Tag Archives: activism

Neil Nayyar with the many instruments he can play.

Musical Desi Teen Is Awarded Volunteer Of The Year By The City Of Elk Grove

Fifteen-year-old Neil Nayyar is on a mission of helping others through music. Selected by the Assist Foundation as a World Record Holder for playing a whopping 107 unique instruments, Neil is an immensely gifted musician. 

Neil Nayyar’s musical journey started even before he was born. His father played CDs of music by Mozart when Neil was in his mother’s womb because his dad heard that listening to Mozart’s compositions would help “form the soul, heart, and mind of the baby.”  When Neil was five, he started playing the drums with talent and adeptness that is rare in children that young. His parents noticed this and immediately signed him up for music lessons. His passion for music has only continued to grow since then. Neil learned instrument after instrument with the same passion he had for the drums. He has learned traditionally South Asian instruments like the Sitar and Veena and western instruments like the Alto Saxophone and Piano.

Now, Neil uses his gifts to give back to the community and bring awareness to important topics. Neil regularly performs at the United Nations Association of Sacramento Chapter and has received a plaque from the Chapter’s president Eddie Trujillo for his many efforts. He has also performed at many Pride events and multicultural festivals. Neil was recently on Good Day Sacramento to promote an event held by the non-profit organization, My Sister’s House, an organization that brings awareness to domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking of AAPI women.

In what has been a turbulent year, Neil has been honored by Mayor of the City of Elk Grove, Bobbie Singh-Allen, as the 2021 City of Elk Grove Arts, Culture, and Heritage Volunteer of the Year. Mayor Singh-Allen noted Neil’s many achievements and accomplishments and specifically drew attention to his performance of the Star-Spangled Banner and Amazing Grace at the City of Elk Grove Singh and Kaur Park, honoring the Indianapolis FedEx gun massacre of four Sikh victims. The Singh and Kaur Park was named to honor two grandfathers who, in 2011, were violently and senselessly murdered while walking. Neil was the first person to perform in the park, honoring those who were killed because of their race or religion.

Neil Nayyar performing the Star Spangled Banner at the Singh and Kaur Park.
Neil Nayyar performing the Star-Spangled Banner at the Singh and Kaur Park.

Mayor Singh-Allen praised Neil for his talent, generosity, and compassion.  “Neil is an inspiration to present and future generations,” said Singh-Allen further stating “He’s not only talented, but he does support local efforts.” 

In his acceptance speech, Neil thanked the City Council and the Mayor for honoring him with this award. He specifically thanked Mayor Singh-Allen for her continued support of volunteer efforts and her interest in the greater good.  He also reiterated that the youth should volunteer to help improve the community and make our world a better place through hard work and passion.  “My message to youth here and all over the world is to do volunteer work,” said Neil. “It is really working to make our community better.” 


Medha Sarkar is a student starting at Los Gatos High School in the Fall.  She enjoys writing, music, and having a good laugh.


 

Top: Raj & Anna Asava. Bottom: HungerMitao Founders, Taiwan Center Foundation of LA, and HTHF on a zoom call.

An Unexpected Union of NonProfits Raise COVID Funds: HungerMitao, Taiwan Center Foundation, & a Hindu Temple

In April 2021, the United States experienced a steady decline in the COVID-19 cases, resulting in portions of the economy opening up. However, for people in India, the worst had just begun due to the second wave of the pandemic. The new variant of concern doubled the number of infections and deaths in the nation of 1.3 billion in population, sparking a  humanitarian crisis due to the shortage of medical resources for critically ill patients, resulting in an alarming number of people losing their lives. 

What emerges from the crisis is a story of three entities that didn’t know each other who, out of their compassion and vision, collaboratively raised $50,000 to help their fellow human beings in India.

In response to this crisis, Dallas-based philanthropists and founders of the HungerMitao movement, Raj & Aradhana Asava, initiated a matching donation challenge on Facebook of $25,000 and raised $12,343. 

Concurrently, the Los Angeles-based Taiwan Center Foundation of Greater Los Angeles spearheaded a fundraiser in the Taiwan American community in LA, raising $11,620 from many generous donors, and sent their funds to Pasadena-based non-profit Hindu Temple and Heritage Foundation (HTHF) to arrange to send to India. 

The three entities combined fundraising efforts – Taiwan Center Foundation’s $11,620.00 and HTHF’s donation of $1,037, was added to the $12,343 raised by Raj & Aradhana Asava challenge on Facebook for a total of $25,000. This was matched by a donation of  $25,000 from Raj & Aradhana Asava – resulting in a final donation amount of $50,000. 

These funds will be sent to India through Indiaspora to help set up COVID-19 Care Centers. The 10 bed COVID-19 Care Center, for a period of three critical months, will provide over 120 patients care for seven days each; and 7,000 people will be benefitted through outpatient services and utilization of various logistical support. 

A true story of what humans can achieve when they put their hearts and minds together! 

In addition, responding to the same crisis in May, HTHF also raised $17,500 to send 2,000  oxygen concentrators and help set up an oxygen plant in India. 

For additional information or to donate, check out each organization:


Mohna Manihar is an artist and a marketing, publicity, and fundraising consultant. She uses her MBA and networking skills as a catalyst to help non-profits and newer artists grow.


 

Left to Right: LaToya Fernandez, Urmila Vudali, Lisa Rosenberg, and Ray Furuta.

Celebrating Good Trouble in Bay Area Arts

Making The Mosaic – A column that dips into the disparate, diverse palette of our communities to paint inclusively on the vast canvas of the Bay Area by utilizing Heritage Arts. 

Coined by the late Congressman John Lewis, the concept of “Good Trouble” is rooted in the belief that certain types of expression and feather-ruffling are necessary to fight back against injustice. At Mosaic, we believe that art is a perfect vehicle for causing Good Trouble and bringing awareness to the important issues we must tackle as an ever-evolving nation.

To celebrate this idea, we recently hosted four of our dear artists and friends who are committed to creating their own kinds of Good Trouble through their art, music, dance, and poetry, in “Celebrating Good Trouble”

  • LaToya Fernandez, an educator, poet, and youth advocate from San Jose
  • Lisa Rosenberg, an author and former Poet Laureate of San Mateo County
  • Urmila Vudali, a high school student, dancer, and leader of the Mosaic Saratoga High School Club, and
  • Ray Furuta, a flutist, composer, and music professor

While each artist’s work carries a thread of Good Trouble and cross-cultural collaboration, they also each lent a unique perspective.

LaToya’s reading of her poem “Angry Black Woman, A Letter to Women,” which delves into the stereotypes that are put on Black women for being vocal, sparked a reverence for how that can penetrate one’s psyche. Her art, she says, is grounded in the pursuit of doing what’s right — even if it’s not easy, because it’s what’s necessary. “I’m always in trouble,” she laughed, reflecting Lewis’s sentiment that the quest for freedom is not a state of being, but the “continuous action we all must take.”

And as a reminder of how art is a necessary critique of the systems that reinforce societal ills on marginalized communities, Lisa shared some of her works, including poems titled “Space To” and “Perseverance.”

“All art is considered criticism or an act of political power, just because you are claiming your voice,” Lisa said. “Even creating a disturbance with a new voice, a new observation, a new point of view, we are disrupting the status quo and creating an opening to start perceiving things differently. And that includes our opportunity to take back some power.”

This is perhaps one of the most critical aspects of creating Good Trouble in the arts — using your voice and creativity to create something utterly different and challenge the status quo. And when it comes to breaking the mold, Ray Furuta’s journey from the conservatory to becoming an innovator of music here in Silicon Valley provides a perfect representation.

Ray, who also founded the Silicon Valley Music Festival 10 years ago, shared two of his works — Precious Scars, presented by Mosaic, which created a powerful, cross-medium remembrance of the Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants who were incarcerated during WWII; and Primal Reboot, which brought together artists of different backgrounds and genres to reimagine Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

These two works stood as a testament to how Ray said he viewed the concept of Good Trouble in the arts: “It alludes to this idea of coexistence — that in the arts, we can all exist, and we can all amplify each other in a really positive way.”

The concept of working together to amplify the voices of all is critically important to our mission of creating a sense of belonging within our communities and in our country. And naturally, that played out in introducing dancer Urmila Vudali, who also participated in Primal Reboot. Now, as a high school senior, Urmila aims to bring together students who are culturally isolated and develop greater cultural awareness across their real and imagined silos. Two of Urmila’s collaborations, Confluencia and The Flower Seller, both focused on the commonalities between various forms of dance and music.

“Finding those commonalities allowed me to learn a little bit about a culture that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn about otherwise,” said Urmila. “And pushing the boundaries of my traditional dance and causing that Good Trouble really allowed me to widen my horizons.”

Each of these works and perspectives allows us a greater look into how artists view their own role as Good Trouble-makers, and how we can learn and grow together by simply being curious.

How are you making your own version of Good Trouble? 

 

Good Trouble was the theme of our partner the New Museum of Los Gatos’ (NUMU) annual juried high school art exhibition ArtNow, which invited hundreds of high school students from across Santa Clara County to submit their interpretations of the global issues facing our world. In partnership with NUMU, we collaborated to bring another iteration of this Good Trouble programming to the public.


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.


 

Raising A Rennu: What Parents Should Know

Genius Kids founder Rennu Dhillon says our greatest fear after death is public speaking — unless we make some incremental changes in our education system while we’re alive. 

“Confidence is critical,” Dhillon says. “You have to learn how to take control of your life. Compassion, communication, eye contact — these are the kinds of soft skills that we as parents and teachers need to instill in our kids today.” 

Her personal odyssey — long before she became a Bay Area education mogul, Radio Zindagi talk show host, and community activist — is its own story of confidence and coming into one’s own. Dhillon grew up in a tightly-knit Kenyan suburb, much like our Bay Area cities littered with extracurricular activities and educational pursuits. 

“My mother, being the typical Indian mother that she was, enrolled me into practically everything from music, art, piano, and sports,” Dhillon says and laughs. “But my father, a medical practitioner and the local Deputy Mayor was very deep into politics. So one of the big things that he really wanted us, kids, to focus on was communication. They enrolled me into a drama school called the Little Theater Club at the age of three.” 

Dhillon’s childhood in Kenya marked the intersection of so many rapid changes, from an early wave of the feminist movement to political unrest in India following the death of Indira Gandhi. The young actress put pen to paper, drafting impassioned poems and letters for the local newspaper.  

“I was a very, very controversial figure in my town,” Dhillon says. “I mean, I was always expressing my views, especially when it came to women’s issues. And my dad didn’t even know half the time when I was writing to newspapers. It would only be when we would get anonymous phone calls at home threatening me about something that my dad would look at me and say, ‘did you write that?’ And I’ll be like, ‘yep.’ God, I caused so much drama at home.” 

Twenty years later, the outspoken Kenyan pre-teen, after completing her Pharmacy Degree in the United Kingdom, and Doctorate of Science,  launched into two very successful businesses of her own – a matrimonial dating agency and recruiting firm in the United States. She then ventured in Recruiting CEO’s for start up’s and went from hooking people and people to people and jobs. As a single mother navigating the labyrinthian American Dream, helping young men and women find love offered startling insight into the role of ‘soft skills’ within the South Asian American community.  

For Dhillon, the devil was in the details. From critiquing her client’s fashion choices to providing advice on eye contact and tone, she realized how the simplest features of personal interaction paved the way to success. Her experience as a dating coach and recruiter molded her vision when she opened up a Fremont-based daycare and accelerated learning center named Genius Kids. 

Unlike mainstream education programs, Genius Kids instills public speaking and collaborative skills in students from a young age. Founded in 2001, the organization quickly caught on among Bay Area parental circles. Dhillon’s effortless relationship with kids, paired with her knack of combining learning strategies with the latest technology, brought in more families than ever. 

“I think kids learn with smart and interactive technology,” Dhillon says. “We were actually one of the first preschools to ever introduce smart boards into the classrooms. Even the toddlers will come up on our stage, look at a screen, and point to the answer with their little fingers. These are our ways of teaching children. To stimulate students’ curiosity, I don’t want anyone memorizing stories in my classes. I want discussions. I want kids to tell me the story back in their own words — add their own flavor to The Three Little Pigs and use their own imagination. This is how we access a child’s voice and build on their confidence.” 

For the second time in her life, Dhillon embarked on a writing journey, this time penning a parenting book titled, Raise Confident Children: Today’s Kids, Tomorrow’s Leaders. The book has different sections dedicated to Dhillon’s ‘Cs’ — compassion, conflict resolution, charisma, control — the different elements that shaped her experience in both teaching and parenting.

“There’s a need to simplify parenting into its basic ingredients,” Dhillon says. “It’s not something that always comes naturally — especially now that we have all these distractions. The world was very different for my great grandparents, grandparents, and my parents. Now, we’re living in a crazy world — completely insane. And if you don’t prepare your child to be able to face a world of the unknown, your child won’t have any control over their life. So I’m a huge one for books. I’m always on the search for new material and information because learning never stops.” 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there may be no better time for Dhillon to release Raise Confident Children: Today’s Kids, Tomorrow’s Leaders. As lockdown restrictions force schools to adapt to a virtual learning environment, every parent must challenge their preconceived notions about testing, college admissions, and academic life. And perhaps there may be no better writer to release this book than Dhillon herself. As a woman who ventured across borders, within new industries, and into the lives of hundreds of children, Dhillon seeks to embody the very experience she chronicles in her book — a journey into the precarious unknown, where learning and adapting is always essential. 

“Don’t underestimate your children,” Dhillon says. “Let them pursue and find their path. And most of all, listen to what they have to say.” 

Stay tuned for Confident Children: Today’s Kids, Tomorrow’s Leaders, which releases on October 6th on Amazon! Click here for further details.


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor for India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as the Executive Director of Media Outreach at Break the Outbreak. Connect with Kanchan on Instagram: @kanchan_naik_

South Asian Queer Voices Fill The Void

“Not straight, not gay, not girl enough,

miles away from man. Just queer, man,

as in queer.

I dentif i

As queer.

I like the way it sounds like the start

Of ‘weird’. The way I don’t have a plan.

Queer.”

—From the poem ‘Queer As In’ by Delhi-based non-binary, femme disabled poet and journalist Riddhi Dastdar. 

The World That Belong To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia is a first of its kind anthology that brings together the best of contemporary queer poetry from the subcontinent. The collection, which has been jointly edited by poet, writer and artist Aditi Angiras as well as poet, translator and teacher Akhil Katyal, took more than a year to put together. The themes in the poems range from desire and loneliness, sexual intimacy and struggles, caste and language, activism, the role of families, heartbreaks and heartjoins. 

In the book’s Preface, Angiras and Katyal write that the call for the anthology was widely circulated online, emailed to friends, copied on Facebook groups and WhatsApped to acquaintances. Over a period of time, the text of the call kept evolving from what it was to what readers wanted it to be. In order to increase its reach and spread, it was also translated into several South Asian languages. In no time, submissions began trickling in from cities across the globe—Bengaluru, Vadodara, Benaras, Boston, Chennai, Colombo, Delhi, Dhaka, Dublin, Kathmandu, Lahore, London, Karachi and New York City.

Aditi Angiras (left) and Akhil Katyal (right)

The more than hundred contributors, poets and translators in the book are all varied in terms of their language, region, caste, gender, sexuality, class and publication history. While many are established queer poets from South Asia, many are also first-time poets. Apart from English, the book features poetry translated from a number of languages, including Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Punjabi and Urdu.

In his poem ‘What is Queer?’, Chand, a queer, agender trans research scholar, sets about trying to explain to his mother what queer is: “Queer is being the lowest of the low/ The absolute scum of the sexual pyramid/ And somehow still taking pride in it.”

Nepal based Phurbu Tashi elaborates further on the plight of queer people like himself in his poem ‘This World Isn’t For You’: “This isn’t nature’s fault, these are your own desires/ Why would I embrace desires that make life harder for me”.

US based Sehrish Rashid, a bisexual woman from Pakistan, writes in her poem ‘Shame’: “What for you is a thing of shame, only spells my truth, my name.”

Gee Semmalar, a queer trans man from Kerala writes in his poem ‘Resistance Rap’: “New skin stubbornly/ Grows over old and new wounds/ Proud scars/ That tell stories of tender love.”

Coochbehar based Arina Alam, writes in her poem ‘I Know’: “When I revolt against this construction of gender, I will keep my head held high.” 

Lahore based Asad Alvi’s poem ‘La pulsion de mort’ talks among other things about the impossibility of queer love “for whom the only future carved out is death,” which he illustrates by citing examples of famous writers Tennessee Williams and Virginia Woolf, both of whom committed suicide. 

Abhyuday Gupta, who identifies as agender, non-binary, writes about the angst of growing up in his poem ‘Bildungsroman’—one that feels like “the ache of the attic floor which squeaks at the slightest touch and dissolves into a wallflower to apologize for its insolence.”

Shaan Mukherjee Ghosh, who identifies as non-binary and bisexual, writes in his poem ‘Pantomimesis’: “I can’t be gay or trans or depressed./I won’t hurt my body even when it hurts me. I will not abuse others as I have been abused. Everything I thought was wrong. I suppose. I was too young to know.”

Sahar Riaz, a psychiatrist from Pakistan living in Dublin, writes in his poem ‘Do you want to get to know me’: “All day I wait for the night to come/ So I can wipe off this mask, Reveal something real, If only to myself/ I know 3 a.m. like the back of my hand.” 

Though an anthology of separate poems, this unique collection advocates a singular voice—of diversity, compassion and justice for this historically marginalized community—one that thrives within the complex multiplicities of South Asia and its religions, sexuality, cultures, and languages.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

High Schooler Takes a Stance Against Flavored Tobacco

Ninety percent of adult smokers develop a tobacco addiction as teenagers or earlier. Since 2009, e-cigarettes have become a worrisome gateway to regular smoking. Addressing this dangerous habit early is critical in the journey towards a tobacco-free generation. In 2018, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams officially declared e-cigarette use among youth an epidemic in the United States.  Now is the time to take action.

The fight against smoking is personal. Having grown up in India surrounded by smokers, and losing family members to smoking, my mother taught me the dangers posed by tobacco usage. Her argument was effective since I have never really considered trying a cigarette. And I think their generation did a good job at discouraging cigarette use. When I ask my friends they are likely to express disgust at the idea of using cigarettes, and youth cigarette usage is at an all-time low. Unfortunately, this disgust doesn’t seem to transfer to e-cigarettes, which are seen as cool and hip.

Flavors are a big reason my peers start using e-cigarettes. In fact, 4 out of 5 kids who have used tobacco started with a flavored product. According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Juul and other e-cigarettes are addicting a new generation of kids and reversing decades of progress cutting youth tobacco use. The flavors lure them in, and the nicotine keeps them hooked.” I know many classmates and friends who vape. My neighbor’s son is still only in middle school, but he’s already become addicted to e-cigarettes. He started because he saw a chocolate flavored e-cigarette and thought it was fun to try. How bad can something that’s candy-flavored be? And I have a classmate who started vaping because his grandfather tried to quit using e-cigarettes. He tried his vapes. He still smokes cigarettes, and now, he’s addicted. Some of my friends talk about comparing peach and strawberry flavors and which is better. And every high school kid knows about that one bathroom where you can vape in secret. The fact of the matter is, flavored tobacco and exposure to it makes it far more likely for kids to get hooked. And Big Tobacco doesn’t care.

But the CA legislature can make a difference now by putting the lives of youth ahead of the profits of Big Tobacco. As a passionate anti-vaping and anti-tobacco activist, I am pushing the California lawmakers to prioritize youth health by supporting SB793, the bill to ban the sale of flavored tobacco.

 In May 2020, as a National Youth Ambassador representing California for The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, and an American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network Legislative Ambassador I testified in front of the California Senate Health Committee this May, along with CA Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis and Stanford professor Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, urging for a Yes vote.

http://https://youtu.be/j55HvYFE89A

Senate Bill 793, written by Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), makes it illegal to sell flavored tobacco or tobacco flavor enhancer products. This include tobacco products such as cigarettes including Menthol flavored, cigars, cigarillos, and chewing tobacco, as well as newer products such as e-cigarettes, vape juice, and vaping systems.

Thankfully, the bill was passed and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom after months of advocacy and hard work from young people and adults alike. I was extremely grateful to have participated in the signing process via Zoom. 

Governor Newson signing the legislation over Zoom.

 It’s not easy being a Youth Advocate for quitting tobacco. At the 2020 National Symposium for The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, https://www.tobaccofreekids.org/what-we-do/youth-programs#ambassadors I addressed over 100 youth activists nationwide, sharing details about the harassment and attacks I faced on social media for speaking up against vaping. However, I am not deterred and will continue to find ways to help reduce the spread of tobacco in the communities, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, that affects lungs, placing smokers and vapers at especially higher risk of complications


Aditya Indla is an emerging community leader with Breath California, a non-profit organization and he has spoken in front of Dublin, Hayward, and Pleasanton City councils in support of a flavored tobacco ban. He is working to improve the tobacco retail policies in Union City and Newark as the Co-founder of Project Aegle. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he raised over $10,000 to 3D print PPE for health care workers and was recognized as one of the U.N. Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth’s Leaders who Inspire you to Change the World.

Learning to Belong: Desi Poetry Reading

To join the poetry reading on Monday August 24th 2020 at 6 pm PST and 9 pm EST, click on this LINK

The South Asian diaspora is perpetually evolving, breaking new boundaries and forging new connections in every sphere. India Currents presents its second Desi Poetry Reading to discuss how South Asian immigrant communities have changed over the years, as well as attitudes surrounding diversity, multiculturalism and belonging.

This is effort is in collaboration with Matwaala, a South-Asian poetry collaborative designed to provide immigrant and POC writers with a literary platform. In their own words, Matwaala represents “voices that dare to say the unsaid and hear the unheard…voices that break down barriers…voices that dare to be South Asian, American, and simply human.” Since their formation, they have hosted a number of poetry festivals and writing workshops. Most notably, they recently spearheaded Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood Project, where they created a Poetry Wall in honor of South Asian writers at the Irving Museum and Archives.

This poetry reading will feature notable writers from various pockets of the South Asian community, including Geetha Sukumaran, Ravi Shankar, Ralph Nazareth, Kirun Kapoor, and youth poet Kanchan Naik. India Currents staff Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik will moderate the event, facilitating questions from the audience via email.

Use this BigStage link to login: https://zoom.bigstage.online/index.php?event_id=DesiPoetry&client_id=C000004

To find out more about this event and its panelists, stay tuned for updates on our Facebook and Instagram!


Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, a Global Student Square editor for Newsroom By the Bay and Director of Media Outreach at nonprofit Break the Outbreak

Windows to the Soul

Windows to the Soul

As hugs turn into virtual high-fives

And pajamas become our cocoons,

As sanitizer turns into a balm for our weary nerves

And TP becomes our most prized possession,

 

We lumber out of hibernation every morning

With nowhere to go but the couch.

The only thing we’re creating these days

Is a six feet force field around us.

 

As we fight to flatten the curve,

This insidious little bug flattened our lives.

Zoom-ing through our days is ok, 

But i-contact is not eye contact.

 

As I walk around I see a sea of masks

Like extras in a dystopian movie,

Their eyes constantly scanning for threats, avoiding mine

I can’t read them, can’t tell what they’re thinking.

 

“Windows to the soul,” they said.

Not anymore.

I’m not afraid but sad,

As our humanity falls victim to social distancing.

******

Riya Arora is currently a sophomore at The Harker School. She finds her passion in social advocacy and giving a voice to those without one. Already involved in several non-profit organizations, she is also the founder of her own called Touched By MS. Outside of school, she is a 2x national medalist in figure skating and is on the San Jose Sharks synchronized team.

Desi Poetry Reading Hits Home

Can you think of major experiences of your life and community, whether it is to celebrate birthdays or weddings, or to mourn a loss or even at the rituals around a funeral, without some music and song, be it folk traditions or prayer chants? Poetry is so seamlessly woven into our lives that we may turn to its wisdom by sheer instinct, to find what comforts and elevates.

The Indian epics of Mahabharata with the Gita, literally the song of the God, contained within it, and the Ramayana, or the more recent religious text from the five-hundred-year-old Sikh holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib, are all written in verse. These verses are memorized and still sung aloud or chanted privately, as they were before the written word was invented.

Poetry belongs in the community, especially now, as the world goes through these transformative times.

On June 30th, India Currents(IC) and Matwaala held a poetry reading event with five award-winning South Asian women poets addressing activism. Matwaala director and poet, Usha Akella, said that it’s time to bring poetry, a minority art amongst arts, out from the university halls and into the community.

Two of the poets read poems about the Nirbhaya incident of the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh, showcasing how poetry can be activism by bearing witness. Sophia Naz, a poet on the panel, described each poem to be an experiment and an act of activism. She sees the process of subjective meaning as a democratic act of a dialog between the poem and the reader. The activism is inherent in poems as the reader must engage to make sense of it, with the meaning changing with every reading. At the end of the 90 minutes, Srishti, IC moderator, said how she found the session cathartic and was glad that several poems gave expression to what she felt.

Poems read in community have a way of connecting us to our spirit and with each other.

This is the first in a series of articles for the new column – Poetry as Sanctuary. Poetry for the poetry lovers and the poetically curious in our community. The articles will be written by our diaspora poets who are from the FB group Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. This group meets weekly, on Saturday nights at 8:30 pm, to read and listen to poems, in all languages, with impromptu translations. We have poets who read in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, Sindhi, Farsi, Spanish, German, Japanese, Korean, and other languages.

About a half a dozen years ago, Mahendra Kutare, started meetups and formed a group that now goes by the name Kaavya Connections. Many of us met at the monthly gathering in San Francisco that Mahendra hosts. Three years ago, we started meeting once a month in Mountain View and has morphed into a weekly group since the shelter-in-place started in March.

Weekly social distance poetry meetup.

Although the group is open to all, it is not an open mic, since we are not a performance space. Ours is an art practice space for poetry lovers who have a deep and old commitment to poems. Unlike some other poetry groups, we do not expect or provide a critique of poems. Our intention is to connect people through the love of poems, and we end up co-creating poetic conversations. It is an affirmative space by intention, following the Hindustani tehzeeb (protocol/tradition), where praise for the poets attending a mushaira or mehfil, poetry recitation event, is called, ‘daat dena’, where the listeners repeat words that the poet says or ask the poet to re-read some lines (mukarar), as a way to set the pace and punctuate the poems with generous praise, by saying ‘Wah! Wah!’ (great!) or ‘irshad’ (repeat please), depending on the response evoked by the poem being read.

We will be in touch with poems, and until then check out the recordings of the event.

I can recommend Sophia Naz’s the United States of Amnesia, where you might find yourself wanting to soak up phrases like “I know the smell of Genocide” or “I have fallen in your uncivil war of a thousand and one episodes. This beast you thought you tamed? He prowls the profiled night wearing a police uniform.”

Zilka Joseph’s poems on 25 responses to everyday racism, or the ghazal about Jyoti Singh, were immersive and evocative. She calmly stated the obvious, “Poets, words are witness, make darkness burn.” I was taken by her simplicity.

I heard poems about mothers who lost their sons and a reminder that George Floyd was a spark that ignited cataclysmic events brewing for hundreds of years – “take a breath brother because you are more than 400 years of hate and hurt”.

Usha Akella’s phrase, “Sanskrit mantras in my veins” or the poem Enough demanding “bring back our caged children to a field of sunflowers” kept me wanting more.

 “How much of knowing do we need before we say it.” –  I poignant end to a thought-provoking session. I knew I was ready for the next reading, as soon as this one ended.

Thank you, Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik for using the IC platform to elevate these minority voices that speak for the disenfranchised communities. I look forward to the next poetry reading.

This article is part of the column – Poetry as Sanctuary – where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora. 


Dr. Jyoti Bachani is on a mission to humanize management using the arts, specifically poetry and improv, as a founding member of the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley, a co-founder of the US chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association and an associate professor of business at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Commencement 2020: A Letter to Our Future Leaders

Dearly Beloved,

We are gathered here today, to join this Class of 2020 with the World.  2020 has been such a surreal year that your graduation will certainly remain remarkable.  Staying in place has made in-person toasts a tedious task, so we raise a symbolic glass in your honor.  Congratulations!

Finally, it is your commencement

I remember when I was in Second Grade when studies seemed endless and I asked my teacher how long it would be before we stopped learning. The answer has stayed with me till today – “NEVER!”  What a shock when you are 7 to hear that studying is never over!  She said life is a continuous learning process. And perhaps that is what has inspired me to keep learning till today. 

University of life

Of course, one does not have to sign up formally to any course for learning.  You are automatically enrolled in the University of Life which gives admission to people from all walks, irrespective of their grade with no discrimination of age, color, creed. 

Sometimes you get a gentle guru and at other times a tyrannical taskmaster. Both teach you different things.  Keep an open mind so you learn from your experiences.  Keep an open heart so that you take others under your wing and give to those who might need a hand.  And never forget those who have extended you a hand, in your time of need.

Speak up

Recognize other’s struggles. The role of being a Knight in Shining Armor has become less dangerous and genderless. It doesn’t require the skill of horse-riding, or slaying dragons – just that you raise your voice with and for others when you see injustice.  

Never let someone tell you your place. Never have someone have you questioning your self-worth or your worth as an employee. 

Stand up for yourself. Stand up for your sisters and brothers. Stand up to injustice. Just be upstanding and outstanding in whatever you do.

Don’t undersell yourself, but don’t be a sellout either.  It is better to rise to the top with others rather than alone. 

Lift each other up. Remember you are stronger as a tribe.  

Changemakers

I have great hope for the current generation.  It is more open, more accepting, and more tolerant than the previous generations.  We are headed in the right direction.  Your asset is your idealism – guard it against a cold and cynical world.  Idealism is what leads you to fight for changes – big or small. 

Recent events, such as Black Lives Matter, have shown us that the world still needs radical change. You are the changemakers. Do more than sharing news on social media. Sign petitions, protest, talk to your City Council Members, get involved in politics – find ways in which you can make a difference.  

We must look beyond the comfort of our own communities to speak up for others facing dire situations.  While there is a sense of belonging within any individual culture, there is no greater strength than feeling a sense of oneness with the larger community of the world – a recognition, that we –despite our color, race, gender identity, nationalities– are all human. Our happiness and freedoms come from the happiness and freedoms of our brothers.  A cry for help must not be quelled. 

Money talks

You have all been blessed to have an education. Some of you will be earning sooner than others. You’ve earned your right to spend!  Money used for yourself gives you pleasure.  Money used to buy someone else a gift doubles in value.  Money invested wisely in the stock market may triple in value. 

But money given to someone in need or money invested in humanity, now that is priceless!  How much is the value of your money multiplied by Infinity? 

Money has great buying power.  But know also that what cash CANNOT buy is what is TRULY valuable.  Love, peace, happiness, friendships, and health – invest in these. 

It’s your life

You have one life – so live it up.  Live it to your fullest!  Yes, you have one life – make sure what you do counts.  Some of you will no doubt create huge waves, but others will affect the world with gentle ripples. You get no certificates from the University of Life, except for the Karmic kind, and the satisfaction that you have served. 

To quote from the poem Incredible Woman written by Yours Truly, “Your beauty is not in your height, but the heights YOU will reach…”  So, be inventors, game-changers, set a spark – no, not as arsonists!  Spark debates, spark changes, make your mark on this world.  And while you are blazing trails, we, your Bay Area community, will leave the light on for you. Shine on!

Yours truly,
Meera Rao Prahlad

Meera Rao Prahlad is a freelance writer, community organizer, and volunteer with a variety of interests.  In addition to writing and teaching Language, she wears the hat of Director of Top Form Academy, which provides training in Business Communication and Etiquette to professionals, as well as life skills for youth. She is currently working on writing a book on Etiquette.

Finding Our Voice: Desi Poetry Reading

To join the poetry reading on Tuesday June 30, 2020 at 6 pm PST and 9 pm EST, click the button below!

[button link=”https://ncc-zoom.zoom.us/j/97345591211?pwd=ekdQdnZ2ZFNJWkpXSkpsemh3b0dwQT09″ type=”big” color=”red” newwindow=”yes”] ZOOM Poetry Reading[/button]

With America on the precipice of landmark socio-political change, India Currents invites you to celebrate activism through a virtual poetry reading! This effort is in collaboration with Matwaala, a South-Asian poetry collaborative designed to provide immigrant and POC writers with a literary platform.

In their own words, Matwaala embodies “voices that dare to say the unsaid and hear the unheard…voices that break down barriers…voices that dare to be South Asian, American, and simply human.” Since their formation, they have hosted a number of poetry festivals and writing workshops. Most notably, they recently spearheaded Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood Project, where they created a Poetry Wall in honor of South Asian writers at the Irving Museum and Archives. 

Poetry has always represented rebellion — against injustice, against hierarchy, against the status quo. And this event, complete with live readings and a stimulating Q & A session, seeks to honor this sense of rebellion by addressing topics such as women’s rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. This discussion features an all-female panel of Desi poets, who will reflect on their own experiences to analyze these issues from an immigrant perspective. 

Poets: Usha Akella, Pramila Venkateswaran, Zilka Joseph, Sophia Naz, Monica Ferrell

Moderators: Srishti Prabha, Kanchan Naik

Use this ZOOM link to login.

To find out more about this event and its panelists, stay tuned for updates on our Facebook and Instagram!

Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and Director of Media Outreach at nonprofit Break the Outbreak

I Went to Take Photos, I Left Empowered

It is a disheartening reality we live in where people won’t attend protests in their community due to misinformation. The reporting and headlines have highlighted the few instances of violence, instances that may have nothing to do with the protest itself. I was also very hesitant about going to the protests in my community. I saw news channels, YouTube videos, and articles all over the internet explaining how violent these protests are.

I wanted to take photos, so against my better judgment, I attended my first protest. Quickly I realized that protests can be very peaceful and that a majority of them are.

At the protest, I was astonished to see so many members of my community come together in solidarity to fight racial injustices in our nation. I had expected to see students, young adults, and the black people in my community show up to the protest, but to my surprise, I saw Indians and Asians in my community show up as allies as well. I have never seen these many Indians and Asians in my community actively speak out about the racial injustices within the black community. It was really empowering to see older members of my community come together in solidarity. 

My photo journey began as we marched around the city. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to capture. I took shots of people marching peacefully around our community and different protest signs.

Image taken by Ashwin Desai

One picture stood out to me as I went through my camera roll. It was of a speaker, carrying an Indian flag and advocating for Indians to help their black brothers and sisters. 

The theme of Indian allyship continued.

One speaker was a middle-aged, first-generation Indian man who helped black men and women out of the judicial system in Oakland. He talked about how the Indian community needs to be there for their black brothers and sisters because, without them, many immigrants wouldn’t be here today.

The Immigration Act of 1965, the law that allowed many of our own parents to come to the United States, was made possible because of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Without black people fighting for their rights in the Civil Rights Movement, there would be no Asian-Americans in the United States.

He then spoke about the model minority myth. The model minority myth is the notion that since Asian-Americans are doing well in the United States, all minorities should be able to achieve the same level of success, perpetuating that racism does not exist. But as the name states, this is just a myth.

He concluded by talking about the biases within the Indian community. There is a stigma within the Indian community about dark-colored skin. Since the time that India was occupied by the British, Indians have continued to adopt the same beauty standards as the British, i.e lighter skin is more beautiful. Indians actively oppress and chastise those with darker skin. The problem still persists as many celebrities endorse skin bleaching products. This innate bias towards people with lighter complexions has caused a divide between Indians and black people, keeping Indians at an arm’s distance from black people – never allowing us to truly understand them or their struggles. 

At the end of his speech, he told us to self-reflect. He asked us, “What can you personally do, with what you have, to make a difference? What type of member do you want to be in this community?”

In this process of self-reflection, I knew that I couldn’t just attend this one protest to fight racial injustice. At that moment, I finally had a purpose for my photos. I can spread awareness about racial injustices by using my current photography platform, Desai Photography, and use it to show others how peaceful protests are and capture the Indian-Americans in my community who are doing their part in supporting the cause.

I will try to influence others that think protesting is inherently dangerous and change their minds, and I want to inspire other Indian-Americans in my community to be allies. I want to make a change and I can start by using my photography as a means to do so.

This is just the beginning…

Ashwin Desai is currently a Junior at Monta Vista High School. He has a passion for photography and business.  He also operates as a pro-bono marketing consultant for businesses suffering from COVID and is the marketing lead for a climate change newspaper called theincentive.