Wednesday, December 28, 2016

#MyFavouriteDays2016: Meeting Pax Populi's Robert McNulty

Robert McNulty on the campus of the Lukshmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara, India

Meeting Pax Populi founder Robert McNulty was one of my favourite days of the year. I have been a tutor with #PaxPopuli, a peacebuilding NGO, since October 2015. The platform has given me the opportunity to teach people from war-afflicted#Afghanistan and learn about its rich culture. Bob talked about his experience in education and public relations in #Indonesia and #USA and how he came up with this idea for people-to-people#peacebuilding. He talked about his family, his exposure to Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Gandhian principles and about his small town, Marblehead, where his family once owned the only cinema. Bob visited me in Vadodara, stayed with my family, delivered a speech at the #Yi The Business of#Peace session and travelled to #Ahmedabad with me to visit the #Gandhi Ashram on the banks of river Sabarmati. I fed him vegetarian Gujarati, Punjabi and South Indian foods. He loved the spices and drank 'regular' water and not bottled water. No fuss, great guy.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

My Christmas Speech for Students of Lincoln Learning Center, Kandahar, Afghanistan

Ahmad Shah Sayeedi, the director of the US-funded Lincoln Learning Center in Kandahar, Afghanistan, texted me with an unusual request: "Would you speak to the teens at the centre about Christmas through Skype?" I told him I would love to but since I could not be available on the allotted date for the interactive session, I could provide him with a video. He said that would be fine. I then asked him if there were any Christians in Afghanistan and whether the students had seen any Christmas celebrations. "Not likely," he replied. That posed a challenge for me. How do you explain to Muslim Afghan students what Christmas is about? I put forth the question to Asef, my Afghan student-friend in California, USA. His response was, "Christmas feast = Eid feast." This simple equation made it easier. I looked up the overlapping Biblical and Koranic references to Jesus's birth and the similarities between the Christian and Islamic festivals. I managed to put together a speech. If you'd like to hear me speak, please click here

The speech is below:

Salaam waleikum!



Merry Christmas to all of you in Kandahar!

My name is Eisha Sarkar and I am a writer, educator and designer based in India. I thank Ahmad for giving me this opportunity to share with you about Christmas.

First, I'll tell you the story about the birth of Jesus Christ or Isa as he's known in the Koran. Jesus was born in Bethlehem which is now in the West Bank in Palestine. When his parents Joseph and Mary arrived in the city from Nazareth in Israel, the inn or hotel had no room for them. They were offered the stable or manger, where Jesus was soon born. The angels saw that he was a divine child and told the shepherds the news of his birth. The shepherds spread it throughout the country. Three wise men followed the direction of a star and arrived to greet the baby with gifts of gold and incense. The star is known as the Star of Bethlehem.

This scene is described in a Christmas song. Christmas songs are called carols and they are sung in churches during the prayer services. I'll sing a few lines for you:

Away in the manger, no crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head
The stars in the heavens looked down where he lay
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes
I love you, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle until morning is nigh.

While Jesus's birth is celebrated on December 25th, many Christians start preparing for the celebrations 40 days before that. That period is called the Nativity Fast and is similar to the month of Ramazan. In the Eastern Orthodox Church in Greece, Turkey, Russia and eastern Europe, people fast by not eating red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, fish, oil and wine. In other churches like the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant and Anglican churches, the fast is observed differently. Not all Christians fast.

Christmas is a festival the family celebrates together. Christmas Day originally corresponded to the winter solstice or what is celebrated as Yalda in Iran and Afghanistan. The celebrations actually start with the Nativity Feast twelve days before December 25th. Like you have during Eid, there is a lot of shopping, gifting, cooking and feasting that happens during this festival. Christmas is celebrated not only by Christians but also by people of other communities all over the world. It's a public holiday in many countries, including India.

Millions of Christians gather in the middle of the night on December 24th or Christmas Eve to celebrate what is called the Midnight Mass. It's a prayer service. While in the whole year, no other event begins at midnight, Christians gather for the Midnight Mass because they have seen a great light in the birth of Jesus.

The next day, children wake up to gifts tucked under their pillows by Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a legendary figure in the West and is also called Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas. According to the story, he lives near the North Pole and brings gifts to people. He usually enters homes at night through chimneys, when everyone is asleep. He'll put the gifts in the stockings and socks children put up and under their pillows. It's usually a senior member of the family who plays the 'Santa' in a household. Santa Claus is always dressed in red.

Like Eid, the main focus of Christmas is eating and gifting. People forget each others' faults and celebrate together. In most of Europe and North America, people will chop off the top of a tree and bring it home to decorate with lights. It's called a Christmas Tree and they place gifts under it. In offices in India, there is a concept of secret Santa, where you buy a gift and write your name on it. Everyone in the office puts the gifts in a box and then everyone is allowed to pull out one gift for themselves. You may get a gift from someone you don't know. It's fun and encourages people to make new friends.

Christianity has been in India for about 2000 years and is celebrated in many different ways. In schools and colleges, there are Christmas parties where a teacher dresses up as Santa Claus and children sing, dance and eat. In the churches, the priests fast and pray till the Christmas Day feast. Cities are decorated with lights and bakeries make special cakes and delicacies. Everyone joins in the festivities, irrespective of their religion or race. The Christmas Day lunch is a big feast for the family. Traditional Christmas foods include roast meats, gingerbread, cakes, mousses, pies, wines and puddings. It's a lot like the feasts you have for Eid.

Christmas is a festival of love, friendship and bonding. It's about hope and light, of joyful giving.

I hope I have managed to convey a little about how Christmas is celebrated. I wish you all happy times and good luck for the New Year.

Thank you!

Friday, December 23, 2016

How can cross-cultural instruction and technology help create safety for the education of girls and young women?

In November, I received an invitation from Kirthi Jayakumar, founder, The Red Elephant Foundation, to be a part of an awareness campaign. Her email mentioned:

"The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign for the year 2016 was initiated and coordinated by Rutgers University. This campaign aims to build awareness about gender-based violence. Since 2013, The Red Elephant Foundation has actively supported the campaign and initiated various activities in line with the Annual Campaign theme. 

The theme of the campaign for this year is  “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All” We are putting together a series of videos from Educators who have worked with/ are working with vulnerable groups and share their experiences from the ground on how education can be made safe for all."

She asked me to record a three-to-five minute video on How can cross-cultural instruction and technology help create safety for the education of girls and young women? Since I was travelling and I tend to talk a lot, she obliged me to extend the length of the video.

Here's my speech:

Hello. My name is Eisha Sarkar and I am a writer, designer and educator based in Vadodara, India. There are three stories I would like to share:

The first story is about how my camera made a few tribal girls proud.

In 2012, I worked as the Documentation Consultant for UNICEF, Gujarat. It was a unique position in South Asia and my job was to document the success stories of UNICEF's intervention in education and early childhood education in seven tribal districts of Gujarat. Some of the villages I travelled to did not exist on Google map. Others were so deep inside the forest that their dwellers were unaware of the fact that India had attained Independence from the British. In those rural schools – often, single-room buildings – UNICEF's education consultants would try to convince villagers to send their children to school. Many villagers were hostile towards outsiders. Others would shun any talk of education. Some of these districts have missionary schools and tribal leaders fear that their children will be converted to Christianity if they send them to school. There have been instances of attacks on missionary institutions. Those were the challenges we faced.

In one village, we had organized a meeting of the village women and girls with the sarpanch. As I stepped out of the car with my DSLR camera around my neck, a notepad and pen in hand and a laptop bag, I watched 200 pairs of eyes turn towards me, “the outsider”. I did not speak any Gujarati and so had to rely on a translator to communicate with the villagers. Having lived in a cosmopolitan city all my life, I was surprised to find that all the 200 women and girls gathered there bore the same last name: Rathwa. An entire village of just one tribe! As UNICEF's education consultants demonstrated the kits and books, I started taking their pictures and scribbling notes. I still think that vision of me carrying a camera, speaking without hesitation to the male village elders and scribbling notes did more to advance the cause of women's empowerment and girl child education, than any of the talks that followed.

Some of the boys had never seen a technology more complex than a Nokia cellphone. I offered them my camera to take pictures. The girls were shy. I coaxed them to hold the camera and press the click buttons. They giggled as they clicked. I told them they had done a better job than the boys and they smiled with pride.

Girls excited to see my camera in Bordha village,Pavi Jetpur

My next story is about how Sanskrit is helping rural women progress.

The reasons why many tribal families in east and south Gujarat don't send their girls to school vary from early marriages, menstruation taboos, to lack of toilets to a general apathy towards education. Eight years ago, I drove over to a very small town called Kalol in the Panchmahal district of Gujarat. I found that the women's college there ranked second in the state in the stream of Sanskrit. An ancient Indian language, Sanskrit is hardly used in India today. I asked the principal why they ran BA Sanskrit courses. He told me that the tribals would never send their girls to college to study commerce or sociology or even Gujarati. But Sanskrit, because it's the language of the Hindu religious texts, was different. The girls came to college to study Sanskrit, a language their parents would never have had the chance to learn. It's not a part of tribal culture. The college would offer them side courses in English and computers. After earning their degrees, the young women would get jobs as Sanskrit teachers in schools in neighbouring towns and villages. This cross-cultural instruction in a local college has boosted women's literacy in a 'backward' district of the state.

My third story is about sanitary napkins

In 2015, I met an enterprising couple – Shyam and Swati Bedekar. They run an organization called Vatsalya Foundation, which, among other things, helps set up sanitary napkin-manufacturing units in rural homes. Swati, a teacher by profession, noticed how girls in tribal areas skipped school at the time of their menses. Within homes, they were forced into isolation for those five days a month. They had no access to sanitary napkins (the ones in the market were too expensive) and used old rags, newspapers, ash, mud, etc, during their periods. Naturally, the incidence of infection was very high. It took years of research for Swati and Shyam to come up with a viable solution: a low-cost eco-friendly sanitary pad that could be incinerated without creating any hazardous by-products. While initially they started sourcing and distributing the pads, the couple realized the only way they could keep costs down is by creating manufacturing set-ups in people's homes. Shyam invented a machine that would be easy to operate in a small room. Thus started Sakhi, an organization run by women that creates low-cost eco-friendly sanitary napkins. Rural women, many of them illiterate, run it like a business. I have met some of them. A few years ago, they would not even utter a word in front of their husbands. Today, they are comfortable walking up to a manager to open a bank account. A single unit in a village makes a lot of difference. Watching their mothers make the pads, encourages the girls to use them and makes them more hygiene-conscious. The women are able to financially support their husbands and girls no longer drop out of school citing menstruation as the reason.

With their awards: Swati and Shyam Bedekar with their team of Sakhi

These three stories show how technology and cultural instruction have been used by local institutions and people to create safety for the education of girls and young women – safety, by trying to change the patriarchal mindset that sees women as little more than chattel, safety, by giving them the opportunity to learn something their parents value a lot but could never do in their lifetimes, safety, by bringing a hygienic solution to a social problem.

We often think of cross-cultural interaction as something that happens across the boundaries of nations and religions. But it really is something that could be in your own backyard. The places I have described in this story are within a 70 Km radius from my house in Vadodara, which is a medium-sized city. Those 70 kilometres make a difference between whether I go to one of the best universities in this country or I get a chance to go to school at all. It's the difference between the choice of courses and careers I have and the right to exercise any choice at all. Those 70 kilometres connect the 21st century with 19th century mindsets. It's this conflict between the past and the present that has killed more dreams than any war waged on this planet. And it's this conflict that only education can resolve.

Thank you.

If you would like to hear me talk, click on this link

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Why Bollywood heroes now have hairless chests

When Shah Rukh Khan entered the film industry in the early 1990s, I remember how established actors and film critics joked about his hairless chest in their magazine interviews and columns. As he rose to become the 'king of Bollywood', those very same actors started shaving and waxing their chests. Abhishek Bachchan once said, "My mother said never trust a man without chest hair." Today, hairless torsos are the norm in Bollywood and Bachchan's been out of the limelight for a while.

All the things I hear about South Asian men!!!

My fellow writer and educator, Chintan Girish Modi, invited me for a #genderpeacechat he was moderating on Twitter. We started discussing male stereotypes and it led me to jog down memory lane to pull out interesting things I have heard through all these years about South Asian men:

  • Why do all Indian men wear moustaches?
  • Indian men are lecherous and rude
  • Pakistani men are tall and fair
  • If he's Afghan he must be good-looking
  • Gujarati men are pansy
  • Most Indian men are mamma's boys
  • Sri Lankan men have large eyes. Look at Muralitharan when he bowls
  • South Asian men are not athletic
  • Indian men have round bellies
  • What do you think of an Afghan man?
  • Is it safe to talk to Afghan men?
  • If he's Pakistani, he has to like cricket
  • Bengali men are lazy
  • Punjabi men are so loud
  • South Asian men can't hold their drink
  • If he's Muslim, he has to be very conservative
  • Indian men don't cook
  • In our college, there were males and non-males
  • IT guy will be boring
  • If he's good-looking, he must be gay
  • He's fashion-conscious, he must be gay
  • How does he manage to patao (loosely, attract) so many girls?
  • Pakistani men are hot
  • He's too fair. He hardly looks like a South Indian
  • These guys from the North East look very smart and dress better
  • White people have chest hair too but because it's blonde it doesn't show and they needn't wax. Indian men have dark chest hair. They need to wax.
  • Never trust a man without chest hair
  • He doesn't have chest hair, he's effeminate
  • Boys mature slowly so you need a man at least five years older than you to match your wavelength
  • Bengali men are so opinionated
  • Indian men have big egos
  • Bengali men don't dance
  • Bengali men know their music and books
  • Gujarati men don't join the army. It's not our tradition
  • If he's Sardar, he must drink a lot
  • Tamil boys are good at maths

Friday, December 16, 2016

Pax Populi's Robert McNulty on Mahatma Gandhi and People-to-People Peacebuilding

“What can we do to respond to the challenge of unending war and pervasive terrorism? The most important thing is to recognize, as Gandhi did, that we are not powerless and that each and every one of us can act for the common good and join with others in a global struggle for peace… Gandhi was a master of people-to-people peacebuilding, but who were the people who followed him? Like us, they were ordinary people, with busy lives, who could ill-afford to put their lives on hold to work for social change. And yet they did. The stopped and they acted. And through their actions, they reminded us that change must begin with ourselves and our willingness to fight for a common goal.

The road to people-to-people peacebuilding starts with the simple commitment found in these three words, “I will try.” When we commit ourselves to try to be a peacebuilder, we will almost certainly have mixed results. There is value in act of trying, but conflicts will not suddenly disappear. And so our efforts may seem to be failures. But we try again, and it is that commitment to try and try again that is the crucial first step in being an agent for positive social change. That simple commitment to try is at the heart of Pax Populi’s people-to-people peacebuilding program.”

– Professor Robert McNulty, Founder, Pax Populi, at the Yi-CII The Business of Peace session in Vadodara, India, on October 22, 2016

Robert McNulty is a member of the Steering Committee of the UN Global Compact Business For Peace initiative. He is also the Director of Programs at the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University in Massachusetts, USA. Bob has also taught at Columbia University and State University New York at New Paltz. As part of his Business for Peace work at Bentley University, over several years, he has brought to Bentley scholars from universities in conflict zones to discuss how business and education can serve as a force for peace. Those scholars came from Afghanistan, Iraq, India and Pakistan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and four of the “Arab Spring” countries, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco. Bob has had a distinguished career in international business, specializing in the application of strategic communications to assist countries in their economic development efforts. He has lived in France, Taiwan, Indonesia and Singapore. Bob is the Founder and Executive Director the NGO Applied Ethics, Inc, which hosts the online school called Pax Populi Academy. Tutors from all over the world teach students in war-torn Afghanistan in the academy's virtual classrooms. There are quite a few teachers from India as well. Bob believes in the power of the individual to advance the process of peacebuilding. He will be speaking about "Peacebuilding in Troubled Times: Unleashing the Power of Business and Ordinary People."

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


A gelded horse
A kilted knight
A statue in bronze:
Quite a sight!

A woman enraged
Her hair disheveled
A painter's effort,
That she looks insane

A child's silhouette
A picture of melancholy
A thousand words unspoken
A chiliad of memories

A group of schoolkids
Stop by a coy bride
In bright red and gold:
An ancient tempera

Their giggles and chatter:
A buzz in the gallery:
An onomatopoeia!
A sense of disorder

A guide rushes soon
Quietens the lot
Chaperones them to
Another corridor

I follow them quietly,
My eyes glance upwards:
A mesmerizing fresco:
Maybe Michaelangelo's

It seems so unreal
My eyelids flicker
I pinch myself:
The hurt's real

A gallery of histories,
Of famous artists,
Of many worlds,
Ancients and antiques

I watch the schoolkids
Draw from the paintings
Scribbled sketches on paper
Moments etched in memory.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Where's the Meat?

How does a staunch non-vegetarian adjust to living in a strictly vegetarian joint family?

Eisha Sarkar | Posted on Bonobology 03 Oct 2016

Diary entry, 3rd to 5th March 2007, Vadodara, Gujarat:
“I am surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes in various hues. It’s Holi. I have covered huge rallies in Mumbai but never had I imagined that 40 people could make as much noise as a thousand. It’s all Gujarati. I don’t understand. Rachit told me he lives with his parents and Ba (grandmother) and his sister is visiting from Ahmedabad before she heads to the US. But there are 40 people here! I shouldn’t have come alone. Who comes alone to meet her prospective groom’s family? And the food’s all fried, all carbs, all veg!”
We have been married for eight years and this diary entry still makes me wonder how I ever agreed to the marriage. I am Bengali (just in name) and spent my younger years in New Delhi, Pune and Mumbai. My circle of friends includes people of various nationalities, many who have lived in the Middle East. Rachit’s father is a businessman and prominent member of the Nagar Brahmin Gujarati community in Vadodara. They are a tight-knit community who have their own set of rituals and traditions and everyone is related to everyone else. Though he spent his first 21 years in Gujarat, thanks to his parents who are Rotarians and his passion for tennis, Rachit travelled outside the state and country and was exposed to people of various customs and habits. In spite of that, he had not met anyone as staunchly non-vegetarian as I am.
During our dates in Mumbai, Rachit would dig into a chicken dish I ordered. He told me that he eats chicken, seafood and eggs ‘outside’. “No non-veg at home.” When we brought up the subject of getting married, his father told me, “We don’t cook non-veg at home. You should be OK with that.” I looked at Rachit and said, “Yes, I know.”
Two days after our wedding, I sat at the breakfast table. Upma, it was. I have never liked it and each time I try, I dislike it more. The house was teeming with relatives who were devouring platefuls. Rachit suggested I could have a slice of bread or cornflakes if I wished and so I did. Then came lunch: Peculiar green stalks. I had never seen them before. “Guvar,” Rachit offered. I tasted two pieces and washed the bitter aftertaste down with two glasses of chhaas (buttermilk). Later, my mother told me over the phone, “The reason you haven’t seen it on our table is because in Bengal it is used only as buffalo-feed.”
At dinner, my mother-in-law expectantly handed me a bowl of spiced potatoes. I swallowed them without saying anything. Later, I told Rachit, “I hate potatoes, even as wafers.” He was alarmed. “My mother believes that even people who don't like any of the vegetables will mostly like potatoes. What vegetables do you eat?” I replied, “Hmm... veggies... raw... preferably as salads. No frying, steaming, boiling, cooking.... Give me carrots, peas, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, mushrooms, olives, capsicum, cabbage, cucumbers, etc.”
My father-in-law was worried. He called my mother. “You keep whatever has been cooked on the table and Eisha will pick whatever she wants to eat. She has always been fussy about vegetables,” my mother advised. I ate what I could and lost seven kilos in three months. When someone enquired what the new ‘bahu’ had cooked, my mother-in-law would say, “She’s still figuring out her vegetables and how to eat them. We’ll keep the cooking for later.”
Once a week, Rachit and I would go out for dinner, where I would stuff myself with chicken, fish and meat. I could eat! I would panic if we did not go out to eat on weekends, even cry. Our extended circle of friends, relatives and acquaintances are mostly vegetarian. Even talking about meat with them is sometimes taboo. To have my experience of dining out with non-vegetarian friends, I visited Mumbai every month. I took up projects in Ahmedabad so that I could keep travelling to the city for a lunch of the most delicious mutton biryani it offers.
Then one day, I was sick. My comfort food was chicken soup and I could not make it at home. Rachit offered to take me to a restaurant. As I was walking out of the door, burning with fever, my father-in-law asked me where I was going. “For chicken soup, to a restaurant,” I whispered. “Why don’t you order it here?” I shook my head in disbelief and headed out.
The next day, after dinner, Ba (grandmother-in-law) said, “We are vegetarians. I was born in a family that did not eat even onion and garlic. I married into a family that did and have slowly got used to their smells. I still don’t eat them but the rest of the family does. When your mother-in-law came into this house, she introduced eggs here. The children were playing sport and they needed nourishment. You come from a different culture and have fit into our family very well. I do not want you to go hungry because you can’t eat what you like. You may bring whatever you want into the house. My only request is to not cook in the kitchen because I have my puja room there. You can set up your oven, etc. in the hall upstairs.”
I could not believe my ears. I looked from my father-in-law to my mother-in-law and then at Rachit and grinned like an idiot.

When I was Little

When I was little
I was told not to cry
My voice, stifled
When I was little
A stranger's help:
A dubious motive
When I was little
I believed in fairies
But not humans
When I was little
A gesture of love:
Hard to imagine
When I was little
I trusted trees:
Old, tall and strong
When I was little
I told birds and dogs,
My stories of pain
When I was little
I saw a fence,
Long and strong
When I was little
I dreamed a dream:
Crossed the fence
When I was little
I learned to love
Myself once again

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

I am a writer but I did not read storybooks

I never liked to read storybooks when I was in school. My mom, my grandparents and my teachers would coax me to read to improve my English vocabulary but read I did not. Instead, I spent a great part of my childhood in libraries looking at shelves of books that were 'not meant for children'. I loved reading newspapers and magazines. However, I felt guilty for not wanting to read the Enid Blytons, Nancy Drews, Agatha Christies or Hardy Boys that were part of my friends' and brother's childhoods. Through my college years, I spent a great part of my time in the libraries sifting through books of history, geography, sciences, languages, biographies, etc. I'd go to the library at Mumbai's St Xavier's College during the Diwali vacation only because they would clean the rare books at that time. I volunteered to help once and got a chance to read a paper by Charles Darwin published in Nature magazine in 1900. Another time, I dusted the Latin books that were in a corner cupboard of the library's Honours' section. I grew to love books that talked about real people and real worlds. I now have people coming to me with complaints that their kids don't read storybooks. I tell them, "I never did and still don't do. Maybe you should let them read anything they want to read and not just fantasy."