Border Less by Namrata Poddar

A bold illustration shoes a woman's back with her hands raised in a dancing posture, while a votex swirls above her with botes and planes.

By Piyali C.

Dia stretches her arm over her head and forms a mudra with her fingers as she answers phones at a call center, Voizone, in Mumbai. Her customer is irritable and rude. However, if she can resolve the call within seventeen seconds, she has a chance at a promotion in Manali. Thus begins the story of a young woman, Dia Mittal, a passionate dancer who is financing her education by working at a call center in Mumbai and taking care of her family. Dia, however, is representative of modern Indian youth who refuses to stay contained within borders, be it geographic or societal. So instead of listening to her mother’s remonstrations about getting married, Dia dreams of a life that has a higher purpose than matrimony. Although dancing is Dia’s passion, she is realistic enough to know she will not make a name by dancing as a junior artist in Bollywood movies.

Dia wants more from life. Her desire to create her own destiny takes her far from home to the United States where she discovers the dichotomy of belonging to more than one country. After many years of living afar, Dia cannot fully belong to India or relate to her family including her widowed mother. While in United States, Dia is unable to assimilate to the culture and people, even her own people – the desis. She exists in a strange limbo. Namrata Poddar proves her expertise as a storyteller by dividing Dia’s journey in two parts – Roots and Routes. We meet young Dia in Roots. She is still vulnerable, slightly unsure of how her journey in life will unfold, but despite the uncertainty we discover her steely determination to embark on that journey. In Routes, we travel with Dia as she meets new people, finds love and a successful career that transcends borders. Through her eyes we read about the experiences and perspectives of the South Asian diaspora in United States. Through her we discover that although many Indian men and women left their country for better opportunities, they brought with them the patriarchy and prejudices that were, perhaps, a part of their lives when they emigrated.  

Poddar intersperses certain chapters within her story with perspectives of narrators other than Dia without really telling us whose voice we are hearing. Each voice is unique and gives us a glimpse of a slice of life, be it on a passenger train in Mumbai or the struggles of an immigrant who came to the US in the 1960s and built a successful life from scratch. As I read those chapters, I felt a little lost but Poddar guides her readers back to Dia’s life, and it all makes sense at the end. Dia Mittal’s life is by no means smooth or untroubled, however, through it all, her fierce determination to fight boundaries remains constant and just when we think she is going to lose her love and her family, she manages to steer her life back into the path that she has created without losing herself. Not once does she give in to the established patriarchy that threatens to engulf her. 

Although Dia Mittal’s journey is the common thread in this lyrical, superbly told story, many layers interweave to explore themes of belonging, otherness, assimilation, gender, identity, expectation, and as the book jacket says, “a negotiation of power struggles, mediated by race, class, caste, gender, religion, place or migration.” The title Border Less itself, I am sure, will evoke many thoughts among those who like to read and discuss books. I hope book clubs choose this title not only to enjoy Namrata Poddar’s beautiful storytelling but also, perhaps, to understand what it means to cross borders to forge a new path, both physically and metaphorically. 

Border Less is available in print.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction and keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.

Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar

On a pale blue background, a young gril with long dark hair sits amid flowers gesturing toward small figures of people in boats.

by JP Landolt

Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le, immediately touched my heart because the title reminded me of my dad. My father was a Filipino immigrant who left everything behind and made a life on the U.S. territory of Guam. We lived that first/second generation immigrant life in the Marianas. IYKYK. Dad had quite the sweet tooth. He would always put a spoonful of sugar into a mug of milk and drink it. Needless to say, it took me a while to stomach plain milk without a little bit of sugar.

In this story, a young girl immigrates stateside to live with her Auntie and Uncle. She feels lonely and misses her family and friends back home and just doesn’t feel like she belongs. Her Auntie takes her for a walk one day and tells her a story about a man who leads a group of people forced from their homes in the ancient land of Persia.

They build boats, cross the sea, and end up at the shores of India, seeking refuge from the king. Unfortunately, the king doesn’t think he can help. He reasons that he doesn’t know anything about these folks. They look different and speak a language he can’t understand, and he believes his kingdom is already crowded. The king goes to the seashore to make the refugees leave. And because they do not speak the same language, the king attempts to communicate that there is no room in his kingdom by filling a cup to the brim with milk. The leader of the Persians responds by carefully stirring in a spoonful of sugar from his sack. This illustrates a promise that their people would live peacefully together and would “sweeten” the lives of those in the kingdom. The king is delighted by this spoonful of sugar and welcomes them into his kingdom with a hug.

The young girl reflects on this story as she walks home with her Auntie. She smiles and says hello to passersby and receives kindness in turn. She feels better about being in America and decides to keep a sugar packet in her pocket thereafter to remind herself “to make things sweeter wherever she wandered.” 

There’s so much to appreciate about this story within a story. Umrigar’s retelling of the folklore of the Parsis (Zoroastrians) and her own immigration experience weaves through this beautifully illustrated children’s picture book. The end pages are particularly gorgeous with ornate cups filled with milk and flowers. Among my favorite illustrations is the hug between the leaders with a backdrop of peacocks. Their shared symbolic importance in Persian art and Hinduism culminates so respectfully. The birds are carried forward in the following pages, filling the sky where the young girl and her Auntie share a moment in the park by the water. The borders of the pages change throughout the story, emulating the feelings and changes happening therein. As the daughter of an immigrant, it’s easy for me to see the importance of stories like Sugar in Milk. It’s my hope that you do, too. This book is brimming with promises and perseverance. It’s a simple, sweet read for all ages with a universal message we all should be so lucky to receive: “You belong.”

JP has worked for HCLS since 2006. She enjoys gallivanting, Jollibee, and all the halo-halo she can eat.

Classical Indian Dances – Kathak and Bharatnatyam

An Indian woman wearing an elaborate red and multi-colored embroidered dress raises her arms, with her hands flexed above he head. Background is purple and blue.
Jaya Mathur dancing.

by Piyali C.

Dance is an ancient and celebrated cultural tradition in India and its origins go back into the ancient times. There are eight schools of classical Indian dance, each of which can be traced to different parts of the country. Register to join us on Wednesday, June 16 at 7 pm to learn more about these dance forms from Jaya Mathur.

During an enlightening and entertaining evening of virtual Indian Classical Dance class, Jaya Mathur, of ‘Rock on with Bollywood’ fame, will share an overview of the history of two famous dance forms from India – Kathak and Bharatnatyam, as well as her personal journey of continuing these traditional dance forms as a first-generation American. She will demonstrate some mudras: the portrayal of mood through facial expression and hand gestures, and the audience will have the opportunity to experience dance performances through videos. 

According to kathadance.org, the Kathak form of Indian classical dance originated in Hindu temples in the northern part of India to aid in worshipful storytelling, portraying the epic tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata (the two grand Indian epics). However, this particular dance form was not confined within the walls of temples for long. Nomadic Kathak dancers and storytellers took this dance and traveled throughout the nation with added emotions and theatricality, and it soon transitioned to a means of storytelling and entertainment. Over time, Kathak became an integral part of court culture under the patronage of Mughal kings and, as a result, this dance form imbued within itself influences of both Hindu and Islamic traditions.

Bharatnatyam, according to nrutyashala.com, was performed in the temples of southern India by devadasis, or dancers dedicated to God. The devadasis were women who were trained in this dance form since childhood, and they dedicated their lives to performing in front of idols in temples. They were educated in Sanskrit and were trained to perform as well as choreograph Bharatnatyam, accompanied by singers and musicians. Over the years, Bharatnatyam also underwent changes as devadasis lost their status in society and rajnartakis (or court dancers), under the patronage of Hindu kings in southern kingdoms in India, continued this form of dance in courts to entertain kings and royalty.

Bharatnatyam and Kathak remain two very popular forms of Indian classical dancing to this day in India and are practiced by Indians all over the world. Jaya has performed at many different venues, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Locally, she has choreographed with the Kinetics Dance Theater.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Annapara

by Piyali C.

In a sprawling basti (slum) in an Indian city where smog seems to smother the inhabitants along with trash, diseases, and terrible living conditions, children start disappearing. Nine-year-old Jai lives in the basti with his mother, who works for a lady in a ‘hi fi’ building, his sister, Runu didi, who is the fastest runner in her school, and his father, who works hard to provide for the family. Jai loves watching cop shows and wishes to become a detective like Byomkesh Bakshi or Feluda (both fictional detectives in Bengali literature) or Sherlock Holmes when he grows up.

The mystery of disappearing children gives him the perfect opportunity to hone his crime solving skills. Every detective needs assistants, and he employs the services of his best friends and classmates, Pari and Faiz, to be his sidekicks as he embarks into “detectiving.” The trouble is, Pari has excellent brains and always asks the right questions before Jai can even think of them.

As children in Jai’s basti continue to disappear, finger pointing begins targeting the Muslim community of the basti. Although frantic parents of missing children inform the police about these disappearances, drawing the ire of their neighbors, the police take no notice of these kidnappings. They come to take bribes from the poor, bereft parents instead. The other residents are infuriated at the involvement of the authorities as they worry the government can raze their basti with bulldozers since they live there illegally. Fanatic religious groups swoop in to assert their dominance and sow seeds of hatred and divisiveness between Hindu and Muslim communities.

While the story and the characters are fictional, the events are, unfortunately, real. According to the author, “as many as 180 children are said to go missing in India everyday.” The police investigation into these disappearances is negligible. The marginalized population remains invisible to the opulent class and their losses remain ignored. Deepa Anappara, during her career as a journalist, interviewed many impoverished children living on streets and in such slums.

The author chose nine-year-old protagonists to tell this story of loss because, during her interviews, she discovered that the street children have a great sense of humor despite horrific living conditions. Given their cheekiness and astute observation skills tinged with innocence, Jai, Pari and Faiz try to make sense of the sadness and chaos that envelop them. The narrative of the children makes the setting and environment even more poignant for the readers. The sense of place that the author creates transports the readers to Jai’s basti, and Anappara engages all our senses to experience the story. Lastly, the dialogue in the book is very typical of how many Indians speak English as they do literal translation of their mother tongue to the other language. I found the dialogues to be exact and authentic. Having Jai, Pari, Faiz, and others speak impeccable English would have marred the essence of the setting and authenticity. I am curious if the dialogue would be a deterrent for Western readers. The backdrop of the story reminded me of the incredible book about India’s biggest slum in Mumbai, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara is available at HCLS both in print and as an ebook in OverDrive.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.