Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hindu At The Helm?

This interview was published on --

Shashi Tharoor is a prolific writer--nine books, in addition to many articles, op-eds and literary reviews--and is the recipient of several journalism and literary awards. And that's in addition to his day job as the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information at the United Nations. Now, Tharoor is looking to take on an even more demanding role: He is running for secretary general of the U.N., and if he wins, he'd be the first practicing Hindu to lead that organization. Tharoor says he hopes to bring change to the United Nations; quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he says, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world. What is true for individuals applies also to institutions. The U.N. is no exception. If we want to change the world, we must change too.” Tharoor recently spoke with Beliefnet about his faith and how it empowers him.
How does faith shape a person's career and life? Or does it?

It does, if you have faith. For some, it’s merely a question of faith in themselves; for others, including me, that sense of faith emerges from a faith in something larger than ourselves. It’s what gives you the courage to take the risks you must take, and enables you to make peace with yourself when you suffer the inevitable setbacks and calumnies that are the lot of those who try to make a difference in the world.

Describe your faith and religion? What do you like most about your religion?

I am a believing Hindu. Hinduism is uniquely a religion without fundamentals. We have an extraordinary diversity of religious practices within Hinduism, a faith with no single sacred book but many. Hinduism is, in many ways, predicated on the idea that the eternal wisdom of the ages about divinity cannot be confined to a single sacred book. We have no compulsory injunctions or obligations. We don't even have a Hindu Sunday, let alone a requirement to pray at specific times and frequencies.

What we have is a faith that allows each believer to reach out his or her hands to his or her notion of the Godhead. A faith which uniquely does not have any notion of heresy--you cannot be a Hindu heretic because there is no standard set of dogmas from which deviation would make you a heretic. Here is a faith so unusual that it is the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. I find that most congenial.

For me, as a believing Hindu, it is wonderful to be able to meet people from other faiths without being burdened by the conviction that I have embarked upon a “right path” that they have somehow missed. I was brought up in the belief that all ways of worship are equally valid. My father prayed devoutly every day, but never used to oblige me to join him: in the Hindu way, he wanted me to find my own truth. And that I believe I have.

So many of the problems in the world today are a result of people’s beliefs and their faith. The role of faith ought to be to bring peace and happiness to the world, but is that really happening? What is it about yours or any religion that troubles you the most?

As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said, the problem is never with the faith, but with the faithful. All faiths strive sincerely to animate the divine spark in each of us; but some of their followers, alas, use their faith as a club to beat others with, rather than a platform to raise themselves to the heavens.

As I said, Hinduism believes that there are various ways of reaching the ultimate truth. To me, the fact that adherents of this faith, in a perversion of its tenets, have chosen to destroy somebody else's sacred place, have chosen to attack others because of the absence of foreskin or the mark on a forehead, is profoundly un-Hindu. I do not accept these fanatics’ interpretation of the values and principles of my faith.

Are you currently a practicing Hindu? Do you visit temples? Why or why not?

I believe in praying every day, even if it is only for a couple of minutes. I have a little alcove at my home in Manhattan, N.Y., where I try to reach out to the holy spirit. But I believe in the Upanishadic doctrine that the divine is essentially unknowable and unattainable by ordinary mortals; all prayer is an attempt to reach out to that which we cannot touch. While I have very occasionally visited temples, I don't really frequent them, because I believe that one does not need any intermediaries between oneself and one’s notion of the divine. "Build Ram in your hearts" is what Hinduism has always enjoined. If Ram is in your heart, it would matter very little what bricks or stones Ram can also be found in.
Members of Rationalist International, an Indian-dominated forum for "rationalist ideas and positions of world-wide concern" have asked for the withdrawal your candidature, because of your belief in Sathya Sai Baba, the self-proclaimed saint who is very controversial but extremely popular. How do you react to that?

It’s difficult to take them seriously when they can’t get their basic facts right. I do not believe in Satya Sai Baba; the very article they cite in their attack on me is an article describing a visit to Satya Sai Baba with my mother, and I spell out very clearly in the article that she’s the believer whereas I’m a skeptic. My article made the point that in India, both infotech and spiritualism exist side-by-side. It seems to me an incontestable observation.

Inner satisfaction and peace is said to bring one closer to the divine. Describe the inner satisfaction and peace that you derive from working for the U.N.?

The United Nations has given me the opportunity to help my fellow human beings in the most basic way. For example, when I was at Singapore, early in my career with the U.N., the fact that I could put my head to the pillow at night knowing that things I had done during the day had made a real difference to other people’s lives, was immensely rewarding.

I could give you a number of stories from those days, but one episode crystallized my inner satisfaction: A Vietnamese family tried to escape their troubled country on a vessel powered by a dodgy tractor engine. It gave way in the middle of the South China Sea. They ran out of food. They ran out of water. They began subsisting on rainwater and hope. But that was not enough to feed the couple’s infant and baby at sea. So the parents slit their fingers for the children to suck their blood in order to survive.

When the family was rescued by an American ship, they were too weak even to stand; they had to be lifted on board. They were brought to Singapore, where I was running the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ operation. We rushed them to intensive care. To see that same family, three or four months later, well-dressed, well-fed and ready to embark on their new lives in the United States offered the kind of satisfaction that few jobs do. The U.N. is not simply a means of bureaucratizing our consciences; it truly works for a better world, and that’s why I’m proud to serve it.

And where else, other than the United Nations, can there be a truly global forum where ideas of faith or belief can be openly addressed in the context of their possibilities and dangers--including those inherent in their misinterpretation or misappropriation? Where else but the United Nations could all countries of the world have joined in a resolution to remember the Holocaust and resolve to work together to dispel hatred, bigotry, racism, and prejudice and to refrain from religious incitement?

In my own U.N. work, I was privileged to launch a series of seminars on "Unlearning Intolerance," where religious figures and scholars of diverse persuasions addressed questions including Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism. The discussion was free, critical, reasoned, receptive, and uninhibited. It is in restoring those elements to otherwise impassioned discourse that the true strength and uniqueness of the United Nations lies.

What do you believe is the essence of your faith? How can a Hindu bring a different and unique perspective to one of the most powerful offices in the world?

I take pride in the openness, the diversity, the range, the lofty metaphysical aspirations of the Vedanta. I cherish the diversity, the lack of compulsion, and the richness of the various ways in which Hinduism is practiced eclectically. And I admire the civilizational heritage of tolerance that made Hindu societies open their arms to people of every other faith, to come and practice their beliefs in peace amidst Hindus. It is remarkable, for instance, that the only country on earth where the Jewish people have lived for centuries and never experienced a single episode of anti-Semitism is India. That is the Hinduism in which I gladly take pride. That is the essence of my faith, and that’s the perspective from which I would seek to serve in an office, which must belong equally to people of all faiths, beliefs and creeds around the world.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Stay at Home Mom Speaks...

I am a stay at home mom and proud of it. I believe that I have one of the most mentally and physically demanding jobs on the planet.

On the morning of July 26th 2006, standing at my kitchen counter sipping on my hot cappuccino, I picked up the Boston Globe and I was shocked and angry when I read an article about philosopher, Linda Hirshman and her statement that the best place for an intelligent woman is in the workplace and not at home.

In an article in the American Prospect this self-proclaimed intellectual reportedly wrote, “Housekeeping and child-rearing are not worthy of the full time talents of intelligent and educated human beings.” And then there is her book titled, “ Get to Work: A manifesto for women of the world.” As if being a stay at home mom was a South Seas vacation.

It was also reported that death threats have become an occupational hazard for Hirshman and that she and her husband live in anonymity, fearful of what may happen. I wonder if this should even be surprising.

In this day and age, I continue to be shocked with people that make statements like Linda Hirshman. And then there are those that claim that they need the second income. Those that are below the poverty line may need it, but when those whose spouses make six figure salaries claim that they cannot survive without a second income, I just laugh and wonder why they choose to live beyond their means. And then there are those who spend most of their second income on daycare, I don’t get it!

Is it more important to have a $50,000 car than drive one half the price and stay home with our children when they need us the most? Is a 5000 sq ft home more beckoning than one half that size but overflowing with love and warmth? Does it make sense to pay most of what we make towards childcare services or a nanny, rather than spend precious time with our younglings?

While on vacation, a friend’s three year old son woke up in the middle of the night, screaming for his nanny, while both his mother and father were present right by his side. It scares me to think that any son would be happier with a nanny that gets paid to take care of him, rather than his own parents, who are too busy making money and pursuing their careers.
Being a stay at home mom is a physically and mentally demanding job, yet it is more rewarding than any other job one could have. Especially during the child’s formative years, it is critical to instill the right values and education in these young minds that can assimilate even more information than a dry sponge.

I found it personally insulting when I read what Linda Hirschman had to say. I am an intellectual as well. Just because I stay home, it does not mean that I am incompetent or incapable of holding a good job. After heading up marketing for a software company, and being a successful marketing consultant for multinational organizations, I quit my job to stay at home with my son, purely out of choice. I, like many other compassionate men and women, choose to use my intelligence and knowledge to rear my child and be available to them at all times, instead of bringing in the green.

Several people have looked down upon me for this, some of them even my close relatives. Not many accept that staying at home with your little one is not all about having fun and playing hooky from a 9-5 job. Being a stay at home mom is a 24-hour job and responsibility, which can be extremely trying but where the rewards are immense.

This is not a defensive outburst, neither is this about feminism and women’s equality. I know for a fact that my husband would gladly be a stay at home dad if he needed to. However, the one who brings in a higher paycheck continues to work. This becomes an important factor when you have a single income family. It’s as simple as that.

During the three or so years that I have been home with my son, there have been some frustrating moments and many joyful ones. The realization that I can go back to my career any time, but I cannot rewind my son’s childhood and development made my decision easier. I do not for one moment regret my decision and would do just the same thing over and over again if I had to relive my life.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Remembering R.K. Narayan...

I have a writer’s block and I can only think of Swami, my best friend and cheerleader, to help me break out of this. He always comes to my rescue, no matter where or when. He’s always there for me.

Swami was my friend as I was growing up and he continues to be today. I was introduced to him in one of my English readers in middle school and since then he became a friend, a good friend, thru various periods of my life.

Yes, I am talking about R.K. Narayan’s famous protagonist from his first collection of short stories, Swami And His Friends, one of the most brilliant characters in English literature. Malgudi was like Mylapore to me, the town where I grew up.

What resonated most with me was the fact that Swami, even though he was a mischievous little boy, was another Tamil child like myself. I studied in an all girls convent in Madras, India, now known as Chennai, and most of the readings that I had in my English reader were from England or America. At the time, Swami was one of those rare finds for me. I could understand and vibe well with his character, clothes, parents and family, culture and traditions, pranks and tricks.

Like Graham Greene, E.M. Forster, Somerset Maughm and his other mentors and contemporaries, R.K. Narayan’s works have been enthralling several generations of readers and writers such as myself, and they will continue to for several generations more. Life in a small southern town in colonial India, the tradition and culture of this town as described by R.K. Narayan, are only too familiar to me.

The characterization of Swami and Malgudi is only one among many brilliant personalities, characters and settings that R.K. Narayan has so skillfully created. The minutiae and details that go into building each character in his works are simply inspiring.

To this day R.K. Narayan’s works are my remedy, whether it is to cheer me up, to be a tonic for any writer’s blocks that I may have, to provide relief from my two year olds antics, or to merely offer me pleasant and humorous entertainment. R.K. Narayan is a silent mentor guiding me with his crafty storytelling and simple yet elegant and precise writing style.

Even today as I skim through pages of Swami And His Friends I sincerely hope that Swami will be my son’s friend as well. From this eastern counterpart of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, I hope my son and his generation will learn not just about the culture and traditions of growing up in a beautiful and endearing town like Malgudi but also about the fun associated with living life simply yet delightfully.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The day the Tsunami struck

It was December 26th 2004…
It was another routine day visiting my parents in Hyderabad, India, or so I thought…
It is a day I will never forget for the rest of my life…

I was into day five of a one-week art workshop and running late. I got into an auto rickshaw and just about made it to the art center at 8.30 in the morning. As I walked into the art center, the melodious tunes of the veena, a sitar like string instrument, was playing in the background, and inspiring us to get more creative. I set up my materials and started doing my artwork.

About 15 minutes later the phone rang. I was watching our instructor answer the phone hoping it was not my mother calling me to say that my 12 month old was missing me already. She picked up the phone, said hello and a few seconds later her face fell! She ran to her adjoining office turned on the radio.

An underwater earthquake off the coast of Indonesia had triggered a tsunami, which had devastated coastal areas of Southeast Asia. All of us rushed into her office as we saw the lady go into shock. One of us got her a glass of water while the other held her hands and comforted her.

Sobbing, she told us that her son, who was in his early twenties, was working for the merchant navy and was currently stationed at an oil-drilling rig off the coast of Indonesia!!! That phone call was from her husband who was also desperately trying to call the oil company to find out the status of the drilling station and those on it.

A couple of the other workshop attendees turned on the TV as we continued to get details of the tsunami, areas that were affected, number of people, names, etc. While comforting my instructor and telling her that her son would be fine, I was secretly hoping and praying that the name of the her son or his oil rig would not appear in the list below.

For over three hours we saw a mother struggling to find out whether her son was dead or alive. Several phone calls and about three hours later the oil company called to say that those on the drilling rig were fine as they were not on the path of the tsunami. My instructor fainted from sheer relief. There is a god, I said to myself.

One year later, I as I remember the terror and fear that I saw on the face of my instructor, I tell myself that I am lucky, because, out of several thousands of heartbreaking tsunami stories, this was one of the very few that had a positive ending. I have learned to believe in the power of positive thinking. This tsunami had changed several lives, attitudes, beliefs, and hopes, including mine forever.

It was December 26th 2004…
It was the day that the tsunami changed millions of lives…
It is a day I will never forget for the rest of my life…