Archive for the ‘India’ Category

#WeNeedDiverseBooksIt’s been a while since I’ve done a Friday round-up, but I’m eager to restart, and this week has been one of plentiful material on the various topics I tend to follow. And I like to share.

Books:
All lists are subjective and incomplete, and often omit entries one feels should be included, but here’s a list of books to add to your To Be Read pile, from the Washington Post’s list of “top 50 books for 2014.”

The cyber-waves were all a flutter over the past couple of days, for good reason, about Daniel Handler’s (a.k.a Lemony Snicket) racist gaffe in his speech at the National Book Award ceremony, wherein he made a crack about Jaqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming, being allergic to watermelons. (Yoinks! Who says such things? I guess we know who.) To his credit, Handler apologized for his comment (which of course he says he meant as a joke) in a very real way: not just words, but a pledge to contribute $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and to match donations for 24 hours up to $100,000. That, folks, is a meaningful apology, although of course it does not erase or excuse the shameful behavior. I hurried over to make a donation.

On the topic of racism, Toni Morrison (swoon) says it like it is, with her trademark perceptiveness and gentle tone, on the Stephen Colbert show. If you don’t already love the woman and her writing, this will convert you. Makes me want to read Beloved all over again. (Thanks to Anjali Enjeti for calling this to my attention. The world should have more Anjalis, methinks.)

And in other Fabulous Author news, Ursula K. Le Guin makes a moving tribute to “writers of the imagination” and to books as art. Do take a look/listen.

Meantime, I just finished Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors, a very powerful book set during the decades long war between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Raw and devastating, it is also sweet and loving. A slim volume, an engrossing read.

Kids’ book club:

The fact that I run a children’s book club has garnered more attention than I ever anticipated. Attention was never what I was seeking. However, I’m glad to have been featured a few months ago in the Boston Globe, to have a piece on Parenting.com on the dos and don’ts of kids’ book clubs, and just today I had fun being interviewed by Barbara Dooley of the Barbara Dooley Show based out of Athens, GA. She wanted to know all about my motivation to start the club, and any advice I have for those wanting to do the same. This month, we are reading Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, which is proving to be a somewhat wacky, incredibly creative and altogether enjoyable read set in Nigeria. How can this urban planner not love a young adult book that mentions, on the first page, the Lagos electricity company?

Urban planning:

Take a peek at Le Corbusier’s legacy in India via this series of photos by Paris-based photographer Manuel Bougot in Chandigarh. A different side of India.

Indian dance:

Here is a heart-warming and powerful story about a young woman with Down Syndrome who put in years of focused study to achieve what is a rite of passage for may Indian girls: the bharatanatyam “arangetram,” a solo performance. “Her father tells the crowd that [Hema] Ramaswamy’s arangetram was more than a dance graduation; it was the day she became, in the eyes of the world, a full individual.” This young woman’s strength and determination are inspiring. Additional photography by Preston Merchant.

Parenting:

This article needs very little description. It’s a spot on, non-blaming, humorously written description of what it means to be the “default” parent—the one who knows the kids’ shoe sizes, the dates of friends’ birthday parties, the location of the favorite barrette (on the floor of the living room behind the arm chair, mental note made at some point in anticipation a getting-ready-for-school meltdown). If you are the default parent, every single line will resonate with you. If you are not, you’ll gain new appreciation for the one who is.

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Train on Wiesener Viadukt, Switzerland. Photo by David Gubler (www.bahnbilder.ch) via Wikimedia Commons

Train on Wiesener Viadukt, Switzerland. Photo by David Gubler (www.bahnbilder.ch) via Wikimedia Commons

(Rather conveniently, as you’ll see below, this was the Photo of the Day on Wikimedia Commons today.)

I’ve been away (on the exquisite shores of Curaçao, in the Dutch Antilles), but in the few days since my return, a few good nuggets have caught my attention:

India and film/photography

First and foremost, this gorgeously shot and completely fascinating film on the Aghori sadhus (holy men) of Varanasi, India. Very timely, as yesterday was the Maha Shivaratri festival celebrating Lord Shiva. Three young men–photographers and filmmakers–spent weeks on the banks of the Ganges among these holy men whose closeness to death, skulls and human ashes makes them both controversial and revered. Put life on hold and do watch this, then also check out these accompanying photos. Thanks to Farhana Huq for calling my attention to these.

Books and photographs

On the subject of photographs, here is another set, with very different subjects. This is what a librarian looks like. Any surprises?

The business of books

I found these statistics, on newspaper book reviews, reviewers and gender, thought provoking. Are female book reviewers likely to skew their reviewing toward women authors? What do you expect?

And while we’re talking of book reviews:
Do we really need negative book reviews? What is the value of criticism that is “unable or unwilling to criticize?” Should one go by the old adage, if you have nothing nice to say…? (via Randy Susan Meyers)

Writing

The world of writers was abuzz last week with Amtrak’s announcement that it is putting together a program of free or low-cost rides for writers wanting to use them as a writing retreat. As both a writer and an infrastructure planner (in a previous life), I was immediately deluged by vivid memories of train rides throughout my life, slicing through European countryside nibbling on butter cookies (edges and corners first) with my parents and brother, stopping in the middle of the night for the passport control in the Alps between France and Switzerland, piling onto the French TGV with classmates and mounds of duffel bags for an eighth grade school trip to the Mediterranean coast, peeing into the hole in the bathroom of the first class car of a train cutting through the dusty middle of India and watching the clankety tracks whizz by underneath, spilling apple juice all over my copy of Watership Down at the age of 11 as a train leaned into a curve, climbing up into the hills north of Tokyo among the cherry blossoms and mineral-green waterfalls in the Shikansen with my three year old’s head, heavy with sleep, cutting off the circulation in my thigh.

Needless to say, trains conjure up memories, descriptions, feelings of excitement, new ideas. What better location to sit and write? I’ll be following Amtrak’s program with much interest.

India and infrastructure

Google Maps has announced the availability of Street View and See Inside in India. There’s a slight creepiness to the fact that one can clearly see the people who happened to be at those spots when the pictures were taken, but at least a reasonable effort has been made to blur their faces. From a research standpoint, this ability to view specific locations is very useful. One can get an accurate sense, for example, of how far one can see from the rooftop of the Jaisalmer fort (click on the little yellow figure on the bottom right for the dots to appear that represent areas you can explore). Or how the shadows lengthen across a certain courtyard at sunset.

And now I want to get on a train and leave frigid Massachusetts and its dirt-encrusted snow for Rajasthan.

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Mithila painters. Photo by Abhishek Singh, via Wikimedia Commons

Mithila painters. Photo by Abhishek Singh, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m adding in some categories that weren’t here last week, mixing it up a bit, although many are related and overlapping. Happy perusing this weekend.

Storytelling

This one is hard to categorize, but I’ll use “storytelling” because it will suck you in. A beautiful and astonishing piece on exorcising the “hungry ghosts” after the 2011 tsunami in Japan. (Via author Ruth Ozeki who, I have to point out since I’ve been scrutinizing author photos recently, has a fantastic photo of herself on her site.)

Writing. But also filmmaking, and women.

Picking up on Dodai Stewart’s declaration on Jezebel that 2013 was “a great year for women over 40” in film and television, Bloom contributor Vicraj Gill continues with some great links about the negative impact that age can have on a writer’s prospects (and the advantages of ebooks and social media in that respect), the reasons for which publication shouldn’t be the sole differentiation between “writer” and “non-writer”, and more.

Writing–craft and business

Grub Street Writers has posted a preview of its offerings this year’s The Muse & the Marketplace conference, taking place in Boston May 1st through 3rd. I highly, highly recommend attending this conference. The caliber of the workshops, the quality of the services, the camaraderie, the opportunities for networking have all served me greatly over the past seven years since I first attended. (And this year, I get to be one of the presenters!)

India

Professor Veena Talwar Oldenberg, author of one of my bibles of research for my work in progress, narrates this entertaining story relating to mass sterilization efforts in India in the 70s. (Men might want to skip the minimally graphic yet still squirm-inducing drawing of a vasectomy at the start of the article.) And yes, the story is entertaining for the humor with which it is told. But a lot of people were far from entertained. Let’s not forget that.

Art, and South Asia

At the end of February, Syracuse University is presenting a symposium devoted to South Asian folk art traditions around the world. Watch a compelling video about Rani Jha, master painter and teacher at the Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani, whose inner fire is apparent under her calm and thoughtful demeanor.

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The walls of old Delhi

The walls of old Delhi. Via Wikimedia Commons

 

New year, new feature: the Friday Round-up. Below are some features that I found noteworthy over the past week of so (although not necessarily dated within the past week). Filed under some of the rubrics that tend to garner my attention. Morsels for the mind and soul.

Art (Photography)

A while ago I discovered Tasveer Journal, an online magazine for photography in India and elsewhere, and I was struck by many of the collections and articles it features. For example: spend some time with Renunciation. These photographs that Pooja Jain has taken of the world of Jain nuns in Rajasthan will transport you to another time and place, not only of this planet but perhaps of your mind as well.

And in a completely different direction: the pictures that Elena Shumilova takes of her children and animals on her farm are magical. They will make your heart sing, if it doesn’t melt first. The noble, shaggy creature in the first few reminds me of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, many of these look taken out of a fairy tale. The comment stream is interesting, if not particularly eloquent, because of the debate regarding photoshopping and other means of altering an image. Is it the photographer’s natural skill with a camera that matters most, or the final image?

India

This article in The Atlantic, and its accompanying videos, depicts a certain side of the Indian capital: what is left today of Delhi as a sanctuary. (This is not the Delhi that has been so infamously featured in the news of late.) Over the last eight centuries, wave upon wave of immigrants have washed into Delhi, seeking refuge. By conservative estimates, there are now about 30,000 refugees in the city, says the article. Video interviews put a human face to their experiences: an Afghan man who has yet, after 26 years, to feel a sense of accomplishment; a Burmese doctor offering free health care; a musician who found an opportunity which never existed for him at home.

Meanwhile, photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has dedicated herself to documenting the harmful repercussions of child marriage, shares these pictures of young children in Rajasthan who have taken a stand against their own parents and refused to be married. Cynics may point to the fact that this is yet another western woman going into the dark recesses of Indian society and pulling out horror stories, but the mission is undeniably important, and these snapshots are compelling.

Food

This series has been going around for a while, but it never grows old, and it certainly bears looking at several times: what a week of groceries looks like around the world. As they say in France, sans commentaire.

Journalism

“This is Danny Pearl’s final story.” Intense, and very well told. A decade after journalist Daniel Pearl is beheaded on video (the story and images are haunting), his close friend and colleague Asra Nomani comes face to face with his killer at Guantánamo.

The craft of writing

“The what of the story … doesn’t matter one whit if you’re missing the why.” Read this piece by Ann Bauer who brings home the importance of focusing on reader-based writing, not writer-based writing.

The business of writing

“Should Women’s Fiction Have its Own Category?” Don’t get me started. Just about anyone who writes, and probably anyone who purchases books, is likely to have an opinion about this. The idea of categorization is on my mind these days as my publisher needs to provide the distributor with three categories in which to place my book. Here’s one take on the subject, by Yael Goldstein Love: that category needs to go. (via Lisa Borders.)

Writing and India

The Code of Writing: Vikram Chandra’s quest to recover his Indian self.” On computer programming, Sanskrit, storytelling and the culturally split self, among other things. Lengthy, but a good read, especially if you have read at least part of Vikram Chandra’s body of work. (I highly recommend Love and Longing in Bombay.)

Urban history & development

The historical soundscape of New York City. Here is a fun reconstruction of the sounds of the city in the Roaring Twenties.

Art (Dance)

Returning to the stage at 55, and with an artificial hip, Alvin Ailey dancer Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish has some beautiful reflections and video footage here. “When you’re younger, you have everything — you have the flexibility, you have no fear. But you don’t savor every step, every movement of every fingertip, every beat of the music. I feel like I’m tasting food for the first time.”

 

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I’ve signed a book contract for FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN. This is a fabulous, dance-a-jig worthy event for me, after years (and years) of work. And yet, there is also a part of me that has gone into a panic. A panic about actually sending the book out into the world for people–real, live people–to read. And possibly not like. And possibly post devastating reviews about. I remind myself of all the wonderful and complimentary comments I’ve received on the manuscript by well-established editors (who nonetheless declined to publish it), but still.

It has been a decades-long and enriching journey to get to this point of showing my work, my writing, to others. But it remains, nonetheless, terrifying.

Imagine this scene: 9th grade, English class. Our teacher, Mrs. Fournier, gave us a writing assignment. It was a single word: Solitude. In classic French fashion (for this was taking place in France) she told us to take that one word, and fill 4-6 pages. I remember the feeling that came over me as I wrote it. I was giddy with joy at the assignment, and worried that someone would notice. The assignment took very little conscious thought. The words flowed, I loved the feeling of the fountain pen sliding on the smooth paper. I turned it in, feeling confident I had done solid work. But I was not expecting what came next.

The teacher handed back the papers, but not mine. I wondered if it had gotten lost. Then she said that one student’s writing had stood out, and she wanted to read it aloud. All eyes turned toward me, and I wondered how they knew. I felt my cheeks flush. It was the proverbial want-the-floor-to-open-and-swallow-me moment. She read the piece, and as the words came out of her mouth I pictured the story again, the old man in his dim home, at the Formica table stained with coffee rings, the memories of his wife lurking in the corner with the dust bunnies. It was more Loneliness than Solitude, but it worked. The line between the two is blurry. At the end, Mrs. Fournier put the paper down, and there was silence. A roomful of fourteen year olds was silent. Then she said: “Very few 9th graders can write like this.” I felt proud, embarrassed, unworthy all at once. And also awed by the effect that words could have on people, and that I could put these words together myself.

Solitude_Essay
It was a long time before my writing was shared again with anyone other than teachers. I preferred it that way. Besides, I didn’t actually do much creative writing. Some poetry, written in my journal, in my room, then stashed away under layers of clothing in a drawer. That type of thing. I wrote, of course, for college courses, an honors thesis, my work in economic development consulting, my graduate studies in urban planning, my Master’s thesis, and people said lovely things about my writing, but I left it at that.

Then, at the age of 30, moved by my recent travels to Rajasthan, India, and by my classes in kathak dance, I started scribbling again. An image that I found in, of all places, a travel guidebook, sparked it. I researched the background of the image, began recreating a place and time. The faintest outlines of a story started taking shape. It was months before I realized I was writing a book.

I had three chapters drafted when I found out I was expecting a child. I knew I needed to get more on the page so that the body of work accomplished would be large enough, important enough, to call me back once I had given birth to the baby and ensured that she was healthy and thriving. I also knew I needed to acknowledge out loud, to my family and my friends, that I was writing a book, in order to make it real. Not real for them, but real for me.

The baby, K, was born. I worked during her naps. The manuscript crawled along. Finally, I had a full draft. It was summer, the child was three, I headed to France with her to visit my parents, and I left a copy of the manuscript with my husband, J, for him to read for the first time. I couldn’t bear to be around while he was reading it, so I asked him to do it before he joined us in France. He read it on the flight, and on the train down to La Ciotat in the South.

It was a sparkling sunny day on the Mediterranean coast. K and I wore flouncy skirts that danced around our legs as we waited for the high speed train on the quay. It arrived, slowed, stopped. The doors opened in unison, and I scanned the flow of passengers disembarking, blinking at the bright sun, clutching their suitcases. J appeared and we ran toward him, but something made me stop short. He bore a strange expression. We hugged, but he felt distant. What’s wrong, I asked. I was reading your book, he said. My chest tightened. He hated it. My book was awful. I had wasted hours and hours, years. He was disappointed in me. “No, it’s really good,” he said. “It’s just, I was at that really intense and kind of disturbing part.” And I smiled. There it was again. What I’d written had altered someone, at least temporarily. As it had in that 9th grade classroom. “Come,” I said, taking his free hand. “My father’s opened the rosé for lunch.”

Later that summer, I enrolled in a 10-week workshop, Novel in Progress, at Grub Street Writers. It was my first time sharing my writing with strangers, with people who knew nothing about me, probably little about India (where my book is set), even less about sixteenth century northern India. Presumably, they would be candid, unconcerned about hurting my feelings. I was exhilarated, and tremendously nervous. There were twelve of us, adults working on our (for the most part) first novels. On the first day, three students were to read out loud from their work. I was one of those first three. I was happy to get it over with at the beginning, but wished I could hear a few of my fellow students’ work first to know what I was up against. Not that it was a competition, of course.

One person went before me. I recall being generally impressed with the writing without being bowled over. This was good, promising. I felt I was in good company. (And in fact, I was.) These other writers were solid, dedicated. When my turn came, my lips went dry, my voice felt wobbly. I read for my allotted five minutes, acutely aware of how unpracticed I was at reading out loud, wishing I’d thought to put a cup of water in front of me. When I finished, the room was quiet. I avoided everyone’s eyes. Part of me feared they were all simply trying to mask their horror, to think of something kind to say. But part of me knew that was not true. Finally, one of them spoke. “Wow.” That one word broke the ice, and others started commenting as well.

For me, that one word told me that I would be alright. Over the course of the 10 weeks, and then over the course of the years of revisions and rewrites, the dozens of rejections from agents and then from editors, the moments of self-doubt, the times my friends, my writing group and others told me that things weren’t working, that the voice was too distant, the plot twist unbelievable, the character arc missing, I held onto that moment when I got goosebumps reading my own few pages, when a roomful of strangers was reduced to a single “wow.” That is why I write, for those moments, however few and far between. And they cannot happen if I do not show my work.

 

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Filed under: Monday Memoir

Remember these?

Remember these?

Dee-doo dee-doo!

“Let’s do dee-doo dee-doo!” This is Little One’s rallying cry to launch Skype and visit with the grandparents who reside in France.

“Oh, we’re doing a visit?” chimes in Big One. “I’m going to my room to get my flute to play for them.” She scoots up the stairs, and is back in an instant with an armful of items to share with them as I set up the laptop on the coffee table. Little One is rummaging through her toy bin to find her latest treasure, a rubbery blue frog with a disturbingly large tongue. She starts flapping it wildly in front of the computer even though no one is online yet.

We will Call Calcutta now

How different this all is from the days—always Saturdays—three decades ago when my parents, my brother and I would gather to Call Calcutta (it was always like that: “Children, we’re going to call Calcutta now”) to speak with my father’s mother. My heart would sink. I never knew what to say to my grandmother, a sweet but strong, soft but firm woman then in her 70s who lived so far away in distance and, it felt to me, in time. I loved her, and had many pleasant associations with her from our family visits to her home: the soothing odor of sandalwood and anise; the tickle of her hands rubbing my back ever so gently; the softness of her plain, widow’s saris and of her cheeks as I kissed her good night; the reassuring jangle of her massive ring of keys tied to the end of her sari; the unwavering love with which she indulged my every whim. But so far removed from her, ensconced in my Parisian childhood, with my parents hovering over me and my grandmother valiantly trying to engage me in conversation without knowing any of what mattered to me—my school, my friends—I wanted to shrink from the phone.

I keep getting engaged

It would start with all four of us in the living room, first around a rotary phone, then some years later around the first press button phones. For some reason, my recollection is strongest of the times when my brother had already left for college, and I, six years younger, was on my own with my parents. My father would pick up the receiver and dial whatever he needed in order to reach an Indian operator. This in itself could take several attempts. Once he got through, the volume of his already powerful phone voice automatically went up a few more decibels. I would worry that the neighbors would hear everything and be annoyed. He would put the phone on speaker and we would hear the distant, tinny voice of the operator with her lilting Indian accent. “I’m getting engaged,” she would say, indicating that the line was busy. “I keep getting engaged.” Or sometimes she would fail completely to make the connection. Or the call would get dropped. My mother would start to float away into the kitchen or pick up the newspaper. My father would pace around a few minutes. I’d slink back to my room, silently hoping we wouldn’t be able to make the connection, then thinking of my grandmother and feeling bad. My father would then start the whole rigmarole again.

How are you keeping?

Eventually, after what could be a couple of hours, we’d get a connection. “Pronob?” would come my grandmother’s hopeful voice, uttering her son’s name. “Hein!” my father would yell into the receiver. My mother would hurry back to join him, straining to hear her mother-in-law. I would drag my feet back down the hall to the living room. A conversation in Bengali would ensue, sprinkled with enough words in English that I could glean the basic gist: updates would be exchanged regarding health, doctors, relatives, house affairs, longtime servants (still referred as such back then).

Then the receiver would come to me, moist and warm. My parents would stay nearby, presumably in case the line got cut and we needed to restart the whole process. As though I wouldn’t know to call for them. I desperately wanted to turn off the speakerphone, not because there was anything to hide in my stilted conversation with my grandmother, but because their hearing both ends added to my anxiety about how to respond to her questions. She would do her best, asking me how school was going (fine) and how I was “keeping” (well.) I would ask about her health… and then I didn’t know what else to say. I could picture her well, and the house, the wall and heavy gate that separated it from Little Russell Street, the rows of lush potted plants along the walkway to the door. I could imagine the slightly off-kilter whir of the ceiling fan, the front edge of each blade caked in dark brown grime. I could hear the crows, the honking cars, the clatter and chatter coming from the kitchen. But I wondered what she could imagine of my life. She had traveled widely and visited us in France, in Switzerland, in the UK. But, I thought, what did she truly understand of a little girl’s life in the 70s and 80s in these places, when she’d grown up, married at age 9, in the Calcutta of the 1910s?

The corollary to these calls, to the distance between us, was the awkwardness with which I tended to greet my grandmother when we did see her, either (most frequently) in India, or in Europe. Her face would break into smiles as soon as she saw me, and she would pull me into the soft folds of her sari, holding me in her gentle way. “Anju-buri” she would croon repeatedly. Her delight in seeing me would feel overwhelming, mostly because in those first moments, I did not know how to relate to her.

No more disconnect

When my children greet my parents, often at the airport, or perhaps on arrival at our home or theirs, there are immediate hugs and kisses all around. Everyone starts chattering. Conversation picks up as though it had just ended a few minutes earlier. And that is almost the fact. Weekly video visits, interspersed with phone calls made on a whim, keep everyone apprised of all the details of daily life. My parents know the names of Big One’s friends, have seen the latest school report, have read books aloud to Little One via the screen, have sung songs with both of them and seen their latest favorite books or items of clothing. My children have commented on their grandmother’s haircut or new glasses, have joked around with their grandfather about some mannerism of his. So that when they are all put in a room together, the reunion is seamless.

I wonder what might have been possible had such technology been available to my family when I was a child. Looking back, I see how limited my knowledge and understanding of my grandparents was. Will my children look back in thirty or forty years and think the same thing, unable to fathom that there could ever have been a disconnect so much deeper than what they experienced?

Related posts: Calcutta Bangles, Charlotte, Storms Past and Present.

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Raja Ravi Varma, Goddess Saraswati

The recent and horrific gang rape of a young woman in Delhi who subsequently died from the injuries inflicted during her ordeal has catapulted India’s women into the headlines of media around the world. Someone recently asked me what I thought of this. Is this good for India or bad, she asked. She went on to say that she assumes it will be terrible for tourism. She, for one, would hesitate to go now.

I found myself having several concurrent and conflicting responses. There are so many things to think, it’s difficult to untangle them. As a person of Indian heritage, I felt my hackles rise in defense of a country that has so much culture, tradition, integrity, beauty and richness. Specifically as a woman of Indian heritage, I wanted to remind my friend that India, unlike many more “developed” nations, has in the past elected female prime ministers. As a practical, realistic person, I wanted to point out that this type of thing surely happens in India, and in other countries, much more than one wants to imagine. As a woman traveler, having felt the eyes and hands of strange men in buses and crowded streets in foreign (and not so foreign) countries, I understood her visceral fear.

Indians are trying hard to make the recent tragedy count for something. To that end, the extensive media coverage is a good thing. Public scrutiny, foreign scrutiny, internal scrutiny, these are what can really shake up the status quo. Add to that powerful awareness-building movements such as last week’s Feb 14th One Billion Rising and you have a recipe for change.

But how does one untangle India’s deep, long history of treating women as both sacred and profane? Of venerating female deities—among them Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science whose annual celebration, Saraswati Puja, was just two days ago—while denying some female children education? Of worshiping one’s own mother while copping a feel at someone else’s in the street? Of viewing female temple dancers as auspicious vessels of the divine, yet paying those temples for their more carnal services, as experienced by the central character in Faint Promise of Rain?

Perhaps one doesn’t untangle. One just acts. One takes what is good, and beautiful, and strong, and just, and one spreads it as best one can until it pushes out the rest. In a reversal of the last juxtaposition mentioned above, the New Light Foundation in Kolkata is working with (among others) the children of sex workers to empower them to find opportunities for themselves beyond the world their mothers have inhabited, and has included kathak dance classes as a means toward this empowerment. Kathak, the very dance that originated in those Hindu temples many hundreds of years ago. Pandit Chitresh Das, master kathak dancer and teacher, and the Kolkata branch of his school, has been involved with New Light:

Five years after this clip was shot, another was made with girls from New Light dancing, on the occasion of One Billion Rising. (Thanks to my mother Sara Mitter, author of Dharma’s Daughters who has worked with the New Light founder, Urmi Basu, for calling this to my attention.)

The videos speak for themselves. There are changes to be made. There are changes being made. So yes, I say to my friend. Absolutely. Go to India.

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Ancient Jain temple inside Jaisalmer. Photo by Sangeeta Dhanuka (Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Jain temple inside Jaisalmer. Photo by Sangeeta Dhanuka (Wikimedia Commons)

In Rajasthan, a five year old child is likely never to have seen rain. For centuries, the monsoons have been elusive, and it was no different when I was young. So it is understandable that when I was born during the first rainstorm in so long, some considered me special. In the royal palace of the citadel not far from our home, the walls of children’s rooms were, and are still, trimmed with black and blue cloud designs, so when the gods finally did send rain, the little ones would not be afraid. But for others such as my brothers and sister, who grew up looking at thatched roofs and endlessly blue skies, the day of their first rain can mean an intensity of both fear and hope.

I have no doubt that I now possess an unusual gift, but it came late in my life. I began as all children do, accepting of my lot for it was the only one I knew, and living by the decisions my father made for me. When I was old enough, I began to understand that I could shape my own path. And although I struggled greatly along the way, the gods must have approved of what I chose to do with it, for many, many years later they gave me this gift. I am not sure why they acted as they did, or how they chose what knowledge to grant me and what to keep concealed. Was it a moment of selfishness on their part? Was it for our dance? For humankind? Or, possibly, just for me? Whatever the reason, knowing now the minds and hearts of some of those close to me when I was a child allows me to tell this story. It is not the story of me alone, but mine alone to tell.

www.faintpromiseofrain.com

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First in a new series.

Trigger: 8 year old K informs me that she can hear me coming from the sound of my bracelets.

The summer I turned sixteen, I spent a month in my grandmother’s house in Calcutta, convinced I was going to die. As in, die right there, not make it home. I had traveled there on my own from Long Island, NY, where I had spent the previous month nearly dying of boredom in a musty, dark, pre-fab type house in a soggy and wooded depression near Brookhaven National Lab which suffered from its own miserable micro-climate. (I think I also visited some colleges then, but the dank house left much more of an impression on me.) But the “I’m dying” feeling I had in Calcutta the following month was much more real as it involved fevers, vivid and bizarre dreams, and endless trips to the bathroom.

The long journey began smoothly enough, insofar as departures from JFK International Airport are smooth. The overnight flight deposited me in Paris around 6 am, and as my next flight, to Delhi, wouldn’t leave until the evening, I had the time to take the commuter rail and subway into the city, stop in at our home to water the plants, sort through the mail and make sure all was well between the two month-long sublets, meet a family friend for lunch, and head back out to the airport.

The troubles began on the second flight, to Delhi. I’ll spare you details. Suffice it to say that I was exhausted, doubly jet-lagged, and feeling the beginnings of panic in the pit of my stomach by the time I landed in the smoggy humidity of Delhi. Thankfully, another family friend met me at the airport amidst the push and shove of the throng right outside the arrival doors, and ushered me, in his air conditioned car, to his serene home where I slept for a couple of hours before heading out, yes, to another flight. The final leg, to Calcutta.

Most of my month-long sojourn at 9A Little Russell Street that year is a blur, but a couple of memories are vivid, and one is the following: Lakshmi, faithful employee (still referred to as “servants” back then) of my grandmother for decades, sitting on the floor by the side of my grandmother’s bed to which I was confined, fanning me when the load-shedding caused the ceiling fan to come to a halt. No matter what time I awoke, no matter how many or how few times, she was always there, a quiet but reassuring presence in the dim room. Quiet, but not entirely: the jangle of her thin gold bangles up and down her arm when she moved was what told me that she was there. And it is what told me that I was not alone, and that perhaps, after all, I would not die during that visit.

Toward the end of my stay, when I began to recover from what was probably the double whammy of a bug of some kind combined with an unfortunate reaction to anti-malarials, my grandmother presented me with a blue velvet-covered jewelry box. The velvet was thinning in places, revealing the bald box below, and the clasp was a carefully wrought one, a silver latch that caught onto a very small knob. Inside was a set of three thin gold bangles, the middle one decorated with delicate pieces of ruby. It was the first of many such boxes of her jewelry that she gave me that summer, and probably the one of least monetary value, but when I slipped them on that day, I felt as though those bracelets were giving me an almost magical type of power, to one day bring the sound of reassurance to someone else. I’ve worn them every day since then.

A few days ago, when I entered K’s room to wake her for school, treading carefully so as not to impale my heal on a stray Playmobil personage, K rolled over sleepily and said: “I can always hear you coming by the sound of your bracelets.” I smiled in the dark, both surprised and not that she could hear their thin tinkle through her closed door. “Is that a good thing?” I asked her. She nodded. I brushed her forehead and gave her a kiss, glad that I’d been right, all those years ago. So when, a day later, she announced that from now on she wanted to use her alarm clock to wake her up every morning, I felt a sudden sadness. Ok, I told her, if you want. Because when your child wants such an easy piece of independence, you give it to her. I showed her how to set the alarm and turn it off.

Friday morning, after I slunk past her room without waking her, heading straight for the kitchen to pack lunch boxes and make breakfast, I heard her bedroom door open, the bathroom door close, and I knew she’d managed to get up on her own. The end of an era? But then she traipsed down the stairs, and the first words out of her mouth were: “That alarm clock is much more unpleasant than I expected.” I laughed. “Beep-beep, beep-beep!” I said. “No, don’t, it’s horrible! And it’s hard to turn off, and then I was worried I’d wake up S, and I didn’t like it one bit.” So I asked her if she’d rather go back to Mom waking her up, and she nodded. Whew!

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