Reflections on a fresh start

Below is what K.S. Narendran, husband of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 passenger Chandrika Sharma, posted on his Facebook page on the 6-month anniversary of the plane’s disappearance. I have admired his fortitude since I first spoke with him in March and his incredibly poignant expressions of his ordeal. So I thought I would share.

You can read my CNN story on him here: A hole in the clouds, an empty space on earth
chandrikaBy K.S. Narendran:

September 7, 2014 at 10:37am

It is six calendar months since MH 370 made news….

Since then, many horrific events across continents makes one wonder about the world we live in. Are we moving towards a better world that will see future generations, or a world bereft of humanity? World-views that breed hate and intolerance, self-centeredness and greed, power mongering and domination, and, all brands of fundamentalism and violence are ascendent. The space for inquiry and dialogue has shrunk, mutual respect has given way to the valuing of mutual gain, and relationships have progressively reduced to the short hand of techno-aided ritualistic greeting and voyeuristic tracking. From this wide angle lens, the outlook is bleak and scary. It is then tempting to bring attention to one’s immediate context, seek relief and refuge, assuming of course that we are more ‘in control’ of our lives than of the world at large.

In my personal context, what rears up is that I have associated normalcy with a certain belief in the uninterrupted certainty of routines and relationships. The disappearance of MH 370 has been a rude reminder of the transience of all things and the fickleness of dreams, goals and plans. It has been easier putting these on hold or distancing from them, and harder to find energy and meaning in making each day count. From being a seeker and wanderer that I thought I was for the most part, I have seen myself be more the drifter and the dodger, allowing myself a lot of latitude rather than exhorting myself to ‘move on’.

So what am I stuck at? I think it has to do with acceptance of what seems like an irreversible loss…. not being sufficiently pragmatic in responding to an event that continues to defy explanation, and to be remain mired in the swirl of possibilities. The other day, after a hard grinding walk, I was lying flat on my back in my apartment doing my ‘stretches’ about the same time and place that Chandrika would as part of her daily routine to stay fit. Unannounced, a thought entered: “what if the phone rang and it was her?” No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, and the phone rang. At that moment, I told myself: “This can’t be true”. Of course, it wasn’t. But those seconds let me see that no matter how far my rational mind had moved on, at some undefinable depths of my being there remain remnants of expectations that cold thought or reason could not banish.

I have struggled to receive or counter those who helpfully ask me to keep up hope, following it up with “where is the evidence? Without a shred of evidence, why must we believe and accept the worst?”.There isn’t a paper from MAS to help approach the banks and other institutions with. I suppose even they are in a quandary on what they can commit to paper without being interrogated. So such of those concrete things that one does in closing a chapter in one’s life so a new chapter may be written is in abeyance.

As I take in the news of Tony Abott and Modi cozying up to each other,and doing the deals, I wonder if it may have helped for Modi to whisper a word on MH 370 and push for the truth. Given the silence in the establishment, it will not surprise many if those in power thought it was a Mumbai cab registration number. And as I read of Malaysia and Australia’s calling for an independent investigation into the incident involving MH 17, I wonder why the repeated calls for an independent investigation into MH370 have been seen as less deserving. While the difference in ground (or ocean) realities may be pointed out as basis, the lack of transparency and credibility in both instances stands out as crucial grounds to consider the case for independent investigators.

I have in the last few weeks tried to grapple with the idea of loss and mourning. Why do I miss those whom I have a shared a slice of life with and today are no more in our midst? Near ones. Friends in distant lands I hadn’t stayed in contact with for years. Friends I have met in recent months. Why should the knowledge of ‘physically forever gone’ be such a big deal? Often, the mind shifts to a shared past, suggesting that one part of loving, losing and grieving has less to do with another’s presence in the present. At other times, it moves forward in time to an imagined future, that now needs repair. The present has to do with being suddenly incapacitated in small or large measure to fully apprehend and respond to an altered sense of space and the configuration of things. The void that one experiences suggests a wholeness with ‘my world’ and within myself prior to separation, a wholeness whose quality I don’t have an acute awareness of (or value enough?). Memory then is a companion (or a crutch) that keeps alive the notion of the erstwhile unity or wholeness till I discover a new location to re-anchor myself, a new relationship with memory itself, with all people, and things. It is a bit like a glass of water with my finger dipped in, and what happens to the water whenI remove my finger.It is just that memory is sticky, heavy and impedes flow.

I am not a mushy sentimentalist. The over-grown stoic in me seldom made time for such a part. What I miss most in my intimate partner is a friend and a foil, whose expressiveness made up for my lack of it, and whose yen for thoughtful action ensured that life was never frozen, stagnant and lost in a sea of words.

Many years ago, I sought to understand what the process of celebration was all about. Strangely, in the current context, my mind has strayed to that very inquiry. It makes me wonder if celebration and mourning are essentially two sides of the same coin. That in mourning one invokes the memory of a life lived. That much like Robinson Crusoe who perhaps could not celebrate all by himself and needed a gathering, mourning is a collective process that celebrates the life of one who has gone, and gives a vocabulary to the legacy that lives on. In this process there is sadness, joy, and celebration, all in good measure.

No longer one

India now has a 29th state. Telangana.

It was six decades in the making, the fruit of a strong separatist movement that argued neglect by successive governments and finally succeeded in breaking off a chunk of land from Andhra Pradesh. The man who once went on a hunger strike in defense of Telangana, K. Chandrashekar Rao, became its first chief minister Monday.

The celebrations began Sunday night. Hyderabad, which will now serve as capital for both states, was awash in pink, the color of Rao’s party, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi.

India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, hailed the newest state in the republic.

Amid the joy, however, there was reason for pause, especially among the citizens of Andhra who were against the carving up of their state. For economic reasons. For political reasons.

Proponents of Telangana argued that holding together different peoples under linguistic lines was silly; that it was better to have a more culturally cohesive state. Others pulled out proof that small states can prosper in India. The cited Uttarakhand and Chhatisgarh as examples.

It’s a good thing the two states will share Hyderabad, a city that was at the forefront of India’s high-tech boom and houses corporate giants like Infosys. I visited there in 2000 and remember being so impressed with the efficiency and cleanliness there compared to my hometown, Kolkata. Without Hyderabad, I worry Telangana might flounder.

I am always wary when states are split because I fear that it might lead to a deeper division of people. We certainly don’t need to add to that problem in India.

But now the deed is done. I hope for Andhra and its sister Telangana to both prosper. Only time will reveal if this was the right decision.

India’s day of reckoning

photoBy Friday afternoon, everything should become clear.

Who did more than 500 million voters choose to lead India? India’s day of reckoning is here. Election results will be announced soon.

All week, there has been so much speculation and interpretation of exit polls that my head is spinning. By all guesses, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party will become the next prime minister of my homeland.

Modi is known as a Hindu nationalist. He is controversial, polarizing. Under his watch, Gujarat suffered Hindu-Muslim carnage. But he also inspired voters who are fed up with the same old corruption and drudgery of government. For them, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and Congress stopped delivering, despite being the party of independence and freedom.

People in India are hungry for change. They grew disappointed after India failed to launch, as it were. How many people predicted India would be the next Asian tiger? But the growth slowed and India is still a poor nation that lags far behind rival China.

Today, I received my Overseas Citizenship of India certificate. With OCI status. I am entitled to most of the rights and privileges I once had as a citizen of India, except I can’t vote. I wished that I had been able to in this landmark Indian election.

I cannot say who I supported — I am a journalist, after all. But I can say this: I hope, for the sake of my homeland, someone steps in and cleans up government. I am done paying bribes and drowning in bureaucracy and dealing with inefficiency.

I am done waiting for India to arrive.

Read my India stories on CNN.com:

http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/world/india-hotel-death/index.html

http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2013/11/world/india-rape/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/26/world/asia/india-rogue-tiger/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/22/health/india-end-of-polio/

 

Looking like change in India

india-voter

Voters in India get their fingers marked with indelible ink after casting a ballot.

Today was the last day of polling in India’s mammoth parliamentary elections. Five weeks of voting; Nine polling days; 814 million eligible voters; 543 Lok Sabha (lower House) seats.

From all the exit polling I’ve seen, it looks like the worst loss ever for the Indian National Congress, the party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi that for so many years led an independent India.

But people are fed up with corruption and inefficiency. The polls show a huge victory in the making for Narendra Modi, a self-avowed Hindu nationalist.

Modi has been a controversial and polarizing figure in India. Hindu-Muslim violence under his watch in 2002 earned him the nickname, “The butcher of Gujarat.”

But Modi’s Bharaitya Janata Party is known as entrepreneurial and business-friendly. That’s why a lot of people I know in India voted for Modi in the election, the largest ever in the history of mankind.

Exit polls have been proven grossly wrong in the past in India. But still, it’s not looking good for Congress. I think there are big changes looming in my homeland.

Read my story on Varanasi, a city that was the epicenter of the election on CNN.com.

Hotel Death

monimukti

My story on a home for the dying in Varanasi, India, came out on CNN.com today.

I spent a week reporting in the fabled holy city and was fascinated by its spirituality much more this time than I was on previous trips. Part of it was because I was reporting on faith. But another part of it was that I think I have transformed over the years; my rebellion against organized religion has mellowed.

As I have grown older, I have lost people who were close to me. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and good friends. I was in shock after I returned from India in February to the death of my colleague Lateef Mungin. He was 10 years younger than me.

That kind of loss makes you think about the things that are important in life and also about what happens to us after we stop breathing.

The people I spent time with in Varanasi were, for the most part, steadfast in their beliefs, though there is one man in my story who may surprise you.

moksha

Read my story, “Hotel Death,” on CNN.com

Death: I’ve had 13 years to think

The most sacred cremation place in India: Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night.

A body lies on the steps of Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night. Concepts of death are very different in many Indian communities.

I’ve been immersed in writing about death after spending a week in Varanasi at a home where ailing, elderly Hindus go to end their lives. They want to die there because they believe dying within the boundaries of the ancient city of Kashi will mean moksha, or salvation for the soul.

The story — I will write more about that later — took me back to the deaths of my own parents in 2001. I cremated my father, Debabrata Basu, 13 years ago.

Every year, especially on March 24, I think about the events of that day. Of bringing his body home to our flat in Kolkata. Of going to Park Circus Market to buy garlands of marigolds and bouquets of white, fragrant Rajanigandhas (tuber roses). Of all the people who came to pay their last respects. Family. Friends. My father’s students and colleagues from the Indian Statistical Institute.

I think of how summer had already cut spring short that year. The temperature soared beyond 90 degrees as we made our way to the crematorium in Kalighat. I waited with my father’s body, under a hot sun. I felt exposed to the entire world, for seven hours. Time stood still then. I looked down at his gaunt face, his cold body. I touched his hand from time to time. Was it to make sure he really was gone? Physically, he was.

But his soul was free. He would be with me always, I thought.

I also lost a dear friend recently. Lateef Mungin, a colleague at CNN and before that, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, died after suffering seizures. He was only 41.

I attended ‘Teef’s funeral at an African-American Baptist church in suburban Atlanta. Everything about it was so decidedly different than what I had seen at the cremation grounds in Kolkata and most recently in Varanasi. The way a body is laid out. They way we honor a person. They way we say goodbye.

In the last few days, death has again entered my life with the story of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet. I spoke with Mr. K.S. Narendran, whose wife. Chandrika Sharma, was on that flight. This is what he wrote to his friends last week:

I remain focused on what we have at hand by way of information, and stay with the knowledge that Chandrika is strong and courageous, that her goodness must count for something, somewhere. I carry firmly the faith that the forces of life are eternal, immutable and ever present to keep the drama ever moving. In the ultimate analysis, I am neither favored nor deserted. No one is.

(You can read the entire story on CNN.)

I admired Mr. Narendran’s quiet strength and how he coped with the knowledge that his wife may never come back home. It was a stark contrast to the way many of us display our anxiety and grief.

We all have to come to terms with dying. We will all die one day. That is certain. But there is so much uncertainty about what happens afterwards, about what we believe happens to us after our physical presence on Earth has ended.

Do you believe in heaven? In hell? Do you believe we possess souls?

Hindus believe in rebirth. They see it as another cycle of testing for one’s soul. That’s why people go to Benaras to die. That’s why they take God’s name and hope for moksha that will put an end to that undesirable cycle. It is an alien idea for Christians, Jews and Muslims. But who’s to say?

I am not sure I will ever come to any concrete conclusions. But I do know this. I feel my parents’ presence within me. And that will never go away.

With Malice Toward One and All. A legendary writer is silenced

Khushwant Singh was 99.

Khushwant Singh spared no one in his newspaper columns.

When I first started out in my career as a reporter, most of the journalists I admired were from America or Europe. There were very few English-language journalists in my homeland who really stood out. Khushwant Singh was an exception.

Singh died Thursday at his home in Delhi. He was 99 and by all accounts, he’d led an incredibly full life. Still, he will be missed in so many ways.

Singh was undeniably India’s most prolific writer. From countless newspaper columns to more than 100 books, Singh penned words that people remembered. He was uninhibited in his writing. Witty. Funny. Acerbic. His column was called “With Malice Toward One and All” and he made a reputation of sparing no one. He also was known for his love of poetry, something that endeared him to me.

Singh served as editor of several publications including The Hindustan Times in the early 1980s. They were positions that kept him surrounded by controversy. He was close to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi but that relationship soured after she instituted a state of emergency in India in 1975 and censored the press.

Singh even served in parliament — he was a member of the Rajya Sabha or upper house. But as a Sikh, he was deeply affected by the anti-Sikh riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. He received many honors, among them the prestigious Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India, which he later returned in protest of the Indian Army’s siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

On Twitter Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Khushwant Singh “a gifted author, candid commentator and a dear friend.. He lived a truly creative life.”

Writer and politician Shashi Tharoor tweeted this: “Mourning the passing of the irrepressible, inimitable Mr Original himself. A great loss for the world of ideas&letters.”

The letter Khushwant Singh wrote to Harmeet.

The letter Khushwant Singh wrote to Harmeet.

Singh was mourned by millions in India. Even Bollywood stars came out Thursday to say  Singh had made their lives richer.

I never had a chance to meet Singh. I wish I had. But I wanted to share with you something my friend Harmeet Shah Singh posted on his Facebook page today.

Harmeet, now a producer in CNN’s Delhi bureau, was an up and coming journalist in 1998. He was looking for a break, took a chance and called Khushwant Singh. The latter took the time to write him back.

“He didn’t know me but wrote back to a cold call on this sweet 15-paise postcard,” Harmeet said.

That to me was so telling of Khushwant Singh’s greatness. That even after all those years, after establishing himself as India’s top journalist, he took the time to respond to a young man just starting out in the business. Believe me, this sort of stuff rarely happens in India.

Khushwant Singh, RIP. You are a man who was on the top of my list way back then. And you’ll always remain there.

Singh’s best books.

Read some of his columns in The Hindustan Times.