Anybody who knows me knows that waking me up at an ungodly hour is like asking for a death sentence – but once a year, on Vishu, I allow it.
What is Vishu?
Vishu, a Hindu festival, is essentially Kerala New Year; it’s the start of our astrological calendar. For farmers in Kerala, it also signifies the start of the harvest. A good harvest means a happy community, so Vishu is filled with prayers for a prosperous year to follow. Religiously, it is the day celebrating the victory of Lord Krishna when he killed the demon Naraksura.
How is Vishu celebrated?
Rather than throw vocabulary terms at you and expand on mythology that—let’s be honest—is fuzzy to even my parents, I want to take a different approach. Here’s one of the first Vishus I remember in 2002.
I am awakened by my mother’s ice cold hands covering my eyes. I curse her to the extent that an 8-year-old’s vocabulary permits but then ultimately let her guide me out of my bed and to a corner of the kitchen. She uncovers my eyes to reveal this year’s Vishukkani; a beautiful arrangement of mirrors, fruits, vegetables, a vilakku, gold, coconuts, and various Gods.
Vishukkani (which is derived from the Malayalam word “kani” which means “to see”) is the first thing one must see when they wake up on Vishu and is set up the night before by the woman of the house (shout out to my mom). The idea of waking up to Vishukkani is the tradition that seeing good things at the start of a New Year will inevitably lead to prosperity and I mean what’s better than gold and coconuts am I right?
I get back into bed and thank God I still have two hours until I have to wake up again for the school bus.
I patiently stand outside my parent’s bathroom, waiting for my dad to finish getting ready for work so I can ask for my Vishukkaineetam.
Vishukkaineetam is when the elders of the family give money to the younger ones of the family out of the belief that it will bless them with prosperity for the year. I think my dad feels pretty blessed now that I no longer qualify for Vishukkaineetam (though Achan, you can feel free to transfer money into my bank account whenever you want). Not limited to the family, Vishukkaineetam is also an opportunity to distribute wealth throughout the community whether that be through charity, sponsoring meals, etc.
I stare at my naked hot dog and twinkie as I begin to daydream about the feast that awaits me when I get home. I wonder what payasam my mom is going to make for dessert (maybe the only time I’ll say that white is superior to brown).
Payasam (essentially kheer) is a rice pudding made with milk and sugar and flavored with raisins, nuts, cardamom, or saffron and is always on the menu on Kerala holidays.
I’m finally home from school and put on an outfit that I will later complain is “too scratchy.” The women of the house usually wear sarees while the children (aka me) wear a pavada (a long skirt) and a blouse. Men will wear a mundu and button down shirt. What makes traditional Kerala clothing unique is the kasavu border that borders the entire outfit.
The most wonderful part of being from Kerala commences the sadhya. An array of traditional foods that is only served on special occasions. Eaten on a banana leaf, the feast starts with rice, sambar, papadam, and various smaller dishes. My favorite is chakka upperi, which is sautéed jackfruit in coconut oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves and probably a bunch of other stuff. The meal ends with sweet payasam eaten on the same banana leaf.
**cue food coma**
At the end of the day, Vishu is about spending time with your family. And although this year, I won’t get to be physically with mine, I take today to reflect on the decisions I’ve made thus far in my life and how to look towards a bigger and brighter future. I hope you all will too!
Happy Vishu, everyone! And for those who aren’t from Kerala but may need a Jan 1 do-over: You’re welcome to join us!
To overcome global challenges, collective investments and groundwork are fundamental in advancing an equitable future across diverse communities. Sustainable development — a development that promotes growth through social, economic and environmental progress without compromising natural resources — is essential for human survival. At the young age of 21, Nirmala Ramprasad founded Green Dupatta, a sustainable development charity organization, and advocated for its importance through multiple pageant ambassadorships. As a philanthropic representative for the Indo Caribbean diaspora, her work showcases how individuals of any age have the ability to be changemakers for social advancement in areas such as environmental and agricultural protection and education.
In conversation with Ramprasad, the following answers have been edited for clarity and concision.
Growing up, did you resonate with your Indo Caribbean heritage? What ideals do you most connect with and want to pass on in creating positive change?
As a mixed-race person who grew up primarily within the Indo Caribbean community, I have always felt deeply connected to my culture and heritage. As a child I was fully immersed in all things Guyanese (I refused to wear anything but a lehenga to every school picture day). From a young age I was exposed to, and learned about, our music, food, political climate, history of indentureship and the importance of our cultural connection to India.
In regards to my nonprofit work, one of the most important lessons I take from my Indo Caribbean culture is the significance of ancestral knowledge and practices. One of the main tenets of my nonprofit work is sustainability and I have found that the most effective and practical sustainability practices can be found when we look back at the way our ancestors treated the land they lived on.
Although we are all changemakers in some way, I always advocate for community involvement in not only development, but also sustainability practices.
Can you describe what Green Dupatta is?
Green Dupatta is a sustainable development non-profit that I started when I was 21 and have since completed projects in Canada, Guyana, India and Trinidad. I work directly with project participants to co-create community-based spaces and programs that increase environmental awareness, food, water security and access to quality education through sustainable development models.
While most of Green Dupatta’s fundraising efforts take place in Canada, community projects are mainly done in Guyana and India.
In 2020, Ramprasad traveled to Guyana to work with locals in the town of Leonora. Together they replaced leaking zinc roofs, restored plumbing to old drains, re-poured concrete exteriors and repaved and repainted buildings to be used for yoga and meditation classes, affordable daycare and community gardens. To ensure donations are maximized, local contractors are always utilized. Green Dupatta aims to repair and reuse as many materials as possible. It does not dictate what the spaces should be used for, instead assists the community in having the agency select programming that benefits residents.
Across India, Ramprasad detailed Green Dupatta’s completion of seven projects in seven weeks in an eight-part YouTube docuseries. With partnership from JDS Public School in Varanasi, Green Dupatta constructed two sports facilities for student health, engaged in community outreach awareness campaigns on women’s empowerment and environmental conservation, aided in scholarship opportunities for students, helped create a community garden and provided the school with a system to harvest and irrigate water.
After this, they traveled to Devdaspur, a village with no clean water, to install a well with a shower enclosure, a water purification system and reservation tank, and a fenced enclosure food plantation. With their new ability to easily access clean water, people in Devdaspur showed an increase in social, economic and health outcomes. The community now had the resources to lower the percentage of water and hygiene-related illnesses, increase food and water independence, increase school attendance for children and increase productivity for adults, seeking work, without having to take time to filter or find clean water for their families.
Through successful sustainable development projects, resources are conserved and enhanced to empower communities to meet their needs, irrespective of their size or location. Like many sustainable development nonprofits, Green Dupatta’s international service delivery was significantly impacted by COVID-19 due to limitations with travel and in-person fundraising.
As a result, Ramprasad turned to her career as a special education teacher and utilized her knowledge to focus on a project that would directly help Toronto’s families and their schoolchildren.
Created as an emergency response to COVID-19 school shutdowns, Green Dupatta’s ‘Furnishing Minds’ project, “is based on a circular economy model in which slightly-used educational resources are redistributed to families in need.”
Since the program began in 2020, more than 1400 pounds of educational resources and curriculum-based materials have been redistributed within the Greater Toronto Area. Its success led to the project being formalized annually. Green Dupatta currently showcases free online guides to the Ontario curriculum, by grade level, for families looking for strategies to help their children’s academic growth and achievement.
Is Green Dupatta currently looking for more educators? How can people get involved?
I am always looking to expand my team! We are really lucky to have dedicated volunteers from a variety of different sectors and backgrounds. Nonprofit organizations can always use all the help they can get — we have general volunteers, event volunteers and sub-committee program volunteers. Anyone looking to get involved can directly message us on Instagram or our website.
What is your vision for Green Dupatta in the next five years?
In addition to co-creating new community projects and programs, I hope to continuously expand current Green Dupatta projects. With a larger team and additional funding, I would like to strengthen and scale our Furnishing Minds program, as well as increase our international presence, to fill needs and advocate for these communities. In order to build organizational capacity we are always looking to partner with like-minded individuals, businesses and other nonprofit organizations. In the past we were lucky to work with supportive organizations that provided valuable services, resources and expertise.
Outside of Green Dupatta and teaching, Ramprasad has a history of competing in pageants that reflect both her Indo Caribbean heritage and passion for service. She won the Miss West Indian Canadian pageant in 2015 and subsequently became the first Canadian representative at the Divali Nagar Queen Pageant in Trinidad and Tobago where she was awarded second runner-up. In 2020, she was invited to compete as Guyana’s representative in the Miss Face of Humanity Ambassador Search, an international event that showcases female changemakers from around the world. Ramprasad believes that competing in pageants offered, “a platform to educate others about my organization, and the importance of sustainable development as well as an opportunity to showcase myself as an individual capable and dedicated to carrying this torch.”
How was it representing Guyana on a global stage at the 2020 Miss Face of Humanity? What platform did you run on, and what message do you have for the next generation of Indo Caribbeans?
The Miss Face of Humanity competition was a unique experience for me as I was given the opportunity to represent both Guyana and the Green Dupatta Charitable Organization. I explored their intersection and looked at how my homeland and culture has impacted both my core values and philanthropic work.
Being part of a diasporic community is a uniquely beautiful, but also quite complex, place to be. All of our experiences are vastly different — some people feel deeply connected to their communities and some feel very far removed. Although there are many struggles that come from being once, or twice-removed, people are facing much different struggles in the places our ancestors called home.
My advice to the next generation of Indo Caribbeans is to remember that a diasporic community is very different from a local one. Although some of us may feel very connected to our communities and cultures as they are practiced abroad, we should make space to amplify the voices of our motherlands and remember to give back to places that have given us so much.
Ramprasad says juggling work and leading a nonprofit can be deeply taxing; often fielding criticism and making personal sacrifices. Nonetheless, she loves what she does and is eager to implement sustainable development practices around the world. Through these projects, communities are equipped with the techniques, tools and knowledge to uplift themselves. Ramprasad is forever grateful that she was drawn to a life of service and believes that it is of utmost importance to actively collaborate with communities in order to preserve the environment and improve the access to quality education.
To learn more about Green Dupatta, visit their website. You can follow Nirmala’s journey on Instagram @nrampsy.
This story was published as a collaboration between Brown Girl Magazine and Reckon, a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.
This is a special year for Ramadan. For the first time in three years my mosque will fill to capacity, giving my community a chance to rebuild lost connections and overcome heartache. It reminds me of a simple truth: healing comes not when you expect it but when you need it.
For Muslims, Ramadan symbolizes the time of the year in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran. Since Islam follows a calendar based on the monthly cycles of the moon, the start of the holy month of Ramadan is determined when a crescent moon is sighted in Saudi Arabia.
The Quran is said to have been received throughout the life of the prophet Muhammad, and Ramadan marks the days it took for him to receive its first verses. When Muhammad received this revelation, it is said that he isolated himself in a cave to reflect and devoted himself to endless worship. In the same way that Muhammad secluded himself to focus on gratitude and prayer, Muslims around the world use the time to distance themselves from daily distractions and focus on spiritual growth through a month of fasting.
Siyam in community
The Arabic word for fasting is siyam which translates to ‘be at rest.’ Abstaining from eating and drinking allows us to take the rest our body and soul so deeply crave and ground ourselves and one another in a physical, mental and spiritual reset.
When I was a child, Ramadan symbolized the one time it was normal to spend your entire weekend in the Mosque. It was my first experience of a sleepover, with pajamas hidden under my abaya and Pakistani kurtas. Beyond the gender divide of the prayer halls, children would take naps on parents laps as the community prayed throughout the night. The Mosque was a beautiful gathering space open to anyone who needed a meal, whether or not they were fasting.
During the pandemic, Ramadan was different. Endless nights in the Mosque filled with prayer and community were scaled down to Zoom hangouts. Programs that were once filled with intimate in-person conversations on the floor of the Mosque, were now faceless squares on a screen, their names barely visible.
The Jummah or Friday prayers that were once so packed with people that the crowd spilled out onto the surrounding grass and sidewalks were conducted in parked cars. The mosque decorated the parking lot for drive-through visitors for the Eid Namaz, and community members waved from a distance to others with the same time slot.
I still remember when a friend’s mother died of COVID-19. What would have been a Janaza or funeral that surrounded the grieving family with community and prayer, turned into a Zoom call. Watching the tears of my friend’s family during the burial services, unable to visit her home and read the Quran together was heartbreaking.
Even before the pandemic, the world was not always a safe place for me and my community. From my family and I being yelled at to “go back to our country” when we were on vacation, to the looks my mother received when she wore her hijab in public, I understood even as a young child the ways in which Muslims were perceived as outsiders in our own country.
In many ways the pandemic compounded the islamophobia that my community began experiencing at heightened levels after 9/11. During Trump’s time in office, the Muslim community—which in the US mostly consists of people who identify as Asian and Black—faced heightened racism and incidents of violence, in part due to misinformation about the coronavirus. In the racial justice uprisings of 2020, Black Muslims—which make up more than 20% of all Muslims in the US—were not only targeted for their race but their religious background. Mosques across the country were vandalized, and continue to experience increased threats to this day.
Ramadan as a space to heal
These last few years made me realize how badly I craved the sanctuary of my Mosque, and to physically return to a space where I felt safe. I feel relieved and at peace to return back to nights where I am surrounded by familiar faces praying together side by side and breaking our fast without any fear of judgment.
I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.
When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?
It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.
How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?
Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community.
Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?
My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience.
It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.
The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?
I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.
One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?
For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.
Why explore the psychology of a house?
It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.
What makes a family?
I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.
The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?
Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.
What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”
I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.
Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.
“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.