Tag Archives: American

Kala Bagai Way: The First Street In the US Named After a Historic Indian American Woman

When Kalai Bagai first arrived in San Francisco on September 6th, 1915 with her husband Vaishno and three sons, local newspapers flocked to cover the story of the first Indian-American woman to enter the Bay Area. Fleeing British imperialism in her homeland, Bagai was exposed to the very casual racism and persecution she thought she had escaped. When her family purchased their first home, she remembered her neighbors attempting to stop them from moving in. 

Newspaper article from September 1915 issue of San Francisco Call & Post describing Kala Bagai’s arrival in the United States with her family. (South Asian American Digital Archive)

“All of our luggage and everything was loaded on the trucks,’ she said. “I told Mr. Bagai I don’t want to live in this neighborhood. I don’t want to live in this house, because they might hurt my children, and I don’t want it. We paid for the house and they locked the doors? No!'”

Although one in the hundreds of immigrants searching for new lives in the United States, Kala Bagai was singled out for her Indian heritage by the masses — ridiculed for her nose ring and skin color. Bagai, like so many other activists of color, was stenciled into America’s history for her “otherness”, and for her struggle to take ownership of her cultural identity. 

The story of Kala Bagai is defined by risk — the risk to emigrate to the nascent United States with precarious citizenship laws, the risk to leave India without knowing a word of English, the risk to challenge this sense of “otherness” that permeated the public consciousness.

Though one of the first South Asians to find a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kala Bagai was aware that she would not be the last. As new Indian American families emigrated to her area, they were welcomed with a smile and a warm meal prepared by Bagai. She was endearingly named “Mother India” by Indian locals. By blurring the boundaries between California Americanisms and Desi customs, Bagai redefined this sense of “otherness” — she created a community out of the ambiguous and alienating identity that was given to her. 

Then the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind case defined Indians as citizens of color, ineligible for U.S. citizenship. Still, in shock over his sudden denaturalization, Vaishno Bagai took his own life. The Bagais were left without citizenship, livelihood, or home. And it was at their lowest that Kala Bagai began to fight back. Despite the loss of her husband, she advocated fiercely for Indian American rights and found ways to support anti-colonialism movements in India. Kala Bagai put all three of her sons through college, taking great pride in supporting their higher education. Before passing away at 90 years in 1983, Bagai had hosted a number of Indian festivals, community halls, and theatres — events continued in her honor to this day.

Kala Bagai was ostracized for her “otherness”. Today, the Berkeley community is ready to celebrate her for it. With a thriving South Asian American community, Berkeley has spent the past couple of months trying to find a name for a 2-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue East. In the heart of Berkeley downtown, this street has the potential to recognize and uplift America’s rich South Asian American cultural community. Because in an unexpected, yet beautiful turn of events, the Bay Area community is ready to name this street Kala Bagai Way. Anirvan Chatterjee, a San Francisco Bay Area activist who helped organize community support for the name, discusses the implications of this historic naming process in an exclusive interview with India Currents. 

“Berkeley is a roughly 20% Asian American city, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the street names”, Chatterjee said. “I think Kala Bagai was a good fit because she was Asian American, a woman, an immigrant, a member of a minority faith, a survivor of local and federal racism. But she was more than her identity, or what was done to her family. She persisted through heartbreak, emerging as a critical California immigrant community-builder well into her forties. She demonstrated a model of quiet activism that sometimes doesn’t get recognized, but is so critical in our movements and communities.

In terms of her connection to Berkeley, her story shed light on the city’s difficult history around race and housing. It’s easier to honor someone who is a long-term resident, but more challenging—and interesting—to name a street after somebody who wanted to be a neighbor, but was kept out by community racism.” 

Turning a downtown Berkeley street into Kala Bagai Way was certainly an uphill battle. Chatterjee and other local activists worked with descendants of Kala Bagai to tell her story to the media and represent her legacy. They even created a Wikipedia page dedicated to her, so that Berkeley locals could educate themselves on her role in Indian American activism. Chatterjee attended the final meeting of the Berkeley naming advisory committee and noted a discrepancy in Berkeley’s representation and the area itself. Only 2 of the 9 members of the committee were people of color. And while this committee wanted to honor the city’s rich history, they realized that naming the street after Kala Bagai was defined, much like Bagai herself, by risk. 

Kala Bagai (South Asian American Digital Archive)
Kala Bagai (South Asian American Digital Archive)

“She wasn’t the safest possible choice, because her most relevant connection to Berkeley was the way she and her family were kept out,” Chatterjee said. “Naming a street after her also means naming an uncomfortable past, and also serves as a reminder to defend all of today’s Kala Bagais, by resisting displacement and welcoming newcomers.”

While Kala Bagai Way is a victory for the Asian American community, it’s hard to celebrate this achievement without recognizing the current backdrop of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Just three weeks ago, a man opened fire at three different massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia, killing six Asian American women. This is not an isolated atrocity, but rather one in the many crimes which suggest that America’s terrifying history of prejudice and xenophobia is far from over. Chatterjee thinks that in the wake of these hate crimes, naming this street after a South Asian American activist only grows more necessary. 

“Anti-Asian racism is often rooted in the stereotype of Asian Americans as eternal foreigners, generation after generation,” Chatterjee said. “Naming a street isn’t just about community pride, but also about shifting that culture. Naming a downtown street after an Asian American activist who tried to move to Berkeley over a century ago is making a claim to belonging, and is a tiny part of much larger anti-racist movements.” 

While no one knows what the future holds in store for America’s immigrant communities, we hope that symbolic progress leads to constructive change. Indian Americans have played a major role in shaping today’s America, but they often don’t see themselves represented by the local or national leadership. Chatterjee believes that Kala Bagai Way is a foot in the door, and serves as a homage to the footsteps of Asian American activists before him. 

“Our histories are important, both because they’re ours, and also because they connect to larger stories,” Chatterjee says. “We’re walking a path paved by the activism of other communities, like Black activists taking on the honoring of the Confederacy, or Native American activists taking on racist sports teams. The point isn’t just to change the names, but to address what the names represent.”

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we honor Kala Bagai for all her contributions to our Indian American communities in California.


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 


 

Mosaic Silicon Valley’s ‘Femina’: Find the Divine in India, Cambodia, & China

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. 

Nine different (sub) cultural histories and traditions from around the world were co-presented by Mosaic Silicon Valley and Guru Shradha, in a program called Femina. It was a call for the world to step out of their cultural silos and experience the vibrancy of the Bay Area, the dynamism of the feminine, and the unifying power of the Arts to build a gender-balanced world.

As the program director, it was fascinating for me to delve into the compositions and choreographies and see the astounding common threads emerge, golden and self-evident. We’ll explore these findings through the first act of the program called Divine | Awaken featuring Indian, Cambodian, and Chinese art forms. Femina’s Divine | Awaken was an ode to the celestial and mythological – It was a call for all of us to find our divine and enlightened selves.

Guru Shradha’s Niharika Mohanty urged us to make room for, submit, and surrender to the divine feminine energies of Durga. Along with her Odissi students, Mohanty beautifully re-incarnated the superb sculptures from Indian temples, the forms manifesting god-like in the blue-light of the stage. One journeyed back in time – and saw the sculptors drawing upon their spiritual energies to carve the goddesses in stone. Art is a journey, one realizes, to an inner destination – familiar or invented, real, unreal, or fantastical. One cannot connect to the outside world without having connected within and art accelerates these connections.

Cambodian Classical Dancer, Charya Burt, emulates Cambodian Gods.

The Goddess was visited again by master choreographer and dancer, Charya Burt in the Cambodian Robam Chun Por or The Wishing Dance. It is typically in an opening ceremony, Devada Srey, that is used to convey blessings to the audience through flower petals. I was fascinated by the obvious Indian influences – Deva in Sanskrit is God, for starters. The Cambodian temple, Angkor Wat, is dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu; indeed, there exists a version of Ramayana in Cambodia. Contrastingly though, while Indian classical dance uses movement, percussion, and melody to impress the divine upon us on Earth, Cambodian dance is designed to transport us to the heavens; the movements are soft and un-creature-like – Burt seemed to glide, buffeted by centuries of mysticism.

A dancer of the Hai Yan Jackson Compnay recreates art from the Dunhuang Caves.

The Chinese arts reclaimed history, thus solidifying the connection between the Divine and the Human. The Hai Yan Jackson Company presented “Flying Apsaras from Dunhuang.” This dance and its costumes were inspired by the discoveries at Dunhuang Caves which were believed to have been walled up in the 11th century and contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art. Dunhuang was established as a frontier garrison outpost by the Han Dynasty and became an important gateway to the West, a center of commerce along the Silk Road, as well as a meeting place of various people and religions such as Buddhism. My “Indian” radar picked up on the Silk Route and Buddhism. I could feel the palimpsest of time and geography reveal itself in layers. The age-old apsaras appeared before us and the choreography was faithful to the celestial aura.

In Femina, the Mosaic team was able to create a feminine continuum between realms, time, spaces, cultures, and generations, through beautiful art. Happy Women’s History Month to all of you, dear readers! 

The wonderful thing about programming for Mosaic is that it blurs the lines. The narrative may begin as Art imitating Life but then one quickly discovers that it is Life imitating Art. Stories of life – its past, current, and future – are presented on the canvas of culture of, by, for the people in a specific place. Join us and learn more about the Mosaic movement as we catalyze Inclusion and cultivate Belonging in America! 


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.

The Cowboy and the Yogi: Ever-changing Traditions

“India, like America, feeds and nourishes creative individuality. Just as Americans have been inspired by the archetype of the Cowboy, who wanders the open spaces in search of a dream, so Indians are inspired by the Yogi, who wanders inner spaces in search of realization,” claims The Cowboy and The Yogi, by Teed Rockwell. For those of you who don’t know, Rockwell wrote the India Current music column for decades and I carried on for a few years after him. Thus, it was an absolute honor and delight when we had a delightful conversation about his journey into India and Indianness.  

The Cowboy and The Yogi is a glimpse into the Indian music scene over a span of roughly two decades, largely in the US, as documented by Rockwell. It is an intelligently curated collection of his own research, study, writings for his India Currents music columns, and blogs. Thus, it is a passionate, loving, intimate, insider view into Indian music combined with a sense of adventure. Sprinkled with anecdotal tidbits such as “first article commissioned by India Currents,” the book traces a path between classical music and its many representations, note-worthy performances, as well as its practitioners. Thus, the book, as Rockwell himself describes, talks about Indians and non-Indians performing Indian music, along with Indians performing non-Indian music. Chapter 9, “Indians Doing Cool Stuff” is about Roc Zonte, Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, Nitin Sawhney, Vijay Iyer, and Tony Kanal, who was one of the first people of Indian ancestry to become a Western rock star and to let the world know it.” 

Rockwell is a musician himself (enjoy his fascinating introduction to his jugalbandi-friendly “Touchstyle Veena” here) and therefore it is all the more believable when he claims that “In the area of rhythm, Indian music is totally without peer.” The Cowboy and The Yogi acts as a guide to how to listen and appreciate Indian music, deliberately, through chapters such as “Listening to Indian music,” and also through his own discoveries. Such as “In Memoriam” where he rues the fact that he got to know much about the Masters and their genius when he was asked to write their obituaries. “Yogis all, but with more than a little cowboy in each of them,” he states, of Vilayat Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, and Bismillah Khan. 

The book is also a portrait of the gurukul that existed within the campus of the AACM (Ali Akbar College of Music). Rockwell writes, “Classes included people from Germany, Argentina, …as well as Bengalis, Punjabis,…I remember a blond two-year-old who regularly came to class with her mother, and whose baby talk combined so many different languages…There was an atmosphere very like an Ashram…spiritually devoted to profound and enigmatic music.” 

Rockwell, a Buddhist now, then does a CowBoy-Yogi-combined on you, as he dons his scholar lens and delves into Islam. This is poignant since many of the Masters of Indian music are of the Muslim faith. “I read the entire Koran in different translations, studied histories of both Muhammad’s life and the Islamic political empires, and read commentaries on the Koran and Hadith [the sayings attributed to Mohammed]. As a result of these studies, I have concluded that although many horrible things have been done in the name of Islam, a careful reading of Islamic sacred texts reveals that these behaviors are contrary to the teachings of Muhammad and to the most intelligent people who follow his spiritual path.” 

The book is a must-read for those who seek soul-food, an intellectual-nudge, a musical historical journey, and an emotion-drenched read.  

Here is an excerpt from our interview, the video can be found below:

IC: Tell us about how you got started with India and Indian music. 

TR: In the West, there is a lot of interest in Orientalism. I grew up as a hippie in the sixties interested in an alternative to Christianity, western culture in general. But what I began to find out is that any generalization that includes both Punjabis and Koreans isn’t going to be worth much…There are tremendous differences between South Asians and East Asians, for example, and I spent a lot more time with South Asians…The thing that really got me interested in Indian Music, rather than feeling that it was some sort of meditation tool, was the band, Shakti – (John McLaughlin (guitar), L. Shankar (violin), percussionists Zakir Hussain (tabla) and T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram (Ghatam) – live at Kennedy Center Washington D.C. I went out and bought my first set of tablas. Then I got the feeling, I got to study this! 

IC: America is “free”, but you’ve said that Indians are also free to follow their own intuition… 

TR: When I wrote my articles, people always said, oh you know the traditions never change, and people would say that’s the problem with India, that they need to be able to change their traditions. But every time I actually studied somebody who supposedly was preserving the tradition, they were always changing it! There was nobody who was just doing it the same way. You do go through this kind of training but then you always have to go through a period of throwing it off. I interviewed and did research on dozens maybe hundreds of artists when I was with India Currents; there was never anybody who wasn’t changing the tradition. They would preserve it but they would change it at the same time! Trying to operate without rules, I think it’s a real problem but having rules, recognizing that sometimes rules can be broken is a really important characteristic. Letting your intuition be more important than rules – I see that in Indians time and time again.  


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.

An Inauguration That Awoke My Ancestors

(Featured Image: Screenshot from CNBC coverage of the 2021 Inauguration)

I was pouring my coffee and almost spilled it when I heard Senator Amy Klobuchar’s words, “Our first African American, our first Asian American, our first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris” waft from my TV. As nonchalantly as I had been watching the inauguration, that moment – those words violently ran through my body, as though all my ancestors were asking me to listen. 

Kamala Devi Harris.

I was happy to hear of the Democratic shift in our Executive and Legislative branches of government and had voted accordingly, yet I remained skeptical. Skeptical if the words matched the vision. 

I accepted Vice President Kamala Harris as a person of color, but I’m not sure why, I hadn’t rationalized the identities she presented. Her Indian-American identity was one she had disengaged from early in her career, rightfully so, only to reach out conveniently when she needed votes. I still voted for her, advocated for her. Not because of her Indian heritage but because of her qualifications, her recent policies, her passion, her willingness to adapt, change, and grow. She was a powerhouse and deserved a position that matched her abilities. This was the narrative I spun for myself and others. 

But…it wasn’t until those words were uttered at the inauguration that I felt myself shudder. Shudder in disbelief. Shudder at the significance. Shudder at the thought of my connection to her.

A Lotus Goddess. 

And there she was…like Lakshmi Devi, ready to sit upon her throne. Her purple garments, vibrant like the purple lotus. Rooted in America in the most American way – a child of immigrants from two spaces and places. I could not will that away and neither could she. 

For so long, I denied seeing myself in Kamala in the interest of seeming impartial; to not be criticized for voting based on resemblance. I cannot deny it any longer. Our Vice President, Kamala Devi Harris is an Indian-American and I love her for it. I love myself for it. She will be a part of my history and I, hers.


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

Cambodian, Odissi, Jazz Artists

Ancient Contemporary: Odissi, Jazz, & Cambodian Classical

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. 

“Children are taught racism. Children are taught diversity. They don’t see it; they only see human. Two words: education and exposure. What are children educated about and what are they exposed to?” Coleen Lorenz, artistic director of New Ground Theater asked, and went on to affirm that she loves the Arts because they are the symbol of universal being-ness, of who we are at birth

This was part of the conversation when Coleen; Niharika Mohanty, artistic director of Guru Shradha Dance; Charya Burt, classical Cambodian dancer and teacher; and I met for the sixth episode, Ancient Contemporary, of Mosaic Connect, an online series designed to explore our common humanity through the performing arts. 

The episode aired when the country was in the grip of civil unrest. Shelter-in-Place had, on the one hand, unified us, on the other hand, protests against police brutality seemed to have uncovered a series of deep fractures among us…and within us. All of us, it seemed, were questioning our identity and purpose. More importantly, we all seemed to be looking at ourselves and each other with new eyes, asking ourselves the question – Where do I belong?

Some were looking to rediscover or reclaim their identity and some were challenging their neighbor’s very right to be included as Americans.

Programming at Mosaic Silicon Valley addresses this issue: how to move multicultural American communities from diversity and inclusion to belonging. We highlight the common roots or representations of any two artforms, such as in Ancient Contemporary, which mediated a course between Odissi and Modern Contemporary one the one side; Odissi and Classical Cambodian on the other. This was done deliberately, to create awareness about our common humanity and celebrate our beautifully rich traditions. Thus, the online episode showcased each style and artist, as well as their collaborations and was followed by discussion.

Mosaic Fellow, Charya emphasizes in Ancient Contemporary, “Arts can provide a model that is inclusive. For culture based artists like us, Arts can provide us with dignity, cultural identity, and pride to those in the community.” 

That pride is the basis of our collaborations. In contrast to the “Melting Pot” model, we welcome artists as they are, to build bridges organically, through discovery and connections.

Niharika was wondrous of the fluidity of vocabulary in the Jazz Contemporary style.

Coleen was impressed by the level of complexity incorporated in Odissi dance.

Charya was amazed at the similarities that her artform and Odissi had, to temple sculpture and mythology.

Clips from both explorations are included in Ancient ContemporaryLet us explore our identity and shared futures through the arts practiced in America today. Let diversity not be relegated to the label “ethnic” which by its very definition, excludes. Instead, let’s come together and include one another in this wonderful American mosaic. Let us be unafraid to express ourselves truly, in order that we may fully Belong. To sum up in Niharika’s words, “There is an ultimate truth. We are One. We stem from the same roots. Arts are more than ever, an expression of who we are.” 

Watch it all come together in the video below!

Follow the Mosaic movement here!


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.

Two States of America

To borrow from the vast vocabulary of my favorite Democrat – shellacking – that’s what the Republican’s delivered to the Democrats. No, dethroning Trump was not a victory, it was merely a natural phenomenon like a volcano that ran out of lava. But folks, please don’t rest on your temporary laurels, for we know there is plenty of red livid magma, seventy-two million to be precise, that is still boiling within and can spurt again. In this brief respite, the need of the hour is a cooling President, and looks like what we have picked is the best bet from the pack we were dealt.

We, the marginal majority, have to wake up to the stark fact that nearly half of our countrymen really want the guy to continue to do/not do whatever the blighter was doing/not doing for the past four years. I know, I know, the normal human reaction is – What the hell?

To stay away from profanity let’s resort to Shakespeare to express the same sentiment.

O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down.

Although Mark Antony laments in a different context, we can relate to the feeling of being let down en masse. How could they, Why are they, Can’t they see, similar-sounding questions keep reverberating at our dining tables. This tug-of-war has been going on for too long and the strands in our social fiber are tearing apart and hurting both sides. Need a full stop.

Honestly, I must confess there are some valid points that the Red party is fueled by and the Blue side is too pacific about. What our Master Conman did is make the right sounds like a Pied Piper and the meek and easily swayed crowd followed.

The man is gone but the void is still out there, unfulfilled – call it the elephant in the room. Terms like “We are better than this, E Pluribus Unum, Soul of the nation and other lofty tenets will not fly at this advanced stage of our malady. This is crunch time, we need to address it head-on and pay heed to our brethren. It’s like the Parable of the Lost Sheep but this time it’s a whole darn flock.

There is a story that emerged after the Holy Mosque in Mecca was occupied for a fortnight by Muslim fundamentalists in 1979, an incident that killed hundreds. It goes like this: to the total shock of the government officials, King Khalid invited to his palace the leaders behind the attack and he had only one question for them: What the heck do you want? Apparently, the Wahabi leaders complained the Saudis were losing their original values by embracing western culture and their own traditional way of life was becoming endangered. The King partially agreed and that’s how he started to implement stricter Shariah laws, so it goes.

Biden could do a diet version of King Khalid’s chess move by inviting to the White House all the so-called good people on the other side too and listen to them. Maybe bring Michael Moore as a mediator as some of his school buddies are White Militia and friendly with him. Must rope in AOC, Taliba, Omar, and their ilk, for them to hear firsthand the fears and demands of those on the other side of the fence. Being heard is half the remedy.

Speakers Common by Axel Mauruszat (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Down the road, we should consider what the British have – Speakers Corner. Every Sunday morning at the north-eastern edge of Hyde Park in London men and women from different persuasions show up with their soapboxes. Anyone can speak at any decibel, discharge their bile, vent their anger and grievances in reckless abandon. The English abuse Indians, the Indians scream about Pakis and vice versa, the Irish thrash the English, the Africans go after all of Europe, the Arabs shower epithets at the Israelis, and on and on goes the fireworks of unbridled cursing. By early afternoon they all then return to their humble abodes, spent and serene.

When I first experienced this phenomenon, fearfully worried violence would erupt any moment, I asked a British Bobby, who was carrying no firearms, why they even allow this. He answered wryly – had it since 1872, this is British democracy, my son. If we could import that from England and practice it in our parks we won’t need them rallies people rush to for release.

I think Albert Camus was the one who said the root cause of all evil is ignorance. There is an even worse strain, being misinformed. It’s amazing that over the years with technological advances we can say it will rain tomorrow at 10:00 AM and surely there will be a downpour. Also amazing is that over several centuries mankind’s basic qualities remain unchanged: lust for power, jealousy, desire for revenge, territorial ambitions, and then there is this tendency to blindly latch on like a leech to what we inherently like to hear. Why some watch FOX only or follow a certain Tweeter only: Muslims are bad for the safety of our country, Mexicans are all thugs, China should be punished and put out of business, Lock her up, Gays should be thrown out of the armed forces, tell your governors to open the economy and get your jobs back. This is like Manna from heaven for the multitudes as these are the exact simplistic solutions they talk in their living rooms. This is the biggest challenge with democracy – the majority of the electorate is naive and so can be led astray, like that colorfully dressed chap with a tweeting pipe from the Middle Ages.

It must be noted in passing that in Australia there is a grassroots movement to curtail the dominance of Rupert Murdoch’s media monopoly – in some cities 100% of the newspapers are owned by the feller. Citizens are demanding they don’t want to be brainwashed like the Americans. Let’s try a metaphor here. Say we neglected our normally beautiful lawn for too long and now it has become infected with all kinds of weeds, some as dangerous as poison ivy. But thankfully we have Roundup that can kill them all and bring back the lush green grass back – green moola. 

We all know it’s high time the country invested in revamping our infrastructure, but even more, screaming urgent at this juncture is the multitude of jobs that must be quickly regained. We need to get carpet-bombed with all forms of low-tech work opportunities – road construction, bridges, Wind Mills, Solar, or whatever, so that none of us have idle time for the misinforming devils to use our minds as their workshop. Even the most gullible ones at the extreme virulent end of the right-wing arc, when they are earning say 40K or 50K, will be stone deaf to any dog whistles. So, like the topless Cuba Gooding Jr. says in that Cruise movie: El Presidente, show me the money, the moni, the monii………..

To borrow my favorite Republican’s expression, “fervently we pray and fondly we hope” that Joe will deliver in good time.


Jayant Kamicheril was born in East Africa and did his schooling in Kumarakom, Kerala. For the past 22 years, he has been working in technical sales for the food industry and lives in Reading, PA. 

Nostalgia and Other Maladies

It has been two thousand eighty-eight days since I entered a classroom full of expectant faces waiting for me. I am a teacher, or previously, was! On a chilly December night, in 2014, I bade my best friends adieu at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, to embark on a journey that would change my life. Looking back at the foggy landscape of the city I loved, one last time, I boarded the plane with my seven-year-old daughter and four juggernaut suitcases stuffed with an abbreviated version of my life in India. Twenty-eight hours later, I landed in Lincoln, Nebraska, where a golden sunset reminiscent of an HD wallpaper greeted me. I shook my exhausted daughter out of sleep, thanked the onboard staff, and got off the plane, to start a life in a city at the other end of everything and everyone I knew.

It has been almost six years, since, and in all fairness, I have fallen in love with this country. I have grown to love the “honestly, it’s not for everyone” state of Nebraska. The humble midwestern city with its warm welcoming people, hot, dazzling summers, and bitterly cold, snowy winters, sneaked its way slowly into my heart. Miles upon miles of trails running through the city became my source of sustenance. I love walking! Being raised in a small town in West Bengal by the river Bhagirathi, I grew up walking miles every other evening, along its banks, with my father, listening to him talk about the rich ancient history of Bengal, embroidered with betrayal, bloodshed, and glory! It went on to become an unshakable habit that stayed with me! 

Trails running through Lincoln, Nebraska (Image by Saswati Sen)

Life moves slowly for the wife of a research scholar. It gave me ample time to appreciate the innumerable moments suspended in sunlight, the incredible, intricately shaped snowflakes that stuck to my windowpanes, the unbelievable double rainbow that unfolded in front of my eyes during a walk one evening after a thundershower!.

I wholeheartedly jumped into the new role of a stay-at-home mom and wife! I read voraciously, baked cakes, planned my daughter’s Halloween outfits, listened to my husband’s research goals, cooked specialty Indian dishes for the Department parties. But from the nooks and crannies of my new life, peeped my old one! Assignments, worksheets, Shakespeare, Joyce, and Conrad struggled for predominance in my leisure-languished mind. I woke up in the middle of the night, one day, worried about my next day’s lecture, only to realize that there were no classes to teach… 

I remember one of my favorite Professors talking about roots, how it spreads inside us without warning. We all carry bits and pieces of our childhood, our culture, our beliefs, and practices deep inside us. We realize this only when we migrate.

It is when an atheist’s heart skips a beat watching a video of “Dhaaker badyi” on a forgotten Ashtami evening. It is when you wish that the tall grass of the prairies were “Kaashphul”. Or when you suddenly desperately crave “phuchka” after a particularly heavy grocery run. Or when you run out in the rain, out of years of habit, only to run back inside shivering, realizing its Fall and you are in Nebraska!

A year ago, we moved to the East Coast. It has been a ‘sea’ change of surroundings. Today, I miss Lincoln like I miss India. I miss walking along the trails, waking up to tornado sirens going crazy, or snow days. I miss the old lady on the trail who had the kindest smile in the world. I miss the fragrance of chlorine and sunscreen as I lay lazily by the pool watching my daughter race her father to the deep end. I still miss teaching like an amputee misses a body part. The pain is gone, but the emptiness persists.

Nostalgia is an uninvited guest! It has a peculiar habit of finding out where you live and turning up there. As you adapt, your roots grow wings. The context changes, the music shifts to different chords, but the longing remains. You pine for different things. The subjects change, the needs change, but the ache remains constant.


Saswati Sen is a former English teacher, an avid animal lover, a food enthusiast, who runs on coffee and long walks on the beach or on the trails. When she is not holed up in her den, writing or reading, she always looks for an excuse to travel to quaint little towns with her husband and daughter to sample the local food, art, and music scene.

Bra or No Bra, That Is the Question

No single event in history has disrupted our lives as has COVID-19. Maybe, the two world wars had a far more disastrous effect on our psyche, but the arrival of Coronavirus forced us to adopt new ways of living by isolating ourselves in the closed confines of our homes. 

The first few days of the lockdown/SIP, globally, we witnessed a burst of creative activity with people entering kitchens to prepare delicious dishes, trying their hands at baking cakes, experimenting with Dalgona coffee, painting, sketching, Instagramming, and whatnot.

But soon we started to see its spillover effects. Long hours of Zoom calls, webinars, and increased household chores. And amidst all these developments, a ‘liberating’ thing happened: more and women discarded their bras in the comfort of their homes away from prying eyes. 

On July 6, Geeta Pandey, a BBC journalist based in New Delhi, posted an article on the death of the bra to which I replied saying, “I like the bra. (It) makes me feel more like a woman.”

What’s in a bra?

Why did I say that?

I go braless only when I sleep or throughout the day the very thought of my boobs hanging about without any kind of support is too much to bear. I do not feel comfortable and to add to my woes, there’s a man staying next door and a couple of men living in the building opposite mine. Yet, sometimes I sneak out braless in the dead of the night to enter my kitchen for a cup of coffee.

For me, the bra doesn’t only mean a basic necessity to wear under your clothes. It is part of lingerie after all; something sexy, sensual, and unique. I remember once when discussing a colleague’s wedding plans, someone commented that lingerie shopping was the first thing she bought after her wedding was fixed. 

Back in my school days in India, I used to accompany my mother when I needed to buy bras. She only got me the basic white and skin-colored ones. Malls didn’t exist then and the shopkeeper used to take a cursory look and bring whatever size he thought would fit me without even bothering to ask my size. My mother used to quickly hide the packets in her shopping bag and that was it. It was never ever enjoyable. “It doesn’t matter what you wear. No one sees the bra,” was all she would say. I couldn’t even dare reply that a boyfriend very much sees the bra. Thank God I didn’t have a boyfriend then.

When malls started popping up, I began to enjoy bra shopping. Most places let you try them on and for the first time, I learned basic things about the exact cup size, fit, purpose, and the need to find the right bra for sportswear, sarees, dresses, and so on. 

Buying bras has made me feel so liberated that now, I cannot think of going without them or ditching them. They are my best friends and given me many moments of pleasure. Once in the middle of the night, my roommate and I started a discussion on bras after she came back from a late shopping spree with a bag full of lingerie. Surely, this is a liberating moment with no sense of shame or hesitation about one of the most basic things in a woman’s life.

In the Bollywood movie Queen, there is a scene when Lisa Haydon takes off her bra and places it over Kangana Ranaut’s head. It reminded me of the bra-burning movement where bras were featured as an oppressive element to a women’s life. 

My Instagram profile mentions me as a journalist, bibliophile, and feminist. Going without a bra doesn’t seem like liberation to me. For me, real freedom would be able to walk down the streets any time of the day without being harassed or ogled at. For me, real freedom would be to see the end of crimes like rapes, dowry deaths, and workplace harassment against women.

Bra or no bra? Maybe that isn’t the question…


Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.

American Dystopia

In 1980, I read Ayn Rand’s novel, Anthem, and was struck. What a great concept: the discovery that ‘we’ was actually ‘I’, and that ‘I’ was all-important. My 20-year old self, yearning to be independent but not really knowing how, found it very alluring. But fast-forwarding 40 years, ‘I’…and I … no longer look so attractive.

Rand’s perspective seemed impressive many decades ago when it was written in reaction to communism and the USSR (where she lived the first twenty years of her life), and when the value of individualism was working to propel the US forward. However, now, taken to an extreme, that same individualism is outdated and is bringing America to its knees, both on a personal level and on a national level.

On a personal level, we have long enjoyed Hollywood’s long-running love affair with the lonely hero and visualizing ourselves as one. I don’t know about you, but advertisements have repeatedly told me that I’m worth it. Whitney Houston’s song, The Greatest Love of All struck such a chord with us because we were already in love with ourselves. And lately, a plethora of ‘I’ technologies (including hardware like mobile phones and software like Facebook) has allowed us not only to express our self-love but also to create our own silos of information. Somewhere along the line, we transitioned from a me-first society to a me-only society. We now see ourselves as individually all-powerful, invincible even, and feel we should be able to solve every problem alone. We’re in an echo chamber of one.

On a national level, capitalism – practiced in an unchecked manner and without socialist protections – has proved to be an exemplary ‘I’ concept, resulting in a growing and destructive social inequality. Strangely, this seems acceptable to many. In international relations, the US has become more isolated by pulling back from several collaborative agreements (e.g., the Iran Deal), joint ventures (e.g., Paris Climate Accord), and cooperative institutions (e.g., UNHRC, UNESCO). American culture and media have glorified the individual to such an extent that ‘we’ and concern for the group at large is thought of as weak and wimpy.

This unquestioning belief in the singular power of the ‘I’ can be delusional, leading to a vast number and array of psychological, social, national, and global problems.

Having drunk the Koolaid for the past 40 years, I do not want to be bothered to wear a mask or social distance or indeed in the future take a vaccine because ‘I’ am invincible. And I certainly don’t want to do it to save the lives of others because ‘I’ am most important. My right to carry guns not only makes me look super cool but also supersedes your right to live. If pushed, I may empathize with those of my country people who vote like me and look like me. I may extend that to those who pray like me because after all, I have God on my side. Since I am the ultimate, I do not want others around who are different: read, inferior. And while I’m at it, I do not wish to vacate the White House if I lose the election because rules do not apply to me. The individual uber allies.

And what do I care about what is happening over the border or across the ocean? I’m not there.

Eighty years ago when Rand wrote Anthem, she saw the world of ‘we’ as dystopian. Today, our world of ‘I’ is dystopian. Different perspectives are appropriate and indeed necessary at different times. We need to swing the pendulum away from the extreme ‘I’ and back towards a bit of ‘we’, and we need to do it now. It requires a difficult and fundamental shift. Fortunately, as ‘I’s, we have agency. We can act to move ourselves and our society towards ‘we’ by focusing on shared values and building a foundation of shared information.

Covid-19 could be just the first test to see if we can do that. And so far, given over 200,000 dead, the US seems to be failing it. In addition, there are many global issues looming on the horizon – like mass migrations, pandemics, and climate change – that desperately need a ‘we’ perspective and approach if we are to survive.

As I grew older, I realized the importance, the strength, and the necessity of ‘we’: family, friends, the local community, and the global network. It’s time that America grew up too.


 Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer, editor, and commentator. She divides her time, energy, and passion between North America and Asia.

Ragas Live Festival: 24 Hours of Global Resonance

Ragas Live Festival has grown to become a vital element in the cultural landscape of New York City. Since its inception in 2012 when 50 musicians volunteered to create an FM-Broadcast at WKCR 89.9 FM-NY with the theme of “Community, Unity, and Harmony,” the festival has expanded to become a popular live event at locations including The Rubin Museum of Art and for the last few years, Pioneer Works.  

As the initial broadcast blossomed into an annual event, it attracted global attention, expanded the audience of Indian music, and documented and catalyzed what the New York Times would declare a “A Raga Renaissance Flowering in Brooklyn.” Now, Ragas Live has transformed that renaissance into one of the live music industry’s rare COVID-era success stories, managing to bring together over 90 musicians, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the mountains of Kathmandu, to perform remotely from 13 global cities in a celebration of ‘Community, Unity, and Harmony’. 

There’ll be cutting edge cross-cultural performances: Terry Riley will be performing raga based improvisations from Japan preceded by Brooklyn Raga Massive who will be premiering a 24 person performance of In D their homage to Riley.  Amir ElSaffar will be collaborating with the Brooklyn Raga Massive as well with Raga Maqam a 14 piece ensemble that explores the intersections between maqam, the tonal language of Arab, Turkish, and Persian traditional music, and raga, the classical music of the Indian subcontinent. Andy Statman, the legend of klezmer and bluegrass will be exploring both Jewish doinas and ragas from the 200-year-old synagogue B’nai Jeshurun.  Zakir Hussain will perform a tabla solo from San Francisco, Toumani Diabate will perform kora from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo will perform in El Clavo, Venezuela.

Founder and Executive Producer of Ragas Live Festival, David Ellenbogen says, “This has always been a festival with a pan-global vision. This year that dream is fully being realized.  We’ll have artists and listeners from every continent. We reached out to many of our heroes and to our astonishment, they all said yes.  These are the people that have changed the history of music. The artists felt a kinship with our idealistic vision and we are all working together to make it happen. We’ll have both artists and audiences all around the world: it will be 24 hours of global resonance.” 

Says the festival’s Artistic Director Arun Ramamurthy, “These legendary musicians are the torchbearers of their traditions who have brought their music forward. To have them all participating is so inspiring.”

“I love Indian music, I love Indian culture, I’m doing this because I think it’s a beautiful idea and I want to share life and music,” says Toumani Diabate, the legendary Kora player, who will perform a set from Côte d’Ivoire.

The entire event will be available free on November 21-22nd from 7pm-7pm to all as a video livestream at www.pioneerworks.org/broadcast and on broadcast as audio on WKCR-FM 89.9 FM.


 

A Confession: Unbiased Bias

This is a confession.

I have always considered myself an empathetic chap, fully able to understand other people’s points of view. And believed in their freedom to voice them, however radically different or downright stupid they may be, till Mr. Trump showed up. Took maybe a year or two for this thing to bloom by watching my designated TV Channels, till I got infected with this new bug of intolerance – if Chacko is a supporter of Trump, I don’t want to have anything to do with Chacko.

I practiced this for some time till out of the blue the unthinkable happened – some of the folks I deeply respected emerged as T-supporters. My policy of shunning T-people came to a screeching halt and I called for an emergency top brass internal review of this tricky matter. We met in our basement bar, Tomatin on-the-rocks, and me.

While deliberating on the why, how, how come, etc. an old Hindi song dropped by:

Ye, kyaa hua, Kaisay hua
Kab hua, Kyon hua

After a while, my innards started to get attacked by a gnawing doubt – maybe I am wrong. I mean, these are really good people, who genuinely help their fellow beings, and some of them I even try to emulate. How can they be right and I be wrong in a matter that is as clear as black and white. Purely accident, I mean the pun. Drove me to think maybe am missing something and so our session ended with no conclusive findings but decided to keep collecting more perspectives.

The revelation came during a weekend when my Mother-in-Law was visiting us. I was at the kitchen island in the company of the ladies, gingerly cutting ladies-finger lengthwise and overhearing the mother-daughter banter. My wife was asking her something about a ménage-a-trois involving Indra, Ahalya, and Gauthama and the clarification Amma was giving was too complicated for me to digest, but her rejoinder at the end of explaining was a no-brainer – “Anita, these stories in our epics are not just to enjoy their story value, these have lessons we can use in our lives.” My flickering mental tube light suddenly stood still, shining its full 100 Wattage.

I think it was a Zen Buddhist who said, When a man cutting wood gets enlightenment, he continues to cut wood. I continued to cut the green
vegetables but my mind was on Drona, Bhishma, and Karna. All noble characters and stayed so till the end, in the eyes of Vyasa. And this is in spite of staying on the dark side with the Kauravas, for whatever pre-existing conditions, to borrow the popular medical parlance. And we all look up to them as good souls.

That’s when I realized the embarrassing shift that had happened in my neurons over the past few years. Like in the Crusades period in Europe, I came to embrace the mantra “if you are not with me, you are against me.” I wonder what happened to my favorite Henry R. Luce’s journalistic principle, “I will write against my opponents, but I will willingly die fighting for their right to voice their opinion.”

My opinion about Mr. T remains the same and I will continue on the side of the Pandavas, fighting for the soul of the country. But the dismal thoughts I had about my near and dear supporting the wrong guy have been resolved and I feel relieved now, having circled back to my normal self – able to stand in the opposing teams camp and sympathize with them. When close friends and colleagues that I look up to are supporting Big T, they are merely taking a political stand. Me and those folks – we still share the same long term values, only our opinions differ and as we all know, by the grace of God, opinions are not unbreakable, they are always reversible.


Jayant Kamicheril was born in East Africa and did his schooling in Kumarakom, Kerala. For the past 22 years, he has been working in technical sales for the food industry and lives in Reading, PA. 

A Moment Like No Other

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of India Currents and India Currents does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

On an October day, around the time I turned 59, I’m voting as if my life in my adoptive nation depends on it. At no point in my life in these United States have I felt more insecure or more irrelevant. I feel like the phalanx of coronavirus striving to live inside the body of America’s 45th President. It wants to stay but the environment is toxic.

The insecurity I feel has resounded around the globe in a year unlike any other in recent history: Pestilence, fires, death, fear, unemployment, grief and loneliness, all, in 2020 marked by miles of gravestones. For the privileged among us, this year was a reminder of how fortunate we were that we could work from the comfort of our homes. For each of us, at every rung of the US electorate, this year has been a watershed year proving why we must care a great deal about the people we elect to govern us.

I became eligible to vote in July 2011 upon becoming a naturalized citizen twenty-four years after I arrived in the United States. My husband and I delayed becoming citizens until citizenship became a practical need. We left one democracy for another in search of name and fame but we didn’t entirely commit to our adoptive country either. This lack of early investment in the place that had nurtured us became more apparent to me in January 2017 when America became Play-Doh in the hands of an immature, bigoted human. 

Reading author Vijay Prashad’s Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today made me reckon with some of my stances. While visiting his relatives in Northern California, Prashad observed how educated Indian-American professionals in their vast, comfortable homes did not care to be engaged in the political process in any serious way. He reasoned that it was because they had never had to fight for their survival. The fight for independence in India had been fought by the previous generation. In their adoptive nation, too, Prashad pointed out, it was the doggedness of the African American community that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Well before that, African Americans and other minorities had also fought for fairness in employment which led to their employment in companies engaged in work for World War II. 

The Indians who arrived here in the United States after 1965 were thus doubly privileged; we had benefited from our parents’ fight in our native shores and enjoyed the privilege of the black man’s fight in our adoptive country. The only real struggle faced by Indian-Americans, as we rose up the ranks of corporate America, was to secure our foothold in America’s meritocracy. During our climb up, successful Indian-Americans did not think to question why some segments of American society never crossed our path; we shrugged it off observing that some people did not work hard enough or were not smart enough. A 2017 Pew Research report showed how the household income of Indian-Americans ($100,000) was a lot higher than the median annual household income of households headed by Asian Americans ($73,060). While Indian-Americans and their families—4.5 million, according to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI)—had done better, had we consistently sought to make America a better place for others? Hadn’t we become part of the systemic racism now endemic to our nation?

In late September, I was startled to read a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times. The paper was contrite about how, over its 140-year history, it had frequently been insensitive and racist in its coverage stating its support of Japanese internment, its denigration of Latinos as “marauders” and its tacit nod to white supremacy. It listed all the instances when it could have been fairer. One of the obvious ways was to hire people who represented, fairly, the demographics of the area it served. 

While reading it, I wondered about individual responsibility in nation-building. Indian-Americans had gloated over our successes never questioning why a cross-section of the American population suffered injustices even as we thrived. When my son was in high school in Saratoga, he wondered why there was only one African American kid in his graduating class. I was taken aback, too, but I didn’t really think about this any more than I needed to. Here was my moment to ponder and to question the demographics of my community. Thus I too was complicit. 

The time has come for successful immigrant communities like mine to admit that we rode on the coattails of others who fought for fair employment practices and equal rights that led, ultimately, to the immigration act of 1965. 2020 has offered us a rare glimpse into our common humanity. Let us commit to the common cause of building a fairer nation. Let us begin by voting for a qualified compassionate leader.


Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga, CA. She is the author of two books, Daddykins: A Memoir of My Father and I, and An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local.