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What Happened in Mumbai is Very Personal

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As many of you have read, Dorothy Rabinowicz from the Wall Street Journal wrote an opinion piece on my father’s (Deepak Chopra) comments on CNN after the Mumbai bombings.  As I told a friend this morning, one thing about my family is that we don’t sit back quietly (my brother has posted blogs here and here, and my father has responded to the Wall Street Journal, and done an interview with Michelle Haimoff at the Huffington Post, as well). We are hopeful that we can respond to her attacks in a manner that will create a larger discussion on the real issues that led to these horrific and very sad events.

First, I would like to address Rabinowicz personal attacks on my father and his credentials through statements such as “No one can fail to grasp the wisdom of a man who has informed us that ‘If you have happy thoughts, then you make happy molecules.’"

And, subsequent comments by people like Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who apparently referred to my father as “Glitter glasses Whatshisface” and mumbled “Go light a bowl of incense” on The View (national television),  do not help the conversation. Rather, they take me back to my days as a teenager when people referred to my father as a “snake oil doctor”.  Such racist and ignorant remarks feed an ignorance that is in many ways the root cause of this larger situation.

What happened in Mumbai, Ms. Rabinowicz, is very personal. My father was born in the carnage of the Pakistan India split, and we lost several family members to murder – family members and friends who were Hindu and Muslim.  We grew up hearing stories – that went back many generations – about this period in our family history and trying to understand why such madness occurs.  Ms. Rabinowicz directly refers to my father as ever the conciliator, and yes, we grew up in a family where there was always room for forgiveness and conciliation. I am proud of my family – and an extended community – that approaches personal, social and global issues in this manner.  My hope is that as a global community we can address the deeper issues that have fostered terrorism in the first place.

I wanted to share an essay – which I wrote years ago – to give a sense of the deeper stories that paint the situation we are facing in South Asia. 

Sarson Ka Saaj

"Bhabhiji, why do you always set aside a portion of food at dinner?" It was a tradition she had always kept.

She stared beyond the slowly spinning fan above, her voice barely audible at first as she reeled in images from another world. A frail figure: lost in a sheer white sari, she sat on a hard bed, several pillows supporting her worn body. A stagnant room, white plastered walls, incense teasing a tattered picture of her husband, rudraksha beads wrapped around her fingers. Shooting fleeting glances in our direction just long enough to make sure we understood the words she wanted us to hear, Bhabhiji (our grandmother and great-grandmother) told us a story that has been passed down through our family for generations.

"He must have been six, seven years old at the time. They said he had the clearest of faces – innocent and joyful. The kind of clearness that a sage remembers when he attains enlightenment. Deep, dark eyes – eyes of shimmering black that twinkled like lone stars brightening up an infinite universe.

"Seven generations ago, there was a war in northwest India. Massive killings, bloody tortures, innocent victims. Turbulent and violent times that are common throughout history – one group of people being persecuted by another because of their religion. Our family had seen loved ones dragged from their homes and beaten alive – savage realities that are too horrible to imagine.

"They, too, were in danger. And so, in an effort to save their children, they decided to leave their home and flee deeper into India where such persecution did not exist. A perilous journey – if they were caught they would undoubtedly be killed. They left with neither money nor possessions – only their seven sons and a desire to survive.

"It was a rainy night, full of thunder, crying winds and wandering spirits. They left their home, perhaps on foot, perhaps in a cart. They walked for hours. They heard from other refugees that it was a risky night – others had been discovered and killed for trying to escape.

"Eventually they came to a river. To continue, they had to find some way to cross it. They found a boatman, an older man, pale and somber, with an empty and desolate expression. He had a good-sized boat that could take them across the river.

"The boatman eyed this family that approached him to save their lives. He saw a family with seven sons – a family committed to one another. He saw the fear in their eyes, but more clearly he felt the love that emanated from their souls. He envied the emotion they had for each other. He had had a wife and a child, but both were dead now. He was all alone in this world – a soul wilting away, hungry for companionship. An unbearable loneliness was slowly killing him.

"This desperate family could not understand the boatman's desperation. They begged him to take them across the river. They had no money and could think of no way to repay him. The old man eyed the children. In an attempt to save himself, he asked for one of the sons as payment.

"At first they were horrified. To give away a son was to lose a part of themselves. War, however, brings new insights to people. Our family could see the pain and suffering in the old eyes of the man. They feared for their own lives because they had so much to live for, but a more insidious and calculating death preyed upon this man – he had nothing to hope for, nothing to live for. In a moment of desperation, compassion and salvation, they agreed to give their youngest son to this man. To save the lives of their children and to save his life as well."

And so the story has been told for seven generations, and our family began a tradition that Bhabhiji continued to follow throughout her lifetime. During every meal, one plate of food was set aside for the little boy who was left behind. During every meal, he was remembered and honored. At six years old, the little boy's favorite dish was Sarson Ka Saag, a traditional north Indian dish of spinach usually prepared in winter. In memory of a little boy who saved the life of his family and a lonely old man, Sarson Ka Saag has become a special dish in our family tradition.

Mallika Chopra on Intent.com