SANTA CLARA COUNTY –- Sometimes fear disappears when you bravely take it for a walk.
That is what an Indian family discovered as team participants of Santa Clara County Parks online social media game, Parks For Life Challenge.
County parks and the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter joined forces to help promote the shelter’s newest program, Foster Field Trip and Shelter Dog Sleep Over. Participants of the Parks For Life Challenge earned game points for taking a sheltered dog for a walk in a county park.
While the program was designed to benefit sheltered dogs by providing an opportunity to explore the outside world and to evaluate the dog’s ability to socialize, the program unexpectedly created a life-changing experience for the Kanagala family.
Their walk in the park, they said, altered the family’s behavior toward dogs and dispelled an ingrained cultural belief. Ajay, the father, noted that in India the dog culture is much different than in the United States. Typically, dogs are not considered pets in India, but more of an animal that people are terrified of. “Unlike Americans, we see dogs as scary animals. My wife and oldest daughter are terrified of dogs and stayed away from them as much as possible because that’s how they were raised.”
Enter Winston, a 10-year old Pit Bull Terrier considered to be a long-term stay dog at Santa Clara County Animal Shelter. The first time the family took Winston out of the shelter they asked for a crate for him to ride in while in the car.
While walking him, only Ajay would hold the leash, and his two daughters would stay behind. Toward the end of the walk, Anika, the younger daughter, began to get closer and pet Winston. On the second outing Ajay asked for a crate, yet didn’t make Winston ride in it. While hiking Ajay noticed Anika interacting more with Winston, courageously asking to hold the leash.
Anya, the older daughter, and Ajay’s wife, Chalana, began to realize there was nothing to fear and became comfortable around Winston. On the third outing, Ajay said he skipped the crate and let Winston share the backseat of the car with the kids. Another breakthrough occurred while the Anika was walking Winston: Chalana and Anya started to pet Winston. In no time at all the gentle pats on the back became warm friendly hugs.
“If it was not for the Parks For Life Challenge, my family would still see dogs as terrifying animals the same way they did back in India,” said Ajay. The family is now strongly considering adopting a sheltered dog.
To find out more information on Foster Field Trip and Shelter Dog Sleep Over, contact the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter at 408-686-3900.
It was electrifying to watch Rami Malek perform as Freddie Mercury in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, showing us a man grappling with soul-searing despair and alienation even while the world was feting him for his extraordinary musical prowess. Yet, the movie was deeply frustrating for avoiding Mercury’s back-story; his evolution from boy Farrokh to man Freddie.
Mercury arrived on the public stage as a nimble-fingered pianist with four more incisors in his mouth, which gave him, “more space in my mouth, more range.” But where did he come from? How did he arrive with the skills and presence that he possessed?
Hollywood has still not arrived at a palatable version of brown portrayal. Too often there is a tendency to gloss over cultural and ethnic syllabary. Bohemian Rhapsody perpetuates that reductionism.
The movie disassembles Freddie Mercury’s heritage in one quick scene. Farrokh Bulsara was born in Zanzibar, spent most of his childhood in India, and all of his adulthood in England. Oh, and he is of Persian ancestry.
Perhaps the fact that the world knows so little about Freddie Mercury before Freddie Mercury is deliberate. Few interviews dove into his ethnicity and even when the interview did, Mercury’s response was curiously affected, “I’ll always walk around as a Persian popinjay.” (3:14-3:19 in video clip)
This reference to his Persian ancestry is one way that the singer so skillfully re-engineered his identity. Connections to Persia — the origin of his religious affiliation — are often invoked, misleadingly.
Between the 8th and 10th centuries, Persians who followed the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) escaped from religious persecution in Persia to find safe haven in the western side of India — in Gujarat, Mumbai and Diu. Over the next hundreds of years, the Parsis set down roots in India. Bomi and Jer Bulsara, Mercury’s parents, belonged to the Parsi community of India practicing the Zoroastrian faith.
The surname Bulsara has its origins in the township of Bulsar in Gujarat.
Bohemian Rhapsody alludes to Mercury being Persian, as does a documentary produced by the Biography channel, calling Mercury: “Persian by ancestry and Indian by nationality.” Even Mercury’s relatives play the game. Roger Cooke, Mercury’s brother-in-law is quoted in The Guardian as saying, “He was accused of denying his Indian heritage. I don’t think he ever did, but if he did, it would have been because he was Persian.”
How does that work out? An ancestry defined by a 1,000-year-old migration?
“Did you know that Freddie was born in Zanzibar?” Mercury’s mother, Jer Bulsara, asks his bandmates in the movie. At the brief, uncomfortable pause, Mercury’s sister coquettishly delivers the witticism that Freddie was “born in London—at the age of eighteen.”
That remark has more truth than wit, though, telling viewers that Freddie Mercury’s heritage—beyond being British—is irrelevant and incidental.
Even before his metamorphosis to Queen’s front man, Mercury may have been constructing his English identity carefully and precisely. Certainly, British clout infused the cultural settings he found himself in throughout his life.
Zanzibar, where Farrokh was born, was a British protectorate. Bomi Bulsara worked as a cashier at the British colonial office in Zanzibar. At that time Indians were considered British subjects and as such occupied a privileged place in the social firmament.
When he was seven years old, Farrokh was sent to St. Peter’s Boy’s School in Panchgani, Maharashtra, a missionary school established by the British in 1902, funded by a donation made by Miss Mary Ashlin to the Colonial and Continental Church Society in London, which invested the money in the school “with the duty of forming and instructing the natives,” as written in The Scottish Church and Missions to the Heathen.
At an early age, Farrokh was introduced to the idea of British patronage. Some reports claim he came to be called Freddie while at the school. It was at St. Peter’s that he read literature, learned to play the piano, tuned his ear to western classical composers like Chopin, Mozart and Debussy, and became part of a musical band.
The countries that Freddie Mercury lived in outside of Britain shaped his allegiance to Britain. He understood the class structures of English society, and the privilege vested in Tom, Dick or Freddie.
In the movie, the picture of Queen Elizabeth II hanging on the wall of the Bulsara home suggests the household’s reverence for the royal structure in England, inculcated most likely as subjects of Britain in her colonial territories. The band name Queen, a clever pun, was also a reminder of that obsession. In an interview, Mercury remarks that the name “seemed outrageous at the time.”
It’s clear that his Indian ethnic erasure was carefully planned and executed, perhaps that’s why the movie had such a hard time with it.
One reference to Freddie Mercury’s Indian heritage is wrapped up in being catcalled “Paki,” a racial slur. And his parents and sister are mere caricatures in the high drama of Mercury’s multi-dimensional swagger.
For Mercury, music was his currency. He methodically stripped all the other details from his persona.
In a scene heavy with purport, while Freddie’s mother is showing his bandmates pictures of his youth, Freddie sings himself a birthday ballad, while staring meaningfully at the mirror.
For many of us, identity is about where we live or lived, who we love, and who came before us. But for Mercury, it was about what he wanted the looking glass to see in him. Mercury crafted his own reflection, allowing only those parts that he summoned up. And the mirror showed us a legend.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.
Oct 18, 2018 - Jan 21, 2019
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA
Oct 21, 2018 - Dec 15, 2018
1:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Learn to Meditate Class
Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, San Jose CA
Nov 29, 2018 - Feb 16, 2019
11:00 am - 7:00 pm
An Indo-U.S. Cultural Saga
DAG, Mumbai Maharashtra
Dec 7, 2018 - Jan 4, 2019
Yoga Teacher Training In India
Rishikesh, Rishikesh Uttarakhand
May 27, 1996.
The Indian Parliament is hotly discussing a no-confidence motion. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister as well as a poet, rises in defense of the government and waxes poetic about his vision for Mother India:
Thirty crore faces hath She, yet
She hath only one body and soul.
Eighteen spoken languages hath She, yet
She hath only one thought.
A glorious poem, to be sure. But it isn’t his poem, (as he himself acknowledges); it is that of a Tamil poet who lived about a hundred years earlier. The poem doesn’t help Vajpayee stay in power – he resigns after just 13 days in office. And the numbers in the poem are wrong for modern India — we have added a few more faces to the thirty crore since the poet’s days and a few more languages to the list of recognized languages, but these details do not detract from the grandeur and relevance of Subramania Bharati’s vision for a united India. Like all visionaries, he dreamed big, unfettered by reality and by our frailties. His dream, elusive then, is elusive now too.
For a mere mortal to try to do justice to a giant’s glory is naïve at best, but this mere mortal (aka the author) happened to study in the same school that this giant did — M. D. T. Hindu College School, as it was called then, in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, and walked on the hallowed ground this great one had blessed by his presence. So, he has an irrepressible urge to celebrate his revered idol’s glory which blinds him to his limitations, hence this vain essay to sing his praise. Certainly, the easiest way to destroy fine poetry is to translate it, but he will do it anyway, for the poet’s immortal words are seared deep in his brain.
Bharati was born as Subramanian in a humble Brahmin family in Ettayapuram near Tirunelveli on December 11, 1881. When he was just 11, the Ettayapuram king at that time recognized Goddess Saraswati dancing on Subramanian’s silver tongue and bestowed on him the title “Bharati,” a title that was destined to become his name itself. Bharati studied in Tirunelveli, and, after his parents’ death, he continued studies in Varanasi where he gained a broader outlook. Back in Madras Presidency as an adult, he wielded his mighty pen, both as a poet and as an editor of various magazines, arousing patriotism and resistance to the British rule. When he was about to be arrested by the British, he fled to the French-ruled city of Pondicherry and continued his mission from there. He associated with freedom fighters like Gokhale and Lajpat Rai. After establishing himself as an undisputed poetic genius, he departed this world while he was back in Madras at the young age of 39. following an unfortunate attack by a temple elephant.
A roaring flame was thus extinguished prematurely. Sad indeed.
As a poet, Bharati was as diverse as he was prolific, treading multiple landscapes with ease: nationalism, bhakti, nature, women’s amelioration, and his vision for a casteless society. Stylistically, he was a Hemingway among poets; he revolutionized poetry by employing simple Tamil, thus making it accessible to the masses. We’ll try to sample his glory along three dimensions: patriotism, his revolutionary spirit, and bhakti.
Bharati’s patriotism is set in the context of colonial India. Of Winston Churchill’s rousing, patriotic speeches to his nation during WWII, Edward R. Murrow famously said that he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. Bharati did much the same, employing Tamil against the British. In his poem “vandE mAtaram,” he asks:
A thousand may be the castes we have, still
A foreigner to rule us, is that just?
Those born from the same mother’s womb,
Even if they quarrel, siblings are they not?
Bharati’s artillery of rhetorical questions (especially when read in Tamil) never fails to arouse an intense feeling.
But, if Bharati’s criticism of the British rule was scathing, his disapproval of his own brethren for their disunity and petty squabbles was scorching. In his famous poem “nenju porukkudilaiyE,” (My heart can’t take it), he laments:
“It’s a five-headed snake,” the father would say, but
“It’s six-headed,” should the son say,
Their hearts will part ways, and then
For long they’ll remain foes.
Behind the façade of an amusing analogy lurks a searing pain in the poet’s heart, intense and unmistakable.
Bharati never allowed himself to be circumscribed by regional boundaries. In his poem “Bharata Desam,” in the verse “sindu nadiyin misai,” which is set to a delightful movie melody, he says:
On the Indus river, under a (lovely) moon,
Surrounded by (pretty) young women from Kerala,
Singing songs (heartily) in beautiful Telugu,
We will row the boats and play (in joyous merriment).
The river chosen is from the far northwest of pre-partition India, the women are from Kerala, the language of the songs is Telugu, and the poet is Tamil. Is there an iota of parochialism in this divine poet?
In his revolutionary spirit, Bharati was way ahead of his times. He denounced casteism with full throated fervor. In “vandE mAtaram,” he says of the so-called low castes:
“Lowly” pariahs they may be, but
Do they not live amongst us?
Does it make them Chinese? Or,
Harm us, do they, like those foreign?
Another volley of uncomfortable rhetorical questions leaves us squirming with shame! (The “Chinese” here is just a proxy for someone from an alien culture.)
Bharati championed women’s upliftment tirelessly. His “pudumai peN,” or modern woman, retains the best of our culture while discarding her shackles. In his “peNgaL viDudalai kummi,” or, a dandiya raas dance celebrating women’s liberation, the women sing:
To talk about chastity they’ve come, but
It’s common to both parties, we’ll insist.
In a land where the monogamous hero of the Ramayana is venerated, requiring chastity exclusively of one gender is a clear abomination but society had legitimized it, and Bharati’s pudumai peN would not take it lying down. In “pAnchAli sabadam,” or “Draupadi’s Vow,” Bharati’s rendition of a portion of Mahabharata, this pudumai peN dons the mantle of Draupadi. When she is dragged to the royal court after she had been gambled away as property and lost, she demands to know what right Yudhishthira had, to gamble her away after he had lost himself. When the illustrious pitamaha, Bhishma, dolefully responds that the shastras do allow it, Bharati’s Draupadi drips with sarcasm and says (in section 27):
Speak well did thou, Sir, of dharma.
Back when Ravana, with deceit, abducted,
And imprisoned Lady Sita in Ashoka Garden,
And called his counsel and connoisseurs of shastras,
And apprised them of the tidings of Sri Devi’s capture,
“Thou did well, Sire; with dharma, this act
Fully conforms,” did rejoice these connoisseurs!
When ghouls rule, shastras will recommend a diet of cadavers, (won’t they?)!
If words could kill, this last line of Bharati’s Draupadi would have incinerated that entire court, including the guilt-ridden Yudhishthira.
Finally, Bharati’s bhakti is tender, uplifting, and imaginative. His “kaNNan pATTu,” a collection of songs about Krishna, is legendary and extends the imagination of the Azhvar saints of South India, who had already viewed Kannan (Krishna) as their own child (Periyazhvar and Tirumangai Azhvar in Yashodha-bhAvam) or as their beau while imagining themselves to be a woman (Nammazhvar and Tirumangai Azhvar in nAyika-bhAvam). This latter view is often seen as the longing of the individual soul for the Supreme Soul. To these traditional views, Bharati adds several more: Kannan is his belle (how dare he?) with a name of Kannamma, his servant (o, what chutzpah!), his friend, his mother, his father, his king, his sishya, and his guru. It is indeed Bharati’s imagination and revolutionary spirit to view Kannan in these non-traditional ways, but regardless of the particular view, he always expresses quintessential bhakti. In “Asai mugam marandu pochchE” (Alas, His face is gone from my memory), the pining damsel conveys a haunting anguish about being unable to recall her separated lover Kannan’s face vividly. A musical rendition of this poem conveys that heart-rending heartache through its sublime melody (though one must be willing to overlook the singer’s annoying mispronunciation of the first word of the poem). In “kaNNan en sEvagan” (Kannan, My Servant), the poet voices his frustration about the previous servants he’s had:
“Why a no-show yesterday, pray tell?” – Should I ask,
“That scorpion in the pot bit me with its very teeth, Sire,” – they’d say
“The wife was possessed by a demon, Sire” – they’d say
“’Twas the 12th day of my grandmother’s passing, Sire” – they’d say
Always a lie they’d tell; If I tell them one thing, they’ll do another.
While we’re still picturing with amusement that Guinness-eligible scorpion that is blessed with shark-like teeth, the poet is already describing the bliss that Kannan brings him as his servant:
A friend, a counsel, a good teacher – He’s all.
In character, a God; in looks, a servant;
He came from God-knows-where; “a cowherd, Sire,” announced He,
To be blessed with Him here, O, what penance have I done!
As the poet holds forth on the glory of his divine servant, our heart brims with unspeakable gratitude at His love and caring, and we get ready to prostrate at this servant’s feet.
Finally, in “KaNNammA en kAdali – 6” (Kannamma, my sweetheart), the poet describes how complementary he and Kannamma are to each other (Sudha Raghunathan’s rendering here):
A star, You are to me; the cool moon, I am to You;
Bravery, You are to me; triumph, I am to You;
All the bliss in this world and heaven,
Blend so well into your form, O, my sweet nectar!
Isn’t that how all relationships with the significant other ought to be?
We conclude with Bharati’s prayer to Siva Shakti, or Goddess Shakti. Bharati saw the human being, including himself, as the ultimate in divine creation. In “nalladOr veeNai seidE” (Priya Sisters soulful rendering here), he uses the metaphor of a finely crafted veena to refer to himself. For the Mother Goddess to let him waste his life is tantamount to Her throwing that exquisite veena in trash. So, he says:
Will you not bless me with the ability
To live so this land gains from me?
Tell me, O, Shiva Shakti,
Will you rather let me live as a burden on this land?
What a noble aspiration! So, here’s hoping that we, those metaphorical veenas, forever fill the air with the sublime melody of usefulness to others, the melody that She intended for us to create! The poet’s immortal spirit will brook nothing less from us.
Hamsanandi (real name: Vijay Pitchumani) is an engineer living in Fremont, California, with his wife, Sheela. Together they run an effort called Heritage-of-India classes, which currently teaches the Divya Prabandham online. They can be reached at the gmail id of hoiclasses.
On a crisp December morning, writer Anita Felicelli and I meet up at Madras Cafe, where between sips of filter coffee and bites of steaming idlis, we discuss her debut collection of short stories, Love Songs for a Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press, October 2018). Felicelli’s prize-winning stories join a growing number of short story collections by South Asian writers and fill a critical gap in narratives by South Asian women. In Love Songs for a Lost Continent, we find thirteen stories that are a beautiful amalgamation of myth, magical realism, and present-day challenges that go beyond the realm of immigrant life stereotypes. Abuse, infertility, the loss of a child, casteism, gender, and identity politics, are just some of the themes in this riveting short story collection.
Felicelli is a graduate of UC Berkeley and UC Berkeley School of Law. Her short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Normal School, Kweli Journal, Joyland, Juked, and other journals. Her essays and reviews have been published in the New York Times, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as India Currents. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and anthologized. Born in South India, Felicelli grew up in the Bay Area, where she lives with her family.
Shikha Malaviya (SM): This collection literally had me jumping with joy. At last, someone is telling our stories in a unique and interesting way. What was the genesis of this collection? How did some of these stories come about? As a child of immigrants, I assume you’ve been inspired by real life, but you’ve managed to delve deep under the surface. Tell us more, please.
Anita Felicelli (AF): Thank you so much! I wrote the stories in this collection over decades without quite realizing that they would eventually come together as a collection. After I wrote the title story, I realized that I kept writing about reinvention, about people who transgress the stories that society tells them about their identities. I noticed that I had an obsession with the kinds of people who want to tell their own stories, author their own lives, and yet, when they did try to break away from their identity, they often lost something of importance. And memory, too, had a role in these stories, the ways in which memory can hold us back from reinvention, but also how malleable memory is when authoring our lives.
SM: You said, ‘Identity is a story we tell ourselves until it gets disrupted by other stories.’ That is such a powerful statement. Can you elaborate? I love how you illustrate this through the reoccurrence of characters within different stories, which enables the reader to see different perspectives.
AF: In my fiction, I’m interested in how people of different identities and worldviews are forced into a reckoning of who they truly are and how solid their identity really is. The reckoning usually occurs through confrontation with someone of a different identity and worldview. I think many South Asian immigrant narratives are interested in telling stories of a particular community, where those in that community agree about their collective identity. But my interest is in how each of us has certain stories we tell ourselves, some of those stories received from a community and others we’ve invented from life experience, and what happens to our sense of reality when we run up against other people’s desires and stories.
SM: You’ve also mentioned how ‘outsiders don’t have fairytales.’ And, yes, I agree, this is true. So many of your stories are inspired by folktales and fairytales with elements of the fantastical such as “Deception,” about a woman whose marriage is arranged with a tiger, “Once Upon the Great Red Island,” in which man and animal bond, ultimately fusing, and “Rampion,” which is a unique take on Rapunzel. As outsiders, what is the purpose of fairytales? As immigrants, isn’t the idea of a fairytale life what lured us across oceans in the first place?
AF: I like that, and yes, I think there is a fairytale America has exported about itself in the past that has drawn immigrants to it. Fairytales and folktales are stories that reveal what a society believes, or at least what a society thinks is important to express. And by society, I really mean the insiders of a society. For example, the fairytale Rapunzel is told from the perspective of a couple and their child, while my story, Rampion, is told from the perspective of the villain in Rapunzel, someone struggling with infertility and loss. So much storytelling is for the benefit of a society’s insiders, what will resonate with a majority of listeners or readers. With this collection, I wanted to generate the same rough magic for outsiders and told from the margins, rather than to and from insiders.
SM: Your stories are brimming with birds, flowers, and animals like the mysterious indri (Babakoto lemur). One senses this uneasy yet inextricable tangle between man, earth and animal, this primal yearning to find a way to strike a balance, and to also be consumed by what we don’t understand. How conscious were you of this aspect while writing your stories.
AF: I wasn’t conscious of this while I first drafted the stories, but I noticed it during revision, and it was part of what allowed me to select certain stories for the collection and leave out others. While revising the final drafts, I was conscious of wanting to keep a certain fragile mysteriousness and wildness to the stories. I don’t enjoy fiction that is overly manicured or predictable or only about humans in their metal and wood and plastic manmade environments. I wanted to write stories that I would like to read.
SM: The characters in your stories are introspective. As readers, we follow their thought process and experience their emotions and epiphanies. All of these characters live disrupted lives and though they grasp for resolution, it’s hard to come by. Whether it’s Kathy from “Kathy and Hema,” who resents her friend for breaking the norm of a studious, ambitious Asian immigrant and running off with her soccer coach or in “The Art of Losing,” Maisie’s angst for her troubled son, Drew, who has met with a horrific accident or in “Love Songs for a Lost Continent,” the Fulbright scholar searching for mythical Kumari Kundam, who loses someone he loves. Did you mean for this ambiguity? What do you hope the reader will take from it?
AF: Yes, I love ambiguity in stories. I’ve been haunted since childhood by Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 anthologized short story The Lady or the Tiger, in which a king tries to punish his daughter’s lover by offering him a choice between two doors. Behind one is a lady he will have to marry and behind the other is a tiger. It’s not clear at the end which one the king’s daughter has told her lover to choose. Would she choose for herself the emotion of jealousy or grief? I love the space Stockton made for readers by leaving the question for them to answer for themselves. I love reading when it’s a relationship between an author and a reader, a relationship in which the reader is given a little wiggle room for his or her subconscious to provide some answers, rather than a kind of tyranny.
SM: You’ve grown up and lived in the Bay Area for years. Did the familiarity of home compel you to set many of your stories here? Your stories visit other locales also, like Madagascar, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Why did you choose these settings?
AF: Most of what I write is set in the Bay Area, but as an immigrant, I’m also fascinated by ideas of migrating to other faraway places. I often wonder what it would have been like to be my parents, making their choice to immigrate in the ’70s even though we didn’t have any close family here. I’m also fascinated at how often travelogues and fiction from the perspective of white American writers traveling or moving elsewhere are published, while we very rarely are given access to travelogues and literary stories from the perspective of brown or black Americans who move to other places. I’m fascinated by the question of whether my relationship to other countries would be the same as a white American writer’s relationship to those places. One set of grandparents resisted colonialism, and also resisted caste, and I’ve leaned left, actively so, my entire life, but I often imagine what it would be like to tweak aspects of my identity to see whether those tweaks, those changes in the story I tell myself about myself, might cause me to make different choices in the world. Could I be a colonizer? Could I be the Man? Could I be one of the many quietly complicit? Under what circumstances? I’m so intrigued by those questions.
SM: You started off with a career in law but then decided to pursue a career that is considered off the beaten path for South Asian immigrants. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer and how has the response been from your family and the greater community?
AF: I knew I wanted to be a writer from the age of five. It was the only work I’ve ever wanted to do or for which I’ve had a genuine passion. My parents have been mostly supportive of me though perhaps they’ve been made anxious and unnerved by my compulsive interest in writing about matters that South Asians don’t often discuss. But also, as immigrants who are not from wealthy backgrounds, they’ve always made it clear I would need to find a job to support myself financially and that I would need to try to be excellent at anything I did regardless of how I felt about it. Both of them worked extremely hard. I was never allowed to slack on finding jobs that would pay me, nor did they ever suggest it was in the realm of possibility to rely on a spouse. I started babysitting when I was 11 and I’ve worked many other jobs since age 15 (in graphic design and the law), trying to figure out how I might be able to sustain myself while continuing to write literary fiction. Litigation was really a second or third career for me, and from the time I dipped my toes into that world, I knew I’d be able to force myself to swim there no more than a decade.
SM: What are you working on now?
AF: I’m working on a family saga that centers on an engineer who immigrates from Tamil Nadu to Silicon Valley and invents a memory machine.
Shikha Malaviya (www.shikhamalaviya.com) is an Indo-American poet & writer. Her book, Geography of Tongues, was featured in several literary festivals. Shikha is a co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a mentorship model literary press dedicated to new poetic voices from India and the Indian diaspora. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in PLUME, Prairie Schooner, Water~Stone Review & other fine journals. Shikha was a featured TEDx speaker in GolfLinks, Bangalore, where she gave a talk on poetry. She has been a three-time mentor for AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship Program and was selected as Poet Laureate of San Ramon, CA, 2016. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.
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Like most teenagers my age, I go to Google for answers. Several months ago when I turned to Google yet again, this time for information on veena makers, I realized that there is very little out there. While I found some YouTube videos on the art of veena making, there wasn’t much recorded on the people who make this beautiful instrument.
At the age of nine, while my friends were beginning their violin and piano lessons, I began lessons on the veena, a seven-stringed instrument, with roots in the Carnatic tradition of southern India, and the oldest continuously played instru- ment of the sub-continent.
Shaped similar to a sitar, the veena is played parallel to the ground unlike the sitar, which is played at an angle. It is often said that the veena produces sounds that are closest to the human voice. And then there’s its glorious history. Hindu religion and mythology has several figures known for their association with the veena, in- cluding the goddess Saraswati, the sage Narada, and the demon Ravana.
The modern fixed-fret Saraswati vee- na evolved in Thanjavur, a town richly steeped in the musical tradition of South- ern India during the 17th century. If Cremona in northern Italy is the seat of violin making, which includes the world famous Stradivarius violins, Thanjavur in southern India enjoys a similar reputation among veena players. It is here that the art of veena-making still flourishes, and the most popular style of veena today is the Thanjavur veena, which is a particular style of the Saraswati veena. Similar to Cremona violins, the name “ Thanjavur veena” immediately gives a stamp of cred- ibility to the quality of the instrument. The veena makers with the best reputations live in this temple town and make bespoke instruments for classical musicians.
Even though I have been playing this instrument for eight years, I had not had the opportunity to visit its birthplace, Thanjavur, which is just a one-hour flight away from my parents’ birth place of Chennai, an annual summer destination of mine. Imagine then, my excitement, this past summer, when my family finally planned a trip to Thanjavur! I was to final- ly get an opportunity to meet some of the artisans who make this ancient instrument.
I visited a veena maker called “Veena” Venkatesan. He lives in a modest two- story blue house with a high ceiling. His workshop is on the second-floor balcony overlooking a busy street. Venkatesan is happy to take a few hours from his busy schedule to talk to me.
How did you get started in this trade, I ask somewhat naively. His father Gov- indaswamy taught him the trade, he tells me, just as he is now preparing his son to succeed him. The art of veena making is handed down from generation to genera- tion.
Once we sit down, he immediately launches into detailing the craft. Usually a veena’s wood comes from the jackfruit tree. When I ask him why this particular wood is used, he answers: tradition and cost. However, he is quick to point out that many veena makers also use the more expensive rosewood, and occasionally, san- dalwood.
One interesting aspect is that it takes a 25 kg (~55 lbs) tree to make a 3 kg (~6.6 lbs) veena, since most of the wood must be hollowed out!
Because it’s such a large instrument, there are three types of veena based on its construction. The first is the “ekanda veena,” which is carved from one piece of wood. The second is the two-piece “akhan- da veena,” which is quite rare. The third is the “khanda veena,” in which the four main portions (Kumbha, Dandi, Vyala, and Kayi (the gourd)) are made separately, and then joined. Isn’t the veena made with one piece better than the two-piece veena, I ask, wanting to appear knowledgeable. Venkatesan is quick to correct the miscon- ception. In reality, he informs me, if joined properly a khanda veena can sound better than the one-piece veena.
Venkatesan strongly believes that one person should make the entire instrument for purposes of continuity. Making one instrument takes about twenty days from start to finish. However, it takes a very long time for an aspiring veena maker to acquire the skills needed to make a complete veena in this length of time. Venkatesan had to spend several years as an apprentice to his father on getting the woodwork right, before he was even al- lowed to lay the wax and place the frets! Such is the expertise and precision re- quired to make a fine instrument.
Now that he has so many years of experience on getting the tone perfect, he doesn’t need a supporting instrument such as the tambura.
There are 24 frets made of brass bars set into wax. Laying the wax is the toughest part of veena-making. It requires three and a half hours in a meditative state, and even after setting it multiple times, it may go off tune later. Venkatesan sees it as a product of one’s mental state. He likens it to expert carpenters, many of whom may have the physical skills and technical expertise, but only a few can achieve that meditative and reflective mood.
Given the years of apprenticeship in- volved, the level of skill, and the dedica- tion that is required to make a fine veena, Venkatesan estimates that only ten crafts- men in India can make veenas of the fin- est quality, with six of them living in the Thanjavur area.
However, he also debunked the my that it’s a dying art. He argues that veena- making has always been reserved for a select few, and that it only seems like it is a dying art in comparison to other instru- ments. While most instrument manufac- turers have expanded rapidly, a veena, of course, can only be made by hand and that too only by a select few.
Slowly, our conversation moves from the technical aspect of making the instru- ment to its historical and contemporary contexts.
I ask him whether he thought the government ought to do more in the way of support for craftsmen, a notion that he handily rejects. He points to an award hanging on his wall, from Poompuhar, the State Government agency. To him, a vid- wan’s (expert) praise means so much more than support from a government official who knows nothing of the craft.
Venkatesan finds solace in the peace of his work. In fact, he points, he can actually make more money making other wood products. However, none of them can offer the same divine quality of a veena’s sound and the spirituality associated with the instrument.
Not everyone feels the same way. He admits that no apprentice has ever approached him with a deep level of interest in the instrument. In fact, he tells me that I am the first person to have approached him with some interest in the craft, even if it is not professional. Nevertheless, he does not lament his situation or complain. Sur- rounded by his tools and the ingredients of the next beautiful veena, this master craftsman is at complete peace.
Meeting Veena Venkatesan is a rev-elation. As I leave his workshop, my thoughts whirl around my home in Silicon Valley where it seems the measure of a person’s success is the size of his home and the number of stock options that he has. However, for people like Venkatesan true wealth lies in the practice of his divine craft and the joy that it brings.
I come away filled with awe at both the art and its artist. The next time I pick up the veena to practice, I will pause to think about the dedication, skill, and commit- ment of its maker.
Anirudh Prabhu is a senior at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, CA. He learns veena from the renowned guru, Sri Srikanth Chary, and is a nationally-ranked debater.
First published in December 2015.
Ever so often I’m caught off guard by a question posed by my child. It has the quality of a zap to my system – like that of a rusty car battery being jump started out of its cold slumber. This was one of those moments.
Coming off of a hectic few weeks spent witnessing my father-in-law’s slow and steady decline in general health, and his subsequent passing, had left us all dealing – or trying our best to deal – with a whiplash of emotions. The one thing we all agreed upon was that nothing ever prepares you for the absence of a loved one. So when confronted with this question, “Amma, is Thatha a ghost now?” my mind stuttered to a halt, while it tried to figure out how to formulate an answer. Sensing there was more to the question, I resorted to the time-honored trick of parenting, and answered her question with a question of my own. “What gave you that idea?” I asked her, trying to buy time. My 6 year old pointed to the wall where her Pati’s (grandmother) picture hung with a garland draped over its edge. “You said he is now with God, but I don’t see him there,” she responded.
A young child’s mind is inventive, curious and eternally imaginative, but they also take things literally. This was ample proof of that fact. She understood that when people die, their heart stops. This much was clear. She had been told that they are with God after this moment. And she almost always saw their pictures hanging on walls and home shrines – so she was sure they were with the Gods. Simple. Elementary. When she came to pay her last respects to her grandfather, I saw her pause, unprepared for the sight of her Thatha laid out on a straw mat, as the priest did the needful. And I remember thinking how woefully inept the human condition is at dealing with death. Because despite having attended several final viewings and funerals, I was having a hard time of it myself.
Condolence messages came in a variety of flavors – “He had a full life… and a good death,” “At least he did not suffer,” “Oh he lived to a ripe old age…”. There were the quiz style delivery of questions, designed to extract every little factoid and nugget of detail leading up to his last breath. Then there were those who offered comfort without uttering a single word – just by their presence alone. All of them were well intentioned.
For those like us, Non Resident Indians (NRIs), there is one phone call we dread receiving – that of a parent who is critically ill, or worse. The memory of one such call when my mother-in-law passed is still fresh in my mind. I kept reminding myself that we were fortunate to have had some time with my father-in-law during his final weeks. We were able to offer marginal comfort through our presence, and help in whatever little way we could. He enjoyed the antics of his grand daughter and great grandsons. I am sure that brought him joy. In this, we were truly blessed.
The role of rituals:
An individual’s passing does two things to those they leave behind. It renders them numb to most emotions. And it also leaves them with a void that seems impossible to fill. This is the juncture where rituals take center stage. In almost all the cultures of the world, death rituals are an important part of life. I suspect they have been devised to keep the living firmly rooted in the present. We began the rituals almost immediately under the guidance of the priest. And they lasted 13 days. Metaphysical facts and beliefs aside, they served the unquestioned purpose of bringing a family, and a community together. Most forgot their differences and joined us. Others were present on the fringes, but were nevertheless there. Death was indeed the ‘Great Leveler.’
Once the communal meal on the 13th day was done, our immediate family gathered to reminisce about the lives of two individuals who were deeply mourned. It was our own version of a memorial service. A family elder suggested we eulogize the parents who had given so much to see us all happy and content as we were today. And so we did just that. Remembered. Laughed. Cried. And most importantly – found strength in each other. To my mind, this was the single most cathartic ritual we experienced since that fateful Sunday morning when death came calling at our door. It was needed. It was welcomed. And we were all the better for having shared in its unified strength.
But once this was done, I was left searching for a way to help my child deal with her sense of the events. In her young life, she had interacted with her grandfather on her annual visits to India. Aside from this, their tenuous bond was established through gadgets; iPads, WhatsApp, FaceTime… and others of their ilk. There was no question that he was part of what she considered her family unit. And as such, she did feel his loss. Equating his suddenly empty home with the lack of his physical presence, she was trying to express her loss through her limited vocabulary. Her favorite question being ‘Why’?! “Why did he have to die Amma?”, was followed by “Is he with Pati now?” And then came the one I knew was waiting its turn. “Will you die one day and leave me behind?” I must admit that one took my insides on a cringe-worthy roller coaster ride.
So I was back to the pressing question – how do I help my little girl deal with loss? Or is it better to shelter a child from such truths?
Dr. Ujwala Agharkar – Child Psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente, Fremont – cautions parents against shielding children from loss. “Sometimes adults, parents, do not want to talk about it, in the interest of protecting their children. Often it is because they have to internalize and come to terms with their own loss”, she says. She has found that while it is good to present a strong example in the face of grief, there is no need to appear stoic at all times. This is true especially of men. “It is normal, and totally acceptable to model vulnerability. Our kids should see and understand our soft spots! They will also understand that no matter what you go through, you will be there for them,” says Dr. Agharkar. Letting children know that you can handle things together, with mutual help and consideration is the best way to deal with such situations.
Having said this, Dr. Agharkar admits you cannot generalize dealing with grief. “With children, you have to take their individual mental development into consideration first and foremost. The quality of their relationship with their departed loved one is also important,” she states. Oftentimes,children can present behavioral problems when they are not able to deal with their emotions. Such problems vary from pretending nothing has happened, withdrawing from social contact, or emotional upheavals and defiance. While it is not possible to generalize, working through grief and loss is different with younger children. A child of six for example, has no abstract concept of a ‘soul.’ To them, this is not a tangible idea and they cannot visualize it. In the absence of a gravesite, younger children need more of a concrete physical form – like a picture on the wall or shrine – to help with their healing, in addition to talking them through their emotions.
Just as rituals, religious or otherwise, help adults deal with death and grief, formulating a set of rituals with a younger child gives them something tangible to relate to.
The Memory Box:
Turning to the all-knowing Google Gods, I found a wonderful resource in my search for ideas on coming up with my own version of rituals to help my child. Titled “The Memory Box” – A book about grief, it is written by Joanna Rowland who is a kindergarten teacher and children’s book author. The book is beautifully illustrated by Thea Baker who is known internationally as a children’s illustrator.
The story line revolves around a little girl who loses her favorite red balloon while walking in a park, and this event reminds her that nothing can compare to the a recent loss of someone she loves. Detailing her sadness and emotions, she takes us through the many ways she tries to hold on to her memories by making a Memory Box, filling it with sand and sea shells from a favorite beach, pictures from trips, and collecting memories from family and friends to add to her own. In addition to helping her come to terms with her loss, it also helps her make peace with a fear that she might one day in the future, forget her loved one. The Memory Box gives her a tangible sense of holding on to her memories. And this helps her heal and grow.
My daughter has been keenly aware of the loss of her grandfather with the recent festival season. As a mark of respect to the departed, we refrained from celebrating Dussera and Diwali this year. It is our period of mourning. Instead, we started to work on our Memory Box. Naturally, she kept up an unending stream of questions as we began our project. But I gently introduced her to the idea that maybe we should consider her grandparents as ‘spirits‘ now. It is our memories that keep them alive in our hearts and minds. And since she still believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, maybe it is ok to let her associate the word ‘ghost‘ with the ones we see during Halloween.
At least until I have a better answer to her more esoteric questions about life and death.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.
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A Chinese scientist from a university in Shenzhen claims he has succeeded in creating the world’s first genetically edited babies. He told the Associated Press that twin girls were born earlier this month after he edited their embryos using CRISPR technology to remove the CCR5 gene, which plays a critical role in enabling many forms of the HIV virus to infect cells.
Whether the claims are true or false, one thing is clear: We are entering an era of designer babies. Scientists will soon be able to edit human embryos with the aim of eliminating debilitating disease, selecting physical traits such as skin and eye color, or even adding extra intelligence. Our understanding of the effects of the technology is in its infancy, however.
The technology is CRISPR: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Discovered by scientists only a few years ago, CRISPRs are elements of an ancient system that protects bacteria and other single-celled organisms from viruses, acquiring immunity to them by incorporating genetic elements from the virus invaders. CRISPRs evolved over millions of years to trim pieces of genetic information from one genome and insert it into another. And this bacterial antiviral defense serves as an astonishingly cheap, simple, elegant way to quickly edit the DNA of any organism in the lab.
Until recently, experimenting with DNA required sophisticated labs, years of experience, and millions of dollars. The use of CRISPRs has changed all that. CRISPRs work by using an enzyme — Cas9 — that homes in on a specified location in a strand of DNA. The process then edits the DNA to either remove unwanted sequences or insert payload sequences. CRISPRs use an RNA molecule as a guide to the DNA target. To set up a CRISPR editing capability, a lab only needs to order an RNA fragment and purchase off-the-shelf chemicals and enzymes, costing only a few dollars.
Because CRISPR is cheap and easy to use, it has both revolutionized and democratized genetic research. Thousands of labs all over the world are experimenting with CRISPR-based editing projects. There are few regulations worldwide, even in the United States, largely because regulators don’t understand what has become possible. China has taken the lead because it puts scientific progress ahead of all concerns. It has made the most astonishing breakthroughs.
In 2014, Chinese scientists announced they had successfully produced monkeys that had been genetically modified at the embryonic stage. In April 2015, another group of researchers in China published a paper detailing the first ever effort to edit the genes of a human embryo. The attempt failed, but it shocked the world: this wasn’t supposed to happen so soon. And then, in April 2016, yet another group of Chinese researchers reported it had succeeded in modifying the genome of a human embryo in an effort to make it resistant to HIV infection.
The intentions may be good, but this has transgressed a serious boundary. We know too little to predict the broader effects of altering or disabling a gene. In the 1960s, we imagined rather naïvely that as time went by we would understand with increasing precision the role of each gene in making us what we are. The foundation of genetics for decades, once biology’s Central Dogma, was the hypothesis that each gene codes for a single protein. Knowing the correspondences, we would have tools useful not only for research but also for curing and preventing disease with a genetic basis and perhaps for augmenting human evolution.
The one-gene-one-protein Central Dogma, though it continues to pervade our common beliefs about genetics, underwent conversion when scientists realized many proteins comprise several polypeptides, each of which was coded for by a gene. The Dogma therefore became one gene, one polypeptide. But what sounded the entire Dogma’s death knell was the discovery in the early 1970s that a single gene can code for more than one protein. The discovery that the human genome contains only about 30,000 genes to code for some 90,000 proteins brought that home; but what makes our understanding appear spectacularly inadequate is the discovery in 2000 that a single gene can potentially code for tens of thousands of proteins.
In a nutshell, we don’t know the limits of the new technologies, can’t guess what lifetime effects a single gene alteration will have on a single individual, and have no idea what effects alteration of genes in sperm or ova or a fetus will have on future generations. For these reasons, we have no knowledge of whether a particular modification of the human germline will be ultimately catastrophic, and no basis for considering that tampering with heritable genes can be humane or ethical.
With an awareness of our ignorance in this area, the 2015 announcement of genetic modification of a human embryo led to global debate, and a handful of governments temporarily banned gene editing of live human embryos as well as the genetic modifications of the human germline (the DNA that will create future generations) for imparting beneficial traits such as height or intelligence. But in February 2017, an advisory body from the National Academy of Sciences announced its support for using CRISPR to edit the genes of embryos to remove DNA sequences that cause serious heritable diseases. And the Chinese are clearly proceeding with experimentation too, as the announcement by Shenzhen researchers showed.
The reality is that we have arrived at a Rubicon. Humans are on the verge of finally being able to modify their own evolution. The question is, can we use this newfound superpower in a responsible way that will benefit the planet and its people — or will this be a race for scientific glory and profit?
Vivek Wadhwa is Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley and Harvard Law School. This post is partly derived from his book The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.
I first went to Mashobra in 2010 when my parents bought a summer home there. This idyllic little locale about 10 kilometres north east of Shimla, is the perfect embodiment of untouched natural beauty. Somewhere between a village and a small town, it’s somewhat like a tiny hamlet with a population of about 5,000 people. Perched at a height of 7,400 feet, it is away from all the touristy hustle-bustle of the state capital. Walk by a quaint trail off the main road and this gets you to the Garden Resort at Sabina Orchard, where the house is located, tucked away in a corner, having trees laden with apple blossoms, passages lined with white roses and lush green gardens fenced with hydrangeas.
A small, quiet place after Delhi’s hurried life, we took to it immediately—and it soon became our little weekend getaway. We would come to detox our lungs and switch off our gadgets, while simply reveling in the sheer splendor of nature. Mashobra is filled with numerous charming strolls, walking trails and romantic drives overlooking pretty old houses with monkeys swinging from tree to tree. It has all the necessary ingredients for a holiday that includes misty windows, heavenly sunsets, green grass, bright colorful flowers, delicious fruit, cups of steaming hot tea, cream rolls from the local bakery, and piping hot samosas and jalebis from the neighboring sweet shop. The broad variety of trees—pine, cedar, oak, deodar, rhododendron and maple—and the rich expanse of flowers— roses, hydrangeas, tulips, daffodils—all leave you spellbound. Initially, it was an ideal spot for us to escape Delhi’s heat and pollution over a long weekend or two, and a truly revitalizing break it was indeed—with us engulfing the cool fresh air into our lungs and absorbing all the quaint sights and sounds around us.
However, we soon realized that what’s most interesting about this unassuming destination is that every summer, a population of close to 100 retired silvers—a majority of whom are from a services background—come from metropolitan cities like Delhi-NCR, Chandigarh and Jaipur and stay in Mashobra and nearby Baldia and Naldehra, for months together, where they have invested in summer retreat homes. Exotic lunch parties are held almost every single day, and people as old as 85 dress up in their finest clothes and jewels to attend them, after which they take long walks, playing golf and card games together in the hills. In spite of various health ailments, their spirit for fun is commendable.
Since most of the retirees are drawn from the military forces (army, airforce, etc.), there is a lot of discipline in terms of timings set for social events. So, the parties start on time and wind up early—evening plans wind up early too, with most families in bed by 9 pm. In a nutshell, it’s adherence to a healthy lifestyle of ‘early to bed, and early to rise,’ where people wake up with the birds at sunrise, relish a lavish lunch followed by a long walk, and end the day early with a simple dinner of a soup and toast. Moreover, the pure fresh air and clear blue skies after the city’s dust and pollution has a visible therapeutic effect, as it helps them recuperate.
Owing to its popularity over the years, a number of big hotel chains such as Club Mahindra, Sarovar Portico and the Oberoi group have built properties in the area. Further, there are lots of lovely homestays, bed and breakfast places and home renting options for those who are looking for a more personalized and long-staying experience. There’s also Mashobra Greens, a popular camping site for the young and the adventurous.
After my parents retired, they began spending more time in Mashobra, living more like locals—rather than just tourists—throughout the long summer months. Being a small place, there are several conveniences— the market is a mere stone’s throw away. Here, you can find vegetables, fruits, groceries and other everyday items during your stay. For the fanciest of items—various types of cheeses, tomato ketchup, Bloody Mary mix, olives, soda and tonic water—there’s Manoj’s Departmental Store. If perchance it is unavailable on any given day, the item is promptly brought from Shimla the following day. Then, there is Rama Sweet Shop, where you can pick up fresh mithai, samosas, pakoras and other teatime snacks. There are also several cute little eateries in the market—like Mashobra Heights and Red Chilli—where you can grab a quick meal of some delicious rajma or kadi chawal.
Further, there is a well-stocked chemist, and even a small government hospital nearby in case of any medical emergency. On one of our walks, we also discovered a local tailor who stitches clothes and a cobbler who makes shoes as per one’s size and liking.
In short, there is really no need for one to wade through the crowds and traffic at the touristy Mall Road in Shimla for anything—as a Mashobra resident, you can find everything you possibly need right outside your doorstep. There aren’t a whole lot of “touristy” things to do in Mashobra. As I mentioned, most of the visitors are people who become long-staying residents. So, if you like to walk, then it’s paradise for you—because other than walking, you could curl up and read a nice book with a mug of hot coffee and gaze at the splendid view all around you. We found that one of the most picturesque walks in the area is an 18 kilometre long level road called Bekhalti. Surrounded by beautiful deodar forests, it is laced with the occasional waterfall that springs out of nowhere. The buzzing sound of cicada insects—nature’s very own background music—is all that surrounds you. After walking about three kilometres on this road from the main market, you reach the lovely Mahasu House, a kind of boutique hotel. Here, you could pause for a cup of tea or coffee while watching the magnificent panorama of the hills around.
There are other places that could make nice picnic spots if you want to make most of the outdoors. One of the popular ones is Craignano, about 2 kilometres away. Lying amid groves of trees and wild flowers, it has a beautiful Italian-style villa made by Italian photographer Chevalier Federico Peliti, who named it in the memory of his hometown. Set on a cliff, Craignano is encircled by small streams and a forest of pine and oak trees. The villa also includes a sprawling lawn, stone benches and night lamps that constitute the architectural style of the colonial era. It is also known for having the world’s highest water lift—with a height of around 7,657 feet. Made by the British in 1922, the lift is now used for supplying water to Shimla and other surrounding areas.
A short walk from Craignano gets you to the Regional Horticultural Research Station. Built in 1953 to conduct research on temperate fruits and flowers in the region, this 64-acre complex is also the country’s largest germplasm centre for apples, pears and cherries. The institute even houses a small museum showcasing various types of apples and pears cultivated in the area as well as a greenhouse housing a spread of blooming flowers. Locals can even pick up varieties of flowers and fruits from the nursery here to plant in their gardens.
Another walk worth exploring nearby is around the President’s summer retreat at Chharabra, about 2.5 kilometres away. The steep path leading up to it is shaded by tall, thick trees. One of the “touristy” exploits to indulge in is to view Priyanka Gandhi’s cottage which is situated close to the retreat. The house has been under construction for over a decade. The walk finally leads up to a helipad, which is perched high on the mountain. This is the helipad used by the President of India when he visits the retreat for a few days every summer. The view of the city from this point is spectacular, and on a cloudy day, it could easily feel like one is in heaven! Chharabra is also close to the sprawling Oberoi property, Wildflower Hall. One of the things to do here—though a tad expensive—is to have a leisurely brunch. Close by,you can find a little café that has some great masala tea overlooking a Tibetan market selling colorful woolens that you could carry back home.
Short day trips around Mashobra can easily be planned to places, such as Naldehra—about 13 kilometres away, where there is the country’s oldest 18-hole golf course—and Kufri—about 7 kilometres away, where you can stroll up to Mahasu Peak or visit the Himalayan Wildlife Zoo, having about 180 species of exotic migratory birds, white leopards, bears and antelopes. While in Naldehra, you could consider stopping for lunch at the Chalet’s, a pretty hotel built all in wood. Kufri is also known for its yak rides, so that’s an important experience not to be missed there.
To pick up and carry back home some of the flavors and memories of these hills, make a stop at Shivalik Food Products. Run by Mrs Jain, this little shop at the start of Sabina Orchards has some of the finest fresh fruit juices. There’s also Col Grover’s fruit pickle outlet. Located on the main road, it’s a great spot for some of the yummiest jams and pickles. The mushroom pickle was my favourite.
All in all, Mashobra has something for everyone—a great weekend getaway for the tired city dweller, a fun holiday spot for the young; and a home away from home for seniors!
By air: Shimla, the nearest airport, is about 13 kilometres away.
By rail: Kalka, the nearest railhead, is well connected to other major railway stations.
By road: Mashobra is about a three-hour comfortable drive from Chandigarh. There are regular bus services to Shimla, the closest town, from major cities like Delhi and Chandigarh.
- A pair of good walking shoes is a must to explore Mashobra in the best possible way.
- The sun is usually quite bright during the day. Always wear a hat and apply sunscreen when stepping out.
- Carry a light cardigan or jacket along with you as the temperature sometimes dips suddenly, especially after sunset. It is also a good idea to carry an umbrella along, as the sky could also become overcast anytime.
- The monkeys can be a bit of a menace in these parts. Make sure you do not have food items with you when out, as this will attract them.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com
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