To have or not to have Boli?

Aditi Raychoudhury. Animal sacrifice. Kali Pujo. 2019. Gouache and Watercolor.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Animal sacrifice. Kali Pujo. 2019. Gouache and Watercolor.

When most Indians are celebrating Diwali and Rama’s return to Ayodhya after vanquishing the demon king Ravana, it is overshadowed by a lesser known festival, Kali Pujo when Kali, a more virulent form of Durga, is worshipped through the night with great fervor in Eastern India. As a Bengali, I was very much a part of this tradition, and we would go out late in the night, to pay our respect to beautifully decorated idols of Kali, resplendent in her garland of blood red hibiscus flowers and demonic heads. We would have bhog after midnight, the highlight of which was an oxymoron – the unusual vegetarian goat curry. If you think this curry is made out of trendy fake meat, you are very much mistaken. Kali Pujo, predates fake meat by centuries! What apparently makes this curry “vegetarian” is the lack of onions and garlic that are otherwise always used in a traditional Bengali goat curry. The goat for this curry is comes from a male goat that was sacrificed at midnight, a ritual I was witness to once as a little girl.

We were at my dida’s (maternal grandma’s) house in Purnia. My widowed grandmother, was a devotee of RamKrishna, a Bengali saint, who in turn was a devotee of Maa Kali. She would take us to the Purnia Kali Bari at least once during our stay with her. It was a trip that I enjoyed very much with its rhythmically bumping rickshaw ride as it snaked through tall palm trees that had little clay pots strung right around where their leaves ended. It looked as though the trees had necklaces around their neck. I enjoyed looking at the daring men who climbed way up high with minimal safety gear to collect the sweet sap from the pots. The sap has a nutty smoky flavor that tastes a bit like maple syrup. It is mildly processed to make yummy nolen gur that went into flavoring my favorite desserts. The sap of some other palms were used to make toddy. What that tastes like, I can’t tell, because I have never had any. Most of all I loved the serene setting of this little temple by the river amidst lush tropical greens.

Collecting sap from palm trees.

This time we were in Purnia for Kali Pujo and yes, as usual, we were going to venerate Maa Kali – this time at the Purnia Kali Bari. Like before we jumped on to our parents laps, and bumped along the road as our parents hugged us tightly. Little did I know that this trip was going to be quite different, one that would be seared in my memory.

As, we disembarked on this new moon night that lay suspended between the end of Sharad and the start of Shishir, I was taken aback by the sound of prayers being offered to a male black goat. Oh, how handsome he looked with his garland of bright red hibiscus flowers shining brightly against his silky black fur as he was gently being guided towards the sacrificial altar. As the goat realized its ultimate fate, its joyful pride dissolved into trembling bleats which despite their softness, split right through this dark night. Oh, the poignancy of his bleats! I ran as far away as I could and shut my ears, waiting for that blissful serendipity of the place to return. A few short moments later, all went numbingly quiet, as the giant sword, swiftly decapitated this goat in one fell swoop. It was over – but not for me. I just couldn’t get those plaintive bleats out of my head. With my heart in shards, it became impossible to settle into the quietness of a Hemant new moon. The sight of that goat curry made me gag, and I couldn’t eat it. Even though it didn’t make me a vegetarian, and I continued to enjoy our Sunday goat curries for many years, I couldn’t forget this little goat – so happy in its veneration, so terrified of its ultimate end.

In the process of painting this, I came to realize that I had been so shaken by that event that I had forgotten what time of day this deadly ritual had taken place.

Much has changed since then. Activists have managed to highlight the cruelty of this practice and most temples now sacrifice a gourd instead of a goat.

But despite all their activism, eating meat and the number of brutal slaughterhouses have increased manifold in India. During the process of capturing this memory, I started to wonder is it really worse to occasionally eat a few small bites of meat of an animal that was raised with love, venerated, and killed with compassion and the belief that because of this great sacrifice, he shall be reborn as a human being than to stock up our freezers with mounds of beautifully butchered shapes of meat that bear no resemblance to the being that they came from?

As we ramp up to Thanksgiving, I question our activism that results in hiding from sight what we can’t stand to bear. As we gather around any festive table, perhaps what we should be most thankful for is the being that gave its life to bind us together around the table to cherish our friends and families, and nourish our bodies and souls.

Aditi Raychoudhury. Animal sacrifice. Kali Pujo. 2019. Pencil on Tracing Paper.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani: An In-Depth Look At a Misnomer

cover

I have been hesitant to write this, even though it’s been a while since I read the book. After all, Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani answers the call for diverse books. For so many American Indian kids, it is exciting to see themselves and parts of what seems to be an authentic India in a graphic novel. The book has done so very well that it is being made into a movie by Netflix. I am happy for the success that has come to its creator Nidhi Chanani.

Pashmina, is a graphic novel about, Priyanka, a teenage girl whose mother emigrated from India years ago, leaving her father behind. Priyanka is eager to learn about her father and her Indian heritage, but her mother refuses to discuss it. When Pri’ finds an old “pashmina”, she is magically transported to the India of her dreams whenever she dons it, and the shawl takes on the role of a sootradhaar (a person or object that is integral to the holding the narrative thread), as she finds out more about her mother and India while tracing the history of the shawl.

Even though I know that I am taking a pretty big risk by critiquing a very successful graphic novel, I feel compelled to stay true to the culture and the people the book and the shawl ought to and seeks to represent. Firstly, I feel deeply disappointed by the many inaccuracies in the book, especially since it’s written by an Indian American. I also feel disappointed by the lack of due diligence on the part of her agent, publisher and reviewers, not a single one of whom checked the book for authenticity. I find the lack of research rather perplexing in an age when a whole universe of information is no further away than a few taps of a keyboard. From the diversity panels I have attended, and posts by organizations such as We Need Diverse Books, I was under the impression that the tide was turning towards representing minority cultures in the US with greater accuracy, but that still seems quite a ways away.

In our desperate call for diverse books, let’s not forget the enormous responsibility we bear to finally change the misconceptions we seem to accept when it comes to non-eurocentric cultures, and truly speak for the silent populations implied in those books. Some of the visual representations of the places that Pri visits in India are also inaccurate. I am writing this because I feel obliged to transmit truths about India to my daughter and others Indian Americans like her, starting with why this book should never have been called Pashmina in the first place.

The bright red shawl unfurled on the cover is as far away from the exquisite and painstakingly made Pashmina as America is from India. Pashmina is accorded a GI (Geographical Indication) which is the equivalent of the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). Now, imagine this egregious error in a coming of age graphic novel called Champagne, where a French American girl is tracing her roots and finds that the grapes for Champagne are picked in Britanny, processed in Burgundy, and bottled in Paris. Would that pass muster? So why do we not accord the same respect and scrutiny to cultures of color?

Pashmina: GI.

The GI on a Pashmina

Livemint reports that “Pashmina, a very delicate cashmere wool from the pashmina goat found in the higher regions of Kashmir, has become a much exploited word”. Pashmina comes from the Persian word, “made from wool”. The wool comes from the same breed of goat that gives us cashmere. The soft underfur is seasonally shed and traditionally collected by local villagers in Kashmir – a conflict ridden state nestled in the high mountains of northern India. It is harvested by combing as opposed to shearing. All steps from combing (removing impurities and guard hair, and aligning fibres) and spinning, to weaving and finishing, are traditionally carried out by hand by highly specialized craftsmen and women based in and around Srinagar, Kashmir. Pashmina fibres are finer and thinner than cashmere and the quality and price of the finished shawl is dependent on the fineness of the fiber and the skill with which it is woven.

weaver

A Pasmina weaver and his traditional loom.

The US FTC doesn’t recognize the labeling term “Pashmina”. However, it does encourage manufacturers and sellers of products to explain what they mean by the term. I wish the author had also felt responsible to do so, given that it is an extremely prized and endangered product produced by highly skilled, underpaid, craftsmen who continue to create magic on their looms, despite often having lost family members in the conflict. Just Google/Wikipedia “Pashmina”. The wealth of information on why this product is not a synonym for any shawl will become more than apparent. 

I understand that setting a story for children against a highly complex decades old conflict was not the author’s intention. So, why name the story after a shawl that it just isn’t? Why take the reader through a long-winded tour of places that this shawl would, at best, be sold at? 

Not only does a story around a shawl that is a Pashmina completely ignore Kashmir, we run into further set of misrepresentations starting with Pri’s aunt saying that the Pashmina might be made of Sualkuchi silk. Sualkuchi is a town in Assam in the northeastern part of India. It is a center for manufacturing different types of Assamese silks (muga, pat and eri) that are eventually woven into gorgeous Mekhela-Chadors (for women) and Gamosas (for men). The patterns woven into them evoke the history and geography of Assam, which is pretty much the case with most Indian motifs. These silks, too, bear a GI.

 

 

However, in the book the Sualkuchi factory is in Nagpur in central India, and the shawl is still called a Pashmina.

 

In the book we travel from Nagpur to Warangal (known for its carpets) in Telangana in southern India (nearly 2500 kms away from where Pashminas are actually made) where the shawl is embroidered by Rohini Mitra, (a Bengali), who could (in the real India) potentially be a weaver of Taants, Jaamdaanis and Baluchuris in specific areas of Bengal or Bangladesh, but never of a Pashmina! These sarees, too, bear GIs.

The moment we start using proper nouns, not just in India, but my guess is any ancient culture, we need to start being specific, just as the moment Indians hear the last name  Mitra, they will know that he or she is Bengali.

Even the UNCTAD, WTO and UNESCO have argued that the crafts form a substantial part of a country’s cultural heritage and the skills related to the crafts affiliated to a community must be protected in the areas of their origin.

Map of places labels

The location of Pashmina production vs. the places the author assigns Pashmina to.

Outside of this primary misrepresentation, there are many others, such as women not being allowed to drive cars, the slums of Jadavpur, the visual depiction of New Market and more. Jadavpur is a middle to upper middle class neighborhood and home to a reputed university. One doesn’t have to go to Jadavpur to search for poverty in India. It hits you smack in the face the second you step out of the confines of your middle-class or affluent gated community.

There are American Indians, like Jhumpa Lahiri and Sanjay Patel, whose attention to detail and authenticity are truly remarkable. The Interpreter of Maladies takes me right back to summers spent at my grandma’s, and Sanjay Patel’s jaw-droppingly accurate depiction of the pitted stone statue in Sanjay’s Super Team looks like it’s been transported right out of a temple in India. In the Google documentary, Pedaling for Peace, producer Fhay Arceo, ensured that the edited version of the film was accurately subtitled by hiring a native Hindi speaker, even though the entire raw footage had been professionally subtitled. She even made sure that the Hindi script one can barely see as it floats around at lightning speed is accurate.

Why then did Nidhi Chanani (nor her agent or publisher or reviewers) not follow suit in starting with perhaps questioning the accuracy of shawl she depicts and whose name the book bears? 

Are we so desperately hungry that the creative pipeline and their gatekeepers feel justified in feeding us anything that simply confirms and reinforces the Indian stereotypes and familiarities of elephants, peacocks, samosas, paisley motifs, disenfranchised women and a few Indian Hindi words scattered throughout a book? Yes, we do need diverse books, but we also we need them to be true, so that children, like my daughter, don’t have to grow up with misinformation about their heritage.

 

Updated Post: Why Obama’s [Original] Tax Plan Will [Would Have] Help[ed] Us

Its Election day tomorrow. With the economy sliding faster than a ride in “Great America”, we are justifiably nervous about the issues that have featured prominently – albeit not always answered with clarity – in the Presidential debates – the continuing war, government spending, tax reforms, jobs, education, mortages…

Sadly, in the Bay Area, even a 100k annual salary, is, shamefully, short of a mortgage on a three-bedroom home, quality K-12 education, and an occasional night out. The sad state of public schools in some of the Bay Area urban spots – San Francisco, Berkeley, and yes, the infamous Oakland School District, where I live, is testimony to the misplaced priorities even in this otherwise relatively liberal state.

Besides the crumbling public schools, Oakland, CA, also has the dubious distinction of being the homicide capital of America. But I disagree with such stereotyping. It is easier to stereotype than to scratch underneath such definitive descriptions, and find a solution for change. Continue reading

A Rare Find: A Daring, YOUNG AND RENOWNED Architect!

Greg Lynn. Blob Wall. 2008. Plastic. Photo Credit: Ajay Khanna, 2008. 

Greg Lynn. Blob Wall. 2008. Plastic. Photo Credit: Ajay Khanna, 2008.

 

In a profession, where mostly jaded and abusive old men with rich wives or inheritances, have long held sway over jaded and abused young architects till they find their rich spouses or inheritances, Greg Lynn is a breath of fresh air – young, innovative, and refreshing.

Using digital software, Lynn has majorly influenced how we design and conceive space. Lynn’s “paperless” practice brings computers into spatial conception – as opposed to the traditional practice of using digital software to transform an initial sketch into a workable form.

“You define space in the computer with curves,” he says. “Usually an architect would draw points, and connect lines and planes with them. With these programs, we’ve shifted to thinking of space as the sheltered enclosures of a flexible handkerchief.”

Frank Gehry. Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. 2003. Photo Credit: Aditi Raychoudhury.
Frank Gehry. Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. 2003. Photo Credit: Aditi Raychoudhury.

Not unlike his predecessor, Frank Gehry, Greg Lynn has adopted programs that were developed for auto designers and film animators, to create “biomorphic” forms. Lynn’s forms are spatially and structurally coherent – although the installation here does use a couple of props!

While digital software – typically used for designing aerodynamic structures such as planes and cars – is revolutionizing how we conceive, design and build space, I can not let this “revolution” pass without mentioning Antonio Gaudi, who, long before the age of computers, bent and sculpted space and light in ways that continue to baffle the mind. As a student of architecture, in a computer free generation, I often wondered where would one even start to make the blueprint for the Sagrada Familia.

Antonia Gaudi. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. 1882-present.
Antonia Gaudi. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. 1882-present.

A visit to that building more than a decade after I graduated from architecture school, made the answer to that question even more unanswerable. Walking through this building of fluid space, shifting colors and abundant light, even an atheist like me, could understand what drives an overwhelming majority of our populance to seek God.

This feeling of liberation from physical confines, and awe at the limitless capacity of the mind to imagine, and its spirit to persevere, was an unforgettable experience – one that I can’t quite use to describe my experiences at the Disney Concert Hall, Experience Music Project, The Weisman museum, and The Fish.

All in their own way, embody the city they have chosen to call home –

Gehry – neon lights, glamour, silicon and botox, and the disturbing pursuit of eternal youth in Hollywood.

Lynn – cheerful and dynamic like the ocean, skies and pretty wild flowers of the coast.

Gaudi – the fiercely defiant and unflagging spirit of a city that has experienced 2000 years of turbulent history, and home to artists who constantly re-invent – Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Ferran Adrià Acosta…