Stocking stuffers for the Orissa government

The opposition Orissa Congress Party is pissed off and they ain’t going to take it no more. Surely I am referring to some local matter (perhaps involving bauxite), right? Nope. They are pissed off at the online (mostly T-shirt) store CafePress and want to lodge a formal complaint with the United States government so as to put a stop to the highly offensive insanity I am about to describe. We’ve heard this all before from American Hindus, but this one just escalates the absurdity to a whole new level:

Is that a Nehru in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?

Insensitivity towards foreign cultures and sentiments has plumbed new depths. A US-based online shop has kicked up a storm by printing images of the Tricolour, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on undergarments.

The Orissa Congress on Saturday condemned the “cheap publicity stunt.” “This is stupid on the website’s part to malign a world leader like Gandhi and a great national icon like Nehru in such a disgraceful fashion,” Opposition leader, J B Patnaik, said, adding, “They should be told through proper channels to stop it. Since the website is US-based, I urge Indians there to lodge strong protests…” [Link]

Did you hear that? “They should be told…to stop it.” I beseech you my fellow Indian Americans to heed the call of this nobody politician from Orissa and demand that we protest against the First Amendment of these United States. If you remain unconvinced then I must point out that the reputations of Gandhi, Nehru, and the Indian Flag are not the only ones at stake. There is far greater disrespect involved here:

Youth also protested against the derogatory portrayal of Bollywood icons, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, on similar products. Now, it’s the turn of freedom fighters to air their grievances against the “offensive attacks on national leaders”. [Link]
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Zakaria on Obama, Identity

Ruchira sent me a link to a recent Newsweek column by Fareed Zakaria, and it seems like it could use a comment box. Zakaria says he likes Obama, surprisingly, because of “identity.” It’s surprising because, as Zakaria himself admits, he’s not one for identity politics:

Obama’s argument is about more than identity. He was intelligent and prescient about the costs of the Iraq War. But he says that his judgment was formed by his experience as a boy with a Kenyan father—and later an Indonesian stepfather—who spent four years growing up in Indonesia, and who lived in the multicultural swirl of Hawaii.

I never thought I’d agree with Obama. I’ve spent my life acquiring formal expertise on foreign policy. I’ve got fancy degrees, have run research projects, taught in colleges and graduate schools, edited a foreign-affairs journal, advised politicians and businessmen, written columns and cover stories, and traveled hundreds of thousands of miles all over the world. I’ve never thought of my identity as any kind of qualification. I’ve never written an article that contains the phrase “As an Indian-American …” or “As a person of color …”

But when I think about what is truly distinctive about the way I look at the world, about the advantage that I may have over others in understanding foreign affairs, it is that I know what it means not to be an American. I know intimately the attraction, the repulsion, the hopes, the disappointments that the other 95 percent of humanity feels when thinking about this country. I know it because for a good part of my life, I wasn’t an American. I was the outsider, growing up 8,000 miles away from the centers of power, being shaped by forces over which my country had no control. (link)

Zakaria’s approach to “identity” is in some sense negative. He wouldn’t argue that Obama is better because he’s black, or mixed-race, or part-African, etc. But he will argue that Obama has enough of a personal, experiential link to the world outside of U.S. borders (non-U.S.) that it will benefit his judgment.

One could argue that the key distinction here is “experience” vs. “identity,” and that it’s “experience” of the non-U.S. we’re talking about really, not “identity.” But the way Zakaria phrases it (and from some of the other points he makes in the column) I sense that he’s talking about something much more visceral than what one might learn on a semester abroad in college. Perhaps he really does mean “identity” — as in, a set of immutable attributes — not “experience.” What do you think? Continue reading

Kashayyam for what ails me.

As much as left-coast-born-and-raised me loves living on the right side of this vast country, there is one situation which inspires a reaction which is more pathetic than independent– being sick. I’m not talking about the sniffles or an errant sneeze or three, I mean, 102 degree fever, rhinitis which resembles a broken faucet and exhaustion which is so powerful, Ambien is envious of its ability to force sleep. I mean, sick sick. inji.jpg

When you’re sick and at home (or near it, even), parents can do what they love to, they can fuss and scold while they bustle about making clucking noises and shaking their heads. There’s something so comforting about the cadence of a mildly-irritated, slightly-worried parent. I tune out the actual words and just follow along until I’ve reached the portal to that ever-running game of subconscious Chutes and Ladders, and then I slide back to baby-hood in a blissful blur.

Don’t hate. You totally do it, too. When you can, that is. But when you are 3,000 miles away, and you are surveying the destruction which is a charitable way to characterize one kleenex-strewn, studio apartment, there is no such succor. We modern, vesternized children who think we know so much, who move so far from mummydaddy, we do the only thing we can. We wallow during those brief moments we’re conscious, reconsider our stubborn and proud refusal to get married already and then, when it’s 4am and we’re awake because the drugs have worn off, we update our Facebook status with something miserable. What, you don’t? Well, I’m kinda glad I did that last thing. I woke up to a post on my wall which immediately cheered me…

I can only suggest the concoction foisted by many mother on her sick, jaded-by-alopathy children, kashayyam:

…and then there was a fantastic link to the substance he suggested.

Inji kashayam, a medicinal drink made with fresh ginger,pepper,coriander seeds and jaggery.This is mother in law’s famous recipe to make us all feel better when we are down with cold,indigestion or even nausea.Simple and easy to make…[link]

Ginger? Pepper? Jaggery? Awww, yeah. You know, I don’t know anything about cricket, I don’t watch Bollywood, I’ve never seen any of those 2nd gen experiments on celluloid which contain various combinations of “American”, “Desi” or “Chai”, but I’m brown in some very persistent, weird ways and this is one of them; I’m talking about the home remedy, the more random and bizarre, the better.

Back when I was a disdainful ten-year old, if you had told me that one day I’d be drinking, nay, CRAVING Jeera-vellam I wouldn’t have believed it. No way. Eeew. Not me. I was too cool for amber-colored water with icky masses of cumin seeds lurking at the bottom of a glass. And yet, there I was last year, 21 years older and determined to steep this mysterious drink, just so. Yes, I know it’s a brew so simple an idiot can make it, but that doesn’t lessen my anxiety, hokay? I was born here. That fact alone has me convinced that I will never be able to replicate my Mother’s legendary Meenkari-with-no-meen.

Anyway, thanks to a darling friend’s sympathetic post on my “wall”, here was another recipe which required ingredients from a store which probably also stocked ladoos (mmm…ladoos), a recipe which would probably work, if for only one reason (but it’s a powerful one, so one is all we need)– it was desi. And someone’s Mom used to make it. And it has nothing to do with medicine, over the counter or otherwise.

Placebo effect? Sure, I won’t dispute that at all. I also won’t dispute the ridiculously smug sense of satisfaction such a concoction summons, as if we have a secret, cultural-velvet-rope-thang. Those moments, when my brain is being boiled by a fever, and when I’m dazed, crazed and amazed at how good pepper, sugar and something I can’t pronounce which was allegedly smuggled in someone’s suitcase can taste…those are the moments when I am consummately down with my brown. Continue reading

L.I. Couple’s Fate: Jail and Bail

An update on Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani, the Muttontown Uncle and Auntie who were convicted of mistreating their Indonesian servants (thanks, Mithua), via the NYDailyNews:

A Long Island judge jailed a wealthy woman convicted of enslaving two Indonesian housekeepers – but allowed her co-defendant husband to remain free on bail.
Varsha Sabhnani, who fainted and was hospitalized after a jury convicted her and her husband Monday of 12 counts of forced labor, was ordered remanded to jail by Federal Court Judge Arthur Spatt.
As her four children sobbed, the judge said the jury had found Varsha, 45, to be the culprit who inflicted the most punishment on the housekeepers, including beating them with broomsticks.

I’m going to start counting how many times the word “stoic” is used to describe MahenderUncle:

Her stoic husband, Mahender, 51, who remains out on $4.5 million bail, was allowed to return to the couple’s lavish Muttontown home and is under house arrest.
When sentenced March 28, the couple faces up to 20 years in jail.

I think one of the more interesting, unintended consequences of covering this story on SM has been the Schoolhouse Rock-like legal aid from our impressive roster of law geeks. (Pssst…law geeks, this is your cue to explain how all this sentencing jail stuff works. :D ) So she’s in jail now…waiting to find out how long she’ll stay there? He’s wearing an ankle bracelet and then he might be wearing stripes, too?

The jury said the federal government can seize the couple’s 5,898-square-foot home because it was used in the commission of a crime.

And how is he under house arrest if they’re taking the house? That’s my role in this mutiny– I ask the dumb questions so you mutineers don’t have to. You’re welcome for that, by the way.

At the end of the last thread regarding this news story, a few of you wondered about what kind of coverage this was getting in Indonesia, where Varsha is from. Any lurkers from that part of the world want to chime in and let us know? Continue reading

Security Perversity in Chicago


p>I have a big deadline right now, but I feel compelled to respond to this bulletin from the Chicago Police that asks people to “immediately report any or all … suspect activity” including note taking, camera usage, video usage and map usage. [via BoingBoing, link to flyer image].

Before 9/11 I would have said that this sort of thing makes me want to explode, but I’ve expurgated such language in the same way that I no longer say hello to friends named Jack at the airport. I’ll simply say that the bulletin makes me sad and upset. You know exactly whose photo taking will be reported as suspicious and whose wont; Chicago has the third largest South Asian American population in the country, there are plenty of browns to drop a dime about.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this myself. Once I took a pad and pen to the courtyard behind my office to try to figure out how to craft a memo for work and was interrupted by the police who said that there had been a report of “suspicious activity” namely somebody “suspicious” “taking notes”.

I showed them my note pad and explained my behavior (which wasn’t unusual for that area at all), but that wasn’t enough for them. They wanted my ID and then they followed me back to my office so that they could verify that I actually did “belong” there. All for sitting around on a nice spring day and writing on a pad. And this was in a liberal town where they actually decided to follow procedures rather than detain first and ask questions later.

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The Indian Army in WWII Italy

For many folks, the most widely recognized pop culture image of Desi soldiers in WWII was Naveen Andrews’ portrayal of Kip, the Sikh soldier, in the film version of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Kip was a combat engineer / bomb removal expert for the British army in Italy and his love affair with Hana, the gorgeous nurse played by Juliet Binoche, formed one of the central plot lines of the movie.

Oh bury me at Cassino
My duty to England is done
And when you get back to Blighty
And you are drinking your whisky and rum
Remember the old Indian soldier
When the war he fought has been won!

-Indian 8th Infantry Division
War Song from the WWII Italian Campaign

When I saw the flick, I recall many a female audience member shuddering at Kip’s “hair scene” – much to my progressively follicle-challenged chagrin…

Still, Ondaatje’s use of Kip in such a significant role is laudable not just because Kip is a strong, attractive & clearly desi male in a leading romantic role but also because it implicitly frames the presence of folks like him as relatively commonplace. I recently stumbled across a fascinating, slick, Indian-produced documentary that goes into much more detail on the “real Kips” who participated in the Allied offensive in Italy. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, it appears the entire documentary is online and available for your viewing pleasure after the fold.

Naveen Makes It Look Easy

The facts, sights, and sounds of the video are an impressive testament to an often overlooked chapter in history. Desi losses in the multi-day assault on the Gustav line, for example, numbered over 1000 – a figure comparable to US losses on D-Day. An Italian countryside scene shows a field of Hindi-inscribed tombstones that hits you in the gut. The UK’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross, was awarded to its youngest WWII recipient during these battles – 19 yr old Kamal Ram. As is common in these sorts of documentaries, snapshots of soldier’s daily lives provide poignant color – such as the Sikhs making Naan on makeshift ovens. Local Italians, some of whom were barely teenagers at the time, discuss their impressions of these “handsome” soldiers from afar who’ve come to fight for their liberation and attend modern day memorial services to commemorate their sacrifice.

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Let’s Arrange a Marriage, Shall We?

What the huck.JPG I recently posted about a man in Tamil Nadu named P. Selvakumar who was advised by his astrologer to marry a dog to atone for his past cruelty; when he was younger, he had stoned a pair of mating dogs and then hung them from a tree, to die. After his deplorable act, he apparently lost his hearing and became paralyzed.

If only he had been the son of a powerful politician in Amreeka. Then he would have blessed enough to get away with it, grow up and continue to display very disturbing behavior!

You see, once upon a time mutineers, in a state far, far away…okay, it was Arkansas, but still, there was a teen who was wicked. His name was David Huckabee and while he was leading a boy scout camp in 1998, he murdered a defenseless dog.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Of course you do, clever readers. Because while some of you impugned my decision to post about P. Selvakumar’s wedding to Selvi the canine as an “about-as-veiled-as-that-one-belly-dancer-at-Prince-Cafe” dig at Hinduism, most of you realized that what haunted me was how the whole thing occurred because two dogs had been stoned and then strung from a tree. I love dogs. I’ve had three, all of whom sadly are gone. Out of an overwhelming sense of loss, I now stop and pet every pup who will have me; that is how much I love dogs. They are fiercely loving, ever adoring, loyal, fuzzy angels with paws.

Once, when I was a senior in college and considerably angst-ridden (for very good reason), I put “Strangeways Here We Come” on my turntable, dropped the needle and then dropped myself down on the lush, odd red carpet we were infamous for having installed in our ENTIRE Home. It was time for some emotional bloodletting, though I didn’t have any Johnette nearby.

When Morrissey started keening, I went still, except for the unceasing crying, of course. A few songs in to the album, I was vaguely aware of a strange noise but I was too morose to move. My eyes were closed. I was despondent. I really didn’t care.

But my wolf-German shepherd hybrid did. He had broke through the once-sturdy patio screen door in his haste and worry to get to me. I opened my eyes because of the oddest sensation–a very concerned puppy was licking all the NaCl off my face. Torn between being utterly grossed out (it was my first pet!) and utterly in love with such love (it was my first pet!), I chose the latter and sat up, as my dog visibly relaxed at my not-being-dead.

That’s what kind of sweetness dogs contain.

And maybe, just perhaps, the dog that David Huckabee executed had licked away some other kid’s tears. Even if it hadn’t, I’m sure it would have been inclined to, if it hadn’t been hung from a tree and left to choke to death by the son of a Preacher man. Continue reading

India Then and Now…

Through some random web surfing, I came across an interesting article by Jayant Bhandari comparing / contrasting his experiences doing business in the Desh shortly after 1991′s economic reforms vs. now. Although we frequently talk about how much the Indian economy has changed in the past 15 yrs, Jayant’s article had some solid anecdotes of just how grinding day to day life really was back in the day –

..I moved to Delhi [in 1993]. To my dismay, no one wanted to rent me a decent place to live in. The landlords mostly refused to talk to me, and had blatantly advertised their property as for foreigners only.

..having a phone was not enough. It usually did not work, and when it did, I usually could not use my fax machine because of the “noise” that infested the communications network. For the next three years, I spent, on average, one day a month to keep my phone in operation by making personal visits to the telecommunication department.

..One of the several laws I broke in those days was the law restricting the fax machine itself. I should have sought a license to use it; but getting it would have meant tens of visits to the telephone office, more hefty bribes, and the certainty that if I was refused a license, I would not have been able to communicate. This meant that the government employee responsible for keeping track of my telephone connection got a particularly heavy bribe…I spent the equivalent of one day a month depositing my telephone, electricity, and water payments.

..Getting money from the UK was another bureaucratic nightmare. The money came to the foreign currency department of a public sector bank. Once the bank got the money it would take about two months to give it to me — the check just traveled around and around inside their office.

It’s important to note that every single one of the issues he encounters were premised on good intentions at first. Why did landlords treat foreign vs. native rent money so differently? Because the latter couldn’t be evicted if they were late in their payments. Why the flimsy phone network? Because the telecoms saw their duty to provide jobs first, service a whole bunch of socio-political mandates second, and provide actual phone service perhaps 3rd. Currency controls? The goal was to prevent the twin scourges of capital flight and foreign takeovers. etc. etc. etc.

Of course, much turns around in a scant 5 years…

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Announcement: Abhi and Amardeep on Houston Public Radio

Abhi and I will be on a Houston-based radio show called Border Crossings Wednesday night (12/19) at 10 PM Central time (11 PM EST). If interested, you can listen live via streaming audio here, or download a podcast of the show later here.

The topics? I just had a chat with one of the show’s organizers, and topics that came up were things like: the ABD/DBD identity question, the question of the meaning or value of “South Asia” (yes, that old chestnut again), globalization (especially the changing nature of the diaspora), the rise of Bobby Jindal, and the elections in Gujarat. Other topics will likely come up, and some of those topics might well be skipped if inspiration doesn’t strike (I get the feeling that this show is very free-form in nature.)

There will also probably be a some amount of “meta” discussion about blogging, the relationship between new and old media, and the nature of internet community.

Since a big part of what makes this blog work is the feedback and insight from readers, I wanted to ask you: are there particular posts or topics we’ve covered in the past few months that stood out to you as things to possibly discuss on the radio? Or particularly good comment threads, perhaps? Continue reading

Daughter of Slave-holding L.I. Couple Screams, “How could this happen to us in america?”

Back in May, I wrote a post about the Muttontown/Long Island couple who were accused of treating their Indonesian maids like “modern-day slaves”. It is time for an update (thanks, various tipsters): On the way to Justice on Monday.jpg

A jury on Monday convicted a millionaire couple of enslaving two Indonesian women they brought to their mansion to work as housekeepers.
Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, and his wife, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 45, were each convicted of all charges in a 12-count federal indictment that included forced labor, conspiracy, involuntary servitude, and harboring aliens. [MSNBC]

In addition to grueling 18-hour days, Samirah and Enung were “fortunate enough” to receive discipline and opportunities like those detailed below:

Allegations of abuse included beatings with brooms and umbrellas, slashings with knives, being made to repeatedly climb stairs and take freezing-cold showers as punishment for misdeeds that included sleeping late or stealing food from trash bins because they were poorly fed.
Samirah, the woman who fled the house in May, said she was forced to eat dozens of chili peppers and then was forced to eat her own vomit when she failed to digest the peppers, prosecutors said… [MSNBC]

This next bit is clearly a misinterpretation of actual events; I’m sure that Mrs. Sabhnani was merely trying to assist with hair removal. That’s quite thoughtful of her!

Enung testified that Samirah’s nude body once was covered in plastic wrapping tape on orders from Varsha Sabhnani, who then instructed Enung to rip it off. “When I pulled it off, she was screaming,” the housekeeper said through an interpreter before breaking down in tears on the witness stand. [MSNBC]

These disposable women should have been grateful that they were allowed to come to America, so that they could live in a mansion– and be stashed in a 3′x3′ space whenever visitors came, lest they embarrass their generous employers with their bruises and scars. If they hadn’t been so gluttonous as to sift through the trash for scraps, then they wouldn’t have been punished. Makes perfect sense…if you’re EVIL. But wait! There’s MORE!

The Sabhnanis’ defense attorneys contended the two women concocted the story of abuse as a way of escaping the house for more lucrative opportunities. [CNN]

You know, when I’m on the prowl for more lucrative opportunities, I always make sure that I rush in to a Dunkin’ Donuts with naught but a towel for a shirt and then fake abuse while pleading for help. Works every time. Continue reading