Two Women, Two Media Companies

Do you know that two media companies in the Silicon Valley are led by women? Representing two of the largest populations in the world, India and China, these two medias serve the immigrants from India and China in the United States.

India Currents has been a thought leader since its founding in 1987. An achievement that speaks to the unique need for a platform that champions South Asian identity of the diaspora . DingDing TV celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Check out this video which shows publisher of India Currents, Vandana Kumar in conversation with Diana Ding, CEO of DingDing TV.

 

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Finding Freddie

 

Center: Freddie Mercury at St. Peter’s School

The halls of St. Peter’s School are lined with frames that hold photographed highlights from each school year—athletic competitions, scenes from plays, and the like. Of these, the ones from the late 1950s have pictures missing, notably those of a flamboyant musician and a star “All Rounder” at sports and studies. All that remain are captions that say “Farrokh Bulsara.”

In time, even that name will go missing. Freddie, Bulsara’s nickname, eclipsed his original moniker, and the last name he adopted reflected his temperamental character. Three decades after Mercury attended St. Peter’s, I wandered down its hallways as an eight-year-old who had started at the boarding school at about the same age as the rock star.

Like Farrokh, I too had been “sent back to India” from the diaspora. I often stared up at the frames, wondering who the boy in the missing pictures had been.

The Bulsaras, Parsis from Gujarat, worked in Zanzibar, East Africa, where Farrokh was born on September 5, 1946. Already from an Indian minority culture, the colonial Asian-African displacement further isolated the Bulsaras. In sending their son to school in India, even if it was a British institution, Farrokh’s parents might have been attempting to retain their roots and acculturate their offspring.

The school in India reflected the Bulsaras’ own displaced multiculturality. St. Peter’s attracted students from all over India and the diaspora, making for a culturally, but not necessarily economically, varied student body. The postcolonial diversity departed from the intent of the school’s original purpose: it had once been named The European Boys’ School. The name change notwithstanding, the student body continued to be exclusively male.

Memories of Freddie lived on long past his tenure at St. Peter’s, his eccentricities so at odds with the ostensibly staid school, one that still held on to its British colonial era character. It was here that Freddie Mercury learned to become British even before his family immigrated to England in the 1960s.

Institutions such as St. Peter’s, which in 2004 celebrated its centenary, arguably followed Lord Macaulay’s famous 1835 call for education that would create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” This attempted hybridity reveals a class-based strain of Indianness, but also the manufacturing of British identities on other shores. Mercury’s transnationalism blurred these lines. One wonders if the spandex-clad, and sexually provocative musician was the prime subject Macaulay had in mind when he wrote his Minute on Indian Education.

Mercury’s vanished Indianness as he rose to fame in England has been the subject of much speculation. On the one hand, it is undeniable that his Persian-Parsi background, manifested in the fair colour of his skin, likely allowed the entertainer to pass for being Anglo. There was also the name change: “Farrokh Bulsara, Rock Star” was presumably not going to cut it in popular mainstream culture during the heightened racial climate of 1970s Britain. Those were the formative years of Queen, the band that Mercury came to front.

Concurrently, the political tide was turning. The Iron Lady, Conservative Prime Minister Thatcher, ascended to office at the end of the decade.

But on the other hand there are the vague but still cognisable cultural self-references.

There are Mercury’s orientalised lyrics with Islamic allusions in the songs “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Mustapha.” These fuzzily signal a Persian-South Asianness, where Koranic and Middle Eastern themes hint at a historically multicultural Indian subcontinent. The lyrics draw a connection between the many Persian influences on Indic culture, though the references are not specifically Parsi. Stylistically, the baroque flourishes of Queen’s repertoire in such songs as “Bohemian Rhapsody” are akin to the Arabesque excesses of Mughal-era art and architecture. Even in his choice of name, the performer stuck with Freddie, the nickname acquired at his Indian school and which had emerged from “Farrokh.” The inventive “Mercury” suggests the mythical and   questions the assumption that some names are more authentically Indian than others. This can hardly be the case in a subcontinent that has served as a major confluence for people of so many cultures and religious faiths. Yet, what is inescapable is that he felt his name needed changing.

Despite his light complexion, Mercury’s dark and dense moustache, familiar to us simply as “The Indian Moustache” for its ubiquitousness, also intimates other possibilities. It is probable that Freddie had discovered his sexuality much before arriving England, perchance at an all-boys school in India. Mercury’s moustache, figuratively and subversively, represented an affectation of masculinity, evidenced in such Western gay visual and popular cultures as Tom of Finland illustrations and the music of The Village People. The singer’s follicular trademark could be read as both homosexual and desi.

Freddie and Queen

Finally, there’s the band’s name: Queen. It juxtaposes the image of England’s leader alongside queer parlance for flamboyancy. Mercury’s position as a postcolonial queer immigrant, born and schooled in the colonies, and then culturally ruling the British airwaves, challenged the old guard as represented by Her Majesty. To borrow the title of the controversial song by Mercury’s contemporaries, the Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen…”
This year Mercury would have been 65. November 24, 2011 will mark the 20th anniversary of his passing from the AIDS virus in the 30th anniversary year of the disease’s advent.

Mercury did not reveal that he had the disease until the day before he died. It was suppressed from public knowledge like so much else in his life. What remains is the ambivalence that surrounded Freddie’s identity. Perhaps it was by design, or maybe it was an ongoing, self-reflective negotiation—the kind seen in the opening words of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia: “… I am an Englishmen born and bred, almost.”

Freddie’s identity is like the missing pictures at St. Peter’s School—memories framed by everything else around them. I once animatedly remarked to an elderly Goan woman in England, upon finding out that she had lived in Zanzibar: “Freddie Mercury was born there!” I then apologized for the oblique reference, thinking she might be unaware of who he was. Instead, she replied, “Yes, I used to see little Farrokh running outside my house.” The complete picture may be missing, but Freddie’s identity continues to unsettle easy assumption. Long live Queen.

R. Benedito Ferrao was born in Kuwait, has family roots in East Africa, and now lives in England. Unlike Mercury, the only singing he does is in the shower.

The article Finding Freddie: was first published on Nov 3, 2011.

Date/Time Event
Feb 17, 2019 - Feb 24, 2019
5:00 am - 5:00 pm
Yoga Retreats In Rishikesh
Yoga Retreats In Rishikesh
Rishikesh Yog sansthan, Rishikesh Uttarakhand
Feb 19, 2019 - Feb 22, 2019
All Day
IHGF Delhi Fair Spring 2019
IHGF Delhi Fair Spring 2019
India Exposition Mart Ltd, Knowledge Park – II Gautam Budh Nagar Greater Noida Uttar Pradesh
Feb 22, 2019
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
Understanding The Asian Century
Understanding The Asian Century
Taube Family Auditorium, San Francisco CA
Feb 23, 2019
3:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Parampara 2019
Parampara 2019
Harbeson Hall, Pasedena City College, Pasedena CA

IC Exclusive Interview With Nandita Das

 

With more than forty films in her rich and lengthy resumé, Nandita Das can rightfully claim the status of a bona fide Indian and global film star and bask in the warm glow of klieg lights and the heady aura of celebrity. As the translation of her name from Hindi to English suggests, she could just be “happy.” But, despite her glamorous looks and storied career, Das has always used her talent and status to pursue higher ground, to strive toward making the world a better place through art.

San Jose’s  Cinequest Film Festival opens with Nandita Das receiving the prestigious Maverick Spirit Award and presenting her sweeping biopic, Manto a moving and gorgeously crafted look at the work and life of India’s beloved and controversial writer, Saadat Hasan Manto.

Here is IndiaCurrents writer Mona Shah in conversation with Das about her inspiration and art.

IC: Manto is a moving and gorgeously crafted look at the work and life of India’s beloved and controversial writer, Saadat Hasan Manto. What was your inspiration for taking up this biographical project? Did you envision it unfolding the way it did?

ND: Thank you! What drew me to Manto was his free spirit and his courage to stand up to orthodoxy of all kinds. I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives and the way he insightfully captured the people, politics and times he lived in. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters. I had read Manto in college but it was only in 2012, his centenary year, when so much was being written about him; that encouraged me to delve deeper. For the first time I read his essays, and that helped me hit upon the idea of expanding beyond his stories to telling his story, which was just as interesting and powerful. It took me 5 years to feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story that so needed to be told.

There are a hundred factors that impact the process of filmmaking so it can never be what one had envisioned. All I can say is that it was the most challenging thing I have ever done and I gave it all I had. It has been a huge learning experience and therefore I have no regrets.

IC: It took you over 4 years to research the film, what pitfalls did you encounter? How did you go about doing the research?

ND: Once I knew I wanted to make a film on the life and works of Manto, I began reading his works quite extensively and also read what others had to say about him. He was a very prolific writer, so it was not possible to be fully exhaustive. I did not grow up in an Urdu-speaking household, so it was harder for me to read him in the original language. I took the help of many, in particular, Mir Ali Hussain, who lives in New York and Saeed Ahmed, who lives in Lahore. I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to meet and speak at length with Manto’s daughters and his grand-niece, the eminent historian Ayesha Jalal. Ayesha’s book, ‘Pity of Partition – Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide’, and the one she wrote on Manto’s centenary along with Manto’s youngest daughter, Nusrat Jalal, were some of the first gifts I got from the family. Manto died young, at 42, so there are very few people that are living who actually met him. Manto’s sister-in-law, Zakia Jalal, who also features in the film, is in her late 70s and was a big help. She and his daughters told me things I could never have found in any book. Through the process of the film, I became very close to the family. Manto, the husband, the father, the friend – these relationships I could only understand through the important nuggets shared with me. The whole process of researching and writing the script was time consuming and hectic but that is what formed the backbone of the film. It took 4 long years of research, many books and others’ inputs, working through several drafts of the script, for me to tell this story.

IC: Manto is being showcased as the opening night film at Cinequest, do you consider it a mainstream movie? 

ND: I do not like to label films as mainstream or art. Every filmmaker wants their film to be viewed by the widest audience possible and every investor wants his or her money back. Having said that, some films like Manto, are not driven by commercial success and are independent in their thinking and in the telling of their stories. And therefore, they are termed niche, parallel, art-house and independent cinema. Also, the producers and distributors have pre-conceived notions about it and therefore often don’t give it a fair chance at the box office. When there is no level playing field, how will we know if the film failed because it was too niche or because it was badly marketed and distributed. This is clear to me – seeing the overwhelming feedback we have been getting from people who are watching it on Netflix. I think people in our country and globally, are connecting to the story because in the end, it is a human story of struggle and courage and the will to speak out and to be your own self – something we all struggle with.

IC: How do you think a diverse, non-Indian audience will relate to him and to the subject and will they walk away with something to think about?

ND: Many of the issues that Manto grappled with – freedom of expression and dangers of identity politics, the question of who belongs where and the need to be free-spirited,  are not limited to any region or language. When a film is true to its context, but universal in its emotion, it crosses national boundaries. The reaction to the film at the screenings at various film festivals, be it at Cannes, Busan, Toronto or Sydney has only strengthened my belief that Manto’s story resonates across countries and cultures.

IC: What do you want audiences to take away from the movie?

ND: For me, making Manto was not just about telling people about the man and his works but to invoke the Mantoiyat (‘Mantoness’) – the desire to be outspoken and free-spirited. I believe all of us have it, whether dormant or awakened. I think people will see themselves more honestly and ask questions about their own morality, fears, convictions and courage. It will make them uncomfortable in a way that hopefully they would want to do something about. After all we all want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic and free-spirited. And Manto inspires us to be that, without being put on a pedestal.

IC: You wrote Manto keeping Nawazuddin Siddiqui in mind. What about him drew you to him?

ND: I always had Nawaz in mind while writing Manto. Firaaq, my directorial debut was Nawaz’s first significant role in a feature film. It is said if you get the casting right, 70% of your job is done, and with Nawaz that’s exactly what happened. He looks and feels the part. He has an incredible range as an actor, but intrinsically Manto lies somewhere in his eyes – it was an obvious choice for me. I brought in my research and script and Nawaz brought with him his life experiences and his talent. Together, I think we managed to bring many subtleties and nuances to the character of Manto. Nawaz has many traits that are similar to Manto –  a deep sensitivity and intensity, vulnerability, and a dry, deadpan sense of humor. These innate qualities in Nawaz helped him transition into Manto on screen quite effortlessly. I feel that our actor-director relationship struck the right chord.

IC: Manto’s stories and the film’s narrative blend into each other’s worlds. Whose viewpoint are we seeing the movie from?

ND:  The film showcases Manto’s journey as well as a glimpse into some of his best fiction writing. The line between his fact and fiction are often blurred; and so, in the film too, his narrative is interspersed with stories that he wrote, almost seamlessly. This form allows the audience to enter his state of mind, both as a person and a writer. We will get to see, through his work, what makes him so uniquely empathetic and truthful. This was not easy to do, as selecting 5 stories from close to 300 was a mammoth task. But it was an idea I had right from the beginning of the project, even before I wrote a word of the script. Finally, the point of view of the film is always the writer’s and the filmmaker’s. So, while you see the story that I want to tell, I have tried to be as close to reality and as close to Manto’s being. As the film progresses, it gets more and more intimate.

IC: It’s a male-centric biopic, yet the women play nuanced roles in it. Is this a reflection of how Manto views women? His relationship with Ismat is of particular interest. Did you envision it playing out as it did?

ND:  Manto’s view of women is one of the most important aspects of his work. And that has definitely interested me. The women in his stories were complex and richly developed, but he reserved his most nuanced and sympathetic gaze for the marginalized, such as the sex workers. He turned them from objects of scorn to people that have agency and made them the protagonists of many of his stories. Whilst Manto didn’t want to be labeled as a feminist,’ he was, in more ways than one. He was surrounded by women he loved and cared for – his mother, sister, wife and three daughters. At home he ironed his wife’s sari, made pickle, cleaned the house, read stories to his wife and sister and was an engaged father. A rarity for South Asian men, even today!

I have always believed that gender sensitive films do not necessarily have to be women-centric.  It is more important that the representation of women reflects the diverse reality. I have often been asked that given all my engagement with issues of gender, why are Firaaq and Manto not women-centric? For one, women are impacted by all things in the world just as men are. And therefore, I have chosen to respond to issues that concern me. Secondly, in both films, the characters of women need to be judged not by their screen time but by their layered portrayals.

Ismat Chughtai, was a very important part of Manto life in Bombay and he missed her in Lahore. Seldom does one see such camaraderie, especially in those times. But as there were many threads to his life, I could not dedicate more time to Ismat. A whole film can be made just on their relationship.

IC: What about Manto resonated with you? What was the most challenging part about making the movie?

ND:  It is Manto’s fearlessness and deep concern for the human condition that I have always felt most deeply connected to. No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him no matter how controversial. For him, the only identity that mattered was that of being a human. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of that hopeful legacy! Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more liberal and compassionate world. Every aspect of the journey was challenging but also provided a learning experience. I am not a trained filmmaker or haven’t worked from within the film industry, so while not knowing the grammar freed me, it also posed challenges that I struggled with; getting the right cast and crew, raising funds and finally marketing and distributing it.

IC: You’ve played all three roles, that of an actor, director, activist – do you find that they are intertwined? How so?

ND: Yes, for me, they are deeply intertwined. They are different means to express and share my concerns and interests. I wear different hats at different times, depending on what I want to convey and depending on which medium is the best for it. I also wrote a monthly column for 8 years in an Indian magazine, The Week, and from time to time, in other publications. That too gave me an opportunity to express myself and to connect with people. For me, art and social activism are not so different. I see myself more as a social advocate who at times uses art as a medium to reach out. Art has the ability to subtly enter the subconscious and impact how we feel, think and respond.

Both the films I directed, Firaaq and Manto, happened because I felt compelled to tell the story; because they provided me with a language to respond to what was of deep concern. Films and social advocacy are not that different for me, rather just different means to the same end.

IC: You resent being called “dusky,” and have been a champion for women to “Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful.” Tell us more about why your skin tone should not define who you are.

ND: While I was aware of the prejudice against dark skin and spoke about it in some of my talks, I never thought of it as a stand-alone issue. It was only in 2013 when the NGO Women of Worth approached me to support their campaign that I got more involved with the issue. I became the face of the campaign by default as most “dusky” actresses progressively were getting lighter and lighter! The “Dark is Beautiful” campaign urges you to be comfortable in your skin. I am so glad that such a campaign was launched and that I was able to add my voice to it. The issue impacts so many people, young girls in particular.

The response to Dark is Beautiful has been truly overwhelming. I think the time had come to react to this fairness obsession. When I had supported this campaign, I didn’t realize that it would resonate with so many and touch a raw nerve. I continue to receive so many emails, from mostly women, who share their stories of discrimination and feel more empowered by this campaign.

Cinequest Opening Night Film and Maverick Spirit Award

Manto

Tue, Mar 5 7:15 PM, California Theatre, 345 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95113.

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter, Facebook for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news and magazines. 

 

 

The Story Behind Oscar-nominated Film Set in India

In a rural village outside Delhi, India, women lead a quiet revolution. They fight against the deeply rooted stigma of menstruation. Period. End of Sentence. — a documentary short directed by Rayka Zehtabchi — tells their story. For generations, these women didn’t have access to pads, which lead to health problems and girls missing school or dropping out entirely. But when a sanitary pad machine is installed in the village, the women learn to manufacture and market their own pads, empowering the women of their community. They name their brand “FLY,” because they want women “to soar.”

Their flight is, in part, enabled by the work of high school girls half a world away, in California, who raised the initial money for the machine and began a non-profit called “The Pad Project.”

 

The Story Behind Period. End of Sentence.
Period. End of Sentence. the documentary, began with a group of young feminist students from Oakwood High School in Los Angeles, who wanted to know why girls in their partner schools abroad — in countries as far reaching as India, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone — were leaving school at an alarming rate, just after they started to get their periods. The Oakwood students discovered there was a severe lack of access to sanitary products and an even greater dearth of educational health awareness in many of these communities.The Oakwood students learned their counterparts often felt ashamed of their periods and would be rendered helpless by this natural process of womanhood. Consequently, period-shaming was reaching epic proportions and stories of suicides in Indian villages attributed to this were increasing.Diving into the statistics, the students learned in developing countries, like India, between 25% and 57% of adolescent girls miss school or drop out altogether because of their periods. If girls receive seven full years of education, they will marry an average of four years later and have 2.2 fewer children. If they attend only one additional year of secondary school, their lifetime wages could increase by up to 20%, consequently raising their country’s GDP by billions of dollars. This means if India enrolled just 1% more girls in school, their GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. This is an example of the concrete economic and social impact on individuals, communities and nations. Just as importantly, a complete education provides young girls in harsh circumstances with financial security, knowledge about the world and a sense of self.

With urgent curiosity and progressive awareness, the Oakwood students wanted to take action. The group was already involved with the Feminist Majority Foundation’s high school program, Girls Learn International (GLI). They worked closely with the FMF to research and ultimately purchase a locally-manufactured machine that can produce sanitary pads for an entire rural village. This business-in-a-box could also offer an additional opportunity for the women of these communities: A micro-business making and selling the pads.The pad machine was created and produced by Indian-inventor Arunachalam Muruganatham, who is affectionately known as The Pad Man. It is easy to operate, only requiring locally-sourced, natural resources and a small amount of electricity to function and can be set up in a home or semi-permanent location. Once the machine is up and running, the women are able to bring pads to the villagers at approximately 5 cents a unit, a stunningly low cost. In addition to the economic incentive, the pad machine makes the product more easily accessible, thus empowering women and girls to feel comfortable with their bodies, avoiding period-shaming and continuing their education.

Armed with this plan, the Oakwood students embarked on a fundraising journey with vegan bake sales, yoga-thons and two successful Kickstarter campaigns in order to fund the machine and its supplies. Aware that their efforts could have a greater impact by sharing this journey on a more amplified scale, the girls produced a documentary that they hoped would encourage others to join this philanthropic effort. Now producers themselves, the students hired director Rayka Zehtabchi, a recent graduate of USC film school and a young female writer, director and producer. Zehtabchi spent a great deal of time with the core group of students who shared their ideas for the film and discussed their fears of being perceived as “white saviors” in the process. Zehtabchi helped craft the narrative and then travelled to Hapur to begin filming. The producers researched and arranged what would become a lasting NGO partnership with Action India to forge educational links with the most needy and deserving women and girls in the villages outside New Delhi, specifically the village of Hapur. They also established an official 501c3 nonprofit to continue elevating awareness about period-shaming and to raise funds to provide pad machines in other areas where a need is identified around the world.Period. End of Sentence. screened across the United States at film festivals throughout the summer and fall of 2018. The film continues to inspire students to realize their power in thinking globally and recognize the impact young women can create. As Muruganatham says, “The strongest creature on Earth is not the elephant, not the tiger, but the girl.”

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

 

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Bits Of Paper: The World of Collage Art

Self expression can take many forms, be it paint, clay, metal, glass – it can be as varied as the shades of imagination inhabiting creative minds.  No matter what its form, style and labeling, Art has the ability to enthrall and entertain. Whether it occupies pride of place on a gallery wall, or hangs in an intimate home setting, art reveals as much about the space it inhabits,  as it does about the hands that give it life. Originality is its spirit. Variety is its calling card.

Adishwar Kumar Jain gives vent to his imagination with pieces of discarded and torn paper. Using his hands to tear them down, he then layers them to compose intricate and fabulously textured scenes.  He is unabashed in his admission that he has no formal training in art to speak of. His creativity emerges from an ability to immerse himself in the world around him. Art contests won in his early school years were stepping stones to a burgeoning passion for creative exploration. In later life, a career as a manager for a textile company involved travel, urging him to record newly discovered vistas via the medium of oil on canvas. A visit to the famed Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, introduced him to the world of collage art. The idea that little bits of paper arranged in layers could create the illusion of a three dimensional experience coalesced in his imagination. And along with it a dream took root – that he should compile a series of pieces, showcasing them at the very same gallery.

Collage art has a fascinating history as my research revealed. The term “collage”, not to be confused with the word ‘college’– defines an art form composed of various materials, like paper, cloth or wood, which are glued on to a larger surface. Historically, the practice of layering paper has been traced back to 10th century Japan. Calligraphers of that era glued paper using the surface to write poems. In medieval Europe, gold leaf entered the practice of collage making, along with gemstones and precious metal. In the 19th century, hobbyists used collage methods for photo albums and to store memorabilia. The artists of the cubist era, like Picasso and Georges Braque gave their own mark of creativity to the practice of collage. Over time, the art of collage has taken on many labels like decoupage, assemblage, digital collage, e-collage, and photomontage. Some of these forms have been categorized as crafts. Whatever their labeling, they each have practitioners who have raised them to new heights with their unique passion.

Adishwar’s dream took him on a journey finally culminating in his first collage show at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai in 2012. His work has the look and feel of the warp and weft of fabrics.  In ‘Temples under the rocks’ – the viewer’s eye is drawn to the shade of a banyan tree whose branches spread out under a mosaic of a multi-hued azure sky. Temple pillars and domes peek out here and there, offering glimpses of timelessness despite their crumbling facades. The face of a wolf gazes back at the viewer, keenly observing the observer. The canvas is packed tight, layered with textures, interspersed with architectural elements. It is hard to tell where the rocks end and the temples begin. A nod toward the rich cultural heritage of India.

 

“Life in a Bombay Slum” – is a claustrophobic collection of dwellings packed tightly along narrow lanes. You see clotheslines sagging under the weight of clothing, billboards advertising all manner of things, pots and pans, pails lined up, while the imposing dome of a building takes precedence in the background. What is missing is the presence of people. But as you take in the little details of the collage, you can hear them.The din of the slum, with a background of the larger cacophony of the city itself. Above it all flutter a couple of butterflies. A counterpoint to the busy, bustle of the scene. A moment captured in time.

“My Village View from Fort wall” – shows the artist perched on rocky wall in the foreground looking out at his village spread out below him. His back is to the viewer, his shirt covered in labels – stickers from around the world. This work is his homage to ‘coming home’ from his travels. In the helter skelter arrangement of the homes and buildings of the village you can experience his sense of belonging. A large tree dominates the upper quadrant its leaves made up of torn bits of paper blowing around the scene. Maybe they contain the stories of the people who inhabit the village. This piece has a jewel tone palette of reds, ochres, bright yellows and blues.  And in its geometric arrangement, it brings to mind the fascinating work of Gustav Klimt.

Since his first exhibit at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, Adishwar has shown his work at many prestigious addresses, Lalit Kala Academy (New Delhi), Birla Academy (Kolkata), Punjab Art Council (Chandigarh) to name a few. In September 2018, his work was displayed as part of a show organized by the International Art Centre, Canada. His work is part of the International Society of Assemblage & Collage Artists.

His most recent show was titled Paper in Space” and shown at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, in October 2018. His dream has come full circle. Ask him what message he would like to give through his art, and he says, “Everyone should do some art of his/her choice. Artists can spread happiness!”  

Adishwar’s collages seek to reaffirm his passion for self expression, celebrating life one little bit of paper at a time.

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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. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.

Our Almost Perfect Family

I cannot find Jai!” I wailed to my husband. “What kind of a mother am I? I cannot find my own son!”

We were standing in front of a wall of student artwork at Stenwood Elementary. The first-graders had drawn pictures titled, “Who Am I?” and now their parents had to figure out which one was made by their child, based on a riddle the kids had included with their drawing. And here I was unable to pick out the one done by my 6-year-old Jai.

“I cannot find him either,” my husband Sameer said.

Slowly, we studied all the 23 drawings again. One struck me as a possibility:  “I have a sister who is younger than me,” the riddle read. “I love lions and tigers, and I have a fish.”

Everything fit—except for the sister part. I lifted the paper and flipped it over, and sure enough, there was Jai’s name. I carried the drawing with me into his classroom. Jai came running to me, “Did you find me, Mamma?”

“Yes, honey, but why did you say you have a sister when you don’t?”

“Yes, I do,” he insisted. “Shivani is my sister, she is.”
Shivani is my sister’s daughter; she lives in Arizona, halfway across the country from our home in northern Virginia. But Jai persisted: “Mamma, did you see the other drawings?

Everyone else has a brother or sister.  Everyone, except me.” And then, weeping, he ran out of the classroom. I just stood there. A few parents patted my back. “He will be fine,” they said.

It isn’t that my husband, and I did not want another child; we’d been struggling with infertility for a long time. But after that night, we decided to step up our efforts to conceive. We had been trying the calendar method and been unsuccessful but began using ovulations kits, etc.

As luck would have it, I became pregnant right away. Unable to contain my excitement, I told Jai when I was only a few weeks along. Within hours, he announced the news to the grocery store clerk, to the garbage man, to his teacher, to strangers we met on walks, to everyone. “I am going to be a big brother,” he boasted.

Our happiness was short-lived: I miscarried at four months. With much heartache, my husband and I resigned ourselves to the fact that perhaps our family would just be the three of us. “Jai, the baby is not coming,” Sameer told our son gently that night “Mamma is not too well right now. Her back hurts.”

“Okay,” Jai muttered, saying nothing more.  He didn’t bring up the subject again until a month later, in the school parking lot, when he asked, “Mamma, is the baby not coming because I wouldn’t be a good big brother?”

I wished that I had the perfect answer for him.  I longed to know the best way to soothe the pain of a child crying for a sibling.  But all  I could do was weep with him. I explained that losing the baby had nothing to do with him, and I promised that someday, somehow, he would have a sibling. “Yes!” he responded. “Right now we are only an almost perfect family.”

After much discussion, my husband and I decided to try in vitro fertilization. Several rounds failed, but a year later, I was pregnant again. By this time, Jai had stopped asking for a sibling.  But I noticed the he sometimes seemed sad, especially on holidays when his friends were out with their extended families celebrating.  We are a family of immigrants. My closest relative is six-hours away by plane.

When we finally told Jai about my pregnancy in my third trimester, he greeted the announcement with giggles, laughter, and shouts of joy.  Once again, he broadcast the news to everyone we encountered. Then he cleaned his room, picked out books the baby could read, and even set aside a baseball and bat for his new sibling.

My husband noticed that each morning Jai went to the prayer table that we have in our house and prayed.  “Please God, take care of my Mamma and my baby. Please don’t let Mama’s back hurt again. Please.”

Jai asked if he could name the baby, and we debated about what to do. We wanted to let him weigh in, but we didn’t want to end up with a child named Nemo or Buzz Lightyear or Cinderella.  So we compromised and gave him a short-list of names from which he could pick. “How do I name the baby if I don’t know if it is a boy or girl?”  he asked.

Off we went for an ultrasound—with Jai in tow.  When the technician announced we were having another boy, Jai’s face lit up. “We are having a baby brother,” he said. “We are having Arjun.”  He had chosen the name of a brave and legendary Hindu warrior.

Jai planned my baby showers with my friends, sat with me as I wrote thank you notes, and helped my husband set up the crib and the changing table, giggling all the while at the tiny diapers he stashed underneath.  Meanwhile, I was in and out of the hospital with a very dangerous pregnancy.  But we all prayed and stayed positive.

Arjun, by the grace of God, arrived on his due date. Jai proudly wore his t-shirt that said, “Big Brother,” when he came to visit us at the hospital. When I brought the baby home, I was greeted by a big sign Jai had made: “Welcome Home Mamma and Arjun.”

When the baby was two months, I got a rather unusual call from Jai’s teacher. She said she wanted to show me something my son had written about his brother and asked me to stop by the classroom the next time I was at school.

Suddenly, I felt very nervous.  During my pregnancy, friends and family members had warned me about  sibling rivalries. They said it could be hard to introduce a new addition, especially to someone who’d been only child for so long. Was Jai now bothered by his brother? Was I giving Arjun too much attention?

I was in the classroom the next day. “I asked the students to write an essay on something that was important to them,” his teacher said, handing me a yellow binder. “Most of the kids wrote about soccer, baseball, playing outside or watching TV. Jai is the only one who wrote about his brother.” I opened the binder, and read all 8 pages of Jai’s essay in a daze.

Every detail of Arjun’s birth was captured—from who picked Jai up at school the day his brother was born to the look of the hospital room where I stayed. He even described making the welcome home sign. I took the essay home and placed it in Arjun’s memory box.

Arjun is now almost 2 now, Jai is nearly 9. The boys are totally different:  Jai is soft-spoken; Arjun is louder than six toddlers put together. The older one loves to read; the younger loves to dance.

Yet despite their differences, my boys are inseparable. While I have no doubt Jai would have eventually adjusted to being an only child, I feel secure now that my sons will always have each other to rely on.  They are each other’s keepers, and our family is no longer “almost perfect.”  It feels perfect in every way.

Monica Bhide is a food writer and cookbook author. Her work has appeared in Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Eating Well, The Washington Post, and many other national and international publications. You can find her at: www.monicabhide.com. This article previously appeared in Parents magazine. Reprinted with permission.

First published in India Currents in Dec. 2012.

Easy Steps To A Healthier Life

 

I am a 57 year-old grandmother of four delightful and energetic elementary school-aged grandchildren. My husband and I visited our daughters’ families in the Bay Area recently. This visit was memorable because it was life changing. I learned to make healthy lifestyle choices based on practical advice allowing me to enjoy the time I spend with my husband and family.

I have a history of hypertension, and was diagnosed with pre-diabetes and fatty liver. I was severely overweight. Both my legs were swollen and I was bothered by tingling and burning sensations. I could not even go on walks in familiar neighborhoods with my husband, who loves his daily walk. In fact, he has always been very active and practices yoga everyday as well.

One afternoon, soon after my arrival from India, I set out behind my husband on a short walk. I had reluctantly laced up my shoes and rolled out of the house. Barely ten minutes into the walk, I tripped and fell. Filled with shame and pain, I picked myself up with difficulty and got back home with my husband’s help. I was so embarrassed and my spirits were dampened by this incident.
My daughters and husband believed that I needed to walk to help bring my weight down. I knew I had to lose weight, but was nervous about stepping out and hurting myself. I was in a Catch 22, and quite upset with my family for not understanding my plight, and empathizing with me. If I managed to walk for a day or two, it would take me several days to recover. My daughters were not very impressed with my 2 days on, 2 weeks off routine. They were also concerned about my unsuccessful attempts at managing hypertension. They were determined to help me find a solution.
I saw a doctor at the India Community Center who examined me and pointed out that my weight of 205 lbs put me in the obese category, and that losing weight would be my first step towards getting healthy. The doctor suggested that I call the South Asian Heart Center at El Camino Hospital.

My daughters signed me up for the Center’s preventive program in August 2016. Assessments confirmed that I was pre-diabetic and of course obese. Included in this program were not only advanced assessments, but also expert lifestyle counseling and weeks of personalized coaching to combat my health conditions. For the first time in my life I felt hopeful. I was able to build trust in the clinician, which was a game changer. She spoke my language and put me at ease, cared about my wellbeing, and was patient with my family members who wanted to be involved. Through consultations and webinars I learned actionable tips on lifestyle changes, which I wholeheartedly implemented.

Before enrolling in the program, I cooked and consumed traditional, mostly grain-based South Indian meals. I sweetened my coffee and tea with sugar and snacked on Indian biscuits multiple times a day. Over the course of the program, I made significant changes to my diet. First, I eliminated sugar in my coffee and tea. I started including vegetables with every meal, decreased grain portions, and stopped consuming processed and refined grains in the form of cereals and biscuits.

The lifestyle changes seemed easy and effortless to make. In hindsight, I realize what helped was that the changes were introduced in baby steps. I did not have to make drastic modifications all at once to my diet or for that matter exercise. The clinician did not mention exercise in the initial weeks at all. Movement was gradually added to the daily routine.

The dietary recommendations were easy to sustain because I did not have to give up everything dear to my South Indian palate. I was able to replace rice with a blend of minced bell pepper, broccoli, cauliflower, tomato, salad greens and sprouted channa dal. I still enjoy my vegetable-rich sambhar, rasam and yogurt with this rice substitute. I loved how my nutritionist even gave me an alternative to the pickle I missed. She taught me to prepare spicy, sprouted methi as a pickle substitute. When I had trouble with bloating with the new foods, the nutritionist asked me to sauté the salad greens, and add probiotics in my diet.

For my daughters it was a new experience as well. Unlike in the past when they were used to facing resistance, they were surprised to see me happy and motivated to comply with suggested dietary changes. My trust in the program, translated to my daughters having confidence in it as well—so they did not question me when I broke our family’s breakfast traditions and started having cottage cheese with carrot, cucumber and fruit for breakfast.

Four months after I signed up for the program, I lost 23 lbs., and my 3-month blood sugar levels dropped from 6.4 to 6.0. I went from walking 0 minutes to 300 minutes per week. I feel more energetic and light. I am now able to walk with my husband and keep up with him. I have been able to reconnect with my grandkids by playing and exercising with them. My biggest achievement was hiking a steep trail in Red Canyon in Nevada, without any support.

I am excited to be returning to India with a host of practical tools in my toolkit, to manage my weight and stay on the path to success. I am proof that lifestyle changes can be made at any stage in life.
Bakialakshmi Ramachandran lives in Coimbatore, India.

This essay has been featured in February because it is American Heart Month.

A New Lease Of Life: first published on Feb 2017

Ain’t No Brown In the British Crown

The original title of this review was intended to reflect hope.  I had already written the opening sentence of the review: “Be wary of dismissing the sweetness of one persimmon because a different one, albeit still a fruit called by the same name, has left a bitter taste in your mouth.”  I had planned to use Home Fire’s sisterly balancing act to convey the need for the world to stop lumping all Muslims into the simplistic and simple-minded “terrorist” stereotype.    I wanted to argue that just as Home Fire’s homely, academic, level-headed Isma is different from her stunning, heady, and rebellious younger sister, Aneeka, no two Muslims are the same.  The end of the review had also been written: “Perhaps we can all learn from the title of anthropologist Joseph Berland’s book on South Asian gypsies, No Five Fingers are Alike.  Indeed, no five Muslims (or fill in the blank with Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, atheists, or agnostics) are the same.”

The hope implicit in Version 1.0 of this review was informed by a chance encounter with Kamila Shamsie on my flight to a Colorado learning circle I had designed and where I was going to co-facilitate.  The theme of the circle was “Emotional Intelligence: From Self-Awareness to Empathy.” The serendipity of being seated next to air-borne Shamsie coupled with time in the learning circle with like-minded grounded friends and colleagues, left me hopeful that if we take a moment to step into someone’s shoes, we will have greater self- and other-awareness; and if we are prepared to walk a mile in their shoes, to imagine that we are that person, then we can empathetically immerse our selves into other lives.   After all, isn’t that the contract we readers and writers make with each other? Writers create distant but recognizable worlds populated by compelling characters; and readers enter into those worlds and are hopefully changed by the characters’ transformations.

But after putting the review on hold for a couple of months due to unexpected travel for my consulting practice, I found myself channeling the title of sociologist Paul Gilroy’s defiant There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack.  My hopefulness had morphed into a disquieting anger.  And as with the stages of grief, my emotions went through stages:  from hope to sad hopefulness to hopeful sadness to hopeful anger to angry hopefulness, and finally simmering into anger.  The United States has angry, American, black brothers protesting brutal cops by marching through streets plaintively announcing that “Black Lives Matter;” Shamsie’s novel has a British angry brown sister protesting the death of her twin brother by rejecting grief and sharpening “her teeth on [rage’s] gleaming claw;” and I, a middle-aged observer of ancient and modern inequalities, channel the world’s fiction into a reviewer’s fading hope and rising anger.

My flight to Colorado had been unexpected because I was taking a sabbatical from flying due to a painfully slow recovery from shoulder surgery.  Changes in the cabin’s air pressure exacerbated the sharp pain in my arm. The rotator cuff’s immobility had been so intense that for months I had not flown, not driven a car, and not even shaved my facial hair.  But the learning circle summoned; so I packed, and unpacked for my flight.

Yes, I unpacked before my wife drove me to the airport.  She had packed a makeshift pulley rope which I use for physical therapy, Tiger Balm for my sore muscles, and a heat pad that mitigates the discomfort of high-altitude pressure change.  While the balm remained mixed with my toiletries stashed in the regulation-size Ziploc bag, the rope and the heat pad were removed; better to suffer physical pain, rather than risk the universal brown traveler’s humiliation at the probing hands of Homeland Security.

Ever since the numbers 9, 1, and 1 transmogrified from a helpline for all Americans into a never-ending war against Islam (and seemingly by extension against brown people taking flight), I have developed an ever-evolving protocol to mask my undeserved guilt and thus minimize interrogation at airports:

  • Shave
  • Smile broadly
  • Stay pleasantly unthreatening
  • Soothe with small-talk about the weather and sports

As the post-9/11 weeks became months, years, and are becoming decades, I’ve found that it is not only my undeserved guilt that has been masked; it has also been my much-deserved anger.  Goddammit! This is not the world Muslims (or fill in the blank with Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, atheists, or agnostics) deserve!

********

But it is the world of Kamila Shamsie’s remarkably unsettling Home Fire, which opens with a rather settled sentence:  “Isma was going to miss her flight.” The reason for the flight is quite understandable:  Isma is leaving England to pursue a sociology doctorate in Amherst, Massachusetts. The reason for the missed flight is anything but understandable:  airport security interrogating innocent brown people who dare to fly. “She had expected the interrogation, but not the hours of waiting that would precede it, nor that it would feel so humiliating to have the contents of her suitcase inspected.  She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions – no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her area of academic interest.” Good God! When did a holy book become a threat? And photos of loved ones left behind? My anger subsided a bit when I laughed at the thought of subversive sociology taking down the ascendant America of Donald Trump.  But Shamsie’s book is not about dark humor; it demands that the reader confront a state of being in a darkened world: “The official was doing that thing that she’d encountered before in security personnel – staying quiet when you answered their question in a straightforward manner which made you think you had to say more. And the more you said, the more guilty you sounded.”

Perhaps it is every traveler’s dilemma:  brown or not, do we comply with the security charade as Isma does or are we better served by embracing Aneeka’s belief that it is “important to show at least a tiny bit of contempt for the whole process?”  Professional pragmatism argues for the former (I just want to reach my client site, provide consulting services, and return home); human dignity begs for the latter (I am a free person, not enslaved by the systematic horror of racist puppet-masters and politicians).

Without a hint of lecturing, Home Fire teaches the reader about how precarious life is in balancing Isma’s worldview and that of Aneeka; it powerfully sits at the tragic nexus of pragmatism and dignity.  Two males play an integral role in Isma and Aneeka’s lives: their brother, Parvaiz, and their would-be lover, Eamonn. Both are dreamers who do not see the world as it is but rather how they’d want it to be.  Both have the shallowness of men who are still boys. And both have the sweet attractiveness of good-looking narcissists who bring to the world a lightness of being blended with an open heart. And yet, Eamonn and Parvaiz could not be more different from each other; they are sons of Muslim men who grew up a stone’s throw away from each other in one of London’s immigrant neighborhoods but took divergent political paths.  As Isma texted Eamonn about the father she, Aneeka, and Parvaiz never knew, “I envy you your father. Mine died while being taken to Guantanamo.”

Eamonn’s father, Karamat, has inexorably climbed each rung of Western society and British politics.  He has married Terry, an American interior designer, and raised an ambitious lawyerly daughter as well as his aimless son whose name has been Anglicized:  “An Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – ‘Ayman’ becomes “Eamonn’ so that people would know the father had integrated.” Karamat has become Home Minister – one careful step from the Prime Minister’s office – by making proclamations that are eerily prescient of Trumpian Tweets:  “citizenship is a privilege not a right or birthright.” Eamonn’s destiny is wrapped up in the years of proximity to, and late-in-life distance from, his beloved politician Dad, a man whose own proximity to the British crown has required a distancing from his brown heritage.

Parvaiz’s destiny is wrapped up in the years of absence, and late-in-life embrace, of his Abu, Adil Pasha; but the arms doing the embracing are of Farooq, a false-father.  Adil is long-dead, another anonymous father lost to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” (How blithely I have read these three words all these years without feeling the tragic pain of them, the horror of using bureaucratese to mask the terror that begets more terror.)  Farooq uses Adil’s memory to recruit Parvaiz into the dark world of jihad, training Parvaiz “how to be a man.” But in the hands of Farooq’s puppetry, Parvaiz does not become his own man.   Instead he becomes someone used by others:  by Farooq and his radicalized ilk to become “terrifying to grown men;” and by politicians and their co-dependent media to become the “terrorist son of a terrorist father.”  In his own eyes, Parvaiz “finally saw that he was his father’s son in his abandonment of a family who had always deserved better than him.”

How we as readers respond to the conflicted world of Parvaiz, Adil, Eamonn, and Karamat is likely to reflect whom we find sympathetic:  Isma or Aneeka? Or perhaps there is another gaze that we as readers take: the “double consciousness” of W. E. B. Du Bois who maintained in his classic The Souls of Black Folk that the identity of those suppressed by an oppressive society is divided into several parts.  Shamsie’s clear-eyed novel vividly brings to life the internal conflict of the Ismas and the Aneekas; it is a clarion call to all brown, black, and white folk to empathize with both types of sisters, to believe in a persimmon’s peace.  

“Peace” is Home Fire’s layered, wistful, final word, and it brings this reader back to a belief in hope if not hope itself.

——————————————————————–

For Mangla and Madhuri, two sisters who lovingly value their commonality and genuinely appreciate their differences. And for Joe, who founded our Learning Circle on the shared belief that dialog is a bridge to humanity.

 

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