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America Calling: A Ph.D.’s Memoir Champions a U.S. Education

Each fall, thousands of students arrive with dreams and two suitcases each, ready to study in colleges and universities all across America. They are international students that add $45 billion to the country’s economy annually. Then, surviving the peculiarities of American life, untangling the red tape, and managing the wait, many remain, often contributing to the country through job creation, innovation, and research. Dr. Rajika Bhandari was one of those students, and as she argues in her must-read book, America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility, the impact of international students on America is as substantial as the obstacles they face.

In 1992, Bhandari followed her fiancé, Vikram, to Raleigh to earn her doctorate in psychology at North Carolina State University. Initially, she was hesitant about being faced with the post-doc choice of staying in the U.S. or returning to India. Plus, she feared there were just too many choices to be made in the U.S. She was right about both.

With hindsight humor, Bhandari relates cultural blunders and differences as a new student in America. Asking for more catsup for her pizza. Assuming hot dog relish is a minced side salad. Not knowing how to use a computer (a necessity). She also embraces yard and church sales, becomes an expert coupon-clipper, and marvels at the extensive choices at her local Food Lion grocery. She stumbles upon American racism, encounters Southern Baptists, and is grateful for the generosity of both the American woman whom Vikram tutored and the Shahs at their Comfort Inn on a treacherously snowy night.

But the most daunting aspect of life in America? The method of education.

“American professors taught us as if we were coconspirators, allies in the pursuit of knowledge: they advised, guided, and consulted,” she writes. “My Indian professors, by contrast, had commanded us from the front of the classroom, frowning and glowering, hell-bent on making us master the basics and, in the process, squelching our love for the subject at hand.”

Meeting students that were starting or finishing their degrees later in life, calling professors by their first names, and seeing an adult wearing braces, Bhandari writes she “was learning that, as with many things in America, it was never too late to do something different, to change course…America, I was discovering, was a land of reinvention.”

Six years later, she earned her Ph.D. and followed Vikram to Silicon Valley, where she discovered jobs for her were few. She did find a job, but because of the U.S. government’s predilection for grand hoops and prickly hurdles, it took six months before she had her H-1B visa. By then, she was nearly broke, as was her relationship.

Bhandari, using her own stories and others’, examines those hoops and hurdles that impede a skilled available workforce. Using data, she refutes the widely held assumption that these visa holders snatch jobs from the American workforce. After experiencing her own six-month delay to work in the U.S., she was granted EB1 status and given a green card.

Returning to India in 2005, she learned that neither the few available jobs nor the pay was commensurate with her degree and experience there. To India, she was too American. To Bhandari, India was too uninviting. America, however, offered freedom and respect.

Her life changed, however, when she learned The Institute of International Education (IIE) was looking for a director of research and evaluation. Using American moxie, she took a risk and was hired. With green card in hand, she moved to New York City to head the prestigious Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.

In this capacity, she writes that she would “understand, document, and report on the goals, challenges, and problems shared by international students from around the world.” To gain insight, she spoke with students in-depth. She also studied historical events such as 9/11 and the xenophobic Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban that put immigrants at risk and dealt major blows to international programs. Certainly, too, Covid-19 has reduced the number of international students, yet Bhandari uses the pandemic as an opportunity to emphasize the fact that former international students created vaccines and the N-95 mask.

Author – Rajika Bhandari (Image from www.rajikabhandari.com)

I was curious what Dr. Bhandari thought her life would be like had she not studied in the U.S.

“I would likely have been living a fairly predictable and middle-class life in an Indian city like Delhi,” she told me. “I don’t know that I would have tried big and bold things or taken risks in my personal and professional life.”

The most important thing she learned having studied, lived, and worked in the U.S.?

“Education is a powerful tool and setting in which to learn about the world, and through which to expand our minds and challenge our beliefs,” she replied.

Bhandari is an inspiring writer, smoothly transitioning between personal memoir and scholarly clarity that data and research provide. She incorporates statistics and historical research, always enhancing her journey and the reader’s edification with stories and facts. When she relates the results of crunched numbers, she does so as easily as she relates her progress as a student and working immigrant. Thus, she is better able to present truth, conflicts, and trends.

Because of Bhandari’s engaging storytelling, the book will appeal to a readership interested in understanding cultural differences and the power of education. In the end, Bhandari shows that a U.S. education–one of the country’s top exports–is important, worthwhile, and a large part of how interconnected the world has become.

She is the Founder of Rajika Bhandari Advisors, which offers consulting services in evidence-based international education strategy. She also serves as a Senior Advisor to the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. Her books and writings in newspapers and journals emphasize the intersections of migration and culture, and her next book will likely focus on these areas.

Bursting with not only a compelling story but also a wealth of information, America Calling is a timely read in today’s complicated world.


Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association. She also is a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and NCWN (North Carolina Writers’ Network).


 

Born in a Pandemic, a Children’s Novel Tackles the Broken Justice System

In 2013, multi-award-winning author Padma Venkatraman read an article about Kanhaiya Kumari who had been born in prison in India. When he was too old to remain there, he was sent out into the world alone without his mother. She never forgot about that boy.

“When the pandemic hit,” Venkatraman wrote on librarian, educator, and writer John Schu’s blog, “I returned to a draft of [a young boy’s] story that I had written and set aside. As the world entered a ‘lockdown’ I was drawn to this character who had spent his whole life locked up … I wrote and rewrote during the pandemic.”

The result is Born Behind Bars, the powerful and instructive middle-grade companion novel to her fourth book, The Bridge Home. She continues to explore child homelessness; families of choice and birth; and caste, religious, and cultural differences. But this time, she also examines a prejudicial and broken justice system and how it affects children.

Kabir Khan, our bright young narrator, was born in prison in Chennai and is a child of dualities. His mother is a low-caste Hindu trapped in a system that imprisoned her for a theft she didn’t commit, and his father, whom he has never met, is a Muslim who wed his mother secretly because of their religions. Kabir also is bilingual, speaking Kannada (his parents’ language) and Tamil. And having grown up in confinement, he dreams of the freedom of the outside world based on what he sees on TV and hears in his mother’s stories.

At age nine, he suddenly is discharged to a man who claims to be his uncle. Kabir has two resolute goals despite having little bits of information. He must find his father—whose letters stopped soon after he wrote from Dubai—and his grandparents who never knew their son married a Hindu. Then, he was sure he would be able to secure his mother’s release.

Once living on the streets of Chennai, Kabir is assisted by a homeless Kurava-gypsy teen named Rani who has a sharp wit and even sharper survival skills. She takes a liking to Kabir and, with her parrot, joins him on his quest to locate his family. Their journey from Chennai to his father’s hometown of Bengaluru proves challenging, but Kabir’s fluency in two necessary languages comes in handy. For all the obstacles and inhospitable people Kabir and Rani encounter, they remain steadfast because there are kind-hearted, generous people that propel them forward and give them hope.

As a storyteller for children, Padma Venkatraman is masterful, writing honestly about the realities of life, turning just the right phrase to set the reader firmly in Kabir’s worlds—in prison and outside. Her precise writing brilliantly sets the stage for every step Kabir takes.

Author – Padma Venkatraman

For example, there is no doubt that Kabir was raised in dreadful conditions. “The stench of the toilets is as strong as a slap in the face,” he tells us. “Water trickles out of the rusty tap.” “The pale orange stream of water.” And when the small fan in the cell stops, Kabir says, “I feel like a grain of rice boiling in my own sweat.” In contrast, he tells us he dreams of blue skies “bright as a happy song,” and stepping in “a river of cool, clear water.”

Early in the book, one of Kabir’s prison “aunties” comments that Kabir is “almost twice as old as he should be to still be living here.” I asked Venkatraman about that.

“The rule in India,” she explained, “is that children are usually sent out of prison at age six to a relative or an orphanage.”

The school for homeless children connects The Bridge Home and Born Behind Bars. Venkatraman didn’t plan for that to happen, but as she wrote on Schu’s blog, “… as I followed [Kabir] on his journey, a character from The Bridge Home reappeared—to my great joy (because readers from all over the world had asked me what happened to the characters from The Bridge Home).”

Rani’s experiences at the school show respect for alternative learning pathways and cultural needs, and I wondered if schools like that were common in India and who ran them.

“There are state-run schools and private schools run by charities,” Venkatraman told me. “Both can be tough places or wonderful places, depending on who the director and teachers are. The schools in my book are modeled on places I’ve actually seen.”

Venkatraman is the personification of the empathy and compassion she strives for in her writing, and she genuinely cares about those on whom the children in The Bridge Home and Born Behind Bars are based. Author’s Notes in each book offer additional information and resources, but there’s always more to share.

“There are links on my website to some charities that I think are doing good work in case readers feel they want to contribute to causes that fight against hunger, homelessness, and other kinds of social injustices in India and in our own country,” she added.

She was true to herself when she shared with me, “I think of my books as packages of empathy, NOT entertainment. I hope every work I’ve created makes readers/listeners ask questions and think deeply and take positive action in the world, even if that’s just something small. I don’t try to provide answers—just hope that there’s greater understanding that there may be many different equally valid or nuanced answers to important questions—and by asking them, we may increase our compassion.”

Already earning well-deserved starred reviews, Born Behind Bars with its spirited, unforgettable characters and heart-twisting, revealing conflicts will stay with young (and old) readers long after the final word is read. Perfect as a read-aloud at school or a read-together at home with parents, it is a life-enriching book that inspires empathy and compassion and stimulates discussion and action.


 Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association. She also is a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and NCWN (North Carolina Writers’ Network).


 

Homeland Elegies: A Clash of Civilizations

Ayad Akhtar’s novel Homeland Elegies is autobiographical as much as it is a work of fiction.  There is traumatic truth here in the tension between fiction and nonfiction; Akhtar finds his way through trauma by telling his own story, the story of his father, the story of their shared Muslim ancestry, and the story of their shared, but diverging, America.

As signaled by the novel’s elegiac title, there is a lamentation for loss and exile.  Akhtar’s parents are dead, their Pakistan is dying, and our America is disappearing in the time of Trumpism, racism, and unbridled capitalism.  A state of grace is not available to readers hoping for easy resolutions to the conflicts that Akhtar explores in his expansive novel of big ideas.  Given that it is autofiction, the novel might merit classification as a “bildungsroman.”  A simpler – and perhaps better – categorizing word would be “clash.”

The idea of the clash of civilizations was popularized by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. While a colossal conceptualization, this approach to clash is narrow in its faceless geopolitical substance; one can read Lewis and Huntington’s thesis as an abstraction drained of blood.  As a dramatist, Akhtar trades conflict in a way that has me caring about his characters as if they are my family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors; indeed, as if they are a mélange of my own mixed-up, confused self trying to make sense of my mixed-up, confused country.  He encourages an unyielding clash that blends the personal and the political: fathers and sons; Muslims and non-Muslims; white supremacists and racial equity activists; liberal progressives and neoliberal capitalists; believers and apostates.  Homeland Elegies uses the difficult Trump presidency as an unfettered background to put all this conflict into stark contrast.  Akhtar’s gift is his internalization of advice given to him by a college professor who becomes his mentor:  “Use the difficulty; make it your own.”

Akhtar – or rather the narrator who is Akhtar’s doppelgänger – absorbs difficulties to become a writer who has learned how to make sense of his world.  At its core, Homeland Elegies attempts to settle its narrator in two homes – America and Islam.  In dialogue peppered throughout the novel, both places of residence – geographic and spiritual – are found wanting.  

“America is not about what they tell you – freedom and opportunity and all that ….  It’s about racism and money worship – and when you’re on the correct side of both those things?  That’s when you really belong.”

“Top five words people associate on an unconscious level with Islam?  Anger.  Separate.  Suicide.  Bad.  Death….  Like cancer.  Nothing positive….  Even Cat Stevens?  …  Islam made him stop singing.” 

In another passage, the narrator is stopped by a cop who asks him where his name is from.  The narrator – perhaps Akhtar himself – “in the trying months after 9/11 … settled on a prophylactic strategy:  ‘India,’ [he] would say.  It was a lie….  [But] the answer had the obvious advantage of connoting not the referents of terror, murder, and rage that most associated with Pakistan but rather the bright colors and spicy tastes of delightful dishes like tikka masala, gyrating flash mobs in Bollywood movies, and yoga pants.”

In reviewing Akhtar’s book, I’ve tried to reconcile my settled feeling about my America – even during the surreal four years of Trumpish chaos.  Perhaps it’s a privilege to live in the sunny state of California’s diversity; maybe I’m fortunate to be born a Hindu; or maybe my Change Management consulting practice – which has me mixing with CEOs, COOs, CMOs, CFOs, CIOs, CISOs, and CHROs – has inured me to the harsh glare of capitalism’s cloudy violence.  Have the C-suite’s well-coiffed men and women blinded me to the world as it is?  Perhaps I’ve just been seeing (C-ing?) it the way they want me to experience the world:  while we riffed on strategic transformations, aligned organizations, reengineered processes, business-class flights, 5-star hotels, stock options, and mergers and acquisitions, I lost track of the jobs considered expendable in RIFs (Reductions in Force) justified by Wall Street valuations.

Change may be inexorable, but that does not always make it a welcome companion when it results in loss and exile.  Gentle readers, perhaps like Akhtar’s aging Father, perhaps like your loyal reviewer, “We’re all wondering in our different ways about how to find our way back home.”


 Dr. Raj Oza has recently completed his first novel, after publishing three works of nonfiction, and is contemplating which of his books have unyielding truth.


 

Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash with this book 'Dragon Summer: A Magical Journey of a Boy and his Dragon Friend'

A Magical Pandemic Journey of a 10-Year-Old Indian American Author

A child’s creativity has no bounds and holidays are the perfect time to explore their inquisitiveness. Once their imagination attains wings, it’s a magical world that transcends limits and expectations. For Indian American Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash from Brookfield, Wisconsin, Summer 2020 was that moment. When his third-grade teacher Mrs. Heitman came to school at the end of the academic year with summer treats, she fostered the idea of writing a story during the vacation.

Little did she know that the seeds of a budding author were sowed. And a year later, the book Dragon Summer: A Magical Journey of a Boy and his Dragon Friend got published and a ten-year-old author was born.

“I always loved writing and when my teacher suggested that I write a fiction story about what I would like to do during summer, I was really excited. As I love magic and flying creatures, my immediate choice for protagonists were dragons,” said Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash, a fourth-grader from Burleigh Elementary School.

Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash with family.
Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash with his family.

Started off as a short story with two chapters, his parents, Arsha and Abhilash, encouraged him to explore further and continue writing. “When he approached us with the first two chapters, we really liked the beginning and were curious to know how he would take it along. With pandemic and online sessions, we were in search of options to reduce the screen time and thought of giving this as a challenge and promised to publish the transcript once the story is completed. Just a single printed copy from a nearby shop was our plan and we never thought this would pan out to this extent,” beamed the mother, Arsha Abhilash with pride. 

The 30 chapter book boasts of fantasy entwined with magic and creativity. Travel through portals, dragon kingdoms, magic potions, unique names, and fancy passwords; it has everything that a kid desires. Not just wishful thinking, one can also witness the keen interest of the author towards science and nature through his writing. Annotations on different elements of nature, scientific explanations on birds and correlating them with flying dragons, it’s a story that goes beyond illusion and even educates the young readers. 

“Once the book was finished we as parents were indeed surprised but wanted to confirm its reach and potential before moving forward. We approached published authors and dear friends, Richard and K V Manikandan for a review and their feedback was endearing. They entrusted the thought that this book truly addresses the fervor and curiosity of a kid, written by a kid himself, which is actually a rarity to find. Hence, we landed upon the decision to publish it, considering it would also be an inspiration for more kids to come forward with their creations,” added Arsha, who herself is a blog writer and has a few published pieces in the Malayalam language to her credit. 

Teachers from his school district, Elmbrook School District backed the first-time author in the process with his favorite second-grade teacher, Mrs. Indestad, and current fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Erica Phillips writing the foreword and blurb for the book, respectively. The book is now available to order through Amazon for US readers and is published by Pithal Books in India. 

Not just in the writing process, Thaathwik also played an integral role in the illustration of the book. Being an artist himself, he had a fair perception of how the book should appear. Initially, he drew corresponding pictures for the first ten chapters but later, apprehending the time it consumed, he concentrated on finishing the book at the earliest. Eventually, a family friend and animator from India, Animesh Xavier came to their rescue and conceptualized the beautiful pictures for the book.

The book has so far received rave reviews from kids across the world with many of them posting online reviews and having lively discussions on the storyline with the author himself. However, for Thaathwik, who aspires to be an ornithologist cum writer, this is just a start and has already laid out plans for his upcoming book. “I have started writing for my second book named Apocalypse – an adventure of four friends with monsters. Am aiming for a series without limiting the story to a single book,” concluded the aspiring writer, who believes that one should always let their thoughts flow and never hold them back for any reason. 


Suchithra Pillai comes with over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading media publications in India and the United States.


 

Book covers for: The Bombay Prince and The Satapur Moonstone

Historical Mysteries of 1921 in India Resonate a Century Later

Oxford-educated Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first female solicitor, is a clever, spirited young woman working for her father’s respected law firm in 1921 Bombay. Unable to fully practice because a woman can’t earn a law degree, her father relies on her exacting skills with contract law and her nimble mind for additional legal assistance. Introduced to readers in Sujata Massey’s 2015 novella, Outnumbered at Oxford, then launched in The Widows of Malabar Hill (Book 1) of the author’s Mystery of 1920s India series, the success of the second and third installments shows no sign of Perveen’s career being dismissed.

October 1921. Despite being supportive of Gandhi, Perveen accepts a one-time case on behalf of the Kohlapur Agency and the British government in The Satapur Moonstone (Book 2). Like her interaction with the widows in Book 1, the Agency’s clients live in purdah and cannot speak to male outsiders. Her task is to hear both sides of a contentious debate between two maharanis—the dowager and the mother of the 10-year-old crown prince—and make a recommendation for the prince’s education.

The catch is, however, she must travel to the princely state of Satapur in the isolated Sahyadri mountains where transportation is by palanquin or horseback. Upon arrival at her lodgings, the circuit house, she meets Colin Sandringham, the political agent overseeing the area. Quickly, Perveen feels uncomfortable. Sandringham is a bachelor who recalls meeting her one evening at Oxford; she is the only woman at the circuit house; and the environment is breathtaking but treacherous even in daylight. In turn, unnerving details come to light as she undertakes her assignment. She learns the crown prince’s father and older brother recently died; the palace teems with backstabbing personalities; and the royal children are at risk. Consequently, Perveen finds herself trapped in a deadly royal situation and unable to keep from falling for Sandringham against her better judgment.

November 1921. Perveen finds herself caught in an explosive political situation at home in newly-published Book 3, The Bombay Prince. Anti-British sentiments are in the air, and Edward, Prince of Wales, is set to arrive in Bombay. Days before, college student Freny Cuttingmaster asks Perveen for guidance on behalf of an activist group: Would there be consequences for being absent from school in protest on the day of Edward’s arrival? For the parade, Perveen joins her best friend Alice, an instructor at the college, in the school’s viewing area. Following a disruptive protest by another student, Freny’s body is discovered on the college grounds. The supposition is that she had fallen and suffered injuries similar to an incident 30 years prior at another school.

Because Freny sought her counsel, Perveen vows to untangle the reason for Freny’s death. But without eyewitnesses, Perveen faces major hurdles. Her father restricts her movements by booking them in the Taj Hotel because of the increasing violence. There, she is stunned to encounter Colin Sandringham, who is accompanying Edward on his tour. Meanwhile, police are uncooperative, the press is relentless, and the arrested protester’s lawyer is incompetent. Nevertheless, Perveen forges ahead with her own investigation, questioning everyone’s motives, and becoming a target herself.

Author, Sujata Massey (Image from her website)
Author, Sujata Massey (Image from her website)

In all three books, Massey brilliantly sets up challenges, tension, and danger mixed with reasonable doubt about many characters and their possible motives. Those reasonable doubts are the products of Perveen’s questioning mind and focused labor to fit puzzle pieces together. Without modern investigative methods, equipment, or resources, Massey makes certain her legal sleuth remains firmly within all the boundaries of the 1920s.

Around the mysteries, Massey gracefully weaves India’s diverse cultures, religions, and societal expectations into the novels. She recreates 1920s Bombay with precise attention to detail, drawing out the tantalizing smell of foods, the vibrant colors of clothing, the friction caused by political beliefs, the strict Parsi matrimonial laws, the warmth and loyalty between family and friends, the textures and architecture of the city, the lushness of the mountainous jungle in The Satapur Moonstone, and the Parsi funeral customs in Bombay Prince. Massey’s awareness of time, place, and community results in Bombay a century ago so vividly that the reader is effortlessly transported.

It is Perveen herself that makes this series such delightful reading. She is rendered with great humanness as a caring, generous role model. Occasionally outspoken, she knows when to reveal her anger or maintain the decorum expected of her.

“Two of India’s early women lawyers, barrister Mithan Tata Lam and solicitor Cornelia Sorabji, were inspirational for my research,” Massey told me. “Both of them fought for the physical safety and property rights of women. Cornelia went through the jungle to meet female clients who lived in seclusion at palaces and similar locations. Mithan was the guiding force in rewriting the punitive divorce law for Parsi people, but it wasn’t accomplished until 1936.”

Massey is writing Book 4 now, about which she revealed, “I’ve explored British-Indian political themes in Books 2 and 3, and Book 4 is very strongly a woman’s rights themed book.”

Although women still face many struggles in 2021, it was a century’s worth more difficult in 1921. For Perveen, she endures immeasurable pressure as an upper-class Parsi woman who is separated from an abusive husband and who is Bombay’s only female lawyer. Perveen is an early 20th-century champion of truth and justice, women’s rights, and equality. In this way, she easily translates to today.

For mystery devotees, this series is unlike any other. For historical fiction aficionados, the author provides a rich representation of the world in which Perveen lives and works. Bombay in the 1920s, the Parsi community, and the recurring and familiar lovable characters all combine to give the reader a complete and enduring experience.


 Jeanne E. Fredriksen splits her time between homes in both Carolinas and is a long-time contributor to India Currents, a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association, and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee.