Indian Law Catches up with Indian Culture

When the Indian Supreme Court struck down the colonial-era law which criminalized consensual homosexual intercourse under Indian Penal Code Section 377, sex deemed “against the order of nature” could be punished with life imprisonment. Now, Indian law has caught up with Indian culture, leaders of the Hindu American Foundation asserted.

“There is no fundamental reason in Hindu spiritual teachings to reject or ostracize homosexuals. The core of Hindu spiritual teachings is that an individual’s essential nature is not rooted in his or her sexual orientation, or any external physical traits. What is most important is our ability to simultaneously embrace and see beyond these apparent external differences to celebrate the Divine core of our being, to transcend the body, senses, and ego.” — Swami Venkataraman, HAF National Leadership Council member and author of HAF’s brief on Hinduism and homosexuality.

With decriminalization of consensual sexual relations finally achieved, one remaining challenge for Indians, both in India and the diaspora, is fully making our families, religious centers, and organizations a welcoming space for LGBTQ individuals. That will be one more important step in shedding the Victorian-era mores that continue to influence Indic-sensibilities today.

Read HAF’s past statements and articles on Hinduism and/or homosexuality:

When Love is Theratti Paal Sweet!

“Do you remember?” started an aunt, “how he stuck his hand in the theratti paal * container when the lights went out during Krishna Jayanthi?”

*Theratti paal refers to a heady Indian sweet made of condensed milk, ghee and cardamom

*Krishna Jayanthi– Lord Krishna’s birthday

The story was being related to peals of laughter. The hero of the tale beamed and laughed heartily at his boyhood escapades – it had all happened about 70 years ago after all. We knew the story, but it did nothing to diminish the retelling of it. I already knew my father was the naughtiest of the 9 children borne by Visalam Paati and Kalyanam Thaatha. (Paati– Grandma; Thaatha– Grandpa)

I sat watching the glow on the faces around the table, like an eternal torch lit by the essence of shared times and the space of childhood. There was genuine affection, laughter and love there, and it enveloped all those around in its warm embrace. We had been to visit our aunts in Atlanta. My septuagenarian father has two sisters who live there, and I went with him to enjoy the siblings get together. I watched indulgently as their laugh lines etched over the years crinkled with every anecdote.

His sisters and nieces had lovingly charted out the menus for a whole week: A week that included all of my father’s favorite dishes. Dishes remembered from childhood, dishes acquired in far off lands, and dishes that made my paternal grandmother, Visalam paati, come alive in the retelling of the process. The delectable snacks and the satisfying compliments such as, “You have your mother’s gift with the art of cooking,” flowed graciously.  The brood of Visalam and Kalyanam were known for having a weet tongue, and every meal had a different dessert to go with it.

The sweet for this meal was theratti paal. It’s commercial cousins are called Milk Peda or Milk Kova. Theratti paal, when made on the stove with fresh milk takes hours to come to the right consistency. I can imagine how Hinduism came to have the myth of churning the milk ocean. There are so many milk based sweets in the land, and it is quite possible that that particular myth was the gift of the dreamy subconscious thoughts of some person making theratti paal hours at a time. One can go into a sort of meditative trance as the milk gathers its cream, and then folds and bubbles again, and then again and again, till the color changes, the consistency changes, and the sweet smell of condensed milk wafts through the air. In slow measures, one adds the sugar, butter or ghee and the cardamom to send those in the vicinity to realms of ecstatic waiting.

 

Today the same marvel can be obtained from a can of condensed milk, a stick of unsalted butter, and a microwave in under 10 minutes, and I felt the tongue dance and explode in joy as the microwave theratti paal melted on the tongue. The ghee, condensed milk, and cardamom all tickled the nostrils.

I remember listening to stories about her children from my grandmother, Visalam Paati. (Visalam means vast, and the name suited her. She was generous with her time, attention and her servings, and when one wanted to play with the jiggling oodles of arm fat, there was plenty of that too and she never once got irritated when we teased her about her bulk. )

Feeding and taking care of a brood like her makes me shudder, but Visalam paati seemed to have done it with love, competence and skill.

The tale being narrated was the one on Krishna Jayanthi. Krishna, Lord Vishnu’s avatar, is said to have loved theratti paal.

Apparently, the evening pooja was ready to start. Bowls of snacks: (mysore pak, payasam, thattai, seedai, murukku, theratti paal), butter and ghee were all placed in front of the Gods, and just before the offering to the God was complete, the electricity went out plunging the little village house in South India in the 1940s, into a darkness lit just by the flame of the small lamp near Lord Krishna’s deity. Visalam Paati  having the kind of prescience that comes from raising nine children immediately placed her hand covering the theratti paal container. True enough, within seconds, a small hand struck at the theratti paal container – Visalam paati caught the hand, and waited for the lights to come on again. Just as she thought, the malefactor was none but my father.

“I knew you will reach for the theratti paal. Little rascal! “ she said.

We all laughed heartily while spooning in some more excellent microwave theratti paal ourselves. The smells and scents of ghee, condensed milk and cardamom cut across decades and the siblings sat there giggling like school children again.

Isn’t it marvelous how regaling our pleasant memories often transforms the bleak horizons of time to become as brilliant as the Milky Way studded with the shining moments of our memories?

In 2 days we will be celebrating  Krishna Jayanthi, and I will go about the joyous task of drawing tiny Krishna feet from the doorstep to the kitchen. I shall make the microwave theratti paal, and think of the children in the 1940s who shared the adventure of theratti paal, waiting the whole afternoon for the exotic taste of it in the evening. I shall regale the children in the twenty-first century with the story again, and smile indulgently at the fact that his sisters remember their naughty brother every time they eat theratti paal.

Love takes various shapes. Ours is sweet. Theratti paal sweet.

Date/Time Event
Aug 9, 2018 - Sep 23, 2018
11:00 am
Circus Vargas
Circus Vargas
Various, San Jose CA
Sep 1, 2018 - Sep 30, 2018
10:00 am - 6:00 pm
The 90 Year Journey
The 90 Year Journey
Rinconada Library, Palo Alto CA
Sep 21, 2018 - Sep 23, 2018
12:00 am
Bay Area South Asian Film Festival
Bay Area South Asian Film Festival
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, Mountain View CA
Sep 22, 2018 - Sep 23, 2018
10:00 am - 6:00 pm
Soulful Living Arts Fair
Soulful Living Arts Fair
Community Of Infinite Spirit, San Jose California

Community Seva at a Homeless Shelter

I stumble out of bed at 4 a.m. groping for my glasses and slippers. Wondering what in the world possessed me to volunteer for such an early service, I am mindful of my sleepiness as I carefully drive the 30 minutes from Palo Alto to the Orchard St. homeless shelter in San Jose. But as I near the shelter, the final wisps of sleep blow away. At five in the morning the shelter is a hive of activity. Other volunteers are already there, unloading cartons of milk, orange juice, and eggs from the trunks of cars. There are also bags of potatoes and pancake mixes, jars of syrup, and boxes of sausages to haul inside the shelter from a back door that leads into the kitchen.

I rush to help and we all set up quickly inside, donning aprons, hair nets, and gloves. There are a few familiar faces, but we are all friends, united in our desire to efficiently cook and serve a hearty breakfast for the 200 or so occupants who will be lining up in about 90 minutes.

There’s not a lot of chatter, but the set-up is done incredibly fast. How do we each know where to go and what to do? The site manager of the operation gives us a few directions, but by and large we just slot ourselves wherever needed. There is an almost spiritual air to the service, with egos discarded outside the kitchen. All we care about are the people who are looking forward to this breakfast, probably their one hot, substantial meal of the day. So we will do whatever is needed, from breaking eggs in an assembly line, to chopping and seasoning potatoes, to squeezing out an endless supply of pancakes. It is mindless work, but it puts us in a sort of meditative state. There is a sense of joy and satisfaction that pervades the small space. This is the spirit of Community Seva, a non-profit whose mission is to feed the hungry and serve the homeless in the Bay Area.

The germ of the idea of Community Seva began one day in 2009 when Nathan Ganeshan bought a pizza on an impulse for a homeless person in a park that Nathan passed every day. This small act led to many such others and when he shared his experience with others he found there was tremendous support and interest in the local Indian American community to join his efforts.

“When I shared my desire to start an organization to feed the homeless with my friend and community activist Mahesh Nihalani,” says Nathan, “His immediate reaction was, ‘Just do it, it will go well.’ He was absolutely right.”

Community Seva (Seva means “service” in Sanskrit) as a formal organization was born in 2013. It is one of the first and few Indian American non-profits to focus its entire efforts on the local community instead of fundraising for causes back in India.

Says Nathan, “I want to give back to the community where I belong today, where I am earning my bread and butter and where my children are growing up. Also, when you donate to the local community, you get to volunteer and you get to see where your donation is getting used and how well it is put into use. Most important is the instant gratification you derive out of volunteering. I do applaud the efforts of organizations supporting the need in India, but I feel we should also support our local community.”

After distributing pizza for a while Nathan looked for ways to help the homeless and hungry in a more systematic and scalable way. He approached a shelter in San Jose at random to see if there was a way to provide hot meals to their residents. The shelter had a dinner slot available. Nathan collected 25 dollars each from 10 volunteers and Community Seva served its first meal at this shelter for underprivileged families – pasta, chicken, garlic bread, and salad.

To get a steady source of funds for future events, Nathan asked his friends and volunteers to spread the idea of sponsoring a seva. As a youngster Nathan had always felt that celebrating special occasions like birthdays was much more meaningful when shared with the less fortunate. The desi community eagerly responded. “My dad turned 75 on Sep 17th 2016. He lives in India, far away from us and we thought a great way to commemorate his 75th would be to sponsor a breakfast on his birthday,” says Varsha Dandapani. “He said it was the best gift we could have ever given him and that made me super thrilled!” Varsha was also able to volunteer for the service.

Says Shriya Shetty, “In my role as a volunteer coordinator with Community Seva, I have been amazed by the willingness of people to pitch in and volunteer on short notice and sometime multiple times in the same weekend. Our core team members are fine examples of this enthusiasm and I believe it rubs off on our volunteers as well.  It’s humbling to see how many people are so willing to give back to the community.” Community Seva has over 1600 volunteers today.

Some of the volunteers also put aside religious and personal preferences to serve. One such volunteer, Sangeeta, is a pure vegetarian. “She would not even enter her own kitchen when the family was cooking eggs,” recalls Nathan. “Yet, on her very first service she cracked dozens of eggs and served the cooked dish as well.” Today Sangeeta is a core volunteer who not only handles meat and eggs for Community Seva, she also shops and stores them in a refrigerator in her garage!

Once Community Seva got off the ground and its activities began spreading by word-of-mouth, desi parents began clamoring for service opportunities for their kids, not just for high school service hours but even for children younger than 10. Community Seva came up with the idea of a care-bag seva. Care-bag sevas involve creating little kits for the people in shelters that contain soap. shampoo, and other essentials. They are quite popular with shelter residents, as are the winter bags which contain warm clothing accessories. These sevas are done at homes and community centers with one large event, packing 1000 bags, being done at Livermore recently. “Families and friends met at the local community center to pack the 1,000 bags,” recalls Varsha Venkatram, a high school student at the Stanford met Online High School who is in charge of the youth efforts at Community Seva.

“It is due to the enthusiasm and support of the community that we have been able to serve over 69,500 meals in the last five years,” says Saras Venkatram, who is on the board of Community Seva. Saras, who is a web designer by profession, knew Nathan much before the idea of Community Seva came about. When he approached her to join the organization, she was delighted to find a way to give back to the community.

“Serving people at homeless shelters is a way for us to show them that they are also deserving of love and care,” says Saras.

Varsha Venkatram echoes these sentiments. “When I first went to distribute the winter backpacks in person I was quite nervous, never having had contact with a homeless person before. But when I met them, I realized they were just like us, only down on their luck. Someday I could be homeless and then I would be glad to have an organization like Community Seva in my life.”

“It is true that we are not able to help people who are not able to make it to shelters so in the future we would like to partner with a local organization to provide mobile shower and laundry services,” says Saras. “Maybe even a meal.”

For the moment the weekend meal services are the priority. Community Seva has recently invested in a kitchen, thanks to the support of the community, and plans are to cook and serve many more meals from this centralized location. Priya Ramdas, who is a board member as well as the VP of Operations, is excited about this new venture. “I get a lot of fulfillment from being on the ground, cooking. Now that we have this kitchen, we can dream of something like Meals on Wheels, through which we will be able to expand our reach.

Nathan has even bigger plans for Community Seva. “It’s no secret that I want Community Seva to have a shelter of its own,” he says. “We are also trying to help homeless people who are interested in finding a job.” A few companies like Shasta Foods have started hiring the homeless. The new kitchen has also hired a couple of people from the shelters to wash dishes.”

Adds Priya, “We have grown faster than anyone expected. We are largely funded by sponsorships and I have seen that anytime we put out a call for a sponsor, we immediately get a response. People are always looking to help, they just need an avenue that they can trust.”

For their efforts, Community Seva has been recognized as Nonprofit of the Year in California’s 27th district. “I was speechless when I found out,” says Nathan humbly. “I did not know that such a recognition existed.” He adds, “I am really very happy to see the efforts of our core volunteers and the selfless service of our volunteers at large getting recognized at the state level. This recognition will allow us to do more.”

The spirit of Community Seva has spread outside the Indian American community. “I would estimate that 20-30% of our volunteers are non-Indians,” says Saras.

Says Katie Tse Cape, a volunteer, “We carved hams, cubed potatoes, cut vegetable, sliced pies and served the South Bay homeless veterans and community with a big smile while sharing laughter with new friends. We are proud to be a part of their mission and be associated with this amazing group of volunteers.”

Back at the shelter the 90-minute mark is approaching. We fill warming pans with steaming scrambled eggs, sausages, oatmeal, pancakes, and potatoes and get ready to serve. As the residents line up, we heap plates with the food of their choice, directing them to coffee, juice, and syrup nearby. The next hour passes in a blur. We can’t stop smiling, there is so much satisfaction in being able to help. Just when the last of the eggs are being scraped from the pan we hear a rhythmic drumming. It is the residents, banging the coffee cups in a beat to thank us for our efforts. Our smiles get wider and wider. Can there be a better way to begin a Saturday morning?

Community Seva is having its very first fundraiser on September 22nd 2018 to raise $175,000 to feed & serve the homeless in San Jose, Sunnyvale, Gilroy, Fremont & Hayward for one entire year. In addition, funds raised will be used to purchase amenities for their centralized kitchen to cook and serve over 25,000 meals through the year. Tickets to the gala have been sold out, but to become one of the sponsors, contact volunteer@communityseva.org.

For more information, check out communityseva.org.

Legalizing Gay Sex in India Does Not Mean Getting Rid of Discrimination

This revolution was televised.
I watched on TV as friends of mine huddled together in a café in Kolkata as the verdict on Section 377 came out. They had come with rainbow flags and hope but until the last minute, there was an air of nervous expectation as if they were waiting for board examination results to come out.

 

Sandip Roy’s article first appeared on Firstpost.

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

Cover photo credit: Creative Commons Image by Vinayak Das

From Our Sponsors




Kussum Mahotsav 2018 Brings Masters Closer to Emerging Classical Artists

Kussum Mahotsav, TSA, is set to be the largest classical Indian music and dance festival in the USA. Kussum Mahotsav 2018 is a seven-days festival featuring around 80 musicians and dancers, both visiting and local artists. The ambitious program aims to present a collection of 60 concerts, 15 student concerts, as well as time for networking, conversations, connections and hospitality. It is the largest classical Indian music and dance festival in the USA and certainly puts TSA on the international cultural map.

This unique celebration of Indian music and dance is conceived, organised and realised by Achyut Tope, a supporter of emerging artists, an agent of change, a thought leader and a dedicated community leader.

Achyut Tope has certainly lit a burning incense for the classical arts vibe. He has been a dedicated arts advocate over the years, attending events and guiding students. The festival will highlight the significance of traditional arts for presenters and attendees alike. The authenticity of this festival reflects the very essence of this sacred offering.  

We asked Achyut Tope what motivated him to produce Kussum Mahotsav:

Over 30 years of living in Long Island and Connecticut, I observed that while there are hundreds of thousands of affluent Indians who claim to admire the arts and call North America home, I do not see collective effort for major festivals which provide a platform for these amazing artists. There are very few events which transcend limited interests and celebrate the talents and hard work of home artists.

There are literally hundreds of great North and South Indian musicians and dancers in TSA, but I noticed that their talent, commitment, dedication, and hard work is not properly valued. Some of them are just as good as, or even better than some artists from India who tour the USA and Canada. It is time to bring them all together; show them our affection.’’

Kussum Mahotsav strives to answer the call for a non-partial, non-political and non-religious platform for artistic expression. It is a festival that measures the merit of the practice rather than any particular following or group. Clearly, the award for all artists in this festival, is the regard and attention of learned, interested and committed audience members. Achyut Tope expressed this hope“that more international and home classical arts students will aspire to perform next year, and so will their teachers.”

Along with artists such as Anindo Chatterjee, Sanhita Nandi, Krishna Bhatt and Samar Saha, some of the most exceptional musicians and dancers from the Tri-State area (NJ, NY, CT), USA, Canada and India will also take the stage.

KUSSUM MAHOTSAV: 7th – 9th September and 13th – 16th September 2018. Sri Venkateswara Temple (Bridgewater Temple), 1 Balaji Temple Dr., Bridgewater, NJ 08807. Contact Achyut Tope (631) 645 1438. kussummahotsav@gmail.com. www.kussummahotsav.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/kussummahotsav

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Festival profile by The Heritage Arts Initiative

Technology is as Addictive as a Casino

Many of us are addicted to social media. Whether it be Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter, the technologies’ creators have found ways to keep us coming back for more. Google design ethicist Tristan Harris has called the smartphone a “slot machine in our pocket”: one carrying a litany of addictive applications and fostering harmful behaviors.

Now, that same slot machine is becoming entrenched at work. And it is making our lives more disconnected, more disjointed, less productive, and less satisfying.

This is a relatively new development. Over the past decade, technology adoption flows have reversed, driven by the smartphone and the widespread popularity of consumer technologies such as social networks and chat. The copy machine, fax, mobile phone and personal computer and even the Internet started as work tools and then moved into the consumer realm. But, with the advent of the smartphone, employees began to insist on bringing their own devices to work, for personal purposes. They then won the battle with IT teams to allow them to use these to conduct work business such as making phone calls and sending e-mails, and a wave of companies emerged that built work tools that took social networks and chat systems as their models for inciting addiction and overuse.

Employers these days are all too happy to have their employees addicted to the tools of their trade if it means more time immersed in their jobs.

To take one of the most popular new business applications as an example: Slack uses numerous techniques that encourage workers to pay attention to it as much as possible. The most aggressive of them is a series of strong warnings to turn on desktop notifications, allowing Slack to pound them with notifications regardless of whether they are actively using the application. The company’s tagline, after all, is “Where Work Happens”: that is, “Don’t leave Slack; you will miss something and fail at your job”.

Slack’s designers have tapped into addictive techniques developed by companies such as Facebook and Twitter— with desktop and e-mail notifications of every mention of our name, and shortcuts to post GIFs in chat channels. There is no malice on their part; the company truly believes that all work should happen inside Slack and that we should all know just about everything happening on its platform and be notified instantly.

Unfortunately, humans can’t easily deal with such flows of information. The barrage of notifications crushes efforts to perform thoughtful work requiring quiet, space, and uninterrupted mental effort.

The average worker checks e-mail 77 times a day — and sends 4.73 messages, texts, or e-mails during an in-person meeting

Slack is not unique: most providers of work technologies, from human resources to document-sharing to systems for customer-relationship management, emphasize some style of interruptive notifications systems to alert us to a new message or other event. And the result is a blizzard of notifications, and intense pressure (sometimes from bosses) to keep these notification turned on, because ignoring a notification could mean you miss something that someone considers important.

We all know that this is happening, but usually we are powerless to stop it. And it is our managers who are all too often now bringing in new tools for us to use without thinking through their impact on our time and attention.

This new reality of notification insanity obstructs not only our concentration on individual work but also our communication with one another in person and in virtual conference. In a study of 1,200 office employees in 2015, videoconferencing company Highfive found that, on average, 4.73 messages, texts, or e-mails are sent by each person during a normal in-person meeting. Of millennial respondents, 73% acknowledged checking their phones during conference calls, and 45% acknowledged checking them during in-person meetings. Ironically, the greatest problem that 47% of respondents had with meetings was that co-workers were not paying attention.

And that is on top of the well-known problem of checking for messages far too often.

University of California Irvine researcher Gloria Mark and colleagues found that workers check e-mail an average of 77 times a day — and that checking e-mail constantly tends to increase worker frustration and stress. Additionally she found that interruptions can increase the total time necessary for completing a task, often significantly. It usually takes 23 minutes to return to a task after an unrelated interruption — but many workers must switch their attention every 10 minutes.

Statistics on reading texts, chat, and other forms of notifications at the office are harder to come by, but it is clear that the use of these is growing. Slack, for example, has 9 million global active users, who, in 2016, used it for an average of 140 minutes per work day. Add that to the 4.1 hours that, on average, workers spend checking their business e-mail per day, and you get the sense that the job has become mostly about responding to chat and e-mail, with a diminishing portion available to do actual work.

A further irony is that even though Slack claims that its technology helps workers reduce the number of e-mails, studies have shown that both e-mail volume and time spent on it continue to grow — and notification madness along with them.

This creates a cycle of increasing disaffection and disengagement. We spend more and more time doing busy work and less and less time doing the substance of what we really want or need to be doing. Work has become a series of unwanted addictions and useless actions that, at the end of the day, leave workers with nothing to show for the time and energy they have committed to it. It’s no wonder that surveys show a disturbing increase in the feeling that our jobs are meaningless: increasingly, they are.

This article has been reprinted with permission of the author.

Fast and Easy School Lunches

 

As we get ready for the new school year, I have started engaging my two boys on the topic of school lunches. Since my teenager’s palette oscillates faster than the stock market, he keeps me guessing as to what lunch he wants and how he wants it.

Eons ago, when I was in school, lunch was a simple affair. It was whatever mom packed for me.  Roti rolls with fried potatoes, stuffed parathas with pickles. Mint chutney sandwiches, fried rice with vegetables, dahi rice with ginger chutney, idlis with gunpowder (spiced lentil mix), uppuma with pickles, vegetable of the day mixed with rice and yogurt. The list goes on. Now, as a mom here, I find that homemade lunches have gone international. They also need to work with cool California fall and winter temperatures, which can quickly dry out most foods.

Processed Food Nation

I have nothing against hot school lunches. It is definitely the way to go if parents are in high-stress jobs, and are strapped for time. In my case, my kids have had homemade hot lunches for many years now. I could completely relate to Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, a recent TV show that I would highly recommend watching. It educates us on what our kids eat at school. The only thing natural and healthy you might find in a school lunch menu is a wilted salad.

I have always believed in letting kids choose what they want, while gently introducing them to the right foods. As my older son went into elementary school, he experimented with hot school lunches for a few days in a week. After a month or two, he came back saying, “Mom can I take lunch from home? I hate that greasy pizza on Wednesdays.” My younger son was adamant about trying his school lunch, but then came back saying, “Mom, I just had a Ceasar Salad for lunch, and I am starving!”

Plan, Engage, and Involve

About a week or two before school, we start planning by making a list of snacks and foods my boys would like in their lunch menu.  We prep our lunches for the week on Sunday nights. Keeping everything ready early makes weekday mornings go smooth, without a whole lot of stress. As we get ready for school, I switch on NPR, and make their lunches in a jiffy.

The Menu

It is what my kids like. My 10-year-old prefers burritos, rolls, and pasta to sandwiches. My teen loves sandwiches, paninis, pasta, and rice. The great thing is he makes his own lunch and I just help with grilling meats. I make sure to alternate burritos with pasta and rolls, so that it is not boring and monotonous.

Snacks

Pick your battles. I usually let my kids pick the snack, even unhealthy ones like Poptarts and chips, as long as the lunch is substantial and healthy. Most probably the snack is going to be traded for another unhealthy one anyway. Cheese sticks, fruits, vegetable sticks, nuts, and dried fruits can be some healthy alternates.

Sandwiches

Alternating  sandwiches with different spreads adds variety to a weekly menu. Using sourdough or ciabatta hard-crusted bread makes a huge difference. Plain white bread becomes soggy by afternoon, and my son says it’s only good for pasting posters on walls. If using white or wheat, I toast the bread and this makes the bread less soggy and holds the sandwich together. Bagel sandwich is another option.

I marinate chicken strips with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, crushed pepper, and garlic the night before  and grill it in the morning for the sandwiches. Some days its just cold cuts. Using different kinds of  cheese like fresh mozzarella, brie, and pepper jack adds variety too. Saute onions, garlic, mushrooms, and bell peppers for a vegetarian filling in sandwiches. Tandoori chicken sandwich with chutney is a great alternative.

Pasta/Raviolis

It is good to invest in a hot soup container. Asian stores have good ones. It keeps the food warm in winters. I  keep a few sauces handy like tomato, pesto and cream sauces. I cook a large quantity of pasta, cool it, add olive oil and place it in a zip-lock bag in the refrigerator.  In the morning, I heat the sauce with vegetables and add a small amount of cooked pasta. It takes me under five minutes to pack this lunch.

Burritos and Rolls

These are hearty, healthy, and substantial. My 10-year-old loves burritos. I make Spanish rice with lots of vegetables, as well as  black beans w/ tomatoes and garlic ahead of time. Heat the tortilla on a pan,  place the hot tortilla on a piece of foil, add  grated cheese, rice and beans and roll both ends inside first and then roll the whole burrito. Wrap in foil and place it in a large soup can. This burrito is warm on a cold  afternoon.  Make sure the black bean is thick and wet but not watery.

Pita sandwiches, roti rolls with chutney and vegetables, Kaathi rolls with  tandoori chicken, paneer rolls, fajita rolls, all wrapped in foil, make for a great lunch. Make sure the chutneys are thick.

Soups/Salads/Sushi

My boys are still hungry after soup, so soup is not an option for them. I prefer not to pack cold salads in winter. I do recommend warm pasta salads and couscous salads with grilled meats for winter. I pack sushi in a small cooler during summer months.

To Share or Not to Share

Most private schools don’t encourage sharing because of allergies. Middle school is where trading, sharing is in full force.  I send an extra container of pasta for friends. With sandwiches, the rule is, only half a sandwich can be traded, the other has to be eaten.

It’s Cool to Take Idlis Too

Some kids feel awkward to take Indian food for lunch. When our Japanese friends bring sushi  and  Mexican friends bring fajitas, why not take idilis for lunch? My nephew took idlis to school and his idlis became so popular that his friends wanted to pay him for a piece of idli. My son says that his fried rice and chicken curry are also quite popular among his lunch buddies.

Mom-made Lunch!

My goal is to make sure that my kids eat a healthy, hearty lunch at school and I can say that I have been successful so far. If you haven’t, then it’s time to give home-made, mom-made school lunch a try this fall. Wishing you all a happy and healthy lunch year at school.

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


Rishi’s Perfect Veggie Sandwich

Like most teenagers, I can down two burritos easily. I need a lunch that fills me up. This burger buster will not only satisfy your hunger, but satisfy your tongue. Once you make this sandwich, be prepared for a rush of delightful flavors coming your way.

The Bread

I loved Dutch Crunch for a sandwich like this. Then, I got braces. I use wheat bread instead. I suggest you toast the bread so that it doesn’t get soggy by lunchtime.

The Spread

I use a variety of spreads for this sandwich, depending on my mood. You can spread Green (Basil) Pesto, Sun Dried Tomato Pesto (can be found at your local Trader Joe’s), good old Mayonnaise, or even Blue Cheese Dressing for the wilder ones.

The Fillers

My favorite filler is sautéed mushrooms, peppers, and onions. I don’t care for cucumbers, but tomato and avocado are in.

Not Too Cheesy

Sometimes I add cheese, and sometimes I don’t. If you want to add cheese, then I suggest fresh mozzarella slices to freshen up your sandwich.

Finally, spread it, stack it, seal it in Saran Wrap, and take it to school. I love this sandwich, and you will too.

—Rishi Iyer

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A version of this article was first published in September 2010. 

Pinky Mukhi, a Bay area based author has written a children’s book, “We are One,” to help children feel comfortable eating traditional Indian foods along with their friends. Given below is the link to learn more and to purchase this book. A wonderful read for this time of year, when kids are getting ready to take out their backpacks and their lunch boxes.

We Are One

Hiking Grand Canyon from Rim to Rim: How to Do It

Grand Canyon is rightly named.  The beauty of this place cannot be fully described in words. It is one of the deepest gorges on Earth with an average depth of one mile (1.6 km) and an average width of ten miles (16 km). Because of the tremendous natural beauty that surrounds the place, hiking the Canyon rim to rim is considered fulfilling the “bucket list” for many seasoned hikers around the world. As we found out, it does require a good chunk of mental fortitude along with physical endurance. Our plan was to hike from the North to the South Rim with an overnight stay in the valley in between at Phantom Lodge.

Trailside View of the Grand Canyon
Day One:  Euphoria and the Surrealistic Landscape
Beginning at the trailhead called North Kaibab, we began the 14 mile hike. Truly, the challenge of hiking this trail was like none other. The distance in miles was not the challenge:  the intensity level required given the difficulty of the trail was the real challenge. Although the trail is well maintained by the National Park Service, much of the trail was heavily covered with rocks and stones and was used by mules or horses as well. Most of the trail was filled with slopes that lunged upward and downward, architected as steps with wooden blocks separating each. Hikers have to manage these hindrances with attention and care, which meant a good amount of slowing down of speed  in order to avoid any mishap. The price can be sometimes deadly. Though not heavily advertised, it is a fact that many lives are lost in the Grand Canyon on these trails, due to accidents either self-made or due to factors surrounding the environment (heat, cold etc.,) that were not properly taken into account.

Anticipating these odds, we had done our homework for this for over a year, preparing mostly by running and hiking local trails in and around Maryland. This did help us a lot to get in good physical shape, but the mental challenges were something we were unprepared for, as we would rudely find out during the hike. From all the materials I had read up on this, I clearly knew it would be different in many ways such as weather, especially heat but I was definitely not ready for the dramatic “theater” experience the canyon hike provided—that hit us right from the time we started hiking.

The moment we started hiking, the visual magic of the surroundings absorbed my senses. The landscape was uniquely indescribable and much of it remains in my mind as jaw-droppingly awesome. The exquisitely carved rocks that underwent environmental ravages dating back to 25,000 million years, stared at you from all sides throughout the hike. Desert lizards, squirrels and the ever permanent scorching sun kept you company, while the heat and thirst constantly tested the limits of our physical and mental will.  The day we hiked all the way to Phantom Lodge, it was a steaming high of 95 degrees, typical for any other day in July. The radiating volcanic rocks and the “box” like geological formation of the canyon at the place around where the desolate lodge was situated kept the heat up by another few notches or more, on that day, to 106 degrees. As we slowly meandered through the trail with my GoPro on my head, some of the excitement and euphoria that we had in the beginning of the hike seemed to vanish in front of the stubbornly overpowering elements. The overbearing need to remain mentally focused to steer clear of the not-so hidden dangers of the trail, while handling the influence of weakness and pain in my heat exhausted body was something that I will never forget for the rest of my life. Tired and exhausted, we kept wondering why the lodge was so far away even when our GPS map showed that it was 5 miles away. By then, it was quite evident that our speed was only averaging an hour a mile. We had crossed over 10 miles in 5-6 hours through a downward spiral starting at 12,000 feet at the top of the trail quickly falling to  somewhere in the 2000-3000 feet above sea level. Finally, when we reached Phantom Lodge, all we wanted was a cold shower and some good food. We slept exhausted and spent.Somewhere in the canyon
Day Two: On the Road Again
From the Phantom Lodge, our final leg was to hike 10 miles to the top of the South Rim using the Bright Angels Trail.  We got up around 3 a.m. and began the hike to face another day when hot weather had been predicted. The climb led us in a zigzag fashion by the side of the mighty Colorado river but it was no less challenging in terms of difficulty. Five hours went by, and the sun was beating down on us. The electrolytes and water mix in the back pack was being refilled at the water stops along the way, and yet, heavy heat and signs of heat exhaustion was evident in many ways in my body. The mind has a strange way of testing your will. All of a sudden, some strange questions began forming in my mind. What did I get myself into?

Will I fall down somewhere and will that be the end? Can I ever make it out of here? Where is the end? How many more steps to go? These thoughts swirled in my head as I put one foot in front of the other. My eyes were straining to look for any dangers down below, with each step that I took.

To keep my apprehensions from completely taking over my mind, I trained my mind to focus on the panoramic beauty of the Canyon. I wanted to complete the hike. I wanted to feel the joy of completing this test of endurance. The trick did pay off—my defeatist attitude morphed into one of determination. Finally, by 1 p.m. we reached the top, to a well-deserved high five between us. Through all the sweat, tears, excitement and endurance, we had successfully completed the rim to rim hike!

What  To Do Differently:
Given another opportunity, I might have attempted the hike in a month other than July when the temperatures were soaring! We chose that time of year based on available reservations at Phantom Lodge. Believe it or not, these reservations are booked a year in advance. I took the available date and planned my trip around it. To take weather conditions into account, check weather patterns on their website and figure out the best time of year to visit given individual preferences and tolerance for hot and cold weather.

Taking a break

Where to stay:
Phantom Ranch situated within the Grand Canyon. Or, you can choose to camp in designated campgrounds along the way.

When to visit:
Check weather conditions and choose a time that works with your individual tolerance. Be aware that there are unusual weather patterns including rock slides that can affect your hiking plans.

What to Carry:
Hiking gear, sticks, flashlights, salty snacks to prevent dehydration and plenty of water.

Mike Manoj lives in Maryland. He works as a cyber security consultant for federal agencies. In addition to hiking, Mike enjoys singing and playing drums.

This article was first published in October 2016.

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