Sanjiv is the quintessential 40-year-old – an engineer, working as a marketing professional with an FMCG company. Full of dreams and full of life, always smiling, super intelligent, the center of attraction of any gathering, the best son to his parents, the most caring brother to her sisters, and a doting father to my 11-year-old boy. He is a young heart wanting to achieve something big and also enjoy it to the fullest. His friends would describe him as an absolute gem.
We met at our MBA school and became best friends instantaneously. While I tried to keep finding the best girlfriend for him, we both fell in love ourselves. We got married a few years later in 2007 and now we have a son who is 11-year-old and three of us were leading a small happy life.
Last year our lives turned upside down. Sanjiv was diagnosed with high-risk blood cancer – Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia B – in May 2020. We were absolutely shocked, as there is no family history of cancer. We were informed that the cure was few rounds of Chemotherapy ultimately followed by Bone Marrow Transplant. We had one day’s notice to decide and commence the Chemo as his case was very acute.
Post his first chemo, Sanjiv developed an extremely rare and troublesome fungal infection while he was immunocompromised. This got us into a vicious cycle as the fungal infection prohibited further chemo treatment without which cancer would not go away into remission. By early November, cancer showed up on his skin as leukemia deposits. His condition worsened with leukemia in the blood, leukemia in the skin, and fungal infection in the body. That’s when doctors in India raised their hands and told us that MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, USA was our best hope. By mid-November, I moved to Houston, temporarily, along with Sanjiv and my son.
Treatment is definitely possible, but prohibitively expensive.
Doctors here are trying to balance out the chemo and infection treatment to get him ready for a Bone Marrow transplant. We are done with 2 rounds of Chemotherapy and there have been lots of complications post Chemo, and now we await BMT as a final step. BMT is a very intensive process where the body’s immune system is being rebooted and can be complicated as well. The positives news is that the leukemia in the bone marrow is under control, skin leukemia is being treated with Radiation and the bone marrow transplant is now being discussed with the best doctors here.
The last 8 months have been extremely draining for us as a family- physically, emotionally, and financially. All our life’s savings have been used up in the treatment in Mumbai and America.
Newly released book The Tonic (Leadstart Publishing Pvt Ltd, 2020) is an intriguing story set in 1992, against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid demolition and the Bombay riots. Shuttling constantly between the past and the present, the story shares some vivid imagery of the city of Mumbai, complete with its local trains, chawls, high-rise condominiums, and “cutting chai” culture. The novel’s 30-year-old author, Mayur Sarfare, is a Professor of Mass Media at Mumbai’s Usha Pravin Gandhi College of Arts, Science, and Commerce. Passionate about subjects of metaphysics and philosophy, Sarfare regularly hosts events and moderates panel discussions.
The story runs between a diverse cast of characters. Raem Andrew, who lost his parents in the 1985 bomb blast of a Delhi-bound Air India flight arriving from London, stands out due to his unusually fair complexion and blue eyes. When he moves to a Muslim dominated locality, Raem befriends his neighbor, Masher P Bhasker, a young student with a speech disorder. Masher’s father was burnt by religious fanatics for being a Hindu who was in love with a Muslim woman. Further, due to his stammer, Masher is often bullied and mocked by his classmates. Raem and Masher relate to each other, as they are both outcasts in society, something that becomes a strong basis for their friendship.
Destiny begins to change for them when Raem’s uncle, Sam, gifts him a box of cryptic Bolivian chocolates. The chocolates work like magical pills, giving them extraordinary courage and confidence to do things that they normally could never imagine. Masher manages to correct his speech under their influence, and Raem wins over the girl of his dreams.
However, when Masher’s mother and mute Hindu girlfriend are killed in the 1992 Bombay riots, he is overwhelmed with grief and despair.Decades later, their lives collide with Reymerg D’Souza, a militant atheist cum media tycoon, who believes that religion is an infection of the worst kind—it has crippled man, robbed him of scientific temperament, and stultified progress. Thus, his mission is to eradicate the malaise of religion altogether.Over the years he has been secretly masterminding the abduction of various celebrated spiritual leaders belonging to different religions in an effort to execute them.
“The foundation of faith is fear. If there is no fear, there is no faith.” The book is filled with several such philosophical outbursts, and could easily work as a racy script for a thriller film or web series. When Reymerg plans a wicked and twisted silver jubilee commemoration of the infamous riots, by scheming something so sinister that could endanger the lives of millions, and it is up to Raem to prevent this colossal damage.
“The riots didn’t just take a lot of lives; it took with them a lot of hopes, dreams, and ambitions.” The book throws light on possibly hundreds of such untold stories about the notorious riots and the havoc they wreaked in the many lives that they touched. Overall, it is a passionate statement on contemporary religious fervor and the sheer power that it wields upon human minds.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.
For instance, while the US leads the world with more than 14 million cases and over 276 thousand deaths, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center, India accounts for only 10% of deaths globally and has the highest number of recovered patients of COVID-19 at 94%, even though its coronavirus caseload is second only to the US.
With such a significant share of the world’s coronavirus cases, shouldn’t COVID-19 have been more devastating in India?
“Then again it has not,” announced Krishnaraj Rao, an investigative journalist from Mumbai, India, at an EMS briefing (November 20) on the pandemic.
“Something strange has been happening within the Indian subcontinent and neighboring regions,” said Rao. “For some strange reason our mortality rate per million is one eighth and our total cases seem to be in the region of one sixth per million.”
As COVID-19 began its inexorable spread across the world, the WHO recommended safety precautions to protect against the virus – physical distancing, wearing a mask, well ventilated rooms, avoiding crowds and close contact, and regularly washing hands.
But in an outcome that has puzzled epidemiologists and scientists alike, India seems to be experiencing a low mortality rate from the coronavirus, stated Rao, despite the crowded conditions in which many urban Indians live.
A large proportion of urban dwellers in a developing country like India lack access to adequate healthcare facilities and maintain poorer sanitation and hygiene practices which are known to be responsible for a higher incidence of communicable diseases. So the virus was expected to have caused many more deaths in densely populated communities in India than it has.
Urban Indians are ‘badly housed,’ explained Rao, using Mumbai as an example to explain why crowded Indian cities offer a fertile petri-dish for catastrophic coronavirus outbreaks. “I would say that close to 60% of the population of urban India lives closely packed together in slums.”
In a metropolis like Mumbai, home to over 20 million and India’s largest city, nearly one million people live cheek by jowl in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums.
“Houses are no more than two feet apart. Each house is no larger than a 10 by 12 room,” said Rao.
Each home houses about 10 to 12 people, closely packed together. It makes social distancing nearly impossible, while access to basic hygiene essentials, including toilets and hand washing are limited.
“There is only one public toilet per every two or three hundred slum dwellers,” explained Rao, highlighting the less than hygienic conditions in slums like Dharavi. “Face masks, social distancing…are close to non-existent. We take things like face masks, temperature checks and sanitizing very lightly,” he claimed.
“If it were a pandemic that was ravaging us because of a lack of social distancing,” asked Rao, why are the slums relatively less impacted than expected? And, despite overcrowding on the suburban railways, he adds, “the crisis has hit us less hard than anticipated.”
While epidemiologists attribute India’s low mortality rate to under-reporting, and even though Rao himself expected undercounting, he alleged that at least in Dharavi, there is no evidence of it. “I don’t see the bodies piling up in the streets… or the hospitals,” nor has he noted any alarming rises in the body count.
Rao claimed he is voicing “a mainstream belief” felt across economic classes and demographics in India, that the coronavirus is not causing the high mortality rates that were anticipated.
In Dharavi, officials say that concerted public health efforts to trace, track, test and treat cases, have helped to contain community spread.
Now, recent research by Indian scientists seeking to explain why India’s death rate is so low, suggest that more Indians may be immune to COVID-19 because they live in unsanitary conditions which have created an unexpected shield from the virus.
According to one study, more than 70 percent of all COVID–19 deaths have occurred in high income countries like Italy, Spain, UK, France and USA. It hypothesized that more people died in richer countries with older populations, because better hygiene and safe sanitation practices lowered levels of immunity and made people more susceptible to the virus.
In another study scientists report, “It appears that countries with better health care, clean environment, clean food and water have higher COVID associated mortality, whereas developing and underdeveloped countries have lower mortality in terms of deaths per million population.”
Both research studies (not yet peer reviewed), suggest that in low GDP countries like India, lives of people in densely populated areas may have been saved because of poor hygiene and sanitation practices. Unsanitary conditions and exposure to diseases from childhood may have increased their ability to ward off infections, and boosted immunity against COVID-19. Experts also suggest that the early lockdown and a younger population helped stave off a higher death toll in India.
The science is intriguing. Does greater exposure to a variety of viruses in the slums of low income countries provide a better level of protection against the coronavirus, than the overly sanitized environments of richer nations?
“Paradoxically, better sanitation leads to poor immune training and thus could be leading to higher deaths per million,” says the study. But it cautions that while the research offers a possible explanation, poor hygiene is not a solution to the pandemic.
India, and Dharavi in particular, may have pulled off a remarkable reprieve against COVID-19 for now. But the pandemic is far from over and science is still learning about this young virus. So, public health experts warn, SMS (social distance, mask, and sanitize) must remain the global mantra to keep Covid 19 at bay, until vaccines become easily available to the general public.
Meera Kymal is the contributing editor at India Currents.
In 1892, parts of India are under direct British direct rule and Bombay is the center of British India. Captain James Agnihotri, an Anglo-Indian, is recuperating in a Poona military hospital after a skirmish in Karachi, the still unvanquished North-West Frontier. Agnihotri is granted an honorable discharge from the army because of his injuries. For one year he is reinventing his life as an investigative journalist by browsing daily newspapers and committing Sherlock Holmes detective methods to memory.
Meanwhile, a sordid crime grabs his attention: Two Parsi women fall from the busy Bombay University’s Rajabai Clock Tower in broad daylight! Certain that this mishap was not a suicide and touched by the understandable grief of the young widower Adi Framji, Captain Jim approaches the family to investigate this heinous crime and bring the culprits to justice. Being ex-Army, Captain Jim is well equipped to deal with treachery, roadblocks, dead ends, and deceit but there is more subterfuge to this plot than meets the eye! The warmth of the Parsi family is endearing to Jim and he approaches the task at hand with selfless sincerity. But there are no apparent clues and danger lurks in shadows of the guise of tall men with sloping shoulders, and possible monkeys on the roof. After interviewing local witnesses Jim travels to Lahore and to the state of Ranjpoot in search of the murderer. Armed with motley disguises this “Sherlockian” detective unmasks several miscreants and has close encounters with death himself much to the perturbation of Adi Framji and Jim’s self-appointed “Watson”.
This award-winning lyrical narrative is a delightful multilayered treat that lays bare the lonely childhood and yearning for a family of several young children of that tumultuous time. Jim Agnihotri was fortunate because he was brought up in a convent by a priest with “kind” eyes but what was the fate of the brave little girl “Chutki” who calls Jim “Bao-di”? Jim’s gentle nature and his loyalty to the task at hand has “ Sir Galahad” strokes! The reader empathizes with his post-traumatic stress disorder, boxing induced head injuries, and subsequent memory lapse. We also root for the success of the romance that brews between Captain James and the Framji debutante, lady Diana! But will the extremely exclusive Parsi elders accept this unlikely alliance between a Parsi princess and a “half-bred” man. Will Jim uncover the real motive behind the “fatal fall” or will this inquisition unravel another unimaginably evil plot to amass money for priceless merchandise?
I particularly enjoyed Nev March’s lyrical style with a vibrant depiction of the glittering Gatsby-like colorful lifestyle of aristocratic Bombay. Although the splendor of sprawling mansions, refined customs, luxurious soirees ignore the dismal fate of the Indian men and women impoverished by British tyranny, the wealthy sensibility is intoxicating! Formal sit down dinner times with delicious Parsi entrees, (eggs on a bed of Spinach, lamb curry) followed by frothy desserts leave me pining for my mother’s simpler but equally wholesome spread. March effortlessly transports me on a summer breeze to my childhood days spent walking the lanes of old Bombay fringed with Gul-Mohar, Jacaranda, and Pink Trumpet trees. Lady Diana’s inquiring mind and the amorous physicality developing ever so softly between the two lovebirds is pleasing. It recreates a delicate Victorian air of tension: pining eyes, a tilt of the head, delicate fingers, a sharp elbow, a curved clavicle, a soft embrace. I miss that magic and admire the ease with which the author transcends present-day to a mysterious past and solves the mystery to boot. Three cheers not by drib or drab but sheer grit! I absolutely love the cover design and We would be honored to invite Nev March to India Currents for a one on one interview.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.
Rehana Munir’s novel Paper Moon (Harper Collins, 2019) is every book lover’s delight and is filled with vivid descriptions of Bombay’s streets and pavement bookstalls, such as the Strand Book House at Fort that sells remaindered books at student prices. Clearly, an expert on nostalgia, Rehana’s writing keeps springing up vivid images of the city in the 1990s.
She sets the scene with phrases like: “Matinee shows at Sterling Cinema and peanut-crunching evenings at Marine Drive. Nawabi chicken pizza at Intermission Restaurant in Metro cinema and blazing afternoons at Azad Maidan” and “Pav bhaji at Khao Gully. And that bizarre neembu paani, blitzed with ice, chaat masala and industrial amounts of sugar.”
The book’s protagonist, Fiza Khalid is a student of English Literature at St Xavier’s College, who often spends time with her boyfriend Dhruv Banerjee in the lending library—complete with its dim lighting, hidden corners, friendly chairs, and a sleepy librarian—in other words, a hideout for “hurried embraces and long-drawn sighs.” For “stolen kisses in the chapel and bad Chinese in the canteen” and “showdowns in the woods and making up in the arches.”
Quite unexpectedly, Fiza inherits money to set up an independent bookstore from her estranged father whose cherished dream it was to do so after retirement. In no time, fantasies dominated by books begin to fill her mind. “Shelves filled with volumes of Faber & Faber poetry, which she had never been able to afford. The elegant grey spines of Vintage Classics. The cheery orange of Penguin.” Fiza decides to name the bookshop Paper Moon after a jazz tune with smoky vocals, wistful lyrics, perky melody, and piercing image of Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire. As she begins researching the world of the bookshop business, she comes across a decrepit yet charming mansion to lease out as the space. Fiza then gets a French designer to curate the bookshop’s interiors, complete with lamps, rugs, cushions, mats, used books on a handcart, and seating between revolving bookracks.
As she goes on a book buying spree to warehouses of various book distributors, she pays homage to many writers: “Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark—the holy trio were some of the first to jump in. Milan Kundera followed Amitav Ghosh, Dostoevsky chased Mario Vargas Llosa in some kind of mad hatter’s literary tea party. Nick Hornby and Sue Townsend added some laughs. Darwin and Nietzche kept the rest in check.”
With its own café in no time, the well-loved bookstore soon becomes a happy retreat for book lovers and anyone looking for a quiet, reflective moment in an increasingly difficult city. During the course of time, Fiza also realizes that running a bookshop is so much more than just the books. Moreover, it leads her to discover much about her own life and her family’s hidden secrets. It also takes her to the literary capital of the world, London, to attend the “Mecca for books”, the London Book Fair.
A book about “days of miracle and wonder, of family, lost and found, love chased and escaped”, the story is a must-read for someone who has ever dreamt of setting up a bookshop, or simply anyone passionate about books.
Neha Kirpalis a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.
Our latest story at Virtual Bharat is one from our own city—Mumbai. The city of dreams. The city of warriors. The city of migrants. This story is dedicated to the unbreakable spirit of the migrants who make Mumbai the city that it is today. The bustling financial capital, made up of 22 million, that runs on the strength of its migrant warriors.
Milind Kuber Patil, Nilesh Baban Madale, Shailesh Rangrao Maske, Raju Baban Jadhav, Omkar Kisan Pawar, and Amit Shrirang Ghadage are a few among the migrants who come to Mumbai to make a living, a future, and a name. They have left their families and come a long way from home to fulfill their dreams. And they choose a path of their own making. What sets these migrants apart is that they not only take on the dream and struggles of Mumbai but dedicate themselves to training in the ancient Indian art form – Pehlwani. An intensive sport involving over 8 hours of practice a day, and an intensive daily regime. Their training begins at a young age, presenting hard work and determination as fuel for both the mind and the body. They worship the soil they train on, tending to it every day, nourishing it with honey and minerals before stepping onto it to train.
These pehlwans moved to the Mahatma Phule Vyayam Mandir, an akhada (training centre) located in Chinchpokli, Mumbai, in their teens, with a dream to become the greatest pehlwans of India. They work in the city as coolies, laborers, security guards, and various other daily wage jobs to earn their living. What keeps them going, is their love for their art, and their determination to keep growing.
“Everybody has a desire, and I do too. I want to keep moving forward in life. I am never satisfied with my body, because then I would settle for this,” says Milind.
Pehlwani or Kushti is an ancient Indian art of combat, thought to have been around in its early form (Malla-Yuddha) since the 5th millennium BCE. The art of Kushti has been evolving for centuries. It came to take its modern shape in the Mughal and colonial eras. Despite this, the core values of Kushti have continued to remain its true fuel. The men who are trained as pehlwans take an oath – stop a blow, never strike. They use their strength and prowess to defend the weaker sections of society.
The pehlwan plays the role of the protector. The training of Pehlwani echoes the wisdom of ancient traditions that aimed to create an aspirational figure for society. A role model for the traditional Indian male. The pehlwan. The pehlawan (the first guardian). As we shoot with the pehlwans, we see not only their incredible training and willpower, but their kindness, diligence, and sheer inner strength, honed by their practice. The film shows the journey of the pehlwan in the city built on the dreams of migrants. With the lyrics of Dopeadelicz ringing in your ears, “Fight like a warrior, win like a champion,” this film is about Mumbai’s own migrant warriors. Watch the film now.
Virtual Bharat is a 1000 film journey of untold stories of India spanning people, landscapes, literature, folklore, dance, music, traditions, architecture, and more in a repository of culture. The vision of director Bharatbala, creator of Maa Tujhe Salaam, we are a tale of India told person-by-person, story-by-story, and experience-by-experience. The films are under 10 minutes in length and are currently available on Virtual Bharat’s Youtube Channel.
“The thing about Mumbai is you go five yards and all of human existence is revealed. It’s an incredible cavalcade of life, and I love that.” Julian Sands.
Dishoom is so much more than a cookbook. It is a walking serenade to South Bombay and it’s Irani Cafes. The refreshing, authentic, and passionate storytelling style of the authors, Shamil and Kavi, make this book a pure treat to all your senses. The vibrant visuals and descriptive narratives are bound to make your palate salivate. This 400-page walking tour guide starts off with a vintage map of South Bombay. The map highlights all the 34 places that you will be visiting through its pages. The book is filled with old black and white photos, overlayed with recent snapshots to provide a colorful canvas for this love story.
If you are not from Bombay, the city can overwhelm you. Shamil and Kavi ease you into the chaos and bustle, to settle you down with a backdrop of their childhood in Matunga, where they spent many holidays with their grandparents, near Koolar and Co., one of the oldest Irani Cafes.
They introduce you to Chef Naved and his exquisite recipes that showcase their restaurant Dishoom in London. They also give you an overview of the fascinating history of Bombay from how it got its name to many an anecdote about different locales.
The migration of the Parsi community to Bombay is not well documented in most Indian history books. Parsi history usually starts and ends around their move from Iran to India to escape religious persecution and their settlement in Bombay. Shamil and Kavi give us a much richer treatise to the Parsi community.
Irani cafes were instrumental to the cosmopolitan culture of old Bombay. They were the very foundation in the hearts of our two authors, for their new restaurant venture, DISHOOM in London. Like they say, “We serve dishes in Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian traditions which all jostle on our tables for space.” Poetic indeed!
The book’s walking tour starts…
An 8 am breakfast at Kyani and Co. What a treat! Every Indian can relate to the nostalgia of dipping a pau (bread) into your chai (tea). I stopped reading at this point and made myself a cup of masala chai, just to take in that memory.
Chef Naved starts us off with some simple recipes like the Akuri (Parsi scrambled egg) and the Chilli Cheese toast which is the base for the Kejriwal (Fried Egg) – yes Kejriwal!
Mr ‘Knock Out’ Zend’sYazdani cafe and his simple Brun (Bun) Maska dipped in hot chai will make you drool for more. “Dip the brun into the sweet chai, allow the butter to melt slightly and put in your mouth for an immediate, simple, and true delight.”
We feast ourselves with chicken berry pulao and salli boti (meat curry) at the legendary Britannia, in the presence of its famous owner Mr. Boman Kohinoor.
“In a place as hectic as Bombay, the allure of Chowpatty is clear. Here you can partake in the serious business of idle pleasures. A gentle stroll on Chowpatty at sunset, with plentiful snacks.” Sink your teeth into a piping hot pau (bread) bhaji or a spicy bhel (puffed rice), or the ever famous vada pau, the iconic Bombay street food. Wet your lips with the falooda (sweet dessert) and kulfis (ice cream) and end your cravings with Sharma Paanwala’s paan (betel leaves) to digest the day’s symphony of dishes in your system.
Get back on track with Kala Ghoda’s Trishna for the finest butter pepper garlic crab.
Walk down to Mohammed Ali Road, past a spectacular array of food stalls and antique stores. A notable pit stop for a meat lover is the Surti Bara Handi. How can you miss Halim and Aamir’s Taj ice cream and Burhanpur hot, hot jalebis?
Not sure how much stomach you have left, but the tour hasn’t ended yet as it dives into the third dinner at the famous Bademiya in Colaba. The picturesque and flamboyant tossing of the dough by the chef and service on warm car bonnets, stays with you for a long while.
After 3 heavy dinners it’s time to walk along Marine Drive promenade and gaze out to the sea. You will run into the famous Rustom and Co.’s ice cream parlor known for its seasonal flavors.
The tour ends with an ode to the Taj hotel. Little did we know of it being the backdrop for the glorious and illustrious jazz scene of the 1930s through the Independence era of India. I love a good cocktail and the tipples section is clever and innovative with some interesting drinks like the Kohinoor Fizz, The Commander, and the Dhoble.
As whimsical and flowery as the descriptions in the book, the experience I had preparing the recipes brought me quickly back down to earth. Recipes that started off as a few easy steps evolved into a complex multitude of steps, that required different preparatory recipes, all infused into one large recipe.
Some recipes are not for a novice cook. I recommend you read and prep all the sub-recipes before you decide to make a more complex dish. For example, the chole (chickpeas) has 2-3 sub-recipes that are found in different sections of the book. As a cookbook, it was a bit tedious to maneuver back and forth between the pages of this heavy book.
Make sure to carefully read the serving sizes, as they vary from dish to dish, and are not consistent. I had to take a picture of the recipe and sub-recipes to make it easier to follow. I still have a lot more recipes to try out. What would have helped is a listing of all the dishes in the table of contents, or next to each section, to avoid the constant referring to the index page to find the recipes. Furthermore, the metric system measures in the recipes are not ideal for an American audience.
Overall, this is a great gift for anyone who enjoys food, history, and stories. For all the avid readers out there, the recommended reading is an added bonus. The genuine voices of Shamil and Kavi along with Naved’s journey into making Dishoom a world-renowned restaurant is commendable.
My journey with Dishoom
The chili cheese toast had a kick to it and with the masala chai was a delectable breakfast.
The Mattar Paneer was tasty, but needed a little more cooking to soften the frozen peas, as they stood out without soaking into the onion- tomato masala with a gentle simmer of 5 minutes and cook time of extra 10 minutes.
The Murgh malai recipe was a classic hit. The juicy thigh meat with two marinades was well worth the effort.
Pau bhaj – I made this for my Bombaite nephews and nieces who grew up eating vada pau and pau bhaji. Their consensus was that it was a little sweet and westernized. Maybe what it missed was the ginger/garlic green chili paste?
The warm pineapple and black pepper crumble was a huge favorite especially with some vanilla ice cream on top.
The East Indian Gimlet – used a homemade lime cordial.
Praba Iyer is a Chef Instructor, Food Writer, and cooking judge. She specializes in team-building classes through cooking for Venture Capitalists and Tech Companies in the bay area. She teaches Thai, Mexican, Pan Asian, Indian, and Ayurvedic cooking classes. Praba is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. She was an Associate Chef at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.
What happens when you take a businessman with a keen interest in photography and put him in an artist’s studio? Raj Shahani’s career and creative force is proof that when you live life with a passion, creativity unfurls and takes you soaring upon its wings.
The New York based businessman with a successful career in the finance industry had always nurtured a creative side. Born in Mumbai, to Sindhi parents who held education and stability in high esteem, Raj was raised with a firm belief that a career must be a means to financial security. His early attempts at art were considered a distraction from his studies. He does not remember being exposed to much art, except for one instance when he saw the famed sculptor Auguste Rodin’s work on display. This was a moment he took with him as his life coursed through various career paths onwards to New York.
Having made a decision to retire upon turning 50, he decided to pursue all the things that inspired him creatively. Photography had remained with him throughout his career mostly as a keen hobby. Now free to explore other avenues, he took a sculpting workshop at the Art Students League in New York. And that was the beginning of a new love affair. This new found passion culminated in his first solo exhibit at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai in November 2019, featuring dancers captured in graceful motion through the medium of clay, bronze and fiberglass. He has also recently unveiled a site-specific, contemporary installation titled ‘Jayanti’ in Mcleodgunj, a small village outside Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh – home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
India Currents caught up with Raj Shahaniin Mumbai as he worked on several private commissions.
IC: We live in a world where specialization in a particular field of study carries weight – status – respect – identity. This begs the question – why & how did you choose to leave behind your successful career and change lanes so to speak?
R.S:My parents migrated from Pakistan and went through a lot as they made their life in India. So fiscal responsibility and being able to support your family with what you earned means everything to them. As a boy I loved to paint and draw. But since Art was not considered a viable option, my parents and my school discouraged me from my attempts to pursue it. I am a parent now, and I understand where they were coming from!
I ended up majoring in Chemistry and then went on to other things. More and more I was left with a feeling that I wanted to retire at the age of 50. But after that what? All I knew was that I wanted to do something which was not dictated by others. I had never envisioned making art, and only pursued photography as a hobby. Until I stumbled upon sculpting. It became an obsession!
IC: Did you see yourself working towards a goal while you were exploring sculpting?
R.S:There was no plan. I just lost myself in the studios sculpting for hours every day! The human form came easily to me, maybe because I have taken so many pictures of people. The form is ingrained in my head and I could translate it into clay. But the results were only for me. I did not intend to show it publicly. Friends urged me to show my work and I remember thinking “what a crazy idea”!
IC:I ask this question of all artists. How difficult was the idea of monetizing your work?
R.S:I haven’t accepted it as yet! While curating my work at the Jehangir Art Gallery, I wanted to keep all of it – could not let go! Even though I understand money and finance, it is very different when it comes to putting a dollar value to what I create. I cannot believe the response to my work! This is still something I am learning to deal with.
IC:Your show at Jehangir Art Gallery titled ‘Caesura/Continuum’ is a celebratory series of the human form captured in the course of executing ballet movements. The work is crisp, highly detailed, and has a wonderful, lyrical tension in some of the pieces. Tell us about your journey with this series.R.S:I don’t see my sculptures ‘ballet dancers’ – I know that the dance form is ballet, but I have tried to go beyond it. Forms and people are very important. It is more about the emotion, the story behind that moment. The captured moment is just part of that overall story. In my head, the shapes have feelings. The movement, the tension, the emotion on their faces tell a lot more than the dance form itself. Ballet is the medium used to tell that story! It is a very spiritual experience although not in a godly sense. It is meant to transport you into that story – into that world, as a viewer.
IC:How much of your work is colored by that exhibition of Rodin’s work you attended as a boy?
R.S: As a kid growing up in Mumbai, we didn’t have much exposure to art or sculpture. At that time I remember going to an exhibition featuring Rodin’s work. I had never seen work on that scale in my life! So it made a definite impact. Having never had formal art training, that first exposure stayed with me.
IC:Tell us about your recent work,‘Jayanti’, the 17 foot site-specific permanent installation situated Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh. Both the sculpture and the location – a place famed for its Buddhist spirituality – are intriguing.
R.S:I was at the Hyatt Regency Resort in Dharamshala talking to the architects because they were interested in showcasing a series of photographs I had taken of Buddhist monks. The beauty of the locale inspired me to visualize ‘Jayanti’ – which is not a creation, but an energy. It has always existed in that place. I just let my inspiration reflect that energy, giving back and enhancing what was already present. It is like holding a mirror to what exists.
IC:Your use of the word ‘mirror’ pretty much says it all! ‘Jayanti’ is highly reflective in the choice of materials you have used. It seems almost otherworldly, somehow placed in that area amidst the lushness of nature. How do you go from sculpting the human body in its lyrical and exquisite complexity to creating something like ‘Jayanti’?
R.S:Like I said before, ‘Jayanti’ has always existed as Energy in that place. She is the monolithic, Mother Goddess of Dharamshala who has been worshipped for all time. Jayanti is in the trees, the flowers, the beauty of the place itself. The sculpture is made of mirror-polished steel. It is multi-faceted, like a precious gem. You are meant to drive or walk around the installation. The form reflects different things as you drive around it, including the viewers themselves. So for me, it is more of a feeling, an experience. And a conceptual homage to Dharamshala, home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
It also carries a Sanskrit shloka inscribed on its reflective facets – a tribute to the Goddess Jayanti.
IC:What next? Which aspect of life & creativity do you intend to explore?
R.S:I am currently working on commissions and enjoying that process. Inspiration comes from everyday things that make me happy. I don’t have the constraints of being dictated to by the world around me, which is a blessing! So, for now, I just want to create. There is a hunger within me which lets me vent out my creativity in new and exciting ways.
It is a little like jumping off a bridge and feeling the wind in my face… while knowing that I will hit the water eventually! In the meantime, it is all about the present moment! All about the NOW! And about experiencing the wind in my face!
The installation ‘Jayanti’ is part of Hyatt Regency, Mcleodgunj’s permanent collection, paying tribute and homage to the ethos that is part of its fame.
India Currents wishes Raj Shahani many more travels along uncharted paths, drinking from the well of creativity.
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.
An interview with Ritesh Batra, the writer and director of Photograph, where he kindly assures Geetika Pathania Jain three times that she is not being too fanciful, and discusses the characters and their motivations:
Geetika Pathania Jain: Thank you for this exclusive interview with India Currents. Excited about your upcoming film Photograph. I had the honor and the pleasure of reviewing The Lunchbox and I was struck by some of the authorial signatures that I’m starting to see in your films. Certainly Mumbai appears to be your muse (or maybe it’s Bombay) with its colonial architecture and its chawls and teeming poverty. Any comments on why Mumbai inspires you so much?
Ritesh Batra: I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it myself. I do love the city. I grew up there. I was there till I was eighteen. I really loved how it used to be. And that kind of finds its way when I’m writing something. And especially with this movie, I wanted to get back to my own writing, to get back to directing my own writing. Yeah, so it also has a lot of nostalgia in it, just like The Lunchbox did, so I really come to it from a place of nostalgia.
You know when it used to be Bombay, when I was growing up, someone in the twenties now — I’m in my late 30s — but someone in their twenties now would be able to make a movie about Mumbai now, but my movies are more about people who are going through the city with a certain degree of nostalgia, which sometimes blends in and sometimes stands out from what their journey is, but it had a big impact on who they are.
GPJ: I see a more positive view of the city in this film (compared to The Lunchbox). I’m not sure if you agree with me that even though we do have Tiwariji who has been crushed by the city, but can I recall Mr. Fernandez (Irrfan Khan of The Lunchbox) and how these individuals who have been crushed by the city but yet they seem to endure and find ways to carry on. A message of alienation in this film or am I reading too much into it?
Got ten minutes? Here is the complete interview with Ritesh Batra:
PHOTOGRAPH (2019). Director: Ritesh Batra. Screenplay: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble. Players: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Jim Sarbh, Vijay Raaz. Hindi with English sub-titles. Amazon Studios.
Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.
The Roman poet Horace wrote the following: “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.” Although my Latin is weak, here’s a Wiki translation: “seize the present; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.”
All humans seek a balance when they contemplate their past-present-future. Some tend to be past-centric; others seize the day; and still others focus on the future. Those in the latter group include those who lose sight of today’s gifts while yearning for tomorrow. The examples are countless: instead of enjoying a particular class, a student takes courses that she thinks will get her into a prestigious college; ignoring the joy of reading to her baby, a mother dreams about her child becoming President someday; and remembering how he missed making it as a professional athlete, a father pushes his boys on the cricket pitch so that they will be the last ones standing on selection day.
“Selection Day” is Aravind Adiga’s novel about a small-town father – Mohan Kumar – who is monomaniacally obsessed with his sons – Radha Krishan and Manjunath – making it to Bombay’s big-time cricket leagues. Taken at that surface level, the novel is a feel- good, “root for the underdogs” read. One cheers on as the boys heroically climb out of the slummy Dahisar suburb of Mumbai, with their willow bats, to perhaps become the next Sachin Tendulkar; even Mohan, who is a bit of a scoundrel as a peddler of chutneys and more than a bit of a creep as a groping father, will have some readers rooting for the Davids to defeat the Goliaths.
While the description of cricket is nowhere near as compelling as C. L. R. James’ classic “Beyond a Boundary,” the sports writing here has an edge to it that keeps the reader glued. At one point, a question is asked: “What is cricket?” A wag might respond, “It’s Adiga’s crutch, his back story.” That said, Adiga’s response would have made James proud: “Cricket is the triumph of civilization over instinct… When the short-pitched ball comes screaming, and every instinct of panic tells you, close your eyes and turn your face, you must do what does not come naturally to you or to any man: stay calm. Master your nature, play cricket.” Quite early on, one knows that this is not going to be a simple read about a cricket match or about a couple of strivers achieving their father’s goal of making them master batsmen. Like all literary fiction, it is about our natures, our characters.
The novel’s character-building carries the narrative. Beyond Mohan, Radha, and Manju are Pramod Sawant (cricket coach), Tommy Sir (cricket impresario), Anand Mehta (cricket investor), Spotty Neck Sofia (unapproachable girlfriend), Javed Ansari (inscrutable boyfriend), and Bombay itself (pulsating city). None of the characters are cardboard cutouts (though Sofia seems to be an afterthought in what is a very male-centered book). Mohan and his boys take center-stage throughout the novel, but when Pramod, Tommy, Anand, Sofia, and Javed speak, they come alive and move the tension forward. And the city they live in stands out most prominently.
Adiga’s Mumbai doesn’t come scintillatingly alive the way Bombay does in Suketu Mehta’s “Maximum City,” but it is very present. It feels lived in, very much a breathing, raging city that is negotiating with Yama, the Lord of Death: “Mumbai is a dying city, true. But there is one thing that it will always have. One beautiful thing. Integrity. The integrity of the Bombay common man, known and celebrated throughout India, deeper than granite, the true bedrock of the city.”
But “Selection Day” demands a deeper reading beyond characters and settings, plots and subplots. This novel is about selection of a different sort: selecting self, engaging with the postmodern understanding of choice in the modern world. In this reading, the novel is about Manju finding his way in the world, his path that may or may not have anything to do with the footpaths that his father, the “Chutney Raja,” travels to earn his keep, nor anything to do with the cricket pitch between the wickets that his brother, the aspiring “world’s best batsman,” regularly ran on his way to record-setting centuries.
Manju’s struggles with his sexuality, his science, his suppression, and his sense of filial piety drive the heart of Selection Day. While seemingly a quotidian novel centered around cricketers playing their hearts out so as to be selected to represent their family, their city, and their community, this book is actually an act of subversion: Translate the old communal self into an individual whose motto is, “ My life is not limited by your imagination.” This is a self-help guide to half a billion people. Aravind Adiga takes on an alter ego character, a counselor who says to Manju: ” Fifty percent of this country, that is half a billion people, are under the age of twenty-five, and we older Indians have no idea how to listen to them. I want to be the Mother Teresa of listening to your generation.”
Although ostensibly about cricket-playing teen-age boys raging with hormones, raised by a controlling father, and ready for shaving razors, Adiga’s work borders on a frenetic rebellion: Rebellion against fathers, investors, coaches, the glorified past, the deferred future, and perhaps even rebellion against the given idea of India itself. Anyone seeking to preserve the status quo might find himself/herself afraid of this new voice of India, this voice raised from the neck upwards like a blade pushing up against the throat, scraping away innocent peach-fuzz and polluted urban filth from skin unprotected by soapy, perfumed lather.
Adiga’s effect is to encourage change in the young, while instilling fear in the old. Here is an emboldened Manju sharing his freedom with Javed: “This morning I shaved again, and I can’t believe it, the way my father [who has prohibited shaving] looks at me now. He’s scared.” There is a pause and Javed responds, “Mine is scared of me, too. All of them are.”
For Arvind and Ashok, two of the co-founders of India Currents who courageously found their paths.