Tag Archives: Kalpana Mohan

Foreign Victory, Local Defeat

It was an unforgettable, victorious evening in my home last night, especially following a week of stories about defeat, both in the United States and around the world. There was the Chinese virus wreaking havoc globally and locally, defying all human intervention, and here now was South Korea’s ‘Parasite’ to remind us that the best ideas in the universe will ultimately defy every human barrier. 

I guess I’ll never quite comprehend the pressures in the world of the Kodak Theater on the biggest night of the year. Hence I won’t understand why Joaquin Phoenix, like many others before him in years past, did not grab his moment in the spotlight. When Phoenix reached the stage after his name was called out for best actor, I hoped the acceptance speech would be at least as searing as his performance in ‘Joker’. Instead, the man lost me halfway. This was the most victorious moment in his career and yet he didn’t make the most of it. In contrast, Bong Joon-ho, the director of Parasite nailed it, albeit via the voice of a translator. 

I loved Joon-ho’s visual imagery of sawing his Oscar into five pieces to share it with his mentors in the audience. I was moved when he pointed to Martin Scorsese to tell him how he had grown up analyzing his works. Was there anyone who’d not have teared up watching that acknowledgement? 

Its precious wisdom was not lost on me, a writer, for I too had often heard the message in my own world of art: “The most personal is the most creative.” The camera closed in right then on guru Scorsese, also a nominee in the same category. It was obvious Scorsese was touched by the gesture. His famous eyebrows, seemingly unable to bear the emotion of the moment, caved into his chin as the room erupted with “Bravo” and his disciple stood on stage, a blob of humility in the presence of a virtuoso of cinema. Everyone knew that the Oscar could, technically, have been in either pair of hands. 

With ‘Parasite’, we’ve learned that nothing is ever lost in translation when truly great art plays out in front of our eyes. A story-teller simply held the lens over the small, ugly and selfish underbelly of his world and every viewer peered in, craving to know more because whatever happened to the occupants of that world would rock the foundations of their being and that of the universe.  

Watching the exchange between Scorsese and Joon-ho last evening, I couldn’t help wondering about the novelty of this victory. Nor could I stop pondering the dramatic moment in the health of our universe and how a virus held us all in its thrall. The words “foreign”, “international” and “local” had now collapsed into one another defying political will and human imagination. 

Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga. She is the author of two books, DADDYKINS: A MEMOIR OF MY FATHER AND I, and AN ENGLISH MADE IN INDIA: HOW A FOREIGN LANGUAGE BECAME LOCAL. 

The Link in the Linguistic Chain

Language is fluid, and anyone who has successfully made it to adulthood has experienced slang growing into accepted usage and accepted usage shifting as new verbal practices infiltrate conversation and the written word. Such is the conundrum India has encountered since the British East India Company carried out the will of its crown. In her engaging, entertaining, and educational book, An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local, Kalpana Mohan cleverly mixes pieces of India’s history with an examination into how England introduced its language as a weapon, how English morphed into a tool for advancement and became the link between languages, and how what once was meant to separate eventually resulted in a near-unifying, powerful “Indian English.”

As much a joyful travel narrative as an informal treatise into language, Mohan crisscrosses India, speaking with myriad fascinating individuals for whom language is important apart from casual conversation. Her sources include a now-retired BBC journalist born in India to English parents; an outspoken filmmaker; a young activist poet; a South Indian princess whose family has spoken English for two centuries; and school principals who see the advantages a command of the English language offers to students seeking careers. Those with whom she seeks audience are young and old, student and sage, knighted and common man, all hopeful and wary about the future of English language influence in India.

With leading voices in English literature, philosophy, science, and the arts available to her, Mohan discusses a variety of topics with enthusiasm and an open mind: education in English as an expected equalizer; oddities of English vs. Indian language syntax; and words absorbed into English while English invaded Indian languages. She notes that matrimonials have their own coded brand of English. Indian English utilizes co-opted, remade-to-fit words that amplify understanding. The debate involving English vs. American English goes hand in hand with “Hinglish” in advertising to speak to younger consumers. In all these corridors of investigation, Mohan’s desire to learn or confirm is omnipresent and rewarding.

Mohan, who fell in love with English as a means of expression when she was young, conducted her unscientific-but-broadminded research on several levels, covering as much ground as possible for her 218-page volume. Across the cultural strata, she studied linguistic scholars; reflected on her own personal lifetime of reading; and participated in the conversations mentioned above. Additionally, as support for her traditional research, Mohan includes 139 source notes.

While Mohan’s voice is pleasant to read as she condenses histories, backstories, and information, her writing shines most resplendently when she shares her epiphanies about English in India—for what is more exciting than discoveries made while exploring?—and when sharing stories containing the use of English encountered while spending time with people dear to her heart: her family’s chauffeur Vinayagam and housekeeper Ganga.

Linguist David Crystal believes that the give and take of English and Indian languages, Mohan writes, “was possible only because of the inherent flexibility of the English language to absorb the colour of every language and culture it encountered.” In Kalpana Mohan’s accomplished hands, what could have devolved into a dry and lifeless dissertation was instead a lively, colorful, and oft-amusing adventure into something so many merely take for granted.

An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local by Kalpana Mohan. Aleph Book Company. 218 Pages.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects. 

Look at Culture, Not Language

When I learned that the Oscar International committee had disqualified a movie from Nigeria because it was predominantly in English, I was appalled. I’m an Indian immigrant who came to America in 1985 but I’ve been speaking English since I was a child. Sometimes, I have thoughts in my mother tongue, Tamil. However, more often than not, my thoughts are in English. This may be because I write only in English, since English remains one of India’s 23 official languages.

Thanks to the British empire, the English language is now the language with commercial heft. It’s as local as it is international. There are many versions of English. The Nigerian poet and novelist, Gabriel Okara, who explored African ideas and folklore in the English language, articulated this perfectly with respect to the English he acquired: “Why shouldn’t there be a Nigerian or West African English which we can use to express our own ideas, thinking and philosophy in our own way?”

For years, I’ve been asked how I speak English well given that I immigrated to the United States as an adult. Americans often don’t know about India’s history of colonization, or that English is also an official Indian language, or that my medium of education was, in fact, English. If I were to narrate India’s story of colonization, I’d have to begin in 1608 when the first Englishman landed in Surat on India’s north-western coast. I’d have to talk about how Indian laborers were forced to grow indigo—in place of food crops—so that Britain could sell the precious blue dye that Europe coveted. And of course, the English wanted to drink rum so they enslaved poor Indians to plant sugar cane around tropical islands. Oppressed by the Raj, we were forced to buy thick cotton that rolled out from English mills even when we were making our own fine muslin for a fraction of the cost. In time, Indians learned, also, to enunciate English vowels and consonants. They were hammered into those reporting to the Crown. Soon, the Englishmen made us cringe at our own mother tongues, telling us, in the voice of essayist and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Around the world, over centuries, colonizers wiped out countless languages, erasing the names of ancestors.

Here are just a few stories of conquests from the last many centuries. In the 1500s, the Portuguese landed in Brazil—1200 men on a fleet of 12 ships. They decimated most of the natives and harvested Brazilian wood for its red dye, ramming Portuguese words down the throats of those who survived the pillage. 1619, the imperial nations began looting African villages, separating children from parents, so they could build their new colonies in the Americas. In Australia, they silenced aborigines. 1950s in Kenya, if a student uttered a word of Gikuyu near his English school, he was caned or fined; sometimes he was made to wear a metal plate around the head with the words “I am stupid” or “I am a donkey”. In the Philippines, 500 years of Spanish and American rule has killed any appetite for Tagalog literature.

This is a plunder, of not just nations but also of memories, cultures and tongues. In Nigeria, too, as in India, the British force-fed their tongue. So the English language is as local to the Nigerian as Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba or any of 500 native tongues. But alas, the arbiters of acclaim in Hollywood now object to Nigerians using English as a conduit for art, not appreciating that in Nigeria, English now unifies them and allows them to communicate with one another.

According to the Oscar committee, the Nigerian entry did not fit their rubric because it was not foreign enough: Lionheart had only eleven minutes of non-English dialogue. Look at the irony of the life of the once-colonized. We were taught how to speak. Now when we speak the language well, we are told to not speak too much of it. Shouldn’t the Oscar committee be driven, instead, by the origin of the submission? For while our medium of expression may be eclectic given our histories, our roots are often ours alone. They color our tongues and narratives.

Kalpana Mohan is the author of ‘An English Made In India: How A Foreign Language Became Local’ and of ‘Daddykins: A Memoir Of My Father And I’. She lives in Saratoga, California.

The Visual Artists in the #SALA 2019 Festival

Lucky S.F. Bay area denizens of the high-brow variety, you have yet another event to look forward to that is sure to amplify your festive Dussera season this year. If you are scurrying off to the many poojas, family gatherings and Golus (display of dolls), be sure to add this event to your calendar!  

Starting Sunday, October 6th from 12pm – 5pm, the beautiful environs of Villa Montalvo is home to the South Asian Literature & Arts Festival – SALA 2019. This event, the first of its kind in the US, runs from October 6th – 13th, showcasing a grand variety of visual arts, performing arts, poetry, book readings and panel discussions. 

Visual Arts @ SALA 2019:

Rekha Roddwittiya

Visual arts enthusiasts have special treats that thrill and educate. This event presents a great opportunity to meet with award-winning luminaries like India’s leading contemporary artist Rekha Rodwittiya whose work with distinctly feminist narratives has received critical acclaim. In a discussion titled Rekha @ 60: Transient Worlds of Belonging, Dr. Prajit Dutta of Aicon Gallery, NY will be speaking with Ms. Rodwittiya. 

Priyanka Mathew, Principal Partner of Sunderlande New York – an art advisory with a focus on South Asian art, presents an exemplary exhibition titled ‘Revelations: The Evolution of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art’. The show highlights works by Jamini Roy, Sanjay Bhattacharya, Krishen Khanna, Anjolie Ela Menon, Shobha Broota and G.R Iranna to name a few.

Also featured is a conversation with Dipti Mathur, a local bay area philanthropist and well known collector of modern and contemporary South Asian art. She has served on the board of trustees of several museums and is a founding member of the Asian Contemporary Art Consortium, SF.  

Deepti Naval

One of the highlights of the program is well known actor, painter and poet, Deepti Naval. U.C Berkeley professor Harsha Ram, will moderate a program titled “An Elaborate Encounter with Deepti Naval”, as part of the Confluences – Cinema, Poetry and Art segment. 

Cinema @ SALA 2019: 

Vikram Chandra

Indian cinema has a great representation at SALA 2019! The festival offers up a chance to interact with the men behind the popular Netflix original series ‘Sacred Games’, in two separate programs.

The trio of Varun Grover, Vikramaditya Motwane and Vikram Chandra will be interviewed by Tipu Purkayastha on Oct 6th as part of the opening day of the festival in a program titled ‘From the Sacred to the Profane’

A special event on Friday, Oct 18th tilted ‘From Text to Screen’ will feature Tipu Purkayastha . In conversation with him is noted director, writer, and producer, Anurag Kashyap. This program offers us an interesting perspective into their creative minds!

Literature @ SALA 2019: 

The literary world boasts of several names from the South Asian diaspora who decorate the local, national and international stage. SALA 2019 proudly presents writers and poets like Vikram Chandra, Minal Hajratwala, Shanthi Sekaran, Nayomi Munaweera, Raghu Karnad, Athena Kashya and Tanuja Wakefield to name a few, who will share their work in readings and discussions. 

Also being represented at the festival is the emerging Children and Young Adult genre of writers. Curated by Kitaab World, Mitali Perkins and Naheed Senzai in a program titled The Subcontinent’s Children. 


Montalvo Arts Center and Art Forum SF, in collaboration with UC Berkeley Institute of South Asian Studies are jointly bringing to us one of the largest collections of contemporary South Asian writers, artists, poets, and personalities from theater and cinema. 

The opening day features various programs like art exhibits, panel discussions with internationally renowned writers and filmmakers, hands-on art activities, henna artists and dance performances. There are food stations offering up the many flavors of South Asia. This family-friendly event includes book readings, storytelling and hands on crafts for children. Visitors can also avail themselves of an art and literature marketplace displaying Bay Area artists and Books Inc. book sellers.  

The festival, the largest of its kind in the US is brought to us by Art Forum SF, a non profit that strives to promote emerging  visual, literary and performing art forms from South Asia.

Montalvo Art Center is well known for its mission in advancing cultural and cross-cultural perspectives, nurturing artists by helping them explore their artistic pursuits on their historic premises.

Free shuttle buses are available from West Valley College to aid festival goers.

Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

India Currents is a media partner for SALA 2019.

Daddykins Makes A Splash at Fourth Grade

Kalpana Mohan, whose India Currents article won an award this month at the 2018 San Francisco Peninsula Press Club Awards, is excited about her forthcoming book Daddykins. For many years, her witty column gladdened our hearts and her prose brought smiles to our faces. Her “On Inglish” column in this magazine was informed and eagerly anticipated. Kalpana’s command over the prose and her ability to create a word picture with authority are clear from a charming piece on her Facebook page, which recounted her niece taking Daddykins for Show and Tellguerrilla marketing at its best!

Kalpana, we at India Currents would like to emulate Smrithi. You might not be our Aunty, but you have definitely been a part of this extended family of writers, editors, artists, and performers who have enriched the magazine over the years.

To our readers — enjoy. And buy the book.

“Imagine my surprise when I learned that my book turned up at a fourth grade classroom in New Hampshire a couple of days ago. My niece, Smrithi, apparently decided she must do a show and tell of the book in her class at school. She told her classmates who the protagonist was — her grandmother’s eldest brother — and that this book, written by her aunt in California, narrated the story of her father’s side of the family. The school principal was in attendance in the classroom and asked the most important question every writer wishes to hear: “And how do we get this book into our library?” The kids asked a lot of questions that Smrithi fielded with her usual panache — this child will get Bob Mueller talking — and, naturally, for me, this unexpected guerilla marketing from a fourth grader translated instantly in my mind into many hundred thousand dollars and cents. Was I about to get wealthier than Rowling who was wealthier than the Queen?

Let’s not underestimate the power of a subtle product placement. In the 80s, Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces blazed a trail in the world of advertising when they appeared on Steven Spielberg’s ET. iPhones and MacBooks hog the Hollywood screen and guarantee many million dollars for Apple which, like me, doesn’t spend a cent for these placements. It struck me that this clarion call for my book could in fact be conducted at the grass roots — across America’s schools — with Smrithi as my first foot-soldier.

On the day of her presentation, Smrithi held Daddykins up in front of the class, telling the kids to go out and buy it on Amazon or in the stores starting December 18 “when it goes on sale for $17.95”. She ended her pitch with one caveat always posted by her aunt on behalf of the writing community: “Don’t ever borrow the book from someone else. Please go out and buy it.”

We reprint this piece with permission from the author.

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.

Both Diva and Devi: A Tribute to Sridevi

In the late seventies, as my waist lost inches and my hips stretched a little more, I could have competed with Scarlett O’Hara. I believe I owned a 17-inch waist. Such observations, however, were wasted on Daddykins, my late father, who measured beauty by a formula. He believed that a combination of height, weight, classical features, symmetry, and then, a certain charm—what we now call the “x-factor”—was what set people over the edge into the unattainable land called beauty. While I met only one of his stipulated requirements, the tenuous thing that he called charm or “grace,” the thing he couldn’t really explain or quantify, it seemed that the late actress Sridevi had that and more.

During my childhood in Chennai In the late sixties, Sridevi was the common uncommon presence on cinema; her pretty face, two years younger than I was at the time, pulverized the silver screen. While I grew extra teeth—they were called “lion’s teeth” in Tamil—and really didn’t grow at all length-wise even though my father plied me with a tonic called Vidaylin which made me grow along horizontal lines, Sridevi grew tall and gangly under the light of the camera until she could grow no more. It seemed she halted her growth at that perfect height and weight where she could have chosen to be a model, a dancer, a flight attendant, or an actress, professions that I always thought were out of reach for me because I was out of reach for them, height-wise at least, although beauty-wise, too, apparently, I was not sculpted for any of them. Daddykins, always said that I had a little bit of everything but not enough of anything: “You have decent eyes. Your nose is a little too short and your mouth is just a bit too wide. And your face, long by most standards except, say, those of a horse, does not make you a classic beauty.” But Daddykins always reassured me that no matter what I was charming: “You have some grace although for the life of me I cannot put my finger on it.”

Against the backdrop of my questionable charm, I weighed Sridevi’s gifts. Her face was so round that it could only have been drawn by a compass. Her eyes, shaped like California almonds, were set at a perfect distance from each other. Her brows too were classically arranged by our maker whereas mine had to be fixed every time I went to the beauty salon. The beautician, thread wedged between teeth and fingers, tried, in vain, to build an arch out of a dotted line.

But what I remembered most about Sridevi was her guilelessness and an effortlessness in her art. She entered every story and made it her own. Her gift was there for all of us to see because she was both pristine and consistent—like Yosemite’s Half Dome at sundown, or a blue Hawaiian sky, or the cylindrical idli on banana leaves served at Kamat Lokaruchi in Mysore. And it was that quality, in people and things, that elevated a thing or a moment to virtuosity. It was why a cherry blossom in bloom was heartbreakingly beautiful, why we watched the roar of a waterfall in silence, and why we lamented the loss of something special when we knew we’d see it no more. It was also why we recognized it, right away, when we saw it again in another clime, another form and another thing.

Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.

Stalking Rice

Stalking Rice

Rice < a swamp grass that is widely cultivated as a source of food, especially in Asia. >

Early last year, I was watching everything that made its way from inside my kitchen cabinets, to my stovetop, to my plate, and to my mouth. At the age of 54, I’d forced myself to winnow the carbohydrate from the protein. Shunning rice on this new diet, I adopted quinoa as my staple, sifting what was germane to my heart from what was ideal for my waistline.

I knew how, like me, there were any number of people in the world who found it hard to spit rice out of their daily intake. What intrigued me, beyond the popularity of rice as a staple around the world, was the similarity of the nomenclature across many of the world’s languages: Rice is orez in Hebrew, rysai in Lithuanian, riso in Italian, reis in Welsh, vriže in Pashto, brizi in Old Persian, vrihi in Sanskrit, hrísgrjón in Icelandic and  oruza in Greek. Some believed that the word “rice” may have had Dravidian origins—having originated from the Old Tamil arici—showing me how the first solid of my soul linked me to others around the world.

Last March, I was driving past Chennai into the hinterlands of India’s Tamil Nadu. Truckloads of produce flew past me. Men lay sleeping on open trucks facing the sky, their bodies plastered on sacks taut with onions and potatoes while wings of curry leaves swayed on either side of trucks. Areca palms  and the occasional eucalyptus rushed past. We cruised under canopies of rain trees with their powder puff pink flowers. In sections of the national highway, blossoms of the yellow flame tree were a foil for the ugly concrete half-buildings and billboards dotting the landscape. As far as my eyes could see, the arable land was lush with rice, mango, coconut, banana and tomato.

As we neared Krishnagiri, we passed undulating miles of jasmine farms where women picked fragrant white blossoms. All of a sudden, I yelled out for my chauffeur, Vinayagam, to stop. I’d just spotted a thresher spewing rice right by the edge of the main highway. Men fed rice stalks into the thresher and rice gushed out from its noisy back end, husks intact. As Vinayagam and I walked around the machine, he told me how before such machines reached the villages, threshing was done by hand with flails. A little farther away on another section of the highway, male and female laborers trampled over husks, separating each grain in an attempt to dry them on the road.

I’d seen rice fields in the hinterlands of many parts of the country—Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh—but that afternoon the sight of rice mounds on the road highlighted the dramatic irony of India’s parallel existence: the country’s vision was fixated on the highway leading to globalization but its soul still lingered in its rural back streets, just as my heart craved rice despite all the newfangled dietary possibilities.

On my most recent trip, I was invited to a celebration at a local temple following which I was served a home-style meal on a banana leaf. As I sat facing the leaf, dishes piled on. Waiters slathered every square-inch of my banana leaf—from sweet payasam to green beans usili, potato roast, lime-drenched carrot salad, banana chips, mango pickle, coriander thogayal, papad. A vadai arrived at last; I waited, dreaming of its crunch between my teeth as lentil, spice and curry leaf exploded over the taste buds on my tongue. Next, steam from fresh white rice rushed into my nose. The aroma that followed—of a long golden thread of aromatic ghee from ladle to leaf—had me salivating. At the end of this ritual dress-up of the banana leaf—even though this was the diametric opposite of a Chippendale striptease—I lay pathetically, shamelessly seduced. I was a slave to my staple once again.

I’ve been thinking about every decision we’d ever made in our family to invalidate the staples of our lives. My father-in-law would be the last in the family to pursue life as an agriculturist. His only son sought a different career leaving behind his life in the village, just as my maternal cousins walked away from the agrarian acreage that once sustained their families.

Now I considered the implications of my attempt to change my diet by walking away from rice. Altered diets and lifestyles affected our agricultural landscape even though it seemed as if one person’s choice would hardly make a dent on the globe. Still, a few weeks ago, almost a whole year after my resolution to wean myself from the grain of my veins, I decided to walk yet another mile daily to justify my endless longing for a daily bowlful of steamed rice.

Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.


Langur Around the Bend

When I consulted a dictionary on the Internet, I found out that the langur monkey lived on “grain, fruit, pods of leguminous trees and young buds and leaves” available in the forest. Based on my observations, however, I held another theory despite what I read. In the forests of India’s Tamil Nadu, the langur monkey likely dined on burgers, bhelpuri and rice. Maybe it even drank water from plastic bottles piling up by hairpin bends near Ooty.

While roaring up the narrow highway towards that mountain resort last month, I saw a gaggle of tails skittering on a ledge. They belonged to prettier cousins of the langur. Those sand-colored rhesus monkeys, the ones without the mane, stood prancing about in the cool air, paper plates in hand. While the rhesus monkey’s natural diet consisted of fruits, seeds, roots, herbs, and insects, in areas of human habitation these wild creatures tended to devour crops and other junk.

As we snaked up towards Ooty—my late father’s man Friday, Vinayagam and I—we noticed how monkeys played peekaboo in the mist, right under signs that said “Clean Nilgiris, Green Nilgiris.” Langurs picnicked with party paraphernalia infesting the roadsides.

Towards evening we approached Mudumalai Forest Reserve and noticed the clean surrounds, the quiet and peace—a welcome change from the thoroughfare into Ooty where motorcyclists were jostling with trucks, cars and tourist buses. We made for the neighboring state of Karnataka negotiating more hairpin bends. Eucalyptus trees riddled the sky for miles. The weather became warmer as we careened toward sea-level. Teak groves rose where roads were being torn up for laying fiber optic cables. Now there were fewer billboards too and rarely, signposts warning passers-by to treat the animals kindly and to not feed them.

The following morning, we drove out of a resort at Musinagudi township inside the Mudumalai reserve. Cows grazed. The result of their breakfast showed up as dung on our path. Rhesus monkeys hung around trees by the resort’s cafeteria scouting for leftovers of their civilized counterparts. As we drove through forested road, spotted deer posed for us. The occasional peacock strutted on the grass. Vinayagam said that elephants had been out in the night.

“How do you know?” I asked. He pointed to the droppings on the side of the road. “Could be cows too,” I said.

He shook his head. “No way, that’s not the cow’s doing,” he said. “Elephant dung is round,” he said. “It’s like a mound.” A few minutes later, I saw that he was right, after all. Elephant dung did indeed have a form, like a clump of bread rolls at Panera Bread. A cow, on the other hand, left behind a disc-like dung. Vinayagam knew everything even when it all amounted to crap.

A half-hour later, we saw evidence to prove that he was right. A family of elephants was dining on one side of the road just before we crossed the border into Karnataka. The name of the forest had changed, too: Bandipur Tiger Reserve. A few miles in, the woodland thinned out and we passed through a gate and arrived at vast fields of bitter gourd between acres of banana plantations. In patches, sugar cane clambered up above ground and would be ready for harvest in January. Yellow-green beds of turmeric shoots colored the land all the way to the horizon where hills collided into the sky. Inching closer to Mysore, we saw carpets of green: rice, soothing to the eye, soul food for the stomach.

In time, we arrived at clusters of villages where people looked different. “These men from Karnataka,” Vinayagam said. “See how they look rough and tough?” He used English words in Tamil sentences with a fluidity that never failed to take me by surprise. He used the term “roughandtough” as if it were a noun in Tamil.

I noticed how the langur monkeys appeared yet again, the minute we crossed into civilization. Litter cluttered the roadsides. Karnataka had innumerable temples to the monkey god Hanuman and in keeping with that, my reference manual, Hobson-Jobson, noted that the langur was “the great white-bearded ape, much patronized by Hindus, and identified with the monkey god Hanuman.”

The monkey is an intelligent, lively animal, a survivor that is docile when young. It could be bad-tempered as an adult proving, once again, that the human is not that variant from the monkey. The lines blurred on occasion. After driving through the ridges of the Western Ghat mountain range and seeing the snarly, prehensile hands of tourism, it was not obvious anymore who the lesser being was: Man or monkey?

Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.

My One-Eyed Ayah

“We felt truly sorry for the nanny-children,” writes M. M. Kaye in The Sun In The Morning, a memoir of her magical childhood in India. While Mollie Kaye was cared for by native ayahs, most of her English friends were supervised by governesses or nannies.

“The nanny-children envied our greater freedom and our ability to chatter to any Indian we met in the Bazaar or the Mall, in our own or other people’s houses,” she writes, describing how ayahs let their charges run wild in a way that no British nanny would have permitted in a post-Victorian era.  “Ayah” describes this category of native maids employed by Europeans living in India during the time of empire. The word had its origins in the Portuguese aia which meant nurse or governess. A cryptography expert in the army stationed in India, Kaye’s father was a polyglot who could speak seven or eight languages, including Hindustani (a melange of Hindi and Urdu). He wanted his children to grow up loving India. Learning the local language was one route to making sense of the country and its people. Thus Kaye’s memoir details the warmth of the native helpers, the beauty of the Indian countryside and, most of all, her love for India, especially for Simla, her birthplace.

While reading Kaye’s affectionate accounts of Teeta-ayah and Punj-ayah, I was reminded of the staff in my parents’ employ. One of my longest associations was with an ayah named Kannamma.  A one-eyed woman, Kannamma had hollow cheeks and a bird-like gait. The skinny, dark-skinned woman came into our lives when I was about four years of age. When I was little, Kannamma would bring lunch every afternoon, walking a mile and a half to and from Vidhyodaya, my school, in the heat of Chennai without a pair of sandals to shield her callused feet. In the lunch room, she cajoled me to finish all my food. Sometimes she told me stories to help me along, just like Kaye’s ayahs who “would tell us enthralling tales about the doings of gods and heroes. We learned early why Ganesh has the body of a man and the head of an elephant …”

Unlike Kaye’s maid, Kannamma was more than just an ayah. Her presence in our bungalow preserved my mother’s sanity. From 5 a.m. until sundown, Kannamma made everything gleam. She swept and washed our courtyard. She dusted and mopped the length and breadth of our home. No one told her that she had missed a spot—although my mother tried to, on occasion. She ate most of her meals in our home. In monsoon and in heat, Kannamma, the human dishwasher, stood by, awaiting the arrival of dirty dishes so she could begin the washing. In the early afternoon, she would be at the clothes’ stone, slapping our soaked, soaped clothes on the rock in the backyard, until she rid them of ground-in dirt. Then she rinsed and wrung them dry and hung them over the clothes line. When my mother was reduced to tears for any reason at all, Kannamma was at her feet, commiserating and consoling, the divisions of caste and class melting at the universality of frustration and grief.

Kannamma was part of our extended family and as far as I was concerned we would never part ways. As M. M. Kaye observes in her discussions about being close to servants and their families, the notion of caste was something children acquired later on, in adulthood “together with prejudice and intolerance.”

When I was in my late teens, Kannamma fussed over my hair and grooming. She ground up the leaves of hibiscus to make a thick paste that she applied weekly to my hair. No shampoo could make my hair shine and bounce like Kannamma’s dextrous fingers.

For two decades, Kannamma was a familiar face in our bungalow from dawn to sunset until one day in 1982 when she did not show up for work. We found out—when we ran to knock on her door—that she had left for her village in the hinterlands of Tamil Nadu. Later, my mother discovered that Kannamma had stolen some money and that her son, a drunkard, had pushed her to steal. In shame and remorse, Kannamma must have stopped working altogether. Despite her only transgression, Kannamma epitomized loyalty and perfection.

For years after, her memory lit up a corner of our lives, her work ethic and compassion making her a legend in our circle of family and friends.

Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.

Pugree People

In the third week of April, a Norwegian YouTube video with English subtitles bounced off of Facebook walls. It showed two Sikh males unreeling yards of fabric in the hall of a railway station on “Turban Day” in Oslo. On offer for those who signed up to sport a turban or pugree was a free ride on the Airport Express. The video camera hovered over the heads of passengers milling about on the platform in colorful pugrees tied expertly by the Sikh gentlemen.

The word pugree has been co-opted from the Punjabi language. In the Indian subcontinent, it’s a generic term referring to head gear popular in India’s different regions even though the word may have originally referred to the particular turbans worn by men of the Sikh faith. The pugree was described by the Oxford dictionary as the turban of the British army man in India who wore “a scarf, usually of thin muslin, wound round the crown of a sun helmet or hat and originally fastened so that the ends hung down at the back to shade the neck.”

For our family, the pugree is a symbol of compassion and humanity. In July 2012, when my husband had a nasty fall inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, an entire regiment of turbaned Sikhs marshaled all possible resources to care for him as we dealt with finding care for the multiple bruises and fractures he had sustained. In the days following his injury, the community showed itself to be tight knit and large-hearted. During that visit, a Sikh friend of many years walked us through a langar, a community kitchen, in his place of worship. We watched rotis puffing and sliding off skillets. Vats of dal and kheer simmered inside the immaculate kitchen. At every such Gurdwara canteen in cities around the world, anyone may walk in to eat—regardless of creed, race, or religion. Community service is one of the key tenets of Sikh faith.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 incident in the United States, this community became a target for hate crimes when the Sikh turban was linked with the head gear of the Al-Qaeda, an extremist terrorist network that masterminded 9/11. Overnight, a strip of cloth wrapped around a head became a marker with which to vilify people and strip them of their right to dignity and to life. A decade since, intolerance for the uncommon and the unknown is the new normal even in a nation pledged to unity in diversity.

His turban gave much grief to Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa’s Durban in 1893 when he reported for work at the court sporting a pugree in the style of the times. At Gandhi’s next court appearance, the magistrate asked him to remove it. Gandhi strode out of the courtroom and promptly wrote to the press about the incident, defending his right to wear a pugree in court. During his two decades in South Africa, Gandhi’s experiences representing the marginalized Indian laborers in court strengthened his resolve to fight intolerance and injustice. His struggles formed the bulwark for his credo of non-violent agitation; he would wield it powerfully for India’s emancipation from the British.

In The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, he talks about how the ship he was traveling to South Africa almost capsized during the monsoons: “All became one in face of the common danger. They forgot their differences and began to think of the one and only God—Musalmans, Hindus, Christians and all. Some took various vows. The captain also joined the passengers in their prayers.” Gandhi says the feeling of oneness was momentary: “With the disappearance of danger disappeared also the name of God from their lips.”

Gandhi’s writings are a reminder of the importance of introspection, of the value of civil intellectual debate between people with different ideologies, and of the urgency to see life, literally, from inside another man’s head. The video of Turban Day felt like a literal, yet poignant, effort towards that. I considered its relevance in these bleak times. For ethnic minorities in most of the western world, life is becoming rife with uncertainty, especially as swarms of Syrian migrants knock on doors seeking refuge. I could see how, more than ever before, the need to demystify the turban was urgent for Sikhs.

The final segment in the Norwegian video cuts to a scene inside the train where passengers of different ethnicities sporting blue, purple and orange turbans are laughing and taking photographs of one another. The harmony of the scene took my breath away. I wished it would last.

Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley.

Not a Techwallah

As he graduated with a double major in computer science and cognitive science a few weeks ago, our son made it clear to us that unlike his father and some of his own ingenious classmates at Berkeley, he was not the typical techwallah. He enjoyed programming and problem solving, he said, but for reasons both personal and philosophical he didn’t quite see himself joining the tech industry. Furthermore, he worried that he was not one of those Silicon Valleywallahs at his core. I, too, realized that none of the meanings given to the Hindi affix “wallah,” as described in the Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian dictionary, would apply to my son, especially as the word related to the high tech industry: “agent, doer, keeper, man, inhabitant, master, lord, possessor, owner.”

In the days leading to his graduation, I was barraged by questions about where he would be working after college. I shrugged them off: “He’s still figuring it out,” I said. Our son had made up his mind to not interview for a job in the industry, much to his father’s chagrin. He had pursued lucrative internships during the previous summers. Those had made him question his goals.

He sent me a recent column in The Daily Californian by one Jason Chen, a Berkeley graduating senior, as further explanation to his mode of thinking. “All the people in my life—my parents, my teachers, my peers—are just workers on an assembly line, which is supposed to slowly sculpt me into a finished product: ready for nine-to-fives, board meetings and dreadful commutes.” I saw how Chen was feeling the pressure that my son felt of becoming, say, a drone akin to Mumbai’s “dubbawallahs” who were supremely efficient cogs in the wheel of the gritty city’s meal delivery system.

My son said that Chen’s column reflected his own struggles to discover his calling. He realized also how—unlike many classmates with financial constraints—he was fortunate. He had the luxury of being able to take a break to ponder. What people didn’t often see, he explained, was how easy it was to be strung along by “the system,” first by parents and then by college, and then later by the demands of work and then, further along, by one’s family and then, even later, by the comfort and reassurance of a particular kind of lifestyle promised by a specific career. Sooner or later, my son observed, people found themselves at a crossroads where they were unhappy. Therefore, instead of letting himself be sucked into the system right upon graduation, he simply wished to apply the brakes and reflect a little, while working on projects that interested him.

“As you graduate, can you ask yourselves to live as if you had eleven days left?” Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, asked of students gathered at Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium on the day of commencement. A cavalry of parents listened to her from the bleachers. Behind the stage, the fir-lined hills poked into the dull bleak skies. Sandberg talked, between sniffles, about the special moments of life that often tended to slip through the crevices of an ordinary day.

One year and thirteen days after the sudden death of her husband, Sandberg had been learning to show gratitude for the things that were going right. She urged the graduates to be thankful. “My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude—not just on the good days, like today, but on the hard ones, when you will really need it.”

As the graduation ceremony wound to a close, my husband received a note from an acquaintance at a reputed valley company. Would our son consider an interview with his team, he asked.

My husband has not been able to understand why his son thought so long and hard about pursuing a job in the technology industry. The path was clear. A degree in computer science from an institution like Berkeley was a ticket to a cushy job in the Silicon Valley. What on earth was there to think about beyond that, he wondered.

Later, during lunch, my husband showed the note about a potential job interview to our boy.
“But in the summer I’ll be busy with my last two courses.”

His dad persisted. “But what about fall? What about after that?”

Outside, the swags of fog had unfurled to reveal an azure blue sky. The California sun splashed the pavement. Inside the cafe, our new graduate dipped his corn chip into the guacamole, then dunked it into the salsa and crunched it all between his teeth. He looked squarely at his father. “Dad, we’ll see.”

Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.

So Suave with Shampoo

shampoo, noun. < from Hindi chāmpo, from chāmpnā to knead <1755-65; earlier champo to massage < an inflected form of Hindi cāmpnā literally, to press

“But who am I to pass judgement on today’s girls?” my aunt asked when I stopped by to visit her during my recent stay in Chennai. My mother’s 78-year-old sister was talking about a betrothal at which most of the young south Indian girls had not bothered to wear their hair bunched up within barrettes or braided or coiffed up in some way.

“Hair unbound and cascading down their backs. In our tradition, we do that only at one kind of event, you know,” my aunt clarified, muttering the words “at a cremation” under her breath and waving her stubby fingers in disgust. My breath caught in my throat at the resemblance between the sisters.

Once again, my late mother had waddled in from the land from which mothers could still admonish daughters. She was looking askance at the day’s mores, pulling a face at girls who used a vile fragrant syrup called “shampoo” that left their hair unprotected and “paraparaaa” while seducing them with voluminous promises of fragrance and body.

A coconut oil evangelist, my mother rued the day shampoo deluged India through the media and seeped into the country’s bathrooms. The story of shampoo—derived from the Hindi word champo, a verbal form meaning “to knead the muscles with a view to relieve fatigue,” as well as a noun meaning “the kneading” or “the pressing,”—is also the tale of how a new word diffuses into tongues and cultures around the globe. Shampoo is pronounced like it is in English—with minor variations and inflections, of course—in French, Chinese, Greek, Japanese, Lituanian, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish, Swahili and many other languages.

In the early 17th century, under the British East India Company, oriental beauty and health practices began to find their way into England. In 1821, a young Bengali officer opened a shampooing cure treatment center in Brighton and became the shampooing surgeon to the king himself. “Champing” or “shampooing” was “a restorative, luxurious kneading of the flesh in warm vapor baths,” according to Leslie Dunton-Downer in her book, The English Is Coming. She describes how, over time, the term eventually began to describe an oil massage and washing of the scalp.

What once used to be a powder version for hair treatment at a barber shop evolved into what we know now as the “wet” shampoo, especially following the popularity of indoor plumbing in the west. By the middle of the 19th century, most nations advertised their versions of the product.

In the 70s, influenced by my friends in India, I too switched to shampoo. I discovered that my weekly hibiscus treatments made my hair luxuriant but never as sweet smelling as when I used my Sunsilk goo. My adoption of the chemical alternative annoyed my mother and my aunts.

“But who am I to say anything about children today?” my aunt wondered again that morning in Chennai, saying that every generation always shocked the previous one.

She said that in the sixties, my grandmother had lamented to her husband that three of their married daughters had begun draping themselves in six-yard saris eschewing the  more formal nine-yard attire. To that, my grandfather—a philanthropist who flung colorful epithets into the air whenever a low-caste man walked down his road—had only one thing to say: “You must change with the times.”

Likewise, my mother balked at change. She would not embrace the chemical trumpery pandered by the beauty industry—or care to properly pronounce fashion-related words—until the day she died. She looked askance at lipstick and shampoo. In the Chennai of the 70s and 80s, lipstick was a sign of wantonness. At the sight of lip color on me, my mother’s mouth curved downward. She would cluck at me from her designated spot on the sofa as I flitted about the house, a girl of 21 with a red stain on her lips. “Come here,” she would command. She didn’t broach the subject of coquetry implied by my mouth. Instead, she told me to turn around so she could take in the shock of my hip-length hair clamped by a barrette. “Why don’t you braid your hair?” she asked.

She nitpicked about hair quality. “It looks like hay. No coconut oil. That’s what all this new-fangled chemical stuff, this shiamboo, does to beautiful hair.” Then she got up and walked around to scrutinize my face. “You need more talcum powder. On your nose.”

Finally, her eyes swooped down to my lips. “High society lady,” she tsk-tsked, her brows raised in disdain. “Look at you. Liftick and all!”

Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.