Children’s Day – Nov 14

For this blog posting, I am in the unique position of actually being in India while writing it.

My impromptu field work took place today during a trip to Pune, but proved to be somewhat fruitless. I was visiting my first cousin, who has a school going daughter in Class 1. I asked my niece casually how her school was, and her grandmother (my aunt) explained to me that she was still on vacation for Diwali. Then her mother added that had she been in school, she would have participated in Children’s Day festivities, but that they weren’t doing it this year. Yikes! I was supposed to write an article for the blog! Quick! Ask some questions. My aunt helped me by offering some more information, saying that during her childhood, Children’s Day was a rather large and elaborate event at school. However, our visit was a social one, and turning the discussion into an interview seemed a little inappropriate so I left it at that.

I wondered what sort of elaborate activities might happen on Children’s Day in India. On our drive back, I noticed a small ferris wheel set up downstairs from the flat. Normally the ferris wheel isn’t there. Maybe it was a Children’s Day event. I’m grasping, I thought. I better hit the ‘net.

Some quick searches on daily news in India (remember, I’m in India, so my Google News page is India first) give me some better insight. The Times of India reports that in Ludhiana, one school’s “main attractions were movie shows and picnic on the school premises.”, while another school organized “various competitions for student including musical chairs, spoon race.” In the typical Desi spirit of obsessive competitiveness one school “organized on-the-spot poster making competition and quiz.” Gee, I am sure glad I don’t attend that school!

Finally, at one school, perhaps most appropriately, “The students were taken for a picnic to Jawaharlal Nehru Rose Garden.” I think I’d rather go to that school.

The mention of the Rose Garden reminded me why Children’s Day in India is unique. In other nations, it is celebrated on November 20. However in India the holiday is held on November 14, because the date marks the birth anniversary of legendary freedom fighter and independent India’s first Prime Minister – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. This may explain why my aunt, who was born just after Indian independence, had vivid memories of Children’s Day during her youth.

Nehru’s contribution to India’s education system is notable. He was fond of children and thus became popular as “Chacha Nehru” (Uncle Nehru) among many young kids. Chacha Nehru was a leader in establishing public education for India’s children and also brought forth the idea of distributing free meals and milk to school children in India to prevent malnutrition.

While Nehru’s contribution is notable, I am seeing that today’s India is one that is vastly different than the one I saw during childhood visits in the late 70′s and 1980′s. While many children have considerable opportunities and are at times more privileged than children in the US now, there remains a segment of the children who have been excluded from these privileges. They are working in factories, tea shops or caring for younger siblings in slums. I hope that eventually these children will also be able to attend school and graduate, and of course participate in this thoughtful celebration. I propose that for this Children’s Day, you do something both enjoyable AND educational with your child. Perhaps something as simple as reading them some new books, or perhaps more adventurous, like a trip to the zoo or museum. But please, don’t give them a quiz about it if you can help it! Just enjoy!

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Deepavali: The Festival of Lights

Hello Parents!

It is time to celebrate again!  Not too long after the end of Dasara, we enter the month of Karthik in the Hindu calendar to celebrate Deepavali (“Deepa” meaning lights and “avali” meaning row, in Sanskrit) or Divali, one of the biggest and most well-known of Hindu festivals. 

In North India, Divali commemorates the slaying of the demon, Ravana, and the end of Rama and Sita’s 14 year exile in the forest and is thus a celebration of victorious homecoming.  Legends of Narakasura, Yama and Bali are also associated with Deepavali, and of course, Goddess Lakshmi features prominently in this season.  Given all these legends, it is no wonder that Divali is celebrated over a period of five days.  What day is most important and how it is celebrated depends on the part of India that one comes from.

The first day of Divali is called Dhanvantari Triodasi or Dhan Teras.  It is said that on this day, Lord Dhanvantari came out of the ocean with Ayurvedic medicine for the world.  Many people mark this day by cleaning the house and lighting a lamp to Yama (the God of Death) to pray for protection from untimely death.

The second day is Naraka Chaturdasi (also called Choti Divali, in parts of North India) and on this day Lord Krishna is said to have destroyed the demon Narakasura and made the world free from fear. Many people consider this to be the actual day of festivities In South India.  

The third day is the actual day of Divali and this is the day that people worship Goddess Lakshmi.  Lakshmi pooja is especially important for shopkeepers and business people.  People buy gold and silver and pray to Lakshmi for wealth and prosperity.

The fourth day is celebrated in the northern part of India as Goverdhan pooja and in the southern part of India as Bali Padyami.  Goverdhan pooja is celebrated as the day Krishna defeated Indra and by lifting of the Goverdhan hill to save his kinsmen and cattle from rain and floods.  Bali Padyami commemorates the victory of Vishnu, in his dwarf incarnation Vamana, over the demon-king Bali.  Bali was allowed to return to earth once a year, to light millions of lamps to dispel the darkness and ignorance, and spread the radiance of love and wisdom.  This is also considered to be New Year’s Day in some parts of India.

The fifth and final day known as Bhai Dooj (there are many other names for this day) celebrates the love and caring between brothers and sisters based on the story of Yama (the God of Death) who is said to have visited his sister on this day and bestowed a boon upon her.

Despite the diversity of legends, the common theme is the victory of good over evil.  It is the welcoming of light (righteousness, immortality, knowledge enlightenment) over darkness (demons, death, ignorance, false values) that all the legends highlight and this is an important aspect of the festival that can be brought to the children. 

While it is important to celebrate based on your family traditions, it is also useful to create new ones.  I especially love Divali because its universal message of good over evil can fit into any set up or culture.  So, here are some ways to celebrate with the children: 

  • Making Diyas/Deepas with any material is a lot of fun for any age. I have used clay because it works well to put oil and a wick, or a tea light.  You can make new diyas every year, decorate it and create a famiy collection.  Making a lantern is also a good alternative to a diya.
  • As you get ready for the Divali Lakshmi pooja, have the children make this welcoming toran/door hanging for the main entrance to the house or the pooja area.
  • Pick a favorite recipe and make it with the kids or pick a new recipe like Divali pudding –it may be an interesting dessert to add to your list of sweets.
  • If you live in a state where fireworks are legal, go ahead and re-live your childhood by lighting firecrackers with your children. 
  • Teach your children a mantra and explain its meaning.  My favorite for Divali is this one from the Upanishads –Asatoma sad gamaya
  • At a Divali party, find a good storyteller to gather all the kids and tell them stories/legends associated with the festival.  A puppet show about Divali during a celebration can be fun for the little ones.  Older children can take a quiz to learn more about the festival.
  • Getting dressed up and exchanging sweets or nuts with friends and neighbors is fun and can create a sense of community and sharing. 

May your Divali be filled with love, light and laughter!  Happy Deepavali to you all!

Signing off until next time, 

Brunda Moka Dias

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Dasara or Dussera is a popular and important festival celebrated all over India.  The culmination of Navarathri (or nine nights) of Goddess worship, Dasara is observed on the 10th day of the lunar month of Aswayuja, and literally means Dasha-hara or “remover of bad fate” in Sanskrit.  While Dasara is celebrated in most parts of India, the stories behind the festival differ based on region, but the common theme of victory of good over evil pervades all the legends and celebrations. 

In the South, the stories point to Goddess Chamundeshwari/Durga’s victory over the demon Mahishasura, especially in Mysore (the city derives its name from the demon) famous for its regal Dasara celebrations.  Goddess Saraswati is also worshipped during this season and is an important day for students.  Dasara in the South also commemorates the victory of the Pandavas, as they emerge from their Agnyatavasa (incognito exile) in the forest on Vijaya Dashami, the last and most auspicious day of Dasara.

In the North, Dasara commemorates the victory of Lord Rama over the evil king Ravana and celebrations include and burning cracker-stuffed Ravana effigies and performing Ramlila.   For example, in Punjab, Navratri is observed as a period for fasting.  People worship Goddess Durga and gather to do Jagaran (stay up for most of the night) to chant and sing in praise of the Goddess. 

In the East and the Western parts of the country, it is the Goddess who is also worshipped and commemorated; in Gujarat, the Goddess is worshipped for nine nights in the form of dance and Durga pooja celebrations in Calcutta/Kolkata are widely known through India

Depending on where you come from and what Dasara means to you, you can come up with your own ideas, but here are a few ways to celebrate with the children:

1)     If you are from the South and you set up dolls or gombe/bombe (in Kannada) or golu/kolu (in Tamil), get the children involved in doing this.  It can become a yearly tradition and you can collect dolls (traditionally of gods and goddesses or you can expand it to include your children’s interest) and add a new one to the collection every year.  These collections will eventually become family heirlooms and treasured memories.

2)     If Dasara is about Lord Rama’s story in your family, create your own effigy of Ravana and burn it as a bonfire, or get the children (even the little ones can do this) to learn some poems about the festival.

3)     Regardless of whether it is the Ramayana or the Mahabharata that you are commemorating, all children might enjoy making a bow and arrow that these divine warriors carried.

4)     Have a garba/dandia party for the older kids with music and food.  Dance can then be seen as a form of worship as well as a communal celebration.

5)     A crossword puzzle about Goddess Durga to understand and commemorate Durga Pooja could be a nice activity for the grade school kids.

No matter what you do, make it fun and remember to tell them the stories–it feeds and empowers the children about their Indian heritage in seen and unseen ways. 

Blessings of victory and success to you and yours.  Happy Dasara!

Signing off until next time,

Brunda Moka Dias

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Gandhi Jayanti

Hello Parents!

If we lived in India, October 2nd would be a national holiday to celebrate Gandhiji’s birthday, but since we live away from India, and the day usually goes by unnoticed, (even though October 2nd is the International Day of Non-Violence in honor of Gandhi), I believe that it is important to remind ourselves of Gandhiji—who he was and what he stood for and pass on his message and methods to our children. 

Of course, I cannot talk about Gandhiji without recalling the “Gandhi jokes” from my teenage years.  Let me share a couple: 

Teacher:  What do you know about Gandhi Jayanti?

Pupil:  Gandhiji was the father of the nation but I don’t know who Jayanti was!

Or this one: 

God was promoting Family Planning and was questioning many freedom fighters on this topic. God asked Lal Bahadur Shastri how many children he had during his time on earth.  Shastri replied that he had three!  Happy with the relatively good family planning adopted, God gave Shastri a Mercedes!  God then asked Subhash Chandra Bose the same question. Bose replied that he had 10 children; God gets a bit upset and gives him a cheaper car, the Ford.  Jawaharlal Nehru is next and he decides that his answer is going to be fifteen children–God is pretty angry and gives him an inexpensive Maruti.  Sometime later, the three men see Mahatma Gandhi returning on foot. They ask why God hadn’t given him anything and Gandhiji replies with anger, “Some idiot told God that I was the father of the nation!”

I think that people tell jokes about Gandhi because it is easier than taking him “straight up.”   He beat to his own drummer and he was by no means an average or ordinary politician or leader and his strong determination to gain freedom for India from the British pointed to a strength of character that is not easily found in most people.  Albert Einstein is said to have remarked:  “Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this (Gandhi) walked the earth in flesh and blood.”  While there is plenty to read and learn about Gandhi’s biography, here are ten things about Gandhi to share with your children:

  • Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 in Porbander, Gujarat to Karamchand and Putlibai.
  • He was married to Kasturba when he was only 13 years old in May 1883, an arranged child marriage.
  • He studied Law in London and then moved to South Africa.
  • In South Africa, Gandhi faced discrimination because he was Indian.  He was thrown off a train after refusing to move from the first class to a third class coach as even though he had a first class ticket.  This incident was the political awakening that led him to explore ways of resistance.
  • He is known as the Father of India and helped gain Indian independence from the British through the means of Satyagraha (“satya” meaning truth and “agraha” meaning insistence) and Ahimsa (non violence).
  • He was deeply influenced by the following works:  the Jain text, Acaranga Sutra, the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita and the Christian teaching, Sermon on the Mount.
  • Dedicated to exploring and discovering the concept of Truth in its many facets, Gandhi recorded his life, in an autobiographical book called The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
  • Despite many nominations, Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize.  However, he was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1930 and also the runner-up to Albert Einstein as “Person of the Century” in 1999.
  • Gandhi was influenced by the work of the American transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, and his concept of civil disobedience.
  • On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi by a fundamentalist Hindu, Nathuram Godse, while on his way to prayer. His last words were: “Hey Ram!”

Some ways to commemorate Gandhi Jayanti:

  • Teach the children Gandhiji’s favorite bhajan, Raghupati Rahava Raja Ram
  • Get the children to read his books, if they are old enough, or get them an Amar Chitra Katha comic book, if they are younger. 
  • Have a discussion about Gandhi and his times at the dinner table.
  • Even a small part of the day spent in some sort of community service would be a very appropriate (soup kitchens, nursing homes, etc.) and would bring out Gandhi’s message of serving others and helping the downtrodden.
  • A creative assignment could be to pick out a contemporary conflictual situation and to envision Gandhi as a peacemaker in that situation.  What would he have done? And how?  This could be a productive way of engaging older children to dig deeper into his concepts and ideas.

I end with one of my favorite quotes from Gandhi: 

“Be the change you wish to see in the world”         

 Signing off until next time,

Brunda Moka Dias

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Loads of Languages!

“Do you speak Indian?”

This is a common question I have heard throughout my life, especially growing up in the mid western United States. I often laughed in my head as I answered with a short lecture about languages in India and South Asia. It’s not quite like asking someone if they speak Italian.

“Well”, I would say professorially, “there are several different languages in the South Asian region, and hundreds of dialects inside those languages.” If the listener still demonstrated an iota of interest, I continued, but if they appeared to have hoped for a yes or no response, I simply answered quickly that yes, I know another language but I tend to speak mostly in English.

It takes some patience to understand just how important language is in India in terms of local culture and tradition, mostly because there are simply so many possibilities.

The first easy “rule” is that languages tend to revolve around geography – in Maharashtra they speak Marathi, in Uttar Pradesh it’s Hindi, in Tamil Nadu, Tamil and so on. However, there are several fuzzy regions within these clean delineations that some (myself included) may encounter. In my own experience, I can cite one such example. Consider a Bengali from West Bengal, and another from Bangladesh. The differences in Bengali between these two regions are noticeable owing to many reasons too numerous to list here. My own father and I agree that both of us can only understand about 40% of Bangladeshi Bengali. My dad has the advantage of a native speaker, yet he admits he is unfamiliar with that version of Bengali. However, both of us can read signs in the same script – Bengali script.

Script may be a unifying tie in the case of Bengali, but a counterexample lies nearby, in Maharashtra. One who can read Marathi automatically knows the same script as Hindi, which is Devanagari. However that person may not know Hindi. This is true of Nepali language as well, which is also written in Devanagari.

In some cases, cultures that are rich in history and traditions have lost their original script and been replaced or modified. One example is Kashmiri, the official language of Kashmir. It is a mystifying blend of Persian and Sanskrit and originally written in Sharada, an 8th century script. It is a language unlike anything I have ever heard, replete with sounds similar to what I hear in both Chinese and Hindi, all uttered with the poetic rhythm of Farsi. I can only imagine the exciting past of this language, which developed in a region where three cultures met and mixed thousands of years ago.

Finally, some families might find themselves speaking a dialect of another more recognizable language. One close friend of mine explained that her family spoke some kind of mixture of Kannada (Karnataka) and Tamil rather than the pure version of either language.

The map below illustrates where India’s primary languages are spoken. If you child is wondering why his friend’s mom (at school, at the temple, at dinner parties or wherever he or she sees Desi friends) speaks a completely incomprehensible language, point your child to this map. You can suggest that there are so many languages here, rich with history and culture, that it makes every language special and unique just like your child is.

Indian languages

And if your child becomes curious about scripts, you might show them this map (although I challenge you parents out there to actually succeed in reading all of these state and language names):

Indian scripts map

Like all languages around the world, the essence lies largely in culture, tradition and history, which drives many Indian parents to hope that their children pick up at a bare minimum, the ability to understand their own culture’s language. However in the United States, the melting pot of culture and primarily English education often overshadows a child’s bilingual (or trilingual) leanings. A previous blog post gives several tips on how to emphasize your culture’s language at home.

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Krishna Janmashtami

Hello Parents: 

It is the end of the Hindu month of Shraavana and we end it with a bang by celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna, one of the main deities of the Hindu pantheon.  Krishna Janmashtami, also known as Gokulashtami or Krishna Ashtami can be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the 8th of the 10 (Dasha Avataras) incarnations of Vishnu.  Krishna is a popular deity who is worshipped across the length and breadth of India and beyond.  The incarnation of Krishna, the ever-popular God is referred to as the “Poorna Avatara” (literally, complete but figuratively, the Supreme incarnation). 

I personally consider this incarnation to be “complete” because Krishna is the most accessible of all the deities and a figure that a person of almost any age can relate to.  What makes him so accessible to me are his various forms that resonate with the different aspects of being human.  So, we have Krishna on a leaf with toe in mouth, the crawling baby with butter in hand, the naughty boy breaking the butter pot, the sly young man stealing the clothes of gopis, the amicable cow herder in the fields with his brothers and cows or the Supreme divinity giving advice to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. 

Krishna’s appeal spans a broad spectrum of ages and being such a popular God, Janmashtami is observed in different parts of India in a number of ways.  In some parts of South India, people fast through the day, make elaborate preparations and do a puja to mark the birth of the baby at midnight (or close to it).  In parts of North India and Maharashtra, Krishna’s birth is celebrated by breaking the “dahi handi,” a pot filled with butter or yogurt.  Others observe it by doing a “Jagaran” (a vigil till midnight) and singing bhajans or doing enactments of the birth story.  The many ways in which Krishna is celebrated can lead to very creative ways of commemorating his birth. 

  •  For example, the “dahi handi” celebration can be used as an inspiration to create a tradition of breaking a Krishna-themed pinyata to fit into the context of celebrations in the US.  Get the children to make a home-made pinyata and fill it with things relating to Krishna like peacock feathers, toy flutes, toy figures of cows and calves etc. and have fun breaking it.  
  • More than any other deity, Krishna is equated with fun and naughtiness.  What I personally love handing down to my children are the stories.  There is an abundance of stories about Krishna.  Stories make him more lovable and a figure they can relate to in their child-like imagination.  Amar Chitra Kathas are a great resource in this regard.
  • Activities that I have engaged my children in for Janmashtami include making a scene of Krishna’s birth.  Creating a jail scene with beeswax, or modeling clay is a hands-on way of getting involved and knowing the reason for the celebration.
  • Making up crossword puzzles, word scramble games or matching games is a great way for older kids to get more familiar with the stories and legends.
  • Getting the kids dressed up as Krishna or a Gopi is something that I love to do as a mother.  It’s a lot of fun and sets the mood for the younger ones who can get very much into the role-playing.
  • Doing a craft  to commemorate the day is an enjoyable way of sharing important attributes (like his dark skin, a peacock feather in his hair, a flute in his hand etc.) of Krishna with the children. 
  • Decorating for the festival can take the form of rangoli.  Little footprints to indicate Baby Krishna is a literal and metaphorical way of entering into the festive mood.
  • Finally, reciting mantras  and slokas or singing bhajans with children is a long-term way of keeping traditions and festivals alive and giving deeper meaning to the rituals.  

Of course, no celebration of a birth is complete without the sweets—so go ahead and prepare sweets that your own children enjoy and laden it with butter in the name of Krishna!


 Signing off until next time,

 Brunda Moka Dias

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Raksha Bandhan

Hello Parents,

It is the month of Shravana in the Hindu calendar, and this of course translates to “festival month” with many different festivals celebrated all over India in different ways.  Thankfully, when “festival month” rolls around in the US, it is summer vacation, and interested parents can involve their children extensively in the celebrations.  The full moon day of Shravana is observed across India and Raksha Bandhan is one such observance that cherishes the bond between a brother and a sister.  Raksha Bandhan is a festival that I particularly like because it is so easily adaptable and it is a celebration that can be easily brought to a child of any age.  The sister ties a bond of protection on the brother’s wrist and the brother offers his love and protection to the sister –hence the word “raksha” (protection) and “bandhan” (bond).

There are many legends surrounding this festival.  There is one about God Indra and his wife Sachi, one about King Bali and Goddess Lakshmi, but here are two of my favorites that clearly bring out the meaning of the festival.  The first story is from the Hindu epic Mahabharata.  Legend has it that during a war, Krishna had a bleeding hand.  Seeing this Draupadi (the wife of the Pandavas) tears a piece of her sari and ties it around Krishna’s hand as a bandage to stop the bleeding.  Krishna is touched by this sisterly gesture and is beholden to her.  Eventually, when Draupadi is lost to the Kauravas in a game of dice and her modesty is almost compromised during the “Vastra Harana,” (or the stealing of clothes.  If questioned by curious children, parents may need to explain this in an age-appropriate way) she calls out to Krishna and he protects her.  Another legend is from Indian history and recounts how the Rajput queen Karnavati of Chittor was being attacked by the Muslim king, Bahadur Shah.  A quick-thinking woman, the Rani reaches out to the Mughal king Humayun with a plea for help and a rakhi.

Such stories have always warmed my heart and captivated my imagination and so Raksha Bandhan, to me, has always been a festival of popular culture.  There were always ‘rakhi brothers to tie rakhis to, despite not observing the day in my South Indian family, or having brothers of my own.  Now, I continue to celebrate it through my children.  My daughter and son, tie rakhis to each to other (even though traditionally it is the sister who ties it to the brother).  I re-interpret this festival for them in this reciprocal way, so they realize that nurturing and protecting is a mutual, give and take symbolized in both the giving and receiving of rakhis.

One can celebrate Raksha Bandhan with the children in a lot of fun ways.  Here are some activities that work well, in my experience:

v     Getting the children to make a home-made rakhi – this unleashes their creativity in amazing ways.  Fresh flowers, cut out shapes with felt or foam, painted or sewn designs are some examples of what they could use to make a bracelet.

v     Getting the children to sing a Raksha Bandhan song. There are as many favorite songs as there are families and I have mine too, but I think what would really personalize it for the siblings would be to make up their own words and sing it to their favorite tune.  This could then become a tradition for years to come.  Some creative ones could even write poems to their siblings.

v     Getting the children involved in preparing an Indian sweet for the occasion.  An easy to make dish like halwa or kheer or even recipes of favorite cookies brings out the cooperation and team spirit in the kids.

v     Rituals are important and make an impression with children.  So, getting the children to participate in preparing the rakhi thali or the pooja thali can be a learning experience about cultural traditions.  Flowers, dry fruits/nuts, wet kum-kum, haldi paste or sandalwood paste are some ideas to help decorate the thali.

v     Creating a rakhi journal/scrap book in which the children can record their memories, save photos and rakhis can be a hands-on activity and a keepsake for posterity.

Wishing all the siblings out there a Happy, and Fun Raksha Bandhan!

Signing off until next time,

Brunda Moka Dias

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Mother Tongue – The Gift Your Child is Entitled to (but probably doesn’t realize yet!)

An earlier post draws your attention to some of India’s richest aspects. Multiple languages and cultural diversity are among the key factors distinguishing India from most other countries. I find it sad and am often shocked to see that not too many of us realize how fortunate we are in this respect. We neither acknowledge nor value the priceless gift of multilingualism that we are given early on. This explains the most common challenges Indian parents raising children in the US and other western countries face – the fact that their children can’t or won’t use their mother tongue, with rare exceptions.

In his book, The story of My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi says, “It has always been my conviction that Indian parents who train their children to think and talk in English from their infancy betray their children and their country. They deprive them of the spiritual and social heritage of the nation, and render them to that extent unfit for the service of the country.”

At a time when being multilingual translates to a more impressive resume, better career prospects, wider social networks and even to a status symbol, it is surprising how many of us refuse to put in the efforts to pass on our mother tongue to our children.

Research shows that multilingual children have the inherent ability to focus better and think clearly, are likely to do better at academics, are better communicators and more tolerant by nature with a wider world view than their monolingual peers. Even if the love for our language and culture and a deep-rooted desire to pass it on to future generations doesn’t motivate us to teach our children their mother tongue, one of the above reasons should, at the very least.

To be fair, despite best intentions and efforts, the resources available to immigrant Indian parents to help impart Indian languages to their children may be inadequate or not easily accessible enough. ( Although I don’t know how inaccessible anything can be in this Google age!) The bedtime stories we read to our kids and the shows they watch are predominantly in English. They spend a large portion of the day in English-speaking environments whether it is daycare, school or summer camp. They learn and communicate almost all day in English. Can we really blame kids for eventually beginning to think in English? Where are the Indian language reinforcers that will encourage and inspire them to continue to speak and maybe learn to read and write in Marathi or Tamil or Bengali?

Sadly, parents, who are supposed to be the reinforcers of Indian language and culture at home, are the inadvertent culprits in this case. We probably don’t even realize our mistake until it’s too late. But, the very first time we respond to our toddler’s questions in English or when we begin feeling ‘comfortable’ having conversations with our pre-teen kids in English, is the moment we choose to break the chain of language that has been passed down to us over centuries.

I’m not saying we should ban English usage at home or enforce a strict ‘mother-tongue only at home’ rule like some of my friends do. (This seems to have the opposite effect where the kids begin to resent learning and using their language.) But I do think that it’s important for parents to find enjoyable, creative, non-restrictive ways to sustain and preserve mother tongue usage with their children.

The first step is to acknowledge that preserving and passing on our mother tongue (and any other language we know) to our children is important. The rest, to my knowledge, is a process of constantly observing and improving ourselves, learning and discovering a little more about our children, ourselves and our languages every day.

Some ideas for parents who want to encourage mother-tongue learning in their children:
Communicate in your mother tongue at home, whether you’re speaking to your spouse or your child. Be aware of your words and consciously avoid using English whenever possible. Listen to yourself and to your spouse and note the situations where you tend to switch to English. Make an effort to pause in those situations, slow down and start over in your mother tongue.

Encourage your child to speak in your mother tongue even if he is not very fluent. Do not make fun of his mistakes. Avoid chiding or punishing him if he speaks in English. Instead, help him transition to your mother tongue naturally by asking a question or making a remark in that language. This way, he will most likely continue the conversation in your mother tongue.
When you visit friends or family or run into someone in a public place, encourage everyone to converse in your language. Grandparents and elderly relatives have the tendency to use English since they feel that brings them closer to their ‘American born’ grand kids. Request them to speak in the native language and encourage your kids to respond in the same. Do the same with long distance phone calls to relatives in India.

Listen to songs and stories in your native language. Watch age-appropriate Indian movies with your kids, go to plays or concerts that feature your language. Do fun activities that make it easier for your child to absorb and learn the language. Help your kids and their friends direct a play or choreograph a musical in your language and perform it during an Indian event, such as a Diwali party.

Enrol your child in language classes. But, make sure that learning your mother tongue doesn’t feel like ‘work’ to your child. If your child feels burdened by the homework and assignments from the language class, it may be best to adapt a lighter, more creative approach.

Read books written in your mother tongue to your child. Reading with your child is one of the most effective ways to impart the love of a language. Whether it is poetry, a classic work or a nursery rhyme, read it to your child in an engaging, entertaining manner.

Bring home bilingual children’s books. These give you a fantastic way to introduce two languages to your young child, perhaps even before he can talk. Read the book in one language and then in the other, or read each page in both languages. You could even alternate the methods and keep it interesting.

Teach your child to write her name in as many languages as you know. Kids are fascinated with writing their names and this is a very effective way to show them how different scripts look.

In my opinion, passing on our language and culture to our children is not a choice. It is our duty. Our mother tongue is a gift we were privileged to receive by virtue of our birth as Indians. And we certainly don’t have the right to deny our children that gift even if they don’t see its value at the moment.


Rupa is a freelance writer and full time mom who finds raising compassionate kids in a competitive world to be the biggest challenge of modern day parenting. When she’s not writing, she’s probably reading to or playing with her daughter M or or figuring out how to handle her latest tantrum. Visit her blog about reading to babies and kids.

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Jai Hind!: 5 Ways to Celebrate Indian Independence Day with Your Family

“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long supressed, finds utterance.” — Jawaharlal Nehru, August 14, 1947

On midnight between August 14th and August 15th 1947, India became an independent nation, free from centuries of British rule. Indians have celebrated Independence Day since then on August 15th with flag hoisting ceremonies all over India, the highlight of which is the Prime Minister’s ceremony at the Red Fort (watch part of last year’s ceremony here). Indians in the US celebrate too, with parades and celebrations in many cities across the country including a big annual parade in New York City.

Of course no celebration would be complete without the singing of India’s national anthem, Jana Gana Mana. Composed in 1911 by Rabindranath Tagore–a famous Bengali poet, novelist, musician, and playwright–Jana Gana Mana was officially adopted as the national anthem in 1950. Check out this video clip to sing along (with English subtitles for those of us who need them)!

How will you celebrate Indian Independence Day with your family?

Here are some ideas:

1) Sing the national anthem at the stroke of midnight on August 14th. Be sure to wake the neighbors :)

2) Read about the history of India’s struggle for independence. Here are some suggestions for Amar Chitra Katha books to share with your kids:
Great Freedom Fighters
Jawaharlal Nehru
Jallianwala Bagh
Chandra Shekhar Azad
Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das
G.D. Birla
Mangal Pande
Rash Behari Bose
Beni Madho and Pir Ali
Subramania Bharati

(and for your older kids, check out Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman, a novel about a young girl living in India in 1941, inspired by Venkatraman’s own family stories)

3) Make an Indian flag to decorate your home. (or maybe more than one?)

4) Throw an Indian Independence Day Party and serve your favorite Indian foods. (yum! be sure to invite me too…)

5) Have an Indian independence-themed Bollywood movie marathon. Okay, I’ll admit I don’t like musicals and so I’m not a huge Bollywood fan. The only independence-themed Bollywood movie I’ve seen is 1942: A Love Story (which came out way back in 1994!). Bollywood buffs help me out by posting your suggestions for movies below!

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Neighbors of India

“Love your neighbor as yourself” commanded Jesus Christ. But these days, everyone leads a busy lifestyle that leaves little time to even get acquainted with our neighbors let alone learning to love and understand them. Think about it. Do you know your neighbors well enough? Or is it that you are just vaguely aware that there are people living next door but have no idea who they are, where they come from, and what they do. Now extrapolate this situation to entire countries and you get large masses of people living as neighbors from time immemorial but without having any idea about the historical, cultural or ethnic backgrounds of their neighbors. Many of us are probably not even aware of how many neighbors India actually has even though we may be Indians by citizenship or people of Indian origin. So you say to yourself as you read this blog: “Ok wise guy. Maybe I am more geographically challenged that you are. So why don’t you educate me instead of lecturing me?” That brings us to the main topic of this blog.

So how many neighbors does India actually have? The answer depends on who you ask. From the average well-informed Joe, the expected answer would be 8. But if you ask that question to the Government of India, the official answer would more likely be 9. Why the discrepancy?  Well, we will get into that later. Can you list out those eight countries without peeking? If not, never mind. The eight countries, going clockwise from a 10 o’clock position are:

  1. Pakistan
  2. Nepal
  3. Bhutan
  4. China
  5. Myanmar
  6. Bangladesh
  7. Sri Lanka
  8. Maldives

Let us scrape the surface a little more and see what we come up with shall we? My purpose is simply to fire up your curiosity so that you can go off on your own and learn some more. Or it may perhaps come in handy if you happen to have a neighbor or a friend or an acquaintance from one of these countries because then you would appear reasonably knowledgeable about their culture and not a total ignoramus. I know that an exhaustive treatise on the topic would likely have a wonderfully sedative effect and so I will keep it short and sweet. A somewhat clinical but accurate source of information would be the CIA’s World Fact Book available at


The name was coined by Choudhary Rahmat Ali. The “P” stands for Punjab, “A” for Afghania (his preferred name for Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province), “K” stands for Kashmir and “S” stands for Sindh. The word “stan” in Sanskrit means “place” and in Persian it means “home of”. Combined, it reads as “Pakstan”. The letter ‘i’ was added to ease the pronunciation.

Pakistan’s capital is Islamabad. Its largest city is Karachi. The official languages of Pakistan are Urdu and English. Its national animal is Markhor (a species of goat), national bird is Chukar (a species of partridge), national flower is Jasmine, national game is field hockey and national dress is salwar-kameez.

Pakistan cuisine includes vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries, lentils, karahis, tikkas, kababs and biryanis. Breads include naan, chapatis and rotis. Sound familiar? Traditional Pakistani music is constituted of Qawwalis and Ghazals. And yes, Pakistanis also dance the Bhangra (at least the ones from Punjab) and are passionate about cricket!

Not that much different from India – culturally speaking – are they? Hmmm!


The name originated from the Sanskrit word nipalaya meaning “abode at the foot” or the “abode down below”. This is made with reference to the Himalaya mountains in whose foothills the country is situated. Note that himalaya itself is another Sanskrit word meaning “abode of snow”.

The capital of Nepal is Kathmandu. It is also Nepal’s largest city. The official language of Nepal is Nepali. Approximately 80% of the population is Hindu and 10% is Buddhist. The national animal of Nepal is the cow and its national bird is the Lophophorus. It is the birth country of Siddharta Gautama who was born in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal. Though born as a prince in a royal family, he achieved self-realization and was known as Buddha meaning “the enlightened one”.

Popular games in Nepal include “Dandi Biyo” which is also played in India. In West Bengal, where I grew up, this same game was called “Guli Danda”. Other games played in Nepal are ‘kabaddi’, cricket, soccer, basketball and golf.

Nepali cuisine includes rice, lentils (‘dal’), curried meats and vegetables, pickles (‘achar’), yoghurt (‘dahi’)….sounds familiar huh?


The name appears to have originated from the Sanskrit word Bhu-utthan meaning ‘highlands’.

The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu. Dzongkha is the official language. Other languages spoken include English, Hindi and Nepalese. Its population is 75% Buddhist and 24% Hindu.

The national animal of Bhutan is Takin, a goat-antelope found in the eastern Himalayas. Its national flower is the Blue Poppy, the national tree is the Cypress and the national bird is the Raven.

The national sport of Bhutan is archery. Throwing darts and javelins are also very popular. Soccer, basketball, tennis, golf, volleyball and cricket are also played.

The Bhutanese are ‘foody’ people just like the Indians! They love to eat their food spicy hot. “If the food does not make you sweat, then why bother eating” they say. Hmmm…that sounds kind of similar to the people of the state of Andhra Pradesh, India.  Rice is the staple food. City folks eat white rice while the rural folk eat red rice. Rice with vegetable curry or meat curry is what Bhutanese food is basically all about. Yak meat is most prevalent among non-vegetarians. Vegetables include pumpkins, white radish, cauliflowers, cabbage and beans.

I can deal with that, provided those hot red chilies used in Bhutanese cooking is toned down.


Everyone knows about China, especially these days. So I am not going to elaborate too much about this rising power. It is an economic powerhouse and the ‘happening’ place. And we all know that Chinese civilization is ancient. But did you know that China finds mention in classical Indian scriptures? “What!!??” you exclaim. “That’s a new one huh?” I would respond smugly. I bet you didn’t know that. The Sanskrit name for China is “Cin”. In fact if you ever hear references made about China in the Hindi news service of All India Radio, you will hear China being referred to as “Cin”. References to the people of “Cin” exist in the Puranas, Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The Kiskindhakanda portion of Valmiki’s Ramayana asserts that they (along with other races mentioned there and are irrelevant to this topic) were created by the Sage Vashistha (one of the 10 sages created by Brahma to assist in the creation of this universe) through the divine cow Kamadhenu. Hmmm…fascinating to say the least!

Here is something even more interesting. References to the people of “Cin” are made in Mahabharata. Apparently they took part in the great war fought at Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and Kauravas. King Bhagadatta of Pragjyotisha was a general under Bheeshma, the army commander of the Kauravas. He ruled over a kingdom that constitutes the modern-day state of Assam in India. The warriors from “Cin” fought under his command. Arjuna eventually defeated King Bhagadatta in battle and killed him.

We are all connected in some way or the other are we not? I think I have said enough for you to ruminate on!


Myanmar used to be called Burma. It appears that Burma is a derivative of the Sanskrit word Brahma-desh or ‘land of brahma’. Speaking of derivatives, a mighty river flows across this land. If you look at an atlas, you will see that it is called Irrawaddy River. Well, here we go again! It is not really Irrawaddy…it is actually Airavathy. Hmmm! Now have you heard that name before? Does it not ring a bell? Airavata perhaps? No? If not, perhaps its time to read more Amar Chitra Kathas.

The capital is Yangon. The official language is Burmese. About 89% of the population is Buddhist and 4% is Christian.

The Burmese are big on rice. Soccer is their most popular sport.


Bangladesh means ‘land of Bengalis’. Prior to 1947, Bangladesh used to be the Indian state of East Bengal. If you are an avid follower of Kolkata soccer, you will immediately recognize that name. East Bengal is one of the strongest and most successful soccer teams in Kolkata. After independence, in 1947, it became part of Pakistan and was called East Pakistan. Then, in 1971, East Pakistan broke away and became Bangladesh.

The capital is Dhaka. The official language is of course Bengali. 90% of the population is Muslim and 9% is Hindu.

The national animal is the Royal Bengal Tiger, the national bird is the Oriental Magpie Robin, the national flower is the White Water Lily and the national fruit is the jackfruit. Bengalis in general love to eat fresh-water fish. A particular favorite is the Hilsa. Most Bengalis have a weakness for sweets. In fact both West Bengal and Bangladesh are the source for a large variety of milk-based sweets, the most well-known being ‘rossogolla’.

The culture and cuisine are very similar to that of state of West Bengal in India. Rice (parboiled rice) is, of course, the staple food. Then there are the lentils (‘dal’), vegetable curries and fish. It is the fish-and-rice combo that marks a Bengali meal. Meals often start with rice, dal and ‘maach bhaja’ or crisp fried fish.


The word Sri Lanka in Sanskrit means ‘resplendent island’. The Lanka referred to in the Ramayana, where Ravana ruled, was here. Interestingly, the remnants of the bridge over the Indian Ocean linking Dhanuskodi in Tamil Nadu, India with Talaimannar in Sri Lanka, built by Lord Rama’s army is visible via satellite. It is often referred to as Adam’s Bridge or Rama Setu (meaning ‘Rama’s bridge). A satellite picture is available here .

The capital is Colombo. The official languages are Sinhala and Tamil. About 70% of the population are Buddhists, 15% Hindus, 8% Muslims and 8% Christians. About 75% of the population is ethnic Sinhalese followed by about 12% Tamils.

The Srilankans are as much into cricket as India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. The cuisine bears resemblance to those of the surrounding countries. Boiled or steamed rice is the staple food. Meat and vegetable curries are usually eaten with rice. Coconut (or coconut milk) is a frequent ingredient in Srilankan dishes. The dishes are rich in spices and can be very hot. It is very close to south indian cuisine but much more hot and spicy.

The country is well known for its natural beauty in terms of landscapes, tropical forests and beaches.


The name originates from the Sanskrit word ‘maladvipa’ meaning ‘garland of islands’ which seems to be an accurate description. It does consist of a double chain of 26 atolls stretching in the north-south direction just off India’s Lakshadweep Islands.

The capital is Male and the official language is Dhivehi. English is used in commerce and is becoming a medium of instruction in government schools. Islam is the only official religion. The country does not support freedom of religion yet.

The culture of this country is heavily influenced by India and Sri Lanka. For example, Maldivians love to watch Bollywood movies and swing to Bollywood tunes. Old Bollywood songs by Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle are very popular. There are plenty of doctors, engineers, teachers, accountants and managers from India working in the Maldives. There are lots of laborers from Kerala and Tamil Nadu too. The base ingredients of Maldivian cuisine are coconuts, fish, rice, tapioca, sweet potato and fruits such as breadfruit.

Tourism is the main source of income for the Maldivians. The Indian Ocean islands are naturally beautiful and attract a large number of tourists. The official tourism web-site is at . It is easy to travel to Male. There are scheduled and charter flights out of US, Europe, Middle East, S. Africa and Asia. Visitors are given a 30-day visa on arrival. The beaches are beautiful and the weather is hot since it straddles the equator. Swimming, fishing, diving and surfing are popular with tourists. Since Male is an island city, moving between the international airport and a resort hotel may involve a ride on a speedboat or a seaplane! It is a little different from your average cab-ride from the airport huh?

Ok, now that we know a little bit about India’s neighbors, what about that ninth country that the Government of India considers as its neighbor? Well, that is Afghanistan. “How so?” you ask. You see, India considers the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir as its territory. Pakistan disputes that. In fact, the two countries have gone to war thrice on this account in addition to frequent border skirmishes. The north-west part of Kashmir shares a small border with Afghanistan. But this portion of Kashmir is under Pakistan’s administrative control which India considers its own. Therefore, the official answer from the Government of India would be that Afghanistan is a neighbor to India. India’s ties with Afghanistan go a long way back. In fact, the wife of King Dhritarashtra (the King of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata) Gandhari was the daughter of the King of Gandhara which happens to be the modern-day Kandahar region.

Sigh! Life can get complicated sometimes. The Sanskrit Peace Mantras comes to mind:

Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinaha [May all be happy]

Sarve Santu Niraamayaaha [May all be free from disabilities]

Sarve Bhadraani Pashyantu [May all look to the good of others]

Maakashchit Dukha Bhaag Bhavet [May none suffer from sorrow]

Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu! [Let there be happiness everywhere]

Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu! [Let there be happiness everywhere]

Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu! [Let there be happiness everywhere]

Om Shanti! Shanti! Shanti! [Peace! Peace! Peace!]

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