I first met Maya Gurung last year, a few days after a massive earthquake struck Nepal. Maya was recovering from the amputation of her left leg at a Kathmandu hospital.
I wrote a story about her because I wondered how a little girl would fare in Kashi Gaon, the remote and rugged village in Gorkha District, where she lived. It would be hard for her without the use of a leg; her future seemed bleak.
Then a second quake hit Nepal on May 12. And Maya’s life trajectory changed again.
Ahead of the first anniversary of the quake, I returned to Nepal for CNN to find out how Maya was doing. I believe hers is a story of something good happening from something very bad.
Lost in the diversity controversy at the Oscars Sunday night was this: The only woman of color who won was Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
Who? That’s the problem. Very few people in America know who she is. But they ought to.
Obaid-Chinoy, 37, has two Academy Awards to her name; her latest was in the best documentary short category for “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a haunting portrayal of honor killings in Obaid-Chinoy’s ancestral Pakistan.
The film tells the story of Saba, 19, who is beaten, shot and tossed into a river because she eloped with a man her family rejected. Saba is a rare survivor of honor violence and Obaid-Chinoy’s film explores in the bleakest way the physical and emotional pain that so many women in that part of the world suffer.
“She wanted her story told,” Obaid-Chinoy said in a CBCinterview. “The impact of her story is tremendous, because it is going to change lives, and it’s going to save lives, and there can be no greater reward than that.”
Obaid-Chinoy, a journalist turned documentarian, has focused her life’s work on social justice and feels compelled to expose wrongdoing in her homeland. Because, she says, it doesn’t have to be that way.
“A Girl in the River” prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pledge that he would change a barbaric law that lets perpetrators of honor crimes go unprosecuted.
“”This is what happens when determined women get together,” she said with her golden statue in hand. “This week, the Pakistani prime minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.”
Obaid-Chinoy dedicated her accolade to Saba and to all the women who helped her make the film and also to the men who champion women.
Obaid-Chinoy’s acceptance speech was the most powerful Sunday night, though, ironically, it got drowned by the noise of diversity jokes and the buzz over Leo.
But she was the real stuff. Here was a brown Muslim woman totally rockin’ it. She hails from a part of the world where the most barbaric practices against women still exist, and that made Obaid-Chinoy’s win even more worthwhile.
Go, Sharmeen, I yelled in front of the TV. You make desi women proud.
Check out her work here: http://sharmeenobaidfilms.com/
He was known in my native India as the hero of the Bangladesh war.
In Israel, he was known as the highest-ranking Jew in the Indian Army.
Lieutenant General Farj Rafael Jacob died Wednesday morning. He was 92.
Jacob said in interviews that he was drawn to the then-British Indian Army in 1942 because of the massacre of Jews in the Holocaust. He fought on several fronts in World War II and went on to a storied military career. In 1971, he negotiated Pakistan’s surrender in the war that led to the independence of Bangladesh.
Notable Indians paid their tributes on social media after learning of Jacob’s passing:
RIP Lt Gen JFR Jacob. India will always remain grateful to him for his impeccable service to the nation at the most crucial moments.
I read in Indian newspapers that Jacob died at the Army Hospital in Delhi. He had no family in India anymore. That made me think about two things: that few people know about Jewish contributions to India and even fewer probably know that the Jewish community in India has sadly, for a variety of reasons, shriveled up.
Jacob’s family came to India from Iraq and he was born in my hometown of Kolkata, where there was once a thriving Jewish community. Now there are only 30 or so Jews left in a city of millions.
Here is a link to a story I reported in 2010. I felt sad writing it because the city that I love so much was poorer for the loss of the Jewish community. In writing it, I realized that a big part of Kolkata’s history was vanishing. Jacob’s death was another stark reminder.
Pope Francis announced that Mother Teresa is becoming a saint. She will be canonized next fall.
The pontiff attributed the miraculous healing of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors, which means the Albanian-born nun can now ascend to the most vaulted status in the Catholic church.
But for me, and millions in my hometown of Kolkata, Mother Teresa’s true miracles were on the streets of that city. She didn’t just save the life of a terminally ill Brazilian man; she saved the poorest of the poor.
Mother Teresa gave everything to make something of people who had nowhere to go. People who had no hope.
I saw this firsthand when I volunteered at an institution run by the Missionaries of Charity. Their main chapel was just down the street from my parents’ home in central Kolkata. I met Mother Teresa many years ago, before she was a Nobel laureate, before the world knew much about her.
She has been criticized in India from various corners. Some thought she was pushing a Catholic agenda in a mostly Hindu city. Others said she gained fame because she was a foreigner. I don’t pretend to know every truth about her. But I will say this: I know she helped care for desperate people who otherwise would have gone without help. I don’t know of anyone else who gave so tirelessly to the poor.
Today we mark a day of solemnity, remembering all those who fought for our country. I salute you on Veterans Day, especially those of you I came to know well in Iraq. I think of you often, not just on days reserved to honor you.
Today is also a day of joy. It’s the festival of lights. Happy Diwali, everyone!
Hindus and Jains mark the day by decorating their homes and streets with rows and rows of diyas, or oil lamps. Well, these days, many folks use more convenient candles or electrical lamps.
Light is such an important metaphor in so many religions. It is the presence of a higher being. Hindus see light also as a metaphor for self-awareness and self-improvement.
The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit Deepawali — a row of lights. The festival celebrates a triumph of good over evil.
The story stems from the Hindu epic, “Ramayana,” in which Prince Rama returns to the kingdom of Ayodhya from 14 long years of exile with his wife, Sita, and brother, Lakhsmana. Rama comes back a hero after defeating the nasty Ravana, the 10-headed king of the demons.
Rama becomes king and Ayodhya prospers in peace.
This was my favorite story of all from the Hindu epics, partly because I was born on Lakshmi puja, the day when Hindus pray to the goddess of prosperity. Sita is an avatar of Lakshmi, just as Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu, the preserver.
The story of the good Sita ends with a dramatic account of the ground splitting apart and Sita enters Earth’s womb. It’s a rescue for her from the cruel world that challenged her purity.
My pishi (aunt) read me stories from the Ramayana when I was a little girl. On Thursdays, I sat with her and my great-aunt in a mezzanine level room that housed the altars to the gods. The two women chanted mantras in Sanskrit in worship of Lakshmi while I gazed on the idols and detailed photos of the gods and goddesses, especially Lakshmi.
I think of those days every year on Diwali. I am so far from home and feel so connected at times through my memories. I don’t have diyas at my home but tonight I will light a candle and think of all the times I have borne witness to goodness winning over evil, something I don’t do often enough.
A few weeks ago, I went to see “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” a riveting documentary about the shooting death of Jordan Davis at a Jacksonville gas station. It’s well worth your time.
On the way out, I picked up a Midtown Art film calendar that had Apu’s face on the cover. Apu as in Satyajit Ray’s “The Apu Trilogy, the highly acclaimed series of films about a free-spirited Bengali boy who grows into a man of the world.
Ray was my mother’s cousin and I always knew him as Manikmama. Manik was his nickname; mama means mother’s brother.
Ray directed more than 30 films and went on to gain international fame. But he also wrote books and made movies aimed at children. I grew up with tales of Feluda, the sleuth, and Professor Shonku, the scientist who spoke 69 languages.
But it was film, and specifically, “The Apu Trilogy” that catapulted Ray to international fame.
“Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or moon,” declared Japanese director Akira Kurusawa. That was a quote often recited in my hometown, Kolkata. Ray was such a point of pride, along with Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist.
Bengalis hailed him as a hero for the fame he showered on his people but many shied away from his work. His films were too negative, someone once told me. They were too real.
Yes, too real for comfort in a country still struggling to lift all boats. Ray’s movies were the opposite of Bollywood and had little to offer to the masses who wanted to escape at the cinema, not see their own reality.
“Pather Panchali,” which means Song of the Path, tells the story of Apu as a boy from a poor family in rural West Bengal. “Aparajito” or “The Unvanquished” follows Apu through his formative years as the family faces crushing poverty. Finally, we see Apu as an adult who marries and faces tragedy in the last of the trilogy, “Apur Sanser,” or “The World of Apu.”
For many years, I told my Western friends to watch Ray’s films to gain a better understanding of the place I came from, for insight into what life was like in Bengal. But the film quality was always poor, especially when the only way to see these films was to rent videotapes from Blockbuster.But now the films have been digitally restored and the subtitles are clear. If you live in Atlanta, I encourage you to go see the Ray trilogy at the Midtown Art Cinema, playing for a week starting August 14. Otherwise, you can always rent the DVDs or buy them online.The last time I saw my uncle was in 1992 when I went to visit him at his residence on Bishop Lefroy Road in Kolkata. He was in his usual stance — in repose on a wicker lounger with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. A month later, he received an honorary Oscar, the only Indian to receive an Academy Award to date.Audrey Hepburn presented the award to Ray, who by then had fallen gravely ill and was confined to his bed at a Kolkata hospital. I remember watching him on television that night, fighting tears of pride.He died shortly after, on April 23, 1992.There are many Indians in the world of art who have now made a name for themselves outside their homeland. But Ray, like Rabindranath Tagore in the literary world, was a pioneer.So many of my mother’s relatives were artistically inclined. They were painters, designers, poets and writers. I can’t help but feel that Ray had something to do with that. Or at least that his spirit guides me from within.
The film “Aradhana” had just made its big splash in 1969 when my family returned once again from a soujourn in America to India. As we settled back to a middle-class existence that back then meant ration cards and standing in line for water, the songs of “Aradhana” blared on speakers at street stalls. We had a radio at home but half the time we didn’t have electricity. So there were two ways to hear music for someone like me in Kolkata: go see the movie over and over again at a cheap matinee or listen to the street speakers.
The movie starred Sharmila Tagore, a Bengali actress who was hugely popular in Kolkata, and Rajesh Khanna, perhaps the biggest star in Bollywood at the time. The songs were all number one hits and I went to see the movie many times with Shantidi, the woman who worked for us as a housekeeper.
That summer, we went to Delhi to visit my father’s brother. I called him Rangakaka.
My uncle’s name was Tapan Kumar Basu. In my culture, younger people never address an elder person by their first name. Kaka is the word for a father’s younger brother. My father had four brothers so the family gave them all terms of endearment. Ranga was the name given to this uncle. It means color in Bengali, a fitting name for a man with so much joie de vivre.
Rangakaka was the most outgoing, the most gregarious of all my father’s brothers, I thought. He gave new meaning to “eat, drink and be merry.”
On that trip to Delhi, I was only 7 years old and did not know my uncle well then, though my parents were very close to him.
When he was a college student, he had lived with my mother and father in north Kolkata for a while. One of the stories that was often circulated in the family was of the time when my parents were out and burglars broke into the house, gagged and tied Rangakaka up and shoved him under the bed. My father always told me Rangakaka was a lucky man that day.
Instantly, I took a liking to Rangakaka. One big reason was that he knew all the lyrics to my favorite “Aradhana” songs. Another reason was that Rangakaka drove us everywhere in his Fiat when few people in my family even owned cars. Those who did hired chauffeurs to take them around. But not Rangakaka. He told me he loved to drive. In the early 1970s, the streets of Delhi were wide open and it was easy to navigate traffic. Unimaginable today.
Rangakaka drove us around and all the while regaled us with song. “Roop tera, Mustana. Pyar mera, diwana. Bhuul koi hamse naa ho jaaye.” Your beauty is intoxicating. My love is crazy. Let’s not make any mistakes.
I loved that I had such a hip uncle who knew the songs that were dear to me. My parents did not care for popular Hindi songs. They listened to far more intellectual Bengali music, which I did not understand well then and therefore, was not interested. It was sort of like having a mom and dad who listened to Beethoven and then visiting an uncle who sang the Beatles. Yay.
Rangakaka sported sideburns, drank whisky and smoked cigarettes. He liked to dance and get loud. Everything my father was not.
He was an architectural engineer and in his long career, he worked on several important projects in India, including the Vidyasagar Setu, the longest cable-stayed bridge in India that carries traffic over the Hooghly River in Kolkata. A lot of his work was in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and when the insurgency raged in the late 1980s and 1990s, I listened to my uncle lament the destruction of one of the most beautiful places in India. Later, when I went to Srinagar to cover the war, Rangakaka set me up with his contacts and friends. I felt a modicum of security knowing that I could run to my uncle’s friend’s house if I were in danger. They would have done anything for me because I was Tapan’s niece. That’s how much my uncle’s friends respected him.
I wish I had spoken more with my uncle about his work, especially in Kashmir. I wish I had spent more time with him when he still confronted life full on. For many years, when my parents were still alive, I did not go to Delhi much so that I could spend more of my precious few vacation days at home in Kolkata. It was only in recent years that I spent considerable time in India’s capital, reporting stories for CNN and visiting family.
My uncle and aunt were always generous with their hospitality. The house that they built in the 1970s always had guests in the downstairs room. We referred to it solely by its street number — J1815. I have so many fond memories of Rangakaka there.
On my last two trips, Rangakaka was weak and had trouble going up and down the stairs. Everyone gathered in the evenings in his upstairs bedroom, where we’d munch on snacks, sip wine and talk. Often it was about his adventures or about my childhood. My uncle and I both loved a syrupy Bengali dessert delicacy called Chom Chom. Rangakaka was famed for the number of Chom Choms he could eat at one sitting. He told me once that I was as sweet as a Chom Chom and from then on, that’s what he called me. I was 51 the last time I saw him and he was still calling me by that name.
“Mone aachhe, Chom Chom?” he said. “Do you remember, Chom Chom?” And then he launched into a childhood story.
I had planned to visit Delhi in January but for many reasons, I postponed my trip. Now I am full of regret.
Rangakaka died on April 9. He was 77.
I was on assignment for CNN when I received the sad news in a text from Rangakaka’s eldest son, my cousin Jayanta. My heart grew heavy. It was as though I had lost my father all over again.
At the Charlotte airport, I plugged in my ear buds, went to my Hindi playlist and selected “Aradhana.” I could hear Rangakaka singing, and it made me smile.
On a bright December afternoon in Kolkata, I watched a handful of young women throw their arms in the air, swirl the scarves of their salwar kameez and leap from one end of the courtyard to the other. They danced their cares away. Literally.
The women had all been forced into prostitution or into abusive relationships. Dance was their therapy. For some, it was their only joy in life.
Their leader is Sohini Chakraborty, a sociologist and dancer, who launched Kolkata Sanved after experimenting with rehabilitation for sexual violence survivors through dance. A poster she saw once at Kolkata’s massive book fair steered her in that direction. Under a photograph of a girl were these words: “They sell me, my own blood for gold and silver, I rinse and rinse my mouth but the treachery remains,’ printed underneath.”
Chakraborty says she went inside the book stall to learn more about that girl and “embarked on a new journey.”
I spent many hours with the women and girls at Kolkata Sanved. It was amazing how uplifting it was to watch them come alive through music and movement. I even danced with them on my last day.
Today, on International Women’s Day, I salute Sohini, her staff and all the women who have rediscovered themselves through Kolkata Sanved. And all the other brave women I have met through the years on my travels around the world. We have a long way to go. But we have also come a long way.
I have been corresponding with K.S. Narendran for almost a year now. His wife, Chandrika Sharma, was one of the passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 when it vanished from the skies on March 8, 2014.
He recently shared with me how he has been coping. He spoke with me by email, phone and Skype from his home in Chennai, India. The story was published today on CNN.com.
I feel honored that he shared so much of himself. I think all of us could learn from his fortitude.
A few weeks ago, when President Barack Obama visited India, I wrote a piece for CNN about how my homeland was poised to become a global power in the next few decades. The most recent World Bank forecast says growth in India is likely to outdo China’s.
But then came a sobering reminder of the widespread poverty in India.
The latest Census data says that 43 million households have zero assets to their name. That means about 215 million people own nothing. The Census listed cars, computers and televisions. But it also listed simple things like radios, bicycles and cell phones. Nothing. Zero.
As such, these people are largely excluded from society, marginalized by extreme poverty.
India’s extreme poor are often left out of the discussion on growth and a more fruitful future. But any measure of progress has to be diminished by these shameful numbers.
Recently, the Aam Admi (Common Man) Party won a surprising and resounding victory in the Delhi elections, putting anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal back in the chief minister’s slot. Aam Admi’s core support comes from the urban poor.
Whether or not you agree with Aam Admi, the win in Delhi, though largely symbolic, is a strong indicator that “inclusion: might just be the “it” concept in Indian politics in the years ahead. Politicians who forget about the millions without assets, the millions without clout, may have disappointments in store. India has to lift all boats. A global power cannot be a nation in which so many people own absolutely nothing.