journalistic articles make a difference IF and only IF journalists continue to get the freedom that they get now (in some countries at least) to write what they like. We can then only hope for them to be unbiased and non-judgemental in their reporting. That is the best logical hope for the world, and I say this without getting diluted in the fantastical vagaries of idealism that really exist nowhere.

When we talk about freedom, it goes without saying that some journalists take more liberties than the others. They are more callous in their depiction of the news and more fearless in voicing their opinions, knowing pretty well that they might even qualify as judgemental to a significant part of their target population. Some readers continue giving patronage to such pieces of journalism for this very fact – because they love the loud and fearless voice. Some others see it as plain news and filter what they feel is the essential component hidden within the lines. Charlie Hebdo is one such publication. The weekly satirical newspaper is published in French and features political jokes and cartoons. Its non-conformist tone had managed to anger a certain section of Muslims who took great offence to the paper’s cartoons on Islam (of course they chose to turn a blind eye to similar cartoons on Catholicism, Judaism, etc). Before the horrendous January 7, 2015 shooting massacre of twelve people at the newspaper's headquarters, the magazine had also been firebombed in 2011 after the publication had named the Prophet Muhammad “editor-in-chief” of an issue. The publication’s rebellious response had been the following cover:

 When translated, it simply meant - "Love is greater than hate". 

Charlie Hebdo was not ordinary. The work that they did was in no way similar to what other news publications do. Plain reportage of news was never their forte. But that did not warrant for the intolerance, hate and death that was bestowed upon the newspaper for the work that they did. With warnings or without, no one reserves the right to take away life for the sole reason of discomfort with someone's artistic expression. You don't shoot an author for his book. You debate it. Similarly, Charlie Hebdo could have been given a taste of its own medicine by the initiation of another publication with similarly loud views, the terrorists could have boycotted the newspaper for its supposedly vitriolic work OR they could have chosen to go on a silent protest on the streets against what had been drawn. Social media wars are also not out of question in today's digitally savvy world. But one CANNOT pick up a gun and start shooting people in the name of saving the Prophet.

Islam as a religion is like all other religions. It has a holy book called the Quran. It also has its own prayers, teachings and customs. But like all other religions, Islam is also subjectively translated by different people in different ways. Some Muslims say that Islam teaches them tolerance. Some others say that it teaches them that Prophet Muhammad is the last Prophet of God. There is yet another sections of Muslims who believe in Jihad. Jihad is the religious duty of Muslims. A person engaged in Jihad is called a Mujahid and the plural of that term is Mujahideen. 

Unfortunately, the world today sees the term 'mujahideen' as one related to terror. It has ever so often been used by news organizations in the context of an Islamic bombing or a terror attack of any other form. The image has stuck on and the word 'mujahideen' has become a sullied one. Who is to be blamed for the plight of Muslims around the world? Who is to be blamed for the questionable looks that a Muslim name evokes in different parts of the white-world and the eyebrows that it sometimes raises? The terror attacks of 9/11 made life miserable for all brown people, and particularly Muslims, living in America. Similarly, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the violence in its aftermath will come back to bite all Muslims in France. It is not their fault and they are not at all related to what happened. They might disapprove of this savage act of violence inflicted upon the journalists and policemen by their bigoted counterparts. But while the perpetrators are eventually caught, and they will be, and punished, it is the Muslims in France and around the world that will carry this burden on their heads for the times to come. Yet more eyebrows will be raised when they say their name aloud. Did the perpetrators not worry about the bad reputation that they bring to their religion around the world - the same religion under whose cover and for whose 'protection' they conduct these killings? Do they not worry about the misery of their fellow 'brothers' that inevitably follows these attacks? Clearly not and it leads us to wonder what the whole point of the violence was anyway.

If the point was to save Islam and bring it respect, the aftermath is always quite the opposite. Muslims around the world are labelled terrorists and leading lives becomes a little more harder for them. No one likes labels and tags. Nobody wants to be judged. But what do perpetrators of violence expect at the end of their heists? Do they 'avenge' the Prophet? Is the Prophet so weak and helpless that his teachings won't survive without these terrorists picking up their guns? The term 'terrorist' is defined as anyone who indulges in any act of violence and views himself as the victim of a historical wrong. So anyone who commits homicide in the name of religion becomes a terrorist. They do not 'avenge' anyone by such acts, they only endanger their own lives in the process and make the lives of other people like them around the world more miserable. Is this logic too hard to see? Is it too complicated to understand? Is tolerance such a bad virtue that it absolutely has to be shunned for anything to stand? Despite the many reasons that these terrorists give for their actions, at the end of the day, there is no rational justification for their acts.

I started this opinion piece by saying that the flourish of journalism cannot be curbed. It thrives in the multitude of artistic freedom of expression, punctuated by the desire to tell real stories without prejudice. Religion is something similar. Its existence has to be taken with a pinch of salt. There will always be elements who translate religion to suit their needs. They will exploit it and mangle it to propagate their capricious views. They hide in the vein of religion, without realizing that they are the cancer that plagues the body. They will pick up the gun and shoot people over silly cartoons. They shall not laugh at themselves and their gods. And they will slaughter anyone who chooses to do so. They will not be fair and they will not be objective. They will also continue to make the lives of their fellow brothers around the globe difficult with their actions. History is full of people who have acted irrationally. Irrationality is in fact the chief cause behind history being written. Someone's belief in their superiority and someone's inherent belief in their inferiority, someone believing that something needs to be avenged and someone else believing that they have been slighted. Some slighting others and some others mocking the slighted. Some sane ones who ask everyone to stop the irrationality. That is the order of the world. And we continue to live in such an imperfect world.

"One ought to hold on to one's heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too."
-Friedrich Neitzsche


Remembrance (A short story)

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 4:50 AM

She had kind eyes but weathered hands. Wrinkles around her eyes gave away her age. She had draped herself in a worn-out beige saree but it would’ve been evident to anyone that she was a beauty in her age. Her body bore no ornaments and her silky grey hair were rolled up in a messy bun held together by a few bobby pins. Her brows were furrowed, her spine slouched and her knees were bent. She held the baby and stared at it with concern, not knowing where it came from or what to do with it.

Dementia had been diagnosed a few months ago. She didn’t remember how many months ago, though. Her son and daughter-in-law had suggested that she move away to the locked ancestral house and she had agreed. She remembered the day a few weeks ago when they had left her here. The cracks in the walls and the leakage in the pipes barely managed to conceal how old the house was. Rodents in all dark corners and the chipped paint had been no relief. But she had known that it was essential. It had been an absolute necessity to move here. To be closer to the elders who had passed away.

She looked around for her husband but he wasn’t there. Days when he would appear at her every shout were long gone. How long gone? She did not remember. And now this baby.

The baby looked like it was a few months old. Wrapped in a spotless white suede blanket and sleeping quietly. Its chest heaved up and down. The old woman still couldn’t remember how it had got here. It reminded her of someone. The shadow of a newborn that hadn’t lived to see even a full year crossed her mind. In this very house, at a time that felt ages ago. The shadow felt like a fragment of her. But she wasn’t sure.

Suddenly she heard wailing. A woman seemed to be screaming at the top of her lungs at a distance. The heart-wrenching screams sounded like someone had ripped her heart right out of her chest. The voice was distant, but audible. The old lady quietly kept the sleeping baby on the rickety bed and closed the door. She couldn’t stand the noise and the pain that engulfed it. Something had stirred inside her but she didn’t know what. She did what she did best in these situations, and there had been many – she went to the living room, spread out a bed sheet on the floor and slept.

When she woke up the next morning, the baby was gone.


Funny Ha-Ha!

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 11:03 AM

"There is nothing like a gleam of humour to reassure you that a fellow human being is ticking inside a strange face." - Eva Hoffman

Humour has always held a special place in my life. First, jokes were made about me being an uptight child and I took offence to them. Next, I learnt that the best way to live was to not take myself too seriously and laugh along with the ones who thought of me as funny. Ironically, the laughs stopped and turned into gazes of admiration at my turn-around. But the humour stayed with me. It helped me sail through the time conundrum with ease. Humour helped lift the darkest veils from the most serious moments that I encountered. It made me laugh in times of loneliness and helped nip several confrontations in the bud even before they started. Humour, I realized, makes people likeable.  And now life is a series of constant setbacks lightened by the presence of gleams of humour in sporadic spells of pulchritude.

I do not think that I am funny. But I can laugh loudly at a good joke any day. By accident, I sometimes also end up making some of these jokes. I know people who swear by laughter. Their pure and unadulterated commitment to guffawing under all situations is commendable. I look forward to being in their company, if only to cringe at the occasional bad humour that springs up without intention. But every meet is memorable. I think about these people when I need an injection of enthusiasm. A simple upwards curve of the lips is a solution for most problems in life. If nothing else, this simple exercise undeniably always lifts the spirits. As a young girl, my uncle (mother’s brother) who lives in Delhi gave me snazzy joke-books to read when I visited him during summer vacations. Our dinner table conversations centered around humorous incidents in his personal and professional life. Some not-so-kind jokes about the sardaars in Delhi were his area of expertise. Those family meals were marked with remarkable camaraderie and a sense of ease. By showing us the side of him that always tickled a funny bone, my uncle became endearing simply for his effort of completely putting himself out there, without fearing our judgement or criticism.

Talking about funny people, my husband has turned out to be quite an amusing man too. I first fell for his constantly light mood. Next I realized to my amazement and relief, that he was extremely comic as well. He preserved in him a child-like allurement towards all things amusing. Fast forward to the present, my dumbest sentences become funny when he pin-points what’s wrong with them and spins a joke around it. His favourite show is ‘Seinfeld’ and in our spare time, we go watch stand-up comedies. He laughs at jokes that are sometimes even too sophisticated for my comprehension and thereafter patiently explains them to me following my quizzical expressions. In our cat-to-gossip sessions where we babble about people, I sometimes tell him stories about people to garner sympathy, but instead, he instantly finds them facetious and starts laughing. My mood then changes rapidly from dull to cheerful too and I feel a pang of love swell inside me for his breezy jocular temperament. Television viewing is almost strictly reserved for watching ludicrous shows. The meals shared over these shows encompass perpetual bursts of mirth. He makes me appreciate the presence of humour in life even more and for that I am eternally thankful. Because other than my acquired sense of humour, I am an intensely serious person.

When we moved to Chicago, I got the chance to make acquaintance with a new genre of comedy shows called – Improvised Comedy. These shows are almost similar in format to stand-up comedies, except some of their jokes are improvised on stage from the catch-phrases and situations offered by the live audience. Consequently, no two shows performed by the same group end up being similar. Scenes, poems and opera songs are spun live in the presence of guests from the words that are thrown up for the group. Various tools are employed back-stage to equip these artists to become instantly funny. No scripts and no pre-prepared drama is present. As my birthday gift this year, my husband took me to Chicago’s leading improvised comedy group show called – The Second City. It is an improvisational comedy enterprise, best known as the first ever on-going improvisational theatre troupe in the United States. They are known for the inclusion of live and improvised music during their performances.  I was completely thrilled by their presence of mind and quick wit. Mesmerized by this genre of comedy, we also got a bite of another group called - Four Day Weekend - in Houston, Texas. While they weren’t quite as good as The Second City, some of their jokes did make me fall off my chair. Jerry Seinfeld directed ‘Long Story Short’ performed on Broadway by Colin Quinn (named ‘History of the World in 75 minutes’) is also off our bucket list. The show was the best stand-up comedy that I think I will ever see.

The moot point remains that humour sustains me. It is the de-stressing pill that I pop in everyday to stay in my senses. My brother makes jokes all day, my DVR is flooded with funny recorded shows, I get gifted Calvin and Hobbes comics by my husband and the best time of the day is when I can share a hearty laugh with someone I like over something absurdly slapstick. Knee-slapping wagging humour lights up my days, people with jocose natures attract me and droll antics infinitely rule my attention spans. Like Erma Bombeck once said,

“When humour goes, there goes civilization." I couldn’t agree more.

(Written as a guest post for Project 365 on the Prompt Of The Day – Funny Ha-ha: Do you consider yourself funny? What role does humour play in your life and who is the funniest person you know?)


Fifteen Credits

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:29 AM

(Written on the prompt of the day for Project 365)

'Our Utmost For The Highest' - That was our school motto. She always encouraged women to be all that they aspired to be. She started our school and shaped each one of us into what we are today. She was Maharani Gayatri Devi of Rajasthan. And it is her that I miss the most whenever I return to my alma mater, the MGD Girls School in Jaipur.

She would kick off our academic year with her varied pearls of wisdom. I remember many a rainy day during which our school annual day fell when she would visit to address us. Every Independence Day she would hoist the national flag in the school and speak to us about regal discipline. She held a special place in my heart and continues to inspire me even today despite her being no longer in this world. We miss her!

The above picture was clicked on the author's last day of school in 2005. Maharani Gayatri Devi is seen signing her passing away kurta. This was a school tradition. Even after a decade, the author still holds the kurta dear, a symbol that reminds her of the message of positivity and independence that the Maharani inspired in her and the rest of her classmates.


On the edge

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:37 AM

Radha was perplexed. She didn’t know where to turn or what to do. Despite a recent job promotion, she wasn’t happy. When she had shared the news with her husband about being promoted from sales associate to sales manager in her small pharmaceutical company, his excitement had been muted too. That was how they functioned as a couple. Mostly quiet and equipped to understand each other’s silences. But Radha wasn’t happy. For weeks now, she had been trying to figure out the cause for her deep set resentment. Maybe, she thought, she felt hopeless because despite having tried for over a year, she still hadn’t got pregnant. Or maybe it was because she felt that her marriage was stuck in a rut. Nothing ever changed and both she and Varun, her husband, stayed busy with work throughout the week. Weekends were generally spent quietly inside the house doing chores, with an occasional meal shared in a fancy restaurant. Radha also figured that another cause of her glumness was her in-laws. They constantly reminded her that her biological clock was ticking and she hadn’t borne them a grandchild yet.

Radha didn’t know where to look. Her husband wasn’t a great listener and generally spent all his free time with the newspaper. Her parents did not understand her concerns and only got worried each time she shared her despair with them. A couple of years ago, she had been treated for chronic depression but she didn’t believe that it could have resurfaced so soon. Radha also didn’t have close friends because work didn’t give her much time to socialize and the few people who had been nice to her through the years no longer spoke to her. That was because she had managed to offend every single one of them in the years that she had spent fighting her persistent illness.

She, however, did not like to see herself as a recovering maniac. Instead, her work identity defined her now and she also saw Varun and their supposedly happy marriage as a sign of full recovery. She never accounted for the fact that she still sometimes got overwhelmed with the pressures of life and felt like ramming her moving car into a solid brick wall. She also did not tell anyone that her inability to get pregnant made her want to stab herself in the stomach. No one noticed these tell-tale signs of another brewing psychological disorder because Radha concealed them so well.

One a particularly humid Friday evening in August, Radha came home early from work. She saw Varun’s car parked outside and was surprised to see that he had returned home from work early too. She walked into her bedroom and was shocked to find Varun copulating in bed with their vivacious neighbor, Kamla. Radha was flabbergasted and ordered them both out of the house. After the screaming was done and the door had been locked, Radha succumbed on the floor. She rolled up like a fetus and burst out crying. The wailing and tears didn’t stop for several hours after. She now understood Varun’s silences and knew that their marriage was effectively over. She also understood why she hadn’t been able to get pregnant (she took it as a sign of her body’s resistance at being impregnated by a cheating husband) and for the first time in months, she was glad that there was no baby in the offing.

The events that followed happened in quick succession. She called her parents, the divorce papers were drawn out, Varun signed them without resistance and the marriage was over. Radha was left with their Navi Mumbai house, her job, her car and some money in the bank account. She was now 35 years old and didn’t expect to find another partner anytime soon. In reality, she was tired, exhausted and felt rudely jilted. But she was also determined. Determined to find something that would make her happy again. At this point in her life, there were no answers. Nothing seemed to bring a smile on her face. Her parents tried and even her office colleagues, now sympathetic to her situation, tried to make her laugh. But to no avail. All happiness had been sapped out of Radha’s life. Her innocence and hard-work had only got her to this crossroad. And it all seemed like a huge, complete waste.

And then something changed inside her. Radha quit her job. The withdrawn provident fund money was enough to sustain her for a few months. Before she started looking for a new job, Radha wanted to find her meaning of happiness. She felt like she had been pushed off a cliff and was being forced to get back on her feet again. First, she emptied the house of all of Varun’s belongings. None of them belonged there. Next, she reconnected with the friends that she had once scorned and apologized for the years gone by. The tedious exercise seemed to make her feel a little better. Next, she decided to write poems. Ever since she had been a student, Radha had possessed a natural knack for poetry. She had tried her hand at it as a child and amassed huge appreciation from her English teachers. So she decided to write poems again. And it seemed to work. Out came the vitriol associated with eight years of being married to a cheating husband. Her emotions found expression in the words of her poems. Radha could, for the first time, speak her mind out without being judged by anyone.

“He who could not give me a baby, he broke my heart like it was a meandering doll,

I wallowed in self-pity, and thought that it was all my fault.

But the sunshine of happiness dawned when he left,

And I rediscovered myself for what I really was inside the cubed vault.

Now I sing and shine, I celebrate everyday,

Like there is no misery or sadness to take it all away.”

 Radha had found expression in the form of poems that she didn’t particularly know what to do with. Her parents commended her good writing and her friends appreciated her finding some cheer again. But only Radha knew that she had finally found what she had been looking for throughout. In Varun she had sought an understanding listener and with her parents, she sought friends that she didn’t really have. But her poems were the beauty that she created with her own hands every day. No deceit, no expectations, no advice and nothing else complicated. They were the purest forms of kindness and solace. And Radha wrapped herself with this passion for poetry-writing like a silk worm nestles in its solid cocoon. She had found her one true calling and she decided to keep pursuing writing even after she had found a new job.

Years went by, and true to her words, Radha’s poetic well didn’t go dry.  A collection of her short poems based around the themes of betrayal, acceptance and recovery were published by a major publishing house. The book titled ‘Shadows from my past’ made Radha’s life an overnight success. Years after the bitter divorce, she was now famous. She also received the news that Varun had attempted committing suicide. Although he had been saved and was still alive, the right side of his body had been paralyzed permanently.

Radha wasn’t vindictive. But she felt redeemed by how life had turned out. She had remained single through her success. And now, she found herself constantly happy. She didn’t feel the urge to commit any unspoken crimes. No indescribable bouts of crying and wallowing followed her around. She realized that it was Varun’s presence that had kept pulling her spirits down during their marriage. And he was far away from her now. Tied down for life to a hospital bed, unable to move. Despite life’s justices, Radha decided not to concern herself too much with the fate of others. She had just assumed charge of her own life and affairs, and she wanted to make sure that no Varun ever ruined her peace of mind again. She had found her one true love in poetry. And the poetry loved her back. That seemed enough.


Moved to Tears

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:50 AM

(Written on the prompt of the day for Project 365)

As a child, crying did not come naturally to me. Raised by loving parents and looked upon by my two younger brothers, I was a proud child who refused to cry in public. My place in the family was that of an elder. And to always set a good example for my two brothers, I never let them see me cry. Well, at least almost never. Sometimes it was inevitable. Until I turned 17, I stayed with my parents and was never subject to the harsh realities of independently living everyday life. Consequently, I had very few sad memories to relate to when I thought about tears. In fact my biggest fear in those days was not to burst out laughing when the situation demanded a serious face from me. A bad news, a friend scoring less marks or something serious on television. It might have been the lack of maturity or maybe I was just a happy child – either way, I never cried in movies or when I saw something touching. When I eventually migrated from my nest in the pursuit of college education, my experiences with the world changed. I now saw a spade for a spade, and not an ace of diamond. My parents were not physically present around me all the time to shield me from barbed wires of the outside world and my collection of unpleasant memories grew. I also learnt to cherish the presence of my parents more. Another strange occurrence happened around this time. I learnt to cry. A lot. And that trend has only been on an upswing since then. The older I am getting, the more emotions buried deep inside me are surfacing. Fear, anger, anxiety and concern. As I make memories of my own everyday as an adult, I look back at the old memories at home with rejuvenated kindness. My eyes well up when I see a good gesture being done, and all movies now feel like the story of my life. There is always this one character who I can link to someone in real life and their misery & joys become mine. I laugh and cry with them. I also make the extra effort to go out of my way and be extra charitable towards family, friends and strangers. Because I have seen physical proof of my generosity light up someone’s day.

The last time I was moved to tears was while going through old pictures in my family album. There are two reasons why these pictures are immensely precious to me now – First, because trapped in those semi-sepia frames are the moments of my life when I was immune to pain or feelings. And second, because these pictures remind me of golden times when we existed as a wholesome family and ‘mom and dad’ were the key that solved all problems. A compilation of these old pictures, along with a separated set of yesteryear pictures of my now husband, were converted into a montage to play on the big screen at our wedding. Now, almost two years after our big day, I still sift through these pictures to reminisce about the jubilant times gone by. From my home in Jaipur to Delhi to Chicago, I have come a long way and with each increasing mile that separates me from my family, these pictures have become more precious. Out of the whole lot that runs into hundreds of candid snapshots, I have picked four to talk about today. These four pictures summarize the journey and offer a glance into the world that shaped me to be a sensitive and sensible human being. With a flush of gratitude and a look of nostalgia, I view the images of my parents in these pictures and am moved to tears.

The first picture is of my mother holding me in the hospital bed on the sixth day after my birth. She is seen wearing a plain lilac salwar-kurta with a chiffon dupatta covering her head. She is sitting up and has me raised in her arms and is rubbing her nose against mine. My cousins from the house, three brothers and a sister, who were all under ten years of age at that time, look on as they stand on the side of the hospital bed. Mom wears a big smile on her face as she does what she does and her eyes are looking straight at me, squinting with affection. This picture makes me love her more because it reminds me that there will always be this one person in the world whose face will light up when they see me. Irrespective of how I look and what I might have done, my mother has always been an unending sea of tenderness and fondness. Her covered head in the picture also reflects her willingness to live by the customs that demand her to do this gesture as a sign of respect to the elders in the house who would invariably visit her to meet the new-born. The presence of my cousins in the picture reflects that some of these elders might already have been present in the hospital, accompanying these cousins, at the time that this picture was clicked. The fact that I know that this snapshot was from the sixth day of my birth is only because my mother remembers that by heart, justifying how easy it is for mothers to recall even the tiniest details about their first born. The pictures reminds me that I am the one that gladdens her heart and so it forms an essential part of my ‘precious collection’.

The second picture in the series is one where my parents, younger brother and I are sitting on the then-study room couch during or after what looks like a birthday party. The picture was probably clicked in 1992 and my youngest brother had not arrived on the scene then. Our family of four looks happy and my father is seen holding my brother in his arms, with his face & eyes turned towards me and giving a bright smile in my direction. He looks young and unburdened by the troubles of life that later engulfed him. He also looks charming and consumed by family adoration. The table in front of us holds a plate of puffed patties, a tray with some sweet delicacy covered by a plastic sheet and something else that looks like a white cake or pastry. Me and my brother are looking at the camera and smiling. The grins reflect carelessness that I don’t relate easily to now. Seated between my parents, I look loved and taken care of (my husband makes me feel that way now, blessed I am to always have someone to love me). Mom is smiling and talking to someone while looking down at the food on the table. It leads me to assume that maybe she was coaxing one of the guests to eat some more and is eager to get done with the picture and return to serving her guests. But she looks at home and shines radiantly in an orange and rust colored silk suit and wears a brown bindi as a sign of her young and fresh motherhood. She sits cross-legged with dignity and her straight shiny hair are loosely pinned up in a contemporary-style bun. The four of us reflect contentment and family bliss enveloped around us. It also reminds me of how our birthdays were always a big deal in the house. There was never a year when a cake wasn’t cut or when the birthday boy/girl wasn’t given new clothes to wear. Mom devised these traditions and dad supported them. Together, they gave us a childhood where anything other than fun and naughtiness was unknown.

Which brings me to the third picture. This is the only picture without either of our parents in it. This picture was clicked when me and my younger brother sat on our huge windowsill and kissed our youngest brother on the cheeks from both sides. I think the year was 1996 and my youngest brother had finally arrived on the scene. He is seen wearing a traditional golden dhoti-kurta for (maybe) a playschool event and looks gorgeous with a smile that was his constant companion. His hair look wet from a fresh bath and he gives a big toothy uncontained grin as we both kiss him from either side. His eyes are turned towards the wall on the left and he doesn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular. My best guess is that he probably just didn’t know where to look and is ecstatic from the sibling love being showered on him. We both hold both his hands from either side too and smile as we lean in to kiss him. The physical touch is indicative of the easy camaraderie that we three have always shared. My hair are cut short and pulled back in a half ponytail. I wear a denim dress with a crisp white sweater underneath. Maybe the picture was clicked sometime in the winter. My younger brother dons big spectacles with a string around them slinging them on his neck. Maybe this was the time when he had started wearing glasses for the first time ever and wasn’t confident of not dropping them while walking (he wears lenses now). He wears a checkered full-sleeved shirt and brown denim pants (unlike my blue). The flash used while clicking this picture bounces off the glass that makes our window apparent. It appears to be dark outside and I am also seen wearing my going-out sandals. Maybe we had just returned from the playschool event (in which case it must’ve been oil on my little brother’s hair). Or maybe, we were just heading out. Or maybe, it was his birthday. My mother would remember better. In either case, this picture reminds me of the love that we three still share every day as we grew from young kids to mature adults.

The last picture in this series is from my 10th birthday. My youngest brother is seen holding the knife with me and cutting the cake (a famous Ellora Bakery made all our cakes at the time). The candles say ‘10’ and are of the colors that remind me of yesteryears. We don’t find candles like those anymore. Shaded pink, yellow and green from top to bottom, they used to remind me of traffic lights. The picture is important to me primarily because of the presence of my father in it. He has one arm wrapped around my youngest brother and another one around me. He smiles a radiant smile and is seen holding up my forehead with his palm, probably shielding me from the hot flames of the candles. He also gives his fatherly learn-it-properly look as I cut the cake in a brown shirt (and frock, not visible in the picture) that I still remember as my special 10th birthday dress. The picture was clicked in the newly-constructed family living room and our dining chairs wear a cloth cover that was later replaced with leather (because the cloth tore off easily). I am seen cutting the cake with my tiny hands, surrounded by my lovely father and brother. Around my neck is a black thread with a locket in it (bearing the picture of a Hindu deity) that my parents made me wear as a reminder of how never to forget god. It reflects my obedience towards their wishes at the time. Fathers often get lesser credit than the mothers for raising children and their important role goes unnoticed. So I included this picture in the collection to give my dad his due credit for the irreplaceable contributions that he made towards my growing up. My confidence stems from his upbringing and I stand proud in all situations thanks to the self-esteem that he drilled in my head with his constant praise and appreciation.

Several other pictures could have made it to this collection as pearls in the string of my life. First day of school, me holding my second little brother when he was just a year old, my crazy 15th birthday cake, my 17th birthday which was the last that I celebrated at home before leaving for college, etc. were all important moments that form an integral part of my childhood. Sitting half way around the world away from my family makes me miss them more. Their beautiful pictures make me teary eyed every time. A part of me wants to always stay with them, while another part wants to stay close to my dear husband. As conflicting priorities take over in life, old amber memories keep us grounded. They keep us civil, humble and humane. Missing people is as much a part of life as change is. People who you love but don’t live with anymore, people who have passed away but will forever exist in your memories, people who formed a part of your childhood like your school friends, people who you meet later in life and who become important with passing days like college mates, people you look up to like your mentors and teachers, people from the family who you don’t meet very often but still choose to love, people from the family that you marry into, your new extended families, bonds made out of love, even new young people like nieces and nephews who arrive much later, our kids and their own kids… the cycle of life. This cycle continues in progression and stops for no one. Pictures remind us of all of these people. They are a medium for us to stay attached to what is important. If you ever sit in a quiet room like me in an empty house when your husband is at work, open an old album and shed a tear as you sift through it… think about your crying as a means of communicating your fondness to the ones you love. Tears are the soul’s telepathic way of connecting to those who can hear our heart’s voice. Good luck!


Brief history of an Indian’s driving adventures in America

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 8:32 PM

(This post is part of a series of write-ups about life in America, from an Indian’s perspective who recently moved to this country)

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to drive. I took to the wheel very early and have been driving on the roads for over a decade now. Driving in India was tough. Geared vehicles, heavy traffic and unruly two-wheelers. What I never realized through those times was that the whole exercise was preparing me to drive anywhere in the world. When we arrived in Chicago in August 2013, the right-hand side driving intimidated me no end. We do not own a car here, but those experiences riding in cabs rattled the day lights out of me. I was horrified at the thought of eventually taking on the wheel and steering myself on these roads. Unlike India, the left turn is a longer one and the right turn is a shorter one. Your steering wheel is on the left-hand side of the car and the fastest lane on the road is the left lane too. What scared me more were the surplus traffic signs and instructions on every single inch of this country. It’s all mapped out and a traffic violation can get you hefty fines sometimes amounting to $500! Everyone strictly drives in their lanes and the car’s odometer denotes distance in miles (and not kilometres).

So obviously, when I finally decided to take my driving test in March this year, I was a bundle of nerves. We hired a car (with insurance – which is a necessity for all vehicles here) and my husband gave me rudimentary driving lessons before the real big day (he is a fantastic driver, even in the US). I didn’t do great with the directions and my mind kept making me take reckless left turns and long right turns. We practiced parallel parking as well. I read and memorized the ‘Illinois – 2014 Rules of the Road’ guide by heart. And then came the test. My documents were verified and after furnishing two solid address proofs, came the vision test. I cleared that with ease. Next step was the written test which also, luckily, went well. It comprised mostly of identifying road signs and answering some questions about road safety (it’s always safest to select the most secure option). In my preparation, I had learnt amazing things like how everyone stopped their cars each time they saw a school bus boarding/unboarding children. Things like the ‘right to road’ and ‘yield’ were all very important lessons for the long term. I learnt that white lane lines meant one-way traffic and yellow center lines denote two-way traffic. Solid yellow lines mean no overtaking and broken yellow lines mean that one can overtake with caution. These learnings from carefully reading my road guide helped me sail through the written test too. And then came the third and last leg of my driving test travail. The actual driving test on the road with an instructor. The instructor was an old, quirky guy (nothing like my gentle lesson-giving husband) and after observing me drive for 15 long minutes, he failed me. Yes, for the first time in my life, I had actually failed a driving test. His reason – I was too slow. Obviously, I was gutted beyond belief. We chose to keep the car for another day and give it one more shot (only one trial is allowed per day). When we reached our parking spot the next morning, the car had a parking ticket stuck to the windshield. Fine of $150. The spot didn’t allow parking from 3am-6am. And obviously, because such a regulation was counterintuitive, we were surprised but ended up paying the fine anyway. Anyhow, my instructor was a friendly and warm young fellow this time who was more than happy with my driving and didn’t even make me do the complicated garage-reverse test. ‘I have seen enough’ is what he said. I was issued my driving licence instantly and voila, I was now a licensed driver in America, registered in the state of Illinois!

And thus started our most adventurous driving chronicles ever. My husband and I decided to undertake a cross-country drive from Chicago to New Jersey for the 4th of July holiday weekend. It involved 776 miles of driving (1249 kilometres) and cut across five states (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey). This long adventure required us to drive for 13 hours, one-way. We started off early in the morning and switched the driver’s seat every two hours. Leave alone driving on an expressway in America, I had never even driven on a highway in India! The roads though turned out to be extremely smooth and the cruise-control feature on our automatic sedan was a god-sent. We made three pit-stops for gas (I had packed food for the journey in advance) and were able to make it to New Jersey by midnight (you lose an hour when you go from Chicago to NJ because of a time-zone difference. Even within the US, four different time zones operate. Such is the magnitude of the land monstrosity in this country). Our 10-hour drive in the day was a cake walk. Long easy sweeps of seamless roads. Right-most lane reserved for trucks and the remaining lanes for cars. After my initial hesitation with the speeds (you can get a ticket if you go slower than the minimum speed limit too), I was able to gain firm control on the wheel. The minimum expressway speed limit is set at 45mph in most cases. The maximum is set between 70-80mph in most states too (rules and laws changes in every state). It is however common practice to reach a speed limit of 10mph over your permitted speed limit and set your car to cruise control, the auto-pilot. Once you set the speed, you are almost sure that you won’t over speed and hence save yourself the trouble of being caught by a state trooper (term used here for a traffic cop). The state of Ohio had a state trooper parked after almost every five miles, reading people’s cruising speeds. The state of Pennsylvania had deep gorges and was beautiful to drive through and click. The last three hours of our journey, however, involved driving through the night. Those were probably the most taxing moments. Craning our necks to follow the yellow lines blindly on the road. We passed a fog-zone too where the windscreen totally fogged up and we had to stop to clean it up. Deer zones were crossed too, where actual deer can actually jump out into the middle of the road and sometimes ram into your car. Finally after both of us had rendered stiff unbearable necks, we made it to our destination. The weekend with family was sheer bliss. For the drive back, we made full use of the daylight (summer days here stretch from 5am to 9pm) and didn’t have to drive at all at night. Crazy story to tell our kids… check.

The next drive happened between Houston and Dallas on a trip to Texas. This time our car was a hatch-back and the drive was just 4-hours long. It almost ended too soon for us and we got just 2 hours each behind the wheel. The roads were the same stretches of butter (metaphorically, of course) and the drive was as big a joy as the last one. Except that it was much hotter, because this was scorching Texas.

We now occasionally rent a car to drive around Chicago and get chores done. My fear of driving in America has evaporated progressively through this one year. I now find it easier and much more enjoyable than driving in India. People are civil and no one flouts traffic rules (mostly). 911 is at your service in case you ever meet with an accident (which we haven’t, thankfully) and the non-geared automatic cars are a delight. I have finally made peace with right-hand side driving and having the driver’s seat on the left-hand side of the car. I am amazed at how the road network has been so evenly laid out all across the USA. At some places, I have seen as many as seven fly-overs stacked one on top of another. The word ‘urbanization’ had swirled in my head several times. My new worry is an upcoming trip to India and how I would adjust back to driving on unruly roads with violent traffic and geared cars. But at least I feel elated with the realization that I am now equipped to drive easily anywhere else in the world :) A little bravado goes a long way in liberating you from your fears. Always make the extra effort!

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