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The Rediff Interview/Vanita Shastri, Co-Founder Meru
July 14, 2003
In a way Veda, 15, and Kartik, 13, inspired Vanita Shastri and her husband Shekhar, an entrepreneur behind Redwood Investment Systems, to start the Meru Education Foundation in Lexington, Massachusetts, last year. "Our children are as American as any American children but they have solid knowledge of their Indian heritage," says Vanita Shastri who, from her doctoral years at Cornell, has been aware that every Indian abroad is a goodwill ambassador for India. She has worried for several years that many other Indian children in America might not be as lucky as hers. Hence, Meru.
Meru, which drew the interest of parents from New York, Connecticut and Maine, has planned a two-week camp for children starting July 28 (visit www.merufoundation.org). "We hold separate programs for adults," Vanita Shastri told Senior Editor Arthur J Pais. "Some of us are surprised to see our knowledge of India is getting rusty."
Vanita Shastri, who has a PhD in political economy from Cornell, talked of her first taste of American life while going to school in New York, the upbringing of her two children, and offered suggestions to Indian students on how to make the best use of American universities.
She is also president of the Indian American Forum for Political Education in Massachusetts and is on the advisory board of Chinmaya Mission, Boston.
Your son takes Lemon Rice to school?
(Chuckles) He loves Lemon Rice but when younger, he did not know how to deal with it at school. He enjoyed it at home but he was conscious Indian food stood out at school because it had a different aroma. I went with his wishes and packed for him whatever he wanted, what his friends ate. It could be a peanut butter sandwich. Now, he takes Lemon Rice, Idli or whatever we cook at home. He enjoys Indian food at school and at home, which he shares and explains to his friends.
Did your daughter have a similar dilemma?
If you insisted your son took Indian food to school in his early years, he might have given up on Indian food, right?
Perhaps. At the worst, he could have resented it considerably.
What were some key things in bringing up children?
Our children were born here and they are American. But we wanted them to have a good knowledge of their Indian heritage, history and culture. I am a trained Odissi dancer, and my husband is a trained Indian classical singer. We came together because of our interest in the arts.
It was important our children knew an Indian language so they could relate to Indian culture and heritage better. I grew up in a Hindi speaking home and my husband is a Kannadiga (I have taught myself to read and write Kannada). We decided to teach them Hindi.
How did it help them?
When they visit a temple or hear something recited in Sanskrit at a religious function, they understand what is being said and performed. My daughter is keen on doing voluntary work with non-governmental organizations in India. Knowing Hindi helped her considerably. Knowing Indian culture helps them at school. One day there was a mention about Diwali in my daughter's class when she was in the third grade. She knew what it was, and could share her knowledge with her classmates.
You wore Indian dresses when studying at Cornell?
Yes. It was like, I was keeping my Indian-ness, I thought. While studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, I wore Indian and Western clothes. But here I wore mostly Indian clothes. I have always felt at home in Indian and Western cultures but wearing Indian clothes gave me special pride. When my children started going to school, I increasingly started to wear more Western clothes as it made it easier for others to approach me and understand that I shared their outlook and Western sensibilities, as well.
But you still wear Indian clothes?
I love wearing saris at every opportunity I get, whether at social, cultural or religious occasions. I even wear them to TiE [The Indus Entrepreneurs] events, which have more of a corporate setting.
What was it like moving from an Indian campus to Cornell?
One thing that struck me was what it meant to be a liberal in America. In India, the differences were very clear. I thought we looked at these things very rigidly — there were Marxists, centrists and liberals. In America you could be a liberal Democrat, liberal centrist or a liberal Republican.
As an Indian student, what was life like 15 years ago on the campus?
There were few Indian students, but I found my professors very supportive and helpful. I made great new friends from around the world who shared my sensibilities as an Indian. But it was still tough to be away from home for the first time in a new country and culture.
How have you prepared your children to answer questions about India – about cow worship, sindoor, untouchability?
I hope the training we have given our children equipped them to answer such questions about India and Hinduism. They have visited India many times and like to return there at every opportunity.
How did the idea for Meru come about?
The 2000 Census showed the Asian-American segment as the fastest growing in Massachusetts. One out of five Asians there is Indian. The number of children of Indian origin is significant. They should know enough about their heritage, and they can help educate their schoolmates and teachers, even the public, about Indian customs, traditions and culture. We are trying to draw children from other states on the East Coast for our activities, especially the summer camp we have in the second half of the month.
What is the significance of the name?
Meru signifies the cosmic mountain in Indian and Tibetan tradition. Another ancient civilization, Sumerian, also has 'mer' as part of it. The mountain Meru is the center of the universe around which creation revolves. It is the axis mundi, which has its roots in hell and its summit in heaven, and around which the churning in the ocean takes place. It symbolizes the center where individuals can create and transform themselves.
How did you come to be associated with IAFPE?
I began by doing a lot of voluntary work. In 2000 I was the IAFPE secretary in Massachusetts. Last year I took on this new role, which will end next year. I always thought if we Indians wanted to be counted in the country, we should be visible at all levels, especially in politics. Ours is a small community. It mattered a lot that we registered as voters and then go out and vote.
What do you like most about the organization?
IAFPE is an organization that is above ethnic lines and religion. It seeks to involve significantly second and third generation Indian-Americans.
There was a complaint that Indian-Americans were not really interested in the political process. Has it been changing?
Yes, but it could be more. I have been involved in getting Indian women to register as voters. There are many Gujaratis in Massachusetts, and I have noticed most of them are not registered voters. Once this changes, women can influence their husbands and children.
IAFPE places emphasis on young Indian-Americans becoming interns. Are you satisfied with the number of desi interns in DC?
The IAFPE internship program is very successful in placing students of Indian heritage to state offices but we could have more interns in DC.
In a few months thousands of students from India will arrive on American campuses. What advise would you give them?
American universities offer tremendous opportunities to explore a plethora of subjects and areas of study, which they must make full use of.
Besides, you can create a new sub-field or an interdisciplinary area to suit your academic objective.
What would you advise them against?
Not to remain bounded in the narrow confines of their previous area of study or topic, but they should feel free to explore newer areas of research and network with people from around the world.
What are some important life lessons you learned at Cornell?
My experience at Cornell was my first experience of living by myself.
As a graduate and as a woman, I soon realized I could live and manage by myself and everyone around encouraged me to do so.
We were very often told that we have to be producers of knowledge, that our research must contribute something new — that pushed us to continue to strive in our work.
Coming from India, I always had family support.
Here I found I had to develop the ability to manage life by myself, and of course I learned how to walk on thin ice.
Have you thought of contesting an election?
I have not thought of this possibility at this time.