Looking Back, Moving On: Final Thoughts from Amardeep

[An earlier version of this post appeared on my personal blog.]

I remember when I first noticed this blog called Sepia Mutiny back in August 2004. Manish had linked to a blog post I had written on Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake on August 9; it was one of the site’s earliest posts.

The link was notable to me for two reasons. First, I was amused that Manish would write, “I normally wouldn’t point at a piece referencing Gayatri Spivak and other jargon-filled lit academics…” Ouch, is he talking about me? (Happily, eight years later we have Himanshu Suri and Das Racist, rapping about Arundhati Roy [rhymed with, of all things, "batty boy"!], “Gaya Spivak,” and the Slovenian philosopher Zizek. Jargon is in again, if these dudes have anything to say about it.)

Second, I was a little shocked at exactly how many people seemed to be clicking through. From the beginning, Sepia Mutiny was strikingly popular, so much so that for at least a few years it was routinely rated the most popular blog in India itself. Its success was certainly due to the mix of writers, which was a very talented and energetic pool (Manish alone was routinely putting up 5 or more posts a day).  But I think the site was also clearly filling a need online for discussion of Desi themed subjects, whether political (see Abhi’s early post about Dalip Singh Saund and the Democratic party), or more entertainment oriented (Kal Penn and Harold and Kumar were mentioned in the first week as well).

Even when it wasn’t always smooth-sailing within the circle of bloggers, and even when things were difficult for me in my real life outside of the blog, what always drew me to this site was its ‘sandbox’ quality — the idea that this mix of topics and themes ought to be linked. So when Abhi writes that it may be the blog has fulfilled its purpose in part I don’t agree: many of the difficult issues regarding identity, community, and culture South Asians were dealing with in 2004 remain unresolved. But I do agree that in a way the sandbox qualilty of this kind of group blog has for me at least come to seem a little less essential and exciting than it was at the beginning.

Yes, the South Asian American community is much more established than it once was. There’s Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, there’s Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, and there’s quite a number of first-rate writers (go Sugi!), filmmakers, and people in business, academia, and journalism. South Asian America is a big enough, and mainstream enough, world that it does seem a little forced to presume it all goes together anymore. (Though again, I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying we’re done thinking about or working on issues of identity. We’re not; I see that every day with my five year old son, as he tries to sort out his place in his school, and in American society more broadly. It looks to me like he’s going to have to go through a lot of the same stuff I went through growing up, all over again.)

At its height, from 2004 to about 2009 or so, Sepia Mutiny was the most active South Asian diaspora-oriented forum on the web. Posts on topics like M.I.A., Aishwariya Rai (aka TMBWITW), Bobby Jindal, and interracial dating would routinely draw 200, 300, sometimes even 1000 comments. And while we sometimes struggled to keep the comment threads troll-free and productive, we as bloggers could always count on interesting new voices to show up and make it feel worthwhile. Blogging on Sepia Mutiny was addictive for me (and I think not just me) during those years in large part because it was impossible not to be excited to encounter so many different perspectives and ideas.

South Asian vs. Indian. Sepia Mutiny was always somewhat divided over its function and focus. On the one hand, the directive from Abhi and the other founders was quite clear: the point was to create a space for a South Asian American perspective. The “South Asian” part was important and essential (and we had many fights, mainly with skeptical readers, about whether it wasn’t after all just an “Indian American” blog). Also important was the “American” part of the equation; Sepia Mutiny was never intended to be an “Indian subcontinent” forum.

Diaspora vs. Subcontinent. This policy of not focusing on South Asia itself was, however, always a challenge for me, since I have a deep personal and professional interest in what is happening in the subcontinent itself in terms of politics, culture, the media, and of course literature. And this past decade has been a really interesting one on all those fronts, from the debates over communalism and secularism (and we had many good arguments about those issues in the comments), to the rapid changes in the style of commercial Hindi cinema, to the debates about economic trends like outsourcing (i.e., Vinod on Obama in 2008) and globalization. Despite the blog’s stated policy of focusing exclusively on the diaspora, many of my colleagues at Sepia Mutiny joined me in posting frequently on these types of issues, leading to some very rich discussions. As I see it, the U.S. focus was a policy honored more in the breach than in the observance, and that’s a good thing.

First vs. Second/Third Generations. Another source of tension, not within the circle of Sepia Mutiny bloggers, but rather between bloggers and readers, was around generational issues. All of the original founders of the blog, I believe, were second generation Indian Americans (later Bangladeshi American, Pakistani American, and Sri Lankan American contributors would also join). However, many, if not most of the readership during the years I was involved seemed to consist of first generation immigrants (and many 1.5 generation folks — people who immigrated between age 5 and 15). This reflects the demographics of the South Asian American population — there are more first generation South Asian immigrants than second or third generation South Asian Americans in the United States. However, the fact that these readers were all interested in hearing about and talking about the same stuff underlines the commonalities between different generations of immigrants; our accents might not all be the same, but perhaps it’s not a great stretch to say that we do have some things in common.

Recent immigrants from South Asia might be interested in reading my post from 2005 about Katrina Kaif, but they might also be interested in hearing about Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, or Padma Lakshmi. I think both bloggers and readers evolved quite a bit on this kind of issue over the years. In the beginning, first and second generation commenters used to make fun of each other as (“FOBs” or “ABCDs”, respectively), but somewhere along the line a more respectful and intelligent kind of conversation started to occur. The first generation scorn for ABCDs speaking Hindi badly started to lose its edge, while the second-generation’s dislike of the “awkward immigrant” stigma also evolved. In short, I think we all grew up, and started to appreciate and understand one another better.

My dream would have been a half diasporic, half “home” oriented blog; it was very nearly there for a little while. Luckily, there are fantastic new, highly professionalized blogs hosted by the New York Times (India Ink) and the Wall Street Journal, and they provide much of what used to be my Sepia Mutiny fix. I read them every day. And I get just a little smidgeon of what was once the excitement of the Sepia Mutiny comments on venues like Twitter (not so much, these days, from Facebook).

Finally, I should say that while the new social networking venues are helping to carry on the kinds of conversations that went on at Sepia Mutiny, they are a little lacking on some respects. For one thing, both Facebook and Twitter require super-compressed conversations. While it’s true we may have been a bit too long-winded in some blog posts over the years, I think there really is value in spelling out an idea or a perspective at some length, and then giving readers as much space as they want or need to discuss it with you. I don’t think I have ever changed my mind based on a discussion I had with someone on Twitter. But I did, often, in response to discussions on Sepia Mutiny.

I am not sure what the solution is. There’s no question that social networking is here to stay, but maybe as that ecosystem continues to evolve we can again find a space for long-form (but still immediate, and unfiltered) discussions of the issues that are on our minds.

And… I’m out.

19 thoughts on “Looking Back, Moving On: Final Thoughts from Amardeep

  1. Amardeep: Fair last comments. Al-Vida ! There is no permanent solution as I see it to your dilemma. keep on dreaming, that’s all I would say. As someone said long time ago: The answer my friend is blowing in the wind!!

  2. @amardeep, very thoughtful farewell post that got me thinking about my own history with SM. I caught on really late (only in the past 2 years) but noticed the back-and-forth between the 1, 1.5 and 2-generation Indians on various topics. I have felt like I have belonged to all three at one point or another, and I think SM walked that line really well too. Also, thanks for providing helpful links so we may continue getting our SM-fix. Good luck!

  3. I have been reading since the early days but didn’t comment a whole lot. As a first generation Indian who lived in America for 9 years before moving to the UK in 2010, I really enjoyed the dialogue on this site and leanred a lot about ABDs. I am sad it to see it go but all good things come to an end. Good bye and good luck

  4. Like everyone else has mentioned. I will miss this blog. I felt the money I have donated to the site has gone to waste. I would suggest let the new generation of Desi writers take over. They are fresh and hungry to keep it alive. Now where am I going to get my fix for Desi related news. Curry Bear’s blog is not interesting anymore and it is becoming immature. There is Angry Asian, which features Desi related news once in a while but nothing like SM. Although Angry Asian is a great blog and I like to read whats going on in the Asian community. So now I am going to be out of the loop. Does anyone want to start a site similar to SM?

    • Ace Desi: Do not despair. No one, I say no one is indispensable. Thanks for the monetary support. All I can say is usually things always turn out to be for better. No matter how dark the night may seem, wait until you see the next day sunshine. All the doubts will disappear in the morning mist ;-) Thanks.

  5. Ace Desi, you might start by taking a look at the Brown Pundits blog (Razib and Zachary Latif, who commented above, are both involved). I didn’t mention them in this post, but they are definitely a pretty lively bunch & the blog is really fun to read. With Ultrabrown gone for a couple of years now and SM soon to go silent, perhaps they’ll pick up where we are leaving off.

    Incidentally, I just wanted to say thank you for any money you donated to the site over the years to keep it going. I do not think it was a waste! Even though it may be ending, this site has had a real effect within the community as well as at least some impact on mainstream/journalistic conversation on South Asia related issues.

  6. Thanks bro. I am a US educated Indian, lived there from 2003 through 2008. When I first landed in the states as an undergraduate student, I was lost. I was in a program where I was the only Indian and went through school with mostly non Indian or desi friends. I saw the American desis to be clanish and only hanging out with their own, then I found this sepia mutiny which helped me make sense of America from the american desi perspective. I realized that in the same way I was attracted to non desi friends to be with people I had not grown up with, ABCDs were just as much doing the same thing by looking for people like themselves. Anyways sepia was awesome, it is sad that it has to end.

    But yes thank you guys for M.I.A, Goldspot, The Kominas and Humble the Poet and many others.

  7. More than fresh blood they just needed to be “unanalled” I guess. From when it was ok to be pissed off at someones blog, post or comment and respond to it, however crudely, I think the undoing for this site was the censorship they brought in on topics the owners or moderators thought was crazy shit. They forgot that the number of readers and commentators they had was because everybody had different or even outright crazy views on everything (opinions against the bloggers maybe?) and wanted to share them. If there are no crazy opinions to counter, then really is there anything to even argue against? It was once they started banning people or deleting posts that commentators or users stopped responding and paying attention to the posts and ultimately to this whole community of sepia mutiny. The ONLY things to survive on the net are where freedom of expression exist, sepia mutiny will go down as one of the places which once encouraged it but once it got too big tried to control it (the same way 4chan/b/ is going). But I really feel that the owners just got too old and did not represent the voice form let us say what they did five years ago. And it sucks that twitter and facebook don’t allow obnoxious anonymous commentators like us function with commenting on shit.

    • I could not agree more. This is really why I started loosing interest in this site. Just about any opposing reaction was deemed as Trollish.

  8. from my perspective, i hate hate hate having to type in these crappy “captchas”. I miss the old days where all we had to do was type in the world’s most empowering word – “brown”. if you get the captcha wrong, then your post is lost into thin air.

    captchas is a ploy by the Man to subjugate us browns.

  9. Adarmeep,

    Your website has so many interesting articles. I’m fascinated by all the exotic traditions of India. I do hope you’ll re-organize the website so that the restaurant reviews are easier to find.

    Thanks!!!

  10. Pingback: Linkage « An Ergodic Walk

  11. Is there nothing sacred? Even though I had stopped commenting on SM years ago, I still drew comfort from the fact that this old flame of mine was still around, and now meant something to somebody else. No more. What a slap in the face as I visited SM this morning after years of absence, just for old time’s sake, and there was Amardeep delivering the sad news.

    What caused the demise of a blog that attracted thousands of people a day, went from the sublime to ridiculous and then back to sublime like a yo-yo all day long, attracted commenters who could discuss with authority anything from history and art to the proper way to wipe one’s butt (yes, there was a post on that)? Many times it didn’t even matter that SM was a South Asian American blog. It was just a damn fine blog – intelligent, witty, funny, informative. I personally got a hundred times more out of it than what I put in.

    The blog did not wither away because the issues facing South Asian Americans had become irrelevant. Remember the pronouncement of the head of the US patent office in the late 19th century? “Everything that could be invented has already been invented.” The issues are still alive. But the magic was gone.

    Here is a very important question for the Mutineers. Will the archives be still accessible if one wanted to read some posts and comments because they are certainly worth revisiting? In other words, will the soul be still alive after the body has been cremated, or buried?

  12. Woah, I read thjis blog post earlier, but I had no idea it was about SM ending. I thought it was Amardeep saying goodbye as a contributor. I did not see anything about SM itself ending. I thought he was talking about what the experience meant to him.

    I gotta thank the site for getting me in touch with some Indian issues. I am a cross betweeen a 1.5 and 2nd generation Indian American. Born in the US, but spent my middle part of my schooling in India due to a family situation. The site had something for everyone though I do think the site can indulge in too many book reading club like boutique literature.

    I think you had a good diversity of writers. What I dont understand is why the site is ending. Is it really that expensive to maintain a blog? Why not have a rotating roster of writers as we are used to having?

    • Never mind. I just checked out Abhi’s post. OK, now I know there was already a blog posting about the closure.

      I provided links in my other reply which probably made it subject to moderation. So I will say it again. SepiaMutiny, for all its greatness, did not deliver one thing – the identity of Kerpal, the character of one of the greatest Indian American or Indo Canadian pranks ever. Heh heh.