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The Salem India Story - Talk With Author Vanita Shastri

Shuchita Rao

Book on The Salem India Story by Dr. Vanita Shastri released on April 18, 2009 - By Shuchita Rao

 New England celebrity high-tech entrepreneur Desh Deshpande released a book written by Dr. Vanita Shastri entitled “Salem India Story – Maritime trade between Salem and India: 1788-1845” in an elegant ceremony on Saturday, April 18, 2009 at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington.

Dr. Deshpande congratulated Vanita Shastri and commented that apart from pretty fonts and attractive illustrations, the book was essentially a well-told story. “I hope to see more books by Vanita Shastri in the future” said Dr. Deshpande.

The fifteen chapter book on Maritime trade is the story of how international trade began and declined between Salem, MA in the U.S.A and India in the years 1788-1845. It is filled with interesting details about the trade route, the ships that traveled to India, the goods traded between the U.S and India and how global trade connections were a source of livelihood and prosperity for sailor families that lived in Salem as well as businessmen living in India. It is designed to be a self contained unit on maritime history intended to be part of the secondary school social studies curriculum.

 The Salem India Story book has been released under the Meru Education Foundation banner and the publication has been supported by Chancellor's public service fund and UMass Pubic service endowment.  Saluni Fadia who supported the publication of the book via a grant from the Prashant H. Fadia foundation introduced the author, Dr. Vanita Shastri, Ph.D. who did her graduate studies in Political Science from Cornell University to the audience. The book release event began with a short documentary film on Meru Education Foundation's activities and ended with a reception and book signing by the author. Over 100 people attended the event.

 Shuchita Rao spoke to the author, Dr. Vanita Shastri about her book.

 Q. Dr. Vanita Shastri, Congratulations on the book release. What prompted you to write a book about maritime trade between Salem, MA and India in the years 1788-1845?

 The book came out of our work in bringing the study of India into the classrooms. We developed a lesson plan for each grade from K-12, in accordance with the social studies curriculum; but for grades where students study US history or Massachusetts history: to bring something on India was a challenge.

 It was then that I came upon the trade between Salem MA and India (in the 18th Cent.) through a research project that my daughter was doing for her high school history paper.

 The topic was most appropriate and I began to research it in greater detail. This process led me to discover several interesting facts about the trade between India and Salem MA during 1788-1845.

 Some of these were that during this period, a large number of sailors from Salem routinely went to trade with India. They took mostly hard currency to India to buy goods there. In the process of this trade a large number of pieces of art, including paintings and sculpture came to the US. To display this art, the sailors established the first surviving museum of United States in Salem, which we all know today as the Peabody Essex Museum. The original hall the sailors built in 1824 was called the “East India Marine Hall” and the name inscribed on the wall of the museum in Salem is visible even today! 

 I wanted to share this information with others, especially children and educate them about the historic background of the relations between India and the United States. I think this global exchange of goods and ideas has a special impact on the history of both the countries. 

 Q. Please describe how you pursued researching on the topic and what resources you used to unravel the facts and details of what appears to have been a flourishing trade in the18th century?

 I read every published book about this trade in various libraries, did research in Salem, MA at the Phyllis Library at the Peabody Essex Museum and the National Archives in Waltham.

 An interesting fact is that this trade was happening before the emergence of lighthouses, so every sailor going out on these ships was given a journal in which they were asked to write about the shoreline, giving directions to others following them. Once they began writing, the sailors also wrote of their experiences in India. These original, handwritten journals and letters are available in libraries at Harvard and in Salem which I used extensively and have quoted from in the book. The other amazing source was the National Archives that has original documents from these ships. The published materials were very useful as well, including Yankee India brought out by PEM and numerous other books in the libraries of Salem and the Essex County.    

 Q. You started a non-profit organization “Meru Education Foundation” with your husband Shekhar Shastri. What was your vision for Meru and how does the book released under the Meru Education Foundation’s banner support Meru’s goals?

 Meru’s goals are to promote the history, art, culture and languages of India to audiences everywhere. With that in mind we developed the lesson plans for each grade level. In working with educators and the schools we found that if there are resources and materials readily available the implementation of new material becomes much easier. With that in mind I wrote the book so as to provide a resource for the teaching of this module, as well as for the general public and our community to learn about an important aspect of the history of US-India relations.

 Q. You presented the findings of your research on Maritime trade between Salem and India to the students in selected public schools in Massachusetts. How were your presentations received by the staff and students?

 Yes, we have presented this lesson on “Salem India Trade” in several schools in Lexington, Burlington, Sharon, Acton, and others, where it was received with great enthusiasm and interest. The lesson is complete with a presentation, academic worksheet, and display materials that the students see, feel, touch and smell, it also includes an activity for the classroom, in this case a trade game that the students play after the presentation. They enjoyed the game a lot as you can imagine!

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