In the pandemic of 2020, when the world went into lockdown, one Indian lady who is above 80 years of age, engaged herself in making videos on Indian culture, mythology, and literature from her apartment in San Francisco.
Her name is Mrs. Harsha Watts and she is my mother.
She learned how to record, upload and manage her YouTube channel “California Nani” on her own. Here, she has showcased about 500 videos made by her with more than twenty thousand viewers. My mother’s life holds a message that learning and following one’s passion can occur even after eighty years of age! Here are some excerpts from the life of California Nani, which is an inspiration to many.
For a large part of her life, mom remained a reticent atheist. Yet back in India, she fulfilled her duties in organizing religious festivities for the family. Her greatest talent lay in cooking delicious meals. Without feeling exhausted, she managed all chores herself, after which, she would sit to knit sweaters for her loved ones!
When I was growing up in India, I recall how mom would help all of us at home with our homework. She would help us understand meaning in literature, explain shlokas in Sanskrit, show us the tricks to memorize science and math. Several evenings, when the light would go off, mom would give a candle to us so that we may continue to finish our homework in a room full of darkness.
Although mom couldn’t finish her own college, she aspired to see her children excel academically. She was the person who would attend the parent-teacher meetings at school in India. Now that everyone in the family is settled in the US, you might be thinking that my mother must be leading her retired life.
Well, a few years back, my father had passed away. Mom began visiting temples each day. Soon after, she engaged herself in making jewelry and dresses for the deities. I was surprised to see this transformation in a nonbeliever.
A few years back, she fell down, twice, when her feet got entangled in her saree causing multiple fractures on her knee and foot, and hands. Wearing a saree or keeping long hair wasn’t feasible anymore. Short hair and western attire brought another transformation in her leading to a miraculous phase.
When mom turned eighty years of age, her granddaughter asked her, “what was life like in India in 1940, 1950, and 1960?” Mom began remembering her childhood during the partition in India, and beyond. We wanted to preserve the words of wisdom flowing out of her lips. With the help of her granddaughter, mom launched her own channel on youtube – CALIFORNIA NANI, in August 2019. Now she wakes up each morning with the goal of making one video each day.
The beauty of this endeavor is the preservation of knowledge related to Indian culture and benefit to students of Indology.
To join the poetry reading on Monday August 24th 2020 at 6 pm PST and 9 pm EST, click on this LINK!
The South Asian diaspora is perpetually evolving, breaking new boundaries and forging new connections in every sphere. India Currents presents its second Desi Poetry Reading to discuss how South Asian immigrant communities have changed over the years, as well as attitudes surrounding diversity, multiculturalism and belonging.
This is effort is in collaboration with Matwaala, a South-Asian poetry collaborative designed to provide immigrant and POC writers with a literary platform. In their own words, Matwaala represents “voices that dare to say the unsaid and hear the unheard…voices that break down barriers…voices that dare to be South Asian, American, and simply human.” Since their formation, they have hosted a number of poetry festivals and writing workshops. Most notably, they recently spearheaded Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood Project, where they created a Poetry Wall in honor of South Asian writers at the Irving Museum and Archives.
This poetry reading will feature notable writers from various pockets of the South Asian community, including Geetha Sukumaran, Ravi Shankar, Ralph Nazareth, Kirun Kapoor, and youth poet Kanchan Naik. India Currents staff Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik will moderate the event, facilitating questions from the audience via email.
To find out more about this event and its panelists, stay tuned for updates on our Facebook and Instagram!
Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, a Global Student Square editor for Newsroom By the Bay and Director of Media Outreach at nonprofit Break the Outbreak.
Legends of Quintessence (LoQ) is a new science fiction column that India Currents is introducing to cater to the varied tastes of our readers. This column will entertain you with science fiction short stories, introduce you to South Asian talent, and on occasion, invite you to showcase your own skills and imagination through the column.
The author of this new column, Rachna Dayal, is a strong believer that science fiction lays the groundwork for future discoveries by providing an outlook for inventors to uncover. She, herself, works jobs heavily influenced by innovation and strategy. By day, she is the Global Director for Strategic Programs at Johnson and Johnson, and by night, she uses the same skills to unleash her imagination and pour them into her Science Fiction narratives.
Rachna finds that writing Sci-Fi provides a satisfying outlet to theoretical inquiries, transcending dimensions of reason, and challenging traditional norm. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt Science Fiction to be a comfortable place to explore that.
Dayal has introduced the South Asian lens to storytelling by giving her voice to Sci-Fi and has moved one step further. The featured image accompanying this article is created by NYC-based South Asian artist, Hanifa Hameed, and commissioned by Rachna. Desi touches begin to remove the racial barriers that may have limited readership. Stay tuned for an interview the Hanifa and her artwork, hosted by India Currents, in the near future.
The name of the column, Legends of Quintessence, is founded in the idea of the fifth element – one that cannot be seen. It is beyond Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. The term, Quintessence, is layered by the definition cosmologists give it. It is believed to be a unique form of matter distinct from normal or dark matter and has peculiar characteristics. According to them, Quintessence is the reason why the expansion of universe has accelerated.
Legends of Quintessence will be mystical – a perfect blend of science and imagination unbounded by the burden of proof or convention! Science belongs to the universe but science fiction feels so quintessentially human. That is until we discover that outer-worldly species also indulge in the activity of producing science fiction…
Expect the unexpected and embark on the intergalactic journey with us next Monday, August 3, 2020!
Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
As a lifelong bookworm who turns to the written word for knowledge and guidance, I had picked up “What to expect when you’re expecting,” during my pregnancy. Considerate colleagues gave me the sequel, “What to expect the first year,” at my baby shower. I referred to the book constantly. Like a child reading a mystery novel, I occasionally jumped ahead to read up on the next developmental milestone.
At my daughter’s first birthday celebration in India, seeing the book in my purse, a good friend joked – “You NRI’s bring up children by reading books.”
I found her comment condescending but she had made an astute observation. Being far from home and lacking guidance from parents, I felt bereft. She, on the other hand, was raising her children in India in close proximity to her extended family.
To me, books had come to my aid when humans had failed.
More than two decades after that conversation, I look fondly at my two daughters. In a few months, the older one will leave home in pursuit of higher education and the younger one will hurtle towards the end of her teens.
Motherhood has been the most transformative experience of my life and the opportunity to raise two daughters has been a gift and a privilege.
Adichie’s book is a long, thoughtful response response to a friend’s question about how to raise her newborn daughter feminist. I wondered if I had raised my daughters to be feminists? Would I find myself too outdated to understand this manifesto? I desperately hoped it wasn’t too late to make amends.
“The solid unbending belief that you start off with. What is your premise? Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only.” Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.”
Adichie’s first feminist tool seemed familiar. Not vaguely, but intimately.
By this measure, I have always been a feminist. Perhaps I was born feminist. Although the word ‘feminist’ came into my vocabulary only after spoken and written language became my primary mode of communication, the inner knowing that “I matter’ must have been poured into my veins and set into my bones at the time of my creation.
Born between two boys, I was the only girl child, brought up with great affection by egalitarian parents. Despite having a level playing field within the home, I was not immune to the rampant sexism that existed outside. I retaliated by waving the flag of gender equality, fighting for fairness, and arguing for justice at every opportunity.
During the school years, my brothers and I were expected to wash our respective uniforms, polish our shoes, and keep our designated cupboards clean. But everytime my mother asked me for help around the house, I would protest.
“You are asking me to do this because I am a girl,” I would pout.
“I am asking you because you are better at it,” she would patiently reply.
“In life, you will find that the person who does a better job will be assigned more work, even in an office.”
A part of me agreed with her. But I would have none of her rational explanations. Despite her college education, my mother was a housewife by choice. What did she know about work and career?
I was academically oriented, bold, and outspoken. Unlike my mother who was content to stay home, I planned to study, get a job, and make my own money. I did not consider my mother a feminist, because feminism to me meant independence, financial security and power. Little did I know then that the seeds to my conviction about equality of the sexes were actually planted and nurtured by my mother’s parenting style.
So much about the world has changed since my childhood. With women becoming astronauts and scientists, doctors and bus drivers, I wondered if Adichie’s suggestions were even necessary. But reading this simply-written, heartfelt manifesto brought forth many self-limiting biases and belief-systems that are coded into our DNA through social conditioning and serve as barriers to women’s’ achievements even to this day.
In time for International Women’s Day, I thought of using Adichie’s list as an appraisal tool to evaluate myself. I was undoubtedly a feminist, but had I done enough to raise my girls to be feminists?
Of the fifteen suggestions, I scored well in 9. I am particularly proud of encouraging my girls to read. Regarding marriage – they know that marriage may be a part of their life but it is not to be counted as their greatest achievement. Through my own career choices, independence, and pursuit of interests outside prescribed gender roles, they have seen a working model of some of Adichie’s suggestions.
But I have to admit that I have failed in a few areas. Even though we talk about boys and romance, open conversations about sex have been difficult; attributed more to my own cultural conditioning than to the oft-repeated excuse that such information is easily available these days.
And there are suggestions about appearance, identity, likeability – important points that I am unable to assess at this point. Much of how my daughters find their way through the maze of conflicting messages and peer pressure depends on their ability to think for themselves, something only time will tell.
I think back to my mother’s unerring sense of fairness and transparent style of parenting. Unaware that the dictionary defines ‘feminist’ as a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, she had instilled in me the core belief that my life is valuable and my choices are valid, even if they veered away from socially accepted constructs.
Parenting is a uniquely personal journey. We undertake it with optimism and a combination of tools – some that we come equipped with, some we borrow from our own parents, and others we learn – from books, from society, from our own experiences.
The thing that makes this journey incredibly interesting, if not always rewarding, is what Adichie says in the initial pages of her book, “You might do all the things I suggest, and she will still turn out to be different from what you hoped, because sometimes life just does its thing. What matters is that you try. And always trust your instincts above all else, because you will be guided by your love for your child.”
The best we can do is try. I know my mother did. So do I. My hope is that my daughters do the same when they have children. It doesn’t matter if they are raising girls or boys, I know without doubt that their journey will be interesting, and they will be richer for the experience.
Ranjani Rao, a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and former resident of USA, now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Connect with her on Medium | Twitter| Facebook | Blog
Oscar-nominated actor Dev Patel hits Hollywood with a new movie, The Personal History of David Copperfield. Starring alongside Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, and Ben Whishaw, he plays a re-imagined David Copperfield right out of Dickens’ acclaimed novel. Following the original plot, the film focuses on the ‘quirky’ rags-to-riches tale of Copperfield, whose life begins at a ruthless London boarding school and finds its way to a lavish Victorian estate. The 2020 comedy offers a unique lens on a traditionally Caucasian tale, with its diverse cast and taste in humor. The film itself represents a transition towards a more inclusive, cosmopolitan Hollywood — where individuals from different backgrounds can forge their own narratives, and re-invent stories that already exist. The Personal History of David Copperfield brings warmth and a sense of originality that resonates with fans of the silver screen, based on positive audience reviews of the film’s new trailer. The movie hits theatres on May 8th, when Copperfield can finally win applause and steal hearts.
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:
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.
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:
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, ShanthiSekaran, NayomiMunaweera, RaghuKarnad, AthenaKashya and TanujaWakefield 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 titledThe Subcontinent’s Children.
Montalvo Arts Centerand 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.
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.
The stories that inhabit the Vedas and epics are “whispers of God” says Devdutt Pattanaik as he opens his book Jaya, a retelling of the Mahabharata. It’s true. These books present a startlingly clear vision of the now from the ancient then. The authors of the stories had a seeing eye that modern scientists would give their eye-teeth for. Pardon the mixed metaphors.
Take the notion of Shikhandi. It is both an idea and a character and has so many reflections in this prism we call the “modern family.” The robustness of Shikhandi as a character is astounding and awe inspiring. As each layer is peeled and his/her place in India’s mythological history is uncovered, Shikhandi’s ambiguities of nature and form become moral, ethical and philosophical data points that have withstood generation upon generation of interpretations.
Last July, I interviewed a young man whom I chanced to see in a production called, “The Box.” He was introduced to the audience as J. Jha from India who was seeking asylum in the United States. Binary gender pronouns came up in our conversation and this remarkably talented individual rejected the “he,” “she” format that is the traditional gender distinguisher. Jha preferred “they,” and “theirs,” so I will respect their wish in this article.
Shikhandi is both an idea and a character. Shikhandi’s ambiguities of nature and form become moral, ethical and philosophical data points that have withstood generation upon generation of interpretations.
In their interview, which I wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, Jha told me about being confined by the limitations of heterosexual identity and cisgender norms. Growing up in India, Jha said that they had no homosexual or transgender role model. Jha did not have a single openly gay person among their family or friends that they could relate to. Early on, Jha understood clearly, through reactive and reinforced behavior, that transgender people were personae non gratae. It is only upon leaving India and coming to America that they experienced personal liberation with the freedom to express in gender non-conforming ways.
But how have we come to this place of intolerance where we have blatantly ignored or forgotten the lessons from India’s own wise men?
Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, An Era of Darkness, discusses this very idea. He begins his argument with Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which allows a punishable verdict on “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” Tharoor claims that this order of nature was established by the British. “The irony is that in India there has always been a place for people of different gender identities and sexual orientations. Indian history and mythology reveal no example of prejudice against sexual difference.” Tharoor goes on to remind us of the gender-morphing Shikhandi.
There are many versions of the Shikhandi story, but in every version, there occurs a sexual transformation to the female form, crossing male-female boundaries. It is remarkable that a country that gave us the Shikhandi prototype persecutes avatars of this remarkable character.
Here in America, with the high school bathroom issue, gender became hotly debated across the country. At the time, I heard people remark dismissively, “isn’t there anything better to do than focus on high-school bathrooms? When people don’t have jobs, why should we worry about gender-neutral bathrooms?” It’s true, it’s an outsize idea, and one we are unable to adjust to because of in-bred conventional normalcy. So, we find ways to minimize its significance.
Even when we do try to relate, we fall short. Take the Louis Vuitton advertisement where Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s son, is shown wearing women’s clothes. It was explained as an ad for women’s clothes featuring a man. Young Smith looked comfortable in the clothes he modeled. He wore it with style and attitude. Yet, it seemed as though he wore women’s clothes because he needed more choices. As Lauren Duca remarked in Teen Vogue, the ad, while looking at the world unconventionally, still “confronted the binary, while participating in it.”
Judith Butler, gender theorist and author of Gender Trouble, argues that gender is not a noun. “Gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject,” she says, and clarifies by saying that gender is “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame.” So, according to Butler, a person assumes the feminine identity by doing feminine things. As a young child, wearing dresses, growing long hair and playing with dolls reinforces the stereotypes needed for inhabiting a particular gender.
Interestingly enough, one of my daughters, from the time she was five till when she turned fourteen, wore her hair short, dressed in shorts and t-shirts, and played Pokemon and Donkey Kong with the boys in her class. Today she is a beautiful young woman, remarkably sure of her femininity. I was cautioned about her gender-bending tendencies by several well-meaning friends when she was growing up. It didn’t bother me then and it doesn’t bother me now. Her femininity was hers to discover. Just like Jha’s. [Though it might be worthwhile to admit here that tomboys are more accepted than boys who emulate girls.]
Modern Shikhandi characters abound in the world. They teach us a valuable lesson about how to navigate edge cases in our society without distorting character or creating noise. To pursue this engineering analogy, if we are able to gracefully and seamlessly transact our boundary conditions, we will have ourselves a robust operating strategy for life.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.