Tag Archives: #rajoza

Janm Bhoomi, Karm Bhoomi, Matra Bhoomi: This Fragile Place Called Home

Whether you plod through Barack Obama’s 751-page political memoir The Promised Land (burnished with glossy photos) or enthuse through Annie Zaidi’s 159-page personal memoir Bread, Cement, Cactus (replete with line drawings), you will be rewarded with these three paradoxes:

  • Home is away;
  • Insiders are outsiders; and 
  • To be vulnerable is to be powerful.

Given that few of us will ever make the White House our home, let’s give Obama a fleeting glance and dedicate our attention to this précis of Zaidi’s award-winning (Cambridge University’s Nine Dots Prize) thesis on belonging and dislocation. But first, let’s open where both authors end, with their metaphors of home: Zaidi likens it to a morning mist, and Obama references an evening commute.  

After having visited the SEAL team and pilots who were involved in killing Osama Bin Laden, Obama returns to his home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  From the perch of Marine One, on his way to the West Wing, Obama writes:  “The helicopter began its gentle turn, due north across the Mall.  The Washington Monument suddenly materialized on one side, seeming almost close enough to touch; on the other side, I could see the seated figure of Lincoln … I looked down at the street below, still thick with rush-hour traffic – fellow commuters, I thought, anxious to get home.”  Even after a decade in Washington D. C., the Hawaiian remains on an island with two dead presidents and “fellow commuters” to keep him company; when he speaks of home in The Promised Land, it is with the lonely voice of someone doing the job of a former president.  The White House for him was his Karm Bhoomi, his place of work.  A house that slaves built could never be a home for Obama and his family to fully inhabit.

Zaidi aches for a different kind of home, a place where one truly belongs, one’s Janm Bhoomi, one’s birth home; this is the mitti, or soil, that you breathe in after you’ve moved elsewhere and the earthy scent after a rain reminds you of home; this is the soil where your body or ashes might return after death.  In that home, you are never away, no matter which diaspora you are part of; in that home, you are always welcome as an insider, no matter the superficial outsiderness of your being; in that home, you feel powerful in your vulnerability, like a baby in her mother’s lap.  You are loyal to your land of birth; and that land is loyal to you.

But, as Zaidi eloquently writes, “For a person to give her loyalty to the land, to trust those who create and enforce laws, safety is a prerequisite.  One essential aspect to this illusion is familiarity:  systems functioning as we expect them to, people talking in tongues we understand.”  

Zaidi begins her memoir in Rajasthan, my own ancestral home.  She weaves in words from people talking in tongues that are slipping away from my family now that almost all of us have left our desert origins:  mitti, colony, Aravalli, Sirohi, tribal, Garasia, Rabadi, Bhil, Mt. Abu, bigha, panchayat, thikana, odni, gur, imarti, mofussil, nanihal, mulk, vatan, zameen, ghar.   And that’s just in the first 25 pages.  The list grows as the pages flow.  I feel at home reading these words naturally inserted into the serious text; underneath the political writing, there’s a leavening of sentimentality that is neither mawkish nor falsely nostalgic of better times that probably never existed.  Instead, Zaidi simply acknowledges the challenge of rediscovering home once it is lost.

Zaidi’s professional life takes her to Karm Bhoomis such as Bombay, Delhi, and Gujarat.  There is a sad episode in Gujarat after the 2002 riots, alternatively called the 2002 Gujarat violence and the Gujarat pogrom; Zaidi prefers calling the inter-communal violence a pogrom.  As so often is the case in India, there is both a domino effect and dissemblance as part of the political play that proves tragic for ordinary people.  The riots in Gujarat began with the psychological violence associated with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya; it proceeded to the Godhra railway station where a fire of disputed origin engulfed four coaches and took the lives of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from their pilgrimage to Ayodhya; the political conflagration grew across then Chief Minister Modi’s Gujarat as Hindu stalwarts claimed that the fire was instigated by Pakistan’s intelligence agency aided and abetted by local Muslims; and then suddenly a violent tragedy of numbing numbers struck Gujarat, home once to M. K. Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence:

  • 200 police officers dead while trying to control the violence;
  • 230 mosques and 274 dargahs destroyed by the violent;
  • 1,044 dead, of which 790 were Muslim and 254 Hindu;
  • 150,000 people displaced during the violence; and
  • Countless acts of heroism committed by Hindus, Dalits and tribals who tried to protect Muslims from the violence.

Rather than retelling this oft-told story, Zaidi reports on her own reportage.  While in Gujarat, she became self-conscious of the tabeez her grandmother had gifted her.  Because the amulet was “inscribed with a verse from the Quran … with a subtle gesture, I tucked it out of sight, lest the script give me away as one of ‘those people.’  People who had been shown their place.  People whose homes had been burnt down.  Women who had been raped.”  After years of putting the tabeez away out of fear, and years of resultant shame, Zaidi began wearing it again visibly.  “Because, as much as home is a place of safety, it is also a place where you are visible.”

Perhaps for Zaidi, her writing is a similar amulet, affording her paper-bound protection against evil, danger, and the disease of religious intolerance.  Since my college days, I have dedicated much of my reading and writing to reclaiming India; this has been my way of belonging to a house that my ancestors built.  I claim a birthright to all parts of India, and in my dozens of trips back home, I’ve always felt welcome in all parts of my matra bhoomi, my motherland.  However, Mother India is not as welcoming to all of her children and grandchildren.

I have two friends who have experienced the welcome mat being obstructed for one spouse, but not the other.  Both are educators: one born in India to a Hindu father and a Muslim mother; the other born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents who at Partition moved from India to Pakistan.  The latter is unlikely to get a visa to visit India … even though both parents were born in the same India as mine.

I feel both outraged and sad:  outraged that government policy poisoned by religious intolerance has made my house of belonging too small for my friends; sad that the India that I’ve spent decades reclaiming is slipping away from me.  

When I was much younger, I would feel a tinge of shame when swimming in public.  The source of the shame?  My sacred thread.  Shame was a childish response to the low risk of American xenophobes targeting this symbol of my otherness, my Brahminical ancestry.  I can empathize with, but can’t fully imagine, what it would be like to live in my country of birth (or my adopted land) and feel fear of wearing my version of Zaidi’s tabeez.  Perhaps I am not brave enough to let my imagination tread such dangerous waters.

Zaidi’s brave book has many memorable quotes about home.  Here are three that remind me that from the land of our birth to the abode of our love to our final resting place we all look for a place we can call home:

Zameen … has dual connotations.  It means land, but also a certain psychological environment.  It is soil, mood, air, culture …  You make it as much as you need it to make yourself.”

“Home, they say, is where the heart is.  If home is a location of love, then in my country, home is a guilty secret.”

“Home is where others come looking for you, in life and after.”

The last pages of Bread, Cement, Cactus close with Zaidi’s misty metaphor:  “Sometimes I think of home as morning mist.  I see it as wispy strands engulfing around me.  I feel its cool fingers on my face, but it is beyond my grasp.”  She then proceeds to list the “moving picture” of her life that she evoked in the previous 140 pages.   Then, suddenly, she writes, “Like mist, these things disappear.  Rivers and hills too may disappear within my own lifetime.  But like a train of thought, like a film of moving images, something of home remains within.”

Subsequent to Independence in 1947, Indians like me were born into a promising land that was their own.  Over the past three-quarters of a century, many, like Annie Zaidi, have worked to have India deliver on its promissory note of a pluralist democracy.  If that proves to be elusive, then perhaps the only option remaining to us romantics is to return to our promised land after our final breath.

For RCO’s granddaughter Eshni and her parents as they make a house their home.


Dr. Rajesh C. Oza, is a Change Management Consultant working with clients across the world; he also facilitates the development of MBA students’ interpersonal dynamics at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Rapid Renewal

With the entire world seemingly off the highways and on WebEx or Zoom, I got to thinking if there is some good that will come out of this pandemic, a silver lining in the polluted clouds.  For those of you not feeling terribly hopeful right now, isn’t it wonderful to know that when there’s a burning platform in front of us, we will come together to take action?  It gives me hope around what we, 7.6 billion, can collectively do to turn the tide on climate change!

To be sure, these trying times of the coronavirus might reverse the progress made with controlling carbon dioxide emissions; but in the first quarter of 2020, global emissions were down considerably.  Like an overweight sick person who loses weight, at least we plump citizens of the earth now empirically know that we can do something to manage our over-consumption.  Here’s a somewhat optimistic article I wrote from a family trip last year to Kerala, India’s own version of paradise.

On a hopeful day after Christmas in Kochi, I am reflecting on what a solar eclipse means to me.  While I can focus on the darkness, given the many blessings that have come my way I prefer the light.  Perhaps it is merely the spirit of the season that has given me hope in what otherwise has been a rather dispiriting close to the past decade.  Or perhaps because, here in Kerala, I’m reminded of the diversity that has long been India’s strength.

This inclusive sense of all religions sharing India as a welcoming home is reflected in a favorite ditty of mine from Manmohan Desai’s film Amar Akbar Anthony:

Anhoni ko honi karde honi ko anhoni | We make the impossible possible and the possible impossible!

Ek jagah jab jama ho teeno | Together in one place, we three stand united:

Amar Akbar Anthony

This is the first time in nearly two decades that I have not spent Christmas Eve at the Stanford Theater on University Avenue in Palo Alto, California.  My family has made a tradition of going to see a film quite different from Amar Akbar Anthony, but one with a similarly hopeful heart: It’s A Wonderful Life, the holiday classic directed by Frank Capra.

My family missed seeing our favorite Christmas movie because we were in Cherai Beach, at a resort some 45 minutes north of Kerala’s Cochin International Airport (COK).  We were having a reunion of sorts, with family in India coming from Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Pune, and family from outside of India coming from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  It has been a time of great joy, but I find myself reflecting on the past “dumpster fire” of a decade. 

I’m usually a hopeful sort, but as I look back over the past ten years, the metaphor that haunts me is a heartless fire.  I smell this place that I call home burning. Home is Earth. Home is India. Home is America.

Our planet is literally on fire.  According to nasa.gov, “The world is getting warmer. Whether the cause is human activity or natural variability—and the preponderance of evidence says it’s humans—thermometer readings all around the world have risen steadily since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.”  The website proceeds to ask (and then answer), “But why should we care about one degree of warming?” I think each of us must answer that question in our own way. 

Raj with his granddaughter, Eshni.

For me, it’s not just the Earth science, although that, too, is vitally important.  It is about the world that my granddaughter, Eshni, will inhabit long after I am gone.  Already, I am distraught about the fact that while she was in New Delhi, Eshni was smoking nearly 50 cigarettes each day.  Okay, my daughter and son-in-law’s nine-month-old baby wasn’t actually dragging on several packs of Marlboros or Charminars, but she might as well have been.  The smoke in the capital of the country of my birth is intolerable and getting worse. I can barely imagine what is worse than intolerable. Unlivable? 

And the United States is not much better.  Although we Americans don’t have the daily visual clues to tell us that our planet is burning, I, as a Californian, can attest to the fact that the blue sky is a false harbinger of things to come if we don’t manage the change of climate change.  For two weeks last year, I could not step out of my home without tearing up. Yes, I’m an emotional sort who is easily moved to tears in sentimental Bollywood and Hollywood movies. But these weren’t filmy tears. No, the sun in my gray sky was eclipsed by smoke from fires burning thousands of acres over 100 miles away.  The sting of the smoke caused the tears and required me to wear a mask so that I could breathe. And if we can’t breathe, our world becomes unlivable, acre-by-acre. California’s thousands of charred acres have now given way to Australia’s millions of scarred acres. I take in the smoky air and choke at the impossibility of doing anything substantial about climate change.

When troubled by national and international issues, I look to good governance to save the day.  Surely the United Nations or the Prime Minister of India or the President of the United States have the foresight to envision a world that is habitable for my little Eshni.  Hooray for the UN. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has a fine objective to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”  If this were baseball, I would be shouting, “Hip, hip, hooray! Let’s put the UN Secretary-General into the Hall of Fame!” I would throw a parade for our collective grandchildren’s happy future world. Well, it seems that the UN does throw parties of a sort.  Year after year since 1995, there has been a Conference of the Parties. And year after year, the climate gets hotter and hotter. Protocols such as the Paris Agreement are ratified and rejected by the countries I call my own.

America and India’s positions on the protocols are quite telling and put one nation firmly in a disquieting Hall of Shame and the other in a disorienting Hall of Mirrors.

Trump’s United States is a rejecter of the protocols. Modi’s India is ostensibly a supporter. Both Trump and Modi remind me of those afflicted with the disease of hubris that has them looking directly at a solar eclipse as if their retinas could withstand fire.

In his first year in office, President Trump said, “The Paris accord will undermine (the U.S.) economy,” and “puts (the U.S.) at a permanent disadvantage.”  Donald Trump moved the needle from intolerable and unlivable to unthinkable. Midway through Trump’s term, The Atlantic Monthly listed some 50 unthinkable acts that characterized the Trump Presidency.  In essence, while the earth burns, Trump fiddles on his many incendiary interests including the following from the past 12 months:  building a wall at the US/Mexican border, adding trillions to the fiscal deficit, overseeing a contraction of domestic manufacturing, threatening and waffling on tariffs, recklessly executing an unethical—if not illegal—assassination of a foreign official to gin up a war to win votes, and responding to the inquiry of impeachment with a multitude of distracting lies.

On paper, Prime Minister Modi is the anti-Trump, almost an exemplar of climate change leadership.  He has done much to champion India as a global green leader; indeed, one can see solar panels floating on acres around COK, making Kochi’s airport the first in the world running fully on solar power.  But despite his laudable renewable energy investments in solar and wind farms, the Prime Minister was a reluctant signatory to the Paris Agreement; he has argued that as a developing country focused on giving her citizens a better life, India must not be constrained from investing in coal and other dirty fossil fuels.  There is much truth to the position that emerging economies merit dispensations not afforded to countries, which developed during the Industrial Age’s plunder of the Earth, but one must ask questions about Narendra Modi’s commitment to giving all Indians a better life.

What is the Prime Minister’s philosophy of social justice?  What are his intentions to make India not only a global green leader but also a moral leader?  Why does his office in Delhi encourage policies that are Hindu-centric rather than Hindustan-centric?  Perhaps the Modi Ministry could benefit from a rereading of Section 420 in the Indian Penal Code to clarify its disambiguation in how Muslims are treated as a source of terror. Certainly, a unified India would be more influential on the world stage if her fissiparous tendencies did not distract from the real terror of global warming.

Imagine an Earth with the blood-red skies of Australia where people flee to beaches to escape bushfires racing towards the coast. In Kerala, my hope is that we are not required to retire to backwaters houseboats to escape the fires of climate change; my hope is that we are not all sidetracked by our “Distractors-in-Chief;” my hope is that with a Surya Namaskar, we salute the sun as it rises; my hope is that hope is not eclipsed. 

While it has been lovely to celebrate time with family on the tranquil waters in what Keralites call “God’s Own Country,” inevitably all of us want to return to our wonderful lives in Pune, Melbourne, London, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and California. None of us desire a world where we, or our brothers and sisters, are climate refugees, or refugees of any sort seeking to escape home due to persecution of our race, religion, or sexual identity.  How about we convey our belief in the art of possibility and translate “Amar Akbar Anthony” for the next generation of (grand) children making Planet Earth their home?

We make the impossible possible and the possible impossible!

Together in one place, we three stand united:

Eshni, Ayesha, Emily.

Dr. Rajesh C. Oza, a Change Management Consultant, envisions 2020 as a transformative year.  His vision: Replace shortsighted politicians with clear-eyed leaders like Greta Thunberg (climate strike activist and Time’s 2019 Person of the Year) and Varshini Prakash (challenger of climate change’s status quo and Executive Director of the Sunrise Movement).


Featured image drawn by Mangla Oza.