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Food Security for Children vs Interests of Pharmaceuticals

Food security, not vitamin supplements, is vital for public health

2001 – A year ago, Unicef’s vitamin A campaign in Assam caused the death of 30 children and sent over 1,000 to hospital with vitamin A toxicity. The larger question is whether such mass campaigns to combat malnutrition-related deficiencies in India are still required. Or do we need a more sustainable approach?

On a single day last year, health workers gave 3.2 million children vitamin A syrup in the Indian state of Assam. The mass administration of syrup was part of Unicef’s vitamin A campaign, a much-publicised effort to counter vitamin A deficiency among children in developing countries. That night, about 1,000 children who were administered the syrup fell ill, showing symptoms of vitamin A toxicity, including vomiting, nausea and headache. Children in the more remote villages were unable to access medical care in time. Ritu Konwar, a two-year-old girl died that night, and the next day local hospitals overflowed with sick children. Over one week around 29 children died of acute dehydration.

The children’s deaths sparked off a debate amongst scientists about the validity of the vitamin A campaign in India.

Is vitamin A deficiency among children a public health concern in India? Does the country need vitamin A campaigns at all? This has been the subject of controversy between Indian scientists and Unicef for over decade. Scientists in India argue that vitamin A deficiency in children is no longer a concern, except in isolated, geographical `pockets’ of the country. According to Unicef, such campaigns are necessary as they help reduce child mortality significantly in India.

After considering both arguments, the central government issued directions to discontinue the campaign in 2000. Despite this, Unicef launched a campaign in Assam last year.

Indian scientists say such campaigns are merely `short-term fixes’ and that vitamin A deficiency is better combated by educating people about eating food rich in the vitamin and by making these foods available to them.

Malnutrition is a serious problem among children in developing countries. Caused by lack of food, improper diet and unsafe drinking water, malnutrition leads to deficiencies in micronutrients such as iron, iodine and vitamins. Of these, vitamin A deficiency is the most lethal.

Children are vulnerable to vitamin A deficiency from the time they are born right upto three years of age. During this time, vitamin A deficiency can cause permanent blindness, even death. The risks become less in older children, but vitamin A deficiency reduces overall immunity and makes all children susceptible to diseases like measles and diarrhoea. Unicef estimates that vitamin A deficiency is a public health concern in 72 countries in Asia and Africa.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, vitamin A deficiency is a public health concern if the mortality rate of children below five years is greater than 70/1,000. This means that the death of more than 70 of every 1,000 children indicates vitamin A deficiency. In 1970, the mortality rate of children under five years in India was 130/1,000, thereby making vitamin A deficiency a public health concern (Hindu Health, December 8, 2001).

The Indian government began its campaigns to combat vitamin A deficiency in 1970. Supported by Unicef, the campaigns gave children between the ages of six months and five years vitamin A every six months. Besides this, the government also supplied kits containing vitamin A, folic acid and iron to villagers as part of its regular healthcare programme. However, since their launch, the campaigns covered only 30 per cent of the targeted children.

Though campaign coverage is low, vitamin A deficiency in India is no longer a public health concern, according to studies conducted by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau of India. The mortality rate of children under five years is down from 130/1,000 in 1970 to 70/1,000 in 1997. This suggests that factors other than vitamin A deficiency contributed to reducing child mortality since 1970.

Poverty in India has come down in the last 30 years. Healthcare has improved and food availability increased. The number of malnourished children has declined from 15 per cent in 1970 to six per cent in 1997.

Bitot’s spots — the appearance of foamy grey spots in the whites of the eyes — are an early symptom of vitamin A deficiency. The incidence of these spots has gone down significantly: although 1.8 per cent of children had Bitot’s spots in 1975, the figure is now down to 0.7 per cent. Also, immunisation campaigns against communicable diseases such as measles, that reached just seven per cent of children in 1970, now cover almost 80 per cent. This means that fewer children suffering from vitamin A deficiency succumb to diseases.

Unicef, however, maintains that campaigns are responsible for reducing child mortality. Werner Schultink, officer-in-charge of nutrition at Unicef, says that vitamin A supplementation through campaigns reduces child mortality from measles by 50 per cent, and from diarrhoea by 40 per cent. Overall, supplementation reduces child mortality by 23 per cent (Vitamin A Global Initiative).

Based on studies showing a decline in malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency, Indian scientists urged the government to reconsider the necessity of campaigns. In September 2000, the ministry of health and welfare organised a panel of paediatricians, nutritionists, Unicef and WHO representatives, and government officials. Called the National Consultation, the panel assessed the efficacy of vitamin A campaigns in India.

The National Consultation decided that vitamin A deficiency was a problem only in certain drought-prone parts of India. It also noted the lack of strong evidence linking vitamin A supplementation with reduced child mortality. The panel directed state governments to discontinue vitamin A campaigns. It also said that in areas where deficiency is a concern, supplements should be given using approaches other than campaigns.

Still, Unicef launched a campaign in Assam through the state government’s department of health, on November 11, 2001. The irony is that Unicef did not consider WHO guidelines whilst launching the campaign. According to the WHO, vitamin A deficiency is a concern if Bitot’s spots are seen in more than 0.5 per cent of children. A survey conducted just months before the campaign, by the Indian Council of Medical Research, found Bitot’s spots in only 0.3 per cent of the 11,000 children examined in each district of Assam. Also, Unicef did not implement the `Triple A’ approach that it recommends for assessing the seriousness of a problem. Triple A is short for `Assessment, Analysis, Action’. In Assam, Unicef skipped the first two.

The cause of the deaths of children following the campaign remains a mystery. Until now, Unicef administered vitamin A syrup using two ml spoons. In Assam, these spoons were replaced with five ml cups. Health workers, not used to the cups, may have administered an overdose. Dr Umesh Kapil, professor of nutrition at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, says that because health workers gave 3.2 million children the syrup in a single day, they may have become negligent and overdosed the children. However, according to Kapil, vitamin A is a `safe drug’ and the amount of overdose that could cause toxicity and prove lethal has still not been established.

It’s possible that an overdose did not cause the deaths. But what is striking is that the illnesses were not uniformly spread across the state, but occurred in clusters.

India spends about Rs 120 million a year on Vitamin A that it buys from multinationals like Roche. This is besides the vitamin A donated to India by foreign agencies.

Unicef’s aim may be charitable, but such campaigns benefit pharmaceutical companies like Roche that are exploiting vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, says Kapil. However, the larger issue is whether these campaigns are still required in India.

Indian nutritionists have long argued that more sustainable approaches are needed to combat malnutrition-related deficiencies like vitamin A deficiency. Nutritionists like Kapil say that vitamin A should come from such foods as papaya and mango rather than a pill or syrup. For this, India will have to achieve `food security’ where every person is able to access and afford a balanced diet.

Achieving food security in India is a challenge. Food production has increased and malnutrition has decreased over the past 30 years. But the food produced is mostly carbohydrate-rich wheat and rice. Foods rich in vitamin A are still in short supply. The paradox is that many cannot afford even the available food. According to James Levinson, director of the International Food and Nutrition Center at Tufts University, the poorest 65 per cent in India do not even get enough food to eat. This year, India’s granaries had an excess of 55 million tonnes of grain; yet 200 million people went hungry.

Thus far, the Indian government has addressed food insecurity quite diligently. The Integrated Child Development Programme is the largest of its kind in the world and covers 80 per cent of rural India. The programme provides nutritional supplements to children less than two years of age, education to mothers about child nutrition, and vitamin A supplements to pregnant mothers. Another programme provides free mid-day meals to schoolchildren. However, Ahmad Akhtar, a nutritionist at the International Food and Policy Research Institute, says the latter programme has backfired. Because children get free meals at school, they are not fed properly at home.

For people who cannot afford food at market prices, the government has set up the Public Distribution System that sells food at half the market price. This programme cost the Indian government Rs 53 billion in 1994, making it the costliest anti-poverty programme in India. However, according to Levinson, only 50 per cent of the food meant for low-income groups actually reaches them. The rest, through corrupt officials, is sold elsewhere or ends up in the free market.

Fortification of food with vitamin A is another approach that nutritionists suggest. But this is possible only where food is sold centrally. In rural India, most people grow and consume their own food. Or food is bought and sold locally, making fortification difficult. Fortifying commodities like sugar will probably work. But ensuring that children consume enough sugar to get their supply of vitamins is not easy.

The National Institute of Nutrition in India has a programme to support and educate people about growing and consuming foods rich in vitamin A. Nutritionists educate people on the importance of vitamin A intake. Agriculturists provide the technical support to grow fruits and vegetables in home gardens. Gopalan, the institute’s director says that vitamin A deficiency is now rare around Hyderabad where the programme was implemented.

Programmes like that of the National Institute of Nutrition have serious limitations. Most people in India do not own land for home gardens. Also, vitamin A in nature is present in an inactive form called beta-carotene that is converted into active vitamin A, called retinal, in the body. Studies suggest that only one-fourth of beta-carotene is converted into retinol. In malnourished children this is even less. Moreover, fat is required for the absorption of retinol in the body, and in India people get only five per cent of their calorie requirements from fat; the recommended amount is 20 per cent. Consuming vitamin A, therefore, does not ensure its utilisation in the body.

There is no single solution to combating vitamin A deficiency in India. The government launched campaigns in 1970, aiming to replace them with food-based approaches in a couple of years. But the campaigns have continued, as they are easier than enticing people to grow and consume vitamin A foods. Campaigns are not a long-term solution. Providing capsules and syrups of vitamin A without educating people on why they need the vitamin makes them dependent on the government.

Campaigns are necessary where vitamin A deficiency is a proven public health concern. Unicef must assess and determine this before launching a campaign. Campaigns are an emergency solution, not an alternative to consuming vegetables and fruits. The money spent by the Indian government and international agencies on campaigns could be used to improve the quality and quantity of subsidised food and perhaps start the free distribution of food. If this money were used to raise the salaries of poorly paid government officials, levels of corruption may decrease, thereby largely improving the effectiveness of food programmes already underway.

The Colors of White – Dedicated to Donald Trump

“Not that dress,” my mother scolded, looking at the frothy white lace and satin concoction I was holding out. “It is white. You can’t wear white to your cousin’s wedding and bring her bad luck. White is the color of death.”

With those words, thrown carelessly at me at age seven, began my confusion with white. And color.

I was in an all-girls, Christian school where brides wore white – it was the color of purity and morality. But most of India associated white with death – a color worn by widows so they could make themselves as unattractive as possible.

The more I pondered, the more I became convinced that white was a color of suppression in Christian and Indian culture; brides and widows had to control all their needs – emotional, physical, sexual.

Baloney, I said to myself, since I was being raised in a household where widows wore red and where ladies chose to stay unmarried.

So, what was white? Was it the color of purity or was it the color of death?

To be honest, I love white. White dresses, pearls and summer tuberoses. White houses and clouds. Shells on black volcanic sand. Marble floors and unicorns.

In India the same word is used to describe the color white and the white race and people often say, “This is how white destroyed us.” They are, of course, referring to the British who colonized India, trying to bring Christian order and organization to a barbaric Hindu culture more than 5,000 years old.

My confusion deepened.

What was white?

Was it a color, a race, a religion, or an attitude?

Was it the British who ravaged and plundered India?

Was it the Spanish conquistadors who pillaged South America and converted it to superior Christianity?

Was it Hitler’s Germany?

Was it France, with colonies as vast as Britain and with atrocities worse than Britain?

These questions stayed with me when I boarded the plane to study in England in my early twenties. My head buzzed with warnings of, “The whites will never accept you completely so be prepared.”

I wasn’t prepared. It hurt when I couldn’t break into the elitist clubs of upper-class England that lived in the country, rode horses, rowed, and ate their mashed peas and potatoes with a finesse I couldn’t match. It hurt even more when people from my own country excluded me because I hadn’t grown up in England, didn’t know its ways and, hence, couldn’t fit in.

So, then, white was an attitude that infested people of color. It did not confine itself to skin color; I am acquainted with Indians who discriminate against color, class, and caste, who uphold India’s caste system and its abuses.

I boarded yet another plane to the United States, expecting the same elitism that marks England and the same exclusion that defines it. All I wanted was my degree from the United States and I would be out of there.

But, the United States of America shocked me. It welcomed me with open arms because I was an immigrant and it is a country built by immigrants. Sure, its foreign policies are crude, undesirable, and selfish but I would still choose them over the politics of the other “powers” that controlled the world less than 80 years ago.

I felt at home in the United States. My color glimmered, then shone. My white friends became my strength and I understood that color and white must co-exist. It takes all the colors to make white. Yet, when white splits into the colors of a rainbow, it is still beautiful. More beautiful, perhaps.

The future is the blending of color and white, of ideologies and religion.

The world sniggered at Bush’s idiocy, laughed raucously at Clinton’s antics. Yet, it winced when we elected a black president, not once but twice. How could it be possible for a crude, backward country such as the United States to think so progressively and make Barack Obama leader of state?

All this made me comfortable in my brown skin.

Now, though, Donald Trump shakes the foundations of the life I have created as a first-generation immigrant in the United States. My doubts about white return with full fury. They enclose my brain in their sticky tentacles and spread fear.

I wonder if all of color’s contributions will be forgotten and demeaned? Whether color, once again, will be forced to conform to whiteness? I wonder what Trump (who hates foreigners) might say if a Native American chief stands by his side and tells him to leave because he, a blond white man, invaded a land that belonged to the American-Indians?

People forget that it takes all the colors to make white and it takes only one color to destroy the whiteness of white. Even when color separates from white, it can create a rainbow.

So even as Donald Trump speaks against immigrants, he speaks against himself. Against the Pilgrims, the Irish Catholics, the Italian Mafia. Will he make white the color of purity or death?

Silk, Tattoos, Emerald Earrings and Belly-Button Piercings

Three weeks ago, I didn’t think that a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) show at Boston’s TD Garden would enlighten me more than the Buddha could. WWE’s Smackdown helped me connect with an unexplored, unknown part of myself. The performance offended my finer senses and brought me face to face with my own thoughtless snobbery.

Of course, the first thing that put me off was the “world” in the WWE when it is basically a US-based, choreographed, scripted, wrestling performance but I am used to the United States thinking of itself as the “World.”

It began with six tickets presented to my husband by a WWE board member he knows. I had never watched WWE on television but had an idea that it was tacky, sometimes bloody and even vulgar. I still can’t believe I decided to go.

I am glad I did.

My kids were sure I would hate it. My husband was trying desperately to pitch it as an “anthropological” experience. My mother-in-law, who was going with us, asked what she could expect?

A friend said I should look it up on You Tube. Another wondered if I was losing it taking my theater-going, art-loving, unadulterated kids to this basic and vulgar show. In the end I decided to do a Wikipedia search on WWE, not watch You Tube and simply go.

Needless to say, I had a “prophylactic” headache even before we arrived so I could cry wolf and leave at any point.

We were slightly late and our seats were taken by a family of six. I am not sure if they had done that deliberately (since we did have fantastic seats) or mistakenly. We waited while the usher told them they were in the wrong seats. I was impatient – I wanted my family seated so I could go and buy popcorn and lemonade. Those were to be the highlights of my evening.

“I hope they have good seats,” my mother-in-law whispered to me as the family stood up and followed the usher. “The kids seem so excited to be here.”

I looked at the family closely. The father had long hair, tattoos all over his very-pale arms. The mother’s hair was multi-colored. Two of the four kids, probably 10 and 13, had to be coaxed to move and I realized, then, that they had some sort of mental disability. The entire family carried giant cokes, fries and the happiest smiles on their faces.

Ashamed, I tried to readjust my frown into a thoughtful look.

It occurred to me that the family I was displacing was nothing like the ones I socialized with. Obviously, it was a big night for them. I can’t say if they were rich or poor but my guess is they were barely making it. They didn’t seem like they could afford the vacations (that I could), the second homes (that I had). They didn’t seem like they had read the books I had, attended the schools I had, or had the opportunities I had.

My conscience threw back her head and laughed sarcastically, almost derisively, at my uprightness and uptightness. I began looking around. Yes, there were plenty of people there who were simply enjoying the show for its athleticism (which is considerable), comedy, drama, but I didn’t notice them.

There were more people with tattoos, body piercings, colored hair, and leather than I have ever seen in one place. Every row had at least one person who seemed disabled in some way. There were hardly any people dressed like I was – jeans, a silk top and emerald earrings. It was nothing like the cross-section of people I saw at ice-hockey, football, or baseball games – more sophisticated, wealthy and educated (at least in the Boston area). It was absolutely nothing like the people who watched the tennis and real tennis games I attended, champagne flute in hand, with suited men and pearled women.

This crowd clapped at every fake punch, cheered the Amazonian female wrestlers in bikinis, hooted at the male wrestlers flexing their biceps. A sudden roar as the crowd stood up and cheered. I looked at the stage and saw Sasha Banks, a Boston-based pro-wrestler, flipping another woman over, then casually walking off the stage. Banks was the crowd’s star, not that different from other stars. She had her die-hard fans, just like a cricket, tennis, football or baseball star did. In essence, it was no different from the fans following Donald Trump, watching a performance, forgiving every misdemeanor. Somehow, he convinces people that his win is the team’s win.

How different was a show, a game any different from that put up by a politician, especially a blond-haired man with lots of money and not a filter between his head and heart and mouth?

Looking around, I realized this was the real United States and I had simply climbed a ladder that led nowhere. I came here as a student, had less than $100 in my bank account when I graduated and worked up that ladder, never looking down. I didn’t want to look down because I am terrified of heights and I was afraid I would fall. Now, forced to look down, I realized the people at the bottom could bring the ladder crashing down and break my neck.

How, then, could I criticize wrestlers, preachers, and proselytizers? Or Trump. They were putting up a show for the people I had thought below me. Now they held the cards.

I had never seen so much happiness in one place as I did at that wrestling show. I found myself clapping, cheering, hooting with the crowd. I yelled in delight when Banks came back on stage. I watched as a teenage boy in a wheelchair tried to bring his hands together to clap. I laughed when a group of little boys in front of me almost fell off their chairs excited.

They were doing nothing different than what I am doing. They all go to work, come home, eat dinner, make love, make war. They watch WWE wrestling or a game or show on television. They watch Trump, too, while I sit at a seven-course dinner party and shake my head at the state of the world and of the United States of America and do nothing about it.

Go Sasha Banks!

The Silent Victims of Our World – Hungry Children

Even as I carefully scrutinize food labels, buy organic produce and whole grains, and educate my children on healthful eating, I realize it is a luxury few enjoy. Millions of mothers worldwide are sure to look upon my nutrition-obsession with jealousy and resentment because they don’t have food for their children.

This epiphany came to me recently, when my kids came home after a long day, ravenous.

“What’s for dinner Mama?” they asked as soon as they stepped in the door.

“Indian food,” I answered. “Rice, dal, cauliflower curry.”

“We had that yesterday,” my daughter, 8, complained.

“Yes, and we also had that the day before yesterday,” I replied, defensive.

“Can we have something else?” my son, 10, asked.

I took a deep breath and shot back. “Of course! What would you two like? Mexican? Thai? French? Perhaps a new fusion dish?”

They stared wide-eyed at my angry sarcasm. This was a question they asked every single day when they returned home and it never made me angry. Of course, I felt instantly remorseful and my children accepted my apologetic hugs and kisses. They began laying the table, chattering about their day, but my mind was far away.

I just couldn’t stop thinking about the children who, that evening, were asking their mothers, “Is there any food? We haven’t eaten yesterday, and the day before that…”

Hunger is the unspeakable injustice of our times. In the last two decades alone we have successfully transplanted faces and limbs, developed artificial hearts, invented Bluetooth, and highly-targeted cancer therapies. Yet, we haven’t conquered the biggest problem – world hunger. True, genetically modified foods can help but we are still a long way from that.

The reality is that 66 million children attend school hungry every day and 23 million are in Africa alone. 3.5 million children die every year from malnourishment. In 2013, 6.3 million children under five died from not getting enough food – that is 17,000 children a day.

Several factors have exacerbated world hunger in recent years. Wars and conflicts have displaced more people than ever before in history. In 2014, 13 million people were uprooted by violence; an average of 42,500 fled their homes every single day. The displaced end up in refugee camps where, studies show, they spend an average of 17 years. Add to that those who have to flee because of floods and famine, earthquakes and tsunamis and we have a significant population that is “homeless.”

Homeless. Poor. And hungry.

It is all the more heartbreaking when the victims are starving children. (In the 1990’s 500,000 children died in Iraq because of Saddam Hussein’s ration plan that delivered food only to the people he favored).

The effect of child hunger, though, does not result only in disease and death. It is far worse and ripples through society, affecting everyone, even us, living our charmed lives. Hungry children drop out of school so they can do menial jobs to earn money and buy themselves food. They end up uneducated and exacerbate the poverty cycle. They are more likely to be depressed, mentally unstable, turn to crime. Ultimately, they become a burden to a society (which often doesn’t do much to help them in the first place).

There are people who care and are doing whatever they can to eliminate child hunger but there is one organization that, in my opinion, has succeeded beyond expectations – Akshaya Patra, an Indian non-profit, provides free meals to 1.5 million schoolchildren every single day. The food is prepared using fresh, local ingredients under hygienic conditions approved by the WHO. The program is modeled like a corporation and scaled so a $15 donation can feed a child for an entire year. The promise of a meal entices children to come to school. They get an education, jobs and help their families break the poverty cycle. (

I was so impressed with Akshaya Patra that we made it “our” charity a few years ago. Since my children were five, they have foregone birthday party gifts and guests, instead, donate to Akshaya Patra. My children are none the worse for not getting birthday gifts. They understand that $15 goes a long way – it helps feed a poor child for an entire year and the meal Akshaya Patra provides may be the only one the child might get that day. To know that you are making a difference at such a young age by giving up birthday presents is strangely empowering and humbling. (Of course, it doesn’t stop my children from fussing about the food I serve them but they are children after all).

Akshaya Patra runs highly mechanized kitchens and I visited one with my family last year. The kitchen produced 250,000 meals a day. Some of the world’s top engineering minds had designed the machinery, volunteers had perfected bulk production of spice mixtures so the food’s taste wasn’t compromised, and the operation assured a market for local farmers’ produce and grains.

The most impressive thing, though, was watching the children eat their meals sitting cross-legged, broad smiles on their faces as they shoved the food into their mouths using their fingers. I wish I had a picture of that but I was so entranced by their joy that my camera hung helplessly around my neck. I simply committed that image to memory.

It also occurred to me, at that moment, that the most effective way to care is to try and put myself in the shoes of a hungry child. Could I not eat for a day just to know, somewhat, how it feels? Could I give up coffee for a week and donate that money to Akshaya Patra? Could I stop drinking sparkling water because tap water was good enough?

I could. And it wouldn’t even kill me.

In fact, the misery from skipping a few meals, the resulting irritability, and the guilt of not being able to tolerate it even for a day were actually liberating. If nothing else, it was an escape from my privileged, selfish life.

My Big, Fat Indian Wedding

Weddings are not my thing, love is. I consider most weddings an exhibition of a love that is intimate, complex, and defining, a show put up for a carefully managed, manipulated, pondered list of guests.

It is why I am considered the world’s worst hypocrite standing because I had a big, fat, Indian wedding when I tied the knot twelve years ago. There were 750 guests at the actual ceremony at the Windsor Manor Hotel in Bangalore, India, 250 guests each at four wedding reception dinners we hosted in the following weeks (all in nice hotels), and, believe it or not, 12,000 people at the wedding lunch my parents threw for all the villagers whom they knew.

So how did I get sucked into this despite my rabid opposition of weddings? I got sucked into it because my fiance and I chose to stay out of our wedding – our only plan was to show up. We had two options in our minds – no wedding or a wedding that everyone wanted and so we did the latter.

I didn’t need a wedding to condone our marriage or to confirm that we belonged together. I had felt that all along and one memory always comes to mind, from our dating days.

We had spent a day hiking up a Guatemalan mountain to get to a village in the valley, accessible only by foot. As the sun began going down we gave up all hope of making it to the village and sat down to rest close to the mountain-top, before heading back. We watched the sun set over the village. Shadows fell on it, the sound of barking village dogs bounced off the valley’s walls and children’s shrieks echoed up. We were disappointed at not getting to our village, but even as we sat there looking at one of our dreams drifting further and further away, peace washed over me. At least we had made it this far and we were sharing a disappointment, a failure, together. There would be many such moments, I was certain, where Harsha and I would have to watch a shared dream broken to bits but I knew we would be fine and we would be stronger for it.

A wedding could never top the moments we had had so far and the ones we would share in the future. But, looking back now, 12 years later, I realize the spirit of our wedding determined that of our marriage, and the nature of the friendships and relationships we built together, and as individuals.

Twelve years ago, I flew to India, from Boston, three weeks before my wedding. I had lived in England before I moved to the United States and a certain westernization of my Indian-ness was expected; it just wasn’t indulged or welcomed or tolerated. Let me start with the first scene that comes to mind of my pre-wedding weeks.

“This is not the kind of wedding I had in mind,” I said to my mom and aunts, lying on the bed, watching them fold my wedding saris and pack them neatly in a suitcase to be opened on my wedding day. I had just seen my wedding trousseau for the first time, prepared without my approval or disapproval.

“Oh?” Aunty One asked, turning around. “You don’t like your saris? We offered to send you pictures but you said to pick whatever we wanted.”

“I don’t mean that,” I said annoyed. “I didn’t want such a big wedding. In fact, you know I didn’t want a wedding at all!”

There was a confused silence and Aunty One said, “But who said the wedding was about you? It is not at all about you.”

I stared and realized she was right. Indian weddings are not really about the people getting married, they are about the families coming together through that marriage.

(Plus, I have to admit I hate the idea of a wedding being about a bride in this day and age. As if she is being led to a guillotine but allowing herself to be decorated first. What about the bridegroom, I always wonder. Poor Harsha! He knows me, but, boy, he doesn’t know what a roller coaster ride it will be).

When my cousin had called me in Boston to ask about my wedding shopping, six months ago, I said I didn’t care.

I want to wear our grandmother’s wedding sari, I told her. She had paused, then said, “It is beautiful but the silk is coming apart and you will be left standing in shredded dusky pink and gold tissue on your wedding day.”

I couldn’t argue with that so suggested they – she, my mom and aunts and cousins and friends do my sari shopping.

Later, Aunty Two, who is a researcher and has lived in the west all her adult life advised, “Forget about your wedding day. Focus on your marriage. A nice wedding isn’t going make an unhappy marriage (despite what the literature says), not having a wedding isn’t going to assure a happy marriage. The wedding day is for our family and friends to meet Harsha’s, to spend time with them and build relationships and friendships.”

That is how our wedding became as big and fat as it became.

The small event had 750 guests and I still remember the most ludicrous conversation between my father and my father-in-law to be.

“Let’s have a small wedding,” my father said to my husband’s father when they were planning.

“How small?” my father-in-law asked, worried, since he had lived in the west all his life and a small wedding meant leaving out people he would have liked to invite.

“No more than 750 guests,” my dad answered.

My father-in-law related this to me with a chuckle.

“I was so worried when your dad said small,” he said. “I have at least 200 people I want to invite and for a moment forgot that I was speaking to an Indian from India.”

So the guest list went on and on and on.

“I want a ballpark number,” an aunt scolded my mother-in-law. “Tell me will your guests be between 200 and 250 or 300 and 350?”

“Can I invite my best friend?” Harsha’s uncle asked. “He lives in Bangalore and it would not seem right to leave him out when the wedding is right there.”

Yes, of course, the answer had been.

“750 guests?” I groaned and complained to my mother. “I can’t bear it. I don’t know them.”

“How many of your friends are you expecting from the United States?” she’d asked casually.

“About 70, between Harsha and me,” I’d answered. “Another 30 from other parts of the world.”

“Ok, so you have lived there four years and he has lived there 35 and that is how many close friends you have who will fly from across the world to attend, right? Well, think about this. Our family has lived here for 18 generations, in this house, in this area. That is 350 years. So how many people do you think we might have on our list? 750 is very little. That is the dumbed down list and it includes your friends and your husband’s family’s guests.”

So we participated in the week-long festivities – henna and haldi, the wedding and the reception(s), the dinners, lunches, dances, parties, hosted by my family and my husband’s. I didn’t realize, then, what was happening. My parents were getting to know all of Harsha’s family and his were getting to know all of mine. Lifelong friendships began, to be nurtured and built upon later. I would never have to explain to my parents who Aunty L was, “Harsha’s dad’s cousin, three times removed, you know?” They knew exactly who she was and if they happened to be in each other’s neighborhood, they visited.

Harsha, the Indian-American, who looked Indian and was really American, played along. But how could I explain the reception lunch for 12,000 people to him?

I left it to my grandmother.

“You see, Harsha,” she said. “This is a different kind of reception. We will serve lunch but it isn’t anything fancy, no more than six different dishes. It is our family tradition – we invite everyone in the villages we once managed as landlords. But it isn’t just a lunch for our guests. There will be dozens of weddings in the area on your wedding day. Then, everyone gets together to eat under our tent. It saves a lot of people an added wedding expense.”

So how many weddings took place on the day of ours? I believe it was six.

Still, I felt duty-bound to put up some resistance. I complained to my babysitter.

“I can’t believe my ears,” he said, furious. “Do you think these people are coming for you? No, of course not. They are coming because you are the daughter, grand-daughter, great-granddaughter of a family that is held in high regard. Your guests have been earned by your family. They come with their love and blessings and it is your honor that they are coming at all. Hold on to their love. You will need it when you begin your life so far from home.”

So I did. In Indian weddings, the bride and bridegroom are showered with rice and flower petals after the ceremony is over. And as the rice flakes and petals drifted around me from more than 24,000 hands, I did feel a moment of such great and selfless love. I realized, then, that accepting someone’s unconditional love for you and feeling you have done nothing to deserve it is much the harder thing to do. But, was I lucky!

I was luckier still because that is all I got from all the guests at my wedding – blessings and love and blessings. Since the wedding invite said, “No gifts please. Just your blessings,” there were no Thank-You notes to write. People did give us gifts but we decided to put the cash it in a trust account for some cause to be decided on later.

That pretty much determined how our life would be. It wouldn’t be a business-like negotiation of money, people, and material things. How much should you give to get how much in return? It would be about human relationships, two big families coming together to create an even larger, amorphous one where there were no boundaries and where “his family” and “my family” became “our family.”


Roses, Rumors, Valentines, Validation……..And Love

My ambiguity about Valentine’s Day has taken a turn this year – I have an irrepressible urge to celebrate this commercialized, Hallmark-promoted day with cheesy cards and cookies, roses and revelations.

As a questioner, thinker, and challenger of trends (which I fancy I am), I should be rejecting February 14, but I am not. I am, instead, thinking about all the other commercialized, media-driven, self-interest groups’ promoted things I could be consuming:

  • Violent, mindless video games (
  • Guns (the United States has 112 guns per 100 residents, the highest in the world and double that of Siberia which ranks second).
  • Drugs – seventy percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug and the pharmaceutical industry hopes that everyone will be on at least two by 2025 (
  • Sports (Super Bowl consumers spent more than $15 billion just this past weekend and US sports spending, overall, is more than the GDP of a dozen Third World countries combined).

So this is my conclusion – at least Valentine’s Day isn’t about winning and losing, domination and abomination. It is about love and it reminds me of my first red rose.

That rose was crisp and perfect, its heady fragrance intensified by the afternoon heat. It was blood red and given to me by one of the most nerdy, plain-looking boys I have come across. The rose had no thorns.

In India, a boy will give a girl a rose to indicate his interest even if they aren’t dating and the popular girls end up with dozens of roses. You can accept the rose and overture, or you can keep the rose and reject the overture, or you can give the poor sod the rose back so he knows you don’t like him at all.

A rose means a rumor and possibilities – a couple might start dating, they may get married and have a family. It is a validation of the girl’s attracting abilities, a confirmation of a boy’s wooing capabilities.

My parents were a bit unconventional and lacked normal expectations – they didn’t care if I married or not, had children or not, so there was no pressure to find a “suitable” man and I never felt less for not having anyone to “show off.” Their attitude and my personality made me the least likely candidate for a red rose. I was hardly a popular girl – known for my impeccable grades and my sassiness rather than my looks or the way I dressed (which was quite un-feminine – jeans and baggy shirts). I was confident and free-spirited and didn’t feel I needed a red rose-validation.

So when I did get a red rose, I was totally stumped. What was I to do?

My first instinct was to frantically look around to make sure no one had noticed. But, of course, everyone had and they were staring. Not just my friends, but their friends and their friends…. To maintain the image I had so painstakingly created, I would have to give the poor kid his rose back.

Except I couldn’t. He was already walking away and, truth be told, I wanted that rose. It was a symbol of love – simple and unconditional. There were no negotiations or expectations, rejections or manipulations. That rose demanded nothing – neither acceptance nor apology, smile nor frown, not even a kiss or kiss-back.

Later, in the privacy of my room, I buried my nose in the rose’s blood-red petals. I couldn’t believe he had given it to me. ME – the frizzy-haired, flat-chested, knock-kneed girl. And just like that I grew silver wings – I became a girl with kohl-lined eyes, and waist-length shimmering hair, dressed in a sky-blue chiffon salwar kameez.

That evening, I gently pressed the rose among the pages of a book I was reading. It was a thick book and took me a long time to finish reading it, or maybe I prolonged it so I could open it every day and breathe in the fragrance of the petals. I made sure the rose preserved well – its petals upright, the stalk slightly tilted, like a boy bending down for his first kiss. I imagined the red never faded.

Of course, the memory faded until a couple of years ago when I was visiting India. I found that book in my parents’ library and, heart racing, flipped through the pages until I found my red rose. Flat, faded, but still there. A hint of fragrance remained after all these years reminding me of that moment when I was just a girl accepting a red rose from just a boy.

Looking back, that rose wasn’t just about romantic love. It was unconditional love. He was simply saying, “I like (love?) you and I expect nothing in return.”

How nice it would be if we can say that to everyone around us, “I like (love) you.” It takes a lot of courage to say those words and in today’s hate-driven, fear-filled world, it is exactly what we need.

And what could be a better day than February 14, 2016, to say it? And mean it.

Climbing up Newton’s Heartbreak Hill

Near our house in Newton, MA, is “Heartbreak Hill,” the upward slope that is mile 17 of the 26.2 mile-long Boston marathon. Runners are relieved when they are past it, two-thirds of the way into the marathon and a heartbreaking place to give up.

The hill is part of the West Newton Hill community, a ritzy neighborhood with spacious mansions built in the latter half of the 19th century. There are some modest homes but it is, overall, an upscale and exclusive area.

Our house is right at the bottom of this hill and I have watched runners go up almost every marathon for the last 11 years. I’ve stood there handing out sliced citrus fruit, encouragement and high-fives. I’ve sighed with relief when they have made it to the top.

I often run up that hill. My physical inability to sometimes not make it up has never broken my heart but my social inability to climb is has.

Let me explain myself better. My kids attended a daycare and then a pre-school that fed into an elementary school that stands atop the hill. I have seen families, who live on that hill, day after day, at drop-off and pick-up. You would think, then, that I would have many friends among the parents in that school.

I don’t.

Some of it is my own social incompetence at breaking into an established clique; most of it, sadly, is that I lack the right racial and financial background.

The few friends I do have on that hill are either mixed-race, widely-traveled, or simply don’t care about my zip code (here or in India).

There are ways of “breaking in,” and, early on, I did try. I failed for not trying hard enough and because when I looked inwards, I realized I was not cut out for contrived networking. I have also never understood the finer nuances of American small talk (and let me tell you there are many) and that has been my biggest downfall – you are doomed if you can’t start a conversation.

I couldn’t start a conversation with football, baseball, or skiing – something almost everyone knew how to discuss. In my desperation to fit in, I admit, I read up about football because that seemed an universal, all-consuming, and benign obsession. Except, the more I read about it the more I disliked it and what it stood for. So using that as a conversation-starter was out.

I could have mastered the art of discussing my most recent vacation at some beach resort where I sunned myself and went from brown to dark brown, but we never travel to beaches, much less resorts, and people seemed to lose interest very easily when most of my vacations were to India. There went my second conversation-starter.

Politics and religion, too, were taboo and that was a huge shock. Having grown up in a family where both my grandfathers were prominent leaders of opposing political parties and members of the Indian parliament, I was used to discussing politics openly. Even as a child, I was allowed to discuss and debate political issues and change my loyalties from one grandpa to the other. Culturally, too, Indians discuss politics and religion openly but here they don’t and there went my third conversation-starter.

There were so many times at drop-off and pick-up when a parent I had talked to the previous day walked past without saying hello. And so many times when I was talking to a mom and her eyes were looking past me because someone much “higher up” was coming our way. I understood, very quickly, that it was my politeness rather than impoliteness that kept me from making conversation.

I was, to put it simply, stuck.

So I tried other methods – memorizing the name of every child in my kids’ classes, their parents, where they lived, what they did. I tried the PTO but I didn’t have the time nor energy nor the mind for it.

I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing or what I wasn’t achieving until a year ago when I was organizing a birthday party for my daughter. We always invite all the kids in the class and extend the invitation to the parents and siblings. It is how things are done in India and my husband and I like to get to know the parents. We have dinner, drinks, a cake and ask for RSVP’s since I do most of the cooking. I noticed, increasingly, that the people living on the hill (or wishing they could) never replied to our invitations. The only ones that did were the few friends we do have up there.

Less than half the parents replied to that invitation and almost none of the class showed up (the coincidence was that most of the kids that year in my child’s class did live on the hill). It finally dawned on me that I was being excluded for our house location, coloration and so many other things. Neither my husband nor I are good at sucking up to people and it was beginning to show. I remember looking around during that party (there were still more than 60 people) and my heart simply overflowed because I had, without knowing or trying, filtered people and the ones that remained were the ones in my house. I knew, at that moment, that every party in my house would have the same people and it wasn’t a place to network but to build and strengthen already existing friendships.

Now, I talk freely about this segregation and sometimes people wonder why I would even complain because I am from India – the land of class and castes and discrimination. I complain because if that was the life I’d wanted I would have stayed in India (or moved to England where I have also lived and it comes pretty close to India). I always believed this was the land of equality but it isn’t. The discrimination here is so subtle, so rehearsed, and so smooth you often wonder if you have imagined it. It is harder to deal with because it isn’t supposed to be there and when it isn’t supposed to be there how can you say it is?

So, yes, I mind that it is here, in a country that, on paper maintains it is free and equal and in spirit doesn’t follow it.

I was recently talking to an immigrant friend and he asked how I feel about moving back to India, where discrimination still exists, after having lived in the United States? It was the first time I had thought of it that way and two things came to mind – first, this isn’t an equal society and second, if I am going to be part of a class system why not be at the top of it rather than at the bottom?

You see, I was born in one of those mansions on the top of a hill and there wasn’t even a house for miles around. Despite my parents being very socially active and deeply involved in bringing up downtrodden communities, I never really understood how hard it was for people at the bottom of the hill to climb up. Now I do – in a place which denies the very existence of the hill.

The Women Who Made Me What I Am (And What I Am Not)


Hold on, hold on and don’t get teary even before I start. Unlike most women I will not say I “owe it” to my great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mother, Madame Curie and Maggie Thatcher, all strong and accomplished women in their own right. In fact, I owe them nothing because they made womanhood seem too easy and too simple. Looking at them, I just assumed women stuck together. I didn’t realize that in my own life I would find I was competing with other women even before I began competing with men.

Of course, inter-gender and intra-gender competition is a worldwide phenomenon but what is different about the United States is that women here constantly judge each other and they don’t even know they are doing it. It made the first few years of my married life here miserable, confusing, and heartbreakingly lonely because there are times when you need the company of women who won’t judge and analyze, coddle, preach and teach.

I came here for graduate school, finished studying, worked, got married, moved to the suburbs, and had a baby all within four years. These are huge for anyone and they were huger for me because I was in a different country and a different culture.

What made things worse was that I had decided to stay home and focus on raising our children (one more came along in two years) until they were past the toddler stage. I was “working,” of course, churning out an article every week for the Boston Globe, writing my novel, and doing other projects on the side. But I still didn’t qualify as a “working mom,” enough to justify the babysitting I was hiring. I still remember a “working woman” commenting, “Yours is the ideal life, full-time help and part-time work.”

At the time, it didn’t occur to me to mind but looking back, now, I do. It didn’t occur to me to say, “So what even if I am doing nothing and have a staff of 25 working in my house?”

In reality, I was writing more than 50 hours a week but it wasn’t visible – I did it while I was nursing, while the babies napped, or during those long, sleepless, and lonely nights when the support I would have had in India seemed like a dream I had given up simply to live where my love lived.

It never occurred to me, then, to tell the women who were doing their 9-5 jobs, to keep their opinions to themselves. Or to point out that they had been raised here, their extended families lived in the same country, if not the same state. That they had and would always have the advantage of growing up, marrying, and living in a country that they actually knew and understood at its heart.

In reaction to these reactions of my personal choices, I donned housekeeping, motherhood, and everything that went with it as one would an armor. I wrote, of course, I never stopped that, but my identity became, without me wanting or asking for it, what I had chosen to do rather than what I had chosen not to do (pursue my career above everything else). I learned to cook, clean, keep an immaculate house and throw a party for a 100 people without batting an eyelid. Having grown up in a family where I had not been trained in any housekeeping, these were huge accomplishments that even my parents were extremely proud of. As they looked at it – I had all the education I needed and wanted and my career was all set but at this time I wanted to do THIS and I was doing it well.

So imagine my surprise when I overheard a woman (guest) I didn’t know well (and who hasn’t been invited back again) that, sure, this was a great party but SHE, herself, did not want to be known as the “best party-thrower in town.” Obviously, her goals were bigger, better, deeper than mine. I subsequently found out she is a stockbroker and wondered how making money can be a better goal?

In the same vein, I heard “real” career-minded women saying they simply could not be bothered with housework and cooking and all that nitty gritty and I wondered how they were going to palm off the most important job – of having children – to their husbands? Why even bother with family and kids if you hate it so much? Or if you marry, perhaps find someone who is footloose and fancy-free and wants to live on a boat or in a caravan.

(I am aware that if I had chosen to continue reporting with the intensity and the hours I had done before I had children, certain women might have criticized me for that as well.)

I was so lost and confused. To win the respect of ALL these woman what should I be? Should I be a poor, single mom who is constantly harried? Or should I be a full-time working woman and a mother and wife on the side when time permits? Or should I be a full-time mom and not care about my career?

I also found the title of “working mom,” offensive. What was that anyway? As opposed to the other mothers that didn’t work outside the house? Some of my closest friends have chosen to stay home and raise their kids at a cost to their careers. (I am not talking about the women who do this and make their kids and the school’s PTO their life’s goal because that is a career in itself). The stay-at-home moms I have grown close with are aware they are raising the next generation that will inherit the earth and understand it is a big responsibility. I have watched some of their kids graduate and go into the world and make a difference. And, contrary to expectation, most of them are not nervous wrecks now that their kids have left home and they “have nothing to do.” In fact, I would say, most are very fulfilled, content, happy doing things they had given up or what they always wanted to do.

I have often wondered why they seem more fulfilled than someone like me, career-oriented and identity-confused, and I think I know some of the reason why. To make the decision to stay home despite being highly educated and smart is a hard one. It requires a lot of introspection and self-awareness, a systematic listing of what is important to you and what you are willing to lose for this sacrifice. It means they have already been made immune to what the world (of other “working women”) thinks about them.

Living here, the hardest lesson for me has been justifying my choices to other women. It has alienated me from many; it has also left me with the women I love and trust and respect and who, I feel, are more comfortable in their skins. Some of them are stay-at-home moms, some are hardcore career women, some are a mixture, and none weigh their worth by what they are but by who they are. Inside.

They are the women who understand the challenges of being a woman, a foreigner, a writer. They are the ones who agreed to become bridesmaids at my wedding despite knowing I didn’t care or believe in weddings and that their main job would be to protect me from myself. They are the ones who forced me to play bad tennis, read every stupid thing I wrote, and humored me while I played housewife. They understood that the most important role of womanhood was to support it, unconditionally.

My Food Sensibilities, Insecurities, and Eccentricities

Food “values” define who I am. They have earned me friends and enemies, won me admiration and criticism. And just to be clear, when I say food “values” I don’t mean finishing everything on my plate or trying every dish on the table. No. I am referring to something much more deep, innate, and cultural.

Growing up in India, the adults were always obsessed with food – not what they ate but what others ate; what would they feed their family, friends, the pushcart vendor, the traveling salesperson, and whoever else crossed their path that day? This obsession made no distinctions – it afflicted the rich in their mansions, the poor in their shacks. It preyed on those who made millions and those who made $20 a month.

As a liberal, liberated, modern youngster I mocked this food-obsession. Such gluttony, narrow-mindedness, I thought.

It took me a long time to fully understand what food really meant to Indians – a tool to communicate with the world, build friendships and communities. I realized that more often than not, a person’s willingness to share food reflected their generosity (or lack of it).

An unexpected visitor was never made to feel unwelcome. You first greeted the visitor. Then you offered water. Then you offered food – lunch at lunchtime, dinner in the evening and a snack in between. If the visitor refused, you offered again just to assure that you meant it, you really wanted them to eat.

It wasn’t unusual for our cook to pull me aside before a dinner party with a warning, “I couldn’t get enough okra and the curry may not be enough. So don’t eat any tonight. If it is left over you can have it all tomorrow.” I didn’t touch the okra curry and it didn’t occur to me to sulk. I knew it happened in every household no matter what its financial and social status.

I followed these food rules, unquestioningly, subconsciously, though I broke them once in a while and was forgiven immediately. There was one time, though, when I digressed so much that I got a talking to from my parents, my babysitter, the cook, the maid, several aunts and uncles. It happened like this.

I was 12 (so old enough to know) and returned home ravenous, expecting dinner on the table. But dinner was not on the table and my mother explained it would be a little late because the cook was serving a group of contractors who had been trying to fix a leak in the drinking water tank all day. It was past seven and they had not eaten since breakfast and had to be fed first. My mother suggested I have a fruit.

I didn’t have a fruit because I didn’t. Instead, I walked into the kitchen, made a plate for myself and ate my dinner, alone. Everyone was livid – not because I had eaten alone or fixed my plate, but because I had eaten before the workers had. “They were far hungrier than you,” my dad scolded. “It is terrible manners to eat before you have fed people who have been working in your house all day.”

Looking back, it was a basic life-lesson in giving – to sacrifice something you wanted and loved (like okra curry) so others could have it.

When I left India in my early 20s for England, I had a single suitcase and plenty of “baggage.” I could not leave behind my Indian-ness, most importantly my food sensibilities. If I was cooking and one of my five roommates in the student housing where I lived asked what I was making, I offered a taste. If they liked a certain dish, I made more of it so we could share.

I did the same when I came to the United States to go to graduate school. Unlike in England, people here were more curry-wary but if they had the courage to try one, I was filled with admiration. When they refused, I felt rejected. It wasn’t a rejection of my cooking but of my culture, my sensibilities, my openness. It made me indignant. I was of vegetarian philosophy and if I could accept people eating a cadaver at the table, why couldn’t they accept different spicing and flavor?

I didn’t mind if they tried a dish and hated it, but I felt hurt when they rejected it outright, saying they weren’t hungry. There is more graciousness in accepting than in offering, I wanted to shout.

When I married I offered everyone who passed through my home food – the plumber, the electrician, the gardener. (I even offered a Jehovah’s Witness, who was trying to convert me, a smoothie after I’d spent fifteen minutes at the door shredding Christianity to bits; I believed she would need the energy if she happened to meet more people like me on her rounds that day).

Some looked at me surprised, some refused, some accepted. Some (men) looked at me as if “do you want some lunch?” was a code phrase for something else. I kept the ones who accepted, got rid of the others. I wondered why they didn’t want my food. Did they think I would poison them? Were they worried I would kill them with my spices? Was it because they simply did not want to feel obligated?

When my offers for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee were turned down, I finally understood that a lot of it was just being professional. You didn’t accept offers of food and drink at a house you were hired to do a job in. This was so far removed from my upbringing that it took me a while to get used to. Coming from a country where you are considered rude, selfish, uncultured, if you don’t welcome visitors with food and beverage, I had to re-calibrate and stop doing what I had been taught to do.

However, I still haven’t let go of my food sensibilities, insecurities, and eccentricities completely. I let Jehovah’s Witnesses and door-to-door sales people off the hook but no one else. The gardener knows, now, to never say no when I offer to get him coffee and donuts. He knows I will get them anyway. The plumber actually asks me to make masala chai if I am home.

My heart fills with joy when a friend or neighbor asks me for a bite to eat or something to drink. I love it when some of our non-Indian friends come over, have a meal with my family, and then pack up leftovers to take back home with them. At a recent party I threw, my neighbor’s family couldn’t make it. He came over, ate and asked me what I was going to give him to take back for his wife and boys. My heart, at that moment, filled with joy, not because he was endorsing my cooking, but because he was endorsing me – my background, my culture, who I was, my love for his family. He was accepting me, unconditionally. (Of course, I was so drunk I ended up giving him uncooked rice by mistake and sent frantic texts the next day telling him to cook the rice).

The summer terrorism crept into my life….

I still remember the summer terrorism crept into my life, though I didn’t realize it then. I was ten, out of school, spending the summer in my parents’ house. It was a perfect, scorching summer and I swam for hours in the large, old, stone well fed by natural springs, went on long hikes in the forests with my dad, and learned how to get the perfect bullseye with a .22 caliber rifle.

The sultry contentment of summer lifted one day when I heard hushed comments about a “boy who has gone missing.”  I asked my babysitter and he hesitated before replying, “Oh, a boy from the next town has run away from home.”

“Is he a bad boy?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so but if he has run away he is a bad boy.”

I didn’t think much of it until almost four years later, when the “boy” returned home, now a man in his early twenties. I still remember him – tall and lean, with green eyes that stared and never saw. There is a lot of traffic through my parents’ house and I never remember faces, but I remember this one because it was hard to forget and because I later discovered that he was “the boy who had been returned.”

“Escaped,” would have been a more apt term since he had been abducted by terrorists in northwest India, bordering Pakistan, and managed to run away. I never interacted with him but heard from people that he spoke of how he had been kidnapped, held in a terrorist camp and trained.  I also didn’t think about it much because, at the time, things like this upset my carefully ordered, privileged world.

I don’t know where he went or if he is still alive but I think about him these days.

I think about him because of his faraway eyes that rested on me and didn’t see.

I think about him because he was from a devout Hindu family and worked for an Islamic terrorist group.

I think about him because I believe poverty and ignorance make people perfect targets for brainwashing.

I think about him because terrorism is a word that is becoming an accepted and expected way of life.

People always argue that poverty and ignorance don’t play a big role in the conversion of a young person from normal to extremist but I think they do. Of course, it doesn’t mean all terrorists are poor or ignorant but being either increases vulnerability.

I have seen this first hand in India – Christian missionaries and Muslim mullahs converting the Hindus. The Hindus, who convert, are mostly poor, oppressed and believe that a different religion will offer them a new life. (Not to mention they are often offered money if they convert). It is only after converting that they realize they have simply hurled themselves from the Hindu hierarchy to a Muslim or Christian one. But they fear going back to their old religion because they will then be defectors of the religion they were born into and the one they converted to.

In my mind, to fight global terrorism we have to fight global poverty. Terrorist organizations aren’t perceived as evil in the places they operate because they appear to be protecting the population they will ultimately destroy. In Pakistan, Taliban has madraasas to educate the poor kids; Hezbollah even has hospitals in Lebanon.

So while I understand that protecting ourselves, the United States of America, from terrorism is of paramount importance, I think globalists will agree that this is an issue of the world and needs to be addressed by everyone. And, in my very humble and un-brilliant opinion, it begins by reducing the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

We can talk all we want about increasing security in Paris and Istanbul, in Mumbai and in London, in New York and in Delhi, but there is not a chance that will help if we don’t find a way to offer the poor more security. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth are the two biggest crises of our times and they cannot coexist peacefully.

This is what goes through my mind when I think about that young man and millions like him who are abducted, abused sexually and physically, weakened and then turned into monsters. I think that particular young man escaped because he did have a solid family background and wasn’t poor. Or perhaps he was mentally so strong that he was still able to rationalize. But what about all the other young people who aren’t able to and can never escape?

Now, when I look back to that summer, I don’t think about the cool water of the stone well or the perfect bullseye I got (with the .22 caliber rifle, yes). I think about, and marvel at, my own ability to completely ignore what was happening right under my nose.