Genetics (& A Pep Talk)

Twenty-Twenty has been a year of forgotten dreams and lost intentions. A year of stasis, and moments of deep grief in wells of unexpected sadness.

This weekend we lost an incredible leader. While I won’t hold her up as a paragon of perfection, Ruth Bader Ginsberg stood at the vanguard of fights to provide women in this country more agency and autonomy then they had ever had before. However, it is so hard to talk about the importance of her work, without acknowledging how her life was, for many, a tenuous thread holding a web of wavering hopes together.

Image of RBG at a candlelight vigil.
On September 19, while many gathered in front of courthouses around the country, I held a very small vigil outside my home. As safe as it may have been, my fears around COVID held me back from going to stand in front of the Supreme Court.

If there is one thing I’ve tried to cling to in this hellscape of year, it is that glass-half-full perception that I define my life by. And as frustrated as I have become with the world, and my personal circumstances, I am searching, constantly, for beacons to offset the fear.

And so, I wanted to write about life—not death.

Continue reading “Genetics (& A Pep Talk)”

Outside the Box: Strong Female Characters and Moving Out

Quick post before I head out on vacation for the rest of the week. In the last month I’ve been busy working on two different blog posts. The first was personal about big life changes, while the second took a look at some of my interests outside history (namely my love of reading). So here are the two links. I’m working on a few more posts before I head out to the 2011 National Preservation Conference in Buffalo at the end of October.

My first blog was for the Smithsonian Homespun Project where I talked about the act of Moving Out.  Not an easy thing to do, but something that forces you to think about your past, present, and future. Check out You Can Take it With You  here.

In a slight departure from my normal blog writing I recently wrote a post for a blog called Fangirl.  In the post I try to look at what makes a up a strong female character. By no means a definitive recipe for success it was a great exercise in thinking about why I’m drawn to some books over others, and how dynamic and interesting female characters can be. Read my take on The Anatomy of a Strong Female Character on

Come As You Are: Maximum India on Homespun

Suspended from the ceiling
A map filled with arts
Dancing over a wheel, a chakra
Calling for virtue from the people.

And at the crowded, energetic stage
Sounds of Rajasthan flow into the melody of the violin

Embrace the dance styling of Punjabi rhythm
Din. Dinaka. Din Din. Dinaka. Din Din.

The art, the dance, the music, the film
All merge together amidst the written word
Imagining the city, embracing the politics
Tagore debates Gandhi
Margins and Majority on the silver screen

India is more than just the sum of its arts
More than a saffron-colored sari, or an exotic smell
But for a short while there is a glimpse,
An attempt to encompass, to gather, to embrace
India at the Max.
Maximum India.

I recently spent the first part of March attending a bunch of events for Maximum India. Today I published a review at the Smithsonian Homespun blog. Unlike the literature panel I wrote about last week, this time I tried to take a broader view of the entire festival as a whole–looking at the music, art, dance and what it told us about India and identity. So stop by the Homespun blog–if you saw part of the festival, let us know what you thought.

Pushing Language Towards the Joyful

I am maxed out.

For the last twenty days the Kennedy Center in Washington DC has put on a vision of India. A vision filled with art, music, politics, literature–a vision filled with noise and texture and soul. Maximum India looked to grasp an idea of Indian culture and bring it to the United States. On Friday I attended my last event (though the last of the festival will be a free performance by Panjabi MC) a literature panel with Salman Rushdie and Nayantara Sahgal.  The first is the author of Midnight’s Children (an RPSNE book club book) and is known for his incredible use of the English language, while Sahgal, an author in her own right, is known for setting her books against the backdrop of change in the South Asian subcontinent–in addition to being the niece of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Ahdaf Soueif, a political and cultural commentator, moderated the panel.

So the discussion kicked off with a question to each of the panelists about why their work in literature is suffused with discussions of politics. The short answer? Writing is a form of resistance. That the written word proves that identity is not a collection of stereotypes, but rather what you want it to be. Each looked to their generation, Saghal of the revolutionary, and Rushdie from a transitional India, and found separating what happened around them from what happened at home was unfathomable. For both writing involved an element of the public and the private –and that the only way to make sense of change, to reconcile that change with the vision of India the republic, one had to integrate narratives from the personal and political.

Sometimes dealing with current events, sometimes a lively exercise in humor this lecture touched upon some serious ideas. I was drawn to, as I usually am, to the conversation about language. Rushdie, after being complimented on his lack of “respect” for the English language and his ability to embrace its malleability, spoke of how this malleability makes writing about India in English possible. That he had to find a way to break down the “cool, quiet, formal” English of the British Raj to be compatible with the “hot, noisy cacophony” of languages from India. He said that he wanted to “take English away from the English.”

He wants to push language towards the joyful. Hear. Hear.

This thought, amidst the many other topics from this lecture, inspires me. The way we speak to one another, the way we articulate reactions and actions on the familial, local, regional, national and global stage says much about who you are, who we are, who I am.  That politics and literature define these identities and often are linked together to tell the stories that official history neglects to tell.

Naturally, this part of the conversation led to the question re: who owns the narrative? Who owns the past? What perspective is the most valid? A subject near and dear to every historians heart–and it is acknowledged that the closer you are to the event/situation the harder it is to see beyond your blinders. Writing in the moment has some value, but taking a step back (that is an act of time mores so than a physical taking a step back) can bring details into focus that you wouldn’t see otherwise.

An obvious assertion, one that I’ve heard a few times in a few different places. Distance and time bring truths closer to the one reality. For literature that is deeply rooted in the larger public narrative of the place in which it is set, that distance and time makes a story stronger, more reliable, more resonant….

More Joyful.

Go Go Goa….and Endings

The third part of my trip involved a long needed vacation within my vacation. At this point my sisters and I had shopped for six days straight and it was time to kick up our feet. So we traveled (a quick 1 hour flight) to South Goa, but because it was right before the start of peak season everything was fairly quiet…so we took it in stride and did a whole lot of nothing.

First, let’s clear  up some confusion. Before deciding to go on this trip I had concocted a vision of Goa—one smallish city filled with sandy beaches as far as the eye can see. I was half right. One side of Goa is covered with beaches, but it is actually a small state in India with many localities. An allusion to the state’s history can be seen in the name of its largest city “Vasco de Gama.” While the area has an ancient history, it was colonized by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century and was annexed by the Indian government in 1961. Consequently, this state is filled with historical sites that range from the ancient to the modern.

Here are a few of the places we traveled to during our stay:

Vargota Beach: The infamous rocky beach. The pictures speak for themselves.

Fort Aguada: Built in the sixteenth century, the fort was meant as a way to guard the Portuguese from attacks by sea. While the lower part of the fort is now a beach resort, the upper part provided some awesome vistas.

Bom Jesus Basilica: A World Heritage Site, this basilica is also the site of Saint Francis Xavier’s body. A friend of Ignatius Loyola, Xavier was also a co-founder of the Jesuits. I couldn’t get any pictures of the actual casket (and couldn’t see the body), but from others who have seen it before its apparently extra creepy.

Food, Glorious Food

In general, I eat a lot of home cooked Indian food when I go to Mumbai, mostly due to our tendency to succumb to what my cousins’ call the “weak American stomach.”  So most days our meal includes the traditional Indian meal, with slight twists that depend on the house we are eating at. This consists of what I call Dhal, Bhat, Rotli, Shak (so Lentils, Rice, Bread, and Vegetable). When we ate out the food included South Indian Dosa’s and Uttapum–and some delicious butter chicken/tandoori and some food in the non-Indian variety. For anyone heading out to Mumbai here are some suggestions:

American Continental: Just Around the Corner (Mumbai–Andheri)

Chinese: China House, Mainland China (Mumbai: Bandra)

In Goa (at the “shacks”): Zeebop, Brittos, Martin’s Corner

The Homestretch

The last three days here were filled with the usual end of vacation running around, but first let’s talk about the verdict. Here in the United States, the one verdict that I remember EVERYONE paying attention to was the OJ Simpson trial.  That was a verdict filled with racial tension and class tension. This was not that kind of verdict.  One week before we were supposed to leave the High Court in India was to give the verdict in the Babri Masjid Case, a sixty year old dispute between Muslims and Hindus that involved the destruction of a Mosque on what Hindu’s believe is the holy birthplace of Lord Rama. I won’t go into detail about the actual case, just that the verdict has been long anticipated, and will probably still go up to the Indian Supreme Court before it is laid to rest.  In talking about what might happen family members reminisced about the riots in the 1990s, when it was too dangerous to even step outside the home. The insanity and the fear, and the worry that the decision in this case might launch the city and the country into another round of craziness.

Postponed to the day before we had to leave, the good news is that the verdict, coming from three different judges, divided the land into three parts for the three disputing parties (1/3 to the Hindus, 1/3 to the Muslims, 1/3 to the wrestling group that used to have property on the land) fair and even. However, since the tension was palatable–you could almost sense the city and the country breathing in relief as the decision was read. And so…business went on as usual.

And by usual I mean last minute visits to relatives, collecting clothing post-alteration, and my favorite activity whenever I visit the other city that never sleeps–bangle shopping! Like fabric shopping the rows and rows of colorful bangles provide so much potential for pretty, and is also a highly valued art form. You walk in, give your price point and the bangle vendors put the set’s together according to the outfit’s they match up with. Super fun. Check out this video at Priya Bangles (Yes, I do think its funny that the store has the same name as me).

My trip ended in the same way it progressed, with a mad rush. My cousin got stuck in traffic so I ended up going to the airport three hours before I needed to for a 1:45 am flight. I ended up getting into a great conversation about World Cup Soccer and American Sports with a South African-Indian family (4th generation South African, whose history in South Africa began with indentured servitude for the British).  I also got to take a quick break in London (six hour layover) to visit some cousins for breakfast (Giraffe in Richmond–two thumbs up).

Back to the story. I did learn something about my family while I was in India. My grandmother told me about her father and how he made his way up in the world–taking care of everyone around him and how to this day his name is respected. I also learned that my family is full of singers, and are talented in many, many, ways that I never expected.  It was a great three weeks–and I came away with more than just clothes. I came back full of memories.

Click here to view the full photo album from the trip.

A Mountain Retreat (with Sari shopping, a Movie and a Play)

One of the great things about India is that it is a place you have to experience. I can describe how we get from one place to another—squeezing into a rickshaw in damp heat, or the terror I have in crossing the street—especially when cars don’t maintain lanes…but it’s not the same as being here. However, the last few days have been a hodgepodge of new experiences, though I will report that I am no closer to getting information out of my grandmother than I was five days ago despite having an excellent birthday party, with some amazing images from her past, present and future (great-grand kids who are absolutely adorable).

Baar baar din ye aaye, baar baar dil ye gaaye
Tu jiye hazaaron saal, ye meri hai aarzoo
Happy Birthday to you

Time And Again, Let This Day Return, Time And Again Let The Heart Sing This
May You Live Thousands Of Years, This Is My Wish
Happy Birthday to you

From Faarz (1967)|Listen to the song here|

The birthday celebrations launched with a trip to Khandala—a mountain retreat about an hour outside of Mumbai. The gaggle of family members that came with me (21 in all) ranged from 80 to 3. It included uncles, aunts, cousins, cousin-in-law’s who came from India and the UAE. Aside from the general family revelry (who doesn’t love 21 people in a room with a Karaoke machine) we visited some waterfalls and had exciting encounters with crabs. The one in the picture here is one that decided it lived in my cousin’s toilet—and sometime in the night crawled out to visit.

That being said, Khandala was beautiful. A tad cooler than the city, it boasted amazing view shed’s of lush greenery, though due to low rainfall the waterfalls had been reduced to a trickle. At one point we found ourselves driving up the windy roadway engulfed in a fog bank, unable to see more than a foot in front or behind. Then there were the monkey’s that hung out on the expressway as we took pictures of the Duke’s nose on our way home.

Silky Saris and Other Shopping Fun

After our trip the shopping for the wedding began in earnest. Its hard to explain the magic of a sari shop which holds rows upon rows of the six yard long garment in varying prices, sizes, and fabrics. Some come in dual tone with nothing but embroidery while others are filled with jari (translation lots and lots of beading and stones, almost like someone ran a muck with a beadazzler). When you step into a shop you sit in front of a table and give one of two things—a price point or a description of what you are looking for. Then the sales clerks pull out product after product trying to gauge your reaction. The fun in all this is seeing the flashing color swirl around you olive greens, deep purples, pinks and lavenders, oranges and blues (sometimes on the same garment) while checking out how the blouse piece contrasts with the actual sari. Then once you decide on the color you have to remember to take a a critical eye to the “palu” the end of the garment that drapes down your back (or in front depending on how you drape the fabric—trust me, there are many, many ways). Click here for a video of how we try on Saris at the store (starring my sister).

Another way that we shop is to take older sari’s of my mothers and take it to a tailor who transforms them into gaghra choli’s (basically a blouse/skirt/scarf) or a punjabi suit (a long top with pants). In order to get those made you have to buy lining which involves a whole other type of shopping—as seen here. I know that fabric shops exist in the United States but the process of making and buying clothes here is a full-service one that uses a different set of skills than one usually uses.

Bollywood & Kaanji

I’m not going to lie. We didn’t spend all our time inside stores, ogling clothing. When we first got back from Khandala we went to see a Hindi movie called Dabaang (Fearless). It stars Salmaan Kahn, an actor who I don’t particularly like but was what we call a timepass movie. Turn off your brain and enjoy….the colors, the fights (which were a combination of Kill Bill and Matrix style feats and acrobatics). Not to mention the song and dance numbers which I still can’t get out of my head. (Click on the link for a music video).

Then on Viserajan— we decided to brave the crowds to go see my cousin’s husband in a Gujarati play, something we’ve always wanted to do but have never had the chance. I know I mentioned earlier that I don’t have a firm grasp on either Hindi or Gujarati, something I always vow to fix, but I was amazed at how much I understood. Entitled Kaanji versus Kaanji (Kaanji being another name for Lord Krishna)it was essentially an adapted piece about a man who loses his lively hood due to an earthquake (“an act of God”)  and upon being turned down for insurance decides to sue god.

It was fantastic. I’m not saying this just because my cousin was in it, but it was funny, serious, and meaningful all at the same time. It dealt with issues of spirituality, ritual, and made some cutting observations about the practice of Hinduism in the modern (and digital) age.

The final part of the play, which dealt with belief, practice, life and death asked the audience to first find god within yourself before looking for him/she/it out in the world.

This is India I suppose, one part spirituality, one part entertainment, and another part full of vivid color and family. A portrait, a rendering of philosophical theory, mixed in with millions of unique stories and lives.

Click here to view more pictures of Khandala and Shopping.

Roots. Roots. Roots. (And Lord Ganesha)

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a first generation Indian-American. My parents came to this country in the 1970s (my dad for graduate school, my mother after marriage). I’ve been back to their country of birth many times in my life, and every time I gain an increased appreciation and love for my extended family and the country in which they live.

No….this is not an Eat. Pray. Love. moment. I’m not going to tell you all of my innermost thoughts about the wonders of India and my life, but I thought I might try and blog every few days about the sights, smells, and sounds of my trip.

We are here for three reasons.

  1. My grandmother is turning eighty years old.
  2. My older sister is getting married, so naturally we are doing a little shopping.
  3. A few days of fun in Goa.

The first two are probably the most relevant for this blog—because they have to do with my personal history. Mostly because of a communication barrier, I never really asked my dad’s mom about her life growing up in India or for stories about my father—something that I regret.  And both my grandfathers passed on before I was born/old enough to ask questions. Therefore, one of my missions for the next three weeks is to get my remaining grandmother to talk. It will be tough, since in her words, she has lived eighty years’ so now all there is left to think about is eating well, living well, and having fun.

A Word About Roots

I am an ABD. An American Born Desi. I take out the “C” which stands for confused, because I don’t really believe that is an issue (and for those who don’t know a Desi is another word for someone of South Asian descent). I know where I stand—both as an American and as an individual of Indian heritage. That being said, I don’t have family that came over on the Mayflower (or the Susan Constant), or a relative that fought in the Civil War. Both sets of grandparents lived during the time of Mahatma Gandhi and Partition—both things that shaped the way my parents grew up, and consequently the way I was raised.

11 Days of Lord Ganesha

Mumbai is in full on celebratory mode. For ten days India, especially the State of Maharashtra, celebrates the birth of Lord Ganesha (otherwise known to some as the Elephant god).

A quick interlude:

Here is a one sentence crash course on Hinduism (as I see it). Hinduism is a monotheistic religion. There is one god, fathomless and infinite. In order for humans to recognize the unfathomable, God—known as Brahman is qualified into three deities—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. These three—the Trimurti (representing the creator, maintainer/preserver, destroyer) are further broken into avatars as a means of giving a face and a name to something that is beyond human understanding. Lord Ganesha is the “child” of Lord Shiva and Parvati, and is the god of many things including new beginnings and opportunities.

So for 11 days Hindus, particularly in the State of Maharashtra (where I am) celebrate Lord Ganesha’s birth with ten days of prayer, pomp and revelry (Ganesh Chaturthi), and on the 11th day (Visarjan.)the statues are immersed and returned to the sea/ocean. This symbolizes sending Ganesh back home where he takes the misfortunes of his devotees with him. I wanted to share a few pictures of one of the statues from the city of Pune (above).

It has been an impressive cultural experience with four days filled with songs of devotion and prayer booming from loudspeakers until well past midnight, and loud bursts of fireworks coupled with dancing in the streetsright now a group is playing a flute and drums in a steady, rapid fire beat. (Click on the link to watch a video/hear the music. It is a bit dark, but makes the point).

This is one of the things I love about coming to India every few years. No experience is the same, and aside from touching base with my extended family it is nice to be fully immersed in a world that is in my blood—and is very much a part of my Indian-American life.

Understanding another culture is hard, and while India is a mix between the old and the new, it is a Nation much more complex than what you see in a Bollywood movie. So while investigating my roots, I’m going to sally forth on another one of my missions: to bring a little bit of India to this blog.

As an aside, one interesting note is the environmental impact of this festival (there is some information about it in the article linked above)–how the plaster of Paris that the statues are made of effect the bodies of water in which they are immersed.

Click here to view full album from India.

Finding Passion: 3 Idiots and Up in The Air

For the second of my three movie themed posts this week I thought I would review two movies that are incredibly different in subject matter and scope—but still bear a sort of resonance on a common theme.

3 Idiots is a new movie from Bollywood that follows two college friends (Farhan and Raju) as they try and find the third of their group (Rancho) ten years after graduation. Through flashbacks we learn about their friendship in flashbacks at their college—a place similar to MIT but much more competitive. Like most Indian movies it has its fair share of drama, love and music. That being said it also takes a hard look at the pressures put on Indian kids to follow their parent’s dream rather than their own. It is also a very funny movie.

In stark contrast Up in the Air is a movie, to some extent, about loneliness and the need for human relationships. It follows frequent flier George Clooney as he travels around the country firing people from their jobs. While there are lighthearted moments, the movie is more serious than anything else and is ultimately about taking a hard look at your life and figuring out what is really worth sacrificing happiness for.

The way that the two movies link up is sort of chronological. In 3 Idiots we have three kids struggling to find the career, the job that will make them happy and excited about life. One is an engineering student because he loves it, but is stifled by the pressures of providing for his not-so-rich family (Raju).  The second is, once again, in school because its what is expected of him—but all through the movie you see him taking pictures—something his parents see as a hobby rather than a career (Farhan). The third, Rancho—well his is the role of the eye-opener. The one who can see all the flaws in the system and thinks he has the answers to make everything right. He is the questioner, he is the one who asks why we memorize definitions instead of thinking creatively. He is the one who asks why many students in India are encouraged towards the paths leading toward the most wealth, rather than the career they would be the most inspired. I often joke with my other Indian-American friends that there are only five acceptable careers for kids of Indian decent (Doctor, Lawyer, Finance/Business, Engineering, Dentist). It took some considerable convincing on my part to change my parent’s mind about the validity of being a historian—and I know that a lot of this has to do with the hard work and sacrifice my parents had in coming to this country and making their own way.

The idea of working toward something you love is also dealt with in Up in the Air. In this movie the questioner is Clooney’s character who asks the individuals he is firing what they could do if they could suddenly reinvent their life. He presents being fired as a way to make dreams come true, that now these individuals are free to take those steps they were too afraid or barred from taking earlier in life. Now they are free to take steps towards their passion.  He asks a father to look at his kids, and ask himself if the job he is losing is something that will make them look up to him. (A statement that I don’t necessarily agree with, since it is not what you do that makes your kids look up to you, but how you act and treat others.)

I know neither of these movies necessarily have anything to do with history, but they have to do a lot with the idea of finding your lot in life, your calling. That no matter what stage in life you are it is  not too late to step back and reevaluate what truly makes you happy. For me it is all about finding inspiration around me, and sharing that inspiration with others—and taking what comes next to inform and influence the mind and spirit at the same time.

What about you?