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Annaprasana Grab (Image provided by Rashmi Bora Das)

Assamese Birth Ritual Peeks Into a Child’s Future

Flashback 24 years ago: My mother-in-law was not too happy when my baby grabbed a lump of soil from the plate in front of him. She had hoped that he would instead reach out for a big, colorful book that she had placed among many other items. Rather than him bonding with the land, she nurtured the dream of him being an erudite scholar! For reference, it was my son’s Annaprasana. Of the many birth rituals followed in India, this is a ceremony that I have always seen being celebrated in a grand way in my home state of Assam. 

Understanding the tradition calls for a dive into etymology. “Annaprasana” is a Sanskrit word in which “anna” means boiled rice and “prasana” means feeding. So it is a ceremony where a baby is introduced to solid foods like rice for the first time. An auspicious date is selected for the event, and although the infant is obviously too tiny to enjoy the delicacies, friends and relatives are treated to a sumptuous feast. Annaprasana is usually carried out when the child is six to eight months old with an odd month being picked for a girl and an even one for a boy. 

A family in Atlanta gets ready for their baby’s Annaprasana ceremony. (Image provided by Rashmi Bora Das)
A family in Atlanta gets ready for their baby’s Annaprasana ceremony. (Image provided by Rashmi Bora Das)

Going back to the story where my little boy picked the brown dirt, the act was related to an interesting game that is played during an Annaprasana ceremony. Several objects are kept before the child, and it is believed that whichever item the baby first picks is an indication of his or her future career. 

It is up to the family members what items they place. But among the things that are commonly kept are a pen symbolizing wisdom, a book that stands for knowledge, soil which represents property, and gold which signifies wealth. This is a game that everyone enjoys watching.  So in recent times, in order to accelerate the fun and reflect the new age of technology, people have started adding even stuff like cell phones to see if the child is attracted to those gadgets!

There is obviously no sound logic behind this game. No way it can predict one’s profession in the future! It simply provides a few entertaining moments. Now, what is interesting is the fact that I happened to discover that quite a few nations do something very similar although it is done on the child’s first birthday!

The Birthday Grab Across the World

Prevalent since dynastic times, Zhuazhou is a first birthday coming-of-age ritual in China that foretells the future. In an interesting article titled “Chinese First Birthday Marks Cultural Rite of Passage”, Zhantao Yang makes a point that while some of the symbolic items are easy to understand, for others, it mandates a proper understanding of the Chinese language and culture to comprehend the emblematic significance. For instance, if a child grabs a stethoscope, it is visibly indicative of a medical career. If he or she picks a calculator, it could mean a career in the sciences.  However, to an outsider who is not knowledgeable about the Chinese ethos, it will not be easy to guess that if a child picks a celery stick, it will hint at a hardworking nature or that picking a green onion will speak about one’s intelligence.

Coming to Korea, the custom of picking an object to predict a child’s path in life takes on the name of Doljabi. On similar lines, the Japanese too take a peek into their child’s future with the first birthday tradition of Erabitori. Every family can have their own choice of objects that they use in their daily lives. 

The symbolic meaning of certain items like a book, a pen, or money is pretty obvious. If a baby in Japan lifts a chopstick, it signifies that he or she will be a chef or foodie. But certain interpretations go deeper. The Koreans sometimes keep a thread which, if picked, means that the baby will have a long life. Again, grabbing food means they will never be hungry. Over time, there has been a change in the items placed because society has become aware of many successful occupations that have evolved.

Tracking down a similar tradition beyond Asia

We are inclined to draw an inference that the fortune-telling custom exists in many Asian countries owing to cultural similarities in their way of life. However, this ritual is not confined to Asia alone. I was intrigued to find Armenia and the island country of Malta following similar traditions. I will not be surprised if there are others too that play this game!

Agra Hadig is a teething party that the Armenians celebrate. The child is made to sit on the floor, and objects symbolic of different fields are arranged for the grab. 

The Maltese tradition of Il-Quccija dates back to the eighteenth century and is still an integral part of the first birthday celebration. In the past, items placed before a child were gender-specific, assigning separate professions for boys and girls.

For a girl, the list entailed things like a pair of scissors representing a future seamstress. The choice of a ribbon meant that the girl would be a beauty. And if she picked an egg, it was believed she would have a big and prosperous home.

The items that were kept in front of a boy stood for totally different vocations. An inkstand could be identified with the career of a lawyer or a magistrate, or a geometry instrument meant that the boy would be a future architect or engineer. In present times, however, this differentiation is not made, and the same items are placed before girls and boys.

Looking for a reason to explain the commonality in traditions across the world.

What could be the reason that this fortune-telling tradition is followed by so many different nations? This can be explained by falling upon the concept of cultural universals. Anthropologist George Murdock, while researching systems of kinship around the world, arrived at the finding that cultural universals exist among mankind. There are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. Cultural universals revolve around the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter and also involve human experiences like birth and death or illness and healing. Murdock recognized the importance of humor too as a universal medium to ease tension and create camaraderie among people.

To quote Donald Brown from his book, Human Universals, human universals comprise “those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exceptions”. And this tradition of trying to predict a child’s future can be considered to fall under the idea of belief, which qualifies as a cultural universal.

All parents wish for their children to do well in life. It is this investment and interest in a child’s future that makes parents be so inquisitive — this is a universal trait that transcends culture.


Rashmi Bora Das is settled in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. She has written for various platforms including Women’s Web to which she regularly contributes. You may visit her at www.rashmiwrites.com.


 

Film still from 'The Last Conception'

Love, Laughter, and Surprises in Indian-American Rom-Com ‘The Last Conception’

Graced by humor, Gabriela Ledesma’s The Last Conception seeks to spread the radiance of humane values amidst its laughable moments. It is the story of the Sikand family, whose quirkiness mixed with their sweetness, takes you on an eighty-five-minute exhilarating ride.

Film poster for 'The Last Conception'
Film poster for ‘The Last Conception’

Meet the Sikands and know their story

Savarna (Nazanin Mandi), an Indian-American young woman, is an embryologist at an IVF lab. Her parents Davidia (Marshall Manesh) and Mira (Veena Bidasha) have burdened her with the responsibility of getting married and having a baby to carry on the bloodline. 

The parents present their arguments to convince Savarna.

a) Her sister Chitra (Lovlee Carroll) is barren, and she and her husband Mike (Josh George) have adopted a child who is not part of their lineage.

b) Her cousins from India, who were in the race to grow the family tree, have died in an accident. So they have no other option but to pin all their hopes on Savarna to carry out this task.

A bombshell drops when Savarna announces that she is gay and in a serious relationship with her Caucasian-American partner Charley (Callie Schuttera). 

After some initial disappointment and drama, Savarna’s parents accept her sexuality. But Savarna’s mom is still insistent that she has to have the baby some way or the other. Tension brews with the arrival of Savarna’s grandmother, who comes from India with a spiritual assistant to ensure that Savarna gets pregnant.

A big surprise greets the Sikand sisters when they learn that they are Buddhists and not Hindus. Their parents reveal that they are the direct descendants of Gautam Buddha, and the child born to Savarna is the only hope to maintain the sacred family name. It is speculated that the new baby could even be Buddha reincarnated!

Savarna, with the approval of her family, gets married to Charley. But will she give her parents the grandchild that they have been waiting for? Join the lovable Sikands till the finish line to know about it all.

A humorous plot and brilliant performances make the film enjoyable.

There is never a dull moment in The Last Conception. The humor is not forced and flows spontaneously through the dialogues and actions. The actors need to be credited for doing justice to their parts as they ably contribute to keeping the laughter ball rolling. They perform with natural ease, and that’s what keeps the comic elements alive.

I laughed when Chitra stumbled between the words lineage and linen!

Then there is Savarna’s boss Jackson (Matt Richards) at the IVF lab who, while putting the samples in the freezer, called them babies.

The family moments are captured naturally, and the scenes fit into the right places.

Husbands and wives can act extremely silly when they argue over trivial things, and Savarna’s parents are no exception. In one such scene, Davidia snubs his wife when she simply inquires why he is breathing so hard. 

Charley, surprised, asks Savarna if she has more than one father when her father knocks at their door and announces “It’s your Dad. Davidia.”

Close on the heels of one another, there is a refreshing shower of humorous moments that keep one thoroughly entertained.

Film still from 'The Last Conception'
Film still from ‘The Last Conception’

It’s all there in a solid script!

Thanks to screenwriter Gabriel Constans, there is so much that is tenderly handled in the story. The idea of the divine child is a rather unique paradigm that offers freshness to the script. Constans maneuvers the story artistically with a twist at the end that one would anticipate the least. 

Besides the humor that flows perennially throughout the film, we experience a family camaraderie that is so heartwarming. Also, the concept of multiculturalism blends beautifully into the story. After Savarna surprises the family by telling them about Charley, her sister casually remarks: “Takes the heat off me for marrying a white guy!” But we see no traces of ill will towards any culture or community. Instead, a thought rings loud that humanity flourishes by embracing diversity. 

The film addresses the LGBTQ perspective through the story of Savarna and Charley without any spoken words, sending a message that love, respect, and acceptance can create wonders and pave the road to happiness.

It’s all about laughter, kindness, warmth, and affection in The Last Conception, and it’s this sweet package that leaves you with a feel-good experience at the end.


Rashmi Bora Das is settled in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. She has written for various platforms including Women’s Web to which she regularly contributes. You may visit her at www.rashmiwrites.com.


 

Adil Hussain's namaste in Star Trek

Diving Into the Divine Depth of the Namaste

How adventurous would it be if you were intergalactically taken forward to the 32nd century? I imagine you would be excited to no end! The experience would be even more enthralling if you saw a motivated public servant greeting another with a namaste!

I’m referring to none other than the season finale of Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 which concluded in January of this year. The character of Aditya Sahil, played by National Award winner Adil Hussain, welcomes commander Michael Burnhum (Sonequa Martin-Green) with folded hands as they meet for a second time in the concluding episode.

The internet has been buzzing with an avalanche of praise for Aditya Sahil who stands as an emblem of hope and positivity. The cherry on the cake is that the namaste that has warmed the hearts of so many Indians. In an interview with Positively Trek, Hussain shared how he had requested director Olatunde Osunsanmi to incorporate a namaste! The gesture represented our part of the world in the prestigious sci-fi show that celebrates diversity.

Exploring the etymology of namaste 

It’s a simple step with the hands over the heart in a prayer pose with a slight bowing of the head. But embedded in this gesture is a beautiful meaning. Derived from Sanskrit, ‘namas’ means ‘bow’ or ‘salutation’ and ‘te’ means ‘to you’. So the literal meaning is ‘bowing to you’.

As per the tenets of Hinduism, there is a spiritual value ingrained in the gesture. It is believed that the divine and soul are the same in everybody, so greeting someone with a namaste means, “I bow to the divine in you”!

Appreciating the sublime philosophy

Why ‘namaste’ has become the perfect pandemic greeting, an article by Jeremy David Engels, he makes just a casual reference to how the namaste, in lieu of the handshake, has emerged as a lifesaver during COVID-19 and focuses more on the sublime aspect of this timeless Indian tradition. 

A spiritual practice endorsed by Ralph Waldo Emerson is akin to the meaning rooted in namaste. The renowned American philosopher had motivated Americans to recognize the divine soul in others every time they spoke, using the metaphor of light to imagine this inner divinity. Engels cites this example to emphasize and draw the connection that the concept of recognizing divinity in others is a sacrosanct part of both Indian religion and the 19th-century traditions of American spirituality.

A very pertinent point is made when the author says that one does not have to be a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a yoga teacher to say namaste. He says, “Namaste can be as religious or secular as the speaker desires.”

Furthering the dialogue, Akkaraju Sarma writes for India Currents and delves further into the possibility of replacing the handshake with the namaste during the pandemic and beyond. Sarma insightfully mentions that “Aside from its simplicity, the namaste posture implicates mutual fairness. There is no prominent or submissive interpretation implied. Whereas, with a handshake, a person with a firmer grip is seen as more authoritative. In contrast, a person with a less firm grasp is seen as submissive. Namaste levels this field of cognitive conflicts.”

Namaste is so much a part of our lives

Apart from greeting one another, we get to see this gesture on a regular basis in religious rituals and various Indian classical dance forms. With increasing awareness for health and fitness, yoga has become a global phenomenon with namaste being incorporated into the practice worldwide.

Why is namaste an integral part of yoga? A brilliant explanation comes from the yoga journal: “For a teacher and student, Namaste allows two individuals to come together energetically to a place of connection and timelessness, free from the bonds of ego-connection.” 

As a meditation technique, an individual joins his hands to submerge deep into the heart chakra which acts as the center of compassion, empathy, love, and forgiveness.

Garnering unity and drawing on humanity

Respect for one another is what constitutes the baseline of humanity. Only when the feelings of empathy and deference for our fellow beings flow through our veins can we boast of a meaningful existence on earth. A reflection from my side. Yes, we do the namaste as a mark of courtesy or to express hospitality and gratitude but it would just be wonderful if, rather than mechanically following the gesture, all of us can practice the philosophy. That would definitely make the world a much better place to live in!


Rashmi Bora Das is settled in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. She has written for various platforms including Women’s Web to which she regularly contributes. You may visit her at www.rashmiwrites.com 


 

Film still from 'Mukti Bhawan'

Mukti Bhawan Celebrates the Parental Bond With Delicate Sensitivity

I would say it’s a rather uncanny coincidence. Mukti Bhawan is a film that I had wanted to write about for a long time. Just as I had gathered my thoughts and was close to penning the piece, I heard about the sad demise of actor Lalit Behl, who essayed the role of patriarch Dayanand Kumar in the film. The veteran actor-filmmaker passed away due to COVID complications on April 23.

As I pray for the eternal peace of the departed soul, I take a humble step to share my thoughts on this brilliant piece of cinema. 

It was the fall of 2016. After being premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, Mukti Bhawan received a 10-minute standing ovation from the audience. The depth of the subject matter and the delicate sensitivity with which it was handled moved the viewers immensely. Over the years, Mukti Bhawan has been showered with worldwide critical acclaim and has been screened at several film festivals. Its most recent entry is into this April’s London Indian Film Festival

Glimpses of  the story

Daya (Lalit Behl) lives with his son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) and his family. A dream he sees implants the idea in his mind that his days on earth are numbered. He announces at the dinner table that he wants to attain salvation and spend the final stage of his life in the sacred ghats of Varanasi. Rajiv is at the crossroads where he needs to balance between his office work and making preparations for his daughter’s wedding. Yet, he carries out his father’s wishes and takes Daya who is relentless and stubborn and won’t hear otherwise.

‘Mukti Bhawan’ is the lodge that Daya and Rajiv check into. An establishment housing elderly people, it lays down the rule which allows a maximum of 15 days of residency. Daya is at ease, settling in comfortably. He finds companionship in Vimla, a widow who has lived there for a long stretch since her husband’s death. Rajiv performs his duties as the obedient son, but he has the constant pressure mounting over him to return home and to his work.

Within the walls of this dilapidated building come alive the differences between the father and the son that have so long remained buried. Are Daya and Rajiv able to make peace and forget the past? And does Daya attain the salvation that he so passionately desired? These are the answers to look for as the film takes us through an emotional experience layered with sensitive humane nuances. 

The film mirrors reality through a script that is top-notch

The theme of aging parents is not new in the Indian film diaspora and has been addressed earlier. But what sets Mukti Bhawan on a level of its own is its realistic dimension. The story unfolds spontaneously with the absence of overt melodrama. 

Although the film steps into a philosophical domain by talking about life and death, there are light-hearted moments sandwiched between serious happenings. These scenes allow the narrative to flow with naturalistic, unencumbered ease. There is, for instance, a scene in which Daya’s granddaughter jokingly tells him that she is glad that she would have a room all by herself when he leaves the house. Again a comic moment surfaces when Daya falls ill and a bhajan is sung in anticipation of his death. Unable to bear the cacophony, he asks the singers to sing in tune.

A stellar star cast contributes its utmost

Mukti Bhawan belongs to the duo of Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain, who deliver their masterstrokes. Their interactions and conversations elevate the father-son relationship to a point where the scenes feel like those from real life and not just reel moments.

Behl is extremely convincing as the cantankerous father making inconsiderate demands. Anyone dealing with aged parents can easily relate to those times when he regresses to a state of childlike obstinacy, a behavior not too uncommon and seen sometimes among the elderly.

Adil Hussain’s portrayal of Rajiv fetched him a National Award, and it’s an accolade rightfully deserved. What is distinctive about the actor is that he molds himself effortlessly into any character he plays in his films. The role of Rajiv ranks high in the list of his outstanding performances. Anger, sadness, and frustration encircle him as he has to shoulder the responsibilities of a son, a husband, and a father. Hussain displays these varied emotions with unbelievable finesse.

The female actors in the film also show promise. Geetanjali Kulkarni as Rajiv’s wife and Palomi Ghosh as the independent-minded daughter make their presence felt by contributing their fair share. Navindra Behl as Daya’s companion strikes a chord with her warmth and kind disposition.

Film still from ‘Mukti Bhawan’

The film celebrates the parental bond with a heartwarming panache

Mukti Bhawan is a testimony to the genius and maturity of director Shubhashis Bhutiani, who embarked on this project in his twenties. Life and death are the two major strands in the web of human existence, and the film delineates this truth with fine artistry. Bhutiani weaves into this reality a story of human ties that raises questions and opens a window for reflection.

Without any moralizing, the film leaves a note, and it does so rather subtly and wisely. There are those unspoken words that contribute to the uniqueness of the narrative. While celebrating the parental bond, the film focuses on a father-son relationship that is seemingly imperfect. The bumps and jolts do not make the journey a breezy ride. But there emerges a beautiful realization that even within these misunderstandings, there is still ample room to make amends, allow forgiveness, and thereby preserve the sanctity of this timeless relationship.


Rashmi Bora Das is settled in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. She has written for various platforms including Women’s Web to which she regularly contributes. You may visit her at www.rashmiwrites.com