Indo-African Writers (report from a conference)

My after-Christmas is usually spent in a suit and tie, at the big, 3-day MLA conference — where all the literature professors in North America get together and try to impress one another with advanced theoretical jargon and turtle-neck sweaters in the darkest possible shades of black. For the past six years, the South Asian Literary Association has also had a conference that piggybacks on the main MLA. Everyone calls it the SALA conference (I know, unfortunate acronym; trust me, it’s been noticed before!), and it’s an academic space where no one looks at you funny if you are in a sari or a “FabIndia” khadi kurta.

This year the focus at SALA was on literature of the South Asian diaspora, and the keynote speaker was Gaurav Desai, who gave a talk was closely focused on the literary history of South Asians in East Africa. I won’t say much here about Gaurav’s actual thesis (look for his upcoming book, which is entirely dedicated to the Indo-Africans); instead, I’ll stick to simply mentioning some of the names he mentioned. While Gaurav did make brief reference to some famous Indian Ugandan exiles, like M.G. Vassanji, most of his talk was focused on lesser-known figures, such as Peter Nazareth and Yusuf Dawood. He also gave some helpful leads for others interested in the topic. He mentioned, for instance, Robert Gregory’s 1972 history of “India and East Africa,” as well as Cynthia Salvadori’s We Came in Dhows, which is actually quoted on some Sikh websites for the background on East African Sikhs.

Commentators like Shiva Naipaul (Sir Vidia’s deceased brother) focused earlier on the distance of the Asian community from black Africans before the traumatic exodus of the early 1970s. And indeed, anecdotally, one hears that the Asians in Africa tended to hold themselves aloof from “native” Africans, at least before Idi Amin. Desai argues that there were some members of the Asian community — especially artists, playwrights, and poets — who were trying to envision a sense of shared culture with their black African neighbors.

One name that came up a lot in this regard in Desai’s talk was Rajat Neogy, a Ugandan of Indian descent who started a famous African magazine called Transition. Neogy’s magazine was a freethinking forum for many of the major postcolonial intellectuals in the 1960s and 70s (some of them are named at Wikipedia, while others are named at the Transition website). The magazine went defunct in 1976, when Neogy was arrested by Idi Amin’s henchmen, but it was revived in 1990 by Henry Louis Gates (among the early contributors to the magazine). Transition is now based in the U.S. — as are most of the writers who wrote for the original magazine, not surprisingly.

Another name mentioned by Desai was Peter Nazareth, a writer of Goan and Malaysian ancestry, who actually worked briefly in the Idi Amin regime before getting out in 1973. He wrote a novel about Amin, called The General is Up, that sounds pretty interesting. According to the Wikipedia entry on him, Nazareth now teaches at the University of Iowa.

Finally, Desai mentioned a writer named Yusuf Dawood, who has also written about the mass exodus of Indians from Uganda in a novel called Return to Paradise.

Has anyone read any of these writers’ works?

While on the subject of east Africa, a quick side-note: at the main MLA, I was thrilled to see Ngugi w’a Thiong’o read from his new novel, The Wizard of the Crow on Friday evening. Parody is one of the best weapons with which to battle the sickening corruption of postcolonial dictatorships, and Ngugi wields it with ferocity and charm. I’m looking forward to getting the book. Continue reading

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Exploitation? What Exploitation?

Here’s a point-counterpoint exchange on that oldie-but-goodie, the Image of the Community:

“Your definition of ethical or moral may differ from my definition and from everyone else’s for that matter. It does take guts to do what these people have done and they are the new generation and the ideals they have are different from your generation, which luckily is passing on. I do not think by having this calendar out there, it will hurt our reputation as desis…”

“Please, please do not go there. The reason we Indians are held in high regard in America is because we are seen as law-abiding citizens, diligent professionals and model immigrants. Now if we develop and market trashy calendars and magazines, what will our image be in five years? It will be downhill from hereon.”

Those are two commenters on an interview of Saroosh Gull, publisher of, by Arun Venugopal for the SAJA website. Now the last time we heard from here at SM, it had to do with Paris Hilton, sorority jokes, and an Indian character called “Poo Poo,” so you can see what direction we’re headed in here.

Gull’s new product on the market is a bikini calendar of “Sexy South Asian Girls of 2007.” It came out last week and there are launch parties taking place in various cities for the next few weeks. (Here’s a sample of the advertising.) Something called Bibi Magazine is also involved, so perhaps we’re meant to understand that the bibi-saabs are giving their blessing, but you might have a different opinion when you see the product. Connoisseurs of the genre will also note the blend of representational approaches taken from white and black girlie pubs, although all the models but one are rather light skinned, surprise surprise. The text seems to follow the standard format with models listing their hobbies (which include “bubble baths,” “wearing stilettos,” “eating cupcakes,” “partying,” and “shopping, shopping and more shopping”) and aspirations (similar).

Anyway, here’s a bit of Arun’s interview with Saroosh Gull:

These women – how did you find them?

We found all of our models by doing a model search on our site,, and by utilizing our relationships with key players in the South Asian-American scene. It wasn’t easy finding 12 Desi girls who wanted to pose in Bikinis, but we actually found 17, of which only 12 made it to the calendar.

Given that this is a desi calendar, you could’ve dressed your models in, say, salwar kameez. But you chose bikinis instead. Why?

I don’t think anyone wants to see South Asian models in salwar kameez, that’s been killed and killed again by the existing fashion outlets, who do nothing but the same thing over and over again. That was also part of the reason for doing what we did, to showcase South Asian women in a way that they have never been shown before. It puts a whole new perspective on South Asian-Americans being in the mainstream and not repeating the cliched Indian fashion look of saris and salwar kameez – not that there is anything wrong with that but we wanted to project an American look and that is what we accomplished.

Elsewhere, in the project’s press release, Gull says this:

..our main objective in producing this calendar was to showcase the beauty of South Asian women and to project an image to the mainstream market that South Asian women are just as “American,” being beautiful, attractive and capable in the mainstream fashion and modelling world as Latinas, Blacks, Whites and other Asians, if not more so. By advancing with this agenda, we are doing something that has never been done before, which makes this entire project and the impact it will have truly ground breaking.

So he’s actually raising the community’s image. You be the judge. Respectful comments only, please. Continue reading

Danse Macabre

I shed no tears for the passing of Saddam Hussein, although I oppose the death penalty. Of course, just as disturbing has been the danse macabre in the past few days around his impending execution — what to show? how to cover? — so perhaps it’s just as well they got it over with rather than drag it out. In order to retain my sanity I won’t be checking out Fox News to see what gloating may be going on. However, the eagle eyes at SAJA note some of the first coverage in the more responsible press has been by desis. Aneesh Raman of CNN broke the news of the execution minutes ahead of MSNBC and Fox. (Trivial as it might seem to the outside world, that’s an important metric in newsland.) The coincidence that lead coverage at the Washington Post,, and CNN, has all been by desis is noteworthy in the context of our discussion, following Abhi’s post yesterday, of what professions are “traditional” or “non-traditional” for desis in America.

A list of desis working the Iraq beat (and its various spinoffs) for US media is at the SAJA website. Continue reading

The neurosurgeon more powerful than Cheney

Yesterday Siddhartha informed us all of the first Indian American governor to ever hold office in the U.S. (even if it will only be for a few days). It is a proud step forward. I mean, the only powerful desi politician right now is Bobby Jindal, and we all know there are mixed emotions regarding him. The situation in New Jersey got me thinking as to whether or not there is any other back door action to be taken advantage of out there. Can us desis (who often face an electability hurdle because of the pronunciation of our names and our brown faces) get our hands on the levers of power by “non-traditional” means instead?

As most of you are aware, South Dakota’s senior senator, Tim Johnson, fell ill a couple of weeks ago:

In Washington, D.C., on December 13, 2006, during the broadcast of a live radio interview with WNAX radio in Yankton, South Dakota, Johnson suffered bleeding in the brain caused by cerebral arteriovenous malformation, a congenital problem that causes enlarged and tangled blood vessels. He underwent surgery at George Washington University Hospital to drain the blood and stop further bleeding. Johnson’s condition was critical after the surgery. Johnson’s physician, Admiral John Eisold, said that day that “[i]t is premature to determine whether further surgery will be required or to assess any long-term prognosis.”

As of December 28, 2006, Johnson remained hospitalized in George Washington University Hospital. According to a neurosurgeon on the hospital’s staff, Johnson was being weaned from the medication used to keep him sedated, and he was opening his eyes and responding to his wife. [Link]

Johnson’s health is critical to the balance of power in our country. The Senate has 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats, and two Independents that caucus with the Democrats. This equates to a 51-49 majority for the Dems. If Johnson is permanently incapacitated then the Republican governor of South Dakota can appoint someone to fill the vacancy. He will most definitely appoint a Republican. Thus, we will be at 50-50 again and Vice President Cheney (a.k.a. Lord of the Sith) would become the tie-breaking vote. The Republicans would then control the Senate as before the recent election. Enter Dr. Vivek Deshmukh:

The surgery on Johnson was performed by Dr. Vivek Deshmukh, a neurosurgeon with special expertise and subspecialty training in cerebrovascular and endovascular neurosurgery, the statement said. The surgical team included Caputy and Dr. Anthony Venbrux, director of cardiovascular and interventional radiology. The surgery was a success, the statement said. [Link]

“Senator Johnson is sedated to allow his systems to rest and recover from the hemorrhage, and we anticipate no further tests or procedures in the near future,” neurosurgeon Vivek Deshmukh said in a statement issued by Johnson’s office.

“This is expected to continue through the holidays,” Vivek added. [Link]

Here is what I am slowly leading to. Rather than trying in futility to get desis to win political office, maybe we should try a more circuitous approach to the problem. Can anyone contest that Dr. Deshmukh is currently the most powerful man in America? What I am advocating is that we encourage young desis to perhaps go into non-traditional fields like medicine. We might be able to make more of a political impact that way.

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We’re open for business y’all

In case it isn’t already abundantly clear, SM would like to annouce that we have just opened our first southern U.S. bureau offices in Houston, Texas. For all of you Texas lurkers and commenters, now is your time to represent. We may have our first Texas meet-up in February. Make sure you guys fill out the Events Tab with pertinent local events as well.

Banner courtesy of

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This man made this table

Having shunned the blue temple I have decided to do my furniture shopping on-line where I am more in control of my experience and no blue arrows will show me the way. Per a friend’s recommendation I have been checking out the website As many of you know, online shopping is now easier than ever. Not only can you read the (often fake) opinions of other buyers, but they also offer you several enlarged views of the item(s) in question. While shopping for a coffee and end table I came upon this find: Kishu End Table (India). “Oh, it’s from India,” I thought. Maybe I should help my peoples out. I decided to take a closer look at the enlarged pictures and this is what I found:

Product Description: Add a touch of India to your decor with the Kishu end table.

I mean, what the hell?!? Does seeing a picture of the man who supposedly made this table make me somehow more inclined to buy it? Do they similarly put up pictures of the 10-year-old Chinese kids who make most of the other products? I couldn’t find any other products where they pulled some exotification crap like this. Any yet strangely, I am now drawn to this table. Maybe a touch of India is what is called for in these mass produced times.

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Sadhu Claus

I know this picture is a few days late but I could only get to it now. The question is will Hindu Nationalists see this as an assault against Hinduism or only an assault against fashion? Santa Claus comes to deliver gifts. Sadhu Claus comes asking for them.

If he came down my chimney I’d freak. Be honest. You would too.

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The "Buddha Boy" returns

A few months ago our News Tab was blowing up with people pointing us to the story of Ram Bahaudr Bomjon (a.k.a. the Buddha Boy) of Nepal:

Ram Bahadur Bomjon (born May 9, 1989, sometimes Bomjan or Banjan), also known as Palden Dorje (his official Buddhist name), is a young Buddhist monk from Ratanapuri village, Bara district, Nepal who drew thousands of visitors and media attention for spending months in meditation, allegedly without food or water, although this claim is widely contested. Nicknamed the Buddha Boy, he began his meditation on May 16, 2005. He went missing on March 11, 2006 and reappeared on December 25, 2006. [Link]

Just this past week the famed “Buddha Boy” re-emerged from the woods so dark into which he had disappeared for the last 10 months. Come on, was he really living in the woods for 10 whole months? Pictures never lie folks. If David Blaine can live inside an ice cube than surely this boy can live in the woods doing nothing but meditating:

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Prabir Swings the Axe

In the spirit of the holiday season and the Macaca Music Poll, here’s a gift of Sepia hype for another aspiring rock band with desi leadership. It helps that they’re pretty damn good! Prabir and the Substitutes are from — where else? — the real world of Virginia and play real short power-pop songs with throwback 1970s/psychedelic inclinations, all the way to the background ooh-ooh harmonizing, Brian Wilson references and best of all, Prabir-ji’s monumental muttonchops, in which small animals could take shelter from the elements, and which you can admire in their full glory at the end of this clip. Rock on, blood! Continue reading

Potholes In My Lawn

potholes061.jpgI know you all are extremely busy today launching software companies, studying for doctorates, curing terminal diseases, acquiring hotel chains, preparing court challenges to the government’s terrorism policies, and writing the great desi novel (preferably all at once), but you’ll still want to take a moment out of your schedule at 11:45 AM EST today, when Kris Kolluri, age 38, native of Hyderabad, takes the oath of office as Governor of the State of New Jersey.

The brother’s term will extend through the remainder of December 28th and perhaps into December 29th, making this the longest tenure yet of an Indian-American as chief executive of an American state. The Indian press is aflutter with excitement, expressed in felicitous prose:

Good things come in small packages. No one better than Kris Kolluri, who will be the first Indian American to become the governor of a US state for only a day, seems to know this.


News of his pending 24-hour promotion already went international, according to Kolluri, who said his father was visiting relatives in India and called to say he saw his son on television.

The ominous charge of steering the ship of state has befallen Brother Kolluri as New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, Senate President Richard Codey, House Speaker Joe Roberts, and Attorney General Stuart Rabner have all scandalously abandoned their post of duty in favor of such frivolities as annual vacations and the Rutgers-Kansas State Texas Bowl college football game being held tonight in Houston. (Our own Abhi will be there picketing the event.)

This mass dereliction of duty leaves Kolluri to juggle the stewardship of the state’s business with his already considerable duties as state Transportation Commissioner, responsible for the management and upkeep of the Garden State’s roads and railways, without whom the classic “What exit?” joke about New Jersey would become a hoary atavism.

Sepia Mutiny extends a hearty “Zindabad!” to Kris Kolluri. Your achievement elevates us all! Enjoy your day at Drumthwacket. How about throwing a party tonight? Continue reading