Tag Archives: voices

Once Upon a Mumbai Monsoon Musing

When you grow up in Mumbai, the monsoons that drench the land leave an indelible impression on your heart. The sounds of the thunderous skies opening up, the sights of muddy rivulets carving their paths, and the smells of fried bhajiyas and hot pakoras make the monsoons unforgettable. After leaving Mumbai 23 years ago, I’ve watched many a downpour in different cities, and though it rains all over the world, the experience has never been the same. 

Yet, this morning, as I sit on the patio of our apartment in Charlotte, North Carolina sipping my morning chai on a rainy day, I feel a sense of familiarity creep in. We have recently shifted into this space. In a move deemed Herculean, less than a month ago, we downsized from a three-story house (that was nothing short of palatial for a Mumbaikar with middle-class roots like me) to an apartment, in the vicinity, that is a third of its size. The transition, though stark, became imperative as my husband and I are empty nesters. Getting rid of belongings that held so many memories of the children was exhausting and at times, heartbreaking. Yet, ironically, though we live in a much smaller space with only the bare essentials now, the decluttering has created room in our lives to dwell on and pursue things we love.

And early this morning, as I sit on the patio enjoying the rain, there is a sense of deja vu – “This feels just like Mumbai,” I catch myself saying. But what is it about this rain that makes it so familiar? I delve deep into the feeling. I have to find out. 

I look around my surroundings. Across my building in the patio, a young man is finishing his morning workout. Having watched him a few times, I know he is exactly halfway through his exercise routine. The scent of freshly baked waffles wafts from my neighbor’s kitchens. Above me, the wooden floors creak to signal the awakening of the boisterous toddler upstairs. When you live in a community of flats, you become unwittingly enmeshed in the lives of your neighbors. The ways, routines, temperaments of other families become a part of yours too. There is a sense of belonging, of being a part of the whole. This was an integral part of my childhood.

Growing up in a building of 60 flats, the aromas of the foods cooked by my neighbors and the emotions that rippled through the members of their families were entwined with mine. I didn’t have to ask Mrs. Dev in the opposite building what her favorite color was; I just knew it was yellow from the clothes she hung on the clothesline. Even if I didn’t care, I was keenly aware of my neighbor Rohan’s academic performance, as I often heard Sharma Aunty berate him on his below-average scores. And even if I didn’t want to, I was often a mute spectator to Neena’s practice sessions as she struggled to grasp the nuances of Hindustani classical music. 

After all the years we have lived in our American single-family house, I have forgotten what it is like to share spaces with families so different from ours. It is a sense I am slowly reacquainting myself with these days. 

There has also been another important learning. Amma and Appa have lived in the same flat for 47 years. The walls there have borne witness to the raising of children and grandchildren, to festivities and merriment, pain and turbulence, and have cocooned the family through it all. They’ve always exuded warmth and comfort. Amma and Appa also never filled the space with “stuff.” Just like every middle-class neighborhood in India, we only had what we needed (They didn’t need Marie Kondo to teach them that). There were no rare artifacts, collectibles, or expensive paintings but there was always enough love. And ever since I’ve moved to the apartment, every time I visit the store, I always ask myself if I really need what I want.

Maybe, it is a combination of it all – the rain, of being in shared spaces, of living with values I grew up with – that takes me back to being a young girl gazing out the window on a rainy day in Mumbai. A young girl whose experiences have taught her that a house is just as big or little as the hearts of the people in the family. There is a sense of deja vu and I revel in it and savor this experience of “coming home.”


Vidya Murlidhar is a children’s book author, essayist, and teacher based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Find her work at www.vidyawrites.com.

Featured Image by Abhijit Chendvankar under CC 2.0 License.


 

Ganesha’s MahaMementoMori

MahaMementoMori: Fables Beyond COVID’s Warning Wall  – The first in a monthly series that gently reminds us to remember what life would be like if we succumbed to a pandemic. While settings shift from India to America, and characters change as well, each story explores the vital nature of relationships in life and death.

I, Ganesha, have transcribed the entire Mahabharata, so the few hundred words that follow will go by in a prosodic flash.

At 200,000 lines of verse, Vyasa’s great Indian epic (“Maha” means great;  “bharata” is another name for India) is the world’s longest poem. Eons ago when it was written, I agreed to be Vyasa’s scribe on one condition: he had to recite the Mahabharata without pause, barely catching his breath between verses. In turn, the great sage insisted that I understand all that he said before I wrote it down, all in one sitting. In that era, we did not shake hands; we merely exchanged our “Namaskars” and proceeded with the recitation and transcription.

I wrote and wrote until my feather pen broke, but Vyasa continued his dictation unimpeded. Per our agreement, I had to keep up. What to do?  

It is now a matter of common knowledge that I broke off a tusk and used it as my writing utensil. But there were several concerns that I had to address before making this decision: Could I have availed myself to another feather? Had Vyasa been a bit more patient, might I have taken a few minutes to search for a quill of a different sort?  Which one of my tusks, left or right? How painful was it to perform auto-dental surgery? Should I have imbibed bhang or an anesthetic of another sort?

No one has ever asked me these questions except for one man whom I shall call Dr. Devotee (or DD for short).

Over the past many millennia, and most definitely during the past quarter-century in this Silicon Valley mandir that I call home, many have taken my darshan. Some devotees like DD are regular visitors, seeing my elephantine trunk daily. However, most so-called devotees come to me only when they are launching a new enterprise or purchasing their first vehicle; they seek my blessings as the Lord of Beginnings who removes obstacles. I believe this latter group of temple visitors considers me to be some kind of proactive management consultant or preemptive car mechanic. At the end of their Sanskrit prayers, they say in a mix of English, Hindi, Tamil, and a host of other Indian languages, “Please Ganesha-ji, make the journey ahead trouble-free.”

After belonging to the category of regular visitor for many years, one day DD arrived at my mandir teary-eyed. He told Pandit-ji that his mother had been diagnosed with an illness. Pandit-ji brought him to me, did a small puja, and insisted that all would be fine. After Pandit-ji moved on with his evening rituals, I motioned DD to sit and reflect on life. Like many before him, and countless who will follow, he began with an arti:

Jai Ganesha, jai Ganesha, jai Ganesha deva

Mata jaki Parvati … Pita Mahadeva.

When he came to the part about mothers being like my own mother, Parvati, he broke down weeping. I consoled him. Holding back sobs, he continued reciting Pita Mahadeva…fathers are like my father, Shiva.

Dr. Oza and Ganesh at the Sunnyvale Temple.

DD asked me if it was true what Pandit-ji had said, that all would be well with his mother.

I told him that I do away with all obstacles except one — death. There are cancers of different sorts: AdrenocorticalAnalAtypicalteratoid, BoneBrainBreast, LaryngealLiverLung, PancreaticPenileProstate, VaginalVascularVulva. This A-to-V list is sadly longer than the Mahabharata’s cast of villainous characters. To those imploring that I assist with treating carcinomas and metastases, I compassionately say, “Please know two things: (1) I am not an oncologist, just the simple elephant-headed son of Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva; and (2) death is not an obstacle, it is samsara’s portal enabling rebirth.” They usually leave vaguely unsatisfied with my response but believing that Gods must know of what we speak.

DD was different. He pondered, “Hmm. Portal. A part of the cycle of life. Yes, death is but a portal. But don’t all of us want our loved ones to stay on this side of that door as long as humanly possible?” With that, he left the temple and returned home to his wife who surely consoled him better than I could.  

After an understandable interregnum, he resumed his regular visits. On the day that DD returned, he placed 101 ladoos near Mushak, the mouse who sits loyally near my feet. Grinning from ear to ear, Mushak inquired about the sweet largesse. DD quietly whispered as if demonic carcinogens would be awoken if he spoke too loudly, “Mom’s cancer is in remission. Jai Ganesha, jai Ganesha, jai Ganesha deva.  Mata jaki Parvati.  Pita Mahadeva.”

Years went by. At our mandir’s 25th anniversary, DD and his wife celebrated with us by bringing along his mother and father.

Years went by. DD and his wife asked Pandit-ji to officiate their children’s weddings.

Years went by. DD and his wife fed all of the temple’s devotees in honor of his father’s 90th birthday, a day when his mother and father renewed their marriage vows in front of friends, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. 

One day, he asked me the unasked questions about the time so long ago when I broke my tusk to complete the Mahabharata. Like all storytellers, I thoroughly enjoyed regaling my audience with the stories of my life. This audience of one patiently listened to my tangents about feathery pens and my embellishments about copious bhang before making a request: “Ganesha-ji, would you kindly serve as my scribe?”  

Stroking my belly, I murmured something about being quite busy with my prominent role in the mandir. He looked crestfallen and said, “I don’t have much time. As such, I’m writing a series of fables about Gods I have prayed to, objects that have served me, words that I’ve written, work I have done, people I have known, the neighborhood I live in, and a garden that nurtures me.”

Intrigued, I said, “Please know we have time.  What is the title of your book?”

Cheered by my interest, he responded, “Memento Mori: Stories Beyond COVID’s Warning Wall.”

My Latin is not as sharp as my Sanskrit, so I asked, “Memento mori? As in ‘remember your death’ is it?”

Dr. Devotee shared the smile of a man who is grateful to be known by another. “Quite right. Remember your death. I hope our readers see themselves in these stories and appreciate every day as if it’s their last.”

Triumphantly, I pointed to the tip of my left half-tusk and said, “Our readers, indeed!  Come here every morning when the mandir opens. You recite. I write. Our readers will have their MahaMementoMori.”


Dr. Raj Oza has written or contributed to: Globalization, Diaspora, and Work TransformationSatyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day DilemmasP.S., Papa’s Stories; and Living in America.  He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.


 

Yellowstone National Park -- one of the stops on the Wild West road trip.

In Search of the Modern Indian Train Travel: Road Tripping America’s Wild West

Indians fondly remember their train travels during childhood. Summer was the time when schools would be closed, and every kid would dream of going to a distant place, many would travel by train to their family homes.

Train travel in India has a similar kind of charm to road trips in the US. A vast, continental landmass that is well-connected with an intricate network of freeways, highways, and county roads, the country seems to be built for road trips. Train travel in India has a similar kind of charm to road trips in the US. The summer is here and I’m vaccinated — what better time to discover new places?

I had just finished reading the travel adventures of Ted Simon in his book Jupiter’s Travels when I decided I should plan my own road trip. I wanted a new adventure, as the world was gradually opening up after the pandemic, and become acquainted with the US western states — Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho. 

Every journey begins with a single step into the vastness of place and time — some known and lots of unknowns. I didn’t have the route entirely laid out and thought that it would be an adventure to leave a few things up to the serendipity. Also, I knew that I didn’t want to take the same route back. So with some light packing, hiking gears, lots of water, and some chutzpah, I set out to explore the wild west of America and make memories.

I set out from SF south bay and my first stop was going to be Winnemucca in central Nevada, an adventure hub and almost midway between SF and Salt Lake City. The highway I-80 has straight roads that are a pleasure to drive on, especially with wide, open spaces of rural Nevada decorating the highway.

After an overnight rest in the local hotel, I set out to explore the sand dunes the next morning. Driving through sand dunes and taking some breathtaking pictures was delightful and so was getting to know about the Basque culture in the area. I decided to explore Nevada more on my return journey and set forth on I-80 towards Utah.

Bonneville Salt Flats (Image by Author)

Right near the Utah-Nevada border, I was greeted with a vast expanse of white landscape that seemed dazzling from the distance. Upon checking, I realized it was the Bonneville Salt Flats, the second largest salt flat in the world after Bolivia.

Cottonwood, Utah

Reaching Salt Lake City in the evening, I was immediately struck by the dramatic setting of the city in the midst of mountains — Wasatch Range (which is the western end of the greater Rocky Mountains) was dominating the landscape. The mountains just seem to rise from the valley floor in a majestic way, enveloping the city around it in a panoramic fashion. After checking in at my hotel, I set out to explore the Ensign peak from where I heard the view of the city was stunning. And indeed, I was greeted with some marvelous views after a short hike. In the next couple of days, I explored Park City, Cottonwood Canyon drive, Antelope State Park known for the Great Salt Lake, and the satellite towns of Draper and Provo. I also had a fun time zip lining at Sundance mountain resort, which is apparently owned by Robert Redford, the Hollywood thespian.

After having my fill of Utah’s dramatic landscape, downtown nightlife (somewhat muted due to pandemic), and adventurous activities, I set out further north to explore the states of Wyoming and Montana. The immediate destination was Jackson Hole, that quintessential ‘wild west’ town with a mystique and charm of its own. As I drove through Wyoming’s undulating landscape passing myriads of small towns, ranches, and rodeo establishments, I felt excited to be taking in all the sights and sounds. The drive took me through the gorgeous Star Valley and across the scenic towns of Alpine and Afton. As I reached Jackson Hole in the late evening, my first impression of the place was that it was unabashedly charming, captivating, and seemingly distant at the same time.

The next day, I was off to explore the Grand Teton National Park. The Teton Range has a landscape that stirs the imagination, and just admiring it even from a distance seems uplifting and serene. The area has a lot of history around rock climbing, mountaineering, and ranching, which I gathered after making a jaunt to the Visitor Center. I couldn’t help but think that those who dare to climb the Tetons must be attracted to it by the spirit of mountaineering to take on the challenge, compelled by the opportunity to grow even in the face of adversity. The national park has several scenic outlooks, and I was especially captivated by the one near Jackson dam and the Snake River Overlook, made famous by Ansel Adams; it was one of the images included in Voyager 1 flight into Space in 1977. 

Next, I drove to Montana on my way to Yellowstone. After an overnight stop-over at Bozeman exploring the downtown and cool coffee shops, I headed on I-90 towards Livingston. From there, I passed through the scenic Paradise Valley, thoroughly enjoying my trip, and eventually entered Yellowstone National Park through its northwest gate. Little known fact: Yellowstone was the first national park (in the world). Many of us recall seeing the eye-catching, multi-hued pictures of its various springs and geysers including the Old Faithful. I had a gala time exploring the multiple geothermal features, canyons, lakes, and falls that the park contains within its boundaries. I even had a brush with its wildlife of bison and elks. I missed seeing any black bears though. 

Perrine Bridge over the Snake River Canyon.
Perrine Bridge over the Snake River Canyon.

After a couple of days, it was time to head to Idaho, making my first stop at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, to admire its lunar-like landscape consisting of lava flows and volcanoes. From there onwards, I headed to the town of Ketchum nestled in the Rocky Mountains, a well-known celebrity hotspot for its picturesque location and ski resorts. In addition, I got to explore the town of Twin Falls, the home of scenic Snake River Canyon and gorgeous Shoshone Falls (known as ‘Niagara of the West’). The Perrine Bridge crossing the canyon is known to attract base jumpers year-round for its dramatic nearly 500 ft drop. 

The journey was almost nearing its end and I entered back to Nevada from Idaho, merging onto I-80. Before traveling further west, I decided to spend a day exploring the city of Elko, NV. Elko is fascinating — a place where gold country, cowboy country, and Basque culture collide, creating a distinct mix. I also drove to Ruby Mountain to explore the very scenic Lamoille Canyon.

I took Hwy 50, dubbed ‘the loneliest road in America’, to make a jaunt to the Burning man venue Black Rock City. I entered California the same evening, making a night-stay at the picturesque Downieville area, and drove back home the next day.

It was an amazing trip overall, to say the least, and I got to enjoy nature, wilderness, and long drives, satiating my adventurous spirit. Driving in the wilderness, surrounded by picturesque landscape, almost felt like watching a grand theatrical performance in an open amphitheater where the sights, sounds, color, and smell changed every minute. And unlike watching theatre, driving in a panoramic setting demands active involvement in the scene and you are in control of the story! During this trip, I found myself driving during early morning hours or evening twilight hours when the drives are really memorable for the way the sun rays would play on the countryside vistas.

Sunrise (or twilight), open countryside road, blaring music and coffee – isn’t that the romance of life?


Lalit Kumar works in the Technology sector but retains an artist’s heart. He likes to read and write poetry, apart from indulging in outdoor activities & adventure sports. Recently, he started curating famous works of poetry (and occasionally his own).


 

Medha Sarkar with and without Snapchat filter.

An Unfiltered Response to Colorism in Instagram Filters

I have a small addiction to Instagram filters.  I can and have spent too much time finding the craziest filters possible.  There are filters that make you look like cartoons, princesses, and even pirates.  My favorite one is a filter that tints the screen a deep pink and makes it look like glitter is dripping down your face.  But as I explore the vast jungle of filters, it is inevitable that there are some marshes… 

Those marshes come in the form of filters that vastly change your appearance.  I encountered one of those filters on a Wednesday afternoon when I was supposed to be doing homework.  

I was extraordinarily tired from a long day of school and I decided to take a break from the seemingly endless pile of homework by scrolling through some filters.  There were the normal ones, the ones that put strawberries on your cheeks or the ones that make it look like you have rainbow hair.  Then I stumbled upon a filter that made me freeze.  

I had this image in my mind of the creator of this filter sitting down with their phone, sipping a cup of coffee, and then thinking aloud, “How colorist can we be today?” 

This image had pale white skin with red-tinted lips that would make Snow White jealous.  My nose was slimmed down and my jaw was reduced.  As I stared in shock at the image on my screen, a thousand words just rushed into my head.  I subconsciously reached for my computer, angrily typed “blogspot.com” into the search bar, and began to write this.  

Medha Sarkar with an Instagram filter that lightens her skin and changes her nose.
Medha Sarkar with an Instagram filter that lightens her skin and changes her nose.

Now some readers might be asking why an Instagram filter would make my blood boil.  Why didn’t I just scroll to the next filter and forget that it didn’t exist?  

Because that image was clearly meant to make me beautiful.  It was meant to make me achieve that beauty standard – that beauty standard is being white.  The pale skin?  White.  The red lips?  White.  The slim nose?  White.  This filter is telling me that in order to be portrayed as beautiful or pretty, I have to aspire to be a white person.  This isn’t entirely Instagram’s fault though.  Society has decided that looking like white people is the goal.  And it isn’t limited to filters or even appearance.  

I remember when I first moved to a majority-white town, I began to realize that to be a part of the community, you had to throw away all semblance of uniqueness – culture was one of those things.  To gain the acceptance of the community you had to reject your culture. 

One time in my third-grade class, I decided to show some friends the pirouettes I had learned from my Indian Kathak dance lessons.  As I turned around, one of them turned and looked at their friend and began to snicker.  When I asked them why they did that, they said my turns look weird.  When I would bring in food from home, the word “exotic” would be mentioned at least once.  When I would insist that they pronounce my name right, they would give up after two tries and continue to use the white version of my name.  I saw it happen with the other Indian kids at my school. They would introduce themselves with the white version of their name, bring Lunchables to school instead of idlis or sambar, and pursued ballet or “white” activities instead of Hindustani singing or Bharatnatyam.  All of our culture swept under the rug for the sake of the community.  

This is an issue far bigger than filters.  You have to plant a small seed in order to produce a tree.  That can be taking an extra few minutes to try and pronounce someone’s name or treating all food like food, no matter the look or smell.  You can appreciate the culture somebody comes from because it is what makes them radiate.  And you can make that filter you are creating more inclusive by removing the white skin, nose trimmer, and lip tint on it.  It would make all of our lives a little better.


Medha Sarkar is a student starting at Los Gatos High School in the Fall.  She enjoys writing, music, and having a good laugh.


 

Trinity Cares Foundation fight against COVID-19 in Jangamakote Village. (Creative Commons License 2.0)

Don’t Forget People Are Still Dying In India

It started in mid-March 2021, the many videos of grandparents hugging their kids post-vaccination in the US. Families reunited safely after a year or more of waiting to touch. Pictures of social interaction among vaccinated people started appearing on social media feeds. People sat outdoors in restaurants in the sun. The CDC guidance changed about masks for vaccinated people.  

I live in the NY area. Perhaps, we can go to Broadway shows again soon. Maybe, we can relegate to memory those days of heartbreaking pictures of daughters looking in through the windows of nursing homes to get a glimpse of their mothers through the glass and families trying to decide whether to have Thanksgiving dinners sitting as far apart as possible in different rooms.

I do like the current optimism in the US on COVID. But for some of us, the pandemic is far from over. As an immigrant from India, I wish American media covered more world news.

For me, the pandemic is still very much alive. When I check my WhatsApp in the morning, before the fog of sleep has cleared, there is news from India. It may be that again someone we knew has passed away from COVID. In Facebook groups, someone else is looking for oxygen. The lucky ones are waiting three hours in line for a vaccine, while others don’t know when they will get a dose at all. They don’t need beer, donuts, or million-dollar lottery prizes as incentives to get vaccinated. 

There is a raging pandemic going on in India and in major parts of the world. If you believe in the overarching value of human life, you ought to be worried. 

I have been living in the US for more than two decades. As an immigrant, my threshold for pain is different. Even in regular times in my community, only the lucky children get to physically run and hug their grandparents once a year on a trip to India. We are lucky if we get to attend weddings of close relatives or be present when nephews and nieces are born. Every time we leave home in India, we aren’t quite sure whether we will see the very old ever again. 

No, the pandemic hasn’t ended for me. 

My septuagenarian father in Kolkata, India, who is disoriented after losing his wife last year in August, and has been socially distancing in the pandemic for so long, can neither go to the bank to stand in line or go to the fish market like he used to. He still has not been able to return to a fully independent life of doing the things he used to do. He has been taking social distancing seriously and I just long to hug him after my mother’s passing.

My father sits in a room surrounded by buildings that block the sky on all sides. There is no place to take a walk safely without running into people, even though that number continues to decrease because of COVID-related deaths. One neighbor, who called before my mother’s shradh ceremony (which is similar to a funeral) to inform us that she couldn’t attend, passed away just a few days later from COVID.

I talk to my father on the phone every day and tell him that all this will be over soon without really knowing what to believe myself. So, I switch to a conversation about how things are looking up in New York – at least he is happy that I am safe. 

Cable news channels in the US constantly state that the pandemic is ending. Occasionally, there is some coverage of other countries on the chyron when some complex US political complication is being discussed animatedly on the main screen. While there was never very much coverage of world news through the pandemic, I had hoped that we would hear more about those that are passing, at least from here in the US.

I live in the US and have lived here for twenty years. I am hoping the pandemic ends here. I teach in a college in Manhattan. I’m fully vaccinated. I’m eager to see my students in person just like anyone else. I’m hoping everyone else will be vaccinated when I take the train to Penn Station from New Jersey in the Fall. I, too, am hoping to sit in a cafe and write. I’m glad I can bring in groceries, now, without disinfecting them obsessively. But even as I think of my life here, I’m aware of the suffering of people in other countries. That is not just because I’m an immigrant. It’s because even before I became an immigrant, I grew up with the consciousness of the world through world news in India. 

For the first year of the pandemic, my experience of the pandemic in the US and India was parallel. I was looking in through the glass at my ailing mother last year all through her 5 months of sickness in Kolkata. I couldn’t visit her during the first Indian lockdown and the first wave of COVID in India. The glass in my case was not a hospital ICU wall but a phone video screen. The video was often blurred. Sometimes, I thought she recognized me on the screen. Sometimes, I thought she only saw the phone. She lost speech and then we eventually lost her in August 2020 through indescribable hardship.

For those of us, who lost someone close in the COVID world, the post-COVID world, if and when it comes, will never be the same.

For months I have been planning on how to visit my father in India safely. I have planned various scenarios in my head through the spikes in COVID cases in the US and India, and through lockdowns, flight cancellations, planning local transportation in India, COVID tests, seat availability, vaccination – tracking every little large and small last-mile problem through my mind’s eye. 

Yet, I have only ended up reassuring my father in India over the phone that he will go to the fish market soon, that he will be able to stand in line at the bank soon, that it will be safe for him to walk on the teeming Kolkata streets soon. My visit almost worked out when I completed my second dose of the vaccine in the US, but that’s when the deadly second wave hit India in April. My travel plans are on hold again.

World news should matter. Worldwide deaths should matter. Worldwide deaths should matter and not just because a virus mutating in the developing world can put the developed world in jeopardy. 

Death should matter just because we value human life.


Madhura Bandyopadhyay is a Doctoral Lecturer in the English Department at John Jay College, City University of New York (CUNY) in Manhattan, New York. She grew up in Kolkata, India and has lived in Florida, California, and Singapore. She lives in New Jersey now. Apart from being a teacher and scholar of writing, she blogs in her spare time just for fun on her blog at bottledworder.com 


 

SandiSpell: Spelling Bee Champ to Tollywood Remix Artist

Masala In Ur Dosa – A column addressing identity through the lens of a Telugu Indian-American in conversation with his South Asian peers.

After a hectic day in high school, comparing notes with classmates to understand derivatives and limits to traveling to various suburbs in central Massachusetts to play tennis, nothing grounded me more than resting my forehead on the window of a moving school bus listening to my favorite song. The melodious vocals of Sadhana Sargam on her award-winning song ‘Manasa’ from the Telugu movie ‘Munna’. Fast forward 10 years, I still find comfort listening to Desi tracks every morning on my way to work. Recently, I came across a mix on SoundCloud called “A Decade in Rewind: Tollywood Edition“. A mix of familiar Telugu classics I grew up with blended with hip hop vocals and beats by a name familiar to those in the desi dance circuit, SandiSpell aka Snigdha Nandipati. Having seen her name as the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion, I knew I had to speak to her and find out how she was breathing new life into songs that of us grew up with.

My interviews on ‘Masalainurdosa presents’ primarily focus on identity. What has been a constant amongst the different personalities I encounter is this – this generation finds its own unique way to express their South Asian Identity. For Snigdha, one such outlet of her identity was through her music. Like many, she grew up singing and continued to hone her craft at Yale through her campus acapella group. While she learned how to harmonize with others, dissect melodies and beats, she wanted to implement the same techniques to the Telugu classics she grew up with. In between recording covers and acapellas of Telugu songs, she found herself in a community that many young South Asian creatives find their roots – The Desi Dance Network Forums. Check out my interview with Snigdha Nandipati on ‘Masalainurdosa presents’ to hear about what her Telugu identity means to her, and how she expresses it through her music.


Prithvi Ganesh Mavuri, MD is an Internal Medicine physician in the Southeast region in the United States. However, his other passion lies in learning about South Asian languages and cultures.

Weltschmerz

As if flipping pages in a magazine, I riffle through the recent pages of my life quickly and without close attention. Now entering the eighth month of sheltering-in-place due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I am tired of it all: tired of social isolation; tired of staying home, tired of reading charts and numbers documenting cases, deaths, and available ICU beds; tired of seeing how we are (or are not) measuring up to the rest of the world; tired of dissent between medical experts, scientists, and politicians; tired of a President who feeds us “really big” lies—“…children are almost immune to this disease…” or, “I tell you, it’s just going to go away…poof.”

And I am sad: sad for our economy; sad for those who have lost their livelihoods and their homes; sad for those who are hungry; sad for those who cannot continue the education they deserve; and sad for those who continue to work despite fear of becoming infected—those who take care of us, feed us, teach us. I am also sad for our vulnerable children and young people who are trying to grow up in this crazy time—toddlers neglected by parents who are working full time from home while doing their best to serve both employer and family. I am sad for teen-agers, bored by months of “lockdown” and social isolation, who are now finding escape in “wilding,” driving too fast, and eschewing masks, and sad for new college grads whose dreams have been dashed. I am sad kids who just want to play ball with their teams, perform with their orchestras, and follow their youthful passions. I am sad for people whose loved ones are dying alone in hospitals, and mothers who give birth, but cannot hold their newborn babies.

I feel sorry for celebrations missed, wedding plans dashed, funerals postponed, college days lost, and vacations that could have been. I feel bad that fear keeps us from doctors, dentists, and therapists, or from going to the grocery store, gym, barbershop, or manicurist. Life is too short, too dear, to put on hold. 

But most of all, I am sad for the lives lost, a multitude of deaths, both in our own backyards and around the world, lives that were snuffed out as quickly as blowing out a candle; some never had a chance to shine. As of today, 1.04 million lives around the world have been taken by the Coronavirus—210,00 in the United States and 102,685 in India.

The thought of continued social isolation, closed access, mask-wearing, illness, fear, and economic collapse is almost too much to bear. To add to this misery, our beautiful America is now on fire. There are currently (September 13, 2020) ninety-four—yes, ninety-four—large wildfires burning across several Western states. In California, most of the fires are due to a combination of drought conditions plus lightning strikes.

President Trump once again incorrectly blamed California for the fires. “…you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests,” he said, neither seeming to understand that lightning strikes caused a majority of the fires, nor that most of California’s forests and parks are federally managed. He went on to say, “Maybe we’re just going to have to make them (California) pay for it because they don’t listen to us.”  It’s all just too much.

There is a German word, weltschmerz, that sums up what I am feeling. It is an amalgam of two words, world plus pain, and means weariness, sadness, frustration, and yearning caused by the reality of the world as it really is rather than the way it should, or could be. I am suffering from weltschmerz, not only due to this pandemic, not only due to the fires, but also due to the current state of our country where the difference between black and white has once again reared its ugly head, and where we can watch…from the comfort of our couches…black people pleading for their lives as they are being murdered or hunted down by our own policemen, and in turn policemen being gunned down by anti-police mobs. We see immigrants fleeing desperate situations being turned back from our borders, their families often separated. How can we ever forget children in cages? 

Then there is the state of the world, our poor, war-weary world, that we can also watch from the comfort of our couches, as it is being destroyed, as people are being killed and babies are dying, as refugee camps are growing. Not a pretty sight, our world right now.

Weltschmerz. A good word, a necessary word. I need a few days to wallow in the misery that now surrounds us, and to pray for better. I need to immerse myself in the sadness of our state, our country, our world. It is not my nature to put on a happy face non-stop for months on end. I need to mourn the losses all around me, and to help carry the weight of the world, if only metaphorically. It keeps me from crying and will help get me through the months ahead.

Weltschmerz.


Pauline Chand is a senior writer who enjoys sharing stories with her grandchildren.

What Is Your Friend?

Covid-19’s social distancing protocols have resurrected and increased social connections. It looks like we all have an uptick in the frequency of video calls, large chat groups, and increased social media activity. I know many of us are now in touch with college groups, school groups, family groups, cousin groups, children’s school groups, neighborhood groups and so much more. There really was no reason for any of these interactions to have not taken place earlier – the infrastructure, technology, and people were always there. Only one thing seems to have changed – the incessant demands of the clock on our time. 

For some, caring for younger people or older people in their care, Covid-19 has been doubling difficult. But for several others, Covid-19 has presented us with a curious dilemma: Finding ways to spend time.  Covid-19 has affected people in several ways, and in recent chats and calls, one trend seems to be emerging: What is your friend?

A few months ago, one of our aunts was visiting and the family had gathered around for a day of fun, and laughter which she invariably ensured was there around her. 

“What is your day like Athai (Aunt)? How do you pass time?” I asked.

This is one of the questions that I pose to those of the older generation often. I know boredom and loneliness can be a big problem for some people. However, there are a few in the older generation who somehow manage to retain their vibrant joie-de-vivre as they age, so that they are not just occupied but keep themselves happily occupied and stimulated. 

“I am occupied enough, “ she began. After she told us in loving detail of time spent with her family, particularly grandsons, she said with a smile, “I practice what I want to teach later in the day to my students, and I find the time flies past. Music is really a friend.“

It was true. I remember visiting this Aunt and heard her humming and practicing a particularly tricky song that she wanted to teach her students later that day. She was trying it as she cooked & cleaned and it made for a comforting background while we went about our day. 

Many I know find it heavy-going after retiring from their busy lives. Some find solace in the demands of religion, others find themselves watching a lot of television. A few, though, find ways in which to keep themselves intellectually stimulated and happy. These people seem to be the kind of people who are not only in touch with their Eternal Selves, but also nourished and sustained it. They are the ones who quite unwittingly spread joy and happiness around them by virtue of being happy with their own state of being.

Mary Oliver’s, Upstream is a book of many marvelous essays. The essay, Of Power and Time, talks about the three selves in many of us:

The Child Self is in us always, it never really leaves us. 

The second self is the Social Self. This is the do-er, the list maker, the planner, the executor. 

Then, there is the Eternal Self: the creative self, the dreamer, the wanderer. 

The Child Self is in us always, it never really leaves us. I completely identify with that. I am decades away from my childhood, but I can dip into it like I only just grew up.  Everything felt keener and sharper as children, and that is part of the reason why The Child Self never really leaves us, I suppose. (Probably the reason why I forget the name of the person I met yesterday, but remember the names of my friends from when I was 5 years old)

The second self is the Social Self. This is the do-er, the list maker, the planner, the executor. The one, in short, that most of us find ourselves trapped in for the most part of our lives. This is “the smiler and the doorkeeper” as Mary Oliver so elegantly puts it. This self I am familiar with: metaphorically the whirlpool, the swift horses of time, the minute keeper.

“This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made. Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned. What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.”

The social, attentive self’s surety is what makes the world go around as she says.

Then, there is the third self: The Creative Self, the dreamer, the wanderer.

“Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary, it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”

The essay goes on to explain the regular, ordinary self in contrast to the creative self. The Creative Self – the one that is out of love with the ordinary, out of love with the demands of time or the regular routines of life, is concerned with something else, the extraordinary. This is the self, she says, that makes the world move forward.

“The extraordinary is what Art is about. No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures it is seldom seen, It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes its solitude.”

Finding something that makes us want to do something without tangible rewards is the most gratifying thing in the world. Not all of us can lead the life of an artist, but we each can devote small amounts of time consistently to find an artistic pursuit that sustains us. It may be in the creative process in things as varied as tinkering with wood or analyzing the ebb and flow of economic market conditions. 

The essay ended on this note:

“The most regretful people on Earth are those who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither time nor power.” – Mary Oliver

The Aunt who said “Music is a friend!” gave to her creative spirit time and power. Covid-19 has given us the unique opportunity to pause and evaluate what we do with our time. Some have exceeded themselves on the culinary front, some others with photography, some have taken up gardening. I find it refreshing to see the Creative Self reviving in so many of us who have given in to the power of the time-bound social self for so long.

What is your friend?

Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.

America Runs on Diversity: GUAA Winner

Being the child of immigrants colors your experience in the Land of the Free. From navigating between different cultures to confronting whitewashing and racism, teenagers used the ‘Growing Up Asian in America‘ contest to pay tribute to their cultural roots. Read fourth grader Ella Dattamajumdar’s essay, America Runs On Diversity, where she discusses the inextricable relationship between America and its immigrant communities. This essay has been paired with, artwork contest winner, America Is Not Complete Without Us, created by sixth-grader An Ly. 

America runs on Dunkin’ is the punchline of one of my favorite foods, but I say that America runs on Diversity. It takes all sorts to make this world, whether it’s doughnuts, dal, dumplings or daikon! Cuisines of the world bring us together. Not just cuisines but diverse perspectives too. I believe that everybody should have a voice because one word can change the world. Everyone has their own opinion or unique perspective, if famous people didn’t speak up they would have never achieved great things and become who they are today.

For example, if Asian American, Jerry Yang did not put his ideas to action we would never have Yahoo. For my essay I am using Google and Microsoft Word which are headed by Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella. I admire Senator Kamala Harris who was raised by an Indian American mother. They are so many successful Asian Americans who have made America proud. I find Nina Davuluri who is the first Asian American woman to win Miss America very inspiring. At the Miss America contest talent round she performed a Bollywood dance. A lot of people were upset and said hurtful comments when she won Miss America as she looked different compared to the past winners.

I feel that being American is a state of mind, it is based on a common set of values and beliefs and not based on how we look, the color of our skin, what we eat, how we speak or where our grandparents come from. Just look around the Silicon Valley — every time I drive around with my family we are always debating what to eat — Biryani, Pho Soup, Sushi, Pad Thai, Tacos, or Steak. We need all kinds of nutrients to nourish our brains whether it is food or diverse perspectives. I dream of being an Asian American leader who is proud of her heritage and can make America proud because America truly runs on diversity.


Image: The artwork, entitled, America Is Not Complete Without Us, was created by sixth-grader An Ly. 

Essay: American Runs on Diversity was written by fourth-grader Ella Dattamajumdar

Should the Election Be Postponed in Light of a Pandemic? No!

Should the Presidential Election Be Postponed in Light of a Pandemic? No!

by Mani Subramani

There is absolutely no need to postpone the November 2020 elections on account of the Coronavirus.

Firstly the COVID-19 pandemic is roughly 2 times as virulent in its spread as the common flu and about 20 times more fatal among the elderly and most vulnerable.  So as long as the risk of transmission can be reduced 100 fold, voting should be at least as safe as voting during a normal flu season.  This is not achievable if we do everything business as usual. However, with sufficient social distancing (6 feet) and sanitizing, the transmission rate can be reduced sufficiently to make elections safe.  To avoid long lines at the polling places states can keep voting open early for a full week or encourage mail in ballots or both. Federal government should allocate funds as part of a stimulus or supplemental to cover the additional costs. 

At the time of this writing, we are number three in terms of total number of infections behind China and Italy.  Unfortunately, it would not be surprising if we are number one when you read this.  However, based on the experience of other nations the viral spread should peak in three months or less. In spite of the bungling and scattered response and utter lack of leadership by this administration, thankfully many state governors are acting in a manner that is appropriate to the seriousness of the outbreak.  This should ensure a peak of infections sometime this summer hopefully with a minimal fatality rate like that of Germany or Switzerland.  

Mani Subramani is a veteran of the semiconductor equipment industry.  He enjoys following politics and economics.

This article is part of the monthly Forum Series, where you get eyes on both sides of a hot button issue.

**************************

Should the Presidential Election Be Postponed in Light of a Pandemic? Yes!

by Rameysh Ramdas

In light of the Coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic meltdown, President Trump and Congress must postpone the November 2020 election. Yes, Democrats would loathe giving the President a few more months, but it is the right thing to do in these circumstances. The Constitution does not prohibit this action but says it should come from the states. Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island have postponed their primaries.

While the logistics of conducting campaign rallies will be a challenge, given the restriction of the number of people who can gather, more importantly, this will allow the President, his administration and state leaders to focus on containing the virus and in reviving the economy.

Yes, a postponement is only possible with great difficulty and cannot be done by an executive order. All the states must agree and their legislatures approve the measure. But the cost of the effort is well worth the benefits it brings to the nation and the world at large. And, this has to be done now as in many states, voting starts months earlier. 

Yes, this would have been unthinkable and deplorable in a normal time, but this is a pandemic of epic propositions. A prudent approach would be to have the elected officials on combating this calamity and start reviving the economy and the stock market. I urge the Administration and state legislatures to think outside the box and focus on the epidemic now.

Rameysh Ramdas, a resident of the SF Bay Area, has a keen interest in Politics and Current Events. 

This article is part of the monthly Forum Series, where you get eyes on both sides of a hot button issue.


Image license can be found here.

Should the Election Be Postponed in Light of a Pandemic? Yes!

Should the Presidential Election Be Postponed in Light of a Pandemic? Yes!

by Rameysh Ramdas

In light of the Coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic meltdown, President Trump and Congress must postpone the November 2020 election. Yes, Democrats would loathe giving the President a few more months, but it is the right thing to do in these circumstances. The Constitution does not prohibit this action but says it should come from the states. Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island have postponed their primaries.

While the logistics of conducting campaign rallies will be a challenge, given the restriction of the number of people who can gather, more importantly, this will allow the President, his administration and state leaders to focus on containing the virus and in reviving the economy.

Yes, a postponement is only possible with great difficulty and cannot be done by an executive order. All the states must agree and their legislatures approve the measure. But the cost of the effort is well worth the benefits it brings to the nation and the world at large. And, this has to be done now as in many states, voting starts months earlier. 

Yes, this would have been unthinkable and deplorable in a normal time, but this is a pandemic of epic propositions. A prudent approach would be to have the elected officials on combating this calamity and start reviving the economy and the stock market. I urge the Administration and state legislatures to think outside the box and focus on the epidemic now.

Rameysh Ramdas, a resident of the SF Bay Area, has a keen interest in Politics and Current Events. 

This article is part of the monthly Forum Series, where you get eyes on both sides of a hot button issue.

**************************

Should the Presidential Election Be Postponed in Light of a Pandemic? No!

by Mani Subramani

There is absolutely no need to postpone the November 2020 elections on account of the Coronavirus.

Firstly the COVID-19 pandemic is roughly 2 times as virulent in its spread as the common flu and about 20 times more fatal among the elderly and most vulnerable.  So as long as the risk of transmission can be reduced 100 fold, voting should be at least as safe as voting during a normal flu season.  This is not achievable if we do everything business as usual. However, with sufficient social distancing (6 feet) and sanitizing, the transmission rate can be reduced sufficiently to make elections safe.  To avoid long lines at the polling places states can keep voting open early for a full week or encourage mail in ballots or both. Federal government should allocate funds as part of a stimulus or supplemental to cover the additional costs. 

At the time of this writing, we are number three in terms of total number of infections behind China and Italy.  Unfortunately, it would not be surprising if we are number one when you read this.  However, based on the experience of other nations the viral spread should peak in three months or less. In spite of the bungling and scattered response and utter lack of leadership by this administration, thankfully many state governors are acting in a manner that is appropriate to the seriousness of the outbreak.  This should ensure a peak of infections sometime this summer hopefully with a minimal fatality rate like that of Germany or Switzerland.  

Mani Subramani is a veteran of the semiconductor equipment industry.  He enjoys following politics and economics.

This article is part of the monthly Forum Series, where you get eyes on both sides of a hot button issue.

Excavating History

I recently returned from a six-week sojourn in Mumbai. It is the city where I grew up and where my family still lives. In fact, my “family home” is where my mother grew up.  The small four-hundred square foot chawl home has witnessed more than five generations of my family. 

As can be imagined, every nook and cranny holds cherished memories. The low kitchen counter specially designed to suit my well-under-five feet grandmother, the fifty-year-old refrigerator that, somehow, still works. My mother’s old sewing machine still stored under the dining table. And the Akai tape player that was my father’s cherished purchase during the 1960s and that holds the recorded voices of the eight-year-old me and my seventy-year-old grandfathers. If only the walls could talk. 

It seems to be a particularly American, or emigrant obsession, to seek to bring the past into the present. As far back as 1758, Benjamin Franklin stomped through a cemetery in England trying to understand the Francklyne who were his forebears. And it has been thus since then. It is the privilege of each new wave of newcomers to return to the old country to dig, to learn, to ask, to understand. Who were the people who formed me? What were their lives like? What were the forces that shaped me? Why am I who I am today? What is my life’s work? How can I make meaning out of the memories of those who are no more?

It is almost forty years since I came to America as a newlywed and early-career professional. The early years were a whirlwind of activity, as all available (and then some) physical, mental, and emotional energy was spent on deciphering the new country, learning to be American, making a home, a career, and a family. Finally, now, I have the luxury of paying attention to all that I left behind and to understand the forces that made me who I am.

~~~

Unaware of this subconscious quest, about ten years ago I stumbled upon the story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, the first Indian woman who became a doctor. I became hooked on her story because I recognized that her sacrifice and courage were the beginning of the fundamental changes in Mumbai Maharashtrian society from which I benefited. While she was married at nine to a widower who was almost twenty years older than her, one hundred years after her, I got married in my twenties to a man of my own choosing. While she lived in a society that did not believe in providing education and healthcare to women, I grew up in a family and a society which did not even question my claim to an education and a career, and of course, healthcare. 

Wanting to know more about Anandi-bai’s American life turned from an idle curiosity into a passion project after I read her letters. It was almost as if she was talking directly to me, telling me about her challenges, her ambition, her hopes, and her dreams — not so much for herself as for Indian womanhood. The result of my endeavors is “Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions.” It will be published in March 2020.  

It became important to me to visit the major places where Anandi-bai lived during her short eventful life. I went on pilgrimages to Philadelphia and Poughkeepsie. And, in Mumbai I visited the places where she lived during her short stay there during 1880-1881. Unlike in the US, where there is a much deeper tradition of preserving history, I was doubtful about how much history I would be able to excavate in India. But, I was pleasantly surprised.

In the area of Girgaon (which was called Black Town during the 1880s), I found the post office where Anandi-bai’s husband Gopal worked. Even today, there is a post office at the exact same location! I visited Angrey-Wadi, the neighborhood chawl from where Gopal had arranged for her to pick home-cooked food so she would be freed of cooking chores in order to focus on her studies. 

I visited the beautiful old black stone church founded by Dr. John Wilson, the Chrsitian missionary He also founded one of the first girls’ schools in Mumbai, St. Columba School, that is also my alma mater. Although I was not able to find definitive evidence, I have narrowed down the school that Anandi-bai attended to either the school I attended or Queen Mary School which still operates in the same neighborhood!

Walking the streets that Anandi-bai walked and where she had been subjected to catcalls and abuse was an extremely moving experience. Witnessing how much the status of women has changed in the intervening century was uplifting and inspiring. I felt I had a better understanding of the forces that led to my empowered life. I felt that by visiting the place, I had paid private homage to Anandi-bai, whom I now consider an adi-mata, or foremother.

~~~

I also visited the place in the Mumbai suburb Kalyan where Anandi-bai grew up. The old sprawling wada, with its big open aangan and vrindavan is no more. In its place is an apartment building that is aptly named Anandi-Gopal. A friend and I were having a hard time spotting the plaque that mentions the history of the building lot. We peeked inside a small office where two men sat chatting. Upon hearing our question, one of the men offered, “I will tell you everything you want to know. I am a descendant of the Joshee clan that used to own this land.” He then took us upstairs to his apartment and showed us old documents that are in his possession. Among them is a family tree. No women appear in the family tree — with he exception of Anandi-bai herself. It is as if through her courage and sacrifice she claimed a place for herself in men’s world. 

Mr. Joshee also showed us a copy of a contract by the Peshwas granting land to the founder of the Joshee clan.  It was interesting to find out that the wedding of the first Peshwa (Bajirao of “Bajirao-Mastani” fame) had taken place in the same house because Bajirao’s first wife hailed from this same Joshee family. There were other tales about the family’s rising and falling fortunes. 

As Faulker put it, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” And, by telling us where we have been and who we were, history gives us the roots we need to feel grounded and to confidently choose where we want to go and whom we want to become.

Over the course of the last several years, as I have researched the story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, my life has become incredibly richer. I highly encourage seekers to go forth and excavate their own personal histories. The people who went before are waiting to reveal their truths!


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. “Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions,” a biography of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, will be published in March 2020.