Pinky Kumar, the unicorn-haired, unapologetic social justice warrior, is spending the summer at the family place on Cape Cod with her parents, aunt, uncle, and perfect cousin, Dolly. Her mother—a high-profile lawyer whose nickname in West Coast legal circles is The Shark—ironically declares Pinky guilty before proven innocent regarding everything. Plus, Pinky sees her cousin as competition and no wonder. Dolly is known as a wholesome and generous humanitarian who never gives her parents trouble (like Pinky) or makes bad decisions (like Pinky), and Pinky’s mother never fails to freely criticize each of Pinky’s faults.
Meanwhile, Samir Jha’s pathway to becoming exactly the attorney he wants to be is unencumbered by virtue of by-the-book, precise planning. However, when he arrives for Day One of his summer internship at a prestigious D.C. law firm, he learns the internship has been canceled. His life’s plan is shattered in one promising-turned-lousy morning.
Distraught, Samir texts his best friend who in turn, texts his friend Pinky. Samir’s a colossal nerd and Pinky disregards the message. Soon afterward, The Shark accuses Pinky of burning down the shed with some random summer boyfriend, and Pinky impulsively blurts out with her (truthful) denial that she already has a boyfriend (not currently). Trapped by her own lie, Pinky knows she’ll either have to admit the truth or … wait a minute! She realizes Samir may prove to be the answer. Pinky convinces Samir to come to Cape Cod for the summer and pretend to be her boyfriend by promising she’ll get her mother to give him a winter internship.
With Samir’s arrival, myriad obstacles and trials while maintaining the fake relationship around her family propel the story. Pinky also uncovers a secret about Dolly, rescues a baby opossum that she treats as a pet, and finds the fake dating issue to be more than she bargained for. With her signature upbeat writing, Menon has produced yet another enjoyable novel with a strong-willed female protagonist seconded by a likable young man. Plus, this time she has included an applause-worthy subplot concerning positive environmental activism fueled by Pinky, accompanied by Samir and Dolly.
Like all of Menon’s young adult offerings, the happy ending is suitably earned. Her characters, each striving to solidify their place in the world, their families, and their relationships, experience the gamut of victories and failures required to shoulder the weight of responsibility as they mature into adulthood. They also embrace the sheer joy of youth as well as the angsty bits that are often seated in misconception, withheld information, and internalized competition where none truly exists.
Despite being the third book in the “Dimpleverse,” each book stands alone on its own merits. Fans of Menon’s earlier books will love10 Things I Hate About Pinky and discover there are 10 times as many things to love about her.
Megha Majumdar’s novel, A Burning, released on June 2 is a highly anticipated debut by an Indian American writer this year. Majumdar grew up in Kolkata, India, and then attended Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University where she pursued graduate studies in sociology. She is currently an editor with the online magazine Catapult.
I approached Majumdar’s novel with a bit of trepidation. Advance praise from acclaimed authors like Amitav Ghosh and Tommy Orange made me feel that perhaps my expectations had been primed to an unreasonable high which the experience of reading the book would not be able to fulfill.
However, this novel actually captured me from its opening pages and kept me in its spell till the end. Its appeal stems from its taut narrative structure resembling the plot of detective fiction or courtroom drama, albeit without the typical resolution of such popular genres. This novel’s purpose is not so much to uncover who committed a heinous act of terrorism but to expose the ways in which the Indian state has failed its most marginalized communities.
The novel unfolds through the point of view of its three major characters: Jivan a young Muslim woman who finds herself accused of terrorism on the basis of a thoughtless comment she writes on Facebook; Lovely, a member of the transgender Hijra community who takes English lessons from Jivan and aspires to become a film star; and PT Sir, a physical education teacher who was once a mentor for Jivan but who, in his quest for political power, quickly abandons any moral compunctions.
The two female characters’ narratives are offered in first person while PT Sir’s sections of the novel are rendered in the third person. This parallels the greater intimacy that readers are invited to forge with the two female characters.
In the very first chapter, we are informed through Jivan’s voice that a train has been torched at a station near her house. She sees the burning train but just rushes home to safety. In the shanty home that she occupies with her parents, she follows a Facebook thread on the train burning incident and writes the reckless comment accusing the police and the government of inaction towards the victims and equating them with terrorists. Her comment goes viral and soon she is accused of being friends with a well-known terrorist recruiter. She is arrested and becomes an inmate of a women’s prison.
In the sections which follow in her voice, we hear of her family’s history of eviction from lands considered to be rich in minerals, the brutalization of her father by the police, the tenuous efforts to start a new life in Kolabagan driven by her searing ambition to step into the middle-class and rescue her parents from destitution.
Like Jivan, Lovely, too, is struggling to enter middle-class, overcoming the obstacles of poverty and the ostracism she faces as a member of the transgender/intersex Hijra community.
While we have seen representations of Hijras in Indian fiction, Anjum in Arundhati Roy’sThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness being a notable example, Majumdar offers a fully developed and complex emotional life of Lovely. She faces constant humiliation but never loses faith in her ability as an actress. Yet, traditional expectations of patriarchal society prompt her to push away Azad, the love of her life, and drive him to a traditional marriage that will give him children, even though he had resisted the idea before.
PT Sir is already a member of the middle class, unlike the two other protagonists. But he aspires for more power and more of a sense of importance beyond the humble borders of a teacher’s life. His ambitions lead him to seek refuge in the culture of political sycophancy, paying obeisance to the nationalist party leader, carrying out petty acts of subterfuge, and gradually dispensing with the last vestiges of moral conscience.
In depicting contemporary India under a neoliberal regime that on the one hand ushers in a consumerist urban culture, Majumdar is fearless in exposing its underbelly with its total disregard for the lives of the poor and the destitute, and the myriad ways in which the nation betrays them. To this, she adds an astute understanding of the role of social media platforms in exacerbating the dangers of disenfranchised citizens.
Everyone, including Jivan, can have a cellphone and a Facebook account, these platforms make her more vulnerable to becoming a target of social media outrage and scapegoating. Her impulsive comment on Facebook exposes her to being branded as a terrorist in the court of public opinion well before her actual trial. While social media provides Lovely the opportunity to disseminate her acting video and finally command the attention of a serious producer, it covertly censors her from expressing support for her friend Jivan, as the culture of fandom is fickle and aspiring stars have to carefully calibrate their personal and political comments to retain popularity.
Social media is depicted as a source of power and currency, all other institutions of a democratic society seem to be crumbling. The media, the police, the justice system are all shown to be mired in corruption. In an era of beef lynchings, attacks on journalists, police brutality on students in various universities, and scapegoating of individuals as anti-national, there is an uncanny correspondence between the fictional and the real events.
Currently, mass protests against police brutality on minorities in the U.S instigate a fight for global criminal justice reform and support for Black Lives; this novel and its concerns resonate with dreams of justice by oppressed people across continents.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
In the fertile landscape of Indian writing in English, poetry is a less prolific genre. This is not due to a dearth of talent, but because poetry has generally been considered less likely to attract a popular readership. However, lyric poetry in Sita’s Choice is more relevant than ever during a public crisis.
It is no accident that New Yorkers after 9/11 turned longingly to poetry. In today’s period of COVID 19 isolation, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins has been reading his poetry live on Facebook. The musicality of the lyric form provides a sense of comfort in uncertain times and the shorter stanzas allow us to anchor for a short time in words that can transport us beyond our immediate devastation.
Sita’s Choice is Athena Kashyap’s second full-length collection of poetry. Kashyap grew up in India and currently teaches English at City College of San Francisco. In her foreword, Kashyap introduces the character of Sita in Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana and uses Sita to “explore issues facing women living in contemporary India.” Kashyap is not only drawn to Sita as the embodiment of a suffering wife but also to her role as a mother and her connection to the earth and the environment leading to three thematic sections in her book: ‘Body’, ‘Seed’ and ‘Soil,’ following the opening section titled ‘Sita Septet’
Kashyap is haunted by the mythological Sita’s decision at the end of the epic not to subject herself to another test of fire to prove her chastity. Instead of reuniting with her husband Rama, Sita chooses to return to the Earth, her mother.
This scene is evoked in the poem “Sita’s Choice,” in which Kashyap depicts this myth through a detailed description of Raja Ravi Verma’s painting of Sita being taken by Goddess Earth. In the poem that immediately follows “Letter to Valmiki from the Other Sita,”, we hear Sita’s voice expressing her disappointment in the poet Valmiki “It broke my heart, . . . the story as you told it.” Kashyap is thus reimagining Sita as a vocal woman, talking back to male figures of authority.
Kashyap segues from the fire image to contemporary issues of dowry burnings in India in the poem “Fire Trials.” Instead of brides being killed, Kashyap recreates these women as asserting agency, packing their bags, and returning to their natal families.
In the section ‘Body,” Kashyap shifts her attention to many aspects of contemporary Indian American life, with an emphasis on the female body capable both of sexual fulfillment and degradation. From the joyous celebration of “Punjabi Wedding,” to scenes of hidden bodily trauma in “The Mirror” and “Crocodile Lake Revisited,” this section progresses to poems which bear witness to the indignities of women in India not having access to toilets in “This City is Claimed,” ending finally with the desolation of widows living in a peculiar limbo between life and death in “City of Widows.”
The sections ‘Seed’ and ‘Soil’ which follow offer many vignettes of women’s lives as mothers, from the onset of menarche in “Blood, Oil and Water” to the travails of pregnancy, birth, and the sleepless monotony of early motherhood. In “The Leela Poems,” of the final section, Kashyap widens her focus to include experiences of farmers marching to Lalbagh, Bangalore to demand attention to their precarious lives. Leela is a servant and a migrant domestic worker in the city, subjected to myriad oppressions. But like Sita, the central figure in the collection, Leela longs to go back to the rice fields of her home in the village and is haunted by the longing for rich harvest.
Unlike a novel, a work of poetry does not follow a linear path of plot and character. Instead, this collection of poems is like a palimpsest, the poet’s own life layered with images of disparate women’s lives and traumas, yet gesturing at hope and fulfillment inspired by the mythological Sita.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
InSeeing Ceremony, Meera Ekkanath Klein’s sequel to her 2017 debut novel,My Mother’s Kitchen, the narrator, Meena, is now ready for college and continues to rebuff her mother’s need to subject her to seeing ceremonies in advance of formally arranging her marriage. The continuing obstacle is that Meena refuses to think about marriage until she returns home to Mahagiri, degree in hand, ready to begin her own life as an adult.
Her confidante and neighbor Mac, an elderly Scotsman who owns a tea plantation, is always ready to lend an ear and offer sage advice. However, reality enters Meena’s life when he reveals a friend is interested in purchasing Meena’s late father’s spice plantation. With the express understanding that the transaction will honor Meena’s father’s legacy, the money exchanged is Meena’s ticket to a college in California where her uncle is a professor.
During the brief pages devoted to Meena’s time at school, she studies agriculture, discovers Chinese tea, and embraces the calming concepts of the Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies. It is then, in a flash of brilliance, that she understands creating a tearoom in which a variety of teas could be sampled and tea ceremonies would be held, maybe the answer to bolstering her mother’s remaining business.
On her journey home following graduation, Meena meets Raj Kumar, a young Indian businessman. They take an immediate liking to each other, and while at the airport in Singapore, they spend their layover time dining and chatting. As expected, neither can get the other out of their minds after going their own ways. Later, in a convenient twist, Meena and Raj come face to face again.
The bones of the story are good and hold promise, but much of the plot isn’t new. The seeing ceremony, arranged marriage, traditional vs. modern attitudes, and going to college in the U.S. are overused. Nevertheless, the elements of agriculture, introducing new crops, rotating crops, and bringing concepts from overseas are fresh enough to bring balance to the novel.
That said, this book should be a massive celebration of the senses, yet the ubiquitous spices, the meals prepared, the visit to a tribal village, and the vistas Meena experiences both at home and at her father’s plantation exist with an assumption that the reader is familiar with all of those essentials when sensual imagery would have enhanced Meena’s narrative and assisted in building her world. Instead, that part of the storytelling was incomplete, like a coloring book with pages half colored and abandoned.
On the plus side,Seeing Ceremony can be read as a standalone novel. It isn’t necessary to readMy Mother’s Kitchen to enjoy this succeeding story. However, since the books are billed as novels with recipes, you may want to see what’s cooking in both. In “Kitchen,” the recipes are found at the end of chapters which, unfortunately, impede the reader’s flow. In “Ceremony,” the recipes are conveniently gathered at the end of the book.
If you’re in the market for a quick read that may take you away, introduce you to some interesting characters, tell a story of finding one’s way back home, and offer some recipes to spice up your next meal, this may be the book for you.
“The thing about Mumbai is you go five yards and all of human existence is revealed. It’s an incredible cavalcade of life, and I love that.” Julian Sands.
Dishoom is so much more than a cookbook. It is a walking serenade to South Bombay and it’s Irani Cafes. The refreshing, authentic, and passionate storytelling style of the authors, Shamil and Kavi, make this book a pure treat to all your senses. The vibrant visuals and descriptive narratives are bound to make your palate salivate. This 400-page walking tour guide starts off with a vintage map of South Bombay. The map highlights all the 34 places that you will be visiting through its pages. The book is filled with old black and white photos, overlayed with recent snapshots to provide a colorful canvas for this love story.
If you are not from Bombay, the city can overwhelm you. Shamil and Kavi ease you into the chaos and bustle, to settle you down with a backdrop of their childhood in Matunga, where they spent many holidays with their grandparents, near Koolar and Co., one of the oldest Irani Cafes.
They introduce you to Chef Naved and his exquisite recipes that showcase their restaurant Dishoom in London. They also give you an overview of the fascinating history of Bombay from how it got its name to many an anecdote about different locales.
The migration of the Parsi community to Bombay is not well documented in most Indian history books. Parsi history usually starts and ends around their move from Iran to India to escape religious persecution and their settlement in Bombay. Shamil and Kavi give us a much richer treatise to the Parsi community.
Irani cafes were instrumental to the cosmopolitan culture of old Bombay. They were the very foundation in the hearts of our two authors, for their new restaurant venture, DISHOOM in London. Like they say, “We serve dishes in Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian traditions which all jostle on our tables for space.” Poetic indeed!
The book’s walking tour starts…
An 8 am breakfast at Kyani and Co. What a treat! Every Indian can relate to the nostalgia of dipping a pau (bread) into your chai (tea). I stopped reading at this point and made myself a cup of masala chai, just to take in that memory.
Chef Naved starts us off with some simple recipes like the Akuri (Parsi scrambled egg) and the Chilli Cheese toast which is the base for the Kejriwal (Fried Egg) – yes Kejriwal!
Mr ‘Knock Out’ Zend’sYazdani cafe and his simple Brun (Bun) Maska dipped in hot chai will make you drool for more. “Dip the brun into the sweet chai, allow the butter to melt slightly and put in your mouth for an immediate, simple, and true delight.”
We feast ourselves with chicken berry pulao and salli boti (meat curry) at the legendary Britannia, in the presence of its famous owner Mr. Boman Kohinoor.
“In a place as hectic as Bombay, the allure of Chowpatty is clear. Here you can partake in the serious business of idle pleasures. A gentle stroll on Chowpatty at sunset, with plentiful snacks.” Sink your teeth into a piping hot pau (bread) bhaji or a spicy bhel (puffed rice), or the ever famous vada pau, the iconic Bombay street food. Wet your lips with the falooda (sweet dessert) and kulfis (ice cream) and end your cravings with Sharma Paanwala’s paan (betel leaves) to digest the day’s symphony of dishes in your system.
Get back on track with Kala Ghoda’s Trishna for the finest butter pepper garlic crab.
Walk down to Mohammed Ali Road, past a spectacular array of food stalls and antique stores. A notable pit stop for a meat lover is the Surti Bara Handi. How can you miss Halim and Aamir’s Taj ice cream and Burhanpur hot, hot jalebis?
Not sure how much stomach you have left, but the tour hasn’t ended yet as it dives into the third dinner at the famous Bademiya in Colaba. The picturesque and flamboyant tossing of the dough by the chef and service on warm car bonnets, stays with you for a long while.
After 3 heavy dinners it’s time to walk along Marine Drive promenade and gaze out to the sea. You will run into the famous Rustom and Co.’s ice cream parlor known for its seasonal flavors.
The tour ends with an ode to the Taj hotel. Little did we know of it being the backdrop for the glorious and illustrious jazz scene of the 1930s through the Independence era of India. I love a good cocktail and the tipples section is clever and innovative with some interesting drinks like the Kohinoor Fizz, The Commander, and the Dhoble.
As whimsical and flowery as the descriptions in the book, the experience I had preparing the recipes brought me quickly back down to earth. Recipes that started off as a few easy steps evolved into a complex multitude of steps, that required different preparatory recipes, all infused into one large recipe.
Some recipes are not for a novice cook. I recommend you read and prep all the sub-recipes before you decide to make a more complex dish. For example, the chole (chickpeas) has 2-3 sub-recipes that are found in different sections of the book. As a cookbook, it was a bit tedious to maneuver back and forth between the pages of this heavy book.
Make sure to carefully read the serving sizes, as they vary from dish to dish, and are not consistent. I had to take a picture of the recipe and sub-recipes to make it easier to follow. I still have a lot more recipes to try out. What would have helped is a listing of all the dishes in the table of contents, or next to each section, to avoid the constant referring to the index page to find the recipes. Furthermore, the metric system measures in the recipes are not ideal for an American audience.
Overall, this is a great gift for anyone who enjoys food, history, and stories. For all the avid readers out there, the recommended reading is an added bonus. The genuine voices of Shamil and Kavi along with Naved’s journey into making Dishoom a world-renowned restaurant is commendable.
My journey with Dishoom
The chili cheese toast had a kick to it and with the masala chai was a delectable breakfast.
The Mattar Paneer was tasty, but needed a little more cooking to soften the frozen peas, as they stood out without soaking into the onion- tomato masala with a gentle simmer of 5 minutes and cook time of extra 10 minutes.
The Murgh malai recipe was a classic hit. The juicy thigh meat with two marinades was well worth the effort.
Pau bhaj – I made this for my Bombaite nephews and nieces who grew up eating vada pau and pau bhaji. Their consensus was that it was a little sweet and westernized. Maybe what it missed was the ginger/garlic green chili paste?
The warm pineapple and black pepper crumble was a huge favorite especially with some vanilla ice cream on top.
The East Indian Gimlet – used a homemade lime cordial.
Praba Iyer is a Chef Instructor, Food Writer, and cooking judge. She specializes in team-building classes through cooking for Venture Capitalists and Tech Companies in the bay area. She teaches Thai, Mexican, Pan Asian, Indian, and Ayurvedic cooking classes. Praba is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. She was an Associate Chef at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.
How do you write a book about loss—a loss that’s so propulsive as to ravage the notion of home, country and identity? What do you put in it, and what do you leave out? What message will this work deliver and how does it answer the questions of the moment?
The book is brilliantly braided together with analyses, personal stories and commentaries, with journalist D’Souza providing the political backdrop and events leading up to the Chinese-Indian incarceration, and Bay Area writer Ma—who was born in the camp—delivering the human stories.
The term “deoliwallah” then becomes a reflexive term enveloping remembrance, endurance and an indictment against the prevailing perspectives of the time.
It began with a dispute over the border between the two countries, as it inevitably does. D’Souza’s research revealed that in 1958, a Chinese map appropriated 1,00,000 square kilometers (38,000 square miles) that India thought of as its own. China claimed that India had “gradually extend[ed] its control over territory in the east.” The Indian view, on the contrary, was that “the border has been in existence and observed for 3,000 years,” with several treaties and conferences affirming its existence.
This finger-pointing rapidly escalated to border skirmishes. Then the tenor of the dispute changed on October 12, 1962, when India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the press that he had given instructions to “free the country,” and the press reported this as “Nehru’s famous call to ‘throw out the Chinese.’”
Chairman Mao Zedong framed his response to this rhetoric with “a massive, pre-planned Chinese attack” against India on October 20, 1962. “Within two days, an entire Chinese division, having crossed the border and torn the Indian defense to shreds,” continued to advance aggressively, wrote D’Souza. Indian soldiers, ill-prepared for the weather and poorly equipped with weapons, lost handily to the Chinese. In a month and a day, the war was won by China, and China made the decision to withdraw its troops to “their original pre-war positions,” leaving India to “lick its wounds.”
This bruising defeat, however, needed some reprisal and India found it in the passing of the Foreigners Law Act and the Foreigner’s (Restricted Areas) Order in India, which targeted people of Chinese ethnicity in India. D’Souza wrote that “taken together, these acts formed the legal fig leaf for the Deoli incarceration.”
“When you have war situations, odd things happen, perverse things happen,” remarked D’Souza, explaining the ways that we tend to simplify the rationale behind sweeping actions taken when countries are in conflict, drawing a comparison to the US detention of people of Japanese origin in 1942, an event that occurred twenty years before Deoli, at an even bigger scale.
And as we have seen in America and Germany, memories of detention and confinement doggedly pursue survivors serving as signposts of trauma and loss.
Joy Ma excavated personal accounts of this trauma and its aftermath, tracing the journeys of Chinese-Indians who were rounded up and detained “by peeling away the layers of repressed memories,” and tracking the legacy of injustice.
An inflection point in this terrain of recollections occurred when Ma interviewed Yeeva Cheng, the daughter of Michael Cheng, who was a teenager when he was incarcerated in Deoli. With eloquence and insight Cheng described how she absorbed the emotional ordeals of her father. One particular incident stood out in her mind. Cheng’s high school class was reading a book about a group of girls going to a foster home. For the school assignment, the students were asked to come up with five things they would pack if they had to leave suddenly. When Cheng told her father about the assignment, she said that she might want to pack a book. Her father laughed and said, “We didn’t even have a knife to cut our meat or to cook our food.”
It’s perhaps interesting to note that every Deoli survivor interviewed by Ma remembered what he or she carried to the camp, even six decades later.
Ying Sheng Wong recalled how a group of soldiers knocked on his house in Shillong on 20 November in 1962, when he was 16 years old, and told the family to take “only a few belongings.”
Andy Hsieh, also a teenager, was pulled out of his boarding school in Shillong, and “packed everything they thought they needed for a journey with no certain duration,” including his football shoes.
When Stephen Wan’s family was picked up, they were told to take “a few clothes,” with them.
Effa and Jack Ma, Joy Ma’s parents, were allowed to carry Rs. 500 and one bag of personal belongings per person as well as some New Year cookies.
Keiw Pow Chen, on the other hand, remembers how the guards “rushed them out of their home in such a hurry that they ‘didn’t carry anything.’”
Many others, too, were not given time to pack, and some were still in their nightclothes when they were picked up, ill prepared for what was to come.
The meager belongings of the detainees were testimony to how confused, surprised and hopeful most of them were, tending to believe that the situation was temporary at best, since many of them had been born in India and for generations had considered India as their nation and home. They were of Chinese origin but nationally and culturally Indian. That’s why the internment became an unfathomable betrayal to many.
When I sat down with the authors, I probed the question of who has the right to tell this story. D’Souza said that when they decided that the book required talking to the survivors, it was clear that Ma, who was born in Deoli, had a personal connection to the narrative. She had that right. So, while D’Souza worked on the political details leading up to the Chinese-Indian detention, even traveling to Deoli to record his observations, Ma approached community members. People from the camp remembered her as “that little girl,” the baby in the camp, Ma said, so it was easier for her to ask the tough, often painful questions of others from the camp.
In addition to Joy Ma, there were four others born in the camp. Ma said that their stories are not included in the book, as also the stories of several others who were not yet ready to share what they have spent a lifetime trying to forget. It’s taken a long time for Deoli survivors to be willing to tell their stories, Ma disclosed. As a result, the events surrounding the detention assumed an “epic, iconic status in their minds,” she said. When Ma first started conducting interviews, she described an outpouring of “despair and hopelessness” from having kept the stories to themselves for such a long time.
At a packed book reading at the India Community Center recently, the authors asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d heard of the internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, and a mere handful had their hands up. In “The Deoliwallahs,” D’Souza describes how astonished he himself was in March 2012 when he was first told about ordinary people, “totally innocent people,” being sent to a prison camp in India.
Why is the Chinese-Indian incarceration not well known, I asked Ma and D’Souza? Fear of retaliation against family members in India has kept the story under wraps for years, the authors explained, leading to a conspiracy of secrecy around the event.
Both Ma and D’Souza hope that this book will lead to better awareness of the Chinese-Indian internment, and like the United States, the Indian government will come to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and begin the dialog necessary to evolving into a more compassionate and responsible nation.
THE DEOLIWALLAHS—The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza. MacMillan, 2020. Amazon: 198 pages. Hard Copy: $12.41. EBook: $9.99 License to image in the article can be found here.
A decade and a half ago, I made the brave move to America. Although I spoke English and was well-versed with American culture, nonetheless, I found myself in the midst of a transcultural identity crisis. AsJhumpa Lahiri aptly put it, “I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new.”
After much floundering, I slowly came to realize that I needn’t have an identity crisis at all. Instead, I could choose to mindfully and respectfully tread between “the old” and “the new”, or as Lahiri calls it, “either side of the hyphen” to enjoy a rich transcultural identity. As a result, I decided to sport my Indian identity with flourish and simultaneously learned and embraced all that I could about this vastly different country I had decided to call home. This mindset reduced transition anxiety and became a general outlook for me.
Fifteen years later, life seems to have come full circle. Today, as a mom of two high-energy second-generation Indian American boys, I find myself seeking creative ways to make my children’s transcultural identity as fluid and seamless as possible. Like other first-generation immigrant parents, I too would like my preschooler and second grader to embrace cultures, both of their origin and birth, welcome diversity, be tolerant, and self-accept.
Here’s where my chance discovery of Elmer by David McKee comes in. Every time I read Elmer’s endearing story to my boys, I find it a charming exploration of identity, diversity and acceptance. Topics that are close to my heart. Here’s a summary of the story to offer some context:
Elmer is a famous elephant. He’s not grey like others, but a patchwork of bright colors. He’s lively, cracks jokes, and is well-loved. But he’s weary of being different and wants to be like the rest in his herd. Early one morning, he sneaks out of the jungle to cover himself with the grey colored juice of a berry bush. Once covered in grey, he isn’t Elmer anymore, but just another elephant. He enjoys the anonymity and joins the herd. Soon a rain cloud bursts, and Elmer’s grey color washes off. His friends laugh and understand his conundrum of wanting to fit in. They decide to celebrate his uniqueness by instituting an annual ‘Elmer’s Day Parade’. On that day, all the elephants transform themselves into colorful patchwork elephants, and Elmer colors himself grey.
This straightforward and poignant story has made me think about some ways in which I could extend the “Elmer conversation” with my boys and start taking baby steps to help them navigate their transcultural identity. Here are some learnings from Elmer and how I translate Elmer’s narrative into action:
Colors are meaningful
Elmer’s heartwarming experience made me realize the merit in allowing children to see differences in color and be accepting of their own appearance.
It’s no secret that children notice color. They tend to be curious and ask inadvertently provocative questions like why their friend’s hair or skin color is lighter or darker than theirs. Providing thoughtful answers could help them understand and respect diversity and self-accept. A blanket response on the lines of “we’re all the same” is wrong on so many levels. It’s inaccurate, confusing, could impede curiosity and make kids (and later, as adults), dismissive of diversity and racial differences.
Understanding roots and shoots
It’s human to want to belong, to want a sense of community, and be part of a social structure. Maybe that’s why Elmer wanted so badly to fit in with the rest in his herd. Our children are no different. For them to comfortably tread on “either side of the hyphen” and have that rich transcultural identity, it’s important for them to understand their roots and where they grow their shoots.
Putting up a map of the world, I found is an effective way to offer children a global cultural perspective and a sense of belonging. For one, it piques their interest about continents, countries, and the cultural plethora thriving across the globe. Perhaps because a map can trigger animated discussions like where they are situated in the world vis-à-vis grandparents and extended family, it’s an easy way to make questions of identity and belonging tangible for children.
Empathy is key
Elmer’s journey offers a gentle, yet firm reminder on the point around empathy and can spark numerous conversations from this perspective. It’s heartening to see the herd’s true expression of empathy toward the patchwork elephant by instituting an annual parade to celebrate Elmer’s uniqueness.
My personal journey taught me that respect and empathy for intra and inter-group diversity is critical in order to have a rich transcultural identity. I found that interactions with ‘the others’ through an empathetic lens makes the following possible:
The temptation to jump at prejudiced, knee-jerk reactions is curbed.
Rationality sets in to arrive at thought-through conclusions.
Relationships are based on mutual tolerance, acceptance, and respect.
As adults, we can consciously extend the empathy message from Elmer’s experience to our children in everyday scenarios. For instance, I miss no opportunity in reminding my kids to put themselves in another individual or group’s shoes. At the playground, at school, or while reading a book, it’s always interesting to ask questions like “why do you think (s)he’s sad or happy?”, thereby attuning their little minds beyond themselves to the needs of others.
Elmer, the patchwork elephant’s story most delightfully weaves complex themes of identity, diversity and tolerance. Its narrative persuasively demonstrates that it’s okay to be different, and that diversity should be seen, embraced and celebrated.
Admittedly as of now, I’m not fully certain how Elmer can shape my children’s transcultural identity roadmap. But I know it’s a great start. I foresee revisiting the goofy patchwork elephant’s story often and our elementary “Elmer conversations” getting more nuanced as life’s situations evolve with passing time. For that, I sincerely thank Elmer!
Nidhi Kirpal’s pre-kids life was dedicated to the complex field of Communication Sciences. After choosing to be a fulltime mother, reading and playing with her high energy boys has been a fascinating journey. Children’s literature (both western and Indian) has been an inspiring discovery for her, where she constantly sees the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.
“I start my day choosing happiness and being in the moment, as the mystery of the moment opens up to me” writes Geetanjali Arunkumar in her book, ‘You are the cake’. Such revelations that she arrived at through travails of illness and loneliness are what she shares in this debut work.
This is a book written from the heart and is a timely and gentle reminder to tap into our essence, even as many influences sap our energy and erode our confidence. A joyous, tasty metaphor for everyone alike, young, old and in-between, the title leaves open the door to accepting and enjoying who we are as individuals and build on that.
Accepting such a notion and not just thriving, but flourishing is the author’s message, one that she’s obviously been mastering even as she’s overcome inordinate challenges.
Right from the get-go the reader can realize that this author’s journey is one that many of us can relate to, even if the challenges may be varied in intensity. Reading on, one also realizes that this is not from a self-help guru, though we need guidance at times from one such, but from lived experiences and lessons learned through struggles.
As she aptly says, trusting the inner voice clarifies the action and path empowering one to make the right choices, be it of friends or partners, and other life’s decisions, big or small.
For many of us life rambles on, at times desultory and as Michelle Obama writes in, Becoming, of her good friends, ‘ Most of us lived in a state of constant calibration, tweaking one area of life in hopes of bringing more steadiness to another’, and ‘’You’re the cake’ offers a recipe for that.
I’m one for mnemonics and “FACT-RE” as depicted by multiple layers of the cake – self- forgiveness, acceptance, compassion and trust, leading to respect and empowerment – is one I’ve begun remembering when I feel unsettled.
Geetanjali then expounds thru’ the Recipe and Utensils used for cooking up happiness, emphasizes what seems obvious, such as hobbies, but often ignored, limited by our daily lives.
The author quotes Muhammad Ali, “It’s the affirmations that lead to beliefs, and moreover once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” Affirmations convert desires into reality, but she points out it’s good to be realistic about desires to begin with, and with time it will lead to greater things.
Geetanjali provides tools like journaling, keeping a gratitude diary, or even tasks as simple as, when falling asleep ‘being grateful for the smallest things that happened during the day’ and, ‘ wak[ing] up in the morning using Abraham/Esther Hicks method of seventeen seconds of positivity and beauty.’ These soften the dissonance or even chime a song in our hearts!
Showing appreciation and acknowledging another person and being non-judgmental, as we’d like to be treated ourselves, strengthens the other and certainly builds lasting relationships.
I wish I’d had this book when I’d had an accident some long years back and was quite dispirited , but needing to pick myself back up, raise our toddler son and get back to work, with great support from my husband and loved ones.
There’s a Tamil proverb my grandma used to tell my mom, which roughly translates to, ‘only if you have a wall, can you paint a mural’. Only when we are kind to and take care of ourselves, can we be of support to others
Geetanjali’s talents show not only in her writing style – such as, “…. Ways to unfold your soul, which whispers to you the truth of your gifts…” and inspiring thoughts, which are well-researched and informed, but also she accompanies them with lively and spot-on illustrations. This Bay Area author serves up the cake with swirls of decadence and pearls of wisdom on an inviting platter!
Madhu Raghavan is a pediatrician who enjoys writing, exploring our great outdoors, gardening and art as pastime.