I was watching the National Spelling Bee Contest on TV the other day (and when I say 'National', I mean the American national one) and what was interesting (and heartening) to note was the number of Indians taking part in it. Well, not Indians exactly (although some of them were NRI's - Non Resident Indians), but mostly People of Indian Origin (PIO's). Most of them were probably second-generation Indian immigrants, born in the States and therefore, natural born U.S. citizens. Names like Akshay, Sonal, Mihir were not just ubiquitous but actually doing pretty well. In fact, the competition was ultimately won by one of the PIO contestants. It's nice to see that the Indian Diaspora is keeping the flag held high overseas!
The other point worthy of a mention was the unbelievably high level of competition. Here we had 7th-8th graders spelling out words that most of us had never heard before. In fact in most cases, the kid is hearing the word for the first time too. The contestant is given the word along with its meaning(s) and is allowed to ask for the word's language of origin, alternate pronunciations (if any), which part of speech the word is (noun, verb etc.) and may also ask to hear the word being used in a sentence. So sparing the odd exception, the kid basically has to spell out a word he/she has never come across before based on the above information. And bear in mind, a lot of these words are terms from specialized fields like medicine and wouldn't even be found in your Webster's English Dictionary!
I also saw the episode of Oprah where she has Aishwarya Rai on the show. The episode dealt with women from around the world and the different lifestyles they live. One of the other guests on the show was a stunning blonde who was a TV show host from Iceland. There was a 2-minute clip of her in Iceland where she was trying to explain to Oprah and the viewers about the Icelandic way of going about life. Now, Iceland is well known as one of the freest societies in the world but what she said still surprised me a little - although pleasantly!
She spoke of how the Icelanders are very relaxed and easy going. How it's normal for people to be in a live-in relationship with 4-5 kids and yet not be married. How there is no stigma associated with a woman being a single mom. How Icelandic women like to take control of their relationships - if they feel something about a guy, they just tell him, straight! How it's normal for a guy or girl to start having sex at the age of 15 and no one will think any less of them because of that. How it's not strange to have sex on the first date (if fact it's strange not to do so)! How they have an extremely low crime rate, and crimes like murder or rape are unheard of.
She also spoke of other things - like the night life in Iceland (and when you have 20 hours of darkness a day in winter, there's a lot of it!) and how Icelanders love to relax in the natural hot water pools found everywhere there. She brought with her on the show some traditional Icelandic delicacies and some Icelandic liquor. The former consisted of a dish of rotten shark meat and another dish of lamb testicles! Needless to say Oprah initially seemed a bit hesitant about giving either a try, but after downing a shot of the fiery liquor she was a bit more game.
Basically, even though everything may not be perfect about Iceland (every society has to have some negative aspects, and for Iceland it's probably the rotten shark and sheep balls!) it does seem like a nice progressive place. A lot of the Icelandic way of looking at life is of the same wavelength as mine. Maybe I'm part Icelandic. Hmmm...
Contrast this with another story that they showed on the show - of an Arab woman from Saudi Arabia. Now Saudi Arabia is, as you probably know, one of the most regressive societies in the world as far as women's rights go. It's not possible for a woman in Saudi Arabia to step out in public without a male consort, and then too only if she covers her entire body with the traditional Arabic garb so that no part of her skin is visible (at all). The woman featured on the show was a Saudi Arabic television presenter and was married with two kids. And was incessantly being abused physically by her husband. Now, a woman speaking up against this in Saudi Arabia is completely unheard of. Finally, one day the matter came to light after he beat her so badly that she suffered multiple facial fractures and almost lost her life. And yet the bastard was sentenced to only six months imprisonment and 300 public lashes!
What's sad is that this practice is not only widespread in the Arab world but more importantly that the women there are not allowed to do anything about it. Opening your mouth against it would mean incurring the wrath of a society so medieval that the punishment for adultery by a woman is being stoned to death!
Now, compare this with Iceland and you'll see why I'm so happy about the progressive nature of their society. India currently lies somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum, but sadly it's in many ways closer to Saudi Arabia than Iceland.