How To Help Victims Of “Deadliest” Fire

Wildfires are tearing through neighborhoods and causing widespread destruction. Lives have been uprooted and changed forever. Sikh Temple Yuba City is helping the Butte County Sheriff’s office and has donated supplies to handle this catastrophe.

India Currents reached out to Sukhvinder Singh, treasurer, Sikh Temple Yuba City to find out about how readers can contribute and assist with donations at this time. He informed us that they are fully involved with the Sheriff’s office and are helping them by collecting donations and making sure that it reaches those in desperate need.

Here are ways you can donate:

Send blankets and shoes to:

Sikh Temple Yuba City, 2468 Tierra Buena Road, Yuba City, CA 95993.


Send money orders or casheir’s checks made out to:

Sikh Temple Gurudwara and send to the same address.



A Patchwork Elephant And Life Lessons

I’m always looking for creative ways to sensitize my children to issues of diversity and tolerance. As a transplant, who made the brave move from India to America over a decade ago, bringing up a culturally sensitive brood is important to me.

As I floundered trying to find a foothold in a foreign country, it became clear to me that to survive in today’s global village, being respectful of intra and inter-group diversity is critical. I decided to accept and share my Indian identity with others. Simultaneously, I eagerly learned all that I could about a vastly different country that I had decided to call home.  

This mindset not only helped with the transition process, but it became part of my general outlook to life. The easy temptation to arrive at prejudiced and knee-jerk reactions was curbed. Instead, rationality set in to arrive at well thought out conclusions. In return, ‘others’ were accepting of me and respectful of where I came from. 

Given the trajectory of my personal journey, it’s no surprise then that Elmer by David McKee, remains an exciting discovery to translate my ideas about inclusiveness to my young children. A few years ago, I chanced upon this endearing piece of children’s literature. Every time I read it to my first grader and preschooler, I find Elmer’s story a charming exploration of identity, diversity and acceptance; topics that are close to my heart. Here’s a summary of the story to offer some context: 

Elmer, the elephant’s story is set in an idyllic jungle, where the animals appear to live in harmony. He’s famous and stands out because he’s not gray like the rest in his herd, but his skin is a patchwork of bright colors. He’s lively, cracks jokes, and is well-loved. But he’s weary of being different. He wants to be like the rest. So, one day he sneaks out at the crack of dawn to cover himself with the gray colored juice of a berry variety found outside the jungle. As he’s leaving, the animals greet him by name. Once, covered in the gray berry juice, he isn’t Elmer anymore, but just another elephant. He enjoys the anonymity and joins the herd only to realize that his friends miss his presence. To lighten up the mood, he startles them all with a loud “Boo!” Just then a rain cloud bursts and Elmer’s gray color washes off, making his friends laugh even harder. They understand his conundrum of wanting to fit in and be like the rest of them, and decide to celebrate his uniqueness by instituting an annual ‘Elmer’s Day Parade.’ On that day, all the elephants transform themselves into colorful patchwork elephants, and Elmer colors himself gray.   

This seemingly simple story presents nuanced themes around diversity and identity for children and adults alike. As a parent, it has made me think about the many ways I could extend the “Elmer conversation” with my boys and make dense yet critically relevant concepts around tolerance and diversity more palatable for them. Here’s how Elmer’s story has motivated my actions as I endeavor to raise culturally sensitive kids.   

Let kids see color 

It may seem counterintuitive, but Elmer made me realize the merit in allowing children to see differences in color. In fact, it should be encouraged. After all, isn’t Elmer’s myriad of colors a big part of what makes him so intriguing and lovable?  

Children notice color. It’s a fact. Their curious brains notice more than we realize. It’s okay for them to ask questions like why their friend’s hair or skin color is lighter or darker than theirs. Providing thoughtful answers could help them understand, respect and hopefully, embrace diversity. A blanket response on the lines of “we’re all the same” is not only inaccurate, it’s counter-productive. It impedes curiosity and makes kids (and later, as adults), dismissive of diversity and racial differences.  

Let them understand where they come from 

Sociologists have maintained that a sense of community and being part of society is innate to human nature. Maybe that’s why Elmer wanted to so badly fit in with the rest of the herd. It was important for him to feel part of a larger whole. Our children, no matter where they live, are no different. As an example, even at ages four and seven, my boys endeavor to understand where they are situated in the world.  

There are some simple ways to make questions of identity and belonging tangible for children. As an example, I put up a map of the world in my kids’ room. We talk about the continents, the various countries, and the cultural plethora thriving within these countries. These animated discussions meander and loop around to where they are in the country, the world, to where their parents and grandparents come from. It’s a simple, yet effective way to visually anchor them in the world providing them a sense of belonging.

Empathy is key 

An understanding of identity, racial diversity and cultural tolerance is incomplete without empathy. Empathy in children and adults is a key predictor of social and emotional success in varied situations – at an interpersonal level, at work, etc. Empathy also makes us more reasonable individuals. Teaching children to be empathic, in a weird way, even makes their tantrums (somewhat) manageable. It’s true!  

Elmer’s story offers a gentle, yet firm reminder on the point around empathy. Elmer’s behavior raises numerous conversations from this perspective. The most obvious questions being: ‘Why is Elmer unhappy, even though everyone loves him?’ or ‘Why does he hide his colors in an even shade of gray?’ Finally, it’s heartening to see the herd’s true expression of empathy towards the patchwork colored elephant by instituting an annual festival named after Elmer to celebrate his uniqueness.  

As adults, we can consciously extend the empathy message from Elmer’s experience to our children. For instance, I miss no opportunity in reminding my kids to put themselves in another individual or group’s shoes. At the playground, at school, or while reading a book, it’s always interesting to ask questions like “why do you think (s)he’s sad or happy?”  

Elmer, the patchwork elephant’s story weaves themes of identity, diversity and tolerance into its narrative. It offers parents an opportunity to think about and start a dialog with their children around these topics. The biggest takeaway for me is that the patchwork elephant’s friends love him because he’s different. Consequently, as readers we learn that it’s ok to see, embrace and celebrate diversity.

As of now, I have much to thank Elmer for I actively embrace the teachings of the goofy patchwork elephant with my young children. I foresee our elementary “Elmer conversations” broaden as life’s situations evolve and become more complex with the passing of time!      

Nidhi is an avid traveler and reader, a sushi and yoga lover. Her life before kids was spent in the ever-dynamic field of communication sciences. She is now a full time mom to two children. Reading and playing with her two high energy boys has been a fascinating journey. They have (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. Children’s literature has been an inspiring new discovery for her as she’s constantly seeing the world through little eyes.



Date/Time Event
Oct 18, 2018 - Jan 21, 2019
All Day
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur
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
Learn to Meditate Class
Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, San Jose CA
Nov 15, 2018
6:30 pm - 10:30 pm
Bollywood Night - On The Mountain
Bollywood Night - On The Mountain
The Mountain Winery, Saratoga CA
Nov 16, 2018 - Nov 18, 2018
All Day
Xpressions 2018
Xpressions 2018
Xavier Institute of Management Bhubaneswar, Bhubaneswar

Is This America?

Imagine you are a green card holder traveling frequently between the U.S. and your native country. Perhaps you seek cheaper medical treatment in your native country and return for medical visits. Or perhaps you are elderly and have relatives still living in your birth country, but the travel exhausts you, so you stay overseas for longer periods of time. But you’ve traveled this way without incident for years.

Until now.

On one routine trip back, you arrive at the passport counter and an official from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) tells you to follow him to a holding area in another part of the airport. You are instructed to hand over your immigration documents. You are prohibited from using your cell phone to inform family members that, at the very least, you will be a late arrival. You are prohibited from talking to the other people in the room. You are denied food and water.

You have lived in the U.S. nearly your entire adult life and paid taxes for decades.

You have contributed to the U.S. with your labor.

Under the immigration code and case law, legal permanent residents (LPRs) should not remain outside the U.S. for more than six months at a time or they are presumed to have abandoned their permanent residence. Stays abroad for one year or more automatically result in the loss of lawful permanent residence.  The LPR should intend to return to the U.S. within a short period of time. If an LPR has some claim to return to her resident status, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the burden of proving abandonment of permanent residence. DHS reviews factors such as family ties in the U.S. i.e. property holdings, and business affiliations in both countries to determine the LPR’s intention to maintain permanent residence in the U.S.

Past administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have enforced this rule more leniently, particularly where a green card holder has shown an ongoing and routine pattern of travel. But the current administration enforces this rule with greater rigidity, and, taken with this administration’s wholesale assault on immigrants, the effect is to further erode the norms of life in our country and to intimidate immigrants—both new and old.

This practice of holding green card holders in a room in the airport without access to an attorney or family member is considered a “secondary inspection” not a detention, and therefore no constitutional protections attach. But the experience for the green card holders is clearly stressful and often traumatizing.

Reshma Shamasunder of Advancing Justice in L.A., the largest legal/civil rights organization for Asian/Pacific Island/Native Hawaiian communities, confirms the uptick in green card-related holdings. According to Shamasunder, the current administration may be “trying to see if people who have green cards may be reconsidered as public charge.” By this, Shamasunder indicates that the administration may be using secondary inspections as opportunities to examine their use of public benefits. Her organization, as well as the Asian Law Caucus and other Asian American/Pacific Islander organizations are particularly interested in hearing of green card holders’ experiences with CBP, as CBP provides no data on secondary inspections and release.

How can our community of green card holding Indians protect themselves? According to  immigration attorney Nadia Yakoob, green card holders who travel frequently between their birth country and the U.S. should consider naturalization to obtain U.S. citizenship. The process takes about a year and requires fingerprinting and an interview that includes questions about various aspects of American civics. Yakoob, who has nearly two decades of experience in immigration law, recommends applying for a U.S. passport immediately following naturalization. And for those who are taken under “secondary inspection” by CBP, Yakoob recommends remaining calm and cooperative. If an officer believes there is a problem, the green card holder is usually allowed to enter the U.S. and told to visit the closest CBP office to establish residence. If CBP initiates removal proceedings, the green card holder will be required to appear before an immigration judge.

In addition to losing one’s right to stay in the U.S. for long periods of time as a green card holder,those who lose their status for failure to maintain their permanent residence in the U.S. and return to their native countries may lose their Medicare eligibility and even Social Security funds. Yakoob recommends that green card holders weighing this decision consult with an immigration attorney and tax/finance specialists.

Some may argue that these “secondary inspections” make sense; that the rules are in the books for a reason and should be enforced. But such thinking denies the more pernicious nature of such detentions—to make green card holders and other immigrants who live and work in the U.S. feel like their status is provisional and subject to change. We have already seen evidence of this shift in this administration’s permissive and even inflammatory attitude toward violence and harassment directed toward immigrants in the past two years. A study by the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism, corroborated by the NAACP, indicates that hate crimes in America’s ten largest cities amounted to the highest total in over a decade. Rather than embracing the spirit of those words inscribed on the Statute of Liberty—“give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” we have wrested those huddled masses from their children and detained them in far-flung and isolated privatized prisons. Further, the President’s Executive Order 13767 established a higher standard for establishing key factors in obtaining asylum, including ending asylum for victims of domestic violence and gang violence. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, in 2017, the U.S. resettled fewer refugees than any other country in the world.

Yale professor Jason Stanley warned in a New York Times Opinion piece that the U.S. is tilting closer toward fascism and that normalizing the behavior of the current President is exactly what we must not do. Indeed, in the past two years, we have come to normalize the impetuous, ranting tweets of this President. And perhaps our own coping mechanisms require us to normalize what would seem utterly wrong just two years ago—we confront our own fragility in the specter of power, shrug our shoulders, and try to carry on with platitudes extolling a more positive mindset.

First green card holders. But then who? Reports indicate that naturalized citizens are next on the list. And recent news reports indicate that this President is currently considering an Executive Order that would entirely eliminate U.S. citizenship for children born to immigrants.

Further, while naturalization seems like a logical option, such a decision negates the importance of this change in policy with respect to green card holders and a shift in immigration norms. That green card holders could retain their national citizenship even as they lived and paid taxes and raised children here underscores America’s freedom of identity, and an implicit understanding that many of us straddle two or more cultures.

We must remind ourselves that this is not normal. We must vote against a political party that rubber-stamps such xenophobic policies. This is not the country that embraced my parents in the 1970s. This is not the country that welcomes immigrants seeking relief from autocracies and violent regimes. I have often arrived back to the U.S. from foreign travels with a sense of gratitude and welcome when I arrive at U.S. Customs. Now, I feel uneasy. And I am a U.S.-born American citizen. So if I feel this way, how must those without such protections feel?

Samantha Rajaram is a mother, community college professor of English, writer, and attorney. She lives in the Bay Area.

Rakesh Dasgupta: Rocky Road of Passion

Rakesh Dasgupta is an actor, and his own checkered life and journey through three countries and five cities has the potential to make a movie. Having lived in Kolkata, Brisbane, Townsville, and Sydney so far, currently based in Los Angeles, the 34-year-old actor and writer is focused on chasing his lifelong dream, acting. Rakesh is one among many of the Indian-heritage creatives waiting for that crucial big-entry ticket into Hollywood. He is peddling his award-winning script Shiva around and wants to play the lead role.

“There is no way they will cast me, a ‘nobody’.  When I refer to Sylvester Stallone and Rocky, I am told he was an exception. You hardly see movies with Indian characters in the lead. Those that have, star established celebrities. I have been told even if my screenplay rocks, makers would change it, mold it, I would just be given money for it and sent out the door,” says Rakesh.

Ask him what a typical day looks like for a struggler in La La Land and he says, “I wake up and go to the gym first thing, unless I have an early morning audition. The rest of my time is devoted to sustaining myself through casual work.” The actor works hard at maintaining his sexy abs and a healthy, toned body. “I have to look appealing so I work out diligently, and eat 6 times a day. Plain rice and boiled chicken is all I eat,” shares Rakesh.

Being in LA was lonely and depressing, which Rakesh turned into his strength. “Week after week, I was alone in my room. Knew no one. I needed a body of work for my visa, or I would have to return to Australia. To combat my loneliness, I started writing. I thought of a story and converted it into a 120-page screenplay,” says Rakesh. “My lead character is a South Asian movie star in Hollywood who struggles to hide his troubled family history as his advancing terminal illness threatens to destroy an unfolding romance.”

“I sent my written work to some Hollywood screenplay specialists. They said it sucked, that I am a bad writer, non-writer, that I should study screenplay writing,” he says.

Meanwhile, Rakesh also sent submissions to film festivals and won best screenplay awards at Top Indie Film Awards, New York Film Awards, Global Film Festival, Los Angeles Cinefest, and Los Angeles Film Awards. However his biggest award will be when the movie gets made, “People like the idea but when I say I want to play the lead, they back off.”

Delve into his past, and he reveals he had the lure for acting since higher secondary in Kolkata where he grew up. His dream of enrolling himself at Film Institute of India, Pune, was thwarted by his parents. “They were influential and ‘high society’ with connections to ministers and income tax commissioner. My parents thought I was crazy as I used to talk to the mirror practicing acting, and they put me on high doses of anti-psychotic medication, meant for Schizophrenia. I was 18 then, and became timid and highly dependent on them,” he shares.

Rakesh could only sign up for Bachelor of Arts at Kolkata University. “It was a start. I matured a bit, started interacting with people, going out, getting a little bit of freedom. My head was clearer.” In 2007, he convinced his parents and escaped to Australia to study. He has a double Masters in Applied Finance and Accountancy from University of Queensland, Brisbane, to show for that period.

Interestingly, despite an English Honors, his spoken English was zero. “I could write but I couldn’t understand anyone and couldn’t speak and couldn’t get a job. So I worked as a dishwasher and a cleaner, and even cleaned my own university campus,” he says.

“I would have liked to come directly to US but at the time, this was the only option. Life caught up and I almost gave up on my dream. My brain went in a different direction. I have been through phases of high addiction: the pills my parents had got me onto, drugs, drinking and smoking. Then I thought I could lead the “regular” life. So I cleaned up my act, started training and working as a policeman, got myself a secure government job,” says Rakesh.

“However, once the effects of my various addictions wore out, my passion for acting came back. By this time, my English was perfect so I finally decided to move to Sydney in 2013,” he says.

It was an overnight decision, but he was on the right path. After a couple of meetings with other agents, he found Therese Clifford, from TCM Agency, who agreed to represent him. “She sent me to auditions, I did a few commercials and small roles, supporting roles, and built up my resume for two years. But there weren’t good roles. In 2016, my small, six-minute role in an Australian film Down Under got me some attention. It wasn’t an important role but the acting part was important; it was hard-core acting,” he says.

“In 2015, Therese took me to LA for two weeks and introduced me to agencies, managers, acting teachers, casting directors. They liked my performance but I had to come back. In 2017, I moved here to LA finally. Therese helped me with my visa, sponsor, attorney, everything.”

Although he hasn’t done any serious acting except for a short film In The Air, Rakesh is keeping his hopes up, “I still don’t have an agent and a manager. I had exhausted my savings once more, it was hard to settle into a new city yet, with shared flats, and hostels. But now, I have a place to live, and my routine.”

This time, Rakesh is set on his goal and intends to get there on his own terms. He is in control of his life, which he has kept lean and simple. Though a work of fiction, his screenplay has shades of his own life. Rakesh believes no other actor can play the role better than him. The ingredients seem right, we know how Hollywood loves the underdog to winner stories. Will the stars shine for this one?

City of stars
Are you shining just for me?
City of stars…
Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream that I cannot make true?
(Song from La La Land. Songwriters: Justin Hurwitz / Benj Pasek / Justin Noble Paul)


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

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

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Unsung Heroine: Bridging Generations And Continents


Today, I lost my guru. And today, along with her, the world lost a deivam.

Smt. Ranganayaki Rajagopalan was more than a guru to me. She was a caretaker and a soldier, a giver and a fighter, a pillar in the fortress of Carnatic music.

As a disciple of the legendary Karaikkudi Sri. Sambasiva Iyer, her name stood tall. But as a musician herself? Her name remained cloaked, known to a select few. A sad truth, but a truth nonetheless. What happened?

She would lovingly tell me stories of how she first started learning veena. As a particularly rambunctious child, she was constantly getting into trouble. Her parents, exasperated and not knowing what to do, took her to the legend himself, Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer. He lived nearby, and they believed he would give her something to focus her energies on besides causing trouble.

Ranganayaki Paatti’s eyes sparkled as the not-so-fond memory came back to her. The first meeting with him was nothing short of disaster. Sambasiva Iyer, in a deep depression after the death of his brother, Subbarama Iyer, apparently did not want to teach anyone music. After much coaxing, however, from “Veena Periamma” (as Ranganayaki Paatti referred to Sambasiva Iyer’s wife), Sambasiva Iyer agreed to let the little girl try learning from him.

Shortly after teaching her the saralivarisai, he asked her to sing it back. She was a three year old at the time. She stared blankly for a minute, then attempted something. Finding her maiden attempt not to his satisfaction, he promptly took the little girl and angrily dumped her in a freezing-cold tub of water at the back of the house. Veena Periamma fished her out and dried her off.

Apparently, this traumatic experience, which she recollected even 80+ years after the fact with stunning detail, didn’t stop little Ranganayaki Paatti from doing more veshamam (trouble). Her parents were so desperate that they tried again with Sambasiva Iyer – this time, he was slightly less moody. With much coaxing, he said “yes” to becoming her guru.

This did not come without a price, for all parties concerned. This was full-on gurukulavasam, with no loose ends. Little Ranganayaki would not be able to see her parents again; even when they came to check on her progress, he would shut her away from them. She needed to believe that Sambasiva Iyer was her family, and indeed, he did eventually become family – her own “Veena Periappa.” But, as with all family members, duty came first, and in this case, that duty was the role of a guru. I would listen in rapt attention as Paatti described the years of intense training with Sambasiva Iyer in exquisite detail:

For the first few years, they didn’t even touch the instrument. Everything was done through vocal music, since Paatti was so tiny. She learned her saralivarisai, jantavarisai, alankArams and other basic exercises in an unusual manner. Sambasiva Iyer would use his angavastram (upper waist cloth) to tether Ranganayaki paatti to his own waist, making sure she didn’t run away. He would even take her into the bathroom, closing the curtain and tying the angavastram to a nearby pole. This system was implemented with great discipline, since she had escaped bolting down the road laughing after the first time he attempted to teach her.

He would also do things like sing alapana phrases for her to decode into swarams (from behind the bathroom curtain, sometimes), and teach her to put two taalams simultaneously. She didn’t understand what the fuss was all about when people came over and marveled at the six year old putting simultaneous taalams nonchalantly – at least, not until she was much older.

Then came the initiation onto the veena itself. This was the most intense part – she would wake up at four and practice till seven, bathe and eat some idlis, then practice for another three hours until 1 in the afternoon, when lunch would happen. A four-hour nightly learning session would also take place, after which she would go to bed. There was no time for learning anything else – she lived and breathed music.

Sambasiva Iyer would make her practice each line of everything 100 times, even when she was learning the sarali varisai. If on the 99th time she made a mistake, he would make her start again, maybe even involve a perambu (bamboo stick) to do the talking! She told me, her eyes winking, that she would purposefully make mistakes on the 99th time just to anger him. What a woman! She would also have to put thoppukaranam (ukki) in three speeds, chanting “nAn thappu paNNa mATTEn” (“I will not make mistakes”). I like to think that this drilled layam (sense of rhythm) into her body. Not once in any of her concerts or classes did I ever see her lift her head to look at where she was in the taalam cycle. At this pace, she learned over 400 songs from him, with songs taking as long as a month each to complete.

He even taught her all of his chittaswarams. These contain extremely fast gamakas and are notoriously difficult to play, composed seemingly with the goal to mess vainikas up!  Before she taught me the chittaswaram in Kalyani raagam, she chuckled and said, “you know how many times I got sharp raps on the fingers for making mistakes in this chittaswaram?” Needless to say, we spent a lot of time together that day.

Her first performance was shortly after her sixth birthday. Scared to death, she ran off stage, only to be greeted by an irate Sambasiva Iyer who scooped her up and put her back onto the stage. He must have had a guilty conscience, because after every time he berated her, he’d lift her up and say to her, “You know why I did that, right? I want you to play well, that’s all.” And then he’d pamper her with balloons, chocolates, lush silk skirts, and everything else a child could want. This performance was followed by many more, with her performing alongside him everywhere he went, with nothing but rave reviews coming her way.

By the time she was thirteen, she was married and moved off to Chennai, but that didn’t stop Sambasiva Iyer from traveling to her home every time she had All India Radio solo concerts. She’d come back home and he used to shower her with praise and gifts. He was so proud of her.

Family duties, however, took over as the years progressed. And thus started a slow fade into oblivion for all but the most knowledgable of musicians. With children and grandchildren by the time she was in her early thirties, and with the death of Sambasiva Iyer, my guru was so busy with family duties, that music became less of a focus for her. She went on a few tours and played numerous recordings for All India Radio, but other than that, her name faded. Eventually, health issues took over, and before I came to her, she had all but stopped playing.

Again, I am so very thankful that my mother learned from this stalwart, because if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had the bhagyam (good fortune) of doing so myself. I had learned from my mother, who was a student of hers, for around 4 years. When we approached Ranganayaki Paatti for classes, she declined initially, citing her various ailments. My grandfather eventually played a recording of my first concert to her, and she said “Wait, is this me? It sounds like me, but it’s not me. Who is this?” That’s the highest praise I could have gotten from her. And she agreed to teach me that day!

And what a condition – at that point, she was on a walker, barely getting up from her bed. As the years passed, she was eventually bedridden. The Parkinson’s took its toll, as her jaw and hands wavered uncontrollably even when sitting idly. Even then, despite the difficulties of her everyday life, she agreed to teach me. The pure joy I felt when she agreed to teach me, and the pure joy I got every day with her afterward, is bittersweet now.

On the first day, we went, lifted her up to a sitting position and then handed her a veena from her closet, untouched for years on end. She assigned one veena for me too. After cleaning the two, I started learning my first song from her – Padavini. But in the middle, she stopped, and asked to try again the next day. The first year was hard, as she was unsure if she could continue to teach me. But by the end of that summer, in 2007, she told me to come back from America the following year.

From then on, it seemed that I would be fated to have a completely different training style from her – where she had  taken months to master a song, I would learn a couple of songs every day. And, of course, I made mistakes, Whereas she had received physical reinforcement in the form of raps on her wrist when she made mistakes, I received a “Mm?” And a sweet, toothless smile. How I miss that smile today.

None of us spoke about it openly, but every year was a race against time, to soak up everything she had before the inevitable happened. In between those intense summers of lessons in Chennai, I listened to her old recordings, trying to imbibe her style. Some things struck me

Every note and every line of every song in every recording rings true – that’s her mark. Purity of sound, “Gundu” (fat) notes in every strum, pure music. A bani focused on quality over everything, even at the highest of speeds; veena at its finest. And the thanam – oh, what a thanam! At 86, with Parkinson’s, tumors in her stomach, bedridden, with stiff legs, uncontrollably shaking hands, her fingers would still dish out the most amazing thanam! Pure magic!

I miss everything about her. I remember the stiffness of her legs, her quivering mouth, her shaking hands, her long, bony, beautiful, yet uncontrolled finger movements, her every sigh, and her quiet chuckle. I owe her so much and it’s impossible to put into words what I have received from her.

This is but a sliver of the story I have crafted with her, and it’s sad that the story could not have been longer. Had I started earlier, had she continued playing, this story could have been much different. But stories are written in Indian ink, not pencil. They are as permanent as the inevitable itself, and I have to live with that.

As her student, and as a student of her student, I hold a responsibility to her – my guru – and her bani to see to it that the slow decline of the veena is turned around; to make it my life’s work to be a torchbearer for the incredible blessing that is my musical training, the instillation of the Karaikkudi bani in me.

I will do it for her – she who gave me everything when her body and mind didn’t cooperate, she who affectionately made a student into a musician, a mere boy into something more. I am indebted to her, as is the world for her music. I will always remember her as the kindest, gentlest soul to have graced the earth with her presence.

I love you, Ranganayaki paatti. I always will.

Ranganayaki Rajagopalan (3 May 1932-20 September 2018).

Guhan Venkataraman, a second year Ph.D. student at Stanford University, USA, is a vainika of the Karaikudi parampara. He started learning veena from his mother Smt. Lakshmi Venkataraman at age 8, and continued his discipleship under Kalaimamani Smt. Ranganayaki Rajagopalan (herself a direct disciple of the legendary Karaikudi Sri. Sambasiva Iyer). He continues to enlarge and refine his scholarship and repertoire under the tutelage of Sri R. K. Shriramkumar and Delhi Sri P. Sunder Rajan.

Amma, is Thatha a Ghost?

Ever so often I’m caught off guard by a question posed by my child. It has the quality of a zap to my system – like that of a rusty car battery being jump started out of its cold slumber. This was one of those moments.

Coming off of a hectic few weeks spent witnessing my father-in-law’s slow and steady decline in general health, and his subsequent passing, had left us all dealing – or trying our best to deal – with a whiplash of emotions. The one thing we all agreed upon was that nothing ever prepares you for the absence of a loved one. So when confronted with this question, “Amma, is Thatha a ghost now?” my mind stuttered to a halt, while it tried to figure out how to formulate an answer. Sensing there was more to the question, I resorted to the time-honored trick of parenting, and answered her question with a question of my own. “What gave you that idea?” I asked her, trying to buy time. My 6 year old pointed to the wall where her Pati’s (grandmother) picture hung with a garland draped over its edge. “You said he is now with God, but I don’t see him there,” she responded.

A young child’s mind is inventive, curious and eternally imaginative, but they also take things literally. This was ample proof of that fact. She understood that when people die, their heart stops. This much was clear. She had been told that they are with God after this moment. And she almost always saw their pictures hanging on walls and home shrines – so she was sure they were with the Gods. Simple. Elementary. When she came to pay her last respects to her grandfather, I saw her pause, unprepared for the sight of her Thatha laid out  on a straw mat, as the priest did the needful. And I remember thinking how woefully inept the human condition is at dealing with death. Because despite having attended several final viewings and funerals, I was having a hard time of it myself.

Condolence messages came in a variety of flavors – “He had a full life… and a good death,” “At least he did not suffer,” “Oh he lived to a ripe old age…”.  There were the quiz style delivery of questions, designed to extract every little factoid and nugget of detail leading up to his last breath. Then there were those who offered comfort without uttering a single word – just by their presence alone. All of them were well intentioned.

For those like us, Non Resident Indians (NRIs), there is one phone call we dread receiving – that of a parent who is critically ill, or worse. The memory of one such call when my mother-in-law passed is still fresh in my mind. I kept reminding myself that we were fortunate to have had some time with my father-in-law during his final weeks. We were able to offer marginal comfort through our presence, and help in whatever little way we could. He enjoyed the antics of his grand daughter and great grandsons. I am sure that brought him joy. In this, we were truly blessed. 

The role of rituals: 

An individual’s passing does two things to those they leave behind. It renders them numb to most emotions. And it also leaves them with a void that seems impossible to fill. This is the juncture where rituals take center stage. In almost all the cultures of the world, death rituals are an important part of life. I suspect they have been devised to keep the living firmly rooted in the present. We began the rituals almost immediately under the guidance of the priest. And they lasted 13 days. Metaphysical facts and beliefs aside, they served the unquestioned purpose of bringing a family, and a community together. Most forgot their differences and joined us. Others were present on the fringes, but were nevertheless there. Death was indeed the ‘Great Leveler.’

Once the communal meal on the 13th day was done, our immediate family gathered to reminisce about the lives of two individuals who were deeply mourned. It was our own version of a memorial service. A family elder suggested we eulogize the parents who had given so much to see us all happy and content as we were today. And so we did just that. Remembered. Laughed. Cried. And most importantly – found strength in each other. To my mind, this was the single most cathartic ritual we experienced since that fateful Sunday morning when death came calling at our door. It was needed. It was welcomed. And we were all the better for having shared in its unified strength.

But once this was done, I was left searching for a way to help my child deal with her sense of the events. In her young life, she had interacted with her grandfather on her annual visits to India. Aside from this, their tenuous bond was established through gadgets; iPads, WhatsApp, FaceTime… and others of their ilk. There was no question that he was part of what she considered her family unit. And as such, she did feel his loss. Equating his suddenly empty home with the lack of his physical presence, she was trying to express her loss through her limited vocabulary. Her favorite question being ‘Why’?!  “Why did he have to die Amma?”, was followed by “Is he with Pati now?” And then came the one I knew was waiting its turn. “Will you die one day and leave me behind?” I must admit that one took my insides on a cringe-worthy roller coaster ride.

So I was back to the pressing question – how do I help my little girl deal with loss? Or is it better to shelter a child from such truths?

Talking helps:

Dr. Ujwala AgharkarChild Psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente, Fremont –  cautions parents against shielding children from loss. “Sometimes adults, parents, do not want to talk about it, in the interest of protecting their children. Often it is because they have to internalize and come to terms with their own loss”, she says. She has found that while it is good to present a strong example in the face of grief, there is no need to appear stoic at all times. This is true especially of men. “It is normal, and totally acceptable to model vulnerability. Our kids should see and understand our soft spots! They will also understand that no matter what you go through, you will be there for them,” says Dr. Agharkar. Letting children know that you can handle things together, with mutual help and consideration is the best way to deal with such situations.

Having said this, Dr. Agharkar admits you cannot generalize dealing with grief. “With children, you have to take their individual mental development into consideration first and foremost. The quality of their relationship with their departed loved one is also important,” she states. Oftentimes,children can present behavioral problems when they are not able to deal with their emotions. Such problems vary from pretending nothing has happened, withdrawing from social contact, or emotional upheavals and defiance. While it is not possible to generalize, working through grief and loss is different with younger children. A child of six for example, has no abstract concept of a ‘soul.’ To them, this is not a tangible idea and they cannot visualize it. In the absence of a gravesite, younger children need more of a concrete physical form – like a picture on the wall or shrine – to help with their healing, in addition to talking them through their emotions. 

Just as rituals, religious or otherwise, help adults deal with death and grief, formulating a set of rituals with a younger child gives them something tangible to relate to.

The Memory Box:

Turning to the all-knowing Google Gods, I found a wonderful resource in my search for ideas on coming up with my own version of rituals to help my child. Titled “The Memory Box” – A book about grief, it is written by Joanna Rowland who is a kindergarten teacher and children’s book author. The book is beautifully illustrated by Thea Baker who is known internationally as a children’s illustrator.

The story line revolves around a little girl who loses her favorite red balloon while walking in a park, and this event reminds her that nothing can compare to the a recent loss of someone she loves. Detailing her sadness and emotions, she takes us through the many ways she tries to hold on to her memories by making a Memory Box, filling it with sand and sea shells from a favorite beach, pictures from trips, and collecting memories from family and friends to add to her own. In addition to helping her come to terms with her loss, it also helps her make peace with a fear that she might one day in the future, forget her loved one. The Memory Box gives her a tangible sense of holding on to her memories. And this helps her heal and grow.

My daughter has been keenly aware of the loss of her grandfather with the recent festival season. As a mark of respect to the departed, we refrained from celebrating Dussera and Diwali this year. It is our period of mourning. Instead, we started to work on our Memory Box. Naturally, she kept up an unending stream of questions as we began our project. But I gently introduced her to the idea that maybe we should consider her grandparents as ‘spirits‘ now. It is our memories that keep them alive in our hearts and minds. And since she still believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy,  maybe it is ok to let her associate the word ‘ghost‘ with the ones we see during Halloween.

At least until I have a better answer to her more esoteric questions about life and death.


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.




Saying it with Thanks – New Thanksgiving Recipes

In early September, I joined my husband as he went back to his village in Palakkad, Kerala, after a ten year hiatus. He had grown up in Palakkad in a large joint family with his grandmother, mother, brother and sisters along with several uncles, aunts and cousins, with about twenty five family members under one roof. His grandmother’s home looked exactly as it did over fifty years ago. The kitchen had seen a makeover, but if the walls could speak, they would tell stories of the people who lived there—sons, daughters, cousins, grandchildren, marriages, births and deaths, celebrations and feasts all held under the watchful eye of his grandmother, the benevolent family matriarch. Her integrity and strength were the foundation on which this home had been built and sustained.

The village consisted of some 100 plus row houses with clay tile roofs arrayed on the sides of a single road. The library was situated across the road from his ancestral home; the village pond was sure to fill up during the monsoons, and there were two temples at walking distance. My husband had spent many hours in that small library, reading all that he could lay hands on.

As we were walking to his aunt’s house, a man with a toothless, smiling face walked towards us. He looked like he had jumped out of the pages of R.K Narayan’s Malgudi Days. This tall thin man with thick glasses, had a large man bun right on top of his conical head. His bare chest was disproportionate to his large tummy, and a white dhoti was tied around his small waist. “This is Ramu” my husband said, a.k.a. “Kozhimuttai Ramu” as he was affectionately called by everyone in the village. “Kozhimuttai” literally translates into a hen’s egg. “Without him, I wouldn’t have passed my GRE exams and made it to America,” my husband reminiscenced. “He was the head of the library, and he had the power to either let me in, or keep me out—from Western novels to Wilbur Smith, from Perry Masons and Robert Ludlums to stacks of Reader’s Digests, encyclopedias and more, it was he who gave me the access.” Thank You Mr. Ramu for helping this man dream big, even as he grew up in this small village, I thought to myself.

Then there was Nallepilly Ayappan, who lived an hour away. He was a homeopathic doctor who treated children with issues from malnutrition to manic depression. He took time to share his extensive library of books and was full of interesting insights that made an impact on a teenager, eager for a sense of direction. His home had served as a quiet getaway. As I stood in Ayyappan’s backyard looking at the papaya and jackfruit trees, hibiscus and pumpkin trails, he told me, “write about the panikoorka plants, they have so much healing power.”

So, this Thanksgiving, who are the Ramus and Ayyappans that have impacted your life in myriad ways? Who would you want to call or write and say two special words—Yours Thankfully!

As you think about who you plan to reach out to, here are some interesting recipes with papayas, jackfruit and pumpkin for your Thanksgiving meal.

Ripe Papaya, Avocado, Cherry
Tomato Salad
1 medium ripe papaya seeded and
1 avocado peeled, seeded and cubed
10 yellow cherry tomatoes halved
1 Persian cucumber sliced
1 green chill minced
1 teaspoon ginger
1 lime juice
1 teaspoon chaat masala powder
Salt and black pepper to taste

Whisk the ingredients in the dressing together and reserve it in a small bowl. Place the papaya cubes, tomatoes, avocado, chili and cucumber in a large serving bowl and refrigerate it. Right before serving, mix in the dressing and adjust the seasonings to taste.

Jackfruit and Pumpkin Chili

This is an interesting recipe that requires a good quality root beer. This is a recipe that meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans can enjoy.
1 can green jackfruit, drained, washed
and chopped
½ can pumpkin puree
1 tablespoon oil
1 clove
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large red onion minced
1 tablespoon ginger garlic paste
3 tomatoes chopped fine
2 green chilies minced
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
½ teaspoon cayenne
Salt to taste
1 cup root beer
¼ cup water
Garnish: Cilantro chopped and sour cream (optional for vegans)
Heat oil in a large sauce pan and add the clove, cinnamon stick, cumin seeds and bay leaf. Add ginger garlic paste and minced onion and sauté till brown. Then add the tomatoes, green chili, turmeric, garam masala powder, coriander powder and salt to taste. Add the jackfruit and cook for 2-3 minutes with a little water. Once the jackfruit is soft and cooked, add the root beer and pumpkin puree and let it stew for another 10 minutes on low heat. Check and adjust seasonings. Serve hot with chopped cilantro and a dollop of sour cream.

Spicy Papaya, Pineapple Sangria

This is a great drink for the early afternoon before the Thanksgiving meal. The serrano can make it too spicy if you leave it for too long. If you can find edible dry hibiscus flower you can cook it in the simple syrup and add it to the sangria. It gives it a sweet flower taste.

½ cup sugar
¼ cup water
1 bottle white wine (like Riesling)
1 ripe papaya chopped
1 cup ripe pineapple chopped
1 serrano chili slit
Basil leaves for garnish

Heat the sugar and water and make it into a simple syrup. Place the chopped papaya and pineapple in a large serving pitcher. Add the white wine and simple syrup and mix. Add the serrano chili and refrigerate for a few hours. Remove the serrano in an hour if you don’t want it spicy. It gets spicier as you steep it longer. Serve cold with ice cubes and basil leaves. n

Praba Iyer is a chef instructor, food writer and a judge for cooking contests. She specializes in team building classes through cooking for tech companies in the Bay Area.

This article was first published in November 2017.

Kolkata Chicken Biryani


Taste of Eastern India by Kankana Saxena, food blogger and photographer.

Biryani is a labor of love. It needs time and attention, which is why I consider it a weekend meal. When you finally open the tight lid and the aroma releases, you will find it worth all the effort.

There are numerous versions of chicken biryani found in Indian cuisine. Kolkata chicken biryani is probably the only one that has big chunks of potatoes in it. Clearly, this shows the Bengalis’ love for potatoes. The story goes that several years back, when biryani was prepared for the king and his friends, the cook ran short of chicken and he added potatoes to increase the volume. Although the chef was worried, it turns out that everybody really liked the extra carb and the new twist. Since then, adding potatoes in biryani became a norm in Kolkata. Whether the story is true or not, meat and potato is always a great combination.

Key Notes: I prefer to prepare biryani with bone-in chicken pieces, because it keeps the meat moist without the risk of overcooking and drying out the chicken. However, you can always go for boneless too. If you choose boneless, then you have to be careful of the cooking time, as it will cook much faster than the time I call for in the recipe directions.

Serves 4

1 tbsp (10 g) cumin seeds

1 tbsp (10 g) coriander seeds

½ tsp black peppercorns

2 cinnamon sticks, divided

5 green cardamom pods, divided

3 bay leaves, divided

1 mace

1 lb (500 g) chicken pieces

1 tbsp (10 g) grated garlic

1 tbsp (8 g) grated ginger

⅓ cup (82 g) thick yogurt

1 tbsp (15 g) salt, divided

⅓ cup (79 ml) milk

½ tsp saffron threads

1 cup (211 g) long-grain basmati rice

2 red onions

Oil, for deep-frying

2 tbsp (30 ml) vegetable oil

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters

2 tbsp (29 g) ghee, divided

4 cloves

1 star anise

1½ cups (355 ml) water

1 tbsp (15 ml) rosewater (optional)

2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced 

Place a pan over medium heat and add the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black pepper, 1 of the cinnamon sticks, 3 of the green cardamom pods, 2 of the bay leaves and the mace. Dry roast for a few seconds, and then let the spices cool for a while before grinding to a fine powder.

Place the chicken pieces in a bowl and add half of the ground spice mix, then add the garlic, ginger, yogurt and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Mix everything together and let the chicken marinate for at least 4 hours. Keeping it overnight will enhance the flavor even more.

Pour the milk into a bowl and crush the saffron threads into it. Stir and let the milk infuse for 5 minutes.

Wash the rice several times under running water. This will remove the excess starch. Then leave the washed rice in the colander for about 15 minutes for any excess water to drain out.

Peel the onions and thinly slice them. Half of the sliced onions will be deep-fried and the other half will be used in cooking the chicken.

Place a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and pour in enough oil to reach a depth of

2 inches (5 cm). Place a kitchen towel on a plate and keep it ready for the fried onions. Once the oil reaches between 325°F and 350°F (163°C and 177°C), add the sliced onion carefully and stir every now and then so the onion gets golden brown evenly. Once the onions turn light golden brown, remove from the hot oil and place on the kitchen towel.

To prepare the chicken, place another heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat and add in the

vegetable oil. When the oil heats up, add the quartered potatoes and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt. Fry for 5 minutes, tossing and turning. Transfer the potatoes to a separate bowl.

To the same pan, add the remaining sliced onion, sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt and cook the onion for about 4 minutes, or until softened. Then add the marinated chicken and cook for 10 minutes, tossing and turning every now and then. Turn off the heat once the chicken is partially cooked.

Place another heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of the ghee. Once it heats up, add the remaining 1 cinnamon stick, remaining 1 bay leaf, remaining 2 cardamom pods, cloves and star anise. Allow the spices to sizzle for a while and then add the washed rice. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt and stir the rice. Let the rice roast for a couple of minutes, then pour in the water. Let the rice cook for 15 minutes or until it’s half cooked.

Now finally, to prepare the biryani, preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C) and grease a large ceramic ovenproof bowl with some ghee. Layer half of the partially cooked chicken, and top it with half of the partially cooked rice. Arrange half of the fried potatoes by pushing them down a little. Add half of the fried onions evenly on top and add ½ tablespoon (7 g) of the ghee, half of the rosewater and half of the saffron milk. Repeat with the remaining chicken, rice, potato, fried onion, ghee, rosewater and saffron milk.

Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes or until the rice and chicken are cooked through. Just before serving, top it with the sliced egg and enjoy while it is still warm.

Reprinted with permission from Taste of Eastern India by Kankana Saxena, Page Street Publishing Co. 2018. Photo credit: Kankana Saxena.


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