Tag Archives: narratives

In An Anthology

26 Feb

A post I wrote on this blog more than 7 years ago took on a life of its own and first made its way to an online journal. I have the vaguest memory of receiving an email from the editor last year, mentioning it was going to be published in an anthology, to which my very enthusiastic response was:

“Oh, that’s wonderfzzzzzzzzz…..”

And so, when another emailed arrived two weeks ago, saying the book was now out, I had the pleasure of surprise all over again. It could be my family history of Alzheimer’s. Or the fact that I haven’t slept in 15 months. But yes, the anthology of which my piece is a part:

our stories too

 

 

Here is the link to the Amazon page. And here’s what the book is about:

Our Stories, Too is an eclectic collection of personal narratives by women from around the world: America, South Asia, Europe, Africa, and Australia. You will see in these stories how the very ordinary threads of our lives are interwoven with the grand tapestries of world history. We are all, the famous and the unknown, part of the fabric. Gathered from 2013 – 2015 on themes of home, place, belonging, trauma and life change over time, these stories will take you behind the scenes into the lives of thirty three women.

Among my deepest beliefs is that we are made of water, cells, and stories. This, combined with my lifelong interest in gender, makes me honored to be a storyteller among women sharing their histories.

Okay, thank you, byebye! See you next week with Truesday Talezzzzzzzz……………..

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Suffering September

11 Sep

This piece appeared under another title in India Currents magazine last Fall. I’m sharing it here, given that recent geo-political developments sadly keep it as relevant as ever.

Apologies for being AWOL. Daily life currently demands huge parts of me and the best I can do is ride the wave.

~

On a crisp September morning, a dozen years ago, I emerged into the sunshine feeling happy and ravenous. Having finished an intense summer at Syracuse University’s famed Newhouse School of Communications, I was easing into the Fall semester, thoroughly enjoying the thrill of learning. Breakfast was on my mind as I walked over to the Schine student center and waited in line for an omelet. Maybe I’ll add hash browns and toast, I was thinking, when an undergraduate student interrupted my thoughts.  “What are they showing on those screens,” she asked, and gestured toward two pull-down panels showing planes and buildings and smoke. “Probably a movie,” I shrugged and took my tray over to a table to watch. That omelet, those potatoes, and the carefully buttered toast grew cold and unwanted as I watched with dilated pupils and mouth agape a moment that changed the course of history.

Of course, when events occur that change lives, nations and entire lexicons, you hardly hear the warning bells right away. The enormity of shift that will follow isn’t always estimated accurately. Especially when you are a recently-turned 23-year-old who landed in the country with two bulging suitcases and a crock of naiveté. What I remember of the day is the not-so-flattering peach top I had worn with my jeans, a leaf pattern around the neckline. What I remember is running through the Bird library, to tell a family friend who had already heard. I remember being inundated with calls from folks in India, because nobody knew the difference between New York the city and the state—or maybe they didn’t care. I remember being in the World Trade Center, a mere three weeks earlier. I remember a picture taken in its foreground, young 20-somethings leaning into each other, laughing into the camera, unaware that this would be the last time we would see the twin towers standing.

 
You don’t need me to tell you that America changed that day, twelve years ago. Human anguish, horror and anger hit all life within a 1000-mile radius like a ton of bricks. Rhetoric and war and a decade long manhunt were only the most high-profile casualties of this emotional earthquake that equally crumbled bricks and the notions of security, terror and insularity. America darkened, its economy crashed, and against the backdrop of the nation’s struggles, my own newly-minted life in the country rode the crests and troughs of immigrant life. Industries creaked to a crawl, jobs grew scarce, and the then-President’s reaction to this atrocity bubbled over and scorched lands and people. Relatively cocooned in my student existence, grad school provided a buffer from the ugly realities of the next year. But there comes a time when the door is thrown open and you finally must walk.

The graduating class of 2002 walked out into a drastically changed reality—one of a tanked economy, financial uncertainty, and no warm welcome from a suddenly hostile America. Engineering students, fattened on stories of bulky sign-on bonuses and Silicon Valley embraces, felt like dethroned monarchs. Ph.D. candidates desperately delayed graduation for the next few years. Young people from India who never had to lift a finger in their lives were now grunting it out in food courts, temp jobs, and limited projects, the golden H1-B nowhere in sight. Many returned to their home countries. The ones with loans looked on in despair as ends simply refused to meet. America’s manpower loss, a small casualty in the face of the larger horror, was India and China’s gain.

Two years later, another war was announced. And I’ve always wondered how many rallied against it only for the havoc it would further wreak on their lives. Even as I traveled and worked and plodded along my own 20s journey of self-discovery, relationships and independent living, the rumble of 9/11 was never too far away. Millions before us were fed narratives of the American Dream, but we, those who arrived in the year of 9/11, saw the country at her naked worst—her breath craggy, her vision blurred, refracting her trauma on other innocents of the world.

I sometimes wonder how it must have felt, being part of the wave before that date seared in collective memory. To have known the tech boom, the easy green cards, the ubergenerous land of plenty. A country preceding brown skin hostility.  A time before I had to say my name, spell it out, and quickly share I wasn’t Muslim even to my fellow Indians, because my horns, you see, were simply waiting to burst from my skull if I happened to be one.

A dozen years later, as I write this from my serene couch in the heart of Silicon Valley, I marvel at how we survived—both America and I, on our respective but not discrete journeys. That we held on through the harsh times with resilience I didn’t know existed. That it is this country, and not the land of my birth, that has taken me on the ride of a lifetime—one I know is far from over yet.

Maybe we choose some of our difficulties. Or perhaps they choose us. We come out on the other side with battle wounds and weary spirits, but I live with the faith that I survived—and the hope that America, strange bedfellow in a stranger journey, will as well.

Little Life, Giant Joys

5 Jun

Early last year, I began volunteering for a local nonprofit that supports literacy for visually impaired children in developing countries. This is where I was introduced to Sudha. Whip-smart, thoughtful, and uncannily perceptive, Sudha had arrived in the United States from India in 1998. She worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley (surprise, surprise!) until an event occurred that changed her life. Sudha began to lose her sight. The decline was steady and unstoppable, and soon, she could only perceive light and shade, and hazy shapes. Her condition compelled her to quit her profession and I can only imagine how challenging things must have been for the young family.

She took refuge in her immense faith in Sai Baba and spent her days supported and loved by her spouse, daughter, and giant circle of Baba devotees who popped in and out of her home all day to check on her, sing bhajans of praise, and volunteer for worthy causes. A magnet who was never short of goodwill or company, Sudha attracted well-wishers to her by the force of her optimism, faith, and incredible ability to deeply listen to words and the sentiments behind them.

In the course of our work together, we brainstormed, strategized, chatted, laughed and swapped unique cultural nuggets in the manner of people from very different backgrounds. I’d drive her to events, subjecting her to ‘80s American music that must be anathema to someone with a Carnatic vocal background. She’d laugh at my ardent meat-eating ways. I would rant about how most Indians simply don’t consider non-religious charity a part of citizenship. We would talk long and deep about karma, life purpose, and what drove us to believe in an underserved cause. A beautiful singer, she frequently lent her voice and heart to fundraisers for our nonprofit, singing devotional songs that made the audience choke with emotion. I, who didn’t know what a Hari Katha was before we met, was stunned at the energy she generated across the auditorium—not just through her vocal chords, but from a deeper, divine place.

In the later months of last year, I saw much less of her, engaged as I was with family weddings, visits, and travel. This past February, Sudha went to India for eye surgery and treatment, in the hope of improving her condition. The last few months have been a whirl of the everyday, and we weren’t in frequent touch. Until she called 2 days ago. Patiently, she heard all my news, getting excited over the small measure of positive updates I had to share. Finally, when asked how she was, she stated without fanfare–in typical Sudha style—that her surgery had been successful, and she could see her own hand!

Between my exclamations of delight and tears of gratitude and her quiet joy at this restored gift, she asked to see me—for the very first time.
“I want to see you, your face,” she said.
“There’s a lot to see!” I laughingly warned her.
And I haven’t stopped smiling since. We plan to meet next week, along with the wonderful colleague through whom we were lucky to be acquainted, and I can’t wait to celebrate this thrilling blessing that has me sniffling in gratitude and wonder and overall bleeding heart foolishness.

So each time you read about one more horrific rape, or yet another mass shooting, whether the California drought alarms you or the murder of innocents by right wing organizations makes your flesh crawl–or you’ve just had a decidedly crappy day and are perched high on your pity pot–think about Sudha and her miracle, and know that there is joy and justice on god’s good earth.

If you have a message for my friend and colleague, feel free to leave it in the comments space and I’m happy to relay it to her. Now hand me a tissue, will you? Unfortunately, through boon and bane, the consistency of snot remains exactly the same.

*deafening trumpet*

Aah. Much better.

Documentary Review: Family Album

24 Sep

I am delighted to have made Chabi Ghosh’s acquaintance. She died in 2008, at the age of 91, unaware of my existence, never having met nor heard of me. How then, do I know she played the piano, was part of her college basketball team after delivering 2 girls, and had a naughty sense of humor that belied her nonagenarian-ness? For this and other stories, portrayed with simplicity and charming reserve, I have Nishtha Jain’s ‘Family Album’ to thank.

A documentary that I watched yesterday as part of the San Francisco South Asian Film Festival, Family Album generously allows the intersection of photographs, memory and cross-generational stories rather than forcing their paths to collide, and what struck me long after I had finished watching, was how little the filmmaker injected herself or her agenda onto the frames, letting the subjects speak for their own histories. And that is precisely what photographs become, irrespective of what we wish them to be—chroniclers of history, crystallized pieces of time that hold individual yet shared versions of stories that become the truth, regardless of the fleeting reality of the moment.

Taking us back to Calcutta’s old families and ancient baris (and reducing me to a quivering mess at the sight of all that achingly beautiful history), Jain introduces the viewer to clans that traces their kinship back to 38 generations, interviews multiple generations of the same family, facilitates their reminiscing ever so gently and occasionally, and asks very relevant questions.  Do we become our photographic memories? How do frozen frames elicit stories, how do we hold on to and pass on these stories, and in becoming the repositories of familial myths, how do we perpetuate stories? With one brief view of a family tree that abruptly ends after records of double-digit generations, the camera silently contemplates the white sheet of paper and we feel the story seeping away.

You guys know I’m a sucker for history. The confluence of time, architecture and the human narrative intrigues me. But what you may not know is that photography holds a terribly special place in my heart, given that I was born to my first teacher of this beautiful art form and am married to someone who continues my education in the field. For this and the reasons listed above, ‘Family Album’, a companion piece of City of Photos, struck a deep, resonant chord, but even without the personal context, is a delicate and valuable contribution to the world of documentaries. Catch it if you can lay your hands on it sometime. I reckon you won’t forget Chabi Ghosh in a hurry.

~~~

Updated to add: I wrote to the director, sharing this review with her, and here is her response:

Dear OJ,

Thanks for taking out the time and sharing your thoughts about Family Album. A lovely review. Reading it means a lot to me as I couldn’t be there in SF to present my film.
Yes, Chobi Ghosh is so endearing and unforgettable. I loved her spirit. She was about 90 when we were shooting, she had a clear photographic memory of things from her distant past but her present memory was very short. She wouldn’t remember things we had talked about a few minutes ago. In a way she was in a happy state. She was a great storyteller, there are many more stories in the footage. Unfortunately I couldn’t put everything in the film.
You can buy the DVD of City of Photos by making a payment on www.paypal.com to raintreefilms@gmail.com. It costs USD 40 plus shipping cost USD 5. This DVD is for home use only.
Warmly,
Nishtha