Weddings without borders

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21SM_WEDDING1_2743305g. From When it comes to weddings, transplanted Indian nuptials tend to be a potpourri of permutations and possibilities cross-cultural marriages to quasi-arranged weddings to traditionally arranged ceremonies where horoscopes are matched, the Indian-American wedding experience has it all. But the most dramatic influence on the weddings is Bollywood.

“Karan Johar has probably had more impact on our weddings than anyone else in recent history,” says Sujatha Suresh, who earlier worked as a wedding and event planner in Silicon Valley. “I’m not just talking about lehengas, mehendi andsangeeth sessions being part of the wedding ceremony. In fact, I once organised a Tamil Brahmin wedding where the bride was so influenced by Bollywood movies that she wanted a Punjabi jago as part of the event. This is where the aunt dances with a pot of lamps on her head. We had to bring in dholaks and train the aunt to dance,” she reminisces.

And if you thought Indian weddings were long-drawn affairs, an Indian-American wedding experience can be even longer — just depends on which route your choose. Deepa Ramakrishnan and her husband Trent German wanted to honor honour both sets of parents and ended up having two weddings: one a typical Indian marriage ceremony at the Livermore Hindu Temple where Trent German and the rest of his family decked up in traditional Indian gear; and then a Christian wedding that was officiated by Trent’s German’s dad, a minister himself. “At first we tried integrating both cultures into one event, but with our respective religions being important to our parents we decided to maintain the sanctity of each ceremony and ended up getting married twice,” says Ramakrishnan adds.

In the case of Samyukta and Shibashis Mukherjee, the wedding ceremony lasted even longer and spanned across continents. It started off with a traditional South Indian wedding in California for just family and close friends, followed by a reception in the U.S., and more wedding receptions in Calcutta and Chennai. The standard cost of Indian-American weddings with a fairly grand reception in Silicon Valley can cost upwards of $100,000. And if you throw in event planners and an outdoor wedding, the cash register can ring up close to half a million dollars.

Dr. Vinay Lal is an Associate Professor of History at UCLA and has published several books on the Indian diaspora. He points out that even though the Indian community in the U.S. is highly educated and affluent, it does not yet have a strong voice in mainstream American issues. “The community is very insular. Compared to other immigrant communities, inter-racial marriages are far less common among the Indians. As far as possible, they tend to stick to their own castes and communities.”

This could be true because the community is possibly one of the youngest immigrant communities in the U.S. Significant Indian migration began around 1965 and has picked up pace only over the last few decades. As the community continues to evolve and find its role in the broader national narrative, weddings become one of the flashpoints for change and growth. On one side are immigrant parents who, despite the many years of living away from India, continue to build and nourish a cocoon of familiarity with a kernel of homeland they remember from the past along with a sense of adventure and patriotism for a land they call home now. And on the other side are children who fly out of these cocoons into mainstream America to grow as individuals with a unique blend of identity and citizenship. And these two worlds diffuse and become far more consequential for future generations, especially as part of the wedding process.

Growing up a second-generation Indian-American typically means straddling a strong Indian cultural identity at home and the greater American contextoutside. “We grow up with the best of both worlds,” says Vignesh Ramachandran, a 26-year-old Stanford graduate who works as a tech journalist in San Francisco. “Most of us identify with the Hollywood culture of dating and getting to know someone before marriage.”

Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, well known in comedy circles in the U.S., agrees. The 30-something multiple-award winning comic is also a two-time MIT graduate who worked in the high-intensity venture capital world before moving into show business. She often dips into her personal experiences of growing up second-generation Indian-American for material for her stand-up routines. “Most Indian families have an hierarchy when it comes to finding a suitable spouse for their kids. If you can’t have someone from your own caste, they’ll settle for at least an Indian. If not, then it better be a Jewish person (they have more doctors and lawyers) or at least a generic white guy,” she laughs.

Digging deeper into the prejudices of the Indian-American community, she says, “For many parents there is religious fear, especially about cross-cultural weddings. These immigrant parents might have left India behind, but some religious and social ideologies have travelled with them.” And some of these biases permeate into the next generation as well. “I’ve had friends who’ve been stereotyped because of their skin colour by their Indian-American peers. Even if we don’t vocalise it, some of these predispositions become part of our sub-conscious.”

The growing popularity of a variety of mobile dating apps is probably complicating matters further for the millennial generation. Besides the usual Match.com and eHarmony.com, there are others like Coffee Meets Bagel and Hinge joining the line-up. “The availability of these apps gives us an illusion of choice,” says Ramachandran. “It’s as if we can go shopping for the perfect mate. If something does not work out, it creates an impression that we have other options out there.”

As they get culturally assimilated, it’s far more common today to find second generation Indian-Americans living together before marriage — and more and more parents getting on board with the idea as well. “I think it’s important to live with a person to get to know them well so there are no surprises after the wedding. But I also think it’s better to wait until you are engaged,” says Samyukta Suresh, a marketing executive in Chicago. Suresh, who grew up in California and met her husband Shibashis Mukherjee when they were both students at the University of Illinois.

As the Indian-American next gens slowly find their footing in a new world, they are creating their own unique melange of cultural patterns and mores. But inevitably, they are likely to always import a bit of India into their lives at all stages, especially the crucial wedding one.

Irrespective of the kind of marriage — interracial or within communities — one thing is clear. while the path to marriage in the Indian-American context can be distinctly different from a true Indian matrimonial experience, at the end of the day the quest for a “happily ever after” remains the same.

Sarmishta Ramesh is a writer based in Denver, Colorado.

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2016 – Resolved!

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Like the first page of book, a new year unfurls with the promise of excitement and adventures

A day when ideas get baked in resolve – some that will crumble in the heat of a yet-to-be-born minute and others that will rise with the textures of time and mind

A day when the lukewarm heat of the winter sun tugs at the human need for hope: Today is better than yesterday; and tomorrow a glorious field of possibilities

Jan 1 2016Jan 1 2016 - eagleWith the skies and mountains to be conquered, even the majestic eagle pauses to reflect

When a terrier plumps up with a fox-like attitude to chase a herd of mule deer – his conviction captured on powdered snow by those thundering hoofs and frightened antlers that vanish into the frozen woods

A day when the impossible starts to become possible

Dream on for a glorious 2016!

Mallika Sarabhai’s “In Search of The Goddess” – Review

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Today, the multiple award-winning dancer and social activist, Mallika Sarabhai showcased her one-woman show, “In search of the Goddess” here at CU Boulder. It was not a classical Barathanatyam or Kuchipudi (Indian dance forms) event by any measure. It was a typical Mallika Sarabhai show – part dance and part street theater with a whole lot of storytelling and social messages wrapped all around it. The premise of the show was to lend a contemporary voice to the devis and the goddesses celebrated in Hinduism. What if they were to tell their own stories, instead of being mere characters created under male penmanship? A fascinating concept delivered by an exceptional dancer and actress. While she was the much maligned Draupadi one second, Sarabhai could transform herself into the haughty Duryodana or the desperate dice-wielding Yudishtra the next. She could be Indra, the ruthless rapist or a misogynistic Brahmin husband and a one-eyed monkey all in the blink of an eye. At 61 she has the fluidity and grace of a 16-year old ballerina! But….

Yes, there is a but…

To me, the show was a let-down.

The trouble with lending a “contemporary” voice to historical or mythological contexts is this: you have to be very careful about connecting those dots. It is easy to relish in the richness of history or get excited over the atrocities committed eons ago. Retrospection can easily become a comfortable couch with a warm blanket on a cold day – it offers you the cushion of time and distance. It can over-emphasize the aura of the past and lose clarity when it comes to the present. It can diminish the point of the show: that the misogynies, abuses and atrocities against Indian women continue even today.

To me, given its modern and contemporary tone, “In Search of the Goddess” luxuriated in angst of the goddesses of the past and failed to capture the anguish of today’s Indian women who seek to find goodness and rise above vile attitudes in a still, patriarchal society.

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I probably would not have these expectations if theshow was done by a bunch of amateurs. But if you are a Padma Bushan award winning artist whose claim to fame is your social activism, I expect more. I expect more than the clichéd headlines of Draupadi and Savitri being the victims of patriarchy. I expect more than just creating “awareness” for something that happened in the past. I expect deeper insight into the issues of the “modern goddesses.” And I certainly don’t want to be searching for the meaning of the show.

Dance of the Aspen

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When darkness glides seductively to meet the last of the light, you hear the dance of the aspen

A silhouette against the fading sky, wind whispers through its shimmying shadows

Heart-shaped leaves darkened by dusk, strut their steps to the sounds of the summer:

The chirp-chirp of the crickets

The lazy clanks of the wind chimes

The soft laughter of children playing on the street

The aspen, she does her dance

Both a joyous triumph and a sweet lullaby

Summer’s serenade and a soulful sigh.

Eat, Pray, Love – London 2015

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Exploring a new place is all about taking in the sights, sounds and smells and being able to weave a story of its people. To me a journey becomes a sensory blip in your memory. As this trip to London approached, I researched Kensington Gardens as a possible place to stay. I reasoned: “If Prince William; Kate, the duchess of Cambridge; their toddler prince George and baby princess Charlotte can call this area their home, hey I might fit in just as well .” But little did I expect the area to be a blend of Berkeley and Ranganathan Street. When you are in the bustling Bayswater section you almost forget you are in London. Rows of shops and restaurants selling goods and delicacies from around the world – Persia, Singapore, Italy, Morocco and more. Halal competes with hookah bars. Forget about stiff upper lips and customary cheerios and ta-tas. I hardly heard a word of English in this neighborhood as languages vaguely familiar and from faraway lands assaulted my ears.

Anytime I travel to a foreign country, my first guide is inevitably a cabbie. Cab rides from airports are filled with chit-chats about where the driver is originally from, good places to see, politics and histories of different countries, commonalities and so on. Today the strapping young cab driver who drove me into London turned out to be an intriguing storyteller. Few minutes into the ride as we talked about where we were originally from, he introduced himself as a “Kashmiri.” It took me a couple of seconds to realize that he’d not called himself an Indian or a Pakistani. He’d labeled himself a Kashmiri – defining himself by a small region; by a sect of people. Intrigued I gently probed the subject and found out that he was from the Pakistani side of Kashmir. Though he’d not suffered any of the brutalities of terrorism we hear in relation to the Kashmiri population in India, years of non-recognition and still being considered an outsider within his own country had left him jaded. He still has relatives on the other side of the debatable border – but he never gets to see them. Shrugging away those imaginary lines of geographic separation, he’d raised walls within his heart. He was just a Kashmiri. No nation. No flag. Just a set of people bounded by their history.

So as I walked through the bustle of the ethnic melting pot of the Kensington Gardens area, I thought of the young man. He’d dropped me off at my hotel after that engaging conversation and said he was headed home for a cup of chai, before his next ride. Funny, I thought, how distances and disillusionment can melt away with a taste or just a whiff of home. 11665430_10153385101604277_3129530392440098038_n - Copy10414852_10153385101694277_1924705377868371003_n - Copy11707492_10153385102069277_7297658459159085666_n   11667322_10153385101999277_5036113584916317172_n  11698472_10153385101909277_7660202251217759929_n 11705134_10153385101969277_4180824021318310810_n of home.11694977_10153385102154277_2654373617020162716_n - Copy

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Climbing a 14er – a Test of Grit

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Crossed one off my bucket list recently! On July 3rd, 2015 we hiked up Mt. Bierstadt, a 14er here in Colorado. 14ers are what the locals call mountains that rise at least 14,000ft above the sea level – and Mt Bierstadt is dubbed one of the “easy” ones. But believe me, that mountain does not let you forget that you are scaling the heights of the rugged Rocky Mountain Range. It is a brutal climb, where the gradient just gets steeper and steeper just as the air thins around you. To get to the top, you have to be nimble like a mountain goat climbing over rocks and be surefooted so you don’t slip over loose gravel. Adding to the fun, the trail was soggy and slippery in places because of recent rains and the ice melting from the mountain top. And as we got closer to the summit, the winds blew harder and dark clouds threatened to come pouring down (thankfully it didn’t rain)!

Ascending a mountain is more than a hike. It is a test of your will power – after hours of unforgiving upward trek, when the summit still seems far away, you look up at the skies, implore to the Gods and draw upon your dwindling resources of determination and a healthy dose of stupidity to march on. So behind the smiles you see in these pictures, is a whole lot grit and a constant questioning of my resolve!

Climbing a 14er comes with its own unique set of rewards. Every time you pause to catch a breath, you are astounded by the beauty in front of you. Raw peaks still touched by snow; a spectacular spread of greenery below you; a bounty of wild flowers with bursts of yellows, purples and whites; and as you go higher and higher, tiny vegetation cropping from under rocks; lichens growing on top of them – all a serenade to survival. Nature is its own reward.

While scaling the 2,850ft Mt. Bierstadt certainly left me accomplished, I still question the legendary mountaineer George Mallory’s sentiment. When someone asked him why he climbed Mt. Everest (three times!!), he famously responded, “ because it’s there.” Really? A day after tackling a 14er, all I want to say is, “Job done. Now show me just flat grounds for a month”

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Eat, Pray, Love: A Venetian Affair

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The last stop on our week-long Italian adventure was Venice. Once you’ve been to a few cities in Italy, you think you know what to expect. But no amount of pictures or videos ever really prepares you for Venice. It’s not just another city. Venice is an EXPERIENCE!

Imagine coming out of the train station (we traveled within Italy by train and found it very convenient) and where you usually expect to see roads, cars, scooters and such, you see a canal – a canal that’s bursting with life: boats, people, sounds, colors and energy. Too many things hit you at once and you stand there not really sure of what to take in. Venice assaults your senses. The beauty of buildings emerging from water, Gondolas, speedboats and Vaporettos (public transport) all jostling for space and somehow functioning like it is all meant to be.

Venice is actually a group of over 100 islands all connected by canals and bridges. When you see a city rising out of water, the first thing you probably wonder is how did they even manage to build it? Somewhere around the 5th century, with the downfall of the Roman Empire, Roman towns were attacked by enemies from the north. Venetians (who are believed to be of Celtic origin) escaped into marshlands and islands just off the mainland. Eventually these islands became home and collectively called Venice.

To construct the buildings and grand palaces and cathedrals, Venetians had to drill millions of thick wooden stakes in to the water and lay wooden platforms upon which they built the entire city. Hmmm…wood is supposed to rot, right? So how have the buildings managed to last the ravages of time? The secret to the longevity of Venice’s foundation is the fact they are submerged so deep underwater where microorganisms (which primarily cause the rot) can’t grow because of lack of oxygen. Whatever the reason, the city still stands tall and proud living up to its title of the “haughty master” of the Adriatic.

While it’s easy to wax poetic about the beauty of Venice, I’ll let the pictures below speak instead. But what I will share are some practical tips and trends if you are planning a trip to this side of Europe.

1. Be prepared to melt: if you are planning your vacation in the summer, be mentally prepared for the sweltering heat. Whether it’s Rome or the Tuscan countryside or coastal Venice, the heat and humidity do not let up. So pack cottons and ladies, brings your sandals (it’s sooo in!)

2. Selfie sticks are the rage in Italy: Everywhere you go, you find people smiling into the end of a rod; hawkers peddling pious poles outside the Vatican or in front of Byzantine buildings. Some thrill seekers go the extra mile to add depth to their selfie expressions: check out pictures of a man who attached his selfie stick to a fishing pole! 🙂

3. AC and Wi-Fi: While most hotels promise you AC and Wi-Fi (especially if you book on Expedia or other travel sites) be prepared for flaky services. But I have to admit by the time we got from Rome to Florence to Venice, both our AC and internet connection got really good. So you can be guaranteed of great connectivity by the time you are ready to go home 🙂

4. Traveling within Italy: Even if you are traveling for a week, you can pack several cities into your Italian vacation so you get to see the amazing diversity this country has to offer in terms its culture, food and people. And inter-city trains, we found, are the best way of doing that. FYI – you can book train tickets within Italy online.

5. Get ready to go home with a cappuccino convert: When you have a spouse who has always sworn that the best coffee in the world is his mom’s “degree kapi,” do a 180 and fall in love with the Italian invention, you know it’s time to throw out the Taster’s Choice at home and invest in a cappuccino maker. (Suggestions on good cappuccino makers are welcome.)

Until then, as the Romans say, Arrivederci!!

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