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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The most complicated word in English is only three letters long and has 645 meanings

Imagine you’re a dictionary editor. For eight hours a day, five days a week, every week until the heat death of the universe or the day human beings stop speaking English (whichever comes first), it’s your job to ensure that your trusted reference book keeps pace with the relentlessly evolving definitions of our ceaselessly expanding English language. “No sweat,” you think, picking up two boxes of citations for words beginning with the letter R. “Where do I start?” That’s when you realize these boxes of citations, hundreds of scraps of paper showing each word in every possible context, are all for a single word. A three-letter word—the most complicated, multifaceted word in the English language. (These words mean the exact opposite of what you think.)

You might think it’s absurd (and maybe it is), but Oxford English Dictionary editors recently revealed that “run” has indeed become the single word with the most potential meanings in all of English, boasting no fewer than 645 different usage cases for the verb form alone. The copious definitions of “run” featured in the OED’s upcoming third edition begin with the obvious, “to go with quick steps on alternate feet,” then proceed to run on for 75 columns of type. This entry, in all its girth, took one professional lexicographer nine months of research to complete. How could three little letters be responsible for so much meaning?


Context is everything. Think about it: When you run a fever, for example, those three letters have a very different meaning than when you run a bath to treat it, or when your bathwater subsequently runs over and drenches your cotton bath runner, forcing you to run out to the store and buy a new one. There, you run up a bill of $85 because besides a rug and some cold medicine, you also need some thread to fix the run in your stockings and some tissue for your runny nose and a carton of milk because you’ve run through your supply at home, and all this makes dread run through your soul because your value-club membership runs out at the end of the month and you’ve already run over your budget on last week’s grocery run when you ran over a nail in the parking lot and now your car won’t even run properly because whatever idiot runs that Walmart apparently lets his custodial staff run amok and you know you’re letting your inner monologue run on and on but, God—you’d do things differently if you ran the world. Maybe you should run for office. (While you’re at, try using some of these words to sound smarter.)

It bears mentioning that “run” didn’t always have the run of the dictionary. When the OED’s first edition came out in 1928 (after 70 years of editorial research), the longest entry belonged to another three-letter juggernaut: “set.” Even today, the print edition of the OED contains some 200 meanings, beginning with “put, lay, or stand (something) in a specified place or position,” and continuing on for about 32 pages.

So what happened? Why is “run” suddenly the Swiss Army Knife of verbs? British author Simon Winchester fancies it “a feature of our more energetic and frantic times,” making words like “set” seem almost stodgy and passive by comparison. ‘Run’ appears to have earned some major lift during the boom of the Industrial Revolution, when all manner of mechanized innovation adopted it as their verb of choice. “Machines run, clocks run, computers run—there are all of those [meanings] which began in the middle of the 19th century,” Winchester says.

So, ready to run through the whole list of definitions? Alas, to read all 645 meanings you’ll have to wait for the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The print run is expected in 2037.

(Source: Reader's Digest)

Monday, 19 June 2017

I would never want a husband like Ram, he was far from the ‘Maryada Purushottam’!

A huge amount of literature and opinions have come up in reference to Sita, her plight, and Ram’s action’s against her. It is thus not a new facet to us when I say that when Ram kicked Sita out, he lost the right to be called the ideal husband. And then there are other statements, if Sita were not kidnapped then Ramayan wouldn’t have happened and Ravan could not have been killed. That even when Ram sent Sita to exile, and eventually to her death, he pined for her and never married again. Then there is this, an excerpt of an article I read online:

“She is not just a daughter, wife and mother. She is also a sage. She quietly watches the toll that cultural rules and values take on her husband…and ends up playing the ultimate victim…observes how people judge her silence as weakness, not the patient and affectionate acceptance of people’s shortcomings that stems from her confidence that they need her, while she does not really need them. Sita hears her husband and herself and realizes Ram is Vishnu, the dependable God, while she is Lakshmi, the independent Goddess. She has the capacity to bear the burden of all consequences. She is like the earth from which Janaka ploughed her out.”

[Here’s a link to the full article ]

What did I see in the article that infuriated me to no ends? Once again I saw the same story repeated again, a woman as a damsel in distress.

The above article and many others like it attempt to portray Sita as a woman who was not weak, who did what she did for the greater good, but for how long can we hide the victimization of women underneath this pretext of the greater good? And who’s greater good are we talking about? People who did not think twice before calling her unfaithful. People today who don’t take a second to blame women for the monstrosities of society itself. Why should a woman take a fall for them? Why should a woman be blamed for trying to feed a sadhu when she had no clue who he truly was. And rather than blame and correct the world which pretends to be something other than what it is we resort to blame the woman, we resort to blame Sita.


Who is Sita? Sita is Lakshmi, she is no ‘ordinary woman’, but she is. Even after being a form of Adi Shakti, the primordial energy herself, she sits at Vishnu’s feet. Lakshmi has no limits of power. But when Sita sits in Ashok Vatika, she does not run away. She just waits so Ram can come kill Ravan and rescue her. But does anyone of you realise what Valmiki did? He sent a very clear message through his ‘epic’. Sita is nothing but a means to an end. That is what women have become over the ages. The means to have children, the means to have a clean home, the means to take care of children, the means to make sure property is passed only to sons, the means to sacrifice. A woman’s existence is only a corollary to another purpose, most likely a man’s purpose. A woman can be a goddess or have the potential of one, but she should never use that wit, intelligence or strength that resides in her. She should simply wait, to be rescued by a ‘dependable husband or a man‘. Did anyone ever question Ram and the people’s acceptance of Luv and Kush? If Sita’s character was doubted then the children could’ve been Ravan’s. Why did she have to die to prove that the children were Ram’s? Because her job was done, nothing more could be extracted out of her and she could be sacrificed no longer, she had outlived her ‘utility‘.

There are other versions of the Ramayan that say Sita was Vedavati reborn (a woman who killed herself in an attempt to save herself from the lust of Ravan), to take revenge on Ravan. Or a rebirth of Manivati (whose asceticism is destroyed by Ravan), as the daughter of Ravan, who was left to die in earth when it was foretold that she would be the doom of Ravan. It was from there that Janak found her. But where does Sita actively do anything to destroy Ravan? She just sits by while Ram does the necessary.

So yes, Sita is the ordinary everyday woman expected to pass agniparikhsa not once, but at every turn of her life, only to be scorned at and doubted again. She has the ability to bear every consequence, and the men use it as an excuse to pile upon her every misdeed of their own. The Agnipariksha was not a test of Sita’s character, it was a test of Ram as a husband, and the test of the people of Ayodhya. Sita may have passed the test, but neither did Ram nor did the people. Sita is the symbol of what the world of men judges to be wrong in themselves, and what they try to eliminate from themselves. And they fail, because Sita lived and lives on the fringes of society, reminding the people constantly of what is wrong within them. Till the time men don’t learn to accept their mistakes rather than putting them on the ‘Sitas‘, there will continue to be attempts for every woman to be used, tormented, just like Sita. And every woman will be expected to bear it all.

At this point or any other, I refuse to be Sita. I will adamantly kick up a fuss any and every time someone dares to say to me “may you have a husband like Ram”. I will not be a means to an end. I will be myself. I will not suffer for the faults of someone else.

(Source: YKA)

Monday, 5 June 2017

This photographer's bathhouse nudes are challenging perceptions of Arab women

Part of the message in photographer Yumna Al-Arashi’s latest project, called “Shedding Skin,” is conveyed simply by the fact that it exists. To those on the periphery of the culture, the idea of a group of Arab women allowing themselves to be photographed nude, in a hammam, or communal bath, in the Middle East seems unlikely.

The stereotypical image of Arab women assumes they are devoutly practicing Muslims, wearing hijabs and long skirts and conducting themselves with religious modesty, exposing their bodies exclusively to their husbands, and perhaps to female relatives or friends behind the closed doors of a hammam. Would they allow themselves to be captured in such an environment by a boundary-pushing 28-year-old American artist, for a gallery show? In the Western imagination, probably not.

But here’s the thing: Not only did the Arab women whom Al-Arashi photographed in a hammam in Beirut agree to be photographed nude—they also didn’t look like any sort of preconceived stereotype, comprising instead a scene that could have been in Paris or New York. On a Saturday in April, they filed into the hammam’s waiting area wearing casual clothes and chatting animatedly, checking their iPhones and smoking slim cigarettes between sips of coffee and tea.

A group of three friends began to thread each other’s eyebrows and upper lips, bringing each other to knee-slapping tears as they cracked jokes. Later, Al-Arashi would estimate that only about half of them were Muslim. Al-Arashi, who grew up in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a Yemeni diplomat father and an Egyptian mother, is of the faith herself, and has made a name for herself photographing women in the Arab world and its diaspora. But, she explains, “I don’t only photograph Muslim women. A Muslim country isn’t necessarily closed off to other religions.”


When Al-Arashi had originally conceived of the photos—inspired by a visit to hammam in Tunis, where she was working on another project, documenting the last generation of Muslim women with facial tattoos—she imagined finding a beautiful, ancient-looking bathhouse for the setting. She scouted in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, and found some contenders, but quickly struck out; none of the owners were comfortable with the idea.

When she came across the hammam in Beirut, which is perhaps the most liberal city in the Middle East, and where she had lived for a stretch, she had some hesitation: It was contemporary, a sort of 1980s interpretation of antiquity, “kind of tacky,” even. “It's not what I was envisioning, initially,” she said. “And then I was like, you know what? Why am I trying to replicate the old hammams? I want it to be today.”

This conscientiousness was exactly what had made the project possible in the first place: The shoot, along with exhibitions of the finished photos and a short film in New York and Los Angeles, was funded by ASOS, the British online fashion and beauty superstore, as part of the company’s ASOS Supports Talent program, which sponsors up-and-coming young artists whose work has as an aspect of social justice to it. When the company had first reached out to her, she wasn’t sure that they would embrace the concept: “A lot of people aren’t willing to go down the route of turning off people’s opinions about the Muslim woman,” she said.

When they signed on, “I was just amazed,” she recalled. Al-Arashi has been similarly encouraged by a growing number of corporations with global reach who she sees as opening a window into the Arab experience, including Nike’s recent campaign depicting powerful Hijabi athletes. “It didn’t say, ‘Hey, don’t ban Muslims,’” she noted. “It said, ‘Hey, she’s one of us.’”


At the shoot, Al-Arashi was radiant with excitement, dressed in black jeans over a black leotard with a chic silk scarf tied around her neck, her long curly hair piled into a bun on top of her head, her skin dewy from the building steam of the bath. She was thrilled to have managed to pull together an entirely female crew, who had been working nonstop for a week to organize the set and gather willing friends and acquaintances to be models.

The women, who ranged in age from early 20s to mid-60s, seemed comfortable and relaxed as they undressed and wrapped towels around their waists, revealing breasts and bodies of all shapes and sizes, many with tattoos and piercings. In the bath, they arranged themselves on a pedestal in the center of the room, and on the steps leading up to a hot tub, and along a stone wall with spouts from which warm water gently trickled out.

As Al-Arashi began to take photographs, offering occasional direction, they used bowls to pour water over themselves and each other. One woman combed another’s hair, while nearby hammam attendants began to scrub another woman vigorously, sloughing off dead skin. A murmuring din filled the space. The light was dreamy and golden, giving the scene the air of a Renaissance painting.

“I really want to show these spaces for what they are, because they’re important to so many people in this culture,” Al-Arashi said. “I remember, growing up, seeing how these scenes were depicted in art and that was always powerful. Why don't we ever see this anymore? Why is this a closed-off space to the rest of the world? Because really, when you’re in these spaces you’re just a body. It’s not about how you’re sitting or how many rolls you have or how hairy your legs are, there’s no difference between pretty and ugly. They’re places where people just laugh and talk about everything. It's really beautiful, and really normalizing.”

(Source: Vogue)

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Amitabh Bachchan's remarks on Priyanka Chopra's #DressGate prove he's a fair-weather feminist

On September 5 last year, Amitabh Bachchan uploaded a video on Facebook where he was seen reading an 'open letter' that he'd written to his grand-daughters Navya Navelli and Aradhya.

The letter read something like this:

"Both of you may be a Nanda or a Bachchan, but you are also girls...women! And because you are women people will force their thinking, their boundaries on you.They will tell you how to dress, how to behave, who you can meet and where you can go. Don't live in the shadows of people's judgment. Make your own choices."

"Don't let anyone make you believe that the length of your skirt is a measure of your character. This may be a difficult, difficult world to be a woman. But I believe that it is women like you that will change that. It may not be easy, setting your own boundaries, making your own choices, rising above people 's judgment. But YOU !...you can set an example for women everywhere."

While a lot of media outlets immediately lauded him for taking a staunchly feminist stand, it was only a couple of days later that one understood the actual purpose of the very public letter. Bachchan's Pink, a movie about female empowerment, was due for release 10 days later.

While many found it as a publicity gimmick for the film (which it was), if feminism is being promoted by some of India's most influential names, for whatever reasons, it can't hurt. The message still stands, though it loses its sheen as it's orchestrated and not, say, as sincere as one would like it to be.

Cut to the Priyanka Chopra dress controversy. When India's latest crossover sensation met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin recently, the attention of a set of people on social media was on the length of her skirt and how she should have 'dressed more appropriately' to meet the Prime Minister.


Now, when Amitabh Bachchan was asked about his view on this, what'd you expect him to say? At least show some consistency of thought and maybe reinstate the lines from his own letter?

"Don't let anyone make you believe that the length of your skirt is a measure of your character."

This is a very powerful line which he'd presumably written himself. But no. What did Bachchan do? He dismissed the question by saying, "I am neither the PM nor Priyanka Chopra. How can I answer then?"

Because his next film isn't about women empowerment so I suppose it doesn't make any 'commercial sense' for Bachchan to champion the cause. It's inconvenient, too. What can he really gain by taking on the massive troll brigade that believes a woman should be 'appropriately dressed' in front of Modi?

His reluctance to stand up for targetted social media attack on Chopra only goes on to reveal his pseudo feminist side, which comes out in the open, through carefully shot home videos, only when there's box-office merit in it.

It's hypocritical of him to keep harping on about women empowerment and beti padhao campaigns when he finds it so difficult to utter two sentences on how deeply sexist it is to attack Chopra for the choice of her wardrobe. What's the point of championing causes when they cannot go beyond selective lip-service and when he fails in any practical demonstration of his supposed belief-system?

It's one thing to broadly speak about how 'deeply you' feel for the cause. But if that doesn't translate in using your celebrity to defend a peer, then it's literally worth nothing beyond a shallow PR exercise to create a 'progressive image.' It's telling of the duplicity of thought and the fact that these are causes he supports for effect and not something that he actually believes in.

You may argue that "what if he doesn't want to?" Now, that argument would hold water if he had not tried to brand himself as someone who genuinely cares. If he has portrayed himself as someone who wants his daughters and grand-daughters to challenge staid notions perpetuated by our patriarchal society, he's somewhere accountable to live up to that image. When an actress from his fraternity is attacked and he chooses to look the other way, he is very much complicit in encouraging the same mindset he was trying to challenge when Pink released in theatres.

While most of Bollywood maintained a stoic silence over the controversy (as they do when there's a political tint to an issue, any issue), a more measured comment came from Varun Dhawan.

When asked about it, he said, "She is someone we all should be proud of in our country...she is making our country proud abroad. All this is very stupid and social media trolling is not something that needs to become a national issue."

That's all it took, Mr. Bachchan.

You are neither X nor Y in a lot of other scenarios but one look at your Twitter feed, and it's filled with a lot of gyaan on a whole number of things that are of no real consequence. Fair, it's your time and your timeline and you can choose to do whatever you wish to with it.

Nobody expects Bollywood to stand up for a cause or give an opinion on their own. But when a question that's relevant to the news comes your way, the least you can do is to uphold a worldview which you were passionately championing only months ago.

(Source: HuffPo)

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

A reporter’s final story

Alex Tizon struggled to write about Lola, the woman who helped raise him. He was 11 before he realized she was his family’s slave.

The pulitzer prize–winning reporter Alex Tizon built an exemplary career by listening to certain types of people—forgotten people, people on the margins, people who had never before been asked for their stories. Alex’s wife, Melissa Tizon, told me recently that her husband was always impatient with small talk, because he believed that all people had within them an epic story, and he wanted to hear those epic stories—and then help tell them to the world. “Somewhere in the tangle of the subject’s burden and the subject’s desire is your story,” he liked to say.

His mission aligned well with The Atlantic’s, and we were pleased to publish, in the April 2016 issue, “In the Land of Missing Persons,” a beautifully rendered story about ordinary people who mysteriously disappeared in the Alaska wilderness. And we were thrilled when Alex offered us the chance to publish a story he had been waiting much of his life to tell, the remarkable tale of Lola, the woman who was his family’s secret slave in the Philippines, and who remained their slave when they moved to America.

And we were heartbroken to learn on Friday, March 24, that Alex Tizon had died. His story editor here at the magazine, Denise Kersten Wills, found out late that evening that Alex had been found dead in his home in Eugene, Oregon. He had died in his sleep, of natural causes. He was 57 years old.

His death is a tragedy for Melissa; their daughter, Maya; his daughter from an earlier marriage, Dylan; and Alex’s brothers and sisters. His death represents a loss for his students at the University of Oregon, where he was a beloved journalism professor. And his death is a loss for the editors and readers of this magazine, who were just coming to know Alex and his gifts.
Alex Tizon at a journalism workshop in 1991. He believed that all people have within them an epic story.

Alex was a much-admired reporter in the Pacific Northwest. He shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 while on the staff of The Seattle Times, and he served as the Seattle bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. He was also a well-reviewed author; his 2014 memoir, Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self, was a self-lacerating examination of the complexities, humiliations, and small victories of Asian men trying to adjust to life in America.

His interest in the lives of people situated far outside the mainstream was abiding and deep. When he came to us with the enthralling, vexing story of his immigrant family and its terrible secret, we recognized that this was the sort of journalism The Atlantic has practiced since its inception. The magazine was founded in 1857 by a group of New England abolitionists eager to advance the cause of universal freedom. When I first read a draft of Alex’s piece, I imagined that the founders—people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—would not have believed that 154 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, humans would still be enslaving other humans, in America and across the planet. The eradication of all forms of slavery remains an unfinished goal of civilization, and of this magazine, and stories like Alex’s help us understand slavery’s awful persistence.

Melissa told Denise and me that Alex wanted, more than anything else, to bring Lola’s story to the world. “This was his ultimate story,” Melissa said. “He was trying to write it for five or six years. He struggled with it. But when he started writing it for The Atlantic, he stopped struggling. He wrote it with such ease.”

Alex did not know that we would be putting his piece on the cover of this issue; he died the day we made that decision, before we had a chance to tell him. His death, quite obviously, could have derailed publication of what turned out to be his final story, but his family, led by Melissa and his siblings, worked with us during this uniquely trying time to make publication possible. We are grateful to them. And we are grateful that Alex shared his story—his epic story—with us.

(Source: The Atlantic)


My family’s slave

She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was, writes Alex Tizon. Tizon passed away in March. He was a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and the author of Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self.

The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.


Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola. She was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes that I can still see looking into mine—my first memory. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding.

To our American neighbors, we were model immigrants, a poster family. They told us so. My father had a law degree, my mother was on her way to becoming a doctor, and my siblings and I got good grades and always said “please” and “thank you.” We never talked about Lola. Our secret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be.

After my mother died of leukemia, in 1999, Lola came to live with me in a small town north of Seattle. I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream. And then I had a slave.

At baggage claim in Manila, I unzipped my suitcase to make sure Lola’s ashes were still there. Outside, I inhaled the familiar smell: a thick blend of exhaust and waste, of ocean and sweet fruit and sweat.

Early the next morning I found a driver, an affable middle-aged man who went by the nickname “Doods,” and we hit the road in his truck, weaving through traffic. The scene always stunned me. The sheer number of cars and motorcycles and jeepneys. The people weaving between them and moving on the sidewalks in great brown rivers. The street vendors in bare feet trotting alongside cars, hawking cigarettes and cough drops and sacks of boiled peanuts. The child beggars pressing their faces against the windows.

I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream. And then I had a slave.
Doods and I were headed to the place where Lola’s story began, up north in the central plains: Tarlac province. Rice country. The home of a cigar-chomping army lieutenant named Tomas Asuncion, my grandfather. The family stories paint Lieutenant Tom as a formidable man given to eccentricity and dark moods, who had lots of land but little money and kept mistresses in separate houses on his property. His wife died giving birth to their only child, my mother. She was raised by a series of utusans, or “people who take commands.”

Lola Pulido (shown on the left at age 18) came from a poor family in a rural part of the Philippines. The author’s grandfather “gave” her to his daughter as a gift.  
Slavery has a long history on the islands. Before the Spanish came, islanders enslaved other islanders, usually war captives, criminals, or debtors. Slaves came in different varieties, from warriors who could earn their freedom through valor to household servants who were regarded as property and could be bought and sold or traded. High-status slaves could own low-status slaves, and the low could own the lowliest. Some chose to enter servitude simply to survive: In exchange for their labor, they might be given food, shelter, and protection.

When the Spanish arrived, in the 1500s, they enslaved islanders and later brought African and Indian slaves. The Spanish Crown eventually began phasing out slavery at home and in its colonies, but parts of the Philippines were so far-flung that authorities couldn’t keep a close eye. Traditions persisted under different guises, even after the U.S. took control of the islands in 1898. Today even the poor can have utusans or katulongs (“helpers”) or kasambahays (“domestics”), as long as there are people even poorer. The pool is deep.

Lieutenant Tom had as many as three families of utusans living on his property. In the spring of 1943, with the islands under Japanese occupation, he brought home a girl from a village down the road. She was a cousin from a marginal side of the family, rice farmers. The lieutenant was shrewd—he saw that this girl was penniless, unschooled, and likely to be malleable. Her parents wanted her to marry a pig farmer twice her age, and she was desperately unhappy but had nowhere to go. Tom approached her with an offer: She could have food and shelter if she would commit to taking care of his daughter, who had just turned 12.

Lola at age 27 with Arthur, the author’s older brother, before coming to the U.S.
Lola agreed, not grasping that the deal was for life.

“She is my gift to you,” Lieutenant Tom told my mother.

“I don’t want her,” my mother said, knowing she had no choice.

Lieutenant Tom went off to fight the Japanese, leaving Mom behind with Lola in his creaky house in the provinces. Lola fed, groomed, and dressed my mother. When they walked to the market, Lola held an umbrella to shield her from the sun. At night, when Lola’s other tasks were done—feeding the dogs, sweeping the floors, folding the laundry that she had washed by hand in the Camiling River—she sat at the edge of my mother’s bed and fanned her to sleep.

One day during the war Lieutenant Tom came home and caught my mother in a lie—something to do with a boy she wasn’t supposed to talk to. Tom, furious, ordered her to “stand at the table.” Mom cowered with Lola in a corner. Then, in a quivering voice, she told her father that Lola would take her punishment. Lola looked at Mom pleadingly, then without a word walked to the dining table and held on to the edge. Tom raised the belt and delivered 12 lashes, punctuating each one with a word. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. Lola made no sound.

L: Lola raised the author (left) and his siblings, and was sometimes the only adult at home for days at a time. R: The author (second from the left) with his parents, siblings, and Lola five years after they arrived in the U.S.

My mother, in recounting this story late in her life, delighted in the outrageousness of it, her tone seeming to say, Can you believe I did that? When I brought it up with Lola, she asked to hear Mom’s version. She listened intently, eyes lowered, and afterward she looked at me with sadness and said simply, “Yes. It was like that.”

Seven years later, in 1950, Mom married my father and moved to Manila, bringing Lola along. Lieutenant Tom had long been haunted by demons, and in 1951 he silenced them with a .32‑caliber slug to his temple. Mom almost never talked about it. She had his temperament—moody, imperial, secretly fragile—and she took his lessons to heart, among them the proper way to be a provincial matrona: You must embrace your role as the giver of commands. You must keep those beneath you in their place at all times, for their own good and the good of the household. They might cry and complain, but their souls will thank you. They will love you for helping them be what God intended.

My brother Arthur was born in 1951. I came next, followed by three more siblings in rapid succession. My parents expected Lola to be as devoted to us kids as she was to them. While she looked after us, my parents went to school and earned advanced degrees, joining the ranks of so many others with fancy diplomas but no jobs. Then the big break: Dad was offered a job in Foreign Affairs as a commercial analyst. The salary would be meager, but the position was in America—a place he and Mom had grown up dreaming of, where everything they hoped for could come true.

Dad was allowed to bring his family and one domestic. Figuring they would both have to work, my parents needed Lola to care for the kids and the house. My mother informed Lola, and to her great irritation, Lola didn’t immediately acquiesce. Years later Lola told me she was terrified. “It was too far,” she said. “Maybe your Mom and Dad won’t let me go home.”

Lola at age 51, in 1976. Her mother died a few years before this picture was taken; her father a few years after. Both times, she wanted desperately to go home.
In the end what convinced Lola was my father’s promise that things would be different in America. He told her that as soon as he and Mom got on their feet, they’d give her an “allowance.” Lola could send money to her parents, to all her relations in the village. Her parents lived in a hut with a dirt floor. Lola could build them a concrete house, could change their lives forever. Imagine.

We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then. In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby, I uttered Lola’s name (which I first pronounced “Oh-ah”) long before I learned to say “Mom” or “Dad.” As a toddler, I refused to go to sleep unless Lola was holding me, or at least nearby.

I was 4 years old when we arrived in the U.S.—too young to question Lola’s place in our family. But as my siblings and I grew up on this other shore, we came to see the world differently. The leap across the ocean brought about a leap in consciousness that Mom and Dad couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make.

Lola never got that allowance. She asked my parents about it in a roundabout way a couple of years into our life in America. Her mother had fallen ill (with what I would later learn was dysentery), and her family couldn’t afford the medicine she needed. “Pwede ba?” she said to my parents. Is it possible? Mom let out a sigh. “How could you even ask?,” Dad responded in Tagalog. “You see how hard up we are. Don’t you have any shame?”

Rice fields in Mayantoc, near where Lola was born
My parents had borrowed money for the move to the U.S., and then borrowed more in order to stay. My father was transferred from the consulate general in L.A. to the Philippine consulate in Seattle. He was paid $5,600 a year. He took a second job cleaning trailers, and a third as a debt collector. Mom got work as a technician in a couple of medical labs. We barely saw them, and when we did they were often exhausted and snappish.

Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. “Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?” she would say in Tagalog, her voice venomous. “It’s not hard naman! An idiot could remember.” Then my father would arrive and take his turn. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house shrank. Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying, almost as though that was their goal.

It confused me: My parents were good to my siblings and me, and we loved them. But they’d be affectionate to us kids one moment and vile to Lola the next. I was 11 or 12 when I began to see Lola’s situation clearly. By then Arthur, eight years my senior, had been seething for a long time. He was the one who introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was. Before he said it I’d thought of her as just an unfortunate member of the household. I hated when my parents yelled at her, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they—and the whole arrangement—could be immoral.

“Do you know anybody treated the way she’s treated?,” Arthur said. “Who lives the way she lives?” He summed up Lola’s reality: Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters. (Her designated place to sleep in each house we lived in was always whatever was left—a couch or storage area or corner in my sisters’ bedroom. She often slept among piles of laundry.)

L: Lola and the author in 2008. R: The author with Lola’s sister Gregoria.
We couldn’t identify a parallel anywhere except in slave characters on TV and in the movies. I remember watching a Western called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. John Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, a gunslinging rancher who barks orders at his servant, Pompey, whom he calls his “boy.” Pick him up, Pompey. Pompey, go find the doctor. Get on back to work, Pompey! Docile and obedient, Pompey calls his master “Mistah Tom.” They have a complex relationship. Tom forbids Pompey from attending school but opens the way for Pompey to drink in a whites-only saloon. Near the end, Pompey saves his master from a fire. It’s clear Pompey both fears and loves Tom, and he mourns when Tom dies. All of this is peripheral to the main story of Tom’s showdown with bad guy Liberty Valance, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Pompey. I remember thinking: Lola is Pompey, Pompey is Lola.

We spent our first decade in the country trying to fit in. Having a slave did not fit. Having a slave gave me grave doubts about what kind of people we were, what kind of place we came from.
One night when Dad found out that my sister Ling, who was then 9, had missed dinner, he barked at Lola for being lazy. “I tried to feed her,” Lola said, as Dad stood over her and glared. Her feeble defense only made him angrier, and he punched her just below the shoulder. Lola ran out of the room and I could hear her wailing, an animal cry.

“Ling said she wasn’t hungry,” I said.

L: Lola returned to the Philippines for an extended visit after her 83rd birthday. R: Lola with her sister Juliana, reunited after 65 years.

My parents turned to look at me. They seemed startled. I felt the twitching in my face that usually preceded tears, but I wouldn’t cry this time. In Mom’s eyes was a shadow of something I hadn’t seen before. Jealousy?

“Are you defending your Lola?,” Dad said. “Is that what you’re doing?”

“Ling said she wasn’t hungry,” I said again, almost in a whisper.

I was 13. It was my first attempt to stick up for the woman who spent her days watching over me. The woman who used to hum Tagalog melodies as she rocked me to sleep, and when I got older would dress and feed me and walk me to school in the mornings and pick me up in the afternoons. Once, when I was sick for a long time and too weak to eat, she chewed my food for me and put the small pieces in my mouth to swallow. One summer when I had plaster casts on both legs (I had problem joints), she bathed me with a washcloth, brought medicine in the middle of the night, and helped me through months of rehabilitation. I was cranky through it all. She didn’t complain or lose patience, ever.

To now hear her wailing made me crazy.

In the old country, my parents felt no need to hide their treatment of Lola. In America, they treated her worse but took pains to conceal it. When guests came over, my parents would either ignore her or, if questioned, lie and quickly change the subject. For five years in North Seattle, we lived across the street from the Misslers, a rambunctious family of eight who introduced us to things like mustard, salmon fishing, and mowing the lawn. Football on TV. Yelling during football. Lola would come out to serve food and drinks during games, and my parents would smile and thank her before she quickly disappeared. “Who’s that little lady you keep in the kitchen?,” Big Jim, the Missler patriarch, once asked. A relative from back home, Dad said. Very shy.
Lola at age 82
Billy Missler, my best friend, didn’t buy it. He spent enough time at our house, whole weekends sometimes, to catch glimpses of my family’s secret. He once overheard my mother yelling in the kitchen, and when he barged in to investigate found Mom red-faced and glaring at Lola, who was quaking in a corner. I came in a few seconds later. The look on Billy’s face was a mix of embarrassment and perplexity. What was that? I waved it off and told him to forget it.

I think Billy felt sorry for Lola. He’d rave about her cooking, and make her laugh like I’d never seen. During sleepovers, she’d make his favorite Filipino dish, beef tapa over white rice. Cooking was Lola’s only eloquence. I could tell by what she served whether she was merely feeding us or saying she loved us.

When I once referred to Lola as a distant aunt, Billy reminded me that when we’d first met I’d said she was my grandmother.

“Well, she’s kind of both,” I said mysteriously.

“Why is she always working?”

“She likes to work,” I said.

“Your dad and mom—why do they yell at her?”

“Her hearing isn’t so good …”

Admitting the truth would have meant exposing us all. We spent our first decade in the country learning the ways of the new land and trying to fit in. Having a slave did not fit. Having a slave gave me grave doubts about what kind of people we were, what kind of place we came from. Whether we deserved to be accepted. I was ashamed of it all, including my complicity. Didn’t I eat the food she cooked, and wear the clothes she washed and ironed and hung in the closet? But losing her would have been devastating.


There was another reason for secrecy: Lola’s travel papers had expired in 1969, five years after we arrived in the U.S. She’d come on a special passport linked to my father’s job. After a series of fallings-out with his superiors, Dad quit the consulate and declared his intent to stay in the United States. He arranged for permanent-resident status for his family, but Lola wasn’t eligible. He was supposed to send her back.

Lola’s mother, Fermina, died in 1973; her father, Hilario, in 1979. Both times she wanted desperately to go home. Both times my parents said “Sorry.” No money, no time. The kids needed her. My parents also feared for themselves, they admitted to me later. If the authorities had found out about Lola, as they surely would have if she’d tried to leave, my parents could have gotten into trouble, possibly even been deported. They couldn’t risk it. Lola’s legal status became what Filipinos call tago nang tago, or TNT—“on the run.” She stayed TNT for almost 20 years.

After each of her parents died, Lola was sullen and silent for months. She barely responded when my parents badgered her. But the badgering never let up. Lola kept her head down and did her work.


My father’s resignation started a turbulent period. Money got tighter, and my parents turned on each other. They uprooted the family again and again—Seattle to Honolulu back to Seattle to the southeast Bronx and finally to the truck-stop town of Umatilla, Oregon, population 750. During all this moving around, Mom often worked 24-hour shifts, first as a medical intern and then as a resident, and Dad would disappear for days, working odd jobs but also (we’d later learn) womanizing and who knows what else. Once, he came home and told us that he’d lost our new station wagon playing blackjack.

For days in a row Lola would be the only adult in the house. She got to know the details of our lives in a way that my parents never had the mental space for. We brought friends home, and she’d listen to us talk about school and girls and boys and whatever else was on our minds. Just from conversations she overheard, she could list the first name of every girl I had a crush on from sixth grade through high school.

When I was 15, Dad left the family for good. I didn’t want to believe it at the time, but the fact was that he deserted us kids and abandoned Mom after 25 years of marriage. She wouldn’t become a licensed physician for another year, and her specialty—internal medicine—wasn’t especially lucrative. Dad didn’t pay child support, so money was always a struggle.

I heard Mom weeping and ran into the living room to find her slumped in Lola’s arms. Lola was talking softly to her; the way she used to with my siblings and me when we were young.
My mom kept herself together enough to go to work, but at night she’d crumble in self-pity and despair. Her main source of comfort during this time: Lola. As Mom snapped at her over small things, Lola attended to her even more—cooking Mom’s favorite meals, cleaning her bedroom with extra care. I’d find the two of them late at night at the kitchen counter, griping and telling stories about Dad, sometimes laughing wickedly, other times working themselves into a fury over his transgressions. They barely noticed us kids flitting in and out.


One night I heard Mom weeping and ran into the living room to find her slumped in Lola’s arms. Lola was talking softly to her, the way she used to with my siblings and me when we were young. I lingered, then went back to my room, scared for my mom and awed by Lola.

Doods was humming. I’d dozed for what felt like a minute and awoke to his happy melody. “Two hours more,” he said. I checked the plastic box in the tote bag by my side—still there—and looked up to see open road. The MacArthur Highway. I glanced at the time. “Hey, you said ‘two hours’ two hours ago,” I said. Doods just hummed.

His not knowing anything about the purpose of my journey was a relief. I had enough interior dialogue going on. I was no better than my parents. I could have done more to free Lola. To make her life better. Why didn’t I? I could have turned in my parents, I suppose. It would have blown up my family in an instant. Instead, my siblings and I kept everything to ourselves, and rather than blowing up in an instant, my family broke apart slowly.

Doods and I passed through beautiful country. Not travel-brochure beautiful but real and alive and, compared with the city, elegantly spare. Mountains ran parallel to the highway on each side, the Zambales Mountains to the west, the Sierra Madre Range to the east. From ridge to ridge, west to east, I could see every shade of green all the way to almost black.

Doods pointed to a shadowy outline in the distance. Mount Pinatubo. I’d come here in 1991 to report on the aftermath of its eruption, the second-largest of the 20th century. Volcanic mudflows called lahars continued for more than a decade, burying ancient villages, filling in rivers and valleys, and wiping out entire ecosystems. The lahars reached deep into the foothills of Tarlac province, where Lola’s parents had spent their entire lives, and where she and my mother had once lived together. So much of our family record had been lost in wars and floods, and now parts were buried under 20 feet of mud.


Life here is routinely visited by cataclysm. Killer typhoons that strike several times a year. Bandit insurgencies that never end. Somnolent mountains that one day decide to wake up. The Philippines isn’t like China or Brazil, whose mass might absorb the trauma. This is a nation of scattered rocks in the sea. When disaster hits, the place goes under for a while. Then it resurfaces and life proceeds, and you can behold a scene like the one Doods and I were driving through, and the simple fact that it’s still there makes it beautiful.

A couple of years after my parents split, my mother remarried and demanded Lola’s fealty to her new husband, a Croatian immigrant named Ivan, whom she had met through a friend. Ivan had never finished high school. He’d been married four times and was an inveterate gambler who enjoyed being supported by my mother and attended to by Lola.

Ivan brought out a side of Lola I’d never seen. His marriage to my mother was volatile from the start, and money—especially his use of her money—was the main issue. Once, during an argument in which Mom was crying and Ivan was yelling, Lola walked over and stood between them. She turned to Ivan and firmly said his name. He looked at Lola, blinked, and sat down.

My sister Inday and I were floored. Ivan was about 250 pounds, and his baritone could shake the walls. Lola put him in his place with a single word. I saw this happen a few other times, but for the most part Lola served Ivan unquestioningly, just as Mom wanted her to. I had a hard time watching Lola vassalize herself to another person, especially someone like Ivan. But what set the stage for my blowup with Mom was something more mundane.


She used to get angry whenever Lola felt ill. She didn’t want to deal with the disruption and the expense, and would accuse Lola of faking or failing to take care of herself. Mom chose the second tack when, in the late 1970s, Lola’s teeth started falling out. She’d been saying for months that her mouth hurt.

“That’s what happens when you don’t brush properly,” Mom told her.

I said that Lola needed to see a dentist. She was in her 50s and had never been to one. I was attending college an hour away, and I brought it up again and again on my frequent trips home. A year went by, then two. Lola took aspirin every day for the pain, and her teeth looked like a crumbling Stonehenge. One night, after watching her chew bread on the side of her mouth that still had a few good molars, I lost it.

Mom and I argued into the night, each of us sobbing at different points. She said she was tired of working her fingers to the bone supporting everybody, and sick of her children always taking Lola’s side, and why didn’t we just take our goddamn Lola, she’d never wanted her in the first place, and she wished to God she hadn’t given birth to an arrogant, sanctimonious phony like me.

I let her words sink in. Then I came back at her, saying she would know all about being a phony, her whole life was a masquerade, and if she stopped feeling sorry for herself for one minute she’d see that Lola could barely eat because her goddamn teeth were rotting out of her goddamn head, and couldn’t she think of her just this once as a real person instead of a slave kept alive to serve her?


“A slave,” Mom said, weighing the word. “A slave?”

The night ended when she declared that I would never understand her relationship with Lola. Never. Her voice was so guttural and pained that thinking of it even now, so many years later, feels like a punch to the stomach. It’s a terrible thing to hate your own mother, and that night I did. The look in her eyes made clear that she felt the same way about me.

The fight only fed Mom’s fear that Lola had stolen the kids from her, and she made Lola pay for it. Mom drove her harder. Tormented her by saying, “I hope you’re happy now that your kids hate me.” When we helped Lola with housework, Mom would fume. “You’d better go to sleep now, Lola,” she’d say sarcastically. “You’ve been working too hard. Your kids are worried about you.” Later she’d take Lola into a bedroom for a talk, and Lola would walk out with puffy eyes.

Lola finally begged us to stop trying to help her.

Why do you stay? we asked.

“Who will cook?” she said, which I took to mean, Who would do everything? Who would take care of us? Of Mom? Another time she said, “Where will I go?” This struck me as closer to a real answer. Coming to America had been a mad dash, and before we caught a breath a decade had gone by. We turned around, and a second decade was closing out. Lola’s hair had turned gray. She’d heard that relatives back home who hadn’t received the promised support were wondering what had happened to her. She was ashamed to return.


She had no contacts in America, and no facility for getting around. Phones puzzled her. Mechanical things—ATMs, intercoms, vending machines, anything with a keyboard—made her panic. Fast-talking people left her speechless, and her own broken English did the same to them. She couldn’t make an appointment, arrange a trip, fill out a form, or order a meal without help.

I got Lola an ATM card linked to my bank account and taught her how to use it. She succeeded once, but the second time she got flustered, and she never tried again. She kept the card because she considered it a gift from me.

I also tried to teach her to drive. She dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand, but I picked her up and carried her to the car and planted her in the driver’s seat, both of us laughing. I spent 20 minutes going over the controls and gauges. Her eyes went from mirthful to terrified. When I turned on the ignition and the dashboard lit up, she was out of the car and in the house before I could say another word. I tried a couple more times.

I thought driving could change her life. She could go places. And if things ever got unbearable with Mom, she could drive away forever.

Four lanes became two, pavement turned to gravel. Tricycle drivers wove between cars and water buffalo pulling loads of bamboo. An occasional dog or goat sprinted across the road in front of our truck, almost grazing the bumper. Doods never eased up. Whatever didn’t make it across would be stew today instead of tomorrow—the rule of the road in the provinces.


I took out a map and traced the route to the village of Mayantoc, our destination. Out the window, in the distance, tiny figures folded at the waist like so many bent nails. People harvesting rice, the same way they had for thousands of years. We were getting close.

I tapped the cheap plastic box and regretted not buying a real urn, made of porcelain or rosewood. What would Lola’s people think? Not that many were left. Only one sibling remained in the area, Gregoria, 98 years old, and I was told her memory was failing. Relatives said that whenever she heard Lola’s name, she’d burst out crying and then quickly forget why.

I’d been in touch with one of Lola’s nieces. She had the day planned: When I arrived, a low-key memorial, then a prayer, followed by the lowering of the ashes into a plot at the Mayantoc Eternal Bliss Memorial Park. It had been five years since Lola died, but I hadn’t yet said the final goodbye that I knew was about to happen. All day I had been feeling intense grief and resisting the urge to let it out, not wanting to wail in front of Doods. More than the shame I felt for the way my family had treated Lola, more than my anxiety about how her relatives in Mayantoc would treat me, I felt the terrible heaviness of losing her, as if she had died only the day before.

Doods veered northwest on the Romulo Highway, then took a sharp left at Camiling, the town Mom and Lieutenant Tom came from. Two lanes became one, then gravel turned to dirt. The path ran along the Camiling River, clusters of bamboo houses off to the side, green hills ahead. The homestretch.

I gave the eulogy at Mom’s funeral, and everything I said was true. That she was brave and spirited. That she’d drawn some short straws, but had done the best she could. That she was radiant when she was happy. That she adored her children, and gave us a real home—in Salem, Oregon—that through the ’80s and ’90s became the permanent base we’d never had before. That I wished we could thank her one more time. That we all loved her.

I didn’t talk about Lola. Just as I had selectively blocked Lola out of my mind when I was with Mom during her last years. Loving my mother required that kind of mental surgery. It was the only way we could be mother and son—which I wanted, especially after her health started to decline, in the mid‑’90s. Diabetes. Breast cancer. Acute myelogenous leukemia, a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. She went from robust to frail seemingly overnight.

After the big fight, I mostly avoided going home, and at age 23 I moved to Seattle. When I did visit I saw a change. Mom was still Mom, but not as relentlessly. She got Lola a fine set of dentures and let her have her own bedroom. She cooperated when my siblings and I set out to change Lola’s TNT status. Ronald Reagan’s landmark immigration bill of 1986 made millions of illegal immigrants eligible for amnesty. It was a long process, but Lola became a citizen in October 1998, four months after my mother was diagnosed with leukemia. Mom lived another year.

During that time, she and Ivan took trips to Lincoln City, on the Oregon coast, and sometimes brought Lola along. Lola loved the ocean. On the other side were the islands she dreamed of returning to. And Lola was never happier than when Mom relaxed around her. An afternoon at the coast or just 15 minutes in the kitchen reminiscing about the old days in the province, and Lola would seem to forget years of torment.

The priest asked Mom whether there was anything she wanted to be forgiven for. She reached over and placed an open hand on Lola’s head. She didn’t say a word.
I couldn’t forget so easily. But I did come to see Mom in a different light. Before she died, she gave me her journals, two steamer trunks’ full. Leafing through them as she slept a few feet away, I glimpsed slices of her life that I’d refused to see for years. She’d gone to medical school when not many women did. She’d come to America and fought for respect as both a woman and an immigrant physician. She’d worked for two decades at Fairview Training Center, in Salem, a state institution for the developmentally disabled. The irony: She tended to underdogs most of her professional life. They worshipped her. Female colleagues became close friends. They did silly, girly things together—shoe shopping, throwing dress-up parties at one another’s homes, exchanging gag gifts like penis-shaped soaps and calendars of half-naked men, all while laughing hysterically. Looking through their party pictures reminded me that Mom had a life and an identity apart from the family and Lola. Of course.

Mom wrote in great detail about each of her kids, and how she felt about us on a given day—proud or loving or resentful. And she devoted volumes to her husbands, trying to grasp them as complex characters in her story. We were all persons of consequence. Lola was incidental. When she was mentioned at all, she was a bit character in someone else’s story. “Lola walked my beloved Alex to his new school this morning. I hope he makes new friends quickly so he doesn’t feel so sad about moving again …” There might be two more pages about me, and no other mention of Lola.

The day before Mom died, a Catholic priest came to the house to perform last rites. Lola sat next to my mother’s bed, holding a cup with a straw, poised to raise it to Mom’s mouth. She had become extra attentive to my mother, and extra kind. She could have taken advantage of Mom in her feebleness, even exacted revenge, but she did the opposite.

The priest asked Mom whether there was anything she wanted to forgive or be forgiven for. She scanned the room with heavy-lidded eyes, said nothing. Then, without looking at Lola, she reached over and placed an open hand on her head. She didn’t say a word.

Lola was 75 when she came to stay with me. I was married with two young daughters, living in a cozy house on a wooded lot. From the second story, we could see Puget Sound. We gave Lola a bedroom and license to do whatever she wanted: sleep in, watch soaps, do nothing all day. She could relax—and be free—for the first time in her life. I should have known it wouldn’t be that simple.

I’d forgotten about all the things Lola did that drove me a little crazy. She was always telling me to put on a sweater so I wouldn’t catch a cold (I was in my 40s). She groused incessantly about Dad and Ivan: My father was lazy, Ivan was a leech. I learned to tune her out. Harder to ignore was her fanatical thriftiness. She threw nothing out. And she used to go through the trash to make sure that the rest of us hadn’t thrown out anything useful. She washed and reused paper towels again and again until they disintegrated in her hands. (No one else would go near them.) The kitchen became glutted with grocery bags, yogurt containers, and pickle jars, and parts of our house turned into storage for—there’s no other word for it—garbage.

She cooked breakfast even though none of us ate more than a banana or a granola bar in the morning, usually while we were running out the door. She made our beds and did our laundry. She cleaned the house. I found myself saying to her, nicely at first, “Lola, you don’t have to do that.” “Lola, we’ll do it ourselves.” “Lola, that’s the girls’ job.” Okay, she’d say, but keep right on doing it.

It irritated me to catch her eating meals standing in the kitchen, or see her tense up and start cleaning when I walked into the room. One day, after several months, I sat her down.

“I’m not Dad. You’re not a slave here,” I said, and went through a long list of slavelike things she’d been doing. When I realized she was startled, I took a deep breath and cupped her face, that elfin face now looking at me searchingly. I kissed her forehead. “This is your house now,” I said. “You’re not here to serve us. You can relax, okay?”

“Okay,” she said. And went back to cleaning.

She didn’t know any other way to be. I realized I had to take my own advice and relax. If she wanted to make dinner, let her. Thank her and do the dishes. I had to remind myself constantly: Let her be.

One night I came home to find her sitting on the couch doing a word puzzle, her feet up, the TV on. Next to her, a cup of tea. She glanced at me, smiled sheepishly with those perfect white dentures, and went back to the puzzle. Progress, I thought.

She planted a garden in the backyard—roses and tulips and every kind of orchid—and spent whole afternoons tending it. She took walks around the neighborhood. At about 80, her arthritis got bad and she began walking with a cane. In the kitchen she went from being a fry cook to a kind of artisanal chef who created only when the spirit moved her. She made lavish meals and grinned with pleasure as we devoured them.

The old farms were gone. Her house was gone. Her parents and most of her siblings were gone. Childhood friends, the ones still alive, were like strangers.
Passing the door of Lola’s bedroom, I’d often hear her listening to a cassette of Filipino folk songs. The same tape over and over. I knew she’d been sending almost all her money—my wife and I gave her $200 a week—to relatives back home. One afternoon, I found her sitting on the back deck gazing at a snapshot someone had sent of her village.

“You want to go home, Lola?”

She turned the photograph over and traced her finger across the inscription, then flipped it back and seemed to study a single detail.

“Yes,” she said.

Just after her 83rd birthday, I paid her airfare to go home. I’d follow a month later to bring her back to the U.S.—if she wanted to return. The unspoken purpose of her trip was to see whether the place she had spent so many years longing for could still feel like home.

She found her answer.

“Everything was not the same,” she told me as we walked around Mayantoc. The old farms were gone. Her house was gone. Her parents and most of her siblings were gone. Childhood friends, the ones still alive, were like strangers. It was nice to see them, but … everything was not the same. She’d still like to spend her last years here, she said, but she wasn’t ready yet.

“You’re ready to go back to your garden,” I said.

“Yes. Let’s go home.”

Lola was as devoted to my daughters as she’d been to my siblings and me when we were young. After school, she’d listen to their stories and make them something to eat. And unlike my wife and me (especially me), Lola enjoyed every minute of every school event and performance. She couldn’t get enough of them. She sat up front, kept the programs as mementos.

It was so easy to make Lola happy. We took her on family vacations, but she was as excited to go to the farmer’s market down the hill. She became a wide-eyed kid on a field trip: “Look at those zucchinis!” The first thing she did every morning was open all the blinds in the house, and at each window she’d pause to look outside.

And she taught herself to read. It was remarkable. Over the years, she’d somehow learned to sound out letters. She did those puzzles where you find and circle words within a block of letters. Her room had stacks of word-puzzle booklets, thousands of words circled in pencil. Every day she watched the news and listened for words she recognized. She triangulated them with words in the newspaper, and figured out the meanings. She came to read the paper every day, front to back. Dad used to say she was simple. I wondered what she could have been if, instead of working the rice fields at age 8, she had learned to read and write.

During the 12 years she lived in our house, I asked her questions about herself, trying to piece together her life story, a habit she found curious. To my inquiries she would often respond first with “Why?” Why did I want to know about her childhood? About how she met Lieutenant Tom?

I tried to get my sister Ling to ask Lola about her love life, thinking Lola would be more comfortable with her. Ling cackled, which was her way of saying I was on my own. One day, while Lola and I were putting away groceries, I just blurted it out: “Lola, have you ever been romantic with anyone?” She smiled, and then she told me the story of the only time she’d come close. She was about 15, and there was a handsome boy named Pedro from a nearby farm. For several months they harvested rice together side by side. One time, she dropped her bolo—a cutting implement—and he quickly picked it up and handed it back to her. “I liked him,” she said.

Silence.

“And?”

“Then he moved away,” she said.

“And?”

“That’s all.”

“Lola, have you ever had sex?,” I heard myself saying.

“No,” she said.

She wasn’t accustomed to being asked personal questions. “Katulong lang ako,” she’d say. I’m only a servant. She often gave one- or two-word answers, and teasing out even the simplest story was a game of 20 questions that could last days or weeks.

Some of what I learned: She was mad at Mom for being so cruel all those years, but she nevertheless missed her. Sometimes, when Lola was young, she’d felt so lonely that all she could do was cry. I knew there were years when she’d dreamed of being with a man. I saw it in the way she wrapped herself around one large pillow at night. But what she told me in her old age was that living with Mom’s husbands made her think being alone wasn’t so bad. She didn’t miss those two at all. Maybe her life would have been better if she’d stayed in Mayantoc, gotten married, and had a family like her siblings. But maybe it would have been worse. Two younger sisters, Francisca and Zepriana, got sick and died. A brother, Claudio, was killed. What’s the point of wondering about it now? she asked. Bahala na was her guiding principle. Come what may. What came her way was another kind of family. In that family, she had eight children: Mom, my four siblings and me, and now my two daughters. The eight of us, she said, made her life worth living.

None of us was prepared for her to die so suddenly.

I remember looking at the medics standing above this brown woman no bigger than a child and thinking that they had no idea of the life she had lived.
Her heart attack started in the kitchen while she was making dinner and I was running an errand. When I returned she was in the middle of it. A couple of hours later at the hospital, before I could grasp what was happening, she was gone—10:56 p.m. All the kids and grandkids noted, but were unsure how to take, that she died on November 7, the same day as Mom. Twelve years apart.

Lola made it to 86. I can still see her on the gurney. I remember looking at the medics standing above this brown woman no bigger than a child and thinking that they had no idea of the life she had lived. She’d had none of the self-serving ambition that drives most of us, and her willingness to give up everything for the people around her won her our love and utter loyalty. She’s become a hallowed figure in my extended family.

Going through her boxes in the attic took me months. I found recipes she had cut out of magazines in the 1970s for when she would someday learn to read. Photo albums with pictures of my mom. Awards my siblings and I had won from grade school on, most of which we had thrown away and she had “saved.” I almost lost it one night when at the bottom of a box I found a stack of yellowed newspaper articles I’d written and long ago forgotten about. She couldn’t read back then, but she’d kept them anyway.

Doods’s truck pulled up to a small concrete house in the middle of a cluster of homes mostly made of bamboo and plank wood. Surrounding the pod of houses: rice fields, green and seemingly endless. Before I even got out of the truck, people started coming outside.

Doods reclined his seat to take a nap. I hung my tote bag on my shoulder, took a breath, and opened the door.

“This way,” a soft voice said, and I was led up a short walkway to the concrete house. Following close behind was a line of about 20 people, young and old, but mostly old. Once we were all inside, they sat down on chairs and benches arranged along the walls, leaving the middle of the room empty except for me. I remained standing, waiting to meet my host. It was a small room, and dark. People glanced at me expectantly.

“Where is Lola?” A voice from another room. The next moment, a middle-aged woman in a housedress sauntered in with a smile. Ebia, Lola’s niece. This was her house. She gave me a hug and said again, “Where is Lola?”

I slid the tote bag from my shoulder and handed it to her. She looked into my face, still smiling, gently grasped the bag, and walked over to a wooden bench and sat down. She reached inside and pulled out the box and looked at every side. “Where is Lola?” she said softly. People in these parts don’t often get their loved ones cremated. I don’t think she knew what to expect. She set the box on her lap and bent over so her forehead rested on top of it, and at first I thought she was laughing (out of joy) but I quickly realized she was crying. Her shoulders began to heave, and then she was wailing—a deep, mournful, animal howl, like I once heard coming from Lola.

I hadn’t come sooner to deliver Lola’s ashes in part because I wasn’t sure anyone here cared that much about her. I hadn’t expected this kind of grief. Before I could comfort Ebia, a woman walked in from the kitchen and wrapped her arms around her, and then she began wailing. The next thing I knew, the room erupted with sound. The old people—one of them blind, several with no teeth—were all crying and not holding anything back. It lasted about 10 minutes. I was so fascinated that I barely noticed the tears running down my own face. The sobs died down, and then it was quiet again.

Ebia sniffled and said it was time to eat. Everybody started filing into the kitchen, puffy-eyed but suddenly lighter and ready to tell stories. I glanced at the empty tote bag on the bench, and knew it was right to bring Lola back to the place where she’d been born.

(Source: The Atlantic)

Top 10 novels about Pakistan

A while ago I emailed a Pakistani news editor, introducing myself and pitching a column. He replied promptly saying that while we hadn’t met, he was well acquainted with my work. In fact, when his Australian girlfriend had asked him to recommend a book to help her understand Pakistani society better, he’d handed her my comic satire, The Diary of a Social Butterfly. The relationship, he wrote, had ended soon after. He neglected to mention whether he deemed my book culpable but, for the record, he did not offer me that column.

I had better luck with my Indian editor. Travelling with her American boyfriend, she gave him my second novel Duty Free as a useful guide to the lives and loves of desi society. He spent a good part of the holiday, she recounted, reading my novel and chuckling to himself. They are now happily married. I cannot claim that my book played a decisive role in sealing that relationship but let me just say I was invited to their wedding.

Suggesting a work of fiction by way of an introduction to a country or society is always going to be a subjective business. But on the eve of the first ever Karachi literary festival in London, I’ve drawn up my highly personal list of 10 works of fiction about Pakistan.

1. Mottled Dawn By Saadat Hasan Manto
When, in August 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned, millions of Hindus and Sikhs left their ancestral homes in what had become Pakistan and trudged toward India, while Muslims made the opposite journey. The partition was scarred by an eruption of unspeakable sectarian violence. Hindus and Muslims, amicable neighbours for centuries, fell upon each other in an orgy of rape and bloodletting. Manto, then an urbane scriptwriter in cosmopolitan Bombay, saw the savagery up close. Migrating to Lahore in 1948, he channelled his rage and despair into a stream of Urdu short stories that are among the finest ever written in any language. On the 70th anniversary of Pakistan’s cataclysmic birth, there can be no more important or sobering read.

2. The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmed
The eponymous “falcon” is Tor Baz, the love child of a chieftain’s daughter and her father’s servant, who witnesses the brutal murder of his parents for daring to infringe tribal laws. Set in the region that forms the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – today’s “Af-Pak”, in US state department speak – these interconnected stories chart the uncompromising code of honour that shape the lives of the tribes who have inhabited this harsh land for centuries. Once a civil servant, Ahmed served here for in the 1950s and his spare, unsentimental stories have the unmistakable ring of truth.

3. Shame by Salman Rushdie
Sandwiched between his two most famous books, Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, Shame is a neglected gem. Depicting a country that Rushdie says “is and is not Pakistan”, it charts the fateful clash between its democratically elected leader and his obsequious, pious general and eventual hangman. It is an astute, gleeful, political tale in which Rushdie dazzles with his prodigious gift for satire.

4. The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa
Freddy Junglewallah, an ambitious, quick witted Indian villager, bundles his wife, infant daughter and mother-in-law into a bullock cart and – in quest of fame and fortune – heads for cosmopolitan Lahore. Once there, Freddy’s rise to prosperity and prominence is swift. His ambitions for his children, however, come a cropper. Bawdy, poignant and funny, this is a charming saga of a Parsi family.


5. A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif
In August 1988, General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s dictator and loyal American ally, met an abrupt end when his plane exploded in mid-air. Conspiracy theories abound, but the cause of the crash remains a mystery. In his 2008 satire, Hanif offers an explanation. It involves Ali Shigri, an air-force pilot who is seeking revenge for his father’s murder, it also features smooth CIA spooks, saturnine generals, blind prisoners – and a tender love story between two cadets. So convincing is Hanif on detail – he is a former air-force pilot – that retired army officers have often taken him aside and whispered: “Son, who are your sources?”

6. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
Attended to by his domestic staff, the elderly KK Harouni, retired civil servant and landowner, has withdrawn into his decaying mansion in Lahore. Meanwhile, income from his extensive, once profitable landholdings slowly declines under the management of a corrupt overseer. In these haunting stories of the characters that people Harouni’s world – his land agent, his mistress, wealthy relatives, servants, farmhands – Mueenuddin skilfully examines the intersections of class and power and the destruction of a feudal order by forces of modernity.

7. Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid
Hamid is known for addressing urgent global issues in his fiction. But Moth Smoke, his debut novel, is rooted in his native soil and focuses on ordinary Pakistanis. Dara and Ozi, though divided by a gulf of wealth and privilege, are old friends. When Dara loses his job, experiments with hard drugs and starts a disastrous love affair with Ozi’s wife, his life spirals out of control. Sexual love, friendship and betrayal are played out in a criminally unequal society where the rich feel entitled to trample the poor.

8. Meatless Days by Sara Suleri
A memoir in a list of fiction, Meatless Days demands inclusion through its virtuosity of style and depth of enquiry. In nine, elegiac stories that grapple with memory, love and loss, Suleri sketches an intimate portrait of her family – her Pakistani father, the noted journalist ZA Suleri, Welsh mother and five siblings – against the backdrop of Pakistan’s turbulent history. The sections about her gorgeous elder sister, Ifat, who died tragically young, are searing in their intensity. This is a book that resonates long after the last page has been turned.

9. Home Boy by HM Naqvi
Narrated with great verve by Chuck (real name Shehzad), a Pakistani immigrant and graduate of NYU, this novel unfolds not in Pakistan but in cosmopolitan New York. In the wake of 9/11, three young friends – flamboyant, confident, swaggering – embark on an innocent, high-spirited caper. When it goes disastrously wrong they discover the folly of their optimistic assumptions about their adopted homeland. A deft exploration of “otherness”.

10. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Shamsie grapples with the changed realities of a post-9/11 world in this vast novel, which spans continents, generations and two cataclysmic upheavals that have defined recent history. Opening in Nagasaki on 6 August 1945 with Hiroko, a Japanese woman, slipping on a silk kimono, this confident, intricately plotted novel ends in Guantánamo Bay with her naked son, Raza, about to don that notorious orange jumpsuit.

(Source: Guardian)

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

10 things that changed me after the death of a parent

The relationships children have with their parents are unlike any other. They take care of us when we can’t fend for ourselves and provide encouragement when nothing seems to be going right. Unconditional love knows no bounds.

Relationship and life strategy coach Lisa Schmidt lost her parents and wrote a powerful tribute to what that truly feels like. She tells of how it’s affected her in the long run and in every day life. She also tells us positive thoughts she still takes away from losing her parents. Her vulnerable story and the wisdom within it are truly inspiring.

Read Lisa’s “10 Things That Changed Me After the Death of a Parent” below:

“I don’t think there is anything that can prepare you to lose a parent. It is a larger blow in adulthood I believe, because you are at the point where you are actually friends with your mother or father. Their wisdom has finally sunk in and you know that all of the [stuff] you rolled your eyes at as a teenager really was done out of love and probably saved your life a time or two.

I lost both of mine two years apart; my mother much unexpected and my father rather quickly after a cancer diagnosis. My mom was the one person who could see into my soul and could call me out in the most effective way. She taught me what humanity, empathy and generosity means. My father was the sarcastic realist in the house and one of the most forgiving people I have ever met. If you wanted it straight, with zero [filter]; just go ask my dad.

Grief runs its course and it comes in stages, but I was not prepared for it to never fully go away.


1. My phone is never more than 1 foot away from me at bedtime, because the last time I did that I missed the call that my mother died.

2. The very thought of my mother’s death, at times, made me physically ill for about six months after she died. I literally vomited.

3. Their deaths have at times ripped the remainder of our family apart. I did my best to honor their wishes and sometimes that made me the bad guy. The burden of that was immense, but I understood why I was chosen. It made me stronger as a person, so for that I am grateful.

4. I’m pissed that my son didn’t get to experience them as grandparents. I watched it five times before his birth and I feel robbed. He would have adored them and they him.

5. I would not trade my time with them for anything, but sometimes I think it would have been easier had you died when I was very young. The memories would be less.

6. Don’t [complain] about your parents in front of me. You will get an earful about gratitude and appreciation. As a “Dead Parents Club” member, I would take your place in a heartbeat, so shut your mouth. Get some perspective on how truly fleeting life is.

7. It’s like being a widow — a “club” you never wanted to join. Where do I return this unwanted membership, please?

8. Other club members are really the only people who can truly understand what it does to a person. They just get it. There is no other way to explain it.

9. Life does go on, but there will be times even years later, you will still break down like it happened yesterday.

10. When you see your friends or even strangers with their mom or dad, you will sometimes be jealous. Envious of the lunch date they have. Downright pissed that your mom can’t plan your baby shower. Big life events are never ever the same again.

Here I sit eight and ten years later and there are still times that I reach for the phone when something exciting happens. Then it hits me; [shoot], I can’t call them.

Their deaths have forever changed me and how I look at the world. In an odd way it has made me a better parent. I am always acutely aware of what memories can mean to my son and how I will impact his life while I am on this earth. He deserves to know how much he is loved and when I am gone, what I teach and instill in him now, will be my legacy.

(source: Inspire More)

Ruskin Bond reveals where he found the novels he wrote

As a novelist and storyteller, I have always drawn upon my memories of places that I have known and lived in over the years. More than most writers, perhaps, I find myself drawing inspiration from the past – my childhood, adolescence, youth, early manhood...

It is over sixty years since I wrote my first novel, The Room on the Roof, the story of a sixteen-year-old on a journey of self-discovery in small-town India – chiefly Dehradun.

But to talk of my early inspiration I must go back to my very beginnings, to the then small, princely state of Jamnagar, tucked away in the Gulf of Kutch. Here my father started a small palace school for the princesses, and I learnt to read and write along with them. I was there till the age of six, and I still treasure vivid memories of Jamnagar’s beautiful palaces and sandy beaches.

Some of these landmarks are preserved for me in photographs taken by my father, which I have to this day. An old palace with pretty windows of coloured glass remained fixed in my memory and many years later gave me the story “The Room of Many Colours”, which also inspired an episode in a TV serial called Ek Tha Rusty, in which that wonderful old thespian, Zohra Sehgal, excelled in the role of an eccentric, albeit fictional rani.

The first book I read by myself was Alice in Wonderland, and it might well have been set in the palace gardens – rose bushes, privet hedges and croquet lawns, all at hand! But this fairytale world disappeared from my life forever when World War II broke out and my father joined the Royal Air Force.

I spent a memorable year and a half with him in New Delhi, then still a very new city – just the capital area designed by Edwin Lutyens and Connaught Place, with its gleaming new shops and restaurants and cinemas. We had to walk through scrub jungles to get to Humayun’s Tomb; take a tonga to get to the railway station at the other end of Old Delhi; keep cool with table fans and khus-khus matting well-soaked by the bhisti or water carrier, who came around at regular intervals. I saw Laurel and Hardy films and devoured milkshakes at the Keventers Milk Bar, even as the Quit India Movement gathered momentum.

I was seven years old and yet to go to a proper school. I would have been quite happy to never go to one, but my father took me to Simla (now Shimla) and put me in Bishop Cotton. While the best thing about Simla was the mountain railway, the best thing about the school was the library.

School life did not inspire much of my writing, but that well-stocked library gave me a solid grounding in the classics and the literature of the time.
I was barely ten when I received the news of my father’s death, and my life was turned upside down for some time. I had to adjust to my stepfather’s Punjabi home in Dehradun, and that took a little doing, as his main interests were shikar and second-hand cars. But Dehradun at the time was a pretty little town of some 40,000 inhabitants; today it is a state capital with a population nearing 17 lakh in number. These days, the lychee gardens have given way to blocks of flats. But the old Dehra, with its country lanes and rolling hills, found its way into many of my stories.

When I was seventeen, I was shipped off to the UK to “better my prospects” as my mother put it. Out of a longing for India and the friends I had made in Dehra came my first novel – The Room on the Roof – featuring the life and loves of Rusty, my alter ego. Two years and two drafts later it found a publisher, André Deutsch, who would later introduce VS Naipaul to the literary world. In those days, the standard advance was just £50 – but it was enough to bring me back to India.

In the 1950s everyone travelled by sea, as air services were still in their infancy. A passenger liner took about three weeks from Southampton to Bombay (now Mumbai), stopping for a day or two at Gibraltar, Port Said, Aden and Karachi.

After docking in Bombay, I took a train to Dehra, where I stepped onto the platform of the small railway station and embarked on the hazardous journey of a freelance writer.
Railway stations! Trains! Platforms! I knew as long as these were there I would never run out of stories. Ambala Junction gave me The Woman on Platform8, the Kalka-Shimla Railway route gave me The Tunnel, and a small wayside halt on the fringe of the Siwalik forests gave me The Night Train at Deoli.

In the 1950s trains still used steam engines, and there was a certain romance attached to train journeys, a romance that was captured by Rudyard Kipling in Kim and many of his short stories. It is over 130 years since AH Wheeler & Co. started their chain of railway bookstalls, and published many of Kipling’s early stories (written in the 1880s when he was a journalist with The Civil and Military Gazette) in their Indian Railway Library series – collectors’ items today.

I did not have Wheeler’s or The Gazette, but I had publications like Sainik Samachar, Sport and Pastime, Shankar’s Weekly, The Leader, The Statesman, Illustrated Weekly and others – all willing to pay a budding young writer anything from Rs 25 to Rs 50 for a short story. I wrote for anyone who would publish me, and I had great fun eking out a living for a few years.

Those small cheques enabled me to live off dhaba food, but what I badly needed was home cooking, so I ended up in Delhi, where my mother was living.
There I looked for inspiration in tombs and monuments and the ever-expanding city, but did not find it, and my productivity dropped. Then came an excursion to Shahjahanpur, my father’s birthplace, where the old cantonment hadn’t changed since 1857 – providing me with the background for A Flight of Pigeons, the mutiny story that was to be filmed later by Shyam Benegal, called Junoon. It had been recommended by legendary Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai, who also took a small role in the film.

Escape from Delhi had become a priority for me. I felt drawn to the hills above Dehra. On the outskirts of Mussoorie I found a small cottage, surrounded by oak and maple trees where the rent, thankfully, was nominal.

Since then my forty-five years in Mussoorie have been an epic in themselves, and have already filled several books. I do go away sometimes – to Delhi, Orissa, Rajasthan – but I always return in some haste to my small study with its window looking out upon the mountains and the valley.

I’m of the opinion that every writer needs a window. Preferably two.
Is the house, the room, the situation...important for a writer? A good wordsmith should be able to work anywhere – in a moving train, in a hotel room, on board a ship struggling against a typhoon, or under an erupting volcano. But to me, the room you live in day after day is all-important.

The stories and the poems float in through my window, float in from the magic mountains, and the words appear on the page without much effort on my part. I can see the curvature of the earth from my window, because there is nothing between me and the far horizon. Planet Earth belongs to me. And at night, the stars are almost within reach.

(Source: Scroll)