Tag Archives: Story

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.

“Being Different Is Like Sushi and Fried Chicken”: GUAA

I’m Asian American. My dad was born in the British Territory of Hong Kong and my mom is Chinese-American. My mom was born in the Deep South, in Mississippi, and not many Asians lived there. My Po Po is from Hong Kong and my Gong Gong came from Canton, China, so my mom knows how to speak a little bit of Cantonese. I was born in California. My mom says we are Chinese but we also may be related to Genghis Khan!

When I was in preschool one time I got bullied because of the way I look. I didn’t know why. But now I understand. Diversity is like genes from your mom and dad. Genes control how you look like, your personality and the color of your skin. So of course, nobody looks the same. Even though our ancestors come from different countries, we are still American. At my school, in second grade, there’s this presentation called, “Global Us. The Global Us is a play about your culture and your identity. Students perform traditional dances and songs. Afterwards there is a potluck. Did you know that food can bring people together? Countries all have different types of food, and Americans eat almost everything. My friend Lucia loves sushi more than me even though she is not Asian! I did not grow up in the Deep South but I love southern fried chicken, catfish, and hushpuppies! Yummy. Italian pasta is like Chinese chow mein. Argentinian empanadas are like Dim Sum. French baguettes are like American sourdough bread!

The most important thing about being Asian American is that we are still American citizens even though our ancestors came from different countries. A lot of times people cannot tell where we are from because of the way we look. They may say something racist like “go back to your country.” I get very confused because this is my home. You may have heard that the Coronavirus has been spreading around the world. My best friend, who is white, said to me that some white people are scared of Asian people because the Coronavirus can be contagious. But she knows I don’t have the Coronavirus even if I’m Asian American.

But do you know what? A virus doesn’t discriminate against people who look different from other people. In a way, a virus can be a role model, because they don’t care whether people are Asian or not, they just infect anybody with lungs. Nobody should be bullied for the way they look. We all look different. Differences are not bad. Differences are special. We should be kind and include everyone. We can all get along. Everybody deserves to be treated the same. Finding things in common like soccer, ice cream, and Minecraft can build a bridge to make friends like sushi and fried chicken. Everyone in America should be treated fairly because we’re all humans. We all should really get involved to create a better community around the world.

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Katelyn Ho is a 2nd grader, whose essay “Being Different Is Like Sushi and Fried Chicken” won the Best In Class Award at the ‘Growing Up Asian In America’ contest.

Lina Lee is a 2nd grader, whose artwork “My Beat To Our Rhythm” won the Best In Class Award at the ‘Growing Up Asian In America’ contest.

At the Marienplatz with RK

Last October, my husband and I, newly empty-nested, decided to visit Europe. One evening in vivacious Munich, we were roaming the celebrated Marienplatz Farmers Market (real name: Viktualienmarkt). Strolling past the effervescent crowd at the outdoor beer garden, we made our way to the numerous stalls selling spices and spice mixes. We came upon a stall where the vendors were singing what sounded like ebullient German folk songs—we stopped to listen and check out the merchandise. The stall had several bins of richly colored powders in hues of red, orange, and brown—I counted more than seven different types of ‘Italian Bruschetta’ mixes. I looked up to see a vendor on the other side of the bin eyeing me with a smile on his face. He was a portly middle-aged man, dressed in a white t-shirt and green apron like the other merchants in his stall.

“So many!” I said to him. “Which one is good?”

“All very good, Madam!” he replied with gusto. “All best!”

I smiled at his selling skills.

“You want spicy?” he ventured.

“Yes!” my husband and I declared, simultaneously.

“Ha ha!” guffawing at our vehement, synchronous response, he asked, “You, India?”

“No—I, California. America!” I answered, trying to match his energy and mirth.

“Aah, California!” he echoed. “But first—India?”

“Yes,” I conceded. “First from India.”

Then, it was my turn to be amused as he broke out in song.

“Main shaayaar to naaheeen!”

I laughed, feeling a rush of joy at the unexpected reference to one of my favorite songs.

“You like that song?” I ventured, “You saw the movie?”

“Yah! Baabby!” he stated immediately.

“Yes! Bobby,” I agreed.

Rishi Kapoor (so cute!) Dimple Kapadia (so hot!) in Raj Kapoor’s ode to young love that was released right around the time that I, and all my friends, were coming of age. Of course, we idolized everything about it — not a girl in my school had not brandished the Dimple half ponytail and everyone had a crush on Rishi.

The conversation at the Farmers Market reminded me of the bygone ‘encounter’ with Rishi. The year was 1970 and another RK movie, Mera Naam Joker, had just been released. It was, one can say, not quite the blockbuster that Bobby was three years later, but it was Rishi Kapoor’s first significant role; he played the teenage version of Raj Kapoor, the namesake Joker of the film. The city was Vadodara — we called it Baroda then — and the movie was to premiere at the trendy Sadhana Talkies. The theater was owned by my aunt’s family, and her two children and I, all of us between nine and eleven years of age, spent many a warm afternoon in the air-conditioned cinema hall for at least a few minutes to watch a favorite song or scene from whatever popular movie was playing at the time. All we had to do was run down the stairs and ask the doorman to let us in, for the family’s home was right above the cinema hall.

We were immensely excited to learn that, to promote the film, the cast of Joker, including Raj and ‘Chintu’ Kapoor, as Rishi was known then, were to attend the premiere! An actual Bombay style premiere was to be held at Sadhana Talkies! By default, since I was constantly spending weekends with my Sadhana cousins, I was included in the welcoming committee.

As we stood, in our best attires, on the steps leading from the street level lobby to the theatre’s balcony and offices, I recognized a shy young Chintu Kapoor ascending the stairs. We had seen photos of the cherubic eighteen-year-old and heard that he had given a wonderful performance in his debut film. 

Rishi kept his head down as he climbed, smiling to himself at the shouts of “Chintu! Chintu!” from the huge crowd gathered in the street below. He wore a suit, I recall, and pulled demurely at his jacket. He did not look up until—to the incredible delight of my young self—Raj Kapoor, following his son up the stairs, stopped in front of me. Bending down—his green eyes looking into mine—he gently tugged at my cheeks and extolled, with his trade-mark charm, “Kitni pyaari bacchi hai!” What a sweet girl!

Rishi looked back—our eyes met, and he smiled!

An RK fan for life that day was made and the grown-up Rishi Kapoor of Bobby only further consolidated the deal. The faith of millions, like me, was well placed in the young man, as he proved to be a versatile actor and entertained audiences for many years with exemplary performances, from the romantic Hindi film hero to the nuanced characters of his later years. His untimely death in April has left the film industry undoubtedly poorer. 

Back at the Marienplatz, having completed our purchases, we were about to walk away when I heard someone call out.

“India!”

Of course, it was my German friend. As I looked back, he held up a finger—just a minute.

“Ghe ghe ghe ghe ghe, pyaar mein sauda naaheen!” he sang. His eyes danced, waiting for my reaction.

Laughing, I crooned back, “Ghe ghe ghe ghe ghe, ghe re saahiba, pyaar mein sauda nahin.”

We were attracting an audience of fellow merchants; some of them started to hum the tune.

“Do you know what it means?” I asked. “There is no trade in love. You should not take money from me—just give me the spices for free!”

We walked away to sounds of laughter and cheerful banter in German. Rishi Kapoor — to borrow the immortal words of O. Henry — makes the whole world kin.

Bela Desai, Ph.D., has been working in biotechnology in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. Besides science, she enjoys reading and traveling to different places around the globe. She loves to dabble in singing and writing as well.

Ajjibaichi Shaala: Let’s Go to Grandmother’s School!

“With a roar, rise, and fight for your right to education.

Breaking the chains of tradition, go get an education.”

– Savitribai Phule

India’s first school for girls was started in Pune, Maharashtra, by Savitribai Phule – a woman who spearheaded the movement for female education in India.  Almost two centuries later, the flame continues to burn bright in Maharashtra, as a new institution, the first of its kind, is set up. A school that Kantabai More, at the age of 74, can proudly say she attends twice a week. Where she gets scolded for not finishing her homework by her teacher, Sheetal More, who also happens to be her daughter-in-law. A school where all her peers are of her age. A school for the ajjis (grandmothers) of Fangane, a village in Maharashtra.

On March 8th, 2016, International Women’s Day, the Ajjibaichi Shaala (Grandmothers’ School), was set up in Fangane at the demand of the ajjis. “

The idea for Ajjibaichi Shaala came to me in Feb 2016, when we were celebrating Shivaji Jayanti,” says the founder Yogendra Bangar. “The ladies in the village were reading out of a ‘paath’ (a holy passage), and I heard the senior women say that they wished they, too, could read the text. That’s where the idea of a school for them came from, and the whole village rallied behind it.”

After having spent their entire lives dedicated to family by tending to the fields, the harvest, and the business, the ajjis have, at long last, decided to turn to their own lifelong desire—to go to school and get an education. 

The crew of Virtual Bharat, a 1000 film journey of India initiated by filmmaker Bharatbala, attempts to capture the ajjis in action, as they don their bright pink saree-uniforms and head to school together to learn their rhymes, math, alphabet, and art—and like any other students, complain about homework and tests. In a four-day shoot in Fangane, living amidst the grandmothers, the team saw that telling the story of the Ajjibaichi Shaala was more than filming the classroom and the uniforms. It had to be about capturing its incredible spirit.

As Sitabai Deshmukh, an 85-year-old ajji—the oldest in her class—tells the crew, school, for her, is about more than just the letters that they teach (which she forgets before the next class anyway); she cannot even really see the blackboard or comprehend much of what is taught to her. For her, school is about living a life she never thought she would have access to. A life she has ensured that her children and grandchildren experience. A life that she too can now proudly say she has lived. The Ajjibaichi Shaala is a Maharashtrian grandmother’s dream and now serves as source of pride.

Watch the short film on the link below!

Virtual Bharat in collaboration with India Currents will release a monthly series highlighting the stories Virtual Bharat is capturing in India. Stay tuned for more!

Virtual Bharat is a 1000 film journey of untold stories of India spanning people, landscapes, literature, folklore, dance, music, traditions, architecture, and more in a repository of culture. The vision of director Bharatbala, creator of Maa Tujhe Salaam, we are a tale of India told person-by-person, story-by-story, and experience-by-experience. The films are under 10 minutes in length and are currently available on Virtual Bharat’s Youtube Channel

Shashi Tharoor and Others Read You a Tagore Classic

The coronavirus pandemic is a story shared among so many different generations, nationalities, and ethnicities. Although this moment of crisis has physically separated us from our friends and family, it has also bound us all within a joint reality. And what better way to spend the extra time at home than by returning to an endearing glimpse into South Asian literature? To encourage solidarity despite self-isolation regulations, digital publishing house Juggernaut Books and the celebrated Hindustan Times have created the video project, One Story, One Nation. 

India Currents’ very own writer, Raji Pillai, is featured in Part 10 of the readings, alongside South-Asian celebrities. Each has volunteered their time to read a section from Rabindranath Tagore’s classic, The Kabulliwallah

One of Tagore’s most acclaimed literary works, the short story focuses on a young daughter’s love for an Afghan Kabulliwallah, a merchant who often made trips to Calcutta. Tagore’s heartwarming narrative, which demonstrates how love crosses all borders and circumstances, is fitting during these dividing times. Although I read Kabulliwallah amid a flight home from India a few years ago, I found that revisiting this short story made me appreciate the simplicities of self-isolation.

A screen separates me from my friends and teachers, but I still have my parents beside me — just how protagonist Mini has the love of her father and the Kabulliwallah despite everything. And it certainly did not hurt to hear this tale narrated by the likes of Shashi Tharoor, Aditi Mittal, Chetan Bhagat, and Barkha Dutt. Each and every one of these narrators have poured their heart into bringing Tagore’s characters to life, from the charming naiveté of a young Mini to the devoted affection of the merchant. 

“Read more books during this lockdown. Read more books on humanity, because they will inspire you to become a better version of yourself,” said Sabyasachi Mukherjee, as he opened up his own reading of the short story. Hopefully, we can all learn to celebrate a sense of belonging and unanimity by listening to Kabulliwallah.

To find the entire series click here.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

Tea for Two

In Seeing Ceremony, Meera Ekkanath Klein’s sequel to her 2017 debut novel, My Mother’s Kitchen, the narrator, Meena, is now ready for college and continues to rebuff her mother’s need to subject her to seeing ceremonies in advance of formally arranging her marriage. The continuing obstacle is that Meena refuses to think about marriage until she returns home to Mahagiri, degree in hand, ready to begin her own life as an adult.

Her confidante and neighbor Mac, an elderly Scotsman who owns a tea plantation, is always ready to lend an ear and offer sage advice. However, reality enters Meena’s life when he reveals a friend is interested in purchasing Meena’s late father’s spice plantation. With the express understanding that the transaction will honor Meena’s father’s legacy, the money exchanged is Meena’s ticket to a college in California where her uncle is a professor.

During the brief pages devoted to Meena’s time at school, she studies agriculture, discovers Chinese tea, and embraces the calming concepts of the Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies. It is then, in a flash of brilliance, that she understands creating a tearoom in which a variety of teas could be sampled and tea ceremonies would be held, maybe the answer to bolstering her mother’s remaining business.

On her journey home following graduation, Meena meets Raj Kumar, a young Indian businessman. They take an immediate liking to each other, and while at the airport in Singapore, they spend their layover time dining and chatting. As expected, neither can get the other out of their minds after going their own ways. Later, in a convenient twist, Meena and Raj come face to face again.

The bones of the story are good and hold promise, but much of the plot isn’t new. The seeing ceremony, arranged marriage, traditional vs. modern attitudes, and going to college in the U.S. are overused. Nevertheless, the elements of agriculture, introducing new crops, rotating crops, and bringing concepts from overseas are fresh enough to bring balance to the novel.

That said, this book should be a massive celebration of the senses, yet the ubiquitous spices, the meals prepared, the visit to a tribal village, and the vistas Meena experiences both at home and at her father’s plantation exist with an assumption that the reader is familiar with all of those essentials when sensual imagery would have enhanced Meena’s narrative and assisted in building her world. Instead, that part of the storytelling was incomplete, like a coloring book with pages half colored and abandoned.

On the plus side, Seeing Ceremony can be read as a standalone novel. It isn’t necessary to read My Mother’s Kitchen to enjoy this succeeding story. However, since the books are billed as novels with recipes, you may want to see what’s cooking in both. In “Kitchen,” the recipes are found at the end of chapters which, unfortunately, impede the reader’s flow. In “Ceremony,” the recipes are conveniently gathered at the end of the book.

If you’re in the market for a quick read that may take you away, introduce you to some interesting characters, tell a story of finding one’s way back home, and offer some recipes to spice up your next meal, this may be the book for you.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects. 


Seeing Ceremony: A Novel with Recipes by Meera Ekkanath Klein. Homebound Publications. 270 Pages.

Dashavtar : A Spectacular Dance Drama

Dashavtar, a spectacular dance drama, by the Shankara Dance Academy will showcase the ten reincarnations of Vishnu and bring it to life with a cast of 58 local artists.

This lavish show promises to light up the stage with colorful lighting, specialized backdrops, customised music, costumes, props, special effects.  Arti Manek, in conjunction with her Guru Abhay Shankar Misra, has had presented several sold out shows in the past, including Nari Tu Narayani, Gopala Krishna Kanhaiya, Ram Charit Manas and more.

Dashavtar was presented in London, UK, recently where Arti was also a performer. Now she is recreating the same show with her local students, who have the opportunity of being a part of this class act. The high caliber production promises to be a visual delight.

Dashavtar tells the story of the ten re-incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Commonly accepted as the God of Preservation, Lord Vishnu is among the three principal Gods in the Hindu religion. It is believed that Lord Vishnu came to Earth from time to time in a different form (avatar) to eradicate the evil forces in place and restore cosmic order.

The ten avatars of Vishnu are: Matsya (Fish), Kurma (Tortoise),  Varah (Boar), Narasimha (Lion / Man ), Vaman (Dwarf),  King Bali, Parshuram, Sri Ram, Balrama, Buddha, Kalki. Each of these will be presented separately followed by a finale including all the avatars together.

The ten avatars of Lord Vishnu will be brought to life in the classical dance form of Kathak (story telling). “The wondrous displays of hand gestures, colorful costumes, intricate footwork, and graceful movements will charm and captivate the audience and bring them closer to the Gods,” say the organizers.

In Dashavtar the theme music is set in Kaharwa Taal in different ragas. The interlude pieces are set in ten different taals for a very creative effect.

Arti Manek is known in the Los Angeles area for her exceptional talents in bringing amateurs on to stage and lighting them up to be embraced as professionals. Pujya Morari Bapu, world renowned Ramayana discourse orator, and Pandit Birju Maharaj (legendary kathak artist) have graced her shows.

Dashavtar promises to bring pride and joy to the local artists and to the public to witness how our ancient Indian culture flourishes so beautifully and artistically in the entertainment capital of the USA, Los Angeles!

This article was provided to India Currents by the Shankara Dance Academy.

Lovesick in San Jose

Check out this movie for yourself on Saturday Oct 20, 2018 in San Jose! Details here: https://indiacurrents.com/events/film-show-lovesick/

I watched Lovesick at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, which comes with the usual homey discord of diasporic film festivals. The people behind me were passing tupperware filled with aloo gobhi. The harangued IFFLA staff member was pleading people to lower their voices as he introduced the filmmakers. I was at once amused — as a film student, I’m usually surrounded by a much more reverential crowd — and admittedly irked — I would like to hear the filmmakers’ introductions and nobody passed me any aloo gobhi. Under the wafting smell of aloo gobhi, I feel at home and alien. It was under these classically clashing circumstances that I watched Lovesick, which also seemed to be trying to navigate pleasing two worlds and settling neither here nor there.

The directors of Lovesick, Ann S. Kim and Priya Giri Desai, were both working at PBS when they came across an article about Dr. Suniti Solomon, the first person to find HIV in India. In the film, we learn that Dr. Solomon is more aptly described as the first person to even look for HIV in India, which she found widespread in sex workers. She then left what she described as “her prestigious academic job” to found a clinic for people with HIV.

Here’s where it begins to get wacky. Through founding the clinic, Dr. Solomon somewhat organically created a matchmaking service to help HIV positive people find partners, a practice which the directors claim is now common in Indian HIV clinics. Ann and Priya decided Dr. Solomon’s story was too big for a throwaway article, and through a mutual connection decided to meet her in person. Eight years later, they birthed Lovesick, a longitudinal documentary on Dr. Solomon’s life and the story of a successful couple she matched.

The film is humorous, poignant and tender. Dr. Solomon matches couples because she too was madly in love for many decades. Her late husband was Christian and she is Hindu, yet, in a tale as old as time, love conquered all. I’m a sucker for a sappy love story, so I was moved when I saw Dr. Solomon read out passionate letters her husband wrote to her, which she now keeps sealed in a ziplock bag. Later, she waters the purple orchids surrounding her husband’s picture. “His favorite flower,” she remarks, standing next to a shelf of Christian and Hindu paraphernalia. We begin to understand why Dr. Solomon is such an advocate for finding love.

Through her matchmaking service, we meet Manu and Karthik, two of her “lovesick” patients. Their faces are not shown for most of the film because HIV is still so taboo in India — best evidenced by a sequence in the film where Manu’s Mother asks if she can say the word “HIV.” Both Manu and Karthik are sweet and lovable, but there is a certain emphasis placed on the fact that neither was “to blame” for contracted HIV. Karthik was given tainted blood and Manu was married to a man who never revealed to her that he was HIV positive.

In fact, the communities Indian society would like to blame for HIV, are curiously absent from the film. For example, Dr. Solomon first found HIV in sex workers, yet not a single sex worker is interviewed in the film. We know HIV to predominantly exist in the gay community, but Dr. Solomon’s matchmaking service seems to only match heterosexual, or seemingly heterosexual, couples.  

As sweet and deserving of love as Manu and Karthik are, the fact that they are able to find it is predicated on his Brahmin caste and her educated background, as Dr. Solomon’s staff giddily relay in the matchmaking process.

By the end of the film, Manu and Karthik decide to allow their faces to be shown. The couple even spoke at the screening in New York and have committed to be the public faces for HIV clinics in India.

The film is an homage to the remarkable Dr. Solomon, who passed away before the film was released. At times, she even even goaded men into coming in to receive treatment by telling them they would only find love if they took care of themselves. She understood the interconnectivity between human wellbeing and love — and all of its accoutrements, like desire and compassion — and her own love for others will always be remembered.

Urvashi Pathania is a film-maker who writes from Los Angeles, where she attends the University of Southern California. You can learn more about her at urvashipathania.com.

This review was originally published by India Currents in April, 2018. It was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.

 

 

Lovesick: A West Coast Premiere

After discovering the first cases of HIV in India in 1986, Dr. Suniti Solomon left a prestigious academic job to build her own clinic focusing on treating HIV/AIDS patients. Several decades and breakthroughs in treatment later, her clinic is one of the highest regarded in the country and her patients are living longer lives. While surviving, some of

HIV infected Tcell

her patients are not thriving. Being Indian, they feel immense societal and personal pressure to marry, but simultaneously face a stigma of being HIV-positive. Now in the twilight of her impressive career, Dr. Solomon takes the next step in her treatment by creating a matchmaking service for those seeking marriage. Through the service we meet Manu and Karthik, two of her patients who want to share their lives with someone but are fearful they never will. Shot over eight years and told with compassion and care, filmmakers Ann S. Kim and Priya Giri Desai give us a surprising and hopeful story about the universal healing ability of companionship and love.

Priya Giri Desai’s work in print and broadcast media spans two decades and includes work for outlets such as LIFE magazine, PBS and independent film projects. Desai is a graduate of Duke University and a founding board member of The India Center Foundation, a cultural non-profit organization in New York dedicated to the study of the Indian subcontinent, the promotion of its cultural life, and the unique relationship between India and the United States. Ann S. Kim is an independent filmmaker who has reported on a range of science global health issues for public television and radio. From 2016-2017, Kim served as the first Chief Design Officer for the U.S. Surgeon General, bringing design thinking into government and urgent public health issues of addiction, opioids, and social isolation.

Lovesick had its world premiere at DOC NYC in November 2017. It will screen on April 14 at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and again on April 29 at the International Film Festival Boston.

More info at lovesickthefilm.com

Undocumented, Unapologetic, Unafraid

I walked into the San Francisco Immigration Court for my initial deportation hearing right before Christmas 2011. The courtroom was packed with immigrants mostly from India and Mexico, awaiting their deportation to countries they had left behind years ago. One by one, they stepped up; someone entered a plea for asylum, someone asked for more time, and many others accepted their fate: imminent separation from their family members. When they came to my name on the docket, I took a seat next to my attorney, fully prepared to hear and battle the charges against me.

WESTWOOD, CA - MAY 18, 2010: Students and supporters including Andrea Ortega, right, Prerna Lal, center, and Mayra (would not give her last name), left, hold signs during a press conference calling for passage of the DREAM Act, on a corner outside of the Westwood Federal Building. The DREAM Act would assist illegal immigrants who came to the United States before they were 16 years old, a path to citizenship and make it easier for them to receive college degrees. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times)
WESTWOOD, CA – MAY 18, 2010: Students and supporters including Andrea Ortega, right, Prerna Lal, center, and Mayra (would not give her last name), left, hold signs during a press conference calling for passage of the DREAM Act, on a corner outside of the Westwood Federal Building. The DREAM Act would assist illegal immigrants who came to the United States before they were 16 years old, a path to citizenship and make it easier for them to receive college degrees. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times)

To the average desi, illegal immigration is a “Hispanic” problem. Indeed, from the rhetoric that swirls around this issue, one gets the sense that every undocumented immigrant has skulked across the Mexican border at night, desperate to milk the American welfare state and steal good old American jobs (an argument whose efficacy seems to be uncorrelated with its inconsistency!) But the undocumented have many stories to tell—of escaping persecution in their homeland, of arriving as employees and staying on past their visa expiry dates because of their ties to this country, of unscrupulous employers and terrible immigration attorneys mishandling their cases. Or, as in my case, arriving as a child and “aging out” before I could petition to change my status. And yes, Indians cross the border from Mexico too. After Latin Americans, Indians are the largest group of immigrants caught at the Southwest border. And we’ve been doing this since the late 1800s—entering the United States without inspection through Mexico and Canada.

The Notice to Appear (NTA) document read, “She entered the country around November 13, 1999 and was authorized to stay till November 10, 1999.”

The Honorable judge smiled. “Well, obviously that is wrong. Would you like to suggest a friendly amendment?”

The government lawyer shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m not clear. It says in my files that she entered at or around May 2000. Is that not true?”

The attorney assigned to represent me looked sideways at me with her eyebrow raised. I returned the raised eyebrow and shook my head.

“That’s not true,” she countered.

“In that case, I don’t know what the facts are,” the government attorney declared in apparent frustration.

I don’t blame him. A lot has happened in the past 13 years that his job as a prosecutor would never allow him to consider beyond arrival and departure dates.

From what I can recall, I was around 14 when my father decided to pack our belongings and move us to the San Francisco Bay Area all the way from the islands of Fiji. He said he was running away from years of ethnic violence against Indians in Fiji. The rest of us did not have his sense of urgency but he wanted out and it didn’t matter if anyone else understood. I’ve often wondered about his reasons but no longer think the question holds any relevance.

The 2010 March For America. Photo by Judy G. Rolfe
The 2010 March For America. Photo by Judy G. Rolfe

 

Cold dreary weather gave me a warm welcome to the United States. We came to live with one of my uncles in Hayward, CA. I was enrolled in a public high school and expected to pick up right where I had left off, as if nothing had changed. My grandmother—a U.S. citizen—filed papers for us and I was told not to worry about immigration matters. My older sister had been studying here on an F-1 student visa and there was no reason to believe that I couldn’t do the same upon graduation from high school, and then eventually adjust my status to a green-card holder.

In hindsight, South Asians would ask me why I wasn’t smart enough to just stay on a student visa. It’s actually illegal to attend a public high school in the United States on an F-1 visa without compensating the school, and I couldn’t afford that. Besides, I was a dependent on my father’s visa and attended high school legally. I ended up graduating near the top of my class with admission to attend several reputable schools but discovered that I was unable to accept any of the offers because the newly formed United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) denied my application for a student visa.

Apparently, the visa petition filed by my grandmother when I was brought here was evidence of immigrant intent. In order to be an F-1 international student, I had to prove ties to my former country. USCIS emphatically declared in their denial letter that I was unable to prove any ties to Fiji and that the visa petition filed for my parents by my grandmother meant that I intended to live here. The irony in all of this is that had they allowed me to study here in legal status, I would have probably left the country after college. However, because I started to accrue “unlawful presence” due to the visa rejection, leaving the country triggered a senseless 10-year ban. I became someone who could neither live here nor leave here. I became undocumented.

That is how a lot of South Asian immigrants live in America. We make up a significant  number of the undocumented immigrant population in the United States but we are also conditioned to stay silent and remain fearful about our status. For a long time, I lived in fear of my life. Afraid to go to hospital when I broke my hand, afraid to talk about the abuse I underwent at home, afraid to ask for help if I was involved in an accident, afraid to tell teachers and friends in college that I was undocumented and needed financial support, afraid to apply for jobs or seek scholarships out of fear that someone would find out and report me to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

My mother constantly told me not to worry about my immigration status. According to her, all I had to do was work hard and go to school, and things would eventually sort themselves out. With the little money she had saved up from cleaning hotel rooms and working a fast-food job, she bought a small cleaning business. She enrolled me in a local community college. The college was more than happy to take me even without the proper immigration paperwork.

I would go to school in the day and work for the cleaning business till the crack of dawn. I didn’t have work authorization. I was paying out of state tuition for school with no access to student loans. I could not drive so I would bike and take public transportation up to six hours daily to get to college. I had no identification besides a passport with a photo that no longer resembled me, so I could not travel. For a long time, I dealt with these barriers by compartmentalizing them and throwing myself into my studies.

I worked hard and somehow graduated from college and graduate school before I was 22.

By then, I had spent my entire adult life looking over my shoulder, waiting for the axe to come down on the life we were leading in this country. Fortunately, my parents finally became eligible for a green card and we went to a lawyer’s office to file for adjustment of status.

Protests in front of the White House
Protests in front of the White House

 

Then a new wrinkle appeared.

“What do you mean, she aged out?” my mom asked the lawyer, perplexed.

“She is too old now to qualify for a green card with you. You would need to file for her again separately, after getting your green card. She will have to wait in line again. Alternatively, there’s always the DREAM Act (a piece of proposed legislation that would give certain undocumented youth brought to the United States before the age of 16 a pathway to legal residency).”

“How many more years does she have to wait? She has already waited 8 years for her green card.”

“7-8 more years. There is no way to tell. Maybe she should consider getting married.”

“I keep telling her to find a boy,” my mother said, agreeing with the lawyer.

“She has plenty of time. Just make sure he is a U.S. citizen.”

It hurt. Up to that point in time, I had kept quiet about the fact that I was gay. I’m sure my parents knew but they refused to acknowledge it. Depressed, lonely, and frustrated with living multiple lies, I tried to kill myself on several occasions. When my mother and sister started to look for prospective husbands for me, I decided that the only way to put an end to it was to be as out as possible. The best way to protect myself was to break through the barrier of invisibility. And that was the first step to breaking my chains.

The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act is a proposal that was first introduced in the U.S. Senate on August 1, 2001. This bill would provide conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented youth of good moral character who graduated from U.S. high schools or gain a GED, arrived in the United States before the age of 16, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment. If they were to complete two years in the military or two years at a four year institution of higher learning, they would obtain temporary residency for a six year period.

The legislation went nowhere for several years and was later tied to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 and the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (S. 1348) as low-hanging fruit. With the failure of “comprehensive reform” legislation, Senator Dick Durbin (Ill.), the chief proponent of the DREAM Act in the Senate, made its passage a priority for his office.

In October 2007, after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act once yet again, I met other undocumented youth like me on an online portal, who were willing to do more than just sit around in fear and live in the shadows. There was Mohammad Abdollahi, brought here from Iran at the age of three, whose attorney had filed the wrong fee for his dad’s work visa and then failed to appeal the adverse decision, which made the entire family undocumented; Kemi Bello, brought here at the age of six from Nigeria by her mom because her severely handicapped sister could only get medical treatment in this country. I found and created family in these students. Little did I know that the family I was created through email, GChat, Facebook, and phone conversations would evolve into an entire network of fierce and envied immigrant rights activists in just a few short months.

With the little cash I had from doing odd jobs, I bought a web domain—DreamActivist.org—and started working on building a website to act as both a resource and action center for undocumented youth. The Internet allows users to be anonymous, so it was a safe way to gather and share our stories while protecting our identities, meet other undocumented youth in the same state and forge friendships as well as alliances. I traveled to dozens of states, teaching undocumented youth across the country how to use the web and social media to share their stories. Immigrant rights organizations started noticing our growing network and reached out to us to speak at events and conferences across the country. After all, we were building the very base that they purport to fight for and support with their money. Currently, we have more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, 80,000 on Facebook, and over 100,000 members on the mailing list and growing—a network that even multi-million dollar immigration reform campaigns have been unable to match.

With the support of an entire community behind me, I was no longer afraid to take on the system. So when the largest newspaper in the country, USA Today, decided to brand us as “illegal students,” I wasn’t going to allow them to get away with it. The label “illegal” has a way of dehumanizing the person involved, and from there it is a quick step to creating an unknown and amorphous bogey man who is responsible for all the ills befalling citizens.
I directed thousands of emails and calls to the newspaper asking them to change their discourse. A retraction was printed within days and the reporter quit her job a little later.

Inspired by the small campaign, Colorlines, a news site focusing on issues of racial justice, launched their “Drop the I-word” campaign, asking media professionals to stop using the word.

Through my work, I found other undocumented South Asian students in various parts of the country. One such student was Taha, who was brought here at the age of two and lived in New Jersey for 16 years. He was being deported back to Bangladesh in less than a week. But due to the shame and stigma of being undocumented, his family wanted no media exposure. We had to launch a behind-the-scenes campaign, urging his Senators to stop his impending deportation and directing a few thousand faxes to the Department of Homeland Security.

Senator Robert Menendez wrote to the Department of Homeland Security on Taha’s behalf, requesting that they defer action on Taha’s deportation because “our nation benefits more by his presence than by his absence.” Indeed, one recent UCLA study estimates that between $1.4 trillion and $3.6 trillion in taxable income would be generated for the economy over a 40-year period by DREAM Act beneficiaries successfully obtaining resident status through the legislation.

A week later, at a June 2009 United We Dream governance convening, I learned that Taha and his family had been granted deferred action—a stay of removal that authorizes a person to live and work in the United States.
That amazing realization that we could now stop any deportation holds mostly true to this day.

Since then, immigrant rights organizers and attorneys across the country have banded together to halt deportations in similar cases. Every week, friends, families and organizers gather to fax, email, call, and arrange meetings with officials in the Obama Administration.

Some of this momentum has led to the formation of new organizations with numerous local alliances, such as the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) in Chicago. Undocumented students have started to realize that their growing numbers and visibility actually help their cause. Undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic is the new mantra of the movement.

As part of this movement we attend City Council hearings, organize educational workshops for community members, hold rallies, and lobby legislators to support the DREAM Act.

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The more courageous ones partake in civil disobedience actions—from hunger strikes to shutting down streets to occupying Congressional offices to placing themselves in detention to gather evidence of ICE abuses against detainees.

Out in the open, nothing seems to be impossible. We have stopped hundreds of deportations. We have found ways to get undocumented youth employed by creating limited liability companies. We have created Undocuhealth.org to battle the shame, stigma, and stress of being an undocumented youth. And I have embarked in my own form of civil disobedience—placing myself in deportation proceedings while attending law school in the nation’s capital.

Given the current immigration court backlogs in San Francisco and the pending litigation with regards to my case, I probably won’t be scheduled for an individual deportation hearing till 2015. By that time, I should actually be able to get a green card through my mother. Till then, I am “an alien authorized to work” in the United States.

I did pay a heavy price. My mother was hospitalized upon hearing about my impending deportation and she is now suffering from depression. My father does not speak to me because I am openly gay. As a poster child for the DREAM Act, I have a tougher time gaining and keeping employment because people assume that my undocumented status means that I don’t have work authorization or clearance, which is a classic case of job discrimination.

I’m not writing this to garner widespread sympathy or empathy regarding my deportation. I am writing this story to ask everyone to live their lives as honestly and openly as possible because living in the shadows and hiding our problems doesn’t do anything for us as a community. My experience has clearly shown me that finding people in the same situation as me and working together to fight the system has been tremendously successful.

Some would deride my personal journey and battle as a sense of entitlement. Some would extoll the courage and conviction I have displayed in the face of adversity. I’d peg it down spending half my life figuring out how to keep my family together by making a broken immigration system work for us. I sometimes question whether the struggle has been worth it but my dream is to sit on the beaches of Fiji sipping coconut water with a green-card in my wallet.

Prerna Lal is a law student at The George Washington University Law School and the co-founder of DreamActivist.org. She can be reached at [email protected]