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Celebrating Aug 15 with an hyphenated-identity

Aug 15 holds a special meaning for all of the Indian diaspora – the Non Resident Indians (NRIs) regardless of their country of citizenship.

indian tricolor

My memories of Aug 15 go back to the 1960s where I remember fashioning a flag out of a ripped calendar page (July 1969), crayoning the tricolor on it and sketching a blue chakra with as many spokes as a seven year old could draw and parading out to the terrace and glueing the paper flag onto a nondescript pole.

1972 wRipon_Building_Chennaias special as well – with the entire city of Madras being lit up in observation of the 25th anniversary of Indian independence from the British with special programs at school throughout the week. I remember my father taking me and my little brother on a taxi ride to Ripon Building where the white building glowed in the light of numerous light bulbs on the night of the 15th of August.

Fast forward to 1997 when I was in a different land – a different hemisphere – celebrating the golden jubilee of Indian independence from the British by joining a parade in downtown Cincinnati hearing Mayor Roxanne Quals clad in saree deliver a namaste and a speech to a doting audience assembled at the city’s principal landmark – Fountain Square. 1997 was topped with the anticipation of a new vande-mataram album from none other than the then new musical hero AR Rahman.

I look back at the past decade and reminisce the numerous July 4ths and the Aug 15ths that I have celebrated as an Indian-American with fellow Indian American adults and their children.

As the years pass – I realize that Aug 15th is a point to reflect on who we are as global citizens and on how we can contribute to our karmabhumi (the land where we live and work) and to our janmabhumi (the land that gave birth to us).

Aug 15th is a coordinate in time. It marks the remembrance of the point in time where India ceased to be a British colony. A point in time 68 years ago where India – became a new political identity.

Stepping back however, we realize that India is much older than these 68 years. India is an ancient culture that advocated reason and freedom of thought and placed knowledge as the ultimate goal of human existence.

It is this freedom of thought and the insatiable pursuit of knowledge that enables people of Indian origin (PIOs) to excel in their chosen fields and contribute to their land of citizenship and to celebrate July 4th and August 15th in the USA with the same sense of ownership and pride.

Three headlines that dominated the NRI social networks during the last month standout in this context.

Shashi Tharoor from Kerala, a renowned ex-NRI and now a member of the Indian Parliament argued forcefully in favor of symbolic reparations toward India from the former colonizer Great Britain. While this news been dismissed off as a set of jingoistic rumblings – what has come to the fore is an awareness of the detrimental impact of the British on the Indian economy then. Per Tharoor’s argument, the British damage to India was to the extent of rshashi tharooreducing India’s 23% share of the world economy to 4%. The argument, the numbers and the storytelling have certainly caught the fancy of Indians worldwide. While reparations are perhaps moot, the entire debate raises an interesting question.

If the Indian economy constituted a lion’s share of the world’s GDP two hundred years ago -isn’t there a potential to reach such a staggering number in the service and knowledge based economic paradigm of today?

Just a glimpse of this possibility can fill us with nothing but inspiration.

The second headline is the rags to Rashtrapati Bhavan story of President Abdul Kalam whose life is clearly indicative of the heights to one can rise despite adverse childhood circumstances. President Kalam was dear to all NRIs. There is hardly an NRI who doesn’t personally know someone who has taken a photograph with the former President.

kalam flagWhat stands out in Kalam’s work is his advice to the NRIs. “Contribute to your country of citizenship and be an exemplary citizen. This is the greatest service that you can offer India”. The story of Abdul Kalam’s rise from ultra humble beginnings to the leadership of the Indian Republic is a constant reminder that despite the scenes of squalor and social injustice so commonly depicted in media portrayals of India and otherwise, there is an innate sense of goodness – a spirit that creates success stories such as the former President’s.

The third story that has been doing its rounds in the last month is that of Fellow IITan Sundar Pichai. Each of us NRIs from Chennai can relate to the various Chennai landmarks such as Vana Vani school on campus at IIT, the Ashok Nagar environs and even mentally picture a two room flat described vividly in the gushing stories that have flooded the media. There is a visceral excitement to see someone you can relate to lead a global organization that anyone would want to work for – Google. Sundararajan’s story is modern Amar Chitra Katha material right away. The take away from thisgoogle_sundar-pichai story is again a burst of inspiration upon a realization of the availability of unlimited opportunities in the karmabhumi and its personification in the form of a fellow NRI having achieved it – making the whole journey look simple and effortless.

Aug 15 is a landmark that gives us an opportunity for introspection. To look at ourselves as representatives of a land that placed freedom of thought and the pursuit of knowledge above anything else. It is a a time to be grateful for who we are as the Indian diaspora – for the freedom that was available to us when we were in India – and for the opportunities that came our way in our karma bhumi and the freedom in our chosen worlds that enabled us to achieve and blaze trails in our chosen fields.

It is a time to reflect on the countless sacrifices made by the freedom fighters that stood for an ideal; on the great Indian generation (our parents and grandparents) that educated a whole generation of emigrants – who have created  a strong hyphenated global-Indian identity all over the globe.

After all, the sun always rises on the Indian diaspora.

Here is a musical reflection on some of India’s core ideals that have given the Indian diaspora its unique identity.
Swadesho bhuvanatrayam – the entire world is my motherland
nahi jnanena sadrsam pavitram vidyate – there is nothing equivalent to the knowledge (of the self)
vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the entire universe is my family


Happy August 15th to one and all.

August 16, 2015 at 9:33 am 1 comment

Abdul Kalam – A Life to be Celebrated

As I observe the outpouring of condolence and grief at the passing of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam I realize that his life is one to be celebrated. In life and in death, President Kalam stands out as a towering personality.

Apart from his poverty- to-Presidency story and his tenure as undeniably India’s most popular president, what is it that makes his life so special?

kalam3First of all I realize that a lot of my friends (and a lot of everyone’s friends) have either met President Kalam or know of someone who has met him. Yes, Abdul Kalam was a people person; he reached out everywhere.

I have had the honor of meeting him (and having my work performed in his presence) on three occasions; once in Lexington KY and then in Seattle WA where we had a private audience with him and then at a reception held in his honor at the residence of the Consular General of India in Houston.

He was dear to anyone that went in for higher education; he was an inspiration to all school children. He was and is viewed as a man that blazed forth the torch of inspiration – almost leading you to a guaranteed growth path – full of hope.

It didnt matter whether he offered namaaz or whether he read the Gita each day. All that matters is that there is probably not a single soul in India who would utter a word against him. Isnt that a rarity? Any celebrity has adversaries. Not President Kalam who was dear to one and all. There is thus no surprise that every other post on Facebook feed (or for that matter, anyone’s FB feed) is about him.

His love for Art Music (Karnatic Music in particular) was something that has been talked about in the media. Yes; in his speech in Lexington, when he talked proudly of Indian cultural heritage he did make a mention of the Vaggeyakaras of South India – Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri(gal). Yes, in a characteristic Tamilian manner he referred to Sastri as Sastrigal (in a speech in English).

He quickly struck conversation in Tamil with my then 13 year daughter in Seattle when we presented him with a recording of the Indo Colonial Music of Dikshitar (Vismaya). “unakku Dikshitar pidikumma ma? enakku Tyagarajar taan ma pidikkum. ‘yandaro mahanubhavulu”. (Do you like Dikshitar? I like Tyagaraja the most”).

He stands out tall in his death. What an enviable way to leave one’s body behind? No prolonged hospitalization; no illness; no accident. No premature death; he had lived a full life. He was doing what he loved best until his last breath. He was teaching; imparting knowledge. It is an undeniable fact that the body ages – and the death bed images of most people are vastly different from portraits taken in their moments of greatness. President Kalam looked no different at the time of his death than he did during other great moments in life.

In fact, he was never ever past his prime.

Such a life is to be celebrated. His death in fact reminds  me of the last section of the movie ‘Dreams’ by Akiro Kurusawa where the death of a ripe old person is actually celebrated by the entire village.

Yes, we are all proud to have been acquainted with this well lived life in one way or the other.

Kanniks Kannikeswaran

July 27, 2015

July 27, 2015 at 8:28 pm 6 comments

Ode to a thepla

I was first introduced to the ‘thepla’ some 9 years ago, by a Tambrahm Mumbaikar cousin who was satisfying her pregnancy cravings with frequent doses of this yellow flat bread with specs of green and black. Its tantalizing smell each time it was heated on a pan prompted me to take a bite of this bread guarded so preciously by the visiting cousin.

Mmm. It was great; had a great texture; was hot, had a tinge of the fenugreek bitterness; it teased your tastebuds; the after taste was semi-sweet. Yes, I loved this dish and came to know that it was from Gujarat and was called the ‘thepla’.

For some reason, it occurred to me that it could be a great travel snack. It didn’t need refregiration; always tasted good when heated; tasted fine even when cold. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the thepla could be bought in an Indian store in Cincinnati; apparently there were suppliers who provided regular stocks of this dish.

Theplas gave us company during our trip to Bethlehem PA for the Shanti concert in 2006 – where the Cincinnati bought theplas were certified authentic by none other visitors from Gujarat!

My next encounter with theplas was at the Swami Narayan temple in Houston – where the canteen sold these thick theplas; I brought them back to Cincinnati and heated one of them and watched the oil ooze out. These theplas a different breed altogether; thick and loaded, each piece of thepla was a complete meal in itself and the house had the characteristic thepla aroma for a day, just after heating one up.

Theplas became my staple during waits in airports and as a backup snack during travels. ‘You must have been a gujjju in your previous birth’ said my friends the Derasaris and the Chokshis in Florida.

But the prize for the best tepla goes to one of our friends here in Cincinnati whose hot teplas and chai served to us prior to the Gundecha brothers concert this year can never be forgotten.

I sit in the wonderful lounge in Terminal E in Paris (CDG) waiting for my flight; the French pastries do not tempt me. The biscottis at Starbucks and the few days old snacks there are not even appealing. I have my thepla from Cinicnnati. And I write this ode to this wonderful piece of bread.

July 26, 2014 at 4:04 pm 1 comment

The Chennai Foodie Scene

Getting back to this blog after a long time. Much going on in Chennai on the foodie scene. Crowds throng restaurants and eateries at 9PM for the late dining hour.  A few places that  caught my attention and my palette this time were 

1. GRT grand  – a fabulous buffet for grand indulgence

2. Accord Cosmopolitan – for an impressive array of starters and a reasonable buffet – all vegetarian

3. Little Italy – for page after page of vegetarian Italian dishes – particularly great appetizers

4. l’amandier in RA Puram – I was impressed with their Ratatouille – it seemed to match the gastronomic expectation created in the irresistible pixar movie Ratatouille.

5. Kaidi Kitchen – A new restaurant near Woodosaidlands again, a vegetarian restaurant with 100s of dishes to choose from – and tremendous variety

6. Then you have Saravana Bhavan the McDonalds of Chennai – with its prices increasing every year – quality being consistent – although people say that the dosa circumference keeps coming down with time. The Mini lunch in A2B is pretty good too.

7. There is also an impressive array of ‘Sweet Shops’ which double up as restaurants. The masala poli at Krishna Sweets has stayed consistent over the years. 

8. There was no way you could get into Woodlands on a Friday night

What I learned in Chennai this time is that there is so much of centralization of operations in restaurant chains that the batter, chutnies, side dishes are all made centrally and shipped to various locations in order to maintain consistency in quality. Freezing, thawing, reheating is all common – in contrast to the days where fresh sambar boiled in front of your eyes. 


July 19, 2014 at 8:03 am Leave a comment

Song sample from Vismaya

May 26, 2011 at 3:52 pm Leave a comment

The Tambura

Read my article on Chennaionline: The Tambura

August 6, 2009 at 1:05 pm Leave a comment

Pike’s Place Market

It is fun walking through Pikes Place Market in Seattle. (more…)

May 2, 2009 at 7:10 am 1 comment

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