Tag Archives: Swathi Ramprasad

Think Globally, Act Locally

“These are unprecedented times…” is probably the beginning of every email that you’ve written, received, or been forwarded over the course of the last month. While our lives have surely been changed, our day-to-day schedule in quarantine largely looks, well, pretty precedented. If you’re anything like me or my family, you’ve probably tried your hand at the internet’s favorite Dalgona coffee, baked banana bread out of boredom, or co-starred in your younger family members’ TikToks (reader, please explain to me why I’m now obsessed with the Skechers song!). In the world of social distancing, we often believe that we are at a loss to do anything other than propping ourselves up with these mundane pleasures. After all, many of us aren’t epidemiology researchers, state legislators, or doctors (as much as my parents would have hoped differently). But the truth is, there’s more we can do to help our community than we might currently think. 

The Indian-American community is one of the most successful ethnic minorities in America, with the highest average income of minority groups in this country. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is receiving praise for his commitment to donate $1 billion (28% of his net worth) to the COVID-19 crisis, but leaders in the Indian-American community have not pledged nearly the same. Several Indian-led nonprofits have stepped in to help in ways they can. Our community has seen over 40 deaths in America. While saddening, these figures pale in comparison to the health disparities in black and LatinX communities, which shows that we have more of an obligation than ever to contribute. There’s a variety of ways for people to get involved in local efforts, donations, and advocacy, and it’s important to keep these opportunities on our radar as we brace for several more weeks of isolation. 

Donating Time:

While not everyone can be in a place to be able to financially support local charity work, there’s plenty that can contribute with their time. In today’s climate, vulnerable populations often see their challenges exacerbated, with social-isolation, medical bills, and job losses plaguing our country. Victims of domestic violence are quarantined with their abusers, high-risk senior citizens are spending days alone, and the impact on migrant and refugee communities is terrifying. For many of the non-profits seeking to provide resources to these communities, what they need most is an increase in volunteers to reflect their increased needs at this time. Here are a few ways you might be able to get involved: 

  • You can help with contactless driving for Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit that helps provide food and check-ins for senior citizens. 
  • You can get trained to be a domestic violence crisis counselor from your couch  
  • You can even be a decoder for Amnesty International
  • Got extra cloth? Help sew masks for your local health professionals. 
  • Looking for a more comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities? Look no further.
Madhavi Prabha sewing masks for local hospitals.

Donating Money

While some of us might be able to donate extra hours, if someone’s quarantine-buddies are immunocompromised, or if the hectic pace of our lives has not calmed down, donating money might be an easier avenue for them. Mutual Aid collectives, which organize under the philosophy of “solidarity, not charity,” help mobilize a community’s financial resources for those who are in need. Mutual aid groups have been used in several universities and municipalities, and this locator helps a user see the aid efforts nearest to them. There are several well-known non-profits and locators that families can use to donate to at this time:

Think Globally, Act Locally

While the saying might be trite, the most impact that we can make is within our own communities. Whether it’s buying gift cards to your favorite small businesses, dropping off groceries for a neighbor, or caring for the children of medical professionals, there’s a lot we can do by simply keeping ourselves aware. You can subscribe to the email list-servs of your local political representatives, who often can provide constituents with information about neighborhood efforts. Charity navigator is also a great resource that can help you identify what organizations are doing great work in your community. If you’re from the Bay Area, Silicon Valley strong is a wonderful place to start with your efforts. The possibilities are endless, and the genuine good in the hearts of everyday people is incredible. If there’s a silver lining to all of this, it’s this: we are stronger together.

Swathi is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.

Paras Borgohain: Khul Ja Sesame

Stories of plight, of unrequited love, of untold history are the threads that stitch the seams of our ever-expanding world. These are the narratives that empower us to learn and to empathize with small tales of astronomical weight.

This has become Paras Borgohain’s mission: storytelling of impact. As a filmmaker straddling industry in both America and India, his unconventional life path has given him the power to bring these narratives to the screen. He aims to bridge the gap between everyday people and important stories from around the world. 

Borgohain began his academic career at the University of Delhi, where he studied English Language and Literature. Early in his life, he began to see the importance of telling stories and bringing many of these narratives out of the shadows for public consumption.

“I needed to find a point of entry into the industry,” he said, speaking of the time of tumult towards the end of his education. Following Delhi University and a graduate diploma in Communication from Mumbai, Paras found himself at a production company that exclusively worked on daily Indian soap series.

“It was not something I wanted to work with because I hated watching them as a kid,” he said. While it was a grind for him, he knew that it would be the best way to network into the industry. It taught him about working under pressure. He recounted staying up late into the night, coming up with storylines that would be filmed at 7am the next morning. But still, the industry was stagnant, the plotlines of mothers-in-law and revenge were often hard to identify with as a young person. 

Borgohain’s thirst for mission driven work brought him to Galli Galli Sim Sim, India’s Sesame Street. Collaborating with in-house educational researchers breathed life into his career. He was finally doing something that mattered to him: shaping the development of the next generation of Indian children. 

Galli Galli Sim Sim was a safe space for the production group. People on the team got married – that’s the kind of family the show was. 

“Writing for children isn’t what I thought I’d be doing in terms of my artistic goals,” he said. He wanted to write about things that mattered to him, metafictional narratives and stories about minority groups, topics too heavy for a children’s television show. Due to this, Borgohain took up several freelance projects over the next few years. He worked on community radio shows for UNICEF, for pockets of the world that didn’t have access to television. He assisted with the screenplay writing for Turner Broadcasting. He helped contribute to a National Geographic documentary about how the 1980s changed India. Through these projects, he learned about the issue spaces he cared deeply for, but he realized he needed to stop doing commission work. 

“I was afraid that I would lose my individual voice,” he said. 

This was the tipping point for him. He decided he needed to write his own feature film, “Deepest, Darkest or How Not to Lie.”  

The story begins with a gay man who dies mysteriously. He writes a letter to his friend, a PR professional, and she is tasked with figuring out what happened to him. She explores his life and must come to terms with their mirrored experiences with unrequited love and suppression. She must find out what lead him to believe that life was hopeless. 

Paras Borgohain, winner of the BlueCat Roshan Award (Image taken from BlueCat)

The story, about loss, acceptance, and identity, had huge success, winning the Bluecat Roshan Award for best Indian screenplay in 2016. Paras finally had a way into the industry, telling stories close to his heart of the struggles of LGBTQ+ communities in India. This was the type of storytelling he always dreamed he would be known for.

Soon after, Borgohain enrolled in UCLA’s professional program at their film school. Here, he sharpened the core of what he wanted to write about. 

“Do your words on the page do your thoughts justice?” He always found himself asking himself about the authenticity of his words. 

Today, he is working on fleshing out projects that he began at UCLA. He’s working on a project about Assam from the 70s to 90s, taking a historical lens that has rarely come to the mainstream media. He is in pre-production for a film about the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, called “The Crash of ’14,” which was his final project during his professional education. 

The project closest to his heart is one about an LGTBQ+ activist and author from the 90’s named Stan Leventhal. Back in 2013, Borgohain had written a blog post about how much Leventhal’s writing had moved him, with its lucid and unique voice about the AIDS epidemic. With serendipitous help from the internet, he managed to get in touch with the late Leventhal’s family, who gave him permission to turn his book into a movie. 

Paras looks back at his career with gratitude. 

“It’s taken me 14 years to get from working on soaps to something I give a damn about.”

His advice for aspiring Indian American filmmakers is simple: be open and resilient. 

“If you want to break into a tough industry like entertainment, you have to be thick skinned,” he said. It took him several failures and jobs to get to where he is today. 

But above everything, he says to trust your internal creative compass. 

“What’s going on inside you as an artist, what your personal experiences are, that’s your next creative masterpiece.”

Swathi is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.

Santa Doesn’t Talk like that, Amma!

It was 7 am on a rainy winter morning in California. My dad had forgotten to buy milk the previous night. Fearing my mother’s wrath, he rushed to the grocery store. He approached those all-to-familiar automatic doors, did his a jig to activate the sensors, but the doors wouldn’t open.  He finally realized that the store was closed. 

Christmas morning. The only day of the year that American capitalism would pause in the name of religion. Christmas was something my family never paid much attention to. The milk that my dad needed wasn’t for Santa Claus, it was for my mom’s famous filter coffee. 

Growing up in America meant embracing some of the traditions that were foreign to my parents. When I was little, my mom hosted a Christmas party and enticed a family friend to dress up as Santa Claus. She invited the kids of her immigrant friends, excited to give us all an American Christmas. As the toddlers lined up to sit on Santa’s lap, we started crying when we heard his Indian accent.

“Santa doesn’t talk like that, Amma!” I exclaimed. All her efforts were sadly in vain.  

The next year she tried a different tactic. She stuck a crumpled $5 bill in a stocking that we had decorated at my elementary school. The greedy 8-year old me had written up a list for “Santa Claus,” and was sorely disappointed that none of my asks were met. 

“You’re Santa aren’t you?” I asked my mom. She sheepishly nodded her head.

In the years since then, Christmas became a festivity to appreciate. We would decorate a tree every year, put up Christmas lights, and give small gifts to our neighbors. It was not about the day itself, but about the season of joy and giving. 

After I went to college, this holiday became the only time I would see cherished friends and family. It was the only time the world would shut down because it had to, almost forcing me to consider what truly meant the most to me. It became a time of considering my privilege, my life’s luxuries, and the wealth of good people surrounding me. 

We are often overwhelmed with our rituals for Thanksgiving, Navaratri, and Diwali. Christmas, for me, has become a time of still, a time to spend with the people that matter. 

As I think back to all of the grocery stores, malls, and movie theaters that turned us away because we forgot that it was December 25th, I wish I could tell my kid self that those were the moments that mattered. Years later, I come home to a world that looks nothing like the one I grew up in: people are gone, people have changed, I’ve left home, I’ve changed. 

Traditions bring about a semblance of constancy, a yardstick by which we can measure how much has stayed the same. But the absence of custom brings deep reflection. Year by year, I don’t spend Christmas with Indian Santa Claus. We don’t put up lights anymore. I spend it with whomever is present in my life.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that life is fleeing. We can’t always count on traditions to look back on, largely because nothing is really constant. If I could go back and tell my kid self something, it would be to savor the “non-traditions.” Those mundane moments, though not recurring, are our reality.

Swathi is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.

A Life Well-Lived: Sujatha Ramprasad

A Life Well-Lived: Sujatha Ramprasad

Tribute to Sujatha Ramprasad: January 1971-March 2016 

Mountains heaved out of the Bay area landscape in chiseled light and shade as the morning fog clung to their tops. We descended slowly down a mountain, amidst the grumbles we heard from the wheels. Suja looked at the mountains and commented softly, marveling at the winter tan that would morph to green, then tan again, the myriad ways in which Nature changes, just as life keeps changing for all of us.

That was just over ten years back when we were returning from a fond farewell to my father, who had led a full life, enriched by being surrounded by friends and family. Suja, one of my youngest cousins, consoled me with wisdom beyond her age of about 35 then. Little did we know that Suja would be the one we’d miss a mere 10 years hence!

“You left in mid-sentence,” says Nina George, in her book, “The Little Paris bookshop,” to her father. Those of us left behind by Suja’s sudden loss feel the pain of that line now as we grieve. She was an accomplished engineer and an empathic writer. To those who knew her well, she was a beautiful person, wise and caring, yet funny and an extraordinary mother.

Readers of India Currents knew her as Sujatha Ramprasad, the writer. Indu Sundaresan, the renowned novelist referred to Sujatha as, “this accomplished writer,” while reviewing her story “Kindness,” which won an Honorable Mention in the India Currents Katha fiction contest in 2014.

Suja was a writer with an unabashed style and content. She was quite the raconteur, who, in her story, “Kindness,” drew the reader in support of the protagonist Raji, who selfishly guards her bathwater. She won us over with humor woven into the story of her non judgmental observation of gay parents in, ‘Two daddies.”

Her essay, “Plunging necklines, gaping armholes and low risers,” had us laughing out aloud with lines like, “Not long ago, the purpose of an armhole on a top or a blouse was—ahem—to be an armhole—the latest trend is to wear large arm-holed blouses…Surely, these armholes have changed their day job?”

“A 3-wheeled revolution,” brought keen respect for the under-privileged rickshaw puller by profiling Irfan Alam, a social entrepreneur with a message to support the cause of clean air. “The census is here,” and “Statistics for safety” were intended to promote civic-mindedness, and her essay, “Greener gifts please” touched our hearts.

I recall Suja working on an essay, undoubtedly comical, of an unmistakable necessity—the printer—which proudly sits on desks in homes and offices. As she observed, “the printer talks to us at the quietest hour of our pre-dawn sleep, with a grrr clickety clack, having a mind of its own!” An even more wondrous novel was taking root in her head, one based in China, for which she’d wanted to travel alone and stay for a month or more in China! Unfinished works, and perhaps there are still many more to be discovered in her notebooks and her computer.

Suja lived a principled life, and followed the teachings of Kanchi Acharya and refrained from wearing pure silk from her teenage years and started composting years before it became the trend in households. Sujatha championed social justice through her writing and raised awareness in a forthright manner. One such person that she admired was an aunt of ours, who had started a social justice program to help the destitute and handicapped living in slums. She wore the traditional 9-yards saree, but her donation program was innovative and ahead of her time. The program, “Oru pidi arisi” ( a handful of rice) raised sackfuls of rice and greatly helped those who needed it the most. “Ready, set, Om,”one of Suja’s early essays always reminds me of how she gave her all to anything good that crossed her path.

My mother always recounted a story that demonstrated her penchant for caring, something she demonstrated early on. When Suja’s paternal grandfather who was disabled and who was also hard of hearing was with them, her mother would carefully turn down the radio volume so that Suja and her sister could study. Suja would be the first to come up and turn the volume up to a high decibel level saying, “why do you turn the volume down, Amma, then Thatha can’t hear the music or news at all; don’t worry, we can study in spite of the noise.” Such was the caring attitude she demonstrated.

Years ago, the age gap between us dissolved even though she was newly married, while my kids were already in school. Her hearty, sincere laughter was infectious and her zest for life was second to none. She loved hiking in the woods, biking on the Golden Gate Bridge, experimenting with other cuisines, and enjoyed whipping up feasts for her wonderful friends, who became almost inseparable and close like dear family members. She was also a truly ardent fan of Harry Potter!

There were surgeries and procedures; countless trips to local doctors and later there were visits to Mayo at Rochester and arduous days of participating in clinical trials at Columbus. If all of this wore her down physically or emotionally, she did not let that show. Her acceptance in enduring the silent ravages of her cancer and her positive outlook were so encouraging, when we began dealing with my husband’s cancer. She taught me to view it as a chronic disease.

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s comparison of cancer to what “the Red Queen tells Alice, that the world keeps shifting, so quickly under her feet that she has to keep running just to keep her position,”—“this is our predicament with cancer: we are forced to keep running merely to keep still,” she said. Even as the battle against cancer goes on, the victors and the vanquished kindle the gentle spirits in our hearts and a resolve to stay afloat whether we are directly in cancer’s midst or not.

And this is the path Suja led many of us through; the unfazed ways in which she and her husband raised their daughter, Swathi, who was the sweet subject of her mother’s poem of a happy writer’s block,

“My sweet daughter

Pulls my white sheet

And fills it with mountain, streams and rock.

Ah! I smile.

I don’t care about my writer’s block. “

A budding author herself, Swathi wrote an essay for India Currents, “Embarrassed by my Indianness,” which to this day remains one of the most read stories online in the magazine. She took part in the Women’s March in January, which her mother would have been very proud of!

Swathi resolutely talked of equality amidst many other thoughts in her beautiful valedictory speech at her high-school, just over a year after her dear mother’s passing.

And., so, for those of us who knew her and flip the pages of every new issue of India Currents with hope for another story penned by Suja, that can not be. And for those who have wondered why this author has not written since March, 2016, this is why.

We miss you, Suja and will strive to follow the example you set!

Sujatha is survived by her husband Ramprasad Satagopan, her daughter Swathi Ramprasad, her parents – Chandra and Ramanujam, and her siblings.

Madhu Raghavan is Sujatha Ramprasad’s cousin and wrote this tribute in her memory, inspired by Suja’s daughter, Swathi Ramprasad’s valedictory speech at her high-school.

Embarassed by My Indianness

I was seated on the kitchen counter, my favorite perch as a four-year old. I watched my thatha, my maternal grandfather, draw a “U” shaped white figure on his forehead with what looked like a metal toothpick. Carefully, he placed a red substance with water on the heel of his hand, and with the precision of a chemist, mixed them to the perfect consistency. He washed the ever-silver rod, and, in one stroke, drew a red line in the center of his forehead. I begged him to draw one on my head as well. He simply laughed and said, “This is not for you, ma.” Seeing my wide eyes, he placed a small red line on my forehead and lifted me away.program6

Daily, I would watch my Ramanju thatha repeat the same process over and over again. A deeply pious man, he would bathe early in the mornings, draw his thiruman, and say his prayers for the day. The thiruman is a mark or symbol that Iyengars (members of a sub-sect of Hindus who worship Vishnu) wear on their foreheads in order to show their subservience to God.

When I was eight, I had a birthday party at my school. I was more than thrilled to celebrate with my friends and my favorite teacher. Being the bossy third-grader I was, I ordered my mom to bring cupcakes to school to share. Not wanting to anger me on my special day, she agreed to heed my wishes, but asked me to do her a small favor in return. She asked, “Swathi chellam, please can Patti and Thatha come to see your birthday celebrations? Patti would love to see your friends, and you can introduce Ms. Roberts to Thatha.”

I contemplated about this for a few days, and I came to a conclusion. My grandparents could come to my school, only if thatha erased his thiruman for the day.

“It’s too Indian, Amma, I just want to have a normal American birthday, and I don’t want my friends to keep asking questions.”

My grandfather was indignant, “Do you understand the purpose of this mark, Swathi? All my ancestors wore this on their foreheads.” I tuned out the rest of his tirade, and all I can remember is a blur of some Sanskrit phrases, and the word “God” multiple times. I never bothered to understand the significance. He never agreed to take it off.

The next day, my mom came to school at 2:00 sharp, as per Queen now-nine-years-old’s wishes. My thatha stepped out of the car, and I looked up at him. He now had a bare forehead; the first time I had ever seen this. Pleased that my thatha had chosen my side, I skipped off to play with my friends. No one asked questions about my grandparents, and no one bothered me about my Indian-ness. I was a happy birthday girl.

The symbols of tradition, in that moment, were so insignificant to me. They were a reminder of the past that we had left behind to come to America.

Every first-generation child of immigrants undergoes this inner turmoil, attempting to find the balance between culture and the American ideal. Whether being embarrassed about the parent’s over-emphasis of the “w” in “jewel” or bringing a peanut butter sandwich to school every day, we all go through the process of shunning our roots.

Some of us find the equilibrium between the cultures, and others reject either side in favor of the other. To each their own. But these visible marks of tradition, in language, in symbols, and in food, are dog-tags that point us out as “others,” not part of the American standard. Attempting to fit in, we try to minimize the exposure of this immigrant side of us, until we can understand where we truly fit in. This innocent, albeit rude, rejection of my thatha’s thiruman was an expression of the culture wars that I faced, even at nine years old.

But, as time progressed, I learned to appreciate my heritage more and more. The simplicities of rituals and wealth of knowledge in my Indian blood mean a great deal to me now.

Through many of my thatha’s visits, I began to learn more about the Hindu religion. He taught me many of the slokams and their meanings. He instilled a great sense of tradition within me, with his stories of mythology and staunch beliefs that he continues to impart to me. Although we argue about many facets of the differences between the cultures, we respect one another immensely. And as I developed a closer relationship with my thatha, I came to associate that familiar thiruman with him, his ideologies, and the tradition that he represents in my mind.

“Thatha, it isn’t just. How can you continue to be so rooted in your misogynistic ways?” At fourteen, I found each and every reason to reject the patriarchy. A number of our conversations would start and end the same way: with me criticizing the backwardness of the South Indian cultural processes.

He tried to explain to me, “Illa, ma, appidi illa. It isn’t like that. The woman was always given control of the wealth and the gold that the man brought home. She had an equal part in the control of the household as the protector of the family’s riches. Only she could decide when to sell the jewelry for money.” I, a sharp-tongued teenager, could not take this as an answer. I could not accept the inequality that continues even to this day. “How come only men can don the sacred thread or even the thiruman you wear as opposed to a devout lady?”

Again, my thatha was the poster face of tradition. All qualms I had with the culture were directed at him. He was always ready with a response, “Women wear the bindi. Wouldn’t it look weird if I wore a sari and Patti wore a veshti?” I kept quiet for a minute. Quickly, my next rebuttal came to me. It followed the rule of my family: when all hope fails, change the subject, even if ever-so slightly. “Thatha, American people treat men and women more equally, why can’t we?” Once again, I held the American culture to an executive ideal.

Last summer, my thatha and I decided to embark on a mission: to use the Silicon Valley public transportation system. We would take these, mostly empty buses, to places around our neighborhood. A bus driver one day, noticed the mark on my thatha’s forehead, and asked him what it was. With his thick accent and expressive hand gestures, my thatha said, “It is the Lord’s feet. When we worship Him, we must remember that we are simply his subordinates who bow down to Him.”

I remember clearly the pride that my thatha felt that day that someone from another culture cared enough to ask about his thiruman, a symbol of our religion and his faith.

It was then that I learned that in order to be “American” or “modern” it does not mean we all have to be the same, factory-made people with no story or no heritage.

Being American means accepting and taking an interest in what each person of every background has to offer us. We are known as the melting pot, a seamless mixture of countries all over the world. Accepting the American character is having a certain blend of old and new, custom and innovation.

My thatha’s adherence to the role of ancient practices but to the acceptance of modern convention reflects this duality. As paradoxical as it may sound, my thatha’s thiruman, which I once repudiated so greatly has actually not only come to be a symbol of tradition for me but also of being American.

Swathi Ramprasad is currently a junior at Presentation High School. She enjoys being a child of two cultures.