Friday, November 15, 2013

Easy Tomato Pickle Recipe

The recipe that accompanies the 'Food is the Tie That Binds' essay on preserving family recipes for future generations is also up on The Aerogram.
Pickling is usually a process that takes days if not weeks, but in less than a couple of hours, you could have on your hands this tomato pickle designed to delight your taste buds and impress your guests.
The entire recipe, with detailed notes, is here:

I hope you take a shot at it!


Monday, November 11, 2013

Working Out the Kinks in the Inter-Generational Recipe-Transfer Protocol

My new essay on The Aerogram:
So each time we sat down at my breakfast table I would bring out not only all our assorted notes, my computer, and pens and pe...ncils, but also my measuring cups and spoons. One day, even a golf ball ended up on the table. My mother-in-law held up her fingers for the nth time to indicate a piece of jaggery or tamarind, I forget now, and since we had decided that ‘lemon-sized’ as an indication of the required amount was just not going to cut it, we were casting about for something more standard.
Eventually, though, the golf ball too went out the window and we resorted to the cookbook mainstays — tablespoons and teaspoons — instead. We would eye-ball the amounts that seemed right, set it out on a plate and measure each ingredient with cups and spoons, and we were on our way.
The rest is here:


Saturday, October 26, 2013

What Makes Food Comfort Food?

The Aerogram published my essay on why a bowl of rice and some pickle is my comfort food.
On any other day, late night infomercials would give me company through a bedtime snack, but that day, with the occasional swish of a car whizzing past the house for company, I stood barefoot in the kitchen and polished off the entire bowl.

Not for the first time, I wondered what it was that drove me to seek this particular combination of foods in times of distress. I didn’t bother then to press for an answer, just content in the knowledge that for the moment all was right with the world.
Read the full essay on The Aerogram.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pratham Books is a Finalist in the Google Impact Challenge

I wrote a while ago about Pratham books and how refreshing it was to come across stories for children set in India, written in language that is suitable for children's reading levels, and told in rich color and visuals.
The books are categorized by age groups and are available in a few Indian languages in addition to English. For example, the Tell Me Now! Series, Khikkhil Tota (Hindi, Marathi and Kannada), a series called Primers are all recommended for 3-6 year olds. Books such as Hum Sab Prani, Paheliyaan, Out and About with Ajja (available in Hindi, English, Marathi, Kannada, Urdu and Gujarati), Wild and Wacky Animal Tales (available in Hindi, English, Marathi, Kannada, Urdu and Gujarati) are recommended for 6-9 year olds and The Quirquincho and The Fox, The Magic Powder, Ganga ki Lehrein (English, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada), a set of short stories in Hindi, Marathi and Kannada are all aimed at 10-14 year olds.

The books are printed on glossy, high-quality paper and book lengths range from about 15 pages to about 30 pages each. The color and the quality of the illustrations are excellent, as is the print. The type face is large and spaced so children can follow the words easily. The books are priced from Rs. 5 each (the Tell Me Now! Series) to about Rs. 25 each, and can be ordered online from Read India Books' website.
Now Pratham Books is up for the Google Impact Challenge (GIC) Award. From the GIC blog:
Nearly 50% of Indian 5th graders currently read at a 2nd grade level. This is due in part to a scarcity of books, and to a lack of reading material available in their language.

With a Global Impact Award, Pratham Books will provide kids with easy access to language-appropriate reading materials by building a collaborative, open platform that lets people share, translate and create children’s e-books. Over the next three years, this project will create 20,000 new e-books in a minimum of 25 languages and enable 200 million total book reads.
This is an amazing project. The joy children feel at being able to read stories in contexts that are familiar to them, in their own language, is tremendous. What could be more gratifying than watching children lose themselves in a story?

You can vote for them on the GIC website. Please do.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Amazing Resource for Research and Statistics on Indian Immigrants in the US

"The nearly 1.9 million Indian immigrants living in the United States in 2011 represented the third-largest immigrant group by country of origin, behind Mexico and China. The share of Indian immigrants among all foreign born in the United States grew from less than 0.5 percent in 1960 to almost 5 percent in 2011.


This article reports on a wide range of characteristics of Indian immigrants residing in the United States, including the population's size, geographic distribution, admission categories, and demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. Data are from the US Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey (ACS), the 2000 Decennial Census (as well as earlier censuses), and the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) (2012 data)."

For the rest, read this article, Indian Immigrants in the United States, by Monica Whatley and Jeanne Batalova of the Migration Policy Institute 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Life as an Immigrant in Fairfax County

Fairfax County is one of the most diverse locations in the country.
Its residents come from every continent on Earth except Antarctica. A morning walk to drop off your child at school can put you within earshot of the more than hundred different languages spoken in Fairfax County (more than a third of the population speaks a language other than English at home). The student body in Fairfax County Public Schools comes from more than 150 countries, a veritable United Nations. A leisurely drive around the county brings home the diversity of its populace in more ways than one.
But what is life like as a new immigrant?
[I]f there is one thing that defines the immigrant experience, particularly in the first few days, weeks and months in this country, it is the near-constant state of exploration and discovery — everything from the mundane question of how to turn on a shower to the infinitely more complicated problems of learning how to drive, obtain utilities connections, school admissions, drivers’ licenses, insurance policies, find doctors, find the right place of worship and build networks.
More in the first of three essays on diversity in Fairfax County and life as an immigrant in Coming to America - The First Days.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Let Children Have a Say in What They Eat

A clap of thunder, a bolt of lightning and it hit me that this was it. The answer to my prayers to help me steer clear of the trap that many parents around me seemed to be unable to extricate themselves from — one in which feeding their children healthy food turned into wars of attrition.
My post on why it's important to involve children in the kitchen and tips on how to do it appears here.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Middle School Rules

Jessica Lahey on how 'regular' rules differ from 'middle school' rules.
Middle school rules. Different from the regular rules. Elusive, slippery things I'm only beginning to master, and I have spent the past five years as a professional middle school referee.
Read the rest of her thoughtful post on her blog for pointers on dealing with the all too difficult middle school years.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Even the Simplest of Things Come With Memories Attached

Seemebadhnekaayi curry with rasam rice was one of my favorite dishes as a long-braided teenager growing up in India. The squishy sweetness of the vegetable, a member of the squash family, gelled blissfully with the tangy spiciness of the rasam, a gravy-type dish usually eaten with rice.


 I turned my sights to the other vegetables on my list, left the coyote squash where I had found it after all those years and checked out of the store.

A recollection had waltzed in out of thin air, made space for itself and refused to let my mini-celebration be.

The rest is here.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

A Spoonful of Pickle Makes Life Go Down Easy

At 2am on a cold, damp weeknight, the highway that connects Washington, D.C. to its Virginia suburbs was nearly empty. I had the run of its deserted lanes as I hurtled through the darkness towards home with this single tantalizing thought on my mind – a bowl of hot rice, ghee and spicy mango pickle.

The past several days and nights had been one unending blur at work and the next few weeks didn’t promise any better. To add to my misery, none of the standard take-out places around my office in Washington, D.C. offered the one quality I sought in the dinners I was forced to eat at my desk – they were not comfort food. Not to me.
Once home, I headed straight into the kitchen to put a pot of rice on the stove – one cup of basmati rice rinsed clean and two cups of water in a small sauce pan. As soon as the water came to a boil, I turned the flame nearly all the way down and closed the pan with its tight-fitting lid. In the ten minutes it took the rice to cook, I washed up and changed, and got the pickle and ghee jars from the pantry.  

A gentle crackling from the base of the rice pot was the reassuring sound I’d been longing for, the signal that the rice was perfectly cooked, soft, plump and fluffy. I lifted the lid off, letting the steam escape and I caught a warm, moist, starchy cloud on my face.
As I breathed in, I felt the wrinkles on my forehead give way. The creases around my eyelids softened and my cheeks eased back to their original stations. I could try to describe its aroma in culinary terms, but in its swirls the steam held the rustle of mom’s sari, it held the twinkle in dad’s eye as he told us one of his jokes, it held my brother’s cackling laughter – all of which I’d left behind in India. At that moment, that aroma was home.

Too impatient to let the rice cool as it should, I scooped some up into a bowl with a wide, nearly flat spoon (known in literal translation from Kannada, my mother tongue, as the ‘rice hand’) I’d brought from India for that purpose.
Then, on top of the rice, a swirl of a teaspoon of ghee, its color and bouquet betraying its origin in butter.

Finally, my pickle of choice, the mango pickle. A couple of teaspoons did nicely for all of the rice in my bowl.
Chunks of raw mango nestled in a thick sauce of oil and pickling spices. The deep red of the chili powder (made from a special type of dried red chili prized for its intense color, called Byadgi, native to central India) combined with the rich yellow of the turmeric and powdered mustard seeds to form a tint and taste all their own.

Bright red with flecks of black. Tangy with the muted bitterness of roasted fenugreek and asafetida. Spicy with layers of heat from the chili and the mustard. Salty.
Unmistakably pickle.

I held the bowl in my left hand and – in true South Indian style – dug the fingertips of my right into the bowl, working the ghee and the pickle around and into the rice. There is a premium on serving and eating hot food in South India, and my fingers were proof of having lived up to that standard for years – they hardly felt the heat of the just-cooked rice.
That or the endorphins popping in my brain at the sight and smell of the ghee and pickle numbed my fingers.

Aided by the moistness of the ghee, rice and pickle came together in perfect union. The heat of the pickle, tempered somewhat by the ghee, and the now-warm rice blazed their way past my ravenous taste buds. Simple, starchy, buttery rice infused with the salty, spicy, sour, slightly bitter flavors of the pickle. The mango chunks, having marinated in the pickling spices for a good long time, provided sudden, crunchy bursts of intense flavor.
It was sublime.

On any other day, late night infomercials would give me company through a bedtime snack, but that day, with the occasional swish of a car whizzing past the house for company, I stood barefoot in the kitchen and polished off the entire bowl.
Not for the first time, I wondered what it was that drove me to seek this particular combination of foods in times of distress. I didn’t bother then to press for an answer, just content in the knowledge that for the moment all was right with the world.

It is only recently, when dad was irretrievably lost to me, that my mind made the connection.
Memories of dad flicker in and out these days, the rumble of his guffaws, the way he would fling his towel over his shoulder, his relentless haggling with the vegetable vendor, the games he would make up for our gang of cousins and friends, his voice when he called my name. I bounce around, in my mind, through the many homes we lived in at various points during my childhood.

Some recollections, however, refuse to leave, waiting patiently until I acknowledge and examine them. One of those is of our mealtimes when we were growing up.
Dinner was the one meal during the weekday when everyone sat together. We ate on steel plates, in the kitchen, on the floor. All of the plates had raised edges so they could contain the many dishes of South Indian cuisine that had the consistency of gravy. Mine was oval in shape, my brother and parents had circular plates. Even after all these years, when I go back to mom’s home I still reach for ‘my’ plate.

My brother or I would lay out the plates in a circle on the floor with enough space in the center for the containers of rice, Rasam (a soup-like lentil and tomato dish), a vegetable curry, assorted condiments such as pickles and spice powders, ghee, and curd (yogurt).
If dad was particularly hungry, he would get started as soon as he sat down. He could never resist the temptation of hot rice, ghee and pickle. He would mix them in his plate and feed us siblings first, then mom and then himself, repeating the cycle until mom, who would still be bustling about the kitchen trying to get all the dishes on to the floor, was done. She would protest that she was busy but it fell on deaf ears. Everyone would then settle down for the second course of rice with Rasam and curry (beans, cabbage or eggplant curries were staples), ending with rice and curd or buttermilk.

Juicy family and work gossip served as an ever-present accompaniment. Dinner was a raucous affair. 

It still was, every time I traveled back to India with my own children in tow. My brother and I would promptly revert to our roles as children and there would be at least one re-enactment of our dinner ritual from our childhoods, complete with dad feeding us. Over the years, the circle on the floor grew wider and noisier with more plates and more voices. Until the loudest link in the circle was no more.
In my own home, in my own kitchen so far away in time and space from the kitchens of my childhood, my bowl of rice and pickle is my ticket, the only way I know to transport myself, in an instant, back to that circle of my childhood.

It is magic.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why Does the Higgs Particle Matter?

Physicist Frank Wilczek's essay is absolutely lovely to read, and inspiring, because it considers not only the science but also the human aspects involved in an inquiry of this magnitude:
The scientific work leading to the Higgs particle discovery involved thousands of engineers and physicists, not to mention billions of taxpayers, from all over the world co-operating to pursue a common goal. For most of the highly gifted participants, it involved long, often frustrating and sometimes tedious labor, with modest prospects for personal reward. They did it, anyway, because they wanted to understand the world better, and to be part of something great. They did, and they were. In this we have seen, I think, an example of humanity at its best.
Plus it helps that it's written in language that even a lay person like me could at least try to understand the concept.

The entire essay is here.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

When All That's Left of a Pressure Cooker are Fragments and Hurt

As an intern at a communications consulting company many years ago, I had to get familiar with the firm's documents and their various formats and templates. The resident tech guru pointed to the computer screen and said, "Click on that icon." Try as I might, I couldn't see an image of Jesus, Mary or any other religious figure. I turned to him and shook my head. "The icon. Here." He pointed to a very specific spot on the screen. I clicked on what looked like a folder and we were on our way.

That was the first time I had heard the word 'icon' used in that context. I had taught myself basic word processing at my grad school's library a few months earlier and was a neophyte when it came to tech jargon. It was not long before the list of words whose original meanings slowly merged with the meanings they acquired in the tech industry grew longer and longer. Mouse. Drive. Memory. Bug. Virus. Chip. File. Folder. Save. Recycle Bin. It was discombobulating at the beginning but not by the time Link, Tag, Navigate, Cloud and Friend came along.

It is only natural that this sort of co-opting of existing words and giving them new meanings must occur every time a new industry tries to find its footing. My favorite example is of the use of the word 'broadcasting' in the radio and TV industries. It originally referred to the way seeds were sown on farms - they were either 'broadcast', i.e., cast over a large area, or 'narrowcast'. These days, however, one hardly ever thinks of agriculture when that word is used.

Over the last few years, a newer enterprise - the terror industry - has been busy usurping words and their meanings. And it is accomplishing this feat not by using the words differently, but by commandeering mundane objects for its lethal purposes and wresting control of how we view those objects and the words we use to denote them.

Ordinary, everyday implements have always come in handy in committing crimes on a small scale - kitchen knives, arsenic, baseball (or cricket) bats, hockey sticks, pillows, etc. For acts of terror the tools of choice have expanded to cover fertilizers, nails, batteries, ball bearings, bleach, nail polish removers and cold packs. The original meanings of these words have not changed much, but a new, somewhat discomfiting connotation has layered itself on top of the original meaning. Belts, shoes, loose change in pant pockets, jackets, watches, lotions, gels, nail clippers - memories of security lines at airports attach themselves to thoughts of dressing up to go out. I can never think of box cutters (a term I'd not heard before) without also thinking of 9/11.

While our awareness has expanded to accommodate the understanding that some of these objects may be deployed to cause large-scale destruction, they hardly evoke the sort of memories that the latest entrant to this rather ignominious list - the pressure cooker - does.

To most people who've ever used it, the pressure cooker comes packaged with good, warm memories of the sights and sounds of home, of family, and of home-cooked food. Home cooks hold on to their pressure cookers for as long as they can because once they have mastered the nuances unique to each unit, it's hard to want to let go and start all over with a new one. The whistles of the cooker blend into a family's early morning rhythms. The aroma of steamed vegetables, rice and pulses is a harbinger of meals to follow.

Until a few years ago, a shiny new pressure cooker (along with detailed recipes) occupied a large portion of suitcases when kids in South Asia left home to go away to college abroad. It was too expensive an item to purchase on a student's (non-existent) budget. These days it is more widely available here in the US, and with people willing to try their hand at a variety of cuisines, it's not a rare item on wedding registries either. And it is not the sort of thing that would trigger a thorough sweep of your luggage at airports.

That was then.

Kitchen disasters with pressure cookers are not uncommon, usually due to faulty gaskets or weights. But there is an unbridgeable gulf between accidents and wanton acts designed to kill and maim other human beings. Many more words in our vocabulary have now mutated to acquire a slightly different shape and have settled somewhat uneasily in our collective memories. Marathon. Boston. Finish Line. Pressure Cooker. They trigger sad thoughts for lives lost and pain suffered; they bring thoughts of good human beings, of a situation that could have been worse but for many kind-hearted people; they call up anger at the senseless attacks on innocent lives. But no matter what, they trigger thoughts that never were before.

This is now.


Update - April 29, 2013

This essay was published at The Aerogram.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How Does the 2013 Immigration Reform Proposal Compare to the 2006 and 2007 Senate Bills?

Via e-mail from the DC-based Migration Policy Institute:
The Migration Policy Institute has completed an analysis of the major provisions in the bipartisan group of senators' 2013 immigration reform framework, comparing them to provisions in the earlier 2006 and 2007 Senate legislation.

The side-by-side comparison's topics include border security and enforcement; visa reforms; earned legalization of unauthorized immigrants; strengthening of the US economy and workforce; and immigrant integration.

As this Issue Brief was completed in advance of today's release of the Senate immigration bill, the side-by-side will be updated in the coming days, as our experts comb through further details of the 844-page bill.
Here is the link to the comparison (pdf file):

If you are interested in immigration issues and human migration in general, the Migration Policy Institute is a great resource. Here is a link to their site:

Thursday, April 04, 2013

ForbesLife India: Altruism Everyday

This essay appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of ForbesLife India.

In a material world, working for nothing can bear unexpected rewards - especially for heritage volunteers.

I must have dropped the nails about 10 times. In my defence, it was a typically freezing day in February in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I had two layers of t-shirts underneath my hooded sweatshirt, a heavy jacket on top, thermals under my jeans, a hardhat, boots and gloves. Even a tool belt. I looked every inch the construction worker I was pretending to be. Through the gloves, I could barely feel my fingers. I was lucky it wasn’t the hammer I dropped.

Along with two other somewhat better coordinated volunteers, I stood on the top level of what would eventually be a house. Our task that day was to frame the inside walls that would section off the various rooms.

About an hour into the lifting, aligning and hammering, a man who I’d seen walking around in the lower floor climbed up the creaky wooden stairs, waved a cheery hello and proceeded to thank everyone. I don’t recall his exact words all these years later, but they added up to something like, “Thank you for building my home.” I stared at him open-mouthed. As far as I knew, I was just going to help build a home; I hadn’t expected to actually meet the family who would eventually live here. The sudden rush of delight I felt – a volunteer’s high, if you will – just about managed to thaw my icy fingers. Or at least make me forget about them for a while.

I had volunteered on a whim, through a network of Indian professionals in the Washington, D.C. area, on a project for Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organisation that pairs affordable housing and no-interest mortgage loans with families in need.

To me, it seemed like an excellent way to make connections within the Indian community while spending an afternoon on a worthwhile cause. But this, my first encounter with volunteering, led to many more hours spent helping people and organisations, both with groups of like-minded friends and on my own, in food banks, at local libraries and, as my children grew older, on sports teams and in schools.

Over the years, I have found that for immigrants, volunteering is the synapse that can fire off quite a few connections. Having grown up in other countries, immigrants can feel the lack of exposure to the American institutions that will inform their lives and those of their children. And having moved away from their home countries, connections to their own heritage are rendered tenuous. Volunteering in government agencies, schools and on sports teams allows them a peek into the inner workings of these institutions and helps build relationships within their new communities, while donating time to cultural organisations and places of worship allows them to remain connected to their heritage.

Anu Iyer, 59 and a first generation immigrant, is a Montessori school teacher, and coordinator of the PR committee at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Maryland, a voluntary position. “Volunteers are the backbone of the temple, which serves thousands of devotees from nearby communities and neighbouring states,” she says. “They play a very, very important role.” The temple has a few employees (managers, priests and cooks), but relies on several hundreds of volunteers for everything else, from keeping track of donations, maintaining various databases, selling food at the canteen, procuring flowers and making garlands, making and maintaining the saris that adorn the idols and manning the reception desk to teaching children Sanskrit shlokas every weekend. Many of the volunteers donate their time because it allows them to socialise with other Indians and replicate the feeling of home, says Iyer.

As a young girl, she watched her father working on various projects within the airport colony in which they lived in Mumbai. He founded a credit union for airline employees and ran a school for their children, both on a purely voluntary basis. It felt natural to Iyer when she moved to the US to want to volunteer at the two institutions she interacted with regularly – her children’s school and the temple.

Sonya Mazumdar, 29, a patent examiner in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in Alexandria, Virginia, also grew up watching her parents donating time and effort to their community in New Jersey. Mazumdar imbibed this ethic and tutored fellow students in math and science subjects for a nominal fee in high school, and later for college credit. “It is always good to help people,” she says. “Not everybody is as lucky as you.” Today she volunteers, along with her USPTO colleagues, at a local elementary school to devise and introduce science experiments to third-graders.

Mazumdar also donates her time as co-chair of the community service committee in the Washington, D.C. chapter of NetSAP (the Network of South Asian Professionals). She coordinates at least one community service project a month, from packaging food for retirement homes and painting school bathrooms to helping out at an Armed Forces retirement home. The volunteers particularly enjoyed this last project, she says, because they got to interact with Army veterans, a demographic that people from the sub-continent don’t usually get to meet.

For Madhu Maheshwari, 60, who moved to the United States as a new bride in the mid-’70s, the urge to remain connected to her heritage and pass on that legacy to the next generation drove her to gather a small group of like-minded friends to teach children the songs, dances and poetry of India. Years later, she still teaches Hindi, and produces and directs Hindi plays with children of other Indian immigrants in her community in Northern Virginia.

While Indian immigrants in the US and their children are busy putting down new roots in their chosen homeland, some in the second generation are digging deeper back in the old country, moving back to India for periods up to a year or more to volunteer on a wide range of development projects. The phenomenon has grown big enough to acquire a handle all its own – ‘heritage volunteering’ or ‘diaspora volunteering’.

According to a report published by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank (Terrazas, Aaron. 2010. Connected Through Service: Diaspora Volunteers and Development), about one million Americans volunteer abroad each year, of which nearly 200,000 are first and second generation immigrants. Whereas the United States Peace Corps – an independent government agency founded in 1961 that matches trained volunteers with countries in need of their expertise – used to be the only organised option for Americans who wanted to volunteer in other countries not too long ago, Googling ‘volunteering in India’ elicits nearly 11 million results in less than half a second today. There are legions of agencies, foundations, and non-profit organisations willing to facilitate overseas volunteer journeys. While some agencies require the volunteers to bear all costs associated with the trip and the stay, others offer fellowships that cover the cost of the trip and basic living expenses.

Indicorps and the American India Foundation’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India (AIF Clinton Fellowship) are just two of the many prominent entities that offer fellowships for working in the non-profit sector in India. Indicorps restricts its fellowships to heritage volunteers and Indian citizens, but the latter is open to US permanent residents, Americans and Indians who want to work on development projects in India.

Indicorps fellowships have been offered to anywhere between three and 22 applicants every year since the non-profit organisation was founded in 2002, says Dev Tayde, executive director. The August 2011 batch, which finished its fellowship year at the end of July 2012, had a class of nine Fellows. According to Behzad Larry, a programme officer at the AIF Clinton Fellowship, 265 Fellows have been placed in India since the inception of the programme in 2001. For the 2012-2013 year, 40 Fellows will be placed among the 120-odd non-profit organisations the AIF Clinton Fellowship partners with in India.

For some second-generation Indians, their parents’ frequent holidays in India meant more than just time with extended family or a stronger than usual exposure to heritage. They allowed a germ of an idea for things to accomplish in the future to take root. Suchita Guntakatta, 42, for instance, visited India often while growing up in the US and returned as a mid-career professional contemplating a change from management consulting. Her decision to volunteer in India came easy. “I wanted to understand the issues on the ground because I was considering going into the non-profit sector,” she says. “And I chose India because it is close to my heart.”

Signing up with Cross Cultural Solutions, an organisation that matches volunteers with projects that address the needs of communities in Asia, Latin America and Africa, she decided to teach English to women in Dharmasala and help them to better their work prospects. “You could see that they were genuinely motivated to do better for themselves and their families,” Guntakatta says. While her planned six-month stint was cut short to just a few weeks as she received the offer of her dream job as deputy director of strategy, planning and management at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, it is obvious she cherishes the time she spent helping the women.

For Krupa Asher, 25, a 2011 AIF Clinton Fellow, her work at the Anudip Foundation in Kolkata teaching IT and other livelihood skills to unemployed rural youth and women was a good blend of service and opportunity for professional development. Northeastern University, where she got her degree in International Affairs and Human Services, offered a co-op programme that allowed students to take six months off from school to work in a particular sector to assess if it was something they wanted to pursue in the long term. Under the programme, she volunteered with a Bangalore-based non-profit, working to provide education to under-served children for about five months. “Bangalore was difficult, the logistics and bureaucracy were difficult. I was not confident in my abilities. I learned a lot about myself. I learned patience,” she says, but by the time her AIF Clinton Fellowship came along, “India was a battle I was ready to take on.” The fact that she was able to garner real-world experience while helping women and unemployed rural youth was crucial to her. She is sure it will pay off as she works towards a Masters in development management at the London School of Economics.

While professional aspirations may drive heritage volunteers to seek development projects, applicants of Indian origin frequently mention the need to establish a deeper connection with their parents’ home countries – and know what it is really like to live there – as deciding factors in choosing India, says Larry. Sometimes, this need must overcome parents’ discomfort at their children living thousands of miles away in a country they had decided to leave years earlier, as both Asher and Sumita Mitra, 24, a 2010 Indicorps Fellow, found out.

Mitra, a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, took numerous trips to India as a child. “I was about six or seven when I knew I would come back and work in India one day,” she says. Through her fellowship she worked with Hum Kisan Sangathan, a farmer’s collective in the Jhalawar district of Rajasthan. With a background in light Hindustani music and a passion for the performing arts, the project that used theatre and music for social change was right up her alley.

At the end of the first year, she felt like a lot was left unaccomplished and so went back to India with Piramal Fellowship, a programme designed to help participants ‘understand the power of business to do social good.’ She will continue to stay on, she says, even at the end of this one. “I feel like somewhere along the line of my life I made a commitment to fighting for social justice. The fact that there is so much change I want to see in the world keeps me here … and the fact that there is always hope. I think if I ever felt change wasn’t possible I’d leave, but I know change is very possible.”

By definition
For institutions receiving the service hours, volunteering is serious business. According to Volunteering in America, a report published by the Corporation for National and Community Service, an agency of the US Government, volunteers served 8.1 billion hours in 2010. The total estimated value of that service was $173 billion (at an average rate of $21.36 per hour).

But what does ‘volunteering’ or ‘volunteer work’ mean exactly? It is one thing to drive to the local library and help them shelve all the returned books. It is quite another thing if your volunteer project needs you to get on a plane for 20 hours and live in a strange country for six months, working to improve women’s health. Who bears the cost of the trip? If volunteering means you can’t get paid, does that mean that only rich people get to volunteer? And if you work the entire summer in your uncle’s restaurant washing dishes for no pay, is that considered volunteering?

Recognising how challenging it is to arrive at a standardised definition of volunteering, the International Labor Organization (ILO), in its Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work (2011), proposes the following definition:

Unpaid non-compulsory work; that is, time individuals give without pay to activities performed either through an organisation or directly for others outside their own household.

The manual goes on to explain that while volunteers cannot be remunerated for their service, “some forms of monetary or in-kind compensation may still be possible without violating this feature of the definition.” For example, reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses such as travel costs or stipends that cover daily expenses (as long as the stipend is not tied to the local market value or the quality or quantity of work) do not constitute a salary or payment for work and such work will still be considered voluntary. And no, no amount of free work for family will qualify as volunteering.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Playreading Group for Children, at Jagriti in Bangalore

Via e-mail:
This is open to children who would like to keep in touch with plays and drama. There will be one session at week—on Saturday at 4 pm—for three months. Through this time, the group will read plays, watch plays and meet with directors, actors and designers to understand the workings of a dramatic text.
This is not a class, where a syllabus is followed and a trainer is teaching. The course will be extremely rewarding for children interested in drama, and who will motivate themselves to work and bring something to the group.
To register for the program, do write to with the following details:
1. Name
2. Age
3. Name of school
4. Any previous theatre training - if yes, duration of course(s) attended
5. A few lines on why you want to take up the course
Please Note:
The programme will start on January 12, but children are welcome to join any time
There is no fee
The upper limit is 20 children, after which registrations will close