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Plant based food

I Am A Born-Again Vegetarian!

Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
About a decade ago, I chose vegetarianism again, because vegetarianism as a spiritual practice is an important part of how I live by my values every day.

I grew up vegetarian. That was the default lifestyle and diet in my family and community when I was growing up in Mumbai. I started eating meat in my twenties, partly because it was difficult to find meat-free options in 1980s America. Equally, I was motivated by a desire to be cosmopolitan and open to new ideas and experiences. 

But then, about a decade ago, I chose vegetarianism again. Whereas originally, it was an inherited practice, this time it is something I have mindfully chosen. And while the choice makes sense for a multitude of reasons, at its very core, it is an important part of how I live by my values every day.

I am a born-again vegetarian. 

Most faiths have spiritual practices. Across religions, these range from prayer, meditation and fasting to lighting of lamps and candles, to giving alms to the poor. Regardless of the religion, it seems that each spiritual practice is a way to promote stillness, reflection, introspection. It is a way to slow down, to withdraw from the busyness of life, to focus on something outside oneself. It promotes selflessness and intentionality, humility as well as gratitude. 

For me, all of these benefits are realized by the simple act of giving up meat and most other animal-based products such as dairy and leather.

There are many reasons for giving up meat. According to many studies, it is good for health, as it eliminates harmful substances from the diet. It is good for the environment, as the amount of water and land needed to create a meat-based calorie is many times more than what is needed to create the same calorie from plant-based foods. For me, these two are the “icing on the cake” of my chosen vegetarian lifestyle.

The “cake” is the knowledge that by giving up meat, I am no longer a participant in the industrial “manufacture” of meat—a system that, at its core, is based on cruelty to animals. I want to say, “inhumane” treatment of animals, but the word is quite unequal to the task of describing the routine horror that is being perpetrated on creatures that are sentient and can feel pain every day.

This point came home to me when I was in the middle of reading a book called “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It has a section that describes how cows and pigs are treated as they are led to slaughter. About a third of the way into this section, I could not go on reading. It was just too horrific. 

This crystallized the issue for me—if I cannot bear to read the words—forget about viewing pictures or video—of what the animals are made to undergo so we might have abundant meat, how can I , in good faith, continue to consume the products manufactured by such a system?

A guru is a teacher or master, particularly someone who has attained a level of scholarship through lived experience. My gurus in my chosen spiritual practice were my son and his friend Peter who came from a self-described “meat-and-potatoes” family. 

When he was in high school, as he became aware of the animal cruelty that is part of a meat-based diet, Peter chose to become a vegetarian. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for him to adhere to this lifestyle. To be surrounded by smells and flavors that he grew up with and enjoyed, and that could be his for the asking; and yet to reject them for a principle, was both admirable and humbling.

Inspired by Peter’s example, my son too gave up meat. Being away at college during these years, there were times when there were too few choices, or he was left out of campus events like “Asian Street Food.” But, convinced about the rightness of his choice, he did not budge. He even went on a road trip to New Orleans and managed to find vegetarian food—not always healthy, but vegetarian nonetheless—during the entire trip.

As a mother who worried about his health and his ability to enjoy life, I often urged him to not make perfect the enemy of the good. What I meant is that it was okay if he occasionally allowed himself to eat meat, especially when there were no good alternatives, or simply as an occasional treat. For, while renunciation too is a kind of spiritual practice, when carried to the extreme of denial, it can do more harm than good, and might even lead to a renunciation of the spiritual practice itself.

In that spirit, many people observe new traditions, such as meatless Mondays or eating only locally grown organic meat, or eating meat only after 6 pm. The good news is that it keeps getting easier to eschew an animal-based lifestyle. Not only are there meat substitutes like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat, there are also new vegan options for butter, cheese, eggs, and ice cream. 

Evolution is a process of continual incremental improvement—in nature as well as within us. A quote of Thomas Edison brings together the concepts of evolution and vegetarianism: “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”


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

Photo by Alexandra Andersson on Unsplash


 

I Walk With My ForeMothers When I Wear My Streedhan

Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

On Mother’s Day, as on all others, I was thinking of my mother and grandmother. Even though they are no more, they are very much present in my everyday life. This is partly thanks to the gold jewelry—a chain, a pair of small earrings, and bangles—that they bequeathed to me. These items matter to me not because of their (modest) monetary value but because of what they signify.

In Marathi, streedhan means “woman’s wealth” (stree=woman, dhan=wealth). The term means “woman’s capital” and, traditionally, it was endowed upon the bride at the time of her wedding. It was comprised of gold and jewelry, household items, and cash. This was the contribution that her birth family made towards helping her get settled in life. Sometimes, the groom’s family also made a contribution towards the streedhan.

This was a way to provide capital that would serve as insurance or investment. If the marriage did not last—early death of the husband was common—the helpless widow would not be entirely at the mercy of fate or her in-laws. Uneducated and unable to earn a living, she could sell the jewelry to pay for her children’s educations, or to buy a small home of her own.

I wear my gold chain, hoops, and bangles all the time—despite the fact that the pieces don’t match my American outfits. Over the decades lived in this adopted land, I have changed about as much as I want to, especially regarding attire. On the few occasions that I bow to the dictates of fashion and take these items of jewelry off, I sense emptiness. My wrists feel manly, my neck seems bare, and my face—unframed by two little hoops—looks as if it is sickly or in mourning. And so, I avoid taking them off; on the few occasions I do, I put them back on at the earliest opportunity.

I walk in this world with my foremothers holding my hand in the form of the jewelry that they wore throughout their lives.

Indian bride

But the chain, hoops, and bangles are not my literal streedhan. My womanly capital is my education. It is what makes me a critical thinker and a lifelong learner. It gives me self-confidence as well as emotional independence. My mother (and father) and grandmother (and grandfather) invested as much thought and energy into making this streedhan available to me as previous generations of parents might have to gather the gold that they bestowed on their young, about-to-be-married daughters. Having witnessed or suffered the havoc that resulted when women were un-empowered, my elders were determined to change course.

Despite my being female, I was excused from doing chores like cooking and cleaning. My elders set expectations of high educational achievement and applauded me when I achieved my potential. So convinced were they about the rightness of this that they did not allow themselves to worry about the consequences such as the challenge of balancing work and family. That would be my battle to fight—using the capacities with which I was being equipped.

They conveyed the reason for the focus on education in clear-eyed and empowering terms. Yes, it was so that I would be spared the hardships and indignities that women of earlier generations had suffered. But, with discipline, determination, and their encouragement it was achievable. All that mattered was making me the most empowered person I could be.

So, the streedhan that I will hand down to my children will be the jewelry that symbolizes a way of being in this world—the courage and sacrifices of our ancestors over outdated and crippling customs; their commitment to nurturing the children and to seek to flourish through unsparing hard work.

Last year I moved 3,000 miles—from the east coast to the East Bay. The pull was my deep desire to be present to my infant grandson. The push was the pandemic which made travel impossible for the foreseeable future.

As he awakens into consciousness and learns about the world around him, sundry items catch his eye. He tugs at my gold bangles and when I hand them to him, he touches and, invariably, puts them in his mouth. Sometimes I twirl them on the floor and they spin like dervishes. He watches enthralled.

The bangles that were worn by my mother and by her mother before her have become the beloved toys of their great-grandson/great-great-grandson. The distance—across five (!) generations and multiple continents—is being bridged through an outdated but repurposed tradition.


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

Image Tehzeeb Kazami Pixabay


 

YouTube is the Desi Mood

We gave up cable TV over seven years ago and thanks to sites like Netflix, Amazon Video, and HBO Go, we haven’t missed it at all. But, the real treat that resulted from cutting the cord is that it pushed me to seek information and entertainment on sites such as Youtube and Vimeo.

As I am sure most people know, Youtube is a universe of an endless variety of shows, shows that cater to the most niche of interests. 

For example, my son sent me a link to Primitive Technology, where a man who builds small structures using only the tools and materials that would have been available in pre-industrial times.

Primitive Technology

A friend sent me a link to Grandpa Kitchen, a channel of a man in South India who, seemingly single-handedly, cooks food outdoors on a massive scale, and feeds disadvantaged kids. As she put it, “He is so cute… his wrinkles have wrinkles!”

Grandpa Kitchen sharing Banana Pancakes

Finally, there are art and craft channels that feature everything from rangoli made using forks and bangles to reusing old newspapers to make Ganesh Chaturthi decorations. 

Watching these and other videos provides a mental health break, a creativity inspiration boost, and  pure entertainment. Even if I cannot do any of these things, it feels good to know that such creative people exist and also that the technology exists to make it available to me for free (or for the price of internet connectivity). Indeed, I would go so far as to say that at a time when the news is filled with grievances and acrimony, which in turn lead to feelings of helplessness or cynicism, videos such as these as well as their easy availability offer a sense of hope and possibility.

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Sometimes I need a culture or nostalgia fix–something that is as familiar and comfortable as a walk in the old neighborhood. The collection on Youtube is vast and I wouldn’t presume to offer a comprehensive survey or even a “best of” list. However, I have found some videos and channels that I recommend repeatedly to friends and acquaintances. So, I am doing the same for the India Currents community.

Old Bollywood songs: remixes, re-recordings, new voices

  1. S. Qasim Hasan Zaidi: A Pakistani professor of engineering and an accomplished musician, his channel has videos of him playing and singing old Bollywood songs. 
  2. Mayuri: Russian performers who love Indian dance and practice it with uncommon grace. I especially like their rendering of “mera naam chin chin chu” and “na moonh chhupake jio.” 
  3. Within India, a great revival of old hits appears to be in vogue. Pran Katariya’s channel features many accomplished singers, among them Anil Bajpai and Sangita Melekar. Similar groups have sprung up in many Indian towns and cities. 

Web series

  1. Sumukhi Suresh as the Maid is sassy and authentic.
  2. Tech conversations with Dad are funny and heartwarming.
  3. Episodes of “If apps were people” are original and hilarious.

Aam Aadmi Family is like Everybody Loves Raymond, but set in contemporary India and featuring quintessentially Indian situations. It features the middle-class Sharma family consisting of the parents, their two young adult children and Mr. Sharma’s elderly mother. What makes this show remarkable is that the situations are completely believable and the characters are as likeable as the people from one’s old neighborhood. This, even while the show breaks down stereotypes through its gentle sense of humor.

So, for example, the grandmother is not orthodox at all and is completely up on the latest lingo used in texting and other apps. The daughter breaks up with her boyfriend and upends the “girl-viewing” ceremony. The grandmother never misses an opportunity to gently jab at her daughter-in-law. These and similar situations are presented with a quirky and light touch. And then, of course, there are the quintessential Indian situations such as the ever-present, well-meaning neighbor, and the relatives and friends  who drop in unannounced for tea. For me, watching an episode of Aam Aadmi Family is like a quick 20-minute trip to India without leaving my house.

The show is truly innovative when it comes to its ad model. Each episode has a passing mention of a product or service, such as a mutual fund or diabetes-friendly oil. The advertisers deserve credit for sponsoring such creative and enjoyable shows and for delivering their message in a refreshingly subtle way.

Another show that revolves around Indian family life, but pushes the envelope in doing so is “Permanent Roommates.It features Mikesh and Tanya who have had a long distance relationship for several years. When the series opens, they have moved in together and Tanya is pregnant. Alternating between serious and funny, the series offers a what-if and believable depiction of situations that would have been unthinkable a few years ago and are probably unthinkable even today except in a cosmopolitan metro like Mumbai. 

For interesting short films I recommend channels such as Pocket Films, Whistling Woods International and Terribly Tiny Tales. For stand-up comedy there is East India Comedy and various comedians performing under the Canvas Laugh Club banner.

As a bonus, here are links to two short films that have very unexpected endings: “Rishtey and “Jai Mata Di

What did you think of the above suggestions? What would you recommend? Do post in the comments. In the meantime, happy watching!

Desi Roots, Global Wings – This is a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu.