Its been eight years since we lost you and not a day goes by when I don’t think of you. Like most children, there are so many special memories boundd with a parent – but what ties all our memories together is your unbridled and overwhelming kindness – an overarching trait that everyone best remembers you for.
You raised your voice only once with each of your children – Amber, Pratiti and me. When we got married you embraced our spouses as your own. It’s a pity that my sister-in-law and our children missed out on creating those loving memories with you.
Every time I raise my voice and more, I reflect on how can I be just a tiny bit more like you? How can I transcend my impatience, anger, intolerance and transform those emotions into a stream of kindness like you did? When Ma became too ill to take care of herself you took care of her. Unlike so many men of your generation, you were never too squeamish to change our soiled nappies or wipe her soiled bottom. No act of care was beneath you. You and Ma had not met till your wedding day, yet it is the best marriage that I know of.
While Ma toiled away to raise us, you were that gentle cloud that protected us from the heat of anger. Every weekend you took us to the market and kept us out of Ma’s hair, because you knew she needed a break from being a parent. You understood, that like Satyajit Ray’s protagonist Charulata, she needed to be her own woman – in her case, that meant continuing her long daily riyaaz on the sitar. She never had to ask that of you. In fact, no one ever had to ask what they needed from you – such was your empathy.
Once when my cocky teenage self had asked you “Baba, why do you keep helping others, even though you know that they will never pay you back?” You said, ever so gently, “I know. I know that they won’t pay me back, but the day we lose our humanity, we cease to be human.” Its something I have never forgotten. While I am not you, and can never be you, extending random acts of kindness is something I try to do to honor you.
How surreal to live in a time when I feel relieved that you went out like a candle that was extinguished in a sudden whiff of wind. We had spoken with you just the night before to plan our trip to Alaska in the Fall. The next call from Kolkata the following morning was of your passing – a massive heart attack.
But, we could at least get on a plane within a day of you passing away and perform your last rites. Today I feel a deep dark ocean of sadness for every person who has lost a loved one to COVID. I can think of almost no greater tragedy than to have to grieve in isolation without being able to participate in the rites that every religion has in place to bring closure. All of you, who have lost someone during this pandemic, please know that I am thinking of you, just as I am thinking of my father today and everyday. As I am pummeled with news of COVID deaths in India from friends and family, I implore anyone who has been reading this to donate to https://affirm.giveindia.org – a COVID relief fundraiser organized by Aniruddh and other southasians at Affirm. No amount is too small.
“When you save a life, you save the world”. Thank you!
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 Indian American 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?
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.
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.
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.
Reposting with a new image. This post is from 2014
When my father died last summer, so did my childhood. Pouf! Just like that! UNEXPECTEDLY, in that very moment as I stared at the slowly forming words, ” Your father passed away”. To this, and, with this one person in the world, I was, and, could always be, a child – not just middle-aged progeny, whose achievements (or lack there of) one could gloat or bemoan about. And his very last birthday wish to me said just as much.
It recalled an incident from nearly forty years ago. I was around 2 years old, hovering around my brother, who had just started kindergarten, struggling to write his lower case ‘a’ in cursive. Fluttering about him, I boasted that it was so easy that even I could do it. Surprised, my parents asked, “How so?” “An ‘a’ is nothing (Yes, kids can be insensitive!). During my last birthday, this incident was still fresh in his mind.
And, just like that 2-year-old, who hadn’t transcended the plasticity of time inside his mind, I continued to make demands long after I had left home. In the US, it was for the things that were almost impossible to find outside of Bengal – Gobindo Bhog Chaal (an incredibly fine-grained fragrant rice), Shona Moongeyr Daal (fine grained gold colored mung bean lentils), Moori (Bengali puffed rice), Mukhorochok (a sweet, salty, and sour snack mix) and Mokaibari tea. I knew that despite his failing health, and limited mobility, he would never fail me. And, sure as ever, he would arrive, with these common Bengali treats, packed in (and sometimes, disastrously strewn all over) his suitcase. Along with them, would also arrive a few banal trinkets that weren’t special to anybody, but me.
When he died last year, 16 years after my mother did, not only did I become a middle-aged orphan – but, I also lost that last refuge where I could always be a child.
That child who led a simple life, in a simple town, in a simpler time. That child who spent most of her afternoons reading, drawing, chasing butterflies, climbing trees, eating guavas, and, running around the neighborhood sucking nectar out of wild flowers. That child, who stared, with wondrous rapture at the birds flying across a bright fuschia sky, and, knew that it was time to wander her way back home from the hills behind her house, where she had just whiled away many happy hours. That child whose heart burnt just as brightly as that spotless evening sky.
As a parent to a pre-schooler, I know that it may be many years before I can shrug-off the self-generated urge to stress over school, organize my space to mimic an IKEA display, and make my meals look like they had just jumped out of the pages of Vegetarian Times, and release my heart instead, to long afternoons amidst the wild flowers of California, and, sink my feet into the wet ocean sand.
On the other hand, as a parent to a pre-schooler, it might just be more possible than ever to relive those childhood wonders of peering through grass, looking for snails, squeezing my eyes as the ocean surf hits my face, and dissolving into laughter at the first lick of ice-cream on a hot day.
While I no longer draw with the passion and freedom that I did as a child, my daughter’s free forms lead me to where I want to be.
Here are some of the things she drew when she was a little over two years old.
Picasso had said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” May be by the time she is my age, I will learn to draw and laugh like her again.
We observed my mother’s Shraddha. That day is blurry but I am sure that we blindly went through the rituals that had been codified more than two thousand years ago.
What is not blurry is the day leading up to her death.
Her sprightly chatter had fallen into near silence during the week leading up to her death.
My father had bathed and changed her, just like he had done every noon since the time she had gotten too weak to do it herself.
I had taken to brushing her thick long black hair. I liked how it felt wet, cool and heavy in my hands.
Like the past few weeks, her head rested heavy on her hand. Her eyes – sad, soft, downcast and faraway, even though we were sitting right in front of the mirror she had used to energetically adorn herself with a little gold and sindoor for about 32 years.
“কি ভাবছ, মা?” (What are you thinking about, Ma?)
“ধুত, কি আবার?” (Oof! What else?)
she replied distantly and irritably.
I loosely braided her hair even though her voice stung. Did she know that was going to die?
She ate a bit and lay down to rest.
I laid down beside her and stroked her still spotless, golden, beautiful back. I can’t think of a time in my life when I didn’t love stroking her back.
She was falling off to sleep.
Suddenly, she sprang up to sitting on the edge of her bed, her words tumbling rapidly into one another as she desperately tried to keep pace with her sudden burst of delirium.
“Can you hear them?”, she gasped.
“Hear what, Ma?”
“Those bells… the evening bells. Can’t you hear them? They have started to practice their dance. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you there, practising with them?”
“What bells? What dance, Ma?”
“There! There! Can’t you see them?” pointing to a corner of the room.
“Ma! There’s nobody there!” I was beginning to get very frightened as I looked into a pair of eyes that I could no longer recognize.
They looked manic, puzzled. Why couldn’t I see what she could see? She dropped her arm, let out a deep sigh and fell into disappointed silence.
For twelve years of my life, I had practiced dancing every evening. It was evening alright. But those practice sessions were long gone.
As my husband and brother frantically tried to get a hold of her doctor for advice, my father and I sat next to her, not knowing what was to come.
Little did we know that we would be watching death unfold.
Perhaps it was an illusion created by the emotional center of my otherwise pretty logical brain, but it wasn’t like she was alive one moment and dead the next. It felt like her life had become into its own being and was wrestling to set itself free from its physical binds.
How long did that last? A few minutes? A few hours? We weren’t scientists trying to study death with a stop clock. We were watching my mother die, and it felt like a really long time.
Strangely enough, the closest thing I can compare it to is birthing. Just as time, space and cognition collapse into one incomprehensible dimension when a baby is on its way to be born, this was no different.
Just like a baby forcefully and determinedly squirms and twists its way through the birth canal in no predictable pattern till the head, shoulders and the rest of her body slithers out into one slimy, bloody mess and a loud wail, my dying mother’s life was corkscrewing its way out through her death canal, a bit at a time to no set rhythm.
Like a baby unregrettably leaves the womb that had kept her alive for nine months, my mother’s life finally broke free from the body that had nurtured it for 51 years, leaving behind slightly parted lips, a stony blank stare, and a loud wail – my father’s, ” আর নেই রে! তোর মা চলে গেছে!” (She is no more! Your mother has left us) as he continued to stroke her limp but still warm shell of a body.
There is that Sunmica table which bore our childhood meals, homework, board games, and many conversations – you know, that thing which humans used to do more of before they had TVs, smart phones, and very often electricity. Yes, many of our dinners during the sweltering summer heat were by candle light. Fancy!
The narrow little beds on which my sister, brother and I whispered and giggled before dribbling off into innocent, delight-filled sleep.
The rickety study table with its giant shortwave radio whose knobs I twiddled all through my teen years to religiously tune in to Dave Lee Travis’ “A Jolly Good Show”. The very same table that my aging father used to figure out the mysteries and workings of the laptop, the internet and a whole new world to email and Skype with us.
And, then there is that bigger bed, the one that my parents shared since their wedding day, November, 19, 1965.
While the furniture itself is of no great value by way of either money or design, I grew up in pre-Ikea days, when we bonded with our furniture like family. And, just like those people who never want to part with their mid-century modern masterpieces, I don’t want to part with these memory-drenched pieces either. I secretly hope that one of my relatives will adopt them, so that, when I touch them, it will feel like the next best thing to physical nearness to my parents, who, despite their extremely modest means, gave us an extraordinarily rich life.
They hadn’t met till their wedding day. Yet it is the best marriage that I know of.
Two complete strangers who couldn’t have been more different other than in their ability to love one another. Him: a man of few words, and a home body. She: An extremely social extrovert, brimming with joie de vivre. Yet, I was never witness to the usual marital skirmishes, tensions and all-out wars. While my mother made friends, had them over for meals, my father sat quietly, contentedly and joyfully observant of the evening as it unfolded, mostly around my mother.
Many summers ago, on one dark evening, as my father and I made our way through the heady smells of jasmine, mangoes, decaying garbage and an unimaginable number of sweaty humans, as was common on our tropical, slum-fringed street, my father reflected on his time with my mother.
“I see so many marriages. I see how couples fight. I never felt that way about your mother. I felt like we were two different instruments playing in perfect harmony”.
I later found out that this hadn’t just come from a place of sentimental recollection. As I was cleaning out the cupboard, a few days after my father had died, I found a bunch of letters.
Should I? Shouldn’t I? My curiousity triumphed over my respect for their privacy. The first one was from my father to my mother, one of his earliest to her I suppose, expressing his desire to spend a couple of years getting to know her before starting a family. How could two virtual strangers be so intimate, I wondered? It is still a mystery.
I opened another, from my mother to my father. This was one was from a much later period in their life. We were teenagers and my father had to work in a different town for extended periods of time. It was about how much she missed him, normal parental concerns, ending again with her longing for him …. and then another… and another.. and another.. till the tears and guilt blinded me to the rest. They were so private and so full of tenderness that I wished that they had been written by some famous author, so that I could guiltlessly relish them.
Its not like they didn’t have their disagreements, but their love was apparent even to my little-girl-eyes that never saw them kiss, hold hands, or make any other physical display of affection in front of us. It was simply not a part of our culture. Yet, it is the best marriage that I know of.
It was apparent in how they looked at each other, in their little gestures of affection expressed through food, praise, and my mother’s absolute indignation when my dad would walk straight into the kitchen as soon as he got home from work to do the dishes.
It was apparent in the sarees that my father brought back every single time he came back from a work tour (even if they didn’t always meet her fashion standards), and, in the box of my mother’s favorite summer treat (raw mango sondesh) that he would routinely buy on his way back from work, during the short time that they were in season.
It was clear to me when my mother tirelessly marched up and down the insanely crowded streets of Gariahat to find the perfect “letter stand” for his birthday. It was clear to me when I watched her giggle all afternoon as she tried to find the perfect spot for him to “accidentally” find it and burst out laughing as she imagined his surprise. “Bolish naa Baba key.” (Don’t tell your father.)
Their love was heartbreaking when my father bathed her, clothed her, fed her and helped her walk to the bathroom as the cancer slowly but greedily sucked away at her strength. It was heartbreaking when one day he mumbled to God, “Please take her before the cancer takes away her dignity.” It was the day when my mother had soiled her bed. She was so broken and ashamed by it. Cancer had succeeded in slurping up her very last drop of energy and humanness .
He knew, from his 32 years with her, that losing her ability to always look fresh in a clean crisp saree, bindi, and a bit of gold on her wrists, ears and neck, was devouring her spirit faster than this beast of a disease could her body.
Just two days later, his wish came true. She sank into a deep delirium. I laid down next to her, stroking her still butter smooth back that always reminded me of La Grande Baigneuse , while my father stroked her hair and face and arms and wept and wept and wept.
This song by Nobel Laureate Tagore does a better job of capturing their relationship than I can ever do.
Yippee! The air is clear and crisp, and the skies are the closest they ever get to a California blue in the tropics. Its early February. We are all dressed in yellow. No books, no homework, no dance, or anything that bears any resemblance to learning. It is Vasant Panchami (the 5th day of Spring). We have gleefully surrendered all our pencils, pens, paints, brushes, books, instruments and any other conceivable source of knowledge to Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning. She can take her own sweet time to bless them. We are too busy. Its a day to eat, play, eat… repeat! Luchi, begun bhaja, labda, bhaandhaa kopir chochori, khichudi, chaatni, papod bhaaja, and kool, lots of kool!
We are at one of my favorite “uncle’s” house – Chatterji Jethu. He wasn’t our uncle – but, growing up we didn’t call our elders by name or even as Mr. or Mrs. Everyone was an uncle or an aunt.
Chatterji Jethu was lean, energetic, a fabulous gardener, cook and best of all, he was always smiling. Every year we celebrated Basant Panchami at his house with all our neighbours and friends.
So here it is – my most potent memory of this festival. Me, up on a guava tree, watching the menfolk fry luchis. Yummy.
On April 7th, 2014, Rwandans commemorated the 20th anniversary of one of the worst massacres in history.
Seven years ago, I had written a paper on design as an aid for reconciliation and memorialization. Here is a excerpt from that report.
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.
– Paul Baumer in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque, 1929
Every year, in April, the rains fall heavy on Rwanda. The earth turns green. New life begins. It is the growing season. Twenty years ago, in April, along with the rains, came, not life, but death. The earth turned red – soaked with the blood of over a million Tutsis and Hutus.
Every year, the rains ebb in July – as did the genocide in 1994. Over ten percent of the population had been decimated by then – their bloated bodies floated down the freshly replenished Kagera river, and all the way to Lake Victoria. It was the most efficient mass killing since Hiroshima. In Hiroshima, they used bombs. In Rwanda, they used machetes.
Now, every year in April, along with the rains, comes “Kwibuka” (Rwandan for “Remember”) – a government driven effort to remember, reflect, reconcile and unite; an effort to restore dignity to the men, women and children who died; unborn babies, too, ripped out of wombs and smashed with unimaginable brutality. It is an effort to reflect on the neatly organized rows of fractured skulls, femurs, ribs and every other bony part that has been collectively memorialized.
But for those who survive, along with the rains, come a flood of memories – “of despair, death, fear and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow.”
Anger and bewilderment still hangs over Rwanda – just like those dark, rumbling clouds before the rains. The call for remembrance, reflection, reconciliation and unity is hard to heed. For many Rwandans, the rains haven’t come. Spring hasn’t come. Life hasn’t begun. Continue reading →