Being Mortal

I started reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal nearly a year ago and somehow never got around to finishing it. It’s admittedly a difficult read in the sense that it can be overwhelming at times. I finally finished it last night partly because my wife wanted to start it on the Kindle and also because my grandfather, or as everyone called him, Dada passed away on Sunday. He was the last of my immediate grandparents to pass away.

By all measures, he lead a good and charmed life. He was 95 and suffered from no major illness apart from heart disease that afflicts all Indian males. He lived couple of blocks from my parents and my dad regularly checked on him; so much so that my dad would refuse to come visit us for more than a few weeks because he didn’t want to leave Dada alone in case “something happened”. The “something” never happened. Dada was never limited in his movements and walked all around the town as far as I can remember. He passed away peacefully during his afternoon nap. It’s the kind of death that everyone wishes for but very few get. He outlived my grandmother who couldn’t recognize her own son by the time she passed away, by three and half years. Dada had a fractious relationship with his children and grandchildren. As they say, if you can’t say anything good about a person after he’s dead, you are better off not saying anything. So I’ll not say anything. All I’ll say is that I hope I don’t end up like him in spite of him leading a charmed life.

Going back to Gawande’s book, the premise focuses on the quality of life rather than the length of life and more specifically, the manner in which you choose to pass away. Medical science has advanced to such a degree that humans can be kept alive for a much longer time than you would imagine. But no one has stopped to ask the question of whether we should. Or as in Amitabh’s immortal (no pun intended) words, yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai. Gawande cites several examples from his professional and personal life that focuses on the individual’s choice on care and ultimately, way to die. The Republicans’ favorite chant ‘death panels’ actually referred to the end of life counseling that doctors offered their patients. It’s the ultimate decision you can take for your life.

You do not choose to be born in this world and as of today, most laws even prevent you from actively choosing to die but at least you can choose the way you die when and only when you’re diagnosed to. The DNR is the most commonly known legal process in our pop culture and medical professionals are taught to honor it just as they’re taught to honor the first do no harm principle. Others like hospice care are fraught with emotions that you may not be fighting back hard enough. But after a while, it’s useless fighting nature.

Being Mortal will not only make you aware of your mortality but actually prepare you for it. I say that in the most humble and optimistic way. You aren’t immortal. You’re going to die. You’re born in perhaps one or two ways but you can die in umpteen different and uncharacteristic ways. The worst I believe, waiting to die which can be a long and painful process not only for the person but also for their loved ones. Modern medicine can perhaps keep you alive for as long as it is possible today but it’s entirely within your rights and choice to decide when enough is enough.

Even before I finished reading the book or even before hearing about Dada’s death, we had confirmed our appointment for signing our living wills and codifying end-of-life processes with an estate planning attorney. I have had the conversation with my brother about his role in the process. It reminded him to do the same as well. It’s the conversation we should feel comfortable having with our loved ones. It shouldn’t take a death to start having that conversation.

Morning at Zilker Park

Leafy Bridge

Zilker Park is the Central Park of Austin. Right in the heart of Austin, the expanse of green bordered by leafy trees is a welcome relief on a hot summer day. The Barton Creek flows right along one edge of the park before joining the Colorado river. The creek is always full of people kayaking, canoeing or just wading. We always head out to the park whenever we’re unsure of how to spend our mornings or evenings. It has been tremendously hot over the past few months so we haven’t been around the park much. But the trails along Zilker are always shaded and cool. It’s the best way to get the kid out and running around to expend his energy. We pass by people on their brisk walks or leisurely jogs. Cyclists occasionally pass you by.

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Mastani is in the house

Prachiti Mhatre on the sets of Bajirao Mastani

Prachiti Mhatre on the sets of Bajirao Mastani

Finally we have a genuine celebrity in our family. Prachiti Mhatre, a very close relative, bagged the lead role in Nitin Desai’s Shrimant Peshwe Bajirao Mastani telecast on ETV Marathi every day at 9pm. The series kicked off on June 14th and the reviews have been good. Apparently, Sanjay Leela Bansali’s plans to make a movie based on these characters never saw the light of the day. Perhaps that is a good thing. Imagine Mastani running through Pune screaming Devaaaaa! However, the story of Bajirao and Mastani is quite interesting and would make for amazing television in the period-drama-crazy India and more specifically, Marathi-speaking people.

As far as I know, Aditya had done a podcast with Gautam Rajadkhysha, the renowned glamor photographer for Bollywood, and he offered to shoot a portfolio for Prachiti. That portfolio naturally landed her several ad campaigns, print and television. Armed with that experience and portfolio, she auditioned for Nitin Desai’s next period drama Baajirao Mastani. Selected from over 89 girls, Prachiti successfully made the cut. She was Desai’s first-impression pick and after successfully navigating through screen tests, she bagged the role purely on her merits.

Shrimant-Peshwa-BAJIRAO-MASTANI poster

Prachiti tells me that she had a great experience and along with acting lessons, she also had to learn Kathak (Indian classical dance), sword-fighting and horse-riding in spite of the fact that she is scared to death of animals including our dogs at home. Everyone at the sets at Karjat, a mere 20 minutes drive from our home in Panvel, was extremely helpful and nice to her. Sometimes my mom or Aditya accompanied her for late-night shoots but she was mostly alone and worked hard on every aspect of her role. She studied history books and immersed herself completely in the role of Mastani. She has enjoyed full support of her family. We are extremely proud of her achievement and very excited to see how the TV series fares. Obviously, she has been getting wide press coverage in local and regional media outlets. We finally have a real celebrity in our family.

I’m attaching few photos from the sets of BaajiRao Mastani including some banners that you can see on buses across Mumbai. I’m not sure I will be able to watch the series here in the U.S. and hope someone is recording it somehow. If you happen to watch it in India, please let me know if you liked it; Prachiti would love to know.

[promo images source: mbol.in]

Raising Kids in an Atheist Household

I have been a recovering Hindu for a while now although my parents are still grappling with my atheist avatar and still consider it as a passing phase. I refuse to participate in any religious rites but rarely involve myself in heated religion debates. Although my dad claims to be a nastik [1], he is anything but. Any religious rites that any astrologer will suggest is dutifully carried out without question. When my parents visited us last year, he asked my wife if we celebrate any Indian festivals. She replied, not really. He then proceeded to sneak in one of his judgmental remarks by adding, so there is no occasion for joy? I could simply shake my head in disbelief and bite my tongue to avoid yet another showdown that others have come to expect when we meet. But his remark also made me think – are there any festivals or joyous occasions that atheists can celebrate without invoking any reference of god?

In contemporary India or America, religious festivals are largely community or family events that have little deference to actual religious rites. I’m an avowed atheist and my wife is at best an agnostic. By no measure, we are a religious couple so we hardly expect to raise our kid(s) in any particular religious environment. At the same time, we wouldn’t like them to shy away from our cultural heritage and other community or familial events that would bring much joy to their lives. Consider this post to be more of an open discussion rather than narrating a set of diktats.

Since we are Indians living in America, our kid(s) have the added advantage of celebrating twice the number of festivals. But at the same time, I would like to stay away from the purely religious ones. With the exception of Laxmi Pujan, Diwali is hardly a religious festival and my childhood memories are dominated by sweets and firecrackers. Similarly, Holi is hardly the worship of the bonfire but mostly about the joy of playing with water balloons, pichkaris, and colors. On this side of the pond, Christmas although central to the Christian faith has long departed from remembering the birth of Jesus Christ (Fox News tries to remind us every year in vain) and instead focuses on Santa Claus and the number of gifts he is supposed to bring depending on how good you have been. Easter is more about chocolate eggs and bunnies than about Christ rising again. As you grow older, St. Patricks’ Day is about partying and getting wasted. Thanksgiving doesn’t even have a religion-centric origin and focuses on enjoying a hearty meal with family and friends while watching football.

The only exception would be Ganesh Chaturthi where the entire aim of the festival is to worship a clay idol for 1.5 to 10 days; that is something that I never intend on doing although it is a hundred-year-old tradition in my family. Thankfully my dad has one more son to whom I have gladly passed on the baton of continuing the tradition. I like to think the transition has been smooth and acceptable to all parties concerned.

This thought experiment started out trying to think of festivals and events that we as a family could celebrate without bowing down to an entity that I’m sure doesn’t exist and to my surprise, I found plenty. After my kid(s) grow up, they are free to make up their mind about the existence of god but I, like other religious parents, am going to pass on my beliefs except in my case, they are of atheism. We have images and idols of Hindu gods in our home but none of them are worshipped and merely serve as art pieces. At the same time, I would not like to deprive them of any community or family involvement. I wouldn’t want them to not celebrate any festival that isolates them from their friends or family members. The more I think about it, the festivals that most kids enjoy hardly have any direct religious connotations. In fact, the favorite festival for kids, Halloween is in fact a pagan ritual that many Christian kids enjoy and allowed to do so by their otherwise evangelical parents (kids get free candy so how can they stop them?) We shall have no religious rites or ceremonies that goes against my belief system but merely focus on the joyous times that festivals are supposed to be. There shall be no folding of hands or visiting temples alhough I’m aware that this might hamper our acceptance in the desi community stateside. This is not to say that I’m repulsed by Hindu mythology. On the contrary, I find it quite fascinating and the potential for story-telling is endless and it contains several moral lessons as well. But I draw the line at idolizing any characters and worshipping them.

Do any of you either as parents or future parents have grappled with this dilemma? How do you deal with it? What festivals do you celebrate and how? Or for that matter, have you ever given it a thought or merely shrugged your shoulders and accepted it as it comes?

  1. Indian term for atheist []

Closer Family

Last week we were pleasantly surprised with a spot of good news – Ash’s parents are moving to Houston. Her dad, a naval architect has been working in Bahrain for the past four years and his contract was expiring this August. He would have moved either to India or to other Asian countries like China, Sri Lanka, or South Korea. Through some fortuitous circumstances he was informed of an opening in his company’s Houston office and he promptly applied and was interviewed last week. Given his long service with the company and far-reaching experience, I was sure he would get it but those who are aware of intra-office politics and backoffice dealings know better. Finally last Friday, we got the good news that he had received the offer letter and would move down here in the next couple of months.

Obviously Ash was over the moon and this after she spent sleepless nights thinking and hoping that the job comes through. Being the conscientious planner that she is, it was extremely difficult for her not to think ahead and start planning for their move in fear of disappointment if the job doesn’t happen. But it did and as expected she has earnestly begun planning for her parents move to this side of the Atlantic complete with apartment hunting powered by Google Earth and online reviews.

But what does this move mean to us? Honestly, a lot. We have spent a long time in this country with almost no family close by. I have a few cousins scattered along the coast but I was never close to them back in India so I see no reason why I should feel any different now. If they were in the same city, maybe but definitely not worth flying across the country on a regular basis and I’m sure they feel the same. Considering that Mumbai has been our ‘native place’, all our relatives still live in the city and living in the United States means that the closest family is at least a 24-hour or more flight time away. My brother lived in the US for a while (2 years) but guess he missed the family (and his then-girlfriend) too much and beat a hasty retreat back to the desh. Honestly, I prefer living away from the family although I do love them a lot. I would have preferred if they were much closer and not continents apart.

Occasionally I do get jealous of my American colleagues who fly down to visit their parents either over Thanksgiving or during the summer but lack of that convenience is something we the nascent diaspora have come to live with. Those short and hectic trips back to India are fun but too short even if they last a month and somehow you never make a trip back unless you have an occasion. At times you feel that your parents ought to make a trip this way too and that way, I’ve been lucky to have both my parents visit twice and my mom braved the long flight last year. But somehow you just wish it were more frequent, easier, and convenient to travel. I know that the Internet provides much connectivity and you can talk and see your family almost every day using a variety of mediums at an inexpensive price.

But nothing beats lounging around watching TV while your mom is reading a newspaper nearby making occasional smalltalk. I had that pleasure last summer right here in College Station. As your parents get older, it is even hard to expect them to make the long flight to visit you even if they have the time to do so. You cannot get away every summer or Christmas either due to increasingly expensive flight prices or more importantly, you don’t have the time for a month-long vacation which invariably all India trips are. My dad has been ‘threatening’ to visit us for some time now but given his 24/7 work ethic, I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

Now you might be wondering why am I getting so happy with my in-laws moving closer. Isn’t that the worst nightmare for any guy especially recently-married? Probably but I would like to think that Ash’s parents are different and I have been quite comfortable around them having visited them twice in Bahrain and perhaps this move closer will help us know each other better. And it isn’t exactly a Everybody-Loves-Raymond type situation; they aren’t moving across the street and Houston is still an hour and half drive away. But to me, that is the perfect distance. Heck, I would wish my parents were also that far away (and not too close).

So as you imagine, this summer is going to be quite exciting and busy. We will be playing the role of guiding the parents in setting up their home and taking care of small but important details like drivers license, shopping advice, and of course helping them acclimatize to a new country.

PS. One thing I’m glad about is that we don’t have to fly Gulf Air anymore when we visit India. Apparently, Gulf Air is the only airline you fly if you’ve to stopover in Bahrain.

I can prove you wrong, therefore I am right

The intergeneration gap can be quite a bitch. I got a healthy dose when my parents visited me over the past week. On one side is that anecdote everyone likes to cite where the character is embarrassed by how less his parents know when he is an adolescent and then wonders how much they learnt when he creeps into the adult age. On the other hand, you never grow up, at least in your parents’ eyes; especially when you have been living away from them for quite a while now. They have a fleeting image of your self when you left home and sadly they weren’t witness to the changes in your life as they happened. Some little, some big, every change in your life alters your personality and the way you see the world around you. The image that parents have in their mind is that of an obsolete you that has long transformed into; err; something different, if not difficult to comprehend. Also, you wonder why parents have failed to notice this change. Well, simply put anyone would be taken aback if exposed to sudden changes. From a teenager who looked to his parents for advice, each one of us grows into an individual who is ready to dole out advice to parents instead. This isn’t taken too kindly by the parents, who sense a loss of control. Especially in India, where consensus among family is considered so important that often interests of the individual are not only deemed secondary but also insignificant.

Like a wise man said, nothing is permanent except change and right from social changes like fundamentalist Shiv Sena goons who seem to object Valentine’s Day to individual orthodox families that do not tolerate inter-caste/language/regional marriages. Thankfully, my family historically isn’t rooted in dogma and we have had our share of ‘colorful history’, yet certain things are still difficult to digest. My parents and I have been at loggerheads for quite sometime over variety of issues that boils down to a certain incident couple of years back. Everything from America to my sense of idealism has been blamed but gradually as time passes, things seem to improve ever so gradually. I am sure things will be much sunnier for me and anyone else in my life. For now, I am content on blaming the generation gap.

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