Looking like change in India

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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

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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.

The price of independence

Independence turned bloody as uprooted Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs crossed borders.

Independence turned bloody as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs crossed borders.

It’s too bad “Midnight’s Children” was a bust at the box office. I’m thinking that Deepa Mehta was perhaps the wrong director to give us the celluloid depiction of Salman Rushdie’s terrific book, which won the Booker Prize in 1981.

The protagonist and narrator of Rushdie’s story, Saleem Sinai, is born at the exact moment when India gained independence from Britain. The film, had it been a success, might have broadened knowledge of the painful history of my homeland, just like “Gandhi” had done years before. “Gandhi” won various Oscars in 1983, including best picture.

At 11:57 p.m. on August 14, 1947, the nation of Pakistan was born, carved out of land that was a part of British India. Five minutes later, at 12:02 a.m. on August 15, India was declared a free nation. To all my Pakistani and Indian friends: Happy Independence Day.

That independence came with a steep price. British India was partitioned along religious and political lines. Pakistan became the Muslim homeland and Muslims living in lndia crossed borders on the west and east. At the same time, Hindus and Sikhs in the new Pakistan made the trek to India. At least 10 million people were uprooted from their homes; some estimates say it was as many as 25 million.

It was far from peaceful, far from what Mahatma Gandhi, the father of non-violence had anticipated.

Hindus and Muslims butchered each other. Sometimes, entire trains from Punjab to Pakistan arrived with seats and bunks awash in red. Or vice versa. Women were raped; children slaughtered. There are no exact counts of the dead; just an estimate of 250,000 to 2 million.

Gandhi’s non-violent revolution turned exceedingly bloody. Brother against brother. Blood spilled in the name of religion.

My father’s generation remembers that ugly time in our history. His family was displaced from their home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and started over in Calcutta. I heard stories from him and his friends and other Indians I have met from that era.

Atlanta physician Khalid Siddiq was one of those people. He told me he boarded a crowded train in New Delhi with his parents and four siblings to make a terrifying two-day journey through the farmlands of Punjab.

“I was very young but I think I understood what was happening,” he told me. “I could see the fear and anguish on my father’s face. It was a terrifying experience for everybody.”

Sohan Manocha told me he witnessed hundreds of killings as a young Hindu boy in Punjab. “That kind of horror leaves memories that are hard to erase, ” he said.

The stories of the painful birth of India and Pakistan are dying with the people who lived it. I am sorry I never recorded my conversations with people I knew.

Luckily, an oral history project, 1947 Partition Archive, is doing just that.

“The 1947 Partition Archive is a people-powered non-profit organization dedicated to documenting, preserving and sharing eye-witness accounts from all ethnic, religious and economic communities affected by the Partition of British India in 1947,” the website says. “We provide a platform for anyone anywhere in the world to collect, archive and display oral histories that document not only Partition, but pre-Partition life and culture as well as post-Partition migrations and life changes.”

I’m glad someone took the time to preserve history.

It’s especially important since tensions between India and Pakistan have never settled.

Just last week, five Indian soldiers were killed last week along the heavily militarized Line of Control, the de facto border in the disputed region of Kashmir. Since then skirmishes have flared tension between the two rival nations. Again. (India and Pakistan have already fought two full-scale wars over Kashmir, which Pakistan argues should have been a part of the newly formed Muslim nation in 1947.)

So on this Independence Day, I remember all those lives that were lost in the making of free nations, in the making of our destinies.

Honoring Gayle


This year, the Religion Newswriters Association chose my friend Gayle White as its lifetime achievement award recipient. I cannot think of anyone who deserves this honor more.

The ceremony in Minneapolis Saturday night was even more poignant for the both of us because Gayle and I were among almost 100 journalists who left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in its latest round of buyouts and layoffs last May.

Gayle worked at the paper 37 long years. She spent 16 of them covering the religion beat. She reported each story in depth and detail. Her writing was elegant and mellifluous. She taught me the power of ordinary stories told in extraordinary ways.

Gayle was the best at her craft and yet she never exhibited the arrogance that overtakes some award-winning journalists. She remained modest and humble to her last day and approached every story she wrote with the same enthusiasm she had when she started out in the business all those years ago.

Gayle’s husband, Bob, died of cancer two years ago. She endured the most painful experience of her life with the same perseverance and grace that made her such an incredible reporter.

I had the privilege of sitting next to Gayle for the last five years I was at the AJC. If there is one thing I miss about going to work at 72 Marietta Street every day, it’s seeing Gayle’s smile first thing in the morning.