Library Clerk Sparks Interest in Indian Culture, Traditions

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Seventh-graders – who have been reading “Homeless Bird” by Gloria Whelan in Jenny Theall’s English classes – welcomed library clerk Shailaja Vangala as a special guest in their classes to discuss the concepts in the book.

Referencing “Homeless Bird,” a fictional story that takes place in rural India, Vangala shared insights about her Indian culture and customs and the places depicted in the book. She shared photographs from her own travels to the capital of New Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra, as well as India’s sacred Ganges River, where prayer offerings take place every evening. She also showed them how to wear a sari, which is a garment traditionally worn in India, and discussed various examples of embroidery. 

“The novel’s protagonist, Koly, is in an arranged marriage and becomes a widow as a child,” Theall said. “She is abandoned in the City of Widows, deals with poverty, violence and starvation – a far cry from Rye Neck in many, many aspects. So, Mrs. Vangala helped this realistic fiction novel come to life.” 

During her presentation, Vangala explained that although child marriages and the tradition of dowry still happen in villages and small towns, they are illegal. In addition, for the most part, widow houses in Vrindavan give shelter to older women who are abandoned by their children and family. She also discussed that arranged marriages remain common in India, but dating and live-in relationships have become more common in Indian cities and many Bollywood films revolve around these themes. 

“I wanted to give students a current perspective to these places and traditions,” Vangala said. “I hope they understand that younger people in India focus on reaching their passions and dreams and do not always live in an archaic bubble. As an Indian-American, I always wish people knew more about how alike the two countries are – both are democracies, secular and open economies, even though India still has its own issues."