The Author’s life is revealed in poetic, cinematic, emotional imagery, as she tries to make sense of her extraordinary childhood split across five thousand miles of the Indian Ocean. Conceived in the womb of the Himalayas, born in sunny, untamed heart of Kenya in Africa, she is nurtured to spiritual and intellectual growth by the ancient thoughts and cultures of India and Africa. Family and community nourish her. In Kenya she discovers a freedom with no confines. Wild animals excite her heart with fear, fascination! Sleeping or picnicking with lions, with elephants; travelling on long trips, by Lorries, or on foot – children carried in baskets on African porters’ shoulders in the company of parents in lounging ‘Palanquins’ for three weeks, through flooded rivers’ banks!
Through Medical Doctor’s missionary zeal to heal the poor in northern frontier in Kenya; their daring quest to access their daughters’ education in India becomes the catalyst for the unique journey of a five years old Usha’s life.
Soon Second World War breaks out, splitting her childhood across deep waters. The world-wide turbulence has a rippling effect on the life of a small child. In 1942, a passenger ship in the Indian Ocean was bombed by the Japanese. No more ships plied the route. The separated families could not meet their loved ones. Or receive letters! Time stood still. Her loving mother, gentle, strong father lived in her dreamland only.
In a Haven of Peace and Tranquility in the Boarding School at the foothills of the Himalayas in India, in a Gurukul Nature is a school and a playground, she begins her life of a spiritual and psychological well-being by Yoga, Meditation; is nurtured by the ancient rhythms, and a stillness when life is lived at an organic level and given a feel of overall well-being and contentment.
After a separation of ten years, she had to make fresh acquaintance with her parents. In Little India in Kenya, a new bond is forged! This amazing life of Rediscovery – is challenging, but life-affirming! The Homecoming is a poignantly emotional experience, both for parents and the child.
For 25 years, Teed Rockwell wrote a monthly column for India Currents magazine on all aspects of Indian music, ancient and modern, classical and popular. His goal was to be an ambassador for Indian music, as Leonard Bernstein had been for European music, aspiring to make it comprehensible and enjoyable to everyone.
This book is a collection of Rockwell’s best columns, grouped by subject matter, with additional commentary written especially for this book.
The first chapter is devoted to the Allauddin Khan Gharana, which includes Ali Akbar Khan, his sons Alam and Aashish, as well as Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka Shankar.
There are articles on Classical Indian musical styles, such as Dhrupad, Thumri, and Qawwali, as well as introductions to Indian music theory that could be used in college or high school courses. There are chapters on Indian folk and contemporary music, from Bollywood, to Bhangra, to the world fusion music that arises when cultures collide. And there is a chapter on the complicated relationship between music and Islam.
The book’s recurring theme is that India, like America, is a country that 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.
The essential difference between the two cultures is that Americans demand freedom from rules, and India is a country with lots of rules—that everybody breaks. Indians praise obedience to tradition, but when push comes to shove, it is always the inner voice of intuition that wins out—an intuition that, at its best, inspires each individual to preserve the essence of the tradition as he or she changes it.
“I had the pleasure to edit Teed’s music column every month. As someone who knew little about Indian Classical Music, I enjoyed learning something new every month – Kirtans East and West, Who owns Bhangra, along with profiles of Hindustani and Carnatic music leaders, and so much more. “The Cowboy and the Yogi” promises to be a delightful read.” – Vandana Kumar, Publisher of India Currents
Teed Rockwell took hundreds of classes with Ali Akbar Khan, Shahid Parvez, and other great Indian classical musicians, He is philosophy lecturer emeritus at Sonoma State University, and his writings on the philosophy of cognitive science have been published by MIT press, and in numerous academic journals. He is the only person in the world to play Indian classical and popular music on an instrument he calls the touchstyle Veena. His music videos can be found at www.bollywoodgharana.com
I started writing this book nearly ten years ago. I was in the middle of a stressful divorce, raising three kids under the age of five, and I had returned to grad school for a career change from lawyer to English professor. By the Indian standards and expectations I’d grown up with, I felt like an utter failure.
Every morning I forced myself out of bed before my children woke up and wrote at my kitchen table, accompanied by a hot cup of coffee and the familiar scent of the temple incense my father brought back from India. I wanted to write a story that addressed colonialism and other systems of power, and when I found a footnote mentioning a 17th-century picture bride policy of the Dutch East India Company, I couldn’t resist the pull of exploration. I shelved my fear of failure and the persistent feelings of inadequacy that often plague the immigrant offspring navigating community expectations. I plowed on.
I read hundreds of articles. Studied maps. Perused books about 17th-century Dutch furniture, glass bead factories, shipping routes, forest glass blowers, and illnesses of the time. I traveled to Amsterdam, spending hours at the Rijksmuseum examining the furniture collection and still life paintings. I took a boat trip through Amsterdam’s canals and pretended to be my main character, impoverished, hungry Jana, trudging down the city’s narrow, meandering streets hundreds of years ago.
At times, I thought, “How can I, an Indian-American woman in the 21st century, know anything about a 17th-century Dutch woman?”
And then I remembered the books of my childhood, written by white authors who occasionally populated their books with Indian characters, mere props for white narratives. I wanted to know about these peripheral characters, to hear about their lives, their stories.
In writing The Company Daughters, I hoped to give my main character the complexity and humanity I often saw lacking in representations of Indian characters in books and on TV during my childhood. I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of white savior narratives while providing a glimpse into the colonial world and its hierarchies—structures of power that persist today.
And in connecting with people from other time periods, other cultures, other languages, I found shared humanity uniting us across centuries. Common desires for justice, love, freedom, and understanding that persist now. In my efforts to render a 17th-century Dutch woman sent across the world to marry a stranger, I began to recognize my own desire for agency, freedom, and a new life.
I wish I could say that from that point on all went smoothly, but that is the fantasy of every writer, and the reality is much, much messier. Many people told me to give up on this dream. I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t know anything about writing a book or getting an agent. But I loved reading, an act which provided comfort whenever I felt lonely or alienated. And the characters kept “talking” to me. And I kept listening.
Writing saved me. The steadiness of my characters’ voices in my mind alleviated the crushing loneliness of single parenthood. When I could not share my daughter’s newest milestones with anyone, I recorded them in scenes of my book (later excised). And when I was without my children, the insistence of my characters’ stories gave me purpose even as my heart ached with each separation.
Change can be incremental, and other times change comes on like a monsoon—heavy and relentless. In my author’s journey, I had a mix of both. I had the encouragement of my Creative Writing instructor at Stanford, and I had friends and family, worried by the potential for disappointment, who advised me not to get my hopes up, to consign writing to a weekend hobby.
As an Indian-American writer, I was often conflicted with the requirements of my culture and the desires of my hidden self. Shouldn’t I use my time more productively? Shouldn’t I focus on activities with an assured financial return? Was I being a responsible mother?
But that’s not what writers do. We pursue the impractical, the impossible, the incredible, in spite of—perhaps because of—our ongoing dance with self-doubt, inadequacy, and fear. We ferret away moments for writing like squirrels stuffing acorns into knotholes. Waking before the sunrise to write, writing in our cars, committing lines to memory while waiting in checkout queues, eking out moments for creativity from the myriad of mindless routines that comprise a life. Describe the smile on that woman’s face. Observe the shape of that shadow.
In the end, the “monsoon” of my writing career was being selected as a Pitch Wars mentee. I landed my agent soon after and was offered my book deal another year after that.
A book deal sounds so easy when the journey is reduced to a few hundred words. It was anything but. My debut novel is about a young woman hungry for life, love, justice, freedom, and reprieve, as I was. But it was a long journey, with starts and fits, highs and lows–as it should be. Writing is an act of transposition. When we are writing, we are writing our lives onto the page in some way or another. Every paragraph and chapter deleted, expanded, revised, and revised again promises a transformation in our characters. But those same moments open us up to the possibility of transformation in our own lives as well. That process is what made me a writer, and brought me to myself.
Samantha Rajaram is a former attorney, solo mother of three, and English professor in the Bay Area. Her debut novel, The Company Daughters will be published in the US and UK this October.
Spending too much time in reality? Come escape with one of the most popular and talented storytellers of our time – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Divakaruni is the author of over 18 books, including Mistress of Spices, which was the 2009 pick for One Book One Community: San Mateo County Reads, and the bestselling The Palace of Illusions. She is considered one of the Twenty Most Influential Global Indian Women and oftentimes writes about the Indian experience, contemporary America, women, immigration, history, myth, family, and the joys and challenges of living in a multicultural world.
Her new novel, The Forest of Enchantments, promises to be as exceptional as the rest of her work. It’s a retelling of Ramayana, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. The traditional Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the legendary prince of the Kosala Kingdom. Divakaruni retells the story from his wife Sita’s perspective.
Already know well the story of Rama? You won’t be disappointed by Divakaruni’s exquisite poetic prose in her retelling. Unfamiliar with the story of Rama? Divarkaruni’s exceptional storytelling will draw you in and not let you go.
Divakaruni will be in conversation with Vandana Kumar, who, as a new immigrant, co-founded India Currents magazine in 1987. Fully digital today, India Currents has the largest following among Indians in the United States.
ANIL’S GHOST by Michael Ondaatje. Alfred A. Knopf. 312 pp. $25.
Anil Tissera has many enigmatic qualities as the protagonist in Ondaatje’s first novel since The English Patient. Since my parents gave me the same first name, the most salient enigma for me was that Tissera is female while I am not. So, I went to hear Ondaatje read from the book primarily to have my question about the name answered. I need not have bothered. The explanation, an important clue to her character, is in the book. Without giving away the answer let me say that Ondaatje who emigrated from his native Sri Lanka to Canada, has come up with another clear winner, a tale of love in a time of war.
Tissera, a forensic pathologist by trade, is sent to Sri Lanka by an international agency to investigate human rights abuses. She is in many ways a sensitive female alter ego for Ondaatje himself. Both are Sri Lankan by birth; both emigrated at a young age to the West, Tissera to the U.S., Ondaatje to Canada. Tissera returns as an outsider who knows many things local intimately but is unwilling to accept all the norms and values of a culture to which she has a natural claim. Ondaatje returns as the writer researching his story and characters. He lives Anil’s naiveté and expertise, her enthusiasm and fear. To compare their experiences, one fictitious another real, is to go through a brain-warping juxtaposition of the writer and his alter ego.
The book appealed to me at different levels. Up front it is bound to invoke the themes of The English Patient. War, in this case the civil war, in Sri Lanka is the backdrop. There is love but it is all messed up with the bloody and often senseless carnage. Bombs blow up without notice. People disappear. And no one appears to be able to offer solace. In the end each is left to find one’s own peace. This is as haunting as it gets and it may be too much for some readers.
Ondaatje, born in Sri Lanka of mixed Sri Lankan and Dutch heritage, moved to Canada while still in his teens and made Toronto his home. Anil lets him go back not just physically but spiritually and in that it is a first for the author. His earlier books have had little to do with Sri Lanka. The only thing that carries over from his other books is his style. If Ondaatje’s work were music it would probably sound like jazz. Although his narrative is more accessible than the Rushdiesque flights of fantasy, his story-telling does jump scales. At his Toronto reading he confessed that his novels are seldom written from the beginning to the end. The vignette that opens the book and tells of a young Tissera searching for bones in the jungles of Guatemala came to him half way through the book. Writing, he says, is an exploration, and some of it is as much a revelation to him as it is to the character or the reader.
In The English Patient style, there are several main characters. I like this feature of Ondaatje novels. It cuts across the grain of popular mainstream culture in which Hollywood (or Bollywood for that matter) tries to pour all stories into a boy-meets-girl mould. The love interest is the main story and everything else is relegated to the background. (The wildly successful English Patientthe moviesuffered this fate by having its four main book characters reduced to two main movie characters.) There are many ghosts in Anil’s story. There is Sarath, a forty-something local anthropologist who has lost his wife through neglect and war; Gamini, the doctor and brother to Sarath, who must conduct meatball surgery in twenty-four-hour shifts and look the other way when inexplicable wounds show up at the hospital; there is Ananda the unhappy artist whose wife disappeared. Ananda, once a renowned painter of Buddha’s eyes, an honour bestowed only on a chosen few, now searches for his lost wife in the faces of the missing that he is commissioned to reconstruct. Another haunting character is the great teacher-philosopher Palipana who is part sage, part intellectual and part a power-wielding autocrat. But by the time we meet him he is near the end of his journey living in the forest with a teenaged orphaned niece. Now nearly blind, a man who never lost a showdown, is negotiating the final stages of his exit. Ondaatje lets us meet each in depth and there is a profound sense of loss when we are parted.
The plot revolves around a victim, nicknamed the Sailor, whose bones have been found and need to be identified to see if human rights abuses took place. To people familiar with the excesses of the Sri Lankan civil war, this is no cliff hanger. No big deal. Abuses are common on both sides or rather on all sides. To bring home the point, Ondaatje injects a lesson from the European holocaust that “to name Sailor is to name them all.” Thus, it is a big deal and in the end a rather heavy price is paid.
At another level, Anil’s Ghost succeeds as few other books have in telling a story set in the third world in the voice of an insider-outsider. Although English writers from South Asia have made a big splash in the last twenty-five years by winning the highest awards, few have offered new insights about South Asia in particular and the third world in general. Naipaul’s lens is, by his own admission, western in its perspective. Rushdie’s and Seth’s stories are largely about the middle class. Other writers dwell on the poverty, squalor and social injustices. Ondaatje, a writer who researches his characters and topics with the zeal of a graduate student defending a doctoral dissertation, gives us a feel for this far away place and its problems without dismissing it all as vagaries of the third world. Neither do his subjects lecture each other on how things are done in the West. Anil’s Ghost tells us about the fight for human rights at a human level. It is a masterly work that should find a prominent place on history’s bookshelves.