Melissa’s Musings: What I’ll Miss

India is everything.

It is every wonderful thing you can think of. It is majestic mountains, stunning beaches, and jungles filled with thrilling wildlife. It is rich historic and cultural traditions and20170826_120536 worldly cosmopolitan sensibilities. It is color, color, and more color from the flowering trees to the painted houses to the vivid sarees and kurtas worn by women everywhere. It is amazing20170826_115014 craftsmanship that produces anything from filigree jewelry to inlaid wooden tables to carved marble using the same techniques that have been used for countless generations. And the food! Oh, the wonderful food!

It is also every terrible thing you can think of. It is horrific poverty living unseen right next to unimaginable wealth. It is traffic without rules and without sidewalks. It iswp-image-692897576

burning piles of garbage that make you gag as you walk by. It is open sewers running into lakes that catch fire in the middle of busy neighborhoods. It is profound overpopulation taxing the available resources and perpetuating the broken system that provides education, quality healthcare, and opportunities only to the lucky few. It is generations of desperation that lead people to act in manipulative and corrupt ways even when they no longer need to.

India is also everything in the middle. Normal people living their normal lives, going to work, taking care of their families, and occasionally enjoying the wonderful things or suffering from the terrible ones.

India is everything. In the midst of this vast everything, we’ve created a life that we are now dismantling. As we pack and sell off our belongings, I’m reflecting on the things that I will miss when we leave, from the tiny and insignificant to the more profound.

I will miss my friends. I have loved being a part of an international community, getting to know people from around the world who all find themselves in Bangalore for different20190612_144945 reasons. Some are here because work brought them or their partner here. Some are here because they fell in love with someone whose home is here. Some are here because their Indian heritage summoned them back. Some have always been here because Bangalore is home. I love hearing stories of lives so different from mine, and finding those common threads that connect us.

I will miss Farrah and Kaveri in particular. They are my co-authors of a book aboutKaveri and Farran Bangalore, and now beloved friends. Farrah introduced me to Shanti Bhavan and was my co-manager of the OWC North Region. Kaveri and Farrah 2Kaveri taught me more about culture and India than I ever imagined understanding. Together, they have given my time here joy and meaning, and it has been such an honor to get to know them while getting to know this big, crazy city.

I will miss the view from our 16th floor apartment, looking out over a bustling little neighborhood with the downtown skyscrapers in the distance. I will miss the mysterious fireworks that we can see somewhere in the city on most evenings while sitting on our balcony (maybe it’s a sporting event? maybe it’s a wedding? maybe it’s just people having fun?), and I’ll even miss the mysterious drumming from the temples or processions that we never understand and occasionally resent as they keep us awake.

I will miss the children with their enormous eyes and happy smiles, calling out “hello, auntie!” or “hello, mam!” or “hi, what is your name?” as I walk through a neighborhood or park.

I will miss zipping around town in the back of a nimble three-wheeled20190614_081018 auto/rickshaw/tuk-tuk (names are interchangeable) with a driver who miraculously steers through crevices in traffic that feel smaller than the vehicle.

I will miss the trees of Bangalore: the huge old rain trees with their 20190610_163547thick branches and abundant shade, the palm trees that sway high above us, the flowering trees planted long ago throughout the city to ensure that something is always blooming (right now it feels like we are surrounded by gulmohar trees dense with bright orange blossoms creating a colorful canopy throughout the city).

I will miss my weekly power walks around the old Sankey Tank reservoir with a wonderful group of women, followed by coffee and continued conversation.

I will miss the temples that dot most blocks throughout the city, some large and ornate,20190524_074631(0) and some just tiny structures housing deities next to trees wrapped with ribbons.

I will miss getting into a taxi and seeing the deities on the dashboards: maybe a plump, ganeshhappy elephant-headed Ganesha; maybe a flying Hanuman, the monkey god, flying from the rearview mirror; maybe an ornate Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, blessing the day’s work.

I will miss the gorgeous bright colors of Indian women’s clothing: a bright pink20190610_163120 patterned kurta over chartreuse leggings in an opposing pattern with yet another color or pattern introduced in the dupatta, a scarf draped over the front of the body and trailing down the back; a red and gold saree draped beautifully around a woman while shopping or working; a wild rainbow of color whenever passing by a bus stop.

I will miss the casual, seemingly effortless grace of saree-clad women swaying down the street with baskets balanced on their heads and children perched on their hips.

I will miss the strange thrill of approaching a 7-way intersection without lights or stop signs, navigated by a crush of cars, buses, motorbikes, pedestrians, and cows, everyone calm and unconcerned as they make their way through.

Speaking of cows, I will miss the wildlife of the city: the calm and stately cows that wander down lanes and highways alike, stopping for a rest wherever they please; the goat and pig families that happily root through the garbage piles or rare grassy spots in empty lots; and those whimsical, pesky monkeys that always make me smile no matter how many times I’m told of the dangers they pose.

And the food! I will miss the food: crispy dosas filled with spicy potatoes, accompanied by flavorful coconut chutney; rich, smoky dal makhani that has simmered over a fire for 24 hours before serving; delicious breads stuffed with potato or cheese or onions (or a combination of them all!); weekly meals prepared by our own incredible cook who introduced us to foods we never imagined; the decadent brunches at the big hotels, full afternoon affairs with free-flowing drinks, bountiful food, and often good friends to share it all.

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I will miss the incredible travel. It has been so amazing to always have a next trip to anticipate, and to have seen so much of the diversity of India and Sri Lanka. I will be processing all that we saw for years to come. And I suspect I’ll get antsy now that I’m used to such frequent travel!

There is so much more I could mention, but really I will just miss my life here, one that has allowed me time to breathe, time to draw, time to just stare out the window. I know that soon my mindset will begin to shift and I will begin to look forward to our life back in Portland, but for now I am filled with gratitude for this experience and a bit of sorrow at its ending.



Melissa’s Musings: Discovering Indian Art

I have always loved Indian art, but my definition of what that meant was pretty specific. I loved the Mughal miniatures that hung in my home as a child, that my parents showed me in their Indian art books, and that we went to the Met to see for a special exhibition when I was a teen. I loved the romantic images of gods and goddesses reclining with peacocks and tigers, of kings and queens embracing on terraces overlooking beautiful endless vistas, of colorfully (and scantily) clad women dancing in groves of palm trees. I even loved the battle scenes with men riding elephants and camels with huge spears over their heads. I loved the intricate detail and the vivid colors and the sense of something so huge wrought to small.

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A terrible photo of a beautiful piece that always hung over my parents’ bed.

After some time in this country, I now know that the Mughal miniatures are just a very small (if also very popular) part of what makes up Indian art. Tom and I have purchased a couple pieces of traditional art from Orissa that we fell in love with: one large piece that tells Krishna’s life story in detailed etchings on palm leaves and another smaller one in a similar style depicting Saraswati. I simply had to have a couple pieces done by a Gond artist from Madhya Pradesh: one of deer and birds, and another of birds in a tree. And we’re both on the look-out for the perfect carved wooden elephant.

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One traditional art form captured Tom’s imagination the first time he saw it, but took a long time to grow on me. Warli art depicts village life, showing people cooking, carrying sheaves of wheat, caring for children, shepherding animals, and dancing at festivals. They are usually surrounded by trees, deer, birds, cows, and other aspects of nature. The forms are simple with people and animals made up of connected triangles, usually painted in black on a light background or in white on dark background. They don’t paint in bright colors and they don’t romanticize their lives – I wanted us to get a painting because Tom loved it so much, but not because it spoke to me. And then I learned that there was going to be a Warli art class – this was my way in!

Last week, I had the incredible privilege of learning from Kusum who came from her village in Maharashtra to teach a series of classes at Sevita Centre for Arts. When I arrived for her first class, she had only been in Bangalore for a couple hours, having traveled by bus for 24 hours to get here. She speaks Marathi and understands a little English, but does not speak it. Still, this kind and talented artist was not going to let a little thing like a language barrier keep her from imparting all she was there to share. Devaki, one of Sevita’s founders and a former colleague of Tom’s at CIS, translated what we needed for context, but mostly the three of us in the class just did our best to observe and copy what Kusum was doing.

Warli art comes from the hunter tribes of the borderlands between Gujarat and Maharashtra. Their earliest art was drawn on the walls of their red earth huts, using a white paint made from crushed rice. It would fall off the wall after a year and then they would paint again. Eventually, they made the transition to a sort of light cotton canvas and created the backgrounds from a variety of materials mixed with a little water and glue to make sure they last: the reddish brown background is still made from red earth, a golden background comes from yellow earth, a greenish background comes from cow dung, and the black background comes from wood ash or charcoal. Again with an eye toward art that will last, they began using poster paints in either black or white mixed with glue. While some of the techniques have been modernized, much of the art is done as it has always been done, with whimsical characters created from triangles. Occasionally in modern works, there will be animals with curved forms. Because the traditional art only depicted domesticated animals and birds, there are only established ways of drawing domesticated animals and wild animals can be interpreted by the artist.

After spending time with Kusum and looking through the art she brought with her, I have a new appreciation for it and can see the beauty and light so much more clearly. I started a painting during class and Tom returned with me on Sunday to finish it together. We look forward to taking home some work by Kusum as well as one done by her son. This art form has been taught through the generations and it’s lovely to think of that continuing in Kusum’s own family.20190227_102856-15971970087656324484.jpg

Does our painting look like one done by an accomplished Warli artist? No, it does not. But will it be a happy reminder of time spent with an amazing artist, broadening my own concepts of art? Yes, it will.

Melissa’s Musings: Travels with My Brother

In June 1966, my mother graduated from UC Berkeley and my father graduated from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Each, for their own reasons, joined the 5-year-old Peace Corps, and met during Peace Corps training over the summer. My mom was quickly romantically involved with another volunteer and my dad was eager to remain unencumbered, but when her relationship with the other guy fizzled and their friendship strengthened, it was only a matter of time before they got together. While they started out as a casual couple, the surprise of my impending arrival sped things up dramatically. After a quick wedding in Delhi, and a honeymoon around India by train, they were invited by the Peace Corps to make their way back to the US in Spring 1968.

I may not have been born in India, but I’ve always known that if not for India, I would not exist. My brother and I were raised on stories of cobras and tarantulas, cement block houses and outdoor “toilets,” and stunning scenery and temples. Our home was always filled with Indian art and deities. And every celebration or consolation dinner was Indian food. I have always felt a need to see it for myself.

Flash forward 50 years, and I am living in India, reading my parents’ journals and20180930_064424 letters, and preparing to travel with my visiting brother. Jesse and I decided to meet in Delhi, which he would reach after a direct 16-hour flight from San Francisco, and spend a few days exploring the Capitol. We would then go to the villages in Haryana where our parents lived in the 60’s, and finish the northern part of our journey in Chandigarh, India’s attempt in the 1950’s to create a city of the future for the newly liberated nation. Jesse and I would then make our way to Bangalore so he could see a bit of my life in India before we went to Mysore for a day and Kabini for 3 more days in hopes of seeing wildlife. With only two weeks away from home, we did our best to cram in as much as possible. It was great.

My expectations for Delhi were simultaneously very high and very low. I expected it to somehow feel familiar from my parents stories, and I was excited to see a hotel frequently mentioned in their journals and another hotel where they had their wedding reception. I also expected it to be hot, filthy, chaotic, and gray. The reality was a little different. I loved Delhi – it’s beautiful and green and felt so much less chaotic than Bangalore (people drive in lanes!); the monuments are stunning and the sense of history is truly pervasive; and the people were warm and kind, if occasionally a bit bossy (from a random stranger who stopped to ask us where we were going: “No. You should not go there now. It is not safe during the demonstration. You should go there later and do this other thing now. Get into this rickshaw right now.”). It was also difficult to feel my parents in a place that has changed and grown so dramatically since their time there. From a city of 3 million, it has become a city of over 25 million. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like 50 years ago, although much of the architecture is still there.

Our trip to Delhi coincided with Gandhi Jayanti, an annual celebration of Gandhi’s life and teachings – this would have been great if it hadn’t also meant that most things were closed on Tuesday with short hours on Sunday and Monday. Still, we saw a lot. It felt appropriate to start out with a visit to Gandhi Smriti (Memorial) where he spent the last 144 days of his life as well as being the site of his assassination. It’s a lovely museum and a beautiful tribute to the man.

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Unfortunately the site of his cremation and the eternal flame of remembrance was closed off to the public to ensure security for the VIPs traveling from around the country. We opted for a visit to the Jantar Mantar instead – a sundial built by the Maharaja in the early 18th century.Jantar Mantar

To be sure we missed nothing essential, we opted for a day-long tour that was truly fabulous. We saw the Jama Masjid (where we wished we’d sprung for the few hundred rupees to bring our cameras inside with us), took a rickshaw ride through Old Delhi, visited Humayun’s Tomb, drove past the Red Fort (apparently it’s better from the outside), went to the Qutub Minar, and finished our tour with the Sri Bangla Sahib Gurudwara.

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At the close of our day tour, our driver kindly dropped us at the Oberoi Maidens Hotel. Luckily we had mentioned to our tour guide that we wanted to go to the Oberoi Hotel where our parents used to go for dinner and dancing in the 1960’s. He helpfully told us that the Oberoi we had identified was less than 10 years old and that the one we wanted was usually called the Maidens Hotel and was in a completely different part of the city. Whew! It was a lovely evening drinking in the bar that they surely frequented and eating western food on the terrace which they surely did.Oberoi Maidens Hotel

For our last day, Gandhi Jayanti, there was no reason to leave the hotel in the morning as absolutely everything was closed, but we went in the afternoon to the Lodhi Gardens which could not have been more beautiful.Lodhi Gardens

And that evening, we went to dinner at the Imperial Hotel. I had contacted an old PeaceImperial Hotel Corps friend of my parents to see if he knew where they had been married. He wasn’t sure about that detail all these years later, but he remembered the reception at the Imperial. What an incredible old hotel! And a little magical to imagine our parents walking the same halls on their wedding night.

The next day started the second leg of our trip, taking us into Haryana. This part of our trip was loosely planned with great potential for awkwardness. We knew we wanted to see the villages where our parents had lived, but knew nothing about these places today. Knowing that most Indian buildings are built from local materials with no intention that they should last for more than 50 years, we expected that their homes would be gone – but even if they were still there, their journal entries were too vague to offer landmarks that would help us find them so we decided to just go wander in these strange places and see what happened. We hoped the driver that I’d hired for the next few days would speak English well enough to help us communicate, but his English was limited and he seemed baffled by our desire to go to these non-tourist sites.

Over the next three days, we visited four villages: our mother’s initial placement of Nilokheri and her final home in nearby Kurukshetra, and our father’s initial placement of Samrala (just over the border into Punjab to the north) and his final placement in Madlaude which was much closer to our mom’s villages. Their villages had always been described to us in rustic terms that were nearly unimaginable to American children. They lived in buildings made of cement blocks or mud that had steel sheets for roofs and open windows without glass, there was no indoor plumbing so they used the fields in lieu of toilets and got water from a well, they had no or little electricity and their cooks made meals for them over actual fires. Even knowing how far India has progressed in 50 years, I still sort of expected to see life in these villages looking the same. I certainly didn’t expect to see bustling, prosperous towns of 20-30 thousand people, but that’s what we found.


In each town, we walked for about 20 minutes, looking for something that felt old enough to have been there in the 60’s to anchor us to the old stories and sentiments. As we walked, people stared and sometimes followed us. In two towns, we were stopped for happy selfies, including one where I was asked to take pictures using my phone even though they knew they’d never have them themselves.

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To make the most of our time in Haryana, we also looked for interesting sites nearby and definitely found them! Jesse’s research led us to the Panipat museum. We had no idea20181003_130017 what to expect from this museum because online info is minimal and vague. While it seemed worth trying anyway, I questioned the wisdom of that as we drove around twisty dirt roads before entering a fenced area where a group of men eyed us suspiciously. Once inside, though, we knew we’d found a gem. It was hot and dusty and filled with ancient artifacts – tools, pottery, coins, art – and was amazingly well curated in English. The man who worked at the museum followed us on our tour, turning on lights and ceiling fans as we entered rooms, clearly so proud of his museum and delighted to show it to us. We were not, however, permitted to take photos inside so if you’re curious about the impact of the three battles for Panipat or how people lived during each of those eras, you’ll have to visit yourself.

Kurukshetra turned out to be a highlight of the trip. This is an area of enormous historical and religious significance. It is in the heart of the Indus-Gangetic Plain, one of the ancient cradles of civilization, and it is where the principle battle of the Mahabarata was fought and where Krishna’s guidance to Arjuna on the eve of battle was documented as the Bhagavad Gita. The town gets its name from King Kuru, an ancestor of the Pandavas and Kauravas of the Mahabarata and is frequently mentioned in the ancient puranas. You can truly feel history here. We walked around the Brahma Sarovar, a giant reservoir that locals say has always been there and was a gift from Brahma. We then visited the Sri Krishna Museum, which was outstanding – it’s huge and filled with 5,000-year-old artifacts, tons of historical info, and a series of dioramas that take you through the story of the Mahabarata in powerful detail. Much like the Panipat museum, we headed that way feeling unsure or whether this would be worth the time, and were then even more overwhelmed and awe-struck. This museum alone should be a peak tourist destination. We spent 2 1/2 hours there and could have stayed all day! After the museum, we went to Sheikh Cheili’s tomb, absolutely beautiful, but with no information in English. Still, some things are beautiful even without context. Lastly, we went to the Jyotisar Tree, one of the holiest sites in the area, where Krishna is said to have delivered his sermon of the Bhagavad Gita. We expected more fanfare here and were a bit surprised to just see a lovely old banyan tree with a very small temple.

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We stayed at the Noor Mahal in Karnal and could not have been happier. It’s a really beautiful hotel, full of antiques and gorgeous details, with delicious restaurants and traditional music in the evenings. I would recommend it to anyone looking to visit this region.Noormahal

This leg of the trip ended in Chandigarh, a city built in the 1950’s, designed by Le Corbusier for the newly independent country striving to modernize. For students of urban planning, this would be an great visit. For us, it was peaceful spending time on Sukhna Lake, and we got a kick out of the super quirky rock garden (a labor of love built by one man who continues to tend it), but we probably could have skipped it.Sukhna Lake

Then on to a brief visit to Bangalore. Tom and I were a bit disappointed to take Jesse to a surprisingly mediocre MTR experience – we were in the back room, ignored, and told that the food we wanted wasn’t available, only to see it served to the table next to us. We’ll return, but we’ll go earlier and be fussier about where we sit. Then we wandered around Lal Bagh (for monkey viewing), Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, the Bangalore Fort, and the beautiful Hindu temple next door. That evening, we attempted to have dinner at Burma Burma, but arrived to late for the first seating and were told that we’d have to wait an hour. Happily Fatty Bao was just down the street and able to seat us immediately for a very tasty pan-asian meal.Scenes from Bangalore

The next morning, Jesse and I took the train to Mysore. After checking in to the Southern Star, we walked to the Mysore Palace, always a magnificent site. En route, we were stopped by a rickshaw driver for a uniquely Indian experience – he struck up a conversation in a super friendly manner, and then told us that we shouldn’t go to the palace until 4pm when we could see the elephant pooja, and should instead go with him to a handicraft market. We told him we didn’t want to do that and he proceeded to drive along side us down the street, becoming increasingly aggressive until we finally lost him at the palace gates. After seeing the palace, we went in search of the 4pm elephant pooja and learned that there is no such thing. Hmmm . . .

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Despite that earlier experience, we decided to give in to the next friendly, insistent rickshaw driver and let him take us to a part of town where people are actually engaged in heritage crafts. I was ready to be disappointed, so was particularly delighted by what we saw. At one shop, men were actually creating the gorgeous wooden inlay tables that I always admire in stores. We then watched a man making bidis, small cigarettes – sitting on the floor of his room, his fingers fly and he makes up to 2,000 of them per day. And then we went to a family run essential oil and incense shop that has been in business for 80 years. The smell was a bit overpowering, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. We finished by going to a handicraft shop (perhaps the one that our first driver was so eager to deliver us to) and did some very successful shopping.

The next day, we were off to Red Earth in Kabini, an eco-resort that manages to be simultaneously luxurious and attuned to nature. Not only are they sensitive to the ecosystem, building from all natural materials and growing all of the produce served in the restaurant, but they’re also sensitive to the local community with 98% of the staff coming from the local villages and tribes. The food was great, the surroundings were heavenly, our hut was amazing, the staff were kind, and we had a lovely time.

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The only disappointment was learning that it is impossible to go on a jeep safari from Red Earth and that our only option would be a 26-seat canter. In the previous months, I had contacted them repeatedly about our desire for a jeep safari and was always told that they were first come first served and could not be guaranteed. I was pretty disappointed to then learn that they had never been a possibility in the first place. We went on the canter and enjoyed seeing langurs, deer, elephants, mongooses (mongeese?), and a sloth bear, but were disappointed that the tiger that had recently headed into the brush with her three cubs did not reemerge after the kids on our big bus made a ruckus. Still, I would recommend Red Earth heartily if you just want a stunning place to relax, or if you’re going with a big group and want to all go together on a canter.

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Our trip ended quietly, back in Bangalore with dinner at home and an early flight the next morning. I’m so grateful that I got to share India with my brother, and complete a trip that I’d imagined for my whole life. And I think it would have made our parents very happy.

Melissa’s Musings: On Turning 50

Today I am 50 years old. I am 50. I’ve been saying it like a mantra, a phrase to ward off any descent into petty concerns and trivialities. I am 50. I am older than many people ever have the privilege to be and I am truly proud of having lived so long and seen so much and learned so very many hard lessons.

Today I think of my dad who never saw 50 and missed so much of what he might have done and become. With him in mind, I am determined to make the most of my life and continue to evolve. I think of my mom, widowed with MS and determined to take charge of her life at 50. With her in mind, I will face challenges with confidence and remember to say “yes” as often as possible. I think of my grandmother, 50 years old when I was born and celebrating her 100th birthday this past July. With her in mind, I will remember that while life is short and opportunities need to be seized, sometimes it’s also long and a bit of planning is not a bad idea.

I want this milestone to matter. Sure, I could say, “age is just a number” or “I’m only one day older than I was yesterday” or “you’re only as old as you feel.” But I don’t want to minimize my new age – I want to embrace it. Each decade of my life life has been better than the last and I firmly believe my 50’s will be better yet. I will own my lessons of letting go, finding patience, and standing up for things that matter. I will put love first. I will think less about my face, and more about the thoughts behind it. I will focus less on what my body looks like and more on what it can do. I will pursue challenges because I know I am up to facing them. And I will look for joy and laughter around every corner, and seek beauty wherever I can find it.

When I turn 60, I will look back and say, “Yes, the 50’s were my best decade yet! Now, what incredible wonders are next?”


Melissa’s Musings: Reentry

Returning to India is so very different from arriving in India for the first time. Last August, we were equally thrilled, shocked, and frightened. This year, there is no fear, the shocks are few, and the thrills are just what we make of our opportunities. In this same period of time last year (5 weeks), we wrote 27 blog posts! On one hand, I wish we were still so prolific with our blog, but on the other hand I recognize that burst of writing was reflective of the fact that I was completely lost and struggling to fill my days. Now my days seems to fill themselves.

In our first five weeks back in India, we have lived a very full life. We have gone to three wildly decadent Sunday brunches, and out to eat at many of our favorite restaurants. Thanks to Five Oceans, we have gone on a tour of a dhobi (or washerman) community, and I have gone on a market tour and an architecture tour as well as a lecture and workshop on hand block-printing. We have cooked some lovely meals at home, and enjoyed dinners alone and with friends. I have spent one week on a hospital site visit in Bihar and am preparing for more to come. I have conducted interviews with three fascinating people for the book I’m writing with friends about Bangaloreans. I have started a walking group for the Overseas Women’s Club and attended a couple OWC coffee meetings. I attended a Shanti Bhavan fundraiser,  recruited mentors for the Shanti Bhavan Mentoring Program, and conducted reference checks for potential mentors. And I’ve spent countless hours in front of my computer planning for upcoming visits from my brother Jesse, my aunts Linda and Sue, and my sister-in-law Julie and niece Meagan, as well as our Dusshera trip to Mumbai/Nashik and winter trip to Hampi. Whew!

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It’s amazing to me to think that a year ago, I was lost, trying to figure out who I was without a job, how to dress myself in this different culture, where to shop and what to eat, and how to fill so many hours of every day . . . and now I have this incredibly full and exciting life filled with people I enjoy, places I love to visit, and work that I find rewarding and meaningful. What a difference a year makes.

Melissa’s Musings: Karnataka Elections

I have a relatively superficial understanding of Indian politics. I know that the BJP is the Hindu Nationalist party currently in power at the national level, but that it has not been in control of any of the southern states where the Congress party and the Communist parties have generally prevailed. I know that the political system is corrupt and that politicians are known to be involved in bribery and fraud of various kinds. But this post is not about the electoral winners and losers — that I am not in a position to explain. This post is about what its like to live through the election season in Karnataka as an outsider.

For weeks in advance of last Saturday’s election, there were groups of people marching daily through the neighborhood that we overlook. They would drum, chant, speak through loudspeakers, and knock on doors (not our door on the 16th floor, though). There were frequent cars or trucks driving around slowly, blasting loud pre-recorded messages. Mostly the voices we heard were male and vaguely angry, but there was an occasional female voice in the mix, usually sounding calm and steady. We didn’t understand what was being said, and generally found it all a bit intrusive. Alcohol also began to be rationed – at the wine store, we could only buy three bottles at a time – so that people’s votes couldn’t be purchased with alcohol. The part that we enjoyed, though, were the fireworks that we frequently watched from our balcony, apparently from rallies.

In the week before the election, tensions rose. Some (but strangely not all) ATMs had decreased limits so you could only withdraw a maximum of 4,000 rupees rather than the standard 10,000 — we were told that this was to prevent buying votes. As the week went on, many cash machines simply ran out of the money, so there were flurries of WhatsApp messages with people telling each other where they could find cash. On Thursday before the election at 5 pm, Karntaka became a dry state. Not only were all liquor stores closed, but most restaurants that serve alcohol were also closed. We were warned that we should be careful toward the end of the week and through the following Tuesday. Votes would be cast on Saturday and counted on Tuesday with winners then announced. On Saturday at midday, I walked over to the nearby shopping mall, usually bustling with people and saw that it was completely closed and silent. I quickly walked back home and decided I’d just stay inside. The most tense day was Tuesday. Some said that if the BJP lost, there would be demonstrations which would likely turn violent. Some said that if the BJP won, there would be demonstrations which would likely turn violent. Everyone seemed to think it was at least possible that there would be violence after the votes were counted, and recommended again staying indoors. I did.

And then it was over. There was no violence, the stores reopened, and life went on. The BJP won but didn’t get a majority of the seats so the Congress and JD(S) might be able to put together a coalition so they also won. We’re yet to see what the impact of that will be, but for now, we’re just glad to be beyond the upheaval.

Melissa’s Musings: International Women’s Day

Shilpa Raj is an incredible young woman. As the speaker for the Overseas Women’s Club’s International Women’s Day celebration, she absolutely captivated a room full of people. I wasn’t in on the planning, but I’m sure there was no hesitation about planning the celebration around her schedule, even when it meant celebrating a week after March 8. Shilpa candidly told us all about her experience growing up in India, straddling two very different worlds.


In one world, the world of Shilpa’s birth and of her family, girls are not valued and female infanticide is not uncommon. A girl is expected to drop out of school at adolescence and marry the man of her family’s choosing, most likely an older relative like an uncle. Failing that, she might be expected to sell her body to get by. She is not expected to find joy in her life, but merely to survive and ensure the survival of her children through any means necessary. She will likely face abuse from her husband, endure back-breaking work, and suffer malnutrition.

In the other world, the world of Shanti Bhavan and the people who raised Shilpa, girlsShilpa are empowered and pushed to excel. They know that they are as capable as the boys around them, and that they can accomplish anything they set out to do. And just as importantly, the boys know it too. Marriage is something the girls of Shanti Bhavan can consider on their own terms and on their own timelines, should they choose to consider it at all. But first they can discover their own passions and chase their own dreams.

This is not to say that girls in Shilpa’s village are terribly constrained while the girls of Shanti Bhavan live lives of total freedom. Shilpa and her classmates were all raised with a solid understanding of their responsibility for their families, for their communities, and for the changing culture of India. Sure, they can pursue their dreams, but their dreams must include high paying jobs that will allow them to put their siblings through school, care for their parents and grandparents as they age, provide services to their rural villages or urban slums, and provide financial support for Shanti Bhavan as well. Shilpa is only 24 years old and she wears this blanket of responsibility with pride, even if it is a bit heavy. And she wears it with love.

Having narrowly escaped a wedding with her mother’s younger brother, marriage is the furthest thing from Shilpa’s mind. As baffling as her parents find it, she continues toIWD 1 pursue more education. She intends to become a clinical psychologist, able to support children like those in her village, who have experienced trauma and suffer depression. Her younger sister’s suicide at 14 is a constant and painful inspiration for Shilpa. In her memory, she will make a difference in the world. She shares her story in presentations around the world, and in her book, The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter.

When asked if she enjoys presenting, Shilpa says, “I love it. I have a voice. So many women here have no voice at all. As long as I can speak for them and for myself, I have an obligation to speak.”

As an American woman in India, I am always aware of my privilege. I cannot live here without embracing a call to make a difference. Many people in India are doing beautiful and important work, running orphanages, caring for people with disabilities, teaching the children of construction workers who would otherwise grow up without school at all. I applaud them all, but Shilpa and her classmates inspire me like no one else has. They and those who come after them will change India, proving that there is no such thing as an “untouchable child,” that everyone has potential and gifts that should be nourished. And they will succeed professionally, driving change for their communities and touching the lives of countless people as they grow.

To learn more about Shilpa, please read her beautiful book: The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter.

To learn more about Shanti Bhavan, you can read my blog post about my visit and watch the gorgeous netflix documentary:  Daughters of Destiny

If you’d like to support the work of Shanti Bhavan, please take a look at our fundraising page.

Let’s help Shilpa and her classmates change the world.

Melissa’s Musings: Bihar is creating a future worthy of its past

I am so excited to be working with IHI and CARE India on prevention of maternal and neonatal mortality.

The Northeastern state of Bihar has a long and proud history. Some time during the 6thMap century BC, Buddha attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. In the same century, Mahavira, the 24th and final savior of Jainism, codified the Jain religion. Not far from Bodh Gaya is the site of one of the world’s first universities, founded in Nalanda in 450 CE. The countryside is beautiful with endless fields and colorful buildings, and the Ganges River runs the length of the state from East to West. Bihar is the largest producer of vegetables in India and the second largest producer of fruit. This emphasis on agriculture is emphasized by the fact that only about 11% of its population lives in urban areas.

And yet, even with all of these reasons for pride, Bihar is a troubled region with one of the highest rates of poverty in India, the highest rate of domestic violence (60% of married women are abused), and one of the lowest literacy rates in India (64% overall, 53% for women).

When you tell someone in India that you’ll be going to Bihar, you’re likely to get wide eyes and stern admonitions to be careful. It has a reputation for petty crime (“Keep your car windows closed, no matter how hot it is, or people will reach in the window to steal your purse!”) and mistreatment of women (“Don’t go anywhere by your self and don’t make eye contact with anyone!”). It all seems a bit heightened and hysterical, especially after you’ve been there and had a lovely time interacting with warm, smart, friendly people who have only the best of intentions.

I am incredibly privileged to be working with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement supporting a joint effort between CARE India and the Government of Bihar to reduce

Tejal Gandhi drops in on a meeting at the CARE office!

maternal and neonatal mortality across the state. WHO estimates that Nigeria and India combined accounted for one third of all maternal deaths in 2015. With one of the highest rates of  maternal, neonatal, and infant mortality in India, Bihar is determined to improve. Our current focus is on 10 government hospitals spread across the state, where we are working with teams to cultivate improvement skills so they have the capacity to implement best practices for prevention. Once these initial hospitals have early successes and lessons to share, we will begin to spread to the other 28 government hospitals in the state, engaging outpatient facilities within each district as well. It is a huge project with immense potential.

I say “we,” but my role is relatively small and loosely defined. Still, this is a mission that I can’t help but embrace, and I will support it in whatever way I can. Last week, I was able to travel to Bihar for an Improvement Coach Workshop, where I helped present some of the content (on the fly when a speaker was delayed), and provided table coaching during exercises. It was a great meeting, with the director of the Improvement Coach program coming over from the states, the regional director for the IHI initiative there to co-present with her and translate into Hindi, and a skilled Improvement Coach from Ghana there to begin her 3-month residency in Bihar. In addition, we were joined by many members of the CARE team who are very involved in the initiative, and representatives from state government who were lending strong support. Despite language differences (sure, people speak some English, but it’s really not their chosen tongue) and cultural surprises (people casually wander in up to an hour late for meetings, and once given an exercise, will not stop until they are done, even when the time is up), it went well and concluded with great enthusiasm from participants.

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I look forward to returning a few more times this Spring, to provide support for new improvement coaches, and to run a collaborative learning session. It feels great to participating in something so important and learning so much.

Melissa’s Musings: Changing the World at Shanti Bhavan

Visiting Shanti Bhavan is like visiting the future of India as it should be. Thanks to a visit organized by the Five Oceans Club, I was able to travel with a group to Shanti Bhavan on Saturday. I left filled with hope for the world, and deeply inspired by these kids and the incredible mission of this school.MV5BYzBmNDg0MGUtZjBiYy00YmNhLThlNjgtN2Q3M2VmN2FhNDA0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQzNjYwMDM@._V1_QL50_SY1000_CR0,0,675,1000_AL_

If you’ve seen the documentary “Daughters of Destiny,” you’re probably already inspired, and this blog post will just flesh out some more details for you. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s available on Netflix and you should watch it immediately!

Shanti Bhavan was founded in 1997 by Abraham George, a successful Indian-born businessman with an incredible vision of how to radically interrupt the cycle of generational poverty that stifles over 25% of the Indian population. He looked at what he was able to offer his own children – a safe and loving home along with educational and extra-curricular advantages – and imagined offering that to children who would never otherwise have it. The children of Shanti Bhavan come to the school at 3 ½ – 4 years old, visiting their families only for holidays. All of their physical needs are met (safety, shelter, nutritious meals, clothing, and needed healthcare); they are nurtured by housemothers and faculty that appreciate them as individuals; and they receive a world class education that covers not just academics, but also leadership and critical thinking skills along with dance, music, and art. The support does not stop with graduation from high school, but continues through university and even graduate degrees, providing ongoing education and mentoring for as long as it’s needed. These children of the poorest of the poor, the so-called “untouchables,” can become leaders in their communities and in their nation, helping India move toward a society where everyone’s potential is recognized, valued, and realized. Dr. George expects that every child he helps will be able to impact the lives of 1,000 more children during their lifetime.

My journey to the school started early in the morning as I headed to Koramangala, a neighborhood in South Bangalore. There we met up with others and got on the bus for the 1 ½ hour drive to the school on the border of Tamil Nadu. The other 20 or so participants on our social awareness tour included people from India, the UK, Sweden, and the US, many of whom brought their children. Some had seen the documentary, some had read The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter which was written by a graduate of the school, and some had just read a blurb about the trip and decided to go. We were all eager to learn more, and to particularly figure out how we might be able to be a part of this exciting vision.

Arriving at the school, we were greeted by some of the most poised 11th graders I’ve ever met. They shook hands and introduced themselves with confidence, they smiled and asked questions, they articulately responded to any query. These impressive kids were our guides for the tour. John and Nandini took my group of 6 around the school, showing us into different classrooms where children happily greeted us. Saturday classes are just half the day with free time in the afternoon, so our morning tour caught them all in their classrooms. We also saw the computer lab, the chemistry and biology labs, the libraries, the dorms, the cafeteria, the lovely grounds, and the non-denominational prayer room.


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The daily assembly was a highlight that started with a prayer for the teachers, a prayer20180203_105347 (2) for the students, and singing the school song about all the things these children can become.  I was impressed to see a 4th grade girl get up to speak to that day’s virtue: Gratitude. She stood up straight and spoke 20180203_110007 (2)loudly and clearly to a room full of her peers, her teachers, and a bunch of strangers. She was followed by four high school students presenting stories from that day’s news. Not only did they have to speak without notes about current events, but they had to be prepared for questions from anyone in the room, many of their peers posing probing and thoughtful queries. Assembly closed after two beautiful songs by the school chorus.


Before lunch, we sat down with Dr. George and his son Ajit, now the full time Director of Operations for the school. Both are passionate about Shanti Bhavan and its children. Dr. George considers every one of the SB students to be his own children, and treats them as27336979_1244823358952193_8099425119779596785_n (2) such, acknowledging that they probably get more of his attention than his own sons received. This point is backed up by a laughing Ajit who says that he wishes he’d gone to Shanti Bhavan. Both stress that Shanti Bhavan is not run by money, but by love. They hope to soon break ground on a second school in Karnataka, with a long term vision of multiple schools around India to increase the impact of their efforts.

During lunch, I had the chance to speak with two Australian couples that have been volunteering at Shanti Bhavan for many years. One couple came for the first time eight years ago, after retirement, intending to go somewhere else the following year. They’ve returned now every year for the last eight, explaining that “these kids have gentle claws” that pull them back. The other couple has been joining them for a month each year for the last four years. They love their time at Shanti Bhavan, however tiring it may be, and fully intend to keep coming.

The work of Shanti Bhavan is already making a difference with graduates now working for prestigious organizations, making more in the their first few years of work than their parents would earn in a lifetime. They support the education of younger siblings, provide stable housing and medical care for their parents, and are already beginning to make steps to improve their communities while still in their early twenties. Their potential impact is unlimited.

But you know what is limited? Money. While Dr. George was able to start this school with his own money earned as a successful businessman in the US, the 2008 crash and a devastating scam have long since exhausted those funds. The school now survives through donations which must be constantly sought. When I visited Anu Life, I offered to buy purses and bags for interested folks back home (that offer still stands!) in an effort to support their efforts. I can’t offer you anything tangible in exchange for your support of Shanti Bhavan, but I can promise you bountiful good feelings from the knowledge that you are supporting something that matters. Donations to Shanti Bhavan are not lost to administrative costs, but go straight into the children of this incredible organization. If you don’t have money to spare for this cause, consider sharing their vision with friends who may. And consider volunteering at this school that will highly value your expertise and the love you can give to these amazing children.

Ready to learn more?

Take a look at the school’s website:

Check out this video of Ajit George talking about the school:

Ask me anything. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll research it for you.


Melissa’s Musings: Malleswaram

Today I had the pleasure of another Five Oceans/Bluefoot tour (the first was to a Bengaluru slum).  Five Oceans is a social club that generously offered two-month memberships to teachers and parents at Tom’s school. I had assumed that I would get as much as possible out of the trial membership and then let it go, but their offerings are so varied and so consistently good that I will definitely continue. They also have a strong relationship with Bluefoot Tours which introduces cultural activities that I really value. India is a fascinating place, but as a foreigner, it’s so easy to look at the ornate, bustling, baffling surface and miss all of the context that provides the richness. With Kaveri as guide, our small tour explored an old neighborhood of Bengaluru, and got to hear the stories that explained its origins and continued life.

Malleswaram clearly has ancient origins dating back to the earliest days of this city (we’ll get to that), but also a more recent creation story. In the late 19th century, Bengaluru was hit by the plague, driving many residents to look for new homes further from the city center. At that time, Malleswaram (also spelled Malleshwaram) became the first planned suburb of Bangalore with streets actually arranged on a grid. It has lovely tree-lined streets with broad, functional sidewalks. It has a residential feel with thriving business all around.

In the 1930’s, Shri Sagar (also called Central Tiffin Room or CTR) opened its doors in img-20171011-wa00001774711298.jpgthe  heart of Malleswaram. It’s just a little younger than the Mavalli Tiffin Room, and just as delicious. This is where we started our day with strong, milky South Indian filter coffee, masala dosas filled with tasty potatoes, kharabath which is almost like a spicy risotto made out of semolina (ok, that’s kind of a stretch, but trust me when I say it’s wonderful), idli which are like flat steamed dumplings made of rice and dal, and vada which is a savory lentil donut. Yum.

From there we walked to the first of three temples on today’s tour. The Sri Venugopala Krishnaswamy Temple is devoted to Krishna, with the stories of his life in detailed, painted carvings on the walls facing the sidewalk. Kaveri walked us along the wall, telling us the stories of this avatar of Vishnu the Sustainer, who has come to earth nine times in nine different guises to restore balance to the world. We left our shoes outside, carefully stepped over (not on) the threshold, and entered the courtyard where a group of men were working on a new carved structure. The impressive buildings of this temple and some of its idols may only be 100-150 years old, but the priest at the temple told us that the main Krishna idol in the shrine is itself 1000 years old. The inner temple had a wonderful serenity, with one man seated cross-legged practicing the balancing pranayam while another man sat wrapped in a purple stole chanting vedic scriptures along to the accompanying music playing on his iphone. This combination of old and new felt just right in this setting.

Our next temple was the 17th century Kaadu Malleshwara Temple to Shiva from which img-20171011-wa0003288686728.jpgthis neighborhood gets its name. Kaadu means forest in tribute to the lovely trees growing so densely in the area while Mallikarjuna is one of the names of Shiva. On the way in to this temple, we paused to greet the priest standing in front of his cow shed. This temple is entered on the backside, overlooking a gorgeous forested park area. Just inside is a large Nandi, or bull. This bull is Shiva’s conveyance, and also the closest creature to him. As such, people whisper into the ear of the bull all the things that they want Shiva to know, whether a painful confession or a wish for something better.

Leaving the temple, we descended the stairs and saw to the right a large statue of a hooded snake sheltering a god and a great collection of smaller snake idols behind it. Kaveri explained that when a new construction project is undertaken (like the creation of a new neighborhood), the snakes that live underground are disturbed. To placate the snakes and prevent harm to the new residents, a snake temple is erected. When people become ill or otherwise distressed, they may suspect that the cause is a curse from a snake that must now be given offerings before the curse can be lifted. It was a beautiful, peaceful setting, even with all the snakes.

Beyond the forested area was yet another temple, this one with an amazing story. The Shri Nandeeshwara Teertha Temple was, at some point, lost to time. It was erected in a topographical depression and, with disuse, had been completely covered by mud and disappeared. That is, until a group of boys saw something shiny in the mud and tried to dig it up, shocked to find a complete bull statue. They told their parents, and the community lobbied to unearth the temple and prevent the construction of a mall on this site. While there are claims that this temple is 7000 years old, it is likely that it’s closer to 700 years old. It features a nandi spitting water which falls onto the lingam of Shiva, ensuring the continued procreation of the world. In front of them is a pool fed by an underground spring with fish and turtles happily swimming about.

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Aside from the amazing temples of this neighborhood, we also walked by Malleshwara’s vendors. They used to have a very popular and thriving market, but the government wanted to build a new mall (currently under construction). In the middle of the night when no one was there, they bulldozed the market structures to make way, entirely against the will of the community. People are remarkably resilient, though, and they continue to sell their wares along the sidewalks where the market used to stand.

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20171011_120757145938616.jpgWe completed our tour with a visit to Dwaraka Plus, an organization that supports rural communities that create beautiful paintings on cotton or silk, using natural pigments that they create themselves from vegetable sources. The fabric becomes wall hangings, sarees, purses, boxes, and all manner of other things. Before the founder of this organization discovered these artisans, their community was dying – they were far from major roads or water sources and were struggling to feed themselves – but she helped them create a market for their goods and reinvigorated their expression of this art form.

I’ll definitely be back, to Dwaraka Plus and to Malleshwara.


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