Wednesday 27 June 2012

A magical wedding in Bali - Day 3 (June 6, 2012)

Elora and Rajiv entring the temple for blessings 
The final day of the wedding was in the temple where they went to take the blessings of the local priest. We all had to wear the local kebaya sarong and a sash. I decided to rent it, which was a wrong idea, as everyone in Indonesia seems to be of size 1 or 2. With great difficulty, I found one outfit that fit me and I was thankful for being spared shopping at this last minute. We all got ready and went to two temples where they did ceremonies and blessed the couple.  The temples were very simple, green and peaceful.  Some of the offerings near the alter were made using sprite bottles and people were wearing shoes and smoking inside the temple. They had two roasted pigs on a skewer as an offering to the Gods. Ritualistically, it felt wrong to wear shoes and allow smoking and meat in a temple but spiritually, the place felt very clean and content. I felt that the Indonesians might have altered some of the Hindu rituals (or may be they are right and we altered it in India) but they were really dedicated people.  Every home has a beautiful temple as a part of the premises. Most of the hotels and homes have Ganesha at the entrance. I love the way they retained the beauty and elegance of the ritual. After the ceremony, we walked over to the dinner area.
Balinese dancers post temple blessings 
In an open area, they created a huge circular arch of intricate bamboo weaves for dinner seating. We entered the arch, and sat down on the floor on the mats that was laid on both sides of a long table running below the circle of the arch. Food was served on banana leaves and was covered with banana leaves. As we uncovered the top set of banana leaves, we saw that the food was served community style where the rice was in one continuous motion in the middle surrounded by various dishes. All of us dug into it and had the most amazing conversations. Post dinner, there was Balinese dance and puppetry in a small theater across the street from the dinner area. There was also some gambling that you played with shells and not money. 

Me and Shilo in the clothes we dared to wear with flat chappals
What was amazing to me was that EVERY aspect of the wedding, be it the locations or how the food was served to the trashcans … everything was recycled or natural. The ceremony was not trying to adopt “green” principals.. it was “being green” in the way it existed. No one was trying hard to be ecologically correct, they just were so .. naturally. That is what I love about Bali. From something temporary as the little baskets they weave to carry the flowers for the offering to the permanent structures of homes, it is filled with perfection and beauty.  No one is being taught design or ecology or even religion. They are everything that you need to be .. naturally. May be I enjoyed only the privileged hospitality where it SEEM like everything was natural but even if that were so, I can say that I have not found that same sense in the most elaborate homes in India. Bali made me feel at home, with myself, with nature and with the natural order of the world that exists around me. And the wedding was a magical vehicle that encompassed what Bali was about in the most beautiful way.

I know why I go to weddings. Despite all the statistics that stare in our face, despite the number of adjustments two different people living under the same roof, we do our best to create these magical moments with all those we love so that later on, when we face tough times, we have someone or the other remind us of the magic of why we got married in the first place. Standing on that rock, when the tall, dark Malayali American Rajiv kissed the slim, elegant Canadian Balinese Elora in her flower dress, with a flowing river acting as the background music, time stood still and I enjoyed the love that existed in that moment. What happens later is up to Elora and Rajiv and I get to keep that moment for a long time to come.

Music and wedding

All pictures by Shilo Shiv Suleman

A magical wedding in Bali - Day 2 (June 5, 2012)

I woke up around 5 AM and was in a mood to write, work, think .. in a very quiet way. I did not want to go into town or explore the surroundings. I just wanted to be in my little bungalow. It reminded me of the summer holidays in Eluru where my grand parents lived in a small tile covered home with make shift room made of palm eaves serving as the bathroom in the backyard. I don’t remember my childhood as lacking in anything even though the facilities were minimal. I met James Clark for lunch. He has an organization that is located inside a state park in marin county and it was fascinating to discuss with him on how he worked with west marin citizens to make sure that the potential tourism of the place did not undermine the local ethos. He also talked about Perma culture and we discussed the need to create a 200 year plan (I thought of Raghava as he talks about the same). After our long conversation, I invited James as a speaker for the conference. He left around 1pm and I got ready for the wedding. We were warned, “dare to wear the most dressy outfit that goes with comfortable shoes”. So, I chose wear my flat shoes and a simple cotton kurta.

the bridge we took to get to Elora's wedding
We reached Elora’s home at 2pm and from the back yard of Elora’s family home, steps lead to the bottom of a steep hill to the riverfront where the wedding was set up on a pile of natural rocks. Colorful cushions were placed on rocks to let the guests sit and Elora’s came in a dress made of fresh flowers (see her dress in this beautiful photograph ) and Rajiv wore the traditional Malayali Mundu and shirt. Their friend Tom married them. With the flowing water as the background music, Elora and Rajiv read out the vows they wrote and said, “I do”. I was so moved by the simplicity, elegance, beauty and the serenity of the place. 

After the wedding, we all went on a short hike to get to the next destination.. the wedding reception. In the last week, they constructed bamboo bridges across the river, along the hillside and then we had to climb a muddy hill (thank god! None of us fell. Only our chappals were caked with mud) and we reached a place where fresh coconut water and delicious local snacks greeted us. I ate this snack that was made of Jaggery and was wrapped in palm leaf that was absolutely delicious.

The Banyan tree under which we had the reception dinner
Then, we were driven to the reception site, which was under an old banyan tree that was hundreds of years old. Apparently the main trunk died but the other roots that came out of the tree planted themselves into the earth spreading it very wide. Under the tree, in the shape of a mandala, they laid six long tables, chairs and benches. The tables and benches were all made from discarded wood from the green village. The marimba band from Green school was playing as we entered the arena. The discomfort of the hot summer night disappeared as we were swept away by the magic of the Marimba band and the roots that hung out from the tall tree firmly settled into the soil under our feet. The local children and families gathered as well to enjoy the music.

The Banyan Grove, where the reception took place 
Following the wedding, the guests got to play with rabbits 
Elora in a stunning beaded off white gown and Rajiv appeared amidst cheers and whistles. And then, we all sat and had an amazing meal. After each course, we had to get up with our wine glasses and go around in a circle and choose another place to sit when the music stopped. I got to talk to a lot of interesting people throughout the evening. At the end of the night, there was a disco area created where the disco ball hung from a clump of bamboo poles. I left the party by about 9:30 PM, as the dancing under the disco ball was still under way.

Elora and Rajiv saying "I do" under the big blue sky

All pictures by Shilo Shiv Suleman

A magical wedding in Bali - Day 1 (June 4, 2012)

me with John and team, the father of the bride and team that pulled off the wedding 
I love attending weddings. And there are some that remain in your memory forever. And the wedding of Elora and Rajiv is one such occasion. I arrived in Bali on the afternoon of June 4th and drove to my hotel “Kertiyasa bungalow” in the village of Nyuh Kuning in Ubud. I walked into a two story small bungalow with a living room downstairs and a bedroom and washroom upstairs. The shower is outdoors nestled in the small backyard that opens from the living room. I settled in, unpacked, took a shower and got ready in my sari for the “sari and sarong evening”.

Bamboo Indah, where the first night dinner was hosted 
Women from around the world – US, UK, France, Canada, India, Indonesia – all wore sarees and gathered at the Bamboo Indah, which is a wonderful resort run by Elora’s family. The common area is all built out of wood and mud and it was decorated with hanging garlands of bright yellow chrysanthemums. After a grand feast, we settled down on large cushions on the floor to enjoy the sangeet. Rajiv’s brother, Ranjith, is an amazing singer.  He and Elora’s family put together a song for them titled “Full moon party” that chronicled the lives of Elora and Rajiv and made fun of how they met in a yoga class. then her sisters sang “Hey baby I think I want to marry you” by Bruno Mars and then other family members sang, did bollywood dance and then all of us went to the lake front and lit these lanterns and let them float in the sky.  It was really magical to see the night sky lit up with the lanterns. I made a wish as I let go of my lantern and watched it till it became a speck and disappeared into the night sky. The dark night sky was lit up with full moon, which had floating lanterns as fleeing company. 

me with Shilo and John - INK curator, Fellow and speaker ... don't we make a great team? 

Elora, the bride with the magical marigolds 

All pictures by Shilo Shiv Suleman

Saturday 16 June 2012

The Verdict for Rajat Gupta

Rajat Gupta 
When I read that Rajat Gupta was convicted for 25 years in prison, I had mixed emotions – sad, upset, frustrated. When I was at American India Foundation (AIF), Rajat was the co-chair. , and he was always generous, elegant and affectionate. He was the first Indian to break the professional barriers to make it to being the head of McKinsey. He was a great connector of ideas and people. He came up with the ideas, brought together people who had the resources and time to support the ideas, and let them take the center stage to turn the ideas into action. He was the driving force in making both AIF and ISB world class organizations. I am not his family nor would I be listed as one of his close friends but at work, I felt that he was always fair and made sure that we each got our time in the spotlight. He never imposed his ideas but discussed them until everyone was on board.

I still remember attending a dinner party at ISB in Hyderabad while it was under construction. The open quad area with the strong breeze was almost magical. He was like a proud father that night, as he walked us around the campus and showed us where the faculty quarters would be, where the student housing was coming up. He knew every inch of the project in the utmost detail. In fact, one of my friends commented that Rajat could have bought a lot of land around ISB area knowing that the prices would go up when ISB is completed, but he did not do it because she surmised that he was very ethical.

It was not just me but if we go back in time, everyone who met Rajat was impressed with his commitment to everything he took on. They say that some people can fool some people some times, but no one can fool all the people all the time. So, Rajat could not have fooled all of us with his genuineness. He was and I am sure continues to be a very affectionate person.

What made someone like Rajat then participate in insider trading, which is a serious offense? Whether we leak information to a friend or family, it is a serious crime. Was it because he was constantly surrounded by financial hotshots ,who showed off their private planes and multiple mansions so he felt that he needed one too? Did he feel really bad to say “No” to the trading requests of a friend? No one knows the precise reason but there was some external pressure or an extra desire that caused this slip in his judgment. 

Here is what I learned from this episode. If someone as brilliant as Rajat, as nice as him could have this slip, any of us could have it as well. And if the root cause of this slip was perhaps money - then we all need to remember that no matter how rich we are, there is someone richer. If I have a small home, someone could have a mansion and when I have a mansion, someone could have a private plane, and when I have that as well, someone could have a private island. There is no end to what one can materially possess. Pretty soon our definition of what is a “basic” need could change, and having a private jet, not just flying first class, becomes essential to our existence. That is when we tread the slippery slope of error in our judgment.

I realize that it is important to surround myself with friends who live like I do and are happy with their lives while I also celebrate the mansions of my other friends without having a need to own one myself. I also realize the need to surround myself with people who not only support me on the way up but also warn me if I begin to slip. It is important to hang on to those who might not be our most pleasant friends but are the most truthful ones. The more successful we become, the more important it is to hang on to those friendships that started when we were a nobody and friends who have a strong integrity toward what they do almost to a fault. 

I am sad for Rajat because his legacy is seen as that one moment of misjudgment and not his decades of service. I am sad because he did not have that someone who could have warned him of this consequence.

As for Rajat, I feel that the right question is not “How could he?” but it is “How do I not?”

I revel in the praises that I receive, love the little luxuries that life can offer me but I grow because of the ruthless criticism I receive when I make a mistake. And I hang on to those friends and family members who are not afraid to be the bad guys momentarily because they do a world of good to me in the long haul. 

(Picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Friday 1 June 2012

The hidden promise of “Till death do us part”

I met him 21 years ago at a wedding in California. He was studying in California and his father from Bombay asked him to attend this wedding to meet potential brides. As an act of defiance, he showed up with three girls - one Indian, one Chinese and one White American as his dates to this traditional wedding in Thousand Oaks, California. I got talking to all of them and over the years we became friends. It so happened that he fell in love with one of the women who he showed up with and engaged to her six months later and married two months after that. In a way, I was with them from their very first meeting. Two people from two different cultures thrown together by a prank became life partners. He -  a smart, driven entrepreneur; she - an artist and a life long student. I visited their home filled with cats, dogs, rabbits and backyard filled with chickens, ponies, mules and many other moving creatures. They both loved nature and animals. I witnessed years of their life together with a string of dis-jointed incidents – news of their pit bull jumping the fence and landing in the next door yard; walking through their backyard in the early hours picking ingredients for breakfast – fresh eggs from the cage, tomatoes and green chilies from the garden; having a business meeting with him in the living room while she carved a horse head at the tail of a pencil to give as a gift to me, both of them talking to me on the phone as fire was engulfing most of their neighborhood telling me that they were being evacuated and the most recent one where we all agreed to meet in my next trip to US. There are so many moments small and big that mark our friendship.   

J and S... 

I meander through this memory lane today because of an email I received from him. It was a lengthy description of what happened to her in the last few weeks. I learnt of her having a stroke, of rushing her to the hospital where she told him that she loved him and that he should feed all her animals regularly even though she was in the hospital after which she slipped into a coma. When she woke up, she was totally paralyzed communicating only through batting of her eyelids. She was deteriorating fast and they had to make a decision about putting her on a feeding tube. She has always been a very shy, private person who was happy with her family and pets and I was one of his few friends that she grew close to … perhaps because she saw me as part of their first meeting. She was fiercely independent, incredibly simple, she created a home where she blended in with her animals and did not demand much from anyone else. She, who nurtured countless animals lay herself a wounded one and wanted to go the same way she would let her favourite horse go were it to be incapacitated. True to her nature, the same rule for animals had to be the rule for her. She communicated with the batting of her eyelids that she did not want to be kept alive. He held her hand as she breathed her last on her own terms. 

This incident made me think of love in a whole new way. The worse nightmare of any parent is to lose their child. And for a mother to fight to have her child die says something of the condition of the child. I thought of her parents, of him, of her siblings fighting to let her die. There are stories of people who survived her condition and lead their lives where someone has to take care of them round the clock. What is the effect on those who take care of them?  And for how long can they take care of them? If they are kept in institutions, what is the level of care that they receive?  Should they have tried for a few years and then let her go?  Should he and the mother have dedicated the rest of their lives to take care of her?  Should they have dissuaded her from her wish?  There are no right answers. And no one knows the details of agreements / arguments a couple might have within the confines of their private lives. All I know is that they both were in love for the 20 plus years and she gave an indication that she did not want to live. And they did everything they could to grant her that wish. 

And now, when I think of love, I also think of letting go. For most of us love is the celebration, a feeling of the living but love is also the end. As I bid farewell to her, I think of the agony that she went through in those last days. I am sure that there was some longing to live, to be with loved ones, some survival instinct working hard but her pride not to be dependent on anyone won over all that. Finally, her wish to live fully or not all won any other natural instinct. She remains in my memory as a quietly vibrant soul who built a small world around her of her family, pets and a few friends and I can still see her fingers carve horses of all sizes out of every possible material. 

Most importantly, like she did, I have to let my husband and family know what to do if I were to be a vegetable. It is not fair to toss that responsibility on them who would always feel guilty for pulling the plug but would be fulfilling my instructions if I made them clear. Death is imminent but death with dignity is the dream of every human being. As he wrote to me, he said that he did not want her to die but he wanted to save her from life worse than death. And that was the agreement in their marriage. Her last journey that started with a fall at 4:30pm on May 11th, filled with major battles with doctors, priests, medical boards, ended the way she silently communicated, at 9.02pm on May 27th. Memorial day that commemorates those who died saving their country added another veteran to the list… one who died fighting for her dignity.

Julie with her cat 


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