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Hargila Stork, From Reviled to Adored: Part 1

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 2 part series on the striking endangered stork known as hargilas, or ‘bone-swallowers’, in one of their last homes – Assam.

In January 2019, graduate student Tracy Melvin traveled from Michigan State University to India to attend an annual meeting of the Women in Nature Network, a loose collection of women conservationists from around the world. The trip required multiple flights and many hours of travel, but Melvin was eager to join in on conversations about the successes and struggles of conservation projects in a supportive environment.

As the conference began, Melvin says she was impressed to hear what women were accomplishing, especially in low-income countries. But she was particularly interested when the host of the meeting, Purnima Devi Barman, got up to speak about her work with a gangly and obscure stork called the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius).

Once close to extinction, the bird has rebounded in Barman’s home state of Assam in northeastern India. And that success, according to widespread consensus, is primarily because of Barman, who has single-handedly transformed the species from a reviled nuisance to a beloved cohabitant among a surprisingly broad cross-section of people, including government officials, mothers, and people who pick through garbage dumps for a living.

Hearing Barman talk made Melvin want to get involved—an effect Barman seems to have on people. More than a year later, the two women and several colleagues published a paper that looked at how community involvement has helped to advance the conservation of the striking storks. Among her most successful strategies, Barman has created an “army” of women who care for injured storks, throw celebratory baby showers for the birds, and weave stork-adorned fabrics for sale.

In contrast with decades of top-down and high-cost conservation efforts, experts say, the driving principle behind Barman’s work is deceptively simple: Saving species requires buy-in from people. Women, in particular, can be powerful partners, even—or especially—when they don’t hold traditional forms of power in their cultures. By including women in conservation projects that have simultaneously changed their own lives, Barman’s work may hold implications for similar efforts everywhere.

“She not only brought the species back from the brink, but she empowered women in a way that they probably hadn’t been empowered before,” Melvin says. “She’s not just helping the birds. She’s also helping the people. She’s giving them something to care about.”

Purnima Devi Barman, biologist and founder of the Hargila Army (an all-female grassroots volunteer conservation effort), educates and empowers the Assamese community on the importance of Greater Adjutants. Cultivating personal relationships with villagers and raising awareness are key components to Barman’s successful conservation model, especially since many residents have Greater Adjutant nesting trees in their backyards. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

Gathering women

The greater adjutant is not a traditionally beautiful animal, and its lifestyle isn’t pretty either. A member of the stork family, it has skinny, knob-kneed legs, a relatively puny bald head, beady eyes, and an elongated orange pouch that hangs from its neck like a deflated balloon. It is awkward and large, standing about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall. It is also notable for its smell. Traditionally called hargilas, which means “bone-swallowers,” greater adjutants drag dead carcasses into tree tops, where they eat the flesh and then drop stinky messes of poop onto the ground below. The birds also spend a lot of time in garbage dumps, where they scavenge for food.

In the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of greater adjutants lived in wetlands across much of Asia, from Pakistan to Cambodia. But habitat destruction, pollution, poaching, and the loss of their nesting trees pushed numbers sharply downward in the first half of the 20th century. A reputation as a bad omen in many places didn’t help them in the face of these threats. By the 1990s, there were an estimated 400 birds left. They have rebounded somewhat since but the International Union for Conservation of Nature still classifies them as Endangered, with only 1,200 to 1,800 birds confined to Cambodia and two regions of India—Bihar and Assam, where Barman lives.

An endangered Greater Adjutant is pictured amongst the garbage in the Boragaon landfill. The landfill has the largest year-round concentration of Greater Adjutant storks in the world. Attracting a variety of scavenger species and encroaching upon Deepor Beel wetland, the landfill causes pollution, habitat destruction, and wildlife deaths through toxic seepage. Once covering 4,000ha, the wetland has shrunk to an alarming 500ha. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

Despite the longstanding cultural disgust that surrounded the birds, Barman quickly began to appreciate the storks’ more appealing side. Raised for several years by her grandmother, who often took her outside and taught her songs and stories about birds, she developed a connection with nature that brought her solace during a period when her parents were away. Later, she studied zoology and wildlife biology at Gauhati University, where she earned an undergraduate degree and then a Masters in 2002. Eager to pursue a Ph.D., she gave in first to family pressures to get married and have children, giving birth to her twin daughters in 2005. She started her doctorate work in 2007, with a focus on greater adjutants.

Aware of the outsized conservation attention that goes to India’s charismatic megafauna like rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) and tigers (Panthera tigris tigris), Barman had started thinking about studying hargilas when she saw them in a wetland while doing fieldwork for her Masters. Why, she wondered, had she never seen them in her own village? As she began to collect data, she visited the few villages where they did live. While there, she would leave her phone number so people could call her if they had anything to report about the birds. One day at the end of the hargila breeding season in 2007, she got a call. A villager in the Kamrup District had cut down a giant tree on his property. The tree contained nine nests, filled with hargila nestlings.

Once at the scene, people gathered around and laughed at her. They jeered and teased her about her concerns. They were angry and mean. “Why are you lecturing us?” they asked her. Why should we care about such an ugly bird?  Would she pay them to care? Would she come live with them and clean up after the birds? Would she eat the birds on her way home? 

Trembling with embarrassment and dismay, Barman thought about her daughters, then just 2 years old. On the way home, she made a decision to delay her Ph.D. work. “I thought, ‘No, I won’t do it now,’” she says. “‘First, I’ll rope in all the people. I’ll win the hearts and minds of the people. We will start a people’s movement. And then, only if I’m successful with the birds, I’ll pursue my dream.”

Her plan was to start with the basics: Meet people. Build friendships. Try to understand community concerns. Remembering the comments from men in the village, she cleaned temples to earn trust and show she was listening. Her compassion ran deep. She recognized that these weren’t bad people. They thought they were doing the right thing: ridding themselves and their properties of a messy bird that was a bad omen. It wasn’t their fault that they thought poorly of hargilas. They just hadn’t learned about the value of wildlife.

Soon, Barman’s work coalesced around a single, if improbable, goal: Get people in the villages of Assam to incorporate the greater adjutant into their local culture and traditions. Since the birds spent much of the year nesting in trees on private property, she knew they were untouchable by government protections. Her only hope was to make people care about the birds like they care about their own children. That way, they wouldn’t want to cut down the trees anymore.

In 2009, Barman organized the first of what would become many hargila “baby showers.” She invited about 30 women to the event, and she made the celebration as traditional as possible. It included prayer songs, a cooking competition, and games that incorporated lessons about wildlife. Barman talked to the women about the birds and how vulnerable they are during the breeding season. She appealed to their identities as mothers, comparing the birds to women when they give birth. Acceptance came quickly, Barman says, and the popularity of the baby showers snowballed into a coalition of women who rallied behind the storks. Barman started to think of them as a “hargila family.” In 2014, she dubbed them the “hargila army.”

Since then, the army has helped rehabilitate injured birds. Using looms and yarn distributed by Barman, women have also started to weave traditional fabrics adorned with storks, which they sell to help support their families. More than 400 women take part in the conservation work on a daily basis, Barman says. More than 10,000 women and their families have participated in hargila-related activities.

Jonali, a member of the Hargila Army, is pictured sewing a tote bag with an embroidered Greater Adjutant motif to combat plastic bag usage. Members of the Hargila Army take great pride in protecting this endangered species. Greater Adjutant motifs are now sewn and loomed into their traditional textiles such as mekhala chadar and gamosas. In 2018, eighty sewing machines were donated by the New Zealand High Commission, further boosting the women’s livelihoods and source of income while advancing the conservation of Greater Adjutants. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

With Barman’s guidance over the past decade, the stork has become a symbol and way of life, says Ana Liz Flores, a conservationist and senior advisor for the LAC-Huairou Commission, a grassroots NGO in Argentina. Like Melvin, Flores attended the WiNN meeting in India in 2019. While she was there, she visited several villages, where it was clear to her that hargilas had become integral to the identity of the community. Women and children were leading the effort. “The schools and the women are the key pieces of the whole project,” she says. “It’s the first time I have seen a community that involved with one species. That, to me, is special.”

Barman has faced plenty of gender discrimination in her career, she says, and women in her culture are not usually included in decision-making. But women have power in their households, and by reaching them, she has been able to reach their children, relatives, and entire communities. “They are rural women. They are the homemakers,” Barman says. “I think the world should know about this huge force of women.”

Check in next week for the conclusion of this series!


Emily Sohn is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Nature, NPR, and many other publications.

Carla Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer. Formerly a ventriloquist, she brings a plethora of unique skills to her new career. Photographing with passion and a sense of humor, her published work includes pieces for SmithsonianMag.com. Ultimately, she aspires for her photographs to educate viewers while inspiring positive change. You can see more of her work at carlarhodes.photography.


This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences. 

California: The Cure

Legends of Quintessence – a Science Fiction column with a South Asian twist. 

Chapter 1

In a tiny house by the outskirts of Fresno, the morning was very quiet. Twenty years ago such a lull would be constantly interrupted by the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of the windmills. Today, the windmill farm had been replaced by an energy farm that used a combination of solar fields and wind tunnels to maximize energy output. Quiet, efficient, and as ugly as could be. This stretch of California had stayed virtually untouched by the development frenzy that had gripped the state for as long as one could remember. 

The silence was broken by the phone

She jumped at the sound. 

Her hands shook as she picked up the phone, not saying anything. 

“Ms. Sana?”

“Yes, who are you?” 

“I am Vink Bhatia from the Center for Disease Prevention: CDP. We are calling from the Richmond center. We would like to call you in for a meeting to advise us.” 

She panicked, trying to breathe normally, “Do I have to come? My case is closed and I have not been involved with the CDP for 26 years now. I have no new information or anything for that matter.”

“No ma’am,” said Vink “We need your help. We have no other hope for what is staring us in the face. Please come and see us this afternoon and I will explain everything.” 

Once she put the phone down, she sobbed fiercely as all the memories she had suppressed came flooding back. 

Twenty-eight years ago, she had graduated from Strafford University, ready to save the world through research on vaccines. She joined the Center for Disease Prevention (CDP) Research Center to work on the development of vaccines for targeted assignments. It was the perfect time to be in a perfect world. The political upheaval of ten years ago was far behind and they finally had a president that came from California.

A woman of mixed ancestral background was voted into Presidency and led the country to financial success and stability through her political tact and focus on science, international relationships, and trade. It was just as well since the world was moving faster towards space exploration and travel. All eyes were shifting from regional and national boundaries to planetary and galactic boundaries.

She joined the team headed by Professor Braun. Her work was a combination of genetic engineering and cloning to develop vaccines. What had become clear to space agencies and companies contracting space missions was that, without vaccines that could trigger the immune system to mirror and overpower microbes in space, humans would be defenseless. In the last two years, there had been seven outbreaks of diseases brought back to Earth by space travelers. They had been hard to contain and three of them had had very sad conclusions with entire communities being quarantined till they were wiped out. Never had the CDP felt the heat like it did then.

The whole world unanimously agreed on the need for accelerated research to develop potent vaccines to protect humanity. Money poured into top research institutes and whole departments sprung like wild mushrooms in monsoon. There was enough funding to last for decades of research and development. 

Chapter 2

She worked on some very bizarre and strange microbes that took a lot of effort to clone, control, and conduct tests on. More than once she and her team had to quarantine themselves, as they worked to contain the aggressive multiplication of microbes.

The worst were the ones that came from the outer asteroid belt beyond the solar system. That part of the belt was where space mining companies really wanted to go for expensive and rare elements. The outer belt was rich in both elements and pathogens due to the increased gravitational forces in that part of the galaxy. 

In her line of work, she would often assist astronauts, lifting planetary dust off of their gear before they went into the sterilization chambers. She knew the frequent travelers by name and they joked and shared stories each time they met her.

This winter when Salas came back he was hurt. The official story was that his communication link with base had snapped due to a magnetic storm and a tiny piece of asteroid debris had hit him with moderate speed. When they were alone she looked at him, “Hey man, this time you lost it”, she said as she winked with a smile.

Salas looked up and she recognized the fear in his face.

“Can you shut off the recording for a couple of minutes?” he said.

”What’s up?” she was puzzled and not taking her eyes off him as she used suction to lift off the dirt from his clothes into five separate partitions within the sampler.

“I need to tell someone. They told me on the base not to say a word. But someone has to know …they may be coming to earth?” He paused and then looked up at her, pleading with tears in his eyes, ”Please, can you just give me five minutes?”

She paused and then turned the room to reclaim mode: they had seven minutes before all processes would kick back on, including monitoring and recording. She knew she would have to sign tons of paperwork and instantly regretted doing it. 

Salas gripped her hand and started blurting, “They know that there is some form of life in the outer asteroid belt. They have known for a long time and are hiding it. They have destroyed evidence many times.”

“Hang on there buddy, who’s they, and what kind of life?” Now she was genuinely interested, even if Salas had gone completely cuckoo.

“The mining companies…They think that they understand the aliens and that they can control them. They do not want to abandon the asteroid belts. I met him”, he paused, “I met it while leaving Base 3, which is at the remote end and is not manned. It was flowing fast and at first, I thought it was a gas cloud but then it hit my shoulder here”, he said showing the back of his right shoulder. “It was hard as a rock and I fell off and I reached out with my gun. I must have hurt it since I felt deep vibrations through my organs and then it flowed away very fast.” 

“Look at my suit here,” said Salas, pointing to a part on his right side that had a splatter of grey almost rock-solid matter. “I think this came out of it”

She jumped up at his confession. Did he mean that he had alien microbes on his suit?

“Don’t move,” she said urgently and reached for a mini sampler and scooped up the hard substance from his suit. “Salas, who else knows about this?” she asked.

“The controllers on Base 2. I told them about the encounter and they did not seem surprised at all. Instead, they told me to not tell anyone, else they would come after me”.

She told him to take some time off to rest and get his nerves back and promised to not tell anyone. 

Chapter 3

She did not report the alien matter as she should have. She worked on it on her own. She divided the amount into two equal halves and experimented with one half – attacking it with earth microbes to see how they would impact the defense mechanisms of the alien matter.

She used the second half to develop immuno-adaptive vaccines for humans when attacked by microbes from the alien mass. She worked non-stop, knowing that there was no end to the greed of the mining companies. Very soon Earth would be facing aliens without knowing if they were friend or foe.

She wanted to be ready…for people, for humanity…for a future where Earth could protect itself against the aliens that mining companies were aggravating.  

Completely unaware of what was happening in parallel, she worked on her own and was able to create the two medical safeguards with which she could arm the world if the need arose. She was almost done and had to conduct the last tests for replication and vaccine stability.

“Just a couple of days more,” she said to herself as she entered her lab on that fateful day.

They were waiting for her at the lab entrance. They had quarantined her work and she was escorted to a remote intelligence location. During her interrogation, she realized that Salas had cracked and told his team leader that she had taken alien matter from his suit. When she asked what happened to Salas, they gave her blank looks. She knew then what could happen to her. But if she told them everything, there would be no hope for humanity.

No matter what happened to her, she would not tell.

She had stored her work in two places by then. One, in the lab where her tests had failed, and the other where the vaccines had worked. She gave up the location of samples where the vaccines had worked on alien mass. She did not tell them the location of the molecules that had the potential to invade alien mass. She was not going to give up the last line of defense! 

They made an example out of her for the other researchers, calling her a traitor for developing vaccines to protect aliens. Her trial and sentencing was one-sided, military, swift, and ruthless. Eleven years in a military prison in Kansas and they ensured that they found every reason to throw her into solitary confinement as often as possible.

She imagined during these spells that she was the trunk of a twisted old tree, with each solitary confinement increasing her rings. Her branches held the weight of future children that wanted the freedom to be born. And close to her roots lay Salas in a resting position. She would often comfort him and let him know that it was ok.

“You have done your part. You can rest. I am the one that failed and my branches feel heavy with this burden.”

On release, she was only allowed to work non-medical, low-income jobs. She chose to be a hairstylist. Given her record, the only place that employed her was a minimum wage salon in Fresno. Routine: wake up, breakfast, get to work, end at 8 pm, back home, eat and sleep. 7 days a week including Christmas and New Year. It kept her sane, it kept her going for 16 years until the phone rang that morning. 

Chapter 4

She opened the door before the bell rang and walked to the car they had sent for her. The 3 hours drive was heavy with silence and she kept imagining in her mind again and again what awaited her at the CDP. As she stepped into the CDP building, a flood of memories hit her and she shivered involuntarily.

A man standing inside came rapidly to her and dragged her away by her arm to a room in the back of the two-story building.

“I am Vink,” he said as he hastily seated her in a chair.

She nodded, “What do you want?”

“You were experimenting on alien matter and developing vaccines for it?” 

She felt her anger rising, “I was not. I have served a long sentence for a crime that I never committed.”

“Oh, you don’t understand?” he said, “ We will need your help now. The mining companies have been exploiting the outer asteroid belt for a very long. We did not know that they were aware that some of these asteroids hosted an alien form of life that can survive in very harsh conditions. A lifeform so evolved that they can move from being fluid to hard as rock. When they die, they become a rock, almost unrecognizable as a living form.”.

He took out some pictures and showed her, “Look, here is one in the process of transforming from a solid rock form to fluid.” 

“So what do you want from me?”

Vink looked at her, “They are sick of being driven out of their homes and have entered earth using our own spaceships. Earlier, we thought that we had managed to contain them within the transportation base, but news from across California and Texas has me convinced that they are out there in these states.”

“Did you guys keep my experiments and materials in my lab?” She jumped up, “We will need to find it back and I need you to give me a lab and any alien mass you might have collected from the transportation base.”

“What had you developed besides what we found?” asked Vink.

“Well….you see some of Earth’s microbes can cause a lot of damage to them and are hard to create vaccines against. How many types do we have?” she motioned. 

“We have three types: two from combinations of flu and a very old skin plague against which all humans today have immunity and one that impacts their external layer”, Vink replied.

“Let’s work with the two combinations and forget the skin diseases…we need lethal diseases, not tame ones.” She stopped and turned sharply to him, “You don’t understand do you?” Vink stared at her.

“Look, they are able to change their form from fluid to solid by diffusing liquids and gases. But when they have to change from solid to fluid form they need to absorb these gases through their outer layer. If that outer layer malfunctions, they can no longer change back to fluid form and are rendered immobile. That is when we can infect them with our microbes”. 

“Stop staring at me and let’s get to work. We have a lot to do…first I will need to replicate these microbes at a mass scale and once we have done that we will need to distribute the vaccines as well,” she said, exasperated. 

Vink looked excited and confused at the same time, “We have not been able to develop vaccines yet. We are working on it but need more time. I am afraid we will lose some people but we are looking to quarantine the two states if needed.”

She looked up from the table and spoke slowly as a matter of fact, “Yes, I know that. I have the vaccine ready. I had it ready before they took me to prison. All we need to do is mass produce it.”

Vink sat down and took a few moments to absorb this. “So you did? Where did you?…They sent you to prison…And all the time you were….”

She stood up restlessly, “Vink, take me to a lab. We can’t waste time chatting!”


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

In 2020, Science Fiction is Freedom

Legends of Quintessence – a column that interacts with Science Fiction in a South Asian context. 

The year 2020 has been a very strange one. This year has made me reflect on things I hold dear in my heart.

The first critical reflection was on people – family, friends, colleagues, mentors.

The second was freedom. Not just freedom of living in a free, democratic country but also mental freedom. I found my freedom in writing Science Fiction, where there were no boundaries to limit the imagination.

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Most of my early pieces found their way to the trash can due to various reasons: moving continents, writing on loose sheets of paper, journals getting lost unwittingly. The intent was never to publish but to find an outlet for creativity. Putting pen to paper as a means to satisfy that creative urge. And somewhere down the line, I realized that I liked writing science fiction more than other kinds of stories. The ideas would come fast and would demand to be written…and I finally shifted from writing on paper to writing on my laptop. 

Then came March 2020 and the COVID crisis. Suddenly daily travel, socializing, watching movies in theaters, and my son’s violin concerts came to a halt. Instead, I started focusing on new gifts of quality family time, exercise, making healthier meals, reading books, and writing science fiction more often. The impetus to publish my writing grew. 

I believe I am very fortunate that I got to launch a Sci-Fi Column (Legends of Quintessence) with India Currents. When our publisher, Vandana Kumar shared the news with me, it was hard for me to believe that I was becoming part of such a prestigious and long-standing publication. It has been an amazing experience to bring Science Fiction to our readers: Interview with an artist @colorsofhoney, Sci-Fi short story ‘Aberration’, and an interview with @addictedtospice who shared a recipe worthy of feeding Aliens

And now as we look forward to 2021, a year that promises to be better and brighter, I am excited to continue bringing Science Fiction to our India Currents readers. Wish you all a very happy transition to 2021 and see you in the new year!

If you would like to read the Sci-Fi short story ‘Aberration’, here are the links to the chapters:

Chapter 1: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-tales-of-a-deviant/

Chapter 2: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-2/

Chapter 3: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-3/

Chapter 4: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-4/

Chapter 5: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-5/


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Aberration: Chapter 4

This story is published once a month as part of the column – Legends of Quintessence – which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context. 

Recap: The last chapter ended with Sneha being shaken by her encounter with a legendary alien life form of the Antilla constellation. They had communicated with her and even left her their biological fasilogram. Would she die due to the contamination? She waited to see what would happen next to her.

Chapter 4: Evolution

The next two days were boring and agonizing. The team had set up base and were receiving frequent communications from the crew approaching the Fornax Void. They encountered some issues with their backup equipment but in general, their journey seemed to be progressing well. Meanwhile, at the shelter, Sneha kept looking around for floating masses. During her breaks, she looked up the logbooks to find clues. As she scrolled through, she found various accounts of humans who had used the shelter for the last hundred years.Most had either died within its walls or went onwards to their missions.

After much digging, on day 3, she came across the records of her mother: The ‘original Sneha’ that had donated her DNA for research. The records showed that she had come to the shelter…but nothing more. Did that mean that her mother died on this planet? Did she die because of the life form that gave her their fasilogram and her body reacted adversely to it? Or did she just die due to lack of resources, or perhaps another disease she had? She kicked the cabinets hard in frustration. 

The commanding officer called her for a chat soon after that. They had noticed her acting strange since she had fainted and were worried for her and for the rest of the crew on the shelter. Sneha knew she was distracted but could not dare to share what she knew. They would throw her out without protective equipment onto the hostile planet for fear of contamination. She was a clone and dispensable! Instant death would be the only outcome.

“We will need to monitor you for the next fews days until we are sure that you are fine,” they said.

“What does that mean?” asked Sneha surprised. 

“It means that you will stay in the sick bay for a bit and as soon as you have recovered, you can be back at work”.

“I am fine. There is nothing wrong with me” Sneha felt her anger rising. They would only do this to a clone. “I am going to go back to work” she replied curtly as she turned away to walk out. Deep down she knew that they would force her to remain in the sick bay. Clones were not supposed to disagree. 

She dodged the stun shot that the commander fired at her and ran up the stairs to the dome. The door to the outside was right in front of her but she could not step out: she needed the protective gear to breathe and protect her body from being burnt to fumes by the gases on HR 4189-GR. She looked around helplessly as they restrained her and carried her downstairs. 

Sneha was screaming and kicking as they pinned her down to the bed. They held her hands and closed the clasps of the restraints on her wrists as they prepared the shots to subdue her. Sneha yanked at the clasps and then her heart almost stopped beating as she saw her wrists float gently away from the clasps. Just like that she was free! They watched in horror as Sneha almost glided out of the bed and stood swaying and shimmering by the side of the wall. 

Just then, she heard someone call in her head “We are back”. She walked upstairs to the dome followed by the commander and nurses. Sneha looked around and saw the floating shapes surround the entire dome. 

They were here…eerily surrounding the dome. A shimmering, floating circle had come for her. Was this her tribe? She heard a hard thud behind her and saw the commander faint as the shapes moved closer to the dome. “Come out” one of them finally said. Sneha hesitated, not knowing if she would be safe without the gear. She looked at her arms again where the clasps had been and then ran out of the shelter.

As soon as she stepped out, she sensed it. “Mother!” she wept, as she felt the wrap of the floating shapes.

Go back and read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3!


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Why I Dance: Over 300 Classical Dancers Speak

Why I Dance – A monthly column, in collaboration with IndianRaga, in which we uncover the variety of Indian Classical Dance forms and their lineage. 

“Why do you dance?” asked Anuradha Nehru, Founder and Artistic Director of Maryland based Kuchipudi company Kalanidhi Dance, “It was such a profound question that it made me introspect and look deeper into my source of inspiration for dance. Upon further reflection and discussion with my fellow dancers in Kalanidhi, we realized there were four motivations that drove us – connecting to our heritage; the sense of liberation that dance affords; the ability to tell stories; and the strong bonds of friendship and community that dance builds.”  This simple yet complex question prompted the creation of her 2016 production Why I Dance.

Six months ago, the world underwent an unforeseen change.  Everything came to a halt, and the world of dance had to overcome an obstacle. Dance classes, workshops, performances, and productions were all canceled. No one knew when they would be able to return to the stage. Hoping to re-energize her dance community, Kalanidhi dancer Sahiti Rachakonda suggested that they start an online campaign called Why I Dance. Kalanidhi Dance partnered with IndianRaga to take the campaign global. The campaign launched August 22nd, on the auspicious occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi, and the #whyidance gained traction.

Artists from all eight of the Sangeet Natak Akademi recognized Indian Classical Art forms participated in the campaign, along with artists from many of India’s folk and contemporary styles. The campaign featured 36 world-renowned maestros and teachers including Prateesha Suresh, Birju Maharaj, Leela Samson, Alarmel Valli, Sujatha Mohapatra, Bijayini Satpathy, Sonal Mansingh, and Kumudini Lakhia. Anuradha Nehru says, “We were pleasantly surprised by the amazing response from India’s most famous and legendary dancers. They responded enthusiastically to our request and obliged readily with their thoughts and words of wisdom and generously shared video excerpts of their dance.

Their participation inspired many dancers from over 65 countries to join this movement, turning the initial wave of dancers into a tsunami,” IndianRaga Founder and CEO Sriram Emani adds “I was amazed by the willingness of some of Indian dance’s senior-most maestros to learn how to shoot a video from home, in the midst of a pandemic, to help inspire dancers globally.” 

 

Pragnya Thamire, a Kalanidhi Dancer said, “It was absolutely phenomenal to have edited the ‘Why I Dance’ videos of some of the legends in Indian classical dance… I learned so much through their words!”  

The response to the campaign was indeed unprecedented.  Dancers from around the world were eager to post their own videos; from the youngest dancers having only been learning for a few years, to the seasoned professionals, everyone wanted a chance to share their story, why they dance.

 IndianRaga team member Isha Kulkarni felt, “The campaign was one of the most exciting and challenging things I have ever worked on and nothing less than a privilege. We got to talk to these legendary artists, hear their thoughts, their experiences and that was definitely one of the things that inspired me to keep pushing harder in spite of the limitations in the current scenario.

Although the campaign was started as a way for dancers around the world to reflect inwards in light of the global lockdown, it is far from the end. Sriram says, “We definitely intend to continue – There is no planned conclusion to this campaign. Dancers can continue to post as per the guidelines and tag us, and we will share as we go along. Many people who used to dance before and left it for multiple reasons are now picking up dance again and participating in the campaign, and we welcome everyone to join in!”

Tune in next month to learn more about the Indian Classical Artform, Sattriya, featuring Why I Dance participant and exponent Prateesha Suresh!


Tarini Kumar is an IndianRaga Bharatanatyam Fellow and Why I Dance team member. She is a disciple of Smt. Divyaa Unni, and currently studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Aberration: Chapter 3

This story is published once a month as part of the column – Legends of Quintessence – which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context. 

Recap

In the last chapter, Sneha was disappointed when she learned that she would not travel to the positron cloud. Instead, she would be part of the backup team and find refuge on HR 4189-GR. However, her first steps on the planet were anything but boring. She did not know yet, but what awaited her was more than she could have asked for…

Chapter 3: Unfamiliar Past

Sneha’s head hurt as she lifted it to figure out where she was. She had a hazy memory of double vision and at this point, she was convinced she had been hallucinating. She got up and walked around to realize that she was inside the shelter on HR 4189-GR. As she walked out of the room, she entered the regular sleeping quarters in the shelter. She noticed that at the far end were stairs going up…perhaps to the dome above ground that she remembered seeing as they had exited the spaceship.

The shelter still functioned rather well for an old abandoned structure. The technology must have been centuries old and abandoned for as long, but a few years ago, when another spaceship was forced to land here, they found the shelter still functioning. Since then, it had been used as an emergency refuge. Sneha crossed the sleeping quarters and walked up the stairs to enter the fiber enclosure and looked around at the eerie atmospheric display of HR 4189-GR. She was about to turn around and go back underground when she heard a thud on the round wall behind her. She turned thinking it was someone from the crew but felt her throat dry up as she watched floating vapor change shape and come directly in front of her.

She saw the double vision again. The floating vapor transformed into solid shapes that moved and then reconnected back with the floating mass of vapor. She wanted to speak but knew in her mind that her language would be useless in communication. Somehow, this creature had managed to communicate with her telepathically. She reached out her hand, scared, but wanting to touch the floating shape.

She heard footsteps and saw the fluid shape move across the room and disappear into the wall. Sneha was stunned by her realization: there was something else on this planet besides just humans and clones. She waited for everyone to fall asleep and when all was quiet, Sneha walked outside. She picked up the gravity modifier and then almost dropped it in alarm, as she heard a voice in her brain say, “You do not need it.”

She panicked and ran up to see if she could spot anyone or anything through the transparent dome.

For many moments, Sneha stood debating if she should step out of the structure on her own. “Come out,” she heard her brain speak to her again. She stepped back in alarm but then decided to follow her instinct. She had come so far for an adventure …so why back down now?

As she stepped outside she felt surrounded by the floating shape. As her hand passed through the dense cloud it felt heavy and empty at the same time. “Your mother knew us. She was here”….she did not even realize that she was walking away from the structure towards a far-field of shapeshifting stones. As Sneha snapped back to reality, she wondered, how she was able to walk comfortably while gravity shifted constantly on this planet. She had left her gravity adjuster behind. 

They arrived at the field and she saw the floating mass transform into two distinct shapes, almost solid and opaque. “Who are they?” she wondered. “We are the Zetarians that inhabit the space your people call Antilla”. “So the legends were true,” Sneha thought. “Yes,” they replied. 

“Have you always lived here? How long has your species lived in this Constellation? Why did you approach me?” Sneha asked with absolutely no attempt at pacing her questions. “How do you know my mother?” 

The shapes moved closer to her, “Do you not remember yet? We have part of your DNA and you have part of our Fasilogram.”

There was a long silence as if they were waiting for her to suddenly see the light. “Do you mean my mother had your ‘Fasilo’?” Sneha asked confused…her mind was now evaluating a million possibilities…”But how did she get a part of you in her?” She asked. 

One of them moved closer and dropped a part of its mass on her arm. She watched in part horror as the heavy droplet disappeared into her skin. “So you are now part of me?” She looked at the shape and asked awkwardly?

“Wait!” it said. “Give your mind and body time to remember”. “Go back now and rest,” the other one told her. 

“No, don’t leave now!” she shouted at the disappearing shapes. She thought she heard a faint reassurance. “Don’t worry, we will be back soon,” as they completely disappeared. Sneha walked back to the shelter and lay down to rest. Something was going to change, she knew that. She believed that they would be back but had no idea what would happen then. Should she warn the others? Then she looked at her arm almost hoping to see her skin throw out the mass it had absorbed earlier. Would she die now? Or get some horrible, uncurable cosmic disease? 

Why only her? They had approached only her. Her mind bounced around a thousand questions as she fell asleep.

Go back and read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2!


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Indian American Writer Learns From a 17th Century Dutch Woman

I recently celebrated the cover reveal for my debut novel The Company Daughters: A Heart-Wrenching Colonial Love Story. For me, it was the culmination of a long, difficult journey to publication.

I started writing this book nearly ten years ago. I was in the middle of a stressful divorce, raising three kids under the age of five, and I had returned to grad school for a career change from lawyer to English professor. By the Indian standards and expectations I’d grown up with, I felt like an utter failure. 

Every morning I forced myself out of bed before my children woke up and wrote at my kitchen table, accompanied by a hot cup of coffee and the familiar scent of the temple incense my father brought back from India. I wanted to write a story that addressed colonialism and other systems of power, and when I found a footnote mentioning a 17th-century picture bride policy of the Dutch East India Company, I couldn’t resist the pull of exploration. I shelved my fear of failure and the persistent feelings of inadequacy that often plague the immigrant offspring navigating community expectations. I plowed on. 

I read hundreds of articles. Studied maps. Perused books about 17th-century Dutch furniture, glass bead factories, shipping routes, forest glass blowers, and illnesses of the time. I traveled to Amsterdam, spending hours at the Rijksmuseum examining the furniture collection and still life paintings. I took a boat trip through Amsterdam’s canals and pretended to be my main character, impoverished, hungry Jana, trudging down the city’s narrow, meandering streets hundreds of years ago. 

At times, I thought, “How can I, an Indian-American woman in the 21st century, know anything about a 17th-century Dutch woman?” 

And then I remembered the books of my childhood, written by white authors who occasionally populated their books with Indian characters, mere props for white narratives. I wanted to know about these peripheral characters, to hear about their lives, their stories.

In writing The Company Daughters, I hoped to give my main character the complexity and humanity I often saw lacking in representations of Indian characters in books and on TV during my childhood. I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of white savior narratives while providing a glimpse into the colonial world and its hierarchies—structures of power that persist today.

And in connecting with people from other time periods, other cultures, other languages, I found shared humanity uniting us across centuries. Common desires for justice, love, freedom, and understanding that persist now. In my efforts to render a 17th-century Dutch woman sent across the world to marry a stranger, I began to recognize my own desire for agency, freedom, and a new life. 

I wish I could say that from that point on all went smoothly, but that is the fantasy of every writer, and the reality is much, much messier. Many people told me to give up on this dream. I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t know anything about writing a book or getting an agent. But I loved reading, an act which provided comfort whenever I felt lonely or alienated. And the characters kept “talking” to me. And I kept listening. 

Writing saved me. The steadiness of my characters’ voices in my mind alleviated the crushing loneliness of single parenthood. When I could not share my daughter’s newest milestones with anyone, I recorded them in scenes of my book (later excised). And when I was without my children, the insistence of my characters’ stories gave me purpose even as my heart ached with each separation.

Change can be incremental, and other times change comes on like a monsoon—heavy and relentless. In my author’s journey, I had a mix of both. I had the encouragement of my Creative Writing instructor at Stanford, and I had friends and family, worried by the potential for disappointment, who advised me not to get my hopes up, to consign writing to a weekend hobby. 

As an Indian-American writer, I was often conflicted with the requirements of my culture and the desires of my hidden self. Shouldn’t I use my time more productively? Shouldn’t I focus on activities with an assured financial return? Was I being a responsible mother?

But that’s not what writers do. We pursue the impractical, the impossible, the incredible, in spite of—perhaps because of—our ongoing dance with self-doubt, inadequacy, and fear. We ferret away moments for writing like squirrels stuffing acorns into knotholes. Waking before the sunrise to write, writing in our cars, committing lines to memory while waiting in checkout queues, eking out moments for creativity from the myriad of mindless routines that comprise a life. Describe the smile on that woman’s face. Observe the shape of that shadow.

In the end, the “monsoon” of my writing career was being selected as a Pitch Wars mentee. I landed my agent soon after and was offered my book deal another year after that. 

A book deal sounds so easy when the journey is reduced to a few hundred words. It was anything but. My debut novel is about a young woman hungry for life, love, justice, freedom, and reprieve, as I was. But it was a long journey, with starts and fits, highs and lows–as it should be. Writing is an act of transposition. When we are writing, we are writing our lives onto the page in some way or another. Every paragraph and chapter deleted, expanded, revised, and revised again promises a transformation in our characters. But those same moments open us up to the possibility of transformation in our own lives as well. That process is what made me a writer, and brought me to myself. 


Samantha Rajaram is a former attorney, solo mother of three, and English professor in the Bay Area. Her debut novel, The Company Daughters will be published in the US and UK this October. 

Aberration: Chapter 2

This story is published once a month as part of the column – Legends of Quintessence – which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context. 

Recap

Sneha, our hero is one of many clones being raised within a research lab on earth. Unlike the others, she has free will. In the last chapter, we were left wondering if Sneha would get caught after switching places with another clone – a clone that was set to travel into space.

Chapter 2: Sudden Moves

Sneha was surprised how easily she got away with switching identities with another clone. They did not really care to investigate XT87’s death. She was now part of the group traveling to the Positron cloud and ready to get off of this old decaying planet. 

Two days later, Sneha sat strapped in the chair with her eyes closed and heart racing. She could feel her head pounding as the equipment whirred around her. 

They moved quickly from hypersonic to warp speed and she felt her inners lurch for a split second before a strange calm settled on the ship. She unclenched her hands and dared to breathe. Earth was behind her for now. Instead of being one of 3000, she was now one of 30 traveling to the positron cloud around the Fornax Void. There were nascent pockets of activity and the most recent research showed expansion of dark matter and the existence of multiple infantile positron clouds around voids and dark holes. Space had mysteriously been shifting violently for the last 5000 years with no indication of slowing down.  

This was going to be a rough and interesting voyage with the crew navigating many firsts. They had to avoid pathways linked to dark energy filaments across galaxies. Sneha was listening to the crew discussing the upcoming stop in 9 days on the base station close to the Sculptor Wall. Day 2 & 3 were easy to manage but days 4 & 5 got boring with very little opportunity to learn anything new as the crew restricted access due to systems checks.

On day 6, as they were out on the movement deck, Sneha realized something was not right. She overheard snippets of conversation from the crew…..“ new communication”….”old base” … “shelter for few days”…

The main deck hovered with communications. Things felt off and she felt shivers go down her spine. She waited to get back to her compartment and closed the door pretending that she felt disoriented like some of the others. Once inside, she touched the screen on the wall and started typing codes from her memory, hoping to get access to the communication channels. She knew she was shooting in the dark here. 

Soon she got frustrated, closed her eyes, and drifted away to sleep. She was jolted back to reality as a shrill voice repeated emergency instructions. They were making an unplanned stop on an old base HR 4189-GR within the Antilla Constellation. She remembered reading about it in the memoirs of some explorers that managed to survive on HR 4189-GR.

What made this constellation memorable were the rumors of alien life on its planets. Never verified, these accounts had become legendary since early intergalactic travels. Despite early romantic visions of interactions between alien species, it had been almost impossible to communicate or understand each other’s language, science, or other critical concepts. What had been documented was the expected life spans, conditions that led to the demise, and unique birthing phenomena for a few species that humans and humanoids could comprehend….at this point, any further conclusions were more art and imagination than science. 

She braced for landing. They had warned it would be tough as gravity was fluid in this constellation with the magnitude of its stars shifting constantly. Once secure on the surface, they were assembled on the transport deck and divided into two groups. Ten of them would stay here on the planet as backup and the other twenty would continue their journey towards the positron cloud. Her heart sank when she realized she would be staying on the planet. This was not why she came! She was meant to travel and be out there!

They had lost communication with Earth and a couple of other planets in the Virgo cluster. Incoming reports mentioned that the cosmic ripples traveling through the cluster led to the core of multiple planets collapsing. Sneha sat stunned as they narrated the loss of the research facility and their colleagues. She waited to hear some words of regret for the loss of so many Snehas. None came. There were no tears in the eyes of the crew….They were just samples- numbers in a log…Hundreds of samples lost in a catastrophe. She tried to contain the immense grief welling up inside her. 

As they exited the ship, Sneha was sharp again, absorbing everything she saw and sensed. Something told her to look at the far left corner of her vision. She was not sure what she saw but it was enough to shake her up. She felt her breath being torn from her for a second and then it started to become normal. Or so she thought momentarily …  but something stayed odd – she had two visions…it was almost as if there were two of her within one body! On one side she was seeing the path she was walking with other Snehas towards the shelter but on the other she saw something she did not quite understand – a vision of a dark path and moving shapes that seemed to drift between transparent and opaque forms. Her head started to hurt and she felt both visions collapse into one as she tumbled face forward, unconscious.


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

LoQ, Sci-Fi Column: In Conversation with an Artist

Legends of Quintessence – A column which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context.

As I look around myself, I feel inspired by the talent surrounding me. I am inspired by my South Asian culture.  I am inspired by Sci-Fi.  So the conversations I have with those around me have a natural proclivity to include all the facets of my identity.

And what better company than chai, pakoras, and friends?

So sit down with me, Srishti Prabha (IC Assistant Editor) and some chai, as we explore the themes of Hanifa Hameed’s artwork for the LoQ column. 

Hanifa is a UI/UX designer and is also very active in creating digital art with underlying South Asian cultural influence. Her art takes inspiration from real life and highlights concepts that are beautiful, real, thought-provoking, and essential. She and her art have recently been recognized by ELLE India. Her art dedicated to the movie ‘Sheer Qorma’ recently featured on the movie’s Insta page. You can find her art on her Instagram page

Watch the interview below!

___

Sci-Fi Column, Legends of Quintessence is poised to introduce you to some great South Asian talent. We aim to bring you closer to South Asians doing creative stuff and breaking new grounds. So get ready to be wowed by some amazing artists, chefs, entrepreneurs, poets, and other creatives. 


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Aberration: Chapter 1

This story is published once a month as part of the column – Legends of Quintessence – which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context. 

Chapter 1: Coming of Age

Sneha lay wide awake as she looked out at the skylight. She hated the view of the stars from the building on the most primitive planet – Earth. She was stuck in a  planet used only for low-grade research, while the colonies thrived across the superclusters. Outside, some of the researchers sat and told stories of their travels. She marveled at how they felt no guilt, no remorse at holding her hostage.

She was surrounded by her family – almost 3000 other Snehas –  but she knew very well that she was not home. She envied the ones that had either perished or moved to another planet for experiments. They were free, she was trapped…  

She jumped up and paced around her room and stopped momentarily to peek at her mother’s picture on the wall. Tomorrow she would turn 23 – the same age when her mother donated her DNA for cloning experiments. As fate would have it, it was that batch of cells that led to successful, multiplicative cloning without errors. Her mother had been one of the most celebrated scientists of her time. Yet, here she was, just another number with no future and no permission to dream! She felt more restless than she had ever felt before. 

Sneha and the other clones had been designed and genetically altered and re-altered to follow orders. But in her case, somewhere between frozen cells and an acceleration incubator, nature had taken over. She was different! 

Sneha had known since she was an infant, sparked by moments of joy, resentment, excitement, and doubt. Soon after, overwhelmed by despair and anger and the will to be free. But she had her mother’s brains and knew she had to hide these emotions. No aberrations in clone samples were tolerated and she would be terminated if anyone were to know.

Laser focus on quality research had enabled humans to develop amazing vaccines against cosmic pathogens. It had also led to horrible deaths for many clones along the way. But they were just numbers, a homogeneous mass of experimental bodies that were dispensable to propel cosmic exploration. Her thoughts kept drifting as she slowly fell asleep.

The next morning she opened her eyes to the same dreary cell and remembered she was now 23. She turned to the screen in her room and realized that today they were prepping a batch of clones for travel to test new enhancement drugs against radiation damage. As she entered the dining area, she overheard that the new batch would travel to a newly discovered positron cloud. She felt her heart racing at the idea. She could just imagine herself on a ship deck approaching the ominous cloud.

She quickly snapped out of her dream. As she sat down to eat, she looked around at all the Snehas surrounding her.

Sn45XT34. That was her number.

They were all given numbers so that humans could identify them. She could tell each one of them apart but somehow humans could not handle the complexity of uniquely identifying clones in large groups.

The clones that would travel were huddled in one corner of the dining area with instructions. 

Her eye suddenly caught Sn45XT87 looking odd. She looked pale and her eyes were furtively looking at the guards across the room. Sneha watched her and realized that XT87 was panicking. That was odd…was she another aberration? Her mind was thinking fast. She realized XT87 was starting to choke …She got up and dashed towards her. She took off her number tag from her shirt as she ran. She shouted as XT87 fell to the ground “Move away from her, she might be infected” and immediately all the other clones moved away. She reached XT87 quickly and put her hands on her chest and started pumping. Deftly, she removed XT87’s tag and replaced it with her own. As she pressed the tag to the shirt she realized her heart had stopped beating: XT87 was dead! She looked at the guards and said simply “XT34 is not responding it seems”.

As she walked away to find XT87’s room, her head was trying to recall all the tests they could perform on XT87’s limp body. Her gait was nervous as her mind frantically played everything that could go wrong from here. Once inside the room, she closed the door and cried miserably, muffling her sobs. She felt like a criminal. A novice lawbreaker with a conscience! And now, all she could do was wait. Wait for what would happen next…

Read Chapter 2 HERE!


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Legends of Quintessence: Introduction

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. 

Author, Rachna Dayal

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.

A Father Sees the Sugar Cube Moments

On the first of January 2016, our girls party drove up to the Gateway of India and entered the heritage Taj hotel for a quick immersion in the grandeur of a bygone era. 

“Let’s do high tea, it’s tradition!” I told my daughter and niece. 

We sprinted through the lush corridors of the hotel and floated up the cascading carpeted staircase. We caught a glimpse of ourselves in the long mirrors. To our chagrin, we were not dressed in our Sunday best. But we “ragamuffin trio” shrugged our elegant shoulders because the sparkle in our eyes more than made up for our casual attire.

The hostess of the Sea lounge looked at us and asked if we had a reservation. “

“No,” I said, “but I used to frequent the Sea lounge with my dad when I was a teenager.” 

“Surely,” said the well-trained employee, without blinking an eye and took us to a window seat in the restaurant. 

We sat down. I gazed out at the glimmer of sea. The silver waters stretched over the teeming heads of a madding crowd of Mumbaikers and their guests on the street below. In the seventies of my childhood, Mumbai was not so crowded!

I studied the scene in front of me like viewing a painting in a gallery. The boat with ochre and emerald trim and a hint of red. White billowing sails competing to mingle with fluffy cloud gestures in the western sky. The barely perceptible boats far away on the horizon, bobbing peacefully on the waves invoked tranquility.

With a great difficulty of a child leaving the sight of her companion, I turned my gaze inside. I looked around me. I was alone at the table. From the snowy white linen, my eyes jumped to a Blue China sugar bowl heaped with perfect cubes of crystallized sugar. 

Transported to my childhood, I took a cube and let it sit on my tongue. As it melted, I remembered how I would gingerly advance my fingers towards the sugar bowl as a child. At the same time, cleverly gauging how many I could stuff into my fist without catching the eyes of either parent in one go. Dad would be sipping his tea and mom would be pouring her cup. In that busy moment, when the spoon was turning, I would plan my sugar swoop.

Me and my younger sister with sugar cubes in our mouth.

I would manage to pilfer two or three of these extraordinary sweets with great ease. I would surreptitiously stuff them into my mouth and then try to conjure an expression of innocence. Alas, the two sharp bulges in my, then smaller cheeks, would give me away! My sister would take pleasure in my failure.

As I tried to assimilate the cubes, I was amazed at how much time they took to dissolve in my mouth in those days. My countenance would melt in embarrassment and I would beg for mercy at my mothers’ rebuking gaze. My mother prided herself in instructing us on good behavior. The tension would break as my dad would chuckle and say, “trying to avoid the horse’s eye, eh?”

I never understood that expression because there was no horse in this gathering! But I always obliged him to be at the butt of his joke. Then I would hide my face in my hands, but not for long because he would smile his dazzling smile and we would all be hypnotized by his presence. His lips would form his sweet singing signature moue that I have never been able to emulate and he would sing:  “Rum jhum rum jhum, (2) Chhupo na Chhupo na, oh pyari sajaniya, sajan se Chhupo na…

I brush a tear and listen to the sounds of the ocean. I can hear dad’s laughter rise and fall on the waves.  I catch myself singing the same song…

The waiter appears at my elbow, discreetly ignoring my faux pas of pilfering sugar cubes, “Would you like some champagne, miss?”

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.