How to talk to someone with Alzheimer’s

One of the biggest challenges in the care of people with dementia is the breakdown of communication.  “Reawakening” was originally the popular practice that was used when difficulties arose. Conventional wisdom was to bring a person in an alternative reality into the real world by stating the cold hard facts. “No, you can’t have the car keys, you don’t even have a car. You can’t visit your mother. She has been dead for twenty years.”

For obvious reasons, this strategy is not effective. Not only does it cause distress to the affected person, but the caregiver could also feel angry and frustrated. If it’s a family member, it could bring back memories about who the person used to be and regret for the current situation.  Even if people live in a dream world, they retain their self-identity and will sense a conflict. Constantly being told that they are wrong could be psychologically damaging and could result in an escalation of the conflict.

Lying is a word that is difficult for most people to swallow, but, apparently, it is a technique used by some in the care of patients requiring memory care.  Sometimes, caregivers feel that telling white lies or fibs is justified if it keeps people with dementia peaceful. According to Wall Street Journal reporter Sue Shellenbarger, therapeutic lying works for many people caring for sufferers of dementia who can be aggressive, unreasonable and agitated. According to this model, in the above example, blatant untruths “You can drive the car after lunch. Mom has gone to New York for a wedding,” are perfectly acceptable responses to keeps a delusional person quiet.

Others feel that this is condescending and unethical. At some level the person will sense the falseness and will feel patronized. Psychiatrist Dr. Sperber, feels that it’s a contradiction in terms. Lying he says cannot be therapy when it breaks the trust in a relationship between a patient and a provider or care-giver.

Patient autonomy is essential in the practice of medicine. Cognitively impaired people may be intuitively able to sense deception.  According to him, validation is a more compassionate practice than lying.

Validation was developed by Naomi Feil in 1982. This is based on understanding the underlying reasons behind the way disoriented seniors behave. Past trauma may be responsible for certain behaviors. Feelings of fear, guilt or anger about past issues can play a role. Early soothing behaviors such as thumb sucking can return when speech and memory fail. Painful feelings will decrease if they are supported and validated, but will increase if criticized.  So using the same illustration, validation may involve asking the person about the car he owned a long time ago. He may reminisce about the old days, the make of the car, places visited. And you can ask them something about their mother and share your own memories with them. The person may share underlying feelings that created this thought – perhaps loneliness or even a difficult relationship with the mother. This way, no one is disputing the fact that he has stopped driving or that his mother is no more.

Redirection is another method that Dr.Sperber recommends. Distracting an angry and agitated person with an alternative soothing activity may involve saying something like “Remember how you always liked to drive to the beach. Would you like to look at this album of pictures” This might help get the person’s mind of car keys or visiting his mother.

Another method drawn from Aikido is to avoid the issue altogether and go for the underlying emotion.
“It must be hard for you to always have to ask me for things.”  Whatever the method, the idea is to not stand your ground, but accept that the elderly person is in their own world. This may be a good concept for communication in general.

NVC (non-violent communication) is a communication process that was developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s based on the principles of empathy towards the self and others. The idea is to tap into a well of compassion when talking to someone.    Really listening without judging and evaluating fosters empathy. In close families, familiarity can lead to demands, but requests are more effective to get co-operation.  The same principles can be applied to seniors who have Alzheimer’s or memory problems. To connect to others and create mutual understanding, it is often better to be kind rather than right. And you don’t have to lie to do it.



Egypt Diary Day 2

Or 3, Can’t keep track with all this Jet Lag. Woke up today at 4,38 local time.

There’s a mall attached to our hotel with a movie theatre. Nice feeling of moderate Moslems about. Women wear headscarves, but tight jeans and high high boots.  Some without the scarves – probably Coptic Christians. The locals say that they all really get along, but there was a church bombing a few days ago in Alexandria. Lots of tension about Jan 7th, Christmas day here.

Toured the Egyptian museum yesterday, with our guide Sharif – a tall guy with a Jamaican look even the accent. Showed us the key exhibits – impossible to see them all. Papyrus showing Day of Judgement. Apparently Papyrus was only for the Royals. pottery, ceramics for the plebian crowd. Papyrus – symbol of Lower Egypt, Lotus -symbol of Upper. Golden chair of King Tut, at his feet, and on his sandals – the pictures of Egypts enemies – “Asians and Nubians” so he could stamp on them. Asians probably referred to Persians not the Chinese. The gold chair had his Queen (also his sister – yuck) anointing him with oil. Also saw his langoti – totally intact and framed. If you don’t know what that means think underwear.

Mummy room was not worth the extra money IMHO. Grisly corpses. Ramses 2 with yellowish hair caused by chemicals. Latest discovery – true mummy (obese one apparently) of Queen Hatshepsut also in room One mummy with long finger nails kept intact with rings. Also mummies of animals. The Egyptians loved them, and contrary to popular belief, didn’t kill them just to have them in their tomb. They were placed there when they died naturally. Not true of the votive animals – cats and birds. They were killed.

Islamic Cairo today, so have my salwar kameez and scarf ready!

Veggie Travel Update:

Breakfast great – lots of choices in the hotel. Coffee here is amazing. I think I mentioned it before. And a real honeycomb (without the bees) for breakfast. Falafel is a whole different beast here. Really like vadai.  Banana milk, fresh yogurt – milk tastes much better than in the US. Also coffee is served with hot milk. Too jet lagged to go out for dinner. Room service had really bad choices at the Fairmont hotel – watery soup (actual water with a few floating bits of veggies – imitation samosas that weren’t good and they actually botched grape leaves. Who said it was east being green?

By ricemother Posted in Travel

Atelier Cezanne

Northern light is the most stable. A wooden floor is preferable to a floor made of red tiles. And white walls reflect too much light. Apparently, Paul Cezanne did five weeks of research to find the perfect shade of grey for the walls of his studio. This is what the bright French tour guide tells visitors as we stand in front of a window wall.

This is no grand museum, just a simple house where Cezanne used to come every morning from his apartment downtown in Aix-en-Provence. Situated half way between his home and Mont Sainte- Victoire which is featured often in his paintings it was the perfect place for his work. Due to development the mountain can no longer be seen, but thanks to gracious benefactors, at least the building is still standing. The curator of the Barnes foundation in Philadelphia (which has 69 Cezannes according to her) has visited the studio, but not many people know about this hidden gem.

Various ordinary objects, mostly from Cezanne’s mother’s kitchen featured in his still-life art grace the room. A green olive jar, a blue ceramic jar in a basket, a broken Cupid statue, can all be recognized in a calendar of his prints available at the gift store below. Cezanne’s art backpack is still in a corner right next to his pea coats and berets, as if he has just stepped out of the room and will be returning soon. A giant easel that he used for his Les GrandesBagneuses(The Bathers) stands in a corner. In a famous picture of him taken by painter Emil Bernard (Cezanne was too impatient to sit for a portrait) Cezanne sits on that easel. Photographs were forbidden, but gentle touches seemed to be condoned, so I touched the base of that easel, and sneaked (a tiny one) brush of his coat as if I could grab history onto my fingers. Cezanne didn’t want to use real models, the guide says because he said “people would talk.” He was 65 when he did the paintings of bathers and he didn’t want nude models in his studio. Instead, he used a mannequin that is displayed next to a large painted wooden screen also featured in his paintings.

For a few minutes in that room one could feel the dedication of the painter to his craft. This was where art was made, not fame, not fortune. Just an ordinary person showing up every day to do his job. Outside, the garden is wild and overgrown. A large tree bends over the front door and creepers twirl around trees. A trail lined with hedges stretches out from the back. Time has taken over, but the spirit of Cezanne still remains.

By ricemother Posted in Uncategorized

The Clay Cart – Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Vasantasena giving her jewels to Charudatta

Vasantasena giving her jewels to Charudatta

Many years ago, an aunt from LA stopped by in Ashland on her way to visit me here in Portland. She raved about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), but I thought it was the high school English teacher in her that was talking. In fact, the last time I had read Shakespeare was in high school. Due to an unforeseen transfer through three schools, I wound up studying the Merchant of Venice three years in a row. I can quote from that play, but my knowledge of the rest of Shakespeare is quite limited. Then, a few years back, when my kids were active in theater, my husband and I decided to visit Ashland. We discovered that there were some non-Shakespearean plays (a notable one was a slick production of “A Raisin in the Sun”), the town was idyllic with new-age shops and many food choices for vegetarians, and it had a Fourth of July parade that, let’s just say, swerved to the left. The whole family has been hooked ever since.

This year marked a changing of the guard for OSF, with a new artistic director – Bill Rauch, an advocate for community-based theater productions. He succeeded Libby Appel who had been the artistic director of the festival for twelve years. Rauch came with a new agenda – one that included exploring beyond the Western canon. For his inaugural year, he decided to direct a play himself – the Sanskrit play “The Clay Cart.”

One of the hallmarks of OSF is the unique way the theaters are transformed for each production. For “The Clay Cart,” the stage at the Angus Bowmer Theater was made into a circular one. Idols along the circumference of the stage evoked temple carvings. A multitude of lanterns (swaying to depict a thunder storm, once, during the course of the play) hung from the ceiling. An orchestra consisting of a sarod, a flute and tablas and playing East-West fusion music composed by Andre Pluess, occupied a discreet spot in the back. As a multi-ethnic cast walked into the stage to the melody of a male voice singing “May Shiva’s meditation favor thee,” the audience knew that it was in for an exotic treat. The actors touched the ground reverentially to grace the play and as they sang, each adopted a pose of Lord Shiva. Given that the choreographer appointed for the play is Kathak dancer Anjani Ambegaokar, director of Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India in LA, this traditional opening blessing ritual before a performance came as no surprise. In some ways, the whole play was like a dance drama, except that it was in English.

“Mrichakatika” or “The Clay Cart” is an ancient Sanskrit play ascribed to Śūdraka (even though just as it is for Shakespeare, there is some controversy about his authorship). A version translated by the renowned Sanskrit Professor, J.A.B. van Buitenen, was used for this play defined as a prakarana, or social comedy, a play about ordinary people. It’s the love story of Charudatta, a poor, noble Brahmin and Vasantasena, a courtesan who is besieged by the lustful villain Samsthanaka, the brother-in-law of the king. The clay cart is only a minor element of the play – its only role is as a toy of Charudatta’s son that Vasantasena fills with her jewels. More key to the story are the jewels which she entrusts to Charudatta for safekeeping. When these are stolen, Charudatta is distraught that he has failed her trust, and he sets out to compensate her with jewels his dutiful wife donates for the cause. There are more sub-plots – a gambler who becomes a Buddhist monk, a revolutionary who escapes, with events finally leading to a scene where Vasanatasena appears to have been killed and Charudatta, accused of her murder, is about to be executed. Not to worry – theater of that time apparently allowed only happy endings.

With its two-dimensional villain, mistaken identities, star-crossed lovers, witty dialogue (“Wisdom comes naturally to women, but men have to be taught with books,” a character says), the play had all the elements of Shakespearean drama. Where it differed was in the cultural context – bare-chested Brahmin men with their sacred threads and one with even a kudumi (tuft of hair on a shaved scalp), a courtesan who looked like she was straight out of a Ramayana TV serial, a woman, the mother of Samshtanaka carrying a large purse like any woman in modern India, and haunting music with Sanskrit lyrics translated into English. The play also had unusual theatrical techniques that seemed to me to be Brechtian. Pillows are used for scenic elements – a brick wall, a garden of flowers. Actors walking with a curtain hung on a pole represented a carriage, and the actor playing Charudatta (Cristofer Jean), with a frame around his face, represented a painting of himself. Actors removed props during the play, and even interacted with the audience – a gambler goes around the audience begging for gold pieces, and soldiers hunt for an escaped political prisoner. However, later I discovered that Brecht had actually been influenced by Asian theater, and this 2000 year-old play, after all, pre-dates both Brecht and Shakespeare.

I found some criticism of the play, with some people complaining that it was like children’s theater and other critics saying it was not polished enough, but I think that perspective depends on where you are coming from. For instance, the rationale for a romance between a married Brahmin and a courtesan was probably not something a Western audience could swallow very easily. Maybe a play like Kalidasa’s Shakuntala would have fared better. There were also a few cultural discrepancies – the courtesan (played by the gorgeous-looking Miriam Laube) seemed inappropriately playful for her character, and she also painted with her left hand – a major taboo. However, the sheer joy, energy and talent of the cast and crew, the attention to detail, and the incorporation of Indian music and dance by people who were new to those arts, made up for any flaws. Given that there were only a handful of Indians involved in the production, it was a valiant attempt at exploring another culture and an authentic demonstration of ancient Sanskrit street theater.

The five hour drive to Ashland is well worth the trip. Walking through the quaint houses in the neighborhood, exploring Lithia park, eating organic Veggie wraps in Pangea, or even venturing out on a side rafting trip with Noah’s River Rafting make Ashland a fun weekend getaway, even without the plays.

“The Clay Cart” runs through Nov. 2. To purchase tickets call 800-219-8161 or visit

Maitreya: Everything is lost!

Charudatta: Lost? She did not accept the necklace?

Maitreya: How could we be so lucky! No, she folded her delicate little hands at her forehead and took it.

Charudatta: Then why do you say that everything is lost?

Maitreya: Isn’t it lost? For a cheap gold box, which we didn’t eat or drink up, which was just stolen by a burglar, she has taken a pearl necklace that is the prize of four oceans!

Charudatta: Don’t talk like that, friend; we have but repaid the price of her great trust.

Maitreya: And I have another grievance friend. She winked at her entourage and hid her face behind her dupatta: she mocked me! And therefore, Brahmin though I am, I throw myself with my head at your feet and implore you to put a stop to your disastrous love. A courtesan is like a clod of earth that’s got into your sandal: you can’t get rid of it. They’re right in saying that a merchant who does not cheat, a village council that does not quarrel, and a courtesan who does not grab are hard to imagine.

From The Clay Cart by Śūdraka, translated by J.A.B. van Buitenen

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni

An ancient story of drama, intrigue, skullduggery, passion, violence, lust – there’s a lot to mine from the Mahabharata, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni does it with gusto in the novel “The Palace of Illusions,” the story from the perspective of “Paanchali,” aka Draupadi. I have always wondered how a story of war and revenge could be considered a worthy spiritual text. It certainly is a very difficult premise to sell to the American public. Much harder is to eke romance out of polyandry. Even in India, Draupadi’s relationship with her five husbands has long been the subject of bawdy jokes. But Divakaruni manages to pull it off, even if at times, put in the framework of a novel, it’s a little hard to swallow – one can see how book critics would not be able to buy the whole idea. However, she does manage to skillfully portray a delicate, forbidden romance between Paanchali and Karna.

The novel is a little weak in its setting. Maybe because there is so much of plot to convey, we get very little of a sense of place. She doesn’t seem to have done much historical research about the life and times of people in the story, and it appears to be mostly based on the epic.

Where the book works, though, is in showing the transformation of Draupadi from an innocent child to a vindictive woman. A fresh new viewpoint is the concept of Draupadi herself as the architect of a devastating war, how her own desire for revenge led to a cascade of events that destroyed her life. The relationship between Krishna and Draupadi is another strong theme that runs through the story. We see Draupadi learn lessons from a man whom she suspects to be a divine being. We see her evolve, and ultimately transcend the world of form.

Some of it is a little preachy and sermonizing – italicized excerpts from the Bhagvad Gita are scattered randomly through some of the chapters. But that has always been Divakaruni’s style, and a common criticism of her writing. Her cause used to be the support of abused women, now her goal appears to promote the spiritual concepts of Hinduism, (she is an active member of the Chinmayananda Mission, and invited members to her book reading). This book is also not exempt from a streak of feminism. Draupadi comes out quite superior to all her husbands, and Arjuna is mostly a non-player in the story.

Krishna touches my hand. If you can call it a hand, these pinpricks of light that are newly coalescing into the shape of fingers and palm. At his touch something breaks, a chain that was tied to the woman-shape crumpled on the snow below. I am buoyant and expansive and uncontainable – but I always was so, only I never knew it. I am beyond name and gender and the imprisoning patterns of ego. And yet, for the first time, I’m truly Panchaali. I reach with my other hand for Karna – how surprisingly solid his clasp! Above us our palace waits the only one I’ve ever needed. Its walls are space, its floor is sky, its center everywhere. We rise; the shapes cluster around us in welcome, dissolving and forming and dissolving again like fireflies in a summer evening.

Reviewers often find fault with Indian historical fiction. For instance, Indu Sundaresan, author of the book “The Twentieth Wife,” about Nur Jahan, faced criticism with respect to the character development of her protagonist even though the author was constrained by the facts. A review in the Oregonian also complained about the archaic nature of the language in Divakaruni’s new book, but a reader familiar with Indian mythology would not notice it.

The bottom line though, is that Divakaruni is a seasoned storyteller. She distills the Mahabharata into an enjoyable beach-read for the average person – quite an accomplishment in itself. You clearly see the universality of human nature. If the Iraq war is any indication, it is obvious that mankind is still capable of being involved in a pointless war. People discover the folly of being lost in the material world of power and prestige in the Mahabharata, but the lessons have still not been absorbed by modern man. This book is a pretty good attempt to bring those lessons home, and who knows, maybe Divakaruni will succeed in spreading her message. At least it is a good one.

Reviewed by Lakshmi Jagannathan

Salman Rushdie Book Reading

Salman Rushdie Book Reading “Shalimar the Clown”

The line weaved around the entire block of the First Unitarian Church. It was nice to know that there was still interest in another book by Salman Rushdie. Fortunately, it was not too much. It was still possible to get a seat in the packed auditorium. Compared to many such events there was no fanfare. Laila Lalami, author of the book “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” introduced him, and there he was alive and in the flesh. With graying hair and a British accent (with just a trace of Desi), he could have been any good old Bombay boy. This didn’t feel like a formal book reading, but more like a chat in somebody’s living room.

Rushdie’s new book is “Shalimar the Clown” which explores religious fundamentalism, a subject with which he is all too familiar. In a peaceful village in Kashmir where the people accept the marriage of a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl, fanaticism slowly rises, epitomized by an “iron mullah”, literally made of metal, who creeps into the village. As he admitted in his talk, the impact of his forced underground exile still works its way into his books.

As he began the reading, he gave the plot away, explaining that it was in the beginning of the book anyway and wouldn’t ruin it for a reader. The story begins with the seemingly inexplicable murder of Max Ophuls, an ex-ambassador to India in LA by his own driver. The murder of a Jewish US intelligence official by a Muslim appears to be a politically motivated act. But this is a story of love. Love and betrayal, and how the combination can spark fanaticism. The murderer is the husband of a woman who had an affair with the ambassador in India. He is Shalimar the Clown, a former tightrope walker in a village circus. His wife’s infidelity has turned him into a religious zealot. He is a terrorist of the worst kind, one with a mission of personal vengeance. The rest of the book traces the history that leads to that point, with LA and India serving as some of the background.

Rushdie’s first excerpt was Max’s visit to his daughter in her apartment in LA on her birthday just before the murder. This is a funny piece, describing the Russian immigrant seniors who live in the neighborhood. His daughter (the product of his unfortunate liaison) is named India. She dislikes her name, however, and all it connotes. His description of her feelings about her heritage could almost be the discontent of many an Indian American kid.

The scene was then shifted to a hamlet in Kashmir, Pachigam where a young Shalimar is wooing Boonyi, the woman who would eventually betray him. He has been given surprisingly Zen-like advice by his father to become one with the rope and the air to master his skill. Shalimar and Boonyi are teenagers who are madly in love, and Rushdie describes their dalliance with poetic detail. It quickly lapses though into the ribald style that he often resorts to in his writing, and which sometimes seems a little gratuitous.

Apparently the theme of the book was inspired by Rushdie’s visit to India in the eighties when he met a circus troupe in Kashmir. Here Rushdie’s political beliefs could be considered controversial. He compared (albeit jokingly) the Kashmiri sentiment about the Indian army to the current Iraqi feelings about the US army. When he was out there filming for a documentary, he claims that the Kashmiris disliked the presence of the Indian army, but on camera they would not disclose that. If there is slight bias in Rushdie’s views, it is probably understandable. The book after all goes back to his roots and is dedicated to his Kashmiri grandparents. One unpleasant character in this novel is Colonel Kachhwaha, an abusive, pathetic, pompous man who is a caricature of an Indian army officer. Rushdie doesn’t quite seem to identify with Hindu India, yet his novels draw freely from Hindu culture and mythology. As he mentioned in his evening talk in “Midnight’s Children” a novel based in Bombay, the main character represented Ganesh, “The God of Bombay.” Political views aside, as it is in many of his books, humor is the redeeming feature of this novel. In fact his imitation of an old Russian immigrant woman in LA while reading revealed that he is quite an actor too. It also betrayed his Indian roots. It could have easily been a Parsi lady from Bombay

There were nine grabbers in the cosmos, Surya the Sun, Soma the Moon, Budha the Mercury, Mangal the Mars, Shukra the Venus, Brihaspati the Jupiter, Shani the Saturn, and Rahu and Ketu, the two shadow planets. The shadow planets actually existed without actually existing. They were heavenly bodies without bodies. . . . “The shadow planets act upon us from a distance and focus our minds upon our instincts. Rahu is the exaggerator the intensifier! Ketu is the blocker the suppressor! The dance of the shadow planets is the dance of the struggle within us.”Unlike many other celebrity authors, Salman Rushdie was very generous with questions from the audience. Perhaps the fatwa has made him humble and grateful to be living a normal life. He kept fielding questions, and stopped only when people actually started to leave. When a questioner asked about how the fatwa had changed him he replied that one outcome of the fatwa was his detailed knowledge of security. “If you ever need a security guard, call me,” he joked. “I know everything you can possibly know about the subject.” In a matter of fact way he also mentioned that it had brought him into contact with many world leaders and important people that he might not otherwise have met. It was obvious that the ordeal he went through has given him a more centered perspective of life. He is also an activist for writers’ rights, and is active in PEN, an organization dedicated to defending free expression. Apparently they were able to block a move by the US government to curb the rights of writers from the “Axis of Evil” nations.

Salman Rushdie has been the butt of so many jokes, with so many unsavory stories written about him, (including the one about getting plastic surgery for his droopy eyelids when he married the glamorous model Padma Lakshmi, a woman much younger than him). During the reading he made several references t to his wife whose apartment in LA inspired it as a setting for the novel. According to one story he threatened a reporter who wrote disparaging remarks about his wife who is known for her revealing outfits and flamboyant lifestyle. Ironic for someone who was himself attacked for his writing. Still, if there are other sides to Salman Rushdie they were not evident that evening. It was quite a surprise to see instead a very down-to-earth person, happy to be interacting freely with people interested in his writing.

By ricemother Posted in Events

What the Buddha Never Taught by Timothy Ward

Transcending the ego is not an easy task. Particularly since it sneaks up on you when you least expect it. You know the feeling. You have been to many lectures, read many books, and feel you have evolved, spiritually speaking. The trappings of material success seem irrelevant to you. But there is just one problem. Other people. They are annoying. You just can’t stand their one-upmanship. You know you are morally superior to them, but they still seem to be able to get to you…there you go again, ego has snared you.

In the book, ” What the Buddha Never Taught” by Timothy Ward, the author wonders who benefits when the ego is transcended. If the ego is vanquished, then who is there to enjoy the bliss of self-realization? As he explains it, using the mind to get rid of itself is like trying to touch the tip of your tongue with the tongue, or trying to see your eye with your eye.

On a spiritual quest, Timothy Ward, a Canadian from Vancouver, becomes a member of a strict monastic order, Wat Pah Nanachat, located in a remote jungle in Thailand. This is a place of complete self-negation, fasting, ritual begging and manual labor. Austerity is carried to such an extreme in the pursuit of ego removal, that even intellectual discussion is forbidden for being too worldly. One monk who was a musician has given up his instrument. This is not a place of love, harmony, bliss or any of those wholesome feelings. Instead, it is a place where a skeleton is a reminder of the transient nature of things and people revere a monk who committed “samadhi suicide”.

Although his original plan was to become a full-fledged monk, gradually Tim starts to see inconsistencies that disturb him. For a place of no ego, there is a distinct hierarchy among the monks. Instead of being true to their values, the monks just try to follow the letter of the law. For instance, it is OK to get novices to kill pests such as ants, or cut weeds, but not OK for the monks to do it. And even then, it has to be done indirectly, by hinting to them rather then specifically ordering them to do so. The most difficult thing for Tim to swallow is the way the original teacher Ajahn Chah who is in a coma is kept alive and paraded around to visitors. He suspects that it is for fund-raising. He cuts his visit short and quits the order.

Reading this book makes you wonder about the nature of existence. You realize that each environment has its own reality. For example, the qualities that would be essential to achieve material success in a competitive world would be a hindrance in a Theravada Buddhist monastery. If accomplishment is prized in the outside world, detachment and self-control is of more value in a monastery. Perhaps both extremes are unhealthy. Following the ego’s lead will clearly lead to all the suffering we see around us. The constant quest for more is clearly not a recipe for peace. Yet creation deserves appreciation, even if it is an illusion. Perhaps the key is to be detached from the drama of life, but treasure the present moment of experience.

Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald

Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure. Sarah MacDonald

New Years Eve revelry, Diwali, wild disco parties, ashrams, Bollywood, yoga lessons, weddings, heat and dust. Australian Sarah MacDonald experiences this all in her funny, perceptive account of her sojourn in India in the 90’s – an India that is alien to many of India’s diaspora who left the country years ago. This is a very new and different India, and India of “Reality TV shows”, relaxed moral values in young adults, decaying mansions and their owners from a bygone era.

After a miserable first encounter with the third world – travel sickness, beggars, mosquitoes and incompetent bureaucracy, Sarah vows to never visit India again. A prophecy forced on her by a palmist/beggar at the airport rattles her – “You, madam, you come back to India, …….” But she dismisses it vehemently and returns to Australia. Little does she know that the prophecy will come true many years later when her boyfriend Jonathan moves to India to work as a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Unable to stay apart, she resigns her job as a TV reporter and joins him, full of apprehension and little enthusiasm. What follows is a love-hate story of her relationship with India.

The story reads like fiction but the drama of Indian society is way too real. A friend’s mother commits suicide when she discovers the marriage of her daughter to someone of her own choice. In Kashmir the scenery includes coffins and guns. A nasty bug picked up after a Ganges dip leads to a nightmare flu, hospitalization and a prolonged recovery. For Sarah the hospital is a bewildering cocktail of compassion, inefficiency (she picks up stomach flu there) and questionable safety (her fiancé has to be her bodyguard at night). Yet her close brush with death transforms her and instead of making her retreat in disgust it spurs a spiritual quest to discover herself.

Throwing the swords down, the naked blue-black sadhus jump and dance around us and the camera. They are waving, shaking my hand, shivering and doing all too revealing cartwheels. Their faces split into huge grins and their dreadlocks glisten with drops of water….

It’s a meeting of the primal and the prim, the faithful and the foreign, the devotee and the doubter. I breathe in the rapture and joy on their faces, and for a moment I feel their ecstasy. Together we wade in the waters that form heaven on earth.

Throwing the swords down, the naked blue-black sadhus jump and dance around us and the camera. They are waving, shaking my hand, shivering and doing all too revealing cartwheels. Their faces split into huge grins and their dreadlocks glisten with drops of water…. It’s a meeting of the primal and the prim, the faithful and the foreign, the devotee and the doubter. I breathe in the rapture and joy on their faces, and for a moment I feel their ecstasy. Together we wade in the waters that form heaven on earth.Spirituality becomes her theme and in India she finds a multitude of faiths represented. While her discerning ability as a journalist helps her cut through the smoke and mirrors of various cults, her open-minded attitude keeps her compassionate and non-judgmental. She encounters a doomsday sect consisting of only White Westerners, obsessed with sunscreen and kundalini yoga. Their hyperventilation exercise makes everyone feel light-headed, happy and dizzy, but Sarah feels it is oxygen saturation not God realization as the others believe. Another ashram that she visits is like a commercial resort with preferential treatment given to foreigners (at a higher price). On the other hand, she feels that a Vipassana meditation retreat in Dharmasala involving ten days of complete sensory deprivation gives her a glimpse of transcendence.

After a Christmas wedding in Australia her newly-wed travel plans include a trip to the Maha Kumbh Mela where she finds a “bamboo Las Vegas” a man- made street of camps belonging to the various babas. This is an intense course in Hinduism and a chance to observe the bliss of thousands of pilgrims charge into the water for a holy dip at the blow of a whistle. Her smorgasbord of spiritual sampling includes a Jewish group from Israel and the Parsi community in Mumbai. Finally, at the insistence of her Christian household help and her own nagging conscience she goes on a pilgrimage to the Church of Velangani in Tamil Nadu. There she discovers that only in India is Mary (draped in a sari) worshiped as a goddess. Pakistan which she finds “strangely similar to yet oddly different from India” introduces her to Sufism.

This time around she is not a tourist but a resident. For someone unaccustomed to the feudal spirit she finds it a little uncomfortable at first to have a retinue of “servants”. But like many Indians, the multitude of arduous tasks that is required to run a household slowly makes her descend into a luxurious dependency on the help. House hunting is a challenge but in Vasant Vihar, a Delhi suburb, Sarah and her fiancé find a brick two-storied house, the home of a retired colonel.

But the hottest hangout of all is the brand-new Barista coffee shop, part of a chain leading a lust for lattes in this traditional chai town. Each café is contemporary cool combined with eighties nostalgia – teenagers sit in jeans and T-shirts and strum guitars while singing along to Billy Joel and John Denver songs. Karaoke is also catching on, with Western songs regularly massacred. The hot favorite is “Hotel California”- almost unrecognizable when screeched in a strong Hindi accent at double decibels.

But the hottest hangout of all is the brand-new Barista coffee shop, part of a chain leading a lust for lattes in this traditional chai town. Each café is contemporary cool combined with eighties nostalgia – teenagers sit in jeans and T-shirts and strum guitars while singing along to Billy Joel and John Denver songs. Karaoke is also catching on, with Western songs regularly massacred. The hot favorite is “Hotel California”- almost unrecognizable when screeched in a strong Hindi accent at double decibels.Sarah is introduced to the dizzy world of Delhi’s elite. Her friend Aarzoo works for a reality TV show RAAH: “Romance Adventure Aap aur Hum” that tests the relationship of young married couples as they go on an adventure trips. At the home of Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar she chats with Priety Zinta and Aamir Khan.

The consumer culture around her surprises her but she is a good sport and joins in the activities of her friends Billie and Arzoo – beauty treatments, shopping, parties and weddings. Yogesh is her yoga teacher who teaches a version of yoga that is more “yogaerobics” set to pop music. From her description of her interactions it is clear that many of her Indian acquaintances treated her differently, each trying to impress her with a Westernized persona. Nevertheless, Sarah’s travelogue has the perspective of a native because of her close friendships with many Indians.

Sarah’s language is… well, colorful and her observations often acerbic and ruthlessly explicit. Nothing escapes her and she doesn’t mince words. Every nuance of Indian society, life style and attitude is described with a great sense of humor but tempered with affection for the culture around her. Her words evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of India very realistically. One can almost feel the intense heat of a Delhi summer. Her blunt honesty is intimidating at first but as a reader follows her through her travels we see her evolving into a different person. In the end India grows on her and she embraces Indian society, accepting India’s contradictions. Her empathy for the people she encounters makes her a likeable person and someone worth getting to know, at least through a book.

Reviewed by Lakshmi Jagannathan

The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

Gold edged embroidered odhnis, imported crystal collections, hovels and drains filled with “slimy black sludge”. “ The Sari Shop” by Rupa Bajwa is an insightful portrayal of the contradictions of Indian society. “Monsoon Wedding” meets “A Fine Balance”. Squalor and elegance exist in uneasy harmony.

Mrs. Sandhu thought she was as good as anybody now. Never mind her weight, at least she was better than all those thin women with dark, rough skins and mousey hair. A beautiful house, status-family, a caring husband and good looks… what more could a woman ask for? Now, if only the children would do well…

Mrs. Sandhu thought she was as good as anybody now. Never mind her weight, at least she was better than all those thin women with dark, rough skins and mousey hair. A beautiful house, status-family, a caring husband and good looks… what more could a woman ask for? Now, if only the children would do well…Ramchand is like any other anonymous worker in the labyrinthine streets of Amritsar, eking out a meager existence as a salesman in a sari shop. With a roll of the dice, when his parents were suddenly killed in an accident, fate has transported him from a middle class existence as a child into an adult life of servitude to a sari merchant. He observes without rancor the peccadilloes of the affluent ladies around him as they shop for extravagant weddings. As the salesmen roll out exquisite Orissa silks and crisp Bangladeshi cottons, shards of greed and malicious gossip rend the delicate fabric of human kindness. The women, unrestrained by any twinges of modesty, vie with each other to demonstrate their superior socio-economic status. Ramchand observes this all with the detachment typical of the lower rungs of Indian society. Resigned to his own fate, and without a trace of envy towards his decadent customers, he bears the invectives of his supervisor with stoicism.

The only respite for the salesmen is their mid morning snack of tea and samosas. A Sunday movie at the Sangam Cinema Hall is Ramchand’s escape from the quotidian. Dinner with his friends at Lakhan Singh’s Dhaba is another luxury for him, but even there the sad misery of their lives is inescapable. Lakhan and his wife are in perpetual mourning for their two sons that were killed in a political attack at the Golden temple.

To his dismay he found that he could barely read. Any word that consisted of more than four letters caused him trouble. And even when he had painstakingly pieced together the letters and made the word, what it produced was only and empty sound to Ramchand. He rarely knew what it meant.

To his dismay he found that he could barely read. Any word that consisted of more than four letters caused him trouble. And even when he had painstakingly pieced together the letters and made the word, what it produced was only and empty sound to Ramchand. He rarely knew what it meant.He lives a life of quiet desperation, and eagerly grasps an opportunity to foray into a different world. He is sent on an errand to the home of a wealthy industrialist. He returns from his sales visit impressed by the bored dilettante daughter of the house, who plans to establish her superiority over the other society ladies by writing a book. This stirs up Ramchand’s own modest childhood ambition of learning English. Armed with the Complete Letter Writer and a used dictionary he attempts to revisit his childhood dreams of seeking knowledge. The task is daunting. The exercise ‘A letter requesting Payment of an Overdue Subscription to a Club’ has no context for him. He finally gets the bright idea of patiently going through the entire dictionary instead.

Soon however, Ramchand’s already fragile sense of security gets a rude shock when he inadvertently stumbles into a tragic situation involving Kamla, the wife of a co-worker. Her spirit has been slowly crushed by a series of unfortunate circumstances until she has been transformed into a grotesque creature headed for disaster. The iniquities of the society Ramchand lives in shatter his faith in humanity. He is disillusioned by the apathy of the educated upper classes towards the oppressed. Impotent with rage, he sets of on a quest for justice. The strength of this novel is in its realistic story telling with an undercurrent of humor. However, for a powerful story, the plot does not have any twists and turns to intrigue the reader. The writing style is also simple without the literary mastery evident in books by other contemporary Indian writers. This is a thought-provoking debut novel though, and nicely told from the perspective of a compelling character.

Reviewed by Lakshmi Jagannathan