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.

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.

The “no-excuse” guide to making time to workout

We know the importance of exercise and how it can help us stay physically active, mentally alert and emotionally happy. Most of us have access to multiple gyms in our neighborhood that offer a fun variety of classes. We also have good intentions to develop exercise routines and sometimes we start out strong, but most people struggle to maintain consistency with their workouts.

As a fitness coach, I often hear people say that they don’t have time to work out. We juggle work, families, multiple passions and are burnt by the end of the day. I would like to share my top 10 NO EXCUSE tips to help you fit a workout routine into your lifestyle. Ready, set, go:

Win the mind, win the body

Some of the busiest, most successful people in the world swear by their exercise routine and credit their workouts as one of the reasons for their efficiency and success. So, remind yourself that if they can do it, so can you.

Baby Steps

Sometimes we have an all or nothing approach to fitness, which is why gyms are packed from January 1st to the 15th. I recommend you commit to going 1-2 times a week at first and when you have consistently done that for a month, then add another day and so on.

Don’t try to be a superhero

You don’t have to do it all yourself. Ask family members to pitch in with household duties, and support you in your health goals. Remember that if you are healthy and strong, you will be able to do more for yourself and everyone around you.

Make it fun

If you hate running, don’t invest in a treadmill. Find a workout you enjoy and chances are you will show up more often if you enjoy it. Try out a new class in your neighborhood, most gyms offer free trials to attract new clients.

Find an accountability partner

Find a friend or family member who will hold you accountable. Someone who will actually send you reminders and check in with you or become your gym buddy.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Changing your habits is one of the hardest things to do. Be patient and focus on progress not perfection. Think big, but start small.

Set up fun rewards

For every week that you make it to your goal, put a dollar or more in a gym jar or give yourself an NFR (Non-Food Reward). A mani-pedi or coffee with a friend, or a new dress can serve as a fun incentive to get you to the gym.

Attitude of Gratitude

Remember that there are so many people in the world who cannot work out due to injuries or limitations or financial reasons. If you have the physical ability to work out and you can afford a gym membership, then be grateful for your body and keep it in the best shape possible.

Sign up for a charity 5K or an obstacle race

Find a local race in the upcoming months and use that to get yourself going. Sometimes the pressure of an upcoming event can push you to show up and be more consistent in your workouts.

Hire a fitness coach

If you absolutely cannot get your mojo going, you may want to invest in a coach who can get you going with fun workouts and accountability until you develop a routine of your own.

IT’S NOT ABOUT HAVING TIME, IT’S ABOUT MAKING TIME

Chitra Rochlani of Livingston, New Jersey is a NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) certified personal trainer, Precision Nutrition Coach and owner of FIT WARRIOR CHITRA and works in Florham Park, New Jersey. In 2014, Chitra had a life-changing personal transformation when she lost 80 lbs. and she uses this personal experience to inspire and motivate her clients to get lean, strong and fit. Her motto is “Win the mind, win the body” and she believes that fitness, nutrition and mindset are the three pillars of success and contribute to lasting change. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

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. 

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.

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!

Girl Friends

“Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words.”

George Eliot

What would women do without our girlfriends?

I have different girlfriend groups. My primary group is one that started when we had young children- my “mom friends”. We first met when our children were toddlers. We got together so the children could play and then found ourselves lingering to talk more. Initially about mom stuff, then other things. All of us are artists in some form, some do it professionally, the rest of us as a hobby on the side. We connected through being mothers of Indian descent, trying to celebrate Diwali, Dussehra, and for a few memorable years even Holi together.  As our children grew we could lean on each other not just to help each other out with kid stuff (pickups, drop-offs) but also with deep personal losses and sadness that come as you get older. Through illness, losses, health scares, surgery, divorce, and emotional breakdowns. We took care of each other and each other’s children. The children are teenagers and young adults now, but we still meet. One from our group moved to Australia but she’s still on our group text. We push each other to do better or more, to open our horizons. We’ve cheered each other on to professional and personal successes. We support each other through failures. We are sisters, our bond is deep and I hope unbreakable.

My other friend group consists of my friends I trained with during my residency. I’ve known these women for almost 29 years. We don’t meet as often but we have a “book club” where we try to get together a few times a year to talk about the book and catch up on each other’s lives. These are the women who understand what I do as a woman physician, who went into medicine sharing the same idealism which has turned to pragmatism. We still love our patients but not the baggage of corporate medicine. We struggle with balancing personal and family needs with work and the need to do “more” to make the world a better place. These women inspire me and also “get” my professional struggles.

Then I have my painting friends. We meet alternate weeks at each other’s homes to paint together and share painting techniques. I never paint on my own, there is always something else more urgent that must be done. But when I get together with these ladies for two hours we just paint and talk about art, politics, families, books, and movies.

I have work friends who have my back (and I theirs’), family (lovely sisters in law), and other friends I don’t meet as often as I’d like to. I’m lucky enough to have a mother who is also a girlfriend. She lives across the ocean in India but as a working mom herself, a child psychologist and an author she is my role model too. We talk several times a week, email and text. We talk about her grandchildren of course, but so much more. I get my love of art, books, travel,  and gardening from her.

Debra Tannen the author of a You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships states- “Talk plays a larger role in many women’s friendships than it does in many men’s, and when times are tough, talk can come into its own. Telling a friend what you’re going through can make you feel less isolated.”

This talk seems to be the secret of why friendships are important to women. Socially isolated people are at greater risk of poor health -high blood pressure, heart disease, infectious diseases. When we seek out friends we are following a biological need as well. People with strong social relationships have higher survival rates and longevity. Underlying our friendships is biochemistry, an increase in hormones that help us stay happy and calm (oxytocin, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin) and a decrease in hormones that are associated with stress (cortisol). There seems to be a deep biological need for these social connections.

Strong social bonds are important for survival even in animals, not just primates, but also dolphins, giraffes, deer, bison, elephants, birds, to name a few species. These bonds are most common in females of the species.

Our women friends comfort, nurture, sustain, feed and elevate us. As Julia Child said “Remember, ‘No one’s more important than people’! In other words, friendship is the most important thing―not career or housework, or one’s fatigue―and it needs to be tended and nurtured.”

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.

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.

Feminist Mom-ent

I hadn’t heard the term “feminist parenting” until I was way past the age of raising kids, and well into raising young adults who thought they were well past the age of being raised. But I’ve been a feminist ever since I can remember, even before I knew the word or grasped the full implications of the feminist fight. I’ve never regarded myself as anything other than perfectly capable of doing the things I wanted to do—whether it was the short-lived dream of becoming a world renowned molecular biologist or a drug-designing organic chemist, or the other one of writing that killer investigative story that would win me the Pulitzer—or at maybe the Ramnath Goenka Award. And not for a moment did I attribute not being able to do the things I wanted to do to my gender. Looking back, of course, with a keener—and more critical eye—I can see the points at which an unconscious response to deeply entrenched expectations on my part and a structural orientation on the part of society, nudged me in one way or another, or made a certain choice easier—or more acceptable–than another.

So when my children were born, one lovely girl after the other, there was no question that they would be raised as human beings, first, and human beings last. This is not to say that there were no gendered paraphernalia in their lives; given the plethora of adoring aunts, uncles and grandparents, they had their share of little-girl gifts. At different points they wore pink and purple and lace and frills, they fantasized about being princesses and mermaids, they demanded Barbie dolls and glitter, which I gave in to reluctantly and always with a bit of a deconstructive lecture. But they also had swimming and soccer, karate and cycling, and were encouraged to climb trees and when possible, mountains. They watched me and my husband share tasks and responsibilities, they watched him defer to me on some things and me to defer to him on others. Yes, we also found ourselves and our ideas often hemmed in by the expectations of a traditional South Indian family structure, but despite this, there were spaces for conversations that steered around and through these constraints, acknowledging them yet offering possibilities of resistance and change.
It helped (and helps) that they are surrounded by female strength of different kinds: grandmothers with a strong sense of self and their own respective passions; aunts who laughed heartily, unafraid; cousins who had made unpopular choices and those who had adopted convention but retained a measure of choice. And it also helped (and helps) that there were many men in their lives who never used the words “you’re a girl, so…”.
It’s never easy being a parent, and it wasn’t easy for me–who had strong feelings about the ills of the world and what to do about them. It’s even harder when you are constantly trying to resist conventional wisdom while keeping the peace. I’m not a natural non-conformist, and I hate to rock the boat…I’m the kind of person who will nudge it sideways, a little at a time, believing firmly that the course will eventually change.


But ideology has not really been a conscious part of the parenting approach—although, one might argue, our political beliefs form the subtext even of our domestic lives. They surface occasionally in our interactions with family members, run through the arguments we have in spoken and unspoken words, the ways in which we treat those who work for and with us, and in the manner in which we approach the market. But I suppose the ideology would have been evident in the books we bought for the girls, the activities we enrolled them in, or the ways in which we dealt with the ups and downs of life, or in our interactions with people and the world.
So it was no surprise that daughter number one made choices that were fiercely her own, challenged only in relation to how they spoke to her mind and soul rather than their “value” in the employment market, that there was no question that she would follow her heart no matter where it took her and how long a journey it would be. And it was no surprise that daughter number two found her passion in sports, that there was no question that she too would stumble through those highs and lows in her own way, that we would neither shield her from disappointment nor set any ‘external’ standards.
What I have done is try to be (pretty much) transparent. I’ve talked with them about my own uncertainties, frustrations, hopes and dreams. I’ve shared with them my vulnerabilities and my anger. I’ve also done things I’ve enjoyed, and taken my space as and when I’ve needed it. But there is one thing I haven’t been able to do, and that is, to lay down my own guilt in the face of not meeting imagined expectations. Fortunately, though, they see the futility of that guilt and often try to talk me out of it. It’s in the middle of those conversations that I stop and think, “Wow, they have grown up, indeed!” 

Perhaps in the final analysis, feminist parenting is really about creating a space where there is both conscience and consciousness, a space where self-concept is untethered to the limitations imposed by expectations of [gender or other] roles. It’s not to say that things have been ideal. They still have to deal with the [gendered] anxieties that arise when they’re out late or in unfamiliar contexts. They still need to offer justifications about being safe. But I can see that the same anger I feel simmers in them too. It’s an anger that leads one to uncover narratives of oppression in popular culture and the other to rally against discrimination in sports.

But still, twenty-seven years later, when my daughter admonishes me fondly upon my asking if my dangly earrings look “too young for me”, saying, “Ma, what sort of a feminist are you?” it makes me smile inside.

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.

On Belonging

I could say many things about the upcoming two person exhibition and my collaboration with Lois Bielefeld. I could load this post with art theory terms, postcolonial phrases, race and political commentary and technical jargon. But it will not explain what this work has meant to me over the last two years. I will simply tell you a story.

Two years ago, I came back from one of my trips to India to experience what felt like a different country. With a new president, each day brought sensationalist headlines, new announcements and events that highlighted an increasingly polarized America. I needed to wrap my head around what was going on, observe, read, speak to mentors and friends before I returned to the studio, questioning whether my work was relevant anymore.

An idea slowly began to emerge that demanded more courage from me than I have ever given before. For the first time, I included my physical self in the production of a body of work. I reached out to Lois Bielefeld, who I did not know at that time, with the idea to explore how race is perceived visually through garment and skin color and how intimately tied the body’s relationship to place is. I donned each of my barely used saris and worked with Lois to produce photographs that show me overtly performing difference while exploring and embedding myself in the landscape of Milwaukee. We titled this work Reaching Across 5 1/2 yards / 8497 miles. It spoke to both the length of the sari fabric and the distance between my place of birth and the place I live in now. Over the next year and half we traversed Milwaukee’s pocketed and  segregated spaces and experienced each other’s personal sanctuaries and the city’s public places of power. The result is a visual quilt of photographs that reflect different facets of Milwaukee.

Nirmal walking in Milwaukee, “overtly performing difference.”

Throughout this journey, Lois and I had many conversations- on her childhood memories of Milwaukee, on religion, identity, politics and art. We were walking by the Milwaukee Riverwalk one day and came across the American history engraved on its boardwalk. This led to discussions on how each of us understood this history, mostly written by white men. The burden of America’s violent and racist history weighed heavy on us as we discussed the Muslim ban, riots in Charlottesville, Standing Rock protests, police brutality against African Americans, border walls, shootings at Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and Olathe Kansas in addition to other racist incidents against people of color. I made a rubbing of the history engraving onto 30 meters of organdy fabric which then became a prop for another body of collaborative work with Lois. We titled this work that included 12 performance based photographs, What is Recorded / What is Remembered.

The rubbing of engraved American history on an organdy fabric sari.



We expanded this work by reaching out to our friends, diverse women of different ages, races and sexual orientations involving them in a performance based three channel video work. It was magical to see how generous and willing they were to perform with us not knowing what the end product may look like.

The circle grew even larger with the production of an audio archive that not only included the women we invited to perform but also community members we admired and respected. This is an ongoing project that explores how each of us contend with history- personal, national and global and includes our hopes and fears for the future in addition to how we have come to understand what being American is.
All this may sound confusing –  with subjects that are vast and complex, but it all comes down to the personal, the self and moves outward to the community like ripples. We hope that our work is the pebble that causes those ripples. What was an impulsive act of reaching out to a stranger in a desperate need to understand and build something together, has led to a special friendship and incredible learning. I have come to understand my community better, to gain comfort through human connection, learn from wise and knowledgeable women, listen to the hope in young people’s voices. These are the intangibles that are behind the work. We hope that you may feel these intangibles, invisible as they are, filtering through the exhibition and for those of you far away, perhaps through the images and links on our websites.

It takes courage to reach out to a stranger who is different from us. To have conversations that are uncomfortable and new, but if we approach it with a spirit of inquiry and learning, we may realize that we all have the same fears and concerns. You never know what might come of that interaction.

No art can be shared without the support of space and visibility. We are incredibly grateful to The Warehouse, John Shannon and Laura Sims Peck at Guardian Fine Arts to generously host this exhibition at their 4000 square foot pristine gallery space. A space large and generous enough  to hold this work and share it with Milwaukee.

On Belonging
opens March 8th and will be up till May 31st,
The Warehouse, 1635 W. Saint Paul Ave., Floor 1, Milwaukee, WI 53233

Opening reception is on March 8th, 5-8 pm
The gallery is open by appointment Monday – Friday. Please call 414-252-0677 or email info@thewarehousemke.org

 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.

Lois Bielefeld