Wildfires are tearing through neighborhoods and causing widespread destruction. Lives have been uprooted and changed forever. Sikh Temple Yuba City is helping the Butte County Sheriff’s office and has donated supplies to handle this catastrophe.
India Currents reached out to Sukhvinder Singh, treasurer, Sikh Temple Yuba City to find out about how readers can contribute and assist with donations at this time. He informed us that they are fully involved with the Sheriff’s office and are helping them by collecting donations and making sure that it reaches those in desperate need.
Here are ways you can donate:
Send blankets and shoes to:
Sikh Temple Yuba City, 2468 Tierra Buena Road, Yuba City, CA 95993.
Send money orders or casheir’s checks made out to:
Sikh Temple Gurudwara and send to the same address.
I’m always looking for creative ways to sensitize my children to issues of diversity and tolerance. As a transplant, who made the brave move from India to America over a decade ago, bringing up a culturally sensitive brood is important to me.
As I floundered trying to find a foothold in a foreign country, it became clear to me that to survive in today’s global village, being respectful of intra and inter-group diversity is critical. I decided to accept and share my Indian identity with others. Simultaneously, I eagerly learned all that I could about a vastly different country that I had decided to call home.
This mindset not only helped with the transition process, but it became part of my general outlook to life. The easy temptation to arrive at prejudiced and knee-jerk reactions was curbed. Instead, rationality set in to arrive at well thought out conclusions. In return, ‘others’ were accepting of me and respectful of where I came from.
Given the trajectory of my personal journey, it’s no surprise then that Elmer by David McKee, remains an exciting discovery to translate my ideas about inclusiveness to my young children. A few years ago, I chanced upon this endearing piece of children’s literature. Every time I read it to my first grader and preschooler, I find Elmer’s story a charming exploration of identity, diversity and acceptance; topics that are close to my heart. Here’s a summary of the story to offer some context:
Elmer, the elephant’s story is set in an idyllic jungle, where the animals appear to live in harmony. He’s famous and stands out because he’s not gray like the rest in his herd, but his skin is a patchwork of bright colors. He’s lively, cracks jokes, and is well-loved. But he’s weary of being different. He wants to be like the rest. So, one day he sneaks out at the crack of dawn to cover himself with the gray colored juice of a berry variety found outside the jungle. As he’s leaving, the animals greet him by name. Once, covered in the gray berry juice, he isn’t Elmer anymore, but just another elephant. He enjoys the anonymity and joins the herd only to realize that his friends miss his presence. To lighten up the mood, he startles them all with a loud “Boo!” Just then a rain cloud bursts and Elmer’s gray color washes off, making his friends laugh even harder. They understand his conundrum of wanting to fit in and be like the rest of them, and decide to celebrate his uniqueness by instituting an annual ‘Elmer’s Day Parade.’ On that day, all the elephants transform themselves into colorful patchwork elephants, and Elmer colors himself gray.
This seemingly simple story presents nuanced themes around diversity and identity for children and adults alike. As a parent, it has made me think about the many ways I could extend the “Elmer conversation” with my boys and make dense yet critically relevant concepts around tolerance and diversity more palatable for them. Here’s how Elmer’s story has motivated my actions as I endeavor to raise culturally sensitive kids.
Let kids see color
It may seem counterintuitive, but Elmer made me realize the merit in allowing children to see differences in color. In fact, it should be encouraged. After all, isn’t Elmer’s myriad of colors a big part of what makes him so intriguing and lovable?
Children notice color. It’s a fact. Their curious brains notice more than we realize. It’s okay for them to ask questions like why their friend’s hair or skin color is lighter or darker than theirs. Providing thoughtful answers could help them understand, respect and hopefully, embrace diversity. A blanket response on the lines of “we’re all the same” is not only inaccurate, it’s counter-productive. It impedes curiosity and makes kids (and later, as adults), dismissive of diversity and racial differences.
Let them understand where they come from
Sociologists have maintained that a sense of community and being part of society is innate to human nature. Maybe that’s why Elmer wanted to so badly fit in with the rest of the herd. It was important for him to feel part of a larger whole. Our children, no matter where they live, are no different. As an example, even at ages four and seven, my boys endeavor to understand where they are situated in the world.
There are some simple ways to make questions of identity and belonging tangible for children. As an example, I put up a map of the world in my kids’ room. We talk about the continents, the various countries, and the cultural plethora thriving within these countries. These animated discussions meander and loop around to where they are in the country, the world, to where their parents and grandparents come from. It’s a simple, yet effective way to visually anchor them in the world providing them a sense of belonging.
Empathy is key
An understanding of identity, racial diversity and cultural tolerance is incomplete without empathy. Empathy in children and adults is a key predictor of social and emotional success in varied situations – at an interpersonal level, at work, etc. Empathy also makes us more reasonable individuals. Teaching children to be empathic, in a weird way, even makes their tantrums (somewhat) manageable. It’s true!
Elmer’s story offers a gentle, yet firm reminder on the point around empathy. Elmer’s behavior raises numerous conversations from this perspective. The most obvious questions being: ‘Why is Elmer unhappy, even though everyone loves him?’ or ‘Why does he hide his colors in an even shade of gray?’ Finally, it’s heartening to see the herd’s true expression of empathy towards the patchwork colored elephant by instituting an annual festival named after Elmer to celebrate his uniqueness.
As adults, we can consciously extend the empathy message from Elmer’s experience to our children. For instance, I miss no opportunity in reminding my kids to put themselves in another individual or group’s shoes. At the playground, at school, or while reading a book, it’s always interesting to ask questions like “why do you think (s)he’s sad or happy?”
Elmer, the patchwork elephant’s story weaves themes of identity, diversity and tolerance into its narrative. It offers parents an opportunity to think about and start a dialog with their children around these topics. The biggest takeaway for me is that the patchwork elephant’s friends love him because he’s different. Consequently, as readers we learn that it’s ok to see, embrace and celebrate diversity.
As of now, I have much to thank Elmer for I actively embrace the teachings of the goofy patchwork elephant with my young children. I foresee our elementary “Elmer conversations” broaden as life’s situations evolve and become more complex with the passing of time!
Nidhi is an avid traveler and reader, a sushi and yoga lover. Her life before kids was spent in the ever-dynamic field of communication sciences. She is now a full time mom to two children. Reading and playing with her two high energy boys has been a fascinating journey. They have (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. Children’s literature has been an inspiring new discovery for her as she’s constantly seeing the world through little eyes.
Oct 18, 2018 - Jan 21, 2019
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA
Oct 21, 2018 - Dec 15, 2018
1:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Learn to Meditate Class
Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, San Jose CA
Nov 16, 2018 - Nov 18, 2018
Xavier Institute of Management Bhubaneswar, Bhubaneswar
Nov 18, 2018
11:00 am - 1:00 pm
Sri Satyanarayana Swami Puja
Badarikashrama, San Leandro CA
India Currents magazine won six awards in various categories at the San Francisco Press Club awards held last night at the Hilton hotel in Burlingame.
Here are a list of the awards in various categories.
Sweep of all 3 awards in Digital Media Columns – News/Political
First Place: Sarita Sarvate: Trump is Right
Second place: Kalpana Mohan: Creating Beta Clones
Third Place: Nirupama Vaidhyanathan: Be A Man
First Place: Blog/Commentary: Nirupama Vaidhyanathan: Amar, Akbar, Anthony – We Are All the Same
Digital Media – Columns/Features
First Place: Jaya Padmanabhan: Columns Under “Now and Then”
Columns by Jaya Padmnabhan under the title of “Now and Then”
Second Place: Jaya Padmanabhan: Dare To Speak Up?
An annual treat that comes with nippy, autumn weather is the 3rd i Film Festival, featuring movies from India, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan, Tibet, Sri Lanka and the South Asian diaspora. Marking its 16th year, the Festival was held in San Francisco between November 1 and November 4. Watching these movies that afforded fresh perspectives and brave, new voices, cemented for me the fact that independent cinema needs to be encouraged and supported. Among other attributes, these movies are unafraid to explore issues that are uncomfortable, give voice to the oppressed and shed light on matters often overlooked or even ignored.
A Suitable Girl
A Suitable Girl is a snapshot into the lives of three young women whose families are looking to arrange a match for their respective daughters. The documentary follows the lives of the middle-class Indian families for over a year, detailing the ups and downs of finding a groom in a culture that still places a lot of importance on marriage, especially for women.
Dipti, a simple and sweet-natured pre-school teacher, who has advertised for a groom in a local newspaper, puzzles over why she hasn’t got a response. Time is ticking for her as she is close to turning 30.
The independent and matter-of-fact Ritu, who is nearly 25, has no real desire to marry thus making it challenging for her matchmaker mother to find a groom for her own daughter.
Super-social Amrita who likes to shop and party is betrothed at the time she is introduced to the viewer. She marries into a high-profile family and finds that she has to keep a low profile in order to fit in.
The film has won the Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director at the Tribeca International Film Festival.
Directed by: Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra
Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
“A Suitable Girl” will be screened on Saturday, November 17th at the Palo Alto Art Center.
Showtimes: 2.30 p.m. and 4.15 p.m.
1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto, CA 94303
Phone: (650) 329-2366.
The following is a snapshot of movies that were featured in the 4-day festival held earlier this month in San Francisco.
A Better Man
The subject of this documentary is grim, the mood somber, and the attempt to return to face a traumatic past is beyond brave. Facing a tormenter willingly takes guts, and a certain desperation. Twenty years after having fled from an abusive relationship with her high school boyfriend, Steve, Tiya runs into him by chance and invites him to a dialog about their relationship that scarred her, quite literally.
Tiya takes the opportunity to get some much-needed answers to questions that have gnawed at her for years and soon finds herself listening to her boyfriend justifying why she deserved to be beaten or spit upon.Together, the interracial couple revisit their time together, as well as the scene of the crime: their high school and the apartment where Tiya had once lived in constant terror that she might be killed.
Physical wounds may heal, but what of the ones that stay hidden in the mind? Long after she has broken away from her abuser, Tiya tries to find healing in acupuncture and meditation to shake the ghosts and memories of inflicted trauma. Steve is not without contrition. “I don’t understand that cycle for me,” he says at one point in the movie, referring to the shame he feels after an episode when he assaults Tiya, along with apologies and promises that such a thing would never happen again.
Glimpses of the abuser’s warped rationale emerge, though he claims not to fully understand the trigger for the assaults; ; he surmises that he was so afraid of losing her at that time that he went to great lengths including intimidation to keep her by his side.
Indeed, it is arguable as to who the better man is – the ever-supportive, sensitive husband who champions women’s causes, or the abuser himself, who is willing to be placed in the hot seat to face the demon within. Forgiveness is a powerful tool for healing, for the victim and abuser alike; as much as Tiya needs to confront the past to come to grips with all the questions that have nagged her over the decades, so too does Steve who needs her forgiveness to become a better man.
Written and Directed by: Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman
Running time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Good Guy Bad Guy
Director Indu Krishnan is on her annual trip to Bengaluru, where viewers join her in her search for Zakhir, a poor man from the streets, who has mysteriously vanished. Having met him on a previous visit to the city, Indu is puzzled at the disappearance of the soft-spoken young man and tries to track down his whereabouts.
A victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the hapless Zakhir must go through imprisonment and a system of justice that works at snail’s pace. For the impecunious, it is practically impossible to extricate themselves without a benefactor.
Good Guy Bad Guy explores the life of the poor in India and is told with sensitivity. The protagonist, Zakhir, who collects and turns in recyclables for a living, shares the tribulations of a man on the streets – one who is practically homeless, trying to find a place to sleep each night while worrying about being chased away by the cops or being stoned by someone. Alcohol is a favorite friend for keeping his worries at bay.
It is easy to feel a connection with the gentle and compassionate Zakhir, who feeds the monkeys in the park every day and nurses an impossible dream of getting a break in the movies – composing songs, a small role acting, or even writing the screenplay. However creative and appealing his story, we as viewers realize that it is not sufficient to launch an illiterate man on the streets onto the silver screen.
Zakhir is as practical and resigned to his lot as he is creative, and hopes to make others understand what hardship really means someone who is at the bottom of the food chain. He has a back-up plan. If he is unable to get support for his dream of making a movie, then he would like to get a cart and sell vegetables, much like his father did, and, wander the streets, “like the street dogs,” he says woefully.
What the viewer sees, longer after Zakhir’s hope of making it to the movies is gone, is that there is an irrepressible dream that stays with him. As the film ends, the scene is one of a few street dogs watching the High Court in suggested anticipation of Zakhir’s judgement – one that is not likely to be handed down any time in the near future.
This scene is a particularly poignant one of the wretched man – the man understood and accepted by the animals that he has communed with, than the society that he lives in.
Directed by: Indu Krishnan
Running time: 1 hour 18 minutes
Ask the Sexpert
A 91-year-old sex columnist gives advice to people who write to the Mumbai Mirror with questions on intimacy and intercourse. A retired gynecologist, Dr. Mahinder Watsa is quite the celebrity and is often followed by young women who find him non-threatening to speak to about intimate matters.
The nonagenarian, whose approachability lies in his advanced age finds that what he does best is to help people open up to talk about a potentially embarrassing subject. He answers questions about sexual performance, porn, conventional and unconventional methods of birth control, as well as some astonishingly ignorant and repugnant questions, with tongue in cheek answers.
He is, however, up against Indian societal norms and has found himself in the middle of a lawsuit filed against him by a women’s and children’s activist, Dr. Pratiba Naitthani, who would like to see censorship of the content published by magazines that are accessible to all ages.
Says the sexpert of his work of demystifying the birds and the bees: “All human beings are sexual. Going through life is a wonderful journey full of excitement and surprises. Learning about sexuality begins from the time a child is born. And continues until the end of life.”
Directed by: Vaishali Sinha
Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes
The Fish Curry
“The Fish Curry (Macher Jhol)” is an animated short with a story that suggests careful consideration of the moment that the protagonist picks to tell his father that he is gay. With a backdrop of old Hindi songs filled with love and yearning, and over his father’s favorite dish of macher jhol, Lalith comes out to his conservative, Bengali father.
The snippet is told without drama and the film is atmospheric. The crisp audio is more noteworthy than the animation itself, though some parts are niftily done. Verma has done a nice job of handling a heavy moment fraught with emotion, which when translated in animation, can be challenging.
Animation and Direction: Abhishek Verma.
Running time: 11 minutes
In the Land of my Ancestors
Very relevant to the current day and age when man has lost connection to Mother Earth, comes this documentary, which is a tribute to Native Americans. Ann Marie Sayers, an elder of the Ohlone tribe belonging to the Indian Canyon in California, tells of the atrocities committed against the Native American peoples in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, where thousands were killed by genocide and disease.
Indian Canyon is considered sacred and has served as a safe haven for Indigenous peoples from time immemorial, when the Ohlones were forced into a life of servitude by the California Missions, effectively destroying their indigenous culture. Sayers says that Ohlone descendants are still hurting from that action today. Sayers hopes to educate the youth on their connection to the land. A force to reckon with, this dynamic tribes woman wants people to pause and think before making a decision – how will an action in the present day affect seven generations in the future?
Directed by: Rucha Chitnis
Running time: 10 minutes
Meera Prahlad is a freelance writer, community organizer and volunteer with a wide variety of interests. She wears several hats, but finds that the style that suits her best is one where she takes on a cause close to her heart, to make a meaningful impact on the community around her.
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Today, I lost my guru. And today, along with her, the world lost a deivam.
Smt. Ranganayaki Rajagopalan was more than a guru to me. She was a caretaker and a soldier, a giver and a fighter, a pillar in the fortress of Carnatic music.
As a disciple of the legendary Karaikkudi Sri. Sambasiva Iyer, her name stood tall. But as a musician herself? Her name remained cloaked, known to a select few. A sad truth, but a truth nonetheless. What happened?
She would lovingly tell me stories of how she first started learning veena. As a particularly rambunctious child, she was constantly getting into trouble. Her parents, exasperated and not knowing what to do, took her to the legend himself, Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer. He lived nearby, and they believed he would give her something to focus her energies on besides causing trouble.
Ranganayaki Paatti’s eyes sparkled as the not-so-fond memory came back to her. The first meeting with him was nothing short of disaster. Sambasiva Iyer, in a deep depression after the death of his brother, Subbarama Iyer, apparently did not want to teach anyone music. After much coaxing, however, from “Veena Periamma” (as Ranganayaki Paatti referred to Sambasiva Iyer’s wife), Sambasiva Iyer agreed to let the little girl try learning from him.
Shortly after teaching her the saralivarisai, he asked her to sing it back. She was a three year old at the time. She stared blankly for a minute, then attempted something. Finding her maiden attempt not to his satisfaction, he promptly took the little girl and angrily dumped her in a freezing-cold tub of water at the back of the house. Veena Periamma fished her out and dried her off.
Apparently, this traumatic experience, which she recollected even 80+ years after the fact with stunning detail, didn’t stop little Ranganayaki Paatti from doing more veshamam (trouble). Her parents were so desperate that they tried again with Sambasiva Iyer – this time, he was slightly less moody. With much coaxing, he said “yes” to becoming her guru.
This did not come without a price, for all parties concerned. This was full-on gurukulavasam, with no loose ends. Little Ranganayaki would not be able to see her parents again; even when they came to check on her progress, he would shut her away from them. She needed to believe that Sambasiva Iyer was her family, and indeed, he did eventually become family – her own “Veena Periappa.” But, as with all family members, duty came first, and in this case, that duty was the role of a guru. I would listen in rapt attention as Paatti described the years of intense training with Sambasiva Iyer in exquisite detail:
For the first few years, they didn’t even touch the instrument. Everything was done through vocal music, since Paatti was so tiny. She learned her saralivarisai, jantavarisai, alankArams and other basic exercises in an unusual manner. Sambasiva Iyer would use his angavastram (upper waist cloth) to tether Ranganayaki paatti to his own waist, making sure she didn’t run away. He would even take her into the bathroom, closing the curtain and tying the angavastram to a nearby pole. This system was implemented with great discipline, since she had escaped bolting down the road laughing after the first time he attempted to teach her.
He would also do things like sing alapana phrases for her to decode into swarams (from behind the bathroom curtain, sometimes), and teach her to put two taalams simultaneously. She didn’t understand what the fuss was all about when people came over and marveled at the six year old putting simultaneous taalams nonchalantly – at least, not until she was much older.
Then came the initiation onto the veena itself. This was the most intense part – she would wake up at four and practice till seven, bathe and eat some idlis, then practice for another three hours until 1 in the afternoon, when lunch would happen. A four-hour nightly learning session would also take place, after which she would go to bed. There was no time for learning anything else – she lived and breathed music.
Sambasiva Iyer would make her practice each line of everything 100 times, even when she was learning the sarali varisai. If on the 99th time she made a mistake, he would make her start again, maybe even involve a perambu (bamboo stick) to do the talking! She told me, her eyes winking, that she would purposefully make mistakes on the 99th time just to anger him. What a woman! She would also have to put thoppukaranam (ukki) in three speeds, chanting “nAn thappu paNNa mATTEn” (“I will not make mistakes”). I like to think that this drilled layam (sense of rhythm) into her body. Not once in any of her concerts or classes did I ever see her lift her head to look at where she was in the taalam cycle. At this pace, she learned over 400 songs from him, with songs taking as long as a month each to complete.
He even taught her all of his chittaswarams. These contain extremely fast gamakas and are notoriously difficult to play, composed seemingly with the goal to mess vainikas up! Before she taught me the chittaswaram in Kalyani raagam, she chuckled and said, “you know how many times I got sharp raps on the fingers for making mistakes in this chittaswaram?” Needless to say, we spent a lot of time together that day.
Her first performance was shortly after her sixth birthday. Scared to death, she ran off stage, only to be greeted by an irate Sambasiva Iyer who scooped her up and put her back onto the stage. He must have had a guilty conscience, because after every time he berated her, he’d lift her up and say to her, “You know why I did that, right? I want you to play well, that’s all.” And then he’d pamper her with balloons, chocolates, lush silk skirts, and everything else a child could want. This performance was followed by many more, with her performing alongside him everywhere he went, with nothing but rave reviews coming her way.
By the time she was thirteen, she was married and moved off to Chennai, but that didn’t stop Sambasiva Iyer from traveling to her home every time she had All India Radio solo concerts. She’d come back home and he used to shower her with praise and gifts. He was so proud of her.
Family duties, however, took over as the years progressed. And thus started a slow fade into oblivion for all but the most knowledgable of musicians. With children and grandchildren by the time she was in her early thirties, and with the death of Sambasiva Iyer, my guru was so busy with family duties, that music became less of a focus for her. She went on a few tours and played numerous recordings for All India Radio, but other than that, her name faded. Eventually, health issues took over, and before I came to her, she had all but stopped playing.
Again, I am so very thankful that my mother learned from this stalwart, because if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had the bhagyam (good fortune) of doing so myself. I had learned from my mother, who was a student of hers, for around 4 years. When we approached Ranganayaki Paatti for classes, she declined initially, citing her various ailments. My grandfather eventually played a recording of my first concert to her, and she said “Wait, is this me? It sounds like me, but it’s not me. Who is this?” That’s the highest praise I could have gotten from her. And she agreed to teach me that day!
And what a condition – at that point, she was on a walker, barely getting up from her bed. As the years passed, she was eventually bedridden. The Parkinson’s took its toll, as her jaw and hands wavered uncontrollably even when sitting idly. Even then, despite the difficulties of her everyday life, she agreed to teach me. The pure joy I felt when she agreed to teach me, and the pure joy I got every day with her afterward, is bittersweet now.
On the first day, we went, lifted her up to a sitting position and then handed her a veena from her closet, untouched for years on end. She assigned one veena for me too. After cleaning the two, I started learning my first song from her – Padavini. But in the middle, she stopped, and asked to try again the next day. The first year was hard, as she was unsure if she could continue to teach me. But by the end of that summer, in 2007, she told me to come back from America the following year.
From then on, it seemed that I would be fated to have a completely different training style from her – where she had taken months to master a song, I would learn a couple of songs every day. And, of course, I made mistakes, Whereas she had received physical reinforcement in the form of raps on her wrist when she made mistakes, I received a “Mm?” And a sweet, toothless smile. How I miss that smile today.
None of us spoke about it openly, but every year was a race against time, to soak up everything she had before the inevitable happened. In between those intense summers of lessons in Chennai, I listened to her old recordings, trying to imbibe her style. Some things struck me
Every note and every line of every song in every recording rings true – that’s her mark. Purity of sound, “Gundu” (fat) notes in every strum, pure music. A bani focused on quality over everything, even at the highest of speeds; veena at its finest. And the thanam – oh, what a thanam! At 86, with Parkinson’s, tumors in her stomach, bedridden, with stiff legs, uncontrollably shaking hands, her fingers would still dish out the most amazing thanam! Pure magic!
I miss everything about her. I remember the stiffness of her legs, her quivering mouth, her shaking hands, her long, bony, beautiful, yet uncontrolled finger movements, her every sigh, and her quiet chuckle. I owe her so much and it’s impossible to put into words what I have received from her.
This is but a sliver of the story I have crafted with her, and it’s sad that the story could not have been longer. Had I started earlier, had she continued playing, this story could have been much different. But stories are written in Indian ink, not pencil. They are as permanent as the inevitable itself, and I have to live with that.
As her student, and as a student of her student, I hold a responsibility to her – my guru – and her bani to see to it that the slow decline of the veena is turned around; to make it my life’s work to be a torchbearer for the incredible blessing that is my musical training, the instillation of the Karaikkudi bani in me.
I will do it for her – she who gave me everything when her body and mind didn’t cooperate, she who affectionately made a student into a musician, a mere boy into something more. I am indebted to her, as is the world for her music. I will always remember her as the kindest, gentlest soul to have graced the earth with her presence.
I love you, Ranganayaki paatti. I always will.
Ranganayaki Rajagopalan (3 May 1932-20 September 2018).
Guhan Venkataraman, a second year Ph.D. student at Stanford University, USA, is a vainika of the Karaikudi parampara. He started learning veena from his mother Smt. Lakshmi Venkataraman at age 8, and continued his discipleship under Kalaimamani Smt. Ranganayaki Rajagopalan (herself a direct disciple of the legendary Karaikudi Sri. Sambasiva Iyer). He continues to enlarge and refine his scholarship and repertoire under the tutelage of Sri R. K. Shriramkumar and Delhi Sri P. Sunder Rajan.
Ever so often I’m caught off guard by a question posed by my child. It has the quality of a zap to my system – like that of a rusty car battery being jump started out of its cold slumber. This was one of those moments.
Coming off of a hectic few weeks spent witnessing my father-in-law’s slow and steady decline in general health, and his subsequent passing, had left us all dealing – or trying our best to deal – with a whiplash of emotions. The one thing we all agreed upon was that nothing ever prepares you for the absence of a loved one. So when confronted with this question, “Amma, is Thatha a ghost now?” my mind stuttered to a halt, while it tried to figure out how to formulate an answer. Sensing there was more to the question, I resorted to the time-honored trick of parenting, and answered her question with a question of my own. “What gave you that idea?” I asked her, trying to buy time. My 6 year old pointed to the wall where her Pati’s (grandmother) picture hung with a garland draped over its edge. “You said he is now with God, but I don’t see him there,” she responded.
A young child’s mind is inventive, curious and eternally imaginative, but they also take things literally. This was ample proof of that fact. She understood that when people die, their heart stops. This much was clear. She had been told that they are with God after this moment. And she almost always saw their pictures hanging on walls and home shrines – so she was sure they were with the Gods. Simple. Elementary. When she came to pay her last respects to her grandfather, I saw her pause, unprepared for the sight of her Thatha laid out on a straw mat, as the priest did the needful. And I remember thinking how woefully inept the human condition is at dealing with death. Because despite having attended several final viewings and funerals, I was having a hard time of it myself.
Condolence messages came in a variety of flavors – “He had a full life… and a good death,” “At least he did not suffer,” “Oh he lived to a ripe old age…”. There were the quiz style delivery of questions, designed to extract every little factoid and nugget of detail leading up to his last breath. Then there were those who offered comfort without uttering a single word – just by their presence alone. All of them were well intentioned.
For those like us, Non Resident Indians (NRIs), there is one phone call we dread receiving – that of a parent who is critically ill, or worse. The memory of one such call when my mother-in-law passed is still fresh in my mind. I kept reminding myself that we were fortunate to have had some time with my father-in-law during his final weeks. We were able to offer marginal comfort through our presence, and help in whatever little way we could. He enjoyed the antics of his grand daughter and great grandsons. I am sure that brought him joy. In this, we were truly blessed.
The role of rituals:
An individual’s passing does two things to those they leave behind. It renders them numb to most emotions. And it also leaves them with a void that seems impossible to fill. This is the juncture where rituals take center stage. In almost all the cultures of the world, death rituals are an important part of life. I suspect they have been devised to keep the living firmly rooted in the present. We began the rituals almost immediately under the guidance of the priest. And they lasted 13 days. Metaphysical facts and beliefs aside, they served the unquestioned purpose of bringing a family, and a community together. Most forgot their differences and joined us. Others were present on the fringes, but were nevertheless there. Death was indeed the ‘Great Leveler.’
Once the communal meal on the 13th day was done, our immediate family gathered to reminisce about the lives of two individuals who were deeply mourned. It was our own version of a memorial service. A family elder suggested we eulogize the parents who had given so much to see us all happy and content as we were today. And so we did just that. Remembered. Laughed. Cried. And most importantly – found strength in each other. To my mind, this was the single most cathartic ritual we experienced since that fateful Sunday morning when death came calling at our door. It was needed. It was welcomed. And we were all the better for having shared in its unified strength.
But once this was done, I was left searching for a way to help my child deal with her sense of the events. In her young life, she had interacted with her grandfather on her annual visits to India. Aside from this, their tenuous bond was established through gadgets; iPads, WhatsApp, FaceTime… and others of their ilk. There was no question that he was part of what she considered her family unit. And as such, she did feel his loss. Equating his suddenly empty home with the lack of his physical presence, she was trying to express her loss through her limited vocabulary. Her favorite question being ‘Why’?! “Why did he have to die Amma?”, was followed by “Is he with Pati now?” And then came the one I knew was waiting its turn. “Will you die one day and leave me behind?” I must admit that one took my insides on a cringe-worthy roller coaster ride.
So I was back to the pressing question – how do I help my little girl deal with loss? Or is it better to shelter a child from such truths?
Dr. Ujwala Agharkar – Child Psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente, Fremont – cautions parents against shielding children from loss. “Sometimes adults, parents, do not want to talk about it, in the interest of protecting their children. Often it is because they have to internalize and come to terms with their own loss”, she says. She has found that while it is good to present a strong example in the face of grief, there is no need to appear stoic at all times. This is true especially of men. “It is normal, and totally acceptable to model vulnerability. Our kids should see and understand our soft spots! They will also understand that no matter what you go through, you will be there for them,” says Dr. Agharkar. Letting children know that you can handle things together, with mutual help and consideration is the best way to deal with such situations.
Having said this, Dr. Agharkar admits you cannot generalize dealing with grief. “With children, you have to take their individual mental development into consideration first and foremost. The quality of their relationship with their departed loved one is also important,” she states. Oftentimes,children can present behavioral problems when they are not able to deal with their emotions. Such problems vary from pretending nothing has happened, withdrawing from social contact, or emotional upheavals and defiance. While it is not possible to generalize, working through grief and loss is different with younger children. A child of six for example, has no abstract concept of a ‘soul.’ To them, this is not a tangible idea and they cannot visualize it. In the absence of a gravesite, younger children need more of a concrete physical form – like a picture on the wall or shrine – to help with their healing, in addition to talking them through their emotions.
Just as rituals, religious or otherwise, help adults deal with death and grief, formulating a set of rituals with a younger child gives them something tangible to relate to.
The Memory Box:
Turning to the all-knowing Google Gods, I found a wonderful resource in my search for ideas on coming up with my own version of rituals to help my child. Titled “The Memory Box” – A book about grief, it is written by Joanna Rowland who is a kindergarten teacher and children’s book author. The book is beautifully illustrated by Thea Baker who is known internationally as a children’s illustrator.
The story line revolves around a little girl who loses her favorite red balloon while walking in a park, and this event reminds her that nothing can compare to the a recent loss of someone she loves. Detailing her sadness and emotions, she takes us through the many ways she tries to hold on to her memories by making a Memory Box, filling it with sand and sea shells from a favorite beach, pictures from trips, and collecting memories from family and friends to add to her own. In addition to helping her come to terms with her loss, it also helps her make peace with a fear that she might one day in the future, forget her loved one. The Memory Box gives her a tangible sense of holding on to her memories. And this helps her heal and grow.
My daughter has been keenly aware of the loss of her grandfather with the recent festival season. As a mark of respect to the departed, we refrained from celebrating Dussera and Diwali this year. It is our period of mourning. Instead, we started to work on our Memory Box. Naturally, she kept up an unending stream of questions as we began our project. But I gently introduced her to the idea that maybe we should consider her grandparents as ‘spirits‘ now. It is our memories that keep them alive in our hearts and minds. And since she still believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, maybe it is ok to let her associate the word ‘ghost‘ with the ones we see during Halloween.
At least until I have a better answer to her more esoteric questions about life and death.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.
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In early September, I joined my husband as he went back to his village in Palakkad, Kerala, after a ten year hiatus. He had grown up in Palakkad in a large joint family with his grandmother, mother, brother and sisters along with several uncles, aunts and cousins, with about twenty five family members under one roof. His grandmother’s home looked exactly as it did over fifty years ago. The kitchen had seen a makeover, but if the walls could speak, they would tell stories of the people who lived there—sons, daughters, cousins, grandchildren, marriages, births and deaths, celebrations and feasts all held under the watchful eye of his grandmother, the benevolent family matriarch. Her integrity and strength were the foundation on which this home had been built and sustained.
The village consisted of some 100 plus row houses with clay tile roofs arrayed on the sides of a single road. The library was situated across the road from his ancestral home; the village pond was sure to fill up during the monsoons, and there were two temples at walking distance. My husband had spent many hours in that small library, reading all that he could lay hands on.
As we were walking to his aunt’s house, a man with a toothless, smiling face walked towards us. He looked like he had jumped out of the pages of R.K Narayan’s Malgudi Days. This tall thin man with thick glasses, had a large man bun right on top of his conical head. His bare chest was disproportionate to his large tummy, and a white dhoti was tied around his small waist. “This is Ramu” my husband said, a.k.a. “Kozhimuttai Ramu” as he was affectionately called by everyone in the village. “Kozhimuttai” literally translates into a hen’s egg. “Without him, I wouldn’t have passed my GRE exams and made it to America,” my husband reminiscenced. “He was the head of the library, and he had the power to either let me in, or keep me out—from Western novels to Wilbur Smith, from Perry Masons and Robert Ludlums to stacks of Reader’s Digests, encyclopedias and more, it was he who gave me the access.” Thank You Mr. Ramu for helping this man dream big, even as he grew up in this small village, I thought to myself.
Then there was Nallepilly Ayappan, who lived an hour away. He was a homeopathic doctor who treated children with issues from malnutrition to manic depression. He took time to share his extensive library of books and was full of interesting insights that made an impact on a teenager, eager for a sense of direction. His home had served as a quiet getaway. As I stood in Ayyappan’s backyard looking at the papaya and jackfruit trees, hibiscus and pumpkin trails, he told me, “write about the panikoorka plants, they have so much healing power.”
So, this Thanksgiving, who are the Ramus and Ayyappans that have impacted your life in myriad ways? Who would you want to call or write and say two special words—Yours Thankfully!
As you think about who you plan to reach out to, here are some interesting recipes with papayas, jackfruit and pumpkin for your Thanksgiving meal.
Ripe Papaya, Avocado, Cherry
1 medium ripe papaya seeded and
1 avocado peeled, seeded and cubed
10 yellow cherry tomatoes halved
1 Persian cucumber sliced
1 green chill minced
1 teaspoon ginger
1 lime juice
1 teaspoon chaat masala powder
Salt and black pepper to taste
Whisk the ingredients in the dressing together and reserve it in a small bowl. Place the papaya cubes, tomatoes, avocado, chili and cucumber in a large serving bowl and refrigerate it. Right before serving, mix in the dressing and adjust the seasonings to taste.
Jackfruit and Pumpkin Chili
This is an interesting recipe that requires a good quality root beer. This is a recipe that meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans can enjoy.
1 can green jackfruit, drained, washed
½ can pumpkin puree
1 tablespoon oil
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large red onion minced
1 tablespoon ginger garlic paste
3 tomatoes chopped fine
2 green chilies minced
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
½ teaspoon cayenne
Salt to taste
1 cup root beer
¼ cup water
Garnish: Cilantro chopped and sour cream (optional for vegans)
Heat oil in a large sauce pan and add the clove, cinnamon stick, cumin seeds and bay leaf. Add ginger garlic paste and minced onion and sauté till brown. Then add the tomatoes, green chili, turmeric, garam masala powder, coriander powder and salt to taste. Add the jackfruit and cook for 2-3 minutes with a little water. Once the jackfruit is soft and cooked, add the root beer and pumpkin puree and let it stew for another 10 minutes on low heat. Check and adjust seasonings. Serve hot with chopped cilantro and a dollop of sour cream.
Spicy Papaya, Pineapple Sangria
This is a great drink for the early afternoon before the Thanksgiving meal. The serrano can make it too spicy if you leave it for too long. If you can find edible dry hibiscus flower you can cook it in the simple syrup and add it to the sangria. It gives it a sweet flower taste.
½ cup sugar
¼ cup water
1 bottle white wine (like Riesling)
1 ripe papaya chopped
1 cup ripe pineapple chopped
1 serrano chili slit
Basil leaves for garnish
Heat the sugar and water and make it into a simple syrup. Place the chopped papaya and pineapple in a large serving pitcher. Add the white wine and simple syrup and mix. Add the serrano chili and refrigerate for a few hours. Remove the serrano in an hour if you don’t want it spicy. It gets spicier as you steep it longer. Serve cold with ice cubes and basil leaves. n
Praba Iyer is a chef instructor, food writer and a judge for cooking contests. She specializes in team building classes through cooking for tech companies in the Bay Area. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in November 2017.
Biryani is a labor of love. It needs time and attention, which is why I consider it a weekend meal. When you finally open the tight lid and the aroma releases, you will find it worth all the effort.
There are numerous versions of chicken biryani found in Indian cuisine. Kolkata chicken biryani is probably the only one that has big chunks of potatoes in it. Clearly, this shows the Bengalis’ love for potatoes. The story goes that several years back, when biryani was prepared for the king and his friends, the cook ran short of chicken and he added potatoes to increase the volume. Although the chef was worried, it turns out that everybody really liked the extra carb and the new twist. Since then, adding potatoes in biryani became a norm in Kolkata. Whether the story is true or not, meat and potato is always a great combination.
Key Notes: I prefer to prepare biryani with bone-in chicken pieces, because it keeps the meat moist without the risk of overcooking and drying out the chicken. However, you can always go for boneless too. If you choose boneless, then you have to be careful of the cooking time, as it will cook much faster than the time I call for in the recipe directions.
1 tbsp (10 g) cumin seeds
1 tbsp (10 g) coriander seeds
½ tsp black peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks, divided
5 green cardamom pods, divided
3 bay leaves, divided
1 lb (500 g) chicken pieces
1 tbsp (10 g) grated garlic
1 tbsp (8 g) grated ginger
⅓ cup (82 g) thick yogurt
1 tbsp (15 g) salt, divided
⅓ cup (79 ml) milk
½ tsp saffron threads
1 cup (211 g) long-grain basmati rice
2 red onions
Oil, for deep-frying
2 tbsp (30 ml) vegetable oil
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
2 tbsp (29 g) ghee, divided
1 star anise
1½ cups (355 ml) water
1 tbsp (15 ml) rosewater (optional)
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
Place a pan over medium heat and add the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black pepper, 1 of the cinnamon sticks, 3 of the green cardamom pods, 2 of the bay leaves and the mace. Dry roast for a few seconds, and then let the spices cool for a while before grinding to a fine powder.
Place the chicken pieces in a bowl and add half of the ground spice mix, then add the garlic, ginger, yogurt and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Mix everything together and let the chicken marinate for at least 4 hours. Keeping it overnight will enhance the flavor even more.
Pour the milk into a bowl and crush the saffron threads into it. Stir and let the milk infuse for 5 minutes.
Wash the rice several times under running water. This will remove the excess starch. Then leave the washed rice in the colander for about 15 minutes for any excess water to drain out.
Peel the onions and thinly slice them. Half of the sliced onions will be deep-fried and the other half will be used in cooking the chicken.
Place a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and pour in enough oil to reach a depth of
2 inches (5 cm). Place a kitchen towel on a plate and keep it ready for the fried onions. Once the oil reaches between 325°F and 350°F (163°C and 177°C), add the sliced onion carefully and stir every now and then so the onion gets golden brown evenly. Once the onions turn light golden brown, remove from the hot oil and place on the kitchen towel.
To prepare the chicken, place another heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat and add in the
vegetable oil. When the oil heats up, add the quartered potatoes and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt. Fry for 5 minutes, tossing and turning. Transfer the potatoes to a separate bowl.
To the same pan, add the remaining sliced onion, sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt and cook the onion for about 4 minutes, or until softened. Then add the marinated chicken and cook for 10 minutes, tossing and turning every now and then. Turn off the heat once the chicken is partially cooked.
Place another heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of the ghee. Once it heats up, add the remaining 1 cinnamon stick, remaining 1 bay leaf, remaining 2 cardamom pods, cloves and star anise. Allow the spices to sizzle for a while and then add the washed rice. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt and stir the rice. Let the rice roast for a couple of minutes, then pour in the water. Let the rice cook for 15 minutes or until it’s half cooked.
Now finally, to prepare the biryani, preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C) and grease a large ceramic ovenproof bowl with some ghee. Layer half of the partially cooked chicken, and top it with half of the partially cooked rice. Arrange half of the fried potatoes by pushing them down a little. Add half of the fried onions evenly on top and add ½ tablespoon (7 g) of the ghee, half of the rosewater and half of the saffron milk. Repeat with the remaining chicken, rice, potato, fried onion, ghee, rosewater and saffron milk.
Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes or until the rice and chicken are cooked through. Just before serving, top it with the sliced egg and enjoy while it is still warm.
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