Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

Diwali eve

Even though Diwali is a big festival, most schools and workplaces in southern India are closed only for 2 days. Therefore, the morning before Diwali is when the rest of the family come in, which was the case this time around too.

My aunt and uncle were arriving from Coimbatore by train and my dad was to go and pick them up from the station at 6 am in the morning. And I went along too! I haven’t seen big crowds in the States except during Christmas in Manhattan. To take in the sight of people of all ages and from different parts of the country either coming in or leaving the city, presumably many of them with the purpose of visiting their families for the festival, was something I was really looking forward to. Also there’s just something inherently nice about receiving your family members and being received by family members when you come in from a different place, no matter how close or far away they are coming from. In all the years I’ve spent in Chennai, we’ve usually gone to the station with the purpose of either boarding a train or deboarding from it or in rare cases, accompanying my parents when picking up or dropping off family members. But this was the first time, I went also as a visitor to the station, and what I saw and felt there will hopefully be the subject of a blog in the future. I don’t want to get sidetracked too much here.

By mid afternoon, the rest of our family began to trickle in and by 4 pm, everybody was at home, chatting and making general inquiries about each others’ lives. And then, it was time for snacks and filter coffffeeeee!! Traditionally, a number of fried snacks such as vada, bajjis are made on the morning of Diwali. However, many years ago, our family decided that there were too many varieties of snacks being consumed on the morning of Diwali and thus it became difficult to savor and enjoy them all at the same time. And so, bajji (all different kinds, potato, onion, raw banana), which is a family favorite was given the Diwali-Eve slot. This continued for many years until this year while fantasizing about Diwali at home, I realized that I didn’t like bajji as much as I did other items like aloo-bonda or sabudana vada. And therefore, I proposed to replace bajji with sabudana vada (savory snack) and nei appam( sweet snack). The proposal was accepted immediately (perks of flying 9000 miles to be home, haha! ).

Once we had all eaten to our heart’s content, we had the entire evening ahead of us to have fun! 10-15 years ago, we’d all get dressed up immediately after snacks and light diyas ( Indian lamps made of clay) and burst fire crackers. But, ever since we became aware of all the excessive pollution due to the firecrackers, we’ve stopped bursting them for the last 8-10 years. As a family we’ve often ended up just passing time by chatting or watching TV and more recently engrossed in our mobile phones. But this time around, I decided to take home a board game, ‘Sequence’ from the States (although I am told this is available in India too). After coming to Chicago, I was introduced to quite a number of board games, some tend to be very intense and long games and some are casual, quick ones that are fit for a family gathering and Sequence is definitely one such casual game.

After a brief explanation of the game, everyone agreed to try it out and soon enough, 9 of us were playing the game and my family absolutely loved it. There was a lot of banter, humor and pulling of legs that went on during the game which made it all the more enjoyable. After a couple of games of sequence, we also played the family favorite card game, ‘Ass’. Ass is a card game with simple rules and yet, involves quite a bit of memory and strategy and a combination of these can nullify the initial luck factor involved when dealing the cards. And the game is a lot of fun when played in groups of 8-10 people with just one deck of cards.

Around 5:15 pm, patti started to get a little fidgety because it is expected that by 6 pm, everyone in the house, is dressed and a small prayer is made to God and diyas are lit inside and outside the house. And here we were still playing and having fun. After about 15 mins of persistent efforts from her side, one by one everyone got up and proceeded to dress up in Indian ethnic wear. Finally after a good amount of hustle, everyone assembled in the living room for the mandatory photograph session and diya lighting around the home. Amma asked me to wear a saree and in the short span of 15-20 mins, I fumbled with the help of amma and my aunts to get it on and the end result was a very poorly draped saree. Oh no!!! I have since resolved to make sure I practice the art of draping a saree! Hopefully, the next time is going to be better, sigh! After the photo session was over, I quickly got rid of my saree and changed to another set of new clothes that my cousin and I had shopped for together the previous morning! I loved it when we were both dressed in a matching set of tops and jeans!

And finally, it was dinner time. Yet again, traditions continue to dictate some of the items on the menu. In our family, potato curry and onion-sambhar have always been made for dinner on Diwali-eve and this year was no exception. Food has always been one of the most important aspects of Indian festivals. Every festival has its own delicacies (both sweet and savory) associated with it and over time convenience has led to some modifications and changes but by and large a good percentage of these practices have continued to be preserved in the family and I’m grateful for that. Many of these are also simply dictated by what we want to eat. For instance, Diwali generally coincides with the new moon (amavasya), and for reasons that I will avoid getting into, most of older people in our community do not eat onions on a new moon day. But, someone in the family decided that they must absolutely and at any cost eat onion-sambhar and onion bajji during Diwali and thus began the tradition of eating them on Diwali-eve so that it didn’t clash with the new moon and everyone was appeased! Ideas such as not eating onions on certain days of the month are dwindling and have no relevance today for me and most people of my generation, yet the idea of staggering all the delicacies over the two-three days of any festival is definitely sensible so that we don’t have to stuff ourselves with everything on the same day. Makes it all the more exciting and enjoyable!

After dinner, there’s usually one last thing remaining to be done before retiring to bed. All of us have to bring out our new clothes for Diwali and place it in a designated spot. My patti will then stack them all up in the correct order starting from the oldest person’s at the bottom to the youngest one’s at the top in the prayer room and it will be handed out to us on the morning of Diwali after a small poojai (prayer). But more on that later. It’s bed time but we all decided to play one more round of games and finally around 11 pm, patti and appa (both of them being the epitome of discipline!! ) , came in and ordered us all to bed immediately. Everyone obliged knowing very well that we would be woken up at 4 am in the morning! Sounds crazy right? 4 am? That’s our family, and all about that and more in the next episode!

To be continued…..

Overview and Diwali preparations

I’ve heard people often say, “Every day is a festival, every day is a celebration”. While there’s a ring of truth to it and it goes without saying that we must all be happy and thankful for every day of our lives, the reality is a teeny bit different.  Most of us have a routine that we more or less adhere to and commitments in schools and colleges, at home and at workplaces mean that every once in a while we end up disliking the monotony in our lives; and we also don’t get to spend time with our family and friends as much as we might like to. And thus, festivals are those special days every year when there’s an opportunity to cook, eat, play, sleep and pray together with our family.

As a kid, I grew up for the most part in Chennai and Vadodara and lived with my mother (henceforth referred to as amma) and my paternal grandmother (paati) whereas my dad (appa) worked in power projects and construction projects across India and was constantly shifting base. Come what may, appa always made it a point to be home with us for Diwali. And therefore, in my mind and perhaps many other Indians, Diwali has been the “biggest” festival in a calendar year.

When I moved out of Chennai for undergraduate studies, I made it a point in my first 3 years to come home for a few days even while being in the midst of the semester so that I could spend Diwali with my family. But in the next two years of undergrad and since moving to Chicago in 2017, I had not been with my parents for Diwali. 2019 would have been the 5th Diwali away from home and as soon as that thought struck me, I decided to fly home from the States to Chennai in the middle of the term, albeit just for 1 week so I could be at home. All I intend for this blog post to be is to summarize those 2 days of Diwali at home and how it was the perfect Diwali I could have asked for! So much for the introduction!

The feeling of “ghar-waali Diwali” (roughly translated as a homely Diwali) has resonated with so many Indians. This small segment of an ad by Maruti Suzuki that came out a few years ago remains one of my favorite Diwali ads.

The week preceding Diwali

It was not just exciting for me but also for my parents, grandmother, and uncles and aunts too, that I was coming home for Diwali. My parents were prompt to invite a whole bunch of people including uncles, aunts, and cousins to our home to spend the Diwali together and being the amazing hosts that they always are, made elaborate plans for sweets, snacks, and meals, all prepared at home, for the 2 days. All other family members were also going to bring in sweets and snacks to share with everyone. Bakshanams (traditional south Indian snacks) like kai murukku, thenkuzhal, mixture, sweets like ukkarai (a sweet made only once a year during Diwali) and godumai halwa (wheat halwa) were made in huge quantities.

The other most exciting aspect of the preceding week is shopping for new clothes! All this while, my parents have bought me new clothes on several occasions but shopping for Diwali is the most fun among them all! And this time around too, we went shopping the day I landed in Chennai, haha! But more importantly and with a hint of bragging here, since I am now earning a salary as a PhD student, I wanted to get amma and appa new clothes for this year’s festival and so, a new saree for amma and a new kurta set for appa was also added to the shopping list!

To be continued…..

This is the second post in a series of three about our trip to Memphis. The trip to Memphis was organised by the International Office at Northwestern University in coordination with Serve 901 – an organization that aims to provide students with an opportunity to engage and serve the community during spring/summer/winter breaks. In addition to community service, panel discussions, there is also plenty of opportunities to explore the wonderful city of Memphis. Robert Gordon said about Memphis, ” Memphis is a town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does”. In the course of one week that we spent in the city, I learnt how true this statement is.

Towards the end of my last post, I talked about the various facets of injustice and how they have impacted the lives of people. A majority of the population in Memphis are African-Americans. Hence there has been a history of racial discrimination and segregation in the city that continues to be present even today. Consider this, the Confederates (comprising of white supremacists who wanted to expand slavery and slave trade) lost against the union in 1865. Yet, after more than a century after the event, statues of Confederate leaders continued to be present in public places. This is something that can be unsettling for anyone and even more so for the African-American community subjected to the cruelty of slave trade. A recent movement ‘TakeEmDown901″ was launched by the activist Tami Sawyer to ensure the removal of these statues. Thinking back to India, I knew what had been done to the statues of British rulers in India. A lot of these statues (especially in Delhi) were taken down in the post-colonial era.What I didn’t know until just now was that they were left to rot/covered with sand and mud. Now, I am not quite sure if they were intentionally left to rot or it was just because public works in India are never carried out to completion and generally left half-done. Either way, one could symbolically look at the rotting of these statues as a way of disregarding or shaming the colonial rulers for what they did.


With Tami Sawyer at Teach For America -Memphis

We had an opportunity to interact with Tami Sawyer who is also involved with Teach for America (TFA). She pointed out problems that exist in the education sector. Public schools in Memphis, even though are not racially segregating in their policy, have become nearly exclusive for either the white people or for people of colour. There is very little racial diversity in the schools. And we saw this happening in all the three school that we visited while in Memphis. This is, in fact, a problem that is present in several American cities and is by and large a consequence of the segregation in residential areas of African – Americans and the white Americans. The African Americans live in the inner areas of Memphis around downtown Memphis whereas the white people live in the outer periphery and the suburbs of the city. This segregation automatically has led to little to almost no diversity in schools. I think lack of socio-economic diversity is a problem in Indian cities too. The schools in Indian cities that we go to are mostly private schools and the tuition fee determines the socio-economic status of the students’ families. It bothers me now, that while growing up, I never got a chance to interact (on an everyday basis) with kids whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to private schools.

Another fact that a lot of activists and volunteers in education are concerned about is that most African-American kids are taught by teachers who are white. This can impact the way a child thinks and lead to a deep-rooted belief that African-Americans are not as capable as the white Americans. Special programs that impart training to teachers on culturally relevant pedagogy are being conducted in by TFA-Memphis. Looking back at the situation in India, while we have agricultural universities and training centres for farmers in rural India, education about other rural vocations such as pottery, fishing etc also needs emphasis. I feel we lack a system where a child of a farmer/fisherman/potter is made to feel comfortable and culturally relevant to the society.

Something that really shook me while we were visiting an elementary school was the following incident. On the day we were visiting, the school had a scheduled emergency drill. This drill was not a fire drill or a general evacuation and safety drill. This was a drill that taught students and teachers to respond in case a person with a gun was either in the school or in the vicinity. Recent incidences of gun violence in the US has prompted the school to begin this practice. I cannot imagine what impact this might have on a 5-6-year-old kid. A few members of our group even noticed some kids who were visibly stressed out and anxious throughout the drill. It is deeply unsettling that we live in times where there is clearly no place, not even schools where kids can feel safe. And this is true not just in the US but so many countries around the world – Syria, for instance, where young kids are deprived of education, happiness and safety that they are entitled to.

The thing with Memphis is, despite all these problems, people have embraced the city. A lot of people from different parts of Tennessee and even from other places in the US have moved to Memphis to make a difference to this city. Every single Memphian we met and interacted with was proud to be in the city to make it a better place. An example of that is the revival of the Crosstown Concourse building with a vision for focus on healthcare, education and arts. Several non-profit organisations such as Serve901, TFA, now use this space for their activities. Clean Memphis is another organization that works with the vision that a cleaner city helps reduce crimes and promotes a sense of pride in the community. They organize clean-up drives and beautification in popular places such as the Civil Rights Museum in addition to cleaning up community parks and school grounds.

I am only quoting here some of my experiences in Memphis, however, every moment that I spent in volunteering activities taught me something. Through the end of my stay, I realised that justice, socio-economic status, education are all intertwined and need to be tackled individually as well as collectively in order to make a difference. This is true not just in Memphis or in the US but everywhere in the world. Let’s take the example of Dharavi in Mumbai, India. There are a huge number of non-profit organisations that work for the well-being and upliftment of the people there and yet there is a long way to go before we can make a visible impact. Nonetheless, we hear very often about great success stories and start-ups that come up from Dharavi.

Many of us, including me, are ambitious about what we want to do with our careers and lives and may perhaps not be able to dedicate ourselves full-time to volunteering activities. However, in the one week that I spent in Memphis, I realised that by devoting a small portion of my time to volunteering and community service, I can definitely make a difference. The saying, “Little drops of water make a mighty ocean” never made more sense to me than it does now.

Something else that Memphis is very proud of is the amazing music that has originated from this city. Memphis is the birthplace of three very popular genres of music – blues, rock and roll, and soul music. B.B King, W.C Handy, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding all started out in Memphis. Needless to say, Memphians love good music and I’ll talk more about music and it’s importance in the culture of Memphis in my next post. Also watch out for a snippet on Mike Minnis, an urban farmer who left us all amazed not only at his farming practices but also with his general philosophy on life!

PS: On the suggestion of our group leaders from Northwestern International Office, while we were in Memphis, we watched a documentary called 13th that talks about justice, race and incarceration in the US. It also talks about the role of big corporations in the prison-industrial complexes in the US and their motivation for profit that has caused over-incarceration in order to keep prisons full all the time. I would recommend anybody interested in these themes to watch it!

PPS: In case you are wondering about 901, it’s the area code for Memphis! I actually found that out only midway through our week-long stay there 😛