How to Write About Pakistan …

The last time the venerable literary mag Granta focused on the subcontinent was when India turned 50. I’ve saved that issue as I will be saving the current one which is all about Pakistan and features fiction, reportage, memoir, contemporary art, and poetry by recognized authors such as Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Fatima Bhutto, and Daniyal Muennudin, as well as voices lesser known here in the West.

The issue’s themes and cover art by truck artist Islam Gull is brought to life in this cool short video

I’m still working my way through the issue, but How to write about Pakistan, an online collaboration between Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Muennudin, and Kamila Shamsie caught my eye. Inspired by Granta’s most popular feature Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical piece, How to write about Africa (“Always use the word “Africa” or “Darkness” or “Safari” in your title’,” it begins), here are the the top ten rules for novices keen to write about Pakistan:

  1. Must have mangoes.
  2. Must have maids who serve mangoes.
  3. Maids must have affairs with man servants who should occasionally steal mangoes.
  4. Masters must lecture on history of mangoes and forgive the thieving servant.
  5. Calls to prayer must be rendered to capture the mood of a nation disappointed by the failing crop of mangoes.
  6. The mango flavour must linger for a few paragraphs.
  7. And turn into a flashback to Partition.
  8. Characters originating in rural areas must fight to prove that their mango is bigger than yours.
  9. Fundamentalist mangoes must have more texture; secular mangoes should have artificial flavouring.
  10. Mangoes that ripen in creative writing workshops must be rushed to the market before they go bad.

[Don’t stop here. Do read the whole piece.]

Those of you who have been long-time SM followers will surely remember Manish’s Anatomy of a Genre from back in the day.

Here’s my question: If you were amending this list into an “How to write about India” or “How to write about Sri Lanka” or “How to write about Bangladesh” what would you change? What would you keep the same? Continue reading

Not Just Another Nanny’s Diary: “Tell Us We’re Home” by Marina Budhos

I was listening to a new NPR series not so long ago: The Hidden World of Girls. That particular episode featured Nigerian novelist Chris Abani’s childhood memory of touring the Nigerian countryside with his mother, Daphne Mae Hunt:

My mother became certified as a Billings Ovulation teacher. And her job was to go and teach this to women. … Part of the problem was that her Igbo wasn’t good enough to discuss people’s uterus. She needed an interpreter and mother decided to ask me to interpret for her. I was eight years old. So we would set off, the two of us, and I would have a backpack. … We would go door to door. Everything starts with a greeting … It would be followed by an apology from me because I was about to discuss something sacred, taboo.tell_us_were_home.png

These women would never discuss [their period] with their husbands and here’s this eight-year-old boy … [See full transcript.]

The image of a young boy accompanying his mother to strangers’ homes and acting as a middleman stayed with me for several days, and when I recently heard Marina Budhos reading from her new, terrific young adult novel Tell Us We’re Home, I was reminded of it again.

In Budhos’s novel, we meet three young girls, Jaya, Lola, and Maria, all immigrants, who find themselves in a different kind of countryside than Abani — American suburbia — where they act as their mothers’ interpreters and translators.

Their mothers are nannies and housekeepers in Meadowbrook, a picturesque New Jersey town off the commuter rail, and these girls are the invisible teens who help their parents navigate a new culture while struggling to find their own place within it. They go to school with the same kids whose families their mothers work for.

Jaya is West Indian, from Guyana. She assumes the responsibility to help absolve her mother of the accusation of a theft that in her employer’s home. Maria is Mexican. She accompanies her mother on job interviews and acts as a conduit for her employment searches. And Lola is a Slovakian self-appointed revolutionary whose mother is a housekeeper at her classmate’s home and whose father is a depressed former engineer. Each girl’s story–and the story of their friendship–allows us to peer into the hidden world of working class immigrants. Until they meet, each girl lives in a lonely bubble of invisibility, but chance brings them together and their friendship saves each of them in some way. Though they are outsiders, they are outsiders together.

I was a fan of Budhos’s first YA novel, Ask Me No Questions, and am glad that this book more than lived up to my expectations. Continue reading

Jehangir Mehta: The Next Iron Chef?

A couple of weeks ago, I tuned in to the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef to find a sophisticated, soft spoken, skinny desi chef cooking up a storm. His name is Jehangir Mehta and his delicate dishes in every episode and challenge have been distinguished by their creative use of fresh herbs, fruit, and spices and their aesthetic presentation.

Mehta is the owner and executive chef of Graffiti, a Lower East Side NYC restaurant that serves “international small plates that feature his trademark affinity for bold flavors and spices such as chillies, sambhar, turmeric, and star anise.” In cook off after cook off, Mehta–who trained as a pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America, but who hails from a Parsi family in Bombay — has been impressing the judges with unusual and original dishes such as pickled ginger scallops, bitter melon fritters, and apple and soy caramel skewers. His preparations are like miniature paintings; each one a carefully choreographed mouthful of flavor.

Tonight at 9 PM EST is the season finale where Mehta will battle against the Philadelphia-based Chef Jose Garces. Two very qualified chefs from two ethnic backgrounds with rich culinary traditions; it’s bound to be a close match.

Below the fold is a brief Q&A with Chef Mehta, including his thoughts about reality TV, his take on a South Asian Thanksgiving, and his recipe for his favorite comfort food.

Will Mehta be the next Iron Chef? We’ll soon find out. Continue reading

Q&A with Minal Hajratwala, author of “Leaving India”

As someone whose own family is dispersed over several continents (my husband often jokes that we can’t visit any new country without discovering that some distant relative lives there), I’ve often asked myself many of the questions that Minal Hajratwala did: How were choices made? What were the journeys like? How do they reflect the diasporic experience? That’s what I loved about “Leaving India” (soon to be reviewed here at SM by our very own Cicatrix). I thought it would be interesting to speak with the author about how she tackled the mammoth task of “deftly exploring … the unprecedented late 20th-century dispersal of Indians to every corner of the globe and their rapid rise in the places they landed” (see Washington Post review). MinalGlassesWeb.jpg

Q. You write in your introduction that you wrote this book to “find whatever fragments remain here, to trace the shape of our past and learn how it shadows or illuminates our present.” Was there an experience, an event, or some defining moment when you knew that an interest of yours had to become 7 years of your working life?

A. Not at all, it was a slowly growing awareness that somewhere in the midst of my dozens of cousins spread over nine countries was an untold story. The vague ideas swirling in my brain about migration, family, and the new visibility of Indianness in popular culture crystallized when I took a book proposal class with Sam Freedman at Columbia University, who gave me amazing guidance and editing, and asked a lot of smart questions. As I shaped it into a narrative spanning a hundred years, I became more and more curious about how all this happened, and then the questions themselves shaped my journey.

I was also naive; I thought I could research the book in a year and write it in another year. If I had thought it would be a seven-year process, I might have gotten cold feet at the beginning.

The rest of the Q&A follows below the fold. Continue reading

Cooking It Up at the Indian Culinary Center

I was intrigued, but slightly skeptical when I signed up for a cooking class at the newly-opened Indian Culinary Center a few weeks ago. What could I, a vegetarian who has been cooking desi food pretty regularly for the past couple of years, learn that was new and interesting in an Indian Vegetarian Delights Class? A lot, it turns out.

The ICC is run by Geetika Khanna, a former psychologist and graduate of the French Culinary Institute who has been charting a path in the food industry for the past 10+ years. I really felt like I was walking into another world when I rang the buzzer of 131 W. 23rd St., which turned out to be the Chelsea Inn, a cosy bed and breakfast whose ground floor industrial kitchen turned out to be the cooking school of the now-defunct culinary arts program of The New School, where it turns out, Khanna used to be an instructor.

On this particular Tuesday night, nine of us had signed up to spend the evening learning how to cook with Khanna, a tall, relaxed, and skilled instructor who weaves anecdotes about her family in with technique tips and practical approaches on how to make Indian cooking a part of your culinary repertoire, instead of something exotic and inaccessible. For those like me, who generally cook at least one or two Indian meals a week, it was the practical tips like how to clean your spice grinder — run a piece of bread through it — and the ease and humor with which Khanna made cooking a six-course meal seem doable (from scratch, using mostly fresh ingredients) that was the tipping point. Plus, I enjoyed her running commentary on colonialism, the evolution of the Indian “curry,” and the Food Network –and she gave me the courage to fry my first pooris, a big deal for a gal who has always had a fear of deep frying. There were also a few surprises along the way, like the fact that she uses cayenne pepper in her masala dhaba. [Click on the narrated slideshow above for a walk-through of the class and a look at our full menu.]

The three and a half hour class cost $55, and was followed by a delicious six-course meal. A pretty good deal for an evening out in NYC where you’re learning, eating, and meeting a bunch of interesting people. (Other NYC cooking classes range from $100 to $200 per person).

At present, Khanna offers classes every month, and has plans to invite other chefs of Indian cuisine to teach at the ICC. With all the regional variations of Indian food (Indian Chinese, West Indian, and Indo-French, as well as the wealth of Indian chefs in the New York area, I’m sure there are many more yummy lessons and treats to return to at the ICC. I’ll definitely be going back.

Oh, and if anyone is interested in interning with Khanna, she’s looking. Drop her a line. Continue reading

In Argentina, Turbans=Maharajas?

If you want royal treatment at nightclubs in Argentina, maybe you should consider investing in a turban!

While playing golf in Buenos Aires recently, R. Viswanathan, the Indian ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, had an interesting experience: the Argentinian players asked him where they could buy a turban and how to wear it. When the ambassador probed the reason for their interest, they pointed to a home within the country club complex and said:simmarpal2.jpg

‘Here lives an Indian maharaja. He looks handsome with his turban. When he goes to the night clubs, he gets premium service and gets it free because they think he is a maharaja.’

When Viswanathan tried to explain that turbans do not equal maharaja status, the Argentinians asked him to shut up and not reveal this secret at the night clubs.

Turns out the “maharaja” they were speaking of is Simmarpal Singh, the “peanut prince of Argentina,” an employee of Olam, a 5.6 – billion dollar NRI company and a leading global supply chain manager of agricultural products and food ingredients!

Singh cultivates 12,000 hectares of peanut farms and another 5000 hectares of soya and corn in Rio Cuarto area in Cordoba province, about one thousand kms from Buenos Aires. His target is to take his company Olam among Argentina´s top three peanut players in the next few years. When he came to Argentina in 2005, his company was 28th in ranking in peanuts and he has already made it as sixth this year.

Viswanathan’s story, which profiles Singh’s work, ran in various Indian papers, including the Hindustan Times Punjab and The Asian Age, this past week. It examines the farming industry in Argentina and its potential to assist agriculture in India which is going to face shortage of land and water in coming years. Read it in full here.

Continue reading

Muslim Voices in the Metropolis

While the spotlight shines on Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech to the Muslim World, closer to home, I’ve been seeing lots of posters and advertising for the upcoming Muslim Voices Festival in New York City which begins this Friday, June 5 and runs through the 14th of this month. Featuring concerts, lectures, film screenings on PBS, and even, a souk, the ten-day festival is designed to celebrate the arts and culture of Muslim societies. It is the culmination of three years of organizing by the Asia Society, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and NYU”s Center for Dialogues.

Below the fold is a listing of a few of the South Asia-related events coming up over the next fortnight. Don’t let your exploration stop there. There’s tons more on the calendar worth checking out. metropolis

But first, I want to tell you about a book that I’ve been reading which ties in well to the theme of this festival: Kavitha Rajagopalan’s Muslims of Metropolis which was published by Rutgers University Press late last year.

Muslims of Metropolis is a sensitive and thoughtful examination of international migration and the social construct of identity. Rajagopalan spent nearly 7 years researching and writing her first book which tells the stories of the journeys of three families from majority-Muslim countries to three major Western metropolises. In London, she follows a Palestinian man from Jerusalem and his Syrian wife. In Berlin, a Turkish Kurdish community. And, in post 9/11 New York, and a Bangladeshi man and his daughter who married an undocumented Pakistani man.

As Rajagopalan puts it in her introduction:

These families come from different socioeconomic, political, and ethnic backgrounds, but they are all Muslim. It should be noted, however, that this is not a book on theology or Islamic history. Although the stories in this book will refer to the ways in which characters relate to Islam as they construct their identities, cope with adversity, or understand their roles in the world, this is not ultimately a book about Muslims but about immigrants … I have chosen to write about Muslim immigrants because I believe that the social identity of Muslim immigrants stands under the greatest pressure of misunderstanding and mistrust throughout the world.

Over the past several months, Rajagopalan has been touring the country doing multimedia presentations and readings from her book. I attended one reading right here in NYC and was struck by her ability to weave together multiple human narratives with solid research in a manner that was penetrating and insightful, at once literary, journalistic, and accessibly academic. Continue reading

Review & Interview: “Family Planning,” by Karan Mahajan

When you’re visibly pregnant and riding the NYC subway with a book titled “Family Planning” in hand, you’re bound to draw stares and curious gazes. Such was my experience earlier this month as I traveled on the downtown 1 with 25 year old Karan Mahajan’s laughter-inducing yet tender first novel in hand. In this Brooklyn-based, New Delhi-born author’s debut work (HarperPerennial, 2008) set in contemporary New Delhi, family life, politics, adolescent love, and prime time soap operas intertwine in entertaining and unexpectedly moving ways. mahajancover.jpg

At the heart of this story is the chaotic household of Rakesh Ahuja, a hard of hearing, America returned engineer who holds a prestigious position as New Delhi’s Minister of Urban Development. Apart from the bureaucratic and political challenges that face him at work (he’s in charge of a laborious flyover construction project and part of a political party that sponsors intolerable bills such as the Diversity of the Motherland Act which calls for the compulsory registration of all Muslims “for reasons of diversity and national security”), Rakesh is beset by his own personal dramas at home.

The father of 13 children (and one more en route), he must deal with the trauma of having had his teenage son Arjun walk in on him having sex with his wife in the baby nursery. Understandably, Arjun asks, “Papa, I don’t understand–why do you and Mama keep having babies?”

While he has to figure out a way to explain himself to his son (“Obviously, Mr. Ahuja couldn’t tell his son that he was only attracted to Mrs. Ahuja when she was pregnant” reads the first line of the novel), this is not the only secret Mr. Ahuja has been keeping from his son, master babysitter and eldest of 12 younger siblings and darling of his mother, Mrs. Ahuja, an unattractive woman whose days are spent changing diapers, managing her vast household, knitting, and recovering from the loss of her favorite TV character Mohan Bedi from Zee-TV soap opera, “The Vengeful Daughter-in-Law.” There’s also the bit of information about Rakesh’s first wife, Arjun’s mother, who suffered a tragic death and who continues to haunt his unhappy existence. Meanwhile there’s Arjun, an awkward teen so madly in love with Aarti, a Catholic school beauty who rides the morning bus with him that he’ll do anything to get her attention–even start a rock band with a bunch of classmates.

Yes, there’s a great deal happening in Mahajan’s novel; many competing heartbreaks and dramas. And yet, as a reader, I was pulled in just as much by Mahajan’s observant and sensitive eye as I was by his ability to create satirical scenarios that reflect some of the complexities and paradoxes of social and political life in today’s India.

Read the rest of this review and a Q&A with Mahajan, whose sense of humor is as refreshing in the interview format as it is in his prose, below the fold. Continue reading

The Desi Equivalent of Baby Einstein …

My two-year old nephew can’t get enough of Lingo the Lion and ever since I watched the DVD “Animals”, I can see why.

One of the offerings from the bilingual publisher Little GuruSkool, “Animals” is what I’d call a Desi equivalent of the immensely popular Baby Einstein series. Combining video footage of the natural world with animated characters, adorable little puppets and Desi babies, and catchy music, it promises to help the diasporic subcontinental parent “introduce their children to the Indian culture in a fun and interactive way.”


Little GuruSkool is a relatively new company, based in Chicago and founded by Pooja Pittie Goel, the mother of a preschooler who “wanted to expose her son to Indian languages, music, art and nature at an early age, but could not find any books or DVDs in the market (either in the US or in India) that were appropriate for pre-schoolers – educational and entertaining at the same time.” When she couldn’t find what she needed in the market place, she decided to create the products (DVDs, audio CDs, and illustrated, high quality board books) herself. The production quality is impressive, and after I finished watching the “Animals” DVD, I couldn’t get the song about “choti choti machliya” (little, tiny fish) out of my head.

If you’re in the market for a gift for that little desi toddler in your life, Little GuruSkool’s line is sure to be a happy discovery for you. It’s a welcome addition to the current offerings of bilingual, multimedia educational lines such as Sonali Herrera’s Meera Masi, Monika Jain’s Kahani, Rashmi Turner’s Global Wonders, and Kavita (Shah) Bafana’s Little Ustaads (Indian classical music classes), all created by moms to fill existing gaps in the Desi educational marketplace. (I certainly did not have any of these options when I was a toddler, and am glad to know my little one will!)

Below the fold: a brief interview with Pooja Pittie Goel for those interested in her story and process. Continue reading

Shine, Coconut Moon Shines Light on Post 9/11 Sikh Experience

Soon after 9/11, a friend of mine told me that her college roommate’s home had been visited by the local police in their town in upstate New York. The police wanted to search the home of this family because they’d heard they had a picture of Osama Bin Laden hanging in their living room. The cops were mistaken. This was the home of a pious Sikh family and the picture was of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion.

I’ve often thought about this story. There are so many more like it — incidents of mistaken identities, faulty detentions, stereotyping, and violent acts in the wake of September 11th. We’ve read about them in the press and slowly, literature is beginning to tackle this dark period of recent American history as well; a time that unfolded in what Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic artist, Art Spiegelman, described so aptly as “in the shadow of no towers.”shinecoconut.jpg

A few years ago, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos was one of the first young adult offerings to address the challenge of growing up South Asian and Muslim in an America altered by 9/11. First time novelist Nisha Meminger takes on a similar theme in her new YA novel Shine, Coconut Moon, just published by Simon & Schuster.

When her turbaned uncle appears at the doorstep of her suburban NJ home just four days after the 9/11 attacks, 16 year old Samar is caught off guard. Raised in a single-parent household by an Indian-American mother who cut off ties with her Sikh family many years before, Samar has no connection to her cultural roots and traditions. She is skeptical of this man, Uncle Sandeep, who claims to want to reconnect with his estranged sister because “we’re living in different times now … and I want to be close to the ones I love. The world is in turmoil–we’re at war. Anything could happen at any moment.”

As Samar gets to know her uncle, she begins to learn about Sikhism and gets to know her grandparents. She even visits a gurdwara for the first time in her life. This prompts her to start questioning her mother’s decision to raise her to think of herself “like everyone else.” She begins to question her identity; wondering whether she is a coconut — someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside–someone who may physically appear to be Indian but doesn’t know who she really is. At the same time, she is shocked and saddened by a series of troubling events in her community that affect her personally: her uncle is attacked by a bunch of teenage boys who goad him to “Go back home, Osama!” and the local gurdwara is set on fire.

In his compelling Guardian article “The End of Innocence” Pankaj Mishra writes, “‘Post-9/11’ fiction often seems to use the attacks and their aftermath too cheaply, as background for books that would have been written anyway.” Shine, Coconut Moon does not fall into this category. Most definitively shaped by the effect of 9/11 on minority immigrant communities, this is an ambitious coming of age novel for young adults that seeks to demonstrate the effects of fear mongering on the lives of ordinary minority teens who saw themselves as American before 9/11.

Below the fold is an excerpt from the novel, as well as a Q&A with, Neesha Meminger where she talks about her novel writing process and the real-life incidents that inspired it. And, for those in the NYC area, there is a book launch party and reading this Saturday, March 14th at 7 pm at Bluestockings Bookstore. Continue reading