Tag Archives: Indian Culture

Quilting: PreVedic Folk Art Woven from Saris

I stood outside the Deaf Initiative’s Keepsake Theme Quilts Center in Columbus on a mildly cold September morning. I was in the city attending the India Youth Advocacy & Disability Program under Columbus International Program (CIP). The name Keepsake Theme Quilts Center (KTQ) caught my attention because India also has a living tradition of quilt-making craft dating back 4,000 years. 

Meredith Crane, the super energetic Director of KTQ took us around and introduced us to the staff who were hearing impaired. Their Office Assistant Shonna took us through a brief presentation in sign language which was interpreted for us by volunteer interpreter Jessica.   

The Quiling Team at Keepsake Theme Quilts Center

This unique, personalized quilt-making center specializes in customized T-shirt quilts. We saw one such quilt in the making where T-shirts of various members of a family were cut into equal-sized pieces, then bound and stitched into a beautiful Memory Quilt. On another table, themed T-shirt logos were tacked and pinned to soft flannel fabric in preparation for a birthday present for a customer’s granddaughter. We assisted with the creative process – it was the most enjoyable activity of our program. 

T-Shirt Quilts

Keepsake Theme Quilts reminded me of the quilt-making culture in our country – one of the oldest forms of embroidery whose origins can be traced back to the ancient pre-Vedic ages. In India, different states produce different varieties of quilt –Koudis in Karnataka, Kanthas in Bengal and Odissa, Sujnis in Bihar, Ledras in Jharkhand, Gudris in Rajasthan, and the Goa quilts, to name a few. Unlike quilts from other parts of the world, Indian quilts are always created from old, discarded clothes. In Sanskrit, the word ‘Kantha’ means ‘rags’ , reflecting the fact that kantha embroidery is made up of discarded garments or clothes. Old saris, dhotis, and lungis are sewn into layers, first by simple running stitches along the edge and then all across the body. Heavier and warmer quilts use three to four layers of saris sewn together and encased in colorful sari borders. Traditionally, the thread used for stitching comes from the heavily threaded borders of the sari itself. 

Quiltmaking is one of the earliest forms of recycling. 

For centuries, embroidered quilts (kantha)were made in rural Bengal by Hindus and Muslims alike and initially only used by mendicants and fakirs. Much later they became an integral part of the art of Indian textiles.

Indian quilt stitching patterns are a simple but colorful patchwork of printed cloth or intricate designs and motifs.  Early kantha embroidery included motifs derived from ancient art, reflecting nature – the sun, the tree of life, and the universe. Symbols also included flowers, animals, birds, fish, themes of everyday life and geometrical shapes.

The Kanthas (according to expert sources) reflect India’s artistic textile heritage, and served primarily as light wraps, and in Bengal, small kanthas were traditionally used as swaddling cloths for babies. Bengal kanthas range from Lep kanthas (winter quilts) and Sujni kanthas (spreads and coverlets) to the Asan (a spread for sitting), the Bastani or Gatri (a wrapper for clothes and other valuables), the Arshilata (cover for mirrors), the Dastarkhan (a spread for placing food and plates during dinner), the Gilaf (an envelope-shaped kantha to cover the Quran) and the Jainamaz (prayer rug). 

In Karnataka, some interesting customs accompany the completion of a quilt. A quilt is considered a living entity that should not be left hungry, so quilters feed the ‘mouth’ of the quilt a little cooked rice or roti before it’s sealed. Another custom says a pregnant woman should not complete it otherwise her womb will close as well. 

Today, it’s increasingly difficult to maintain this beautiful folk art, even though quilts have grown in popularity and commercial value.  There is a dearth of used materials like saris and dhotis as these soft, flowing clothes have been replaced today by western outfits which can’t be reused to make kanthas. The newer fabrics have a different look, feel, and character. Furthermore, today’s fast-paced life makes it impossible to dedicate the time required for quilt embroidery. Rural housewives in West Bengal played a significant part in the evolution of kantha embroidery. It was customary for them to use the typical running stitch and embroidery techniques to create quilts for their families, as well as embroider personal fabrics and garments such as sarees, dhotis and handkerchiefs with the simple, traditional kantha stitch. 

For centuries, the techniques of this hereditary craft were passed down from mother to daughter. With the advance of technology, the long days of quilt making by the women of the house during leisure hours or lazy monsoon months are gone. Now organized industries and NGOs hire women to make kanthas and earn their living. It is no longer based on personal involvement or individual artistry but a mechanized job of stitching given designs. In modern lifestyles old fashioned quilts have lost their use. Rugs have replaced sujnis, factory produced sheets adorn our beds instead of kantha spreads, readymade machine quilts replace handmade quilts, new shawls are preferred to old sari based kanthas and diapers have replaced the old-time swaddling cloth of babies. 

It is unfortunate that some quilting genres such as balaposh and the more intricate kanthas of Bengal are already vanishing. NGOs are stepping in to preserve this folk art form through revitalization movements, sometimes with State and Central government aid.

In my opinion, the changing lifestyle that caused the disappearance of quilt making has also led to depriving society of its benefits. The concentration and contemplation that goes into the harmonization of color, design and execution of each quilt is similar to that of a spiritual exercise and thus has a therapeutic effect on its maker. The warmth and joy of the quiltmakers get transferred through each seam into their creations.

I wouldn’t be surprised if these products are warmer and cozier than other quilts!


Anjana Chattopadhyay is a freelance Translator, Journalist, and Social Worker. Anjana runs her own NGO – Metta Foundation. She has authored two books in Bengali and also is a Member of the Council of International Programs (CIPUSA), an international social workers’ organization. Anjana loves to travel, exploring new places, new people, and new cultures. She lives in Kolkata.

Indian Kitchen Secrets That Boost Your Health

It is not an understatement to say that along with words like quarantine and lockdown, immunity was also one of 2020’s buzz words.  Immunity simply means protection and in the context of the human body, refers to its capacity to fight infections by resisting the action of ‘foreign’ bodies or toxins, thereby protecting the body.  

Immunity is built over a period of time through lifestyle and dietary changes.  Nourishing your body with the right foods, exercising, keeping your mind stress free and getting enough sleep, are just some of the ways you can help keep your body healthy and strong.

Indian Kitchen: a treasure house for immunity boosting foods

There are several foods that help build immunity in the body and with seasonal changes around the corner, it is important to include them in your diet to keep protected against colds, coughs and minor infections of the throat.  

Citrus fruits, whole nuts, leafy greens and fermented foods like yogurt work wonders in nourishing the immune system. 

It’s no secret that the Indian kitchen is replete with foods that boost immunity.  The Indian pantry is full of indigenous ingredients used for centuries to keep the body nourished and healthy.  Traditional recipes, basically the ones grandma always recommended – “haldi doodh” (popularly called turmeric latte in the west), dry fruit ladoos made from ghee, or even the amala (gooseberry) candies you pop into your mouth to fight nausea, are some of the commonly known home remedies to boost internal health.  

While the benefits of pepper, ginger, garlic and turmeric are well known, other commonly used ingredients like cinnamon, cumin, honey, and jaggery also have anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial properties that help keep the body healthy.    

Here’s a look at the benefits of these spices:

  • Cinnamon: a delectable spice we are all familiar with, cinnamon is highly effective against bacterial and fungal infections and is known to have positive effects on heart health as well as blood sugar levels.
  • Coriander seeds (dhania): are rich in vitamin A and C, effective in curing coughs and colds, and also aids digestion.
  • Cumin seeds (jeera): a commonly used spice, jeera has several anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties and is known to aid in weight loss as well improve digestive health.
  • Carom (ajwain): is yet another elixir for gut health, flatulence and helps aid weight loss.
  • Fennel seeds (saunf): has several nutrients like vitamin C, calcium, potassium etc. and helps aid digestion.
  • Jaggery is rich in minerals like iron and zinc and is a good source of energy.  It is a blood purifier, cleanses the body and is excellent for liver and intestinal health.
  • Honey has healing properties and is a good source of antioxidants apart from having positive effects on cholesterol and blood pressure levels.  It is used to heal coughs, colds and sore throats and builds immunity.

Here are some home remedies that are effective in protecting your body against common ailments.

Home-made mixture for cough, cold and sore throat

  • Ginger powder: 1 tbsp or 2 tbsp freshly extracted ginger juice
  • Cinnamon powder: 1 tsp
  • Turmeric: 1 tsp
  • Pepper: 1 tsp
  • Honey: 2-3 tbsp
  • Mix the above powders thoroughly and then add honey.  Mix well.  Consume 2-3 times a day.

Home-made Kashayam (herbal tea) that helps build immunity

Dry roast the below ingredients and blend into a fine powder:

  • Coriander seeds: 2 tbsp
  • Jeera seeds: 1 tbsp
  • Fennel seeds: 2 tsp
  • Carom seeds: 2 tsp
  • Peppercorns: 1 tsp

You can increase the quantities and store the powder in an airtight jar.

Take 2 tsp of Kashayam, add it to a glass of hot milk.  Add 1-2 tsp of jaggery per your taste and consume hot. This Kashayam is a perfect panacea if you are down with body ache, sore throat or slight temperature.  

Herbal teas to prepare at home using greens that are a powerhouse of nutrients.

  • Lemon grass: replete with antioxidants, this fragrant shrub has eugenol which is a stress reliever.  It also helps regulate blood sugar levels and is rich in vitamin A, C and potassium.
  • Rosemary: again, an excellent herb known for its aromatic flavor, rosemary is anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and known to improve blood circulation.  Excellent for the skin and hair, it is also a great stress reliever and helps improve one’s mood.
  • Brahmi: known as the herb of grace, brahmi is intrinsic to all Ayurvedic medicines and is known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.  Apart from being good for the hair and skin, it is a memory booster, effective for reducing fever and is known for its positive effects on patients suffering from diseases like Dementia and Alzheimer’s.  

For preparing the tea, just brew 3-4 leaves of brahmi (or 1 small strand of Lemon grass or 1 sprig in case of rosemary) in water for about five minutes.  You can add a tsp of pepper, elaichi powder and some jaggery (or honey) for taste.  Mix well and drink when hot.  

Natural mixture for inhalation

Nothing compares to the relief rendered by a quick steam inhalation when you are down with a flu, stuffy nose or headache.  Consider using some ingredients mentioned above to prepare a healthy mix for inhalation.  Take a thick bottom vessel, add sufficient water and add in a tsp of turmeric powder along with one or more of any of the following ingredients:

  • 2-3 used lemon peels left over after extracting the juice
  • Peel of half an orange 
  • Peel of a small piece of ginger 
  • 3-4 strands of lemon grass
  • a sprig of rosemary

Boil the water thoroughly, cover your head with a towel  and inhale for at least 2 minutes. 


Rashmi Gopal Rao is a freelance writer from Bangalore, India. She mainly writes on lifestyle, culture, food, and decor. She has been published in Indian national newspapers and international publications like NatGeo Traveller.
Photo by Ratul Ghosh on Unsplash
Photo by Marion Botella on Unsplash

Shikara – The Untold Story of Kashmiri Pundits

A movie about Kashmir is a natural magnet for me, since my mother was born and brought up in Srinagar. I’ve grown up listening to her stories of this Shangri-La, where every garden bloomed with apple and cherry trees, and where nature was like a gorgeous and generous mother, her bounty of fruit and flowers overflowing on the bosom of a land crisscrossed by crystalline streams and clear blue lakes.

The exodus of my mother’s side of the family from Kashmir during the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 wasn’t considered a permanent separation. Like most Kashmiri refugees at the time, they considered themselves Kashmiris first, and Punjabis, second. They were sure things would settle down, treaties would be signed, a peace accord reached, and they would be able to return to their homes, and their beloved Kashmir.

Shikara is a movie about the flight of Kashmiri Pandits to India in the early 1990’s. The same journey my mother’s family had undertaken in 1947 was repeating itself with a different population in 1990, but with a similar, sadly predictable ending – no one gets to go back once a land is dipped in the bloodletting hatred of communalism.

Sadia Khateeb and Aadil Khan in Shikara

The movie begins in the late 1980’s when unrest is beginning to heat up. The two newcomers who play the lead, Aadil Khan and Sadia Khateeb, are a delightful, romantic pair, and the movie diffuses the brutal, bloody violence of strife between Hindus and Muslims through the soft prism of their young, idealistic love.  Aadil Khan plays Shiv Kumar Dhar, who falls in love with Shanti (Khateeb) after accidentally being paired with her as an extra during a movie shoot in Srinagar. 

This thread of an eternal love story which survives the cruelties and trauma of communal violence by clinging fiercely to each other is one frame of the movie. The other frame is the thousands of letters, one every day, that Shiv writes to the President of America to plead for help when they become stateless refugees. 

In the first half we see the innocence and beauty of an era where Shiv’s best friend, Lateef Lone (Zain Khan Durrani) is the messenger who carries Shiv’s declaration of infatuation to Shanti. Their wedding is simple, involving immediate friends and family and Shiv insists on including Lateef and his father (whom he calls Abbajaan) in his family wedding photo. We see the young couple endearingly in love, finding the perfect place to build their own house, and Lateef’s father bringing stones for the foundation of their future home from his own land. Hindu or Muslim, they are Kashmiri’s first. 

Shiv is a dreamy poet who’s working on his PHD in Literature and plans to teach, while Shanti is content being a housewife and doting on him. Their little piece of paradise is shattered by the death of Lateef’s father, Abbajaan, in one of those ‘unfortunate incidents’ which are all too common in Kashmir – a trigger happy government force fires on a peaceful protest. This trauma turns Lateef into a terrorist, determined to exact revenge for his father’s death, and aligned with the cause of the Mujahedeen who want to make Kashmir an all Islamic state.

The movie tries to depict both sides of this thorny issue, but the weight of suffering is clearly on the Kashmiri Pandit end. Director Vidhu Vinod Chopra tries to bring balance by depicting both the ‘good’ Muslim neighbors (who help the Dhars escape when violence escalates) and the ‘bad’ ones (their doodhwaala who openly eyes their house, informing Shanti that he plans to move in when they leave, and then enters and squats illegally once they’re gone). But we are clearly primed to sympathize with the minority Pandits and their burning homes. 

The movie has some very poignant, cinematic moments which capture the pain of forced displacement – the exodus in crowded, overladen buses and cars which jams the highway to Jammu; an old man at the Jammu refugee camp crying incessantly that he wants to go back to his home in Srinagar; and incident when a truck, laden with tomatoes to distribute to the refugees, makes the state of beggary they have been reduced to painfully clear to Shiv and Shanti.

However, Shiv and Shanti’s idyllic love story, which is the prism through which we view the movie, has the reverse effect of diluting its primary message – the loss of dignity and trauma, the displaced feel, and the government’s apathy to the plight of permanent refugees; their helplessness in the face of the political forces twisting an individual’s destiny. It romanticizes and simplifies the experience of becoming a refugee refuge by creating a dream like quality to the narrative, especially in the second half.

The narrative also leaves gaping holes in the story, which beg for answers: 

Why have these refugee camps become permanent? How and where did most of those who decide to leave the camp resettle? How culpable were the Indian forces in stoking anti-India hatred by their excesses. What about Pakistan’s involvement in creating terrorism? Chopra doesn’t address any of these issues throbbing in the foreground of Shiv and Shanti’s invincible love story.

Shikara is an enjoyable, melancholy love story, which doesn’t ask any gritty questions or deliver thoughtful answers—it deals with emotions, but in a sanitized, over romanticized way. Aadil Khan and Sadia carry it on the backs of their excellent performances, and obvious chemistry. It’s watchable, but not memorable.

I would give it two and half stars. Four stars for the actors! Now on Amazon Prime.


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

COVID Creates Hunger Crisis in India

As the COVD-19 tsunami began its global spread, it exacerbated crises that were already taking a toll of vulnerable populations across the world.

In India the pandemic triggered a domestic migrant worker disaster. In Yemen it threatened a death toll far worse than the one inflicted by civil war.  And in Central America, where farming was destroyed by years of extreme climate events, the pandemic wrecked food security for 1.7 million people, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)

“COVID is making the poorest of the world poorer and the hungriest hungrier,” said Steve Taravella, a senior spokesperson for the WFP, at an ethnic media press briefing on February 26 to discuss the fallout from the pandemic. Advocates warned that a coronavirus-induced global famine loomed for millions.

“270 million people marching towards the brink of starvation need our help today more than ever,”  WFP’s Executive Director, David Beasley, told the UN Security Council last year. “Famine is literally on the horizon.”

The pandemic has inflicted its heaviest toll on poorer communities in the developing world, exposing the inequities driven by poverty and economic inequality that plague marginalized populations.

In India nearly 1 in 3 people face moderate or severe food insecurity, said Parul Sachdeva, India Country Representative for Give2Asia, a non-profit that supports charities in the Asia Pacific. India has the distinction of being the country with the largest number of food insecure people, and accounts for 22% of the global burden of food insecurity. When the pandemic hit, people were already struggling with poverty and socio-economic crises that gave them less food to eat. The lockdown that followed disrupted both the harvest and the food supply chain. More than a hundred million people and their incomes were affected by the inability to harvest crops in time.

When India enforced a shutdown to stop the coronavirus spread, it forced tens of thousands of migrant workers to make the long trek back to their villages after they lost jobs and wages. Without ration cards or money to buy food, the disruption to food chains put thousands at risk of hunger, leaving them to rely on NGOs and charitable civic organizations like Akshaya Patra, rather than the government, to provide food aid.

In a double whammy, the pandemic lockdown that increased food insecurity also fueled gender-based violence (GBV).

During lockdown, reported cases of gender-based violence more than doubled during the pandemic, said Aradhana Srivastava, of WFP’s India office. “The extent of suffering is actually much larger than what is being seen.” Research shows that domestic violence closely correlates with income levels, said Srivastava, and GBV is higher among lower-income households and food-insecure families. Increased food insecurity causes mental stress in households and triggers domestic violence towards women. “The increased incidence of domestic violence is linked to loss of livelihoods, loss of access to food — so there is a direct bearing.”

Since 2014, prolonged drought and excessive hurricanes in Central America have destroyed staple crops. But severe climate events and poverty – the key causes of food insecurity – have worsened with the pandemic. “The face of hunger In Central America has changed,” stated Elio Rujano, a Communications Officer for the World Food program. In Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, food insecurity has now spread from rural communities into urban areas. COVID lockdowns have taken away income from daily wage earners – 50% of the economy depends on informal labor – which has made it harder for people to meet basic needs like food.

Six years of conflict inYemen has ripped apart the country’s infrastructure and fragile heath system, displacing almost 4 million of its 30 million inhabitants. Conflict has become the main driver of hunger, as food prices skyrocket, and frontlines move. With COVID and the ensuing lockdown, the hunger situation hit new peak in Yemen. WFP forecasts a severe risk of famine and acute malnutrition in 2021 for 2 million children aged 1 to 5, which will have severe long term impact felt by “generations to come.” But famine has not been declared in Yemen even though “people are dying of hunger,” said Annabel Symington – Head of Communications for the WFP in Yemen, calling for funds to mount programs and interventions. “The time to act is now.”

The WFP feeds 100 million in 88 countries every year divided between 3 initiatives:1.Natural disasters, typhoon, cyclones, 2. Conflicts, and 3. Ongoing non-emergency aid such as school meals, pregnant women new mother nutrition, community help, and small farmers. In 2020, WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to combat hunger.

“We provide basics for sustainability till long term solutions can be developed,” said Taravella.  For years the WFP “chipped away” effectively at hunger rates. But conflict, climate and COVID-19 are causing  humanitarian crises of catastrophic proportions, making it impossible for people to access food. Before COVID-19 there were about 135 million hungry people in the world. Today nearly 690 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. WFP projects they need $13.5 billion to bridge the gaps in their budget.

According to Taravella, a small group of 2200 billionaires hold about $8 trillion in global wealth. They could help to overturn the tidal wave of food insecurity washing over the world’s poor.

“We are making an appeal to the world’s exceptionally wealthy people to help us close that gap,” he added.

To donate

https://secure.wfpusa.org/donate/save-lives-giving-food-today-donate-now-7?ms=2000_UNR_wfp_redirect_EX&redirected=UShttps://secure.wfpusa.org/donate/save-lives-giving-food-today-donate-now-7?ms=2000_UNR_wfp_redirect_EX&redirected=US

https://sharethemeal.org/en/index.html


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.
Image by billy cedeno from Pixabay

Working Women of Color in Crisis

On Monday, March 8 as we celebrated International Women’s Day, I received many empowering messages from my female friends from all walks of life.  But at this moment in history, the irony of the situation is that while women have made tremendous strides in the workplace with fulfilling careers and increasing pay in the past half-century, the pandemic has upended all that progress in just one year.  

Workforce participation of women has reached a level last seen in 1988.  The Gender Wage gap is estimated to widen even further from 81 cents on the dollar to 76 cents on the dollar.  

President Biden has called it a national emergency and on that same Monday, March 8 on International Women’s Day, he signed an executive order establishing the Gender Policy Council within the White House to focus on uplifting the rights of women and address gender-based discrimination and violence among many other such goals.  But a telling addition to his broad gender policy initiative was its particular focus on addressing the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate impact on women by engaging with the White House coronavirus task force. 

Here are some sobering statistics from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.  Nearly 3 million women in the U.S. have left the labor force in the past year. Those who are employed make up an outsized share of the high-risk essential workforce, holding 78% of all hospital jobs, 70% of pharmacy jobs, and 51% of grocery store jobs. Two out of three women are caregivers, putting them at risk of depression and anxiety. Nearly two-thirds of mothers are in charge of supporting their children’s remote learning. 

“We saw all of these economic cleavages that were underneath those gains laid bare for us,” says C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D.,  president, and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Women fell out of the workforce at four times the rate of men and have a disproportionate number of job losses mainly because they are overrepresented in the hardest-hit sectors like the service sector, leisure, hospitality, education, and healthcare.  Black and Latino women in particular make up a little over a quarter of all jobs in the service sector.  If you couple this with the lower wages, pay inequality, fewer benefits in those jobs, it has been economically devastating for the women in this country.  

We were already dealing with a broken child care infrastructure and the pandemic brought this into focus for many American families.  School closures had a disproportionate effect on women as well.  In August 2020, when schools did not reopen, 860,000 women exited the workplace because they had to make the tough choice between their families and their jobs. 

Many of these women according to Dr. Mason are the primary breadwinners in their family and make less than 40k a year but still had to make this desperate choice because their children were failing virtual school.

Not surprisingly,  mothers are also doing a disproportionate share of pandemic parenting, regardless of employment. This raises the question, why are mothers taking on so much more of the parenting responsibilities during this pandemic, even when they have a partner who could share the duties? And especially when those partners see the devastating effect it is having on the mothers, both emotionally and economically. 

“This is because of the gendered structures of paid work that existed long before the pandemic” according to Dr. Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington. This division of unpaid labor that women in families have always done has been starkly laid bare during this pandemic.  Women are in crisis. They are tired, depressed, and scared.

Many of the work-from-home mothers described having little choice but to sacrifice their paid work for their families during the pandemic because they were the only parent able to work from home or they earned substantially less than their male partners or because their children demanded more of their attention at home.  This leads to a combination of frustration, resentment, and then guilt – all taking a toll on their wellbeing and having an adverse effect on all aspects of their family’s life. 

More than a quarter of mothers report more verbal or physical fights with their partners or spouses.  30% say they are yelling more at their kids.  Another third says they are more frustrated with their children. Mothers also feel tremendous guilt at the amount of screen time their children are exposed to, because of virtual school and for entertainment. 

Dr. Calarco’s research shows that the pandemic is having serious consequences for mothers’ paid work, relationships, and wellbeing. She says these inequalities exposed by the pandemic reflect the gendered inequalities in our workplace and are “not just the function of men not stepping up to do their part”.  They are a function of failed policies, of the lack of affordable childcare, and lack of maternity leave.  This forced women into lower-paid jobs and part-time work even before the pandemic and now leave them feeling like “they have no choice but to sacrifice their own careers and wellbeing for their husband’s higher earning jobs.” 

When the recovery begins, it is very important to create economic policies that support this sector that was hardest hit – women and especially women of color and lower-wage workers. Some of the policies that could help women recover their place in the workplace include a minimum wage increase, especially for women of color.  If the Federal government cannot pass this legislation, follow the lead of many states and cities that have done so.  Healthcare, childcare support, and paid leave investments are also critical policies that need to be legislated.  Education and job training opportunities for women coming back to work after the pandemic is also critical.  And most importantly, we need vaccines in the arms of all Americans so that we can safely open schools and daycares and get women back to work.  

Corporate America should open back-to-work programs and reduce barriers for women to return to work. Paid leave and childcare facilities could increase flexibility that frankly, most employees with families want.   In many cases, the executives who are women and mothers with children at home and are saying to Maria Aspan, senior writer at Fortune,  “I am not just worrying about this for my employees, I am living this.”

There is a genuine desire to work on these issues, but, says Ms. Aspan, we have to wait to see if there is “any action behind the rhetoric”. 

This is a unifying time for all women, of all socioeconomic levels, that have been hit hard by this pandemic. We need to hold both the government and the private sector accountable.  It is time for all of us to band together to advocate for policies that will help all women thrive emotionally and economically.  And we will take our partners with us into this more equitable future.


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

Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash

Desi Feminist Men – It Does Not Have To Be An Oxymoron

(Featured Image: Cover of the book, Men and Feminism: Seal Studies by Shira Tarrant)

In its simplest form, feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” In other words, because women have traditionally had fewer rights, feminism is about asserting and working to achieve equal rights for women. However, nowhere does this imply that achieving equality should be solely women’s fight or women’s goal.

There are but scarce instances when men made it their business to fight for women’s causes. A shining example is the active participation of Indian men in the many marches that took place all over India in 2012 after the horrific “Delhi rape.” Rather than retreating behind rationalizations such as “men will be men,” or “it has always been thus,” or blaming women for their choice of attire and pursuit of activities outside the safe confines of home, thousands of men agitated for respect and safety for the women in their lives — their daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, coworkers, and neighbors. The men showed that women’s lives matter and that they matter to them.

In taking this proactive stand, the men were following the example set by a few men who came before. In this essay, I want to highlight a few of them.

Dr. Anand-bai Joshee

I am sure many know about Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor, and her heroic struggle to bring medical care to the women of India. I just published “Radical Spirits,” her deeply-researched biography. In the course of my research, I came across a letter that her husband, Gopal, wrote in 1878 to an American missionary requesting help to educate his wife. The letter makes an eloquent and heartfelt case for the importance of empowering women and men’s essential role in making that happen:

Ever since I began to think independently for myself, female education has been my favorite subject. I keenly felt the growing want of it to raise the nation to eminence among civilized countries. It is the source of happiness in a family. As every reform must begin at home, I considered it my duty to give my wife a thorough education, that she might be able to impart it to her country-sisters…. On the other hand, female education is much looked down upon among my people… My attempts have been frustrated, my object universally condemned by my own people. … and yet I cannot give up the point. I will try to the last, there being nothing so important as female education for our elevation morally and spiritually.

Gopal Joshee believed that it was important to educate and empower women, but not just for their own good. He saw that this was an indispensable component of the good of families, communities, and country. Indeed, he went so far as to state that the state of women was a hallmark of a civilized society. And, in pursuit of this goal, he stood alone against his community and defied its regressive views.

Another great example of a feminist man is Ziauddin Yousufzai, father of Malala. In his TED talk, he said:

Ladies and gentlemen, this plight of millions of women could be changed if we think differently, if women and men think differently, if men and women in the tribal and patriarchal societies in the developing countries, if they can break a few norms of family and society, if they can abolish the discriminatory laws of the systems in their states, which go against the basic human rights of the women.

In other words, he made it his personal mission to empower his own daughter and to champion the empowerment of girls and women all over the world. The title of his memoir, “Let Her Fly,” says it all.

These two men, Gopal Joshee and Ziauddin Yousufzai, are separated by almost 150 years. Ironically, both were thrust into the limelight because of the tragedies of their protégés. However, these tragedies now live on as triumphs. Despite Anandi Joshee’s early death, or maybe because of the shock and tremendous loss that it represented, segments of 19th century Indian society took a decisive turn towards acknowledging women’s full humanity and their potential. Similarly, because of the violent attack on young Malala, there is greater awareness all over the world of girls’ right to education and empowerment.

Fortunately, tragedy is no longer a prerequisite to creating fundamental change for women. There can be no better example of this than what Indian states are doing to ensure and encourage access to education for girls.

  1. Tamil Nadu: The government offered a 50% subsidy to girls/women to buy scooters and laptops
  2. Uttarakhand: Girls enrolled in school get free bicycles
  3. Kerala: Sanitary napkin vending machines have been made mandatory in all higher secondary schools
  4. Karnataka: Girls studying in government and aided private degree colleges receive free education
  5. Gujarat: Free medical education to female students

Undoubtedly, there are countless nameless men fighting the good fight within their circles of influence, be it in their families or workplaces, or communities. For example, I know of a farmer who sold part of his land to finance the education of his daughters.

However, the battle is far from over. Many issues continue to challenge women. Starting from the management of menstruation and early marriage to access to education and medical care, they extend all the way to sexual harassment and rape, family and maternity leave, and equal pay.

So, here is a challenge for men to be more active feminists. Encourage your daughter as much as you do your son. Create a safe and welcoming family and work environments. Agitate for equal pay for women. Be compassionate and generous to your women coworkers and your subordinates (including household help where applicable).

Make every day Women’s Day and make every month Women’s History Month. The goal should be to make women’s disempowerment a historical artifact rather than a present-day scourge. Rather than diminish your power, it will only empower YOU more.


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktay Sitaray

Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktay Sitaray, does a couple of things which no other Bollywood movie has done so far: it normalizes sex (especially awkward sex) in  ordinary relationships, and deflates the ridiculously overblown representations in mainstream Bollywood of manly hunks and hot babes being transported to some nebulous heaven by the act. It also normalizes the notion that women, especially married women, are as deserving of sexual satisfaction in life as their male partners.  

These are pretty revolutionary ideas for Indian culture, and the secret of this movie’s appeal. 

Shrivastava has established herself as a sexual anarchist in Indian cinema. Her previous offering, Lipstick Under My Burkha, was a fierce jab at the patriarchal, social and sexual norms that still govern most Indian women’s lives. Dolly and Kitty push the envelope further and bring us the mundane realities of sex and sexual liberation, not in a big, glamorous neon-lit city, but in the sprawling, congested, middle class suburbia of Noida.   

Radha Yadav, known as Dolly (Konkona Sensharma) is a housewife who lives in a tiny, unattractive Noida flat with husband Amit, and who works in a tiny office, where one of her principal duties is making tea for her boss and her coworker – the infamous patriarchy is shown reflected in these innocuous, everyday things.  Her cousin Kajaal (Bhumi Pednekar), who has fled her small town home to escape a stifling arranged marriage, comes to stay. 

The movie hooks you rightaway.  At a local fantasia land, Amit’s straying hand fondles Kajaal, who tells Dolly about her lecherous  husband. When Dolly dismisses it as a misunderstanding, Kajaal insists, “Woh meray saath sex karna chahtay hain, Dolly di.”

That line sets the tone of the film. It’s about women who recoil against being abused or exploited or disappointed in their relationships, sexual or otherwise, and are not afraid to say so or take the risks associated with their boldness.               

Kaajal moves out and finds a job with Red Rose Romance, a company which offers soft-porn phone companionship to lonely men.  Her cover name is ‘Kitty.’

Meanwhile, Dolly juggles her dreams of owning a beautiful, brand new flat by employing a little skullduggery at her office, to help fund installments on her future home. Matters are further complicated by a frigid sex life at home and a budding romance with an attractive, young Muslim college student who is the local food deliveryman; she has a potentially trans-gender son and a mother who abandoned her when she was eight, but who now wants back into Dolly’s life.  

Konkona Sensharma and Amol Prasher

If that isn’t enough, events take an exhausting turn as Kitty makes friends with a bold, sexually opportunistic coworker from Red Rose who introduces her to a sleazy world of sex and money, where she narrowly escapes being deflowered by paunchy, alcohol guzzling, real estate developers.

Kitty ends up ‘falling for’ a phone-sex client, Pradeep (Vikrant Massey). She begins to explore her first real relationship with a man, whom she imagines is her boyfriend and decides to give her precious, patriarchally protected virginity to Pradeep.

Bhumi Pedneker and Vikrant Massey

From then on, the movie tumbles through a series of concocted situations which try to make points it just keeps missing. The problem is it tries to address too many social issues at once: a parent trying to deal with her child’s transgender proclivities, sexual dissatisfaction in a marriage, abandonment by her mother and lecherous behavior in her husband. Thrown into the mix are repressive gender roles in the workplace, sexual chauvinism and double standards in Indian men, a sexual coming of age story, religious chauvinism and bigotry, and the ugly, entitled, violence of Hindutva advocates.      

The movie lingers fleetingly on these subjects, like loose threads unwoven from the larger tapestry of a meaningful message about sexual liberation and the average middle-class Indian woman. 

Perhaps that’s because Dolly and Kitty are far from average. They are strong women, trying hard to fulfil what they imagine are their dreams, except that their dreams reach into the murky depths of social prejudice and pulls scum out into the damning sunlight.

They’re bold enough to take sexual risks and live with the consequences of their actions, while still trying to retain what they value as good and real. Kitty cries to Dolly when she confronts her with her promiscuous behavior, “I’m a good person, Dolly Di. I really loved him. I didn’t take a paisa for the sex.”

There are some wonderfully nuanced moments in this film, which highlight the mundane ordinariness of everyday, middle class life and love in suburban India – one is when Kitty’s lover helps wash bloodstains off a sheet in a bucket of water after she loses her virginity. Another is a drunk session between Kitty and Dolly on the rooftop where they touch on almost every defining issue in Indian sexual hypocrisy. 

“I said tata, bye bye to my virginity and I didn’t feel a thing,” Kitty tells Dolly, and her honest, reflective disappointment deflates the sexist virginity myth as surely as air hissing out of a balloon.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there was a Red Rose Romance site for women too?” Kitty quips.

Konkona Sensharma and Bhumi Pednekar bring their usual excellence to their respective roles. Amol Prasher as Osmaan, Dolly’s younger lover, and Vikrant Massey as Pradeep, Kitty’s Red Rose boyfriend, fit in perfectly as supporting cast to this very female centric movie.

I would give Dolly, Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktay Sitary four Chamaktay Sitaray out of five for its entertainment quotient, but two and half for the muddled feminist message it tries to deliver. 


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing Editor at India Currents

 

Ethnic Hostility Simmers In Axone Cookfest

With the world wide furore created by the Black Lives Matter movement and the soul searching about discrimination and xenophobia in countries around the globe, it’s time that Indians look themselves in the mirror and ask an honest question.

How racist are we as a culture?

The answer, conveyed subtly and with empathy in the movie Axone, is extremely. 

However – and there is a however – we’re also open to change, to understanding with exposure, to the fact that the principle that allowed our civilization to survive waves of invasions over the centuries – live and let live-  is  still alive, even if it sometimes appears to be on life support. 

Axone is a gentle satire – funny at times, and at other times, dark and  thoughtful on culture and cultural clashes, on unabashed bigotry towards people from the ‘Northeast of India’ (are they really Indian?) and on the meaning of neighborhood and the importance of acceptance.

It doesn’t try to make grand statements or indulge in preachy messages – it’s a simple, authentic recreation of the ugly reality of discrimination and stereotypes prevalent in Indian culture, and the personal and psychological cost paid by the minorities subjected to them.

The plot revolves around a single day of misadventures, as a group of friends from the northeast of India (Nepalis, Manipuris and Khasis are lumped together here, so much the better to make the movie’s point) try to cook a special, particularly pungent Naga dish called Axone,(pronounced Akhuni) for their friend’s wedding. Their Punjabi landlady is a terror who screams bloody murder whenever this noxious smelling (at least according to her ‘delicate’ Punjabi nostrils) concoction is prepared, and forbids the use of her kitchen.

The friends resort to all sorts of devices to prepare the dish and move it from location to location, revealing in the process how the young Northeasterners deal with daily slights and ethnic insults which are as commonplace as stray dogs on Delhi’s teeming streets.

There are hilarious moments, but also situations which make one angry that their Northeastern origin lets others automatically assume they can be pushed around. 

Sayani Gupta stands out as Upasana, a Nepali girl who forges on with the project even as Chanbi, her Manipuri friend (played by Lin Laishram) loses heart; all the young actors in this movie inhabit their roles as naturally as a second skin.

Director Nicholas Kharkongor handles the casual way Northeastern women experience daily doses of racism and sexism particularly well.  Having grown up on the streets of Delhi, I identified totally with the rage Chanbi experiences when local men talk dirty around her because she is perceived as Northeastern and therefore ‘loose.’

My heart bled for her friend, who was too cowardly to defend her honor against a bunch of goons (why should he have been put in that position in the first place?)

Dolly Ahluwahlia as the aggressive Punjabi landlady brings the same delightful ferocity to her role that we first saw in Vicky Donor, whether she’s berating her no-good son-in-law (played by Vinay Pathak), or rebuking the girls for trying to use her kitchen or, eventually joining forces with her grandson to help the girls finish the cumbersome process of cooking.  

In the end, the simplicity and  humor with which the movie tackles a disturbing everyday reality makes it an experience that stays with the viewer. 

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Contributing Editor Meera Kymal

 

An Indian-American Teen Revisits Her Roots

Recently I took my 19-year old daughter to meet my 93-year old mother in Delhi. She hadn’t been to India for 8 years and in that time she had morphed from a wild teenager to a thoughtful adult, from a giddiness over theme parks and prom dates to questions about her religion, and curiosity over how I grew up in that exotic sounding city called Delhi. 

She had seen Delhi through the protected bubble we traveled in when she was young. Trips to the Gymkhana, visits to uncles and aunts, shopping in a mall or at Fab-India in Khan Market.  Her memories were blurred by the warm sheen of love my parents and family heaped on her and by the (relatively) unconditional acceptance of 11 year old eyes.

I was eager to explain the nuances of this marvelous, diverse, culturally rich metropolis to this newly adult version of my daughter, and imagined peeling back layers of her heritage to her enchanted eyes.  I couldn’t have imagined that she would be the one peeling off cobwebs of familiarity from my jaded vision, until I could see the city with her clear eyed, Indian-American perspective. 

“I know this,” she says, as we step into Indira Gandhi International Airport. “I remember the airport, it’s nice.” 

“Ambeeka,” the man at immigration says, stressing her name, obviously happy with its traditional sounding holiness.  

“Welcome to India!”

“So many people,” Ambika remarks, as she wheels the luggage trolley through the doors outside. 

“Mostly men,” she mutters, “and they’re all staring at me, Mum.”

“Don’t worry about it; they stare at everyone, especially if you’re female. They’re all harmless.”

This visual invasion of privacy is her first introduction to India as a young woman. People stare unabashedly, they turn their heads, follow with their eyes.  And it is mostly men doing the staring.

“But I’m all covered up like you said, I couldn’t be more decent!”

“It doesn’t matter, get used to the stares and learn to ignore them.” 

When we reach Naani’s house, memories flood back. However, Naani’s house seems to have shrunk and grown a lot colder. There is no central heating and constantly running hot water. A geyser has to be switched on and the shower has a tendency to finish pumping out the scalding water she likes in less than 5 minutes.

“I have to finish having my bath in 5 minutes!”  she wails.

“Stop being a spoiled American!” I tell her. “Learn to adapt. That’s what India is famous for—adjusting and adapting to anything thrown its way.”

 I’m pleased with my spontaneous metaphor but my shivering daughter is not amused.

The culture shock which gives the biggest jar is the sight of little children begging at the traffic lights.  Her shocked expression makes me understand that she is grasping for the first time the brutality of life for the poor in India, and how all the glamour she’s seen in Hindi movies teeters on top of this inescapable, Darwininian, underbelly of poverty. 

“Don’t give them money,” her aunt tells her. “They are controlled by gangs—if they are given money they will kidnap more children and make them beg.”

“Then let’s keep biscuits in the car to give them,” my daughter says.

The juxtaposition of extremes is everywhere— in a newly revamped market in South Delhi called Khanna Market, chic designer boutiques rubbing shoulders with dingy tailoring shops and hawkers squatting over small coal grills selling roasted corn, while beggars accost those who emerge carrying fancy bags.

I realize that she feels guilty looking at the poor and it strikes me how my childhood in India has accustomed me to these sights and made me immune and insensitive to the heart-rending contrasts.    

Her cousins introduce her to the world of the 30-something Indian—a subculture which is like a universal language today, in any city in the world. 

“They’re cool!” is her summation of her young Indian contemporaries.”They’re just like my friends at home.” 

She visits the local bars in Greater Kailash market, in the heart of Delhi, and loves the informal ambiance. “Ma,” she tells me later, “everyone is so warm here. They’re really interested in you. Plus, they all look like me, and I’m not the shortest girl in the room anymore.”   

When we visit the open air organic Sunday market at Sundar Nursery next to Humanyun’s tomb she is impressed by the spirit of entrepreneurship thriving in the average Indian. From Neem wood serve ware, to Pahari medicinal chai, and specialty Gur stuffed with coconut, to dosas made of Ragi flour, it’s an explosion of originality and enterprise. 

We move on to Cyber hub in Gurgaon where we walk through Uniqlo, the newly opened Japanese store for outerwear. “So many people,” my daughter says. “You only see these many people at the mall at Christmas time, back home. And they’re all so young!”  It suddenly strikes me how youthful the Indian population is, compared with the graying of the West in general, and America in particular. 

As we leave India my daughter muses on what affected her most. The kids at the traffic lights. The vitality and vibrancy and warmth of the people she met. And the presence of culture and religion everywhere–from the pictures of garlanded Shivji in the scooter we took as an adventure through the streets of Greater Kailash, to the morning call to prayer from the local mosque that reverbated  daily at 3:00am through our Nizamuddin neighborhood, waking her up. 

“Culture is everywhere, Mum, I love it.” 

“I want to come back and volunteer,” she declares. “I want to explore more.”

“Yes,” I tell her. “Let’s rediscover our roots together.”

 

Vaishnava Jan Toh: Who Wrote This Hymn Which Gandhi Loved?

Vruksh ma bij Tu, Bij ma vruksh Tu,

Jou patantaro e ja paase.

You are the seed within a tree, You are the tree within a seed

If I look for distinctions, then that is all I will see.

Narsinh Mehta was a 15th century poet-saint and exponent of Bhakti (worship) form of poetry. He is highly revered, especially in Gujarati literature where he has earned the accolade ‘Adi Kavi’, first among poets, in Sanskrit.

Narsinh lost his parents when he was five years old and was raised by his grandmother. Poor and singularly focused on worship, he faced considerable discrimination in society, including from within his own family. At a young age, he married Mandalika and, having no real means of livelihood, the young couple lived with Narsinh’s older brother and his wife in the old city of Junagadh in north Gujarat. While Narsinh had a loving relationship with his brother, it is believed that his sister-in-law often derided him for his excessive devotion to God and lack of gainful employment.

One day, overwhelmed by the dreary circumstances in his personal life, a distraught Narsinh wandered deep into the nearby Gir forest. There, in the solitude of nature, it is said that he meditated for seven days without food or water. Pleased with his sincere devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before the young man and, on Narsinh’s request, led him to Vrindavan, the garden-city where Krishna had lived. Here, Narsinh witnessed the ethereal Ras-Leela dance of Krishna and the Gopis (cow-herding girls devoted to Krishna). Legend has it that the divine experience so transformed Narsinh that he dedicated his life to composing and performing kirtan, or religious recitals, singing praises of Lord Krishna. From that day, Narsinh Bhagat regaled everyone with stories of Krishna’s life: from his mischievous childhood exploits stealing butter from the Gopis to his erotic encounters with them.

One of Narsinh Mehta’s famous creations about the young Krishna’s carefree days is the delightful Jal Kamal Chhandi Jaane Bala (Leave these lotus-filled waters, Child), a poem based on Krishna’s mythological encounter with the dreaded ten-headed Cobra, Kali Naag. The mighty Cobra’s wives (Naagan) enquire of Krishna who has jumped into the Yamuna river, where Kali Naag dwells and terrorizes the people of Mathura, to retrieve his ball:

Kahe re Baalak tu marag bhuliyo, Ke tara veriye valaviyo

Nishchal taro kalaj khutiyo, ahinya te shid aaviyo?

Tell us, Child, did you lose your way, or did one of your enemies lead you here

Surely your time must be up, why else would you come here?

To which Krishna responds:

Nathi Naagan hu marag bhuliyo, nathi mara veriye valaviyo

Mathura nagri ma jugatu ramta, naag nu shish haariyo!

I have not lost my way, Naagan, nor have any enemies led me here

During a betting game in Mathura, I happened to lose the head of your Naag!

In the end, the story goes, Krishna valiantly fights with and defeats the monster Kali Naag but does not kill him because he has promised the faithful Naagan that he will spare their master’s life; instead, he banishes the Cobra and makes him promise never to return to those waters. “Behold!”, the poet-saint seems to be saying, “Krishna, the all-powerful, in might as well as compassion!”

So steadfast was Narsinh’s faith that he was considered the ‘chosen one’ whose love was reciprocated by the object of his affections, Lord Krishna. Narsinh Mehta’s writings include autobiographical stories, one of which is Kunvarbai Nu Mameru, where Krishna comes to the rescue of his special disciple. According to the custom of Mameru, the parents of a woman expecting a child offer gifts to her in-law’s family during a celebration held in the seventh month of pregnancy. All Narsinh had to offer when his daughter was pregnant were his priceless bhajans, and he proceeded to sing his heart out. Suddenly, it is said that Lord Krishna arrived in the form of a wealthy merchant and fulfilled the materialistic needs of everyone, thereby saving Narsinh’s honor! Like most of mythology, the story is an allegory – in this case, of human greed and prejudice.

Narsinh Mehta was a pioneer in many ways: as a man with scarce regard for social status, since he was stigmatized by members of his Brahmin community for worshiping with members of a lower caste. He was a saint who did not denounce family, unlike other men of faith, and he continued to fulfill his duties as a husband and father after devoting his life to Krishna.

His sentiments are well proclaimed in what can be considered his most famous work, ‘Vaishnav Jan Toh,” which describes what it means to be a ‘Vaishnav’ (worshipper of Lord Vishnu, one of whose avatars is Krishna). The bhajan, a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi’s, is well known nationally as well as internationally, having been featured in films and documentaries based on the Mahatma.

Vaishnava jana toh tene kahiye je peed paraayi jaane re

Par dukhe upkaar kare toye man abhimaan na aane re.

A Vaishnav is one who understands the plight of his fellow humans

Though he helps those that are in need, he does not allow it to inflate his ego.

Amazingly, Narsinh Mehta’s original work has been passed down by word of mouth – very little has been found in written form! A devotee of the immortal God, a human with indestructible faith and a way with words, seems to have imbibed some of that immortality, uniting several generations through his reflections on humanity, faith and love.

Bela Desai, Ph.D., has been working in biotechnology in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. Besides science, she enjoys reading and traveling to different places around the globe. She loves to dabble in singing and writing as well.