Politics | Education| Business

Make Me a Wedding Guest, Please!

Out of the blue, I received a cryptic text: “Hey Monita, your name is in the list. If you can please come for the movie tomorrow. Please keep it confidential…”

This was confusing, to say the least, but being placed on a list of any sort always worries me, because catalogs and groupings are always more exclusive than inclusive.  Nevertheless the thought of being in a movie about the temple seemed intriguing, so to quench my curiosity I went to the “Promised Land.” The venue in question was the HCCNA temple, known as the Sarvjanin Mandir which was started a few years ago by the efforts of a family that had immigrated from Orissa. Eventually, the temple received support from many members of the Indian community belonging to the greater Huntsville area in Alabama. Here, we have a relatively small but tight-knit Indian community compared to larger groups who live in the Northeast or in California. Normally the temple is busy on the weekends but last Thursday the precincts of this now soon-to-be-made-world famous-temple in Harvest, Alabama was converted into a film site for the filming of a Bollywood movie: Zero, a block buster with a popular star-cast of the Indian silver screen.

The temple parking lot was packed with trucks, buses, vans and tents. Security guards were checking people in. People of Indian ethnicity, some who had never attended the temple were flooding to Harvest, Alabama early in the morning. This time they were coming not to receive the blessings of Lord Jagannath but to try and get darshan of Anushka Sharma or R. Madhavan! I entered the community hall of the temple on the first floor; two women were distributing forms. Some of my acquaintances were there, dressed to the hilt; men in dhoti kurtas, the women in silk saris and salwar suits. As soon as they saw me, they hovered around me; asking questions, wanting desperately to be cast as an extras in the movie. I greeted them patiently and tried to decode the growing pandemonium. I approached a crew member, who was walking around with a notebook and asked: Why was the film crew at the temple and what were they planning to shoot? She told me that they were going to film a wedding sequence at the temple. They needed a few people to participate in the ceremony as wedding guests and relatives of the “bridegroom-to-be.” Rahul Shanklya, The assistant director was a very pleasant young man and he patiently told a few people to fill out forms and waivers and to wait for the shooting to commence. The entire crew of more than one hundred technicians, camera men, tailors, make up artists, costume experts and hair dressers who were attending to the needs of the starlets and wannabe stars were very professional and soft spoken. The main artists; Anushka Sharma and R. Madhavan were getting their hair and makeup taken care of in their respective private vans. I spoke to Satish, the tailor who was diligently cutting and stitching without heeding the chaos around him. “How can you concentrate in this chaos?” I asked him. “I am used to this,” he said unassumingly, cutting the edge of a silk sari deftly with sharp scissors. I thought of what a feat this was considering the hard time that I have cutting the blouse piece off a sari without the helping hands of my mother or sister.

The top five Hollywood movies filmed in Huntsville are Ravagers, Space Camp, Beyond the Stars, Constellation, and Muscle Shoals, our Rocket City had not witnessed a Bollywood filming in town. So the excitement Zero generated especially among Indian-Americans was at a fever pitch! in the crowd were doctors, engineers, professors, students, aunties, uncles, grandfathers and babes-in-arms who were united by one love: their love for Bollywood! Star-struck and determined to act in a movie, the buzz created by a Bollywood shoot prevailed over their better judgment.  After all, to be part of the same film as the Indian mega star Shah Rukh Khan was possibly every Indian’s dream! They walked around preening and prancing, changing outfits and hair styles, imagining themselves as heroes and heroines, with their names appearing in the movie’s credits. Parents of the selected child artists literally tossed their kids up in the air and floated seven-feet above the ground. My friend with a pleasing demeanor and lovely dark olive skin was getting her face powdered down and a surgeon was shedding his suit for a white linen dhoti, this lucky duo was to play parents to the famous Bollywood actor R. Madhavan.  Some were fretting that they could not bring their grandchildren who were miles away to be in the movie.  A few resourceful ones were talking to their relatives and giving them detailed instructions to come dressed in wedding attire with lots of gold jewelry. They clustered, spread, laughed, took selfies, touched the heroine’s clothes, curried favor with crew members, complained of stiff knees, swollen ankles, ate breakfast, and passed me scraps of paper, asking me the same question over and over again. When will it start? Where should I stand?

Soon about a dozen folks who had filled out the paper-work were ushered up the stairs to stand in the balcony to be part of the wedding party but as I looked over my shoulder a throng of people who had gotten word of this event pushed their way up, with no heed to any paper-work. Women in shades of magenta, cobalt blue, neon yellow and red, with big blowouts, coiffured buns, braids and bling of every sparkle and shine were pushing, squeezing and shoving to be included as wedding guests.

The director explained the shot, we waited for our cues. I wore a simple white long kurta and skirt. Rahul Shanklya handed me a tray with flowers, jewelry and sweets. A stubbornly self-assertive lady was given a tray with red and white garlands. The other men and women were given instructions to follow our lead as we ran out to welcome the bride and excitedly scatter around the balcony.

We were instructed not to wave or click pictures, but everyone’s phone was attached to their hands and some women even asked me to carry their personal belongings (which I politely refused). We did a few takes, because every time we tried, the people who stood at the back wanted to push up in front. It was a mercy that in all the pushing and heaving I did not topple the tray. That would have been a rather inauspicious opening sequence! Another film enthusiast who stood beside me invented a special role for herself by adding an extra hand to the tray, I was carrying because she thought that would make her look more prominent. Mob behavior had overtaken these University-educated, civilized people from my mother-land!

The scene did not go as per the director’s instruction,s but he had to cut it short and move on to the next shoot inside the inner sanctum of the temple. Now the star-stuck extras were striving to get inside to take their seats, near the main stars. In their Bollywood stupor they wandered into the temple with their shoes, forgetting the ancient Hindu culture to remove all leather accessories outside. I sat in a corner and as people were motioning to each other, I noticed that some folks had white bands on their wrists. It was then that I decoded the cryptic text message, I had received. My hunch had been correct. I had been excluded from the inner circle with the white-wrist-bands. It was only those with the white zeroes on their hands who would make it into the few frames in the movie Zero. A carefully thought out code! Silently saluting the native ingenuity of my fellow country men, I arranged my white chiffon dupatta across my head, offered my prayers to Lord Jagannath and bid adieu to the pleasant crew and the motley wedding guests still quarreling for their spots and making dramatic Kathakali-eye gestures at one another.

What I had received from this film shooting was an interesting perspective into the self-perpetuating child-like infatuation of our people for Bollywood and that to me was perhaps more insightful than the movie ZERO itself. Regardless, I was grateful for this starry experience!

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Opinion | Perspective | Youth

How Does One Respond to the US President?

By the time this essay is read, news channels and stories have already flogged to death the comment made by President Trump – “These are not humans, these are animals,” he uttered these words in a public meeting with sheriffs while discussing current immigration policy. I listened to the video of the event and I have to agree it is not clear whether the President is referring to all undocumented immigrants as “animals,” or whether the reference is only targeted at those undocumented immigrants who commit crimes in this country. Either way, I do not want to focus my attention in making that distinction one way or the other. As this essay by Ramesh Ponnuru makes clear, the President has too often made a link between immigration and crime, conveniently blurring the distinction. I do not attempt to win an argument about immigration armed with pie-charts, statistics and anecdotal information.

Instead, I take a stand against the President’s words based on a collective philosophical need. Every country yearns for leaders who unite, not divide. Stories of human redemption and courage have always brought tears of joy to my eyes. Take the Israel-Palestine conflict for instance. Whenever I think of that conflict, I am always reminded of the story of the Lemon Tree. I sat in my car, listening to this story on NPR with tears coursing down my cheeks of a simple yet profound friendship between an Arab and a Jew. It is the story of how one Palestinian man Bahsir al-Khairi returned after twenty years (in 1967) to the boyhood home that he had had to abandon where he meets the new owner, an Israeli woman Dalia Eshkenazi. What ensued with that first knock on the door was a lifelong friendship.

Bahsir had written in a letter once – “We were exiled by force of arms. We were exiled on foot. But we left our hopes and our childhood in Palestine. We left our joys and sorrows. We left them with each lemon fruit, with each olive. We left them with the flowering tree which stands at the entrance of our house.” When they both realize the extent to which they both love that town and that house with a lemon tree, Dalia makes a grand generous gesture to Bahsir.  Today, that house stands as a place for open dialog between Arab and Jew. You have to listen to how this transformation happens in the midst of one of the worst conflicts in the world in this short radio clip here.

British rule in India, apartheid in South Africa and civil rights in this country were brought about, in part, by moral victories. In these moral victories, words that extolled the best qualities of human beings were shouted from rooftops. When Dylan Roof murdered African American churchgoers in a racially motivated killing in June 2015 in South Carolina, then-President Obama delivered an eulogy to Rev. Pinckney. Recollecting the reason for Rev. Pinckney to choose the clergy, the President said that Rev. Pinckney was convinced that his calling did not reside within the four walls of the church but it extended to the community in which the congregation resided. A man of such integrity and service-mindedness was killed in cold blood within his church as he led a Bible lesson. Obama recalled, “A pastor at 18, a public servant at 23 – Rev. Pinckney – “To be slain in his sanctuary with eight wonderful members of his flock.”  By every yardstick, a tragedy. How did he, as a leader, respond to this senselessness? He spoke of the church as the center for the African American community and then, spoke of how the church had always been the foundation stone and center for liberty and justice for all. As soon as he mentioned the word, “all,” every member of that African American congregation stood up to cheer. Here they were getting ready to bury their African American pastor who was gunned down by a white supremacist, and yet, the first time they stand up to cheer during the speech as one body was the minute they heard the word “all.” Unity is what the human mind responds to instinctively, not hatred. And, it was a moment of unity when the President sang, “Amazing Grace.” (Go to 35 min. into video to watch him start the song.)

In the words you speak, Mr. President, where is that unity? Where is that oneness? It is always US versus THEM. In one way or the other, every topic, every policy and every speech of yours is dictated by divisiveness. Divisiveness that I abhor and endeavor to condemn in the strongest possible way.

It is not right to deny any person their humanity – whether that’s through racist rhetoric uttered behind closed doors, coded language shouted at campaign rallies, or policies which are disproportionately disadvantageous towards people of color. Human beings – which includes immigrants – should not be equated with animals. A person who killed on the basis of racial superiority (as in the case of Dylan Roof) was met with words by Obama that spoke of having people of all races working towards a “more perfect union,” in this country as envisaged by Abraham Lincoln.

To use the word, “animals,” to refer to human beings, Mr. President is to stoop low.  And to stoop so low, Mr. President – for one whose voice can be amplified the loudest in the land is deeply disturbing.

I stand up to condemn your statement in the strongest possible way.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine.

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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 11, 2018 - Jun 24, 2018
All Day
Rembrandt & The Inspiration of India
Rembrandt & The Inspiration of India
J. Paul Getty Museum, LA CA
May 21, 2018 - May 27, 2018
6:00 pm - 8:30 pm
Northern California Events
Exquisite Contemporary Art from India, Exhibition & Sale
Mitralaya, Saratoga California
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

OVBI Raises $250K at Fundraiser

May 19, 2018, Milpitas, CA: Overseas Volunteers for a Better India (OVBI), a 501 3(c) organization held its first annual fundraiser gala for India Water Project at the India Community Center (ICC) on May 19th. The over 400 people who attended the event were inspired to generously contribute towards the cause and helped OVBI achieve their goal of $250K for 2018.

Mohan Trikha, Chair of OVBI’s India Water Project, said, “Our initial goal for the fundraiser was $150K. However, due to the enthusiastic response of all the people we approached and their generous contributions, we surpassed this goal much before the event day itself. Hence, we revised our target and are really grateful to all our supporters for helping us achieve the target. He further explained that these funds will provide sufficient resources to actively pursue 50 additional villages for water sufficiency in multiple states in the coming year.

In addition to all the donations and matching contributions from different companies, CEO of Kespry, George Mathews donated an industrial grade drone worth $40,000 for this cause. This drone and software services will enable surveys of hundreds of acres of land in a matter of minutes instead of days.

“Water is a massive worldwide problem. According to a NASA report India’s global position for groundwater depletion is alarming! The World Resources Institute reports that 54% of India faces extremely high water-stress. By 2030, India will be able to meet only 50% of its water needs,” said BV Jagadeesh, Co-Chair, OVBI’s India Water Project, “330 million people in 250,000 villages are short of water. Since 85% of India’s water is utilized for agriculture, India’s farmers are the worst affected. Hundreds of farmers commit suicide in India every year, millions more live in deep distress. This makes it extremely critical that we do something right now when the situation can still be reversed.”

“The critical nature of the problem touched many hearts this evening”, said John Varela, Director, Santa Clara Valley Water District, who in his address said that he was almost embarrassed to say that they have water problems in the county for which they have millions of dollars budget. He extended his full support in terms of exchange of expertise in resolving problems in India.

“OVBI currently partners with Art of Living India for ground implementation for some of its projects. We have a short-term vision to bring water sufficiency to 500 villages in the most drought prone areas of Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu and others benefitting 1 million people by 2022,” said Satej Chaudhary, President, OVBI. “Work is currently underway in 25 of the selected villages. We leverage existing government schemes and corporate social responsibility grants and village self-help to amplify the impact of all contributions.”

California State Assemblymember Ash Kalra and City of Fremont Councilmember Raj Salwan were also present at the event to show their support for the cause. Assemblymember Kalra also gave a Certificate of Recognition to OVBI and Art of Living, India. A state delegation may visit India soon to work with Government of India and OVBI Water Project for the quest of water sufficiency in India.

For further information contact Satej Chaudhary 202.468.9474 or Sanjana Chopra 925.202.5346.

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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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