Category: featured

Third Culture

Every time I visit India, I am reminded of the feelings, smells, and sounds which make up my perception of my parents’ childhood home: waking up to the sound of the street vendors shouting to sell vegetables and rushing out of bed to have piping hot chai with my grandparents; hearing the loud and bustling traffic of Hyderabad and the sound of the soft but steady rhythm of the ceiling fan.

However, these memories belong to my parents, and I barely get a taste of them during the few weeks of my visits. 

Despite the fact that India is my parents’ home, I feel as though I am a foreigner not only there, but also in the US. When crossing the busy streets of Hyderabad, my mom will instinctively grab my hand, as if I have suddenly returned to being a clueless four-year-old. And while I am in India, I’m forced to carry around bottled water everywhere I go because my body is not accustomed to the water my grandparents drink. 

And it isn’t much different back in the US. People at school will discuss their parents’ craze for the band Queen, but until a few years ago, I had no clue what this “Queen” was. I only knew of my parents’ favorite Hindi film singer: Kishore Kumar. When my first baby tooth fell out, my parents were confused as to why I was demanding money from some “Tooth Fairy”, but when Rakhi (a Hindu Holiday) comes around, I gladly accept large amounts of money and gifts from my brother. 

These minor differences soon became more and more prominent as the years went on, and because of that, I had a growing fear of the idea of feeling separate from others. I hated that my family was different than those of my friends in New Jersey, but also from my relatives in India. But now I’ve come to realize that despite the fact that I may feel like an outsider in these two countries, I have something that a lot of people from either of these places will never have: the experience of what is known as “Third Culture”. 

“Third Culture” is not the idea of being foreign and separated to what exists around you, but rather is the idea of being immersed in two deeply contrasting cultures and creating your own mix of the two. When my family and I learned how to connect the two rather than to point out the differences, we were able to create traditions of our own that encapsulate both cultures. 

Thanksgiving with my cousins in Chicago is one of my favorite instances of third culture. Instead of a traditional American turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, we have mutton biryani, paneer, and tandoori chicken. Yet, we dress up in simple American clothing while listening to my cousin’s mixed playlist of obscure Western rap and Bollywood music from our Google Home speaker. We then go around the table saying something we are thankful for, usually involving one of the parents cheesily quoting an Urdu poem and the kids shaking our heads and laughing in response.

This is my third culture. It may be completely different from another Indian American kid, but that’s the beauty of it. It differs from person to person. You are able to learn from one another, allowing you to broaden your own third culture. If it weren’t for my initial disappointment for my inability to relate to my relatives and friends, I would have never even considered what it might be like to create something so unique with my family.

Naina Waghray is a jersey girl and junior in Montgomery High School. She loves to sing. Her other passion is running that she enjoys with her buddies at school all through the year in the central Jersey countryside.

Releasing Negative Energy

My first experience with energy work came about 5 years ago.  At the time, a good friend had begun her journey to spiritual awareness and she explained that her Energy Healer would clear my blockages and I would feel happier, lighter, less negative and overwhelmed.  In listening to her I became intrigued by all the feelings she was having, all the wisdom she was gaining and all these cool people she was meeting.  So, when she asked if I wanted to see her Energy Healer, Judy, I jumped at the chance.  But, as usual I didn’t ask many questions, which seems to be my style and allows me to be open in my own way to the process and fully see what happens next.

In my imaginings of what I was to encounter I pictured Judy in a long caftan with a white head scarf, dread locks, playing soft melodic tones in the background and her office smelling slightly of patchouli oil.  I thought her space would be dark and musty, that I would be sitting cross legged on the floor and somehow, she would be chanting oohhmmm over and over. 

I could not have been more wrong.

Judy’s “office” is in fact a light, airy space with lots of windows, painted a soothing baby blue with minimalist furniture, crystals lined along the windowsills, two chairs, some yoga blankets and what looked like a massage table, for the purpose of what I was to shortly find out.  Judy is a perfectly normal looking woman, dressed in everyday normal clothes.  A sweet-faced woman she looks younger than she probably is with a lilting sing songy voice that immediately makes you feel welcome.  She greets me with the biggest hug, as if she has known me for lifetimes.  And in an eerie, incomprehensible way, she does.

I enter the room after taking off my shoes and Judy asks me to sit.  I say okay and take my seat.  I am incredibly uncomfortable.  I don’t know where to look.  I don’t know where to put my hands.   Do I cross my legs?  Is my phone off? Where is my water?  My mouth is getting really dry and I can feel myself starting to sweat.  I hope I put on enough deodorant.  What am I doing?  Why am I here?

And then Judy started to talk.  Ahh, the sound of her voice is like cotton balls, soft and warm covering me with a sense of security and I think, whatever happens in this process it will be alright.  I sink into her Adirondack chair and let her guide me through the process.  First, she explains that upon hearing my name she meditated and connected with my energy in order to get a read on what was going on with me.  I listened carefully trying not to let my cynical, skeptical brain take over.  She explains about energy cords and our irrefutable connection to every person that we contact.  She explained that we can hold on to the energies from other people and when these energies are too overwhelming or negative they can become a part of us and ultimately need to be released.  And by releasing this negative energy we become closer to our higher selves and our spiritual guides.  What. Is. She. Talking. About?  This is a bunch of hoohaa, malarky, silly voodoo.  How can we all be interconnected?  And how by thinking about my name never having met me before can she know me, I mean really know me.  But I will trust the situation.  I will trust that my friend has not wasted my time.  I will trust in the power of Judy.

She explains a bunch of other things about past lives, higher selves, master programs.  Nothing that made any sense.  And then she asked me lay down on the table.  A table, she explained, that was similar to a massage table but that she would only be lightly touching me to release my negative energies.  Okay, really?  What is she made of, magic?  How on earth could her “light touches” release all my negative energies?  I think to myself this is going to be hard.  And weird.  And disturbing.  But I will continue to trust in the power that is Judy.

She begins her work.  I hear her taking a deep deep breath, the kind of breath you would imagine a seasoned yogi to take, a breath so deep you can almost hear her lungs expand.  She smells faintly of mint tea.  A sweet pungent smell.  But wait, I am supposed to be concentrating on relaxing, not on what Judy just drank. I take my own deep breath, not as deep as Judy’s as I don’t think I could ever achieve that level of depth.  And. I. Try. To. Relax.  This is hard.  My mind is spinning.  Where are my kids?  Are they having a good day?  What clients am I seeing tonight?  What will I make for dinner?  Did I pick up the dogs’ medicine?  The strain of thoughts keeps coming as I try to stop the flood tide and concentrate on what I am doing.  What am I doing exactly?

And. Then.  It.  Happens.  Judy is at my head.  And all I feel is a searing pain in my forehead, directly over my right eye, a little off center.  A. Searing. Pain.  Almost blinding, except that my eyes are closed.  Do I open my eyes, I think? Is she balancing a tire iron on my head?  Do I tell her to stop?  What am I supposed to do?

And then it stops.  Just as quickly as it started, it was now over. I open my eyes.  Judy tells me to breathe deeply, to continue to relax and to rise from the table when I am ready.  I was ready immediately.  I was also a little scared.  What WAS that?

Judy asked me how I felt and I explained about the searing pain and asked if she had balanced a vile on my head.  And she explained in her calm and loving way that she released my energies at that moment in time and felt all my negativity built up in my head.  She also explained a whole bunch of other stuff.  None of which I can remember now.

And I felt released.  I felt lighter and freer and better able to see.  I also felt drained and confused and curious.  How had she done that?  And where would I go from here?

It was just the first step on my journey to better well-being and an expansion of my internal and external knowledge of the world around me.   It was neither hard, nor weird (well maybe a little weird) or disturbing (well the jury is still out on that one) but I did it and it was fascinating.  If I wasn’t a Judy believer then, I am surely a Judy believer now.  And I want more.

Stacie Goldstein, LCSW, is a social worker, psychotherapist, wife and mom of two teenage children.  She has been in private practice in Northern NJ for the past 15 years working primarily with teens and adults around issues including anxiety and depression, life transitions, and parenting concerns.  Stacie has worked in a variety of settings including schools, hospitals, mental health agencies and group practice.  She has also taught Social Work at the Masters level for the University of Southern California as an Adjunct Professor.  Stacie’s professional point of view incorporates a variety of techniques and styles including meditation and mindfulness to help her clients carve a path to living less stressful and more content lives.

How to Defeat Your Dementors

Harry Potter fans know who these are but for the rest of you…dementors are horrible, spectral magical creatures, hooded and robed, who feed on negative human emotions. According to the Harry Potter lexicon dementors drain ‘peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them,’ …they create a chill mist which permeates everything …They drain a wizard of its powers if left with them too long. The dementor sucks out the victim’s soul, leaving them an empty shell, alive but completely, irretrievably “gone.”

We all have our dementors, negative people who suck our energy and drain us. Some are just acquaintances, one can escape or put up barriers to protect oneself. But when they are close family and friends, bosses or employees, sometimes it’s hard to have barriers. Sometimes it’s someone we “should” love (a parent or an in-law), sometimes it’s someone we have to be around. The negativity can be subtle- criticism or comments about your weight, your cooking or heaven forbid, how you raise your children. I have a friend who deals with one such dementor and it takes the form of self deprecation where the person is so negative about herself and it falls to you to build them up, offer constant and exhausting support.

Anyone who removes your positive energy or directs negative energy at you is a dementor.

http://Harry Potter dementor from You Tube

So how do you proceed if you lack a magic spell. It’s not easy but can be done. First, you identify your dementors; it’s hard because sometimes you love them and need them. But remember you are not eliminating them (unless you can and want them out of your life). If you care for them, keep them, but isolate the negative spirit. You need to counteract that with a good dose of positive people to balance the negative. One dementor might require 5 awesome positive people (uplifters).

Limit time with negative energy, cut short your time with them and have a list of positive activities you can do with them if you have to spend time together. Add on extra good activities on your own (engaging with friends, hobbies, silly shows, things that give you pleasure) to balance the negative stuff.

Sometimes your own thoughts are the dementors and these are the hardest to identify. But it can be done by being  brutally honest. Do you look in the mirror and say “ I don’t like how I look”, “I’m so stupid”, “ I screwed up”, “ “I’m no good”?

Make a list of your your uplifters, the amazing people in your life. If you don’t have enough go find them. They are everywhere. I made a friend at the gym who is one of the most positive people I know. She had to have open heart surgery and walked out 4 days later. She says cardiac rehab is a blast. I can’t possibly feel sorry for myself around her! I paint regularly with a group of women I met at a watercolor class through the local recreation department. They don’t need to be only deep friendships though those are awesome too. I met a really interesting lady at a batik class I took. She used to be a nurse and now does political graphic art. I want to get to know her, I took her card and plan to get in touch one of these days.

I’ve had a couple of truly horrible dementors that took me into dark negative places and it took me a long time to learn to isolate them.

And it’s the uplifters (people and activities) that helped me survive these.

And try picturing the negative people as hooded dementors… it might make you smile and remind you that you can deal with them.

References/ Definitions

https://www.hp-lexicon.org/creature/dark-creatures/dementors/

https://accidentalcreative.com/teams/people-factor/

Svapna Sabnis is a pediatrician, mom and a wife. She is in private practice and is Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics Medical College of Wisconsin and Clinical Adjunct Professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is an immunization advocate and Director of Immunize Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Council on Immunization Practices.

She loves to teach medical students and residents, was awarded the Best Doctors in America 2010- 2019. She is coauthor of a textbook –Pediatric Decision Making Strategies. She likes to garden and dabbles in watercolors in her free time. She’s still trying to have it all and achieve balance in her life.

On Hands

My dear friend Laj Waghray has made a lovely documentary titled “On Hands”. She filmed artists, gardeners, musicians and crafters who use their hands to create their art or the product.

My commentary on hands is much more prosaic. Last year I developed carpal tunnel syndrome. My hands became tingly, then numb and painful and then so weak I started dropping things. I had never stopped to consider how much I needed my hands. Cooking, cleaning, folding clothes, washing my hair and even brushing became almost impossible. I started using a dictation program on my computer and voice recognition on my phone. I’m an avid reader and turning pages or holding a Kindle became painful. I couldn’t paint or draw which usually helped me relax. I couldn’t do yoga -many exercises put pressure on my hands. Even driving was hard- holding the steering wheel hurt.

My hand surgeon recommended, well, hand surgery .. but I had to exhaust all other options first. In the meanwhile my family really stepped in and took over “my” tasks including my teenage son who did a lot of cooking  and meals! One night while cleaning up the kitchen my son turned to me a little tired and frustrated by the mess and said.. “Mom you do this every night…putting things away and picking up things left around”. I said “Yes.. I do”.

After a few months of trying therapy, acupuncture and steroid shots I had the carpal tunnel release done. I decided to do both hands at  once so I wouldn’t have to miss too much work.

During my recovery I had to rely entirely on my husband for simple tasks like eating, drinking, dressing, combing my hair and tooth brushing. But as functions returned rapidly I gained a new appreciation for these two hands, like the joy of clipping your own nails or squeezing shampoo from a bottle. Chopping vegetables and cooking again was not a chore but gave me a feeling of independence. I didn’t even mind folding laundry! I’m still working on getting back to yoga- that Downward Dog puts too much pressure on the scars. But I can hold a book and I can pick up a baby at work without being afraid I might drop her. We take so many things for granted. This has helped me truly appreciate the simple things my hands do for me.

Svapna Sabnis is a pediatrician, mom and a wife. She is in private practice and is Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics Medical College of Wisconsin and Clinical Adjunct Professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is an immunization advocate and Director of Immunize Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Council on Immunization Practices.

She loves to teach medical students and residents, was awarded the Best Doctors in America 2010- 2019. She is coauthor of a textbook –Pediatric Decision Making Strategies. She likes to garden and dabbles in watercolors in her free time. She’s still trying to have it all and achieve balance in her life.

Fault Lines

Artist Statement: Conceptually driven and thematic, my work is a way to process everything that is going on around me. Experiences are distilled and sewn together by research in the studio and through reading. Recent political rhetoric has shifted the direction of my work towards notions of identity, belonging and assimilation. My practice has become a series of propositions, a way of bridging the sociopolitical with the aesthetic. I invite the viewer to experience what is felt rather than what they hear in the news through installation and haptic strategies.

Fault Lines:

  • Gaza Strip
  • Syria / Turkey
  • North Korea / South Korea
  • Mexico / USA
  • India / Pakistan

Five fabric panels suspended in a row from ceiling overhead, inspired by the door hangings from Gujarat, India
Embroidery on silk organza
21” X 48” each


“Fault lines” draws parallels between a country’s borders and a home’s doorway – both interstitial spaces that divide the insider and the outsider. Door hangings like the ones used in Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection have been used to welcome good spirits and guests into the home for centuries and are also deeply tied to the Indian aesthetic and spiritual culture. Borders on the other hand define a country, acting as gatekeepers for a secure and safe nation. But they are also portals to other places, to safety, prosperity and security. However, they are often the most treacherous and contentious passageways and remain examples of a divided and fragmented globe. In this work, I use the interstitial form of a door hanging to speak about some of the most dangerous borders in the world at the current moment– the Gaza Strip, Syria and Turkey, US and Mexico, India and Pakistan, North Korea and South Korea. I imagine what it would be like if these borders became welcome ports and the line between insider and outsider is blurred.
I bring in my long-term interest in ritual, the body’s relationship to space, and viewer engagement. The extensive history of narrative embroidery techniques became an inspiration to create these “door hangings”. By walking under this row of door hangings, the viewers symbolically cross the most dangerous land borders in the world. I urge viewers to think about the earth as a global village and borders as portals for human and material exchanges rather than fault lines where lives are lost.

 Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Milwaukee. She approaches her practice as a process of sifting and communicating sensations and ideas with varied materials and processes. Conceptually driven and thematic, her work straddles the personal and the political and is a response to lived experiences that are distilled and strengthened by research in the studio and through reading. She examines notions of memory, identity, place and belonging. Performative collaborations with other artists and the larger community have recently become part of her practice. Occasionally, she curates exhibitions and organizes and facilitates situations that articulate moments of connection and empathy.

Wrapping Air in Cloth

“Wrapping Air in Cloth” uses a universal form of wrapping one’s belongings in a piece of cloth. Except these are empty shells that allude to the innumerable lives lost at the border when people flee danger and poverty. I am in search of forms that have multiple meanings.  This one in particular has many – on a physical level, it could stand in for the body and breath, on a metaphysical level, it could stand in for transience and how nothing belongs to us. On a global level it is the universal and ancient form of carrying one’s belongings and on a political level, it could symbolize all the lives lost when refugees risk life and limb in the hope of a better life.

 Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Milwaukee. She approaches her practice as a process of sifting and communicating sensations and ideas with varied materials and processes. Conceptually driven and thematic, her work straddles the personal and the political and is a response to lived experiences that are distilled and strengthened by research in the studio and through reading. She examines notions of memory, identity, place and belonging. Performative collaborations with other artists and the larger community have recently become part of her practice. Occasionally, she curates exhibitions and organizes and facilitates situations that articulate moments of connection and empathy.

Just Listen

I am asking you to do one thing today to care for you, and those around you, just listen. 

You may be wondering why you should listen to advice from me. Let me introduce myself…I am, like many of you, a mother. I am also a seasoned teacher with a background in psychology and sociology. Of all the titles I have, my favorite comes from my kids. They call me the “Baby Whisperer” and this is a title I wear proudly.

Why do they call me the Baby Whisperer? Let me share a story of a recent encounter with the most adorable little boy…

My family and I were enjoying a fun-filled day at an amusement park and it was nearing closing time. We were trying to fit in a few more rides before we all crashed, as we had been there since early that morning. We were getting in line for a ride when we saw a teenager yelling at her younger brother to stop crying, he couldn’t have been more than 3 years old. I felt bad for them because I imagined they were both exhausted. As we were standing in line, the little boy started running towards us with his sister chasing after him. I bent down and started talking to the boy saying he looked so sad. I asked him why he was so sad and he stopped in front of me and just continued crying. When I said the tiger face painting looked so cute on his face, he started wiping it off. I told him that he was taking away the most adorable tiger I have ever seen and he said, “I am just wiping away my cries!” I told him that it was okay and he finished wiping his tears, calmed down, and gave me a big hug.

I put my arms around him, rubbed his back, and said he must feel so tired because it is probably past his bedtime. He nodded his head, calmed down, gave me one last squeeze, and went back to his sister. I think both the boy and his sister were relieved that he stopped crying and my kids were completely amazed that I was able to calm him down so quickly. I told my kids that he just wanted someone to listen and understand him, just like I do with them when they are upset. 

The technique I used seems simple, but it was actually harder than it sounds. It’s called active listening and it has been the subject of studies over the years (see below). Basically you need to listen, and when you comment it needs to be done without judgement. Believe me, I have been practicing listening to other children for years before I had kids with no problems, but the first time I tried it with my own kids, it came out as me sounding disappointed in them. I had to really work at it, but it was worth it.

So when you are feeling frustrated with your toddler, tween, teenager, or even significant other, just remember that sometimes they need someone to listen and understand. Take a deep breath and understand that there are so many rules for them to follow, from you, school, and/or society. Sometimes when things get overwhelming for them, they just want someone to hear them. No lectures or trying to solve their problems…just listen.

And while we are at it…I want you to know that I hear you. I hear the frustration and tiredness in your voice. I hear you crying in the bathroom while you are trying to deal with tantrums or moods. I hear you getting up at night to tend to a cry or nightmare. I hear you and I understand. I am here, listening, wrapping my arms around you, and patting your back. I know it is past your bedtime and you cannot take one more thing while you wipe away your cries. I hear you, and I understand. Once you calm down and take a deep breath, it can be your turn to pay it forward and just listen.

“Active Listening.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, October 2, 2017,

https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/communication/activelistening.html

Shenfield, Tali. “How to Communicate with your Teen Through Active Listening.” Advanced Psychology, Advanced Psychology Services, October 16, 2017. http://www.psy-ed.com/wpblog/communicate-with-teen/

Weger Jr., Harry, Castle Bell, Gina, Minei Elizabeth M., and Robinson, Melissa C. “The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions.” International Journal of Listening, Volume 28, Issue 1, 2014, pp. 13-31, Published online: 08 Jan 2014.

Crissy Blanos has a MA in teaching and a BA in psychology and sociology from Rutgers University, New Jersey. This has lead her to teaching, instructional design, and becoming an overall observer of human patterns. Her current career at Middlesex County College as an instructional designer emerged from over 20 years of teaching, spanning pre-k through college.

Crissy spends her free time improving her knowledge of growth and brain development, mindset and mindfulness, and behavior and habits and how to incorporate them into relationships and life. She is active in her community as Secretary and Trustee on the Board of the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library Foundation.

She is passionate about what she does because it allows her to help others help themselves. Crissy lives by the motto: “Life is a work in progress and so am I.”

What motivates me to fight for clean air in India

I have practiced clinical medicine and public health in India for over 20 years in a number of roles, including academic researcher, educator, corporate medical director, and patient-centered clinician.  In 2015, after six years of living and working full-time in New Delhi, I thought I had undertaken every precaution to keep my family healthy: pesticide- and hormone-free food, purified water, mosquito protection… you name it, I had probably investigated it and figured it out.

The one thing I completely neglected to protect against was the air pollution. In fact I was oblivious to India’s air pollution until, in our final month in New Delhi, my then 9-year old daughter required emergency room care for sudden-onset asthma attacks. Coincidentally, in that same month, the World Health Organization announced that New Delhi was the most air polluted city in the world.  We had no choice but to move away, not just for an upcoming job transfer, but simply to protect our children.

I was grateful that we were moving to live in clean air, but both professionally and personally, I felt I had left behind a huge problem, affecting everyone I knew and loved there. I could not let it go. I now travel to India every few months, in part to support a non-governmental organization that raises awareness and advocates to mitigate India’s air pollution crisis.

A few days ago, a young New Delhi-based reporter asked me for my “expert opinion” on how air pollution harms children in India. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote:

“Children born in air pollution face shorter life expectancies compared to their counterparts born in cleaner air… Children suffer physical health harms, including diminished lung growth and development, and increased prevalence and severity of pneumonia and asthma… [they] risk functional health harms including suboptimal cognitive development and sports performance. Air pollution is associated with depression, anxiety… and contributes to cancer and lifelong chronic diseases in adulthood including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dementia…”

These health facts are easy to summarize, but they do not convey the whole story.  What is more difficult to articulate is the stress and suffering that air pollution has created for millions of Indian people.  Including me.

I hate all the coughing. It starts within three days of my landing in New Delhi. Every friend is coughing or suffering some respiratory symptom. The plane is full of coughing passengers when I depart.

I cannot fully enjoy Diwali anymore.  I dread the futile arguments my friends and family will have with neighbors who insist it is their “right” to set off illegal firecrackers.  I dread the off the charts toxic air my friends and family will breathe in the subsequent weeks. I mourn the loss of elderly neighbors and relatives who have died of respiratory illness in the post-Diwali smog.

I hate that I discouraged my 75-year old father from visiting India for his elementary school reunion last November, because I was worried that the toxic air and ill-equipped health care system would seriously harm him.  

I feel sad for scheduling my children’s India visits only during the monsoon season, when the heavy rain reduces the air pollution. I feel guilty for limiting if and how long my children can play outside for those few weeks, knowing that their friends practice sports in worse air, every day.

Air pollution is not just a health problem harming our bodies. Air pollution compromises our moods, how we celebrate weddings and holidays, and how we live, work, play and travel. It is a crisis, affecting families just like mine, every single day.

Ultimately, for me, the only marker of success in this fight is India achieving clean air, for every person, every day.

I now know many of the experts and activists in India engaged in this fight, and I join forces with them.  We lack a sure path to clean air. Yet, we know that solving this crisis is entirely possible. Other countries have successfully cleaned up their air.  And Indian history has proven the country’s will and capacity to dramatically change.

India can and must overcome its air pollution crisis.  We have to believe it is possible, bring our skills to it, and keep at it. Not just life, but more importantly quality of life, is at stake, and worth fighting for.

Gita Sinha MD MPH is a physician specialist in Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases and an independent consultant in clinical medicine and public health. She currently serves as a member of the executive team leading strategy and evaluation for a non-governmental organization dedicated to fighting India’s air pollution crisis.  

Gita completed her undergraduate and medical degrees at Stanford University, Internal Medicine residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, and Infectious Diseases fellowship and Masters of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she served as Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine/Infectious Diseases for over 10 years.  Throughout her career, Dr. Sinha has led programs in clinical and public health education, and health services delivery for rural and urban populations in India as well as other South and Southeast Asian countries. Her roles have included Principal Investigator for an NIH-funded community clinical trial of HIV clinical services in rural Maharashtra, Visiting Faculty and Research Director in clinical medicine and public health in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and co-Medical Director for a New Delhi-based primary health care start up company.

Her work-life motto is a quote by MLK Jr. which is present on her refrigerator as a reminder, “Never, ever be afraid to do what’s right, specially if the well-being of a human or an animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”  Born and raised in the United States, she divides her time between New Delhi and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she lives with her family.

A year in books

Meeting my Goodreads goal of 35 books in a year was one of my most gratifying accomplishments of 2018

1. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

This book was recommended to me by my mom, and besides her suggestions usually being pretty solid, I was excited to start the year with a book written by an Indian woman. I loved it – it was equal parts personal, political, and historical, and an emotional and informative foray into the world of Delhi’s hijras. It can be emotionally draining/difficult to read at times, so I didn’t devour it the way I’ve devoured books in the past, but I’d definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a good read.

2. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

This was one of the ‘hot’ books of the year, and for good reason. I love David Grann’s writing – he really brings out the “story” in “history” (cheesy, but true). More importantly, however, the book refocuses the lens of an important moment in history on the Osage community in a way that humanizes them and brings to light the brutality and hatred waged against them by the not only the white people in their community, but the US government as a whole. Killers of the Flower Moon focuses on a pretty particular part of our history, but that in an of itself serves as a telling indicator as to how and why indigenous peoples have been unjustly excluded from familiar narratives of American history.

3. A Criminal Defense by William L. Meyers Jr.

Sometimes you pick up a book for the sake of reading something and not wondering or worrying if it’s going to be good or not and this was one of those books – it was ok. Definitely not recommending it to anyone, but wouldn’t deter you from reading it either. Super quick read.

4. Animal Farm by George Orwell

A classic. I don’t know why we never read this in high school and I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but reading it now I feel like I got more out of it than I would’ve at the time. The whole dogma versus propaganda thing that comes out of the story is more relevant than ever.

5. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I can’t figure out why people like this book. I read way more than I should’ve honestly, and finally picked up the courage to abandon it (I literally never do that with books).

As much as I hated reading this book, there’s a Goodreads review of it that is perhaps the most iconic Goodreads review to ever exist, and the review itself is maybe a 20 minute read, but truly worth every minute. I cannot emphasize how good this review is, although I may be biased because it also validated a lot of what I felt while reading the actual book. Either way, it’s pretty fun to read. Here’s the link – https://bit.ly/2Qrfyeg

6. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

After watching The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which has become one of my favorite movies of all time) I knew I had to read something by Mohsin Hamid ASAP and ended up ordering a copy of Exit West, mostly because it was most recently written and because I didn’t want to read The Reluctant Fundamentalist since I had just seen the movie (not the same, I know, this is just how my internal process of justification worked out).

Anyway, this is one of my favorite reads from this year. The story starts in Pakistan and slowly travels westward, following the main characters, Nadia and Saeed, as they’re driven out of their homes after war breaks out. At the center of everything is a relationship that reflects the experiences that Nadia and Saeed are forced into, but also goes through the same shit that relationships tend to have to go through even in the contexts we’re familiar with. So much of this story is relatable, and the way things progress and end is bittersweet and real. It’s not too long, and Hamid does a great job of packing just the right punch – never does it feel too contrived, but it never really feels like anything is lacking either – and this book is just so so good.

7. The Inner Courtyard by various Indian women

I liked this one! It’s a little more ‘rustic’ in a sense, and I can imagine that it might be more pleasurable for someone who knows and has grown up in Desi culture. I loved that the authors were chosen from a variety of different time periods and regions within India, and would totally have loved to have read more. Many of the stories were not originally written in English (we get to read translated works from languages like Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, etc.) and there’s a cultural intimacy there that you don’t get from a lot of modern Indian writers who write in English and therefore inevitably write with some degree of western influence. Highly recommend for anyone who is Desi or part of the diaspora, or for anyone who is interested in reading work by women that doesn’t feel colonized.

8. Creativity by Philippe Petit

White man obsessed with his own mind trying to impart wisdom. I regret picking this book up. Not worth discussing further.

9. The Early Stories of Truman Capote by Truman Capote

I am such a big fan of In Cold Blood, so when I saw this book in a bookstore I decided to pick it up. Honestly it’s quite a light read, but a very solid one too. A lot of the criticism I’ve seen about it is the fact that it feels super “freshman” (which, it was – Capote wrote these in his late teens/early twenties), but I actually love it because it paints a clearer picture of his evolution as a writer. Some of the stories can be a little cliche, but that never really struck me as a bad thing while I was reading it – overall, I enjoyed it.

10. Open City by Teju Cole

I LOVED this book. It’s not so much about a story playing out as it is about the protagonist reflecting on a things as his life happens – it’s like reading the personal journal of someone who’s really good at writing. I especially liked reading the conversations he has with the people he meets – particularly ones that make us think twice about how we assume certain systems of thinking and speaking, especially when it comes to conversations about society and politics, and a lot of times those assumptions ignore and/or forget to account for experiences that are not centered around the US.

A lot of Open City is poetic and slow and reflective, and it’s a great read for when you’re feeling quiet.

11. Educated by Tara Westover

PLEASE READ THIS BOOK. It’s wild to the point that I had to keep reminding myself that it was REAL. I devoured it in a day and I’m so sure you will too.

12. Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke was Mohsin Hamid’s first novel and reads a lot more like other works of South Asian fiction I’ve read in the past (compared to Exit West), but still stands out because of Hamid’s style of writing, which is always eloquent and beautiful but also still so relatable and never contrived or condescending. The main character is this guy who’s grown up with the elite of Pakistan but as an adult struggles more and more to identify/belong with the people he’s grown up with, which leads to a lot of self-destructive behaviors and decisions. It’s a quick read and can be equally appreciated by both Desis and non-Desis, I think.

If it wasn’t clear, I am 100% a Mohsin Hamid fan at this point.

13. Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

An absolute must-read. When I say must-read I mean you really must read it. It’s a first-person account from the last surviving person to have been brought over to America on a slave ship –not only is it a vital piece of history, it’s also shocking how much of this man’s story still resonates today. Especially to my fellow Americans – if there is a single book you read on this list, let it be this one.

14. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

I actually did not like this book. I appreciate the story as a whole, but was gritting my teeth the whole way through. Aside from the violence being excessive, the Nadsat slang makes it almost unbearable to read.

15. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

My first Murakami and it was an EXPERIENCE in the absolute best way possible. Murakami’s writing style is an absolute delight and the story is simultaneously deeply reflective and whimsical (I guess a byproduct of the magical realism). The story itself was so beautiful and there was enough mystery and intrigue that I started, then kept reading till I was finished, then promptly order like four more Murakami books from Amazon.

16. The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime by Mark Haddon

A fast and fun read, told from the POV of a 15-year-old with autism. I guess I’d describe it as same vibes as ’Tuesdays with Morrie’ but not as sad, but also not really a happy story either. There’s a mystery at the center of the story, but it doesn’t take center stage, and I was okay with that because it was well-written and engaging. Apparently this was the author’s first time writing for an adult audience, and that makes sense to me when I look at the way the book was written. Overall not exceptional, but very enjoyable!

17. American Appetites by Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve been interested in reading something by JCO for a while and came across this book at a bookstore so I scooped it up. It was… ok. Actually, I think it was mostly well-written, but the characters – especially the protagonist – are ridiculously irritating and sometimes act outside the boundaries of reasonable human behavior, but like in the weirdest/most frustrating ways possible. Nevertheless I was interested enough to keep reading to the end… solidly confused re how I feel about this book.

18. Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwin Sanghi

Chanakya’s Chant is all around just a really good story. I’ve seen it described as a political thriller, which it very much is, but half of it, while still being a political thriller, is in the context of ancient Indian history, so it’s clearly a little more than that too. I’ve seen varying comments about whether or not it’s historically accurate, and I don’t know enough about Indian politics to see the parallels to recent politics, but all in all it’s entertaining.

19. The Outsider by Stephen King

Last year I started reading IT and ended up not sleeping two nights in a row and finishing the whole thing in three days, so I had high hopes for this one. It started off really well and I stayed up to finish it, but it just got more and more boring and ended in a way that was dull and anticlimactic.

20. Another Way of Telling by John Berger and Jean Mohr

So I’m not usually the type to read media theory for fun/without looking to get something out of it for creative purposes, but I saw this on sale at a local bookstore and recognized John Berger (shoutout to CAMS 101) and bought it impulsively. It’s honestly one of the best books I’ve ever read and I 100% intend to read it again, maybe in a few months. It’s incredible how principles discussed in the context of photography extend to a lot of the philosophical and sociopolitical questions that loom large today.

21. Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak

TBH I don’t even know why I read this book and don’t remember most of it, except that Wellesley is featured somewhat prominently, which is why I must have picked it up int he first place. Moving on….

22. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The last time I read this book was in high school but TBH the school I went to did such a bad job of teaching it that I wanted to re-read it to see if I would get something different out of it, especially since I also read Beloved for the first time a year prior and was blown away. I don’t know that I got something different out of it necessarily, but my reading of the book did feel more nuanced and richer because I was reading it for myself versus having my perception and reading of the book structured by a curriculum.

23. Square by Mac Barnett

My sister found this picture book at one of those fancy indie toy stores and picked it up as a birthday gift for a friends. She showed it to me before wrapping it up, and I was immediately taken with it – the illustrations are absolutely stunning and the story itself is both funny and philosophical. It’s the kind of children’s book that’s actually written for adults and it pulls off that whole shtick SO WELL.

24. Collected Short Fiction by V.S. Naipaul

Another book I picked up randomly in a bookstore on my quest to read more South Asian writers. It wasn’t until I brought it home and my mom said “oh, you’re reading VS Naipaul?” and I finally did some googling that I found out that he’s actually a really important writer in the Desi diaspora. Then a few weeks into reading the book, Obama announced he was also reading Naipaul so that was cool. Anyway, one of the reasons I love his Miguel Street stories (a series of stories that explore the lives of different people living in the same neighborhood in Trinidad) is their illustration of the inevitabilities of existing as brown/black people in a world that is colonized, without centering the colonizers. Naipaul tells the stories of brown people in the diaspora as it existed in places that are not India or America which was something I wasn’t familiar with.

The book was great and I really liked Naipaul’s writing, but it was hard to read in one sitting. In any case, I actually ended up being glad I split up reading the stories periodically because it was fun to come back to different stories with the same characters – it felt like revisiting an old neighborhood.

25. The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami

A great collection of short stories by Murakami. I wouldn’t consider this a Murakami primer, because there’s something about reading his novel that was missing from the collection as a whole, but if you like Murakami or you like short stories, I’d definitely recommend.

26. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I gobbled this book up, it is SO GOOD. It’s the intergenerational story of a family in Korea and the best description of it that I saw somewhere was that it is both fiction and a true story – though the characters themselves have been concocted, so much of the story was a reality for Koreans at the time. This was the most satisfying book I read this year, and is the kind of thing that everyone/anyone can enjoy reading, no matter what your tastes are. Fair warning though: this book reduced me to tears MULTIPLE times. Just writing about it makes me want to go back and read it again.

27. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I…. shouldn’t have read this coming right off of Pachinko because it truly felt like a double whammy. The whole fiction-but-true-story thing can also be applied to this book, and even though I was emotionally exhausted reading this after Pachinko, it was actually also kind of cool reading them back-to-back because some of the themes are similar, and it was cool seeing that play out in two totally different cultural contexts/histories.

PS – If you read and liked this or Pachinko and want another similar read, I’d highly recommend checking out The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri.

28. Triangle by Mac Barnett

Another book in the same series as Square and equally good.

29. While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut

It’s always interesting when we go back and try to asses authors’ unpublished works. I’ve always held that Vonnegut was one of my favorite authors and I think that may have felt more positively about these stories as I otherwise might have? The stories are good, but not spectacular. But again, if you like Vonnegut or you just like short stories, I’d recommend it!

30. The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

If you’re like me and you spent your childhood daydreaming of going on adventures and reading about excavations of archaeological sites and all the legends that accompany them and mentally inserting yourself into Jurassic Park and playing games like Cluefinders (even though the educational part of it was way below your level) because you loved the adventure part of it  – you HAVE to read this book. You know how in adventure books/movies people have to pinch themselves to confirm that what they’re experiencing is real? That’s what reading this book is like.

Even if you are not the kind of crazed person I described above, you will enjoy this book. There is so much that the author covers – the adventure and archaeology of course, but also the science, the technology, the anthropology, the academic drama, the politics, the history, the ethics, even the epidemiology – and even my dad, who basically hates reading anything but books on economics, business, etc. , really liked it.

Such a huge shout-out to Douglas Preston for relaying the facts and his experiences in a way that is always exciting, well-researched, and refreshingly responsible.

31. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was also…. so good. It’s an innately powerful book that comments on our responsibility to ourselves and our future selves when it comes to making choices about how we live and how ignorant we are willing to be in the name of responsibility and ‘dignity’, and how ‘dignity’ means something essentially different based on our experiences, but also based on where we stand in life and what past, present, and future look like at that point. The whole thing is heartbreaking but also relatable and kind of cautionary and this is yet another book I cannot wait to read again. Also wow Ishiguro is such a skillful writer.

32. Circe by Madeline Miller

Loved this book – a super quick read and it gave me the same pleasure I used to get reading YA books (but this book is definitely not YA). If you like Greek mythology, you’ll definitely enjoy it.

33. Hey Ladies! by Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss

A year in the life of a gal group in NYC, as told through their emails and texts. It’s funny and light-hearted and easy to get through. I liked it a lot a the beginning and definitely felt called out at points and laughed at many others, but as it approached the end, the characters got a little too exaggerated which just made them annoying and got more boring to read it. I will not be recommending this book to anyone but I also wouldn’t deter anyone from reading it either.

34. Black Swans by Eve Babitz

In all honesty, I got this book because the cover looked cool. It was interesting because having done a little research on Eve Babitz before reading it, I found her as a person and her existence to be interesting. That said, I’m still trying to process how I feel about this book. I initially didn’t like it because a lot of it felt contrived and also ignorant and also super white (actually, super wealthy white which… you know). I don’t think my opinion on her writing itself has changed much, but I do find myself thinking of the stories often so I guess some part of it succeeded. It might also be because I work in entertainment and that whole world from a both a professional and non-professional perspective is so fascinating to me. Again, still trying to digest this one.

35. The Good Society by John Kenneth Galbraith

This was a small book but it took me months to finish. Not sure why because I really liked what I read when I read it, it was just that, for whatever reason, I could only manage to read two sentences at a time. JKG is good at taking concepts that are kind of common sense and reasoning them out and giving them more support and depth, which is what a lot of this book is. I’m not going to be touting it around everywhere, but if you’re interested in socioeconomics and making the world a better place, there’s a good chance you’d like this book.

Lucky Bommireddy, or Lakshya lives in New Jersey. Check out her instagram profile and her ever expanding repertoire of skills and abilities!

Navaratri

It is the morning after several nights in a row. Nine nights, to be precise. The gods are carefully divested of their crowns and garlands, their long black tresses tied back with wispy cotton threads, packed into recycled plastic bags and put away in the big black trunk that holds the history of inter-continental crossings and multiple house-movings.

The living room reclaims its position as marginal to the life of the household- so maybe it is more correctly named the “(with)drawing room” (we don’t really live there, do we?)- after having served these ten days as a site of communing with friends and family from a variety of circles, many of whom we see only once or twice a year. But there’s a temporary void beneath the window where the steps stood, making space for the descent of the gods from the storage area off our terrace to the level of our everyday. It will take a couple of days before the mundane reasserts itself and the memory of green and blue-tinged bodies, and their other-wordly aura, fades. “The room seems so empty now,” my mother in law remarks after we’ve cleared the last of the festival paraphernalia.

Navaratri, like almost every other festival, brings up all kinds of ambivalent feelings in me. There is nostalgia, of course, for uncomplicated times and the innocence of childhood, where the only protests had to do with getting up early or having to take an oil bath or going around with the invitational kumkum bharani, exposing oneself to the curiosity of the neighborhood aunties who would comment on the length of one’s hair or the inadequate number of bangles on one’s wrist. But that was always made up for by the innumerable varieties of sundal and sweets that one was offered by those very same aunties. And I was also one of the fortunate few who was never asked to sing for my sundal, having deftly sidestepped those obligatory Carnatic music classes that most of my contemporaries in the Tam-Bram circle were privileged to attend. Much to my parents’ regret, I suspect (and truth be told, to my own as well).

Now that I’m an auntie myself (as my children often remind me when I show embarrassing signs of forgetting), and I am the one offering the sundal and sweets, not to speak of being the one who has to spend that extra time in the kitchen cooking it all up, the ten-day festival (even though it is technically nava-ratri or nine nights) represents not just the opportunity for silk and music but also… work. And that work, and everything it represents, is implicated in all sorts of politics that my academic self cannot ignore.

My friends who are more deeply rooted in the progressive academic discourse would have much more to say about this discomfort and its relationship to modernity but for now, I’d just like to lay out some of the contradictions that I am constantly trying to reconcile (and why one even needs to reconcile them is another question, for another time).

–how does one deal with the notion of the oppressive Brahminical without discarding everything that is beautiful and good in tradition?
–how does one hold on to the aesthetic aspects of culture while also refashioning the meanings held within the form(s)?
–in other words, how does one appropriate the form while discarding all that this very form may have represented in the past?
–how does one learn to take pleasure in the social and cultural opportunities that such festivals offer in a truly secular–and egalitarian–way?

Each year, I try to deal with these questions, sometimes subconsciously, as I put the bomma golutogether and make my list of people to invite and balance my time between the demands of work and the extended kitchen time. Many of the dolls that we display have a special meaning for my family; the main pieces were made by my mother in law over forty years ago, lovingly and painstakingly, and each time we bring them out is a chance for her to recall her younger, more agile self and take pleasure once again in the sense of crafting something. Each year, as we prepare the display, we listen to stories of the making of the dolls, the years the family spent in Shillong, the many people who came and saw and what they said. This invariably leads to conversations about other navaratris in other places, and my children (if they happen to be here) and I are treated to glimpses of the past which tend to stay buried the rest of the year as we go about our regular business. We remember people who have turned into faded faces in our photo albums, and get a sense of what life was like before modern telecommunications.

So clearly, the sense of ambivalence also derives from another sort of nostalgia, for the loss of neighborhood, of the ease of getting around, of dispersed families, of a calendar that respected the personal and the familial and recognized the need for a periodic slowing down of the professional. The days leading up to the festival, I’m anxious and nervous about managing things, and I allow a resentment to build up, telling myself that I am only meeting expectations, that I am doing things that are not part of my modern-liberal psyche. But that’s only partly true. I am myself loath to give up the practice, because it is tied up with so much that I value and respect, with so much that–when I allow myself–I truly take pleasure in.

And in the doing of things, in the ritual of setting up the display, the resentment fades. While those questions and contradictions remain, I set them aside for another time, another space, another context.

by Usha Raman of University of Hyderabad, moved into academia after close to two decades as a freelance journalist and health communications practitioner. Her teaching interests include news reporting and feature writing, specialized writing (science, technology, environment and health), feminist media studies, science/health communication, and social impact of digital media. Her research has been in the fields of cultural studies of science, science and health communication, clinician-patient communication, children’s media, popular feminism and digital culture studies.

As a 2016 Fulbright Fellow, she spent a semester as a faculty researcher at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, USA. Usha is an honorary fellow of The George Institute for Global Health and a member of the ethics committees of L V Prasad Eye Institute and the Indian Institute of Public Health, Hyderabad. She is Editor of Teacher Plus, a monthly magazine for school teachers in India, and writes a fortnightly column on learning skills for The Hindu’s Education Plus titled Backpacker’s Guide, as well as a fortnightly review column on podcasts for The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine, Peace in a Pod. She is the author of Writing for the Media (Oxford University Press, 2009) and a volume of poetry, All the Spaces in Between (Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2009), as well as a blog What are words worth? Usha obtained her Masters in Journalism and Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Georgia, USA.