Tag Archives: #indiacurrents

Top: Photograph of indentured Indian labourers at Spring Garden Buildings. Jamaica, 1880 (Image from the National Archive); Bottom: Contrabands at headquarters of Gen. Lafayette, 1862. Contrabands was an expression coined by Gen. Benjamin F. Butler to describe escaped slaves (Photo by Mathew B. Brady courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Yale University via Wikimedia Commons)

Juneteenth Isn’t Enough: How Indian-Americans Can Use Their Pasts to Help Another Present

Though empires abolished slavery in the Caribbean islands during the 1830s, their move to the model of indentured servitude wasn’t much better. From 1838 to 1917, western European governments transported over 500,000 Indian indentured servants to work on their plantations in the Caribbean. Some were brought unwillingly and others consented to their servitude, however, most servants were not made aware of the horrific conditions and treatment that they would face. Really, the “indentured servitude” model that colonizers granted Indian laborers was a fancy word for slavery.

In that same time period, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This declared that enslaved individuals in the Confederate States had been freed; freedom for all enslaved people would come only after the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865. Unfortunately, even a document as official as the Emancipation Proclamation was flawed.

Though Texas was a Confederate state, the power balance between the state and federal governments meant that Texas’ leaders could decide if they wanted to put the document into effect. Finally, on June 19, 1865 – hence the term “Juneteenth” – 2,000 Union troops invaded Galveston Bay, Texas, officially declaring freedom for all enslaved Texans. Therefore, “Juneteenth” is technically in reference to the day that Texans gained freedom; however, it nevertheless marks the last individuals that needed to gain freedom for a free country.

Two centuries later, Juneteenth just became recognized as a federal holiday in the United States. July 4th may stand as the country’s day of independence from Great Britain, but Juneteenth stands as the country’s second independence day in recognition of freedom for all citizens. 

Similarly, India may be politically independent, but colonization still manifests itself in subtle ways. In fact, Raja Masood, an associate professor of postcolonial literature and theory, notes that “children are still taught to write an application using words and phrases that endorse a colonial mentality such as “Yours obediently” or “Your obedient servant.” Think of the word “boss” commonly used in the Caribbean and Asian communities. How about the titles Maiam (Madam) and Saab (Sir)? My English professor said, “Don’t call me sir, call me Mike.” Students in India and Pakistan are communicated with primarily in English and almost every school teaches the language as if it’s their native tongue.

Indian huts on a sugar plantation near Port Louis in Mauritius. (Image by Frederick Fiebig from the British Library)
Indian huts on a sugar plantation near Port Louis in Mauritius. (Image by Frederick Fiebig from the British Library)

Classism and casteism were amplified outcomes of colonization in India. In fact, the stratification and division that colonization brought to India pre-Partition, remains part of Indian ideology and society. Colonization has, also, pushed Indians to disassociate from Black people. The British, having created stratified structures, pit minorities against one another, “us” versus “them,” and unlearning this behavior has been harder than learning it.

June 19th, recognized as the day that slaves gained their freedom, also recognizes that Black people are still fighting for equality and justice. The murders of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are clear signs that anti-Blackness is ever prevalent and detrimental in society today. As Indian Americans, how can we use our riddled history to empathize with the plight of minorities in America?

Inter-minority division feels illogical. We often talk about the atrocities that slavery and colonization individually brought, but what we recognize less are the parallels between them. These parallels are proof that hegemonic institutions have inflicted trauma on a range of minorities. The treatment, which both the Indian slaves and African American slaves endured, was horrendous and, unfortunately, very similar. The governing bodies of both India and the United States exploited people for their own benefit.

Bibee Zuhoorun was one of the many laborers who was made to work in the Caribbean. She shares her testimony in an ongoing investigation on the India indenture trade. Zuhoorun says, “the injustice meted out to fellow labourers – a story of overworked men subjected to ill-treatment and corporal punishment. Labourers were often confined within plantations and denied wages if they refused to work. She felt stuck in a foreign land.” Zuhoorun was one of many.

Women were kidnapped off of the streets in India and brought to the Caribbean islands for the Indian male laborers. Kalyani Srinivas, a resident of the Bay Area and a person of Indian-Trinidadian descent, emphatically states, “Isn’t it a travesty that history misrepresents the blatant slave trade of Indians to the Caribbeans. My great-great grandmother was 16 and holding her child in India when she was taken forcibly by the British to Trinidad. She was brought as incentive for indentured male workers.” 

Sexual harassment was a common occurrence and Zuhoorun didn’t receive wages for 2.5 years of her labor. Britain profited largely off of the East India Company and did more harm than good; the British ran the company logistics and financials, and Indians did not get authority nor benefits from the company.  

Contrastingly, I note the words of Fountain Hughes, a slave who was interviewed in 1949 and whose words have been archived by the United States Congress. His story is long, but he emphasizes the idea that the slaves were alone, and the conditions they existed in were not worth living for. He says: “we, no more money, but course they bought more stuff and more property and all like that. We didn’t have no property. We didn’t have no home. We had nowhere or nothing. We didn’t have nothing only just, uh, like your cattle, we were just turned out. And uh, get along the best you could. Nobody to look after us. Well, we been slaves all our lives.” 

Worse of all is the similarity in the devastating number of casualties that both races faced. An estimated 35 million in casualties is said to have come from the irresponsible rule of the British in India and at least 17 million people died as a result of slavery/slave trade. Both times, abuse of power took the lives of millions of innocent citizens. Both times, these casualties were avoidable. 

Our shared narratives have been erased, omitted, and forgotten in written history. Let us remember that Indian-Americans are not far removed from their history of slavery and colonialism.

This year has brought about obstacles for the AAPI community. In fact, AAPI hate is plaguing our society, and in standing up for the AAPI and Black community, we create a united front – one that is stronger than any individual alone. 

Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the freedom of African American slaves, and for Indian-Americans, it is a day to reflect on our ancestry and shared trauma to empower others in our community.


Ayanna Gandhi is an 11th grader 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. 

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.


 

Dharmacracy in Mental Health

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

A recent study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that 20% of all teen hospitalizations in the US between January 1 and March 31, 2021, were due to psychiatric emergencies. In addition, a University of California San Francisco study found a “75% increase in children requiring immediate hospitalization for mental health needs” in 2020 over a year before. The study also found a “130% increase in the number of children requiring hospitalization for eating disorders” and a 66% increase in the number of suicidal adolescents (ages 10-17) in the emergency department.  

The Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a ‘State of Emergency’ for youth mental health.

 The last 18 months have been one of the toughest for kids in recent times, no matter how we look at it. However, we can also argue that most of the pain and suffering inflicted upon them during this period have resulted from politics and unscientific policies of school closing. Kids stuck at home; not able to go to school for the whole year; not able to play sports, participate in tournaments, plays, and musicals; not able to visit family and grandparents; not able to see faces hidden behind masks; not able to attend or host birthday and graduations parties —  they all have had a cumulative effect on children’s mental health and overall wellness. 

Add to this the news of socio-political strife; violence; lawlessness; non-stop pictures and videos of burning funeral pyres being played on our TV sets, newspapers, and social media feeds; scarcity of oxygen and other medical supplies for COVID patients, including our friends and family. These combined, present a commentary of a stark, bleak, and gloomy situation of the world we live in.  

How we explain what is going on around us depends on the way we look at the world. Most of our present-day ideas have been shaped by the Western worldview. This worldview is predominantly atomistic that uses binaries such as ‘either/or,’ ‘true/false,’’ ‘left/right,’ ‘for/against,’ ‘liberal/conservative. These antagonistic binaries are in constant conflict with each other. It is also a worldview of excluded middle. 

The ordering of the world, in this worldview, is anthropocentric. Human beings are considered the central entity of the universe where only human life has intrinsic value. In contrast, other entities are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind. 

On the other hand, dharma is the universal law that connects the individual to the rest of the world in a quantum way — that is, it is the same righteous law that binds each element of the cosmos. The Mahabharata defines dharma in the following manner:

  • dharma is so-called because it sustains and upholds the people: hence whatever sustains is dharma.
  • dharma is propounded to secure the good of all living beings: hence, whatever fulfills that aim is dharma.
  • What comes from the love for all beings is dharma. This is the criterion to judge dharma from adharma.

dharma is the spirit of Indic culture. The very essence of a Dharmic life lies in maintaining the equilibrium of the opposites. The opposites, including good and evil, are seen as complementary. Neither can be denied or completely suppressed without running the risk of creating dissonance, both within individuals and in the world around them. This duality of opposites creates and maintains the equilibrium throughout cosmology.

dharma sees conflicts and dissonance as ‘burdening of the Earth,’ which is the disturbing of the equilibrium at multiple levels.  These conflicts are a product of one’s relationship with oneself (not all conflicts are with others) and other elements of the cosmos. Hence a solution must also arise from that relationship. For inner conflicts, one has to look within oneself. Blaming others doesn’t help. Beyond self, as the dissonance and chaos get louder and stronger, the earth gets even more burdened. When the burden gets to unbearable levels, an avatar takes place to unburden the earth finally. Everything starts again afresh. The Dharmic time is circular (kalachakra), not linear.

The concepts of dharma, karma and klesha form the understanding of the cause of all sufferings. The doctrine of karma is defined as the result of an individual’s intentional action through body, speech, or mind. One of the most potent assumptions of the doctrine of karma is that one is in complete control of his/her destiny. Therefore, whatever happens to an individual is a predictable outcome of his/her own choices over time. The theory of karma also states that life does not end at the death of the physical body, and the result of one’s action can be felt in the next lives to come. 

The ultimate goal of life, according to dharma, is Self-realization — the realization of one’s inner Self.

In the Dharmic tradition– Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism– meditation, yoga, and the interplay of philosophy and life occupy a vital place. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (2nd century BCE) explains the yogic techniques to overcome klesha (human misery) and achieve the desired union between self and Brahman, the Supreme Consciousness. The source of klesha is raga, the attachment to worldly desires, and dvesh, the repulsion we feel towards objects that give us unhappiness. The two, combined with avidya (ignorance), asmita (ego), and abhinivesh (attachment to life and fear of death), are the sources of all kleshas.

dharma has a lot to offer in every possible field and situation, including mental health. But, unfortunately, we tend to gloss over the basic Dharmic tenets and their profundity. However, these tenets take on new meanings when applied with conviction during extraordinary uncertainty and trouble. 


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He writes frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.


 

The Meditation Cabin at the Shanti Ashrama in San Antonio Valley, CA.

My Annual Pilgrimage to Shanti Ashrama in San Antonio Valley

I have been making a trip to the Shanti Ashrama every year on the last Saturday of April for nearly 15 years now.  Vedanta Society of Northern California organizes a retreat there every year on this day, which, I am told, they have been doing for the last 45 years or so. And I never tire of it.  In fact, I really look forward to it.

Many consider Shanti Ashrama as one of the iconic centers of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Movement in the United States of America, at par with: the Hall in Chicago where delivered his lecture in 1893; the Ridgley Manor (the estate of Francis Leggett a few hours drive from New York City), where he spent 10 weeks in 1899; and the Thousand Island Park (in upstate New York beside the St. Lawrence River), where he spent seven weeks in 1895 to train twelve students who followed him there.

The importance of the place may be appreciated all the more by the fact that a replica of the wooden Meditation Cabin in Shanti Ashrama is prominently displayed in the Ramakrishna Museum adjacent to the Belur Math.

The location is a 160-acre area in the San Antonio Valley between San Francisco and San Jose.  The area is desolate and surrounded by hills all around.  The unique setting lends itself wonderfully for the retreat, in which several eminent Swamis deliver their uplifting lectures.  There is also a Puja for Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and others.  And there is also a tour of this place.  A joyous atmosphere prevails all around, for which my writing and photographic skills are surely limited.  But I will try, beginning with the unique background history of the place.

Inside the Meditation Cabin at the Shanti Ashrama.
Inside the Meditation Cabin puja area at the Shanti Ashrama.

Background History

It all started in the year 1900 (imagine!) during Swami Vivekananda’s second trip to the USA.  His lectures, particularly his ideas of renunciation and ashrama had fired up a number of his disciples.  They longed for a personal experience of this in their lives.  As providence would have it, one of them, Ms. Minnie Boock, had just inherited this property in California from her father and wanted to donate it to Swamiji.  It was a godsend.  But Swami Vivekananda was scheduled to go back to India soon.  Perhaps by divine premonition, he saw signs of his mortal life coming to an end and he still had things left to do.  So, he deputed Swami Turiyananda (Hari Maharaj), one of his brother monks (one of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s sixteen monastic disciples) to lead the effort.  Vivekananda had brought Turiyananda to New York earlier in the year to help him out.  Swami Turiyananda was the most austere of Sri Ramakrishna’s sixteen monastic disciples but he lacked Swami Vivekananda’s flamboyance and oratorical skills.  His command of the English language was also nowhere near Swami Vivekananda’s.

At first, Swami Turiyananda was very reluctant.  But Vivekananda with his proverbial persuasion skills prevailed when he invoked the name of Holy Mother Sarada Devi to whom Turiyananda was totally devoted.  Swami Vivekananda also appealed to Turiyananda’s sentiments by bringing up, “Haribhai, I have ruined my health doing Mother’s work.  Won’t you help?”.  And when Turiyananda brought up his doubts regarding his proficiency in English and his oratorical skills, Vivekananda assured him saying, “I have lectured to them enough.  Now you give them the demonstration on how to lead a true Vedantic life”.  

The surrounding location of the Shanti Ashrama.

Vivekananda left for India soon after and Turiyananda left for the Shanti Ashrama with a group of twelve disciples.  Their journey was interesting, bordering on the comical.  They went by train from San Francisco to San Jose.  From there, they had a caravan of horses with riders, and a covered horse-drawn cart with Turiyananda in it to cross over Mount Hamilton.  On the way, a lady fell sick and the Swami had to give up his spot and was put on a horse.  He looked clumsy, more so with his uncharacteristic coat and trousers.  And then when they reached their destination, the situation overwhelmed him.  There was nothing there except a wooden cabin and a toolshed.  Seeing his predicament, one brave lady disciple, Mrs. Agnes Stanley, assured him with the admonishment, “Swami, you are a devotee of the Holy Mother.  Does it befit you to lose heart at this?  Don’t worry.  We will take care.”  The Swami was impressed and named her Shraddha (Faith). And take care they did.  After all, most of these disciples were from the pioneer stock.  Soon they built log cabins and other amenities and did not have to sleep in the open, beside haystacks.

Life in the Ashrama revolved around daily chores and spiritual upliftment.  They woke up early with the melodious chanting from the Swami.  After a bath, they all gathered for meditation in the Meditation Cabin.  Then they would break up for their daily chores: the cooking to women, while the men kept busy bringing fuel, planting the garden, and building cabins.  Scriptural classes and more meditation followed for the rest of the day on a fixed schedule, including a one-hour Bhagavadgita class every day.  Incidentally, a vegetarian diet was the rule, but fish, eggs, and cheese were allowed.

Swami Turiyananda ruled the place with love.  He attended to each disciple’s needs individually.  The Swami brought up Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi often in his conversations.  And he insisted on self-surrender as the ultimate goal.  He advised reading only those books written by realized souls.  The constant association with the Swami was itself a spiritual training for the students.  His thorough knowledge of the scriptures and other masterpieces made it easy for him to impress upon them.  He had explained the classic Vivekchudamani by Shankaracharya strictly from memory.  Ida Ansell, a young lady disciple and a stenographer by training, took down his discourse.  It has survived as a classic.

After a year, Swami Turiyananda took a break to lecture in San Francisco for about half a year, before returning to Shanti Ashrama for five months.  He was tired from all the work and needed a change.  He also was eager to meet Swami Vivekananda, who, he had heard, was not keeping good health.  He decided to leave the Shanti Ashrama and America, never to come back. But he was somewhat uncomfortable, as he felt he was disobeying the Holy Mother’s wish. He left Shanti Ashrama at the end of May 1902.  On his last day, he left instructions for his disciple Gurudas (see later) and walked the perimeter of the Ashrama.  He had reportedly said, “This place will last for another fifty years”.  Unfortunately, by the time Turiyananda reached India, Swami Vivekananda had passed away.

Swami Trigunatitananda (Sarada Maharaj) came in Turiyananda’s place in 1903.  Unlike Turiyananda, he was a doer.  He was the founder-editor of Udbodhan, the flagship Bengali magazine of the Ramakrishna Mission, established by Vivekananda.  The magazine is still around and is the longest-running Bengali magazine.  Trigunatita decided to move his operations to San Francisco, away from the Shanti Ashrama.  He visited there two months every year with a group of his students.  He built several new cabins and dug several wells for the supply of water.  He cut a path to the top of Dhuni Hill, the highest point within the property.  The devotees practiced meditation on top of the hill under a campfire.  Things proceeded in this manner till his tragic death in 1915 from a bomb thrown at him by a deranged disciple in the San Francisco Vedanta temple.  Swami Prakashananda, who replaced Trigunatita carried on essentially the same tradition till his death in 1927.  The ashes of Swamis Trigunatitananda and Prakashananda are buried on top of Dhuni Hill. 

After Prakashananda’s death, the place fell into disuse and out of everyone’s eye.  Then, a heavy fire broke out in 1952 taking almost everything with it.  Only two or three cabins survived, including the Meditation Room.  Was this a fulfillment of Turiyananda’s premonition? Who knows!

The story of the Shanti Ashrama will not be complete without Cornelius Heijblom (Swami Atulananda, Gurudas Maharaj).  A Dutch immigrant to New York, he came under the sway of the Vedanta Society and followed Swami Turiyananda to the Shanti Ashrama. He was a capable handyman and was at the forefront of all activities there.  When Turiyananda left for India, he left Gurudas Maharaj in charge of the Ashrama.  Gurudas was there throughout, except for his brief visits to India.  In one of the trips, he was initiated by Holy Mother Sarada Devi herself.  Gurudas Maharaj finally left to settle in India in 1922 and died there in Almora in 1966 at the age of 96.  He had the unique distinction of having met all but two of Thakur Ramakrishna’s sixteen direct disciples.  To me his book, With the Swamis in America and India’ is a must-read.  It has some wonderful accounts of the Shanti Ashrama from the earliest days.

For years after the fire, there was little interest in the place.  Then in the 1970s in one of his visits to India, Swami Prabuddhananda, Minister-in-Charge of the Vedanta Society of Northern California (in San Francisco) came to meet an elderly monk of the Ramakrishna Order.  The elderly monk put this idea into Prabuddhanandaji’ mind.  “Think of doing something for the Shanti Ashrama,” the monk reportedly said.  And hence started this new era around 1975 – the Resurrection.

The Present

From San Francisco, you come to Livermore and then travel through an extremely windy road to get to the site.  The area is desolate.  The scenery along the way is gorgeous with high mountains and deep gorges.  Then, suddenly a gate appears with a sign on it.  The gate opens to a dirt road with signs to the location.  After driving along, you see a parking sign.  Upon parking, you see a large tent.  The tent is connected to the Meditation Cabin, which is also the shrine, the heart of the whole place

As I said earlier, the place is desolate, barring a few wooden cabins.  That is all that survived the place after the fire.  There is no water supply, no electricity, and out of range from phone connections.  It is really an ASHRAMA!

I am not aware of a regular caretaker for the place.  The volunteers from the Vedanta Society of Northern California have, every year, put in a tremendous effort to get the place ready for this one day.  They put up the large tent, bring in portable toilets, and make arrangements for the water and the food.  They also put up a little tent displaying numerous photographs over time.  There are some very interesting photos, including some showing how it was here in 1900.  All this is done under the tutelage of Swami Vedananda, an elderly American Monk attached to the San Francisco Center.  He reputedly has a Doctorate in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley.  The arrangements are essentially the same every year.  

Our program every year starts at around 10:00 AM with a Puja followed by a flower offering from the disciples.  Each one of us gets to enter the iconic Meditation Cabin which houses the photos of the triumvirate: Thakur Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and also Jesus Christ. 

Then it is lunchtime.  We are encouraged to bring our own lunch.  The organizers supplement it with fruits, cookies, juice, and beverages.  Then comes for me the most attractive portion.  The elderly Swami Vedananda leads a guided tour around the area and points out some of the important locations that were lost by the fire of 1952.  We get to see the location of Swami Turiyananda’s cabin, separated out from the center of the humdrum of activities.  We also see the location of the caretaker’s tent and other interesting spots.  All along Swami Vedananda keeps us entertained with various stories related to Shanti Ashrama.  

After this, some of us climb up Dhuni Hill, probably the highest spot on the property.  It is quite a steep climb and it has been getting harder for me every year.  But reaching the top is so rewarding, and not just for accomplishing the feat.  The breathtaking scenery from the top is simply unforgettable.  In addition, at the top, there is a small, enclosed area marking the location of where the ashes of Swami Trigunatitananda and Swami Prakashananda, are buried.  After spending some time on top of Dhuni Hill, it is time to descend.  Sometimes coming down is more difficult. 

Anyway, it is time for lectures by the Swamis and some musical interludes from the mission choirs.  Usually, four Swamis speak.  In general, one of the speakers is from outside the area and the three others are from San Francisco, Berkeley, or Sacramento.  Over the years, we have been treated to some memorable lectures. I specifically remember one by Swami Tyagananda of Boston.  The lectures are followed by tea and snacks.  Then the day’s program comes to an end and people start to depart.  A few stay on a little longer to meditate in the tent. 

All in all, most agree that it was a day very well spent.


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.


 

Walk For Arunay on Beach Safety organized by the Arunay Foundation.

Arunay Foundation: Born From Loss, A Choice to Educate on Bay Area Beach Safety

“When we left Cowell Ranch beach on January 18th, 2021, exhausted and heartbroken, without Arunay, we knew that something was fundamentally wrong with what had transpired,” said Aarti Desai, Pruthis’ family friend and a founding member of Arunay Foundation.

Arunay’s tragedy, unfortunately, is not an isolated case. Across much of the West Coast, sneaker waves kill more people than all other weather hazards combined. In the eight weeks preceding this tragedy, eight people were swept away from Northern California beaches. 

On June 5th, while participating in a walkathon organized by Arunay’s former school Basis Independent, his friends and classmates were determined to spread the message of beach safety far and wide. The walkathon route, dotted with students’ artwork celebrating Arunay, cheered the over 250 walkers who participated with passion and enthusiasm. Together these students walked over 1000 miles in the hope to raise awareness and funds for beach safety! Teachers and students alike shared their stories and fond recollections about Arunay. Many tears were shed. From the little boy who had emptied his piggy bank into a ziplock bag and brought it for donation, to 8-year-old Siddhant, who walked 31 laps and covered 10 miles, one cause bound them all…beach safety awareness

Walk For Arunay: Arunay Foundation on Beach Safety.
Walk For Arunay: Arunay Foundation on Beach Safety.

Born out of the desire to direct their enormous grief, sense of loss, and tragedy into education and actionable solutions, Arunay’s parents, family, and friends instituted the Arunay Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about beach safety. It plans to take a three-pronged approach in the effort to make our beaches safer: Educate, Equip, Inform. The focus of the Arunay Foundation will be on educating young minds about beach preparedness and safety, equipping our beaches with life-saving equipment, and providing our communities with the knowledge and tools they will need to create a safer beach-going experience. 

“We were unaware of what sneaker waves were, how to identify the risks of perilous beach conditions, and important life-saving techniques that when utilized could have saved our precious son,” said Sharmishta, Arunay’s mom, her voice breaking with grief. But, even in her paralyzing grief, she knew that something needed to be done. “Never again should anyone lose their loved one to the sea like this,” she says, with steely determination in her tear-drenched eyes. 

The beaches of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, with their steep and rugged tree-lined coasts and frigid ocean temperatures, are some of the most dangerous in the world, Over the course of the massive, month-long search operation for Arunay, funded by the support of thousands of people from around the world, Arunay’s family recognized the many changes needed in existing beach safety measures, guidelines, and awareness, and believe that with proper awareness and adequate warnings, these beach drownings can be avoided. 

Arunay Foundation is a fiscal sponsorship project of SeaValor. Founded by Eric Jones, a 9/11 veteran and a Medal of Valor recipient, SeaValor is a non-profit based in Emeryville that uses ocean activities to help improve the quality of life for those suffering from PTSD. SeaValor also worked relentlessly alongside Arunay’s family and friends during the search and recovery operations. The family says they could not have asked for a better partner for this journey than SeaValor. 

Arunay’s family is requesting everyone’s generosity and support in their mission. Their experiences during the search & recovery have strengthened their belief that together we can achieve so much more than we can apart. Please spread the word about Arunay Foundation in your communities and consider donating to the cause of improving beach safety.

If we can prevent a beach drowning or help rescue someone’s child and give them a second chance at life, it would be nothing short of priceless.

Follow their journey: https://www.facebook.com/SearchForArunay/ 

Support them: https://www.arunayfoundation.org/


Anil Krishna is a family friend of the Pruthis and has known Tarun and Sharmistha for over 25 years. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Austin, TX.
Maneesh Saxena is a family friend of the Pruthis and has known Tarun and Sharmistha for over 25 years. He lives with his wife and two sons in Cupertino, CA.

 

Quest of a Modern Day Yogi in America

Come walk with me

I’ve been revisiting the rich teachings and wisdom of my Vedic heritage as I traverse my golden years. Examining them through the lens of the world around me today, I realize the need to re-interpret Vanaprastha and Sannyasa for myself, for the present day in which I live. Back in those ‘golden-olden’ days, society looked after an individual entering Vanaprastha; he or she did not have to worry about the next meal or a roof overhead.  Today, so many of our fellow seniors cannot see beyond a meal for the day. How can they possibly contemplate transitioning from the obligations of a householder? How can they detach from society to enter introspection? How best can the more fortunate among us – those who have enjoyed a decent life, and are now reasonably secure in their circumstances – deal with the ‘emptiness’ of the transition from Grihasta?

Come and walk with me for a while on my quest to be a modern-day Yogi in today’s America, and I’ll tell you.

Historic path to self-realization

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a collection of around two hundred statements, observations or truths that describe the science of Yoga in its entirety. The Yoga Sutras describe the Raja Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga – the eight-step practice that enables individuals to attain self-control, discipline, internal clarity, peace and ultimately self-realization or Samadhi – the ecstatic union of the individual with the cosmos. Scholars believe these primary scriptures of Yoga were written around the 2nd century BCE. Through the intervening centuries, philosophers and learned sages have been pulling at the threads of Patanjali’s work, translating and explaining them for our consumption.  

Each stage or limb of Ashtanga Yoga builds naturally on those that precede it. The first four limbs are designed to help us gain control over our bodies and become aware of ourselves. When you or I talk about ‘practicing yoga,’ we are referring to Asana, the third limb which follows Yama and Niyama.  The postures we practice – often referred to as Hatha Yoga – help us maintain physical health and well-being.  In addition, they promote self-discipline, focus and concentration, and prepare us for meditation. Pranayama, which literally means life-force extension, is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga, and consists of breath-control techniques to rejuvenate the body and extend life. It is either practiced on its own, or integrated into Hatha Yoga routines. 

The next three stages, Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana are preparation for the last, ultimate stage: Samadhi. They involve a conscious withdrawal from the outside world and an effort to transcend external stimuli to focus increasingly inward. This cultivation of detachment and an increased effort to concentrate and singularly focus inward, while leveraging the training in posture and breath control leads naturally to Dhyana: meditation or contemplation.

Meditation or Mindfulness?

In Eastern philosophy, cultures and tradition – whether it be the scientific path of Yoga or one of the more monastic forms of Buddhism, meditation is a practice that combines inward focus and concentration with controlled breathing, allowing individuals to follow their breath to an inner harmonious state. Harmony, peace, tranquility, and compassion both for self and others should follow.

The prevalence of meditation in other cultures and religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has traditionally been described by scholars as self-administered techniques for inner transformation. Attempts to link meditation and spirituality have created controversy. Western meditation typically involved the reading of religious texts, prayer, and contemplation.  Worldwide interest in Eastern forms of meditation and their adoption began in earnest around the middle of the 20th century as travel increased. The same period witnessed a rapid decline of religion, especially Christianity, in the US, Europe, and most of the Western world. This trend, coupled with a marked increase in stress and mental-health issues induced by the unrelenting pace of modern life and work began to drive people to seek other sources for comfort and healing; to the practice of meditation and the health benefits that accrue from it.  A growing body of scientific evidence verifies what Patanjali taught centuries ago: regular meditation improves physical and mental health; it reduces blood pressure, helps with digestive disorders, eases the symptoms of anxiety and depression, improves sleep, and promotes physical changes in the brain that promote better overall health.

We often hear the term mindfulness these days; some use it interchangeably with meditation. There are differences, however. Meditation is a practice, while mindfulness is a state or quality. 

Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” 

Mindfulness is a cultivated behavior, the process of focusing one’s attention. We can derive a lot of value by making it part of our way of life. Mindfulness and being in the moment are key to building resilience and overcoming adversity and stress. The essence of mindfulness is embedded in the practices of Ashtanga Yoga. 

Whether you are on the Ashtanga path towards the ultimate goal of a Yogi, an agnostic, or a disbeliever; whether you practice this or that religion or are an atheist, whether you are on the modern-day treadmill seemingly getting nowhere, or attuned with Mother Nature with days filled with purpose, the regular practice of meditation is good for your body, your mind, and your soul. Regardless of what terminology you use – mindfulness or something else, the ability to focus your attention and be in the present moment with equanimity is worth developing.  Attributions to East or West and distinguishing between shades of meaning may be interesting philosophically or may make for a robust debate, but they do not change the individual outcome. Meditation, pranayama, and mindfulness transcend culture, religion, and national or political boundaries. They have intrinsic value. Pranayama and meditation should be part of all stages of our life journey. I’m trying to make them part of mine.

Heading towards Liberation

In Vedic culture, the path of Ashtanga Yoga weaves through the four Ashramas or stages of spiritual life.  Beginning with Brahmacharya or student life, the Ashramas set a living framework and define spiritual practices based on the duties and responsibilities required at each stage of life, as the individual progresses on a path towards ultimate self-realization or Samadhi.  Brahmacharya sets the foundation, provides learning about family life and community, teaches spiritual practice, and provides yogic training. The second stage of life is spent as a Grihastha or householder – raising and supporting a family, following one’s worldly interests, continuing to drink from the fountain of Jnana, and carrying out the teachings of Bhakti and Karma Yoga. Once these responsibilities are fulfilled, the individual begins to withdraw from the world into the transitional stage of Vanaprastha, counseling the family and community while becoming increasingly more detached, with decreasing attention to the world and surroundings. Attention instead turns inward in preparation for the final stage: Sannyasa or renunciation, working towards the attainment of Samadhi, and ultimately seeking Moksha or salvation.

Every religion and culture addresses Moksha –liberation from the state of being human to become one with the cosmos or some higher power – in its own terms, and with its own descriptions and definitions of both the pathway and the ultimate end state. The Bhagavad Gita describes three margas or pathways: Bhakti (devotion), Jnana (knowledge), and Karma (duty or service). You will find proponents and devoted followers of each approach. The descriptions, discussions, and discourse on each alternative, and the relative merits of one versus the other would fill a small library. 

While commenting on Adi Sankara’s renowned devotional hymn Bhaja Govindam, the elder statesman and writer C. Rajagopalachari statedthe way of devotion is not different from the way of knowledge or jnana. When intelligence matures and lodges securely in the mind, it becomes wisdom. When wisdom integrates with life and issues out in action, it becomes bhakti. Knowledge when it becomes fully mature is Bhakti. If it does not get transformed into Bhakti, such knowledge is useless tinsel. To believe that knowledge and devotion, jnana and bhakti are different from each other is ignorance.

Intuitively, and from an objective viewpoint, one could argue – and I do – that ultimately all three paths overlap. I would leave the distinctions to philosophers and debaters.

Re-defining my path

This sets the stage for the central tenet I wish to present. Each of us is formed by our experiences. The older among us were born in India, growing up in an environment with traditional culture and roots, in society and familial environment that formed our values and guided our practices of daily living.  We now live – either in India or relocated in our adopted countries – in a modern world that has transformed significantly in the space of a generation. During this transformation, we’ve had to adapt to a new way of life.  We’ve changed in many ways and adjusted to different societal norms and thinking. The attitudes and practices of daily living have changed for most of us. I would argue that in either era – then or now, most people would not move all the way up the ladder of Ashtanga Yoga and attain a level of Yogic discipline and practice to be prepared and ready to renounce their way of life and enter Sannyasa in a quest for Samadhi. A few might, but not most.  To the rest of us today, I pose the question: can we adapt the guidance of our ancient Yoga Scriptures and build for ourselves the model of a modern-day Yogi?

I posit that we should embrace the conceptual basis of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa spiritually, and adapt them for our modern times. We should treat Vanaprastha not as a time for transition and withdrawal, but as a time for liberation and increased activism. During this stage of life, Bhakti Yoga provides enrichment, courage, and support as we sustain ourselves in the face of the realities of aging. Let’s leverage this support to actively pursue the path of Karma Yoga –selfless service to others – and work for the benefit of our communities, always dipping into the ocean of Jnana to learn how better to serve our fellow man. Continue to find strength and comfort in Bhakti Yoga.  By doing so, we will find our Sukham – joy and fulfillment.  As we continue our service, we will slowly but surely embed tiny fragments of ourselves in our fellow human beings, and find our own salvation through each of them. We will successfully make our transition to an ecstatic union with the cosmos.


Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents.


Get A Free Six Pack of Beer With Your Proof of Vaccine!

There are enormous disparities in the COVID vaccination rate – from state to state, county to county, and community to community. Why is it that when the vaccine is so readily available in this country, so much so that President Biden has promised to send a whole lot (5 million doses) overseas, that states and cities are resorting to lotteries and wild incentives to “sell” the COVID vaccine to their constituents?

President Biden has set a target to have 70% of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4th.  But as we near that date, it is becoming increasingly evident that goal might not be achievable.  To date, 62.8% of American adults have already received at least one dose of the vaccine but the vaccine intake rates have dropped precipitously in the past few weeks, especially in rural America.  That leaves many of those communities grappling with an imperfect pandemic endgame.

Its an Access Issue

Who has got vaccinated and who has not?  It seems easy and almost lazy to just assume that anyone who has not been vaccinated is just an anti-vaxxer because of mistrust, political leanings or mis-information. Some people are busy with multiple jobs, or they procrastinate, or they’re worried about side effects. But that does not tell the whole story.

“According to a new U.S. census estimate, some 30 million American adults who are open to getting a coronavirus vaccine have not managed to actually do so.”  It’s an access issue and an accountability one as well for the government, says Amy Harmon, a national correspondent for The New York Times at the USC Center for Health Journalism webinar titled “The Vaccine Tipping Point”. 

Their numbers are larger than those who have been labeled hesitant — “the 28 million who said they would probably or definitely not get vaccinated, and the 16 million who said they were unsure.”

 To the 30 million Americans who want to get vaccinated but have not, due a myriad reasons – access is key.  My gardener Joel is emblematic of many such cases.  I live in Santa Clara county in California where 79% of residents aged 12 and over have had at least one dose of the vaccine.  But Joel only got his first dose this week.  When I asked him why, he said that he was busy working from 8 to 7, 6 days a week and receiving physical therapy when he could, for a recent auto accident.  He just couldn’t make the time to get vaccinated.

This is true for many of the 30 million Americans captured in the Census data.  They are just busy with multiple jobs, and if the vaccine center is not on their way to work and back, it may not get prioritized.

This scenario is exacerbated if you live in a rural part of the country according to Katheryn Houghton who serves as Montana correspondent for Kaiser Health News.  Travel is a real issue in rural America where public transportation is not available.  Folks need a car, gas money and time off from work in order to get to a vaccination site.   Also, smaller health departments mean less staff to get the information out and take care of their community. 

Don’t tell me what to do

“Getting the Pfizer vaccine is a tricky business in rural America not just because of the cold storage issues, but the amount of doses the Pfizer vaccine comes in.  The minimum amounts can be bigger than the communities that are trying to get vaccinated.”   This makes it trickier to reach younger populations as well because Pfizer is the only one vaccine that is approved for that age group.  Houghton says “there are a lot of complications overlapping with distrust of government or distrust of a health system that has been unfair to them in the past”.  A “don’t tell me what to do” attitude does not help either.  

“Covid vaccine was the next step of the kind of the tension that this community has felt over the last year.  This is a place where even the county board of health was a split vote on whether to pass mask mandates, where they did not even limit crowd sizes during the county’s largest covid outbreaks,” says Houghton.

The CDC tracks the Social Vulnerability Index – which refers to resilience, or the ability to “bounce back” when confronted by external stresses on human health, natural or human-caused disasters or disease outbreaks. As expected, communities with the highest Social Vulnerabilities have the lowest vaccination rates.  Historically, these are communities of color, and vaccine hesitancy in these communities are sensitive to different kinds of interventions due to historical reasons of distrusting the medical establishment.

Will free beer, donuts, and cash work?

To increase the access to all Americans who want the vaccine but have not been able to, the Biden administration has unleashed a slew of strategies declaring June a “national month of action” including partnering with childcare providers, pharmacies, universities, and radio stations.   

To help meet the national goal by the 4th of July –  government leaders, corporations and others are also pushing to keep the momentum going with giveaways for free cash, donuts, beer, guns, fries, hotdogs, sporting tickets, scholarships and even millions of dollars in lotteries. Will it work? Will it be the tipping point to move Americans who are reluctant or hesitant?  Behavioral scientists are waiting to find out.  

Early in the vaccine deployment cycle, behavioral scientists and public health officials were skeptical if incentives would work.  Dr. Alison Buttenheim, an associate professor of nursing and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, was afraid that “If you have to pay me, it must not be a very good or safe vaccine” was the thought going through the minds of Americans who were hesitant, especially those afraid of side effects.  They were also concerned that it was financially inefficient to pay everyone to get a vaccine.  The government has to do a better job “meeting people where they are – both attitudenly and physically,” she adds.

Public health officials in rural Montana on the other hand did not want to offer incentives because they did not want it to look like propaganda and to be accused of trying to manipulate people. They were concerned that it might trigger more of a backlash.

But in the last few weeks, there has been an explosion of incentives with Ohio and California leading the charge with million dollar sweepstakes.  California’s “Vax for the Win” drive is a contest open to everyone over age 12 who has had at least one dose of the vaccine and on June 15, the state will announce 10 winners of $1.5 million cash prizes.

But Dr. Buttenheim says that Philadelphia is trying a different strategy called “Philly Vax,” using what scientists call “anticipated regret” to nudge more folks towards vaccination.  In this regret aversion lottery – you can get your name pulled out of a hat even if you are not vaccinated but you have to be vaccinated to win.  Scientific studies show that “anticipated regret” is very motivating. The results will be telling when comparing Philadelphia with other cities and states where only the vaccinated are eligible to participate.

So, why does the lottery work better than a beer for everyone?  The “small chance of a big prize versus the fixed payment for everybody of an equal expected value” is more motivating, says  Dr. Buttenheim. As states like Ohio have found out, you can do a lot more with a lot less money with a lottery based incentive.  The amount of publicity that was garnered by announcing the lottery was worth a whole lot more than the cost of paying out the lottery.  

It’s a win-win if the vaccination numbers increase.

The question is, as the next vaccine or a booster for the current COVID vaccine rolls out, will people only respond to prizes and incentives? That is a real danger of motivation crowdout, says Dr. Buttenheim, that when we provide people an incentive for something, it could reduce their intrinsic motivation to participate in the future.

Only the future will tell. 


Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a producer at DesiCollective. A Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform, Anjana is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Image: https://twitter.com/CraneBrewing/status/1381642980256317443


 

Racism is a Public Health Crisis Say CA Lawmakers

After the killing last year of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers declared racism a public health crisis. The governors of Michigan and Nevada quickly followed, as have legislative bodies in Minnesota, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Yet California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who governs one of the most racially and ethnically diverse populations in the U.S., has not.

State Democratic lawmakers are not waiting for Newsom to make a declaration and are pressuring the first-term Democrat to dedicate $100 million per year from the state budget, beginning July 1, to fund new health equity programs and social justice experiments that might help break down systemic racism. Possibilities for the funding include transforming parking lots in low-income neighborhoods into green spaces and giving community clinics money to distribute fresh fruit and vegetables to their patients.

Lawmakers say covid’s disproportionate impact on California’s Black and Latino residents, who experienced higher rates of sickness and death, makes their request even more pressing.

“Covid uncovered the disparities of the segregated California of the past that still has an effect today, and that we can correct if we focus on equity,” said Assembly member Mike Gipson (D-Carson), who is spearheading the funding push. “We need to build a healthier society that works for everyone.”

Lawmakers are lobbying for the money in their negotiations with the governor over the 2021-22 state budget. The legislature must pass a budget bill by June 15 for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Once Newsom receives the bill, he has 12 days to sign it into law.

The $100 million proposal to address the health effects of racism is part of the Democratic-controlled legislature’s broader public health agenda that includes a request for $235 million annually to help rebuild gutted local public health departments, $15 million per year for transgender health care and $10 million to establish an independent “Office of Racial Equity,” which would attempt to identify and address racism in state spending and policies.

Health care advocacy groups say the investments are critical to address inequality in society and the health care system that has contributed not only to higher rates of covid within disadvantaged communities, but also chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

“Those who got sick and lost jobs were mostly communities of color, so seeing no new investment from the governor to really tackle racial equity is unconscionable,” said Ronald Coleman, managing director of policy for the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, which sent Newsom a letter last July asking him to declare racism a public health crisis.

Newsom hasn’t committed to supporting the funding but said he’d be “very mindful” in negotiations with lawmakers. One proposal Newsom and state lawmakers agree on is funding for a chief equity officer to address racial disparities within state government.

Newsom pointed to other budget proposals he has made, including $600 economic stimulus payments to households earning less than $75,000, rent and utility bill assistance, and an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program for low-income residents, called Medi-Cal, to unauthorized immigrants age 60 and older.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said George Floyd’s killing in May 2020 motivated state and local lawmakers to look at racism through the lens of public health — which could have helped save lives during the covid pandemic. “We’re at a tipping point,” Benjamin said. “It’s important to first acknowledge that racism is real, but then it requires you to do something about it. We’re now seeing other states beginning to put money and resources behind the words.”

Some cities and counties in California have declared racism a public health crisis, including Los Angeles and San Bernardino County. But those declarations would be more meaningful backed by an infusion of state resources, health care advocates say.

“We need to be willing to put dollars into innovative approaches to addressing racism in the same way we invest in stem cells, and we need to be willing to accept that some of the things we try will work and some won’t,” said Kiran Savage-Sangwan, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.

Should Newsom sign off on the funding, grants would be available to health clinics, Native American tribes and community-based organizations to develop programs aimed at combating racism and health disparities.

The Community Coalition in South Los Angeles, a nonprofit that originally set out decades ago to address the crack epidemic, expressed interest in applying.

“There are so many vacant lots in South Los Angeles that could be turned into mini-parks. That helps not only with physical health but mental health,” said Marsha Mitchell, the organization’s communications director. “We have very few grocery stores, and if you live in Compton or South Los Angeles, your life expectancy is almost seven years lower than if you lived in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills or Malibu.”

Directing more resources to address racism could backfire, in part because voters, including some Democrats, have displayed skepticism over some of the liberal and expensive policies sought by Democrats who control Sacramento, said Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based Republican political consultant who has also worked for Democrats.

He pointed to Proposition 16, the November 2020 ballot initiative that would have repealed California’s 1996 law banning affirmative action, which was defeated 57% to 43%.

“Racism is very much a public health problem — just look at the chronic diseases and lower life expectancies of Black and brown people, and most people believe that racism is systemic in our governance,” Madrid said. “But voters are becoming more discerning about how racism is being used by politicians to advance an agenda.”

Focusing too heavily on racism could prompt a backlash, he said, “whereas if you focused on poverty and inequality, that would solve many of the racial problems.”

But state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), who is leading the drive to establish an Office of Racial Equity, said funding and state leadership focused intensely on structural racism are essential to ending it. Should the office not be funded in the budget, Pan said he’d press forward with a bill.

The office would work with the state’s new chief equity officer to examine the California government, including state hiring practices, proposed legislation and budget spending decisions, for evidence of racism or inequality.

It’s a priority for the legislature’s Asian & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, given the rise in hate crimes perpetrated against people of Asian descent, Pan said.

“We need to invest more in prevention,” Pan said. “The state needs to step up and support communities of color.”


This story was produced by KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


 

The Ali Family, Ben's Chilli Bowl, Washington DC

Small Businesses Must Apply For PPP Grants Say EMS Panel

Ben Chilli Bowl, an  iconic Washington D.C. diner, was going to close its doors. It did not receive a loan under Payment Protection Plan (PPP), the government scheme to help small businesses.

In a tweet, then Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-CA) noted, “@benschilibowl is a DC icon I used to eat at during my @HowardU days. It’s outrageous small businesses like Ben’s Chili Bowl aren’t getting the kind of relief the president’s friends are getting. Congress must prioritize helping minority-owned businesses.”

Virginia Ali, the 86-year old matriarch and co-founder of Chilli Bowl shared her difficult experience at a panel discussion on how small businesses could emerge from this crisis, during an Ethnic Media Services briefing on May 28.

After being shut out of the initial round of forgivable federal loans, the Ali family, owners of Ben’s Chili Bowl, applied again. They finally did get Paycheck Protection Program assistance. 

Speakers at an Ethnic Media panel on May 28, 2021

 

“Most small businesses do look at federal programs, similar to SBA, but what they should be aware of is that each state has programs as well, such as the State Small Businesses Credit Initiative which has 600 percent more funds in it than it had the last time. The program has been tweaked to ensure small businesses even those with weaker credit profiles will now get help, he said.

The American Rescue Bill had roughly 350 billion dollars that went out to individuals in states and counties and cities with 200,000+ in population sizes. That money, in this moment, while we are reopening, represents capital that can be catalytic. 

“It is extremely important that the small business owner, one, looks at advocacy work to see where the money is going and who it is going out to; two, talks to their economic development in the cities to find their programs; and three, most importantly APPLY!,”  said Sands.

“What we have learnt from the pandemic is that most opportunities come a second time. If you look at PPP it has come up a third time. We are into the third iteration of the program to ensure that some of the smaller small businesses now have access to capital,” said Sands. It is therefore important that businesses apply.

Congressman Ro Khanna, D-California. Rep. Khanna, a member of the Congressional Small Business Caucus, reiterated the importance of making sure that the money is distributed to small businesses and not default to big bank customers. 

“Establishments with under 25 employees like local restaurants, dry cleaners and nail salons are small businesses,” said Khanna. “Secondly, the distribution of monies should keep racial and gender diversity in mind,”  he said.

PPP  helped small businesses stay afloat with low-interest loans. A $2.2-trillion economic relief measure, it was signed into law in March 2020, during the first pandemic surge. It was conceived as a loan program that could be forgiven entirely if borrowers met certain conditions involving retaining employees.

In 2020 and 2021, Lendistry provided Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to small businesses in all 50 states and was selected by the State of California to administer the California Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program, which distributed grants to small businesses that lost significant revenues during the pandemic. 

Mom-and-pop Main Street America can emerge from this crisis and admired the resilience of the small business owner, agreed panellists. The key characteristic of a small business owner is that they never give up. They urged small business owners to apply for government help.

“For amounts less than $150,000, most of the red tape or the bureaucratic process of a loan has been cleared away,” Sands explained. “They must apply for help even if they don’t know the information, even if they get it wrong.”


Ritu Marwah is an award winning author whose story Jinnah’s Daughter, featured in the New York Times’s Express Tribune blog, exemplifies her deep interest and understanding of history and the place of people in it.


 

Dr. Erica Pan

State Epidemiologist Highlights Expanded COVID-19 Vaccine Eligibility to Protect Kids 12+

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) today released the latest “On the Record” ethnic media column, in which California State Epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan encourages California families to vaccinate their 12 to 15-year-olds against COVID-19 – an age group comprising about 2.1 million Californians. Protecting adolescents with vaccinations will help move the state closer to ending the pandemic and ease its toll on their mental health and social-emotional wellbeing.

“The past year has been hard on all of us, but especially difficult for our teens who have had to put their lives on hold. Now that eligibility has expanded, we can confidently give our kids a shot at being kids again with the comfort of knowing they are protected from COVID-19,” wrote Dr. Pan in her column. “When more Californians become vaccinated, we can feel safer as restrictions are lifted and life begins to return to a sense of normalcy. When 12 to 15-year-olds are vaccinated, families can be safer as they venture out more, go on vacations and get back to doing the things they love.”

California expanded eligibility for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to 12 to 15-year-olds last month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) vaccine safety review panel and the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup recommended that the vaccine is safe and effective in protecting this age group against severe illness, hospitalization, and death. In the weeks since the eligibility expansion, approximately 27.5 percent of 12 to 15-year-olds have received at least one dose.

In the column, Dr. Pan addresses potential questions and concerns teens and their parents or guardians may have about the vaccine. Dr. Pan explains that clinical trials have proven the vaccine to be safe and effective for youth in this age group and that the technology used to make the vaccine has been developed over the last 20 years. Vaccinated individuals may experience mild side effects such as a sore arm, fever, or fatigue.

A parent of two eligible adolescents, Dr. Pan discusses the stress and isolation youth have experienced due to the pandemic, and how getting vaccinated is a critical step to getting back to our normal lives, including more opportunities to safely spend time with friends and family.

Dr. Pan also highlights the state’s new $116.5 million Vax for the Win incentive program, in which all Californians who have had at least one COVID-19 dose – including youth – are eligible to receive $50 prepaid or grocery cards and are entered into randomized cash prize drawings. A total of 30 winners will receive $50,000, and on June 15, 10 will win $1.5 million as the state fully reopens. $750,000 has already been awarded in the first round of cash prize drawings last week, and the next 15 winners will be selected this Friday.

Dr. Pan underscores the state’s work to ensure equitable access to the vaccine, including partnerships with local health departments, community-based organizations, and school districts to reach underserved youth in foster care or those experiencing homelessness, as well as efforts to improve access in rural communities through mobile clinics, free transportation and more. Vaccines are free, including for those who don’t have health insurance and regardless of immigration status.

To promote easy access, the Administration established a portal where schools and other community sites can request support to set up mobile and pop-up clinics. Schools – especially larger districts – can also become providers by following the steps outlined here and in a school-specific recorded webinar. For resources to support outreach, schools and other community organizations can access the messaging toolkit.

Parents, legal guardians or emancipated young people can check vaccine availability and book an appointment at MyTurn.ca.gov or by calling California’s COVID-19 Hotline at 1-833-422-4255. They can also contact their family doctor, local community health clinic or public health office for more information.

More information on the Vax for the Win program can be found here. If you encounter a possible vaccine incentive scam, please email rumors@cdph.ca.gov or call the Vax for the Win incentives hotline at 1-833-993-3873.


 

Film still from Freddie's Piano featuring Aakash Prabhakar (left) and Pranav Mylarassu (right).

‘I Have Always Been Obsessed With Telling Stories’ Aakash Prabhakar Tells IC

Aakash Prabhakar’s English-language Indian film Freddie’s Piano recently made it to the official lineup of North America’s oldest and most prestigious film festival, the New York Indian Film Festival 2021.

Actor and Director, Aakash Prabhakar
Actor and Director, Aakash Prabhakar

Shot in idyllic Pondicherry, the film’s screenplay was written by national award-winning filmmaker Batul Mukhtiar. It is produced by New Hampshire-based independent film producers Somasekhar Kovvuri and Lisa Kovvuri and co-directed by Sudharshan Narayanan who studied filmmaking at the Mindscreen Film School in Chennai.

Prabhakar’s maiden venture in cinema is a music lover’s delight. A young adult film, it is a story about two half-brothers Aden and Freddie. Aden wants to give Freddie a piano to fulfill their father’s dream; Freddie wants to give Aden the freedom he dreamed about when their father was alive. In the end, both brothers learn that what they really need is each other. A simple film about what Aden does to get his younger brother Freddie a grand piano for Christmas, Freddie’s Piano was screened virtually at the Scottsdale International Film Festival last year from November 6 to 15, 2020.  

In this exclusive interview, he talks to us among other things about the inspiration behind Freddie’s Piano, his theater background, and star pianist from Rahman’s music conservatory who debuts in the film.

IC: Tell us about the idea/inspiration behind your film Freddie’s Piano.

AP: I always loved listening to classical music as a kid. I started learning keyboards in my early teens. I remember asking my mother to buy me a keyboard, which was way better and expensive than the one I had. She asked me to wait for some time and eventually bought it for me. Later, she told me that she had to take on more work, put in more hours in her business, and save more to get me that keyboard. The incident really stayed with me.  

Freddie’s Piano came from there. I have always enjoyed reading O’Henry. One of his popular stories, Gift of the Magi, is one of my favorites. It was also at the back of my mind when I was writing the story for this film. That’s how this story came together. An elder brother wants to gift his younger brother a piano for Christmas when he can’t even pay for his bus fees. The film is about all that Aden does to buy Freddie a piano for Christmas.

IC: Tell us a little about Pranav Mylarassu, a star pianist from A R Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory, who makes his debut as 12-year-old Freddie in the film.

AP: I wanted a kid who can play the piano well, and the head of the Conservatory introduced me to him. When he started playing, we couldn’t take our eyes off him. He knew all the classics—Beethoven, Mozart—inside out and played them with so much poise. I sent him the script, he had his scenes memorized and was very attentive throughout the workshops and the shoot. 

This was his first time acting on camera, so he was an empty slate. He really did justice to the part, capturing the innocence and honesty I wanted in Freddie. A very intelligent kid, he loves making origami, practices yoga every day, wants to be an aerospace engineer when he grows up and hopes to make space tourism possible. 

Pranav Mylarassu in film, Freddie’s Piano.

IC: Tell us more about your theater background, and some of the plays you have written, acted in, and directed in Mumbai.

AP: I have always been obsessed with telling stories. I acted in plays in school, directed and acted in plays in college. About seven-eight years ago, I started acting in plays professionally. After doing a few workshops, a yearlong course in theater-making, performance arts as well as acting in a lot of plays in Mumbai, I started my own company, Here And Now. My company has produced Crumpled that I co-wrote, directed, and acted in; The Drum Roll that I wrote and directed; Bull by Mike Bartlett that I acted in; and Cock by Mike Bartlett. My latest was Visiting Mr. Green by Jeff Baron, in which M K Raina and I acted.

IC: Which are some of your all-time favorite films? Who or what are your biggest inspirations?

AP: The Shawshank Redemption, Children of Heaven by Majid Majidi, Life is Beautiful by Roberto Benigni, Salaam Bombay! by Mira Nair, Nayakan by Mani Ratnam, Bicycle Thieves, The Pianist, The Marriage Story, and A Separation by Asghar Farhadi.

What are you working on next?

AP: I am probably going to jump back on stage with Visiting Mr. Green and Cock by Mike Bartlett as soon as things open up. I am also working on Stephen Belber’s Tape, a really well-written script that also became a film directed by Richard Linklater.

I am constantly reading and auditioning for parts in films and web series. I am also developing a couple of film and web show projects. One explores relationships, mental health, and complicated love stories in urban cities and the other is a feature about the labor migration crisis that happened last year due to Covid.

View the film from June 4-13 here: https://www.moviesaints.com/movie/freddies-piano


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. 


 

Left to right: Author, Murzban Shroff and his book, Third Eye Rising

Third Eye Rising: A Pantheon of Displacement Stories

Some 15 years ago I wrote in these pages a review titled “An Omnibus Repast of the Century Past.”  Yes, in those distant days, our faithful magazine was printed on paper.  And, yes, my review was backward-looking, an appreciation of R. K. Narayan’s two-volume keepsake issued by Everyman’s Library in its centennial year and, serendipitously, in the 100th year of Narayan’s birth.

When Narayan was born in 1906, 89% of Indians lived in villages; when he passed away in 2001, that percentage had dropped to 72.  Today, less than 65% of Indians are in rural settings, but given the subcontinent’s population explosion, that’s still 900 million villagers. Imagine nearly all Americans x 3 living in villages. And then imagine all the stories that each of those villagers has to tell us.

Murzban Shroff’s fertile imagination does the imagining for readers open to exploring India’s rural-to-urban transformation. In Third Eye Rising, a compelling collection of stories featured on Esquire’s list of Best Books of 2021, some things in India stay the same, and other things evolve. What stays the same: a pantheon of gods and families. What changes: most everything else and thus a grand displacement.

The displacement suggests that the Rajasthani villages that my parents came from are no longer the sleepy mofussils that R. K. Narayan wrote about so lovingly in the last century. The village has moved to the city and the city has moved to the village; and in all this movement, the modern Western world has seeped into India.

I thought about all this fluidity while reading “The Kitemaker’s Dilemma,” the first story in Shroff’s book. The story opens rather innocently with a too-long sentence that conveys the languid oral tradition of Indian story-telling. It is January in Amrapali, a small North Indian town, ten days before Makar Sankranti, the festival that loosely marks the end of the winter solstice and the beginning of longer, warmer days.

“Schools were shut, shops downed their shutters, adults became children, and children were allowed to scream their hooplas as kite after kite was launched in good-humored, competitive fervor.”

In the midst of this languorous bonhomie, we meet Baba Hanush, a master kitemaker. For a moment, the reader believes that he is back in Malgudi, Narayan’s fictional South Indian town; one can almost hear Malgudi’s make-believe river Sarayu come to life. To be sure, there are low-grade tensions such as mothers negotiating the price of Baba Hanush’s priceless kites. And the tension grows more personal with Shroff outlining the death of Baba Hanush’s wife, a victim of a bamboo pit viper; but even this tragedy passes through a brief paragraph and is resolved with a whisper: “An artist is best in his grief.” 

None of these conflicts prepare the reader for what Shroff calls “a dark, liquid unease”: the story of Akash, a lonely boy who lives in a shuttered house on Burrah Gully. The viper’s poison is nothing compared to Akash’s father, a venomous drunk who murders his wife and then frames his chit of a son. The story’s denouement pulls at the heartstrings, but the gentle contract that Narayan had with his readers is clearly not the one that Shroff has with his.  

While kites still fly on Makar Sakranti as they have for centuries, India has changed.

People seem more ready to cut each other down the way they once playfully cut down each other’s kites with crushed-glass-laced string.  This is the bargain Shroff makes with his readers: I will give you a taste of the Incredible India sold by the Ministry of Tourism, but you will have to swallow the country’s disreputable underbelly as well.

Psychologically, Third Eye Rising has a mature voice without resorting to distasteful language. These are tales for the 21st century nurtured in the masterful hands of a writer who apparently knows India’s rich folk-tale tradition; perhaps this comes from the story collection being “born out of Shroff’s travels to the villages of India” as noted in the author’s bio. But although the ten stories feature numerous gods and goddesses, they are not didactic in the way of some episodes in the Ramayana or Mahabharata; and even though Third Eye Rising anthropomorphizes in “The Temple Cow,” it is not moralizing like the Panchatantra or Hitopadesha.  

The societal context here is different from the ancient texts or even the more recent Narayan stories. As Amarveer Rathore, the protagonist in “Diwali Star,” says to his wife after they watch the serialized Ramayana on television, “Different times, different values.”  The Rathores contrast the breakup of their extended family, each son going his own way, with the fraternal bond between Rama, Bharata, Shatrughna, and Laxmana.  

Just as most Americans – Christian and non-Christian – know about Jesus and the three wise men bearing gifts, just about all Indians – Hindu and non-Hindu – are aware of how Rama, Sita, and Laxmana lived in exile to honor the extorted wish of King Dasharatha. But those were honorable times in perhaps apocryphal history.  As celebrated at Diwali, when Rama returns to the kingdom after 14 years in the forest with Sita and Laxmana, his brother Bharata rightfully returns the throne to Rama. Right-minded men, doing the right things, in the right way.

Third Eye Rising doesn’t see its world in quite the same way.  While his stories are populated with honorable men like Rama and his brothers, Shroff is just as apt to focus on Sita’s perspective in writing which valorizes a feminist worldview.  Dowry is explored, as are sham marriages and a disconcertingly pragmatic concept called a “professional wife.”  

If M. K. Gandhi was right that “the soul of India lives in its villages,” then what to make of an Indian soul that is rapidly urbanizing in our neoliberal globalized world?

Shroff writes with a gimlet-eyed view of modern India. Readers may be asked to remove their rose-colored glasses to understand and embrace characters who embody Third Eye Rising’s ever-changing India. 


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. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.


 

What Could Push a Desi Father Farther From the Family?

First, let us all fathers bite the bullet.

A mother in our Desi social context is loved profusely and respected intimately, while a father is feared instinctively and respected distantly. Fathers so far, seem to have accepted this convenient unpleasantry. Even before being a father, however, I had decided to rock the boat. I wanted to be as much loved by my children as their mother. If respect is added, that is even better!

The question that plagued my mind was, how did dads get distanced in the first place? Sudhir Kakar, a great Indian psychoanalyst and writer, has elaborated on the same point.

Let us consider some scenarios:

When a child at home misbehaves, a mother will not punish him directly but will threaten that she will report his act of “misdemeanor” to his dad when he comes home. Thus, a mother exonerates herself as an innocent bystander and establishes the father as a punishing authority. Father returning home, often exhausted and frustrated, imposes a punishment far outweighing the seriousness of a child’s mischief. The child would have an innate sense of justice that he is more “sinned against than sinning.” A stereotype thus starts to develop.

A shift in the households:

Most of our families are now running on joint incomes, a third party being in charge of the child’s daycare. Now there are two breadwinners necessitating two breadmakers. This also applies uniformly to all other household works. The whole family, therefore, has to illustrate teamwork to run itself efficiently and harmoniously. A lopsided burden on one person while the other person becomes a burden himself is unhealthy and untenable.  The dynamics have to change and adapt accordingly. The altered status demands a change of shift. The roles played by the parents demand interchangeability.

Father can be fixing food for the hungry child or doing the dishes while his/her mother has to help with the homework that the child brings. Some fun time for outdoor or indoor activities for the whole family has to be planned during the weekends. The goal to be achieved, although cumbersome, is to promote happiness for each member of the family. This can only be achieved by comprehensive planning. Discretion applied in TV watching, newspaper reading, and telephone time can release some extra time. Both parents have to be available at different times for different functions.

Some examples to substantiate the point of shared responsibilities:

Man years ago, I met a lovely Indian family of four in Augusta, Georgia, a husband, wife, and their two small children. I was shocked to hear soon thereafter that the lady died suddenly, leaving an unforeseen circumstance on the father. He faced the challenge and decided to raise the two small children all by himself, playing the role of a father and a mother. Now the children have grown up to be dependable adults. I remember this illustrious father on every Father’s Day. He bypassed an extraneous challenge in his own unique way.

Another memory I recall is one where I received a call from a Church asking for my help when one of their members, a converted Hindu Christian, had succumbed to suicide. I will never forget the day that I visited the family. The lady of the house and her three children, crushed by this cruel tragedy, were exhausted, numb, and bereft of any sense of direction. The widowed mother had no previous work experience. By persistent inquiry, I could gather from her that she had worked as a Nurse Assistant when she was very young. I could get her a job in that capacity at my hospital. About ten years later, when I met her in a shopping center, I could not recognize her. By this time, she had passed all her tests and was now a Certified Nurse working in a hospital. Her children were all well placed. This was truly an example of life after death!

Take-aways

Let us recapitulate the Darwinian rule of the survival of the fittest. He also said that the fittest are not the strongest but those who are most adaptable. In these ever-changing, unpredictable times, we cannot leave our children playing a game of chance when a disaster strikes. Only a combined mode of protection and prophylaxis will provide insurance and assurance. Reversibility of parental responsibilities will be the best insurance that money cannot buy. It will also prepare our future generation when they grow up and face challenges.

Even when nothing inadvertent happens in life, it will be reassuring to portray the picture of a mother grilling food outdoors, while the father is feeding the family and doing the dishes, and the children are cleaning up the place when the food is finished.

The reversibility of the roles on a day-to-day basis will incorporate a father deep into the family system, giving an irreversible joy to All in the family. Only our business people may not like this idea because this system will merge Mother’s Day and Father’s day into a single Day, thus reducing their revenues!


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. 

A version of this article was also published by Khabar Magazine.