Tag Archives: #indiacurrents

Yellowstone National Park -- one of the stops on the Wild West road trip.

In Search of the Modern Indian Train Travel: Road Tripping America’s Wild West

Indians fondly remember their train travels during childhood. Summer was the time when schools would be closed, and every kid would dream of going to a distant place, many would travel by train to their family homes.

Train travel in India has a similar kind of charm to road trips in the US. A vast, continental landmass that is well-connected with an intricate network of freeways, highways, and county roads, the country seems to be built for road trips. Train travel in India has a similar kind of charm to road trips in the US. The summer is here and I’m vaccinated — what better time to discover new places?

I had just finished reading the travel adventures of Ted Simon in his book Jupiter’s Travels when I decided I should plan my own road trip. I wanted a new adventure, as the world was gradually opening up after the pandemic, and become acquainted with the US western states — Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho. 

Every journey begins with a single step into the vastness of place and time — some known and lots of unknowns. I didn’t have the route entirely laid out and thought that it would be an adventure to leave a few things up to the serendipity. Also, I knew that I didn’t want to take the same route back. So with some light packing, hiking gears, lots of water, and some chutzpah, I set out to explore the wild west of America and make memories.

I set out from SF south bay and my first stop was going to be Winnemucca in central Nevada, an adventure hub and almost midway between SF and Salt Lake City. The highway I-80 has straight roads that are a pleasure to drive on, especially with wide, open spaces of rural Nevada decorating the highway.

After an overnight rest in the local hotel, I set out to explore the sand dunes the next morning. Driving through sand dunes and taking some breathtaking pictures was delightful and so was getting to know about the Basque culture in the area. I decided to explore Nevada more on my return journey and set forth on I-80 towards Utah.

Bonneville Salt Flats (Image by Author)

Right near the Utah-Nevada border, I was greeted with a vast expanse of white landscape that seemed dazzling from the distance. Upon checking, I realized it was the Bonneville Salt Flats, the second largest salt flat in the world after Bolivia.

Cottonwood, Utah

Reaching Salt Lake City in the evening, I was immediately struck by the dramatic setting of the city in the midst of mountains — Wasatch Range (which is the western end of the greater Rocky Mountains) was dominating the landscape. The mountains just seem to rise from the valley floor in a majestic way, enveloping the city around it in a panoramic fashion. After checking in at my hotel, I set out to explore the Ensign peak from where I heard the view of the city was stunning. And indeed, I was greeted with some marvelous views after a short hike. In the next couple of days, I explored Park City, Cottonwood Canyon drive, Antelope State Park known for the Great Salt Lake, and the satellite towns of Draper and Provo. I also had a fun time zip lining at Sundance mountain resort, which is apparently owned by Robert Redford, the Hollywood thespian.

After having my fill of Utah’s dramatic landscape, downtown nightlife (somewhat muted due to pandemic), and adventurous activities, I set out further north to explore the states of Wyoming and Montana. The immediate destination was Jackson Hole, that quintessential ‘wild west’ town with a mystique and charm of its own. As I drove through Wyoming’s undulating landscape passing myriads of small towns, ranches, and rodeo establishments, I felt excited to be taking in all the sights and sounds. The drive took me through the gorgeous Star Valley and across the scenic towns of Alpine and Afton. As I reached Jackson Hole in the late evening, my first impression of the place was that it was unabashedly charming, captivating, and seemingly distant at the same time.

The next day, I was off to explore the Grand Teton National Park. The Teton Range has a landscape that stirs the imagination, and just admiring it even from a distance seems uplifting and serene. The area has a lot of history around rock climbing, mountaineering, and ranching, which I gathered after making a jaunt to the Visitor Center. I couldn’t help but think that those who dare to climb the Tetons must be attracted to it by the spirit of mountaineering to take on the challenge, compelled by the opportunity to grow even in the face of adversity. The national park has several scenic outlooks, and I was especially captivated by the one near Jackson dam and the Snake River Overlook, made famous by Ansel Adams; it was one of the images included in Voyager 1 flight into Space in 1977. 

Next, I drove to Montana on my way to Yellowstone. After an overnight stop-over at Bozeman exploring the downtown and cool coffee shops, I headed on I-90 towards Livingston. From there, I passed through the scenic Paradise Valley, thoroughly enjoying my trip, and eventually entered Yellowstone National Park through its northwest gate. Little known fact: Yellowstone was the first national park (in the world). Many of us recall seeing the eye-catching, multi-hued pictures of its various springs and geysers including the Old Faithful. I had a gala time exploring the multiple geothermal features, canyons, lakes, and falls that the park contains within its boundaries. I even had a brush with its wildlife of bison and elks. I missed seeing any black bears though. 

Perrine Bridge over the Snake River Canyon.
Perrine Bridge over the Snake River Canyon.

After a couple of days, it was time to head to Idaho, making my first stop at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, to admire its lunar-like landscape consisting of lava flows and volcanoes. From there onwards, I headed to the town of Ketchum nestled in the Rocky Mountains, a well-known celebrity hotspot for its picturesque location and ski resorts. In addition, I got to explore the town of Twin Falls, the home of scenic Snake River Canyon and gorgeous Shoshone Falls (known as ‘Niagara of the West’). The Perrine Bridge crossing the canyon is known to attract base jumpers year-round for its dramatic nearly 500 ft drop. 

The journey was almost nearing its end and I entered back to Nevada from Idaho, merging onto I-80. Before traveling further west, I decided to spend a day exploring the city of Elko, NV. Elko is fascinating — a place where gold country, cowboy country, and Basque culture collide, creating a distinct mix. I also drove to Ruby Mountain to explore the very scenic Lamoille Canyon.

I took Hwy 50, dubbed ‘the loneliest road in America’, to make a jaunt to the Burning man venue Black Rock City. I entered California the same evening, making a night-stay at the picturesque Downieville area, and drove back home the next day.

It was an amazing trip overall, to say the least, and I got to enjoy nature, wilderness, and long drives, satiating my adventurous spirit. Driving in the wilderness, surrounded by picturesque landscape, almost felt like watching a grand theatrical performance in an open amphitheater where the sights, sounds, color, and smell changed every minute. And unlike watching theatre, driving in a panoramic setting demands active involvement in the scene and you are in control of the story! During this trip, I found myself driving during early morning hours or evening twilight hours when the drives are really memorable for the way the sun rays would play on the countryside vistas.

Sunrise (or twilight), open countryside road, blaring music and coffee – isn’t that the romance of life?


Lalit Kumar works in the Technology sector but retains an artist’s heart. He likes to read and write poetry, apart from indulging in outdoor activities & adventure sports. Recently, he started curating famous works of poetry (and occasionally his own).


 

7 Unexpected Places to Hike in India

For those familiar with the Indian terrain and are searching for unique trails, this article showcases seven unexpected places to hike in India. Sometimes, the best travel experiences are those that are lesser-known. From its towering Himalayan peaks, and lush jungles and forests, India is a diverse place of excitement and adventure for those who seek it. And, don’t worry if you’re not a hardcore hiker, India has a plethora of trails ranging from easy to difficult. 

Hopefully, when you’re done reading the list, you’ll be heading to one of these sought-after hiking destinations! 

Manali

“Serving as an epicenter of adventure in Himachal Pradesh, India, Manali is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the world,” says Edward Jackson, a lifestyle blogger at UK Services Reviews and UK Top Writers. “Whether you’re an athlete or a casual hiker, Manali has something for many people who go there. First, start at Solang Valley, known locally as ‘Snow Point.’ Afterwards, you’ll be trekking up to Dhundi. As you hike, you’ll notice natural beauties like the Beas River and purple Rhododendron flowers. For this hiking trip, it’ll take a whole day to complete.”

Himachal Pardesh, Manali

Chembra Peak

Chembra Peak is a hiking spot in Southern India, where the treks are filled with surprises. From gorgeous views to breathtaking grasslands and hills, the Peak will leave you amazed. Also, this place takes conservation very seriously — be sure to abide by the rules and regulations set up by the local government and law enforcement. 

Chembra Peak (Image by Karkiabhijeet and under CC BY 4.0)

The Grand Indrahar Pass

Indrahar Pass is a mountainous trek, which makes it one of the best hiking spots in India. Located in the Dhauladhar range in the Himalayas, you’ll start at the Galu temple. From there, you’ll pass by the camping ground Triund, and then visit the Lahesh Caves. You’ll finish the trek at Chamba. The best times to trek this spectacular pass is between May and October.

Indrahar Pass (Image by Ashish Gupta and under CC BY 2.0)

Deoria Tal

Deoria Tal

Essentially a beautiful lake with a scenic backdrop of snow-clad Himalayan peaks – much like in the movies – Deoria Tal is your go-to hiking spot. If you’re looking to get closer to nature, then this is the place to be. The best part? You can either hike its trails or hire a donkey porter to take you through this amazing place. You can also rent a cozy place to stay if you decide this to be an overnight journey. 

Roopkund

While many of the hiking spots so far on this list are spectacular for their natural beauty, the Roopkund is spectacular in a different way. Roopkund is an eerie and remote Himalayan lake sitting in the Uttarakhand region of India. Legend has it that a violent snowstorm had taken innocent lives during the 9th century, and what’s left to show for it years later are skeletal remains that circle the lake. So, when you have the time and the ambition, and you want to travel solo or with a group, then check out the Roopkund. 

Spooky Lake in Roopkund (Image by Abhijeet Rane under CC BY 2.0 )

Kedarkantha

“For those looking to go on winter treks, Kedarkantha is a great trail to hike,” says Philip Davis, a design writer at State of Writing and Elite Assignment Help. “With the best hiking season during winter, hikers will be enticed by the majesty of the snowy landscapes, which offer a refreshing feel to the beholder. When you travel along the trail and from the summit, you’ll delve deep into the natural beauty that this trek has to offer – the lush green meadows, the towering Himalayan peaks, and the humble hamlets.”

Kedarkantha Trek

Gaumukh

Essentially a beautiful lake with a scenic backdrop of snow-clad Himalayan peaks – much like in the movies – Deoria Tal is your go-to hiking spot. If you’re looking to get closer to nature, then this is the place to be. The best part? You can either hike its trails or hire a donkey porter to take you through this amazing place. You can also rent a cozy place to stay if you decide this to be an overnight journey.

Gaumukh, source of the Ganga river (Image by Richard Haley and under CC BY 2.0)

Conclusion

As you can see, India is something to behold in the hiking community. With many things to do, many places to explore, there’s no shortage of excitement and adventure as you visit these 7 hiking spots. Ultimately, when hiking, India has so much to offer nature-wise and travel-wise. If you’re looking to embrace nature more, or just want to go hiking more, then let these 7 hiking spots take your breath away. 


Elizabeth Hines is a writer and editor at Big Assignments and Coursework writing. She is also a contributing writer for Study Demic. As a content writer, she writes articles about the latest tech and marketing trends, innovations, and strategies.


 

A Modern Day Satyagrahi Finds Justice In California’s Mount Shasta Vista

Zurg Xiong, a 33-year-old Hmong American satyagrahi, ended his 19-day hunger strike on the afternoon of July 23 2021, when California State Attorney General Rob Bonta agreed to look into the death of farmer Soobleej Hawj, who was shot to death as he was trying to escape the Lava fire. 

A weapon of the determined, satyagraha, a policy of passive political resistance advocated by Mahatma Gandhi against British rule in India, is sometimes the only cry for help a community can make. Zurg Xiong threw his life into the ring in a last ditch attempt to be heard by the Siskiyou Sheriff.  “I was prepared to die in front of the American courthouse just to prove the point that this is not justice,” said Xiong. 

35-year-old Hawj was shot to death by Siskiyou County law enforcement officers on June 28, when he allegedly turned the wrong way at a checkpoint on Highway 12 near Weed, during a mandatory fire evacuation order for the region. Officers shot at Hawj at least 21 times. An eyewitness video records the sounds of at least 40-60 bullets being fired. 

Hawj’s wife and three children were in a second car behind him. 

Zurg Xiong says the death of Hawj was inevitable. He had seen the writing on the wall. Someone was going to die.  Tensions, between the Hmong American community and the Sheriff’s office, had been escalating. 

“Xiong life is at risk,” said Manju Kulkarni, co-founder StopAAPI Hate, Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council at a brifeingon July 23, organized by Ethnic Media Services. She called  the killing of farmer Hawj, a father of three, horrific, and added that it fit a pattern of institutional racism that sits atop individual racism and discrimination.

“Not that far from Siskiyou County in 1907, 500 white individuals beat and drove out 200 South Asian American men because they were working in the lumber yard. Law enforcement alongside with white supremacists target communities of color. In just the last year 8-10 million Asians have faced hate in the US,” said Kulkarni.

The shooting happened in an area that is home primarily to Hmong American farmers in the Mount Shasta/Vista area. The farmers are policed for farming marijuana. While cannabis is legal in California, outdoor cultivation is forbidden in Siskiyou County. Farmers can grow up to 12 plants indoors.

The Hmong Americans are accused of running a secret drug cartel. They feel they are specially targeted by the Siskiyou County authorities.

“This all started from LaRue being appointed as Sheriff and saying, look, go after the water. So the tension started when that happened,“ said Zurg Xiong to Georgie Szendrey

Restrictive water ordinances to starve the Hmong farmers out of the county were zealously enforced in the area where the community lives. 

“Tensions have been actively stoked, encouraged and maybe even unofficially directed by the local government,” said Zurg Xiong.

Six Asian Americans filed a lawsuit June 4, 24 days before Hawj was killed, seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Sheriff’s Office from surveilling trucks for water delivery in the Mount Shasta Vista area, where Hmongs make up the majority of residents.

“So the tension started when that happened. And then we had a protest a few months ago. When we went marching, I actually said in my speech. I said they’re going to go after the water. They’re going to burn us out because they’ve been threatening to burn us out. And then one of the police officers is going to shoot us dead because the tensions are so high. And that’s exactly what happened. And that happened at the same time,” said Zurg Xiong.

The Hmong, who bravely fought side by side with U.S. forces during the Vietnam conflict, rescued American pilots, and lost over 35,000 lives supporting the U.S., feel betrayed. From 1959 to 1975, the CIA conducted a secret war in Laos that relied on Hmong soldiers to prevent the threat of communism from spreading deeper into Southeast Asia. Today, according to the 2010 US Census, 260,073 people of Hmong descent reside in the United States.

At the EMS briefing, a starving but defiant Xiong appeared along with Hmong activists Tong Xiong and Tou Ger Xiong. Officials walked past him as he lay on the concrete steps of the Siskiyou County Courthouse in Yreka, California.

Social Justice through Satyagraha has been the goal of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s and James Bevel‘s campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, as well as Nelson Mandela‘s struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  Developed in 1906 by Gandhi over a hundred years ago, it has maintained its relevance and reaffirms faith in the humanity of the oppressor.

Xiong demanded an independent investigation into the killing of Hawj on  June 28, and the release of all video footage of the incident derived from body and vehicle cameras. For this he was willing to give up his life. 

But, before life would have ebbed from Xiong’s body, the California state Attorney General Rob Bonta, on a zoom call, agreed to look into the death of farmer Soobleej Hawj, thereby opening a door of reconciliation to the proud Hmong American community.

The satyagrahi, aided by his sister, finally broke his fast.


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


 

Left to right: Book - Bowled But Not Out and Author - Ruchira Khanna

Bowled, But Not Out: Woman of the Match

Let’s open with full disclosure:

  • Over thirty years of reviewing books, I have pretentiously emphasized high-brow literature.
  • My one snobbish review that strayed from works worthy of Pulitzers, Bookers, or Nobels was of Chetan Bhagat’s 2 States.  The conceit of that review could be captured by the New York Times quote in the graphic accompanying the review: “the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history.”
  • I’ve been too busy (or perhaps too high and mighty) to read books fairly or unfairly categorized as rom-coms or the more pejorative chick-lit.
  • When I received a request to review Bowled, but NOT OUT, I had just completed my own debut novel, Double Play, and was contemplating if any literary agencies would swat my queries like bothersome mosquitoes buzzing in their ears.

Why this self-deprecating self-disclosure?

Perhaps, gentle reader, I simply want you to know that your loyal reviewer has empathy for any writer who can, in the encouraging words of Anne Lamott, create a world of fiction “bird by bird.”  These three words – Bird by Bird – are the title of Lamott’s step-by-step guide on how to write and live. The subtitle, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, frames this review.

What Ruchira Khanna’s self-published novel lacks in craft, it more than makes up for in lively charm and compassion. After reading Bowled, but NOT OUT, I asked my wife if she remembered reading Harlequins from her college days. Mangla responded, “Yes, a few Harlequins, but mostly Mills & Boon. Why do you ask?”

I explained that I was reviewing a book that I thought was a romance novel, but I didn’t have any background in this genre. Mangla asked me about the plot.

Bowled’s plot is rather straightforward. In early 1980s Delhi, Saru Bhatia, a feisty environmental activist, shuts down the development of a government building because of the pollution caused by dumping construction waste into a local stream. She becomes something of a media darling and is interviewed on television by the dashing Sumeet Bajaj. Saru is taken by Sumeet’s “hundred-watt smile that showed off his pearly whites” and Sumeet confesses that none of his “attractive young women” admirers “have been honest, forthright, and fun to be around like” Saru. Saru blushes.  Sumeet proposes. And readers are invited to a cricket match of a marriage wherein Saru attempts to hit a few sixers but is eventually bowled out by a termagant of a mother-in-law. 

Sumeet is a “Mama’s boy” who provides Saru little to no emotional support outside of bedroom intimacy that results in a daughter, Simrn. Saru learned to love cricket when she herself was a child; her father, a retired Army colonel, encourages her to take charge of her and Simrn’s life, like a captain would his floundering cricket team.  Thus Saru leaves her marriage, leaves India, and makes a fresh start in New York where she earns a Master’s degree. Simrn grows up, meets Kabir at Cornell, and the cycle of love starts again, albeit in the American setting with the patriarchy smashed by a young woman who has absorbed her mother’s agency.

Mangla told me that Bowled didn’t quite fit into the Harlequin or Mills & Boon template.  For one thing, except for Colonel Bhatia, there are no alpha males (and even the colonel is more of a supportive husband and father than an Army autocrat). More importantly, Bowled’s protagonist is not the submissive sort; unlike the Mills & Boon heroines of yore who passively submitted to their dreamy and steamy heroes, Saru makes her own way in the world. She is a spunky multi-dimensional character who evokes two thumbs up from this hard-hearted reader.

Actually, I don’t have a heart of stone; that’s not my idea of a well-lived life. I just believe that as a reviewer, it is my duty to offer India Currents’ readers my honest assessment of a book. I’d rather be encouraging of authors whose books might (dare I say “should”) find a wider readership. 

Despite having occasional challenges with the craft of writing (tense, setting, anachronistic similes, a few typos, and the unnecessary privileging of non-Indian readers by over-explaining Indian culture), Ruchira Khanna’s belief in Saru’s story shines on every page, giving me hope that Bowled, but NOT OUT scores its author many centuries of readers, perhaps adding up to all of the runs credited to cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.


Dr. Raj Oza has written Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation, Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, and P.S., Papa’s Stories. His foray into fiction  — Double Play – has so far yielded 16 rejections.  He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.


 

Olympian - Manu Bhaker

IC Talks With Manu Bhaker: India’s Pistol Power at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

When a dynamic teenage pistol shooter is targeting not one but multiple Golds at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics 2020, the entire nation has to be rooting for her. 19-year-old Manu Bhaker will be seen fighting it out in the 10 meter, 25 meter air-pistol, and mixed-team shooting events at the Japanese capital after many Covid-hit hurdles. Manu took out time from her grueling practice and meditation routine in Croatia, just before heading to Tokyo, to give an exclusive interview to India Currents

Hailing from the small village of Goria (population of 4,590 as per the last Census, 2011) in Jhajjar district of Haryana, Manu first picked the pistol at her school’s shooting range only 5 years ago. Before that, by the age of 14, Manu had already played, excelled, and voluntarily dropped out of about a dozen other games. 

“I played almost all games which were available at Universal School Goria. And mostly left (these) games after winning medals at national and state level,” Manu shares. 

Which games are these?

“Boxing, skating, marathon, kabaddi, lawn tennis, table tennis, swimming, Tang-Ta (a sword and spear martial art from Manipur), karate, and shooting. In Tang-Ta and karate I have national medals,” elaborates Manu.   

“Shooting was also a game at Universal School and many students played it” which is how Manu had her first tryst with the pistol. Excelling at other games “did not help me in any way in preparing me for shooting.” So why did she stick to this game for so long, compared to all others? 

Manu Bhaker preparing to practice in her event - shooting.
Manu Bhaker preparing to practice in her event – shooting.

“Shooting is a transparent game with a transparent system. It’s quick and gives instant results too. Alongside these factors, early results in my career of this sport, with very little work compared to other contact sports, made me opt for this sport. I enjoy sports, but I love shooting the most,” says Manu firmly. 

“Olympic is a dream for every athlete and it is mine as well. It feels great to represent India,” Manu says about her first-ever appearance at Olympics. 

However, she’s already felt the pulse and pressure of it when she created history by becoming the first female Indian athlete ever to win Gold at the Youth Olympic Games in 2018. Breaking records several times, her talent has been shining bright across championships like Commonwealth Games (2018), ISSF Junior World Cups (2018), Asian Airgun Championships (2019 and ISSF World Cups (2018, 2019, and 2021), among many others.   

Bhaker has become the sportsperson she has while growing up in Goria and is deeply attached to her home and school. “My best childhood memories are of the School stage show where I performed the role of Goddess Saraswati. I was 4 years old and everyone praised me. Girls from standard 11/12 were bowing towards me and I couldn’t control my laughter,” shares Manu fondly. 

The presence of a healthy sports culture and the ready availability of coaches at the school played a vital role in Manu’s marvelous career path. “Goria is a beautiful village and our school on its outskirts is even more beautiful,” explains Manu. 

At the recently released NITI Aayog’s Sustainable Development Goal India Index 2020-21, prepared in association with United Nations India, Haryana scored poorly on gender equality, among other things. Also, it is well known, that according to Census 2011, Haryana has the worst gender disparity in the country at 834 girls per 1000 boys. 

Given the situation, many would think life in Goria would have been challenging, but Manu quashes any such thoughts. “My life has always been a cakewalk due to a supportive family. My parents are absolutely amazing and always removed possible obstacles. Even the people in my village are great and support girls and boys equally,” shares Manu. “I have never heard or saw anything about inequality in my village and don’t know why some people always try to make this a topic of discussion. Actually, reservations, unemployment, and population control should be topics of concern,” she adds further.

Manu Bhaker with her family.
Manu Bhaker with her family.

Manu bagged several Gold medals at the 2017 National Games and a silver at the 2017 Asian Junior Championships almost within a year of picking up shooting. She’s been playing in both 10m and 25m events for five years, but coincidentally, has won all of her 14 international Golds in the 10m category only, playing either individually or in a team event. Yet, surprisingly, it is the 25m game that is closer to her heart. 

“I love the 25m sports pistol more. I enjoy the sound and passion. Also, it’s quick,” says Manu without any qualms. While focus and mental balance are imperative in this sport, a match at an international level has to evoke a myriad of emotions for any athlete. Does Manu feel nervous, or is she strategizing on the field with the opponent beside her? 

“I don’t plan. I don’t watch anyone’s game. I simply listen to music and keep myself calm. I listen to all kinds of music, including Haryanvi and Punjabi,” she shares. Her day starts early and she practices the super-powerful Suryanamaskar for an hour daily, without a miss. “I follow a standard routine starting yoga. And I haven’t changed this routine since I started shooting; nothing special for big events as every tournament is special for me.” 

Studies haven’t taken a backseat for her either. “It is very very important for me to excel at and complete my studies too. I do study for 1-2 hours daily even at this time,” says Manu. 

India’s best promise at Tokyo, this youngster is satisfied with the international standard ranges and infrastructure of her land. “I do continue to practice at my school range or in my house range for the 10m, but I have to travel 145km to Delhi for 25m pistol sports. Surprisingly, there is not a single 25m sports pistol range in our state, Haryana,” says Manu. 

Being good with a sword, spear, the pistol, and hand-to-hand combat arts of boxing and karate too, does she feel she has the spirit of a warrior? Does she see herself as a part of the army like her grandfather? 

“I am in all these things. But I will opt for the civil services,” says Manu with a sense of finality. 


Suruchi Tulsyan is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India, who loves taking care of her children and plants. 


 

Zoonotic Infectious Diseases: Local Origins, Global consequences

Engage! – Discussions on active involvement in personal health and global wellness

On December 31, 2019, twenty-seven cases of pneumonia of unknown origin were reported in Wuhan, China. By the second week of January 2020, the first case outside China was reported in Thailand. On January 30, 2020, the WHO declared an international public health emergency. Since those events transpired none of us have escaped the effects of the waxing and waning of SARS-CoV-2 as it has raged around the world over the past 18 months. 

If there is a positive fallout from this event, it is the explosion of international scientific efforts to find a way to control this deadly virus. The first sequence of this coronavirus was publicly available in January 2020, and vaccines were created within the next six months, both achievements as epic as the urgency created by this unprecedented (at least in our lifetime) international crisis. Simultaneously, the origin of this virus is being investigated, and expanding upon the knowledge that bats are the natural host of previous coronaviruses that caused human epidemics, namely SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, it appears that SARS-CoV-2 managed to jump to humans from bats. In order for the jump to human infectability to occur, mutations occurring in the virus genome create a viral surface protein that can bind specifically to a human cell surface protein; in the case of SARS-CoV-2, this could be a mutation that allows the viral Spike protein to bind the human cell surface ACE2 protein and cause infection. 

COVID-19 structure
COVID-19 structure

This process of zoonosis, involving the adaptation and transmission of infectious agents from a primary host that is either a mammal or a bird to humans, is an evident aspect of over a hundred infectious diseases known to afflict humans. The infectious agent involved could be bacteria, fungi, parasites, or viruses and in addition to known diseases, there is a continuous roster of emerging zoonotic diseases as these opportunistic microorganisms try to find new hosts to live and breed in. Transmission from animal to human may be through direct contact through potential scratches or bites, airborne through droplets for instance, through vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks, and lice, ingestion of contaminated food or water, and by contact with infected vegetation, soil, water, wild animals, etc. Transmission of pathogens across oceans and borders after they have adapted to humans can, unfortunately, become a reality with the ease of international travel, especially if they can achieve efficient human-to-human transmission and become highly infectious, as in the case with SARS-CoV-2. 

Commonly known extant zoonotic diseases include rabies, plague, chagas disease, brucellosis, anthrax, bovine tuberculosis, Japanese encephalitis, zika virus, ebola, and AIDS. All these, and many more, are of direct relevance to India and other tropical and sub-tropical countries including south-east Asia, Africa, South America, western Pacific islands, and parts of Australia where they can be a burden on the public health system and economy. In India, 13 zoonoses are associated with 2.4 billion cases of human disease, and 2.2 million deaths per year. The National Center for Disease Control in India coordinates efforts at early diagnosis and effective containment, and a specific focus is in the handling of animals and regulation of human-animal contact. Peri-urban areas have grown rapidly in India, and are a link between agricultural areas and densely populated sites. They present a risk as there is unregulated livestock-based food production in these areas to meet the increased demand for food products. 

In addition to these existing illnesses, it is estimated that 60-80% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic diseases. Change in land use is thought to be a major underlying cause of this especially in Southeast Asia and in tropical and developing countries, coupled with wildlife diversity. Depending on the use that the deforested land is co-opted for, be it monoculture forests, crops. poultry, livestock. housing, etc., different groups of zoonotic species came to the fore. For instance, strong associations of vector-borne diseases were found with monoculture plantations (for instance, rubber), and bacterial and viral diseases are among others associated with livestock farming. In India, which is one of the hot spots for emerging zoonotic diseases, potential reasons for the emerging disease include changing land use, dairy farming, rodent infestations, wild-animal trading, climate change, and improper farming practices. Coupled with these conditions there is a lack of awareness, poverty, and poor access to medical and diagnostics services. Endemics, epidemics, and emerging zoonotic diseases in Australia have been a constant presence between livestock, horses, and humans. These are mostly viral and vector-borne diseases, and a few examples are Nipah virus, Menengle virus, and JE virus

Examples of zoonotic diseases and their affected populations.
Examples of zoonotic diseases and their affected populations.

Triggered by the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the World Wildlife Fund has published a report on the zoonotic disease risk posed by wildlife markets in southeast Asia that are involved in wildlife trade and consumption. They urge governments to impose regulations on these activities and reduce demand for high-risk wildlife products. Other comprehensive and phased efforts to prevent and control known and new pathogens have been reported from Congo (monkeypox virus), Ethiopia (rabies), and Georgia (a new zoonotic virus). Of particular concern to India is the potential for it to become a hotspot for future variants of SARS-CoV-2, with global consequences. With its density of population, a priority is to exercise COVID19-related behaviors of masking, social distancing, and vaccination. A second priority is sequencing variants as they arise and following them epidemiologically with outbreaks of COVID19. 

In urban settings, most contact with animals is relegated to pets, household pests, and the consumption of meat and dairy products. Obviously, food needs to be handled with care and cooked well, and pests ranging from rats to mosquitoes and flies need to be eradicated. Although specific viruses can infect dogs and cats, there is currently no evidence that these transmit to humans and cause disease. However, there is some evidence that pets can test positive for SARS-CoV-2, with infection transferring from infected humans. Import and close continuous contact with exotic and wild animals as pets is not recommended. 


L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures and ideas, and writing. Her short story will be included in an anthology showcasing a group of international women writers, to be published in 2021 by The Nasiona. She can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar and www.liyengar.com.


 

Manika Kaur is the Culture Bearer of Kirtan Music

Manika Kaur is a singer, songwriter, and philanthropist, currently taking the world by storm as the leading contemporary performer of ‘Kirtan’ music. Kirtan is a Sanskrit word that means to narrate or recite. This genre of music involves a call and response style song, where singers usually sing about spiritual ideas, devotion to a deity, or a Legend’s story. This genre of music is set to uplift us spiritually and open our hearts and minds through its chanting and devotional language. Kirtan music has been accommodated into various guidances like meditation and yoga, to enhance such practices and combine them with the spiritual energy of the music.

Over the years, Manika Kaur has broken barriers of the music world and transcended language and genre, touching the hearts of many within and outside of the global Sikh community and bringing Kirtan music out to a global platform. Kaur is the first artist to place Kirtan music on the European World Music Charts and her music videos rack up millions of views. 

Manika Kaur's album cover for 'Ek'.
Manika Kaur’s album cover for ‘Ek’.

In her latest creation ‘Ek’ Manika Kaur sets out to expand her audience by further highlighting her unique sound and her charitable works. The album Ek (Oneness) brings out some of the rarest instruments in the world and bridges the barrier between eastern and western instruments. In her music, Kaur introduces traditional elements of Kirtan music combined with some of London’s best producers, to create a balance and unite audiences through her sound. As one of the only female artists of Kirtan music, Kaur continues to capture diverse audiences, and create something magical, expanding the world of Kirtan music. Ek features 11 tracks, each adding a rare musical instrument. As all her works do, Kaur brings beautiful energy through her hypnotizing vocals, highlighting the strength of her spirituality through her music. 

Tracks like ‘Hay Gobind Hay Dayal’, ‘Liberate Me’ and ‘Sant Paee’ offer a beautifully rhythmic sound filled with musical hope and positivity in devotion and faith. ‘Magic Mantra’, ‘Waheguru Nanak Guru’ and ‘Sri Harkrishan’ on the other hand offer a look into the depth of spirituality and the core of its strength in emotion. These tracks musically create a sense of yearning and strength, offering Kaur’s unwavering faith in her spirituality. Tracks like ‘Your Light Ignites’, ‘Liberate Me’ and ‘Ocean Of Virtue’ are a lot softer in their musicality, holding out a hand in comfort and giving a sense of belonging and home in them. Kaur explores each emotion with the same sincerity and honesty, bringing out her versatility and brilliance as an artist and person. Kaur ends the album with ‘Deh Shiva’, a track that brings together the expression of each track and gives more. Ek truly transcends every humanly made barrier for the sole purpose of bringing people together through music as even the title of the album suggests. Manika Kaur has again broken expectations and set her own path to Kirtan music capturing the world. 

All proceeds of Manika’s art are dedicated to her own organization Kirtan For Causes dedicated to providing good education to over 200 women in rural Punjab, India. Manika offers in her music, not only the strength of faith but also a strength for a better present and future to a lot of people. Her music is colored by her mesmerizing vocals, and her constant admiration and respect for the art of ‘Kirtan’ music. 

Listen to her album, ‘Ek’!


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and an aspiring creative writer.  


 

Indian athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics (image from Sportskeeda.com)

India Has So Few Medals at the Olympics

This article is a two-part series on India’s participation in the previous Olympic games and the upcoming Olympic games. Find part 1 here!

The previous article illustrates that of the many individuals who have represented India in the Olympics, relatively few were competitive. This is by all accounts, rather disappointing, considering India’s huge population and its exposure and intimate association with the Olympics for over 100 years.

The above frustration was relayed by so many of us as we watched the quadrennial spectacular in Rio de Janeiro with great interest. It was given added fillip when the inimitable Dipa Karmakar (the Produnova vault was on everyone’s lips!) just missed medaling as we all watched.  The frustration was assuaged only slightly near the end of the Games with the bronze for Sakshi Malik in women’s wrestling and later by the silver by PV Sindhu in badminton. But the sentiment lives on. It may further be noted that Pakistan has won only 10 medals so far (since 1952), eight of them Field Hockey. And Bangladesh has so far (since 1972) won none – the most populous country in the world without an Olympic medal.  

One wonders about this pervasive shortcoming for the entire subcontinent. The oft-cited reason is the lack of sufficient facilities, training, and economic incentives. For the most part, I do not fully agree. I am thoroughly convinced that to be an Olympic medalist you most of all need to have superior “inherent natural ability” (talent). I submit that without superior talent, any amount of training, facilities, or opportunities will not an Olympic champion make.  And in India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh) there apparently is a severe dearth (not total absence) of talent needed to succeed in the sports currently competed in the Olympics. And that unfortunately does not include cricket. 

Of the children of Indian origin who grew up in the US, genuine success in sports is few and far between – in sharp contrast to their glaring successes in Spelling Bees, Math Olympiads, and Chess. This is in spite of them being afforded the same opportunities as all others. The common reason put forward is that they predominantly have a white-collar background. 

However, the situation is not much different in the UK, which has a much larger proportion of a working-class population from the Indian subcontinent. But the only one coming close is Bengali-Kolkata mix, Neil Taylor, who represented Wales in Euro 2016. While on soccer, I contend that if we had talent in the game, we would have had a presence in the English and European leagues like so many from Africa. We have been well exposed to the game for well over a hundred years. However, our best, Baichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri, and Masood Fakhri of Pakistan earlier could not establish themselves in the English league. Mention may be made of war-torn Iraq, whose soccer team not only qualified for the Olympics but drew all its three group matches, including with Brazil, the ultimate gold medalist.

The source of talent in sports is not easily defined in specific terms. Different skill sets are required for different sports, and thus, different physical attributes. For some sports it is easy to identify – you have to be tall for basketball and well-built for American football. But for other sports, it is not readily apparent. There is more to physical attributes than height and weight. They involve myriad characteristics like upper body strength, speed of hand and foot, reaction times, lung capacity, wrist strength, hand-eye coordination, length of arms, and size of palms. Also, the ability to withstand pain and fatigue may be part of talent, though that might not strictly qualify as a physical attribute. Take a look at  Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming legend. He has been described as having a freakish physique with a large wingspan, high lung capacity, and flipper feet.

The racial/ethnic element in Olympics sports success clearly jumps out at me in no uncertain terms

2016 US Olympics Track and Field Trials (Image from Wikimedia and under the Creative Commons License 2.0)
2016 US Olympics Track and Field Trials (Image from Wikimedia and under the Creative Commons License 2.0)

The superior success of black athletes from the US, the Caribbeans, Canada, or England in the speed events of track and field — the sprints, horizontal jumps, the hurdles — does not escape anyone.  They are known to have a common West African ancestry for the most part.  Significantly, countries in West Africa like Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, who have similar ancestry, have also produced some world-class sprinters and long jumpers. By contrast, the success of the same people in the longer distances, the throws, the high jump, and pole vault are a mere shadow of their success in the speed events.

Ethiopians and Kenyans from East Africa surely belong to a different stock with their primacy in the middle and longer distances (they cannot run distances shorter than 800 meters it seems!). Incidentally, other small countries in the region like Somalia, Djibouti, and Burundi have also been competitive in these distances in the Olympics.

It also appears that the Mongolian races stand out for their extremely fast hand-foot combinations. They are so overwhelming in low-weight boxing, badminton, gymnastics, and table tennis. I have to note that many successful boxers are from India (Mary Kom is the best of them!) and from the impoverished northeast, where the Mongolian racial characteristics are so prevalent. It is hard to think there are better training and facilities there than in the rest of India. There seems to be some special talent in weightlifting and wrestling in Turkey, Iran, and contiguous countries like Azerbijan and Kazakastan. Finally, there is the example of the little island of Fiji with a population of less than a million winning a gold medal in rugby in 2016. Thirty-eight percent of the Fijian population is of Indian origin — there was not a single Indian on the Fijian team –all were what they call native Fijians (of Melanesian and some Polynesian origin).  

Many of my above observations may not be tenable as increased globalization takes hold and new technological advances appear on the scene. Changed political and economic situations may also dictate newer realities. Predictably, there will be increased exposure to different sports for different segments of the population along with better training. I am reminded that before the 1960 Olympics in Rome and the unforgettable victory of Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia in the marathon, and the exploits of Kipchoge Keino of Kenya and others from 1964. Kenya and Ethiopia, which so overwhelmingly dominate the middle and long distances of track and field, were absent from our sports consciousness.  

Similar must have been in baseball before Jackie Robinson’s entry into the major league in 1947, which opened up the huge talent pool for the racial diversity in baseball. Similarly, there was the arrival of China into the Olympic fold in 1984 and before that in the Asian Games in 1974.  It was a quantum shift in the Olympic scene. Similarly, it is possible that new technology and changing situations, such as the advent of artificial surfaces unsuited to our style of play, exodus of Anglo-Indians from India, and more nations taking up the game seriously, all may have resulted in the loss of the primacy in Field Hockey for India and Pakistan.   

I seriously wonder if such changed situations discussed above will usher in much hope for increased Olympic success for India. After all, India has had reasonably long exposures to the outside world in all the major Olympic sports like soccer, field hockey, track and field, swimming, volleyball, wrestling, weightlifting, and boxing, and often had decent opportunities to show their mettle. We have, sometimes, competed creditably in the Commonwealth and Asian Games, but repeatedly came up short in the larger arena of the Olympics. This, I would attribute largely to a lack of sufficient talent.

To many, insufficient or inadequate training, facilities, and economic incentives are the prime causes for India’s ‘abject failure’ in the Olympics over the years.  The issue needs to be examined more closely, beyond this blanket statement.  In 2014, India won 57 medals (11 gold) in the Asian Games and 55 medals (14 gold) in the Commonwealth Games. In 2018, India won 70 medals (16 gold) in the Asian Games and 66 medals (20gold) in the Commonwealth Games. The medals tell me there is a reasonable amount of training and infrastructure out there and that our talent level is good enough to succeed in the Asian and Commonwealth Games, but insufficient for Olympic medals.

Specifics

Dipa Karmakar (Image from the Olympics website)
Dipa Karmakar (Image from the Olympics website)

The case of Dipa Karmakar is instructive. For one hailing from Tripura, a remote corner of the country, she could still avail herself of adequate gymnastic facilities and a capable coach in Mr. Nandi. Dipa went thru the ranks from junior to senior (no lone wolf!), reflecting a reasonable infrastructure behind her, however inept. Mr. Nandi has hailed the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for its help.

Sakshi Malik’s experience in her Haryana village with all its backwardness and prejudices did not stop her from acquiring a competent coach from Karnataka, trained by SAI. Along with the SAI, which has its presence in every state, there are sports institutes in many parts of the country, such as in Patiala and Gwalior, turning out players and coaches.  There is the admirable facility for badminton run by the former All England Champion, PV Gopichand, which has turned out Olympic medalists Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu among others. 

So, we do have our coaches and our facilities, however insufficient and inept.  We have also to appreciate that for a vast and poor country like India, our utilization of our limited resources for sports have to be balanced against bigger priorities such as infrastructure development, industrialization, alleviation of poverty, justice and crime prevention, defense of the country, education, good governance. All these surely cannot be compromised for mere Olympic medals.

I am curious how our training and financial incentives compare with other similar developing countries on a per-capita basis, something not easy to put one’s hands-on. Instead, I chose three countries at random: Brazil, Thailand, and Nigeria in three continents to find out their Olympic medal hauls.

Brazil had won 24 gold, 31 silver, and 57 bronze.

Thailand had won 9 gold, 7 silver, and 13 bronze.

Nigeria had won 3 gold, 8 silver, and 12 bronze (including a gold and a silver in soccer and a gold in Men’s 4×400 meters relay). 

These countries are by no means economic powerhouses.  It is therefore very unlikely that their sportsmen would have better facilities and economic prospects than in India to spur the pursuit of their sporting careers. 

The Olympics have just begun in Tokyo. I, an Olympic fanatic am already in front of the TV watching the grand extravaganza, albeit in front of empty stadiums. Success or failure of Indians will only flash fleetingly in my mind. I will root for whoever seems hopeful and can bring us some medals. They have been so few and far between!

In the meantime, I keep on hoping like many of us for cricket to be included in the Olympics in the future. We would definitely be contenders for the gold.

Go back and read part 1!


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 and can be reached by e-mail at psircar@yahoo.com.


 

Never Have I Ever Season 2 Poster

Never Have I Ever’s Second Season Had a Few Redeeming Moments

The controversial Netflix series Never Have I Ever, produced by comedian and actress Mindy Kaling, released Season 2 on July 15, 2020. The series is based on a high-school-aged Indian American girl named Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and addresses the experience of an Indian teen living in America. Season 1 brought an uproar of reviews and opinions, good and bad. To me, however, season 1 was nothing short of a disappointment. Finally, someone with an identity like Kaling had been given a platform to create a show which would dispel the hurtful stereotypes of the Indian-American experience. Instead, Kaling approved a Season 1 which further played into those harmful tropes. Despite my outrage at this wasted platform, I decided to give Season 2 a chance hoping that the negative reviews from Season 1 would help the creators rethink their plotline. While Kaling continued to propel some awfully stereotypical ideas, Season 2 brought to light a lot more progressive lessons and experiences. 

The positives: 

The introduction of Aneesa Qureshi 

Megan Suri as Aneesa in 'Never Have I Ever' episode still.
Megan Suri as Aneesa in ‘Never Have I Ever’ episode still.

Season 2 brings the arrival of a new South Indian to Sherman Oaks. Aneesa (Megan Suri) is Muslim and transfers from a snobby private school following the diagnosis of her eating disorder. Not only does the recognition of eating disorders dispel the traditional Desi ignorance of body dysmorphia and mental health, but Aneesa’s parents deal with her trauma in healthy ways – a way in which Indian parents aren’t traditionally portrayed. She mentions her intense rehab program and ongoing support from, both, professionals and her parents. In fact, when Devi accidentally shares Aneesa’s disorder with the school, Aneesa’s mom insists on moving her to a new school once again. It makes me hopeful to see immigrant parents, that too, South Asian parents, finally being portrayed as progressive and aware of the importance of mental health and wellness. As someone from a family where mental health is prioritized and checked in on often, I am thankful to Kaling for including this storyline to show others that not all South Asian parents are ignorant and the same. 

Though Aneesa is Muslim, it is nice to see that she feels empowered to have a boyfriend. Though she feels like she cannot tell her parents, her religion is not a constant conversation topic when she is dating Ben. Sure, if Mindy wanted to be even more progressive, Aneesa could have told her parents about her boyfriend, but maybe that’s pushing it! However, my point is that Ben doesn’t once make a negative comment or have a doubtful thought about Aneesa’s religion. Some may see this lack of recognition as a bad thing, however, I like that Aneesa’s whole storyline isn’t about her being a Muslim woman. She wears modest clothing and talks about eating Halal, but she still gets to act like a teenage girl who sneaks out and has sleepovers. 

Lastly, Aneesa is introduced as the second Desi in Devi’s year, but as the “cool” one in comparison to Devi. In the beginning, I was wary of this competition because even women producers tend to pit the lead female characters against each other, but as the show progressed, the audience sees Devi warming up to Aneesa, and at the end even being friends. I appreciated that Aneesa was portrayed as trendy and relevant because one of my biggest issues with Devi’s character was the way she was seen as the typical nerdy, uncool South Asian. While I could have done without the typical “two confident women fighting over a mediocre boy” drama, I appreciated that they were able to maturely work through their differences. I could have used some more “women supporting women” scenes at the beginning.

Nalini Vishwakumar’s romantic progression

Nalini's kiss with her romantic love interest in 'Never Have I Ever'
Nalini’s kiss with her romantic love interest in ‘Never Have I Ever’.

Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Devi lost their husband and father, respectively, right before Season 1. In Season 1, Nalini was strongly against Devi dating, even slapping and lecturing her about it in the stereotypical Indian parent way. It was another stigma I worried the show would play into. In Season 2, however, Chris Jackson was introduced. Dr. Jackson was Nalini’s upstairs neighbor at her dermatology clinic. As two dermatologists in the same building, Dr. Jackson and Dr. Vishwakumar had a dramatic competition over things as trivial as parking spots. Somehow, though, their shared loss of partners, as well as constant bickering, made them fall in love. While Nalini ultimately ends the relationship for Devi’s sake, it was so refreshing to see Kaling give this uptight, stereotypical Indian mother a relationship of her own. I particularly enjoyed that Chris Jackson is a Black man, erasing the idea that Indian immigrants like Nalini are racist. Nalini’s feelings were shown in such a raw way — they even showed Chris and Nalini kiss! Nalini’s character initially felt like a slight to all Indian mothers for being so overprotective and antiquated in their beliefs, so this addition to the storyline was much appreciated. 

A progressive mother & mother-in-law! 

Narmila (Nalini's mother-in-law) played by Ranjita Chakravarty in 'Never Have I Ever'.
Narmila (Nalini’s mother-in-law) played by Ranjita Chakravarty in ‘Never Have I Ever’.

Season 2 also introduced Devi’s two grandmothers. When Nalini goes to India to make arrangements for a move which never happens, we are introduced to Mohan (Nailini’s deceased husband) and Nalini’s mothers. Nalini’s mother has less airtime but is portrayed as an independent woman. While I didn’t agree with some of her rude comments to Nalini and her poking fun at feminism, her personality dispels certain stereotypes of Indian mothering. Nalini asks her mom to come along to help her make arrangements for the move and her mother denies her, saying that she has a party to attend. It is a quick interaction, but often Indian mothers, especially when they become grandmothers, are expected to drop everything to help their children. Instead, Nalini’s mother leaves Nalini, telling her maid to cook something as she leaves for a social event. It may seem like a negative interaction to some, however, I was ready to overlook the grandmother’s rudeness as she broke a stereotype with only a few words. 

Devi’s paternal grandmother, Narmila (Ranjita Chakravarty), has a larger role as she moves to LA to live with Nalini and Devi. Often, Indian mother-in-laws are seen to have bad relationships with their daughter-in-laws, but Mohan’s mother is nothing but kind to Nalini. This sentiment struck me when Patti (what Devi calls her) yelled at Devi for speaking to Nalini terribly. The comment Devi made was about how Nalini was moving on too fast from Mohan. Patti could have easily taken Devi’s side since Nalini was moving on from her own son, but she stood by her late son’s wife. Additionally, Patti never gave Devi any of the typical Indian grandmother talks. Not once do I remember Patti telling Devi she couldn’t date Paxton because he wasn’t Indian or that she should start looking for a nice Indian boy soon. Actually, Patti often commented on Paxton’s looks and probably wanted him for herself! I appreciated Patti’s role — she added humor and was the second grandmother to dispel a stigma. 

Kamala’s Professional Reckoning

Kamala working at a lab in ‘Never Have I Ever’.

In Season 2, Devi’s cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), gets a job at a lab where she makes an important discovery leading to publication in a renowned journal. Her peers — the white men at the lab — don’t take her seriously, leaving her out of their activities and out of the paper. Prashant (Rushi Kota), Kamala’s boyfriend, helps her through it. Prashant’s support was a great way to show how men should act.

Kamala is highly intelligent and not once does Prashant feel intimidated by her. In fact, he is vital in helping Kamala realize her value. Ultimately, after Devi gives her the courage to, Kamala stands up to her boss and gets what she wants. I appreciated this storyline on Kamala because it not only diverted from Season 1’s dragged-out story on Kamala’s relationship, but it showcased the struggles of women of color who are trying to make it in the professional world. While Kalama’s solution of sneaking onto her boss’s computer was simply theatrical, her speech at the end about equal treatment as well as her own realization of self-worth was unexpected and inspirational. Kamala’s job struggles were helpful in two ways: One, they eliminated the idea that South Asian men should be and are intimidated by their highly functioning. Two, that all women of color should be aware of their self-worth and advocate for equality.

The negatives:  

The Kamala & Prashant saga continues 

While I appreciated the decrease in the Prashant and Kamala romantic scenes, the ending of the season repeated a mistake of Season 1. Prashant’s parents come to visit, seemingly, because Prashant is going to propose to Kamala. The pressure of Kamala having to decide if she wants to marry Prashant in front of his parents is unfair. Furthermore, Kamala is clearly uncomfortable with the idea, but no one sees that, causing her to panic and hide at Devi’s winter dance for the night. I was shocked that Nalini, who knows Kamala well and is quite progressive, couldn’t tell that Kamala wasn’t all in with the idea of Prashant proposing. It seemed as though everyone was so excited for the proposal that they forgot that Kamala’s feelings mattered too. It’s a typical portrayal of Indian culture where a woman is pressured by her ignorant family, both directly and indirectly, into marrying a man they have picked for her. I just thought that Kaling would at least allow Kamala to stand up for herself after her growth this season.

Side note, let’s get rid of Kamala’s FAKE Indian accent!

Nalini’s continued disapproval of her daughter’s romantic endeavors 

I appreciate Nalini’s way of dealing with Devi’s various bad decisions (spying on her during a date to being suspended for exposing Aneesa’s secret). However, what I still don’t get is why Devi’s mother is STILL being portrayed as the typical South Asian parent who won’t let Devi and Paxton study in a room with the door closed. I get it, ok. I get that many parents, no matter their race, have different feelings about dating, especially when it comes to their high-school-aged children. But why does Kaling have to go along with the stereotype that Nalini doesn’t want her daughter to have a boyfriend because it means she won’t get into Princeton. The constant lecturing about boys and kicking doors open to platonic studying is overdone and one-dimensional; if Kaling wants to comment on anti-dating, make it more than just about academics.  

Devi is still that nerdy, unathletic Indian kid

Aneesa’s appearance was pivotal in showing that not all South Asian kids are boring and nerdy, but Aneesa’s presence doesn’t mean that Devi still has to be shown as the typical Indian kid. I understand that different characters have different personalities and that Aneesa and Devi are meant to contrast each other. Some of Devi’s scenes are so dramatic that they are there to almost intentionally play into the stereotype. She is seen at the 24-hour relay, not being able to run a mile without a cramp and getting made fun of for it. She is seen being called an “academic beast” and being called on by the counselor to tutor a C-grade average student. The list goes on. Sure, Devi can be unathletic and intelligent, but Kaling has played into the dramatics of TV so much that she has forgotten that the goal of the show and Devi’s character is actually to uplift Indian-Americans. It always feels as though Devi’s actions are negative, and isn’t the main character supposed to inspire?

In conclusion, there is much to work on both with this show when it comes to the way Indian-Americans are perceived and portrayed — even by other Indian-Americans! But, growth is happening and that’s refreshing to see. Never Have I Ever has the potential to be a symbol of pride for the Indian American community. 


Ayanna Gandhi is a rising senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds. 


 

The Indian Umami

Whenever you chomp, slurp, chew, and munch food, around 10,000 taste buds on your tongue and palate help you boldly go where you’ve never gone before on your modern-day quests for new tastes.

Sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, were thought to be the only four types of tastes we humans experienced—even though we’ve always been tasting the fifth taste, since the dawn of, well, eating. This fifth taste remained unnamed and unknown, until the discovery by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemistry professor, over a century ago, because he was determined to detect a dominant savoury taste in his dashi or soup base. Thanks to his sensory curiosity, the world now has a fifth new “savoury” taste which he named umami or “deliciousness” in Japanese.

What is umami anyway? Asking people to describe umami sometimes yields fun answers such as “It’s that special something.”

But don’t despair, as I am about to give you the simplest explanation of umami, that will make you the ultimate umami aficionado for your next conversation.

The five basic tastes we can sense are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. A dish will have that savoury, umami, fifth taste when it is made with one or more ingredients rich in natural glutamic acid. In the professor’s case, he discovered that the glutamic acid-rich seaweed was creating the savoury taste in his dashi.

Umami or the savoury taste of glutamic acid is naturally present not only in meat and seafood, but umami is abundantly present in vegetables, mushrooms, dairy, seaweed, fermented foods, and even green tea. And dishes rich in natural umami make you crave them more. If you crave certain dishes and find them to be mouth-watering and irresistible despite multiple servings—then you have experienced umami.

Different sources of Umami (Image from Ajinomoto.com)
Different sources of Umami (Image from Ajinomoto.com)

I am not talking about the food additive, monosodium glutamate (MSG), the mass-produced salt form of glutamic acid, which is known to be toxic in levels higher than our body can handle, but I am strictly talking about the naturally-occurring glutamic acid in the plant and animal world. Our own human body naturally produces glutamate, a powerful and vital neurotransmitter released by the nerve cells in our brain. Both MSG and natural umami are one and the same by the way, but it’s easier to consume harmful levels of glutamic acid in the MSG salt form, as is the case of unhealthy fast foods.

Since the use of the word umami in the international culinary parlance, umami-rich dishes from countries around the world have become well-known, but what dishes come to mind when you think of the Indian umami?

Umami has rarely, if ever, been associated with Indian cuisines. This is unfortunate because our rich tapestries of cuisines are replete with umami. And one particular dish perfectly epitomizes umami for me—look no further than the South Indian maami’s umami dish—the splendiferous sambar.

Sambar, the South Indian vegan stew, has more than half a dozen ingredients rich in natural glutamic acid. Onions, tomatoes, garlic, carrots, daikon radishes, drumsticks, and seasonings including asafoetida, mustard seeds, and fenugreek seeds, just to name a few. Combining these ingredients creates a unique umami flavour profile found in no other dish worldwide.

Much like our Tollywood and Bollywood movies, sambar is the joyful song and dance number without which the South Indian breakfast, lunch, and dinner are certifiably incomplete. With household and restaurant kitchens serving up copious amounts of this delectable umami treat every day, sambar is that ubiquitous and trusty friend Jai, to the idlis, dosas, rice, poriyals, and the other Veerus on our plates, singing “yeh dosti hum nahi todenge.”

The dozens of varieties of sambar and kozhambu are not just power-packed with delicious flavours, textures, veggies, minerals, vitamins, and protein, but they are also packed with umami. This is what makes sambar so addictive. And its umami-ness is why we never get tired of eating sambar every day. Pair sambar with a potato fry and it will undoubtedly send shockwaves through your taste buds because, you guessed it, potatoes are rich in glutamic acid too.

So let’s raise our buckets and ladles filled to the brim with this Indian umami goodness and say, “More sambar please!”


Bae is an artist, book author, food writer, and creator of Bae’s Kitchen Show. Find her latest works on Instagram @queenbaeshive.


 

Why Is Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy Worried?

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is worried that the pandemic is getting worse in the US.

At a White House briefing on July 15 to announce a new campaign against COVID-19 misinformation, he shared his concerns about an urgent public health crisis – the growing surge of new Covid infections in the US. “Millions of Americans are still not protected against COVID-19. We are seeing more infections among those who are unvaccinated.”

The CDC warns that a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” is on the rise.

Murthy’s view was echoed by experts at a July 16 EMS briefing on the current state of the COVID-19 epidemic and vaccine rollout.

The CDC’s José T. Montero said on July 15 alone, the CDC recorded 33 thousand new cases of COVID-19.

After a reprieve in early 2021, granted by effective vaccines, masking mandates, and lockdown measures, new COVID-19 infections are increasing, driven by lagging vaccination rates and the highly contagious Delta variant.

The country is witnessing an alarming escalation in the 7 day average of Covid infections added Montero –  from 26% to 211 % per day.

“It is quite clear that this pandemic is not over,” said Montero.

The upward trend is a warning.

Although 160 million people (48.3% of the total U.S. population) have been fully vaccinated, and 55% have received at least one dose, the rapid rise in infections makes it evident that the coronavirus and its lethal Delta variant has unvaccinated communities squarely in their sights.

“Our 7-day average is at 26,300 cases a day,” said Montero, the CDC Director for Center for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support. That represents a 70% increase from the previous 7-day average. The CDC, which is tasked with monitoring the nation’s health reported a 7-day average of hospitalization admissions (around 2790 per day), an increase of 36 % from the previous 7-day period.

Montero emphasized that people who are unvaccinated account for a majority of the new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Unsurprisingly, communities that are fully vaccinated are faring way better. Outbreaks of cases are erupting in different parts of the country “especially those with low vaccination coverage”.

The CDC’s Covid data tracker reported a corresponding ten percent increase in counties at high risk and a 7 percent increase in counties at substantial risk in the past week.

As of July 14, a total of 605,905 COVID-19 deaths have been reported. Almost 99.5 percent of the Covid deaths were among the unvaccinated, confirmed Dr.Fauci in an interview on PBS.

Surgeon General Murthy called the needless loss of life  from the virus “painful” and pointed out that “nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented.”

So why is a surge in infections occurring despite the wide availability of vaccines available nationwide?

To a large extent, social determinants of health – “ where people live, work, learn and play”  – affect health risks and outcomes. Long-standing systemic health and social inequities in rural areas, for example, put some communities at greater risk of getting Covid.  But the uptick in cases correlates with low levels of vaccination and not in areas where a high percentage of the population is vaccinated.

Statistics shared by experts at the briefing confirm the virus is surging in pockets of the country with low vaccination rates. Cases are spiking in Yuba and Sutter Counties (California), which rate high on the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index.  Only 33% of Yuba County is vaccinated, compared to Placer County which has vaccinated more than half its residents.

“We are going to continue to see preventable cases, hospitalizations, and sadly, deaths among the unvaccinated, ”said Dr. Murthy.

He blamed the rapid spread of misinformation on the Internet for exacerbating the Covid public health crisis. His office has issued an advisory on how to counter misleading health information which “poses an immediate and insidious threat to our nation’s health.” Inaccurate content is poisoning the health environment and leading vulnerable people in high-risk settings to resist wearing masks, turn down proven treatments and choose not to get vaccinated.

“Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives,” said Dr.Murthy, and is “taking away our right to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones.”

Current vaccines offer a measure of protection against COVID-19 and its mutations.

But the greatest danger ahead comes from the Delta variant which is quickly becoming the dominant coronavirus strain across the country. The Delta variant is highly transmissible and spreading rapidly. CDC experts confirmed that it is the most prevalent variant in the US, representing more than 57% of the samples being sequenced across the country. Less than a month ago in the middle of June, infection rates which were at 26% have gone up to 57%.

Dr. Lauri Hicks and Dr. Jose T. Montero, CDC

Lauri Hicks, DO |Chief Medical Officer of CDC’s Medical Task Force, warned that people who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated were at high risk of COVID-19 and its mutations. She urged people to get vaccinated ‘on time’ and take advantage of the increase in nationwide vaccine availability of FDA-approved vaccines that offer protection against Delta and other known variants.

Hicks, who works with an independent advisory committee that makes vaccine recommendations, reiterated the importance of getting fully vaccinated. Pfizer and Moderna each exceed “90 percent effectiveness against illness including severe disease,” she said.

Hicks emphasized that completing the series of two doses for both vaccines offer effective protection two weeks after the second dose. She confirmed that there was no need to restart the series if the second vaccine dose was taken later than recommended – after three or four weeks.

“Not completing the series puts those who are partially vaccinated at risk of Covid, including the highly contagious Delta variant,” said Hicks, adding, “COVID-19 vaccination is our most effective strategy without a doubt to prevent infection and control the pandemic!”

At the White House briefing, the Surgeon General shared that he lost 10 family members to Covid, highlighting that the pandemic affects everyone.  As the concerned father of two young children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, Dr. Murthy urged people to get their shots because our kids rely on us to shield them from the virus. Younger, unvaccinated people are more at risk, says a CDC study which reported that people under age 30 accounted for more than 20% of US COVID-19 cases. 

“We’ve come a long way” he said, “but we are still not out of the woods yet.”

As the Delta variant rips through unvaccinated communities across the US, how painful will it have to get before states reconsider their rescinded mask mandates?


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents


 

Gopika practicing Kalaripayattu.

Kalaripayattu: Indian Martial Arts Harnessing Female Power

Shakthi! Power! Feminine Energy!

In today’s world women have broken the frontiers of space, air, and water. There is no mountain that they have not climbed, no desert they have not explored. Women have become world leaders; they hold important political and corporate posts. Take our very own Kamala Harris, a woman of Indian descent from California, who has broken the male legacy in our political system in the United States!

Is this just a modern phenomenon? Or has the world failed to see the power of the woman in legends, history, and mythology the world over? 

Bringing this power to the fore in every woman is Shakthi — a special self-defense program for women that focuses not just on the training of the body, but the mind as well. It helps women find that inherent deep spiritual power that made women like Kaplana Chawla, Kamala Harris, Indira Gandhi, or Mother Teresa had in order make a mark in the world.

Offered by Dr. S Mahesh Gurukkal of the Agasthyam Kalari, Shakthi is a program that is not geographically limited. It is within the reach of every woman who wants to discover her inner strength. Not just for self-defense, but to transcend that inner barrier to rediscover herself. Dr. S Mahesh designed this program to capture the fearless feminine essence of women that has been celebrated in folklore and ancient texts. This half-day workshop with hands-on Kalari-based techniques focuses on the mind as well as the body. Confidence and presence of mind are just as important as the lightning-fast reflexes that the trainees are equipped with. 

There is one such story of Ahalya, a demure 18-year-old, who enrolled in Dr. Mahesh’s class three years ago. It was a balmy summer evening when she first set foot in the Agasthyam Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram. Demure Ahalya stood silently staring at the floor. Her father was talking to Dr. S Mahesh about admitting her along with her two younger brothers to regular Kalaripayattu training. She did not think it was going to work.

Today, Ahalya has transformed into a vivacious, vibrant 21-year-old who is the National Champion in the senior category of Kalaripayattu Chuvadu. She receives a monthly scholarship from the government of India and is treated at par with the national champions in all other sports. The dynamic transformation that Kalaripayattu training has brought about has incited her interest in training those all over the world and of all ages via online classes offered by Agasthyam Kalari.

Coming from a very prestigious and traditional lineage of Kalaripayattu maters, Dr. S Mahesh carries a deep spiritual connection to this ancient martial art created by Sage Agastya. His grandfather Krishnan was an extraordinary exponent of the ‘choondani viral marma vidya’, a technique using yogic powers through pointing a finger at opponents that immobilized them. His father is the legendary Kalari master and Sidha expert Sanal Kumar Gurukkal. 

“Fear and alertness cannot coexist actually,” admits Suchitra, a Kung Fu blackbelt in her student days who has recently taken up Kalaripayattu. “Fear shrinks our sense of space. It leads to freezing when there is an actual danger. Martial arts help the mind become fearless. Kalaripayattu is considered the mother of martial arts. Such training must be included in schooling.”

Suchitra practicing Kalaripayattu.
Suchitra practicing Kalaripayattu.

“Thanks to many popular movies, everyone knows about Unniyarcha, the legendary female warrior of Kerala,” Dr. Mahesh Gurukkal smiles, “But the fact is that boys and girls were trained together in Kalaris centuries ago. The gender gap appeared only after the British crackdown on Kalaris and the subsequent revival in the 20th century. But we are quickly gaining lost ground. It is important not just from a physical preparedness point of view, Kalaripayattu transforms the mind to deal effectively and calmly with today’s working woman’s professional stress and work-family imbalance.”

Other than Shakthi, Agasthyam Kalari offers Nalludal, a unique Kalari-based health and fitness program for all age groups; Prana – a breathing-based energizing and rejuvenating program; Akam – Agasthyam kriya for awakening the mind; and Nithyam – a daily program based on authentic Kalaripayattu techniques. 

Sreedevi Pillai had worked in the IT industry around the world for over two decades before taking a break. “Though I had continued by Bharatanatyam training, I wasn’t sure I could start Kalaripayattu training in my 40s,” she says. “So I was surprised at the meticulously individual attention with which the Aashans (trainers) eased us into the different steps and routines in the Nalludal program. Kalari has helped me with my dance as well.”

Sreedevi as part of the Nalludal program.
Sreedevi as part of the Nalludal program.

The online classes are conducted in small batches so that individual attention is not compromised. There are participants from all over the world. The rising popularity of Kalaripayattu, along with the opportunity to start at any age, has led to the opening of Agasthyam offline city centers in different locations.

A lasting testimony to the power of the Shakthi program is Ahalya. In the Kalaripayattu performances that Agasthyam Kalari regularly gives at different venues, Ahalya fearlessly confronts three male opponents armed with swords with her bare hands. Though the action is choreographed, the danger is every bit real. As she brings down the opponents one by one into a pile and takes the victor stance in the end, there is a glimpse of a great future of fearless women being born in Kalaris across the world.

Shakthi! Onward! 


Dr. Arun Surendran is the Director of Agasthyam International Kalari. He holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the Texas A&M University and is the Principal of Trinity College of Engineering Trivandrum. He is also the founder of Adcy.io Cybersecurity Solutions. He was awarded the prestigious Eppright Outstanding International Student Award, the highest honor given by the Texas A&M University to any international student.