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

Indivisibly Yours: Part II

Last week you saw a Part I posting on Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry, an introduction to this first-of-its-kind collection of poetry and its contributing poets. In this second part, Indivisible’s editors (all three of them!) respond to a few questions about poetry, the process of bringing the anthology together, it’s eye-catching cover image and other topics.

Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam are not only the editors of Indivisible. Banerjee is a journalist, fiction writer, and blogger/editor with Hyphen magazine; Kaipa is a literary curator, psychologist, and editor of a literary magazine; Sundaralingam is a playwright, literary judge, and scientist. They are also poets in their own right. Read on for more about them and the process of bringing Indivisible together.

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Indivisibly Yours: Part I

finalcover1-692x1023.jpgThere’s a new collection of poetry out, and it’s the first of its kind. Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry has poems by 49 American writers who trace their roots to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In its preface, the editors write that they chose the title–that word you might recall reciting daily as part of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance–“in order to reflect some of the tensions that exist” between unity and pluralism. The anthology’s editors, Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam, also agreed to take a few questions; I’ll post their responses in Part II.

Before attending one of the Indivisible readings in San Francisco, I wasn’t sure what to expect because the annual Artwallah festival is the only venue where I’ve heard readings by desi poets. As it turns out, some of the poets included in the anthology are familiar from that arts festival, from fiction, and past SM posts on poets. The contributors come from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds and include award-winning writers with well-established careers in literature or poetry as well as contributors who work in other fields like medicine, education and journalism. I tried to find interesting links for each writer to share below, including personal sites, samples of their poetry, videos of readings, or other general information. Continue reading

#Untrendy Topics: Modern Hindi Poetry

I’ve been doing some research on Indian writers from the 1930s-1960s for a long-term scholarly project, and in the process I’ve been learning a bit about Hindi and Urdu writers I didn’t know about earlier. In Hindi in particular, I’ve been interested in the “New Poetry” (Nayi Kavita) Movement, with a small group of experimental writers adapting the western, free verse style to Hindi. (I may talk about some other topics later in the summer if there is interest.)

For a little background on Hindi literature in the 20th century, you might start with Wikipedia; it’s not bad. The New Poetry movement came out of a general flowering of Hindi poetry from the early 20th century, a style of poetry known as Chhayavad (Shadowism). Mahadevi Verma is one of the best known writers in this style; another notable figure is Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan’s father (and actually quite a good poet).

For me, the Chhayavad poetry sounds a little too pretty (“precious,” as they say in Creative Writing class), though I must admit that part of the problem is that I simply don’t have the Hindi vocabulary to be able to keep up with the language the Chhayavad poets tend to use. I prefer what came after, especially the New Poetry movement. The “New Poetry” style roughly resembles the modernism of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Hilda Doolittle in English literature. The language is stripped down and conversational, rather than lyrical. Some poets, like Kedarnath Singh, focus intently on conveying, with a kind of crystalline minimalism, pure images. Others are somewhat more conventional.

Below the fold, I’ll give some examples of a few favorite poems from the “New Poetry” movement, with several poems in both transliterated Hindi and English. [UPDATE: Look in the comments for three poems directly in Devanagari] Continue reading

If You Go to Patna


So readily recognizable, so readily wearying, are the woes of the expatriate Indian on a trip to India. But bear with me, gentle reader. My hometown is the place about which the writer Upamanyu Chatterjee, who was born in Patna, has said, “I can’t efface that from my history, it’s in my passport…” Here is my brief travelogue published today in Tehelka:

Going to Patna for a vacation sounds a little bit like going to the bus-stop for a martini. But my parents live there, and Patna is where I visit for the holidays. I find myself reciting the familiar woes of the NRI in the motherland, the endless clichés about the heat and dust, but a part of me also believes that a trip to Patna offers a glimpse of the real India. I’m not talking of “poverty tourism” here, but something quite specific. A report from the UN stated that in India it is easier to have a mobile phone than to have access to a toilet. Well, ladies and gentlemen, come to Patna–you’ll see that the rickshaw-puller has tucked into the little pocket of his torn ganji a small phone, while on both sides of the street, as you ride the rickshaw into the market or the station, arises the distinct aroma of drying urine.

[The fab painting above, of a rickshaw-puller in Patna, is by my yaar and Patna star, Anunaya Chaubey] Continue reading

Salaam Brooklyn


In the ‘Weddings’ section of the New York Times, I imagine a report that might read: “Priya Bery, a social entrepreneur who focuses on global philanthropy and human rights, and Farooq Ahmed, a writer who like Ms. Bery was also raised in the Midwest, he in Kansas and she in Michigan, got married in a ceremony at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on Saturday. The parents of both the bride and the bridegroom migrated from India several decades ago.”

The Times would probably not mention that Priya and Farooq getting married last weekend in a beautiful nineteenth-century Jewish synagogue was a way of staying true to our culture. In Bollywood films, the male can be from Ludhiana and the female from Lucknow, but when they start to sing their song of love, they do so in a field of flowers in Switzerland.

If my mother were there, she’d no doubt gently remind me that “marriage is no joke.” Marriage is no joke, beta. She gave me that advice when I got married thrice–to Mona Ali, first in a civil court, then in a Muslim nikaah, and finally, in my hometown, in a Hindu shaadi.

Mona and I met in New York City. When I think of what happened between us, I am reminded of what my friend Suketu Mehta once wrote about this place: “The first time I met the enemy people, Pakistanis, was when I went to New York. We shopped together, we ate together, we dated each other and had each others’ babies.”

Priya and Farooq met in New York City as a part of an alternative desi music scene called Mutiny, which led a few years later to an evening in their favorite restaurant, where Farooq proposed to Priya, and had the waitress bring out the ring like it was a course during their meal–just before dessert.

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In Support of Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood

Nilanjana Roy, at Akhond of Swat, has done a pretty thorough round-up of the recent controversy surrounding Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood’s decision to accept a prestigious Israeli literary prize, and I won’t rehash it all here. Ghosh and Atwood were offered the Dan David Prize this spring, and were urged to refuse to accept it by pro-Palestinian groups, including a significant number of academics from the Indian left (based both in India and in western universities).

I just wanted to put in my own two-cents’ worth: I support the decision made by Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood to accept the prize. In contrast to many of my colleagues who signed the recent open letter to Ghosh, I do not think there was anything to be gained by boycotting a cultural prize given by an institution outside of the Israeli government. Far better to stay, to continue to engage, and to dissent where necessary.

A viable argument against “cultural” boycotts is that they simply don’t do anything, though defenders of the practice might say that the symbolic value and media coverage is worth it. (Note that I’m not talking about economic boycotts, which may be more effective.) Ghosh himself points out that in writing In an Antique Land, he worked with Israeli as well as Arab academics to learn the written language (Judeo-Arabic) used by Abraham Ben-Yiju; a boycott would have made that project impossible. Similarly, this kind of cultural boycott would also lead us to be unable to engage with dissenting Israeli cultural expression, such as the recent film Waltz With Bashir.

But for me the most compelling argument against this way of reacting to Israeli cultural institutions is that, as bad as things are for the Palestinians, what the U.S. itself has engaged in over the past decade — especially the debacle of an unjustifiable and badly executed war in Iraq — is far worse. By any reasonable standard, if we’re boycotting Israel, we should be boycotting ourselves! (And similar kind of accusations could be made against India or Pakistan, for any number of reasons.) In short, this kind of thing doesn’t get us anywhere. Structurally, if we pay taxes and receive benefits from a government, we are all “complicit” in what that government does. Continue reading

Who was “The Great Oom?”

The Houston bureau of Sepia Mutiny (our southernmost outpost) has shuttered its doors, a casualty of the economic upheaval. The Houston bureau chief (me) has returned to Los Angeles to rejoin our offices there. One of the things I will miss most about Houston in my yoga teacher/class. A good yoga place is hard to find (even in the “yoga capital” of the U.S.). And isn’t it wonderful how so many of you nodded your heads in agreement just now. For many of us, finding the right yoga class is as important, and as difficult, as finding the right doctor. On the airplane to Los Angeles last night I read a blurb in a magazine that made me aware that many of us owe a debt of gratitude to one Pierre Arnold Bernard (a.k.a. The Great Oom). He had a significant hand in ensuring that Yoga is now essentially a part of everyday American culture:

… men and women came to his ashram on the Hudson River, two hundred acres of leafy real estate in Nyack, New York, that included a zoo, a yacht, airplanes and a dozen mansions that Mitchell could only describe as the “English countryside estates one sees in the moving pictures.” Bernard had made his fortune teaching yoga, and his students made up a Who’s Who of American life: college presidents, medical doctors, ministers, a spy or two, theologians, heiresses, a future congresswoman, famed authors and composers — some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world. Doctor Bernard, they called him, and like a benevolent physician he ministered to their needs, body and soul. He sheltered them, entertained them and gathered them together to teach them the art of living. They stood on their heads for him, worked in his fields, sang in his theatrical productions and performed in elaborate, professional-level circuses for his approval. Some of them came to delve deeply into hatha yoga and the philosophy behind it, some for romance and fresh air, some for the Bernard cure, having been abandoned by hospitals and mental institutions. These he literally led back from ruination — from ledges of despair, lethal addictions and Great War nightmares. How he managed to do this has remained his closely guarded secret…

But who was he, really, this uneducated savant who could lecture extemporaneously for three hours on the similarities between the philosophies of ancient India and the Gnostic heresies of the early Christians? This same man was known to stage a three-ring circus, manage a semi-pro baseball team, train a world-class heavyweight boxer, repair a Stanley Steamer automobile and whoop it up on fight nights at Madison Square Garden with nicotine-stained reporters. This last was where he was most at home, some said, shouting, swearing, happily chomping on a cigar. Who was this man of such wild contradictions, a name as familiar to headline writers of the 1920s as Charles Lindbergh? The answer depended to a large degree on who was doing the asking. [NYT]

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Arjun Basu Wins Shorty Award for Literature


There are two kinds of people: those who use Twitter and those who don’t. I belong to the former group. But even a Twitter fanatic like myself can appreciate the apathy that inevitably creeps in when the initial excitement of sharing your world in 140-characters dies down. After a while – it’s easy to become disinterested in the Tweets of the people you follow.

A couple of months ago, I became curious about sharing narrative via Tweets. Upon further Googling, I discovered the concept had been realized in all its glory by Arjun Basu, who Pavani first bought to the Mutiny’s attention last summer. I started following Basu on Twitter and ever since then, have been consistently entertained by what he calls Twisters, short stories told via Twitter. There’s something about seeing a full story told in such a succinct, boiled-down way that appeals to my fancy. And it looks like I’m not the only one who’s a fan. This past month, Basu’s work was acknowledged at the second annual Shorty Awards, which recognizes the “the best people and organizations on Twitter.” Basu won in the Literature category in a surprising upset over Neil Gaiman, the so-called “rock star’ of the literary world.” For someone still working on his first novel, the award was quite a coup. Basu was kind enough to answer some questions for the Mutiny. Continue reading

Working the prefrontal cortex since the Gupta Empire

There were two stories relating to human cognition today that really had me thinking about the way we…think (how appropriate). The first involves the game of chess. You know, the game of kings invented so long ago in India:

Chess is commonly believed to have originated in North-West India during the Gupta empire, where its early form in the 6th century was known as caturanga (Sanskrit: four divisions [of the military] – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry, represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively). The earliest evidence of Chess is found in the neighboring Sassanid Persia around 600 where the game is known under the name became chatrang. [Link]

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion (the current is India’s Viswanathan Anand) has penned a brilliant (absolute must-read) essay/review of the new book, Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind. The title of his essay could have easily been, “How I Learned to Stop Battling and Love the Computer.” It chronicles his victories over the machines, followed by his losses, followed finally by a type of brutally efficient partnership. Let the human worry about strategy and the machine about tactics.

…I narrowly defeated the supercomputer Deep Blue in a match. Then, in 1997, IBM redoubled its efforts–and doubled Deep Blue’s processing power–and I lost the rematch in an event that made headlines around the world. The result was met with astonishment and grief by those who took it as a symbol of mankind’s submission before the almighty computer. (“The Brain’s Last Stand” read the Newsweek headline.) Others shrugged their shoulders, surprised that humans could still compete at all against the enormous calculating power that, by 1997, sat on just about every desk in the first world.

It was the specialists–the chess players and the programmers and the artificial intelligence enthusiasts–who had a more nuanced appreciation of the result. Grandmasters had already begun to see the implications of the existence of machines that could play–if only, at this point, in a select few types of board configurations–with godlike perfection. The computer chess people were delighted with the conquest of one of the earliest and holiest grails of computer science, in many cases matching the mainstream media’s hyperbole. The 2003 book Deep Blue by Monty Newborn was blurbed as follows: “a rare, pivotal watershed beyond all other triumphs: Orville Wright’s first flight, NASA’s landing on the moon….” [Link]

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