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Things That Matter

Women’s Day And My Trip To The Police Station

After days of putting it on the back burner, I decided that I will get a work done with for once and all. The work was nothing extraordinary. I had to go to the police station and report a lost passbook (a document used in many banks to keep log of banking transactions). I have crossed this particular police station near my home many times before and observed all kinds of people lining up in front of the station. Some looked harassed, may be they were there to lodge a complaint. Some certainly looked like they had done or were associated with something criminal. There were rowdy, bully sort of people, who could care for nothing. A police station is not a place a woman would ever want to visit in India. That is the primary reason I was putting off my visit for a month now. 
Finally, I mustered the courage and went to the police station yesterday. There was a cop sitting and working at his desk. He noticed the perplexed look on my face. He took a look at the draft of the complaint in my hand and directed me to another officer. I walked into the room next door. There was a cop working on his computer and reading a newspaper. It looked as if he was typing something off the newspaper. There was another one sitting behind a pile of files and folders (unsolved cases perhaps). A few people stood in the room waiting for their turn to discuss their matter. They were being made to wait because the cop has all the authority and no one else dare challenge him, even if the cop was doing nothing. There was an awkward silence in the room, interrupted by the occasional sound of the wireless walkie-talkie every now and then. 
One of the cop looked at me and said, “Madam, What do you need?” 
I handed the draft of my complaint to him. He asked for a valid ID proof, I handed that as well. He then read the complaint (called FIR in India) and said to me, “Please, add you husband’s name to the report.” 
“Why do you need my husband’s name? My passbook is lost. Not his.“ 

“We cannot file it without your husband’s name. We need his name for your identification.” 
That definitely did not make any sense. Sounding a bit furious, I asked the policeman, “If my husband lost his passbook, would you need my name in the report for identification?” 

The people who stood in the room let out a laugh. 
The policeman got severely annoyed. He looked at me, furious, I could tell. “That is the rule. This is how it has been happening for years. If you want to file this complaint, we need you husband’s name on the report for your identification.” 
A woman in many government documents in India, still needs to have a person assigned who is responsible for her, a father or a guardian if unmarried and the husband if she is married. This is after presenting a valid ID proof of her own. A police station in India is not the right place to argue about the validity of such requirement. To avoid being mistreated, very unwillingly I wrote my husband’s name in the report and it was filed. 

This incident happened a day after the world celebrated International Women’s Day. The celebrations seem almost ironic since we still cannot respect the existence of a woman by herself. Women’s day and all the talks around it, seem like a joke. Every woman encounters such challenges here on a day-to-day basis and nothing is still being done to correct it. 

In the face of reality, all this talk about equal place for women in the society, just falls flat. 

Written by : Sonali Banerjee, our regular storyteller. This is based on a real incident that took place this week, just a day after International Women’s Day, 8 March, 2015. 

Domestic Violence And The Workplace

The month is over but the issue is not, the purple ribbon campaign cannot be just forgotten after the month is over. If you have noticed, we are still talking a whole lot about domestic violence and bullying on our blog and FB page. Today’s post is about domestic violence and your workplace, an important insight into how you could possibly help a co-worker dealing with domestic violence. 

On a return visit to conduct an organization’s annual domestic violence prevention training, two male participants proudly told me the story of how they stepped up one day to talk with a fellow co-worker about their concerns for her safety.
For several months, the men noticed she sometimes wore her make-up very heavy. You know, heavy enough to hopefully cover bruises.  Armed with information learned in last year’s domestic violence prevention class, the men approached her with just the right amount of tact and with sincere concern; she trusted them and soon talked about her heavy make-up.  They took her to the first available resource person.  Her healing process had begun.
Of course we will never know how far the violence might have escalated in this co-worker’s home.  What we know is because her co-workers knew the signs of domestic violence, she was able to again be safe.
We also know that one in four women will be victims of domestic violence in her life time and if the violence continues, an abuser is likely to want power and control over a victim all times of the day and night– even while she is at work.  A recent survey said 21% of full time employees are victims of domestic violence.  Of that 21%, 74% said they have been harassed at work. 
Visualize this:  Picture a workforce of 50 employees.  Approximately 11 of the employees will experience domestic violence and 3 employees in that group will be harassed at work. 
With these staggering numbers, every employee who understands domestic violence and knows signs of domestic abuse specific to the workplace may be able to help a co-worker or even save a life.  So, here are some of the signs:
Signs that an employee or co-worker may be experiencing domestic violence:
Wears long sleeves when it is hot, sunglasses inside and heavy make-up
Has unexplained injuries or gives non-believable reasons for injuries
Is easily startled
Arrives early or late to work
Appears fatigued much of the time
Shows fear, anxiety or depression
Decrease in productivity
Receives frequent personal phone calls, text messages or emails
Frequently borrows money for lunch
Poor self-concept
Makes excuses for not participating in after work events with co-workers
Signs that an employee or co-worker may be a domestic violence abuser:
Makes statements that show extreme jealously of partner
Doesn’t cope well with stress; constantly complains
May talk about being rough with partner
Has poor self-image
Consistently blames others; it’s never their responsibility
Makes frequent personal phone calls, text messages or emails
History of unemployment
Speaks about being cruel to animals
Alcohol and/or drug abuse
One of these signs may not be an indicator, but multiple signs are a stronger indicator of abuse.  Each situation is different, but all situations should be approached carefully.  An excellent resource for questions and concerns about domestic violence is the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233.
Written by : Toni Bowie 

Toni Bowie, the founder of MaxLife, LLC, trains and coaches company leaders and employees to prevent and manage domestic violence and sexual harassment and to embrace diversity and inclusion.  Contact Toni at

Sugarcane Juice and WWF

Bullying has existed in schools for many years now. It is now much talked about. Swapna Haldar shares an anecdote from many years back about bullying in the school she taught at. It tells that bullying is not always a behavioral issue. It is influenced by external factors, sometimes as simple as a TV show or a movie. Children see, children ape. As parents, as teachers sometimes very simple check and balance methods can curb it. 

It was sometime in the 1990’s, one morning a fellow teacher anxiously told me, “Take care of your boys(in the classroom). While returning home, they stop by a roadside vendor, have sugarcane juice and encourage younger boys to fight.They make a lot of noise and disturb the residents.” 

A roadside sugarcane vendor in India. These makeshift fresh juice stalls are
extremely popular. 
I heard her out, but did not give much thought to the matter as many of the teachers thought the tenth grade students that I taught were the trouble makers and the class teacher is answerable to whatever they do, whether in the school or outside. Two days later I got the same complain from another teacher and she also added, “The boys bully the younger students and force them to engage in fighting”. She gave me the name of the supposed leader also. I asked her why  she had not stopped them. Her reply was the same – the elder boys don’t listen to the junior teachers (teachers from elementary or middle school grades). 

When I heard three complaints, I asked one of the girls about it. She said it is a mock fight like WWF(World Wresting Federation) on T.V. I had no idea about that program, so that night I watched it. 

Next day I finished teaching the class a little early, started talking about TV shows, how many hours the students watched TV, what were the most popular programs . Most of the girls said they watched music channels or TV series / serials and the boys watched sports only. Then they asked me what channels I watch. I told them, as they knew I didn’t have much time left after the school and after correcting all their work, my preference was for Discovery and News channels. But the previous night while surfing, I saw a strange channel named WWF, but obviously I could not make head or tail of it (my purpose was served, I wanted to raise the topic without their knowledge). 

Many of them said it is a mock  fight and few boys watch them and quite liked it, but all this while the supposed leader among them, J, – kept silent. Finally I asked,  ‘J- don’t you watch it?’ He looked at me, could read something in my eyes, jumped to his feet holding his ears with his hands (Indian style) and said, “Sorry M’am”. “Are you sure it will never be repeated?”, I asked. He promised and the chapter was closed . The sugarcane vendor was also not seen there anymore.

Celebrating Everything Different

Hope everyone had a fun and spooky Halloween. I understand Halloween is now celebrated in more countries than it was five years ago. It’s a global world, our celebrations have to get global too. Why not ? 
It’s my favorite time of the year. I am always hungry for celebrations and my kids have taken upon me. My idea of celebration may not be partying necessarily. But it does revolve around having little rituals of our own for every occasion. Rituals that are mostly self-made and have taken birth in our home, sometimes due to circumstances. 
Up until two years back our Halloween ritual used to be a little different than what it is today. We would dress up in characters of our choice, decorate our home and load up on candies as everybody does. And then something changed around last Halloween.  We were introduced to the hundreds of children who probably take the Reese’s and Snicker’s from our home and never ever get to touch them and give them over to a friend or a sibling because they cannot eat it themselves. Or worse many do not even venture our for trick or treating at all. 
It is difficult to understand a situation unless you are hit by it yourself. In our case, my son was diagnosed with multiple food allergies. For the first time in my life, I understood clearly how life altering and life threatening it could be. It is not a tantrum that a parent with an allergic child makes. It is serious, I experienced it first hand. 
That set the new Halloween ritual at our home. Getting non-edible treats for the trick-o-treaters. The very first year, my daughter was very hesitant but understanding at the same time. “What if no came to our house ? What if no one liked any of these treats ? They want candies. We had stickers, glow lights, pencils, sharpies, crayons, yo-yo’s and necklaces instead.”, she had said.  She did not want to be different than the rest. As the first few set of kids came in, their reaction upon seeing the treats was “Wow, This is so cool.” We let them pick what they want. Very soon, I saw my daughter inviting over kids to our home. She was no longer hesitant. To many of her friends, she explained why we were doing so. 
The treats – The only candy you notice are free of most allergens. 
This time along, it was an established ritual. We had a blast shopping for Halloween treats and the children who came over were thrilled too. “Can I take another shiny sticker please? “ “Do these Yo-Yo’s light up ?” “I am Elsa, can you give me a blue necklace please.” “Who needs candies ? Glow sticks are more fun.” That’s what we heard through out the evening and the treats were all gone as we wrapped up that night. 
This whole experience has taught me one thing. People are more receptive of accepting something different than we think they are. We keep things concealed in fear of opinions or judgments. But the truth is that if we are candid about what is different in our homes, in our lives and if we find ways to celebrate them, people are most likely going to embrace our celebrations too. So celebrate everything that is different. Life is a like a rainbow, it would not appeal without all its colors. 
Pictures and Story By : Piya Mukherjee 

‘The New Price of a College Education — and It’s Not Tuition.’

Photo credit : Soumi Haldar
In its September 8 issue, Businessweek featured a story about ThinkTank Learning, a chain of San Francisco Bay Area tutoring centers that operate out of strip malls. The company was founded in 2002 by Steven Ma, a former hedge fund analyst who started the company with $2,000 of his own money saved from tutoring students, and a $15,000 loan. His first “center” was a desk and some phones in a 100 square foot office in Cupertino.

Ma, was born in Taipei and moved to California in the fifth grade, now brings in about 18 million dollars a year for his company. Essentially, Ma makes bets on student admissions the way a trader plays the commodities markets, summarizes Businessweek,

 “Using 12 variables from a student’s profile—from grades and test scores to extracurricular activities and immigration status—Ma’s software crunches the odds of admission to a range of top-shelf colleges. His proprietary algorithm assigns varying weights to different parameters, derived from his analysis of the successes and failures of thousands of students he’s coached over the years.”

The article gives an example. Ma’s algorithm predicts that a U. S.-born high school senior with a 3.8 GPA, an SAT score of 2,000 (out of 2,400), moderate leadership credentials, and 800 hours of extracurricular activities, has a 20.4 percent chance of admission to New York University and a 28.1 percent shot at the University of Southern California. These odds, it continues, determine the fee ThinkTank charges that student for its guaranteed consulting package: $25,931 to apply to NYU and $18, 826 for USC.

Is Ma’s business taking advantage of a population? It depends on your definition of taking advantage. Most of his clients are are Asian immigrants like himself, many of whom still have families living in their country of origin. He helps applicants and their families navigate the myriad criteria generated by applying to a university. He “reassures the bewildered, multigenerational audiences that top-ranked American universities aren’t nearly as capricious as they seem,” once you know their formula. To be sure, only the very wealthy or those willing to give up their life savings for their child can afford Ma’s services. 

And while ThinkTank serves a niche clientele, there are thousands of other college “counseling” businesses in the United States. The term “counseling” is a misnomer to me, because it often doesn’t describe a holistic approach to a college or vocational school that is the best environment for the youngster, but rather, a business that helps parents mold a student into the best possible candidate for the school they perceive as necessary for success in this world. If one Googles “college counseling,” one will need an entire afternoon to scroll through the endless advertisements for local and national help. One particularly bold one I found was called “The Ivy Coach,” and its website introduction goes right for the jugular: 

“Why live with regret? Why play these games? So you save some money by not working with a private college consultant? And then  your kid doesn’t get into Yale. Instead, he ends up at UCLA as an out-of-stater. So you end up paying a lot of tuition for a school that doesn’t have the cache of Yale. Seems like a poor investment strategy to us. Talk about a reality check. Every time your kid goes on a job interview and the interviewer sees that he went to Yale, do you know what his assumption generally is? That he’s smart. It’s quite the assumption to have in your back pocket. That’s not necessarily the case for UCLA students, even though UCLA is a terrific school. So if you choose to not invest with a good private college counselor (and there certainly are bad ones), just know that your strategy can backfire for many years to come! And that’s the cold, hard truth.”

My biggest wish for my children in the years to come is a nation that embraces the differences of each student, and places a premium on teaching children why it’s important to learn for the sake of learning, not just checking boxes for a particular class or university.  The “adult brain” isn’t formed until the age of 24 –– that’s two years past the point of graduation from undergraduate programs for most people. Very rarely do teens or young adults know “what they want to do in life” until they are closer to their late twenties or thirties or beyond. My second wish is for high school programs to teach students how to be adaptable –– that it is important to finish a course of learning to build basics, but also, how to take what one already knows and build from it with new experiences. My third wish for students today is for good health, both physical and mental, whereby they have peers that support them and vice versa, and get plenty of sleep for their growing brains. 

Maybe these are things that cannot be purchased, but as parents, we can demand them.

Authored By : Julia Bricklin, Picture By : Soumi Haldar 

Julia Bricklin is a mother of two kids studying in the elementary and middle school. When Julia sent in this article to us, we were so charged up, we decided to spend a week talking about different perspectives on education. 

Keeping Them Alive

Losing a loved one is always extremely painful. Dealing with such a loss at a young age is even more traumatic. Mortality, separation, agony, orphaned are words not meant for a child’s comprehension. But life is cruel at times. Today we share one such story on a subject that we have never delved into before. Sombre it is but there are many who live through this pain, their story too needs to be told, heard and felt. 

I am twelve. With one bare foot touching the floor, I am sprawled on the couch, a wicker contraption with bright green pillows that resembles a relic. It is in the middle of summer, hot and humid. The coolness of the marble floor provides insufficient respite. I fan myself with an Outlook magazine, my rapid, jerky movements loosening the pages off its seam. I am here because I like to contemplate. Sit idle, stare blankly at the white-washed ceiling or at the slow-moving dusty fan but mostly contemplate.  I like to believe I am laid-back unlike my overly active counterparts. But people think I am indolent. People like my grandmother.

“There you are, spread across the couch like marmalade again,” my grandmother says as she floats in and out of her favorite spot in the house-the tiny, box-like kitchen where she spends a good chunk of the day cooking, baking, cleaning.  In a long, flowing patterned skirt and a purple blouse, she looks younger than her sixty years. She wears this outfit combination rather frequently. It was a gift from my mother, hand sown and all. “Why don’t you ride your bike or go over to Bobby’s and play instead of lazing around like this?”

I don’t enjoy riding. Last time I rode, I fell and bruised my knees and palms. I was miserable. My limbs covered with band-aids remind me of a board covered with countless notices. My bruises are still raw and nasty looking.

I am not lazing around. I am thinking. Thinking about how I can preserve the memory of my parents. I feel they are slipping away. It has been six years since the accident. I only had a handful of memories to begin with and I want to hold on to them as long as I able. So here I am, lying in the couch, replaying the memories of my past.

My brother who is older to me says nothing. He has become quieter since the accident. He also thinks a lot nowadays, but his are mostly angry thoughts. He is still angry with everyone including God and the cops, though they caught the guy who in his drunken stupor took a wrong turn that day. The punched hole on one of the walls in his room is a reminder of the turmoil he is in. Of that cataclysmic day when everything changed. Forever.

My grandfather returns home after spending a few hours away. He plunks himself in front of the TV for the five o’clock evening news. Retired and with a frail heart, he is active with a local non- profit that does rehabilitation work for alcoholics and addicts. He signed up two weeks after he lost his son and daughter-in-law. He has always been a kind man. Strong too except on nights when I hear him weep in the darkness of the garage.

“Mimi, do you want to come along with me tomorrow? We have a luncheon, you can perhaps help us out?” he asks in his polite but pitying voice.

He pities me. More than he pities himself. I know he worries about my brother and I. Who will take care of us after he is gone? He is unsure of us just as he is unsure of his longevity.

“Nah,” I reply. “I have stuff to do.”

Stuff for me is pulling out my handmade carved wooden box full of trinkets. My father’s company photo ID, my mom’s pearl earring, tickets to a historic museum we once visited together, a sepia colored photo of my parents in their wedding finery, a battery that belonged to my father’s super durable flash light. Things I hold on to. Things I look at for hours on end to keep my memories alive.
Bobby, my friend comes by. She is a year older but calls me her twin. People around us also think we have a striking resemblance. Bobby could be my tiwn but she isn’t.

We are different, fundamentally so. She has parents, I don’t.

“Hey, do you want to go and get an ice cream?” she asks. “I am craving a Cornetto.” As we head out to the ice cream store, her father waves at us. “Just one ice-cream OK,” he reminds us in his strong voice, flashing a wide grin.

“Yes Pops”, Bobby yells back. And in that moment as I watch her banter with her father, I think to myself, do I remember the last time I had ice-cream with my father?

I would like to think I do. But I am not sure anymore.

Story Credit : Sukanya Bora. Picture Credit : Soumi Haldar. 

Back to School

Another school year begins. Like all moms, Amrita Madabushi and her kids get ready to have a wonderful year ahead.

For parents of 50 million kids in USA, August is an important month; it’s all about “back to school”, the last bit of vacations, school supply checklist, clothes, before and after care, school bus, after-school activities and of course the mixed feelings of happiness and sadness that the start of school year brings.
With both kids going to elementary school, last year was quite interesting. Right before the week school opens, there is an important Thursday when we get to know the kids’ teacher and class mates. I learned from my little boy entering kindergarten that it hardly matters who is your teacher or classmates. 

However what I understood from my daughter was that when you are in 4th grade, it’s a huge deal. Ok, so there we were, on Thursday evening of last year, in a slightly nervous/ excited mode checking my daughter’s class assignment to see if she got any of her favorites. Not the teacher she wished for. And no familiar friends on that list. Oh No! It was a “sad” moment for her for sure.

At home that evening, we tried to make her feel good and showed her things from a different perspective.  To not have any one from her old friend circle was quite ok, she will make new friends. And to have the teacher she did not know was ok too, a teacher is after all a teacher, you respect them, they empower you with knowledge, that is how it works.

Days, months and the entire school year passed. I am just glad when I think of the last school year for both of them. My daughter had an awesome experience over the entire period of her 4th grade, making new friends, meeting old friends over recess & playdates, increasing her friend circle, yay!  As she came to know her teacher, she realized how amazing it was to have that particular teacher and by the end of school year, she was so absolutely thankful for that. 

Yesterday was Thursday again, the one before the beginning of next school year. And regardless of whose class they go to and with whom; here’s wishing that it is great for them as well as all the kids, for making new friends, for learning and for giving their best in an another fun successful new year as they go “back to school”.

USA vs India

Photo credit : Amrita Madabushi
For many of us who have migrated to USA, numerous thoughts and ideas traverse our mind whenever it is time to visit India, once in 2 or 3 or more years: travel, gifts, relatives, packing. And one of the primary ones among them is also, will my kids be able to adjust there, it being so different, so hot (in June-July), crowded and chaotic. At the same time, India is beautiful, exotic, crazy, diverse, traditional and unique. This summer my kids (6 and 10) were able to experience life in India during their stay spread over more than a month in summer.  

One day in the middle of our four weeks stay in Hyderabad, I told them to list the differences between USA and India. In their own words, this is what they listed as the differences. I have to admit here, what surprised me most was not the differences, but the last line which said on  the USA column, “Home is here” and in India Column, “Home is here”. The ending line says it all “Both win”. I was just unnecessarily worrying about how they would adjust. They were just fine, happy, excited, jumping around as they always do and sad when they had to leave India, just like they were sad when they had to leave US. I think they were happy about many things around them, awestruck by some, saddened by others. I saw they laughed more than me and they cried more than me. They enjoyed a lot and may be the next time when I am going I certainly need to remember one less thing to worry about and that is them.

Story Credit: Amrita Madabushi. Or rather Dr. Amrita Madabushi is one of our regular storytellers. She is also a teacher, an assistant professor at Baltimore City Community college

At Home in the World

In a fast changing world the modern day nomads travel and settle in distant lands yet holding onto their identity. In Piya Mukherjee’s words:

She roams around the house in a green and yellow lehenga (a full length traditional Indian skirt). Her palms have henna on them and just a little above that, the wrist has a couple glass bangles. Her long hair is braided at the back and could probably do with some flowers. 

​She sits next to her toddler brother, playing cars with him oblivious to the guests around them at home. There is a bottle of Arrowhead Water sitting next to them on the floor.  A little while later, someone introduces them as “the little guests from California”. She hesitantly says her Namaste. They engage her in a conversation and she replies in Hindi. 
Questions come rushing in. There is a surprise in the tone of the questions. But I find myself answering it differently this time. All the previous times I have said, they know our language, they eat the same food, they love wearing ethnic clothes and know as much or perhaps more about our culture as a kid of their age should. 
This time I say it differently. I simply say this. “The Arrowhead water bottle and the accented sounds is just to trick you.”  They get the hint. The kids are by this time gorging on rasgullas and gulab jamuns, my six year old looks up and gives me a smile. She knows the drill. They get asked similar questions all the time on the trips we make to India.
She tells me once the guests have departed that day. “I feel like I am one of them, but they always feel I am different. I am different but I am the same.” 
The last phrase hits home. 
So today, ​I write this for all the parents who live outside the country that they were born in and put in tremendous effort in keeping their culture, language, literature and cuisine alive at home. It takes a lot of work, I know that.  But we are raising kids who are not only learning to accept diversity but also learning to mingle where they may find it difficult to fit in. 
Story Credit : Piya Mukherjee 

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