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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni with Vandana Kumar

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni with Vandana Kumar

Spending too much time in reality? Come escape with one of the most popular and talented storytellers of our time – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Divakaruni is the author of over 18 books, including Mistress of Spices, which was the 2009 pick for One Book One Community: San Mateo County Reads, and the bestselling The Palace of Illusions. She is considered one of the Twenty Most Influential Global Indian Women and oftentimes writes about the Indian experience, contemporary America, women, immigration, history, myth, family, and the joys and challenges of living in a multicultural world.

Her new novel, The Forest of Enchantments, promises to be as exceptional as the rest of her work. It’s a retelling of Ramayana, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. The traditional Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the legendary prince of the Kosala Kingdom. Divakaruni retells the story from his wife Sita’s perspective.

Already know well the story of Rama? You won’t be disappointed by Divakaruni’s exquisite poetic prose in her retelling. Unfamiliar with the story of Rama? Divarkaruni’s exceptional storytelling will draw you in and not let you go.

Divakaruni will be in conversation with Vandana Kumar, who, as a new immigrant, co-founded India Currents magazine in 1987. Fully digital today, India Currents has the largest following among Indians in the United States.

Date And Time

Tue, November 5, 2019

7:30 PM – 8:30 PM PST

Location

Kepler’s Books

1010 El Camino Real

Menlo Park, CA 94025

Tickets here

RaajneeTEEN: A Chat with Deepa Mahesh

RaajneeTEEN: A Chat with Deepa Mahesh

The 2020 presidential election is not a race. It is a battlefield. Scattered across its rugged landscape is an onslaught of tweets and hashtags, opinions hurled from every edge of the American demography. From our broken healthcare system to our toxic immigration legislation, it is clear that America has everything to gain – and much to lose. 

2020 Presidential Candidate Sen. Kamala Devi Harris, knows what is at stake. Since her emergence in mainstream American politics during the controversial Brett Kavanaugh questioning, Harris has captured public interest with her visceral speeches.. As a South Asian woman, she is a pioneer in political territory that has long been foreign to Indian-Americans. To discuss her representation of our community, we spoke with fifteen-year old Deepa Mahesh, a member of Kamala Harris’s South Asians For The People initiative. 

“My group is all about uniting people in this community who want to fight for Kamala”, explains Deepa. “Unity gives us a lot more power, and makes our stances a lot more clear and more well-known in this sphere of politics… we’re fighting for her so she can fight for us.” 

Deepa’s role in this initiative includes maintaining a consistent social media presence, spreading the news among students, and communicating with voters and supporters. As a young person in this unique political climate, she is molded by the flame of America’s polarizing past . 

“I was first drawn to politics in seventh or eighth grade, when the 2016 elections were drawing to a close. And from then on, politics became really intriguing. It affected everything around me, from people I’ve seen… to people in Washington..and then this 2020 election started. I looked at the candidates, and I was instantly attracted to Kamala … As a South Asian, I was..happy to see someone like me … She is an amazing speaker. She’s the kind of person to command an audience and she has experiences that I don’t think..that other candidates can toss into the ring…I really share her social views and her beliefs, and I was just..drawn to her.” 

Unfortunately, the same heated social climate that drew Deepa into politics drove other teenagers her age further into indifference and apathy. Social media and the other casualties of an internet age serve as prime distractions from pressing societal issues. Deepa offers advice for other alienated or indifferent students, “ teenagers should know that just because we don’t see people exactly like ourselves in politics, doesn’t mean that we are invalid. Don’t let that be a roadblock in your path…if you have a stance, always remember to fight for it and act on it. It’s one of the greatest things in our country that we are allowed to do..”

On the surface, Deepa Mahesh is just your average San Jose teenager. “I really enjoy playing video games online in my spare time,” she laughs. “I know it’s not the most productive hobby.” But her voice exudes a sense of social awareness, and her commitment towards the Kamala Harris campaign is reflective of the immense potential of the South Asian youth community. 

Politics, in a sense, is the larger-than-life, funhouse reflection of another video game, from its unspoken rules to its spiraling conflicts. And young people really do have the power to navigate these challenges – as long as we give them the chance to play. 

*Raajneeti is the Hindi word for politics. The title is a play on words, as this article is about teenagers’ contributions to American politics today.

Kanchan Naik is a rising junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California.

Edited by Meera Kymal.

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    Southern Summer, Indian Charm

    Southern Summer, Indian Charm

    Summer in the South East lingers on like an old friend. Fall waits patiently to move in. Winter is a distant dream in books about Christmas, and long days are still a tangible reality. While others around me await cooler weather, I rejoice holding on to every balmy bit of the remaining glory of summer.

    The abundant southern sunlight falls onto my wooden floors, strong, straight, sharp lines of hope.The power of the scorching sun is ruthless and inescapable.

    Summer rains are answered prayers. The subjects of love poems and Bollywood story lines, a nurturing potion to an Indian heart. The dampness in the air before the smell of showers accentuates the heaviness of the humid air. The smell of the earth after a monsoon like rainstorm is the quintessential smell of Indian soil. And when the rain hasn’t complied, the dust rises as a mountain. Smells, of chai and curry travel heavily reverberating to the lazy spinning of ceiling fans on sleepy afternoons. While working the invasion of bugs, slothful, creeping, crawling creatures, the irritating jewels of summer.

    Visually the subtropics of the South are similar to the topography of India. The ripe green of the thick trees as the leaves mature from spring to late summer, ripened  by the very harshness of the sun, waiting for a new life. Jasmine and rose linger in the air, so do basil and ginger. House plants include lemons and chile pepper and farmer’s markets sell Okra!

    Traditional houses have Carolina rooms and long porches with high roomy ceilings, drinking ice tea, eating peaches and watermelons, much like afternoons of sharbat, pakoras (hush puppies, anyone?) and,cucumbers with a dash of salt, Lassis and hand held paper fans. Ahh the carelessness, the pleasure of complaining about the heat over shooing flies from mangoes. Diverse bugs serenade the big mouths of hazy street lights in blue-grey late dusk.

    Carolina wrens break out into rippling sonorous songs much like the cuckoo, the best sound of my childhood and just when the cacophonous daytime sounds of the chiquitas fades, the crickets start their soporific, deafening music. In the arms of such warm comfort I can sleep soundly, without a care, for it will be just as hot tomorrow and I will be home.

    Preeti Hay is the Managing Editor of India Currents.

    Gandhi by Naatak: the Man behind the Legend

    Gandhi by Naatak: the Man behind the Legend

    “No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try and find one’s way to the heart of the man…”

    Thus begins Richard Attenborough’s epic 1982 film Gandhi with the extraordinary Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. The much-lauded film, a deeply moving homage, was made by an Englishman, for an international audience. Every word spoken in that film is in English. Even Gandhi’s unforgettable words on being shot, “He Ram!” known to every Indian, are spoken as “Oh God!” in the film.

    In pleasing contrast, Naatak’s play, Gandhi, musical theater in the tradition of Naatak’s own “Mahabharat,” is multilingual, capturing India’s vibrancy in its many tongues. Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil are spoken, Bengali is sung along with Hindi and Gujarati, and we even see a couple of signs in Malayalam. Supertitles in English make the languages accessible to all. I watched it on September 20 at the Cubberley auditorium in Palo Alto.

    In writer and director Sujit Saraf’s telling, the story begins with Mahatma Gandhi‘s journey to England, where he went to study law.

    He returned to Bombay as a barrister, and after an unsuccessful 2-year stint, left for Durban, South Africa for work. Armed with his legal degree, he successfully represented oppressed Indian laborers, and gained stature and respect, both in South Africa, and in India. On returning to India as a well-known figure, he took on his historic role in India’s independence movement, transforming in time to “the little brown man in a loincloth who led his country to freedom” in the words of American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow at Gandhi’s funeral.

    Attenborough’s film has been criticized by some as hagiography. as it unquestionably and admiringly portrays the saintly qualities of the man. Gandhi also had his eccentricities and odd, extreme behaviors. Sujit Saraf’s telling paints a more balanced portrait of the man, with his idiosyncrasies. He was not born, after all, as the Father of the Nation. In a few clever scenes, Naatak shows Gandhi’s foibles. He stops drinking cow’s milk, believing that the milk meant for calves is taken forcibly from a mother. When asked why it was OK to drink goat’s milk, and why he didn’t have the same reservations, he smiles and shrugs.

    Then, the experiments with celibacy. As asked in the play, “Shouldn’t his wife have a say in the matter?” The play shows his early life and career in great detail, and humanizes the legend. Listen to more about this portrayal at KQED radio, where Sujit Saraf spoke with Michael Krasny on Forum earlier this month.

    Naatak presents with fitting respect, Gandhi’s coining the term Satyagraha, the force of truth: the term for peaceful protests and civil resistance that are among his greatest contributions to society. Gandhi emerges as a man of conviction, a believer in fairness and justice, a calm, skilled negotiator in the face of racist opposition.

    What runs most deeply through the play, as in his life, is Gandhi’s deep desire to unite Hindus and Muslims. On being told that “there is too much bad blood” in Noakhali, Bangladesh, he responded movingly “It is the same blood, good or bad.”

    One of the most egregious and dishonorable attacks by Britain on Indian soil, the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, is depicted with tremendous artistry and power. As General Dyer commands his troops “Take your positions!” and continues with “Fire!”, the dancers fall to the ground, one by one, until none are standing. This, for me, was the most powerful scene in the play.

    It was on the anniversary of this day that Gandhi planned to peacefully protest British oppression by marching to the coastline and making salt from the Indian Ocean. With civil resistance, he broke the British resolve.

    In addition to NehruJinnahMaulana Azad, and Sardar Patel, Naatak’s play is inclusive of more of the major historical figures and freedom fighters of the time:  Bhagat SinghRabindranath TagoreSarojini Naidu, and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.  Soon after Tagore appears, we hear one of his most famous patriotic songs “Ekla Chalo Re” (“If no one comes when you call, then go on alone”).

    Then independence and the bloodbath following Partition, was shown with a stage lit in blood-red.

    The play ends with Gandhi’s assassination, the shock of the nation and the heartbreak of his loss permeating the audience. He fell to the volatile religious sentiment and animosity that he worked so hard to quench.

    The play focuses much time on the making of the man. I wondered if a trade-off could have been made with more time devoted to the independence movement.

    The acting overall is impressive and moving, even though some attempts to show his culture shock when he arrived in England to study law, being taught how to dance and play the violin, were a little slapstick.

    The set is made of newspaper reports from Gandhi’s times: a period of extraordinary historic importance, World War II, India’s independence and Partition. The mood and import of the scenes are accentuated by the changing lighting that one sees through the set pieces.

    The inclusion of live music and dance continues to enrich Naatak’s impressive productions. The dances are colorful and engaging, complementing the seriousness of the lyrics, set in South Africa in the early 19th century, and pre-Independence India. The music was extraordinary. Music director Nachiketa Yakkundi and his troupe are jewels at the edge of the stage.

    Performances continue for the next two weekends, with a special performance on Oct 2, 2019, the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Tickets are available (if any are left!) at www.naatak.org.

    This article was originally published at www.rajiwrites.com and is included here with permission.

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

    Cover photo credit: Kyle Adler

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    Are Competitions Beneficial For The Music Aspirant?

    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?

    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.

     

     

     

    Choosing a Good Death

    Choosing a Good Death

    Arjan Tolani died peacefully on July 15, 2019, with his wife next to him and his son Sunil holding his hand. Shabad Gurbani, a sacred hymn of Guru Granth Sahib – the principal scripture of Sikhism – played gently in the background. Mr. Tolani lived a full, noble life and died peacefully and in comfort in hospice at home. His family was also at peace knowing this was what he wanted, and that they had provided all the care, love and comfort for him in his last days. He was 82.

    Mr. Tolani never fully recovered from an infection he contracted sixteen months prior to his death. He progressively declined in spite of the excellent care he received from hospitals, doctors, nurses, and therapists. “We – his family – knew his wishes for medical treatment and end of life,” Sunil Tolani told me, “and the doctors and nurses treated us as peers, partners, confidants, and most importantly, as our Dad’s voice. Dad was at peace and in comfort knowing we were his safe haven. His being in hospice at home meant peace, love, and complete care.” Sunil paused, remembering, “a week before Father’s Day, Dad smiled weakly as I gave him a few teaspoons of tea while praying he would be with me for one more Father’s Day. We are smiling today, secure in the knowledge that we did our best for Dad, and he knew that.” I asked Sunil how the decision was made for his father to transition from curative to hospice care. “The family decided,” he responded, “we had all talked about it.”

    Death touches us all. However, most people find end-of-life discussions uncomfortable. A 2012 California Health Care Foundation survey on communicating end-of-life wishes showed 56% of those polled had not discussed their preferences with the ones they would want to make decisions on their behalf. Two out of three Asians had not done so. When asked why, the four most common answers were “I have too many things to worry about right now,” “I don’t want to think about death and dying,” “my loved one does not want to talk about death,” and “it’s a long way off.” Only 38% of respondents had heard of an Advance Directive. A mere 4% of all 2010 deaths in hospice care were Asian.

    Why do Indians and South Asians find end-of-life conversations especially difficult? It’s not that we don’t want “a good death.” Sunil Tolani describes us as a “prosperous, intelligent, educated but superstitious community.” Dr. Neelu Mehra, Chief of Palliative Care at Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City, says the Indian community in general believes talking about death will make it happen sooner. “It’s an ominous sign,” she says, “that’s one of the reasons they do not want to fill out Advance Directives or talk about future planning.” Consequently, Indians are often ill-prepared and traumatized when thrust into making difficult medical decisions. “I know many adult Indian Americans, who have elderly parents come to live with them and they find that they cannot raise this topic because it’s a taboo to talk about death,” she adds This can leave doctors frustrated and unable to meaningfully discuss medical options with patients and families. Many are used to being told by doctors in India what to do and unable to respond when asked to make decisions. Some suspect doctors of withholding information or not telling the whole story. “Getting Indian families to agree to end-of-life discussions can be a monumental task,” Dr. Mehra says, “we Indians are very comfortable accepting what comes our way. We accept death when it comes; that’s black and white. However, we are very uncomfortable with the shades of gray in between; we don’t know how to make difficult choices, and don’t know how to support loved ones so they do not suffer. We are hesitant to learn about and make choices that could alleviate suffering.”

    Dr. VJ Periyakoil’s course on Health and Healthcare of Asian Indian American Adults – part of Stanford University School of Medicine’s Ethnogeriatrics Program – sheds further light on complexities that shape attitudes of traditional Asian Indian families: Many have a hierarchy of decision-makers, usually beginning with the oldest son as the primary contact and disseminator of information. Families may be reluctant to discuss personal and emotional issues with health-care providers, because these are considered very private and traditionally not shared with anyone other than those in the immediate household. Some families may request that the physician withhold information from their loved one who is ill, concerned that the truth about the illness may negate the will to live. Thus, “Doctor saab, please don’t tell Dada-ji that he has cancer. He will just give up and die,” may not be an uncommon request from a Hindu American family. Despite complete understanding of biological causes of illness, it is often believed that the illness is caused by Karma, the law of behavior and consequences in which actions of past life affect the circumstances in which one is born and lives in this life. Physicians may be perceived as incompetent if they sound unsure, or ask the patient or family member for their opinion. Some studies have shown an inverse relationship between the strength of religious and traditional beliefs and the presence of a completed advance care directive. Susan Thrane also points to major beliefs of Hindus, including family and community interconnectedness, Karma, and reincarnation as drivers of attitudes and behaviors.

    Dr. Mehra urges us as a community to “have more upstream conversations about end of life,” and get people to understand that in some instances more treatment is not necessarily better; that choices have to be made, so that when the time comes to make decisions, “they won’t find themselves in a firefighting mode. We have a huge opportunity to build awareness and educate South Asians around this issue and overcome the attitudinal barrier that says, ‘I don’t want to talk about it; talking about it means that I’m going to die sooner.’ Having a fire extinguisher at home doesn’t mean that your house will burn down,” she says, “it just means that you are better prepared! You know what to do, and you have the tools to do it.” Ellen Goodman the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and co-founder of The Conversation Project sums up the impact of putting off advance-care planning this way: “It’s always too soon until it’s too late!”

     “The tipping point for me was when my father-in-law unexpectedly fell ill and went into a coma,” a friend of mine recently confided. “My husband and I were anguished over making very difficult decisions about his medical care because he had never told us what he wanted. The very next week, I sat down with my own parents and told them we had to have this conversation. I never want to be in this position again!” Dr. Nicholas Jauregui, the Palliative Care specialist who cared for Arjan Tolani spoke at his memorial service. ““Often families have a very difficult time making the transition from trying to fix all the medical problems that the patient has to acceptancing  that medical technology cannot fix them. This requires them to focus instead on what good can be done: allowing the patient to have a high quality of life at home in their last days.”  

    Arjan Tolani’s last living act – dying – is his undying gift to the rest of us: a gentle reminder that we too need to think about and plan for the end of our lives. Decide what you want for yourself at the end of your life, share this with your family and loved ones, and fill out an Advance Directive. In the words of Lucy Kalanithi, doing this is “a really soulful thing and an act of love.”

    With sincere thanks to Carlos Quintero at Unsplash for the use of his beautiful photograph.

    Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.  

    Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South-Asian community.  Sukham provides information, and access to resources on matters related to health and well-being, aging, life’s transitions including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death in the family and bereavement. If you feel overcome by a crisis and are overwhelmed by Google searches, Sukham can provide curated resource help. To find out more, visit https://www.sukham.org, or contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com.  

     

     

     

    Book Review: The City and the Sea by Raj Kamal Jha

    Book Review: The City and the Sea by Raj Kamal Jha

    The Oscar winning movie The Shape of Water (2017), has a scene where a merman and his human paramour swim in a bathroom filled to the ceiling with water;  her hair streams like elegant seaweed and his fins expand in a glorious, orchestrated dance – a dreamscape that crashes to earth as water leaks through the barricaded door and gushes onto the street.

    Raj Kamal Jha’s novel, The City and the Sea, attempts the same intertwining of two worlds – the fantastic and the functional, reality bleeding into the surreal, as it tries to make sense of the mindless horror that was the rape of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi in 2012.  Public reaction to the savagery of that crime became a national tipping point for activism against atrocities on women in India.

    The novel approaches the fate of Nirbhaya (or ‘fearless’ as Jyoti Singh became known ), in an alternate universe – a twilight zone of vivid, intriguing imagery. Cross-connecting clues – the cream shirt, black jeans and red scarf – that Nirbhaya wore on the day she was killed, are sprinkled liberally throughout. 

    The novel begins when a young boy’s mother disappears one day, after failing to return from her job as a newspaper copy editor. While his father launches a search for his wife and detectives proceed with the mundane task of investigation, the boy is sucked through a metaphysical portal into the fantastical realm of the invisible Sea that lurks in every corner and crevice of the city. Before she went missing, his mother had described this mystical Sea to the boy as a metaphor for all the darker forces that roamed beyond the safe cocoon of their lives.  Like the physical sea, with its fascinating flotsam of debris and objects broken by crashing waves, the metaphysical Sea in Jha’s novel is filled with broken souls and bleeding bodies that become visible to the boy only after an otherworldly night creature called December (for the month in which Nirbhaya’s rape took place), climbs in through his bedroom window and takes him on a journey to find his mother. 

    The story gets progressively darker as references to Nirbhaya and her ordeal are tossed into the narrative by December, who has become the boy’s guide in an alternate, twilight dimension of his universe.  

    Scenes of the boy’s search for his mother alternate with an intriguing depiction of a woman arriving at a cold, empty, German seaside resort set in stark, bizarre surroundings, as if she’s been swallowed by a Dali painting. The two worlds collide eventually, in a sensational, fantasy-fuelled climax. 

    The magical realism of The City and the Sea sucked me in with its compelling images and poetic prose, until the narrative fell clumsily to the ground, weighed down by contrivances and clichés like an overdressed window display – a repentant December sobbing in the mother’s lap, a lineup of missing persons with placards round their necks proclaiming their name and age, and a woman, Sonam, who appears and disappears on the same day as the missing mother.

    In an attempt to soften the deranged nature of the crime, Jha, like a good newspaperman (he’s Editor of the Indian Express), tries to balance the narrative with “the other side of the story.” But it’s difficult to conceive of anything other than a hangman’s noose for a crime as horrific as the violent rape of an innocent girl whose intestines were ripped out with an iron rod. Jha’s musings about the perpetrator’s motivations are too simplistic and sentimental. The savage, sociopathic nature of the crime is swathed in facile, wordy prose, like a gift wrap that’s empty inside.

    Jha’s novel, however, gives us a sense of something important being stirred. It is notable for its creative, poetic attempt to shine a light on an issue which should never be allowed to slip into darkness – the safety of women in India and the social evils of an aggressive, overweening patriarchy that constantly tries to show a woman her place.  

    THE CITY AND THE SEA. By Raj Kamal Jha. Penguin Hamish Hamilton, 2019. ₹397. 240 Pages. Hardcover

    Longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2019 and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, 2019

    Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

    Edited by Contributing Editor Meera Kymal

     

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