2020 has been a challenge for all of us and will be etched in our memory for our lifetime.
Painting was always on my bucket list and in February 2020 I decided to enroll in art class. But as luck would have it, just after 3 classes, COVID happened. My art teacher asked me to continue practicing painting with the advice “Just believe in yourself and you will do it”
March 2020 arrived and gave the whole world the gift of time with nowhere to go. After much soul searching, I decided to devote an hour or so every day to pursue my passion for painting. I realized there is nothing to lose and I would improve by learning from my mistakes. I decided to paint for an audience of one – myself.
My first painting was in March 2020 when ‘Stay at home’ was first announced around the globe. I decided to paint to bring calmness and peace to my anxious mind about the uncertainty looming around the global pandemic. I decided to paint Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, as I always visualized that Ganesha up there was guiding me and watching out for me. Painting was like meditation and was truly therapeutic, engaging the brain cells in a very unique way.
The best part was that I was very inspired by my first effort and decided to continue painting. I am truly grateful for the encouragement from my hubby, daughter-in-law, daughter, and son. Their honest feedback and the perfect gift of an artist table on Mother’s Day helped me to better focus on creating artwork.
I shared pictures of my artwork with friends and family via social media. My next-door neighbor was very impressed and asked if I could paint Ganesha for her. Suddenly my passion and free time had a purpose. One thing led to another and in the span of 365 days, I have created over 100 paintings and shared or gifted over 85 paintings with neighbors, coworkers, family, and friends around the globe.
Beside Ganesha, I challenged myself to line art with topics that evoke serenity – like ‘Newborn bond,’ ‘Meditation,’ and ‘Gratitude.’
My newfound passion was a perfect win-win situation. I had an outlet for my creativity and found purpose while hunkered down at home, while my family and friends enjoyed my artwork in their home.
I was touched by their comments; ‘Your aura comes through in the paintings of love and laughter,” “The meditation painting reminds me that no matter what is going on in my life, I can find peace,” “You inspired me to start painting again,” and, “I will keep your Ganesha painting next to my Allah to bring peace in this world.”
It was humbling that my artwork could bring joy and happiness to brighten the life of my near and dear ones. The icing on the cake was when my Mom asked me to paint a Ganesha for her 80th birthday celebration.
While we cannot control what life throws at us, we can control how we react to it. Life is all about finding joy and happiness in those situations.
I have transformed my very lonely dining room into a lively art studio. This corner of my house energizes and brings serenity at the same time. The vivid colors remind me of the blessings of beauty from Mother Nature, and serenity comes from the knowledge that a superior power is always giving me the strength to face any obstacles in life or removing them for me
Twenty years from now, I hope to look back to my COVID phase as the time I discovered a new passion in my life and proudly say that I am a COVID-born artist!
Hema Alur-Kundargi is a registered dietitian, culinary artist, and is determined to be a lifelong learner. Find her at @theculinarydietitian
From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.
Today, more than ever, we need creators who leverage their voice to talk about important societal causes and Ram Devineni is one such creative. A documentary filmmaker, technologist, and founder of Rattapallax– a not-for-profit organization focused on documentary films, poetry, and transmedia storytelling, Ramhas been named a “gender equality champion” by UN Women for creating Priya– India’s first female superhero who is a rape survivor. He is the co-creator of an award-winning comic book series based on this character.
In December last year, he released a new comic book and a short animated film based on this character titled “Priya’s Mask”. With a focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2-minute animated film shows how Priya befriends a little girl named Meena and teaches her about the sacrifices made by frontline healthcare workers while instilling courage and compassion during this difficult time.
For ‘Surabhi’s Notepad’, in this month of women, I interviewed this award-winning filmmaker to learn more about the creative process behind the film, his inspirations, the beautiful message of coming together of India and Pakistan amidst this health crisis, and more. I also speak to Rattapallax Producer Shubhra Prakash briefly to better understand the editorial process for “Priya’s Mask”.
I understand that the idea to create Priya came to you after the horrible 2012 gangrape in Delhi. Can you share more on why you felt the need to create this symbol and how you think it helps create awareness and empower women?
RD: The idea to create “Priya’s Shakti” comic book series came after the horrible gang rape that happened on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. I was involved in the protests in Delhi and I observed gender-based violence was a cultural problem. I also realized after talking to survivors that there was a lack of support among society for the survivors of gender-based violence. I created a female comic book character who can reach young audiences. My goal was to change people’s perceptions at a very early age about the role of women, and especially their perception of survivors.
Priya is India’s first female superhero and a survivor of gender-based violence. We created an empathic and powerful character that is relatable to both girls and boys. Priya challenges deep-rooted patriarchal views and the role of women in society, and through the power of persuasion, she is able to motivate people to change.
One of our main goals is to teach teenage boys with the series because they are going through a critical age when they are learning about gender relationships, violence, and sexuality. That is why we create a strong female character in a comic book format.
Can you share more on the creative process of conceiving the character Priya – her looks, her ride, and for Saahas: The Tiger – her voice, and traits?
RD: For both characters, we went through many different names and Priya just felt right. I wish I could give an elaborate answer, but the sound of her name resonated with many people. Her name also translates to “love” or “beloved” which was very important because her mission is out of love and not anger. In the first comic book, we did not have a name for the tiger, and only in the second comic book, “Priya’s Mirror” did we name the tiger Saahas. Saahas means courage and is Priya’s friend and inner strength.
We created a “look-book” for each comic book with a collage of images, colors, and aesthetics we want to feature in the stories- these helped the illustrators with the initial designs.
In the pursuit of fighting against crime against women and gender equality, Priya’s Shakti- the comic book has been also recognized by the UN. Priya is the first-ever Indian female superhero- why do you think no one thought of creating a female superhero before- what does that say about the mindset of creators in India today?
RD: I am surprised too because there are many strong female characters in Indian mythology and Bollywood films have a comic book melodramatic aesthetic to them. So, it was strange it took this long. Comics only recently had a resurgence in commercial mainstream media and Hollywood, so maybe it would have eventually happened in India.
Tell us more about Priya’s Mask- the new comic book and short animated film in this series. What was the creative process like and what was the inspiration behind this?
RD: Priya returns in the new comic and short animated film, “Priya’s Mask.” She has been re-imagined as a teenager, but still is fierce and strong. The new edition is for a younger audience and will dispel misinformation about Covid19. The pandemic has challenged everyone, and the level of fear and uncertainty is very high. Priya’s message has always been about conquering your fears in order to find strength. Priya shows us why it is important to work together to defeat the virus and basic safety practices like “wearing a mask for your safety and mine.” Lastly, we focus on the emotions children are going through during this turmoil.
I think Meena in the comic book expresses her anxiety really well about the pandemic — she has no one to talk to and share her emotions. Priya tells her that she needs to be strong so others can be strong. In these uncertain times, fear can overtake us — but stay strong so you can support your family and community. Things will change, and get better.
The entire team worked remotely in multiple cities in different time zones from New York to New Delhi. We organized the project on Zoom and then worked independently in our houses and apartments. Even the actors’ voice-overs were recorded remotely, and we finished everything in 3 months.
I understand that Rattapallax Producer, Shubhra Prakash wrote this comic book series. Could she share more on the writing and creative process?
SP: Priya aligns with my macro vision of mainstreaming the brown girl narrative globally it is something I am passionate about – so the connect was instant – her origin story is positive and empowering subverting the victim shaming syndrome usually associated – a desi girl with superpowers on a flying tiger, yet rooted and authentic to the core – in a climate where the gender and diversity dialogue is so activated someone like Priya brings with her so much relevancy and stands a chance to become a true role model – more importantly we need someone like her right now. And that visual of her on Sahas is a game-changer.
I live on my own and have been isolating since March 10 as I got a bit of a cough – just about the time when the first COVID case hit the city. The 1st month was blurry and fairly surreal and involved lots of Netflix and discomfort as one adjusted to domestic chores – the no help situation, the hygiene of the pandemic, and of course sorely missing family. Month 2 was about wrapping one’s head around the new normal – strange things such as ZOOM and House Party. Month 3 onwards somewhere I began to make peace with the situation, work conversations energized too around the same time which was a big help – from then it’s been weird but okay. Dealing with losses – our own or people we don’t know continues to be tough – so keeping one’s mind out of the rabbit hole is an everyday process. I did not bake banana or sourdough bread.
The 2-minute animated film features the voices of Bollywood and Hollywood movie stars including Vidya Balan, Rosanna Arquette, Mrunal Thakur & Sairah Kabir. How was it working with these artists and how is it helping with the reach of the feature film?
RD: Having a remarkable array of talented actresses bring the characters to life was critical, and we are lucky to have Vidya Balan, Mrunal Thakur, and Sairah Kabir voice the characters. Equally important that all the characters in the film and comic book are women. I saw Ms. Mrunal Thakur in “Love Sonia,” and her acting was powerful and compassionate, so the entire team envisioned her to voice Priya and bring the character to life.
The animation was something new for all of us, and very exciting. Although young people read comics, this is small in comparison to the number of people who watch animated films. So, it was important for us to take Priya’s journey to another level and a larger audience.
The comic includes Pakistan’s Burka Avenger (their female superhero)- a first where the two rival countries’ characters came together to fight the pandemic. This was a stroke of genius as it sends out a great message to the world that we all need to come together and fight this virus. How did this idea come along and what was the process like?
RD: I have known about the “Burka Avenger” for a long time and the amazing animated TV Series that has been playing in Pakistan. So, when we started this comic book we felt we needed to include her in the story. There are some obvious correlations — both are female superheroes who fight for women’s rights. Her name is Jiya and our character is named Priya.
Also, the virus does not respect borders so it was important two comic book female superhero characters come together to fight. The US Embassy in New Delhi helped arrange the meeting and it has been a pleasure working with the “Burka Avenger’s” team.
The comic book also uses AR. How important a role do you think technology plays today when it comes to creating awareness, spreading information, especially when the target audience is mainly children?
RD: Augmented reality is very popular now and much more than when we started in 2013. Especially for our main audiences which are teenage boys. We are able to embed a lot of information, interactive elements, and stories from survivors. I think it is a powerful and imaginative tool to make our comic book come to life. Augmented reality is still new in India, but becoming popular because of Instagram camera effects and Snapchat. We have an AR effect on Instagram called “Priya’s Mask” which people can try out. Lots of fun and important messages. AR turns a comic book into a pop-up book, so it makes complete sense.
On a technological level, we believe the use of augmented reality will have a significant impact on readers in India who are not as familiar with this approach. There is a huge “WOW” factor when readers first experience augmented reality. Our comic book was one of the first publications to use augmented reality in India and helped define the new frontiers of integrating books, exhibitions, and public art with augmented reality. We created augmented reality murals in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore on the sides of buildings that were seen by millions of people.
SP: Tell us more about Rattapallax.
RD: Rattapallax started as a poetry magazine and now produces documentaries and comic books. We also produce transmedia storytelling and one of the innovators of augmented reality and comics. Rattapallax produced The Russian Woodpecker, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Rattapallax’s most recent film, The Karma Killings, about the Nithari serial killings in Noida was out exclusively on Netflix worldwide. The Karma Killings is hailed as a “true crime watershed moment” in India (Arré)
SP: How do you think film and literature can contribute towards making society more resilient as we usher into this new year where in addition to political turmoils and social issues, we are still fighting the virus?
RD: Priya is a survivor of sexual violence. She is not a victim. She takes tragedy and overcomes fear to challenge herself and society. The big question is how will you come out of the pandemic? Will you be a survivor or a victim? This will determine your psychological state and the state of society.
SP: Any special message that you would like to give to India Currents readers?
RD: Overcome fear, and become the superhero you were meant to be.
You can follow Priya Shakti on Instagram at@powerofpriya and learn more about the character and comic books at https://www.priyashakti.com/.
Surabhi Pandey, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram
Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.
“Goodbye,” said the Fox. “Now here is my little secret. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” … “It is the time you lavished on your rose that makes your rose so important.” … “Men have forgotten this basic truth, but you must not forget it. For what you have tamed, you become responsible forever. You are responsible for your rose.”’
With these simple words, the Fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1941 classic tale The Little Prince reveals that which makes life truly worth living: appreciating people for who they really are, building relationships based on deep and meaningful connections, and understanding the misplaced value most of us give to superficial and material things. Hearing the Little Prince recount this story, the pilot who has crash-landed his plane in the desert realizes the need to re-evaluate his own life.
Have you crash-landed in your own desert, your plane’s engine broken, and nowhere to go? Are you hoping for your own little prince to share his secret and guide you to a marvelous world?
How would you begin to design, or re-design your life and your well-being?
The application of design thinking – an approach used in product development to incorporate the end user’s needs and perspective – is not new. A good example is found in the book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett & Dale Evans, both professors at Stanford. They guide working professionals through this process to build balanced, productive lives while finding joy and satisfaction in work, love, and play.
We are creatures of habit. We do many of the same things every day, from the moment we wake up until we go to bed at night, because we’ve trained ourselves – with or without intention – to be that way. It stands to reason that if we are to redesign our lives for better well-being, we will have to retrain ourselves to form new habits. Eleni Hope says that it is much easier to create the changes you crave when your habits empower and support your soul, values, and vision.
My friend Chaplain Dr. Bruce Feldstein, a board-certified chaplain, has developed a compelling approachto implement this re-design for well-being in a gradual, transformative process. He was an emergency medicine physician for 19 years before deciding that his true calling lay elsewhere, and trained to become a chaplain. He now serves as Founder and Director of Jewish Chaplaincy Services serving Stanford Medicine, a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Services, and is an Adjunct Clinical Professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. Drawing on the rich perspective he developed from decades of tending to the medical and spiritual needs of people, and additional insights from research and teaching in medicine, he developed what he terms spiritual fitness exercises to help us form these new habits and re-design our own well-being.
The key, says Chaplain Feldstein, is to “build practices that increase our capacity for meaning, purpose, and connectedness,” three essential determinants of well-being, and then “engage in these practices to fill our living with well-being.” Building these practices through repetition creates new habits.
Chaplain Feldstein recommends you begin with Four Questions a Day — inspired by the work of Rachel Naomi Remen MD, professor and pioneer of holistic and integrative medicine, and from research on gratitude. At the end of each day, spend 10 minutes of quiet time to contemplate and ask yourself:
What surprised me today?
What touched me today?
What inspired me today?
For what am I grateful?
Consider each question separately. Ask yourself the first question, reflect back on your day until you come to the first thing that surprised you, and jot it down. Then ask the second question, look back for the first thing that touched you, and make note of it. Do the same for something that inspired you, and for which you are grateful. Continue this exercise for three weeks and review your answers to see what you can learn about yourself. This foundational practice of discovery, wisdom, and well-being gradually “teaches us to live with open eyes and an open heart,” says Chaplain Feldstein, “it increases our capacity for well-being as we develop new ways of recognizing that which is positive and meaningful.”
Through this process, you will learn for yourself what the Fox taught the Little Prince!
The next step in this practice is to reflect on each of these questions as you go through your day. Set aside moments during your day to stop, reflect on the questions, and jot down your response. In doing so, identify and notice the particular response – surprise, being touched, inspired, and grateful. As you continue, you will gradually progress to the stage of noticing these reactions while in the experience, and from there to be able to voice an appropriate comment such as “that’s remarkable,” “I’m touched,” “you inspire me,” or “I’m so grateful you did that.” In this manner, you improve your ability to focus, sense, notice, allow, appreciate, wonder, reflect and find meaning. You interact with authenticity. This is a pathway to “fashion a world that is increasingly filled with well-being,” asserts Chaplain Feldstein. In addition to the Four Questions a Day practice, he recommends three other exercises to explore: Where Are You? Living Your Questions helps you discover the ‘aliveness’ within yourself; Key Relationships helps you stay emotionally buoyant; and Four Things I Want You To Be Sure To Know assists in healing relationships, finding peace, and dealing with the prospect of losing someone.
Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder ofSukham,an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Whether you plod through Barack Obama’s 751-page political memoir The Promised Land (burnished with glossy photos) or enthuse through Annie Zaidi’s 159-page personal memoir Bread, Cement, Cactus (replete with line drawings), you will be rewarded with these three paradoxes:
Home is away;
Insiders are outsiders; and
To be vulnerable is to be powerful.
Given that few of us will ever make the White House our home, let’s give Obama a fleeting glance and dedicate our attention to this précis of Zaidi’s award-winning (Cambridge University’s Nine Dots Prize) thesis on belonging and dislocation. But first, let’s open where both authors end, with their metaphors of home: Zaidi likens it to a morning mist, and Obama references an evening commute.
After having visited the SEAL team and pilots who were involved in killing Osama Bin Laden, Obama returns to his home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. From the perch of Marine One, on his way to the West Wing, Obama writes: “The helicopter began its gentle turn, due north across the Mall. The Washington Monument suddenly materialized on one side, seeming almost close enough to touch; on the other side, I could see the seated figure of Lincoln … I looked down at the street below, still thick with rush-hour traffic – fellow commuters, I thought, anxious to get home.” Even after a decade in Washington D. C., the Hawaiian remains on an island with two dead presidents and “fellow commuters” to keep him company; when he speaks of home in The Promised Land, it is with the lonely voice of someone doing the job of a former president. The White House for him was his Karm Bhoomi, his place of work. A house that slaves built could never be a home for Obama and his family to fully inhabit.
Zaidi aches for a different kind of home, a place where one truly belongs, one’s Janm Bhoomi, one’s birth home; this is the mitti, or soil, that you breathe in after you’ve moved elsewhere and the earthy scent after a rain reminds you of home; this is the soil where your body or ashes might return after death. In that home, you are never away, no matter which diaspora you are part of; in that home, you are always welcome as an insider, no matter the superficial outsiderness of your being; in that home, you feel powerful in your vulnerability, like a baby in her mother’s lap. You are loyal to your land of birth; and that land is loyal to you.
But, as Zaidi eloquently writes, “For a person to give her loyalty to the land, to trust those who create and enforce laws, safety is a prerequisite. One essential aspect to this illusion is familiarity: systems functioning as we expect them to, people talking in tongues we understand.”
Zaidi begins her memoir in Rajasthan, my own ancestral home. She weaves in words from people talking in tongues that are slipping away from my family now that almost all of us have left our desert origins: mitti, colony, Aravalli, Sirohi, tribal, Garasia, Rabadi, Bhil, Mt. Abu, bigha, panchayat, thikana, odni, gur, imarti, mofussil, nanihal, mulk, vatan, zameen, ghar. And that’s just in the first 25 pages. The list grows as the pages flow. I feel at home reading these words naturally inserted into the serious text; underneath the political writing, there’s a leavening of sentimentality that is neither mawkish nor falsely nostalgic of better times that probably never existed. Instead, Zaidi simply acknowledges the challenge of rediscovering home once it is lost.
Zaidi’s professional life takes her to Karm Bhoomis such as Bombay, Delhi, and Gujarat. There is a sad episode in Gujarat after the 2002 riots, alternatively called the 2002 Gujarat violence and the Gujarat pogrom; Zaidi prefers calling the inter-communal violence a pogrom. As so often is the case in India, there is both a domino effect and dissemblance as part of the political play that proves tragic for ordinary people. The riots in Gujarat began with the psychological violence associated with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya; it proceeded to the Godhra railway station where a fire of disputed origin engulfed four coaches and took the lives of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from their pilgrimage to Ayodhya; the political conflagration grew across then Chief Minister Modi’s Gujarat as Hindu stalwarts claimed that the fire was instigated by Pakistan’s intelligence agency aided and abetted by local Muslims; and then suddenly a violent tragedy of numbing numbers struck Gujarat, home once to M. K. Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence:
200 police officers dead while trying to control the violence;
230 mosques and 274 dargahs destroyed by the violent;
1,044 dead, of which 790 were Muslim and 254 Hindu;
150,000 people displaced during the violence; and
Countless acts of heroism committed by Hindus, Dalits and tribals who tried to protect Muslims from the violence.
Rather than retelling this oft-told story, Zaidi reports on her own reportage. While in Gujarat, she became self-conscious of the tabeez her grandmother had gifted her. Because the amulet was “inscribed with a verse from the Quran … with a subtle gesture, I tucked it out of sight, lest the script give me away as one of ‘those people.’ People who had been shown their place. People whose homes had been burnt down. Women who had been raped.” After years of putting the tabeez away out of fear, and years of resultant shame, Zaidi began wearing it again visibly. “Because, as much as home is a place of safety, it is also a place where you are visible.”
Perhaps for Zaidi, her writing is a similar amulet, affording her paper-bound protection against evil, danger, and the disease of religious intolerance. Since my college days, I have dedicated much of my reading and writing to reclaiming India; this has been my way of belonging to a house that my ancestors built. I claim a birthright to all parts of India, and in my dozens of trips back home, I’ve always felt welcome in all parts of my matra bhoomi, my motherland. However, Mother India is not as welcoming to all of her children and grandchildren.
I have two friends who have experienced the welcome mat being obstructed for one spouse, but not the other. Both are educators: one born in India to a Hindu father and a Muslim mother; the other born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents who at Partition moved from India to Pakistan. The latter is unlikely to get a visa to visit India … even though both parents were born in the same India as mine.
I feel both outraged and sad: outraged that government policy poisoned by religious intolerance has made my house of belonging too small for my friends; sad that the India that I’ve spent decades reclaiming is slipping away from me.
When I was much younger, I would feel a tinge of shame when swimming in public. The source of the shame? My sacred thread. Shame was a childish response to the low risk of American xenophobes targeting this symbol of my otherness, my Brahminical ancestry. I can empathize with, but can’t fully imagine, what it would be like to live in my country of birth (or my adopted land) and feel fear of wearing my version of Zaidi’s tabeez. Perhaps I am not brave enough to let my imagination tread such dangerous waters.
Zaidi’s brave book has many memorable quotes about home. Here are three that remind me that from the land of our birth to the abode of our love to our final resting place we all look for a place we can call home:
“Zameen … has dual connotations. It means land, but also a certain psychological environment. It is soil, mood, air, culture … You make it as much as you need it to make yourself.”
“Home, they say, is where the heart is. If home is a location of love, then in my country, home is a guilty secret.”
“Home is where others come looking for you, in life and after.”
The last pages of Bread, Cement, Cactus close with Zaidi’s misty metaphor: “Sometimes I think of home as morning mist. I see it as wispy strands engulfing around me. I feel its cool fingers on my face, but it is beyond my grasp.” She then proceeds to list the “moving picture” of her life that she evoked in the previous 140 pages. Then, suddenly, she writes, “Like mist, these things disappear. Rivers and hills too may disappear within my own lifetime. But like a train of thought, like a film of moving images, something of home remains within.”
Subsequent to Independence in 1947, Indians like me were born into a promising land that was their own. Over the past three-quarters of a century, many, like Annie Zaidi, have worked to have India deliver on its promissory note of a pluralist democracy. If that proves to be elusive, then perhaps the only option remaining to us romantics is to return to our promised land after our final breath.
For RCO’s granddaughter Eshni and her parents as they make a house their home.
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza, is a Change Management Consultant working with clients across the world; he also facilitates the development of MBA students’ interpersonal dynamics at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
She bore the face of Nutan, the film star, and the smile of a Hollywood celebrity. With ringlets of bobcut hair framing her face, she seemed an image of abandon. I envied Prafulla. Not only for her looks but also for her chic. Her mother made all her clothes, in the latest Bombay styles, with puffy sleeves and flouncy skirts.
My mother sewed my clothes too, but she had the annoying habit of leaving just one last detail unfinished. So that my outfits never lived up to the elegant visions of my imagination. No wonder I coveted Prafulla’s mother.
Our mothers were both beautiful. But while my mother was a fragile princess, Prafulla’s mother was a steely queen – she walked around the neighborhood draped in her nine-yard sari with its end looped in between her legs and commanding the admiration of males, females, and children alike. As the leader of the Women’s Association, she organized events such as the women’s running races during the Ganesh festival.
I longed for Prafulla’s life. Whenever we went over to her house, the fragrance of delicacies emanated from her kitchen as she sat on the divan, playing with two fluffy white kittens. She was the only girl I knew who had pets.
Every year, when school ended, she left Nagpur with her family to visit her mamas, maternal uncles. She was the only child I knew who went on a summer vacation.
When the monsoons arrived, Prafulla returned, with a trunkful of new clothes and tales of a Mumbai I had never seen. She would describe the sandcastles on Chowpatty beach, the aroma of bhel from vendors’ carts, the taste of hapoos mangoes on the coast. I would strain to envision the ocean waves but fail to understand their grandeur until years later.
From the age of twelve until our graduation from University, Prafulla and I, along with another friend named Shobha, were inseparable.
If there were dark vignettes lurking around the edges of her exotic life, we did not notice them. The bobcut, I would learn only years later, was her mother’s ploy to console her after the untimely demise of her father.
We never questioned why her mother and siblings assembled binders out of cardboard and glue for some local company. We never pondered the reason a part of her house was rented out. We did not wonder why her mother never offered us the delicacies she prepared unless they were made out of leftovers.
When, after college, Prafulla’s marriage was arranged to a most suitable boy, we thought it the fairy tale ending we’d always expected.
The first inkling of trouble came, when, a couple of years later, I visited her in Mumbai. She was struggling to be a mother and a housewife. Her husband and brother-in-law criticized her constantly.
But soon, I left for the United States. And soon, Prafulla stopped visiting Nagpur. Soon, my parents ceased to have any news of her. Gradually, I lost contact with her.
Until 2015, when, out of the blue, I got an invitation for our first high school reunion. By now, my parents had left this world. The long-lost friendships of my childhood seemed to be all that remained of the past. After a frantic search for her phone number, I was able to reach Prafulla.
“I have so much to tell you,” she said. She begged me to carve out a couple of days of my visit just for her.
Alas, during that hectic week of the reunion, we were constantly surrounded by other people. During the few moments we stole away, I told her of my disastrous first marriage. After a gap of five decades and two continents, she understood me completely. She mentioned her husband’s behavior, her eventual separation, and her strife to obtain a teaching credential to support her children.
Still, we only scratched the surface of our lives. So, with our friends Shobha and Viju, we planned an overnight trip to the Tadoba National Park to relive a decades-ago visit of our youth. In a pagoda set amidst a grove of teak trees, Prafulla told us of the poverty of her childhood, of her mother tailoring her clothes from her cousins’ discarded outfits, of her family constructing cardboard binders to make ends meet.
Such revelations would have been taboo during our youth.
The reason she had been married off at such a young age, she explained, was because her older brother had insisted upon it. As the family patriarch, he saw her as a liability and wanted her out of the house before he himself could get married. She never had an opportunity to build a career.
“I didn’t get to talk to you to my heart’s content,” Prafulla said to me when we parted. “Promise me that next time you will come straight to my house in Thane. Then we will sit together and I will tell you everything.”
Alas, I could not return for subsequent reunions because of family obligations in the US. I sent her my writings but it was not the same. I called her periodically to talk to her, but the long conversations only made us hungry to see one another face to face. I would return to India, I promised her, book a hotel room on Juhu Beach, and stay with her as long as it took to exhaust the stories of our lives.
But then the pandemic came. There was no question now of traveling anywhere. In November, when I heard of a mysterious liver ailment Prafulla had, I called her. Once again, we spoke for hours.
“I never had a chance to talk to you to my heart’s content,” she said.
Those were her last words.
On December 9th, she passed away. A death so far away, it seems unreal, mysterious, unreachable, and unfathomable. I phoned her son but could never fully understand why she had to die so young. I wish I had dropped everything just to see her one last time. Some incident reminds me of my youth and I think “I should tell Prafulla that,” before remembering that I can’t.
Her unspoken words haunt me in the night. The stories she never told rise like phantoms in my imagination, dark and ominous. But then I see her, exquisitely attired in a turquoise blue salwar kameez for our school gathering, in defiance of our principal’s edict to wear only our school uniforms, and I smile. This is how I want to remember Prafulla, a vision of beauty and gumption.
Sarita Sarvate has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.
This delightful debut novel by award-winning actor Maulik Pancholy is the story of Rahul Kapoor, an awkward 12-year-old Indian American gay middle-grade boy coming into his own in a small town in Indiana. One of Time Out‘s “LGBTQ+ books for kids to read during Pride Month,” The Best at It has also garnered a coveted Stonewall Honor from the American Library Association.
Pancholy, based in Brooklyn, New York, has a career spanning hit television shows (30 Rock, Whitney), animated favorites (Phineas and Ferb, Sanjay and Craig), the Broadway stage, and films. He also served on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and is the co-founder of the anti-bullying campaign Act to Change.
As an LGBTQ kid, Pancholy never saw himself in the books he read. And so, while it’s a work of fiction, this is also a deeply personal book that reflects his own struggles, coming to terms with his LGBTQ identity, and the joy of discovering how to be the best at being oneself. Moreover, it’s a love letter to his grandparents.
Home denotes everything that’s safe and comforting for Rahul. His world consists mostly of his 72-year-old wheelchair-bound grandfather, Bhai, who is full of life, and almost like an older brother to him, as well as his best friend, Chelsea. Like many young second-generation (‘ABCD’) children his age, Rahul is embarrassed by his ethnic identity and wants to belong with the cool (read ‘white’) kids in school.
Telltale signs of his being somewhat different from the others begin to show up early on—when he’s terrified of dancing with a girl and can’t help staring at a boy. His bullying classmate, Brent Mason, constantly picks on him for being different – making jokes about his culture and asking him if he’s gay. And then there is also Justin Emery, another classmate who Rahul is secretly attracted to, and wants to emulate.
Amidst all this confusion, Rahul’s grandfather tells him that if he dedicates himself to something that he is good at and becomes the best at it, then nobody can stop him and stand in his way. After many trials and errors—football team tryouts (which he fails miserably at) and professional acting auditions (where he faces racial discrimination)—he finally discovers his true talent and joins his school’s Mathletes’ team. Ultimately, Rahul finds that being the best is about finding something you love and doing it until you get better at it.
Pancholy lightheartedly touches upon several serious themes, such as ethnicity, inclusivity, bullying, and sexuality. There is also a reference to the 2015 film The Man Who Knew Infinity, based on the life of the famous Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who faced racism, bullying, and prejudice in the early 1900s—which he managed to overcome, and came out as a winner.
The book is also filled with lots of stereotypes that good-humoredly poke fun at the Indian community, such as nerdy Indian kids who get perfect scores on their math homework, Indian ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ hooked to Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, and all Indian grandfathers having a “Mr. Rogers-worthy supply of cardigans”.
Towards the end of the book, rainbow colors mark the celebration of Holi at an international carnival of dance, music, art, and food with participation from people of various countries. The festival of colors commemorates the triumph of good over evil—“the chance to forgive people and repair relationships.” And so, an important takeaway from the book is: “Being different is what makes us fun.”
Overall, reading this fun and the breezy book is a pleasurable experience, largely due to Pancholy’s playful and infectious writing that is filled with childlike energy and enthusiasm.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in 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 Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.
(Featured Image: Gomti Ghat by Suman Bajpai)
After a year of a forced break due to pandemic, at last, I have decided to travel and booked an early morning flight ticket (thinking, that at that rush would not be heavy, but I was wrong, the flight was packed) to travel up to Rajkot and then further to Dwarka.
The present Dwarka is on the coast of the Arabian sea opposite the Gulf of Kutch. Known as the capital of Lord Krishna’s Kingdom, the Dwarkadhish temple has heritage importance as one of the major sites for Hindu pilgrimage. It is said that when Lord Krishna and Yadavas left Mathura and arrived at the coast of Saurashtra, they decided to build their capital in the coastal region; invoking Vishwakarma, the deity of construction, it is believed that the ‘city of Gold’ was built in one day.
After having lunch and some rest, I went to Sudama Setu over river Gomti.
Sudhama, the best friend of Lord Krishna, is said to have his presence in the land of Dwarka. The bridge that connects both sides of the Gomti River is called Sudhama Setu and watching the sunrise and sunset from this place can be truly delightful.
There I saw the sacred five wells built by the Pandavas, including the famous meditation spot of the five rishis. Camels, decorated in vibrant colours can be seen and camel riding on the banks of the Gomti River is one of the best things to do in Dwarka. The sight of the Ghats and boat riding is a great experience.
Dwarka, the city, has been claimed by the sea six times. Though a few kilometers away, I could see the temple’s flag – Dhawajaji or the kirti pataka, which is changed five times a day. Soon the temple’s huge dome could also be seen. This is where Shree Dwarkadeesh reigned 5000 years ago and his presence is felt even today.
While moving towards Dwarkadhish temple, on both sides of the road you find a variety of shops that sell bags, juttis, items made by shells, sweets, Puja material, and Prasad. The air smells of salt and incense. Chants of Om Namo Bhagwate Vasudevaay, Om Namah Shivaay, and the Hare Krishna Mahamantra emanate through the backdrop of bathers, shoppers and the colourful bazaar. In the evening, different shades of lights enhance the beauty of the temple, which mesmerize you as soon as you enter.
Sri Dwarkadhish temple is a five-storied structure built on 60 columns, crowned by a soaring elaborately carved spire. There are two gates or dwar to the temple. The North Gate is called Moksha dwar – the way to salvation, from where devotees enter, and the South Gate is called Swarga dwar – the gate to heaven, from where you exit.
Legend has it that the temple was originally built by the grandson of Krishna, Vajranabha, over Lord Krishna’s residential place (hari-griha). Adi Shankaracharya, the venerable Hindu theologian and philosopher from the 8th century who unified the main beliefs of Hinduism, visited the shrine. After his visit, the temple became part of the sacred Char Dham pilgrimage that is essential for the attainment of Moksha for Hindus.
Built in Limestone, the temple complex has several shrines. The main deity is Lord Krishna, also known as Dwarkadhish or Ranchor ji. The basement has an ancient Shivalinga along with Ma Amba, Aniruddha, Pradyumn, Rukmani, Satyabhama, Jamvanti, and Laxmi are also worshipped.
The place below the temple is known as Chakra tirth. Shell-like stones, mostly white in colour, are available only at Dwarka, are sold here. This chakra is a sacred object, bestowing purity and salvation. Gopi Chandan, which is very dear to Lord Krishna, is also sold here.
The temple was packed with devotees, so in queue with my mask, I attended the enchanting aarti of Dwarkadhish.
The next morning, I went to Nageshwar Shiva Temple, which is one of the twelve jyotirlingas located at Nageshwar village in Gujarat. As soon as I had entered, a very big size idol of Lord Shiva surprised me, standing tall in the open sky.
Nageshwar Temple is one of the oldest temples mentioned in the Shiva Purana. The swayambhu lingam enshrined in the underground chamber at Nageshwar Temple is known as Nageshwar Mahadev. It is believed that this Jyotirlinga protects from all poisons and one who prays here obtains freedom from all kinds of poison.
There is a legend behind this temple told to me by its priest there. There once lived a demon called Daruka, who was extremely cruel and tortured the people. One day he captured a Shiva devotee called Supriya along with many others. The prisoners were held in the underwater city that swarmed with sea-snakes. Supriya recited the Shiva mantra ‘Aum Namaha Shivayay’ to protect them. Daruka tried to kill Supriya, but Lord Shiva appeared in his full glory and killed the demon and went on to reside in the powerful Jyotirlinga.
The temple is a simple structure with typical Hindu architecture. Here the Shiva Lingam faces to the south and the Gomugam faces towards the east. The Shivalinga at Nageshwar is a Tri-Mukhi Rudraksha which is around 40 cm high and 30 cm in diameter. Goddess Parvati as Nageshwari along with the Shivalinga also can be seen.
Almost 2000 years old, Rukmini Temple is located in a deserted area. Its intricate carvings have made it a nationally protected monument. The temple of Rukmini Devi, the chief queen of Lord Krishna, is on the outskirts of Dwarka City. Interestingly, drinking water is offered as a donation to the temple. By donating money one can contribute to bringing drinking water to this area.
Why this temple is far away from the temple of Lord Krishna is associated with a legend.
Saga Durvasa was once invited by Krishna and his wife Rukmini for dinner. Krishna and Rukmini were pulling his chariot. On the way, Devi Rukmini felt thirsty, asked for water, and Lord Krishna provided it by hitting the ground with his toe. Without offering to Durvasa, Devi Rukmini drank the water. The sage felt insulted and he cursed her – she would live separately from her husband. That is the reason that in this temple Rukmini is being worshiped alone without lord Krishna. As a result of this, it is believed that that is the reason for the shortage of drinking water.
Rukmini’s temple stands on very dry land, completely isolated with not a single building or house beside it. The temple’s spellbinding architecture with minute carvings and paintings depicts various stories. Within the complex, there are other temples also dedicated to Amba Devi, the Kul Devi of Krishna.
As soon you get a chance to travel, this should be on your list as one of the first places to visit in India!
Suman Bajpaiis a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 10 books on different subjects and translated around 130 books from English to Hindi.
The Old Temple of the Vedanta Society in San Francisco somehow made me think about the little poem below by Rabindranath Tagore. I have appended my (admittedly poor) translation below the poem.
“Over many many years, I traveled many many miles, spent a fortune, and visited many distant lands to enjoy the majestic beauty of great mountain ranges and seashores. But I just did not spare the time to merely step outside my front door and open my eyes to the simple beauty of a drop of dew glistening on a blade of grass in a paddy field.”
We travel to London, Paris, Rome, Greece, Egypt to see the Buckingham Palace, Notre Dame, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Acropolis, and the pyramids. We travel east to visit the famous Borobodur and Angkor Wat in Indonesia and Cambodia, Beijing’s Summer Palace, and the Great Wall of China. We take time to visit the famous temples of Kedar/Badri, Varanasi, and Tirupati.
The Old Temple has its own unique history. It is the oldest universal Hindu temple in the western world. It was completed in 1906, just before the great San Francisco earthquake. It somehow survived the earthquake and the fire that followed – some may think it was divine intervention. The temple was built under the leadership of Swami Trigunatitananda, who at the time was in charge of the Vedanta Society of San Francisco (founded by Swami Vivekananda himself in 1900). Swami Trigunatitananda was a brother disciple of Swami Vivekananda, one of Sri Ramakrishna’s sixteen monastic disciples. Incidentally, he died in 1915 resulting from the injuries from a bomb thrown at him by a deranged disciple, while he was speaking from the pulpit of his beloved temple – the first martyr of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Movement.
Swami Trigunatiatnanda had grandiose visions of the temple. He wanted it to reflect an architectural representation of the message of religious harmony, the central theme of his Guru Sri Ramakrishna’s message to the modern world, as so ably expounded by Swami Vivekananda. Therefore it is not built like an Indian temple. Each of its four towers on the roof and the small tower at the entrance to the auditorium is architecturally unique. They have echoes of the Shiva temples of Bengal, the Varanasi temple, a medieval Christian church, the Taj Mahal, and a Muslim mosque. The veranda running along the north and east sides of the building on the third floor is lined with sculpted arches in Moorish style. In addition to the auditorium, the temple housed monk’s quarters and administrative offices. With time came requirements for additional space.
Major activity was shifted to the New Temple which was built in 1959 at the northwest corner of Vallejo and Fillmore Streets, a few blocks from the Old Temple.
The Old Temple was recently subjected to a major renovation, including seismic retrofit, to bring it up to the current Building Code requirements. A Re-Dedication Ceremony for the Old Temple took place on October 29 (Kali Puja Day) and October 30, 2016, graced by a senior monk from Belur Math and about a dozen monks from all over North America.
Perhaps now some of us will take a closer look at the Old Temple and try to find out more about it. And that also includes me.
The article above was written about four years ago. Since then, the renovations, including seismic retrofit of the structure, for which the temple was closed for a while, have been completed. A guided tour of the temple was arranged by the Vedanta Society on October 13 and 14, 2018 to mark the reopening after the renovation and seismic retrofit. As usual, it was conducted by Swami Vedananda, the elderly, very learned American monk, of the Society. I took advantage of the tour on its very first day.
Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write.
Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.
Poetry as I can relate to it is my first love and my last love. It was my grandfather who first introduced me to the world of poetry through Tagore’s poems. As a child, the rhythmic words of the poetry and its melody used to give me immense happiness. I used to get lost in the vivid descriptions of village life, the beauty of nature, the lush green forest, and the chirping birds and animals that inhabit them. My grandfather died at the age of seven. That was the time I had first faced death and that too of a person closest to my heart. Since then, I have been expressing my feelings through the world of poetry.
From my childhood, as I entered my teenage years, I started experiencing life with new passions and renewed vigor. On one hand, as the arrow of cupid struck me, I started writing romantic verses, while on the other hand, being a radical at heart, I started revolting against anything that binds us. I started questioning anything that we are bound to abide by and protesting even the silliest of things that maintain the status quo. I was in the process of discovering myself through life and poetry. During that time, revolutionary poets like Kaji Nazrul Islam, Paul Robeson, and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan began to inspire me and I started writing poetry in both English and Hindi languages, to bring social change and uphold social justice. Often, I used to mix romance and revolution in a single poem to decorate the message I wanted to convey.
You do not exist
From the date I knew myself
You had been near me;
Sheltering me from rain drops
Picking the flowers of glee.
Through the dark clouds in the sky
You showed me the horizon;
Breaking the bounds of joy and moan
You took me to my mission.
Across the distance of the vast space
Thou peace touches mine,
Thou sunshine remains untarnished
Through rusting affect of time.
You decorate my night with glowing stars
Soothe my soul like the sea;
It wets my eyes with drops of pearl
How much you love me!
A sound in my yard woke me up
I found myself alone;
Like the spring days you were there;
And now you are gone.
Thy shadow mingled in the dawn
With the dizzy morning mist;
Oh friend, you are a world to me,
You do not exist!
When I came to the Bay Area, I started missing the poetry, music, and arts of India that is so deeply rooted in me. I started searching for poetry group of Indian languages on the internet and finally found the “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley”, a close-knit meetup group where the poets and the poetry lovers not only shares and rejoices poems of Indian and Asian languages like Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, and Bengali, but also the languages of the Western world such Spanish and English.
My knowledge and love for poetry increased by many folds after joining this poetry group. With the onset of the pandemic, we started meeting virtually every Saturday and we look forward to it throughout the week. Our group recently published a multi-lingual book of anthology captioned “A Memory Book of Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley” which contains an excellent collection of poems of some of the remarkable poets I met through the poetry group. I wish that “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley ” keeps flourishing and inspiring the poets in us and as always keeps fueling the candle of creativity in our minds for long days to come.
However much you dislike a player in the opposing team, when the blighter does a fiendish bend it like Beckham, at least for a moment we have to hit pause and tip our hat in recognition.
Technically not guilty but guilty – what a diabolical performance with a double-edged sword for the express intent to satisfy and maintain two conflicting groups:
Business folks, the source for election funding, desired stability and so wanted Trump to vanish
The virulent base was still loyal to Trump and wanted him acquitted
In a cunning, deflecting speech at the Senate, he flicked the fast-paced impeachment ball towards on-side, Biden’s new DoJ, to do the dirty work of making sure Trump becomes toast.
Reminds me of a similar gambit once carried out in South Asian politics in the eighties.
The Sri Lankan Prime Minister was being bombarded by global media for their cruelty against the separation movement by Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). J.R. Jayewardene, the veteran politician, invited the young newly elected Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, to Colombo for discussing and resolving this issue. The old crocodile convinces the well-meaning but inexperienced Rajiv to do the job together.
Thus, India sends in Indian Peace Keeping Force, a trained army battalion, and over a couple of years they too, through association, become villains in the eyes of LTTE.
End result? At an election rally in southern India, a seventeen-year-old girl, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam of LTTE, garlanded the 47-year-old Rajiv Gandhi and kills him with her suicide bomb vest that carried 1.5 lbs of RDX. Jayewardhane went on to live till the ripe old age of 91.
Ok, ok, it is not ethical or honest behavior, but who said politics is all goody-goody. Politics is dirty and is merely the act of the possible, which puts all politicians in the region of umbra or penumbra, not black or white. Take Churchill, I adore him for tirelessly fighting to ensure democracy prevailed over fascism, but at the same time, I dislike him for opposing the Indian freedom movement.
Talking of democracy, here is how it really survived in 2020.
Mike Podhorzer, a soft-spoken guy who worked only in the background, was the one to bring together the left-leaning labor union of AFL-CIO and the right-leaning Chamber of Commerce to start having weekly Zoom calls, from as early as 2019. Their mission was to bring the ship of democracy safely into harbor, without being hijacked by the pirates. They quietly achieved the following:
Private money was channeled to influence local governments to pass laws ensuring voting by mail was a seamless process and enough time allowed to count all ballots
Invested in ads to shame the two Michigan certifying Republicans to follow the 250-year-old law to respect the will of the people, instead of falling for Trump’s offers to make them rich or bag cushy Ambassador postings
Made sure the extreme left did not hit the streets with protests and placards. Their absence on the streets upset the White House as they were banking on that and for skirmishes and violence to happen between the opposing protestors, in order for the President to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, under the guise of controlling civil unrest.
Yeah, it was a close call. It’s time now for the well-meaning Democrats to get off their “America is better than this” high horse and learn to sup with this crafty minority leader. In spite of all his skullduggery, the guy is at least lesser evil than his rabid comrades from TX and MO, right? After all, real governing is something that none of us get to see and it’s never about party policies, it’s always about people, a few good men behind the scenes is all it takes. Remember Reagan and Tip? However, our gentlemanly Schumer has to do one thing – after making deals and shaking hands with Mitch, he must count his fingers to make sure they are all there.
Jayant Kamicheril was born in East Africa and did his schooling in Kumarakom, Kerala. For the past 22 years, he has been working in technical sales for the food industry and lives in Reading, PA.
Veena and Devi, the two young women who were to be my massage therapists, start their procedure with an invocation to Dhanvantari, the god of medicine and Ayurveda. At the end of the invocation, they chant ‘lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu’ (may all beings everywhere be happy and free) three times in their clear voices, every day, for the seventeen days of my treatment, taking turns to stand in front of me, right palm on the top of my head where a few drops of warm herbal oil have been dribbled to start the routine. I sit there on the massage table in nothing but a skimpy konakam (loin cloth), mesmerized by the sounds and simple tune of the invocation that bounces off the bare walls of the treatment room.
This last line spins in my head like a song that is stuck in a good way. The tune stays true to theirs but the words change to ‘let go, surrender, savor the moment’. The only way to savor each moment is by learning to let go. Letting go, as in disconnecting the body from the mind. To stop thinking of body parts as ‘buttocks’, ‘breasts’, ‘thighs.’ Most of all, to get rid of identifying these body parts as mine. Only then am I able to relax and enjoy the power of touch – the main sense awakened during the treatment.
Once the invocation is over, the ears are at rest – the massage is done in silence. The only sound is the drone of the ceiling fan. Occasionally, sounds seep in from the outside, like the caw-caw of a crow in the neem tree or the drawn-out ‘pay-paar’ call of the recycling trader, bicycling the neighborhood shopping for old newspaper. I close my eyes through most of the hour in order to better take in the smells – the next most salient sense that is evoked during these massages. Fragrances fill the room – herbal oils, camphor, roasted pumpkin, wild brown rice, boiling milk.
Apart from some perennially inflamed finger joints, I did not have any major problems when I walked into Prakriti, the Ayurvedic center close to where I was staying on this trip to Chennai. But I had time on my hands so decided to check it out. The doctor, also a young woman, very well-spoken, spent an hour with me asking me questions. She told me how Ayurveda treats not just symptoms but works holistically on the entire body. Most treatments improve blood circulation and remove impurities at a cellular level, thus reducing inflammation. She prescribed a detox and rejuvenation regimen that included a series of three massage treatments supplemented with two kashayams (a liquid decoction of medicinal herbs), and a ksheerabala capsule.
I remember ksheerabala from my childhood – it was my grandmother’s wonder drug. It didn’t come in capsule form then. My grandmother always had a skinny 3-inch bottle of this dull yellow oil and she would apply a few drops to the scalp on the top of her head. Unlike other herbal oils, I remember from my childhood, this one didn’t smell good so I was glad to see it come wrapped in a bright green capsule now.
Unlike many Ayurvedic clinics especially built for the purpose, Prakriti is housed in a rented home on a quiet street in Chennai. All three bedrooms with their attached bathrooms have been turned into ‘treatment rooms’. I realized very quickly that an Ayurvedic massage is not for the faint-hearted. Nor the bashful. One of the women leads you to a treatment room, locks the door, and hands you your disposable konakam. You change into it in the bathroom, though I’ve wondered why I bothered with the bathroom – walking back into the room in that little white loin cloth was more embarrassing especially since a post-menopausal body isn’t exactly a showpiece. You face your masseuse and sit on the massage table with your legs dangling over the side.
After the invocation, one masseuse applies more warm oil on your scalp and hair and massages your head and temples for about ten minutes – heavenly. You then lie on your back on the wooden massage table that shines with all the oil it has absorbed over the years. The bottoms of your feet are wiped clean. Warm oil is poured on your stomach, chest, and limbs, and is worked into your body with Veena and Devi on either side of the table and four strong hands moving swiftly in tandem. Then you lie face down and the process is repeated except sans konakam. These first few steps are the same for all seventeen days. The medicinal massage follows the oil massage and is different for each kind of treatment. The ceiling fan is turned off during the medicinal massage.
In udvarthanam, which I did for three days, the kizhi (read ‘kiri’) had a mix of medicinal powders. Kizhis is a Malayalam word that means bundle. Various medicinal substances and rice are tightly held in a cloth. It is used with or without moisture for massaging the body. Itis heated in a dry pan and applied to your body in upward strokes. Some of the powder seeps through the cloth so you smell brown and earthy by the end of all the scrubbing. It is mixed in with the smoky fragrance of the kizhis getting heated. There is a twenty-minute rest period at the end of the forty-minute massage.
The elakizhi was seven days of intense massage. The kizhi is filled with medicinal leaves that smelled like roasted pumpkin and is dipped in hot oil before being applied on your body. ‘Apply’ is too soft a word. It was more like pat-pat-pat, pound-pound-pound, scrub-scrub-scrub all over, front, back, limbs, until you felt like pumpkin pulp. There is a thirty-minute rest period at the end of the forty-minute massage.
Navarakizhi also lasted seven days. It was the gentlest of the three but the most labor-intensive and hence the most expensive. The process starts the day before with 12 liters of water mixed with medicinal herbs boiled down to 1.5 liters. Milk is added to this and a special variety of brown rice called Navara is cooked in this kashayam (decoction of medicinal herbs) until soft. The kizhis are filled with this cooked rice and heated in boiling milk before being applied. The strokes in navarakizhi are circular in motion and feel satiny on your body. Mushy starch oozes out covering you in a soft film of pinkish brown, the color of my palm but lighter. You feel cool as soon as this massage starts. There is no rest period.
I was surprised at how easily I fell asleep during the rest periods and sometimes even during the massage. Lying on my back on a hard, wooden table with a tiny two-inch-thick plasticky pillow would hardly have qualified as comfortable. Yet, I almost always had to be woken up at the end of the rest period.
The last step of the session is the ‘bath’. You sit on a plastic stool in the bathroom and one of the women ‘bathes’ you. She scrubs your body with a mung dal paste that removes all traces of oil and herbs. She applies shikakai (Acacia Concinna) paste to clean your scalp and hair. Hot water is poured all over your head and body. By the time you finish and step out, you are ready for another nap.
As imagined, I was relaxed and rejuvenated at the end of the seventeen days and sorry to see it end. It has left me, however, wanting more such ‘treatments’, perhaps at lush locations with the sound of waves lapping against a seashore…
Lakshmi Narayanan lives in Ann Arbor MI when she is not spending time in Narberth, PA with her two grandkids, or traveling. Pre-pandemic travels included one or two trips a year to India. A recent longer stay allowed this experience.
Some Christian denominations believe a seven-year-old can make spiritual choices. Judaism and Islam hold that a seven-year-old boy is able to participate in fasting and praying. For many, seven is the age at which a child knows right from wrong. For others, it’s simply a lucky number. In award-winning Canadian authorFarzana Doctor’s bold and compassionate novelSeven, the significance is painfully different.
Sharifa, a 40-year-old Dawoodi Bohra woman born and raised in America, is a classroom-weary high school history teacher. Her marriage to the jovial Murtuza is an agreeable one, but behind closed doors, there are ongoing issues: Sharifa once engaged in a brief online affair, and she never has experienced an orgasm before or during the marriage. However, when she, Murtuza, and their daughter Zeenat travel to India for his eight-month teaching sabbatical, they hope for valuable marriage mending.
Aside from homeschooling her second-grader in India, Sharifa dives into researching her venerable great-great-grandfather Abdoolally and his rise from poverty to philanthropy. Family visits double as research sessions, ranging from willing contributions of bits and pieces to handed-down myths to hesitant refusals. Hazy stories about Abdoolally’s four wives—especially Zehra, whom he allegedly divorced—grab her imagination and expand her focus.
Meanwhile, conversation with her favorite cousins Fatema (a bisexual, outspoken feminist and activist) and Zainab (a traditional Bohra wife) turns to the uncomfortable subject of khatna, female genital mutilation/cutting. Sharifa learns khatna, assumed to be illegal and long believed by some to prevent girls from being sexually promiscuous, continues to be enforced by the women of the Bohra community.
To complicate matters, Fatema and Zainab hold diametrically-opposed views not only about the practice itself but also that it is performed on seven-year-old girls. When Fatema reveals most of the girls in their family have been cut, Sharifa is shocked. And when Zainab offers confirmation, Sharifa protests, insisting it never happened to her.
Yet, this new knowledge, coated with panic, seeps into Sharifa’s relationships and research, and she unearths astonishing details about her predecessors.
Part domestic mystery and part call to action, the novel serves up tense encounters, private marital scenes, and personal victories and defeats.Doctor’s writing is skillfully layered, yielding a novel that is complex, gripping, and thought-provoking. Her ability to present a highly-readable story while raising awareness about a difficult topic is to be congratulated, and despite the weightiness of the subject,Doctor provides an occasional burst of humor, allowing the reader a moment to breathe and regroup.
Seven is a singular engrossing, emotional, and empowering story of the strengths of women, family, and truth. Unreservedly,Doctor examines the thorny dualism of women’s lives—as victims vs. offenders; activism vs. suppression; responsibility vs. conformity; pre-marital sex vs. marital sex; belonging vs. longing. She is an accomplished storyteller whose characters are effortlessly embraced and not easily forgotten, and she hits the mark in this nuanced story about family dynamics and khatna’s adverse effects on women’s sexual, mental, and other health concerns.
Seven is an important work about an abusive action that continues without a medical foundation. A khatna survivor herself,Doctor volunteers withWeSpeakOut, a global organization working to ban FGM/C in her Dawoodi Bohra community.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she 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. She always wears a mask in public settings, avoids crowds, believes in social distancing, and washes her hands.