Call For Asian American Artists

Jagah (Collective of South Asian Artists) welcome submissions from all South Asian artists (including undocumented, noncitizen, and/or 1st generation immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) who explore themes at the intersection of identity, cultural hybridity, sense of place, and the meaning of sanctuary through a diasporic lens. 

Over 200 years of colonization has resulted in our communities being continuously fractured, dispersed and reimagined. Nevertheless, there exists a collective sense of memory that flows through our culture, despite the effects of migration and displacement. We invite artists to consider the following questions as a prompt for your submissions:

How do you reimagine your South Asian identity within the future global and local context? How does geography influence your sense of belonging? Which stories connect you to the elders in your community and/or family? How do you preserve your history as an immigrant on colonized land? How does your identity serve as a form of resistance? How do you celebrate your presence despite the traumas you may carry? In what ways can we take agency and ownership of our memories and portrayals? What will happen if we choose to reclaim these narratives?

Submissions are free and all contributors will be paid. We are accepting submissions, including but not limited to:

  • Photography
  • Film
  • Performance (music, dance and conceptual, spoken word poetry)
  • Writing (short stories, interview, essays)
  • Sculpture
  • Printmaking, painting and drawing

Submissions will close on February 20th at midnight PST.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Freddie

 

Center: Freddie Mercury at St. Peter’s School

The halls of St. Peter’s School are lined with frames that hold photographed highlights from each school year—athletic competitions, scenes from plays, and the like. Of these, the ones from the late 1950s have pictures missing, notably those of a flamboyant musician and a star “All Rounder” at sports and studies. All that remain are captions that say “Farrokh Bulsara.”

In time, even that name will go missing. Freddie, Bulsara’s nickname, eclipsed his original moniker, and the last name he adopted reflected his temperamental character. Three decades after Mercury attended St. Peter’s, I wandered down its hallways as an eight-year-old who had started at the boarding school at about the same age as the rock star.

Like Farrokh, I too had been “sent back to India” from the diaspora. I often stared up at the frames, wondering who the boy in the missing pictures had been.

The Bulsaras, Parsis from Gujarat, worked in Zanzibar, East Africa, where Farrokh was born on September 5, 1946. Already from an Indian minority culture, the colonial Asian-African displacement further isolated the Bulsaras. In sending their son to school in India, even if it was a British institution, Farrokh’s parents might have been attempting to retain their roots and acculturate their offspring.

The school in India reflected the Bulsaras’ own displaced multiculturality. St. Peter’s attracted students from all over India and the diaspora, making for a culturally, but not necessarily economically, varied student body. The postcolonial diversity departed from the intent of the school’s original purpose: it had once been named The European Boys’ School. The name change notwithstanding, the student body continued to be exclusively male.

Memories of Freddie lived on long past his tenure at St. Peter’s, his eccentricities so at odds with the ostensibly staid school, one that still held on to its British colonial era character. It was here that Freddie Mercury learned to become British even before his family immigrated to England in the 1960s.

Institutions such as St. Peter’s, which in 2004 celebrated its centenary, arguably followed Lord Macaulay’s famous 1835 call for education that would create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” This attempted hybridity reveals a class-based strain of Indianness, but also the manufacturing of British identities on other shores. Mercury’s transnationalism blurred these lines. One wonders if the spandex-clad, and sexually provocative musician was the prime subject Macaulay had in mind when he wrote his Minute on Indian Education.

Mercury’s vanished Indianness as he rose to fame in England has been the subject of much speculation. On the one hand, it is undeniable that his Persian-Parsi background, manifested in the fair colour of his skin, likely allowed the entertainer to pass for being Anglo. There was also the name change: “Farrokh Bulsara, Rock Star” was presumably not going to cut it in popular mainstream culture during the heightened racial climate of 1970s Britain. Those were the formative years of Queen, the band that Mercury came to front.

Concurrently, the political tide was turning. The Iron Lady, Conservative Prime Minister Thatcher, ascended to office at the end of the decade.

But on the other hand there are the vague but still cognisable cultural self-references.

There are Mercury’s orientalised lyrics with Islamic allusions in the songs “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Mustapha.” These fuzzily signal a Persian-South Asianness, where Koranic and Middle Eastern themes hint at a historically multicultural Indian subcontinent. The lyrics draw a connection between the many Persian influences on Indic culture, though the references are not specifically Parsi. Stylistically, the baroque flourishes of Queen’s repertoire in such songs as “Bohemian Rhapsody” are akin to the Arabesque excesses of Mughal-era art and architecture. Even in his choice of name, the performer stuck with Freddie, the nickname acquired at his Indian school and which had emerged from “Farrokh.” The inventive “Mercury” suggests the mythical and   questions the assumption that some names are more authentically Indian than others. This can hardly be the case in a subcontinent that has served as a major confluence for people of so many cultures and religious faiths. Yet, what is inescapable is that he felt his name needed changing.

Despite his light complexion, Mercury’s dark and dense moustache, familiar to us simply as “The Indian Moustache” for its ubiquitousness, also intimates other possibilities. It is probable that Freddie had discovered his sexuality much before arriving England, perchance at an all-boys school in India. Mercury’s moustache, figuratively and subversively, represented an affectation of masculinity, evidenced in such Western gay visual and popular cultures as Tom of Finland illustrations and the music of The Village People. The singer’s follicular trademark could be read as both homosexual and desi.

Freddie and Queen

Finally, there’s the band’s name: Queen. It juxtaposes the image of England’s leader alongside queer parlance for flamboyancy. Mercury’s position as a postcolonial queer immigrant, born and schooled in the colonies, and then culturally ruling the British airwaves, challenged the old guard as represented by Her Majesty. To borrow the title of the controversial song by Mercury’s contemporaries, the Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen…”
This year Mercury would have been 65. November 24, 2011 will mark the 20th anniversary of his passing from the AIDS virus in the 30th anniversary year of the disease’s advent.

Mercury did not reveal that he had the disease until the day before he died. It was suppressed from public knowledge like so much else in his life. What remains is the ambivalence that surrounded Freddie’s identity. Perhaps it was by design, or maybe it was an ongoing, self-reflective negotiation—the kind seen in the opening words of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia: “… I am an Englishmen born and bred, almost.”

Freddie’s identity is like the missing pictures at St. Peter’s School—memories framed by everything else around them. I once animatedly remarked to an elderly Goan woman in England, upon finding out that she had lived in Zanzibar: “Freddie Mercury was born there!” I then apologized for the oblique reference, thinking she might be unaware of who he was. Instead, she replied, “Yes, I used to see little Farrokh running outside my house.” The complete picture may be missing, but Freddie’s identity continues to unsettle easy assumption. Long live Queen.

R. Benedito Ferrao was born in Kuwait, has family roots in East Africa, and now lives in England. Unlike Mercury, the only singing he does is in the shower.

The article Finding Freddie: was first published on Nov 3, 2011.

Date/Time Event
Feb 17, 2019 - Feb 24, 2019
5:00 am - 5:00 pm
Yoga Retreats In Rishikesh
Yoga Retreats In Rishikesh
Rishikesh Yog sansthan, Rishikesh Uttarakhand
Feb 19, 2019 - Feb 22, 2019
All Day
IHGF Delhi Fair Spring 2019
IHGF Delhi Fair Spring 2019
India Exposition Mart Ltd, Knowledge Park – II Gautam Budh Nagar Greater Noida Uttar Pradesh
Feb 22, 2019
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
Understanding The Asian Century
Understanding The Asian Century
Taube Family Auditorium, San Francisco CA
Feb 23, 2019
3:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Parampara 2019
Parampara 2019
Harbeson Hall, Pasedena City College, Pasedena CA

In Conversation With Dr. Vandana Shiva

Noted environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva is in the Bay Area – she spoke at Berkeley this evening, and will be speaking at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts tomorrow evening. Details are given here: https://openspacetrust.org/wsls-vandana-shiva/?utm_campaign=wsls&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=indiacurrents

 In an exclusive interview with India Currents, she spoke about her work as an environmental activist. Listening to her speak on various interlinked topics made me ponder about the motivations of individual human beings and modern societies in their unending quest for development and the crushing costs of this onward march.The urgency with which she speaks about the threat to biodiversity, the spread of large scale industrial agriculture and the ubiquitous use of  chemical fertilizers – each environmental transgression larger and more dire than the other – makes one contemplate the very paradigm on which modern societies exist. Every aspect of promoting environmental wellness has been impacted by her work over several decades.

As a student in the 1970s, Dr. Vandana Shiva volunteered with the Chipko movement. Today, decades later, her environmental activism encompasses multiple levels – work with farmers, drafting policy at the highest levels of government, speaking out against biopiracy, fighting legal cases against big corporations, founding a seed farm to save “native” seeds, while acknowledging the often overlooked contributions of women – every one of these missions is enough to occupy a lifetime. She recognizes that the problems related to the environment are not only dire – they are also interlinked and need to be tackled at various levels. As she sees it, “the world is very different from how it was when I first started with the Chipko movement in the 1970s. Today, problems related to the environment and our continuing indifference are all around us. We cannot afford to ignore this. Speaking up is no longer enough. Action is needed at every level.”

As a graduate student in physics studying in Canada in the 1970s, she was drawn to the simple premise of the Chipko movement where women hugged trees to prevent logging in the forests surrounding their homes. From that initial foray into seeing the rewards of environmental activism, she has dedicated her life to the cause.

Dr. Shiva confessed that time and again, she had been schooled in the ways of the land by “uneducated” farmers who had not seen the inside of a college classroom; simple men and women whose lives and livelihoods depended on the environment. Sometimes, she said, “a scientist might be able to name a handful of species, whereas the women who lived close to the forested areas would easily name each and every species, while giving detailed information about which plant was good for the water, which was good for the soil along with their respective growing conditions and more. Their lives were intertwined with the environment and they were really the teachers to those who were schooled inside classrooms in schools and colleges,” she asserted.

Using her scientific training, Dr. Vandana Shiva used two other languages that she was familiar with – “English and graphing,” to make a case for environmental causes at the highest levels of policy making and government. Judging by how articulate she is, there is no doubt in my mind that her methods could effectively change policy at the highest levels of government.

Vasudaiva kutumbhakam: (the world is one family) is something that is part of our culture,” she says and “so is plurality.” “For Devi, we do not have one name – instead we have a thousand. We pray to the tulsi plant – we hold as sacred the cow and the bull. We have not come from an anthropocentric perspective, believing in the superiority of our species over others. We have always understood the interdependence of the human species with every other species. Now, with the new global economic paradigm, this interdependence is all the more pronounced. When a large percentage of goods for the American market are produced in China, China just becomes an extension of the American economy. And, environmental impact is also global.”

The Green Revolution is widely credited with ridding India and several other developing  countries from starvation. But, Dr. Vandana Shiva has a different take on this phenomenon that revolutionized farming – the rice varieties might have contributed to higher yields, but each of these rice varieties required more water to grow and they were also dependent on chemicals for survival. “For instance, in the Kavery delta,” she says, “I often tell farmers that the removal of indigenous rice varieties during the Green revolution led in great measure to the current dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. They lost the low-water using rice varieties earlier and over time, the waters of the Kavery were not sufficient to take care of rice crops in both states.” She also introduces an innovative concept – she says rice and other grains should not just be measured on the scale for weight but their nutritional value should be the guiding unit of measurement. “What is the point of having a grain of rice that weighs well, is grown with chemicals and has low nutritional value?”

Dr. Vandana Shiva talks of her farm – Navdanya (www.navdanya.org) where they have saved over 6000 seed varieties. Prior to the Green Revolution, India had 200,000 varieties of rice, she declares. The origin of the name for her farm has an interesting anecdote behind it – in the border between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, she was working with farmers at a time when the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan lived in the jungles there. She came across a piece of land where multiple crops were being grown simultaneously – stunned by the diversity in front of her, she quizzed the farmer who said,”of course, this is navdanya. Just like the nine planets (navagraha) that move in the cosmos in unity, these crops and the food within me will have the same balance.” She was struck by the beauty of the concept – of the sense of balance that he was referring to and named her organization located in the hilly Garhwal region after this.

Indian-American readers can visit the website to learn more about the work done on the farm. The whole month of September is devoted to various activities on the farm, and a program christened as Earth Journeys allows visitors to explore growing regions in the area.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.

Read an earlier article on Dr. Vandana Shiva from our archives below.

The World is Not “Phat”

The Story Behind Oscar-nominated Film Set in India

In a rural village outside Delhi, India, women lead a quiet revolution. They fight against the deeply rooted stigma of menstruation. Period. End of Sentence. — a documentary short directed by Rayka Zehtabchi — tells their story. For generations, these women didn’t have access to pads, which lead to health problems and girls missing school or dropping out entirely. But when a sanitary pad machine is installed in the village, the women learn to manufacture and market their own pads, empowering the women of their community. They name their brand “FLY,” because they want women “to soar.”

Their flight is, in part, enabled by the work of high school girls half a world away, in California, who raised the initial money for the machine and began a non-profit called “The Pad Project.”

 

The Story Behind Period. End of Sentence.
Period. End of Sentence. the documentary, began with a group of young feminist students from Oakwood High School in Los Angeles, who wanted to know why girls in their partner schools abroad — in countries as far reaching as India, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone — were leaving school at an alarming rate, just after they started to get their periods. The Oakwood students discovered there was a severe lack of access to sanitary products and an even greater dearth of educational health awareness in many of these communities.The Oakwood students learned their counterparts often felt ashamed of their periods and would be rendered helpless by this natural process of womanhood. Consequently, period-shaming was reaching epic proportions and stories of suicides in Indian villages attributed to this were increasing.Diving into the statistics, the students learned in developing countries, like India, between 25% and 57% of adolescent girls miss school or drop out altogether because of their periods. If girls receive seven full years of education, they will marry an average of four years later and have 2.2 fewer children. If they attend only one additional year of secondary school, their lifetime wages could increase by up to 20%, consequently raising their country’s GDP by billions of dollars. This means if India enrolled just 1% more girls in school, their GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. This is an example of the concrete economic and social impact on individuals, communities and nations. Just as importantly, a complete education provides young girls in harsh circumstances with financial security, knowledge about the world and a sense of self.

With urgent curiosity and progressive awareness, the Oakwood students wanted to take action. The group was already involved with the Feminist Majority Foundation’s high school program, Girls Learn International (GLI). They worked closely with the FMF to research and ultimately purchase a locally-manufactured machine that can produce sanitary pads for an entire rural village. This business-in-a-box could also offer an additional opportunity for the women of these communities: A micro-business making and selling the pads.The pad machine was created and produced by Indian-inventor Arunachalam Muruganatham, who is affectionately known as The Pad Man. It is easy to operate, only requiring locally-sourced, natural resources and a small amount of electricity to function and can be set up in a home or semi-permanent location. Once the machine is up and running, the women are able to bring pads to the villagers at approximately 5 cents a unit, a stunningly low cost. In addition to the economic incentive, the pad machine makes the product more easily accessible, thus empowering women and girls to feel comfortable with their bodies, avoiding period-shaming and continuing their education.

Armed with this plan, the Oakwood students embarked on a fundraising journey with vegan bake sales, yoga-thons and two successful Kickstarter campaigns in order to fund the machine and its supplies. Aware that their efforts could have a greater impact by sharing this journey on a more amplified scale, the girls produced a documentary that they hoped would encourage others to join this philanthropic effort. Now producers themselves, the students hired director Rayka Zehtabchi, a recent graduate of USC film school and a young female writer, director and producer. Zehtabchi spent a great deal of time with the core group of students who shared their ideas for the film and discussed their fears of being perceived as “white saviors” in the process. Zehtabchi helped craft the narrative and then travelled to Hapur to begin filming. The producers researched and arranged what would become a lasting NGO partnership with Action India to forge educational links with the most needy and deserving women and girls in the villages outside New Delhi, specifically the village of Hapur. They also established an official 501c3 nonprofit to continue elevating awareness about period-shaming and to raise funds to provide pad machines in other areas where a need is identified around the world.Period. End of Sentence. screened across the United States at film festivals throughout the summer and fall of 2018. The film continues to inspire students to realize their power in thinking globally and recognize the impact young women can create. As Muruganatham says, “The strongest creature on Earth is not the elephant, not the tiger, but the girl.”

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

 

From Our Sponsors




Grammy Award Nominee Falguni Shah

Talent has no boundaries and it flourishes on its own, wherever it lands. It rightly describes the remarkable journey of Falguni Shah, the only Indian nominated for the 61st Annual Grammy Awards. Bewildered at the turn of the events, Falguni is still in search of words to express her joy and embrace the success that has come her way.

“I was completely shocked when I heard about the nominations at the Grammys. The album was a creation out of a mother’s love for her child and I never expected it to reach such heights,” said Falguni Shah, who has her album, Falu’s Bazaar nominated for the Best Children’s album category at the Grammys, which will be held on February 10, 2019.

Unlike other conventional albums made for children, what makes Falu’s Bazaar unique is the wonderful compositional quality and distinct thought process that went into its creation. It was the inquisitiveness of a four year old Indian-American boy to know about his own cultural roots, differences in language, foods and spices that led to this album.

“My son always had these interesting questions about how we Indians spoke different languages at home, how our food smelt different and why our curries were yellow in color. So, I just wanted to give him a sense of identity and to tell him about our beautiful culture. It was very important for me to make him aware that being different is nothing to be ashamed of. On the other hand I feel that we should actually be proud of our incredible heritage. And I found music as the best option to communicate my thoughts to him,” adds Falguni. She moved to America in 2000 and has been actively involved in the music industry since then.

Addressing the concerns of her four year old son, Falguni compiled the songs in the form of different stories that would educate as well as engage the kids. Not just in English, the album has songs in Hindi and Gujarati as well. The album unfolds the story of a mother-son duo, who visit the Bazaar and each song represents the various entities and incidents that they witness during the journey to and fro from the market.

The album Falu’s Bazaar starts off with a song sung by her son Nishaad where he recites his name, age and address in Hindi. Following this, there are songs on how to cross the road and about the different shapes of the traffic lights. It continues with a song that portrays American diversity and includes the word ‘hello’ in five different languages including Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Hindi and English. But, it is the song about the rainbow, that stands apart as the singer’s favorite.

“Classical music is my muse and hence I have tried to include the different rhythms in one of the songs that describes the rainbow, colors and numbers. I feel it’s essential for kids to know about taals and how music is part of everything around them. Music is universal and it has the power to connect amidst diversity and it’s a great medium to communicate too,” added the singer.

The album has also included fascinating details about how pots and pans are called kadai  and belan in Hindi, how different spices are used to cook Indian food with their names being jeera, haldi, etc. It even includes a song that names all the tropical Indian fruits and vegetables that kids growing up in America are unaware of.

“Through each and every song I have tried to make the kids understand about the unique aspects of Indian culture. And it feels great to get reviews from other parents that these songs really helped them in making their kids learn Indian languages. I have also included an activity book which can be downloaded for free along with the album that describes the story and helps kids to learn each and every word both in English and Hindi,” said the Grammy award nominee.

Adding a personal touch to the album, Falguni has also included a lullaby sung in Gujarati by her mother, Kishori Dalal, which has been passed on from one generation to another in the family. With a total of 10 songs, the album familiarizes kids with knowledge on languages, diversity and culture through the medium of music. Produced by Danny Blume and Deep Singh, the album is composed by Falguni Shah with Bryan Vargas being the lyricist. Other singers include her students – Saara and Lekha Wood, and husband Gaurav Shah, who is also one of the musicians for the album along with Bryan Vargas, Deep Singh, Soumya Chatterjee and Danny Blume.

Unique themes for albums has always been Falguni’s forte, who believes that music should invariably have a meaning and enrich others. Her previous album Foras Road was inspired by the stories of women belonging to the infamous red-light area in Mumbai’s Foras Road. The amazing singer has also recorded and performed alongside a wide array of famous artists including Ricky Martin, Wyclef Jean, Blues Traveler and she has also performed a duet with A R Rahman at the Time Gala Event in front of the Obamas and Oprah Winfrey.

Though many accolades have come her way now, her journey was not easy when she entered the music industry here in 2000. Having learnt music since the age of three under eminent gurus Kaumudi Munshi, Uday Mazumdar, Ustad Sultan Khan, and Kishori Amonkar, Falguni was keen on making her career in music and it was always a matter of working twice as hard to catch up with musicians here in America.

“I was in the minority and it was a culture shock. Everything was different, the way we learnt, the memorization and even the work ethic. I had to learn the American way while holding on to everything that I learnt in India. It was a struggle with lots of rejections but I have learnt from my mistakes. As is rightly said, pursuing music – it is all about the journey and not the destination,” affirmed Falguni.

Her experiences are also one of the prime reasons behind the inception of Falu’s Bazaar, through which she wants to give an identity to her son so that he can draw the best from both cultures – one which is ancient and rich in heritage and other that is very modern and driven by technology.

“My wish is that my son maintains his incredible Indian cultural identity while learning to assimilate into American society. He should learn about both the cultures and should be proud of his Indian roots,” added Falguni.

https://soundcloud.com/falushah/sets/falus-bazaar

Suchithra Pillai comes with nearly a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and United States. In her spare time, you can find her scribbling down some thoughts on paper, trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things, or expressing her love for dance on stage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Almost Perfect Family

I cannot find Jai!” I wailed to my husband. “What kind of a mother am I? I cannot find my own son!”

We were standing in front of a wall of student artwork at Stenwood Elementary. The first-graders had drawn pictures titled, “Who Am I?” and now their parents had to figure out which one was made by their child, based on a riddle the kids had included with their drawing. And here I was unable to pick out the one done by my 6-year-old Jai.

“I cannot find him either,” my husband Sameer said.

Slowly, we studied all the 23 drawings again. One struck me as a possibility:  “I have a sister who is younger than me,” the riddle read. “I love lions and tigers, and I have a fish.”

Everything fit—except for the sister part. I lifted the paper and flipped it over, and sure enough, there was Jai’s name. I carried the drawing with me into his classroom. Jai came running to me, “Did you find me, Mamma?”

“Yes, honey, but why did you say you have a sister when you don’t?”

“Yes, I do,” he insisted. “Shivani is my sister, she is.”
Shivani is my sister’s daughter; she lives in Arizona, halfway across the country from our home in northern Virginia. But Jai persisted: “Mamma, did you see the other drawings?

Everyone else has a brother or sister.  Everyone, except me.” And then, weeping, he ran out of the classroom. I just stood there. A few parents patted my back. “He will be fine,” they said.

It isn’t that my husband, and I did not want another child; we’d been struggling with infertility for a long time. But after that night, we decided to step up our efforts to conceive. We had been trying the calendar method and been unsuccessful but began using ovulations kits, etc.

As luck would have it, I became pregnant right away. Unable to contain my excitement, I told Jai when I was only a few weeks along. Within hours, he announced the news to the grocery store clerk, to the garbage man, to his teacher, to strangers we met on walks, to everyone. “I am going to be a big brother,” he boasted.

Our happiness was short-lived: I miscarried at four months. With much heartache, my husband and I resigned ourselves to the fact that perhaps our family would just be the three of us. “Jai, the baby is not coming,” Sameer told our son gently that night “Mamma is not too well right now. Her back hurts.”

“Okay,” Jai muttered, saying nothing more.  He didn’t bring up the subject again until a month later, in the school parking lot, when he asked, “Mamma, is the baby not coming because I wouldn’t be a good big brother?”

I wished that I had the perfect answer for him.  I longed to know the best way to soothe the pain of a child crying for a sibling.  But all  I could do was weep with him. I explained that losing the baby had nothing to do with him, and I promised that someday, somehow, he would have a sibling. “Yes!” he responded. “Right now we are only an almost perfect family.”

After much discussion, my husband and I decided to try in vitro fertilization. Several rounds failed, but a year later, I was pregnant again. By this time, Jai had stopped asking for a sibling.  But I noticed the he sometimes seemed sad, especially on holidays when his friends were out with their extended families celebrating.  We are a family of immigrants. My closest relative is six-hours away by plane.

When we finally told Jai about my pregnancy in my third trimester, he greeted the announcement with giggles, laughter, and shouts of joy.  Once again, he broadcast the news to everyone we encountered. Then he cleaned his room, picked out books the baby could read, and even set aside a baseball and bat for his new sibling.

My husband noticed that each morning Jai went to the prayer table that we have in our house and prayed.  “Please God, take care of my Mamma and my baby. Please don’t let Mama’s back hurt again. Please.”

Jai asked if he could name the baby, and we debated about what to do. We wanted to let him weigh in, but we didn’t want to end up with a child named Nemo or Buzz Lightyear or Cinderella.  So we compromised and gave him a short-list of names from which he could pick. “How do I name the baby if I don’t know if it is a boy or girl?”  he asked.

Off we went for an ultrasound—with Jai in tow.  When the technician announced we were having another boy, Jai’s face lit up. “We are having a baby brother,” he said. “We are having Arjun.”  He had chosen the name of a brave and legendary Hindu warrior.

Jai planned my baby showers with my friends, sat with me as I wrote thank you notes, and helped my husband set up the crib and the changing table, giggling all the while at the tiny diapers he stashed underneath.  Meanwhile, I was in and out of the hospital with a very dangerous pregnancy.  But we all prayed and stayed positive.

Arjun, by the grace of God, arrived on his due date. Jai proudly wore his t-shirt that said, “Big Brother,” when he came to visit us at the hospital. When I brought the baby home, I was greeted by a big sign Jai had made: “Welcome Home Mamma and Arjun.”

When the baby was two months, I got a rather unusual call from Jai’s teacher. She said she wanted to show me something my son had written about his brother and asked me to stop by the classroom the next time I was at school.

Suddenly, I felt very nervous.  During my pregnancy, friends and family members had warned me about  sibling rivalries. They said it could be hard to introduce a new addition, especially to someone who’d been only child for so long. Was Jai now bothered by his brother? Was I giving Arjun too much attention?

I was in the classroom the next day. “I asked the students to write an essay on something that was important to them,” his teacher said, handing me a yellow binder. “Most of the kids wrote about soccer, baseball, playing outside or watching TV. Jai is the only one who wrote about his brother.” I opened the binder, and read all 8 pages of Jai’s essay in a daze.

Every detail of Arjun’s birth was captured—from who picked Jai up at school the day his brother was born to the look of the hospital room where I stayed. He even described making the welcome home sign. I took the essay home and placed it in Arjun’s memory box.

Arjun is now almost 2 now, Jai is nearly 9. The boys are totally different:  Jai is soft-spoken; Arjun is louder than six toddlers put together. The older one loves to read; the younger loves to dance.

Yet despite their differences, my boys are inseparable. While I have no doubt Jai would have eventually adjusted to being an only child, I feel secure now that my sons will always have each other to rely on.  They are each other’s keepers, and our family is no longer “almost perfect.”  It feels perfect in every way.

Monica Bhide is a food writer and cookbook author. Her work has appeared in Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Eating Well, The Washington Post, and many other national and international publications. You can find her at: www.monicabhide.com. This article previously appeared in Parents magazine. Reprinted with permission.

First published in India Currents in Dec. 2012.

Easy Steps To A Healthier Life

 

I am a 57 year-old grandmother of four delightful and energetic elementary school-aged grandchildren. My husband and I visited our daughters’ families in the Bay Area recently. This visit was memorable because it was life changing. I learned to make healthy lifestyle choices based on practical advice allowing me to enjoy the time I spend with my husband and family.

I have a history of hypertension, and was diagnosed with pre-diabetes and fatty liver. I was severely overweight. Both my legs were swollen and I was bothered by tingling and burning sensations. I could not even go on walks in familiar neighborhoods with my husband, who loves his daily walk. In fact, he has always been very active and practices yoga everyday as well.

One afternoon, soon after my arrival from India, I set out behind my husband on a short walk. I had reluctantly laced up my shoes and rolled out of the house. Barely ten minutes into the walk, I tripped and fell. Filled with shame and pain, I picked myself up with difficulty and got back home with my husband’s help. I was so embarrassed and my spirits were dampened by this incident.
My daughters and husband believed that I needed to walk to help bring my weight down. I knew I had to lose weight, but was nervous about stepping out and hurting myself. I was in a Catch 22, and quite upset with my family for not understanding my plight, and empathizing with me. If I managed to walk for a day or two, it would take me several days to recover. My daughters were not very impressed with my 2 days on, 2 weeks off routine. They were also concerned about my unsuccessful attempts at managing hypertension. They were determined to help me find a solution.
I saw a doctor at the India Community Center who examined me and pointed out that my weight of 205 lbs put me in the obese category, and that losing weight would be my first step towards getting healthy. The doctor suggested that I call the South Asian Heart Center at El Camino Hospital.

My daughters signed me up for the Center’s preventive program in August 2016. Assessments confirmed that I was pre-diabetic and of course obese. Included in this program were not only advanced assessments, but also expert lifestyle counseling and weeks of personalized coaching to combat my health conditions. For the first time in my life I felt hopeful. I was able to build trust in the clinician, which was a game changer. She spoke my language and put me at ease, cared about my wellbeing, and was patient with my family members who wanted to be involved. Through consultations and webinars I learned actionable tips on lifestyle changes, which I wholeheartedly implemented.

Before enrolling in the program, I cooked and consumed traditional, mostly grain-based South Indian meals. I sweetened my coffee and tea with sugar and snacked on Indian biscuits multiple times a day. Over the course of the program, I made significant changes to my diet. First, I eliminated sugar in my coffee and tea. I started including vegetables with every meal, decreased grain portions, and stopped consuming processed and refined grains in the form of cereals and biscuits.

The lifestyle changes seemed easy and effortless to make. In hindsight, I realize what helped was that the changes were introduced in baby steps. I did not have to make drastic modifications all at once to my diet or for that matter exercise. The clinician did not mention exercise in the initial weeks at all. Movement was gradually added to the daily routine.

The dietary recommendations were easy to sustain because I did not have to give up everything dear to my South Indian palate. I was able to replace rice with a blend of minced bell pepper, broccoli, cauliflower, tomato, salad greens and sprouted channa dal. I still enjoy my vegetable-rich sambhar, rasam and yogurt with this rice substitute. I loved how my nutritionist even gave me an alternative to the pickle I missed. She taught me to prepare spicy, sprouted methi as a pickle substitute. When I had trouble with bloating with the new foods, the nutritionist asked me to sauté the salad greens, and add probiotics in my diet.

For my daughters it was a new experience as well. Unlike in the past when they were used to facing resistance, they were surprised to see me happy and motivated to comply with suggested dietary changes. My trust in the program, translated to my daughters having confidence in it as well—so they did not question me when I broke our family’s breakfast traditions and started having cottage cheese with carrot, cucumber and fruit for breakfast.

Four months after I signed up for the program, I lost 23 lbs., and my 3-month blood sugar levels dropped from 6.4 to 6.0. I went from walking 0 minutes to 300 minutes per week. I feel more energetic and light. I am now able to walk with my husband and keep up with him. I have been able to reconnect with my grandkids by playing and exercising with them. My biggest achievement was hiking a steep trail in Red Canyon in Nevada, without any support.

I am excited to be returning to India with a host of practical tools in my toolkit, to manage my weight and stay on the path to success. I am proof that lifestyle changes can be made at any stage in life.
Bakialakshmi Ramachandran lives in Coimbatore, India.

This essay has been featured in February because it is American Heart Month.

A New Lease Of Life: first published on Feb 2017

Ain’t No Brown In the British Crown

The original title of this review was intended to reflect hope.  I had already written the opening sentence of the review: “Be wary of dismissing the sweetness of one persimmon because a different one, albeit still a fruit called by the same name, has left a bitter taste in your mouth.”  I had planned to use Home Fire’s sisterly balancing act to convey the need for the world to stop lumping all Muslims into the simplistic and simple-minded “terrorist” stereotype.    I wanted to argue that just as Home Fire’s homely, academic, level-headed Isma is different from her stunning, heady, and rebellious younger sister, Aneeka, no two Muslims are the same.  The end of the review had also been written: “Perhaps we can all learn from the title of anthropologist Joseph Berland’s book on South Asian gypsies, No Five Fingers are Alike.  Indeed, no five Muslims (or fill in the blank with Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, atheists, or agnostics) are the same.”

The hope implicit in Version 1.0 of this review was informed by a chance encounter with Kamila Shamsie on my flight to a Colorado learning circle I had designed and where I was going to co-facilitate.  The theme of the circle was “Emotional Intelligence: From Self-Awareness to Empathy.” The serendipity of being seated next to air-borne Shamsie coupled with time in the learning circle with like-minded grounded friends and colleagues, left me hopeful that if we take a moment to step into someone’s shoes, we will have greater self- and other-awareness; and if we are prepared to walk a mile in their shoes, to imagine that we are that person, then we can empathetically immerse our selves into other lives.   After all, isn’t that the contract we readers and writers make with each other? Writers create distant but recognizable worlds populated by compelling characters; and readers enter into those worlds and are hopefully changed by the characters’ transformations.

But after putting the review on hold for a couple of months due to unexpected travel for my consulting practice, I found myself channeling the title of sociologist Paul Gilroy’s defiant There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack.  My hopefulness had morphed into a disquieting anger.  And as with the stages of grief, my emotions went through stages:  from hope to sad hopefulness to hopeful sadness to hopeful anger to angry hopefulness, and finally simmering into anger.  The United States has angry, American, black brothers protesting brutal cops by marching through streets plaintively announcing that “Black Lives Matter;” Shamsie’s novel has a British angry brown sister protesting the death of her twin brother by rejecting grief and sharpening “her teeth on [rage’s] gleaming claw;” and I, a middle-aged observer of ancient and modern inequalities, channel the world’s fiction into a reviewer’s fading hope and rising anger.

My flight to Colorado had been unexpected because I was taking a sabbatical from flying due to a painfully slow recovery from shoulder surgery.  Changes in the cabin’s air pressure exacerbated the sharp pain in my arm. The rotator cuff’s immobility had been so intense that for months I had not flown, not driven a car, and not even shaved my facial hair.  But the learning circle summoned; so I packed, and unpacked for my flight.

Yes, I unpacked before my wife drove me to the airport.  She had packed a makeshift pulley rope which I use for physical therapy, Tiger Balm for my sore muscles, and a heat pad that mitigates the discomfort of high-altitude pressure change.  While the balm remained mixed with my toiletries stashed in the regulation-size Ziploc bag, the rope and the heat pad were removed; better to suffer physical pain, rather than risk the universal brown traveler’s humiliation at the probing hands of Homeland Security.

Ever since the numbers 9, 1, and 1 transmogrified from a helpline for all Americans into a never-ending war against Islam (and seemingly by extension against brown people taking flight), I have developed an ever-evolving protocol to mask my undeserved guilt and thus minimize interrogation at airports:

  • Shave
  • Smile broadly
  • Stay pleasantly unthreatening
  • Soothe with small-talk about the weather and sports

As the post-9/11 weeks became months, years, and are becoming decades, I’ve found that it is not only my undeserved guilt that has been masked; it has also been my much-deserved anger.  Goddammit! This is not the world Muslims (or fill in the blank with Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, atheists, or agnostics) deserve!

********

But it is the world of Kamila Shamsie’s remarkably unsettling Home Fire, which opens with a rather settled sentence:  “Isma was going to miss her flight.” The reason for the flight is quite understandable:  Isma is leaving England to pursue a sociology doctorate in Amherst, Massachusetts. The reason for the missed flight is anything but understandable:  airport security interrogating innocent brown people who dare to fly. “She had expected the interrogation, but not the hours of waiting that would precede it, nor that it would feel so humiliating to have the contents of her suitcase inspected.  She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions – no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her area of academic interest.” Good God! When did a holy book become a threat? And photos of loved ones left behind? My anger subsided a bit when I laughed at the thought of subversive sociology taking down the ascendant America of Donald Trump.  But Shamsie’s book is not about dark humor; it demands that the reader confront a state of being in a darkened world: “The official was doing that thing that she’d encountered before in security personnel – staying quiet when you answered their question in a straightforward manner which made you think you had to say more. And the more you said, the more guilty you sounded.”

Perhaps it is every traveler’s dilemma:  brown or not, do we comply with the security charade as Isma does or are we better served by embracing Aneeka’s belief that it is “important to show at least a tiny bit of contempt for the whole process?”  Professional pragmatism argues for the former (I just want to reach my client site, provide consulting services, and return home); human dignity begs for the latter (I am a free person, not enslaved by the systematic horror of racist puppet-masters and politicians).

Without a hint of lecturing, Home Fire teaches the reader about how precarious life is in balancing Isma’s worldview and that of Aneeka; it powerfully sits at the tragic nexus of pragmatism and dignity.  Two males play an integral role in Isma and Aneeka’s lives: their brother, Parvaiz, and their would-be lover, Eamonn. Both are dreamers who do not see the world as it is but rather how they’d want it to be.  Both have the shallowness of men who are still boys. And both have the sweet attractiveness of good-looking narcissists who bring to the world a lightness of being blended with an open heart. And yet, Eamonn and Parvaiz could not be more different from each other; they are sons of Muslim men who grew up a stone’s throw away from each other in one of London’s immigrant neighborhoods but took divergent political paths.  As Isma texted Eamonn about the father she, Aneeka, and Parvaiz never knew, “I envy you your father. Mine died while being taken to Guantanamo.”

Eamonn’s father, Karamat, has inexorably climbed each rung of Western society and British politics.  He has married Terry, an American interior designer, and raised an ambitious lawyerly daughter as well as his aimless son whose name has been Anglicized:  “An Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – ‘Ayman’ becomes “Eamonn’ so that people would know the father had integrated.” Karamat has become Home Minister – one careful step from the Prime Minister’s office – by making proclamations that are eerily prescient of Trumpian Tweets:  “citizenship is a privilege not a right or birthright.” Eamonn’s destiny is wrapped up in the years of proximity to, and late-in-life distance from, his beloved politician Dad, a man whose own proximity to the British crown has required a distancing from his brown heritage.

Parvaiz’s destiny is wrapped up in the years of absence, and late-in-life embrace, of his Abu, Adil Pasha; but the arms doing the embracing are of Farooq, a false-father.  Adil is long-dead, another anonymous father lost to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” (How blithely I have read these three words all these years without feeling the tragic pain of them, the horror of using bureaucratese to mask the terror that begets more terror.)  Farooq uses Adil’s memory to recruit Parvaiz into the dark world of jihad, training Parvaiz “how to be a man.” But in the hands of Farooq’s puppetry, Parvaiz does not become his own man.   Instead he becomes someone used by others:  by Farooq and his radicalized ilk to become “terrifying to grown men;” and by politicians and their co-dependent media to become the “terrorist son of a terrorist father.”  In his own eyes, Parvaiz “finally saw that he was his father’s son in his abandonment of a family who had always deserved better than him.”

How we as readers respond to the conflicted world of Parvaiz, Adil, Eamonn, and Karamat is likely to reflect whom we find sympathetic:  Isma or Aneeka? Or perhaps there is another gaze that we as readers take: the “double consciousness” of W. E. B. Du Bois who maintained in his classic The Souls of Black Folk that the identity of those suppressed by an oppressive society is divided into several parts.  Shamsie’s clear-eyed novel vividly brings to life the internal conflict of the Ismas and the Aneekas; it is a clarion call to all brown, black, and white folk to empathize with both types of sisters, to believe in a persimmon’s peace.  

“Peace” is Home Fire’s layered, wistful, final word, and it brings this reader back to a belief in hope if not hope itself.

——————————————————————–

For Mangla and Madhuri, two sisters who lovingly value their commonality and genuinely appreciate their differences. And for Joe, who founded our Learning Circle on the shared belief that dialog is a bridge to humanity.

 

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