What is in a name?

Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;

And for thy name, which is no part of thee,

Take all myself.

William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet

My Mom likes to tell the story about how, on the first day of Montessori preschool, that I walked up to the teacher and proudly said, “My name is Aparna Sreenivasan, and you spell that: A P A R N A S R E E N I V A S A N.” Apparently the teacher told me how smart I was, and then I turned to my Mom and said, “Mom’s don’t go to this school, see you later.” As I bounced into my new world of school, she burst into tears.

I have always liked my name, Aparna, because in West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and even in California, it was unique. I also like my name because it has an ancient meaning. My first name, Aparna, is of Sanskrit origin, and has many meanings, “she is without debts,” is one of them, and no, it doesn’t mean that I have lots of money. Indeed it stems from Aparna’s other name, Parvati the goddess, who is infamously married to Lord Shiva, the destroyer, and the grumpiest of the three major Gods in the Hindu religion. Parvati has many other names: Gauri (her name as the mother of Ganesha), Kali (the warrior princess), and Durga (another warrior princess). But let’s get back to Aparna:

Aparna means without debts because she repays all of the devotion she is given by giving boons (gifts) to her devotees. She is also known as the “leafless one” because before she was Aparna, she was born as Uma the princess. Before Uma was born on Earth, she was a nymph in the heavens. At that time, Lord Brahma (the creator) was happily married to his wife Saraswati (the goddess of learning), and Lord Vishnu (the preserver) was enjoying his wife Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth). Shiva, however, was a consummate bachelor, and lived alone. The other Gods went to him and told him that a wife would benefit his grumpiness, and his life, but Shiva rejected the notion, as he was content. So the Gods sent down the Mother Goddess Sati, to be born on Earth as Uma, to Queen Mena and the great mountain King Himavan (also father of the Goddess Ganga).

Uma’s destiny was to marry Lord Shiva, so as she grew up as a young girl she was fascinated with him, his life on the Himalayan mountains, and his ascetic life. When it came time for her to be married, her father wanted to hold a Swayamvara. This tradition allowed the princess to choose her husband from all of the eligible Princes in the land. They would all come in their best attire, stand in a line, be introduced one by one, and the Princess would walk from Prince to Prince, with a garland in her hand. When she found the one she liked, she would garland him, and they would be married. I probably would have picked the hottest one with the best kingdom.

I’ll bet that ancient tradition surprises many people and breaks free some of the misconceptions that Indian culture is all Patriarchal.

The thing about the Princess Uma however, was that she wanted to marry Shiva and declined the Swayamvara much to her father’s dismay. While he was not really on board with his beautiful princess daughter marrying a grumpy god who basically camped out in the mountains and lived a very simple lifestyle, he really couldn’t say no, he was a God after all. So Uma donned simple bark and leaves as clothing, and went to the forest to pray for Shiva to come down and marry her.

Shiva wasn’t impressed. First, as a God he knew all, so he knew that she had been sent to Earth to eventually become his wife. Second, he thought that she was a spoiled princess, so why would she really want to live his lifestyle. And third, I think he just wanted to be difficult.

Each day Uma walked all the way up the mountain, and decorated his simple dwelling with flowers and gifts of love with the hope that he would be charmed. But he never even looked her way.

Part of the reason that Shiva was so disinterested, was because his previous wife Sati (the very mother goddess that was reborn as Uma), had jumped into a sacrificial fire and killed herself after her father humiliated her in his court, because of her love for Shiva. So distraught was Shiva at the loss of his great love, that he decided to remain a bachelor for the rest of eternity.

Desperate, Uma brought in some reinforcements: The Goddesses Rati and Prithi (who represent lust and love) and Kama the God of Love. The three brought birds and bees, honey and fruits, and many sinful and joyful scents into Shiva’s abode. One day, in a fit of joy, Kama shot a love arrow into Shiva’s chest. And then, Shiva had enough.

He opened his third eye (the one thought to eventually destroy the world) and burnt Kama to ashes. Now there was no God of Love, and his wife, Rati, was unconsolable.

An aside here: There was no longer a God of Love, so love could cease to exist. To rectify this imbalance, Uma pledged that her first born son by Shiva would be Kama reborn. But she still had the problem of Shiva not noticing her…

So she decided to take it up a notch: She went to the forest and prayed there for a long time (hundreds of years). Her penance was so great, that fire erupted around her, rain poured down on her, insects crawled oer her skin, but she never lost her focus on Shiva. The other Gods were annoyed with Shiva, they thought, “enough is enough,” and went to him and told him to go down and marry her. Still irritated, Shiva declined again. So all of the Gods went down to bless her. Apparently, her focus was SO great that she didn’t even notice them all surrounding her. At that time, she didn’t eat anything, not even leaves, such was her devotion, so the Gods themselves became blessed by her penance, and named her “Aparna – the leafless one”.

At a certain point, Aparna’s penance became so great that it surpassed Shiva’s own. Her penance actually hit him with a force that pulled him out of his meditation. Finally, he was impressed. He came down and took her as his wife. And at that point, she became Parvati.

There are so many stories of Shiva and Parvati, who had a loving and volatile relationship. But now we will get back to the Name, which is the theme of this story. I promise to write more about the two lovebirds later not to mention some stories that highlight the strength and power of Parvati.

You can see how once I learned the story of my name, that I was even more proud of it. My Mom named me after a strong willed superwoman, and she often said to me while I was growing up that she named me appropriately. My sister’s name, Priya, means love. A bit more mellow, but apparently Priya was one of Uma’s best friends.

While my Montessori Preschool teacher (who was also a Nun) was very impressed with my name, there have been other times that my name was highlighted in a slightly embarrassing way:

Every time we had a substitute teacher or the first day of school with any teacher: They would call roll, “John Right, Kim Smith,” PAUSE. Everyone would giggle and point at me. “It’s her…” And I would say, “My name is Aparna and my last name, Sreenivasan, is phonetic.” I’m sure the first few times it didn’t bother me, but after 12 years of public school, it got old. Of course, my French teacher in High School used to say my name with the most beautiful rolled r’s and accent. That was very pleasant.

But in 50 years, people stumbling over my name, or pronouncing it incorrectly even after I told them how to say it, never really bothered me. It didn’t even bother me when the kids on the playground in 4th grade turned my name into “Apenis Spermasvasan”. Clever, and plus they were doing that to each other, even Smith could be turned into a dirty name. So, these instances were just was the way it was. Until two months ago...

I was in a place of business in Pacific Grove with my son. I had purchased something for him online and needed to pick it up. When we walked in the door a fifty something blond woman walked up to us. I introduced myself and said that I was here to pick up our online purchase and that I had called ahead earlier to make sure it was there. She looked at me and said, “Oh yes, you are the one with the name.” I was confused, “the name?” I asked. “Yes, that name that I can’t even say that is so long.” As we walked into her office she sat down at the computer and said again, “Ugh, how do I even spell it to find it?” I said, “Well the last name is phonetic,” and spelled it for her. “What kind of name is that anyway?” she responded. At that point I just politely asked for a refund for my purchase and we left.

When I told my husband about the incident, he said that his response would have been, “Well, why don’t you google Aparna Sreenivasan, and you will find a bunch of people that are doctors and PhDs…” I told him that’s not my style. But it was cute that he wanted to protect me somehow from this woman’s stupidity. Kind of like the time a bike shop owner made me cry when I accidentally made one of his bikes tip over in the shop. I came home crying, and my husband (at that time boyfriend) rode over to the shop and told off the owner for treating me poorly. It’s always nice to know that someone has your back (of course, when he told off the bike shop owner he was only 27 and now as a 50 something, he would never do something so brash, unless someone hurt his kids, then all bets are off).

The incident with the woman brought on many questions: Did she not like me because I was brown? Was she irritated because I was wearing a mask and she wasn’t? Did she think I didn’t belong here? Did she not like my son’s haircut – he had just gotten some fancy new haircut that afternoon…Should I have told her that I am named after an amazing badass goddess who would kick her ass? Hmmm…I guess I was triggered…

Names are an important part of my job, and life. I am a professor, so every semester I learn so many new names. I make it a point to ask my students how to correctly pronounce their names. And I often make connections with my student’s personalities and their names.

So what is in a name? Does it define a person? Does it have meaning? Should we respect names as we respect individuals? Over a lifetime it seems as though a name does begin to define you. It is so much a part of who you are. And many names, like mine, have deep familial, historical, and cultural value. I decided to write this story because of the incident with the woman in the local store, but while the idea began with that, you can see that the story took on many directions and now I’m left with so many questions. But I do have one clear answer: I have a deep love for my name that my Mother chose for me and so suits me because I too, like the Goddess, can be stubborn, strong, and at times, a badass. Did my name help define those aspects of my personality? Or was it just meant to be?

Vexing vignettes

She, In the dark, Found light, Brighter than many ever see.

She, Within herself, Found loveliness, Through the soul’s own mastery

And now the world receives, From her dower;

The message of the strength, Of inner power

The above poem is by Langston Hughes, about Helen Keller, one of my heroines, it seemed to speak toward the inner strength that we all have within us, that shape, and mold our future and our present moments.

In 1982, when Richard Attenborough made the movie Gandhi, the world was in an interesting place. We were in the middle of the Cold War, we had just experienced the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the country was decidedly Republican – supply side economics, nuclear proliferation, and war were all on our minds in one way or another. As an Indian American, I did not feel represented. I went to a high school with almost 2000 students, and was decidedly white, Christian, and Republican. Now I did not know ALL of the 2000 or so students at that school, so my interpretation of events, is my own only (qualification). I do know that if I were to describe the way I felt throughout elementary, middle and high school using just one word, that word would be: Lonely.

“What?” said my friends when I saw them after 20 years in Lake Tahoe, “You had SO MANY friends, everyone liked you.” They did? All I remember is not having anyone to really sit by during lunch. Everyone was paired in twos or more, whether it was with their boyfriends or with their best friends. I didn’t have either for most of those 12 years. I remember always trying to smile, but feeling left out. I remember seeking out a best friend, another misfit like me, who just didn’t fit quite right. I did find that person, it ended up being a boy, but he too was inconsistent.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up in the United States as an Indian American, things were very different. My family was one of the only Indian families in my Elementary school, my Mom wore a sari every day, and it was noticed. “Why does your Mom wear a drape?” “What is that spot of blood on her forehead?” “I don’t want to go to your house because it smells bad.” It was constant.

The teasing and derision continued in High School – I remember when two girls decided to continually berate me about how “Indians decorate elephants, how weird.” I had no response for that one. They would just laugh and laugh, and I got it, this was supposed to hurt my feelings. Of course we decorated elephants, it was part of our culture. Why was that so hilarious? Funny how later, when I married the blond surfer boy from Santa Cruz in a Hindu ceremony, people were delighted by the tiny decorated elephant figurines we gave out as gifts for the guests. Irony?

It didn’t help that I wasn’t a completely “normal” American kid either, my Mom didn’t know how to use a curling iron so my hair never looked quite right. I always felt stuck between India and America – what was I? Who was I? When we would go to India I didn’t belong. People knew I wasn’t from there, just by the way I walked and talked. I would try and speak in Tamil as much as I could but many of my relatives would laugh at my accent. And they were always surprised that I could easily eat with my hands, and travel the country like a champ (aren’t American children supposed to be too spoiled to travel 2nd class on the trains and deal with the intensity of Indian-ness)? But I loved it there. I loved riding in the rickshaws to get places, and eating from the vendors (which got me sick every time!), and traveling on the trains across the countryside watching the fields and hills go by. We never stayed in hotels, always with families or friends, eating while seated on the floors or off banana leaves, going to the temples and worshipping, and walking the dusty streets filled with people.

During the time I lived with my parents (up to 17) we traveled to India every other summer or so, and spent 2-3 months embedded in the culture, I would return, inevitably confused about where I belonged. In fifth grade I decided to wear swaths of bangles on my wrists and a bindhi on my forehead to match every outfit. My school picture from that year is me in a green velour top, with a green bindhi on my forehead. Is it any wonder that I didn’t quite fit?

The summer after the 8th grade was the worst. We returned after my favorite Aunt died (that story to come later), only to face the suicide of a girl in my class. I had acquired malaria while I was in India and lost about 10 lbs from an already sickly thin frame, and was paler than a ghost. I didn’t know which side was up. And I didn’t know how to interact with anyone, especially people who had just spent their summer in tennis camp playing in the club pools.

The summer of my 14th year, I remember that everyone had somehow gotten their drivers license while we were away. I was a year younger than my group and only turning 15 that year, so I was relegated to passenger – if I was invited in the car. However, the first time I tried to get in one girls car, everyone yelled, “shotgun”. I had no idea what that meant. And after that, I was in the backseat every. single. time. You might think that isn’t a big deal, but it became a thing, “you always have to sit in the back Aparna.” I was so relieved when I finally got my license and could drive myself in the old yellow Volkswagon my Dad had saved for me. I know, “poor girl so unappreciated, yet given a car.” I get it, I was privileged in many ways.

I know that I was a very beautiful young girl. Tiny, with long, luscious, black hair, and big brown eyes. The girls around me spent a lot of time putting me down. When I tried out for cheerleader, they gleefully came up to me and said that they didn’t vote for me. When a sweet boy named Patrick asked me to the Homecoming dance in our junior year they said he looked like an alien and that no other boy would ever want to go out with me. I believed them, because I was only ever asked to 2 dances in the four years of high school. That one homecoming dance, and the senior prom. But I didn’t let it stop me from going – I just asked people to go with me instead of the other way around. But it always felt humiliating, and I was always not quite a part of it all.

The night before we graduated from high school, four different boys came and told me that they “always wanted to ask me out.” But because I was Indian, they just didn’t feel like it would be accepted, by their parents or their peers. Ouch. I remember in my Junior year of High School, meeting a boy named Daven who graduated from our high school and was a freshman at UC Berkeley – now I know that should have been a red flag, because why in the world would a Freshman at a huge college go trolling about for High School girls? Nonetheless, when he asked me out I was so excited, because he did used to be one of the star water polo players, until the evening when we were sitting on his couch and his Mother came in. Daven introduced me, and her response was, “Interesting name, what are you, a Pomeranian?” Later he shrugged and told me that she didn’t like his “ethnic taste.”

So those are a few tidbits of my social American experience up until age 17. I can go on, as many of us can, about the stories of kids calling me the “N” word, how in 1979 at the heart of the Iran hostage crisis, kids kept telling me to “go back home to Iran” (which they pronounced EYE-RAN), and the time when my Dad answered the door after his prayers wearing a dhoti, and said to the person at the door, “please forgive my dress,” but these are stories past, stories that I can use as lessons in tolerance, and stories that shape who I am today.

The Dog Days of Spring

When I was a young girl I wanted a dog. Many of my friends had dogs – big ones – beautiful Labradors, and Golden Retrievers. When I went to their house I would bury my face into the fur of their dogs and hug them. The dogs would turn and lick my face, the peace I would feel from their warmth was intoxicating. My parents were adamantly against having animals in the house. Dogs – no way, cats – even worse! In India, when my Mom was growing up, she was told to stay away from the dogs and cats on the streets, of course, because they carried disease, and could hurt you. I found out later that her Mom (my grandmother) used to take in dogs and cats from the street and bathe them and bring them into her home. She would feed them and talk with them and give them love. Until my grandfather came home from work. Then he would kick them out. She loved animals because they provided unconditional affection – something that she did not get from anything or anyone else.

Eventually, after bugging my parents for what seemed like ages, we went to a breeder and picked up a beautiful, yummy smelling Cocker Spaniel puppy. We named him Rusty Red Prancer (I know I know the name is horrific…). He was not allowed in most of the house, just the washroom, the garage and outside. My Dad built him a beautiful house that we filled with blankets and pillows for him to be warm in the evenings. Rusty stayed with us for about one year, and then, because of severe inbreeding, he developed a nervous quality that made him nippy around kids. And he constantly piddled when he got excited. So we gave him to another family without children who could care for him better. It wasn’t long before my sister and I were begging my Mom and Dad for another try at a dog. One day my Mom must have just given up, because I remember going to a house that had a bunch of unbelievably adorable brown Cocker Spaniel/Poodle puppies. We brought one tiny one home – and named him Cocoa.

This was before cell phones, so there was no way for my Mom to alert my Dad about the purchase. When my Dad came home from work we greeted him by singing, “Don’t treat your puppy like a dog dog dog, give him puppy chow.” My Dad was less than amused. But as with most things he accepted our pleas and promises that we would clean up all of the dog poop and feed the dog and care for him 100%. You all know how that eventually went. Cocoa was not allowed in the house either, but had a doghouse, or was in the garage or washroom. My bedroom was next to the washroom so I would let him sleep with me after everyone else went to sleep (my secret). I also tore the screen off my window so that I could let him in and out from the outside. My Dad kept wondering what kept tearing that screen. I would just shrug. With a PhD in Engineering I’m pretty sure my father knew what was up, but he loved me too much to admit it I think.

I’m sure that many people reading this would think, “Wow, you guys were downright cruel to that dog, why couldn’t he live inside?” Well, seriously, to Americans (who are known to spoil their pets as much as children) it would seem cruel to keep a dog outside, and not let him/her sleep on your bed and couch and rub himself all over the carpets. But to the typical Indian, even owning a dog seems like a pretty big deal. In 2012 the New York Times wrote an article talking about the “dog problem” in India. Based on that article found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/07/world/asia/india-stray-dogs-are-a-menace.html, a law in 2001 that prevented the killing of any stray dogs resulted in a boom in the population – remember, Hindus don’t eat meat because they believe that everything living has a soul. And in general Hindus don’t believe in killing anything for any reasons. So now, 16 years later, there are stray dogs everywhere, many are rabid, many bite people randomly, and word on the street is: “Stay away from dogs!” The dog problem needs a solution, and the Times article discusses tackling it at the level of garbage on the streets or enlisting a euthanization program. The problem is that India has so many poor, destitute people, that the dog problem is almost trivial. And sure, a few people I know in India have dogs of their own (the wealthy ones), but in general, dogs are not really part of the Indian lifestyle.

I actually googled, “Indians and dogs” and a whole bunch queries popped up on the web that said, “why don’t Indians like dogs?” Americans on the web are wondering if it’s part of the religion or culture NOT to like them. That question got me thinking, is there any significance of the dog in the Hindu religion? If so, is the dog a good or bad connotation? As I started rereading some of the ancient texts – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana looking for dog references, the ones I found I had already known (but forgotten).

A dog plays an important role in one of the greatest epics of Indian literature. The Mahabharata is one of my favorite stories, though my grandmother used to say that if you read the true version (all nine volumes) in one sitting, that you would have a psychotic break. Mostly because the story is a documentation of a war between cousins – the Pandava Princes, and the Kaurava Princes. The war results in cousins killing cousins, and most people cannot handle all of the bloodshed and sorrow in one sitting (not to mention if you read nine books that were 500 pages long each, you might have a problem just from reading too much and sitting for weeks).

In the Mahabharata, both sets of princes are vying for the same throne – the Pandava Princes’ father originally sat on the throne of the Kuru kingdom, and his brother, Dhritarashtra, has the smaller piece – Pandu is the Pandava’s father, Dhritarashtra is the Kauruva’s father – and he is blind. A series of unfortunate events occur in which the eldest Kaurava brother, Duryodhana, and the eldest Pandava brother Yudhishthira, play a game of dice, wherein Duryodhana cheats Yudhishthira by having his Uncle Sakuni play in proxy for him (the uncle cheats at the dice game). Subsequently Duryodhana ends up with the kingdom and literally everything that the Pandava Princes have – including Yudhishthira’s own brothers and their wife, Draupadi. After much angry discourse the father of the Kauravas, Dhritarashtra, gives Draupadi two boons (wishes) and she asks for the freedom of her husbands. Dhritarashra, who knows that his sons have written their own sad future, gives the Pandavas back everything they lost. As the Pandavas are going away Duryodhana asks his father to challenge the Pandavas to one last game of dice. At the end of this game, the Kauravas end up with the Kuru kingdom, and and the Pandavas end up banished into the forest for 12 years with the 13th year in disguise.

Yudhishthira, though fond of gambling, is supposed to be Dharma’s own son. And he represents the good man, the honest man. He tells one lie in his life, during a later battle, and it is said that until that lie, that he walked one inch above the ground. I find it interesting that in gambling away his family – that he was still walking one inch above the Earth, but that once he told a lie, his feet then touched the Earth. However, that is for a later discussion. Intrigued? You should be! The Mahabharata is an epic tale that rivals the Illiad and the Odyssey.

So, what about DOGS and Indians? Well, at the end of this tale, the Pandavas have renounced everything and set out for their journey toward heaven. As they climb a giant mountain in the Himalayas, a dog comes to accompany them on their journey.  As the five princes and Draupadi walk, each one slowly falls dead – their deaths are meaningful, as each falls, Yudishthira mentions their only flaw – vanity, or gluttony etc.., Soon it is only Yudhishthira and the dog left. As they reach Indra (the god of the heaven’s) chariot (which will take Yudhishthira to heaven) Indra says that the dog cannot come because, well, it is a dog. Yudhishthira says that everyone else died on the way up, for the sins that they had committed in their lives, but the dog lived to reach the top, and the dog depended on Yudhishthira and he would never leave a dependent. This turns out to be Yudhishthira‘s final test.  The dog reveals itself to be Dharma, Yudhishthira‘s father.

There are also many dogs in the Panchatantra tales of India. These tales are very much like Aesop’s Fables, with animals and humans going through some kind of a trial that results in an action with consequences and hence a moral. In these tales dogs are portrayed as good and bad and intelligent and not so intelligent. So there doesn’t seem to be a particular stigma against them in those writings either.

And so we come back to my life – in 2017. We recently got a dog – on Valentine’s Day. My son really wanted one, and it was my thought that the dog would get him out of the house playing ball and going on walks and be good for his overall health. My parents, after the initial shock, “what you have a dog and two cats now?” see the value of the dog in my son’s and daughter’s lives. But the difference here is: Our dog lives in the house, he’s only allowed on specific pieces of furniture (that are covered with special blankets that I wash weekly), and he sleeps IN THE BED with my son. I do bathe the dog every week (for those of you that know me, I’m a clean freak) and I don’t want the house to smell like dog. Of course, our lives are a bit changed, we have to now think of the dog whenever we go places, “Do we take him with us?” “Do we leave him at home?” “Do we keep him in his crate?” And every morning I wake up at 7 and take the dog out of my son’s room to go to the bathroom (since it’s been 10 hours or so…). So that shot my ability to sleep in on a Saturday out the window FOREVER.  Not to mention that for two weeks the cats thought life was in turmoil. But now, as the dust settles, and the initial excitement wanes, when I see how my son can just fall asleep easily, hug the dog when he is sad, is greeted like he’s the king of the world whenever he walks through the door, is more confident at school, and is getting exercise DAILY OUTSIDE because of one more living thing in our house, I know that the dog was a great addition for us. If I could have, I would have named him Dharma. But he came with the name Skipper.

So here we are, my second generation Indian, American, German, Welsh, kids have a dog and two cats (pictured above are cat #2 and dog). And they all live in our house. Perhaps it’s because I, like my grandmother, love animals, or maybe it’s because I never actually lived in India, or maybe as my Mother says, “it was written on my forehead – my destiny”.  I do know that pets, with their unfettered, unwavering love, help people live longer lives, and this one just might have saved my son. One of the greatest Indian poets, Rabindranath Tagore says it best in his poem “This Dog”, which I have rewritten below:

This Dog – Poem by Rabindranath Tagore

Every morning this dog, very attached to me,
Quietly keeps sitting near my seat
Till touching its head
I recognize its company.
This recognition gives it so much joy
Pure delight ripples through its entire body.
Among all dumb creatures
It is the only living being
That has seen the whole man
Beyond what is good or bad in him
It has seen
For his love it can sacrifice its life
It can love him too for the sake of love alone
For it is he who shows the way
To the vast world pulsating with life.
When I see its deep devotion
The offer of its whole being
I fail to understand
By its sheer instinct
What truth it has discovered in man.
By its silent anxious piteous looks
It cannot communicate what it understands
But it has succeeded in conveying to me
Among the whole creation
What is the true status of man.


Rabindranath Tagore

I believe that in America our animals are as lucky as we are. They have opportunity to live with love and warmth and food and comfort. In many countries small children, women and men don’t have that same privilege. I try and remember that each time I snuggle my animals and my children and I feel grateful for my own life.

Lessons from the Litchi


The litchi (or lychee) fruit ripens in the heat of the summer in India, before the monsoons. In May and June the tree limbs begin to blossom with small greenish gray flowers that will eventually become bunches of the sweet, soft, fruit encased in a nut-like suit of armor. In the United States, Litchi martinis make a great hit at a party (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/lychee-martini-recipe.html), the sweetness of the succulent fruit provides a burst of flavor in a dry martini, for even the most discerning palate. Litchis have long been a delicacy in the warmer climes of Southern China and India. The benefits of the litchi stem primarily from the large amount of the antioxidant Vitamin C that it provides. It is also a fun fruit to eat, with its hard outer shell that must be broken open to the sticky softness of inner portion, when ripe, melts in your mouth.

But appearances can be deceiving – a recent article in the Lancet revealed that the litchi indeed has a sinister side (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(17)30046-3).  The fruit, while high in Vitamin C, also has large quantities of molecules called hypoglycin A and hypoglycin B. The two compounds when ingested in high quantities, stop the regular breakdown of fatty acids in the liver – and result in bubbles of fatty acids in that organ. If the body cannot break down these fatty acids (which it does naturally to make more glucose) it needs to rely solely on glucose and glycogen for energy. Once those stores are depleted, more are not generated because hypoglycin also affects the build up of glucose. The person ends up with very low sugar levels, and “hypoglycemic”.  Intense hypoglycemia can cause vomiting, seizures, and comas, and even death.

Jamaican vomiting sickness (JVS), also called toxic hypoglycaemic encephalopathy, is caused by ingestion of too much of a fruit  very similar to the litchi called “ackee”. Doctors often give activated charcoal to the patients, because of its known ability to adsorb toxins from the body. It turns out the litchi has similar properties to the ackee fruit when eaten on an empty stomach.

For a long time, people thought that Jamaican Vomiting Sickness, and the encephalitis caused by litchis, was actually due to some sort of pesticide poisoning. But it turns out – it is the litchi itself, or in the case of JVS, unripe ackee fruit. Both contain high levels of the toxins and when people (specifically small children) do not eat their dinner, but rather lots and lots of partially ripe litchis from the ground, they end up with untenable amounts of dangerous compounds in their system.

The authors, Aakash Shrivastava et al., took patients that were admitted to two hospitals in one of the largest litchi cultivation regions in India, Muzaffarpur. They specifically isolated patients who met their “case definition” meaning children age 15 or younger, with sudden onset siezures and/or altered mental states. The researchers performed a battery of tests including those for hypoglycin A in the blood, as well as the compound that is generated from hypoglycin- methylenecyclopropylglycine (MCPG) It turns out, that most of the patients had something in common – they had eaten large portions of litchis, and had not eaten dinner that day. The two in combination resulted in the severe, and possibly deadly, illness.

But really, why should we care about this? Well, tiny rural settings in countries like India, Southeast Asia, Africa – you name it, the poorer places, often have unexplained illnesses whose etiology is never pursued. Children die, parents mourn, and life goes on until the next outbreak. There is a very real need for public health service in these regions, to help families from losing their children from something as simple as eating too much fruit lying on the ground… So achingly sweet, so soft and chewy. And so dangerous.

The beauty and fine taste of the litchi are well described in the poem below written by a 19 year old poet named Nakune.

3. Peter S. Spencer and Valerie S. Palmer.  The enigma of litchi toxicity: an emerging health concern in southern Asia. 30 Jan 2017. The Lancet Global Health Vol. 5 No. 3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(17)30046-3

Missing Moments

“Where have I come from, where did you pick me up?” the baby asked its mother.
She answered, half crying, half laughing, and clasping the baby to her breast, –
“You were hidden in my heart as its desire, my darling.
You were in the dolls of my childhood’s games; and when with clay I made the image of my god every morning, I made and unmade you then.
You were enshrined with our household deity, in his worship I worshiped you.
In all my hopes and my loves, in my life, in the life of my mother you have lived….”
Excerpt from The Beginning
Rabindranath Tagore


People used to say things to me when I had only one child that they never say now that I have two. My two children are 7.5 years apart, so that still garners some questions, “Accidental pregnancy?” OR “Wow, you sure waited a while.” While most of the time these are innocent and naïve sentiments, the resulting answer is usually discomfiting for most. I wanted a second child from the time my first was two, mostly because he was so wonderful that I wanted another jewel like him. But for a long time it just didn’t work – until it did.

I have a friend who remembers her miscarriage each year. I can’t really do that, mainly because there were so many. The first time I lost a baby I was 17 weeks pregnant – it was my first pregnancy. Far from the time that I thought a miscarriage could happen to me. “Wait 12 weeks and you are golden,” everyone and every book said. I was showing, I had told everyone. And we had just come back from a trip to Hawaii. Sun kissed and tired, I went to the bathroom that morning and some water came out. “Something is wrong.” I told my husband. “No, I’m sure it’s fine,” was his response. “I want to see the Doctor.” So that day, July 1, 2005, we went to the doctor. I told him what happened and he said, “let’s just do an ultrasound to see what is going on.” As I lay on the table I saw the baby, “whew, there is the baby.” But then the doctor continued to feel around slowly and then with a slight frantic edge. Suddenly I realized. “Where is the heartbeat?” “Where is the heart beat…?”

“I’m sorry.”

 That was when I screamed and cried and asked for my Mother. My doctor, one of the most caring individuals I have ever met, looked at my husband and asked for my Mother’s number. He called her himself, told her what had happened and asked if she might try to come. Meanwhile he held me and then said that I had two options. Let the baby expel itself on its own, or have a procedure to remove the baby.

“Should we bury it?” we asked.

 “There probably won’t be much to bury,” he said, “the bones are not complete.”

That was when I told him to get it out of me – it was no longer my baby.

He had plans to go on vacation that afternoon. But he changed his ticket so that he could do the procedure for me. As my husband and I walked out of the office, on our way to the hospital, we ran smack into a set of our best friends. They were 10 months pregnant. She was in labor at that moment. And they were on their way to the hospital too.

While I went in to have my dead baby removed. Their beautiful daughter was born.

I cried for days. And then something happened. Women started coming over and telling me their stories. Horrible, difficult, hard stories, that brought me so much comfort. This type of tragedy had happened to so many people I knew. And they lived to tell about it. Their hearts mended. Most of them had babies afterward and those that didn’t adopted lovely children who completed their families. Why hadn’t I heard of these stories before?

Because they are uncomfortable. They are not happy endings. They are painful.

My husband and I went to Big Sur and floated a stick out on the river for our son. My parents went to the temple and prayed for us.

Then I jumped back on the horse, so to speak. I was pregnant in two months and my beautiful boy was born 9 months later. But this pregnancy was fraught with fear. For the first 20 weeks I went to the doctor’s office EVERY WEEK to hear his heartbeat. And the minute I heard it I would break down into sobs. I talked with the baby every day, and asked him to live and be safe inside me. I was SO careful, just in case the other time it was my fault for traveling, or painting, or something.

Silly almost.

Because I am a geneticist.

I knew that the first baby did not survive because he wasn’t OK. There was something wrong, and nature took its course. But that did not stop the fear.

The fear that maybe genetically I couldn’t have kids.

Or maybe my husband and I together were not matched for a surviving child.

 Or Or Or.

 But in the end a gorgeous baby emerged.

And I was SO happy.

After that pregnancy I thought we would just be a family of three. However, when my son was 2, I looked into the back where he was quietly sitting in his carseat and thought, “I want another face back there.” Also, my son did not have any first cousins, so he was always with grown ups. “It would be nice to have another child around to take the constant focus off him,” I thought. So we tried again, and again, and again, and again.

I became pregnant four times and lost the babies each time at around 9-12 weeks. After each miscarriage I told myself, “this is the last time.” Then I tried again. I guess I didn’t really try, I just didn’t use any birth control.

My scary age went from 39 to 40 to 41… Then between 40-42 I did not become pregnant at all. “Maybe that is it for me,” I thought. I looked into adoption from India. But at that time it had become more difficult and very expensive. “So one child it will be,” we decided.

Then at 42 I became pregnant with my daughter. My Mother did not tell anyone I was pregnant because of my age, and because she did not want anyone to say things like, “Goodness isn’t she concerned about xy or z?” I got all of the genetic testing done. Happily, I did not need to have an amniocentesis, because a new blood test had been designed based on the premise that a certain amount of the fetus’ blood sloughs off into the mother during pregnancy (http://www.ariosadx.com/expecting-parents/faqs/). Therefore, sequencing the blood allows for an accurate determination about Down Syndrome and other chromosomal issues. When I received the results, the genetic counselor told me that the risk of having a spontaneous abortion with an amnio was much higher than that of me having a child with a chromosomal issue based on the data. And she told me that the baby was a girl.

That girl was meant to be. When I see the joy she brings my son who adores his baby sister, and the way she completes our family I know that she was just waiting in there, a little egg, until her time came. I tell her that she and her brother were probably two eggs next to each other in my ovaries from the time I was born, and when he left her, she told him she would meet him again, as his sister. They love to hear that story, and giggle thinking they were bumping into each other in me for so many years. I’m glad that I persisted. Though I know that not everyone can. And I know how LUCKY I am to have my two kids.

That is my story. Miscarriages happen. They happen often. They are a part of many women’s lives. Often we don’t know the reason for them, but they are not a shameful or embarrassing event. They are just a part of the story. It’s important to know that if it happens to you, that you are not alone, there are people to lean on.

And as Rabindranath Tagore writes, “On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams the pathless sky, ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.”

I imagine that there is a seashore where all of the children who did not make it to our world are playing and blessing all of those who did.

Standing on the Porch in a Blizzard -initially published on www.sulekha.com

I wrote this story 18 years ago and it was published on an indian blog site called Sulekha. It is a true story from my life that I rewrote as “historical fiction”. I hope you enjoy it.

Her mom watched her from the big living room window. Sita always felt comforted that she could look up and see the small, round face giving her warmth as she waited at the bus stop across the street. Most days she wished that she could stay at home with her mom and pad around all day in her foot pajamas while helping with the chores. Sometimes she asked but her mom would just smile and say, “Sita, school is fun isn’t it? You get to read, do math and play with all of your friends.” Mom didn’t know that school was usually fun, but sometimes it was lonely and scary. It was much nicer to be at home where everyone loved you no matter what.

The bus stop was a big rock on the corner of the Wilson’s property. Every morning her mom would help with the big backpack that seemed to engulf her 60-pound frame and her Bernstein Bear lunchbox, kiss her cheek and watch as she crossed the street. Sita’s friend, Lily, would get on at the next stop. They always had fun on the bus together because Lily had this neat electronic calculator that you could play games on! Once Lily got on the bus Sita had someone to talk to. At the bus stop no-one paid any attention to Sita because all of the girls were in the 4th and 5th grades while she was only in the 2nd grade.

Sita lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania with her sister Anu and her parents. They were the only Indian family on the street, actually the only Indians for miles around. Her parents had emigrated from India six years ago and had recently moved from West Virginia. Sita’s mother Lakshmi wore a sari every day and was a stay-at-home mom. She was a great mom. On cold, snowy afternoons, her mom would make the yummiest hot chocolate in Allentown. All the kids loved it. Her dad worked at a big company where he was an engineer. Sita didn’t know what the word, “engineer”, meant, but she knew it was very important because daddy got up very early every morning and went to work in his white Volvo station wagon. Daddy prayed to Lord Srinivasa every morning. She liked that because he burned sandalwood incense, the kind of incense that floated up into the bedrooms and made the house even warmer and toastier on cold mornings. He also used this interesting oil lamp that each morning required the cutting and rolling of a wick. She loved watching him meticulously roll the wick between his fingers and moisten it with cooking oil that her mom kept on the bottom shelf of the kitchen cabinet. Sometimes she or her sister Anu was allowed to roll it and her father would patiently wait in his white cotton dhoti with a smile on his face.

This morning was like any other at the bus stop; Sita smelled of residual incense and the talcum powder her mom liked to put on her chest. The powder was called Cuticura, and it smelled deliciously like India. As she grew older she would still find herself going through phases of wearing that powder just so she could feel closer to her mother and her country.

On this cold afternoon, Sita was standing alone watching all of the big girls swish their blond hair and smooth down their pretty clothes. Sita’s mom had made her wear her pink hat and matching mittens. Every winter mom knitted new one’s for her, she liked this year’s because Anu had a matching set. Anu was too little to go to school, as she was only one year old. Sometimes mom would hold Anu while she watched at the window. Today her mom was alone at the window and Sita looked over and waved. Mom pointed up to the sky, and as Sita looked up she felt the sprinkling of new snow on her face. She smiled at her mom as the bus pulled up and took them all to school.

That afternoon the snow really began to fall and by the end of the day, it was a full-scale blizzard. Everyone talked about how it might be a snow day tomorrow. Sita was very excited because snow days meant no school and playing all day! The next morning she and her mom listened anxiously to the radio, but Allentown Elementary was not called out. School was still in session. Dejected, Sita got herself ready for school. Mom helped her put on thermal underwear and her big scarf and she marched out to the bus stop. The snow was falling fast and all of the kids were shivering.

“Brrrr,” Sita thought, “I can’t wait for the bus to come”.

Mom watched her from her seat in the warm, toasty living room. Sita was thinking about how nice it would be if she could wait inside with mom or if she should wait for the bus when Julie Wilson came running up. “Hey everyone, my mom said that we can all wait up on our porch since it’s covered, ” she yelled. Sita followed as everyone gathered up their things and started walking up the path. She was about a quarter of the way up when Julie came up to her side.

“Umm, Seeetta?” she said.

“Yes?” smiled Sita.

“My mom says that you can’t come up to our porch because your parents are weird,” she stated matter-of-factly and ran up the walk.

Sita just stood there for a second. Even at six years old, she knew what Julie had said was not very nice. Confused and a little hurt, she turned and slowly walked back to the rock. She looked at the porch, all the kids seemed to be staring at her so she turned her face down and pretended to be examining her lunchbox. “What is wrong with me?” she thought, “why do they think that my parents are weird?” Sita began to think, was it the music daddy listened to, or the food that they ate? She was upset because everything Indian seemed so normal, ok maybe mommy wore saris instead of slacks and her hair was in a long braid instead of feathered and dyed but she was a pretty mommy anyway! Suddenly, the garage door across the street opened and the brown Nova that her mom drove pulled out. Sita watched as her mom drove directly up to the rock and opened the passenger door. “Come on honey,” she said “mommy is driving you to school today, won’t that be fun?” Sita looked at her sister sitting in the bassinet/car seat in the back and smiled.

“Yes mommy! How exciting, you never drive me to school, can we pick up Lily on the way?” “Sure rani (princess),” her mom replied as she frowned in the direction of the porch.

Sita thought nothing of Mom’s look. In fact, she forgot all about that day until one rainy afternoon eight years later. She was 14 and her family now lived in Auburn, California. A “friend” of hers was making fun of Indians. She said that they were weird because they decorated elephants for holidays and wore weird “spots” on their foreheads. Sita and her mother were deep in conversation.

“Why mom?” Sita was asking “it’s 1984, not 1950, I thought kids these days were taught to respect other cultures?”

“Oh, Sita,” her mom sighed. “Don’t you remember the bus stop when you were six?”

“What are you talking about mom?” Sita said, annoyed.

She couldn’t remember what relevance a bus stop would have in this situation. After her mother relayed the story, Sita was incensed.

“Well Mom, what did you do? Did you go and tell off Mrs. Wilson for being mean and cruel to a CHILD?”

“I mean, remember when we first moved to California and Matt Grindon kept calling me an Iranian and saying that we were responsible for the hostage crisis and should get out of town?”

Sita took a long breath and continued, “as I recall, Dad went over and talked to his father so the next day Mark came, apologized and told me that he knew that Iranians and Indians were different and that what he had said was bad.”

Sita looked sharply at her mother and asked, “what was the difference between the situation with Mark and the one with the Wilson’s?”
“So much honey,” her mom replied, “your dad and I talked and decided that the best thing to do would be to say nothing but never acknowledge those people and whenever it snowed hard to drive you to school.”

Sita was silent.

Her mother took the silence as a reply and continued, “the situation with Mark was dealing with a child’s perceptions and the bus stop incident was a problem with adults.” “You see, you cannot reason with those types of actions, so you must just be the greater soul and learn from it,” she concluded gently.

Sita was infuriated. Her parents could be so passive at times! Her mom smiled at her anger and walked out of her bedroom only to emerge a few minutes later with two books, one was Gandhi’s autobiography and the other, that of Martin Luther King Jr.

“These are two people who dealt with tremendous adversity with what you would call passivity,” her mom said.
Sita glanced at the books and looked up at her mom, perplexed. “These are REAL issues mom,” she said, “and you bring me books!”

“You would be surprised at how much books can teach you Sita,” her mother replied.

“But mom, how am I supposed to use their example for my daily life? ”

Sita was beginning to feel as though this were a generation gap thing, perhaps her mom just didn’t get it, after all she was raised in India where everyone was just like her, maybe she never had to deal with the types of situations that Sita frequently found herself in.
She thought of another example to help her mother understand, “remember when I was in grade school and all of the kids called me Dexter because I had straight A’s? You told me to say that I was proud to be a Dexter and that way I would be ABOVE the teasing. It didn’t work.” Sita looked at her mother pointedly.

“It never seems to work Sita,” said her mom, “but it does, it works here,” and she pointed to her heart.

The conversation went on for hours over tea and cookies and the topic would arise many more times in different ways, in Sita’s life. She would read those books again and again until tattered and worn they sat like old friends on her bookshelf. Sometimes she would pray to Lord Krishna and ask for understanding, other times she would feel very alone in the world. As she grew older she began to understand the power of silence and the nature of people. Some are good, some are bad, and some just won’t let you stand on their porch in a blizzard. You just have to choose your battles, and your silence.

The Nose Pierce

In 1998 I got my tongue pierced. Yes, my tongue. The short, sad, story is documented in an article that was published in the San Jose Mercury News – you are going to have to take my word for it, because that was many computers ago, and before the internet started saving everything. Suffice it to say, the article, which the Merc paid me $100 for, spurred my writing career. It was the clip I used to help get me into the Santa Cruz Science Communication program, and redemption for getting my tongue pierced on a strange whim, and then five days later, pulling the ugly, painful thing out.

That same year, I got my nose pierced. Now, you may say to yourself, “I don’t need to read on, getting your nose pierced is a normal Indian girl thing, plus tons of non-Indians have their noses pierced.” Sure. That sounds about right. But for my Mom, getting my nose pierced was equivalent to telling a mother who lived through the 1960s bra burning period, that I was going back to wearing a corset.

When my mother was young she refused to get her nose pierced. Of course, she never told me this when I was younger, so when I called her and told her happily that I got my nose pierced I was surprised to hear her response, “Oh.” “Oh?” “That’s it Mom?” “I’m so excited, I’ve wanted to have my nose pierced forever, and it feels so glamorous.” Her answer, “OK, great, just make sure it doesn’t get infected.”

Some tiny part of me thought she would be proud for some reason. Even though at the time I was in the midst of getting my doctorate, there was that piece of me that wanted her to be proud that I loved to flaunt my Indian heritage. Especially since one time she came to my home (decorated with Indian knick knacks and tons of little statues of the Gods) and said, “Hmm, I come to my kids’ homes and they are so American, not Indian like my Indian friends.” Wow. That hurt. I was really thinking that my home looked Indian, but again, I wasn’t here nor there. Not Indian enough for Indians, not American enough to be completely American (whatever that is). Later when I asked her about it, she shrugged and said, “I have no idea why I said that, you have an idli maker in your house and more Indian tapestries than many Indians.” After ten years of mulling the initial comment over I almost keeled over. That is Mothers for you.

My nose piercing made me feel beautiful. And it has for almost 20 years now.

But what is it about the penchant for piercing in the hotter climes (Africa, India, Asia) that doesn’t seem to exist in the histories of the colder areas? And why do Indians pierce their noses? Where does the tradition come from?

The tradition it is thought, hails back to the Mughuls that invaded Northern India in the late 1500s. Once I found this out, I realized that I knew very little about the Mughuls themselves, except for what I read in little Amar Chitra Katha comics as a kid (more on those in another story). So to get at the history of the Mughul empire I began reading a lovely series of historical fiction novels that uniquely describes the rise of Babur, the first Mughul emporer in India and goes on to chronicle the rest of his descendants (The Empire of the Mughul series by Alex Rutherford if you are interested).

Babur, who was related to Tamur (A Turkic lord) and Genghis Khan, sought to build an empire, but was thwarted throughout his conquest of the Turkic lands. After the city of Kabul in Afghanistan was passed on to him via the death of his uncle, Babur looked to the rich lands of India to satisfy his lust for power. By the time he died, Babur had conquered much of the Northern portion of India. He kept a meticulous journal which documented his trials and serves as a historical reference.

Now, one of the reasons that we think the Mughuls brought nose piercing to India is because there are no real references to nose piercings in ancient Hindu texts. Once the Hindus took on the cultural ritual, philosophies for its benefits emerged. Piercing on the left nostril alleviated menstrual cramps based on Ayurvedic medicine and its reliance on pressure points. Also, the Goddess Parvathi is thought to be honored by the nose piercing – hence many women were forced to have their noses pierced on their wedding days in a painful process to ensure that their marriage was truly blessed. I did consult my Mother as to the correct side to pierce my nose, in Tamil Nadu, South India it is common to pierce the right side, while in Maharastra women pierce the left side. But these too can be inconsistent, as my cousin has her nose pierced on the left, and mine is on the right (both of us are from the same area of India originally).  I do know that my Mother felt that a nose pierce symbolized “ownership” and she was a tough cookie, not to be owned by anyone, least of all my sweet father. So, she refused to have it done.

The mukkuti (as it is called in South India) is commonly shaped in a mango pattern- I would like one of these, but probably have to wait until my next trip to India, for now I wear a simple diamond stud. Mukkuti literally means nose pierce. While most Southern Indians traditionally wear a stud that has many diamonds on it (my grandmother had one with at least 7) rings are often only worn for weddings. Northern Indians (Punjabis etc..,) however, more commonly wear rings.

I remember when I got my nose pierced back in 1998, I was in graduate school, and I asked my advisor if he thought that people would judge me as odd because I had a facial piercing, when I applied for postdoctoral positions and/or jobs. He looked at me like I was crazy, shook his head, and said, “no”. Of course, his experience with piercings stemmed from his postdoctoral advisor Andrew Murray, who, along with being one of the geniuses in Cell Cycle research, was also at one time one of the MOST pierced people I ever met. So of course one little nose ring on an Indian woman would never be a problem.

Interestingly, more than ten years later, while working at my current institution, I was photographed for a flyer advertising the school. For years, the flyer sat on my bulletin board on my desk and I often would look at it and wonder why the picture did not look quite like me. One day a student came in and said, “Why does your nose look different in the picture?” It turns out that the photographer had photoshopped out my nose ring. One of my colleagues was incensed. But it didn’t quite bother me, I felt that perhaps that photographer just wasn’t enlightened enough to understand the significance of a nose ring on an Indian professor. Or it just may not have photographed well and he took it out to maintain the integrity of the picture. Who knows?

Nowadays my little daughter loves to touch my nose ring and ask, “What is that for Mommy?” I tell her it’s for beauty and signifies my Indian-ness. She then asks when she can get her cute little nose pierced. Whenever she wants is my answer. Pressure points, custom, and desire are all perfectly good reasons to get a piercing in my book, besides, if you don’t like it, you can just take it out (like my sister in law did long ago-you can’t even tell that she once had it pierced). My son has his ear pierced, and was the first boy in his elementary school to do so. Self expression is a beautiful thing.

To me the nose pierce is just another way to signify my culture. And to feel beautiful. I think my Mother has forgiven me. Besides since that time I’ve broken some other major cultural barriers by getting my belly button pierced and marrying a vele kara (white guy), so a tiny stud in my nose is probably the smallest of transgressions.

Post script: I know I did not yet answer question #1 that I asked above: “what is it about the penchant for piercing in the hotter climes (Africa, India, Asia) that doesn’t seem to exist in the histories of the colder areas?” That will take a bit more research… so stay tuned!







The Home Temple


Hindus are home worshipers. In any Hindu house, you will find an altar of some sort, often in a spare kitchen cabinet or a bedroom, that holds the Gods of the house. In every house I lived in with my parents, ours was in the kitchen, though there were pictures of the Gods and Goddesses of our religion hung all over the house. The idea, my Mother said, is to put it somewhere “more sacred and clean”. So she didn’t want hers in the bedroom for, ummm, less than chaste reasons. The cupboard or shelf has little statuettes of the Gods of your family in it, along with images and candles, and often some lights. In the mornings, it’s common to say some devotional prayers in front of your altar, light an oil lamp and some incense and even feed the Gods by offering a piece of fruit for blessings.

We are Vadakalai Iyengar Brahmans and Vaishnavite. That mouthful is our caste and class (Vadkalai Iyengar Brahman),and our religious preference (we worship Vishnu as the Supreme Lord -Vaishnavite). So most of the hangings in our house are of Vishnu and his avatars. There are ten avatars of Lord Vishnu – perhaps the most famous in Western circles is Krishna. It is said that these avatars have all come to Earth at one time or another to get rid of evil and reestablish Dharma (good).

The Hindu religion has a trinity – three main Gods who represent creation, preservation, and destruction of evil (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). The premise: That everything is created, preserved, and eventually all evil is destroyed. The Hindu woman wears the bindhi to represent the third eye of Shiva and it is often red to signify fertility. When I was a young girl, traveling back and forth to India, I was fascinated by the ways that Indians celebrated their religion and dressed – in color and with vibrant, often sexy, clothing, with music and dance, and long prayer ceremonies. Temples and old buildings are decorated with beautiful statues of women and men in provocative attire. The British, back in the colonial days, thought that these were barbaric overly sexual displays, and had many cut down or decimated.

When you go to India it seems like there is a temple on every corner, brightly lit with candles. The smell of incense pervades the country – inside stores, in houses, even on trains. We would only go to certain temples – in particular the temple in Srirangam where my grandfather lived is a vivid memory. We could walk to the huge stone structure from my grandfather’s house. Everyone took off their shoes before entering the temple. Barefoot and crowded together we would listen to the priests’ recitation of prayers in Sanskrit and watch them bathe the Gods. There was an enormous statue of Lord Ranganathan lying on his side (it had to have been 50 feet in length). And bathing and dressing him could take a whole afternoon. The result was a transcendence into the depth of India – it was ethereal, and often magical.

In America there is not a temple on every corner, indeed, there is rarely a temple near any city unless a large population of Indians live within it. When we were in Allentown Pennsylvania, our nearest temple was in Pittsburgh, when we were in Sacramento the closest temple was in Livermore (3 hours away). And since the temples often cater toward many Hindu types there are mixes of Gods worshiped there (unlike temples in India that may be devoted to just one God/Goddess).

The door to the home temple in our house was always open, and our house always smelled like incense.  I grew up with my father waking up early in the morning, coming out in his dhoti and praying. We never disturbed him – it was his meditation time, and it was important to be as quiet as we could. Interesting, in this country (US) of “my room/my space” we shared our space and were able to quietly eat our breakfast while our Dad prayed in the same room. I’ll never forget when my Dad answered the door to some of my friends in high school while he was wearing a dhoti and said, “forgive my dress.” I was mortified while I haltingly explained that he meant, “forgive my attire” and that he wasn’t really wearing a “dress” but a traditional Indian outfit.

Every family has a primary God that they worship (based on their background and tradition). Our family God is Srinivasa (another avatar of Vishnu) but I chose Krishna as my primary deity. The reason: One of my favorite stories as a kid was (and still is) the story of Mirabai. A princess, Mirabai was given a beautiful wooden statue of Lord Krishna when she was five years old. Her mother told her that he was her bridegroom, and she took her seriously. For the rest of her life, through her marriage to a Rajput King, his death, and countless torments, she worshiped Krishna through song, dance, and poetry that she composed. It is said that at the end of her life that “the call” of her Lord was so powerful that she fell at the feet of his statue and passed away. At that time the Lord appeared and took her to him. The beauty of her everlasting love to one of the most handsome Gods of the Hindu religion (in my eyes) was so romantic and captivating; so much so that I tried to sing and dance to Krishna myself. But Mirabai lived in the 1500s in India, and I lived in the 1980s in Sacramento. Not the same. I couldn’t quite capture the magic.

Since that time I’ve gone back and forth embracing prayer and my religion – though I have always had a temple in my homes. When times are hard I focus on an image of Krishna and take deep breaths. It’s not prayer per se, but rather a way to clear the mind during meditation. At this point in my life I feel that the beauty of the home temple is the accessibility of the display. It’s like keeping your guitar out so that you can pick it up and play whenever you have a moment to strum. It’s a constant reminder that maybe there is something more than this world we live in, and our tiny microcosm within it.

I’m still not sure about the religion part. While I love the stories of the Hindu religion, I find Buddhism to be more inclusive, more kind and gentle. I gravitate toward it – along with the mechanisms of worship – meditation, quiet, calm. Some might think this movement between religions as flawed, that one should just believe and follow. Others may see this as a product of my scientific background, questioning, shaping, shifting. I see it as my inner struggle to find peace in my world, to be the best kind of person that I can be, to ensure that my life someday has meaning.

Mirabai sang, “Nothing is really mine except Krishna.
O my parents, I have searched the world
And found nothing worthy of love.
Hence I am a stranger amidst my kinfolk
And an exile from their company,
Since I seek the companionship of holy men;
There alone do I feel happy,
In the world I only weep.
I planted the creeper of love
And silently watered it with my tears;
Now it has grown and overspread my dwelling.
You offered me a cup of poison
Which I drank with joy.
Mira is absorbed in contemplation of Krishna,
She is with God and all is well!”



The Hot Breath of India

When you get off the plane in India, the first thing that you feel is a whoosh of hot air blowing onto your face. The air is thicker, warmer, and has a distinct smell about it . Each time I arrive, I am jumping in my seat with anticipation of that first breath of India. As I walk down the gangplank toward the airport building – where someone (or many someones) is inevitably waiting for me, I feel a surge of pleasure to be back.

Now India is not my native home, indeed I was born in the United States, I’m a classic Indian American Princess (IAP), except for the Princess part of course. My parents took me back and forth to the Motherland every chance they got to visit their family who, for the better part of my youth (from age 0-21) all lived there. My Mother missed her family desperately and in spurts. Suddenly she would be very lonely and upset that she was so far away, blaming my father for bringing her to this very different home. I watched as the years passed, where she came into her own, became more American, yet remained Indian, and ceased her intense yearning to be in India. Maybe it was because so many of her little nephews and nieces and one brother (of six) came here to settle. Maybe it was because her Mother, her great love, died. Maybe it was because she moved to a place where so many Indians live, and there was a temple, so she felt included. Or maybe it was just because after 48 years, you resign yourself to where you live and you become its resident.

All of our travels back and forth made India a part of me. I loved it. I loved the music, the people, the animals on the streets, the temples on every corner. I loved the clothes and the sounds and the whiz of the auto rickshaws as they flew by on the roads. I loved the uncomfortable heat, and the way I never really seemed to sleep at night while I was there – too hot, too hard of a ground to sleep on, too many bugs all over me. ZZZZZ that mosquito that got into the net plagued me night after night.

India is a romantic place for me. When we would go there it would usually be my Mother, sister and me for much of it (Dad only got 1 month off a year, so he would come in the middle of the three month trip). We would leave right when school ended in June and come back in September, maximizing the time and cost it took to get there. We would always bring extra suitcases filled with presents from America, shoes, clothes, pens, stuffed animals. And we would return with those suitcases filled with salwar kameez, saris, caftans, books, and trinkets. When we arrived at the airport we would immediately be swept into a series of sari-clad/dhoti-clad relatives all talking at once as loudly as they could. Exhausted, we would get our bags and into someone’s car that would take us to my grandparents’ house – where the loud conversation would get even louder, and everyone would talk into the night. Inevitably my sister and I would find a bed, crawl under the mosquito netting put there just for us, and curl up asleep.

The rest of the journey would be a series of home visits to this auntie and that uncle and this friend and that friend. We would eat sweets and food and drink lots and lots of tea.We would visit one or two landmarks – that was for me and my sister I’m sure. And I would find books everywhere – old books of my grandfather’s, or uncles’ or aunties’ and read. One summer I read all of Dickens’ classics. Another was devoted to Steinbeck.

India was where I wasn’t me, but I was. I wore beautiful clothes hand tailored, and stiltingly spoke a different language mixed in with English. I had gorgeous jewelry (bangles, earrings, necklaces) on all the time.  I listened to people speak of the Gods I read about over and over again – the intricacies of the Ramayana, the strength of the Mahabharata. I would go into temples and smell the incense and transform into a believer. It was sticky hot but beautiful.

And then I would return. Again I was me but wasn’t. But here I no longer belonged. One year, in the fifth grade, I returned and wore a bindhi on my forehead and bangles on my wrists to school to match every outfit I wore. It was 1980 in rural Sacramento. Is it any wonder that I didn’t have many friends? I would return from the magic that was India, from the cloud of love, and crazy noise and music and passion that was my family, and just not be…right.

Who was I? Not Indian. Not American. Where did I belong? These are questions that have plagued me for much of my life. Lately I find myself less apt to question but just be. This IAP Buddhist/Hindu has a Christmas tree. My children believe in Santa Claus. I cook Indian food but I also cook all kinds of things. Our house is distinctly a mix of Indian/American. We have Buddhas everywhere, I read Indian stories to my kids, and we don’t wear our shoes in the house. We burn incense but listen to 80s pop music.

We haven’t been to India as a family mostly because of the cost of the trip – so my kids don’t understand many of the things that I did when I was their age. They are sheltered, and don’t have the exposure to poverty that I had from age two. It hurts me that they are this way, as I want them to really understand the world – not travel first class like some of my friends kids – but to really experience people of all kinds (sit next to the super smelly guy for 10 hours who keeps snorting into his hanky, come off the plane and relish the feeling of the hot, thick air on their face, look at the boy who has no food and empathize, and know how lucky they are to have food every day, without fail).

I find myself yearning to give my family more of me as an Indian, to teach them what it is to be Indian. But I live in Pacific Grove. There is no temple. There are barely any Indians. There is no strong Indian community. I don’t want to lose that feeling and I want my kids to have that feeling. The romantic love that is India. The beauty that is Hinduism. The joy of our culture. It’s difficult when you have to do much of it yourself. I dream of a temple here in the Monterey Bay Area, that will speak to me as a Viashnavite Hindu from India.

My Mother has found a place in a Buddhist monastary where she lives, and says that in that place it doesn’t matter if you are Indian, Chinese or otherwise. So perhaps that is where I will look next. Or perhaps it will take a long trip that allows my children to feel the breath of India on their faces. Or maybe something else. Stay tuned.


Bookish behavior

My Mother used to read to me when I was a child. I remember the softness of her sari as I nestled against her. She smelled like her favorite perfume (whichever that was at the moment) and Indian sandalwood powder. I would sit as close to her as I could. Later, as I grew older, too old in my mind to sit so close, I would wish for those times again. Being close to your mother, both physically and emotionally are safe feelings. I don’t think anyone has ever made me feel safe that way again – it’s now my place to provide that safety for my children.

I don’t remember my favorite book as a child because I liked so many. I have a handful that I remember: “Follow my Leader”, “A Room for Cathy”, “The Miracle Worker”. They all had a similar theme: Someone was an underdog, downtrodden, in need. Later I became fascinated with thrilling “junk” stories, John Saul, Stephen King. And as I entered what I called my “dark period” I began reading Edgar Allen Poe exclusively.

We traveled to India frequently as I was growing up (every other year or so) and I began to collect books from there as well. Usually we would have to pack the suitcases with many of my books in each one to balance the load. It wasn’t surprising for me to bring back at least 20 large texts. Any Indian of my generation would know Amar Chitra Katha (w.amarchitrakatha.com/us/) , the comic like books that told stories of the kings and queens of Indian history, and the Gods and Goddesses alike. Early on I learned much of my Indian history from these tales. As I grew older, I began collecting various versions of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavatam, Gandhi autobiographies, and Rabindranath Tagore poetry. I would duck into bookstores in Chennai, and beg for more books to take home with me. My many uncles and aunts would oblige me one book each.

Those stories stayed with me, such that when I was a camp counselor at UCLA Unicamp years later as a junior in college, I would tell the stories of the Mahabharata to my group of eight year old boys. They would ask every night, “another Indian story please!” And in that way I was able to teach them a bit about my culture as well as the outdoors.

As I grew older my favorite book became Little Women. Interesting that a book steeped in Christianity appealed to this Hindu American – but I also loved to read the Bible, which to me was akin to reading one of our Indian religious tales. I don’t know why, but to this day I call Little Women my “comfort food” book. Something about Jo spoke to me. Perhaps it was her scribbling suit, or her pet rat, or just the sister love within the book itself. It’s difficult even now, after reading it hundreds of times, to articulate well what brings me joy from that book. But, a good 35 years after I first read it, after a hard day at work, or a difficult time with my kids, my hands still reach for Little Women.

Now that I read to my toddler again, I find myself gravitating to old favorites, “Miss Suzy”, “Mog the Forgetful Cat” and others. But new books have also entered our sphere, “The Sound of Colors”, “The Blue Stone”, “Christina Katerina and the Box.” My ten-year old son is crazy about books, he reads them again and again, and I love buying them for him. I’m a fiend against clutter, but somehow piles of books don’t bother me at all. They exude warmth, coziness, and peace.

Reading has always been a solace, a place to hide, a place to rest my overactive mind, a place to disappear into another world. Books have always beckoned me. Some more than others, but like my son, I can read anything and disappear – a cereal box, a newspaper, a book, and be entertained. In this world of instant gratification, I still believe that nothing is better than a good book. Books taught me all about a culture that I was raised away from. And they made me love that culture, its color, its flavor, its joy. I still have the amar chitra katha tales – I’ve since passed them on to my son. And my Ramayana sits beside my bed on top of Little Women. In the deep evening when it’s time to rest, I still love to read those old favorites, or a new book, that thrusts me into its world and surrounds me with its silence.