By Sahana Singh
“You have been away from India for so long; how is your daughter so attached to the place? My children hate to travel to India; even if they do, they can’t wait to leave! They hate to fall sick there, and they cannot fit in with their cousins, uncles, and aunts.”
I am often asked this question by Indian moms but have never given a detailed reply. Let me try today. My daughter was six months old when we moved to Singapore.
It was not a happy choice for me — I wept buckets because I was a young mother and wanted to have my extended family around me.
Besides, the thought of going away from India was just heartbreaking. But my husband would not hear anything; he was convinced that it was a matter of time before I appreciated his decision. He felt it was important to see the world and experience it; besides, we could always return to our home in India whenever we wanted. It did not take long for me to fall in love with Singapore — it was like a paradise where everything was organized perfectly and worked like clockwork.
Thanks to the imprint of Indian civilization, it often felt like a city in India but with a government that works exceptionally well. My experience in Singapore has been published here in Washington Post and later syndicated in the Straits Times, Singapore’s national paper.
My daughter went to different kindergartens and schools in Singapore. Her childhood was fun with lots of friends in a safe and clean island country. Yet, there was one worry always at the back of my mind— what if she turned out like one of the culturally disconnected Indian kids who knew nothing about India, did not speak any Indian language, and did not derive any inspiration from India? I recoiled at the prospect of feeling estranged from my own daughter.
The first thing I did was to make my girl familiar with Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, and Panchatantra.
With the help of picture books and comics, I made sure that all those delightful stories that I had grown up reading became meaningful for her too. I tried to make her develop a personal bond with all the deities in the Hindu pantheon — Vishnu, Shiva, Lakshmi, Parvati, Hanuman, Durga and so on.
Since Singapore was just four hours by air from Bengaluru and five hours from Delhi, I made at least two trips to India in a year. My job allowed me to work from home, except when I travelled to conferences so I could easily manage my trips to India. Whenever he could, my husband would join. Thus, my daughter spent plenty of time with her grandparents in India.
She collected Parijata flowers for my mother’s daily puja; she heard stories from my father and often enjoyed traditional meals on banana leaves in Bengaluru. And in Delhi, she enjoyed my mother-in-law’s Makki ki roti and Sarson-chana-palak saag along with bathua ka raita. She got the chance to visit both the villages in Uttar Pradesh (Tatiri and Fazalpur) where my mother-in-law and father-in-law grew up.
In the 13 years, we were in Singapore, I managed to take my daughter to different places in Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Bengal. We often travelled by train. In each of these places, we would visit historical sites and I would tell her stories of valour and wisdom from India’s past. This was in contrast to many Indian families in our circle of friends who preferred to take their children only to Europe and Australia.
Not that I have anything against Europe and Australia. But I wanted my girl to know her own culture thoroughly before knowing others.
Meanwhile, to my relief, two Indian schools opened up in Singapore one after the other — the Global Indian International School and the DPS International School. I had always wanted my daughter to study Indian geography and history alongside other subjects in school, so the opening of these schools was the fulfilment of a deep desire.
Both schools followed the curriculum of Indian schools. I knew that the history textbooks were written from the Marxist-Christian colonizer perspective but at least there would be some context for me to work with while teaching my child. If the textbook extolled the virtues of the railways that were introduced to India by the British, I was at hand to explain to her that the trains were mainly used to transport natural resources out of India to power England’s Industrial Revolution leaving India behind in poverty.
I think I might be crazy but I spent a lot of time explaining the Southwest Monsoon to my daughter! It was vital for me that she understood how the life-giving monsoon was the cornerstone of our civilization — how it contributed to the bountiful harvests and perennial rivers. I transmitted every word of what I had learned from Ms Madhabi Bhattacharya, my Geography teacher at Julien Day School, Ganganagar in Kolkata.
She had explained the monsoon to us so evocatively:
“The air current coming from the southwest is saturated with moisture and struggling to carry the weight. Suddenly, the Western Ghats of India appear in its path and it dashes against the mountains dropping a large part of its moisture.”
As she had pointed out different places on the map of India indicating where the rains would pour and where it would be dry, my mind’s eye correlated that with the beautiful and dramatic downpours, I had experienced in different parts of India and I also looked forward to seeing the desert in Rajasthan.
It also fascinated me that the state of Tamil Nadu which got passed over by the SW Monsoon later received winter rains from the Northeast Monsoon winds. When we moved to Singapore and experienced rains in winter, it struck me that these were the same air currents that brought rain to Tamil Nadu, which of course, I pointed out to my daughter.
Thanks to the manner in which my teacher had explained the spatial spread of the monsoon and the soil and cropping patterns of India, geography was never a dull subject for me in school. And I was not going to let it be dull for my daughter either! I tried to recreate all the imagery of monsoon for my daughter and to enhance it further by playing rain-themed songs from movies as well as monsoon ragas.
In order to highlight the enormous cultural diversity of India, I got my daughter interested in the plethora of family names (last names) of people in India. Very quickly, she could gather that names like Tendulkar, Mangeshkar, Ambedkar, Kelkar or Diwekar came from the state of Maharashtra while names like Banerjee, Chatterjee, and Bhattacharjee came from West Bengal. It became quite a game between us. I would sometimes throw her off the trail with names like Karmakar which she would guess as Maharashtrian but discover they were Bengalis. If someone called Krishnamoorthi was coming for dinner, she would quickly ask if he was from southern India. And of course, she could easily tell that Nairs, Menons, Nambiars or Pillais were from Kerala. I would often use the family names as a starting point for telling her little things about the different states of India, their customs, traditions, cuisines, and even the way the people of the states pronounced common words. Today, when I hear of people excluding their last names because they are indicative of their “caste” I can only gape at their ignorance of India’s jaati system, which created such amazing diversity.
In Singapore, where my daughter spent her formative years, we were mostly surrounded by people of Han Chinese ethnicity whose features were distinctly different from ours. Lest my daughter thought that all Indians had features similar to ours, I frequently pointed out the people from northeastern India during our trips to India and she was thrilled that Indians came in a variety of races, complexions, and physical attributes but shared so many common traditions.
People were often surprised that, unlike other Indian children, my daughter would sit with guests who visited us, and instead of playing video games, she would listen to our conversations and even participate in them. Before the guests came, I would tell her something about them to pique her interest so that she would not shy away from interacting with them. I did not want her to grow up like the children I often met in people’s houses, who stayed glued to electronic devices and refrained from interacting with guests beyond the initial greetings. Those kids were so disinterested in anything the elders were talking about.
Thanks to the Sikh helper Daljeet we had in our Singapore home, my daughter became got well-acquainted with the lives and sacrifices of the Sikh Gurus and frequently went to Gurudwara with her. In fact, on one India trip, we visited Daljeet’s home and my daughter saw the famous yellow mustard fields that Punjab is known for.
Since I grew up in Kolkata, I have a fond attachment for Durga Pujo and Bengali sweets so we always made sure to visit Anando Mela and the Pujo in Singapore. I would describe everything I remembered about my years in Bengal — our neighbours who streamed to our house to watch TV, the festive atmosphere during Pujo, and how my friend would coerce me to wear a saree and go pandal hopping with her every year. Just like I had listened raptly to my mother’s childhood memories and internalized them, I saw my daughter doing the same with mine. And in one Durga Pujo in Singapore, a Bengali friend draped my daughter in a saree too.
As I began to decolonize myself, birthdays in our family began to be celebrated a little differently. Instead of blowing candles off which is so alien to the Hindu ethos, we began to light lamps. We still cut cakes because children loved them, but stopped the colonizer’s practise of extinguishing lamps on an auspicious occassion.
We watched a large number of Indian movies curated carefully by me. And by Indian, I do not mean just Hindi. We watched Hindi, Kannada, Bangla, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam and even non-Indian movies such as Arabic, Iranian, French, Spanish and Italian — a passion that continues until today. The movies always gave rise to interesting philosophical discussions about dilemmas, Dharma, values or even just talks on how the movie could have been directed or acted better. There are so many things I do not need to explain about Indian society, Hinduism or life in general to my daughter simply because of the kind of movies we saw together. We have a huge list of “dilemma” movies that we love, where the characters have to decide the best course of action based on their Dharmic settings.
Today, my daughter recalls that movies like Nadiya Ke Paar, Geet Gata Chal and Chitchor made her aware of the charm of rural India and the subtle bonds of family. In Piya ka Ghar she appreciated how families adjusted their privacy needs in cramped Mumbai apartments. She noted how women conducted themselves with grace and dignity in Satyajit Ray movies. It is from movies like Upahaar and Swami that she realized the enormity of change a woman experiences when she marries and moves from her father’s to her husband’s house and also the significance of her role in keeping the family together.
I also sent my daughter to classes where she learned vocal Hindustani classical music. She learned many ragas from her teacher Megha Deshpande and got a memorable glimpse of the Maharashtrian culture. She discontinued the classes after five years when she felt that her vocal range was limited. However, the classes made her understand the theory and nuances of classical music and she often attended concerts of well-known musicians along with me.
When the renowned vocalist Shubha Mudgal came to Singapore to teach a short course in music to children, I promptly enrolled my daughter in it. To my surprise, instead of a classical piece, Shubha ji taught the children a patriotic work titled “Jhansi ki Rani” that I too had studied in school — but she went further and taught all the 18 stanzas of them, which she had set to an excellent tune. The grand finale when the children sang the song with the moving words written by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan on stage brought tears to many an eye.
In 2012, we moved to the United States from Singapore and a new chapter began in our lives. Middle school in America was not easy for my girl and in fact, quite a culture shock. High school had its own challenges. Even as I adjusted to a new culture, my interest in India’s history was getting deeper as one discovery was leading to another. From knowing about just the ancient universities of Nalanda and Takshshila, I found that the entire land of Greater India was covered with hundreds of educational centres to which students flocked from around the world to study Indian schools of thought, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, governance and a plethora of other disciplines. While writing both my first book and second book on India’s educational heritage, I frequently discussed my findings with my daughter and husband. The questions they asked led me on my quest to search for more authentic sources and learn more facts.
In the summer of 2016, on one hectic India trip, my daughter fell sick with dengue. There were just some nine days left to take the flight back to America and within a week of that she was to start her undergraduate course at UT Austin. She had been thoroughly bitten by mosquitoes in Delhi, Chandigarh and Bengaluru. There was no option but to get her admitted to Malathi Manipal Hospital near my parents’ house in Bengaluru. Her blood platelet count had gone very low. The six days that she endured agonies felt like an eternity. The drip tubes inserted into her wrist caused swelling and pain. After three days when it became unbearable, the nurse had to insert the tubes into the other wrist, which ultimately suffered the same fate. “I can’t sleep with these tubes!” she cried. “It hurts! And I get some sleep only when I lie on my stomach”. But lying on your stomach is out of the question with drip tubes attached. She tossed and turned, moaned and groaned, and went into the depths of despair. Even a toilet visit became a big project. In fact, she fainted once while I was helping her to walk from the toilet to the bed. I panicked like never before. When she became conscious again, the struggle began to find a vein from which to extract blood for lab testing. The nurses pricked and pricked in vain. Later, the awful joint pains started (a typical dengue symptom). It crossed my mind that perhaps my daughter would never want to visit India after an experience like this. She had often fallen sick on previous visits too but never did it take more than a few days to recover. She lay there with the saddest expression I had ever seen on her face, and it was breaking my heart.
In the midst of all this, relatives and friends kept our boat floating. One dear cousin brought delicious vegetable soup day after day from the other end of town. Another one brought kiwi fruits which were known to increase platelet counts. Yet another brought pomegranates. A dear friend sent an Ayurvedic remedy called Amritarishta. She was able to have just a few spoons in a day, but slowly, my daughter’s condition improved to the extent that we were able to make the long journey back to our home in Houston, Texas.
Therefore, it was with utter astonishment that just one year later in 2017, I learned that my daughter had signed up for a summer internship in India organized by Sewa. She was keen to experience India with her peer group. The internship included a stint at hospitals and medical camps in Bengaluru, teaching at schools and also an educational trip to northern Karnataka. I was worried that she would fall sick again or have some other bad episodes. But, equipped with a local phone, and Odomos smeared all over her body, she seemed to have no problem commuting to hospitals and other sites in auto rickshaws and Uber taxis.
I asked her why she did not feel deterred from visiting India after the harrowing dengue experience.
“On the contrary, I think I fell sick because I visited India after four long years. I must visit more often so that the viruses don’t treat me like a foreigner!”
As an avid vlogger, she stitched up an interesting vlog on her trip to Hampi, Badami, Bidar, Bijapur and Hospet.
One day, when we were talking on the phone, she said “Amma, I have not met people as kindhearted and selfless as the people I am meeting right now in India!” On probing, I came to know that she had been bonding with the doctors and nurses at the Bengaluru hospital where she was doing her internship. The nurses would sit on the floor at lunchtime and eat from their lunch boxes. My daughter would eat at the canteen and then later join them to chat in her rusty Kannada. The nurses were astonished that her favourite food was nothing but their daily staple — huli-anna (sambar-rice). They talked among themselves and on the very next day, a nurse brought a lunch box filled with delicious huli-anna just for her.
“Amma these nurses hardly earn anything and they wake up very early in the morning because they have to commute for almost two hours to reach the hospital, but one of them made fresh huli-anna in the morning just for me! I will not even see them again, but they cared so much for me!”
“Yes, my dear magu, you’ve just experienced the essence of Bharata.”
My heart swelled up with an inexpressible emotion and poured out as tears. I wanted to fall on my knees and do a full namaskara to Bharat Mata. Thank you Mother for showing a glimpse of your big heart to my daughter. Keep her and future generations close to you, and shower them with the richness of your civilization so that they become a force for good in the world.
This article was first published in Medium.
Contributing Author: Sahana Singh is an award-winning commentator on water, Indic history, and current affairs. She is the author of a book on India’s educational heritage.
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