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Monday, March 22, 2010

Nun the less...

With all this news about nuns backing the health care reform, over the objections of their superiors in the church (men, of course), it brought back memories of the women of steel who taught me and other generations of infidels, toiling away in relative obscurity.

I went to a convent school, at the time the only option for a decent 'English medium' education in India. The nuns were all of the Carmelite order, and we called them all Sister so-and-so, whether they were fully-professed or still novices. There was a Mother-superior and a couple of ancient fragile Mothers, who were ceremoniously brought out on their feast days, to wave weakly at the rows of girls in uniform lined up under the blazing sun at mid-day, no shadows cast by the trees lining the ground.

Sister B was the headmistress of the school I went to. To hear my mother tell it, she took me to be interviewed by Sister B, who was instantly charmed by the outlandish American accent with which I spoke and instantly promised admission.  She would stop by every now and then to check on my progress in class in the early years, but I never really got to know her as well as when I reached the last two years in school.
Sister B would stop occasionally by at my piano practice, a daily ritual that I completed after school without fail, and inquire about the latest books that I was reading. I once pointed her in the direction of Rumer Godden's "In This House of Brede", saying she might like it, since it was about Benedictine nuns. She went ahead and ordered the whole set of Godden's nun series, including "Black Narcissus" about a nun who runs away from her Carmelite nunnery with the gardener or such. I think she stopped asking for book recommendations after that.

Sister Y was the replacement as headmistress when Sister B was called back to the main convent headquarters. Her tortoiseshell glasses gave her a more forbidding aspect than the bland moon-shaped ones of Sister B. I remember clashing with her early on.
"Sujatha,", she said, as I argued about missed points in a Mathematics test for an answer given correctly, despite small errors in the work-sheet. " I cannot give you full marks for that answer."
"But Mary did the same thing with her answer, and you have given her full marks!"
"Let me explain something to you. If there are two pupils and I expect more of one because she is of privileged background, I may not award her the points without the proper work-steps, while I may award the points as an encouragement to some other student who could do with it."
"But....it isn't fair. In Maths, if you give the correct answer, you should get the marks!"
My argument went unheeded. It was my first exposure to the concept of 'differential marking', even for subjects like Maths, where a wrong answer is wrong and a right answer is right.

Sister F was rumored to be of a fisherman family, and had gained her family immense prestige when she was accepted into the convent. But she had a bee in her bonnet, and would berate all students at every possible opportunity. "Scrape off the nail polish!", "Remove the bindi"...This last was met by my 'puzzled' query "I thought we learned in Civics that we have freedom of religion in India'. That earned me a sharp admonishment. I went home to my mother, who suggested that I ask her for a written note stating that 'No bindis were allowed'.
That was the last I heard of it. No further comments when I sported a bindi to school. But no compliments on my school work either.

I put the behavior down to incipient fanaticism about religion, and was puzzled when she casually quoted stories from the Mahabharata when discussing a lesson. Why, she knew of the Mahabharata well enough to use it as a lesson pointer! Who would have thought?

Sister H was the beloved of all the students. A novice, she was freckled faintly, with tiny red curls peeping out surreptitiously from under her nun's cap. The rumors flew thick and fast. She had been headed for a stellar career as an air-hostess, when she heeded the call of the Lord and joined the convent. We wondered at her dedication, and the more religious among the class practically anointed her their patron saint, wishing that they could follow in her footsteps when they grew up.
Some years later, talking to another student who had been in her class, I was shocked but not quite surprised to hear that she had left the convent before taking final vows. The religious life had not been as much to her liking. I hope she is happy somewhere with  a family of her own.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

Memory vs. Memory

(Cross-posted from Accidental Blogger)
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One Holocaust survivor, Berthe Meijer, says she remembers stories told by Anne Frank to her when she was about  6 years old, not too long before Anne died in the camp at Bergen-Belsen. Meijer's memoir (in Dutch) is due out soon.
But others have cast doubts on her story, tagging it as 'too good to be true'. Hannah Pick-Goslar, a friend of Anne Frank who 'saw' Anne at Bergen-Belsen, apparently criticized Meijer's account, saying that Anne was in no shape to be 'telling stories'.
Meijer defends herself  by stating:
"How do they think they can look into my memory?" Meijer said in a telephone interview.
...
"I make it clear in my book, some things are vague, some things are crystal clear," she said. "For me, the memories are paired with the emotions that went with them."
She said Frank was very ill, but still mustered the strength to tell short fairy tales while lying in the camp barracks. Meijer said she remembers it because the stories gave her a feeling of escape from the horror that surrounded her."
From Hannah Pick-Goslar's account:

"It wasn’t the same Anne"

"Anne came to the barbed wire. I couldn't see her because the barbed wire was stuffed with straw. The lamps weren't very good. I may have seen a glimpse of a shadow. It wasn't the same Anne that I had known. She was a broken girl. I probably was, too, yet is was terrible. She began to cry right away and told me, 'I don't have any parents any more. My mother is dead.'" That was true, but she couldn't have known it. Edith Frank died of exhaustion in Auschwitz in early January 1945. "Anne thought that her father had been gassed, too. But Mr Frank still looked very young and healthy and the Germans didn't pay any attention to the age of those they wanted to gas. They made their selection based on appearance. I always say that if Anne had known that her father was still alive she would have had the strength to survive, because she died right before the end. It was just a matter of days."
...

A package for Anne

"Then she said, 'We have nothing to eat here, almost nothing, and we're all cold. We have no clothes and I'm very thin and my head has been shaved.' Then we took up a collection – we we really saved everything, a crust of bread or a sock or a glove, anything that gave a little warmth. My friends also gave me something for Anne. And I succeeded in throwing the package over the barbed wire barricade. But I heard screaming and I called out, 'What happened?' And Anne answered, 'Oh, the woman next to me caught it and and she won't give it back.' So she started screaming, of course. I calmed her a bit and said, 'I'll try once again, but I don't know if it will work.' We talked together once more, two or three days later. And I really did throw another package over, and that time she caught it, that's the main thing."
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We all know that memory can be a tricky thing. And the younger you are when the memories formed, the harder it can be to remember some specifics. Even memories of older people take on haziness around the edges of the main events.
Who's to say that Meijer was lying, when by Pick-Goslar's own words, Anne was still moving around, able to speak and catch packages imperfectly, before the final bout of illness that likely took her life?
Or is Pick-Goslar herself a victim of imperfect memory, just as she casts doubts on the imperfect nature of Meijer's memories?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mommy Blogging meets Marketers

Am I a mommy blogger? I suppose so, since a good chunk of my posts get tagged with Kids, as evidenced by the word cloud on the side of the page. But do I talk only about my kids and their activities, view life filtered through the prism of their experiences? I don't think so. I blog about my perspective on things, not always that of my kids. So it's a Me-blog, me incidentally being a mommy as well as many other things.

I don't pretend to fall in the league of the jet-set Mommy Bloggers, highlighted in this NY Times piece:
"Whereas so-called mommy blogs were once little more than glorified electronic scrapbooks, a place to share the latest pictures of little Aidan and Ava with Great-Aunt Sylvia in Omaha, they have more recently evolved into a cultural force to be reckoned with. Embellished with professional graphics, pithy tag lines and labels like “PR Friendly,” these blogs have become a burgeoning industry generating incomes ranging from $25 a month in what one blogger called “latte money” to, for a very elite few, six figures."

I've toyed with the idea of enabling the Google AdSense, to 'Monetize' my blog. But it still feels like a cop-out to me. I throw around brand-names in the course of my ramblings, but they are not the be-all of the story, just props that could be replaced by any generic name that would work. Do I want highlighted words with ads for those products flashing on my blog page?  No.

I have precious few readers and those that do come back for the slices of life (and how-tos on Victorian ringlets;), and I fear they will be chased away if I sell out. So I will continue with my tiny corner of the blogosphere, untrammeled by burdens of trying to market and highlight products to 'select audiences'. This is just a creative outlet, not a money-making proposition.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Secret Life of Fish

Did you ever wonder what fish do in the ocean, when  they aren't swimming around in search of food or mates? Try marine architecture.
The red grouper species, better known as a tasty food source, has been caught digging holes in the ocean beds, which can form the basis of thriving oceanic communities that harbor a variety of other species, as well. From the Washington Post:
"But their least-known attribute might be the most valuable of all: They operate as underwater architects, transforming the seascape for myriad other forms of underwater life, rather than just residing there. That surprising discovery is forcing scientists and policymakers to recalibrate their approach to preserving the ocean's natural order -- and heightening tensions with those who fish for a living or as a hobby."

Predictably enough, the comments from readers on the above article range from 'what a wonderful world we live in' to 'you'll get my fish when you pry it out of my cold dead hands' attitudes, from nature-worshipping to dominionistic outrage.

So, "Why did the fish dig a hole?"
To provide himself with a home, of course.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Swamis and Scandals

Way back when the WWW was still young, we used VT-100 terminals to log on to university-sponsored user forums. Some were general free-for-all  text-only discussions about the cultures that the students came from. As  a fresh-off-the-boat, homesick H4 housewife, I followed with interest a discussion about the Swami shenanigans of  Sai Baba, he of the Afro-hairdo, encapsulated in a monumental epistle entitled "The Good, the Bad, the Ugly". This was over 15 years ago. The whispers grew louder over the years, resulting in exposes like this one from 2007.

Of late, muckraking tabloids and even more staid and venerable newspapers have been engaged in a contest of sorts with the electronic media to dish on assorted Godmen and not-so-godly men. "Popular swami caught in bed with actress" shrieks one headline. " Popular swami caught running a brothel", screams another. The usual outpouring of support vs. condemnation fills the newspapers' letters to the editor page.

Why do people get taken in by these obvious charlatans, even after a high degree of educational attainment and excellent jobs? Why does superstition take over the minds of even those who work in the highest echelons of science and technology?

'Don't question the origins of a river or a Rishi', goes an old saying that my mom was fond of.  The problem is that the rishis don't originate in pristine glaciers or streams. Their antecedents take on a mythical quality as the hierarchy of adoring sycophants, disciples and powermongers grows.  Their faults and frailties are still all too human, just waiting for the sniffing noses of the dogs of media to pick up the trail and debunk them.

But then, human nature being what it is, the decimated hordes of the Gurus and Swamis will be replenished again, just as a new generation of gullibles grow up, devout in their belief that the blessings of these flawed beings will fulfil their dreams.