Tag Archives: India Currents

Amma reading to Medha (Image by Author)

My Mother Kept Her Promise

Like many of us, one of my biggest fears was always that of losing my mother.  Life without her was not conceivable. 

When I was a little girl, and I was exposed to the idea of death for the first time, I remember asking her, “Amma, will you die too?” 

My mother sat me down, looked me in the eyes, and with complete confidence told me, “I will be here as long as you need me.  I will go only when you tell me that you do not need me anymore,”

In my childish mind, that was all the reassurance I wanted.  I would always “need” my mother, and that meant she could not leave me.

Life went on with my relationship with my mother evolving and changing as time went by.  By the time I was 44, my mother was older and frailer, and my relationship with her was that of one between two close buddies.  It was a two-way relationship with my relying on my mother for advice about raising my kids, and seeking comfort when some worldly affair troubled me.  My mother started relying on me to discuss her innermost worries about her health and the family.  The two of us settled into a very comfortable symbiotic relationship. 

This was until January of 2013 when my mother was diagnosed with cancer.  I was now in the US teaching at a university and raising two kids under the age of 10.   The news hit me like a ton of bricks.  I applied for a sabbatical from work to make the most of the time I had left with my mother.  The year was spent shuttling between India and the US, and trying my best to stay present wherever I was.  In March 2013, I was in India for my mother’s 74th birthday.  I got a cake, invited some neighbors, and had as normal a party as possible.   My mother and I both knew but did not acknowledge the elephant in the room – that this could be my mother’s last birthday with us.  My father was not aware of the gravity of the situation, and none of us had the courage to tell him the harsh truth. 

One of my brothers and I took turns to be in India to help our parents.  When I went back in June 2013, my mother, who by now was a lot weaker, still made trips to the local market with me.  Shopping for kitchen goods was our shared passion and, in a typical Indian steel kitchenware store, we both behaved like kids in a candy store.  I could tell that my mother was pushing herself to make the most of the time she had left.  When we sat down in a coffee shop, I could no longer hold the sorrow inside. 

I blurted out to my mother – “Amma, I cannot live without you.”

My mother looked deeply into my eyes and said, “I will leave you only when you are brave enough to let me go.”

I responded “Amma, that will never happen.”   

In my vulnerable mind, if my mother had promised not to leave me until I was ready to let her go, she couldn’t leave.  She always keeps her promises. 

Amma Sadabhishekam
Amma sadabhishekam (Image provided by Author)

September 2013 –  I traveled back to India to give my brother a break from caregiving.  My mother was in the ICU.  Her condition came as a shock to me.  She could barely talk and she could not see anymore.  We did not know this then, but the cancer had found its way to her brain.  The two weeks following that were a blur.  My mother faded into a semi-coma.  Her body was still there but we could no longer communicate with her.   It killed me to see her stare into space when we called her name. 

Then, the bad news arrived.  It was confirmed that the cancer was in the brain.  Our family doctor told us that this was the end and that we should not try any more life-saving measures. The next day, when I was in the hospital, I told the resident doctor in the ICU that we had decided to sign the “Do Not Resuscitate” order.  He pulled out a form and had me read through it.  From where I sat at the doctor’s desk in the ICU, I could see my mother – eyes taped shut, and all kinds of tubes going into her to keep her alive.  The doctor explained to me that when she fails to breathe on her own, her throat would be punctured to insert a ventilator.   Those words punctured my heart.  I looked at my mother feeling fiercely protective of her and told her in my mind: “Amma, I won’t let anyone trouble you anymore.” 

Without any hesitation and without any tears in my eyes, I signed the form.  I walked over to my mother and whispered in her ear “Amma, please go.  This body is not working anymore.  Don’t worry about Appa.  I will take care of him.  Look at me, I am not crying.  I am fine.  Please go”. 

My mother hung on for a few more days, giving my other siblings the opportunity to see her before she passed away on October 9th early in the morning.  I felt numb.  But, I also felt a strange peace.  My mother was no longer suffering.  She had escaped her cancer-ridden body.  She was free. 

A few days later, I remembered my mother’s promise to me –  “I will leave you only when you are brave enough to let me go”.  I cried.  My mother had kept her promise. 

I returned to the US back to my husband and my children. 

My 9-year-old son snuggled up with me one night and asked me, “Mamma, will you die too?” 

I said to him, “I will be here as long as you need me.  I will go only when you tell me that you do not need me anymore.” 

My son heaved a sigh of relief, hugged me tight, and fell asleep.


Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan has taught information systems at San Jose State.  She volunteers with the Plant-Based Advocates of Los Gatos.  http://www.plantbasedadvocates.com/


 

Koozhangal film poster

Koozhangal Streams in the US: A Film On the Unknown Village of Arittapatti

It’s no mean achievement for a school dropout and one with no degree in filmmaking to win an international award on debut. Indian director P.S. Vinothraj won the Tiger award at Rotterdam, this February, for his Tamil film, Koozhangal (Pebbles) – the only Indian film selected for the competition. It marked the culmination of several years of struggle and hardship – a journey of grit and determination driven by a passion for cinema. The jury at the Rotterdam festival described it ‘as a lesson in pure cinema.’

Koozhangal placed the plight of the people of Arittapatti, a barely known village of the Madurai district in Tamil Nadu, on the global stage.

Film still from Koozhangal
Film still from Koozhangal.

The film follows a little boy, Velu, and his alcoholic father, Ganapathy, forced to trek home across 14 kms of desert terrain, exposing the relationship they share. Riding on the shoulders of a team of newcomers, Koozhangal is making waves everywhere it goes. Although it deals with grueling poverty in the searing drought-ridden landscapes of southern India, it succeeded in captivating the jury with its beauty and humor.

Director P.S. Vinothraj (Image provided by Author)
Director P.S. Vinothraj

The idea for this film originated from Vinothraj’s life after his sister was sent home by her alcoholic husband.

“She walked for 14 kms to reach our home with a baby in her hands,” remembers Vinothraj, “Pebbles grow as a revenge tale – ‘What if my brother-in-law walked the same distance through the difficult terrain?'”

While researching for the story, he realized that many women had gone through something similar to what his sister experienced. Yet, they endured their husband and the poverty for the sake of the children. 

Though Vinothraj managed to find a producer for his script, he could only complete 75% of the film. A meeting with national award-winning director, Ram, at the NFDC film bazaar turned the film’s destiny. And, before Vinothraj knew it, actress, Nayanthara, and director, Vignesh Shivan, came on board as producers. Their star power gave the film a wider reach.  

Koozhangal capture’s a day in a child’s life. Its strength lies in the terrific performances by the lead pair – Karuththadaiyan as Ganapathy and child actor, Chella Pandi as Velu. Spectacular visuals by cinematographers, Vignesh Kumulai and Parthib, enhance further this story told from the heart.  Yuvan Shankar Raja has scored the background music. Karuththadaiyan, a stage actor, was initially not keen and had to be convinced to take on the role. Ultimately, training fresh actors who had never faced the camera was not easy but the efforts paid off.

Film still from Koozhangal.
Film still from Koozhangal.

Vinothraj believes that it is Nature that paved way for his film’s success. As for the title, it is a practice to carry a pebble in the mouth to ward off thirst during a long journey. On theme with this, Velu keeps a pebble in his mouth during the long trek. 

Selected in the 50th-anniversary edition of New Directors New Films presented by Film at Lincoln Center, Koozhangal now streams virtually in the USA through May 8. This edition includes filmmakers who represent the present and anticipate the future of cinema, and whose daring work pushes the envelope in unexpected ways. 

For tickets, log on to http://newdirectors.org.

Noted American film critic from the New Yorker, Richard Brody calls Koozhangal the best dramatic feature film of this year’s New Directors New Films.

Koozhangal will, also, participate next at the 19th edition of the Indian Film Festival in Los Angeles this year. This will be held virtually between May 20-27 featuring forty films including shorts. 

It’s been a long haul for Vinothraj whose cinema dreams are rooted in his growing years on film sets. He was fascinated by the cinematographers riding on the trolleys and aspired to become one. Moving to Chennai he learned the ropes of filmmaking while assisting short film directors.    

Today, Koozhangal is taking him places with its Asian premiere at the Jeonju International Film festival. The Shanghai International film festival scheduled in June beckons next. And, the road ahead is long for this native of Arittapatti.


Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Chennai, India with over twenty years of reporting experience. Besides contributing to leading Indian and international publications including Gulf News (UAE), South China Morning Post, and Another Gaze (UK), she is a Rotten Tomatoes critic. Check out her blog – http://romancing-cinema.blogspot.com/ 


 

India Currents' Publisher, Vandana Kumar with her mother in India (Image by Vandana Kumar)

Coming Back From India? Follow These Santa Clara County Guidelines

Indian Americans have been traveling to and from India in this time of crisis to spend time with ailing parents and family members. Our Publisher, Vandana Kumar, left San Jose to visit her aging mother in Jamshedpur 3 weeks ago, whom she had not seen in 2 years. Unknowingly, she ended up experiencing peak COVID chaos in India which culminated in a lockdown. Perhaps a bittersweet reminder of why she made the trip in the first place – to spend quality alone time with her mother.

“Just like a lot of you, I have navigated these uncertain times seeking clarity on what was appropriate, what was safe, what was responsible,” She comments with poignancy in her article about traveling to India in April 2021.

Luckily, Santa Clara County has information and resources to support community members impacted by the crisis. The County offers the following guidance to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, protect the entire community’s health, and provide support and resources to those who have traveled recently.

Although the US government is restricting travel from India as of May 4, 2021, this guidance applies to those who have recently arrived from India and any travelers who are exempt from the travel restriction.

Recommendations for Travelers Arriving from India:

All unvaccinated travelers should immediately quarantine for 10 days:

The County strongly urges unvaccinated travelers returning from India to immediately quarantine for 10 days after arriving in Santa Clara County, as recommended by the California Department of Public Health. Travelers should self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms throughout the quarantine period. Visit www.sccstayhome.org to learn more.

The quarantining traveler(s) should remain separate from people they did not travel with, meaning that the arriving traveler(s) should stay in a separate room within a home or stay in a hotel.

Vaccinated travelers who were vaccinated in India should quarantine for 10 days:

The recommendation to quarantine applies despite vaccination, given the extremely high rates of COVID-19 and incomplete information about vaccines currently deployed in India.

Vaccinated travelers who were vaccinated in the US do not need to quarantine:

For travelers who have been fully vaccinated with one of the three vaccines with Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA (Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson), the recommendation to quarantine does not apply.

All travelers should get a COVID-19 Test 3-5 Days After Arrival in the US:

All arriving travelers should test on day 3, 4, or 5 after arriving in the US, even if vaccinated.

The County offers many options for free testing, including drive-through testing. Visit www.sccfreetest.org to learn more and find a location. Testing does not require insurance.

If a Traveler test positive, they should isolate:

If an arriving traveler tests positive for COVID-19, they should isolate to protect others from getting infected. This means that the person who tested positive should stay home, separate themselves from others in the home (i.e., in a separate room), not allow visitors, not use public transportation, and not prepare or serve food for others.

The County offers resources, including motel placements and assistance with food, for those who cannot afford to isolate themselves without help. Visit www.sccstayhome.org  or call (408) 808-7770.


Srishti Prabha is the Managing 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.


 

Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)

‘I Was Told to Tone Down My Ethnicity to be Successful in America’ Notes Raja Kumari

Indian-American rapper, songwriter, and singer Raja Kumari is a force of nature. Hailing from Claremont, California, she is best known for her collaboration with notable artists including Gwen Stefani, Fifth Harmony, Knife Party, and Fall Out Boy. A fearless, charismatic personality and natural-born storyteller, her mission is to create art that blends her Indian roots with her American upbringing.

In this exclusive interview, she talks among other things about the challenges she had to face as an American of Indian origin, her latest tracks ‘I Am A Rebel’ and ‘Hello World’ which released on Women’s Day, and philanthropic activities that she participates in through her music.

Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)
Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)

Being of Indian American origin, tell us more about the challenges you had to face and the uniqueness you bring to your music. 

RK: One of the main issues I faced trying to get started in America was racism. I was always told to tone down my ethnicity, that I was “too Indian” to be successful in America. I struggled to find someone to look up to as a South Asian kid in America. I remember, on weekends I would travel for classical dancing and wouldn’t necessarily share that with my friends. I would come to school with the Alta (painting the palms and feet with a red dye) fading on my hands and they’d ask me, “What is that? Do you have a hand disease?” 

Things are evolving in the US now. I like to call it the ‘brown renaissance’ Indians are more relevant in so many fields, especially entertainment. On the other hand, some people in India called me a ‘culture vulture’. How can I be a ‘culture vulture’ in my own culture just because I’m born in America? I’m not just another South Asian. I still have put in my time to be Indian enough to talk about India without being an appropriator of culture. My family did a really great job of preserving the culture for us. We don’t fake it. We wear sarees for pujas, my mom does Vijayadashami and Navratri, I have studied Indian music and dance. As a result, my style is just a balance between the East and the West. 

I think learning to navigate both worlds with authenticity has helped me become the artist I am today. I have carved a place for myself in the male-dominated music circuit by staying authentic and rooted in my culture. I think there a lot of women in the industry who say a lot of things from the female perspective about relationships, broken hearts, love lost, pain, sadness, happiness, or sexiness; there are so many of those voices. I felt like we were missing my perspective. Of course, I could sing soft and beautiful songs but there are many people to do that.

You are also a trained dancer in Kuchipudi, Odissi, and Bharatanatyam. Tell us more about this passion of yours. 

RK: My passion for Indian dance started at a very young age. My mother had always wanted to be a classical dancer and it wasn’t feasible for her to pursue it growing up, so it was always in her heart to have a daughter who was a dancer so I came out dancing. My attachment to classical Indian dancing really gave me so much of my personality, so much the way I dress and the way I perceive the world, and also the stories that I relate to. Some kids grew up to Batman, Superman and I was really obsessed with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the stories of Hanuman. Those were my superheroes, and so I think classical dance really made that a part of my life. 

Tell us more about philanthropic activities you have participated in in the past through your performances. 

RK: I always believed art should be used for the greater good. Since I was a child, my parents always involved me in a lot of charity work and I was able to help build the meditational hall in Hyderabad and donate a wing for a hospital in Bengaluru. I consistently performed for so many temples to raise funds for building certain temples in Southern California. I think now I definitely use my art to open doors for others to create an opportunity to inspire. There are many philanthropic activities I am a part of but I mostly like to support the charities that support the girl child because I believe in India, we need more attention and more support to encourage young girls to be in art and not just sciences or leaving school as we usher in an era of more creative artists. I think we have enough of everything else and I would hate to lose our artistry as a culture with the idea of modernizing ourselves and lose everything we are, so anything that will help support the art, I am there.

Who are some of your inspirations? 

RK: Madhuri Dixit, Lauryn Hill, Kamala Harris, Missy Elliot, and Beyonce.

Tell our readers more about your latest tracks ‘I Am A Rebel’ (featuring Kiara Advani and Bani J in lead roles) as well as ‘Hello World’ (with Hollywood actor Rita Wilson and Brazilian singer Claudia Leitte), both of which released on Women’s Day. 

RK: Both these tracks were created from the inkling to motivate and inspire young girls. Teaming up with Rita Wilson and Claudia Leitte on ‘Hello World’ was amazing, as these are two women I have so much respect for and it was really cool to see how our styles complemented one another. When boAt approached me to write ‘I Am A Rebel’, I was so excited to collaborate with my longtime friend DJ SA on the music. I’ve always considered myself a rebel in my music choice, my career, and my unapologetic nature! I loved crafting the lyrics to depict that energy and I’m so happy to have been joined by so many strong women like Bani J and Kiara on the campaign.


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. 


 

Mother and Baby

The Lori, Jola, Angai Geet Keep Us Awake

A lullaby is as ancient as the hills. It connects a mother to the child, much like an umbilical cord, nurturing both. It brings about “an exchange of souls” as suggested by Bayartai Genden, a propounder of the lullaby. Although called a cradle song since its start, it may prove helpful even in serious adult illnesses and in hospice as discovered by modern scientists. Upon first hearing the sound of the mother, the baby gets hooked on to her. But when does the baby even start hearing? That is a fascinating story to unravel.

Embryological Roots of Hearing

At about 18 weeks of life in the womb, the baby perceives the first sound of the beating of her mom’s heart, her breathing sounds, her intestinal gurgling, and the stream of blood passing through her umbilical cord. No wonder the baby, later on, enjoys the sound of a stream or river, which is her deja vu experience! In the third trimester of pregnancy, the baby specifically recognizes her mother’s voice as evidenced by her heart rate increasing when the mother is talking outside. The baby, however, has to hear her mom’s voice through a fluid medium and has to develop a correlation upon her birth that she heard the same voice then and now! 

A Lullaby Is More Than Just a Tune For a Baby  

Scientific experiments show that the baby prefers hearing her mother’s own voice singing a lullaby rather than somebody else’s. The baby also prefers the subject matter of the lullaby to be infant-directed rather than non-infant-directed! Thus starts the story of “me and mine!” The topic of the lullaby may inevitably get modified as the mother employs it to express her fears, hopes, and prayers. 

I learned in my school a lullaby attributed to Shivaji’s mother, Jijibai, who prepared her son to wage and win a war when he grew up. “Sleep now, but fight later,” she sang. This correlates well with the story of Abhimanyu in Mahabharat wherein he learns the art of war while in the uterus.

An Obstetrical Clinic in California teaches pregnant mothers to talk to their baby in the womb. I also learned a lullaby sung by the mother of a child laborer in the textile industry. She lamented waking up her child from a deep sleep of early morning to report to his daily hard work. A Syrian mother changed her soothing lullaby to a fear-stricken one when she was forced to migrate to Turkey to escape the brutal conditions in Syria. Highly toxic polluted air in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia prompted a mother to shift her children to safer surroundings and sing a nostalgic song about how her beautiful country had so drastically deteriorated!

Thus a lullaby may often unfold an ongoing tale of changing conditions.

Lullabies: A Universal Blanket Covering the Vast Universe

Hannah Reyes Morales, from the Philippines, deserves special credit for reawakening our interest in the lullaby. She has reviewed the world history of the lullaby in National Geographic (December 2020) with accompanying eloquent pictures related to the subject. In fact, there is no part of human culture or province that the lullaby has left untouched. It is ancient but alive and needs to be nurtured to be kept alive. Every country from A to “Z”, so to speak, has its own synonym for a lullaby, the core remaining unchanged.

The French call it Berceuse, the Western musicians Lullaments, while a multilingual country like India has many names for it. It is called Lori in Hindi, Jola in Telugu, Thalattu in Tamil, Nanabaya in Odia, Angai Geet in Maharashtrian, Halardu in Gujarati, Ghum-Parani-Gaan in Bangladeshi. Some of our Christmas carols like “Silent Night, Holy Night” could have been a lullaby to baby Jesus. Dating even further back, a Babylonian lullaby about 4000 years old was found inscribed on a clay tablet.

Our Rich Heritage of Hindi Loris

Undoubtedly, there has been an inadequate exploration of the rich treasure of lullabies in multilingual Indian literature and folk songs. Loris of Indian film songs have a significant contribution to that wealth. They have expressed love, pathos, social adversities, abounding hopes, depressing despairs, panoramic nature, spiritual insightfulness, and a vast gamut of a mother’s powerfully emotional feelings. I was disappointed to see that an exhaustive article on the subject as in National Geographic did not make any mention of Indian lullabies. It also is noteworthy that some of the most outstanding lullabies have been written by men, who often distance themselves from the babies in our society. Yes, men too, can connect to this chorus at home and around. I remember many lullabies that my father sang before I slept. 

Modus Operandi of a Lullaby

It is marvelous, mysterious, and miraculous! The baby gets reassured, the mother relieved, and both of them feel ready to sleep at its end. As proposed by Freud, the baby is not afraid of the dark but has isolation fear, while the mother herself also needs some privacy with the baby. As the baby wants to be lulled to sleep (that is why it is called lullaby), the mother also wants to feel the fulfillment of her maternal connection. It is therefore not uncommon to see a mother falling asleep even before the baby. A lullaby supports the spirit, psychology, and resilience in adversity, all of which have a therapeutic value. It is simple, repetitive, rhythmic, and soothing. A father or a sibling can subsequently substitute for the mother, thus widening the base of the bond. A joint presence of both parents at the sleeping time of the baby generates reassuring accountability and dependability in both parents. The baby needs this support to be self-supporting later in life.

Modern Science Extends Applications of the Lullaby Beyond Babies and in Covid-19

Based on the concept that a lullaby has a therapeutic value before sleep, it has been also applied in hospice patients as well as in premature or sick children. Childhood and old age are often placed on comparable rungs of the same ladder of life so a lullaby can bring extra comfort to both, from a state of wakefulness to drowsiness and even death as in hospice patients.

Laura Cirreli, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Toronto who studies the Science of Maternal Song, has reported a decreased level of stress in both mother and baby induced by warm gentle rocking. There is also a lullaby project conducted by Carnegie Hall in New York City. Samuel Mehr, Director of Harvard University’s Music Lab, asked 29,000 participants to listen to 118 variegated songs to evaluate their healing power. “Statistically, people are most consistent in identifying lullabies,” he said. 

During the isolation of children from working mothers as in the covid-19 period, mothers sang their lullabies from hospitals and working stations using zoom to comfort their children sleeping at home. What a wonderful use of technology to transmit continuing love and care to the young ones!

Going back to our own country India, Jagdish Chandra Bose (1858-23) proved the comforting effect of music even on plants. Amar Bose (1929-13), who fathered the wireless passage of sound, substantiates that a lullaby functions exactly on the same principle! The sound of music is ever so sound. We better keep our lullabies awake.


Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a priest, poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada, and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at bmajmud1962@gmail.com. 


 

Is Gender Parity in Politics a Distant Dream?

Tell A Story – a column where riveting South Asian stories are presented like never before through unique video storytelling.

As another election season comes to an end in India, it leaves us with lingering doubts – introspection into what could have been avoided and needs to be mended. Aggressive campaigning amidst pandemic led to a rocketing spike of cases, an unexpected setback for the central ruling party.

But the fundamental and crucial issue that remains unnoticed is the staggering ratio between the number of male contenders to female contenders in the election. Have you ever pondered on the count? Well, it’s shocking to note that the count not even close!

This is an issue that is very much prevalent across the globe. In America, we saw the first woman win the vice-presidential election campaign only in the recent 2020 election. Prior to Kamala Harris, the first female, first African-American, and first Asian-American vice president, only five women throughout history had made it to a major party’s primary debate stage.

According to the UN Gender statistics 2020, globally, only a quarter of seats in national parliaments are held by women. In local deliberative bodies, the count is hardly 37 percent. When it comes to the world’s government heads, only 6.7 percent are women. With the current rate of progress, the UN believes global gender parity can be achieved only after 2060. And even that looks dicey with the number of gender discrimination cases rising across the world.

Not just for women to come to the fore and hold the reigns of power, the journey of disparity goes a long way back, right from the procurement of the basic right to vote in elections. The odyssey of women’s suffrage is unimaginable considering the outrageous reasons cited for denying voting rights to women. Absurd denial reasons included women’s incompetence to understand politics and how they would neglect home and wreck families if allowed to venture into politics. 

It took more than 75 years of struggle, protests, and agony for women to obtain their basic right to vote. However, it’s surprising to observe the superpowers of today were not among the first on the list to embrace the change. New Zealand was the first country in the world to proclaim the right of women to vote in 1893. Followed by Australia, Finland, and Norway. It took yet another seven years for 28 other countries to join the wagon including the U.S, Germany, Canada, Britain, and many other European countries. For Asian countries, they had to wait until the end of World War II.

Unknown to many, few conservative nations withheld the rights until the start of the Twenty-First Century. Oman approved the rights in 1994 and UAE only in 2006. Saudi Arabia became the most recent country to grant women voting rights in 2015. Currently, Vatican City is the only country in the world to deny voting rights based on sex. 

2021 saw a welcoming dawn with Estonia, a country in Northern Europe, becoming the only country to have both a female president and prime minister. But still, the women leaders who have emerged from the shackles of patriarchy are only a handful, while many others are only in the game to honor family names or to be mere puppets in the hands of male supremacy. 

Through this video story, Tell-A-Story unfolds the historical women’s suffrage movement, the journey of the incredible women in power, current staggering gender economics and the need for miles to go, and millions to empower for a gender-neutral world!


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

For more such intriguing stories, subscribe to the channel. You can also follow the stories on Facebook @tellastory2020 and Instagram @tell_a_story2020


 

The sky (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)

My Son’s Pandemic Ponderings: Why is Our Sky Not Green?

Due to the pandemic, my son and I have been thrown together a lot more than usual. Walks take on a gentle curious hue that is relished by us both. He is definitely more energetic than I am, but somehow I seem to thrive in the glow of his energy too, so all is well. Our walks are often talk-fests. The elementary school-going son, like many children his age, pulls a full why-wagon with him wherever he goes. The questions tumble out with ease, and can be anywhere on the spectrum:

They are all fair game.

Sunset (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)
Sunset (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)

Sometimes, of course, his questions chip away at the stoutest of theories. For instance, a few years ago, as we mooned about the hills overlooking the bay at sunset and taking in the shades of pinks, oranges, blues, grays, purples, and reds, he said, Why is the sunset never green?

Now, that is a perfectly valid question with a perfectly scientific answer. However, it had me stumped, for it never occurred to me to ask that particular question. I remember being awed a few years ago when the children had drawn rust and pink-colored skies when asked to imagine a sky for their imaginary world. 

How often do we take the time to question things that just are? It is thanks to the young and curious minds of the children that I stop to ponder about these things and enjoy the joy of wonder.

In the Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, he comes up with a marvelous chapter on determining the planetary world one is in simply based on the color of the sky. This is the kind of leap in imagination, where only deep thought and research can take you, and here he was, simply giving it away in a book. All his marvelous thought processes, his wonder of the world, his eternal curiosity, and scientific rigor just laid out on a page so we could embrace it in one simple reading. 

“The color of the sky characterizes the world. Plop me down on any planet in the Solar System, without seeing the gravity, without glimpsing the ground, let me take a look at the sun and the sky, and I can, I think, pretty well tell you where I am, That familiar shade of blue, interrupted here and there by fleecy white clouds, is a signature of our world. “ – Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot
Pale Blue Dot

The essay, Sacred Black , in the book, Pale Blue Dot is well worth reading. He explains the reasoning behind the colors of the planets as we see them. He deduces the color of the sky based on the elements found in their atmospheres. 

  1. Venus, he says, probably has a red sky.
  2. Mars has a sky that is between ochre and pink much like the colors of the desert.
  3. Jupiter, Saturn – worlds with such giant atmospheres such that sunlight hardly penetrates it, have black skies. He talks about this bleak expanse of a sky being interrupted here and there by strokes of lightning in the thick mop of clouds surrounding the planets. This image does make for a sober shiver for someone who loves the sky and its myriad attractions. Imagine, not being able to see the stars, the sun, or anything beyond the clouds.
  4. Uranus & Neptune have an uncanny, austere blue color. The distant sunlight reaches a comparatively clean atmosphere of hydrogen, helium, and methane in these planets. The skies may be blue or green at a certain depth resulting in an aquamarine or an ‘unearthly blue’.

He shows us how in the absence of an atmosphere, an inky deep purple is all there is – how our planet is only a pale blue dot floating in an inky void illumined by a ray of light from the sun. Our eyes may not show us green colors in the sky at sunset, but it does detect plenty of green in the flora around us. The colors in the visible spectrum of light make for a marvelous world, but what if our eyes had evolved differently? How would life have been? 

I read bits and pieces of the chapter to the son one evening, and he had that look of intense concentration as if imagining a hundred worlds with thousands of possibilities of the sky. When I smiled at the end and said, ‘So, how do you like it?”

He grinned his approval and said, “Awesome!”

In June 2014, Mangalyaan, launched by India in November 2013, became the first Asian orbiter to stay in Martian orbit, and sent many high-resolution images from the Martian orbit for us to analyze. The Martian Magic continues with the rovers now on Mars. From the earliest times of ancient civilizations, the ‘wanderers’ have enthralled mankind. Behaving differently from the thousands of stars visible to the naked eye, the planets were the first teasers on a long journey through Aryabhatta, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei to Mars missions and rovers. The first puzzle in understanding the cosmos and our place in it.

A few days later, the son came charging into the room in the middle of his school day – “Amma! Amma! You will like this. I just came to tell you this! The Mars landing just happened!”

There is something special in being able to watch the Mars Perseverance Rover land on Mars during the day with your fellow explorer. The video attests to Carl Sagan’s deductions. The Martian atmosphere does look pinkish red with heavily desert hues. The son & I looked outside at the beautiful blue sky with reassuringly white clouds flitting by. We were admiring the clouds in the Bay Area in California while thinking of Mangalyaan launched from India. The missions launched from halfway across the world. The cosmic arena is truly a unifier – to design and perceive the grand universe, the scale of the experiments requires international co-operation as the International Space Station, LIGO experiments, and the Mars pictures attest.

Flora and fauna (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)
Flora and fauna (Image by Saumya Balasubramanian)

Science took us to Mars with the reddish sky, but it was the blue sky with white clouds that enabled us to dream.

Throughout the following week, the little cosmologist in the house interspersed our Earthly life with Mars-ly anecdotes and clips. 

One evening, we sat together huddled up, watching pictures stitched together from the 3 Mars rovers: Opportunity, Curiosity, Perseverance. Barren desert landscapes, not unlike those in the Sahara desert or the Arizonian deserts, are all the rovers could see. 

The one thing that the Martian landscape reinforces to me, is that our Earth is a beautiful planet – so vast in its diversity, and lifeforms. The Martian pictures make me want to go out and sigh and fall in love, look after, and cherish the one planet we can thrive on. To admire the miracle that is every tree, every lake, every cloud, every blade of grass, and every flower. 

“A blade of grass is a commonplace on Earth; it would be a miracle on Mars. “ – Carl Sagan

If Martian 4K resolution images have taught me anything, it is to buckle down and look after the one planet we do have. I talk to my son about this – It is his generation that will adopt the new skies. 


Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.


 

Arnav Mishra with cards for seniors (Image provided by Arnav Mishra)

San Jose Teen, Arnav Mishra’s Efforts Bring Smiles to Senior Citizens

In a time of collective trauma, Arnav Mishra provides a source of healing through his work for senior citizens in the Bay Area. Mishra’s organizing efforts, creating colorful cards and drawings for seniors, is deemed a “work of heart”.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, 16-year-old Arnav and his younger sister have been busy writing letters and sending their colorful creations to assisted living facilities and hospice centers across California and the country.

After receiving an overwhelming response from grateful seniors, many of whom have been unable to see their own grandchildren in more than a year, Arnav formed the organization Pumpkin Letters and recruited groups of elementary and middle school students to help in his effort. Since April 2020, they have brightened up the days of more than 3,000 seniors with cute cards, letters, and words of encouragement.

Pumpkin Letters online platform (Image provided by Arnav Mishra)
Pumpkin Letters online platform (Image provided by Arnav Mishra)

“I knew that my grandparents were really missing our visits during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place, so my little sister and I started writing letters and cards and dropping off to them regularly,” said Arnav. “I realized that just like my grandparents, there were so many other grandparents and seniors who couldn’t see their grandkids and were lonely.”

Arnav juggles a full schedule as a guitarist in his school’s rock band, an intern for a Bay Area political campaign, and a student with challenging Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Yet, he remains inspired to continue writing letters to seniors by the responses he receives. He is working to reach even more seniors but needs other students to help in order to expand the effort.

“The demand for these cards and letters from senior homes is overwhelming and he needs more kids involved in this project to help cover even more care homes,” said Arnav’s mother, Ruchika Mishra. “We know there are a lot of kind, compassionate, and creative kids who would love to cheer up lonely seniors.”

Since his project kicked off more than a year ago, 260+ children have been able to send cheer to more than 900 seniors. Many seniors share their cards with others, spreading the love even further.

Students ages 8-17,  teachers registering their classes, and group home caregivers, can sign up to volunteer or request letters by visiting the Pumpkin Letters website. Interested persons will receive information on how their drawings and letters can help seniors fight loneliness and instructions on where to send their completed work.

Pumpkin Letters Volunteers on a Zoom Call (Image provided by Arnav Mishra)

Since many schoolchildren are also struggling with limited social interactions with their friends or aren’t attending in-person school due to the health crisis, Pumpkin Letters hosts monthly Zoom meetups where children and teens gather to work together on their art projects, laugh, share ideas, and become inspired by the work of others. These events are often based on themes that are related to the seasons and upcoming holidays. Learn more or sign up for an upcoming meetup at www.PumpkinLetters.com.


Srishti Prabha is the Managing 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.


 

Mind Matters.

Mind Matters: Mental Health in South Asian Americans

A recent article in India West reported that a higher percentage of South Asian Americans, especially between the ages of 15 and 24, had been found to exhibit depressive symptoms and a higher rate of suicide among young South Asian American women compared to the general US population. Likewise, studies have spoken of how South Asian immigrants have high rates of mental health disorders that go unaddressed.

Asian American Connect

Dr. Priyanka Thukral Mahajan
Dr. Priyanka Thukral Mahajan

Other studies have shown that immigrants from South Asia to the USA and their children face numerous mental health challenges.

“This could be on account of acculturation, that is cultural or psychological changes that occur as a result of prolonged first-hand contact between two different belief systems or cultures. Stress predominantly originates from their attempts to incorporate ‘American’ traits in their own culture. This eventually shows up as a cultural conflict. Multiple other factors contribute to this stress, including alienation and separation from their families and loved ones, language barriers preventing true socialization, uncertainty around their immigration status, financial stressors, as well as in certain cases, overt or perceived discrimination, and more generally, barriers to cultural integration,” says Dr. Priyanka Thukral Mahajan, Consultant Psychiatrist, Masina Hospital.

Conflict Concerns

Eventually, this cultural conflict leads to uncertainty around belonging. This is particularly more visible in the workplace. The effects of prolonged acculturation and discrimination result in a wide spectrum of psychological disorders over time. These include depression (primarily due to isolation, financial stress), somatization (i.e., self-interpretation of mental health symptoms as physical symptoms and not seeking help), anxiety (again on account of alienation), substance abuse disorders, especially alcohol.

“Such disorders have a dark underbelly, as they are one of the key reasons for increasing rates of suicides among South Asian immigrants in America. The tragedy is that all the above is neither widely known nor acknowledged. The issue is accentuated further by the challenges associated with seeking help from mental health professionals in the form of psychological counseling. If one gets into the weeds of the issue, one realizes that such immigrants have limited means of confiding their feelings with mental health professionals in the USA, given cultural barriers and differences. It is difficult for professional mental health professionals to understand their feelings and challenges, correlate with their culture and truly empathize with them,” adds Mahajan.

Ethnicity Woes

Dr. Sahiba Sethi
Dr. Sahiba Sethi

South Asian countries have been right in the center of the pandemic conversation throughout. Though the impact for South Asian Americans is even more convoluted. At the height of the pandemic, last year xenophobia gripped multiple countries and this community bore much of the backlash for no fault of their own. The lingering effects continue in a lot of pockets. The impact that it would have had on their mental health would be enormous. 

“Personal stories shared by individuals across the world via my online counseling sessions gave me an insight into the South Asian American community and their fears. The last 14 months, we have seen an increased prevalence of nonpsychotic depression, pre-anxiety, somatic concerns, alcohol-related disorders, and insomnia in general. Parents worried about their children’s safety have given rise to psychological symptoms correlated more with physical complaints of fatigue and pain in older adults. This was directly related to social media use, misinformation, xenophobia, and social distancing. The resulting isolation made a lot of people see the bad rather than the good in a community. Frontline workers reported guilt, stigma, anxiety, and poor sleep quality, which were related to the lack of availability of adequate personal protective equipment, increased workload, and discrimination,” says Sahiba Sethi, Counseling Psychologist, Ummeed Healing.

Apps as a Tool

Dr. Nabhit Kapur
Dr. Nabhit Kapur

Apps are just a click away, so are easy to access. 

“And some may already be socially isolated and experiencing loneliness which can worsen mental health. COVID-19 itself can lead to neurological and mental complications, such as delirium, agitation, and stroke,” says Nabhit Kapur, Founder President of PeacfulMind Foundation.

Apps help people connect in their native languages to a therapist who understands their culture and can empathize with their situation. Some of these apps are powered in the background by Artificial Intelligence.

“These apps help such immigrant patients deal with their mental health issues in a much better way. Their biggest advantage is the patient’s perceived lack of being judged by a third person, resulting in lower stigma towards using them as against meeting a mental health professional in person. This stigma is a huge barrier especially in the South Asian community given the cultural background. A key issue with such apps, however, is in certain instances the patients may not feel truly connected with the device, which can result in a decline in their usage over time. A recently launched app for this purpose is SAMHIN (South Asian Mental Health Initiative and Network). Another one that has been in existence for a longer duration is SASMHA (South Asian Sexual and Mental Alliance). These apps can help connect people who need psychological counseling, with various platforms, to seek support and find mental peace,” says Mahajan.

COVID Angle

Dr. Prakriti
Dr. Prakriti Poddar

Statistics reveal that only 23% of non-Americans in the USA seek mental health, against the 40% of Americans born in the USA. Patients from such communities find it arduous to find a mental health professional from their own community, who can understand their situation and truly support them. Covid-19 pandemic has further worsened the above dynamic. As is very well known, the sheer incidence of mental health issues has gone up significantly through this pandemic due to heightened financial insecurity, lack of social contact. For the immigrants, seeking medical help in these times has become even more challenging.

Prakriti Poddar, Global Head for Mental Health at Round Glass, Managing Trustee Poddar Foundation says, “a 2018 study found out that stress related to acculturation, trauma, and discrimination has been linked with depression, anxiety and substance abuse among South Asian Americans. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected South Asian American communities by increasing stress and anxiety levels in terms of health concerns and issues such as employment and housing.  Due to the uptick in violence and hate against the South Asian American community, racism has also severely impacted the mental health of the community.”

Breaking Taboos

Dr. Aparna Methil
Dr. Aparna Methil

In India, it is an uphill task to change perceptions related to mental health predominantly due to the stigma associated with it. The challenge lies in creating the right kind of awareness about mental health problems and encouraging people to seek the right kind of help from mental health professionals.

“Mental health crisis can be attributed to the outbreak of Covid-19 and resultant loneliness, isolation, fear of loss of life, financial insecurity, job cuts, salary cuts, and overall economic uncertainty. The common mental health issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms, insomnia, denial, anger, and fear reported among Indians. Stress, anxiety, and depression have been closely related with the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Aparna Methil, Vice-President, Operations, Mpower. Mental health issues faced by South Asian immigrants in the USA are immense and one of the ways to tackle the challenge is to take the help of technology. After all wellness in a click matters the most.

Mental Health App List


Bindu Gopal Rao is a freelance writer and photographer from Bangalore who likes taking the offbeat path when traveling. Birding and environment are her favorites and she documents her work on www.bindugopalrao.com.


 

A Twitter plea from journalist, Vinay Srivastava.

COVID Overtakes India: Indian Americans Struggle With How to Support Their Loved Ones

The second wave of COVID in India has caused over 18 million people to be affected by the virus, most of whom are currently struggling to get beds in hospitals, or oxygen supply, or sustainable food. 

People have lost lives before they were even given a chance. Just yesterday (Thursday, April 29th), an India Currents’ writer’s cousin (a doctor) posted an urgent request for a ventilator with a bed in Jabalpur. A day later, the bed was not needed because the man passed away. He was only 52. 

Indian Americans are far from their families, unable to provide physical support or be with their loved ones at their deathbed.

“I wish I could be with my family and help. It’s horrible having to hear of young sons having to organize the funerals of their fathers,” a reader in the Bay Area reports.

Students in India feel frustrated and hurt with the current situation: “I can’t believe I’m doing assignments and working when people around me are struggling to just stay alive!?” While their siblings, or grandparents, or parents, or friends are hospitalized and struggling, students are preparing for exams or finishing assignments.

PRIME MINISTER’S ACTION

In the beginning phases, India was at the forefront of a promising vaccinated future. Prime Minister Modi had even generously donated doses to other countries that needed it. But, this act was met with backlash as Indians pointed out his inadequate response to the pandemic by holding rallies that usually involved large gatherings. People took to Twitter to address the poor governance. Hashtags such as ResignModi trended for hours. 

The government changed its policies, finally understanding the weight of the crisis and reducing the cost of the doses, and pushing to vaccinate those who are 18 and older beginning May 1st. However, the pandemic in India needs global aid and support. 

THE GLOBAL RESPONSE 

Multiple countries like the UK, the USA, Russia, Italy, and Germany have sent oxygen concentrators and various medical supplies to aid the raging pandemic in India. However, the primary requirement to save lives is the vaccine, of which India does not have enough doses. The U.S especially has been heavily criticized for stockpiling vaccines and not using them. Just recently, it was found that the United States is sitting on millions of vaccine doses that are not being pushed for us. Due to backlash, President Joe Biden confirmed that the US would be sending vaccines to India. 

California has also shipped out oxygen supplies to India in response. In a statement regarding the response to the crisis in India, Governor Gavin Newsom said, “Everyone deserves quality medical treatment against this terrible disease, and California will answer the call and provide aid to the people of India who so desperately need it.” 

Sunatya COVID Fundraiser (Image from @ucdsunatya)

College students have set up fundraisers for COVID relief in India through clubs and other organizations. The UC Davis Bharatanatyam dance club Sunatya for example posted an explanation of the crisis in India with links for donation.

WHAT WE CAN DO

Even though we see different media outlets update the number of cases every day, it is important to remember that each case is an individual human, not a statistic on a report. 

In the past week, there has been a flurry of messages on WhatsApp with different people that have been offering home-cooked meals for families. 

Activists in India have been constantly checking various websites and dashboards online that update oxygen, medicine, and bed availability; calling the numbers and verifying the reliability of the supplies. 

Due to the high need for these supplies, the suppliers often almost immediately are exhausted of their resources and end up having no more to offer. One Hyderabadi local, Meghana Kudligi has been continuously doing this for a couple of days and now has steady contacts that get in touch with her in case of an update. She is a student in college, and all her Instagram stories have offered donation links, food availability, medical supplies, oxygen, and beds. This can be done by any of us. Sharing a link, finding a verified donation page, donating money…we aren’t helpless! 

Resources

Local Organizations

Multiple Organizations such as Anubhuti, TYCIA, Mazdoor Kitchen, and many many more have set up donation links for medicine, oxygen, and food supplies. 

Compiled resources: bit.ly/MutualAidIndia

More locally verified donation organizations by Meghana Kudligi: https://www.instagram.com/p/COQNpjDA9rI/?igshid=1f7x04yh8nioz

Yuva covid relief resources: https://www.instagram.com/weareyuvaa/guide/covid-relief-resources-pan-india/18074855854262944/?igshid=kjcjq6qi9okf

Indian American projects Funding COVID crisis in India

A group of photographers from the Indian Diaspora raising money for India’s Covid Crisis  – 100% of Profits Donated: https://shamiana.darkroom.tech/#

Indiaspora’s campaign for aid to India: https://www.chalogive.org/

***

In a time of anger and pain, the hope for better guides us. We can be the change we seek. It is important to remember that while pain and fear are spreading, there are also people on the ground working to deliver resources. Let’s take our emotional energy and invest it in the people doing the work.


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

Srishti Prabha is the Managing 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.


 

Dr. Sadaf Jaffer's swearing-in for her first term as Mayor (Image provided by Fatima Naqvi)

Dr. Sadaf Jaffer is the First Muslim Woman to Serve as Mayor in the US

Dr. Sadaf Jaffer became the first South Asian woman to serve as mayor of a municipality in New Jersey, and the first Muslim woman to serve as a mayor of a municipality in the United States. Jaffer is a Postdoctoral Research Associate of South Asian Studies at Princeton University where she teaches courses on South Asian, Islamic, and Asian American studies. She got her start in politics when she ran for local office in 2017 and won, becoming the first and only Democrat on the local government in Montgomery, NJ, in many years. In the following year, the Democratic Party won two more seats and Jaffer became the Mayor. She is now running for New Jersey State Assembly in Legislative District 16. 

Mayor Sadaf F. Jaffar (Image provided by Fatima Naqvi)

Can you tell me a little bit about your background: where you were born and raised? 

SJ: I was born and raised in Chicago. My parents had immigrated from Pakistan and Yemen. I went to college in Washington D.C. at Georgetown University, and then I lived in India for two years studying Urdu in Lucknow. I did a Ph.D. at Harvard University in South Asian Studies. Later, I moved to New Jersey after I met my husband and we both ended up getting a position at Princeton University. We have a 6-year-old daughter. 

As a South Asian Muslim woman in politics who belongs to an immigrant family, how do you define your identity? How has that translated into your work as Mayor so far? 

SJ: My goal is to try to make a positive change and be a caring member of my family and my community. I want to advocate for people to have the rights that they deserve. That drives me in all of the work that I do, whether it’s teaching my students about Islam in South Asia or South Asian American literature and film; leading my community during a pandemic; leading them by having conversations and discussions about racial injustice, and how we can address it; or by serving as a candidate and trying to learn about what people in my district want. I would definitely say that my South Asian identity is very important to me and it manifests itself in lots of different ways. A really important thing to me is that we see South Asian American culture as an integral part of American culture – that there isn’t necessarily a dichotomy. If I want to wear a Saari to my swearing-in – which is what I did for my second term as mayor – that should just be me representing a part of my identity that is important to me. 

You recently completed two terms as mayor of Montgomery Township, New Jersey. What was it that made you want to get into politics? 

SJ: I had considered myself an activist for many years and specifically as someone who cared deeply about human rights issues. Over time, I started to feel like advocacy was having its limits. I felt like ultimately the elected officials were making the decisions that they thought were the right ones. That’s when I started thinking that I should advocate for people who shared my values to be in those elected roles, or that I should eventually run myself.

I participated in a candidate training program for women from the Democratic Party who are interested in running for office, called Emerge New Jersey. It was through that program that I learned about the nitty-gritty of connecting with the State Party, County Party, and the Municipal Party. After that, I was campaigning for someone who was running for Congress when I was asked to run for office. In Emerge, I learned that the United States ranked 75th in the world in terms of women’s representation in politics and if I want other women to participate then I believed that I should also step up and do it myself. Ultimately, it was because I wanted to see the values that I hold dear reflected in the policies of my government. 

What has your experience as a representational figure in politics been like so far? Has it been what you expected it to be? 

SJ: I don’t think I really knew what to expect. Being thrust into a role as a representational figure, I definitely feel a sense of responsibility to speak to the broader community, and to be the example that there’s such a hunger to see political engagement from our communities. It mostly comes down to mentoring and advising people on how to get involved – that is also one of the reasons why I got into politics. I had never known anyone who had run for office before. I want to open up the process to more people. I want them to feel empowered, so I’m very happy to help encourage individuals from diverse communities to get involved in the political process. I see that as a responsibility that I am very proud to fulfill. 

You are now seeking a Democratic nomination for the NJ General Assembly. If elected, what are some key issues you plan to focus on as a legislator? 

SJ: My platform is basically focused on prosperity and justice for all. I believe that the government can be a source of good. The first thing that I would want to focus on is investing in green jobs and sustainable recovery. Our economy has shifted dramatically over the course of the pandemic and now we have an opportunity, as we get things restarted, to do so in a sustainable manner. 

The second would be civil and human rights which is a passion of mine and is really why I got involved in activism to begin with. There are a lot of things that can be put in place to ensure that we are diversifying our police department; that we’re acknowledging indigenous rights; that we are providing maternal healthcare. Those are some of the things that I would be very passionate about advocating for when I get into the State Assembly. 

Lastly, what is the one factor you feel is necessary for anyone to run and get elected to office? 

SJ: Go for it. Women and minorities win elections at the same rate as white men, but we just don’t run as often. So, you’ll just have to jump in and you’ll learn as you go. If you’re interested in politics, I would say the best thing for you to do is to connect with your party and start campaigning for candidates you believe in. Through their experience, you will learn. There is a hunger and a need for people with new perspectives, dynamics, ideas, and a strong work ethic. 


Fatima Naqvi is a Rutgers University graduate who currently works as a Legislative Liaison at the New Jersey Department of Education.


 

Amanda Sodhi traveling (Images from her Instagram @amandasodhi)

12 Months. 12 Cities. 1 Suitcase: An Indian American Travels to India to Find Her Home

Amanda Sodhi is a DC native and was previously an LA-based screenwriter, songwriter, filmmaker, and writer. This year she has launched a program titled Twelve Steps to Home to travel across twelve cities in India. Amanda Sodhi has taken an unconventional path, following her passion and encouraging women to do the same. She has built on her versatile talents and uses them to questions the ways in which women are bogged down by society. In this interview, she expands on her new project and what it means to be a woman on the road less traveled.

IC: You have a background in writing and music, what urged you to fuse them together and create your project Twelve Steps to Home, and what does it mean to you?

AS: I was born and brought up in Washington, DC. I’ve lived and worked in Los Angeles, too. I moved to Mumbai when I was 25. At 29, I moved to Kolkata, shuttling between there and Delhi. However, I kept outgrowing each city after a point, and it really felt quite isolating. I felt like I belonged both everywhere and nowhere. I couldn’t identify any one place as “home,” as a place to return to. 

Often, people define home as where their family is. Since I am estranged from my family, the definition of “home” is especially blurry for me. 

The lease of my Kolkata flat was anyhow expiring in December. So, I sold all my furniture, downsized to one suitcase, and began a brand new journey of uprooting myself consciously month-after-month – 12 months, 1 month per city. I will be documenting this journey in the form of a book. And, I intend to release my next song with a music video that draws from footage from all 12 places. 

I have no idea what the outcome is going to be at the end of this path, if I will discover what “home” and “belonging” means or not. But, at the moment, I feel like I’m living my best life, indulging in all these new experiences and meeting so many new people.

IC: As an Indian, there are often challenges that urge us to take a ‘safe’ path in our career due to family or societal pressure. What brought you to find success in your passion and how do you cope in that environment?

AS: It was difficult. My family was neither able to accept that I wanted to pursue a creative career, nor were they were able to wrap their head around the fact I was going to move to India. Eventually, I reached a breaking point where I felt it was high time I lived my life fully, without any guilt. Therapy also helped. Sometimes it takes years of something building up slowly to make a person finally snap, not care about what society thinks and muster the courage to live life on their own terms. 

IC: As a woman traveling in India, how is your artistic process impacted through challenges or obstacles you may face that other genders don’t? What has changed in your journey?

AS: It is challenging – often, people try to discourage women from traveling solo by instilling fear in them. Sometimes people feel resentful that you’re traveling freely when they have succumbed to societal pressure and are conforming to certain expectations of how life should be structured by XYZ age. Some people show sympathy that, “Oh, you don’t have a boyfriend or husband to travel with?” as if that’s even a prerequisite! A few people, however, feel inspired to also travel. It’s a mixed bag.

I remember when I was in Port Blair, one of the hotels I stayed at created random rules just for me because I was the only solo female traveler at their property. It was suffocating. Also, in many cities, I have faced eve-teasing. It can be really upsetting. But, I don’t let it discourage me. Why should a few assholes ruin my plans? My life has been enriched through all the travel experiences I’ve been blessed to have – I’ve learned so much about different places, different people, different cultures, different viewpoints, different lifestyle choices. So many stories to tell!

Regarding my artistic process, there are a lot of men with very fragile egos one comes into contact with; some of them do try to jeopardize your project(s). This is why I like to work alone as much as possible. And, this is why I don’t rely on artistic projects to pay my bills. I freelance as a social media consultant, content writer, and VO artist. This decision has enabled me to create art on my own terms.

IC: In the same manner, how has the pandemic impacted your journey?

AS: The travel guidelines for each state in India keep changing, so I have to pick places accordingly. And, I have to be mentally prepared that flights may get canceled last minute. Because not as many tourists are flocking to each city, I get to experience the best of the local vibe. With this crisis occurring in India right now, it seems I’ll stay put in Kashmir for another month. I will proceed with caution and be sure to monitor the situations carefully. 

IC: What do you want to say to women, who also want to strongly pursue their dreams but are afraid to for different reasons? 

AS: We are all going to die sooner or later…Marne se pehle, please thodda jee lo.

The fact we are all mortal should be the biggest motivation to pursue one’s dreams unapologetically. Better to try and fail in the process rather than be resentful or blame others for stopping you. Yes, everything comes with consequences. But, in the end, I firmly believe the only person stopping you is you. 

IC: As a woman who has taken an unconventional path in life, is there a lot of emphasis on mental health? In India, where there is a strong barrier for women, and where mental health is a taboo, how do you cope with facing such challenges? 

AS: I’ve been in and out of therapy for nearly a decade. I’ve also reached out to shrinks and life coaches, as and when I’ve felt it was required. A few years ago, I was diagnosed with Mixed Anxiety Depressive Disorder. Instability, for prolonged periods, is usually a trigger point for me, which mainly stems from a lack of a sense of what “family” is. Sometimes being open about your own mental health journey – especially if you seem high-functioning – inspires others to also seek help. It is best to lead by example.

I conduct writing therapy workshops through my startup Pen Paper Dreams and try my best to counter the stigma surrounding mental health at a smaller level. For example, one of the books I had my reading group explore is Maybe You Should Talk To Someone. It helped bust a lot of myths. 

IC: You have traveled and lived in places that are on opposite ends of the world, adapting to cultures that may be completely alien to you. What is your support system in this process and how do you thrive in each city and culture to fully experience it?

AS: Indeed, every city is unique. But, at the same time, humans are also very similar, irrespective of their surface-level differences. When you are mentally prepared that you have to make the most of any place, any situation, it helps you adapt quickly. I’ve been lucky to make friends and acquaintances everywhere I go – they have all been an extremely important part of my support system. Humans are social creatures – we need interaction in healthy doses to thrive; that’s definitely one thing this pandemic has made crystal clear. 

IC: How important is it to have an identity as a person separate from being a daughter, mother, sister, etc and in Indian society, how do women tackle that?

AS: Before being a daughter or a mother or a sister or a spouse, you are first and foremost an individual. A person is much more than just the role they play within a family. One’s identity is a mix of different elements at a personal level, family level, and social level. Do not let one role define your entire being.

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Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person.