Sankara Raises Over $500K

The gentleness of the Sankara family and their quiet demeanor reached out and enveloped attendees as they entered the India Community Center in Milpitas on December 8. Sankara Eye Foundation’s annual banquet was held to raise funds for surgeries and to support construction of hospitals in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana.

Student volunteers guided patrons toward steaming delicious food served by Mantra. Amritsari fish and almond tikkis along with melt-in-the-mouth tandoori paneer welcomed the guests. The aroma of hot sweet chai tea flavored the air mixing with the sounds of music sung by Smriti Jayaraman. Two dancers in bright Indian attire gracefully twirled on stage to familiar Bollywood tunes.

Picture: Founder and Executive Chairman of SEF, Murali Krishnamurthy , Mr. and Mrs. Ram Reddy (President TIE SV), Mr. and Mrs Jay Vishwanathan (ED TIE SV), Dr. Ramani(Founder and Chairman Sankara India).

Sankara’s target that evening was to raise half a million dollars. Ram Reddy urged the gathering to participate in the cause that changed people’s lives for as little as $30.

Dr. R. V. Ramani, the chief guest and founder Sankara Eye Foundation-India, explained that donations in part go toward setting up hospitals and building new operation rooms within existing locations. These new facilities work to become self-sustaining units. They operate utilizing the principle of an 80-20 split, meaning that for every one operation done for a client that pays, four free operations are performed for those in need at one of the hospitals run by Sankara in India.

India has the largest population of the world’s blind with over 55 million visually impaired individuals with 8 million of them totally blind. The Sankara team reported that each location completes 50 surgeries every day.

For a $1,000 donation, the donor can get their name imprinted on a wall reserved for founders, while for a donation of just $30 a donor can fund a single surgery.

Timely retinal scans prevent blindness in children. Dr. Kaushik Murali, a pediatric ophthalmologist who works at Sankara Eye Hospital in Bangalore said, “The two large public health problems that we have looked at are diabetic retinal disease and childhood blindness, especially amblyopia, where a child does not use both eyes equally. One eye is more dominant and the brain suppresses the other eye because of which development gets impacted. We can capture an image of the retina and have a machine learning (ML) algorithm identify the areas that have been impacted and help grade it. This procedure democratizes screenings and makes it available to a  larger number of people. In theory, we can take a picture of your retina with your Android phone and with some modifications run it through an app, and that app will tell you whether you need to see a doctor.”

Any improvements in the ability to identify amblyopia in children is crucial, especially when such improvements can help to broaden access to screening procedures for the majority of children. This is because children often simply adapt to changes in vision or visual impairment. Rather than identify the presence of an issue, they will rely more on one eye, moving further away or closer to the object they are viewing. Amblyopia results in reduced visual acuity, binocularity, depth perception, and contrast sensitivity.

This not only impacts the weaker eye, which is deteriorating, but also increases the strain on the other eye which is stronger. Strain caused by amblyopia can affect the child’s energy levels, fine motor skills, ability to concentrate, and can eventually cause social problems. These problems can lead to children losing confidence, failing in school, and being mislabeled as inept or aggressive.

Sankara’s work to combat amblyopia is happening across their multiple hospitals as well as through their work at partner hospitals.

Manjula and Viggy Mokkarala, who had seen Viggy’s father perform surgeries that altered peoples’ lives, chose Sankara as their nonprofit of choice. At the Sankara Foundation gala at ICC, they gave $100,000 toward this cause.

Similarly, Ameeta and Dilmohan Chadha donated a large sum to the cause. Chadha said he felt the tenets of his religion, Sikhism, sarbad da galah (welfare of all) and Vandh Chako, (share what one has with others), taught him to share what he had. Sankara, Chadha said, is the conduit through which we can practice our religion’s teachings.

As the evening progressed, the happiness of this shared experience of making a difference in people’s lives lightened the mood. The founder and executive chairman of SEF, Murali Krishnamurthy, broke into a song, “Jot se jot jalate chalo,” light one candle with another.

Ritu Marwah is an award winning author, chef, debate coach, and mother of two boys. She lives in the bay area and  has deep experience in Silicon Valley start-ups as well as large corporations as a senior executive.

Of Sweaters, Sacred Ash And Being American

My toddler son stood in front of me – three lines of vibhuthi (sacred ash) smeared across his forehead, ready for preschool. I looked dumbfounded at the three white lines of vibhuti that trailed across his forehead, marking his identity as a Hindu. Did I want him to go to preschool with vibhuti on his forehead? I was confused about what to do next.  

Yes – I did have a prayer alcove in my townhome. And yes – I had two silver containers – one that held white sacred ash – vibhuti and another that held red kumkumam.  In Hinduism, the vibhuti on the forehead signifies that on cremation we will all turn into ash one day, with the daily ritual of applying sacred ash on our foreheads acting as a deterrent from being egoistic in the way we conduct ourselves. Kumkumam, the red dot that women and girls wear on the forehead marks one of the seven chakras or energy centers in the body and the spot between the eyebrows marks the chakra where we seek human liberation.

The significance of why we wear vibhuti or kumkumam was not known to my toddler. So, I was surprised to see him wearing sacred ash in such a prominent manner before going to his Montessori preschool. When I quizzed him, he responded that he was only copying what my father did in India every day. Now that made sense – we had just returned from a vacation in India, where he had seen his grandfather smear three prominent lines of vibhuti every morning. In India, if my son had applied vibhuti, I would have just laughed about how he was copying his grandfather and gone about my day. Growing up in India, I had worn vibhuti to school every day. There were many Hindu girls who attended the Catholic-run school of my childhood who wore vibhuti to school too. It was socially acceptable to wear vibhuti, with Hindus being the dominant religious majority. No eyebrows would have been raised seeing the marks of religion on my forehead. But, I lived in California as a first generation American immigrant.

I did not want my son to attend school in a multiracial American environment displaying religious signs on his forehead. At the same time, I could not explain to a three-year-old why I applied vibhuti differently here. I had always applied a small dab of vibhuti to his throat and mine in the morning as we prayed. The vibhuti was hidden in the crevices of our necks and it was hardly visible. This seemed a perfect way to wear vibhuti  here in America.

Don’t get me wrong – I was committed to raising him as a Hindu – I taught him age-appropriate lessons drawn from mythology, and made him recite verses drawn from ancient texts. Prayer within the home, and attending religious celebrations at the local temple made the list. But, wearing prominent marks of vibhuti on the forehead while going about daily life in American suburbia did not make the list.

I was in a quandary. I could not tell him not to wear vibhuti. Nor could I explain why it was better to wear a religious mark in an unobtrusive manner. Unable to explain my predicament to a three-year-old, I employed a “sweater” trick that I came up with at that very moment.

My son was wearing a navy blue sweater with horizontal stripes of yellow, red and green that ran across the middle. I  lied saying, “Oh, the colors on your sweater are lopsided somehow. Let me fix it for you.” Before he had a chance to answer, I lifted his arms up and slipped the sweater off, and with my fingers I wiped the vibhuti away and slipped the sweater back on. He looked down at his sweater confused wondering if the colored stripes looked any different across his chest. I still remember that look of confusion on his face.

What he did not know then but knows now, was that my fingers had moved across his forehead wiping away the marks of vibhuti so that he could fit what I believed to be assimilation in an American preschool.

*********

In December of 2016, I did something similar to that instance of wiping vibhuti away; only this time it was my bindi. It had been just a few weeks after the election of Trump. I was driving to attend an Indian classical dance rehearsal. Attired in a salwar kameez with my hair tied back, I was wearing a red bindi. Much like peeling a sticker off a sheet, I had peeled it off  at home, and pressed the bindi on my forehead between my eyebrows. After driving for a little while, my right hand crept up and I took the bindi off my forehead and stuck it on my left wrist that lay on the steering wheel. There was no imminent feeling of threat  – I was inside my car, cruising on a California highway in broad daylight. I had worn a bindi on occasion in public without feeling “different” in America.

When I reached my destination, I pressed it back on my forehead and entered the rehearsal studio. I still do not know what prompted me to take the bindi off while driving on that particular day. But, I do remember thinking to myself – in Trump’s America – to bindi or not to bindi had become a question to dwell upon.

*********

Thoughts of my sweater deception and my highway bindi hiding experience swirled in my mind recently.  An article in The New York Times stated that those who receive Danish citizenship will be required by law to shake hands with the official granting them citizenship during the ceremony. This law seemed to be specifically aimed at Muslim immigrants who, for religious reasons, typically refrain from shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. Many mayors entrusted with the task of swearing in newly minted citizens accused the Danish parliament of, “artificially elevating a social custom to a national value.” That phrase made me stop and re-read.

Really – what customs count to being national values in a society? And can you legislate to achieve the spread of “national values?”

*************

I truly value religious freedom, an American national value, one of the principles on which this country was founded. It is this religious freedom that allows me to practice Hinduism. I pray in the seclusion of my home, support Hindu temples in the area, and teach my children the tenets of Hinduism with no restrictions. But, at the same time, I do not wear vibhuti or kumukum from my prayer alcove to my workplace or to professional meetings. I am at peace with this order of things.

The melting pot analogy to describe America has always been problematic to me. Am I 40% American, 40% Indian and 20% citizen of the world? Or, is the math somehow different? Even if someone had been born right here in America, does that fact suddenly make them 100% American? Defining nationhood as adhering to a set of values belonging to a group to the exclusion of all others not only in America but in any country is rife with problems. That is because the ideas that define nations are full of contradictions.

There are Christian conservatives, Jewish synagogue-goers, Sikh gurudwara attendees  and agnostics who are equally American. There are heterosexuals, homesexuals and transgendered people here; there are rich business owners and factory workers who slide on different sides of the capitalist scale who call this “home.” There are gun owners and anti-gun lobbyists who speak on different sides of the same issue. There are pro-life and pro-choice women who are American.

Where do we draw a line in the sand to say – yes, you are counted as American, you are not. Being able to look past differences, while celebrating the commonness that binds us as human beings is the only way to exist within this nation-state.

My custom of wearing a bindi in public on occasion – I think of this practice as being perfectly acceptable and  there will be many other Indian-American Hindus who would consider this to be acceptable as well. How many of us will think the same of a hijab-wearing Muslim or a Bible-carrying Christian? And, how many Muslims and Christians will look at my practice as being completely natural and acceptable?

Only when our hearts accept other cultural and religious customs as having equal validity, can we begin to have an America that works for all.

Each generation has an opportunity to build a composite of ideas, rife with contradictions and points of convergence. Conversations that lead to convergence are what we need today and every day. As long as we keep talking and listening, we can make this work for you and for me.

Wishing you a New Year filled with points of convergence and understanding!   

 

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

How a San Jose family Got Over its Fear of Dogs

SANTA CLARA COUNTY –- Sometimes fear disappears when you bravely take it for a walk.

That is what an Indian family discovered as team participants of Santa Clara County Parks online social media game, Parks For Life Challenge.

County parks and the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter joined forces to help promote the shelter’s newest program, Foster Field Trip and Shelter Dog Sleep Over. Participants of the Parks For Life Challenge earned game points for taking a sheltered dog for a walk in a county park.

While the program was designed to benefit sheltered dogs by providing an opportunity to explore the outside world and to evaluate the dog’s ability to socialize, the program unexpectedly created a life-changing experience for the Kanagala family.

Their walk in the park, they said, altered the family’s behavior toward dogs and dispelled an ingrained cultural belief. Ajay, the father, noted that in India the dog culture is much different than in the United States. Typically, dogs are not considered pets in India, but more of an animal that people are terrified of. “Unlike Americans, we see dogs as scary animals. My wife and oldest daughter are terrified of dogs and stayed away from them as much as possible because that’s how they were raised.”

Enter Winston, a 10-year old Pit Bull Terrier considered to be a long-term stay dog at Santa Clara County Animal Shelter. The first time the family took Winston out of the shelter they asked for a crate for him to ride in while in the car.

While walking him, only Ajay would hold the leash, and his two daughters would stay behind. Toward the end of the walk, Anika, the younger daughter, began to get closer and pet Winston. On the second outing Ajay asked for a crate, yet didn’t make Winston ride in it. While hiking Ajay noticed Anika interacting more with Winston, courageously asking to hold the leash.

Anya, the older daughter, and Ajay’s wife, Chalana, began to realize there was nothing to fear and became comfortable around Winston. On the third outing, Ajay said he skipped the crate and let Winston share the backseat of the car with the kids. Another breakthrough occurred while the Anika was walking Winston: Chalana and Anya started to pet Winston. In no time at all the gentle pats on the back became warm friendly hugs.

“If it was not for the Parks For Life Challenge, my family would still see dogs as terrifying animals the same way they did back in India,” said Ajay. The family is now strongly considering adopting a sheltered dog.


To find out more information on Foster Field Trip and Shelter Dog Sleep Over, contact the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter at 408-686-3900 or scc.animalshelter@cep.sccgov.orghttps://bit.ly/2EinTPa

Top Ten Bollywood Movies of 2018

Women shone in Hindi cinema in 2018, the Khans sobered down, solid scripts made their mark, and character actors rocked big along with stunning lead performances.

HAMIDA’S TOP TEN COUNTDOWN

Here are my top ten, chosen mainly for their content, uniqueness, and repeat value, not necessarily indicative of box office results.

10-6. Hard-hitting Mukkabaaz (#10) What’s Mukkabaaz? It was Anurag Kashyap’s first release in January 2018, starring Vineet Kumar Singh. Trust me, it’s a little gem you do want to discoverHorror comedy Stree (#9), fiery and racy Pataakha (#8), breezy Veere Di Wedding (#7), love spectacle Manmarziyaan (#6) were all winners.

5. Sanju: If it wasn’t for Ranbir Kapoor’s maverick performance, Rajkumar Hirani’s white-washed portrayal of Sanjay Dutt might not have made it. It looked like Hirani wasn’t able to get over his love for Sanjay and make an honest movie. Ranbir is flawless as Sanju though… missing out on the magnificence of his genius would be a crime.

4. Badhaai Ho: What sheer brilliance of finding comedy in the mundane. Amit Sharma executes pure entertainment on screen with the material that writers Shanatanu Srivastava, Akshat Ghildial and Jyoti Kapoor deliver on paper. Neena Gupta excels as a mother who finds herself pregnant in a mature age and decides to keep the baby, blaming husband Gajraj Rao for the predicament. People react to the news in hilarious ways. Son Ayushmann Khurrana is highly embarrassed. A fresh perspective on the vagaries of life. Do not miss.

3. October: Writer Juhi Chaturvedi’s tale about a man’s journey of unconditional love was the most remarkable movie of 2018. Director Shoojit Sircar tiptoes his way around her beautiful writing with an ultra-sensitive touch. Varun Dhawan is a revelation. In the crazy hustle bustle of life, this one way track of quiet love is sure to survive the test of selfish times. It’s an experience worth living.

2. Raazi: Director Meghana Gulzar delivers one of the highest-grossing Indian films featuring a female protagonist at ₹194.06 crore. What an inspiration that her story is based on a real events from the life of a female spy. Alia Bhatt’s turned in a fantastic performance. In her sixth film, Meghana gets the balance right between commercial and critical, making it a clear winner. Watch it.

1. Andhadhun: What’s not to love about this complex web of deceit and black humor? Ayushmann Khurrana and Tabu are top notch, not one scene where either of them are slacking off. The piano playing, the rabbit, Anil Dhawan, the sleeping crab, the blindness, the actors, the props. Five writers, Sriram Raghavan, Arijit Biswas, Pooja Ladha Surti, Yogesh Chandekar, Hemanth Rao, and yet they don’t spoil this innovative sleuth broth. Director Shriram Raghavan is perfection personified. Ignore at your own risk.

andhadhun

BOX OFFICE RANKINGS

Returning to mainstream with a solid presence, women made ample use of significant screen time devoted to them. Six movies with female-driven plots made it to top ten performers at the box office including Padmaavat (#2)Hichki (#6)Badhaai Ho (#7)Pad Man (#8)Raazi (#9) and Stree (#10). Be it lead or supporting roles, they left their stamp. (Source: Wikipedia)

Alia Bhatt got to play a female spy with Raazi, Deepika Padukone and Aditi Rao Hydari stood strong against Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat, Rani Mukherjee excelled as a teacher with Tourette syndrome in Hichki, Neena Gupta was most graceful as a pregnant woman at 59 years, and Surekha Sikhri was the pluckiest grandma in Badhaai Ho.

Tabu was in fantastic form, sinking her artistic teeth into quirky Missing and Andhadhun. Radhika Apte had an interesting year with distinctive parts in Pad ManBazaarLust Stories and Andhadhun. Anushka Sharma explored supernatural realms with Pari while Kajol found her groove as a single mom in Helicopter Eela. Nandita Das dabbled with the greys of troubled writer Manto, who sought dignity and voice for women in his writing. Stree pulled the safety net off men, throwing them to danger against the ghost of a woman.

There were also those who balanced entertainment with social critique beautifully. Manmarziyaan, written by Kanika Dhillon, was director Anurag Kashyap’s sobering foray into a woman’s heart and dilemma. Veere Di Wedding registered itself as the first movie on female friendships with foursome Kareena Kapoor, Swara Bhasker, Sonam Kapoor, and Shikha Talsania; and notched its first female masturbation scene in Hindi cinema. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Pataakha unleashed female anger and energy with gusto.

manmarziyaan

The Khans appeared shaky with mediocre films but still pulled in the audiences. Salman’s Race 3 (#3) and Aamir’s Thugs of Hindostan (#4) raked in respectable sums at ₹303 crore and ₹262.97 crore. Shah Rukh’s  flight of ingenious fancy Zero opened to mixed responses, cruising along a decent ₹59.07 crore in the first 3 days. The daring Saif Ali Khan superbly experimented with black comedy Kaalakandi and a shaded role in commercial flick Bazaar.

His daughter with Amrita Singh, Sara Ali Khan, made a spirited debut with Kedarnath. Iconic female actor Sridevi, who died in an accident earlier this year on February 24th, missed her daughter Janhvi’s sparkling debut in Dhadak by five months.

Tiger Shroff scored again with his mindless masala franchise Baaghi 2 (#5). Ranveer Singh had a thundering turn in Padmaavat as Alahuddin Khilji. His Simmba with director Rohit Shetty looks like a sure-shot box office winner. Ranbir Kapoor clawed his way back to success with an ace performance in Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju (#1), the year’s top grosser with ₹586.85 crore.

Supporting actors made a big impact: Gajraj Rao in Badhaai Ho, Abhishek Banerjee and Pankaj Tripathi in Stree, Jim Sarbh in Padmaavat, Vicky Kaushal in Raazi and Sanju. His crazed lover performance as second lead in Manmarziyaan was simply superb, he also starred in Love Per Square Foot and Lust Stories. Rajkummar Rao had a few releases, his Stree with Shraddha Kapoor (whose Batti Gul Meter Chalu with Shahid Kapoor tanked) was a sleeper hit with ₹180.76 crore.

The dark horse of the year turned out to be Ayushmann Khurrana, with two movies, Andhadhun(₹111 crores) and Badhaai Ho (₹221.48 crores), ringing loudly at the ticket windows.

Th-th-th-that’s it, folks! Happy watching! See you in 2019!

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, tv, culture, women, and social equity.

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

 

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Saint Thyagaraja Meets John Coltrane

The great cellist Yo-Yo Ma has said, “There’s a moment where you can go into nature — always, at any moment, and figure out some parallel to what is happening in a sound-centric world.” Beyond Oceans was reminiscent of fall colors – it brought together the classicism of the Nadalaya School of Music, founded and directed by Shanthi Shriram and Shriram Brahmanandam, and the richness of Around the World, a global music ensemble founded by their son Arun Shriram. This fusion music concert benefited Inclusive World, an organization dedicated to developing the skills and abilities of differently abled individuals. Inclusive World is based in San Jose, California, and their vision is to help these individuals find avenues for continued professional development and social immersion. The event was organized on Saturday, September 8th, at Fremont High School in Sunnyvale.

The musicians included Wei Wang on Chinese percussion, Aditya Satyadeep on Indian violin, Alex Henshall on trumpet, Arun Shriram on mridangam, A.V. Krishnan on ghatam, Harini Krishnan on Indian keyboard, Morgan Swanson on guitar, Rob Goebel on cajon, Nandhan Natarajan on saxophone, Priyanka Chary on veena, Vijayakumar on keyboard, Kavya Iyer and Anivartin Anand on western violin, and vocal music was provided by the South Indian classical music students of Nadalaya School. The very sight of such variety on stage – of musical systems, of instruments, of musicians ranging from grade schoolers to accomplished artists, held together and swayed by music, was awe-inspiring.

The ensemble offered a twelve-course musical feast to a full house at Shannon theatre. They made an auspicious beginning with a mallari (traditional temple music) in the raga Gambhira Nattai, originally composed by the violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman.

Eastern and Western musical influences were tightly braided throughout the concert. For instance, when they performed an improvisation of Saint Thyagaraja’s Nagumomu in raga Abheri and John Coltrane’s Blue Train, the group seamlessly blended the two influences to create a whole new sound – a true hallmark of any good fusion music collaboration. At the same time, they played pieces where each style was preserved in all its glory, such as the Chinese drum (dagu) performance, Laya Vinyasam (improvised exposition of rhythmic patterns) on the mridangam, and a group rendition of chittaiswaram (improvisation in solfege) in the rare raga Pasupathipriya. This interplay made the performance pleasurable for the puritan in the audience and the casual listener alike. The music was interwoven with a slideshow which featured trivia about musical styles, instruments, artists, and composers.

In the end, they performed a medley, including One Day by Matisyahu from the famed “Kindness Boomerang“ video (a must watch clip that portrays the power of simple acts of kindness). Shanthi Shriram, who has been a Carnatic music teacher in the Bay Area for several years and who was one of the artistic directors for the show, recalls orchestrating the finale as an unforgettable experience – “A Tibetan song set to Indian Madhyamavathi raga flowed right after Brindavani thillana and then into an English song in major scale, then finally into a Spanish song which represented our Mohanam scale. The most interesting aspect of the whole concert was how the Chinese drum dagu flowed so well with Indian percussion instruments like mridangam and ghatam. This was something I had never imagined possible.

Arun Shriram, the talented mridangam player, cherishes rehearsing with the artists of Beyond Oceans for months on end. One can imagine the camaraderie that develops as a result when he says “Performing with these musicians on stage was also a different experience from most stage performances I’ve been in. Although we were determined and felt the pressure of providing an entertaining performance to the whole audience, it felt as though it was just another rehearsal- we smiled at each other, we used visual contact as cues to play some particular section of music, and we had fun!”

Shriram Brahmanandam, a mridangam artist and co-artistic director at the Nadalaya School, reflected on the unique musical scene here, which allowed this kind of experimentation to come to fruition.

“We are indeed very lucky to live in a multicultural society like the Bay area. This truly gives us the opportunity to expose our students to various enriching experiences of working with and learning from artists of diverse musical systems. This learning involves different dimensions – learning to appreciate the beauty of instruments and musical systems different from ours, working with artists of different nationalities, the process of focusing and bringing out the synergies between various musical systems, and of course experiencing the final outcome – beautiful fusion music that brings out the best from all systems.”

He is right about the most admirable aspect of the concert, “The icing on the cake was the fact that all these efforts raised significant funds to help a noble cause such as Inclusive world.” With a noble gesture, these good samaritan musicians have set in flight a kindness-boomerang.

Dinesh Rabindran is a rasika who lives and works in the Bay area.

Noushad and the Plum Cake

As a child, one thing I distinctly remember pursuing was a plum cake with an inviting dark caramel tone and the lingering aroma of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. Each piece resembled a mosaic wedge. Raisins, cashew nuts, dates, candied red papaya, cherry, and orange peels adorned each piece. A bite made you an instant convert and eventually an addict. I used to dream of the day I could eat plum cake for all my meals.

My folks in Kerala ate plum cake every year during Christmas. Anyone who stopped by our home during that time could expect a slice of cake next to their tea cup. In December, cakes of all shapes, sizes and decorations took over the glass shelves of local sweet shops. Bakers were challenged to bake the biggest possible cake. Artistic sugar renditions on the cake were made to look like tropical fruits, animals or buildings. Kids begged and reasoned with their parents to bring a well-decorated cake home. When our uncle got us a pineapple shaped cake, it made him a hero at our local school.

Noushad became my close friend during high school, which opened the doors to his family bakery. They supplied bread and pastries to local retail shops. The traditional brick oven-they called it a bormba-was inside a one-room structure next to their home. It was always kept tidy and treated with respect. No one was allowed to enter the room with shoes on. They baked everything using the bormba. Noushad once told me that when they reconstructed the baking chamber, they collected empty glass bottles from the neighborhood, crushed them and mixed them with concrete, which helped to retain heat for several hours.

When the bakery was busy, Noushad’s home smelled of sweet milk buns and butter biscuits. When you entered the bakery, the wooden racks were stacked with bread loaves and cookies. There was no automation. Instead Noushad and his brothers kneaded the dough into long braids using their bare hands. Kneading is like fighting a big snake. Their muscular biceps and forearms stood testament to their hard work. Noushad’s dad was in charge of the oven. He spread coconut shells in the chamber and fired it up to make charcoal. He explained that coconut shells were better because they generated less ash and had the aroma of coconut oil. Once the charcoal was red hot and the bed was ready, he inserted the batter filled pans with a shovel like a spatula. With the shovel’s long wooden handle, cakes were pushed to the back of the oven.

During Christmas close friends were invited to help out at the bakery. We got to crush the nuts and chop the raisins, prepare the pans with butter and pack cakes in wax paper. My favorite task was to trim and level the sides of a cake before it was decorated with icing. This meant handfuls of cake crumbs and tidbits to munch on at the end of every cake dressing.

Back then we had a neighbor, Auntie Leela, who worked in Europe but chose our town to retire. She and her two dachshund dogs lived in a hilltop villa next to an all-girls boarding school. It had a patio with a view of the paddy field in the foothills and I would often see her sitting there holding a tea mug. It was strange, so I assumed that’s how the English enjoyed their tea. She also liked to bake.

Every year she meticulously prepared the Christmas cake batter with cocoa and brandy soaked dry fruits and brought it to Noushad’s oven, baking several cakes in a single batch. Those special cakes were then wrapped in wax paper and sent to her friends in far places as a holiday gift. Brandy was haram (forbidden) in Noushad’s family so they never tasted it. He sometimes managed to sneak a small cake out for his friends and after gorging on it, I would often describe it to my siblings, it to my siblings, much to their envy. Once we even planned to raid Auntie Leela’s pantry while she was out at the post office, but the thought of the dachshunds made us hesitate.

When I got married to Sheena, my mother insisted that we take her oven, a Glen brand with a baking unit, to our new home in Bangalore. The following December we baked our first cake. A lot of work went into chopping the raisins and mixing the ingredients. The cake came out lopsided with a big crack in the middle. Noushad, when he heard about it, said baking powder probably ruined it but we later learned that a lot of things had gone wrong. It took a while for us to be brave enough to bake again, and by then we had moved to the United States where home baking is ingrained in the local culture.

The grandeur of Christmas here in the United States is revealed throughout December. A million lights and bright ornaments breathe new life into the neighborhood at night. Santa Claus springs up in shopping malls and children line up to talk to him and take pictures with him. Radio channels play nonstop Christmas songs all month long. Parties at the office and home center on food and overeating is acceptable. Everything on earth goes on sale and malls serve warm apple cider and cookies to cheer up the snow-drenched shoppers. It’s hard to avoid the festival frenzy, so everyone goes with the flow. But I still missed our plum cakes.

It surprises me that plum cake is not easily accessible in the United States. The closest thing to it is a fruitcake. A fruitcake is the butt of many jokes and may be the most ridiculed holiday food. I once bought a heavy fruit cake from a European bakery. The cake was dense with dried fruits and nuts and it smelled of sugar syrup. It felt gooey in the mouth with lumps of very sweet oversized fruits and missed the essential spices. A comedian once said that there is only one fruitcake in the world that gets passed from household to household. The jokes made more sense as we ate.

Humor aside, there are many ethnic communities that pursue the art of making a Christmas cake in different ways. All of them have a European influence and the basic ingredients-dried fruits, nuts and spices. Caribbean black cake is an annual baking ritual where the dry fruits are soaked in rum for months and baked with dark brown sugar. It is lavish with sugar and rum. Christstollen is a fifteenth century German cake low in sugar but has distinct rum infused fruits with little bread surrounding them. Italian panettone has more bread than fruits and the ingredients are not soaked in rum or brandy. Scottish Dundee cake stands out by using currants and sultanas and obviously the scotch whiskey takes over as the liqueur of choice. A classic British christmas cake has ingredients closest to the recipe we followed from Kerala, but it still missed the nutty flavor, heavy spices and burnt caramel taste that I was used to.

So we began baking our own cakes every year and the preparation started a month before Christmas. That’s when the currants, sultanas, dates and cherries are chopped and soaked in a pint of brandy. A strenuous baking day comes two weeks later and by then the spirit infused fruits develop an aroma of port wine.

Candied ginger, orange and lemon peels are then added to the mix. An assortment of spices produced in Kerala gives the cake its aroma. Small heaps of cinnamon, cardamom, clove, cocoa, nutmeg, dry ginger and a few drops of vanilla are added.

Creaming the butter by beating it with sugar and eggs is a critical step as it traps the air bubbles that leaven the cake in the oven. Burning sugar into caramel syrup is precision engineering but its hue and bittersweet taste justifies the effort.

Sifted dry ingredients-flour, spices and baking powder-are gradually combined with the creamed butter. Then the moist fruits and candied peels go in. Plenty of crushed cashew nuts and small chunks of candied papayas are added at the end.

Last year, it took about four hours to prepare the cake batter and at the end the kitchen was an indescribable mess. The cake went into the oven and we all gathered to watch it rise. In about thirty minutes, the sweet smell of cardamom and cinnamon filled the room and made the waiting even harder. Two more tantalizing hours later, the cake had risen and turned dark brown. The bamboo skewer came out clean and it was transferred to a cooling rack.

At 3:30 A.M, we made some black tea and cut a thick piece for ourselves. As the blade squeezed in, it released a fragrance that reminded me of my childhood. The buttery fruits clasped in sweet caramel bread melted in my mouth and offered no resistance. As I ate it, I started hearing a song from another time and my folks were in it. n

Jeomoan Kurian is one of the co-founders of puzha.com, the first online Malayalam literary magazine from Kerala.  He currently lives in Irvine, California.

First published in Dec. 2015

Sankara Taps AI in Blindness Campaign

Long lines in front of eye doctors’ clinics do not include children who have never complained that they can’t see.

They are blind, and they don’t know it. Their world has always been hazy. They have never seen it any other way. Thousands of others are silently turning blind with diabetes, and don’t even know it. The challenge to help these people increases manifold when they are in remote areas, where no specialized treatment can reach them.

It is in cases like these, when a mere selfie can alert the doctors of impending visual problems, that Dr. Kaushik Murali, an  ophthalmologist/ eye surgeon at Sankara Eye Hospital Bangalore, is hoping artificial intelligence can be the answer. The problem, if nipped in the bud, can save the vision of the child or a diabetic individual.

Murali and his team have annotated 8,000 retinal scan pictures, including a range of people with vision problems resulting from diabetes. This will help identify the beginnings of this specific cause of blindness, a disease called diabetic retinopathy. ROP is caused by type-two diabetes. They are training the algorithm to identify key markers of diabetic retinopathy, such as nerve tissue damage, swelling, and hemorrhaging. The disease creates lesions in the back of the retina that can lead to total blindness. “Today the algorithm has 98 percent capability of identifying any patient who has a ROP change,” said Murali.

Seventy million people have diabetes in India and 18 percent of diabetic Indians already have the ailment, according to the International Diabetes Federation. By 2045, India is projected to have 134 million cases, making India the country with the most number of diabetics,

Many diabetic patients assume that early signs of the disease are simply minor vision problems. Some don’t even know they are diabetic. In these cases, where blindness often is preventable if diabetic retinopathy is caught early, loss of vision is unnecessary. Medications, therapies, exercise, and a healthy diet are highly effective treatments for preventing further damage if the disease is diagnosed early enough,

The system is trained by deep learning. The program’s diagnosis for each image is compared with that of the ophthalmological panel and the parameters of the function are adjusted to reduce the error margin for each image. This process is repeated for each image until the program can make an accurate diagnosis based on the intensity of pixels in the retinal image. The results are extremely encouraging. The algorithm showed similar — in fact slightly better — levels of sensitivity and specificity as a panel of ophthalmologists.

A similar campaign is spearheading the cause of preventing blindness in children. A lazy eye will be quickly caught by the machine and preemptive action planned.

Ritu Marwah is an award winning author, chef, debate coach, and mother of two boys. She lives in the bay area and  has deep experience in Silicon Valley start-ups as well as large corporations as a senior executive.

Contemporary Romance With Simi K. Rao

A little while ago, I was craving to read  a “good” romance novel, something interesting and different. Looking through my Kindle, I chanced upon Inconvenient Relations, a contemporary romance with a fun twist on arranged marriage. Since it was my first book by the author SImi Rao, I had no preconceived notions or expectations, but in minutes, the story wrapped itself around me like a blanket in winter. I was drawn into it and kept reading because the plot was relatable, and I enjoyed the writing style a great deal.

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In a  conversation, physician and author, Simi K Rao unveils the secrets of her writing and shares stories that inspire her to write.

A physician most of the time, how did you get the time to fit writing into your routine?

My work as a physician is stressful;  there are lot of things that I take home with me. Writing is my best escape from the real world. Years ago, I started writing a blog and interacting with readers. I was thrilled to discover that people liked what I wrote. This inspired me to publish a full-length novel. After the success of my first novel, I was motivated to write and publish more.

What inspires you to write?

It is something I enjoy doing. I’m inspired by many things like nature, people, music – even my work. And my imagination fuels my writing. I love to tell a story and leave my special stamp on it.    

The characters that you portray in your book are very realistic. What’s the magic ingredient that you used to pull this off?

Most of my characters do have an association with people I meet or someone I would like to know. They are often an amalgamation of qualities drawn from several people. For instance, the neurosurgeon in my book, The Accidental Wife was modelled on someone I know. However, I am conscious of not trying to t paint any one character as being all good or bad, because that would be unreal. As humans, we are all naturally flawed. Through the characters in my book, I try to portray that If you like someone, you have to like them despite their faults. Also,we need to  learn to not judge people for the choices they make. Sometimes we can face rough times in life, and people end up making wrong choices that further leads them to face “bad” situations. I take lessons from my work, where I meet people who have faced tough situations in life.

Tell us about your writing process. Do you wait for your muse to make an appearance or do you have scheduled times when you write? A sacred space that you use?

I write impromptu. Due to long hours at work, I have no specific time or schedule for my writing. So, I carry my iPad everywhere. If I’m driving and see a beautiful sunset that triggers my imagination, I want to write about it  right then.. I do not write every day, but I do write whenever I am inspired. At times inspiration comes in bits and pieces. Most times I work with a general story outline.

What is the biggest challenge you face  as a writer?

Finding time to write and getting into the mood.

Who are your favorite authors?

I am an avid reader and it’s hard to pick books based on recommendations. I love reading classics.

Alice Munro, Nobel prize winning author, inspired me to write short stories for my new book. I am also amazed by Robert Harris and E. L. Doctorow. Their styles are intriguing and engaging.

Do you have an interesting author “quirk” to share?

If I want to write about romance,  I need to listen to music. I like listening to music when I’m alone. I love to travel, and a lot of my ideas for writing occur when I’m traveling. In my first book I wrote about Venice beach in LA, a place that  I had visited. I like to paint pictures of the places for my readers. But sometimes, I also write about places I have never visited. For example, in The Accidental Wife the female protagonist travels to Afghanistan, a place I’ve never seen. I had to do extensive reading and research before writing about it.

Your next book is “Under the shade of the banyan tree.” Tell us a little about it.

Under the shade of the banyan tree is a collection of poetry and short stories. It’s the first time I’m branching out to working with a publisher, Written Dreams Publishing. Brittiany, a dear friend and editor has been an amazing guide in helping me put together this collection.

The contents for this book have been written over several years. My poems are based on a woman’s perspective of life, my life as a physician, the various transitions that a woman goes through in different stages of her life. These poems are very personal to me. If you read them, you will be looking at me. The short stories are all women oriented tales. One of them is actually a short chapter from my next novel.

Is there a specific message that you want your readers to grasp in your next book?

Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree is a deeply personal collection that could be best described as a memoir focussed on the mind and its thoughts. It is a snapshot of emotions, observations and reflections. Some of the poems are very raw because they reflect on certain situations in which one feels helpless. One of my poems is based on a lady suffering from dementia. I wrote the poem from her point of view, the message being to look deeper into life, rather than just on the surface.

Can you share any words of inspiration for unpublished authors?

Don’t be afraid to publish because nowadays self-publishing is very easy and has opened many doors. It is fantastic platform for writers of all levels. Always be true to yourself, don’t do something because someone else asks you to. Don’t write about things you don’t believe in just for commercial success if you are not comfortable with it. Believe in yourself. Unless you publish, you will never know if people like your writing or not.

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If you are looking for a book that is not merely words that you read but one that also exudes emotions that move your heart, do pick up one of Simi’s novels and you will not regret it. I will not be surprised if you relate to one of her characters and say to yourself, “Oh my God! That’s so me!”because that’s what all her stories are about, real people and real lives, woven into engaging tales that will envelop you in a world of myriad emotions.

 Learn more about Simi and her books on her website www.simikrao.com

Surabhi Kaushik is an Indian writer, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Her works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and parenting essays have been published in various websites such as yourstoryclub, halfbakedbeans, writer’scafe, perfection pending, herviewfromhome and India Currents. She is part of various writing groups and is closely associated with “Write Like You Mean It”, a writer’s group in Main library, Charlotte. She also leads a monthly Fiction Writing workshop and conducts writing workshops at various libraries across Charlotte, North Carolina. 

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