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Cycling Around The World: Somen Debnath

The statistics and the breadth of ambition are daunting to say the very least. 14 year journey which started in 2004. 154,800 km on bike. Traveled through 150 countries. Currently biking in the United States. On his way to Canada through the West Coast. Raising awareness about HIV and AIDS among rural people in India. 

I spoke with Somen Debnath, a cyclist who has broken many an endurance record with his stupendous journey to cover 190 countries one kilometer at a time, reaching his goal of 200,000 km in 14 years. 

I asked him about how this passion started. “When I was 14 years old, a man who lived close to my village died of AIDS. The West Bengal AIDS prevention society carried newspaper articles which pointed out that AIDS could be deadlier than cancer.” This information about the potentially deadly disease stayed with him, as did the circumstances of growing up in a village in Bengal. “About 80 km. from Kolkata, I grew up in the village of Basanti,” while adding, “which is in the middle of the Sundarbans region, where we have mangrove forests and the largest tiger reserve in India.  have always been inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s teachings directed towards Then, I read Bimal Mukherjee’s book – Du Chakay Duniya where he describes using a bicycle to travel the world for eleven years. His trip started in 1926. Reading this book made a deep impression on me, since I had always wanted to see and experience many places in India and all over the world too. I was raised in the forests. From there, it was my desire that has taken me to so many places across the world.”

When I ask him about the condition of his bike, he told me that this was the eighth bike that he is using. This bike was gifted to him by Indian-Americans living in Texas, and with that he reached California. From here, he planned to go to Portland in Oregon and onto Seattle in Washington. From there, it would be northwards to Canada, the North Pole and then through Siberian Russia. He commenced this journey in May of 2014 and hopes to end it in India in December of 2020 after a journey of 16 years. 

When asked to name his most interesting experiences, he said that traveling through Bangladesh, being captured by the Taliban for 24 days and seeing wild animals like rhinos, cheetahs and lions wandering around in the African grasslands were unforgettable. He also said that his trip elicited a lot of curiosity among people all over, with kindness and empathy coming next, helping him tide over to the next part of the trip. 

“Indians all over and Indian-Americans have been very kind to me, welcoming me with open arms. Everyone can help me through monetary donations and by keeping track of my trip by going to my website at https://www.somen2020world.com/

Pedal up and pedal down. One kilometer at a time; 200, 000 km in 16 years. What passion!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine.

Game Of The Gods: A Billion Dreams

What makes people take their life over a mere sport? Like the Kolkata man did over Dhoni’s run out, widely regarded as the pivotal moment in India’s dashed hopes of making it to the World Cup final. This sport has made grown men and women break down in ways completely unimaginable. The World Cup final proved that nice guys do not finish last. While England won, based on some archaic rule, underdogs New Zealand, won the hearts of anyone obsessed with this sport, which is often called the gentleman’s game. And in this final, it appeared the nicest boys in the game lost to the inventors and often the ones most vilified by Indians worldwide, thanks to our colonial past.
Sports, religion, culture and life. There seems to be no semblance of a difference, given the behavior of cricket teams on the pitch; like the laidback party vibes of the West Indies, a modern South Africa, emerging from the shadows of apartheid, not to speak of Pakistan and Bangladesh forever trying to assert their stamp over their proverbial father, India.
Meanwhile, India struggles with the worst hangover ever. A sport that is tailor made to the age old Indian values of guru-shishya, discipline, mindfulness, rigor, slogging without reward, and a deep defiance to the colonial sword of the British.
For every Indian kid taking up the willow, it is akin to brandishing a sword at their colonial former masters’ throats. Like a rebel call, any cricketer drawn from the subcontinent, male or female, looks at the game as a way to express themselves so they may each serve as a role model of taking down the bastion of British imperialism.
This is why the Indian diaspora, from US TO UK to India to Australia and New Zealand, descended in droves for the UK-hosted World Cup. We believed that we would be valiant. The finals, won by the hosts in a contentious contest and after dubious decision making, reminded us of our own nebulous and dysfunctional relationships with our families and loved ones. Pakistan and India – when it comes to cricket it is the closest we come to war. The many moments of cross border valor on the field have been highlighted amply on YouTube. It’s made legends of ordinary cricketers like Venkatesh Prasad and Gods of mortals like Yuvraj Singh and Sachin Tendulkar.
Sachin is God. Not because of his array of shots for every ball, but his grit, disciple, single minded devotion for the sport and his record against Pakistan. Sachin against any nation could have been equally heroic, but against Pakistan, he proved his mettle time and again. And that’s what the legends will retell. A 16 year old boy, bloodied by the fearsome twosome of Pakistan; Wasim and Waqar. How this little boy defied them, and took the feared Pakistani and subsequently other opposition players to the sword, has led to generations naming their young infants, Sachin.
Why do Indians relate to cricket at such a deep level? It is pretty obvious that we are a one sport nation. It’s because through cricket we have found a way to throw off the colonial shackles. To beat the inventors of the game that rampantly abused our emotions for three centuries. Every far flung six, or blow at 90 mph at their heads, is a reaffirmation of our masculinity. That’s why this puzzling game which depends on weather, statistics, skills, fitness and an assortment of colorful men endures. We don’t need more teams, we need more competitive teams. The game that led to nations wanting to destroy the inventors of the game on the field, has taken unprecedented proportions.
For every time a Mahendra Dhoni lifts  the cup, a  young boy (and now lass) realizes that the best revenge is to keep beating the English. In this most baffling, romantic, frustrating and tearful of sports, cricket for Indians isn’t just passion, it’s an obsession. The next time, India will host the World cup. And after the hoopla over the current champions, England dies down, Indians will be collectively bleeding blue. And screaming for the Cup that brought the entire British empire down, in a glorious heated Indian summer sunset.
Currently, Virat Kohli, the much tattooed and omnipotently talented batsman is leading millenial India’s charge into the dawn. His rebellious, foul mouthed, gladitorial beard and impeccable physique have not only inspired a generation of cricket fans, but inspired a clone army. The Give Blood or Bleed Blue army. A fitness icon, he has inspired a new India to go fearlessly after what is s yours, and sometimes even after what is not.  He is the direct descendent of Sourav Ganguly, the blue blooded Royal who made Gods of gifted but unsure youngsters. Under his tutelage, India witnessed the renaissance of cricket. Coinciding with the liberalization of India, a whole generation learnt to dream big. No dream was out of reach. And you could scream open lunged at the wide heavens while you brandished your shirt, naked torsoed and aggressive to the core, like a victory flag at Lord’s, like Sourav did. This openly victorious walk of Godly stature, and defiance, and the proof that yes, we could be the Gods on Earth, in something led to an open revolution.
From the cricket obsessed Google CEO Sunder Pichai to every actor who dreams of starring in the next cricket legends’s biopic, to the school boy and girl who know that their dream is just a stroke away. For this is the a game of Gods, played by and for romantics. For every heartbreaking win and every exhilarating shot out of the ground, a new generation is captivated by the imagination of the game. To know that you don’t have to be the fittest, the strongest, the most powerful. What you need is a stroke of luck, reasonable talent and timing, a vibrant personality and a screen presence. For when the lights go down, we need Gods to merge into our consciousness. They glance at the sun superstitiously, adjust their pads, tweak their helmets, but never lose sight of the fact that they’re still chasing down the glory of the British empire on behalf of each and every one of us!

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    Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

    Thinking and writing about the complexity of mental health issues has jogged several memories. When I was in graduate school a fellow student tried to take his own life. He had a brilliant academic record, was doing well at school, and was Indian. Fortunately, a quick-thinking response made the attempt unsuccessful.  After the incident, the entire extended group of fellow Indian students were all left wondering as to why he had chosen to call a non-Indian acquaintance for help from the emergency room, when it was apparent that he spent most of his barely existent ‘free time’ with one of us. Once he returned to the academic routine, he restricted his interactions to a select few, citing embarrassment. Depression was simply not something to be advertised. Several years later, another colleague frequently recalled his previous advisor’s words with gratitude. Years earlier, she had told him that there was no shame in seeking professional treatment for depression saying that it was necessary to leading a healthy life, just like resetting a broken bone. 

    Although the stigma related to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses is universal, it may be felt more acutely within the Indian and the larger South Asian population. Immigrant Indian-American families have a laser focus on academic and professional success, and they feel the acute need to appear as being a part of a model-minority group. Women in these immigrant groups face a double burden as they are isolated from the larger network of extended family members and relatives/friends which they commonly enjoy in India. The need to avoid any exposure of personal weakness and the pressure to present a stoic appearance to the outside world does not permit a discussion of these problems with the gravity that they merit. 

    In fact, a 2001 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) remains pertinent to the present day when it mentions that “Mental illness is highly stigmatizing in many Asian cultures. In these societies, mental illness reflects poorly on one’s family lineage and can influence others’ beliefs about how suitable someone is for marriage if he or she comes from a family with a history of mental illness.” Harvard Medical School published a study in 2010 on mental health problems in the workplace, citing depression as being the costliest health condition, with anxiety ranking fifth on the same list. 

    Cultural factors impinge on Mental Illness 

    A combination of three factors is required for mental health deficits to manifest: 

    1. Biological and genetic factors; 
    2. Psychological factors including individual psychological thresholds, perception and interpretation.
    3. Social factors including environment, family and friends. 

    Looking at the three factors, we realize that for immigrant families, social and cultural milieu turns out to be an integral part of this complex equation. First, it has a bearing in the manner in which treatment is sought, i.e., through a religious leader, social worker, traditional healer, psychiatrist, psychologist, family support, etc. In close-knit cultural communities, including some immigrant communities, some of these alternative treatment options may be explored in preference to a more mainstream doctor or counsellor. Secondly, in cultures where there is excessive stigma attached to mental illness, patients may first present somatic symptoms which are physical (also called ‘somatization’), and describe psychological symptoms only upon further investigation. Additionally, other obvious social factors are language barriers in immigrant populations, and affordability of care. 

    Cultural norms may also decide which emotional and subjective concerns are considered significant. In specific instances mental illnesses can be concentrated in certain communities, but this is dependent on whether genetic or social factors have a greater impact on this indication. For example, schizophrenia correlates with genetic factors, but depression, anxiety and suicide rates may be more dependent on cultural and societal factors. 

    Mental Health versus Mental Illness 

    Mental health and mental illness are points on a continuum, not a pair of opposites. Although mental illness is better understood since it has symptoms related to aberrant functioning of mood, behavior and thinking which cannot be ignored, good mental health is more than just the lack of an identifiable illness. It includes emotional and psychological well-being, the ability to perform productive mental activities, have fulfilling relationships, have the ability to cope with adversity and change, and is admittedly difficult to define precisely as its definition is biased by individual and cultural value judgements. 

    Mental illnesses range from the better-defined diseases of schizophrenia, bipolar disease, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) to phobias, personality disorders, depression, and anxiety. As expected, there is greater awareness of the former group of defined illnesses than the latter. Depression is the most common mental health disorder, and it is estimated that it will be a leading cause of disability by 2020. 

    Thus, mental health is increasingly being considered a public health issue, and initiatives are being created to promote mental wellness in all age groups especially amongst students in universities and also amongst other age groups within professional organizations. The importance of good diet, regular physical activity, sleep, relaxation, meditation/mindfulness, and healthy peer interactions are stressed. 

    Role of Counseling

    The role of counseling in the maintenance of mental health is not trivial. A sympathetic ear and professional advice is an important avenue to preserve mental health, and can potentially alleviate mental illness in early stages. In cultures where stigma prevents individuals from accessing early interventional professional help (Indians are known to be more inhibited in this matter than the general population), treatment is finally sought only when mental illness presents as a condition which cannot be ignored. To stress that seeking help is key to healing, “Maintaining patient confidentiality is of utmost importance with psychiatrists,” states Dr. Uma Nuthi, a practicing psychiatrist in Pennsylvania. This is not restricted only to patient information, she says, but also to the very basic fact that an individual is indeed a patient seeking these services. Mental health is as important as physical health, and needs to be maintained with the same effort and by giving it equal importance. 

    How can a parent help children stay mentally stable?

    “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” This pithy sentiment of Dr. Seuss is echoed in the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study that was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. ACEs was initiated in 1995, and follows the long-term health outcomes of participants with respect to the association of ACEs with health and social problems over the entire lifespan. The incidence of high-risk behaviors in adulthood correlated with the number of ACEs, which also correlated with an increased incidence of serious illnesses including heart disease, cancer, and depression, along with an increased risk of attempted suicide. Even in those fortunate instances where ACEs are not an issue screen time may come into play, as we continue with our modern-day obsession with smartphones, tablets, computers, electronic games, and the now outdated television. While the long-term effects of young children being extensively exposed to screens is still emerging, there seems to be a correlation of length of screen time with changes in learning ability and sleep cycles. 

    To promote mental wellness, healthy interactions between family members are stressed and we also find that children often complain that parents are not available to them because they are constantly busy with their phones or computers. Notwithstanding such inter-generational issues, parents should be vigilant about aspects of their children’s life and habits such as their friends and peers, changes in performance at school and interactions outside of school, and changes in physical symptoms including appetite, sleep patterns, and nausea to name a few. If changes are noticeable and cause concern for several weeks, it may be prudent to explore a more concerted approach to address them. 

    Unfortunately, at the present time one isn’t able to perform a blood test that would serve as a positive diagnostic test to confirm a mental illness. However, a recent possibility is the development of one for stress, which could directly or indirectly bear upon indications such as anxiety and depression. Medistress, a spinout from Oxford University, believes it may have a novel blood test that measures the immune response to stress. This idea remains to be tested in various scenarios before one may be able to measure stress with an unbiased number, but research continues to push the boundaries of our knowledge of disease mechanisms, to test new hypotheses, and configure diagnostics and therapeutics for mental illnesses. 

    Simultaneously, efforts continue to increase awareness of mental health issues and remove the associated stigma. One such initiative is the DMAX Foundation. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a DHHS public health initiative that provides information related to prevention hotlines, and is a good national and regional resource for researching options regarding treatments and funding options. 

    Bollywood celebrity, Deepika Padukone, recently made public the fact that she had suffered from depression, and recovered. Her interview on how she came to understand that she was suffering from depression is an eye-opener (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srGbyn8Ad5E). This kind of public discourse may encourage awareness that since these illnesses can be taken in stride with current medical modalities, it is high time that associated stigma be discouraged. 

    As the 2020 election campaigns ramp up, conversations related to health care, and specifically mental health issues, are very much in the forefront. Joe Biden reportedly wants to improve facilities for mental health care for children, Amy Klobuchar is focused on funding mental health research, and Bernie Sanders and Seth Moulton target mental health services for veterans. A non-partisan group called Mental Health for US which includes prominent mental health groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is pushing for the candidates to articulate their policies on mental health and addiction clearly. They intend to facilitate direct and informed interactions between voters and candidates in town-halls and other events. 

    In addition to increasing awareness by these public means, family and friends can help persons with mental illness by being aware and supportive. As mentioned, keeping a careful watch over behavioral changes, appetite, sleep patterns, and other physical symptoms including nausea, breathing problems, and palpitations will serve as an indication that the person needs to seek counselling and/or psychiatric help. Disturbing patterns in these parameters should be considered seriously. Taking the time to convince the potential patient that consulting with a counsellor/psychiatrist is important for their wellbeing could be the first step to treating the mental illness, and a path towards a healthy and productive life. 

    Author Bio:

    L. Iyengar has earned a Ph.D., and has been involved in research programs targeting human therapeutics in India and the USA. She is the author of White Blackmail, a work of fiction and a medical thriller. Links to her recent publications may be found at www.liyengar.com.

    Jumping Into Muck: Article 15 Takes on Caste

    The hot sams (samosas) are for Rs. 4. It’s not a canteen. It’s a cafe. At the cafe at St. Stephen’s college in Delhi University, you might be asked to zap the chap (chapati). Denizens of this elite college can be heard discussing the G-jams (gulab jamuns) in Carol Gardens (yes, Karol Bagh for the rest of you.) And writing the IAS examinations that propel students into the elite cadre of administrators is de riguer. (But hold that thought about the Rs. 4 samosa).

    Because this is the rarefied environment from which has emerged police officer Ayan Ranjan (played by an English-swearing Ayushmann Khurana) in Article 15. Ranjan is sent to Lalganj, as deputy-Chief of district police, as penance for saying “cool, sir” to a senior officer. This film could have gone in the direction of English, August: An Indian Story (1988) by Upamanyu Chatterjee that described the ennui and maladjustment of a self-absorbed Indian civil servant when he is posted in the hinterland.

    Instead, it is more a crime thriller like Mississipi Burning, with stark shots by cinematographer Ewan Mulligan of two young dalit girls swinging lifeless from a tree. The lynching victims, Ranjan finds out, had the audacity to ask for a raise in their daily wages for Rs. 3 (less than that samosa in St. Stephen’s cafe.) The film is a chilling indictment of a complicit bureaucracy to a Hall of Shame. Film director Anubhav Sinha has closely paralleled multiple true events including 2014 Badaun gang rape allegations and 2016 Una flogging incident in the film. The title is a reference to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste. 

    The stellar Ayushman Khurana, who has been playing the role of the slightly defective ordinary Indian guy next door, is believable in the film, if slightly less anglicised than that chap-zapping Stephanian. Manoj Pahwa does justice to a negative role as a sinister double-chinned thulla (or mama) (or cop). Sayani Gupta and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub shine as dalits who clearly see oppression, but are powerless against an entrenched system. 

    A haunting image in the film is of a man jumping into a manhole and emerging from a full body dubki (dunk) into sewage. Footage of garbage piling up as dalits refuse to be treated as trash sends a clear message. Time for some upper caste brown sahibs and memsahibs to jump into the muck. Any takers?

    Article 15 (2019). Director: Anubhav Sinha; Writers: Anubhav Sinha, Gaurav Solanki. Players: Ayushmann Khurrana, Isha Talwar, Manoj Pahwa. Producer: Sagar Shirgaonkar. Cinematographer: Ewan Mulligan. Production companies: Benaras Mediaworks and Zee Studios.

    Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.

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    Are Competitions Beneficial For The Music Aspirant?

    Helping your children pursue Indian classical music and sustaining their interest through years of training and performance is no easy task. In the concluding part of her article on classical music education in America. musician Rajeswari Satish has laid out many aspects that are important in this journey.

    Public Performance

    The number of concert opportunities for Indian-American youth has skyrocketed in the last decade. As I write this, I estimate that there are hundreds of community organizations that promote young talent. There are values that they engender, such as encouragement and appreciation from the local music community, support and inspiration from musical peers. For many students, such opportunities ease the pressure of having to travel to India and spare them the exhausting efforts to carve out concert opportunities there.

    However, excellence is often equated with exposure. The two go hand in hand only when the latter is handled responsibly. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to get everyone performing at a certain age. While some may be ready to exhibit their prodigious talent at the age of eleven, others may take an additional ten years to gain the maturity and confidence. While some are interested in performing, others are happy just learning. It is imperative that the teacher ascertains the readiness of each student for each available opportunity. 

    Arangetram concerts with professional accompanists are increasingly common. These can be positive experiences if the student has had years of steady learning in preparation for a full-length concert. In many instances, the entire learning process is aimed at performing an arangetram, after which the connection with the music is non-existent. Ironically, the marker of a lifelong musical journey becomes a parting ceremony!

    Take a look at community concerts and musical productions. Are we paying attention to whether they promote musical excellence? Volunteers who are keen to preserve culture, are sometimes inadequately informed, and initiate ventures that do not necessarily focus on the musical output. Don’t we all want public programs to go well beyond satisfying parents’ excessive eagerness to showcase their children?

    Group singing, with ten, twenty or many more vocalists is routinely featured in many Carnatic music events. Many such community events welcome only group participation, to the exclusion of individual talent. This may be appropriate when the concept has a relevant musical message.  The musical value of large groups presenting concert-style music is moot. With multiple instruments and voices vying for volume and attention, often with endless manipulations of sound systems, discerning audiences find group presentations rather tiresome and wanting in musical excellence. The presenters have to put in an enormous amount of rehearsal time to blend the voices well, a rare occurrence. One valid rationale is that such events create performance opportunities for individuals who otherwise might never get to a public stage, ensuring a guaranteed audience (consisting mainly of the parents of the performers). A few quality control measures would greatly enhance these endeavors. Teachers must bracket students of similar abilities, and make sure that each participant is capable of rendering their part solo and mistake-free, so that the collective musical output is enjoyable. We do come across a few exemplary programs such as well-researched thematic presentations with lasting musical value. A model example that we can look up to is the impeccably synchronized group singing of Kamalamba Navavarana kritis by the senior students of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, headed by Mrs. Seetha Rajan. A flawless and neat recording from a few decades ago, this work succeeds in bringing out compositional nuances beautifully and serves as a learner’s reference. Notably, this is also an example of a fairly rare situation, suitable for certain composition suites, where group presentation is more powerful and effective than individual singing.

     Finally, it would be beneficial to contemplate on whether public performance is the only incentive for learning. Wouldn’t it be more important to structure the learning environments towards creating love and understanding of the art form rather than fostering a “perform or perish” environment? For a musical community to thrive, we need performers, students, teachers, listeners, organizers, and critics —a community bound together by the love for the music. To any attendee, a performance must be a musical experience, not an obligation. Solutions could include limiting the number of programs during a given month in a given area, with  each organization and music school consciously working to raise standards of performance rather than the number of performers and events. Programs could focus on introducing a variety of music-related issues such as language, philosophy, voice or instrumental training, organization, and critiquing, for students interested in these different areas. This requires detailed planning at the community level, in consultation with experts.

    Competitions

    Competitions are huge confidence builders. Of course, it is possible to build a successful career without having entered a single competition, and they do become irrelevant in the long term. Nevertheless, they are breeding grounds for excellence and hard work. In competitions we witness the emergence of new stars, who get an early career boost. However, they are not for everyone. There are equally talented students that either compete enthusiastically, or completely shy away from competing. Winning may guarantee opportunities, but unmistakable talent may be eventually revealed through other avenues as well.

    In America, competitions have unfortunately become high-stake affairs, and often the only route to qualify for concerts. The number of competitions has risen in almost all recognized events in the country now, and children as young as three are pushed into competing. In the mad rush to win a prize, little does the student or parent realize that there is much precious learning lost. The gravest misstep that I see is sending students to manodharma (improvisational) categories in competitions when they are far from ready. Well-meaning teachers get flak from parents for refusing to send students who are not yet ready. In order to present manodharma, students need to have the  basic ability to create musical phrases on their own. It is not unusual to see a child barely eight years of age, having learned less than ten kritis in total, attempting ragam, neraval, and swaram. When canned swarams are delivered with no context or understanding, imagine the danger of forgetting a single note midway! Exceptional students may display aptitude for improvisation at a very young age.  However, encouraging students who are not ready to take part does more damage than benefit in the long run. Senior experts recommend introducing manodharma only to those that have learned at least a hundred kritis. In addition to this guideline, it is advisable to teach at least two kritis in the particular ragam chosen for manodharma.

    Rather than allowing a pre-packaged set to be delivered after months of rote practice, the adjudicators can test improvisational ability of the competitors by posing a few judicious questions, nudging them in the right direction. In addition, written feedback can be provided to each participant. Mandatory interaction between the judges and the competitor ensures that each participant walks away with a positive learning experience. Let us focus on the real grand prize, a lifetime filled with music, not those won at competitions.

    Importance of deep training 

    In an environment obsessed with rushing to the concert stage, let us not overlook long term musical growth. Students need time to devote to regular lessons, and time is often the scarcest resource. Multiple events crammed into weekends cut into learning and practice times. For a musician who aspires to higher performance levels, breadth in repertoire and depth in the knowledge of raga (“raga jnanam”) are goals to be chased meticulously. Raga is a dynamic concept in Carnatic music, and it’s understanding must grow as training progresses. A wide repertoire in the same raga, combined with a critical thought process enables a musician to explore it in many fresh ways. Advanced level training should include challenging rhythmic exercises, a crucial skill that helps when performing with accompanying musicians on stage. Singers with  laya (rhythmically) oriented styles typically work further to enrich their vocal presentation with complex rhythmic ideas. 

    Performance-based learning and practice puts the kind of pressure that is beneficial only over short bursts of time. Students need long and enjoyable periods of learning, contemplation, practice and experimentation without a concert constantly looming. Unless learning is ceaseless, a musician risks stagnation. 

    Social media such as Facebook are extensively used for publicity in the Carnatic music world. It is also a favored way for both established and aspiring musicians to network with peers and fans. Concert clippings are shared online on a routine basis . Fans, friends and relatives often feel obliged to acknowledge the postings. Though most feelings are genuine, most of you would agree that it isn’t always about the music. Ever so subtly, the quality of music is translated to the number of “likes,” and the line between mediocrity and true excellence is blurred. It can be misleading to students when praise comes easily. Social media can be useful publicity tools, but it is important to look to credible sources for constructive and critical feedback, and to focus on pushing artistic boundaries.

    Trusting the Guru

    The music teacher is the best person to gauge the readiness of a student for stage, be it a competition or concert. The most vociferous gripe from teachers is that parents do not let the guru weigh in on this important decision. Colleagues have shared with me outrageous instances involving parents of four-year-old kids demanding lessons with a future arangetram date in mind.

    A child’s interest and musical capacity have to be carefully appraised by a teacher before embarking on a serious musical journey. Teachers find it necessary to turn some students away purely because of their apathy, lack of commitment, and in rare cases, total musical incapacity. To train students of all levels, a teacher’s nurturing and patient care is essential. The guru, assessing the capacity of the student at each stage, is responsible for selecting a suitable repertoire. The guru must also be the authority to decide if the student is ready for a public performance or competition. Parents place teachers in touchy situations when they demand that a certain complex kriti be taught (when the student is clearly not ready), or that the student be enrolled in manodharma competitions when they are not even able to mimic phrases. Ditto when parents ask that the student be prepared for a concert that would look good in a college application. The lack of a formalized syllabus in Carnatic music, and extensive variation in individual approaches makes such decisions even more complicated. In exceptional cases, students from families with absolutely no musical orientation do excel. However, in these successful cases, dedication, hard work and complete trust in the guru’s decisions are evident.

    This discussion would be incomplete if I didn’t point out the objectionable practice of scrapping the first guru. It is an unfortunate practice of students not acknowledging and sometimes completely severing connection with the first teacher that painstakingly imparted the fundamentals, to associate themselves exclusively with the later, more acclaimed teacher. Students would do well to acknowledge the role of every teacher that has aided their musical journey.

    What can teachers do?

    Risking repetition, I consolidate the points here on how teachers can contribute to a healthier environment. Our first and foremost focus must be to instill in the students (and parents) the benefits of involved musical training. Never overlook training on the fundamental aspects of raga and tala and constantly aim to gain proficiency in these. The teacher, student, and parents must all concur on lesson policies, practice schedules and level of commitment, before lessons begin. Clear communication of learning/teaching approaches to the parents must happen, making sure that the parents understand the perils of premature performances. If large group settings are the norm, individual teaching and monitoring must happen from time to time to ensure that learning is effective. Teachers must include lyrics, language, context and meaning in classroom discussions.  Creative incentives to encourage listening to concerts, such as trips together, fun post-concert quizzes and discussions, are often helpful. Encourage students to actively support their peers from other schools, and to develop awareness of varied styles.

    Spreading the music

    We are privileged to have a beautifully evolved, strong, traditional system of music. In spite of the multicultural settings we find ourselves in, Carnatic music remains firmly embedded within Indian-American  communities and remains largely unknown outside. Perhaps we could take small steps towards sharing our tradition with those beyond our confines. Many young Indian Americans learning Carnatic music also learn Western classical music, and participate in musical endeavors that involve popular, jazz, R&B and other musical genres. They are connected with the larger musical world out there in a way that their immigrant parents aren’t. They are in a better position to bring attention to the music from the outside and expand its audience base. Organizations can take this aspect into consideration, collaborate with local musicians, and come up with innovative solutions to stage Carnatic music for newer audiences.

    The Future

    Carnatic music in the US now enjoys more popularity, and more participants than ever before. Upon a quick glance, it appears healthy as we see the exploding number of artists and broader access to music. For the long-term survival of the true values of Carnatic music, we need to spread awareness of its finer aspects. To that end, it is crucial to identify and correct any missteps that may escalate in the longer term. The supportive environment that the current young Indian American generation enjoys is unparalleled. The abundant human and financial resources available now can be mobilized to the maximum — in projecting the music to the general public, in welcoming new participants, and in fostering a better long-term commitment from teachers, students and practitioners. A better-informed population, and attentively thought out processes in learning, teaching and disseminating the art form will ensure a better future for the young Carnatic ecosystem in America. 

    Rajeswari Satish is a Carnatic vocalist based in New Jersey . She has performed concerts in India, USA and the UK since 1985. In her teaching career that began in 1992, she has trained students at all levels, molding several of them into full-fledged concert artists.  Her gurus include M.A. Venugopal, C.S. Krishna Iyer, P.S. Narayanaswamy and Suguna Varadachari. Currently, she is pursuing a doctoral degree in Ethnomusicology at The City University of New York.

    Acknowledgement: I am grateful to my good friend Raja Bala, performing musician and teacher from Rochester, NY for all the conversations on this topic, for critically reading this article, and shaping and extending my thoughts on various issues.

     Part 1 of the article can be read here: https://indiacurrents.com/starting-classical-music-for-your-child-find-out-about-whats-important/

     

    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.

    First published in November 2018.

     

     

     

    Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

    Thinking and writing about the complexity of mental health issues has jogged several memories. When I was in graduate school a fellow student tried to take his own life. He had a brilliant academic record, was doing well at school, and was Indian. Fortunately, a quick-thinking response made the attempt unsuccessful.  After the incident, the entire extended group of fellow Indian students were all left wondering as to why he had chosen to call a non-Indian acquaintance for help from the emergency room, when it was apparent that he spent most of his barely existent ‘free time’ with one of us. Once he returned to the academic routine, he restricted his interactions to a select few, citing embarrassment. Depression was simply not something to be advertised. Several years later, another colleague frequently recalled his previous advisor’s words with gratitude. Years earlier, she had told him that there was no shame in seeking professional treatment for depression saying that it was necessary to leading a healthy life, just like resetting a broken bone. 

    Although the stigma related to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses is universal, it may be felt more acutely within the Indian and the larger South Asian population. Immigrant Indian-American families have a laser focus on academic and professional success, and they feel the acute need to appear as being a part of a model-minority group. Women in these immigrant groups face a double burden as they are isolated from the larger network of extended family members and relatives/friends which they commonly enjoy in India. The need to avoid any exposure of personal weakness and the pressure to present a stoic appearance to the outside world does not permit a discussion of these problems with the gravity that they merit. 

    In fact, a 2001 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) remains pertinent to the present day when it mentions that “Mental illness is highly stigmatizing in many Asian cultures. In these societies, mental illness reflects poorly on one’s family lineage and can influence others’ beliefs about how suitable someone is for marriage if he or she comes from a family with a history of mental illness.” Harvard Medical School published a study in 2010 on mental health problems in the workplace, citing depression as being the costliest health condition, with anxiety ranking fifth on the same list. 

    Cultural factors impinge on Mental Illness 

    A combination of three factors is required for mental health deficits to manifest: 

    1. Biological and genetic factors; 
    2. Psychological factors including individual psychological thresholds, perception and interpretation.
    3. Social factors including environment, family and friends. 

    Looking at the three factors, we realize that for immigrant families, social and cultural milieu turns out to be an integral part of this complex equation. First, it has a bearing in the manner in which treatment is sought, i.e., through a religious leader, social worker, traditional healer, psychiatrist, psychologist, family support, etc. In close-knit cultural communities, including some immigrant communities, some of these alternative treatment options may be explored in preference to a more mainstream doctor or counsellor. Secondly, in cultures where there is excessive stigma attached to mental illness, patients may first present somatic symptoms which are physical (also called ‘somatization’), and describe psychological symptoms only upon further investigation. Additionally, other obvious social factors are language barriers in immigrant populations, and affordability of care. 

    Cultural norms may also decide which emotional and subjective concerns are considered significant. In specific instances mental illnesses can be concentrated in certain communities, but this is dependent on whether genetic or social factors have a greater impact on this indication. For example, schizophrenia correlates with genetic factors, but depression, anxiety and suicide rates may be more dependent on cultural and societal factors. 

    Mental Health versus Mental Illness 

    Mental health and mental illness are points on a continuum, not a pair of opposites. Although mental illness is better understood since it has symptoms related to aberrant functioning of mood, behavior and thinking which cannot be ignored, good mental health is more than just the lack of an identifiable illness. It includes emotional and psychological well-being, the ability to perform productive mental activities, have fulfilling relationships, have the ability to cope with adversity and change, and is admittedly difficult to define precisely as its definition is biased by individual and cultural value judgements. 

    Mental illnesses range from the better-defined diseases of schizophrenia, bipolar disease, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) to phobias, personality disorders, depression, and anxiety. As expected, there is greater awareness of the former group of defined illnesses than the latter. Depression is the most common mental health disorder, and it is estimated that it will be a leading cause of disability by 2020. 

    Thus, mental health is increasingly being considered a public health issue, and initiatives are being created to promote mental wellness in all age groups especially amongst students in universities and also amongst other age groups within professional organizations. The importance of good diet, regular physical activity, sleep, relaxation, meditation/mindfulness, and healthy peer interactions are stressed. 

    Role of Counseling

    The role of counseling in the maintenance of mental health is not trivial. A sympathetic ear and professional advice is an important avenue to preserve mental health, and can potentially alleviate mental illness in early stages. In cultures where stigma prevents individuals from accessing early interventional professional help (Indians are known to be more inhibited in this matter than the general population), treatment is finally sought only when mental illness presents as a condition which cannot be ignored. To stress that seeking help is key to healing, “Maintaining patient confidentiality is of utmost importance with psychiatrists,” states Dr. Uma Nuthi, a practicing psychiatrist in Pennsylvania. This is not restricted only to patient information, she says, but also to the very basic fact that an individual is indeed a patient seeking these services. Mental health is as important as physical health, and needs to be maintained with the same effort and by giving it equal importance. 

    How can a parent help children stay mentally stable?

    “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” This pithy sentiment of Dr. Seuss is echoed in the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study that was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. ACEs was initiated in 1995, and follows the long-term health outcomes of participants with respect to the association of ACEs with health and social problems over the entire lifespan. The incidence of high-risk behaviors in adulthood correlated with the number of ACEs, which also correlated with an increased incidence of serious illnesses including heart disease, cancer, and depression, along with an increased risk of attempted suicide. Even in those fortunate instances where ACEs are not an issue screen time may come into play, as we continue with our modern-day obsession with smartphones, tablets, computers, electronic games, and the now outdated television. While the long-term effects of young children being extensively exposed to screens is still emerging, there seems to be a correlation of length of screen time with changes in learning ability and sleep cycles. 

    To promote mental wellness, healthy interactions between family members are stressed and we also find that children often complain that parents are not available to them because they are constantly busy with their phones or computers. Notwithstanding such inter-generational issues, parents should be vigilant about aspects of their children’s life and habits such as their friends and peers, changes in performance at school and interactions outside of school, and changes in physical symptoms including appetite, sleep patterns, and nausea to name a few. If changes are noticeable and cause concern for several weeks, it may be prudent to explore a more concerted approach to address them. 

    Unfortunately, at the present time one isn’t able to perform a blood test that would serve as a positive diagnostic test to confirm a mental illness. However, a recent possibility is the development of one for stress, which could directly or indirectly bear upon indications such as anxiety and depression. Medistress, a spinout from Oxford University, believes it may have a novel blood test that measures the immune response to stress. This idea remains to be tested in various scenarios before one may be able to measure stress with an unbiased number, but research continues to push the boundaries of our knowledge of disease mechanisms, to test new hypotheses, and configure diagnostics and therapeutics for mental illnesses. 

    Simultaneously, efforts continue to increase awareness of mental health issues and remove the associated stigma. One such initiative is the DMAX Foundation. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a DHHS public health initiative that provides information related to prevention hotlines, and is a good national and regional resource for researching options regarding treatments and funding options. 

    Bollywood celebrity, Deepika Padukone, recently made public the fact that she had suffered from depression, and recovered. Her interview on how she came to understand that she was suffering from depression is an eye-opener (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srGbyn8Ad5E). This kind of public discourse may encourage awareness that since these illnesses can be taken in stride with current medical modalities, it is high time that associated stigma be discouraged. 

    As the 2020 election campaigns ramp up, conversations related to health care, and specifically mental health issues, are very much in the forefront. Joe Biden reportedly wants to improve facilities for mental health care for children, Amy Klobuchar is focused on funding mental health research, and Bernie Sanders and Seth Moulton target mental health services for veterans. A non-partisan group called Mental Health for US which includes prominent mental health groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is pushing for the candidates to articulate their policies on mental health and addiction clearly. They intend to facilitate direct and informed interactions between voters and candidates in town-halls and other events. 

    In addition to increasing awareness by these public means, family and friends can help persons with mental illness by being aware and supportive. As mentioned, keeping a careful watch over behavioral changes, appetite, sleep patterns, and other physical symptoms including nausea, breathing problems, and palpitations will serve as an indication that the person needs to seek counselling and/or psychiatric help. Disturbing patterns in these parameters should be considered seriously. Taking the time to convince the potential patient that consulting with a counsellor/psychiatrist is important for their wellbeing could be the first step to treating the mental illness, and a path towards a healthy and productive life. 

    Author Bio:

    L. Iyengar has earned a Ph.D., and has been involved in research programs targeting human therapeutics in India and the USA. She is the author of White Blackmail, a work of fiction and a medical thriller. Links to her recent publications may be found at www.liyengar.com.

    Masterful Debut Novel

    Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel – The Far Field – is many things all at once. A tale that spans from Bangalore to Kashmir, a tale that hints at the dark clouds of mental illness, of love lost and unrequited and the protagonist’s attempt to be honest about her own role in the story. 

    The novel spins on the relationship that the protagonist Shalini shares with her mother –   “Somebody once described my mother as a strong woman,” she says without fuss. The vignettes she paints about her mother are where she is at her best  – “My mother, with her lightning tongue and her small collection of idols on a shelf in the kitchen. My mother, with her stubborn refusal to admit the existence of meat or other faiths, who crossed the street when we passed a halal butcher with his row of skinned goats, their flanks pink and shiny as burn scars.”  

    Her father, a successful business executive, looks on at the world with pragmatism and confidence.

    In the previous quote, the admission that her mother crossed the street at the sight of a halal butcher’s stall takes on new meaning as the novel progresses. A Muslim – Bashir Ahmed, enters their house selling Kashmiri kurtas and shawls, carrying a cloth bundle on his shioulders. He tries to eke out a living far from his home in Kashmir by walking from door to door selling his wares on the streets of Bangalore. 

    “I was six the first time he came, and I still remember it. How my mother had not ceased moving even for a second, all week….How she had intense surges of laughter at nothing. How she cooked, a pile of vessels growing dangerously high in the sink, but how, at the same time, she claimed never to be hungry….When the bell rang that afternoon, I was in the living room.” The afternoon visits start then, and soon, Bashir Ahmed is the teller of tall tales about his land that leave mother and daughter listening with mouths agape.

    With his arrival, the strife in Kashmir enters their lives in faraway Bangalore – during one of Bashir Ahmed’s visits, her father happens to be home sick and launches into a tirade that will sound similar to what many Hindus might have heard right in their homes. “These poor Pandits leaving their houses and running away in the middle of the night, because they might be killed for being Hindu! It’s sheer madness, and these militants sound like animals.” And, the verbal lynching goes on.  To this, Bashir responds saying, “It is very sad about the Pandits, janaab. But that is happening in the Valley. In my area (in the mountains) no Hindus are being killed.” After a while, Bashir Ahmed stops coming to their house, for reasons that are explained later.

    When Shalini becomes an adult, she leaves in search of the vendor Bashir Ahmed in the mountains in Kashmir and a whole set of characters appear. Army soldiers who rule Kashmiri towns with impunity, men and women who grieve the disappearance of loved ones, tiny offices where grieving mothers file petitions to the government, and the harsh conditions in which they eke out a living.  Soon Shalini’s life starts to intersect in complicated ways with Bashir Ahmed’s family, and her choices start to matter in their lives as well.

    The author has tried to marry the political to the personal, and for some reason, the political side of the equation did not carry with it the urgency that the personal did for me. Two themes that she repeats at opportune times in the novel when she comments on the choices made by characters in her novel stayed with mel. Never be a coward. Do something, anything – is advice that her mother first spouts and other characters in the novel spout this too at other times. Along with this, comes another piece of advice that seems to have been drawn from the Bhagavad Gita – without action, what is there to life but to wait to die? A question that hangs with great significance in the context of the novel and one that seems to reach every reader.

    The tautness with which she draws the characters of her parents, Bashir Ahmed and herself does not somehow extend to the characters living in the mountains in faraway Kashmir. However, in the lines of the plot, she masterfully manages  to carry a certain tension that lasts till the last page of the novel. A twist at the very end only amplifies this tension.

    A masterful debut novel and a must read!

    Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine.

     

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