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Stories Bring Us Together, Untold Stories Keep Us Apart

Desi RootsGlobal Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.

Stories can be powerful agents of change that reflect reality and move us towards a better future, if only we have the courage to share them.

“Stories bring us together, untold stories keep us apart” ~ Elif Shafak.

For a long time I was just a reader. First as a bookish schoolgirl and later as a quiet teenager who preferred the sensibly laid out plots in novels and logically solved thrillers to the confusing world around me. I graduated from Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers to Agatha Christie and Sidney Sheldon, reading whatever I could find in the homes of friends and relatives – dog-eared books, old magazines and past issues of Reader’s Digest. Sometimes I shelled out precious rupees from my monthly pocket money for dusty bargain paperbacks from street vendors and occasionally I borrowed books from the hole-in-the-wall Mumbai bookshops that doubled as lending libraries. 

Too naive to distinguish between literary fiction and pulp fiction, chick-lit and magic realism, to me a book was a book. I read for the pleasure of it. My science education was a blessing because I was not trained to read between and below the lines of the words on the page. I simply admired the stories. And authors remained mysterious creatures who concocted fabulous tales from the recesses of their imagination, forever to be admired for their storytelling skills.


Plenty to read

It wasn’t until I arrived in the US that I began to look at books more closely. From well-stocked public libraries to well-lit bookstores that also served coffee, it was a book lover’s heaven. Unlike the outdated, soiled collections that I previously had to make do with, now I could touch pristine paperbacks and glossy jacketed hardbound books. New releases and New York Times bestsellers, fiction and nonfiction books were neatly stacked at Barnes and Noble and were also freely available at my local library.

Through interviews with authors that aired on television and appeared in newspapers, I saw the people who wrote these books. From mythical creatures, authors became accessible humans who walked and spoke and ate and slept just like me. And once the connection between story and storyteller was made, I began to look for stories that spoke to me as a student, an immigrant, and a working mother, a search that grew with each year that I lived in the US. 


Stories connect us

While I am transported by all stories, I cannot find myself reflected in every book I read. Yet, when I see parts of myself reflected in a character in a story, even if they don’t always look like me or share my cultural background or my life trajectory, I feel seen and valued. In Maeve Binchy’s novel Echoes, set in a small Irish town, I felt a sense of kinship with the nerdy protagonist who excels in school. And when I suffered through a phase of infertility, the protagonist of Linda Crew’s novel Ordinary Miracles set in Oregon mirrored my pain and feelings of inadequacy.


Writing about the self

While in the US, I went through a phase where I actively sought writing by Indian American writers. In the pre-Jhumpa Lahiri phase, I read contemporary novels by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruini and Bharti Mukherjee and revisited V.S Naipaul. When I returned to India, in the pre-Chetan Bhagat phase, I binge-read Shashi Deshpande’s fiction. Each of these satisfied the reader in me to various extents. 

Following the huge success of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in the US in the nineties, I came across other memoirs. Later when I began to dabble in personal essays, I became curious about the process of writing a full-length book of a person’s true story. Were there any memoirs by Indian authors I wondered? Of course, there were biographies and autobiographies, but these were typically about famous politicians, artists or celebrities with highly unusual life stories. 

Memoirs appealed to me because they depicted the often ignored extraordinary undercurrent of the lives of ordinary people whose stories were valuable to the rest of us precisely for the ordinariness that was our shared experience. 


Of writing and publishing

Earlier this year when I embarked on writing my memoir, I became even more curious about other Indian authors like me who had stepped into the untested waters of memoir writing. Culturally we are primed to celebrate outward success but keep the failures and tribulations under wraps. Infertility, divorce, mental health and other topics are all too often brushed under the rug, further isolating the individuals who are going through a difficult phase. Had anyone attempted to write about these topics? I had several questions that I knew would be of interest to readers and other writers.

Why did they write their story? And how? What was their path to publication? What did they learn from their writing journey? What did they want readers and other aspiring writers to know? 

In The Power of Meaning – Crafting a Life That Matters, researcher and author Emily Esfahani Smith claims that storytelling forms one of four pillars of meaning. Our storytelling impulse arises from a deep-seated human instinct to “make sense of our world and our place in it, and understand why things happen the way they do”.

I tentatively approached one author after another, to ask them the story behind their books. With each interview, I felt inspired and energized by their desire and commitment to share their story. I began to feature a monthly author interview segment on my blog where I highlighted their books and writing journeys which allowed me to refuel my creative tank  as I wrote about my own difficult journey through separation and divorce.

The process of reaching out to memoir writers, of getting to know their struggles with the story and the craft of writing has helped me tremendously as a writer and made me even more aware of the difficulties of sharing personal stories that demand both vulnerability and grit.

Publishing houses look for books that sell, a decision often made not on the basis of the inherent value of the story but on the author’s platform and the fit of the narrative in the current context. What about the ordinary stories of ordinary people that have the power to move us?

My goal for my memoir is for it to initiate conversations about divorce, which is becoming common in Indian society. My book may not reflect everyone’s experience but by putting it out there, I am adding to the practically non-existent body of literature on the subject of desi divorce. 

It is only by having many voices telling their story that we can truly break the hold of a dominant narrative that may be true but flawed, because it does not reflect the whole.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. She is the author of three books and is the co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her memoir – Rewriting My Happily Ever After will be available in October 2021. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash


Left to right: Ladybug Film Poster and Filmmaker Abhishek Chandra.

Opening the World to Epics From India: Abhishek Chandra

Filmmaker, writer, and producer Abhishek Chandra‘s latest short film Ladybug has won 16 awards globally and is nominated in 10 others. Produced in Los Angeles under Meraki Studios, the English-Portuguese drama stars Isabela Valotti (who also wrote the film), Mia Drake, and Andre Mattos in lead roles. 

A poignant tale about dealing with the loss of a loved one, Ladybug is based on a heartfelt true story. The 14-minute long film is about Olivia, an artist who struggles to come to terms with her father’s death. As she recalls the tragic events that unfolded and the last conversation she shared with her father, she breaks down and lights a candle in his memory. It leads her to finally face the truth, and also repair the conflicted relationship she shares with her mother.    

Still from the movie ‘Ladybug’

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. We have our own unique ways of dealing with grief. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate affair—all you need is that one moment,” says Chandra about the idea behind the film. 

Born in Kerala, Chandra grew up in Nepal, studied in Dehradun, graduated in Delhi, and did his post-grad in Mumbai. Chandra who has backpacked across India, claims that his work is informed by his diverse background. He can speak five languages — English, Hindi, Malayalam, Nepali, and Maithili. He believes that his connection to these places and cultures has greatly helped him understand the people and stories about them. 

A huge fan of Indian mythologies, he has read most of the epics and hopes to adapt them into a modern retelling for western audiences. “We have such fantastic stories, characters, and plots in our mythology within these old texts that we can put films such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones to shame,” he says. Currently, Chandra is busy working on scripting two projects—a dark-comedy gangster love story and adaptation of a chapter from the Ramayana for a TV pilot. “Even if you take Krishna, Narad, or Rama, the way he led his life, you can build seasons of great television. I want to open the world to some of the most epic characters and stories from India,” he says.

After graduating from Whistling Woods in 2010, Abhishek co-founded a production house called Joker Films in Mumbai. For the next six years, he produced award-winning audio-visuals and commercials for major advertising agencies. He soon learned that telling stories in the shortest format with a lasting impact requires an impressive command over every aspect of production—from scripting to post-production. 

After shifting base to Los Angeles in 2016, Abhishek completed his yet-to-be-published debut book—And Then There Was One—a collection of poetry. He also collaborated with his long-time friend and artist, Sapra, on two Hindi music videos—“Ishq Nashila” and “Ishq Nashila 2.0”. Further, prior to Ladybug, Abhishek directed shorts in Los Angeles, such as Borders (2017) and Coco (2018).

Recently, he collaborated with LA-based hip-hop artist Jesse Cooley aka FOUR on his comeback album, which Chandra has produced and directed. Bringing together some of LA’s finest talents (including Gareth Taylor, Vihang Walve, and Michael Philpot), its songs are mounted on an incredible scale with a mix of live-action and VFX. The first song “Rock and Roll Soul”, released at the end of March, and the second song, “Love and Hate”, at the end of April. 

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.


Using Patient Stories To Mentally Survive As A COVID-19 Clinician

Dr. Christopher Travis, an intern in obstetrics-gynecology, has cared for patients with COVID-19 and performed surgery on women suspected of having the coronavirus. But the patient who arrived for a routine prenatal visit in two masks and gloves had a problem that wasn’t physiological.

“She told me, ‘I’m terrified I’m going to get this virus that’s spreading all over the world,’” and worried it would hurt her baby, he said of the March encounter.

Travis, who practices at the Los Angeles County + University of Southern California Medical Center, told the woman he knew she was scared and tried to assure her she was safe and could trust him.

Asking many questions and carefully listening to the answers, Travis was exercising the craft of narrative medicine, a discipline in which clinicians use the principles of art and literature to better understand and incorporate patients’ stories into their practices.

“How do we do that really difficult work during the pandemic without it consuming us so we can come out ‘whole’ on the other end?” Travis said. Narrative medicine, which he studied at Columbia University, has helped him be aware of his own feelings, reflect more before reacting, and view challenging situations calmly, he said.

The first graduate program in narrative medicine was created at Columbia University in 2009 by Dr. Rita Charon, and the practice has gained wide influence since, as evidenced by the dozens of narrative medicine essays published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and its sister journals.

Learning to be storytellers also helps clinicians communicate better with non-professionals, said writer and geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson, who directs the medical humanities program at the University of California-San Francisco. It may be useful to reassure patients — or to motivate them to follow public health recommendations. “Tell them a story about having to intubate a previously healthy 22-year-old who’s going to die and leave behind his first child and new wife, and then you have their attention.”

“At the same time, telling that story can help the health professional process their own trauma and get the support they need to keep going,” she said.

Teaching Storytelling To Doctors

This fall, Keck School of Medicine of USC will offer the country’s second master’s program in narrative medicine, and the subject also will be part of the curriculum in the new Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine in Pasadena, which opens its doors July 27 with its first class of 48 students. (KHN, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

Narrative medicine trains physicians to care about patients’ singular, lived experiences — how illness is really affecting them, said Dr. Deepthiman Gowda, assistant dean for medical education at the new Kaiser Permanente school. The training may entail a close group reading of creative works such as poetry or literature, or watching dance or a film, or listening to music.

He said there’s also “real, intrinsic value” for patients because a doctor isn’t only being trained to care about the body and medications.

“Literature in its nature is a dive into the experience of living — the triumphs, the joys, the suffering, the anxieties, the tragedies, the confusions, the guilt, the ecstasies of being human, of being alive,” Gowda said. “This is the training our students need if they wish to care for persons and not diseases.”

Dr. Andre Lijoi, a geriatrician at WellSpan York Hospital in Pennsylvania, recently led a virtual session for 20 front-line nurse practitioners who work in nursing homes. Two volunteers recited Mary Oliver’s 1986 poem “Wild Geese,” which reads, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.”

Sharing the poet’s words helped the nurses relieve their pent-up tensions, enabling them to express their feelings about life and work under COVID-19, Lijoi said.

One participant wrote, “As the world goes on around me I mourn seeing my aging parents, planning my daughter’s wedding, and missing my great niece’s baptism. I wonder, when will life be ‘normal’ again?”

Processing Fear To Provide Better Care

Dr. Naomi Rosenberg, an emergency room physician at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, studied narrative medicine at Columbia and teaches it at Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. The discipline helps her “metabolize” what she takes in while caring for COVID-19 patients, including the fear that comes with having to enter patients’ rooms alone in protective gear, she said.

The training helped her counsel a worried woman who couldn’t visit her sister because the hospital, like others around the country, wasn’t allowing relatives to visit COVID-19-infected patients.

“I’d read stories of Baldwin, Hemingway and Steinbeck about what it feels like to be afraid for someone you love, and recalling those helped me communicate with her with more clarity and compassion,” Rosenberg said. (After a four-day crisis, the sister recovered.)

Dr. Pamela Schaff (right) discusses narrative medicine in the Hoyt Gallery at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, as Chioma Moneme, a student in the class of 2020, looks on. (Credit: Chris Shinn)

Close readings can also help students understand the various ways metaphor is used in the medical profession, for good or ill, said Dr. Pamela Schaff, who directs the Keck School’s new master’s program in narrative medicine.

Recently, Schaff led third-year medical students through a critical examination of a journal article that described medicine as a battlefield. The analysis helped student Andrew Tran understand that describing physicians as “warriors” could “promote unrealistic expectations and even depersonalization of us as human beings,” he said.

Something similar happens in the militarized language used to describe cancer, he added: “We say, ‘You’ve got to fight,’ which implies that if you die, you’re somehow a failure.”

In the real world, doctors are often focused narrowly, devoting most of their attention to a patient’s chief complaint. They listen to patients on average for only 11 seconds before interrupting them, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Narrative medicine seeks to change that.

While listening more carefully may add one more item to a physician’s lengthy “to-do” list, it could also save time in the end, Schaff said.

“If we train physicians to listen well, for metaphor, subtext and more, they can absorb and act on their patients’ stories even if they have limited time,” she said. “Also, we physicians must harness our narrative competence to demand changes in the health care system. Health systems should not mandate 10-minute encounters.”

Telling The Patient’s Whole Story

In practice, narrative medicine has diverse applications. Modern electronic health records, with their templates and prefilled sections, can hamper a doctor’s ability to create meaningful notes, Gowda said. But doctors can counter that by writing notes in language that makes the patient’s struggles come alive, he said.

The school’s curriculum will incorporate a different patient story each week to frame students’ learning. “Instead of, ‘This week, you will learn about stomach cancer,’ we say, ‘This week, we want you to meet Mr. Cardenas,’” Gowda said. “We learn about who he is, his family, his situation, his symptoms, his concerns. We want students to connect medical knowledge with the complexity and sometimes messiness of people’s stories and contexts.”

In preparation for the school’s opening, Gowda and a colleague have been running Friday lunchtime mindfulness and narrative medicine sessions for faculty and staff.

The meetings might include a collective, silent examination of a piece of art, followed by a discussion and shared feelings, said Dr. Marla Law Abrolat, a Permanente Medicine pediatrician in San Bernardino, California, and a faculty director at the new school.

“Young people come to medicine with bright eyes and want to help, then a traditional medical education beats that out of them,” Abrolat said. “We want them to remember patients’ stories that will always be a part of who they are when they leave here.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

A Legacy That Belongs to All of Us

For years, Asian-Americans donned a cultural Invisibility cloak before Western audiences. And although undiscovered, their stories have unfolded silently and beautifully from generation to generation. That’s why the five-part documentary series, Asian Americans, created by an all-Asian American team of filmmakers, plays such a critical role in chronicling the immigrant experience. 

Narrated by Daniel Dae Kim and Tamlyn Tomita, Asian Americans strings together the stories of the many struggles for freedom – from the Japanese incarcerations during World War II to anti-Asian immigration laws. The storytelling, accompanied by the power of the documentary’s visual component, delivers a poignant narrative about what it means to belong to a country unconditionally, in the face of both adversity and animosity. Asian Americans features interviews with some of our community’s most celebrated individuals, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, Chinese-American journalist Helen Zia, academic expert Erika Lee,  and Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu. Their stories highlight the difficulty in navigating identity between two dichotomous cultures. 

The trailer for Asian Americans ends with the words, “and their legacy belongs to all of us!” As I reflect on my own experience as Indian-American, I realize how much I identify with these words. So many trailblazers have carved out a voice for our community — and PBS’s Asian Americans gives them the credit they rightfully deserve. 

While the documentary is impactful on its own, its content becomes more topical against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The current coronavirus outbreak marks an alarming rise in anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobic paranoia. According to a poll conducted in New York, residents have reported roughly 248 cases of racial prejudice since January. 1600 hundred attacks have been reported nationwide — a number which can only be an undercount, due to the shame and fear that contributes to such attacks. Divisive language surrounding this situation, such as calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus” turn Asian-Americans into a convenient scapegoat for unprecedented circumstances. Social media platforms document shocking tales of bigoted attacks against law-abiding Asian Americans, such as a video of two girls at Garden Grove’s Bolsda Grande High “screaming ‘coronavirus’ at Asian American students”. COVID-19’s impact on race relations is not making national headlines because of its novelty. Rather, it’s only chillingly familiar for the Asian American community.

Virtual Town Hall hosted by the Center for Asian American Media.

In a virtual Town Hall hosted by the Center for Asian American Media, producers and members of this documentary discussed what it means to be of Asian descent during an international crisis. Some of the panelists included Viet Thanh Nguyen, Amna Nawaz, Hari Kondabolu, and more. And in a critical segment of this Town Hall, the panelists pointed out how coronavirus fears play into America’s history of race-based discrimination. It was only one generation ago, for instance, that Chinese-American draftsman Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white men in Wayne County, Detroit. While Chin’s assailants were originally charged with second-degree murder, their only punishment was $3,000 dollars and no jail time. “It reminded Asian-Americans that progress hadn’t really been made.” 

Today, every voice in the United States has the opportunity to change our country’s cycle of systematic abuse. Rather than using a national tragedy to fuel dangerous and divisive rhetoric, we have the chance to truly move forward. And Asian Americans represent that effort towards a liberated future for the next generation of immigrants. “As much as tragedy is a part of our heritage here, so is possibility.”

The documentary premieres Money and Tuesday, May 11 & 12, 2020 at 8pm on PBS. To watch the trailer, click here! 

To find out more about the Digital Town Hall, watch a recording of the panel here.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being a Youth Editor for 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.

Why Stories are Important

Books are enchanted. They have the ability to transport the mind to an imaginative place where the story gets painted in vivid colors. These stories can also be crucial in teaching lessons, at any age, and allow us to experience a journey through a character’s insight. It is truly magical when a book and its lessons stay with you and become an integral part of your core principles and understandings. When I was in the fifth grade, I read the book Holes by Louis Sachar three times. 20 years later, the story has stuck with me as a telling of the resilience, resourcefulness and the deciphering between right and wrong that children so clearly possess.

The book tells of a young teenage boy named Stanley Yelnats. He was wrongly accused of theft and sent to a juvenile corrections facility in a vast Texan desert called Camp Green Lake. He comes from a poor family who has always believed they were cursed due to his “no-good-dirty-rotten pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather”. At Camp Green Lake, Stanley and the other inmates are told to dig one hole every day that is 5 feet deep and 5 feet wide to build character. However, Stanley soon suspects they might be digging for something in particular, because the warden promises a day off for anyone who finds anything interesting. Stanley befriends another young boy named Zero, who has been homeless most of his life, and together they find themselves on a journey for survival.

The plot includes history of the area along with the interconnected relationships between other characters and how they each affect Stanley. Themes include illiteracy, homelessness, racism, and the mistreatment of children. I understand it sounds heavy for a ten year old to read, but Sachar’s story telling was inscribed in such a way that I believe now was important for my young mind to piece the themes together. They are topics that ring ever true to our future and have yielded my passion and will to make the upcoming generation better.

As a third grade teacher, my goal is to teach my students the importance of resilience, compassion, and understanding the different families and backgrounds in our community. Holes is an important reminder that children can make a profound impact on the world. One instance in my classroom that made me feel that full-hearted, proud teacher beam happened this past school year. I was teaching my students about the Native Americans. We discussed the treatment of the Native Americans by the Europeans, and how it was not as peaceful as we used to be taught when my generation learned about Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving. We talked about the conflict over land, and one of my students raised her hand. When I called on her, she asked, “Why didn’t they just have a conversation and find a way to share the land fairly?” This is why we teach history. I told my students that their mindset is already greater than those who came before them, and that is the mindset we need in our future for a joyous and successful world.

Ultimately, the themes of resilient problem-solving and fair treatment of others are what I aim to teach my students every day. Just like Sachar’s novel, life is an adventure and through each challenge, a valuable lesson is learned.

Annie Milan is a Bay Area native and is currently a third grade teacher in Los Gatos. Teaching has always been the guiding light of her education and career. She graduated with a BA in English Education with a minor in Spanish from California State University, Chico in 2013. She has always relished literature and writing, and started a book club for her colleagues earlier this year. Annie and her husband live in San Jose. Together they frequent the foothills taking hikes and enjoy weekend trips to the beach. In her downtime, she loves to read, cook, and take on home projects.