Tag Archives: Devi

An Inauguration That Awoke My Ancestors

(Featured Image: Screenshot from CNBC coverage of the 2021 Inauguration)

I was pouring my coffee and almost spilled it when I heard Senator Amy Klobuchar’s words, “Our first African American, our first Asian American, our first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris” waft from my TV. As nonchalantly as I had been watching the inauguration, that moment – those words violently ran through my body, as though all my ancestors were asking me to listen. 

Kamala Devi Harris.

I was happy to hear of the Democratic shift in our Executive and Legislative branches of government and had voted accordingly, yet I remained skeptical. Skeptical if the words matched the vision. 

I accepted Vice President Kamala Harris as a person of color, but I’m not sure why, I hadn’t rationalized the identities she presented. Her Indian-American identity was one she had disengaged from early in her career, rightfully so, only to reach out conveniently when she needed votes. I still voted for her, advocated for her. Not because of her Indian heritage but because of her qualifications, her recent policies, her passion, her willingness to adapt, change, and grow. She was a powerhouse and deserved a position that matched her abilities. This was the narrative I spun for myself and others. 

But…it wasn’t until those words were uttered at the inauguration that I felt myself shudder. Shudder in disbelief. Shudder at the significance. Shudder at the thought of my connection to her.

A Lotus Goddess. 

And there she was…like Lakshmi Devi, ready to sit upon her throne. Her purple garments, vibrant like the purple lotus. Rooted in America in the most American way – a child of immigrants from two spaces and places. I could not will that away and neither could she. 

For so long, I denied seeing myself in Kamala in the interest of seeming impartial; to not be criticized for voting based on resemblance. I cannot deny it any longer. Our Vice President, Kamala Devi Harris is an Indian-American and I love her for it. I love myself for it. She will be a part of my history and I, hers.


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

Bollywood Blockbusters Straight to Your Screen

Although social distancing has brought our daily lives to a grinding halt, the latest update from Amazon Prime Video proves that the show must truly go on. It is heartening to know that amid the chilling outbreak of the coronavirus, Bollywood has persevered in its attempts to amuse and bring us together. These latest releases are a reminder of how critical online entertainment truly is during this pandemic. Hopefully, Shakuntala Devi and Gulaabo Sitabo will bring a necessary slice of positivity into your lives.  

To satiate your appetite for some B-town, Amazon Prime announced the premiere of Gulabo Sitabo, an Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana collaboration. The two leads amuse audiences in an intricate game of cat-and-mouse, offset by the conflicting agendas of the supporting cast. 

Regarding the film, Mr. Bachchan said, “I was excited about my role since the first time Shoojit showed me the character’s look. It took me almost 3 hours each day to get into character with its different look. I had a wonderful time working with my very talented co-star Ayushmann Khurrana. Even though we are constantly bantering in the film, it has been a pleasure working with him for the first time. This family entertainer has the power to cut across geographic boundaries and we are pleased to bring Gulabo Sitabo to audiences.”

Amazon Prime also recently announced the premiere of the highly publicized Shakuntala Devi. The film will be available to audiences across the globe and is available on the Amazon Prime app on nearly every device. With the formidable Vidya Balan at the forefront, Anu Menon’s latest film certainly cannot go wrong. Vidya Balan intrigues audiences in her retelling of the life of Shakuntala Devi, India’s “human computer.”

Devi is one of the world’s most celebrated geniuses, bringing her talents to India, Hong Kong, and all over the globe. Not only was she recognized for her inexplicable mathematical prowess, but also because she was India’s first woman to publish a paper on homosexuality

When asked about her role, Balan said, “She was truly someone who embraced her individuality, had a strong feminist voice, and braved many a naysayer to reach the pinnacle of success. But what truly fascinates me is that you wouldn’t normally associate a fun person with math…and she completely turns that perception on its head.” Balan later added that Ms. Devi was  “one of the most inspiring women of this country,” and that she was “extremely excited” to bring such an extraordinary woman’s tale to life. 

Other Amazon Prime Movies direct-to-service slate:

Ponmagal Vandhal (Tamil) – May 29th

Gulabo Sitabo (Hindi) – June 12th

Penguin (Tamil and Telugu) – June 19th

Law (Kannada) – June 26th

French Biryani (Kannada) – July 24th

Shakuntala Devi (Hindi) – TBD

Sufiyum Sujatayum (Malayalam) – TBD

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the youth editor of India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

The Changing Woman: Women’s History Month

International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month has been on my mind.  There are a lot of empowering stories that buzz about. We read, share, and celebrate these messages. While we applaud these “others”– we often miss the ones that are closest to us. Examples of enduring strength, love and courage surround us, even though we don’t stop to recognize them.

There are legends which form part of the mythology of cultures world wide, deifying and honoring the “female” – as a creative spirit, as the “giver of life” – and as goddesses. India has its pantheon of  “Devis,” worshiped for the roles they play in her ancient and plentiful mythology.

The correlations between such legends and myths crisscross and resonate. As does the concept of “Changing Woman” – who is one of the most revered of deities among the Native Americans of the southwestern United States. For the Navajo people, Changing Woman is central to their way of life. She is a benevolent figure, giving people their abundance and teaching them to live in harmony with all things. She is part of the initiation ceremony of Navajo women, imbuing young girls with the values of love, hospitality, and generosity. She teaches that within each woman is the source of food, creation and harmony.

Her  most important quality is that she can change at will from a baby, to a girl, young woman, and age into an old woman – repeating the cycle, performing roles within the mythic framework as needed. Changing Woman is part of the Navajo spirit, and lives through them as a nourishing goddess, who teaches the wisdom of nature and the cycles of birth and death.

My upbringing was full of such stories of goddesses. Much like the Changing Woman, they colored my life through the voices of my grandmothers. They were celebrated as Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Durga, Kali, Parvati, and many more as I discovered for myself as I grew older. Worshiping them I gradually accepted that they each had qualities I could identify with – as the woman I was becoming.

In an attempt to acknowledge, and applaud the creative female spirit, I have created a series of “portraits” of women I have the privilege of knowing personally. This series celebrates the ability of women, to hold on to their creative identity while they “shape-shift” and evolve to fulfill the many labels and roles in their lives.  It is the only way I know how to walk with them – to join in their journey, and learn from their stories.

A 1947 Partition Tale – Thwarting the Ghost Train

Kasoval, 1947

It was a hot August afternoon and the heat of Kasoval village made the dust stick to his shirt. He was headed home from school with his younger brother in tow and he was irritated. The maulvi had made him re-do his Urdu calligraphy again, giving his friends Aslam and Khalid an opportunity to snigger. “I’m not even nine!” he told his brother. “They are eleven and still doing the same lessons. What do they have to laugh about?”

Beeji called out to them as they neared their house. “Arre, don’t forget to wash your hands, garam parathas are coming off the tava quickly!” A quick sluice at the hand pump and the brothers Ravinder and Devinder were seated cross legged in front of the angeethi, with the smell of homemade butter melting on parathas wafting from the big thalis in front of them. Beeji made the best parathas, and after gorging on them, an afternoon nap in the shade of the bargad tree was in order.  They decided not to join the older boys in their game of marbles; it was far too hot that day.

As evening fell, the rays of the setting orange sun picked out the cows that were ambling home through fields of green. Dusk turned to a dark, hot night and suddenly there was urgent knocking on Tikkam Chand’s door. The Moharrar, embarrassed to be the messenger, stood outside bearing dreaded news. “Chand-ji, it is your house that they are planning to attack tonight. It will be best if you leave immediately.”

There was no time to think,. Small bundles of jewelry and cash had been prepared and were carried by Tikkam Chand, his wife and Ravinder’s daadi. “No, you cannot take your marbles” whispered Beeji. “We can carry nothing that is not important.”

“But, Beeji, Ravi’s marbles are the most important thing he has” said Devinder. No one seemed to care.

Soon they were on the street, headed towards the railway station. “How will Papa find us?” whispered Ravinder to Beeji with a sense of urgency. “He is a policeman,” she whispered back “he will find his way.”

“We cannot take the passenger train to India,” said Tikkam Chand. “It will stop at every village!” In an instant, he makes the bold choice of taking the train heading backwards to Khanewal, so that they could catch the mail train, an express that stopped at few stations along the way. When the train chugged out of the Kasoval station, Tikkam Chand cried out – “Sab jal raha hai. Humara ghar jal raha hai!” (Everything is on fire. Our home is burning!)

The Khanewal station platform was a scene of utter chaos. There were hordes of people and just as they stepped onto the platform, violence erupted around them. Ravinder screamed as a bullet lodged in his leg. The pain was unbearable and he started sobbing, unable to walk. Beeji tore off a strip of cloth, discreetly sterilized it with her urine and wrapped the wound. Ravinder did not know it then – but, the resulting scar would remain forever.

Ravinder saw a bizarre sight  as the mail train that they were waiting for pulled into Khanewal station. The train was filled with people – they were everywhere – they were perched  on top of the train, they balanced their bodies in the couplings between the carriages, the compartments were packed with them – they hung on for dear life from doors and windows. The sight stirred something deep and foreboding within Ravinder’s mind. The sight made him realize that life as he had known it till then had ended – madness had taken root.  

He saw Tikkam Chand negotiating with the Assistant station master.  Cash and jewelry soon exchanged hands and an agreement was stuck to take them in the bogey reserved for passengers traveling in first class. Soon, they settled into the compartment with trepidation.. As the train passed through a bleak landscape, Devinder developed a high fever. In desperation, Beeji pressed a piece of wet cloth on his forehead striving to keep his temperature at bay. Ravinder stared out of the window and was unable to process the various sights as the train hurtled through village after village. Women were jumping into wells, pursued by men with murder in their eyes. Dead, dismembered bodies were lying by the railway tracks. Fires raged everywhere. Houses, fields, animals and carts – everything was up in flames. His eyes turned red and he felt numb.

As the train pulled into each station where a stop was scheduled, the Assistant station master pushed all of them into the bathroom and locked the door securely. Men wielding lathis charged in, and they could hear them demanding “Hai koi Sikh da bachcha?(Is there a *expletive Sikh here?) The Assistant station master in a clam voice responded with, ““No one here but my family.” To prove his point, he opened the train windows and declared with more confidence to the marauders on the platform, “See? It’s just my family in here.” Eventually, the train reached Kasoor, the last stop in the newly created Pakistan, before it was going to cross over into India.

At Kasoor station once again, the Assistant station master opened all the windows to show the crowd that the first class  bogey held only three people – his wife, child and himself. He helped his wife and child to disembark onto the platform. They waited for him to clamber down, but he shook his head ever so slightly. He stayed on the train and then leapt from the moving train as it neared the end of the platform. It was his last gesture in ensuring the safety of his charges who hid in the bogey.

Tikkam Chand and the others stayed hidden it the bathroom until the train reached Firozepur, where they disembarked to come across another scene of horror.Their train was a ghost train, full of dead bodies. Dismembered arms and legs and severed heads had fallen off the train onto the platform. They were the only ones to get off the train alive, saved by a kind Muslim.

Ravinder did not know this then – but the face of the Assistant station master with his large chocolate brown eyes and his flowing beard, a man whose name he would never know, would stay etched in his mind through every waking moment thereafter.  

At Firozepur station there were a few Sikhs who handing out apples and warm milk to the few passengers who had made it out alive. They were soon herded onto a train to Delhi, where they disembarked to find even more chaos. Hundreds of people thronged every corner of the station. Devinder soon got lost in this milling  crowd and Beeji went crazy, yelling and crying, as she ran around looking for him. Luckily she soon found him, frightened and crying near a pillar.

Soon,they were taken to a refugee camp. They arrived there with no possessions, except for the clothes on their backs. Beeji knew that her daughter-in-law’s sister lived in Delhi and that her husband was a store keeper in Chandni Chowk selling luggage. Everyday, Beeji went to Chandni Chowk along with Tikkam Chand and made a stop at every luggage store – her question tinged with desperation was the same – “Do you know Leela?” One day, one of the store owners replied with the words she waited to hear – “Yes, she is my wife.” Hearing these words, Beeji sobbed in relief. “I have brought Kanta’s children here. My work is done.”

Leela hurried to the refugee camp and took all of them home in a tanga. She immediately summoned a tailor and got new clothes stitched for everyone. A telegram was dispatched to Kanta in Jagadri,informing her that her sons Ravinder and Devinder were safe and that they were in their aunt’s care.

It is a while before Ravinder and Devinder are finally reunited with their father Narendra Nath. Their father had left Kasoval village to move to another town to accept a promotion and a new posting. ,He had left his mother and his two sons Ravinder and Devinder in the care of his merchant friend Tikkam Chand. He had sent his wife and daughters to India earlier. Before he could go to Kasoval to bring his two sons and his mother, violence had erupted and there was no way to reach them. He had come to know that they had taken the train, but there was no news about whether they had arrived in India. The journey was filled with peril and there were so many stories of sheer horror that he did not know where to look for them or where to find them. He had finally used his connections to get a ride on a plane to Delhi and listened to radio announcements day in and day out for weeks on end. Then he heard the message that he had been waiting for all along – Tikkam Chand’s family and the Chopra family had arrived safely – they had now left Delhi and had traveled to Jagadri.

It is a thankful but not a joyous reunion. Too many of their brethren had been lost. The horrors that they witnessed had wrought a profound change in each one of them. Out of this unspeakable horror, a tacit agreement was born in silence – the things they endured will not be spoken of.   

They had to focus on rebuilding their lives and their identities in the newly independent India.

San Francisco Bay Area, 2017

It has been seventy years. Ravinder Chopra, a grandfather many times over, is teaching a “Jollywood” dance class at ICC. After an illustrious career in the Indian Army where he rose to become a general, he is enjoying his days of retirement. Theatre and dance are what he is passionate about now.  In all these years he has not spoken of his flight from Kasoval to Jagadri. Until now. The subject was taboo in his parent’s home.

Life has a way of bringing us full circle.

Ravi-ji, as he is fondly called, now 79-years old, is playing the role of a kind Muslim, complete with flowing beard, in a play that re-creates the events of the Partition right here in Silicon Valley.

The Parting, opened in January in San Francisco and moves to San Jose in March,and  is the brainchild of Vinita Sud Belani and Farah Yasmeen Shaikh.

One is Hindu, and is from India. The other is Muslim, born in America of Pakistani parents. One runs a theatre company, the other a dance company. To them, these are not opposite but complementary states of being, coming from several centuries of coexistence.

Produced by EnActe Arts and Noorani Dance in partnership with the 1947 Partition Archive and India Currents, The Parting is a seamless blend of theater, dance, music, and multimedia. Twenty-two actors, eighteen dancers, and a lone violinist explore the true-life stories of the survivors of the Partition, the forgotten, and the dead.

These were the ultimate victims, caught up in the maelstrom and tumult of hope, panic and denial that occurred when Great Britain in what many see as a blithe last act of colonialism, decided to partition the country of India based on religious identity following the Indian Independence Act of 1947, thus setting in motion one of the greatest migratory upheavals of the twentieth century. 15 million displaced, 2 million dead is a familiar statistic to South Asians.

“I am alive today because of the kindness of two Muslims”, says Ravi. In all the cruelty that the Partition unleashed and that Ravi witnessed firsthand, he saw kindness and humanity shine through on both sides of the divide. “We are the same people,” he says. “Who said a line could divide us?”

This interview was conducted by Vinita Belani.