Politics | Education| Business

Gala For Heart Health A Success

On Saturday, March 17, 2018, more than 320 philanthropists, physicians, and community leaders came together for the Scarlet Ball, an annual gala to benefit the South Asian Heart Center at El Camino Hospital. The fundraising event, which was held at the Dolce Hayes Mansion in San Jose, raised more than $348,000 to support the Center’s work.

A commendation letter from the 19th Surgeon General of the United States Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, was shared at the event recognizing the South Asian Heart Center staff, volunteers, and supporters for their lofty vision of working to improve the health of the South Asian community. Dr. Murthy stated, “You saw that heart disease was disproportionately affecting South Asians, leading to heart attacks, disability, and lives lost. You also recognized that many of these tragic events could have been prevented if only evidence-based prevention measures had been brought to the community in a culturally appropriate manner. Admirably, you took it upon yourself to build an institution that would close the gap between what our community had and what it needed to prevent disease and save lives.”

Congressmember Ro Khanna and Assemblymember Ash Kalra attended the event, and presented the South Asian Heart Center with certificates of recognition for outstanding work in reducing heart disease and diabetes among South Asians.

Since opening its doors in 2006, the South Asian Heart Center has dedicated its resources to increasing awareness and prevention of diabetes and heart attacks in South Asians, and research to improve risk prediction and reduction in this vulnerable population. To date, the Center has enrolled more than 7,800 participants in its culturally appropriate AIM to PreventTM and STOP-DTM programs, educated more than 3,000 physicians, reached out to more than 80,000 community members, published its findings in peer-reviewed journals, and opened satellite offices in Fremont and Los Gatos.

“The four little secrets that have helped us improve health outcomes for our participants are Meditation, Exercise, Diet, and Sleep – what we call our MEDSTM lifestyle platform. This enabling platform forms the basis of the Center’s education curriculum, expert lifestyle counseling, and personalized health coaching to help stop diabetes and halt heart attacks,” says Ashish Mathur, executive director of the South Asian Heart Center at El Camino Hospital. “Through the ideal daily practice of MEDS, we’ve seen 68% of our participants lose weight, 62% improve their cholesterol ratio, and 71% improve their HbA1c.”

Building off the importance of developing a healthy lifestyle, keynote speaker Munjal Shah, a successful entrepreneur and South Asian Heart Center participant, shared his story of determination to get healthy. After Shah sold his company to Google in 2010, he had a heart attack scare. He modified his diet and lost 40 pounds and through the process, realized he had a passion for digital health and healthy living. Shah now focuses his entrepreneurial energies in this direction and co-founded Health IQ in 2013. As part of his keynote, Shah quizzed the Scarlet Ball attendees on how much they knew about aspects of a healthy lifestyle and challenged them to evaluate their health literacy.

The gala also featured a live auction, heart-healthy cuisine by Chef Vittal Shetty of Jalsa Catering, entertainment, and dancing.

About El Camino Hospital
El Camino Hospital is an acute-care, 443-bed, nonprofit and locally governed organization with campuses in Mountain View and Los Gatos, California. Key medical specialties include cancer, heart and vascular, men’s health, mental health and addictions, neuroscience, orthopedic and spine, senior health, urology, and women’s health. Additional community-based services include the South Asian Heart Center and Chinese Health Initiative. The South Asian Heart Center’s mission is to reduce the high incidence of diabetes and heart attacks in Indians and South Asians through culturally tailored, science-based, and lifestyle-focused services. To learn more visit


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Opinion | Perspective | Youth

A “Job” Well Done: A Poem For My Daughter

Finding you Fearless I taught you to  Fear.

Eternally Curious… I taught you Indifference.

Charmingly Honest… I taught you Pretence.

Openly Friendly… I taught you Caution.

Implicitly Trusting… I taught you to Doubt.

Clingingly Needy… I taught you Independence

…and considered it a ‘Job’ well done!

Now My Child, it’s your turn. 

Hold my hand and teach me to be…







Do your “Job.” 

Teach me to Love!

 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. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California.

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A Complete List of Community Events

Date/Time Event
Mar 13, 2018 - Jun 24, 2018
All Day
Rembrandt & The Inspiration of India
Rembrandt & The Inspiration of India
J. Paul Getty Museum, LA CA
Mar 15, 2018 - Apr 30, 2018
12:00 am
International Indian Icon - A Platform for Indian Talent Across the Globe!
International Indian Icon - A Platform for Indian Talent Across the Globe!
Apr 7, 2018 - Apr 28, 2018
11:00 am - 7:00 pm
Sale and Exhibition: Indian Party Wear
Sale and Exhibition: Indian Party Wear
Shieno Sarees, Pleasanton Ca
Apr 7, 2018 - May 4, 2018
12:00 pm - 9:00 am
200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training in Nepal
200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training in Nepal
Nepal, pokhara nepal
Apr 20, 2018 - Aug 19, 2018
11:00 am - 5:00 pm
The House Imaginary
The House Imaginary
San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose CA


Impactful Insightful Coverage

Community Colleges: A Well-Kept Secret

Community colleges are the often-overlooked institutions of learning, that are hidden gems in one’s backyard.

In India, the system of community colleges is seen as an alternative system of education that can be used to acquire trade skills, but not as a conduit to institutions of higher learning.  In the United States, on the other hand, community colleges are seen as junior colleges giving a leg up to those that need one, in climbing into the four-year college system. If the student so desires, he or she could earn college credits at the local community college and then transfer to a four-year educational institution in the United States.

The aim of both the Indian and American systems, however, is to empower the disadvantaged and the underprivileged through appropriate skills-development, leading to gainful employment.  

The booming popularity of community colleges could also be attributed to President Obama, who was hailed as the “Community College President”, for funding and supporting these educational institutions.  During his campaign, Obama spoke regularly of the importance of community colleges in keeping America economically and educationally competitive in the 21st century.

The Evergreen Valley College (E.V.C.), located on a sprawling 175 acres in the eastern foothills of San Jose, California, is just such an institution that prepares students to transfer to four-year college systems, such as those of the Universities of California and California State Universities.  It has transfer agreements with all 23 California State Universities, 6 of the Universities of California, and some private universities. Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges – a national accrediting body – the E.V.C. is the largest feeder community college to the San Jose State University.

Community colleges are especially attractive as stepping-stones to international students who need to improve key academic skills, including language skills, before obtaining admission to a Bachelor’s level program.  The credits earned at the community college help complete university education in a time- and cost-effective manner.

The Evergreen Valley College has a large number of international students from India.  Elizabeth Tyrrell, Director of the International Student Program, travels to India and meets high school students in order to explain the American community college system:  

“We have the 2 + 2 system.  At the end, students receive their Bachelor’s Degree from the 4-year institution (from which they graduate).  Almost all of E.V.C.’s international students transfer to accredited 4-year institutions.  94% of E.V.C.’s transfer-ready students do, in fact, transfer.  Students can apply and transfer beyond California and go to any university or college in the U.S.”

Evergreen Valley College is S.E.V.I.S. certified and approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to issue the I-20 Form, which is required to apply for a visa to study in the U.S.

Students from India do not need to take the S.A.T. or the T.O.E.F.L. exam, as long as their high school transcript is in English, and they come from an English medium high school.

The application process is more relaxed as well.  Students may apply for admission till as late as June 30, 2018 for the Fall semester that begins on 4 September, 2018, or apply between October 15 2018 and December 1, 2018, for the Winter session that starts on 28 January, 2019.

There is no question that the savings are significant when it comes to tuition. While the annual tuition at a Universityof California would cost approximately $41,000, a student would only pay $6748 at the Evergreen Valley College – a savings of nearly $35,000.  However, taking into account the cost of living – housing, transport, fun-money, books and supplies – students would be well-advised to budget for $21,500 for the year, per E.V.C.

In addition to the compelling financial savings, students also step into a learning environment akin to that of a University.  While at the beginning of each semester, students are responsible for signing up for classes, maintaining attendance, completing course work and submitting assignments, they have the added advantage of having Counselors on hand, to guide them in the choice of courses and help them meet the necessary pre-requisites for their Major.  

The average class size in community colleges is typically smaller.  While the student-teacher ratio at E.V.C. is only 28 – 45 students to 1 teacher, the class size at a U.C. can sometimes run to over 300 students.  Additionally, students in community colleges have Professors teaching the course themselves, while in large universities, the course may be taught by a Teaching Assistant.

The 2015 enrollment statistics published by the American Association of Community Colleges, reveal that 46%, of all the U.S. undergraduates, are community college students.  Of the 12 million students who go to community college in the U.S. every year, 2.1 million choose California community colleges.

Community colleges cater to the needs of the local job market and have professors who work closely with the students to groom them not only for the needs of the local area, but also equip them with skills that are transferrable beyond.  With the voracious appetite for new talent and the ever-changing skills needed in the Silicon Valley, community colleges provide an alluring and viable solution.

Says Michael Riordan, a tax accountant and teacher at a local Bay Area community college, of the merits of community colleges “This is a win-win situation.  Save your money for (the students’) Masters.”

For queries please contact: Elizabeth Tyrrell, Evergreen Valley College, 3095 Yerba Buena Road, San Jose, CA 95135 E-mail: Phone: +1 (408) 270-6453


Ritu Marwah is the Features Editor at India Currents and is an avid student of educational systems.




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Bollywood in America | Media

Rāmā Kātha

During the final exams for my Masters degree, Banaras Hindu University hosted a festival celebrating the Rāmāyana from various South-East Asian countries; every evening a different country presented a retelling of their version in dance drama format. That was my first initiation to various versions of the epic Rāmāyana.

AK Ramanujan, in his controversial essay Three Hundred Rāmāyanas, talks about various narratives flowing in South and South-east Asia through epic and mythological stories, folklore, dance drama, plays and poems, art and music. While the story and the plot have remained more or less similar to the original Vālmīki Rāmāyana, the nuances of the various details differ from version to version. But it is a story which permeates the very ethos of cultural India – it is there around us in various forms, a familiar tale for all Indians across all strata of society.

Rāmā Kātha is interwoven in many Indian traditions. For many, their first introduction is through the festivals around Rāmā and by listening to tales told by grandparents. It is in the Rāmā Lílas performed in various cities, in the toys at various mélas and present in fêtes across the country. The story is reinforced through comic serials that children watch or the adult serials – the most popular one being the original Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana telecasted in 1980s by Doordarshan. Amar Chitra Katha’s Ramayana story or the inclusion of the story in one form or the other in the school syllabus ensures that the narrative continues to remain in the subconscious mind of the person.

The tryst with the kātha has also continued with Bollywood or other film genres taking inspiration from the age-old narrative and reinterpreting it for modern audiences. It is also being presented in a new avatar by famous writer Amish Tripathi in his new Ramachandra series. It is omnipresent through the celebration of faith by Hindus, through its songs and bhajans. Through the motifs in Indian art – the miniature paintings, sculptures, wall paintings in temples or homes across India; the story is even depicted in various textile traditions like Käntha, Madhubani, Baluchari or Kalamkari. It is in the phad or kaavad tradition of story-telling, it is in the musical traditions of Manganiyars and Bauls; and in the modern society it is in the theatrical enactment of the story during navratras in many cities.

Mysore painting depicting scenes from Ramayana

Ram Darbar on neem wood from Andhra Pradesh

Ramayana Pattachitra from Orissa

Ramayana figurines in wood and terracotta

Old Kalamkari painting on cloth illustrating episodes from Ramayana

Ramayana stamp released by Govt of India in 2017

The extent to which the story of Rāmā has pervaded society is best seen at Banaras during the month-long celebration of Rāmā Lílas where it is performed in various parts of the city not by professional artists but by common people. Each episode of Ramnagar Rāmā-Líla takes place at a different location and people travel from all over to witness the enactment of the epic. The regulars who attend these events can recite along with the characters as they enact the tale – the whole city irrespective of caste, religion, gender celebrates the Rāmā Kātha in a way that it is difficult to say whether it is bhakti or utsav.

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Arts | Music | History


Recipe | Travel | People

Was your childhood name Chikoo?

In truth there is absolutely no need to make sorbet out of sapotes. A sapote is perfectly sorbet-like if you just chop it up and stick it in the freezer and then eat it, ideally with your hands and straight out of the serving dish, a few hours later. Blending, sugaring, freezing, and scooping them is lily-gilding at best, nefarious sugar-industry shenanigans at worst, and wholly unnecessary either way.

All that said I don’t think I’ve ever let philosophical objections stop me from ordering dessert before, and I certainly wasn’t about to start in a little restaurant in the city of Campeche in the Yucatán Peninsula, when I saw sapote sorbet on the menu.


Specifically it was a “degustación” of three sapote sorbets. Sapote is a generic term for a variety of squishy and sweet fruits native to Latin America – this plate had the dark, prune-like, chocolatey sapote negro, the reddish pink, sweet potato-esque mamey sapote in the middle, and the golden sapote chico, which tastes like caramel, dates and honey, the inside of a Whopper and all things wonderful in the world, and Manilkara zapota, it is the best sapote of all the sapotes.

I spent a childhood’s worth of summers around the dining table in my grandparents’ house in Chennai, drinking tea and eating banana chips and more tropical fruits than I knew what to do with. There were Alphonso mangoes, if you haven’t had one before I strongly suggest you never do because it will permanently ruin you for all other mangoes in the world, and mangosteens, whose white, shiny insides look a little suspicious but taste like perfume in the best possible way, and custard apples, high-effort, high-reward, filled with black seeds that you have to individually suck the ice-creamy pulp off. And there were sapotes, always the golden sapote chico. In Tamil it’s called sapota and the word comes from the Nahuatl tzapotl which means that around the table in Chennai we were all almost speaking Nahuatl without even knowing it, so many years before I ever knew I’d be living in Mexico.

And so I was in this restaurant in Campeche – I ordered the Yucatán specialty panuchos for dinner, tortillas stuffed with beans and then fried and topped with meat, if you’re normal, or with sautéed jamaica (hibiscus flowers) if you’re me. And then the sapote sorbet. I ate the negro first, I didn’t even know that this dark, wine like fruit existed before the sorbet appeared on my plate. Then I ate the mamey, which I first learned about in an ice cream shop in Little Michoacán in Redwood City where the owner patiently sat down and explained to me every single one of the flavors I’d never heard of before, and I ordered a mamey popsicle based mostly on the color and fell immediately in love. And then the sapote chico, and as soon as I tasted it, I was transported back to my grandparents’ house in Chennai eating a straight-from-the-freezer sapota. The waitress pointed to it and told me “that one’s my favorite!” and I agreed. She didn’t know the half of it.



When I got the call that my grandmother had passed away I was in a hotel bar in Ottawa. If this were fiction someone would be saying – “give us a break – hotel bar as metaphor for “far away from home” is the world’s biggest cliché. Mom was in India already, and dad got on the first flight there. Meanwhile I was flying back to Mexico the next day and would then be stuck there unable to leave the country. I had no idea what to do with myself, but what I did have were spring break plans that my friend Emily and I made weeks ago, and a suspicion that I should keep myself busy. So I flew down to the Yucatán.



Emily and I flew out of Mexico City at 10:30 PM and landed in the small coastal city of Ciudad del Carmen at midnight. We got off the plane to a blanket of air thick with heat and humidity and the peculiar smell of jet fuel and ocean and the bug spray we hastily slathered on before deplaning.

As it happens the fastest way from San Francisco to Chennai is on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, landing in Chennai at 12:30 AM. You get off the plane and the air is thick with heat and humidity and it smells of jet fuel and ocean and the bug spray you hastily slather on before deplaning. Even though it would be almost two in the morning by the time we went through immigration and picked up our suitcases my grandpa, aunts, uncles and cousins would always be there to greet us and drive us home, where even though it was past two in the morning by the time we reached home, my grandma would always be waiting for us.


Ciudad del Carmen

In Ciudad del Carmen our Airbnb host texted to tell me that a taxi would be too expensive at midnight and he offered to pick us up at the airport. We piled our suitcases into his car and arrived at the room he had for us – whitewashed walls, an air conditioner and a colorful bedspread, and I texted my mom a picture of it to show her that I’d reached, but also to see if she was thinking what I was thinking, and her reply text soon confirmed she was: “Are you sure you’re not in Chennai with me? That looks just like our room here!”

We slept, woke up, walked along the beach and then took the bus for a couple of hours driving up the coast to reach the colorful cities of Campeche, home of the aforementioned sapote sorbet, and then on to our last stop, Mérida, the capital city of the Yucatán with all its colorful agave-baron mansions.



It was 97 degrees the whole time, a change from the below-freezing weather I’d been in two days before attending a conference in Canada. I was not prepared for Canada. I had never felt so cold in all my life. I did not know till then that it was possible to lose sensation in your knees. I wore several layers of clothing and was still shivering and miserably cold.

Growing up in the Bay Area, on the cold days, the car would frost over and my dad would scrape off the ice on the windshield before driving me to school. He’d get into the car, crank up the heat, and grumble “I’m from Chennai. I am not made for this.”


Mérida; not pictured is the peacock who hid behind a bush and shrieked at us

For a geneticist, his statement presents an interesting point to ponder – What are we made for? There are some studies that show that thousands of years of living in the heat or cold have led some people to develop adaptations to their climate. There is also a history of people perverting ideas like this to justify some truly ghastly things, like slavery. It’s dangerous and reductive to draw any hasty conclusions about where our genes come from and what that might mean about us, so in my lab we try to carefully and methodically answer exactly these questions. Part of the way to do that without being racist is by admitting that we really know very little about all of this.

And so I can hypothesize to say that maybe it was the South Indian in me that makes up my Californian genome, maybe it was the melanin that everyone can tell I inherited from my grandmother that came through for me keeping me breezy and sunburn-free in the blazing sticky heat of the Yucatán. But maybe it was just the airy, full-coverage cotton clothes I bought the last time I visited my grandparents, and my own cells’ memories of summers spent in Chennai where it was much hotter than California.  You can’t casually ascribe to genetics what might be easily explained by things happening outside your cells’ nuclei.



But whatever it was, nurture or nature, genes or environment, I left the Yucatán never quite having shaken the feeling that I had been there before. For the record, this was my first trip there. But things had fallen apart an ocean away with my grandmother’s passing – I wasn’t there – I couldn’t be there, but at least where I was I still had sunshine, and sapotes, and as I discovered those helped me through.

(Our last night in Mérida, as it happens in some magical nights in México, the elderly couples came out to the plaza to dance.)

Shreya Ramachandran graduated from Stanford with a B.S and M.S in Biology and is currently spending a year in Mexico as a Fulbright researcher in a population genetics lab. She would like it to be known that she is also rapidly becoming an authority on enchiladas.
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Dear Doctor | Healthy Life

Got Water?


How much water should you drink in a day?
There isn’t a simple answer to this question that applies for everyone. Individual needs vary.

You need more water depending on your constitution (people of pitta prakruti tend to feel hotter, sweat more, and feel thirstier); season (summer); location (hot, dry, windy); diet (dry foods); disease conditions (diabetes); and medications (diuretics). So it is best to listen to your body’s signals and respond to them promptly.ic_healthy_life--water

Don’t ignore thirst
The body gives you a clear signal of thirst. If that is ignored, the throat and mouth get parched, and you feel weak, dizzy, or disoriented. Further, it may even result in hearing loss or heart dysfunction. Similarly, other natural urges and signals of the body should not be suppressed and ignored. These are hunger; the urge to pass flatus, urine or stool; coughing, sneezing, burping, vomiting, or yawning; shedding tears; sleep; heavy breathing after exercise; or the sexual urge. Suppression of natural urges throws the doshas out of balance, particularly vata dosha.

So, be mindful of thirst, and keep yourself hydrated throughout the day.

In the morning
Start your day by drinking one or two glasses of warm water. Don’t force it down to fulfill a quota for the day. Instead, pay attention to the signals from your body and drink as much as feels right. Then during the day keep a thermos or kettle of warm water handy, and drink when you feel the need to quench your thirst. At first you may not like the taste of warm water, but in a week or so it will start feeling good.

Why warm water?
Warm water balances kapha and vata doshas, reduces fat, digests ama (a toxic product of improperly digested food), improves appetite, and flushes the urinary tract.

Try drinking warm water, and observe how you feel. Note any changes in your appetite, the time it takes to digest meals, body weight, and urination and bowel habits. If you had problems of constipation, flatulence, breathing difficulties, body ache, stiffness, lethargy, cough, sore throat, or runny nose before, do you notice any changes?

Some people may not be able to down warm water at all. They may have a pitta constitution or may be suffering from a pitta ailment, in which case cool water (at room temperature) is better for them. If the weather is hot, cool water helps to quench thirst better. It is also better for relieving dizziness or exhaustion after physical exertion.

Water, no ice
Ice-cold water, on the other hand, douses agni. That means that it slows down digestion and all other metabolic processes. This has an adverse effect on body weight and immune strength. So in ayurveda when cool water is advised, it means water at room temperature—“water, no ice.”

When is it too much?
Water is the best drink, but you can have too much of a good thing. Drinking too much water diminishes the digestive agni, and causes indigestion. Undigested food produces ama, a heavy sticky substance that blocks channels in the body, and combines with the doshas to cause various illnesses.

Also, water and all fluid consumption should be restricted in certain conditions like loss of appetite, sluggish digestion, edema, the common cold, and recent fever.

Around meal times
Water affects our appetite. After drinking warm water it may be almost an hour before we feel hungry. Cool water delays hunger even more. So don’t drink water (or nibble on any food) for at least an hour before a meal. Otherwise, it will kill your appetite and delay digestion of the meal.

Instead, sip a little warm water with your meal. This improves digestion. How much to sip depends on the liquid content of the meal. If you’re consuming a thin soup, dal, or rasam you don’t need to supplement it with water; but if your meal consists mainly of dry items like bread, salad, vegetables, or chapatis, then sip about half a glass of water. According to Charaka Samhita, at the end of the meal, one part of your stomach should be filled with solid food, one part with liquid, and a third left empty.

Tune in to yourself
If you pay attention to how you feel after a meal you will instinctively know how much water is best for you. If your food gets properly digested, you will feel light and energetic, and will be hungry in time for your next meal. If you get sour burps, or a burning sensation in your chest, throat, or mouth an hour or two after a meal, it may be because the food was pitta-provoking, or you drank too much water. Too little water also slows down digestion and causes constipation.

Water and body weight
When you drink water also affects body weight. According to Susruta Samhita, an ancient treatise of ayurveda, if you habitually drink water before a meal, it decreases body weight; sipped with a meal, it maintains the same body weight; if you drink water after a meal, it increases body weight. So to lose weight you may drink a moderate amount of warm water, herbal tea, or soup followed by a light meal. Exercise caution if your agni is already weak, which may be inferred from lack of appetite and slow digestion. In that case it is best to skip a meal or wait until you feel hungry.

Drinking the optimum amount of water at the right time throughout the day helps to keep agni in balance and aids in digesting the food you eat. A balanced agni wards off illness, and is key to a long healthy life.

This article was first published in April 2016 and is being republished in April 2018.

Ashok Jethanandani, B.A.M.S. and Silvia Müller, B.A.M.S. are graduates of Gujarat Ayurved University, Jamnagar. Jethanandani now practices ayurveda in San Jose. Illustrations are original works by Silvia Müller. The concepts presented here are based on the classical texts of ayurveda.

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Books | Fiction

Amrita Pritam: She Writes on The Grooves of My Soul

This article was first published in December 2016 and is being re-published in honor of National Poetry Month.

Of late, I have physically embraced the cloak of solitude. Reprimanded often as a dreamer in kindergarten by teachers, now having escaped their vigil I have resigned to my perilous hobby of contemplation. As a doctor, during the day, the drama of disease directs me but in the evenings I am abducted by the poems of Amrita Pritam, Mary Oliver, Robert Bly, Naomi Shihab and Faiz.
I sit still in my home frontier, my easy leg crossed over my other ankle. I tune into their voices. They speak to me intimately as though they have waited for me forever. I am perhaps as enthralled as the spring leaf on the old poplar that thrills in a mysterious shawl of bird song. My identity is revealed, shaped, molded and deepened by my intention to observe and experience my scattered self in their verse.

As I read I, once again, frolic through long summer afternoons free from adult censure. In the body of the poems the memory of my mother’s face emerges. I feel the bright light on my father’s forehead and admire his beautiful strong, artistic hands. His laughter echoes as it tumbles back across time at my first haircut or a stolen cookie and his knotted brow is real too when he looks at my math grades. He smiles his approval at the gold medal I won for an essay about the leprosy home. My mother’s nimble fingers complete the shadow work on my white organdy table cloth from fifth grade. Jumping off rickshaws, scraped knees, a rising cake in a round oven, my first crush, peeling off soaking wet garments, broken spectacles, running out of paper in final exams, frog leg experiments, spinach gulped down with water. Everything is a beautiful song that weaves in and out of my memory becoming my poem.

It is the miracle of remembering and experiencing everything all over again—just right, just as it was meant to be—the nurturing in our Zen-like childhoods. This is comforting as I give myself to the compassion of being solitary.

The sound of dad’s voice reading poetry late into the night, books piled beside his pillow meet the same turf on my bed. Writing becomes a sacred deed and carrying their emblem poems in the deep pockets of my soul my creed. This evening and essay is devoted to Amrita Pritam’s poetry.

Amrita Pritam (1919-2005), was a notable 20th century Indian poet, novelist, feminist and  a proud daughter of Punjab, (now in Pakistan). She was the winner of the Sahitya Academy Award in 1956 for Sunehedey (messages) a lifetime achievement award given to the “Immortals in Literature” the Padma Shri and the Padma Vibhushan. A prominent voice in Punjabi literature, her work has been widely translated into Hindi, English, Urdu, French, Japanese and Italian. Through her writing, she has become the friend and confidante of so many women across the continents.

Amrita’s magic permeates the soft and deep hues of dreams, infatuation and longing. She blithely walks into the recesses of my heart blowing away reticent cobwebs with her easy rustic Punjabi dialect. She lets me dwell on my own heartbreak and listens long like a childhood friend. Then she talks to me in an intimate tone but when I open my eyes her words don’t leave. They remain accessible and timeless for me. How did she become so insightful? Perhaps she internalized her grief when her mother died at the tender age of eleven and in the depth of her poetry of commonplace things a penetrating sagacity emerges. Amrita’s verse has the redemptive grace of the Holy Ganga as she flows ebulliently through my mind-locks and washes away scars of distress.
This first prominent female poet of the twentieth century who lived in Lahore,(the city of gardens and free thought, birthplace of my father, Swadesh Kumar Kapur) is my kindred spirit. When I am with her, I inhale the fragrance of my fertile motherland of flowing five waters. Amrita helps my mother dress me in my bridal red and reminds the elders that they are not warning me of inherent untold suffering that comes with leaving the parental home.

In her poignant poem “Peed kudi di chholi pao” she implies that the bride is unaware of the pain she will receive along with all the blessings and sweets in her lap. But after the rude shattering of her naïve dreams, she wraps the weary soul of many young girls in the shimmering moonlit embroidery of her prayers in her poem “Channan di phulkari topa kaun pphare.”  (Who can put a stitch in my scarf embroidered by moonlight?) In this poem, she compares the essence of pure love to a luminous embroidered moonlight which is so sheer that only a seer can embellish it.

Amrita was a born romantic; she used to compose romantic couplets in her pre-teens and tear them up fearing that her father would read them. She married young, but did not find her Ranjha (soul mate from the epic Heer Ranjha) in marriage. After separating from her husband, she fell in love with the romantic poetry of a contemporary of hers—Sahir Ludhianvi. This poignant relationship emerged in their verses but they did not unite in real life. The story of not meeting her poetic soulmate is recounted in her autobiography Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp). She did not abandon the idea of romance, for in her golden years she lived with artist and illustrator Imroz. Her poem beautifully expresses this love for her partner of 40 years. Many beautiful poems were written in those years.

Rall gai si es vich ik boond tere ishq di
Esse layi main zindagi di saari kudattan pee layi
Because a drop of your love had blended in
I drank the entire bitterness of life.

When she was breathing her last she composed this piece, “Mein tenu pher milangi.”
I will meet you yet again
How and where? I know not.
Perhaps I will become a
 figment of your imagination
maybe, spreading myself
 in a mysterious line
 on your canvas,
I will keep gazing at you.
Perhaps I will become a ray
 of sunshine, to be
 embraced by your colors.
I will paint myself on your canvas
I know not how and where—but I will meet you for sure.
I know nothing else
 but that this life 
will walk along with me.
When the body perishes,
 all perishes;
but the threads of memory 
are woven with enduring specks.
I will pick these particles,
weave the threads,
and I will meet you yet again.

Freedom of thought defined the writings of one born in a remote village of Punjab.
Aaj Maine Aapne Ghar Ka Number Mitaya Hai
Aur Gali Ke Mathe Pe Laga Gali Ka Naam Hataya Hai
Aur Har Sadak Ki Disha Ka Naam Paunch Diya Hai
Par Agar Aapko Mujhe Jaroor Pane Hai
To Har Desh Ka, Har Shahar Ki
Har Gali Ka Dwar Khatkhatao
Yeh Ek Shap Hai, Ek Var Hai
Aur Jahan Bhi Azad Ruh Ki Jhalak Parhe
Samajhna Vah Mera Ghar Hai
Today I have wiped out my street address
If you want to find me
Knock on every door, of every street
Where you find a glimpse of a free spirit
That’s where you will find me.

As  I read her poems aloud, my voice mingles with my father’s voice reading poetry late into the night. His gusty voice urges me to keep marching despite the overwhelming grief of bereavement. Two years back, for Diwali, my dad wanted to give me a parting gift. I could not receive this final gift from his hands but I found palliative solace for my insurmountable grief in the audio CD Amrita Pritam: Recited by Gulzar, 2007. I played this repeatedly as I went through my days aimlessly. After my father’s demise, her words became my anchor. The ambrosia that personifies Amrita’s name became my salvation.

Mere thande kkhut de mitra, Keh de jo kuj kehna
Mein ik tidke kkade da paani
Kal tak nahin rehna…
Translation: Oh my friend who shared my cool drink of water in good times,
Please tell me what’s in your heart
My life is trickling out like a stream of water from a
Cracked pot
I will not be here long.

I am certain that these handful of poems that I keep tied in my heart are indeed the mysterious gift from my dad. Yes Amrita, my friend: “Mein tenu pher milangi.” I will meet you again and perhaps we will together wake up Waris Shah from his grave and implore him to rewrite the devastating narrative that marred our birthplace in 1947 during the Partition.
These immortal lines are from Amrita’s transformative signature piece: Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah nu:
Here she implores the 17th century Punjabi poet Waris Shah of Heer Ranjha fame to rise from his grave.
Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nuu,
Ki tu Qabraan Wichon Bol,
Tey Ajj Kitaab-e-Ishq Daa,
Koi Agla Warka Phol
Ikk Royi Sii Dhi Punjab Di,
Tu Likh Likh Maarey Wain,
Ajj Lakhaan Dhiyan Rondiyan,
Tenu Waris Shah Nuu Kain
Uthh Dard-Mandaan Diya Dardiya,
Utth Tak Apna Punjab
Ajj Bailey Lashaan Bichiyaan
Tey Lahoo Di Bhari Chenab
Kisey Ne Panjaan Paaniyan Wich
Diti Zahar Rala,
Tey Unhan Paniyaan Dharat Nuu
Dita Paani Laa

Oh Waris Shah, you wrote volumes on the pain of one Heer.
Speak out from your grave
Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Waris Shah,
Rise O’ narrator of the grieving!
Look at your Punjab, the fields are lined with corpses,
And blood fills the Chenab.”

The effects of this fracture of Partition are still reverberating in the mountains of Kashmir. Today we can surmount our challenges if we tune in to the timeless classic poetry of Amrita Pritam. Her bold, revolutionary deeply romantic and spiritual poems have a universal appeal that echoes through several genres. Let us  invite her clear voice into the sacred space of our solitude.
Monita recommends reading Selected Poems of Amrita Pritam by Pritish Nandy.

Monita Soni is a pathologist and diagnoses cancer. Her writing style weaves eastern and western cultures. You can hear her commentaries on WLRH-Sundial Writers corner and on “All Things Considered.”    

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