Measure T Rally for Coyote Valley

Coyote Valley — the wetlands, open space, and farmland just south of urban San Jose — has been threatened by industrial sprawl for too long.  It is wildlife habitat that is home to over a dozen rare and endangered species.

We view Coyote Valley as an essential part of our community.  From cleaning the air we breathe to protecting our homes from flooding, this land is irreplaceable.  

As you consider public purchase of land with proceeds generated from Measure T bond funding, many of us will be conducting a “Rally for Coyote Valley” on Jan. 22 between 12:00 and 1:30 pm outside City Hall to demonstrate our support for the protection of this regional treasure.

For more information on how to show support, go to protectcoyotevalley.org/valley

 

Bret Stephens’ Flawed Logic in Championing Churchill

Many leaders straddle history with a complicated record. But none more so than Winston Churchill. For the white world, he is nothing short of a legend. For the rest, he is a tyrant singularly responsible for the genocidal deaths of millions.

In a recent Times column, “An Antidote to Idiocy in Churchill,” Bret Stephens examines Churchill through the limited prism of his own convictions, portraying a hero righting a world that was listing heavily with the burden of Nazi occupation. Stephens validates his opinions by drawing from Andrew Roberts’ recent biography of Churchill: Churchill: Walking with Destiny.

In his book, Roberts defends Churchill’s motives, justifies heinous acts of violence by the British Empire and lauds Britain and its hero in no small measure.

Churchill’s role in India’s Bengal famine, according to Roberts, was complicated. It was a tossup between sending grains to rescue a starving population versus providing supplies to England’s wartime operations. Roberts calls it one of the “desperately difficult moral decisions that Churchill and many others had to take,” in order to win a greater war.

This line of reasoning has been debunked often. Yet, it is the mole that keeps popping up no matter how many times you whack it down, and this time Churchill’s immoral decisions are offered up as proof of his greatness.

In fact, as Madhusree Mukerjee, a former editor at Scientific American, explains in her book Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II, the famine in Bengal, even while originating from natural disasters in 1942, was precipitated due to the decisions of the British War Cabinet and Churchill.

The Japanese occupation of Burma in 1942 cut off rice imports to India, resulting in a rice shortage but despite the shortage, the War Cabinet forced India to continue to export its own much-needed stocks of rice. In the fiscal year 1942-1943, Mukerjee writes that India exported 260,000 tons of rice. The rice could have served India’s starving families.

In December 1942, when Viceroy Linlithgow urgently requested wheat to supplement the lack of rice, Churchill dismissed the possibility saying that there were no ships available to deliver the wheat. In January 1943, Churchill arranged to move merchant ships operating in the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic to help build surplus for the United Kingdom. When dead bodies began littering the streets of Bengal, not even a single shipment of wheat was authorized for India. Records indicate that 170,000 tons of Australian wheat docked on India’s shores but departed without unloading. The food diverted from India’s shores was headed for storage, not for immediate consumption. Mukerjee’s research reveals that during that time, Britain’s stockpile of food was the highest ever at 18.5 million tons. Even offers of help for India from countries like the United States were conveniently ignored.

Churchill was too canny a politician to be unaware of the significance of his choices. This is probably why he grumpily declared that Indians were “breeding like rabbits anyway.”

Stephens hangs his reasoning on Roberts’ logic, describing the Bengal tragedy as a “cyclone-caused famine in 1943,” and reducing Churchill’s crimes to using “racially insensitive humor during the crisis.”

Using syllogistic fallacy, Stephens declares that “It is because Churchill made the judgments he did that his latter-day detractors live in a world free to make judgments about him.” Essentially, Indians were killed to save the world and Indians should be grateful and shut up about it. Imagine if that argument was used to explain away other genocides.

Can acts of kindness neutralize acts of cruelty? It seems as though the answer depends on whom the kindness is directed at, how vile the cruelty and on whom it is heaped.

Stephens admiringly outlines Churchill’s forward thinking: Churchill championed free trade, promoted social reform, supported taxes on the rich, pensions for the old, and tried to create a “party for the sensible center.” During the hopeless pessimism of World War 2, it was Churchill who rallied the troops and popular opinion in England, and with his leadership pulled a victory against Hitler’s forces. And he gave great speeches.

Undisputedly, Churchill fought against the horrors unleashed by Hitler and his armies, calling it “the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world …”  But while Churchill helped stop the atrocities committed against one race, he committed atrocities against another.

One race Churchill found expendable, while the other preservable.

And in Stephens’ article there’s nary a mention of Churchill’s bigotry, his views on racial hierarchy and eugenics. In 1937, in a speech to the Palestine Royal Commission, Churchill said: “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

Stephens swaddles the memory of Churchill, memorializes his exploits, puts the blame on the victims and deletes Churchill’s fundamental moral flaws in his column. For a writer of some repute, this was a shameful exercise to canonize a man who engineered a mass murder. This is not an example of critical thinking. It’s a case of white-washing history.

Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.

Date/Time Event
Oct 18, 2018 - Jan 21, 2019
All Day
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA
Nov 29, 2018 - Feb 16, 2019
11:00 am - 7:00 pm
Events Across the Globe
An Indo-U.S. Cultural Saga
DAG, Mumbai Maharashtra
Jan 22, 2019
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
Measure T Rally for Coyote Valley on January 22nd
Measure T Rally for Coyote Valley on January 22nd
San Jose City Hall, San Jose CA
Jan 25, 2019 - Jan 27, 2019
All Day
India Quilt Festival
India Quilt Festival
Sri Sankara Hall, Chennai TamilNadu

Mithila Art – The Hands That Shape A Legacy

There is a distinct nip in the air as the calendar inches towards Christmas and the approaching winter break. After the eggnog has been consumed, gifts unwrapped and holiday visits checked off, there is still the matter of keeping hands and minds busy with indoor activities. Here is a great option for those moments when you hear the dreaded “I’m bored!

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is currently home to a wonderful exhibit featuring paintings from the Mithila region of India. Aptly titled ‘Painting is my Everything’ – the exhibit showcases wonderfully detailed, vivid representations created by some of the foremost of Mithila artists. This style, also known as Madhubani painting, has gained in popularity since the 1960s.  Rich in pattern and color, it is not only a feast for the eyes but also inspiring in its content.

Interspersed among the art on the walls, are short video interviews with the artists whose hands shape this rich legacy. The documentaries help put a face to names like Dulari Devi, Dr. Rani Jha and Shalinee Kumari;  women who have taken the art form, made it their own, and are ushering it into the contemporary world of today.

The Artists of Mithila

How is a work of art created? What happens at the moment of creation? How does an apparently everyday scene take on a distinct nuance and magic through the language of art? And how can such a creation shape the world around it?

Art and its expression go beyond stylistic representations and labels. For the artist the process of creating takes precedence over all else. Yes, there is the commercial aspect to the making and selling of work that can be a motivator. But if you ask artists why they create, they will tell you that they do it because they MUST. It is an extension of themselves. It is as much a part of their identity as the color of their eyes. Creating their art is their voice.

Especially when the expression is part of a larger identity – a community spirit. People in the Bihar region of northern India have been creating wall murals since times immemorial. Mythology has named this region ‘Mithila’ and its people continue to identify with it. The Indian epic Ramayana describes the beautiful art covering the walls of the kingdom of Mithila to celebrate the wedding of their Princess Sita with Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya.

Another important feature of this form of art is that traditionally women were its guardians. Female hands created the murals and adorned the walls of their homes to commemorate special occasions. It was up to the women of the villages to keep the art alive, safeguarding their distinct styles marked by caste differences, and passing it on, along with the folklore, mythology and customs inherent in its creation.

Over time, with the popularization of Mithila art, the responsibility of creating these wonderful murals is now being shared by both genders. And, the style is now showcased on paper, fabric and all manner of materials.

Mithila Art Institute

Founded in 2003 in Madhubani, Bihar, the Mithila Art Institute received initial funding from the estate of Raymond Owens and the Ethnic Arts Foundation. The institute’s focus is the to shape the next generation of Mithila artists. Teaching traditional conventions, imagery and techniques, the Institute’s curriculum also allows for personal exploration and stylistic variations. The Mithila Art Institute has successfully trained and launched artists since its inception. It is regarded as a major cultural institution in India. Several graduates have received national and international recognition and many have been featured in exhibitions, books and articles in both in India and across the world.

Dr. Rani Jha is a Master Painter and instructor at the Institute. Her own work often deals with women’s issues and stems from her personal life experiences. She is proud to represent and celebrate women in all aspects of life. In 2015, Rani Jha was a Visiting Artist at Syracuse University. “I am Mithila’s daughter”, she states proudly in her interview documentary.

Contemporary Nuances

Among the many decorative and mythological motifs at the Asian Art Museum exhibit, are some striking pieces with contemporary messages. In an age replete with social and political movements jostling for space on the world’s stage, these colorfully artistic voices seem to speak loudest of all!

Sita Devi was one of the earliest trailblazers of the Mithila art community. She was among the first artists to paint on paper. In 1976 she traveled to Washington D.C to participate in the Smithsonian’s annual Festival of American Folklife’s “Old Ways in the New World” demonstration program series. Included in the exhibit is one of her paintings which documents her visit. Iconic monuments like the Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and Arlington National Cemetery have been captured via the lens of her imagination in a painting titled ‘Monuments in Washington, D.C’.

Shalinee Kumari is one of the younger artists who is changing the tradition of Mithila art with her intensely personal narratives of self-expression. She draws from global subjects that also impact her life and community. Topics like gender-equality, women’s rights, terrorism and global warming come alive under her painstaking brush strokes. She was the first graduate of the Mithila Art Institute to have a solo exhibition at the Frey-Norris Gallery in San Francisco in 2009. Shalinee’s painting titled ‘Women’s Power’ is a celebration of the Devi and by extension of womanhood, in its representation of a three-headed, multi-armed goddess standing atop a lotus. In her hands she holds symbolic objects associated with various Hindu deities. The lower half of her body is depicted in the form of ‘Ardhanarishwara’ – a half man – half woman representation of the God Shiva. Beneath this form lie male corpses. It is a symbolic but succinct declaration of the innate power of women.

Gopal Saha is one of many male artists whose work has a distinctive quality to it. A tea stall owner, Gopal took up painting after an injury caused him to be physically challenged. He is known to depict scenes from everyday life around him. Gopal’s painting titled ‘Railway Station’ makes a notable impression. A family of four is shown at a ticket counter purchasing a fare to board a waiting train. Both the locomotive and the subjects are rendered in the stylized manner of the art form. At the same time, attention to details like the cap worn by the driver and guard, and mechanical elements of the train itself are not overlooked. Mr. Saha’s work is considered an important part of the history of Mithila art. 

Artist and teacher, Dulari Devis saga of personal transformation deserves mention. Living a life of servitude in the Ranti area of Bihar, Dulari was inspired by the work of artists in whose homes she served. She received training from Karpoori Devi, an established Master painter. Now, Dulari Devi is a herself Master Painter and Instructor at the Mithila Art Institute. She received the State of Bihar Award for Excellence in Art in 2013, and authored her award winning autobiography ‘Following My Paintbrush’, published by Tara Books in 2010.

Mithila artists often use their work to document life around them, both as it applies to them locally and on the larger world canvas. A wonderful depiction of current affairs is Dulari Devi’s painting documenting Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s campaign visit to Bihar leading up to the 2014 national election. Accompanied by his staff, he is seen flying in a helicopter. The artist has managed to show the helicopter via the lens of her imagination – adorned in traditional patterns and accompanied by a flock of birds flying above it’s stylized form. The gathering of rural womenfolk welcoming his arrival, speaks to the significant percentage of women who make up Bihar’s electorate.

Dulari, Shalinee, Rani and others like them have overcome significant economic and social hardships. Art, as their self-expression has given them legitimacy and a personal identity. Their journey is a testament to the place this art form has acquired in the world today.

Mithila’s children have joined their voices and hands to keep her traditions alive for the times to come.

=========================================

Painting Is My Everything – Art from India’s Mithila region;  is currently exhibited at the Asian Art Museum.

The exhibit runs from Sept 7th – Dec 30th, 2018.

Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin St
San Francisco, CA 94102
415.581.3500
========================================
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.

 

 

Calling Off The Wedding

The Indian TV channel was playing Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (HAHK) when the phone call came to say that Aparna’s wedding had been called off. 

“Is the wedding postponed or canceled?” my mother was asking on the phone. When she hung up, she shook her head. A single word: “Dowry.”

On the screen, Arti Shahani, the new bride and daughter-in-law in HAHK, was cheerfully working in the kitchen, bidding the male executives adieu, peeling an improbably large number of apples in a demure sari with head covered. This cloyingly sweet scene suggested she had no ambitions of her own whatsoever, and was therefore the ideal gharelu (home-making) daughter-in-law. The one bright spot offering some diversity in this fantasy-land was the token professional woman, Razia, the Muslim “lady doctor,” who confirmed the good news that a child was on its way. In this Bollywood la la land, there was lots of aap and hum. No sign of class struggle. Servants were malleable and agreeable, harmony reigned with no sign of discord. And this is what it takes for a family to chug along, we are to understand.

Chalo, it’s good that we found out what kind of people they are before the wedding,” my mother was saying in a soothing voice. The wedding card had been on the refrigerator magnet for months. I took it down and tossed it into the recycling bin.

Photo Credit: Parekh Cards

I grew up with such happy memories of Delhi weddings. I remember when my uncle got married in the 1970s. I was a young girl, and had a particular fondness for softies, soft-served ice cream cones, being careful not to spill them on my made-for-the occasion frilly frock. Unlimited (free!) Coca-cola and Fanta outside of parental supervision. Espresso with sugar cubes. Spotting a hippie foreigner near a hotel pool, from a faraway land called America, and marveling that hair color came in a shade other than black. What fun.

THE SHADOW

And then another memory popped up in my mind, less sanguine. Hushed whispers. The unhappily married aunt who died in a blaze of kerosene fire. The demands from the groom’s family had been insatiable, unceasing, relentless. It seems every family has a story of a ‘dowry death.’ Was this the dark shadow of all the bright lights I remembered? What was the relation between my aunt’s death and all those sparkling weddings?

PAYING FOR THE BFIW

Those “5 star hotel” wedding parties from my childhood came swimming back to my memory. Who exactly had paid for my free wedding dinner?

Wedding costs are rising in India. In 2017, there were “over 12 million weddings in the South Asian nation every year estimated to cost over $25 billion and growing at 30 percent annually. In short, it is an obscene display of wealth,” according to Murali Krishnan.

“A person in India spends one fifth of the wealth accumulated in a lifetime on a wedding ceremony, sometimes pledging their land as collateral” said Ranjan, an MP in India trying to introduce moderation in weddings.

Some scary statistics cast a shadow: according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), dowry-related crimes are on the rise. In 2001, this number was 6,851 dowry deaths, in 2006, that number had risen to 7,618 and reached 8,233 in 2012. The conviction rate in these cases, however, remained at only 32 percent.

Dowry deaths continue to rise, according to 2012 NCRB figures. “On average, one Indian woman commits suicide every four hours over a dowry dispute notwithstanding existence of laws for their empowerment.” 

Things are particularly bad in the capital city of Delhi.

Photo credit: Parekh Cards

“Dowry cases in Delhi have been on a rise over the years. Though crimes such as murder and robbery have been either decreasing or seeing a marginal rise each year, dowry cases have doubled in the last five years.” On August 14, 2017 Hindustan Times published a special report about Delhi’s dowry-related cases. It analysed all the alleged dowry cases registered across Delhi in the first six months of 2017 and found that the tradition cuts across demographics. According to the statement of women in FIRs, their families were bullied for many types of dowry items — from an Audi to a buffalo, to a motorcycle or a house.” From 2,046 cases in 2012 to 3,877 in 2016, dowry cases in Delhi have almost doubled in that period.

Photo credit: Parekh Cards

On screen, HAHK,  the subject of dowry has come up, with the clownishly vampy Bindu gnashing her teeth at Arti Shahani’s lack of dowry. To his credit, the patriarch Alok Nath sticks up for this dowry-less girl.

Manjua Devak’s story popped up on my Facebook feed. Someone had posted it on a group, and I was saddened to read about this IIT scholar who killed herself after being harassed for dowry. I thought of the radiant smile in a photograph of my aunt, whom my mother had loved, and how my aunt had become one more statistic of a dowry death.

I turned to my mother. “I agree with you. There are worse things than calling off the wedding.”

Photo credit: Parekh Cards

This article is dedicated to my late Sunila Masi. I was too young to remember meeting her, but her story stayed with me.

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

Cover photo credit: kevbabe

Say No to Dowry. Photo Credit: Tara Hunt.

 

From Our Sponsors




The Veena Maker

Like most teenagers my age, I go to Google for answers. Several months ago when I turned to Google yet again, this time for information on veena makers, I realized that there is very little out there. While I found some YouTube videos on the art of veena making, there wasn’t much recorded on the people who make this beautiful instrument.

At the age of nine, while my friends were beginning their violin and piano lessons, I began lessons on the veena, a seven-stringed instrument, with roots in the Carnatic tradition of southern India, and the oldest continuously played instru- ment of the sub-continent.

Shaped similar to a sitar, the veena is played parallel to the ground unlike the sitar, which is played at an angle. It is often said that the veena produces sounds that are closest to the human voice. And then there’s its glorious history. Hindu religion and mythology has several figures known for their association with the veena, in- cluding the goddess Saraswati, the sage Narada, and the demon Ravana.

The modern fixed-fret Saraswati vee- na evolved in Thanjavur, a town richly steeped in the musical tradition of South- ern India during the 17th century. If Cremona in northern Italy is the seat of violin making, which includes the world famous Stradivarius violins, Thanjavur in southern India enjoys a similar reputation among veena players. It is here that the art of veena-making still flourishes, and the most popular style of veena today is the Thanjavur veena, which is a particular style of the Saraswati veena. Similar to Cremona violins, the name “ Thanjavur veena” immediately gives a stamp of cred- ibility to the quality of the instrument. The veena makers with the best reputations live in this temple town and make bespoke instruments for classical musicians.

Even though I have been playing this instrument for eight years, I had not had the opportunity to visit its birthplace, Thanjavur, which is just a one-hour flight away from my parents’ birth place of Chennai, an annual summer destination of mine. Imagine then, my excitement, this past summer, when my family finally planned a trip to Thanjavur! I was to final- ly get an opportunity to meet some of the artisans who make this ancient instrument.

I visited a veena maker called “Veena” Venkatesan. He lives in a modest two- story blue house with a high ceiling. His workshop is on the second-floor balcony overlooking a busy street. Venkatesan is happy to take a few hours from his busy schedule to talk to me.

How did you get started in this trade, I ask somewhat naively. His father Gov- indaswamy taught him the trade, he tells me, just as he is now preparing his son to succeed him. The art of veena making is handed down from generation to genera- tion.

Once we sit down, he immediately launches into detailing the craft. Usually a veena’s wood comes from the jackfruit tree. When I ask him why this particular wood is used, he answers: tradition and cost. However, he is quick to point out that many veena makers also use the more expensive rosewood, and occasionally, san- dalwood.

One interesting aspect is that it takes a 25 kg (~55 lbs) tree to make a 3 kg (~6.6 lbs) veena, since most of the wood must be hollowed out!

Because it’s such a large instrument, there are three types of veena based on its construction. The first is the “ekanda veena,” which is carved from one piece of wood. The second is the two-piece “akhan- da veena,” which is quite rare. The third is the “khanda veena,” in which the four main portions (Kumbha, Dandi, Vyala, and Kayi (the gourd)) are made separately, and then joined. Isn’t the veena made with one piece better than the two-piece veena, I ask, wanting to appear knowledgeable. Venkatesan is quick to correct the miscon- ception. In reality, he informs me, if joined properly a khanda veena can sound better than the one-piece veena.

Venkatesan strongly believes that one person should make the entire instrument for purposes of continuity. Making one instrument takes about twenty days from start to finish. However, it takes a very long time for an aspiring veena maker to acquire the skills needed to make a complete veena in this length of time. Venkatesan had to spend several years as an apprentice to his father on getting the woodwork right, before he was even al- lowed to lay the wax and place the frets! Such is the expertise and precision re- quired to make a fine instrument.

Now that he has so many years of experience on getting the tone perfect, he doesn’t need a supporting instrument such as the tambura.

There are 24 frets made of brass bars set into wax. Laying the wax is the toughest part of veena-making. It requires three and a half hours in a meditative state, and even after setting it multiple times, it may go off tune later. Venkatesan sees it as a product of one’s mental state. He likens it to expert carpenters, many of whom may have the physical skills and technical expertise, but only a few can achieve that meditative and reflective mood.

Given the years of apprenticeship in- volved, the level of skill, and the dedica- tion that is required to make a fine veena, Venkatesan estimates that only ten crafts- men in India can make veenas of the fin- est quality, with six of them living in the Thanjavur area.

However, he also debunked the my that it’s a dying art. He argues that veena- making has always been reserved for a select few, and that it only seems like it is a dying art in comparison to other instru- ments. While most instrument manufac- turers have expanded rapidly, a veena, of course, can only be made by hand and that too only by a select few.

Slowly, our conversation moves from the technical aspect of making the instru- ment to its historical and contemporary contexts.

I ask him whether he thought the government ought to do more in the way of support for craftsmen, a notion that he handily rejects. He points to an award hanging on his wall, from Poompuhar, the State Government agency. To him, a vid- wan’s (expert) praise means so much more than support from a government official who knows nothing of the craft.

Venkatesan finds solace in the peace of his work. In fact, he points, he can actually make more money making other wood products. However, none of them can offer the same divine quality of a veena’s sound and the spirituality associated with the instrument.

Not everyone feels the same way. He admits that no apprentice has ever approached him with a deep level of interest in the instrument. In fact, he tells me that I am the first person to have approached him with some interest in the craft, even if it is not professional. Nevertheless, he does not lament his situation or complain. Sur- rounded by his tools and the ingredients of the next beautiful veena, this master craftsman is at complete peace.

Meeting Veena Venkatesan is a rev-elation. As I leave his workshop, my thoughts whirl around my home in Silicon Valley where it seems the measure of a person’s success is the size of his home and the number of stock options that he has. However, for people like Venkatesan true wealth lies in the practice of his divine craft and the joy that it brings.

I come away filled with awe at both the art and its artist. The next time I pick up the veena to practice, I will pause to think about the dedication, skill, and commit- ment of its maker.

Anirudh Prabhu is a senior at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, CA. He learns veena from the renowned guru, Sri Srikanth Chary, and is a nationally-ranked debater.

First published in December 2015.

40 Life Lessons On Turning 40!

Other than greying hair, some wrinkles, and ever more frequent visits to the doctor, aging is a beautiful process. It feels like I am peeling through the layers of an onion; each layer is juicier but the onion keeps shrinking.

Blowing candles and cutting cake with family and friends felt embarrassing when I was a kid and it still feels the same. I loved and still love receiving birthday gifts. My mom is still the best cook and dad always gives the best advice, sleep is most peaceful and sound when it’s time to wake up. I am always running late for morning meetings at work, I still get overwhelmed and anxious easily, I still cringe when I am around superstitious people, my love for watching movies and reading books has only grown, and I still behave like a 4-year old when my parents are around.

Bidding adieu to four decades is not easy but growing up has its perks. I am much more comfortable in my own skin. I don’t look in the mirror 100 times a day. I don’t have lofty goals and if I sail through a day without making a fuss about the daily grind, it’s an accomplishment

First Decade

I remember few things from the first decade of my life. Like any other kid, I was imaginative, curious and playful. I always needed a best friend. And I got into trouble for trying to make more than one at a time. Having a backup did not work. As I grew  older, I remember questioning everything that didn’t make sense to me like organized religion and rituals, superstitions, blind faith, and gender bias. Soon I realized that some rules are not worth following – but it can be equally difficult to break them. I am grateful to my parents for their liberal outlook in the way they raised me  My eager questioning was never questioned by them. I didn’t get all the answers then, but when answers came, they made me a little less wrong about life.

Adolescence (12-20)

A phase when I was not quite ready to say goodbye to the little kid in me but inherently biology was forcing me to embrace the new “me.” Shifting  between these two identities, I navigated through my teen years. Until then, my parents had made decisions for me, but now I was adopted by more controlling parents called hormones. Life seemed to be running on steroids.

I soon realized that this pleasantness didn’t last for long. Life kept marching on, and I felt as if I had been blindfolded all along, till unpleasantness crept in to teach me valuable life lessons.

  Early Adulthood (20-35)

  1. Educational institutions could teach  me facts and formulas. But none taught me how to think. I learnt that on my own.
  2. You can get immediate attention by looking good, but to make a lasting impression I needed to do something worthy of praise.
  3. Asking the right questions was as important as giving the right answers.
  4. When I paid too much attention to the details, I tended to miss the big picture.
  5. Always better to listen more. Talk less. Anyways, people around you are too busy to listen!
  6. I admired beauty, envied intelligence, and I didn’t know how it would feel to meet a genius. You can be beautiful, intelligent, or a genius, but people will gravitate towards you if you are humble – this I realized.
  7. I wondered if our dreams served as a window to reality (beyond time and space) and the reality that we woke up to was but a dream previously!
  8. I didn’t have big dreams, I just wanted to experience flying business class. I wondered if people felt turbulence differently there.
  9. Sometimes we keep doing things we are good at without getting any better. Is being good at something good enough? I think when we are not excelling, we stagnate and that’s when it ceases to be good enough.
  10. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” – I knew. Doses of laughter are even better and cost less than an apple, I realized!
  11. Happiness is elusive. Our quest for it has complicated it even more. When we stop chasing it, it appears in unexpected nooks and crannies. It’s probably chasing us even as we are busy chasing it.
  12. Emotional intelligence is a better predictor of a happy and fulfilling life. And you need more than an average IQ to understand the truth of this statement.

Work

  1. Money can’t buy happiness, but it does help pay your bills. So don’t leave your job just to follow your heart unless you have inherited wealth, won a lottery, or have a rich “supportive” partner.
  2. The work that you do for your living is very important. Take pride in that.
  3. The benchmark of success is contentment.
  4. If your success has made you arrogant, you have stopped learning.
  5. Programming is fun until you stop getting it.

Relationships

  1. Ego is the deal breaker in any relationship. Forgiveness is the antidote.
  2. When a discussion leads to an argument, bail out for your sanity. A bruised ego is like a wounded lion – it always wants to win and when ego wins, you lose.
  3. Don’t expect people to respond to certain situations the way you do. You can’t teach people how to behave but you can learn to be more tolerant of others’ views and opinions.
  4. Anger can make the prettiest people look ugly.
  5. People will take you for granted only if you let them.
  6. Positivity is infectious and so is negativity. So choose your company wisely.
  7. I have heard that marriage is an institution. I defer. I think that marriage is like running an institution as it’s a lot of hard work. Another cliché about marriage: “Marriages are made in heaven” by God. If the institution of marriage ever became redundant in the future, God will sure get a nice break from this business of match making.
  8. Your husband and dad are not identical twins. They have inherited different genes so stop comparing apples and oranges.
  9. Motherhood is fun and tiring at the same time.
  10. Don’t try to be a perfect parent. Be an interesting one. If you are smart, kids are smarter. If you have learnt from your mistakes, they will too. Let them do their own mistakes.
  11. How many of you know that November 3rd is celebrated as National Housewife day? Like housewives, even National Housewife day is ignored.
  12. Remain invested in your family the most. They are the ones we come home to.
  13. Communicating well (both at work and at home) is an art. Sometimes our intentions are good, but they don’t translate well and we end up hurting people. Sometimes our fear of hurting others prevents us from communicating altogether. And we end up hurting ourselves. It’s only fair when we are kind to others and also to ourselves.

Midlife (35 and after)

When we are young, we all strive to do something extraordinary. Who aspires to having an ordinary life? Tired and jaded, I knocked on the door of midlife. In my quest for the extraordinary, I overlooked the ordinary things right under my nose. When I paid attention to those, I realized that the power that lies in enjoying mundane and ordinary things is beyond ordinary. Time has come to nourish my body, mind and soul and set my priorities straight and this will set the tone for the rest of my life.

Health

  1. Being pain free holds no meaning if you haven’t felt pain.To appreciate being free of pain, experiencing pain is an essential prerequisite. Dualities exist in our lives for a reason. Good appears good only because bad exists. It’s all relative.
  2. Being alone can be rejuvenating but being lonely is unhealthy. You are alone in your own company but lonely when you have abandoned yourself. That’s when we have to deal with the uninvited demons of anxiety and depression.
  3. We all need a friend we can call at 3 a.m. and this becomes even more important as we get older. We need one person (who does not share our DNA) in front of whom we can pour our hearts out. Its cathartic. So if you don’t have one, go find one because therapists are pretty expensive.
  4. Don’t google your symptoms. Self diagnosing and imagining the worst possible outcome is more lethal than the actual sickness.

 

I had a plan A in mind, and life kept moving on Plan B. Plan A was always perfect, but Plan B was always right as it took me where I was supposed to be (Can I complain that my heart is not beating on the right side?). This is the time when all the drama and noise in our lives starts to settle. For only in silence can we hear what life is trying to whisper to us. We learn the most important lesson: acceptance. And this is when the real transformation begins:

Spirituality

  1. Science is fun, spirituality is liberating. Life has a subtle way of teaching. If we are not aware, we miss opportunities to learn and grow. The more you learn, the more aware you become of your unawareness. And this revelation is humbling. It keeps you grounded.
  2. Don’t question peoples’ beliefs. They are ready to fight for it. They forget the very purpose of their beliefs.
  3. Whether you believe in God is a wrong question to ask. It needs to be rephrased. Because God is someone to know, understand, and feel. When it comes to faith, you cannot exchange notes. We all have to find our own path and live our own Truth.
  4. We live in a self-created bubble. We realize its vanity when it bursts, and we get to see life’s expanse and our delusions.
  5. The language of music seems to be closest to the language of the divine. And since I am not a musician or singer, I listen to it just to get a little taste of divinity.
  6. There is a difference between what seems right and what feels right. Go with the latter.

During my childhood, I had my nose pressed up against the glass wall as I was curious to get to the other side of it (to be a grown up) fast. Now again I have my nose pressed up against the same glass wall from the other side because I realize that growing up is a trap and it’s a one-way street. We all know that our marriage with life is a one-sided relationship. It is hell bent to leave us no matter how much we love it, cling to it, and hold on to everything it has to offer. The very nature of this life is playful. It knows how to make us dance to its own tunes. Trust me, this dance does get better with age. When we start improving our moves, we are not young anymore. Despite all its lows, life is a beautiful gift. It is  a journey whose destination has ‘lurking uncertainty’ written all over it. That’s why we are not too eager to reach there. Whether we like it or not, time is constantly propelling us in that direction and birthdays are a good reminder for that. 

My daughter always asks me – what happens to us after we die? How can we not exist? Obviously, I don’t have an answer. Living becomes a habit (not a bad one) and like any other habit, we become a slave to this one too. We can’t comprehend what it is to not exist, not be alive, and be nowhere! For now my answer to her is: “Let’s not go that far, I am just 40!”

Tamanna Raisinghani is a senior software designer working in Santa Barbara. She believes that aging can be a beautiful process if instead of paying attention to the years we are losing, we choose to pay attention to the wisdom that we are gaining and the lessons we are learning along the way.




 

A Peanut-Laden Kiss Of Death?

Whenever I see a report touting possible new peanut allergy treatments, I devour it. I can’t help it. It’s an occupational hazard for any health journalist whose reporting specialty and medical history intertwine.

I write about the business of health care, focusing on how consumers interact with the system — what we pay, what we get and why American care costs so much. But in this particular instance, I have another kind of authority: 26 years of life-threatening allergies to nuts and peanuts.

So last month, when California-based Aimmune Therapeutics sparked optimistic headlines after releasing clinical trial results that its allergy product, AR101, would reduce the risks linked to an accidental exposure to peanuts, I received the usual wave of questions from friends, co-workers and my parents: Would you try it? Could this help?

Aimmune is just one company eyeing the prize. Childhood peanut allergy diagnoses increased more than 20 percent in the United States from 2010 to 2017. The global market for relief is worth as much as $2 billion. The French drugmaker DBV Technologies is also working to commercialize a peanut allergy patch. Other companies, including industry giant Sanofi, are following their lead.

If any one of them succeeds, it could change my life.

My friends call nuts “Shefali poison.” My allergies first surfaced when, as a 15-month-old, I picked Thai noodles off an aunt’s plate and developed hives on my face, and then a few months later when I tasted my mom’s kaju barfi – an Indian dessert with cashews – and ended up in the hospital. Nobody in my family had ever heard of peanut allergies.

I’ve carried epinephrine since I was 7 years old. My friends are trained to inject it in my leg, the standard procedure for an emergency allergen exposure. though I luckily haven’t had to take a shot of it since I was 4. (Another child in my Montessori class had a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.)

My mom also recalls another incident when she had to pick me up early from day care because the class was making peanut butter bird feeders. And I spent too many years of pre-adolescence eating lunch at the designated “peanut-free table.” Now, I can only dream of flying to visit my parents for Christmas without worrying about whether my seatmate’s snacks might induce anaphylaxis. And yes, kissing someonewho has just eaten peanut butter would put my life in danger.

But are these pills and patches a true breakthrough for people like me?

I approached the question as I would any other assignment. I read the research, called immunologists, and spoke with economists and drug pricing experts about whether these treatments offer meaningful benefit.

One of the first things I heard: “We are still in the infancy of these treatments,” said Dr. Corinne Keet, a pediatric allergist at Johns Hopkins University.

Shefali Luthra (second from right), pictured in the seventh grade with her school math team, carried epinephrine in a fanny pack as a child, in case she had an allergic reaction. (The fanny pack, thankfully, has since been replaced with a purse.) (Courtesy of the Luthra family)

Medically, there’s a lot we don’t know about the risks, how much these drugs could help and how long any effects would last.

“None of these treatments have been shown to prevent fatal reaction,” Keet emphasized.

The idea behind them is to desensitize people. Aimmune’s “peanut pill” is modeled on the oral therapies some specialists use to wean allergic kids back on to nuts. This approach has gained popularity in recent years, especially for children with multiple allergies, or when it’s a substance particularly hard to avoid.

A colleague’s young daughter, who was born with multiple allergies, used that very treatment, as did a younger cousin of mine who, for the first several years of her life, was allergic to — not joking — almost everything but fruits and vegetables. In my case, this therapy came into vogue after I was too old to have a good chance of it weakening my sensitivities.

How it works: Kids ingest tiny, escalating doses of peanut protein. They then stay on peanut protein — Aimmune recommends the pill, though other doctors I spoke to suggested a little bit of peanut — as a maintenance drug.

But it’s unclear how much the new therapies would improve upon that ad hoc oral immunotherapy allergists are already offering. Instead of drugs, they use store-bought peanut protein, usually de-fatted peanut flour available online for as little as $1 a pound. This method isn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and often isn’t covered by insurance — though doctors’ visits can be billed as “food challenges” or other visits that are typically covered.

In contrast, Aimmune’s product is expected to cost between $5,000 and $10,000 for the first six months of use, and $300 to $400 per month after. Analysts predictDBV’s will cost more than $6,000 for a year’s supply, though the company says it has not yet determined a price. DBV, Aimmune’s chief rival, has come up with a wearable skin patch that would transmit tiny, desensitizing protein doses. It declined to estimate a price, but it does not view oral immunotherapy as a competitor, said Joseph Becker, a company spokesman.

“There’s excitement, there’s caution and a lot of unanswered questions,” warned Dr. Erwin Gelfand, a pediatrics and immunology professor at the University of Colorado.

According to Aimmune’s results, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, two-thirds of allergic children could ingest 600 milligrams of peanut without harm after going through treatment.

To be clear, even with Aimmune’s help, someone like me still couldn’t safely eat PB&J. But it would desensitize me enough that I could taste a friend’s wine even if he recently ate pad thai.

Still, the treatment comes with caveats.

While 496 children started the trial, only 372 completed it. Of the 20 percent who backed out, half did so because of adverse events. About 14 percent of kids getting treatment still had to take epinephrine, and one experienced anaphylaxis, a severe reaction that can involve rashes, vomiting, a tightening throat and difficulty breathing. (For an allergic kid, even the possibility is maybe one of the most terrifying things you can imagine.)

Children who completed the regimen still had to take small doses of peanut protein daily, either the Aimmune drug or a controlled peanut serving. Statistically significant benefits were clear only in patients through age 17, though Dr. Daniel Adelman, the company’s chief medical officer, said Aimmune plans to do a follow-up trial for adults.

And the results don’t indicate who is likely to benefit, or how long improvements would last. That’s impossible to know, Adelman said, though he suggested accidental peanut exposure is scary enough — and pure avoidance ineffective enough — that the treatment is still worth it.

But all this means that anyone who has gone through Aimmune’s regimen would still want to carry epinephrine, and try to avoid peanuts.

“Not everybody responds well,” Gelfand said. When you factor in those details, the results are “not all that impressive,” he argued.

Dr. Tina Sindher, a pediatric allergist at Stanford University, pointed out that the Aimmune pill is a repackaged, clinically tested version of that homegrown oral therapy many allergists have already been using. DBV’s peanut patch, Viaskin, to a lesser extent, is the same — more convenient, perhaps, and more regulated, but still a variation on the existing medical approach.

“This concept has been around for a long time,” she said.

What’s new is the addition of labor, standardization and federal oversight — which companies then say demonstrates increased value.

It highlights a pattern I’ve noticed from my reporting: Drugmakers develop medication that refines a low-tech remedy, run a clinical trial to secure FDA approval, and then sell it at a higher price. For pharma, it’s a logical way to profit. But it puts patients in a bind.

“The hard outcome is we have these new products and they’re just about as good or slightly better than what we have,” said Nicholson Price, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School, who studies drug pricing. “And they’re a lot more expensive.” He noted: “That’s when the choices get hard, and we’re not good at making hard choices.”

Also skeptical? The closest authority I know: my mother, who raised me with peanut allergies when they were more or less unheard of, and is now doing it all over again for my 10-year-old brother. (My other brother, my twin, was allergy-free until about a year ago.)

“It’s not worth it,” my mom told me. Her concern? Getting any of us to maintain a peanut dose — without knowing how long that reduced sensitivity would last — could induce what she called “a false sense of security.”

This thinking isn’t out of line, Sindher suggested. The way these studies are touted, she said, often “gloss over the fact that there’s a lot we don’t know.”

So for now, I’ll have to maintain my distance from the newsroom stash of Reese’s Pieces. My epinephrine and I aren’t parting ways anytime soon.

This story was provided to us and produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Girivalam: Experience at Tiruvannamalai

A view of Arunachala from Arunchaleswarar temple

A view of Arunachala from Arunchaleswarar temple

A sea of humanity, young and old surged through the streets. A trickle had started in the early afternoon and reached its peak as the moon rose and shone in bright and balmy glory. It was an auspicious full-moon (pournami in Tamil) night at Tiruvannamalai, the ancient temple town in Tamil Nadu, which nestles and thrives at the foot of the mountain Arunachala. The general mood was one of gaiety combined with a clear intention of reaching the goal; the goal being circumambulation of sacred Arunachala, or girivalam (In Tamil: “giri”-mountain, “valam”-to circle). This involved a brisk walk of about 14 kilometres, which had to be completed before moonlight faded into dawn. Although the devotees were walking in what looked like remarkably ordered chaos, officials were in evidence to maintain order, and traffic was restricted to the perimeter of the town. It was November 6, 2014.

My first visit to Tiruvannamalai was with my mother, about a decade earlier. When I lived in Vellore, a town that is about 80 kilometres away, I was fortunate to renew my relationship with this famous temple town. While earlier visits involved visiting for an afternoon, I gradually took to staying for a few nights, giving myself more time to enjoy the vibrant spiritual atmosphere and its organic bustle. The main draw of the town is its spiritual ambience and it attracts seekers from all walks of life. It is home to several ashrams, and temples to several gods of the Hindu pantheon abound.

The sound of the temple bells in the cool fresh mornings herald the activities of visitors and the life and commerce of the townspeople; this soon leads into the dusty drowsy heat of midday where inactivity prevails. Evenings find the town re-energized with townsfolk returning home, evening aarti and pujas in the temples, visitors congregating in the small restaurants for solitary or group dinners, and the bustle is extinguished again with an early night. The roads and lanes of the town are lined with large shady trees, and huge stacks of tender coconuts are readily available for the ever-thirsty visitors.

Intricate Temple pillars in Arunchaleswarar temple

Intricate Temple pillars in Arunchaleswarar temple

One may walk through the town to visit the ancient and extant temple dedicated to the Lord Arunachaleswarar (a manifestation of Shiva) and his consort, Goddess Apitakuchambal. This large perimetered complex was developed by various kings over a thousand years, including kings of the Chola and Sangama dynasties, as well as King Krishna Deva Raya. Its impressive gopurams, intricately carved walls, pillars, passageways, spacious halls, and several smaller shrines which are created in various degrees of ornateness, merit several visits to gain a true appreciation of the effort and artistry invested. They are all sculptured out of the local black rock. The ancient pipal and mango trees and two open-air water tanks seem to have a story of their own to tell, as they have borne witness to several generations of visitors and devotees all of whom probably sought their coolness in the blazing hot sun which bakes the stones underfoot to a sole-scorching temperature. And for some light relief, one may visit the shops along Chengam Road and inspect handicrafts, gems, old coins and silver jewellery from far-flung places such as Kashmir, Nepal, and Afghanistan. A strange fate indeed has brought these denizens of cooler climes to ply their trade in the heat of South India.

The unperturbable presence looming over all these human endeavours is the craggy Arunachala (Tamil: ‘aruna’- red, ‘achala’- immovable). Believed to be the living manifestation of Lord Shiva, Arunachala is a low rocky mountain of about 3000 feet high and has been mentioned in several ancient texts including the Puranas. Tamil literature dates it back to time immemorial, and the very earth and rock of the mountain is considered hallowed. Although parts of the mountain are not accessible, and even considered dangerous, one can obtain beautiful views of the Arunachaleswarar temple and the town below from mountain paths which are marked safe. Large and small caves which have historically housed exalted sages also provide a resting point, and a chance to imbibe the peace in a meditative mien. The peace however may be shattered in an instant by a mischievous monkey troop that spies on you!

Rajagopuram-Main East facing entrance of the Arunchaleswarar temple

Rajagopuram-Main East facing entrance of the Arunchaleswarar temple

With each visit to the temple town and its ashrams, I have made the acquaintance of several interesting people from diverse cultures who converge here for various reasons. A few interactions that stand out in my mind are meeting a scientist from Dublin, Ireland with whom I was pleasantly surprised to share common friends, an exuberant and extroverted long-standing devotee from Bangalore, and a comfortably retired couple from Melbourne, Australia. It is with one of these friends that I made my first girivalam, and even though I did not realise it at the time it was to be a unique experience.

Girivalam is believed to confer great benefit on the devotee. To paraphrase the realised Master Sri Ramana Maharshi who lived a portion of his life in one of the caves on Arunachala and never left its slopes and foothills for his entire adult life, girivalam has great associated benefits just as fire is indisputably associated with heat, and these will be realised irrespective of the beliefs of the person. There are two routes that one may take to complete girivalam. The inner path traverses the wilderness directly at the base of Arunachala. One walks through woods on narrow earthen paths which are marked with stones painted yellow or red, each demarcating a different path around the mountain. One comes across natural ponds at regular intervals, with ascetics and other monks living near them. Visitors are largely discouraged from taking these inner paths as they are secluded and others have been preyed upon by unsavory elements on occasion. However my companion on that day appeared to know the way and was very particular about taking this path, and I benefited from her confidence. It was a remarkable experience to walk through the rustling groves of ancient forest, and when we came out of the peaceful shade and joined the paved road for the last five kilometers of the girivalam which went through the town, we were completely refreshed.

The outer path is the more commonly traversed route. As mentioned, it is about 14 kilometers in length, and largely follows tree-lined roads that wind through the town of Tiruvnnamalai and surrounding villages, and even includes a part of the highway. Beautiful views of Arunachala can be enjoyed while taking this route as it circumambulates the mountain at a slight distance from the foot unlike the inner path which winds through wooded areas at the very base of Arunachala. There are several small temples and eight lingams which line the route. All but one of the lingams are present on the left of the road. Devotees performing girivalam walk along the left side of the road, and there is a broad paved sidewalk laid down for about half the distance to facilitate safe walking. I have traversed the outer path five times, at times in the early hours of the morning, or venturing out mid-morning to afternoon during the winter months. It has always been a good workout even if the immediate calming effect is elusive at times! I prefer walking alone and being with my own thoughts, or preferably being in a state without thoughts, resting periodically to take in the views of Arunchala to catch my breath and have a drink of water. The company of the monkeys and dogs in the streets and around the temples does keep one alert, and there is a constant presence of other fellow-walkers, renunciates seeking alms, and the residents of the towns going about their business. Another presence is the heavy traffic on parts of the route, the sounds of which I try to tune out. During pournami, these roads are transformed by the flow of devotees in hundreds, if not thousands, performing girivalam by moonlight, which brings about a unique and tangible spiritual energy. Obviously, traffic has to take a second place to this influx of visitors!

Peacocks at Ramansramam

Peacocks at Ramansramam

Perhaps the belief and acknowledgement of a power greater than one’s own ego and actions comes with life’s experiences, if one does not possess this as an inborn proclivity. That being said, in some cultural environments where spirituality pervades the everyday at a more elemental level, an intuitive knowledge of the existence of a higher principle is accepted as a tangible participant in the exalted and mundane events of a lifetime.

A scientist by training, the author has lived and worked in America and India. She enjoys imbibing diverse cultures and venues, and reads voraciously to vicariously experience those yet to be explored.


Practical travel tips:
Summer months are extremely hot (April to June). Winter months are pleasant and the best time to visit (October to February). Winter months may be wet and rainy. Light cotton clothing which covers entire torso and limbs is suggested to protect from sun and insects, and in keeping with religious sentiments. Pay attention to the Hindu religious and astrological calendar when making reservations and plans.
Closest Airport:
Chennai is the closest international airport (about 120 miles). Second closest international airport is Bangalore which is about 15 miles further than Chennai. Closest domestic airport is Puducherry.

Accommodation Options:
Ashrams which provide accommodation:
Sri Ramanasramam on Chengam Road. Very comfortable. Need to book several months in advance, and number of days of stay restricted. Vegetarian food provided for residents only. Voluntary donation.
Sri Seshadri Ashram on Chengam Road. Nominal charges, rooms clean. Small restaurant attached.
Sri SivaSannidhi. On an inner road close to Ramanasramam. Acceptable rooms, food provided. Longer term stays possible.
Regular, three and five star hotels are available around Chengam road and in Tiruvannamalai town.

Restaurant Options:
Sri Seshadri Ashram, Chengam Road. Traditional South Indian vegetarian food.
Auro Usha, Chengam Road. Run by Aurobindo ashram, vegetarian food, not restricted to South Indian fare. Food is toned down for an international clientele.
Santi Café in an inner road close to Ramanasramam. Limited choices, not restricted to Indian.

Things to Buy:
Handloom clothes, silver jewellery, semi-precious gems, religious items and artifacts. Excellent book shop in Ramanasramam which has interesting books and CDs.

First published in October 2017.

 

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