The Fierceness of Janaki

A Siren Theatre Project ProductionLast month protesters marched in front of the San Jose Museum of Arts, protesting the interpretation of Sita in the animated film Sita Sings the Blues and in a painting by M.F. Husain where Sita is depicted the nude. The words “shameful” and “denigration” were some those used by the conservative religious groups protesting the artwork – but the museum continued their support, stating “freedom of artistic expression.”

This weekend the Bay Area will see another form of “Sita art”, this time in the form of a theater production. Siren Theatre Project’s production of Janaki – Daughter of the Dirt will be hitting the stage at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco for it’s world premiere this Sept 16th -18th. This ground breaking stage production written by Virali Golkadas touches upon issues of power, sexism and classism from the perspective of Sita.

“I wrote Janaki – Daughter of Dirt to show that Hindu goddesses, just like the women in my family, are not self-sacrificing devotees,” said playwright Virali Gokaldas.  “They are complex, powerful, strong-willed examples, helping us hold compassion for others and ourselves, guiding us when making hard decisions, and above all, giving us the courage to live out our own destinies.” [sirentheatre]


As for the controversy in San Jose, here’s what Virali and Anirvan Chatterjee have to say:

Our ability to recontextualize the Ramayana is precisely what makes it a living story, instead of a dead one….The Ramayana is as rich and diverse as India.  If our Indian traditions allow even a 180 degree twist like Ravana being the hero, then what right do protestors have to censors new ways of expressing the story?


As Bay Area writers who have our own visions of the Ramayana to share, we take the attack on the tradition of diverse Ramayanas personally.  The Ramayana speaks to us, just as it did to those creators whose works were being protested in San Jose. [sirentheatre]


Art for arts sake or art to honor and personalize faith? Check out the play this weekend and form your own opinion. And just for our Sepia Mutiny readers, tickets are only $20, with the discount code “Sepia Mutiny” over at Brown Paper Ticket. For more information on Janaki – Daughter of the Dirt or Siren Theatre Project, visit their facebook page and their website.

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We are all Indians

Franz Kline's New York

I had been asleep when the first plane hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower. What woke me was the sound of my wife sobbing. A phone call had come from India, from an editor, asking me to write. So, that is how we learned about what had happened.

The piece I wrote that day had some anger in it, anger not only at the hijackers but at the Americans. This was the kind of thing that would be called “the chicken coming home to roost” argument. A few days later, in the New Yorker issue dedicated to September 11, with its famous black cover designed by Art Spiegelman, I read a piece by Amitav Ghosh. His brief essay told the story of a man, an engineer involved in the design of the Twin Towers, staying back in the building to help people escape. The man and his wife, both of whom worked in the destroyed buildings, were Ghosh’s neighbors. And Ghosh’s piece was filled with a kind of sad tenderness that made me feel ashamed about my rage. I felt as if I had arrived drunk at a funeral. Continue reading



The years after 9/11, I could have sworn there was a clicking noise whenever I used the landline at my parent’s place. It could have been a bad phone, or it could have been due to the, as Saheli said, “crappy connectivity that year.” I would half-jokingly have side bar conversations with the so-called secret eavesdroppers, letting them know “I know you are listening!” or my thoughts on Dick Cheney.

I was reminded of this as I was reading Aasif Mandvi’s Op-Ed over at Bloomberg just now (h/t Ludovic):

When U.S. troops marched into Iraq in 2003, I, like many Americans, was outraged at what I considered a senseless and unjustified military action. As I spoke to my mother about it on the phone, I noticed that the angrier I got, the more uncomfortable she became.


At first I thought perhaps she disagreed with me, that her awkward silences on the other end of the line resulted from her biting her tongue. Had she, like many of her fellow Americans, bought into the claim that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were simply opposite sides of the same al-Qaeda nickel?


When I pressed her on this, she quietly replied, “Perhaps we should not discuss this over the phone.”


What do you mean? I said. Why on earth not?


Because, she answered, “You never know who is listening to us.” [bloomberg]


Read the rest here. Were we out of the realms of normal to think that our phone lines could be wiretapped? I don’t think so. It was THE Muslim Witch Hunt of 2001 – the antiquated version of our modern day Islamophobia. With Homeland Security agents knocking at our door and unmarked white vans parked in front of our house, it was very realistic to think that our line could be wiretapped. Ten years later, it still seems very realistic and in fact it feels that progress has not been made but rather undone. As Mandvi states, “That moment when the world came together and shared a grief that transcended faith, nationality and politics is undone….What I hope for in the next 10 years is a War against Fear.”

Backlash is Part of the Story

Everyone has a story about 9/11, including desis. South Asian American Leaders for Tomorrow (SAALT) has been working to make desi voices a part of the national tenth anniversary commemoration and conversation about 9/11. SAALT’s campaign called An America for All of Us was mentioned in the SM post “It’s Been Ten Years”.

A recent interview with Mou Khan, a SAALT program and communications associate, gives more information about the kinds of stories SAALT is seeking to share and highlight. To listen to or read the full interview, visit Center for American Progress.

E: …what are the unique experiences of the South Asian community and their stories in the post-9/11 America?

M: South Asians, like all Americans, experienced 9/11 primarily as the violent, tragic attack that it was. Our story since then is also in the distinct and different ways that our community—along with other communities like Muslims, Sikh, Arab Americans—has been targeted by a post-9/11 backlash.

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White House Wants Your Stories

The stories shared by commenters and bloggers are one of the best parts of Sepia Mutiny. So when Taz shared an email from the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders about a video challenge called “What’s Your Story?” I thought it might be of interest to some of our storytellers.

There is nothing more powerful than the stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Our stories define who we are, and they reflect our impact on the community around us. At the White House Initiative on AAPIs, we seek to amplify these voices nationally. We are pleased to announce the first ever White House Initiative Video Challenge, called “What’s Your Story?”


We’re calling on you to produce a video, up to three minutes long, telling us who you are and how you have impacted those around you. In your video, answer the questions: How have your unique experiences shaped who you are today? And in what ways are you making a difference in your community? Everyone is welcome to participate.

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30 Mosques 2011

This year the 30 Mosques guys–Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq–continued their annual Ramadan journey that started out in NYC in 2009 and expanded across the USA in 2010. The duo is celebrating Eid after wrapping up their 2011 Ramadan travels that took them to mosques and Muslims around the nation. If you’re celebrating too, I wish you and your family a joyous holiday. Eid Mubarak!

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

In their PBS interview with Hari Sreenivasan, Tariq described the 30 Mosques trip as an opportunity to see how people are living the religion of Islam. Ali highlighted a Muslim community in San Francisco called Ta’leef Collective that impressed him with its inclusive attitudes and “come as you are” philosophy. Continue reading

A Father Like This

As Ennis reported, there’s anarchy in the UK. I’ve been following twitter feeds coming out of England closely and though there is mixed feelings on the “insurrection” of the people, one thing is certain, everyone is fearful that the riots will come to their community. Last night, the rioters came to Birmingham.

Haroon, Abdul Musavir, 31, and Shazad Ali, 31, were mowed down as they stood on the pavement protecting their mosque and businesses in the community. Today, a 32-year-old man was being questioned on suspicion of murder.

The father said he was standing round the corner as the car mounted the pavement and knocked down the three young men. He said he acted instinctively and helped – without realising his boy was one of the trio who were fatally injured. Mr Jahan said: ‘The car came up on the pavement for God knows what reason and I was standing nearby. ‘I heard it happen and I turned round and I saw three people on the ground and my instinct to help and I started CPR and someone told me that one of them was my son.’ [dailymail]

Some moving words from Tariq Jahan, father to the 21 year old Haroon Jahan.

I’m not condoning the violence, but clearly the situation has reached a critical moment in the UK and the people believe things have got to change. Mass media is billing what is happening in the UK as a “race” riot or a “youth” insurgency – but the victims in this case were South Asian youth. The #UKRiots goes far deeper than that. Continue reading

Totally Pulled a “Nikki H.”

nikki_haley.jpgIt’s like Bhagat Singh Thind all over again. Are we White? Are we Brown? Are we Hindoos? Can I be white so that I can own property (as in Thind’s case)? Can I be White so that I can become electable as governor of South Carolina (as in Nikki Haley’s case)?

Haley — South Carolina’s first female and minority governor and the country’s second Indian-American governor — listed her race as “white” on her 2001 voter registration card… The state Democratic Party, which first obtained the public record, is calling Haley out on the matter and challenging whether her inconsistency on the card might have made her ineligible to voter under the state’s new Voter ID law. [postandcourier]

Oh Nimrata… As much as our politics and preference in alleged love affair diverged, I took a certain pride in knowing that we had our first South Asian American woman in governership. To marginalize yourself, when in leadership role, marginalizes the rest of us. Changing your name from Nimrata to Nikki is one thing, but changing your race? It’s skin. It’s blood. Unless you are Michael Jackson, it doesn’t rub off.

Now that I think about it, I think I have just the product for you, thanks to Sandeep Sood. This just may fit your need.

So Nikki, I’m going to give you the benefit of a doubt – like the 25% of South Asian Americans who marked themselves as White in the 1990 Census. This is your Public Service Announcement – No matter how great your dermatologist is or how much Fair & Lovely Inside you ingest, you are not White. You are a minority. A South Asian American. A woman of Indian heritage and Sikh parents.

And next time we hear someone Desi insist on their Whiteness, we can say, “She totally just pulled a Nikkie H.” Continue reading

Digital Diaspora: The South Asian American Digital Archive


I love me some primary sources/historical material, so imagine my delight when I discovered the South Asian American Digital Archive, which I first heard about from a friend of Vivek’s. You can get lost on this site for many hours, looking at everything from the Gadar Party to old SM favorite Dilip Singh Saund (and by the way, I would like a dollar for every time he has been mentioned on SM).

It turned out that Vivek’s pal, SAADA President Samip Mallick, was working on SAADA with, among other people, a friend of a friend of mine, Manan Desai. The two of them agreed to do an interview about it for Sepia. This interview was conducted via the standard Interwebs. Continue reading

Way To Go, Anika / A Speech for Libraries

This is a video of 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradan giving an impassioned speech about the need for libraries in Toronto. It is 2 a.m., she hates public speaking, she’s been waiting for four hours to talk, and a bunch of Toronto officials–including Mayor Rob Ford–are watching her. AND SHE IS AWESOME.

Way to go, Anika. You reminded me how much I love libraries, librarians, and community space.

(Here’s the related article in the Toronto Star, and a tip o’ the old hat to Romesh H, who pointed out the vid in the first place.) Continue reading