We…on the road (must have a code)

When I give an intercultural training to people born and brought up in the Netherlands who are going to India to work or live, I begin with this slide. I found it on the internet. It’s even more pixelated when projected, but I haven’t yet managed to take myself one that conveys what I want to say better.






I point to the car with its rear end sticking out as it makes a horizontal line attempting to get into another lane, where it can; to some people crossing the road, where they can and a creature with four legs moving, when it can.

I often hear guffaws.

I tell them about how big is power, (the bus) and has right of way anyway, and small (the car) does what it can, and what it can get away with when it can. And loud is not enough, you have to be louder, loudest (everything) and a cow may criss-cross a road like any (one) else.

I tell them that soon after they land in India, they are quite likely to find themselves on a comparable road. Sometimes for what feels like eternity. To then, not tear their hair out, or cry, or try to escape (they can’t anyway) but to stay sitting and to gaze. Just gaze. Because much of what they will see and experience in the days to come can be learnt from those first experiences of gazing, and asking themselves some what, where, who, how, why questions.

For instance, “how is it that the pedestrians who are about to be run over by the car I am sitting in are still alive”?

The driver swerved an inch away from the pedestrians. Some people like to call it getting the job done at the last minute, others call it ‘jugaad’ and still others call it SHIT management (SomeHowInTime management)

Or… why does it feel like everything that moves (and doesn’t) is not following the rules?

They might learn that the rules can have a nasty habit of rules that change with time and place. What is a rule for one, is a rule by another name for another. Like big has the right of way. And roads are for four wheels, four legs and two wheels and two legs. Besides, rules may be more about relationships and less about rules.

“Why, even if the light turns green, does my driver look left and right before he moves on”?

Well – because of the other two above.

And so on.

And then I mention all the signs, straight and curved lines, the colours and stripes and arrows, the speed limits announced and (mostly) adhered to and the lack of four legged creatures here in their neatly ordered universe of land, water and polders.

Of course, they’re already missing it, as they are transported to a road in India.






No more chicken curry, daddy

On 23rd August, my friend Mayura hosted a dinner in memory of her father. It was his birthday, and he would have been 75 years of age, had he survived the stroke that took his life away a few years ago in Mumbai. She misses her father.







The guests were invited to bring along something that their fathers loved to eat or drink. I brought Old Monk Rum – a drink my father consumed every evening if he could help it. Followed by a good curry or mince. He was an inveterate meat eater. He was convinced that vegetarianism would have killed him. Right away.

A heart attack did. At the age of sixty. He was quite overweight.

Mayura hardly ever eats red meat and she doesn’t miss it either. But her father loved ‘mutton curry’ (made of goat meat) and so she made it. Our conversation gravitated to the relationship we share with animals we eat (or don’t).

I mentioned how in recent days, I’ve glanced at newspaper reports about the cruelty of halaal and the efforts to ‘humanize’ the practice, here in the Netherlands. Slitting the throat of an animal and letting it bleed to death does feel crude. As Mayura remembers, the streets of a particular part of Mumbai (Bombay then) would almost be flooded with blood, and, she adds, ‘more than the sight of it, it is the smell that has always remained with me. It was so visceral’. That matches my experience too.

That’s the thing with India. It’s all so in your face. The extremes of cruelty and of kindness – everything is right there to live with and live through, if you can.

In contrast, as one of us pointed out, it’s not possible to approach an abattoir here in the Netherlands. While attributing the reason for this to hygiene, there are others too. What goes on inside the walls of an abattoir here are no less crude. Just out of sight and smell range. And yes, clean. Squeaky clean. I’ve experienced industrial meat production in Europe through a documentary film at IDFA. And it was pretty much no more chicken curry for me daddy after that.

So we talked about some of these issues around the domestication and eating of animals and animal products that night and what we do and feel about it. We – with all the choices before us in supermarkets and shops laden with every kind of food from every part of the earth. And I do believe that many more people around me are questioning why they eat the flesh of animals, or at least looking at what kind of a life the animal may have lived, before they landed on a dinner plate, or between two slices of bread. As our newspaper of 20th August this year shows, the plofkip (a broiler chicken that is on a short track for maximum growth in the least amount of time) has almost been worked out of Dutch supermarkets, thanks to a very effective campaign started in 2011. This campaign, begun by an activist group called ‘Wakker Dier’ made it impossible for us to ignore the extreme suffering of broiler chickens because of the cruel practices surrounding their production. I remember what an impact it had on me.




I see why it’s necessary to dialogue about halaal. But it’s not just how animals die that I want to think more deeply about. It’s how they live. Under our guardianship. And this is why ‘Wakker Dier’s’ campaign is interesting. They’re watching out for those creatures while they have life in them, and adding quality to their existence because they think they have a right to it.






Taking Refuge in the Buddha

Douwe Bob managed to capture millions of hearts with his song Slow Down, the official 2016 Dutch entry for the Eurovision Festival. In this song, that he wrote himself, he repeats the phrase ‘slow down brother’ as a kind of mantra. It makes up most of the song. Slowing down is also what many “Mindfulness” gurus and teachers tell us to practice. Douwe Bob is all of twenty-three years old and is probably not following courses in mindfulness or meditation. His lyrics contain other words of wisdom, along the slow down lines, in that utterly charismatic way that the young can and do strike the right chord in you. If you are listening, that is. And apparently millions were, because he got quite far in the competition.

“Mindfulness” courses, teachers, books and websites are to be found everywhere one looks. Amongst other practices, it incorporates slowing down. “Mindfulness” is seen as essential to our mental and emotional fulfilment, for committing ourselves to accepting what is in the moment.

Most of us connect “Mindfulness” to Buddhism. Professor of Buddhist Studies, Leiden University Jonathan Silk says that Westerners take on practices inspired by Buddhism freely, without the feeling that it clashes with their own religious background or belief system. No wonder then that a splendid exhibition, The Buddha, is now on display at the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden and will also travel to the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam.

one of the images to be seen in the exhibition

‘The Buddha is one of the most inspiring figures in world history. What makes the life-story of this spiritual leader so intriguing? What are people searching for in Buddhism?’ These are some of the questions that the exhibition attempts to give answers to. The life of the Buddha as well as present day practices, expressions and manifestations in a host of different countries, including the Netherlands, are on display.

A Korean artist’s rendering of the Buddha as a dj in the museum









In the background, in every single room the chant ‘Buddham sharanam gacchami, dhammam sharanam gacchami, sangham sharanam gacchami can be heard’. For those of us who grew up learning about the life of the Buddha through our schoolbooks, this chant is familiar. Simply translated, it means: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in Dharma; I take Refuge in the Sangha’.

The different practices linked to “Mindfulness” could be seen as a refuge from our extremely busy lives in which our balance is at stake. In another time, in another place refuge took another form. On October 14th 1956, three hundred and sixty-five thousand people participated in converting to Buddhism along with Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution. The latter was of the Mahar community and seen as a pariah by caste Hindus, as were all of the other converts of that day. Unlike those of us into Buddhist inspired practises without a sense of it clashing with our other beliefs, for the converts of that day, taking refuge in the Buddha was an act of severance. A clean cut from the Hinduism that labelled them as ‘untouchable’. It is considered the largest one time mass conversion in history. Pity therefore, that this incredible historical act of taking refuge in the Buddha is missing from this exhibition.

















Our Apsara is coming!


I don’t think you would see them either, because, most probably you, like me, wouldn’t specifically be looking for them. Her breasts are bare and the slit of her vagina is clearly visible – and in focusing on these, you would probably miss the active marks of love on her body. The first time I saw her, I did not notice them. It was Anna Slaczka who showed me the scratches that her lover had made on her shoulders as a sign of the enjoyment of her body. And the lover is not the only one who lusts after her. The monkeys do too, as they try to free her from the little fabric that still clings to her legs. She stands in front of the windows of this section of the museum peacefully – her gaze turned away from the magnificent dancing Nataraja to the mischievous monkey. IMG_2771

Yet not everybody wants her. The evident excitement in the recorded minutes of the Society for the Friends of Asian Art, ‘our apsara is coming’ turned to bitter disappointment when she arrived in the Netherlands. ‘It could have been her colour, or something else’ says Ms Slaczka, the curator for South Asian art at the Rijks Museum. She did not impress her owners and stands now in the Asian wing of the museum on long-term loan. Ms Slaczka’s research into this figure reveals that she is probably from a Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh in central India. She added that apsaras, such as this one and other erotic figures have a protective function. This is why they often stand at the door or gateway of the temple. These are vulnerable spots – places of transgression – as evil forces can enter from here. Erotic figures remind us of fertility, of children and life enriching processes. So they guard, or I would say, seduce evil forces away from entering a holy space.


In 950 AD, which is about the time that the sculpture is supposed to have stood her ground, possibly on one of two  pillars at another vulnerable spot in the temple, sex was not considered an evil in India. Rather the opposite, if we have to recall the apsara’s function. I had to think immediately of my friend Paromita Vohra’s on-going ‘Agents of Ishq’ project. She’s at work – getting folks to share their articulation of who they are as sexual beings. In some ways, 950 AD was way ahead of where we are now with this discussion in the India of 2016.

The nail marks and the monkeys who want to undress her and Ms Slaczka’s other findings about the apsara, were made possible by Tata Steel. They are responsible for Ms Slaczka’s present position as the curator of the South Asian collection in the Rijks Museum.


Link to Ms Slaczka’s publication on the apsara

Link to ‘Agents of Ishq’ – Paromita Vohra’s project

Link to The Society for the Friends of Asian Art (in Dutch)

“Teacher take your headscarf off !”

These words written by Ebru Umar,a journalist who writes for Metro to a primary school teacher caught my eye. The school comes under the category ‘public’, which means that it opens its doors to students and teachers of all faiths in a spirit of mutual respect. Of the different people who responded in my newspaper to Ebru’s words, here is the one written by Sarah Spruijt.

“Children see the outside world as well

I am a high school student and I grew up in an extremely white environment in the province of Friesland. I have actually never talked to a woman who wears a headscarf and I find that a pity because it is not representative of our society. I find it quite lovely that in the protected atmosphere of Gooi, a primary school teacher chooses to wear one. And let’s be sure of this: she has thought about it for a while and chosen to do so of her own free will. And no – this does not mean that the children of the primary school cannot be brought up to be neutral. You cannot close them from the outside world, and what better place to be confronted with this than in the protected environment of primary school? Apart from the headscarf, the children will not know anything about the religious beliefs of the teacher, and they are anyway going to be coming across headscarves in reality or on the internet. You can hardly live in a world that is free from the expression of beliefs, Ebru. Even children can’t. This is a part of upbringing, a part of Dutch society. And however much of a pity you find it, a part of the future.”

One other respondent’s argument in the newspaper was this: that while the freedom of expression and faith should continue unabated, the outward display of one’s faith should be set aside, because, we, in the Netherlands do not know how to have this discussion.


Yet young Sarah did her best to open up a discussion. I was struck by the fact that a person under eighteen could argue so simply and clearly, and with such wisdom.


In India, this scenario would not play out in quite the same way.  In principle no one could ask another to take off their headscarf or turban. Many Dutch people equate India with Hinduism. India is not a Hindu country. India’s constitution, while being secular, gives different religions a legal framework through ‘personal laws.’ In this way, people can and do express their religion in a variety of ways. This makes it different from the Dutch constitution. In doing so, it echoes Sarah when she says “you can hardly live in a world that is free from the expression of beliefs”. The outward expression is not where the problem lies. It lies in the fact that the outward show of faith, accepted by law, is one of the ways by which to unlawfully exploit or turn against people of another faith. This is what happened when innocent Sikhs were slaughtered in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination as they could be clearly recognized by the turbans they wore. When Sarah writes of the teacher, “she has thought about it for a while and chosen to do so of her own free will”, could she be referring to the risk one takes – opening oneself up to judgement (or worse) with such an outward show of faith?


Many of us here in the Netherlands resort to wearing something by which we draw strength, or which has meaning for us as a way to hold on to our beliefs. I, a teacher have worn a Buddhist pendant in the classroom for the last one year in schools that refer to themselves as having a Christian identity. Yet no one said “teacher take your pendant off”. It appears to me that some symbols or outward expressions of faith are not seen as problematic in the Netherlands, but others are. What would Ebru have to say about my pendant, I wonder.

Unlike Sarah, I have fortunately had the opportunity to talk to women in headscarves in the Netherlands, and have enjoyed the experience.

Here is a link to one such meeting. False Flowers and Real Wasps