Hamlet’s Elsinore

Our first view was just five minutes after we got off the train from Copenhagen. There it was, in all its magnificent glory, though less ominous than I had imagined it perhaps because of this glorious day. There was hardly a cloud in the sky; the brisk breeze whipped my hair about my face as we walked toward the grand.

The royal Danish castle is actually called Kronberg but we know it all as Elsinore from Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, “Hamlet.”

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles…

My companion for the day, journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, and I walked up to the castle, crossed the moat and looked out to the sea that separates Denmark from Sweden. How cold it must be here in the middle of January, we thought. An equally chilly history accompanied us through our tour. We learned of a fire that ravaged the castle, an attack and capture by the Swedes, of Bubonic Plague halving the nearby town’s population.

We climbed to the top and stood awed by the majestic views of sea and sky. And then descended on the stairs thinking of the madness, rage, grief, revenge and moral corruption Shakespeare so eloquently gave us in his play.

We didn’t have time to stick around for the Hamlet tour. Instead we walked back to the town of Helsingor, where we stopped for a drink at an Italian cafe in one of the town’s main streets. From bard to beer, Jacqui announced.

A day well spent.

The little master makes history

A legend? An icon? 

In India, he is God.

And on Friday, God made India very proud. Even the prime minister said so.

The nation of 1 billion-plus erupted in celebration as cricketer Sachin Tendulkar scored his 100th international century.

Never mind the unveiling of the budget Friday. It was all Sachin on Indian television. 

Never mind it was a workday. Companies probably suffered huge losses.

Twitter exploded with kudos for the batsmen known as the little master. As did Facebook. And Bollywood.

“God’s special creation .. Sachin Tendulkar !!” tweeted megastar Amitabh Bachchan.

Journalist Barkha Dutt weighed in with this:

“Nice to see a nation steeped in negativity and self flagellation finally breaking free from it all and actually feeling good. Thanks 
Tendulkar reached the elusive 100th international century against Bangladesh in an Asia Cup match in Dhaka.

“It hasn`t sunk in but I have definitely lost about 50kg,” he said afterward. 

He began playing at the age of 16 and thrilled cricket fans for 23 years. That in itself was a feat. His first century was at Old Trafford in 1990. Last year he reached 99 and Indians watched each subsequent match with high hopes. They pinned everything on the man with the demure stature, mop of wavy hair and uncanny swing of the bat. 

They waited and waited. There was even a joke about the a chunk of India’s car accidents happening because  drivers were trying to catch a Tendulkar make his 100th on a roadside stall television.

But today, Tendulkar made history. 

As my Facebook friend Rajiv Chatterjee said:

“I know his stats look great and I know he has achieved feats which will probably never be repeated again. But that is not the real reason. The real reason is that he has shouldered the dreams of a billion for 22 years which is more than what any mere mortal can. In a country where a lot of people cannot afford a square meal a day, he has represented hope of better times. Every time we had a lot of reasons to cry, he has given us something to smile about. Religion in India has more often than not divided people than unifying it. But one thing has always been common … both Ram’s mother as well as Rahim’s wanted their sons to be exactly like Sachin Tendulkar. Years later, I will really look forward to telling my grand children that yes, I have seen God with my own eyes…he used to bat at no. 4 for India!”

Homs Rules

Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez.

On this day in 1971, Hafez Assad became president of Syria. More than 30 years later, the world is witnessing tragedy unfold in Syria at the hands of Assad’s son. 

Bashar al-Assad, whom many had believed would bring reform to Syria, is turning out to be made of the stuff of his father.

Journalists like Tom Friedman and Robert Fisk saw firsthand the carnage the elder Assad was responsible for in Hama, where a 1982 Muslim Brotherhood-rebellion was quashed by shelling entire neighborhoods. 

Now, Bashar al-Assad’s forces are targeting cities like Homs and Idlib, where Syrians have risen up in mass against tyranny.

In 1982, there were no instant images posted on Twitter and YouTube, no clandestine interviews conducted on mobile phones or Skype. Friedman journeyed to Hama after the massacre and gave this account:

“It was stunning. Whole swaths of buildings had, indeed, been destroyed and then professionally steamrolled into parking lots the size of football fields. If you kicked the ground, you’d come up with scraps of clothing, a tattered book, a shoe.”

Later he wrote a book and gave the massacre a name: “Hama Rules.” That is, there were no rules at all. Hafez Assad plunged to new lows to retain power.

Amnesty International said as many as 20,000 Syrians were killed in Hama. I wonder how high the death toll will rise in the current conflict. When will it end? How long will Bashar al-Assad keep killing his own people?

I wish I were able to be there, to bear witness to acts that should not be happening in 2012. I do my best to tell the story on CNN.com with the reporting of brave network correspondents, producers and cameramen. But I fear we are dealing with “Homs Rules.” A different time, different people but a son that seems just as determined to crush his opponents as was his father.

Iran’s first Oscar

Perhaps I should have gone to see “The Artist” Saturday night. After all, it won the Oscar for best picture last night. But I saw “A Separation” instead.

It was an incredibly well-acted film dealing with a broken marriage that weaves trouble through the lives of ordinary people. It is about class divisions, family relationships, the power of religion and hope in every heart for a better life.

Only this film is Iranian. Set in Tehran, Westerners got a rare glimpse into the living rooms of Iranians dealing with the same kinds of problems we find at home, save the far-reaching tentacles of the Islamic regime.

Iranians stayed up late to watch the Oscars on illegal satellite feeds, enormously proud of the first Iranian film to win an Oscar (best foreign language film).

The timing could not have been better, I thought, as director Asghar Farhadi held up his golden statue. “At a time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics,” he said.

I read this morning that even Israelis were flocking to see “A Separation.” Iranians are their arch-enemies and bellicose talk of late has led to speculation that Israel may launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran to stop its nuclear progress.

But ultimately, Israelis saw in the movie Iranians who were just like themselves. That spoke volumes for the universality of “A Separation.” People everywhere ultimately cope with the same problems — the ones that make us not American or Israeli or Iranian, but the ones that make us human.

“A Separation” is not always easy to watch. It was especially hard for me to look at the scenes of a man stricken with Alzheimer’s. I could see my own Baba.

But if you have not seen this movie, go soon to a theater near you. Ayatollahs and nuclear bombs aside, Iran has delivered a rare gem.

“A Separation” supplies no answers and is subtitled: “The Truth Divides.” But Iran is a country that remains largely unknown to Americans. Farhadi’s film, I believe, takes a few of the veils off.

Journalism and courage

Marie Colvin lost an eye in Sri Lanka.
She was killed in Syria.

Today, journalists are mourning the deaths of two of their own.Marie Colvin of London’sSunday Times and French journalist Remi Olchik were killed Wednesday in thebesieged Syrian city of Homs.

Their deaths came a few days after we learnedNew York Times reporter Anthony Shadid died of an asthma attack, also in Syria.

Remi Olchlik was also killed in Homs.

They were courageous. Brave in the actionsthey took and even braver in what they told the world about atrocities andinjurites they witnessed firsthand.

They are worthy of headlines and deserving of tribute.

Chandrika Rai and his family were
 bludgeoned to death in India.

So are journalists of lesser name who put their lives on the lineevery day reporting from their own countries.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported this week thatIndian journalist Chandrika Rai , his wife and two teenage children werebludgeoned to death in their home in Umaria in the state of Madhya Pradesh.Rai, 42, worked for Hindi-language dailies and was investigating illegal coalmining in Umaria.

The committee quoted Shalabh Bhadoria, president of a MadhyaPradesh press freedoms group, who said that Rai’s death could be connected tothe kidnapping of a local official’s son. Rai apparently, had contradicted agovernment official’s claim that the two kidnapping suspects were not guilty.

The committee has asked for an investigation. Local journalistswore black arm bands this week in remembrance.

We hearof cases like Chandrika’s all too often. Journalists who go missing. Or are founddecapitated. 

Theytake enormous risks to tell the story. And unlike foreign journalists, localreporters do not have the luxury of “getting out” after they get thestory. They must remain in their communities and be ready to suffer theconsequences.

Kudos tomy colleagues across the world who take such risks every day of their lives.They are committed and passionate about what they do. On this awful day oftragedy, I salute them all.

Indianjournalist Barkha Dutt said on Twitter said this morning:  “For all those who sit at their computers& pass easy judgment Marie Colvins death in Syria grim reminder of courageneeded to go out there”

I secondthat thought.

A new Guiness record!

Thomas Oliver and Melissa Turner
were part of the record-setting crowd.

I just read that the Tybee Island polar bear plunge on New Year’s Day officially broke a Guinness World Record.

“Guinness World Record now credits the Jan. 1 event as the largest ever gathering of people wearing swim caps,” reported the Savannah Morning News. “In all, 2,049 New Year’s beach-goers sported caps for the event, which also served as a fundraiser for the Tybee Post Theater — whom Guinness lists as the official record holder.”

Congratulations to my friends Thomas Oliver, Melissa Turner and Jill Vejnoska for taking the plunge that day and sporting their swim caps.

I am thrilled I was on hand to witness such a historic event.

Cool hands

Christmas is not a tradition I grew up with in India.

But who cannot love opening presents on a cold morning in front of a fire? Especially when the gifts include a pair of tomato red woolen gloves that come complete with special forefinger and thumb fabric that allows for — what else — easy maneuvering of the iPhone.

I don’t have to take my gloves off to use my keyboard anymore. Joy!

Yes, my husband got me these gloves and yes, I love them.

Perhaps because I go to work in the darkness of the early morning — at 6 a.m. to be precise — and they come in most handy not just for checking email on my phone but also maneuvering the controls in my Mini.

Now I’ve got the whole world in my hands.

Time for reflection

I went with Georgia soldiers on a tour of the ruins at Ur, near Tallil Air Base in early 2006.
Spc. Jason Smith and me at Tallil. 

The Iraq war isofficially ended Thursday for the United States.
Almost nine years after America“shocked and awed” Baghdad and young men andwomen from Maine to Hawaii began dying on foreign soil, the war isover.
CNN, like other news outlets, covered the last days for U.S. troops in Iraq. One of the stories aired wasfrom Camp Adder, otherwise known as Tallil AirBase, where I spent many weeks in 2005 and 2006.
Photos of Georgia’s fallen at a memorial at Tallil.
It is deserted now. A ghost town. Sand bags returned to thedesert. Empty trailers. Abandoned medical equipment.

The last hot meal served there was on Thanksgiving Day. I rememberhow I hated walking down to the chow hall to eat. It was such a hike in windand chill. So long and lonely that I often skipped dinner. Ate Ramen noodles inmy trailer instead.

That trailer was home for me. I set it up the best I could,thankful to be out of a dusty tent, sleeping on a real mattress instead of anArmy cot. Thankful to be in a place that was relatively safe and free from therocket and mortar attacks I’d lived through on other bases.
The last laundry service at Tallil was last week. How many timesdid I turn in my olive green bag with my last name and last four of my social.Three days later, I’d get back my cargo pants and cotton shirts and if I waslucky, all my socks and underwear.

The PX is shuttered. The barber shop gone. Soon it will be hard to tell that the Americans were even here.
I was at Tallil with the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48thBrigade. At that time, there were other U.S. units stationed there, as wellas the Brits and the Italians. Everyone wanted to go eat at the Italian dininghall. They served Chianti.
I took to this Iraqi girl at a health center near Nasiriyah. She
 was one of many Iraqis I remembered as the U.S. war
formally came to an end Thursday.
Before the foreigners came, Saddam Hussein used Tallil for hiswarplanes. It was, unlike so many other U.S. camps that went up fromscratch, an established base with concrete buildings and paved roads.
Tallil, not far from Nasiriyah, was built in the shadows of the five-floorziggurat of Ur,the ancient Sumerian city that is also believed to be the birthplace ofAbraham.
The Mesopotamian wonder stood as reminder to the Americans of Iraq’sglorious past. It was so much more than the land of human misery they wereseeing.
I watched the  understatedflag-casing ceremony Thursday that marked the end of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
I helped write the CNN.com story and as I did, memories camerushing back. Of my first trip to Iraq under Saddam; of the sufferingI had seen over the years of American soldiers as well as the Iraqi people.
Those who spoke out about war’s end, including President Obama,said they hoped the sacrifices made in war would not be in vain – that Iraqwould now be able to forge ahead.
What happens next remains a question mark but for me, today was aday of reflection. I clicked through 6,511 photographs in my Iraq album iniPhoto. I saw the faces of friends and enemies.
I saw joy and sorrow. Hope and despair. Highs and lows. And all thatcomes with war.

Read the CNN story here:


Phoolpishi and Pishemashai on their 50th anniversary.

 I had just begin to cross the Atlantic yesterday when inCalifornia, my aunt lost her struggle with cancer.
I had hoped to return from India and be able to go visit her one more time. A deep sadness set in at the thought that I would never beable to see her again, hold her hand, share one last laugh.
She was my father’s youngest sister. My only other livingaunt, my Pishi in Kolkata, could barely stand to speak on the phone.

“Of us eight brothers and sisters,” she said in Bengali,“only four are still standing.”

A young Phoolpishi in Kolkata.

My eldest aunt died in the 1980s. Then, several yearslater, one of my father’s younger brothers died, quite suddenly. My fathersuffered from Alzeheimer’s for many years and was finally relieved of his agonyin 2001.

My aunt in California or Phoolpishi as I called her, wasdiagnosed with breast cancer a long time ago. She fought it and lived inremission for many years. She survived pneumonia in 2005, even after thedoctors warned my uncle and cousin Suman to prepare for the worst.
She was a fighter. Weak physically at times but steelyalways on the inside. So when we learned last July that her cancer had comeback, many of us believed she would get through this round, too.
But the prognosis was not good and somewhere deep inside,Phoolpishi knew her time on earth would end soon.
When I visited her in California, I sat on her bed forhours, talking about my childhood, our family and her only son, Suman.  She showed me the jewelry she hadinherited from her mother and her mother-in-law. She gave me two of her ownsaris, a gold necklace and one made from magenta Czech crystals.
“You will wear them, won’t you?” she asked.
“Of course, Phoolpishi,” I replied, not realizing then justhow precious they would become.
Suman and his son, Saraf, were the light of my aunt’slife. Her eyes brightened when we spoke of them. She worried for them. Whowould care for them if she was sick?
When Phoolpishi visited Suman in Washington or New York,she often stocked his refrigerator with home-cooked Bengali meals. When Ivisited her in 2006, she made chicken curry, even though she disliked chickenand wouldn’t eat it even if you paid her.
She insisted on wheeling herself into the kitchen
 to make payesh for me.

This last time, she insisted she make payesh for me. It’sa traditional dessert eaten on birthdays. My birthday was two weeks away stillbut Phoolpishi was adamant.

“I don’t know when I will be able to make you payeshagain,” she said.
She wheeled herself into the kitchen, and made the payeshwith vermicelli and a special molasses from Bengal. I ate three heaping bowlsbut she was disappointed.
“Bhalo hoyeni,” she said. It’s not good.
I hugged her and told her I couldn’t remember the lasttime anyone had made payesh for my birthday since my mother fell ill in 1982.
Phoolpishi holding me in
Kolkata, 1963

It was tough to leave California at the end of September.I knew then I would probably not see her well again. I knew I would probablylose another close connection to home; someone who strengthened my own roots;someone who had known me since I was born.

Now, on this bright winter day in Atlanta, I am sifting throughold-fashioned photo albums and remembering Phoolpishi.
With Saraf and Pishemashai  in 2005.

How she easily dozed off in a car as soon as it startedmoving – a trait shared by my father. How she loved to play bridge, as did myfather. How she shared with him another passion – Bengali mishtis or sweets.When Phoolpishi visited us in the 1980s in Florida, she and my father spenthours in the kitchen making sandesh and bhapa dahi.

Before they bought their flat in Kolkata, Phoolpishi andmy uncle, Pishemashai, stayed with my parents. My father was especially fond ofhis little sister and Phoolpishi was devastated when my father died. He hadspent several months with them in Concord during his illness.
It’s often in death that we think about how loved ones influence our lives. We sit and wish we had done more with them;spent more time; made a greater effort.
I visited her in September in California.

I am feeling all those things today. She was the only oneof my father’s generation who was in the United States. And yet, I saw her morewhen we both visited India together.

My grieving today is tinged with regret.  But I am thankful I was able to see herin September.
Before I left that Sunday morning for the BART station,she held my hand tight.
“I am very proud of you,” she told me.
And I, of you, Phoolpishi. Brave. Courageous. Generous. Kind.Inspiring.

You are free of your pain now. Free of the hard journey. Rest in peace.

A family photo taken in the early 1970s at my grandfather’s house in Kolkata. Phoolpishi is on the right on the front row. I am sitting in the middle of the front row. Suman is to my right.

Flying away

Fun in an English class with some of the 10th graders at Udaan.

In Hindi, udaan means flight. Like a bird flying off. Free to explore the world.

In my hometown of Kolkata, the Udaan Society is trying to help underpriveleged youth find that freedom through knowledge.

My childhood friend Vijay recently started a new weekend program at Udaan for students of all ages.

In a donated flat in Kolkata’s Alipur neighborhood, boys and girls and young men and women who live lives under India’s crushing poverty, find solace from the misery of their own homes within brightly lit rooms.

They are served lunch and encouraged to paint, dance, sing — activities they might not otherwise engage in their gloomy homes. Many don’t have both parents. Or their fathers are drug addicts. They come from uneducated families who are unable to teach them the importance of school.

The idea is to take them away from their environments to help provide a boost in their education. Teachers volunteer their time to help the students with math, English, business education.

With Saddam Hussein. I teased him about his name.

Vijay asked me to teach a few English classes there this time. Some were 5th and 6th graders. Others were high school students. All were eager to learn English, a vital language for good jobs in India.

I had found it extremely rewarding to teach last spring at the University of Georgia. Teaching at Udaan was something else.
I am posting a few photographs of some of the older students.

One told me he wanted to be an astronaut; another, an engineer.

The idea is to get the kids away from gloomy home environments.

I wish you well. And if any of you are reading this, remember always that you only get one chance in life to go to school in India. Please stick with it. So you, too, can take flight.

Fly away from that which you cannot control. Fly away from empty bellies and sickness. Fly way from the pain of poverty.
But most of all, never stop dreaming.

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