- Mamta and Kavia are sisters that live together in Hyde Park. Mamta has lived in Chicago for 20 years and Kavia has lived in Chicago for 21 years. They immigrated in the 1980’s from Gujurat, India.
- Mamta pursued a medical certification program and residency in internal medicine and a masters degree in sports medicine. Kavia pursued a PhD in biochemistry in Akron, Ohio. As a graduate student, Kavia’s first roommate was one of the interviewers’ mother.
- Mamta and Kavia consider Jain dietary and spiritual practices of health, wellness, and ethics central to their lives in Chicago. This is reflected by a holistic wellness program created by Mamta called Health, Wholeness, and Dis-Ease prevention.
In their own words, Kavia and Mamta discuss how their upbringing in a Jain family has influenced their lives in America.
What is Jainism?
The sculpture above illustrates ahimsa or nonviolence through the depiction of natural enemies- a cow and a lion- raising each others’ young in peace.
Jainism is a very diverse religion that has a shared history of origin with Buddhism and Hinduism in India. It’s main beliefs include living a life of spiritual harmony while minimizing one’s harmful impact on the world, including dietary restrictions that reflect a respect for the lives of animals.
Mamta and Kavia illustrated this in greater detail:
Mamta: “The five principles of Jainism are nonviolence (ahimsa), no stealing (achauriya), no [greed] (aparegra), truthtelling (asathya), [and] chastity (bramacharya.) We have become more refined Jains than we came in — we used to be pretty loose about things, like eating eggs. Now we are very very strict about eggs and any animal products like honey or syrup. We’ve gotten progressively better [since immigrating to the United States.]”
Kavia: “Whenever you’re at a [crossroads] you can choose what will serve your lower purpose of life or the higher purpose, you want to stick with the higher purpose. And a simple formula that I offer for the lower purpose of life is that anything that is attached to the five sensual pleasures, that’s the lower purpose, so that you are going to do what it takes just to satisfy your five senses.”
Self-Awareness and Well-Being
Mamta and Kavia spoke at length about the importance of self-alignment and self-awareness in positively influencing health and wellness. They practice meditation and prayer every day and wake early in the morning to start the day with a vow of silence for three hours. Mamta feels that a great deal of disease comes from a disconnection from the self. Mamta explains that when disease manifests itself, coming into alignment causes the healing to happen much faster- “whether it’s meditation, softening your mind, walking in nature- you can call it God, a higher spirit, whatever, but something that is different from your physical body. What is the difference between a live body and a dead body? The third dimension — in Indian philosophy we call it athman, spirit...so those are the two thoughts that I have about health and wellness.”
Kavia says that her Jain philosophy influences the way she practices medicine. “...one of the things I advocate is to help patients to remember, to stay aligned with themselves, and do practices to stay in that state of self-connection and connection with the other rather than conflict. Wherever there is conflict, there is stress and stress manifests itself as many diseases, the headaches, the heartburn, the high blood pressure, the sleeplessness and so on and so forth.
An important part of self-care for Mamta and Kavia is taking the time to examine how one’s choices impacts others. Mamta and Kavia exclude meat, roots, and onions from their diet out of respect for animals and other organisms that live off those products — a crucial part of maintaining a Jain diet. They also believe in showing reverence for food by eating dinner before sunset and being thankful for each meal.
The Challenges of Immigration
Mamta and Kavia recall many hurdles they faced as some of the earlier immigrant women working in competitive professional fields. When Mamta was completing her post-doctorate fellowship, she laughingly recalls “I’m brand new from India very shy, and in the first week of my being there, not my boss who hired me but the person who was like a senior colleague who was working with me says to me, ‘Mamta, are you sure you have a PhD? You don’t seem to be bright.’ So now you can think about the impact that had on me. I was like my family was away and all that, and now to bear that blow...How does one manage that?” As the first PhD in the family and one of the few single Indian women to have immigrated in the 1980’s for the purpose of a PhD, she felt devastated. In that moment, she remembered her Jainism and found the grace to rise above the comment. “An awakening happened somewhere. And that’s when I’ve now committed to nonviolent communication and to invest, teach, learn from myself about the power of words and how words can impact your wellbeing.”
Kavia says that it was difficult to adjust to cooking and finding the right foods, especially as their diets became more restrictive because of their Jain beliefs. “Wherever you were you would come to Chicago, to Devon Street” to find Indian groceries. They don’t eat out often and they cook all their meals at home. She remembers that occasionally they would skip meals or eat plain rice if they weren’t able to find food that worked for their diet. As students, they shared the responsibilities of finding spices with their roommates and managed pretty well on their own. Mamta says, “It wasn’t too bad but it’s really nice now. Like you know every Indian thing you can get. Like when we come back [from India] we don’t come back with food anymore.” Now their apartment complex has an Indian grocery on the first floor and it’s become a lot easier to find a variety of Indian groceries around the Chicago area.
Family, Food, and Faith
Mamta and Kavia’s mother passed away when they were young, but their parents passed down valuable recipes and lessons that were formative to their Jain identity.
Their mom used to cook a special kichdi, a mushy, steamed combination of rice, lentils, and vegetables. Made out of rice, moong dhal (lentils), turmeric powder, salt, and ghee (clarified butter) the kichdi immediately improves a cold and they still cook it to this day.
Mamta says she doesn’t like to think she’s getting sick so she waits a while before taking action. Mamta doesn’t like taking medicine like pills, but she will gargle with salt water and drink hot lemon juice. Even when she has aches and pains she lets it be because she thinks it will heal on its own. Kavia likes to take antihistamines, Advil, Vicks Vapo-Rub, eucalyptus or menthol oil to help relieve symptoms. Kavia says that she knows when she’s heading towards an infection and will take antibiotics in those cases.
Mamta and Kavia say that their use of basil, mint, cilantro, cloves, curry leaves, and turmeric in their cooking is good for health. Other staples in their diet include rice, wheat flour, lentils, cereals, mixed grain flour, cumin, coriander powder, asafoetida, chili powder, aniseed, mustard seeds, and fenugreek. Their favorite vegetables are ridge gourd, cabbage, garbanzo beans, cauliflower, zucchini, squash, and pohey, or flattened rice with vegetables.