SANTA CLARA COUNTY –- Sometimes fear disappears when you bravely take it for a walk.
That is what an Indian family discovered as team participants of Santa Clara County Parks online social media game, Parks For Life Challenge.
County parks and the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter joined forces to help promote the shelter’s newest program, Foster Field Trip and Shelter Dog Sleep Over. Participants of the Parks For Life Challenge earned game points for taking a sheltered dog for a walk in a county park.
While the program was designed to benefit sheltered dogs by providing an opportunity to explore the outside world and to evaluate the dog’s ability to socialize, the program unexpectedly created a life-changing experience for the Kanagala family.
Their walk in the park, they said, altered the family’s behavior toward dogs and dispelled an ingrained cultural belief. Ajay, the father, noted that in India the dog culture is much different than in the United States. Typically, dogs are not considered pets in India, but more of an animal that people are terrified of. “Unlike Americans, we see dogs as scary animals. My wife and oldest daughter are terrified of dogs and stayed away from them as much as possible because that’s how they were raised.”
Enter Winston, a 10-year old Pit Bull Terrier considered to be a long-term stay dog at Santa Clara County Animal Shelter. The first time the family took Winston out of the shelter they asked for a crate for him to ride in while in the car.
While walking him, only Ajay would hold the leash, and his two daughters would stay behind. Toward the end of the walk, Anika, the younger daughter, began to get closer and pet Winston. On the second outing Ajay asked for a crate, yet didn’t make Winston ride in it. While hiking Ajay noticed Anika interacting more with Winston, courageously asking to hold the leash.
Anya, the older daughter, and Ajay’s wife, Chalana, began to realize there was nothing to fear and became comfortable around Winston. On the third outing, Ajay said he skipped the crate and let Winston share the backseat of the car with the kids. Another breakthrough occurred while the Anika was walking Winston: Chalana and Anya started to pet Winston. In no time at all the gentle pats on the back became warm friendly hugs.
“If it was not for the Parks For Life Challenge, my family would still see dogs as terrifying animals the same way they did back in India,” said Ajay. The family is now strongly considering adopting a sheltered dog.
To find out more information on Foster Field Trip and Shelter Dog Sleep Over, contact the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter at 408-686-3900.
At the age of eleven, I discovered nature, when, for the first time in my life, I was taken on a summer vacation. My aunt worked as a nurse at the Tuberculosis Hospital outside of Pune, and there I roamed the windswept landscape, wading into the confluence of the Mula and Mutha rivers, searching for colored pebbles.
One hot afternoon, I set off across the dusty fields. The silence of the noonday hour crackled all around me, faint sounds of civilization hummed in the distance. A fisher woman’s melody, a baby’s wail, a bird’s caw, floated in the still air.
A dark figure loomed ahead. But I felt no twinge of apprehension. I possessed then the invincibility of a pre-adolescent child.
The man halted in front of me and said something. I understood, not his words, only his intent. Still, I stood there frozen as he undid his dhoti.
The next moment, I regained my senses and ran away.
At home, I tried to talk to my mother. But I had no vocabulary to describe my fear, my experience of witnessing male genitalia. My mother, it turned out, possessed even lesser skills of communication. That day, a wedge grew between us. From then on, I would solve my own problems, my mother would be only too relieved not to face them.
A few years later, I was walking home from high school when a man from the neighborhood approached me. A medical representative, he was always dressed in a starched shirt and a tie and went around the neighborhood handing free medicines to our mothers. His status as an outsider – he was either a Christian or a Parsi – seemed to exempt him from any personal scrutiny so that no one ever questioned why, late into his thirties, he remained single.
That afternoon, he inquired about my schoolwork. As I responded, his eyes wandered. Then, abruptly, he invited me to a movie.
My chest tingled. I imagined the dashing man sitting beside me in the darkness of the movie theater. I envisioned his arm around my shoulders, my head across his chest. I was a skinny bookworm then; no boy had ever shown any interest in me.
I agreed to meet the man later at the traffic island.
But as soon as I turned around, I was overcome by nausea. A part of me longed for his touch, a part was revolted.
I never went to the traffic island. I never told my parents. Unable to suppress my secret, I eventually told Viju, my best friend. She promised to tell her mother.
But nothing changed. Whenever the medical representative came to our house to give my mother free medicines, I cowered in the kitchen. I never considered telling my parents even though the fact of his transgression was etched in my mind.
Years later, I wondered, what would have happened if I had gone to the movies with the medical rep? What would have happened if the dhoti-clad peasant had raped me in that dusty field? More importantly, how had I navigated my way through a childhood filled with dangers that no one ever spoke of? How did I have the courage and the wisdom to make the right decision?
When prominent women began to share their experiences of sexual abuse during the recent #MeToo movement, I marveled at my generation of Indian women who had fought back.
Viju and I got fed up of being molested on the streets, for instance, and collared a perpetrator one day and began to hit him with fists until passersby came to our aid. We spread word through the grapevine about men who we knew to be abusers, a friend’s father, for instance, who always put girls on his lap and slobbered them with kisses, even though, after the age of two or three, girls were never kissed in our community. Another friend’s brother regularly made passes at his sister’s friends but never dared to touch me because he knew only too well my big temper and even bigger tongue.
And all the while, our parents remained blissfully ignorant, or pretended to be. It wasn’t that there was no abuse in India, it was just that cultural norms prevented people from admitting to any.
So I longed for America, the enlightened land where feminism had been born.
Imagine my surprise therefore when I left India where professors had always addressed me as “Miss So and So,” and came to these shores where male professors routinely made passes at their female students, even initiated love affairs with them. This was in the late seventies when my fellow students were naive enough to be flattered by such advances. It was to them a validation of their allure and smarts.
For a brief moment, I am embarrassed to admit, I felt envious of my classmates. I mistook their exploitation for liberation.
Until, in the nineteen eighties, when I attended a business conference in Thailand. On my way home, I found myself at a seedy hotel in Bangkok where the front desk warned me of robberies and rapes. “They can get into your room even if you lock it,” they said. Therefore, when I ran into an ex-professor from Berkeley who had been a fellow-attendee at the conference, I accepted his dinner invitation gratefully. But within five minutes he was complaining of campus feminists who had lodged a sexual harassment complaint against him, and I was dreading, not my Thai attackers, but the ex-professor. I tossed and turned all night, and when, in the morning, learned that thieves had robbed my dinner companion – they had entered his locked room and stolen everything just as I had been warned – I couldn’t help feeling vindicated.
Recently, when stories began to surface, of actresses being abused, of women in the media being viciously raped in the offices of their bosses, a la Matt Lauer, I was flabbergasted. I could not understand why these powerful women had been unable to fight against their attackers or expose them.
And I felt grateful for my sensory radar, which has, for decades, enabled me to stave off danger.
Oct 18, 2018 - Jan 21, 2019
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA
Oct 21, 2018 - Dec 15, 2018
1:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Learn to Meditate Class
Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, San Jose CA
Nov 29, 2018 - Feb 16, 2019
11:00 am - 7:00 pm
An Indo-U.S. Cultural Saga
DAG, Mumbai Maharashtra
Dec 7, 2018 - Jan 4, 2019
Yoga Teacher Training In India
Rishikesh, Rishikesh Uttarakhand
May 27, 1996.
The Indian Parliament is hotly discussing a no-confidence motion. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister as well as a poet, rises in defense of the government and waxes poetic about his vision for Mother India:
Thirty crore faces hath She, yet
She hath only one body and soul.
Eighteen spoken languages hath She, yet
She hath only one thought.
A glorious poem, to be sure. But it isn’t his poem, (as he himself acknowledges); it is that of a Tamil poet who lived about a hundred years earlier. The poem doesn’t help Vajpayee stay in power – he resigns after just 13 days in office. And the numbers in the poem are wrong for modern India — we have added a few more faces to the thirty crore since the poet’s days and a few more languages to the list of recognized languages, but these details do not detract from the grandeur and relevance of Subramania Bharati’s vision for a united India. Like all visionaries, he dreamed big, unfettered by reality and by our frailties. His dream, elusive then, is elusive now too.
For a mere mortal to try to do justice to a giant’s glory is naïve at best, but this mere mortal (aka the author) happened to study in the same school that this giant did — M. D. T. Hindu College School, as it was called then, in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, and walked on the hallowed ground this great one had blessed by his presence. So, he has an irrepressible urge to celebrate his revered idol’s glory which blinds him to his limitations, hence this vain essay to sing his praise. Certainly, the easiest way to destroy fine poetry is to translate it, but he will do it anyway, for the poet’s immortal words are seared deep in his brain.
Bharati was born as Subramanian in a humble Brahmin family in Ettayapuram near Tirunelveli on December 11, 1881. When he was just 11, the Ettayapuram king at that time recognized Goddess Saraswati dancing on Subramanian’s silver tongue and bestowed on him the title “Bharati,” a title that was destined to become his name itself. Bharati studied in Tirunelveli, and, after his parents’ death, he continued studies in Varanasi where he gained a broader outlook. Back in Madras Presidency as an adult, he wielded his mighty pen, both as a poet and as an editor of various magazines, arousing patriotism and resistance to the British rule. When he was about to be arrested by the British, he fled to the French-ruled city of Pondicherry and continued his mission from there. He associated with freedom fighters like Gokhale and Lajpat Rai. After establishing himself as an undisputed poetic genius, he departed this world while he was back in Madras at the young age of 39. following an unfortunate attack by a temple elephant.
A roaring flame was thus extinguished prematurely. Sad indeed.
As a poet, Bharati was as diverse as he was prolific, treading multiple landscapes with ease: nationalism, bhakti, nature, women’s amelioration, and his vision for a casteless society. Stylistically, he was a Hemingway among poets; he revolutionized poetry by employing simple Tamil, thus making it accessible to the masses. We’ll try to sample his glory along three dimensions: patriotism, his revolutionary spirit, and bhakti.
Bharati’s patriotism is set in the context of colonial India. Of Winston Churchill’s rousing, patriotic speeches to his nation during WWII, Edward R. Murrow famously said that he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. Bharati did much the same, employing Tamil against the British. In his poem “vandE mAtaram,” he asks:
A thousand may be the castes we have, still
A foreigner to rule us, is that just?
Those born from the same mother’s womb,
Even if they quarrel, siblings are they not?
Bharati’s artillery of rhetorical questions (especially when read in Tamil) never fails to arouse an intense feeling.
But, if Bharati’s criticism of the British rule was scathing, his disapproval of his own brethren for their disunity and petty squabbles was scorching. In his famous poem “nenju porukkudilaiyE,” (My heart can’t take it), he laments:
“It’s a five-headed snake,” the father would say, but
“It’s six-headed,” should the son say,
Their hearts will part ways, and then
For long they’ll remain foes.
Behind the façade of an amusing analogy lurks a searing pain in the poet’s heart, intense and unmistakable.
Bharati never allowed himself to be circumscribed by regional boundaries. In his poem “Bharata Desam,” in the verse “sindu nadiyin misai,” which is set to a delightful movie melody, he says:
On the Indus river, under a (lovely) moon,
Surrounded by (pretty) young women from Kerala,
Singing songs (heartily) in beautiful Telugu,
We will row the boats and play (in joyous merriment).
The river chosen is from the far northwest of pre-partition India, the women are from Kerala, the language of the songs is Telugu, and the poet is Tamil. Is there an iota of parochialism in this divine poet?
In his revolutionary spirit, Bharati was way ahead of his times. He denounced casteism with full throated fervor. In “vandE mAtaram,” he says of the so-called low castes:
“Lowly” pariahs they may be, but
Do they not live amongst us?
Does it make them Chinese? Or,
Harm us, do they, like those foreign?
Another volley of uncomfortable rhetorical questions leaves us squirming with shame! (The “Chinese” here is just a proxy for someone from an alien culture.)
Bharati championed women’s upliftment tirelessly. His “pudumai peN,” or modern woman, retains the best of our culture while discarding her shackles. In his “peNgaL viDudalai kummi,” or, a dandiya raas dance celebrating women’s liberation, the women sing:
To talk about chastity they’ve come, but
It’s common to both parties, we’ll insist.
In a land where the monogamous hero of the Ramayana is venerated, requiring chastity exclusively of one gender is a clear abomination but society had legitimized it, and Bharati’s pudumai peN would not take it lying down. In “pAnchAli sabadam,” or “Draupadi’s Vow,” Bharati’s rendition of a portion of Mahabharata, this pudumai peN dons the mantle of Draupadi. When she is dragged to the royal court after she had been gambled away as property and lost, she demands to know what right Yudhishthira had, to gamble her away after he had lost himself. When the illustrious pitamaha, Bhishma, dolefully responds that the shastras do allow it, Bharati’s Draupadi drips with sarcasm and says (in section 27):
Speak well did thou, Sir, of dharma.
Back when Ravana, with deceit, abducted,
And imprisoned Lady Sita in Ashoka Garden,
And called his counsel and connoisseurs of shastras,
And apprised them of the tidings of Sri Devi’s capture,
“Thou did well, Sire; with dharma, this act
Fully conforms,” did rejoice these connoisseurs!
When ghouls rule, shastras will recommend a diet of cadavers, (won’t they?)!
If words could kill, this last line of Bharati’s Draupadi would have incinerated that entire court, including the guilt-ridden Yudhishthira.
Finally, Bharati’s bhakti is tender, uplifting, and imaginative. His “kaNNan pATTu,” a collection of songs about Krishna, is legendary and extends the imagination of the Azhvar saints of South India, who had already viewed Kannan (Krishna) as their own child (Periyazhvar and Tirumangai Azhvar in Yashodha-bhAvam) or as their beau while imagining themselves to be a woman (Nammazhvar and Tirumangai Azhvar in nAyika-bhAvam). This latter view is often seen as the longing of the individual soul for the Supreme Soul. To these traditional views, Bharati adds several more: Kannan is his belle (how dare he?) with a name of Kannamma, his servant (o, what chutzpah!), his friend, his mother, his father, his king, his sishya, and his guru. It is indeed Bharati’s imagination and revolutionary spirit to view Kannan in these non-traditional ways, but regardless of the particular view, he always expresses quintessential bhakti. In “Asai mugam marandu pochchE” (Alas, His face is gone from my memory), the pining damsel conveys a haunting anguish about being unable to recall her separated lover Kannan’s face vividly. A musical rendition of this poem conveys that heart-rending heartache through its sublime melody (though one must be willing to overlook the singer’s annoying mispronunciation of the first word of the poem). In “kaNNan en sEvagan” (Kannan, My Servant), the poet voices his frustration about the previous servants he’s had:
“Why a no-show yesterday, pray tell?” – Should I ask,
“That scorpion in the pot bit me with its very teeth, Sire,” – they’d say
“The wife was possessed by a demon, Sire” – they’d say
“’Twas the 12th day of my grandmother’s passing, Sire” – they’d say
Always a lie they’d tell; If I tell them one thing, they’ll do another.
While we’re still picturing with amusement that Guinness-eligible scorpion that is blessed with shark-like teeth, the poet is already describing the bliss that Kannan brings him as his servant:
A friend, a counsel, a good teacher – He’s all.
In character, a God; in looks, a servant;
He came from God-knows-where; “a cowherd, Sire,” announced He,
To be blessed with Him here, O, what penance have I done!
As the poet holds forth on the glory of his divine servant, our heart brims with unspeakable gratitude at His love and caring, and we get ready to prostrate at this servant’s feet.
Finally, in “KaNNammA en kAdali – 6” (Kannamma, my sweetheart), the poet describes how complementary he and Kannamma are to each other (Sudha Raghunathan’s rendering here):
A star, You are to me; the cool moon, I am to You;
Bravery, You are to me; triumph, I am to You;
All the bliss in this world and heaven,
Blend so well into your form, O, my sweet nectar!
Isn’t that how all relationships with the significant other ought to be?
We conclude with Bharati’s prayer to Siva Shakti, or Goddess Shakti. Bharati saw the human being, including himself, as the ultimate in divine creation. In “nalladOr veeNai seidE” (Priya Sisters soulful rendering here), he uses the metaphor of a finely crafted veena to refer to himself. For the Mother Goddess to let him waste his life is tantamount to Her throwing that exquisite veena in trash. So, he says:
Will you not bless me with the ability
To live so this land gains from me?
Tell me, O, Shiva Shakti,
Will you rather let me live as a burden on this land?
What a noble aspiration! So, here’s hoping that we, those metaphorical veenas, forever fill the air with the sublime melody of usefulness to others, the melody that She intended for us to create! The poet’s immortal spirit will brook nothing less from us.
Hamsanandi (real name: Vijay Pitchumani) is an engineer living in Fremont, California, with his wife, Sheela. Together they run an effort called Heritage-of-India classes, which currently teaches the Divya Prabandham online. They can be reached at the gmail id of hoiclasses.
On a crisp December morning, writer Anita Felicelli and I meet up at Madras Cafe, where between sips of filter coffee and bites of steaming idlis, we discuss her debut collection of short stories, Love Songs for a Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press, October 2018). Felicelli’s prize-winning stories join a growing number of short story collections by South Asian writers and fill a critical gap in narratives by South Asian women. In Love Songs for a Lost Continent, we find thirteen stories that are a beautiful amalgamation of myth, magical realism, and present-day challenges that go beyond the realm of immigrant life stereotypes. Abuse, infertility, the loss of a child, casteism, gender, and identity politics, are just some of the themes in this riveting short story collection.
Felicelli is a graduate of UC Berkeley and UC Berkeley School of Law. Her short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Normal School, Kweli Journal, Joyland, Juked, and other journals. Her essays and reviews have been published in the New York Times, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as India Currents. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and anthologized. Born in South India, Felicelli grew up in the Bay Area, where she lives with her family.
Shikha Malaviya (SM): This collection literally had me jumping with joy. At last, someone is telling our stories in a unique and interesting way. What was the genesis of this collection? How did some of these stories come about? As a child of immigrants, I assume you’ve been inspired by real life, but you’ve managed to delve deep under the surface. Tell us more, please.
Anita Felicelli (AF): Thank you so much! I wrote the stories in this collection over decades without quite realizing that they would eventually come together as a collection. After I wrote the title story, I realized that I kept writing about reinvention, about people who transgress the stories that society tells them about their identities. I noticed that I had an obsession with the kinds of people who want to tell their own stories, author their own lives, and yet, when they did try to break away from their identity, they often lost something of importance. And memory, too, had a role in these stories, the ways in which memory can hold us back from reinvention, but also how malleable memory is when authoring our lives.
SM: You said, ‘Identity is a story we tell ourselves until it gets disrupted by other stories.’ That is such a powerful statement. Can you elaborate? I love how you illustrate this through the reoccurrence of characters within different stories, which enables the reader to see different perspectives.
AF: In my fiction, I’m interested in how people of different identities and worldviews are forced into a reckoning of who they truly are and how solid their identity really is. The reckoning usually occurs through confrontation with someone of a different identity and worldview. I think many South Asian immigrant narratives are interested in telling stories of a particular community, where those in that community agree about their collective identity. But my interest is in how each of us has certain stories we tell ourselves, some of those stories received from a community and others we’ve invented from life experience, and what happens to our sense of reality when we run up against other people’s desires and stories.
SM: You’ve also mentioned how ‘outsiders don’t have fairytales.’ And, yes, I agree, this is true. So many of your stories are inspired by folktales and fairytales with elements of the fantastical such as “Deception,” about a woman whose marriage is arranged with a tiger, “Once Upon the Great Red Island,” in which man and animal bond, ultimately fusing, and “Rampion,” which is a unique take on Rapunzel. As outsiders, what is the purpose of fairytales? As immigrants, isn’t the idea of a fairytale life what lured us across oceans in the first place?
AF: I like that, and yes, I think there is a fairytale America has exported about itself in the past that has drawn immigrants to it. Fairytales and folktales are stories that reveal what a society believes, or at least what a society thinks is important to express. And by society, I really mean the insiders of a society. For example, the fairytale Rapunzel is told from the perspective of a couple and their child, while my story, Rampion, is told from the perspective of the villain in Rapunzel, someone struggling with infertility and loss. So much storytelling is for the benefit of a society’s insiders, what will resonate with a majority of listeners or readers. With this collection, I wanted to generate the same rough magic for outsiders and told from the margins, rather than to and from insiders.
SM: Your stories are brimming with birds, flowers, and animals like the mysterious indri (Babakoto lemur). One senses this uneasy yet inextricable tangle between man, earth and animal, this primal yearning to find a way to strike a balance, and to also be consumed by what we don’t understand. How conscious were you of this aspect while writing your stories.
AF: I wasn’t conscious of this while I first drafted the stories, but I noticed it during revision, and it was part of what allowed me to select certain stories for the collection and leave out others. While revising the final drafts, I was conscious of wanting to keep a certain fragile mysteriousness and wildness to the stories. I don’t enjoy fiction that is overly manicured or predictable or only about humans in their metal and wood and plastic manmade environments. I wanted to write stories that I would like to read.
SM: The characters in your stories are introspective. As readers, we follow their thought process and experience their emotions and epiphanies. All of these characters live disrupted lives and though they grasp for resolution, it’s hard to come by. Whether it’s Kathy from “Kathy and Hema,” who resents her friend for breaking the norm of a studious, ambitious Asian immigrant and running off with her soccer coach or in “The Art of Losing,” Maisie’s angst for her troubled son, Drew, who has met with a horrific accident or in “Love Songs for a Lost Continent,” the Fulbright scholar searching for mythical Kumari Kundam, who loses someone he loves. Did you mean for this ambiguity? What do you hope the reader will take from it?
AF: Yes, I love ambiguity in stories. I’ve been haunted since childhood by Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 anthologized short story The Lady or the Tiger, in which a king tries to punish his daughter’s lover by offering him a choice between two doors. Behind one is a lady he will have to marry and behind the other is a tiger. It’s not clear at the end which one the king’s daughter has told her lover to choose. Would she choose for herself the emotion of jealousy or grief? I love the space Stockton made for readers by leaving the question for them to answer for themselves. I love reading when it’s a relationship between an author and a reader, a relationship in which the reader is given a little wiggle room for his or her subconscious to provide some answers, rather than a kind of tyranny.
SM: You’ve grown up and lived in the Bay Area for years. Did the familiarity of home compel you to set many of your stories here? Your stories visit other locales also, like Madagascar, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Why did you choose these settings?
AF: Most of what I write is set in the Bay Area, but as an immigrant, I’m also fascinated by ideas of migrating to other faraway places. I often wonder what it would have been like to be my parents, making their choice to immigrate in the ’70s even though we didn’t have any close family here. I’m also fascinated at how often travelogues and fiction from the perspective of white American writers traveling or moving elsewhere are published, while we very rarely are given access to travelogues and literary stories from the perspective of brown or black Americans who move to other places. I’m fascinated by the question of whether my relationship to other countries would be the same as a white American writer’s relationship to those places. One set of grandparents resisted colonialism, and also resisted caste, and I’ve leaned left, actively so, my entire life, but I often imagine what it would be like to tweak aspects of my identity to see whether those tweaks, those changes in the story I tell myself about myself, might cause me to make different choices in the world. Could I be a colonizer? Could I be the Man? Could I be one of the many quietly complicit? Under what circumstances? I’m so intrigued by those questions.
SM: You started off with a career in law but then decided to pursue a career that is considered off the beaten path for South Asian immigrants. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer and how has the response been from your family and the greater community?
AF: I knew I wanted to be a writer from the age of five. It was the only work I’ve ever wanted to do or for which I’ve had a genuine passion. My parents have been mostly supportive of me though perhaps they’ve been made anxious and unnerved by my compulsive interest in writing about matters that South Asians don’t often discuss. But also, as immigrants who are not from wealthy backgrounds, they’ve always made it clear I would need to find a job to support myself financially and that I would need to try to be excellent at anything I did regardless of how I felt about it. Both of them worked extremely hard. I was never allowed to slack on finding jobs that would pay me, nor did they ever suggest it was in the realm of possibility to rely on a spouse. I started babysitting when I was 11 and I’ve worked many other jobs since age 15 (in graphic design and the law), trying to figure out how I might be able to sustain myself while continuing to write literary fiction. Litigation was really a second or third career for me, and from the time I dipped my toes into that world, I knew I’d be able to force myself to swim there no more than a decade.
SM: What are you working on now?
AF: I’m working on a family saga that centers on an engineer who immigrates from Tamil Nadu to Silicon Valley and invents a memory machine.
Shikha Malaviya (www.shikhamalaviya.com) is an Indo-American poet & writer. Her book, Geography of Tongues, was featured in several literary festivals. Shikha is a co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a mentorship model literary press dedicated to new poetic voices from India and the Indian diaspora. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in PLUME, Prairie Schooner, Water~Stone Review & other fine journals. Shikha was a featured TEDx speaker in GolfLinks, Bangalore, where she gave a talk on poetry. She has been a three-time mentor for AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship Program and was selected as Poet Laureate of San Ramon, CA, 2016. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.
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Like most teenagers my age, I go to Google for answers. Several months ago when I turned to Google yet again, this time for information on veena makers, I realized that there is very little out there. While I found some YouTube videos on the art of veena making, there wasn’t much recorded on the people who make this beautiful instrument.
At the age of nine, while my friends were beginning their violin and piano lessons, I began lessons on the veena, a seven-stringed instrument, with roots in the Carnatic tradition of southern India, and the oldest continuously played instru- ment of the sub-continent.
Shaped similar to a sitar, the veena is played parallel to the ground unlike the sitar, which is played at an angle. It is often said that the veena produces sounds that are closest to the human voice. And then there’s its glorious history. Hindu religion and mythology has several figures known for their association with the veena, in- cluding the goddess Saraswati, the sage Narada, and the demon Ravana.
The modern fixed-fret Saraswati vee- na evolved in Thanjavur, a town richly steeped in the musical tradition of South- ern India during the 17th century. If Cremona in northern Italy is the seat of violin making, which includes the world famous Stradivarius violins, Thanjavur in southern India enjoys a similar reputation among veena players. It is here that the art of veena-making still flourishes, and the most popular style of veena today is the Thanjavur veena, which is a particular style of the Saraswati veena. Similar to Cremona violins, the name “ Thanjavur veena” immediately gives a stamp of cred- ibility to the quality of the instrument. The veena makers with the best reputations live in this temple town and make bespoke instruments for classical musicians.
Even though I have been playing this instrument for eight years, I had not had the opportunity to visit its birthplace, Thanjavur, which is just a one-hour flight away from my parents’ birth place of Chennai, an annual summer destination of mine. Imagine then, my excitement, this past summer, when my family finally planned a trip to Thanjavur! I was to final- ly get an opportunity to meet some of the artisans who make this ancient instrument.
I visited a veena maker called “Veena” Venkatesan. He lives in a modest two- story blue house with a high ceiling. His workshop is on the second-floor balcony overlooking a busy street. Venkatesan is happy to take a few hours from his busy schedule to talk to me.
How did you get started in this trade, I ask somewhat naively. His father Gov- indaswamy taught him the trade, he tells me, just as he is now preparing his son to succeed him. The art of veena making is handed down from generation to genera- tion.
Once we sit down, he immediately launches into detailing the craft. Usually a veena’s wood comes from the jackfruit tree. When I ask him why this particular wood is used, he answers: tradition and cost. However, he is quick to point out that many veena makers also use the more expensive rosewood, and occasionally, san- dalwood.
One interesting aspect is that it takes a 25 kg (~55 lbs) tree to make a 3 kg (~6.6 lbs) veena, since most of the wood must be hollowed out!
Because it’s such a large instrument, there are three types of veena based on its construction. The first is the “ekanda veena,” which is carved from one piece of wood. The second is the two-piece “akhan- da veena,” which is quite rare. The third is the “khanda veena,” in which the four main portions (Kumbha, Dandi, Vyala, and Kayi (the gourd)) are made separately, and then joined. Isn’t the veena made with one piece better than the two-piece veena, I ask, wanting to appear knowledgeable. Venkatesan is quick to correct the miscon- ception. In reality, he informs me, if joined properly a khanda veena can sound better than the one-piece veena.
Venkatesan strongly believes that one person should make the entire instrument for purposes of continuity. Making one instrument takes about twenty days from start to finish. However, it takes a very long time for an aspiring veena maker to acquire the skills needed to make a complete veena in this length of time. Venkatesan had to spend several years as an apprentice to his father on getting the woodwork right, before he was even al- lowed to lay the wax and place the frets! Such is the expertise and precision re- quired to make a fine instrument.
Now that he has so many years of experience on getting the tone perfect, he doesn’t need a supporting instrument such as the tambura.
There are 24 frets made of brass bars set into wax. Laying the wax is the toughest part of veena-making. It requires three and a half hours in a meditative state, and even after setting it multiple times, it may go off tune later. Venkatesan sees it as a product of one’s mental state. He likens it to expert carpenters, many of whom may have the physical skills and technical expertise, but only a few can achieve that meditative and reflective mood.
Given the years of apprenticeship in- volved, the level of skill, and the dedica- tion that is required to make a fine veena, Venkatesan estimates that only ten crafts- men in India can make veenas of the fin- est quality, with six of them living in the Thanjavur area.
However, he also debunked the my that it’s a dying art. He argues that veena- making has always been reserved for a select few, and that it only seems like it is a dying art in comparison to other instru- ments. While most instrument manufac- turers have expanded rapidly, a veena, of course, can only be made by hand and that too only by a select few.
Slowly, our conversation moves from the technical aspect of making the instru- ment to its historical and contemporary contexts.
I ask him whether he thought the government ought to do more in the way of support for craftsmen, a notion that he handily rejects. He points to an award hanging on his wall, from Poompuhar, the State Government agency. To him, a vid- wan’s (expert) praise means so much more than support from a government official who knows nothing of the craft.
Venkatesan finds solace in the peace of his work. In fact, he points, he can actually make more money making other wood products. However, none of them can offer the same divine quality of a veena’s sound and the spirituality associated with the instrument.
Not everyone feels the same way. He admits that no apprentice has ever approached him with a deep level of interest in the instrument. In fact, he tells me that I am the first person to have approached him with some interest in the craft, even if it is not professional. Nevertheless, he does not lament his situation or complain. Sur- rounded by his tools and the ingredients of the next beautiful veena, this master craftsman is at complete peace.
Meeting Veena Venkatesan is a rev-elation. As I leave his workshop, my thoughts whirl around my home in Silicon Valley where it seems the measure of a person’s success is the size of his home and the number of stock options that he has. However, for people like Venkatesan true wealth lies in the practice of his divine craft and the joy that it brings.
I come away filled with awe at both the art and its artist. The next time I pick up the veena to practice, I will pause to think about the dedication, skill, and commit- ment of its maker.
Anirudh Prabhu is a senior at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, CA. He learns veena from the renowned guru, Sri Srikanth Chary, and is a nationally-ranked debater.
First published in December 2015.
Last summer, while traveling with my wife through the Canadian Rockies, I sang for my pizza at Gus’ Pizza in Hinton, Alberta.
This is how it happened.
Looking for dinner on our last night in Hinton, a tourist town servicing Jasper National Park, we settled on pizza at Gus’ Pizza, a local Greek restaurant. Hungry, we were glad it was open. And since this was late June, the restaurant curtains were drawn closed, due to the blazing sunshine outside so It seemed dark inside as we entered.
As my wife, Lynn, and I were finishing our pizza, the clock was inching towards 9 pm.. Grabbing my sunglasses and while getting ready to pay the bill and leave, I saw a large group of people, maybe 25 or so, come in and sit down at the open tables around us.
Lynn, who spent her career in high tech, turned around and asked a person seated at the next table where they were from. New Jersey was the answer, but they were from India originally. Where in India, she asked? From different parts of India – was the response. The places included Orissa, Mumbai and many other cities across the rest of the sub-continent. They belonged to one family and were visiting Canada together. In the past, Lynn and I have traveled to India twice. Lynn then mentioned casually that I am a “Carnatic singer,” and that I’ve taken some lessons.
“Wow! Really? Can he sing something?” came the immediate response.
“Uh, OK,. But I don’t feel ready. Vacationing. I haven’t sung in over a week or so and don’t have the words for any of the songs with me.” I was having an internal conversation as I scrambled to come up with something, fast.
Quelling this, I decided to open up and sing – on a full stomach, standing right there at the table with my backpack in hand I sang the pallavi lines of Thyagaraja’s Yochana in Darbar ragam. I had sung the same song at the most recent Thyagaraja Day and it was the first song that occurred to me. I turned on the shruthi on my iPhone for accompaniment and just sang.
I actually got through the pallavi, and thought to myself, “I hope they like this.”
The place erupted with applause. They wanted more and commented about how good I was.
“Really?” I was flattered.
I then started the pallavi of Sriman Narayana, one of my favorite songs, in Bowli ragam. I had one of the party look up the “rain ragam” for me (I had a senior moment and forgot the name) as I wanted to sing that krithi in this arid place in the high Albertan plains. Finding the ragam to be Amrutha Varshini, I then sang the pallavi of Anandamrutha Varshini. Studying Maharajapuram Santhanam’s version of this song seemed to pay off at that very moment; I was able to recall it in my mind as I went along. Thanks to my guru Kalpagam for pointing out that version to me!
More applause accompanied me to the cashier as I finished my mini-concert.
The owner, Gus, was waiting for me. He shook my hand saying, “Thank You” and said that he wanted to pay for my dinner! The offer felt “weird” to me; I offered to pay half of the bill amount and leave a tip instead.
“Yes, that’s fine” he said, saying that he just “loved singing in his restaurant.”
Lynn paid and left a tip, while Gus handed me a small bag of Ouzo candies. For a moment, I felt like I was in a Hindu temple receiving prasadam after a festival performance.
Stepping outside, I put on my sunglasses to meet the blinding setting sun, and we drove back to the hotel.
Goes to show, sometimes you just never know what will happen.
When he’s not traveling, Burton Winn enjoys life in San Anselmo, California with his wife, Lynn Poirier.
A semi-retired pop and blues musician, he continues his studies in Carnatic music with guru Kalpagam KowsiK and believes that music is a universal language, bridging both time and cultural barriers.
He has previously been published in India Currents.
The Ouzo Candies. (Photo in natural light)
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A Chinese scientist from a university in Shenzhen claims he has succeeded in creating the world’s first genetically edited babies. He told the Associated Press that twin girls were born earlier this month after he edited their embryos using CRISPR technology to remove the CCR5 gene, which plays a critical role in enabling many forms of the HIV virus to infect cells.
Whether the claims are true or false, one thing is clear: We are entering an era of designer babies. Scientists will soon be able to edit human embryos with the aim of eliminating debilitating disease, selecting physical traits such as skin and eye color, or even adding extra intelligence. Our understanding of the effects of the technology is in its infancy, however.
The technology is CRISPR: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Discovered by scientists only a few years ago, CRISPRs are elements of an ancient system that protects bacteria and other single-celled organisms from viruses, acquiring immunity to them by incorporating genetic elements from the virus invaders. CRISPRs evolved over millions of years to trim pieces of genetic information from one genome and insert it into another. And this bacterial antiviral defense serves as an astonishingly cheap, simple, elegant way to quickly edit the DNA of any organism in the lab.
Until recently, experimenting with DNA required sophisticated labs, years of experience, and millions of dollars. The use of CRISPRs has changed all that. CRISPRs work by using an enzyme — Cas9 — that homes in on a specified location in a strand of DNA. The process then edits the DNA to either remove unwanted sequences or insert payload sequences. CRISPRs use an RNA molecule as a guide to the DNA target. To set up a CRISPR editing capability, a lab only needs to order an RNA fragment and purchase off-the-shelf chemicals and enzymes, costing only a few dollars.
Because CRISPR is cheap and easy to use, it has both revolutionized and democratized genetic research. Thousands of labs all over the world are experimenting with CRISPR-based editing projects. There are few regulations worldwide, even in the United States, largely because regulators don’t understand what has become possible. China has taken the lead because it puts scientific progress ahead of all concerns. It has made the most astonishing breakthroughs.
In 2014, Chinese scientists announced they had successfully produced monkeys that had been genetically modified at the embryonic stage. In April 2015, another group of researchers in China published a paper detailing the first ever effort to edit the genes of a human embryo. The attempt failed, but it shocked the world: this wasn’t supposed to happen so soon. And then, in April 2016, yet another group of Chinese researchers reported it had succeeded in modifying the genome of a human embryo in an effort to make it resistant to HIV infection.
The intentions may be good, but this has transgressed a serious boundary. We know too little to predict the broader effects of altering or disabling a gene. In the 1960s, we imagined rather naïvely that as time went by we would understand with increasing precision the role of each gene in making us what we are. The foundation of genetics for decades, once biology’s Central Dogma, was the hypothesis that each gene codes for a single protein. Knowing the correspondences, we would have tools useful not only for research but also for curing and preventing disease with a genetic basis and perhaps for augmenting human evolution.
The one-gene-one-protein Central Dogma, though it continues to pervade our common beliefs about genetics, underwent conversion when scientists realized many proteins comprise several polypeptides, each of which was coded for by a gene. The Dogma therefore became one gene, one polypeptide. But what sounded the entire Dogma’s death knell was the discovery in the early 1970s that a single gene can code for more than one protein. The discovery that the human genome contains only about 30,000 genes to code for some 90,000 proteins brought that home; but what makes our understanding appear spectacularly inadequate is the discovery in 2000 that a single gene can potentially code for tens of thousands of proteins.
In a nutshell, we don’t know the limits of the new technologies, can’t guess what lifetime effects a single gene alteration will have on a single individual, and have no idea what effects alteration of genes in sperm or ova or a fetus will have on future generations. For these reasons, we have no knowledge of whether a particular modification of the human germline will be ultimately catastrophic, and no basis for considering that tampering with heritable genes can be humane or ethical.
With an awareness of our ignorance in this area, the 2015 announcement of genetic modification of a human embryo led to global debate, and a handful of governments temporarily banned gene editing of live human embryos as well as the genetic modifications of the human germline (the DNA that will create future generations) for imparting beneficial traits such as height or intelligence. But in February 2017, an advisory body from the National Academy of Sciences announced its support for using CRISPR to edit the genes of embryos to remove DNA sequences that cause serious heritable diseases. And the Chinese are clearly proceeding with experimentation too, as the announcement by Shenzhen researchers showed.
The reality is that we have arrived at a Rubicon. Humans are on the verge of finally being able to modify their own evolution. The question is, can we use this newfound superpower in a responsible way that will benefit the planet and its people — or will this be a race for scientific glory and profit?
Vivek Wadhwa is Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley and Harvard Law School. This post is partly derived from his book The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.
According to Maori legend, Lake Wakatipu was formed when the body of a sleeping giant was burnt by a Maori warrior, who wanted to ensure that the giant could never kidnap his beautiful daughter again. The fire caused the ice and snow on the surrounding mountains to melt, forming Lake Wakatipu. We drive past this turquoise glass-like lake from Queenstown, on our way to Milford Sound or Fjord land in the South Island of New Zealand, where the journey is touted to be as spectacular as the destination! We arrive at Te Anau which is the picturesque town that acts as the gateway to the fjords with the almost-perfect Lake Gunn. Its name is derived from Maori words Te Ana Au, meaning “cave of swirling waters.” These caves were forgotten for years till they were rediscovered in 1948. Today the caves are popular with visitors who descend into their depths, and glide through a grotto illuminated by glow-worms.
The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is often lauded as one of the most scenic highways in the world, reaching a height of almost 1,000m! The winding road enters the spectacular golden- grassed Eglinton Valley where we stop to take photos and stretch our legs. Standing in knee-high grass with snow-capped mountains in the background, it is hard not to feel like I am the heroine in a blockbuster! Some scenes from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (shot entirely in New Zealand) were based in the Eglinton Valley. We take a walk through a forest with primordial mystique that has silver ferns blanketing the floor of a beech forest—the moist environment gives rise to emerald mosses, old man’s beard and lichens. It reminds me of a forest from a child’s fairytale where elves and gnomes might just appear at the next corner! Moss and algae cover everything; the trees drip epiphytes. There is the earthy smell of leaf litter and moist soil in the air.
We drive past a landscape of snowy peaks, alpine lakes and primeval forests, in this massive World Heritage area with 14 fjords that slash into its coastline. This is also a region that gets up to twenty feet of rainfall every year. We walk to the glassy Mirror Lakes, whose sapphire waters reflect the picture perfect Earl mountains. We come back to the parking lot to see the brazen Alpine parrot called Kea sitting on our parked vehicle. It is notorious for its penchant for chewing the rubber off car windows, breaking in, and eating the upholstery!
Driving alongside green pastures, dotted with zillions of sheep, craggy peaks and high plateaus, we approach the Homer Tunnel built out of solid granite. This took over twenty years to build, keeping men employed during the Depression and I hear that they built it with just their bare hands and pickaxes. We stop at another viewpoint where I walk through a wooden walkway—a series of paths and bridges to the Chasm, a 400 metre loop with a series of swirling waterfalls, rushing water gurgling and racing deep underground, rapids and sensuous curves gouged out by millennia of erosion in the path of the Cleddar River. The force of the water and rocks being carried in the current have created sculpted rocks, basins and holes that remind me of abstract art.
We finally arrive at Milford Sound which is steeped in history and legend— the Maori attribute its creation to the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa, who was called away before he could carve a proper route, leaving high rock walls! The Maori are believed to have discovered the region over thousand years ago, going there to collect greenstone or pounamu, which they used to carve jewellery and weapons. They named the Sound Piopiotahi after a thrush-like bird, which is now extinct. John Grono was the first European settler in Milford in 1912; he renamed the sound Milford after Milford Haven in Wales. I hear that Milford is at its best in the rain, something that happens very often. And sure enough, within minutes of our arrival there is a light drizzle and every cliff-face sprouts a waterfall and the place looks even more magical, as a shroud of ethereal mist descends on us. Some of the waterfalls are slender and pencil thin, landing in a powdery white mist; others are furious and strong as they pour ferociously over the cliff edges.
We board our ship aptly named “Southern Discoveries,” and sail along the ancient path of ice. Our guide explains that Milford is actually not a Sound which is technically an area eroded by a river, but a fjord which is a drowned area created by a glacier. Milford is flanked entirely by sheer rock faces, some of which tower almost 5,000 feet high and the channel is more than 1,300 feet deep in some places, making this a very unique experience! Dominated by the steep slopes of the Southern Alps, it takes its name from the deep lakes and ocean-flooded valleys that resemble the fjords of Scandinavia! I take out my beanie, scarf and bundle myself in fleece as I step on to the deck of the ship. It’s a great feeling battling the elements and soaking in the jaw dropping scenery.
It’s all about sheer scale and size. I gaze entranced at waterfalls that plummet down the cliffs, woven with rainbows. In the distance, the iconic 1692m-high Mitre Peak (Mitre comes from the word for a bishop’s hat, which it’s supposed to resemble) rises tall from the water. We edge closer to the tallest waterfall—the Stirling Falls which is three times the height of the Niagara Falls and as the captain navigates the ship under its thunderous cascades, I scuttle for cover, covering my camera with a plastic cover! We see fur seals slouching and basking on a rock almost camouflaged by the colour of the rock. The sharp-eyed guide points to bottle nosed dolphins. Verdant palettes of moss ridden rock, the grey sheet of rain, the white foam of the waterfalls, all pass me in the blink of an eye, as I huddle under the cowl of my rain coat, on the upper deck of the boat. The occasional whale makes its way into the sound to play before disappearing back to sea. The haunting, misty ambience stays in my mind for a long time to come—no wonder Rudyard Kipling described the dramatic Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world! It’s truly Mother Nature at her best.
How to get there:
Fly to Singapore and connect to Auckland.
Where to stay:
Milford Sound can be done as a convenient day trip from Queenstown. There are many coach companies which do these tours with scenic stops on the way. You can also stay at Te Anau or the Milford Sound Lodge nestled beneath the towering peaks of the Darran Mountains; this lodge provides river view chalets near the Fiordland National Park There is also a campervan option. If you wish to see some of New Zealand’s most dramatic scenery in style, splurge on a helicopter to Milford Cruise from Queenstown.
Things to do:
No visit to Milford Sound is complete without a boat cruise around this iconic fiord. Discover towering waterfalls, lush rainforest, sheer granite cliffs and marine life. You can also kayak the inky waters in a small group. Fjord land is a world-famous hiking paradise. Whether you decide on a multi-day adventure like the Milford Track or a shorter day walk, exploring on foot makes for a rewarding experience.
Buy Pau shell jewellery, Maori carvings and Manuka honey.
Best Time to Visit:
An all year destination; but, since it is in the Southern hemisphere, December is their summer.
What to carry:
A waterproof jacket with a hood and an umbrella as this region is wet and windy.
Restaurant options are limited. Boat cruises serve sandwiches, cake, ice cream, and coffee. A good option is to carry a packed lunch.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and blogger based in Chennai, India who blogs at http://kalpanasunder.com/blog
First published in November 2016
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