Friday, February 26, 2016

Of Fate and Destiny

By Eisha Sarkar

Posted on Pax Populi on 25 February, 2016 

The ability to be the most hopeful in the most abysmal circumstances is a character of the human spirit. Since the beginning of my engagement with Pax Populi I have been very surprised at Muhammad Qasem Jami's optimism. Here is a man, who has grown up in a country ravaged by four decades of war and under the severe oppression of the Taliban, now working hard to feed and educate his ten siblings, talking about the beauty and poetry of Afghanistan!

Despite a high-pressure job and many volunteer engagements through the week, Jami has the time to outline his vision for the future of Afghanistan. “It's getting better slowly. One day, it will be very good.” I asked him if his friends and students share the same vision. “Well, unfortunately, and you can't blame them for feeling that way, the youth in Afghanistan feel very demotivated. They start something but when it does not work out they just give up. They've seen their parents do that again and again and again. I keep telling them that you have to keep trying: trying for a good job, trying to earn more money, trying to educate more people and trying to get peace.”

With all this talk of future I asked him what he thought of taqdeer, the Urdu word which means destiny. “In Farsi, taqdeer means fate, sarnawisht means destiny,” he pointed out. Since my knowledge of Urdu is limited to just the colloquial, I chose to go with my human Farsi-Dari dictionary. “I believe in taqdeer because of which you and I have met but a man can make his own destiny,” Jami said. So what destiny did he want to make? “Because of the war and human rights issues, people here are not proud to call themselves Afghan. When I was in Bangalore in India and I told people that I am from Afghanistan, they asked me where my turban was. I told them I don't wear a turban. They were surprised. This perception intimidated some of my fellow Afghan exchange students. We were a very proud race. I want Afghanistan to become a country we all are very proud of. I want it to have the best leaders and the best education system in the world.”

Tears in the Veil is now available on Amazon

Finally, Peshawar-based artist-writer Nahid Walizadda's Tears in the Veil edited by Kirthi Jayakumar and me is available on Amazon Kindle. The book contains powerful poetry and stunning artwork by Nahid interspersed with real stories of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the first time I have collaborated with someone from Pakistan for an editorial venture (for coffees and sushi I still stick with my pal, Sonal Singh Rathore). I also designed the book's cover using two of Nahid's sketches. At such a young age, Nahid, as an Afghan refugee, has faced many challenges to get the education she deserves. Do encourage her by reading her book. 

Monday, February 22, 2016


One thing I am very proud of is my tenure at Downtown Plus between 2005-07. DTP, as we called it, was the South Mumbai supplement of The Times of India in Mumbai. What I am even more proud of is that we were part of the team that coined the term SoBo for South Bombay. It started as a space-saving editorial decision and now it has become a brand of sorts, with even a mall at Haji Ali being named SoBo Central. I love SoBo and I am a snob. Here's my arty tribute to 'town'.

Cover Design: Tears in the Veil

For the last two months, my fellow Pax Populi member, Kirthi Jayakumar and I have been editing a book written by Nahid Walizadda, an Afghan refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan. Nahid's a fantastic artist and her poetry is powerful. I wanted to do something with her art so when she asked me to suggest a book title, I also told her I would be happy to design the cover. After many emails and chat conversations on Facebook, I came up with the title, Tears in the Veil. Nahid had a piece of art to go with it. Here's the cover I designed for her: 

Mother Language?

It's International Mother Language Day and once again I am confused. I was born in Patna where five languages/dialects were spoken at home: English, Bengali, Hindi, Bhojpuri and Magadhi. I spent my first seven years in New Delhi where I first learned Hindi and then picked up a smattering of Bengali, Punjabi and English. In Pune, my Anglo-Indian school made it compulsory to learn the Queen's English and the local language, Marathi. My brother and I started speaking to each other only in English. Through my college years in Mumbai, I picked up the local Mumbaiyya Hindi (much to my parents' dismay) and a few Arabic words from my Gulfie pals. Through journalism, I developed a liking for Urdu, Marathi, Tamil and Persian, while I wrote English. I married a Gujarati, moved to Vadodara, and learned the differences between Gujarati, Kathiawadi and Kutchi dialects and became a student of Ashwini Milind Pradhan to learn German. In Brisbane, I learnt a bit of Australian English and borrowed a few words from Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Sinhalese, Japanese, Afrikaans, Dutch, Arabic and Farsi. Back in India, I think and talk English, discuss the differences between Farsi, Urdu, Dari and Hindi with Muhammad Qasem Jami and am trying to pick up the Peshawari Pushtu dialect from my friends there. With my beloved granny-in-law, I speak Kathiawadi and with my mother, I speak English. I just realised that my supposed mother-tongue, Bengali, I haven't spoken much in all my life.

Afghan Church, Mumbai

The Church of St John the Evangelist is a landmark that's hard to miss in Colaba, Mumbai. It was built to commemorate the soldiers who died in the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1842. I had never bern able to get a look inside the church but this time, I was lucky to find some beautiful calligraphy in English and fabulous stained glass windows.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

With love from Australia

By Eisha Sarkar
Published on Pax Populi on 10  February 2016

The predicament of a refugee in the land where he/she is seeking asylum can hardly be described in words. You've left everything you've ever known and created behind and taken a perilous journey with hundreds, thousands or millions of other people to a land which gives you hope for a better future and a chance to create a home again. But before that, you must answer questions:

“Who are you? Where did you come from? Why did you come here? How did you come here? Who helped you? How did you pay for this? How many of you are here? Are you sure you had to flee? What if we refuse? Will you go back? What will you do here? Do you even have a degree? ...”

The questions don't stop. And so you keep answering to people: immigration authorities, the police, the authorities at the detention centre, friends, peers, neighbours, colleagues (if you've managed to find some temporary job), lawyers, activists, UN representatives, journalists, teachers, principals and so on. You're tired, but you have to do everything you can to assimilate into a new culture. You start by learning the language. And that's no easy job.

In 2014, I met Zoya (name changed to protect identity). She helped out at the cafeteria of a church in Brisbane, which was helping her with the process of getting asylum in Australia and also giving her a chance to learn English. Zoya, originally from Tehran, Iran, had been in Australia for a little more than a year. She was sweet to talk to but since I had almost no knowledge of Farsi and she knew little English, our conversations were limited to, “Hello! How are you?”

Then one day I saw her in the library pulling books off a shelf. I asked her what she was up to. She told me she had enrolled into a teaching assistant course at one of Brisbane's vocational institutes. The course was in English so she was looking for some books that would help her. I noticed she had accidentally picked a Farsi-to-Spanish dictionary. I pointed it out to her. “Oh, but the letters look the same as English!” I told her, “Yes, the letters are the same but the language is different. Let me know if you need help with your assignments.” With that, I left.

One Friday evening, I received an SMS from an unknown number. “Hi Eisha, this is Zoya, you told me you would help me with my assignment. Can we meet on Sunday at the library?”

We met. While her conversational English had improved, Zoya hadn't realised she would have to turn in long written assignments to earn the certificate. It took us three days of eight-hour-shifts to complete those assignments. She would try to communicate with me her experience of working as an intern at a school in Brisbane as best as she could in the most descriptive manner and I would translate it into English that she would be able to use in formal writing. When she would not understand a word in English, she would look up the English-to-Farsi (Persian) dictionary on her phone. It was tedious and would have been easier if I would have written those assignments for her. But I really wanted her to learn how to express herself in English in a formal space.

A month later, she got a job as a teacher-aide in Brisbane's best state school. I couldn't be more proud.

I moved back to India and joined Pax Populi to teach Afghans English. My student, Muhammad Qasem Jami, from Herat in Afghanistan has been a delight to work with and been instrumental in helping me improve my knowledge of Persian and Dari language, music and literature. I started posting about our interactions on Facebook and found Zoya to be commenting frequently. Once, I posted about Skyping with Jami's five sisters. Zoya commented in Farsi. I replied to her, “I cannot read Farsi. Can you please translate?” Then Jami responded to her in Farsi as well. I begged them to translate. Jami obliged, “Zoya has written to me: Salaam Qasem jan, I am very proud of you. This girl is extraordinary. She helped me in Australia through a teaching assistant course. I wish you lots of luck!” His response to it was: “Salaam! I agree. Thank you!” I wasn't able to wipe that smile off my face.   

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Conversations with Salma: Part 1

As a part of a peace initiative, I've been introduced to some very dynamic people from across South Asia. One such person is Salma Noureen from Charsadda in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Salma and I share our love for Chemistry, music, languages, literature, food, education and travel. She calls me "octopus" (because of my multi-faceted personality and not my hair, she says) and I call her "my gypsy girl". We both have a sense of humour and our conversations are filled more with giggles than words. This series, Conversations with Salma, captures the essence of our chats. 


Me: Have you heard of Chetan Bhagat?
Salma: Yes. I bought his book and then my Indian friend told me not to read it.
Me: Read it. Mr Bhagat can be entertaining.
Salma: Really? My friend was so against the idea. 
Me: He's India's bestselling author, not the best author. But when a man makes tons of money writing trash, I do want to read it.
Salma: You're brutally practical
Me: (thinking) Thank heavens she didn't say, "You're practically a brute." (No offence meant to my four-legged friends).


Salma: I want to see you. I want to know what you look like.
Me: Hum insaan ke tarah hi dikhte hain (I look like a human being.)
Salma: But I want to know whether your hair is curly or straight.
Me: It sometimes looks like a telephone cord and sometimes like noodles
Salma: So your hair's curly! 
Me: Yes
Salma: Not many people have curly hair. It's rare. You're rare.


Salma: Bollywood films are so nonsensical. My impression of India was because of Bollywood. Thankfully, it has changed after I met some of you. I wonder why they make films like that. No story. Nothing is real.
Me: In India, cinema is sometimes the only form of entertainment a poor man can afford. The makers of films have always taken that into account. You may wonder why we make movies with four songs, three action sequences and a love story woven in. That's because it gives the chance to a viewer, no matter how poor he is, to escape into a world of make-belief for three hours. That said, Bollywood isn't the only cinema India makes. We make over 834 movies a year. Only a percentage of that is Bollywood. We have a lot of very sensible cinema as well in many languages.
Salma: I don't think anyone has ever explained this to me so nicely.
Me: (grinning)

Salma: All my Indian friends are vegetarian. I was surprised when I saw your Facebook updates about mutton and chicken. My Indian friends can't even mention eggs at home.
Me: Some Indians don't eat eggs. Some Indians eat anything that moves. I belong to the latter.
Salma: Awesome! We should have dinner together.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Coloured: Sketch pens on paper


Oh all this talk:

The TV shows

Constant chatter

That nobody knows.

Tolerably intolerant

Intolerably tolerant

Words and voices

Test my patience.

This land of wonders

Races and colours

Resplendent greens

Woven histories.

This human greed

The lust for power

A violent mob

Listens no further.

It descends upon

An object or being

Clubs and torches

Reduce it to ashes.

Racist remarks

Acid comments

Fears and questions

Beaten to submission.

The media frenzy

Opinionated celebrities

Prime-time debates:

Shouting matches.

As voices turn hoarse

And cameras shy away

Under those ashes:

Smothered humanity.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Around the world in 60 minutes

By Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Pax Populi on 2 February 2016

When you engage with your student everyday through Facebook, the Pax Populi Academy website, Whatsapp and emails, you sometimes forget that you are a part of a larger community of peace-builders across the world. Then suddenly there is an email and you reply to it. In less than a week, you’ve got a chain of 55 emails in your inbox.
One morning, Pax Populi’s founder, Bob (we call Robert McNulty by this name) opened his inbox after a break of a couple of days. He was surprised and overwhelmed. In order to bring all the tutors and coordinators together to ideate and discuss their individual problems and save us from flooded inboxes, Bob asked us to join the Pax Populi group on Slack, a Whatsapp-like messaging software for teams who mean serious business. And boy, were we serious!
The 10 channels we set up were buzzing with chats, opinions, ideas and questions. Frank Fucile, our go-to guy for all kinds of technical issues patiently responded to our queries about e-libraries, integration with video-conferencing. Bhakti Gala, who holds a PhD in Library Science, started working with Frank to get more resources into the Pax Populi Academy library.
We talked about events, social media, blogs, tutorials, courses and languages. Didem Ekici, the International Coordinator of Pax Populi, then came up with the idea of conducting a meeting. It took us about a week to agree upon the time and date, no mean task when you’re looking at people from USA, Canada, Afghanistan, India and South Korea. Bob decided to try out GoToMeeting. That’s the thing about Pax Populi – we try new stuff every time.
On 30 January at 8.30 am India time, I logged in through my phone to join the meeting. Poor internet connectivity during peak internet hours in India meant that the phone was the only way I could join the network. Some of my unlucky teammates from India and Afghanistan were forced to miss the meeting because of technical issues. However, it was nice to hear the voices of people who made it to the meeting and see some of them (not all our webcams were working).
We introduced ourselves. Bob talked about Pax Populi, Frank about his experience in designing e-learning systems, Didem about her work with Pax Populi over the last couple of years, Jason Round about teaching English to children in the Czech Republic and South Korea and his interaction with the oldest student at Pax Populi (a 50-year-old man from Kandahar) and Anand Balar about his experience of teaching Aslam Watanyar from Kandahar and coordinating Pax Populi’s tutors at Purdue University.
Bhakti shared her experience in developing library resources and I talked about mine in teaching and writing in India and Australia. The proud moment for me was when my student, Muhammad Qasem Jami from Herat introduced himself in flawless English. 
After the hour-long meeting, I asked Jami, “How many English accents did you recognise?” “A variety of British, American, Indian and Afghan-American. It is so good to listen to different accents and understand them all. It is lovely for me to be part of such a great community,” he said. “And you represented your country at an international meeting!” “Wow! I am tempted to tell the whole of Afghanistan about it.” And sure he did, with a Facebook update!