Suriname’s Linguistic Khichri

The New York Times has an article on Sranan Tongo, the creole language that is spoken by a majority of people in Suriname, in South America.

Suriname, like Guyana and Trinidad, has a large Indian diaspora population from the 19th century, people who came across originally as indentured laborers. For a country of just 470,000 people, the linguistic and cultural diversity is truly astonishing:

To get a sense of the Babel of languages here, just stroll through this capital, which resembles a small New England town except the stately white clapboard houses are interspersed with palm trees, colorful Chinese casinos and minaret-topped mosques.

Slip into one of the Indonesian eateries known as warungs to hear Javanese, spoken by about 15 percent of the population. Choose a roti shop, with its traditional Indian bread, to listen to Surinamese Hindi, spoken by the descendants of 19th-century Indian immigrants, who make up more than a third of the population. And merchants throughout Paramaribo speak Chinese, even though the numbers of Chinese immigrants are small. (link)

Is it just me, or is Suriname exactly like Queens? (The food options sound enticing.)

For the curious, there is a Sranan Tongo-to-English dictionary here (not many words derived from Indian languages, as far as I can tell), and a “Sarnami Hindustani”-to-Dutch dictionary here. (Of course, for the latter, you need to know Dutch!)

I would also recommend a reader comment on an earlier post by Vinod (where he mentioned the Surinamese Indians in Amsterdam).
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Pakistan’s New PM: Raza Gilani

The first sentence of the AP report on the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gilani, is rather telling:

When former parliament speaker Yousaf Raza Gilani was first tipped as a contender to be prime minister, he quipped that taking high office in Pakistan’s cutthroat politics could fast-track him back to prison. (link)

Wait — back to prison?

In fact, Gilani spent five years in prison on corruption charges that may have been political in nature, and was only released in October 2006. Musharraf can’t be thrilled that a person his government once accused of defrauding the government of millions ($30 million, to be exact) is now running an overwhelmingly dominant coalition government against him. (As a side note, I find it interesting that Gilani was actually a member of Zia Ul-Haq’s government in the early 1980s, before switching over to the PPP. I haven’t been able to ascertain anywhere why he switched — what Zia stood for ideologically is quite the opposite of the PPP. Does anyone have the scoop on this aspect of Gilani’s past?)

The media is reporting that the real power will still lie with Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, and president of the PPP. Zardari, for his part, really was corrupt (charges against him too have been dropped recently), so if one believes that Gilani’s status as PM will mean a lesser likelihood of a return to the bad old days of the Benazir Bhutto regimes, one might be relieved at this turn of events.

Then again, there is also a suggestion that Zardari will run for Parliament in a by-election this summer, which would qualify him to be Prime Minister. If I were Zardari I might skip that step, and wait until Musharraf steps down as President. One would expect him to aim for the office where the real power lies in Pakistan — the Presidency.

Finally, the big question on everyone’s minds has to be the status of the former Supreme Court justices, who were detained last fall and also recently released (but not reinstated). If the new Parliament decides to go the route of confronting Musharraf directly, will not the poop hit the punkah [pukka in Punjabi]? Will Musharraf step down without a fight? Continue reading

An Update on Vinay & Sameer (UPDATED)

UPDATE: Just got the sad news that Sameer passed away this morning in Seattle. He was surrounded by family and friends and went peacefully. I’ll post more details later but for now, reading Sameer’s last post is a great window into his mind and his appreciation of all the energy friends, family and mutineers sent his way.

(Anna has posted a memoriam)


Many of you took part in one of several successful bone marrow drives for Vinay & Sameer which cumulatively registered nearly 25,000 new South Asians to the national database.

Both Vinay and Sameer beat the odds by finding matches with a few weeks of each other and had succesful transfusions. Unfortunately, both have since taken a turn for the worse – Sameer’s case in particular.

Vinay’s leukemia has, unfortunately, relapsed

Vinay’s leukemia came back about three weeks ago. He enjoyed close to three months at home with Rashmi, close friends and family and was thankful for every minute of it.

He has since been put on a different treatment regiment with a positive outlook and his general health means he’s spending time at home with friends and family.

Sameer had a perfect 10/10 factor match and made a triumphant return home on Feb 11 (A GREAT read – Sameer’s own tongue adds a lot to the post).

Unfortunately, complications from the transplant process resulted in a severe infection, loss of consciousness, and most recently, a stroke

We found out yesterday that Sameer had a stroke while in the unconscious state. The CT Scan shows that the right side of his brain is affected. This area controls motion on the left side of the body, etc. There is also swelling in the brain which can put pressure on the brain stem.

Sameer’s back in the ICU and his prognosis is not good. However the situation unfolds, his friends and family certainly appreciate kind thoughts, words, & prayers from mutineers near and far.

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From George to Jyoti: The Famous Five Get a Disneyfied Makeover

OK, Enid Blyton fans, get your hankies out. The Famous Five are getting a 21st century makeover, courtesy of Disney. Think multicultural meets technology in the new animated series “Famous Five: On the Case” which premieres in the UK next month. The crime busting gang of George, Dick, Julian, Anne, and Timmy the dog that Enid Blyton created in 1942 with the bestselling book Five on a Treasure Island is going to be replaced with characters who are the children of the original Famous Five, including a lead Anglo-Indian character.famousfive.jpg

That’s right, the team leader is the daughter of George (the tomboy and the original gang’s leader), Jo, short for Jyoti. According to Jeff Norton at Chorion, which owns the rights to Blyton’s books,

“We tried to imagine where the original Famous Five would go in their lives …Because George was such an intrepid explorer in the original novels we thought it would be only natural that she travelled to India, to the Himalayas, where she fell in love with Ravvi. That’s the back story (to Jo). We spoke to Enid Blyton’s daughter and she thought her mother would love what we have done …” [source: BBC News]

Don’t anyone try to tell me that the Disney executives don’t know how wildly popular Enid Blyton’s books are in India. I’m sure that the decision to have the lead protagonist be connected to the subcontinent somehow had a little something to do with this fact.

Other characters in the revamped series are Allie, a Californian shopaholic (and the daughter of Anne) who is sent to the British countryside to live with her cousins; Julian’s son Max, an “adventure junkie”: and Dylan, the 11-year old son of Dick. Only Timmy the dog gets to keep his original name. Continue reading

There goes the neighborhood

The big news on this Sunday is that an Indian character (human not puppet) is finally (after 39 years) moving on to the storied Sesame Street!

Doesn’t Snuffleupagus look like he is eyeing “Leela” as food?

The newest neighbor on Sesame Street just happens to be Indian American, because the role was originally dreamed up with no particular ethnicity in mind.

“It was incidental,” actress Nitya Vidyasagar told India-West by phone last week from New York City, where she is currently taping the 39th season of the award-winning PBS children’s show. “The casting notices said nothing of ethnicity.”

But the New York-based stage actress made such a strong impression on the show’s producers that they found themselves willing to create her role from scratch.

Vidyasagar plays Leela, a young Indian American woman who runs the local laundromat. Unlike many of the other actors on the show, who use their own first names as their character’s names, she felt more comfortable with the name Leela. “My name is hard for some people to say,” she explained. [Link]

Sepia Mutiny went down to Sesame Street and conducted interviews to see what some residents thought of their newest neighbor. Would there be increased tension because a South Asian was moving in to the neighborhood?

First off, we found that the some Koreans were pissed that a desi is running the laundromat instead of one of their own. When pressed further they said, “why not the 7-11 one street over?” The cookie monster was also in a foul mood explaining, “great, one more mouth to feed.” Count von Count was excited that he may soon learn how to count in Hindi. Oscar threw a garbage lid at one of our bloggers and just didn’t want to be bothered. Elmo just kept laughing because he was so happy at the news but then Bert came by and slapped him upside the head for no (good) reason.

The only one that would speak to us in earnest was Grover. He turned out to be far more lucid than he comes across on television (and he wasn’t wearing a cape). He struck me as an old soul actually. He was glad to see “Leela” move into the neighborhood but expressed some remorse when learning that Nitya had chosen to go by “Leela” because she thought “Nitya” might be too hard to pronounce. “We have a mammoth-like dude named Aloysius Snuffleupagus that lives on this street. Would Nitya really have been that hard to pronounce? Even Barack gave up Barry,” said Grover.

The new Leela is quite an international woman, and speaks Hindi and Telugu. Born in Muscat, Oman, she moved to India with her family when she was a year old. She and her family lived in Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bangalore before moving to the United States when she was 12, and she speaks English with a delicate, yet hard-to-place, Indian accent. “They said I could speak with my accent, too,” she laughed. [Link]

Look for the new season to start in August. This post was brought to you by the number 8 and the letter W.

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Cat-like and not cat-like

There were a couple of interesting stories posted on the news tab last Friday. The first is the tale of a diminutive Columbia University mechanic (5’5″) named Veeramuthu “Kali” Kalimuthu who heroically saved a man’s life (significantly larger than him) at a train station and then just got on the next train home as if it was no biggie:

“I heard everybody was screaming, you know, and everybody was running in different direction,” Kalimuthu said.

A man had fallen onto the tracks from the opposite platform, all the way on the other side of the station.

“People were getting their cell phones out trying to call the police, somebody’s got to help him and then I looked over and I saw the gentlemen Kali jump down, hop over the rails,” said witness Ed Dijoseph, who brought Kali’s story to CBS 2 HD.

Kali made it across three sets of tracks, and knew about the three third rails, which are electrified with 600 volts — enough to push a 400-ton train.

“I was jumping from one over one rail, to over the next rail, over the next rail until I get to him,” Kali said…

“He was trying to lift the guy up, but he was struggling because the guy who fell was bigger than him,” Dijoseph said.

With the help of someone on the platform, Kali hoisted the guy up…

The hero then jumped across the tracks again, back to his platform and his train home to his wife and two children. [Link]

According to Gothamist, the guy who fell on to the tracks was an alcoholic on his way to detox…drunk. I guess it was his last hoorah. Thank goodness for the cat-like reflexes of Kali (a name traditionally more associated with taking heads than saving lives).

[note: I once asked my mom why nobody ever names their daughter "Kali." She rolled her eyes and just said "no," you can't do that. Hmmm, there's always a first.]

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A Little on Obama’s Speech

I disagree with Manish’s assessment; I actually thought Obama gave a very good speech on Tuesday. I do see the limitations: the tone and delivery was much more restrained than Obama’s earlier big speeches, so it’s not likely to bring him a new wave of supporters where he could use them most (i.e., here in Pennsylvania). But a soft and dispassionate tone was probably essential, as his primary goal was to distance himself from the unrestrained, over-the-top anger of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

In contrast to Manish, I do feel that Obama did address the segments of American society who are not black or white, when he mentioned immigrants:

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.

But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.

Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. (link)

The rhetorical move here is intriguing — he starts by acknowledging the resentment of working- and middle-class whites (which is itself significant; it’s perhaps the first time I’ve seen a Democrat say anything like this). But in the final paragraph, he moves to include immigrants, and in some sense suggests that the resentment of whites might also overlap with the resentment of immigrants about things like affirmative action. (Certainly, I know many South Asians — and Asians, more generally — who are deeply opposed to Affirmative Action, so this rings true.)

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Poetry Friday: Corona, Queens

Friday means a poetry party at sepia this month. To mark Women’s History Month, I’ve been featuring works by desi women poets all month long [catch up on past week’s poets: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Shailja Patel]. Today’s featured work is “Corona, Queens,” by Bushra Rehman, a bi-coastal, Pakistani-American poet whose words sing of place, family, religion, and identity with an honest, insightful, and poignant sensibility. Bushra.jpg

A few years ago, the Bowery Poetry Club and City Lore asked a bunch of NYC poets to write an epic poem about New York. Bushra was one of them, and of course, she wrote about Corona, Queens, the neighborhood where she lived as a child.

Corona, Queens

Fitzgerald called Corona the valley of ashes
when the Great Gatsby drove past it, but
we didn’t know about any valley of ashes
because by then it had been topped off by our houses,
the kind made from brick this tan color,
no self-respecting brick would be at all.

We knew Corona,
home of World’s Fair relics
where it felt as if some ancient tribe
of white people had lived there long ago.
It was our own Stonehenge,
our own Easter Island sculptures
made from a time when New York City
and all the country
was imagining the world’s future.
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Arthur C. Clarke, RIP (with excerpts from a novel)

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died earlier this week, at the age of 91. He was one of the best-known sci-fi writers of the 20th century, the author behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, among many others.

As is well-known, Clarke moved to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in 1956 — in large part for the year-around access to diving — and remained there until his death. The locale inspired at least one of Clarke’s novels, Fountains of Paradise:

Clarke lived in Sri Lanka from 1956 until his death in 2008, having emigrated there when it was still called Ceylon, first in Unawatuna on the south coast, and then in Colombo. Clarke held citizenship of both the UK and Sri Lanka. He was an avid scuba diver and a member of the Underwater Explorers Club. Living in Sri Lanka afforded him the opportunity to visit the ocean year-round. It also inspired the locale for his novel The Fountains of Paradise in which he described a space elevator. This, he believed, ultimately will be his legacy, more so than geostationary satellites, once space elevators make space shuttles obsolete. (link)

I first read The Fountains of Paradise many years ago, and I pulled it off the shelf this afternoon for a refresher. There is an intense opening, set in the classical period, 2000 years ago, involving a “Prince Kalidasa,” who does not seem to resemble the actual Kalidasa (who was not a prince, but a poet). And there are some rich descriptions of the island of Sri Lanka (named “Taprobane” — Tap-ROB-a-nee — by Clarke). Continue reading

Has the Tiger been leashed by the Dragon?

China continues to deploy troops in an effort to quell any protests in/over the “disputed region” of Tibet as the Summer Olympics, China’s coming out party, inches ever closer:

Chinese troops and police have tightened their hold on Tibetan areas in the westernmost region of the country as they work to keep anti-government protests from spreading.

Journalists and activist groups have reported large numbers of troops in provinces along Tibet’s eastern border…

Peaceful protests against Chinese rule in Tibet began last week and gradually turned violent.

China says at least 16 people were killed in riots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa Friday. But the Tibetan government-in-exile says at least 99 people have been killed in the unrest. [Link]

Last week the nation of Nepal bent over for China by caving to a request to shut down all points on Mt. Everest higher than base camp between now and the middle of May. The beginning of May is thought to be a prime time for a summit attempt, groups having spent the few weeks before that steadily climbing and acclimating. Only a Chinese team, carrying the Olympic torch, will be allowed to proceed, without worry that they will be met by Tibetan protestors at or near the top. All those that may have spent years planning for their ascent attempt get screwed. This isn’t as trivial as it sounds since tourism related to Everest brings a large chunk of money and prestige to the impoverished nation. On the brightside, it looks like Nepal might have begun to come to its economic senses in the past few days. They are no longer “sure” about acceding to China’s original request:

“How could they do something so devastating to the economy and to a Nepalese icon?” said Peter Athans, a 50-year-old American mountaineer who has reached the summit of Everest seven times. “A country superior in size and power is grinding under foot Nepal’s small but very important tourist industry.”

An expedition leader who has a group of 14 clients arriving next week said: “We just want to climb. But suddenly we have this other priority. We don’t need the Chinese intimidating us.” The Nepalese Ministry of Tourism backed away from its ban yesterday, with a spokesman insisting that the season’s 25 Everest expeditions would proceed as planned. “You can go any time to Everest,” he said. [Link]
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