Q&A with Sachal Vasandani: “You Gotta Rock Out or Go Home”

sachal.jpgAfter hearing jazz vocalist Sachal Vasandani on NPR’s All Things Considered talk about his third album, Hi-Fly, I knew we had to feature him on SM. I mean, have you heard this kid’s swoon-worthy voice? It’s Tony Bennett meets Frank Sinatra meets Cole Porter. Thankfully, Vasandani graciously humored the questions of a jazz noob via a telephone interview.

Sachal Vasandani – Hi Fly – EPK from Mack Avenue on Vimeo.

Q: How often do people ask you, “What’s a young man doing singing such old music? Why jazz? Why not that pop, Justin Bieber-type stuff?”
A: [Laughs.] Well, nobody has ever asked me why I’m not Justin Bieber. There’s a lot of freedom and self-expression in jazz – that’s really what attracted me to it. I just saw the music video for that Katy Perry song, “Last Friday Night (TGIF)”. You have Katy Perry, Rebecca Black and then Kenny G is there, and they’re totally making fun of him. He’s the crazy old uncle sitting in the corner. That’s people’s impression of jazz – that it’s cheesy, corny, old and elitist. But jazz gives me the ability to explore soulfulness in a unique way. Everybody is looking to find ways to reach the soul – my particular avenue is jazz. Continue reading

Friday Poetry: Dilruba Ahmed

Dilruba.jpgThis past Saturday, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Dilruba Ahmed, author of Dhaka Dust, a delightful collection of poetry that I read and re-read with great pleasure. I first encountered Ahmed’s work in the form of a powerful letter she wrote for the Asian American Literary Review, titled “To Agha Shahid Ali.” In it, she reacts to a statement made by the Kashmiri-American poet:

“I wish all this had not happened…This dividing of the country, the divisions between people–Hindu, Muslim, Muslim, Hindu–you can’t imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick.” Similarly, we may feel enraged, appalled, dismayed, and frustrated with recent events that emphasize those “divisions between people” here in America and around the world. And as writers, we may find ourselves wondering how to make sense of our impulse to write when other, larger matters seem far more pressing.

She goes on to respond to her own question: “If literature confronts us with our humanity, if it proves to us the shared desires and struggles of our individual lives, then literature, particularly writing by Asian Americans and other minorities, is arguably more important now than ever before.”

Agreed. And in the context of the mayhem that struck Mumbai this past week, even more poignant. Continue reading

Bombs Over Bombay, Again.

BBC ss.jpgEarlier today, Mumbai was struck by three explosions designed for maximum impact; homemade bombs erupted during rush hour, a time when the blasts were guaranteed to injure and murder as many innocents as possible.

It worked. Over 131 people were hurt and 18 perished in the coordinated attacks, which targeted popular areas in India’s financial capital. A list of those lost and injured is here.

The people of Mumbai reacted with bravery and heroic self-sacrifice:

Hitesh Soni said that people offered their private tempos, scooters and motorcycles to rush the victims to hospitals. “Ambulances and the police arrived later. It was local businessmen who came to the rescue and saved lives.” Businessman Manoj Jain added that those from the nearby textile (kapda) bazaar also came to the rescue of the victims.

Many of those involved in rescue operations were local residents. “We do not know about our families but are helping in the rescue operations . Once this work is over, we will check the whereabouts of our family,” said one of them, oblivious of his blood-soaked clothes.

On Twitter, a non-desi follower with far too much faith in my abilities asked, “Why does this keep happening to Mumbai?” I am definitely no expert; I’m not even Indian by anything other than heart, genotype and phenotype. Continue reading

Jatts may indeed be Scythian

In the comments on this weblog over the years I’ve learned a lot of interesting things about South Asian ethnography. One component which has been notable is the sense of ethnic pride of Punjabis, and in particular Jatts. Some of this is rather standard racism against other South Asians, especially South Indians and Bengalis in relation to whom they feel aesthetically superior. But other assertions of distinction are not so charged.

One of the aspects of Jatt identity seems to be the conception that they are descended from “Scythians,” what in a South Asian context would be termed Saka. When some Jatt commenters with whom I had amicable relationships with would bring this up I would gently mock them. My personal stance is that South Asians have an unhealthy obsession with presumed foreign origin, as if being South Asian is somehow shameful. This is very evident amongst Muslims for obvious reasons, insofar as Islam came to the subcontinent from West Asia. But I’ve encountered the same stance amongst Hindus. For example, Kashmiri Pandits explaining their peoples’ Persian origins.

But whatever the demerits of the excessive overall fixation on exogenous origin, I now believe that I wrongly dismissed out of hand the idea that Jatts in particular have some Scythian origin. The reason are a series of results coming out of the Harappa Ancestry Project. To be concise, it does seem that Jatts have a small but consistent proportion of northern Eurasian ancestry which sets them apart from other Punjabis. The most parsimonious explanation to my mind is that the Sakas did indeed have a genetic impact. This does not mean that I have a high confidence in this historical model. But I was clearly in the wrong in dismissing the Scythian origin myth out of hand. For that, I apologize. Also, please note that I am not claiming here that the preponderance of Jatt ancestry is Scythian. It is not. Rather, there may have been a Scythian overlay upon a typical Punjabi substrate.

If you are curious to learn more, please see the comments at the Harappa Ancestry Project. Continue reading

Amongst the natives

Andrew Marantz has written a fascinating piece rich with writerly detail in Mother Jones, My Summer at an Indian Call Center. It tells the tale of the hyper-kinetic and atomizing lives of call center workers, and the transformation that globalization has wrought upon the fabric of Indian society. Marantz’s narrative is filled with vivid characters, some of them almost stock figures. He doesn’t truly lay out an explicit polemic, but I found the subtext to be a touch too romanticizing of the old India with its tight-knit families. In part I suspect he’s simply relaying the sentiments of his sources and the people amongst whom he worked as an expat. But there is a difference between avowed ideals and revealed preferences. Young Indians go into the meat-grinder that is the call center career track of their own free will.

I particularly find the subtext irritating because of the writer’s own background: Continue reading

Beth Goes to Bollywood!

If you are a student of Bollywood, you will have already found the blog Beth Loves Bollywood, which documents one superfan’s encyclopedic knowledge of the largest film industry in the world. There, Beth Watkins takes apart Bollywood (and other Indian) films with an academic zest that has enamored filmi fans everywhere. At the end of June, she joined thousands of superfans in Torotono, where she attended the International Film Academy Awards.

In her blog, Ms. Watkins fuses an academic’s eye for research with the infectious zeal of a “First Day First Show” devotee, as Indian fans who make it their aim to catch a movie’s very initial run are known. What she’s trying to do, she says, is provide the sort analysis and social commentary that she feels is largely missing from the current writing surrounding Bollywood. “I’m having fun with it, though,” she said.

Unlike many Bollywood bloggers, Ms. Watkins steers clear of feuding stars, and pesky baby bump rumors and announcements. “I’m not into gossip. I don’t care whether Aishwarya Rai gained a kilo or not,” she said. Her entries range from entertaining dissections of vintage Filmfare magazine spreads that she excavated from the depths of her university library, to witty reviews laced with an inventive lexicon. [Link.]

After living vicariously through Beth on Twitter as she navigated the IFAA world, I reached out to her about her love of all things filmi.

Best part of IFAA. Worst part? Best part was meeting some blog and Twitter friends in person, some of whom I’ve known online for years. Worst part was the behavior of other fans–mobbing the stars, asking completely inane questions, literally shoving to get closer to the red carpet, etc.

So did you finally get to see Rahul Khanna at IFAA? I know you’re a huge fan of his… Tragically no. I think he was busy with actual celebrities–as well as being in the fashion show, GQMF that he is.

Continue reading

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Data on Indian Americans: religion & politics

Unfortunately there’s not as much quantitative data on Indian Americans as I’d like. To be fair, you can say that about almost anything, by which I mean there’s always a lack of enough data for my taste. One good source is the Religious Landscape Survey. 90% of Indian Americans are not Hindu, but 90% of Hindu Americans seem to be Indian. But that’s suboptimal. The Census has some good information, but is moderately constrained in what it can give you. There is one option which I’ve avoided for a while, the General Social Survey. This is a huge database which you can query if you are comfortable with using forms on the web (you should be). You can limit to people who say that their ancestors are from “India.” Unfortunately the sample size is only in the hundreds.

But I thought I’d give in a try, because I wanted to look at some intra-community cross-tabs. The main aspect I wanted to look at is religion & politics. Indian Americans are overwhelmingly a Democratic-leaning community. But not all. This tendency toward the Democrats has been relatively strong in Asian Americans generally since 1992, when George H. W. Bush won that demographic. And yet I noticed an interesting trend in the American Religious Identification Survey 2008: Asian American Christians were far more sympathetic to Republicans than Asian American non-Christians. The past 20 years has seen a massive rise in the proportion of non-Christian Asians, whether it be Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, or secular. The standard narrative in American politics is that the Republican party is the white Christian party (even more so, the white Protestant party). The Democrats are the coalition of “Others”. Minorities and non-Christian whites (seculars and Jews). This has clear first approximation value, but I think the insight that Asian American Christians are more sympathetic to Republicans than other Asian Americans indicates that there is some texture which can be perceived at a finer-grain.

My goal here is exploratory, and I want to encourage readers to poke around the GSS themselves. In short I limited the data set to 1990 and later, to people who said their ancestry was from India. Unfortunately this is only a few hundred, but it may be informative for large between class differences. I focused on differences across religion and levels of education. Some notes: Continue reading

The Haley bubble

meetnh.jpgUpdate: Nikki Haley’s rise raises tensions back home.

Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley pushes some peoples’ buttons on this weblog. In this way she’s similar to Piyush “Bobby” Jindal. But it seems that the shine has worn off a little on the man with the golden oeuvre. It began with an optically disastrous and widely mocked Republican response to Barack Hussein Obama’s State of the Union speech a few years back. But over the years his wunderkid reputation has moved to the background inevitably as he’s gotten caught up in the same muck which afflicts most politicians who’ve been in the public eye for long enough.

Of course one can’t say that Nikki Haley has avoided muck in her short time in the national spotlight. But she’s new yet, and the media needs a human interest political story, and she certainly presents well.

In the wake of the announcement of her memoir The New York Times gives her the full treatment, South Carolina’s Young Governor Has a High Profile and Higher Hopes: Continue reading

You are your own best confidant

2518493456.jpgIn the wake of the Hermon K. Raju affair, it is a strange coincidence that a young woman named Beejoli Shah has also had a problem with the viral nature of the internet. A letter to 15 friends came back slam her in the face. Ms. Shah is not manifestly odious from what I can tell. If you want to read the blow-by-blow, check out The Superficial for the full email she sent. Basically Beejoli Shah had a kinky sexual encounter with Quentin Tarantino which she just had to tell all her friends via an email draped in thick descriptive prose, along with pointers to biographical context.

It turns out that the Cal graduate has a job at a Hollywood public relations firm. Or perhaps more accurately, she had a job at a Hollywood public relations firm. I don’t feel sorry for how this turned out because of her professional aspirations. You don’t spill the beans until after you’ve made it big. On the other hand, the more general issue is rather disconcerting. Who hasn’t said something stupid or embarrassing? You can make sure to only talk to people about things, and avoid written communication, but now there are relatively easy technologies with which you can record people. Nothing is the off the record in theory. And perhaps soon in practice. I find that rather sad.

As an aside, I checked Google News for the full range of media reaction. It’s an interesting window into cultural differences. India Today has the headline “Quentin Tarantino’s Indian trick”, which I thought was kind of offensive. Does “trick” not have the implication in India that it does in the United States? Continue reading

The Pakistani genome

We’re fast approaching the point where the “first genome” of class X is going to lose its novelty. There are more than 100 people who have had their full genome sequenced, and you can’t really track down a comprehensive list anymore that I can see. Remember, a full genome sequence is a mapping of all 3 billion DNA base pairs. In contrast, what genotyping services offer are a subset, often 1 million base pairs. The 1 million are not random, rather, they are variants which are known to…vary. But there are some important issues which can be addressed only in a full genome sequence. For example, you can see which distinct mutations are unique to you, and separate you from your parents.

In any case, here’s a summary in the Dawn: Continue reading