Politics | Education| Business

Academics and Artists Unite: A Day on Muthuswami Dikshitar

UC Davis hosted a symposium on the celebrated Carnatic composer Muthuswami Dikshitar on April 7th 2018 which brought together academics, performers, and rasikas in one space to examine and celebrate his life and contribution.

Dr. Archana Venkatesan, Chair, Department of Religious Studies, UC Davis and Sikkil Gurucharan, established Carnatic vocalist were co-curators of the daylong conference. “Through the day, we organized lectures and short music performances to explore the many faceted contribution of Dikshitar to Carnatic music,” said Dr. Venkatesan when I spoke with her over the telephone.

 In the morning, Dr. Davesh Soneji explored the social and cultural contexts in which Dikshitar lived and created music. Diskshitar lived in the late 1700s to the mid-1800s and created music at a time when secular and sacred music cultures overlapped and drew inspiration from each other.

After this lecture which presented a worldview of society at the time in which the composer lived, the first afternoon lecture by Dr. Indira Viswanathan Peterson, Mount Holyoke College, looked at his kritis composed on the deities at the temple towns of Tiruvarur and Thanjavur. Punctuating her lecture by singing short snippets of music from his many compositions to make her point, Dr. Peterson held the audience in rapt attention.  She drew comparisons between the poetry written by the Nayanmars in thevarams with compositions b

y Dikshitar penned centuries later. This lecture served to remind the audience that literary works serve as departure points of inspiration for writers and composers who use thematic motifs in their own creations decades or sometimes centuries later. Also, she spoke about the intricate iconographic details present in Dikshitar compositions which served to place the composer and the song in the context of a particular temple and deity, thus helping the listener to also situate themselves within that particular context while listening to the song.

Dr. Anand Venkatkrishnan of Harvard University spoke about how Dikshitar created the image of the goddess in his compositions. He said, “the highly formalized structure of Srividya worshipwas transformed into musical practice by Dikshitar.” As an example of how the bindu is situated in the middle of the chakra, he used the way in which the phrase tyagarajayogavaibhvam had been used in a song.                                                                                           

Tyagarajayoga vaibhvam

Rajayoga vaibhavam

Yoga vaibhavam




The descending phrase is again expanded into the first long phrase thus providing a middle point where the bindu can be felt, he said.


Dr. Archana Venkatesan said, “The point of the symposium was to start with an expansive view and then drill down as the day went along to the minute aspects within his compositions so that audience members had a many-layered understanding of this famed composer.” Co-curator and musician Sikkil Gurucharan in a telephone interview said,”As a professional musician, there was so much I was able to learn from the academic papers that were presented at the conference. In the space of one concert, I usually present one or two songs of Dikshitar. When we learn his compositions, our teachers give us a bird’s eye view of the lyrical and melodic beauty embedded in each composition. But, it is up to us to research and learn more about the composition and composer too. This kind of research and understanding will help us stay true to the lyrics, without splitting words at the wrong juncture so as to preserve melodic beauty.”

Young upcoming musicians presented short concerts that showcased Dikshitar compositions. Geeta Shankar (veena) was accompanied by Ajay Gopi (mridangam). Manasa Suresh (vocal) was accompanied by Geeta Shankar (veena) and Akshay Prabhakaran (mridangam). Following these two concerts in the Carnatic genre, Radhika Bhalerao presented a Hindustani concert along with Vikas Yendluri on tabla. It was a novel experiment to hear Radhika sing two popular compositions -” Hiranmayeem Lakshmim” and “Akhilandeswari” in the Hindustani style. The young musician skillfully elaborated each phrase in the song to give the music a distinct Hindustani flavor. 

The evening concert was presented by eminent Carnatic vocalist Dr. S. Sowmya who was accompanied by Ranjani Ramakrishnan on the violin and Bay area based mridangist Vignesh Venkataraman.

The daylong symposium accomplished in spades what it set out to do – each contributor – musician and academic alike helped unpeel layers to reveal various aspects of Dikshitar’s contribution to Carnatic music. Many a time, academics and professional artists have much to learn from each other, but the opportunities for cross-fertilization of thoughts so that each might enhance the work of the other are few and far between. This symposium succeeded in providing that platform for formal and informal interactions, helped audience members leave with a more refined understanding of Dikshitar which they will surely carry over to their next concert and left me humming the Hindustani version of Hiranmayeem as I drove back.

Kudos to Dr. Archana Venkatesan and Sikkil Gurucharan for bringing music and scholarship into one platform for a truly enriching experience.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine, an ardent Carnatic music rasika and a professional Bharatanatyam dancer. 

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Opinion | Perspective | Youth

Because She Has Hope: Youth Essay Winner


Thirty years ago, my mother stepped off a plane and tipped her head back to feel the American sun beat down on her face.

She brushed her thumb over the golden band on her ring finger. The subtle movement was involuntary, the reflex of a young woman longing to see a familiar smile and feel a familiar embrace. But she had entered this foreign land alone, and the man she loved lived miles and miles away. They would be reunited soon, but for now, they had to follow their separate paths and make names for themselves.

Today, my mother has made that name for herself–but the man with the familiar smile, the man with whom she hoped to grow old, is no longer in her life. For the past few years, she has been a single mom.

Life isn’t easy for her. She constantly feels the weight of her South Asian culture–so rooted in the idea of union between a man and a woman–pressing down upon her. This Indian tradition perceives a single mother not as a manifestation of strength, but as a sign of failure, of poor life choices, of the inability to keep a family together. She’s faced ostracization from members of her cultural community, had to pretend not to notice sideways glances from people she used to call friends.

We are two women of color–an immigrant and her daughter–living alone. While we receive an immense amount of support, the discrimination targeted towards women like my mother is inescapable. It’s a harsh reality embedded not only in Indian culture, but in American culture as well.

I know that these prejudices cannot magically disappear. For these norms to change, a shift in culture must occur, and cultural shifts take time. Centuries passed until society finally woke up to the system of oppression targeted towards women and minorities, and it’ll take centuries to completely dismantle this system.

Yet change doesn’t have to occur immediately, nor does it have to take place on a global scale. Change begins with individuals–and with ​hope.

I hope that a mother, somewhere in the world, can raise her child in an environment–no matter how small–that refuses to reject her. I hope that a single woman out there can feel safe and comfortable living a life of self-sufficiency. I hope that an immigrant woman can set foot on American soil for the first time and think, ​I can do this by myself. ​I hope that all women, everywhere–women of color, disabled women, LGBT women, women living in poverty, women working five jobs to keep their families fed, women who fear shadows lurking in corners as they walk home alone at night–can live and love without relinquishing a part of themselves, without having to apologize for who they are.

Above all, I hope for my mother–that one day, she can feel the warmth of the sun on her face again. ​I hope, I hope, I hope.​ I have hope because she has hope. Despite the wave of turmoil that crashes down upon her every time she thinks of what could have been, she endures. Because while she had to give up on one dream–that of the quintessential Indian family–she found a new hope in her daughter. Hope that by maintaining strength in her darkest times for my sake, she could raise a human being ready to make change in the world.

I hope that I can make her proud.

Prameela Kottapalli is in eleventh grade at the Harker School. This essay won a prize in the “Growing Up Asian in America” contest organized by the Asian Pacific Fund.

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A Complete List of Community Events

Date/Time Event
Apr 20, 2018 - Aug 19, 2018
11:00 am - 5:00 pm
The House Imaginary
The House Imaginary
San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose CA
May 1, 2018 - May 31, 2018
All Day
Northern California Events
The 90 Year Journey: Art Exhibit by Vijaya Herekar
Los Altos Library, Los Altos Ca
May 10, 2018 - May 24, 2018
7:00 pm - 12:00 am
Northern California Events
Center for Asian American Media Presents: CAAMFest 36
AMC Kabuki 8, San Francisco CA
May 11, 2018 - Jun 24, 2018
All Day
Rembrandt & The Inspiration of India
Rembrandt & The Inspiration of India
J. Paul Getty Museum, LA CA
May 24, 2018
7:30 pm
Fanna-Fi-Allah Sufi Qawwali Ensemble
Fanna-Fi-Allah Sufi Qawwali Ensemble
Cowell Theater, Sann Francisco CA


Impactful Insightful Coverage

Judge Facing Recall Breaks his Silence

Breaking his silence on the million-dollar effort to oust him, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky warned that the recall on the June 5 ballot in Santa Clara County would, if successful, have the exact opposite effect of what its supporters are claiming.

Persky has been targeted for recall since late 2016 over his sentencing of Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who in January 2015 sexually assaulted an unconscious woman but, in keeping with established guidelines for first-time offenders, was spared prison time and served 90 days in the county jail. For the rest of his life, Turner will have to register as a sex offender.

In a press briefing at a private home in Palo Alto on May 9, Persky broke his silence and confronted his critics. Also on hand to face the large turnout of journalists with their questions, cameras and microphones, were retired judge LaDoris Cordell, Santa Clara University Law Professor Ellen Kreitzberg and others who support the judge.

Persky began by explaining his duty to judge each case on its facts and on the rule of law, independent of public opinion.

Because Turner is appealing his conviction on three felony charges, Persky said he couldn’t discuss the case beyond referring to how he described his deliberations in 2016:

He had cited the absence of premeditation or use of weapons, the lack of prior convictions and his belief that Turner was unlikely to reoffend, factors all judges must consider.

“We promise as judges to rule on the facts and the law, and not public opinion,” Persky said.

But, his supporters argue, his detractors have played fast and loose with the facts in a handful of the thousands of cases he’s presided over since being appointed to the bench in 2003, falsely describing defendants in other cases as “white, privileged, male athlete,” drawing comparisons in dissimilar cases and linking him to developments in which he played no role.

The threat of recall, he said, “is a subtle and insidious, silent corrupting force … that will enter the minds of judges as they contemplate difficult decisions.”

He cited two well-known historical cases as examples of the need for justice to remain blind to public sentiment. The first, 1954’s Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court case that ended school segregation, was adjudicated at a time when much of society supported segregation ꟷ often at the point of a gun.

In a more recent case closer to home, he noted, the courts in 2008 found that California’s “defense of marriage” Proposition 22, enacted by voters in 2000 to prohibit same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional.

“Imagine if those federal judges had been subject to recall,” he said. “We ask judges to follow the rule of law, not public opinion.”

He also pointed out that jurors are routinely instructed to avoid media coverage or public discussion of any case they’re involved in, to keep their decisions independent.

Asked why as criticism mounted he had remained silent, Perksy said he believed judges should accept criticism of their decisions and not respond to a difference of opinion. But the recall effort takes it a step too far, he said. If successful, “it threatens the integrity of our criminal justice system.”

“I really think judges should typically zip it,” he said. “It’s only when you get to the point that it (a recall) may be successful, it gets serious and demands a response. The stakes are too high.”

Persky’s sentencing of Turner adhered to the recommendations of Santa Clara Chief Probation Officer Laura Garnette, whose report on the case,, included statements from the victim urging counseling over incarceration for Turner and concluded: “In the case, a moderate county jail sentence, formal probation, and sexual offender treatment is respectfully  recommended.”

But the criticism has gone so far that Persky’s name has become a part of speech in judicial circles, said Cordell, who ardently opposes the recall, citing a Los Angeles judge’s statement about a difficult case: “I don’t want to become the DUI Persky.”

“There is no judge who would’ve sentenced Turner to prison,” Cordell said. Another recall opponent, Kreitzberg, said that District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who prosecuted the case, agrees.

Rosen’s office confirmed that the D.A. opposes the recall effort.

A moving statement to the court by Turner’s victim led to the case becoming a cause celebre nationwide, with Vice President Joe Biden among those weighing in to support the unnamed woman Turner had assaulted after leaving a frat party on the Stanford campus and finding her unconscious and lying near a Dumpster.

Acting with unusual velocity, California in late 2016 toughened its laws on sex assault to include minimum prison sentences and broaden the legal definition of rape, despite widespread concern that this would disproportionately affect low-income and minority defendants and could make victims reluctant to accuse assailants they know: the most common category of sex abuser.

Stanford law Professor Michele Dauber, a friend of the victim’s family, initiated the recall campaign against Persky in 2016. So far, the campaign has raised more than $1 million in donations, including $221,000 from Los Altos psychiatrist Karla Jurvetson, who did not return a call seeking comment. Persky’s supporters have raised less than $100,000 to counter that effort.

Cordell points out that Dauber lacks real-life experience in the criminal justice system. Dauber, Cordell said, “has never passed the bar, has no background in criminal law or procedure and either doesn’t know or is misinterpreting it.”

The money and effort spent in “scapegoating” Persky in the recall drive, she said, would have been better spent supporting victims with counseling, shelters and services, processing the backlog of rape kits police have collected, or advocating for a justice system that is more equitable in prosecuting and sentencing of people of color.

In arguing for the recall at a January press conference, Dauber claimed that a study by the UC Berkeley law school’s California Constitution Center concluded that the recall would not impact judicial independence.

Not true, says the school’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky.

“This is just one of the many untrue and misleading statements that she’s made over the course of the campaign, and I feel a responsibility to let the public know about this.

“That center is at my law school and it came to no such conclusion,” Chemerinsky wrote in an opinion piece for the Sacramento Bee. “The center did a report on the history of recalls, but the report said no such thing about the effect of recalls on judicial independence.”

Asked what impact the recall has had on his personal life, Persky said, “Negative attention has permeated my life for the past two years.” He said his wife had received flyers in the mail accusing him of failing to protect the community, and his young children have seen their father’s image on posters alongside mugshots of criminals.

“One of our jobs is to promote public confidence in the judiciary,” Persky said. “Will judges have the guts to make hard decisions? Will the public believe that a judge will risk losing his job over a difficult decision?”

He said the recall process is “a little bit of a safety valve” when a judge has proven incompetent or guilty of misconduct, and even said that the furor over the Turner case has had “one positive aspect.” “It’s become part of a larger conversation,” he said. “Let’s use that passion.”

Dauber and the recall supporters cite five cases Persky has presided over as proof of their claims that he favors privileged white men, particularly athletes, accused of sex crimes or violence against women:

But those claims are false in every instance, Persky’s supporters state, and direct voters to review the documents available at for details on the cases.

Three separate reviews by the California Commission on Judicial Performance, the Associated Press and the Santa Clara County Bar Commission found the judge consistently hewed to established guidelines in his sentencing, including in the Turner case.

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Bollywood in America | Media

Raazi: Spy on me

“Trust your instinct. It won’t fail you,” Khalid Mir tells Sehmat Khan, a college girl, as he prepares her for an exceptional journey she is about to take. The sound suggestion comes after training her for just a month. Her assignment? To spy on her husband’s family during the India-Pakistan war in 1971

Director Meghana Gulzar’s Raazi is mostly remarkable for the fact that she treats Sehmat as an ordinary girl caught in extraordinary circumstances. She doesn’t hesitate in making her flawed, human, and frail.  We are to understand that her horrific actions are side effects of her occupation rather than a choice.

Adapted for screen by Meghana and Bhavani Iyer, the film is based on an ‘incredible’ true story from Harinder Sikka’s book Calling Sehmat. It follows the journey of a woman who passed on crucial details about a sea attack that the Pakistani Navy was planning on their Indian counterpart.

Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) is cruising through her college education when her ailing father Hidayat Khan (Rajit Kapur), a spy himself, asks her to take on his baton after his death. And she does. Country before self, she says, without fully knowing the consequences of her decision. Khalid (Jaideep Ahlawat) does his best to prepare her within the time limit.

The first step is relatively easy. She must marry a Pakistani military officer Iqbal Syed (Vicky Kaushal) and gain access to the daily activities of his father, Brigadier Syed (Shishir Sharma), and brother Mehboob Syed (Ashwath Bhatt), both high ranking officers.The couple’s relationship develops slowly, but surely, and remains untainted for the most part except when they are on country duty.

The second bit is tricky as even though an informant, she doesn’t have the finesse to cover her activities like a pro. Especially given the time, when communication systems weren’t as advanced and in trouble, she is left alone to save herself in crisis.

The success of Raazi lies in the muted tone of Meghana’s direction and the fact that she keeps it real. The focus quietly and subtly stays on Sehmat’s inner conflict throughout. It is remarkable that such a character actually existed, and reports spell out the traumatic effects of the experience on off-screen Sehmat. Her husband, in compelling contrast, is shown as transparent and earnest.

Though it is designed as a taut thriller, Meghana rightly resists the temptation to go overboard with the theatrics. Even in the final confrontation scene between the husband and Sehmat, she dials down the drama; he has an emotional reaction while Sehmat remains sensible in her survival mode. Ditto the scene where her father voices the conflict of his decision to his daughter. Or the scenes where she feels torn between humanity and survival.

The 1971 period setting is as strikingly genuine as Meghana’s treatment of the film. Production designer Subrata Chakraborty recreates Pakistan and India visuals of the time with spectacular accuracy and care. Cinematographer Jay I. Patel does an impeccable job of capturing the internal and external landscapes to stay within the pragmatic mood. The flow of the movie felt a bit jarring, am not sure if it was due to Nitin Baid’s editing or the writing.

Post the vivacious Mirzya (2016), Shankar-Ehsan-Loy team up Gulzar once more to create another rich album. Both versions of Ae Watan deliver on the spec of subtle patriotic fervour. The melodious Dilbaro envelops you right away with its lovely, delicate and warm sentiment. My favourite was the inspirational title song Raazi, where Arijit Singh sounds fresh and the song’s power lies in its resounding notes providing the right backdrop for Sehmat’s rigorous training.

The performances are fantastic across the board. Actors Rajit Kapur and Shishir Sharma play Sehmat’s father and father-in-law with conviction and grace, conveying their zealous love for country. Ashwath Bhatt is effective as the brother-in-law consumed by the mystery of Abdul’s murder, causing much stress to Sehmat.  Mother Soni Razdan replicates her real-life role on screen, making a significant impact despite her short appearance as Teji. Sanjay Suri makes a fleeting guest appearance. Arguably, Sehmat shares the most complicated and longest relationship with her mentor and boss, played by Jaideep Ahlawat with ample screen time. Restrained, layered and precise, he is a class act. Did we note a slight chemistry in their interactions?

Vicky Kaushal (of Masaan fame) returns with his trademark goodness and plays the husband with heartbreaking sensitivity. He even defends his wife after she escapes. Meghana treats his character with ample love.

Alia Bhatt embraces Sehmat in body and spirit, according her performance with the inherent grace and power only she knows. Her interpretation of Sehmat is superlative although you do see traces of Alia in some scenes. She dials down her body language and demeanour to suit that era, looks pristine and manages to hold her vulnerability intact as she goes about her business. The lovely face remains stoic as she slowly loses control of the situation. Definitely a thumbs up!

Kudos to Harinder who managed to trace the woman and write this book, making Raazi possible. Meghana tells her story delicately yet surely, without getting pulled into the emotions, making it a fine, compelling piece of work.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Raazi. 2018. Director: Meghana Gulzar. Writers: Meghana Gulzar, Bhavani Iyer. Players: Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal, Jaideep Ahlawat. Music: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Theatrical release: Junglee Pictures, Dharma Films.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of She writes
on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.

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Arts | Music | History


Recipe | Travel | People

Jamaica Ya Man! Travels to The Land of Bob Marley

Negril, with the longest, continuous stretch of white sand beach in Jamaica, is where the ganja cookie crumbles at a laid-back pace. My husband and I flew into Jamaica’s Montego Bay airport and drove to Negril, about two hours away. Adult-only hotels are tucked into rocky overlooks. Nudist beaches make suntans seamless. Smooth sands give silently beneath bare feet for miles and miles. The white velvet spreads into the ocean where fish dart around in the warm, clear waters. Music drifts down the beach like ganja smoke filling the lungs. Euphoric Negril is a playground of the true lover.

We stayed in the Charela Inn, that is situated right on the beach – one that the owner and hotelier Daniel Grizzle has zealously safeguarded.  Together with his wife (now deceased) the couple forced the Government to shelve plans to mine peat in the Great Morass area in the 1980s, which, according to scientists, would have ruined the legendary seven-mile beach and turned the area into a desert.  

The Charela Inn itself is very attractive and in the center of all action. Each room has either a private patio or a private balcony. Our room overlooked the freshwater pool. The white sand and crystal-clear waters of Negril’s beach, which made it to underwater photographer Tanya Burnett-Palmer’s Top 10 List for CNN Travel, were just steps away.

The best snorkeling spots for beginners are offshore and not accessible from the beach. As someone who cannot swim, I was worried as I scrambled into Captain Mike’s glass-bottom boat. We zoomed to the middle of the ocean where the live corals sway and Captain Mike led me gently into the waters. As we floated together, he pointed out brain corals and sea urchins. Angelfish, boxfish and goatfish nibbled at my fingers as they ate the breadcrumbs offered to them.

I could have snorkeled for hours enjoying the stunning underwater landscape made by the coral in a rainbow of colors. Some of the most common coral and reef species include green- and purple-base anemone, red cauliflower-, flowerpot-, star- and bubble coral.

Is Life a Jerk for the Vegetarian?

Much to the delight of my vegetarian husband, we discovered that Rastafarian food is Ital or vegetarian, with lots of green vegetables, no milk, no meat and no salt. Perfect at breakfast is ackee, a fruit that obligingly pops open when it is ripe. Ackee looks and tastes like bhurjee or soft scrambled eggs when cooked with onions and tomatoes. Collard greens look-alike callaloo, and doughnut look-alike “festival bread” or dumplings complete the breakfast.

An experience in color and flavor is created by combining bright orange squash, with yellow curried ackee, and yellow plantain.  Scallion, thyme, garlic, onion, pimento, tomato and curry powder are all common seasonings in Rastafarian food.

For meat-lovers, jerk-seasoned grilled chicken, pork and fish are served with a spicy sauce. Fish prepared escovitch-style is seasoned, fried and marinated with a peppery, vinegar-based dressing made colorful with julienned bell peppers, carrots and onions. Goat and other meats are curried too. Beans cooked with coconut milk and vegetables are served with rice. Standard sides include steamed plantains, yams, sweet potato and breadfruit.

Fruits are plentiful in this tropical paradise. We sampled a variety of mangoes at the local market.  In addition to a local one called “Julie” there were East Indian varieties. Sadly, a mango called “Bombay,” which we were told was the sweetest of them all, was not available. Nesberry, familiar to us as sapota or chickoo, also made a delightful snack.

Red Stripe beer, brewed in Jamaica, and rum are the alcoholic beverages of choice on the island. A number of souvenir shops offer rum tastings. “The locals have small shots of rum through out the day,” said the shop assistant at one, where we stopped for a sample. Soursop, a member of the sitaphal or custard apple family, added tang and smoothness to a cocktail with rum and coconut cream. We washed our day down with chilled coconut water sipped from the shell and sugarcane juice freshly squeezed by the roadside.


The Bennetts

We drove back from Negril to Montego Bay where we stayed in “Polkerris,” a well-appointed and luxurious bed-and-breakfast, owned by the Bennetts.  Jeremy Bennett came to Jamaica in 1962, fell in love with the island and his partner Clarissa, whom he married in 1970. Needless to say, he never left. The Bennetts host guests in their beautiful country house, which is just a ten-minute stroll from the restaurants and clubs of the Gloucester Avenue Hip Strip, Doctor’s Cave Beach and the Aqua Sol Theme Park. As a guest put it, you really will feel like you are visiting your rich relatives in Jamaica.

Tale of the East Indian and the Rastafarian

The National Museum West in downtown Montego Bay is a treasure trove of information about the history and culture of Jamaica. With respect to the Rastafarian story however, the Museum tells an incomplete tale.

Classified as both a new religious- and social movement, the Rastafari culture developed in Jamaica during the 1930s when Ras (Chief) Tafari was crowned the King of Ethiopia. The Indian cultural influence on the Rastafarian movement is undeniable. A Kingston couple Laxmi Mansingh and Professor Ajai Mansingh outline the connection between the Rastas and the Indian culture in Home Away From Home: 150 years of Indian presence in Jamaica. The Rastas are vegetarian, family-loving people, who worship the Goddess Kali. They wear their hair like the sadhus of India (devotees of Lord Shiva) and like them, smoke marijuana, which the Rastas also call ganja.

The first Rasta, Leonard P. Howell, took the spiritual name “Gong Guru” or Gongunguru Maragh (Gangunguru Maharaj), say Stephen Davis and Helen Lee in their book The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and The Rise of Rastafarianism. The name Gongunguru is a combination of three Hindi words – gyan (wisdom), gun (virtue), and guru (teacher). Howell started a community called the “Pinnacle,” which was especially known for the cultivation of cannabis, which has religious significance for the Rastafarians.

In the early to mid-nineteenth century, the British recruited Indians – from the tribes in the hills of Eastern India and from the Central provinces of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – into the sugar colonies. For the indentured black population, the new Indian laborers seemed kindred spirits; their struggles had the empathy of the Rasta. Solidarity was soon established between the communities, both of which were brutalized economically and politically. The Rastafarian culture appears to be a result of the synthesis of these cultural interactions.

The Jamaican dancehall music – which also reflects the merging of East Indian and West Indian influences – is based on themes of survival, suffering and struggle, that inner-city black Jamaicans face on a daily basis, albeit in a more aggressive idiom than the Rasta-inspired reggae. Songs such as “Suhani Gyul” bring a smile to one’s lips as they seek their inspiration from old Bollywood songs and produce a Chutney remix – Arti & Zoelah’s Wine Up on Me.

Bob Marley

The author shopping

The Jamaican motto is: Out of Many, One People; unfortunately, both Indo-Jamaicans and Rastafarians downplay each other’s influence, as they look outside the borders of Jamaica towards their mother countries – India and Africa.

Interestingly Edwards, the black security guard outside Ivans Bar, who after careful consideration, decided we were Indian, went on to share that his great-grandfather was Indian.  He proceeded to tell us the story of Bahubali and so immersed was he in the whys and wherefores of the movie that when our taxi came Edwards was very disappointed to see his audience leave.

How to Speak like a Jamaican

English is the official language of Jamaica, but the majority speaks a form of English Creole or “Patois” (pr. patwa). Patois was derived out of a need to communicate between peoples who did not share a common language, the English masters and the slaves.

Here are standard greetings that can be heard around the island:

  1. Waa gwaan? –     What’s going on?
  2. Waddup”       –     What’s up?
  3. Yo                 –      Hey!
  4. One love       –      An expression of unity, love and respect for all.
    One love, my brudder. One love, Sistreen!

From the time Christopher Columbus first set foot on Jamaica on May 6th, 1494, the island has seen increasing traffic year after year. All-inclusive hotels attract tourists in large numbers. “Enjoy the white beaches and chilled attitude before the island is run over completely,” says our driver Phillips as we head back to the airport, “Fo you can be shore that is coming.”

Yaw so nice, Jamaica!

~To book your room at the Polkerris in Montego Bay, please visit:

~Guha Shankar’s book “Imagining India(ns): Cultural Performances and Diaspora Politics in Jamaica” provided good insight.

~Phillips, our fabulous driver in Montego Bay, can meet you at the airport and drive you around.  He can be reached on Whatsapp at 1 (876) 447-0904.

Ritu Marwah is the Features Editor for India Currents and an avid traveller.



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Dear Doctor | Healthy Life

From Procrastination To Persistence: How I Stopped That Doubting “Voice”

The alarm went off a little before 5am. It had been a restless night with a sick child. The first agenda item on a cold Saturday morning – a 10 mile run with my run group. An hour later, I watched a slim sliver of sunlight break through the thready fog resting low on the horizon as the wind circled the shallow waters of the bay. With pelicans flying overhead, I listened to my breath sounding harshly in my ears, legs straining to climb the next incline. And I wondered how this persona had resided inside of me without my knowledge. Much later, the restless night and fatigue forgotten – I felt jubilant. I had managed to run my first ever 10 miler! My legs shook, but my spirit soared!

And I suddenly had the confidence to run a half marathon in a few weeks time, the event that our group was currently training for.

A Season of “Firsts”: 

It had been nearly three months of ‘Firsts. And the biggest first of all, was the moment I broke the pattern of excuses and procrastination. Caught in the despair of post pregnancy weight gain; having tried diets and gym routines with less than stellar results, I was bemoaning the plight of my yo-yoing journey with the weigh scale. My friend Anu, told me about a runners group she was part of. The name caught me immediately. ‘Fierceli Fit’! It brought to mind visions of sleek, toned bodies of elite athletes flying along effortlessly. One look in the mirror showed me the unvarnished truth. I did not, from any angle, look anything remotely like that! The chinks in my self image screamed for attention and I almost changed my mind. Then I held my breath, and got on their wait list.

What made me take that step? Maybe it was the moment my knees creaked while climbing a flight of stairs. Or when I tried to hide the weigh scale to keep from being disappointed, yet again. The worst feeling was that I was failing an active child, exhausted while playing a simple game of tag.  My sister sent me encouragement in the form of a timely reminder of long forgotten days when I was an athlete and a dancer. How was it that I had only a hazy memory of that time? All I know for sure, is that I had used up my quota of excuses that started with “maybe”, “if only” and “could-have-been”.

Over the next few weeks, I learned several truths about what it takes to put myself first, and make a commitment that changed the way I viewed fitness. At the orientation session, it was a relief when I saw the turnout. There were easily between 20 – 30 beginner runners who showed up. It was not the numbers that gave me courage. Rather, it was the fact that a lot of them looked like the person whom I saw in my mirror that morning. The hour long orientation helped change my mind about the common delusions, myths, and excuses people entertain – which stops them from altering their quality of life.

One Woman’s Vision:

Fierceli Fit Founder and Coach – Sonali Desai, is passionate about running. And that is a serious understatement! Sonali is many things – Wife, Mom, Career woman, Runner and Coach. Her love affair with running started in 2009 when she spotted a call for runners in the community email list from a local Non Profit organization. They offered training towards running a half marathon and in return, all the proceeds from enrollments would go towards the cause of eradicating illiteracy in India. Eager to shed her post pregnancy weight she joined in, unsure of whether she would actually see it through. At the very least she thought that ir would help in fund raising for a great cause!

Growing up in India, Sonali, like many other girls, was not encouraged to be athletic. She remembers dreading her school’s annual Sports Day and stayed up nights praying that it would be canceled, because it was compulsory that everyone participate in track and field events. So it was indeed a big deal when she enrolled to train for a half marathon! Once she discovered the joy of running, she was hooked! Subsequently she went from barely being able to run a 50 meter run, to running full marathons. That is when she realized, “If I can do it, anybody can!” Sonali felt there were many like her – women who did not realize their potential, and who could use a nudge in the right direction.

She realized that beginner runners, especially women – often harbored preconceived notions and myths about running, “There is a perception that runners are a different breed – unapproachable – and superhuman!” It dawned on her that this could be a role that she could fulfill while helping others like her. The proverbial ‘call to action’ came when Sonali lost a friend to depression. She strongly felt that running can be a ‘tool’ to empower women like her.

The Beginning:

In early 2015, Sonali sent out an email via her community network, in Ardenwood, California – offering her help in training for a half marathon. She was circumspect about the feedback that she might receive. The overwhelming response took her by surprise, and she reached out to fellow runner, Pradeep Nagaraja for help with training.

Fierceli Fit started in January 2015, with 20 runners. All except one, were women from the Indian American community. In two years the numbers have grown from 20 to 110! And between them, Sonali and Pradeep have helped nudge many beginner runners, men and women alike, cross the finish line and change their lives for the better.

Aspiring runners can visit their Facebook page, or email – – to get on a wait list. They are then emailed a questionnaire covering basic personal information. A few weeks prior to the start of a session, runners attend an orientation meeting where they meet the coaches and returning runners. Members are cautioned to declare pre-existing medical conditions, in which case they require a medical clean chit to be provided by the doctor’s office clearing them for the period of training.

There is no membership fee except for a nominal amount which goes towards procuring the Parks and Recreation permit from the City of Fremont, since all training takes place in the Coyote Hills area. The only requirement the coaches have from runners is that they show up, commit to training and update run logs!

Running to Reconnect:

We live in an increasingly digitized world where we are ruled by social media and work environments. Despite the growing number of digital avatars, or maybe because of it, real life can be filled with a sense of isolation. It is becoming more and more challenging to make and cultivate realistic human contacts and connections. Along with this comes an unrealistic view of the world around us, and about our self image as well.

Sonali and Pradeep strongly believe running has empowered and enabled them to reconnect to the real world. Beginner runners are encouraged to leave their cell phones and gadgets behind as far as possible. Running offers a sense of unbridled freedom from the virtual world! In addition to the obvious physical benefits, it helps build mental strength and clarity as well – a fact that can translate across personal and work lives.

“Running is not just about the physical act of moving your limbs and fitness, or only about the quality of running gear or shoes. It is about setting small goals to accomplish the bigger goal of the race,” says Pradeep. The discipline required to be able to set such goals and follow through, is what ultimately shapes a runner. And in this process you learn things about yourself that you never knew existed!

Busting Myths:

Pradeep Nagaraja’s journey with running started in India. He was not a serious athlete, but more of a casual runner. He began running while he was pursuing his Master’s degree in the U.S, with the intention of losing weight. Then he signed up for a full marathon – and trained on his own, learning from blog groups and training methods he found online. When he encountered shinsplints midway through the race, he realized he had to learn to respect the miles – and downgraded from a full to a half marathon. Despite this, it was a tough experience.

Pradeep joined other run groups to train, but found they had a ‘hands off’ approach when it came to help or suggestions. Runners were on their own for the most part. He also felt that during a long run, like a half marathon, the time when runners needed encouragement was in the final stretch – the last couple of miles. He did not find this to be the case with the other run groups he joined. So when Sonali suggested forming Fierceli Fit, he jumped at the suggestion, eager to share his experiences and prevent others from making similar mistakes. More importantly the two coaches sought to bust some commonly held myths about running.

Myth # 1: Running destroys your knees.

This could not be further from the truth. There are several articles lending support to dispel such a myth. Standing still for long hours can cause discomfort in the knees, but running strengthens them. Obviously, the correct training plan is important, as is the benefit of having a coach to support and correct running form etc, in order to avoid common injuries with such an activity.

Myth # 2: It is all about the Pace.

Very often beginner runners tend to believe that ‘running’ means – going at a fast clip. This could lead to injuries, instead of helping keep them motivated to finish strong. The pace, or speed at which you run, is not the most important thing as it turns out. Especially for long distances like half marathons. It is important to run comfortably. And it is totally acceptable to take walk breaks in between. Bodies take time to gain conditioning and stamina. Pace is the last thing you need to worry about, when you start out.

Myth # 3: Runners must have the right physique.

The image one associates with a runner is often a cause that can impede interest in pursuing running. Very often they are told, or believe, that they don’t necessarily “look”‘ like a runner. A perfect runner’s physique is tough to attain. And if that is the ultimate goal, there are other types of training one has to engage in to consciously build that “look”. Pradeep cautions beginning runners about harboring such expectations. The most important thing according to him is to “learn to listen to your body”. Commitment and consistency will slowly but surely bring the conditioning required and show results.

Above and Beyond:

Sonali and Pradeep offer their guidance and expertise free of charge to the Fierceli Fit runners. They have been known to go above and beyond their “duties” in supporting their members. Such is their dedication, that the coaches are present for each and every weekend long run. They are on hand to cheer the runners on, video the runs to check for issues with run form, offer suggestions and advice on hydration, and even pace with the runners. This kind of personal touch is what keeps the runners engaged and motivated to return session after session.

Sonali laughingly admits that she has offered babysitting services to runners with young kids to ensure they can run on race day! “Life happens. There might be factors beyond the runner’s control which might impede performance, or even cause them to miss out on a run. But what we aim to offer with Fierceli Fit – is a support system that will shore you up through whatever it is that you might be facing, personally, or professionally,”, says Sonali. The coaches strive to make sure that each runner gets everything they would need individually to be able to go through training and finish the race.

Making themselves approachable is one of the main value-adds that makes Fierceli Fit a success story.

Talking to my fellow runners offered further validation for the training program.

Suju, is an incredibly dedicated runner who has been training with Fierceli Fit for the past three years. She has completed 5 Half Marathons and 2 Full Marathons, while balancing work and family. In her unassuming manner, she credits her older daughter and husband as the main inspiration for her running journey. Fierceli Fit’s training program offered her achievable goals. “The camaraderie within the group, seeing a fellow runner on the trails, lifts the spirits and I know that I am not alone,” she says. “Veteran runners share their experiences and help freely,” a fact that she both admires and is grateful for.

Halima‘s presence in the group is a testament to her courage, determination and the support she receives from the coaches. Losing her mother at a young age had her taking on a supportive role in her family. Her academic pursuits left her with a growing weight problem, which further impeded her health. Halima met coach Sonali socially through a friend. “When I heard how she helped people to run, simply as a way of giving back to her community, that was an inspiration to me,” she says. Overcoming physical injuries as a result of her weight, Halima trained with Fierceli Fit and successfully finished her first Half Marathon in 2017. Running has helped her overcome her insecurities and also build mental fortitude. “I am a primary care giver to my father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. I cannot and will not give up!” she says.

Priyanka joined Fierce Fit with no idea about the distance involved in running a Half Marathon! So she was both shocked and elated that she had managed to complete her training and reach the finish line! As a stay-at-home-mom, she engaged in moderate exercise, walking, yoga and pilates. Running, although intimidating at first, taught her that she had the capability to take on much more than she had imagined. Recruiting her friends to watch her children while her husband was away on work travel, Priyanka made it to all her practice runs. Her husband, who doubted her ability to stick with the training, now wants to join Fierceli Fit himself! She considers this turn of events her true success!

Latha & Soma Ellappan, are one of many couples who have benefited from training with Fierceli Fit. Soma returns each session to bolster his love of running, enjoys the discipline and engagement with the coaches. He also plays a supportive role within the group, along with other veteran runners. He encountered injuries while training, but still managed to finish, only because the coaches tweaked his training schedule and worked around such issues. This further enhanced his passion and respect for the program.

He then encouraged his wife Latha to join the group. Both of them are grateful for the support they receive with training and enjoy the dynamics of the group. “The end goals shifted from the Half Marathon to camaraderie,” says Soma.. Creatively managing child care for their two boys, they are committed to their training, while balancing busy careers as well. Latha is proud that they are leading by example, and paving the way for their kids, by placing a high value on physical fitness  in their daily lives. The fact that their children, ages 10 and 8, recently ran their first 5K, is a source of great pride to both parents! Running has changed their family dynamic for the better. It also fosters mutual respect for one another’s achievements and has greatly impacted their expectations from each other. “This is my retirement plan! My biggest 401K,” says Soma!

Other runners have reaped both tangible and intangible rewards over the years. Whether it is quitting a smoking habit, managing to get off their hypertension medication, or successfully turning their weight issues around, Sonali and Pradeep consider it an honor to be in a position to be able to offer help and support. No gain is higher than the satisfaction of watching such positive life changes happen in the lives of their members. All they ask is that you show up! They are hoping to reach out to more communities around the Bay Area and be able to accommodate greater numbers of beginner runners in future. 

As for the word ‘Endurance’ – all I hear in the voices of the women and men of Fierceli Fit is courage, determination, and a willingness to renew themselves every step of the way. With their persistence, they have changed the outlook within their families when it comes to personal image, and fitness goals.

Team Fierceli Fit is currently training to run the Armed Forces Half Marathon, on May 26th, 2018.

Meanwhile, I happily confess that I have been well and truly bitten by the Run Bug. On a recent trip to New Zealand, I was committed to stick with the training routine. The morning after we landed in Auckland I discovered that while I had packed all my run gear, I had managed to forget my toothbrush!

There are many paths towards fitness… but none so wholesome as becoming ‘Fierceli Fit’!!

Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book, almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California. 




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Books | Fiction

The Man Who Moved a Mountain: An Inspiring Story Like None Other

A man moved a mountain – how is that even possible? I flipped the pages of Nancy Churnin’s children’s book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain with a sense of disbelief. Disbelief soon turned to awe as I learnt about Manjhi and his mountain. Dashrath Manjhi, a poor laborer near Gaya in India worked with just a hammer and chisel to carve a path singlehandedly through a mountain that separated the villages of Atri and Wazirganj. This task took him 22 long years!

I couldn’t believe it – a tale that took on almost mythical proportions in my mind – was this indeed true? I spoke to the author Nancy Churnin about her book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain and wanted to find out about what moved her to write about Manjhi and his mountain. Nancy Churnin’s voice over the phone was friendly and revealed a sincerity of spirit that revealed itself soon enough as she shared her thoughts. She told me that she first wrote a children’s book on William Hoy, the deaf baseball player who changed the game forever.  Soon, she started receiving notes from children all over the country about how the story made a personal difference to them – differently abled children and normal children interested in the game were equally inspired reading the story of William Hoy.

This outpouring of support got her thinking about her next project on inspiring change makers, and her research led her to the story of Dashrath Manjhi. As soon as she read about him, she knew in her heart that children would benefit so much by learning about how an ordinary person who was filled with determination to change things could succeed with determination. “People laughed at him when he started,” she said and continued, “but his vision kept him going. This is not unlike what children face many times – when I talk to children in schools, I ask them – how can you make a difference? And, soon the answers are shouted out with enthusiasm – being kind, stopping a bully. If you start thinking about it, making a difference is really like moving your own mountain.”

Illustrations by Danny Popovici fill the pages and even adults will be captivated by the words and images that bring the story alive.

It is no wonder then that Manjhi Moves a Mountain is running neck and neck in the prestigious Children’s Choice Book Awards. Link for voting given below – buy your book today and vote for Manjhi and his Mountain!





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