Tag Archives: Death

Far and Wide, Shared COVID Stories of Desi Americans

(Featured Image Source: Papaji Photography)

The year 2021 started with high hopes that COVID-19 will vanish as it came. Vaccines were found with competing forces by various multi-national companies. A few failed to take off, a few of them showed some promising hope and some are still on the drawing board stage of development. Ultimately, we are now gripped with new variants of the Virus trying to show its ugly head, shutting the people indoors. Our grandchildren used to sing, “Rain, rain go away….Come again another day.” With COVID, they have slightly modified it with their creative ingenuity and sing, “Pandemic go away…Never come another day.”

Here, I share two life stories of Desi Americans coming to terms with the reality of their lives. The names of the people associated with my story have been changed.

My family friend has fixed the wedding of his daughter, Seetha, a professional doctor in Boston. Earlier, the family wanted to conduct the wedding during 2020 and had made all the arrangements including fixing a marriage hall, catering, etc. and paid an advance to each of the suppliers of these services. But, alas, March 2020 and COVID-19 came as a blow to the wedding. They had to cancel all the arrangements planned. They waited with the hope that things would ease before long. Till the end of December 2020, there was no respite from the severity of the pandemic.

January 2021 brought some hope and travel restrictions eased between India and various countries including the US and European countries. So, my friend has now rescheduled the wedding date to February 28, 2021. But, the bride and groom were stuck in the US, with their flight to reach India only on 21st or 22nd February. A couple of days before boarding their flight to India, they had to get themselves tested for COVID and get a negative report. Again, on arrival, they had to clear the COVID test and they were quarantined for a period of two weeks. The wedding was a virtual one with just a few family members from both sides attending. Zoom link was provided to the friends and family members who viewed the event from the comfort of their homes. Unfortunately, the groom’s brother, who was stuck in Singapore, could not attend it.

Of course, adversity like this has come as a blessing in disguise for most of us. It became an excuse for not being able to attend such events. No gifts were also received from the friends and relatives who could not attend it. For the first time, what would have been two and half days, took just a few hours. Soon after the kanyadhan and the tying of the mangal sutra, the wedding ended and in less than an hour, the wedding hall was vacated. This is the long and short of a pandemic wedding that actually happened.

Another story is more disturbing…

My relative, Suppuni, aged 80 years old, was living in a single-bedroom flat in Mandaveli, Chennai. Suppuni’s daughter was married to a gentleman in the US and moved there. Luckily, his son Bebu had relocated to Chennai to take care of his parents. A few years back, Suppuni’s wife passed away and since then, Suppuni was staying in his single bedroom flat while his son stayed in another apartment with his family in the neighborhood. Suppuni used to spend his time between his own home and his son Bebu’s.

Last month, after staying with his son, Suppuni returned to his flat in Mandaveli. After he returned, he had a heart attack and collapsed while having his dinner. He called his son to come, who rushed, but it was too late and Suppuni had passed before any first aid could be given to him. Frantic efforts were made by Bebu to reach his sister in the US but they soon realized that her chances of coming before the cremation would be impossible. So, without waiting for her return to India, the last rites were performed by the son. 

Surely, these two stories are not unique. Yet, they are agonizing and painful for the families, whether it is the time for celebration or mourning. COVID misery does not seem to end soon. Oh God, please show mercy on this Mother Earth and listen to the prayers of our little grandchildren and make the COVID go away forever. 


Dr. S Santhanam is a writer, a blogger, and a retired General Manager of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. Born (1948) in Kumbakonam, the temple town of South India, he studied in the popular Town High School (Where Great Mathematician Shri Ramanujam also was born and did his schooling) and graduated in Mathematics from the Government College. 

Harjeet’s Family Suffers the Aftermath of COVID

(Featured Image from left to right: Harjeet, Asha (sister), Avtar (brother)) 

Harjeet Singh Zhim was born on May 17, 1983, in Panama, Central America. His family migration to Panama dates back to the early 1900s, originating with work in the Panama Canal construction. His parents, Parkash and Sushila Singh Zhim raised him as a man of good, who valued his cultural and international heritage.

Harjeet and his daughter, Gracie.

Harjeet moved to the United States in 1998 and resided in San Jose, CA with his elder sister, Ashinder. He graduated from Silver Creek High School in 2000 and Heald College in 2003. Affectionately, he was also known as Panama to family and friends because of his interesting background. His ethnicity was Indian but he was born and raised in Panama. He was fluent in Spanish, Punjabi, and English and enjoyed the blend of Latin, Indian, and American cultures, including different music genres, among his favorites: Reggaeton, Bhangra, and Hip-hop, as well as, movies from Hollywood and Bollywood, and Punjabi and Spanish movies too. He adopted religious views from both oriental and occidental cultures, visiting Christian churches, Sikh gurdwara, and Hindu temples.

He was an entrepreneur, frequently trying new business ideas. His last initiative in the US was Oh Pizza & Wings in Dublin, CA, a restaurant he opened and managed with his cousin from 2015 through 2018 with original recipes starting from the dough and pizza sauce through the creation of many customers’ favorite pizzas, such as: chicken tikka, oh siracha, turken, and hot smokey chicken. Always providing the best customer service such that customers felt welcomed and enjoyed hosting events at the restaurant.

In 2018, he went to India, got engaged, and married to Sonia Chumber, following the Indian tradition of an arranged marriage. They had a beautiful baby girl, Gracie, in 2020. He temporarily moved back to Panama in 2019, where he was also loved and welcomed by family and friends and he continued to expand his network through his entrepreneurship. With his elder brother, Avtar, he managed a family-owned restaurant, Salsa Parrilla, sharing delicious Panamanian dishes with customers. 

He was a kind and gentle soul who brought joy, laughter, and warmth to all those around him. He was happy to babysit his nieces and nephews, as well as, family and friends’ pets, spending quality time with them and quickly becoming their favorite uncle and babysitter. He enjoyed hobbies such as installing music systems and being a DJ. He contributed to society by donating his time and resources to charitable organizations. During his life, Harjeet lived life to the fullest by traveling the world, befriending those he met, and creating amazing memories with all those he knew. He visited many countries following his passion to travel the world: Canada, Colombia, Dubai, Germany, India, Mexico, Dominican Republic, South Africa, and more. 

He passed on January 15, 2021, due to COVID complications. Harjeet’s good-hearted spirit and presence will live on through his wife and their daughter, who will turn one on February 20. If you wish support them, please visit: www.gofundme.com/panamasgracie


Ashinder Singh Zhim earned an A.A. from Florida State University, Panama Canal Branch, and a B.S. in Business with an emphasis in Accounting from San Jose State University. She is a CPA licensed in the state of California and works for a big four accounting firm in the Bay Area.

It’s Just a Little Cancer. No Need to Make a Fuss.

Monday, December 1, 1967, 4:21 AM. Bombayites were rudely awoken from their slumbers as the world around them shook.

It was the devastating Koyna earthquake.

My mother recalled being panicked at the steel “Godrej” cupboards rattling together.  “Aiyayo, what is happening?”, she screamed (I am guessing that is what she said since I was not born yet). My father (without opening his eyes), replied, “It is just an earthquake. Go back to sleep.”  

I have heard this anecdote repeated with a mix of mirth and pride by my mother when she wanted to poke fun at my father.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I know that one is not supposed to roll over and sleep if an earthquake were to hit. Having said that, I have to admit feeling awe at my father’s stoicism. I cannot recall a single instance in my life when I have seen my father panic about anything. He faced family, medical, career, and financial challenges (with my mother’s firm support) without alarming his family. I wonder what it was about my father, he always made life look so easy.

Was it his disciplined lifestyle?

Was it his matter-of-fact attitude to life?

Was it his firm belief in God and his daily prayers?

I do not know where he draws his strength. But, I know his family draws strength from him. On Wednesday, October 9th, 2013, when his wife of 56 years passed away, he walked into the hospital room, stroked her head, turned around to his children, and calmly instructed them to start making phone calls to get “the body” home and make arrangements for the funeral. I remember that day being one of extreme sadness.  However, there was no panic about how we would get through it. If a man who had lost his beloved partner could think clearly and behave with dignity, it automatically meant that his family could as well.  

My version of the Koyna earthquake moment came on January 2015, when my father’s prostate cancer, that had been slow-growing until then, entered Stage 3, and the doctor, in a very worried tone, told my father that it was time to start treatment. I was scared. My father told the doctor calmly, “It is only a little bit of cancer, there is no need to make such a fuss”.

Author’s father during his cancer treatment.

The look of disbelief on the doctor’s face was amusing. I knew my dad well and would not have expected any other reaction from him. My father underwent radiation treatment for 9 weeks, 5 days a week. The radiation center was a good 20 minutes away from our home. We would drive back and forth listening to my father’s favorite old Hindi songs. The weeks flew by and as we reached the final stretch of the treatment, my father wistfully talked about how much he enjoyed the drives, the music, and the company of the lovely nurses who took quite a liking to my father. On his suggestion, we gave a cake as a thank you gesture to the medical staff on the last day of radiation. My father posed for photos with them, and I felt like a proud parent of a high school graduate. We got through it.

Today, in the era of the pandemic and political, social, and economic uncertainty, I realize that my children are probably looking to me to get hints about how to react. I do not possess my father’s courage. But, I simply recall all the incidents in my life when my father must have been concerned but did not show it. Just like my father did through his actions, I try to convey to my children that this will also pass and I hope that they will remember to pass on that message to their children.


Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan has taught information systems at San Jose State. She volunteers with the Plant-Based Advocates of Los Gatos. 

The Miracle of Christmas

Growing up Hindu in cosmopolitan Bombay, I looked forward to Christmas with a sigh of relief. Christmas for us did not have the bearings and pressures of other Indian festivals, so we could just enjoy its beauty in a laidback fashion through common symbols like the Christmas trees, church bells, decorative snow made from cotton balls, and delicious plum cakes. After coming to America, Christmas became another avenue for justifying material greed that was validated by the culture as a way to celebrate this day. Nothing wrong with shopping, but that just as I had done back in India, I missed seeing the depth of Christmas. The legendary miracle of Christmas was only a fable to me until Christmas acquired a transformed meaning for me and my family.

Four years ago, much to my shock, I spent Christmas at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Florence, South Carolina.

My son was born two weeks past his due date after a strenuous, dangerous, and heart-breaking birthing process. He was taken for a routine checkup when he started having seizures. Doctors informed us that he would have to be rushed to a specialized NICU, an hour and a half away, since that hospital was not equipped to deal with serious health conditions in infants. What health condition I asked. “We suspect meningitis,” said a very concerned doctor.

The next morning, he was zipped up in a see-through bag to be put into an ambulance. I saw him clearly for the first time. Strong, calm, and big at 9 pounds, he looked nothing like a new-born. I blew him flying kisses as tears rolled down my eyes. Because of my own medical recovery, I would not be able to get to him for three days. 

Three days passed in agony. I walked through a large room that was the NICU. There were about twenty infants there, primarily premature infants who would be kept in the unit until they reached 40 weeks, the normal gestational period. The slow exploration of miracles started when I saw babies close to two pounds, being kept alive in incubators; surviving, fighting, wanting to taste life. On the far left in the back of the big room was the critical section. That’s where I saw my son. Among others, he looked like a giant. His dark eyes wide open and aware.

I held him for the first time on Christmas eve. At this point, any contact with him felt like a gift. I stroked his hair; did he even know that I was his mother? As I met the nurses that I had been distrusting of  (How would they treat him? Would they be kind to him?), I saw how they held him, like their own. They magically appeared every time he cried, as if they were telepathically connected to him. Truth be told, they knew how to care for him better than an emotionally and physically wrecked first-time mother. They had fed him bottles of donor breast milk, another gift in this process by unknown women.

“We were thinking about a feeding tube for him, but he took to the bottle like a champ,” said the nurse. By now I had established my own milk and on Christmas Eve I fed him the first time as well.

We awoke in a hotel room near the hospital on Christmas morning. I had imagined Christmas to be at home with a tree, presents, a fireplace, welcoming our first child. When we went to the hospital, I noticed for the first time that they had a Christmas tree in the ICU. Under it were presents with each child’s name on them. And right toward the front, I saw one for my son. When I headed toward his bed, I was introduced to a woman who had been waiting for me. She introduced herself as a chaplain and that she was here to pray for every child. As she prayed for his health, for a speedy recovery invoking a miracle from God, the nurses held me while I wept.

One of them said kindly, “The best part of our job is that we see miracles every day.” 

After the prayers, the nurses serenaded Samuel with Christmas songs: Holy Night, Silent Night, Jingle Bells. My heart melted when I saw these mothers sacrificing their own Christmas mornings with their children to be with these wonderful little souls. It was a glimpse of the selflessness that motherhood calls for, something that, in time, I’d learn myself.

Trolleys of gifts were being rolled around the room and I saw that each child had a small blue teddy bear. When my son received his, I read the tag on it. It was a gift to all the children from a little boy who had spent Christmas, in this very NICU, fourteen years ago. He did not fail to send gifts each year as a reminder of the victory of recovery. 

When my husband and I walked out of the NICU, we were met by an unknown couple. They took us aside and gave us a fifty-dollar bill. “We wanted to give forward to the parents of a child here today but didn’t know who to choose. So, we stood here thinking we would give to the next couple that walks out the door.” And that was us. “Go buy yourself a Christmas dinner. Merry Christmas,” they said.

On that Christmas, my life changed. Little miracles opened my heart to a new reality – that of the true miracle of Christmas. The story of Bethlehem was no longer a fable for me. I witnessed the miracle of birth and life, of a soul coming through the darkness. I was following the guiding stars of light into the unknown to experience the magnificence of a child. Through this suffering, my understanding of Christmas was transformed from a consumer to its real purpose.

After Christmas that year, Samuel started to make a miraculous recovery. He fought his lot well, and soon it was concluded that he was fighting E-Coli in his blood all along and was spared any life-threatening circumstance. In two weeks, he was back home with us.

This year, as a four-year-old, he embellishes the Christmas tree and makes stars and snowflakes, his giggles are a rippling reminder of the miracle that he is worth all the trials and joys. A living proof of prayers answered. 


Preeti Hay is a freelance writer. Her writings have appeared in publications including Times of India, Yoga International, Yogi Times, Khabar Magazine, India Currents, and anthologies of fiction and poetry. 

A Memory, 2020

My best memory from 2020 isn’t necessarily my happiest. This year I felt no simple, one-note emotions. And so my best memory is one that encompasses the complexity of a harrowing year, glutted with loss. 

I returned to India at the end of December 2019 after a ten-year absence. On New Years Day I was in Chennai, after the drive from my family’s home in Pondicherry. I brought my three children along for this trip, now pre-teens and teenagers. They were toddlers on our last visit. 

Sunset in Pondicherry - Image taken by Author
Sunset in Pondicherry – Image taken by Author

As we drove from Pondy to Chennai, I devoured every scene of this country I’d missed for nearly a decade. The thatched huts, the overloaded lorries, a family standing in impossibly green grass, flanked by their taciturn cow. A woman posing for a selfie on the side of the road while balancing a great steel pot atop her head. Coconut groves, rice paddies, pilgrims wearing red saris that matched the blazing flowers on the nearby Poinciana trees. 

I went to the temple on New Year’s Day. Our driver guided us through a maze of people, thousands of them, a fact I can hardly contemplate now. That profusion of humanity is something I love and miss about India, and it’s one of the cruelest aspects of this pandemic—the inherent peril of India’s ubiquitous crowds. 

But at the beginning of this year, I could relish the throngs. What a different world it was.

Past the entrance of the temple, people waited in line to see the various deities. They pushed and complained, or fanned themselves with folded newspapers. Our driver presented an inscrutable, flimsy paper enabling us to advance in the queue. 

I stood at the front of the line, ready to receive my blessing, when an old woman, no higher than my elbow, strong-armed her way through the clot of people, shoving me aside. I let her pass. She was cracked and broken-earth old. And beautiful—in India such advanced age deserves reverence. 

In creative writing classes, instructors often advise us to “tell it slant”, a concept denoting the odd and intriguing detail that makes a story memorable. On this trip to India—my last real trip of 2020–the entire visit felt “slant”. From my uncle’s hilarious stories to the old woman at the temple, to the rickety stand on Marina beach selling dubious curry shrimp pizzas. 

Our prayers finished, I made my way back to my shoes, left outside the temple entrance. It had rained, and puddles collected on the uneven pavement, slimy on my bare feet. An old woman implored me to buy a garland of jasmine flowers. Another hawked damp, battered children’s books. 

As I exited the temple and approached our car, oblivious to what awaited us all just a few weeks away, I noticed a tiny, emaciated stray kitten, shivering as it crawled to one of the puddles. It lapped up the fresh rain. I wished I could hold the kitten in my hands. I doubt it survived more than a few more days.

But the image of that forlorn creature stays with me, slant indeed, and painful. In this year, so thick with loss and missing, I feel a kinship with that poor animal, stumbling forward, searching. When this is over I will have lost three semesters’ worth of connections with my students, along with the birthday parties, dinners, and the celebratory plans I had for my debut novel’s publication. 

And then, just weeks ago, the worst news of all. I lost my beloved uncle—the one I’d just visited in India for New Year’s. None of us could say goodbye to him. He could not even die in his hometown because the ICUs in Pondicherry were full. 

I often think the world provides me with poignant images that have little meaning for me in the present, but are planted in me to decipher later for some future lesson. And indeed, throughout this year my mind has returned to that kitten—now gone, I’m sure—because I feel so much like that creature these days. Stumbling forward, relentlessly aware of my fragility, but still grateful for whatever reprieve life offers. And sometimes, that reprieve is memory itself—of a time when life was easier and less freighted by loss. 

The pandemic will be over, and hopefully soon. I will return to India. My uncle will be gone, his flat in our family house empty, and I will be consoled instead by the palm trees and mangroves, frangipani flowers, bougainvillea, and other Pondicherry flora in which my Botanist uncle delighted.  And I will think back on that kitten, that New Year’s Day, when fragility belonged to something else, and not to me, or us.


Samantha Rajaram is the author of the novel THE COMPANY DAUGHTERS and lives in the Bay Area. 

A Cup of Tea With Papa

I met Neelu’s Papa just once, two or three years ago.  I went to her home for a meeting we’d planned. It wasn’t Neelu who opened the door, but a trim gray-haired gentleman.  “Neelu had to step out unexpectedly to pick up her daughter,” he told me, “she asked me to tell you she’d be back in a few minutes.  I’m Neelu’s father,” he introduced himself, as he ushered me into their living room, “please come in and sit down.” He offered me a cup of tea and insisted on sitting and chatting with me until Neelu returned home; telling me about his son, daughter, grandchildren, and how he spent time traveling back and forth between Mumbai and California to be with each of them. In those fifteen short minutes, I got a sense of the man and his love for his family.

Neelu’s Papa died late last month in Mumbai, a victim of COVID-19. I watched as she did her very best to ensure that her father received the best possible care; driven to do the best she could, and distraught and helpless at not being able to travel halfway around the world to be with him, hold his hand, and be there for and with him, in the way she so desperately wanted. 

Neelu could not have dialed up a better day for a prayer ceremony and remembrance for her beloved Papa. It was crisp and sunny in her backyard as she and her family performed the traditional Hindu rituals sitting around the Havan Kund, as the prayers and shlokas invoking eternal peace for the departed soul were expertly chanted and rituals orchestrated and explained by a learned priest dialing in remotely from New Jersey. Fifty-plus relatives, friends, and colleagues of the family watched remotely on Zoom from locations across California, the US, and India. It was a surreal experience – this improbable juxtaposition of ancient Vedic rituals, many thousand years old, with a fledgling technology that enabled far-flung, somber, and grieving onlookers to hold hands in remembrance and prayer in a single virtual room.

The final prayer was complete. Then came the eulogies and the sharing of memories, tears, and laughter; in a trickle that soon became an outpouring of emotion. A picture emerged of Papa and the man he was. A loving father, grandfather, friend, neighbor, and mentor. The adopted ‘uncle’ of many.  A loving, caring father who sacrificed a lot in his own life in order to give his children the education and grounding that would carry them to successful professional careers.  A man who helped look after the grandchildren he loved deeply – a love that was reciprocated by them manyfold. A man who never forgot someone’s birthday or anniversary; who always made time to reach out to people, meet them, talk to them, and inquire about their wellbeing. Invariably over a cup of tea, as evidenced by the number of people who, in their reminiscences, talked about chai with Papa ji!  A simple, decent, hardworking, loving caring soul. One whose loss reverberates through many households, cities, and countries; his influence and memories carved indelibly in the hearts and minds of so many. 

I am blessed and fortunate to be among those whose path through life crossed with his. It is, however, my loss that I did not have the good fortune to share a few more cups of tea with Papa.

We have lost yet another treasured soul to the illness that this scourge, monstrous Coronavirus has inflicted on humanity.  Each death has shattered the lives of so many.  As I write this piece, more than 1.2 million lives have been lost to COVID-19 worldwide – with more than 230,000 of those in the US – staggeringly large numbers that fail to describe, or even begin to measure the impact of their loss on all their loved ones.  How many more stories like Papa’s remain to be told? 

We can all collectively heal as a community, as a nation, and as members of the human race by sharing our memories of these departed souls. Each one of them must be cherished and treasured. We can live our lives better by celebrating theirs and passing on to those that follow the life lessons they taught us.

Neelu’s Papa, we will all miss you!


Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. He is also a columnist for India Currents.

Bereavement in a COVIDian Era

I stood anxiously inside the ICU while my brother spoke to the doctor on duty to confirm that his report explicitly stated that our mom’s death was non-COVID related. Without that report, we had been told that we would run into issues with the city. My brother scrambled to get the report of the COVID-19 test that was taken a few days ago while our spouses tried to book the earliest slot in the crematorium to minimize contact with other mourners. My mom had just died after a five-week struggle in the hospital but dealing with the pandemic took precedence over our grieving process. 

As condolence messages started pouring in, a common thread ran through them: “How fortunate that you got to spend the last five months with your mom!” “You must be so grateful!” “The COVID-19 lockdown was a blessing in disguise for you.” “You’re so lucky.” I thought I heard a note of jealousy in one octogenarian’s voice but soon I realized it was just fear: “Your mother was so blessed. How lucky she was surrounded by her family!” Another message sounded very bizarre when I first heard. “You must be thankful that she did not die during the lockdown. We could not scatter the ashes of my father in the river Cauvery because of travel restrictions.” Rarely, these messages and conversations dwelt on my loss or my grief. 

In February, when the Coronavirus infections were still in single digits in Silicon Valley, my mom was hospitalized in Bangalore and I left for India. My mom came home after a few days. I had a return ticket for a date in March but my instincts were against returning to the US. Then India went into a countrywide lockdown, and all international flights got canceled. I got to spend the next five months with my mom, taking care of her, listening to her desires, her fears and her view of how her life had fared. We played cards, listened to music and discussed recipes.

Anandi’s mother on her birthday.

During this pandemic, some of my friends in the US lost their loved ones in India and were unable to attend the funeral in India. Some in India were also unable to travel to the funeral of their loved ones. There are so many obstacles: lack of flights, travel restrictions and quarantine rules. One friend had to ask a neighbor to take care of the funeral of a loved one. The most harrowing ones I heard were from people who lost their loved ones to COVID-19 and did not get to say their final goodbyes. There were sons who could not perform the last rites. A friend, sobbing uncontrollably, told me that she did not get to bathe and dress her mother, a daughter’s duty after the mother’s death. This coronavirus has not only killed people and financially ruined many but also has left survivors suffering from guilt and having trouble getting closure. Hence, I do understand the significance of the condolence messages I received. Besides getting time to spend with our mom, my brother and I got to do our last duties, which have become increasingly challenging during this pandemic. 

It has been a few weeks and I am home now. Some nights I wake up in a state of panic, struck by the finality of my mom’s death and it feels like someone is sitting on my chest. The other day, when I was sitting at the dining table, I thought my mom would have liked to know who brought us food on the day of her funeral, since cooking is not allowed in the house. That is the kind of question she would have asked me and I would have told her that someone whom she cared about deeply brought us food. As days pass by, often I find something I would have shared with her – a recipe or a song by a rising young singer or a visit by a friend or a relative — on our regular weekly phone calls and I grasp the impossibility of communicating with her and have trouble breathing. I feel the vacuum in my life. None of the positive things people said comfort me. Grief does not care about logic and reason. I have lost a relationship, the longest one of my life, and I do not feel fortunate. 


Anandi Lakshmikanthan is a retired software engineer. She is a co-founder of Sevalaya USA. She tutors refugee women and children. She has written short stories and reviews. 

Take the Time, Check In

WHO reports suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds globally, with a total of 800,000 lives lost every year. This data was compiled pre-pandemic and the assumption is that this year the data is going to look worse. 

As an actor and storyteller, I wanted to capture mental health in a short story, focus on one of the potential solutions, and drive that point home. It was an active decision to remove focus from the underlying reasons for depression. As of late, we’ve learned that depression can happen without an obvious trigger, as in the case of Deepika Padukone.

As one would expect, initially it took time to find people who wanted to invest time in a project about mental health but I found my key collaborators – Christina Perez and Emmanuel Vega. Christina Perez directed, edited, and created the background score. Emmanuel worked the sound and lights, among other things. The shoot was done in one location and completed in 3 hours.

In these trying times, the relevance of the message has increased and the collective consciousness has been almost forced to develop empathy to understand it. However, the message was relevant even before and will remain relevant even after. The ending of the short was designed to be something that lived online given the ubiquity and the growing relevance of the Internet in the current world. 

As a volunteer project, my team and I have nothing to gain from this video other than spreading a beneficial message. Please take the time, just 96 seconds, to watch the short film below!

Since the release of the short, the response has been very positive. A young musician from Kerala was inspired by the short and composed a song using the visuals from the short film. A doctor messaged me and said how this movie had impacted him; he started making calls to his coworkers to check in on them as they are working 80 hours/week.

Almost everyone who watched the short has loved the art and has had a key takeaway from it, however, not many have watched it. While it may seem that 70k views are a lot, remember that 800,000 people die due to mental health every year. We are just getting started!

Uday Krishna is an actor, writer, and data professional. Uday has acted in a bunch of shorts, plays, commercials and has written/directed plays and shorts.

Dil Bechara: From Reel to Real

Sushant Singh Rajput’s posthumous film Dil Bechara recently released on Disney+ Hotstar. Clearly dedicated to him, the film begins with a smiling SSR playing the guitar while a quote of his flashes in the background: “Perhaps, the difference between what is miserable, and that, which is spectacular, lies in the leap of faith…#selfmusing.” Inspired by John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars, the film is set in Jamshedpur and its opening dialogues are what most bedtime stories start with: “Ëk tha raja, ek thi rani; dono mar gaye, khatam kahani.”   

Kizie Basu (Sanjana Sanghi) is a young girl suffering from thyroid cancer. An oxygen mask is attached to her person, which she carries with her at all times. Due to her disease, she has a largely boring life and feels like a reality TV show contestant who can be eliminated from the game of life anytime. She often attends funerals of strangers and sympathizes with their loss. More than anything else, she longs to be just like any other normal girl her age. 

Enter Manny (SSR), who she meets at a cancer counseling group. Though ill too, he is fun-loving and likes to sing, dance and act. SSR is sadly so energetic and full of life in this—his last film—with expressions that remind one of Shah Rukh Khan from the DDLJ days. He also spins magic with some promising dance moves in the film’s dreamy title song. Watching it one can’t help but lament with a heavy heart about such a talented life tragically wasted. 

The film has its share of clichés too—like the fact that Kizie and Manny’s taste in music doesn’t match. While she likes to hear soppy, mellow songs, he prefers the likes of Honey Singh. Along with Manny’s friend, the two of them start shooting a comical film together, and he shows her how to enjoy life. In turn, Kizie gets him to hear an incomplete soulful song by a singer whom she admires, and he begins to love the tune too. They write to the singer to conclude his song and request to meet him. Kizie can barely believe it when the singer invites them to Paris. Since her immune system is weak, it’s risky for her to travel, but with some coaxing, she goes to Paris along with Manny and her mother—who agree to fulfill her long-cherished dream. Though meeting the crazy singer (Saif Ali Khan) is a bit anticlimactic, the three of them have a great time in the city. 

With the stars of young love in her eyes, Kizie soon finds a raison détre in Manny, but filled with emotion, she frequently gets breathless and her heart beats faster when around him. Manny later tells Kizie that an ache had led him to discover sometime back that he too is going to die very soon. In a poignant scene, his family hugs him and cries, as his condition steadily deteriorates. He also attends a mock funeral for himself where his best friend and girlfriend read weepy vows to him, while he sits across and hears them out. Predictably the end of the film is melodramatic, made more true to life by the fact that SSR is no more in reality too. There are several dialogues that seem ironic now—and while they were being shot, no one probably had a clue about what the future holds. In one instance, Kizie tells Manny, “One doesn’t need to be popular to be a hero. You can be one in real life too.” 

The film’s subtle message is in the letter that Manny leaves behind before dying: “We don’t decide when we are born and when we die, but we decide how we live.” As Kizie tearfully watches visuals of the completed film that they had shot together, it could very well be Sanghi herself watching the completed Dil Bechara in real life now. In a sense, the film and SSR’s life remind you of the fleeting nature of existence itself, making you almost want to hug your loved ones a little tighter, laugh a little louder, and just live life a little more fully…

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Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.

The Powerful Dancing Legacy of Saroj Khan

Sarojji, you were a legend and one of a kind. A heartfelt salute for countless moments of cinematic joy and moves; for making a mark as a female choreographer in Hindi cinema – despite the odds stacked against you.

Saroj Khan’s life and 60 plus years of career were defined by her natural talent and love for dance – she transformed into an ethereal being when she put her dancing shoes on. A classic rags to riches story, her professional and personal journey was filled with pure love, dedication, hard work, passion, and candor.

While her aptitude for dance gave her everything, it also took a lot away. Sexism, exploitation, struggles, barriers… she didn’t let any of that stop her. Over the years, she worked with a variety and generations of stars from Sridevi and Dharmendra to Shahid Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai.

Saroj was born in 1948. Her parents, affected by partition, had fled from a wealthy existence in Pakistan to poverty in India, hoping to build a new life. At three years of age, she entered the film industry as a child actor, fending for her family, when her mother discovered her love for dancing by accident. To avoid the stigma of working in films, her name was changed from Nirmala Nagpal to Saroj.

At 8-9 years, Saroj had outlived her career as a young actor and turned to background dancing for a living. She had no formal training but picked up dance movements easily and quickly. In those years, as a group dancer, she identified herself as Anglo-Indian, had short hair, and mainly did Western styles of dancing –  jive, rock and roll, and acrobatics.

Her transition to Indian dancing was difficult. Western dancers were looked down upon by the classical-bent dance veterans. Nevertheless, she turned a chance to work with B Sohanlal into an opportunity, when she was called to perform acrobatics (Spot Saroj in video below at 1:42-1:441:52-1:58 and 2:04-2:16)  as a group dancer in Vyjayantimala’s version of Eeena Meena Dika from Aasha.

Saroj changed her appearance from an Anglo-Indian to Indian to learn from Sohanlal, it marked her big break, and she became a part of his troupe, first as a group dancer and later as an assistant. At 13 years of age, she married her 38-year-old mentor, who had shaped her as a dancer. He was married with children but she was unaware and much in love. At 14, she gave birth to their first child. Her association with him lasted 5 odd years in which she learnt the finer aspects of dance and also discovered her knack for choreography. When he was away for a song shootingPL Santoshi (Rajkumar Santoshi’s father) inspired her to choreograph Nigahen Milane Ko Jee Chahta Hai for Dil Hi To Hai.

When Sohanlal refused to give their child his name, she walked out. It was the start of a long struggle but also finding her own feet as a solo professional. “I wanted to live my life as I wanted to live, without him,” she had said at a Ted Talk event. Those were big words from a young teenage mother, who also had to break professional ties with her ex-husband. Despite what happened, she continued to respect him and remained grateful for the learnings and livelihood. Not a justification but it gives context to her controversial casting couch comments in 2018. After the break-up, she went back to working as a group dancer and assistant choreographer for other lead choreographers. She was a good talent to hire, she could be the proxy lead whenever needed, without the money or credit.

Accolades and fame were still elusive despite support from actress Sadhana who gave her a break as a choreographer in her directorial venture Geeta Mera Naam (1974)Her talent wasn’t enough, she was still stuck. “I worked very hard – day and night – but I was not popular. Nobody accepted me as a choreographer, as I was female. That time, the rule was that only men can be choreographers or dance masters, as they were called then,” she recalled.

The road to A-grade success began with the Hema Malini-Dharmendra starrer Pratigya (1975) but the journey to popularity was still slow. Around that time, she also remarried second husband Sardar Roshan Khan and took some years off to focus on her family. She returned with Raj Babbar’s debut movie Jazbaat (1980) and this time the path was smoother. She was accepted whole-heartedly as a choreographer in the industry. Top directors like Subhash Ghai, Yash Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mani Ratnam lined up.

Saroj was also known for her penchant for perfection and had a temper to unleash on anyone who didn’t meet her high levels. Though she loved actors who knew their dance, she also enjoyed guiding non-dancers like Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, and Sunny Deol. Actors had to rehearse before they arrived on set. Madhuri rehearsed Ek Do Teen for over two weeks. Saroj demanded that Sanjay must rehearse Tamma Tamma (Thanedaar) as a signing condition. He did. She added a touch of femininity to Hrithik’s steps in Bumbro (Mission Kashmir).

Kareena fondly remembers Saroj telling her, “Perrr nahin chala saktiii to kam se kam face to chalaa!” (if you can’t work your feet, at least work your face!).

Saroj was hired to train Madhuri, who had done a few movies but hadn’t succeeded as a lead heroine yet. It won’t be an exaggeration to say Madhuri owes her success to Saroj Khan.  Ek Do Teen handed her stardom and a career on the platter. Ek Do Teen was out there and fun compared to the classic and subtle beauty of Oh RamjiMadhuri aced both.

There was a marked difference in Madhuri’s persona on screen post the Saroj influence. The oomph, confidence, and attitude that Madhuri imbibed in both her acting and dance performances were unmistakable learnings from Sarojji.

Saroj had a long association with Sridevi as well, whom she considered her daughter. There is no doubt that her partnership with Madhuri was more fruitful commercially but some of her most refined and creative pieces were with Sridevi.

They created wonders in the cult classic Mr. India with Hawa Hawai. I remember watching it in a seedy Mumbai theatre and being blown away. It was one of those surreal cinematic experiences where your senses are shot and the only way to get over it was to watch the movie many times over.

Ek Do Teen brought other achievements for Saroj. She bumped up her price, benefiting her assistants, and made sure choreography was valued for its true worth. She was proud of the students she gave the industry. Her unavailability propelled two of her assistants into success. She requested prodigy Ahmed Khan to choreograph Ramgopal Verma’s Rangeela (1995) which won him a Filmfare award for Rangeela Re. Farah Khan stepped in to do Pehla Nasha when she couldn’t adjust her dates for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992).

Sarojji‘s style was a stamp, she dominated the 90s and left her impact well into the 2000s.

Not that Saroj Khan needed awards to prove her worth but hopefully they were sweet revenge for having to stay under the radar for decades despite her formidable talent. Portrayed with dignity and grace, her women could still be sensual and defiant within the traditional mold. As Kareena said aptly in her tribute to Sarojji: dance and expression will never be the same for us actors. I would add Hindi cinema to that. It’s an end of an era. Or perhaps, many eras.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.

Without My Dad

This is the first Father’s Day without my dad. 

I reflect on his advice, “Son, don’t hate. Never be a victim and give in to anger.”  

Advice that could not be more relevant in today’s political climate. I see my father’s importance and the positive role he played in my upbringing, my sense of self, and my commitment to my work.  

To fully appreciate the philosophy behind dad’s life, you need to know one thing about him – he lived a life with an Attitude of Gratitude

He raised us not to feel entitled. We learned, early on, the subtle joys of appreciating the good in our lives with daily prayers of thanks. It was a common bond that connected us as family.

He taught us to never compromise on our values and principles and to take accountability. He pushed people to do their best and pushed us outside of our comfort zones, which really helped us grow. He said “We are humans and mistakes can be made. But we’re not going to make mistakes of character or integrity.”

When other fathers were bragging about their wealth, their children’s grades, clothes, and success, dad never boasted. He said “be a good human being in life,” and that is all that will matter in the end. He brought everybody together.

Dad was a caring, thoughtful, and gracious man. He was always quick to recognize and express his admiration for the skills and accomplishments of those around him. Dad believed that giving back to the community was of utmost importance. This was demonstrated by his extensive involvement in civic and community activities.

I am filled with incalculable joy at the thought of the many lives my dad touched. Reflecting on his life reminds me of all the ways my father is still with me after death. I am not without my dad – I am filled with his wisdom and values and while I live, so does he.

Sunil Tolani is the CEO of Prince Organization and a devoted son to his father, Arjan Tolani. He writes this in memoriam of his father, who inspired him to be the person he is today.

Rishi Kapoor, 67, Dies; A Sparkly Hero Whose Spirit Stayed Young

The Internet exploded as news of the death of veteran actor Rishi Kapoor blistered on iPhones. The news moved swiftly from Amitabh Bachchan’s tweet. It was carried on waves of Whatsapp messages across oceans. Just as Californians were getting ready for bed, horror and disbelief jolted them.

Many had seen Chintu Baba, their Ryan O’Neil, in his launch movie Bobby, a teenage love story. The parents had relived the Nargis-Raj Kapoor romance; the boys had swooned over the virginal heroine in schoolgirl clothing, while the chocolate hero, with scarfs as long as his pedigree, had stolen hearts of girls. Forever, the GTS bike he rode in the movie became as iconic as the hippie Volkswagen was.

The actor struggled to grow up. His impish tweets kept him forever in Chintu mode.

“Worked very hard to get Rishi Kapoor back as my name! Parents must never nickname a child. I never did,” he tweeted.

Then Chef Floyd Cardoz immortalized the Chintu name. Bombay Canteen named a whole menu Chintu. After a culinary career spanning 27 years in New York, celebrated chef Floyd Cardoz had made his restaurant debut in Mumbai, the city of his birth, with The Bombay Canteen. Chintus, or tasting size portions were circulated as the guests waited for their tables. Here guests could order a Chintu portion of crisp, thinly sliced fried lotus stem chips seasoned with salt and amchur, or the Chintu desi devilled eggs.

Rishi was seen sampling the menu at the Canteen and at the Paowala in New York, both restaurants of great renown and belonging to Floyd Cardoz.

The Chef and he had more than one thing in common, they both loved food, and they both flitted between New York, where Rishi was undergoing cancer treatment, and Mumbai.

The Chef was on his way from Mumbai to New York when he felt uncomfortable. He checked himself into a hospital in New York. He was diagnosed with Coronavirus and died there on March 24th, 2020. He was 59.

After the news of the Chef’s death, Rishi Kapoor tweeted. “RIP. Floyd Cardoz. Will cherish the meal you made for us at your restaurant.”

A month later, on April 30th, Chintu baba aka Rishi Kapoor complained of difficulty in breathing. He passed away in Mumbai. He had returned from New York in September.

The Chintus are still being served at Bombay Canteen.

Spirited, vibrant, sweet, and delightful, Chintu you always left a sparkly taste in our mouths.

Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.