Category: India

A journey through singing

Music has always been a way for people to create meaningful connections. However, when you learn to sing or perform as opposed to simply listening, it has another depth to it which cannot be experienced otherwise. According to my parents, I have been singing for almost my whole life. They say that when I was a toddler, I would run around the house singing songs of my own childish language. Of course, nobody really understood what I was saying, but they simply nodded along in agreement to my profound “lyrics”.

When I began kindergarten, I remember sitting on the bus with my friend and singing together. Though we would sing completely different songs, we were attempting to mimic the music our bus driver played on the radio. As a 6 year old, I had already begun to feel a love for music. 

Throughout my childhood, as well as now, I was engrossed in Hindi film music through my parents’ love for it. Though I never really understood the plot of the Hindi movies, there was never a moment when I did not enjoy listening to the dramatic love songs sung in my beautiful mother tongue.

Later, I was encouraged to join my fourth grade choir club in school, where I learned songs all the way from Christmas carols, to Korean folk songs, to pop songs.

When my parents noticed my interest for singing, they enrolled me into a Hindustani classical singing class. At the time, I was ten years old and it can be said that the only thing I really cared about was my Nintendo DS. Needless to say, I went into the class assuming it would be boring, seeing as it wasn’t Hindi film music. For a while, it was all scales and simple songs. I reached several points at which I considered asking my mom to quit. However, the day came when I was sick and ended up missing a session. To make up the class, I had to join “the big girls” for one hour. I did not know what to expect, and I was nervous as to what the older girls would think of me. 

As soon as I walked into the room, I was mesmerized by how confident they were, how eloquently they went through the warm ups, how easily they were able to memorize a song, and the smooth yet precise way their voices flowed. But what truly caught my eye, was how they were enjoying themselves. At that moment, I realized that singing wasn’t just something I liked to listen to, it was something which I wanted to have as a lifelong skill; something which I wanted to enjoy and pride myself with. I wanted to be known as one of “the big girls”.

More recently, I attended my first Hindustani classical music concert for Pandit Jasraj, a renowned Hindustani classical music singer. I will admit, my parents may have been involved in forcing me to go to the concert, but the experience was well worth it. Prior to the concert, I remember feeling the lack of excitement which I had felt during the early years of learning to sing. I childishly argued that if I already knew about the art form from my own teacher, then why did I need to go see someone else do the same? That in itself was the answer to my question. 

During Pandit Jasraj’s performance, I was in awe to see what I had been learning in my class be executed so gracefully. His voice and skill is like no other I have heard before. I was able to listen to and identify the variations and details of his songs which I had struggled to grasp during classes with my teacher. Pandit Jasraj’s performance gave me the final push in understanding that my love for singing goes beyond the way it sounds; rather it goes into the way I am able to build and improve. It is about enjoying the work I put into building such a skill. 

Finally, I am proud to say that I am now one of “the big girls”. I love learning the meanings of lyrics. I love hearing improvement in my voice. I love understanding the history behind what I am singing. And I know that this is just the beginning. 

by Naina Waghray

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.

by Gita Sinha MD MPH