Tag Archives: #bayarea

Bay Area Affordable Housing Isn’t a Panacea. I Know, I Went Through the System.

“If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination …housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic in 2014. 

Knock. Knock. Knock.

“Hello, Srishti. You have time to help me?” I know who it is. Like clockwork, she came to my office every day. 

Judy, a resident at Tyrella Gardens
Judy, a resident at Tyrella Gardens.

Judy (56) was a Korean American resident in the Mountain View low-income/affordable housing building, Tyrella Gardens, where I was working as a MidPen Family Services Coordinator. 

A divorced, immigrant, single mother, and a Section 8 recipient, Judy had to navigate the bureaucratic Santa Clara County Social Services system alone. She often reached out to me for rental assistance, legal advice, tax education, resume building, or job search help, and to decipher the English legalese on official documents. 

In August of 2019, armed with Coates’ wisdom and a naive passion for justice, I ventured into a career in affordable housing. Little did I know, my clients and I were ill-equipped and set up for failure. I was just another added number to a high rate of attrition of Resource Coordinators at affordable housing facilities, and Judy’s loss of housing was collateral damage.  

When Judy tried to access resources in Santa Clara County, it often resulted in confusion, frustration, and even aggression from county employees. Judy, lost in the labyrinth of an unfamiliar language, would repeat herself and struggle to answer the litany of personal questions asked. The county employees, overwhelmed with the number of calls received, tried to get through each client quickly. 

English language fluency, dedicated time, and deference dictate the probability of a positive result.

Case Study 1: Judy frantically calls various organizations for a government-issued cell phone plan. They tell her she is ineligible. I call a few hours later and she has a phone in her hand within the week.

Case Study 2: Judy reaches out to the local church for rental assistance. They tell her she isn’t the right fit for their donation program. I reach out to the same church on her behalf and a few weeks later, after some paperwork and interviews, Judy receives rent relief. 

Affordable housing corporations build a niche market of jobs for Resource Coordinators, capitalizing on their empathy and desire for equity, to meet the demands of their municipalities. Housing instability positions 40% of Californian renters with the invariable choice of having to allocate half of their income for rent. These renters become financially vulnerable and are increasingly reliant on government-funded resources. Lip service and self-congratulatory behavior about housing policy by notable leaders calls for media attention, instead, left in the wake are the underpaid, understaffed Resource Coordinators with the onus of uplifting the disenfranchised.

“I can’t imagine you not here, Srishti. You help me so much,” Judy said to me one afternoon after searching for jobs.

Those words echoed, heavy but hollow. 

It was a laborious job. I serviced the residents at two different housing locations, independently taught and developed the after-school program for kids (many of whom had learning disabilities), created the high school program for teens, ran the farmer’s market, conducted countless engagement events, and more. To top it all off, a lot of my time was spent tediously cataloging my work on Salesforce for upper management, who seemed more concerned with the data-tracking tool than with their employees on the ground. 

Internally struggling, I went back and forth between these questions: How would my absence make Judy feel? How would my coworkers fare without my help? Was the pay worth the hours I put in? Did I feel valued by MidPen Housing? Did I feel supported by MidPen Housing? Was the job sustainable?

For many months, I was at an impasse. I couldn’t decide if I should leave Tyrella Gardens. I didn’t feel valued, I didn’t feel supported, I wasn’t paid well, and I was perpetually ill. 

The pandemic was a chaotic trigger in my life and Judy’s. I quit my job at Midpen Housing in February of 2020 and the lockdown began soon after. My immediate worry was — how would Judy fare?

Perhaps, I should have been apprehensive of my own housing situation. I was living with three roommates and three out of the four of us were without consistent sources of income. We concluded that the responsible thing would be to break the lease. 

Our property management company made it an arduous and expensive ordeal — it would cost me more to break the lease than it would be to stay. Either way, I didn’t have the funds. I never thought that I, an educated and resourceful Indian American from the Bay Area, would be caught up in what felt like housing injustice.

Ping! 

I receive a Facebook message from Judy, who continues to reach out to me for help.

April 12, 2020: “Hello. I will stay home April & May. Coronavirus. Do I need time off? Could you call me?”

Judy was concerned about her job as an Amazon shopper at Whole Foods, which I had helped her attain.

Unclear of what to do about my housing, I search “tenant rights for San Jose residents” on my phone as I log on to Judy’s work portal on my computer to figure out how she could take time off and pay her bills. 

Judy, a proactive woman, is a byproduct of circumstance. I know this because I know Judy — why she needs help, her backstory, how to communicate with her to get an informative response. But most importantly, our shared history as Asian immigrants help us have productive, respectful conversations.

“You are so nice, Srishti. You always help,” she said once as she handed me fruits. She was grateful to be shown kindness, but I was only doing my job.

I knew the residents disliked the turnover of people in my position. They told me stories of all the other Coordinators that had come before me. Those in my position felt like bad actors in a mythical story. I didn’t want to be another in a series of transient people in their lives that seemed to care momentarily. I lugged this weight around with me.  

I kept promising them I would stay, but I had noticed a trend. Our group of around fifty Family Service Coordinators would meet once a month and one by one, I saw older coworkers exit the organization and new faces replace them. After 8 months, I was a replaced face too. At least 10 out of 50 employees were gone within the year — a 20% loss and a turnover rate that is high for any organization.

In June of 2021, I contacted the cohort of coworkers I worked with at MidPen: Jennifer Villasano (23), Kristi Seymour (24), Diana Lumbreras (25). We had started our time at MidPen together in August of 2019 and they were still there when I left in February of 2020. 

Were they able to debunk my theory that the Coordinator position in affordable housing is an unsustainable job?

Villasano laughs and thinks back to when she first joined MidPen, “It was my first job out of college…At first I thought, I get to give back to my community” and then she notes it became “hard to give more” partially because of the organization she was working for. 

She continued to work during the pandemic and was appalled by how MidPen did not value her safety. “Residents and co-workers wouldn’t wear masks during the pandemic and I didn’t want to be exposed [to COVID],” she continues, “One of the residents got COVID and because of some Act, management wouldn’t tell us who.” She felt this was a breach of her well-being since she had to continue to “flyer” at the housing facility and interact with all the residents. 

“No one was checking in on the coordinators. It was exhausting.”

Jennifer Villasano quit in July of 2020.

As to why she left, she decisively states, “Instead of speaking up for us, [management] would ask us to do more. They wouldn’t support us….They need to do better.”

Kristi Seymour, a Guyanese-American woman, corroborates that, “Management wasn’t the best. Expectations weren’t met. That could also tie into the high turnover rate. If you don’t feel like your managers care about you … you’re not going to tell them anything and leave at the first chance.” Seymour felt slighted by the inconsistent nature of support provided and emphatically asserts, “I think its pay. I think it’s management. As the people actually delivering the services, you’re not getting paid enough for what you do…They expect a lot out of you — running after-school programs and delivering services to 40-50 units.”

Kristi Seymour quit in June of 2020.

Diana Lumbreras, a Mexican-American woman, shares a similar narrative to mine: “MidPen was my first job where I was working with housing, it was interesting to see how it worked. It was about numbers. We didn’t have time to build relationships because we had to get stuff in.”

Lumbreras forged on during the pandemic. The lockdown exacerbated the pre-existing concerns that she had with MidPen. 

“Something that happened during the pandemic that actually bugged me was that, of course, mostly everyone at my [housing site] lost their jobs. I was going door to door ‘flyering’ with resources for food banks, assistance for rent, anything and everything that I could find to help [the residents]. When it came to documentation…[management] said that there was no way of documenting my work because it wasn’t something [they] had asked for.”

Diana Lumbreras quit in August of 2020.

“What am I doing here?” She asked herself before leaving her job. “I was told that even if I did more, that there was no way of getting credit for that work … essentially saying, don’t even do [the work] if you can’t document it. That was the part that got me so upset because I was doing so much. I was printing out flyers in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and going door to door.”

The stories relayed to me by the Ghosts of Coordinators Past held a valuable nugget. The Family Services Coordinator position entrenched within the affordable housing complex is integral to the health of the community it serves. Lumbreras poignantly reminds me of this when she tells me, “As an essential worker during the pandemic, I felt important because people were coming to me when they actually needed help.” That weight I was lugging around was part of Diana’s story too. In reality, this burden wasn’t ours to bear. The responsibility to the community of clients and employees should be accounted for in the system attempting to address the housing crisis in the Bay Area. 

Family Service Coordinators are servicing low-income to median-income residents and, yet, they are well below the low-income threshold of $58,00 for housing in Santa Clara County themselves. Hourly pay at between $19-$20/hour, the average person working in affordable housing is making a yearly salary of a whopping $38,400 before taxes, and are most likely people of color. How can those tasked to elevate the marginalized put their best foot forward when they are being marginalized themselves? 

California housing prices have been on the rise. In May of 2021, the median home price in California was $818,260 with the SF Bay Area region clocking in at a 38.9% increase in the median home price since 2020 — the highest increase in the state. The nuclear family home, which was more attainable for the Baby Boomer generation, is a far-fetched dream for 44% of California residents. Despite the eviction moratorium being extended for another three months with the offer of all low-income past-due back rent being paid by the state, renters have been in a precarious situation for the last year, their benefits and interests at the whims of their landlords.

California housing policy is trending toward investment in affordable housing communities. Tina Rosales, a Policy Advocate at Western Center on Law & Poverty (WCLP) based in Sacramento is pushing for equitable and fair housing. In a concerted effort with WCLP, Francisco Dueñas, Executive Director of Housing Now, advocates for the divestment of government resources from private construction and into affordable housing and Land Trusts. 

Since 2016, Santa Clara County has been on track to exponentially increase accessible housing when residents voted for Measure A in an effort to alleviate housing injustice. Measure A approved $950 million to build 4,800 affordable housing units in the county. Since then, the county has dedicated more funds to affordable housing while overlooking their commitment to the communities they serve. 

Affordable housing is the future of Bay Area housing. Thus, forthcoming policy must account for evidence-based case studies. Narratives of employee loss and its subsequent adverse effect on residents are an emerging barrier to housing equity. 

Ultimately, the residents suffer. 

I keep reaching out to Judy but hear from her less and less. Embroiled in my own housing fiasco, the upkeep of our relationship recedes to the backburner.

On May 25, 2021, I finally receive a message from Judy: “I stay in Korea. I can call around this time tomorrow.”

When we speak, she informs me that in September of 2020, her Section 8 rent had increased from approximately $120 to approximately $600. Unable to afford rent and scared of resuming work, Judy moved back home with her parents in Korea. She decided to wait out the pandemic in Korea but was hopeful she could come back to the US after the pandemic. With no address on hand and no paperwork filed, Santa Clara Housing Authority (SCCHA) revokes Judy’s Section 8 housing when MidPen marks her an absentee renter. 

Since May of 2021, Judy and I have been trying to access her SCCHA specialist to figure out how to move forward. Judy wants to resume residence in America but cannot do so without Section 8 housing. The SCCHA offices are closed (in a time when their services are most necessary) and the operators manning the phone lines have not given any clear answers — we are stuck in cyclical redirection.

Affordable housing was effective for Judy when someone could guide her through the government regulations. Diana Lumbreras similarly posited, “I would put the resources out there, but the same people that lived in the housing were limited in the knowledge that they had to get the resources.” Judy’s back-rent can be paid by the state, but that decision came too late in this particular case. The system failed Judy.

Though I was edged out of the apartment I was living in at the beginning of the pandemic, I finagle my way into a Below-Market-Rate apartment that was listed as an affordable housing unit in San Jose. I manage to pay off the previous landlord and save money at my new complex. Affordable housing isn’t perfect, however, it did lend itself perfectly to me. 

Judy and I had inequitable outcomes. 

Creating resources and delivering resources seem to be at odds with one another. What they require is synergy.

Here are the asks:

  1. The base pay for Resource Coordinators needs to increase to a number that reflects their invaluable service to the community.
  2. There should be an increase in employee retention rates at affordable housing sites.
  3. There should be more on-site staff for support.
  4. There should be more focus on relationship-building and less on the number of initiatives implemented.
  5. There should be a symbiotic relationship between resource coordinators and the county services staff.
  6. There should be a creation of a Union for workers in social services in the state.

 

“Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute,” proffers Ta-Nehisi Coates

No home. No country to call her own. Judy embodies the silent way in which housing inequity diminishes a person’s agency and identity. 

We need to do better. We have to do better — Not just by creating accessible housing, but by creating sustainable networks of people that can ensure our community’s diverse and equitable growth in the Bay Area. 

*We reached out to MidPen Housing for comment. They did not respond to our request.


Srishti Prabha is the Managing 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.


 

Trailblazer Chef Manish Tyagi Shares His Signature Recipes with IC

Dig-In Meals – A column highlighting Indian spices in recipes that take traditional Indian food and add a western twist! Check this space every so often as I speak to other professional chefs and share their “secret” recipes to spice up your homemade meals.

For centuries Indian cuisine was synonymous with spices and hot curries, but now we have several Michelin-rated South Asian chefs that are changing the way Indian cuisine is perceived, elevating traditional flavor profiles with their signature twists.

The San Francisco Bay Area culinary scene is known for being as diverse as the city itself. With a sudden profusion of high-end Indian restaurants and celebrity chefs that want to show diners that beyond Butter Chicken and Paneer Makhani, there is a whole universe of Indian food that is seasonal, plant-based, light in flavor.

On a recent lunch with Chef Manish Tyagi, owner and chef of Aurum in Los Altos, we got to talking about his journey as a chef and his signature dish– Spinach and Paneer Lasagna, the famous dish that beat Bobby Flay. He’s been executive chef at some very high-end Indian restaurants — Rasika West End (the Obama’s loved dining here), Amber Dhara, and August (1) Five in San Francisco. He has broken many culinary shackles and has modernized Indian food with a focus on home-cooked food rather than Indian-syle restaurant food. 

Chef Tiyagi with India Currents' columnist Mona Shah.
Chef Tyagi with India Currents’ columnist Mona Shah.

I playfully asked him if he would share some of his recipes with our readers and he immediately agreed. A lot of what he creates surprises the palette and that is key. He has some basic advice, don’t overcook your food and don’t douse the dish with sauce. The components should come together, but still be separate, so that the person eating it can experience and relish the dish as they see fit. So, meat covered with cream and butter is a big no-no!

Whether you are a novice cook or looking to level up behind the stove, indulge in some feel-good home cooking with Chef Tyagi’s signature dishes.

PULLED PORK THEPLA TACO

Pork Thepla

Courtesy of Manish Tyagi, Executive Chef, Aurum (Los Altos)

Pulled pork thepla taco is a Californian name for Indian-style cooked pork and thepla. Flatbreads are an integral part of the Indian dining scene, so I took an opportunity to take bread from one region and the protein preparation from another region of India and added my own style and experience to make it appealing here in California. It’s a flavor bomb and full of umami. It gets pungency from fenugreek leaves, sourness from malt vinegar and pickled onion, sweetness from jaggery, creaminess from sour cream and soft pork butt, and savoriness from degi chili, cumin powder, and coriander powder.

Pork Ingredients:

  • One 5- to 6-pound bone-in pork butt (sometimes called Boston butt)
  •  4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon degi chili
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 4 tablespoon ginger and garlic paste
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard 
  • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Barbeque Sauce Ingredients:

  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 3/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons spicy brown mustard
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3/4 cup water, for deglazing the roasting pan

Thepla Ingredients:

  • 1 cup fenugreek leaves (methi), tightly packed
  • 1 cup (120 grams) whole wheat flour 
  • ¼ cup (40 grams) gram flour (besan) 
  • ¼ cup (40 grams) pearl millet flour (bajra flour) 
  • ¼ cup (40 grams) sorghum flour (jowar flour) 
  • 1-inch ginger, crushed to a paste
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon chopped green chilies or serrano pepper, crushed to a paste
  • ½ teaspoon red chili powder or cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
  • ½ teaspoon cumin powder 
  • ½ teaspoon coriander powder
  • ¾ teaspoon salt or add as required
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons yogurt, curd, or water for kneading or add as required
  • Oil as required for roasting thepla

Serving ingredients:

  • 1 cup cotija or queso fresco 
  • 1 cup sour cream (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS

For the pork

  1. Preheat the oven to 300°F and set an oven rack in the lower-middle position.
  2. Pat the pork dry with paper towels.
  3. Mix the salt, paprika, cumin, ginger and garlic paste, dry mustard, brown sugar, and pepper in a small bowl. Place the pork in a roasting pan. Rub the spice blend all over the pork, turning to coat evenly (don’t leave any of the spice blend in the bottom of the pan; keep turning the meat until it all adheres).
  4. Roast, uncovered, for 6 to 6-1/2 hours, or until the meat is fork-tender and a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the pork registers 195°F.
  5. While the pork roasts, make the barbecue sauce. Combine the ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, mustard, garlic, and cayenne pepper in a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer gently, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened, about ten minutes. Remove from the heat and let sit until the pork is done. 
  6. When the pork is done, take it out of the oven and set it on a cutting board or platter; tent with aluminum foil and let rest for about 10 minutes. 
  7. Pour off and discard the fat from the roasting pan (remember the handles are hot). Add 3/4 cup water to the roasting pan and set it over a single burner on medium heat; scrape with a wooden spoon to release all the brown bits. Cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently until the liquid is reduced by about half. (The liquid will be very dark; that’s okay.) Pour into the saucepan with the barbecue sauce and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
  8. While the pork is still warm, use two forks to pull the meat away from the bone into large shreds. Remove and discard any large pieces of fat or sinew. Put the shredded pork in a large bowl or dish and pour about two-thirds of the barbecue sauce over it. Toss so that the pork is evenly coated with the sauce. Taste and add more sauce, little by little, if desired.

For the thepla

  1. Rinse methi leaves very well in water. Then drain them and chop finely.
  2. Add the flours to a mixing bowl. I use millet flours, but if they’re not available, use 1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour and ½ cup besan.
  3. Add all the spices and herbs.
  4. Add the chopped methi leaves. Mix everything well.
  5. Add yogurt or curd (for a vegan option, add very little water instead).
  6. Mix again and knead into a dough. Don’t add water while kneading as methi leaves release water.
  7. Knead to a soft and smooth dough. If needed, add more curd while kneading.
  8. Make medium-sized balls from the dough. Sprinkle some flour on it.
  9. With a rolling pin, roll the thepla to rounds of 5 to 6 inches in diameter.

Cooking thepla

  1. Place the thepla on a hot tawa or skillet. Flip when one side is partly cooked (about one-fourth or half cooked). You will see some faint air pockets on the top, and this is the time when you need to flip it.
  2. Spread oil on this side. Flip the thepla again when the second side is half-cooked.
  3. Now spread the oil on this side. Flip a couple of times till you get golden spots and the methi thepla is cooked evenly. You can also press the thepla with a spatula while cooking.
  4. Remove and keep in a roti basket.

ASSEMBLY

When ready to serve, apply a spoonful of sour cream (if using) to the thepla, then add pulled pork and top it with cheese. Serve immediately.

CAULIFLOWER BEZULE FOR 2

Cauliflower Bezule

Courtesy of Manish Tyagi, Executive Chef, Aurum (Los Altos)

Cauliflower Bezule is my adaptation of South Indian-style Kori Kempu.

Ingredients:

  • For batter
  • 10-12 cauliflower florets 
  • 4 tbsp rice flour 
  • 2 tbsp gram flour 
  • 2 tbsp cornstarch 
  • 1 tsp turmeric 
  • 8-10 leaves fresh curry leaves, chopped 
  • 1 tsp degi chili powder 
  • salt to taste 

For tamarind chutney

  • 1 cup Tamarind pulp 
  • 4 tbsp Jaggery / sugar 
  • 1 tsp Coriander powder 
  • 1 tsp dry ginger powder 
  • 1/2 tsp black salt / regular salt 
  • 1/2 tsp fennel powder (optional) 
  • 1 tsp Kashmiri Red Chilli Powder 
  • 1 cup water 

For tempering 

  • 1/2 tbsp vegetable oil 
  • 1 pinch nigella seeds 
  • 1 pinch fennel seeds 
  • 1 pinch mustard seeds 
  • 1 pinch cumin seeds 
  • 1 thai chili, slit 
  • 3-4 curry leaves 

INSTRUCTIONS

For tamarind chutney

Heat a heavy bottom pan, add tamarind pulp, and wait for boil. Once boiling, add sugar and other ingredients and mix them well, lower the heat and allow it to cook until thick chutney or coating consistency. Once cooked, set aside to cool. 

For batter

Make a pouring consistency batter with water (not too thick) and mix well with cauliflower. Fry battered cauliflower until half done. Fry again when ready to serve. 

For tempering

Heat oil in a frying pan. When oil is hot, add all the spice seeds and allow them to splatter. Add green chili and curry leaves and sauté for a bit. Add crispy cauliflower and add 1-2 tbsp of tamarind gel and sauté nicely so that tamarind gel get coated evenly on cauliflower. Serve with tomato ketchup or ranch.

SOY, TOFU AND MOZZARELLA KOFTA 

Soy, Tofu, Mozarella Kofta

Courtesy of Manish Tyagi, Executive Chef, Aurum (Los Altos)

This kofta is an imitation of a Scotch egg. 

Kofta Ingredients: 

Part 1

  • 1 cup soy nuggets
  • 1 large boiled russet potato
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp chopped ginger
  • ½ tsp chopped serrano chili
  • Salt to taste

Part 2

  • 1 cup extra firm tofu
  • ¼ tsp garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • Salt to taste

Part 3

  • 4 tbsp shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 -2 drop  yellow food coloring
  • 2 tbsp cornstarch to coat the koftas

For sauce (gravy)

  • 2 tbsp ghee or oil
  • 1 tbsp cashews
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp ginger-garlic  paste
  • ½ tsp degi chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon cumin powder
  • ½ tsp fenugreek powder 
  • ½ tsp garam masala powder
  • ½ teaspoon coriander powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 3 medium-sized tomato
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp cream

For garnish

  • 3-4 each soy nuggets
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 small red beet
  • 2 each green cardamom

INSTRUCTIONS

Kofta – Part 1

  1. Soak soy nuggets in water for a good 1-2 hours to make them soft and spongy. Meanwhile, boil the potato, or, if you have boiled potatoes, then grate them and set them aside.
  2. When soy is soft, tightly squeeze out all the water and grind them to make a fine and soft crumble. Add potato to the crumble.
  3. Heat a frying pan over add oil and when it’s hot add cumin and allow them to crackle. Add ginger and green chili and saute them for a minute and add them to the soy potato mix. Season with salt and set aside.

Kofta – Part 2

  1. Mix the tofu, garlic powder, onion powder, cornstarch, and salt. Make into a stiff dough consistency. 

Kofta – Part 3

  • Add yellow food coloring to the cheese to make it look like yolk and make four equal size balls.

ASSEMBLY

Coat tofu mix over cheese balls to give it a shape like egg and put in a chiller to make them firm. Then cover with the soy-potato mixture to give it a feel of ground meat and coat it evenly with cornstarch. Fry on medium heat till the upper crust becomes crisp.

For Sauce

  1. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, add cashew, and saute. Now add cumin and allow them to crackle.
  2. Add ginger-garlic paste and saute for a minute. Add all the powdered spices and cook for another minute. Add tomato and salt and cook till nicely cooked.
  3. Let it cool and make a fine puree by adding water. Now pour it in a pot and cook it again, set seasoning.
  4. Finish the sauce with butter and cream. 

For Garnish

  1. Heat water in a pan with cardamom until it boils. Add sugar and remove it from the flame. Add roughly chopped beet, vinegar, and soy nuggets and leave it for some time so soy nuggets take the pickle flavor and color from beet.
  2. When soy nuggets are ready, cut them into half or in the desired shape.

Pour the sauce in a pasta bowl and place one whole kofta and break another one into the half with a knife so that mozzarella cheese oozes out. Arrange pickled soy pieces decoratively on the plate. 


Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: mona@indiacurrents.com


 

Author Prerona Mukherjee with her father.

At Bay, In a Sea of Poetry

Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.

I grew up surrounded by poetry. My father loved poems and would recite with all the passion of a Bengali man. My grandparents, who brought me up, were passionate Tagore fans.

My grandmother read poems in the afternoon, and sometimes she would cry. 

My grandfather wrote her love letters, allegedly, with a different appellation on each page.

They shared their favorite poems with each other.

My parents too were full of love and poetry. There was something very romantic about them – not just in the sense of their love for one another, but in that their whole life was a wild adventure. That is what poetry meant to me at that younger age — romance!

And I was too fierce and too alive: I wanted grit and reality, not escape and dreams.

Perhaps, because I grew up surrounded by so much poetry, I never took it seriously. If I wrote or read something, I did not work hard at it. I devoured poetry much like I would a fat mango in a Calcutta summer or how I would gulp it a delicate cup of Darjeeling tea on a misty morning. Recently, a beloved friend told me he was taking a course on reading poetry. I was stunned and awed. I did not think I could be so cerebral, so disciplined about poetry – I don’t ever want to be. 

Outside the home, the first poems I encountered were at school. I was lucky that what we read in school was spectacular: Night of the Scorpion, The Inchcape Rock, Ulysses, Bangabhumir Prati, Rabindranather Prati, Aabar Asibo Phire. I remember being arrested by a poem from time to time and writing ever so often, mostly when I should have been doing something else, as though spellbound. But even so, I did not think much of poetry then, they were just pretty words. I was too young, too caught up with living and doing.

Like in most relationships, my love for poetry evolved over time. You need a certain amount of heartache and storms to rake up the ground before words can take root. I kept discovering more poets I was entranced by: Nazim Hikmet, Pasternak, Jorge Luis Borges, Nizar Quabbani, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, Buddhadeb Basu.

The older I get, the more compelled I am by the quietly strumming throb of words that is poetry. Now I see poems as feelings. Helpless impotent feelings that try to come out of the womb of our hearts and make a bid for a life of their own.

To me, poetry is madness. Most of the time, I am quite sane. I don’t think of myself as a poet, I can’t rhyme and my poems often have no set form. Yet from time to time, a thought or a feeling wells up and nags me till I write it down. 

These two poems came to me in these terrible times of Covid, which were so painful to many of us, helpless and arrested, so far from home.

Tired of writing condolence messages.

Every day to a new friend.

Every death untimely.

Each loss unfair.

I think of childhood friends. So & so?

Hope they are okay. I want a roll-call each day.

 

In the litany of deaths, some are uncounted.

An immigrant doesn’t leave with much:

An idea of home, a place lost in time,

Unreachable, outside a dream.

That dream, safely tucked away,

Is that too dying today?

 

And yet life knows no math.

There will be no reckoning.

We limp on, best we can, all of us.

And slivers of life sneak through the shrouds,

like my stubbornly optimistic son,

when I tell him I am too busy to play.

Sometimes my poems rise up almost fully formed, and I obediently play the scribe. I find it hard to think them through and even harder to edit, especially when the driving emotion is vivid and personal. This one came to me when I was missing my father, whom I lost to COVID, far away in India. I could not do anything with it, once I wrote it down. 

A Stubborn Poem that Refuses to Conform

The days at home are growing hot:

waiting for the rains, in murmuring desperation;

then often too much comes, too late.

 

I had written about you to the doctor,

and called the mayor too.

they said sorry, it was too late.

 

My dream died. And another was born,

a wish granted. A price collected –

equity in the business of souls.

 

I just wish I could have seen you once more.

though I know, it would never be enough.

I wanted you forever; I will want you forever 

 

A civilization of ants was devastated today –

I carelessly stepped on their bustle of progress.

A few, turncoats, hurried on my shoe to survive

 

They said they tried everything.

But I thought the tide was going to turn!

this “but”, this moment, this shock never ebbs

 

When an old friend has left,

little questions we never asked nag us.

When they are here, the questions hide like shy children.

 

It was inevitable, this farewell –

from the first kiss, our road to goodbye is inevitable

inescapable; from the moment I left your womb.

 

And yet it was a beautiful day. The skies were blue,

I read a new book. I thought I could tell you, then remembered…

From a dark window, I watch a square of light high on the hill.


Prerona Mukherjee is a Cognitive Neuroscientist and an aspiring writer. The common thread: people, life, and feelings. She spent most of her childhood in Calcutta, India, and adulthood in Edinburgh, Scotland before finding herself in the Bay.


 

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.


 

Abha Sharma and her family

Bereaved Mother of Bay Area Resident Unable to Visit the US

A longtime resident of the Bay Area, Abha Sharma suffered devastating losses from the Delta variant in India over the past two months. Sharma’s father and 40-year-old younger brother both succumbed to COVID 19. Her only surviving relative in India, her mother, Prabha Rawat, who was battling COVID, is now stuck there in a recovery hospital.

Mrs. Rawat is not aware of the deaths of her husband and son. Besides COVID, she has multiple medical conditions that need constant medical attention. The deaths of her husband and son have been withheld from her since she may not withstand the news of these losses on her own. The fear is that she may also pass away if she is not nursed back to health by her surviving family.

Sharma and her other brother, who are both in the USA, are unable to secure a visa to bring their mother here due to the freeze on the B1/B2 visas. Her brother is a US Citizen and she is a green cardholder. They are desperate to bring their mother here because she has no support in India.  

The only other option is for Sharma to move to India indefinitely. That will be a huge challenge since she has two children in high school in the Bay Area. 

The only hope right now is for the US State Department to issue humanitarian parole or an emergency visa issued based on these circumstances. But, embassy appointment dates are not available. Sharma and her brother are hoping that the State Department could issue their mom a visa to travel.

To this end, Sharma contacted many Congressmen/Congresswomen and Senators in many states including California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s office. They tried contacting the US embassy in New Delhi but the US embassy did not consider the circumstances exigent enough.

A visa application is filed but no appointments are available at the US Consulate in New Delhi. Abha has been diligently calling the US consulate every day for a month and a half for an appointment.

At this point, Abha’s situation appears to be dire with no light at the end of the tunnel. 

Please sign this change.org petition appealing the State Department to provide a visa to Abha’s mom on humanitarian grounds:  http://chng.it/fWPbZtrLQX


Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan has taught information systems at San Jose State.  She volunteers with the Plant-Based Advocates of Los Gatos.  http://www.plantbasedadvocates.com/


 

Tiled Steps Around SF/Bay Area (Images by Mona Shah)

Bay Area Stairways to Community and Collaboration

On a recent trip to San Francisco, my family and I decided to step up our game, zigzagging the city to climb its most beautiful stairs. The city’s many staircases–installed to get you conveniently from point A to point B are a boon–saving one the laborious climb up its many hills. Most are quite mundane, but there are a smattering of swoon-inducing steps with incredible views. What is even more incredible is that they are volunteer-driven, community-based projects. Every mosaic tile on these stairs is etched with the names of the person who donated to the project and as I scanned through them, I was pleasantly surprised at the many South Asian names that I came across. As we become more visible in the philanthropic community, eager to redistribute some of our wealth, our efforts are changing the face of giving, to a sector that has sometimes struggled with diversity.

As you journey through these steps and marvel at their beauty, pay attention to the names etched in stone and let them inspire you to make a measurable impact in your communities.

Lincoln Park Steps

Location: 32nd Avenue, between California Street and the Lincoln Park Golf Course

While these steps date to the early 1900s, the mid-aughts renovation brought this staircase back to life, care of Irish ceramist Aileen Barr. Bright green, yellow, and orange hues make for a set of stunning steps. This was the shortest and the widest of the 7 mosaic steps. 

16th Avenue Tiled Steps/Moraga Steps

Location: 16th Avenue and Moraga Street

These are the most popular and tourist magnet. Features 163 unique steps made up of mosaics that create a seascape-themed piece with panels depicting the world: starting from the ocean at the bottom, climbing all the way up to the sun, detailing animals, fish and shells along the way. Connecting Golden Gate Heights to the Inner Sunset, Aileen Barr and mosaic artist Colette Crutcher collaborated in the creation of the steps.

Hidden Garden Steps

Location: 15th Avenue and Kirkham Street

A few feet away, the second most popular stairs in the city depict blooming flowers, cute butterflies, and even a salamander that extends up the steps. This mosaic staircase looks shorter, but it’s actually 148 steps up. The entirety of this set of stairs is hidden between several buildings, earning its name of hidden garden steps.

Kenny Alley

Location: Mission Street, between France and Italy Avenues

Literally in an alley, they are hard to find. Assembled by an art teacher, her students, and volunteers they are not very well maintained, it is yet another short flight of stairs (47 steps), the design depicts a waterfall.

Tompkins Stairway

Location: Nevada Street and Tompkins Avenue

Vibrant and fun, these are the perfect place to grab content for Instagram. The multicolored zig zag design was inspired by the Steps to Peace painted by Syrian students in Syria. Some great landscaping here, with tons of California natives and other drought-tolerant plants. Created by neighbors — for neighbors, the locals maintain and clean up the garden every few weeks.

Athens Avalon Greenspace

Location: Avalon Avenue and Athens Street

What was once a literal garbage dump is now a lovely stairway with rainbow-hued mosaic steps. Walk all the way to the top — there are sweeping views of the southern border of SF.

Arelious Walker Mosaic Staircase “Flights of Fancy”

Location: Innes Ave and Arelious Walker Street

4-foot wide, 87 step mosaic tile staircase is inspired by patterns all over the world — from India and Indonesia to Japan and the Middle East. Make sure to climb all the way up — the mosaic steps wind up the hillside and each section has a different theme.

Quesada Gardens Tiled Steps

Location: Quesada Avenue between 3rd and Newhall Streets

These are HARD to find and even most of the locals have not heard of them! Neighborhood kids painted the 600 colorful ceramic tiles on the staircase.

Unity Plaza Ocean Avenue History Staircase

Location: within Unity Plaza at the start of the Ocean Avenue business corridor

Part of Unity Plaza, a new public space completed in 2016, besides the tiled stairs, you’ll find benches to relax on, an artistic pavement, and photography depicting the history of the area. From far away the porcelain tiles don’t look like much (they’re just black and white), but once you get closer you’ll see the real meaning behind them. Scenes of the neighborhood are represented in the steps — and yes, they’re actual historic photos.

Miraloma Mosaic Steps

Location: Bella Vista Way across from Dorcas Way

In their newest addition, artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher are at it again, this time with a tiled staircase in SF at an elementary school. A cool walk to school, no? 


Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: mona@indiacurrents.com


 

Indian Americans: A Wedge in the Racial Pie?

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. 

“Indian Americans, Asian Americans more broadly, have been strategically used as a wedge against other communities of color.” This is Sundeep “Sonny” Singh, in a clip from Mosaic America’s series From Diversity to Belonging. The Mosaic series was created to enable people to understand the history of and potential solutions to the social issues in the US, especially those to do with identity and culture. 

Sonny spoke in an episode that aired conversations with some of the participants in Christina Antonakos-Wallace’s film, FROM HERE. Set in Berlin and New York, FROM HERE is a hopeful story of four young artists and activists from immigrant families redefining Belonging in an era of rising nationalism.

When posed with a question about his activism, Sonny spoke on the massive change in immigration law in 1965 – recruitment of skilled labor was suddenly made easy, the US had a need for a labor pool in hard sciences. Sonny noted, “[That was the time the country was in the] midst of the Black freedom movement, massive social upheaval demanding racial and economic justice.” Basically, the powers told “Black folks, Chicano folks, what are you saying, there is no racism! Look how well they [brown people, ie Asian Americans] are doing! … Too many of us in our community, unfortunately, have bought into this. Anti-Black racism is deeply embedded in our community.”

FROM HERE captures his experiences as a resident, artist, educator over a period of ten years. Also included are 3 other artists, Tania from New York, and Akim and Miman in Berlin. The film accompanies them as they move from their 20’s into their 30’s, facing major turning points: fighting for citizenship, creating a family, surviving violence, and finding creative expression. 

Sonny remembers growing up wanting his name to be John and wanting to cut off his hair-wanting to blend in; heckling about his turban was always just a matter of time. He works with the Sikh Coalition to educate Sikh children about bias-based bullying. Sonny hopes that people will start to think critically about the root causes of social problems, “I dream of a world where humanity comes before profit.”

Christina elaborates, “The design of our systems are the reason for many of our problems. The system is working exactly as it’s meant to be. Who has access to citizenship has always been racialized. Laws have been crafted around preserving the rights of certain groups of people and extracting labor and resources from others. Immigration is not a national issue- it is global. We can’t solve this by protecting our national borders. Let’s see our identity as fluid…Understanding that we are way more complex … we need to stop policing people along identity lines.”

Tania, who finally came out as undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic, says “America loves our food, our language, but they don’t want us.” She talks about the first hate mail she got, addressed to her personally, saying, “Go the f*^& back to where you came from.”

What does solidarity mean in these circumstances, where some of us stand in a Place that somehow, we are told, isn’t Home? How long will it take to reach our Place, when and how can we act to stem this tide of exclusion?

Mosaic America’s series “From Diversity to Belonging” attempts to find some answers. For Indian Americans, demonstrating solidarity is a way to give back to the generations that paved our access to the American Dream. Many of us, as Usha Srinivasan, co-founder of Mosaic America says, “buy into the “model minority”…we believe that we are exceptional, [is why] we are treated differently from other people of color.” We need to question these long-held beliefs. 

We need to work harder to come together as part of a larger community. To stand together as one, to see a world that belongs to each of us, is to be in solidarity. In as much as the word means agreement, it means resistance too. Standing for who I am, for who each of us is; standing up against norms that divide; standing with people who need a voice. In essence, it is a journey that starts with identity and continues through Belonging; fueled by each purpose; marked by each person it scars. We need to live our lives in solidarity, find pathways to build a common, inclusive future. 

As Sonny says, “It is our political duty to remain steadfast and fight another day,” reverberating Antonio Machado’s poetic lines, “se hace camino al andar” – The way is formed by walking. 


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 Meditation Cabin at the Shanti Ashrama in San Antonio Valley, CA.

My Annual Pilgrimage to Shanti Ashrama in San Antonio Valley

I have been making a trip to the Shanti Ashrama every year on the last Saturday of April for nearly 15 years now.  Vedanta Society of Northern California organizes a retreat there every year on this day, which, I am told, they have been doing for the last 45 years or so. And I never tire of it.  In fact, I really look forward to it.

Many consider Shanti Ashrama as one of the iconic centers of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Movement in the United States of America, at par with: the Hall in Chicago where delivered his lecture in 1893; the Ridgley Manor (the estate of Francis Leggett a few hours drive from New York City), where he spent 10 weeks in 1899; and the Thousand Island Park (in upstate New York beside the St. Lawrence River), where he spent seven weeks in 1895 to train twelve students who followed him there.

The importance of the place may be appreciated all the more by the fact that a replica of the wooden Meditation Cabin in Shanti Ashrama is prominently displayed in the Ramakrishna Museum adjacent to the Belur Math.

The location is a 160-acre area in the San Antonio Valley between San Francisco and San Jose.  The area is desolate and surrounded by hills all around.  The unique setting lends itself wonderfully for the retreat, in which several eminent Swamis deliver their uplifting lectures.  There is also a Puja for Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and others.  And there is also a tour of this place.  A joyous atmosphere prevails all around, for which my writing and photographic skills are surely limited.  But I will try, beginning with the unique background history of the place.

Inside the Meditation Cabin at the Shanti Ashrama.
Inside the Meditation Cabin puja area at the Shanti Ashrama.

Background History

It all started in the year 1900 (imagine!) during Swami Vivekananda’s second trip to the USA.  His lectures, particularly his ideas of renunciation and ashrama had fired up a number of his disciples.  They longed for a personal experience of this in their lives.  As providence would have it, one of them, Ms. Minnie Boock, had just inherited this property in California from her father and wanted to donate it to Swamiji.  It was a godsend.  But Swami Vivekananda was scheduled to go back to India soon.  Perhaps by divine premonition, he saw signs of his mortal life coming to an end and he still had things left to do.  So, he deputed Swami Turiyananda (Hari Maharaj), one of his brother monks (one of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s sixteen monastic disciples) to lead the effort.  Vivekananda had brought Turiyananda to New York earlier in the year to help him out.  Swami Turiyananda was the most austere of Sri Ramakrishna’s sixteen monastic disciples but he lacked Swami Vivekananda’s flamboyance and oratorical skills.  His command of the English language was also nowhere near Swami Vivekananda’s.

At first, Swami Turiyananda was very reluctant.  But Vivekananda with his proverbial persuasion skills prevailed when he invoked the name of Holy Mother Sarada Devi to whom Turiyananda was totally devoted.  Swami Vivekananda also appealed to Turiyananda’s sentiments by bringing up, “Haribhai, I have ruined my health doing Mother’s work.  Won’t you help?”.  And when Turiyananda brought up his doubts regarding his proficiency in English and his oratorical skills, Vivekananda assured him saying, “I have lectured to them enough.  Now you give them the demonstration on how to lead a true Vedantic life”.  

The surrounding location of the Shanti Ashrama.

Vivekananda left for India soon after and Turiyananda left for the Shanti Ashrama with a group of twelve disciples.  Their journey was interesting, bordering on the comical.  They went by train from San Francisco to San Jose.  From there, they had a caravan of horses with riders, and a covered horse-drawn cart with Turiyananda in it to cross over Mount Hamilton.  On the way, a lady fell sick and the Swami had to give up his spot and was put on a horse.  He looked clumsy, more so with his uncharacteristic coat and trousers.  And then when they reached their destination, the situation overwhelmed him.  There was nothing there except a wooden cabin and a toolshed.  Seeing his predicament, one brave lady disciple, Mrs. Agnes Stanley, assured him with the admonishment, “Swami, you are a devotee of the Holy Mother.  Does it befit you to lose heart at this?  Don’t worry.  We will take care.”  The Swami was impressed and named her Shraddha (Faith). And take care they did.  After all, most of these disciples were from the pioneer stock.  Soon they built log cabins and other amenities and did not have to sleep in the open, beside haystacks.

Life in the Ashrama revolved around daily chores and spiritual upliftment.  They woke up early with the melodious chanting from the Swami.  After a bath, they all gathered for meditation in the Meditation Cabin.  Then they would break up for their daily chores: the cooking to women, while the men kept busy bringing fuel, planting the garden, and building cabins.  Scriptural classes and more meditation followed for the rest of the day on a fixed schedule, including a one-hour Bhagavadgita class every day.  Incidentally, a vegetarian diet was the rule, but fish, eggs, and cheese were allowed.

Swami Turiyananda ruled the place with love.  He attended to each disciple’s needs individually.  The Swami brought up Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi often in his conversations.  And he insisted on self-surrender as the ultimate goal.  He advised reading only those books written by realized souls.  The constant association with the Swami was itself a spiritual training for the students.  His thorough knowledge of the scriptures and other masterpieces made it easy for him to impress upon them.  He had explained the classic Vivekchudamani by Shankaracharya strictly from memory.  Ida Ansell, a young lady disciple and a stenographer by training, took down his discourse.  It has survived as a classic.

After a year, Swami Turiyananda took a break to lecture in San Francisco for about half a year, before returning to Shanti Ashrama for five months.  He was tired from all the work and needed a change.  He also was eager to meet Swami Vivekananda, who, he had heard, was not keeping good health.  He decided to leave the Shanti Ashrama and America, never to come back. But he was somewhat uncomfortable, as he felt he was disobeying the Holy Mother’s wish. He left Shanti Ashrama at the end of May 1902.  On his last day, he left instructions for his disciple Gurudas (see later) and walked the perimeter of the Ashrama.  He had reportedly said, “This place will last for another fifty years”.  Unfortunately, by the time Turiyananda reached India, Swami Vivekananda had passed away.

Swami Trigunatitananda (Sarada Maharaj) came in Turiyananda’s place in 1903.  Unlike Turiyananda, he was a doer.  He was the founder-editor of Udbodhan, the flagship Bengali magazine of the Ramakrishna Mission, established by Vivekananda.  The magazine is still around and is the longest-running Bengali magazine.  Trigunatita decided to move his operations to San Francisco, away from the Shanti Ashrama.  He visited there two months every year with a group of his students.  He built several new cabins and dug several wells for the supply of water.  He cut a path to the top of Dhuni Hill, the highest point within the property.  The devotees practiced meditation on top of the hill under a campfire.  Things proceeded in this manner till his tragic death in 1915 from a bomb thrown at him by a deranged disciple in the San Francisco Vedanta temple.  Swami Prakashananda, who replaced Trigunatita carried on essentially the same tradition till his death in 1927.  The ashes of Swamis Trigunatitananda and Prakashananda are buried on top of Dhuni Hill. 

After Prakashananda’s death, the place fell into disuse and out of everyone’s eye.  Then, a heavy fire broke out in 1952 taking almost everything with it.  Only two or three cabins survived, including the Meditation Room.  Was this a fulfillment of Turiyananda’s premonition? Who knows!

The story of the Shanti Ashrama will not be complete without Cornelius Heijblom (Swami Atulananda, Gurudas Maharaj).  A Dutch immigrant to New York, he came under the sway of the Vedanta Society and followed Swami Turiyananda to the Shanti Ashrama. He was a capable handyman and was at the forefront of all activities there.  When Turiyananda left for India, he left Gurudas Maharaj in charge of the Ashrama.  Gurudas was there throughout, except for his brief visits to India.  In one of the trips, he was initiated by Holy Mother Sarada Devi herself.  Gurudas Maharaj finally left to settle in India in 1922 and died there in Almora in 1966 at the age of 96.  He had the unique distinction of having met all but two of Thakur Ramakrishna’s sixteen direct disciples.  To me his book, With the Swamis in America and India’ is a must-read.  It has some wonderful accounts of the Shanti Ashrama from the earliest days.

For years after the fire, there was little interest in the place.  Then in the 1970s in one of his visits to India, Swami Prabuddhananda, Minister-in-Charge of the Vedanta Society of Northern California (in San Francisco) came to meet an elderly monk of the Ramakrishna Order.  The elderly monk put this idea into Prabuddhanandaji’ mind.  “Think of doing something for the Shanti Ashrama,” the monk reportedly said.  And hence started this new era around 1975 – the Resurrection.

The Present

From San Francisco, you come to Livermore and then travel through an extremely windy road to get to the site.  The area is desolate.  The scenery along the way is gorgeous with high mountains and deep gorges.  Then, suddenly a gate appears with a sign on it.  The gate opens to a dirt road with signs to the location.  After driving along, you see a parking sign.  Upon parking, you see a large tent.  The tent is connected to the Meditation Cabin, which is also the shrine, the heart of the whole place

As I said earlier, the place is desolate, barring a few wooden cabins.  That is all that survived the place after the fire.  There is no water supply, no electricity, and out of range from phone connections.  It is really an ASHRAMA!

I am not aware of a regular caretaker for the place.  The volunteers from the Vedanta Society of Northern California have, every year, put in a tremendous effort to get the place ready for this one day.  They put up the large tent, bring in portable toilets, and make arrangements for the water and the food.  They also put up a little tent displaying numerous photographs over time.  There are some very interesting photos, including some showing how it was here in 1900.  All this is done under the tutelage of Swami Vedananda, an elderly American Monk attached to the San Francisco Center.  He reputedly has a Doctorate in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley.  The arrangements are essentially the same every year.  

Our program every year starts at around 10:00 AM with a Puja followed by a flower offering from the disciples.  Each one of us gets to enter the iconic Meditation Cabin which houses the photos of the triumvirate: Thakur Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and also Jesus Christ. 

Then it is lunchtime.  We are encouraged to bring our own lunch.  The organizers supplement it with fruits, cookies, juice, and beverages.  Then comes for me the most attractive portion.  The elderly Swami Vedananda leads a guided tour around the area and points out some of the important locations that were lost by the fire of 1952.  We get to see the location of Swami Turiyananda’s cabin, separated out from the center of the humdrum of activities.  We also see the location of the caretaker’s tent and other interesting spots.  All along Swami Vedananda keeps us entertained with various stories related to Shanti Ashrama.  

After this, some of us climb up Dhuni Hill, probably the highest spot on the property.  It is quite a steep climb and it has been getting harder for me every year.  But reaching the top is so rewarding, and not just for accomplishing the feat.  The breathtaking scenery from the top is simply unforgettable.  In addition, at the top, there is a small, enclosed area marking the location of where the ashes of Swami Trigunatitananda and Swami Prakashananda, are buried.  After spending some time on top of Dhuni Hill, it is time to descend.  Sometimes coming down is more difficult. 

Anyway, it is time for lectures by the Swamis and some musical interludes from the mission choirs.  Usually, four Swamis speak.  In general, one of the speakers is from outside the area and the three others are from San Francisco, Berkeley, or Sacramento.  Over the years, we have been treated to some memorable lectures. I specifically remember one by Swami Tyagananda of Boston.  The lectures are followed by tea and snacks.  Then the day’s program comes to an end and people start to depart.  A few stay on a little longer to meditate in the tent. 

All in all, most agree that it was a day very well spent.


Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write.


 

Walk For Arunay on Beach Safety organized by the Arunay Foundation.

Arunay Foundation: Born From Loss, A Choice to Educate on Bay Area Beach Safety

“When we left Cowell Ranch beach on January 18th, 2021, exhausted and heartbroken, without Arunay, we knew that something was fundamentally wrong with what had transpired,” said Aarti Desai, Pruthis’ family friend and a founding member of Arunay Foundation.

Arunay’s tragedy, unfortunately, is not an isolated case. Across much of the West Coast, sneaker waves kill more people than all other weather hazards combined. In the eight weeks preceding this tragedy, eight people were swept away from Northern California beaches. 

On June 5th, while participating in a walkathon organized by Arunay’s former school Basis Independent, his friends and classmates were determined to spread the message of beach safety far and wide. The walkathon route, dotted with students’ artwork celebrating Arunay, cheered the over 250 walkers who participated with passion and enthusiasm. Together these students walked over 1000 miles in the hope to raise awareness and funds for beach safety! Teachers and students alike shared their stories and fond recollections about Arunay. Many tears were shed. From the little boy who had emptied his piggy bank into a ziplock bag and brought it for donation, to 8-year-old Siddhant, who walked 31 laps and covered 10 miles, one cause bound them all…beach safety awareness

Walk For Arunay: Arunay Foundation on Beach Safety.
Walk For Arunay: Arunay Foundation on Beach Safety.

Born out of the desire to direct their enormous grief, sense of loss, and tragedy into education and actionable solutions, Arunay’s parents, family, and friends instituted the Arunay Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about beach safety. It plans to take a three-pronged approach in the effort to make our beaches safer: Educate, Equip, Inform. The focus of the Arunay Foundation will be on educating young minds about beach preparedness and safety, equipping our beaches with life-saving equipment, and providing our communities with the knowledge and tools they will need to create a safer beach-going experience. 

“We were unaware of what sneaker waves were, how to identify the risks of perilous beach conditions, and important life-saving techniques that when utilized could have saved our precious son,” said Sharmishta, Arunay’s mom, her voice breaking with grief. But, even in her paralyzing grief, she knew that something needed to be done. “Never again should anyone lose their loved one to the sea like this,” she says, with steely determination in her tear-drenched eyes. 

The beaches of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, with their steep and rugged tree-lined coasts and frigid ocean temperatures, are some of the most dangerous in the world, Over the course of the massive, month-long search operation for Arunay, funded by the support of thousands of people from around the world, Arunay’s family recognized the many changes needed in existing beach safety measures, guidelines, and awareness, and believe that with proper awareness and adequate warnings, these beach drownings can be avoided. 

Arunay Foundation is a fiscal sponsorship project of SeaValor. Founded by Eric Jones, a 9/11 veteran and a Medal of Valor recipient, SeaValor is a non-profit based in Emeryville that uses ocean activities to help improve the quality of life for those suffering from PTSD. SeaValor also worked relentlessly alongside Arunay’s family and friends during the search and recovery operations. The family says they could not have asked for a better partner for this journey than SeaValor. 

Arunay’s family is requesting everyone’s generosity and support in their mission. Their experiences during the search & recovery have strengthened their belief that together we can achieve so much more than we can apart. Please spread the word about Arunay Foundation in your communities and consider donating to the cause of improving beach safety.

If we can prevent a beach drowning or help rescue someone’s child and give them a second chance at life, it would be nothing short of priceless.

Follow their journey: https://www.facebook.com/SearchForArunay/ 

Support them: https://www.arunayfoundation.org/


Anil Krishna is a family friend of the Pruthis and has known Tarun and Sharmistha for over 25 years. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Austin, TX.
Maneesh Saxena is a family friend of the Pruthis and has known Tarun and Sharmistha for over 25 years. He lives with his wife and two sons in Cupertino, CA.

 

Left to right: Kaveri Lalchand, India Mask Project, Siddharth Ramalingam

#MaskPodu: Bay Area High Schooler Joins Forces With Mask India Project

As COVID-19 makes its way down to the southern parts of India, there has been a silver lining. We have seen a surge of humanity that is lending a helping hand to India in this time of crisis.

One such initiative is by a 14-year-old school student Siddharth Ramalingam. He started The Bay Area Mask Care Project last year where he would make and sell cloth masks to raise funds for COVID relief.

“Bay Area Mask Care was formed to give back to the community in several ways during the pandemic. The COVID situation in India drove me to explore avenues to contribute to the Indian community where my close family and friends currently live,” says Ramalingam.

Parallelly in India, after the lockdown last year, when all businesses had to shut, Chennai-based designer Kaveri Lalchand had an idea to start making masks which had become mandatory.

“As we were told we need to wear masks all the time as the simplest and most effective way to protect ourselves, we started making masks. And one year down the line we need to be protected now more than ever. We decided to focus on the welfare of the country and the health and safety of our employees, friends and family, and the community at large. Our masks have been hugely popular, and this was one way we could think of to give back to the community,” says Lalchand.

So, she started The Mask India Project that manufactures and distributes masks free of cost. Kaveri and The Mask India Project have joined hands with the Bay Area Mask Care Project (USA) and with Chennai Volunteers and the #MaskPodu movements to give away thousands of masks to people of Chennai. Masks are also being distributed through the Suyam Charitable Trust to children in rural areas of Tamil Nadu.

When Ramalingam heard about this project, he stepped up to help raise funds for relief work in India by reaching out to his network of people in the USA. “I have always been impressed with Ms. Kaveri Lalchand’s contribution to society. When I heard about ‘The Mask India Project’, I decided that partnering with her would be the best way for me to serve the Indian community. I am excited and honored to be part of this initiative,” says Ramalingam.

The lockdown has also affected businesses and daily wage earners. Through this initiative, we have been able to provide eight tailors with machines to work from home. As a brand, we supply all the materials used in the mask free of cost fabrics, elastic, and threads. The tailors are paid for every mask they stitch. They have done a fantastic job with the uninterrupted supply,” says Lalchand.

The masks that are distributed as part of this project are 3-layer, reusable cloth masks. The top layer is linen and the inner two layers are cotton. “The mask is printed with our logo – the map of India with a heart at its center. The heart is to honor the memory of all those who have lost their lives due to COVID-19,” says Lalchand.

The Mask India Project also works with Chennai Volunteers, a voluntary organization started by Rinku Mecheri, that manages welfare and relief work in fields like gender equality, disaster relief, and uplifting the less fortunate. Lalchand has tied up with the Chennai Volunteers to distribute our masks to the people of Chennai.

The #MaskPodu movement was created to bring about awareness about the importance of wearing a mask and wearing it right (not under your nose or on your chin!) This was created by two responsible citizens of Chennai, Kishore Manohar, and Siddarth Ganeriwala. They have spread the message using a very catchy tune that has been written by Aravind-Shankar the musician who made the famous Chennai Super Kings song “Whistle Podu.

“We will be giving our masks to them for distribution amongst the people of Chennai. The song has also been made into Kannada and Malayalam with the Hindi version underway,” says Lalchand.

As the predicted third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to affect children the most, the Suyam Charitable Trust decided to raise money to provide masks to children across districts of Tamil Nadu. With vaccinations for children still a little further away, masking up is the only proven method to protect oneself.

This is also why Maya (16) and Eka (13) Kachibhatla, a sister and brother duo from Chennai wanted to contribute towards COVID relief in a more meaningful way and associated with Lalchand and her team. They started to raise an amount of Rs 30000 (USD 410), which they could surpass and now The Mask India Project is providing them and the Suyam trust with 7000 children’s masks. And to make the masks more fun, the masks are being printed with a heart or a star or a design of an elephant or some other cute design.

Since its inception, the team has started seeing a sustained increase in the demand for masks. “We have now committed 1000 masks for an entire village in Haryana. We have also tied up with the Apollo Shine Foundation to distribute masks to students from disadvantaged backgrounds and we hope to help more,” concludes Lalchand.

If you want to help contact the team on their Facebook page.


Bindu Gopal Rao is a freelance writer and photographer from Bangalore who likes taking the offbeat path when traveling. Birding and environment are her favorites and she documents her work on www.bindugopalrao.com.


 

Dr. Erica Pan

State Epidemiologist Highlights Expanded COVID-19 Vaccine Eligibility to Protect Kids 12+

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) today released the latest “On the Record” ethnic media column, in which California State Epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan encourages California families to vaccinate their 12 to 15-year-olds against COVID-19 – an age group comprising about 2.1 million Californians. Protecting adolescents with vaccinations will help move the state closer to ending the pandemic and ease its toll on their mental health and social-emotional wellbeing.

“The past year has been hard on all of us, but especially difficult for our teens who have had to put their lives on hold. Now that eligibility has expanded, we can confidently give our kids a shot at being kids again with the comfort of knowing they are protected from COVID-19,” wrote Dr. Pan in her column. “When more Californians become vaccinated, we can feel safer as restrictions are lifted and life begins to return to a sense of normalcy. When 12 to 15-year-olds are vaccinated, families can be safer as they venture out more, go on vacations and get back to doing the things they love.”

California expanded eligibility for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to 12 to 15-year-olds last month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) vaccine safety review panel and the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup recommended that the vaccine is safe and effective in protecting this age group against severe illness, hospitalization, and death. In the weeks since the eligibility expansion, approximately 27.5 percent of 12 to 15-year-olds have received at least one dose.

In the column, Dr. Pan addresses potential questions and concerns teens and their parents or guardians may have about the vaccine. Dr. Pan explains that clinical trials have proven the vaccine to be safe and effective for youth in this age group and that the technology used to make the vaccine has been developed over the last 20 years. Vaccinated individuals may experience mild side effects such as a sore arm, fever, or fatigue.

A parent of two eligible adolescents, Dr. Pan discusses the stress and isolation youth have experienced due to the pandemic, and how getting vaccinated is a critical step to getting back to our normal lives, including more opportunities to safely spend time with friends and family.

Dr. Pan also highlights the state’s new $116.5 million Vax for the Win incentive program, in which all Californians who have had at least one COVID-19 dose – including youth – are eligible to receive $50 prepaid or grocery cards and are entered into randomized cash prize drawings. A total of 30 winners will receive $50,000, and on June 15, 10 will win $1.5 million as the state fully reopens. $750,000 has already been awarded in the first round of cash prize drawings last week, and the next 15 winners will be selected this Friday.

Dr. Pan underscores the state’s work to ensure equitable access to the vaccine, including partnerships with local health departments, community-based organizations, and school districts to reach underserved youth in foster care or those experiencing homelessness, as well as efforts to improve access in rural communities through mobile clinics, free transportation and more. Vaccines are free, including for those who don’t have health insurance and regardless of immigration status.

To promote easy access, the Administration established a portal where schools and other community sites can request support to set up mobile and pop-up clinics. Schools – especially larger districts – can also become providers by following the steps outlined here and in a school-specific recorded webinar. For resources to support outreach, schools and other community organizations can access the messaging toolkit.

Parents, legal guardians or emancipated young people can check vaccine availability and book an appointment at MyTurn.ca.gov or by calling California’s COVID-19 Hotline at 1-833-422-4255. They can also contact their family doctor, local community health clinic or public health office for more information.

More information on the Vax for the Win program can be found here. If you encounter a possible vaccine incentive scam, please email rumors@cdph.ca.gov or call the Vax for the Win incentives hotline at 1-833-993-3873.


 

India Still Needs You: Fremont High Schooler Helps India Breathe

India is in one of the largest humanitarian crises in history. The devastating headlines and heartbreaking pictures show that millions are suffering. People are dying on the street, frantically searching for hospitals and oxygen for their loved ones’. Crematoriums are overflowing with bodies. Over 500 doctors have sacrificed their lives to save others. My own grandfather, a dedicated orthopedic surgeon, succumbed to the virus treating his patients.

My grandfather treating patients days before he contracted the virus. (Image provided by Author)
My grandfather treating patients days before he contracted the virus. (Image provided by Author)

The entire healthcare system is collapsing. I am horrified at the tragic situation relayed by family members who are frontline professionals. I hear stories of casualties and devastation from my aunt  (who is a covid warrior awardee and treats hundreds of covid patients on a daily basis) and uncle (who does covid-related black fungus surgeries). My own grand-uncle passed away from the virus recently.

The second wave of COVID has been catastrophic and the current infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle the recent surge in cases. As of now, India has recorded 28.1 million official cases with over 330,000 deaths. These are only the cases that have been reported– the New York Times accounts for gross underreporting and estimates 540 million real cases. Every 5 minutes, someone dies because of COVID, unable to find oxygen gasping for breath.

To help those affected by the COVID crisis, we have partnered with Give India, the largest on-the-ground organization providing urgent relief resources. So far I’ve raised $26,600 to provide critical aid to those suffering in India.

The funds will be used for:

  • Oxygen. Hospitals’ oxygen demand is as high as 700% in some areas. Donations are being used to manufacture oxygen generators, ventilators, and cylinders.
  • Testing and Vaccination sites. Hospitals are erecting sites near hotspots such as airports to minimize the spread and obtain an accurate count of cases.
  • Setting up COVID Care Centers. Sick patients are turned away from overcrowded hospitals, forced to treat themselves without proper equipment. Funds are used to set up COVID Care and Isolation centers, fully equipped with quality care services to treat patients. 
  • Food. The World Bank has found that poverty in India has doubled during COVID, as families struggle to pay for treatment. Your donation will be used to provide meals and ration kits to communities struggling to make ends meet. Just $6 is enough to provide an entire week’s worth of rations for a family.

If you are in India:

  •     Please stay isolated and masked up. Follow all COVID protocols to protect others.

  •     Donate blood plasma if possible

  •     Get vaccinated immediately

  •     Do not purchase or sell overpriced medical supplies

  •     Return your empty oxygen cylinder so it can be refilled for someone else

  •     Help your family with continually checking up on family and their symptoms

  •     Report orphaned children to helplines, distribute meals to the homeless, feed stray animals

  •     Practice good hygiene and spread awareness

 If you are outside of India:

  •     DONATE. Know that anything that you give can save someone’s life: Donate Here

  •     Share resources on beds, medicines, plasma

  •     Raise awareness on recovery at home

  •     Volunteer at Covid Centers

  •     Help orphaned children get protection, sponsor their education

  •     Help organizations provide oxygen cylinders and concentrators

  •     Check on family & friends

We urge you to donate during this time of need. The suffering will not end unless we make the change. Any and every amount helps! I encourage you to join this COVID support group to interact with others and receive updates and help on your recovery journey: https://www.facebook.com/groups/covidrecoveryjourney/


Yuvraj Walia is a 9th grader at Mission San Jose High School. He is passionate about medicine and hopes to make a difference and save lives during the COVID crisis with this fundraiser.


Every 5 minutes, someone dies because of COVID in India, usually on the street, unable to find oxygen. Fremont High Schooler, Yuvraj Walia has partnered with GiveIndia to provide resources! Donate today @GiveIndia #covidinindia #covid19 #covidindia #covidinfo #indiacurrents