Like a whirlpool that draws people from the periphery inside, it continues to draw people inward: Kattrell Christie operates a center for young women in Darjeeling, from the place where she buys her tea for her Atlanta tea shop; Nancy Swing and Russell Sunshine want to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary by taking a trip to India, the country that brought them together; Dr. Giri is a recipient of the Hind Rattan and NRI of the Year awards for his work in Indian universities. Katherine Kunhiraman talks about her artistic journey with her late husband Kunhiraman revealing the kind of passion one must feel for Indian classical dance to pursue it throughout one’s life with unwavering commitment. George and Kausalya Hart bonded over their love for Tamil, an ancient language that drew them into work, research and teaching for decades.
Indeed, the work that we do at India Currents every day is based on a deep and abiding love for India. Celebrating the country that is indeed “Saarey Jahaan Se Achha!,” and loving India just a little deeper this Valentine’s Day! —Nirupama Vaidhyanathan
One Woman’s Quest to Erase Poverty in India
India was the farthest thing from Katrell Christie’s mind in 2007 when the former roller derby competitor and art buyer purchased a tea shop in her hometown of Atlanta. She christened the shop Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party simply because she liked the whimsical sound of it. Less than two years later, India was foremost in her mind.
During an impulsive trip to India suggested by a customer, her organization, The Learning Tea was born and became a life-changing program for several young women in India and Christie herself.
Call her an activist or call her a hero. Christie most likely will say she’s just doing what she loves. She’s a bundle of American can-do resourcefulness and focused passion, and when the two energies combined to empower girls in India, the fusion became the manifestation of Tagore’s words that guide Christie’s life:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy
I awoke and saw that life was service
I acted and behold, service was joy.
Poverty Fuels the Plan
On that first trip, Christie experienced poverty that is, as she described it, “poor in a way that most Americans can’t even imagine”. She—who by American standards grew up poor—vowed to give back, and a chain of events propelled her onward.
While stringing pearls with women in Hyderabad, she learned of a young woman whose father beat her. Christie decided that whatever she did, she would help a girl with a father who might keep her from achieving her potential. When Christie volunteered at a school, she was disturbed to see toddlers going hungry and families that were simply too poor to feed them. Feeling compelled to make a difference, she built raised garden boxes designed to provide lunch and a sustainable food source for the school.
Christie then visited Darjeeling, the place where she sourced tea for her business. The lengthy trek allowed her to think, and by the time she arrived she had determined that she would involve her tea shop, her community, and the tea itself in her work in India. While there, she visited a local Buddhist orphanage from which girls had to leave when they turned 17, and her plans solidified.
Focusing on three girls who would soon be forced out of the orphanage, she listened to their hopes, and their dreams. Those three girls, and their bleak futures compelled Christie to act: The Learning Tea project began.
Christie is honest, down-to-earth, and involved. Armed with those three attributes, she accomplished what others might call “crazy.” Instead of walking away from the girls she strode forward, setting them up in a house with things they would need. She promised to return in six months.
True to her word, Christie returned after fundraising and scraping by at home. The girls unsurprised when she showed up because they trusted her, gave her the name “Tiger Heart” because, they said, she is “fierce and will pounce” but she is “also protective” and has yellow hair.
During the spring of 2016, Christie returned to India on one of her bi-annual trips, and took four girls on a nine-day trek across India via train. In November 2016, she used part of her trip to lay the groundwork for a Learning Tea center in Chennai that will take two years to complete and be ready for new students.
When asked how these trips have changed her view of India, she responded in typical Christie fashion: positively. “I’ve been coming here for eight years, sometimes for three weeks, sometimes three months,” Christie said. “My mantra for India is “the more I go, the less I know.” Every time I think I have this place figured out, it laughs in my face and teaches me a new lesson. I love India because I’m always learning here.”
The program that began with three girls has expanded because of Christie and others who have donated time, money, and effort —including traveling to India with Christie to help the program. In total, there have been 15 young women so far who are or have been in The Learning Tea program. Five have graduated college, two currently are in Master’s programs, and two have become teachers. Others are moving on to government jobs.
Education is the Key
The Learning Tea is more than food, clothes, and shelter for the girls in the program, the goal of which has been to fill the gap in young women’s lives when they need help getting into college and finding a career. Acceptance into the program hinges on agreement to certain rules. The girls must volunteer up to fifteen hours a month, depending upon their school schedule. They may choose tasks as varied as assisting elderly and indigent residents, caring for animals at farms, or tutoring children. The reason for this requirement? “It seems really obvious to me that what you put out there you get back in return,” Christie said. “People overlook the amount of pleasure you get from giving.”
The girls also must earn passing grades and marriage is out of the question while in the program. The Learning Tea ladies, as Christie calls them, come from different backgrounds, and focusing on education is the principal reason behind the program. “Education is freedom in the world,” Christie emphasized, “but in India, it can mean the difference between life and death.”
Christie’s can-do attitude is engaging and infectious, allowing her to laugh at herself and the situations she encounters, but there’s no question that she’s deadly serious about her cause. “I just try to keep my eye on the prize, which for me is seeing the ladies graduate, get jobs, and become self-sufficient women. Things get tough sometimes, but there is always someone else that is having a rougher time. You just have to look on the sunny side.”
Christie realizes that she’s working with a handful of girls in one isolated town, and she understands she can’t make others care about this program as much as she does. Nevertheless, she continues what her heart and passion drive her to do.
“This hasn’t just been lollipops and ice cream cones,” Christie said. “You’re going to fail sometimes, that’s only human. It’s the getting back up until you get it right that counts.”
She has learned many lessons over the years and offers them without bravado in her book, Tiger Heart. She easily expresses her love for India, its culture, and its people, and she isn’t shy about saying how much she loves the girls who are her family. With this project, however, there’s always one challenge that lingers. “The toughest challenge for me is running a business (in Atlanta) and a project on the other side of the world,” she explained. “But one thing depends on the other to survive.”
“I’m just a regular person trying the best I can,” she continued. “Yes, I make mistakes, and I have failures, but you can’t succeed unless you try. If everyone can do something, no matter how big or small, just commit to doing one kind act, we all might live in a very different world.” —Jeanne Fredriksen
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association.
How India Changed Our Lives
Sometimes you take a decision without much thought, a plunge into an unknown future. We each travelled to India as students. The experience changed our lives.
After my junior year in college, I was one among 18 students chosen to participate in Asian Seminar 1964. After spending a week each in Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand, we moved to India to work for eight weeks in an ongoing project, so we’d have field experience to complement our academic discussions.
I joined a project in an extremely low-income community in Bombay, as it was known then. Each American was paired with an Indian student, surveying families which had just moved from villages to work in city factories. The goal of our project was to discover what services might best benefit them, as they faced intense disruption following the change. The result was the establishment of a kindergarten with a supplementary diet program and training for the women to earn while they stayed home to care for their families.
Toiling alongside my partner, Suneeta, and living with other young Indian women in a hostel profoundly changed me. I discovered my life’s vocation—I decided to work at the grass-roots level in developing countries to help participants better their lives.
I had been active on campus but when I returned, I found myself a stranger in a strange land. I no longer belonged there. I belonged in a different world, so I began to prepare for it. I maintained my Psychology-Sociology major but added Communication credits with an eye toward creating educational media. I went on to get a Master’s degree in Television production and a Ph.D. in International relations with a focus on International development.
I worked for over 25 years, predominantly in Asia and Africa, as a consultant in educational media and adult training. Had it not been for India, none of this would have happened. But there’s more to this tale!
In the spring of 1968, I was selected to participate in the Berkeley Professional Schools Program in India. This innovative initiative chose one new graduate from each of the schools on the University of California’s Berkeley campus—Business, Law, Public Health, Social Work, etc., and transported us to India.
In New Delhi, the dozen program fellows dispersed for four days every week to Indian agencies where we conducted individual research in our respective disciplines. Each Friday we reassembled for a rolling seminar on Indian culture and politics, featuring candid conversations with respected national leaders and thinkers. My research on the link between Indian legal education and law practice carried me from the Indian Law Institute and Delhi University to law faculties in Mumbai and Ernakulum.
Living, working and traveling in India opened my mind as well as my eyes. Prior to participating in the Berkeley Program, my orientation had been overwhelmingly Western. My upbringing, education and travel had all focused on familiar American and European customs and cultures.
Now suddenly, I’d parachuted into another world, where “normal” assumptions no longer applied. Whether the context was mundane daily routines—asking for directions, hailing a scooter-taxi, or legal rules and regulations, virtually every contact was a challenge. And while individual encounters often proved amusing or stimulating, their cumulative impact was exhausting.
Steadily, after an initial period of awkward adjustments, I grew to savor the learning curve of a resident alien. In my personal life, I built relationships with my New Delhi neighbors like the Butalia and Gupta families. I also explored the subcontinent traveling third-class on trains.
By the end of my 16-month sojourn, India had nurtured a vision of a global-service path for my future. My resulting international development career carried me to 40 countries, including multi-year engagements in Asia and Africa.
Not Just Changes, Lessons Too
For us, India offered much more than a bridge between our studies and international careers. Our interactions with Indian co-workers and friends helped us learn how to be more effective in a foreign setting.
We glimpsed the truth that local counterparts had at least as much to teach us as we had to teach them. We began to see the world not only through American eyes but also from the perspective of local participants and colleagues. We discovered that culture shock is an inevitable hazard of working in a different country, and we learned to work through it only to emerge blessed by a host culture that extended precious opportunities to explore, stretch and grow.
When Russell returned to California in 1969, a mutual friend introduced us saying, “You have much in common; you’ve both been to India!” Over time, we discovered that we did share many things and we came to the conclusion that our separate dreams could best be realized together. In the fall of 1972, we got married. A year later, we left for Tanzania, our first international posting in tandem.
Although we’ve each worked elsewhere on the subcontinent, we’ve sadly never been back to India. Five years from now, we’re hoping to change that with a 50th anniversary trip to celebrate the country that brought us together and changed our lives!
— Nancy Swing and Russell Sunshine
Nancy Swing is the author of Malice on the Mekong, featuring amateur sleuth Anjali Rao. Her best friend Suneeta is named in memory of Nancy’s long-ago partner in the Mumbai project.
Russell Sunshine’s memoir, Far and Away: True Tales from an International Life, traces an exhilarating life journey of travel, employment and residence abroad. One of these stories “Rainbow Days,” recounts how the Butalia family broke the ice to welcome Russell and his American roommates as full members of their neighborhood community.
Both are available on amazon.com
A Distinguished NRI
Dr. D.V. Giri received the Hind Rattan and the NRI of the Year awards during the 36th International Congress of NRIs in New Delhi, held on the eve of India’s Republic Day this year.
Dr. Giri’s life and career embody the American Dream. Intent on joining the Indian Air Force in 1967, he passed the first round of tests only to fail in an attempt to scale a wall! Dr. Giri pursued higher studies at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore before being admitted to Harvard University.
With $8 in his pocket, the maximum foreign exchange allowed to be carried at that time, he landed at New York. A customs officer told him that he could either eat the two red apples he had bought or throw them into the trash. He promptly stepped aside to eat them. From that beginning, he went on to complete doctoral studies in the field of Electromagnetics. From the hard work ethic cultivated by working long hours in the laboratories and combing the lecture halls at Harvard, Dr. Giri embarked on a distinguished career in the field, publishing hundreds of papers and contributing original research in this arena. He is today a life fellow of the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Through his distinguished career, he has maintained a spirit of helping organizations in India by supporting philanthropic activities. He supported Dr. H. Sudarshan who worked with tribals in Mysore long before he was recognized with national and international awards. He finds interacting with young students especially invigorating and over many years, he has traveled to lecture frequently in Indian university classrooms. He recalls that a 3-week trip to IIT Kharagpur where he stayed with the students was a particularly memorable experience, because of the informal interactions he had.
As an original founder of the Shiva-Vishnu temple in Livermore, California he looks back with a lot of satisfaction. From its humble beginnings, the temple has grown to serve more than 15,000 visitors this past New Year’s day.
In 1981 a few Indian Americans decided to build a Hindu place of worship. They wanted to buy a 4-acre parcel of land in what was then unincorporated Livermore. When they approached State Bank of India in Los Angeles for a loan of half a million dollars, they set their personal homes as collateral to start the work of construction. Dr. Giri says that the Livermore temple is the only one of its kind where the physical structure was built from the first day following strictures from the Shilpa Sastras.
There is one guiding principle that has guided his work always. “Wherever I am in the world, I carry a bit of India with me. That has guided my actions.” It’s no wonder then that he is being honored in India with the Hind Rattan and NRI of the Year awards on the eve of India’s Republic Day as a Distinguished NRI.
Indeed, he has consistently stepped out of personal achievements to give back to the community, both here and in India, in many different ways. He was a special guest during the Republic Day parade, a ceremony that he had only watched on television as a young boy.
Language, a Labor of Love
“India has such a rich culture and linguistic heritage that one can be proud of,” says George Hart, retired professor of Tamil from the University of California at Berkeley. The Government of India awarded him the Padma Shri for his work in translating the ancient Tamil text Purananooru into English under the title, Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom.
When his roommate at Harvard University took a class in Buddhism, he decided to tag along. The professor was the famed Daniel Ingalls Sr., and he was intrigued. He abandoned the study of Physics and Chemistry and started studying Sanskrit. And, it was only later as a graduate student that he was exposed to Tamil, another ancient language from India. He says, “Many people feel that the Vedas are the beginning of everything in India. And, while they do form a great corpus of the early literature, the study of Tamil is very valid in this context as the literary conventions and usage are of a very high order.”
A.K. Ramanujam, the famed scholar, was conducting summer courses in Tamil at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and George delved deeper into the study of Tamil. It was here that he met Kausalya who had traveled from Madurai, the town which can be hailed as the place which nurtured the Sangam era, a golden era of creativity in Tamil poetry.
Even though she grew up in a Tamil household, her parents initially wanted her to study medicine. She had been writing Tamil poetry from a young age and she stuck to pursuing her studies based on her deep love for Tamil. When she traveled to America for graduate studies, she met a kindred spirit in George and they were married in Cambridge in 1966.
When George Hart wrote his doctoral thesis, he decided to make a well-researched argument that Sanskrit poetic conventions which were revered were not created in a vacuum. In fact, they drew heavily from Tamil classical and Southern folk traditions. After his marriage to Kausalya, he lived in India for a year where he honed his skills in Tamil and Sanskrit by learning from Indian teachers.
Kausalya Hart was a lecturer in Tamil at the University of California at Berkeley for many years and she regularly invited students to her house during Hindu religious celebrations like Navarathri to give them a complete understanding of all aspects of Tamil culture. She was a long time volunteer for cultural activities at the Concord Shiva Murugan temple and interacted with artists and conducted many fundraisers on behalf of the temple.
When I asked George about his favorite Tamil poem or poet, he immediately piped in with, “The Kamba Ramayanam is a text I admire, and Kamban, in my opinion was India’s greatest poet. Compared to Valmiki, through the retelling of the Ramayana he has dealt with a broader variety of human experience, drawing the reader into some of the darker aspects of human nature skilfully. It is indeed a fuller picture of the human condition that I see in his work that I admire.”
“Just as those who study English look to Dante and Shakespeare as literary greats on the world stage, we can place Tamil poets on par with them any day—the sad thing is that we don’t venture back into our own languages to look far enough,” he says.
George Hart has just finished translating another ancient Tamil text, the Agananooru, four hundred poems on love written in the Sangam era.
Kausalya and George Hart continue to venture into the ancient world of Tamil civilization, building meaning and understanding one word and phrase at a time, creating a sense of wonder for themselves and for countless students who benefit from their life’s labor of love for language. —Nirupama Vaidhyanathan
For Love of “My Mother and Father”
Talking to Katherine Kunhiraman, Artistic Director, Kalanjali Dances of India one feels drawn to all aspects of India’s culture—its dance, music and much more. You can feel the excitement in her voice. When I spoke to her, she had just returned from attending the Chennai music and dance festival which draws performers from around the world.
Katherine comes from a family of artists in Pennsylvania and she went to India when her stepfather was sent with the Ford Foundation. Having just finished high school, she went to Kolkata and saw Rita Devi dance and was immediately struck in a manner akin to being struck by lightning. “This is something that I can do and want to do,” she thought. When she watched the famous trio sisters Kamala, Rhadha and Vasanthi, she witnessed, “such a complete understanding of their knowledge of bharatanaytam.” They took turns dancing, singing and conducting nattuvangam, and this multi-faceted ability made a deep impression on Katherine. After pursuing dance lessons in Kolkata for a little while, she decided to go to Kalakshetra to study bharatanatyam and kathakali full-time.
During her entrance exam, she met her future husband, Kunhiraman, for the first time. He was one of the teachers conducting the exam. When asked to sing, she sang a Gregorian chant which is what she was familiar with and she laughs at this memory. “I am sure they were not expecting a Gregorian chant!” she says. When she was admitted to Kalakshetra the director, Rukmini Devi, kept calling the admissions office where she was waiting to register to ask her to choose between bharatanatyam or kathakali. And every time Katherine told the assistant that she was unable to choose.
Three hours went by and finally when Rukmini Devi asked for her final answer, Katherine told the assistant, “Please tell her that I am being asked to choose between my mother and father.” That reply got her the opportunity to train in bharatanatyam and kathakali at Kalakshetra for over two years.
When she graduated, she went to live with the Dhananjayans who were just starting to establish their institution Bharata Kalanjali, and she had the good fortune of working many hours under their guidance, learning and assimilating everything that was there to learn. During this time Kunhiraman continued to dance at Kalakshetra and to this day he is recognized as one of the greatest artists to have been part of the hallowed institution. His essaying of the roles in the dance dramas that they staged then are still referred to in awe and reverence.
Kunhiraman and she had established a relationship by then, but they could not dance with each other since he was affiliated with Kalakshetra. After getting married, Katherine and Kunhiraman traveled back to the United States and two weeks after landing here, they started teaching Indian classical dance to American students. Their initial days of supporting themselves through art were indeed very tough. They traveled all over the country to perform and today the insitution they founded Kalanjali Dances of India is a premier arts organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even after Kunhiraman’s passing in 2014, she continues to teach dance.
Katherine considers her greatest personal achievement to be, “the ability to fully understand two different cultures.” In India, she recently took a Kerala mural painting class, and she tells me that she felt psychically connected with the other Indian students in a deep cultural sense!
As a young girl, I remember straining to see the stage when Kunhiraman electrified the stage along with the rest of the Kalakshetra greats. The experience is like a tiny video spool in my head unmarred by the years that separate me from that moment. Indeed Katherine’s life journey of pursuing Indian dance was fueled by that kind of “lightning” moment. “I am that kind of person,” she says. “When I feel something I feel it whole.” —Nirupama Vaidhyanathan
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the current Managing Editor of India Currents magazine.